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Kapitalism [16 Feb 2017|09:25am]
Since there's been some confusion:

There are different definitions of capitalism. In the narrowest sense, it refers to an economic system where the means of production are owned by the people who provide the initial capital, hence companies being owned by one or a few owners, or publicly traded and therefore owned by shareholders. This is in contrast to communism, where the means of production are owned by the public as generally represented by the government, or socialism, in which they're owned by groups of people, generally the workers themselves.

The co-op in Middlebury is one example; it's owned by the members. There are a few companies that are employee-owned as well. This, for the record, is the definition my buddy Livingston favors, partly because it was so hard for me to grasp when we first started talking about it.

So strictly speaking, that's all unrelated to the market - one can imagine private ownership of capital but strict price controls, or shared/collective ownership but no price controls (free market socialism or communism).

At a broader but still essentially economic level, but starting to bring government policy into it, there's the definition you gave - free market capitalism with its focus on profit motive, competition, efficiency, etc. This is the level at which Mr. Leonard (economics teacher at West) could describe socialism as being "like capitalism but moderating the excesses" - Western European/Canadian "socialism" doesn't actually mean group control of the means of production, it means essentially free market capitalism with a social safety net underneath of health care and unemployment benefits and such. In this sense the US is a little bit socialist, because we do have food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, etc., just not as much as other first world countries.

Then at the third level, you start to include not only the economic and political aspects, but sociological as well - what cultural attitudes and narratives are necessary to maintain this system, rather than questioning it and switching to a different one? So that's where you start to look at stories of the Protestant work ethic (assigning a moral value to working hard, and immorality to leisure); Grandpa's stories about the colonial period (where "them as works eats" or else we all die); Horatio Alger "rags to riches" - particularly important in allowing huge swaths of Americans to think of themselves not as poor, in which case they might advocate for the poor, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, who support policies and attitudes favoring millionaires.

Also tying into this: "prosperity Gospel", a thing being preached or at least tacitly endorsed at a number of churches including ones I've been to, where you hold that the Lord rewards faithful followers with earthly wealth as well, which sounds great until you realize it means that anyone who's poor must be not only lazy, but now also faithless as well! Because we really needed another way to blame poor people for their situations and make them feel like shit!

All together it adds up to a society where your value as a human being depends on your financial output, and laboring any less than 100% is immoral. And I have a real problem with that, both on an ideological level (because it puts hedge fund managers and corporate lawyers over teachers and social workers and artists and activists), and personally (because it makes me feel terrible for taking unpaid medical leave every Wednesday, just because it improves my health at the cost of productivity and money.)

And so it is in contrast to that that some of us write each other anti-capitalist love notes saying "you are worth so much more than your productivity", and celebrate a woman who uses her mechanical genius to make shitty useless robots because it amuses her and engages her creatively, instead of useful robots she can sell for profit.
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qui est io? [30 Jan 2017|09:28pm]
[ mood | chipper ]

So I was just corresponding with an old buddy of mine, who was very supportive as I mentioned my recent struggles and my recent improvements. And it was surprisingly moving, like, having people who knew Past!you well and don't know Current!you all that well be respectful to Current!you is kind of a big deal. And it started me thinking: describing my situation and who I am to someone who didn't know me at all... who is Zach?

And my situation certainly still leaves some things to be desired. But looking back over my LJ posts from the last two years or so, I gotta say... this guy seems like a thoughtful, kind, quirky, interesting fellow who's worth getting to know. And I definitely couldn't say that with much confidence a year ago. So that's something :)

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planting flowers [13 Jan 2017|06:49pm]

So I was talking to my therapist this morning and this comic came up, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Flowers I am planting for the new year:
  • Hosting a get-together at my place with old friends
  • Taking my new meds which I think are doing a lot for my mood
  • Asking "What would I be doing if I were happy?" and doing that even if it doesn't sound as exciting as it ought to (ex: reading library books at the cafe for lunch; dressing up occasionally)
  • Cutting down on regularly scheduled/ongoing commitments that I feel guilty about opting out of, in favor of activities I can opt into at will depending on how things are going
  • Scheduling a massage to try to convince my body that lots of the stress that's accumulated over the last few years is no longer necessary
  • paying other people to make food and/or bring it to me when I need to
  • making concrete plans with people all the way up the chain of command to get away from project management at work, which I'm more certain than ever is bad for me - not only is it something that doesn't come naturally to me and really taxes my executive function to the limit, but it also involves a lot of my ability to move forward depending on other people, and I need to do more solo work for a while so I'm depending more on myself and doing something I'm good at to increase my sense of agency and self-confidence.
  • Having enough things in order that I can start to think about dating again, which has the potential to lead to cuddling


We'll see what grows this year, but I'm optimistic.
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who let that thing in here [08 Dec 2016|09:53pm]
[from december 8, 2015, context: Trump starts winning primaries]

main post
This is officially not funny anymore. We have seen this pattern before many times. People are upset and scared. One person stands above the crowd, offering someone to blame, saying that we can make this country great again for red-blooded citizens like you and me if we just get rid of Them.

