I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorite Albums I Discovered in 2011

I've been seeing a lot of "Best of" lists in recent days, and been thinking about my own favorite music discoveries of the year. This isn't a "best of 2011" list, since most of the albums and artists I've been listening to recorded their work years ago. But, it was all new to me.

This year marked a significant shift in my music listening habits. Save for a few rare instances, I'm buying 100% of my music online now. As a result, I'm spending a lot more time mixing my own playlists, and I buy a lot of single tracks to fill these in. Gone are the days when I'd have to shell out money for a CD to get one good song. So, this means that if I find an album that holds my attention, it's a really good album.

Probably my favorite album discovery was How We Quit the Forest by Rasputina. Rasputina is progressive cello rock with hints of steampunk and goth. Her literary and historical interests are very strong, and half of the pleasure of listening to Rasputina is researching the obscure historical trivia she's referencing, or else having her sing a song about something that you knew about, but had never known was songworthy until now. Alas, Rasputina is so far ranging in her topics and musical approaches, most of her albums are a mess of stuff that doesn't really fit together. She has an annoying fondness for gimicky, jokey songs that really stop being interesting the second time you hear them. But, her instincts also drive her to write songs with haunting lyrics and beautiful melodies, and can produce songs so perfect they give me songasms.

How We Quit the Forest has only a few joke songs (Onward Christian Soldiers, Diamond Mind, and Dwarf Star). And, as her joke songs go, these are pretty good ones. But, she really goes all out on more serious topics, singing about relationships in The Olde Headboard, senility in Rose K, human cruelty in Herb Girls of Birkenau, and standing by a troubled/sick friend in Sign of the Zodiac. And, if there has ever been a better song, wierder, more perfect song about alienation and love than The New Zero, I can't think of it. Seriously, my friend Mike Edmonston told me about this band last spring, and I've been hooked since the first you-tube video I sampled, a cello driven cover of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.

In contrast to my online discoveries, I happened to run across Radiohead's albums Amnesiac and Kid A while I was in a thrift store. The CDs were only 99 cent, so picking them up wasn't a huge gamble. I've like Radiohead in small doses, but never really fell in love with their albums before. But both Amnesiac and Kid A are works of art that need to be listened to in thier entirity. They are atmospheric, moody, and haunting, with most of the voice work digitally altered until it's nearly impossible to understand. But, rather than being annoying, the warped voices add to the overall emotion of the albums, and seem to be a statement in themselves about how difficult it is to communicate honestly. I don't use drugs, but these albums give me a feeling of altered consciousness, of sinking into a surreal landscape where the familiar becomes unrecognizable.

While I'd been lukewarm to Radiohead, I've loved the Decemberists since I first heard them, and have nearly all their albums. One I didn't have until recently was The Hazards of Love. It's a concept album, where all the songs blend together to tell the story of a shapeshifting son of the forest who seduces a mortal woman. When I heard about it, it was a bit too fairy-tale for my tastes. Also, I had the bad luck of listening to The Rake's Song out of context, and was just put off by it. It's sung by a man who boasts of murdering his three children after his wife dies so he can return to the life of a wanton bachelor. The Decemberists have a flair for dark humor, but, out of context, this song was too dark even for my tastes.

Now, I've heard it in context and, wow, The Hazards of Love is easily the Decemberist's best album. Ironically, it manages to do this without having any of thier best songs. There's nothing from this album I'm going to pull out and put onto my Decemberist playlist. The songs really only make sense in the context of the other songs. The Rake's Song doesn't work unless it's matched by the revenge song that comes near the end of the album where the spirits of the dead children rise from the water to greet thier murderous father. Many of the catchiest songs echo and thread throughout the work, like the refrain of the title, "The Hazards of Love," or the chorus from the song "The Wanting Comes in Waves." Most of the characters in the musical play are matched with musical themes, and the music will shift from theme to theme as the characters interact. I find myself looking forward to driving places that take more than an hour to get to, so I'll have the chance to listen to the whole album at once, which is really the only way to approach this. Otherwise, it would be like trying to watch a movie in three and four minute snippets.

One last note: My year got off to a good start with Jonah Knight released an EP of songs based on my novel Nobody Gets the Girl. While it seems like that should be on my list of favorite albums, I confess that Jonah really knocked the Nobody soundtrack out of my year end thoughts by putting out an even better album, The Age of Steam: Strange Machines. Steampunk is a growing trend in a lot of media, and some artists embrace of it seems more opportunistic than inspired. But, The Age of Steam is a perfect blend of geeky and creepy and just sounds sincere. You can tell Jonah loves the subjects of time machines, airships, haunted guitars and the restless dead. Also, he does a cover of "Bad Moon Rising" that will make you forget the original version, which had a pop, upbeat melody. Jonah's slow, haunting take really highlights the menace woven through the lyrics. This version really makes going out at night when a bad moon is on the rise sound like a very poor choice.

I feel like I need to note an absense on this list: For the first year in almost a decade, I didn't find any new Mountain Goat albums to obsess over. This is a combination of having filled out nearly all of his back catalog, and being somewhat let down by his new album this year, All Eternal's Deck. AED had one song that produced one of the aforementioned "songasms," High Hawk Season. Damn These Vampires and Prowl Great Cain are also very strong songs. But, past that, the album just never caught my imagination. I felt like John Darnielle pulled back on this album and didn't do many songs that were really personal or daring. I know it has to be emotionally draining to produce albums like The Sunset Tree or The Coroner's Gambit, but there was something clinical and clean about All Eternal's Deck that robbed it of emotion. But, I'm not losing faith, and await the next album he produces so it can wipe away my rather feeble memories of this one.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The War on Christmas

First, as an atheist, I'd like to apologize for the behavior of some of my brethren this season. Specifically, I'm talking about the atheists who flooded the lottery system for a town in California in order to claim 15 of 18 spaces reserved in a public park for a holiday display. Ordinarily, these spaces were used by local churches to stage nativity scenes. This year, however, only three churches could put up displays due to the atheists having snatched up the other spaces. Adding insult to injury, the atheists only put up three rather boring winter solstice displays, then left the remaining dozen spaces empty.

Some people will argue that a public park shouldn't be used for religious displays, period. I find this a little confusing. It seems to me that public parks as shared space should be available for use of all the public, and, last I checked, Christians composed at least some small portion of the population. I would think that as long as the local government is neutral on content, allowing religions other than Christianity to put up displays if they wish, there's no violation of anyone's rights unfolding by letting churches stage their nativity scenes in a park. If you can stage a Shakesperian play in a park, why not the nativity? A nativity scene is just a very boring play. Some teenagers in robes stand around with sheep and a donkey, staring adoringly at a baby doll in a straw-filled wooden box for hours on end. The highlight of the evening is if the donkey poops. How does this harm anyone?

I firmly support the right for atheist groups to put up a display promoting their point of view. But to leave the majority of spaces empty just shows they weren't interested in spreading a message, they were interested in silencing Christians. I can think of no motivation beyond spite.

It is, bluntly, the work of jerks. The fact that these jerks happen to be atheists embarrasses me. No one should gain pleasure by stopping their fellow man from partaking in an activity that he enjoys if no one is harmed. It's just petty.

That said, I find it tiresome that some right wing commentators use this time of year to trot out the predictable phrase, the War on Christmas.

If Christmas is in any existential danger, it's not from atheists. Instead, it's in danger from the corporate Christmas machine. Christmas has become a brand, a rather naked excuse to drive American's into a shopping frenzy that results in shoppers breaking down mall doors, pepper spraying fellow shoppers, and brawling over sneakers. I know that there's a reporting bias here; no one is going to report a story of shoppers entering a Walmart, quietly finding the items they want, then checking out with a polite cashier. It's only the extremes of naughty that make the Drudge Report.

Still, I can't help but feel that Christmas has been warped by our collective affluence. I find an analogy with our obesity epidemic. American's used to do a lot of manual labor and eat less processed foods, and were, on the whole, much thinner. But, we got smart, started working desk jobs and making more money, and began eating out all the time. We ballooned up. Christmas faced a similar problem. There was a time when gift giving meant more, because people didn't have as much free money as they do today. (Arguably, the free money is actually cheap credit, but that's another column.) A girl who got a doll on Christmas morning was thrilled, because she didn't have that many toys. Today, kids have more toys than they can ever play with. I've watched kids opening gifts and been struck at just how jaded and ungrateful they seem now. It doesn't get much better with adults. Because we're affluent relative to the Victorian era where many of our traditions began, most of us already have all the stuff we need to live a comfortable life. So, Christmas gifts almost by definition are becoming stuff that we don't need. I was struck by a gift center in a department store the other week, where the items being sold were obvious intended for no other purpose than giving away, since they were in decorative holiday boxes already. The gifts were little doo-dads and trinkets. A hammer with a flashlight in the handle. Binoculars with a compass built in. Clock radios for showers. Golf balls with little christmas trees on them. Bars of soap shaped like snowflakes.

