Welcome!

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.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Could guns be made safer?

Let me state up front that I believe in the constitutional right of Americans to own firearms. It's been our tradition for centuries, and the Supreme Court has affirmed the right. The Supreme Court also said in the same ruling that regulations and restrictions were allowed. Presumably, a ban on private citizens owning rocket launchers and fully automatic machine guns are acceptable. Congress also has the power to set manufacturing standards on pretty much any product sold across state line. So, if they wanted to mandate limits on the size of ammo magazines, I can't think of any legal impediment to this, only political ones. A sizable number of Americans don't feel safe unless they can fire 30 bullets without reloading, and they elect politicians who feel the same way, and, for the foreseeable future, they are going to hold the majority in the house and at least a filibuster sized plurality in the senate. This isn't purely a Republican/Democrat split, either. There are plenty of Democratic senators and congressmen with A ratings from the NRA.

This isn't a politically correct thing to say so soon after the Newtown shooting, but, statistically, guns really aren't all that dangerous. There are something like 300 million guns in the US, and about 20,000 gun deaths a year from these. We have a similar number of cars, and they contribute to over 30,000 deaths per year. Of course, the vast majority of these automobile deaths are accidental. But, a fair number of the gun deaths are accidental as well. I haven't found precise numbers I trust while googling this morning, but I feel safe to say that the number of children killed each year in accidents playing with their families guns far exceeds the number of children each year murdered in mass shootings, probably by a wide margin.

Restrictions on the sale of guns are partially negated by the fact that guns are a popular target of theft. According to the BATF, over 25,000 guns are reported stolen each year. Again I don't have statistics, but my gut instinct is that stolen guns are probably used for criminal purposes far more often than legally purchased guns. If you're willing to steal a gun, you probably don't have many qualms about robbing a convenience store.

But, automobiles are also attractive targets of theft, and we take precautions to reduce the numbers of thefts, such as putting locks on the doors and on the ignition. To reduce the number of accidental deaths, we require seat belts and airbags and such safety niceties as headlights and windshield wipers and brakes. Most states also require annual inspections to make sure the safety systems are in good working order.

Couldn't manufacturers be required to implement similar safety standards for new guns? For instance, my wife's car has a wireless ignition key. She just sits in the car and presses a button to turn it on. Couldn't guns be built with a wireless safety? The legal owner of the gun could have a small radio key that he wears on a key chain or embedded in a watch. When he holds the gun, the safety can be switched off. If anyone else picks up the gun without the radio key, the safety can't be unlocked. This means that toddlers can't find the gun in their daddy's nightstand and accidentally shoot someone thinking it's a toy. If the gun is stolen, it's just a useless lump of metal. But, if you have a friend in town who wants to borrow a gun to go hunting, no problem. You just loan them the radio key.

Obviously, this does nothing to make the 300 million guns already in circulation safer. And, with so many guns, there will be a black market that persists for decades. But, changes made today could make the average gun safer fifty years from now. The cost of guns would rise a trivial amount, and firearm owners would be slightly inconvenienced by having to purchase a new battery for their key every couple of years. But, the trade off of knowing that your gun is less likely to be stolen, or accidentally discharged by someone when you aren't home, seems like a bonus for legal gun owners. And, unlike trigger locks, which gun owners oppose since it would slow them down if they needed to grab their gun to protect against a home invader, if you have the key built into a watch, the second you pick up the gun it's ready to go.

To respond to a few objections I anticipate, yes, I'm sure criminals could hack the lock system. But, why bother, when they could just find one of the older guns without the radio locks? If your gun had the lock, they probably wouldn't take the time to steal it. No, I don't think this would do much to deter mass shootings. Most take place with legally purchased guns. But, again, accidental deaths are a statistically more significant problem than mass shootings. And, yes, I know that most accidents are ones the legal owners inflict on themselves. But, just because all the safety systems on cars don't stop  people from driving off cliffs is no reason to repeal the requirements that we all wear seat belts. The goal here is to mitigate, not eliminate.

So, what am I missing? Why wouldn't this one small change help, over the long term, make guns less likely to hurt someone accidentally or be used for a crime after being stolen?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Christmas Dismemberment


When I was a kid, I must have been aware that Christmas had some sort of religious significance. I knew about the birth of Jesus, both from endless hours of church, not to mention Linus’s little speech at the end of the Peanut’s Christmas special. I was also aware that Christmas was all about giving.

But, let’s get real. Until I was well past puberty, Christmas for me was about getting. And I don’t mean getting socks or a new lunch box. It was about the toys. I’d lay awake all night, my stomach knotted, imagining the awesome things that might be contained in the gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. There might be trains, or Lincoln Logs, or science kits with microscopes and little pre-made slides of fly wings. And there had better be some cars. Saturday morning cartoons had promised me Hotwheels and the corresponding miles of looping tracks on which to race them. Even better would be a radio-controlled car. Or a radio-controlled plane! Really, not getting my own motorized go-cart would certainly qualify as child abuse.

Alas, I never got my go-cart. I suppose there was a lesson to be learned about handling the disappointment of not getting everything you wanted. Christmas also taught me the disappointment of getting exactly what you wanted. I did get a toy train set. I set up the oval track in my attic, sliding all the little rails together with tiny metal clips and figuring out the weirdly elaborate mechanism for one car to hook into the next. Then, I plugged in the transformer and let the train fly! Or, if not fly, at least roll along at a respectable pace. Around the oval, then around again. And around again, then again. About ten minutes after setting my train in motion, I’d pretty much lost all interest in trains. I tried to revive my Christmas morning excitement by finding interesting things that the train might crash into. A Matchbox car mysteriously broke down right in the center of the tracks as the train was approaching at full speed. And the train’s brakes have failed! This was going to be the most horrifying crash ever!

Then the train nudged the car aside and whirred on as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t as if I lacked the imagination to pretend that the car had been scattered across three states. It was that my imagination was superior to the reality. Toys seemed designed to teach me that real life would never be as spectacular as daydreams.

Despite my instinct to simulate collisions, I wasn’t a particularly violent or destructive child. I don’t remember having much interest in toy guns. When I did get cap guns, I ignored the gun and triggered the caps by smashing them with rocks on the sidewalk. As for destruction, the primary thing destroyed on Christmas mornings was our living room. My sisters and I were not patient unwrappers who neatly folded back the paper to slowly reveal the secrets within. We would tear into those wrappers like sharks taking down a sea lion. Five minutes after we were unleashed, the floor was completely hidden by shreds of paper and the remains of cardboard boxes. Except for the tree rising from the clutter, our living room looked as if a violent but curiously localized tornado had struck.

While I may not have been destructive by nature, I was intensely curious. While I never set out to destroy a toy for pure meanness, from time to time, I’d steal into my father’s workshop and help myself to screwdrivers and pliers to reduce a toy to its component parts. Sometimes, I was even able to put them back together. I was especially fluent with bicycles. To this day, I could probably take one apart then put it back together blindfolded. But, I also wasn’t shy about taking wrenches to things like clock radios and lamps. I often explored the inner workings with the power cord still plugged in. That was the only way to see how things worked. My failure to electrocute myself is probably something of a Christmas miracle. Usually, I was able to reassemble my experiments, leaving my mother none the wiser.

I do remember one toy I couldn’t put back together. When I was about nine, I got a toy doll, or, to use the proper gender attribution, an action figure. It was of Captain America, evidence that my mother really didn’t understand comic books. Captain America was Marvel, and I was a DC guy. Superman or Batman would have been worthy fuel for my imagination, but the Captain? The Captain was just a cold lump of plastic to me. I discarded him almost the second I unwrapped him, and would have forgotten about him forever if he hadn’t slipped into the couch cushions where I accidentally sat on him.

I took a moment to study the Captain. He was made of blue plastic, with red and white stripes and just a tiny touch of flesh color dabbed on for his chin. The limbs were stiff, but articulated at the hips and shoulders. His head could turn a full 360 degrees, and his hands bent at the wrists, with one hand permanently making a fist and the other frozen into a karate chop that could slide into the little handle on the round plastic shield.

Examining the wrists closer, I found they were held on with tiny bolts with screw heads. I’d already started wearing glasses, and knew my father had an eyeglass repair kit in the desk drawer. Despite my fondness for taking things apart, I was wise enough to know better than to disassemble my glasses. But this toy… would my parents notice? Would they care?

In less than five minutes, I had both hands off and had already lost the nearly microscopic nuts that had held the bolts in place. Unable to hold his shield, the Captain had little reason to continue his existence, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity and find out what held his head on. As it turns out, not much. It popped off with just a little pressure, revealing a little plastic peg with a ball at the end that snapped into a corresponding hole on the torso. About what I expected, but the arms and legs were more mysterious. They had a wider range of motion, and tended to snap back in place when I let go. I could tell that the tops of the legs were rounded and sat in little cups in the hips, but why didn’t they just fall out?

