Imagine a spherical apocalypse…

I’m connected on this lovely site called BookBub — they watch the booksellers and send email notifications of all the free/cheap e-books offered that day, so it’s a way to build up a fine collection of reading material at little cost, and also get introduced to new authors. Except for a few quirks…

I signed up to be notified of any science books that are bargains. There never are any.

I signed up for the science fiction category. There’s a regular flood of those — but I’ve noticed a familiar and tiring theme: so many books about the end of the world, zombies, plagues, etc., all about doughty heroes and heroines bravely surviving the aftermath and boldly going forth to battle the undead/bad humans who are now infesting the depauperate world. So not only is the story about 99% of the human population dying horribly, but then the story swirls around the protagonist marching about, fighting and killing other survivors (see also The Walking Dead). It makes no sense (ditto, The Walking Dead).

There is an apocalyptic novel I’ve enjoyed: Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. But that one isn’t about a battlin’ hyper-competent survivalist type who defeats his enemies and rebuilds the world by conquest — it’s about a lost soul numbed by the deaths who builds a cooperative community to survive, and that community rarely acts as an arm of the hero’s will. That’s a lot harder to write about than slash, slash, slash, as David Brin discusses.

No, the plague of zombies and apocalypses and illogically red-eyed dystopias has one central cause — laziness. Plotting is vastly easier when there are no helpful institutions or professionals, when power is automatically and simplistically evil, when there’s no citizenship and the hero’s neighbors are all bleating sheep. Relax any of those clichés? Then suddenly an author or director has to put down the joint (s)he’s smoking and think. That is why “competence porn” – about folks taking on tomorrow’s problems with energy, focus and good will – is so rare. It is also why a cliche-fatigued public is starting to turn eyes, raising them from fields of undead, looking not toward demigods, but toward engineers. See this explicated in my article, The Idiot Plot.

The yearning for more engineers in stories is Brin’s, not mine — I’d like to see more human beings struggling with complexity using a diverse toolkit, rather than pulling a soldering iron, a 3-D printer, and a rifle out of their back pocket, and solving all human problems by reconnecting the hydroelectric dam. But the laziness and simplification idea is dead on, and probably explains why a cheap book service is telling me about works by novice authors trying to build an audience and a reputation. Not that there is anything wrong with that — it’s good for new writers to have an outlet. But it’s bad news when genre writing digs itself an even deeper subgenre rut.

I am also cliche-fatigued and turning my eyes to new fields. Not engineering, though. I just logged in to BookBub and closed my eyes and clicked randomly on the page of preferences. We’ll see what happens.

Why is Fox Business featuring Chachi in news about Obama and Islam?

This is just freakin’ weird. Scott Baio was brought into an interview on Fox to tell the world that Obama is a secret Muslim.

WEBSTER: We just rolled those series of sound bites, would you agree that it appears the president very reluctant to say Islamic Terror? Would you agree?

BAIO: Very reluctant? He’s absolutely reluctant. I can’t tell, Lester, if he’s dumb, he’s a Muslim or he’s a Muslim sympathizer and I don’t think he’s dumb.

“Dumb” would be getting interviewed on air by a guy called Webster and repeatedly calling him Lester.

The interview is pretty much an ad for Donald Trump featuring an old television actor who isn’t shy about demonstrating his ignorance…which probably means it’ll be effective with the Trump demographic.

He is open about the source of his information. I have conversations with my buddies about this, we sit around and shoot the breeze. Yep, that’ll resonate with the audience. Must be true.

The backstory on Captain America, agent of Hydra


I don’t read comics much — I was a fan and collector in my teenage years, but every time I pick one up now, there’s so much prior knowledge needed to make sense of what’s going on, that I just put it back down and walk away. It’s like a lot of art, in that it is constructed in an environment of art, and comments on that environment, and if you don’t know the framework it’s embedded in, you grumble about how your kid could do better than that.

So all I knew about the recent controversial story line in Captain America that revealed he’s been a secret agent of the evil organization Hydra all along is that this was not the Captain America I enjoyed in the 1960s and early 70s. This was a betrayal! I hadn’t been reading the comic book anyway, but now for sure I wasn’t going to read it ever again.

I didn’t have the context.

Now an article fills me in on what I’d missed about Captain America’s trajectory, and it all makes sense. You see, Marvel had first tried to introduce a black successor to Steve Rogers, white hero, and the fan base erupted. So Marvel brought back Steve Rogers…with a message.

And just like that, White Captain America was back. And to make Steve Rogers a Nazi was an excellent commentary not only on the fandom, but on the country itself.

