Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

You're not funny.

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Maybe I'm just more sensitive. Maybe it's the election. Maybe it's a lot of people feeling insecure and having to put someone else down. I don't know why this kind of joke is suddenly a lot more common.

I don't care why it's more common. Just stop.

Don't tell me you're just kidding, or that it's just a "good-natured" joke. Don't use a ton of inverted commas to try to distance yourself from the ugly racist and discriminatory joke that was just told.

Sure, you're entitled to have an opinion. You can tell me to "lighten up" all you want. I still laugh at America's Funniest Home Videos - mostly. I laugh at Terry Pratchett's books, at authors talking about were-jaguars and how they got agents. I laugh when my son calls quiches "egg pies". I laugh at the stupid things my hair does in the morning, or the antics of our cats and dogs.

Those things are funny. But not these jokes I keep hearing again and again.

But these aren't just rude or dirty jokes I'm talking about. These are demeaning, mean jokes.

Somehow, you making a wetback joke, you making a nigger joke, you making a joke demeaning women or gays or Catholics or Jews or Muslims... somehow those just aren't funny.

Sure, you have a right to say the jokes. Absolutely. I have just as much a right to let you know that your "good-natured" jokes aren't funny.

And, because I'm white, and because I'm male, and because I've had opportunities all my life because of the way I look and the way I talk and the assumptions people make about me, I have one hell of an obligation to let you know you're being a discriminatory ass.

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A few months ago, I stumbled upon a documentary of Sargent Shriver. What struck me most - aside from the sheer number of lives he touched, the vast number of lives he improved - was that he saw problems and fixed them.

When did we lose that?

When did we lose sight of the goals, the point of the United States? When did we stop believing in ourselves and in our abilites to work toward a goal? When did we start settling for the way things are instead of the way things should be?

Yesterday, I talked to some educators and administrators about a new program here. I told them about the need to let us innovate - but to support us even when we make mistakes. I told them how bureauracracy must serve the goals of our organization, not the other way around. I told them that we could no longer accept "that's just the way things are." We must realize, I told them, there is only the way you and I are doing things right now, and that is in our power to change at any moment.

Yesterday, I told a co-worker that racist jokes are not okay. Yesterday, I stood that ground even as another co-worker tried to tell me to "lighten up". Yesterday.

Yesterday, I ignored the talking heads, the commentators and analyists. I half-heard some of the speeches, and only reluctantly allowed myself to be drug into the room for Sen. Obama's speech. Yesterday I heard a man committed to goals - real goals - instead of being committed to ideology. I heard a man committed to solutions instead of positions. Yesterday, I heard a man be more gracious to those who oppose him than they have been to him.

So I remember yesterday.

And I think about what we can do today.

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How to tell an elitist

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If you are not yet reading John Ridley's Visible Man, you probably should be.

He wrote a great little examination about where the tipping point of elitism is. Why was Dubya not seen as an elitist, whereas John Kerry was? He goes through several examples and possible reasons, but I think it's pretty darn simple.

If you know someone's smarter, richer, or otherwise better off than you - AND YOU THINK THEY KNOW IT - then they're called elitist.

Give that metric a try. I think you'll find that it explains a lot - both about who gets called an elitist ... and about the person doing the namecalling.

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Teaching Changes

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Crossposted between ideatrash and polishing the gem city with a dirty t-shirt. Because, y'know, this is important.

Have I mentioned that I like Mr. Fingerhut?

I supported him back in 2004, and was glad to hear that he was appointed to office in 2008. Since then, he's made (and continues to make) quite a ruckus in the postsecondary (read: college & university) system in Ohio. His plan has a couple of key points that get extra kudos from me.

1) Portability - Earn credits at any university or college, and they'll transfer to any other. As someone with over 480 credit hours (through military training and prior university experience), but no degree... well, I like this idea. It also acknowledges the class-leveling effect that colleges *should* have, allowing folks to go to community colleges for some basic requirements before moving to a four-year university. This kind of transition has had a stigma in the past - even spurring the development of
Resources for Educational and Employment Opportunities ,
an organization to specifically counteract it. This kind of plan will help put us all on a level playing field.

2) Access - It doesn't matter how affordable and transferable your credit hours are if you can't make it there. Transportation is a huge issue for many people. Not just people in rural areas, but even for people who can't afford cars in urban areas. Again, postsecondary education is supposed to be a class-leveler. It is supposed to work more like a meritocracy than any other section of our society. Whether it does or not is a different story; ensuring access is one step closer to that goal.

Mr. Fingerhut is, ultimately, right. Education is historically one of the best ways that a society (through its government) can invest in its people. But we must remember that this is not simply a matter of adding more professors or building more buildings.

This is where the research my wife and I have been doing comes in. My wife has been studying the structural factors that make it more difficult for first generation college students to succeed in college. She presented some results back in 2006. I'm quite impressed with her work - but it's also hers to talk about.

