Welcome!

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

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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Our Biggest Threats--Part 2: Authoritarianism

Continuing my series of looking at potential apocalypses, I'll veer off into something that isn't technically the end of the world, authoritarianism. As a science fiction author, this is sort of baked into our view of the future. There's a looming doom ahead of us that the relatively free life we enjoy today will vanish and be replaced by an authoritarian form of government that squelches all dissent and makes it a crime to even think the wrong thoughts.

The logic behind this premise is pretty soundly based in historical precedent. Authoritarian regimes do arise repeatedly in human history, and even today a sizable portion of the world's population lives without such fundamental freedoms as the freedom of speech, the freedom to vote, the freedom to own property, the freedom to travel, the freedom to worship, or the freedom to love whoever you wish to love.

Of course, these freedoms are squashed along a sliding scale and to various degrees. Americans are now mostly free to openly love whoever they wish to love, unless, of course, you'd like to be married to multiple partners, or to be involved with a very young person. In the second case, the question of consent and abuse in an excellent reason why we should prohibit such things. As to polygamy between adults... I have to admit I'm not at all certain what logical or legal argument should prohibit such a thing. Such an arrangement strikes me as distasteful and impractical, but I'm not certain why my feelings on such things should have any legal weight in keeping others from doing as they wish to do if it doesn't harm me.

As for free speech, a growing segment of the US supports prohibitions against hate speech. Your freedom to own property is compromised by laws and regulations declaring what you can't do with said property. We also have some odd barriers to voting. Most exist in the name of stamping out fraudulent votes, but there are also punitive laws. In many states, convicts can't vote, even though every other right is returned to them after they've served time. It's odd that some crimes carry a one year prison sentence, followed by a lifetime ban on possessing a fundamental right. As for your freedom to travel, sure, as long as you don't try to get onto a plane with the wrong papers or drive down a highway without the proper documents in your possession.

I give these examples to make a larger point: All governments are authoritarian governments. Every government ever formed by man has given someone the authority to restrict the freedom of other men by taking their property, silencing their voices, restricting their relationships, throwing them into prison, or killing them.

The trade off for giving others the power to restrict our freedom is that we hope they will use this power wisely. We want them to throw murderers into jail, but not the person standing on a street corner holding up a sign saying, "Trump sucks!" We want our governments to keep our next door neighbor from turning his front lawn into a junk yard, or building a fence 50 feet high that throws our house into permanent shadow. On the other hand, if you wanted to grow hemp in your backyard garden next to your tomatoes, you're likely not all that thrilled about the government's power to come and rip up those plants, seize your property and sell it without ever actually convicting you of a crime.

The great danger of authoritarianism is that it's absolutely vital if we want to live in a safe, comfortable, and clean world. Someone needs to be watching what's coming out of our smokestacks. Someone needs to be making certain I can bike through a neighborhood and not have to worry about packs of unleashed dogs chasing me down. And, yes, it does make most of us safer if we give some people with badges the power to stop random strangers for trivial reasons to ask a few questions.

But, of course, slopes are slippery. We get used to granting the government power over those who inconvenience us, then worry when we realize that the government might very well turn those same powers against us.

Good. Keep worrying. The greatest defense against a necessary degree of authoritarianism becoming an oppressive dictatorship is simply knowing and understanding the potential for the danger. To liberal friends who find themselves panicked at the thought about the powers that Trump and the right-wingers have seized, I encourage you to think deeply about why such powers should exist in the first place. If America was to slip into authoritarianism, it would be because we granted a central power too much authority in the name of pursuing some degree of good. We want to save the world from climate change, for instance, so we decide we should skip the messy compromises of the democratic process and allow a central agency to simply dictate the rules. Or, we panic because some people commit crimes like school shootings or flying planes into buildings, then grant our authorities power to seize and hold anyone they find suspicious under laws written vaguely to be broad enough to cover crimes we haven't even thought of yet. Or, we allow ourselves to be comfortable with ignoring the presumption of innocence in the name of respecting the rights of victims. Or, we celebrate the FBI monitoring the phone calls and emails of people we don't trust and don't like. Or, we decide we should subsidize and mandate the use of ethanol in fuels because it's great for the environment, then find ourselves completely unable to reverse the subsidies and mandates once we realize, nope, this path is actually much more harmful for the environment that simply doing nothing.

