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I am pleased to announce that my story "Capital Punishment" has been published in this anthology of political science fiction, care of Bundoran Press Publishing House in Canada! As with all my publications, I encourage everyone to read and write a review for it, especially if you like science fiction


Strange Bedfellows

-f. f. white

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I've had the great fortune in the past few months of working with a number of editors on my prose and poetry. (details will follow about these publications; please be patient) To set the record straight, editors are in general much softer critics than most of my fellow authors. On the other hand, they know what they like, and select work because it already possesses something they want. However, I have had to defend one particular choice of words more than any other lately. You see, the use of "we" as opposed to "I" in a first person narrative or poem of personal experience seems to be somewhat suspect.

The choice to use "we" is about an assumption. Togetherness is a fragile thing, and when a character or speaker uses "we," there is an implied relationship that may or may not exist. In fact, I love "we" for its fragility. When we use "we," we simultaneously accept the authority of others and sidestep the concept of ourselves as solitary and inaccessible. This is a particularly important conceit in political or social subjects because these subjects are only about "you" or "I" when there is a power struggle. I would even go so far as to say when a character uses "you" and "I," they are actively opposing the notion of a body politic or a community. Unfortunately, this also relegates most people to irrelevance, and is a direct attack on the importance of the many. I put it to you, dear readers, that when a politician starts using "I" overmuch, s/he is engaged in a maneuver to distance themselves from reproach, scrutiny, and accountability. In some cases this is warranted, but I suggest we heighten our vigilance whenever "you" or "I" stands in the place of "we" when "we" is clearly the more important consideration.

On a more personal note, poems about relationships from the so-called confessional school of poetry have, in my opinion, dwelt too long on the notions of "I" as if a relationship were not composed of more than one individual. I understand why we are drawn to think of the world from one unique perspective that is authentic, but this dissolves the very real and amazing phenomenon of cooperation and unity. So many things in our modern existence are a direct result of the efforts of the many, not the individual, and I for one think the individual gets adequate due, while the "we" is marginalized and misunderstood. This disproportionate emphasis does us a disservice, not only in how we praise or ignore our accomplishments, but also in how it blinds us to the benefits and pitfalls of joining others in a mutual struggle or endeavor. I hesitate to speak of good and evil in this context, but without our connection to others, we are essentially moral-less and numb to our social and political existences. Therefore, I shall defend unto the redaction of my work that "we" is the only appropriate and great pronoun for certain poems and stories. So, if you pick up any of my publications in the coming months, look for the "we" or "our" or the "us" and ask yourself if you are comfortable with being included. That is the question I want us all to consider, because I think our attention to us is long overdue.

-f. f. white

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Its surprising sometimes when a publication informs you that the new issue is out, and you are one of the contributing writers! My "Paean of Night" is featured in issue 23 of Idiom 23, the literary magazine of Central Queensland University in Australia!

Idiom 23: issue 23

-f. f. white
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This week, I visited the lab of Dr. Lars Dietrich at Columbia University. His team is currently studying an almost forgotten area of microbiology, the cooperation and complex organization of bacteria. Unicellular organisms are usually discussed as single-celled and incapable of forming complex structures. However, as I was shown by Dr. Dietrich and his staff, these assumptions are incorrect for at least one extraordinary species.

"Considering the abundance of bacteria, there is relatively little known about them," Dr. Dietrich told me. And, after a little research of my own, I wholeheartedly agree. The progress of our understanding of Bacteria, the most diverse and numerous (by many orders of magnitude) domain of life, has been largely limited to practical concerns, and those bacteria most relevant to human health, even indirectly, comprise the smallest fraction of the total. In terms of how little we know compared to what we could be examining, the only area of scientific inquiry that comes close is astronomy. But despite Carl Sagan's millions and billions of stars, the stars we can currently observe number in septillions (10^24) while bacteria likely number in the Nonillions (10^30). With this wealth of uncharted territory, someone is bound to find something extraordinary, and that is the case Dr. Dietrich has made with his latest research into Bacterial Community Morphogenesis, which yielded such a wealth of new information that I doubt I can cover it one blog post

Meet the colonists, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that can infect animals and is also ubiquitous in soil and water throughout the world. It is a tenacious survivor, out-competing most other bacteria and adapting to a variety of environments, including the weightless labs on the International Space Station. It has a very helpful property for lab experiments, in that it changes color when exposed to oxygen, employing various redox-active phenazines (including pyocyanine-blue and pyoverdine-green) for metabolic redox reactions. This also lends to P aeruginosa's competitive edge, as the pyocyanine it generates kills competing organisms by virtue of the molecule's redox properties. As remarkable as these adaptations are, to the lay observer they would seem fairly small compared to what they can do together, because P auruginosa also cooperates, and Dr. Dietrich's team has discovered how. But first, let's discuss a little fundamental biology.

When an organism requires oxygen, its adaptations are all about surface area. Breathing organs almost universally evolve folds and wrinkles to increase the amount of oxygen they can absorb, including gills, lung sacs, the skin of amphibians like the Titicaca water frog or the Hellbender Salamander, the spongy mesophyll tissues in leaves, and the aerated roots of the Mangrove tree. Surface area increases the rate of absorption/diffusion, as summarized by Fick's law:


This is an elegant statement of a long known biological fact, the rate at which substances are exchanged with an organism's environment is limited by its surface area and the concentration of the substance required. Complex organisms therefore seem to have an advantage over single celled organisms in general because they can form complex structures with lots of surface area, increasing their diffusion potential to form really large structures like redwoods or whales or anything else that requires massive metabolic processes carried out over trillions of cells. This also means that incidental fluctuations in oxygen concentration are tolerable, assuming the oxygen deprivation doesn't go on too long. But that is the counter-advantage of single-celled organisms; because their metabolic needs are modest, they don't require as much oxygen. However, if a colony of bacteria hopes to survive prolonged oxygen deprivation, it too has to adapt, and that means forming more surface area, which is exactly what P aeruginosa does.

What you are seeing here is a colony of P auruginosa grown in an oxygen-depleted environment (15%). When one of Dr. Dietrich's graduate students, Chinweike Okegbe, showed me a set of these colonies from the refrigerator, each was about the size of a fingerprint. Even to the naked eye, it was clear that the bacteria had organized themselves into a complex structure, and, when examined with an extremely fine electrode at different depths, were found to have formed an outer layer of oxygen absorbing bacteria and an internal or structural layer that receives the products of the oxygen-absorbing layer for metabolism. In other words, the bacteria stacked under and inside the folds and squiggles require no oxygen because they receive electron rich molecules from the outer colonists, and the same molecules that turn these bacteria blue and green in oxygen is responsible. It was therefore Dr. Dietrich's hypothesis that not only do phenazines serve to kill competing organisms, but they also assist other P auruginosa bacteria to survive. This is a profound example of cooperation, which is a strategy thought generally limited to complex organisms. While quorum sensing had been discovered between bacteria before, this is perhaps the first time a metabolic pathway has been demonstrated to interoperate across many single-celled organisms. It is the fundamental reason P auruginosa can organize into complex colonies as it does, and proves that bacteria possess the means to adapt to their environments by forming complex structures like those seen in eukaryotes. What is more extraordinary is that they change into these structures in a matter of days, while complex organisms require massive time periods to reproduce and evolve such structures. In fact, it is likely that complex organisms would not have evolved at all were it not for the advantages of efficiency and stress-mitigation that these complex structures provide, and adequate prolonged selective stress such that a colony like this one never returns to living as a stress-free flattened blob of non-specialized organisms.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Dietrich's team, we now know that bacteria cooperate on a level much more complex than we thought possible. The P auruginosa colonies grown in this lab are the key to an astounding discovery about the most diverse and numerous domain of life on our planet.

-f. f. white


Dr. Dietrich with Chinweike Okegbe and their specimens

References:

  • Dietrich LE, Okegbe C, Price-Whelan A, Sakhtah H, Hunter RC, Newman DK. (2013). "Bacterial community morphogenesis is intimately linked to the intracellular redox state.". J. Bacteriology 195 (7): 1371–80. doi:10.1128/JB.02273-12. PMID 23292774.
  • "Dietrich Lab." Doi:http://www.dietrichlab.com/index.html; Retrieved 21DEC2013.
  • Kim W et al. (29 April 2013). "Spaceflight Promotes Biofilm Formation by Pseudomonas aeruginosa". PLOS ONE 8 (4): e6237. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062437. Retrieved 21DEC2013.
  • " Working together for one species" Bolivian Amphibian Initiative 01DEC2011. doi: http://bolivianamphibianinitiative.blogspot.com/2011/12/working-together-for-one-species.html. Retrieved 21DEC2013.
  • Garcia, David M. "Great Adaptations," Natural History. doi: http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/perspectives/212397/great-adaptations. Retrieved 21DEC2013.

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In this series, I'll be talking about the relationship between females, knowledge, and society. This is a massive topic, but I feel that it is important because (as noted in an early post) some knowledgeable and vocal people are stuck with some bias about gender, especially as it pertains to those women who encroach upon intellectual authority. This is not limited to scholarly men or even to men in general, because normally any group of people who form any position of authority around anything feels threatened when another group of people tries to share that authority. This is the real biological fact of the struggle for survival, as discussed in Darwin's Origin of the Species, and has nothing to do with gender intrinsically. Gender is simply one axis by which people divide themselves, and it is a pretty arbitrary one at that, as the binary construction of gender is also flawed, but I'll have to discuss that another time.

