Pages

Friday, February 26, 2021

Time Quintet, because I promised

 When I picked apart Tolkien and Lewis (i.e. my FAVORITE authors) somebody asked if I was going to do L'Engle next. So I got the one-volume chonker of the entire Time Quintet and read . . . well, most of it. I got a little way into Many Waters and said to myself, well, the kids are never going to be allowed to read this anyway.

Well, I still enjoyed them. Meg and Charles Wallace are great characters and the worlds L'Engle builds are still compelling. I had fewer gripes about the values in the books than about the writing. I wanted to take out a red pen and demand some heavy rewrites, especially in The Wind in the Door. The Wind in the Door appears to have been written in a single sitting, on an acid trip, and never once revised.

I'm not saying I didn't still like it, but . . . well, the editor in me is outraged that it could be so good and yet not be better.

Anyway, let's start with A Wrinkle in Time. It's the most popular and for good reason: it makes sense on its own, it has a nice contained plot that's easy to explain, most of it takes place in a corporeal reality that it's possible for the human mind to understand. So that's nice.

One thing I really like about it, compared to Narnia, is the absence of an actual god-figure. Instead we have some slightly inept ladies (retired stars/possible angels) who don't thoroughly know what they're doing and literally can't help sometimes. When you're writing a religious allegory or religiously-themed story, you can't have God actually in it helping too much or there's no story, but if God is in there, he ends up looking like a jerk because he's not helping. Narnia falls into both those pitfalls, by having Aslan sometimes not helping for no good reason, and other times taking over and fixing things too easily.

Likewise the parents in any children's book are an issue, like what kind of neglectful monsters are they that they don't solve the problems for the kids? In AWIT, Mrs. Murry doesn't know what's going on and Mr. Murry is obviously missing for most of the book, so they're able to escape looking terrible. I don't care for Mr. Murry when he does appear; he seems pretty dense and overly concerned about Respect and Politeness from his son who's, you know, obviously possessed. But he does eventually figure out that Meg knows what she's talking about, so I'm not too mad about it.

I like how the main conflict is Meg learning her worth and knowing she has something to offer even when everyone else in the book is smarter and prettier and better at sports than her. I like that she's encouraged to stay angry, and that the answer in the end is love.

The only part I really deeply hate is the genetic explanations for things. The Murrys don't belong in their small town, because . . . they're genetically superior. Because their parents are two scientists, obviously all the children must be brilliant. Meg is reassured that she actually is brilliant and will be pretty--not, you know, that people have value even if they're neither brilliant nor pretty.

Calvin, honestly, doesn't belong in this story at all in my opinion. It's reasonable that Charles Wallace, being both smarter and more spiritual than Meg, knows how to tesseract right away. It isn't really reasonable that Calvin does. It feels like he exists in the book just to make Meg feel bad about herself, by being effortlessly better than her at everything. And why is he so much better? He'll tell you: it's because he's a "sport." His family is genetically inferior (look at his gross ugly abusive mom!) but he's some kind of genetic throwback and therefore perfect in every way. Like, WHY. I hate that. We could have used this moment to point out that genetics isn't destiny and everyone's individual and Calvin just happens to be good at some things his parents aren't, but nope. L'Engle doesn't believe that.

The whole thing felt, when I was a kid, extremely relatable. I, too, felt weird and inadequate around "normal" people. My family was weird and smart and a little bit autistic. The reassurance that I was going to grow up into someone who was good at something, that the other kids were mean to me because they sensed I was superior, that I didn't have to be as smart as my brother to be worthwhile, that all mattered to me a lot when I was a kid. At the same time . . . I'm not sure it went the right way with any of this. It might feed in, a little bit, to the whole Superior Smart Kid thing a lot of us fell into, as our way of defending our self-worth against bullies.

Okay, so that's A Wrinkle in Time. What about A Wind in the Door?

Well, it's a mess, as I said. It felt like L'Engle was trying to cram too many things into one book. Are we talking about Meg learning to see the good in Mr. Jenkins, the mean principal? Or is this about "school" where the cherub teaches our characters how to . . . um . . . something? Or is it about curing Charles Wallace from mitochondrial disease? Having the bulk of the book take place in a dimension where you can't see or hear anything, but everything is transmitted through telepathy, was . . . a choice. It made it really difficult to relate to what was going on, because you couldn't picture anything.

Personally I would have scratched the "school" concept because it automatically lowers the stakes. Like, any time in a children's book, the children are simply facing a challenge adults have placed in front of them for educational purposes, I know that none of it really matters. It's not a life-and-death struggle, it's homework. Wouldn't it have made more sense to simply say "nobody can save Charles Wallace but you"?

Charles Wallace is getting bullied in this book, and we are told it's his fault for being weird and he needs to learn to act more normal. I hate this lesson with the heat of a thousand suns. He is obviously autistic and some of the adults in the story need to get their acts together to stop the bullying. Why should it be on him to change himself?

However, we do get a few alternative views. Calvin suggests that he'd do better in a city school, with more diversity. (This counters the Murrys' views of cities as horrible places full of crime.) Mr. Jenkins, by the end, seems he'll be CW's ally at school. So maybe it's not all on Charles Wallace to change.

The whole central struggle of the book (insofar as there is one in the tangle of plot) is that the farandolae inside Charles Wallace's mitochondria don't want to settle down, "Deepen," grow up, and do their jobs in the cell. They want to run around being wild, because an evil being is there telling them to do it. So Meg and Calvin have to telepathically convince them it's good for them to be what they were meant to be. That's the theme: be the thing that you are meant to be, be essentially Yourself, except when you have to pretend to be more normal at school, but really that's a service to being your true self . . . It's a little convoluted, but L'Engle does try to explain it all.

And like . . . I get it, some, but I also don't get it. How are you supposed to tell the real thing you are supposed to be from the thing you want to be? The thing you are supposed to be will make you happier, but you can't know that till you do it, and it might look like less fun from the outside. It struck me as the whole vocation nonsense in Regnum Christi, where the thing you are meant to do is always the thing you want least. What is the analog in real life? Growing up? Getting a job? Getting married?

