Apr 212017
 

In order to get my regular antidepressant medication refilled while unemployed I got on Medicaid, the government health program for the poor. And my medical world has turned upside down. For the first time in my life I have decent medical coverage.

All my adult life I’ve been employed and insured through my workplace. The last several years I worked as an accountant making a decent fraction above the national median income (at the time of writing ~$55K/year). I was by all accounts a responsible, contributing member of society. My credit score rocks.

I paid a couple hundred dollars a month for insurance. I basically never went to the doctor, because it costs $30 and I don’t need to pay $30 to have someone tell me “Get plenty of bed rest for a week” or “Don’t do any squats or stress your back for the next month.” I only got medical care when it was really dire.

When I injured myself I went to physical therapy ONCE. I got their list of recommended stretches and exercises and then continue them at home for the month(s) advised. Because I can’t afford to go back regularly at $70 a session.

And everyone basically understands that savings only exist until such a time as you suffer from something really bad, in which case you get to go bankrupt, because that’s just how life works. Sucks, but it’s better than what our ancestors had, where you just died.

Then I got Medicaid, and I paid $2 to see a doctor to get my prescription renewed.

$2. Two. Dollars.

So you know what I did when I pulled something in my back (again) a couple weeks later? I went to the doctor!

Any time in my life before this I woulda said “Man, that sucks. Gonna take a lot of Tylenol and not stress my back at all and get through it.” Because that’s what the doctor would say anyway. But this time? For $2? Yeah, sure, I went to go see the doctor.

And yeah, that’s what he said. But then he also said “And go get physical therapy, here’s a place across the street that takes Medicaid.” So I went. You know how much it costs?

Free. Up to twelve sessions per year. Free.

So now I’m in physical therapy. And I’m finally actually addressing the lower back problems that I’ve been avoiding and struggling with for over a decade. It’s slow going, but I’m seeing progress, and I can’t believe this is really happening.

It’s a weird feeling knowing that I can actually go and get medical care whenever I need it, now. Life feels a bit less hostile. For the first time in my, I have real health care coverage.

What a bizarre country. I can either be gainfully employed OR I can get decent medical coverage. But not both at the same time. This is perverse. I am dreading the day I have to get a steady job again, simply for health reasons.

Apr 062017
 

Here’s two replies from a recent post, where my responses became long enough to make into their own post.

Daniel:

>But quite often the intended interpretaions will prove more important. On your Star Wars prequels example, imagine if that fan theory became widely supported before the release of episode III. Then, the creators of the films say “no, that’s not what we mean”.

I think Star Wars is a fascinating example, because the creator of the film (Lucas) did at one point say “No, that’s not what I mean” and changed one of the most iconic scenes of the movies, the one where Han shoots Greedo in the Cantina. And en masse everyone said “Screw you,” to him, and the world continues to accept that Greedo never fired, despite Lucas’s assertions (and film-doctoring) to the contrary. So, while Word of God is considered very influential, it doesn’t have the power to alter the actual work, and is often just considered a very well-reasoned opinion on the piece to be taken into consideration. The piece itself still stands on its own though.

Darius:

> How much of the text has to support an interpretation before it can be considered valid?

For you? However much you want. For others – however much is needed to convince them. This depends a lot on how convincing one is, and how friendly the audience is. :)

> If the author isn’t, in fact, dead and makes a statement that a given interpretation is incorrect, could that statement be considered a part of the work’s canon and therefore invalidate the interpretation?

Canon is a weird thing, because it is determined by a central authority. In the USA, this is generally whoever owns the copyright. The day that Disney said “The Star Wars Extended Universe is no longer canon. Now what we licence and produce is canon instead,” that became true. When the Catholic church declares which books (and which translations) are canon and which aren’t, that’s true for them as well.

But on the other hand, that’s only true insomuch as people accept it. When a protestant sect says the Book of Judith isn’t canon, that’s true for their followers. And when the entire Star Wars fan base says “We don’t care what Disney or Lucas declare, we don’t accept that Greedo shot first,” then Han Shot First is the story that lives in everyone’s mind regardless of what “official” canon may be.

