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


Friday, December 23, 2016

A Hillsborough Walking Adventure

We ride our bikes on a lot of greenways. While in theory walkers, runners, and bikers should be able to share the greenways, the reality is that the interaction between bikers and walkers is a little stressful. Bikers move fast, and, if they don’t call out or ring a bell, they barely make any noise, catching walkers unaware. On the flipside, the number of walkers we encounter while biking who are oblivious of their surroundings is pretty high. Calling out to walkers doesn’t help if they are so focused on their phones they don’t hear you.

So, if you just want to walk without worrying about bikes, the path I’ll describe today is for you. Bikes are outright prohibited on half of the trail, and the rest of the trail isn’t very bike friendly with narrow bridges and tight turns. You’re free to walk without thinking twice about what might be zooming up behind you.

A few months ago, a bridge was built over the Eno River that links two great walking trails, the Hillsborough Riverwalk and the Occaneechee Speedway Trail. Both include segments of North Carolina's Mountain to Sea Trail. There are hiking trails around the speedway, but for our walk today we stuck to the flat walking paths, walking from the Speedway all the way to Gold Park, then back and once around the speedway trace. This makes for a pleasant 5.3 mile round trip that I would argue is one of the nicest long walking trails in North Carolina (as opposed to a hiking trail or bike trail). It's got great scenery, lots of historical markers, and easy access to water and bathrooms since a big chunk of the trail is so close to downtown.

The path we walked, tracked by GPS.
 The walk could easily be edited. Gold Park has several different walking paths looping together, and the easy trails around the speedway could be added to make this a six or seven mile walk.
Ordinarily not a sign we like to see, but it does make walking less stressful.

In winter, the trails possess a stark beauty.

Good for the brain as well as the body.
One nice feature of this walk is that you're passing along ground that's been continuously occupied since long before there was a place called Hillsborough. Lots of signs explain the history and prehistory of the area. This sign has an old map showing old roads that used to intersect the path of the Riverwalk.


Occoneechee Speedway

Fairy House
Blaze marking the Mountain to Sea Trail

A woodpecker working hard for its meal.
Since we did a morning walk, the only real wildlife we saw was a woodpecker. When we walk this path in the evening, more often than not we see deer. In the spring we often see young owls in the trees as well.

Looking forward to the day they build a bridge connecting the Speedway and Ayr Mount. I also look forward to this segment of the Mountain to Sea Trail finally connecting with the portion in the Eno. Then, if a person were so inclined, it would be possible to walk from Hillsborough to the far side of Raleigh without having to once walk along a road. That's an adventure I'm really hoping can happen within the next few years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Few Upsides to Trump's Win

Let me get this out of the way: I didn't vote for Trump. I have serious, serious doubts about whether or not he'll be even minimally competent as president. I think he's erratic and thin-skinned, and there's not a whole lot of evidence that he has much of a grasp of numerous important issues. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, took a lot of heat for not knowing what Aleppo was. But Trump bungled a lot more of these questions and it didn't dent him. He managed to substitute swagger for wisdom and knowledge, a strategy that served him well campaigning, but a frightening way to actually lead a nation. Will he be the worst president ever? How about the worst in our lifetime? I don't feel like that's a safe prediction. George Bush set a pretty high standard for bad presidencies by invading a nation on a premise that later proved to be utterly mistaken. Then he got to close out his presidency with a housing meltdown, a stock market crash, and a big bank bailout that completely shattered any claims that Republicans championed small government and opposed interfering in markets. I'm holding onto a fragile hope that Trump might do nothing over the next four years except get into twitter wars with b-list celebrities and travel around the country holding rallies. I would count him as a semi-successful president if he gets to the end of his term and hasn't mistakenly invaded a sovereign nation and/or wiped out all the value of my 401k.

I told a friend right before the election that I'd be horrified if Hillary won and terrified if Trump won. But, now that he is officially president elect, I do think there are a few upsides to point out.

Upside #1: He's perfectly illustrating my central argument for being a libertarian. My libertarianism boils down to one principal: Don't grant your friends political powers that you wouldn't trust in the hands of your worst enemies. There are people who believe an a sort of soft authoritarianism, where the running of the country is taken out of the hands of elected officials and entrusted to specialized bureaucrats in a agencies like the EPA, the Department of Labor, HHS, HUD, etc. If you're a Democrat, and there's a Democrat at the helm of these departments, you probably feel pretty good when these departments issue rules and regulations that have the weight of law without ever being voted on by congress. Now, these same departments are going to be run by people with a mission of using these same powers to move the country in a direction that will horrify you. Will you be wise enough to see that it's not enough to simply win the next election? The politics in our country is a pendulum. There are no permanent majorities. If you don't want your enemies to have terrifying power, don't give terrifying power to your friends.

