Books I’ve Read, Genre Fiction Love and Writing Time

I last showed this blog some love after the death of Osama bin Laden, and that’s a shame. More than once since then I sat down at my computer, only to write half of a thought and put it away for another day. But my usual topics seem to give me anger issues these days, so I thought I’d put something up here on things more personal and cheerful for me.

I recently became unemployed, and in my several weeks of downtime before I start a new gig at Rebuilding Together New Orleans, I’ve been reading a lot. This week alone I sped through Hannu Rajaniemi’s stellar debut, The Quantum Thief, and caught up on Fables and Hellboy, my two favorite ongoing comic books.

I loved every page of The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi put out some serious Hugo material here. He essentially crafted a beautiful, post-Singularity Neuromancer – or at least the first third of one. In it, a warrior-girl and her loyal spaceship break master thief Jean le Flambeur out of prison to pull one last job for a mysterious benefactor. To that end, they travel to the Oubliette, the moving city of Mars. The Oubliette is a place obsessed with privacy and full of secrets.

The world(s) Rajaniemi created are beautiful and dangerous, from the Dilemma Prison that forces le Flambeur to play never-ending deadly games with copies of himself, to the Oubliette and its gevulot (basically a hyper-advanced Facebook for real life – where you can control everyone else’s ability to see or even remember meeting you). I have serious doubts that I could ever create anything half as imaginative as what this string theory and artificial intelligence expert has. Which makes a lot of sense.

My one complaint about The Quantum Thief was the ending. Jean takes the crew to the Oubliette to steal back his own memories, but at the end, we’re left with no idea why they needed them. Now, I realize this is intentional on Rajaniemi’s part, but it left me wanting so much more. Sometimes the novel is too cryptic for its own good, leaving you with more questions than answers – a bit like an episode of lost. I understand that this is to become a trilogy, so here’s hoping he puts the next volume out quick!

Before The Quantum Thief, I explored Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles with The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. While I’ll spare you the full run-down on both of these amazing novels, I do want to write a bit about their protagonist, the private detective Philip Marlowe.

Philip Marlowe is exactly the man I wish I could be. Except maybe for his drinking problem. Though flawed personally and just snarky enough to beat on a number of times by unamused police officers, Marlowe embodies strong ideals of justice and morality. This man sticks to his principles without compromise, but can only do so because he’s extraordinarily clever and unnaturally lucky. He doesn’t have to compromise, because his craftiness sees him through the worst trouble. If one thing about these stories breaks the spell, it’s how incredibly lucky he gets (especially not getting the murder of his client from The Long Goodbye pinned on him).

In between novels, I read a few of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser short stories. A while back, I started a little world-building project for a fantasy novel idea I had. I actually found the early history of the world I created more interesting and came up with an adventuring duo in the vein of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. So I turned to Leiber’s original stories for some inspiration. My characters became quite unlike the two titular heroes physically, but their camaraderie remains quite similar. I started a short story, which quickly became something of a novella. I’m going to try to actually finish this one. I might even try out NaNoWriMo again this year with these two characters in mind.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m sure I’ll be back with something on more depressing topic – war, politics, climate change, etc. – soon.

Farewell.

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Musings on a Death

On May 1, President of the United States Barack Obama announced that he had authorized a military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, arguably the world’s most wanted criminal.

To hear such news and not feel a range of complex and conflicting emotions, especially as an American, would be only natural. So I feel I must write down the thoughts and emotions I’ve experienced over the last several days. If not for someone else to read, then at least for me to get it all out of my system.

On the ethics of a shoot-to-kill operation

Whether or not it was morally correct to kill Osama bin Laden, it was the inevitable outcome. The way this war was begun, on both sides, set us on this path long ago. Had the fight against al-Qaeda been conducted as a covert, international law enforcement operation rather than the full-scale invasion of another sovereign nation, there might have been the chance for a less mortal avenue for justice.

However, the War on Terror was begun by an administration that had little respect for, let alone engagement with institutions like International Criminal Court. If bin Laden had been captured without an all-out war ensuing, he could have been tried by the ICC, as others have for crimes against humanity.

But that’s not what happened. The U.S. certainly could not bring him back here. There could be no such thing as a fair trial for Osama bin Laden. And once we located him, there was really no other decision that the President could make.

