Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Atomic Time

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This essay was originally written in 2001, and can be found on my personal website. Feel free to poke around the stories, essays, and other weirdness collected therein. And Happy New Year. - Steve

“It’s okay. My watch is set to atomic time.”

I knew better, yet I briefly expected to see a small nuclear generator strapped to his wrist, ticking the seconds away with radioactive precision. But no, it was just a regular plastic wristwatch (though with calculator pad and memory function) set just that morning to the most accurate time in the world. Apparently even more accurate than even the ticker clock on the Weather Channel, which disagreed with the watch by four seconds.

Normally, such a small difference would be insignificant, but this was different. This was important. Someone – nobody was quite sure who – had noticed that we were running out of year. That there were only minutes left until midnight – few seconds remained of the first (or last, depending on how you want to count) year of the millennium. The previously subdued party erupted in a frenzy of channel-flipping, trying to locate the ageless Dick Clark or, failing that, a ball dropping somewhere in the world: an effort to find an “official” countdown to chant with.

There are times when it becomes painfully obvious that I no longer live on the East Coast; New Year’s is the most obvious of them. As the channels flipped by, news, after-midnight televised parties resplendent with second-rate pop icons and drunken hordes, and even the occasional rerun of a sitcom confronted us. It seemed that our only timekeeping salvation would be in the precision of a small quartz diode, only hours ago calibrated to the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock, a feat made possible by technology and an Internet connection.

“We’ve still got three minutes,” the watch-holder announced. The relief was tangible – for a moment there, we were afraid we’d missed it entirely. Paces slowed, and our final preparations continued at a more sedate pace. That is, until the bathroom door swung open, and another guest who had missed the ruckus raised their watch aloft.

“I set my watch to atomic time this morning! We’ve only got sixty seconds left!”

I caught sight of my reflection in the window; outside the night was dark and freezing, moonlight shone upon the snow. Behind me the ghostly reflections of people scurried, bearing hats, noisemakers, poppers, champagne. Someone was making sure the kids – collectively and safely sequestered downstairs – were on-cue and taken care of.

And we had no idea if the New Year had come yet.

Did our resolutions count yet? Did we have time for a last cigarette, a last sugary snack, a final drink? Was it time to kiss someone, or wish for someone to kiss? Should we be toasting, singing, reminding our loved ones that they were our loved ones after all? Was it time yet to start fresh, to wipe the slate clean and try to do things a little better than we had before? Nobody knew for certain – the watches disagreed with the television channels, and all of them disagreed among themselves. No ball (or Dick Clark) was visible yet, and suggestions flew back and forth. “Try CBS.” “ABC! Dick Clark’s on ABC!” “Headline News always has a clock!” The mood was nearly frantic – several of the timekeepers already claimed we were in the New Year. Then:

“Why don’t we just say we have twenty seconds left and start counting?”

In a rollercoaster of emotion, the thought ran through our brains. Suddenly, we would decide when our New Year began. We, nobody else, would decide when to start anew, to hold ourselves to our resolutions, to love our families and remember our friends. From there, from that simple idea, realization spun outward: If it was possible to just say that the New Year began whatever time we wanted today, then we could do the same each day. Every day, every midnight, every minute could be a New Year, a new chance, a new opportunity.

The New York ball suddenly glistened upon the television in gaudy glory; someone had found it. It was a replay; Mayor Guiliani smiling as the seconds counted downward an hour ago (despite the “LIVE” blazoned in the upper-left hand corner). Dutifully, we joined in, chanting away seconds with the televised throng; distanced by thousands of miles and nearly an hour of time.

It was several minutes into the New Year, poppers popped and champagne drunk, that we noticed that the ball hadn’t agreed with either of the disagreeing watches, both meticulously set to atomic time.

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Grumpy Comedians

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I remember hearing George Carlin on a cassette tape, at a friend's house. We were teenagers, and only vaguely delinquent. We laughed as we smoked and listened; a break from the otherwise boring routine in my hometown. Seven dirty words. Fussy eater. We rolled.

Cut to twenty years later. I vaugely remembered that I stopped liking Carlin; remembered commenting that he'd just gotten bitter. But I wanted my wife to see "Fussy Eater". (Because, you see, she is. Hence the funny.)

The Carlin retrospective we watched started back in the 70's - and included all the bits that I remembered. I noticed, though, that with the Seven Dirty Words bit, that the crowd wasn't laughing for the same reason that Carlin was. The crowd was simply titillated (my wife's very apt term) at his profanity in public. Carlin, on the other hand, was poking fun at our social conventions and the ludicrous arbitrary nature of them.

Then we got to the later parts. Eventually we had to turn it off in the middle of a rant about things that annoyed him while driving. Y'know - stop lights. Joggers. Bikers. Other people. Basically anything that wasn't part of his plans and wasn't actively helping him.

I still don't know if it was satire; the advice to tell a cop that you shouldn't get a ticket because you've got a bunch of heroin to deliver couldn't have been serious. Maybe it was him trying to poke fun at excessively irritable road-raging drivers.

But if so, the crowd, once again, didn't get it. They roared approval as they took him at face value. Instead of mocking selfishness, the audience appeared to be taking it as straight commentary.

Maybe it's just because I'm comparing him to Bill Hicks; also outrageous, Bill wouldn't hesitate to let you know that you were the butt of the joke. All of them, really. Carlin's later satire - if it was satire, and not just the comedic equivalent of "You dadgum kids get off of my lawn!" - empowered instead of deflating those it lampooned.