To clarify, the thing nerds build their authority and autonomy around is knowledge, which by itself is powerful and often the source of a comfortable income, a healthier life, and much amusement. Because it is knowledge that nerds value above all else, anyone sharing some of that value/knowledge is sometimes perceived as a threat. This has innumerable historic precedents. For example, the Catholic Church still ordains only men into the priesthood, which maintains their status as a relic of historic bias. The fraternal order of Freemasons maintains its all boy club status as well, and as a society ostensibly formed for the preservation of sacred geometry, they are essentially club of nerds who also exclude women. But this was perhaps not always the status quo, so let's travel back in time and see how this prejudice has shaped itself over the millennium.

The myth of a traditional role for women

To avoid confusion, I need to clarify a few things about the ancient world and the biological basis of gender, because the social consensus on what these are is not what they actually are.

I am assuming adults are reading this, so I don't think the mystery of where babies come from needs explanation. However, the biological facts of procreation do not predetermine anything about how a species divides the labor of child rearing. Indeed, many animals treat males as a brief genetic contributor and food to nourish the fertilized female. Other animals segregate based on gender, prefer to integrate only one male in a large population of females, pair up and mate for life, or feature solitary females gathering up many males. Both genders of many species carry eggs and young, do the feeding and the rearing, or even change genders to assist population growth. The fact is, biological gender basically determines which sort of gamete an individual produces and relatively few sex-linked traits, while everything else about the division of labor is species, variety, development, and circumstance specific.

The circumstance of human existence is varied, but we can attribute the emergence of specialized people like scholars or kings to populations who required so little labor to survive and raise young that some people could spend all their time thinking, writing, creating, building, administrating, or experimenting. In fact, the progress of knowledge in a society is more or less proportional to the ratio of specialists to laborers. Specialization of this kind was made possible by the agricultural revolutions that occurred in all the so-called cradles of civilization archaeologists have identified, and the first specialists were not very specialized. In nearly every early (2nd or 3rd millennium BC) civilization, the literate and the religious were one and the same, meaning that the nerds of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus valley were the astrologers, mystics, and priests/priestesses as indicated by the large number of ritual objects inscribed with symbols. And it is here that we see the initial divide along the lines of gender. For some, there seems to be little distinction, but for others, the male or female (or both) were venerated as a tenant of belief, and therefore designated the rank of any nerd/mystic to differing genders respectively.

Lest we doubt this, the earliest definitive evidence we have of female priesthoods is in the earliest evidence we have of specific religious practices. Professional mourners were often women. As far back as the Old Kingdom of Egypt (3rd Millennium BC) women could serve as Hem Netjer, or high priest. The most well documented example of this was a royal lady titled God's Wife of Amen who lived in the Third Intermediate Period (1064BC-664BC). Both genders in the priesthood were required to be celibate, not to eat fish, not to wear wool, and to bath several times a day. Though I cannot speak for the people of 5000 years ago, the written records make few gender-specific requirements or distinctions in ancient Egyptian religion.

Post-feminism in Ancient Mesopotamia and Greece

Sumer, the early Mesopotamian culture in contemporary Iraq, was male dominated. Their laws clearly state that females could fill one of three social roles, all of which were defined by a male counterpart – daughter, wife, and widow. When Sumer collapsed, Babylon remained, and Ashur later rose in the north. Among ancient civilizations, the people of Babylon and Ashur were rightly considered war-like. We tend to equate this with masculine sensibilities and there is ample evidence that these civilizations had a greater interest in and emphasis on the male gender. Scribes were almost all male, and often eunuchs or slaves (or both). The civic religions of Babylon and Ashur centered on a masculine all-father, called Marduk and Ashur respectively. However, there emerged a counter-cult of female power, which centered on the downtrodden, the underworld, wisdom, and war in the cults of Ishtar/Innana. It is not well understood whether sacred prostitution was a tenant of every such group, but at least those of Uruk were called courtesans of the gods. This indicates that though male-dominated, women organized around the center of their power to use it as we have come to understand post-feminist power dynamics today. The cults of Ishtar/Innana appropriated masculine power by asserting the intrinsic attractiveness and knowledge of female life that their male counterparts could not access directly. In this way, the authority of one gender was not complete or intractable.

Perhaps more well documented is the oracles of ancient Greece, the most prestigious of which dwelt in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and operated for much of the 1st millennium BC. The Oracle or the Pythia, was a specific order or caste within the temple, and the oracular ability to predict the future operated within the same subversive dynamic as the cults of Ishtar/Innana, providing wisdom of a perspective outside the male-dominated ancient Greek society.

Although their influence had far-reaching significance, as illustrated in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (a comic play in which the women of Greece end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex), post-feminist strategies were insufficient to secure a reversal of power in Ancient Greece or Ancient Mesopotamia that we know of. Female rulers were few, and female nerds/priests were completely absent, written about but never doing the writing.

Persia, the Ancient Empire of almost Equality

The Zoroastrian Persian Empire, kicked off by Cyrus the Great who conquered Ashur and Babylon, were a unique people for the 5th century B.C. They did not believe in slavery and very early on placed a woman in a military leadership position next to the conqueror Xerxes. Her name was Admiral Artemisia, and although she and Xerxes lost the war against Greece, she provides solid evidence that the Persians placed a different emphasis on gender than the Greeks. In that time (called the Achaemenid period), the Persian Court had a documented hierarchy and explicit powers designated for woman of the royal house, from the top position as the King's mother through to the King's extended family. Outside of the royals, women had independent economic status like the Egyptians, earning wages in grain and wine like other laborers or merchants, and could own their own property. Tablets recovered from the court of Xerxes mention one very wealthy woman named Irdabama who held large estates of land, commanded hundreds of workers of both sexes, and possessed her own seal and title. The government of Persia also provided rations for new mothers and pregnant women, but in a less-than-equitable move more was afforded to the nurses and mothers of boys than of girls. It was not sufficient incentive to cause infanticide, however, as the birth rate of boys was only slightly higher than that of girls. However, women inherited twice as much as men from the death of their spouse or parents. Although we do not have details on divorce, evidence confirms that it happened sometimes.

But what about women as ancient Persian priests/nerds? Sadly, no. Not until 2011, when the Tehran Mobeds Anjuman (Anjoman-e-Mobedan) announced that women had joined the group of mobeds (priests) in Iran as mobedyars (women priests), were women recognized as priests. This means that although the Zoroastrian religion makes no distinctions between men and women in spiritual value or social stature, women were officially excluded from tending the sacred fires or composing religious verses until very recently.

A final word, with Joseph Campbell

Some of you may see the evidence here as that old saw about the sky father cults subsuming the earth mother cults, which is a valid interpretation of the facts but I think that is too simple. In many cases, it was convenient for some men to fashion authority for males and form a fraternal bond that attracted a lot of male support. As in Greece and Ashur, women organized as well, and after a time, this struggle between gendered loci of power became a historic precedent, and the struggle has had a profound influence on our cultures ever since. The primary point here is not that power has shifted, but that the roles people assume are often a function of that power. A traditional role for men or women is as relevant as the attitudes of a time and place. As Joseph Campbell points out when asked whether he thought the goddess had been in exile since the founding of the Catholic Church, Notre Dame is the foremost patron of over thirty cathedrals in Europe, North America, and Africa, particularly in France and former French colonies. The feminine was impossible to remove from the church despite the authority men have asserted over Catholicism. So too are women essential to the sciences and nerd culture, even if they are underrepresented in all the media, art, and history of the sub-genre. I do not know if organizations shall form around gender identity in this arena, but the potential is there, and I think women (or anyone, really) could benefit from communities that organize around whoever they identify themselves as. Difference is cause for celebration, even if that means some groups cannot integrate perfectly.

-f. f. white

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    Dear brothers and sisters,

    I need to apologize for my previous disdain towards and contempt for fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. You see, I did not realize what a progressive force the show was, driven away by its marketing as cute and saccharine pablum for children. Only after swallowing my pride and watching the show could I appreciate its subtlety and completely justified iconic status. I often tell others to read/watch/experience a thing before they judge a thing, and I failed to do this before. Now, I have done the work and I must admit that your support and zeal is warranted. I wont join you in your creative celebrations of the shows, but I am glad so many of you feel comfortable taking up artistic practices for this occasion, and I have some pretty good reasons why I changed my mind, which I shall enumerate in this post. But I just needed to put this out here. The problems I had were with me, not you, bronies of the world. Please, carry on loving what you love and I'll do my best to explain how I finally came around to appreciating what you represent as best I can.

    sincerely,

    - f. f. white

So with my apologies out of the way, I'd like to point out the very positive social implications of the existence of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and, by extension, bronies. Necessarily, I am going to reference several fan blogs because all the good media for this column came from fan sites. So, please understand that what you read and see here is sourced from the blog list at the end of the post.

I'd like to start by saying that this show is amazing. Yes, the pilot was a little bland, but as soon as I got about four episodes into the first season, it dawned on me that the six pony characters – Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinky Pie – represent prime female archetypes designed and executed in a positive light. The most surprising is the inclusion of the sixth, Twilight Sparkle, who doesn't fit any of the popular molds, proposing that essential 'real girl' who is trying to become something great in her own right as the protégée of a powerful political and magical mentor (Princess Celestia). This is the sort of role model boys and girls can really integrate into their gender paradigms to accept the idea of personal ambition in women. Prejudice against the personally ambitious woman is a trend that we are still struggling to escape. Twilight Sparkle isn't feminist, nor post-feminist (it's a kids show, y'all), but almost independent of the gender power dynamic, progressive, and self-determined. In fact, she often takes it upon herself to solve problems even when the prominent male character (a somewhat lazy dragon named Spike) suggests she not bother. She starts as a neophyte and progresses into a weighty position of power where she learns about the importance of honest, genuine friends from her past, and to accept the responsibility her great abilities require.

