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.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Future of Energy

Several years ago, I was a guest on Stephen Euin Cobb's The Future and You and one of the topics we discussed was the likelihood of local solar power generation replacing our present system of centralized power generation via fossil fuels. I was on the show just days after visiting Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, and I'd seen how the power gets run to the island from the mainland then fed through power lines that run the length of the mostly empty highway. Cheryl and I had gone out to the beach to do some stargazing, far out from the lights of civilization, yet still the night sky was bisected by power lines. It struck me as a somewhat impractical system. Ocracoke seemed like a terrific candidate for wind, solar, and tidal power generation. Why rely on miles of vulnerable cable to deliver something so essential as electricity?

At the time, a second factor made the rise of alternate energy seem just around the corner: I thought we were getting near peak oil. A lot of people did, as little as five or six years ago. We were nowhere near peak coal, but I thought the environmental cost of coal mining was something that would increasingly limit the growth of the industry. The pictures alone would hamper mountaintop removal mining, given that we are now able to summon before and after pictures of affected landscapes with a few keystrokes on Google Maps. The logic was simple: fossil fuels would get more expensive, making alternative energy projects more cost competitive.

Of course, today the price of oil is falling, and experts are saying there's vast reserves of accessible oil under America. Presumably, the fracking techniques we're using to free up previously inaccessible oil under our landscapes can be transferred to other countries. Not so long ago, I thought we might run out of affordable oil inside of twenty years. Now, I suspect technological advances will keep oil flowing for at least a century.

My hunch is that there will be no popular political movement to limit our use of fossil fuels. There might be a few hardcore environmentalists who are viewing our falling gas prices with a sense of terror, but I suspect the vast majority of voters are pretty happy to pay less to fill up their tank, and won't be eager to vote for someone who even hints at the possibility of implementing changes that will make prices go higher.

Despite the probable abundance of oil, I suspect we'll see prices go through many boom and bust cycles in coming years. As oil gets expensive, a lot of people are going to want to drill for it. But as a lot of people drill for it, there will be a glut, and prices will fall, and people will cut back on drilling. Then, prices will rise again, and so on.

What will finally get us off the roller coaster? I still suspect solar will be increasingly cheap and easy in coming years. I don't think plug in electric cars have much a future, nor will plug in hybrids. The impracticality of having enough charging stations to let everyone in the parking lot a the mall will keep plug in vehicles from being anything more than a niche market. But, what if solar panels can be sprayed directly onto a car like paint, and your hybrid charges anytime it's in sunlight? Just sitting in the parking lot at work, it could be getting enough of a charge to get you home without having to run your gasoline engine.

I'm already seeing a lot of tablet sized solar panels in camping stores made to charge cell phones while you're out camping or hiking. As we start carrying more and more smart devices that require charging, a lot of people will be glad to carry around portable panels to keep their gear running rather than constantly be on the hunt for the next outlet. Right now, when Cheryl and I go on long hikes or bike rides, we usually carry portable batteries. But, give me a solar panel with enough power to actually charge a phone and small enough to mount on handlebars, get the price down to where it's cheaper than the portable batteries, and I'll start using it. It won't require any tax subsidies to encourage me. I want to be mobile, and I want electricity, and I'll pay a fair price to have it.

Ultimately, I think that portability is going to be the real path to ubiquity for solar power. As vast as our power grid is, it doesn't go everywhere. Neither does the sun, but it goes a lot more places than a power line. Gasoline is also portable power, of course... but it's too heavy for a person to carry around a gasoline powered generator and gallons of gas. To supply a demand for cheap, mobile electricity for today's wired users who also like being outdoors, solar cells will continuously get smaller and more efficient. My hunch is that in a decade, solar power won't just be cost competitive with fossil fuels, it will be so cheap that consumers will flock to it for the most sensible reason of all: it saves them a boatload of money.

While I think there's a consumer market for portable solar, America and Europe will probably be the last places to have widespread adoption of solar power for houses and businesses. The problem is, we became wealthy on a fossil fuel grid and there's going to be a lot of inertia that keeps a lot of the country on that grid even after better alternatives arise. You see the pattern with cell phones. In a lot of poorer countries, cell phones far outnumber landlines, because it was easier to build a few cell towers than to run lines to every building. In America, I know lots of people who still have landlines, even though they make 99% of their calls on their cell phones.

In emerging nations that don't already have a widespread electric grid, it's going to be easier to build a house with cheap solar panels and energy efficient designs that make the house self sufficient than it will be to build a reliable grid to hook the house to. In the US, it will be much more difficult to retrofit old houses to take advantage of the new technologies. My own dwelling wasn't built with a south facing roof. Turning the house 90 degrees seems like more of an expense than it's worth. But, houses built a decade from now may well incorporate maximum solar exposure into the design plans.

Saving the planet is nice, but saving money is where you'll get actual behavioral change. I'm still hoping that, in the long run, we'll collectively be cheapskates enough to leave most of the fossil fuels remaining in the ground.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Future of Books

Picking back up where I left off a month ago on my predictions, today I'm going to talk about what books might look like five years, ten years, a hundred years out.

E-book growth has recently leveled off and print books are showing resilience, for now. Still, print books do face one major obstacle, which is the continued struggle of brick and mortar bookstores. Best sellers will continue to appear in big box stores like Walmart and Target, and romance and mystery novels can still be found in grocery stores and bookstores. But less popular genres, and books without proven track records, are going to struggle to find shelf space in print.

E-books will never replace print books, but e-books will become the launching platform for most new authors. Publisher's will likely grow conservative as shelf space becomes more precious, and rather than taking a gamble on a complete unknown, they'll be looking for indy authors who've built a fan base online to move into the mainstream.

The good news is that indy authors have tools available to them that big publisher's lack. While I originally published Bitterwood through a mainstream publisher, I retained the e-book rights, and have been managing them myself. Sales were pretty good for a while, then okay, then terrible. When sales of Bitterwood fell into single digits at Amazon, I figured, oh well, I guess I might as well give it away. So, I set the price to free, and in a one month period gave away almost 45,000 copies of the e-book. This has greatly revived the sales of the other books in the series, so that in one month I've sold more copies than I had for all the previous year. Mainstream publishers, in my experience, are reluctant to chase pricing to the bottom. Once you get to free, where's the profit? But for me, the boost in readership and reviews that comes from giving away my work leads to greater sales down the line.

Of course, I know I'm not the only author discovering that there's a vast pool of readers eager to read free books. Over the next few years, I think you'll see tremendous downward pressure on the price of ebooks, especially the first books in series. You see it already in music--Amazon Prime now lets me download thousands of albums for free (or, rather, for a one time annual fee.) I'm discovering new artists I hadn't tried before who I'm now willing to pay money for. Authors will soon have a similar mix of free and paid catalogs.

Which brings me to a prediction: Within five years, you'll start seeing in-text purchases available in books. You'll be reading a free murder mystery, get involved with a character who is obviously lying, and at the end of the chapter there will be a link saying, "Want to find out what Jack was really up to when he told his wife he was working late? Read his story for only 25 cents!" Just as gamers are willing to shell out micro payments for extra lives, I predict readers will be willing to pay small amounts to get bonus material, especially on popular series.

And publishers will know with great detail the material you want to read. Many smartphones and tablets already have sensors that can detect a viewers eye movements. Amazon already knows which sections of Kindle books readers zip through, and where they get bogged down, or abandon a book altogether. Soon, e-readers tracking readers eyes will be able to report what most engages readers, and what loses their attention. Eventually, I can foresee books that rewrite themselves automatically to match the tastes of the reader. Suppose you're reading a book on quantum mechanics written for a general audience. The book sees that you're skimming over all the passages with a lot of math or highly technical terms. So, the book suppresses the math and the specialized language and explains things in more general terms. Conversely, it might sense you're bored, and know from your reading history you prefer denser, difficult prose. Moving forward, it could present you with the most advanced version of the book in it's data base.

