On Corruption and The Purpose of Government

Definition: cor·rup·tion – the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain

As I watch the turmoil and chaos churning throughout the world, I know we are capable of so much better. People around the world share the same innermost human passions; that’s why great literature can universally move readers. I’m not naïve—there is evil—but beneath the pain and damage we inflict on each other, most people I meet are fundamentally good and given the chance, would seek to live in peace.

 

So, how does it go so wrong, in so many ways? Why are the governments we rely on to serve and protect our basic human rights, so frequently regarded with deep distrust if not utter hatred? Searching for those answers, I found more opinions than fish in the oceans, but when I held them up to the “big picture” none of the theories and concepts provided a holistic answer. Until I read Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

 

In a nutshell, the premise is that long-term prosperity is not merely a product of political and economic systems, but rather how the societal institutions are used.

 

Through historical analysis and research, Acemoglu and Robinson found that societies and nations which thrive are inclusive, in that they enable and protect political and economic participation of society as a whole. On the other hand, a comparable nation with the same conditions, but institutions (political, legal, economic, etc.) which are exploited for the benefit of a powerful elite to extract resources, will inevitably whither. The book is loaded with far better examples and explanations than I can provide—I encourage finding a copy to purchase, or check your local library.

 

In other words, while some political and economic systems may be inherently more inclusive (i.e. democratic) than others, what actually matters is how those institutions are utilized. Therefore, a benevolent monarchy may be far more inclusive than a corruption-riddled democracy.

 

A society or nation is a complex, dynamic system much like a physical body, and maltreatment of part (or most) of the body impacts the whole. Unchecked, the extraction of resources by a controlling elite acts like a cancer; blatant in some nations, while extraordinarily subtle in other cases—particularly when that extraction works to erode an apparently inclusive society.

 

I found this perspective to be profound, because for the first time the rise and (typical) demise of societies throughout history made sense. However, while it explained the significance of inclusive institutions, Why Nations Fail did not illuminate how those institutions fail.

 

Searching for that answer led me to a book by Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. This first-hand examination of corruption around the world described an eerily familiar systemic, dynamic mechanism used to extract and confiscate resources to benefit a privileged elite. The author used real-life examples from around the globe to illuminate how this societal cancer thrives and erodes the foundations of society, causing the same toxic effects described in Why Nations Fail.

“Westerners, especially Americans, can be separated into two basic groups. One camp believes in the necessity, and the virtue, of government…the notion that an entire government might be transformed into what amounts to a criminal organization…is almost too challenging to contemplate. The other camp is characterized by suspicion of government…The overwhelming evidence that the market liberalization…imposed on developing countries…helped catalyze kleptocratic networks…conflicts with this group’s orthodoxy. For most Westerners, in other words, seriously examining the nature and implications of acute corruption would imply a profound overhaul of their own founding mythologies.” – Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

 While digesting that, I watched the extremely powerful Ken Burns documentary, The Vietnam War, and consistently discerned two themes. First, all the governments involved repeatedly exhibited patterns and practices revealed in Thieves of State. More troubling, these failed tactics continue to be employed globally to this day, with the same predictable results.

 

Which prompts some reflections on corruption and government.

 

Suffice to say that this scourge is as complex and old as civilization, and not only impacts the victim but does collateral damage. More devastating than the mere theft of property or position or justice—corruption robs both the victim and those who observe it of their faith in the institutions of society, which undermines the legitimacy of the government.

 

Whether people trust a government or institution depends on whether we believe it serves the greater good with integrity, or is a tool wielded by a powerful elite. Like cancer, once established, corruption spreads and adapts to attack its host in countless insidious forms that are wickedly hard to purge.

 

Honest self-examination leads to a discomforting truth: corruption often includes those who may not perpetrate it but do enable it by turning a blind eye in exchange. For instance, convenient favors to satisfy some special interest without regard to the greater good—which is, by definition, a form of corruption in itself.

 

This is the inescapable reality – consenting to so-called special interest influence over government, legitimizes corruption.