Some mysteries are best solved with brute force. I twisted one of the legs until it snapped free. When I did this, the other leg instantly fell off. When I looked into the hollow cups that spanned the hips, something like a little brown worm fell in my lap. It was a snapped rubber band, small enough that it wouldn’t have fit around my pinky. The legs had little metal hooks screwed into them that the rubber band had been stretched between, holding them in place.

Were the arms held on by the same configuration? I pried one up and twisted with a little less force. Sure enough, peering into the gap, I could see the tiny metal hook holding a rubber band. I wanted that rubber band, and I wanted it intact. Action figures were a plentiful commodity, but a tiny rubber band would be a treasure worth showing off.

I slipped the eyeglass screwdriver into the joint and carefully poked it through the loop. A few minutes of prodding and twisting freed it from the hook. I let the rubber band slip from the tip of the screwdriver and the arm on the other side fell off. The rubber band disappeared into the hungry gap between the couch cushions. Luckily, I found it, and held it into the light for closer examination like a precious gem.

Action figures are meant to stimulate imagination. For me, it was this rubber band that set the wheels of my mind in motion. If I had taken this rubber band off, that meant that someone, somewhere, had put it on. Captain America’s butt was stamped “Made in China.” When I imagined the factory, it was the elves workshop from Rudolf the Red Nose Rain Deer, populated by Chinese people in straw hats. It impressed me that this rubber band had been touched by someone on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t help but be a little awed that this toy had crossed an ocean to reach me, only to be taken apart a little under a half hour.

I found my mother in the kitchen and showed her the rubber band. When I explained that I’d taken apart the doll to retrieve it, she looked a little hurt that I’d destroyed yet another gift. She sighed. “What did you do that for?”

At the time, I didn’t have an answer.

From the perspective of adulthood, I do. I took the doll apart because I’m driven by a need to understand how things work. It’s why I took apart my bike and the lamps, and hinted at my future when I would be driven to more sophisticated bouts of creative destruction. I’ve taken apart friendships, even marriages before I could understand what made them work. I’ve aimed my curiosity at my own mind, analyzing the mystery of why I am who I am, figuring out my own clockwork, solving the mystery of what makes me tick. While I was never able to put Captain America back onto his feet, I like to think that I’ve bolted myself together in an improved configuration. I’m an adult who’s never let his imagination wither. To this day, I can still look at something as mundane as a rubber band and find myself thinking of foreign lands.

My parents never smothered my curiosity by putting an end to my destructive explorations. That, I think, was the greatest gift they ever gave me.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Week Thirteen: I lost 37 pounds!

Today was the final weigh in for the weight loss competition at work. 90 days had passed since I weighed in at 284. I finished today at 247. I lost 37 pounds, or 13% of my body weight.

The desire to win the competition definitely helped motivate me, but, honestly, I've been pretty certain I was going to win for a while. A lot of other people started off strong in September, but after the first thirty days I could tell that there was a fair amount of backsliding. In the end, I not only lost more weight than my closest competitor, I lost more weight than the next two competitors combined.

I couldn't have done this without my wife. She's a person who loves organizing and planning stuff, so she's taken to meal planning with a vengeance. I cook a couple of nights a week, but I tend to think about what to make for dinner a couple of hours before it's time to serve it, which means I sometimes give into the temptation to just take us out to eat. Cheryl has meals planned for several days in advance, and this protects us from impulse restaurant trips.

Cheryl has been seeing the benefits of our new lifestyle as well, having lost 24 pounds so far. Combined, we've lost over 60 pounds, and I'm hoping that 90 days from now our combined total might be closer to 100.

I certainly don't intent to stop at 247. I think that I can get down to 220 with my present practices, and would like to do so by my birthday, March 2.

Now, time for dinner, some delicious lentil and barley soup!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Week 12

253 this week. First down direction in three weeks. I'm cautiously optimistic I'll make it to 250 for next weeks final weigh in. We're having good weather from now until then, so I've got many, many miles of walking ahead of me for the next few days. Walking really seems to be the key to losing weight. I think my eating habits help me keep off the weight, but my biggest weight loss weeks almost always correspond to weeks where I've gone hiking, even if it's only a two or three mile loop along the Eno. My walking slacked off a bit in November, partially because I was aggressively trying to get to 50k words on my new novel, partially due to bad weather, and partially due to multiple family events. But, I hit my word count goal last night and the forecast is for lots of sunny days in the mid sixties from now through next Thursday. I really couldn't ask for better conditions to make this happen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How tax cuts led to higher spending

As a libertarian, I'm a firm believer in smaller government. I'm not sure we need our military spread out across the world; I'm not even certain we need a standing army at all. I definitely think that the federal government takes on too many financial responsibilities that would best be run at the local level, like welfare and education. (Is there any evidence that the federal war on poverty launched in the sixties has decreased the number of poor people? Have all the mandates and incentives and college loans thrown into education actually produced a more educated public?) And, of course, I think the government interferes far too much in the free market. Why do we subsidize corn and milk production? Why do we keep throwing money into amtrack trains that run half empty everywhere but large northeastern cities? Why put even a dime into public radio and television in an era of 900 TV channels and the near infinite diversity of internet radio? Why do we subsidize drug cartels by driving up the price of their products?

But, I'm also a realist. Libertarians have been making a case against big government for many decades and the public has soundly rejected us at the ballot box. PBS is a trivial government expense, representing about .0001* percent of the amount we'd need to cut to balance the budget. Yet, even that trivial proposed cut resulted in a public outcry, and the candidate who championed it went down in flames.

One reason that the public is so supportive of federal spending is that, for the most part, they don't pay a lot of taxes for it. Romney was right that nearly half of Americans don't pay income tax, though, I will note, he wasn't proposing to raise taxes on this half of the public. The republican insistence to never raise taxes has, perversely, likely led to a far higher level of public spending than we would have had if they'd insisted from the age of Reagan that every budget be balanced. The case against PBS and Amtrack and farm bills and foreign occupations would be easier to make if more of the public actually saw a relationship between these political choices and decreasing paychecks.

By insisting on low tax rates while allowing spending to rise, we've been engaged in a Keynesian stimlulus that's now creeping into its fourth decade. The economy has grown thanks to these low tax rates and debt driven spending, but growth has failed to lift us out of the budget hole. Even the brief budget surplusses of the late 90s were a result of structural overtaxation for Social Security. The real budget if social security taxes and spending had been excluded would still have been in deficit.

There was an argument for many years that budget deficits would "starve the beast," and keep the growth of the federal government under check. Instead, the beast is fatter than ever, downright obese. The looming "fiscal cliff" is scary to me not because the tax hikes are so harsh and the budget cuts so draconian, but because they are so inadequate to the task of putting our nation back onto a responsible path.

Yes, raising taxes enough to balance the budget today would be a serious blow to the economy. But, it seems pretty obvious to me that continuing our policy of low taxes is only going to allow the government to grow ever more bloated. If conservatives and libertarians truly want to usher in an era of smaller government, then it's time for taxes to rise to a level where voters feel some discomfort. We index Social Security benefits to rise each year with inflation? Fine. Index the payroll tax each year to rise by the same level. Worried that people would just find ways to hide income in order to avoid income taxes? No problem. Shift more taxes to consumption. Let the tax on gasoline rise to a couple of bucks and put a pie chart on every gas pump showing what percentage is going to roads, to defense, to schools, etc.

Would this work? I honestly have no idea. As far as I can tell, the states with the highest levels of taxation, like California and New York, seem to be the states with populations most supportive of government spending. So, perhaps there would be a surge of support for more government spending, on the theory that we deserve it since we pay our taxes. (This is why Social Security is impossible to cut; all working people see the tax coming out of their check each week and aren't going to let the government screw them out of their money by cutting benefits.) But, I'd rather have taxes and spending in balance, with the current generation paying for what it spends, than our current policy of spending without constraint and shifting the bill to future generations. That's not only unwise, it's downright immoral.

This is our spending. We own it. It's time to pay for it.

*A completely made up number. If you want the actual percent, google it, but the point is, it's tiny.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Weeks 10 and 11

Can you say plateau? I was flat week ten at 254, then went up to 256 the Friday after Thanksgiving. But, the last three weeks had my wedding anniversary where we got to eat the wedding cake top we'd saved, plus two thanksgiving meals, one with my family and one with hers. It was just one never ending obstacle course of calories.

I'm bumping up my treadmill time to 45 minutes a day to try to get past this. My final weigh in for the weight loss competition at work is Thursday after next. I think I still have a shot of getting to 250 by then. I'm certain I can get back to 254. My toughest competitor at work also gained weight over Thanksgiving, so I just might stand a chance at winning even at 254.

Friday, November 09, 2012

A Libertarian Perspective on the Presidential Election

My goodness, what a great gnashing of teeth in some quarters that President Obama has been reelected. Reactions have ranged from agonizing soul-searching of what went wrong, to finding straw men to blame for the loss (Liberal media! Voter fraud! The Takers!) to outright ranting of how the republic has reached its final days and America is fated for a long, agonizing decline.

