Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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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

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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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Take the Jelly Bean Test

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

What kind of person are you?

When you’re eating jelly beans, do you start with your favorites and gobble them first before moving on to your less-liked flavors? Or do you start with the ones that are just okay and save the really delicious ones for the end – for the dessert?

There are lessons to be learned from understanding what kind of person you are. No judgment, no shame – just self-knowledge, so you can better prepare for what’s to come.

If you delve into your favorites first, you’re probably more passionate, more of a sensualist, more inclined to leap into the unknown to see what it has to offer. You may experience more difficulty in delaying gratification and controlling your impulses. Or you may not trust that the truly excellent jelly beans will still be there when you want them. You may fear that someone else will eat the best ones or that the jelly beans will get hard and be less delicious if you wait. Or, finally, you may decide that the joy you get from a few exceptional jelly beans now will be more satisfying than the pleasure you’ll experience later if you wait to consume them.

On the other hand, if you hold off on eating your favorites, you’re probably more cautious, more logical and better at controlling impulsive behavior. You think things through before jumping into new situations. Or you may simply trust that the phenomenal jelly beans will still be there, that no one will come along and eat them before you get the chance, and that they won’t harden into unappealing rocks. Or, finally, you may decide that you’ll get enough pleasure from the good jelly beans now that you can afford to wait for the fabulous jelly beans later.

How does this translate to life?

We know we should save for retirement, for example. We should set aside some portion of our income to benefit us in the future, perhaps decades down the road. We don’t all have that luxury, of course. Some of us live paycheck to paycheck – but assume that you make enough to cover your basic necessities and then some. Do you set aside money for that time in your life?

Many of us don’t.

Is it because we can’t control ourselves? Because we see something we want and decide to buy it even though we know the happiness we derive from it will likely be fleeting? Do we live for the present and let the future look after itself? Do we say, “Since I don’t know if I’ll even be alive when I’m 80, I don’t want to deprive myself now”?

The future will always be unknown. Some of us will plan for it; some of us won’t. Many of us who plan for it will have those plans thrown in our faces by life or God or the fates or unforeseen obstacles.

But here’s the certain thing: the future is coming like a freight train. We can’t get out of the way without leaving the tracks of life. And that’s not a very appealing option for most.

So enjoy the present – to a point. Savor the NOW while you can. But remember too that it might behoove you to leave at least a few of the delicious jelly beans for later. Your older self will thank you.

What about me? How do I rate?

I always save some of my favorite (green & yellow) jelly beans for the end, but I eat a few along the way. You can’t live only for tomorrow.

Take the jelly bean test yourself. How did you do?

@SteveMcEllis

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Daniel

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Why did I wait so long?

I trusted there would be time in spades,

years and decades to further our friendship,

hone the edges of our razor wits –

or did we only imagine we were funny?

I confided truths I hid from the world,

trusting you to embalm them,

bury them deep,

just as I keep your secrets still,

taking them out occasionally

unfolding them gently,

reminding myself you were larger than my mere humanity,

full of joy and generosity,

with an appetite for so much I feared.

Your example emboldened me,

allowed me to pursue the pleasure of discomfort,

the unease of thrusting myself beyond

my self.

Now, more fully formed,

more insinuated into the universe of others,

I sample the world you bequeathed

while you rest in your sarcophagus

beneath the lush landscape

no longer wondering

why I waited so long.

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The New Corporate America

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

More than 50 years ago, on January 17, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against the growing power of the military-industrial complex.

How have we done since then?

Big corporations have only become more powerful. They don’t advocate for direct governance; they don’t want that headache. What they want is to control the governors through the use of the pocketbook. And they’re succeeding.

For decades, they tried to convince the courts that corporations are people, and they finally achieved their goal in 2010 in Citizens United v. FEC, when the Supreme Court said corporations have the same right to speech as living persons.

