Category Archives: Social comment

Stuff I spend time explaining over and over about history

Because I’m interested in history–or more likely, because I can’t learn to shush about the subject–friends and acquaintances ask me a steady stream of questions about it. Now and then, I even know the answer. If I don’t, it may inspire me to learn something, maybe order a book, develop at least a basic background.

There are also a few things those who ask tend to forget, and it is very natural. Perspective matters. When you’re seeking historical understanding, it’ll come easier when you bear uppermost in mind that:

Back then, the participants did not know how the future would unfold. Let’s take, for example, the legend of the Holy Grail. The evidence for its existence is, well, more a matter of faith than of evidence. It isn’t hard to imagine that such a relic would take on legendary status, provided one assumes that the persons in the story had a functional and updated crystal ball with up-to-date prophecy software. The idea is that a charismatic religious figure’s followers, or at any rate someone, saved a dining utensil from a group dinner (which they knew 100% was their final meal together, ever). And that this follower, or presumably someone else to whom the event was important, took the utensil to a Roman public execution and used it to catch the blood of the suffering religious figure. We are then asked to imagine that this artifact survived, and can ever be proven authentic to our modern satisfaction.

Well, if you take it on faith, that’s fine by me, but faith is not germane here. What’s germane is the assumption demanded by the whole tale: that at the time, anyone had the faintest understanding that this religious figure would become the center of a family of faiths that would shape and dominate Western civilization for many centuries. Absent this foreknowledge, this crystal ball, there is no reason anyone’s going to think to grab the wine goblet from the dinner. It would seem a little macabre to go scoop up some of the blood of the condemned, rather disrespectful. Granted, customs differed back then, but was that the norm? “Rachel, take this cup and go catch us some of Uncle Flavius’s blood. Quick like bunny, before the legionary spots you!”

But let’s say someone did save this cup; what then? Did he or she (just because one tale ascribes it to Joseph of Arimathea does not make that automatic truth; it could as easily have been a woman) put it on a shelf in the pantry? On the mantel? Sure, if that person could foresee the days of Constantine, he or she would have saved it, but everyone who was an adult in CE 30 or so would be elderly before the Christian movement numbered more than a few thousand. Christianity did not become the dominant faith of the Empire for at least two centuries. There was no way to know the future, thus (again, absent a faith-based conclusion, which cannot be addressed by evidence or logic; that’s why it’s called faith) no reason to expect anyone to keep track of a dish. Even if someone did save it, odds loom long against its ongoing survival and identification for even a century, much less two millennia. Within fifty years of the Crucifixion, any wiseacre could have taken a likely-looking chalice and proclaimed it the Holy Grail. Within five hundred, many had done just that.

They did not know, in the moment, what the future held–unless you bring in questions of faith and prophecy, which is your perfect right. But when you do, you depart from history and enter theology. It is unreasonable for anyone to expect anyone else to accept one’s own theology as history, for there are too many theologies. Whether we can ever know it or not, there was only one authentic history; modern interpretations and perspectives on that history may vary, but the events were one sole version when they occurred.

 

A year back then took as long as a year does now. We have the tendency, even the temptation, to compress ancient time. The farther back it is, the greater the compression. Oh, we do not do this if we give it careful thought; it is a tendency rather than an automatic event. Here is an example.

The War of American Independence began in 1775 and ended in 1783. That is eight years. Right? Eight years are a re-elected presidential administration. In eight years, a newborn grows to t-ball age. Eight years normally span a combined secondary and collegiate education. Imagine that the war had been declared around the time of Obama’s inauguration, and just ended last month. That’s how long it took. No less, no more.

I recently read a rather stupid message board post asserting that the Muslim Conquests (622-750 CE) had been “rapid.” This is a perfect example. One hundred and twenty-eight years are “rapid” only if we’re referring to matters that normally take millennia or more, like geological shifts and the evolution of new species. For a military imperial expansion, that’s a long time–including plenty of timeouts here and there to consolidate control, make hummus, build mosques, and so on. As I write, one hundred twenty-eight years ago, it was 1889 CE:

  • The European powers were just getting a head of steam dividing up most of Africa. (Most of the Africans would not be consulted.)
  • The Chinese Empire was nearing its last two decades, but the Japanese Empire was vaulting itself into the modern era by pure force of dedication.
  • The United States military was still fighting the Indian wars, had bought Alaska just twenty-two years prior, and had limited ability to project overseas power.
  • Nearly every European country had a monarch.

Look at all that has happened in 128 years, then tell me it was “rapid.” Twelve decades is plenty of time for plenty to happen.

Because in 9748 BCE, and in 47 BCE, and in 244 CE, and in 1889 CE, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, and a century took just as long as they do now. Time didn’t speed up just because an Egyptian dynasty lasted maybe a millennium. That millennium still took one thousand years.

Put into perspective: the Roman Republic lasted nearly five centuries. The western Empire lasted another four and a half centuries after that, and the eastern Empire outlasted its western kin-empire by a millennium. Four and a half centuries ago, it was 1667–the era of Cromwell, the Dutch on Manhattan Island, and Issac Newton. Five centuries ago, it was 1617; the Jamestown colony was a decade old. One millennium ago is just fifty years before the Norman Conquest of England, and just eighty years before the first Crusade stormed Jerusalem. That’s how long those timeframes are.

Why am I hammering on this seeming obviousness? Because it sneaks up on us. We tend to compress ancient times; the farther back, the more quickly we treat it as having passed. Rome became a republic in 509 BCE and, arguably, an empire in 27 BCE. The Rome of 27 BCE had not undergone any form of “rapid” transformation from its early republican days; the process had taken long enough to span the longest imaginable lifespans of five consecutive persons. It had taken over twice the current lifespan of the United States. If you think it’s been quite a while since Lexington and Concord, one presumes, you think twice that while is quite a greater while. That approximates the lifespan of Rome as a republic. Some tidbits to help this sink in:

  • Caligula ruled Rome for about the length of a U.S. presidential term.
  • The Napoleonic Wars lasted twelve years, about the time from birth to puberty.
  • The American Civil War took about as long as it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
  • The golden age of piracy, if such a thing can be so described, only lasted about thirty years–as of 2017, the time elapsed since George H.W. Bush was stepping up his run for the presidency, or Snooki’s birth. (No, I’m not going to apologize for associating that name with an historical discussion. Whatever it takes to get across the length of time involved, that’s what I’ll use.)
  • The Pony Express only operated for eighteen months. In eighteen months, a newborn infant transforms into a toddler doing her best to emulate a howler monkey on cocaine. Or: in eighteen months, two human pregnancies can be laid end to end (not that I recommend it).