My research, which is expanding this fall, is looking into the scheduling needs of active undergraduate college students. The results of a preliminary study are online, after being presented at two regional conferences and worked into a national newsletter. The short, abbreviated result? I found a group of students that need daytime classes only, and a group of students who need anything *but* daytime classes.

This is especially poignant, because I hadn't intended on continuing this research right now. But two evening classes that I had signed up for were canceled out from underneath me. My wife - in her role as a professor - had an evening class she was to teach canceled due to "low enrollment" as well.

But here's the thing - administrators treat these classes as substitutes for daytime classes, and they're not. My research suggests that those students who signed up for evening classes aren't merely daytime students wanting another class. These are people, like myself, who *cannot* sign up for daytime classes due to other obligations.

You know, like jobs. To pay for the college education.

If we're serious about access and portability, we cannot - MUST NOT - ignore the structural effects that impact first generation students and those who cannot take classes during "normal working hours".

That is my challenge to Mr. Fingerhut and Ohio's postsecondary education system. Now, with the restructuring going on, is the time to make the change.

Will they take this opportunity or squander it?

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Assuming Tolerance

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"Do you know how to pray?" my customer asked.

I was glad she couldn't see me. I was just far enough around the corner getting supplies. I felt my puzzlement flow across my face.

"Why, yes, ma'am."

"Then start praying for me now, it's going to be a hard day."

I knew it was going to be a hard day for my customer. But I still didn't know what she meant. Was she a Hindu? Buddhist? Shinto? Taoist? Muslim? Jewish? I suppose that I could stereotype, since she was pale and blonde. Even that left a lot of uncomfortable territory. Catholic? Protestant? What *type* of Protestant?

This wasn't - and still isn't - some semantic mental masturbation. I've been told that "praying to Mary is heresy". Without arguing the theology of it (because I tried, and the people who say that aren't impressed), would that person appreciate a rosary said to ask for their spiritual strength? With the "prayer chains" that spring up - would they be offended if a Buddhist or Muslim prayed with the same intentions as the rest of the chain?

This problem comes up repeatedly with Christmas cards. We have deeply Christian friends, we have Wiccan friends, and we have atheist friends. Is the spirit of the wish - "it's the thought that counts" - enough? Or is it sheer hubris on our part to presume that everyone else is like us, that they understand we don't mean it in an oppressive way.

"Okay, ma'am," I told my client as I came back around the corner. "I'll pray for you today."

"Thanks," she said with a smile.

"Hail Satan," I replied.


No, not really. Sheesh. I was confused, and vaguely disconcerted by her assumptions. Obviously she didn’t know what faith tradition I followed – she had to ask if I knew how to pray. But she assumed that if I did, of course I prayed the same way that she did.

I tried talking about it to one of my co-workers. “But that’s a reasonable assumption here. Most people are Christian.”

“Which,” I replied, “only makes it worse for those who aren’t.”

My co-worker shrugged. “Oh well.”

It seems like I made some assumptions of my own.

Bearing my demeanor

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The nurse read off the list of questions in a monotone of bored statements. "Are you having any pain. Do you have a cough. Have you been running a fever. Have you experienced nausea or vomiting. Have you had this test done before." While all her questions were technically the correct things to ask…tonally, they were completely wrong.

At my business, I take phone calls and approach customers with a manic zeal. When Shelia from Accounting calls, saying "This is Shelia from Accounting and..." I will break in with a hearty "Hell-ooo, Shelia in Accounting!" After telling customers about our services, I preface my questions with: "Okay, now it's time for the interrogation room scene!". It's corny. It's silly. And I almost always get each customer to smile at least once.

I asked the nurse if something was wrong, if there was a reason she was so monotonal. She flushed, and admitted that she hadn't slept well the night before. Neither have I, I thought, but didn't bother to say that aloud. I smiled and expressed my sympathy.

My co-workers sometimes wonder why I describe myself as an introvert. I seem to always be manic and cheerful around the office. "It's an act," I tell them, and they laugh. They think that I'm joking. But I'm not - and that's what makes it effective. Because it's a persona, a character that I play on the stage of my workplace, it doesn't matter how I feel that day. It takes a lot to get my professional demeanor down.

But here’s the problem: It is a drain. By the time I get home, I'm often grouchy and grumpy. I don't want to "interact" or do much of anything; I am a bear woken unexpectedly from hibernation when there’s no honey anywhere in sight. I may have gotten the trick of being personable with customers - but being able to sustain it at home is something else entirely.

I know enough to realize the need for the act at work. It’s not just business sense, but it’s also just being a decent person. Figuring out how to maintain that afterwards, when I’m not at work anymore… that’s the work/life balance issue that I need to address.