On the celebrations

Were Sunday night’s celebrations of an act of violence appropriate? Probably not. But we all do inappropriate things when caught in the grips of emotion. I’m sure whoever might read this remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001. Of what they felt when they saw the towers fall, or when they learned of the American lives lost. So much of our identity was threatened that day, and the events of May 1st, 2011 in some ways closed an open wound on the American psyche. Just like the outcome of Sunday’s operation in Abottabad, the outpourings of emotion proper and improper were inevitable.

On what this means for the war (hopefully)

If we operated in a rational world, then the death of Osama bin Laden would open the door for us to exit Afghanistan. If only.

I hope that his death gives the President the opportunity to make the argument that our objectives in the AfPak region are complete, and that no more of our military resources will be expended fighting an unending war. Immediate military drawdown is necessary, as is brokering a peace between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Of course, some kind of leverage is needed to prevent the Taliban from returning to gross violations of women’s rights, but I don’t see that as impossible to find.

I sincerely believe that Obama wants to end the war in Afghanistan, and the death of Osama bin Laden might give him the political leverage necessary to make that happen. I hope I’m not just projecting here.

Alternablog

Hallo readers,

I wanted to let you know, I have another blog in the Tumblr format. It’s not a replacement for this blog, but rather a compliment. On Tumblr, I can post quick thoughts, videos, images, and quotes. This will still be the place to find my extended political diatribes, and Wanderers Still will be a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the world around me.

Visit it sometime.

What I sent to the Obama 2012 campaign

In 2008, the kids of my generation, barely old enough to vote, mobilized in huge numbers to support the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. We donated money, canvassed neighborhoods, and organized our friends and family. After growing up in a turbulent and unsettling world, we knew big changes had to come to this country.

Hope and change; we believed in it. We fought for it. Now many of us are left to wonder – did we really get it?

In its first two years, the Obama administration made all the right moves. They acted quickly to stabilize our economy. They fought to create a more just health care market in this country, for us and our families. They wrote the strictest set of rules for the financial market since the New Deal. Obama signed a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and pushed through a huge reform in the way student loans are handled in this country.

The economy was still struggling with high unemployment, but the most progressive Congress since the 1960s won many victories for those young supporters who helped elect them.

But after the 2010 elections that brought a new Republican majority in the House, we saw disappointing changes in Obama’s leadership. To myself and many other young people I’ve talked to, it seems as if the President and the Democrats in Congress are ready to give in to the Republicans’ extreme demands. This is a party that wants to dismantle our entire social safety net and fundamentally remake this country, for the worse. It would be so easy for Obama and congressional Democrats to take the fight to the Republicans, but to us it seems like you have all accepted their premise.

Now the Republicans are proposing dismantling Social Security and Medicare as we know them. These are programs that have done huge amounts of good for this country and its people, and these politicians would see them done away with. Again, the President has left the issue largely unaddressed.

Another huge concern among young people is the President’s lack of leadership on climate change. To us, it looks as if he’s given up on the issue. Again, he has the bully pulpit and his declined to use it. Failure to address this issue leaves a large mess for us and our children to deal with over the course of the next century.

If President Obama and his administration fail to even show up to the fight for Social Security, Medicare, the EPA, NPR, and the other alarming cuts that have been proposed, then I cannot see myself supporting his campaign for reelection. Young Americans might be easily drawn to the idea of a better future, but we aren’t stupid. We know the actions that need to be taken, and the battles that need to be fought. But often, it feels as if the elected officials we support largely ignore the ideas we bring to the table and the passion we put behind them.
The passion and effort we brought to the 2008 campaign cannot be recaptured or reinvigorate by fancy advertising and big-budget production value. The only way I see Obama getting that back is for him to get out in front of these issues and confront the opposition in Congress on budget cuts, job creation, EPA regulations, and our social safety net. Give us something to fight for, and we’ll give you everything we’ve got. My friends and I will volunteer, we’ll work, and we’ll donate.

But give in to the Republicans, and I won’t be there in 2012. I will not volunteer or donate, and I will encourage other young people to take the same course of action.

I hope it doesn’t come to that, because as the President said, there’s a lot of work left to do.