On the whole, it's a heckin confusing book, which had the added bonus of making me think farandolae were real, and then when I found out they weren't, making me think mitochondria weren't real. My kids probably shouldn't read this till they're a little older, just because it makes so little sense.

Next I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The plot: Earth is facing nuclear war because this crazy dictator in South America is going to nuke everyone. Teenage Charles Wallace goes back in time to be all the dictator's ancestors and make them make better choices which will avert the nuclear war. Only it's all told from the point of view of grown-up Meg, who is now pretty as promised, who is telepathically linked to Charles Wallace the whole time. I really don't know why she chose to do it that way, instead of actually writing from Charles Wallace's point of view.

Anyway the solution to the story turns out to be making the right people marry each other, so that the South American dictator is descended from the blue-eyed of two prehistorical Welsh/Native American brothers. Blue eyes, you see, is a sign of goodness and the blue-eyed brother or cousin of each generation is the one with a good heart.

We never change the dictator's mind, or give him less traumatic life experiences. We change his genes, so that he's now blue-eyed and good, and doesn't want to shoot missiles anymore.

WHAT THE HECK, MADELINE.

This is worse than all the previous genetic assumptions and just leaps right into genes-are-destiny. Is anybody's actions their fault at all, or is it just that good people are going to be good and bad people are going to be bad?

I do like that the book redeems Calvin's mother, who it turns out is part of this magical Welsh family even though she's forgotten almost everything important about it. But she plays a role by giving Meg and Charles Wallace an important poem.

I don't like that the lesson Charles Wallace takes away is that he should stop trying to direct any of the process or plot, but just go along with wherever the winds take him, land in whatever body he happens to be in, and God (not mentioned, but definitely God) will make everything work out. I like characters with agency, dangit. "Agency is bad" is a bad lesson. But the whole "genetics is destiny" thing is definitely why I'm not giving it to my kids just yet. It's expanded from a little annoying detail to the entire plot and I simply don't believe in it.

I'm not going to go into the last two because I didn't reread them. I will say Many Waters is not intended for children. It's mostly about sexy angels having sex with human women, and then everyone drowns, except one girl who's virginal and chaste but we also talk about her breasts a lot. Like . . . it might not be horribly toxic, but my memory of it is something like "sex is bad, it makes you almost die in childbirth, you can tell the good guys by the fact that they don't have sex." I was 12 or so when I read it, and that was too young for sure.

Who's a Madeline L'Engle stan here? Do you agree with my takes?

Sunday, January 31, 2021

New Year things

1

Today is the last day it's really reasonable to do a retrospective of 2020, so here goes.

Last year I resolved not to give up hope. That was all. I realized that I wasn't in control of very much in my life, because of Jackie mostly, and instead of making a resolution, I decided to hope for a few things.

Here is what I hoped I could do:
  • wean Jackie
  • potty train Jackie
  • get Jackie to sleep through the night
  • be able to accomplish more in a day
  • get a literary agent
  • finish 1-2 novels
  • Donald Trump gets voted out

The year fulfilled all of my worst fears by making it harder to do things than I had imagined. But on the other hand, it fulfilled almost all of my hopes. While John was on civil leave from work, I managed to finish 2019's novel, and by using all of my free time for the second half of the year, I finished (the rough draft of) a second. Since we had nowhere to go for months, it was a great time to potty train Jackie.

She slowly started sleeping through the night most of the time, over the course of the year. I weaned her on her birthday this year, so it's only a little late.

I did not accomplish more in a day. It helped that I lost my Latin teaching job (really, a relief given how much fun teaching Latin by zoom wouldn't be) but then I had to help my own kids do schoolwork so it came out in the wash. I did not get an agent.

We did vote out Donald Trump, thanks to everyone that turned out. He even left office. I didn't really relax till he had.

But honestly that's pretty good for a year when a) I didn't push myself too hard to accomplish anything, and b) it was a hell year to begin with.

2

One thing I didn't put down was get a writing job, though I've been wanting to do that for a while. Teaching really drains me, and I would like to be able to work in my jammies. Doubly so given the pandemic.

Well, a friend was looking for a job writing web content, so now that's what I do. It's very part time. I briefly picked up a second contract, but that stressed me out having so many articles on my plate, so it was a bit of a relief when that one didn't ask for more. When the kids are all back in school, I would like to pick up more jobs like that. I believe that I can, because a) I'm a pretty good writer, and b) pretty much every company needs a website, which needs a blog, which needs content, so that's a heck of a lot of demand. 

There's always a problem where there are more writers than there are eyeballs that want to read the content. But today, robots read every single website for keywords, so you don't even need a human audience to have a job.

Anyway, it feels really good to get validation for my writing. And also to have money that's all mine.

3

Jackie really is getting easier, very very slowly. She still wants attention an awful lot of the time. And when she wants a thing, you pretty much can't distract her or put her off. You do it or there's screaming and screaming and more screaming and flailing and hitting. It's hard. I don't love that part.

Because of the challenge she continues to be, specifically connected to stuff like sensory sensitivity, rigidity in routines, and shyness, I had her assessed for autism. This was both shorter and cheaper than what we did for Marko, because I took her to a child psychologist instead of a developmental pediatrician. I was worried that would mean they wouldn't see her issues, especially given she's a girl and thus not the standard profile.

But the doctor did see them, and confirmed she does have ("very mild!") autism. Which surprises me not at all, and is honestly a huge relief. It is hard to admit to people that she is the amount of trouble she is, even at four years old, and not have an explanation for it. 

When you have a wild, fussy, or demanding child, people judge the heck out of you. But the second you say the A-word, suddenly it's "oh I love autistic people, I am so supportive, you're so strong and great."

Sorry, but if you don't love and support wild, fussy, demanding children without having to be told about their label, you don't love autistic people. Because they're everywhere and they aren't born diagnosed.

That's my rant for today.

4

Resolutions for this year? Are we doing that? Is there a point to that?

