The Use and Misuse of Technology

I know it’s hard to see from where you sit, but I’ve been working hard on my big plan. I’ll save what that means for later, but suffice it to say that the big plan requires a lot of technology, because what doesn’t these days? In the process of rifling through all these potentialities, I’ve found a great many problems that extend beyond technology into the social space. Some of those problems are quite terrifying in their implications.

The TL;DR version of this post is that censorship is bad.

Let’s say that there is a point of view that comprises the bulk of current “correct-think.” Those of you who have read my work know that direct socio-politics is not my bag, but the world keeps changing in ways that make my basic set of views “wrong-think.” The issues in place as mere whispers when I first started writing have become shouting and fists to the face. If I set out with all optimism in the rational nature of human discourse to talk about the issues, I would find myself attacked. This is all hypothetical, because my basic practical viewpoint is that taking a side in this day and age is simply a way to lop off half your audience like a gangrenous limb, and frankly I would defend anyone’s right to voice their opinion to an extreme degree.

Unfortunately, there are now opinions that are, in very practical terms, capital offences. They come with social and indeed financial penalties. Money itself has been weaponized.

We all want to draw our world in black and white, because that’s just far easier than dealing with the infinite shades of gray, but no one – not you, not me – is that simple.

You’re a single mom, working the system for the best result for your children. You, by necessity, are forced into tapping the resources of whatever the government offers. Maybe on the inside, this is a matter of profound embarrassment. Maybe your skill with the system is a matter of pride. Can I predict your point of view? If I can’t predict it, can I judge you for your method? Can I simultaneously be impressed with your skill and sad that you need to work the system the way you do? It’s a gray area and every minute of life is filled with them.

What made The Green Book a great movie? It left room for the gray area interpretation. It allowed for “your people” and “my people” in the same story as real friendship. It allowed for the acceptance of “my people” across boundaries and despite the flaws.

On the other hand, the infamous Gillette ad painted all white men with the same toxic brush. Captain Marvel used a pile of hamfisted cliches to remind us of the stupidity of men as a confining force in the world of women, while the lead actress (yes, I used the feminine version of actor because it conveys information) spent too much time reminding us of the same basic concept.

As a man who honors and respects women, and an observer of the state of women in our society, I find the whole train of thought to be ridiculous. Women who could be enjoying the fruits of their innate and cultural advantage are too busy clamoring for victim status. Women who are lacking some of those advantages seem to spend far less time claiming victimhood. I can tell you that the vast majority of men are happiest when they make a woman happy, and are miserable when they can’t. A quick review of the correct-think world tells you that this basic truth is ignored completely.

So, you turn to the technology, which gives all of us more power to express our opinion than ever before. Great, except for the fact that certain opinions are acceptable on those technology platforms, and others are not.

If you run Facebook, or Twitter, you have incredible power to shape the ideology of the public. If you are using this power to twist the public perception in your own favored direction, this is a misuse of technology. Free speech as a concept allows for every point of view. If you are founded in a country that accepts the First Amendment as a core principle, and you decide to adhere to the tenants of the Pakistani government, your platform is compromised. If you allow Chinese cultural standards to dictate your terms of service or even to redesign your platform, having outgrown your Western audience, you are actively engaged in censorship. If you promote one side of the debate and squash the other side, you are misusing technology.

If you happen to run the largest aggregator of movie reviews on the planet, and you want Captain Marvel to succeed, you shut down the negative comments, and that’s just the loudest current example. Comments are being shut down everywhere to bend the dialog into a certain mold. This is the misuse of technology.

Frankly, it’s gotten out of hand. There are no rules. Every boundary of free speech is no longer a slope to agreement or disagreement. It’s a cliff from which anyone could fall without warning. The end result is that smart people of the “wrong-think” persuasion tend to keep quiet, because they know full well they can lose everything from friends to income streams over a single opinion. I’m pretty sure that was not what free speech was intended to mean. It was intended as a safety net against totalitarianism and on the principle that we need the ideas from everyone to create a better result.

Meanwhile, people on the “correct-think” side of the argument are increasingly making no sense. The arguments are circular and inconsistent within themselves, and stretch way out into the edge cases to support minute pieces of society that generally do not return that support to society as whole. Even worse, this group is increasingly pushing loudly for a world in which there can be no dissent from their own views. Anyone who disagrees is now a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic troll by default. This could lead to a case of these groups eating each other in pointless conflict, but if they can agree with many others of the same mindset, free speech is lost.

That statement leads to hard questions. How do we define ourselves? There was a time when being a productive member of society was an internal and external mark of pride. Now being a victim of society carries more weight. There was a time when opinion could be expressed forcefully without half of civilization dropping from the sky. None of that even considers which opinion was “better.” It doesn’t matter. The point is that both sides could express one.

Of course, one of the major pushes of correct-think is revision of everything from history to other cultures into our current set of values. Revising history is dangerous, because it essentially removes the lessons we should learn from it. Things like slavery is bad, and genocide is bad, victimizing anyone is bad… Trying to pretend that history didn’t have its own gray areas is another path to totalitarianism and thought police.

