Friday, August 31, 2007

Lovely lightning storm

My mom loves weather and made me go look at this link. If you want to feast your eyes on some lovely lightning photos, almost absent of rain, and to see the region I'm living in (by night, lit by lightning), go look.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

GURPS Heroes, redux

Here there be supervillains.

I'm playing a game of GURPS with my brother and friends here, loosely based on the wonderful TV series Heroes. Excitingly, they have just met some potential supervillains.

Couldn't resist a little cartoonery. Observant readers who share the same pop cultural resources will know from what some of these images are derived (partially traced, partially mutated).

Bah. Tough cookies... I needed models. =)

Friday, August 24, 2007

The insurance company's share of the blame

I don't think I ever updated to say that yes, you can too pay for commercial policies on our website.

I was given misinformation by our website help hotline. Also by CSRs in our customer service and monthly billing departments. The latest and greatest misinformation is the idea that you can't pay commercial policies online. Before that, it was bad instructions that I faithfully passed to my exasperated customer. I did raise some of heaven and earth and yes, there will be training sessions.

Is it still partially his fault? Oh yes. He keeps doing something he knows is wrong because he is aware he doesn't know how to do it right, and trusts that it will fix itself.

By now, the company has spent more in payroll to fix these errors than they are making on one of his misapplied bills... and more of my own effort and consciousness have been invested than I like.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Nature vs. Culture

It strikes me that one of the many reasons that science fiction is not, as a genre, booming with good and original works that are of memorable excellence at the moment might be that our assumptions about people have matured.

The wonderful and caustic Thomas Disch writes interestingly about the immaturity of science fiction-- not only audiences, but themes. Well, I know I read more of it when I was a teen, although arguably that was because I still had all the great classics before me... and I know there is a lot of SF that I find laughable, even endearingly embarrassing, now. Like a high school photo. It's true: late Heinlein's post-sexual-revolution fantasias, Dick's paranoid Freudianism, and even Herbert's grotesque wish-fulfillment rise-to-power narratives are juvenile in their essentials.

Any of the glorious war-vs.-the-aliens books, well, glorify war... you will note that our volunteer military pitches its glorifications to youthful potential recruits. Only in SF, the sinister alienness, the us-or-them dimensions of a war, are far more incontrovertible and indisputable than in the messy single planet upon which we find ourselves, where our enemies are potentially brothers. It is a clean universe of glory in a Manichean opposition of light vs. dark (sometimes literally... yes, I'm looking at you, Star Wars.)

It strikes me that the over-and-doneness I ascribe to the nature vs. culture debate in the preceding post (where I followed that up with a long rant about culture... I suppose I should have clarified first) may affect how we create and receive sf.

If nature is anthropogenic, which is a (much more current) viewpoint I will support and defend, prying apart nature and culture is impossible. And that makes it difficult to have absolutes, particularly absolute human or inhuman nature, without involving religion.* Absolute evil must be mystic, not biological; aliens become sympathetic; our nice neat Manichean black and white goes away and we are left with messy, depressing warfare.

Is the slow, ongoing fall of sf a result of battle fatigue, shame and guilt, and a feeling that instead of a hundred page book of how to whoop 'em, we should be reading a six hundred page history of negotiations? Could it be that there IS a sphere of resistance to the sound-byting that has fragmented and polarized our nightly news?

Dunno. I got up early, what can I say?

(*I'm going to say that if you write a story about an alien who is raised by loving humans in every kindness, he will be -- MUST BE -- human; I don't think I can say the same of a story about a hand-raised demon. See where I'm going with "religion" here?)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

William Richardson on Logo/HRC Presidential Debate

I usually try not to get my politics from the Daily Show, not because I think there's something wrong with their politics, really, but because I try to be a little more responsible than that.

(Also, I hate crowd noises and yelling, and the soundscape of the show really bugs me, despite my enjoyment of its humor. Furthermore, one of their Moments of Zen so scarred me that I would not turn on Comedy Central for literally about two years, for fear of seeing it again.)

However, the hubs is an addict so it generally provides an irritable-making backdrop for my getting ready for work in the morning. I should be listening to windchimes and falling water, with the way work's been. But no. Crowds and yelling.

Anyway... this morning's repeat of yesterday's show, featuring a real boner by William Richardson from the Logo/HRC debate in one of its segments, got me thinking. First the quote:

Melissa Etheridge (WTF? But pretty speaking voice, OMG): "Do you think homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?"

