Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Why Stories Are Vital

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

People have been telling stories for almost as long as there have been people. Sometimes those stories have been told through art, as in the cave paintings found in Asia and Europe. Sometimes music has served as the medium and, before written language appeared, music assisted in transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.

Yet the most direct way of relating information remains through words, either written or spoken. But why are stories so important?

There’s actually a scientific reason.

Humans have about 86 billion neurons. One of the tasks those neurons engage in is making sense of the world. They do it partly by assigning cause and effect. We see a thing happen before a second thing happens and when it does so consistently, we assume that the first causes the second. This is why the sun (and to a lesser extent, the wind and rain and thunder and lightning) was deemed a god by some early cultures. The sun rose and started the day; the sun set and ended the day. Therefore, the sun must be powerful.

Think about how you react when someone tells you of an event that makes little sense, like the Germanwings flight 9525 crash that killed 151 people. How could the co-pilot deliberately crash the plane into a mountain? So we try to explain it. We examine his life and writings, the comments he made to friends or family or doctors, to try to piece together his motivation for acting so horribly. We still find it difficult to understand, but we feel slightly better when we can attribute some sort of reasons to his actions, however twisted they may be.

We need order. We need a narrative. It’s how we process the world around us, how we make sense of all the things we observe every day. Those 86 billion neurons need something to do with their time and creating narratives for events we witness becomes a task they happily perform.

It doesn’t even matter if the narrative they create is wrong as long as it makes some sort of sense. That’s why we enjoy fiction as well as non-fiction. We want story. Our brains need a narrative. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story we know can’t be true. What matters is that it’s a narrative that could be true, that has the potential to carry truth.

We want stories that we wish were true because then the world might be a better place, and from that desire, we extrapolate to believing the world is a better place because of the story itself, not the veracity of the tale. As long as we can immerse ourselves in the story, we deem it good. The more it sucks us in, the better.

If there were no stories, our minds would soon deteriorate. We need the stories to keep our brains sharp, to keep those 86 billion neurons firing. Without stories, those neurons would die and we would become less complicated, less able to process conflicting information.

In fact, we can’t live without stories. If there were no stories, we would have to make up our own. We would need to in order to retain our sanity. That’s how it all began, with people telling stories to keep their brains active, though they probably didn’t know that was why they were doing it. Their neurons were putting the stories into their heads and compelling them to speak, to draw, to sing.

That’s the foundation upon which we build our tales. Our brains tell us to create, so we create. Our neurons say they’re bored and they want a story, just like our four-year-old children. So our brains comply. It doesn’t really matter, in the final analysis, why we tell our stories. What matters is that they’re necessary to our survival as humans.


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Is America Safe?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Is America Safe?

In many ways the answer is yes. But we’re not as safe as we could be and the reason is the proliferation of guns. Some say it’s not possible to change our gun culture but we can change if we want to.

Australia used to be a country with a robust gun culture. But after a massacre in Tasmania that left 35 people dead by guns, the country implemented a ban on semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns – and instituted a mandatory buy-back program for newly banned weapons.

Now, since gun violence in Australia was much lower than it is in the US, the results of the ban are not as clear-cut as we would like to see. However, what is clear is that suicide rates have gone down dramatically. Lives have been saved because of the restrictions placed on gun ownership.

We in the US have made the collective decision that guns are important. The NRA has assisted in that effort, assuring us that we’ll all be safer if only we’re packing. Unfortunately, the facts don’t bear that out. Guns in the home equals greater risk of dying by gun violence – mostly from suicides or murder by family members.

When the District of Columbia banned handguns in 1976, the suicide rate in the city fell by 23 percent (according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine). 23 percent! Yet the Supreme Court found the ban unconstitutional – and 75 percent of Americans polled about that decision agreed with it.

Suicide rates in states that have high gun ownership are much higher than suicide rates in states with low gun ownership (per the National Center for Health Statistics), and the US as a whole has a very high level of suicide rates compared to other industrialized countries – mostly because of easy access to guns.

What about violence toward others?

It would be nice to have more studies done in that area but, unfortunately, in 1996 Congress passed a law that banned federal funding of gun violence studies. The NRA lobbied heavily to get the law passed. So for more than 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been unable to study the causative effects of access to guns and gun violence.