That's how it starts. But we know how it ends. When your grandchildren ask, "Why didn't anybody stop him?", what will you say?

first comment
That's the historical angle. Here's the empirical one: Muslim terrorists are not a major threat to this country. Statistically, if you are a US citizen, you will almost certainly die of physical illness. If not, if you die suddenly, it will most likely be from suicide or a car accident. Way down in the corner there is violence, of which terrorism is a tiny fraction. And guess what? Most terrorists aren't Muslim! It's less than 10%, depending on who you ask. So restricting Muslims is a terrible idea even just for that reason, least important of the three I'm laying out here. http://vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare/

second comment
Third and most important: ideology. 3a), Daesh (aka ISIS) depends heavily on the narrative that the West hates Muslims. We can prevent further radicalization by proving them wrong. 3b), what do you stand for? How do you make important choices? If you're a Christian, you're called to show Christ's love - to your neighbors, who as mentioned in my previous post are terrified right now, and to those who would call themselves your enemies. If you're an American, take some time this week to remind yourself what this country is about. Read the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill, the Address. Freedom is scary. But it is something we have been willing to fight and die for. Trump is not. His cynical lack of faith that society can function without tagging and tracking people like cattle is fundamentally un-American. But I still believe in this country. I believe that our values can tell us what we should do, if we but have the courage to live up to them.
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on nonprofits and overtime [26 Aug 2016|12:17pm]
gosh, i have gotten pretty political these last few years you might say

welp, let's get to it

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/the-plight-of-the-overworked-nonprofit-employee/497081/
Huge double standards here. Corporations pay their employees well? "Of course, that's what it takes to get and retain good employees!" Corporations pay starvation wages? "Of course, they have fiscal obligations to their shareholders to maximize profits!"

Non-profits pay their employees well? "Scandal! Their overhead is so high! Don't donate to Save the X, only 50 cents on the dollar goes towards their mission!" Non-profits pay starvation wages? "Scandal! Half the people who work there qualify for public services themselves!"

It's time for a dramatic shift in our thinking. We need to expect businesses to support the common good, starting with their employees. And we need to expect non-profits to produce *effective results* - which requires paying competitive wages for two reasons. One, so the best and the brightest will be drawn to this sector, knowing that they'll be able to make a career out of it that will include things like paying bills and eating fresh vegetables, instead of having their passion exploited and being chewed up and spit out within a few years. Two - and I want to stress that this has a lot of overlap with the previous point - so that people who are part of communities that need help can themselves be part of the solution, instead of being shut out by unpaid/underpaid positions that effectively require you to be independently wealthy in order to work there.

Right now, people of all backgrounds can look at the situation and justifiably conclude that working in the nonprofit sector is for suckers. We need to quit idolizing captains of industry and instead value community building - with our social approbation and with pay rates that allow people to do their jobs well over the long term. Think about that next time you're deciding where your money goes.
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the fourth again [04 Jul 2016|06:59pm]
Tough to know what to say today. Lots of mixed feelings about lots of things as I look back on FB and life in general. So instead of picking one, I offer a sampling for your consideration of what's on my mind:
  • One year later, people can still get married, but now they can't pee. It's tough to see this as progress.
  • Society still teaches "don't get raped" instead of "don't rape", and our criminal justice system reflects this.
  • Another angry old man talking about revolution has inspired the young folk, but not enough to become President. You can say socialism with a straight face now, but not libertarianism.
  • The conversation about the NSA has pretty much stopped. Their unconstitutional searches and seizures of people's papers and effects have not.


As far as I can tell, the country is as divided politically as it has been in decades if not longer. There are few issues we've come together on. Within the American context, you would think we would all be opposed to living in a police state, especially conservatives - but police brutality and militarization, mass incarceration, mass surveillance, travel restrictions, and deprivation of rights without due process all seemingly leave us unmoved as a group. Liberals, relatively more likely to think of themselves as global citizens and less as U.S. citizens, should be especially concerned about human rights and imperialism around the world - but have not, as far as I can tell, mounted any significant opposition to the continued use of torture, indiscriminate bombing, extrajudicial assassination, and other acts of aggression.

All in all, the ruling class continues to prosper while the rest of us get by as best we can. We've ceded far too much control to politicians who don't represent our interests, or even stand for anything, really, because of vague threats that the alternative is one of Those People getting elected. I try not to make this comparison too often, but I can't help thinking of 1984, where the totalitarian government keeps its power by keeping the people's attention focused on external threats - but in this case, what we're threatened with is each other.

I don't buy it. I know principled people on both sides of the aisle (and outside it). The things we want and the things we don't want are, in fact, more similar than different, despite what the politicians tell us. I refuse to believe that health care is more dangerous than guns and bombs. I refuse to believe that the government should spend our tax money on spying on each other and compiling lists of Undesirables. I refuse to believe that the best we can hope for is someone who won't make things any worse.

I invite you join me, this 4th of July, in declaring independence from fear. Not because fear doesn't exist or isn't justified, but because in the political sphere it's not working out as the primary driving force behind our decisions. If we start comparing notes about what we're for instead of just what we're against, I'm confident there'll be a lot of overlap, and we can start building a society that works for everyone. We can demand representatives who answer to us, instead of the other way around.

Huddling together in our separate corners is not working. I believe that we can achieve great things if we resolve to work together. We will not walk in fear, one of another.