See, the only reason there is a Captain America: Steve Rogers series is that the fandom wanted Steve Rogers back. And the reasons they wanted him back were the same kind of motivations and ideologies that are currently wreaking havoc with our election season. The fandom wanted to Make Captain America White (Great) Again. They were full of racist indignation at seeing a Black person take on the mantle of Captain America, one of the most venerated comic-book heroes. They wanted a return to the status quo. And when they got their wish, they’re dismayed that he’s kind of a fascist. Sound familiar?

Wait, wait, wait…a comic book is making a sly commentary on modern American politics and society, is holding up a mirror to its readers? Unthinkable. Only art can do that.

Deriving evil, with reason

James O’Brien makes a very good point here.

If I was to be reading my newspaper every single morning and be told that my very existence was under siege from people I’ve never met and never seen but keep getting told are coming here in their hordes.

If I was to open my newspaper or turn on my radio or TV to hear that everybody who is coming here is a rapist and they’ve got their eyes on our women and we’ve got no chance whatsoever of protecting ourselves.

And unless we do this or do that, or treat them like this or treat them like that, then we’re all doomed, we’re all going to hell in a handcart.

If I was being told it’s time to reclaim our country every time I got out of bed in the morning, I’d begin to believe it, I think, if I didn’t have the knowledge and the insights and the education to know that it is not true.

We atheists are very, very good at telling people they ought to use their reason and think rationally. The most important thing is reason, we say, not emotion; if only those wacky religious people would use evidence and rational thought, they wouldn’t believe in such silly things.

But reason is not enough. “Garbage in, garbage out” is a familiar phrase to describe what happens when your eminently predictable, logical computer is reduced to processing bad inputs, but it’s also true for human beings. We make the mistake of thinking other people’s brains must be inferior or working badly when they reach bad conclusions.

Those wacky Catholics…how stupid they must be to believe in original sin or that Jesus and Mary are watching over them. But Catholic culture actually values education and logic, and they aren’t stupid at all: what they’ve done is reach an entirely rational conclusion built on a set of premises that have been dunned into them from an early age. Their flaw isn’t that their minds are bad, it’s quite the opposite — Catholic scholars think creatively and intelligently from a set of invalid claims about the nature of the universe.

Consider any group you disagree with. Your first assumptions shouldn’t be that the group is a unique vortex of stupid that draws in mentally deficient people who don’t know better, and will be unable to think their way out of a soggy paper bag. Assume that they are a group with the same mental capacity in general as your favorite people. Then try to figure out what foundational ideas are leading them to conclusions you find repugnant.

Look at gun fanatics, for instance. That earlier post about arguments for owning an AR-15 is addressing an entirely reasonable set of justifications for needing a deadly weapon…if you believe you are living in a world in which you and your family are facing an existential threat from hordes of other human beings who specifically intend to do you harm. That guy’s rationale would make a lot of sense if this were the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, and we had to deal with random monsters popping up and trying to eat our brains, and also needed to forage for any wild game to survive.

We do not live in such a world. He thinks we do. GIGO.

As O’Brien points out, if you wake up every morning to listen to right-wing talk radio, or Fox News, or to read Stormfront or white nationalist literature, the inputs to your mind are all skewed. Those outlets are committed to presenting a terrifying picture of the world, in which you, your family, your tribe, your race, your whole damn species is in peril. The brown hordes are coming to replace you…yes, you personally! Your problem with landing a job is not your fault, it’s because that immigrant over there is competing with you unfairly. We once were a great and powerful nation — you know because your grandparents said so — but it’s all gone to the dogs in your generation, because it’s different.

Get that message over and over and over again, and then apply your rational, intelligent, thoughtful brain to the problem, and you’ll come up with reasonable solutions. Kick out those immigrants. Assassinate that politician. Build a wall. Vote for Trump.

The man who killed Jo Cox was not crazy. He was somebody who read and listened and came to what he thought was a necessary solution to a serious problem. He had built a world in his mind that corresponded poorly to reality, because he’d been consuming lies.

Lies kill.

Unfortunately, we all live in a world where institutions and media lie to us constantly, and navigating through all the chaos is a difficult skill that none of us have fully mastered and that misleads many of us.

So that’s what they’re all praying for

We’ve been seeing a lot of that vague “thoughts & prayers” rhetoric lately, which always makes me wonder what they’re praying for, in addition to what praying will accomplish. Digital Cuttlefish has the answer:

See, for months and years they’ve blustered, and they’ve pandered to their base,
Spouting biblical allusions which they’ll try now to erase
If the motive here was bigotry, as cannot be denied,
The senators’ own rhetoric is on the shooter’s side
So they’re praying, and they’re praying, and they’ll pray a little more
That the people won’t remember what they said a week before

At least we’re not the only ones who think “moments of silence” and “thoughts and prayers” are abominations.