William Richardson (bluntly and decisively): "It's a choice."
Now... obviously that was a dumb answer, at least politically unsavvy to an extreme. If nothing else, know your surroundings, and know your audience. I would have admired his brass balls, if he had any, but a later press release claimed that jet lag made it impossible for him to understand the question. Not too ballsy, no.

However, biological homosexuality is one of those irritant concepts for me, one that makes me secrete the intellectual nacre that hopefully will form pearls of wisdom, or at least something interesting and not too noxious. I think it's poorly proven, I think it's insulting to the community (although the community may not agree with me), and I think it's absurdly "nature vs. culture."

The obvious starting point for a more savvy answer to that question, at least for me, would be, "That's a false dichotomy."

So, without further ado...

That's a false dichotomy. You cannot place nature and culture into tension in this day and age... that debate has been exploded for many decades.

The notion of homosexuality is a cultural one. Cultural ideas have their times and places of context. For instance, the people of some cultures switch what we Americans would think of as their sexual preference with their life cycles... in some places in Melanesia, boys traditionally, ritually fellate adult men to develop their own adulthood, for instance. Also, definitions are fraught with lots of cultural spin. For instance, in present-day Brazil, the person doing the penetrating is conceptually "straight" and the receiver is "gay." What we think of in the U. S. as an absolute (and one that hypertrophically defines the sense of self... "gay" becomes the very first adjective selected to self-describe someone who is "out") is actually a collection of related notions artificially constrained by cultural expectation.

The same is true of the notion of biology. We think of "science" as a great force in defining what we "know." Frankly, we don't "know" beans... almost all studies of humans, particularly human behavior, even more particularly behavior about which humans are emotional and self-conscious, are way too problematic to take for granted. We cannot isolate cause and effect neatly, as we can in a lab. Take the bizarre notions surrounding food and health... Let me cite one particularly dramatic example from Marion Nestle's What to Eat:

The idea that eating soy might prevent heart disease or any other condition is based on wonderfully reductive logic:

  • Asians have low rates of heart disease (or menopausal or other health problems)
  • Asians eat soybeans.
  • Soybeans contain proteins, fiber, and isoflavones.
  • Soy proteins, fiber, or isoflavones must be responsible for the good health of Asians. (p. 135)
In short, those claims on your soyfood packages are kinda bunk. Sure, they MIGHT be right, but it would be almost by accident if they were. The same is true of corporate-sponsored studies that state that, say, milk consumption helps you lose weight... only they are even fishier, since they are concocted with cupidity and malice and fostered to raise consumption of a product proven to be harmful in DIRECT ways. Let's not get into dairy right now, though.

Just ... well, once phrenology would have told us that People Of Color Have Different Cognitive Capacity Than Whites. We know better. Phrenology was then considered science; now it's not. None of us want to go back to that time (at least none of us that I am willing to speak with.) Why would we want to go to a time with a "gay gene?" What's wrong with just being who we are, members of our society with different sexual and social preferences and quirks, without an identity "tag" that shouldn't necessarily be the business of casual acquaintances supposedly determining us for a whole suite of cultural predispositions and tastes in everything from foods (quiche, anyone?) to movies (the Wizard of Oz comes to mind) to not-necessarily-relevant political identities (not to be reductive, but what does abortion really have to do with gay rights, aside from aggregation in the same party?)... And why would we want to see ourselves as lacking in volition or choice (particularly with the rugged American individualism equating choice with patriotism... which is uniquely destructive when corporately steered, but that's another rant entirely.)

Biology is funny that way; it's a convenient way of saying what we believe using arguments we can construct with the (sometimes comically erroneous) authority of "science."

So, no, it is not biological, at least not convincingly so. And it is not necessarily the product of one's will, free of cultural externalities, pressures, and notions, i.e. "choice." What we are looking at is a cultural cluster of ideas adding up to "homosexuality" bisected by a cultural construction of "science" -- biology, in this case -- and complicated by a highly charged political and cultural concept of "freedom" -- i.e., "choice."

Stupid question, but frustratingly slippery and emotionally tangled by people wanting to blame their social tensions on a single, immutable (except by eugenics, which, again, only the horrible among us want) "biological" trigger. I find the notions of A.D.D., chronic biological dependencies, and clinical depression just as mistaken and just as alarming as underpinnings of political debate. Let's move on.