My big run in with this was in Redshirts. At the end of the novella Scazli ends a chapter with:Several months later, an asteroid hit the ship and everyone died. The End. (paraphrased, I didn’t look up the exact wording). I was reading on an e-reader, and so I couldn’t see the next page. And that ending really shook me. I sat and thought about it for quite a while. And finally I said, “No. The author is wrong. That didn’t happen. The story in my head does not end that way, because fuck that ending.” And that was that. Then I turned the page and saw the next chapter started with “Just kidding.” My friends who read the physical version said that the end of the previous chapter and the start of the next chapter are both visible when the book is laid open, so they never had any such moment, they could see the “Just Kidding” right there. I am sad that they did not have as profound of an experience as I did.

Of course I can do that because Redshirts doesn’t have an entire community built around it. The Star War Extended Universe erasure was far more contentious, because it creates a bit rift between those who had their universe “taken away” by Disney, and those who don’t care because they’re too young or weren’t interested in the previous EU. Even if the traditionalists refuse to accept the erasure and continue to call the old EU canon, they will eventually be supplanted by a new generation, and their tradition will die out. It is a sad thing. :(

So yeah, canon, bleh. What is it good for?

Mar 282017
 

I.

The concept of “Death of the Author” in lit circles just means that once an author has put a work of fiction out into the public, the work speaks for itself, and the Author doesn’t get to speak for it. If a reader can make a case for the Star Wars prequels portraying Padme and Obi Wan carrying on an affair, and point to in-text support of this, then the author’s protests that “This is not what I intended” don’t really mean much. Whether or not they intended it, it’s in the text. As the old joke about the rabbi’s goes, his is just one opinion*.

(*for those unfamiliar, the joke being that five rabbis are arguing with one novice rabbi about scriptural interpreation, and all five disagree with him. They tell him “It’s five and against one, surely you can see you’re wrong!” and he says “Even so, I know I’m right! I call upon God himself to side with me!” The voice of God booms down from the heavens “The kid’s right, actually.” The five older rabbis confer with themselves for a while, then finally turn to the young rabbi and say “Ok, so now it’s five against two!”)

It’s not unlike highfalutin Fan Theories, come to think of it.

II.

Not too long ago I discovered my interpretation of an old Neil deGrasse Tyson quote was wrong. He’s famous for observing that the more educated some one is, the less likely they are to be religious, going through categories of increasing education and showing decreasing rate-of-belief, until he ends up at the elite scientists at the NAS having a belief rate of only 7%. He then went on about those 7% for a while. My interpretation of his point was “What is wrong with these 7%? Until we can find out what’s going on with those 7% of scientists, we can’t truly fault anyone else, cuz if those 7% can get bamboozled, so can anyone.”

Turns out what he actually meant was “Look, even 7% of the most elite scientists in the country have religion. So until you can convince even those 7%, you can’t say that religion is entirely wrong.”

Which, wow. Boy was I way off!

III.

I was raised Jehovah’s Witness. They have a hymnal book and everyone is expected to sing a couple, as a congregation, at every major meeting (Of which there’s two per week). One of the songs contains the lyrics

Kiss the Son
Lest God be angry,
And you’ll perish in the way

There’s two ways to interpret this. The most obvious is as a threat. You should “Kiss the Son.” If you don’t God may be angry, and you’ll perish (be killed).

The less obvious is an injunction against hypocrisy. If someone “Kisses the Son” merely because they are afraid that God will be angry, then they’ll perish anyway. It is important to actually mean it and really love Jesus, rather than just going through the motions because you’re scared of a threat. Yes, it requires that one assume an implicit “If you” at the beginning of the verse, but people assume implicits all the time. (Like the assumption that #BlackLivesMatter ends with an implicit “Too”)

For as long as I was religious, I clung to this second interpretation. I knew, even then, that it was a bit of a stretch. It was my personal interpretation. I didn’t share it with anyone, because I was scared they would tell me that no, it really was supposed to be a threat. Even back then I couldn’t accept a hateful, wrath-filled god.