The very fact that a show for kids features a variety of girl protagonists with distinct personalities beyond 'princess' is enough to elevate that show beyond most others. But further, this show passes the Bechdel test in the first minute. This is a show about girls succeeding and failing in the dramas of their lives, and there exists the occasional vital elements of romantic dreams without it being the subject of the show, unlike most of the Disney franchises. Frankly, this is the most femme positive show I can find on television anywhere. It doesn't talk down to its audience, has plenty of internal and external comedy, and places its characters in reasonably complex social situations that allow them to grow and complexify. Their behaviors aren't monotonic or wholly contrived either, as in successive episodes various ponies compete with one another, lie and cheat, take on too much responsibility, possess too much pride or arrogance, indulge their vanity, screw things up because they are clumsy or dumb, and cower in the face of adversity. They are fleshed out characters despite their archetypical presentation and can seem sympathetic or not depending on the current plot. This is also one of their strengths because unrealistic standards are not being set here. It's nice to have heroes, but eventually we all need to look at things more realistically. Its funny how a show with a very simplified artistic vision provides the breadth this one does.

And at last, here is my word about bronies. Whatever they may be, they represent the qualities of sensitive men that are so sorely needed in our culture. Sadly, I started off too stuck in my cultural identity to appreciate the ponies. You see, cute things to me represent an idealized and non-threatening version of the world that is almost universally deceptive. I don't trust cute things, nor cute people, as I've consumed plenty of the aforementioned Disney media only to analyze it later and find that it was just another piece of patriarchal or plutocratic propaganda designed to exploit children and move merchandise. I mistakenly assumed My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was just another version of this same exploitative phenomenon because it looked like one and there was a toy franchise behind it. Why or how My Little Pony came to be something better I do not know, but Seth Green (pictured to the right) is absolutely correct. This show is not the usual exploitative crap. Further, those who really like it are, whether they know it or not, appreciative of more varied and positive portrayals of the feminine. If you doubt me, watch the first season and see for yourself what it is about. I sincerely think you'll be surprised, or at least satisfied that the show speaks about real wholesome values as opposed the party of line of some greater entity with a political agenda (e.g. Jesus and any organized church). I even catch myself asking sometimes, WWFSD – What Would FlutterShy Do?

And yes, I will grant some of you a bro-hoof …
-f. f. white

referenced blogs:

  • Zooxie: http://zooxie.blogspot.com/
  • Young Wombs: http://youngwombs.wordpress.com/
  • Ubuntu Forums: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=2075298

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I was a nerd once. It was a privilege to compete in the state science fair. I was proud of earning second place in the county math competition, acquiring years of straight As and possessing a computer at a time when computer's weren't in everyone's purse or pocket. But now, I don't know. I still read a lot, still love science, still game and giggle at seriously corny jokes that you have to know calculus to understand. But something has changed. I don't feel comfortable being a privileged smart guy anymore. I feel alienated by mainstream culture even though mainstream culture is comprised of all the things I used to like: Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, the X-Men, Star Trek, Aliens, Terminators, and all the other stuff I genuinely enjoyed because they weren't cheap thrills and stupid gimmicks, but progressive ideas with small budgets. I basically gave up on seeing a remarkable movie this summer. The next big one, Pacific Rim, I've already seen many times over because I watch old Japanese monster films and animation. So, what's going on? Why am I having to rub elbows with douche bags to watch The Avengers? Why am I uncomfortable playing games online because someone is yelling fag all the time? What is science fiction's problem with making stories with female protagonists? Seriously, this isn't who I am!

How the class war was won ...

In 2012, Apple, a technology company, became the largest company in U.S. History, surpassing Microsoft which trailed in the number two spot - bigger than any big bank, big oil, or big tobacco company ever. As these technology companies were rising, manufacturing and construction jobs were replaced or moved, and engineers, scientists, medical professionals and lawyers replaced them, and all of the professions in these sectors use technology. Technology is, in fact, the cause and means of all cultural trends operating today, which means it is we, the technologists and nerds, who drive the economy, and that is why our tastes are dominant now.

So, if economists can be believed, the middle class is comprised of individuals with disposable income that actually spend it. Marketing to the middle class is what most large commercial enterprises do. Their products, such as entertainment, durable goods, commodities, and real estate, adjust their image, marketing, features, and franchises to meet the demands of the middle class. And because the middle class has been predominantly nerds in recent years, all the movies (Tolkein, Batman, The Avengers … STAR TREK, DOCTOR WHO?!?!), gadgets (business is booming at ThinkGeek, Woot.com, Zinga), events (concerts like Steamstock, omg cons), art and literature (A Legend of Zelda non-fiction art and concept book is one of the top 10 best sellers on Amazon right now), and television shows are geek niche franchises of the previous millennium made into mainstream product lines.

Technology, and those who know how to use it, have replaced the factory, manufacturing, and construction workers as the driving force of our economy. The over-masculine hit blockbusters, middle-age women power dramas, and war narratives are finding customers in older demographics (unless it is nostalgic for kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, like the Expendables). My father-in-law watches CSI and NCIS (which include their own forensic and hacker characters) and he seems antiquated or at least un-hip. Baseball, the classic american sport of the everyman, is suffering from a decline in popularity, while traditionally un-american sports such Football (american: soccer) and Hockey are on the rise. The popular supermodel singer, such as Britney Spears, has been supplanted by the quirky and bizarre androgen, such as Lady Gaga. Heck even our president is more metrosexual, intellectual and technologically savvy than one from the same party a decade ago. For good or ill, our culture is nerd-dominated, just as Movie Bob pointed out last week. If you are still unconvinced, please watch this Video.

It’s easy understand why this new nerdy middle class replaced the old machismo one. Once we could replace a worker with a programmable machine on the assembly line, the programmer and robotics engineer naturally replaced the assembly-line worker. However, the status quo died slowly, as most of the technology we have now could have been developed much sooner, but it took a younger generation of innovators to defy what was expected of them to develop it properly. With it, there are certain things that I’d like to thank technology for and a few things that we still need work on.

The Good

  • The re-integration of women into the workforce. Have you noticed that women are as smart as men? If not, you’re probably not middle class because all the doctors, lawyers, scientists, programmers, and engineers I know, including my boss and her boss and her boss understand that females do everything males do in the post-industrial work-force, and a lot of females capitalize on this. The womanly aspects of anyone’s personality is almost fully in their hands these days. We still have a problem offering females the same benefits and compensation as males, but the gap is closing, and I’ll be very happy when it’s gone.
  • Innovation has a chance. I’ve not coded an app for that, but I know someone who has. And, given that they are competing successfully in the same arena as microsoft, yahoo, aol (god, why wont it die?), apple, and countless other technology firms with massive budgets, that they make anything at all is kindof remarkable. But this is how economic mobility has always worked. When a person of modest means can bring new commodities to market, opportunities exist for people to change their circumstances. Technology, for those of us who have it, provides this power, and it is great and amazing indeed.

The Bad

  • Homophobia. This comes in a different flavor than the machismo version, as it doesn’t seem to involve deaths like Matthew Shephard or Brandon Teena, but when online, you can expect something to be casually referred to as gay, negatively. If you stay on for more than a couple of minutes, worse follows, until people are threatening the very violence I mentioned above. This is sad. Really it is just a projection of the slurs most nerds suffered from the previously dominant machismo culture onto others because it pained them plenty when they were young. The abused becomes the abuser, history and research shows, but really, this is some serious neanderthal crap; No offense to neanderthals, they were likely a misunderstood minority in their time.
  • Cultural sexism. Okay, while we all work with women, there is an intractable undercurrent of values regarding women which also mirrors the trauma of that same high school setting that generated the homophobia. Nerds became accustomed to rejection and even abuse from attractive women in the schoolyard. Therefore, nerds are as bad as the machismo guys about how they envision the female body, the feminine persona, and the value of women outside of their work-force contributions. Even in progressive narratives like the Avengers, the absence of female characters that aren’t fetishized is stark. Among my nerd friends, the tendency to get crass for no reason when women aren’t around is so epidemic, that I pointedly only see some of them occasionally anymore as a result. They say they respect women, yet pour their money into all the burlesque, pornographic, sexist franchises that they always have, and have very little ability to form adult relationships with mature women that last more than a short while. Yes, nerds suffer from a gap in growing up, and it is high time we all stopped treating it as cute. It’s not cute. It’s lame. And even though poseurs of many genders attend comic-con, nerds single out "fake nerd girls" like they are somehow worse than "fake nerd guys." And if you don’t think this double standard exists, you can refer to the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon Cooper is attractive and his female intellectual status equivelant, Amy Farrah Fowler, isn’t.
  • The deprication of sentiment. This should resonate with nerds as most are familiar with distopian and apocalyptic literature. As our society becomes more technologically advanced and our values change about human worth, we may be tempted to take measures that are not fully thought out to deal with our antiquated physiology and our emotional problems. New trends towards immortality, sanitary detachment, and technological replacement (include 3-D bioprinters) that dissolve privacy and humanity have their share of problems, but the biggest one in my mind is the devaluation of sentiment. Currently, liking something genuinely is still uncool. The nerd is, by definition, obsessive, and that obsession has a predictable seductive quality when executed and brought into reality. The thing is, as a nerd becomes mainstream, s/he may do a lot of things to fit in, to use the economy of mainstream values to get the things they want, and eventually, do away with all the sentiment that motivated them to be rebellious and visionary in the first place. You may find, if you have not already, that there are goliaths in the technological industries who cannot be toppled, and whose visions and progressive ideas have long ago been diminished or dominated in favor of marketability or the opinions of others. Our space program now has to do things that are popular, as mars gets the go and space shuttles are retired (Not the full story, but there it is). I liked the mars rover, but there are more important advancements in astronomy and aerospace engineering that probably deserve our attention, but don’t get any, which is why other countries are investigating the space technologies that will get us much farther, like solar mirrors on the moon, nuclear spacecraft, and habitable extra-solar planets. Our dreams are dying because our tastes are changing. Culturally, this applies too, as our sci-fi and hero franchises try very hard to gather up the greatest audience share. Heck, the new Star Trek movie wasn’t about new frontiers at all, completely lacking in the sentiment of daring and discovery that inspired nerds before. Doctor Who sucks more every season. And this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

In conclusion, nerds inherited the U.S. economy, and like most other custodians, we’re backwards, flawed, and misguided. The problem is not solely ours, as we are simply the middle class of the moment. We shall likely innovate ourselves into obsolescence someday, so this too shall pass. But understand this – we are no better or less susceptible to those who have real power (aka wealth) than anyone else. We might have been once, but nerds traded that freedom for progress, and we shall also have to change someday. I suppose we should enjoy it while it lasts, but I can already see this cultural trend’s demise because of its flaws, and I, for one, want to be part of a marginal and innovative sub-culture again. I don’t want to be a homophobic misogynist who tries too hard to fit in and only enjoys things ironically, and if that makes me unpopular, it’s familiar territory. At least I still have Warhammer 40k, right?