There's a responsibility that comes with satire. It's the responsibility to make sure that it's not perceived as being a celebration of what they're mocking. Jonathan Swift's _A Modest Proposal_ is a genius bit of satire.

But something tells me he would've been upset if someone actually went to Dublin and started feasting.

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Taking Veggie Tales waaaaay too seriously.

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The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything is a cute Veggie Tales movie, with plenty of intentional funny moments (and quite a few unintentional ones if you're feeling sarcastic). I'm told that I look like Larry dressed up as a pirate (I'm not sure if this is a compliment or not), and we're not sure if the blind character is a leek or something else. We watched it last night with our son, and there was something about it that bothered me, though.

Um, there are vague spoilers here - but nothing you shouldn't expect if you're at all familiar with VT at all. (We're talking along the lines of "Disney movies end happily" spoilers.)

Unlike the Veggie Tales half-hour spots, there was no explicit references to Christianity (though it was a pretty direct and obvious analogy). That wasn't a big deal for us, nor was the primary moral (it's VT, of course there's a moral) of "Just because you're called someone lowly doesn't mean you can't be a hero."

The problem I had was with the King (I *told* you the analogies are obvious) telling our protagonists this:

"I gave you everything you needed to succeed. All you had to do was to try hard enough."

Okay, I'm roughly paraphrasing, but that's the basic idea. My wife missed it, but it caught my attention. There's a "good" lesson there - "Don't assume you can't do things" - but the flip side of it is a wee bit more ... evil.

The flip side can be best expressed as "If you fail, it's just because you didn't try hard enough." Or for a more explicitly religious tone: "If you truly believe and pray, the good things you want will happen."

I've met people who completely lost their faith because of this. They prayed for a loved one to get well, they prayed for success, they believed as hard as they could that everything would work out.

And then the loved one dies, the business fails. Things don't work out. And it's not because of an illness, it's not because of a recession, it's not because of any of a dozen reasons.

It's because THEY didn't pray hard enough; THEY didn't believe hard enough.

That kind of literal translation between degree of faith and material success is a big mistake. It presumes that your plans are the same as the Divine's plans.

In case anyone forgot, Yeshua's ministry didn't "succeed" in anything like a traditional sense. But even within the Christian tradition, that *lack* of success was part of the Plan.

This is where we can re-invigorate Christianity by looking to Eastern faiths. Buddhism and Taoism look to reduce "attachment" to things and goals - to accept things as they are. The Christian equivalent is accepting things as part of an ineffable plan - and really, truly believing that the plan *is* ineffable.

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The New Pharisees

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Let me make this clear: My problems with Christianity (and in particular, the Roman Catholic Church, which I nominally belong to) are problems not so much with the core theology.

It's problems with people.

Let me make it clearer: I don't mean that I have problems with Christians that sin; I do not expect anyone to be perfect. Instead, I have problems with people who force their religious intolerance in my face, or who insist both that they are right - and that everyone be like them. It's the parishioners who get offended at people who don't wish them a "Merry Christmas" back. It's the parishioners who judge status by where you are in the building, what service you go to, and what you wear. It's the Knights of Columbus shifting its focus from taking care of its member's families towards enacting political gains (like abolishing abortion, supporting proposition 8, and even historically having "under God" added to the Pledge). It's the friggin' Pope - yes, I realize it's not ex cathedra, but still - denouncing gender studies and talking about the homosexual menace. Sure, he talks about peace in the middle east for 197,090,443 people - but (even with pessimistic estimates of 5%) - simultaneously condemns 330,111,208 homosexuals. (6,602,224,175 * 0.05) It's likely that because of his ideological adherence to the "law", that this far greater number of people will experience more biogtry, hatred, and violence.

Pharisees. Sadducees.

They weren't horrible people. They were - and still are, for many people - portrayed as the selfish, shortsighted, and (vaguely or not) evil priests and scholars that crucified Yeshua. But they weren't, not really. Just like any group, there were people who were more interested in selfish gain. There were others interested in preserving the status quo for themselves.

But I believe they predominately were people who truly thought they were doing the right thing. They were following the Law - or at least, were trying to. They were keeping an abusive dominating power from smashing them again. So they obsessed over cleanliness, and when to do what. They focused on the rituals and the mechanisms - the "sure things" that simply weren't going to change.

And they were wrong.

In any caring system, in any system of mutual support, it's easy to be taken advantage of. Con artists of all types - whether corporate hacksters, Wall Street financiers, or street-level card sharps - manipulate and abuse that trust. All too often, they "get away" with it - especially the white-collar crime types - because they aren't that far outside "the rules" (or it is completely legal as well).

Yeshua - along with other rabbis at the time - had a wonderful insight. That the rules don't matter. All the codified commentary on the Torah is extrapolation on a simple, single rule: Love the Divine, and be excellent to other people.

If you do those things, you fulfill the rest of the Law. If you stop, if you reflect, if you consider other people, you can fulfill the Law even as you break it.

It's interesting that commentators spring up to say that Yeshua wasn't "really" breaking the Law by healing on the Sabbath, because admitting such undermines their own authority. It's interesting that commentators (both Christian and not) point out that "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you" doesn't work for people with differing aims, because such arguments show that they don't "get" what Yeshua said.

It's interesting that we have preachers and prominent Christians, that we have scholars and priests who are following the Rules of the Law to the best of their abilities.

And they - whether scholar or preacher, priest or pope - apparently haven't understood it yet.

