The way it is

The passing of James A. Emanuel, the best poet you've never read

Last Saturday the best poet you've never read, and possibly never heard of, passed away.

James A. Emanuel died in Paris on Sept. 28 at age 92, but there's been no coverage of his passing in the English-language press (aside from an essay by poet Dan Schneider, who has long been a fan of Emanuel's writing). This is a shame but, considering how Emanuel has long been overlooked by the literati of this world, not a surprise.

It's impossible—or perhaps only unjustly difficult—to sum up Emanuel's life in a few words. Still, for those unfamiliar with him here is my attempt: Born in Nebraska in 1921, Emanuel attended Howard University and served as personal assistant to famed general Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. during World War II. He published hundreds of poems, many of which are collected in Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958–1989 (you can also find a number of his poems online). Emanuel also edited the influential 1968 anthology Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, which was one of the first major collections of African American writings. During the last few decades Emanuel lived in Paris, where he continued to write and was an active member of that city's African-America expatriate community.

Of course, those few sentences don't even begin to do justice to his life. If you'd like to learn more about him, I suggest you download this PDF of his obituary. While most of the obit in in French, several of his poems are printed in English.

Jean Migrenne, who has translated some of my stories into French, worked closely with Emanual over the last few decades. According to him, Emanuel's funeral was attended by a small gathering of 23 people, about one third French and the rest members of the African-American community in Paris. His two widows were also there. He was buried in a simple pinewood coffin, with each of his widows placing a red rose on it in turn.

As Migrenne told me, a dozen news photographers were present in the cemetery during the service, but they were there for someone else's funeral, a famous journalist who often wrote about media and rock and roll stars.

I think it's safe to say only one of these writers will be remembered a hundred years from now, and that writer will be the quiet poet now resting in a pinewood coffin.

Here's one of this poems, which seems like the perfect way to honor the memory of this great poet.

Sonnet For A Writer

Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art's control.
To stray across my own mind's half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame's recline.

Support the Bexley Public Library levy

As I've mentioned before, I'm fortunate to live near two world-class public libraries—the Columbus Metropolitan Library and, in my small hometown, the Bexley Public Library. The Columbus Library is continually rated as one the best large-city library systems in the country, while the Bexley Library has been rated number one in the nation among smaller library systems.

Unfortunately, the state of Ohio—along with many other governments—is taking the path of idiotic resistance by cutting library funding. A few years ago this resulted in the Bexley Library asking for and receiving its first levy, which voters overwhelmingly approved. Now that levy is ending and the library is asking for a new one to be approved.

The library is asking Bexley voters to approve a 2.8 mill operating levy, which will both replace the 1.5 mill levy expiring in 2014 while also covering even more cuts to library funding by the state of Ohio. If the 2.80 mill operating levy is approved, the owner of a home appraised at $100,000 would pay approximately $8.17 per month, or $98.00 annually, to support the Bexley Library.

It's hard to overstate how important the Bexley Library is to our community. In fact, one of the reasons our community is a community is because the library brings all of us together in a shared love of learning and reading.

The library has a page devoted to the levy, while a group of concerned citizens have created a site called Support Your Bexley Library. Read up on the levy at those links and, on Nov. 5th, vote yes on issue 49.

Interesting observation about Rotten Tomatoes and film reviews

One of my favorite sites is Rotten Tomatoes, which did the Nate Silver poll averaging thing—only in this case for film reviews instead political polls—long before Nate Silver became "Nate Silver." Forget what friends and family say about a film. For me, the reviewer averages and audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are my go-to guide on risking a small fortune to see a movie in an actual theater before it's available on the cheap via Netflix, Red Box, Hulu and a billion other services.

That said, I've recently noticed a fascinating trend regarding the site's Tomatometer and Certified Fresh rating. (Quick digression: In case you're living in the stone ages and think tomatoes are for eating and pelting at bad actors, Tomatometer is the averaging system used by the site. As Rotten Tomatoes states, they award their "Certified Fresh accolade to theatrical releases reviewed by 40 or more critics (including 5 Top Critics) with a steady score of 75% or higher on the Tomatometer. A film remains Certified Fresh unless its Tomatometer falls below 70%.")

Digression now passed. On with the story.

Anyway, a few days before Man of Steel came out it had a Tomatometer rating of 70%, which was good enough to be Certified Fresh. For people like myself who check out Rotten Tomatoes in advance of a film's release, that rating seemed like a decent reason to brave overly crowded theaters.

However, as the days passed an interesting thing happened to the Man of Steel's Tomatometer rating—it fell, going from 70% shortly before its release to 56% a week later. The film is no longer fresh and now exists as a simple rotten tomato.

This might not seem like a big deal. After all, averages can change as more diverse reviews are added to the mix. But this is a pattern I've seen repeatedly on Rotten Tomatoes with regards to large Hollywood movies. Early reviews of blockbuster films, and hence the early averages, are more positive overall than later reviews.

While you can't see the old averages for Man of Steel, you can sort the reviews by date. And sure enough, the earlier reviews appear to be generally more positive. A similar pattern is now taking place with Monsters University, where yesterday the film's average was 85% and today, on the opening day, it is 76%. 

Of course, not every blockbuster film drops so sharply. World War Z has maintained a somewhat stable rating, going from 71% on June 19 to 68% this morning. But what's strange is that if this pattern was totally random, as you'd expect from an overall averaging of film reviews, then we should see both sharp climbs and falls in some blockbuster film averages, along with many films like World War Z which stay relatively stable. But in my experience blockbuster film ratings either tend to fall sharply as more reviews come in or stay stable. They rarely climb sharply.

Again, you expect some statistical noise with averages like this. But the noise should go both ways.

One other observation—I haven't seen this weird pattern occurring with most non-blockbuster films. Once independent films and smaller Hollywood productions reach the threshhold of 40 reviews, they are relatively stable in their rankings.

So what does this suggest? As Hollywood has made clear in recent years, their bottom line is heavily dependent on the money raised by a film in the first few weeks, when they don't have to share as much revenue with theaters. This is especially true for a blockbuster movie's critical first week, which helps set the film's trajectory to success or failure. Studios have also long been known to use fake critics, to pay critics, and prefer critics who seem to almost write PR copy for studios.