Meta notes: Gotta love the clowns in that picture, huh? And 2k words yesterday (rough), with two shorts re-edited from advice from GenCon. Not counting the blog or the business speeches/presentations I wrote. Not bad at all.

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Chicken Rampage - a 100 Word Story

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For this week's weekly challenge, I wrote a 100 word story on the topic "Chicken Rampage". Yes, it's a boatload of funny this week. As always, you may read, hear, and vote for all entries (including mine!) at the 100 Word Stories site. You may read my story alone below, and hear my story alone at this link. Thanks for reading, and remember to vote for your favorite!

Dusty air scraped its way into my throat while I ran. The scales covering the herd's bodies blended with the ground, except where blood spattered around claw and tooth. They hunted in herds, using the rough sandstone outcroppings as camouflage. It wasn't fair.

The reverse scriptease experiment had worked too well. Too many genes were reverted too far back. In two weeks our peaceful flock had morphed to a 65 million year old ancestor. They were not prey, and we were fit to be fried.

The rooster cawed through its dinosaur mouth. I ran faster, wondering what I'd taste like.

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My GenCon without Games

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"Y'know, Steve, I hear you can play games at GenCon."

We laughed, because he was right. During most of the time I was at GenCon I was not playing games, watching costumes, or in the Dealer's Hall. I was mostly at the Writer's Symposium.

And I had a blast. I stumbled across it last year because I signed up so late, and it was the central point of my GenCon this year. It does, however, lead to less-interesting pictures than those who hunt down chainmail (or stormtrooper) bikinis.

So if you're interested in seeing what those authors really look like (yes, the books do not just write themselves), feel free to gaze with joyous abandon at my Flickr set.

Just beware. The carpet may gaze back at you.


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Religions, Guns, and Alcohol

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Religion, guns, and alcohol are all the same.

Before firing off that angry e-mail or scathing comment, wait just a moment.

All of the three have something at their core that can be useful and good. All of the three have also been horribly misused for absolutely awful things. Alcohol has led to debilitating alcoholism - and every good social occasion and celebration in modern American history. Guns have been used in the most horrific massacres and genocides - but were also used in practically every fight to escape oppression. Religion has been used for horrible violence and awful amounts of intolerance - but also used to spur people to make the world a better place.

Alcohol and guns - while sometimes blamed for the bad things that happen - are usually seen as tools. The items themselves are neither good nor bad - but can facilitate both. Religion, however, is seen as its own monolithic structure - some kind of capital-T Truth.

It isn't.

It's rather silly to think that all faiths are equally correct and valid. (You can have one or the other...)Obviously, some of them are less correct than others. Some of them are arguably completely wrong. But whether your religion is right or wrong isn't the point here at all.

Even if you think your version of faith is the only "real" one, it is impossible to ignore the good works and real faith shown by others in other faith traditions. Likewise, there is no faith tradition that is without oppression, prejudice, or violence somewhere in their history (or current membership). This duality is something also missed by the snarky pretentious atheists, who seem to forget the French Revolution, Stalin, and Mao.

All of these systems - regardless of the "truth" of what they represent - are tools. They are things that allow people to do works greater than themselves... but those works may be either good or evil.

Last weekend, two couples shared a table near me at a restaurant. They spoke of their faith - loudly enough that I could not help but hear them. They had a new pastor, who had revitalized their lives, and strengthened their faith. They had made donations, and even sponsored a charitable mission to build houses. And were also espousing their own not-very-forgiving values about downtown Dayton and the "different" (read: Black) people who were down there. This dichotomy annoyed the crap out of me. As I have pointed out elsewhere, why are some Christians getting worked up over gay marriage, but not over the sin of usury committed daily by "payday lenders"?

But still, I cannot pretend that those who are prejudiced would be suddenly free of their bigotry were they to become agnostics or atheists. I cannot pretend that hypocrisy would disappear if religion did. To paraphrase The Man In Black: "No good. I've known too many atheists."

We must struggle to accept both the good and bad in others, and that the tools they use are not the persons themselves. When we recognize religious systems as tools - tools to do works, tools to gain faith - we can recognize that the outcome may vary from person to person. Hand two people the same tools and materials, and it's rare that you'd get the same end results.

How dare we expect anything different from religion?

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Learning from Gamers

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I have played in two utterly horrible games at GenCon.

I've played in several good ones - and both the number and quality of good far outweighs the bad. But these bad ones were both horrid and similar enough that I want to analyze them.

Both were horror games - though one was billed as straight 3.5 D&D (grrrrr). The common theme in both was that there was no hope. No matter what we did, no matter how inventive, creative, or resourceful we were... we were utterly doomed from the start.

"Oh, you felt railroaded," said all of my friends when I told them about the game. "You always have some of that with con games. It's because you only have four hours."