In the future, maybe as little as ten years out, readers will read books, and the books will read them back.

But what about the more distant future? Will it still be necessary to read? Or, if I want to know the text of Beowulf, will I just be able to place a mental request to a virtual library and have the book instantly streamed into my brain? I'll be able to remember every word of the manuscript without ever having my eyes gaze upon a single line of text, either on paper or on screen. But will instant delivery of knowledge equate to learning the material, or knowing it? Or will we just be recording media, able to recite back any bit of trivia we've absorbed without actually comprehending its deeper meaning?

It's almost scary to think about. But, it was probably scary for the monks copying manuscripts with quills the first time they saw a printed book. The printed word has been quick to adapt new technologies. I can't imagine that the paper book is mankind's final, best technology for storing and spreading stories.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Fitness update: Two years later

James and Cheryl 2014
 James and Cheryl 2012

Endomondo Training stats as of 9-6-2014
Two years ago, Cheryl and I decided it was time to alter our bodies. Doing so meant altering our lives. We started using a program called MyFitnessPal* to track the calories we ate each day. A few months later, we started using a program called Endomondo to track our exercise.
When we first started, our primary goal was to lose weight, and MyFitnessPal was the program we thought of as most essential to achieving that end. But, something curious happened last summer, a little before we reached the one year anniversary of our weight loss plans. That summer, we started really pushing ourselves on out exercise goals. When we began in 2012, walking for one mile on a treadmill was strenuous exercise. By the summer of 2013, hikes of five to seven miles were more suited to our fitness levels, and we'd sneak in 12 or 15 mile bike rides once a week in the evening after work. This year, all the orange you see is our new biking agenda. A 12 mile ride is still a decent workout, but if we have the chance, we'd much rather sneak in a 30 mile ride, or longer. On my 50th birthday this year, we did our longest single day ride up to that point, 50 miles in a single day. A few months later, over the Memorial Day weekend, we rode 100 miles in three days. Last weekend, we decided to ride the entirety of the Neuse River Trail, plus a few side trips down spur trails, for a single day's ride of 75 miles.
As a result, with a bike ride yesterday, I'd tracked 1000 miles of movement for the year. Last year, I didn't reach that goal until just before Christmas. I suspect we'll see a slowdown on our activity level in the coming months due to growing shortness of days, but it seems a not unrealistic goal to reach 1200 miles this year.
While Cheryl and I are thinner than we once were, being thin is no longer the driving force behind our activities. We've stopped being concerned about what our bodies look like and started being obsessed with what our bodies can do. We scour websites for State Parks and greenways, looking for our next big adventure. Being fit has let us see things that would previously have been beyond our grasp. The rolling, open fields just outside of Raleigh. The beautiful wetlands near the southern end of the American Tobacco Trail. The five peaks of Hanging Rock State Park, or the remote beaches of Sandy Island, which you can't reach by car. We've kayaked down rivers lined with eagle nests, we've witnessed ospreys flying mere yards overhead with a fresh caught fish in its talons, we've had deer cross the trail in front of us so close we can almost touch them, and its' impossible to catalog all the turtles and frogs and lizards and weird bugs and neon mushrooms and exuberant flowers we've passed among. We've lingered on still water watching the sun sink over marshes, scrambled over slick rocks to feel the spray of waterfalls, and craned our necks up to the peaks of rocky mountains, knowing we'd soon be standing upon them, looking out ten, twenty, thirty miles over our surroundings, where the horizon vanished in the haze of the summer heat.

In  2012, before we started getting fit, we attempted a 5 mile ride on the American Tobacco Trail. I'm not talking 5 miles out and back, for 10. I mean we were just riding from Herndon Park down to the next road and back. It almost killed me. There's a very slight grade coming back up the Herndon Park, and I had to get off my bike and push it back to the car. When I reached the car, I had to rest for twenty minutes before I had the energy to load the bikes. I honestly felt worse after that ride than I did last week after 75. How could I have let myself get so out of shape? You only get one body in this life. If you don't keep it tuned up, you've no one to blame but yourself.
Will you ever see me posting here about riding 100 miles in a single day? Probably not. 75 might be our practical limit, since we ran out of daylight and had to ride the last three miles in the dark, where we rode through a literal whirlwind of flying, biting insects. I suppose if we attempted the trip on the spring solstice, we might conceivably have enough daylight to make it without the bug apocalypse. Similarly, a few weeks back we hiked 15 miles in a single day, and that's very likely the longest one day hike we're likely to make. 15 miles hiking is much more draining than 75 miles biking, and accomplishing it uses up most available daylight. Cheryl is getting a lot of exercise running each week, and I wonder if she'll work her way up to marathons one day. I suspect I won't; running is definitely my least favorite exercise. Up do this point, I've been driven by outdoing myself. I just biked 20 miles, can I bike 25, can I bike 30, and so on. Now that I'm reaching the upper limits of what I can accomplish in a single day, I do wonder what's next. I've been mainly doing road biking, albeit more on greenways than actual roads. Last night, I found myself looking longingly at trail bike. Perhaps there are some off-road bike adventures in my future.

*On a side note, after two years of using MyFitnessPal, both Cheryl and I have decided to stop using it. It's useful for altering your eating habits, but it's algorithms for how much you can eat produce some ridiculous numbers once you start tackling 20+ mile bike rides and 10+ mile hikes. For instance, on the day of our 75 mile bike ride, I think it said we could eat 10,000 calories. I'm not sure that's even feasible. That's 12 large McDonald's milkshakes! Or 19 Big Macs! At this point, the keys to eating well are pretty much memorized. Don't eat a lot of starches or refined sugars, eat more vegetables, fruits, and lean meats, and stay away from empty calories like potato chips or soda. If you want to run a calorie deficit to lose weight, a calorie tracking tool like MyFitnessPal is pretty swell. If you just want to maintain a healthy weight while living an active lifestyle, it's not important to follow every calorie you eat, just don't eat crap.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Prediction 4: Our Cyborg Future

A loose definition of a cyborg is a blending of a biological entity with mechanical devices that enhance strength, toughness, intelligence, etc.

By this definition, I'm already a cyborg. I don't have hardware actually embedded in my body, but, via my smartphone, I have enhanced memory and data retrieval capabilities. I have Superman like powers to zoom overhead and get an aerial view of my surroundings. (Yesterday, while we were kayaking on the Haw, we wondered how much further we had to go to reach a resting point. A quick check of Google maps showed where we were and where the  next rocky island was a half mile ahead of us.) I have communication abilities just one notch shy of telepathy. (Again, in the middle of a river, when I had my phone out to look at the map, I was also seeing email and facebook messages from friends, plus a message from the bike shop telling me my bike was ready to be picked up.)

More importantly to my health, the tiny computer I carry around helps me regulate my body. It lets me know how many calories I've eaten each day, and how many calories I should be eating in order to maintain my weight. It keeps track of how many miles I've traveled in a day, an month, a year, which gives me a motivational boost to keep moving to turn my personal odometer. I know I'll be hitting 1000 miles traveled via my own power soon, which means that I'm always planning my next opportunity to log some mile biking, hiking, or kayaking to get me closer to that goal.

I don't own a FitBit, but if I did it could keep track of not only my mileage, but my heart rate and sleeping habits. Of course, I already have technological assistance for sleeping, since I've now been using a CPAP for two full years.

