The Contest in the Mines

Here’s another bit of never-before-published writing, this time from back in 2008, only a year after I graduated college. It’s a very short story (500 words, or about two pages). It’s unusual for being pretty character-driven, whereas most of my fiction is plot-driven to a fault.

But even though it’s almost a decade old, I’m still very happy with it. And that’s unusual, too.


She’s legend now — of course you’ve heard the songs about Alainna-moch-Derr, the Catlike Trickster. Once, though, she was real, and the songs are lies, or miss the point. But I knew her, from the days when she was called Alya and worked in the Cottonmouth Mines, and I will tell you a true tale of Alainna-moch-Derr.

The mines were a prison, and we were prisoners. I was into my fourth year working that basaltic hell, for political stumblings I won’t bore you with. Alya told me she was in the mines for offending a baron’s honor, but then she told Maxis her crime was grand larceny, so I guess nobody really knows. But in those days we only really thought about three things: how thirsty we were, how tired we were — and arm wrestling.

That was our sport, bored, hopeless creatures that we were. The strongest men, the dust-stained titans fresh from outside with biceps like timber, would kneel by a crate and go at it, and all of us crowded around, our food-credits riding on the winner, quiet so the Metallics wouldn’t hear.

One day a Metallic did catch us, and you know how they are — always playing at being human. So this one made a fake smile and said he wasn’t here to punish us, just wanted to know if he could join. Did anyone care to challenge him, he asked — because otherwise the game was done, we could all go back to work (and extra shifts too, no doubt).

We all looked down except Alya, who stepped up cocky as anything and said she’d do it.

Now Alya was even scrawnier than me, and of course a Metallic could crush basalt between his fingers anyway, so in a fair match she was hopeless. But even then she had a reputation for cleverness, and we all wondered what kind of trick she could pull. It was the first interesting thing to happen in months.

The Metallic didn’t act surprised, just sat in the dirt and clanked his coppery elbow against the crate. His middle eye twitched as Alya knelt on the other side, took her time rolling up her sleeve, and finally set her arm down. She wrapped her slim calloused fingers round that deathtrap hand, cocky as anything, lips a smooth straight line. I would’ve bet my credits on her if I could, but I guess we all knew the stakes were higher than that.

There was a long tense quiet and the metal arm cracked her hand down like a mousetrap.

They gave her the twenty-eight hour shift but didn’t punish the rest of us, so I didn’t see her again for almost a week. Her knuckles were scraped but I knew her arm was okay, because she was still alive. I asked her if she did it to save the rest of us punishment. But she said hell no, she didn’t love anybody else that much.

Why, then?

“He was just a bastard,” she said, and of course Alainna-moch-Derr had never had a plan at all.

The Federalist Capers — Issue no. 1

eagle

My friend Paul and I have started a monthly newsletter called The Federalist Capers (aren’t we clever?) about the state of the union, post-Election Day.  The first issue is available now. For those who subscribe to the paper version, you should be getting yours via snail mail shortly.

Why a newsletter?

For one thing, looking over the news of the past month — as opposed to reacting to news on a daily basis — forces Paul and me to consider what’s most important (like Trump’s Cabinet picks and his conflicts of interest) and what’s sideshow (like the Hamilton thing). Fitting all the news, commentary, and suggested actions into a single page (front and back) forces us to narrow our focus even further.

But beyond that, I think it’s good for all of us to be reminded now and then that this is not normal and this is not okay. No, he’s not President yet, but he’s already done (and failed to do) a lot of things worth talking about. And a newsletter is another way to keep these discussions alive — a little different format than the blog, engaging brains in (hopefully) a little different way.

How long will we keep this up? Not sure yet. Maybe only a couple of issues, maybe years. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, enjoy Issue no. 1!

Ode on a Martian Urn

I wrote this in May of 2014. First time it’s seen the light of day. I tend to be very critical of my older work, but I’m actually still pretty happy with this one.

Thou Art, what art thou?
No clay-fingered potter wrought thee;
no blushing poet will sing thy praise
to an enchanted crowd:
child of the god of war,
color of rust, ancient as asteroids,
bold hypercubes writhe
rough upon thy surface.
What tesseract lies empty in its
stable, bereft of children
that they might decorate thee?
Brim-full of portent,
tick-tock-ticking unabated by
ten thousand thousand years,
what clock lies in thy shivering heart?
What crystal quivers for thy sake,
counting bright femtoseconds like fireflies
from the moment of thy creation?
And what doom draws thee near,
O Martian urn?
Barren waste lies where thy home should be,
thy rivers sere, thy valleys
choked with dust, thy mountains
scraping thin atmosphere
to grope at stars.
Wilt thou bring this fate
to fledgling Earth
when this thy clock expires?
And when all is done, wilt thou
lie close and say:
“Truth is terror, terror truth;
that is all ye know on Mars,
and all ye need to know.”