Revising to other cultures – moral relativism – is dangerous for two reasons. One is that it eliminates the possibility of measuring the value of our own culture, which should be done on a regular basis, despite the correct-think efforts to tell us that our culture is completely broken. Two is that it gets people killed. As a fun Google exercise, look up how many people have been harassed, robbed, raped, and killed while wandering the hinterlands as the result of believing that that all cultures have the same basic support and values as our own. Make a person hungry, poor, or desperate enough, and they will kill you for whatever you’ve got. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t be sitting at the top of the food chain.

So, if we stretch our heads around a simple fact, namely that we still live in the most successful social experiment in recorded history, built on the shoulders of a lot of disparate opinions in compromise, we can roll with two concepts. One is that even the most offensive opinions have a place in the gray area of our human discourse, and while we should allow them to be presented, we have the absolute right to reject them. “We” means each of us, not some ideologue at the head of a technological platform. Two is that we can accept the idea that our techno-social overlords have the right to censor and shape what we see, without knowing anything about us individually, or our own motivations and concerns in life. Where this leads is also well documented in history and it’s a place with no remaining shreds of the freedom and independence that led us to the success and comfort that we enjoy today.

I’ve pointed out a couple of examples of censorship as the misuse of technology. On the positive use of technology, we’ve got a few choices.

The easiest choice is to stay out of the fight. Ignore it. Do what you do and let the chips fall. It’s fundamental to human nature to ignore the onrushing train until it plows over you. No one can blame you for this choice. Unless you somehow find a worldview that is immune to attack, commenting on anything will scare up a mob of people who want to destroy you. I can list dozens of examples from the last few months. If enough people read this, I’ll get hammered too. Bizarrely enough, groups that you would imagine supporting each other frequently turn and attack like a terrified dog over the most minute points of contention. The point is that engaging in any social political debate is now dangerous.

Two, you can use the platforms you use now to express your opinion. The obvious examples are Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is perfectly fine for sharing family photos and talking about benign life events, but it has shown that it is willing to censor and perhaps more critically that it is selling everything you post to somebody for some purpose. Your Facebook content actually affects your future job prospects. Funny how a simple website has turned into a social credit score with lifelong ramifications.

Twitter has turned into a toxic dump of ideas with very little upside. I have an account to keep track of what I read, but I never post anything. If we’ve learned anything in the past year or so, it’s that your posts can and will be weaponized against you, even if the posts are a decade old. Even those who just use it to make announcements are beginning to shy away. YouTube is working hard to resist outright censorship of ideas, but like every other major resource, they are slowly being compelled to adhere to correct-think and that has subtle effects on what you see on the platform. It also serves as a chilling effect on those who contribute content to the platform, especially as YouTube has complete control over who can make money on their system.

Three, you can check out the alternatives to the alternatives. Social media is the alternative to traditional sources like newspapers and TV news, all of which have become a social engineering opinion machine. Now that the machine has infected the big social media platforms, alternatives have arisen and have been repeatedly attacked by the established players. Most of those alternatives place a high value on uncensored content, which means that using them will expose you to stuff you probably don’t want to see, but it comes down to the value of free speech versus top-down censorship that doesn’t have your personal values in mind. Being an adult has always meant that you have to deal with unpleasant stuff, and among those is the responsibility to keep tabs on what your children see.

Bitchute is the alternative to YouTube, and most You-tubers who speak about politics mirror their content to Bitchute as a hedge against censorship. I don’t consider it a necessary replacement at this point in time, but the trend is heading towards a far more censored correct-think version of YouTube. is an interesting alternative to Facebook. Aside from the censorship angle, it has a built in economy to make it easy for for contributors to monetize their content. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but it’s a very interesting concept pulled right out of 90’s era cyberpunk. straddles the Facebook/Twitter line. It’s front and center on the censorship debate because it just introduced a potentially game changing system known as Dissenter. To understand Dissenter, you first have to understand that one of the primary methods of censorship is to disable comments on specific stories all over the internet. Dissenter creates a network overlay that allows Dissenter users to comment on literally anything, outside of the control of the website posting the story. Needless to say, the sites that use comments to control the discussion will try to find ways around it, but so far, Dissenter is impressive. You can work through the Dissenter website, or more easily add a plugin to your browser to allow you to add comments to whatever you are viewing on the web. You’ll know it’s really working when people try to kill the browser extensions.

Finally, to dive hard into the dystopian end of this pool, it’s worth saying that there have always been methods to control our thinking. A politician using rhetoric, a President behind a podium, a professor with radical views, a newspaper with a hard slant, a good looking talking head on TV, an actor with a speech, peer pressure… In this world, the information blows our hair back in a nonstop hurricane. It’s hard to decide what is important, or rational, or true in any sense, but that’s what we must do.