Merry Christmas.

(In case you're wondering, Yeshua ben Yosef is the best guess we have as to the real name of the man we call Jesus Christ. Christ is a title that means "lord". And yes, it is finally now just beginning the Christmas season, even though everyone's taking the decorations down.)

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Gifts - A Flash Fiction

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(As a brief aside, I've been writing a flash fiction or essay each year for our holiday cards. If you didn't get one, it's either because you moved and I still have your old address, I don't have your address at all, or because I have to send mail through your publisher. Feel free to e-mail or PM me with your address so I can have it right for next year...)

Therese rang their Christmas family's doorbell, pulling her finger back before any of the paint could peel off onto her new coat. All of her co-worker's donations sat in the large cardboard box at her feet. The pile of gift-wrapped dollar store presents and discount mart donations were a respectable demonstration of their Christmas spirit. This is the part that makes it worth it, she told herself. This is what kept her braving those stores with those people, even though Jack wasn't with her.

The gusting wind cut through the expensive stitches of her coat, tickling her chest. Therese wrapped her arms and stamped her feet, hard enough she could feel it in her ribs. It just seemed colder this year, that's all.

She forced her frozen mouth into a smile as Caroline opened the battered door. They'd obviously just returned, the children in the process of shedding their school lives in snaking trails across the hall, living room, and in paths terminating at their room.

"Come in," Caroline said.

The oldest child - was her name Tamiko or Taneko, Therese couldn't remember - saw the box of gift-wrapped boxes coming in the door. The little girl squealed in seven-year-old delight.

"Just put them under the tree!" Therese snapped - a little more harshly than she'd intended - as the children raced back into the room. "They're for Christmas, not now."

The children quickly ferried the boxes to the tree, and Therese found Caroline's arms embracing her. The hoarseness of the younger woman's voice surprised Therese. "Thank you so much, Thank you....I don't know how I could have...."

Therese hugged her back, feeling a warmth she hadn't known since Jack passed. The children came and hugged her legs, encasing Therese in a bundle of warm, thankful bodies. Therese hugged Caroline a little harder.

Over Caroline's shoulder, Therese could just see the other woman's shopping, still unpacked. Surely it was her tears that kept Therese from reading the cut-rate store's name imprinted on the plastic.

Yes. It had to be the tears.

Happy Holidays.

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Of Families and Kites

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This time of year - even moreso than Thanksgiving - has people talking about and thinking about "family". In my experience (both personally and talking to others), family isn't just a Rockwell-esque source of comfort and joy. Instead, families of origin are a primary cause of most of the social ills that affect both individuals and our society.

It started to become really apparent when I talked about S's mental illness to my co-workers and friends. Suddenly, they were admitting when siblings, cousins, or even thier own children had done horrible things... or the horrible things their parents had done to them. Yet, without my saying something first, they'd kept these things secret and safe for years. There are a lot more screwed up families out there than you'd think by casual observation; I'd dare say that dysfunctional is the norm in our society.

But you can't just eliminate families and raise people on farms. Families are not just damaging, they're also tremendously important - that's how you get socialized originally, they provide the interactions that bring about consciousness, and so on.

Part of the problem is that - both societally and as individuals - we rarely deal with those relationships for what they are. It's the same problem with philosophical zombies and religion; the relationships become institutions and rituals instead of dynamic changing processes. The concept of "blood is thicker than water" is a perfect example. That guidance would lead you to support a crack-addicted sister (and lead both of you to eventual ruin) instead of aiding your best friend. If infants were switched at birth, and the parents didn't find out until years later, why does it matter? How many people (or at least, movie plotlines) involve a child wanting to win their parent's attention or affection? How many adoptive mothers are more of a mom than the biological mother? (Jim Hines wrote Gift of the Kites, a good (blub warning) bit of fiction over on Clarkesworld that I happened to read right after writing the draft of this, and addresses the whole thing really well)

There's a societal desire there to have an archetypical relationship or to have archetypes as relatives instead of real people. And when our expectations don't meet reality, we're disappointed.

But none of us are archetypes. None of our relationships are perfect.

But we can start making them better by assessing them objectively, and re-evaluating them constantly. We can ditch the ideological definitions of family and start dealing with reality on the ground. Maybe there are people in your "family" you aren't related to - and maybe there are people in your biological "family" that haven't treated you like kin in decades.

Maybe we just need to fly some kites.

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An Open Letter to Mr. Obama

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Ms. Steinel (aka The Portly Dyke) has a wonderful letter up about the homophobic pastor who is going to be performing the invocation in a little less than a month.

It's worth reading. Go ahead and read it, then come back.

This paragraph is why I'm not just linking to it:

I believe that sadness is to the heart and soul as hunger is to the body -- and I believe that my hunger is this: I want to be included in your diverse, but United, States of America.

And it became obvious to me what should happen.

There should be a mass invocation. Represent as many faiths as possible. All of them. Doing serial invocations, or one big one. It doesn't matter. Oh, and include the atheists and humanists too - there are humanist invocations, y'know.

Because that is the point - that we shouldn't have to be a homogeneous anything, and especially not a homogeneous nothing.

Perhaps some faiths would decline the offer if they had to do their public blessing alongside Buddhists, Wiccans, atheists (do you capitalize that?), or whatever. Which would be fine - as long as they were the ones choosing to not participate.

So, allow me to add my thoughts to Ms. Steinel's. And I hope some staffer, some person at the transition teams sees this solution to the whole issue and passes it up to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama, I - like Ms. Steinel and so many others - believe in this new dream you brought to us:

Let us be not be a divided America, but a diverse America.