My own view is probably most closely aligned with the last one... but I've felt that way since the 1980s, save for a brief surge of optimism in the late 90s. And, I would have felt that way if Romney had won instead of Obama.

I know it's trite to say that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. But, from my perspective, there's very little difference between Democrats and Republicans. Both parties have demonstrated a devotion to unrestrained use of the national credit card. Both parties have demonstrated a willingness to throw away American lives in wars of dubious value to the security of this nation. Neither side has shown a surplus of respect for individual liberties. Neither side has shown much respect for capitalism, with both parties allowing large financial institutions to loot the national treasury.

It's true that Obamacare is a monstrosity of paperwork and complications that will likely make health care more expensive, more opaque, and less responsive. But, as someone who has had many chances to witness the workings of the modern health care system, I can testify that the system before Obama was elected was a morass of paperwork, outrageous costs, opaque billing, and frustrating wait times. Last year when I developed my thyroid problems, I had no existing family physician, and most doctors offices I called to see if I could get a checkup quoted me wait times of several months before they could see me (though I did eventually find one that saw me after a wait of merely several weeks). I honestly don't know what the answer would be to improving our health care system, but I also know I certainly never heard even one sentence from Romney, McCain, or Bush that indicated that they had any better ideas than Obama did.

As for issues of national defense, as the foreign policy debate indicated, there was no discernible difference between Obama and Romney, because there is no important difference between Obama and Bush. As for Obama's horrible mishandling of the attack in Libya and what I feel is an ongoing cover up, I'm happy to admit that heads should roll for this. But, the magnitude of Obama's negligence in this situation is pretty small potatoes compared to the magnitude of Bush's deciding to invade a foreign country to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction that turned out, in retrospect, to be figments of the imagination. Four thousand Americans and a minimum of a hundred thousand Iraqis have perished because Bush made poor decisions. Compared to four US deaths, it's difficult to get too worked up by the right wing outrage machine.

Returning to fiscal matters: Obama has been absolutely horrible on the federal budget. But, I never heard any serious plan from Romney to fix things. I'm all for cutting funding for NPR, but that's just drops in the deficit bucket. I don't believe that marginal tax cuts have the stimulative effect that Republicans seem to believe it. Much of the Obama stimulus was tax cuts, as was Bush's stimulus, and his budgets weren't balanced either. It was difficult to take Romney seriously when he swore not to trim even a dime from the military. Ryan's supposedly serious budget plan promised to balance the budget by 2040! Talk about political courage!

My biggest regret of the Obama reelection is that we will probably wind up with at least one more youthful liberal Supreme Court Justice. It's not that I'm a 100% fan of the conservative wing of the court, but at least they seem to acknowledge that the government has some constitutional restraints.

But, there are positives to Obama's victory as well, from my perspective. The cause of gay marriage will be able to advance in a more friendly environment. The children of illegal immigrants can live their lives in slightly less fear of deportation. Atheists won't be dismissed as unpatriotic and unworthy of belonging to the greater American family.

So, take heart, Republicans. The nation you will live in for the next four years is pretty much the same nation you would be living in if your guy had won. Democrats, don't gloat too much. Life under Obama is very little different from life under a 4th term of George W. Bush. Yeah, liberals can cherish small victories, and Republicans will have many chances to fester with outrage, but, from a libertarian perspective, it's pretty much all the same.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Week 9: 30 pounds!

Made it! And now I really need new pants.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Week Eight

257. So, so close to being down 30 pounds from my starting weight. I'm going to try to be aggressive this week with exercise to try to hit that milestone.

My need to buy new clothes is getting a little ridiculous, though I continue to hold out, not knowing where my weight loss will end. Pants that were to tight on me two months ago are so loose they fall off if my belt isn't completely tightened.

I confess, though, that today I gave in to temptation and ate some french fries. I had a broiled fish platter for dinner, and it came with either fries or a baked potato. I figured I'd just nibble on a couple of fries. Nope, all of them gone in about two minutes. Oh well. Nothing 45 minutes on the treadmill can't negate.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Week Seven

259. I can tell I'm starting to plateau a bit. May need to bump up my workouts to compensate. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Quick thought on the foreign policy debate

A lot of pundits are commenting on how often Romney agreed with Obama last night on a whole string of foreign policy issues. Even when he made a show of disagreement, Romney would essentially repeat back exactly the same position Obama had offer, only he would throw in the word "strong" five times.

But what Romney couldn't note was that he was stealing Obama's foreign policy issues mainly because Obama pretty much stole all his actual policies from George Bush. Sure, he got us out of Iraq, but the reality was we were pretty much done in Iraq by the time he took office. He's promising to get us out of Afghanistan, but only after surging there for goals as amorphous and unachievable as anything Bush ever proposed.

Obama didn't close Gitmo. He didn't bring terrorists to the US for trial. He took a stand against torture, but the subject hasn't been brought up by Romney so I have no idea what his position is. Obama has order far more drone strikes than Bush. And, if Obama has any difference in policy from Bush on China, Europe, or Russia, Iran, or North Korea, I'm really hard pressed to think of it. Obama went into office promising to talk to Castro and Ahmadjinadad (I know I just misspelled that!), but it turned out that he wasn't even able to negotiate with John Boehner.

The thing that scares me is I suspect that Romney sincerely will conduct a foreign policy indistinguishable from Bush/Obama. We'll continue fielding high-tech weapons and expertly trained and equipped soldiers against enemies who fight with improvised bombs and hand weapons, whose greatest strategic defense against being bombed back into the stone age is the reality that they seem to really want to live there already.

Am I advocating isolationism? Not by any means. I would just welcome some perspective. Are the threats we face deserving of the money and lives we throw at managing them? Does a single attack on US soil justify a decade and a half of foreign wars? Why is the threat of Islamic terrorism more of an existential threat to us than massive debts? Why is it more of a threat to us than our own handgun violence? Cigarettes? Obesity? We've turned criminal acts into acts of war, and in doing so we've managed to surrender some of our most cherished values, while elevating the terrorists into positions of heroes and martyrs for an entire generation of people who are growing up in lands we've occupied by force.

Just another reason I'm voting for Gary Johnson.

Friday, October 19, 2012

CPAP Q&A



I've been using a CPAP machine for two months now. This week, I had a follow up with the CPAP tech who confirmed what I already knew. My sleep apnea events have dropped from dozens per night to two. According to the card, I'm getting just shy of seven hours of sleep per night on average. I feel a lot better these days. I no longer worry about falling asleep when I'm driving home from work, and when I get home I'm still a functioning human being who doesn't have to immediately go to bed for an hour long nap. The CPAP might even be making me look better, as using it corresponds with losing over twenty pounds of weight. My dietary changes are probably responsible for most of the weight loss, but the CPAP keeps me rested, which means I can exercise routinely, and I no longer need a full liter of Mountain Dew to keep me awake and alert during my work day. In fact, I've cut almost all caffeine from my diet, save for occasionally ordering unsweetened tea when I'm eating out.

Before starting the CPAP, I had a lot of questions. I thought I'd post a bit of a self Q&A in case other people had the same questions.

Q: Do people really need this? If the human body was so badly designed that it strangles itself while sleeping, how did we survive as a species?

A: Just another argument against intelligent design. I've known for over ten years that I stopped breathing sometimes in my sleep. Pretending that this was normal and acceptable is easily one of the top three bone-headed thoughts ever to lodge in my mind.

Q: Does the CPAP actually fix the problem? Or is it just treating the symptoms? Can't you fix your breathing by exercising, losing weight, and changing your sleeping positions?

A: Well, sure, it is just treating symptoms. But, while being heavy does contribute to the problem, I know people who are a long way from obese who also need the machine. And, I've tried sleeping in every position you can imagine without positive results. The long and short of it is, the machine actually works.

Q: What if there's a power outage when you have the mask on? Won't you suffocate?

A: I was really worried about this before I tried a mask on. If you google CPAP problems, you find people talking about feeling as if they are suffocating. I honestly have no idea what they are talking about. The mask has holes in it to let you exhaled air escape. If the machine's off, these holes also let air in. Breathing with the mask on and power off isn't a problem at all.

Q: Maybe CPAP will help some people, but I have terrible allergies and can barely breathe through my nose half the time.

A: That's a statement, not a question. But, I really am someone who had difficulty breathing through his nose at night. But, with the CPAP, you're breathing filtered air all night. Most mornings, I wake up and my nostrils are completely open. Before the mask, I always started each morning with a ten minute sneezing session. Big improvement.

Q: Is it hard to fall asleep with the machine blowing air in your face?

Not at all. You really don't feel air blowing on you. I usually fall asleep in under five minutes. It's pretty awesome.

Q: Won't the mask make my face break out? Or leave lines in my face?

A: So far, I haven't had this problem, though I do wake up feeling like my face is oily where the mask sits. I also can see the lines of the mask for twenty minutes after I wake up. But, so far, these things really don't seem to be a problem.

Q: Then what does seem to be a problem?