Critical thought is key, but it’s a fine balance. If you assume everyone with a voice is trying to sell you on something, you can always say no. If you assume that everyone is out to get you in some way, it’s war, and you will prepare for the fight. Some people spend their lives prepped for battle on a hill that doesn’t exist. It’s a spectrum of thought that ranges from obliviousness, through varying degrees of concern, to outright attempts to destroy the enemy. At this point in time, that’s as good as the measuring stick gets. If you see someone trying to destroy the enemy, it’s time to engage the old critical thinker and try to figure out what they want. If you really don’t want that thing, the next question is: What should I do?

Opinions could be considered the fruit of ideas. Ideas are organic. Bad ones wilt in the shade and good ones spread everywhere like weeds until a better idea comes along. The catch is that this only applies in the wild. In the forest, fast growing trees shade out slower ones in a race to the sunlight. Walk in that forest a hundred years later and you see the blend of only the strongest plants, the ones that dominate the resources and thus have the best opportunity to spread their seeds. The result is a chaotic and hearty system that supports thousands of species. An individual plant or species may succumb, but the forest stays strong. This is the wild west of free speech.

Meanwhile, in the industrial mono-culture forest two miles away, all the trees are the same. The same species, the same age, the same spacing between them, the same lack of habitat for animals, and ultimately the same problem will wipe out the entire forest. If it survives until harvest, it is the result of of meticulous planning, rigorous management, and ongoing effort. In terms of spreadsheet results, this method makes sense. In terms of long term health, as should be applied to forests and cultures, it’s a losing proposition. This is rigid single-minded control, with life rather than words.

Which brings us back to censorship. The more it is applied, the less you know to answer that big “What should I do?” question. Being treated as if you, member of the general public, are not capable of forming a solid opinion is no excuse at all. The more censorship is applied, the fewer the options you have, both in thought and deed. There’s a reason that shame and banishment have always been very effective behavior controls. Both are in full technological use today. No matter where you lie on the broad gray spectrum of opinion, opposing censorship is worth the fight.

Oh crap. The world is changing – again.

There is something new on WordPress. If you are seeing this, it worked. If not, I’m using bad words to describe my confusion.

The yellow vest movement is interesting for two reasons. One is that it amounts to a general protest against sacrificing one’s general well being, along with the well being of one’s family to the ideals of globalism. In that sense, the verdict is in. One’s own interests trump some pie in the sky attempt to make everyone equal and to make the elite richer and more powerful. Is this a surprise?

Two, the video game industry is serving as a grand example of how not to treat your customers, and is actually suffering as result. Let that lesson be learned. No video game is more important than the free market. Surprise!

Three, numerous platforms are yanking the rug out from under independent voices, notably Patreon, who has seen fit to enforce their standards, and arguably ignore their standards, against those with whom they disagree. As a result, prominent internet personalities are abandoning Patreon, and dragging their supporters along with them. In this is the definition of a platform, which should have nothing to say about what their members create, versus a publisher, which has everything to say about what their creators say. Patreon should decide right now whether they are a publisher or a platform. If a publisher, they can censor – and owe money to – everyone who has funneled money through their site. If a platform, they need to stop – STOP! – hamstringing those who use their system to make money for creating content. You can’t have it both ways, enlightened internet platforms. You are either a publisher and therefore responsible for your content and you – from your own accounts – pay each content creator for content, or you are a platform, in which case all content is okay by you and you make your money on the transactions and delay from collection to payout. Take your pick, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Which leads me to the simple fact that we cannot conduct business in a world in which literally everything is a cause. It’s a religion. Just like religion, a given stance is entirely subject to belief. Politics is now a religion. Racism is a religion. Sexism is a religion. Left versus right is a religion. How do I know? There is no proof. If we were simply talking about Christianity, there is no proof in which I would not need to jump into faith to finish the argument. Accept my faith and I win. Reject my faith and I lose the argument.

None of this is an endorsement of religion or condemnation of the same. I buy into the value of faith, whether our faith is the same or not. My point is simply this: If your logical argument relies on faith or a pile of people who happen to agree with your position, you lose. If your argument relies on objectively provable evidence, you win. Speculation is not a win. Belief is not a win. That being said, you can be entirely right based on belief, faith, or people supporting you. Failure to win an objective argument does not mean you are wrong. Odds are, you’ve lived in this world long enough to know the difference between sincere assertion and a pile of self serving BS. Just keep that in mind. In the grand scheme, I am no more informed about universal objective truth than anyone else, which means quite simply that I should give your beliefs the respect they deserve.

Since it would be entirely self serving to ask the question, “What do ‘we’ believe?” It’s far better to ask what “I” believe. The answer, depending on the particular question, is lengthy. The most general version is, “We know nothing.” Perhaps that ignorance is purposeful or perhaps we have just failed a test long ago and the answers are right in front of us. It’s also far better to ask what “you” believe, but if you are smart in this time and place, you will not answer.

This is a belief, which means that in a perfect world you could reject my beliefs without censure. In today’s world you are not allowed to answer without planting a flag somewhere. Someone, in some group, will find your answer offensive enough to internet assassinate you.

