Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

How did I end up an angry liberal activist?

Frodo: I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a furious blog post about anger. I was livid about the impending confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. I was so stressed I was not sleeping well, during a week when I was already sick, and I needed to write to get some of the emotion out of my head and onto the page.

The post had some good writing in it, if I may say so. I talked about how the anger of the Right is a petty and insular anger, a defensive curling-inward, seated in fear of losing a privileged place in society. I contrasted that with the anger of the Left, and particularly of those who have not traditionally held power. I had fun with the image of liberal anger as a volcanic eruption, long dormant but growing beneath the surface, unstoppable once unleashed and leaving the world changed but fertile, ready for new growth to replace what was burned away.

It was cathartic to write, but I took it down after posting it for less than a day. If I’m being honest, it was a bit over the top. I decided that, in the midst of all the negativity, my righteous anger was not was the world needed at that time.

After taking down the post I asked myself a question: Why am I so angry? What is it about Trump and the Republicans that bothers me at such a visceral level that not only do I rage about it ad nauseum on social media, but it has driven me to become a genuine political activist, attending rallies and canvassing for the Democratic party?

Believe me, I have a lot of other things I would rather do with my limited free time. None of this is fun for me. I’m an introvert. I avoid conflict. I hate inconveniencing others. So activities like canvassing are very draining for me. I would much rather write and talk to people about things like my adorable toddler, or good books and movies, or cool science. I have a dozen other hobbies or interests that I’d love to spend my time on. But instead I am pouring my energy and time into politics.

Why? Why am I so angry and stressed out that I can’t sleep at night? Why not ignore politics and enjoy my life again?

These questions have been rattling around in my head since I took down that furious blog post, and I think I’ve finally figured out the crux of the matter. It’s because the modern Republican party is diametrically opposed to two of my most deeply-held core values: Truth and Empathy.

Truth

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”

Carl Sagan

As a scientist, I’ve dedicated my life to truth. My worldview is built on the idea that we can understand the world around us, even when it behaves in unexpected or counterintuitive ways, by observing, testing hypotheses, and making corrections when we find out that we were wrong. Science has also given me a healthy appreciation for how unbelievably much there is to know in the world. Nobody can be an expert in everything (alas), so we have to trust in the expertise of others while still thinking critically and, as Sagan famously said, demanding extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims.

The corollary of placing a high value on truth is placing a high value on honesty. During the 2016 election I went so far as to make this figure comparing the prominent politicians from the two major parties. There are two notable things here. The first is that yes, both parties misrepresent the truth or outright lie more than I would like. But the difference in the extent to which they lie is striking. Trump barely seems capable of telling the truth, but Pence and Romney are not far behind despite their more “traditional” political personas. The contrast between Trump and Clinton, especially in the blatant lies, is frankly breathtaking. If you were to set ideology aside and vote strictly based on the honesty of the candidates, it is clear which party you should vote for.

Let me put it this way: There are things that are true and things that are false.

  • It is true that the planet is warming and that greenhouse gas emissions are a dominant factor. The best scientific models predict we are rapidly headed for a world of droughts and famine, refugees fleeing coastal cities, mass extinctions, more destructive storms, and more.
  • It is true that voter fraud is vanishingly rare and that voter suppression is widespread.
  • It is true that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, that cutting taxes on rich people just means they get richer while deficits skyrocket and poor people remain poor.
  • It is true that police officers and indeed the entire criminal justice system exhibits bias against people of color, and that in many cases that has deadly results.
  • It is true that having more guns leads to more gun deaths.
  • It is true that sexual assault is common and false accusations of sexual assault are rare.
  • It is true that health care cannot be treated as a free market and that doing so costs people’s lives.
  • It is true that seeking asylum at our borders is not illegal, and that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, and that they provide a net benefit to the economy.
  • It is true that the greatest threat of terrorism in this country comes from  right-wing white men.
  • It is true that the modern Republican party is following very closely along the path that led to the rise of fascism in pre-WWII Europe.

Do these statements sound partisan? They’re not. They’re just true. There should be nothing partisan about truth, yet the Republican party has worked so tirelessly at distorting the truth for so long that actual truth sounds like a liberal attack.

To solve the many and complex problems facing the world today, we must start with truth as a foundation. Lying to win elections harms everyone. Lying so regularly, so consistently, so deliberately that nearly half the country lives in an alternate reality where the facts are exactly reversed is literally threatening the stability of this country. In just the past week it has led to a mass assassination attempt, a racially motivated double-murder, and a massacre at a Jewish synagogue, and those are just the crimes that have made national headlines.

All of the true statements in the list above highlight real problems that need to be addressed, but we as a nation cannot address them if one party consistently, relentlessly, lies about all of them. It is enough to make a person think that Republicans are more interested in obtaining and holding power than they are in helping people.

Empathy

And that leads me to the second core value: empathy. I am not a religious person. I don’t think there is a being on high who determines what is right and wrong. Without an external definition of morality, I try to keep things simple: something is “Good” if it helps people, something is “Bad” if it harms people. The more people helped or harmed, the more good or bad. Empathy is the guide for this morality. If you want to do “good” and good is defined as what helps people, then by necessity you have to put yourself in their shoes and do unto them as you would have them do unto you. There is a reason the Golden Rule appears in every major religion.