Thus, we’re largely in the dark as to how many deaths could be prevented by limiting access to guns. Guns kill far more children than cancer; Americans murder each other with guns 20 times as often as people in other wealthy countries do. But that’s not enough to get us to change our ways.

After the killings at Sandy Hook, President Obama finally lifted the ban on federal gun research. However, Congress hasn’t followed through with funding. So we wait while 289 people on average are shot each day (per the Brady Center to prevent gun violence). If anything else caused premature deaths like that, we would call it an epidemic. But for Americans, it’s just business as usual.

The biggest problem is that ready access to guns makes an impulsive decision to kill oneself or others far too easy. I wonder if we’ll ever come to our senses. I wonder if the NRA will ever become an organization ruled by sane people rather than radicals as dangerous as Islamic terrorists. I suspect it will take much more than what happened at Newton or Charleston or Columbine. The 200 mass killings in the US over the last decade (per USA Today) aren’t enough to get us to change our ways. Maybe nothing will.

But make no mistake: gun violence is an epidemic in America and it doesn’t have to be.


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Fixing Our Infrastructure

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Virtually everyone in America agrees that we need to repair/update at least some of our infrastructure: roads, power lines, water pipes, cable/telephone wires, etc.

But there is very little agreement on how and when we ought to undertake these projects. Too many people think we ought to wait until a problem arises before we commit large amounts to make such improvements.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: that’s their mantra.

And there’s something to be said for that philosophy. However, just because a water pipe, for example, hasn’t failed yet doesn’t mean we ought to ignore it until it does. The cost of updating water pipes and bridges and numerous other pieces of infrastructure is usually much greater after they fail than before – and the societal cost in inconvenience and temporary solutions is always more.

So why can’t we fix these problems?

I believe it’s about more than just prioritizing. If it were only that, we’d have fixed at least some of the problems long ago. No, instead, it’s about an inherent difference in the way some of us see government. Some of us believe it ought to be as small as possible, only doing the absolute minimum (defense and keeping the peace, the two most notable elements of this mindset).

Others believe government ought to do more: provide a safety net, regulate industries that have a tendency toward monopolies, level out the inequities that have built up over several lifetimes of rule by politicians in the pockets of special interest groups, etc.

Since there exists this major philosophical difference, what tends to happen is nothing. The status quo becomes our default framework – fix when broken, never before.

Older generations were much more willing to engage in large projects for the sake of improving the country: building the railroad and highway systems, for example. Yet those projects were also championed by special interests that stood to benefit the most from them. The majority of the population only benefited years later.

Does that make them suckers or us fools?

Consider the stadiums that the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL coerce us into funding. This same kind of argument is used to get those deals done. “If we don’t build now to keep/acquire the team, we’ll lose out and we’ll end up paying a lot more down the line when another opportunity comes along.”

Or “This is a community resource that benefits us all even though it benefits the owners much more than it benefits the rest of us.”

My point is that we’re capable of this type of rationalization and prioritization. We can do it if we want to. We just have to want to. And at this time in our history, not enough of us do.

But here’s the thing: the need to fix our infrastructure isn’t going away. We can put off the date a few years perhaps, but not forever. And if we put it off long enough, maybe we won’t have to pay for it; maybe that task will fall to our children or grandchildren. What will they think of that? Of us?


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Why We (Probably) Won’t Solve Climate Change

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We seldom tackle problems that involve long-term strategies. We haven’t evolved that way. We survived by planning for today and tomorrow – not for next year – so our brains struggle with abstract concepts like global warming that might potentially harm us, but that we also might find a solution for some time down the road.

So far, we’ve pretty much always found a way to save ourselves from devastating environmental consequences. Sure, there have been times when groups of people (like the Anasazi) were forced to leave an area they’d inhabited because of flooding or drought or lack of food or war, but they simply found another spot that would suffice.

It’s that kind of mentality that still drives us.

We hear that the oceans will rise a few inches in the next decade and it seems piddling: a minor annoyance. What’s more difficult is understanding that the rise in the oceans doesn’t occur only in the oceans. The storm surge from hurricanes gets far worse. The extra surface area of water, though relatively small, increases evaporation, putting more water into the air.