IV.

Nowadays, even though I realize my interpretations in both cases were factually incorrect, I stand by those interpretations. I take the principle of Death of the Author and extend it to further domains. Meaning is where you find it.

When NdGT laid out his progression of disbelief and drew attention to the final 7% he made a hell of an observation. He demonstrated was that there is something seriously wrong with humans, to the point that even 7% of the most elite scientists in the nation can be snookered by religion! And I do not care if that is not the point he intended to make. It is the most important point that this line of thinking leads to, regardless of his intention. Death of the Author.

When the Jehovah’s Witnesses used poetic language to threaten their listeners, someone coming from a background of “God is Love” and “Hypocrisy is Bad” can interpret those lines to say “Don’t be a hypocrite, it won’t help you anyway.” If one assumes that “God is Love,” it is the only consistent way to interpret those lines, regardless of what their intent was. Death of the Author.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Interpretation of facts or statements in a light other than that which they were first presented in has lead to some pretty fascinating insights and advances by humanity. It’s what much of Copenhagen Interpretation vs Many Worlds comes down to, right? (Yes, I know, both sides are now furious at me.)

So long as no one tries to quote those people to misrepresent their true position, I think this practice should be embraced. Don’t attribute an intention to anyone unless they’ve publicly declared that intention themselves! But feel free to borrow and interpret things in a way that is beneficial as long as it is consistent with observable reality. (Or in the case of religion, any which way you want, since religion doesn’t have anything to do with observable reality anyway).

V – the caveat

Just be careful about this in your personal life. I found myself interpreting the actions and statements of someone close to me in the most positive way possible for a long time, for emotional reasons. This led to a distorted view of reality, and really bit me in the ass once that view was abruptly corrected. Someone’s intentions don’t particularly matter when you are in the abstract world of interpreting data. They matter a hell of a lot when you entangle your life with someone and much rides upon their disposition and intentions.

Mar 212017
 

When I saw Noah, I was confused about why the Red Tribe in American (social conservatives) hated it so much, and the Blue Tribe (liberals) seemed to like it. This is an attempt to be less confused.

Putting aside the religious angle for now (which may be the dumbest idea ever), it originally seemed to me that this movie espouses strong Red Tribe ideals. The thing that most strikes me about the conditions portrayed in this movie is that Noah’s family is rich because they are Good Land Owners. They have their own section of the word, away from the Looters and Takers, and they take very good care of it. They reap the rewards of their superior management accumen in the form of a comfortable life in beautiful surroundings. They are basically the stone age equivalent of an ideal corporate CEO. Or Wise Patriarch.

Then the hordes of lazy, violent outsiders show up. They destroyed their own lands via shortsightedness and greed. Now they’re here to take our hero’s stuff. The only solution is Strong Borders defended by a superior military force, keeping the barbarians in their blighted lands to suffer the fate they brought upon themselves, and allowing our heroes to continue to profit from their virtues. (When the borders fail, Nuke ‘Em All)

Of course I didn’t much like Noah’s family in this portrayal, as they’re kinda elitist bastards. But I could understand them and their position, and the other side was even worse, so it was an enjoyable movie of greys and flawed people trying to survive.

So, proposition #1 – The viewer gets a feeling that Noah and his family are awful 1-percenters, and since the religious folk don’t like that feeling about their mythological heroes, they hate the movie.

But I dunno.

Another way of looking at this is by focusing on the cause behind the conflict. The desperate hordes have fallen into the classic Malthusian trap. Their population outstripped the land’s capacity to support them, until there was only bare mud left, and they were forced to invade Noah’s land or die. This matches the angry rhetoric calling Noah an “extreme environmentalist” or something, because I guess nowadays conservation is no longer a conservative position, which is weird.