 

It’s not enough to address the question. One ought to question the assumptions implicit in the question. This is closely allied with the first guidance, but deserves its own portion. Let’s say we are looking into the mind and motives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with regard to U.S. entry into World War II. Some would say that he talked isolationism out his mouth, for public consumption, yet deliberately took actions that would lead his country into global war. You might ask:

  • Do we know at what point in time FDR considered U.S. entry inevitable?
  • Pursuant to that: have we evidence that he so considered? How strong is that evidence?
  • Is it imaginable of him that he would have maneuvered his country toward war in order to complete its economic recovery?
  • Pursuant to that: was it even understood at the time that such a war might have that effect on a Depression-recovering economy?
  • There seems little doubt that FDR shaded U.S. policy well toward the Allies, but is there an imaginable circumstance in which we might have shifted to strict neutrality or even a pro-Axis stance?
  • Pursuant to that: is there anything now known about the war, that FDR could not know at the time, that would have caused a shift? A full apprehension of the magnitude of the Holocaust? The realization that Churchill most surely sought to maneuver the U.S. into a war few of its people desired?

When someone spouts off about history, in particular about the motivations of an historical figure, there are strong grounds for posing a lot of questions–and for questioning the underlying assumptions. That’s how a sound historical argument is constructed: one examines and researches all one’s own assumptions, because when someone comes along to counter it, that person’s best odds to crumble it is by kicking out its underpinnings. For example:

There’s a conspiracy theory about former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, once a close confidant of Adolf Hitler, who flew to Britain in an escort fighter. The story generally told and believed is that Hess was nutty, and that he acted without Hitler’s approval, and that in any case in no way were the British willing to discuss ending the war unless Hitler were ready to abandon his conquests. There are reasons to question that story, and there’s a whole tinfoil argument about Hess’s motives for flying to Scotland. The portion of the theory I want to address is the notion that Hess died during the war, in captivity, in a flying boat crash off Scotland; this view goes on to state that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and incarcerated at Spandau was a double seeking to put one over on at least some of the world.

Want to leave that theory bleeding in the Ditch of Discarded Zany Ideas? For example:

  • How easy is it to get someone, who just happens to look a hell of a lot like Hess, to go on trial and do life in prison for war crimes he did not actually commit?
  • What possible motive could the Allies have for covering up such a plane crash and the guy’s death, if authentic?
  • Some twenty years into his sentence, Hess (‘ ‘) finally agreed to see his wife and son. Not only did they believe him genuine, they lobbied as hard as possible for his release. Could a phony version of you fool your child? Your spouse? How could that impostor have the shared memories to discuss? If the assertion is that they were in on the cover-up, someone has to present a credible case for why they would do that.
  • We have photos of Hess (‘ ‘) in his old age at Spandau. Rudolf Hess was a very distinctive-looking character, with eyebrows that would have been a generous donation to Brows of Love if such a thing existed. In those photos, he looks exactly like one might expect an elderly Hess to look. An impostor might not age nearly as authentically.
  • The other Spandau prisoners knew Hess from before and during the war. Why should we believe that they couldn’t tell an impostor? Failing that, why should we deduce that they all agreed to maintain a conspiracy?

The theory of Hess’s death is so fragile that all of these questions, and more that you could probably think of, must be answered with compelling evidence in order for us to waste any further time on such a theory. Since it’s a zany theory that demands people to have acted counter to their predictable behaviors and interests, and because it really doesn’t make a lot of fundamental sense as to motives, it is fragile. So much so that, if any one of those questions does not have a full and powerful answer, the absence of that answer is probably enough to make the theory collapse into nonsensicality.

 

Just because most of a story is flawed does not mean all of it can be discounted. History is rarely so simplistic. Let’s go back to Hess. To my mind, by far the most tantalizing tinfoil question in play is: what if Hess acted with Hitler’s approval (with planned disavowal in case of failure), expected an audience that was ready to negotiate, and definitely planned to return home?

Could a faction of His Majesty’s Government have been ready to throw in the towel? The Hess flight happened just after the Blitz ended; Hitler may have known he was calling off the bombing campaign, but it’s unlikely Churchill knew that. In short: were the British expecting Hess, and was Britain much closer to a separate peace than it would be politic to become public?

One tantalizing story, not fully verified, is that the portion of the Hess files that remains classified has been sought by researchers (perhaps insiders), and that the files contain only the notice that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. That would mean that, short of the personal command of the reigning monarch, no power in the United Kingdom could compel their release. If something in there were terribly embarrassing to part of the aristocracy, that would be an elegant monkey wrench in the investigative machinery. I am not aware of any firm proof that this situation obtains, but were it to come to light, it would seem to catch the Royal family hiding something. We would then ask all the logical questions as to what it might be, and why they might do that. If they had good enough answers, we might have a theory.

The point, though, is that this information comes from the same tinfoil book that claims Spandau’s Hess to be a double. Does the zaniness of that idea help the book’s overall credibility? Well, what do you think? However, does that zaniness mean that the authors are incapable of getting any facts correct? Surely not. Could the aroma of a more interesting and plausible story be wafting from the ruin of a collapsed argument? I believe that it could be.

Here’s another: the Salem Witch Trials. The airy ‘science’ argument is to blame it all on ergotism, a hallucinatory condition associated with a mold found in rye. Hardly anyone questions it. It ends the conversation: “They freaked out because science, duh.”

Oh, really?

Fine. Then one of two things is true: people of that time knew of the properties of ergot, or they did not. If they did, someone should explain why a slave (by definition the most vulnerable member of Salem society), who is not recorded as being a complete suicidal idiot, would administer such a substance to teenage girls when that was most likely to bring wrath down upon her defenseless head. Or why the girls administered it to themselves, which is only plausible if they knew how to find a nice concentration of the stuff.