Rethinking the Three-Fifths Clause

If you’ve spent much time reading or talking about the Constitution, you’ve probably come across the Three-Fifths Clause. It’s a little piece of Article I, Section 2, that says slaves are each counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of representation in the House. (Needless to say, this clause is no longer in effect.)

I remember hearing about this in high school. Like most people who hear about this, I thought it was unfair. All people should count as full, 100% human beings, not 3/5 of a human being. Right?

Well, it is a deeply unfair and horrible rule — but that’s not the reason why. In fact, slave owners of the day wanted their slaves to count as “full” people, while principled opponents of slavery wanted slaves counted as nothing.

Why?

Well, remember, we’re talking about a formula for calculating how many House Representatives a state gets. No matter what number we pick, or what formula we use, slaves are never going to be represented in the House (or Senate, for that matter). They can’t vote, they have no legal rights. The Representatives of a state represent slave owners, and other citizens (who are overwhelmingly pro-slavery).

So we’re really talking about how much power (in the form of Congressional control) slave owners are going to get.

With that in mind, the picture becomes clearer. Slave owners would count each slave as 30 people, if they could, and dominate the House. Meanwhile, not counting them at all means they only get “credit” for free citizens.

It’s just strange to have an idea in your head a certain way for over 20 years, then suddenly find out you’ve got it exactly backwards.

By the way, none of the reasoning above is a result of my own cleverness. It came from a book I’m reading, America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar.

acab

Weighing in at more than 600 pages, it’s the kind of book you can use to have a debate with someone, then cudgel them into submission if they won’t change their mind. It’s a really careful, insightful work, taking you through the Constitution itself and all 27 Amendments almost line by line, and explaining the history and the logic behind every single piece.

So far I’m only on Article II. I’ll keep you posted (unless I don’t).

How Trump used 7 logical fallacies in 49 minutes

I follow Trump on Twitter. (Generally I try to ignore internet trolls, but when one of them gets the nuclear codes, I figure we’re well past the “ignore” stage.) Reading this man’s tweets is bewildering, infuriating, disturbing, and hilarious, sometimes all at the same time. The word that keeps coming to mind is surreal.

On the plus side, he does offer an endless supply of what you might call “teachable moments.”

Consider the five-tweet barrage below, posted from 6:14 to 7:03 p.m. on November 28. The context here is that Trump claimed he would’ve won the popular vote if not for voter fraud on a massive scale — about 3 million fraudulent votes — and CNN journalist Jeff Zeleny pointed out that there’s zero evidence of that. (The sequence goes from bottom to top.)

tweetz

Of course this rant is childish, bizarre, and utterly unbefitting the President-elect of the United States. But let’s look a bit deeper. Let’s take this as a chance to learn about how logic works.

A logical fallacy is an argument that might seem sensible on the surface, but isn’t actually valid. Some are pretty obvious, while others are extremely subtle. Everyone uses logical fallacies sometimes, and everyone believes them sometimes, myself included. But if we can learn to recognize them, we get better at resisting their allure.

By my count, Trump has managed to fit at least 7 different types of logical fallacy into a span of 49 minutes. That’s one new type of fallacy every 7 minutes on average.

Ready? Here we go.

Appeal to Ignorance fallacy

Appeal to ignorance (a.k.a., shifting the burden of proof) means declaring that something is true because we don’t know, or haven’t proven, that it’s false. He says, “you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud.” But Trump is making a remarkable claim — that 3 million people voted fraudulently — so the burden is on him to prove it. There is no burden on anyone else to disprove such a claim.

This is closely related to the principle of Occam’s Razor, which says that you generally shouldn’t assume a complex explanation when a simple one works just as well. Since the simple explanation (no significant level of voter fraud) seems to work, Trump’s more complex claim (an elaborate scheme that went largely undetected) is the one that requires defense.

The funny thing here is that we actually do have good evidence that no such fraud took place. So even if Trump’s invalid logic were valid, it still wouldn’t prove his case.

Ipse Dixit fallacy

“Ipse dixit” is Latin for “He himself said it.” It means that someone just asserts that something is true and expects it to be believed, either because they said it, or because someone else said it. Sometimes called an appeal to authority.

Trump says “There is NO QUESTION THAT #voterfraud did take place,” but he provides NO EVIDENCE THAT this is true. This is the kind of thing that happens in kindergarten a lot. “My dad could beat up your dad!” “Nuh-uh!” “Yeah-huh!”

By the way, appeal to authority isn’t inherently wrong. You can never use it as 100% proof of something, but if an expert on astronomy tells you something about how stars are formed, it’s reasonable to think that it’s probably true unless you have evidence to the contrary. But Trump is not an expert on how voting works (to put it mildly), so his opinion carries no weight, Caps Lock notwithstanding.

Ad Hominem fallacy

This means you attack your opponent directly, as opposed to attacking their argument. Insults are an example of ad hominem. Another one that’s popular in kindergarten. “You got this problem wrong.” “Oh yeah? Buttface!”