No one would ever buy these items for themselves. But, because we absolutely must give gifts, these useless, pointless items are purchased, given, then promptly go into drawers, or storage buildings, or landfills.

Just as our affluence has led us to devour too many empty calories, we now clog the arteries of our holiday traditions with valueless gifts. And, just as our wastelines have expanded beyond the bounds of health and attractiveness, Christmas has expanded, swelling across the calendar to all but swallow Thanksgiving and Halloween, which are now events concurrent with the Christmas season, rather than events that preceed it.

I admit, I'm saying this as an outsider who walked away from Christmas many years ago. It may be that those of you who still celebrate the holiday like walking into malls at Labor Day and looking at the Christmas displays going up. But, I still can't help but think that, if Christmas doesn't mean as much as it used to, it's not the fault of atheists.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

This week produced one of those moments in politics where I felt, once more, that I lived in a Looking Glass universe. The heart of the weirdness started when Newt Gingrich said something right on the borderline of common sense, always a dangerous place for any politician to wander. Gingrich said, if I may paraphrase, that our child labor laws hurt poor children who would enjoy long term benefits in life if they were allowed to work at an earlier age. He went on to say that the poorest of poor children grow up in households and neighborhoods where no adult works, so they never witness good work habits. Finally, his proposed remedy was to hire the children as janitors in their public schools.

There are three basic arguments here. First, poor children would benefit if child labor laws were changed. My libertarian sensibilities lead me to believe this statement is true for all children, not just poor ones. I'm not saying children should be put to work in sweat shops, nor that they should be allowed to work schedules that would take away time from their education. But, in my personal experience, people who started working early in life (often outside the legal employment grid, working as baby sitters and mowing lawns) tend to be more mature by the time they reach college age than the kids who've managed to avoid any real labor. Of course, the real issue today may be, if we did remove the working age barrier, and let individuals employ whoever they wished no matter what their age, would there be any jobs available for young workers? Still, on this point, I think Gingrich was taking a common sense position, but many commentators acted as if he was advocating child abuse. The Nation ran an article titled "The Nastiness of Newt Gingrich" and the New York Times had an editorial titled "Newt Gingrich's War on Poor Children."

The latter essay, by Charles Blow, directly attacked the second premise of Gingrich's argument, that poor children don't see adults working. I'll concede that Gingrich didn't throw out any percentages, so his claim is a bit overly broad. By the census statistics Charles Blow sites, fifty percent of all households in poverty have at least one parent working full time, and another twenty-five percent have a parent working part time. That still leaves one in four children fitting Gingrich's assertion. But, Charles Blow goes on to look at the "poorest of the poor," since that is who Gingrich singled out, and seems to feel like he's delivering a devestating rebuttal when he declares that 1/3 of these households have at least one working parent. Meaning two out of three of these households don't have an employed adult providing a role model for their kids. Either Charles Blow is really bad at math, or he thinks his readers are, to trot out a statistic supporting Gingrich's argument and wave it around as evidence that Gingrich is wrong.

But it wasn't this editorial that most pushed me into Looking Glass land. It's was Gingrich's solution to the problem of childhood unemployment. By arguing that they should work at their schools, Gingrich is suggesting that the government hire them. Isn't this... I dunno... a stimulus plan? Instead of removing barriers to kids finding work in the private sector (for instance, by having a lower minimum wage for teenagers), he's proposing that government do the hiring directly. Isn't this something that, if President Obama proposed it, Newt Gingrich would denounce as socialist manipulation of the free market?

For all the Tea Party types who are starting to support Gingrich (who is, I admit, a towering intellectual genius when placed against Perry, Bachmann, and Cain, and a portrait of political courage when stood up next to spineless Romney), pay close attention to what Gingrich is revealing about his political instincts in this off the cuff remark. He may talk up small goverment and free enterprise, but Gingrich is a political creature to his deepest core. He's a font of ideas, but many of these ideas are about how government can improve people's lives. If he winds up as president, there is no way he'll govern as a hand's off, libertarian type. The problems of the world are nails sticking up that he doesn't want people to trip on, and government is his hammer. That people who claim to want small government can choose a man like him over someone like Ron Paul is mystifying to me. At least, it's mystifying until I remember, oh, right, I'm through the Looking Glass.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Harvest Marriage

Harvest Marriage

Lights danced below as the Ferris wheel

lifted us above the county fair

toward a crescent October moon.

In the calm above the crowds we kissed

and said for the first time, “I love you.”

Ours was to be a harvest marriage

growing from seeds planted long ago.

Our love didn’t burst up and blossom

following the first raindrops of spring

like some eager radish full of heat

that wilts only days after it’s picked.

The seedling we planted took its time

weathering out the ticking seasons.

The tree of us has grown strong enough

to stand against this life’s hurricanes

with branches green and thick and sturdy

to support the heaviest of fruit

which we pluck and take into our teeth

when the ripe bite is at its sweetest.


Poem to commemorate the wedding of James Maxey and Cheryl Morgan



Poem is copyright James Maxey 2011

May be used freely for non-commercial purposes

as long as authorship is attributed to James Maxey.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Doing our best to stimulate the economy

So, anyway, I'm getting married this Friday. 11-11-11.

If the economic picture of the US has improved recently, I suspect economists will be able to trace it to the number of wedding gifts that have been shipped to Cheryl and me these last couple of weeks. Today when I got home from work there was a large box from Khol's sitting on the deck. I went inside and forgot about it. Cheryl came home, passed by the box, and only an hour later did we think, oh, right, there's a present sitting outside. I had no idea it was possible to reach a state of gift numbness, but we might be getting there. It's been like Christmas every day for a month. If stock in Bed, Bath, and Beyond is going up, our gift registry is the cause.

Not that we haven't been shelling out money of our own. Weddings these days have lots of little expenses that never entered my mind when I proposed marriage. I mean, I knew we'd be spending money on a cake, some fancy clothes, flowers, etc., but I hadn't anticipated that we would require personalized M&M brand candies with our faces printed on them, or 200 tiny plastic bags to sort them into, or the mile and a half of ribbon needed to tie up all the bags. We've also got a LOT of wine stockpiled. Cases of wine every where you look, including at the foot of our bed. Since we're trying to sell our house, I can only imagine that anyone who has looked at the property must have gazed into our bedroom and assumed we were alcoholics.

None of this is a complaint, by the way. I'm happy to report that we're not going into debt for this wedding. We've done things responsibly, and Cheryl has been a Jedi master of bargain shopping. In the end, it's going to be one heck of a celebration, for an event worthy of such celebration. I've been smiling all year when I think about it. See how happy we look on the candy?

Friday, October 28, 2011

1% is amazing if you stop to think about it

I saw a magazine cover reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests with the words, "We are the 99%." These words have been kicking around in my head for a few days, but probably not for the reason the protesters would like.

Is it really possible that 1% of Americans are wealthy? According to census data, the top 1% of earners make more than $390,000 a year. I would certainly consider that wealthy. I've also done a little googling and found a statistic that's likely out of date that says that 4% of all US households have assets greater that $1,000,000. This could be properties, businesses, etc. For instance, a farmer with a lot of land could easily have $1,000,000 in property, but be nowhere near that in annual income. Still, it ain't chump change.

If you stop and think about it, these numbers are pretty amazing. Has there ever been a society in human history were 1 person out of every 100 was wealthy? 100 people isn't a very large crowd. Can wealth really be that widespread?

If we do have a system that can allow 1 person in 100 to attain this level of wealth, I would argue that we should be very careful about messing it up. 1 in 100 are really pretty swell odds. A hell of a lot better than a lottery ticket.

What a great country!

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Dream of Greg

Last night I had a dream that felt like it unfolded over hours. I was supposed to meet my best friend Greg for lunch at some hamburger place downtown. Greg passed away about two years ago, but I remember I was looking forward to talking to him about current political news. I think he would be particularly energized right now by the Republican candidates. Greg was always more animated by the things he was against than the things he was for. He could waver in affection for Democrats, but unfailingly could be counted on to hate Republicans, and the current slate of second-string wannabes would be a lame antelope to the sights of the leonine political carnivore that dwelled within him.

Back to the dream: I got to one restaurant, but realized there was another one with a similar name on the next block. When he didn't show up, I tried calling him, but all I got was his voice mail. I finally decided he must be at the other restaurant. But on my way there, I saw my cat Sarah, normally an indoor cat, strolling leisurely along the sidewalk of the busy downtown. I ran to scoop her up, but now had the problem that I couldn't go into a restaurant carrying a cat. Worse, I was more confused than ever which restaurant I was supposed to be at. I was looking at Urban Spoon on my phone, and there were, like, nine hamburger restaurants spread out over downtown.