 

Which leads me to conclude that corruption is the ultimate threat to the future of our world and the nations therein. Science and technology continues to transform the world as we know it at an ever-increasing pace. This results in a multinational scale of wealth and power previously unimaginable—and left unchecked, growing wealth inequity portends the consolidation of incomprehensible power, influence and corruption.

 

Nations fail. They do so almost inevitably. Human history is littered with the wreckage of failed nations.

 

The stark truth is, any nation will decline when corruptive influences (wealth and power) seize control of the political, legal and financial institutions to benefit a protected, inaccessible elite. Once rooted, it maintains control by nurturing divisiveness to subvert and dismember the inclusive cohesion binding a society together.

 

I see this process played out daily, and the tactics of demonizing those who are different continue to intensify and divide people.

 

The vaccine against corruption is integrity, and unobstructed accountability to a Rule of Law which is inclusive of all. The founding fathers of the United States understood the importance of protecting that Rule of Law when they implemented a system of checks and balances to ensure accountability—accountability which is maintained and protected by the freedoms of press, speech and assembly.

 

So, what to do?

 

I encourage reading the above-mentioned books. Do not accept the compromising of integrity and accountability of those we invest with power, because integrity is not selective. Demand transparency and accountability of government, while strictly limiting the corruptive influence of wealth and special interests. Resist divisiveness, and insist on problem-solving which is inclusive. Rather than focusing on differences connect with the deeper, common humanity we all share—which is why we need solutions that all can share. The other problems may be daunting but can be overcome, when everyone stands together.

 

Because if we don’t, humankind now has the capacity to create a world which fails.

 

The Need To Be Indie

(Originally a guest post, May 5th, 2016 on the Ragnarok Publications Blog)

I am enormously privileged as an artist. Not due to race or age or gender or even where I was born, though those factors can help or hurt, depending on the circumstances. In fact, the privilege I refer to largely erases those factors—the emergence of independent publishing.

A writer would have to be a true hermit to not be aware that the landscape for authors has changed dramatically. The paradigm shift brought by the advent of digital and online publishing is no less profound than the one brought by (in large part) Gutenberg and movable type.

And I believe this shift brings (creative) writing back to its true roots as a storytelling medium.

Storytelling by its nature is a one-to-many experience shared by the teller and the audience. The magic of writing captures and preserves that experience in a uniquely ethereal way (the subject of another post). But prior to the introduction of movable typesetting, writing was essentially a one-to-one relationship, frequently dissociated by distance and/or time.

Whether the writing was on clay, papyrus, scrolls or vellum books, each work had to be made by one person (either the original author or a copyist acting as a proxy for the author) and went to one person. This intensive process of copying limited both the creation and the dissemination of written content, in all its forms.

The advent of printing presses transformed written content into a one-to-many relationship, with an impact on both readers and authors which can hardly be overstated. An author could reach an enormous number of readers, who were no longer limited to an elite few.

But at a cost.

Having worked in the printing industry, I know full well what is required to turn a manuscript from author copy into a stack of books, not to mention the subsequent marketing, distributing and selling to the mass market which gets it to readers’ bookshelves. The traditional publishing industry emerged to bridge this labyrinth between the author and readers, but the complex nature of the process itself became an impediment which turned both authors and readers into relatively passive participants.

Yes, an author could choose what and whether to write, but the publisher decided what to accept. And readers could decide whether to purchase or not, but the publisher decided what to offer.

Don’t get me wrong, my intent is not to disparage traditional publishing, per se. The reality is that publishers have finite resources and must be highly selective about which authors they expend those resources and expertise on. Technology enables traditional publishing to deliver far more titles per year than a century ago, but compared to the overall population the ratio is still fairly small.

All this to say that, up until recently, dissemination of the written word remained relatively restricted. Now those barriers have fallen with the advent of the internet, the development of print-on-demand and e-commerce.

Which has profound implications for me as an artist.

Unlike publishers, I can create art unconstrained by how commercially viable it might be, without compromising on quality. Firefly is proof that artistic excellence does not ensure commercial success. Being ‘indie’ means I can (and do) experiment with creative formats of storytelling that don’t fit into neat, marketable niches. For instance, my latest project, The Malhutan Chronicles is what I call a novella-novel—a series of SF murder-mystery novellas which together form a complete, cohesive novel-length arc.

