Sunday, February 28, 2010

Life is Complicated, but Ingrid Newkirk is Simple

On Thursday I caught a couple minutes of the Orcas Gone Wild episode of Larry King Live as I made my "I'm almost out of here but I need one more" cup of coffee in the break room at work. I paid attention instead of tuning it out because I saw the smiling face of Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president and terrorist backer, arguing with what to all appearances was a Paul Hogan lookalike. I'm speaking, of course, about Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo. Just look at these guys! I'll bet if I asked, "Who wants an ice cream cone?", both of them would say yes.

I make fun of Jack Hanna because I like him. At least, based on this first impression, I do. I dunno, maybe he eats babies when he's not being tag-teamed by Ingrid Newkirk and Bob Barker (you can read the transcript of the episode here - not a whole lot actually happened, in truth). From what I saw, though, he seemed like a level-headed guy who argued from a position along the lines of, "Dying sucks but these things happen, and giving people exposure to animals is educational and fun." Ingrid Newkirk, however, is the president and co-founder of PETA, a double-speechy organization for which I hold quite a bit of animosity.

Now, I want to say here that I am all for the ethical treatment of animals. It's just that I suspect I disagree with Ingrid on exactly what that pesky word "ethical" means. I certainly don't think that it means, for example, paying for the legal defense of a man who firebombs a research lab - and if you have any qualms about animal research in principal, while we're on the topic, PZ lays out an excellent defense of just why we need to use other animals for practice, with a close to home case-in-point. At the end of the day, I think animals are deserving of rights when they're capable of upholding the responsibilities that come with them. This doesn't give humanity a license for fuckery, you understand, it just means that wild animals have a tough time playing the civilization game (Hell, humans have a tough time playing the civilization game). You can read a summary of PETA's foolishness here, and of course consider the source. I, for one, am suspicious of anyone and anything that claims to undertake an intellectual endeavor on my behalf, but I have to say they've got their shit together on this one (PETA makes it real easy for them, as it happens).

Anyway! This is about an orca, I swear! I think my favorite moment was when Newkirk blathered on about stuff everybody knows: this is a wild frickin' animal, a male as it happens, "raging with hormones" an' stuff. Christ on a bike, he killed his trainer, he didn't fuck her. According to witnesses - I couldn't get video of the actual incident - the orca grabbed his trainer Dawn Brancheau around her waist, thrashed her about, and then dragged her underneath the water where she drowned. This is how orcas kill their prey sometimes, and the orca probably thought of it as horseplay (but I'm not an orca psychologist, so you can take that with a grain of sea salt). Now, this is a fuckin' tragedy, OK? I understand that. It's awful that a human being died such a brutal, painful, death doing her dream job. But everybody dies, and I think it's better that she died doing something she loved rather than growing old and bitter doing something safe which she hated (after which she'd retire and have to deal with the problem of dying anyway).

This is what I think Paul Hogan Jack Hanna was going for when he said, "This young lady sacrificed her life and she would be sitting here today saying that she'd do it again for the great work she's done and Sea World has done to educate tens of millions of people over the last 46 years." Hanna also took some flak for making what I thought was an entirely appropriate analogy, saying that the dangers of working with orcas don't stop people from working with orcas just like the dangers of working in outer space don't stop people from working in outer space. Oh, and double points to abc10 in California for this report: after seeking to do some sort of exposé, I guess, they dug up all of four incidents across three decades and two continents, peppering their narration with weasel words and loaded language. But then, that's news for you, I suppose.