I don’t think that there is an afterlife where we are rewarded or punished based on our actions in life. I think this is it. We get one life, and when it is over we are gone. The only things that remain are our genes, the people who remember us, and the changes we made in the world. That means I place a high value on making positive changes in the world. It means that I push myself to recognize how profoundly lucky I am, and that I take responsibility for my privileged life and try to pay some of my good fortune forward. Part of paying it forward is supporting policies that will help as many people as possible, even if that means I have to sacrifice a little bit.

When you look at the policies and behavior of the modern Republican party through the lens of empathy, it becomes clear that the party is completely morally bankrupt. Its policies are all about prioritizing the individual over the well-being of the broader society. An “every man for himself” mentality that promotes distrust and fear, rather than a “we’re in this together” mentality that promotes cooperation. Republicans reject the idea that there is a social contract and prefer to believe in the myth of the self-made man, ignoring the fact that the social contract is literally why humans are so successful as a species. (No, you might say, we are so successful because of our intelligence! But the leading theories of human evolution suggest that we evolved our intelligence primarily so that we could keep track of our social interactions among larger and larger groups. We are smart because we are social.)

Republican policies are just profoundly selfish. The obsession with taxes is the best example. Republicans prioritize a rich person’s right to obscene wealth over the well-being of society. Heaven forbid rich people pay a fraction of that wealth that will have no meaningful impact on their own lives for government services that could literally save other people’s lives. There appears to be this disturbing conflation among Republicans between wealth and morality. Rich people are rich because they somehow deserve to be. Poor people are poor because of some moral failing that makes them that way (typically laziness). The moment you suggest that success might not be entirely based on hard work, that some people work hard all their lives and remain in poverty while others are extremely successful and have sailed through life with minimal hardship, Republicans get upset.

There is also this strain of victimhood among Republicans that is fascinating and betrays a complete inability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. Republicans point to things like the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter as part of a broader societal shift that persecutes white men. They wring their hands over the possibility that false accusations of rape might ruin a man’s life ignoring the fact that (a) sexual assault or the threat thereof literally does ruin many women’s lives, and (b) credible accusations or even blatant admissions of sexual assault often carry little or no consequences (see, for example Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh).

“When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” – Author Unknown

“Conservative” Christians likewise have a bizarre persecution complex that Republicans are only too happy to tap into. They claim there is a “War on Christmas” when Christmas dominates literally every aspect of American life for the last two months of the year. They claim persecution when people protest putting the Ten Commandments on government buildings or putting creationism in textbooks. Meanwhile actual religious minorities are victims of hate crimes like the recent massacre at a synagogue.

Possibly the worst of all to me is the attitude toward immigrants and refugees. It frankly terrifies me that someone could be so heartless and consumed by hate and fear that they see parents and children fleeing thousands of miles to build a better life and rather than welcoming them with open arms, Republicans think the logical response is to lock them up in prison camps. When confronted about why they are imprisoning children, they say “well, their parents shouldn’t have broken the law” as if that is a reasonable response. What a dark and terrifying fictional world Republicans live in.

Why I’m So Angry

The Republican party has become a party that whips up white nationalist fervor in its base to protect the staggering wealth of its donors and the power of its politicians. It is the party that cuts taxes on the rich and pays for them by cutting benefits for the poor. It locks children in cages. It cuts funding from schools. As I type, it is using American troops as props in a desperate stunt to whip up racist fear of a convoy of refugees desperate for a better life so that it can win an election. Across all issues, at all levels, if there is something that will benefit normal people, the Republican party is against it. If it will benefit the rich and powerful, they are for it.

They say that in any situation where you have two groups who disagree, that you should be careful not to fall into the trap of characterizing the other side as “Evil”. That when that happens, both groups will just become more and more entrenched and the differences between them will never be resolved and often will become worse.

But what happens when one side is genuinely evil? I looked it up and the definition of “evil” is “profoundly immoral” or “morally reprehensible” or “causing harm.” Explain to me how the Republican party does not fit that definition.

The Republican party is literally undermining the pillars of our democracy. They are preventing people from voting. They stole one Supreme Court seat and filled another with a horrible man because they knew he would rule in their favor. Experts in the ways in which democracies fail are sounding the alarm. The Republicans are following the playbook of the Nazi rise to power in Europe with terrifying precision. The president’s rhetoric has inspired his supporters to commit or attempt heinous acts of violence, and instead of walking the rhetoric back he and the rest of the party just double down. The Republican party is in favor of policies that will kill people and ruin lives, whereas the Democratic party is in favor of policies that might raise taxes or cut into corporate profits or allow brown people to live here in peace. You can’t look at that and shrug and say that it’s not clear which party is morally right.

The Republican party lies constantly to advance a profoundly selfish and immoral agenda. What they stand for goes against my two most deeply held values: Truth and Empathy.

That’s why I’m so angry. That’s why I can’t just ignore what is happening. That’s why I resist even when it would be easier not to.

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Go Home Again

 

There is a cabin on a small lake in the forest in northern Michigan where I keep all my most vivid childhood memories. My family drove up there every summer (and occasional winters) from our home in the suburbs of Detroit, and I will always cherish those brief weeks off the grid, when we could leave normal life behind and spend our evenings watching campfires instead of TV screens.

This summer, I returned to Michigan for the first time in seven years and the nostalgia was almost overwhelming. A lot has happened in that time: I got a PhD, my wife and I moved across the country to Arizona, we bought a house, we settled into permanent jobs, we got a second dog, and after struggling with mild fertility issues, we had a son. He has grown from a preemie who had to spend the first twenty days of his life in the hospital learning to eat into a happy, healthy toddler who is obsessed with birds and books and will enthusiastically roar like a dinosaur on command.

