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Politics Politics

A Step Forward for Freedom – And a Reminder for Myself

June 27th, 2015
Let's have more days like this.

By now you have heard that the Supreme Court of the United States has said that it is illegal to deny marriage to the citizens of this mighty nation simply because they want to marry someone of their own gender. This makes me happy, but not nearly as happy as it has made some people around me.

“I’m a person! I’m a person in my own country!” one friend said, before jumping in his car to drive a few hundred miles to celebrate with his partner in Texas. Man, that was cool. I’m no constitutional scholar, but I have to think this decision will have other, also-awesome echoes. “You can’t limit someone’s rights because of…” just got a lot stronger. A libertarian’s dream*.

So, I’m celebrating freedom, and I’m celebrating a magnificent milestone in the lives of some of my friends. It’s all good. But there’s a little part of me that asks, “Why did it even have to come to this?” Here is my rather tortured metaphor:

Imagine you’re in a big room with a lot of people. Everyone seems to be getting along just fine, but after a while you notice something: some of the people in the room are on fire. No one seems to be doing anything about it. You turn to your friends and say, “Jesus, shouldn’t we be putting out those fires?” You talk amongst yourselves and it quickly becomes clear that the people in question would rather not be on fire. The solution seems pretty obvious.

But a few wing nuts actually think we should not put out the fires, claiming those people chose to be on fire. Huh. So we talk some more, some people louder than others. Personally, I wasn’t talking that loudly, or at least only to people who already agreed with me. That’s why I don’t feel the right to crow as loudly today. I could have done more. Some of the let-them-burn crowd ended up lighting their own pants on fire (liar, liar)** and finally we decided that it was time to put the fires out. The joy expressed by those no longer burning was heartfelt and heartening.

Watch that joy. Participate in that joy. Maybe you can get a feel for what it is like to have a burden lifted.

Then look around the big room. Do you smell smoke? So do I.
______

* Oddly, those who self-identify as conservative voted in this case to give the state power over the individual. It happens pretty often. The word just doesn’t mean what it used to.

** A teachable moment for the leaders of the groups who, for their own political gains, wanted to continue to deny homosexuals their rights: if you go on about the “sanctity of marriage”, DON’T COMMIT ADULTERY! We are fortunate that the opposition couldn’t keep its dick in its pants.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

A Little Closer…

June 15th, 2015

The travel day started with a two-and-a-half mile hike from my hotel to the shop where my car waited, along highway 40, past a hotel that advertised

HOT BREAKFAST
POO   SPA

and past a store with a sign that read:

IT IS TIME
WE HAVE
DETACHABLE BLADES

It is time.

Not far past that, in a red-brick building, next to a clothing store that sold both suits and skate gear, the tinted plate-glass proudly displayed a two-foot-tall green glass bong with a skull leaning out to the side. Perhaps some of my preconceptions of rural Utah are out-of-date.

A turn on Vernal Ave took me north, where I met an elderly power-walker heading the other way. She and I agreed it was a fine morning for a walk.

Finally, my destination. The good folks at Rev’d Up Auto Service had tested all the various parts of my electrical system and everything was running according to spec. “We could replace the alternator anyway, but it’s testing just fine.”

The kicker: The closest alternator was a day away. I could wait in Vernal another day, or I could cross my fingers and forge ahead. Heck, there was no guarantee replacing the alternator would fix what was wrong anyway. I chose finger-crossing and drove on, hoping that at least I’d get fair warning from the battery light if the problem recurred.

Nevertheless, I kept the car in minimum-electric-demand configuration, foregoing gadgets and radio and keeping my fingers off the switches for the electric windows.

After 100 miles I started to relax. After 130 I started to curse. The battery light had returned. I sweated the next thirty miles into Steamboat Springs.

When I was on my big road trip eleven years ago, 160 miles was about ideal for a day of driving. (On this day eleven years ago I was at Pepper’s pub, in Creston, Canada; the last night I spent on Canadian soil.) Of course, the best parts of that trip were when I didn’t have a destination. A destination is the bane of a good journey. Now I really want to be somewhere. Kansas, where the Bunch is gathered.

