Sidewalk Shamanism

A beautiful thing happened on Saturday morning outside the clinic where I’ve been escorting.

A car with a young couple in it pulled up and parked at a meter, which is, of course, the cue for the protesters to flock. They started on the driver’s side, both because it was closest and because Saturday seemed to be a day for targeting companions over patients. (A lot of “You need to get your girlfriend out of there” and  “You are a defender of women and children.”)

They never got around to the passenger’s side, so the patient and I had a leisurely walk to the parking station. The machine gave her some trouble, taking longer than expected. Her companion and the protesters caught up to us while she was still working on paying.

As they came up, Guitar Guy–who actually made people wish he had his guitar that day, he was so obnoxious–said to the companion, “I have to ask you: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/24/2016

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

Saturday Storytime: Godfall

I don’t know yet how I feel about the ending of this story from Sandra Odell, but the worldbuilding hooked me so hard, I don’t care.

Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.

The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.

A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly…Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.

Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”

Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.

“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.

Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”

Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”

He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.

Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck and a returned call from Ali Bob, they’d be long gone by then.

A mob of maybe five-hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s out-flung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three-million dead, possibly as high as five-and-a-half million.

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You Say You Want a Revolution

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

“When the revolution comes….”

Photo of grafiti saying "revolution" in black text with "love" spelled backward in red embedded. A red heart is on either side of the word.

Crop of “Revolution – LOVE” by Arkadiusz Sikorski, CC BY-2.0

It’s a dream, a mantra, a prayer for some. I’ve heard it from the anarchists. I’ve heard it from the socialists. I’ve heard it from the communists. I haven’t heard it from the libertarians or the secessionists or the sovereign citizens, but that’s probably only because I know that sometimes I have to choose between the polite smile and actually listening.

I haven’t said it myself. I don’t expect I will. All impulses to burn everything down to the contrary, I’m a reformer at heart. Everything I’ve learned about revolution has reinforced that tendency. Even having revolutionaries near and dear to my heart and among the people I want to grow up to be hasn’t shaken me on this.

It does, however, make me want to explain why I believe revolution is a terrible idea in most democratic states.

Before I do that, though, what do I mean by “revolution”? I mean the transfer of governmental power within a state through extra-legal means, not merely rapid political change. If the mass of U.S. non-voters rose up next year and wrote in coordinated candidate slates at every level of government, the potential for change would be enormous. It would not, however, be revolution.

In a revolution, power is seized rather than granted. Additional changes to the political system are then required to maintain that power rather than have the upstarts thrown out and prosecuted. With enough backing, a revolution can be bloodless, but this isn’t the norm.

That’s what I mean when I talk about revolution. That’s generally what people mean when they talk about “the revolution” coming, though they may be hazy on the details of how it’s supposed to happen or how power is supposed to held and maintained under the new system.

There’s a good reason those details are hazy for most people who are pro-revolution. It’s because the process of a revolution is ugly. It’s ugly in the lead-up, ugly in the transfer of power, and usually ugly in the outcome. [Read more…]

Saturday Storytime: Tower of the Rosewater Goblet

Sometimes it’s not about the stories but about who gets to tell them. This is by Nin Harris.

In the sylvan city of Tare, deep within the ornate forest the Yroi called the Svieg, lurked a strange contrivance that was known as a “mechanical moveable type”. Erheani learned to work with the machine, which could produce six dozen pamphlets per day. She learned the ways of setting up different typefaces. She helped cast the clay and bronze tablets that were fitted into the steam-powered printing press machines. Because of a finite supply of water and coal, the machines could not produce more pages, nor could the pamphlets be longer than ten pages apiece. This had always seemed so limited to Erheani. She fantasized about stories that were so long, it would take weeks to finish reading them.

“Are you done with setting the plates yet, Er-hee?”

Erheani looked up from the bronze moveable type plates she was setting with the Dvenri letters, punctuation marks, and illustrations. It was from a series of pamphlets that recounted Dvenri folktales, banned by the Yroi Empire as being seditious.

