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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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Ghosts

 With Halloween only a few days away, I've of course been thinking about ghosts and other dark matters. 

Specifically, I've been thinking about dark matter. There's been some advances on a modified gravity theory that seemingly eliminate the need for dark matter. You can read about it here

I'm certainly not a quantum physicist, just a science fiction nerd. I like to read about this stuff, and misunderstand it just enough to warp it into semi-plausible mumbo jumbo. I'm milking the heck out of parallel universes in my current work in progress, Dragonsgate: Spirits, with a lot of the action taking place on a parallel wilderness world where humans never evolved. 

All the "wizards" in my Bitterwood/Dragonsgate setting use nanotech for their magic. Effectively, nanotech is magic dust. A little sprinkle will heal wounds, change hair color, or even turn you invisible. Current nanotech does none of these things! But, if you say, "In a thousand years, the technology will be able to do this," well, you've given yourself a buffer before anyone can legitimately say, "Nuh uh!" Accurate science is the bane of science fiction writers. The sweet spot is in the gray area where ideas are definitely not right, but not completely wrong.  

Over the years, I've used some passing references to dark matter in my science fiction. In one book a character mentions that the existence of parallel universes has been proven because dark matter is the gravity from these other universes leaking into our own. It's not at all a serious attempt to explain dark matter, or parallel universes, but linking two scientific ideas that readers don't really understand somehow makes both sound more plausible. 

This morning, I've been thinking of a new way I can abuse dark matter for story purposes. In coming up with my fictional explanation I've stumbled onto something that seems weirdly viable to me. I completely lack the expertise or tools to know if it's possible. So, what I'm presenting is more speculation than science. Still think it's an interesting idea. 

The biggest obstacle to understanding dark matter is that we can't see it on either a large scale or a small scale. We see gravitational effects that hint that there should be clouds of massive particles surrounding galaxies, but the dark matter itself can't be seen. Of course, there's nothing special about outer space. If dark matter is the majority matter of distant galaxies, then it should be the majority of all matter here in our own galaxy. At least some of it should be found on Earth. Yet, after decades of building ever more sensitive detectors searching for these theoretical particles, nothing is turning up. 

But: What if dark matter is ghosts? I'm not talking about dead humans that flutter around in sheets telling people to change their wicked ways. Instead, I'm thinking about the theoretical vacuum particles that are said to constantly bubble up and instantly vanish in a vacuum. The thing about empty space is there's a great deal of it. So, what if, in any given square kilometer of empty space, at any given second, one of these vacuum particles bubbles up and turns, for the most fleeting fraction of a second, into a massive particle. If it has mass, it has gravity. Then, the particle vanishes. But, would the gravity vanish? Gravity takes place over universal scales. The tiny gravitational pull of the particle would still be spreading out from the point of origin at the speed of light, even though the particle itself would no longer be there. This happens again and again and again, trillions of time every second throughout space, particles arising, vanishing, but the gravity sticking around. 

Then, we look through a telescope and see light being bent by this gravity. We know that there must be some particle generating the gravity, but the particles are long since gone. New ones are still arising, of course, averaging out so that the gravity seems to have a consistent, persistent mass, but if you actually wanted to see one of these particles, you're out of luck. They'd be too widely scattered and far too fleeting to ever be detected in an area of space and time that humans could monitor. We'd need a building the side of a planet to hope that one of these particles might pop up during the decade or so we can devote to looking for it before funding gets cut off. 

I'm sure that some physicist can explain the hole in my thinking here. The biggest hole is probably that I'm thinking of gravity like a radio signal, transmitting out from a new particle in a wave, with the wave remaining after the particle is gone. Gravity doesn't actually transmit like a radio wave, it's more like a dent in space, and once the particle is gone, the dent is gone. Yet, I don't think gravity acts faster than the speed of light. Something links the gravity of my own body to the gravity the Jovian moons. If I were to somehow vanish by falling into a parallel universe, subtracting my mass from this solar system, would an observer on Europa detect the gravity change instantly, or would they not discover that until 45 minutes later, the time it would take for this altered information about the universe to reach Jupiter? If that's the case, wouldn't a vanished particle from a thousand light years away have tickled the detectors of every planet it passed through during those thousand years? What am I missing? 

My other problem with my own idea is that I don't know how you'd ever prove it. How do you find the ghost of a particle that no longer exists? 

Anyway, it might be useless as science. But, don't be surprised if one day soon I write a book about a cosmic dragon explaining dark matter. In fiction, an idea doesn't have to be right. It just has to be interesting! 

Dumb Science Fiction Part 3: Workers of the Future, Unite! (Wait, where is everybody?)

 In my last two posts, I wrote about some of the dumb motives science fiction writers give to aliens (they've come for our water!), and about some of the stupid clich├ęs that persist around robots, who we keep trying to imagine as looking and acting just like us. 

Today's post again tackles motives and robots, but this time I'll be going the opposite way and arguing that science fiction is strangely devoid of robots stepping into human jobs fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years from now. 

It's a fairly common trope to show poor human laborers working in drudgery in some futuristic setting while a few spoiled elites cruelly rule over all. We live in a world where we see this happening all around us. Jeff Bezos gets richer than God, while his warehouse workers work for subpar wages and have to pee in bottles since they are denied bathroom breaks. The family that owns Walmart controls more wealth than the GDP of entire countries, and pay their employees so poorly they still qualify for food assistance. And the American workers are lucky! A non-trivial percentage of the stuff sold by Amazon and Walmart is assembled using actual slave labor in places like China. The rich owe their wealth to the exploitation of the poor, this is how the world has always worked, and imagining nothing will change a thousand years from now seems like a fairly safe bet. 