Some will argue that the protected speech is for “associations” of people and not corporations, but this is akin to the magician’s deception when he waves his right hand while pocketing the ball with his left. The end result is that corporations can now use their vast wealth to influence elections and further their agenda even if many of their shareholders disagree with their decision.

From this case was born the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, which stated that corporations now have the right to exempt themselves from laws that violate their religious beliefs.

Hobby Lobby says that corporations – constructs of the state – have religious rights even though they’re not real persons. And the Supreme Court agreed. Why? Because Hobby Lobby is a conservative Christian company whose founders’ views echo those of Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas – and to a lesser extent, Kennedy.

Can you imagine if a conservative Muslim company had tried to claim a religious exemption from following a law that most Christians supported? The Supreme Court wouldn’t even have heard the case.

These decisions are abominations, to be sure. But they are not the end. They’re the beginning. What’s next?

Corporations will push to avoid penalties imposed by the government for illegal actions. They’ll claim that fines which impose more than a minimal burden are excessive and a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. And under this court, they’ll win.

Then they’ll attack the government under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, asserting that they must be provided due process before the government can regulate them more harshly than they want to be regulated. The regulations, they will claim, amount to a taking.

Don’t believe me?

Look at Kelo v. City of New London, where the Supreme Court held that a city could use eminent domain to take away a private landowner’s property and give it to a private developer even though the landowner didn’t want to sell. Yes, the landowner eventually got paid. But that’s not the point.

What’s troubling about this case is that some normally liberal Justices sided with the city, including Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer. The dissent, including Justices Scalia and Thomas, argued that this would allow the rich to take from the poor, which is exactly what is happening, though not in as open a way as occurred in Kelo.

And what about that Kelo property? What kind of fabulous development occurred there? Why, it’s a vacant lot.

My point is that the Supreme Court will twist any argument, any law, to ensure the continued health of corporate America. It has been so for decades and it will continue until we elect officials who are true populists, true believers that people are more important than companies.

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The Myth of Equal Opportunity

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There has never been equal opportunity in America. Sure, there’s always been opportunity, but it’s never been equal. The wealthy have always gotten better opportunities than the poor. Whites have always gotten better opportunities than blacks or Hispanics or Asians or Native Americans.

Men have almost always gotten paid better than women for the same work. Taller people make more than their shorter peers and the beautiful make more than those of us who are less gifted in the looks department.

But a lot of folks perpetuate the myth that we all have the same chances to improve our lots and that simply isn’t true.

Wealthy Americans send their children to first-rate schools (who can blame them?). They hire people like them – friends of friends or children of friends or even the friends themselves. We are a country that bestows privilege on the privileged.

And we all are victims of unconscious bias, believing lighter skinned people are better than darker skinned folks. Don’t believe me? You can take the Implicit Association Test developed by Mahzarin R. Banaji of Harvard.

Even black people who take the test generally ascribe better qualities to lighter skinned folks than they do to black people.

We also ascribe better qualities to taller people, prettier people and people who dress better. Study after study has shown that we discriminate subconsciously all the time. How does this play out in denying equal opportunity to all?

Police officers of all races subconsciously assume blacks are more likely than whites to be engaging in criminal activity. Teachers subconsciously assume whites are smarter than blacks. Employers subconsciously assume blacks are more likely to loaf on the job or steal or show up late for work.

Add up all these subconscious biases and you get a pattern of second-class treatment that isn’t intentional or mean-spirited – it’s just the way our brains work.

“I’m not one of them,” you say. “I don’t have those biases.”

Maybe not. Maybe you’re one of the very few who can legitimately make that claim. But probably, like me, you have these biases and you have to deal with them.

And the best way to do that is to acknowledge you’ve got them. Accept that you think – deep below the surface – that white is better than black, rich is better than poor, and handsome is better than ugly. Only then can you begin to overcome those hidden biases, by identifying them and giving them some sort of numerical value that you can gradually lower, each time you make a decision, until the number becomes more and more negligible.

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