March, 2019

Mar 19


I’ve made up my mind to get rid of my credit cards. I’ve had the two cards for years. I’m going to pay them off and use debit forever after.

We’re all sold on the idea we need credit cards. I have used them for emergencies now and then. But for me, with a basic income I can live on, and by taking care, I don’t need them. I once failed to pay my taxes out of the money I received as a freelance writer that year. I thought I was getting money later to cover it and it didn’t pan out. So suddenly I had a 4000 dollar tax bill. Not wanting that hanging over my head, I paid it with a credit card. I still have that owing on my card–a debt that gathers interest. I pay the minimum (automatically) plus whatever I think I can afford to pay that off–same with my other card. But I can tell you between the two cards I pay about 2 grand a year total in interest. And while the interest rate is higher than it should be, these are not particularly high interest cards in today’s market, compared to some of the outrageous  rates out there.

I entered into a contractual relationship with the credit card companies making me responsible for their use and the interest. That’s true. But the tendency is to never be in a position, unless you really work on it, to pay them off. The banks count on that. So you end up with endless interest. Every week they mail me entreaties for more credit cards, from the same companies and others. They make enticing offers tingling with opportunity and illusory “freedom to enjoy life”. But each card has fees–and even if it doesn’t, it charges substantial interest for every purchase. There are other scammy elements in the accounting I’m not qualified to explain. But basically, ending up paying a couple hundred a month (for my particular debt) as well as paying off the principal, feels like a rip-off to me. The interest is just too high, and the theater of credit card use, the ease, the delusory glory of it, keeps nudging us into debt–and yet with every purchase you add to your debt and to the interest on your debt.

And we DON’T need credit cards, usually. Sometimes early in adult life they’re useful (they’ve forced their way into the economy in that role) to “establish credit” so you can buy a house or a car. But if you don’t have to do those things through credit–and be careful about it if you do–then you don’t need the damn things. I have a house, my mortgage deal is long-term and established. I own my car. I’m not going to buy another on credit. I’m not going to buy anything on credit–more and more I use only debit directly from my bank account for purchases. The whole “build up your credit report” thing is essentially for the benefit of credit card companies. “My report says I’m rated low! I’m screwed!” Why?

The idea that we’re sold on that we need credit cards–that’s where it feels like a con to me. They do far more harm than good. “A growing number of Americans have more credit-card debt than savings” says the marketwatch article I’m linking to below…

It’s hurting people–it’s one of the factors that leads to homelessness. Overwhelming debt will eventually catch up to you. Much of it is credit card debt.And they’ve worked through their cronies in congress to make sure that it’s much harder to declare bankruptcy now.

If you don’t need the cards, the hell with it. I’ve got a plan to pay off my cards and then I’ll do without them. If you can, go thou and do likewise.

Mar 19

We Need to Teach Our Kids the Truth About the Internet

The whole concept of fact-checking is lost to most people. “I saw it on the internet” is good enough. It had headlines. It looked official. It said it was a news site. Therefore Hilary Clinton is selling children to a child-sex ring in a pizza parlor. No one is explaining to children that the internet is not truth. Truth can be found on it–but the internet is not equal to reality.   And we’re failing to convey this simple fact to people young and old. We seem to assume they should already know this. They don’t. And saying “don’t believe everything you read on the internet” is not enough.

The internet, as educated adults know, is seething with lies. Conspiracy theories, fake news from “white nationalist” racists, slanders against decent Democrats and progressives–there are web skeins, long chains of racist, fake-history videos each reinforcing the prior one, shunted to you by algorithms designed to keep you on whatever website you’re on–often, the egregious youtube– all coming at us in a cascade of falsity. There is the fallacious elaborately “supported” claim that the Civil War was not about slavery–if you do your fact-checking you find that this claim is untrue. But who bothers? There isn’t time–we have to check our Instagram feed, our Twitter feed, our Facebook Conspiracy Round-up Group.  Anti-Vaxxers get their falsehoods from the internet. The Qanon  conspiracy-theory fantasy is spread on the internet. From those sources parents and scared youth get the impression their doctors are trying to make them sick with vaccines and the government is trying to enslave them. There are amazing numbers of people following videos on youtube claiming that Michelle Obama is really a drag queen or a transsexual; that we never went to the moon; and, yes, that the Earth is flat. And then there’s Alex Jones’ special brand of fantasy.