But the real metamorphosis, which I believe has not yet fully emerged, is the other side of the author-reader relationship with impacts to both traditional and independent publishing on multiple levels.

I found myself pondering this during a recent class given by Cat Rambo on Creating An Online Presence. Along with freedom comes responsibility, which in the case of indie publishing includes the process of promotion, marketing, distribution, sales, etc. The challenge of course, is how to accomplish this without requiring authors to stop authoring—a goal that is in the best interest of author and reader alike. And marketing is something that most authors dread, with good reason.

As an unknown indie author, I’m still at that point where I directly connect with many of the readers who are enthusiastic about my work. I really feel it is a privilege when a reader lets my voice into their inner world for a period of time. The author in me doesn’t want to market, I want to connect with readers and share my work with them—not because I want to make money, but because I want to tell them stories. It is why I love to do readings, and it makes me an awful marketer.

Perhaps it seems immodest but I’m certain that in time I will become, if not famous, certainly much better known than I am now. Enough so, that I will not have the same direct connection with most of my readers that I currently have. Which is what makes being an indie author so important—the reason I need to be an indie author—because I believe this encourages that more synergistic, dynamic relationship between author-and-reader, that of a storyteller-and-listener.

And I don’t want to lose that.

The Power of Shame

Last weekend at Norwescon, I went to a panel discussion on “Finding Diverse Voices in SF&F.” Afterwards, while discussing the topic with someone, overwhelming shame swept over me when I recalled a childhood experience. I’m still unpacking the meaning, and felt it worth sharing.

But first, to grasp what I wish to convey I must provide some context, so don’t get ahead of me.

As a child, I didn’t have a connection with my father (the reasons are irrelevant) so my relationship with my paternal grandparents was deeply significant, since Grandpa and Grandma filled a gaping hole in my life.  Decades later, I still recall childhood summers and spring breaks, going fishing and camping with them, trailing alongside my grandfather while he took me on his rounds at the mill where he worked as a security guard, and canning tomatoes with my grandmother in the kitchen.  Also significant to me was that my grandparents were Native American.

Neither were full-blooded, but both had been eligible to sign onto their tribal rolls and chose not to, for reasons which were too complex for a young boy to understand. Grandma came from Arkansas and had Choctaw roots, while Grandpa was from Oklahoma with a Cherokee background.

Though they were not proud of that heritage (another whole topic), neither did they hide it.  My grandparents’ heritage was profoundly significant to me and so it was that, around age 10, I found myself at a ceremony honoring Native Americans.

I can’t recall exactly what brought me to this gathering of hundreds of kids; just that I was still in elementary school, so it likely was a school field trip.  In any case, the leader called for all kids who were Native American or had any Native American ancestry to step forward to the center of the ringed assemblage.  I proudly thought of my grandparents as I joined the group in the middle.

That moment was shattered when the leader walked over, hauled me to my feet and declared with a loud voice, “You are too white.  You’re lying, you don’t have any Native American.  Go back and sit down.”

My soul was branded with shame while hundreds of people watched me return to my seat, crying.  The lesson I carried from the circle was that I had no right to my grandparents’ heritage.  From that moment, it was something forbidden, destined to remain outside of my unworthy grasp—a part of my grandparents that could never be a part of me.

My mind accepted this decree, but my spirit said otherwise.  I was drawn to read whatever I found about Native Americans, and my soul was deeply moved when I read “Ishi: Last of His Tribe,” and “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” broke my heart with outrage.  Though I couldn’t explain why, I always felt like an alien in my own culture.

Over the years, I often felt a spiritual presence; that the Spirit of my grandparents’ Native American heritage watched over me and visited on occasion through vivid dreams and visions.  One example was years ago, at a business party during a conference in Arizona.

The host arranged for a Navajo dancer to provide entertainment, but for me it was much more.  As those around me drank and talked, I watched entranced while he performed an elaborate ritual involving concentric rings, which dropped one by one until he let the remaining one fall at the end.