I got so desperate I tried texting Greg. I never text. But when I put down Sarah to use both hands, she ran under a parked car. To my horror, she was laying in front of the back wheel when the driver got in the car and pulled away. Fortunately, she jumped out at the last second.

I retrieved her, but now I was extra stuck, unable to use my phone since I was carrying my cat. Suddenly Cheryl (my fiance) shows up! She says she eats lunch at this restaurant all the time. We decide to go to the dollar tree to buy a cat carrier to hold Sarah. On our way there, I call Greg again, and his daughter Flora answers, and tells me Greg thought we were meeting for dinner on Thursday.

I don't talk about dreams often. To be honest, I rarely remember them, and those I do remember are too random and banal to be worth recounting. This one probably is as well. I think I remember it because when I woke up this morning, Sarah was staring into my face, and I thought, "Well, at least you made it home okay." It felt very real that I'd had to rescue her. It took a little while for me to realize that it hadn't actually happened.

And, of course, I've spent all day thinking of Greg, wishing we were having dinner Thursday, wanting to hear him rant about Herman Cain and Rick Perry.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Are things getting better, or worse? 2011 edition

I feel like I'm having a hard time thinking about the news of late. I consider myself a informed member of society, who cares about responsible government, the environment, the economy, the whole shebang. For a long time, I've been content to throw my support to libertarians, whose philosophy matches my own for the most part. But, in this upcoming election, I'm starting to worry about the charge that I'm throwing my vote away by supporting candidates that can't win.

Anyone paying attention has to see that the United States is in an especially perilous situation at the moment. We suffer from a self-inflicted debt crisis, we suffer from hidden inflation caused by intentional manipulation of the value of a dollar, we have a housing crisis, an employment crisis, an education crisis, an imigration crisis, etc.

For a while the world seemed safer following the end of the cold war, anyone paying attention to events overseas has to be a little nervous. We live in a world of aging dictators. Nations throughout the middle east are fraying, but this is going to be small change when Pakistan finally falls apart. China's unrepresentative form of government is almost certainly doomed. In Russia, Putin has held onto power (even if he's officially been retired) for decades. What flows into the vacuum when he dies? When Somalia fell apart and couldn't put itself back together again, unless you lived in Somolia, it probably didn't affect you. But what if Mexico gets torn apart by its ongoing drug wars? What if there's another Tianamen Square incident in China, only this time everyone in China knows about it because of the internet? What if the Saudi king dies next week? (His prince just died today.)

All before me, I see bad choice after bad choice. I can support Obama, who apparently has adopted the unique constitutional view that it's legal for him to execute US citizens abroad, or I can support whatever deranged kook the Republicans regurgitate out of the digetive tract of their primaries.

The fear is strong.

And yet.

And yet!

My own life is actually pretty FANTASTIC! As the world falls apart, my life just keeps getting better.

1. I'm getting married! 11-11-11! And, I know that there have been other marriages in the world before, but this one is really going to be the best marriage ever. Seriously, Cheryl and I may be coming to this wedding game late in life (we're both in our forties), but I look back and wonder how the young ever manage to pull it off. I've never felt so optimistic about any choice I've made in life.

2. I'm a writer! I mean, I've been a writer for a long time, but suddenly, I'm a writer with books in print. I started writing when I was 25. It took me twenty years to get four novels in print. Now, in the next twenty months, I'll have at least four more in print, and maybe five or six depending on my stamina and the eagerness of my publishers. I was working on Hush earlier today and thinking, "Wow. I'm in the zone!" Is there anything more satisfying for the human soul than making art and having it find an audience?

3. I'm not broke! Maybe the rest of the world is heading for the poor house, but I'm doing pretty well these days. I'm not even close to wealthy, but my long struggle to pay of my debts has been successful, and these days the money that used to go to credit card companies is mostly winding up in savings. It's nice to feel like I've got forward momentum after two decades of either treading water or slipping backwards.

Which makes me wonder about all the doom and gloom at the beginning of this essay. You know, life has it's ups and downs. Ten years ago, a fair minded observer of my life might have concluded that I was heading for a train wreck. I wasn't selling books, my other day job was in turmoil, I was getting divorced, and I was piling on debt. Even I had my doubts going into the last decade that I'd make it out without being bankrupt and broken down. But, I kept on plodding. I set goals. I failed to meet them. I set new goals. I met some, failed others. I set more goals! And, little by little, things got better.

Perhaps that's happening on a grander scale. I've read that personal debt levels are falling and savings rates are rising. I've also seen stats that divorce rates are falling. Maybe we need rough times to make us push a little harder. If so, maybe all the doom and gloom of today's larger world is just a precursor to a future that might damn well be near Utopian.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A few questions about living longer

I watched a show on Discovery the other night about prolonging human life. The show laid out a semi-plausible scenario by which a middle aged person today might possibly survive for the next thousand years. Some of the technology is almost certainly heading our way in the next few decades, such as growing new organs from stem cells. Other bits, such as being able to move a human personality from cloned body to cloned body, are most likely pure fantasy.

Watching the show, I had two questions:

1. Who's paying for all this? Let's suppose that we can grow new hearts, lungs, and livers that are genetically perfect matches that have no risk of rejection. This certainly can't come cheap. Today, the technical difficulties of organ transplants presents a serious obstacle to them being more widespread. The difficulty of finding a suitable donor, plus the dangers of rejection, make organ transplants a tough call even if you're wealthy. Due to the risks, the people who need them most probably wait until they are too sick for the transplant to really help them. But, if people in their forties and fifties, in relatively good health save for early heart disease, can have a new heart grown for them that will genetically be part of thier body, I imagine the demand would jump tremendously.

Some costs would probably fall. You wouldn't need extensive follow up treatment with anti-rejection drugs, for instance. But, other costs would almost definitely rise. Until they build a robot capable of the job, the number of surgeons capable of performing a heart transplant is probably going to be fairly small. The way to attract more surgeons into the field would be to increase salaries. Increasing salaries means increasing costs.

Insurance companies will almost certainly be mandated by law to cover these expenses, which means that the cost is going to get passed on to everyone. Is there a point where the cost of paying for all potential life saving treatments begins to hurt everyone's standard of living? If my current insurance costs tripled, could I still afford a mortgage?

2. Let's magically wave our hands and say that everything will be paid for without pain. Advances in robotics and computing are rapid enough that human surgeons become a thing of the past and we now have armies of robo-surgeons operating 24/7, paying for themselves after a hundred surguries, and driving the cost of open heart surgury down to about what it costs to have a tooth filled. It's not impossible--look at the cost curve for laser eye surgury, once several thousand dollars an eye, now a few hundred.

Now, people can keep swapping out thier major organs, and life expectancy sky-rockets. People start living healthy lives to 110, 120, 130. Are people going to still expect to retire at 65? Are we going to raise the retirement age to 100? How many careers can support someone for 75 years or more? You might think you're sitting pretty as a heart surgeon, then, boom, along comes a robot that does your job better. Maybe you work for a major coporation like Wachovia. Your jobs safe until... what's that? Wachovia was sold to Wells Fargo? Never mind.

If I keep writing, will novels I'm writing then be better, or is there a point where any artist would be doomed to become a parody of himself? Would it be routine for people to start new careers at fifty, sixty, or eighty? What's the job market going to look like when eighty year olds are suddenly as hungry for entry level positions at twenty year olds?

I don't want to be overly negative. Obviously, there are huge upsides to living longer. On a personal level, I'd love to be able to spend the extra decades in good health with my loved ones. On a social level, maybe politicians who are fifty, sixty, and seventy years old might think about the consequences of thier policies fifty years from now if they thought they'd actually be around to experience the effects.

It could happen. You never know.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Further musings on the economy

I've been thinking further about my concerns that 401ks may be having the perverse effect of ruining people's savings by creating bubbles in the stock market. The governmnet has designed a system where people blindly pump money into stocks and bonds week after week, whether the markets are rising, falling, or spinning in circles. I keep reading that, long term, the stock market will continue to grow. But, what if we are being encouraged to place our money in something that doesn't inherently possess the value of the dollars flowing into it?

One could argue that this was exactly what happened with the housing market. Government policy was designed to promote the altruistic goal of helping people buy houses. This was done partly through the tax code, partly through regulation, and partly through Fannie Mae purchasing loans of questionable value. The feeling was that homeownership is always a good thing, both for the individual and the community. But, the noble goal led to the creation of a bubble as people bought houses that they couldn't have afforded if the government policies hadn't been in place. This artificially boosted prices across the board, led to massive overproduction of houses, and created a collapse that has unfolded for the last five years and may take another decade to work out.