Things I would like to have happen, COVID willing and the crick don't rise:
  • I want my COVID vaccine.
  • I want to go to WorldCon, the convention where the Hugo Awards are happening.
  • I want to relearn how to spend time with people. And hug them. I'm gonna hug so many people.
  • I want to spend as much time as possible this summer outside. In the pool if at all possible. I finally have pool-age kids and we missed a whole summer.
  • I'd like to sign my kids up for ballet, gymnastics, or martial arts next fall.
  • I'd like to take a long break from writing, because of burnout, but then write something completely new in November.
  • If I run through my agent list and still don't have an agent, I'm submitting my novel to indie presses. The publishing industry is consolidating too much and sometimes small is better.
  • Pick up some freelance writing contracts maybe.
It's going to be a sad year if most of this stuff has to be canceled. Please stay home till you get vaccinated so we can have a real summer this year.

5

One last thing is a word. Gotta have a word, I've been doing this for years and I'd hate to leave a gap, even though next year is as up-in-the-air as last year was.

The word that came to me is PEOPLE.

In 2020 I actually got more social, in a sense. I've been pretty isolated for years, because of kids, especially one kid who hangs upside-down and screams when I try to have an adult conversation. But this year, everyone was online all day like me. I had some good groups and talked a lot with my friends. Which is lovely.

So next year I'd like to keep that going, and if at all possible move that outside the house. Start by hanging out with the people I already know and miss, and then maybe, slowly, meet other people I don't already know. I know! Terrifying! But I would really like to do that.


Happy moderately-new-still year. Do you have plans or a word?

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Consciousness

 A few months ago, I read a book called Blindsight. It's a novel about first contact with aliens, but it was trying to make a point. The argument of the book was that consciousness is a useless thing for humans to have, that we'd all be better off if we blindly did things without being aware of them.

I don't feel it made its argument very well, in part because it fails to narrow consciousness down to a single thing, alternately defining it as self-awareness, empathy, and theory of mind. Those are all very different things!

So it made me want to talk about consciousness. What is it, is it useful, what consequences does it have?

Here are a few things the word "consciousness" is used to describe:

  • Taking in sensory data (awareness)
  • Being aware of oneself as a thinking person (self-concept)
  • Knowing that one's thoughts are one's thoughts and being able to inspect them (introspection)
  • Caring about other people (compassion)
  • Actually feeling what other people feel (empathy)
  • Being able to model what another person might know and feel (theory of mind)
In the book, the hero lacks empathy because of a brain surgery he had as a child, but is still able to model and predict other people's behavior through careful observation. We are told that he's actually better than everyone else, because without that inconvenient "consciousness" he can more clearly see what's going on. At the same time, he actually destroys his own life because he can't react with empathy to his suffering girlfriend.

Another character explains that humanity is the only intelligent species in the galaxy that has consciousness. Everyone else is just blindly doing things and better off for it.  Communication with aliens is like a "Chinese room"--a thought experiment where a person who doesn't know Chinese is able to communicate with Chinese notecards in a room full of them, but understands none of it. Nobody truly understands anything except humans, because we're the only ones with this useless self-awareness.

We're held back by our consciousness. In reality, sociopaths are the most successful and the only flaw is that some people aren't narcissists. We also can't communicate meaningfully with aliens, because only beings without consciousness can properly relate to one another.

This is a whole mess because it's not clear what he's talking about. Some of what he's talking about is self-concept, some is introspection, some is empathy. And all of these have a purpose, even on an evolutionary level! If we are introspective, if we can interrogate our thoughts and recognize them as separate from objective reality, we can arrive closer at a knowledge of reality than we could otherwise. Likewise, if we have empathy, we can cooperate with others and accomplish things we couldn't alone. One sociopath may be temporarily successful, but a species of all sociopaths wouldn't get very far, let alone invent space travel.

Personally, I don't think any of the things described as "consciousness" are true epiphenomena, useless to our practical survival ends. Sensory awareness is pretty vital for acquiring food. Self-concept seems like a necessary prerequisite to introspection, which is important for fine-tuning our perceptions and judgments. For instance, if you don't know that your thoughts are your thoughts, you'll never ask yourself if your thoughts are accurate and seek ways to make them more accurate.

Compassion, empathy, and theory of mind are all necessary for cooperation. Some people lack one or another of these. For instance, many autistic people have impaired theory of mind (they have trouble predicting what other people know or how they'll react), but they are still empathetic and capable of compassion. Conversely, in the TV series Sherlock, Holmes has no empathy but chooses to be compassionate. Still, cooperation works best when we have all of these abilities.

It seems to me that if "consciousness" were truly an epiphenomenon, an internal experience that doesn't help our survival in any way, we would never be able to know if an alien species had it or not. They would have all the capabilities we have, and we'd never know if they were experiencing it in the way we do.

But if consciousness is a thing we can test for, if it's empathy or awareness or introspection, then it's absolutely useful. It gives us abilities as a species that we couldn't have without it. And that's why I think aliens would be conscious too, if they made it into space at all.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Giving thanks in a hard year

 We're not going anywhere for Thanksgiving. That's nothing new; we don't usually travel because both of our families are too far away to conveniently get to in a four-day weekend. But I always want to get together with friends, because turkeys are large and because I feel Thanksgiving is the ultimate day for hospitality. I like hosting and I like having more dishes on the table than one person could conceivably make.

But, sad as it is to admit it, this is not the year for it. Schools and work are, for the most part, open, and that makes additional gatherings that much riskier. If everyone went nowhere but Thanksgiving dinner, one virus case could infect a dozen people. But if everyone at the dinner goes back to school and work on Monday and doesn't stop attending till they actually feel sick, they may start a virus cluster than infects hundreds. Here is a risk assessment tool showing your odds that someone at your feast will be COVID-positive.

But, you know, the real meaning of the holiday isn't guests or turkey or even fictionalized school plays about Native Americans. It's right in the name, thanks giving. You can give thanks at all times, because there is always something to celebrate. The first Thanksgiving holidays were established at difficult times: George Washington proclaimed one soon after the Revolutionary War; Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. At a time of national crisis, it can be good to look at what we still have; what we are trying to preserve.