Let it start with the invocation on the day of your inauguration.

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Damn good questions

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I'm speaking about Kelly Swails' honest questions - why aren't people talking about Blago (the corrupt Gov. in Illinois) more in connection with Obama? She's not saying that there's any real link, just that they were part of the same system - and that she believes the system is corrupt. Isn't that a good reason to be leery of Obama?

Yeah, I disagree. This isn't a surprise. But it's good - no, great - to have the question asked. Groupthink is a bad thing, no matter who is doing it. So here's the three big threads of her post (as I interpreted it):

1) Corruption is everywhere in Illinois politics. How much can you trust someone who built their career in such corrupt place?
2) Obama moved to Illinois to get into politics - this wasn't an accident of birth. See point #1.
3) Chicago's Superintendent of Schools as being appointed the Sec. of Education is a bad thing

So, in reverse order, my reflection on the questions.

#3- I have no idea about this. I do know that it's easy for a superintendent to make schools worse, but that it's much harder to make them better. Other than that? I don't know much either the schools there or the superintendent. Even the little I have heard (from This American Life) is dated from 2004, and only mentions Mr. Duncan at the end.

#2 - Obama moved to Chicago not for politics, but for a job as the Director of the Developing Communities Project, a church-based community organization. There's more about the public details of his life on Wikipedia. (To be fair, I thought he went there for school, which is me getting my wife's aspirations of being a student mixed up with Obama's time teaching at the University of Chicago.) As someone who moved a lot and has felt the negative effects of relocation on social networks, I can understand returning.

#1 - Coming from a state with its own corruption issues with Governors (I'm originally from West Virginia), I think I can speak a little to this. The major factors in dealing with (and avoiding falling yourself) with corruption and incompetence are patience and will. The will is to keep going, the patience is so that you don't give up and just go somewhere else. I'm notoriously short on the latter - and it's one of the things that I admire about Obama. Had I been in any of the debates, it probably would have resembled a Springer show. Better ratings, more entertaining - but ultimately a Bad Thing. Openly denouncing people - especially when you don't *have* to - doesn't help you in any way. (see footnote below). The kind of crap that completely wears me down as I try to fight it is the kinds of stuff he had to deal with - and he's somehow managed to be a reasonably sane person. Also, being an adult transplant makes it easier to see such systems as an "outsider" and not get sucked into them; I have a very different perspective on local politics than equally intelligent people who have lived here all their lives. Or to put it in parable form, seeds tossed onto the sidewalk or brush find it very hard to grow - but some seeds might just succeed.

And as a meta-reflection, I, like a lot of people who blogged and volunteered during the election cycle are *tired*. It feels like we passed the finish line, so the enthusiasm (and frankly, the amount that we've followed the news) has declined. Kelly's perfectly right to point out that this isn't a simple race to the top; it's a marathon. Too often we just push until the election's over, then give the politicians a free pass. All of them - Obama included - must be held to the standards we (and they) espoused during the election. A polite - but firm - skepticism like Ms. Swails' is exactly what we need.

(The footnote: Let's pretend that then-Senator Obama in 2005 had denounced Blago. What would have happened? Blago was already being investigated, as Kelly pointed out. It's unlikely that it would have done anything save angering Blago and hurting Obama's own efforts. It does NOT require being complicit himself. Sometimes one has to make the difficult but pragmatic choices of where to do the most good; it's that choice that I tend to flub.)

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Celebrity Shock

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As I scanned through the last quarter's worth of the Writer magazine (yes, scanning...somehow I was supposed to have free time now...) I noticed that many of the author credits had a phrase like "An award winning essayist and short-story writer" or "Their novel was selected as one of the year's best by [a local newspaper]."

Which made me realize something (aside from the first phrase insinuating but not stating that the short stories won awards).

I am an award-winning essayist, an award-winning poet, and an award-winning short story writer. But that gives me no special authority to tell you squat about writing. I've gotten - and eagerly absorbed - a lot of writing advice. Some of it works for me. Some hasn't. Some I've simply not tried yet. Some "exercises" have left me cold even though they sounded wonderful, others that had seemed stupid left me sweating and spent after a mad rush of prose flowed onto the keyboard. It doesn't matter who gave the advice or lessons so much as the content therein.

I think this is a generalizable thing. Credentials aren't a guarantee of quality, even though we treat them that way. I'm not sure how we could replace them, even in something more empirical than writing, let alone in the arts.

In the meantime, I will take in the content, and use what works and discard the rest. I urge you to do the same.

(This blog post was written by an award-winning author!!!!!1!11!!)

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Why civil rights matter...

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I just finished telling a national organization that I think they should pursue GBLT rights as a major goal this year. Given that my candidate chose a notoriously anti-gay preacher to give the invocation at the inauguration... well, that makes me unhappy. Anyway, they asked for a "story" explaining why that goal was important to me. Here's mine:

As a white, straight, Christian male, I have only experienced exclusion and discrimination a few times in my life. As a servicemember in Korea, I was denied entrance to a club and cabs passed me by simply because of the color of my skin. At some of my duty stations, because my denomination of Christianity was not well represented, I was excluded both maliciously and simply by being forgotten and overlooked.

Those times hurt. More than I would have suspected before they happened to me.

I cannot imagine the horror of having that kind of exclusion and discrimination happen every day.

It simply must end.