Or they didn’t know about it, in which case we are to believe that somehow, one of the most attention-seeking and drama-prone demographics in the human species–the pubescent female–all blundered upon this One Potent Batch of ergot-tainted food that somehow, the rest of their families did not ingest. We would ask: why weren’t whole families losing it? Why wasn’t the whole community coming unglued?

Put another way: why was the group most repressed by the religious social straitjacket of Salem, the most blamed for any potential sexual misconduct, the least free to do what it wanted, suddenly acting up? If no one poisoned them–and it makes no sense anyone would do that unless we are to imagine that the girls knew how to do so, and it was like an acid trip–why have fits? We don’t know, but “to get attention, because teenage” is a path of low resistance.

While we are at it, why not ask: if it was accidental ergotism, how come the ‘bewitchings’ went away when the community finished hanging and pressing witches? Unless we’re going to assume that the prosecution was correct and that the thankful community got all the miscreants (or scared the rest into abjuring their witchy ways), there would logically be more freakouts. But if there’s a record of those, I’m unaware of it.

My reading of the record is that the community realized that the hysteria had gone too far, and it suggests a likely reason the girls ceased their histrionics: the realization that their drama queen lark had cost a number of lives. They might be afraid to confess their little game, but they had probably gotten all the attention they could ever want, kind of like an ignored kid who starts a fire in the kitchen and realizes he can’t control it.

 

The jury of historians rarely completes its deliberations with a unanimous, unambiguous verdict. The best we can get is a broad consensus. How we get at, evaluate, question, support, doubt, undermine, and otherwise address that consensus–that is what historians do.

And the joy is that it’s open to anyone who cares enough about the relevant events to invest the time exploring.

Whether or not you choose how to age, you do choose

Today I am feeling philosophical, and I want to share one of my fundamental beliefs about aging.

If we are spared, in our forties, we choose. What we choose in our minds does not constitute our choice. Rather, our choice is manifest in our actions. Talk is cheap and wishes are cheaper, but deeds matter. Deeds are who you are, whatever you may wish you were.

In most cases, by our forties, we have figured out how we will get through our years. We may have decided that we will do so in a given job field, or with no job at all, in partnership, as parents, entirely singly, as hermits, or in whatever way, but we are mostly established by that time. At that point we are likely to have something of a surplus of resources, even if very modest, or at least probably do not have so many urgent wants or needs.

Sometime in our forties, we decide whether or not to share. It is a decision whether we will seek to give of our knowledge, our possessions, our time, and whatever else we value. Not all of it, but enough to be remembered. We either decide to share, and live the remainder of our lives sharing, or we decide to hoard.

It is a decision based partly in the choice of courage and confidence over fear and uncertainty. The brave, confident person is not afraid to share. The fearful coward hoards.

The neighbor gal overshoots the cul-de-sac and her bike rolls up into our yard. We either smile and wave to her, or we scream at the poor kid to get off our lawn.

The Girl Scout is selling cookies we don’t want or need. We either stop, discuss, engage, and purchase, or we hasten past without eye contact.

The elderly fellow is clearly lonely and not terribly interesting to talk to, and is a bit tactless. We either be patient and listen for a while, or we treat him like a leper.

It’s Halloween. We either turn on the lights and hand out candy, or we shut them off and refuse to answer the door.

The hotel desk clerk looks harried. We either answer her “have a nice evening, sir” with something bantery like “Thank you; I wish you a peaceful evening free of entitled jerks,” or we just nod and take our keys.

The other guy, who has out-of-state plates, is in the stupidly designed lane the rest of us locals knew to get out of. Now he’s truly stuck. We either let him in, or we close the gap and let someone else perhaps do it, screw you, I got mine, not my problem.

A family friend is down on his luck, and very proud. We either find a way to slip him some money (which we will never again mention), or we figure that’s his problem.

Whether or not we choose to share mainly determines the nature of our memorial service.

If we choose to share, we burden our survivors with a mighty but rather heartwarming burdening; our memorial service becomes a vast pain in the butt. It becomes necessary to rent or obtain an auditorium in which to hold our memorial service. In some cases (and this actually happened to one family friend of ours) it will require two auditorium sessions.

If we turtle up and cannot bear the thought of anyone getting anything he or she did not earn, and yell at the kids to stay off our lawn, the memorial service is easier. It can be held in the men’s can at the SunMart on 27th and US 395 in south Kennewick, WA, and probably without taking over any stalls or disturbing anyone’s deuce deposition. Might even be able to handle it in a single stall.

If so, poetic justice.

But whether or not we choose with our minds, our actions represent our choice.

Share or hoard. Either you have chosen, or you will choose.

And as people choose, so do people’s organizations in their fullness of maturity: companies, churches, social groups.

Even nations.

Choose.

Dear Girl Scouting parents: please hush

Not entirely, of course. But kindly let the girls answer the questions on their own without opening your traps unless the girl asks for your help.

I admire Girl Scouting, in spite of the fact that my wife got kicked out of them for cursing and refusing to sell cookies. (As Weird Al teaches us, some girls like to buy new shoes, and others like driving trucks and wearing tattoos. I married the second variety.) Girl Scouting is inclusive, teaching a number of worthy values. It helps to raise generations of strong women. As an aging man, this is worth whatever it takes to achieve because–assuming I don’t seize up like an engine out of oil–I’m going to be elderly in a world that these girls will one day be managing.

Selling Girl Scout cookies can be an important link in the process of developing those values–but much more so if you will please shut up.

Here’s the deal.

  • I know the cookies are very expensive.
  • I know this is a rather more educational and practical fundraiser than simply asking for money.
  • I do not actually want any cookies.
  • I absolutely should not eat any cookies.
  • If I were acting in my own best interests, I would blow past the cookie table and send a cash donation to my local GSA organization. I would spend less money, they would pocket more profit, and I would have less pork to walk off. Stopping for cookies is not what I want to do.