My share of the blame

I wrote The Letter I Wish I Had Sent Instead the other day, so you may know the situation from that... or from me bitching about the client, if you have talked to me in person. He's so mean he's brought me to tears twice, and the first time I talked to him I almost quit my job just so I wouldn't have to deal with him again.

However... having spent about 6 hours of my workday on untangling this (for the fourth time now)...

I have been giving him misinformation.

Every month I have faithfully called and gotten detailed instructions from the corporate customer service reps, monthly billing reps, and even the e-payment helpline on how he should proceed to pay his bill. Every month I have told him, and he has ignored me and done it any old way. (His line? "I trust you to fix it." Folks, don't do something consistently, stubbornly, knowingly wrong and trust someone to fix it... if I were a lesser person I would have swept it under the rug til he cancelled, got mad, and went elsewhere. Lots of people, faced with the kind of abuse he dishes out on the phone or email, would have done just that.)

Every month they have given me those instructions. But in April (when he started having these problems), when I took over commercial services for our agency (thus bringing zero experience to the table), they changed the website so that no commercial policies could be paid online, period.


They did not inform the commercial customer services reps, nor the retail manager.

They did not inform our monthly billing reps.

They did not inform their own customer service reps on the helpline.



So I've been trying to discreetly explain to this guy why he's an idiot (he still is: if something didn't work ... hell, if it didn't work TWICE and you have been told it will never work, QUIT DOING IT!!!) while he's been loudly telling me that I and everyone I work with are idiots... and we're both right, kind of.

I've been doing my due diligence, but it hasn't been helping.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Go see Stardust

It's really good. Loads of fun, and many belly laughs for me. Slow starter, so don't start wondering if ducks has gone off her rocker... it may start at Labyrinth, but it makes its way to Princess Bride.

Also, try Larabars. Don't order them online, the cost is ridiculous. If you have access to a health foodie friendly store (not the one in the previous post, please) or Trader Joe's, give it a shot. Yum, so good.

Hmm. Good things come in threes. Ah... I will write more about it later, but Andy Tauer's L'Eau des Epices is fucking glorious.

The letter I wish I'd sent instead

Dear Worst Customer I Have,

In response to your e-mail today, I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate a hostile, paranoid three page e-mail telling me how stupid I am, along with my agency, parent company, and presumably your bank of choice. Not much.

Thank you so much for sending it in three bitter installments because you could not figure out how to send all 11 attachments in one message. I might have succeeded in forgetting you existed, without those handy little pop-up windows bearing your name and snarling salutations. Great reminder.

Once again, just as I told you last month, the month before, and the month before that, I am sorry you managed to fuck up your billing again. As I explained last month, the month before, and the month before that, you are doing it wrong. Quit doing that, and your billing will be fine. Hell, even a chicken can learn to associate rewards with a task done right... here's a hint: peck the red button.

I sent you detailed troubleshooting each time, and last month, I made you a how-to file complete with color illustrations ganked from screenshots of the e-payment screens with large, red arrows. Did you receive them? I know you are dissatisfied with the way the website works, but it has not magically changed in the last month, the month before, or the month before that one. Sorry, but the way things work does not change just because we don't want to do them correctly. Be aware that if you stand outside and throw handfuls of money into the air (ten minutes before midnight the day the bill is due), it won't get credited to your account, either.

Please schedule an appointment every month to pay your bill in our office and on time. (We do close at 5:30, so you may have to pay more than 10 minutes before the movements of Yellow Face In The Sky makes the due date go away.) We will be happy to hand you a receipt that will actually mean something, unlike the confirmation notice which I have explained several times has no bearing on whether the money can actually be applied to your account.

If this experience has done nothing else for us, it has helped us get to know one another. It is unfortunate that I am in your business' target demographic; I would love to shop at your spacious, well-appointed health food store, but you are such a tool I find it morally imperative to avoid your shop. I would not, after all, want to give you hard-earned dollars to misapply to your monthly premiums. I'll do the reprehensibly un-green thing of driving to the one in the nearby excuse for a college town instead, or order online... "shop local" be damned.

Neither do I promote your shop via word-of-mouth, which would really give your foot traffic a boost... at least in nepotistic, cliquey, small-town-feel central-coastal California.

