Scott Walker Doesn’t Want Our Votes

I apologize to my readers not fortunate enough to live in Packer country, but this is going to be a pretty Wisconsin-centric post. Still, you should probably watch for the warning signs in your own states as well. Last Thursday we added yet another exciting episode to the truly bizarre bit of performance art that is the Scott Walker Governorship. And in his increasingly desperate quest for reelection, I think it’s safe to say that this episode is the most nakedly brazen plea for attention we’ve seen so far.

For those of you who don’t know, Governor Walker signed two important pieces of legislation on Thursday. The first bill, supported entirely by the state Republican party, severely cuts early voting in the state, eliminating weekend voting entirely and restricting night time voting to no later than 7pm. Now the one-in-five Wisconsin citizens who take advantage of early voting to participate in our democracy, including the thousands who work during business hours, will face shrinking windows and growing lines in which to speak their minds.

The reason given by the bill’s supporters in the state house was to standardize voting hours throughout the state, so that cities like Madison and Milwaukee didn’t have an unfair advantage over the rural areas. But then why, exactly, would the answer to this imaginary “problem” be to reduce hours in the cities instead of expanding hours in the countryside? How curious.

The second bill to feel the sweet caress of Walker’s pen expanded the window during which lobbyists could make campaign contributions by seven weeks, advancing it from June 1st to April 15th, because in the view of the Republican Party, one of the most pressing issues facing our great state is how crippling restrictions hurts the ability of out-of-state special-interest money to influence our elections. Thank goodness they nipped that travesty of justice and equality in the bud.

Either of these laws are fairly odious taken by themselves, but when you stop to realize that they were part of the same stack, signed at the same time, and in private does the true scope of this crap taco really come into focus.

There are really two ways to win a reelection campaign. The first and more traditional method that most of us are familiar with from civics class is to, you know, govern effectively. However, in today’s GOP, this is an outdated concept, as their entire platform is built on the assertion that government is always the problem. They get elected on the promise that the government is incapable of doing anything positive for the economy or their constituents, and then spend their entire term doing everything they can to prove the point. It really is a brilliant strategy, provided you can keep fifty-one percent of voters scared and ignorant enough to fall for it.

Which brings us to the second way to win reelection, the modern Republican strategy enthusiastically embraced by Governor Walker. That of voter-suppression. Immediately after taking office in 2011, Walker and his newly-minted GOP majority in Madison set to work making it more difficult for their own citizens to vote.

Thursday’s early voting bill was actually the second time the state GOP has cut back on early voting, the first being in 2011 when they shrank the window from three weeks to two and only one weekend. Further, they, along with many other GOP controlled state houses throughout the country also introduced Voter ID laws, throwing up an additional roadblock to participation in our democracy in the name of defending against “widespread voter fraud”, another largely imaginary problem whose solution just so happens to disproportionately affect demographic groups that tend to lean towards the other side of the isle. Wisconsin’s own Voter ID law has been halted by the courts, because of the small matter of being unconstitutional. But what does this have to do with early voting? The simple matter is voting in large, densely-populated urban areas such as Madison and Milwaukee is, logistically, a much larger problem than it is in the country. I’ve lived in both, and I’ve never stood in line to vote in Marquette County, regardless of the time of day or night. The same is not true in Milwaukee County. Guess which one is more likely to vote against Walker in the coming election?

Further, Walker learned well from 2012’s recall campaign. Even then, he couldn’t run on his record as one of the most divisive Governors in the country with an abysmal economic performance. If everyone who had signed his recall petition had come out to vote in the recall, we would be living under Governor Barrett right now. But they didn’t. Restricting early voting was part of why they didn’t, but the rest of the reason was an absolutely unprecedented flood of money from donors outside of our state who were absolutely terrified they might see Governor Walker’s anti-union platform repudiated on the national stage.

As a result, more than thirty million dollars flooded into Walker’s coffers against Mayor Barrett’s three million. The only reason this was allowed to happen was a loophole in a 1987 law that exempts any politician targeted in a recall from limits on campaign contributions, usually capped at ten thousand dollars per donor. The much-maligned Koch brothers alone contributed eight million dollars to the effort.