I do it because this is my village, and these girls are its future, and among the most important things a girl can learn is poise in dealing with the public–especially with older men, who could in theory seem like hairy intimidating monsters. Older men who have thought things through will understand that they have a dog in this fight, and may/should do the following in some form:

  1. Stop and say hello to the girls. Speak with respect: “Good afternoon, young ladies.” Model the way men should treat them, so that they learn what that is. Later on in life, when asshole men treat them otherwise, they will recognize the difference.
  2. Whichever girl responds, ask some thoughtful questions. What does your troop do in the community? Which of these contain peanuts? Are there any new kinds this year? What have you learned from Girl Scouting? What do you like best about it? What did you do to earn that badge?
  3. Listen to the answers. You asked, now shut up and let her tell you. Show interest. Ask a follow-up if you wish. Be friendly, of course, not grouchy, but process the answers you receive. Be engaged.
  4. Don’t ask the parents anything. The parents aren’t the vendors; the girl is. Give her the dignity and experience of directing every question to her.
  5. Pick out at least one box of cookies, to show them that poise in dealing with the public earns trust, respect, and business. Pay the girl and wait for the change. Thank her and accept her thanks.
  6. When you get home, give the cookies to someone who can eat them.

I hope you see where I am going with this. Now that I’ve entreated myself, let me do the same for the supervising parents.

First: you are doing an outstanding thing. Thank you. Without your unselfish dedication, none of this would be possible.

Second: with all due respect and with great gratitude for your volunteerism, please shush. Be silent. For the love of whatever deities you serve, let the girl answer unaided until she asks you for help.

When the customer asks questions, s/he is trying to help the girls. The customer is doing his or her part, in a small way, to teach. Except in rare cases, the customer does not actually care that much about the answers. Therefore, kindly let the girl answer the question. If she falters, continue the fine art of “shut the hell up.” Do not butt in. Shut your mouth. Let her think. She has a perfectly good brain. How she uses it will determine her destiny.

What if she’s stuck? Teach–in advance. Teach her to ask you for help if she needs it. If she does not know the answer, she needs to know that it is all right to ask for help and knowledge. Explain to her that you’re going to let her handle this, but that if she doesn’t know the answer, she should ask you and then relay the answer.

You must not answer for her. Do not make eye contact with the customer. This is her customer. Do not parentsplain. Let her learn to handle the customer and seek answers she does not yet have. In time, if you will just shut the hell up until asked by her, she will be confident handling all sorts of odd questions.

Do you seriously think she’s too stupid to subtract five from twenty? Don’t laugh. I had a parent butt in and interrupt a girl today while she was making change (for the day’s second box of unwanted cookies bought by me). Good lord! If Common Core means that a nine-year-old girl can’t subtract five from twenty in her head any more, then we need to send in our resignation from the ranks of developed countries. Let her make change!

If she does something wrong, unless it would somehow deprive the customer of fair value (which is when you do butt in), wait until no one is listening, then teach. Parent. Counsel. Educate. Guide. Help me out. “You forgot to thank that customer. That’s very important.” “Remember that it’s okay to stop and think for a moment.” “Did you treat that customer like the most important person you were dealing with right then?” Gentle, supportive, educational. Help her be better and let her see that being better produces better outcomes.

I’m serious. Help me out. I’m perfectly happy buying overpriced cookies I don’t want, but for the love of Pete, help me help the girls.

Let them handle the deal.

If you are one of society’s blurters or helicopter parents, and are just busting at the seams to open your trap, wait until she has handled the transaction and I’m leaving. At that point, I will probably reward her poise by looking to you and thanking you for volunteering to teach fine young ladies like these. Now you can talk. Now it’s about you. It was about her, now it’s about you. Bask a little. Let the girl see that volunteerism earns respect and that she and you are part of an organization much valued by the public.

If you did as I asked, by shutting up long enough to allow me to do my little part, you’ve earned that.

P.S. One week later, and it still goes on. Coming out of grocery store today. Began to ask Brownie the relevant questions. Girl attempts to respond. Adult present kept butting in. I am tired of this and I’m done tolerating it. Quietly, behind my hand: “Young man, I am addressing the vendor. I’m trying to help this girl learn. Please kindly let her answer.” To his credit, he tried, though he butted in again, and when she showed herself perfectly capable of giving a $5 in change for a $10, felt it necessary to coach her on making change. Gods save us all from well-meaning helicopter parentsplainers who won’t shut the hell up and stay out of it until they are needed. I feel like I’m teaching fricking first grade, and it’s not the girls I’m having to instruct.

One more, later that day; at last, some parents with their act together. I asked their girl about her bridge emblem, and about what they do in the community. She and her sister were obviously poised veterans, and she told how they are saving money for a veterans’ breakfast. Perfect trigger point. “Well, ma’am, that sounds like the kind of thing I want to support.” Not a word from mom and dad. On the way out, I praised their daughters’ confidence. Dad: “They’ve been doing this for six years, so they know all the answers. They can take care of it.”

Yes, young man, they can.

And as you age and falter in your days, they will remember you from their youth as a man who–more than any other man–taught them how men should treat them, and who let them find their own strength, and they will revere you to your final hour and beyond. When lesser men treat them less well, they will know the difference and demand better.

I didn’t tell him all that, of course, but I thought it as I pushed the grocery cart across the parking lot.

Why I put up fights on privacy, junk mail, and so on

My guess: most people do not first look at any website or information request and ask themselves what data the issuers/owners are gathering, and how they will use it. I do.

Another guess: most people just toss the junk mail, probably without opening it. I do that with nearly none of it.

This makes me the oddball, a lifetime position of comfort for me. In fact, it is a position of such comfort that it comes with intellectual risk. There is always the possibility that my crowd-averse nature will go so far that it may become as mindless as a crowd. If my view is that the larger the group, the dumber its collective decisions tend to get, then a natural bias against conformity is not unreasonable provided I do not take that too far. Put another way, it’s also dumb and mindless to refuse to consider doing what everyone else does. Maybe everyone else is, in at least a few cases, doing what makes sense. The idea is to think, not to find a new way to refuse to think. If one is going to refuse to think, we already have ample incentive and opportunity there: just make the choices everyone else makes, and enjoy the warm sussuration of conformist reassurance, of crowd membership. Blind nonconformity isn’t any brighter than blind conformity.

But I can’t really win. What I do is like throwing grains of sand in front of a semi, one grain at a time. And I realize it. I do it anyway.