Curse you for choosing our agency to serve your insurance needs, and stop wasting my time. If you have questions or concerns, promptly drink paint and set fire to yourself.



Sunday, August 5, 2007

Old Twentieth

Joe Haldeman is one of my favorite writers, hands-down. The Forever War is one of the finest books I have ever read. Go find a copy, and read it.

I just devoured Old Twentieth, and I am astonished by it. It's magnificent.

But it is very odd, also. The pace is not uniform, although it does increase its intensity. It wriggles with the surprising, chaotic, awkward twists and turns of lived experience, reduced down to a plot line. It is suspenseful, follows a single thread of plot... and still refuses to be tidy.

In many ways, OT may be better than TFW. (If you have ever discussed the latter with me, you will know how dazzled you should be by that statement.) That may be my personal bias, as cyberpunkish questions about learning, maturity, and sentience are a big part of my own writing and thinking at the moment and they form some of the central themes of this book.

I'm not going to do a full review. To do so might spoil it. I am going to tell you that if you like futurist fiction, reveries on mortality and melancholia, gritty war writing, and psychological science fiction, and particularly if you have ever been interested in cyberpunk concerns with nuances of sentience, you might want to pick this one up.

Traditional medicine

One of the most tempting trends that keeps coming around is traditional medicine, as in herbal/holistic/etc., as opposed to "standard" "Western" medicine. At least, it's tempting for me. I am a big believer that proper nutrition and holistic care of the body makes for a much healthier person than medicating every point of physical, emotional, or mental difference... or even illness.

When there are scares about things like anti-bacterial cleaning products, antibiotics just toughening up pathogens, building up resistances to life-saving drugs, and so on, I lean even harder in this direction.

The fact of the matter is that your body is a machine that obeys the law of "garbage in, garbage out." If you eat animal fat, your arteries are likelier to clog. If you don't eat enough fiber, you will get diverticulitis (earlier). If you eat a lot of carcinogens, you're likelier even than the rest of us to get cancer. Eat fats, get obese. Eat sugars, get diabetes. Drink alcohol, get arrested. Everything in moderation ... and moderation doesn't mean "'til I don't wanna anymore," it means, "in the quantity and proportion necessary to my maintenance." Do I do it right? Oh, God, no. I try, but no. And I don't try hard enough.

But here's the thing. There is no such thing as magic. Homeopathic medicine is probably less effective for the treatment of illness than is Western medicine... although it arguably has a place in both therapeutic and maintenance regimens.

For instance, I am a big believer in oatmeal. Oatmeal is pretty neat... it's a low-fat high-fiber whole grain, so if you eat it it cleans you up and out. It's a demulcent so it helps upset tummies and esophagi. It's very soothing on the skin and if made into a poultice it can dry out a nasty wound (poison oak, spider bite, etc.) I've attributed a brown recluse bite healing to an oatmeal poultice and I would apply one again today, were a brown recluse to test my faith.


If you are sick, go to the doctor. If they give you medicine, take it. Do not take half doses of it because "my system isn't used to it." Do not quit taking it halfway into a prescription because "I feel better." Do not self-medicate with quackeries.

Here's the deal about traditional medicine, the honest to goodness raw deal.

If you go to another country, say a poor, third-world country like, oh, say, Peru, you will indeed find people ill unto dying with the same kinds of diseases we have here: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. (You will also find them ill with special, poverty-exacerbated illnesses like goiter, cholera, tapeworms, and so on. Also of purely social causes, like sepsis or bleeding to death after at-home illegal abortion attempts, or relatively unexplained infant mortality.)

You might go up to them and ask them how they are doing. "Better, much better," they say. Almost any sick person round the world will tell you they are feeling better at any given moment. But let's say you believe it. "What are you doing for it?" you ask.

"Well, I am on a special diet... five fruits and vegetables, liquidated in the blender, and I drink that twice a day. Instead of breakfast, instead of lunch. And I am drinking a tea made of the leaves of a special plant."

"Really? And it's working?"

"Oh yes! My sister was sick with the same condition, and she did this, and it went away, by the grace of God she no longer has any illness..."