It’s strange to visit my old stomping grounds with my young son. For me, every stump and rock and path and beaver lodge is a memory, and I can’t help but wonder what they will mean to him. How often will we be able to make the pilgrimage back to Michigan? When we visit, will he build his own fort in the forest and fashion wooden medieval weapons to defend it from unspecified foes? Will he have bonfires twenty feet tall and learn roast the perfect marshmallow over the coals? Will he pick wild blueberries and eat them in homemade pancakes? Will he learn to fall asleep to the haunting call of loons? Or will he be indifferent to it all, and wonder why Dad drags him to the north woods of Michigan instead of going on vacations to more interesting places?

I have always been a bit prone to nostalgia, but I’ve found that since becoming a parent, that desire to cling to the past has only gotten stronger. Children allow us to revisit our childhoods, and there’s a natural tendency to want to pass our cherished formative memories on to our kids. I grew up catching snakes and making swords out of sticks and riding four-wheelers through the north woods of Michigan, and so I want my son to have all of those experiences too.

This instinct to make my son’s childhood a highlight reel of my own extends beyond just the time spent Up North. My son is only 20 months old, but I have been debating when to introduce him to the stories that shaped me — Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Jurassic Park — since before he was born. I didn’t even know what Star Wars was until sixth grade, and I didn’t read The Hobbit until early high school. I know that delaying exposure to these stories is impossible in today’s world where geek culture and pop culture have become indistinguishable, but there’s a part of me that nevertheless wants his introduction to them to mirror my own. The fact that my son’s experience learning that Vader is Luke’s father or telling riddles in the dark with Gollum will be very different from mine makes me uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to explain.

As parents, it’s tempting to assume that our children will turn out just like us. When I picture my son in high school, I imagine him loving science, playing the trumpet in marching band, and spending his free time playing video games with friends. But I have to remind myself: that’s not him, that’s me. He might turn out like that, but he might not, and that’s ok.

Kids remind us of what it was like to be young, to experience everything for the first time, but the corollary is that they also remind us that we are not that young anymore. As the saying goes, “you can’t go home again.” The world moves on and it’s important that we as parents do too.

It is a frustrating fact of the human condition that those memories that we cherish, that form integral parts of ourselves, are uniquely ours. There’s the inevitable temptation to try to model our children’s lives on our own nostalgia, to pass on those intangible parts of ourselves like a baton in an intergenerational relay, as if somehow that will allow us to return to our lost youth, but it’s important to moderate that temptation. Yes, embrace the chance to remember your own childhood. Share what you love with your kids. Give them the opportunity to experience things that were important to you, but also respect your kids enough to let them be different, to find their own passions and make their own memories.

It’s important to remind ourselves that our goal as parents is not for our kids to live carbon copies of our lives, it is to help them live their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sonnet for Opportunity

I wrote the poem above as an ode to the Mars rover Opportunity, which has been in hibernation since a global dust storm earlier this summer blocked out the sun. Not great for a solar powered rover. But on the other hand, global dust storms warm the atmosphere, so it’s possible the rover will wake up and phone home… we just need to keep listening. I got my start in planetary science working on the MER rovers, so Opportunity holds a special place in my heart, and a poem seemed like a nice way to honor such an amazing mission. Whether Opportunity wakes up or not, 14 years is pretty good for a mission built to last only 90 days.

I opted for a sonnet because they come with a nicely defined structure to follow, which makes the bank page a little less intimidating. There are two main forms of sonnet in English, the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet. I went with the Petrarchan since it is formatted as a sort of point/counterpoint, which fit with what I wanted to say. It also has the more challenging rhyme scheme and I’m a glutton for punishment.

It took a surprisingly long time to write this poem, but I am pleased with the result. People seemed to enjoy it when I shared it on social media; one online acquaintance (Seán Doran) even made an alternative version of it, using the same image but with realistic colors and an artificially extended sky, and the rover photoshopped onto the tracks.

I am considering making planetary poems a recurring thing. They’re a nice way to satisfy both sides of my brain, with a nice mix of writing, science, and graphic design. And they’re good for sharing on social media. For now I’ll probably stick to structured forms: sonnets and haiku, depending on how ambitious I’m feeling. I’m open to ideas for topics, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

 

A Father’s Thoughts on Separating Families at the Border

I don’t know what words I can write here that haven’t already been said. I just know I need to write about this because if I don’t, it will consume me. If you’re sick of hearing about this, I understand. You don’t need to read this, but I need to write it.

It is now the policy of The United States of America to forcibly separate children and babies from their parents when they cross the border without documentation. It is not a law. It is a deliberate decision made by the Trump administration in order to shift the Overton Window for the immigration debate and extract concessions to get funding for an idiotic wall on our southern border, to solve a nonexistent problem. This outrageous shift in policy is abetted by Republicans in Congress who have been conspicuously quiet, because they know their base are a bunch of racists who quail at the sight of someone with dark skin, or who speaks a language other than English.

What is even more infuriating is that the Administration, after very publicly announcing that they were making the choice to adopt this “zero tolerance” policy, is now claiming that this is somehow the fault of Democrats, and that the Administration is just “enforcing the law”. And to top it all off, they’re trying to hide behind the bible as they do it.

First of all, if you think that Jesus would be in favor of shattering desperate families with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, then you have been seriously misinterpreting the bible. Helping those who have the least is kind of a major theme.