This time the auto shop is only one and a half miles from my hotel, but the walk is far less interesting, and far less pedestrian-friendly. I chose a kinda-dumpy looking hotel, assuming it would be cheaper, and I was not in a position to pop from place to place comparing rates. The internet might have been helpful, but every second my car was running might have been its last, and stopping and restarting would kill the battery even faster.

I’m not looking forward to sleeping in that bed tonight, let’s just leave it at that.

One thing for Steamboat Springs, it is within the craft-beer zone anchored around Boulder, and this time I’m much closer to the cutsey little downtown. I am now in a place called the Tap Room, and it’s pretty nice.

There is a saying I learned from Tony Hillerman: When there is a drought, the Navajo pray for rain; the Hopi pray for harmony with the drought. I think it’s time for me to be Hopi, and find harmony with the journey. I will get there. In the meantime I will travel.

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Bars of the World Tour Bars of the World Tour

An Unplanned Visit to Vernal

June 13th, 2015
I should be arriving in Denver about now. I'm not.

I was making good time scooting across the southwestern part of the United States, plying US Highway 40 from outside of Provo to Denver, my target for the day. Somehow in all my traversals of the region, I had never taken this slice of roadway.

I paused in Duchesne to fill up the tank, and soon after I pulled back onto the highway I noticed that the battery warning light was on. Uh, oh.

I considered two possibilities: That there was some fleeting problem (like the window motors had briefly overloaded the system – the windows are getting very sluggish) and everything was actually fine but the error condition was still registered in the computer, or there was a deeper problem and I was currently drawing off the battery, and the running time I had left was strictly limited.

Highway 40 in eastern Utah is not exactly buzzing with humanity (despite this being the beehive state). The next settlement of any size was Vernal, so I turned off any optional electrical items and crossed my fingers. I made it, and pulled into a parking lot to see if I could find a clue about what was going on.

I happen to own a wifi-enabled ELM327 which, combined with an app on my phone, allows me to read and clear the error codes recorded by the car’s computer. I got the widget and my phone talking to each other, only to discover that whatever condition causes the battery light to come on is not recorded on the computer. As far as the OBD II port was concerned, everything was hunky-dory. Humph. I had to conclude that whatever condition caused the light to turn on was ongoing. I turned to Siri to find a mechanic. Mostly I got tire stores.

When I twisted the key to start the car, it turned over with a distinct lack of gusto. No doubt about it, I was running out of juice. I made a command decision: First I would find a hotel, then I’d find a mechanic once all my stuff was safely stashed in my room. I’m glad I did. Unloaded and rolling once more, I got about half a mile before the car shuddered and rolled to a stop as I ducked into the parking lot for a laundromat. The last few feet into the parking space took leg power. Then it was time to call the nice folks at AAA.

Those nice folks sent another nice guy with a huge-ass tow truck to drag my car to a local mechanic. The catch: It’s Saturday. He took me to a good shop that’s “pretty much almost always” open on Saturdays, but, alas, not this particular Saturday afternoon. Nor is it likely they (or anyone else) will be open Sunday.

Currently I’m sitting in a nice-enough place called Wingers Roadhouse, drinking a King’s Tale Pale Ale, by the Winger Bros. Brewing Company. Since it’s on tap, it can only be 3.2%, which makes for an odd pale ale. At this moment “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac is playing. If only I could.

Small-town Utah on a Sunday. Here we go.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

A Big Milestone

May 30th, 2015
Thanks to technology that didn't exist the last time I had a bicycle, I know when I crossed this magical threshold.

It seems appropriate that the ride that put me over 5000 miles was a slog. There are days like that, days you find yourself a long way from home and you’re not sure where the energy will come from to get you there. I’d fought a fierce headwind on Wednesday, and Thursday I was still feeling the effort. Man, I hate headwinds.

The traffic lights along Homestead were no help either as I plodded along, but since I had little momentum it was less annoying to lose it. Instead I waited, not winded (I was too tired to burn enough energy to require heavy breathing), and when the light changed in my favor I saddled up and with a moan I pushed ahead.

I catch myself moaning fairly often, in fact, especially when I discover myself in too tall of a gear when I pull out from a light. It’s not so much a moan of pain as it is a super-slo-mo version of a tennis player’s grunt, releasing from the diaphragm as one makes an effort. Only in my case the effort is stretched over a long period of time. “Uh-h-h-h” I sound like Frankenstein’s Monster as depicted in an old B-movie.