The greater the humidity (or dew point), the more warmth that air can hold. So we get into a positive feedback cycle: more warmth = more water in the air = more warmth, etc. This changes the oceans’ currents, which changes the jet stream, which results in weather patterns different than what we’ve been used to. Certain areas become more prone to drought. Others become more susceptible to flooding. Some become more likely to experience both drought and flooding.

No single event can be blamed on global warming, of course, so as a result, many people say global warming is a myth, created by Chicken Littles who shout that the sky is falling – or they believe it’s a vast conspiracy to change people’s behavior for insidious, if ill-defined, purposes.

They say since we can’t prove global warming is the cause of a particular flood or drought or hurricane, the whole idea of global warming must be a hoax.

And then there are the business interests that rely on the status quo – the oil companies that want us to keep driving; the airlines that want us to keep flying; the hotel industry that wants us to keep traveling; the auto industry that wants us to keep buying vehicles; the energy industry that wants us to keep using coal and natural gas. There are many other businesses that thrive on the status quo remaining the same.

All the talk of global warming scares away potential business or at least might scare away potential business. So they pooh-pooh the idea that we should consume less, drive less, fly less. They denigrate and minimize those who disagree with them, and some of us believe them. They portray a world that’s scary, but they claim that those who disagree with them are the ones who are really trying to scare us into giving up our way of life, our freedoms.

They don’t need everyone to agree with them – just enough folks to plant the seeds of doubt and prolong the actions that would harm their short-term interests.

Mostly it’s the fear of change that stops us. But change is coming. Change is happening every day. The world remakes itself every few millennia and it’s doing so right now. We may fail to stop the continuing warming of the planet. If we do, that won’t harm the earth. It will only harm certain species, among them homo sapiens sapiens.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Problem with Time Travel

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Time is an interesting concept. We know it as the fourth dimension, yet it behaves differently than the other three. We can move up or down, right or left, forward or back without interference. But we cannot move backward in time – only forward. This is one reason I struggle with time travel stories.

One theory for time travel involves wormholes, which might allow for a shortcut from one point in space to another and from one point in time to another, yet many scientists who study this subject believe it isn’t possible.

Another theory is that cosmic strings might contain enough mass that they could warp space-time around them, allowing for movement from one point in time to another. Again, we have no evidence that it’s possible, only a theory.

The only way we know of for traveling through time is to move at close to the speed of light. Time slows down when we do that, so if we could get inside a spaceship and travel at nearly the speed of light, much more time would elapse outside the ship than in it and we could see the future.

The problem is, we couldn’t get back to the past (our former present).

However, most time travel stories, even those that involve traveling to the future, generally include either a return to the present or (traveling backwards in time) or describe traveling to the past to change some event that will then change the future (the present in the story).

If such stories are well done, well written, they can be enjoyable, but it’s difficult to avoid the trap of temporal contradiction (or temporal paradox) and it’s essentially impossible to explain how time travel would work in a way that satisfies me.

The best example of the paradox is probably going back in time and somehow killing your grandparents or parents so that you are not born. How then can you exist to travel back in time and kill them?

As a result, time travel stories fit much more securely in the fantasy genre than in science fiction. And it takes an awfully good fantasy to appeal to me. Dune was one such story, The Lord of the Rings another.

Make no mistake. Excellent fantasy can be compelling and emotional. Yet I think most writers of science fiction and fantasy should avoid time travel stories. I felt that William Gibson pulled off the concept of time travel successfully in The Peripheral, but he’s a special case and a gifted writer.

Anyway, that’s my thought for the day.


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I am biased . . . and so are you

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

All of us have our biases. We think we don’t. We think we’re enlightened and we don’t base our decisions on subconscious or unconscious cues, yet we do it every day, all the time.

It’s impossible not to be biased. Being biased is how we survived as a species. We saw something that looked scary and we either ran away or killed it. Those of us that didn’t gradually died off, leaving behind the ones who fled or fought.

So how do we fight against something so deeply ingrained in our beings? How do we in the twenty-first century, when fight or flight is not a crucial element in our day-to-day living (at least not for most of us), overcome those inner demons and make rational decisions?

