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.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A very untimely review of Captain Marvel

Finally saw Captain Marvel last night. I've really fallen behind on Marvel movies (and superhero movies in general). Early on, I made a point of seeing every new superhero release while it was in a theater, and was eager for each new release. But, with the exception of Thor: Ragnarok, it's been a while since I saw a superhero movie I found really satisfying. I feel like the food critic in the movie Ratatouille, always disappointed. There's a perfect moment when the critic is asked why he writes about food since he hates it so much and he responds, with genuine passion, that he's critical not because he hates food, but because he loves it. That's me with superhero movies. I'm not critical because I hate superheroes, but because I genuinely love them.

That said, wow, Captain Marvel was terrible. The writing was simply dreadful.

1. Huge science fiction logic plot holes. So, the skrulls are looking for a light speed engine so they can go find a new home planet. Um... how did they get to Earth, exactly, if they don't already have FTL travel? And, obviously, the Kree are jumping all around the galaxy in FTL ships. Given how fluently the Skrull can imitate others, why not just steal a Kree ship?

2. A really confusing origin story. So, Captain Marvel can shoot photon blasts. She implies in her conversation with Fury that all Kree can do this, since shooting a photon blast is how she proves she's a Kree. And apparently she's been given Kree blood? But, her real power comes from the explosion of the FTL drives energy core, which turns out to be the tesseract, so fine, whatever. And her Kree mentor has been actively suppressing her full powers. Why? Apparently, instead of killing her, he's kidnapped Carol, erased her memories, and dampened her powers... for what purpose, exactly? A lot of Marvel movies suffer from lame villains with fuzzy goals, but this might be the worst of the lot.

3. An insanely overpowered hero versus very lame bad guy final confrontation. So, Carol flies through outer space under her own power and destroys space ships by punching them. Exploding nuclear warheads don't even slow her down. THEN, we get a showdown between her and the mentor who betrayed her (and don't get me started on the mentor betraying the hero cliche), and at this point he seems to be just an ordinary dude with a gun and some kind of energy shield that protects his forearm, since apparently that's the only part of his body that needs protecting. The fight lasts about as long as you'd expect it to. Zero tension, zero stakes, zero importance to the plot or character development. One could argue that the real hero battle was Carol fighting the spaceships, but this was also pretty lame. The big bad guy on the scene was Ronan the Accuser, and he basically just stands there. He's carrying a big ass hammer. Is it just for looks? Couldn't he at least take a swing? But, if it did turn out that he could give Carol a good fight, what would it matter? He had no character development at all, no motives, and no menace.

4. An origin that explains powers, but not motives. An exploding alien spaceship gives Carol her powers. I'm totally fine with that. How the character gets her powers is the absolute least important part of any superhero origin. The important part is what happened in the past that shaped that character into a hero. Spider-Man doesn't fight crime because of the radioactive spider bite. In fact, when he first got his power, he tried to think of how to use them to make money. And then, because he doesn't use his powers to stop a criminal, that criminal goes on to kill his uncle, and Spider-Man learns that he can't turn a blind eye to any sort of crime. But Captain Marvel's underlying motives for using her powers for good are... I don't know. There's a whole montage showing us how tough she is, always getting back up after getting knocked down. This is a good trait for a hero, but not exactly a motive. This is the same problem that Hal Jordan has as Green Lantern. He has a power origin, but no emotional hook that explains why he needs to be a hero.

5. The movie didn't even look good. Sometimes superhero movies are just one stupid plot point piled on top of another, with confusing stakes and lame villains, but, wow, they still looked amazing. I thought the first Avengers movie fit this. A Norse god conquers earth with generic aliens. The heroes squabble, then learn to work together. There are some explosions, the end.There's not an original idea anywhere near this script. But, holy cow, turn off the sound and just watch the movie and it's visually stunning. The set designers of Captain Marvel really phoned it in. The Kree homeworld looked like a leftover Star Trek TV set. The first big confrontation with the Kree happens in the dark and in a fog. The government facility Fury and Carol break into is just a bunch of generic hallways. It's like they spent all their special effects budget making Greg Clark look like Conan O'Brien and didn't have any money left over to do anything else. Compare the alien worlds and spaceships here to Thor: Ragnarok or either Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel knows how to make this stuff look good if they want to. Kirby, Ditko, Byrne, Perez... they've got a huge library of stylish artwork to bring to life. 