A: I sleep so soundly that I don't toss and turn, and when I sleep on my sides, sometimes my arm will be numb when I wake. I also can sleep on my back for the first time in decades, but when I do so, I sometimes wake with back aches. Despite the machine having a humidifier, I do often have dry mouth in the mornings, so bad even my throat will fill dry. Luckily, a few swigs of seltzer water in the morning fixes this. Finally, I also wake up with dry eyes. I think air leaks ever so slightly from around my nose and blows into my eyes. I've tightened my mask as much as I find comfortable without fixing the problem. For now, I muddle on. Usually the dryness is gone a few minutes after waking. Rarely does it persist beyond my morning shower. When it does, there's always eyedrops.

All in all, I really regret I didn't get on the CPAP ten years ago. I think of all the hours wasted because I woke up each morning feeling like a zombie. In just two months I'm feeling healthier and have reclaimed several extra productive hours in each day. I know most people want to die in their sleep. But, it's just stupid to let your sleeping body try to kill you night after night.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Week six: 260

Despite eating out all weekend, Cheryl and I both had good progress on our weight loss this week. I've now lost 24 pounds since starting, meaning that it's likely that my next weigh in is going to have me in the 250s, which is a pretty big milestone for me.

I need to figure out what to do about my clothes. I've added three new notches to my belt, but at this point most of my pants would drop right off without the belt. But, I'm hesitant to go out and buy new pants, since I hope to be thinner still in another six weeks.

If anyone else out there has gone through a similar weight loss journey, I'm interested in hearing how you shopped for clothes without knowing what your waistline might be in another month. I'm too cheap to be buying new pants every couple of weeks!

Speaking of our weekend eating out, we went to a Burmese restaurant and had ginger salad, which was essentiall coleslaw with ginger, sesame seeds, and soybeans, with sesame oil and soy sauce dressing instead of mayonnaise. It was amazing. The second I took a bite into, I knew that I had added a new favorite food to my top ten list. It's just perfectly balanced. It's a little salty, a little hot, a tiny bit sweet, a bit sour and really crisp and crunchy. Seriously, if you have the fortune of living within driving range of a Burmese restaurant, go get some of this. It will leave you shaking your head at how bland and pointless American coleslaw is.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Week Five

262 pounds at my work weigh in this morning. On my home scale undressed I'm consistently getting weights under 260 most mornings.

I have concerns that this progress will come skidding to a halt this weekend. We're going to a con and will be eating out all weekend. There's no question that probably the biggest factor in my success is the fact that my wife Cheryl has taken the lead in meal planning and has displayed some pretty amazing cooking chops at bringing in dinners that are low calorie and super nutritious. Most of our evening meals are coming in under 500 calories, yet we wind up full because we're eating a lot of non-starchy vegetables and lean proteins. The only "diet" food we're resorting to regularly is a diet salad dressing, a balsamic vinegarette that tastes pretty awesome. (I also tried some no-fat hot dogs a few weeks ago. Not as awesome.)

Travelling means eating out for dinners, and it becomes a lot harder to guess how many calories you're consuming without breaking out a scale at every meal. At home, we weigh most of our calorie dense ingredients and have a pretty precise measure of how many calories we're consuming. When we're at restaurants, we often get a wide range of calorie estimates when we type the dishes into our phones. Still, when we do we out, we're definitely making smarter choices than we used to. Avoiding pasta, potatoes, and white bread is a decent rule to follow in these situations.

Last week, I mentioned that, despite losing twenty pounds, I really couldn't tell it in my appearance or my wardrobe. Then, Sunday, I kept having to hitch my pants up. I finally had to punch a new hole in my belt to keep from having them slide off me. Jeans that were tight only two weeks ago are now loose. I have a leather jacket that I stopped wearing about 4 years ago because it was too tight around my gut. I almost gave it to good will when we moved. Today, I wore it to work and it was a perfect fit.

Still a long way to go to win the competition, though. One of my coworkers is pretty close to losing 10% of her body weight.  I'm only down 7%. Fortunately, I still have plenty of flab to work off, and seven weeks to go. I think I still have a shot at this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Doublespeak

This weekend at Capclave, I'm going to be on a panel with James Morrow called Doublespeak. The panels topic is: "The proliferation of information beyond the control of any one authority is a good thing that can topple dictators and hold powerful corporations accountable. But, falsehoods can be spread just as easily as truth, and seemingly neutral, objective data can and is manipulated by people with political agendas. How are we to navigate the growing maze of truthiness that surrounds any subject?"

Sometimes, I despair. We live in an age where we're immersed in news and information like never before, yet I'm constantly surprised by just how information free most debate is these day. The tiniest snowflakes of truth seem to instantly grow into avalanches of half-truths and misinformation. For instance, in last weeks debate Mitt Romney said he would cut funding for public broadcasting. This instantly was mocked along two lines. First, people ridiculed the idea that Romney thought he could balance the budget by cutting this funding. But, I never heard Romney make that claim. He argued it wasn't important enough to borrow money from China to pay for, but he plainly was offering this as one example of unneeded spending, not the entirety of it. Second, some ads and commentary have run with the idea that Romney was threatening to fire Big Bird. In the same breath, people will point out how small the Federal dollars are that go to programs like Sesame Street. And they're right! The sale of dolls and books and games about Sesame Street characters is probably more than enough to keep the TV show on the air. Cutting off federal funds isn't going to ruffle a feather on Big Bird.

I'm not a Romney supporter, and can point to examples going in the other direction. WND just yesterday was running proof that Obama is secretly a Muslim. They had enlarged a photo of his wedding band a zillion percent and were showing how the blurry little squiggles in the gold spelled out "There is No God but Allah, etc." It reminded me a bit of people who find the face of Jesus in the stains on a whitewashed wall. And, of course, if you type in "Obama Birth Certificate," you will find hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to proving that the certificate is a forgery.

Twenty years ago, a few nut jobs with newsletter might have been able to spread these rumors to a couple of thousand people. Today, anyone with a computer and a cellphone can make their wildest theories available to millions of people. The millions inclined to believe Obama is a foreign born Muslim can read a new article proving their case every day. It's news! There's evidence! Look at the photos! Look how there's a blur on the birth certificate around the third "e" that proves it was cut and pasted from a different document! YOU'D HAVE TO BE BLIND NOT TO SEE IT, PEOPLE!

Of course, the "mainstream" media is only slightly less embarrassing. The order of the day is report on controversies, and, if none exist, make up some. Again, not to defend Romney, but when our embassies were attacked in Libya and Egypt he made a statement that the State Department had handled the matter poorly. For the next 72 hours of the news cycle, the headlines of how Romney had embarrassed himself with the statement seemed to be just as prominent as the stories about the actual attacks. It's not that I wanted to read stories about how the White House had screwed up... I really would have been happy with some real reporting about what was going on. But, of course, it's difficult to report on a story taking place in a far away country where American reporters might not be safe asking questions of the local authorities. It's easy to report on what politicians here are spinning. The path of least resistance is followed, and reaction to the story becomes the story... even while the facts of the story are still unresolved.

Arguments are fun. Shows that provide partisan arguments draw far higher ratings than shows that provide more staid, objective reporting. At least, I guess they do. I don't know. I'm throwing out a fact that could probably be googled, but I'm not going to google it, because if I'm wrong I don't want to throw out my argument. The perception that the partisan argument shows have higher ratings feels true to me, and probably feels true to many people reading this, so, PRESTO! We have truth! Who the hell cares if there are facts undergirding our truth? We live in an age where three news stories have to break every fifteen minutes just to keep us interested. If we're not entertained by our news, we'll just click on over to Cracked.com and look at their latest list of goofy photographs. Or there's always the latest World of Warcraft podcast to listen to, or a chatroom to discuss who's winning Face Off.

I'm reminded of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S. Thompson:
“We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
 
The struggle of our age isn't drugs. It's amusement. We're all to busy watching the Daily Show, or listening to Rush Limbaugh, certain we're being informed when we're merely being entertained. And for the few who suspect there might be more to learn about a subject, they simply decide to trust that there are people out there who are keeping track of the important things. Information is everyone's right, but someone else's job.
 
The information universe has ordered itself to provide us with the most  stimulating news. Giving us internet connections is like giving a monkey a button hardwired into the pleasure centers of his brain. The monkeys would rather push the button than eat. We'll just keep pushing our own pleasure buttons again and again, slowly starving out brains of any actual nourishment, going down that dark tunnel with smiles on our faces.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

A political debate

Long time readers of my blog know I used to write a lot about politics. I eventually shied away from such posts for a couple of reasons. First, while I have no trouble separating an artist's political views from his or her artistic output, I've become increasingly aware that many other people do. Orson Scott Card is a good example of a writer who made his political opinions known and as a result has turned off many potential readers. One can argue that for every reader you lose because you hold a given political opinion, you gain others who agree with you. But, honestly, I'd rather not have people form opinions about my books in advance because they heard on my blog that I'm a libertarian atheist. This definitely bleeds over into the work, and if a reader dislikes these philosophies in my fiction, I'm cool with that. The work is what it is. But I don't want people thinking they know everything I write just by glancing at this blog.

