Kang or Kodos?

The amount of stuff in my mailbox has quintupled from its usual levels. People whom I wouldn’t consider fit to enter my home are clamoring for the opportunity to take my money and tell me how to live. They’re depressing not so much for what they are as for what they show about everybody else. Not the obvious fact that Earth has its scum, but that scum rises to the top. They understand what motivates people to vote for them: desire for stuff at other people’s expense and fear of anyone who’s different. Occasionally I feel touches of optimism at the way candidates are described by their opponents, but the descriptions are seldom accurate. Maybe these opponents exist in a mirror universe and actually would cut back spending, surveillance, and warfare.

Then there’s the big contest. In one corner we have a war criminal, in the other a challenger who thinks he hasn’t committed enough war crimes. Before January 2009, our Leader’s followers thought there was something wrong with sending Americans to die in foreign countries, illegally spying on Americans at home, torturing people, and lying about it all. (I was about to put assassination of Americans in the list, but Bush never went that far.) Since then they’ve come to understand that they should ignore those things — if they want goodies paid for out of other people’s pockets.

It’s said that people get the government they deserve, but we all get the same government, regardless of how much or little we personally deserve it. Collective guilt is as much a fallacy in electoral politics as in anything else. I’ll vote for Gary Johnson; he’s the best of the LP candidates in a long time, and every vote against Kang and Kodos is a statement of protest. After that I just have to survive whatever the winners do.

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The Walkman and its descendants

The personal computer. The cell phone. The Internet. These are some of the inventions of the past fifty years that have changed our lives in major ways. Almost as important, at least for me, has been the personal music player. Since Sony’s Walkman came out in 1979, it’s been possible to take our music with us and listen to it anywhere without bothering other people. Having a symphony orchestra with me whenever I want it is an accomplishment that would have astounded the people of Haydn’s time as much as any other modern technology.

When I listen to music, I focus on it. I can’t do other tasks requiring much mental effort and pay attention to music at the same time. While I often sit down and just listen to CDs, it makes me restless. I can walk around or drive in light traffic while listening, though, and the music often adds to and colors my experience. The general mood of a piece is one part of it, but it goes beyond that. When you’re looking for it, it’s remarkable how often significant thematic shifts and returns in a piece coincide with transitions in your surroundings; or maybe it’s the music that helps me to notice the significance of details. Listening to “The Blue Danube” in Mine Falls Park can’t turn the Nashua River into the Danube, but it makes the experience stand out more, including the ducks. (Warner Brothers cartoon fans will understand the last point.) A good piece of music progresses in a definite way and gives a sense of progression to whatever activity it goes with. Some pieces, such as “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude,” just seem made for walking through quiet places, even though that was impossible for Liszt.

A side benefit is the almost complete disappearance of the “boom boxes” that were once painfully prevalent. People can now deafen just themselves and leave others mostly undisturbed (though I still shudder when I can heard someone’s headphones from five feet away). Spock knew how to deal with those boxes and the people who played them at top volume.

Today I can carry hours and hours of music around in my pocket and pick what I want to hear for the occasion. I thank all the engineers who developed these devices, from the Walkman to the iPod and beyond.

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Boskone not conned or busted

Boskone is not donating any memberships to “Con or Bust.” I don’t know if there will be any confusion on the issue, but I’m making sure there’s at least one searchable reference on the Internet that says so.

I’m not Helmuth; I don’t speak for Boskone, except in my limited capacity as filkmeister. This is information which I have as a general member of NESFA and a member of the Boskone committee. If individuals donate memberships, that’s a private matter.

Con or Bust sponsors memberships at science fiction conventions using racial criteria. Beneficiaries have to be a “person of color.” Funny, I thought we were all people of some color, except maybe for the Invisible Man. SF conventions usually have an abundance of light-skinned people compared with the general population, but subsidizing members based on their albedo doesn’t solve the problem. It’s remarkably condescending.

I’ve heard the argument that since there are fan funds which bring people from foreign countries, it’s legitimate to have fan funds which bring people from … foreign skin colors? I don’t buy it.

Science fiction is supposed to be about opening people’s horizons. Star Trek had an “interracial” cast when that was a dubious thing to do, as well as the first “interracial” kiss on TV. Early science fiction often reflected common prejudices, and John Campbell’s influence didn’t help, but by the sixties written SF was making big steps toward overturning them. We’re supposed to be able to accept bug-eyed beings with green skin. Variations in skin shade and eye details shouldn’t matter to us.

Actually, talking about “race” at all isn’t very meaningful. Science has shown there isn’t any good way to divide humanity into genetic groups; there’s too much continuity, mixture, and intra-group variation. Some people try to salvage the term by rewriting the definition in terms of cultures and yammer that anyone who doesn’t accept this is “unscientific.” At best the term refers to informal characterization based on physical features, but it’s difficult to avoid it entirely. I use the more neutral “light-skinned” and “dark-skinned” when possible.

The term “racism” is still valid, even if “race” isn’t. Racism, the idea that people should be treated differently because of superficial physical characteristics, builds a fallacy into a destructive doctrine. This includes making “race” a primary factor for any purpose. Some conventions have stepped backwards to a racist allocation of subsidized memberships. I’m glad Boskone isn’t one of them.