So while I'd agree that it's "unnatural" in the warm & fuzzy sense for an orcinus orca - which is more like a giant dolphin than it is like a whale, anyhow - to be taken out of its natural habitat and placed into an enormous aquarium where it does things that make people pay money to see it, I'd say that it's just as unnatural in the same warm & fuzzy sense for a homo sapiens to be placed into an enormous steel termite mound where it does things that make people pay money to not have to do them. Oh, I also don't think that there's anything wrong in principle with being "unnatural" in the warm & fuzzy sense, and I don't think there's anything particularly good about being natural in the first place (is there really an alternative, anyhow?), because I don't buy into the naturalistic fallacy. Now, sure, things like consent matter (really and truly!), but I'd wager that if orcas could talk, they'd say that choosing between cooped-up existences where they get steady meals and the total wild where they'll probably starve or be eaten is a tough choice to make. Or if you don't dig that, then at least dig my actual point, that life is complicated and this shit ain't as simple as Newkirk makes it out to be. I mean, she said that the animals at Sea World are swimming in their own diluted urine, as if that's not also true in the goddamned ocean. Fuck's sake.

I need to stop watching TV at work. It rots my brain and makes me ranty.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just one year of blog...

...is better than a lifetime of... not blog? I guess so. Look, there are bullets, and I need to bite them before I fizzle out and fade away in an anticlimax of mixed metaphors.

I've been doing a lot of soul-searching this past week, and I came up short on souls but long on answers. The TL;DR version is that I'm mostly done with this blog, and moving on to other things. I feel like I ought to explain why, so here goes.

Oi, where to begin?

First is the "bad news": Breath to Breath is cancelled. The things I wanted to do with the book no longer strike me as worth doing in the first place. So what if I can horrify people? Ooh. Scary. Ooh. I just don't care about that sort of thing as much as I did a couple years back when I wrote the first version of it.

Second, I'm starting to make some real damn progress with my therapist. Without getting too much into the gory details, one of my father's gifts to me over the holidays was a pair of binders that basically lay out the unwelcome adventure of my childhood in police reports, court transcripts, psychological evaluations, and correspondence between my father and the various professionals he had to deal with while raising me. I had no choice when I was a teenager but to bury all this and get as far away from it as I could. Well, I got far away, I got some perspective, and now I'm coming back with the tools to dig it all up and solve it, so that I can put it in its proper place. I've cried more in the last fifty days than I have in the previous fifteen years. But this doesn't exactly leave me with much emotional capital left over to invest in blogging, so I guess this has to go for now.

Third, I finally have some goddamned ambition! For as long as I can remember, I've just been vaguely happy to be alive but relatively aimless, drifting from hobby to hobby and never really applying myself. A lot of this was because I didn't want to have to fit in, and didn't really care about the hallmarks of traditional success. But, to be honest, most of it is insecurity and a general refusal to risk rejection. Well, I'm done being whatever I have to be in order to just barely get by. I mean, I'll still do that, just not merely that, and I'm going to knuckle down and take some steps to being what I actually want to be. I've done a lot of thinking, and really, what I want is to be a librarian: a specialist in the art of research, who keeps the books on our shared knowledge as a species. Sure, sure, things are getting increasingly digital, and the internet is huge, but it doesn't have everything. Yet. But even if it does by the time I get my Master's in library science, I'm sure I'll be able to adapt to the state of the art and go from there.

Fourth, to pay for all this ambition, I'm going to be getting a second job (again), which means that even if I did have the emotional wherewithal to blog, I wouldn't have the time (since I won't be doing the crazy sleep schedule like I did last year). I'm doing this because I need steady income I can budget with to save up for things like tuition and a car and what-not. Which brings me to number five...

Fifth, I'm going to look into advertising for The Quantum Mechanic. The only reason it got written in the first place is because I never once had to have a conversation about marketability - that would have stopped the whole thing dead in its tracks. But now it's done and ready to go, I just need exposure to get some market penetration. I'm going to be looking into the in-house advertising services on CreateSpace - after all, they would probably have a clue what they're doing here - but if anyone has suggestions then I am all ears. As of last week, I'm approved for the Premium Catelog over at Smashwords, but there are problems. For one, I think it's blank. Like, I think the book is not present in the latest version I uploaded, because when I loaded it on Stanza, it showed the title page and then that was it. WTF. So I'm going to be working on that some more this week.