I thought it was an American malady

A member of the British Parliament, Jo Cox, has been assassinated by a man inflamed by the recent Brexit chaos — he shouted “Britain first!” when he was arrested. The media is reporting on the case now. I’ll bet you’ve heard this familiar refrain before.

The man being held in connection with the death of MP Jo Cox has been named as Thomas Mair, who was described as a “loner” with a history of mental health problems…

Loner. Mentally ill. Yeah, that’s it. Explains everything.

No, it doesn’t.

[Read more…]

If this is the best argument anyone has for needing guns, screw ’em

A gun fondler has decided to carefully explain Why I Need an AR-15. I read the whole thing in disbelief, but I’m also seeing lots of people praising this article for its calm tone and “rational” arguments. Are you ready to see his reasons?

  • Because history. Civilians have been buying weapons of war for many generations.

    The vintage Henry lever action rifle — the quintessential 20th century deer rifle — was originally deployed to devastating effect in the Civil War.

    This makes no sense. The Brown Bess musket was used in the Revolutionary War, too. So? There’s no appreciation of the fact that military weaponry has become increasingly specialized and destructive. You could use this very same to argue that, because civilians use horses, and the ancient Romans used horses deployed as cavalry, then civilians should be allowed to drive tanks now.

    Also, he argues that he should be able to get it because it’s a really good tool.

    This is all part of the reason why I, a civilian, “need” a military-grade combat weapon. I don’t want to shoot and miss; I don’t want the gun to jam because it’s dirty or cold; and I don’t want to hit my target and then have it run off into the woods and die lost and wounded because I didn’t “bring enough gun”.

    Wait. He goes deer hunting with an AR-15? A true sportsman, he is.

    Admittedly, he’s vague about the “target”. He could be hunting chipmunks or people, for all I can tell. I’m having a hard time imagining a living target for which his reasoning is appropriate.

  • Because the police use it, so it must be OK.

    There is no conceivable circumstance in which a police officer — not even a SWAT team member — would need to mow down hordes of people. Yet the AR-15 is the “patrol rifle” of choice for modern police departments from Mayberry to Manhattan.

    Right. Because the excessive militarization of our police is not a problem. When you’re holding up the modern American police as paragons of sensible, peaceful behavior, your argument has a problem.

  • Because he needs a popular gun when he has to “shoot under pressure”.

    The M1A is an amazing gun (a closely related weapon is actually used by the Marines), but despite the fact that the M1A fires a much larger, deadlier .30 caliber bullet, if I needed to shoot under pressure I’d reach for the smaller AR-15, simply because I can operate that rifle — engage a target, change magazines, troubleshoot and clear a jam — without much thought or effort. I can do all that because the AR-15 is what I know, and it’s what I know because it’s what everyone else out there knows.

    How often does he have to “shoot under pressure”? How often does anyone? If you’re frequently in situations in which you have to engage a target, change magazines, troubleshoot and clear a jam, you’re either in the military, or you’ve made some very poor life choices, or both.

  • Because…some bizarre idea about a “defense rifle” vs. an “assault rifle”? What?

    At this point, you may be thinking: “ok tough guy, if the AR is so flexible, why not configure it to be a defense rifle instead of an assault rifle? BOOM!”

    I have never made such an argument, nor can I even imagine making an argument for this mythical “defense rifle”.

  • Because he needs to be sure to kill when defending his home.

    It’s also the case that, contrary to what you saw in First Blood, adrenaline-fueled humans are hard to kill, even with a rifle. The more fast followup shots you can get on-target, the better your chances of scoring a hit that will stop the threat.

    What kind of life does this guy lead, that he’s got to prepare to confront some “adrenalin-fueled human”, and he’s got to be prepared to shoot them lots of times?

His reasons for “needing” an assault rifle are also reasons he needs to be incarcerated or immediately drafted into the infantry. They seem to be all about living an imaginary life of constant danger, in which he needs to be able to whip out a gun and destroy a human being at an instant’s notice…or he needs the most effective firepower he can get to kill varmints.

Good work, though, Mr Jon Stokes. Your article is very persuasive. It persuades me that those who “need” an AR-15 are paranoid and delusional, and a danger to the rest of us.

By the way, everyone: calmly declaring that you absolutely need a weapon of mass destruction does not make you reasonable, and is actually just as scary as someone grunting and howling about their guns.