Brainwashing and Me

So, in an interview with Mother Jones about a bill he authored to protect creationists from workplace discrimination (never mind that that already exists…), Texas State Rep. Bill Zedler had this to say about college professors:

BZ: Here’s the deal: We have college professors that will defend Hugo Chavez, ok? You have college professors that will espouse communism despite all the evidence of its overwhelming failure. And yet they are tolerated, but someone who even dares to mention intelligent design or who questions the idea that life could begin by chance, they are kicked out, lose their tenure, all kinds of discrimination working against them. I think that flies in the face of academic freedom.

You know what, we are willing to sit there and tolerate the ideas of Hugo Chavez and the ideas of communism and stuff like that, we oughta be able to tolerate somebody else that questions the idea of life beginning by chance.

I don’t want to weigh in on the creationism/evolution bit, but he raises a huge issue here. A good deal of the American conservative ideology now relies on what is essentially a conspiracy theory with no basis in reality. To dittoheads, Fox News viewers, and pretty much every Texas Republican, the letters Ph.D. are synonomous with communism, atheism, elitism, and the gay agenda. They believe that colleges are indoctrination camps for secular statists.

Having just been released from such a camp, I can tell you that life on the inside is not as bad as they make it out to be. No one forced me to memorize Mao’s Little Red Book, and I wasn’t forced to renounce the existence of God. In fact, I knew many of my fellow students to be people of faith, regular small-town folk like myself, and even conservatives. (Which I found shocking, considering the general disregard the conservative establishment has for my generation.)

Yes, OK, there were some professors who did make their personal views on the subject matter known. But it was never in a way that disrepected or condescended to students who disagreed with them. Nothing was ever “forced down our throats,” as the oft-used conservative turn of phrase goes.

I would like to see Zedler’s evidence that this is actually happening in colleges and universities, that creationists are forced out and ridiculed while poli-sci professors sing the praises of Venzuela’s Dear Leader.

Normally, this wouldn’t be that big of an issue for me. Zedler’s a small-time guy pushing a bill to protect people who are already protected (EEOC laws do exist…). But it’s just another example of the conservative assault on higher education that might have serious ramifications for our country. Our public university systems already have enough budget issues to worry about without constant demonization from folks like Zedler. I don’t want to see any more academic programs cut because we don’t see them as valuable. In these tough times, a strong and innovative public education system is even more vital to our economic recovery…

And that’s all I’ve got.

The Land Is Leaving

This map shows one of the greatest tragedies to befall Louisiana in the last century. It might not be as attractive to the mainstream media as people stranded in the Superdome or oiled pelicans, but coastal land loss threatens to erode away the livelihoods and culture of more than 2 million Americans living in southeast Louisiana.

Before moving to New Orleans and working for Global Green, I didn’t know much about the disaster of coastal land loss. (Not living within a 1000 miles of a coast for your entire life will leave you ignorant of these things.) But after working with amazing people who depend on the disappearing bayous for their way of life, it became very difficult for me not to care about this grave injustice.

For those of you who don’t know much about the problems we face down here, here’s a short primer. The land here along the coast is literally sinking into the ocean. Alluvial soil naturally sinks under its own weight, but this process is normally offset by additional sediment flowing down the Mississippi. Now, this natural process has been altered by the construction of levees along the river.

The second major issue is saltwater intrusion. Louisiana’s wetlands are naturally a freshwater environment, but the construction of canals for shipping and the oil & gas industry have allowed saltwater into these environments. This kills native plant life, such as bald cypress. Without the plant roots, even more sediment sinks beneath the rising tides. For a more in-depth description, see here.

As a result of all this, the coast of Louisiana loses an acre of land an hour. Not an acre a day, but an acre every hour. Washing away with the land are people’s livelihoods and culture. Louisiana’s wetlands create and protect more than $100 billion in economic activity, including more than 16 percent of the country’s commercially-harvested fish and the majority of our domestic oil supplies. The wetlands provide storm protection for the largest oil & gas infrastructure and largest port system in the United States. This region is extremely valuable to the rest of the country, even if they fail to recognize it.

That doesn’t even begin to touch on the importance of the wetlands to the people of south Louisiana. The bayous birthed their music, their food, their culture, and their entire way of life. After all they’ve survived, in the end it might be watching their home literally disappear that breaks the Cajun spirit.