To that end, here's a list of things I'm thankful for this year:

1. Our health. We haven't had COVID so far and I'm so glad.

2. Work. John hasn't lost his job, despite economic struggles across the country, and I have gotten a very small part-time job which is exactly the size I can handle right now. And it's writing, which means I'm getting paid to write for the first time in my life. A lifelong dream.

3. Our families are well.

4. The boys have adjusted so well to virtual school.

5. The girls have been able to go to school and I feel it's being handled safely for the most part.

6. Jackie got into Head Start preschool, despite not really meeting any of the qualifications, because a kind school administrator saw that it would be helpful for her.

7. Jackie's doing really well at it too.

8. After a week or two of utter paralysis at the start of the pandemic, I got back my writing mojo, finished one novel, and started the sequel.

9. I have many wonderful friends, whom I'm able to connect with online all the time. Honestly, because of Jackie's social anxiety, I'd felt quarantined for years. Now that nobody else can go out either, people are meeting me in a space that's open to me.

10. I've started exercising daily and my health is much better. I have more energy and fewer headaches.

11. We have never run out of toilet paper ;) or food.

12. Some of our friends walk by our house often and we shout across the lawn.

13. I've done some great crafting lately.

14. I found a sweatshirt to replace my old raggedy sweatshirt, which fits all my extremely picky requirements.

15. Our house is warm as the weather gets colder.

16. WE ELECTED JOE BIDEN 

17. Two coronavirus vaccines have proven effective and will probably be available within months.

18. Our school district is providing breakfast and lunch at no cost to every child in the district, in or out of school. Those food deliveries make a big difference for a lot of local families.

19. The three older kids get along really well most of the time. Yesterday they spent an hour pretending to be an opossum family without a quarrel between them. And when I tell them to do things . . . they mostly do it? It's wild.

20. I sleep through the night pretty often. I'd say like four nights a week? Jackie is nightwaking more than her siblings did at almost four, but she's not waking every night, and most nights she does wake, she goes back to sleep within half an hour.

21. I'M NOT PREGNANT

22. I repeat, not pregnant. It's super. It's the best thing. I haven't had my body to myself this long since 2009. I can lift my groceries into the car without hurting my back. I can eat everything without getting sick. I'm not in random, untreatable pain. I can take ibuprofen. I can get off the couch easily. I can tie my shoes. I never appreciated these things before.

23. All of our appliances work. It's like living in a house staffed by robot servants.

24. We get beautiful sunsets in the winter, with the leaves off the trees.

25. I learned how to make homemade noodles for lo mein and we eat that often. I like kneading things.

26. We got our chimneys inspected and can have fires in the fireplace whenever we want.

27. Our mental health is doing pretty well, considering. I love the way all of my friends are aware of it and ask about each other's emotional state. We trade self-care tips.

28. Animal Crossing. It's fun. I have all nice people on my island.

29. Star Trek: Lower Decks. It's hilarious and full of fan inside jokes. Highly recommend.

30. My breath is going in and out, every moment, without my even having to think about it. I'm happy to be alive. I feel a little guilty to be alive when so many haven't survived this year, but me feeling bad doesn't bring anyone back. Rather, I think it gives me a motive to drink life to the lees. I want to exist deeply in each moment when I am lucky enough to be alive.


What are you thankful for, this Thanksgiving?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Should billionaires exist?

I participated in a written debate recently on the question "Resolved: Billionaires Should Not Exist." Unfortunately, the limit was 1000 words. I have a lot more than a thousand words to say about billionaires, and how much I don’t think they should exist. So here’s the uncut version for you guys.

To be clear, I don’t actually want anybody to try to get rid of billionaires right now. Even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom said billionaires should not exist, didn’t propose tax plans that would come close to putting them back in the millionaire bracket. The influence billionaires have on our political life would make this almost impossible to achieve. And it isn’t really necessary, because much (not all) of the good you can do by eliminating billionaires could also be done by taxing them just a wee bit more. But if I could wave a wand and transfer the wealth of America’s 700 billionaires into the bank accounts of the 40 million Americans in poverty, I would do it.

I will start with a caveat: I do not intend to argue that in a future, poverty-free world, billionaires should not exist. I intend to argue that in the world of the present, in which poverty does exist and inequality is constantly increasing, billionaires should not exist.

My argument is that happiness would be increased if the wealth of billionaires were redistributed and they were taxed to prevent them from earning more than one billion dollars, while no serious disadvantages would result.

Utilitarian argument

I will pass over any question of deserving money, since that relies on a sense of justice not everyone can agree on, and consider only utilitarian goals. Would America be a happier place if the money of billionaires were redistributed to the lowest income tiers?

The folk saying that money can’t buy happiness is untrue. Scientists have calculated that money increases happiness, but only to a point. Up to $70,000 a year, every increase in income correlates to an increase in happiness. That’s unsurprising, because much suffering is caused by poverty or anxiety over falling into it. An individual who makes $70,000 can afford a house where he doesn’t have to listen to his neighbors screaming at one another; he can afford to travel to visit family; he can afford a healthy and varied diet and a meal out from time to time; he can afford entertainment and art and time with friends. An individual making the minimum wage of $15,000 a year or less, which includes over 13% of Americans, can afford none of these. Naturally he will be much less happy.

A billionaire, however, enjoys no utility from all that money. A person who possesses $900 million can already purchase anything a person might reasonably want: a mansion with grounds and a beautiful view convenient to a large city; a yacht, a private jet, employees to handle every need. A billionaire has passed, long ago, the point of diminishing returns, where more money can truly increase happiness. The same money will purchase a much greater utility when it is redistributed to the rest of the nation.

The 400 wealthiest Americans have, collectively, 3.6 trillion dollars. Distributed among the 34 million Americans in poverty, it would give each poor American $103,000. That’s enough for a modest house, owned debt-free, or a four-year degree at a public college. The gain in net happiness would be massive.

By distributing this money more carefully, through a long-term basic income or poverty-reducing programs, the increase in happiness could go on for years. As families pull themselves out of poverty, they will increase both production and spending, boosting the economy and reducing social ills like crime and homelessness.

So, once we acknowledge that redistributing money would increase happiness, we can start asking what other consequences such a move could have. Is there good billionaires do that we would miss? Or is there additional harm we could prevent by abolishing billionaires?