However, there's a counter current to all this. When mankind first started farming, building cities, or fighting wars, the key to power was manpower. If you wanted to build a stone fortress, you needed a lot of men to do the labor. But around 1750, the dawn of the industrial age, some wise people came to the realization that people suck as workers. They goof off if you cut them any slack, run away if you whip them too hard, and complain endlessly. They get sick, get drunk, and die pretty young. And they eat up a lot of profit. Literally. Their fuel system is hideously inefficient. You want to feed them only enough calories to carry a sword or plow a field, and they keep using those calories to make body heat, heal their wounds, and make babies. These meatbags are the biggest obstacle to real wealth! I mean, people probably knew this before 1750, but there really hadn't been any alternatives. Then, boom, machines. One guy driving a tractor can now sow and harvest a field that used to require a dozen workers. A single mechanical loom turns out more cloth in a day than a whole warehouse full of weavers used to produce in a week. Carting a thousand tons of coal any significant distance used to require hundreds of men, oxen, and wagons,  and now a crew of maybe a dozen men can move it a hundred miles or more via locomotive. Of course, you need human laborers to lay the ties and tracks... until more and more of that process gets taken over by machines. Ah, but you need humans to build the machines! Except, really, in a matter of decades, most machines are being built by other machines. 

The real history of civilization over the last two-hundred years hasn't fundamentally been about the wealthy finding new ways to exploit human labor. The bigger trend has been that the wealthy have been most passionately exploiting every opportunity to reduce and eliminate human labor. If your job requires muscles to perform some task, say, pulling inventory off shelves in a warehouse, don't count on that job to be around fifty years from now. They didn't really need your muscles to pick up that box. We've known that machine power beats muscle power for centuries. What we really needed from a warehouse worker was his eyes and his brain. If you send someone into the warehouse to pick up a pallet of toilet paper, we needed a machine that knew what a pallet of toilet paper looked like. Fifty years ago, the only machine capable of that recognition was a biological one, human eyes connected to a human brain. But now, machines have better eyes, and they are quickly developing better brains. I'm not talking about a robot brain that superior because it can do all the things a human mind can do, but one that's superior at a task because of all the things it can't do. When the robot forklift goes into the warehouse to find the toilet paper, it's not going to stop to chat with coworkers. It's not going to be daydreaming about dinner and forget what it came back to find. It's not going to sneak out the back door for a smoke break. It's going to do the one thing I knows how to do, execute a command. 

Maybe you're reading this and thinking, man, it sucks to be a warehouse worker in this day and age, being made obsolete by technology. Good thing I'm a brain surgeon! Yeah, good luck with that. I'd argue that you're maybe two decades away from being replaced by machines entirely. Machines already have superior sensory capacity, agility, precision, and endurance. Highly trained humans used to be needed analyze an x-ray or interpret lab results. Now, artificial intelligence is starting to be used to assist in these functions. The work of hundreds of trained technicians measuring little dark splotches and writing up reports on whether or not they've found tumors is giving way to two or three techs who check behind the computer that has already highlighted all the tumors it found. Today, it's maybe two or three techs per hospital. In a few years, it will be two or three techs serving a dozen hospitals.

In fact, as I'm typing out what's going to happen in the future in medicine, I realize there's a real possibility I'm already a decade behind the times. This week, I went to the hospital and when I checked in I noticed they had a weird mounted camera I'd never seen before on my side of the check-in glass. They asked for my permission to scan my retinas! So now, in this hospital system, the day is coming when I'll check in just by letting a machine scan my eye, look up in the database my reason for being there, and I'll probably get a text telling me what room I need to go to. The row of people sitting at desks to check people in won't be there a decade from now. 

We're in a moment when technology makes human mental and physical labor obsolete at accelerating speeds. Yet, obviously, people still have jobs! A ton of them require manual labor! There are more people working than ever before in human history! 

Which is true. As machines free humans from repetitive drudgework, we've so far proven quite adaptable at inventing new work to do. The result has been a stunning advancement in the quality of human life. I know that in inequality of wealth makes the relative poverty of some people stand out, but by any objective historical standards we do a stunning job of getting food into people's bellies. Around the world, more and more people drink clean water than ever before, and they live under roofs they aren't sharing with chickens and goats. Democracy also has worked out stunningly well, allowing the crafting of laws that protect citizens from automobiles that push their steering columns though people's chests in collisions, or from snail oil tonics made of actual snake and petroleum. 99.9 percent of the food you purchase in grocery store won't be teaming with parasites and vermin droppings! And, if you find some that is, no problem, assuming you cook it in your stove that works simply because you turn a knob, not because you spent all morning splitting firewood or gathering dried cow patties. For anyone complaining that 2020 was the worst year in human history to be alive, honestly, I don't understand how anything but a willful and carefully cultivated ignorance of any history predating your own birth can explain your point of view. 