-f. f. white

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Unappreciated, underestimated, overlooked, and sometimes hated, the Babe in the Woods is an archetype used for contrast in any dangerous or strange situation. While the characters around them are capable and sturdy, the Babe is vulnerable and naive. In its most traditional form, the Babe in the Woods is a Damsel in Distress who does little more than provide a goal for other characters to strive for. Lately, a lot of Babes have become characters in their own right, following their own paths through loss of innocence and emerging into adulthood or heroism in their own way. This trend, I think, is a good thing. It is far more entertaining, interesting, and engaging to develop naive characters. After all, without them dangerous situations don't seem very dangerous and sometimes, they are the pleasant surprise no one sees coming and win the day.

So, in honor of the Babe in the Woods, I'm pleased to present a short list of recent characters and some broad categories. I can think of plenty more, but these are all pretty current.

The Victim. Sansa Stark (Game of Thrones) and Carl Grimes (The Walking Dead) have a lot in common. They are both young, naive, and vulnerable. Also, they are surrounded on all sides by horrific monsters. The victim is the kind of Babe we pity, because the outlook for their survivability is bleak and no one is there to protect them. They aren't quite Damsels in Distress because the hero isn't coming. Instead, they have to take the abuse they're given and somehow survive. This type is very good for showing frailty, both of themselves and of more capable characters, because everyone is powerless to save the victim from their troubles. Also, they make an audience uncomfortable, which is why they fit in the horror genre much more than any other.
The Punk Kid. The young John Connor (Terminator 2) and Dawn Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are just as naive as the other Babes, but they don't seem to know it. This archetype was popular during the 90s, and it is no mistake that Dawn and John come from that era. The punk kid is, by design, unlikable at the beginning of their story arc, but after confrontations with real danger, they wise up and grow into a more capable form. These characters do not make us uncomfortable, as their spirit is strong even if they are bound for trouble, so make good characters for action stories.
The Charmer. Perhaps the most beloved Babes are those who possess the moral purity of the victim and the spirit of the punk kid, but they are aware of their underestimated and undervalued status, so use their wit or charm to hide their vulnerability and manipulate the more badass characters into helping them. Peggy Olson (Mad Men), Henry Mills (Once Upon a Time), Ron Weasley (Harry Potter), and Princess Buttercup (The Princess Bride) are all somewhat clueless about their situation, but try very hard to be heroic despite their short-comings. These Babes are almost universally beloved, as cynics like them for the same reason the heroes like them. Charmers were perhaps the first complex babes to be explored in literature, as they turn up in Jane Austin novels and Shakespeare plays fairly often. For this reason, charmers make good companions for any genre, as they are right at home in the most serious tragedies and comedies.

-f. f. white

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Recently, an article listing the top 12 movie heroines appeared in The Allegiant and featured a lot of action heroes that are the equivalent of Rambo, Indiana Jones, or Tyler Durton of a female variety. While I can appreciate some of these characters, equating strength so strongly with the physical prowess of a character is fairly shallow. Many on this list also come with a fair amount of fetishistic spectacle, which the male superheroes I just mentioned are also guilty of. If I were looking for inspiring female characters that we could emulate or believe in when we needed strength, I can see only two on the Allegiant list who really demonstrate the highest level of wisdom, daring, and virtue. Action heroes are by design archetypal, so often don't show us the true potential of our strength. Schindler's List is a good example of a story with a lot of strength even though violence does not play a prominent role in the heroic struggle.

So, here are my top 12 strong female roles in movies, for what it's worth. And yes, I too had to leave many off the list because I didn't think they were the most inspirational examples of strength, often because their struggles were not very difficult or they were only situationally heroic.

#12 Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins. Yes, she has a bottomless carpetbag and she can fly, but she uses her powers to help children, like a real hero would. She has no problem standing up to anyone, and is not afraid to show her sensitivity and wisdom either. Julie Andrews racks up extra points for films with other strong female roles, such as Victor, Victoria and the Sound of Music, but those characters are not nearly the role model Mary exemplifies. At no point does she compromise either her virtue or her lady-like demeanor, and she is perfectly at home in the soot-stained streets of the less glamorous parts of London.
#11 Gina Torres as Zoe in Serenity. Zoe doesn't need a man, she has one, and he is not arm candy, but a believable character. Beyond that, she is a soldier, first mate of a ship with a demanding captain, and a self-defined woman who clearly decided to be the strong, self-reliant person she is. She doesn't shy from bloodshed or criticism, and is sensitive to those who cannot match her courage and ability. Her sacrifices are also a testament to her strength, as she doesn't break down when precious things are taken from her.
#10 Lisa Wilcox as Alice Johnson in Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Yes, this is a sort of personal entry because most of you will have forgotten or never bothered to watch the girl who beat Freddy Krueger, but Alice Johnson is the one victim who took him to the cleaners. Her character arc is also one of self-discovery, as she realizes her potential and must defy her parents and others to do what she knows is right. She has none of the irreparable damage of many other queens of horror and the film featuring her is the best in the franchise besides the original.
#9 Anne Parillaud as Nikita in La Femme Nikita. An assassin who is horrified by her own business paints an interesting picture. Although we don't know much about Nikita, we do know she makes a mean lemonade with the lemons she's been handed. Her relationship with her handlers is portrayed with a human quality, and after she decides to change things in her life, she shows the kind of daring we all wish we had. In a less inspired film, the ending would simply be that she triumphs, but this film is much better than that. Nikita also happens to be the initial archetype for every other female super-spy/assassin that so many authors and film-makers have copied.
#8 Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc in The Messenger. Milla's roles in Resident Evil and even the Fifth Element seem small compared to her portrayal of the maid of Orleans. Christianity has come under a lot of criticism these days, and for good reason. However, sacrifice is still a noble human act, and just as we can appreciate the martyrdom of Jesus, so the martyrdom of Joan of Arc has a persistent resonance. As with some of the other heroines on this list, the reason this version is so powerful is because she shows vulnerability and character. Her confessor, an angel or hallucination, absolves her after she admits to her pride and recklessness in leading warriors into battle to save her country. This shows us her conviction and courage, but also the complexities of Christian virtue that define her struggle.
#7 Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Ripley is an enigma because we get to see her character evolve over three films, all of which inform her story. Like other action girls on this list, she demonstrates ability and vulnerability as she takes care of business. While she was amazing in Alien, in Aliens she faces off with an Alien queen mother, and they both threaten to destroy the others' children, completing a very succinct picture of how dependent upon females all diploid species are, and if it came down to genocidal galactic conflict, the women, specifically the mothers, would hold the true power.
#6 Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Jodhaa Bai in Jodhaa Akbar. Baliwood today is much bigger as an industrial complex than Hollywood ever was. It is little wonder then that they should produce epic scale historic dramas like Jodhaa Akbar. It is perhaps surprising that one of the biggest films to come out of this lately would concern the marriage of a Muslim warlord to a Hindu princess, and to suggest that the princess was also responsible for the reformation of the Mogul empire to be religiously tolerant. Princess Jodhaa Bai has also learned the Rajput art of the sword, but only fights on screen with her brother and her husband. While the historic accuracy of this version is dubious, she is a magnificent hero who is also timely for this era of fanaticism.
#5 Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. Although V for Vendetta is an action film, Evey Hammond is a non-violent person who manages to stay alive and mostly sane after she accidentally befriends a violent revolutionary in a socialist police-state version of Britain. Initially, she shows some nerve, but the defining scene of her character occurs after she is tortured and sentenced to death. She never submits to her oppressors. She never loves Big Brother. This demonstrates for the audience the caliber of her mettle, and shows us what real conviction looks like.
#4 Whoopi Golberg as Celie Johnson in The Color Purple. Whoopi almost made this list twice, but this is a stronger role than other strong women she has played. The way Celie works is that she is constantly tempted to murder the evil people in her life and has many opportunities to do so. Any lesser form of defiance carries the burden of physical and sexual abuse. Yet she resists temptation and earns her peace righteously. Some people think this is an ugly story, but courage of this kind is rare and beautiful, and films often romanticize revenge, which Celie rises above.
#3 Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Imagine that you are certified as criminally insane, you know the exact day the world will end and how, your son is the salvation of the human race after the bomb, and machines from the future are sending unstoppable cyborg assassins to kill you both. This would already set you up as one of those strong women we all look up to if you survive, but Linda Hamilton in this role manages to hook us into her absolute desperation and crushing sense of defeat from the first scene in which she appears, wherein she is also doing pull ups in her cell on a mental ward. This is strength in the fetishistic sense, combined with strength in the real and human sense. Sarah Conner is not violent as a rule, this is simply what she has to do in order to survive the ridiculously awful circumstances she has been placed in.
#2 Mélanie Laurent as Soshanna in Inglorious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino is good at handling stereotypes, but of all the female heroines (and many non-heroines) he has created, Shosanna Dreyfus, the French Jewish survivor who plots the death of the Nazi high command edges ahead as one of the most steadfast and intelligent, using film as her weapon. Her story is heroic and tragic despite her completely compromised position, which is really where a character's strength is most visible. She is the sort of person who, if she existed, folk tales would be sung about.
#1 Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida. Frida Kahlo was a real person, so sometimes movies made about her are not thought of in the same way as other films. However, this one is more surreal and sensitive than any strict telling of her life. The disabled artist and socialist weaves her way through the important men of her time, the sensibilities of two world views that remain relevant in politics today, a thoroughly despicable romantic interest (whom she has the strength to reject), and her personal struggle with her body, all drawn over an artistically informed landscape. In this version, hers is an inspiring story that demonstrates that living life on your terms is seldom ruined by adversity, but is instead informed by it.
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In honor of Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J's latest song Accidental Racist, I'd like to take this opportunity to say a few words about racism. You see, some folks think that because they are proud of where they are from, that they are unworldly or uneducated, or that they like a rebellious artist that somehow others should not be offended by the things they do. I can't abide this. So here, I'll say why I think anyone who wants to simultaneously use the icon of a failed oppressive regime and be accepted is missing the point, andhow you, as an ordinary, uneducated, and patriotic person can not be racist.