Afterward, I mustered my courage while he packed.  My profound shame protested that I had no right to inquire, but I felt compelled to approach the man.  “I sensed something very deep behind your dance, but I’m not sure exactly what.  Can you share with me what it was?” I asked.

The dancer paused and looked at me with surprise for a few moments, then responded, “The various rings represent aspects of the Great Spirit; the sky, the wind, the earth and sun, plants and animals, and mankind.  Together everything makes up the web of life, but every time one falls, the web weakens, until finally the whole web collapses.  We do this dance hoping that people will see and understand.”

Then he looked at the oblivious people partying around us, and wistfully added, “But no one ever sees it.”  I responded, tears in my eyes, “Don’t give up, brother.  Someday, some of them will.”  In that instant, I felt a sense of kinship.

And so, the other night when I was talking in the corridor, the vivid experience of shame I felt as a child in that circle again washed through me, as if I was there once more—so visceral that it was everything I could do to hold back the tears.  Without realizing it, I had carried this pain my whole life.  In fact, I now see that the middle third of The Archivist is largely an auto-biographical metaphor of my inner struggle.

As the power of that shame dissipates, I now yearn to explore my Native American heritage.  I can’t say where that journey will take me, but I will no longer deny that which is a part of both my physical and spiritual DNA.  No, I did not grow up on a reservation nor suffer the degrading experiences that many Native Americans have endured—that has been their path, which I respect and I know what I am not.  But, finally, it is time for me to explore what I am.

Our society excels at telling people what they can, and can not, be.  I have known numerous gay and transsexual friends over the years, who have struggled with their identity.  They, too, walk their own path but I grasp more deeply their conflict, when your spirit tells you that you are something, which society says you can not be.

Long ago I learned not to let others define who I am.  What I learned the other night was that, just as importantly, I can not let others define who I am not.

The Problem with Star Trek

Because my soul longs for a better world, I have a real problem with Star Trek.

It wasn’t always so. I grew up watching re-runs of the original Star Trek series—yes, in those primitive days, prior to the advent of cell phones and personal computers, when the state of the art in computer gaming was computerized ping pong.

Star Trek depicted a utopian society which managed to transcend race, class and cash, leaving behind need and greed.  The post-60’s era was a time shaped with uncertainty and turmoil, but also the optimistic promise of better days in the future.  We watched moon landings and viewed mind-altering images of Earth from lunar orbit.  The rosy dawn of the digital age brightened on the horizon, about to be ushered in by C3PO and R2D2.

There are times, now, when those days seem like a surrealistic memory.  Particularly in the current climate of political and social fanaticism, which I find not only disheartening but socially destructive.

The topic of surviving on minimal wages along with growing economic disparity recently triggered a profound melancholy in me.  I worked my share of minimum wage jobs back in the day, and a combination of hard work and hard choices have brought me to a point which some (who don’t know me) might call privileged, but which I call fortunate to the extent that we create our own luck.  So, I am not so far removed from those times that I do not retain a deep empathy for those who stumble from one day to the next.

What disturbs me most is the vitriol emerging from the battleground of social media, where competing viewpoints wage war for political and social supremacy.  One example is a young woman with the courage to publicly express what countless of her peers silently feel, then someone else publicly responds with scathing criticism.  Personally, a subsequent response to that criticism nicely summarized my own sentiments.

My training in counseling taught me that people tend to judge others through the lens of their own experiences and abilities.  I have to wonder how much the pervasive problems with drug abuse, homelessness and suicide among today’s youth are rooted in an increasing sense of hopelessness, confusion and a sense of being abandoned by society.  A recent column by a millennial nicely summarized the challenges facing this generation, not the least of which is a suicide rate (triple what it was when I was their age) that is now the second leading cause of death.

Those who are indignantly sitting up, muttering that they had a hard life and made something for themselves, so why can’t these people—take a deep breath, appreciate your accomplishments, and search within for some empathy toward those who don’t have the same external and internal resources you have.  Humans are an extremely diverse species, and not everyone can be a mountain climber.  We need each other, even if we don’t realize it.