Second, I also stopped writing about politics in large part because I've lost a lot of my passion. I felt like serious issues were discussed in the eighties, nineties, and in the years after 9-11. But politics in the age of twitter and facebook seems hopelessly trivial and vapid. I would be interested in a political debate about whether or not a president should have the right to assassinate a US citizen on foreign soil with a drone strike. I'd be interested in debating the root causes of poverty, and how to reform education to reflect the reality that we now outsource a great deal of our memory and analytical skills to machines. I'm bored stiff by debating whether candidate A is going to reduce our deficit by 3 trillion dollars over twenty years or candidate B is going to reduce it by 5 trillion over thirty years, or whatever. People talk about the stark differences between the hyper polarized parties, but I honestly don't see them. The parties are debating how what shades to paint the walls of our great palace of democracy. No one is talking about the fact that the foundations of that palace are in desperate danger of crumbling.

So, all of this is a long and probably unneeded prologue to my making a point about the biggest political story of the week, the presidential debate. I listened to the debate on the radio and thought that both candidates were just babbling talking points. If I'd been doing shots every time Romney said "jobs" I'd have passed out before they got to the third question. I was stunned to discover the next day that the pundits were declaring that Romney won. It wasn't that I thought Obama won, I just came away from the debate feeling really good about backing Gary Johnson.

But, in light of the majority verdict, I wanted to put forward a theory about why Romney did so well. Obama complained on Thursday that he wondered why the real Romney hadn't shown up. I would argue that the problem was that Obama believed his own campaign spin, and the parody figure of Romney created by the media. It doesn't much matter who is running for president. The playbook is that Democrats are wimpy socialists and Republicans are heartless dimwits with no connection to the common man. Romney especially has been targeted as being a cold and ruthless billionaire who builds his mansions out of the bones of poor children. I've heard 10,000 jokes about how stiff and robotic he is, how devoid of soul, and how he can't open his mouth without making a gaffe.

Surprise! Romney was friendly, bright, and funny. I still thought he was talking in sound bites and trivia, but he didn't follow the year long media script of being a mean-spirited weirdo from another planet.

I think Obama wasn't ready for this debate because he believed his own negative ads about Romney. I think the strategy was to show up and play it safe and let Romney be Romney, and all the swing voters would be repulsed. Now, he's complaining that the Romney he wanted to debate didn't turn up.

Of course, that's kind of a pattern for Obama. The economy he wanted didn't turn up. The opposition party he wanted didn't sit down with him. The technologies he wanted didn't sell. And the foreign policy he wanted got derailed when democracy-loving twitter users in the middle east didn't wind up taking over their countries according to Thomas Friedman's script.

None of this means that Romney would be a better president. But the fact that one of these two men will be leading our country for the next four years really makes me regret my atheism, since I think, at this moment in time, prayer for divine intervention to is a pretty attractive plan.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

4 weeks, 20 pounds

Weighed in today at 264 pounds. A bit of a surprise; I'm obviously clothed at work for these weigh ins, and my home scale had me at 266 when I was dressed for work. So, one of the scales obviously needs calibration, but for the purposes of tracking, the work scale was where I recorded the weight of 284 exactly four weeks ago, so I can say with some confidence I'm down 20 pounds.

Oddly, this has changed my waistline almost none at all. My pants pretty much fit exactly the same way they did when I started. Looking at myself in the mirror, I really can't see where the weight is coming from. I had hoped for at least a few aesthetic benefits for my efforts.

Of course, even down twenty pounds, I'm still well above my ideal weight. I'm trying to lose as much weight as I can by December because of the competition at work, but long term it would be nice to get down under 230. Some health charts I've seen say my ideal weight is 196, which I think is insane. The last time I weighed that was in my early twenties and I was still thin as a rail. I have no real interest in becoming gaunt.

When I saw my doctor last week, he said my weight loss would probably level out soon. Assuming that my current average of 5 pounds a week won't last, my new goal is to try for 2 pounds a week and by week 8 be at 256 pounds. This would be down 10% from my starting weight, which seems like a decent milestone. At that point I can recalibrate and figure out my goals for the third four-week period.

A diet note: I've been mosty avoiding pasta, and probably miss it more than any other food I've given up. So, tonight we tried making noodles from ribbons of zuchini. They rocked! I know one thing that will be in our garden next year.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Week Three Addendum

I got my bloodwork results in the mail today. Results were even better than expected! Last year, most of my cholesteral numbers were right on the borderline of being high, with a few meandering over the line into the low reaches of the danger zones.

Now, all my numbers are well in the midpoint of the recommended ranges. My resting blood sugar has also improved away from being borderline worrisome. Since my father was diabetic and died of heart disease, getting these numbers down is a pretty smart move on my part.

Just returned from a three mile hike which we went ahead and did despite the fact it was raining. If it wasn't raining, we probably had it in us to go a bit further. We are really lucky to have some excellent trails in this area.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Week Three

Weigh in today: 267.

Can I hit 264 by next Thursday? I know I'll probably plateau soon. But, for now, I'm happy with my results. I really think the biggest key to my success is my smart phone. Logging everything I eat, and being able to research instantly the calorie choices before me, are key. Today I had a situation where I couldn't come home until late and had to eat dinner out. Thanks to my smart phone, I was able to look up all the calorie counts for the entire menu at PF Changs while I was sitting in the parking lot and when I went in I was able to place an order for lettuce wraps and a bowl of soup that were well within my calorie budget. Especially in a restaurant where a lot of the food is prepared with different sauces, having the mystery removed of how many calories I was consuming was pretty empowering.

Onward! (Or downward, as the case may be.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Week Two

Today at work I weighed in at 271 pounds. That's 13 pounds gone since starting my dietary changes two weeks ago. I'm less than a week away from my next physical, and I'm really interested in seeing the bloodwork. I've been eating a high fiber, high protein, low carb and low fat diet, so I'm expecting all my numbers to look good except for sodium. I've always eaten a lot of salt, but I suspect it's representing an even higher percentage of my diet these days, since I'm avoiding all sweet snacks and sticking with salty ones; ie, I eat beef jerky instead of Snickers during breaks at work.

I'm trying to get Cheryl to eat tofu, but it's an uphill climb. I personally like tofu, and have since long before starting this diet. I eat it in a lot of dishes at asian restaurants, and would be perfectly happy recreating these dishes at home. Alas, Cheryl doesn't like any of the various textures it comes in. I currently have been experimenting with extra firm tofu, which to me has the texture of a firm cheese, but, I must admit, it's also a texture that resembles biting through a pencil eraser. Not that I've done that. I'm not that hungry.

Which is my biggest surprise. I've had few moments since starting this when I've really been hungry. A lot of my food consumption patterns were built on habit instead of actual physical need. Some of my coworkers go outside to smoke during breaks. I would go to the break room and eat an ice cream sandwich. (I work next to a DollarTree... they sell ice cream sandwiches in boxes of 4 for a dollar. You can eat a lot of ice cream sandwiches for pocket change.)

I can't yet figure out if eating healthy is costing me more or less than my old dietary habits. Last week's trip to the farmer's market wasn't cheap. The whole grain flatbread with flax seed I've been buying is a heck of a lot more expensive ounce for ounce than an ordinary loaf of bread. Beef jerky costs a heck of a lot more than a candy bar. On the other hand, we've eaten out much, much less. I suspect in the long run we're saving money.

Okay, enough writing. Time to hit the treadmill for the evening. I want to make sure that at weigh in next week, the second digit on my weight will be a six. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Week One

I weighed in today at 274 pounds. Losing ten pounds in a week is a nice start, but I'm realistic that the path ahead won't be quite as easy. Still, what's surprising is that, so far, it hasn't been all that hard.

I've gone cold turkey on soft drinks. The only liquid I've drank in the last week with any calories are V8 and tom yum soup. Coke and Mountain Dew have been my weakness for decades. This is the first time an entire week has passed without me partaking of either.

The withdrawal from the caffiene gave me a dull headache the first few days, but now I'm pretty much over it. Many days I was drinking over 1000 calories of this stuff. I knew it was insane, and I'm damn lucky I'm not already diabetic. I feel good about resisting the siren call of sodas for the foreseeable future.

I'm also over pizza, at least the mass market produced stuff. I work next door to a Little Caeser's pizza, and once or twice a week would grab a pizza for lunch. Some days I'd eat the whole pizza. How was it I managed not to weight 300 pounds already?

The competition factor of losing more weight than my coworkers over the next three months is still extremely motivational. Basically, I've transformed work from the place I used to have my worst eating habits to a place that is keeping me focused on my goals.

I've also got the help of my wife, Cheryl, who is 100% behind rethinking out meals at home. We've both signed up for My Fitness Pal, an android ap that lets us track all the calories we consume in a day on our phones. So far, I've met my goals every day with room to spare. The act of recording all the food I'm eating really makes me stop and think about everything I put in my mouth.