So I wonder if studios have realized how important an early Rotten Tomatoes film ranking can be—duh—and, as a result, make sure that sympathetic critics who publish early are given advance screenings. Or, alternately, this pattern could simply emerge from studios using sympathetic critics to push out positive reviews in the run-up to a film's release (instead of as a deliberate attempt to skew Rotten Tomatoes). Either way, while such attempts wouldn't change a blockbuster film's overall ranking by much in the long run, they could skew the ranking in the lead-up to a film's release.

Now again, all of this is merely based on my observations. But the great thing about Rotten Tomatoes is their linked reviews, and the dates when the reviews were posted, are all available to see. Perhaps someone with a statistical bent could import the data and run an analysis. It would be fascinating to discover whether or not my observations hold up across all Hollywood blockbusters from the last few years.

If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it. But something does appear to smell rotten in the land of blockbuster Rotten Tomatoes rankings.

The Peace Corps in a non-peaceful world

Americans often get rapped by people outside our country as being insular and ignorant of all things not prefaced with a giant, glowing U.S.A.! While there's some truth to this stereotype, it overlooks the strong desire among many Americans to bridge the differences between the United States and other countries.

One of the most famous ways Americans try to do this is with the Peace Corps. Since 1961 over 200,000 American have served in the Peace Corps, including myself and my wife, with both of us serving in Thailand. This service is not without risk. As documented by the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project, 284 Peace Corps Volunteers gave their lives while pursuing the Peace Corps' mission. Many more have been injured, assaulted, or subjected to violence.

It’s for these last reasons that yesterday the Peace Corps announced it was pulling its Volunteers out of Honduras and will no longer send new Volunteers to El Salvador and Guatemala. This is obviously a controversial decision. According to Jared Metzker, a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, the decision is also cowardly because PCVs understand the dangers they're signing up for.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I understand and to a degree embrace Metzker's attitude. But I also don't want Peace Corps Volunteers to face a constant risk of serious injury or death. Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras after one Volunteer was shot (and, according to what I've heard from other Volunteers, experienced a number of rapes and near constant assaults on PCVs, which wasn't targeted at the Volunteers but instead resulted from out-of-control violence and political upheaval in that country).

During my time in the Peace Corps I was only physically threatened a single time, and was able to escape with no injury because of my large size and ability to bluff drunken idiots. However, several other Volunteers who served alongside me were raped or assaulted. And that was in the peaceful country of Thailand. A Peace Corps Volunteer who'd transfered to Thailand said that in her previous host country, every Volunteer in her training group had been physically assaulted or raped at one time or another. Every single one.

However, the experience she described was an extreme and, to a large degree, politically motivated. And before you think this violence only occurs overseas, the rate of violence among overseas PCVs is probably lower than they would experience in the U.S. In fact, the vast majority of PCVs experience no violence or threats to their safety.

But as Jared Metzker said, all Peace Corps Volunteers understand that trying to improve this world is not without risk. And when you get down to it, the reason our world needs a Peace Corps is because this world is not at peace.  

While I understand why Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras, this is still a sad occasion. Honduras had one of the largest PC missions in the world and those Volunteers were helping so many people. But I also think the reason I'm grieving this closure is because of the special connection I have to both the country and the PCVs there.

During my senior year in high school I spent a month in rural Honduras working on an aid project. On one of my days off I met three Peace Corps Volunteers, who drove up to the ranch where I stayed. I ended up helping them with their clean water project and, by the end of the day, knew I wanted nothing more than to be a PCV. I no longer remember those Volunteers' names, but they showed me how to make a positive difference in the world. They also taught me that the biggest impact the Peace Corps makes is by building personal relationships between Americans and people around the world.

It's because of those Volunteers that I joined Peace Corps. So I hope in a few years the Peace Corps will return to Honduras.

Doomsday Clock is great propaganda but a poor predictor

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has now adjusted the minute hand on their famous Doomsday Clock. This is significant because the clock, first created in 1947 to "convey how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction," has only been previously adjusted 19 times across six decades.

As a symbol, I have nothing against the Doomsday Clock. In our individual lives it’s always a good thing to remember we’re all mortal—that one day we will die, meaning we’d better live the best life we can in the time we have left. The same sentiment applies to the fate of our species. It’s a goodness to remember that, despite what the human ego may scream at us, our species has only existed on this planet for a short time and could easily go the way of the dinosaurs (those that weren't the ancestors of birds, that is).

However, as an accurate predictor of how close humanity is to destruction the Doomday CLock leaves much to be desired. For example, the above image from Wikipedia shows how close humanity was to destruction during the clock’s 65 year history. The closest we’ve supposedly come to killing ourselves off was in 1953, when we were at “2 minutes to midnight” after the United States tested the first thermonuclear device, followed nine months later by a similar H-bomb test by the Soviet Union.  But while the Doomsday Clock in 1953 warned of our imminent destruction, a study of history shows humanity was actually further away from killing itself than the clock suggested.

Yes, the risk of a nuclear war existed during that time period. But the stockpiles of weapons controlled by the U.S. and Soviet Union in 1953 were not yet sufficient to destroy humanity. That wasn’t, however, the case in 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. In recent years it has been revealed that this incident came extremely close to triggering a nuclear war at a time when there were indeed enough weapons to destroy the world.

But despite this, the Doomsday Clock in 1962 was relatively far removed from doomsday and was about to climb to the "safest" position it has been at any time except for immediately after the end of the Cold War. What I believe this shows is that it’s not true scientific analysis which drives the Doomsday Clock—it is the political perception of the involved scientists. The explosion of the first H-bomb was a startling event for the human psyche. For the first time, we had the ability to create weapons which could—if produced in sufficient numbers—destroy the world. It didn’t matter that there were not yet enough of these weapons to actually do this deed. All that mattered was perception.

The same thing happened in the late 1980s, when numerous arms control treaties were passed and the Cold War ended. The Doomsday Clock was literally behind the times and had to be continually reset to reflect this new reality.

So while the Doomsday Clock is a great propaganda tool for reminding humanity of the harm we could do to ourselves, as a predictor of the actually risks of an apocalypse the clock is as flawed as any other human artifact.

Why the Stories We Initially Tell Are Never Accurate

So Osama bin Laden is dead, killed with a shot to the head by U.S. Navy Seals. As should be expected with any big story, in the days since his death announcement the details have changed. Initially the government said bin Laden resisted the Seals and was killed. Then came reports that bin Laden died firing a weapon, and that he'd used his wife as a human shield.