First, examine the following flags whose nations came and went, but are not fondly remembered:

Now, you may not recognize them all, but know that anyone walking around with these on a t-shirt or blazoned on their car is rebelling against the status quo, whether they know it or not. Why? Because these icons represent organized oppressive and violent ideologies that have had and still have a lasting negative impact on our world today. Sure, the confederate states of america (whose flag was the stars and bars above) is not a regime anyone can remember, at least not directly. The last people who lived during the civil war are now dead. That doesn't mean the image doesn't evoke memories of segregation, lynch mobs, and Jim Crow legislation which plenty of living people still remember. As such, this image is not supposed to be accepted, and wearing it means you aren't looking for acceptance. You are advertising your dissent, your defiance, and therefore when people don't want to talk to you (or even warm to you), that is your fault, not theirs.

The rebellious artist, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, uses images like the confederate flag because they are actively defying the status quo; they know that the image is powerful and don't expect people to easily ignore it. Neither should you, but if your beliefs matter enough to piss other people off, your right to do so is protected. Just know what you are about and stop trying to call your racism accidental. No one has to accept you for not accepting them.

Now, I know some people think that universal acceptance is a quality only educated, liberal, hippy or worldly folks possess. I cannot agree. Here are just a few ways regular folks can become non-racist:

  • Serve your country! Our armed forces and government are a diverse group of people. When you join them, you work with people from all over the world and rely on them on a daily basis. If you think for a second that any war hero, elected representative, or justice of the peace has any reservations about working with people of any race or religion, you are mistaken.
  • Play online games!Online everyone is free to be who they want to be, so your buddy in the arena or raid leader can be anyone. It turns out gamers are also a diverse group and now they can all connect with one another using the internet. It's a lot of fun to play with folks from places you never knew existed.
  • Read a book! Do you like the Three Musketeers? How about The Exorcist? Or maybe Fifty Shades of Grey is more your speed? Well, each of these were created by minority artists. It turns out that most of what you read is influenced by people who might identify as a different race. Their creations are amazing, so why should you care what race they might be?
  • Play team sports! Have you noticed that sports these days are diverse? There was a time when they weren't. But now we live in more enlightened times. So play some baseball, basketball, or futbol. I guarantee you'll meet players of all backgrounds worthy of your respect, and who are ready to compete along side you.
  • Pursue success! If you are on the fast track to success, having no prejudice is a great advantage. If you have qualms about selling to or working with certain people, you can bet your bottom dollar there is someone to replace you who doesn't. If you want to be successful, there are no judgments, only the art of the deal.
  • Be a good person! It is morally great to reserve judgment and have compassion for all people. While you can be self-righteous and still be racist, the virtuous do not judge. Be a better person and hold yourself to a high standard. It won't hurt your soul.
  • Have a life! The more you get around and meet other people, the wider your circle of friends, and the more popular you become, the more diverse your acquaintances will be. Celebrities don't perform or act just for one audience. They aspire to big appeal and try to reach everyone. So if you want to be popular, you have no foregone enemies, only potential friends.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but more or less everything positive you can do in life is hampered by a racist attitude. So even if you are accidentally racist, and I really pity you if you are, you can stop as soon as you want to. The moment you cast off that preconception and start showing people your acceptance, the sooner you'll be happier, more successful, more popular, and have more to do. It's not about privilege or eduction, having pride in your heritage, or giving up the music you like. It's about embracing more of the world, because that's where you are and where, most likely, you'll always be.

-f. f. white

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Of 20th century stories, The Wizard of Oz is the most female-empowered story ever written. A young girl squares off against an evil witch, reflecting the good and evil faces of the feminine persona, and battle it out for the fate of an entire kingdom. Further, the male protagonists in this story are shown to be incapable of managing their own problems without an infusion of feminine insight (brain, heart, and courage, respectively) and when the symbol of patriarchal power (the wizard) appears, he turns out to be an illusion, as his power is in fact immaterial. When Dorothy pulls back the curtain to reveal the wizard for what he truly is, she shows us that patriarchal authority is a ruse, a trick, a complete fabrication that exists only through the conscious participation of those around him. Considering that Dorothy's motivation is not to earn a husband (like Snow White which also features a female protagonist and antagonist) The Wizard of Oz takes the top honors in the range of feminist narratives, standing tall with the Book of Judith and the Maid of Orleans (Joan of Arc) as sublime classics of female power in the Western literary tradition.

Since the Oz novels fell into the public domain, a number of spin-off franchises have emerged with varying levels of success. Chief among them, Wicked retains the importance of women in this quintessential narrative while also providing something new to the emerging mythology by shifting the story's focus from Dorothy to the wicked witches. This was most appropriate, and other adaptations of female-centered narratives similarly upheld the spirit of the story. Trivializing Dorothy and the witches would simply not be the Oz story, just as an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland without Alice would not be the Through Looking Glass story or The Lord of the Rings without hobbits, dwarves, orcs and elves would not be The Lord of the Rings.

Homage versus Appropriation

The latest spin off of the Oz franchise is a quaintly misinformed story about the wizard called Oz, the Great and Powerful. It does uphold the mythology, as the witches seem to do all the real work in the film, but the new male protagonist that was previously designated for the best metaphor for the patriarchal fallacy ever suddenly goes on a heroic journey to emerge as the true orchestrator of Oz's salvation, supplanting Dorothy and the witches as the central agent in the plot.

Now, I no longer qualify myself as feminist. Life has taught me that I can get sucked into a male-centric point of view fairly easily. I happily eat up almost every book Tanith Lee or Ursula K. Le Guin ever write, but I seldom enjoy the writing of Anne McCafferty or Margret Atwood. In essence, I have my particular tastes, and they aren't really informed by the gender of the author or protagonist, though I wish more narratives about non-male or even non-human protagonists existed so I could read them (I am looking at you, J.K. Rowling!). But I know the difference between an homage, like Wicked, and appropriation, like Oz the Great and Powerful. There is a big difference between when an author adapts a story for their own use but honors the original narrative and when an author abandons the original but uses the association for marketing purposes. The later can be quite odious. How crappy would it be if someone rewrote the book of Judith wherein Judith ends up a prisoner of the Assyrians and a man steps in and to save her and the nation of Judah? It simply would not be the same story.

There are plenty of appropriations that do this to favor an under-represented agent in literature, women included. These tend to be more interesting mainstream appropriations because some classic stories suffer from extreme historic bias, so destroying that bias is seen as less of a marketing technique, and more of a re-invention of a classic story without a horrible element. For example, Wide Sargasso Sea appropriates the story of Jane Eyre, transforming it from a story of a young woman finding love with a reformed man (Rochester) to a tragic tale of prejudice and exploitation culminating in the ruin of an independent, smart woman. This utterly destroys the original romantic content of Jane Eyre, and I know several fans of the original took umbrage with the remake.

You can take Misogyny out of the Mainstream, but not the Mainstream out of Misogyny

Incidentally, I am a long-time admirer of pulp stories. Most of them are masculine narratives featuring some brute of a man as the hero. In how stories treat women, Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Superman, and Doc Savage rank among the most objectifying stories there are. In fact, that is why spin offs like Red Sonja and Wonder Woman (for all their own versions of misogyny) gained popularity. There was a clear market for more feminine version of the tales, and in the pulp market, appropriation is just good business. My point is that many stories are told from the male perspective and are fine being just that, assuming we can all recognize their sophomoric treatments of gender and rightly criticize them for it.

The recent Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters film grossly objectifies women (see Escape to the Movies rip it a new one) with the female protagonist getting saved twice by the male protagonist and running an ongoing gag wherein different witches get punched in the face by different men. We can all agree on this fact, and if it were a less asinine film (like, say, The Avengers) it would be enjoyable despite its flaws. I won't afford this exception to Oz, the Great and Powerful because it not only has flaws, but blatantly rips off the shining example of feminist narratives, gutting the beautiful metaphor of the wizard as a complete falsehood. This movie is akin to forcing a male mentor into Joan of Arc's life to train her in martial arts, only to later end up saving France himself because she is a frail woman and can't do it on her own. I call foul on Oz, and I think I am justified in that.