The data revolution for our bodies is only beginning. Already, the technology to monitor blood sugar levels in real time is being perfected. Soon, we won't need to go to our doctor once or twice a year to get blood work done. A few simple sensors under the skin will be able to keep track of all aspects of our metabolism. Blood pressure, blood sugar, temperature, pulse... these won't be something we have to go out of our way to learn. We'll be able to access that data just by glancing at our phone. Assuming we even bother with something so crude as a phone. More likely, the data will just be floating in front of us anytime we want it, at first via devices like Google Glass, which will almost certainly soon be miniaturized into a contact lens, and later into ocular implants.

For people squeamish about the idea of implanting devices in their bodies, I suspect that cellphones will soon be miniaturized into patches that adhere to our skin.

The question is: Will all this technology actually make us healthier? Or will it just be an expensive distraction that keeps us from doing the things that really make us healthier? As mentioned, yesterday, in the middle of a river, instead of looking at the nature around me, I spent ten minutes reading my phone. I know a lot of people who spend more hours in a day on Facebook than they spend in a week on exercise.

Staying healthy into your golden years isn't all that complicated. Don't eat crap and keep active. I'm aware that formula won't prevent genetic illnesses or injuries or random diseases from striking you down, but it can forestall heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and a whole host of other medical conditions.

I'm looking forward to increasing my use of high tech health related gadgetry. I would gladly agree to implant subdermal sensors to monitor my bodily functions. A chart of how many calories I actually burn on my bike rides would be fascinating. (I'm aware my phone can only do crude estimates.) A long term trendline showing how many hours of deep sleep I'm getting each night could definitely help me choose between reading one more article on the internet at night or turning off the light and going to bed. And life and intelligence could be preserved if monitors could alert emergency personal instantly if my real time vital signs showed I'd just been in a car wreck, or were in the early stages of a stroke.

But the technological investment that has had the greatest impact on my health? A good pair of boots.

For thousands of years, we've used clothing technology to regulate our temperatures, shield us from radiation, and to protect our feet from a wide range of hazardous terrains. Our cyborg future will merely be an extension of our cyborg past.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Prediction Three: Our jobless future

I've been with my current employer for almost 19 years. I won't specify who I work for; you can see my last post for various reasons why I think it's a bad idea to publicly discuss your current employer online. But, I'm going to mention my current job obliquely because I think there's an important data point. I was present when my workplace opened its doors. At the time, we had 21 full time employees. Today, we have 7 full time employees, and the threshold for being full time is 30 hours a week, not 40.

Where did two thirds of our staff go? Part of our staff was lost due to a changing business climate. I work in an industry built around printing stuff, and print is dying. Fewer companies print catalogues or employee manuals, and marketing is done more online than via direct mail. But, we also lost a lot of need for warm bodies because our technology became more sophisticated. We used to need several cashiers on hand to manage transactions. Now, people can pay with a credit card without standing in line. Customers also don't need to come into the store to place orders. They can order stuff online, pay for it, and have it delivered without ever interacting with our store. Other jobs that were once done in house are outsourced to a larger production network that works because computer technology lets the work flow around to fill available capacity. Computers have made my workplace a lot leaner and more efficient.

You see it everywhere. When I go grocery shopping, I aim toward the self checkout lanes, since they often move faster. Here in Hillsborough, there's still one gas station that has full service attendants. I never go there, preferring to save a few cents by pumping my own gas, and save time by paying at the pump. One gas station I shop at, Sheetz, lets me order subs from a touch screen. $4 foot longs, toasted on pretzel buns, made to order, very tasty. That price point is probably possible because they don't have to pay cashiers. They've shifted some of the work load to the consumer. If the added work brings lower prices, I'm a fan.

Cheryl and I often go biking through a really nice neighborhood, and it's common to see landscaping crews working in the yard. A few weeks ago, we saw a solar powered robotic lawnmower working the front yard of one of the houses.

Robots will mow our lawns. They'll also soon be delivering our packages, or at least driving the trucks. Yes, robotic trucks will have accidents that will lead to expensive lawsuits. But, guess what? Human drivers also have accidents that lead to expensive lawsuits. Robotic truck drivers will be able to drive all night and won't ever be intoxicated distracted by phone calls. They won't have lead foots, and will get much better gas mileage than human drivers. They'll probably drive slower, obeying posted speed limits, but will make up by never needing to take lunches or pit stops to empty bladders. Once insurance companies start giving companies price breaks for using robotic drivers, humans will only be on trucks to help unload... though, of course, the technology for a truck loading and unloading robot is probably already being marketed.

Maybe you're thinking that your job is too highly skilled for you to ever be replaced by a machine. Maybe. But, I predict that within twenty years, human surgeons will be obsolete, replaced by machines far more nimble and precise, seeing what they're doing with senses far superior to human sight and touch. Sure, someone will have to build those databases and maintain them. But the educated labor forces will increasingly be drawn from countries with far lower wages.

Of course, there are some jobs that machines probably can't do as well as humans. I like to think that writing novels is one of these jobs. But, that doesn't mean I have job security in the face of ever evolving technology. E-books have already disrupted publishing, providing strong downward pressure on pricing. Now, there are services that allow you to read an unlimited number of books each month for one fixed price. Authors do get royalties if their books are read, just as musicians get some small payment if their song is streamed on Spotify. But, with all things digital, the price trends keep pushing toward free, and it's hard to make a profit when you're producing content that no one pays for. If you don't offer free books, there are tens of thousands of writers eager to be read who will gladly give away their work to build name recognition, trusting that they'll figure out how to make money at what they're doing later in the process.

I know all of this sounds a bit gloomy. However, a lot of the jobs we're losing are jobs that made more use of human bodies than human minds. The same technology that disrupts industries also opens up possibilities. Studio time for a musician used to be expensive, disturbing albums difficult and costly. Now, you can record, edit, and distribute from your home computer. The odds of making money have declined, but the cost of making yourself heard have also declined, giving more people a shot at making it big than ever before. I personally know a dozen authors who never passed the arbitrary threshold of finding a publisher willing to pay an advance on their novels who now manage catalogues of a dozen self published works, all of which are making at least some money. It's not just writers and musicians who have lower initial costs to launching a career. For almost any talent you care to develop, there are instructional videos on YouTube. While college costs sky \rocket, the amount of free and useful information increases online. And you no longer have to wait for a class to be taught every other semester in order to get the knowledge you're hungry for. The lectures and study material are probably a few keystrokes away. One day, it won't matter what degree you have, only what skills and know-how you have.

We may be on the cusp of a golden age of human creativity and productivity. Or, we may be about to spiral into an abyss where we're all so broke and depressed about a machine taking our job that we won't even leave our houses. The future will come down to a million individual decisions about how we're going to adapt and respond to our rapidly changing world. My own choice: Find some small way to improve myself each day, and keep moving forward.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Prediction Two: Privacy

Orwell was right. We now live in a world where we're constantly watched. It's not just grainy black and white footage captured by security cameras in banks and supermarkets. With a few keystrokes, I can find color photographs of tens of millions of people doing very personal things, like hanging out with friends and family, going on dates, drinking, or just goofing around. I can see wedding photos, birthday photos, and photos of people at science fiction conventions dressed in costumes that do not flatter them.

What Orwell didn't guess was that we'd be the ones recording our own lives in detail and sharing things willingly, even eagerly.