---

Taking my own advice, here's my vision for the future:
-People are free to go about their business - on a plane, on the streets, or in the bathroom - without being detained, harassed, or shot by government officials.
-People can freely designate "close relationships" for the purposes of hospital visitation rights, inheritance, etc., and this would be recorded and respected. Otherwise, people mind their own business, and no one has to go and *ask permission* to have any other kind of personal, cultural, or religious ceremony.
-Robust Internet access allows people to live where they want to live and work, more or less, where they want to work. Poor neighborhoods, whether urban or rural, need not suffer from significant "trade deficits" because there's no way to bring money in.
-The transition away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy is done rapidly and responsibly, with a focus on providing jobs for those who want to work but would otherwise be left in the dust by this transition. Corporations adapt or fold.
-We honor current and past veterans, reduce diplomatic tension, and balance the budget by withdrawing and disbanding most of our worldwide military empire until we are only spending, say, twice as much as the second most militaristic country in the world, instead of 1/3 of the entire global military budget like we currently do. Where other countries want and need foreign military assistance, we can chip in as part of a coalition, and Europe and others can step up if necessary.
-We recognize that in order to remain economically competitive in the 21st century, publicly funded postsecondary education will be as important as publicly funded secondary education was in the 20th. No one who wants to improve their opportunities has to choose between crippling debt or getting shot at in exchange for tuition ever again.
-We restore the most fundamental freedom of all, the freedom to quit, by providing a basic income for all citizens, We have sufficient faith in our economic models and in ourselves to recognize that 1) people will mostly continue to pursue paid employment even without the threat of homelessness, starvation, and death as the alternative, because people like buying stuff and having the money to do so, and also having something to do with their days; 2) many of the exceptions will involve doing crucial work that currently goes unpaid, such as caring for young, old, or disabled loved ones, or provisioning and running a household, or any of various other "volunteer" activities; and 3) this will significantly increase economic mobility and productivity by allowing people to leave positions they are unsuited for in order to pursue more satisfying career paths.
-The above is funded by progressive taxation (maybe Eisenhower levels), in recognition that people who are able to make good use of societal resources (roads, education, labor, defense, etc.) in order to turn a profit should both be rewarded for their ingenuity and required to reimburse the public so that those resources can continue to exist.

Anyone think that sounds like a miserable country to live in? Because it sounds pretty nice to me.
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Brexit, elitism, and democracy [26 Jun 2016|12:26pm]
[Context: After the UK voted, in a referendum, to leave the EU, a lot of folks are saying not "How have we so thoroughly failed to present our ideas?" but rather "See, this is what happens when you let PEOPLE decide things."]

At a basic level, you either trust people to govern themselves without a ruling class, or you don't. The kind of intellectual elitism that liberals so fervently deny is alive and well every time you dismiss your fellow citizens as ignorant rednecks and bigots instead of listening to their concerns. I've met plenty of people who say they value keeping an open mind - and yet, not only are they rarely persuaded by people who disagree with them, they refuse to believe it's possible to honestly disagree with them. What if someone with just as much intellectual, emotional, and moral agency as you thought about issue X and came to a different conclusion? That would be pretty scary, right? That would mean you would have to really stop and think about what they're saying, even if their values and priorities are different from yours.

I've seen this even from people I otherwise have great respect for. Instead of wondering why someone would possibly hold X opinion, or assuming it must be because they're something-ist, why don't you go up and ask them what's important to them and why? You may well find that they're not against what you're for, but they're prioritizing some need that you hadn't thought of or aren't prioritizing.

None of which is to say that racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. aren't powerful forces in our society and in individual decision-making. But consider Alice, Bob, and Carol.
Bob: "Wow, I expressed an opinion, and Alice just called me names and walked away."
Carol: "Wow, I expressed an opinion, and Alice asked me for more details about my stance and really listened to how I got there and what I'm trying to achieve before sharing her position, including some concerns she has about how mine might have some unintended consequences."
Between Bob and Carol, which of them is more likely to take Alice's priorities into account in the future, do you suppose?
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re: re: Orlando [19 Jun 2016|01:54pm]
I feel so powerless in the wake of the Orlando Shooting. And as someone who spends a lot of time in women only space, I'm asking how I can be a better ally to the men in my life. I want to better understand what it's like to grow up as male in this culture. What kind of support is needed? What can I provide--as a friend, partner, community member and educator? What are the stuck places that just need to be met with compassion and understanding?

What do I, as a queer woman and feminist, not understand about what it is like for men to grow up and walk through this world? What conversations do we need to have to change our culture of violence?


Leonore, thank you so much for asking in such a kind and thoughtful way. Here are some ideas I've been chewing on...

The patriarchy is specifically about the power of *adult* men. Growing up as a man in this culture means being told to reject anything that is either feminine or "childish". So logic, stoicism, and independence are good; emotion, vulnerability, and relying on others for anything are bad. Women and children, generally, are expected to embrace the latter but seen as inferior to the extent they do so, and gain power only by being more "manly". Part of feminism, then, is getting women to not be seen as inferior (or unladylike) no matter which of these qualities they exhibit, but giving men permission to do the same is usually seen as ancillary. A couple of the effects this has had on my life:
-Being made fun of in elementary/middle school for singing, being emotional, and various other quirks.
-Developing as a result extremely thick skin and not listening to or caring what anyone else thinks. A necessary survival skill in high school, but this same insensitivity led to problems in college - it took me forever to learn that, while *in general* friends accept you for who you are, paying attention to which of your behaviors make people uncomfortable and toning things down a bit, at least around those specific people, can be kind and doesn't have to mean giving up your identity, and I still struggle with that balance.
-Being seen as "mature" partly because in stressful situations I shut down emotionally and get very calm. Helpful when taking criticism (occasionally) or if the building is on fire (never); not helpful if a close friend is upset and wants you to be upset with them (often, as I'm starting to realize).
-I'm famous for my quirky/provocative outfits, and I can get pretty bold in a lot of ways, but even though women have been wearing trousers for a long time, I have to really brace myself and plan for a special occasion if I want to wear a skirt.
-In general, as I'm sure you're well aware, there's a crippling lack of physical and emotional intimacy in most men's lives. A lot of the shitty things men do in relationships or in pursuit thereof are related to desperation because that's the only way they can think of to meet, like, half of their human needs. (Not an excuse, of course, but a cause worth addressing.) I'm a super huggy person - I need, like, several a day to be really happy - but my roommate is less so, so we share a few a week. Then I work with some student clubs, and some of them are interested maybe once every few weeks, but that comes with its own issues around consent - I feel awkward even asking "Hugs?" in that setting, so half the time I just do without. All my reliable sources of touch are distant friends and family I see less often. For emotional conversations the Internet helps, but overall, well, thank God for my cat.