Before you grant any power to people you like and trust, please, please, please ask yourself one question: Will I also enjoy these powers winding up in the hands of people who are my enemies? Does the potential for abuse outweigh the potential for good? Are you absolutely certain you are wise enough to make that judgment?

The good news is I don't truly fear America sliding into an irreversible authoritarian dystopia for a rather simple reason. Our government was intentionally designed not to work very well. Trump can come into office promising to build a wall. He can have majorities in both houses of congress and a court that shows deference to such matters. And... nothing. Not even a mile of wall can get built. I don't doubt his sincerity in wishing to do so, but there are a zillion obstacles in the way, and any grand project that is going to take more than two or four or eight years to roll out and implement can only move forward successfully with bipartisan buy in. This is going to keep us from doing a lot of grand things, like colonizing Mars or signing some binding international treaty to regulate greenhouses gasses, then implementing it on any realistic time scale. It also likely dooms single-payer health care. Inertia and impotence are built into the system. They aren't the flaws, but the foundation.

The design of the American political system must look absolutely perverse to an outside observer. How the hell do we ever get anything done? Minority forces have too much power to gum up the works. Majority forces become paralyzed by internal fighting among factions. Laws that do get passed get tied up in courts and overturned or neutered. The laws that survive the courts get thrown into a bureaucracy that somehow implements them in the least efficient ways imaginable and often provides advantages to the very industries we'd hoped to regulate.

I can't speak for the rest of the world. Nor can I argue that it's inevitable that the arc or history is going to bend toward greater freedom and justice. But, I can take some measure of comfort in knowing that, at least here, the road to authoritarianism is littered with the landmines of ineffectiveness, inefficiency, and impermanence. So, keep worrying. But don't panic.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Biggest Threats Before Us, and Why We'll (probably) Beat Them -- Environmental Collapse

An article by Kevin D. Williams called The World Keeps Not Ending struck me as fairly insightful, and made me reflect on the fact that pretty much every day of my life I've lived under the threat of an imminent apocalypse. 

I'm old enough that I remember taking part in nuclear preparedness drills. I attended a school that had a bomb shelter. It was full of boxes of rations that, in my memories, were covered in dust. The shelter was in the basement and I recall it as poorly lit and shadowy. A lot of public spaces had fallout shelters back then. I assume some must still be around, but I can't recall the last time I saw one. Still, I grew up during the waning days of Vietnam and, while I was too young to understand much of the world, I remember nuclear annihilation being the overarching apocalypse I was raised to expect. 

But, it was hardly the only apocalypse looming. I'm just barely old enough to recall the televised Watergate hearings. There was a sense then that our government was on the verge of falling apart. I remember the Oil Crisis and the Iran Crisis. I was in my late teens, and that's when I started reading the front parts of the newspapers every day instead of just the funny pages. (For readers under twenty, ask your parents about newspapers and funny pages. It would take me too long to explain them.) I remember stagflation and the misery index, the sense that the American economy had gotten old and fossilized and that Japan was going to run the world with its supreme efficiency and advanced technology. There was AIDS, which could take out a quarter of the US population in under a decade. Then a string of other diseases, like ebola, that could spread through our connected world as a runaway plague and cripple the world. There were other dooms of the week. Swine flue! The China syndrome! Killer bees! A looming ice age! Supervolcanos! Comet impacts! Gay marriage is going to bring down God's wrath! Robots will steal our jobs! We're going to run out of food! Out of oil! No, wait! We grow too much food, creating an obesity crisis, and burn too much oil, frying the world! 

Well, okay. Actually, that last one doesn't seem to be mere hysteria. And a few of the others on the list weren't either. AIDS didn't wipe out a quarter of the US, but it did create real havoc in Africa. Robots did steal a lot of jobs, but it turns out we can and do make new jobs. There are jobs today that didn't exist when I was born. Twenty years from now, there will be jobs we currently aren't imagining. If Yellowstone decides to erupt, or a comet takes aim at us, at the moment there's not a lot we can do about it. But as for most of the other potential dooms, I'm going to write a few articles taking at look at how risky they actually are, and why and how I think we'll avoid them. 