At this point, it might seem like I've forgotten the actual topic of my post, which is bad science fiction. My rant so far has been building to this: a lot of far future still shows people doing jobs that almost certainly won't exist in the time period portrayed. I can't tell you the number of science fiction films I see where someone is working as a miner, a soldier, a doctor, or even the pilot of a spaceship. I promise you that when we do have interstellar spacecraft, they will not have steering wheels or joysticks. Humans might still be allowed to pick destinations, but all the actual piloting would be done via computer. The idea that a pathogen spewing, microorganism breeding factory like a human doctor would be allowed to be in the same room with a patient is absurd. Human soldiers are already starting to play the role of bait that draws enemy fire so that drones can come in and do the actual enemy killing. As for mining, arranging for the food, water, and air that would allow humans with jackhammers to mine an asteroid is much more complex task than just designing the right machine for the job. Only, it won't be us designing the machines, we'll just feed some specifications into an engineering AI and it will spit out a few designs. Some committee of humans might still have the glorious job of picking out one of these options. Then the designs will be transmitted to a factory where robots will produce the machines without human intervention. 

Labor as we know it today will only exist as a luxury good. Some humans will be cooking, cleaning, and sewing suits for much wealthier people, even though machines could achieve the same or better output. There's just a subclass of humanity that will always enjoy flaunting their prestige by casually mentioning that they have maids and nannies and personal chefs. I also think we'll still pay people to be entertainers. There will probably be good income to be made from politics. Some of these politics will involve carving out special protections for human workers against all reason. There are still states in the US where the law requires that gas station attendants pump gas instead of allowing people to do it themselves. We'll likely have human postal workers into the 22nd century even though every single step of the mail delivery process could be either automated or eliminated altogether. 

I don't completely lose my ability to enjoy a science fiction story if it's set on Mars five hundred years in the future and one of the characters has a job as a police officer. But if you really want to delight me as a consumer of science fiction, show me that you've really thought about the work your character does. Show me you don't just know your character's motive for being a xeno-surgeon, but  have given real thought to why the job would exist in the first place and why a human is a better choice for the job than a robot. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Dumb Science Fiction Part 2: Aliens are Stealing Our Women! And Water! Or Whatever!

As a writer, if I had to name a single definitive requirement of good storytelling, it would be motive. Why characters do something is just as important if not more important than what they do. So, when science fiction writers want to write a story about aliens, they often try to give them some simple, easily understood need that they've come to our planet to fulfill. Sadly, these simple motive are usually really dumb. 

The Martians ran out of water on their world, so they've come here to take ours!

The Martians are an ancient, dying race, and they need to breed with our women to revitalize their genetic stock!

Or: Oxygen! Nitrogen! Silica! Or maybe they really like fish, and have overfished their ocean world. Maybe they need slaves to work in their moon mines! Or maybe they just need to take our moon, since the moon of their own word got blown up by accident, and ours is just the right size and mass for a replacement. 

The reverse also pops up: There's an element available on planet X we don't have here on Earth! There's a floating sulphur shrimp in the clouds of Venus that contains a protein that can cure cancer! The nouns can be replaced with nearly any other nouns. Whether they come here and we go there, the motive is always that something is available in one place, but not available in another place.

And why not? That's the historic reality here on Earth. Tobacco was available in America. Tea and spice in India. Oil in the middle east. Cod in the North Atlantic. Different places have different resources, and the imbalance between these resources creates conflicts, which is a valuable commodity that authors cherish above all else. 

But what works at the level of nations and in the past starts breaking down if you scale it up for science fiction. Sailing from London to Charleston to purchases something to smoke is closer in scale to walking to the corner grocery store for cigarettes than it is to travelling to another solar system in search of a resource. The cod of the North Atlantic and the silk of Japan might seem quite distant when we instinctively measure the world by how far a single step can carry us. On interplanetary scales, the cod and silk are located at the same tiny blip on the star map. 

What's more, the cod and the silk are made of exactly the same thing. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and a handful of other elements mixed together in slightly different ratios, but still all made of the same building blocks. If your neighbor owns a life-sized Eiffel Tower made of Legos, and a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex made of Legos, you don't have to steal his Eiffel Tower to have your own. You just need a lot of Legos and a pattern. 

This is the ultimate barrier to resources being a good excuse for interplanetary travel: the whole galaxy, and every planet in it, every comet, star, and speck of interplanetary dust, is made of Legos. And by Legos, I obviously mean atoms. These are not a rare commodity for any civilization capable of interstellar travel. There is zero point in travelling to Earth to steal our water, because the universe has water everywhere. If you come from an alien world that's getting a little parched, you don't need to go through the hassle of sucking up our oceans. First, it's guaranteed that there's still an almost endless supply of water on your world. Maybe you've contaminated it with heavy metals or pathogens, but, if you can develop the technology to invade a distant world, you can probably also develop a much cheaper and more efficient technology to decontaminate your own water. But maybe there's some science fictional handwavium reason your planet destroyed its water. You were testing an experimental teleporter and, uh, sympathetic vibrations in the water molecules of your alien lab rat caused all water on your world to vanish. You absolutely must go off planet for more! Fine. Check out the cloud of comets around your solar system, since it's probably how your planet wound up having water in the first place. Just go lasso a few of those and you can refill your oceans in a geological blink of an eye. 

What's true of water turns out to be true of everything once technology advances far enough. You don't need silkworms to make silk. You need to know how to arrange the most ubiquitous atoms in the universe into the right order. If you were an advanced enough civilization to come  here and steal women to repair your genetic code, it's a fairly safe bet you can just rewrite your genetic code without the absurdly silly step of trying to mix it with an entirely different species. If we did discover a miracle protein in Venusian sulphur shrimp, if a Venusian sulphur shrimp can manufacture it inside its cells, we'll be able to replicate it inside a test tube. 

Any substance you can dream of, it will be easier for an advanced civilization to build it at home than go to another planet to get it. And, I'll be generous, and say that "at home" can include easily exploited neighbors, like moons and asteroids. 