Second of all, could we perhaps NOT base our policy decisions on a collection of barely coherent stories written by a bunch of hallucinating fanatics living in the desert a couple thousand years ago? Instead of pulling quotes from those often-contradictory stories to support whatever policy idea we prefer could we instead perhaps base our treatment of other human beings on the simple concept of empathy? Look, the golden rule appears in every major religion for a reason. Just treat others as you would want to be treated. Would you want your breastfeeding child to be taken away from you, never to be seen again? No? Then maybe rethink the fucking policy.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk a little bit about that excuse that destroying families is “enforcing the law”. It isn’t. But even if it were the law? Just because something is legal does not make it moral. Just because something is illegal does not make it immoral.

Let me repeat that for those in the back.

LEGAL ≠ MORAL

ILLEGAL ≠ IMMORAL

Undocumented immigrants are not amoral because they broke the law. Border patrol agents who are shipping children off to concentration camps are not acting morally because they believe they are following the law. (I should also note that many of these families are seeking asylum and voluntarily turn themselves in. This is NOT illegal.)

To add to the swirling soup of outrage and despair that this whole situation stirs up inside me, I know that this outrage I’m feeling? This impotent blog post I’m writing? It’s exactly the response the evil men responsible for this policy want me to have. These sociopaths know that this kind of cruelty will drive their opponents mad, so they can turn around and offer an immigration plan that halts the family separation policy as if that’s some sort of concession, and demand that in return we pay for a wall or some other idiotic policy that is worse than where we started. And it’s worth pointing out that “where we started” was already awful. We were already turning away people fleeing from war zones. People with terminal diseases seeking treatment. People who fled their homes because they were going to be murdered. We can’t lose sight of the fact that none of this is acceptable. We should welcome immigrants. Not only does it pay off in the long run, it’s also the right thing to do.

So I know I’m following the script perfectly by writing this post, by being performatively outraged on the internet so that my liberal friends can echo the sentiment and we can all whip ourselves into a froth about this. But what’s the alternative? Not be outraged by our country putting toddlers into prison camps? No. Sorry. If I’m not outraged by this, then I’m dead inside.

It is easy to look at the left these days and say “geez, you’re outraged about everything. Give it a rest.” Do you want to know why we’re outraged about everything? Because everything is outrageous right now. Do you want to know why people keep comparing the Republican party’s behavior to that of Nazis? It’s because they’re behaving like Nazis.

Father’s day is tomorrow. I had a nice introspective blog post about parenting that I was putting together. But right now, all I can think about are those fathers and mothers who have lost their children.

Imagine life in your home town, your home country, being so dangerous that the best choice available to you is to leave with nothing but the clothes on your back and your precious family, to travel vast distances at great risk to a country you know doesn’t particularly want you, based on the glimmer of hope that you might be able to get across the border and start a new life. There is a myth that, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuses to die about that country: that it is a land of opportunity where if you work hard you can make a good life for yourself and your family. You know the odds are slim, but you have nowhere else to turn.

But then you get to the border, and you’re intercepted by men with guns. They tell you that you’ve broken the law and you are going to jail. They tell you that your children cannot go with you. Or maybe they don’t even tell you. Maybe they just find some pretext to separate you, and then your children never return. You don’t even get to say goodbye. Your family is literally the only thing you have left in a world that has already been so cruel to you, and now your family has been destroyed too.

My son is 18 months old. He is innocent and full of joy. He toddles around making woofing sounds like a dog or pointing enthusiastically to birds out the window or bringing books over to me so he can climb up on my lap and read with me. All the clichés you hear about the love you feel as a parent are true. The love grows inside you until you think you might burst, that you can’t possibly contain it, and yet it keeps growing. It is so powerful it can be scary.

And so when I look at my son and feel that love, and then I think of someone taking my son away because I wanted him to have a chance at a safe life, I can hardly bear it. Just imagining what those parents are feeling, just conjuring the faintest shadow of what they must be going through, guts me. And then I think of what it must be like for the children. The confusion. The fear. I imagine my innocent son, living in a tent city, not seeing anyone he knows for months and months and months. It hurts me, but I cannot stop thinking about it.

I don’t have any hopeful message to end this on. I’ll just say this: Tomorrow is father’s day. Use it to cherish your family. Your safe and comfortable life. And then think about what you are going to do to fight the human rights abuse that is taking place on our border, and the people who make it possible. We need to get past the despair, harness the rage, and put it to work.

 

Star Wars Political Advice

As the Trump presidency grinds on and Washington is consumed with so many simultaneous scandals that it is impossible to even maintain the mental bandwidth to register them all, I’ve found that there are a few things that I want to remind my fellow liberals. But then when I sat down to actually write them out, I had the wonderful realization that (a) yesterday was “Star Wars Day” (May the 4th be with you!), and (b) The things I want to say actually tie nicely with a few choice quotes from Star Wars. So, without further ado, some Star Wars themed political advice:

Don’t Get Cocky

Image result for star wars don't get cocky gif

There is a lot of talk about a rising “Blue Wave” in November, and polling and special election results have generally been very good for Democrats. Teacher strikes across the country have state legislators, who are used to being able to do terrible things while nobody is paying attention, pretty nervous. People talk as if Democrats taking control of the House is inevitable and the Senate is likely, and as if all the crazy Republicans in state and local government will be swept out of office.