Let me give you a little example of what happens when the wetlands wash away. In New Orleans, along the northern edge of the Lower Ninth Ward, there used to be a thriving wetlands area called Bayou Bienvenue. The construction of a  shipping outlet to the Gulf allowed saltwater to intrude back into the marsh, which killed the plant life. Without the plants, the ecosystem died. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it was a storm surge coming down the Industrial Canal that caused the levees to breach and the Lower Ninth Ward to be nearly wiped out. If Bayou Bienvenue had still been alive and thriving, the storm surge would not have overtopped the levees and the Ninth Ward would never have flooded.

This is what Bayou Bienvenue looks like now.

These problems were not caused by Mother Nature. As Tab Benoit, musician and local champion of the wetlands, says, “Mother Nature has been very generous with us.” Man created this problem, and its up to us to fix it. The fixes are far from impossible and the only resource we’re lacking is political will. We already know that politicians in Washington and elsewhere don’t care enough about Louisiana to save it. They left people on their roofs for five days without any rescue during the worst natural disaster this country has ever seen.

So what’s the solution? I don’t have an easy answer for that. The people of this region are going to need to make their voices heard, and in a big way. We need a “Million Cajun March” to get this thing done. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is a New Orleanian, so if there’s hope on Capitol Hill it lies with her. The worst thing that could happen right now is continuing what we’re doing, so we have to do something. I might be a transplant in this place, but I’ve found it worth fighting for. I hope I can convince y’all of the same thing.

For now, I’ll leave it to Tab Benoit to sing you a little song he wrote about the bayou:

Whom Do They Serve?

I know this blog has been pretty silent for the last couple weeks. I’ve been on the road for work, and came back home to New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras season. So…it’s been busy.

But I can no longer keep quiet about the proposed Republican budget. This thing is awful. It’s an atrocious, regressive spending plan that will further increase the suffering felt by those already hurting from the recession. The House GOP leadership appears to have developed a case of mild sociopathy.

Consider, for a moment, the cuts the Republicans have written in:

  • Elimination of the WIC program, which provides nutritional assistance for pregnant women and infants who live in poverty.
  • Drastic reductions in LIHEAP, heating & utility assistance for the poor.
  • Title X Family Planning, which despite rumors to the contrary, does not pay for abortions.
  • Early childhood education programs, like Head Start.
  • Community health centers
  • Legal services for the poor.
  • Major cuts in education, infrastructure, and research – the three areas in which President Obama’s budget increased spending, outlined in his State of the Union and supported by a large majority of Americans.

Just to name a few. Now look at the tax subsidies that are NOT on the chopping block, or have already been enshrined in the Republican’s CR:

  • $8.9 billion tax deduction for mortgage interest on vacation homes.
  • $6.7 billion “estate planning” tax avoidance loopholes for the wealthy.
  • $4.1 billion in tax breaks for companies that move U.S. jobs overseas.
  • $2.5 billion in write-offs for oil companies for drilling costs.
  • $4.9 billion in tax subsidies for corn ethanol production.
  • $2.3 billion tax loophole for hedge and private equity managers.
  • $312 million for letting companies write off punitive damages.

(source)

Never mind that Americans are losing their homes and jobs. We must protect those vacation homes, job outsourcers, hedge fund managers, and dangerous offshore drilling. Since when did tax avoidance/evasion become an American virtue? And since when did the massively-profitable oil industry need taxpayer support?

The elimination of tax loopholes and subsidies would go a lot farther in reducing our enormous deficits than cutting relatively small social assistance programs. The three largest contributors to projected deficits well into 2020 are the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, spending on Iraq & Afghanistan, and the economic recession. That is a fact. And Republicans have shown no willingness to tackle any of these.

Make no mistake about it, this isn’t about the deficit. It’s about revenge. The new GOP House wants to hurt programs that Democrats support or started more than they want to reduce our debt or tackle this country’s 9 percent unemployment. They’re serving their true constituents in the fossil fuel, defense contracting, and hedge fund industries. Not you, not me, not your neighbors, and certainly not your children.

So we must ask ourselves, who does this Congress answer to? Is it to the people that voted for them, or for those who contributed unfathomable sums of money in the last election?

Welcome to post-Citizens United America.