Upside #2: The pendulum. Republicans at the moment are in a pretty strong position, controlling both houses of congress and a firm majority of states. You know what it will take to get Democrats back into majorities? A few years of Republican rule. It may be structurally difficult to take back the senate in two years due to the raw numbers of Democrat seats versus Republican seats up for grabs, but it's easy to imagine the House flipping in two years. The divisions of states might also swing, just in time for districts to be redrawn following the next census. Republican's are doomed by a simple calculus: If they're timid in legislating, and fail to deliver on some of their core issues they've been unable to move on due to having a Democrat in the White House, their base won't turn out for them in the midterms. If they set a bold agenda and give the base everything they want, then the base will have no real reason to turn out, since their work will be done. As near as I can tell from observing politics all these years, the party base voters never vote out of gratitude. The next few elections will see Democrats hungry and willing to go on offense, and Republicans bogged down with actual responsibilities and playing defense.

Upside #3. A vivid demonstration that money isn't everything in politics. North Carolina was a swing state, which meant that during September and October, pretty much every ad I saw on television was a political ad. The vast, vast majority of these ads were for Hillary Clinton. I've been trying to find some final spending totals, but I'm getting sums all over the map for how much was actually spent. According to an ABC news story about planned spending (as opposed to the actual final spends) Clinton was slated to spend $14 million on television ads in North Carolina. Trump was only slated to spend $1.3 million. As someone afflicted by these ads, I find it plausible that there were ten times as many Hillary ads as Trump ads. But the final vote wasn't particularly close. Trump won in a year when Democrats were organized and had a good enough base operation to toss out an incumbent Republican governor. Looking at the figures for other battleground states, I see that Hillary outspent Trump in Florida 53 to 1. Nationally, Hillary and associated PACs outraised and outspent Trump and his allies by a 2 to 1 margin. And let's not forget the primaries, when Jeb Bush entered the campaign with an atomic blast of money designed to vaporize any potential rivals and wound up getting, what, six people voting for him, and most of those were family members?

Trump explicitly argued that he didn't need to spend a lot of money on television ads. And, if we must grant he was right about one thing, he proved to be absolutely right on this. One could argue that he was a celebrity, a household name before he ever began his run for president. But Hillary and Jeb Bush weren't exactly anonymous. In the end, I think that this election provided an interesting natural experiment. One candidate saturated the airwaves with ads defining her opponent as a reckless, scary madman, and the other candidate effectively ignored those ads rather than responding to them dollar for dollar. In North Carolina, at least, I feel like the result was that the sort of voter who decides who to vote for based on TV ads wound up sick of Hillary Clinton by election day, and pretty much dismissed every bad thing about Trump as negative politics not to be taken seriously. Negative political ads have all the impact of Chicken Little warning the sky is falling. I think the negative ads might actually have insulated Trump from some of his more outrageous statements, since we're so used to seeing politician's words twisted out of context in 30 ads that the average voter just assumes that everything said in a negative ad is probably false. Will future politicians learn from this and decide that saturation negative television advertising isn't the best way to get a candidate elected? And if the best funded candidate isn't guaranteed a win, will future big money donors question the value of throwing so much money at candidates? I imagine there are a few Wall Street banking firms second guessing the wisdom of paying Hillary Clinton six figure sums for speeches.

Even if you absolute hate Trump, at least you can take some satisfaction in the thought of so many people used to buying the favor of candidates losing so much money this year.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Climbing Above Cancer

Last year, I wrote a post called Training for Cancer. My wife Cheryl had been diagnosed with breast cancer only a few weeks before. Challenging times were ahead. She’d face months of chemotherapy, surgeries both major and minor, a full course of radiation that resulted in burn-like wounds, and daily, constant stress. The chemo left her unable to eat without growing ill. She faced fatigue that no amount of sleep could overcome, when she could sleep at all, since, due to the surgeries, she could no longer sleep in her favorite positions. She lost her hair and toe nails. Every day when she looked in the mirror she had the reminder that a small cluster of her own cells was actively attempting to kill her. Life became an hour by hour fight to get through the cancer days, to get through treatment, and return to whatever was left of normal.

Of course, she went into this fight with a few advantages. She had supportive family, friends, and coworkers. She had good health insurance, and was being treated at one of the top cancer facilities in the world. She had far more information and understanding of her disease than the typical patient, since she’d spent over two decades working on drug studies, including studies of the drugs that she would be treated with. Of course, her knowledge was a double-edged sword. She knew the drugs she’d be on had been proven effective, but she also knew that effective, when you’re talking about chemotherapy, doesn’t equal a guarantee.