We bought a used treadmill from Habitat for Humanity and have done a decent amount of walking. I'm planning to add some weight training soon. I've got a doctor's appointment on the 25th. I'm looking forward to seeing what he thinks of my current weight loss goals. So far, I feel like I'm on a good path.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Lifestyle changes ahead

I'm fat.

For the first half of my life, I had the exact opposite problem. When I was a sophomore in college, I only weighed 140 pounds. This, on a 6'2" frame gave me a rather scarecrowish appearance. I really was self-conscious about how skinny I was. I tried a lot of strategies for bulking up. I lifted weights and I ate ravenously. I could eat an entire large pizza and drink a two liter soda on my own and still have room for a bag of chips. It didn't matter. I remained skinny as a sideshow freak.

Then, in my twenties, some kind of switch went off in my body and suddenly I started to pack on pounds. I hit thirty weighing about 220, and was reasonably happy with the way I looked.

If I had stopped at 220, everything would be fine. Alas, through my thirties and forties, I've continued to add to my girth. I now weigh 283 pounds, twice as much as I weighed in college. It's not difficult to figure out how I got here.

1. I never gave up my eating habits from college. I still can eat a whole pizza if the spirit moves, and it's not unheard of for me to go through a 2 liter soda in the course of an evening.

2. I'm sedentary. I do work a day job that keeps me on my feet, but it's in a very small area. I don't move around that much. On my days off and in my evenings, I sit in front of a computer and write novels, an even more sedentary occupation. I do occasionally go hiking, bike riding, and canoeing, but seldom more than once or twice a month.

3. I have some physical challenges. Over a decade ago, I was diagnosed with a thyroid deficiency. I treated it for a while, but eventually stopped taking the medicine because I didn't feel any effect. Last year, my condition worsened, from a state of mild deficiency to severe deficiency. I'm finally back on medication, but I still carry weight I put on when I wasn't treating my problem. Also, from childhood until my forties, I suffered from allergies and asthma. Any kind of vigorous excercise would trigger an asthma attack. But, for reasons that I can't explain, my asthma just disappeared about five years ago. It can still be triggered if I'm around too much cigarette smoke, but physical activity doesn't produce even a wheeze. And, claritin has mostly taken care of the allergies.

Finally, I've suspected for a long time I had sleep apnea. I had a sleep study years ago, but failed to sleep due to all the wires taped to my scalp and the fact the study took place on a bed that felt like cinderblocks with a sheet draped over them. That study cost a lot of money, so I wasn't eager to pay for another sleepless night, which explains why I waited over a decade before again agreeing it was something I needed to check out. It wasn't my physical symptoms that worried me as much as my mental symptoms. My short term memory has become terrible. This is a sypmtom of sleep apnea, caused by lower oxygen levels, and my oxygen levels were getting down below 75% at night, according to my latest sleep study. But, even though if was fear for the integrity of my mind that pushed me into treatment, I also know that my body suffered because of the apnea. I just felt tired all the time because I never got a good night's sleep.

So, why now?

We just got a new floor mounted shipping scale at work. And, of course, the second it was installed, everyone started weighing themselves. I'm the second heaviest person on my job. But, I'm not the only one overweight, and so several of my coworkers are going to compete for the next three months to see who can lose the most weight. I'm in!

Why I think I can lose the weight:

First, I've started on a CPAP machine two weeks ago. I'm still learning how to sleep with the machine, but early results are promising. I'll be starting this weight loss competition getting full nights of restful sleep, something I haven't had in ages. I'm hoping this will translate into more energy for excercise.

Second, my other physical issues, the thyroid deficiency and the allergies, are mostly under control with medication. I don't feel like my body is actively fighting my efforts to make it healthier.

Third, after many years of struggle, I'm finally breaking my addiction to cola. I've never liked diet cola, and know that drinking sugar water at meals and between meals has been disasterous for my health. But, last spring, I stumbled onto a mineral water called Topo Chico that has zero calories and that I enjoy drinking. I've sampled other seltzer waters since, and have discovered that plain old Food Lion brand seltzer water is pretty satisfying. I've already stopped buying sodas and drinking them at home, but tend to drink Mountain Dew at work for the caffeine boost. But, I needed the caffeine partly because I was so tired from not getting good sleep. I'm stocking my work locker with seltzer water and making a go at not drinking soda during the day. I think I can make it because work is where I'm in the weight loss competition, and I'm pretty competetive. Once I tell people I'm giving up soda, being seen drinking a Mountain Dew would be losing face. Eliminating soda is going to cut almost 800 calories a day from my diet. That's a pretty good foundation to work from.

Cheryl is on board in changing our menu here at the house. A lot less homemade ice-cream is in our future, alas. A lot more leafy greens, which is cool, since we both actually like leafy greens.

But, changing my diet won't matter much if I don't start exercising properly. Luckily, the timing of the competition is pretty good for me. Fall is the time of year I'm most active outside. Hiking in July in North Carolina is a difficult chore due to the heat. Fall is when we already did most of our outdoor activity. There's a lot of additional walking in my immediate future.

Despite the fact that there's a competition that's triggering my effort to shed some weight, I'm doing it primarily because I just want to feel better and be healthier. My goal is to lose about 1.5 pounds a week. That's only about 20 pounds in three months; probably not enough to win the contest, but hopefully a realistic enough lifestyle change that I can get back below 240 pounds by next spring. This isn't about how much I can lose in three months. It's about whether or not I can treat my body better in the long run and have more years of productive, active life.

One reason I'm posting this here on my blog is that I'm hoping a public declaration will help me keep on track. I don't want to come back here next month and announce I've gained three pounds! And, I've also been giving a lot of thought to the kinds of essays I post here, and feel like I may have run my course on writing about politics. I feel like I've spelled out my political philosophies pretty thoroughly over the years, and just have run out of interesting things to say. (Partly, this is because our current crop of politics have stopped debating interesting topics.) But there's a lot more to life than politics, so I'm going to shift to topics a bit more personal. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A few thoughts on Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand has been in the news lately since Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan is on record as saying that his thoughts on government have been influenced by her.

I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in my late twenties and can honestly say I count it among the handful of books that truly shaped the way I live my life. Before reading Atlas Shrugged, I mostly described myself as an agnostic. People seemed more accepting of this than of outright atheism. Agnosticism seems to leave some wiggle room, saying, "I don't know if I'm right, and I can't say if you're wrong." Rand's forceful arguments against religion really knocked me off that fence into full-fledged public atheism. If it made other people like me less, so be it. What was important was that I was honest with myself and with others, which in the end made me happier than when I hid part of myself.

The fact I read Rand and came out a confident atheist is why I find it bizarre that so many of her biggest fans are right-wing Republicans. Yeah, she hated collectivism, and sure she was pro-capitalism, but most of all she was pro-reason. For her faith-based thinking was weak-minded failure. She was also strongly in favor of abortion rights, refusing to see how an unthinking mass of cells could have rights that trumped the rights of an adult woman. If she were still alive today, no Republican who dreamed of getting votes would ever dare be photographed shaking hands with her in public. But, it's okay to have her on a bookshelf, since then you can treat Atlas Shrugged like a second Bible, picking and choosing the parts you wish to live by, ignoring the rest.

Of course, I pick and choose from her writings as well. I love her defense of reason, and whole-heartedly agree that the individual's highest virtue is to pursue his own happiness. Some people denounce this as selfishness, but I've never found the conflict. I don't see how my happiness or success harms anyone else.

I also think that the brand of capitalism she presents in Atlas Shrugged is a virtuous one far removed from what's practiced today. And while a lot of people feel that she celebrated wealth, they ignore that many of her central characters pass up wealth to pursue their dreams. You don't have to read between the lines to see that she thought that the pursuit of wealth was not the same goal as the pursuit of happiness, and many of her villains are those whose lives are driven purely by material things.

Where I jump ship with Rand is, ultimately, her blind faith in reason. The worst parts of Atlas Shrugged are the romances, which unfold under the veneer of logic. When the heroine dumps one boyfriend for a different man, everyone involved agrees it's the rational, sensible thing to do, and there are no hurt feelings. Her happiness is a rational happiness, but real life happiness is often completely independent of logic. I may be an atheist, but I'm also a realist, and humans have evolved to operate more on faith and emotion than reason. Reason is often called in in the aftermath of a decision made on instinct in order to explain or justify it, but I believe it isn't a driving force behind most human activities.

Nor should it be. Reason is an intellectual tool that provides useful insights into the world and can help guide us in decisions. But, we are, deep in our DNA, mere animals, and plenty of good can come from following our animal instincts. For instance, right now, while writing this, I've started feeling hungry. So I'm going to eat a sandwich. And I'll be happy about it, even though there are people in the world who don't have sandwiches. Does that make me selfish?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Social Darwinism

Robert Reich had an opinion column after the Paul Ryan pick for VP in which he said, "Ryan exemplifies the social Darwinism at the core of today’s Republican Party: Reward the rich, penalize the poor, let everyone else fend for themselves."