We should be teaching our children how to use the internet in a different way. We should be teaching them critical thinking–if a claim is outrageous it’s almost certainly not true; if an outrageous claim is backed up by untraceable or phonily sourced “proofs” it’s certainly not true. We should be training them, above all, to identify intelligent, reliable sources of information. Even some conservative ones–the Wall Street Journal online is not so bad, at least it gets most of its underlying facts straight (they go awry in the interpretation of a fact’s ramifications), and a few other conservative sources are alright. More to the point, I find that the New York Times, despite claims to the contrary, is even-handed, and so is the Washington Post. We need to find ways to demonstrate one on one that some sources are reputable and we must find clear ways to set this out. Otherwise our children will be wandering, lost, in the world’s ugliest jungle–the internet…

Mar 19

If Angry Mobs Attack Scientists

A friend, a scholar of esotericism, recently suggested that science is losing its sense of rightness, its assuredness; that it will crumble in upon itself because of its lack of open-mindedness about the spiritual side of the cosmos. He does not believe in old-school creationism–probably some sort of Intelligent Design–but he does believe that reductionism is a dead end, and that science’s skepticism about God will be refuted on many points so that “angry mobs may attack scientists” in the end. He cited the esotericist Guenon.

I’m a person who follows a spiritual path and indeed an esoteric one but I have enormous respect for science and the scientific method. I replied to my friend thus:

If angry mobs attack scientists it’ll only be because religious fanaticism took over, or the scientists have engaged in some wickedness–eg, the development of a biowar weapon that gets out of hand and kills many millions. Regarding the latter, Trump administration recently acted to remove controls over such research in the USA. But most scientists are opposed to science used immorally. The Catholic church has a very respectable group of astrophysicists, you know, and they are as careful about the scientific method as any. Science has actually always been prepared to change and adjust its big theories, it’s models of the universe. Consider how quantum effects were accepted by a community that had been strictly Newtonian. Most scientists are unwilling to definitely say “there is no God” –Hawking came close, I think he said there is no evidence of any, and he said it was his opinion that there isn’t one, as the universe doesn’t need one. Roger Penrose and David Bohm, both highly respected scientists, adhered (still adheres in the Penrose case, Bohm is dead) to the scientific method, but retain flexibility, to say the least, about metaphysics. Some kind of Vendanta style intelligent ground of being was basically Bohm’s sense of things and he did not dismiss cosmic consciousness; Penrose believes in the possibility of life after death. These are my ideal scientists.

Conventional religion–especially creationism–does much damage to society’s ability to reason;  it works so hard to instill falsehoods that bring about war, the oppression of women, and an atmosphere of terror. And Guenon though intelligent was paranoic and inclined to sympathy with fascism; and it’s my understanding he and Schuon believed in old-school creationism–the universe that is 6000 years old. Creationism is degrading to mankind, reducing it to infantile thinking, and it also degrades mankind’s hope of survival. Because we’re going to need reason and critical thinking to survive as a species.

Mar 19

My introduction to a Jack Vance Book…RHIALTO THE MARVELLOUS

The following was written for an edition of Jack Vance’s Rhialto the Marvellous that apparently ran into some snags and didn’t come out. So this is for fans of Jack Vance. Many of us, me included, have a problem with certain of Jack Vance’s more radical (or backward) social ideas. But many of us also revere his fiction. I don’t know why marvelous is spelled marvellous in the book, but it is.