I still need to finish 101 Interesting Things, though. That's one of my long-term projects, and I'll see if I can come up with at least one interesting thing every weekend. That seems workable.

Wish me luck!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Aw, Hell, who am I kidding?

Ever since I finished The Quantum Mechanic, all I've wanted to do is write Breath to Breath. So fuck it, I'm doing that. I mean, on one hand, I got a book up and going and done and out, so I need a breather or something, right? On the other hand, I also wanted to write BtB before, during, and after NaNoWriMo, and now I don't have a thirty-day constraint so I can take my time and do it right.

Mainly, my problem was that Douglas could solve all of his problems and never really had to accept defeat. But then, of course, that was the whole point of the book: omnipotence solves fucking problems and doesn't merely accept them. OK, done and over with.

Now it's time for some horror.

The tagline for Breath to Breath is, "The end of the world isn't all it's cracked up to be." The title is taken from a poem I read in high school, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, by Alan Seeger. Seeger is a poet who fought and died in World War I at the age of 28. He wanted a glorious death at a young age, and his wish was granted: "He was killed in action at Belloy-en-Santerre, famously cheering on his fellow soldiers in a successful charge after being hit several times himself by machine gun fire." (Wikipedia) I have a Rendezvous with Death was published posthumously, and here it is:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
I didn't really appreciate it when I read it in high school, but then again, I didn't appreciate most poetry I read in high school. Ironically, what made me appreciate the poem was an ad for Gears of War 2, a game with great mechanics, well-paced action, and a story that was lovingly handcrafted by people with nine-pound hams on the ends of their arms. God-god dammit-dammit. At any rate, Breath to Breath is going to be about horror, I want to reiterate that: I want to horrify readers, but in a can't-look-away sort of way that is still enjoyable to read. Somehow. That's my challenge here. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thoughts on "The Authoritarians"

It's not often that a book makes me feel naive. I've felt enlightened, when reading good philosophy; enriched, when reading good biology; depressed, when reading about the dirty tricks of advertising psychology; stupid, when reading beyond my ken. But Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians is the first book I can recall that made me feel naive.

Mainly, I suppose, this is because I was already halfway there, but at the same time only halfway there. See, back when I wrote Boss of Bosses, I was joking. Now, it's a well-known fact that nothing is just a joke, but even my inner cynic was saying, "Yeah, sure, it plays out as if this were the case a whole lot - but I deliberately invented a just-so story, nobody actually believes this shit if you'd straight-up ask 'em."

See, that's where I went wrong.

Allow me to introduce you to the RWA scale. I'll be using that acronym a lot, so you'd do well to have your inner Morgan Freeman pronounce that as, "arwah." You can read the whole thing on page 11 of the book (17 in the .pdf), but here are a a few of the items:
  • Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.
  • It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds.
  • There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.
  • Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.
  • This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s traditional place in society.
OK, so agreement with those sorts of statements correlates very highly with disagreement on these other sorts of statements from the same test:
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.
  • Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.
  • A “woman’s place” should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.
There are twenty questions and on a nine-point response scale, this means scores can range from 20 to 180. Now, this is disguised as a public opinion survey and given to people who are not told that they're being psychologically profiled based on their responses, which means I was already a leg up and it's not really that impressive when I score a 26.

As an aside, what did surprise me was that although I scored absurdly low on the RWA scale (intro psych students in Altemeyer's classes average 75, their parents and also members of the USA's Libertarian Party averaged 90), and also on most of the other tests which are for things like how dogmatic or socially dominant you are, I paradoxically scored absurdly high on his test for zealotry (p. 124 book, 130 .pdf): "normal people" score in the 10-20 range on that scale, religious fundamentalists score around 40, and I scored a whopping fifty-four (it only goes to 72). Huh. I'm an un-authoritarian zealot*.