Except those last reports are not true. While it still appears he resisted or made threatening moves, he held no weapon. And his wife, instead of being a human shield, evidently ran at the Navy Seals, who shot her in the leg. And that is merely the current story. I fully expect the story to keep adapting as new and more accurate details are released.

However, some people are angry that the details of bin Laden's killing have changed. Glenn Greenwald is outraged that the original narrative of bin Laden's killing – which framed him as "cowardly" and "violent-to-the-end" – will be the narrative people remember, even if it's not true. He compares this to previous stories which were later proven wrong, such as "Jessica Lynch's heroic firefight against Iraqi captors to Pat Tillman's death at the hands of Evil Al Qaeda fighters" and blames this on the media simply accepting "false Government claims." The argument Greenwald makes is seductive; even Andrew Sullivan asks "Why Exaggerate?" in response to Greenwald's post.

However, instead of assuming nefarious motives at work I wish Greenwald and others would simply apply occam's razor and try to see that, when dealing with the release of information around a big story, almost all initial reports are inaccurate. While this can at times result from outright lies and distortion, in most cases the root cause is the imprecise nature of human communications.

Two factors are at work here. First, humans must communicate a vast amount of words in order for specific information to reach another person (for the specifics on this, read the great book The Information by James Gleick). In addition, it doesn't matter if you want to tell someone a basic fact such as "The sky is blue" – the simple truth is those four words are not all you are communicating. Instead, you are also communicating your tone, your inflection, your body language, your power or lack thereof, and many other variables. Secondarily, the person receiving your words doesn't only have to comprehend all of this but also must process the overall message through their own personal filter of how they see the world, which includes everything from their own biases, beliefs, attitudes, and social standing to their relationship and trust with the speaker.

Considering all that, it's a wonder people can communicate with each other at all. This is also one reason why people immediately remember only half of what they are told. It's not that people are pigheaded about actually listening to others – although that can also happen. Instead, it's because people are trying to comprehend much more than simply a few basic words.

This lack of precision then slams against the human need to share stories. Whether you call it gossip or chitchat or conversation, humans have a primal need to continually share information about all aspects of our lives. And when something big and out of the ordinary happens, it's all we can do not to run screaming to the next person we see and tell everything we know.

This primal need to share stories also applies to people in group settings, such as the government. Once bin Laden was killed and the people who knew what happened were cleared to speak, they opened a logorrheic floodgate. Nevermind that many of the details they passed on were wrong – the people passing this information throught what they had to share was correct. At times like this group communications behave like a vast game of telephone, where whispers are passed from person to person until the meaning of the words change beyond all comprehension. Unfortunately, this is often how official information on big stories spreads into our society. There is not one major news event from the last century –  be it Kennedy's assassination, the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and so on – where the initial information released by U.S. government officials was totally accurate.

This doesn't mean these officials were neccesarily lying. Could they have biases in promoting certain information? Certainly. Could they have been eager to release certain information because it confirmed their worldview? That's true of all humans. But the simple truth is initial communications around earth-shaking events are almost always not the final story.

What's funny is that the people who are uncomfortable with the changing storyline around bin Laden's death are also the very people who want more openness from our government. But openness is a double-edged sword and means that when big news events occur information will often be released which is ultimately proven inaccurate. Since the alternative is to wait hours or days until all information is properly vetted and verified, I don't see this changing anytime soon.

Perhaps one day our society will develop to the point where we have accurate information at our fingertips before any of us engages in our global games of gossip and telephone. But I'm not holding my breath.

http://xite.cc/browse.php?u=Oi8vd3d3LnNhbG9uLmNvbS9uZXdzL29waW5pb24vZ2xlbm5fZ3JlZW53YWxkLzIwMTEvMDUvMDMvcHJvcGFnYW5kYV9iaW5fbGFkZW4%2FdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1mZWVkYnVybmVyJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZmVlZCZ1dG1fY2FtcGFpZ249RmVlZCUyNTNBK3NhbG9uJTI1MkZncmVlbndhbGQrJTI1MjhHbGVubitHcmVlbndhbGQlMjUyOQ%3D%3D&b=5

The Abattoir of Mediocrity

I don't write or read much horror unless I fall into it sideways while sloshing around in my usual science fiction or fantasy. However, I love the British horror magazine Black Static. The magazine's editors and writers are always slicing their readers into bloody excellence, and the opinion pieces they publish are great beyond measure.

Case in point: Christopher Fowler's essay in Black Static 22 on "Why Mediocrity Rules." As Fowler states, he now actually hates the mainsteam. "Not because of who watches it – people will watch anything put in front of them – or who writes it – writers develop good ideas for years only to have them eviscerated or turned down outright because of passing fashions – but because of who decides what we watch and read."

As Fowler says, there are creativity killers in every profession, people who slink from position to position leaving "trails of destruction in their wakes, like snails." And while Fowler doesn't go into how the new media landscape of YouTube and Twitter and self-published ebooks are changing these trails of destruction, I haven't yet seen a ton of excellence rising to the top. Instead, when the "The Bed Intruder Song" receives 50 million views I'd say mediocrity has found new ways to thrive.

This doesn't mean every artist who whines about their lot in life deserves to be showered with praise. Fowler quotes John Cleese in his Monty Python architect sketch, when he delivers a slaughterhouse instead of a block of apartments and the clients complain. As Cleese says, "That’s the kind of blinkered philistine pig-ignorance I expect from you non-creative garbage." Not that Cleese should be allowed to build an abattoir to slaughter apartment dwellers. But the architect who eventually wins is in his own way worse than Cleese's character, and is praised for creating an absolute monstrosity.

I wish I could link to Fowler's essay; instead, I'll simply say you should subscribe to Black Static and that Fowler touches on some of these points in this recent blog post.

As Your Great-Grandparents Saw the World

For the last two weeks I've been thinking about an essay Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote called "Grappling With Genosha," which explores why the pre-Civil War American South—and by extension, the entire United States—supported something as morally wrong as slavery.

Coates finds "almost any explanation that invokes individual evil to be unpersuasive." Instead, he says one must look at how society and self interest makes people rationlize and support things they might personally disagree with. Many people in the pre-Civil War South no doubt realized slavery was wrong but supported it because of the cumulative weight of their culture and self-interest. That's why slavery was accepted. It was far easier to go along with the evils around you than to take a stand which may cause you to lose your social standing, job, family, and much more.

I agree with this analysis. While it is easy to look back at slavery and say we enlightened modern people would never have supported such a horrible system, we're saying that from the comfort of a 150 years distance. Instead of saying how you'd have fought against slavery if you'd been alive back then, find a major societal trend in today's world and see how accepting you are of it.