An Introduction to Rhialto the Marvellous
by John Shirley

“Now I wonder what it is you find in that dark pool to keep you staring so?” the stranger asked, first of all. “I do not very certainly know,” replied Manuel “but mistily I seem to see drowned there the loves and the desires and the adventures I had when I wore another body than this. For the water of Haranton, I must tell you, is not like the water of other fountains, and curious dreams engender in this pool.”
–James Branch Cabell, Figures of Earth

Curious dreams engender in Vance’s Dying Earth tales, just as a curious voice is used to narrate them. That distinctive voice in prose, nearly inimitable, is Jack Vance’s and his alone. It is present in his science fiction works in various respective concentrations; to a lesser degree it can be detected, so to speak, in his mystery works. But it is in his works of fantasy, the Lyonesse novels and the Dying Earth stories, including Rhialto the Marvellous that it becomes an extract, a distillation. Expressed in this literary voice is story development attuned to irony; is humor, a certain whimsical cynicism–and sometimes outright comedy.
The influence of James Branch Cabell on Vance was noted by Lin Carter; the influence of Clark Ashton Smith seems apparent, at least to me, both in tone and attitude. But over time, Vance developed a luxuriant voice and a tart, comedic approach–part and parcel of one another–that is close to unique. But there’s always more to unpack in this gift box: he brought to all his work a gift for ideas, for conceptual daring, that takes him well beyond Cabell.
I recently used the phrase “bravely flowing prolixity” to describe an aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s style. While Vance often uses relatively simple sentence construction, in the sense that a master carpenter’s cabinet is simple but exquisitely joined, he sometimes rolls out a gorgeous prolixity, a gem-like verbosity, constructed with a craftsmanship that could find comparison in Baroque classical music. It sings in the mind’s ear. Indeed, in his time Vance was both a musician and a carpenter–was even a ceramic glazier–and these skills seem to transfer to his writing.

Among my favorites of Vance’s Dying Earth fantasies are the picaresque adventures of that cunning wastrel Cugel the Clever, especially The Eyes of the Overworld. While Cugel is not a conventionally admirable person, astute readers find they enjoy spending time with him. He’s amusing, he’s the embodiment of the clever protagonist found in old school fairy tales–often tricking his way out of difficulties–and he makes us smile, even if it’s the sly smile of a guilty confederate. In The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel was enslaved by a sorcerer–and finds himself at odds with all sorcerers. But isn’t everyone at odds with a sorcerer? When is a genuinely trustworthy worker of magic found on the Dying Earth? Even when sorcerers are partnered, as in Rhialto the Marvellous, they enact devious schemes against one another.

Rhialto the Marvelous, a fine work of Dying Earth fantasy in itself, reminds us that we must distrust purely magical creatures as well as human sorcerers. Fanciful beings, exampled by the djinn-like sandestins of Rhialto, are devious, peevish, and treacherous, often wittily jeering at the mortals who employ them.

The magician Rhialto is ostensibly a more likable character than Cugel. Despite a heartfelt practicality, Rhialto does seem to have some compassion, and he shows gallantry and restraint with women–to one lady’s unspoken frustration, a paradox that is common in Vance–and on the whole he is more sinned against than sinning.

Another influence on Vance’s fantasy, in a manner difficult to clearly define, may be the humorist P.G. Wodehouse. If Wodehouse was not an influence, they at least have much in common. The Wodehousian tone of affectionate cynicism can be cited, along with Wodehouse’s tendency to tinker into being the maximum possible entertainment value of every passage. Consider this clip from the second part of Rhialto the Marvellous:
Stepping forward, Rhialto addressed the group…

“Creatures, men, half-men and things! I extend to you my good wishes, and my deep sympathy that you are forced to live so intimately in the company of each other.
“Since your intellects are, in the main, of no great complexity, I will be terse. Somewhere in the forest, not too far from yonder tall button-top, is a blue crystal, thus and so, which I wish to possess. All of you are now ordered to search for this crystal. He who finds it and brings it here will be greatly rewarded. To stimulate zeal and expedite the search, I now visit upon each of you a burning sensation, which will be repeated at ever shorter intervals…