Are these things possible? I hope so. But please. PLEASE, don’t get complacent. There are still great swaths of the country who think Trump and the Republicans are doing a great job. I firmly believe that Democrats can win, but only if we work hard for it. Want good candidates to win in November? Then you need to be signing petitions NOW to get them on the ballot (here’s the link for Arizona). Are you an Arizona voter who supported the #RedForEd teacher walkout? Then make sure you sign the #InvestInEd petition so that we can vote for permanent education funding in November.  And if you’re a liberal anywhere, then make sure you and all your friends are registered to vote, and that you vote in the primaries.

Stay On Target

Image result for star wars stay on target gif

Look, I know. The news is just ridiculous. This administration has more (and worse) scandals in a week than Obama had in 8 years. It’s easy to end up getting outrage fatigue, exhausting yourself chasing each one and ending up getting nowhere. Likewise, it’s easy to look at the Mueller probe and hope that, like some sort of Deus Ex Machina, it will magically fix all of our problems.

The truth is, the problem isn’t just Trump, and the only thing that is going to make things better is voting Republicans out of office. Repeatedly. Election after election after election. And the way that happens is getting Democrats to the polls in overwhelming numbers, election after election after election.

Don’t let all the chaos of the news cycle distract you from that priority. Stay on target. Donate to groups that fight voter suppression, harass your friends and family to make sure they are registered (and signed up for early voting if it’s available), volunteer with groups that get people registered to vote, volunteer for the democratic party. Do whatever you can to make the “blue wave” happen.

Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes

Image result for only a sith deals in absolutes gif

The #RedForEd movement just wrapped up a historic teacher walk-out in Arizona. The result was a better budget for education than AZ has seen in quite a while, but it still fell short in many ways. Now that the walk-out is over, I’ve seen some people gravitating toward extreme responses: Either they try to make it seem like the movement was overwhelmingly successful, or like nothing was accomplished and that the strike should go on. Attitudes like this, gravitating toward either absolute, aren’t very productive. The truth is, the movement had some impressive successes given some of the truly horrible Republicans in the state legislature, but there is still a lot of work left to do.

Likewise, when it comes to candidates, there is a certain subset of liberal voters who require their candidates to be liberal in all things, or else they won’t vote for them. In the 2016 general election it was Bernie or Bust. Now I’m seeing a similar dynamic in the Arizona senate candidates. Deedra Abboud and Kyrsten Synema are the leading democratic candidates. Abboud is more liberal on most issues (and is my preference), while Synema is very moderate.

By all means, at this stage support the candidate you agree with most. Vote for them in the primary. But if the more moderate Democrat wins the primary (as seems likely in the AZ senate race), then we need to rally around them. I don’t like it any more than you do, but until ranked choice voting becomes widespread, the fact remains that we’re stuck with two dominant parties, and if you abstain from voting for the Democrats because their candidate isn’t liberal enough for your tastes, you give an advantage to the Republican.

 

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

A while back I discovered that I had accidentally accumulated a handful of Audible credits, and so of course to get the most bang for my buck I used them on audiobooks books that were either not available from the library, had a long wait list, or were as long as possible. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson weighs in at a respectable 42 hours, and had been on my to-read list for quite a while, so I bought it and finally started it when I had a long road trip for work back in January.

The book is a huge epic, with a good-sized cast of main characters and two separate but related story lines. Half of the book is set during World War 2 and the main characters are Lawrence Waterhouse, a brilliant math prodigy code-breaker who works with Alan Turing, Bobby Shaftoe, a resourceful marine who ends up in all sorts of interesting situations as the allied powers try to hide the fact that they have broken axis codes, and Goto Dengo, a Japanese mining engineer who ends up involved in a plot to bury tons of gold the axis powers have looted from conquered countries.

The other half of the book takes place in the 90s. The main character, Randy Waterhouse, is the grandson of Lawrence and is a computer hacker who is part of an internet startup trying to establish cryptographically secure internet communications including an anonymous digital currency. He ends up working with the various descendants of the other WWII characters in a plot to recover the buried gold.

In typical Neil Stephenson style, Cryptonomicon is prone to long-winded asides about a wide variety of technical topics, particularly computers and cryptography, but also other stuff, such as completely unnecessary parametrization of things in daily life into systems of equations. I guess this is supposed to dazzle readers with how smart the characters (and the author) are, but I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I was not already familiar with a lot of the topics covered. Some of these asides are interesting, or at least charming, and many that seem irrelevant at the time end up being relevant later on.  Some of these asides have also aged quite poorly. The book was written in the late 90s, and so it has a number of breathless explanations of computer-related things that the reader is clearly supposed to be amazed and impressed by, which nowadays are just normal boring parts of life.

There are also a few that have aged poorly for other reasons. One in particular stands out: Randy is at a dinner party with his (soon to be ex) girlfriend’s academic colleagues. The girlfriend is a caricature of the “bitchy feminist” and her colleagues are (shudder) social scientists (who are, the text makes clear, lesser forms of life compared to hard science, math, and computer geeks). Randy gets in an argument with a dude who has become famous for raising difficult questions about the rise of the internet, and in particular how inequality in society means that poor people will not have the same chance to benefit from the internet as rich people. Instead of responding to the actual (very valid and still very relevant point), Randy leaps to the defense of the internet by criticizing the “information superhighway” analogy and  flaunting his impressive credentials as… a UNIX sysadmin I guess? I guess we’re supposed to be impressed by that? The “best” part of the chapter is when the academic points out that Randy, a white male from a long line of well-to-do math whizzes, has benefited from privileges that others may not have shared, and Randy (a) claims the he doesn’t have privilege, and (b) it’s clear that the reader is supposed to side with him.