Now you know why Governor Walker signed one bill that made it harder for city-dwellers like myself to vote, at the same time he made it easier for outside money to flood into state elections. He knows it works. Old Scotty can hardly run on his economic record after cutting nearly a billion dollars from public education, only to fall hilariously short of his campaign promise to create a quarter-million jobs by the end of his first term. At last tally, Wisconsin ranks thirty-seventh in job creation in the country, behind every Midwestern state but Illinois. So incompetent has Walker’s economic stewardship been, that if he’d done nothing but hide in the basement of the Governor’s Mansion bingeing on Big Bang Theory and Battlestar Galactica, our state would be in a better position than it is today.

That is why Governor Walker supports early voting for out-of-state, big-money donors instead of his own citizens. He knows he can count on their votes, but not on those of the people he was actually elected to govern.

After the Draft: Episode XI, Rolling with the Punches

Brief update on Let Sleeping Gods Lie. A second agent has gotten back to me after reviewing a partial manuscript (the first four chapters in this case) to let me know it wasn’t quite what they were looking for in epic fantasy. This agent was timely, polite, and sent out a personalized rejection. In short, they were very professional. So instead of giving up entirely on them or sulking in a corner somewhere, the best thing you can do when you find a good agent is put them on a list and keep them engaged. Here is the email I sent out in reply to the rejection:

 

Dear XXXX,

Thanks for the quick reply and the personal note. Both are rare these days and I appreciate them. I’m about 3/4 through a sci-fi murder mystery that might be more of what you’re looking for. If you don’t mind, I’ll query you in a couple months once it’s finished. Have a great day.

 

I thanked them for their professionalism, didn’t question or criticize their decision to reject the last book, and gently opened the door for another project. Quick, direct, and painless. Brevity is very important. The shorter your email, the more likely it is they will spend the time to actually read it. Remember, time is an agent or editor’s most precious commodity. If they’re spending any of it on you, whether to read you query, review your manuscript, or even send you a personal rejection, they are showing your efforts are valuable. Respect the time they’ve put into you, even if it didn’t give you the result you’re ultimately after, and they will remember you more fondly.

As it happens, this agent replied almost immediately to the above email and encouraged me to query them once The Ark is finished. Cool, huh? That’s it for today. I have another post percolating in my brain for next week, and I’m busy lining up new guest posts for the coming months. Now I have to go write, and so do you.

Stephen Colbert is Hosting the Hugos

Okay, so the title was clickbait. Guilty. Here’s the deal. As I see it, the Jonathan Ross Hugo fiasco was a massive tactical blunder on the part of our community. After reading over a dozen different After Action Reports on the fallout, I can’t help but feel like there’s a lot of ass-covering, sour-grapes, and wishful-thinking being passed around in the aftermath. In general, I don’t think that many of us really grasp the scale of what happened. So to try and make it clear to a largely American audience, I’ve come up with the following metaphor:

Let’s say that next year in Spokane, WA (which really did have the strongest bid, btw) the Hugo committee gets word through the grapevine that Stephen Colbert is willing and eager to donate his time to hosting the awards ceremony. Members of the committee, excited for the prospect of such a high-visibility host, rush the confirmation through so as not to waste any time or risk losing out on the opportunity, just in case they wait too long and a scheduling conflict should arise, which given Mr. Colbert’s celebrity caliber is a real possibility. One particular committee member is upset that procedure wasn’t followed and resigns.

Still, the Hugos have booked their most famous host in years or decades, raising the profile and prestige of the awards and exposing them to a whole new audience of potential fans. In short, despite some internal friction among committee members, they have achieved a public-outreach coup. In their excitement, the committee rushes to announce the decision on social media, which considering this is a group of sci-fi fans who are supposed to love tech and be web savvy, probably doesn’t seem like a bad idea, especially now that Mr. Colbert’s millions of followers will get the same update and start talking about the Hugos, raising their internet reach even further into their target demographic.

