Category Archives: Random/Rants

We Must Educate, Not Censure

Choices are important.

Learning how to made them is even more so.

Like many Americans, I was shocked and dismayed at the outcome of our recent election. I’ve been further saddened by the events which have followed in the days since: expressions of hate and intolerance, protests which turned violent, the President-Elect’s selection of outspoken white supremacists to his senior staff— and now, news that many of the hate and fake news group sites and social media accounts are being banned or deleted.

Wait. I should be happy about that last entry, right? No. And neither should you.

This is Helicopter Parenting 101. I see something I believe will be a bad influence, or dangerous, to my children so I try to erase it from their lives. Eliminate it from existence. Yet, all this does is serve to ease my own mind, like eating comfort foods when I’m upset. The problem doesn’t go away. It only hides in the shadows, growing larger and more powerful the longer I pretend it doesn’t exist.

Censuring these people and their caustic, hateful ideology, won’t eradicate them. In fact, it may serve to garner sympathy and cause them to become more resolute in their mission. This doesn’t help to solve the problem, it only exacerbates it.

Education— showing people why these viewpoints are divisive, destructive, and unhealthy for humanity as a whole is what is needed.

Let’s look at some numbers from this past election to illustrate my point.

Print

These percentages come from Pew Research and, from the article…

This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.

The sites and social media accounts which are being targeted are notorious for posing as news organizations while posting erroneous or completely false information. That practice is unquestionably bad and needs to be exposed for the damage it causes. I do not believe, however, that censure is the way to go about tackling this problem.

People can’t make good decisions if they aren’t presented with facts, but even further, they can’t make good decisions if they don’t have the ability to discern fact from fiction. If we don’t nurture and encourage active, informed decision-making in our children by not hiding what we perceive as bad in the world, how can we expect them to make good decisions when we’re not there to guide them anymore?

This problem is not just about hate speech, lies, and bigotry. It is about getting people to think for themselves and not being satisfied with having information spoon-fed to them. If we don’t educate why these ideologies are harmful or teach and encourage critical thinking, the hole we’re currently in will only get deeper.

Advertisements

Books Aren’t Worth the Paper They’re Printed On

Got your attention?

I’m a writer. How could I possibly, truthfully express the sentiment in that headline? Well, let me tell you a story…

My mother is an avid reader, mostly of thrillers and mysteries, and she had a number of bookshelves, stocked with her favorites from over the years. Recently, she had the carpet replaced in her home and, rather than going to the trouble of reshelving most of those books when the new carpet was in and she could return her furniture to the rooms, she decided to sell the majority of those books to a used book store.

About three years ago, she made the reluctant plunge to ebooks. I say reluctant because she didn’t think she’d stick with it initially. Now, you’d have to pry her kindle from her cold, dead fingers. She’s discovered dozens of Indie authors (it helped that her son is one of them) and spends far, far less money on reading material than she used to, all the while enjoying the activity just as much as she ever did, perhaps more.

dreamstimefree_122041The paper books from her dusty shelves, which included pristine, hardback copies of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and Jonathan Kellerman best sellers, didn’t hold the nostalgic value they once had. She had no interest in rereading them, so it made sense to take them to a used book store and get a few bucks for them.

Billings, Montana isn’t a huge town by most standards, but we have a number of used book stores. We stopped by one on our way to lunch, thinking to drop the books off, quickly collect a few dollars, and hopefully pay for our meal with the “windfall.” Our visit was indeed quick, but not for the reason we supposed.

“We’re not buying any books,” the clerk explained. “In fact, we’re having a big sale right now to try to pare down our inventory.”

Hm. Okay. No big deal, we thought. We’ll just try another store.

We accumulated strikes two and three faster than Casey from the Mudville Nine.

Resigned to not being able to pay for our lunch, we visited the library after we’d eaten, seeking to donate the books.

“Could you bring them by when we have our big book sale in the winter?” the lady at the front desk asked. “We really wouldn’t have any place to store them until then.”

The library doesn’t want books? It’s not like these were outdated software manuals. Tom freaking Clancy!

We ended up dropping them off at our local GoodWill. The attendant took them with a slight frown on her face.

Being a relatively well informed writer who’s steeped in ebooks, I knew the digital world has been gaining ground on the world of dead trees, but this experience really drove the point home. I remember buying and trading used books as a kid — and as an adult — for many years. Proprietors were always happy to see me come in with a box of books, because they knew I’d be trading them for more reading material and they’d generate some churn in their inventory. Now? Those stores wouldn’t even take books in trade, because their shelves were already packed to overflowing.