That one chapter basically turned me off from Randy and his whole story line. These days it’s just not that fun to read a story glorifying tech-bros who are inventing bitcoin (even if that story improbably leads to all sorts of adventures in the jungles of the Phillipines). I mean, all due credit to Stephenson for linking cryptography and the potential for digital currency back in the late 90s: that’s some good sci-fi future prediction, even if Cryptonomicon is naively obsessed with the need for a gold standard to back such a currency. But too often I found that the book, especially the modern story line, seemed to glorify white male nerds in a way that doesn’t sit quite right nowadays, when stereotypical white male nerds, especially those obsessed with “individual liberty” and cryptocurrency have become one of the most toxic segments of the population on and off the internet. (I should also mention that Randy’s interactions with and thoughts about women do not help the situation. There’s a “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” vibe that doesn’t age well. I found his romance with Amy Shaftoe extremely far-fetched: at some point in the book she goes from strong, independent woman to emotional and needy potential girlfriend, and it’s entirely unclear why she would be interested in him.)

On the other hand, the WWII storyline is really good. Still prone to long, often gratuitous, tangents, but I enjoyed the characters and the story much more. Lots of interesting people jetting around the globe, getting into and out of trouble. And it also focused on a part of the war that I did not know much about, the southeast Pacific, so I learned at least a little real history mixed in with the fictional parts.

When I finished this book, I wavered on how to rate it on Goodreads. I love giant doorstopper epics, and it has some great moments and memorable characters. It tells a heck of a yarn, and the way the past and “present” story lines are interrelated is pretty well done. But it also has the issues I mentioned above. In the end I went with three stars. I think there is a four or even five-star book buried in there, but Cryptonomicon is badly in need of an editor willing to mercilessly wield her red pen to trim down the considerable bloat and improve the modern storyline. Lacking that, it’s uneven and too-long. I’m glad I read it, but I’m always disappointed when a book isn’t as good as it could have been.

 

Book Review: Norwegian Wood

I picked this book up because over on the book suggestion subreddits, Haruki Murakami’s books are constantly being recommended so I figured I’d give one a try. People are constantly praising Murakami for his beautiful prose and poignant writing, two things that I tend to enjoy so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I was pretty disappointed.

At times I felt like I must be reading a different book than everyone else: The prose was fine but really nothing special. I’ve read authors who deploy metaphors and similes that light up my mind and make me pause in admiration. Instead, most of Murakami’s writing seemed to fall into the category of “invisible” prose for me, where it flows nicely but nothing really jumps out. The overall melancholy tone was good, and there were occasional moments where the prose got a little more poetic, but even then I wasn’t particularly struck by it. I also found that a lot of the dialog didn’t quite scan for me: there were a lot of what seemed like non sequiturs, which I suspect is at least partly due to something lost in the translation from Japanese to English.

I was underwhelmed by the story and characters too. The main character is just about the most boring person I can imagine, with no real goals or motivation in life, and his primary love interest is a girl who is somehow even more boring than he is. The supporting characters are at least more interesting, but one of them (the second love interest) is an embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl trope (seriously, the description at that link could have been written specifically for her, right down to the hair dye). For some reason, despite being an incredibly boring and unremarkable guy, all the female characters in the book are in love with him and think that his every banal statement is amazing. Even the most interesting character in the book, an older woman who is at the same mental institution as the main love interest, and is a lesbian (and statutory rapist of an underaged girl – which is its own can of worms), ends up sleeping with the main character at the end of the book for no apparent reason. As for the plot, it was almost nonexistent, which is unfortunately pretty typical for a “literary” novel.

I guess I can see how a book about a young guy who mopes around aimlessly and yet for some reason has attractive women (of all ages and sexual orientations!) falling all over themselves to be with him might appeal to some readers, but I really don’t see why Murakami is such a literary darling known for gorgeous prose. Suffice it to say, I think this book just didn’t work for me. Maybe there is some aspect of it that went over my head that I’m not appreciating, but whatever the reason, it just didn’t connect.

The Purpose of a Gun

What is the purpose of a gun?

It’s a  question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Las Vegas massacre, and has come to the fore again with the massacre in Parkland and the national discussion about gun violence that has followed. It’s a simple question, but it’s one that I think doesn’t get enough attention, because the answers get to the heart of the gun debate in the United States.

The simple answer to this question is that a gun is a device for propelling projectiles at high enough velocities to kill animals at a distance. More specifically, many guns are for killing human beings. That’s what guns are designed to do. But when I ask about the purpose of a gun, I don’t mean “what do they literally do?” I mean, “why do people buy them? Why do people think they need guns?”

Many gun owners will say that they own guns for defense. They want to protect their property, themselves, and their families from harm. Others will say that they own guns for hunting: killing animals for sport and/or food, and all of the culture and traditions that go with that.  Polls show that those are far and away the two main reasons people own guns. Of course, guns serve another purpose as well: they are used in war for killing people. Our species has put a lot of effort into finding better ways to kill each other, and modern firearms are one result.

So, guns are for self defense, hunting, and war. But guns are more than just simple tools. Guns have a deep cultural significance that other tools don’t. People get emotional about guns. Why is that?

It helps to look at those three purposes more closely. Self defense, hunting, and war are intimately linked with our culture’s ideas of masculinity. The “man of the house” is traditionally responsible for keeping his wife and kids safe. Hunting is a manly thing to do: it is a rite of passage for boys to go out hunting with their fathers, and bringing home meat to feed the family again plays into the idea of the man’s role as provider for the household. And soldiers are seen as the epitome of masculinity, taking the man’s role of defender of the family and expanding to to defender of the country. Historically, killing has been a man’s job.

