NaNoWriMo 2014

I’ve wanted to finish a second novel for a few years now, and never found the time to do it.

This year, I’m forcing myself to find the time by doing NaNoWriMo. I’m going to start something new, and push every day until I reach the 50K word mark (or beyond).

The novel itself is going to be my take on a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, with a working title of The Hungry Cold.

Here’s the synopsis:

When a sudden blizzard closes the mountain road out of Skallfast, Siobhan and Alastair settle in for days of boredom. But the storm brought something else with it: something that starts killing the townsfolk, one by one, leaving nothing but their bones behind. Can they discover what’s behind the killings, and how to stop it, before the hungry cold claims them as well?

Wish me luck!

Flash Fiction Friday: Oct 24, 2014

Inspired by the tv show Review, today’s flash fiction entry is a critic’s review of my day yesterday, if my life were a television series:

While no doubt the height of neo-realism, the fact remains that in yesterday’s episode our beloved protagonist again spent most of his waking hours sitting at a desk and typing. Where are the coffee shop visits and meeting friends for lunch of past episodes?

And don’t get me started on how little variety this entire season has had compared to the show’s peak (seasons 21 through 25, if you must know. Those seasons had everything: Space! Lasers! Training Montages! Romance! A far cry from the wilderness wandering seasons that followed). Are the writers completely out of new ideas?

Granted, I was intrigued by the homebrewing subplot. There were several different ways they could have gone with that one: a Breaking-Bad type descent into chemistry obsession and bootlegging, or a slow spin into self-enabled alcoholism, the worm eating its own tail so to speak. Of course, head writer Diego Byte couldn’t let anything that interesting happen. We got one party – one! – without any drunken hijinks, and that’s it.

This show desperately needs a return to the glory days of showrunners like D.C. Nassau, or even Phil Conway. They knew how to mix multiple sub-plots while still giving us a visible character arc over the course of the season. As it is, this show still occasionally has a spark of life, but its best years seem to be behind it. 2 stars.

Religious Tolerance in the Constitution

Conservatives who want to make hay about the religion (or lack thereof) of the President or members of Congress should re-read the Constitution. Toleration of other religions was so important the Founders included it in the original text. Article VI, paragraph 3 says: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

This was a huge step at the time, a deliberate slap in the face of the laws of Great Britain, which barred office holders (and the king!) from being Catholic.

If the Founders intended us to be a Christian nation, they had their chance. They could easily have written a requirement that anyone elected to the government be a Christian, just as they required them to be a certain age, and required the President to have been born a US citizen. The fact that they not only didn’t require it, but specifically forbade any such requirement, means they deliberately built religious toleration into the foundation of the new country.

The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Another controversial book that turns out to be full of bad reasoning.

The central thesis is that certain minority groups do well financially in America, and the reason they do is because of a trio of cultural attitudes: a feeling of group superiority, coupled with a sense of individual insecurity, mixed with strict impulse control. These traits help them succeed because America’s dominant culture is one of instant gratification and personal self-esteem.

The implication is that these minority groups are hard-working go-getters, while the rest of us are lazy coke-heads waiting for our next welfare check.

Unfortunately, the authors have no evidence for either the Triple Package in their minority cultures, or for the dominant lazy culture they insist the rest of America has. They do have hard numbers that certain minority groups, after immigrating to the US, have higher median incomes than the rest of the country. But that’s it. All their cultural evidence is anecdotal, the sole exception being a survey that showed Asian Americans tend to spend more time studying than others.

They use this anecdotal evidence to sweep away the numerous studies that show a slowdown in American social mobility (the rich are staying rich while the poor are having a harder time climbing up into the middle class) and a decline in the share of national income going to lower income tiers (the vanishing of the middle class). There are children of poor immigrants that end up running multi-national corporations, they say, so surely we could all do the same if we just adopted the Triple Package? That these children are the exception, and not the rule, doesn’t seem to bother them.

Perhaps, if pressed, the authors would blame the recent hardening of class boundaries on the success of the self-esteem movement. After all, they lay numerous other social ills at its feet, including the Great Recession of 2008, the increase of US public debt, and the decline of American “soft power” in the early 21st century. Never mind that all of the above were created by leaders raised long before the self-esteem movement took hold, nor that these leaders often came from the very minority groups the authors want to praise.

Refreshingly, the authors acknowledge that the traits they want the rest of America to adopt often lead to psychological problems. A sense that your ethnic group is superior is the basis for every form of racism. A sense that you can never be good enough drains all the happiness you might feel from your accomplishments. And extreme impulse control can drive you to never relax, never take time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

After acknowledging these problems, though, the authors sweep them under the rug. To them, such psychological problems are simply the price of success. If you’re not willing to pay it, it’s because you don’t want to be successful enough.

The idea that you can be successful without these traits never occurs to the authors.

I was raised to value education and hard work, too, but without the punishing complexes the authors praise. That seems to be the real lesson of their research: that investing in education, coupled with ambition (to set lofty long-term goals) and patience (the ability to perservere in the achievement of those goals) can still be a formula for success in America. Unfortunately, that would have made the book much less controversial, so they had to focus on the cultural elements they see producing those traits.