Some people are outraged by the fact that the NSA is collecting data on their phone calls, intercepting emails, and doing other sinister stuff behind your back, like seeing what you're reading on Kindle. But, we think nothing of signing contracts with corporations to gather data on us for commercial exploitation. Google searches through your emails on g-mail for keywords they can use to target you with advertising. Facebook mines your relationships and likes not just for advertising, but to identify larger trends that might prove valuable. Amazon has a pretty good guess about the next album you might purchase. When you shop at a lot of real world stores, you agree to let them keep a data base of your purchases in exchange for discounts and coupons. Instead of being creeped out that there are major corporations who know what underwear you have on, we're glad that we can buy their products at ten percent off.

We have strict laws about what medical information can be shared and who it can be shared with, but every day when I sign onto Facebook I learn that someone or their sister or their best friend has just been diagnosed with cancer. We announce who we're sleeping with by linking that we're in a relationship, and the whole world gets informed when we stop sleeping with them.

We'd never think of going to a job interview in a bathing suit, but fill web pages with photos of ourselves sunning by the pool.

Most people wouldn't like it if they were constantly followed around by police. But, most people with cell phones really appreciate that the phone company can keep track of them as they travel. With my GPS enabled smart phone, I'll sometimes be out hiking and suddenly get a text from Cheryl commenting on the scenery surrounding me, since she can watch the progress of my hike on Endomondo and see via satellite photo where I am. Rather than find this unnerving, I feel an extra sense of security knowing that I can go into remote places and not be in danger of falling and breaking a leg and languishing away where no one can find me.

Judging from the current state of things, it would seem like we didn't value privacy all that much. We'll trade it away for convenience and coupons and credit cards, for free apps and 15 seconds of fame--or 15 words on twitter.

Of course, some people do care about their privacy. They do care about the information that's available about their health, relationships, and finances. It's going to be a tough life for these people, since they will increasingly find themselves locked out of the modern economy. In an age of streaming, you won't even be able to become a TV watching recluse disconnected from the rest of the world. Netflix is going to know 1000 secrets about you by your viewing choices.

All this sharing will come with consequences. Right now, I don't think employers have yet taken full advantage of all the information that's available to them. I imagine we're heading for a day when a comprehensive web search will be routine before you can be hired. I saw a Facebook post the other day where someone reviewed an episode of Game of Thrones as being an experience comparable to anal rape. This is the sort of crazy hyperbole that can be funny between friends. But, say you're hiring for a position in a service industry. Do you want to take a chance on someone who finds rape jokes acceptable in a public forum?

Every day, I see people post strong political commentary. I post strong political commentary. Today, there are numerous examples of prominent people who have lost jobs and/or fans because of political opinions that weren't particularly radical up until the moment that they were. Every opinion we type down is going to be fair game for employers. Some of it will be a wash. If you're conservative, and applying to work in a gun store, you're in luck. A liberal applying for a job at a health food store? Probably not much of a problem. But, increasingly, we'll find that every thing we've ever put onto the internet is going to be available to employers, and I suspect we'll start seeing a new class of unemployable people. Don't like your present job and complain about it online? A potential employer is going to want to avoid working with a griper. Does posting your health woes bring waves to sympathy and support? Yay, but a potential employer might secretly consider whether its worth hiring someone still fighting cancer. It might be illegal to even consider this, but if the information is out there, I suspect not everyone will be strong enough to avoid the temptation of peeking at stuff you've made public.

I predict that as employers begin to make more aggressive use of social media data in hiring decisions, we'll see a return to an almost neo-Victorian era of politeness. We'll be aware that anything we might say online--in a public forum or even an email we assumed to be private--could become a permanent stain on our reputation. We'll recognize that, even if we try to keep our lives offline, there are a thousand people around us will cell phones aimed at us the second we do anything remotely interesting. I could be wrong, of course. It may be that baser human instincts will prevail, and fifty years from now so many people will have embarrassing photos or loudmouthed, poorly punctuated rants floating around that we'll all just shrug and figure that's part of the human condition. No one will be judged for such behavior. But, we might also see a growing machinery of outrage, interest groups ready to pounce on the slightest transgression, so that we'll all be thinking twice about what we say and do. It won't be just big brother watching. Everyone from here to the end of time will be watching.

So, watch out.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Predictions for the future (a series): 1. Climate Catastrophes

I'm heading to a science fiction convention in a few hours and will be on a few panels where I'll probably wind up talking about the future. Tonight, for instance, I have a panel on the future of artificial intelligence. Why does being a science fiction writer qualify me to talk about the future? It doesn't. All I can do is guess like everyone else. Still, the speculation is fun, and, as an author, it's often rich fuel for future stories. So, this will be the first in a series where I make predictions about how the world is going to change in coming years.

First up: Climate Change!

I admit to being on the fence as to whether or not burning fossil fuels is a significant source of warming. I am not on the fence as to whether or not humans can alter the environment unintentionally, usually with negative consequences. We've helped create deserts with careless farming and grazing practices. Our water management practices have erased countless miles of shoreline, flooded millions of square miles of previously dry land, and turned previously wet places into dry hell holes. (Google the Aral and Salton seas for examples.) Our industrial monoculture farming has destroyed native prairies, and our promiscuous use of fertilizers have created giant dead zones in the ocean where no fish can survive. Where our fertilizers haven't wiped out fish, we've helped mess up the ecosystem by overfishing, and, whether or not the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere warms it or not, it is definitely turning the oceans more acidic. Our consumer culture wipes out old growth forests and our fills our oceans with ever growing continents of plastic. To fuel it all, we bulldoze mountains flat, dig up tracts of land large enough to be seen from space, and accept the risk of contamination that goes along with drilling at sea.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and, despite my libertarian leanings, am mostly in favor of governmental practices that protect the environment, like limits on dangerous chemicals going out of smokestacks and tail pipes or tough laws against contaminating ground water.

That said, I'm not in a panic about carbon dioxide even if it does lead to significant global warming. I support things like higher fuel standards and transitioning our power grid away from coal, but for other reasons than fear of runaway warming. Do I think global warming might lead to catastrophes like powerful storms, widespread drought, and rising sea levels? Absolutely.

So what?

If you look at history, catastrophes don't seem all that apocalyptic. Consider how many major cities have been wiped by earthquakes, fires, storms, and war. If catastrophes were any real barrier to humans, there wouldn't be a Chicago or a New Orleans, there wouldn't be a San Francisco or an Atlanta. For that matter, people wouldn't live in Europe, since, statistically, it was pretty much depopulated by the plague a few centuries ago.

Of course, people do live in Europe. They also live in Charleston, SC, a city flattened multiple times by a massive earthquake, by hurricanes, and by the Civil War.

What about fears of widespread drought? I suspect there will be long term shifts in weather that will render some areas unsuitable for farming. It certainly happened in the Sahara, for instance. It may be happening in the American southwest even now. West Texas is about as bone dry as it's ever been. Yet, we aren't reading stories about the massive starvation occurring in Texas. Drought doesn't equate to death in a global economy. If food doesn't grow one place, it grows another. If you look at the IPCC maps on projected rainfall due to global warming, you'll find that for every place that is expected to see a decline in rainfalls, there are other areas projected to see an increase. Heat doesn't equal drought. Very hot places are often quite fruitful agriculturally. Buy any produce from Florida lately?

Of course, you won't be buying produce from Florida if the state's underwater thanks to rising seas. And, yes, there's a real possibility of that happening, almost overnight on a geological timescale.

