27 Jun

Risk

riskFulfilling the drive to pass on tradition to the next generation, my eldest son and I just played our first game of Risk together. It was a terrific father’s day gift from my wife and kids, and we finally had time for a “game.” By which I mean we got two turns in before nap time made us quit. And, unfortunately, we have a two year old in the house… so that also meant we had to pack it up so we don’t lose pieces. But now that he knows how to play, I suspect future games will go much better!

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25 Jun

Flags

The "Southern Cross" was not actually the Confederate flag.

The “Southern Cross” was not actually the Confederate flag.

I didn’t want the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee until the busybodies decided to tell me I couldn’t have one.

Wait, what was that about the flag of the Confederate States of America? Well, no – that’s not actually what this flag (aka the Southern Cross) actually was. The confusion most likely stems from the 1970s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, in which the Duke brothers had a variant of this flag painted on their car. Because their car was named the “General Lee.” As in General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, which used a square version of this flag as their battle flag.

Pop culture being what it is, nobody actually remembers any of this. And, of course, I’m being a bit pedantic here. And yet it matters. It matters because there’s a lot of very loud “discourse” back and forth about this flag and what it means.

“The Civil War was about slavery!” shout some. “No, it was about states’ rights!” shout others. About 99% of these people, on both sides, honestly don’t know enough Civil War history to participate in an adult conversation about it. Here’s a hint: if all you know about it comes from high school classes, a Ken Burns documentary, and occasional conversations with friends, family and coworkers then you’re just as ignorant as the guy on the other side that you’re lambasting for being so ignorant.

Here’s the thing: denying that the Civil War was about slavery is facile and colossally ignorant. But pretending that the Civil War was only about slavery is equally facile and colossally ignorant.

There’s a lot of history between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and they don’t cover much of it in high school history classes. There’s also a lot of history before the Revolutionary War, much of which is also left out of high school history classes. And here’s the truth: the constitution that we so know and love was a product of massive compromise. Without that compromise, the northern and southern states never would have joined together in the first place. Yes, slavery was one of those compromises. But there were many others: representation in Congress being one of the biggest (hence our bicameral legislature).

We can’t ignore that slavery was the issue that set off the powder keg. Oh, but what a powder keg it was. The rift between southern and northern states was big enough that George Washington himself devoted significant energy during his presidency to bridging it. He never quite succeeded. In between the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the first shots at Fort Sumter in 1861 there were 72 years of political tension leading up to the war – much of which had little to do with slavery. That keg was ready to go.

Ultimately, though, very little of that matters. Here’s what does matter: we live in a country that has decided that we have the right to burn a flag. It’s ridiculous that we’re now trying to tell people they can’t display a similar flag. We have companies and stores that are banning this flag because they find it offensive. Yet those same companies and stores are selling plenty of other offensive material.

The political players who are setting off this chain of events will not like where it leads. If we can pressure Apple and Amazon into discontinuing battle flag products, then we can pressure them into discontinuing anti-religion products. “Oh,” you say, “but they wouldn’t do that – they’re ruled by the almighty dollar!” Go look up how much revenue comes from these battle flag products and get back to me. The pressure to remove these products cuts both ways – and the players kicking this off will be surprised to find how much pressure the other end of the spectrum can bring to bear. This is a fight that doesn’t end well for anybody.

At the same time, there is one aspect of this that is so patently obvious that I can’t believe I have to say it. This flag is also the flag of an armed uprising against the United States government. It should not be flying on any government building at any level of government within this nation. Period.

But we’re also a nation that was founded on armed uprising against our government. As citizens, we should remember that aspect of the flag as well. And we should remember that for many people who fly it, that and not race is what it’s about.To end where I began: I didn’t want one of these until people started telling me I couldn’t have one. Now I want a dozen of them, prominently displayed, only because people are saying I can’t have one. It is nobody else’s business but mine which flags I choose to wear on my clothing, display on my car, or fly over my home – or why I choose to display them.

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17 Jun

The Case for Reading Shakespeare

In response to a recent Washington Post article arguing against teaching Shakespeare, Megan McArdle asks a simple question:

What I’d like to hear more of — and have failed to see so far in any of these essays — is a coherent theory of why we bother to teach any writers at all. It seems to me that we need to know that before we can decide whether Shakespeare is one of the writers we ought to teach, or whether we ought to give up on the project entirely and just let the students spend their time watching YouTube videos, or reading Shakespeare, as they please.

