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.


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 I've also done a little googling and found a statistic that's likely out of date that says that 4% of all US households have assets greater that $1,000,000.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.