But then, we hit a snag. Some fans of the Hugos, mostly from abroad who do not actually know anything about Mr. Colbert or have seen him perform, rush to question his selection as host. Questions very quickly turn to ugly accusations and personal attacks, based on little more than supposed controversies they read about on tabloid websites not five minutes before. People start insisting that he’s likely to make jokes about women or fat-shame nominees right there at the podium, despite the fact Mr. Colbert has hosted awards ceremonies and given keynote speeches many times without any such ugliness. They question if he’s a “real” geek, despite airing his credentials as a Tolkien uber-dork over the course of an entire week on his nationally televised talk show.

Stephen, being a professional comedian, replies to these attacks exactly as anyone could have predicted, with snark.

Then, things get really ugly when his millions of fans on twitter, facebook, and elsewhere get wind of a handful of people who openly admit to not knowing much about him, yet feel qualified and indeed righteous in attacking his character. This goes about as well as any sane, reasonable person who has spent any time on the internet would expect it to. It quickly devolves into a feeding frenzy of flame wars, insults, and ad homs being thrown around like tomatoes in the streets of Bunol.

Eventually, Mr. Colbert’s patience wears out and he withdraws from hosting, making a tiny handful of people who objected to him very happy, an even larger number of people in the community very confused, and an exponentially larger number of Stephen’s fans incensed.

Now, the Hugo’s public relations coup has turned into an utter rout. People who are only now hearing about them for the first time are associating them with petty, baseless attacks on a very popular comedian and talk show host. Op-eds run on entertainment and news sites throughout the net drawing more attention to the controversy and reinforcing negative stereotypes about sci-fi fandom being insular, socially-inept, and naive of the “real world”. And instead of our previous controversies which were basically limited in reach to our membership and fans, this controversy manages to pierce the mainstream, where it is read by, and influences the perceptions of many millions of people.

Meanwhile, back at camp, many from inside the community appear to have learned nothing whatsoever from the fallout. Some are so disconnected that they seem to regard the whole episode as a victory. They say things like “Well, we didn’t want someone as famous as Stephen Colbert to overshadow our awards.” Or, “We stood up to intolerance and will be better off in the end.” Or, “He wasn’t a good fit, he wasn’t really one of us anyway.”

Does that sound crazy to you? Because it should.

Untangling the Fermi Paradox

As both a fan of, and writer of science fiction, there are few questions that loom larger in my mind than are we alone? Two great minds of the last century tried to answer the question, or at least lay the foundation for how we think about the problem. The funny thing was, they couldn’t have been more different in their approach.

Many of you are familiar with the famous Drake equation, which looks something like this:

N = R_{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L

You can read the meanings of the different variables at the link, but suffice it to say that even with very conservative estimates, the number of intelligent species out there are significant. This optimistic view of the volume of critters out there for us to talk to is shared by, well, pretty much everyone who writes books, movies, or television on the subject. Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Farscape, Stargate, they all share the assumption that there will be a vast diversity of races out there ready to trade goods, technology, culture, and maybe even genes with if you’re a sufficiently charming Starfleet Captain. Indeed, the universes devoid of anything but human life, such as Firefly, are the glaring exceptions that prove the rule.

But there is another line of thinking that has proven to be just as persuasive that argues for exactly the opposite. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. In short, Physicist Enrico Fermi asks if intelligent life is relatively common in the galaxy, why isn’t it here already? The universe is billions of years older than the Earth. Our Sun is itself a young star. There should be civilizations many millions or billions of years older than our own. Why has not even one of them colonized the entire galaxy by now? Even without faster-than-light technology, colonizing the galaxy completely would only take a few tens of millions of years. So why is the Earth overrun with humans instead of aliens from a planet near Betelgeuse?

It’s a good question, and the implication is, since we aren’t overrun with aliens, maybe there simply aren’t any. However, I don’t find the Fermi Paradox compelling, largely because I believe it rests on assumptions that require just as much hand-waving as the Drake Equation might. Here’s an attempt to explain why.

