Sunday, January 30, 2011

Moral choices

During some random surfing today, I stumbled across this:

You’re driving down the road and, in a moment of inattention, you run a red light. In one universe a cop pulls you over and gives you a ticket. In another universe you hit a little old lady and kill her.

In the first universe you’re just an ordinary motorist. In the second you’re a shameful monster. But you had no control over the presence of the little old lady; the same (small) list of controllable actions were available to you in both universes.

If our moral responsibility extends only to our voluntary actions, then in both universes your only transgression lies in running the red light. Why then do we assign additional blame for hitting the lady, an outcome over which you had no control?

It made me think, and I believe I have an answer. I think whoever wrote this isn’t drawing and distinction between an action and the consequences for that action. The ‘action’ is fixed, the consequences are not. I also feel he has it backwards. The driver isn’t being assigned ‘additional blame’ in the second instance… he just managing to avoid the consequences of his actions (and the blame that comes with it) in the first instance.

The example asks: “Why do we assign additional blame for hitting the lady, an outcome over which you had no control?”

My answer is that the driver did indeed have control over this outcome. He could have been paying attention and not ran the red light in the first place. In both instances he committed an offense that could easily have resulted in someone’s injury or death. It’s not that he got ‘more’ blame in the second instance…it’s that he got lucky and avoided blame in the first.

The issue is a muddied in the above example because the idea that the driver is momentarily distracted implies that the whole thing was an accident, so let’s illustrate this with a clearer example:

Let’s say that one night I get drunk off my ass and decide to drive across town despite the fact I know I’m in no condition to drive. In one instance I get where I’m going without any problems, in the second I run a red light and kill that little old lady.

If we use the logic of the first example, I’m just a drunk driver and I have no control over that little old lady. In both cases, my only transgression is getting behind the wheel while drunk…so why should I be assigned extra blame for hitting the little old lady?

The answer is simple: I’m not being assigned ‘extra blame’…I just got away with it in the first instance. My choice, my voluntary action to get behind the wheel while drunk lead directly to the little old lady’s death… and getting across town without incident in the first instance doesn’t make my actions any less wrong or irresponsible.

Basically the responsibility comes from the choices we make. Just because we can’t always foresee the eventual outcome of these choices doesn’t make us any less responsible for them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Interweaving Plots

Ok, I want to talk about writers who run multiple, interweaving plots in their novels.

On the whole, it’s a good thing. It stops the story from becoming stale and boring. It can take many forms, from simply switching between protagonists (or between the protagonist and the antagonist) to completely separate storylines that eventually weave together. When it’s done right, it can make a good novel great.

Unfortunately, it can also be overdone and done badly. For example, last night, I was reading a book that was constantly switching between six different, barely related threads.

When it works, it works, but a lot of overambitious authors put in too many characters, too many storylines and, suddenly, an awesome novel becomes a very frustrating read.

First of all, it can be extremely confusing. You’re reading along and suddenly you’re back picking up a cliffhanger you left fifty pages ago. You’ve passed through four other storylines and four other cliffhangers and you’re suddenly wracking your brains trying to remember who this character is and what they were doing.

When the secret agent I’ve just been introduced to leaps through a plate glass window at the top of a skyscraper, it’s exciting. But when we cut away from that and go through sixty pages of totally unrelated characters going through completely unrelated things, when we suddenly cut back to the secret agent, I’m not on the edge of my seat, desperate to see how he survived…I’m thinking “Who’s this guy again? Why’s he hanging from the side of a building?”

However, my biggest complaint about the overuse of this technique comes down to a basic reality of writing multiple plotlines: Some are going to be more interesting than others, and some you’re going to find downright boring. Suddenly, it’s not an interesting narrative technique that adds anything to the novel…it’s becomes a halfway decent story that keeps getting interrupted with boring bullshit you don’t care about.

So you’re reading the story and the secret agent and his sexy assassin girlfriend are screaming the wrong way down a highway on a motorcycle being chased by ninjas on rocket-powered hang-gliders. You like these characters, the story’s rolling along, you’re enjoying every minute of it…

…but then we cut to the office of the private detective you don’t give a shit about doing something you don’t care about.

See what I mean?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turning 30

As of eight minutes ago, I am officially 30 years old.

Like many, as a child, I assumed that at some point ‘Adulthood’ would kick in and I’d start shouting at people for leaving lights on in unoccupied rooms, become concerned with the thermostat and suddenly know what a ‘distributer cap’ is.

Like many, I also discovered that no matter how old you get, you always feel like you’re somewhere around fourteen… and feel amazed when you’re trusted with any sort of grown-up responsibility.

For example, at fourteen I assumed that when I turned 30, I’d be spending a lot less time thinking about Batman. This is not the case.