And then if, as a guy, you look around and say "wow, toxic masculinity sucks, let's try feminism instead", that comes with its own issues. Two broad categories include isolation and "ok, we know what we don't want, but what DO we want?"

1. In trying not to be a Nice Guy(tm), I've gone too far the other way and feel like being friends with women requires me to never have (or at least express/act on) any romantic/sexual interest - the only way both parties can trust that I'm not girlfriendzoning someone is for me to mentally take romance totally off the table. This actually works and I've built some solid friendships, but surely there's a healthier way.

2. If we successfully decouple gender from biology and eliminate gender roles (both pretty good projects), then a significant part of my identity loses its linguistic meaning as a category - if everyone chooses their own definition of masculinity, then it's logically equivalent to just identifying as a person. Arguably for the best, but I'll miss the sense of belonging to a group (even a group I'm often unhappy with) and the opportunity to try to reclaim that identity as meaning something specific but positive, rather than eliminating it.

3. Lack of good fictional role models. I polled my FB friends once for examples of dudes courageously choosing to solve their problems not with violence but with kindness, and the first few responses I got were "You are the example." Super touching generally, but not that helpful for the question at hand. (For the record, "The Book of Life" is pretty good.)

4. Lack of well-publicized info about how to help feminism as a guy specifically. Sometimes you need to hear from someone who's done exactly what you're trying to do - but then, dudes telling you how to do feminism right are always a bit suspect without some kind of endorsement or certification or something.

5. Lack of space set aside to talk about how culture affects us and how we should respond as men. Feminist spaces tend to privilege women's voices, as it should be; on some, men are OK too, but no tone policing, no #notallmen derailing, no making people stop and take care of your emotions when they're venting about problems caused by people like you. (For example: you asked, but I'm still worried about speaking up and complaining here.) All reasonable rules, but it means absorbing a *lot* of anger and taking it on the chin and ignoring comments about neckbeards and fedoras and cishet white men and trying not to take stuff personally, realizing it doesn't apply to you - while worrying about which things it's OK to believe don't apply to you, and which ones you're only fooling yourself. Speaking of which...

6. Not constantly educating yourself is shirking your moral duty; constantly reading about terrible things men do leads to guilt and shame and also erodes confidence - if men are really that prone to violence, even ones who seem nice at first because you never know, does that include me? Am I, in fact, a loaded gun? Should anyone trust me, and am I even safe to be around? Signs point to yes, but most people think they're above average drivers; how can I know for sure? (The one time I made the mistake of trying to talk about this publicly [http://hearkensentinel.tumblr.com/post/139250354874/being-a-male-feminist-means-reading-a-lot-of], someone immediately shot me down and I felt awful.)

7. One answer, of course, is for other people to tell me they feel safe around me. That is pretty much my #1 goal in life, and I don't hear it often enough. Part of that is that in our culture overall, we don't say things that emotionally intense out loud. But also, the bar for behavior is set pretty high; even though, y'know, I work hard to be aware of my own privilege and respect people's agency and propagate consent culture, I do sometimes interrupt and talk over people, and on bad days it seems that makes everything else not count. I think it's related to the overall negative tone of SJ in most places: the dominant mode of discourse focuses on pointing out the problematic, micro and macro aggressions. That's important, but if it's not balanced by celebrating progress, the effective message is that you will never be good until you are perfect. (It also makes the big problems we have seem even bigger/insurmountable.) One phrase I've heard a lot: “You don't get a ****ing cookie for meeting (what should be) the bare minimum standard of decent behavior.” OK, that's totally fair and I see where you're coming from... but sometimes I'd really like one anyway, y'know?

Sorry for the wall of text but, well, people usually don't ask. It makes sense that women and NBs shouldn't have to take on the emotional labor of helping men build a culture of nonviolence and constructively talking about our feelings... but until we do, who does that leave?
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those lazy snake people, wanting their work to matter [19 Jun 2016|10:02am]
My favorite form of ageism is when people disparage young folk who want jobs with a satisfying social impact as naïve and even lazy (because they don't want to 'pay their dues' doing meaningless labor so someone else can make money). Like, here are people who *want to go out of their way* to do work that helps others and makes the world a better place, and you're admitting, almost in so many words, that your capitalist economy isn't set up to support that. But sure, Wall Street types who literally produce nothing but money are "contributing", while people who volunteer full time, or take care of their relatives, or work two jobs and still need food stamps, are "parasites". Uh-huh.
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re: Orlando [19 Jun 2016|10:00am]
Just heard about the tragedy in Florida. My liberal friends are already speaking out, so if I'm going to contribute meaningfully to this conversation, it has to be from a conservative, Christian perspective:

The location of this shooting was not a coincidence. Whatever problems this guy had, he was surrounded by messages saying our LGBTQ neighbors are bizarre, unnatural, even dangerous.

His actions are, of course, his own responsibility. But we all have a part to play in creating safe communities. Part of that responsibility is making it clear that no one is to be excluded from our churches, our families, or our lives for who they are.