In the past year, I’ve been ideologically assassinated, and it’s not fun. It’s even worse when the ideals upon which I was beheaded are not ideals at all, but merely the expedient ingredients of a batch of power cookies. Like the Cookie Monster, a cookie can drive some people well past the bounds of agreeable terms into the realm of madness. Fine. We may believe that those people who can throw out common rules of moral decency can get away with it. We may believe that they will eventually come face to face with a higher and undeniable authority who will judge them lacking, or we may simply rely on amorphous Karma to put a highly convenient and immovable bridge abutment in their careening path. It doesn’t matter.

What matters for each of us in this holiday season, whether it’s a celebration of any particular ideal or not, is that we are winding down to the end of a ledger for 2018. Will we read that book later and feel good about who we are, or will we read it and understand that we could have been far better. If you’re like me, far better is always the answer, for one reason or another. And if there is a freshly sharpened point, the sheer judgment of others is probably that point. Yet, here we are, swimming in a sea of moral and every other kind of relativism, and it’s become pretty clear that it’s not working. Some immutable standards must apply, for the harshest of reasons. Every time we dip our toe into relativism, it’s starkly illustrated that we are all in it for ourselves and any sense of community or cooperation leap out the window. What are the standards?

In America, we believe in what? It doesn’t matter what I say if I were brave enough to lay it out; I can assure you it will not be progressive enough to avoid being targeted for some form of attack. There are plenty of courageous people who dive knowingly into the ideological fray, who also accept knowingly that they will be attacked for their effort. There was a time when we could accept different beliefs than our own without trying to literally destroy those with whom we disagree, and this was considered part of the responsibility of living in a free society. Now, at least from the extremes on both sides, disagreement is considered an excuse to get someone fired, to get someone de-platformed in the “making money from the internet” sense, to take away their livelihood, to show up at their favorite restaurant, office, or even their home, to attack their children with fear, to do literally anything to get them to shut up. What kind of psycho can justify this kind of behavior, especially when the same nut-job is usually spouting some one-sided nonsense about free speech?

My suggestion for 2019 is simple. Accept the very real premise that we each – ultimately – know nothing. No one knows everything, and we have no way of knowing whether the next person (myself included) offers some tiny piece of the objective truth or is speaking entirely to fulfill an agenda with which we would disagree. In other words, your beliefs matter. You get to decide what your truths and priorities mean. I’d humbly suggest that you keep a firm grip on yourself and your definitions of higher truth, because if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that if you do not think for yourself, there is always someone out there who is more than happy to co-opt your reality for their own purposes.

That pile of lofty language comes down to earth in the form of those you love and what you think is important. Loved ones are easy and difficult. What you think is important ranges from difficult to darn near impossible.

For example, I love my family on the basis that family – back for generations – is important, which is a belief. Yet, no one from my immediate family has carved out enough time to call and say “Merry Christmas.” I typically approach the holidays with the notion that I make those calls. This year, largely due to a pattern of behavior from my closest family member, I decided to find out if anyone else would take the lead. The answer is no. What does that mean? Did I fail the entire family by refusing to fulfill my usual role, or did they fail me by refusing to pick up the slack? In your immediate family, would it be considered adequate that of the three remaining members, you received one Christmas card?

Ideologically, it gets remarkably hard to track. Let’s say that for you, Christmas is a very Christ-centered holiday. There have been open push-backs against the loss of a Christian based idea of Christmas for 50 years. Check out the hard push from a Charlie Brown Christmas to see it. There has been resistance to the loss of being able to wish someone “Merry Christmas” as a form of non-inclusion of other celebrations of the holiday season for years now. From a Christian point of view, it has been a deliberate effort to squelch that point of view in favor of a more open and inclusive idea of the holiday. I laugh at the entire concept of “open and inclusive” as a mask for pushing out the original concept for the season, and I do it with full knowledge of the historical development of Christmas as co-opting of earlier concepts of the celebration of winter solstice. This stuff goes back a long way. While a Christian concept, or Hanuka, or Kwanzaa, or any other label we want to slap on top of it, Winter Solstice is hard to get around. It happens whether we like it or not. Unless you are a flat-Earther, the math is undeniable. Around here, it translates to a lot of darkness. The fact is that we could have just as easily said that Christ was born on tax day, or Memorial Day, or the 4th of July, and no one would have been able to prove otherwise. It doesn’t matter. Christmas is still a celebration of the birth of Christ. If that is important to you, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The New Year, on the other hand, is remarkably free from debate, which is odd. Among all the calendars conceived in the history of humanity, the Gregorian calendar is far from the most mathematically clean. We throw in an extra day every four years for goodness’ sake! Why wouldn’t we just accept the definition of a second to account for the discrepancy for each day? As I write this post over the course of a week, we are running up against the new year, which will occur 7 hours and 28 minutes from now in Pacific time. I for one am happy to say goodbye to 2018. It was far too much hard lesson and not nearly enough celebration for me. I have a plan for 2019 that I hope will involve the culmination of a lot of work and planning, but there are no guarantees. We’ll see…

For all of you, especially those of you have have stuck with me for a remarkably long dry spell in publishing terms, I wish for you the best New Year. May your moral dilemmas be simple and your plans be fruitful. My thanks for reading to the end. Happy New Year!