Environmental Collapse. I don't want to limit this only to climate change, because, honestly, I worry that term is too limiting in capturing the full range of dangers to our environment. I also think the vast majority of climate change won't be avoided, but find the notion that this will lead to an apocalypse to be overblown. Humans were around during the last Ice Age. Following the last Ice Age, they spread to every continent except Antarctica. During this time frame, sea levels rose 400 feet. It didn't lead to our extinction. We also survived mega-draughts, deforestation, and species depletion. It's true that, on local levels, certain civilizations were wiped out by climate change. But, the whole arc of human history shows that we're a durable species who adapt to just about anything. In the future, because of climate change, there will be droughts, floods, superstorms, blizzards and heatwaves. And, if our climate were utterly stable, there would be droughts, floods, superstorms, blizzards, and heatwaves. We'll adapt. There will be misery, there will be costs, but, honestly, I just don't see a clear path to human extinction or any significant danger of the total collapse of civilization. 

Yes, it's going to suck to lose your whole nation if you live on some coral atoll, but, in the US, we've wiped away 1500 square miles of coastline in Louisiana. This is an area larger than Rhode Island! Seriously, we've erased an entire state's worth of land because we change the environment... not by warming the world, but by trying to control flooding on the Mississippi, stopping the continual replenishment of the delta. It's an environmental catastrophe worthy of any SF dreams of an apocalypse, taking place in a nation with a free press that has the resources to report it and an audience with a proven taste to read about disasters. Yet, while I can definitely find plenty of information about it, it's a weirdly invisible crisis. I've never heard it mentioned in a presidential debate. I've never heard of a movie star or famous singer adopting it as a cause. I can't think of a big budget film talking about the American Atlantis, nor point to Oprah featuring an author who's written a novel about a family displaced by the disaster. 

The Louisiana example is far from my only example of severe climate catastrophes failing to have much of an impact on the overall survival and prosperity of mankind. We've drained seas--Google the Aral Sea. We've accidentally created new ones. Google the Salton Sea. We turn our backs and move on and the world as it was before the disaster is mostly forgotten. 

I'm not arguing for complacency, or hopelessness. We need to keep working on non-carbon based ways of powering our modern world. But I don't think we'll get there with international treaties or carbon taxes. I think, more likely, we'll just get really good at energy efficiency. Our houses, lightbulbs, appliances, etc., are far more energy efficient than they once were fifty years ago. We didn't embrace these improvements to save the world, but because we want smaller power bills. 

Our factories are also far more energy efficient than they once were. Trump in no way intends for his tariffs to reduce climate change, but there would be an unintended environmental benefit to returning more factory production to the US. First, our power generation is much cleaner than Chinese power generation, as can be seen by any objective comparison of our carbon emissions. Second, no matter how efficiently you produce a cell phone in China, you are then going to have to put that phone onto a tanker and move it across an ocean. Transportation is a huge chunk of the world's total carbon budget. The more stuff that's made on the continent its consumed on, the smaller the carbon cost of transportation. Finally, high tariffs should drive up costs of consumer goods, leading to less consumption. Less consumer consumption, less carbon. If someone wants to show me some math proving that it is more energy efficient to build goods in China then ship them here, go for it. The economy and energy costs are complex issues, and I will gladly admit to not being able to think through every unforeseen variable.

My most optimistic hope for decarbonizing the economy within the next twenty years moves into the realm of speculation. I have faith that, sooner or later, we're finally going to invent a better battery. We'd all be driving electric cars right now if they could be charged in five minutes and had a range of 500 miles. I don't think it's big oil that's killing the electric car, it's the technological wall we've hit on energy storage. It may be that research into improved batteries is like fusion power, sucking in billions of dollars and decades of research and returning nothing but the promise that next time, maybe, we'll lick it. But, just as Tesla has had no trouble finding investors despite a laughable failure to actually deliver the product it promised in the time frame it promised, when someone does eventually invent a better battery they'll have every investor in the world throwing money at them. We'll stop burning oil because it's pricy, messy, and politically disruptive, and the super battery is just the better option. Until the super battery, alas, I think we're stuck with oil. 