Fortunately, humans don't live on geological timescales. Let's take a wildly unlikely scenario where sea levels rise ten feet in a century. That's going to suck for a lot of people who lose property. But, as a practical level, a century is plenty of time to get out of the way. Rising sea levels likely won't result in any significant loss of life, at least not measured as a percentage of the total population. Humans are pretty experienced with dealing with rising sea levels. Since the end of the last ice age, sea levels have risen by roughly 400 feet. 400 feet! Yet, somehow, humans have managed to survive this massive global flooding. It's true that, in recent centuries, sea levels have been relatively stable and many large cities have grown on our coastlines. Many currently standing buildings may be wiped out. All the evidence shows that we'll shrug, move back, and build again.

What gets rebuilt will likely be stronger and better. It used to be that hurricanes would devastate coastal cities on a frequent basis. As a resident of North Carolina, I can testify that this is a state that regularly gets walloped by big storms. It used to be that a big storm would mean massive property loss and widespread death. But, death tolls have fallen dramatically thanks to improved accuracy of storm tracking. People have learned to get out of the way of killer storms. When storms do wipe out buildings, zoning codes require the structures that replace them to have more secure foundations, better roofs, better protected utilities, etc. If global warming does bring an uptick in powerful storms, it will also bring an uptick in better constructed buildings along coastlines.

Or not. Because one reason we have so many buildings along coastlines is that governments step in to insure buildings that private companies won't. This means tax dollars subsidize construction in environmentally risky areas. The best thing the government could do to keep people from building in the areas where they are most likely to be hit by high winds and storm surges is absolutely nothing. Just stop subsidizing the insurance. Without the insurance, banks aren't going to lend money to build on coastlines. We'll have to move inland, and give our crowded coastlines a bit of breathing space.

Do I believe the world is warming? There is a tremendous amount of data showing that it is. The people who argue there hasn't been any warming in the last fifteen years are kind of missing the big picture. On the flip side, the people who get panicked by the prospect of warming are also missing the big picture. The world will change.  It would be impossible to lock our global thermostat on what it is today. The world is probably going to get hotter. It will lead to widespread flooding, widespread drought, widespread population movements.

In other words, more of the same stuff we've been putting up with since we climbed down from the trees and lit our first fire. My prediction: We'll muddle through.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A devil's advocate argument for Intelligent Design

At ConCarolina's last weekend, I was on a panel to discuss Creationism/Intelligent Design vs Evolution. I had a hunch the panel would be dominated by the evolution side. I dislike lopsided debates, so I wanted to come in with the strongest argument for Intelligent Design I could muster.

This wasn't easy, since most of Intelligent Design arguments boil down to three unconvincing ideas:

  1. We know things are designed because they look designed.
  2.  Many biological systems are irreducibly complex. There's no point in developing half a wing, the argument goes, and random gradual mutation couldn't get you from wingless to winged in a single generation.
  3. The universe is fine tuned. Change the physical variants even slightly and none of existence is possible. The odds of such a finely tuned universe randomly coming into existence are very close to infinity to one against it.

You can Google the various refutations of these arguments. They've been pretty thoroughly shredded by more powerful thinkers than me.

So, I wanted to go into the panel with an argument that didn't have premade counterarguments. This is it:

It seems irrefutable that the intelligent design of organisms goes on around us every day. Broccoli, poodles, and corn wouldn't exist in their present configurations without the intervention of human intelligence. On a more advanced level, we're now manipulating living things genetically, creating disease resistant fruits and vegetables, and cows that have certain valuable proteins in their milk. And, for some reason, glow in the dark mice. Because, why not?

We also are fluent in generating artificial worlds within computers, complete with simulated ecosystems. There are games where creatures designed by users evolve over time in a process mimicking natural selection. But creatures with computers for brains aren't just found on our laptops and smartphones. We'll soon own self driving cars. Robots will likely build those cars. They already vacuum floors, make coffee, serve as bank tellers and fly long distances autonomously. Fifty years from now, the idea that human hands once performed surgery will seem like barbarism.

Many, many very smart people believe that we are only a decade or two from designing artificial intelligences capable of self awareness. It's also commonly believed that, once these digital intelligences come into existence, they'll be capable of designing a next generation that's even smarter, and after that, a generation even smarter, in a runaway process that creates beings we aren't even capable of imagining.

But, let's say that there's some physical law we're unaware of that prevents etched silicone from ever gaining self awareness, and only biological entities prove capable of intelligence. I would argue that, as we understand the human genetic code in finer and finer detail, we will be unable to resist the temptation to design better, smarter, stronger humans, humans who are immortal perhaps, or humans blended with machines that make them capable of surviving in environments that would kill us today. Our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren may flit around on Mars on wings of flesh, drawing power from sunlight through photosynthesis. Or, if we don't want to alter ourselves that radically, nothing in the laws of physics prevents us from changing Mars to our liking. We could capture comets to bring Mars water, use enormous nuclear generators to provide a particle shield to protect the atmosphere from the solar wind, and seed the barren soil with microbes designed to turn Mars into an Eden over the course of a few million years. Such time scales seem absurd and impractical to us now, but what if we're capable of bioengineering immortality? We'll need extravagant hobbies to fill up the eons, and lots and lots of room to sprawl.

Natural selection is a pretty good method of making organisms. But, even its biggest proponents admit the raw material for the process consist of a lot of random variables. Turning a blue green algae into a multi-celled ape-like organism capable of understanding its past involves a lot of long odds and good luck. But, assuming we don't destroy ourselves in the near future, we are almost on the verge of a self-sustaining process where every future generation of intelligent beings comes about through careful, deliberate design. Our world is the only one in our solar system showing evidence of life, but check back in a million years, and probably every solid surface from here to Pluto will contain some sort of biosphere designed by our descendants to exploit and tame now hostile environments.

Assuming this vision of the future is accurate, then intelligent design will be the dominating force crafting organisms and worlds moving forward, from tomorrow until the last star winks out of the sky. If this is true (and, yes, that's a big if), then there will only one intelligent life form that comes about as a result of natural selection, and a near infinity of offspring designed to fit their environments. Thus, by simple math, we can see that intelligent design will be the primary cause of intelligent life in the total universe, while randomly evolved intelligence is such a rarity that, statistically, we may as well say it's impossible.

As far as I'm aware, my argument violates no laws of physics, biology, or cosmology. Intelligent design is how the inhabited universe will eventually be put together.

If there's a hole in my argument, I'm eager to hear it.

Now, let me add this: Even if my argument proves accurate a billion years from today, would I want it taught in classrooms today? No. What I'm engaged in here is speculation. Speculation is not science. Just because something is plausible doesn't mean it's proven. What I'm presenting here isn't a scientific theory, it's mere daydreaming, simple what ifs built on a foundation of what we know, but, at its heart, just a lot of guesswork held together with a lot of hand-waving. Do I believe it? Kind of. I don't think we're the products of intelligent design, but far, far in the future, a child may ask, "Where did we come from?" and his parent will say, "From the designer." And the kid will ask, "and who designed the designer?" The answer will be, "an earlier designer." "And who designed him?" The parent will shrug. "Kid, it's designers all the way down."

Even if they aren't scientific, daydreams and guesses have their own value. I'd even say that these are important foundations of human intelligence, and probably the biggest barrier to developing artificial intelligences. A machine that believed things that have no factual basis would be frightening driving your car or operating on your heart. But a human who believed in unproven things would hold the potential for creating new worlds.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

JamesMaxey.net launches!

So, it turns out this world wide web thing might not be a fad after all. Despite having two blogs and a Facebook page, I've never taken the time to actually set up a website devoted to my writing. I'm happy to announce that changes today. With the help of my friend Jesse Bernier, I'm launching a site that will consolidate both my blog feeds, provide a handy billboard for upcoming events, and give a more organized way of finding out information on all my books. Right now, there are links to buy the books, both physically and electronically, from various retailers. Soon, we'll have ecommerce set up so you can purchase books directly from me, including signed copies of the print books.