The purpose of a gun in modern American culture is not just as a tool, but as a talisman of masculinity. A fetish, worshiped for its power to confer masculinity on its wielder.

Couple the gun’s near-mystical status with a culture that is deeply misogynistic, where men seek to distance themselves from anything that seems even remotely feminine. The easiest way to insult a man in our culture is to question his masculinity, to imply that he is in some way woman-like. Men are taught that they must constantly prove their masculinity to themselves and each other, so what better way than to acquire guns? Surely nobody can question my masculinity if I own an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

At the same time, expressing any emotion other than anger is seen as feminine and therefore forbidden to any self-respecting red-blooded man. Boys don’t cry. Boys are supposed to like gym class and play sports so they can prove their physical prowess against other boys. Boys are not supposed to like poetry or drama, because those activities involve openly sharing emotions other than anger.

That said, our culture is changing fast. Women are breaking down barriers everywhere you look. Same sex couples can get married. Nerds are cool. The #MeToo movement is exposing rampant sexual harassment and men who have long gotten away with it are finally facing consequences. We had 8 years with an African American president. Cherished bastions of popular culture like Star Wars and superhero movies are having success after success by featuring women and people of color.

There’s a saying that goes: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right now a lot of white men, raised in a hyper-masculine culture, are seeing these shifts and feel like they are under attack. Plenty of men are able to adapt to the changing culture and celebrate it, but there is a segment of the population who instead double down on toxic masculinity. They perceive a threat to their way of life, and in response they acquire arsenals and continue to repress emotions to prove their masculinity at any cost.

There is another facet to guns that also comes into play here. Not only are they powerful symbols of masculinity, but guns offer the illusion of control. It is terrifying to think of an armed intruder breaking into your house and threatening your family, so many people want a gun so that if such a situation arises, they will not feel helpless. They can take control of the situation rather than wait for the cops to arrive. Studies show that having a gun in your house actually puts your family at greater risk, but it feels like it does the exact opposite. Likewise, the idea of a mass shooting is terrifying, and makes people feel helpless. You hear gun advocates say that they want to carry weapons to prevent such attacks, that if we just had more “good guys with guns” then we’d be safer. What they are really saying is that they cannot deal with feeling helpless if such a situation were to arise. By carrying a gun, they feel like if they found themselves in an attack, they could do something about it. This is of course not backed up by reality, where having numerous armed civilians in a shooting is likely to just add to the chaos, cause additional unwanted injuries, and make it much harder for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively. But the idea of having a gun is comforting because it gives an illusion of control.

So what we end up with are heavily armed, emotionally stunted, white men who feel like their way of life is under attack, and turn to guns as a way to reassert control. It’s the perfect recipe for gun massacres.

It is obvious that this country needs better laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on weapons that make killing easy. But I think it is equally obvious that gun violence in this country is also a byproduct of a deeply toxic culture of masculinity, and that if we want to curb the violence we need to work hard to change that culture.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

I first heard of George Saunders when I stumbled upon a series of short writing advice videos that he was in. He had a reputation as a master storyteller, and I made a note to try reading one of his books some time. When I saw his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” popping up on recommendation lists, I decided to give it a try.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew basically nothing about the book other than the title and that the author had a good reputation. Lincoln in the Bardo turned out to be a very strange book that only partly worked for me.

The book is centered on Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died of Typhoid fever at age 11. As advertised in the title, the book is about Willie’s ghost as it lingers in the “bardo” – the in-between realm between the world of the living and death. Willie’s ghost encounters a cast of other colorful ghosts, who tell him their stories and try to convince him to leave the bardo and be at peace, while refusing to accept that they themselves should do the same.

Interspersed between fictional chapters are chapters that are composed entirely of little snippets and quotes from relevant historical accounts. I don’t know that all of the quotes were real, but at least one of the sources was “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which I know is a real book.

The book is definitely on the “literary” or even “experimental” side of things. There is sort of a plot, but it is pretty thin, and much of the book is side stories about the various ghosts and their various lives and reasons for lingering in the bardo. Some are funny, some are sad, some are just bizarre.

For me, the best parts of the book were when the two main ghosts, Bevins and Vollman, who serve as narrators, actually enter into Abraham Lincoln’s body as he is visiting his boy’s grave. They get a glimpse of his thoughts and feelings, and the result is a handful of very powerful and moving passages reflecting on grief, the impermanence of life, the helpless feeling of a parent who looses a child. These thoughts, in Lincoln’s mind, shade into thoughts of the war, or the thousands of other sons who have died or will die, and whether the price is worth it. These passages alone made the book worth reading, but they’re surrounded by a lot of weird stuff that didn’t connect as well with me.

I listened to this as an audiobook, which was interesting because it was done with a full cast. The two main readers were Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, and they did a very good job, especially Offerman. But many of the minor characters were also voiced by famous people: Lena Dunham, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, etc. However, some of the very minor parts, especially among the dozens of snippets and quotes, were read by people who were clearly not trained actors (indeed, I noticed the cast listing seems to have Saunders’ entire family, for example). It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you go from a trained voice actor to a regular person who reads without any inflection.

Overall, I’d say this was worth reading for its occasional beautiful and poignant moments, but was a little on the strange side for me. I’d like to give some of Saunders’ short stories a try. They’re what he really is famous for, and I suspect I will like his short form writing better.