Anyway, what's important about the RWA scale is that high scores on it correlate very strongly to three types of behaviors: submission to authority, aggression on behalf of authority, and belief that everyone else ought to abide by one's own conventions. What's depressing to me is how much these things seem to "go together," and what infuriates me is how difficult it is to change this in people. There are ways to do that, of course: going to college, for example. Altemeyer writes,
"The drop [in authoritarianism] does not come from reading Marx in Political Science or from the philosophy prof who wears his atheism as a badge. These attempts at influence can be easily dismissed by the well-inoculated high RWA student. It probably comes more from the late night bull-sessions, where you have to defend your ideas, not just silently reject the prof’s, and other activities that take place in the dorms, I’ll bet."
Hanging out with other people, in other words. And it turns out that people tend to turn out a little less authoritarian than their parents, regardless. And what does every parent tend to want for every child? To go to a good college! So the good news is that, as we can see with this whole "civilization" thing that's been going on around us, authoritarianism tends to go down over time. I mean, we have to interact with different people, so as long as we stop any one monolithic culture from literally taking over the world, we ought to be in pretty good shape (in the long run, that is - if there is a long run).

One of the more interesting things Altemeyer talks about is the Global Change Game. Basically, it's Axis & Allies for grown-ups, but with money and birth control and climate change and such: you take five-dozen people and divvy them up among nations, have self-appointed leaders (called "Elites") select themselves in each region, then tell the Elites they're allowed to embezzle and whoever embezzles the most wins, and let them all go! When Altemeyer had groups play with like-scoring persons on the RWA scale, fun things happened: the low-RWA game had a record-low death toll, a huge amount of cooperation, and improvements in all areas of life for all regions; the high-RWA game ended prematurely in nuclear war, had the clock turned back two years to try again, and continued down a path of bickering and one-upmanship.

But then Altemeyer ran two different high-RWA games, one completely devoid of social dominators (people who tend to be low-RWAs but tend also to be cynical opportunists - the test is on page 164, 170 in the .pdf), and one with social dominators sprinkled about. Now, you see, about 5-10% of people score highly on both the RWA scale and the Social Dominance scales, and so some of these "Double Highs" would have made it into the first high-RWA game. As Altemeyer puts it, Double Highs "win the gold medal in the Prejudice Olympics," and their authoritarianism seemed to make up for the amorality of the low-RWA dominators, so the dominant game went about as awfully as you'd expect it would (oddly, much less embezzling - the more money in your pocket, the less you can use to get your team ahead of the next guy's, apparently).

But take away the dominators, and what do you get? A whole lot of boring nothing. No fighting. No teamwork. When stripped of their leaders, the high-RWA folks proved a rather uncreative and insular lot. The crises that reared their heads more or less ran rampant, nobody thought outside the box to solve their problems, everyone just tried to work on improving things for their own in-game in-group and they pretty much stagnated their way into mediocrity.

There's a whole lot more that I didn't cover (politics is what you'd expect, religion is what you'd expect, but the numbers show some alarming things), which is why you should go read it. Did I mention it's free? Go read it! Also, Altemeyer bares good portions of his methodology in the footnotes, and I found his numbers very convincing - his results lead to the conclusions he concludes, so long as he didn't falsify his data. He also holds himself to higher standards than other researchers, again, so long as he's not outright lying about what the generally accepted standards are. All in all, I found it a very accessible and rather gripping read, which is not something I ever thought I'd say about a psychology book.

* - Altemeyer opens the zealotry test by asking respondents, "Now I want to know, in my constantly nosey way, what you believe in. Do you have a most important outlook or way of understanding things? Maybe it’s a religion, a philosophy, a social perspective like socialism or capitalism. What do you use, more than anything else, to make sense out of things, to understand 'life'?" I thought about it and answered, "critical thinking." I read the first question, "This outlook colors and shapes almost everything I experience in life," and had the immediate knee-jerk reaction, "This is stupid. I'm not a zealot." But then I caught myself reacting to the threat of cognitive dissonance, and forced myself through the test, thinking carefully about what I really think, and yeah. I'm a critical thinking zealot - but I also know that acting like one won't get me my way most of the time (because being right and being successful don't always go together - thanks, critical thinking!), so I deliberately hold those types of urges in check.