702px-ShakespeareIt’s a fair question. Sadly, it’s also a question with a rather obvious answer. Even more sadly, the answer is so obvious that previous generations internalized it too well. As a result, they did a very poor job of teaching us the answer. As usual, our generation has to learn it all over again, unable to learn from the mistakes of the past.

And that, in a nutshell, is the answer. As Nassim Taleb points out repeatedly in his various works, an older book that is still widely read is more likely to have real truth in it than a widely read modern book. The classics are valuable not because they are old but because they have withstood the test of time.

Of course, the list of “classics” is not immutable. It changes over time. But the longer that a work has been on that list, the longer that it’s continued to be read, the more likely it is that the truths contained therein are universal rather than specific.

There’s a reason that some of our older classics never go stale. Shakespeare is a slog, no doubt about it. I’m a voracious reader with an oversized IQ and a master’s degree level education. To put it bluntly, I still have to work at it to read Shakespeare. I don’t fill my entertainment hours with nothing but Shakespeare because it’s too much work. But I do continue to read the bard because the bard speaks to the truth of the human condition – not the truth of the early twenty-first century American condition.No, we won’t absorb every bit of this truth on every reading – and certainly not on a single reading in our teenage years. But that was never the point. The point is to ensure that the future is at least exposed to it, so that when the need for that truth arises they know where to find it. That’s why our children should still be reading Shakespeare.

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16 Jun

30,000 words

Going to go narcissistic for a moment. I’ve hit 30,000 words on my first novel (working title Post Traumatic Stress). Still a long way to go, but that’s a big milestone – and by far the longest thing I’ve ever written.

Spurred on by a comment from Brian Niemeier on John C Wright’s blog, here’s the current version of the book’s elevator pitch:

A young man comes back from Afghanistan on a medical discharge after a helicopter crash only to find that his literal war demons have followed him home to terrorize his friends. He has to deal with them with the help of his not-quite-father-in-law, a young friend, a hapless and overly bureaucratic secret military group that gets in the way more than it helps, and an ancient order of knights chartered by the Vatican.

The work is not strictly part of the Tales of Peter Bishop series, but it does tie in heavily to the series (the “young friend” mentioned in the blurb is, in fact, Peter Bishop). You might even say that this kicks off the series.

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11 Jun

Amoxicillin Allergy

Inflamed sinuses

Inflamed sinuses

So this is a weird one.

Last week, a wave of strep throat hit my family. Four out of the five of us came down with it. The exception – of course – was my oldest son, who seriously never gets sick. I very well might literally kill someone to get his immune system. But anyway…

I caught my symptoms early, after my three year old daughter had already had a positive strep test. So rather than wait, I hit the doc ASAP and got some antibiotics. And then a funny thing happened: my cold-like symptoms actually got worse.

My first thought was that I had a secondary infection. It’s not uncommon to pick up a cold or some other virus at the same time as strep, when the immune system is already weakened. However, I noticed something a little odd. It didn’t really feel like a cold. It felt more like allergies. So I tried taking my allergy medication, which worked extremely well this spring in peak pollen season. Didn’t help at all. So… I skipped a couple of doses of my amoxicillin – an n = 1 experiment, if you will.

And my symptoms cleared up. Then, this morning, I started taking it again. Symptoms are coming back already. A bit of Googling reveals the following:

Respiratory changes may also develop as a sign of an allergy to amoxicillin. For example, you may notice difficulty breathing in relation to this type of allergy or develop a cough that is not related to a cold or the flu. You may become hoarse or develop nasal congestion. Sneezing may even develop as a sign of an amoxicillin allergy.

The latter part of this is more or less exactly what I’m going through. Other than the nasal congestion, I feel perfectly fine.

The interesting thing is, I think I’ve had this allergy my whole life and simply not known it. Most of the time when I taken antibiotics I’ve already had some kind of sinus congestion – strep throat, a sinus infection, etc – so it never stood out. But I was always – always – the one in my family who took the longest to recover from sinus infections. And now I think I know why. I think I had recovered from the infection just fine – but the antibiotics themselves were causing me to continue having symptoms.

It’s not a major allergy. I’ve only got a day and a half left on this prescription, so I’m going to go ahead and finish it out. But next time, I’m going to request something different.

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10 Jun

Make Death Proud to Take Us has been Finalized!