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? The title of Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” gripped me the first time I saw it, and I knew I had to read the book regardless of what it was about. I only learned later that the title is part of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”
I’ll say up front that although this book is not perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. The basic premise is that several hundred years in the future, geopolitics on Earth looks radically different from what we have now. Technology is advanced enough that people can hop in a (flying) car and travel anywhere in the world in less than two hours, and this has led to a breakdown of traditional nations. Instead, society is organized into several different groups or “hives” and people can choose which one they ant to be a part of, if any:
  • Humanists: focused on human achievements (athletic, artistic, etc)
  • Cousins: focused on altruism and providing social services to all
  • The Masonic empire: A Rome-like monarchy built on the longstanding rumors of a secret society pulling the strings throughout history
  • The Gordians: Basically a think-tank become a nation, with a focus on understanding the human brain and behavior
  • The European Union: Self-explanatory
  • Mitsubishi corporation: A coalition of former Asian nations now run as a “shareholder democracy”. Owns most of the land on Earth.
  • Utopians: A group of scientists and others focused on the future. They work tirelessly to end all disease, extend human life, and colonize other planets.

Here is a more detailed description of each hive, written by Palmer herself.

This fascinating vision of the future is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is crammed full of other really creative ideas about the future, and that’s what really made me love it. Some are relatively minor, like textiles that project an image of the background on their surface rendering the wearer nearly invisible. Others are fascinating and troubling, like “set sets”: humans who have been interfaced directly with computers since birth, co-opting the neural pathways normally reserved for things like sight and smell and taste, turning them into phenomenally powerful biological computers.

The plot of the novel revolves around a family who play a central role in the smooth functioning of this future world. Their two “set-sets” (along with a massive array of supercomputers) are responsible for the flight paths of the billions and billions of high-speed cars that zip around the world and make the distributed “Hives” possible. (The cars of course, are not driven by their passengers, and crashes are so rare that they make international news when they occur.) Only the small Utopian hive does not use their system of cars. Unbeknownst to most, the family also harbors a boy with extraordinary abilities that I won’t divulge here, and protecting him from discovery is a major driver of the plot.

But really I’ll be honest: this is not a novel about plot. It’s about this vivid and fascinating vision of the future in all of its glorious, messy, detail. The plot serves primarily as an excuse for the main characters to meet and interact with the outlandish characters who lead each of the Hives, and therefore to show the reader another facet of the complicated future world. (And of course, just as has often been the case with leaders of nations throughout history, the leaders of the hives all know each other and are connected by a web of marriages, adoptions, etc.)

In case the intricate worldbuilding didn’t clue you in, this novel is unabashedly smart, and to some it may veer into the territory of “pretentious”. You see, “Too Like The Lightning” is obsessed with Enlightenment philosophy. The writing style of the book is heavily influenced by this time period as well, with a narrator (who is also a main character) who speaks directly to the reader, sometimes even inventing interjections from the reader and responding to them. Palmer does some exposition jiu-jitsu by having the narrator ostensibly relating the events of the novel to a reader even farther in the future, but by explaining things to that future reader, we in the “past” are also able to understand things. Here, it’s probably easier if I just show an example, from where the narrator is explaining why he’s writing in the style of the 18th century:

“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

I suspect some readers might balk at the almost self-indulgent way this book goes on about various philosophers and how their works are relevant for certain aspects of the future society depicted, but I found it refreshing. Usually if sci-fi is going to get self-indulgent about some subject, it’s science (often physics). Most people don’t bat an eye when the brilliant scientist in a hard sci-fi novel gives a big speech explaining special relativity or the chaotic orbits of planets in a multi-star system, or what have you. In fact, books like that are often applauded for their perceived realism. I’d argue that “Too Like The Lightning” is doing exactly the same thing, explaining some point of philosophy that is just as fundamental to understanding the world depicted in the novel as special relativity is fundamental to understanding Tau Zero, for example.

What really impressed me about this book (Palmer’s first published novel!) is the confidence and skill with which Palmer manages to pull off several very difficult things. The voice and narrative style, as you can see in the quote above, are very distinctive and unusual. The world she has created is intricate and complicated and feels organic, which means it is potentially confusing, yet somehow Palmer manages to write in such a way that you always have just enough information to want to keep going to learn more. From the very beginning , it is written in such a way that you trust all will be made clear in due time. Often I lose patience with stories that string the reader along, but “Too Like the Lightning” does it extremely well. In this, it has a lot in common with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which also contains lots of philosophical discussions and likewise provides the reader just enough information to understand but doles it out slowly.

Finally, I found it refreshing to read far-future sci-fi set here on Earth rather than a space opera set in an unknown star system on the other side of the galaxy. Most authors writing this far into the future use the time gap and fictional worlds they’re writing about as an excuse to start with a relatively blank slate. Palmer instead takes the far more challenging route of setting her story here on Earth. That means that her worldbuilding has to deal with the complicated, messy baggage of thousands of years of real history, but as a historian Palmer is up to the challenge and the result is a sci-fi vision of the future that feels far more “real” than the hardest “hard” sci-fi.

I was disappointed at the end of the book to learn that it is really only the beginning of a longer story, but that’s unfortunately par for the course in speculative fiction. That said, I still thought the twists and revelations at the end were very good. As I listened to the end of the audiobook (which has a great narrator) on a plane, I may have said “whoaaah” out loud. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

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