Noah’s family, OTOH, followed the practice liberals are fond of to avoid the Malthusian Trap – Breed Less! They restricted their reproduction, to a point that I would consider downright dangerous honestly. As far as we can tell, there is no extended family here. Noah’s father doesn’t have any siblings, and Noah is an only child. Noah’s wife doesn’t have any relatives anywhere either. There’s no aunts, cousins, nephews, or even close friends. In terms of family (“biological wealth” as it’s been called), this family is impoverished. But hey, they have a great quality of life–not having to murder and cannibalize their neighbors while living in a grey hellscape. So there’s that.

This is anathema to Red Tribe values, which (in my experience) puts a great deal of value on family ties and having large families. A story that portrays the creation of large families as leading to damnation would really irritate these sorts of people. And doing so with a mythological figure they think they have a claim to could enrage quite a few of them. (OMG guys – it’s cultural appropriation! I think I’ll start asking Regressive Leftists how they feel about the Noah movie.)

So proposition #2 – The movie portrays large-family practices as leading to Malthusian tragedies, which is a direct attack on Red Tribe values.

I feel #2 is stronger, not only because it explains the “enviromentalist” claims, but also because it explains why Blue Tribe people like the movie. In Prop #1 Noah & Co are pretty unlikable, and I wouldn’t expect Blue Tribe to enjoy it as much as they did, because if they identify with Noah they should feel slimy and elitist. Under Prop #2 he’s more relate-able.

I briefly entertained Prop #3 – that the movie was disliked because ultimately the answer to “What do you do with this problem” is “Kill everyone who doesn’t share your viewpoint.” Instead of searching for some better sort of solution, technological or otherwise. Portraying one’s God and/or heroes as genocidal monsters is bound to make anyone grump. I don’t think this proposition has a leg to stand on, partly cuz no one said anything about that aspect, and partly because the entire Old Testament is full of genocides. It’s kinda God’s thing back then. It’s the most scripturally-accurate portion of the movie. To say anything negative about that part would be to admit that God is a genocidal maniac, and I don’t see that happening. So prop 3 is discarded.

If anyone hasn’t seen the 2014 Noah movie, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I recommend it. Not as good as Last Temptation of Christ, but certainly an interesting take!

 

Mar 142017
 

This article is eye-opening, but not necessarily in the way it was intended. What Happens When We Don’t Believe The President’s Oath makes a number of observations and claims about the new Trump presidency, but what’s most revealing about it is what it reveals about the writer’s world, and the way his class interacts with power.

Consider:

“If you’re a liberal, one who voted against George W. Bush twice, do the following thought experiment: Did you ever doubt, even as you decried the Iraq War and demanded accountability for counterterrorism policies and actions you regarded as lawless, that Bush was acting sincerely in the best interests of the country as he understood them? Yes, people used the slogan “Bush Lied, People Died,” but how many of them actually in their hearts doubted that Bush was earnestly trying to do his duty by the electorate, even if they differed in their understandings of what that duty entailed?”

Are you fucking kidding me? First of all, I view Bush as the hapless pawn of Cheney. But I’ve never for one second viewed Cheney as even the slightest bit concerned about the country. Nothing but his own self-interest, and a very myopic one at that. Doing his duty my ass.

Consider also:

“Conversely, if you’re a conservative who voted against Obama, do the same thought experiment in reverse: Did you ever doubt, even as you decried Obamacare and fumed that Obama was weakening America, that he was acting sincerely in the best interests of the country as he understood them? Did you ever doubt that he was earnestly trying to do his duty by the electorate?”

I have in-laws that are the polar opposite of me. And yes, they very VERY much believed Obama was intentionally destroying the country.

The article quotes Obama:

“first of all, George W. Bush, despite obviously very different political philosophies, is a really good man.”

 

I have a lawyer friend/acquaintance. He’s pretty good at his job, to the point that he’s argued before the US Supreme Court. He displays an attitude similar to that of this article’s author – a belief that the system is fundamentally well-intentioned. He can (and does) often disagree strongly with law makers or judges on political matters… but there is (almost) always a belief that the disagreement is due to philosophical differences or different ways of assessing available information. IE – they are wrong, but they are not reprehensible. These are all reasonable men and women, and we can address our differences like adults in good faith. The System is here for all of us, we’re doing the best we can, even if we differ.