So why would we ever need to explore other worlds? The only legit reason I can think of is that, while we can manufacture anything we dream of, our capacity for dreaming has limits. Maybe it's child's play to manufacture the wonder drug found in Venusian shrimp once we know it exists. But a giant barrier to knowing it exists is that the Legos we play with can literally create an infinite number of possible shapes. We could build the most powerful AI ever designed and task it with the duty of imagining potentially useful molecular configurations, and a million years from now it still might not have given us the shrimp protein. No matter how good we make our AI, the universe itself is a creation engine that's been running for fifteen billion years or so, which gives it a head start on making cool stuff.  

Exploring other worlds, we wouldn't be mining them for their resources. We'd be mining them for information. We'd be on the hunt for alternative instruction manuals on how to make new materials out of the same building blocks we've always had in our grasp. This isn't something you need fleets of warships to bring home. A few autonomous drones could collect samples, and a orbiting chemistry lab could send back the recipes via coded laser pulses. If we do it right, the aliens would never even know we were there. 

Which is equally true going the other direction. Right now, there's no reason that we aren't absolutely crawling with tiny alien seekers exploring every nook and cranny of our world, from the ocean's depths to our small intestines, looking for molecules they've never seen before. 

Alas, I just can't imagine selling a lot of tickets to a science fiction epic called Mars Wants Molecules!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Dumb Science Fiction Part 1: Robots

 I say this only because I'm a serious fan of the genre: A lot of science fiction is just dumb as hell. 

I've got a long list if impossible or impractical technologies and tropes that I see again and again in science fiction, to the point that these dumb ideas aren't some rare aberration in the genre, but defining characteristics. The list is pretty long. Human-like aliens. Time travel. Faster than light travel. Settlements on biologically active alien worlds. Most teleportation. Telepathy, telekinesis, and other psychic phenomena. My subject for today's rant?

Robots. 

First, robots should be a science fiction success story.  Predicted over a century ago, they've been integrated into every aspect of our lives. They are in our homes, our workplaces, our grocery stores, and our driveways. A robot is simply a machine capable of carrying out a series of complex actions automatically. A drive through carwash is a robot (or series of robots working together). Your Roomba is a robot. My wife's car is part robot. It can adjust its speed automatically based on sensors detecting the speed of the car in front of it. If she strays over a yellow line, the car will automatically nudge itself back between the lines. This sort of automated task that can be done without human guidance beyond the initial programming, and repeated again and again, is the defining quality of a robot. 

Of course, not everyone agrees with this definition. Webster's has "device that automatically performs complicated tasks" as it's second definition. The first definition is "a machine that resembles a living creature." This is the legacy of science fiction. A century ago, scientists had visions of automated machines doing labor. Writers heard this idea, and since the main thing they knew about labor was that it was performed by humans, they imagined these machines doing human labor as naturally looking like humans themselves. They'd need eyes, ears, mouths, hands, legs, and all the other natural tools of humans. I've got a lot of appreciation for old science fiction and their visions of artificial men. They were working in a realm of pure ideas, with no actual first hand experience with robots. 

But, it's one thing to write about the artificial men of the future in 1920. To still be writing about them in 2020 requires an almost willful blindness to the actual history of robots. We've been interacting with Automated Tellers since the 70s. Factories have had robots building everything including other robots just a long. We've been exploring Mars via robot for decades. None of these robots look like us. 

In science fiction, you still see humanoid robots who have jobs driving your car or cleaning your house or solving crimes. And robots actually do these jobs, but there is zero reason to build a fake human to perform these functions. It all comes down to engineering. A good machine is a machine has only the parts required to function properly, and nothing more. A human body is an embarrassing collection of utterly unnecessary parts for most tasks. I need my hands to type. My legs, meanwhile, are just useless meat while I'm working on this post, consuming calories just to stay alive, on standby until I need them for something else. If you were to build a typing robot, why give it legs? 

Of course, typing is just a method for translating thoughts to words. Why bother even building a robot with fingers to accomplish that goal? If I want to send a text but my hands are full, I don't need to speak to a humanoid robot that's going to use it's artificial fingers to type the message for me. My phone will just translate my spoken words into written language and send the message. 

Fifty years ago, if I were a science fiction author imagining a robot replacement for a radio DJ, I might have plausibly imagined a mechanical man who fingered through albums, pulled records from sleeves, and manually placed them onto turntables. Even though, if I'd walked into any diner, I could have seen a jukebox performing all these actions without resembling a human being at all. Today, the machine that serves the same function doesn't even require moving parts. I just tell my smart speaker to play something I might like, and the music plays. 

Building humanlike robots as some sort of all general purpose extra human is a terrible engineering solution for nearly any imaginable task. Sadly, we're never going to pal around with Bender, Data, and Optimus Prime.

Except, now that I've argued how dumb the idea is, there are some reasons we might still have robotic best friends in the future. The first, most obvious path to their adoption is that children play with dolls, and dolls that talk and move and replicate human functions like feeding and even pooping are valuable commodities. Especially if we face future pandemics, and parents come to fear that their children interacting with other children is a death sentence, you could find a market for dolls that exist to be your child's best friend. And, it's possible that children who socialize with lifelike dolls grow into adults who still desire the company of lifelike dolls. 

Which tiptoes toward the uncomfortable reality that the industry where people are putting the most effort into building lifelike human replicas is probably the sex industry. Bender might not be a plausible robot, but Futurama might yet be right about humans having romantic relationships with mass produced celebrity replicas. 