Presumably, you would never shoot up a club. I daresay everyone reading this would also never kick their children out to starve on the streets because of how they identify, but it happens every single day, not as an isolated act but as part of a culture that implicitly condones it. So I beg you to think before you speak about how your words could be interpreted.

The history books will reflect that at this time, we are a nation in crisis. Both religiously (for the Christians here) and politically, our core values are being tested. Do we believe in a land of freedom and opportunity, where everyone can worship (or not) according to the dictates of their conscience? Do we believe that everyone is covered by God's abundant grace? In short, do we have the faith and courage to stand up for our values and start loving our neighbors, or will we continue to lash out in fear, until either everyone else is dead, or we are, and our ideals with us?

History waits for our answer, but our friends and neighbors and loved ones cannot wait any longer. For over 50 of us in Florida, it is already too late.
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toxic masculinity is in there too [02 Jun 2016|09:06pm]
Today I posted an article about the effects of alienation, specifically on people in Japan dying alone and the tragically increasing mortality rate among white males in America. It was a sad story, not a fun story, but I posted it because what we do *matters*. What we emphasize or don't as a society, the way we define "success" - getting it wrong literally kills people every day. All of the people mentioned here, in both countries, had something in common: they were raised in a society that told them their worth as human beings depended on their ability to sell their labor. Think about how ridiculous that is. Jobs come and go. Much of the crucial work of maintaining civilization - caring for the young and infirm, providing food and shelter, planning and hosting social events - is unpaid. Imagine if all the people highlighted in this story had been able to say "I'm so glad I'm part of a community where people help each other out." Doesn't that sound like the beginning of a story with a much, much better ending than this one??
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the case for basic income [21 Mar 2016|10:05pm]
When the main concerns were a) "How can we make sure enough of us are working to provide food for everyone so we don't all starve?" and b) "How should we best distribute the limited food available?", "them as works eats" was a pretty reasonable answer. But the question now is "Given that we can feed (and house, and clothe, etc.) everyone with the labor of just a few, what should the rest of us do, and how should we distribute resources?" We're like the dog that finally caught a car and doesn't know what to do with it. I've heard Serious People ask, with a straight face, "How can we provide enough jobs for everyone?" That's clearly the wrong question. Jobs aren't something people *want*, and if the answer isn't immediately obvious, then they're also not something people *need*, except under a system specifically constructed to require them.

I do think people need something to occupy their days, but if we had better societal cushions then I really, really think people would figure it out. Many of the people who hate their jobs but wouldn't mind a different one could switch. Many people would do some of the numerous kinds of extremely important labor that currently goes unpaid - caring for others (especially family), housework, organizing social events, volunteering, etc. etc.

Also, I'll point out that we don't require everyone to do paid work now. If you're lucky enough to own several places you can rent out; or have done well in business; or your parents were very wealthy; or you're younger/older than a certain threshold, depending on factors like familial wealth; or if you're married to someone with a good income, you don't need to do paid work. So given that we already admit that actually, not everyone needs to work in order to deserve food, the question becomes: are *those* really the factors that we want to depend on for deciding these questions?

Basic income addresses all these issues while preserving the best parts of the free market - profit motive, competition leading to efficiency, etc. In addition to the important types of unpaid labor above, people will want to do things that can earn them money to increase their quality of life. (Personally I suspect there will be a lot of art, just tons and tons and tons of creative stuff, as well as an expansion of services - personal shoppers, people to do your taxes for you, whatever.) You don't actually have to threaten people with DEATH in order to motivate them; money works pretty well.

So given that you have to pick a system - because mark my words, we do all collectively choose what kind of society we live in, be it anarchy or corporate oligarchy - why would you pick one that favors ideology over the lives of actual living human beings?
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the quest [28 Feb 2016|12:36am]
[ mood | pensive ]

I used to be pretty introspective. I may have had no clue what was going on around me, but by golly I knew who I was and what I was about. I've lost that, though - perhaps in 2015, perhaps earlier. And lately I've been feeling some pretty strong feelings of inadequacy.

I think one of the best ways to improve your self-esteem is to set measurable goals and achieve them. And I definitely have some for what to *do* - job, check; rpg workshop, check; moving, in progress - but right now it feels like I'm achieving 0/0 goals for who to *be*, and unfortunately the divide-by-zero doesn't return 100%. So I need some more of those. In order to set goals, though, I need a much clearer idea of myself - how can I tell if I'm being a good Zach if I don't know what a Zach is?

So I have some thinking to do, which means less time on Facebook and more time staring off into space. I need to develop a standard of professionalism that's meaningful to me, since I have trouble taking my boss's word for it when she says I'm doing OK. I need to figure out what kind of social situation I need to be in, and how to get there. And I need to set some achievable standard for respectfully interacting with people.

In short - what would make me proud to be me?

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DND 5e PHB [12 Feb 2016|05:14pm]
So the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out more than a year ago, and with some prompting from a friend, I finally picked up the Player's Handbook this week and have been studying it at lunch and in the evenings. I can't say I've familiarized myself with every rule, but here are some thoughts. Note that I'm comparing this to either RPGs generally or DND 3.5, since I've had at most a glimpse of other versions of DND. Also, having not actually played 5e yet, and not played allllll that much 3.5, I'm doing a fair amount of extrapolation.

Neutral:
  • The styling is reminiscent of the classic DND manuals, and there's only one subtle mention of the version on the back cover. They're definitely going for a "timeless" aesthetic.
  • There's a lot less crunch. Many, though not all, bonuses and penalties have been replaced by the advantage/disadvantage system; the feat system is optional and there are only a few; leveling up takes a bit less math; and just generally, it seems like there's a lot less emphasis on system mastery and finding the "right" combination of (many, many) feats and classes to create an optimized "build". If you enjoyed that, it's gone (and part of me felt like that was much of what 3.5 had going for it), but on the other hand, the barrier to entry is a *lot* lower. (Not that you couldn't play without optimizing combat monsters before, but it would be easy to feel like you were missing out if you did so.)