5000 miles. That’s a lot in 13 months; not bad at all for a gray-bearded somewhat-overweight dude. (This spring I entertained the idea of crossing that magical line before my bike’s first birthday, but April didn’t go too well, mileage-wise, and May wasn’t great either.) Next week I’ll cross another, perhaps more meaningful milestone: 100 miles for each year I’ve been on this planet. And I should be able to get the next 5000 before another year passes. (Although I won’t be getting many miles in June.)

You might think, with all that riding, that my legs would be really buff by now, but that’s relative. I still have skinny legs. They’re just a heck of a lot more muscular than they used to be.

I still have the newbie glow about my alternate lifestyle, that enthusiasm that makes commuting by bike more fun, not just cheaper and less frustrating and environmentally friendlier and healthier. This might be annoying to the people around me; I mention my bike fairly often in conversation and I’m a regular poster on Apple’s bike-to-work mailing list. The local bike shop knows my face, but they don’t see it as often as they used to. Gradually I’m getting more self-sufficient.

Toward that end, I’ll be taking a class on bike maintenance in July. I’ll be getting 18 hours of instruction by a trained expert while I work on my own bike from the inside out. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s run by a shop in town called Good Karma Bikes, a non-profit outfit dedicated to making the world a better place by providing transportation to people who can’t afford cars and by hiring emancipated foster kids and others who need a good start in life.

I’ve learned a lot since my last bike-milestone post, things like “always give the crossing guards a friendly wave and sometimes they’ll let you pass before stopping traffic,” but really there’s one lesson that stands out above all the others. I mentioned it in a post not long ago, but it bears repeating:

Just keep pedaling.

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Remembering a Great

May 22nd, 2015
Don't give me this Man O' War shit.

Watching sports silently, I just saw an ad for the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the triple crown of horse racing.

It got me to thinking about a horse I knew as a kid. Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in record time, and the buzz began. This was one ridiculously fast horse. I really wasn’t aware of how special that was at the time.

But the three races of the triple crown are different. A horse great at one distance may not do so well at another. The Preakness is a sprint, while the Belmont is a grind. The races favor different horses.

Unless that horse is Secretariat. Forty years and a bit later, Secretariat still holds the records for all three races. I remember watching those races on TV, the first time I ever gave a hang about horse racing, and I remember a horse flying around the course, leaving the pack far behind. In the Belmont, only four other horses even bothered to run against him. The track did not accept “show” bets. One horse kept up for a while, but the tremendous machine put down the fastest 1.5 miles in history of the sport and won by 31 lengths.

It appeared, to a kid watching, almost effortless. The horse just flew, while the rest of the field slogged along somewhere behind. The way he ran, it was like he was barely touching the ground.

I’m not sure, but I think the Belmont was his last race. There was nothing left to prove, an no track wants a race where the outcome is not in doubt. Secretariat broke the game. Nobody asked the horse if he wanted to keep running. Of course, they never asked if he wanted to run in the first place. But, man, that kid could fly. I have to think he enjoyed it.

A few years later I saw a “where are they now” feature and Secretariat was mentioned. I saw a clip of the majestic chestnut romping around in a field, a beautiful horse, still sleek, still fast, still carrying the love of speed, running just because he could. That’s a good retirement.

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Observations Observations

Better Feet and the Conquest of the Galaxy

May 19th, 2015
Seriously, we can't be the first.

There’s an ad going around right now, for a car of all things, that features a woman who does not have the feet she was born with. It’s a cool ad, non-sequitur notwithstanding, but there’s a message there that maybe the car company didn’t intend.

The message is this: for certain well-defined purposes, we can build better feet than the ones we were born with.

We haven’t come close to matching the versatility of the human foot, and in my lifetime we probably won’t reproduce the feel of my toes wrestling with those of my sweetie, but if you want to sprint 100 meters there’s nothing like having springs for feet. People without human-born feet aren’t allowed in our races anymore.

So while the car company is trying to tie us to their brand through the undeniable awesomeness of this woman, there is another message, possibly more germane to their product: We can build some amazing shit these days. Technology that transforms lives.