I've gone on to read the "social Darwinism" label in a half dozen other editorials, but it was Reich's definition that really got me thinking about government and it's relationship with the poor, the rich, and everyone else.

First of all, I think in terms of where money is actually spent, the vast, vast bulk of our spending goes to the "everyone else" category. Social security and medicare go to elderly people regardless of income. Combined, they make up about 44% of our budget. The next biggest slice of the pie is defense, at almost 25% of the budget, but this again seems to be an "everyone else" program. In theory, we all share equally in the benefits (and liabilities).

Welfare, which we would think of mostly as money going to the poor, is about 12% of the budget.

The rewards to the rich are much more difficult to quantify. A lot of their income is taxed different and at a much lower rate than ordinary income. They obviously also benefit the most from a low inheritance tax rate. Mortgage rate deductions also benefit the wealthy more than the poor or even the middle class. If you have a million dollar mortgage, you get a much bigger tax break than if you live in a double-wide. The wealthy also don't pay as much in social security taxes, since there's a wage cap on how much income is taxed. But the most expensive tax break I could find was the one for employer provided health insurance. It's true that corporations get the bulk of this tax break, but I would say that most people with employer provided health insurance probably fall into the middle class. The wealthy also sometimes avoid taxes via tax shelters, storing their money offshore. The Planet Money podcast recently did an article about this, and it's apparently fairly easy to do. But, since the top 1% of tax payers pay 37% of all income taxes, they obviously aren't hiding all their money overseas. Still, I'm willing to say that that the reason our tax code is so convoluted and confusing is because wealthy special interests spend a lot of money to tinker with it to give them advantages. My gut guess is that all the tax breaks probably add up to a much greater sum than all the money spent on welfare, but who knows?

I will say that, in classical government budget theory, you tax stuff you want less of and spend money on stuff you want more of. So, the government has a high tax on cigarettes, for instance, to drive up the cost and discourage smoking. While it's a tiny percentage of government spending, we want solar and wind power, so we spend money on these industries and give them tax advantages.

So, why do these theories not apply to wealth and poverty? If Reich is unhappy that Republicans would reward the rich and punish the poor, is he advocating that the government reward the poor and punish the rich? If we subsidise poverty by increasing spending, don't we actually increase poverty? If we punish the rich with higher tax rates, don't we just encourage them to report less and less income?

Keep in mind that I'm not a Republican. I already know that, this fall, I'll be voting for Gary Johnson on the libertarian ticket. The Ryan budget that Reich finds so draconian doesn't actually eliminate deficit spending until 2040! Nor have Romney or Ryan made any specific proposals of how they would simplify the tax code to eliminate all the loopholes, most of which represent governmental tinkering with free markets by favoring one industry over another. (For instance, the health insurance tax break favors employees of corporations over self-employed people. Or, subsidies that encourage the growth of corn over other crops.)

One final note: If you don't believe in social Darwinism, do you believe in social Intelligent Design?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

A little late to the "you didn't build that" party...

I'm late to the party on the whole "you didn't build that" controversy. Obama's statement at first struck me as just very poor phrasing. I dislike the whole "gotcha" sound-bite culture that our political campaigns have become. Obama has an actual record of policy at this point--not exactly a glowing one--but any substantive criticism of his record is going to disappear under a wave of phrases stripped from their full context. The flip will be true of Romney as well. The hours devoted to actual laws he's proposing will be swamped by the hours dedicated to playing the sound bite of him saying he likes to fire people.

But, there's something that I want to address in the larger context of Obama's remark. As I understand the spin of what he meant to say, his argument is that no one builds a successful business of their own. Successful businesses exist in the context of good infrastructure. Obama mentioned roads and the internet, but I would add to this list an impartial legal system, good public education, and a peaceful, safe, and inclusive society.

Assuming that Obama was talking about this sort of infrastructure, I think it makes his comment even worse. Because, yes, we did build it together, using our taxes and our civic participation. And when you are driving on a public highway and get pulled over, no one ever checks your tax returns to find out if you've paid your fair share. They reality is, the roads are mostly neutral; a man who earns minimum wage gets to drive on the same interstates as the wealthiest people in our nation. The only one who really gets to drive alone on the highway, as near as I can tell, is the president himself.

So, we did build the infrastructure, and we all have equal access to it. The poorest child in America can get a library card. I certainly did, and my parents were definitely on the low, low end of the economic scale.

Honestly, despite all my libertarian leanings, I'm a big fan of good government. I want good roads, I want clean water and air, I want the trash picked up on time and the streets to be safe to walk on. I want every child to learn to read and write and have opportunities to pursue their education as far as they want to take it.

The problem is that, once you admit that government can do some good, some people would then argue that even more government creates even greater good. But, there's a point of diminishing returns. For instance, I think government has done a good job of making college more accessible. The down side is, a lot of colleges have dumbed down their requirements to pull in more students. And, a lot of people graduate from college with degrees that aren't worth a heck of a lot. And, as government has intervened to see that more and more people are given grants and access to loans to go to college, most colleges have responded simply by increasing their tuition.

I suspect the same is true of medical expenses. The more government puts money into the system, the more expensive the system gets.

I personally don't despise paying taxes. I recognize that things like schools, prisons, and parks cost money and improve the quality of my life. But, I do dislike throwing money down a well. It bugs me that so many of my tax dollars go to paying interest on debts we shouldn't have incurred. It bugs me that my tax dollars fund wars at costs disproportionate to the threats we are avoiding.

And yet, the truth of all this waste is that we built that too. We keep electing people willing to run up deficits and line the pockets of their closest donors. The most conservative politician in America will vow to vote against expanding Medicare, but ask them to close an outdated military base or stop building a plane that the air force no longer wants and suddenly money is no object.

Our government isn't going to change until we as a people change. Step one will be to stop obsessing over soundbites and stop treating government like a team sport. It's time for us a nation to say, yeah, I helped build this... and now it's time to help fix it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Has Global Warming been Debunked?

I've long been skeptical of the theory that global warming is man-made. More accurately, I've long been skeptical of the evidence. The theory itself seems reasonable. We live in what is essentially a very, very big greenhouse. The temperature of the air we breathe is determined in part by the mix of gasses present in our atmosphere. Water vapor traps a lot of heat, as does methane, and, to a much smaller degree, carbon dioxide. We live in an era when modern life is changing the ratio of all of these gasses. We are liberating carbon that has long been trapped beneath the surface. Our modern agriculture has specialized in producing animals that produce a lot of methane. And even water vapor has new outlets into the atmosphere thanks to human activity, as anyone who has ever driven past a factory belching steam must surely have noticed. A lot of that water is taken from ancient aquifers far below ground, with molecules that haven't had a shot at the sky for millions of years,

But, of course, nothing is simple. Sure, our livestock farts out a lot of methane, but so did bisons and passenger pigeons, and we turned off those spigots. We may pull a lot of carbon out of the ground as coal and oil, but we take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere by cutting down forests to build houses and print books. The new forests that grow in the wake of our activities pull a lot of carbon out of the air. As for water vapor, there is so much water in the atmosphere that human actions can barely be measured.

As for whether the world is getting warmer, I think that's pretty well established. There's a long set of non-biased data that point to a fairly consistent warming trend, at least in the northern hemisphere, dating back to the 1850s. But, of course, this follows a centuries long cooling trend known as the "Little Ice Age." The problem with figuring out if human actions lead to climate change is that there is no such thing as climate stability. Our present warming trend could just be part of the background variation inherent in our climate.

But, perhaps because some global warming proponents are seizing on our current heat wave as evidence of man made climate change, I've noticed some skeptics adopting some of the same religious ferver they denounce in their opponents. The other day, I read an article talking about how all the various climate models on computers had been debunked. If the computers got it wrong, there's no man-made climate change! None! But, that argument is a false one if you give it even half a moments thought. The reality of changing climate has nothing at all to do with the existence of good computer models. The mastodons didn't look once at a chart showing the ice age might be coming to an end, but it ended anyway. Just because we can't model the effects of human activity upon the atmosphere isn't evidence that there aren't any such effects.

I think skepticism is healthy. Being skeptical of your own skepticism isn't a bad thing either. It's easy to argue against man-made global warming just for the satisfaction of poking holes in the near religious certainty of the proponents. The sky-is-falling doomsday predictions are fun to shoot down. But, don't lose sight of a simple truth: Natural variation might explain all the climate change we've experienced in recent centuries. But, it's also just as valid to argue that natural variation might mask genuine long term harm we're inflicting upon the earth by tweaking the atmosphere a little more each year. Cool-headed, reasoned certainty that man isn't causing long term climate change seems to me to be just as foolish a position as feverish certainty that we are.

If I may use a few analogies, climate change alarmists may be Chicken-Littles, panicking over a random string of hot days. But climate change skeptics might be the proverbial frog in the pot of water, never taking action to save themselves as the temp climbs slowly to boiling.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Thoughts on the Health Care ruling

It looks like I let June be my first month since starting this blog without a post. Sorry. I have a deadline of July 31 to turn in my next book, Witchbreaker, but due to buying a house, renovating it, and moving in, I basically wrote almost nothing on the project between mid-March and mid-May. Fortunately, when panic finally sets in, I can crank out some words, and I just finished the second draft yesterday. So, I'm taking a few days before jumping into the third draft to catch up on some of the stuff I've let fall by the wayside during my writing frenzy.