Argument from power

Once a person has satisfied all happiness-related desires, the only thing left their money can buy is power. When you have more money than most other people, you can influence society in a direction you choose. Some exercise that desire by giving to charities related to the world they want: whether, like Gates, to vaccination research, or, like Cordelia Scaife May, to causes like restricting immigration and population control because she wanted to preserve America’s open spaces.

Others exercise that desire politically, by donating to candidates, hiring lobbying firms, or bribing politicians directly. They can also fund media favoring their preferred worldview, as the Kochs or Michael Bloomberg do. Even in our court system, the rich always have a massive advantage over the poor, because they have better lawyers. Large companies can trample small ones in patent lawsuits, and rich people avoid jail time for crimes that would lock up a normal person for years.

In 2014, a Princeton study surveyed the effects of money on politics by measuring how often government policy follows the interests either of the economic elites or of the people at large. Their conclusion was that when the majority of economic elites disagree with the majority of average people, the elites were far more likely to get their way--45% of the time, rather than 18% for average people.

It would be nice to say that billionaires having money doesn’t affect the rest of us. But, since we’re all affected by politics, it absolutely does. This also casts a worrying light on our odds of ever changing the uncomfortable status quo.

Argument from charity

We are sometimes told that billionaires do good because they can donate large quantities to charity. But billionaires give a lower percentage of their income to charity than others. Even the biggest givers in the nation, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, give less than 5% of their income annually. If we discount those two, the rest of the richest 20 Americans give about .3% of their combined income--less than the average American.

Even that charitable work isn’t necessarily helpful. Much charitable giving exists for a tax write-off rather than actually doing good. Money given to foundations can stay within the foundation forever. Donations can be used to strongarm nonprofits into whatever a billionaire wants, or to start organizations promoting a political interest. The Kochs, for instance, give to charity, but those charities are largely climate change denialist media.

If we are to spend funds wisely to help the needy in this country, we shouldn’t leave the distribution of it to billionaires. This money is better administered by smaller owners, nonprofits, and government.

Argument from investment

The next defense of billionaires is that they invest capital in the market. But that isn’t specific to billionaires. Wherever money is, it is active in the market. However, investment patterns are different at different income brackets.

The poor primarily spend their money on their needs. This fuels business at the level of demand: whatever businesses best satisfy the needs of people prosper when people have money to spend.

People of middle income invest money in mutual funds, government bonds, and banks. This fuels the market in general, making capital available for business and government.

Billionaires, however, have more money than they can easily spend. Some goes into the stock market, of course, in the same way as smaller fortunes. Some is spent on venture capitalism--investment in prospective businesses. And some goes to investing in real estate.

How much good is this capital doing, compared to the capital that is simply spent? Funding new businesses is good, but billionaires may not be the best placed to decide what ventures are worth investing in. For instance, the ridiculous juice subscription company, Juicero, was fully funded by the Silicon Valley wealthy, while diabetics are forced to hack insulin pumps because of a lack of innovation in the ones available. Assigning capital to causes is an important job, and having it done by a few super-rich eccentrics might not be the best way.

Money invested in real estate may be the worst for the common good. When a person of moderate means flips a house or buys an apartment building to manage, they usually do add some value. Real estate speculation, or buying large tracts on the promise the price will rise, can do harm. The mere fact that people use real estate for investment makes the price go up, causing housing to become less affordable and driving homelessness. Housing bubbles are an example of this.

Properties owned by large investors are 18% more likely to evict tenants than those owned by smaller landlords. This is because they can easily afford the loss of letting a unit stand empty. In some areas, many units remain empty because the market can’t fill them at that price. Large investors will buy up entire neighborhoods and drive up the price as high as they want, because they have no competition.

Another method of expanding wealth is to extract more resources. The urge for constant growth is a driver of environmental destruction: the pumping out of aquifers, burning of rainforests, fracking. Without the political advantages billionaires have, millionaires aren’t often able to exploit the environment on the same scale. But, since these are not necessary activities we need billionaires to do, we’d be better off with smaller investors.

In short: capital exists, and if there were no billionaires, there would still be capital. But that capital would be assigned by a larger number of people, and thus more accurately aligned to what the market needs rather than the quirks of a few people who need nothing.

Argument from innovation

Another argument for billionaires is that they fund great innovations. But in reality, most innovators do whatever they are known for before becoming billionaires. Once they are billionaires, they may appear to innovate, but more often, they use patent law and buyouts to suppress other innovations.

Bill Gates and Tim Allen weren't billionaires when they started Microsoft. Jeff Bezos started Amazon with $250,000. Elon Musk wasn't a billionaire when he started his first company either. It requires basic financial security to make an invention, but not billions of dollars. After becoming billionaires, these men mostly have not invented anything personally, but rather funded other people's research. This research could have been funded by government or jointly-owned associations.

In fact, in many cases, it already has been. GPS, digital assistants, touchscreens, and WiFi come from government research. Elon Musk's companies Solar City, Tesla, and SpaceX have received billions in government funds, and much of his money came from PayPal, which he didn’t invent at all.

We also have to consider how many innovators and inventors never get a chance to make their big breakthrough because of a lack of opportunity. No billionaires are entirely self-made; they generally come from comfortably well-off families and have college degrees. They have the leisure to work on their ideas and the ability to raise funds through impressing investors or getting loans.

One wonders how many Americans have been just as talented, but held back by circumstances. Maybe they were forced to drop out of high school to make a living, or they were too busy struggling as a single parent, or they had their credit destroyed by medical bills, and never had a chance to invent anything or start a business. It is wildly implausible that all the talent just happens to be found among the well-off. Perhaps we would have many more life-changing inventions if every creative person were financially secure and able to access education and necessary funds.

What would happen to the money?

So, imagine a system wherein it become impractical to become a billionaire. High wealth taxes force billionaires to divest their wealth. Where would that wealth go? Would it vanish? Would billionaires stop doing whatever it is that produces so much value?