While there is a time constraint - and it is the important job of the GM to impose a narrative structure when you've got a bunch of strangers playing a game - it is possible to do this without feeling hopeless.

I ran two games for the first World D&D Day. Neither one was created by WOTC, though I used their maps and minis. The first was a relatively straightforward high fantasy game (with a twist), the second was a darker, more horror-themed version. Both have relatively simple plot structures, but the PCs were able to take actions that had an effect on the plot.

It was possible - even likely - in both of my games for the PCs to fail. But it was equally likely that the PCs would succeed. The antagonists would move on a predictable timeline if the PCs did not - so there was no possibility of stagnation. But again, there was hope.

In the bad game I played this year, my character was trapped. He awoke in a stone chair, in a featureless circular room. Every move he made, he took electrical damage. No matter what he tried - insulation, moving slowly, etc - the damage was the same. So he started searching the walls for a way out. Finally he found one - the outline of a door.

"But it doesn't open from this side," the DM chortled. "You go unconscious, and wake up in the chair again."

I'm not sure what emotion that torture porn was supposed to evoke. Dread? I've played in games where dread was a constant companion - but it was dreadful because we might not make it... but we also just might. A sense of hopelessness and futility, a sense of utter despair, is simply not horror. It's a cheap trick.

Look, here's my advice for running a horror (or any) game at a con:

1) Horror is hard. Avoid it if you can. The con atmosphere isn't conducive to it, and you run the risk of getting idiots who play horror as if it's comedy. Start with basic tropes that most people are familiar with. Horror stuff shouldn't require you to also be familiar with Roman history, Fantasy shouldn't require a working knowledge of your imaginary kingdom's history, and Sci-Fi stuff should include lots of handwavium.

2) Simplify the plot. Make it to the point where you feel it's too simple. It's about right for a 4 hour game, then.

3) Spend about half the time setting up expectations, relationships, and generally getting the PCs to care about each other. Maybe a small prelude thing where they band together against a common (but amazingly weak) foe. Establish and reinforce the relationship between characters and their spouses, and so on.

4) Use the rule of three. Do something twice to establish a pattern, and then in the third act, twist it unexpectedly. Act 1: Spouse shows affection for PC when leaving for mini-adventure. 2: Spouse shows affection for PC when they return. 3: Spouse, infected by zombie virus, wants to eat PC's brain.

5) Leave room to both succeed - and fail. Plan for the most probable outcomes - but have more than one. The PCs should be able to EITHER succeed OR fail - but the outcome is in thier hands.

6) Be obvious. I *hate* puzzle games. I played the original Alone In the Dark for hours - only to give up in frustration because I could not continue. There was some needed item I hadn't picked up at the beginning, and couldn't get back to it. That was pre-emptive karma for the times I was a GM. I was frequently too subtle for players, who simply had no idea what was going on. While some folks like that kind of winnowing of the red herrings in a campaign (Hi, Rob!), at a con everyone is by necessity a casual gamer. Use broad, obvious strokes. A surprise (the "honest employer" is actually using you to provoke a war) is doable, but the clues should be pretty blatant from a GM's point of view. Rule of thumb: If you think it's too obvious, it's just about right.

7) Don't be clich├ęd. And damn it, if you're determined to run that Ravenloft game, you better advertise it as such and absolutely NOT do the damn "wall of mist" thing. Want to really spook your PC's? Lose the wall of mist. Have it be a random doorway. Or an arch. Or crossing a stream. Or a mirage in the desert. Meanwhile, have bits of mist... well, be bits of mist. That would be fun.

8) Never, ever explain what's going on out of character until the last 10 minutes of your time slot. I mean, really.

Follow these guidelines, and I think your con game will improve mightily. Disagree? Agree? Have your own tips and guidelines?

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Combination is Creativity


"What's this mean?"

John Helfers
had flipped over the card and was reading the front of it. On the back, I had scrawled the URLs of my favorite fiction podcasts - paying markets that I hoped these authors would take advantage of. The only paper I had was my hipster PDA - for which I use business cards. My business cards.

Crap, I thought. He's going to think I'm a complete and utter blatant schmuck.

"Oh, I carry those around to write notes on." It's true - I rarely hand them to anyone. When I ran out of 3x5 cards, they were a ready source of binder-clippable paper.

"No, this line. What's 'random synthesis' mean?"

It is at the end of my last panel attendance of the con. People are swirling around us, and I have to get back to the hotel. "I put strange things together," I said, and felt like I'd just described Mozart's Requiem as "a song."

Before leaving, I had a professor ask me to think about what creativity is. He knew I'd be around writers. As the panels continue, creativity came up indirectly. The short version?

  • Something unexpected

  • Extrapolate to extremes

  • Twist something that's commonplace

  • Shove things that aren't normally together into one entity.