I used to write about politics frequently on this blog, but my enthusiasm for politics has waned in recent years. I used to have this vague, half-formed hope that as our countries problems worsened, we'd finally have some leaders step up to pull us back to a path of sanity. I took some amusement from the cowardice, hypocrisy, and stupidy of elected officials because it reinforced my libertarian prejudices that government just messes everything up.

But all joy sort of seeped away during the unending Republican primaries. Amusement changed to terror as I realized our next president might be the oops guy, the pizza guy, the crazy lady, the religious nut, the wife-leaver, or the spineless rich guy. Sweet merciful jesus, has a political party ever fielded a worse slate of candidates? Ron Paul was okay, but he was doomed by crazy talk, i.e., explaining his true beliefs clearly and plainly without shaping them to make them more palatable to his audience. Romney makes his opinions palatable by seeming not to have any. He doesn't like Obama's temporary immigration fix, and says he wants a permanent solution... without saying what that will be. He wants to repeal and replace Obamacare... but replace with what? He claims he understands the economy, but if he has any ideas beyond cutting taxes I haven't heard them.

Meanwhile, Obamacare. I have to admit, I didn't expect the individual mandate to be upheld, and I certainly didn't expect that it would be Roberts that pushed it over the top. But, I do think there's a fundamental honesty in calling the "penalty" a tax. And, if even once in the bill it had been called a tax, there's no question it would have been constitutional. I'm deeply offended, even outraged, that elected representatives might vote to tax me for things I might not do (like having health insurance), but I can't deny that the constitution grants congress the power to levy taxes.

And, I did appreciate what I thought was the most important sentence in Robert's ruling: It's not the court's job to protect the public from the consequences of their political choices. Robert was basically slapping the American public in the face and shouting, "If you don't like this law, vote for people who will overturn it. Don't come crying to us!"

So, should we vote for people to overturn the law? My immediate impulse is yes, completely, 100%. The law is too complex, and way too expensive. I have little doubt that it's a drag on the economy that's making companies reluctant to hire people. And, because of the individual mandate, unemployed people no longer have the option of trying to start their own business. As someone self-employed as a writer, I can tell you that my income is marginal and unpredictable enough that it would be extremely difficult for me to pay a monthly health care premium. I do have a day job, and get my health care coverage through this. But, like most writers, I dream about quitting my day job. It's possible that, if I did so, I might be taking a gamble on having a few years uninsured. Lots of people do this, and, if you're in good health, and young enough, it's often a gamble that pays off. You go without insurance while you're starting your small business and ten years later, when your hard work is finally paying off, you get insurance.

Now, with the individual mandate, you can't have those just-scraping-by years to launch your own business because you either need to earn enough to buy insurance, or you get charged a hefty tax. This is going to be a burden discouraging millions of people from trying to be their own boss. The law tilts the employment playing field in favor of large corporations, who get the best insurance rates. But, of course, now the large corporations don't want to hire as many people, because the law also removes things like payment caps, meaning any given employee can be a time bomb just waiting to explode into multi-million dollar health care price tags.

On the other hand, if Obamacare truly does cause more people to have insurance, maybe this will keep down the costs. If we add more healthy young people, it subsidizes sicker old people. I think the costs of the plan outweight the benefits, but at this point I'm open to the argument that we need to try something. If Romney wants to repeal and replace, let me hear about the replace.

My libertarian instincts are that the best path available to lower health care costs would be tort reform and insurance deregulation. But, I also think there may be room for some federal action, though, perversely, it's probably action that's the opposite of what they would do. My wife works for a hospital, and as near as I can tell, 10% of her job is directly involved with providing drugs to customers, and 90% of her job involves filling out paperwork. Two weeks ago, I injured my hand at work, a fairly deep cut from a box cutter that was over an inch long. The treatment of the cut was pretty simple. They basically glued it shut and sent me on my way. But, I had to talk to my help line at work before I went, which involved 20 minutes of talking on the phone to a nurse who asked me a ton of information, then going to the urgent care center where I had to fill out paperwork asking almost exactly the same questions. Meanwhile, my boss had his own paperwork to fill out. Couldn't there be an infrastructure created that removed all this redundancy? And why is their paperwork at all? Anything I fill in on a sheet of paper is presumably being transfered to a computer by someone. Instead of handing me a clipboard, why not hand me a tablet computer that already has 90% of my data already filled in after my insurance card has been scanned, leaving me only to answer questions about my immediate problem?

Improved technology has cut down my costs for communication and acquiring information in almost every aspect of my life. Only in healthcare does the increasing technology seem to be driving costs up instead of down. Why?

Maybe over regulation and overlitigation has created most of these problems. Or, maybe complexity just makes change more difficult. I don't think Obamacare improves the complexity, and may actually increase it. But, does repeal lead to improvement? Or just a return to an already horrible status quo?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

New house photos!

We've finally reached a point in our move where we've carted off the 5000 card board boxes that formed a maze in our living area and are able to take some photos:

 Our living room. Big skylights make the room feel bright and open. Pay no attention to the photos sitting on the floor instead of hanging on the wall.  

We picked the rug based on the colors of our cats... 

 We have a dining room! We can eat like civilized people instead of on the couch! 

 The deck as seen from the dining room window. The deck's bigger than our old living room.

 Our kitchen. When we bought it, there were no appliances and half the cabinet doors were missing.

 We plan to fill the long hallway with art and photos. Also, cats.

 The guest bathroom doubles as an art gallery.

 The guest bedroom. Oscar, the black and white cat, is stalking me as I take photos.

My office. And Oscar. He's ubiquitous. 

Look! Up on the wall!

The master bathroom, or parts of it, at least. 

The master bedroom. You can see the new bamboo floor we had installed. The ceiling fan is also new. Also, the white cat on the bed is kind of new. She was an outdoor cat at our old house who's very quickly figured out how to use furniture now that we've brought her inside. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Yesterday's Progress Toward Legalizing Gay Marriage

So, gay marriage advocates had a bad day in North Carolina yesterday. Or did they? Roughly 40% of voters came out and voted against an amendment to ban same-sex unions. 40% acceptance is a pretty amazing figure considering that 30 years ago, if there had been google, and if you'd googled the phrase "same sex marriage" you would have gotten probably zero hits. The idea was not only not being debated thirty years ago, it wasn't even a thing people knew would be a debate.
As much as same sex marriage advocates promote the idea as a fundamental human right, the reality is we are asking for a radical change in human thinking. We are asking society to officially sanction a relationship model that has never been accepted before recent decades. We honestly don't know what changes will come to society by adopting this new idea. I'm optimistic that most changes will be positive, but I'm also certain there are unknown unknowns.

For instance, gay marriage could have the perverse effect of eliminating homosexuality. Assuming that homosexuality is a genetic trait, it's being passed down from generation to generation. Until recent decades, societal pressures have forced majorities of homosexuals to hide their true natures. Countless homosexuals get married to opposite sex partners and have children. This keeps the genes for homosexuality in the genetic pool.

But, if homosexuals no longer enter into show marriages with opposite sex partners, economic forces will reduce the number of children they have, since reproducing will require surrogate mothers, sperm donors, etc. If gays aren't passing on their genes because they now marry same sex partners, we could see a decline in homosexuality over generations.

I obviously don't know that this will happen. It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, if I may borrow a phrase. I'm just saying that it's not irrational for society to be slow to enthusiastically embrace a change of this magnitude.

But, one prediction I will make is that the future looks good for gay marriage. I just googled some stats. In 1988, the first year there were reliable polls on this issue, opposition to same sex unions was at 75%, and only about 15% were in favor. Today, nationally, the issue is very close to 50/50. North Carolina is part of the Bible Belt, so it's not surprising that it's 40/60 here, unless the surprise is that 40% of the citizens seem ready to say yes to the idea after so few years of the topic being in the public debate.

Assuming that 5% of the population warms to the idea each decade, even NC is only 20 years away from a tipping point. Anything that can be made illegal by a vote can be made legal by a vote. I recognize that, if you are gay, you have good reason to be disgusted and angered by the thought of having to wait another 20 years for legally sanctioned marriages in North Carolina. I would encourage you to turn this anger into a positive energy. Think about all the "vote against" signs you saw in people's yards over the last month. Momentum is building for your goals.

Are there bigots out there standing in your way? Yes. But you don't need to change the opinions of bigots. You need to change the opinions of ten to twenty percent of people who oppose same sex marriage out of simple momentum. You need to appeal to their hearts and minds, make your case that what you want is a positive change not just for you, but for everyone. Advocates have made astonishing progress in only a few decades. Keep moving forward. We've evidence that minds can change. Our greatest weapons in this war are reason and time.