Cons:
  • Even fewer skills - 18, to be exact. They don't even merit a chapter title (for the record, they're in Chapter 7, "Using Ability Scores".) Granted the the notion of "tool proficiency" (which will definitely take getting used to) covers a lot of the difference, but although the emphasis on using basic attributes technically covers most noncombat situations, these will tend to fall along stereotypical class lines, and this combined with the elimination of skill points means that (until you get to high levels) there's not that much mechanical difference between someone who's good at something and someone who's not. A keen-eyed level 4 Ranger will have a Perception of about +4, *maybe* +5 if you really push Wisdom. That's really not that different from a level 1 Fighter who might have +0 to +1, or a level 1 Cleric who probably has +3. The same ranger in 3.5 probably has at least +9 in Spot, because they're a frickin' Ranger.
  • If anything, it's become even harder to envision a character with a specific set of abilities first and then try to create them within the framework of the rules; the de-emphasizing of feats and multiclassing and the elimination of skill points make it quite difficult to play "against type". You're not going to see this kind of awesomeness in any 5E games. In terms of abilities, this reinforces one of the main drawbacks DND has always had: across thousands of games, most low-level characters (which, with the average lifespan of a gaming group, is all many people will ever play) just aren't that different from each other. At least before, you could specify that your wizard just happens to play a mean lute; in 5e it's... not impossible, now that I think of it, but not obvious how to do so without investing a significant amount of your abilities in that direction.
  • A tiny thing, but the art direction feels less coherent and comprehensive. Certainly there are plenty of color illustrations, including some nice full-page ones, but there's not the same sense of wonder and mystery. The little lines and sketches throughout the 3.5 books made for a decent pretense that you were looking at some adventurer's scrapbook; this clearly looks like a game manual. Ironic, since the lack of integration is probably a result of a bigger art budget: more large color illustrations that accompany, rather than suffuse, the text.


Pros:
  • The class system has been overhauled in a positive way: each class has specialties or subclasses, often with significant differences. Where before you had 11 basic classes accessible to casual players, and innumerable complex prestige classes and feats for the hardcore, now you start with 12 options at 1st level and specialize at 3rd (including former prestige classes like eldritch knight, arcane trickster, etc.) providing medium complexity for everyone. (Not sure if prestige classes have been dispensed with altogether - no DMG yet - but they no longer feel as necessary to make interesting characters.) The non-spellcasting classes get to do some nifty stuff beyond just different ways of stabbing people, which was one good aspect of 4th ed - it can no longer be said even as an exaggeration that "your choices boil down to PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER or working out a lot". In general, this is a bigger step forward in terms of character differentiation than the step back with skills I mentioned above. Speaking of which...
  • Chapter four. CHAPTER FOUR, Y'ALL. 22 glorious pages providing scaffolding for giving your character a history, personality flaws, motivation, goals, dreams, fears - in short, character. Equally important, there are simple mechanisms to reward you for doing so. They know what their critics were saying, too - the examples are all specifically about how two Fighters with a few levels in Rogue are TOTALLY DIFFERENT, OKAY, NOT THE SAME.
    Now, detractors will say "Hey, there was nothing stopping you from doing all that before! The point is to use your imagination, not have rules for everything!" To them I would say, there's also nothing stopping you from chucking out the whole book and resolving every conflict on the strength of your narration alone, and indeed some people do. But most of us like playing games with rules - to provide suggestions for where to start, concrete rewards for completing certain activities, and a mechanism for letting chance decide some things for us. And I think it's great that we now have some rules for character development, not just combat and other combat-like challenges.
    Now, it's not perfect - the background system, like the class system itself, ties a lot of decisions together and feels inflexible, and it's still less than 7% of the book. But it's a huge win IMO that DND is taking this tiny step away from its wargame roots and acknowledging the other half of the RPG genre.
  • Speaking of acknowledging the other half - there appear to be some women who wear clothes! And at least one black dude! Truly, an enlightened society.
  • The Vancian magic system has been corralled into a semblance of reasonableness - you still only know a few spells, and you can still only prepare some of them every day, but of the ones you've prepared, you can cast them in any combination as long as you have a slot of the appropriate level remaining - no more "darn, I should've prepared a second Magic Missile instead of Feather Fall." You can also cast them using higher-level slots, to greater effect for most combat spells - this resolves an issue where some low-level spells automatically got better as your caster level increased and others... didn't, and also requires less messing around with metamagic feats.
  • Bonus compression/deflation - instead of BAB and dozens of stacking bonuses from feats and prestige classes and magic and suchlike, you have stat bonuses, your proficiency bonus (literally the same for all characters of a given level range), maybe other minor bonuses, plus advantage. Advantage makes it much less likely that you will suck (80% chance of 10+) and somewhat more likely that you will own (9.75% chance of 20), but doesn't actually change what's possible. I strongly suspect this is designed to avert a situation that arose at higher levels in 3.5 where a monster that was challenging for your fighter to hit could be nigh-untouchable to everyone else, and likewise with any other challenge that had a DC over 20 (as many adventurous tasks canonically did). This led to almost mandatory overspecialization as no one who hadn't maxed out a particular ability had much chance of overcoming level-appropriate challenges designed for those who had. 5e makes well-rounded characters who can back each other up to an extent a much more attractive possibility, especially for groups who don't have a DM who's good at customizing challenges for a particular party's exact ability set. It also means "Who's really good at climbing? No one, huh?" is more likely to start an interesting story than preclude it. And yes, I realize this is basically the same thing I was complaining about in my first Con above. The classes are still different, but people will have to get used to exploring how their abilities can be used to create a variety of favorable circumstances, rather than overwhelming their foes with sheer mathematical power.
  • The embroidery under the mythic scene in the tapestry on p. 73 reads "This is Photoshop's version of Lorem Ipsum." No, really. XD