I take special pleasure in the fact that while my internal odometer clicked over from twenty-nine to thirty, I was watching Star Wars while playing Super Mario Bros. on my DS.

At some point, everyone has to become an adult.

Becoming a grown-up is strictly optional.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What's Healthy?

I think one of the biggest disservices our society has ever given itself is the idea that fat people are greedy over-eaters.

Don’t get me wrong. The only way you can get fat is by eating too much and not exercising, but our societal norms have made it extremely difficult to recognize when we are over eating.

Think about ‘fat Monica’ from ‘Friends’. Every time we see her she’s either eating, talking about eating or thinking about eating. We’ve been sold the idea that if you’re fat it’s because you spend all day on the couch with a turkey leg in one hand and a slice of cake in the other.

Sadly, that’s not even close to the truth.

For example, let’s say you get up one morning and skip breakfast. Around lunchtime you decide to go to Hardee’s for lunch. You know their burgers aren’t exactly healthy, but it’s taking the place of two meals, so it averages out, right?

What you don’t realize is one Hardees thickburger is around 1200 calories, an order of fries is another 500. Get a large coke and that’s another 290 calories… bringing that single meal to just under 2000 calories. That’s just under a whole day’s average allowance in a single meal. Even if you eat a healthy, sub-500 calorie meal for dinner, you’ve still eaten enough to gain weight.

My point is that you don’t have to eat massive amounts of food to get fat. The truth is that what we consider to be ‘normal’ portions of food are anything but. Think about it. Missing breakfast, having a burger for lunch and then a ‘normal’ meal for dinner hardly seems like overeating, does it? But in the above example, that’s exactly what it is.

But I’m talking about fast-food right? Everyone knows that’s bad for you. That’s why you don’t eat fast food.

Well, that’s another big problem. Everyone knows that going to a McDonalds or KFC is unhealthy, but on the flip side, we assume that ‘real’ food at a ‘sit-down’ restaurant is much healthier. People who won’t touch a burger at McDonalds will happily eat one if it’s brought to their table on a real plate by an actual waiter.

But let’s forget the burger. Let’s say you’re making a conscious effort to eat more healthily. So you go to Applebees for dinner and, rather than order the chicken wings or a burger, you order their California Shrimp Salad.

That’s perfectly healthy, right? Not only is it a salad, it’s a seafood salad…and everyone knows seafood is healthy.

Pop quiz. How many calories in Applebee’s shrimp salad? 150? 300?

Nope. It’s 860 calories… over 150 calories more than a Big Mac… and that’s not 860 calories for the whole meal, that’s just your entrée. Every time the waitress comes and refills your coke, that’s another 155 calories.

Let’s say someone ordered some mozzarella sticks as a starter, you’re watching your weight, so you only ate one of them. That’s another 104 calories right there.

…and because you were so ‘good’ by ordering a healthy salad, it can’t hurt to get a desert, can it? You only had a salad and that fresh apple pie with ice-cream looks really good and you’ve earned it by being so sensible with your entrée. You know the apple pie isn’t healthy, but it can’t be that unhealthy, right?

Wrong, that single serving of apple pie and ice cream is 1086 calories.

So let me lay it out for you. You’ve arrived at the restaurant, had a single mozzarella stick for your starter and had a salad for your entrée, your coke or sweet tea has been refilled twice. That’s 1429 calories in a single meal before dessert. Add in dessert and that single meal is a whopping 2515 calories.

Now ask yourself a question. If you saw someone in a restaurant eat a single mozzarella stick, a salad for an entrée and a slice of apple pie for desert…would you consider that person an over-eater? No, of course not. That’s a ‘normal’ meal…even a ‘healthy’ one, considering they ate a salad instead of a steak.

Basically, it’s not that we choose to eat unhealthy food…it’s just that the average person has no idea what constitutes ‘healthy’.

The other big point to make is that even ‘healthy options’ can be the exact opposite. Take Subway for example.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a subway listening to a guy a few tables opposite talking on the phone. He made a point of telling whoever he was talking to that he was eating at subway because he was ‘watching his weight’.

This would work if he’d ordered a six-inch veggie delight or one of the other ‘light’ subs… but he’d ordered a twelve in Chicken Bacon Ranch. That sandwich clocks in at 1140 calories before you factor in cheese, dressing…and when you add in the bag of Doritos (250 calories) and the two regular cokes he had with it…his ‘healthy’ meal clocked in at 1690 calories.

Not only was that meal spectacularly unhealthy, the idea that he’d been eating healthy is even worse. If you eat something you know is unhealthy and fattening, you tend to take it a little easier for the rest of the day. If you think you’ve been eating healthy, you’re more likely to ‘cheat’.