For example, gasoline powered automobiles create polution and other planet-wide side effects. But how many people are willing to cut themselves off from the benefits of the internal combustible engine? Instead, the best people seem to do is slowly change things. To hope that one day technological advances will result in cleaner engines so we can have the benefits of cars without the bad things. I wonder what our descendents will think about such rationalizations?

And that is at the heart of how to view history—time changes what humans are willing to accept and how we see our world.

Last year I took part in an Authors and Ideas Panel at the World Fantasy Convention. One of the participants—author S.M. Stirling—said something which really resonated with me. To quote:

"If a writer is arguing for a point of view or a belief in their work, that's not what they really strongly believe. The things you believe most strongly, the things you never even think to argue about—your default assumptions about what the world is, what humans beings are, how they operate, that sort of thing—that suffuses what you write. These things vary both between individuals and over time. That's one of the reasons it is valuable to read stuff written a long time ago. You're looking through alien eyes. There is no one more alien than your great-great-great-grandparents. Reading stuff they wrote gives you a valuable corrective on assuming that you are the default condition for human beings. That your basic assumptions are the laws of the universe and will endure forever, or that everything changed up until it came to you and your glorious self and now it will be that way until the end of time."

I love that quote. And Stirling is absolutely correct. No one is more more alien than your great-great-great-grandparents.

But that also brings to mind how our great-great-great-grandchildren will see us. To them we will also be totally alien and they will likely condemn us for the moral choices we made—choices which to us seem totally acceptable but to our descendents will be nothing but evil.

This isn't to say slavery was anything but morally wrong. I hope that if I'd lived back then I'd have taken a stand against this evil institution. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, we don't have that luxury.

Instead, Coates says that to understand how you would have lived in the past "You almost have to forget who you are and start thinking about what you might have been. But if you're going to go there, you have to go there. If this feels safe, comfortable, or affirming, you've done something wrong."

Are We Heading Toward a Faith-Based Science?

After reading two engaging essays in recent days, I'm now wondering if humanity is heading toward a faith-based science. That is, a future where people trust and believe in science in the same way most humans currently trust and believe in religion. Before you say whether this is a good or bad idea, read the following essay excerpts.

First, from the Esquire feature "15 Geniuses Who Give Us Hope" comes Tom Junod's "We Dream in Science" (via Andrew Sullivan):

"We are not going to live forever. We are not going to have our life spans scientifically amplified to biblical lengths. We will not be able to take pills that will give us the musculature of superheroes or allow us to gorge ourselves while enjoying the health benefits of starvation. We will reach our limits, and, with some hard-won variation, those limits will be — they will feel like — the same limits we humans have always had. We will remain human where it counts, in our helpless and inspiring relation to our own mortality.

"Does this sound obvious? It shouldn't. Indeed, what I should have said from the start is that I believe that we are all going to die, in that science increasingly believes otherwise — and science increasingly has become a matter of belief. Its logic, once pointed at the eradication of disease and infection, is now inexorably pointed at aging and death, which is to say the ultimate questions that were once left to religion.

"... It also means that, as loath as scientists are to admit it, science is simply a superior form of storytelling, its testable hypotheses and its quantifiable phenomena still subject to the human need for overarching narrative. The more ambitious and far-reaching its insights, the less likely it is that they will find expression anywhere but in the circumscribed circumstances of the laboratory or in the limitless expanses of the human imagination."

Fascinating.

And as part of the Guardian's "Ten Questions Science Must Answer" article comes Brian Cox's goal for humanity (via Boing Boing):

"Can we make a scientific way of thinking all pervasive? This would be the greatest achievement for science over the coming centuries. I say this because I do not believe that we currently run our world according to evidence-based principles. If we did, we would be investing in an energy Manhattan project to quickly develop and deploy clean energy technologies. We would be investing far larger amounts of our GDP in the eradication of diseases such as malaria, and we would be learning to live and work in space – not as an interesting and extravagant sideline, but as an essential part of our long-term survival strategy."

I'm a ardent believer in the scientific process. I believe this not only because I'm a science fiction writer, but also because one can easily look around our world and see the benefits science has granted humanity. This isn't to say science can't also deliver bad things for humanity—more on this in a moment—but overall I believe science has been a good thing.

Despite this, the idea that people should believe in science in a faith-based manner—which is what both of these essays appear to suggest would either be a good thing or is likely to happen—worries me deeply.

This doesn't mean my worries are driven by a fault with science. Instead, the fault with this approach rests, as always, with human fallibility. Humans simply are not perfect. We'll never be perfect. As a result, no human creation should be given our absolute faith and belief. Not even a noble pursuit like science. 

The November 2010 Atlantic has a great article about how most medical research "is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong." Is the wrongness described in the article the result of a flaw in the scientific method? No. Do these problems result from using evidence-based principles to find solutions to life's problems? Sometimes. After all, it isn't unusual to have contradictory evidence result from similar experiments.

However, the biggest reason for flawed scientific results come from human emotions, needs, and desires intruding into the scientific process. Human are great at twisting science on both subconscious and conscious levels to achieve certain goals. Is this bad science? Of course. But it happens all the time.

This isn't very different from how people twist the stated beliefs of various religions to achieve goals which run against those very religions' core teachings. For example, even though most religions preach against violence, at one time or another believers of every major religion have used their religion to justify horrific violence.

This doesn't mean religion hasn't also had a positive influence on humanity. In the space of a few millennia modern religions have helped turn humanity from an extremely violent species—especially toward people considered to be outside one's "group" or tribe—into a much more peaceful species. Yes, violence still occurs. But compared to levels of violence thousands of years ago, the change toward a more peaceful humanity has been astounding.

Humanity is undergoing a similar change as a result of scientific progress. Since I'm an optimist, I believe this change will one day be as profound and important as the changes in human morality brought about by religion. This doesn't mean science won't also do great harm to us as times. Look at the horrors of World Wars I and II to see what science can do when turned toward violent ends. But overall science is a good thing for humanity.

Unless, I should add, we begin believing in science as if it's a religion. If we have faith that science is as infallible as the Pope. If we put science on a pedestal where one can't question it.

After all, how many of the world's problems result from people having absolute faith that their religion is the ultimate path to truth? And how is that so different from asking for humanity to have a similar absolute faith in science?