Impact of a Life

A very good friend, one who has come up recently, has succumbed to cancer. I’ve hemmed and hawed over how to write about this friend for over a week. From within, it’s a wrestling match, but from any objective perspective, it should be a simple, perhaps even perfunctory chance to mimic the vast majority of polite responses to death.

“I’m so sorry. My prayers to you and and your family.”

Nope. That doesn’t cover it. From another perspective, it could be a value equation. My friend Shirley died at 87 years of age, a good run by any standard, especially when you consider the sheer number of cigarettes she smoked with a pointed rebellious pride. If I manage to squeeze out 87 years, I’m definitely calling that a win.

Putting the third leg of the stool on the struggle with her demise involves how little I actually knew of her, and the relatively short time I knew her. We call her Aunt Shirley, at her request, but she is actually the sister of the woman, Joanne, who once lived across the street from my wife, and who died before I ever showed up in Sharon’s life. Joanne’s husband, Bill, was still alive when I came along, and we played a substantial role in caring for him once his health started to fail. Joanne and Bill were surrogate parents to Sharon when she was alone out here, thousands of miles from her own family. I got to know Shirley in the course of knowing and helping Bill. No relation to me, no independent friendship, at least initially – just the haphazard connections in life.

Shirley lived out here in Washington for years, after a lifetime of adventures, presumably to be close to her sister, and then to keep an eye on her sister’s husband. She collected her own health problems along the way, as tends to happen, and finally moved back to Ohio to be near her own family, presumably to get the help she needed as those health problems mounted. I’m sure she knew we would have happily taken the role, but I can completely understand the need to close the loops with her own children towards the end.

Shirley had three sons, I’m guessing about my age. Her sister had three daughters, all of whom I’ve met, and I appreciate the symmetry of it all. As the end drew near, her son Scott took the difficult burden of keeping me in the loop. As a son who once lost a mother, I know exactly how hard that was, and I will be forever grateful.

Shirley called me the Saturday before she passed, and I’m grateful for that as well. The cancer was in her throat, among other places, and I could barely understand her, but I knew she was saying goodbye. Given what I know of her, I pretended that she would fight on. That was how she wanted to be seen and heard. I respect that.

The following Wednesday, she sent me a text and photo to say thank you for the pink bed jacket that Sharon had sent her. I had nothing to do with it, would have never thought to do it, but it meant a great deal, and it was literally the last gesture of love we were able to give her, so I also have to convey my gratitude to Sharon for being a much better person than I am.

Also on Wednesday, we heard that she was moving to hospice care, which was the point when the fight was over. Intuitively, I knew it was coming, but it was still a shock.

By Saturday, Scott let me know that she was taking some powerful, far-beyond-morphine painkillers, and that Shirley’s niece was on the way. He predicted that she would hang on until Jaci arrived.

Very early Monday morning, December 3rd, 2018, Shirley Shanahan passed away.

It wasn’t a punch to the gut kind of shock. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a slow burn of loss that hasn’t died out yet. The reaction is a hard thing to compare, and it makes me think about the impact that people can have.

I’ve already made the case for how I could minimize the loss, yet I can’t. Why?

What makes one person matter and another person a matter of course in the grand scheme of life?

Shirley was an unstoppable reader, like myself, and unrestrained thinker, like myself, and someone capable of stepping outside of every confirmation bias we live within, also like myself. Needless to say, we had plenty to discuss. She had been stung by life, and carried the cynicism that experience suggests. She had also chosen to carry the joy of life, which is a difficult trick in the balance. She could take the good with the bad in people in a very true sense. The teetering scale of judgment and live-and-let-live is difficult, and she wore it with style.

But these are just opinionated arguments. It really came down to a strong spirit, and that is something that cannot be conveyed second hand. It’s a thing that we sense upon encountering, but perhaps never consciously recognize. There is seemingly a freedom of opinion in old age, and I believe it is well earned, but not everyone uses it well. One can take the hard knocks of life and grow it like a green sourdough starter into a bitter brew that clouds everyone and everything. I can point to my own grandmother in this regard. Shirley never fell for it. She could always see both sides. She had no regard for ridiculousness, but in the same breath could find sympathy for the conditions that gave rise to a ridiculous chain of thought.

What is the word for it? Perhaps a philosopher of the high order that steps away from the written page and into the life that we should all live. Objectively, Shirley did not live a successful life on paper, but within herself, she was a person of high integrity and purpose. She could, on any given day, tell a doctor that there was no way she would stop smoking, yet tell someone that smoking was a bad habit. Her life – her rules. “Don’t make my mistakes.”

In a morally relativistic world where people can rationalize almost anything, her ability to own up to her own failings was miraculous. Honest. True.

We could all use more of that kind of honesty.

In a week when we celebrated the life of an ex-president, I’d suggest that we celebrate the lives of a great many people we lost – you know who they were – who changed the world in ways that will never make the news, but matter to those affected far more than we tend to recognize. For me, Shirley is at the top of the list.