-F. F. White

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The narrative problems posed by interstellar travel

In the past few years, the hypothesis that earth-like habitable planets orbit nearby stars has been tested with some exceptional astronomy. If you haven't heard of the Kepler Spacecraft or about its discoveries, you can start in 2011 when the first results came in. (See Earth-like planets: How will we know if they can sustain life?) In particular, I started writing stories about one of these theoretically habitable planets. There are, however, huge cosmological questions that I ran into as soon as I tried to set up a plot and describe the setting of even one place on a distant world.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether life can exist on other planets, and what that requires. Fundamentally, we think of habitable planets where there is just enough, but not too much, gravity and heat to allow liquid water on the surface. Once this criterion is met, then there are more specific qualities we look for, like plate tectonics which is possible if there are sufficient third and fourth period elements (e.g. silicon, iron) on the planet. Also, a magnetosphere is highly desirable to deflect harmful radiation, and that usually means the planet must spin.

Now, all of this we want to establish before getting there, so remote observation or a sophisticated mechanical observer (like the mars rover, but with a much more powerful communications capability) are the best ways to go with this. In fact, I now find the notion of manned space exploration to be anachronistic, with all due respect to star trek, R is for Rocket, and other classic space exploration narratives. Only when we are ready to colonize or we had no alternative would the energy and time be expended to move our fragile and specific living forms to another planet.

Speaking of time and energy, the ways to travel from star to star are currently quite slow. Even in the fastest recorded man-made spacecraft, which was unmanned and used the sun's gravity to accelerate, the trip to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our own, would take over 18000 years. This is why most of our knowledge of the universe is through observing light, which makes that same trip in about 4.35 years. Some authors invent a device that magically fixes this limit, like a star gate, wormhole, or some way of traveling through alternate dimensions (hyperspace). These all require the invention of something we don't even have proper theories about to overcome the plot problem of traveling to the stars. More plausible technologies involve bending or "warping" space to accelerate, which is theorized to be possible with some serious limitations (see Dark Energy Spacecraft). There are also cryogenic methods currently available to us that can sustain a single cell for a long time, which may allow humans to make very long journeys, only to be born when we arrive years in the future. Lastly, there are time-traveling technologies, like the TARDIS or bobbles from Verner Vinge stories, which I personally favor a lot because we have only recently made definitive observations about time dilation and how light (the fastest thing in the observable universe) does not have an absolute speed. In essence, you must have a way for things to get places, and perhaps try to make them at least theoretically possible, or visiting other planets is out of the question.

Finally, there is the problem of the great filter, which is a theoretical choke-point in the evolution of intelligent life in the rest of the universe that prevents us from running into aliens, especially as our sun is relatively young compared to many, many others in our galaxy. If life on other planets is possible and interstellar travel is also possible, then why haven't older (on the order of hundreds of millions of years or more) intelligences traveled the stars and inhabited our world? There are a lot of possibilities, and it is here that often a big idea story gets its teeth. Is intelligence a rare adaptation, or does it lead to assured self-destruction? Are there actually aliens living among us even now, though we do not recognize them as such? Were there aliens here before, but due to an ice age or other catastrophe left? Is life in fact rare everywhere and we just got lucky? Are extinction cycles like those on earth regular enough to destroy most intelligent species before they figure out and engineer interstellar flight? Are there a few utterly powerful and malevolent creatures like Lovecraft's great old ones wrecking the older systems and about which we have little experience, being closer to the edge of the galaxy? Or maybe aliens aren't even made of matter that we can perceive, as we've discovered many types we can only detect indirectly and that might comprise more than half of the mass of the universe.

To summarize, there is a lot to design when you make a story about interstellar travel, and what we know provides many more questions than it answers. I for one find it more interesting to make stories that answer these questions, and I love reading the stories that are informed by our real discoveries about the reality we inhabit, which is in some ways stranger than anyone has imagined.

-F. F. White

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Available now, everywhere! The Gospels of Rage ebook, delivered to anyone who can reach the internet! See http://www.scribbulations.com/gospelsofrage.cfm for your copy!

 


 
Years ago, when I worked as an intern for a small start-up company called eBay, we used to dream of a time when the internet could reach everyone, even those without a great deal of wealth and those distant from cities where technology was concentrated. I am pleased that this has become a reality, even if eBay cannot reap all the rewards, because they do not deliver digital goods, but real ones.

 
This dream was realized not so long ago with the smart phone and tablet computer. Now people connect to the cellular or satellite networks with a device that fits in the palm of your hand and costs less than a few hundred dollars. This is amazing, frankly, because now billions of digital goods and services are available to any of us instantaneously. Think then on how many more people you can reach with a digital book. Right now, you can get mine, and in fact any I ever write, for as long as the internet continues to provide. So enjoy this time of literature delivered into your hands via live streaming. It maybe only by virtue of this that people on the other side of the world will be able to read our work.

 
-F. F. White

 

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Like four years ago, Obama's inauguration this year featured a poet laureate reading. I suppose I should be grateful that a national political figure features a poet at all, given that very few presidents use them. But, here I am as disappointed as I was four years ago. Like four years ago, the poet was selected to make a political statement. The minority status of the readers is transparently chosen for effect, rather than on the merit of their poetry. Surely, the voices of minority writers need more attention, but the poems in both cases were wholly about unity, community, and duty, yet lacked prosaic quality or even brilliant imagery, though I credit Richard Blanco, the later poet, with an ability to form an evocative metaphor, whereas Elizabeth Alexander, the former, could not.

This year's poem, "One Today," is almost an exact copy in spirit and word as the poem four years ago, "Praise song for the Day." If the titles seem very similar to you, that is because they are, and everything that could be said by one is said by the other. And what is said? Well, not a great deal.

    Each day we go about our business,
    walking past each other, catching each other’s
    eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

is improved upon with a real object over an abstract one with the following:

    My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
    each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:.

Yes, Blanco's is better. But like Alexander, Richard goes on to list many things many people do or see in a day, drops in obvious references to schoolwork and labor, and steers clear of anything that would challenge an audience to think more than "one moon / like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop / and every window." In other words, either the poems riff off a national tragedy or the imagery is something that sounds deep, but really doesn't say very much at all.

I don't blame the poets. They likely support Obama and wouldn't want to say something during his inauguration that could be easily twisted into a volatile statement. I don't blame the event organizers, who were also working on the same strategy, increasing populist support for their leader. No, these poems of pablum and pleasant propaganda are for us, because this is the spirit of our time and people. Homogeneity and dullness are favored over brilliance or difference because these values have been twisted rather spectacularly by wedge politics. Most people would prefer not to be individuals right now because the most vocal free spirits of our society are the horribly misguided (to the point of mass murder) or very evil. It is visible as we recopy memes, quotes, and silly images on Facebook to entertain our friends, but say nothing for ourselves. These poems state that we are all more comfortable with a status quo, with a shared national grief, with being like everyone else, even though that is impossible. The overarching message is that we are all the same.

Now, I know most of us are the same on a biological level. There is very little separating the basic needs of any person from any other. And, indeed, originality is a hoax. However, difference is not. Most of us do not agree with one another. Most of us do not like the same stuff. Most of us love or hate our country for a vast variety of reasons. While I tire of the arguments bursting from the ill-informed electorate, I am not about to dismiss difference as valid or vital. I read the poetry of Sharon Olds, Ronald Bascombe, Henry Rollins, and Farid Matuk because of their difference. Their perspectives, illuminated by the skills of the respective poets, are not the same, and enrich our lives, and furthermore our nation, with each well-formed line. We are not of "One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk/ of corn, every head of wheat sown," but it appears that many of us want to be.

All I can do is wonder what the dissenters, the brilliant, and the different, who do not share this yearning for normalcy, can do now. Will an inaugural poem ever again ask more of those who hear it?

For comparison, I may reference Maya Angelou's inaugural poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," which really went for the brilliant heights over the pleasant middle.

    ...You, created only a little lower than
    The angels, have crouched too long in
    The bruising darkness,
    Have lain too long
    Face down in ignorance.

    Your mouths spilling words
    Armed for slaughter...

- F. F. White

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I am not sure why some fiction is so popular when it is neither descriptive nor nuanced. Still, the Umberto Ecos and Dan Browns of the world are quite successful writing very little more than references to cultural touchstones and keeping their characters relatable. Even more astounding are authors like Cormac McCarthy, who toss out even these tools of orienting the reader in order to perfect a narrative voice. I read the above authors to answer this question, and concluded that sales must have nothing to do with how well these authors enrich their prose. But, as I cannot say what the appeal their books have, I must fall back to what I enjoy, and make the appropriate recommendation.

Lately I’ve read or listened to a number of books that did not entice my imagination. The plots were solid, characters believable, and style specific to a point of view, but the words were not interesting as they were arranged. Whether the author was a classic master like Jack London or something more current and obscure, like E L James (Fifty Shades of Grey), my boredom had a common cause. The prose was devoid of compelling description, so my imagination was left to wander, so it wandered quickly away from the narrative I was reading.