I think that's important to remember. Both that my examples of experiencing discrimination are nothing compared to the everyday discrimination that others face - but that they do give me some clue to what it must be like. If it hurt that bad for me, then how much worse it be for others who don't have the same advantages that I have?

I use that paradigm a lot when talking about white privilege. If it's hard for you, then imagine how much harder it is for someone who looks different, sounds different, or acts just differently enough. I don't think that civil rights legislation will fix that kind of prejudice, but it will force us to interact with other people who are different than ourselves.

And that will change things.

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The melted pot

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I distinctly remember being taught the concept of the melting pot in third grade. The illustration had cartoon people hanging off the edges of a large stewpot into the water, apparently so caught up in the spirit of bonhomie that they didn't realize they had become food. I drew a Pac-Man in the book as the chef.

Even then the idea of an American melting pot was on the way out. The overtones of assimilation were too strong, even in the analogy. Add cream to tomato soup, and you have creamy tomato soup, but tomato soup nonetheless. The homogeneous nature of the model is the problem. The dominant quality of the thing prevails and subsumes the subordinate.

Sinoangle at Resist Racism rails against the anti-Christmas movement done in the name of "inclusion". They have a good point - but it's the same problem as the "melting pot", just approached from the other side. Instead of a homogeneous dominant flavor of soup, we'll instead have a pot of hot water.

Instead, we should strive for stew. (Yum. Stew.) Stew has a lot of ingredients. They all influence each other, but each ingredient (meat, potatoes, green beans, etc) retains a good portion of its original characteristics. Additionally, they all work together to make the flavor of the dish.

Looking at the winter holidays as a stew means that there are non-religious christmas celebrations and religious Christmas ones, that there is room for Eid and Bodhi day and Chaunakah and Kwanzaa and all the rest. That there is room for secular solstice celebrations and neo-pagan Yules and Saturnalias.

Christmas is a perfect holiday for this to happen with. So many of the associated images and traditions of the holiday are not Christian in origin - though they can be Christian in intent. It has been influenced by other faiths and practices while not losing its essential character. We can easily make room for our brothers and sisters of all faiths and paths to celebrate however they choose, without giving up our own celebrations.

Whatever they might be.

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Santa - a flash fiction

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"I don't understand why we bother," he groused, dodging yet another overloaded shopper careening past. The line moved forward a step. The three of them - he, his wife, and son - moved together. Step.

His wife nudged him into silence, her voice pitched so the boy couldn't hear it over the piped-in carols. "We do it for him."

"But it's not real," he said, waving his hand at the front of the line. The boy's gaze was still fixed there, entranced by costumed performers and faux mall elves. "It's all just a fantasy. It's just something in his head."

His wife turned full towards him, hands on hips. "Lots of things are true just because someone believes in them."

"Like what?"

"Like our marriage."

He turned away from her cold eyes, her hard face. He turned back towards the glittering plastic snow, towards the cracked plaster and fading candy cane gates of the model North Pole.

The line moved forward a step.

"We do it for him," his wife said. "We do it for him."

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Things That Should Be Simple

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For some reason, there's been a slew of little minor social annoyances that simply Should Not Be. They're easy to fix, and generally shouldn't be a problem, but still (inexplicably) are. So today I bring you:

Things that should be simple

A list that's sure to grow

  1. The automation of e-cards, especially when I'm one of a zillion people you cc'ed (instead of BCC'ed), makes that touch a wee bit less personal. That's okay, just don't expect the same reaction as you would have otherwise.

  2. Columbus mistakenly called Native Americans "Indians" five hundred years ago. We've changed a lot of things in the last 500 years; that "I've always called them Indians" is still a socially acceptable phrase (rather than a blinding stigma of racism and/or stupidity) demonstrates how racist/stupid our society is.

  3. "Christmas" means one and only one holiday. "Holidays" includes Christmas, but recognizes there are other holidays too. So deciding that "Happy Holidays" isn't good enough for you is just being greedy and selfish.

  4. Christians used to use the symbol "x" for Christ, so Xmas is NOT inherently disrespectful. And, um, CHRIST is a title, not a name. If you're going to be "offended" by disrespecting your religion, at least get the facts right, okay?

  5. If you're going to publicly espouse any possibly contentious view (including these!), be prepared to have someone challenge it. Talking loudly in eating areas is "in public". Having a conversation in the hall - or loudly on your phone - is in public.

  6. If one makes a rule, one should enforce it. If one is unwilling or unable to enforce the rule, don't make it in the first place.

  7. If you're breaking a rule in public (say, "no smoking" or "no cell phones"), you lose all right to be angry when someone calls you on it.

  8. Workers: When you say "Have a Nice Day", look at the customer. Customers: When the worker says "Have a Nice Day", respond to them as if you mean it

  9. The next person - and I'm lookin' at you, Mike Huckabee - who uses reproduction of the species as an argument against gay marriage is risking violence. Because at that point, you've invalidated every couple who cannot have children for whatever reason. Considering the billions of dollars that pour into infertility treatments in this country, I don't think that's a trivial number of people whose marriages are being called inconsequential.

Have A Nice Day!

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A Secular Sacred Christmas

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Not feeling like Christmas is no stranger to me, but it was strange to hear my wife say it.

"It just doesn't feel like Christmas there," she says. "Everyone just unwraps everything all at once. It's a gift orgy, really." She took a deep breath, as if inhaling the melancholy that had wafted about me all day. "They don't celebrate Christmas the way we do. It's just so... secular."