I block as much data hydra stuff on websites as I can. I don’t even bother reading New York Times articles; requires a login, end of consideration. I enable scripts one at a time until a given page works enough for me to do what I want to do there, or I decide I don’t want it badly enough. I go through life without running Google’s scripts or taking Google cookies. I send back piles of junk mail. Other junk mail I rip up, stuff into a business reply envelope, and mail back. Whatever’s going in the trash goes into it stripped of my identifying information, even to the extent of peeling address labels off shipping boxes, including any label that contains the tracking number. I mute the TV during commercials, or watch almost exclusively DVRed shows. I refuse to connect my TV to the Internet. I refuse to connect my game console to the Internet. I go into my Facebook ad preferences and remove any that are relevant, leaving only those that make no sense. Metaphorically speaking, I kick, scream, bite, curse, imprecate, slash, and knee the whole way as the world tries to drag me into Alwaysconnectedland and Surveillistan.

Why on earth? How is this worth my energy? Don’t I have better things to do? What good could this possibly accomplish? Did I mistake Don Quixote for a self-help book? Do I need mental help?

The answer to that last question depends on perspective. If you believe that only actions that effect external change have value, then yeah, you probably reckon I should go on medication. But you probably assume there’s anger involved, and there isn’t.

On the contrary, this is how I defeat anger. I have learned that I take more harm from meek submission against what I find offensive than I do from (mostly, nearly) ineffective resistance. In my world view, a great many things should cause tremendous outrage and resistance, and the world does not share my view. In my world view, the center of the moral continuum does not move, and the world’s moral continuum moves every day. I think the world needs memory care. Let’s say there are a hundred unjust killings per day for one year. Next year, there are five hundred. Suddenly the world will think of only a hundred as Good Old Days, and if it drops to two hundred fifty, will call that excellent. To me, the hundred unjust killings are still awful, two-fifty is two and a half times as awful, etc. Fewer is better, certainly, but my ‘normal’ did not reset with the world’s. This does not bother me. The world is wrong most of the time anyway. I lack the need for community reinforcement of my perspective, and as mentioned, tend to distrust it.

Thus, I have not adjusted my ‘normal’ to the advance of the surveillance state, to intrusive marketing, to a postal service existing in the main to deliver garbage no one wants, and so on. I don’t want to. I was once told by a famous author that I lived in my own little world (and he meant that as a compliment). He was wrong. I live in the real world with realistic expectations. I just don’t move my moral compass to agree with the rest of the world’s. If I move it, I do so without consulting majority opinion.

Thus, in my view, when confronted by a wrong thing, I have no moral obligation to “let it go” or “just say it’s okay.” That’s how the world handles most wrongs, via rationalization, and I can see why. If it didn’t, it would go around angry all the time; the level of wrong is at overload, so most people just rationalize away a given portion of the wrong. If they did not, I guess they’d feel guilty. I understand that.

Unlike them, I do something. Might be something small and unbelievably petty, but I resist. I throw my grain of sand. I have found that I take more harm from bottled anger than from practical resistance within my system of values. This is a better way to live while refusing to conform my moral compass to society’s mobile, amnesiac version. Do I think it makes me better than anyone else? I don’t think about that at all. I think the collected mass of humanity is so dumb, as my very religious father used to say, that they ain’t sure if Christ was crucified or run over by a milk truck. As individuals, that’s different, because when outside of the suffocation of groupthink, individual intellects and morals can shine. Some are better and smarter than me in some ways. Some are in every way I can assess. Some aren’t. Some are saints. Some are contemptible. I don’t think about that because they have their talents and values, and I have mine, and a diverse humanity is much to be treasured.

Plus, without a diverse humanity, where would I get a massive number of people to disagree with?

So I answer telemarketing calls in foreign languages, or pretend to be inarticulate, or pretend that a microwave is my computer.

I open junk mail that might have a business reply envelope, and stuff all the garbage in and mail it back.

I shred everything with my name or address on it. The labels I can’t peel off plastic mailers, I cut off and burn in an old coffee can.

The only discards I don’t shred the ID info from are those I stamp REFUSED–OBJECTIONABLE MAIL–RETURN TO SENDER. Why should I have to dispose of their garbage? Ah, but the PO has to dispose of unwanted junk? Great, let the PO do it, since they enable this whole situation by giving junk mailers a lower price.

A provider asks if she can share some information with the insurance company. I say “if I have a choice, then no.” When told I do not, I tell her to tell them the minimum that will make them go away.

Someone calls and begins firing questions. No. No one gets to ask any questions until I finish asking all my own questions, and if they asked even one inappropriate question, my own questions could take a very long time. I do not desire to earn this person’s approval by “being nice.” Nosey people do not deserve “nice.”

A lawn service sticks a flyer onto my house. I call the deputies to find out what it will take to get them punished for that. A sergeant advises me to put up a NO TRESPASSING sign. I do it. I resent random businesses sticking crap to my house. In the newspaper box, that’s one thing; on my house, forget it.

A marketing company sends me an unwanted survey. I owe them no truth, especially if they ask a single question I consider nosey (the one about my income is an automatic). I have some fun. I create a fake name and comically dysfunctional household and fill out the survey accordingly. I’ll get junk for years based on their sale of that data, and I’ll know where it originated. I got sample adult diapers from one outfit for years.

Like many of you, I mute commercials unless I can fast-forward them, but if I have to mute them, I look away. I presume that companies are well aware that many people mute the commercials and that visuals must carry the load. If I look down at my book, even those do not get to stamp images into my mind.

“What are the last four of your social?” In the first place, I hate that it’s so commonplace they don’t even feel they need to say ‘social security number’ in full. In the second, I resent even more that it’s become a default password, so it sets my teeth on edge. I growl: “Decline to provide. We do not use that as a password.” Try it and you will find that nearly every business that has used that as your default password will have some other way of ascertaining your identity (I have no fundamental problem with that).