The irony is that in many ways we already run our world according to evidence-based principles, just as Brian Cox desires. Unfortunately, these evidence-based principles are usually based around the wrong goals and the wrong evidence. We make decisions based on our emotions and desires, often resulting in only short-term gain for our individual selves. We allow ourselves to think that each of us are among the most important people in the world (which is exactly the evidence our ego-centric minds and senses are programmed to create). We ignore those aspects of life which disagree with our world view—ignore them, that is, until the world forces us in often harsh ways to change our views.

One reason science is such an amazing learning tool is because of skepticism. Ideally scientists don't believe in anecdotes or rumors or any claim lacking empirical evidence. So count me among the skeptics who don't believe having science replace religion as an object of faith would magically result in a paradise on Earth.

I want a world where people both trust in evidence AND are skeptical of that evidence. Where we trust in science but also understand that science can be manipulated by base human desires and needs.

In short, I want a world where we have faith in humanity—even as we acknowledge that sometimes humans absolutely do not deserve such an unquestioning trust.

When is social media a bad thing for authors?

While considering changes to the Million Writers Award, I've been pondering one particular aspect of the award: How it basically encourages authors to promote their stories both online and through social media. Since the public votes for the overall winner, if an author's story is a finalist it's obviously in the author's self-interest to raise awareness about this fact and ask people to vote for him or her.

This has long been the most controversial part of the award. Some people have complained that holding a public vote cheapens the award and that another method for selecting the top story should be utilized, such as using a panel of judges. However, I prefer an open, democratic award process. I also have faith that most people will vote for what they see as the best story--even if an author asks them to vote a different way.

What all this means, though, is that each year authors use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools to promote that their stories are under consideration for the Million Writers Award. And each year people complain about authors doing this.

Which brings me to my main question: If you are an author, are there certain things you shouldn't do to promote your writings using social media?

Please place that question in the proper context. We live in an interconnect world where social media is replacing the old-guard media decision makers. Instead of Walter Cronkite telling us "that's the way it is," a billion people now shout their views on how things really are. This mass opinion constantly ebbs and flows as it filters through our personal interactions and conversations. If several of your friends state on Facebook that a movie is good, you're more likely to see it than if a TV ad proclaims it the best SF epic since "Battlefield Earth." (Sorry, couldn't resist :-) As an author, I'd rather have a million people tweeting about my stories than have my fiction annointed by Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review.

The funny thing is that social media works in similar ways to how ideas and beliefs have been promoted throughout much of human history. People once learned from one another what was worth knowing and doing, and the best of these memes worked their way through the population like a unending game of telephone. It was only with the advent of mass communication technology like printing, radio, and TV that a select few became able to easily influence great numbers of people. But with social media those select few are now finding themselves increasingly drowned out. This doesn't mean influential voices won't rise up out of the social media and influence others. But this happens in a much more natural process than having a single news anchor declare "that's the way it is."

So how does this tie in with authors and social media?

It used to be that when an author published a new book, their publisher--a perfect example of an old-guard media decision maker--would arrange publicity and author tours and media exposure. A major goal of every publisher was to land reviews and mentions in high-profile magazines and newspapers, which were influential media decision makers in their own right. If this process resulted in your novel making the cover of The New York Times Book Review, you were usually assured of success. If it didn't, you had a much harder mountain to climb to reach potential readers.

Now the landscape has changed. While landing coverage in the old media is still important--its influence is waning but hasn't totally died off--thanks to social media this is no longer the only way to interact with the reading public. So these days authors should, at a minimum, engage the social media world by having websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages.

So which acts of social media self-promotion are valid, and which cross the line?

In terms of authors using social media to promote their works, it is important to understand that the essence of social media is through sharing and interaction with others. With that in mind, authors should not be faulted for doing the following with their social media accounts:

  • Asking people to read your stories or novels.
  • Talking about your stories and novels.
  • Asking people to spread the news about your stories or novels.
  • Talking about your life outside of your writing.
  • Giving away books and other prizes.
  • Mentioning upcoming readings, prizes you've received, new stories you're writing, and so on.
  • And most importantly, interacting with your readers by responding to emails, Tweets, messages, and so on.

However, there are also some big social media no-nos, even bigger than throwing your book at the President in hopes that he'll notice and talk you up. In the social media sphere, authors shouldn't:

  • Forget that the essense of social media is sharing and interaction. If you're Neil Gaiman, you can play by your own rules and ignore this (not that he does). Everyone else ignores this truth at their own peril. If you don't see social media as a means of actually interacting with people, then why use social media in the first place?
     
  • Let your ego run amuck through the social media landscape. If every word from your Twitter account proclaims that you're the best writer on the planet, then no one will want to follow you. It is one thing to be confident in your abilities. It is another to be an arrogant SOB. And most people know enough arrogant SOBs in their everyday lives that they have no desire to meet another through social media.
     
  • Stir up controversy simply to attract attention. The easiest thing to be online is a troll, but who wants to read a troll's memoir about irritating half the world? This doesn't mean you shouldn't state what you feel and think using social media. But if the only reason you use social media is to tick people off, you should rethink what you're doing.
     
  • Forget that your first job as a writer is to write. While social media can be fun, don't forget that it isn't the first thing you should do with your time. Your writing should always come before using social media.
     
  • Forget that the social media world isn't the real world. Yes, real people interact using social media. And yes, social media can influence the real world. But if you don't ever leave the cocoon of the social media world, your life will suffer. And if your life suffers, your writing can't be far behind.

At the end of the day, don't forget that the best social media promotion an author can do is to be yourself. If you are a jerk at heart, this will eventually come through in your social media interactions. Likewise, if you are a nice person who cares about your readers, they will also realize that through your social media interactions.

Remembering the dead through the pattern of their words

One day, you will die. I will die. We will all die. There's no escaping this simple fact.

Even if you believe life extension and pseudo-immortality wait around the corner, you will still die. It is the nature of our universe that all things change and, eventually, cease to exist. Or more correctly, all things are recycled into new and exciting patterns. As Joni Mitchell once wrote in one of the most scientifically accurate pop songs of all time, “We are stardust, we are golden; We are billion-year-old carbon."

These thoughts are not morbid. These thoughts are merely the ways of life.

I began reflecting on this after browsing through the old messages in my email account. I've had this account since the late '90s and there are thousands of emails in the system. Of special interest are conversations with friends and family members who have passed away. These are literal slices of life. My mother-in-law excited at my family's upcoming visit to Ohio.  My great friend Asim Sidique wanting to see the anime movie Tokyo Godfathers after I praised it in a previous discussion.