And, as long as we're going to be accepting that some people might enjoy the company of robots, there's also the sad truth that we might build robots to be companions for people that other people don't want to spend a lot of time with, like the elderly. 

Finally, I'm sure someone has already thought of one more exception, which is that just about everyday there's some news story about a robot being built so life like it can have a career as an actor or as a receptionist in an office building. Don't be fooled. No one is building robots to be actors. Why film a robot to project an image onscreen when you can just create the same image on screen digitally? No one is really needing a robot for a receptionist, either, any more than you need a humanoid robot sitting at a kiosk inside a bank to help you withdraw money from your account. The job of a robot actor or robot receptionist isn't acting or recepting, it's hoodwinking. It's something flashy that gets a company into the news and gets investors' excited about putting their money into a company building the future. 

There. I've made my case. Filling your science fiction with robots is dumb. Glad that's off my chest, and looking forward to humanoid robots no longer appearing in science fiction starting tomorrow! 

PS: Before anyone points this out, yes, indeed, there are humanoid robots in some of my science fiction. What can I say? If I were immune to the appeal of dumb ideas, I wouldn't have decided to make a living as a writer in the first place! 

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

From Couch to 1000k

Chalk art in the tunnel beneath Yates Store Road on the ATT.

Back at the beginning of September 2012, I wrote a post titled "Lifestyle Changes Ahead."  I was overweight and out of shape and I swore, seriously, for real, this time I was going to change my life and start eating better and exercising more. 

As I wrote it, I thought, who am I kidding? And, if I did exercise, I was imaging it would mostly be in an air-conditioned gym on a treadmill. I recall that summer biking from Herndon Park to O'Kelly Chapel Road and back. This is a four mile round trip and I had to push my bike on the last quarter mile. I was drenched in sweat and wondering just how anyone could enjoy biking in the summer. Nor did it seem like biking in winter would be any fun, and of course it rains all spring. Maybe biking was something I might do a few times a year during four or five nice weeks in the fall. 

The one problem with gym treadmills was that Cheryl had introduced me to an app called Endomondo that tracks exercise via GPS. You actually have to be outside moving for the exercise to count. And, on a treadmill, it's really easy to stop after ten or twenty minutes. Outside, if you walk a mile up a trail, you've got to turn around a walk a mile back. You can't stop just because you feel like stopping. By March of 2013, I managed to log 57 miles of walking in a month! 

In April of 2013, Cheryl and I got back on our bikes. We only did one ride that month, but it was 13.4 miles, all the way from Herndon Park to the White Oak Trail Head and back. And we did it in under 2 hours! In May, we did more rides, including one that was 24 miles, an unbelievable distance only a year before. 

We kept biking similar distances through the summer. We slacked off once winter arrived, but I was turning fifty March 2, 2014 and wondered: Could I ride a full 50 miles on my 50th birthday? Yes. Totally. It was a real test of will around mile 30, when my butt was sore from sitting so long on my bike, my hands were getting numb, and my legs were getting rubbery. But doing this ride was a breakthrough. I think, until this point, biking had been exercise. But, once you discover you can sit on a bike for six hours of forward motion, the world opens up, and biking becomes a way of exploring the world. 

We started travelling, riding trails throughout NC, in Virginia, SC, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky. We've got Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi on our to do list, and are eyeing trails in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. One day we want to ride every open segment of the Great American Rail Trail. Biking isn't a chore. It's not even a habit. It's part of our life and our identity now. 

The things I thought of as barriers to biking have transitioned into rewards. We bike year round. The 90 degree heat of North Carolina summers doesn't imprison us on our couches.  Once you're sweating, as long as you keep moving forward on a bike, you've got natural air conditioning. You don't really feel the heat until you stop for a break. Hydrate, wear sunscreen, and push on. If we're really lucky, we might get rained on. Riding through cool rain on a hot July afternoon is simply marvelous. 

Each year, we've pushed a little further than the year before. Even when Cheryl dealt with cancer, then knee surgery, she always managed to bike a bit more as she recovered. A few years ago, we managed to to cover 300 miles in a single month! Last year, I was able to average 200 miles a month to reach 2400 miles logged for the year. I mean, it would be hard to top that, right? What was I going to do? Start biking 400 miles a month? 500? I spent most weekends at comic book conventions, selling my books. There were practical limits to how much time I could spend on a bike, right? 

Then Covid-19 shut down conventions and opened up my weekends. At the beginning of June, I thought, this is it. I'm going to log 500 miles this month. I didn't make it. I know I said a few paragraphs back that it's pleasant to ride in summer rain, but that's only true if you're already biking when the rain hits. Starting out in the rain is something only crazy people do. And it rained a lot in June in the evening hours when Cheryl was getting off work, thwarting ride after ride. So, I only made it to 400 miles that month, which was still a record I was proud of. 

I really didn't even try for 500 in July. Despite saying that heat isn't a reason to stay off your bike, mid-afternoons in July in NC are brutal. You can still grab miles in the morning, and we did some after dark rides vial flashlight to beat the heat and lot 379 miles, which is the second longest distance I've ridden in a month. 

Then came August. Ever since I've lived in North Carolina, if we're going to have a truly unbearable heat wave with days topping out above 100 degrees, it's going to hit in August. But, this August we lucked out. It was hot and muggy, but most days topped out near 90, which, on a shady trail like the ATT, is perfectly fine biking weather. I got off to a good start, logging almost 200 miles in the first ten days of the month. Reaching 500 was in my grasp if the weather held out.