While we now enjoy some of the technology envisioned in the Star Trek series, the more significant social conditions remain as intractable as ever.  The reality is that, while better technology can make life easier, that in itself does not equate to a better society.  I appreciate a good smartphone app as much as anyone, but our society has not eliminated homelessness; far from it.  Medical care is increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive, yet inaccessible for a significant portion of society, and often financially devastating.

For years I have posed a question to friends, which came up recently during a NOVA episode entitled “Rise of the Robots.”  What happens economically as more work, and even entire job sectors are performed by robots?  An interesting thought experiment is, if 100% of work was done by robots, how would that economic output be distributed to humans?  At what point do we transcend the need for someone to own everything?

This leads to my problem with Star Trek.

I concede unequivocally that, compared to virtually all of human history and too much of the present day world, those of us in the developed world are better off than most of us appreciate—but we could do so much better.  The original series (and for the most part the subsequent sequel series) not only portrayed a richer, brighter world but, more importantly, conveyed the message that we CAN do better.

The problem is that Star Trek takes place centuries in the future; one that is so distant and unreachable that it seems more fantasy than promise.  That utopian vision offers no bridge for us to get from here to there.  I suspect most people would likely agree that we are moving in the wrong direction, and I increasingly get the sense that we have lost that belief in a better future.  We can’t afford to wait hundreds of years for change to show up.  I wrote “The Malhutan Chronicles” to portray that bridge; an example of how a truly cooperative society might work.

The point is that we won’t build a better world by attacking each other.  My contribution is through writing stories that I hope are entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  Whether they are read or not, I will continue to do my genuine best, because what I write is my contribution to promoting change and growth now—not centuries from now.

Because I see the ultimate defining trait of being human as that we are indeed capable of choosing how to be, of changing oneself with intention and deliberate effort.  Certainly, the greed for wealth and power will remain a challenge for individuals, but human society can grow and change if we cooperate and work together.  Genuine change does not come easily, but we must believe we can do it, and do it now.

But we have to choose to change.  And stop tearing each other apart.

Because the bottom line is that, in order to create a better, more cooperative world, we must never stop working at it in whatever way we can.  Together.

My Writing Process

As a writer, I am frequently asked about my writing process. Surprisingly, these questions come as much from other writers as from non-writers, which I believe reflects the angst many artists have over what can be a mysterious process.

This is how the writing process works for me today.  It’s different than it was last year, and I’m sure it will change over the next year or two.  And that leads to my first point, which is that what works for each writer will be unique both to that person and to where that person is in their journey as an artist.  The one thing I think must be true for every serious artist of any sort, is an obsessive compulsion to practice her or his craft often and regularly.  Talent without practice is a rusty sword, whether it’s a katana or a bokken.

One popular topic is whether to outline or not to outline.  I personally find it very difficult to effectively write without at least creating some minimal structure.  When I go to the beach of my creativity, I need to at least establish some sort of sandbox.  How close will it be to the water, how wet will the sand be, how large is my sandbox and what tools will I use on the sand?

I’ll blame it on my ADD but without defining some of these criteria I tend to wander aimlessly, so I create a very loose, informal bullet point list of the basic structure of the story.  I recently realized that if I strung all these points together I would more or less have a synopsis, but I haven’t tried that (yet).  To be sure, none of these points are written in stone, and once I begin writing I often modify, delete or add to the bullet list in the midst of a session.  And as I progress and delete each completed item that gives me a sense of accomplishment as well.

When I sit down to write, I use anchor points to slip into a creative mindset.  If I’m at home I have certain clothing I put on while writing and wherever I write, I listen to specific music.  I have numerous playlists with titles such as ‘writing1’ and ‘writing2’ and, depending on the project, I sometimes create a custom playlist. Then I stick with that playlist for the duration of the project.

When and where I write varies.  For a long time I wrote on occasion, when I could carve some private time on a weekend or evening…and I made little progress as an artist (see above point about talent without practice).  When I reached a point where I decided to be serious about my craft, I made a job change that added a one-hour commute each way on a train and I bought a Macbook Air.  The fact that this change came with a significant salary bump was a nice bonus.