So maybe it makes sense that when Silver Garou told me that everything written is true with a straight face at that one party, I nearly vomited. (True story.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"The Quantum Mechanic" submitted for e-book publishing!

As the link at right indicates, The Quantum Mechanic is soon to be published as an e-book. I took care of all the reformatting this weekend and everything is in order, all that remains is for the good folks over at Smashwords to give it the final go-ahead (I'm #211 in queue as of right now).

EDIT: As of right the Hell-ass now, The Quantum Mechanic is ready for sampling and purchase as an e-book at Smashwords! You can read 55% of it for free on your e-reader to see if you like the new fourth chapter and the way I've integrated the un-deleted scenes. Also, I've verified that it works Stanza on my iPod (I don't have a Kindle, and I can't get the .mobi-wranglin' app to work properly... though I may be doin it rong). While it works, so to speak, there are issues. The acknowledgments aren't displaying properly, and neither does my citation of a Carl Sagan quote in the Foreword. Like, this stuff is there in my source document, something just got bollocksed up in the conversion process. I'm looking into it, but the rest of the free preview (all the way up through the end of "A Little Piece of Heaven") appears to work perfectly.

Of course, if you want to read it now, you still can! The way Smashwords works, once you own a book you can download it infinitely (so you can keep up on any later updates at no additional cost, and they'll be posted here). It's all DRM-free, too. While the book is technically "copyright me," it's copyleft in spirit, which means that while there's no substitute for showing your appreciation in a "rent and groceries" sort of way, I honestly care more about getting my ideas out to people who enjoy them than I care about making money for my hobby. (This is why there are no license notes.)

DOUBLE-EDIT: BWAHAHA! OK, so the second edition is uploaded, converted, and approved! (The same link above still works.) The problem? I have the same problems. The acknowledgments still don't display properly, and neither does the Sagan attribution in the foreword. However, there is an exciting new development! You see, these problems happen if you view the e-book with white text on a black background - but they don't happen if you view the e-book with black text on a white background! What the shit-fuck-tits is going on here?!

No, seriously, if anyone knows what the Hell-ass-balls I can do to fix this, I'm all ears. I'm just pissed and too lazy to look it up right now. I'll continue to look into it once I get some actual fresh content up, but I will be tremendously grateful to anyone who's able to bring a solution (or even a suggestion) to me.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I should probably say something about this...

Per KarateMonkey's request, I'm making The Quantum Mechanic into an e-book because CreateSpace doesn't do this, and I want people to be able to buy and read my book however they want. But they have a thirty-five page style guide, and I really want to understand the process so I can do all the reformatting intelligently and at one stroke (without paying someone else to do it), but going through all this is enough to drive me to drink.

Oh, who the Hell am I kidding? The fact that it's Saturday drives me to drink!

No, but seriously, I'm doing this e-book thing good an' proper, and then it's on to talk about The Authoritarians. Because that book makes me feel really naive. And I just finished it, so I really wanna talk about it.

Oh, and I also have a very important commitment to killing foreigners on the internet with my brother A tonight. I mean, they're different from us. We can't abide that shit!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Importance of Perspective, or: Who WOULDN'T Want a Personal Slave?

I'd like to say two things up front: first, that I definitely sympathize with those who suffer from ennui, from wanting more out of life, from a numbing dissatisfaction with the way things are going; second, that I don't know these women from Eve and their situations are probably more complicated than they've even openly and candidly admitted.

That said, Rant: On.

This past Sunday, I read Delia Lloyd complain that modern life is hard work. Fucking surprise! I read two of the pieces she linked by Sandra Tsing Loh, one transparently escapist fantasy which I can't tell if Loh actually pines after or not, and one rather longer slice-of-life lament which smacks of teenage angst in middle-aged terms. I'm sympathetic to Loh, I really am - but for shit's sake, this lady has some growing up to do.