It held out. Cheryl had taken off Monday, August 24 with the goal that we would attempt a century ride that day, which is 100 miles. The weather was glorious. It rained most of the morning, a light drizzle that kept us cool and kept other riders off the trail. We finished with a little daylight left, and me just shy of my 500 mile goal. And I still had a week left to ride! 

So, I rode. Could I make it to 600? Sure. That's where I was sitting yesterday, as I met Cheryl after work. Remember how I said only crazy people would begin their ride in the rain, especially if there was thunder? It was raining when we started our ride, and raining when we finished, and for the miles where we weren't actively rained on, we were staring at ugly, ugly storm clouds churning on the horizon. Our phones started blaring weather alerts warning us of flash-floods. We slogged on. Cheryl knew that at the end of the ride, she'd be at 550 miles for the month, and wanted that 50 mile milestone. Never underestimate the power of a pleasing number for motivation. 

I was also aiming for a nice round number. I rolled into the parking lot having covered slightly more than 621 miles in a single month. 621 might not strike the average person as a round number, but for the nerds among you, you no doubt instantly translated that into 1000 kilometers. 

As I was riding uphill yesterday toward Herndon Park in the driving rain, I was thinking a lot about the ride in 2012 where I'd needed to push  my bike up that same hill. I was eight years older on this ride, but felt twenty years younger. I'd gone from August spent sitting on a couch to an August where I spent over 70 hours sitting on a bike. 

I'm so, so unbelievably grateful to 2012 James Maxey and his four mile ride. I owe a great debt to the James Maxey who walked 57 miles in March 2013. Those were the first steps on the journey to my current self. Hopefully, 2028 James Maxey will look back on the person I am now and see my 1000k month as the beginning of an even grander adventure. 

Of course, I haven't made this journey alone. One big reason, probably the main reason, that I've kept moving forward is because of Cheryl. She's had far more serious health struggles than I've dealt with, and shown a level of grit that I suspect surprises even her. If anything, she's even more obsessed with pushing us a little further than I am. I tend to get in more miles than she does, but I work from home and she still has a full time job. When I see her cover 550 miles in a month while working full time, I can't help but think if she had an extra 40 hours a week she'd probably have us aiming for 1000 miles in a month. Last night, when she pulled into the parking lot where we met after work, rain was spattering her windshield. We huddled over over her phone, looking at the weather radar. Dark red storm cells danced all around us, but a thin band of light green rain covered the first three or four miles the trail we'd ride. Maybe the weather would clear as we rode? Or, maybe it would get worse. We'd both already gone well past our original monthly goal of 500 miles. If we skipped biking and went and celebrated our great month with some well earned pizza, no one would blame us. 

Cheryl got out of her car, unloaded her bike and together we rode toward the storm, already soaked, feeling a little crazy, and grinning ear to ear.  

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Struggling with the Whiteness of Classic Literature

For anyone who believes there aren't giant ongoing structural barriers to Blacks feeling like full, equal members of American society, I'd like to inform you as politely as possible that you are utterly disconnected from reality. You might look at Black Americans and think, well, what barriers are left? Congress and the courts have passed laws ensuring that Blacks can vote, and that discriminatory practices like redlining are no longer legal. But, gerrymandering by both Democrats and Republicans conspire to ensure that, while Blacks can vote, they do so in areas where one party has a lock on local elections, effectively giving them no real choice for who they are going to vote for. Laws that prevent felons from voting even after they've served their time disproportionately hit Blacks. Redlining might not be legal any more, but there are still "Black" neighborhoods in most cities where property values are a fraction of surrounding areas. When these parts of town get improved, the "improvement" seems to consist of white people buying property once occupied by Black people, restoring or razing them and building something new, and selling it to other white people.

These problems disturb me, but when I start groping about for solutions, it gets difficult to think of any remedy for discrimination that doesn't turn into more discrimination. When it comes to neighborhoods being gentrification, what would a viable solution be? Ban white people from owning property in certain areas? Require neighborhood quotas? I'm not worried about the ramification of "reverse discrimination." But what would happen to the property values of black people if you legally excluded half of the population from bidding on their homes?

There is, however, one problematic area where I do think there's a solution. There's no question that there are different educational outcomes between black and white students. If you're white in America and enjoy reading novels, you're in luck. You've got centuries worth of literature written by white authors who assumed they were going to be read by white readers, even if they weren't consciously aware of this. An author like Jane Austen was writing about the mating rituals of a white elite. Black people simply aren't part of the picture. A great deal of literature fits in this box. From War and Peace to the Wizard of Oz, there's a nearly infinite well of books that feature white protagonists and never give a second thought that other races exist. If you're a white child reading these books, the whiteness of the protagonists never even crosses your mind. But if you were a Black child, you probably notice at a fairly early age that all the heroes in older books are white.

And God help you if you're a Black child and your class reads a "classic" that actually contains Black characters. Edgar Alan Poe is a great and important writer, but his portrayal of a Black servant in "The Gold Bug" is cringeworthy. He's shown as a comic figure, mangling the language, and too stupid to know his right hand from his left. (Literally. This is a plot point, that they initially fail to find the treasure because the black character couldn't tell right from left.) On the other hand, Poe practically invented the short story, and was a great influence n horror, science fiction, and detective stories. Leaving him out of the broader literary cannon would be like trying to study biology without any reference to Darwin.