All of these are vaguely Hegelian, especially the last. Two things come together and form something new. _Star Wars_ gets credit for this (A New Hope). All that mythic stuff that Campbell talked about is smashed into science fiction. The result was a movie nobody had seen before. (Yeah, I know it had been done in fiction - it's just an example.)

All stories are this way. What if X happened to Y? What if X was Q instead?

Writers - creative people in general - do evoke emotion, summon experiences, and provide escapism. But they do all that by smashing together things that weren't together before. I've been told that I was "creative" for most of my life, despite nobody being able to explain what "creativity" really was. I would usually reply that I wasn't creative; I just put wierd stuff together and making it work. Y'know, like where sandworms and Arrakis made an appearance when I ran Star Wars D6. Or fuzzy bears and a slave economy. Or Nostradamus, LSD, and colonial America. Or - more seriously - using cooperatives in a capitalist system. I always used to denigrate this ability, to say that it was some weird thing. But it isn't weird. It's something fundamental and Hegelian, to take two opposing things and come up with a new fusion of the two.

So I know now what I should have told John.

"What does random synthesis mean?" my memory of him says.

"It means," imaginary me says, "that next year I'll buy you a drink and explain."


Are you in a SEP zone?

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A customer left to wait after returning at our request. Departments not being made aware of new customers, trash left on the floors and equipment not put away.

All of these - and more - can be found in so many industries, in so many businesses.

All of these are evidence of a Somebody Else's Problem zone. SEP zones are, IMHO, created when there is a lack of trust or information. Perhaps the person feels that they will then be responsible for *all* problems of one type. Maybe they don't realize why someone else's job is important. Perhaps they are completely unaware of the other parts of work around them. Or perhaps the person feels put upon, or is engaging in revenge politics with others around them. Sometimes SEP zones are better known as "It's not my job" zones.

Regardless of the motivation, SEP zones must be stamped out.

There is a real fear, though. The perceptions and worries of those under the SEP field must be addressed concretely and seriously via the Yes, and... methodology. Otherwise, the SEP field will be more evident and more forceful without an external enforcing authority. Lip service "venting sessions" that do not provide concrete solutions or real resolution are only going to make things worse.

When there is not a SEP field - that is, when things are good - there is a work environment more like a Pauline marriage. Let me explain - St. Paul is repeatedly misquoted by mysogynists. While he did write that women should be submissive, the next line says that (in effect) husbands should give up everything to be complete servants to their wives. It's a relationship of mutual dependence and selflessness.

It is, in short, an environment where everyone cares about everyone else. It's also a relationship that breaks when one party gets to be selfish again - or one party THINKS the other is going to be selfish again.

We should hold the rough outlines of the whole job in our heads. Firstly, that helps us appreciate the others who contribute to making our work possible. Secondly, it allows us to anticipate shortfalls and gaps and move to make them irrelevant. Otherwise, our own slices of the whole job will be unable to continue because our "suppliers" will be woefully behind.

The equation is frequently misunderstood as "If I help someone else, I will be less efficient." But if you do NOT help another, then ALL will be completely inefficient. If you do help your co-workers, associates, and team-mates, then everyone can resume normal productivity. Since no-one can do their entire job entirely by themselves, the "normal" productivity should be measured when everyone is helping everyone else.

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Breaking and Entering - 100 Word Story

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For this week's weekly challenge, I wrote a 100 word story on the topic "Breaking and Entering". As always, you may read, hear, and vote for all entries (including mine!) at the 100 Word Stories site. You may read my story alone below, and hear my story alone at this link. Thanks for reading and voting!

The ground vibrates from the bombs. We huddle in the corner, my children crying beneath me. Mother's picture shakes from the wall and shatters.

The blue of sky, the clean rocky mountains - all is obscured by the dust and fire of the bombs. The chalk of collapsed buildings is on our tongues. My children do not know why the men run with rifles, do not understand the destruction.

Vehicles rumble down the street. I pray silently to the Virgin to protect us. I pray harder than even when Josef died.

A hard boot strikes the door.

I close my eyes.

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An alien nation

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It's pretty common for people to feel good about being at conventions. Being in a new and interesting place, being away from the everyday concerns of life... all these give a sort of magical feel to the experience.

But there's something else - the knowledge that if I say "Like a leaf on the wind...", most people will get it. Or the t-shirt that says "Jesus saves... and takes half damage." Or the shirt I'm wearing now - a dinosaur and ninja shirt. Yes, dinosaurs and ninjas.

But these things would, at best, get a grudging acceptance from my everyday contacts. We can go a step further - I'm hanging out with writers, which has its own demands and travails that simply don't make sense if you're not a writer. (Published or not, it's the writing bit that I'm referring to.)

Here, among these people, there's something missing that is present in my everyday life. That something missing is a sense of alienation, a sense of not-quite being accepted. Here, among these people, we're accepted.