I have never felt that way about The System. It is not For Me. Sometimes its interests align with mine, and I hope to maximize the occasions where this is the case. But I’ve never thought that the group served by those who are in power (ostensibly “The Country”) includes me. Most people I know feel the same. We exist in this system, under these rules, but it is not a system For, By, and Of us.

Every single paragraph of the Lawfare article drips with inclusion. With, dare I say it, privilege. “Sure,” it seems to say, “we may squabble a lot. We may have drag-out fights. But in the end we’re all in this together. We’re kinda a big, dysfunctional village.” They all belong to a class that interfaces with the government. They are, for the lack of a better term, The Represented Class. They believe the government actually has some concern for them and their situation.

And Trump doesn’t belong to that class. At the end of both the questions quoted above – querying the reader about their opinions of Obama/Bush – there is this thought:

“Now ask: Would you answer this question the same way about Trump as you would about Bush [or Obama]?”

For what looks like the first time, the author doesn’t feel that those in power have any interest in taking his life into consideration. He is no longer Represented. He goes on for thousands of words about how bad this is, and the repercussions it has.

To which most of us can only say – welcome to the party. Not quite as nice down here, is it?

I must admit, there is a feeling of schadenfreude about this reversal. There was a period of a few weeks, before it became clear just how awful Trump is, that I kinda entertained the thought of voting for him. For exactly this reason. It’s satisfying to say to those ruling “This is what it feels like to be the rest of us. I wish you could internalize and remember this forever, since I know you’ll be back in power soon enough. In the meantime, enjoy your stay, haha.”

Not that Trump represents me either, of course. Not even close. But the fact that he also doesn’t represent those who’ve spent their entire lives being Represented does, sometimes, bring with it a feeling of joy.

Of course the article has some very good points, and I do recommend reading it. It really does have major repercussions when the entire class of people who work in the Government Apparatus do not feel like they are being represented. As incompetent and awful as Trump is, the fact that he’s working in a system that is hostile to him certainly isn’t making things easier. He needs to replace the entire Represented Class currently working the system with people from his own class, and there aren’t nearly enough of them with the skills and experience needed. Could be Interesting Times ahead if he doesn’t assimilate eventually.

Jan 252017
 

The primary thing I personally want to say is that there is almost no such thing as malicious evil. All evil is done by people who think they are doing good. Even the Nazi thinks that he is safe-guarding his society from exploitative forces that wish to drain it and abandon the hollowed-out ruin. The fact that doing evil ALWAYS FEELS LIKE DOING GOOD is exactly why we can’t count on arguments of “it’s for the good in this case” special-exceptions. We spent a lot of time and social capital on arriving at “Extra-judicial violence is never acceptable.” The fact that it feels so right and good to break an established rule against violence should give us pause. Twice.

Here’s some other things said on Facebook, which means it’ll disappear in just a few days, and that I wish to preserve for posterity.

 

L: One of the reasons we support liberal civilization is because it keeps us safer than an authoritarian regime would, even one that we thought was “on our side”.

The prohibition against private political violence is the absolute cornerstone of civilization. It is prior to free speech. It is prior to democracy. It is prior to egalitarianism. It is the very first step towards freedom and liberalism. It is the Schelling fence that must be defended above all others.

What’s terrifying isn’t that an idiot nazi blogger got punched. An occupational hazard of being an asshole is that people are more likely to punch you. What’s terrifying is that I’m arguing with people who think they are liberals on Facebook about whether or not to condone it.

I’m upset that so many people claiming to be liberals endorse punching people for the explicit purpose of political intimidation. That’s a big deal. That scares the shit out of me.

Jan 232017
 

I’m a big fan of Malcolm X. In fact, I used to think I supported violence-as-a-solution more than most people, and stayed quiet about those beliefs out of shame. Richard Spencer being punched has proven me wrong.