I also have to wonder if there isn't a bubble in higher education. Again, altruistic government policy has been to give everyone possible access to college through assistance with loans, grants, etc. The result has been a lot more people going to college, but it's come with the price tag of college costs rising much faster than inflation. And, while having a college degree is still preferable to not having one, it seems like a four year degree doesn't produce that much of an economic boost any more. Government policy has increased the supply of people with degrees, but the demand hasn't kept pace. In conditions like this, you would expect wages to fall... which, in fact, seems to be what's happening in the real world, though there are certainly so many complicating factors it's tough to pin the blame just on this.

Government policy also steered US farm policy to produce a lot of corn. So much corn that we had to find other uses for it than just eating it off the cob or baking cornmeal, so we used it to replace sugar in our beverages. Now, government policy is encouraging us to burn corn for fuel, and the prices of foods that have corn in them are rising.

It's thoughts like these that push me most strongly toward the libertarian camp. We need to scrap every federal legal code that encourages production or consumption of anything and find out what an actual free market looks like. It can't possibly be worse than what we have now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Are 401ks dangerous?

For years, I've been a cheerleader for 401ks where I work. I personally have helped at least a dozen people get set up over the years. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. Our company matches the first 5% of your pay that you contribute. If an employer wants to boost my pay by 5%, it seems a little rude to say no. And, for that first 5% that I contribute, I instantly double my money. That's a pretty swell rate of return.

Due to Rick Perry calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, I've seen a lot of proposals lately to allow workers to contribute part of their social security taxes to a 401k like savings plan that they would own. Again, this strikes me as a common sense idea. The problem with Social Security is that the government really has no mechanism for actually saving the money. By law, they use the money to buy US Savings bonds. That money instantly goes into the federal budget and gets spent. The bonds are paid back from future tax revenue. It works as long as more and more workers pay into the system to support an ever growing number of retirees. Alas, there are demographic bubbles that will soon produce a system where the number of retirees grows much faster than the number of workers.

But, is the government administered saving plan any better? Is my company's 401k? The problem that I see is that, prior to the creation of the 401k, people investing in the stock market were mainly investing thier own money. They were buying stocks because they thought the price was attractive, and they were careful because they alone carried the risk.

But, with 401ks, every week millions of people turn their money over to financial institutions who buy stocks for them. They can't simply sit on the money until a good deal comes along. Week after week, they must go out and purchase stocks. And, if they pick wrong, perhaps they get a smaller bonus, but they don't actually lose their own money.

Can our present financial woes be at least partially traced to the fact that so many of us are subscribing to a mostly blind investment? Are those enough smart enough to plan for our own retirement through these plans unwittingly helping to create market bubbles that will eventually destroy any value we've accumulated?

And if so, what can we possibly do to fix this?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Did 9-11 change the world forever?

Did 9-11 change the world forever?

Perhaps, but what day doesn't?

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 created a lot of hub bub, but I would say that the world has been far more transformed by smart phones or the collapse of the housing bubble. It's true that we spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives by letting the 9-11 attacks seduce us into two open-ended wars, but how much have these wars really changed the world? Afghanistan seems to be pretty much on the verge of reverting back to the exact state we found it in. Iraq seems temporarily stable, but it was stable when we went into it. It wasn't a threat to the world in 2002, and it's not a threat to the world now. Nor, despite our best efforts, does it appear to be a beacon of democracy for countries throughout the middle east to emulate. Instead, most of the arab revolutions taking place strike me as being closer to the Iranian model: Dictators who were liked by the West are being overthrown, and the governments that rise out of them don't seem like they are going to be particularly progressive. Of course, it's still early for many of these nations. I don't pretend to guess what they will look like thirty years from now.

My suspicion is, if they are more democratic and less "jihady," it will be because of smart phones, and not because of smart bombs.

Is America safer today than it was in 2001? I suppose that an airplane would be much more difficult to hijack today. (Has there been a successful airplane hijacking anywhere in the world during the last ten years?) On the other hand, we have a lot of evidence that if a terrorist wanted to be less spectacular in his efforts, he'd have little standing in his way to purchase a gun and walk into any business in America and open fire. But, perhaps terrorists don't think we'd be overy terrified if they followed this path. Given the flash mobs that started popping up in American cities this year (including Greensboro, at a park I've walked through a hundred times), we've gotten so good as a populace at inflicting random violence on ourselves, we've set the bar too high for international terrorists to compete.

I also remember reading in 2001 that Osama bin Laden was hoping that an attack on the World Trade Center would cripple the US economy. But it turns out that banks in collusion with congress had a far more effective strategy to accomplish this.

I don't want to down play the pain of the day. A lot of people died for no good reason at all. A lot of families were shattered. It was a tragedy by any objective or subjective standard. But, I think it's a good thing that, ten years later, its receded so much from national memory. As anyone who has lost a loved one discovers, life moves on. And I think this was the ultimate defeat for Bin Laden and his ilk. We don't hold national "Bin Laden" hate days. Most of us just went back to our lives. In the long run, all his grand designs have come to nothing.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Are there holes in the theory of evolution?

A few weeks ago, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry referred to evolution as "a theory that's out there." There is nothing in his political history to indicate that he believes the theory to be accurate. Does this disqualify him from being president in my eyes? Probably not. Unlike, say, global warming, a politician's thoughts on evolution play a fairly trivial role in shaping political policy. There may be a few decisions around the margins about funding some vaccine or another, or permitting genetically modified crops, where it would be nice to have a president who has a firm grasp on the latest biology. Aside from this it seems like there isn't a lot of damage to be done. I'd vote for a candidate who believed life was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster if they could show me a plausible tax policy that would address this nations long term economic problems.

However, some on the right are apparently worried that Perry's views might be too much for a majority of voters. In response, right wing pundit Ann Coulter has taken the interesting approach of writing two columns lately attempting to prove that the theory of evolution has gaping holes in it. Worse, it is treated as gospel by an unthinking media, and never debated, so that the truth can come out showing that scientific facts actually disprove evolution and support intelligent design.

I thought I'd address a few of her points:

1. There's a media conspiracy not to question evolution:

First, I don't think there is such a thing as "media conspiracy" in the modern age. If you google "holes in evolution" you get 58 MILLION hits! It's being debated and challenged all the time. If none of the challenges gain traction, it's because none of them do as nice a job of explaining the biological evidence around us. But it's crazy to say that the challenges are hidden or supressed when anyone with a smartphone is ten seconds away from reading about the subject. Perhaps by "media" Ann means "television." Even Fox News doesn't run nightly debates on the topic the way they do about, say, global warming. But, global warming is a topic where getting the answer and the policy reactions right could decide the futures of whole nations. Under react to a genuine problem, and we might give our grand children a very ugly future. Over react to a phantom problem, and we might give our grand children a very ugly future. It's a high stakes debate with serious consequences.

Evolution, not so much. Let's pretend that, tomorrow morning, every biology professor in the world woke up and suddenly decreed that, oops, they've been wrong, and intelligent design is a better theory than natural selection. How would this affect our foreign policy? Our energy policy? Tax policy? While I advocate believing a good theory over a bad theory for purely intellectual reasons, I honestly don't think my daily life would be affected by a massive paradigm shift. It's just not worth devoting endless hours of television to the topic.

2: There are gaping holes in the fossil record. Every day, some "truth" about the fossil record is overturned by new evidence.

Well, duh. That's the thing about science. When you find evidence that you might be wrong about something, you present it, and alter your theories accordingly. You don't insist that the Piltdown Man is a genuine fossil after it's been shown to be a hoax. You don't continue to publish that chart showing similarities between embryoes of different animals once it's been proven that the truth had been twisted to fit a theory. Ann points out that the fossil record doesn't show constant, slow change, but instead shows long periods of stability followed by rapid change. Darwin believed that evolution was a slow, continuous process. But, most modern evolutionists now advocate a theory called "punctuated equilibrium." Basically, evolution slows to a crawl once organism fill the avalable niches in an stable ecosystem. But, eventually, continental plates collide creating land bridges, or an ice age sets in, or a comet smacks the earth, and the stable ecosystems go topsy turvy and explosive evolution follows as organism fill the new niches.

And, there are gaps in the fossil record. We live on a planet that is very good at erasing evidence of past life. The conditions to fossilize every creature that has ever lived simply don't exist, and never have. The picture of the past is always going to be fragmented when it comes to fossils.

However, fossils are only part of the story. A more powerful proof of evolution these days comes from genetics. Genetic trees showing links between animals we didn't believe were closely related have been overturning lineages built by examining fossils. Again, weak and wrongly interpretted evidence is readily tossed aside when better evidence comes along. This is the core of science. Can intelligent design theory point to any similar process for weeding out mistakes? If the flagellum of a given bacteria is self-evidently designed, is a nearly perfect cube of a salt cystal also evidence? Is everything designed? Even diseases and birth defects? Was Mars designed? Was Venus?