Beyond climate change, however, there are other things I worry we might not adapt to quite as readily. I'm really worried about over fishing and the pollution that goes into our oceans. And, yes, climate change is definitely stressing this ecosystem, both through warming and acidification. Still, I'm even more worried about the jelly fish apocalypse. It's a thing. Google it. And microplastics, and fertilizer, and toxic metals that get introduced into the environment a little bit at a time. 

The oceans are stressed and, unfortunately, like the vanishing delta, seemingly invisible. Again, when has this ever been a subject in a presidential debate? I don't feel like the problems get the time and attention they deserve. 

On the other hand... I kayak a lot on the NC and SC coastline and I'm often amazed at how rare it is for me to see bottles or cans or other junk. It's not that I never see them. I'm almost guaranteed to see some trash on any given mile of paddling. But, the water's just not as junky as it was in the 1970s. The road sides aren't as trashy. Believe it or not, as late as the seventies, it wasn't uncommon for people to just chunk bags of trash into ravines, or throw old tires into creeks. We've done a lot to clean up our world, little by little, and now most people do gather up their trash when they're done hanging out on the beach, or hiking to a mountain top. On a municipal level, we just don't dump as much crap into the water as we once did. We're better at managing our water and our air. This is another thing that a lot of younger people in the US won't remember, but the world used to stink. Cars and trucks used to freely roll down the highway trailing smoke. Whole towns would smell like burning coal, or excrement, or the nearly indescribable stink of a paper mill. Downtown Roanoke where I grew up used to have a miasma of smog trapped within the valley. Now, when I go there, the air smells fine. We've done a lot to clean up, little by little. 

Hopefully, this incremental improvement and awareness might yet save our oceans. My wife and I cut up plastic rings from drink cans despite the long odds that they'd ever make it to sea and around the neck of a sea turtle. But, we don't cut up a lot of them because we really just don't buy sodas that way any more. We don't use as many straws as we once did. We've talked about ways to cut down on how much plastic waste we produce. And, what we do produce, we recycle. 

And maybe it doesn't matter in the least. Or maybe it's all that matters. Educate yourself to the environmental impact of your life, both upstream and downstream. Take as many steps as you can to not be wasteful or harmful. Keep learning, and keep acting. We might get through this yet. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Fitness Update--Six Years In

I think it's safe to say that the changes have stuck. Six years ago, I did a blogpost called "Lifestyle Changes Ahead."  I talked about being overweight and out of shape and resolved to change things. Each year, I've been reporting how things are going. This year: So far, so good. 

This year started with a curveball: Cheryl had to have knee replacement surgery. It's tempting to blame her bad knee on all the stress we've put on it once we started exercising, but, the reality is that the years of inactivity beforehand are the more likely culprit. Her pain really started after an 11 mile hike with a torn meniscus, and only got worse year after year, until her knee was nothing but bone on bone. She had the knee replaced in January, and, as can be expected, didn't get a lot of miles of walking, biking, etc. during January or February. My own mileage logged during those months were also pretty low. Part of it was not wanting to leave Cheryl sitting at home alone while I went out and tried to get in a long bike ride, but weather was also a factor, since this year brought some really miserable weather during those months. 

In March and April, we started getting back outside again, with Cheryl putting her new knee through its paces. We did a lot of short 10-15 mile rides in the spring while her leg got stronger. By June, we were chasing 20-30 mile rides. Last weekend, we did a metric century, 62 miles, followed the next day with a 6 mile kayak trip, and yesterday by a 10 mile walk. I think it's safe to say that the new knee works! 

So far, I've logged 1400 miles for the year, mostly biking, but with kayaking, walking, and hiking as well. Last year, I reached 1600, so I'm on track to beat that number. My goal is 1800 miles for the year, but if weather is good in November and December I might push for 2000. 

My weight for most of the year has been pretty stable. I've been averaging a little over 245 for most of the year, and not much I do seems to move that number much in either direction. 