6. And speaking of phoning in a performance, Brie Larson was pretty underwhelming. A LOT of this has to do with weak writing. It's not like she was given any scenes where she could show any sort of emotional range. But Carol Danver's primary personality trait throughout the movie was her ability to make quips in the face of danger, and these were delivered without any hint of wit or timing. She's good at looking determined and tough, but the rest of the time she looks bored and detached. It might be unfair to compare her to Robert Downey Jr, but he really sells a character with a complex inner life. He can show arrogance and self doubt at the same moment, he can deliver a witty quip that is plainly disguising fear, he can openly admit to fear while drawing on a deeper courage. He can show genuine empathy for the plight of others, then switch just as quickly into spoiled asshole rich guy with the blink of an eye. When he's betrayed by his mentor, his eyes convey pain and confusion and vulnerability. And it's not that he's always given great material. The second Iron Man movie had dreadful writing, but Downey seemed to be trying to make the best of each moment he was on screen. Larson just seemed to be spending a lot of the film waiting for the next fight scene.

Hopefully, with better writing and better directing, future installments will be better. There were few hints in the first two Thor movies or the first two Avenger's films that Chris Helmsworth was much more than a living action figure. And, Carol goes into her future films mostly a blank slate. You could still write an emotionally compelling origin story. There's a certain underlying loneliness built into her established backstory. Hopefully, they'll take a few creative risks next time.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

How We Learned to Enjoy Being Sore

I wrote this in response to someone else's post and it sort of stretched from a reply into something more deserving of it's own conversation. The biggest obstacle a lot of people face in sticking to a fitness plan is a pretty obvious one: Working out leaves you aching, if not in outright pain. Sore muscles, sore joints, and noticeable wear and tear on knees and feet. Take up running or hiking and, no matter how much you spend on shoes, you're going to have to deal with blisters. You start working out because you want to be in better shape, but after a few weeks or working out you feel ten years older and are almost always dealing with some sort of new pain. Why keep pushing if it involves so much misery?
Cheryl and I went from complete couch potatoes seven years ago to biking between 50 and 100 miles a week routinely. The thing to keep in mind is that the pain you feel when you start exercising isn't really from the exercise, it's from the time you spent not exercising all those years before. Eventually your body will catch up to your new routine and it won't be so bad. We can look back on early Facebook posts and see how we talked about being wiped out after a 7 mile bike ride, or a 3 mile hike. Now these distances don't strain us at all. Yes, there are diet and hydration and rest strategies you can use to make the soreness more tolerable, but the important thing to know when you take up serious exercise is that you will get stronger and tougher and more resilient. It's just not going to happen after a few weeks or months. It might be a year from now before you realize the difference. But if you stick with it, a few years from now workouts that wipe you out today won't even phase you. Cheryl and I use tracking software to keep up with the miles we log for our outdoor activity, and there's nothing as encouraging as looking back and seeing how much further and faster we can go today than we did even last year. It's sort of a video game effect. Can we beat our high score from last June by getting more miles logged this June? It also moves our fitness out of the subjective realm (it's tough to compare todays aches and pains to aches and pains we might have felt a few years ago), and into the objective realm of documenting what we can actually do today that we couldn't do seven years ago.
So, if you're just starting to work out and are feeling kind of sore, excellent. You're on the right path to feeling less sore in the future. But, even more, you can train yourself to be sore. If you aren't used to the pain of stressing your body with exercise, it can feel like something's going wrong. But, eventually you start to view all the little aches and pains not as evidence that you're doing something wrong, but as proof that you're doing something right.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Tips and Tricks for Longer Bike Rides

 Cheryl and I are heading into our busiest season of the year for biking. Most of our biking is done in after work rides on local greenways, like the American Tobacco Trail, but we also like to get out of town to ride in some less familiar locations. Often these are pretty long rides, over thirty miles, and occasionally more than 50 miles. But, even for shorter rides, we're usually far from home, and often out in remote locations where we're pretty far from any sort of assistance if we run into problems. So, I thought I'd share a few tips for how we prepare for rides.