With enduring love and respect, I salute the life of Shirley, a woman who most of you will never have the pleasure of knowing. May she rest in peace and her ashes be scattered upon the broad face of the Pacific.

It’s Ours

The last one was fairly dark.

I think it is remarkable that we can so easily go dark. From a purely human perspective, it’s easy to find ourselves the victims of circumstance and forget the power of humanity to overcome all of the worst parts of human existence.

I spoke about my good friend with cancer, and didn’t lean hard enough on the human ability to overcome almost anything. The truth is that I have more than one important person in my life battling cancer, and I am fascinated by the response, both from their perspective and my own.

I had a very passionate and inspired science teacher in the 8th grade. She was a teacher who was willing to go beyond the classroom to teach us of the world in which we live. I can distinctly remember stalking the edges of our middle school campus trying to find the birds she had recorded earlier, and wondering what the point might be. Her husband was fighting cancer, and she was searching for any possible response that might change the outcome. He lost, and she lost, and 40 years later I still think about it. If we’re being honest, I have no idea whether she is still alive, although I would guess not, since that kind of love and devotion generally leads to a spouse following her love into the afterlife.

Lem Parks was the closest thing I had to a grandfather. One of my actual grandfathers had died long before my birth and the other was long gone from my life. I can only remember meeting him once, when I was eleven. Given the attitude of his ex-wife, my maternal grandmother, I can’t say that I blame him for making a new life. The real question is whether she was so mean and bitter because of him, or before he decided to leave her. I’ll never know.

Anyway, Lem Parks was a good substitute. He managed to impart the kind of lessons and wisdom that a real grandfather should. He did so with patience and kindness, and most of his lessons stick as the absolute truth to this day. Lem’s wife devolved into the angry kind of dementia, which I totally understand. I can clearly recall conversations with her that repeated the basics over and over. Having no control of life would make me angry as well. It didn’t affect us, other than the occasional moment when she would throw an ancient rancid ham off her deck and our dog, Henry, would eat it only to be afflicted with doggie diarrhea for several days afterwards. The point is that when she died, Lem didn’t survive very long, even though to all accounts, he may not have known when she died. Somehow, he knew, and didn’t want to continue in this world without her. He died very shortly thereafter. I could write his imparted stories for weeks on end and every one of them held some good lessons for all of us, yet he could not survive without his wife.

So now, I find myself coping with another very important person with cancer. By coping, I don’t mean that I have to deal with anything like what she needs to handle. My own struggle is a pale shadow of what those with cancer and their immediate loved ones must endure, but I still end up with all the hard questions.

In one case, I believe she has the willpower to overcome almost anything. She is strength of will personified. In another, I don’t know, but I still care enough to hope that is the case. That leads immediately to the question of whether strength of will or the belief behind it has anything to do with the outcome. Perhaps the outcome is written in sheer biological terms, or perhaps the human will comes into play. I don’t know. If I take the case of my 8th grade teacher’s husband, where I handed her Science Digest articles about combating cancer through visualization, and it failed meant that either he failed to believe, failed to do the work, or it was just a pile of crap, I don’t know. In the case of my good friend, a person who is part of my family regardless of actual genetic ties, I don’t know if she can outgun cancer through sheer force of will, or divine providence, or whatever passes for a miracle. In the case of a long lost friend who is seeking resolution through the power of prayer and belief in God, I also do not know.

But here’s what I do know. We are creatures of belief. We are incredibly capable of converting belief into reality. In the seedy reality of life, that could apply to politics, or the outcome for our children, or the outcome of a cancer diagnosis. We should choose our beliefs wisely and then apply them with everything we can muster. Odds are, the outcome will follow. For better or worse…

So, to Shirley, or Judith, or the countless others of which I am not aware, I say believe, cling to those beliefs, and that will serve as the basis for your outcome. Bizarre as it may seem, we are creatures of belief, and we make our reality. For good or ill. How scary is that?

What if? Part 99

My brother, who is a very smart man, went through a phase when he was a single-digit kid. Being the youngest, he got away with essentially driving us crazy. No matter what the topic, no matter what we said, he could come up with a “What if?” question to go with it. If we were lucky, it was only one question. At the time, it was maddening. He knew the effect perfectly well and therefore never stopped at one question. But looking back, it may be simply because he was the smartest and best critical thinker in the family. This from a kid who declared loudly that he wanted to be a ditch digger when he grew up. I was never sure if he was just yanking our chain.

Decades later,  wearing the hat of a fiction writer, there is no better question.

As a fiction writer, you may ask the Fifty Shades question. What happens if a straightlaced, relatively innocent woman suddenly decides to dive into the world of S&M, dominance and submission? I never finished the book (it’s very rare that I don’t finish the book), so I don’t know. You may ask a question about what happened during the Great Depression, the Civil War, World War II, or the individuals involved and how their lives were impacted by history and events beyond their control. In fiction, these types of questions are asked over and over, and usually reveal new insights into the experience of those in the mix of human history. You may be more like my wife, who is as rational as a Vulcan and studies genealogy as a hobby to develop the story of our family reality.