Harvard vs. open discussion

Harvard has a reputation for discouraging the open expression of opinion, and I can confirm that from eight years of working there. The reasons I left were mostly professional, but I’d like to mention an incident during my last two months that illustrates the Harvard culture.

Employees get an assortment of newsletters in their email, mostly related to their work or inconsequential. One of these had a piece clearly celebrating the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. I sent a reply saying that taking a political advocacy position in a general employee news mailing wasn’t appropriate.

A week or two later, the head of my department called me into her office. She told me that the person who sent out the newsletter had written to her about my complaint. This person wanted to know who I was. My email had my standard signature, giving my name and work website. It wasn’t anonymous and I’d provided information for anyone who wanted to know about me.

She told me the person who sent out the email wasn’t the one actually responsible for its content and shouldn’t be blamed for it. The sender of the mail knew perfectly well who I was, but I never found out who was responsible for its content.

She went on about “civility.” There was nothing uncivil about my response to the mail. I’ve heard that the term “civility” is widely used in academic circles to mean “don’t criticize the dominant view,” but this was the first time I’d been targeted with that use.

I conceded nothing except that perhaps I wasn’t complaining to the right person. That was the end of the matter, though probably it would have turned up as a negative point in my next review. A financially secure employee isn’t a good target; students fare worse.

By then I’d already decided to resign, but the discussion confirmed my impression that there was no point in continuing my search for another position at Harvard. I was still holding out on accepting Harvard’s so-called “confidentiality policy,” which prohibits the disclosing of pretty much any negative information without regard to confidentiality in the normal sense. (For example, reporting illegal activity violates the policy.) The culture is antithetical to my worldview. More importantly, it’s not conducive to open examination and discussion of important issues.

Thoughts on mortality

It’s my 61st birthday today, and that’s a good excuse to write on mortality without making anyone worry that I have a hidden reason to raise the subject. Statistically, there’s at least a 98% chance I’ll be dead thirty years from now, and the 50-50 breakpoint is significantly closer. Still, the prospect of being dead doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Time brings the understanding that life is finite and that what counts is how you live it. Years of distance from religion have helped me to escape concerns about punishments and rewards beyond the grave, meted out by a capricious deity. Fred Small was wrong in “Everything Possible”; the measure of your words and deeds isn’t a final score added up when you’re done, but how you have lived and are living at every moment. Others may wish to sum up and rate my life when it’s over, but there’s no point in my worrying about that.

What does bother me is the prospect of having a long, painful disease; or being helpless for years with no prospect for improvement; or worst of all, losing my mind to Alzheimer’s before my body is gone. Some people are lucky; they go to sleep one night at an advanced age, reasonably active up to that point, and just don’t wake up. For most of us it’s rougher. There isn’t much to do except face the prospect with whatever courage we can muster. Healthy living delays the issue but doesn’t avoid it.

For the present, I have good reason to be satisfied. I’m living the way I want to, have valued friends, am in good health, and don’t have financial problems. Things could change at any time and eventually will, but final-score thinking isn’t productive.

While my life has a definite beginning and ending, the values which make up an important part of my identity extend well beyond it in both directions. Values such as freedom, creativity, the quest for knowledge, music. When people continue to respond to a Beethoven symphony, a Rand novel, or a new scientific discovery the way I do, when they defend individual rights or speak out against tribalistic thinking, my values live in them. In this sense, my life won’t just stop when I die. This is what I tried to express in my song “Bury Me Under a Star.”

Whether I have a fatal heart attack tomorrow or gently fall over at age 95, I look at my life thus far as a finite but complete span and do what’s in my reach to continue to make it the best life I can.

Exercises in critical thinking

Political ads are, unfortunately, everywhere right now. About the only time they tell you anything of substance about the candidates is when one of them promises to do something horrible, and even then you can hope they’re lying. They do, however, provide a lot of opportunities for exercising critical thinking capabilities and spotting fallacies.

An ad I saw at least three times yesterday complained that a Massachusetts candidate (I don’t remember who) refuses to answer questions about illegal gambling by family members. What’s significant is what the ad doesn’t say, i.e., pretty much anything.

It didn’t name any family members or make any charges, but just claimed that the candidate should answer questions about unspecified illegal gambling which family members may or may not have engaged in. Even if they did, why should I care? I don’t think any honestly run gambling should be illegal. Even if you think some should be, currently illegal betting includes trivial violations like placing small bets with bookies, as well as Internet gambling, which is illegal only to satisfy the extreme anti-betting faction and the legal gambling operations that keep their margins high by outlawing most competition. If the ad came out and said, “The candidate’s cousin makes bets with bookies,” who’d care?

The tone of the ad can make you feel that something deep and important is being covered up, but it actually provides no support for that implication. It’s a common tactic.

Update: The candidate in question is Rep. John Tierney, whose brothers-in-law allegedly ran an offshore gambling business in Antigua, and whose wife has been convicted of helping them to file false tax returns. My own reaction to this, provided the bettors weren’t cheated, is “So what?” Others may think that if a member of Congress turns his back on anything illegal, no matter how victimless, that casts doubt on his qualifications. But the point relevant to the critical thinking issue is that the ad didn’t give any of this information and couldn’t be used to draw any legitimate conclusions.