Some of the emails are sad. I received an email from Josie Fowler a few weeks before she died. She obviously knew she was near death but didn't mention this fact to me. Instead, she asked about my family and my writing and said to always remember what's important in life. Rereading that message flashed me to a memory of once wandering around the Uptown area of Minneapolis, feeling lonely and irritated at life until I ran into Josie. I walked with her for a while and we talked and laughed and I came away happy at sharing a moment with such a genuinely good person.

Or the email from John Harmon, an archeologist I worked with at Auburn University. He died in a car wreck seven years ago. What makes me sad is it appears I didn't respond to him when he emailed. I probably intended to get back to him at some point. Maybe I was busy. Maybe I didn't see the email when it first came in.

But even though I didn't respond, I have the memories of the two of us working archeology sites across Alabama. How we once worked a government-required archeology survey on a busy street--dodging cars as he laughed about the zero odds of an archeology site surviving in the middle of two lanes of asphalt. Or how we once surveyed a swamp and found a massive longleaf pine tree which had survived the loggers of decades before.  Both of us together couldn't reach around the base of its trunk. I hope the tree still stands.

So many memories.

I don't know how long these emails will survive. Like everything else in our universe, they'll one day disappear. While it is unlikely anyone will ever sing about being made of the billion-year-old electrons which once created emails, electronic mail is no more permanent than any other form of communication. Words written on paper. Words spoken by friends sitting around a campfire. All of those words and the people who create them eventually pass away.

But the amazing thing is that the patterns those words create survive. After reading or hearing our friends' words we are not the same people we were before. Our lives are nudged into exciting new directions--a change we may not understand even when our own lives reach their end.

So while all things pass away, the patterns remains. Or more correctly, our patterns echo on just as the billion-year-old carbon which makes up our bodies also continues forward, ever creating new and delightful works.

to fall at her feet and worship her life

No one cares about your leaked information

This evening WikiLeaks, working in conjunction with several major newspapers including the New York Times, released six years of classified reports about the Afghanistan war. Based on the play already being given this release, the news media and the pundit class expect this to be a major event. Glenn Greenwald has compared this to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, stating that the Pentagon Papers caused the public to "behold the dishonesty about the war" and "had a significanteffect on public opinion, as well as their willingness to trust future government pronouncements.  At the very least, it's difficult to imagine this leak not having the same effect."

I disagree. This leak won't matter that much. Here's why:

  • Few people trust our public institutions anymore. Back in 1971, most people trusted the government, which is why the Pentagon Papers were so shocking. But we are now living in the bastard days birthed by events like the Pentagon Papers. Trust in all our public institutions is way down. So the government didn't tell the whole truth? That's like a dog bites man story--not notable to most people.
     
  • Information overload. The more information that is thrown out there, the less people care. This is similar to what I was saying the other day about people in the future not caring if you have an opinion. The exception, as I mentioned, was when people risked something for their opinion. Likewise, the exception to people caring about information like these Afghanistan war reports is if the information has direct relevance to their lives. Unfortunately, in the United States and most Western democracies the people who fight our wars are a small subset of the population. Most people don't feel a connection to the war, so most people are likely to ignore this information.
     
  • Information spin. When people are overloaded with information and don't trust official sources of information like the government, they cherry-pick the places they decide to trust. So they turn to partisan news outlets and blogs, or to talk radio and opinion-oriented broadcasts. They choose news which reinforces their own views even as these outlets filter the information that reaches their ears. In such an environment, I don't see these reports making much of an impact.

Of course I could be wrong, but that's my take on all this. Any thoughts?

In the future, will anyone care that you have an opinion?

Here's the punchline before the joke--can you state as opinion the belief that no one cares if you have an opinion?

I know, I know. That's almost as irritating as the old saw about hearing the tree fall in the forest if no one is around to hear it. But I do wonder if we're entering a time where the only opinions which matter will be those held by people willing to risk something for their beliefs.

Here's my reasoning: Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, we are constantly surrounded by people venting their opinions. If we agree with said opinions, we post our glowing support. If we disagree, we post an angry rebuttal. The result is the internets constantly getting riled up over some idea or injustice and the resulting emotional response spreading through comments and posts and tweets. With really good opinion fodder, the reaction might even jump off the nets into the fertile crap-ground of cable news and newsprint. There the opinion-fest grows for a few days before decaying back to nothing.

And in the end, what has changed? Most of the time, the answer is nothing. Because inaction thrives in an instant-response world where we don't risk anything by stating our opinions.

I began contemplating this topic after writing a recent post about the BP oil spill. During that trip to Alabama I'd been outraged at witnessing how the oil spill was destroying an environment I deeply loved. However, a funny thing happened after I wrote about my experiences--suddenly I was able to literally release the anger from my mind. Expressing an opinion gave vent to the emotions fueling my need to express the opinion. If I'd wanted, I could have easily moved on, content at having spoken my mind, never mind that speaking my mind did little to change the problem of the oil spill.

My reaction to this experience fascinated me, even more so after I read Lloyd Nimetz's essay Information Overload, Action Deficit. Nimetz argues that in our social media saturated world we process tons of information--and generate equal amounts of emotional responses--even though our ability to act on these stimuli is limited. Here's the killer quote:

"You care, but you don't act. It's ok. You're not alone. Acting requires a lot of effort usually with little perceived impact.The key is that you're not any better equipped to take action than you were 10 years ago. Where’s the progress? Change requires action ..."

In his essay, Nimetz states that "action is the next big thing to get changed by the Internet." He believes that the ability to change the world is the next incarnation of social media. That in the future we won't simply grow angry and vent online--we'll have the ability to fix the injustices of the world with the click of a virtual button.

Perhaps. But I'm suspicious about this rosy social media future because it overlooks a vital part of influencing change through one's opinion: Risk.

In the mundane world where we must physically deal with being around each other, what makes us actually change our minds about something? Likewise, what makes a person stick with an opinion in the face of overwhelming hostility? While a few people respond to logical appeals, for most of humanity changing an opinion--or acting on an opinion until it changes the world--boils down to our emotional response to risk.

The emotions I refer to are tied in with the relationships we create between each of us. These bonds nurture us as humans; without them, we're literally not human. And this is where risk exists in stating an opinion. When we read an opinion online which differs from our own, there's little risk to the relationship between the person giving the opinion and the person receiving it. As a result, people scream and yell over opinions before moving on to the next virtual fight. And in the end, nothing risked, nothing gained.