We want to believe. Somebody who is sick wants to believe, too, that what they are doing is efficacious to remedy their conditions. You're not being lied to, you are being preached to by starry-eyed hopefuls. And yes, some of these treatments have some basis, sure, but they're not the "magic bullet" that will cure you of your bad habits and/or diseases. A half a cup of oatmeal won't cure you of a daily diet of beef fat, Doritos and Twinkies. A ginkgo biloba gelcap won't cure you of carelessness. Even when we get all scientistic about it... the antioxidants in that cup of green tea won't cover the damage caused by the sucralose and aspartame in the bottle (and maybe not by the exudates from the plastic.)

In many cases, Western medical facilities of diagnosis are available... What a fucking shame that Western medicine is not also available to treat what is diagnosed. The realities of the Third World is that this is where factory seconds are sent to die. Factory seconded condoms from the First World. Medicines that have been discontinued due to obsolescence or safety concerns. Medicines that were factory seconded... or past their expiration dates. Most often, these things are being doled out in single-dosage portions by the wives of the people who open Farmacias and Boticas... diligent and hard-working women whose spouses might even have attended an undisclosed amount of medical or pharmaceutical schooling... but who are never on premises.

They do diagnoses, too.


Sometimes with questions, sometimes with a glance, sometimes according to the client's wishes, sometimes with a sacrificed guinea pig and colored smoke.

Stop flinching, it's traditional.

Of course people treat their illnesses anyway, in any way they can. Drink the special tea, drink the smoothies, pray. All of it helps, because it sure beats doing nothing... and nothing is all you (or your clinic, or sometimes your whole country) can afford unless it's tea and fruit, well, you go with the tea and fruit. And prayer is generally free.

Traveling optimists carry the news. "I met a man in the Third World who was dying of cancer, and he drank a tea made of this leaf... it cured him!"

You left out other parts of the equation. In the absence of Western medicine, he ate a special diet, drank a special tea, and prayed a lot. Did the prayer cure him, O optimists of traditional medicine? Or was it the tea?

If the doctors who diagnosed the sufferer had the means to treat him, you'd better believe it wouldn't be with maca and horny goat weed and garlic capsules and fish oil. And if he were offered affordable, standard Western medicine, your friend would be in a hospital bed faster than you could say "snake oil."

Just a word of caution that I promised to a friend about a month ago... and written at this long-delayed juncture very poorly.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Deep Hurting: the GURPS game

I take my inspiration where I can find it.

Recently, we started playing a GURPS game based (very loosely) on Heroes and heavily interlaced with GURPS' wonderful conspiracy-theory-laden Black Ops/Conspiracy X universe, enriched by years of paranoid embroidery by both of us, in various campaigns.

I don't know WHY certain characters have inspired certain songs to come to be. But we are slowly cobbling together a suite of songs named after the characters in the game (and some of the institutions of the game universe.)

These are the characters:

The Flying Librarian
The Electric Mechanic
The Invisible Hobo
The Professor
The Wingnut
The Messenger
The Millionaire Medium

While this arguably makes up the cast of Gilligan's Island, it also makes for a wonderful batch of inspiring kooks.

Take the Professor, for instance. He can understand what animals say... unfortunately for him, they cannot (always) understand what he says. This makes for some one-sided conversations. I built him a song around a sample of TMBG saying, "the words I'm singing now mean nothing more than meow to an animal." But then I took the sample out... it just wasn't working with the ambient groove I built to nest it in. It's better without it. (It is, however, very long... ambient songs always flow over the time I want them to exist within.)

The Electric Mechanic comes from a lovely rural farm family in the Midwest. I made him an alterni-pop little song just barely dark on the edges, thinking about his origins.

The Invisible Hobo is a homeless man with a saxophone and a history of tragic loss. I built him a song of beats and breaks, with some rather chirpy techno built in... and angry saxophone squeals weaving into the cacophany of the crescendo.

The Flying Librarian? I made something quirky of classically inspired samples and sassy electronica. I may scrap it and start again, but there's something very Flying Librarian about it.

The Wingnut made his own song. He featured some samples from a very funny, and characteristically insensitive, routine by the late, lamented, incomparable Sam Kinison.

The Messenger and the Millionaire Medium are yet to be immortalized in Deep Hurting song... although MC TV's Frank is working on one that I think is brilliant for the Messenger.

We are also doing songs for the Departments of the Company. If you know what I'm talking about, so much the better.

Anyway, if you want a preview... because they are most assuredly not finished, and need some major tweaking... well, here you go. Go forewarned... we ain't named Deep Hurting for nothing. And y'know, they're works in process, and all that.