Yes, my jokes are still godawful puns. Yes, there are still "let me show you my karate moves" Napoleon Dynamites. But all of us are, at least to some extent - and recognize it.

I think this is the other part of what makes conventions special - that sensibility that you are not alone. Regardless of what type - professional, hobbyist, whatever - you're among people who accept you.

The darker thing this implies is that most of us - and I mean most of us - are wandering around most of the time feeling alienated, alone, and unaccepted. So what are you and I going to do about it? How can we make everyday life more like a con?

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Lars and the Real Girl

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I don't remember who mentioned Lars and the Real Girl so praisingly, but I do remember requesting it from the library. It finally arrived, and my wife and I decided to sit down and watch this comedy last night. We both resolved that if it was too lame, either of us could call "Abort" on it - we did not want another repeat of Idiocracy.

We watched it straight through.

Lars and the Real Girl is funny. Laugh out loud funny, at times. But it's not cheap, dumb laughs. They're smart - and kind - laughs.

The style perfectly walks that fine line between compassion and saccharine. I kept thinking: "Well, that's a subtle touch," but they weren't. The development of Lars - and all the other characters as well - weren't subtle, but they were presented softly, skillfully.

The notes of mental illness, parental loss, and childbirth are all there - but again, all are treated skillfully, and with compassion.

People who have seen a lot of recent "indie" movies may find themselves unimpressed with the soundtrack. The opening sequence, in particular, could be swapped with quite a few "indie" films. The deliberate lack of a steadycam for a few shots becomes jarringly noticeable. But these attempts to add indie cred are almost completely overwhelmed by the excellent story and stellar acting.

Highly recommended.

[Note: Idiocracy had a great premise - it just should have been a 30 to 45 minute show, not a 90 minute one, so it became extremely painful to watch.]

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I'm being busy...

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Posting will be erratic at best for the next few days. I'm unsure what kind of access - if any - I'll have. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, though, if you're interested.

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Do you need critics?

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I wanted to draw attention to something Scott Kurtz wrote the other day:

PvPonline » Archive » Why we insulate
I’m not sure how I ended up in so many tug-of-war competitions with bloggers, where the outcome of our match determines the superior position: creator or critic. But it seems to be cropping up again. There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.

Scott makes a great point - not just for creators of webcomics, but for all creators of anything creative. In one of Mike Stackpole's recent podcasts, he mentioned (and I'm paraphrasing here) that you have to believe in yourself as a writer, because nobody else will do it for you.

(And just in case it needs clarifying: "Critics" here obviously doesn't mean your writer's group or those you actively seek constructive criticism from. That means all the after-the-fact reviews.)

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Green - a 100 Word Story

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For this week's weekly challenge, I wrote a 100 word story on the topic "Green". As always, you may read, hear, and vote for all entries (including mine!) at the 100 Word Stories site. You may read my story alone below, and hear my story alone at this link. Thanks for reading and voting!

I miss her emerald eyes.

The upload process transferred personalities perfectly. Old recordings of her voice informed the synthesizer; her new body was sculpted after scans of twenty year old photos.

The eyes were never quite the same, always left somewhere in the uncanny valley.

"It will be me, Howard." She had known my feelings, but her fatal virus had left us no choice.

She walks through the door in her new, engineered body. She moves like my wife, says my name like my wife.

Her flat matte green eyes gaze at me.

I shudder, and leave it there, alone.

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Multicultural Fail

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Sometimes it's hard to notice our own institutionalized prejudice - even when our intent is the opposite.

I had passed by the sign dozens of times, but I actually noticed it today. It was done in the style of the motivational posters, a picture of several children of varying hues playing together over the word "Diversity" in a large font. It was up as part of a multicultural event to promote tolerance, but today I finally read the text underneath.

"Diversity: All citizens should be treated the same no matter the color of their skin or where they are from."

Did you catch it?

"Diversity: All *citizens* should be treated the same no matter the color of their skin or where they are from."

Before anyone sputters that illegal immigrants aren't citizens and don't count, let's review some history.

The original immigration laws in the United States were essentially passed out of racism towards Chinese immigrants. Since then, they've remained heavily skewed towards majority-white countries. The concept of "citizenship" has also been denied to people of color - regardless of place of birth - for purely racist reasons. And there are lots of ways to be in the United States legally, but not be a citizen.

While in the military, I served beside immigrants. They were ready to fight and die for this country - but were still years away from being citizens. I currently work alongside professionals who are immigrants - but not citizens.

There is no reason to use the word "citizens" there, except for racism. It might not be intentional (prejudicial) racism, but the effects of it are.

As the saying goes, mistakes are a part of life. It's how you respond to it that matters. To the credit of my organization, since I've pointed it out, the issue has been taken seriously. I have no doubt that the poster will be replaced as soon as possible, and the people involved will be a little more aware - and intentional - of what is going on around them.