But when a friend or family member stands before you and says they disagree with one of your core beliefs, your emotional response differs. Because of the relationship and bond between the two of you--and the fact that your friend or family member is risking your relationship by expressing a difference of opinion--you consider their words differently than those of an online stranger. This reaction also carries over to people who aren't friends and family. When you meet a stranger in person and they express a differing opinion, the personal dynamic makes you more likely to listen than to some online stranger.

This dynamic also applies to the person stating the opinion. When you risk something by acting on your opinion, you are more likely to continue to push that opinion into the world. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement the jailing of protesters like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't weaken the movement. Instead, it strengthened them. The more the protesters risked, the more they were willing to risk to change the world. And the more they risked, the more others came around to their view of the righteousness of ending segregation.

To express a difference of opinion in person always carries risk. To act on an opinion carries even more risk. And how people accept and deal with those risks creates the only true change in our world.

And it is this risk, I fear, which is missing from stating an opinion in the virtual world.

This isn't to put down the recent social media explosion. One of the great aspects of social media is it brings a semblance of real-life personal dynamics into the virtual world. We friend each other on Facebook. We follow people on Twitter. And if a friend is willing to risk that virtual friendship with an opinion we disagree with, we may be more likely to listen and reconsider our beliefs.

But it is equally likely we'll simply unfriend them and move on.

It can also be risky to state an opinion through social media and the internet. Everyday we read about people losing their jobs or livelihoods for stating an opinion online. But these instances are frequently mistakes, where the person stating the opinion didn't realize there would be real-world consequences for their online words or actions. That is also why so many people online prefer anonymity, and why on many sites avatars and pseudonyms are far more popular than real names. That way we aren't truly risking anything by stating our opinions.

I have never before agreed with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but his recent concurrence in the Washington ballot case made me stand up and cheer. In a ruling stating that people signing petitions did not have a right to anonymity, he said "Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."

Despite what people like Lloyd Nimetz may believe, social media and the internet won't be a force for true change until they tie in more with the risk of living in the real world.  We saw a foretaste of what's to come in how social media helped the recent Green protests in Iran. Social media aided the protests and helped them gain strength, but in the end the protesters had to actually risk their lives to try and create change. While the protests were beaten back in the short term by the Iranian government, their possible long-term success rests on the blood the protesters spilled, and their belief that creating a better world was worth taking a risk.

So where does all this go in the coming years?

There are currently 6.5 billion people in the world. As more and more of them come online, I predict we will see an ever greater explosion of opinions. In one way this is great. After all, making information more available to the world can only be a force for good. But the flip side to this are billions of people screaming their opinions without the ability to actually change someone's mind. Screaming their opinions without the need to act on their opinions.

Perhaps technology will change this. As more people realize that no one is truly anonymous online, and as new technologies make tying a person's real-world face to their online persona easy, perhaps stating opinions online will take on the same risk as in the physical world. Or equally likely, perhaps having billions of people stating opinions will overwhelm any sense of risk, and make stating your views as easy--and as inconsequential--as blowing your nose.

Either way, I suspect that even with social media advances, true change will continue to result from the small subset of the population who are actually willing to risk something to remake the world. And perhaps this is how it has always been, with a few people creating the change we all benefit from. With those willing to act on their opinions creating the world we all end up living in.

A few words and pictures about the BP oil spill

My view on what we've
done to the Gulf of Mexico.
The sign is a "no swimming"
warning due to the oil.
Giving BP the finger

My family just returned from a week-long vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we saw first-hand the BP oil spill. When the oil nears the shore, the air burns as if you're breathing lighter fluid, literally making you sick. At times the oil looks like scattered drops of congealed blood in the water. In other places it is a thick coating of tar and muck. And if you think the damage being done to the environment is limited to heart-wrenching scenes of oil-black pelicans and dolphins, multiple that by the hundreds of thousands of animals and plants you don't see in this rich ecosystem. It will be decades before the Gulf recovers from this crime.

As a native son of the South, I've spent many summers on the Gulf Coast, so this spill has emotionally hit me hard. We'd planned our trip for months and even after the oil hit we refused to cancel the vacation. Part of this was pure stubbornness--we refused to stay away from a place we love. But our other desire was to witness the pain humans are causing to this beautiful ecosystem, and to make sure our kids see the damage in person so they will always remember.

Oil and natural gas rigs
litter the Alabama coast.
Oil and gas rigs litter the Alabama coast

In many ways we were fortunate.We stayed on Fort Morgan Road, which by some quirk of fortune was one of the few beaches in Alabama not hit by oil. We also left the area the very day an even heavier oil started washing ashore. So while we did witness the damage being done by the worst oil spill in U.S. history, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

How much worse can it get? The oil is moving in giant waves along the coast, with the main spill remaining offshore and underwater. This means the oil can keep coming in day after day, limiting the ability to clean affected areas. And if a hurricane hits, all bets are off. The storm surge alone could devastate inland marshes with toxic petroleum-based chemicals, while the wind could aerosol the oil, letting hundreds of thousands of people breathe it in.

A ship lays oil boom as
people enjoy the last days
of a pristine beach.
Shipboom

I can't begin to express how angry I am about this spill. When I say my family was fortunate, I don't simply mean that for the most part we were able to enjoy our vacation. We were fortunate because we were able to leave the Gulf and return to a home which isn't covered in oil.The people living on the Gulf can't simply pack their belongings and leave their lives behind until the cleanup is finished. The oil has already shut down a vast swath of the Gulf economy, and BP isn't anywhere near to compensating people for their lost jobs and opportunities.

There is no easy answer to the spill at this point. And while BP is responsible for the spill, don't pretend this same event couldn't have been caused by the other oil companies. They've all taken the same short cuts with producing oil, and they have all benefited from a decades-long belief that the only good government regulations are regulations which are either dead or dying. We are now paying the painful price for this short-sighted view.

I hope the government and individual lawsuits destroy BP as a warning to other companies which play with our shared lives. And the next time someone says government needs to stop over-regulating companies, punch that person in the face as you gently explain that regulations are needed when the risk of business-as-usual is what happened in the Gulf.