There's also still plenty of formatting and tweaking to be done. Right now we're trying to figure out why my blogs feed in with red text. So far, GoDaddy's tech support hasn't been very helpful on this. Still, small snags like that are no reason not to go live.

We've also got a nifty quote generator set up with rotating quotes from some of my books and stories, though I really need to add to the collection, since I've only got about ten set up so far. If anyone out there has a favorite line from one of my books, let me know and I'll add it to the rotation.

Oh! It would probably help to mention the name of the website: JAMESMAXEY.NET.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Because we're insane... 100 miles in 3 days. Plus, thoughts on body/mind duality.

Cheryl and I are constantly thinking about what our next physical challenge should be. A fifty mile bike ride? Been there, done that. Hiking to all 5 peaks in Hanging Rock on the same day? Checked off the list. Run in 5ks? Done it, have the t-shirts. Ocean kayaking all around Murrells Inlet? Not nearly as tough as we thought it might be.

Now, because we're insane, in about an hour we'll be leaving the house with the goal of biking 100 miles in three days. The weather this weekend is pretty much perfect for the challenge. Hot, but not yet dangerously hot, with clear skies forecast every day. The goal is to break it down as a 40 mile ride today and tomorrow, with a 20 mile ride on Monday. None of the individual distances worry us, but how we'll handle it without long recovery periods afterwards is where the difficulty lies. Honestly, I think there's a genuine possibility this could be beyond our grasp. Today's 40, no problem at all. And I'm sure we'll be able to get on the bike's tomorrow. It's how far we make it tomorrow before our bodies start insisting that we have better things to do that I'm most worried about.

When we started all this exercise, the goal was primarily to lose weight. Then the focus gradually shifted to overall fitness. Our waistlines didn't matter as much as the fact that we were healthy enough to do things that had once seemed out of our reach.

Now, there's yet another benefit to the exercise I've discovered. Many people think of humans as a sort of trinity. There's a body, a mind, and a spirit, existing in harmony but somehow independent of one another. As an atheist, I throw out the spirit part of the equation, and tend to think of humans in a dualistic way. We're part body, part mind. For the most part, I put these into two separate mental boxes. I bike and avoid soft drinks to improve my body. I read books and write to improve my mind.

But, on a deeper level, the duality is an illusion. There is only body. Mind might appear to be a separate entity, but in reality its only a function of the body. The evidence is pretty simple. If mind weren't a function of body, you wouldn't be able to get drunk. Anesthesia wouldn't be able to switch off your mind for surgery. Mind is only a persistent illusion, an important illusion, a necessary one even. But since I believe it is only an outgrowth of your physical form, it logically follows that, if you want to improve your mind, it helps to improve your body.

I used to think I didn't have time to exercise. What I really meant when I said this was that I was giving priority to mental activities, like writing books or (more frequently) hanging out on the internet talking about stuff. Exercise seemed boring, purely physical, a low priority to the brainier stuff I enjoyed. What I've since discovered is that making my body healthier has made my mind healthier. I'm less prone to depression, less haunted by doubts. I'm able to handle stress better. And, my imagination is more active than ever. Getting outside on a bike for three or four hours gets me away from computers and TV and even off my cell phone. I might pause to take pictures and post to instagram, but when I'm peddling, I'm peddling, and thinking.

Can exercise solve every problem you have in life? Definitely not. But if you ever feel stuck in a rut, unable to grow intellectually, give it a shot. Improved physical health definitely leads to improved mental health. And, if you happen to believe you have a spirit, I suspect it gets a boost as well.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig when I was in college. At the time, it had a big impact of my thinking. I think that, even today, I'm able to see solutions to problems that others get hung up on because of attitudes I found in this book. In a key scene, a friend's handle bars are slipping and the author offers to shim them tight with a sliver of old beer can. The friend is appalled; he's driving an expensive motorcycle, and the author is proposing to "fix" it with a piece of discarded trash. The key lesson of the scene is not to get hung up on the labels attached to things, but to look beyond to see the underlying forms and functions. His friend saw a piece of trash, but the discarded beer can was actually a sheet of thin aluminum, oxidized to resist further corrosion, of exactly the right thickness, and soft enough to be cut to the right shape with a pocket knife. It was the perfect solution, once you could see the thing for what it was, not merely as what it was called.

I've had plenty of chances to put this way of looking at things to the test. Once, my radiator hose burst right where it joined with the radiator. I had no tools but a screwdriver, and this was in the days before cell phones, and I was fifty miles from the nearest person I knew.

Fortunately, there was a broken beer bottle on the side of the road. And, one inch down, the radiator hose was still intact. It was only where it clamped on that it had ruptured. So, I used the broken bottle to cut off the last inch of busted hose, used the screwdriver to clamp it back on, filled up the radiator with water I was lucky enough to have on hand and drove back home.

At work, I'm well known as a troubleshooter, willing to try new things, to see outside the "correct" channels of doing stuff in order to see the path that will actually get the job done. I don't know that the book gets full credit for this. I had a tinkering nature even from childhood. But, Zen and the Art did resonate with me, made me feel that my way of looking at the world was worth nurturing.

The last few weeks, I've been rereading the book. Alas, from my perspective as a 50 year old, the philosophy no longer looks quite as clever as it did when I was 20. In the book, the narrator argues that quality is the primary generator of reality, existing both outside the object and the observer. He states that quality can't be defined, but everyone knows what it is, at least if they have eyes to see it. He laments that too often we get fooled into thinking that style is quality. Cars are built with attractive curves and fancy features, but are mechanically lemons, for instance. He goes on to argue that quality can't be defined because it's all encompassing. It's almost like God. Any attempt to describe it must by definition fail, since the concept is just to big and omnipresent to ever be contained in mere words.

To quote Orwell, some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.

Pirsig's failure to define quality is based mainly on his unwillingness to accept that quality is completely subjective. Also, while insisting quality can't be defined, he continually attempts to define it as one big concept that covers everything.

He completely overlooks the following possibilities.

First, there is no universal standard of quality that applies equally to writing, motorcycles, and architecture. The things that make a book good have pretty much nothing to do with what makes a good hamburger. Instead of a universal ideal, we have a zillion ideals based on the things being judged.

Second, Pirsig rejects the notion that quality is purely subjective. As evidence, he has his class judge writing samples. As a group, they tend to agree on which writing samples are best. He takes this as evidence that there's a universal standard they're keyed into, even if they can't define it.

He overlooks that he's in a class of people very close in age, ethnicity, and educational background. He's teaching  a college class, after all. By the time this class has got to him, they've had years to be taught what's good writing and what's bad writing. The class is also connected by the culture of their era. Pirsig is a child of the 50s, and uses quite a bit of "beat" vocabulary, like calling some people "square." While he doesn't state it, he probably admires the writing of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Indeed, he's writing a novel about being On the Road, full of observations about the people and towns he sees. It's difficult for me not to think that he didn't regard Jack Kerouac's writing as being high in quality. But, if so, I think he's mistaking quality for fashion. Kerouac's writing had its moment, but if the same novel first appeared today, would it have any kind of cultural impact at all? The good writing of 1950 isn't quite like the good writing of 1850, and the writing of 2150 will be judged by factors we can't even guess at. Quality changes with cultural context.