Of course, none of this is an excuse. The reason we’re all so fat is simply that we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. However, a massive part of that is because we don’t know we’re eating too much.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In Evan's most recent post, he interviewed Rob Gettemy, an acquaintance of his who ran for Iowa's 2nd District of the US Congress.

I'll be completely honest, there was very little Gettemy said that I agreed with, from his statement that there was 'little evidence' of man-made global warming and the he didn't believe the Constitution called for a separation of Church and State.

However, the one part that really bothered me was his comment of gay marriage:

The Declaration of Independence said, point blank, that all men are created equal, and that one of our inalienable rights is the pursuit of happiness. Whether or not you agree with the premise of homosexual marriage, can a reasonable person conclude that outlawing homosexual marriage creates an inequality among otherwise similar men? Is it reasonable to believe that the prohibition of same-sex marriages infringes on the inalienable right to pursue happiness?

Under your scenario…anything could be classified as an act of pursuing happiness. Like I said, I see marriage as an institution that is about procreation which is necessary for the continuation of society. Like it or not, it takes male and female DNA to procreate.

To me, this is a dodge. If you take religious belief out of the equation (which, in a matter of law, you absolutely should), there is no genuine, lawful reason that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry. Procreation is not central to, or necessary, for marriage. Procreation is nothing more than a convenient (and totally irrelevant) point to hide behind.

Quite simply, there are many married couples who are unable to have children or simply choose not to...yet no-one considers childless marriages to be 'lesser'... and there are absolutely no laws that discriminate against childless couples. If we refuse to allow homosexuals to marry on the grounds they can not have children...then, logically, we should also not allow the sterile or women past child-bearing age to marry either.

Of course, if that were to happen, there would be a moral outrage and a total furor over denying people a basic human right, but as a society we show little interest and incredible apathy in defending rights... unless they're our rights.

Marriage isn't about procreation. It's about making a commitment to another person and, more importantly, becoming a single entity in the eyes of the law. It's about certain next-of-kin rights that we heterosexuals take for granted.

Secondly, marriage is not 'necessary for the continuation of society'.

It is entirely possible for a child to be born outside of wedlock and for that child to grow up in a loving, nurturing environment with their parents being unmarried or divorced. It's a cast-iron fact that 60% of marriages in the US fail... which means the majority of children today grow up raised by parents who don't live in the same home.

Also, According to the 2007 census, forty percent of new births were to unmarried parents.

Put simply, the traditional 'nuclear family' is not the norm, and hasn't been for decades. Divorce, single-parent families and children born out of wedlock are now the rule and not the exception.

I'm not here to argue whether or not this is a good thing, bu my point is clear: Marriage is not based around procreation and Marriage as an institution is obviously not necessary for the 'continuation of society'. If it was, society would have collapsed decades ago.

The only 'real' issue people have with gay marriage is a so-called 'moral' one. That homosexual relationships are somehow immoral and allowing gay marriage would be condoning this 'immorality'.

First of all, morality is something that can not and should not be legislated. Morality is far too plastic a concept to be nailed down by law. What one person considers immoral, another considers perfectly acceptable and vice-versa.

For example, some consider pre-marital sex to be immoral. Should that be made illegal? What about drinking? R-rated movies? Should we jail or fine people for having too many sexual partners? How many is too many?

We live in a society where everyone considers themselves to be 'normal' and believes anyone less permissive is a prude, while anyone more permissive is immoral.

The overriding question is simple: On who's definition of 'morality' do we base these laws on?

To get back on point, personally, I see nothing immoral about two people who love each other wanting to make a lifelong commitment to each other and wanting that relationship officially recognized.

Furthermore, I think heterosexuals who claim to be protecting the 'sanctity of marriage' should take a look in their own back yard first.

Heterosexuals have done more to destroy the sanctity of marriage than homosexuals ever have. As I've already mentioned, 60% of marriages end in divorce, so simple math tells us that the majority of heterosexual couples don't honor the commitment that marriage is based on.

If Britney Spears can have her 48 hour marriage, if Elizabeth Taylor can get married and divorced eight times (including twice to the same guy), if we can have multiple dating services set up purely for married people looking for affairs...why can't the Homosexuals take a crack at marriage? They can't disrespect it any more than we have!

Of course, this is where the average Conservative will point to the Bible and says that homosexual marriage is a sin, end of story.

Well, I would take this opportunity to remind them that, no matter how much they dislike this fact, we do have constitutional separation of Church and State. It's right there in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Quite simply, religion has absolutely no place in legislation.

The reason for this (as well as America being a multicultural society of many different and disparate religions) is that people have the tendency to pick and choose aspects of their religion, focusing only on things that back up their own views and prejudices while completely ignoring everything else.