Most likely, many of them would choose to donate large quantities to charity--better to at least control where your money goes. Many would divest stock, perhaps by offering employees joint ownership or finding family members to hold some of it. Some would continue as they are, passively earning wealth which goes directly to taxes. And more people would choose to stop at the eight-figure level of wealth rather than the nine-figure level--making business choices that produce a steady level of income rather than constant high growth.

Would it have been a bad thing if Amazon had chosen to stick to books instead of trying to devour the market share of every kind of product that can be shipped? Would it have been so awful if Microsoft hadn’t bought XBox, LinkedIn, Skype, and Mojang? Did the market ever benefit from Warren Buffet owning so many properties? Not at all. If billionaires stopped doing what they do, which is increasing their portfolios through the investment of capital, smaller investors would own those assets. We do not need to “motivate” people to innovate and invest with the golden carrot of becoming a billionaire, because there is nothing only billionaires do that has any value. Motivating people to run reasonably-sized businesses with reasonably-sized fortunes has exactly the same benefit.

None of this would end poverty overnight, but the tax revenue brought in could do a great deal of good. The wealth of billionaires could fund universal health care, subsidized college, rent assistance, better elementary schools, and so on. While billionaires’ efforts to divest money would reduce tax revenue, many billionaires simply can’t help continuing to earn money, and the public coffers would benefit.

The result of this would be a nation both economically and politically more equal than what we have today. The gains of the poor would result in widely increased happiness, and the only suffering caused would be the temporary disappointment of billionaires at not being so rich--though, to be clear, with 999 million dollars each, there would still be little they couldn’t afford. There is no reason we need billionaires.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Seven autumn takes

Time for an update, isn't it?

1

The pandemic stretches on. A lot of people seem to have gotten bored and gone back to usual activities. We mostly have not. Luckily, our state is keeping r<1, which means it's not spiking. Probably due to mask wearing, which people are actually doing pretty faithfully.

The schools gave us two choices, virtual or in person. The in-person classes are socially distanced, and the students are supposed to be wearing masks all day. In order to spread out the amount they need to, different cohorts are there different days: elementary kids four days a week, middle schoolers two (I think), and high schoolers one.

Virtual kids got a loaner chromebook and have two video calls a day. The rest is video lectures they can watch at any time, and assignments they can finish on their own. That's a lot less burdensome than many long video calls, which sounds like a nightmare when I hear other kids are doing that.

It was a huge struggle deciding what to do. On the one hand, I'm home all day, so theoretically I should be able to keep everyone with me. And that would be safer, and save the school resources. But on the other, Jackie is intense enough to make it virtually impossible for me to teach anyone. I struggled last spring because of that. The best case was that she'd watch TV and distract everyone. The worst case was her directly interfering or freaking out when I attempted to help anyone. Even before the pandemic, because of her difficulty in social situations in the past, I really wanted to get her into preschool this year. The school agreed she needed it and let her in, which wasn't a guarantee. The thought of losing that--an actual, extended break from this extremely difficult child, plus maybe help for whatever the heck is going on with her--was one of my major pandemic-related stresses.

So, when it turned out in-person preschool was an option, I signed her up. Even though I know she might not be great at wearing her mask, and there is risk involved. My thought is that, because we have very few contacts of any kind outside of school, it's more of a risk to us than to the teachers. And we really do have a legitimate need.

I also signed up Miriam, because she did very little work in the spring. She'll do anything for her teachers, but when it's me asking, suddenly she resists. She also has a strong need for social interactions with other kids, since her brothers often exclude her and Jackie is too young. I felt that she could be relied on to wear her mask and follow the rules. And this way she will learn to read this year. I really don't know whether she would if it was just me and some video calls.

Michael and Marko are learning virtually. They are old enough to read their assignment lists and get them done fairly independently, and if they do get stuck, I'm there to help. Michael wanted to stay home, because he doesn't like school and didn't miss his friends. Marko would have preferred to go in person, but given his habit of putting everything into his mouth, I felt he would be a worse risk even than Jackie. I also kind of appreciate the chance to separate him from the bullies he dealt with last year, and to supervise what he's doing myself so that I know he actually understands what he's being taught. He's getting very little in special ed assistance now, so having me on hand is probably more useful than getting twenty minutes with a professional once a week.

2

So how's that going?

Jackie adores school. Just loves every minute. The second she finds out it's a school day, she jumps for joy. I can't say I was expecting that at all; even the days she liked daycare last year, she didn't like actually getting dropped off for it. But preschool is just super fun, apparently. People not getting within six feet of her is a plus.


It does seem to exhaust her. We've had a lot of hard afternoons. Two-hour meltdowns over her favorite towel being in the wash have made a comeback. Her teachers say she's as good as gold while she's there, but when I mention some of her at-home behavior, they seem incredulous. Like .... this is the child who clawed my arm this morning because there were no raisins in her cereal. This is the child who pretty much won't walk anywhere some days. It's really hard for me to deal with this disparity. Like, am I just a garbage parent that she acts so differently there than here? The teacher says it's common for kids to save their worst behavior for home, where they feel safest. But it still makes me feel like I'll never get any kind of diagnosis or help for her, because she's only like this at home.

Miriam loves school and seems to be doing great in it. Like last year, she has one best friend that she is obsessed with and tells us all about. They don't have proper recess, but they have "chat time" at their six-feet-apart desks, and also directed activities outside. She's being a trooper about all the extra safety procedures. Except the one day she had a slight fever at dropoff, and had to come home again. She was furious about it. Luckily, she turned out to have no other symptoms. Maybe she was just warm.


Michael is doing just great with virtual school. His teacher has everything very well organized. And it's nice that I'm home and can look over his work and figure out what he's having trouble with before he turns it in. Last year at school, he'd sometimes come home with whole worksheets marked wrong and have no idea why.

Marko resists some work and dives into other assignments. Everything having to do with ecosystems has been thrilling to him. Math, not so much. If I homeschool him any other year, I think I'll have to put together my own curriculum, because he really needs to be excited about a subject to pay any attention to it at all.

3

A plan of mine for a long time has been to get an exercise bike so I can improve my health without having to wait till somebody can watch the kids while I go for a walk or something. I finally got one off Craigslist.