Mark Twain wrote a powerful book with an anti-racist theme in Huckleberry Finn. Yet, his primary Black character mangles the language, believes in superstitious mysticism, and makes stupid choices again and again. In fairness, so does the white protagonist, Huckleberry. I can't believe that, if I were a young, black reader, I'd take comfort in this. Especially if white classmates were reading it, I'd imagine slogging through this book would be agony.

In book after book, when black characters appear, they are poor, stupid, or immoral. I'm currently rereading Look Homeward Angel. The "n-word" gets thrown around casually and frequently. In the section I'm currently reading, the minor Black characters that appear are mostly servants and maids, and the author mentions the way they smell numerous times. I don't think that Thomas Wolfe was writing from a position of overt racism. I think he was primarily recording the world he lived in, and reporting the racism because it would have been dishonest to pretend it didn't exist. His characters are racists for the same honest reason that some of his characters are abusive drunks.

In the book club I'm part of, First Monday Classics, we try to include books by black authors. But since a sizable chunk of the books we focus on predate the 20th century, a lot of black authors from that era are understandably focused on slavery. White authors were free to write about anything they wished. King Author! Trips to the Moon! Cowboys! Treasure! Romance! But if you were a Black author, pretty much you write about slavery. It's possible that slavery was such a vast psychic scar that Black authors simply had to grapple with it in their writing. But I also wonder if this mono-subject was the product of white readers, who only bothered to pick up books by black authors of the era if they are going to be about slavery and racism, since these are the only subject matters they thought that Black authors could speak to authoritatively. White readers simply didn't care what Black authors might have had to say about love or family or nature or God. (I'm not certain this is very much different today.)

Yet, despite the lack of diversity, I find great value in old literature. Old books are a kind of time travel. They let you see the world as it was through the casual observations of writers who might not have even been aware of what it was that they were recording. Poe never intended to document the naked, unblemished racism of his day, which makes it all the more illuminating and instructive. I encounter people on social media who claim that today is the worst time in American history, that our politics are terrible, that we're more racist, sexist, and class divided than ever before. This seems as willfully blind to reality as those who pretend that everything's fine. Books like The Jungle or Grapes of Wrath remind the reader that, as rough as things can seem now, we've dealt with worse problems in the past and turned the dial at least a little toward a fairer, more just world. If you don't grasp the past, you'll be utterly baffled by the present.

To quote Look Homeward Angel, each and every one of us is born upon the "spearpoint of history," feeling that we're the culmination of history, not quite grasping that we're still collectively writing the opening pages of the story of mankind.

Still, as much as I love old books, wow, I wish that the "classics" weren't so overwhelmingly white.

I think I know one source of the problem. It could be changed tomorrow by an act of congress, but it won't be, so I'm not under the illusion that identifying the problem is going to lead to a fix. But, one reason the cannon of literary classics is so stubbornly white is copyright laws. There's a reason some classic novels stay in print for centuries. There's a reason I can walk into any bookstore in America and pick up a book by Jane Austen. Older books are part of the public domain. Any publisher can reproduce them and not pay royalties. Free material equals bigger profits! There's a financial incentive to keep classic literature in the hands of readers.

Copyright exists to protect creators, and ensure that they alone earn revenue from their creations. But, this used to be a fairly limited window of time. Copyright lasted decades. Then, in 1928, Micky Mouse entered the world. Since then, copyright law has been distorted, extended again and again, so that most work created from the 1920s is still covered by copyright.

The unintended effect is to create a sort of literary dead zone. Books written before the 1920s are relatively easy to find. Even if they are obscure, someone somewhere has scanned them in and made them available online. This creates a vast library of freely available works... from an era when Blacks were extremely limited in their access to publishing, and restricted in the subject matter of what they could write about.

But the 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance. It saw an explosion in black authors, and some of these authors, like Langston Hughes, are still in print. Others fell out of print, and current law makes it difficult to put them back into the literary cannon. We're talking about authors who might be dead for fifty, sixty, or seventy years. Legally, to republish their work, you'd need to track down every family member who might own part of an author's estate. This is a tremendous barrier to rerelease an obscure book that might sell a few hundred copies. Since no one can republish these works, few scholars write about them. Why study an author that no one else can read unless they are willing to dig through antique stores searching for crumbling copies of long forgotten books?

To protect a mouse, we've condemned thousands of authors from one of the most exciting eras in American life to invisibility and obscurity. If a book was written in 1935, and had fallen out of print and can't legally be reprinted, did it ever really exist?

I honestly don't think many authors would suffer if copyright laws protected work for their lifetime, plus maybe twenty years. If this change was made, I suspect that a huge trove of older novels by Black authors would enter the public domain. Books that haven't seen print in decades would suddenly be available as free downloads online. The best of these would soon appear as prestige, scholarly print editions accompanied by literary criticism. It's true that there would also be white authors entering the public domain, but so what? There are likely underrepresented voices there as well.

I know this seems trivial, like I'm throwing a teacup of water at a bonfire and expecting that it will do anything at all. But I can't help but think that the horrible racial imbalance in public domain books is one element in the disparities in education. White children have a vast library of public domain stories where white heroes do any number of wonderful things. Black children have a public domain of slave narratives and white authors who treat their black characters like dolts or kindly pets or exotic savages. Both races have equal access to the great library of mankind, but one race has their story told as a rich tapestry of heroes, and the other has an unending list of insulting stereotypes and nakedly offensive language, when they are depicted at all.