It’s only a matter of time before folks start asking to have their weaker flesh-feet replaced with a socket that can accommodate a wide variety of specialized appendages. Once we develop muscle replacements that can be controlled by our nervous systems, things get crazier. And more powerful. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen in the moderately-near future.

Which leads, if you’re willing to follow me, to the Fermi Paradox. Fermi asked, “if there are so many stars, and presumably so many planets, where are all the civilizations?” The assumption is that any technological civilization will eventually send ships out to the stars, and even if it takes 10,000 years to get to the next place, that over a couple million years you can fill up a galaxy. It’s that exponential thing. And with millions of starters, one at least ought to succeed.

The ability to create a person who is powered by a nuclear reactor or solar cells, who can endure the hardships of empty space, makes that conundrum all the more perplexing. Better feet, better lungs, better heart. They’re all just machines serving our brains. We can give them galactic lifespans.

So the brains have to be the weak link, right? A car is just a way to get your brain to another location. Rocket feet are the same thing, but way cooler.

There’s an event that the Science Fiction crowd calls ‘The Singularity’. It’s the point at which we silly humans build something that surpasses us. It might be through genetic engineering, it might be though cybernetics, or whatever. Usually it’s presented as a scary thing; hell, nobody wants to become obsolete. But maybe better really is better.

But if it could happen here, doesn’t it stand to reason that it has happened a million times before? So where are those guys?

I have theories, but none I’m terribly convinced by. Either we are really unusual to reach the point of making custom feet, or there’s something ahead we’re really not going to like. Statistics favors the latter, but there’s a lot we don’t know. Meanwhile, let’s just keep on making things better.

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Politics Politics

Ted Cruz and the WWE

May 13th, 2015
Maybe he's not a raving idiot.

So in case you’ve missed it, Senator Ted Cruz has done another batshit-crazy move. He’s asked the United States military to assure him that they do not intend to invade Texas.

Texas. You know, the state that is in fact already one of the United. We have, according to this amusing rebuttal, fifteen military bases in Texas. What would an invasion even do?

So Ted Cruz, Canadian, Ivy-League educated, has once more done something embarrassing and nonsensical. Can he really be that stupid? Is he really incapable of seeing how utterly ridiculous he looks?

“He’s just conveying the concerns of his constituents,” you might say, to cover for him. But is that leadership? Would he also petition the White House to turn off the tornado machines if some nutjob in the panhandle started quacking that the windmills in Kansas were actually giant fans aimed at Texas? Or would he choose instead to maybe not give credence to the whacked-out, nut-assed ravings of an imbecile? Or if I can ask another way, how many imbeciles does it take to get Cruz to embarrass himself?

What Cruz did is terrible governance. He undermined the very institution he is a part of. But… I don’t think governing is why Ted Cruz is in Washington. He has seen the future of politics and he’s jumped on board with gusto.

Ted Cruz is not a leader, he’s a showman. He’s not in Washington to make America better, he’s there to sell tickets. (Rhymes with: collect campaign contributions.) He sees politics for what it has become: the WWE.

Hm… thinking about this a little more, selling tickets is one part of what WWE does, but mostly what they do is make money for their corporate sponsors. In this way Cruz is exactly like a character in the WWE. Cruz’s corporate sponsors are companies who profit from the legislation he passes. Our government is all about the corporate sponsors these days.

And the product the WWE sells is characters. Heroes, heels, stereotypes, and fleeting characters representing America’s enemies, who rise and fall with the each new bogeyman who threatens the American way of life.

I know, I know, there has always been an element of this in politics. But Ted Cruz the politician is so far removed from anything you would expect given his history, that I have to wonder if Senator Ted Cruz is a wholesale invention, a six-year stand-up act on the nation’s biggest stage. Seriously, is there any other explanation for someone with more than five brain cells to rub together to act the way he does?

Perhaps in fact he is brilliant. Perhaps he has identified a group of people who love the WWE, who recognize the emotional manipulation but steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it. And for those people he has become Superpolitician, crusading against the Philistines in Washington, a lonely voice in a tempest of corruption. He does it well. Andy Kauffman would be proud.