It's been great, because I can put my phone up and watch The Late Show or put on some tunes and distract myself from the fact that I'm doing exercise.

I am pretty sure it's helping; I have had less dizziness and shortness of breath lately. Though taking vitamins seems to also be essential.

While the kids are at school, I finally have some time to myself. Most of that is getting taken up on self-care (like exercising and showering) and on chores, but I've had some time to write also. I'm trying to turn last year's book into a trilogy, but it's hard. I usually do one-offs for a reason.

I also have been writing some web content for a friend's business. Which means I have been getting paid to write. It's about finance, which isn't exciting to me, but honestly as long as I'm writing, I'm never bored. And I'm getting PAID. To WRITE. 

4

The pandemic isn't hindering us from having fun, because this time of year all the fun is outdoors anyway. We've gone to a lot of parks lately, and haven't found them crowded. Playgrounds sometimes are, but not creeks and hiking trails.





I love Virginia this time of year. Winter is bitter and summer is like being slowly steamed and eaten alive, but fall is perfect.

5

Which makes it a really bad time to think about possibly moving. Not far--the idea is to move closer to John's work, so that he doesn't have to spend over three hours commuting every day. But . . . the DC area is kind of terrible, even if you can afford to live in the nicer suburbs, which we couldn't.

There are a lot of good arguments in favor: greater population density means better odds for each of us to find activities or hobby groups. John could find a gaming group. I could find a writing group. The schools are better rated, and there are more autism groups and resources. We'd have an easier time getting to DC to see museums. There would just be more to do . . . at least, if this dang pandemic ever ends.

Plus, the election going on makes me feel . . . not very welcome around here. This is one of the reddest counties in the state. I've seen a lot of ugliness among the locals lately: threats to run over BLM protesters, carrying weapons to threaten ten people holding a quiet gun-violence vigil, nasty bumper stickers. I'm afraid to put up a Biden sign or sticker. I have a few friends here, but there don't seem to be any other people here I'd get along with.

But I can't shake the feeling that I need to be close to nature to be happy. Right now I can go in my backyard and not see any house but ours. There are trees on every side. I can take walks and see beautiful fall colors. A ten-minute drive brings us to the Shenandoah River, and twenty minutes takes us into a national forest.

Of course suburbs can have nature too. There are parks out there, and playgrounds, and green spaces. But there are also cruddy strip malls and used-car lots and six-lane roads. We'd probably have to live in a townhouse, with barely any yard. No matter how close a park is, a park is a trip. You can't just be in and out of the house all day like we are here.

We don't have to decide now. The plan is to move next summer, if we decide to and John is still at his current job. He very much wants to go, and I don't think he understands at all why I'm hesitant. I think some people can just not look at a tree all day and be fine. I feel I need beauty to live.

Maybe I can train my eyes to find beauty in more places. I sure hope so. I've never been happy living in a city. But maybe a dense suburb I could still do.

6

Kitty Kitty has finally, three years after moving here, made her peace with the rest of the house. She mostly hangs out in my room, but she is sometimes spotted in the family room, even when kids are around!


Tiger remains perfectly relaxed.



7

The election is coming up soon. I know hardly anyone is undecided, but if you are, I urge you to vote for Biden. I believe that voting for a major party has the best results, and of the two main candidates, Biden is the one who seems to have a conscience and operate in reality. The pandemic has shown us just how important experience and knowledge are, as our entry-level president delayed and mismanaged us to one of the highest death rates in the world.

I'd really like someone who knows the details about how our country runs and who actually cares about doing a good job. I don't think we've had that for the past four years.

Warren was my first choice, but Biden seems at least to be a decent human being who believes in the norms of democracy and the counsel of wise people. While he isn't going to turn America into everything I'd want in four years, he will restore some of the norms of civilized society, making it easier for future elections to go better than the last one did. People who won't vote for Biden because they're holding out for something better don't seem to recognize the harm Trump can do, not just to the next four years, but for decades to come by encouraging voter suppression. We need to get our country back on some kind of reasonable track before we can steer it anywhere good.


How is October treating all of you?

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Tolkien, because fair's fair

 It is possible that I am a lot readier to pick apart Lewis than I am with writers I like more. Because, while I absolutely adored Lewis when I was about 6-12 years old, it's not meant for adults and I was always going to find something lacking when I went back to them.

So let's talk about Tolkien. I got into Tolkien at maybe 12 years old, because my brother read the first one to me. Then I tried to read the second on my own, but I wasn't ready. Then something happened and I was ready, and I read them all, and The Silmarillion too. I was in love. Few books transport you to another world so thoroughly--a world that extends much farther than the eye can see in every direction, where the ruins are already moss-grown. You feel like a guest there, seeing a tiny shred of all that can be seen. And that's probably why it's such a great place to write fan fiction. There's room for it.

There are plot and style problems, of course, but I won't get into those. The book clearly works even if it's not written the way theoretically books should be. So long as we all understand it's to be enjoyed, not imitated. You couldn't pull off Tom Bombadil. You probably don't even know when to use thee and when to use thou. Tolkien spoke archaic language like a mother tongue. Those of us who don't, shouldn't try.

The books, though, don't just have archaic language. They have archaic concepts which even when he wrote the books were already beginning to be noticed as a problem.

Tolkien was inspired by the Germanic mythos. He felt that the English nation deserved an epic myth like Germany had, in part because he didn't like seeing English people fall in love with Germany's and start calling themselves Aryan. Here's one point to Ravenclaw (you KNOW Tolkien was Ravenclaw) for being anti-Nazi.

However, I feel like he missed the real problem with this. The whole concept of a romanticized ideal of a nation, with a founding mythos and so on, is a counter-Enlightenment concept which has led to fascism more than once, in more than one country. Instead of saying "we love our country because it has a good government and is fair to everyone," these myths teach us to say, "I love my country because I am English and we are special."

For years I puzzled over the idea of creating a founding mythos for America. Elves in America maybe? But in America, we know who was here before us, and it wasn't elves. White Americans know that exactly zero of us are descended from any special prehistoric elf king. We know we don't belong here. Now, the project has been attempted; it's called Mormonism. But Mormonism's mythos is horrible about Native Americans so . . . it fell right in that pitfall.