Now I write for an hour in the morning while going to work, often for an hour during lunch and another hour on the way home.  If I’m deep in the process, I will often sequester myself for two or three hours when I get home.  You know you’re a writer when, while flying standby you get bumped for several hours and that’s good because you get quality writing time in the food court.  So now I write when and wherever I can.  Louis L’Amour once commented about being able to write on the side of a highway…I didn’t always get that but now I do.

So when I sit down with my loose list of points, how does that turn into coherent prose that carries a reader into another world?  That’s where the mystery comes in.  All I can say with certainty is that I don’t force it.  Within that sandbox I’ve laid out, I simply start shaping sand.  The emerging forms often surprise me (and hopefully the reader) because all I specified in my bullet point is ‘Sally quits her job’ but it’s not until I start shaping the story that I see that Sally did so by posting pictures online of her boss sleeping with Sally’s boyfriend and when she quit Sally decided to fulfill her lifelong dream of crewing on a starship passenger liner.

At that point, I let the creative puppy off its leash and it frolics in the sandbox until it’s eaten up all the points on my bullet list and it doesn’t come up with anything else to add.  Sometimes the puppy finds some buried bones, and that ends up in there too.  That’s when I have a completed rough draft.

For some writers moving into the editing and revisioning phase is onerous and dreaded, but for me it’s an equally creative process, albeit in a very different way, and pretty much all of the above points apply.  I see rough drafting as digging up the gemstones and the editing/revising as turning those stones into jewels.  It’s just as creative for me, and often it’s in this later phase that seemingly drab stuff I wrote earlier turn into some of the best parts of the story.  More than once I’ve had that, “Damn, I didn’t realize that was in there” or “Ohhh, NOW I see why that’s there” experience.

Some writers are nervous about sending out their work but not me.  By that point, the story is grown up and I’m ready to push it out of the nest so it can fly on it’s own.  Sometimes it comes back to live at home again for a while, and I’ll do some additional work on it, but generally I have no shortage of nestlings waiting to be raised up in their turn.

So this is my writing process as of today.  Check back in a year.

 

 

Why I Am Doing This Kickstarter

Why am I doing a Kickstarter for The Princess of Panchala? First let me answer the easy questions.

How often do novels get funded on Kickstarter? A quick walk through Kickstarter’s Fiction Project pages shows that quite a few don’t succeed, but a surprising number of them do. To be honest I’m not certain of the breakdown, though I’m sure Kickstarter could provide enough statistics to dry out your eyeballs. But that’s not really the point, more on that in a bit.

Why am I linking through my website rather than directly to the Kickstarter page? While clicking through might put off some people, having a very simple link makes it much easier to promote, and some people that I ask to promote my project don’t care to link directly to Kickstarter. But there are more compelling marketing reasons than that as well. It’s very easy and simple to tell people to go to terramythos.com rather than a complicated URL with slashes and dots. And go to Google and type in “terramythos” (everyone, please, go ahead…it only strengthens Googles algorithms) and see what comes up…my site, my Kickstarter page and at the bottom images of my Kickstarter graphic and my bio picture.

So why Kickstarter, when I don’t have any published novels? While that’s not entirely accurate at the time of this post, I’m not at liberty to disclose more than that yet…let’s just say that publishers move at glacial speed in more than one respect. And while my published credits are meager, again that’s not really the point, which I’ll get to shortly.

Why do this when the odds are so much against success? Our society places far too much emphasis on success, without valuing the benefits of experiencing failure. Already I have probably learned more about marketing and self-promotion than a $400 seminar could teach me in a weekend. Sure, I would like it to succeed, but I’m not afraid to fall down because I’ll learn so much more than sitting on my arse waiting for luck to tap me on the shoulder.

Why not self-publish or go the traditional route? Getting published is far more of a game of chance than we’d like to believe. While nothing can take the place of solid craftwork, there are a sickening number of superb artists that get no recognition simply because they haven’t managed to be in the right place at the right time when the right person was there. But I also believe that to a large extent we make our own luck, and I do not want to be an Accidental Artist.