Although, if Senator Cruz is the wave of the future, and other completely fabricated personas take up residence in Washington to pit staged fights with pre-dertemined outcomes, C-Span could get a lot more interesting.

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What Next, Billy?

May 8th, 2015
Bill Simmons is getting the ol' heave-ho. Maybe that's good.

I just read that Bill Simmons and ESPN are parting ways. Grantland, the property Bill built with ESPN’s money, stays with ESPN.

I don’t expect that many of the regular readers here much care about this event, and that’s probably healthy. But Simmons is a talented writer, good enough that he created a space for himself and built an audience that trusts him. He simply loves sports, and every word he writes reinforces that. He is so good he even makes pro basketball sound interesting.

He writes as a fan, not as a journalist. He talks about those terrible gut-punch losses that fans of a team remember for generations, and when you read his words you remember your own gut-punch moments and you feel connected to something larger. He writes about the love of the guys wearing the right uniforms. He writes about being a father and about beloved dogs. He’ll take his daughter to a hockey game, but the scene in the stands at an NFL game… no way.

After a few years at ESPN he created Grantland, self-described as a sports and pop-culture site. He assembled a range of writers and critics unified by talent, and pretty much nothing else. Television, perhaps, is the one thing that binds them, with a gambling outlier. And music. And movies. And cetera.

As a fan, Bill called the commissioner of the NFL a lying sack of shit. ESPN gives the NFL a lot of money each year for the right to broadcast some of the games. This creates tension. ESPN has to choose: Do they give voice to the knee-jerk fan, or do they respect the hand that feeds them? I was not in the room, and I could be totally wrong, but I suspect money was secondary in the negotiations for the new contract between Simmons and ESPN. Simmons wants tenure. He wants an immunity from the consequences of what he says that ESPN simply cannot give.

No doubt Simmons will create a new megaphone to shout through. No doubt he will attract some of the best young writers out there to balance his histrionics. I’ll be tuning in. But he’ll also be more exposed to the consequences of his fan-jerks than he has been in a long time. It’s going to be interesting to see how this pans out. But he’s a passionate and eloquent writer, so on principle alone I’m behind him.

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Observations Observations

Urban Safety Tip

May 8th, 2015
Some deterrents are more effective than others.

If you walk or run alone in an urban area, consider taking a large dog with you. Studies have shown that criminals are 93% less likely to attack someone carrying a big bag of poop.

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Observations Observations

Flubbergasted

May 5th, 2015

adj. How you feel when you step on the scale and discover that you’ve gained two pounds in the last 24 hours.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Belly Fat and Elusive Causality

April 22nd, 2015
Jumping to conclusions is natural, which makes it all the more important to recognize when it happens.

Recently a couple of scientific studies like this one have caught the headlines. The studies conclude that people who drink more diet soda tend to gain more weight, especially gut fat, which is the worst.

This is an important and interesting fact, but almost right away people were saying, “diet soda causes belly fat.” While that may be true, that conclusion is not supported by the studies. The studies show exactly one thing: people who drink more diet soda tend to gain more weight. That is all the studies show. There could, for instance, be a fundamental genetic twist that makes diet soda tastier to some people, that also makes them more inclined to gain weight. Sound farfetched? Possibly it is, but the human animal is complicated, and wacky stuff turns out to be true all the time. There are enough alternatives to the conclusion that diet soda causes belly fat retention that we have to pay attention to them.

Brief aside: Here’s my unscientific take on artificial sweeteners. I avoid them, mostly, but not fanatically. I’ll stick with the known health consequences of the foods my organism evolved eating. I am (unscientifically) confident that those fancy chemicals come with a gotcha — even though the beer next to my elbow right now has far more proven negative health consequences. I am fully aware of the dichotomy in my reasoning.

Anyway, as the press picks up on the story of diet fatness, journalists flip through their electro-rolodexes to S-for-Scientist to find someone credible willing to comment on the story. On the record, respected people speculate on how diet soda and fat could be linked. Perhaps people stop associating sweet tastes with feeling full, one says. Another mentions gut bacteria in rats, and so forth. The press is (generally) careful to present these speculations for what they are.