In general, I ask about the motivation of anything government or corporations shove at me. I begin by assuming that the motive is control (government) or control and profit (corporations). The burden of proof otherwise is on them, and if they do not bother to meet it, I will do my level best not to cooperate in some way I can get by with. For example, I never did get an Idaho driver’s license. Why not? Because fuck you, Butch Otter; my Washington license was still valid, and I didn’t really give a shit what your state law said unless you were prepared to push the issue, and I knew you were not. Of course, I am not confessing to anything of the kind in Oregon; I still live in Oregon. All I can say is that Oregon is many times more authoritarian than either Washington or Idaho, and therefore much more satisfying when (in theory) one finds a way to (in theory) disobey one of its laws. Oregon works very, very hard to avoid loopholes. If you found one, you did well.

Why direct that at Otter? Because I have learned, and I believe, that the top person is responsible for everything. He’s the governor of Idaho (that little DWI incident a few years back is kind of overlooked; pick one of his multiple excuses), and I reserve the right to hold him accountable. Can he control everything? Of course not. Is that my problem? No. Does he care about my problems? Ha! Am I obligated to care about his, in that case? If you’ve read this far, what do you suppose my answer is? So if I had a problem with Idaho’s state government, I had one with Butch. I reserve the right to lay it at his feet, and to curse him over it.

I do these things not because I harbor delusions that I will change the system–though if everyone did them, it certainly would. I’m not doing this as my contribution to humanity, though I sometimes let myself think that in weak moments. I’m doing it because I take more emotional and psychological harm from mindless compliance than I do from wasted time.

That simple.

Happy New Year from the ‘Lancer

This is a good time to thank you all for your readership in the past, present and future. I hope every one of you has a fantastic 2017. For those of you who use other calendars, well, please save up this post and read it again when it applies.

Let’s talk about calendars. Cool facts: in the C.E. calendar, there is no Year Zero. We go from 1 B.C.E. to 1 C.E. Not sure why, but I think this is because zero as a counting concept had yet to be invented. I think Arab mathematicians came up with it centuries after the establishment of the C.E. calendar. Also, we get “calendar” from the Latin “calends,” which referred to the first day of the Roman month. EIDVS, the “ides,” were the 13th or the 15th; every month had an eidvs. Many days were nefastus, which meant “inauspicious for the conduct of public business.” Back when I was in college, I made a Roman monthly calendar for our staff office. I received some heckling and a few queries. My boss at the time also had a background in Roman history at least as good as mine. One of my colleagues asked him: “For example, what the hell does this mean?” Steve looked up, then answered: “That means it’s a good day to cut up a goat and examine its entrails.”

The Western world mostly uses what I call the Christian Era calendar, C.E. I get a lot of flak for calling it that. I am lectured that I should be calling it the Common Era. The lecturers find it baffling that of all people, a rather stridently non-Christian person with a degree in history should adopt what they consider a grossly westerncentric term, then dare to defend it even when the speech police show up with warrants (“conform, or we will call you naughty names, jump to conclusions about your politics, and not consider you a member in good standing”). Well:

“Common Era” says nothing of use. Not one thing. It sounds dopey. Common? how so? Was the era before it the “Uncommon Era?” Can eras be said to be common or uncommon? How often does one find this era laying around, relative to that one? Should we go looking for rare eras? The reality is that we’ve used the Gregorian calendar for centuries (in Russia’s case, just one century right about now), and it was always “Before Christ” then “anno Domini” (‘year of the Lord’). Then one day we woke up and decided that not everyone in the Western world was a Christian; reasonable enough on its face. So we renamed it; however, the reality stared us in the face. Whatever we renamed the dating system, it was still based on the nominal assumed timeframe of a key religious figure of legitimately disputed provenance. Starting a new calendar, which would get us a truly secular dating system, would be difficult and icky and hard to obtain the necessary related consensus. Thus, we tried doing it the half-assed way, renaming it without changing its basis. Everyone with a claim to secularism was advised to obey the new usage or be lectured and shamed, as the goal posts moved again.

I’ve never been good about taking orders from those I do not consider my just authorities. Not very many people fall into that category. I have been described as immune to peer pressure, and it’s something of an understatement, because I am proud of this and seek to become more so, not less, which fits well with aging.

But hey, if we are going to adopt a secularist calendar, then let us do so. I’m down. When will we begin it? Should be fun trying to get agreement on that. In the meantime, this particular calendar’s period happens to coincide with the rise of Christianity. Just because I do not share this religion does not mean its rise is not one of the great shaping events of the last two millennia in the Western world. In fact, it is the only shaping event coincidental with that particular timeframe. Those of us who live in the Western world are perfectly entitled to choose and use a Western-centric calendar. Other cultures use their own calendars and dating systems, and we seem to accept that without whining. But if we want to reject a religious calendar, let’s do so by devising a new one, as did the French. In the meantime, let’s stop lying to ourselves with a silly feelgood solution that radiates hypocrisy. Go lecture the Saudis on why their hijri calendar is theocratic, if you want, and see how they react to that. Unless, of course, you hold them to a lower standard. Do you? Or you could write to the King of Thailand about his country’s calendar. I doubt you’ll get any traction with His Majesty, though you can try. (Just be careful how you word it, because lese majesté is a felony in Thailand even if committed off Thai soil, and if you show up there one day and they perceive that you were disrespectful, you could be arrested.)

Happy New Year, January 1, 2017 C.E. (Christian Era).

Other people have done and do calendars differently.

During the French Revolution, they decided that the event was so monumental it deserved a new dating system. Imagine if we had begun a new calendar on July 2, 1776 C.E. (when the Continental Congress voted to secede, and which John Adams assumed would be celebrated each year; it was ratified on July 4). They wanted a secular non-royalist calendar, so they began the French Republican Calendar or French Revolutionary Calendar (the initials are the same in French as well; CRF). Implemented in 1793 and lasting into the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, this calendar had twelve new months. Ever hear of Lobster thermidor? The month of Thermidor was late July and the first 2/3 of August, which are hot. All eleven other months were named similarly for natural or social phenomena normal in France at the given times, such as the grape harvest or frost. French revolutionary coins read, for example, “L’an 5” (Year Five of the French Republic), which was 1796-97. During the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted ten days, the communards brought this system back. No one should be surprised that it didn’t take this time either.