“Almost done Lee-Lee, I just need to make sure everything is aligned just so,” Erheani said.

Erheani’s family was informed by telegram of the delay. She assured her father that the delay was temporary. She perhaps did not tell him that she had escape from bandits who had captured their wagon-train, carrying the Book of Living Testimony and the precious bags of bronze and silver coins with her. She did not explain the things she had learned in the terrifying forests of the Svieg. She did not explain how they had met. Madame Li-Yan had been gathering sweet-smelling herbs for her medicinal teas and long-boiling soups. Their eyes had met in startled recognition a split second before Madame Li-Yan registered that the Mirozhi girl was in fatigued trauma. She did not explain that it was Madame Li-Yan’s money that was paying for the telegrams, and for her room and board, or the fact that the room she was given was not the one she slept in every night.

She did tell them that she was in an apprenticeship, and that it would augment her future studies in Lith Gurland.

“Almost there is too slow! No need to be so perfect. Just make sure the letters print right. I think you already have got it.”

“Alright! Alright! I am done!”

Erheani allowed Madame Li-Yan to inspect her handiwork. Madame Li-yan nodded in satisfaction.

“You have learned very fast, Er-hee. Are you sure you will not stay with me? Learn to be a Master Printer, and write your stories so we can print them.”

Erheani shook her head.

“I want to be a Master Storyteller, Lee-Lee.”

Madame Li-Yan threw Erheani a skeptical look.

“So you think you will attain this in the grand city of the Yroi who have colonized both our lands? What good do you think will come of it, Er-hee? Your stories are good. No, they are better than good. Almost every night we go to The Bronze Wok, and almost every night we get the Master Chew personally cooking our dinner because of your stories. I have never eaten so well in my life.”

Erheani stopped working, and wiped her ink-stained fingers carefully on a damp cloth. “Lee-Lee, my family saved their money so that I would be able to be a Master Storyteller. It is not just my dream, it is theirs as well. I would love to stay here and be with you, this life is beautiful.”

She took Madame Li-Yan’s hand and squeezed it tight. “I have obligations, Li-Yan. I cannot let my family down.”

Madame Li-Yan looked thoughtful.

“You have made my printing press a lot of money, Er-hee, and I have paid you a generous salary. I can double that amount so you can return all that money to your family.”

Erheani stared at Madame Li-Yan, flushing a little in embarrassment.

“You would do that for me? I am not sure I would be comfortable with that.”

The woman smiled, “I’d be doing that for my business, silly. I have tripled my publishing output since you joined the firm. But this is also because I do not think you will be happy in Lith Gurland. Stay here, prosper, and when we have free time we can visit Lith Gurland together. Perhaps,” and here the woman hesitated, “Perhaps we could rent a small apartment across from the Clockwork Fountain? Wouldn’t that be nice? I would like to collect some supplies so we can try out that new idea of yours as well. Engine-powered moveable types that are able to run for a day sounds intriguing. We would be tourists, not supplicants.”

Erheani frowned, “But, if I don’t try to be a Master Storyteller, I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee.”

“This is Tare, the city of dissidents, artists, and people who work for change. Why would you not stay here where you can do so much good? Why do you want to go all the way to that cruel, glittering city that will wear you down?”

“I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee. That wondering might kill me.”

Madame Li-Yan’s eyes were devastated, but her voice was kind, “Sometimes wondering is better. But if that is your wish, I will not keep you.”

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Hard Science Vs. Harder Science

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

I started university life as a physics major and ended it with a degree in psychology. Along the way, I was a tutor and a teaching assistant in physics and a research assistant in psychology. Graduating with honors in psychology also meant I had to run an independent research project. I chose to replicate an important study in a novel population and was lucky enough to be able to recruit one of the original authors as my adviser.

Photo of a stone, probably quartz, with a feathery vein of gold running over its surface.