Trump has a lot of pratice with this. Here, his attacks on Zeleny include “shame! Bad reporter” (what is the guy, a dog?) and “part time wannabe journalist !”

(Incidentally, “bad reporter” and “wannabe journalist” are mutually exclusive, but that’s not really a fallacy, it’s just inherently wrong.)

Appeal to Emotion fallacy

Just what it sounds like. You fire up your audience’s emotions (anger, pride, fear, whatever works) in lieu of logic. Trump’s entire tweet sequence is aimed at making people feel a certain way, rather than think a certain way. Actually, I think that summarizes his campaign, too.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with appealing to emotion in addition to using logic, and pretty much everybody does. It’s when you use emotion as a smokescreen that you run into problems.

Genetic fallacy

Despite the name, this has nothing to do with DNA. Genetic fallacy means arguing that a claim is wrong because its source is untrustworthy or otherwise bad. Sort of a variation on ad hominem, I guess. Trump says: “just another generic CNN part time wannabe journalist ! @CNN still doesn’t get it. They will never learn!” The goal seems to be casting doubt on CNN’s claims by casting doubt on CNN generally.

The genetic fallacy can seem reasonable on the surface — after all, if someone’s not trustworthy, why should you trust them? Well, you shouldn’t, of course. But the point is that someone can be right even if they’re usually wrong. Even a pathological liar can tell the truth sometimes. (For instance, Trump recently said, “Happy Thanksgiving!” and he was right.) So even if CNN is totally full of crap, it’s still possible that they’re right about this particular argument.

Overgeneralization fallacy

This one is also just what it sounds like.

Whether or not you think CNN has a strong liberal bias, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that their “total (100%) support of Hillary Clinton” is not a real thing that really happened.

False Dichotomy fallacy

Also known as the excluded middle. This means that you see the issue as black and white, all or nothing, one or the other. Like: “She’s not a saint, so she must be a criminal.” In reality, the truth can often be somewhere in between the two opposing arguments, or it can even go in a different direction entirely.

Of course, sometimes one side really is totally right, and here, the facts seem to vindicate CNN completely. But the point is that even if CNN’s claim is wrong, as Trump is saying, that doesn’t prove that his claim is right.

In conclusion

Listening to Trump speak can hurt your brain. But figuring out exactly why he’s wrong can be enlightening.

Also, I’m not sure Trump realizes he actually won the election. I mean, he’s attacking CNN because they’re upholding the validity of the process that will make him President.

I think somebody might get his Twitter access revoked again…

“What can I do?” Here’s what.

Millions of Americans are concerned (or worse) about the upcoming Trump presidency, but don’t know how they personally can help. What can we, as citizens, do to make sure our country stays safe, sane, tolerant, and free?

The answer is, a lot. After thinking this over for several weeks, I’ve put together a detailed guide. Please check it out. And because I think this is fairly important, I’ve added a permanent link in the website header as well, and I’ve made it a permanent “page” rather than just another blog post.

Now, I’ve given you the link (two links, in fact) and encouraged you to click. Theoretically, my work here is done.

The problem is that I’ve learned, from personal and professional experience, that people are reluctant to click links. If the information is right there in the article, they’ll scroll down and read, but if they have to click a link, readership declines dramatically. It’s some kind of psychological hurdle. I do the same thing myself, when I’m reading.

So how do I entice you to actually click?

Let’s try this:

George Takei + button

Now if you’re thinking that I’m exploiting the celebrity of a venerable man for my own petty purposes, well, you’re right. But somehow I don’t think he would mind very much.

Seriously though. Push the button.

A somewhat different letter

letter2

So, this is a thing that happened.

CBS is reporting that a mosque in northern California received a threatening letter (see above). And this is not an isolated incident.

Right now I’m not incredibly interested in assigning blame for this. To what degree Trump and/or some of his supporters may be responsible — directly or indirectly — for threats like this, I don’t especially care. Whether it was sent as a serious message or as a prank, I don’t know. It’s even possible that some disgruntled crackpot liberal sent the letter to make Trump look bad — although I should emphasize that there’s no evidence of that.

Regardless. Blame is beside the point.

The point is: If you’re a Muslim, how does this make you feel?

Forget “offended,” forget “politically correct.” We’re talking about roughly 3 million Americans who see stuff like this and have to wonder if they and their husbands and wives and children are safe — and if they’re welcome here.

The one good thing about all this is that most Americans, I think, do believe Muslims are welcome here. To quote that CBS article again:

Faisal Yazadi, who is president of the [Islamic] Center’s board of directors, said there has been an outpouring of support from neighbors and from Police Chief Eddie Garcia, a Catholic bishop and the NAACP, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The support made him feel unfazed, he said.

“Without their support I don’t think I’d be talking to you so strongly now,” he said.

I didn’t know anything about this story when my friends and I sent our own letter, but it makes me glad we did.