Then those honest speculations hit Facebook as full-blown fact, and some asshole writes a book selling the shit from Facebook back to the same wide-eyed consumers, and you have another thing everyone knows that may not be true. That person will make a bunch of money, get on talk shows, and…

Hang on a sec, I have a book to write. I think I’ll call it “The Sugar-Free Plague: How Artificial Sweeteners are Destroying Everything You Love”. I probably need a sub-subtitle about big corporations and the government.

This cycle happens all the time, especially in the health fields. Any time you read “X boosts your immune system” you’re probably reading bullshit, or at the very least unproven wish fulfillment. How about this from Harvard Health:

For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, hell, that would be a crazy proposition. But the thing is, out of the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of purported immune-boosters, only a relative handful will ever prove to be effective. Overall, “do healthy things” is the advice Harvard gives. Vitamin C, the one everyone knows helps the immune system? Jury’s still out — direct evidence has been elusive, and unfortunately there’s a lot of bad science surrounding this critical nutrient.

The good news is that there’s a lot of good science focussed on this stuff now, and the folks in the labs have tools now that would make Watson and Crick green with envy.

Back to the original theme: There is an entire category of scientific study devoted to finding correlations. Diet soda and belly fat have been shown to be correlated. That’s important, but primarily as a guide to future research. It doesn’t mean that if you switch back to regular Dr. Pepper you’re going to lose weight. Far from it. It does mean that physiologists and psychopharmacologists have a very interesting fact to explain. And when they do, it will help a lot of people.

The correlation studies get the headlines. By the time the nitty-gritty details are worked out, finding causality in the correlation, we’ve already moved on to the next wide-eyed incredulous breakthrough, published first on Twitter.

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The Hugo Kerfuffle

April 17th, 2015
Trolls, assholes, and a literary inferiority complex.

The most important award in Science Fiction has been reduced to the level of a Facebook popularity contest. Let’s stop wringing our hands and recognize the truth: It’s dead.

The Hugo awards are (well, were) the Oscars of Science Fiction. Except where the Oscars are sure to give lots of love to the commercial successes of the year, the Hugos seem rather disconnected from the commercial world. You can argue that’s good, recognizing talent that the marketplace has not (yet) discovered, and you can argue that it’s bad, showing that the judges are out of touch with reality.

This year, the Hugo awards will miss on both counts. The winner will suck by any measure. It’s a sad, sad story.

The sad story starts with the Sad Puppies, a group who asks, “whatever happened to good ol’ science fiction where dudes shot things with blasters?” They began an effort to promote GOSF to Hugo voters. (Anyone can be a Hugo voter. It costs $40. A friend of mine once gave me a priceless gift — he paid the bucks to nominate me. Alas, it took more than one nomination vote that year to win a place on the ballot.) At the edge of the Sad Puppies sat another, smaller group (well, a couple of guys), who said, more or less, “the liberal gay agenda is ruining our genre, and that’s why fine upstanding woman-haters like us don’t get the awards.” (I’m paraphrasing.) They took the Sad Puppies list, extremified it (by adding themselves over and over) and launched a grass-roots campaign to get their readers to vote for them.

It only took a couple hundred faithful to totally trash the ballot. The Hugo system was devised in a world before Internet trolls. Had I realized how easy it was, I would have bagged myself a Hugo long ago. I figure a cost of $100 per vote; $20K and I’m in!

But allow me to take a moment to consider the Sad Puppies’ initial complaint, and the objective fact that the awards are diverging from what the mainstream wants.

I think SF is still secretly annoyed that people think of it as pulp fiction. Not capital-A Art. For all the “fie on you, world, we all know that literary fiction is just another genre,” there’s still a little defensiveness. The insiders, the ones who usually vote for these awards, are well-read, lit-leaning, and (secretly) self-conscious. They want to sit at the table with the lit-fic guys, and get the nod of respect in the hallowed hallways. So they vote for more literary-leaning stories.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Eric Flint, a commercial success but not an awards darling, has some interesting thoughts that diverge from what I just wrote. We agree on this, however: the divide between commercial success and awards recognition is not about politics. In the comments for that post someone suggested that maybe SF should emulate the recording industry and give out awards based purely on sales. I kinda like that. (“Munchies goes platinum!” I hear in my head. That novel will not be winning any literary awards.)