Think of food. I ate lunch at a Thai restaurant today. The primary condiment of Thai cuisine is a fermented fish sauce. To most American tongues, the stuff is foul. Who the hell wants to eat the run off juice of fermented fish? Or think about kim chi in Korean cooking. It's spoiled cabbage spiced to the point that many people find it inedible. Yet, in their own cultures, in the right context, these foods are of the highest quality.

Does that mean that quality is completely subjective? Not necessarily. From an evolutionary perspective, we probably all have built in receptors to find certain things attractive. Most of us like fatty, sweet foods because they are high in calories. In today's world of abundance, this leads to obesity, but in our ancestors world of scarcity these taste receptors helped us survive. Similarly, while our distant ancestors weren't expressing themselves as much in writing as we do today, I'm guessing there was a sexual selection bias that made people who could express themselves clearly and confidently attractive to the opposite sex. A gift for eloquence was a clue that the mate had good intelligence and could pass on good genes. That's why us writers get all the action.

My point is that there can be underlying biological urges driving us toward finding certain objects, actions, and appearances pleasing. These get overlaid with culture; if your Dad liked country music, you have a better chance of liking country music. If he listened to opera, you have better odds of liking opera. What's considered quality varies from socio-economic class and geography. At the risk of stereotyping my own state, many men from my neck of the woods and from my economic strata probably find NASCAR racing to be an art form. Give them tickets to a Broadway musical, however, and they'd feel a deep, deep dread at the thought that they might actually have to go.

Back to Zen: Strip away this core concept of universal quality, and it would seem like the book should fall apart. It doesn't. It's still an excellent narrative about a long road trip, and a touching story about a father trying to save his son from mental illness.

That's one of the weird things about quality literature. It doesn't have to make a damn bit of sense to still be good.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Old Boots: A Health and Weight Update

Notice the toes of the boots in the picture above. I bought these hiking boots in the fall of 2012 when I started my campaign to lose weight and improve my fitness. Less than two years later, I've walked the toes out of them. I'm certain that part of the problem comes from not spending enough on a better brand of boots. I bought these mainly because they weren't garish and they cost under $50. They kept my feet dry in snow and creeks and I've hiked several hundred miles in them without a single blister, so they weren't that bad. I feel like I got my money out of them.

Last year, I posted a lot of updates about my weight. It was right at a year ago I finally got my weight down to 224 from a starting weight of 284. I was confident I could keep it off.

Now, I'm starting to wonder. I've gained back close to half of what I lost. My weight is now hovering around 250. It's been disconcerting to see the numbers on the scale get higher month by month.

However, my body composition at my current 250 is way, way different than it was the last time I was at this weight, coming down from a higher number. I've been doing strength training for months and a significant chunk of my rising weight is almost certainly muscle. Today, I was doing 220# reps on the fly machine. When I started going to the gym last fall, I could only do 120#, maybe 150# if I really strained.

Alas, I still can't do a @&$#! unassisted chin up. That was a big goal for me when I started this, and I thought that I could reach it in six months. Oh well, maybe in another six.

More evidence that my weight gain isn't mostly fat coming back is that most of my pants from last year still fit. I do have a pair of 34" waist jeans that were the tightest jeans I got into at my lowest weight that I can't wear comfortably any more, but all the 36" waistbands still fit, and some are even loose. When I started my weight loss plan, I had a 42" waistline.

I'm wondering what it would take for me to get my weight moving in a different direction while at the same time continuing my strength training. Now that I'm 50, the number of years I have left to increase my strength are probably limited, so I feel like I should keep pushing myself to add muscle mass while I can. I'm hoping the effort will pay off when I'm 70, or even 80. On the other hand, I really, really want to get rid of the last band of fat around my gut. I feel like I could do it with a more calorie restrictive diet, but that type of diet is counterproductive for adding muscle.

Oh well. I guess it's something to think about the next time I go hiking. In new boots, of course. The old ones are just sad. So why do I feel happy when I look at them?

Sunday, March 30, 2014


American politics seems to be in stasis. It's not quite gridlock, where nothing gets done at all. Instead, its government by autopilot. The bureaucracy continues to spit out rules, budgets continue to grow via continuing resolutions, and our foreign policy seems locked into a pattern of daily reminding us that the rest of the world is going to do whatever the hell it wants to do and we have no good options for changing that.

I'm of mixed minds about our current political drift. On the one hand, my libertarian side feels that, if our legislators are unable to band together to write new laws, whew. Most new laws always nibble away at freedom in some fashion, either by increasing the cost of government or the complexity of our lives. Having spent much of February and March slogging through my taxes, the last thing I need is for the government to pass some new "fix" to the tax laws that adds more bookkeeping to my life.

On the other hand, my biggest libertarian fear is that, if congress and the senate are no longer capable of governing, they abdicate power to the executive branch, which is then free to claim more and more power, more and more authority, without having the fear of restraint by elected officials. Not to pick on Obama, but it does feel like every other day he's altering the implementation of the ACA without bothering to seek the congressional authority to do so.  It's a devilishly complicated law that was poorly written and passed by legislators who hadn't read it, and couldn't have comprehended it if they had. I don't see this as some dark scheme to crush our current healthcare system, or implement socialism. It's just what happens when politicians do their jobs in a half-ass fashion.

What I do fear is that once congress steps back and allows the executive branch the freedom to alter the implementation of laws without seeking changes in the letter of the law, the possibility arises that this will become the new normal. Congress can devote it's real energy to doing what it does best, getting reelected, and let all the fine tuning of actual government be handled by the executive branch. They will never have to pass difficult legislation that could actually put them in danger of getting voted out by their constituents. They can pass feel good legislation without fear that it will ever become actual implemented law.

In the end, the only person with any authority who will have to answer to voters will be the president. Only, the president won't actually be running the government, since his appointments will all grind to a halt in the senate. But, it's not as if the bureaucracies will shut down if there's no politically appointed head. They'll just grind on, with the bureaucrats not really accountable to anyone. There will be no political head to crack down on them, and the money to run the bureaucracy will keep coming in as congress passes continuing resolutions year after year.

What's the name for this system of government? Where we still get to vote for our leaders, but they increasingly have no actual role in governing? If there isn't a word already, might I suggest shamocracy? Or maybe shameocracy? Because if government's become a sham, it should be our collective shame.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Where I want to be at 60

I wasn't happy with my life when I turned 30. I was divorced, stuck in a job I hated, had too much debt, no savings to speak of, hadn't published a book or even a story, was living in an apartment with two roommates, and generally felt like I hadn't accomplished much. Curiously, I was really angry with my 20 year old self for doing so much to ruin 30 year old me. The younger James hadn't made any wise choices, and had been almost oblivious to the future. The things I wanted in life... I could have had them at 30 if I'd make better choices when I was 20. But, of course, when I was 20, I didn't really know what I wanted.

But, the smartest thing that 30 year old James did was to realize that all his regrets were actually goals. All the things I wish I'd had at 30? It was time to shape my life so I could have them at 40. And, for the most part, my master plan worked out pretty well. I did have one book and a couple of stories published when I was 40. I still hadn't made enough to quit my day job, but at least I'd ditched the horrible job I'd had when I turned 30 for a much less soul crushing job. I'd also saved a decent sum of money during the decade since I'd participated in my new job's 401k. I owned a house. I was in relatively good health, thanks to drugs that had my allergies and asthma under control. Alas, I was divorced again. I apparently hadn't learned the right lessons from failed marriage #1. And because of the divorce, I couldn't afford the house I owned, and wound up selling it for a loss that wiped out a big chunk of my 401k. Still, while things weren't perfect, I was happier at 40 than I had been at thirty. The stuff I wasn't happy about once more became my goals for the next decade.