First, we have to admit to ourselves that we have biases, that we are flawed. We like people who are like us. We know not to discriminate against those with skin of a different color or those who have disabilities or some other characteristic that sets them apart from us, but should we discriminate against those whose opinions are different from our own?

Why should we be concerned about this?

Here’s why: Diversity of opinion is a far better methodology for solving complex problems than the utilization of similar-minded folks. Having friends or co-workers who all think the same way prevents us from seeing solutions to problems from multiple directions.

I’m not saying you should go out and make friends with a bunch of people who disagree with you on everything, but if you hang out with mostly Republicans or mostly Democrats, or mostly Christians or mostly atheists, you should know that it’s going to be more difficult for you to see certain realities that you will one day wish you had seen earlier.

Second, when making decisions, try to filter that process through the lens of bias. For example, when making a hiring decision, it’s comforting to pick an applicant who we know we’ll get along with, and often times that’s the right decision. But picking only applicants who agree with our way of doing things can lead to stagnation.

It’s necessary to have some people who disagree with the crowd. Wise rulers in the past had court jesters for just that reason, to prod them to see the alternatives they might not have considered otherwise.

So consider hiring someone who isn’t like everyone else in the office. I’m not saying you should pick an obnoxious jerk just to have someone who will argue every decision management makes, but you don’t want all optimistic extroverts either.

This same rule applies to all big decisions. I love that new car over there. I want to buy it now.

WAIT. Why do I want that one? Is it just because it’s pretty? Is it because I think women will like it?

Consider: Is it priced fairly? Is it a good fit for my transportation needs? Is it reliable? I will be inside it most of the time so does it matter what it looks like from the outside? And if so, why? Because it’s important that I make a statement about myself? That’s fine, as long as I understand that’s why I’m doing it.

Understand your bias so that you can overcome it, so that you can use it when necessary and discard it when you don’t need it. If we can do that, we can create a better future – a world of amazing things. That’s the world I would like to see, but that’s not the world I write about because I don’t think that’s the world we’re approaching.


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If you could see the Future

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

If you could see the future, would you want to?

Consider that you might see something you don’t want to see – like a world run by cockroaches or your grandchildren in prison for committing fraud or everyone deciding to vote for Democrats. Oh, the horror!

You might see that you’re sickly or dead or lonely or broke. You might see that your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband has left you or cheated on you or simply decided to ignore you.

On the other hand, you might see a world in which humanity has managed to conquer its problems and eliminate war or reduce its polluting ways or save nearly extinct species or even bring some of them back.

You might see disease as a rarity and people routinely living to 100. You might see people no longer having to work because computers and robots do everything for you now. You might see people engaged in peaceful and pleasant activities, free to pursue their passions because they no longer have to concern themselves with putting food on the table.

Or you might see things pretty much as they are now: life little changed from its current incarnation – people using more technology but not finding more free time – some diseases wiped out while new ones create problems – some wars eliminated because large countries are more dependent on each other economically, but other wars begun because of inequality or religious or ethnic intolerance.

If you’re an optimist, you likely want to see the future because you imagine all the wonderful things that will exist then. And if you’re a pessimist, you probably don’t want to see the future because you expect it to be horrible. While, if you’re a realist, you might not know whether you want to see it because you can imagine all sorts of good and bad things that might come to pass and you’re not sure if the good will outweigh the bad.

At least with science fiction you can say, “Maybe this won’t happen, maybe we’ll find a way to make things better than they are.” That’s why I like good science fiction, well-written science fiction. It shows us possibilities – good and bad – that await us and allows us to work toward the former.


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Why Science Fiction Matters

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Many people won’t read science fiction. They have the idea that it’s all warp drives and space battles and bizarre aliens and they just don’t want to read that. It’s too far out for their taste.

But not all science fiction is that way. Look at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is more properly defined as speculative fiction because it doesn’t really embrace futuristic technology like most science fiction does. That’s a wonderful novel about where we might be headed – and it focuses on characters, not whiz-bang imagery.