Overall, I think this version represents a huge step in the right direction. After the critically panned 4e, which was pretty strictly a tactical exercise (I won't say "simulator" because a lot of the abilities were designed for balance over logic), they've swung the other way and really made an effort to live up to the title of Role-Playing Game. It's still more tactical, specific, and limited than GURPS, but also much more accessible and straightforward about what you're getting into. DND5e is built to be playable without tons of money spent on supplements and tons of hours spent reading them. More importantly, it encourages you to create a character who will participate in a *story*, where they meet interesting challenges in interesting ways. I'm looking forward to doing so.
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On Professional Art vs. amateur culture [09 Jan 2016|02:55pm]
People used to gather 'round in the evenings and sing, routinely, just with their families or whoever was around. We still do once a year at my grandparents' place. Not because of any particular training or quality, but just because it is good to make music together. According to a friend I trust, the custom faded as radios became common and made people feel self-conscious. Nowadays there's a strong idea, related to the American emphasis on the exceptional and the extroardinary, that Art is something that can only be done (or at least, only matters if done) Full-Time by Professionals, and the rest of us really shouldn't even try. If we do, it's "cute" at best, and worthy of mockery and public shaming at worst.

Let me tell you how deep this runs. I've been singing formally, in choirs, since kindergarten. (Even writing that sentence, part of me thought "Zach, you can't say that, people will think you were doing something REAL, like those kids that join opera companies or whatever. You were just singing in the kid's choirs at church." See what I mean?) And at every stage, I looked up to the next stage: in elementary school, I used to admire the high school choirs. In 10th grade, I told a visiting director that my favorite jazz singer was Julie Albert (who was a few years ahead of me in school) and listened to college acapella. "Ah," says Man, "if only it could be so!"

Now my parents supported me at every stage - came to my concerts and plays and said good job, including in college when seeing my concerts meant a 3-hour drive each way. But I always figured this was an indulgence, one of those duties you take on as a parent. I knew I was Talented and had plenty of Potential, because compliments to the young are usually framed in terms of the future, and I even knew there were times when we had worked hard and done well, thanks to attentive teachers and directors. But I still managed to interpret the most earnest congratulations as relative - you did well, y'know, considering/for a kid. My internal story about what makes a "good" concert was often about whether I had learned the music well enough and made few enough mistakes to enjoy performing. And to be fair, the answer was usually yes and I did enjoy performing. But actually being worth listening to on your own terms was always in the future, with the goalposts moving as necessary to keep that true through select choir, chamber choir, even all-state music festivals and college groups.

That changed as I started going back to those same concerts as a listener after I graduated. I found that more often than not I was ecstatic, spellbound by the groups I'd once been in. With an insider's ear I can still hear the little slips and dips, especially on the songs I know. But now that it's no longer me singing, I can also appreciate that it doesn't matter. The music is beautiful, and the performers have taken time out to prepare and share with us, and it is fun. Recently I've been going back and listening to recordings of high school and even middle school and trying to apply that same critical distance, and while that's a lot harder, I'm starting to come to a conclusion: we were good. Some knew it, but there were plenty of us, I'm sure, who were thinking of it at least partly like a training exercise - you do the best you can do "for now", and maybe by the time Real Life starts and things start to Count, you'll be good enough to do it "for real". This seems like a good opportunity to repeat: If you exist, then whatever you are doing is real, and wherever you are is the real world. For example, all of those concerts had good music and were worth performing in and listening to on their own as ends, not means. The versions other students and I performed are still my favorite recording of plenty of tunes, warts and all.

I want to be clear that I don't think the error here is a quantitative one - that there's some bar of talent and quality that we thought was above us but should have been set just below where we were. Rather, I want to really question the idea that it's necessary to be "good" at all. I told the story above the way I did as an example of how, despite significant evidence to the contrary, I consistently convinced myself that I was not (yet) doing anything good or worthwhile, only preparing to do so. And I think that as long as we have that narrative of doing things, if we do them at all, primarily because of the potential that we might eventually become Good at them, I won't be the only one. I think that narrative inevitably distorts our self-perception and makes it harder to have healthy relationships with ourselves and each other. What if people just did things they enjoyed? What would we lose, really, if we stopped acting like skills are only valuable if you perfect them and compete with them?

This is why one of the things I think is so important about fandom and online media is the return of amateur culture - people writing, drawing, singing, and creating things whether it's their full-time job or not, and people sharing and enjoying those things without some gatekeeper telling them they can't. And one of my long-term goals is to try to create an environment where people feel safe doing things they want to do even if they're not particularly good at them. It'll be tough, because as you may have gathered I can be pretty critical of myself and others. But I really believe the result will be worth it.
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i don't even drink coffee [10 Nov 2015|01:04pm]
Some folks have been up in arms about the annual Starbucks "holiday cup" design, which this year features a minimalist red-and-green approach, in contrast to the more explicit winter designs of years past. I've seen the story at least a dozen times at various outlets in the past few days. But amidst a huge backlash, how many people were actually upset in the first place? Not many: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/11/10/most-christians-dont-actually-care-about-starbucks-cups-heres-what-we-do-know/

The main thing I get from how far this complete non-story got is that Christians have zero credibility left in this country. This sort of nonsense (and much worse) is what we're famous for. Make no mistake, this story about a few troubled individuals spread because people believed it, because it's consistent with the common understanding of what Christians are like. Otherwise, people would have said "Wait, that doesn't sound like the Christians I know, did you do any fact-checking?"