3. Intelligent design explains the evidence.

This is probably the saddest argument of all. Let us pretend for a moment that it's true. We develop some new imaging system and discover that, written on the surface of every electron with a very, very tiny magic marker are the words, "God was here." What can we conclude?

I fear the inevitable conclusion would have to be that creation really wasn't about us. The universe is filled with innumerable stars, far more stars than human beings. Our own solar system is filled with far more lifeless planets than places that support life. Our designer, it would seem, has a strong preference for quiet, dead, places. And, when he did get around to designing some life, he spent a very, very, very long time satisfied with single-celled organisms. The amount of time devoted to perfecting algae is impressive. Eventually he got around to making some jelly fish, some worms, some shell-fish. Much much later, he had the idea of crafting a spine, and introducing a new pattern of life to the world. Then, for a long time, he seemed pretty enamored with dinosaurs. But, apparently he got bored and moved on.

Only in the very tiniest sliver of geological time did he get around to creating men. For most of men's history, they were just another ape. A little more proficient at making tools than chimps, a little more complicated in social organizations than bonobos. Then, boom, in the blink of the geologic eye, these clever apes started building cities and writing books and reached a stage where they could debate whether they were the whole point of creation.

I have intelligently designed many books. For us to feel that we are the central focus of some grand designer of the universe is like a single period on page 300 of my novel Bitterwood feeling like it's the whole reason I sat down to type up the story. If we can deduce a designer from all of creation, then we must also deduce that we are, at best, an after thought. We are significant in neither time nor space nor number in the larger picture.

If we use intelligent design to study the universe, we must conclude that we are insignificant in the eyes of a creator. An atheistic interpretation of evolution deduces that there was no creator, and that through some rather remarkable strokes of luck, we've arisen from the background noise of the universe as the first beings ever to be capable of pondering our own existence. I find the latter to be a happy view, and the former to be depressing. And yet, if someone can produce evidence for intelligent design that better explains the world than our current theories, I'll accept it. Truth isn't to be judged by whether or not it makes me feel good about myself. I will gladly accept a difficult truth over a feel-good lie any day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Crying Wolf in American Politics

Michelle Bachmann's best day of her political life and her worst day were probably one in the same. She rose to the very top of the pack of contenders for the GOP nomination by winning the Ames Straw Poll... and completely vanished from national media attention within 48 hours due to Rick Perry announcing his run from President the same day. Perry appeals to almost exactly the same voters who support her, but has an actual resume, having been governor of Texas for 11 years.

Nothing is certain in politics, but at this point, I have to assume that Perry will be the Republican nominee. He's got the red meat rhetoric that will fire up the base, an economic track record that fiscal conservatives can pull behind, and a state's rights view that libertarians like myself can find intriguing.

It's a rare day that I don't read about ten editorials on Real Clear Politics, and I have to sigh at the weary sameness of the attacks against Perry. They boil down to: 1. He's too religious and anti-science. 2. He's a radical right-winger. 3. He's racist. 4. He's dumb.

The thing is, these same labels have been stuck on every republican candidate since Reagan. I think that most voters just tune out these labels at this point. For what it's worth, I think that Republicans have mushed up the word liberal until it's almost meaningless. Bill Clinton was a fairly middle of the road politician who was called liberal every day he was in office. Barak Obama actually was liberal, but voters didn't seem to be afraid of liberalism any more, probably because the label had been overused. So, now the right has had to ramp up the rhetoric from liberal to socialist. One day, perhaps, it will provide the groundwork for electing a genuine socialist.

So what do I think of the four main charges?

1. He's too religious and anti-science. I'm not a bigot. Even though I'm an atheist, I think a man should be free to profess his religious beliefs. I'm just curious if Perry feels the same way. The first Bush said that he didn't think atheists could be patroits. I can't google any similar comments by Perry, but rest assured I'll be listening for this closely. As for being anti-science, he doesn't seem to believe in evolution, which is a strike in my opinion. But, he's really being attacked for denouncing man-made global warming as a hoax. I'm not prepared to call the theory a hoax. I think it's an interesting theory that explains a lot of evidence. But, I also think that people who say that the debate is settled are equally anti-science. There have been radical temperature changes in the past plainly not triggered by human action.

I want a president who is capable of thinking about science in a rational manner. I'm not sure Perry can do this. On the other hand, I don't doubt that Obama can think rationally, but what has it gained us? I'm not sure that understanding evolution helps make better decisions about, say, conducting unauthorized military operations in Libya.

2. He's a radical right-winger. He thinks social security is a Ponzi scheme. He thinks states should be free to chart their own courses on marriage and drugs and education. He thinks it's treasonous for the Fed to keep printing money. Will the American people put up with this? Who the hell knows. But, I read an article denouncing almost every idea put forth in Perry's book "Fed Up," and I found myself thinking that Perry was right almost every time. If he does stick to his guns, he will be presenting voters with their most conservative presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. But, his state's rights position, in my mind, provides a buffer against his most radical positions. It can shift the fights on social issues out of the federal level and back to the states.

3. He's racist. Some of the articles I've read treat Perry as the second coming of the Confederacy. Anyone who champions state's rights must deal with the problem that this was a code word in earlier times for allowing state sponsored segregation and oppression.

But, these aren't earlier times. The true meaning of the tenth ammendment strikes me as a fair constitutional debate. If there is any evidence that Perry holds racist views, I'm open to hearing it. So far, the attacks are remarkably unpersuasive.

4. He's dumb. Meh. As a certified smart person, I can tell you that raw intelligence is a vastly overrated commodity. I heard he had mediocre grades in college. So what? He's climbed up out of extremely modest beginnings and gone on to be elected governor of one of our largest states three times. I don't know if he's read Camus or can give even a short hand overview of quantum mechanics. He's demonstrated that he can govern a state without taking it completely off the rails. I don't think he's a genius, but I don't think most political decisions require genius.

So, after writing a reasonably pro-Perry column, do I intend to vote for him? Probably not. I've got a good track record going for voting Libertarian. In the past, my choices have been to vote for a Libertarian who can't win but who I agree with on 95% of issues, or a Democrat or Republican who will win but whom I disagree with on 95% of issues. I think I'd have to agree with Perry in the 30 to 40% range to switch loyalties. So far, I'm not there.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Worse than Racist

So, last week, it was announced that in the Ultimate Spiderman comic, Peter Parker is being killed off and replaced by a half-black/half-latino teenager named Miles Morales. My immediate reaction was... again?

Not because Spiderman has been replaced with a black character before, but because the list of superheroes who've been replaced by black characters, at least temporarily, is at this point an exceedingly long one.

Just off the top of my head, Superman was replaced by John Henry Irons. Green Lantern was replaced by John Stewart. Firestorm, replaced by black man. Wildcat, replaced by black woman. (Or was she hispanic? Memory fails.) Mr. Terrific is now black. The Invisible Kid from Legion of Superheroes was a black frenchman. Later, Element Lad got the melanin makeover. Green Arrow was replaced by a bastard son whose ethnicity tended to drift based on what artist portrayed him. Mister Miracle, briefly black. The Blue Beetle has also had a race change. Over at Marvel, Goliath became Black Goliath. Captain Marvel was replaced with a black woman. Iron Man was replaced by Rhodey. In the Ultimate Universe, Nick Fury is black.

I cannot deny that comic books for a very long time were dominated by white characters. Hell, between the Hulk and Brainiac Five, there were more green-skinned superheroes than black ones. And, when comics tried to rectify this, they gave us cringe-inducing attempts like the first run at Black Lightning. I can see the temptation to say, "Look! We're not racist! We've got a black Superman! How cool is that?"

The problem, of course, is that these characters always turn out to be benchwarmers and second stringers. Iron Man is black only long enough for readers to clamor for the return of Tony Stark. Sometimes, the black replacements are set up as heroes in their own right. War Machine, Steel, and Black Goliath all got their own books, and all flopped. These characters are just set up to fail.

I don't seriously think the comic creators who make these decisions to revamp white superheroes as black superheroes do so with any racist intent. I'm sure they actually intend to promote diversity and cultural understanding. But, at this point, they are committing a sin worse than racism. They are serving us cliches. It's been almost thirty years since Goliath became Black Goliath. I think at this point, the black hero replaces white hero story has been done to death. Maybe, just maybe, the key to getting more black heroes into comics is to just create some new heroes with some new stories?

Beach Pics

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here's 8000 words about my beach trip.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

I've been watching the debate about raising the debt ceiling with morbid fascination. For most of my life, I've disliked politicians who seemed to lack a spine, and who would say whatever it was they needed to say to get elected, then just go along with the flow when they got to Washington. Our current fiscal situation isn't the blame of radicals, be they left or right. Ron Paul, for instance, is a radical. And he has spent his years in congress voting agaist pretty much every law of importance to pass before him. He was strong on his principals, but he didn't get much done. And I, for one, fantasized about having more men like him in Washington.

