The Alexandrian

Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

Caverns of ThraAsh McAllan sent me a tweet: “Hey @hexcrawl I keep referring people to [Jaquaying the Dungeon]… but noticed you’re using Jaquays’ deadname? Needs updating.”

(For those unaware, the author of The Caverns of Thracia transitioned in, if I recall correctly, 2012.)

This is something I’ve actually given quite a bit of thought to, both generally and in the specific instance of Jaquaying the Dungeon. And my philosophy is that name changes generally progress forward through time.

First: If Jennell had been Jennell when I wrote the essay, I’d have used Jennell. But what I wrote is what I wrote when I wrote it. Similarly, I don’t think we need to edit this video and dub in Caitlyn Jenner’s name.

I don’t think it’s either practical or necessary for us to revise extant works in order to match people’s changing identities. For example, what if I was dead? Who’d have the authority to decide what needed to be rewritten in my work? And what if I’d written a poem and rhymed a word with the name “Paul”? You can’t just search-and-replace names and necessarily arrive at something true.

Second: For similar reasons, I think it’s accurate to say that Cassius Clay won the Clay-Liston fight. (Because that was his name when it happened.) I also think it can be accurate to write that Muhammad Ali won that fight. It would not, however, be accurate to say that Cassius Clay won the Rumble in the Jungle (because that is not a thing which ever happened).

So, in the future, I may refer to “The Caverns of Thracia by Paul Jaquays”. Because that was her name when she wrote it.

There are archival issues here (i.e., you can’t reasonably track down every extant copy of The Caverns of Thracia and scratch out the author’s name on them; and even if you could, there would be some really significant ethical issues with rewriting cultural history like that). There are also issues of historical accuracy (which can be demonstrated with sentences like “Muhammad Ali then changed his name to Muhammad Ali” — which makes no sense if you’ve succeeded in your hypothetical mission to strike all references to the name Cassius Clay from the historical record).

Important proviso here: All of the above is discussing public figures and publicly known events. Very different standards apply to non-public events and private individuals, many of whom may be living stealth. Even if we ignore the ethical right for someone to control their own identity and privacy (although I can’t honestly think of any reason why we would want to do that), there are very real dangers in outing someone. Arguing that someone should say “that was back when HE graduated from college” because that happened before Jane transitioned is to inherently say that Jane should be outed any time events from her life before transitioning are mentioned.

(Some of you may be thinking that there shouldn’t be a distinction here. Consider a hypothetical scenario where Jennell was living stealth. Therefore, I should refer to past events in her life using only her current name and pronoun, right? Except if I say, “Jennell wrote The Caverns of Thracia.” that combines poorly with the public knowledge that the name “Paul” appears on all those extant copies of the book. I would have just functionally outed Jennell. Private and public information work in fundamentally different ways, and trying to treat them in the same way doesn’t work.)

In my ideal world, the changing of identity for a transexual or transgender person would be no more notable than any other change in name and identity. And we’d be able to treat them all openly and without any significant comment because, honestly, it’s just not that big a deal. Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we live in. In this world it is a big deal — it can literally be a life or death deal. And that needs to be respected.

I was recently linked to this story on Facebook: U.S. Government Bans Native American Tribe From Protesting On Their Own Land – Send In Police To Remove Protesters.

As far as I can tell, the linked story is bullshit. First, it’s unclear which judicial action it’s reporting on. The article was written on September 7th, but the only judicial action on that day was actually a victory for Native American protestors.

Digging a little deeper, however, it appears that this is actually just a spam site that’s repackaging a story that got a lot of clicks on Facebook so that it can harvest some of that proven clickbait. It was most likely posted by an algorithm that noticed an uptick in Native American-related or pipeline-related stories on social media, and decided to copy-paste an earlier story on those topics which was a known success at attracting likes and shares.

The story it was copying, however, was actually just a spammy repackaging of actual reporting that had taken place several days earlier by Telesur.

Telesur’s story, however, wasn’t accurate. And their headline (“Native Americans Banned from Protesting Pipeline on Own Land”) was total bullshit. As Native News Online accurately reported, the judge’s order only prohibited them from physically interfering with construction. It didn’t ban them from protesting. Furthermore, the site covered by the judge’s order wasn’t actually on a Native American reservation, so it never banned them from ANYTHING “on their own land”.

So, to sum up: Inaccurate reporting tied to a completely inaccurate headline caused a bunch of fringe websites to post mock-outrage stories about something that wasn’t actually happening. One of those mock-outrage stories remixed the headline into a mostly fact-free rant masquerading as a news story and paired it to a really great photograph that caused people to click it and share it. Then some trashy sites noticed that the post was popular and duped it in order to harvest the advertising revenue.

