The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fire with Fire

It looks as if Obama is doing the same thing to McCain now that he did to Clinton in the Primaries. The popular vote is tightening a bit...but look at the electoral map. He has steadily been creating a stable and ever-growing lead. Will it hold? At this point McCain has a steeper hill to climb (according to some pundits) than any candidate in modern history. I can't help but think that we're seeing is a genuine change in the American political landscape.

There have to be many, many solid reasons for a reasonable person to vote against Obama, or vote Republican. But there is a lot of fuzzy thinking going on as well--or, at least, thinking I consider fuzzy. Clustered over on the Conservative side are not only millions of solid, intelligent citizens, but also a substantial number of people who believe

1) Obama is a Muslim

2) Ally Oop rode dinosaurs.

3) Gay people are evil, sick, or sinful.

4) Think black people are less than white people

It is reasonable that those of us who don't believe any of these four things wonder what Barack's lead would be if you subtracted these groups. Jeeze, I'm sure that Conservatives look at some of the stuff believed on the Left and shake their heads...for their sake, I hope it looks just as whacky to them.

In terms of the issues at stake in this election, one of the huge ones is Universal Health Care. I've talked with dozens of people from around the world on this issue, and some are enthusiastic about their country's system, others talk about it as if it's the Post Office. But I literally, LITERALLY, know people contemplating suicide because, after a lifetime of work, they are now sick and broken, and fatigued unto death from trying to navigate the system. UHC just doesn't seem to be a disaster, and I strongly suspect that in a generation we'll consider it as much of the Commons as Universal Education. Now, there are certainly people who (rightly) criticise our education system, but odd how rarely it is spoken that almost every system pointed out as superior to ours, public education. It seems to me that the wrong lessons are being learned. It isn't necessarily that we need to change to charter schools (although if that helped create a competitive environment for teachers, I might be in favor of it) but that we aren't modeling success properly.

It urks me when I see people criticise Unions, when they speak as if management can be trusted by union organizers can't. This, to me, is just blindness. They're the same people, arguing on different sides of the table. And if you weaken one, the other will take all the chips. I've been in career situations where I've earned much more than the union demanded, and therefore didn't need them at all. And others where management would have screwed me right into the ground without those union rules. People are just people. A BIG percentage of 'em will take everything that isn't nailed down, and justify it rationally and sincerely as if they are entitled to it.

Those who believe (reasonably) that there are some with greater capacity than others almost always assume they are part of that group, and it seems to me also share an underlying belief that not only is their group smarter, but also "better" morally and ethically. I've seen this in every race, gender, sexual orientation, and political persuasion. Mike Malloy is just as vile and insulting as Micheal Savage--only in the other direction. Gays rag on straights, and women are just as convinced of their superiority as men are. Blacks criticise whites for racism, while making racist assumptions of their own.

I try very hard to keep out of those arguments, considering them games for the sleeping children. When you can hold your position, and love yourself, without automatically thinking less of those who hold differing have made a leap.


Regarding Obama's relatives. For a politician as astute as Obama to refuse to help a relative would be a staggering omission--assuming that he didn't give a shit about her, he should still maintain the APPEARANCE of generosity, right? That said, it might be an omission, and evidence of some lack or flaw on his part.

But on the other hand...there isn't a rich person in the world without poor relatives, and that is regardless of the level of that wealthy person's generosity. We simply don't know the factors here, but I can think of one, quite easily:

Ever tried to get an elderly relative to move from a bad neighborhood? If you haven't, and haven't heard the degree to which they cling to friends, and familiar routines, and wish to assert independence, and so forth...frustrating as hell. I remember a relative of mine who wrote a script entitled "The's Hell, but I won't leave it" (honest!) that speaks to this.

We don't know. And without information, the assumptions we make will, I suspect, do no more than express our pre-existing beliefs. I can think of both negative, neutral, and positive reasons for his aunt to be living where she does. If you can't, you may want to wonder why.


"I just saw someone say that he'd said that Obama needed to fight fire with fire, and now he realizes that the high road was better.

And I just posted this video, which has quite a bit about how to get a good open source group by protecting where the group's attention goes. This includes avoiding fights while not avoiding useful feedback.

So, I'm wondering what virtues are needed in addition to distaste for conflict. I note that "ignore them and they'll go away" is frequently just not good enough, as was shown by Kerry and the Swift Boat problem.

So, does it take courage? Intelligence? Specific knowledge about how to deal with people? Something else?"