And people wonder why the big publishers are doing everything they can to keep ebook prices as high as possible. Their businesses are built on paper. When anyone can publish a book in electronic form and have it appear on the virtual shelves of the largest bookseller on the planet, right next to Tom freaking Clancy, where is the incentive to spend years playing the agent-to-acquisition-to-publication lottery? Especially when the payout for that particular lottery is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day.

Before long, paper books will be a novelty item, only sought out by collectors, much like vinyl records are today. Vinyl aficionados claim digital is too clean. They like to hear the hisses and pops that records produce. I suspect the same sort of folks probably like ink smudges on their fingers from printed pages as well.

Personally, words carry the same impact for me, whether displayed on a screen or paper. A good story carries me off to another world, regardless of the medium in which it’s presented.

Books are worth much more than mere paper and ink.

Technology: Ally or Anchor?

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

I stumbled upon an airing of Starman this weekend on one of the movie channels and sat down to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I was shocked to realize this movie came out in 1984, during the middle of my sophomore year in college. It was an instant favorite and had many lines my friends and I repeated to each other for months afterward. Jeff Bridges was amazing and I had a serious crush on Karen Allen. (Kids, think Emma Stone, but not as prolific)

As I watched, with my bowl of microwave popcorn, I enjoyed the reminiscence, but was also struck by some things that were missing. Chief among these were cell phones and the Internet. These items are so ubiquitous today that it’s shocking to think of a time when they weren’t part of our everyday lives.

1984. That’s just over 30 years ago. The first cell phones (analog) were introduced in the US in 1983 and calling them “mobile” was a stretch of the word. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the devices really became practical for the average consumer. The Internet didn’t become something used by anyone other than scientists and other academicians until the late eighties and early nineties. Boundless information has only been available to us at the touch of a few keystrokes, or the swipe of a screen, for a little over 20 years.

My two daughters, born in 1990 and 1995, have never known a world without cell phones and the Internet, just as my generation never knew a world without television. And my parents never knew a world without radio. What revolutionary piece of technology is in its infancy today that my grandchildren will grow up never knowing a world without?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember (or conceive for those my daughters’ age) a time when communication and information weren’t instantly available to us. My childhood would have been vastly different had I grown up today, as opposed to 30 years ago. The technology has become an integral part of our lives.

A few weeks ago, a storm blew through and knocked out power in my neighborhood for several hours.

I had no idea what to do with myself.

Eventually, I decided to be somewhat productive and use the time to make a trip to the store I’d been putting off (I’m certain grocery shopping exists as a form of torture in one of the mid-to-lower levels of Hell). I grabbed my shopping list and hopped in the car, soon after looking for a parking place in the asphalt behemoth outside my nearby Wally-world. After finding a spot, I strode to the store entrance, only to find a handful of people milling about with bewildered looks on their faces. I walked past them and almost ran into the automatic door that refused to open at my approach. It was only then I noticed the hastily written sign taped to the door: “Closed. No power.”

The bastion of all things retail had been shuttered by a lack of electricity.

The simple act of buying and selling could not be performed without computers and the Internet.

And, more importantly, I couldn’t restock my cupboard with cheese puffs.

This got me to thinking, after I got my breathing under control — no cheese puffs! — what would people do if the whole grid suddenly went down with no hope for speedy recovery? How would my daughters cope without texting, Instagram, and Snapchat?

512181main_rbsp-orig_fullTechnology helps us in countless ways, makes our lives easier and richer, but we don’t often consider just how fragile the whole system is. Approximately 1,100 satellites orbit the Earth, governing everything from basic GPS to nearly all our communications, including television, cell phones, and the Internet. The basic structure of the power grid in the US uses elements that were first developed in the fifties and sixties and haven’t been significantly updated since that time. A catastrophic event, either in space, such as a giant solar flare, or widespread weather disaster, could render huge sections of the country without power or communications for days or even weeks, depending on the severity of the catalyst. Would we be able to manage life without these things we deem essential nowadays like our phones and computers? What about light and heat?

Of course, part of my preoccupation with these ideas is a kernel for a new story I’m working on, but I’m curious to hear what you think. Could you survive without your electronic devices for an extended period of time? What would you do? How would you live? Would you enjoy living “off the grid” or would it drive you crazy?