The photograph, by the way, is actually of a Brazilian man from 2012: “An indigenous man stands as riot police stand guard during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Brazil’s indigenous are protesting the government’s plan to construct the large Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.”

And that’s how most Americans are getting their news in 2016.

Which is a problem. Because, as we’ve just demonstrated, what the algorithms, systems, and mob psychology of social media select for is not the dissemination of truth. It is the dissemination of outrage. When you unthinkingly allow yourself to take in that outrage, you’re doing a disservice to yourself. And when you unthinkingly allow that outrage to drive your actions — even the simple action of hitting a Like or Share or Retweet or Up Vote button — you’re doing a disservice to everyone around you.

You’ll frequently hear authors and IP companies bitching and moaning about the fact that they don’t see a penny when their copyrighted material is sold on the used market. Even otherwise fairly intelligent folks like Isaac Asimov have irrationally believed that people buying used paperbacks were sticking daggers in their backs.

Even if we ignore the ethically tenuous position of people who want to sell you a toaster and then prohibit you from ever selling that toaster to somebody else (which a few weeks ago I would have considered hyperbole, but then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided it would be a good idea to gut consumer protection and ship American jobs overseas all in one fell swoop), the claim being espoused here is fundamentally nonsensical.

What they’re overlooking (either willfully or ignorantly), is the actual effect that being able to sell used books has on the original customer’s buying habits:

First, it influences their decision to buy. (“I’m willing to pay $50 for this textbook, but only because I know I can sell it back for $15 at the end of the semester.”) If they weren’t able to recoup a portion of their investment, they might never buy it in the first place.

Second, it amortizes risk. (“I dunno if this DVD is worth $20. But I guess if I don’t like it, I’ll be able to sell it for at least $8. $12 isn’t that much of a risk.”) Customers who can amortize their risk are more likely to buy. And if the product turns out to be good, they may not resell at all.

Finally, it injects fresh capital: The $10 you get from GameStop for your video game is often going right back into purchasing a brand new game at GameStop.

This effect is somewhat diffused and may, therefore, not be clear when it comes to books or DVDs or video games. But it’s crystal clear when you look at the auto industry: X buys a $30,000 car from Ford. X sells it a couple years later to Y for $10,000 and uses that money to buy another $30,000 car. A couple years later X sells his new $30,000 car to Y for $10,000, while Y sells the original car to Z for $2,000.

Holy shit! Ford has lost all that money spent by Y and Z! X is ripping Ford off! … right?

Nope. Because (a) X couldn’t afford to buy a $30,000 car every two years if he wasn’t selling to Y; and neither Y nor Z can afford $30,000 new cars. The money from Y and Z is, in fact, funneling right up the system and into Ford’s pocket. And everybody wins: Ford makes more money. X gets fancy new cars on a more frequent basis. Y and Z get cars they otherwise couldn’t afford.

This is why nobody in the auto industry makes a new car that they can sell for $5,000 despite the obvious market for $5,000 vehicles.. They’re already getting the money from the $5,000 market.

As virtually everyone in the world knows, there’s a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not going to spend a lot of time harping on details (since they’re well-known and you can Google ’em if you’re curious), but I have two thoughts on the matter I’d like share.

First, blame.

Second, solutions.


Figuring out who, exactly, is to blame for this catastrophe is going to play out over several months. Possibly years. But there are  a couple things which are abundantly clear:

(1) There’s something rotten with BP. When you’ve racked up 700+ safety violations at your deepwater drilling platforms and every other oil company has less than a dozen… well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that BP was doing something wrong.

(2) Under President Bush, the Minerals Management Service somehow managed to devolve into the sort of cocaine-snorting, sex-addled, graft-ridden machine of corruption one really only expects to see in Hollywood action blockbusters. This was part of the Bush Administration’s wider failure to maintain the robust regulatory agencies required by law. (See also No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller.) And the election of Obama didn’t magically fix these problems.

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the MMS has approved 27 new offshore drilling projects. All but one of these were granted the same exemptions from environmental review as the Deepwater Horizon platform. Incredibly, the reason these exemptions were granted is because of the implausibility of a spill resulting from deep water drilling.

(3) President Obama isn’t to blame for the current spill. Nor is it clear to me what action he could reasonably be taking at this point to speed the progress of disaster efforts in the Gulf. (Getting angry or wearing a less-fancy shirt won’t actually accomplish anything, no matter what the brain-dead, narrative-addicted media tries to tell you.)

But where Obama does deserve to be smacked around is the fact that he decided to reverse course on his campaign promise not to allow off-shore drilling. Of course, there was no way for Obama to know that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was coming (and that, as a result, he was irreparably shooting himself in the foot and wasting what could have been amazing political capital and a complete vindication of his policies).