Fermi’s first assumption is that intelligence and technology are necessarily intertwined. This is a rather human-centric assumption, and not at all true. We have several examples of intelligent races right here on Earth, such as dolphins, that have language, self-awareness, complex societies, but no technology.  Nor is it likely they will ever develop technology on par with our own, not even if their brain development should one day match or even exceed our own. It’s not brain power they lack, it’s hands. Without hands, they are incapable of the precise dexterity needed to produce anything much more advanced than a pointed stick. Their aquatic environment poses another challenge. Living in water means no fire. No fire means no smelting or forging of metal tools. No metal means no radios, rockets, or other means of getting off world or contacting other sentients like ourselves.

With the explosion of extrasolar planet discoveries over the last ten years, there are very good reasons to suppose that many, many populated worlds are either super-earth water worlds, or roofed water worlds such as Europa. Indeed, they may well represent the majority of habitable planets and moons. Intelligent life in these environments would be very hard-pressed to develop technology beyond stone-age levels. The same limitations would apply to any life present in the clouds of gas giants. No ground means no workbenches. This represents an entire category of potentially intelligent life that would never have a chance to colonize space, yet could be waiting for us to show up in orbit and start a chat.

Furthermore, there are very good reasons to suppose that the galaxy has only been friendly to intelligent, technological civilizations for the last couple billion years, due in large part to the number of stellar lifecycles that were necessary to get to the concentrations of heavy metals we see today, elements that are crucial to any sort of technological advancement beyond the very primitive. It is possible that we are among the first generation of critters who finally have the potential to put plans of interstellar flight into action.

The next assumption I feel is an inappropriate analogy to the period of European colonialism applied to interstellar travel. Just looking at our own history of exploration and expansion leaves the core assumption that we should expect intelligent, technological races to spread across the sky without hesitation very suspect.

Looking at our colonial period, it becomes quickly apparent that we didn’t expand for its own sake. We expanded for resources, and usually only once the surrounding resources have been stretched to their limits. Economically, expansion even across the land masses of Earth was very expensive, an undertaking mostly reserved for nation-states. Exploration and colonization was motivated by profit, not the insatiable quest for knowledge we were told in school. New lands were stripped of easily extracted resources such as precious metals, gems stones, etc, all for shipment back to the home country. The exploitation continued beyond simple extraction when new land opened up to grow crops ill suited to more northern latitudes, especially sugar. Without this profit motive, colonies would never have been formed in the first place.

It is for this reason that colonization at interstellar distances should be anything but a given. Unless someone out there ever came up with an Alcubierre Drive, odds are we’re all going to be stuck at sub-light speeds, which would impose such a huge delay in travel times between the homeworld and even the nearest potential colony worlds, that trade between them becomes effectively impossible. This fact pretty much destroys the profit motivation for space colonization. Any expedition would be, from the viewpoint of the people actually paying for it, money thrown into a hole and burned. There would never be any hope of any return on their investment beyond pure scientific knowledge.

It will basically always make more sense, at least from an economic standpoint, for a species to simply find ways to live within their means on the homeworld. With this in mind, one would expect that if a species were to expand, they would only do so once the homeworld was no longer habitable, say due to their star moving out of the main sequence, as a last ditch effort to preserve the race from extinction. There’s a good argument to be made that not enough time has passed yet for ANY habitable planet with an intelligent, technologically advanced race on board reaching that point yet, and may not for another couple billion years. And even when that first generation of advanced races start jumping ship to new worlds, they’ll likely settle down and wait it out once more instead of spreading like a virus for no reason, because no matter how you slice it, interstellar travel by any theorized method, while possible, is still going to be really expensive.

Finally, and this is the clincher for me personally, if there’s one thing science has taught us over the last several hundred years, it’s that every time we’ve assumed our position in the cosmos to be unique or privileged, we’ve turned out to not just be wrong, but HILARIOUSLY wrong. From the Earth being the center of the universe, to our galaxy being the entire universe, to the rarity of planets and solar system elsewhere, and now finally to our unchallenged status as this planet’s only sentient race, reality has an unbroken track record of punching our ego in the gut and knocking us down a peg.

My gut tells me this will prove to be the case once again, so start funding NASA again for fuck’s sake.