“Dendritic crystalline gold” by James St. John, CC BY 2.0

While I ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in either field, the whole experience gave me a–perhaps unhealthy–interest in the fuss over “hard science versus soft science”. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time arguing over whether there’s a real difference between types of science that falls along those lines, including a delightful bit of argument with former science journalist Susan Jacoby, which was unfortunately brief, as it happened in the middle of a workshop I was running on a different topic.

Just this past summer, I sat on and moderated a panel discussion on the topic at CONvergence, with physics, geology, and psychology represented. I was hoping the video would be available by now, but the short version of the panel goes like this: None of us recognize any meaningful distinction in the practice of science between fields that are generally classed as “hard” sciences and those classed as “soft” sciences. None of these fields are more science-y or less than the others, and we’re all kind of tired of saying so.

Yet the idea that only some of these fields are “real” science, and particularly the idea that social sciences are somehow not scientific, persists. [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/13/2016

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

After Cologne: Reflections from a Refugee Neighborhood

By now, you probably know about the attacks in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve. An unexpectedly large group of men surrounding and robbing people, groping the women and teenaged girls. At least one woman was raped, although reporting has been unclear on whether this was connected to the other incidents.

There are accounts saying the perpetrators were of North African or Arab descent. There are reports saying they were migrants or refugees. The implication is that they are Muslim. I don’t have the resources to sort out the truth of any these reports, to analyze the biases of the German press and officials and figure out how to weight these claims, particularly in such a politicized atmosphere.

Honestly, I don’t want to spend the time to gain the resources either. Not only is keeping track of the biases of English-language press and politicians exhausting, but knowing who was behind the attacks in Germany isn’t going to change my views on immigration in general or Muslim immigrant specifically. Let me tell you a little story about why. [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/10/2016

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

  • The Year of the Imaginary College Student“–“But the alarm about offense-seeking college students may say more about the critics of political correctness than it does about the actual state of affairs.”
  • The Mystery of the Missing Boardgame“–“This made me very sad. I assumed that I must have left it at the convention, even though games very rarely end up missing at that particular con.”
  • Michael Shermer: Murdering the facts about Homo naledi?“–“The schoolkids understood right away that the idea of murder and sacrifice don’t match the evidence that we have so far. Shermer preferred to speculate without evidence and publish an essay without fact-checking.”
  • No, Anti-Feminists Didn’t Cost Star Wars Any Money“–“As ridiculous as that may be—and it is perhaps the stupidest thing yet said about the film—their recent claims about just how much of an impact their, ahem, ‘balanced, critical reporting’ has had on the film’s financial success are even more ludicrous.”
  • Contempt Culture“–“We don’t reinforce our communities with respect or a sense of achievement, but with shame and contempt and awfulness. We exclude people. I’ve excluded people. Directly, me.”
  • No Vaccination, No Camp. Finally.“–“During the flu epidemic of 2008–09, I watched as dozens of kids came down with a new flu strain, one for which a shot had not yet been developed. It was a frightening lesson in what can happen in unvaccinated populations.”
  • California Bans Use Of Grand Juries In Police Shooting Cases“–“‘The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.'”
  • 4 Common Lies You Should Stop Believing About Black Single Mothers Right Now“–“Tropes declaring Black women can’t properly raise children by themselves springboards from this legacy of deceit. And it’s from these fabrications that we see the responsibility for Black oppression, poverty, and criminalization placed at the feet of our women.”
  • Minneapolis NAACP calls for boycott of Mall of America over restraint of 14-year-old girl“–“As the teen attempted to make change for bus fare in the mall’s transit hub, four security guards restrained her face down on the floor as she screamed for them to get off her back.”
  • Timeline: Land Use and the ‘Patriots’“–“It also explores some of the antecedents to both the Bundy standoff and the Patriot movement, in particular such themes as the ‘county supremacy’ ideology embraced by Bundy and his many armed supporters in the militia groups.”
  • Why the Post Office Makes America Great“–“I bit my tongue and did not tell my already suspicious friends that the country was also dotted with libraries that provided books to all patrons free of charge. They wouldn’t believe me anyway since I hadn’t believed it myself.”
  • Read about the Worldcon supporting membership grant recipients, in their own words.“–“What I love best about this collection of paragraphs is that it really makes it clear that people who love SFF come from every walk of life. Liberals, Libertarians, moms, students, teachers… we all love this geeky stuff.”
  • The problem with science journalism: we’ve forgotten that reality matters most“–“Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from. It is to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized, whether because of gender or race or any other identity.”
  • Lumosity to Pay $2 Million to Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges for its ‘Brain Training’ Program“–“‘Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,’ said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.”
  • Cosby Charged in Case of Temple U Employee“–“The resolution also condemned Patrick O’Connor, Temple’s board chair, for representing Cosby 10 years ago when he was sued by a woman. Faculty leaders said it was a conflict of interest for O’Connor to represent Cosby when both were on the board together, potentially making it unlikely that the board would rethink its ties to Cosby.”
  • Today’s gun culture is NOT American tradition.“–“In 1934, [the] NRA testified in support of 1st federal gun law which cracked down on machine guns.”