First up is the physical training. Maybe you've heard about the C&O Canal route, which offers over 200 miles of biking and you would like to tackle it. Or even the more modest Neuse River Trail in Raleigh, a little over 30 miles of biking. Both are great destinations, but will probably be fairly daunting if you aren't used to riding long distances. The biggest tool we used to train ourselves for these longer rides is an exercise tracking program called Endomondo. There are plenty of similar programs, but we've had good luck with this one. It's got a simple interface that keeps track of the time you've been riding, the distance, and the pace, and several other metrics. You can tweak the interface to show any of about a dozen stats. It keeps a database of every ride you make using the program, and once you get started it's kind of addictive. We used to be pleased to ride 10 miles, then we pushed to 20, then we'd aim for 30, etc. Physically, a 30 mile bike ride is probably no more demanding of endurance than a six or seven mile hike, except for the saddle issues. It takes a lot of practice to get used to sitting on a bike seat for several hours in a row. Once you can survive a full day on a bike seat, the bikeable universe expands dramatically.

As for the bikes themselves, Cheryl now has a nice bike manufactured by Specialized, but I'm still riding a Schwinn I purchased at Walmart. You don't need to spend a fortune on your bike to get something that's reliable. Basic bike technology is pretty well established, and the high dollar stuff might make some difference if you're racing, where every ounce you can trim off a bike might boost your speed, but for the sort of casually paced touring riding we like to do I can't believe it would make any real difference. If you're only going to invest in one bike, look for one labeled as a hybrid. This will have elements of both a mountain bike and a street bike, and will open up a lot of territory for  you. With our bikes we can ride on beaches (which requires wide tires), off road trails (where wide tires and good shock absorption helps), and still switch back to paved greenways or roads. We also sit more or less upright on our bikes, which is important for comfort over a long distance ride.

Once a year, we take our bikes in for tune ups. Wear and tear on the cables, chains and gears will throw things out of adjustment and tires will get a little out of true. These are things you can in theory take care of yourself, but it doesn't cost a fortune to have a pro do it right. A pro will also be able to spot things like small cracks in a frame you might overlook.

For more routine maintenance, the important things to do are to regularly oil your chain, and to regularly head to a car wash to hose down your gears. Grit and grime accumulate on the rear gears, so cleaning them off after any ride on a sandy surface will prolong the life of your gears.

Of course, if you go seeking a lot of long rides, a lot of them are in rural locations that will leave you far from your car and even further from any bike shop. So, you should always be prepared for minor repairs and adjustments when you're in the middle of nowhere. We always carry a small bike pump, a standard multitool, a bike multitool (since most bikes need hex wrenches for adjustments), and a spare inner tube for each of us on any ride that's going to take us more than ten miles from our car. I used to just carry a patch kit, but never had any long term success with a patch. I might be able to patch an inner tube and have it hold air long enough to get me back to my car, but the patched tire almost always has a slow leak that will require me to swap out the inner tube anyway. Now I just carry a spare inner tube and skip the patching part. You can, of course, invest in tubeless tires. It might save money in the long term. Inner tubes have very variable life spans. I've had two rides this year that required inner tube replacements, so it's definitely the most common repair I make on a long ride. But it's definitely not the only repair you're likely to need. On one fifty mile ride I did in May, I was riding through a state park when suddenly my handlebars slipped down. Luckily, with my multitool, it took less than a minute to fix. We've also had to make seat adjustments and brake adjustments while we're out on a trail. 99% of our rides go smoothly, but it's best to be prepared for the few that don't.

Moving back to software, we spend a lot of time outdoors, and are perhaps a bit more obsessed with weather than the average person. We aren't afraid of a little rain during a ride, but we also don't mind delaying the start of a ride or cutting a ride a little short to avoid a storm. We've used a few different weather apps, but the one that really works for us is AccuWeather. It has a forecast tool called the MinuteCast that predicts weather for the next two hours and is on target more often than not. During the summer, we spend a lot of time staring at the Minutecast and rushing out to get in short rides during gaps between storm cells. The MinuteCast displays as a two hour "wheel," and it's saved us from drenching storms on more than one occasion.

The last bit of software we rely on during long rides, and for planning them, is Google Maps. Google has a "bike" layer you can place over the map that will cause bike trails to be easily visible. It's also easy to see which trails link with which other trails to give you a long ride. On our 54 mile ride on Memorial Day, we were on at least six different trails that linked together into a more or less continuous path. In addition to planning, having Google maps available on your ride is also helpful, because a lot of greenways have terrible signage. Especially for older urban greenways, they are often built in short segments linked together by a few blocks of street riding. Sometimes the path is clearly marked, but sometimes you just hit a road and are left guessing if you need to go right or left to find the next segment. It's also common for the signs to be obsolete. All the American Tobacco Trail signs still show the connection with the White Oak Greenway as a "future route," despite it having been open for several months. Another common situation is that you'll find a portion of the greenway closed. This happened on our Memorial Day ride, when the Rocky Branch Trail we were following was closed off for construction a mile before we reached the end of it. Google Maps came to the rescue by helping us find an alternate path.