"Make Death Proud to Take Us"

“Make Death Proud to Take Us”

I just finished uploading the final files for Make Death Proud to Take Us. It will be available to readers on Sunday, June 21 (Father’s Day). And I have to say, I think this is the best product that Silver Empire has put out to date.

There are some really enjoyable stories in this one from myself, my wife Morgon, and my friends K Bethany Sawyer and Jennifer L Weir. Jennifer’s contribution, “Major Hunter” (from her Wayfarer Chronicles series) is her first publication with us. In my own personal opinion, I think each of the other authors has contributed stories that are their personal best so far. I won’t pretend to be unbiased, but that’s also my honest opinion.

My personal favorite of the series is the novella at the end, “Down the Dragon Hole,” by my wife Morgon. It’s got a fun, Pratchett-esque feel to it (although not as silly). But again, I feel that it’s the strongest of a strong collection.

You can preorder your copy from Amazon.com today. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy fan, I highly recommend it. I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed putting it together.

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09 Jun

George and the Dragon [Book Review]

"George and the Dragon" by Philip Tolhurst

“George and the Dragon” by Philip Tolhurst

Last night I finished George and the Dragon by Philip Tolhurst, a book that asks an incredibly important question: what would happen if the Luftwaffe started using dragons in the midst of World War II?

Now, this is the kind of thing I would have loved anyway. But I’d recently done a blog post on how a fight between an Apache helicopter and a dragon would turn out in the real world. Naturally, the idea of dragons vs WWII era aircraft caught my interest as well. I’ve already added my own take on the subject. But, of course, half the fun is reading somebody else’s take on it so that you can have stupidly heated discussions afterward!

Alas, on that front Mr. Tolhurst and I are generally on the same page. Although we might quibble some over the details, we’re in the same general ballpark on our analysis of the capabilities of Spitfires vs dragons. So with that out of the way… on to the book itself!

First of all, I did not realize up front that this is a children’s book. That’s not a negative quality of the book, mind you. However, it’s written like a children’s book. If you’re expecting something different going in to the story that very well might effect your enjoyment of it. At some point about a third of the way through I remember thinking, “Man, he really needs to market this as a kid’s book.” And then I went and looked online and found out that he was marketing it as a kid’s book. I was just the idiot who hadn’t gotten the message.

With that out of the way, I settled in to enjoy the story for what it was and not what my expectations of it were. And in that mindset, it’s a quite enjoyable story. When he’s just a little bit older and able to read a book at this level, my oldest son will go bananas for this (and that word was chosen on purpose, because he’d eat bananas until he explodes if I let him).

However, the book does have some flaws. The plot is a bit generic. On the other hand, it is a kids book. So that’s not really a flaw in the book so much as its reader. More frustrating is that the book really needs a pass from a good editor. Bits of the story read as if it suddenly occurred to the author that he’d left out some important information and he really needed to put it in right now. Another draft to clean some of that up would have really helped. On the other hand, most kids won’t be bothered by that.

But the biggest problem for me was grammatical. Now, I try really hard not to be a grammar Nazi. I like to think of myself more as a “grammar libertarian.” But that’s only good up to a point. The author continually exhibits one problem in particular: he has a tendency to jam two to three sentences together with no punctuation, capitalization, or phrase marking to separate them.

This is an irritation, though, and it doesn’t serve to make the story difficult to read. In fact, with proper punctuation and capitalization there wouldn’t even be a problem – each thought is, in fact, a completely separate sentence and grammatically correct. They’re just not separate correctly. The good news is, most children will have no trouble reading that. In fact, it might even fit well with how most children think. For me, however, it was a serious detraction from the story.

As this book appears to be self published, my advice to Mr. Tolhurst for the sequel would be to find an editor and pay out of pocket for the service. A good editor could have taken this book from a B- to at least a solid B+, and maybe an A. The core is there, and Mr. Tolhurst is to be commended for it.

Although the flaws are minor, I do have to drop it just a bit to four out of five stars. Strongly recommended for children who love dragons or airplanes. Good for a fun, relaxing read for adults who love the same.

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08 Jun

Christian Forgiveness

forgivenessLast week I closed with a discussion of the power of forgiveness. I think it’s worth following that up with some thoughts about Christian forgiveness – specifically, what it is and what it isn’t. The modern western culture has adopted some pretty specific ideas of forgiveness, claiming that this is the “Christian” ideal. It’s not. It bears no relation to any historical version of true Christian forgiveness that ever existed in any major culture… until the modern day.