She had one final advantage. A few years ago, we’d both committed to exercising more. For whatever weird reason, when we made this resolution, we somehow stuck with it. There’s a training program called Couch to 5k, where you build up from being a couch potato to running a 5k. We went from the couch to 5k and kept going. We walked, ran, hiked, kayaked, and, of course, biked. We did a psychologically important 50 mile ride on my fiftieth birthday, the first time we’d ridden that far, and after that we just kept pushing ourselves. Could we do 60? 75? A hundred? Yes, yes, yes.

When Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was as fit as she’d ever been in her life. Just a few months earlier, she’d pedaled for twelve hours to cover 100 miles. When the cancer came, they do tests of your heart to make certain you can withstand the rigors of treatment. Her heart, of course, was in excellent condition. But if we hadn’t spent the last couple of years exercising? Maybe not. Before we started our exercise regimen, Cheryl had numerous health problems associated with poor diet and a lack of exercise. She was on medicine for her blood sugar, her cholesterol, and her blood pressure. By the time she received her diagnosis, she no longer needed these drugs.

Pre-exercise Cheryl would probably have been too sick to do much once her treatment started. But cancer didn’t face off with old Cheryl. It instead found itself up against bad-ass century ride Cheryl. This Cheryl just rode right over cancer, and kept on rolling.

No matter how sick Cheryl got, she was always thinking about when we could get in our next bike ride. She no longer had the stamina to ride a hundred miles in a day, or even fifty. But we did a lot of shorter rides, five, ten, twenty miles. By the fall, she was building back up to thirty and forty.

Cancer slowed Cheryl down, but it didn’t stop her, and we have the numbers to prove it. We use a program called Endomondo to track our exercise, using GPS to record every mile we bike, walk, and paddle. In 2015, the year when she was diagnosed with cancer in November, she’d travelled 1250 miles. In 2016, the year when she was struggling with chemo, radiation, and fatigue, she’s logged 1275 miles, and still has two weeks to go.

This week, she had her last infusion of drugs. Every possible test they’ve subjected her to finds no trace of the cancer. She’s had a model response, and a 90% chance that the cancer won’t return. Of course, with cancer, it’s a waiting game. You can never truly say you’re cured, only that, at this moment, there’s no sign of the disease.

What we can say is that Cheryl won’t be sitting around on the couch waiting for it to return. She’ll be outside, a dozen miles out on a greenway, or paddling across a lake, or climbing up a mountain. Today, she took a celebratory hike, climbing to the top of Hanging Rock in icy wind and dense banks of fog, to wave a victory flag.

Life offered Cheryl a reason to exercise less. She took it as a motivation to exercise more. Cancer couldn’t knock her off her feet.  She’ll keep moving, because movement is life.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Best of Biking

Just after Thanksgiving, with a certain wistfulness, I took the bike rack off my car and put it into storage for winter. It's not the cold that has chased us away from biking for a little while; we've biked in temps as low as the 20s a couple of times. But, we do a lot of our riding after work, and for the next few months there's just not enough light to ride by. As for weekends, we've got so many commitments through December there didn't seem to be space for a Saturday ride. So, in the name of fuel economy, off came the rack, at least until January or February, depending on how the weather goes.

For our wedding anniversary, I gave Cheryl a necklace with a little silver bicycle pendant. Biking has stopped being an occasional leisure activity, or a form of exercise. It's become part of our lifestyle, part of our identity. We bought our first bikes, a pair of red Schwinn Cruisers, before we were married, and would occasionally ride them on the Tobacco Trail or at the beach. Back then, three and four mile rides were exhausting. The thought of ten or twenty mile rides seemed insane. But once Durham built the bridge over 1-40 to turn the Tobacco Trail into a complete 22 mile ride, the challenge of doing the whole trail in a single day started to intrigue us. We also learned about the Neuse River Trail in Raleigh, and all the trails leading off from it. And then there were all the rail trails in Virginia, the Creeper Trail, the New River Trail, the High Bridge Trail, and more. We had bike fever!

So, here's a glimpse at some of the best things we've captured on film these last few years. The best parts of our rides never make it onto film, however, but will be forever in our memories.

 Our first bikes

 From the C&O Canal Trail, Cheryl parked her bike to create a nearly perfect shadow. A lot of other pics we take lend themselves to art.

One of the best things about our rides is all the animals we encounter. Herons, turtles, and deer are all wonderfully photogenic.

Of course, the plants put on a show as well...

 If you bike in the summer for any length of time, occasionally you'll get rained on!

But it's worth the risk of rain for the wonderful scenery.

One challenge of biking: It's kind of hard to get pictures of each other while we're actually on our bikes. Still, we've managed a few decent pictures over the years.

We celebrated my 50th birthday with our first ever 50 mile ride.

The very tip top of the Virginia Creeper Trail... end of the line, but the beginning of a great adventure.