Old literature is an ongoing conversation, the way the past speaks to the future. What we write to day answers this, and gets passed on to the future. We can't change what these old voices said, but we could, with a simple change of copyright law, bring more voices into the conversation.

Friday, January 17, 2020

My Impeachment Rant

This is the third impeachment process I've encountered in my life. I was just a kid when they were making the case against Nixon (who, I know, wasn't technically impeached). My main interaction with it was that the hearings preempted Gilligan's Island when I got home from school so I had to just go outside and play. Still, I remember all the adults in my life talking about it. I don't even remember my family being all that active politically, but I remember there being some sort of family gathering it was the topic of discussion for all my aunts and uncles. It felt like something really big, but not something I had any hope of understanding. 

I was an adult during the Clinton impeachment. This was riveting stuff from beginning to end, partly because it was a story breaking right as the internet was turning into a real medium for news. It was basically an all you could eat buffet of coverage. I remember arguing with my friend Greg, who insisted it was a hack job by Republicans to toss out a president they didn't like, and that the sex element was the only reason anyone cared, and of course it was no big deal Clinton had lied about having sex. Even if he had lied under oath, it wasn't in the course of his presidential duties, but a civil trial unrelated to his office. I wasn't as sure that the purgury wasn't a big deal. I gave those in favor of impeachment the benefit of the doubt that maybe they were really upset about a crime that pretty much everyone agreed had occurred. But, ultimately, when he wasn't convicted by the senate, I felt that this was fine. It just felt too much like a personal failing and not some sort of intentional betrayal of the nation. 

And now with Trumps impeachment... it feels just weirdly lost in the noise. I see posts about in on Facebook, but I don't stumble onto people talking about it in real life. But, that's true of a lot of politics. People rant on Facebook, but when I'm at conventions or parties or hanging out in a bar with friends no one is all that eager to talk about politics. The kind of arguments I could have with Greg seem like a long distant memory, when I could hold different opinions on matters of policy, vote for different candidates, and champion radically different visions of how the world should be and we'd still be friends. If anything, we might even have been better friends than if we'd been in lockstep. We both appreciated the other person keeping us on our toes. I didn't argue with him so much to prove him wrong as I did to find out if my arguments and opinions had any merit or internal logic. But, back to Trump, my larger point is that, in my personal circles, it just seems to be far in the background. 

Which is odd, because I feel like the case against Trump is far more consequential than the one against Clinton, but also far more debatable. I don't think you need to commit an actual crime to be guilty of abusing the power of your office. I think that's kind of the point behind labeling something "abuse." Sure, we give the president broad powers to conduct foreign policy and criminal investigations. There's a reason the articles brought by the house don't feature any actual transgressions of criminal statutes. But, the lack of crime doesn't indicate a lack of abuse. We invest a president with these powers intending for him to use them for the country's benefit, not his own self-advancement. 

Conversely, we elect politicians knowing that they will do things that benefit them politically. The list of deals and double-crosses and dirty tricks employed by past presidents is pretty long. The idea that Trump was trying to dig up dirt against Biden, or even just to slander him with completely false and malicious accusations, doesn't strike me as beyond the pale. Maybe I'm jaded. I'm much more bothered that he'd withhold foreign aid to try to strong arm Ukraine, but this is where things get murky, since Ukraine claims not to have known they were being strong armed. Right now, I think the piece of evidence that's lacking to make this a simple, clear cut case of abuse is that much used phrase, "quid pro quo." I feel like the thing that's missing is an actual transcript or recording of anyone of consequence in the administration saying to anyone of consequence in Ukraine, "You will do this or you'll never see the money." Hints and implications and hearsay aren't enough for me. Why the house didn't go to court to compel testimony and documents from Bolton and Giuliani mystifies me. I know it would have dragged things out, but holding onto the articles of impeachment for a month doesn't demonstrate any serious urgency. New evidence is emerging. Why didn't they fight things out in court and continue collecting the evidence they must know is out there and bring the charges in April or June or August? Take the time to do it right. Relying on the Republican led senate to summon witnesses that you didn't bother summoning feels like a very bizarre strategy. 

On a far more cynical level, for all the talk of Pelosi being a political genius, the other huge advantage of dragging the investigation out several more months is that, if Ruth Bader Ginsberg passes away, Pelosi would have had the power to just shut down the Senate for a month or more to keep them from being able to process a new nominee. 

For a closing thought, I don't feel like this has been a very traumatic event for the nation. Maybe things will change over the next few weeks, but I feel like people had their sides going into this and no one is changing their minds. But I also don't feel like anyone is trying to change minds. The connections between the two factions have been severed so that people just talk to their fellow partisans and either curse or ignore the other side. Everyone plays to their base. As a political outsider who belongs to neither party, I feel a little sad that no one bothers to try to win me over to their side anymore. I'm very, very open to hearing good arguments. I'm open to long and complex chains of logic that might not change my mind, but at least make me believe that the person arguing is sincere, thoughtful, and fair. Tweets and sound bites and memes are all that's left, it seems. Man, it makes me feel old. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

Best of 2019: Flora

One of the most wonderful things about travelling with Cheryl is her eye for spotting flowers. I can't tell you how many rides we've completed where I've not seen a single thing I thought was worth taking a picture off only to have Cheryl show me a dozen or more breathtaking shots. Most of these are just taken with her cell phone, a Pixel 2XL. It's a good camera for a lot of situations, but these up close detail shots are definitely one of its best features. 

























Best of 2019: Landscapes and Sunsets




















Adventure 2019 Part 2!

More memorable moments!