Which is where I’m really going with this. I have spent many years honing my skills, face to face with some really crappy writing and worked hard to get to a point where I honestly believe I have worthwhile material to share with the world. I will be the first to state that I still have far to go as an artist, and my greatest fear is that I reach a point where I don’t think I can do better, because that is the day that I stop growing.

So all this to answer the question, why do this Kickstarter? To publish a book, yes, but more than that. To publish the first book of a series, yes, but that’s not all. What this is really about is to Kickstart me as an artist.

It is no accident that midway through my Kickstarter video I display the Om symbol (ॐ) and say that I hope the viewer will join me on my creative journey. I have trained and practiced to get to this point, and am ready to set out for my Mount Everest.

I’m not going to look back, and I do hope people will join me.

Fiscal Obesity

It is a rare thing to see a paradigm shift take place on a world scale, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. But I think that is what we are starting to see with Pope Francis as he exerts leadership over the Catholic Church. I’m certainly no expert on the Vatican, but like so many others around the world, I can’t help seeing what he is doing.

From the outset he made dramatic statements through his personal example as he declined lavish papal quarters and settled into a humble apartment. And he has adopted a similar lifestyle. But what strikes me the most are things that he says in this Apostolic Exhortation, such as:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

and

The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money

I’ve seen online comments in response, that range from “he’s a communist” to “let’s see the church give everything away” and everything in between. There is something about human nature that makes us want to see things as one extreme or the other, but the reality is that for a complex system to remain in equilibrium, there must be a constant dynamic balance. In other words, beyond a certain point, by taking an inordinate amount of wealth, the super rich end up damaging the “body” of the economic system (including themselves). It’s a systemic imbalance that is far more complex than any one person.

More than that, though, it really isn’t about economics or even politics, but rather the core mindset that global societies have taken on. And I think he is spot on. Analogies work because in real life, there are consistent patterns that hold true across disparate settings and situations. So by way of analogy, it’s not a stretch to say that consumption of wealth is quite similar to consumption of food.

Just as those sitting at a feast can choose how much to eat, those at the top who take in most of the wealth DO have a choice of how much to take. Just how much of a bonus is enough, and how much becomes just too much? Consumption, beyond what one needs, leads to obesity. So at what point does fiscal gluttony lead to what I call Fiscal Obesity?

I hope, as I introduce this term, that more of us start asking ourselves that question.

The Third Option

The other day I came across an interesting blog posting on Scientific American, one of my favorite places for ideas and scientific updates.

Just the title, Our Final Invention: Is AI the Defining Issue for Humanity? intrigued me, and I had to take a closer look.  This turned out to be a book review for a book by James Barrat called Our Final Invention.  I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s now on my short list.

The gist of the book is that it looks at what futurists revfer to as The Singularity.  For those who are not familiar with the concept, the technological singularity is that point where artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence.  The date for this event is typically placed around 2050, though a few minutes surfing through my cable TV channels is enough to make me think we may be much closer.

A major theme of the review (it’s not overly technical, give it a read) is that when we reach the point where the technological singularity occurs, there are two possible outcomes: either we have programmed the AI to serve us and be our slaves (e.g. Issac Asimov and his robot series) or they turn against us and wage war against their oppressors, as in Terminator and Battlestar Gallactica.

Frankly, if they really do become smarter than us, I suspect the first outcome is highly unlikely–but should that happen, I recommend that the first place we send these altruistic einsteins has to be Washington D.C.

What I found most interesting, though, is that they didn’t realize there is a third possible outcome–which is the underlying premise to my upcoming novel, The Archivist.  Sorry, no spoilers.  You’ll have to wait for it to be published.

 

 

Why Our Society Is Sick

Our society is sick.

The news lately seems to be flooded with accounts of bullying, rape, murder and suicide. There is the tragic story of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old high school student from Halifax, Nova Scotia. According to news reports, this beautiful young girl was gang raped, ignored when she reported it to the authorities, and then brutally harassed and bullied after photos of her rape were circulated on the internet by the perpetrators. Even then, the boys were not held accountable, and the bullying continued after the girl moved until she finally hanged herself.