Saturday Storytime: The Savannah Liars Tour

Some days you’re reading along, thinking, “This is a good story. That one is interesting. Hmm, I like that.” Then you hit one like this from Will McIntosh, and you say, “Oh.”

Jillian was waiting at the curb with the Mercedes running, the heat cranked uncomfortably high for my benefit. My old, familiar friend guilt joined me as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Good visit? How are your Mom and Dad?” The corner of Jillian’s eye crinkled as she smiled, but it was a tense smile.

“Great. Great. No sign of Mom’s cancer recurring, and you’d never know Dad had suffered a massive heart attack.” It was an old joke, and my delivery was wooden.

I turned on the radio, tuned it to NPR, where a journalist was relating a conversation she’d had with John F. Kennedy in the afterlife.

“You want to have lunch at Chur—”

“Did you see Delilah as well?” Jillian asked before I could finish. For the past few months, Jillian hadn’t asked that question. The question—the only truly irreconcilable thorn in our eight years of marriage.

“You know I always do.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but defensiveness leaked into my tone.

“What did you talk about?”

“Just . . . nothing much. Music, mostly.”

“You still haven’t told her about me?”

And there it was. “She’s dead, Jillian. It’s not like I’m seeing another woman. I’m visiting the soul of my late wife.” I dragged my hand down my face, feeling exhausted, knowing the route this conversation would take and dreading the ride.

“How much of the hour did you spend with her?”

I folded my arms across my chest, realized what a stereotypically defensive posture that was, and quickly unfolded them. “You know how hard it is to judge time in there. I visit the people I’ve lost. You knew who I’d lost when you met me, and you knew I visited them.”

Things had become so much more complicated since that innocent time when I’d promised Delilah I’d always visit her, no matter what. Everyone in Delilah’s life had broken promises—her sister, her mother, the men she’d loved before me. She deserved to have one person she could believe in, and twenty-two years ago I swore I’d be that person. When I made that promise, Delilah said she wasn’t asking me to never love again, only that I reserve a small corner of my heart for her.

The thing was, my love for Delilah never managed to stay in one small corner of my heart. It took up more like half, try as I might to contain it. Did loving her too much mean I should renege on my promise?

I shouldn’t have allowed myself to love someone else in the first place. When I met Jillian, I’d been alone for ten years. That had seemed like enough time to grieve, even if visiting Delilah tended to keep the wound open.

Jillian pulled into the driveway, turned off the ignition. “It’s dangerous, going under as often as you do. You’re not twenty-five anymore.”

“The Surgeon General says cryogenic sleep is safe up to fifty.” What Jillian was really saying was the visits were expensive. Outrageously expensive. We could afford it, though. I wasn’t driving us into bankruptcy or anything.

Jillian sighed. She took my hand. “I know you’re in an impossible position. I know that. But you have to see how hard this is for me, especially with us talking about having a child.”

I squeezed her hand. “I do. I’m sorry this is so complicated.”

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