For myself, I find this entirely valid. There is no number of individual perspectives on the story of humanity, no matter whether documented or fictionalized, that doesn’t add the to the value of what it means to be human and to answer the questions we are all asking. We all know that the stickiest stories are not judged on the basis of fact, but on the basis of impact. (See: current events.)

As a speculative fiction writer, the field breaks open like a good block on a linebacker. Sometimes the question runs for a first down and makes for a good story. Sometimes, it runs for a touchdown and leaves the general sense of, ”How did that happen?” SF writers not only ask questions about what we have experienced in the most granular and personal sense, but on what we may experience in the broadest sense. What are those questions? Well, they boil down to the intellectual property of the writer, in the sense that I have lots of ideas I keep close to my vest, but I can almost guarantee that every person with any amount of insight and introspection out there has a few of their own. I can guarantee it on the basis of hearing about it from many different people, and by asking those who don’t offer their ideas up for examination. Humanity is inherently creative, and that’s both beautiful and terrifying. We have it within us to create our future, or another nightclub shooting.

The masters of SF, from my point of view, may be 75% obsolete, but that doesn’t matter one bit. I spent my time in a small town mall bookstore that gradually became less about books and more about greeting cards and Christmas figurines. The manager knew me, and kept me abreast of the latest arrivals. Considering the modern state of that mall, minus one bookstore, I count myself lucky to have grown up as a SF geek at the exact time when I did.

Larry Niven was the master of worldbuilding. Robert Heinlein was the master of pitting the broad futurist ideas against social mores he considered ridiculous at the time. While Heinlein made it clear that considering women as anything less than men was the highest level of stupidity, in 2018 terms, his worldview may as well have been an episode of Mad Men with really smart women. Anne McCaffrey was the consummate builder of harmonious, Irish influenced societies with enough conflict to make it worth my while. She taught me how to work through a book full of weird names and culture far better than reading Chaucer in high school. If she were the saleswoman for the Irish model of life, we might all be in a better place. Madeleine L’Engle created stories that still resonate today for me, forty-plus years later. I read the entire set again recently, to discover that I found them good and bad in exactly the same way I did when I was a kid, which is bizarre, since much of the comedy of my youth falls flat in middle age. It’s safe to say that she found the mixture of simplicity and complexity that completely superseded the span of my life. Meanwhile, there was a huge litany of SF authors that completely exceeded my youthful ability to make heads or tails of their work. At the same time, there are anthologies that I would pay good money to reread just to flesh out the ideas that stuck with me over the years. There are even elementary school readers I would love to see again.

Although I can legitimately count myself a fan of Stephen King, I can also admit that he’s a step or two beyond me more often than not. That’s a good thing. I prefer to look up to my authors than to feel as if I can level a top-down critique. In the very modern sense, I can look up to a number of great authors who bring a great deal to the discussion of what I care to discuss. I have a shelf full of SM Stirling hardbacks that I can give and take on certain aspects, yet manage to impart the fundamentals that I believe to be true. We know nothing, and if you can deal with what’s in front of you, no matter what that may be, you are far better off than the vast majority of people around you. John Scalzi, for whom I’ve named a very good cat, is a master of humanizing a variety of concepts that would bring most of us to our knees. Incidentally, using the words “Good” and “Cat” in the same sentence is not natural to me. You can credit the cats or John Scalzi as you see fit. I can say that Scalzi the cat is my friend and devoid of most of the cat traits that turn folks into dog people. In sheer bonus points, that cat worships me like a minor deity. Who can argue with that?

The point is that you can come from almost anywhere on the spectrum and find that there is no way to navigate without asking the “What if?” questions. I’d suggest that the real question is “What do you want?” and ask it knowing that there is no way to answer without understanding the real consequences and costs of the questions. Let me bring it right home.

If you are fortunate like me, and happen to have a spouse with the best health insurance American money and employment (outside of Congress) can buy right now, and you consider the effects of universal health care… There is no way that universal, single-payer health care doesn’t degrade your own health services. No way. What is your stance?

Let’s broaden the equation. If you bought into the Obama version of American value, which he frequently espoused on foreign soil, and have decided that American values are morally bereft… Is there any way that you decide that American citizen success supersedes the success of some random person from El Salvador heading for a symbolic showdown against our evil President? I’d say not likely. Yet, that value equation is based on the idea that the benefits that we enjoy as Americans are essentially bottomless. While our politicians behave as if the fountain of American benefits is indeed bottomless, the truth is that every asylum-seeking individual costs us roughly $70k to adjudicate. For perspective, this is much more than the average $40k per year for every federal prison inmate. In purely rational terms, which seems to be a hard ask these days, we have to accept people into our country on the basis that they are worth more than $70k. Is this a tough standard? Not at all. I can reach out to my first level of contacts and find a whole range of Mexicans who are willing to work hard, meet their obligations, and add value to our country without having to stretch into any philosophical realms to justify their benefit to our country. How is this a hard problem? An immigrant who is willing to work hard and follow the legal path to citizenship is a no-brainer.