Our current debt is built on a foundation of compromise. Sure, Obama has poured gasoline on the debt fire, but it's crazy to pretend he lit the fire. For the most part, Republicans and Democrats alike have worked hand in hand for decades to pile up this debt, save for a brief bubble in the 90's where accounts went into the black, though that "surplus" was created entirely though overtaxation on Social Security. In theory, these Social Security revenues were set aside to pay future benefits. In truth, they were converted to general revenue the second they came in, with the not-so-secret knowledge that future benefits would be paid not from this surplus, but from future taxes.

Surprise! It's the future! And, suddenly, the two parties who compromised us into this debt have discovered that they have principals. My wish for people who would stand their ideological ground has come true, much to my horror. The Republicans won't allow for even a dime of increased tax revenue, even from closing truly counterproductive loopholes like ethanol subsidies. Democrats, on the other hand, are waiting with knives drawn for the Republicans to pass actual cuts, since if they really, truly want to balance the budget, sacred cows like Social Security have to be in play, and Democrats want to be seen as the defenders of the elderly, always a very strong political hand.

I had assumed that compromises would be struck at the last second. Now, I'm not so sure. I think the strategy of both parties is shifting to, "Let's just start campaigning for the next election." But, honestly, what is possibly going to change after the next election? Let's suppose that there's a Republican president, a Republican congress, and a Republican senate... 59-41. The 41 remaining Democrats are going to be from the bluest states in the country. They can shut down any legislation they want to if they stand together. And, do you really think Republican's will be unhappy with this? If they had total power, they'd be forced to make tough choices to bring the budget into balance, like cutting entitlements, military, or raising taxes. I predict they'd do none of the above, and campain for reelection on the platform of, "We tried, but those nasty, nasty Democrats stopped us." Which, with the substitution of one word, is pretty much going to be the full Obama campaign slogan.

Our entire political system seems to have abandoned actually accomplishing stuff, and is now built entirely on strategically pinning blame on opponents.

How do we get out of this spiral? Is there an exit strategy? Will somebody please turn on a light at the end of this tunnel?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Moral Hazard of Credit

Used properly, credit is one of the most powerful tools of capitalism. It makes it possible for individuals to purchase items that would require impractically long periods of time to buy simply by saving. If credits for mortgages weren't available, most of us would probably need decades to save enough to buy a house outright. If student loans weren't available, only the children of the very wealthy would have hope of pursuing the advanced education required to be a surgeon or an attorney. A country might manage its budget quite well, but still find itself needing far more money than it can reasonably raise in taxes, to defend itself from a hostile neighbor, or to deal with the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Borrowing can even lead to wealth for the borrower. A successful restaurant might borrow enough to open a second location and double their revenue. Under most circumstances, the house purchased on credit over thirty years has a good chance of growing in value enough to cover the interest paid on it. A student who borrows heavily to become a doctor has a much higher likely potential lifetime income than a man who finished high school but never went to college because he couldn't afford it.

So if credit's a good thing, then having more of it available is an even better thing, right?

Last month, I sold my house. I came out okay, covering my mortgage at least. I didn't sell it for enough to cover my total investment in the house once I count all the upgrades I made, but if I factor in the fact that my mortgage payments were significantly lower than rent payments would have been for an identical property, I think I at least broke even. And, I now have enough money in savings that I no longer will need to whip out my credit card any time my car needs new tires or the furnace won't start (not that I own a furnace any more, but this was the type of expense that used to catch me just at the moment when I felt like I had every bill paid and a little extra left over). I'm essentially debt free, and can now focus on actually saving money.

Back in 2008 when the economy went in the tank, I had been pretty heavily in debt. Between my car and my credit cards, I owed about as much as I earned in a year. I got to that level of debt because my debt was essentially painless. Credit cards had low minimum payments, and my particular credit card debts were all at ridiculously low interest rates. I had good credit and was forever getting offers to open new credit cards with fixed interest rates of 2.99% for balance transfers. I could carry a lot of debt and it was costing me less than $200 a month to manage it. And, I always figured I'd pay it off one day when my writing career took off!

Curiously, this plan worked. The economy tanked just as my writing revenue increased. Still, every dime I made in writing for the last couple of years has gone to either taxes, self-promotion (it's expensive travelling to a half dozen SF cons a year), or paying down debt.

But, I have to wonder: Did my access to easy credit make me less ambitious and aggressive than I might have been? I used to make a lot more money on my day job, but have twice taken paycuts to pursue positions with fewer responsibilities, and this year I voluntarily shifted from a 40 hour week to a 32 hour week to make more time for writing, though the immediate effect has been a 20% pay cut. This year, I've already made enough money from writing to cover that cut, but I might never cover the income I lost when I got off the management track at my job. I sold my first book at a time in my career where I was a well respected assistant manager and the company I worked for was on the verge of a major expansion. I almost definitely would have become a manager if I'd stuck with that path. Instead, I permanently burned bridges to that potential future income by taking a lesser position so I could have the brain power needed to focus on writing.

One of the reasons I felt confident in doing this was that I had excellent credit. I could take make less and still live comfortably because I could borrow any money I needed to make ends meet. It made sense to me at the time, but looking back I just shake my head at my foolishness. Without easy access to credit, I would have had to make tougher decisions. I tell myself that I was able to write more books because I wasn't completely swept up in managing a branch, but I meet authors all the time who have far more time consuming day jobs and still manage to crank out books. I could have made the choice to just work harder, but credit made it possible to live as if I still had my old income. On the flipside, I could have taken the pay cut at work, then started cutting my expenses far more aggressively than I did. I could have put my previous house on the market from day one and moved to less expensive digs. Or, I could have kept the house, but sought a roommate to share expenses. Instead, I paid off my car loan, which was $250 a month, with a low interest credit card, where I paid only $50 a month. That car is long since gone. That debt lingered around until this year.

It was a stupid choice. But it was an easy choice back then. It didn't require me to sacrifice or compromise in the present. The burden of my choices would fall on some future me. Well, now I am the future me, and I'd like to go back to 2001 James and give him a dope slap. I'm doing okay now, but it might have been nice to have some choices on how I spent my income the last few years. It might have taken a trip overseas with the revenue from a novel contract, for instance. Instead, I've been paying for a car I no longer own and tanks of gas long since burnt. Thanks a lot, 2001 James.

I'm relating this very personal story in hopes of making a larger point. Just as my easy access to credit kept me from having to make tough choices ten years ago, America also fell into the trap of easy credit. As individuals, Americans stopped saving money. There was no longer any need to put aside money to make a down payment on a house or car; there were lenders willing to finance every last dime, and then some. Parents no longer had to scrimp and save to put aside money for their children's education. Junior could just borrow what he needed to get a diploma. Wage growth flattened out. Employers could get more work out of employees without offering proportionally high increases in pay, and the workers didn't complain, because they could enjoy ever growing living standards thanks to easy credit. Maybe most people's raises only worked out to a few dozen dollars a month, but that's enough to finance a big screen TV.

As a people, we started increasing out standard of living in the present by pushing the cost to our future selves.

Then, of course, there's the elephant in the room. While Americans were taking advantage of credit cards, student loans, and easy mortgages, our representatives were busy giving us anything we wanted without actually having to find the revenue to pay for it. Prescription drug benefits? Two wars? Huricane clean-ups at home and abroad? Throw them onto the national credit card. The government could borrow money at the lowest interest rates in history. Why, it would be crazy not to borrow at these rates!

I got lucky. I had a wake up call on my debt just as I was finally making enough money from writing to replace some of the more reliable income I'd thrown away a decade earlier. But America, the nation, can't go out and get a second job. And I never quite got to the point where I was forced to use my credit cards to pay my credit cards, but this is essentially what the debt ceiling debate is all about. Will we borrow money in order to pay our interest on debts we already have?

Worse, I feel like the current debate is focusing on what we should have done ten years ago. Less spending? Higher taxes? We had the option to choose a decade ago. Now, I really see no choice but to embrace both. Less spending to keep us from digging our debt hole even deeper, and higher taxes to pay down the debt we've already incurred. My fear is that we'll wind up with option three: Make a few symbolic cuts and plug a couple of tax loopholes for show, then keep borrowing and let some future America deal with the problem.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

When Push Comes to Shove

I saw this ad on World Net Daily this morning and it caught my attention, since it looked to me like a little girl about to push her brother off a cliff (albeit playfully). I thought at first I was seeing an inappropriate ad for some vacation spot, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, but then I read the text and discovered it was an inappropriate ad for higher education. "Attending our school is like getting shoved off a cliff!" is the message I'm getting here. But, of course, the real kicker turns out to be the final line in the ad. Since, when I think of Christ, the first thing that pops into my mind was his reputation for pushing children off of mountaintops.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


The press has mostly moved on from the question of whether President Obama was born in Hawaii or not. Donald Trump kicked the hornet's nest and got some people worked up about the question, but most people accept that the two birth certificates (short form and long form) released by the Prez are the real thing.