For example, when people say that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, they're quoting Leviticus 18: 22 where it states: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

That's fair enough, but if we're using Leviticus to 'prove' homosexuality is a sin, then it also follows that we have to treat all of Leviticus' decrees with equal weight...but that's where things start to get a bit tricky.

Here are a few other decrees from Leviticus:

Lev. 11: 6-8
clearly states that the pig is an unclean animal, so you should not eat its flesh or touch it's carcass.

Lev. 11-10
states that eating shellfish is also a sin.

Lev. 15: 19-24
Says that you are allowed no contact with a woman during her monthly menstrual 'uncleanliness'.

Lev. 21.20 States that you shall not approach an altar of the lord with a defect in your eyesight.

Lev. 19: 19 States that you should not wear garments made of two different types of thread.

Lev. 25:44 States that it's perfectly okay to own slaves, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations.

In other words, if homosexuality is a sin, then so are all the above. You can't pick and choose, saying one verse is absolute while ignoring the next. If you've ever eaten ribs (or so much as touched a football), touched your wife during her period, gone to church if you need glasses or are wearing a shirt that's a cotton/polyester blend, you're as guilty of sin and as hell-bound as all the homosexuals you're so quick to condemn.

Surprisingly, if you've done none of these things, but have trafficked in slaves (as long as they're from Canada or Mexico) no-one's going to bat an eyelid at the Pearly Gates.

My point is simple. You can't use the Bible for justification of your actions when you are picking and choosing convenient passages that just so happen to back you up...and if you suggest that certain passages are outmoded or open to interpretation, then you render the whole document meaningless as 'proof'.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Restless Dead : A Reflection.

Well, the release of my book went a lot better than expected.

Ok…fair enough, my pleasure at this has far more to do with me setting realistic expectations beforehand, rather than massive success… but I achieved everything I wanted to do. I sold a few copies, raised (and I’m still raising) a bit of money for Child’s Play…and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I particularly enjoyed the phone call I got from one of Sunny’s friends who told me that ‘this book should totally be a movie’.

(I’m realistic about that. Maybe a SyFy Original Movie with one of the ‘lesser’ Baldwins…but I’ll do it if Julie McNiven agrees to play Helena).

‘The Restless Dead’ may not be the world-wide best-seller I dreamed of when I got my first typewriter at the age of four, but releasing this book has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

That may sound like a massive overstatement but, as a kid, financial success was never part of my dream of being an author. I just wanted a book with my name on it to put on my shelf and to know people were reading and enjoying what I’d written. In fact, when I decided I wanted to be an Author at four years old, it never actually occurred to me that Authors actually get paid for their work. That may just be the naivety of childhood, but even today, writing for me is just about the pure joy of creating something. It’s about holding a book in my hands, flipping through the pages and thinking ‘I made this’.

As I’ve written about before, my yardstick for success isn’t about how many copies I sell, but how much the copies I do sell affect the reader. If you read my book, get emotionally invested in the characters and actually start to care about what happens to them…that’s a win for me.

In fact, there’s only one part of my five-year-old’s dream that remains unfulfilled. I want to be sitting on a plane or a bus someday and look over and see someone reading my book. Yes, that part’s purely about stroking my ego…but I make no apologies for that. (Weirdly, as a teen, that reader was always a smoking hot girl who would then spend an hour gushing about how awesome I am. I’ve mostly outgrown that.)

The best part is that it’s a huge motivator to continue. It may not be getting a five-book deal with Doubleday, but actually publishing something somehow makes everything more real. It’s easy to get discouraged or disillusioned when you spend years writing stories that spend their entire existence on your hard drive. Self publishing is something I can highly recommend, even if you just go to a service like Createspace and drop six dollars on a single copy just for yourself.

Best case scenario, your book becomes a small hit and you make some beer and pizza money. Worst case, you just have something really cool to put on your shelf. That’s a lot better than just leaving it on your hard drive.

Of course, this is where the naysayers will laugh at your self-published book and point out that anyone can do it, but my answer to them remains the same: Yes, anyone can self publish a book…but I actually did and you didn’t.

Put simply, if you’ve never created anything or had the courage to put yourself out there…I couldn’t care less about anything you have to say about the things I’ve created. The world is full of arm-chair quarterbacks who love to put you down and talk about how they could do better…but the truth is they never actually do. It’s like I’ve written about trolls on the internet: The world’s crappiest YouTube video is a million times more worthwhile than any of the negative comments underneath it. The person you’re making fun of took the time and effort to create something and you didn’t…so shut the fuck up.

Anyway, I just want to say thank you to everyone who bought a copy and an extra special thank you to everyone who took the time to send me some pretty awesome feedback.