Rehtaeh’s case is almost identical to Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old girl in California who hanged herself when she was also gang-raped and then pictures posted online to humiliate her. These cases, of course, have come to light on the heels of the infamous Steubenville, Ohio rape case.

While teen suicide is not a new problem (I used to be a volunteer counselor for a teen suicide hotline) the advent of social media has taken teen pressure to a whole new level. Unfortunately, this new technology hasn’t come with social guidelines.

In itself, these stories are shocking and disturbing, and countless commentaries will certainly be written about them. What I find most troubling is how the communities these girls lived in responded when these pictures and acts were posted. The deeper question is how society responds, or fails to respond to these kinds of situations. Specifically, is there is a growing tolerance for socially harmful behavior that may stop just short of being legally prosecutable?

While the legal aspects of these cases are being pursued, what do these cases say about our society? I think the vast majority of people would agree that “wrong” behavior in our society is escalating out of control. The question being asked more and more is, what has happened to our sense of right and wrong?

I think it comes down to morals, which have been largely discarded in recent years. Morals are not religious values (though they can be espoused by a religion). Really, morals and ethics are those guidelines to “right” and “wrong” behavior. In a sense, moral values form the immune system of society, identifying problem behavior and quickly responding to it so as to minimize damage to the body of society. But when society stops caring about what happens to it’s body, is it any suprise that more and more people feel disconnected to that body? In the wake of the social revolutions of the past few decades, I believe our society has been left with a deep void of moral values.

So when I say that our society is sick, this is what I mean: that our society has the cultural version of AIDS.

While there is no easy definition of what makes for a healthy society, a body that attacks itself and does not protect itself from toxic contaminants is clearly not healthy. The most important first step in fighting off an illness is to recognize not only what is causing the sickness, but in this case why the body is not fighting it off. So one of the most important things that we as writers (to my writer friends) can do then is to try to boost that immune system, and hope the body starts taking better care of itself.

It’s beyond the scope of a blog post to provide the answers. But perhaps it can help clarify the problem.

Why I Write

This evening while working out at the gym, I had an experience which reminds me why I separate myself from the world for days at a time: I witnessed the birth of a story.

One of the most common questions that readers ask writers is, where do we get our ideas from? Really, that’s the wrong question. The world is full of ideas, and unless one is an automaton you can not go through the day without encountering a host of ideas. But ideas do not make stories.

At least for me, the process is one of procreation, akin to having a child. They have to be raised, fed and cared for, sent to school and developed. Maybe they will just want a grade school education and become a story, others will go on to graduate school to do PhD dissertations and become novels. Usually you have a pretty good idea which is which, but they do have minds of their own and sometimes a story surprises you when it demands to go all the way through medical school to become a brain surgeon. But, story or novel, they all start out as a seed in the mind.

So back to the question: how does that seed form? At some point the DNA of multiple ideas unwind and wrap around each other, looking for common points to link up. When they do, a fertile embryo begins to form. Maybe these are chance ideas that randomly come together, and at other times they are planted in vitro by an anthology request.

Many of these potential tales are stillborn, and sometimes if it seemed promising there can be a sort of grieving over the unrealized potential story that just didn’t form right. But then a fertile concept plants itself in the womb of the mind and begins to grow and develop. It may have a short gestation, or it might take as long as an elephant fetus. But eventually, there comes a moment when that potential story emerges from the womb it has been growing in.

I expect that only someone who has given birth, or been present for a birth (as I was for my daughters), can really grasp the mystery of that moment, when a life begins to live on it’s own. But if you have experienced that, perhaps you can appreciate that miraculous instant when one realizes that what had previously been a medley of ideas has suddenly become a living thing. It still needs to be raised and nurtured, and someday hopefully it will find a place to live on its own.

So it was that for a brief moment this evening, I felt that awe and wonder of knowing that a story had been born, something which will grow and develop a life of its own.

And if you can relate to that, you’ll know why I write.