However, I was over at World Net Daily earlier today and notice that they are running an unscientific poll of their readers asking where they think Obama was born. 67% say Kenya. 3% say Hawaii.

Again, this is a voluntary reader poll, with self-selected responders, making it scientifically pointless. But what's fascinating when you read the comments section is that for many of these people, the absense of evidence is the strongest proof, and the presense of of evidence is the ultimate disproof. There are no records of a Kenyan birth certificate, or of Stanley Anne Dunham (Obama's mother) ever travelling to Kenya. The fact that these records can't be found is proof of how damning they were. On the other hand, within days of the long form birth certificate being produced, the folks at WND were declaring it a fake. The fact that he bothered to fake a birth certificate is the ultimate proof of his Kenyan birth, right? The fact that his birth was announced in the newspapers days after he was born is also proof of his foreign origins, since this shows that his grandparents were eager to make their grandson appear to be a legitimate American citizen.

What's most interesting is the curious presumption that Barack Obama's minders possess superhuman competence in some areas, and are horrible bumblers in others. Team Obama was clever enough to plant the birth announcements almost five decades before Obama ran for president, but too stupid to double check the spelling on the stamp used to certify the birth certificate! (If you aren't following this, the birth certificate is stamped at the bottom with a rubber stamp. WND has blown up the stamp and there's a THE in the stamp that looks like TXE. But, it's plainly a rubber stamp with uneven amounts of ink on the various letters. An H turns vaguely into an X if there's less ink in the middle of the outer lines.) Anyway, this supposed typo is just one of about 30 bits of "evidence" they have that the certificate is fake. So, team Obama is competent enough to scrub every bit of evidence on two continents dating back to the 1960's, but incompetent enough to release a document with 30 different mistakes.

Sometimes, all you can do is shake your head and sigh.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

State of Things follow up

I was a guest on the State of Things today, along with Henry Jenkins and and James Daily, talking about Superman renouncing his US citizenship. I mentioned briefly one of my short stories in which a hero gets restored to life by a time travel paradox and the Supreme Court must decide whether or not the murder conviction of the hero's arch enemy should be overturned. If you're interested in reading that story, it's called "Where Their Worm Dieth Not." I appeared originally in an anthology edited by Lou Anders called Masked. If you're a fan of prose superheroics, I can't recommend this anthology highly enough.

The story is also available in a collection of my own short fiction, There is No Wheel, which is available only on Kindle and Nook. There are three superhero stories in this collection, and the rest of the stories roam around the speculative fiction landscape, with some ghost stories, some hard SF, and even a tale about the Rapture.

If you haven't heard the State of Things broadcast in question, it's already available for download at the WUNC website.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Clark Kent: American

Superman isn't an American. He's a known alien whose only official place of residence is an underground bunker in Antartica. While he does spend a lot of time in Metropolis, he's certainly got a good track record of saves all around the world. He's saved planes with bad engines in Argentina, put out brush fires in Africa, plugged failing dams in Korea, and rescued stranded subs in Russia. He's shown himself to be a watchman for the world.

Then there's Clark Kent. Smallville just had it's series finale, and I was a bit distressed at the choices the program made right at the end. Basically, they settled into the classic notion that Clark Kent exists mainly as a disguise for Superman.

It's a shame, because the series for most of it's run did a good job of making you understand that Clark Kent was the real person at the heart of Superman. Clark doesn't exist to give Superman a place to hide when he's tired. Clark exists because that was the only name he knew for the first two decades of his life. Clark Kent isn't a secret identity... he's an ordinary man with mid-western values who just happens to have a laundry list of superpowers he's mildly embarassed to possess. And, despite some false information on his birth certificate, Clark is 100% American.

The proof lies in his choice of career. Clark's a newspaper reporter; it's really tough to imagine a more American job. Clark probably spends the bulk of his days going to school board meetings and sitting in on zoning hearings. For the two hours he spends listening to some Metropolis city commisioner debating a new subway line, he could be out fighting crime, rescuing airplanes, or venting volcanoes. But, he's made the decision to write the article about the subway line over saving some village in South America because Clark understands that, in his ordinary job, he is an essential cog in the great machinery of democracy.

Yeah, there are going to be days where Clark has no choice but to put on the cape and go out to beat up Gorilla Grodd and his zombie monkey army. And, sure, if a plane is falling out of the sky, he's one of about a dozen people in the DC universe who can stop it. But I'd like to think that Clark, as Superman, has seen a lot of the world. He's seen countries where children are starving, other countries wracked by civil war, and plenty of places where the leaders are nothing but thugs who enrich themselves while their citizens suffer.

Clark understands that the real problems of the world aren't going to be solved by men in tights swooping in and beating up people. Instead, civilization works best when governments are freely elected and operate transparently, under the watchful eye of a free press.

Clark Kent punches the clock and works eight hours a day reporting on the boring mechanics of government because he believes that in doing so, he's building a better world. I imagine he's frustrated daily with a lot of the idiotic things that government does. He fights his most important fights by sitting down and typing, so that the people can know what is being done in their name.

Superman is a demi-god who can't be bothered with politics. He owes his loyalty to no country, and pays no taxes. Clark Kent is a citizen of the United States of America. He votes. And I bet he pays every last penny of his taxes, happy to chip in his small part toward the purchase of civilization.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Laura Kathleen Herrmann - Five Years Later

Yesterday marked the five year anniversary of Laura's death. Thursday, I took Simon and Veronica to place flowers at her grave. The headstone continues to accumulate sea shells; Laura loved to go to the beach and collect shells and beach glass. Each time I visit her grave, it seems as if the shells have changed. Some probably get washed off by rain, then chewed up by lawn mowers. But new ones always spring up to replace those that have gone missing.

Almost always, the shells are fragments, bleached perfectly white. I hadn't really thought about it before, but on this visit I found symbolic value in this; the fact that the shells are fragments reflects that Laura's life was a fragment. What we think of as a full, natural lifespan was cut short by cancer. She spent an unfair number of days of her life simply wanting to breathe deeply. I don't mean to devalue her life. She worked within her physical limits to live as fully as anyone. But, I sometimes will be at a farmer's market, or a library, or a beach, and see thin, gray haired woman walking by, smiling, engaged with friends and family and strangers, and I mourn that Laura never reached this stage of life. She would have been one kick-ass old lady.

As for the symbolism that the shells are all bleached white... as the years go by, it becomes harder to remember Laura's flaws. There's a tendency to remember her courage, her wisdom, and her strength, while setting aside her fears, her foolishness, and her weakness.

The truth is, without her fears, her foolishness, her weakness, she wouldn't have had me in her life. Not because I was such a foolish choice, but because, if she'd been perfect, she wouldn't have needed anyone's help. But, she wasn't perfect. She was afraid of dying, afraid of loneliness, terrified at times of what cruel twist fate had lying in wait for her just around the corner. My personality tends to be analyitical, cynical, and flippant, not the most attractive traits, yet well suited toward dealing with existential fears.

I don't visit Laura's grave as often as I used to. I didn't go for her birthday this year. I doubt I'll go again before late summer. By then, I'll have been back to the beach. I hope this year I can find some beach glass, pale blue and green and brown. Small fragments that will fit into the gaps in the indented letters on her headstone, filling them in with some darker shades to provide contrast with the white shells and the gray stone.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Superman was never an American

The latest attempt by DC to grab a few headlines involves Superman renouncing his US citizenship. I haven't yet read Action Comics 900, the issue this happens in, but my understanding from news reports is that Superman takes a stand in support of Arab rebels that the White House is unhappy with, so Supes goes before the UN to renounce his citizenship since he's tired of having his personal opinions mistaken for official US government policy.

Some conservatives view this as political correctness run amok. Both Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck have denounced this action as coming from the liberal "blame America" crowd that coddles terrorists and gives comfort to our enemies.

Still, the timing is interesting, in that a poll released yesterday showed that 18% of Americans and 30% of Republicans still don't think that President Obama is an American citizen despite the fact he's released his official birth certificate twice now.

If Superman existed in today's America, he couldn't vote. He couldn't legally get a driver's license or a job. He could never testify in court. He has no birth certificate or any other papers to verify his legal identity. Under classic Superman mythology, Superman has made it public that he's an alien from the planet Krypton. He arrived here in a spaceship that illegally slipped over our borders. He has never, to my knowledge, applied for US resident status under the name "Superman." Under what possible legal argument could Superman be considered an American citizen?