The cockles of my heart are not nearly so opening to Lloyd (and that ain't much to begin with), probably for this bit alone:
...here's what we ate: cold pasta covered with leftover Tikka Masala sauce (tomato sauce inexplicably AWOL in kitchen cupboard), some soggy carrots cooked four hours earlier for kids' dinner, and the coup de grace: canned sardines. Yum.
This may not strike you, General Reader, as particularly infuriating, but what you have to consider is context, which at present means, "whatever the Hell I was thinking about five minutes earlier." In this situation, the context is that I had just woken up from dreaming about snowmobiling, which I have never done but long to do, and I marveled at the fact that our intellects have afforded us as a species the opportunity to transform what would normally be a difficult and harrowing experience (i.e. trekking across harsh, snowy landscapes) into leisure activity. Awesome! And while thinking of this, I assembled for myself a breakfast of leftover chili with fried eggs and Tabasco sauce mixed in, topped with cheddar cheese and green chiles for garnish. It was delicious, and it was reheated leftovers.

So I hope you understand what I mean when I say that I find Delia Lloyd's attitude comparable to a moist, aromatic pile of dogshit. It's unpleasant to step in, to look at, to smell, just to be around in general.

Seriously, this whining fuck-stain goes through a busy day doing things that most people regard as hallmarks of success, and complains at the end that she wants someone else to go through the boring parts so she doesn't have to. What is this happy horse-shit? She engages in a day's work of her chosen career path, has the resources to meet the wants and needs of her children, spends some quality time involving herself in her children's lives, then does a little more work before having a late dinner with her husband. Note that she does not reheat it at her option. And rather than just, oh, hire someone, she pines after someone to do the extra business of cooking, cleaning, and clothes-shopping for free? I am simply baffled by the... the... I dunno, the presumption of affluence, I guess? Maybe just the laziness.

To be fair, I'll bet she wasn't thinking about the day-to-day lives of our genetic ancestors as she went about her business. I'll bet she wasn't thinking as she prepared that day's meal, as I had been, of the marvels found in nearly every kitchen that allow us to prepare and store food from miles away, grown and prepared by someone we'll probably never meet, for consumption whenever we fucking feel like it. And I'll bet she also wasn't thinking about how children were our first retirement plans, about how the shotgun approach to child-rearing is regrettably still a necessity in certain parts of the world, or about how indulging the desires of said progeny is a luxury afforded to a precious and relatively modern few in the grander scope of our shared history.

In short, to understand Mrs. Lloyd's perspective, I have to concede an awful lot to general thoughtlessness. It's just a goddamned shame that she can't be more thoughtful in appreciating her life.

Then again, I guess I'm fucking lucky. I mean, my father taught me how to clean floors and sinks, but he also taught me the art of hinokishin. When I punched a hole through my bedroom door, he disciplined me by teaching me how to cut a door to size and hang it, making me fix the mess I had made. He taught me to thank lightning-struck trees for the wood they gave us for carving walking sticks, and to leave campsites better than I found them because it's the right thing to do and I'm not any more important than the next person to come along. And I guess Rant is Off now, because I find myself feeling sorry for these sorts of people who fantasize for something more without appreciating the full value of what's right the fuck in front of them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

IT CAME IT CAME IT CAME!

OK, I know I said I wouldn't put anything up here until tomorrow, and that was coincidentally when the newest proof of TQM was supposed to arrive, but IT CAME TODAY SQUEEEEEEEEE!
Yay yay yay! I'm an actual author now an' I can get money for the story I wrote an' everything! I'm so happy!

OK, but seriously, buy my book. This is probably the only time I'll be shamelessly and unapologetically pimping for myself, because now there's a link to buy it over in yonder sidebar. (Please buy my book!)