For a specific example, see Jack London’s People of the Abyss. London often drops a list of statistics or clippings from the Times Police Blotter to illustrate the conditions of the poor he documents. He seems to fall back on these later in the book because initially, he puts himself in their shoes (literally, crappy shoes out of the charity bin) and lives as they live. His initial experience of waiting in line for food, walking all night so as to stay out of jail when he had nowhere to sleep, and sharing tips with other vagabonds on how to scavenge food from the garbage is very detailed. It had all the grossness to accompany it, so held my interest, and conveys the details of the experience. The later chapters about suicide statistics and descriptions in the paper about those who died of lead poisoning pale in comparison to London’s direct description of a man recovering from Smallpox popping one of his lesions to impress a friend in line at the labor house. That is why the first part of the book is much better than the second, even though they are about the same subject.

I cannot apply this rule of description universally, however, because there are authors who make a study of the minimal style. The best of these, however, put together seemingly simple phrases that are filled with more potent diction so as to entice the imagination of the reader. These nuances make a story by Orwell, Steinbeck, or Faulkner much more interesting than one by Hemingway or Conrad, even though they all seem to use language in terse, quick phrases. Each of these modern authors was improving on the opulent (and overly descriptive) prose well established in the 19th century by the likes of Dickens, Hawthorne, and Melville. They were out to prove that you didn’t have to go on forever to make rich literature, and I’d say they succeeded with the better ones.

To demonstrate, I’ll put to you the writings of three authors – one of the better in the high description of the 19th century, another describing things tersely but with no nuance, and a third with nuance used to great effect. Ideally, this demonstrates my point, but you may judge for yourselves.

First, the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I think is descriptive in a good way, but also goes on too long:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes. The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the Vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-hush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

Next, a cut-down description that doesn’t, in my opinion, provide a distinct picture, courtesy of Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad:

HE WAS an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular.

 And lastly, what I consider the best of both, a nuanced paragraph from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In conclusion, I guess popular literature needn’t bother with these distinctions. But, they are distinctions, and I can’t seem to latch onto those that are too lack-luster in this department. In fact, I would prefer more to less, and it is nice that a lot of classics have much more than is necessary. Mind you, none of this applies to writing for stage and screen, where description and nuance are replaced by other words: direction and acting.

-F. F. White

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I have experienced school violence. In 1994, a concrete drinking fountain packed with explosives detonated in the quad of my high school. I was walking onto campus at the time, and watched the plume of smoke rise from behind the science building. (see Explosion at Gunn injures 18) People I had been in class with for many years, even though I was a drop-out, were badly burned. Robby Roberts, the kid we all knew would do such a thing, advertised the chemical formula for his bomb in his senior box in the school yearbook. We all noticed him, knew he might do something crazy, and missed our chance to avert tragedy. The circumstances surrounding the explosion were quite subtle and complicated, but the fact remains. We failed. We failed despite many suicides on the Cal train tracks. We failed despite the unrest in our student body with the school’s policies. We failed to recognize what the mounting racial tension at our school meant. We failed to intervene. As students, we were all competing to graduate with honors or get that guy or girl of our dreams, and as educators we were busy keeping our jobs and maintaining the high level of academic competence Gunn is known for.

When I wrote Gospels of Rage, I was attempting to humanize people who, by virtue of circumstance, tragedy, madness, or difference, were so desperate that they became murderous, suicidal, abusive, destructive, or self-destructive. This art was meant to make them relatable so that the reader would be exposed to and contemplate the internal life of addicts, criminals, assassins, suicide bombers, terrorists, and other people who have such a negative effect on humanity, just like the kid who blew up the quad at my high school. I thought that if people started thinking about it, someday they might apply themselves to handling it.

The pathos of such a work is that it is necessarily disturbing and Americans do not like to examine these things, and when they do, their judgment easily becomes clouded by their emotions. While I agree that it is nearly impossible to face an event like the mass killing yesterday morning and think rationally about how to prevent something like that occurring again, it is precisely because these tragedies are so horrific that each of us must apply ourselves to the solution ourselves rather than be duped by someone exploiting tragedy to further their own agenda, which ultimately solves nothing.

It is even further unfortunate that, like in the failures of our public health programs, we know of other countries that grant private gun ownership and yet manage not have the highest homicide rate in the world of any developed nation by over ten times. The problem, you see, is that America does it wrong. Our penal system does not rehabilitate. Our early education does not recognize those who are suffering until after their suffering becomes unbearable. We do not love our neighbor. We are not kind to those who fail, and everyone fails at some point in their lives. We, as a nation, suck at addressing negativity or realities that we find distasteful. We are the problem, because we think mental illness, poverty, inequity, and difference are not our problem.

The innocent suffer for this failing.

Now, I could harp on these failing for the length of my life, for they are so numerous, but that doesn’t solve anything either. It merely points at the solution, which I shall now address. It comes down to this – we have become complacent and fearful of involving ourselves in the woes of others. I am not suggesting that everyone start sticking their nose into everyone else’s business, but we should not be so focused on ourselves that we stop paying attention to those around us.

  1. Guns aren’t going to disappear any more than abortions are, so stop hoping they will go away and start treating them like the machines of death they are. Educate yourself. Start taking stock of who has a gun and ask them about it. Be aware of those around you and protect them and yourself.
  2. Mental illness is not a choice, or something someone can just decide to fix; even temporary conditions require a lot of work to cure and we need to pay attention to others, what they say, how they act, and how they feel in order to see the symptoms and help them. A mental illness is not someone else’s problem, it is everyone’s problem, sooner or later.
  3. Our connection with our children needs to be resilient, particularly when they are difficult to handle. It is the moment that a child is at its worst where a parent’s responsibility and sensitivity is most needed. It is not easy to know when to hold em and know when to fold em, but every child should know with absolute certainty that their parent is in the game.
  4. And, most difficult of all, we must value compassion, loyalty, bravery, and ingenuity more than we value wealth, beauty, fame, and comfort. For when the later list are our priorities, persons espousing the former list will be few. If you are too afraid, too busy, or too happy to care about anyone else, you might want examine your priorities. It is not easy to be a participant in other people’s lives, but you are a part of other people’s lives, so make something of it.

To summarize, we need to stop being children, and start trying to be the better person though it may not reward us or be convenient. We have far more power to change ourselves than change reality.

-F. F. White

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In the movie business, studios look to maximize the audience for their blockbusters by appealing to the largest audience possible. The default strategy is to make a four-quadrant feature, which appeals to all four of the major consumer demographics – young men (under 25), adult men (over 25), young women (under 25), and adult women (over 25). Assuming you have seen a Pixar film, any summer romantically/idealistically-charged action film, or Oscar-winning historic drama, you know why this strategy works. Each appeals to almost anyone on some level, making it something the papers can talk about to a broad readership and that families can watch after thanksgiving dinner (or equivalent). Every movie studio produces a couple of these a year to ensure a profit, which also called a tent-pole film, upon which the annual financial success of a studio is propped up.

Because so many novels end up as movies, it is worthwhile to consider this strategy for a book. In fact, I would suggest that if you lack substantive writing credits, a four-quadrant story might be just the thing to get your career started. Like movie executives, publishing house editors know how to market a four-quadrant story, and prefer to market stories that resemble historic successes.

Here are a list of things you can employ to create one of these:

  • Family-friendly: a.k.a. Do it like Pixar. Children or child-related things (like toys, cars, robots, etc.) are a fairly universal way to appeal to all quadrants. The majority of young men and women are minors, and adults were once children and often have children of their own. A child protagonist can sell a pretty bland story (Free Willy, Home Alone, 3 Men and a Baby) or enrich a really good story, rocketing it into serious money-making potential (Toy Story, Jurassic Park, The Little Mermaid). Like it or not, we were all kids once, so even the young Harry Potter can appeal to anyone.
  • The parent trap: Do you know why Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, and Aliens were some of the most beloved science fiction films ever made, even though most children were not allowed to watch them? It wasn’t just the awesome special effects spectacle, though that pulled in the adult male quadrant, it was because Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, Sarah Conner was protecting her son from a liquid metal monster, and Lt. Ripley formed a parent bond with a little girl named Newt. Even though these films were not really family-oriented, they still involved the familial bond, wherein the nurturing aspect of an adult was brought into sharp focus as an act of sublime kindness, or, as with Darth Vader, ultimate evil. Whether we like to admit it or not, the direct bond of parent and child is nearly universal. Appealing to it, even in an R-rated story, is a way to provide your audience with relatable characters and conflicts. Even in thoroughly one-quadrant films (Taken, Twilight, American Pie), adding the parents brings in more people than you would expect.
  • Romance: Another thing we can all relate to is romantic sub-plots. This is the classic action film move, wherein romantic interests are added to strengthen a story that really only appeals to men. History stands behind this one, as classics of horror, mystery, thriller, and adventure always have fine romances in them. If you aren’t going the family route, romance is your next best option. Romance is directly appealing to young women, because in our culture most young women still have to contend with romance as a primary conflict in their young lives, and adults of both genders understand it. So, in a romantic plot, you can win three quadrants with a good treatment of the male and female characters involved. To pull in the final quadrant, young men, comedy in romance is the trusted method. Shakespeare demonstrated how romance and comedy (The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, etc) can be combined to give your romance nearly universal appeal. Young men, who often find romance awkward or even bitter (depending on their luck), are assuaged by the inclusion of comedy because it makes that awkwardness and bitterness appealing. In film-making, the difficulty in making a good romantic comedy is usually finding actors who have good chemistry on camera, but in a novel, you can create this as you like it.
  • Epic Horror: In the modern era of film-making, disasters, giant monsters, epidemics, epic conflicts, and bloody revolutions have become tried and true methods of grabbing up all four quadrants. These include action, tragedy, spectacle, romance, and family in an intense mix with mortal struggle. For example, consider how Downton Abbey was enhanced when world war 1 began, or why a movie like Outbreak was a blockbuster at all. In essence, threats that are universal, as opposed to personal, are universally terrifying and exciting. Assuming the story features young and adult men and women, this kind of story throws everyone into a common struggle, so boundaries dissolve rather easily. Whether or not you liked Jaws, Titanic, Gone with the Wind, or Independence Day, they remain universally accepted successes because of their universal heaviness.
  • Pleasing the Crowd: Why is Avatar the highest grossing film ever made? It wasn’t great. By some estimations, it was barely good. It had romance and spectacle, but not in memorable ways such that people walk around quoting it like The Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Pirates the Caribbean … heck, The Fifth Element had a more memorable single word (Multipass!) than every piece of dialog in Avatar. So what gives? In this case, it is all about the consumer. James Cameron, who directed Titanic, was the creator of Avatar, providing another grand-scale film to appeal to his previous audience. He delivered on something that was implicitly promised, and that is the most important lesson we can learn from Avatar’s example. When you know people want something, why not give it to them? Most major book franchises, from Stephen King to Harlequin Romances, operate on the crowd-pleaser model. Rather than try to fill a gap in the market, exploit something that is already popular. At this moment in cultural history, if you can write young adult novels, you can produce a crowd pleasing story, because the appetite for young adult films and novels is basically limitless right now due to the success of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games franchises. In addition, due to a vast aging baby boomer population, stories about older badasses (Taken, The Expendables, The Transporter) are a safe bet. Also, graphic sex has always sold, with varying levels of social acceptance, so the likes of Fifty Shades of Gray and The Southern Vampire Mysteries can attain success with little effort.