And that's the way it should be.

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Solving the Problem - Step One

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I have a friend who appeals to the Constitution on a regular basis.

"It's not explicitly in the Constitution, so we shouldn't be doing it," he argues. He's upset with nearly all political candidates, simply because they aren't holding to a strict Constitutionalist perspective.

I know people who appeal to the Bible (or insert your own holy book) on a regular basis.

"It's not in the Bible, so we shouldn't be doing it," they argue. This gets expressed in all sorts of ways - the most amusing (to me) being a "Vote the Bible" bumper sticker. I wasn't aware it was running for office.

I know workers who appeal to the rules on a regular basis.

"That's not exactly the way the rules (or instructions) say to do it," they argue, as I use control-V and control-C to cut and paste instead of the mouse and icons.

All of them miss the point.

The rules are not the goal. In each of these situations, there are well-defined goals. These goals - the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Golden Rule, and performing a high-quality test - are the metric that all rules, all situations must be measured by. Rules for thier own sake lead to the empty bureaucratic red tape we all know and dread.

When people (including certain fictional pirates) state that "Rules are only guidelines", this is what they mean. All rules, all ideologies exist for a point. That point, that reason, that goal is what matters - not the rules themselves.

The Constitution doesn't mention equal rights - but the Declaration of Independence sure does. The Bible has been cited to support charity and war - but the latter clearly violates the Golden Rule. Our rules (and instructions) don't mention keyboard shortcuts - but if it helps get the job done better and faster, why not?

In all of these, the principle is the same even as the outcome varies from trivial to earth-shaking.

What are your goals? What are our shared goals - as a city, state, country, or world?

Without that conversation, it doesn't matter what rules we use, what seminars we attend, or what God we do or don't pray to. We will be lost in the desert, wandering through red tape until we find (or make) direction and purpose once again.

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Dance, Monkey, Dance

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How many people value you for who you are, for what you are thinking?

And how many people are simply entertained by the trained monkey you have turned yourself into?

This is how you know your friends.

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Can you stop being part of the problem?

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When I was younger, I hoped that perhaps the world was changing. That perhaps humanity was "growing up".

Um, yeah. Not so much.

I am, by temperment, a believer in people and technology. That is, that people can do better and help each other. That problems are fundamentally fixable, and technology, science, and education can do it. But much like Jeffrey Sachs in his current editorial, I have to wonder at the difference between what is obviously possible, what has been promised, and what has been done. The actions needed are pretty obvious:

These basic steps – agreeing on global goals, mobilizing the financing needed to meet them, and identifying the scientific expertise and organizations needed to implement solutions – is basic management logic. Some may scoff that this approach is impossible at the global level, because all politics are local. Yet today, all politicians depend on global solutions for their own political survival. That by itself could make solutions that now seem out of reach commonplace in the future.

And that's about something as comparatively uncontroversial as poverty.

There have been - and continue to be - a lot of discouraging signs about humanity's immaturity. But the recent resurgence of racism and sexism (along with squawks that they aren't) may have actually done some good.

Societally, we haven't talked about racism or sexism much. Oh, we've talked about prejudice a great deal, but we've not discussed how this stuff keeps going. The protestations of the "But I'm not prejudiced" crowd leave us wondering why things are the way they are.

Our society has moved - in just over my lifetime - from accepting overt prejudice to generally not accepting overt prejudice. Now, it's slowly becoming apparent that isn't enough. Now we need to move past "not" doing something "towards" doing something.

And guess what, fellow white people? It's our job to do it.

We have the privilege (even though it might seem small to you). We have the structures of language that set up this power struggle with us in charge.

Look, Angry White Man, we know you aren't prejudiced. But that's not enough. We're talking about stopping the results of old prejudice. Yeah, you didn't do it. Neither did I. We wouldn't have been slaveowners, and we wouldn't have chased the secretary around the desk and so on. And of course you'd treat people fairly so that there wasn't widespread systemic poverty like there is today.

But someone else did - and the effects of their actions still persist today.

The question is not "are you going to be not prejudiced". The question is not "Are you going to treat someone fairly." The question is this:

People were treated unfairly. They're still suffering the effects of that. Are you going to do something to fix it, or not?

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Keeping Corporate Trust

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[Note: As always, some liberties have been taken with the truth to make my point a little more obvious. It's poetic... er... essayist license.]

"Could you uninstall that screensaver on the computers? I want to check with my boss to make sure it won't cause a problem." My supervisor was apologetic, but serious.

I managed to avoid groaning. The day before, I'd created a slideshow of inspirational quotations to support an initiative of my employer's (and an initiative that I support, so they weren't cheesy quotations either). After getting the quotations OK'd, I put the slides (JPG and GIF format) in the My Documents folder of the machines and configured the My Pictures screensaver on them.