All the actual Christians I've heard from on this issue were pretty bemused, with variations on "My faith isn't dependent on designs on a coffee cup." (Side note: even if it somehow were, the minimalist theme isn't actually any less Christian than one with snowflakes and reindeer.) But that wasn't enough to stop the story from spreading. This is what we've come to: in reacting so strongly for so long to the idea that Christianity might stop being culturally dominant in the US, we have assured it. We have, for too long, let fear and hate make a mockery of our faith, obscuring the One we're supposed to be highlighting. As the holiday season approaches, let's rethink how we can be salt and light to the world, and a positive force in our communities.
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progress [28 Mar 2015|08:36am]
Those of you who've known me for a long time will probably not be surprised to hear that when I'm in a new job and don't know what I'm doing, it's reflected in dreams of being on-stage in a play that I seem to have joined at the last minute, not knowing my lines or blocking, while everyone else is running around doing their thing. I don't talk about it much because it's a fairly transparent metaphor that doesn't need a lot of interpreting; I just use the frequency and intensity as kind of an index for how things are going topside. If you know me intimately, you might also not be surprised to hear that these are rarely nightmares per se; while it's a bit awkward, it's usually not that bad, and can even be kind of fun trying to guess the plot of the show and improvise accordingly.

One not-so-fun element is the looming presence of the B-man* (like the bogeyman but worse because he's real, or was in my experience), just waiting for you to screw up so he could point it out, although the dreams rarely got that far. Today, though, he actually spoke, and it was to interrupt someone else complaining about me not knowing my lines:
"Don't worry about Zach. He'll get it. When Zach's working, he can concentrate harder than anyone else I know. And the energy he brings out, even working with someone who's totally stiff or doesn't know what they're doing, is phenomenal. He'll be fine. YOU need to get to work."

(aside: people say they want people to be totally honest and say what they think of you, but I don't think that's quite true. and yes, it would be totally in character for this guy to say something good about you for the first time as a way of criticizing someone else. *Redacted because it's not theoretically impossible that speaking his full name would summon him to make awkward comments, like if Voldemort were a narcissist who Googled himself all day.)

So while the context was a little weird, I'm taking this as a good sign. After all, it was actually my subconscious that came up with the exact wording up there, and the compliment is about things that are important to me. It means I'm having some success in interpreting my recent promotion as a referendum on my judgement if not my experience, and starting to accept that I'm actually pretty good at what I do. :D

(and then I walked off stage and found a bunch of Star Wars graphic novels and then I woke up, the end.)
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Hope, 2014 edition [23 Dec 2014|01:50pm]
"Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress—and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still." ~Slate, "The World Is Not Falling Apart"

2014 was a bad year for many - people I know personally and people generally. Let's not insult anyone by pretending that's not true; data and anecdotes line up. But even so, the world is still significantly LESS violent now than it was in the 90's. We're more aware of the remaining problems - and that is mostly a good thing, because public opinion does matter, even in autocracies - but do not let that push you into despair. Certain interests want you to believe that the world is a terrifying place, and your only options are to hide or embrace militarism. In fact, though, those of us who want peace are in the majority, and we are winning.

I don't usually talk about race, but I feel it's important to point out that the current climate of racial profiling and police killings is neither a new problem that has emerged suddenly nor an inevitable part of the human condition. As we feast together this Christmas season, let us reflect on the *improvement* of the world overall, and let us allow that hope to stir us into compassion for those who still don't have a seat at the table. Take heart - and then take action.
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oh yeah this thing [26 Apr 2014|10:46pm]
okay, it's been a while, but I need to share. I've been working on a GURPS campaign for this summer. I'll geek out about it another time, but here's the pertinent part: I've been toying with two different options for The Villain. Last night, as I was lying in bed, I realized that the choice was obvious - although from an external perspective, either could make a compelling narrative, one of them wouldn't work because it would ring false with *me*.

And that brings up an important point: roleplaying is, in fact, a form of self-expression, just like writing or painting. I get bugged sometimes by the idea that, although I think of myself as a creative person, I don't really create anything on a daily basis. But here I'm creating a whole world (worlds, even), full of interesting characters old and new, and hooks for other people to interact with it - and when we play, we'll be creating a story together. It's not a studio art - there's no finished product that you can take home with you and admire for years - but there's something worthwhile in transience, too, like clever balloon artists or kamikiri performers or those people who make elaborate sandcastles or ice sculptures, even though they'll be gone in a day or two. It's the experience, and the memories, that count.

Not that I wouldn't be very, very happy if someone could record our adventures. I used to spend hours poring over my folks' old dungeon notes, and it's probably that, more even than actually playing as a kid, that's inspired me to take this up again.
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In which I argue against the Doomsday Argument [18 Oct 2013|12:17am]
Okay, I didn't wade through all the equations, but this seems to me to be a fundamentally flawed argument for two reasons. both of them involve your momCollapse )

In conclusion, I present you with a question: If you roll two dice five times and get 12 each time, what are the odds of getting 12 on the sixth roll?

And an answer: Pretty good, since you're obviously using loaded dice.
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