The ability to kill. Frankly, the deadliest people I know are best at turning the other cheek. If you run from a fight because you can't win, that is quantitatively and quantitatively different from walking away because you are afraid. I read an interview with Obama's Tae Kwon Do instructor, who said that O's defensive footwork was "incredible." In order to have a good defence, you MUST be able to hurt your opponent. If he has no need to fear you, he will simply wade in and take you apart.

So...understand human weakness, and your potential attack lines. I've told the story about being mugged in Oakland, and talking the guy down. What made it work is that I was thinking about crushing his larynx the entire time. Clear visualization in my mind. If he'd made the wrong choice, I was going to try my very best to kill him. He chose peace.

If Obama wins, part of the reason is that he forced his opponents to play HIS game, fight HIS fight, dance to his rhythm. So long as you can do that, the old attacks just don't work as well. Functionally, McCain was playing checkers, and Obama was playing chess. Of course, if he loses, I'm gonna look pretty dumb saying that, but who cares?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

How many perfect days do we get?

Never seen so much mail-in balloting. I wonder what influence it will have on the election, with Republicans screaming "Acorn" and Democrats screaming "Dibold" and both sides convinced that other is out of their #@$%% mind.


The "Golden Hour" concept assumes that you are one busy person, and that at the very best, one hour a day (more or less) might be all you get. What must be created, then, is a ritual which, if you continue to perform it, will get you where you want to go. Mine includes:

1) Triangle meditation: visualizing the end point of my three major goals, combined with heartbeat meditation. Clarifies where I'm going, and what I need to do today.

2) Five Tibetans. Ten minutes. Five movements. All basic flexions and contractions.

3) 3-5 pages on a project. Right now, it's the new Dream Park.

4) Intense exercise. Kettlebell H2H circuits (grueling, as well as wicked fun), SHOT, or yoga.

5) Connect with my family. Check in with Nicki, Jason, Tananarive.


I can do all of these things in ABOUT an hour and a half:

(meditate: 10 minutes

Tibetans 10 minutes

3-5 pages 30 minutes

H2H 10 minutes

Read Shakespeare aloud--10 minutes

Brief check-in 15 minutes


Now, by any standard, I'd like to have more time than this for the people and things closest to my heart. But if I am busy all day long, but have done these things, I'm still on-track. I won't look up months later and realize I've completely gone off the rails. In a perfect day? An hour with each member of my family, four hours of writing, an hour of exercise, an hour of reading.

But how many perfect days do we get?


I simply don't believe slavery would have ended without force. MAYBE it would have ended, in time, without the need of a war. That I can admit as possible. But how could anyone think it would have 'just ended" on its own when it still exists today?

Perhaps wide-spread agriculturally-based slavery would have ended as technology made it less efficient. But domestic servants? Sexual slavery? You find them in every big city in America. The "Company Store" phenomenon, where companies try to keep workers indebted to them, sometimes passing the debt from one generation to another? The fact that wars, and major social movements, and economic sanctions have been necessary to root out this moral rot is sufficient indicator to me that the idea that slavery would just have "ended" is wishful thinking. Larger and larger segments of society would have disapproved. Slave holders would have become borderline outcasts. But power does not concede control without a fight. People believe the mythologies they invent to justify their horrors. And something like 10% of the population are just mean, nasty people. I believe that as a culture matures morally, they begin to slough off their ugly habits, but again, without force, how do you keep the mean folks from keeping slaves because they want to? Because they like control, or have an economic model that makes it profitable, or like sexual access to women who can't say "no?"

And how about the people who are afraid of payback? If you screw over millions of people, don't tell ME you don't worry what will happen if you lose control

What happens if it's State's Rights? Wouldn't you just be inviting slave-holders to migrate to states where it remains legal? Or counties? If human beings didn't need the SPCA, and Child Welfare, and Women's Shelters, and many, many other agencies that relate to the way we can be cruel to each other, I might believe it "would have withered."

But despite law enforcement, and wars, and massive international disapproval, slavery exists to this day. Those who produce economic models demonstrating that it was no longer profitable are, I think, in denial about the uglier aspects of human nature, or trying to elevate their ancestors to a pedestal. Remember: these same people who supposedly would have ALL seen the error of their ways were willing to turn a blind eye to rape, murder, torture, and unjustified captivity, as well as theft of a billion man-years of life. I'm willing to consider all of this the cost of business of being human--stuff that creeps out of the psychic cellar if we're not careful.