An immigrant who shows up at our border with a claim for asylum based on unsupported evidence is equally a no-brainer. It’s not a moral failing to say, “We can’t find support for your claims but you are welcome to start your long path to American citizenship.” The fact is that American Citizenship is, and should be, a hard path. We offer the best outcome that exists in the world today.

Despite the best efforts of a great many strong PR pushes around the world, America still is the best bastion of opportunity on the planet. Ask any turban-sporting Sikh convenience store owner you encounter. Presumably, that man could start a similar store anywhere in the Sikh world and he would make far less than he does by slightly confusing Western Washington residents. Presumably, and fairly, he would confuse far more people in other parts of the country as he half ignores his customers in favor of the cell phone conversation he is having in his native language. This is a man who is making virtually no effort to assimilate to American culture and is still making far more money to send home to his family in the Middle East without any real consequence to his balancing act. Other than what we offer him through political correctness… He makes out like a bandit in both American and Middle Eastern terms, and we support his efforts through our tax dollars in the form of underwritten loans that we could not get for ourselves.

Broadening further, the discussion of exchange has never progressed beyond this. The instant someone slides into the territory of a fair exchange of value, someone else throws the “shame” finger in the air and starts wagging it. If I walk into a car dealership and try to shame-finger my way into a free car, I’ll be lucky if I’m simply ignored. Why is it not okay to categorize potential American citizens in terms of their potential or even actual value to our country? The answers to this question are not easy, because it’s all too easy to remind everyone that we are all immigrants in one form or another. I’m the descendant of immigrants who wandered in over the past 400 years. My Native American friend’s people wandered in at some point as well, somewhere between 40,000 years ago and 1983. While it’s fair to say that prior claims have value, it’s also fair to say that very few pieces of real estate on this planet have not been taken by some new group at some point in time. In most cases, we have no idea who owned that land first, and even trying to seek the answer leads to a logical cascade of non-ownership. The debate becomes pointless.

And that’s where we find ourselves, wrapped up in pointless debates. For every position, there is a “what if” question that renders the position pointless. Even at seven years old, my brother knew this.

Let me demonstrate in SF author fashion. A very good friend of mine has cancer. It’s bad. There is some hope for optimism based on the technical details and her sheer bulldozer of willpower, but statistically speaking, she’s got a fight on her hands. As I write, she and her family are probably making all kinds of plans and tough decisions to fight for a positive outcome, and knowing her, she has a better than average chance of yanking a fluffy white rabbit out of a weatherbeaten hat.

What if the oncologist on her case dies in a plane crash midway through her treatment? We live in a world where it’s entirely possible that another oncologist can read her records and pick up right where the original doctor left off. It could have a profound impact on the outcome, or almost none at all.

What if the grieving relative of a former patient decides to shoot everyone at the oncologist practice where my friend’s treatment is being conducted? I’d say that injects enough disruption into her treatment that the best outcome is in jeopardy. The odds of this exact event occurring are incredibly low, but in the land of “what if” it’s not the likelihood that matters; it’s the impact.

What if the Yellowstone caldera explodes midway through her treatment? Her state is buried in a foot of volcanic ash. The entire emergency and medical response system is overwhelmed almost immediately. Basic services are gone. Food disappears in a heartbeat, and no one can even move from whatever shelter is available after all the roofs collapse from the weight of the ash. Whatever plans she had are gone – irrelevant and impossible. The same applies to everyone else with a medical condition as well. The availability of treatment and prescription meds just disappear in a cloud of ash. The healthiest people will have their hands full trying to cope with that scale of disaster, and those with serious problems will get shunted to the bottom of the priority list. Again, the odds are incredible, but the power of “what if” is that it’s not impossible, and if that particular event occurs, then every decision being made today is rendered pointless.

We can’t live happily in a world of extreme “what ifs,” yet we do. Turn on any news channel. It’s nothing but extreme questions designed to lead us into a quivering corner of fear-based decisions, backed up by the mindset of those who have something to gain from our fear. Those questions not only traffic in the extremes but they serve to break down our ability to even discern the level of effect on our lives. If every ideological crisis is tantamount to personal destruction, eventually it’s very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Maybe your biggest problem is that your kid is being bullied at school. That’s a real problem with real responses that all carry the weight of potential downsides to your entire family. Meanwhile, the 24-hour news cycle parade of talking heads has convinced you that your real problem is that the reanimated corpse of Hitler may show up with a flamethrower and burn your house down, or some well-meaning politician may suddenly decide that your kid should be reallocated to a school across town to teach everyone the value of living with a long commute.

The issue is usually on the agenda of one side or another, and usually a pointless “What if?” for the vast majority of us.

There are endless “What if’s?” that none of us can answer, but there is good news. It really boils down to what (and who) matters in your world. Your spouse, your kids, your family, your friends, your pets can all be defined in a “What if,” that can be answered easily. What if I apply more kindness? What if I apply more support? What if I apply more forgiveness?

What if?