First, the modern misconception of Christian forgiveness. The modern idea is that “true Christians” should forgive anything, anywhere, anytime, always and forever. As is typical of most modern misconceptions of Christianity, this isn’t completely off base… it’s just missed some of the details that turn out to actually be rather important. Amusingly, this version of Christian forgiveness is pushed the most heavily by non-Christians – very often the exact same non-Christians I derided last week for not wanting to ever forgive anything

But, you say, they’re not Christian – they don’t have to. But us, us Christians, oh, we have to. Well, no – they are dictating the rules of our own faith to us in an attempt to disarm us in the culture wars. And, as usual, they completely misunderstand our faith. Unfortunately, so do many Christians, which is why they can get away with it.

The nugget of truth is that, yes, by Christian dogma nothing is unforgivable. Literally nothing. It doesn’t matter how evil your deeds were. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve lived an entire life of evil and repent only right before death. By two thousand years of Christian dogma, God will forgive you. Those of us who are practicing Christians are supposed to also strive for this ideal – although the other part of Christianity, largely forgotten in the modern culture as well, is that we are fallen humans. We are expected to strive for it. We are also expected to fail.

Even so, there is another part to this that is completely forgotten (or, mostly, purposefully ignored) in modern attacks on Christians supposedly acting in an un-Christian way. The forgiveness isn’t free, and it isn’t automatic. Forgiveness requires three things:

  1. An acknowledgement that one has, in fact, sinned [or, in the case of forgiveness from someone other than God, acknowledgement that you’ve committed a grievance; for brevity, I will just say sin from here on out]. That implies a further requirement: acknowledging that what you did was, in fact, wrong. Being a good Christian does require that you try not to judge others, and that you forgive them if you do judge them. It does not require you to pretend that what they did was right.
  2. Contrition – an honest regret for the sin. You have to actually be sorry for having done it. As we learn in grade school, being sorry for “getting caught” isn’t enough. Neither is it enough to be sorry merely because our sin had a bad effect. We must be sorry for the actual commission of the sin.
  3. We must make an honest and true attempt to turn away from the sin. You can’t acknowledge your sins, confess them to God, and totally plan on doing it again tomorrow and expect to be forgiven – even if you’re really, really sorry. It doesn’t work that way. If you’re going to just go out and cheerfully do it again, well, don’t expect your forgiveness. Now, God does know that we’re merely fallen mortals. If we really mean to be good, we try to be good, and we screw up… well, he expects that. But we have to try.

Now, God’s forgiveness is infinite – and it’s not subject to our rules. If he chooses to, God can forgive us even if we don’t meet these requirements. But the entire history of Church dogma tells us that we’re only assured of it if we meet these requirements. In turn, we are not under any obligation to forgive others who don’t meet them. If we choose to do so anyway, that’s our business and good for us. But honest Christian forgiveness doesn’t require it.

This is the true nature of Christian forgiveness. The modern version of “forgive everybody everything even if they’re not sorry, don’t view it as sin, and plan to keep doing it forever” isn’t Christian at all.

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05 Jun

The Power of Forgiveness

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Matthew 6:12

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

An unfortunate side effect of the secularization of the western world is that we are losing our ability to forgive. There is power in forgiveness. Power for the one forgiven, of course. That much is obvious even to the most secular. But there is even more power for the one who does the forgiving.

Forgiveness cleanses us. Forgiveness allows us to move on. Forgiveness gives us a power over those who have wronged us. And yet forgiveness also allows them to move on.

The Christian teachings on forgiveness are one of the many reasons I finally converted to the faith and joined it. As with so many things, it turns out that the Christian understanding of the world actually models it pretty well. If the teachings of the church are so good at predicting and explaining human behavior, maybe they really are on to something.

There is a segment of our society today that seems to be incapable of forgiving anything. No matter how big or how small, every infraction is held as a grudge forever. It doesn’t matter if the infraction was real or perceived. It doesn’t even matter if the infraction was against them, against their family, against their friends, or even against a total stranger. They are literally unable to forgive anything, ever.

The burden they carry is tremendous. It is so large that you can literally see it when you interact with these people. They are incapable of being happy – or, worse, some of them are only capable of being happy when they have something to feel unforgiving about. Of course, this isn’t true happiness, only a pale imitation of it. Because they cannot forgive, they can never let go of the past. Because they can never let go of the past, they can never proceed into the future or appreciate the present.