"I don't think that's what you mean," I said. "I think the word you want isn't secular, but greedy."

Our religious views and habits have been a source of some contention lately, but this wasn't about that. She's right; I've been around plenty of families (including my ex-wife's) that simply tear into the gifts under the tree with wild abandon. And it does feel empty, and shallow, and, well, greedy. But that's not being secular either.

The entire tradition of gifts at Christmas is far removed from its religious origins (and yes, both the pagan holiday and Christian appropriation). It's hard to relate getting a new Playstation to anything religious. But it's the quality of sacredness that she was referring to, and so I'd like to share our Christmas tradition with you.

We do not visit relatives, nor do we answer the phone - at least, not until dinnertime. One gift may be opened on Christmas Eve, though that might become optional soon. We prefer Christmas Eve services (and preferentially Midnight Mass).

On Christmas Day itself, the children may get things out of the stocking before we get up, but nothing more. (Fruits, candies, and small toys may appear there, as if placed by the hands of mischievous but vaguely healthy elves.) We eat breakfast, then proceed to slowly open presents. We take turns; the children wait while the parents open as well. Each gift is examined to see whom it is from, then opened. (A frenzy of opening that one present may occur, and is, indeed, encouraged.) But here's the key part - when that present is opened, the child is encouraged to try it on, play with it, to explore. Last year we stopped for an hour or two while my son and I played a newly opened game. We may take the entire morning doing this, appreciating the gifts instead of just tossing them aside and reaching for the next one.

This is the flip side of adopting a true spirit of giving. To truly give a gift, one must be concerned about the enjoyment of the other, not recognition of oneself. In turn, as the recipient, one must appreciate the gift and the spirit in which it was given. (Yes, that means you have to try to appreciate the fugly sweater with too-long sleeves your aunt got you. Again.)

It's this reflection, and time with your immediate family, that makes this sacred. It isn't a religious element; the same thing can be used with any celebration with gifts. It is entirely possible to have a sacred secular Christmas; it's equally possible to have one that claims to be religious, and be utterly profane.

I challenge you, then, this holiday season. Celebrate your holidays. Celebrate them secularly or religiously.

But do this: Make them sacred. Celebrate them without greed.

Every Day is Exactly the Same

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"Oh, American Beauty. That movie made me think. I hated it."

I froze. I really like American Beauty, and had almost said so. Instead, I said: "Why did you hate it?"

"It took everything America's been built on - hard work, doing your best, and being responsible, and turned them on their head. It threw all of that into the gutter."

Which was, of course, very much the reason I liked the film. And still do.

It's an American Beauty kind of day for me, with a running Stars of the Lid soundtrack (with occasional dips into NiN). It's grey, almost rainy, and just wetly chilly enough to be uncomfortable. It's a day fit for a kind of pop-psychological introspection that feels so unique and personal, but is common to everybody.

It's like being a teenager, but with less emotion and more angst and ennui.

Leaving a friend's birthday dinner, I overheard the teenage hostesses. "You're still a kid," the older said. "Hell, I'm still a kid. Neither of us is thinking like a grownup yet."

"You won't ever feel like a grownup," I said. "You'll always feel like a kid, wondering when you'll feel grownup. Instead, you'll just feel like a kid who has too many rules, and realizes the rules won't go away."

I wanted to say that, but I couldn't. There's an unspoken rule about that, too.

Gah. I don't like these kinds of days. Maybe some more rum cake would help...

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Customer Service Safewords

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Can technology customer service have a safeword? Something like "I know what a SDIMM chip is" or "I've configured triggered port forwarding by reading man pages" that lets you skip past the script-kiddie "support"? My last couple calls to tech support (regardless of company) were typified by me being a step ahead of their instructions. Example.

CS: "Okay, we're going to go to the router's settings page. Open Internet Explorer. Have you done that?"
ME: "Already looking at it."
CS: "Okay, you should see a prompt that asks you for the password. Enter "password" there."
ME: "No, I'm already past that. I changed the default password already. I told you I was already at the settings page."
CS: "It should have asked for your password."
ME: "It did. I'm already past that. I read the manual."
CS: "Is it asking for your password yet? Maybe we need to reinstall the factory settings."
ME: [Sighing, getting ready to lie.] "Oh, look. There it is. Asking for my password."

For an HOUR AND A HALF as the guy walked me through doing all the things I'd already told him that I'd done twice before. Forget where the support centers are geographically located; I just want one that isn't frazzled when I say my default browser isn't Internet Explorer, I don't use Outlook, and, no, I don't use Windows Media Player to play MP3 files.

This has been my typical customer support call since 1997. It doesn't matter what company, or about what kind of system. If I'm calling tech support, it's a funky question - and ever since Mindspring sold out to Earthlink a decade or so ago, I've not found a person on the phone who can help. It's frustrating, let me tell you.

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The More They Change - A Flash Fiction

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"It ain't the same nomore."

Joel winced at the words, then checked to make sure granpa hadn't seen it. They were making their way down the rows of corn. Joel bent over to make sure the insect he saw really was a ladybug and not something more destructive. At least there wasn't any worry about weeds.

"I said, it ain't the same nomore."

Joel sighed. "How's that, granpa?" He knew the answer - could say it along with the old man - but granpa was set on telling it anyway. Joel tuned out the lecture, nodding and "um-huh"ing on automatic. He just listened for the transition points to keep his place. Cold going to school. Real bugs. Artificial fertilizer. Hail. Storms, Tornadoes. Back to walking uphill in snow to school. They were almost at the elevator. Thank God.