The best science fiction, the science fiction that lasts, examines our society as it is and extrapolates out to what it might become. It issues a warning to all of us to understand the path we’re on and to reassess whether we want to stay on that path.

The best science fiction is “thinking” fiction. It challenges us at the same time it entertains. The same can be said for all types of fiction, I suppose. But too often in modern fiction the goal is merely to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t feed the soul the way good science fiction does.

Science fiction – good science fiction – opens a window to our better and worse selves. It examines how we build societies and how we tear them down. It makes us appreciate our accomplishments and forces us to face our fears. And it generates ideas that later become reality.

Further, I suspect more people like science fiction than are willing to admit it. They just don’t want to read it – they want to watch it on the big screen. Look at the prevalence and popularity of science fiction films throughout the past forty years. Ever since Star Wars redefined the genre in the 80s, science fiction has done extremely well at the box office.

The problem with movies, of course, is that special effects can distract from the story rather than enhance it. If done well, special effects make a movie powerful, but if the CGI takes over, then the ideas behind the story can get lost.

In a book, the same dynamic holds true. If the focus is too heavily on the tech side of things, the ideas get lost. But if character is allowed to take center stage, if ideas are allowed to propel the action, then science fiction can be great. That’s what I aim for in my books – enough action to entertain, enough tech to surprise and delight, but always grounded with the gravitas of human struggle.

So science fiction matters. We need science fiction. That’s why I write it.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Perception is Everything

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Perception is everything – more important than reality. Let me explain. You can be the nicest person in the world, saving puppies and babies and donating all your worldly goods to saving the planet, but if others think you’re a jerk, then you’re a jerk.

You can have evil thoughts all day long, you can steal and kill and commit barbarous atrocities against the helpless, but if others think you’re a nice person, then you’re a nice person.

“So what?” you say. “I know I’m a good person. I know the reality. I know the truth. Ergo, reality is more important than perception.”

But do you really grasp the truth? Do you in fact understand reality? Maybe you understand yourself. Maybe extensive examination of your thoughts, motivations and emotions has led you to a level of self-awareness that many of us in the modern world have not achieved. Or maybe you just think you understand yourself.

When you do something nice for someone else, are you acting completely altruistically? Or does some part of you want the recognition that you were good at this point in time, that you did something for someone else? It’s okay if that’s the case because you’ve still done something good, regardless of the reason. But it bolsters the case that perception is more important than reality.

But even more basically, perception is how we experience the world.

The reality is that none of us ever touch anything or anyone else. The atoms in our fingers (all the atoms that make up who we are) never actually come into contact with the atoms of the chairs we sit in or the lovers we caress or the guns we fire. There is always a minute distance remaining – a separation between us and every other thing around us.

When we experience the sensation of touch, that’s our brains telling us we’re touching other things – that’s the perception of touch. And it’s not just touch – it’s all our senses.

What we hear, what we see, what we smell is all subject to our brains’ interpretation of that sensory input. And none of us are perfect. That’s why magic acts work on us. We believe we’re seeing one thing when in fact something else is happening. Ever wake up at night and see a strange, scary shape that turns out to be a clothes tree or a sweater draped across a chair or some equally inoffensive item?

We all experience sensory input our brains interpret as one thing even as the reality proves it to be something else.

My point is, nothing in this world is precisely as it seems. Nothing is completely knowable or certain. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make assumptions about the world or each other – just that we need to be prepared to be surprised when things don’t always happen exactly like we believe they will.

And isn’t that world more fun, after all?


book 3 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 3 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Oh, Universe

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Oh, Universe

Are you truly made of string?

Do you vibrate eternal

Your one-dimensional objects stitching our creation

Weaving the genesis out of which we arise?

Oh, Universe

Why do you hide your dark matter

Absorbing light and radiation

Into fabric we cannot see?

Are we not worthy of truth?

Oh, Universe

Do you sit at your loom

Warp knitting your dark energy

Accelerating your boundaries

Into infinity

Like a scarf you cannot finish?

Oh, Universe

Will we freeze while we wait

For you to tie off your masterpiece?

Perhaps you wait for gravity

That spinning ball of yarn

To wind you back into a singularity

A big crunch

So you can begin again

Recycling yourself

Into another U.

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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