The fact is, your birth does not in fact make you special. It's actually important for us to recognize this, because obsessing over birth is a common human failing that's resulted in stuff like declining monarchies with increasingly worthless heirs, to say nothing of ethnic cleansing. And "your birth makes you special" is one of the underlying assumptions throughout Tolkien's work.

Consider: Hobbits are like this. Bilbo is a little different from average. Is that because he's chosen to be? Haha nope, it's because he's part Took and Tooks are a special lineage that's maybe a little bit Elf (but probably not). Dwarves, on the other hand, are like that, and all Dwarves without exception are like that. It's really great that Men, Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits all have their strengths and can appreciate one another for who they are.

Till you get to Orcs and then it's just awkward. Are Orcs born evil? Do they have free will? When we kill Orcs (which we do, without compunction, throughout the book) are we punishing them for something they couldn't help? I kind of think the concept of an evil race is a serious problem that we should never do.

There's also the assumption of feudal and monarchic bonds throughout. A lot of people read Sam's relationship to Frodo as a romantic one, or just deep friendship. And it's neither of those. It's feudal. Sam goes to Mordor with Frodo, not because he loves Frodo (though it's clear he does, especially as the books progress) but because he is Frodo's gardener. That's why he constantly supports and uplifts Frodo, while Frodo . . . doesn't really return that in kind, ever. Sam is proud to be Frodo's servant, and that makes us feel okay about it where we might not if it were compelled--though, to be clear, most servant-master relationships in Tolkien's day were compelled.

Merry has a feudal bond as well with Theoden, and Pippin with Denethor. Both of them seem someone confused about what the expectations are, in a milieu so different from the Shire, but they end up with a similar kind of pride in their lords as Sam has.

Monarchy is assumed, everywhere but the Shire. Aragorn is going to be the king of Gondor, we understand, because he was descended from Isildur. Not because he's good at ruling (though he is). Even if Denethor had been an excellent ruler and Aragorn had been incompetent or oppressive, it's clear that authority is not given Denethor to deny the return of the king. Despite the fact that Denethor and his ancestors have ruled Gondor for centuries, while Aragorn's ancestors have been toodling about in the North doing whatever it is they do. It's Aragorn's bloodline that makes him worthy of courting Arwen, of curing illnesses with athelas, and of ruling Gondor. It's all very convenient, that in this monarchy there's no dispute between good people about who has the better claim. The people of the city are pretty willing to accept whatever their betters decide, and once Faramir's in charge, he's happy to yield to Aragorn.

I'm not exactly complaining; it was a long enough book as it was without a civil war over the rule of Gondor, or a referendum on who the Gondorians thought most worthy. As a fantasy, it's nice. Unfortunately, a lot of people (myself included, for a while) get a very romantic notion of kingship from these books. They think lineal monarchy results in badasses like Aragorn, who are both naturally virtuous and trained to rule, rising to the throne. In reality, they tend to result in secession wars every few generations, and even if you avoid that, you might get this:

A portrait of Charles II, whose face is deformed through inbreeding

You just don't know! It could be a total mess. But people who romanticize Tolkien often contrast our real government, which of course is light-years from perfect, with fictional monarchies and think that what we really need is hereditary monarchy. Let me assure you: that is the last thing we need.

So: Tolkien, consciously or not, romanticizes racial and family determinism, feudal bonds, and monarchy. And that's not great. But I bet you thought I was going to talk about women, so here I go.

There are not enough women in The Lord of the Rings. (The Silmarillion is a little better; The Hobbit a lot worse.) If I were rewriting it, I'd make Merry, Pippin, Gimli, and maybe Aragorn all female and it would be a noticeably better story. (Sure, you could pick different people; that's my set. I especially like the idea that nobody knows Gimli is a girl till the very end, because female Dwarves look the same as the men.)

But honestly, I think the women that do make it in are portrayed better than the women in C. S. Lewis. Lewis's women are only allowed to be certain ways; if they're too girly that's bad (Lasaraleen, Susan) but if they're not girly enough that's also bad ("wars are ugly when women fight," right before sending children into a literal pitched battle and making a little girl be a battle medic, what the heck?). Tolkien's women are, at any rate, unique. Arwen has only a minor role, yet we see she's making huge sacrifices for love and going against what was expected of her. Galadriel is immensely powerful, overshadowing her husband (who seems to be supportive as heck and not at all threatened). Eowyn is the most fleshed-out of all, and she chafes against the restrictions she is expected to live with. She does go to war (which, surprise surprise, is ugly all-around and not just for her) and being female turns out to be an unexpected advantage.

I'm not entirely happy with the way she just quietly stops being a shieldmaiden at the end; it's not entirely clear to me whether it's because she feels there was something wrong with being one before, or just that she no longer feels herself caged the way she did in Rohan. But I love how Faramir woos her: "I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten." That's not the kind of random, meaningless chivalry Lewis's men pour out all over the place. It's specifically tailored to her; he is proud of her accomplishments in battle and has no desire to minimize them or gloss them over. We need more supportive dudes like that.

I still think there should be more women in the book. But there's something special about the way the men are supportive of each other, soft, unafraid to cry, deep and lasting friends. I, myself, don't think that would be at all impossible with women around, as some men do and Tolkien might have done. But I'm almost willing to sacrifice having many female characters for this degree of wholesome masculinity. Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain is one of the most beautiful and moving things in all fiction, and it's an example that more men could stand to look to when it comes to supporting their bros. Steal fireworks! Sing in the tub! Cry for your losses! Just so long as, in the end, you carry each other up the mountains you can't climb alone. I like that the emotional-support roles weren't just shoved off onto any available women, if only because there weren't any.

I would give (and have given) these books to my kids to read and love. I don't think they should be the only books kids read, though. I want books where boys and girls team up to beat the baddies, books where evil kings are overthrown and not replaced with nice kings, books where Orcs turn out to be decent family men who hate having to work for dark lords and are happy to be liberated. It's something to keep in mind, if you ever try writing fantasy. 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...