So, what now? With the Hugo being torpedoed, and other major awards losing relevance, will the marketplace be the only measure of success? What will become of beautiful prose that is challenging to read, without the ivory-tower league to raise it on a pedestal? There is capital-A Art in Science Fiction, dammit, and it should be recognized.

My humble suggestion: The Sad Puppies handing out beanie baby trophies for the best stories with white guys saving scantily-clad helpless space princesses, the ivory tower crowd awarding elegant chess sets (with rooks made of ivory) to the most beautiful prose of the year, the geek crowd awarding the golden propeller beanie to the best representation of cybernetics, and so forth. Let the fragmentation happen. It’s healthy. It’s good. It’s time to surrender the One Award that Rules Them All to the trolls.

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California’s Drought and Climate Change

April 10th, 2015

We had a nice storm pass through this week, but it’s going to take a lot more to end California’s water woes. The state is simply running out. The Official Residence of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has gone into full-on conservation mode, and we hope all our neighbors do likewise.

I hear people around me saying, “Take that, global warming deniers! Here’s your proof!” The thing is, that’s not actually true. I did some reading recently, and the gnomes in their supercomputing centers, honing their climate models ever-sharper, still think that Northern California will be getting more rain as a result of global warming, not less. Farther south there will be less rain, and where the inflection point lies is the subject of much analysis. Current best guess out of UCLA is that the line is around Los Angeles.

But wait — we’re supposed to be getting more rain? Then what’s up with this drought? Does it disprove global warming? A well-informed global warming denier could get some mileage sowing doubt in the climatologists’ computer models.

The thing is, this drought is weather. Just as you can’t calculate the mileage of your car based on a single drive to the store, you can’t form meaningful conclusions about climate based on a couple of years of weather.

And the drought isn’t really contrary to the climate models, anyway. While California may get more water in any given twenty-year period, the weather is likely to become more extreme in both directions — very dry periods followed by very very wet ones. The weather on a given day is almost never average, and will be average even less in the future. So in fact we are more likely to have droughts, but there will be floods between them.

Right now, a flood seems like a pretty good thing. It would take a lot of rain before California couldn’t find a use for it. Hell, if it rained enough, people in the cities could have grassy lawns like they do in other places.

Wait? They do have grassy lawns in desert cities even as the state’s farms dry up? Why, that makes no sense at all. Maybe we need this drought to last a while longer, so we can end that crazy habit and change the way water is allocated. It will probably take a true emergency to turn that boat around. (I feel obliged to confess that I had a small grassy lawn in San Diego and I liked it. I like grass. But it’s time we found alternatives in places where lawns don’t grow by themselves.)

So while Northern California might be getting more rain in the future, we are powerless to control when that rain will fall. Conservation may be different going forward, more about efficient storage during the wet years (and the will to not squander the water when it’s in the reservoir), but conservation will still be critical to the state’s continued prosperity — and its ability to help feed a nation.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Pulling for the Flames Now

April 8th, 2015
Their fans deserve it.

I’ve always enjoyed hockey; it’s a game where something is always happening, scoring is a significant event, and the clock keeps ticking even when you wish it wouldn’t. Growing up in the coccyx of the rocky mountains in northern New Mexico, there wasn’t a lot of media coverage of the sport (this was before Colorado had a team), but it was fun to watch when it presented itself.

A brief aside: When I was growing up there was hockey right there in my town, at the local outdoor ice rink. It never even occurred to me that I could participate. I didn’t know anyone who did. I wonder if the hockey environment there has changed in the intervening years.

The first time I formed a loyalty to a team was on my Homeless Tour, when I was passing through Canmore, Canada. The Calgary Flames were in the finals, one win from the Stanley Cup. I got to the bar section of the Boston Pizza just in time to grab the last seat at the bar, behind the taps, and I proceeded to have a Seminal Sports Experience. It started when the whole place went quiet out of respect for the United States national anthem. Then came ‘O Canada’ and the whole damn bar belted it out. Things just got better from there.

The Flames lost, but the fans I met that day were awesome on every level. I became a Calgary fan, but even more I became a fan of Calgary’s fans.