Give me your answers in the comment section below, and I’ll choose one to receive a paper copy of either A Measure of Disorder or Knot in Time (your choice) and you’ll also receive an e-copy of my new book (tentatively titled The Devil You Know) when it comes out later this year.

Black Widow and Children Deserve Better

Many news outlets have already discussed this, but as the father of two daughters (even though they have grown older than the target demographic) I felt the need to weigh in on the apparent black balling of Black Widow from the Age of Ultron toys currently hitting the market.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Black Widow is a female super hero member of the Avengers and a relatively key character (apologies if my sarcasm drips onto your keyboard) in the latest blockbuster from Marvel and their parent company, Disney. An example of her awesomeness is shown below and was one of the scenes featured in the trailers for the movie.

blackwidow

She drops out of a jet on her motorcycle and speeds off to help save the world. What child wouldn’t want an action figure of that, right?

Evidently, Hasbro, Marvel, and Disney think no child would. Here is the play set based on this very scene that has been rolled out for kids to play with:

Avengers-play-set-11

Do we notice anything missing from this? Hm. It seems to have a definitive lack of Black Widow.

Yes. That happened. Black Widow was replaced by Captain America in one of her signature scenes from the movie. In fact, there is no Black Widow action figure to be found, even if you wanted to buy one separately and have a proper representation of the movie.

My question is: why? Even if your marketing showed you wouldn’t move as many units of Black Widow figures as Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk (Hawkeye has proven to be a poor seller, yet he is still represented), wouldn’t you feel it prudent to at least produce a small run of them? There are so many things wrong with this lack of foresight, I have a hard time even typing this post.

We all want our children to grow up in a better world than the one we did. I think that is safe to say for any parent, regardless of generation. I, for one, would like children to grow up to view all people as equals, regardless of gender or race or religion or sexual preference or whether they like broccoli or not. (Broccoli was spawned from Hell, in my opinion, yet I don’t begrudge others who enjoy this waste of a plant — at least most of the time) What sort of messaging does this merchandising send to kids? I certainly can’t see anything positive about it.

So, come on Hasbro, Marvel, and Disney! You can do better! We want our kids to understand that being a hero is not about gender or race. It’s about our actions and what we believe in.

The Adversary of Change: Acceptance

“Daddy, why do people die?”

I look down at my six-year-old daughter. Her bright red hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and a dusting of freckles dots her nose and cheeks. How can such a such a serious question come from something that personifies adorable? “It’s hard to say, Honey. As our bodies grow and age, things start to wear out I guess. Kind of like the doll you got last Christmas. You played and played with it until the hair fell out and the arm fell off so many times we just couldn’t fix it anymore.”

“Yeah,” she says, pausing to blow the seeds off a dandelion and watch them flutter away in the wind. “But why do people wear out?”

“I don’t know, Sweetheart. Some things we just have to accept because we can’t change them.”

* * * * *

Sometimes I think back to those days when my kids were young and regret explanations like that. True though they may be at times, they encourage us to stop asking, “Why?” When we’re little, every utterance is a question. Eventually, even the most well-meaning parents tire of answering the ceaseless queries and the “That’s just the way it is” answers start to come out. After enough answers like this, children become less verbally inquisitive and the parents breathe a sigh of relief, but is this really a good thing? I can only imagine having a small child now.

“Daddy, why are those people fighting on TV?”

It’s a question that deserves an answer, but is it an answer we can give? How can we explain race relations, or income inequality, or religious persecution to a child without quickly coming to a spot where we give up and say, “I don’t know, that’s just the way it is, Sweetie.”

Unfortunately, what seed does that plant in our children’s minds? Social issues have no solution. Just accept them. That’s the way it is.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Can we afford to accept these problems any longer? Reach inside and draw on your inner child. Allow yourself to ask, “Why?”

And when figures of authority answer with, “That’s the way it is,” don’t accept it as an answer, because it’s not. Be persistent.

Science has progressed throughout our history because some people refused to accept conventional wisdom at face value. They repeatedly asked, “Why?” until they found answers to satisfy them. And later, those answers were questioned once again. Elements of science fiction such as artificial intelligence and warp drive are becoming teasingly close to becoming science fact. Who knows what other things we previously thought impossible will someday become commonplace?

In order to affect social change, we have to approach it in the same manner. Question why. Why are people, living in the richest country in the world, subjected to conditions that resemble life from two centuries ago? Why are we uncomfortable interacting with people who are different from us? Why does that discomfort seem to always lead to violence?

The cycle can only stop if we refuse to accept it.