For this, I pity them. And I would help them if I could.

But in the modern world this problem extends far beyond that. These people are now working to model our entire society after their own pathology. They wish to remake us into a society that never forgives. The slightest blemish, the smallest mistake can now ruin you for life. These people brought us that. The continue to work to make it even worse.

For this, I fight them – at every opportunity and with all my strength.

But first, I forgive them.

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04 Jun

The Problem With Urban Fantasy

draculaUrban Fantasy is a broken genre.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually really enjoy urban fantasy. At least, sometimes I really enjoy it. But it has a serious issue that makes it tough to find good urban fantasy:

Traditional monsters are absolutely no match for modern technology.

Vampires are the easy example. Let’s start by talking about their traits (keep in mind that this is for traditional, folkloric vampires – not the modern versions):

Strengths:

  • Superhuman strength (degree varies)
  • Regenerate most wounds (sometimes requires drinking blood or an “overday” sleep)
  • Effectively immortal
  • Can only be killed by certain specific methods
  • Enhanced senses, especially night vision
  • Mesmerization/mind control (sometimes)
  • Shapeshifting into bats or other creatures (sometimes)

Weaknesses:

  • Wooden stake to the heart (lethal)
  • Behedding (usually lethal, depends on mythos)
  • Fire (usually lethal, again depends on mythos)
  • Garlic (usually nonlethal)
  • Holy water (usually can be lethal, sometimes leaves permanent injury)
  • Holy relics – crosses, crufixes, etc (usually burns and/or deters them)
  • Sunlight (lethal)

In a preindustrial society, this is a pretty frightening creature. It’s stronger than you are, and the general weapons you have available to you aren’t particularly useful against it. A bow might work if you have good aim and a powerful bow. Maybe a crossbow would work better – but you’d better make that shot count so that it doesn’t get you while you’re reloading. Holy water? Nice enough, if you can deliver it. Fire’s not bad, but you need a lot of it. Sunlight might be your best bet, but remember that these are creatures of the night. So that requires tracking it to its nest, which might be difficult since it can see, hear and smell better than you during the nighttime hours when it’s out and about.

But in the modern world? Please.

  • The night advantage is neutralized by modern goggles and electrical lighting.
  • Crossbow? Try a harpoon gun. Those things kill whales – I doubt that getting one through a vampire’s heart would be particularly tough.
  • Holy water becomes extremely useful in a world that has Super Soakers and fire trucks.
  • Flamethrowers. Bring the heat.
  • Sunlight. Depending on the actual mechanics of it all, modern electrical lighting of the UV enhanced variety might suffice. If not, there are modern explosives to blow the roof off the vampire nest. Either way, it’s a win.

Against a decently armed modern opponent, traditional vampires are kind of a joke. To be fair, vampires aren’t the only creatures of lore that suffer this fate. Werewolves aren’t particularly frightening, either.

So what do you do about it? There are really only a few things you can do:

  1. Modify the way your creatures work (aka the “our vampires are different trope) and buff them up.
  2. Deprive your heroes of access to modern items.
  3. Turn your heroes into bumbling idiots who are incapable of using these advantages.
  4. Invent all-new creatures to avoid this problem entirely.

Unfortunately for fans of the genre, the most common solution is #1. In and of itself, that’s not too terrible – except so many forms of the “our vampires are different” trope just come out bad. Authors make them different without fully thinking through the implications of the changes that they make.

Even worse, the second most common solution is #3 – by virtue of the writer himself being a blathering idiot who couldn’t use the modern advantages. This is really just a subset of the fact that most creative types don’t know squat about combat, let alone how police and military forces actually operate.

One of the better solutions is the one that Jim Butcher used for The Dresden Files. In his series, the effects of magic cause technology near the source of that magic to break down. The newer the technology, the more disruptive the effect. While neither entirely original nor entirely perfect, this solution basically works. It’s logically consistent with magic and it neutralizes enough modern elements to allow the author to tell a story of well matched opponents.

The worst kind of answer is something like Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where an entire squad of supposedly elite special forces gets their ass handed to them. As near as I can tell, they suffered from a severe case of “my writers don’t know anything at all about the military or combat.” In any remotely realistic scenario, any US spec ops team chosen at random would wipe the floor with the typical threats that faced Sunnydale.

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