Cut to late nights in the darkness, lying on the Curiously Uncomfortable Couch in my little flat in Prague, listening to radio calls via the Internet. The Flames’ play-by-play announcer was mesmerizing; in my book only the Blackhawks’ announcer was in the same league. Good times.

In the ensuing years I’ve come to be a Sharks fan. It’s the first time I’ve had a local hockey team to root for. I still harbor some loyalty to the Flames, and especially to the fans up there, but the Sharks are my team. So it goes.

I have also grown a hatred for the Los Angeles Kings. Thugs and morons, and if the league is crooked, they are crooked in the new-biggest-market’s favor. Not sure how many season-ending knee-on-knee ‘accidents’ have to happen before someone looks a little closer.

The season is winding down, and the Sharks are out of the playoffs. It’s the end of the third-longest playoff streak in major sports. That makes me sad. The Kings, the current champions, are on the bubble with two games to go. It will either be them or… the Calgary Flames.

Nobody thought the Flames had a chance this year. They’re rebuilding. A lot of kids with talent, but it takes time and experience to make a contender. But here they are, on the brink of making the playoffs. If they get in, Los Angeles doesn’t. It’s that simple.

The Kings have two games left. Tomorrow they play the Flames. Then on Saturday they play the Sharks. Words cannot describe the joy I will feel if the Sharks kill the Kings and put the lads from Calgary into the playoffs.

And this is sports. You love your guys. You hate the filthy bastards who have personally wronged you. You struggle when one of your guys winds up playing with the filthy bastards. But there’s a little more. There are the great fans you meet, people who love their team but aren’t assholes about it. We call those people ‘Flames fans’.

If I were so freakin’ rich that I solved the world’s fresh water problems and had money left over, I’d make an offer for the Flames, just to be part of that thing they have going on up there.

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The Great Adventure The Great Adventure

The First Anniversary of my 50th Birthday

April 2nd, 2015

As I marched through my 40’s I’d been thinking about how to best celebrate my 50th, but the months leading up to that milestone were brutal. At one point I made a decision to reduce my work day to 17 hours so that I could sleep for five. The project was running behind, but I was building something awesome. Really groundbreaking. The kind of thing you go all out for.

On April Twoth, 2014, my 50th birthday, one year ago today, the project was canceled. I was deflated, too tired to feel anything more. Lost.

It was the start of a pretty good year.

By any meaningful measure, I’m younger now than I was a year ago. Were you to take my medical statistics from last year and my current numbers and give them to a doctor with no hint what order they were taken in, my this-year stats would be chosen as ‘younger’ every time. The bicycle is a big part of that, of course. Going back to working 40 hours a week (which seemed like a vacation for the first three months) didn’t hurt either.

Also this year, I’ve accepted an offer from another group at Apple, and I’ll be starting there in a couple of weeks. I’ll be working at Apple University, an organization devoted to keeping the unique culture at my company alive even as Apple becomes mind-bendingly massive. One of Steve’s final legacies. I’ll be personally responsible for keeping Apple great. Yep, me. Personally. I’m ready.

Other noteworthy awesome things this year: the bread machine (how in the name of all that’s holy have we done without one so long?), lots of good home cookin’, fast friendships, our wee dog Lady Byng and her trips to the dog park each Saturday, and top of the top of the list, my sweetie. Dang things are nice when she’s around.

An hey, speaking of fun, how ’bout that Halloween booze thing? I’m expecting a Nobel Prize nomination for that work, though the official sweetie of MR&HBI was the leader of that effort. The accidental bottle of 18-year-old Scotch may turn out to be a blessing or a curse. Only time will tell. But dang, it’s good.

Of course there were not-so-great things as well. A car with a couple of decades of useful life ahead of it was suddenly terminated. Now we have car payments. But no one was hurt — even the bad things could have been worse.

The cloud over the parade: not a whole lot of writing getting done. Gotta figure that out. Which is what I said last year, and the year before. But the bicycle was a structural change in my life that worked; I just have to make another.

But to me this really isn’t my 51st birthday, it’s one year after my 50th. I had anticipated the big 5-0 as a landmark, not as a scar. Fifty plus one is about healing, and appreciating just how good life can be. Because lately, it’s been pretty damn good.