"I can remove the pictures, but the screensaver is a standard part of Windows," I told her. "What's the problem?"

"I'm worried that the program vendor or the IT department will get upset about it."

And there's the problem.

Large corporations often try to become more individualized, nimble, and lithe. But in most of these organizations, asking permission is a near-guarantee that you won't be able to do something, no matter how well justified it is. The My Pictures screensaver had been running on those computers for over a year, displaying the logo of my organization. Representatives of the vendor, our engineering folks, and IT had all seen it. A similar project has been running in another part of the organization for an even longer period of time.

Make no mistake - this is not a judgment on my supervisor. She faces all the same problems I do, but intensified. This is ultimately the result of an occupational culture of distrust - where the farther removed one is, the less functional trust there is of other people's abilities. This is not a problem in a small organization; everyone knows everyone. But in larger organizations, that ability is gone. The default presumption seems to be a lack of functional trust until demonstrated otherwise. This effect is magnified when dealing with someone of a different social status or occupation - have you really listened to your janitor lately?

This would not be a problem if things were compartmentalized within the organization - and perhaps that kind of redundancy might be necessary to achieve optimal efficiency. (For example - if my unit had its own IT person, they could know about the specialized needs of my unit AND know the common IT pidgin to talk to central IT and the IT of any other units we have to interface with.) Failing that, we need to institute a kind of trust system based on the confidence system used by public key encryption.

The basic jist of it is this: I trust Alice. Alice says she trusts Bob, so I trust Bob pretty well. Bob says he trusts Candace, so I trust Candace okay. Candace says she trusts Steve, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. And so on. Especially in an organization that makes an effort to cross-pollinate relationships (say, by sending people from different units or areas to common conferences and seminars), an accurate bottom-up web of trust can be built. That could allow the nimbleness and trustful decision making to remain, even as the size of the organization becomes much larger.

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Olive Loaf - a 100 Word Story

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Weekly Challenge #120 was for the topic of Olive Loaf. As always, you can read my entry below and hear me read it at this link. Please stop by the 100 Word Story podcast to read and hear the others - and vote for your favorites.

The streets were as alive as downtown Marysville ever got. Jonah watched them eat funnelcakes, scream on cheap rides, and play the carnival games. The annual Olive Loaf Festival had not changed a bit. He remembered trying to explain it to Mary before he came home.

"Small towns, they find something - anything - they can call thier own. Some reason to feel special."

Her raised eyebrow had spoken volumes of sarcasm.

Back there he had been a nobody. Now, the festival crowd laughed and swirled around him. Jonah held his picture of Mary and danced down the street with them, smiling.

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Dead Letter File

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Earlier this week, I received some e-mails about a certain presidential candidate (big surprise which one) from a casual correspondent. No big, right? They weren't factually correct stories, so I pointed out such nicely, and moved on. He even apologized for sending incorrect info out.

And then he sent an article entitled "Don't call me a racist."

The article had the normal confusion between racism and prejudice. The author claimed racism can't exist without *he personally* being prejudiced, then therefore racism couldn't be that big of a problem. The whole article was based on this false - but sadly, widespread - premise. I mentioned this to my correspondent, and pointed him to some of the articles on this blog.

My thought was that he would read it. Having at least some knowledge of me, perhaps he would read and see how my thinking has expanded over the last eight months. Despite my occasional forays into obscure nooks of sociology, he'd find something that we could talk about. I expected, at worst, him to tell me that I was wrong. Even that leaves room to talk.

"I stopped reading," he replied, "because I got tired of hearing you be so full of yourself."

Okay. Right. Well, this is a personal blog. I tend to use myself as an example whenever possible. So I suggested that maybe I was, but I expected something better than that from him. Argument, yes. Telling me I was wrong, surely. But just an ad hominem slam?

"Quit the guilt trip," was the reply to that.

It did surprise and disappoint me. The sudden shift from at least vaguely discussing things to blatant attacks did more to label him than anything else he could have said. What can one really say to that kind of unreasoning, unthinking propaganda?

So I wrote him one more e-mail. When he's ready to talk - even if he disagrees - I'll listen. When he's ready to be civil, even about this controversial topic, I'll be here. In the meantime, I have too many things to do than spend time dealing with such unreasoning hate and discontent.

It is a shame, but maybe that's what we need to do in more of our life. There's a stark difference between pointing out problems and just being mean. There's a difference between pointing out logical flaws and logical fallacies. The former are things we can - and should - heed. The latter... well, as much as we might feel badly for them, their only interest is in seeing the rest of us fail as badly as they think they have failed.

It is only after they realize their failure is simply their own making that they can be free. The bars of their prison - prejudice, hatred, and fear - are theirs to build or destroy, not ours.

We can only hand them tools, and hope that they are inspired by our journey to try to catch up.

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