One of many piles of
trash bags packed with
oil-soaked debris.
Oiltrash
A wall of sand being built
on Dauphin Island in an
attempt to keep out the oil.
Wallsand

But most of all, I hope this disaster pushes people into finally understanding the damage which can result from the little choices we all make.

At my core I'm an optimist. I believe humans continually try to change for the better. So my fingers are crossed that we will work to prevent this from ever happening again. Otherwise, history will repeat itself, and a generation from now my kids will be bringing their families to the Gulf Coast to see a tragically updated version of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
 

Note: Thanks to my great wife Jennifer for taking these photos.

The Politics of What, Me Worry?

So friends on different sides of the political divide in America are up in arms about the Massachusetts Senate results. Democrats are devastated; Republicans triumphant. And me? I think Alfred E. Neuman had the right idea about politics with his famous phrase "What, Me Worry?"

Seriously. If you take politics so personally that you risk a heart attack depending upon each change in the political winds, that says more about your priorities in life than which way the wind blows.

This doesn't mean politics isn't important. Hell, most human endeavors are important in one way or another, and at the extremes deal with many life and death issues. This also doesn't mean you shouldn't inform yourself about the political choices out there, or take a stand. But to internalize politics like so many people do isn't good for anyone.

For example, consider police officers, who in my opinion have one of the toughest jobs around. They continually work with people who are either in rough emotional straights, want to hurt them, or don't want them around. A good percentage of the criminals they arrest are quickly released for different reasons, and their ability to help those in desperate need is rather limited. So how do most police officers avoid going crazy? The wise ones know not to take things personally. They focus on going home safe and sound at the end of the day, and remembering what is important. Life. Family. Friends. Community.

And here's the special trick to that: By focusing on these areas of life where you can truly make a difference, over the long term you will create more change in the world than all the political ranters and screamers combined.

So the next time someone starts going off about politics, remember: Any idiot can talk about politics--and they often do! Any idiot can get upset about politics--and they often do!

Don't be an idiot.

Politics as sport

I grew up in Alabama, a college football obsessed state. I now live in Ohio, another college football obsessed state. While I don't obsess on any sport, it was fun watching the University of Alabama beat Florida last week. Ohio State fans I've spoken to were also thrilled to see Florida go down. After all, the Gators smashed the Buckeyes in the 2007 National Championship Game.

It's been written many times before that sports is a modern version of ancient warfare.  A way for people to show their tribal colors without engaging in actual blood and death. While this theory rings true--there's definitely something deep inside humans which finds satisfaction as part of a group competing against another groups--I've long been troubled by the people who sprout this theory. Such smug looks on their constipated faces as they use this theory to look down on those who enjoy sports.

But this need to be part of the winning team is in all people. I've seen people who wouldn't know the difference between football and baseball get into screaming matches over that other sport of modern life, politics. Because I dare you to say that politics in countries like the United States isn't played for anything but sport.

In the U.S.A., we gin up the political outrage over issues and problems which both sides have no desire to actually solve. Never mind that these problems are people's lives. And never mind that by playing politics as sport we are consenting so many problems to be ignored. This is a shame. Making sport of problems instead of tackling them is the perfect way to never make a difference in people's lives.

Yes, far too much of politics these days is merely played as sport. The people playing have no other goal but to destroy as many enemies as possible.And that's the difference between politics as sport and true sports. When the football play is done and the quarterback's down, another player--often from the other team--is there to lend a hand and help him back up.

When was the last time you saw that happen in politics?

How to waste your life

A few thoughts on how to waste your life:

  • Forget that family and friends come first. Don't neglect yourself, or sacrifice everything about yourself trying to always please others. But likewise don't forget that we matter very little without those around us.
     
  • Create a routine like "wake up, go to work, come home," and never vary a thing. Yes, we all have to work. Yes, we all have routines like cleaning the house and taking the kids to school. But find some way of doing something new every day. You won't remember the routine when you 80. You will remember the new things you did.
     
  • Read the newspaper every day and scream about politics. Listen to talk radio or cable news and scream about politics. Read political blogs and write snarky ALL CAP comments screaming about politics. It is human nature to want to keep up on the latest news, just as we all love to share in neighborhood or work gossip. It's part of what makes us human. But if you are spending hours each day doing any of this, you're wasting your life. Try cutting your news intake back to once a week. 99.9% of what we call news is unimportant. I promise if something important happens, you'll hear about it.
     
  • Lose your temper over minor things in life. Yes, life is full of irritations, many of which are highlighted day after day in the news. We all have things we'd like to change about the world. But change doesn't happen by screaming and jumping around in response to the world's outrages. Change happens on an individual level in one-on-one interactions with people. Live the life you'd like to see in the world, and the world is one step closer to being your ideal.
     
  • Watch TV or play video games instead of taking the kids, your family, or your friends to the park, camping, walking, or some place where you can sit and talk. Amazing how I don't remember many details about all the video games and TV I did as a kid, but I remember the trips and fun stuff our family did. And don't mistake spending money with doing stuff. Life's best memories are free.
     
  • Obsess on anything. There is a difference to being dedicated to something, like fiction writing, and obsessing on it. I've never heard anyone say "Gee, I'm glad I obsessed on ____."
     
  • Believe you can be more productive through lack of sleep, neglecting your family for work, excessive cell phone use, spending all day on Twitter, or any other of today's modern addictions. Things which most people believe make them more productive actually have the opposite effect. For example, if you are talking with someone, don't stop the conversation to answer your cell phone. As Tolstoy pointed out in The Three Questions, the most important person is the one you're with and the most important time is now. Nothing can make you more productive than that.
     
  • Don't understand why you do what you do. Self awareness is the key to understanding life. If you don't understand your everyday reactions--why did that person make you angry; why did you yell at the kids--then you can't understand life's bigger mysteries.
     
  • Mistake material goods for self-fullfillment. This should be obvious, but isn't.
     
  • Don't be a part of something larger than yourself. It goes without saying that we're all better people when we take part in something greater than our own selfish day-to-day needs.
     
  • Don't set a goal and work your way toward it. If you want to write a novel, write a little bit each day. Even if your goal changes halfway there, you will accomplish more having a destination in mind than never knowing what your goals in life are.

Now, I'm sure someone will point out that there are many cliches in this list, and that much of what I've written is self-obvious. That far better people than myself have said all of this before. This is all true. But for people like me, who struggle over not losing our temper over some irritating item in the news, these are the points of life which we must remind ourselves of over and over.

This mystical, self-awareness post is now over. Please return to your regularly scheduled lives.