It's also worth noting that, in the Silver Age comic book mythology that I grew up with, Superman was decidedly not a Christian. Instead, he still clung to a few Kryptonian practices, including at least paying lip service to the Krptonian sun-god Rao. "Great Rao!" he'd exclaim when he was astonished. Assuming he was ever caught on tape talking about Rao, don't you think the Christian right would have risen in mass to demand that Superman convert to Christianity? If he didn't, wouldn't his every actions have been suspect to the right wing talkers of the world? If 9-11 had unfolded and Superman hadn't saved the towers and the pentagon because that morning he happened to be busy fighting Brainiac, don't you think that conspiracy theories would have arisen that Superman must have wanted this to happen? Especially if Osama bin Laden then spent the next decade on the loose? You know that the Joseph Farahs and Rush Limbaughs of the world would be fill the airwaves with speculation about where, exactly, this alien's loyalties were placed.

Of course, Superman could try to silence all this talk by revealing that he had a secret identity, with adoptive American parents, and that even though he couldn't reveal his true identity, he could assure us that he was, in fact, an American. The main problem is, Clark Kent is an American purely by fraud. In the current Superman mythology, after Jonathan and Martha Kent find the alien baby in the field, they decide to pass him off as their own child. So, Clark goes to work every day with a social security number issued to him on the basis of a fraudulent birth certificate. The Kent's committed perjury. If Lex Luthor ever found this out, Clark is probably one DNA test away from deportation. And what would the American public think, knowing that aliens are sneaking over our borders to take low wage jobs that real Americans no longer want, like newspaper reporting?

Finally, despite the 1950's era slogan that Superman stood for truth, justice, and the American Way, just how does he actually embody any of these traits?

Truth? Truth is right out the window, since his whole public persona is a carefully constructed lie. Clark Kent spends every minute of his day lying, wearing glasses he doesn't need, slouching his shoulders, pretending to be a klutz with irritable bowel syndrome so he can run off to the bathroom at a moment's notice. But what can you expect, given that his adoptive parents were so adept at lying? They taught him from an early age that deceipt was a virtue. When you and I wanted to make friends as children, we were told, "Just be yourself." When Clark felt lonely and isolated, his folks said, "You can't trust friends. You can't trust anyone. Never let anyone see who you truly are." With this kind of upbringing, we should consider ourselves lucky Clark didn't turn into a serial killer.

Justice? Only if you think vigilante justice is superior to due process. Superman seems to be unable to stop a bank robbery without first punching his way through a wall. Once he's inside the bank, he destroys evidence by melting the robber's gun (conveniently wiping out fingerprints) and ruining all the surveillance tapes by spraying the room with x-rays. You know every bad guy he nabs is back on the streets inside of an hour. And, speaking of x-rays, the citizens of Metropolis must give off more rads than a Japanese power plant, given how frequently Superman scans the city looking for missing kittens and run-away bad guys. If you work at the Daily Planet, and are diagnosed with breast cancer when you're 30 that probably has been caused by Superman's radioactive stares, you have no legal recourse available to you. You can't sue Superman because you don't know his real identity, and he keeps his economic assets hidden from everyone, including the IRS. Where's the justice in that?

The American Way? There is nothing more patriotic than voting, and Superman's not even registered to vote! I don't know that he's ever taken a public position on the merits of capitalism versus communism, but it is noteworthy that he's never taken a dime for his services. He's accepted no corporate sponsorships, and he's never tried to cash in on his fame and powers. He seems to be the living embodiment of the Marxist motto, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." And while Superman does spend a lot of his time fighting extraterrestrials, it's worth noting that the person he spends the majority of his energies trying to bring down is a highly successful businessman who rose from poverty by using his genius, education, and good business sense to become one of the richest men in America. Also, Lex Luthor can show you his birth certificate.

But even more to the point: The premise of America is that the law treats everyone equally. The premise of Superman is that he has the power to be above the law. He uses his powers altruistically, it's true, but if you or I tried to fly a helicopter thirty feet above the main street of Metropolis, we'd have hell to pay with the FAA. Superman does it with impunity. If we tried to drive 80 on the freeway, we get a ticket. The classic Superman didn't even respect the speed limit set by light. If you or I crashed through a skyscraper window, we'd be expected to pay for damages. Superman either fixes things himself, an act of non-union labor performed without building permits or concern about building codes, or, if he does leave behind some sort of cash compensation for damages, the money is coming from unknown source that the IRS would probably really, really want to know about. The American Way is respect for the rule of law. Superman's way is, "I'll do what I want, because, hey, I'm Superman."

Supes, if you're saying adios to America, good riddance. Krypton must have known you'd grow up to be a hyper-violent nincompoop who'd wear his underwear outside his big boy pants when they shot you into space as a baby. Don't let the door snag your cape on the way out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Headlong toward doom!

I've been doing a lot more posts about writing than about politics lately, which is natural since I'm deep inside the process of writing The Dragon Apocalypse series. When I'm writing, the rest of the world turns into murmuring shadows at the periphery of my awareness. I'm only dimly aware of friends and family. Hell, I'm only dimly aware of myself.

So, while I've been following politics just enough to still understand the jokes each week on "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me," I haven't really been tuned in to the political world to the degree I feel I should be. Which is stunning, because I feel like recent months have produced 1. an actual impeachable offense by the President and 2. the most frightening political "debate" I personally can remember.

1. The impeachable offense. So... we're still bombing Libya, right? And, unless I've been totally in a fog, the President hasn't yet asked congress for the authority to do so. How is this in any way constitutional? If unilaterally declaring war against a nation that posed no threat to us whatsoever isn't a high crime under the constitution, just what the hell is? Yet, Dennis Kucinich seems to be the only congressman willing to take a stand on this. The rest of congress seems to be hiding from the issue as much as possible. Drudgereport ran headlines day after day for months over whether Clinton had lied about having sex with an intern. Libya generated headlines for a day or two, then faded from sight.

One giant lesson to be drawn from this is that the "anti-war" left is, in fact, merely "anti-republican." If a republican president were bombing a nation under the exact same circumstances, you'd have crowd's descending on the national mall to declare the president a war criminal and a fascist. But, with Obama giving the commands... nary a peep.

2. The so called "debate." First, the whole threat to shut down the budget over 66 billion or 30 billion or whatever: The deficit is 1.4 trillion. 66 billion is a rounding error, hidden in the numbers you don't bother including when you say "the deficit is 1.4 trillion." If the deficit had been "1.466 trillion" before the budget passed, it became "1.400" trillion afterward. Only, of course, it didn't, since the second the deal was picked apart and all the imaginary numbers were pulled out the total actual savings didn't even hit 1 billion.

But, what does it matter? The big news wasn't this year's budget, which can be blamed on democrats who failed to actually pass a spending bill. No, the big news is that both the republicans and the president have finally put forward serious plans to balance the budget!

Except, of course, they haven't. Both plans were actually roadmaps that lead us headlong toward doom. Paul Ryan's plan "balances" the budget in something like 20 years! It's just built into the plan that we'll continue to run deficits for two more decades. Obama's far more "serious" and "courageous" plan only runs deficits for another 12 years! Let's say that you weigh 400 pounds, and have just had a wake up call because last year you only weighed 360 pounds. You announce to the world that you have agreed to embark on a serious diet plan. This year, you were on track to gain 80 pounds, but you skipped lunch earlier, so now you're on track to only gain 79 pounds. Progress! And, next year, the real cuts kick in, and you'll only gain 60 pounds! And the following year, 54 pounds! And, twelve years from now, you'll be completely stable, and gain no weight whatsoever!

I'm sorry, but, no, 12 years from now, you'll be dead, or in such horrible condition that death would be the merciful alternative.

All the plans to cut the deficit over a long time scale are meaningless. If the deficit is to be cut, it will have to be on a time scale of two years... since that's how long either party can be sure of having control of the house.

And, slowing the rate of growth of the deficit doesn't count as "cutting." The problem is no longer that we are running deficits. The problem that confronts us are the debts that we've already accumulated. This debt sits on the American chest like a succubus, robbing us of energy. If we spend another decade or two piling on debt, then the interest paid on the debt will exceed the taxes we collect. We will be bankrupt.

It's not too late. Getting a balanced budget will require spending cuts, but also increased taxes. To those who protest that any tax increase will just be met with a spending increase, I feel your fears, but, to me, the increased taxes aren't justified by future spending... they are morally mandated by past deficit spending. We built up these debts. Did we never intend to pay them? With what? Happy thoughts? The fact is, every time a democrat or republican has voted for deficit spending in the past, they were casting a vote for higher taxes in the future.

The future has arrived. The car is pointed toward doom. Do we step on the accelerator, or the brakes?