To be honest, we sort of like the challenge of a few obstacles in our planned route. Part of the fun of these longer rides is a sense of exploration. We get to see places we haven't seen before, and are often pretty far off the beaten path. We are sometimes on routes where we see very few other people, like the Awendaw Passage in South Carolina. It's good for the soul to occasionally get out where the world isn't quite so filled up. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Flunking Grade in Quiz Writing

Clicking through headlines this morning, I saw one that didn't come as much of a shocker: "American's Get Flunking Grade on Economic Literacy." I clicked on it partly because of the irony of a "flunking grade" headline containing a grammatical error. (American's should be Americans.) But then I took the "quiz." From the very first question, I knew I'd been suckered into reading political propaganda instead of any honest attempt to survey American's for their economic literacy.

During the first two years of the Trump Administration, did the U.S. economy grow faster than the last two years of the Obama Administration or slower?  Faster Growth Rate,  Slower Growth Rate,  About the Same. 

If you clicked on slower or about the same, you were then informed the "correct" answer is Faster Growth Rate. But my problem with this as the "correct" answer is that "about the same" is also a fairly accurate answer, since "about" is a reasonably broad term. The final year of Obama's term did have a relatively slow growth rate, but 2015 had a growth rate of 2.9 percent. 2017 had a growth rate of 2.6%. So, Obama's second to last year beat Trump's first year. But more importantly, if you look at a few decades of economic data as found in this chart, there's really not been a dramatic shift in growth between the Obama years and the Trump years, with the disclaimer that there's only been two Trump years. It's hardly enough to show a trend or allow for any long term comparisons. It's apparent looking at data that the growth rate for the last decade mostly bounces around in a range between 1.6% and 2.9%. The question seems designed to make you conclude that Trump has managed the economy better than Obama, but I'm skeptical that a four year span is long enough to draw any meaningful conclusions from.

A few other questions seem placed to make Trump look good as well. The second question is about the Hispanic unemployment rate. It correctly notes that the unemployment rate for Hispanics is the lowest ever recorded. But, this is supposed to be a "Basic Economic Quiz." Slicing up the data to look at unemployment rates for different ethnic groups seems outside the scope of "basic" economic literacy. I think the average person could remain blissfully unaware of the Hispanic unemployment rate and still be well educated enough to balance their checkbooks, choose a good mortgage, and save for retirement. The quiz is only ten questions long, and, for the record, does ask a question about mortgage rates, but asks no questions at all about retirement savings. For a quiz about "basic" economic literacy, it skips over a lot of basics.

But I wouldn't be writing this blog post if it had just been questions with a political slant. I'm writing it because one of the questions just struck me as presenting an answer that's mostly wrong.

5. Generally speaking, if more people want to buy a particular product, will the price of the product go up, down, or stay the same?
 The price will go up
 The price will go down
 The price will stay the same
 Not sure

The "correct" answer, according to the quiz writer, is that the "price will go up."

"Generally speaking," this is wrong only if the question is modified. If people want to buy a particular product that's only available in a limited quantity, the price will go up. So, if more people that want to own gold, the price will get higher, because demand outstrips the increase in supply. The same is true for some brand name items where scarcity is a matter of design. A designer of handbags might only release a very small quantity, creating an artificial scarcity that allows the handbags to command a high price. In comic books, publishers deliberately create instant collectibles by printing variant covers in small quantities. Artists sometimes release numbered prints, so you know that you've bought one of only 100 existing copies of an image. It's scarcity by design.

But, generally speaking, for most commodities increased demand will result in prices coming down if there are multiple people competing to supply that demand. When I first got the internet, I paid $12 an hour to dial up to a very, very slow connection. But, a LOT of people wanted to access the internet. So providers did what they could to make it affordable to broaden their customer base. Even today, providers try to undercut the prices of their competitors to attract more customers. Per minute, I pay a fraction of what I used to, and get access to a product that is so superior to what I once had that it almost feels like magic. Maybe my internet bill will go up next year. But this will be offset by the fact that I'll probably be able to download more content at even faster speeds, and as a percentage of my total income, the cost will likely stay flat, or even shrink.