I wanted to publish ten books by the time I was 50, and to be free of a day job. I wanted to finally have a good relationship, and own a house that wasn't a huge money pit. I really, really wanted to be completely debt free except for a mortgage. And, I wanted to be physically fit. I'd only discovered the joy of physical activity while being able to breath freely in my late 30s. I really wanted to build on that and see what was possible.

On the last goal, I started off by backsliding, partly thanks to my first goal. Writing a lot of books means sitting in front of a computer a lot of hours. I never have been able to shed myself of my day job, so I felt like I really didn't have time to exercise. My weight exploded, and by the time I was 48 I was nearly 300 pounds. Luckily, I woke up to the stupidity of what I was doing to my body and turned things around. I lost a lot of weight and carved out time to exercise. Now, I can run a 5k and yesterday did a 50 mile bike ride. I can say with some confidence I'm in better shape at 50 than I was at 30.

A big part of this is because of my wife Cheryl. She's completely on board with my fitness kick and has made it part of her own life, so she's right there beside me on my bike rides and my runs, and her awesome organizational skills play a big role in planning our meals out so our calorie intake is sensible. She's my perfect partner physically, mentally, emotionally. It took me over four decades to find her, but, wow, was she worth the wait.

Financially, sheesh. I'm in more debt than ever, after being on the verge of complete debt freedom only a few years ago. Our new house is terrific, but we had to buy a new furnace and put a lot of work into the interior. Then, on Cheryl's old house, the furnace blew, the plumbing failed, and it sat empty for months and months while we paid two mortgages before we finally broke down and rented it. Oh, and did I mention the transmission exploding in my car? Or the power steering failing? I had vowed to drive that car until the wheels fell off, but finally had to break down and buy a new car.

Luckily, my 401k has recovered nicely from the hit it took ten years back, and from losing over a third of its value when the housing market crashed in 2008. Between our 401ks and the value of our real estate, our assets add up to more than our debts, so I guess we're ahead.

Still, goal one for when I'm 60? This time, seriously, debt free, except possibly for a mortgage.

Goal two: A lot more books. I'm hesitant to set a numerical goal. I'd like to write 20 books over the next ten years, and think that's a not unreasonable goal. But, part of me is intrigued with the thought of finding a book with a big idea that takes a long time to write correctly. What could I produce if I really focused on one book for a full year? Two years? Five? I pride myself on writing fast, but I also pride myself on trying new things. So, no numeric goal for the number of books I'll have published in the next decade, but when I tell people ten years from now how many books I've written, I want them to say, "Wow. That's a lot of books."

Goal three: I want to read another 260 novels. This is a novel every two weeks for the next decade. A modest goal; I know people who read a hundred books or more in a year. But, I want to keep developing my brain as well as my body. I seriously slacked off on reading novels for most of my 40s, and didn't really pick up the habit again until just last year. I don't intend to lose my momentum now.

Goal four: Body. I don't want yesterday's 50 mile bike ride to be the most impressive thing I do with my body in my 50s. On the other hand, I've been so focused on it, I haven't really given a lot of thought as to what my next goal will be. 100 miles in a day seems like it might be beyond my practical limits. Now that I can run 5k, I know I want to build to 10k, but I don't know if I want to build to full marathon distances. I can only say that there will be a next goal.

Okay, 60 year old James, here you go. My promises to you. Hope they serve you well.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snow days

When I was a kid, I looked forward to a snow so I could stay home and play. Now, I keep my fingers crossed for a snow day so I can stay home and work.

I finished the third draft of my latest novel Friday, pretty much two weeks ahead of my personal schedule because I had a day off two weeks ago due to snow, then two days this week. I normally squeeze in an hour or two in the evenings to write. Getting three whole days to focus on the book gave me momentum. Nothing makes a thousand words flow out of you better than having written a thousand words preceding them. Momentum matters.

I did take a few walks in the snow, and helped Cheryl build a snowman. But, as I reach the verge of fifty, I'm finally realizing a fundamental truth about life: Work is more satisfying than play.

It's fun to go play in the snow. It's fun to go to concerts and movies, fun to watch television or read comic books, fun to hang out with friends at bars and just shoot the breeze.

And having fun is important! It's good for the brain, and, in the case of my hiking and biking and running, good for my body.

Work, on the other hand, isn't fun. Even the creative stuff, like writing, can turn into a slog. On Thursday, I kept making bargains with myself to sit in the chair for one more hour, to make sure I got to the end of the chapter I was working on. Then I'd move the goalpost and tell myself, nope, after the next chapter, then you can stop... and then I'd keep going. My back ached from sitting in the same spot for hours. My brain felt limp in the aftermath. And yet... yeah! I've written another book! Endorphin rush!

The entertainment value of watching television is like chocolate. A little here and there is nice. A steady diet of it will leave you sick and fat. Sitting at a keyboard for five hours and trying to make sentences go in the proper order is tedious and exhausting. But, when you're done, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've accomplished something. It really is a feeling like nothing else in the world.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

500 days on My Fitness Pal

Today marks my 500th day on My Fitness Pal. Cheryl and I ran 5k on the Al Beuhler Trail in Durham, the first time we've done 5k on hilly terrain. Our previous runs of this length have been done on the Ocanneechee Speedway, which is completely flat. The hills didn't really affect my time. I still made the run in a little over 50 minutes, though it certainly felt a lot longer than running the equal distance on a flat track.

Came home and did 80 seconds of planking. Cheryl and I have been doing planks every day for the last few weeks. They look like they'd be easy. Essentially, they're a pushup where you don't go up or down, just hold your body perfectly straight, supported only by your toes and forearms. But, ten seconds in, you discover just how difficult it is to hold you body straight like that. It's supposed to strengthen your core, and so far it seems to be working. According to the program we're using, I'm supposed to be doing 5 minutes of planking each day by the end of the month. We'll see.

When I'm hiking, I like listening to audio books, but when I'm running I don't feel like I can follow the narrative. Nor do I want just any random music. So, I've been listening to favorite albums as I run, which works out really well, since most albums mesh well with my 50 minute pace. Today, I listened to U2's Achtung Baby. I really consider this to be U2 at their artistic peak. It's stylistically much more daring than Joshua Tree, flows nicely from song to song, and is really unbeatable lyrically, with tracks like One, the Fly, and So Cruel. The next time I run, I might listen to a Radiohead album, or maybe the Coroner's Gambit by the Mountain Goats. The latter might be a little short for the run, but listening to a collection of songs about death will certainly provide some motivation to keep moving.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

5k Achieved!

So, when I said Cheryl and I would be building up to run 5k, I didn't think I'd hit the goal before the end of the first week of the new year. But, we decided just to go for it this morning, and, holy cow, we did it!

I'm again struck by similarities between the skills I've developed as a novel writer and skills I'm now using to become more fit. Novel writing requires lots of small, incremental steps in order to build to one large whole. To get to the 100,000 words requires lots of small sessions where you only get out 1000 words, or even 100. But, it all adds up. Progress that seems tiny gets you closer to your goal.

The same has proven true of our fitness quest. When we started almost a year and a half ago, we couldn't run 5 minutes without stopping, let alone 50 minutes. But, we got  here by running one minute, then walking one minute, then running one minute, repeat. Then, once that was comfortable, we moved up to two minute runs, then four minute runs. It was only a few months ago I finally managed to run a full mile without stopping, and not that much longer after that I made it to two miles.

My writing motto is, little by little, the work gets done. It turns out to be true for running as well. I guess, with the 5k under my belt, I'll need to start looking for more ambitious goals. I mean, is a 10k possible this year? Or am I out of my mind?