Race riots were acceptable & necessary because the law was on the side of racial oppression. That was an armed struggle against state-sponsored terrorism. The law supported and protected extra-judicial violence against black people.

The law is not on the side of the Nazis. In fact, the only law that IS on Richard Spencer’s side is the law guaranteeing freedom of speech. If our side is the one resorting to extra-judicial violence because we take issue with a law guaranteeing *freedom of speech*, we might need to take a serious look at ourselves.

Some people I know are saying that the law now IS on the side of the Nazis. I don’t see any evidence of this yet. Simply asserting “Trump loves Nazis” absolutely does not do it for me, because anyone can assert anything. I am, of course, worried that this will become the case. I was horrified when Trump called for a “2nd Amendment” solution to a Clinton win. But just as I would expect any decent person in the Republican party to say “Guys, that’s not OK,” I’m also willing to say that, until we see this happening, we shouldn’t be the first to resort to vigilante violence.

Yes, Spencer is a racist who advocates awful things. He organizes like-minded people and tries to rally them to political action. The Westboro Baptists so the same. So does the KKK. I think there’s better ways of handling this than anonymous beatings in the streets.

Spencer was literally on a public street, answering questions that an interested reporter was putting to him. Are we OK setting a precedent of walking up to two people engaged in a conversation and punching the one we dislike?

Germany has straight-up made Nazi rhetoric illegal. I think they’ve decided on a good tactic. I would be more than willing to at least seriously propose a similar law here in the US. Any system that protects ideologies that calls for its destruction is lacking a certain self-preservation instinct. It would have to be a careful law. But it is, at least, a good idea in the abstract. I would much rather live in a system where the law clearly carves out certain speech as unacceptable and Nazis face legal consequences, rather than having to live in a world of anarchy where I have to hope that I’m not on the wrong side of mob sentiment lest I be beaten and everyone decides to look the other way.

There will always be crazy fuckers with awful ideas. You discredit them, and you rely on the laws to protect us from their violence. The law is what holds them back. It’s when the law fails to do so that things are dangerous (see: the South, up until just a few decades ago). That’s why I become worried when people gleefully cheer at the failure of the law to protect people from violence. If you think beating someone in the street will effectively discredit them and keep public opinion on your side, well, I think that’s a bad way to influence public opinion.

 

Follow-up note: I’ve had one note of disagreement cleared up when it turned out me and a friend view a punch to the face as very different levels of violence. To me, it’s the first step to a beating, and the horrors that come with that. To them, it was merely the outside-level of a slap. I would not be nearly as horrified by a slap, or something symbolic like a thrown shoe. I see a lot more violence in a closed fist.

Jan 182017
 

Oh how I hate the media. Are they TRYING to help Trump?

This article leads with DeVos’s Gun vs Bears comment. (“I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”) It’s also the highlight line under the picture when you share on Facebook: “She wouldn’t say guns don’t belong in schools–and cited a school’s need to protect itself from “potential grizzlies.” Bears, that is.”

That just means she’s really shitty at social posturing. We all know the correct PR answer is “Guns never belong in schools!” and then to demure and say “of course some exceptions can be made in extreme situations, such as to protect our children from rampaging bears.” The fact that she was honest and led with “Well sometimes guns are necessary” shouldn’t be a strike against her. I prefer honesty over political double-talk.

In fact, this makes me sympathize with her very much, because I hate bullshit. So when the rest of the article goes on to point out how absolutely clueless and incompetent she is, I’m now asking myself “How much of this is true, and how much is it the source doing it’s best to smear her?”

But I guess having a snappy “omg she’s scared of bears and loves guns everywhere cuz of it” line will get more people to click through. At least that must be the media’s expectation. It SURE got me talking about it, and linking it! It’s Moloch, in the flesh. I wish there was some way to discourage/punish this sort of behavior.

Jan 082017
 

I despise what the Republican Congress is doing. These motherfuckers bring out hatred in me. For example – Republicans Confirm Planned Parenthood Will Lose Federal Funding As Soon As Next Month.

I.