Inflation makes it difficult to compare prices directly, but if you like drinking soda, good news. A bottle of soda today costs a lot less relative to your total income than it did half a century ago. I can go to Walmart today and buy a good pair of jeans for under $20, which, again as a percentage of income, is a price drop compared to what they cost in the seventies or eighties.

If a commodity doesn't have an artificial cap on its production by a variety of competitors, in general a product that's in high demand will wind up being cheaper because you can make more money with a tiny profit margin if you are capturing a broad pool of customers. Raise your prices, and you'll start losing customers to competitors offering better prices.

Finally, I would also say that the question is ambiguous when it asks about a "particular product." Demand for I-Phones have kept the price for that "particular product" relatively high. But, as a category, smart phones with broadly similar capabilities have dropped sharply in price compared to what a phone with similar specifications would have cost even a few years ago.

Fortunately, I suspect that this "quiz" will soon vanish as a needle into the near infinite haystack of  the internet, as will this blog post. But, it still feels good to get this off my chest. If you're going to write a manipulative quiz about basic economics, maybe it would help to actually understand basic economics in the first place.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Don't Wait for Perfect Days

I post a lot of pictures from the adventures that Cheryl and I undertake in good weather. Sunny days are conducive to photography. If nothing else, they have good light. Warm days also mean we're not bundled up in so many layers of clothes that pictures of us look like snapshots of potatoes wearing bike helmets. Not all seasons are pretty to look at. Fall has leaves, spring has blossoms, and summer has beaches and water. Unless it snows, our winter excursions are often through landscapes that are gray and brown and somewhat bleak.

Vere's the important thing: We probably wouldn't be outside on the good days if we didn't also go out on the bad days. If you write off going outside from November through March, you're going to develop habits that are going to make going outdoors the rest of the year inconvenient and, honestly, a little disappointing. You get outside and it's a little chilly, or kind of windy, or hot and sticky, or there are too many bugs, or thunder's getting closer. Who needs that?

Make yourself get outside three or four times a week in January and February when it's drizzling and gloomy, and you'll have a lot more appreciation for a not quite perfectly warm day in April.

Yesterday Cheryl and I took advantage of a forecasted break in the rain to get out to the ATT and grab an 11 mile ride a little before sunset. It was cold, and got a lot colder when the wind picked up. It was cloudy, so it got dark fast and we had to ride the last few miles in pitch blackness and load bikes by flashlight. When we got home, we were laughing as we undressed because to combat the cold we were wearing a ridiculous number of layers. We filled an entire washer load with just the clothes we'd had on for a single ride! I had on underwear, long underwear, and sweatpants, plus four shirts. Add in gloves, socks, shoes, a hat, and a rain coat and I probably had on ten pounds of clothing. And I was still cold!

On the other hand, we weren't the only crazy people on the trail. We passed a guy running in shorts... and he was barefoot! Still, on a warm, sunny day the trail can be so congested it almost feels like rush hour traffic. Last night, while there were other weirdo's out, they were few and far between . We could bike in freedom without the stress of passing or being passed.

Today we went for a walk on the Riverwalk. I think we saw two people in a mile and half. It was deeply overcast and gray, but there were patches of moss and grass in shades of green that could fairly be described as vibrant. No flowers in bloom, but lots of daffodil stalks that had pushed up through the leaf litter. In another week, there will be yellow flowers everywhere.

Because the trail was so empty, there were deer not ten feet off the trail, chewing buds on branches. There were four of them and they apparently really liked the branches they were eating because they kept their eyes on us as we passed but never bolted. On a nicer day, when people would have been out running the trail with dogs and kids, the deer would have kept their distance.

I don't want to oversell our toughness here. Today was 40 degrees and drizzle. If it had been 30 degrees, or hard rain, we'd probably have stayed inside. And, it was way too wet and cold to ride today. Yesterday was only about 5 degrees warmer, but it was just over the threshold of a tolerable ride. Looking at the forecast for the coming week, I see that Wednesday has a high of 38 and wind and drizzle in the forecast. We'll likely stay inside. On the other hand, Monday is a high of 59 and merely cloudy. We've already got the bikes loaded and plan to ride.

Cheryl and I study ten day weather forecasts the way some people study horoscopes. We arrange our lives around the weather, and if there's a great day amid a string of duds, we grab it. But sometimes it's all duds. My two week forecast doesn't have a picture of a sun on it until Feb 27, ten days away. There's no way we're going to stay indoors ten days in a row. We own raincoats. Might as well use 'em.