"Granpa, you go first in the elevators."

As they rode, passing floors of wheat, corn, and soy visible through the plexiglass doors of the elevator, Joel's granpa shook his head.

"It just ain't the same nomore."

You can read more about vertical farms at their site.

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Router and DSL Modem Issues

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I spent most of last evening replacing my DSL modem with a new one.

This should have been a simple thing. My router is a separate bit of equipment, and had all the configuration stuff set up. I just got a simple modem, with a single ethernet jack. It looked very similar to the one that had bricked that morning.

Except it had a router in it as well.

Why you'd have a router in a bit of equipment with only one ethernet jack (and no wireless) I don't know. Still, I got it to directly connect to my ISP and to my laptop. Next was getting it to share the connection through the wireless router.

So I spent the next several hours - including one and a half on the phone with tech support - trying to make the wireless router and the router in the DSL modem play nice with each other.

I tried turning DHCP off on one bit of hardware, then the other. I tried plugging cables into different ports. I don't know how many times I reset and rebooted systems. I was almost able to get it to work by turning the wireless router's DHCP off, but then the DHCP server on the modem wouldn't assign IP addresses to wireless devices.

Tech support's answer was that since I could get one computer to connect to the internet, the problem must be in my router, so it wasn't their problem. (grrrrrrrrrr)

I've put the specific hardware to help others who are searching, but I think this basic solution will generally work for others who are having the same kind of issue.

The final answer that I finally found on a forum somewhere was this:

  1. Hook the ethernet cable to the dsl modem.

  2. Choose "Bridging mode" on the DSL modem for the network connection type. Click "next" through all of that. Reboot the DSL modem using the interface. You won't be able to access the GUI after that, but that's okay.

  3. Move the ethernet cable to your router.

  4. Hook an ethernet cable from the router's "Internet" or "WAN" port to the DSL modem's port.

  5. Configure it to use PPPOE and put in your ISP's login settings.

...and it works like it's supposed to, bridging the signal from the phone line to the ethernet line. The wireless router now handles NAT translation, DHCP, and so on.

Hopefully this will help someone else out there...

LINKSYS Wireless router WRT54G

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Escaping the Meat

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Between my back, a lingering back-of-the-throat cold, vague aches and the long-present allergies and poor vision, I've been all too aware of the fragility of my body.

This is a discomforting thing.

Being a sci-fi geek, I immediately turn to visions of the Singularity. A common aspect of visions of the Singularity is that we'll be able to escape our bodies - whether through uploads and branching instances (Accelerando), or a new life through clones and transfers of mentality (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Old Man's War"). My problem with those has always been one encapsulated by the ultimate question of Gaiman's Sandman - point of view. An uploaded copy of me *isn't* me. The point of view that's writing now will still be stuck in the meat. The singularity is no more immortality from this perspective than writing, artwork, or children. Your point of view is still meat-bound.


I have been sleeping in a chair this week to help my back recover. It's helped, but it's unusual enough that my sleep patterns have been disrupted. Last night, while falling asleep, I had a somewhat persistent sensation of being *more* than just the meat. I don't mean some kind of out-of-body stuff; I mean that I felt like "I" was the room, the chair, the dogs, my wife, the laptop, *everything* in the room. Yeah, it might just be the drugs and fatigue, but it was a very compelling sensation. And that makes me wonder.

There's parts of the brain that, when activated, make the person in question lose the boundaries of "self" at the meat. It's generally presumed that activating these areas (like activating the so-called "God Module") are *faults* in the system; short circuits that don't represent what's really going on. But maybe that's ass-backwards. The appeal of Mead for me - who basically posits that your consciousness is made up of interactions with other things and therefore isn't just in the meat - is that he gives a good explanation how consciousness could develop. His concept is rather compatible with the evolutionary biology and sociobiology in vogue as of late - while still maintaining some degree of (pardon the sociology joke) "me-ness".

So that activation might just be the meat being able to really grasp what's going on; that we are far more distributed and far more connected than we normally think. As a result, our separateness is an illusion, and actual Singularity-style uploads may be more accurate than previously believed.

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Radicals aren't (just) out to get you

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Radicalism doesn't necessarily come from the intensity or degree of one's beliefs. It comes from a lack of faith in others. It comes from a feeling of being ignored and unable to participate in the process. It comes from being excluded.

This seems simple to solve. This isn't exactly a new hypothesis - if the end to radicalism is so obvious, then we should have done it already and entered into an era of peace and love and happy singing birds (or singing dinosaurs, depending on your preferences).

Conflict theory claims that the persistence of radicalism and violence is because those in power do not wish to give it up. That's certainly true in many cases. When parents are bossed around by children, we disapprove of it so strongly that we make reality TV shows out of it, where an English nanny or a somewhat smarmy psychiatrist administers advice on daytime TV.

But that's not all cases. The remainder are, surprisingly, easily explained as well.

Ideology has a strong influence here. A rigid, uncompromising view means that one's odds of getting what you want are substantially lower. But those with a relatively moderate ideology can still become radicalized - and it's because they *don't believe* they're being heard.

I've seen managers make overtures to workers - and be greeted with distrust and anger. It's not because of the managers' self-perception; at those times they may be truly wishing to cede some power and authority in return for teamwork. The perception is in the workers. Regardless of what management says, the workers do not *see* trust - they see just another ploy. Rather than work with the system, rather than talk, they'd rather strike, grumble, sabotage, or just plain complain.