But I've seen too much human venom to think that, without force, slavery would simply have "died." There were too many factors beyond simple economics at play here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A wry smile and a belly laugh

Someone posted this under the heading: "Why Obama will win." Funny, and telling.


And my favorite video of the election thus far, the "Dance Off" between Obama and McCain, with a surprise visitor:


The Confederate flag thing is so fascinating, and says so much about the complexity that is America. No, I don't believe that the "Southern Cross" is completely separate from the racist ideology driving the Confederation. But there is some truth to the idea that many embrace it as an expression of cultural heritage. Considering that I've known hundreds of black people from the south, and not ONE of them had a Confederate flag suggests that this is a racial cultural heritage.

I remember talking at Worldcon with a writer I've known for years who is publishing a series based on the Civil War. And he tried to convince me that slavery would have ended within ten years regardless of whether there was a war or not. And that therefore, the Civil War shouldn't have happened--all those lives saved.

I smiled at him. Let me see: millions of black people should be falsely incarcerated for a decade, tortured, raped, murdered, and worked to death, to save a bunch of white people from dying (yes, sure there were black soldiers...and my guess is that every one of them would have wanted those slaves freed NOW, not in ten years). My answer: no. If you don't care about a decade of torment (and that's the best case scenario, assuming Southerners are, frankly better than human beings really are. Slavery is profitable, and a useful social convention--that's why it has to be outlawed. It doesn't always just wither away by itself.)

I mean, I don't hold slavery against the South, or white people, but I reserve the right to chuckle at vast and violent battlefield scenes in Civil War movies. About as close to Reparations as I'm ever gonna get. I take my entertainment where I can find it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

After the ball is over...

After this election is all over, it will be interesting to see what an impartial analysis can reveal about the relative negativity of the campaigns. My guess is that the candidates should get 10 points for each negative comment. V.P candidates maybe get a 5. Close surrogates a "3" or something. Total them up. The interesting thing is that somehow Obama put McCain in the position where trying to "Swift Boat" him only hurt the Arizona Senator worse. That probably happened as a result of a series of very careful strategies to evoke the public's "better angels," linked to a very deep desire for change. In that sense, being black helped him, because he represents change on such a deep subconscious level (especially visually) that to a huge chunk of the American public there has simply never been a choice as stark. I start to believe that Powell might have been able to be elected twelve or sixteen years ago (a black Republican-Conservative is a unique paradox for racists. If they don't wanna vote for Powell, where do they go?)

ᅠIf that's true, (except for that pesky assassination thingie) then there has been potential energy building in the American hindbrain for half a generation--the desire to see a non-white in the office. I mean, either you assume non-whites ain't got it, or you look at the exclusive club that the White House and Senate represent, and it looks bad to the world...and we care about our image.

ᅠCompare this to Halle Berry winning the Oscar for "Monster's Ball." I mean, she was good and all, but I think the Academy was LOOKING for someone black to give that award to. We'll not discuss the implications of Berry winning her Oscar for whoring herself to Billy Bob Thornton, while Denzel got his for being a murderous criminal who dies like a dog in the street. Ooops, we just did. Sorry.

But the people who whispered that Berry got the Oscar because she was black were right...but wrong if they think that being black is an advantage in Hollywood. It's been a serious disadvantage, but those who have survived the winnowing will find they have certain advantages over those who never went through such a selection funnel.

On a far larger canvas, something similar is happening with Obama. From my POV he is WAY smarter than most candidates, has run an almost perfect campaign, sufficiently good to make both the Clinton and McCain campaigns look quite bad in comparison, comparable to a Superbowl team making a lesser team fumble all over the field.

His skin well as his name and his father's religion made his candidacy incredibly unlikely. But when people talk about black (or white) people voting for him "because of color" they are dancing around the edge of a truth without putting their foot right in it. Alan Combes, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are all black, and don't trigger a response anywhere near that of Powell or Obama. My belief is that they simply aren't on the same level...and EVERYONE knows it. That it wasn't "just" the skin color, but the recognition of what a large percentage of the voting population considers a freak good politician and a sublime social theorist (his speech on race was arguably the best public discourse I've heard on the subject EVER.) People inclined to vote for him were and are definitely jazzed by the fact that they get a "twofer": a President they believe will be excellent, AND a chance to express their racial politics. But if they didn't consider him exceptional, they wouldn't have gone that way.

I've heard LOTS of black people talking about black politicians, and trust me, they don't talk about Obama the same way. They are just giddy that this guy is "one of ours" but I think that if he were white, he'd get almost the same percentage of their vote.