Aaaaaaand then a friend of mine states that all Republicans are horrible people, and there are no decent people who are registered (R). I’m horrified that many of my friends are turning into the sort of sweeping-generalizations mob that I used to see from the Right. How is this any different from “All Muslims are horrible?”

II.

I’m told repeatedly that hating someone for taking away your rights and humanity is acceptable. And yeah, I also hate the Republican Establishment. Everyone has every right to feel as pissed off and angry at this bullshit that’s coming down the pike as they want. We’re going to NEED a lot of anger to fight it.

But there are good Republicans, just like there are good [any group you care to name]. The more the message “ALL X ARE EVIL” is repeated, the more it makes it acceptable for people to lash out in violence against anyone who is, or is perceived to be, X. It’s the constant repeating of the rhetoric that creates an environment that leads to violence. We were complaining about the Trump rallies doing this, but we’ve seen it happen many times before. Hundreds of times in history. Have we learned nothing?

There are a lot of people who hate Trump, and want diversity and coexistence, and who identify as Republican. It is immoral to say they’re all evil.

III.

So I’m told I’m an example of the Banality of Evil.  A poster-boy for “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

But that’s kinda the opposite of what’s happening, isn’t it? I’m standing up for my few republican friends precisely because I refuse to sit down and do nothing. It sucks being called evil by my own community, simply because I won’t throw a couple people I know under the bus.

IV.

They ask: What makes a Republican a “good one?” What steps are they taking to protect the weakest among us? Where are all these “good people”? What are they doing?

I provide links to the Republicans Who Have Renounced Trump, and the Log Cabin Republicans, but my reply is that this is the exact same question as “Where are are the Muslims decrying the terrorist violence? Why aren’t they policing their community? Why aren’t they telling us about the attacks the extremists are planning?” Are these fair questions to ask of the Muslim community? If not, do you know why not?

The Republican Party has some vile shit in its platform. The Koran has some vile shit in it as well. If you think the Republican Platform is bad, look at the founding documents of any of the three Abrahamic religions. And yet we all accept that people who claim that these are the most important books in their lives, and that their highest ideal is to live by them, can still be good people. If we can do that for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but we can’t do it for Republicans, why is that?

V.

I’m told plenty of religious people are great: they negotiate with their religion and try to live by it but also seek a separate peace from the nasty stuff that has no business being a part of a modern mindset. People phrase things all sorts of ways, and “Living by” means different things to different people. What would it mean to “live by” the ideals of the Republican Party at this point?

Which is exactly my point. This does mean different things to different people, and for someone from the outside to say “THIS is what it means to “live by” your ideals!” to a different group isn’t any different than someone saying socialists want to starve 50 million people to death. Or pick your choice of slander.

In practice altering an entire ideology is slow and difficult work. In the real world everyone has to worry about procedure, convincing the majority of their constituents, power grabs by people who are more conservative than you are, etc. The Democratic Party’s change on gay marriage, for example, was no quick whim. It took decades of struggle. DADT and DOMA (for non-US readers, these are anti-gay legislation from the 90s) were both signed in by a smiling Clinton. Just a few years before Obama “evolved” on the issue he was speaking about how marriage should be between a man and a woman, while Dick-freaking-Cheney, one of the most evil men in the US, was defending gay rights. I know, right?? The world is a weird place.

So what do people do? They stay with the ideology they were raised with, that of the community around them, that broadly looks more like it represents them than the alternatives, or at least enough to the point that it isn’t worth the loss of your community for switching, and just cherry-pick their beliefs! It’s damned infuriating. But it doesn’t make them bad, it just makes them human.

And by cherry-picking, and standing up for their gay/women/whatever friends, they are making a change. (incidentally, that’s why I’m standing up for my R friends. I want to see our group be less myopic and viscous.) Some of them even join groups that attempt to make direct change! Calling those progressive voices that are trying to bring it back to moderation horrible/despicable people hurts the reform movement.

Both political parties are evolving. Let’s not evolve away from what made us the right side in the first place.

Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.