Today's weather was dismal, but the deer and the moss made for a pretty good walk. That's the important takeaway here. If you wait for the perfect day to go out and take a walk or a ride, you're going to let a lot of pretty good days sneak by you.

And, hey, at least in February there are no mosquitoes.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Best Photos of 2018: Big Pictures

Lots of time outdoors this year. Sky, water, trees, sand are more of a living room to us than our, you know, living room. It's good to get out into places where there aren't any walls around you. 

Cheryl started the year with knee replacement surgery. Two weeks later, she walked her first mile on the new knee and never looked back. 

Okay, so yes, some of the place we went did have walls. They were still cool. 

How this lone tree managed to grow in by itself in Lake Mattamuskeet is kind of a mystery to me. There are a lot of islands on the lake, and trees in the water near the shore, but this has to be the loneliest tree ever. 

We were on a bridge on the Hillsborough Riverwalk and happened to look straight down to find this deer having a snack. 

This is the first year we've had mountain bikes and they let us go places our old bikes couldn't take us. But when I hit this "bridge" on the Eagle Spur trail I found out just how far my sense of adventure could take me. This far. No further. I turned back rather than trying to ride across or wade through slime. 

Here we didn't even have a bridge!

This is from the first snowstorm of the year, when Cheryl was still recovering from surgery. I think it's just the trees in my front yard.

We saw more dolphins this year than any other year I remember. Getting a good picture is almost impossible. If I'm on a kayak, I'm bobbing too much to hold the camera steady, and if I'm on the beach even with my maximum zoom all I get are small bumps in the water. Still, this one isn't bad. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

Our Biggest Threats Part Three: Plague!

Plague is a pretty reliable stand by for science fiction authors when they need a plausible apocalypse. After all, it's happened before in history, and we don't have to go to ancient history. In our lifetimes, 70 million people have been infected with AIDS, and 35 million people have died.

Go back only a century, and you find 500 million people infected with flu in 1918-1919, with 50 million people dying.

Which is why, on the whole, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about civilization getting wiped out by disease. Nature takes its best shot at us all the time, and for the most part we just shrug it off. This doesn't mean it's not tragic if you or a loved one is one of the millions claimed by a modern plague, only that it hardly qualifies as an apocalypse if the world, for the most part, carries on. Let's say a truly devastating mega-disease breaks out next year that has twice the death toll of the 1918 flu, wiping out 100 million people worldwide in a single year. This sounds devastating, but in a world with 7 billion people, close to 98.5 percent of the population isn't going to be killed by the disease. Subtract 100 million people from 7 billion, then round up to the nearest billion, and you're still at 7 billion. We'll carry on.

Now, there are a few arguments in favor of a deadly plague spreading. First, we're a much more mobile world than we were in 1918. Plague can spread from continent to continent in a matter of hours. Second, our current crop of antibiotics is under great stress due to evolved resistance and there's little reason to think that new antibiotics are going to show up in time and abundance to counter the tide. Third, in the wealthiest, most educated nation on earth, it's become fashionable among a segment of the population not to vaccinate children.

The counter arguments: Disease might be more mobile, but so is information. By the end of the first week of the new plague, everyone on earth will have heard about it and heard how not to contract it. Antibiotic resistance is a genuine problem, but can be countered in part simply by following good hygiene practices. We know more about not contracting these infections than ever before. And, most plagues would be spread by viruses, which aren't affected by antibiotics anyway. As for the vaccination resisters, part if the reason such stupidity can spread is that vaccinations have been so effective that most people have never met anyone with one of the diseases being vaccinated against. It's easy to question whether a polio vaccine is necessary if there are no cases of polio at all in your state for the last fifty years. But let even a handful of cases show up in a modern school system and I predict vaccinations will become all the rage again.

Ultimately, our biggest defense against a modern plague isn't some new vaccine or drug. It's our own biology. Humans have been around a long time on the planet and gotten pretty good at fighting the various microbial threats that lie in wait for us. Just as importantly, a lot of these microbes have gotten good at surviving simply by becoming less lethal. A microbe that kills its host quickly and in massive numbers will have a pretty short run. Our second best defense beyond our own biology is good government. Lord, that's kind of chilling, isn't it? But, seriously, despite my best libertarian, free market instincts, I have to admit that government run water and sewage systems have probably done more to end the spread of disease in the US than any other innovation. The biggest reasons a truly devastating modern plague is unlikely are porcelain toilets and clean tap water.