I think there's three big reasons we've stuck to our fitness goals, despite the fact that, like most people, we'd resolved before to eat better and exercise more without following through. 

1. Being outdoors has become our default.  

Cheryl and I just like spending time together outdoors. It's really replaced watching television or hanging out with friends as our presumptive activity for when we're not working. Our weeks aren't planned around figuring out which day we'll exercise. Instead, we plan in the opposite direction. We assume our evenings and weekends will be spent on a bike, kayak, or hiking trail, and schedule the days that won't happen, either because of a conflict with another event or just because, occasionally, we need to schedule at least one day of rest. Looking at my tracking for August, we did something outside 23 days out of 31. 

2. We chose the best possible time to take up biking.

I mean, honestly, there's no bad time to take up exercise. But we started biking just as local cities were really investing in greenways. Since we've started, the American Tobacco Trail has been completed, as well as the Neuse River Trail. It feels like every time we turn around, we find a new greenway under construction somewhere within walking distance. Just yesterday, we walked on a new greenway segment in Winston Salem. The last decade saw a lot of cities invest in greenways and I hope the trend continues. Want us to spend money on hotels and restaurants in your town? Build greenways. We will come. 

3: We started our fitness activity just as smart phones and social media really took off.

It's weird how linked our smart phones and our fitness activities are. We track all our physical miles with a program called Endomondo. The stats give a tangible sense of progress and add an element of video gaming. If I do hit 2000 miles this year, it will be like leveling up! But the fact that smart phones mean that we always have a good camera with us and Facebook gives us a giant album to show off those pictures gives us an extra incentive to get outside. Yeah, some people are probably wondering just how many pictures of turtles and herons we can possibly post. But we sometimes get amazing shots, like the picture I took of an osprey eating a fish on a tree branch, just as he spread his wings to balance himself. And, the pictures are really just the tip of an iceberg of memories. Sunday, a heron launched from a branch directly above us. We didn't see him until he launched, mere feet over our heads. We didn't get a picture, but we did get a wonderful memory. 

Moving into year seven, we've got big plans. With Cheryl's knee improving with each week, we look forward to getting in more hiking. We've now got bikes that handle well on trails, so while we aren't likely to go out jumping over gullies and splashing through creeks, we've already been logging miles on paths we once could only visit on foot. We've got our eyes on long greenways in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, and have a list of other greenways all throughout the US that we're hoping to do at the first possible opportunity. 

Finally, despite all the miles we do, I don't think anyone would look at Cheryl and myself and instantly assume we're athletes. Age, body shape, and serious illness haven't stopped us from making a change for the better. We spend our days hot and sweaty, swatting away bugs, wondering where the hell we're going to find our next water fountain or bathroom. We've both gotten sunburned this year, I've been stung by hornets, Cheryl has take a bad fall, and we've both gotten muddy and scratched up in difficult terrain. And all this is so much more interesting than sitting on a couch watching television. Seriously, you should try it. 







Thursday, April 19, 2018

I waited far too long to quit my day job...

For a little over twenty years, I worked two jobs. Job one, of course, was writing. Even though twenty years ago I was unpublished, I was working hard to perfect my craft and spending a great deal of time writing, rewriting, critiquing, and submitting stories, usually for no money at all. Which is actually not all that different from my writing career now, if you change "no money at all" to "barely any money at all."

My second job was with what used to be called Kinko's, then FedEx Kinko's, then FedEx Office. It was a job I started for the sole purpose of being able to make all the copies I needed as a fledgling author. Authors starting out today may be surprised that once upon a time there was no such thing as email, and you actually had to send out printed copies of all your stories. I was sending out thirty or forty submissions a year back then. Free copies were a more attractive draw than you might imagine. And, Kinko's was only two blocks from my house. For the first three years of my job, I could walk to work. You'd be surprised at how much stress vanishes from your life when you don't have a morning commute.

Kinko's was a pretty cool place to work back then. Nearly everyone who worked there was in a band, or an artist, or a fellow author. There were a lot of creative people who talked about books and movies and music, and it felt sort of like being in college again. The pay was terrible, but in a lot of ways it didn't feel like work.