In truth, there’s no need for the psychological complexes the authors think so highly of. Confidence can naturally come from accomplishment, and parents that are consistent with rewards and punishments can help instill discipline in their children. With those two traits, and a lot of luck, you can push through the obstacles between yourself and your goals. No chip on the shoulder, no crippling sense of insecurity required.

I did learn one thing, though: they recently did a follow-up study to the famous Marshmallow Test that showed that children who were primed to distrust the adult were less likely to wait for the second marshmallow.

Flash Fiction Friday: Oct 17, 2014

Congratulations on the purchase of your new Samsung by GE™ Instant-Cook Oven™! We hope you’ll agree it’s the best way to prepare hot, healthy meals for you and your family! Please remember us when replacing your unit after its beta-decay period of 6 months is up!

Remember, the most up-to-date version of this manual is available as a video at: http://youllneverreadthis.com. We’ve included this printed copy for those of you who have slow internet connections, live in the Continental US, or were raised in a text-based household.

WARNING: Do not stick your head in the Instant-Cook Oven™ during the winter to keep warm. It won’t lower your energy bills, but it WILL give you a terminal headache!

Your Instant-Cook Oven™ comes with a plethora of features designed to make cooking easier than ever!

For example, to cook a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, simply:

  • Press POWER to turn the Instant-Cook Oven™ on
  • Press DOWNLOAD to start the recipe selection process
  • Use the Ultra-Sensitive Keypad™ arrows to navigate through the recipes and choose the one you like best
  • When you’ve found a recipe, press SELECT to select it
  • Hit YES to confirm the download
  • Scroll through the Terms of Service and Licensing info for the recipe you’ve selected (read carefully! some recipes have unverified nutritional information) and hit YES to accept
  • Wait for the download to complete, then hit INSTALL to save it to the Instant-Cook Oven™’s recipe book (myRecipes™)
  • Hit MENU to go back to the main menu, then hit RECIPES to find the new recipe in myRecipes™
  • Use the Ultra-Sensitive Keypad™ arrows to select the recipe you downloaded, then hit SELECT
  • Hit YES to confirm your selection
  • Press COOK. Use the Ultra-Sensitive Keypad™ to enter the number of guests, their religio-ethnic background, current Vegan status, and country of citizenship. You may use the GuestBook™ (see page 1,337) to select from previous guests, so you don’t have to enter their information again.
  • Have each guest complete a retinal scan to confirm identity, and verbally accept the recipe’s Terms of Service and Licensing Agreement. If your guests have not yet arrived, you may send a TastyInvite™ (see page 442) to them so they can confirm and accept at their convenience.
  • Once all your guests have confirmed, you’re ready to COOK!
  • Open the Raw hatch (see page 921) on your Instant Cook Oven™ and check your Corn Pellet level. It should be above the Minimum Level Bar (see page 145) to continue. WARNING: cooking a recipe without adequate Corn Pellets can result in fire.
  • Close the Raw hatch, and press COOK
  • Press YES to confirm cooking
  • Wait for the ChowAlarm™ to sound, letting you know your food is ready!

CEOs and Surplus Value

CEOs in larger companies make more not necessarily because they’re better than the people running smaller companies, but because there’s more excess value being made by their employees for them to soak up.

The elimination of middle management in the 80s and 90s didn’t result in higher wages for employees because upper management ensured the excess funds went straight to their pockets.

Maybe if we capped the size of companies at 250 employees we wouldn’t need to cap executive salaries?

Another way of looking at it: things that are common but essential to life, like bread, are cheap. Luxuries, like sports cars and CEOs, are expensive. We can’t do without the bread. We can get by just fine without the CEO.

Companies succeed not because of their CEOs, but in spite of them. If we apply the 80/20 rule to CEOs, then most companies have to be run by bad managers. So how do they survive? It’s because their employees are not crap, and care about their jobs (they’re actually under threat) and drag the company kicking and screaming into profitability.

We can see this in action in companies that have removed management: Valve, Github, etc. All power passes back into the hands of the workers, who are highly paid. With large salaries and a lot of autonomy, they produce incredible products.

Company management, like government, succeeds best when it creates the infrastructure necessary for employees (a company’s citizens) to do well, then gets out of the way.

The Role of Government

Politicians that talk about their plan to grow the economy make me angry. It’s not the government’s place to grow the economy. That’s for businesses, founded and run by citizens and responding to the market, to do.

It’s the government’s job to help its citizens live the best lives they can. One method – among many – they can use to accomplish this goal is to set the foundation for growth, by investing in infrastructure, education, and a social safety net. But these things don’t grow the economy by themselves. You can build all the bridges you want, but if no one needs drives on it, it’s not going to contribute to the economy.

I know, I know: but what about the jobs created in building that bridge? A temporary bump, at best. Much better if they build a bridge, and then need to build gas stations and apartment blocks on the other side because of business picking up on both ends. Bridges to nowhere don’t help anyone except the owner of the construction company pocketing the profits.