How good will he be if he's elected? My guess is considerably better than average. But the incredible thing is that it looks as if we're actually going to find out.

What an interesting ride this has been. Looks like I chose the right election to start paying attention. I'll let that part of my head go back to sleep I suspect...except to keep one eye open to see what happens when a high-functioning and (apparently) balanced human being reaches high office.

By the way--Bush seems to be decently balanced in the three major arenas. The problem is that he didn't have to work for the power he inherited. That's the problem with inherited wealth: the average person who EARNS a million is probably smarter than the average person who INHERITS the same amount. For those who want to argue with that, please try to grasp the difference between having a father who is a former President and head of the CIA and head of a dynastic fortune...and having a father who was a rural Kenyan. Bush was standing on the shoulders of a giant, Obama standing in the deepest hole any candidate for President ever dreamed of. No comparison at all.


"Lifewriting" has apparently been voted one of the 10 best free writing courses the world. I get sign-ups from India and China and it's just strange. I guess some things are universal, and I'm humbled to be part of the process of knitting this world more tightly together. That is exactly the gift I want to give my children. Well, one of 'em, anyway.


The 101 Program hits snags in the desire to create the best and most attractive deal possible for paying customers, but I want to get the basic beta going as fast as possible. My web guy had a very serious eye operation recently, (and I've been swamped on "Hannibal") which was gloriously successful, so hopefully we'll be running soon.


Here's another bet: within the next year, some black actor is getting laid in a movie that breaks 100 million. I'm reading comments on various blogs and magazine articles praising the obvious and powerful attraction Barack and Michelle feel for each other. People are getting all teary-eyed over it, in a way I've never seen before. This is DIFFERENT. Somehow, some little switch has been thrown, and people are empathizing with this man's humanity in a way that I've never seen...with the possible exception of Bill Cosby.

You know? Fictional images matter. If I didn't think that was true, I'd find a different profession.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"None of us is as smart as all of us."

ᅠTrue or false? I'll look at that in a minute. First, Frank asked me where I got the idea that the upper-levels of Hollywood were less liberal than lower down. That's not an exquisite rephrasing, so please pardon me--I'm not trying to play games, it's just first thing in the morning.

I claim no scientific data. From the time of my first involvement in Hollywood more than forty years ago that the office workers in this town were about the same as office workers in any other job I'd had--if maybe a hair giddier about working in "the industry." But on issues like Civil Rights, marijuana, the Vietnam war, etc.--not much difference. As I got to know executives at higher levels at CBS, Universal, and so forth, it seemed to me that the artists and the management were two different groups when it came to their politics, with the actors, writers and directors shading much more to the "Left" and the higher-ups seeming to become more Right on a number of issues. Now, those executives seemed to me to be slightly less "Right" than executives with comparable power in other industries...but this is all impression. Listening to political conversations, having those conversations, looking at bumper stickers and political buttons, etc.

ᅠMy former agent, was a Conservative Republican (and an extraordinarily good guy) and sometimes bemoaned the dominance of Liberal POV in Hollywood, especially after 9/11, when he was afraid that many of his liberal friends "just didn't get it" about the danger of radical Islam. we had conversations in which he spoke of his perspective, and it was fairly similar to my own.

ᅠALL of this is subjective, but wherever I've gone in America, artists lean Left. And those entrenched in large organizations seem to lean Right more than average. Actors and writers tend to value their union--most of them, even successful ones, are middle-class IF THEY'RE LUCKY, and are very familiar with studios screwing artists over if they can--that for all but a few, the power of collective bargaining means the difference between getting totally screwed by the studios, and having a decent living. That definitely skews them to the Left. During those same strike deliberations, the execs are defending a very different perspective, and that would SEEM to put them on the road to leaning Right.

ᅠThese impressions have never really changed over the decades, but again, I could be wrong.


"None of us is as smart as all of us." Well, yes. Bobby Fischer would be a better choice to play chess than a hundred members of the local chess club. So I see that point. However, it has to be balanced with the opposite perspective: smart people are usually just exactly smart enough to screw themselves up, especially if they have so much faith in their intelligence that they think it can solve all their problems, or give them a more profoundly accurate vision of reality. Need I mention how Bobby Fischer ended up in life? Chess is an artificial game--it is not reality. When it comes to navigating the waters of our actual reality, I would look at what the very smartest people say...and then look at what the consensus of the "average" says...and then, usually, do what both sets agree upon.