I am not suggesting that every story should be four-quadrant – historic war movies are specifically marketed to adult men, and most romantic comedies are marketed for young women. One need only cite the commercial success of The Notebook or Saving Private Ryan to understand how niche films can be profitable. If, however, you enjoy or even have the capacity to write a four-quadrant feature, you may have a greater chance of success with it than things with narrower appeal.

-Forest F. White

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Despite the differences between the east and west of our country, there are far more similarities than anything else. Yes, technologically, socially, politically, and geographically, they are necessarily different, yet east and west cooperate and collaborate in many ways.

For example, when you travel outside of either region, you encounter the greater cultural divide of religious dogma. In the west, as in the east, there are many religions represented in many places. They are sometimes segregated, but never in blatant disregard for others. On both coasts, the catholic and jewish faiths are strongly represented. You are as likely to see muslims praying on the sidewalk during certain hours of the day in San Francisco as you are in New York. While I am sure some ethnic prejudices persist, religious freedom is highly celebrated and protected. I hear far more anti-muslim rhetoric on Fox news than I ever do in New York or San Francisco.

Likewise, social mobility is possible in both places, which is another reason why so many ethnicities are drawn to these places. The differences between east and west in this regard are tied to dominant industries (culture and finance in the east, technology and entertainment in the west, food and hospitality in both) but the values are very similar. If you have the persistence and savvy to navigate a robust industry, you can go far, no matter who you are. This is not an attitude shared by many other places, and even in these places, certain careers still depend on who you know. For example, becoming an educator in either place usually means you know someone or that you have a reputation that precedes you. Still, the value of skill and ability is appreciated, sometimes over any other factor.

Finally, in the east and west, we are political allies, even to the point of one-ups-man-ship. Because of the broad cultural landscape in both places, policies of social tolerance and liberal thought are easily translatable. The needs of the young and the elderly are considered, the divisions between classes are largely financial rather than social, different lifestyles and creeds are anticipated and included instead of segregated and silenced, and programs to improve the environment, public health, and public awareness are integrated with the businesses and governments in these regions. This is something we share, or perhaps even actively strive for in order to be competitive in the world as it progresses. These are, at their core, the values of liberalism as they were envisioned by humanists during the enlightenment. People are inherently valuable, yet their differences, even their short-comings, must be accepted and addressed because they are not going away. Sure, the criminal justice systems are still imperfect and not everyone has access to even a few opportunities for advancement, but many do, and that is not an accident.

So, should you be a resident of the east or the west, I encourage you to travel to or even live on the opposite side of this country. The differences will stand out to you far more than the similarities, but you can feel secure in that your beliefs and your being are accepted in both.

-Forest F. White

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Recently, several extra-solar planets were discovered; that is, planets around stars other than our own. (Ex: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120828190127.htm ) To one such system, we even sent a high-powered signal to see if we might get a response, although it will take many years for the signal to reach its destination.  In addition, our understanding of solar systems other than our own is advancing rapidly, and a lot of speculation about habitable systems has begun.


© Adrian Mann

Now, this really sparked my imagination. In terms of sheer potential, living on other planets has perhaps the most gravity with a science fiction audience, made all the more compelling now that it is a very real possibility. But if you want to talk about a day on an extra-solar planet, it might be good to do some research. This is where solstation.com comes in.

I discovered solstation because wikipedia articles on the star systems close to earth were inadequate.  There were a few essays on specific systems, but if you got stuck on the few destinations within 10 light years of earth, it was difficult to find distances, habitable zones, recent discoveries, star intensity and solar behavior all in one place.  But that is exactly what solstation.com does.  You can view 3D maps of the local galaxy, check lists of stars by distance in concentric spherical fashion, or look up a specific star for a lot of information on it and references to online papers about it. They also include an interactive 3D star map. A map like the one below clearly shows the shortest paths to different stars, or the shortest path to a likely habitable system and another, suggesting the likely paths that extra-solar colonization would take, if it happened.

3D Map of Local Stars

If you find this a compelling subject, and I frankly can't understand how anyone wouldn't have at least a passing interest, solstation.com is your hookup.

-Forest F. White

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Returning to a less relevant topic, here is another east versus west. This time, we’re going to talk about labor, unions and corruption. It occurs to me that this topic may make me unpopular with working folks, so let me make something clear. I think that anyone who organizes for a group’s mutual well-being is doing what humans naturally do and should not be judged for doing it. Everyone knows there is strength in numbers. However, actions have effects and you can see them if things are done differently from place to place. So, without further delay…

The craft of the graft, and the drift of the grift

In the west, we sometimes grumble about the power of labor unions, particularly those who represent government workers or powerful lobbies who pressure the states like California and Washington for pensions, benefits, and more hours. Yes, the budget is a mess as in every other state, but I’ve heard a lot of western politicians complain that unions are the problem. This has spread to other places, like Wisconsin, because organized labor can be powerful and when it appears not to work with governments and industry, it is easy to blame. But, our public works are working, the water and power stays on, the trains are mostly on time, and we can rely on highways that are policed and in good repair most of the time.

Eastern unions have a longer history and a reputation that was quite notorious at some times. But in the east, public building projects are more difficult to maintain due to the different climate (see East versus West, part 2). First, you have to work when it isn’t snowing and the rain comes down so hard and there is so much traffic that potholes develop in a matter of days. Every year, the roadwork and utility building is rushed into as soon as the snow melts and continues well into the rainy season just to keep up. And when the snow falls, municipalities pay for snow plows and salt. Therefore, it is common knowledge that the unions and government work together, if they are not simply the same entity. And it’s true, unions have a reputation in the east for being tied to government contracts that are self-serving, sandbagged, bloated and only marginally legal. However, the roads get serviced, the tunnels get their upgrades, the bridges stay up, the power stays on, and government is a good place to work.

However, it is interesting what happens when unions and government work very close together. The east is also notorious for its crazy highway system and bizarre municipal borders that intertwine like a jigsaw puzzle. Some say this has to do with how townships and roads formed in colonial days, which may have been true. Others say it is caused by the zoning ordinances and political re-districting regularly changes who is in charge in a particular spot, which is almost always partially true. Yet most agree that it is also the grift – the requirements imposed by the unions, which every municipality depends on, and their demands for more billable hours and more projects than maybe necessary. I am inclined to agree, because there are no old towns or zoning laws that can explain something like the two 360degree roundabouts outside the Holland tunnel right now during construction.

Now, I am not saying I know why these extra loops in the freeway detour exist. If anyone could definitively explain to me why many highway artifacts in New Jersey exist in triplicate while entire townships have no freeways at all, I’d be interested. But the fact remains, there are two loops in the road that point you in exactly the same direction you were already going, and these aren’t in the traffic-heavy direction, where a loop might serve to alleviate a glut of traffic from backing up too far. You can clearly see that there are no loops going in the other direction, so what function are these loops serving? If this were an isolated example of extra stuff being added onto a public construction project, I might see it as anomalous, but it isn’t. The freeways in the east are tangles of crazy switchbacks and “creative” toll road doublings with roadside ramp attractions that rival roller coasters. Accompanying them all are road crews, often on break, and this is so common as to be accepted as normal.

In the west, by comparison, there are fewer examples of these additives. For example, the BART system is formed in a star centered on Oakland, and serves two of the three major airports in one system. In New York, you have to ride a train through Manhattan and then loop through Brooklyn before you arrive at the JFK air train in Queens, which you must ride further to get to the airport, and these trains are part of the same system. There isn’t a train to LaGuardia airport, so you take a bus or cab to get there. The BART system isn’t perfect, because Cal Train owns the contract for the peninsula, so hasn’t completed a perfect loop around the bay, but here we see again the influence of contracts that bind counties and municipalities.

I can’t call foul on this. Frankly, government workers aren’t paid very well in the west unless they are attached to something with a concentration of power like a university system. In the west, public works have a lot of oversight because the space and climate are conducive to allowing projects to take a long time and we have a large labor force of undocumented workers that are exploited to great effect. In the east, it is more fair and there isn’t as much time to lolly-gag over minutiae, but the results in some strange developments that you won’t see elsewhere, but where else do you find a public park made out of old elevated train rails?

-Forest F. White

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February 2014

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