But what Obama should have known is what everyone who supported his opposition to off-shore drilling knew years ago: Off-shore drilling platforms are not some form of magical technology which is completely impervious to bad luck, bad design, or bad maintenance. Like everything else ever built by man, this technology is fallible. And, as we’re seeing, the environmental impact when something goes wrong can be huge.


All that being said, I have the solution for stopping the oil spill.

This isn’t because I’m a genius. It’s because everyone involved already knows what the solution is: Drilling relief wells which can be used to repressurize the pipe.

Drilling Relief Wells

Everything else going on in the Gulf of Mexico right now is a sideshow of bread and circuses designed to keep people mildly appeased and distracted until the relief wells finally reach the right depth. (Which isn’t anticipated to happen until August.) Relief wells are the only way we know to stop spills from blowouts.

We know this because all of this has happened before: On June 3rd, 1979, the Ixtoc oil well suffered a blowout. All of the same techniques being attempted at Deepwater Horizon were attempted at the Ixtoc: Garbage was dumped into the hole. Mud was pumped into it. Chemical dispersants were used. A massive Top Hat-like cap was unsuccessfully lowered into place. (It was called — and I wish I was kidding as I said this — SOMBRERO.)

And the only thing that finally stopped the Ixtoc blowout were the relief wells that were finally drilled to relieve the pressure. The Ixtoc well was not successfully capped until March 1980.

So here’s the hard, bitter truth: There is absolutely nothing that can be done about this spill until the relief wells currently being drilled are completed.

But here’s what needs to happen in the future: Instead of waiting for disaster to strike before beginning the relief wells (which will then take months to reach the necessary depth), oil companies should be REQUIRED to maintain two relief wells in addition to their main well at ALL of their ocean oil rigs.

The next time disaster strikes, these pre-drilled relief wells can be quickly connected to the main well, pressure can be rapidly alleviated, and the scope of the disaster can be rapidly contained.

The Pride Cul-de-Sac

February 5th, 2009

(1) The first step on the path of maturing as a human being is the acquiring of a sense of self — learning the distinction between Self and the Others around you.

(2) The necessary precept of the tribe also necessitates our ability to identify ourselves as a member of a larger group, creating a sense of Us versus the Other.

(3) This sense of community has resulted in many good things — its the basis of cooperation and civilization. However, it also a darker side: The origin of all prejudice lies in the instinctual elevation of the individual’s immediate community (Us) above other communities (Other).

(Some of this is an outgrowth of our natural competition as a species. But part of it is an unhealthy tendency to elevate oneself not through personal achievements but by denigrating others: The poor pale-skinned southern farmer can feel good about himself because he “knows” himself to be superior to those with dark skin. The abusive husband mitigates his own failures in life by destroying his wife. And so forth.)

(4) Cultural or systemic prejudice sets in when the other becomes subjugated — either physically or ideologically — into accepting the elevation or “superiority” of the other group.

(5) The natural first step in attempting to liberate the oppressed and create a proper equality between two separate communities, therefore, has been to increase the pride of the oppressed group. Blacks must first be willing to have pride in themselves before they can fight for their rights. Women must have pride in themselves before they can leave the feminine mystique of “housewife”.

(6) However, there is a trap. First, and most obviously, the search for pride can often tap into that same instinctual elevation of the individual’s immediate community. Thus, it’s not enough for women to claim their rightful place as human beings… all men must become rapists. It’s not enough for the slaves to be set free… the slavers must be made the slaves.

(7) The more insidious trap, however, is that be emphasizing the need for pride, the civil rights movements deepen the sense of identity in the community. But it is the very distinction between communities which allows the racists or the sexists to flourish.

When there is a legitimate basis for the community, the possibility of prejudice against that community is unavoidable and must simply be guarded against with constant vigilance. For example, a Jew or a Catholic or a Republican all have a legitimate community.

But what about those communities which only exist because of prejudice? Why, for example, are all those with dark skin grouped together into a single community whereas all those with blue eyes or red hair are not similarly grouped together?

These illegitimate communities are, fundamentally, part of the problem. Ironically, however, they have also been made part of the solution: By creating a sense of pride in a community which, by all rights, shouldn’t exist, the illegitimate community is perpetuated and the fundamental foundation on which all prejudice is built remains intact.

At some point, therefore, it follows that the illegitimate community must be discarded entirely and the foundation ripped away. But here the trap snaps shut: In order to fight back against prejudice, the civil rights movement has fostered a sense of pride in the illegitimate community. In doing so they have turned that community into a force capable of effecting societal change… but it has also led them into a cul-de-sac. Such a movement can effect great change, but — like a man trying to pick up the board on which he is standing — it will find itself fundamentally stymied in attempting to rip away the foundation in which the prejudice it fights takes root.

The question then becomes: How do you escape from this pride cul-de-sac? How can a community voluntarily — and positively — disassemble itself?



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