Later, FedEx bought the company, and it started feeling like work. All the hippies and artists got purged as the atmosphere became more corporate. Being able to genuinely form relationships with customers went out the window, replaced with rote scripts you were expected to recite to anyone who came through the door. Seriously, the number of training sessions I had teaching me how to talk to customers was astonishing. I can't count the times when a member of management would come up to me after I'd closed a deal with a customer and scold me for not using the "selling words" or whatever the latest code was for the scripts we were supposed to follow. The notion that I could ask a customer what she needed, she could tell me, and together we could match up our products and services to what she wanted without following an elaborate script seemed impossible for higher management to understand. Every day felt like I was living inside the movie Office Space.

Meanwhile, my writing career was taking off. One novel came out, then a few years of short stories appearing what felt like every month, then a long string of fantasy novels. Amazon came along and forever changed the self publishing landscape, changing self published fiction from essentially a money losing exercise in vanity into a viable career path.  I've sold far more copies of my self published work than I did my traditionally printed stuff, and got to keep far more money from each work sold.

And still I held onto the safety net of a day job I absolutely hated. The thing about big, faceless corporations is that they actually have decent benefits. Health insurance was a big one, and my 401k was another very attractive reason to keep plugging as long as I could.

A few months back, I finally turned in my notice. Part of it was weariness with working a job that made so little use of my talents. Part of it was being absolute sick of being expected to gouge every last dime out of customers. And part of it was the customers themselves. I say this as a person who has no doubt been a pain in the ass a thousand different times in customer service situations, but it wore me out trying to tell people how to do incredibly simple things like emailing a photo to us so it could be printed. Almost everyone who came into the store to do anything digital needed help doing the simplest tasks, like signing onto our Wi-Fi. But this was to be expected: If a person was digitally literate, they wouldn't be in a physical store placing a digital order. They'd order what they need online and have it shipped to their house for half the price of what we charged. Why anyone comes into an actual brick and mortar location any more to print photos is a mystery.

But in the end, the main reason I ditched the day job wasn't the frustration with it, but the feeling that I was missing opportunities to take my writing career to the next level. The people I know who are crushing it in self publishing just put out more books than I do. Many of them also did more appearances at conventions, and most had a larger social media presence than I did. I used to say that ten hours a week was all I needed to put out two novels a year. But ten hours a week isn't enough to put out four novels, attend 20+ cons, and do all the marketing that's needed to really stay competitive.

I just hate that I didn't quit my day job a few years earlier. My income from writing fluctuates from month to month, from really quite happy to holy cow this is horrible. But this isn't really about money. It's about doing what I love. No one will ever read the books I left unwritten during those years of working my second job. I'm going to do all I can to make sure that as many books escape my skull over the next few years as is humanly possible.

Monday, January 01, 2018

2017: A Year of Recovery and Adventure

Cheryl spent most of 2016 being treated for breast cancer. The worst of the chemo was behind her as we entered 2017 and we were eager to find out how fully she would recover her strength and stamina. Pretty fully, it turned out! We each logged over 1635 miles on Endomondo last year, the most distance we've yet tracked. February helped us set the pace, as we decided that month to walk every single day at least one mile. We travelled to Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina in pursuit of new greenways, as well as finding new routes in North Carolina like the Railroad Grade Road near West Jefferson and a segment of the East Coast Greenway near Fayetteville.

For July, we had so much momentum built up that we decided to try to log 300 miles in a single month, easily besting any month we'd logged before her cancer. We've ended 2017 having gone further than we ever dreamed when we entered the year.

Next year brings a new challenge. Cheryl will have knee surgery in January, so her recovery from that will likely mean we're pursuing less aggressive goals for the first part of the year. Still, we look forward to getting back onto the roads, greenways, trails and rivers as soon as possible. We're still hungry to see sunsets, still longing to paddle through pristine waters, and eager to encounter more wildlife. Last year we saw more deer than we could count, herons, egrets, turtles, huge dragonflies, sharks, gators, and baby raccoons. What will 2018 bring? We can't wait to find out!