I’m not sure whether the Haitians got the idea from the French, against whom the Haitians revolted and won their own independence in a war dozens of times bloodier than the War of American Independence, but they did win it. They began a new dating system, though they did not use it exclusively. 1804 C.E. became “L’an 1” of Haitian independence. While Haiti has also long made reference to the C.E. calendar, government paperwork still makes reference to the year of independence (I think we are now in Year 213).

Many countries in the Islamic world use the Islamic calendar, called by them the Hijri, and by the West “anno Hegirae.” As a general rule, the more religious the country, the more exclusively it uses the AH calendar, which begins in C.E. 622 when Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina. Ramadan (yes, the fasting month), for example, is the ninth month of this calendar. Interesting datum: for two non-consecutive months of this calendar, fighting in any form is not allowed. AH is a lunar calendar and we currently are in AH 1438.

Iran and Afghanistan use the SH (solar Hijri) or Jalali calendar, which has the same start point as AH but is solar rather than lunar. In 1976, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran made one of the many secularist decisions that generated the discontent that would depose him: he decided to move the calendar’s starting point back to the start of the reign of Cyrus. What had been SH 1355 was now SH 2535. Take a guess how quickly the mullahs reversed this change once the Shah was out. Today, we are in SH 1395.

Starting in 1840 CE, the Ottomans used a solar calendar that included elements of the SH calendar and the Julian, which they called the Rumi (Roman) calendar. If the Ottomans were around today, they would be very offended that today their name means a footstool in English. It’s very offensive in Turkey to show someone the soles of your feet. So don’t do it to the Jandarma, Turkey’s national military police, unless you’re in the market for a pretty bad day.

While Japan uses the Gregorian calendar, it denotes the year based upon the Imperial reign. Each emperor’s era has a name; emperors used to change the era name now and then, but since the Meiji era, Japanese emperors have stuck with the same name throughout. Nowadays they tend to live a very long time, long enough that there have been only four eras since 1867: Meiji, Taisho, Showa (Hirohito) and Heisei (Akihito). Today begins Heisei Year 29 (though as you know, it began yesterday in Japan relative to us).

Several Southeast Asian countries, notably Thailand, use the Buddhist Era (BE) dating. Monthly systems vary, but Thailand uses the Gregorian calendar with BE annual dating. The Buddhist Era begins when the Buddha achieved parinirvana (nirvana after death; in other words, died). The Thais date this from 543 B.C.E. as we would reckon it, making this 2560 BE.

In India, they use the Saka Era calendar for official purposes. Saka Year 0 was C.E. 78, making this Saka 1938. However, many ignore this, and use Vikram Samvat dating, as is done in Nepal. Right now it is still 2073 VS, as this calendar begins 56.7 years before the Gregorian C.E. calendar. I question the prevalency of either in government reference, considering that a trip to the Indian government website tells me today is January 1, 2017, and I didn’t click a button for English. Unsurprising, considering that there are more English speakers in India than there are in the United States.

Just about all the people living on the North American Pacific coast, and a lot of people inland of us, know that the Chinese New Year tends to happen in January C.E. or shortly after. They are told to say things like “gong hay fat choy.” Well, if I were you (and I base this on two years working for a Chinese-owned company where about a third of the employees spoke Mandarin or Cantonese in addition to English), I wouldn’t try to say anything in Cantonese or Mandarin or any other dialect of Chinese until I had memorized its pronunciation with the approval of a native speaker. This is because meaning is inflected in tones, thus the same word can mean multiple things depending on how you articulate it. I was taught to say, rough transliteration, “goon ji fa dthai,” but without the correct tonals, it would be wrong.

Of course, Chinese speakers living in the Western world understand the intent of even a butchered New Year’s wish, and in a spirit of goodwill and gratitude, are likely to restrain their hilarity until you are gone. The official Chinese (People’s Republic) calendar dates from Year 1 of Han Emperor Ping, which very conveniently corresponds to 1 C.E. If you have a favorite Chinese restaurant, go to an Asian grocery store and get some red ‘lucky money’ sleeves. Break up some $20 bills into tens, and stuff a few tens into these sleeves. Go to your favorite restaurant, and with both hands and a “Happy New Year” (in English, unless you know the tonals) give an envelope to each person you deal with. Odds are the manager will make up an envelope giving you back the same rough amount of money, which you must accept just as the employees accepted your gift. That way, everyone gets their ‘lucky money.’ If you are Caucasian (thus not expected to know about this), they will never forget you thereafter, as you will probably be the only Caucasian who ever did it.

I hope you all have a wonderful year of love and light. If this isn’t the start of your own new year, you are wished love and light anyway until that time comes.

Fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek

Everyone has read about its impact, how it would not die, how it created a movement. True. As an eleven-year-old knuckling down to six years of protracted cruelty, I can point to Star Trek as one of the things that got me through it all. I was not the only one. I have seen a friend of color say: “Until Star Trek, I didn’t realize that the future included black people.”

Yes. Did Star Trek mean more than the Beatles? No, the Beatles are not some sacred cow that automatically surpasses every other phenomenon. They were culturally important, but lastingly more than Star Trek? I am not thinking so. Of course, I like Star Trek and do not like the Beatles, so I admit a basic bias.

BBC America is showing a bunch of old Star Treks, and I am DVRing them and will rewatch them all again. Well and good. I will see more redshirts destroyed than an overpaid college coach trying to avoid a 5-7 record in his third year of program recovery. However, the show spawned a less savory product, and I’m not referring to / fiction. (95% of you do not know what that means. ‘Slash’ referred originally to ‘K/S,’ as in ‘Kirk/Spock,’ the notion that the two of them were in a gay relationship and often expressed in fanfic (fan-authored fiction). Now you see why I think this outshines the beatified Beatles? Scoff if you wish, but gay America living through the 1970s and 1980s does not.)

After the original series’ three seasons ended, and fans refused to let the show die, there came a less savory product: paperback novels, and many of them were awful. Loopy story ideas. Inept writing. Lazy naming. So many moments of “Oh, no. Seriously? You did not just name the security team after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first line? And you got away with this?”

No, no individual callouts. Remember, I go to some SF conventions. I could end up having drinks with someone in whose withers I left banderillas, and who would now like an explanation. “J.K. Kelley. From where do I remember that name? Ah, yes, it’s associated with the knout scars on my back from your blog comments about my writing. Well, I was 25 then. Are you the same writer today that you were at 25, Mr. Kelley?”