This principle scales. The more one thinks they can influence others (whether through votes, words, whatever), the less likely they are to try violence. The less one believes they can actually participate in the system, the more likely they are to go outside the system. It's true that sometimes, with some people, it is impossible to bridge that gap. But to presume that entire groups, entire swaths of people are unable to be reasoned with... that's our shortcoming, not theirs.

The challenge for us with privilege is twofold: Both to hear those who are willing to work with us, and to remember that the burden of proof - the evidence that we *are* really listening this time - is not on them... but on us.

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Manifesto Games (xpost)

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(Crossposted between the Resource List and Ideatrash)

As I spent the last few days sitting (I threw my back out over the weekend), I spent a lot of time installing software and migrating data from my old PC. During that process, I was reminded once again why I really like Manifesto Games.

Manifesto is a distributor of independent games, mostly for the PC but many also for the Mac. I recommend them for a couple of big reasons.

  • Their customer service is awesome. E-mails are returned within the day, and the staff treat you like a real person, not some cardboard cutout "customer" thing. When I was just moving to a new PC and had a problem re-registering the program, they were helpful and treated me like a truthful person. In contrast, DataViz (who makes a program for my Palm) recognized that I was the legitimate owner - but made me pay more to them in "download insurance" for a product I'd already bought.

  • They feature (good) independent games. Big game companies - just like big film and music companies - have big economic motives to make games that are just like everything else. Sure, the big franchises are fun, but that doesn't mean they're the ONLY things that are fun. Starships Unlimited is a fun, polished 4x game that rivals many commercial offerings. Mudcraft is a fun RTS (like Warcraft 1-3 or Starcraft) that *doesn't involve combat*.

  • Indie games tend to focus on gameplay, not mechanics. Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is a fun casual game, but still ran well on my nearly decade-old computer. Oasis doesn't have the most awesome graphics out there - but it's a compelling, challenging game. How many games have had great eye candy - but were horrible (or worse, boring) to play?

  • Try before you buy. I love the shareware concept nearly as much as I do the open-source one, especially for games. It's all too easy to buy a game because of a review or cool cover - and find out the play isn't what you expected at all. This happened with my wife and NiGHTS Journey of Dreams. She expected a lush, visually rich RPG-ish game. It is lush and a beautifully rendered game but can't play it because the roller-coaster 3D effect of the gameplay makes her nauseated. I had a similar experience with Lux Delux - it seems like a nice game if you like Risk-like games... but I didn't find it to my taste. Likewise, I've seen games that claimed to run on older systems... and did... but so poorly that they were unplayable. Manifesto's format of trying the demo lets you buy the games you'll truly enjoy. Neither my wife or I knew if we'd like Virtual Villagers, but once we tried it we knew we would buy it.

  • Reasonable prices. Games on Manifesto average about $20 a pop. Some of the ones I mentioned are for $10 or $15. Not bad for something you already know you're going to like.

So the next time you're bored, give Manifesto a look. They've done right by me, and I think you'll enjoy their offerings too.

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Taboo - A Flash Fiction

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Another week, another flash fiction (despite spending the beginning of the week on painkillers from throwing my back out again...)

"I do not like to speak Spanish in public," she said, hoping he and his bright, inquisitive eyes would just go away.

"Well, could I practice with you? I am having problems in my Spanish class."

Kate ("Katiana," her mother whispers in accented English) twirls a dyed blonde strand of her hair. She prays he has not heard her call home.

"No. I do not remember that much, anyway. I am sorry."

"Lo siento, tambien," he says, walking away.

That night, she hears Univision from her mother's television and cries. It is a melodramatic soap opera.

She understands every word.

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Sharing the Struggle

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"Black voters overwhelmingly turned out for Obama, who they perceived as sharing their struggle. Interestingly, Obama has no personal connection to America's history of slavery; his father was Kenyan."

That's not an exact quote (though it's as close as I can remember one particular example). It's an amalgam of several I've seen in the post-election analysis. That paragraph - or one very much like it - has appeared in all the major news sources, and many of the smaller ones. In it, they show exactly how far we have yet to come with racism.

The embedded concept is that racism is somehow logically tied to a person's genetics. You can easily find examples of where people used genealogy to try to prove their "purity", but such examples are only really relevant where there is no clear social distinction, e.g. where someone can "pass". But that's not the type of racism that is routinely experienced today, nor is it the concept of "struggle" as mentioned above.

All of our society's current racist effects towards Black people - especially the pervasive amounts of subtle institutional racism - can be traced back to the time of slavery. They have their roots in that time. But Black people who live in the USA today were not shaped and affected by the slave-owning institutions of the 1800s and before; they were shaped by the after-effects. Those after-effects did not (and still do not) care about genealogy; they care about visible differentiation. Do you look "different"? Do you look "different" enough that you can be safely considered "other"? Then those effects kick in. That's all it takes.

To believe that racism has some kind of defensible basis in biology ignores the experience of any Black person living in the USA today. It does not matter to our modern racists where Obama's parents came from - just what color they were. And even that criteria can change over time. Over the years, there's been a lot of talk as to how much "Black" makes you not white? Less than two hundred years ago Irish and Italian immigrants weren't considered white. That such a concept seems absolutely insane to us now just shows how idiotic and illogical racism always is.

So in a very real sense, it doesn't matter who your parents are, or whether you have biological ancestors who were slaves. If you are treated the same, you share in that struggle as well. That so many commentators failed to see that should be another indication of how embedded and unconscious privilege is in our society.

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