If there is a radical thought coming from some genius somewhere, I would want to test it small-scale in the real world first. I'd also like to take a look at the "genius" and try to get some sense of whether that genius is actually calibrated for the real world, and not just an elaborate hallucination that he is able to dance around and, on the basis of brilliance, convince others that they should try it. I'm not a real "A priori" kind of guy when it comes right down to it.

ᅠSo I think that there are people who legitimately believe it is better for everyone if those at the top get the largest breaks. And others who just want to hold onto as much of the goodies as possibles, but couch that greed in the language of "trickle-down." I don't know what the percentage is one way or the other, but I think that greed and dishonesty are pretty evenly distributed between groups. And if you give them an inch, they'll take seven hundred billion dollars. But then, there is also a force that would like to give all power to the government. Some feel that they will BE that government, and want the power. Others that they want a "Nanny State." But I've met very very few people who really want to be taken care of completely--at least between the ages of say 20 and 60. So the problem to me is, how do you cancel out the worst at both ends? Money is the greatest corrupting force in the world, I think, because it is power that is more liquid than any other kind. Education, political office, intelligence, military rank...none of these things can be passed to your children as easily as money. None can be used as secret bribes as easily. None increase even when hiding in the dark of a bank vault.

ᅠSo I look at the temptation to grab a fistful of money as more immediate and poisonous than the urge to ascend to public office and be Kingfish. So I think we need a bit more political power pulling at private industry than we need the idea of unregulated free market. You just aren't taking human greed into sufficient account.

ᅠGreed and fear...we want to develop a system that takes both of them into account--as well as honesty, courage, sacrifice, and wisdom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rising Complexity

A thought on economics. Don't know much. But certain things make sense to me, mapping knowledge over from other arenas.

In yogic discussions of the raising of "intrinsic human energy" or "Kundalini", one looks at the chakras, ranging from core survival up to emotion and eventually to intellect and spirit. The goal is to have this energy alive in all seven "chakras" simultaneously. "Awakening the kundalini" its called. Now they say some thing that is of interest in terms of economic theory. It is that you can awaken the kundalini from the bottom up, or from the heart outward, but NEVER from the top town. This is called "Awakening the Kundalini backwards" and is basically the door to insanity and black magic.

I perform a thought experiment: can you have a healthy, happy working class without a healthy middle class and upper class? It would seem to me that, given the differential in values, capacity, and inherited wealth, that if the lower classes are healthy, there will always be an even more prosperous "middle" and "top."

How about middle class? If you have a healthy and prosperous middle class, you have an attainable ladder for the lower classes--a target within reach, so to speak. And upper class? Well, a bell curve handles that. Of COURSE there will be those considered rich, and in essence the middle class provides a safety net for them: if their fortunes collapse, they don't fall through the bottom of the world.

How about upper class? Would it be possible to have a healthy and prosperous wealthy class, without a healthy middle class and working class? Unfortunately, I think the answer is "yes." It would be completely possible to find a society in such a position: rich people who think life is great, and grinding poverty at the bottom. And this is where I feel "Trickle Down Economics" ultimately sounds great, but is the expression of a theory of humanity that applies the Parado Principle to say that 20% of people create 80% of the value. If you believe that, then the idea of giving those at the top every benefit of the doubt, every advantage, and total social support makes sense.

Of course, hidden within this group will be those who believe it's more like 10-90. Or 5%-95%. And those are some pretty poisonous people. It would also be poisonous to believe that all good in society comes up from the bottom.

I think that the healthiest, safest approach would be to protect and nurture the middle class, while providing a safety net for those at the bottom, and opportunities for the best and brightest to get rich. But the idea that if you raise taxes people stop working only applies to those who work primarily for money. That is some people, but hardly all. Most of the wealthiest people I know will at least SAY that it isn't money...its the game of seeing how good they can get, what percentage of the market they can dominate, how much they can contribute...expressing themselves in an art form that happens to be financial instead of virgin marble or something.

That makes sense to me. The difficulty is setting the proper tension between greedy people at the bottom, and greedy people at the top. Those of good will will work things out just fine, I think.


Really enjoying the "Big History" course from the Teaching Company. Just gotten to the creation of life on earth. The organizing structure is the increasing complexity of the universe: from pre "Big Bang" to Nebulae, to stars, to each step, we are becoming more complex. Then a chemical soup, and then the first life forms.... I love the idea that a yeast cell and a 747 have a roughly equivilent level of complexity.

Can't wait to watch Dr. Christian apply the same structure to human society. This may turn out to be the absolutely perfect course to give an aspiring SF writer.