Here’s a secret. Want to know what made me think I could be a good editor? I looked at what was being published by New York. Then I looked at what was coming out of the smaller houses. Then I looked at the indie publishing movement. In few cases did I see books that I could not much have improved in the editing process. In many cases I saw decent book concepts botched or clumsily executed. I knew that I could help those who wanted help badly enough, and could afford the help.

Since I have a library, I must maintain it. I have learned that one of the best ways to winnow out the chaff is to look at books and be able to say: You know what? I knew you were a lousy book even before I became a professional writer or editor. I need the space you occupy. You will be donated. And thus, book by book, I have done so. I am ruthless. Is the book a piece of crap? Will neither I nor my wife ever again wish to read it? Then it does not need to take up space. I refuse to be a book hoarder.

So what I am doing is to re-read all the hundred-odd Star Trek books, most purchased cheaply from used bookstores on the Ave (referring to University Way NE in Seattle, the beating heart of the University of Washington’s U-District). And while I may re-finish those whose storylines I can now respect, if they suck, I am going to get rid of them. Stupid plot? Gone. Author can’t write (the case in 75% of those books)? Gone. Authorial laziness or fetishism? Let’s not eat a whole egg to confirm that it’s rotten. It’s time to de-dross this library–or at least, in the case of some of my trashy westerns, accept the dross with a full understanding of its drossage.

This will take a while, but I expect to thin this collection out to the minority of books worth revisiting. And it’s time.

Blowing off Steam

For those who don’t know much about PC gaming, Steam is an online service that provides copy protection, game e-tailing, and probably does other stuff as well.

I wouldn’t know for sure. Way back when Valve was announcing a game called Half-Life 2, there came an announcement that one would also have to use a service called “Steam.” One would have to permit one’s computer to phone Steam to validate one’s non-piracy right to play the game; not just upon install, but all the time. I had loved the first Half-Life to the level of remembering specific moments in the story and how I’d handled them. I also am not prone to automatic acceptance of pretty much anything. Me being me, I took at look at that and said: “nah, ain’t doing that, don’t need a game that badly.”

Most people did not take this stance. Most people just accepted the concept, just as most people accepted debit cards and juice bag drinks. I did not just accept it. And over time, I have come to understand that it means the end of my buying new PC games. When my old ones will no longer work under new systems, I just won’t be a gamer any more.

It wasn’t about unwillingness to buy. I don’t mind paying for software. I do mind the idea of having to keep spyware running just to play a game. For my OS and applications, it’s one thing; I hate it (oh, trust me, how deeply I hate it), but the price there would be my livelihood (and yes, I realize they know that and that’s why M$ does it, and yes, be assure that I take time to take that as personally as possible). I can be forced into it for a word processor, though I’ll remember that they did that. I can’t be forced into it for a game.

Thus, no Steam for me.

It ripples outward. I kept taking PC Gamer for quite some time, and would have continued, but now they no longer list in reviews whether a game uses Steam copy protection. When last they did, most games seemed to use Steam, so I infer that Steam is now assumed and thus needless to state, like “requires monitor.” With that, PCG lost its relevance to my world, and it’ll join about ten other print mag subscriptions in the recycle bin.

It’s not the only area in which I’ve done such a thing. There is increasing social pressure to own a “smart” phone, a device I consider mostly loathsome and unusable, not even very good for the basic purpose of speaking to others. For example, if someone under 40 organizes a meeting nowadays and creates an event on Facebook, and at the appointed time the venue turns out to be closed, the organizer will not post a sign on the closed door. The organizer will update the Facebook event, taking on faith that everyone checks Facebook from his or her phone. If you don’t, you’re left out. I realize that this will see me left out of a certain number of social events.

Once, I might have minded. Now I simply ask myself what I am really missing. That’s not sour grapes, but experience. An event with a bunch of people with smartphones will probably lead to the barbarism of a bunch of people staring down at their groins, madly “checking in” and posting Instagraphs (whatever they are), and making sure the whole world knows their status. I wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. At a group gathering, if I don’t mute my cell phone, you know that either something very important is going on, or I forgot, or I have so little regard for the value of the gathering that it’s valid to ask why I’m even there.

At some point during such obstinacies, the original issue becomes less important than the obstinacies themselves. No, I won’t take a debit card, even if I could see rare applications for it. Why? Because by now, debit cards can go to hell for their own sakes; I’ve enjoyed boycotting them for at least twenty years, and I see no reason to abandon the fun.

I don’t have phone conversations with disembodied voices, either. I will press numbers, but I will not speak understandably. Companies and government need to continue to hire human beings to do business with other human beings, and I’m not going to make it easier for them to get rid of more human beings. Making it harder for me? Okay, we can play that game. I view human interaction as important, and worth some invested time in order to foster.

It might seem like I have a fundamental aversion to new ideas. I don’t. I just have a fundamental aversion to new ideas that are pressed or forced upon me, especially when it’s one that is mainly for the forcer or presser’s benefit. Please consider that clause carefully. That’s my complaint about Steam: it’s there so that it can send information from my machine. That does not benefit me. That benefits game companies, maybe, but I’m not here to benefit them; therefore I’m fine if they go to hell. Same with smartphones. To me they look like a tiny chiclet keyboard and unusable screen at data rates that bloat up faster than a dead steer in August. Seems like $500 to begin the suffering, then $100+ per month of ongoing suffering. Go to hell, not doing it. Automatic bill pay? Seriously? Let me get this straight. I’m to let them take money out of my account without even reviewing the validity of their charges? What if they make a major mistake? You’re saying I should trust the company to do the right thing and be honest? Yeah. I’ll get right on that. I think I’ll be the one making decisions about who gets paid with my money, thanks.

I don’t look down on anyone who chooses to accept situations that I have rejected. I do think more highly of anyone who stopped and thought before making that acceptance. Can’t live without gaming, and decided to kneel and accept Steam? At least you thought. At least you did not just kneel by reflex. That’s really all I advocate: accept it for a considered reason, not just because a corporation ordered you to do so.

In the end, there may be more isolating choices, and I’ll have to decide what’s worth it to me.

I know one that is not, and it is Steam.