Rhialto’s address in this passage is casually droll, starting with a blithe insult, as if he’s entertaining himself (the creatures he addresses are unlikely to get the joke). He goes on to employ understated but acerbic insult humor regarding the dim intellects of the assemblage, and silkily mentions the onerous and inexorable consequences of slacking on the job. It is the rare reader who won’t chuckle at this.
Vance’s fantasy is distinct from his science-fiction, with a separate internal logic, but sometimes his science-fiction offers a flavor of fantasy–a particularly clear example can be found in his acclaimed novella The Dragon Masters. And in his fantasy we find Vancean modes also found in his science-fiction, as when he’s delighting in satirizing the parochial, japing some provincial people’s unshakeable exaltation of their own customs:

The local folk, a small pale people with dark hair and long still eyes, used the word, “Sxysskzyiks” — ‘The Civilized People”–to describe themselves, and in fact took the sense of the word seriously. Their culture comprised a staggering set of precepts, the mastery of which served as an index to status, so that ambitious persons spent vast energies learning finger-gestures, ear-decoration, the proper knots by which one tied his turban, his sash, his shoe-ribbons; the manner in which one tied the same knots for one’s grandfather; the proper and distinctive placement of pickles on plates of winkles, snails, chestnut stew, fried meats and other foods; the curses specifically appropriate after stepping on a thorn, meeting a ghost, falling from a low ladder, falling from a tree, or any of a hundred other circumstances.

Vance was an able seaman with the Merchant Marine, for a time, and doubtless his visits to far destinations–each culture blessed with its own exaggerated sense of self importance–were grist for the mill of his humor.

I’ve emphasized the underlying humor in Vance’s fantasy, but he never strays far from an atmospheric awareness of life’s melancholies, even evoking grim extremes, so that fantasy is grounded by the earthiness of the grave.

In Rhialto the Marvellous a tribe of glib, self-justifying anthropophages feast for centuries on thousands of living humans plucked from their suspended animation in a nearby ruin. In another passage Vance describes an enormous battle, conveying it in a tone of sad resignation, and we come away with a sense of its tragic pointlessness, the waste of human potential, though also with a recognition of the courage of its combatants. Not all wars in Vance are depicted as meaningless–his Lyonesse books recognize that some nations are worth fighting for–but here we see them from the perspective of a magician who lives century after century, who flits through time and sees, in the big picture, the dismal recurrence of carnage.

The third part of Rhialto the Marvellous, centered on the fate of Morreion, a magician marooned on a world at the furthest edge of the universe, is shot through with melancholy but leavened with humor, however tart. Vance is a master of striking this balance. He had a gift for folding the dark in with the bright, for segueing seamlessly from the whimsical to the lugubrious. Yet even the doleful, in Vance, is beautifully wrought, and raptly entertaining. And so I commend you to this glowing, darkly glimmering clutch of magical journeys with the vainglorious, sardonically amusing, sartorially splendid Rhialto. Keep your eyes open, savor this delicacy, and do not trust a sandestin.

Mar 19

Is Trump an “Idol of Hate”?

There have been calls to ease off on “hating Trump”, suggesting a large part of the country is fairly wallowing in it, and hinting it’s not appropriate…

Listen. If a traitor takes over the country you live in, destroys its environmental protections at every possible juncture, takes directions from a cryptofascist kleptocrat running a regime pretending to be democratic when it isn’t, imperils the world by undermining  nuclear weapons control treaties (both with Iran and Russia), spreads hate for people of color, empowers racist extremists, hires people that try to give away national parks to mining and oil corporations,  weakens regulations that keep us from getting bacteria in our food, hires a woman who tries to destroy public schools in favor of Christian theocracy…I could go on and on…if that’s the guy…and it is…despising him is appropriate. Hate is useless burning of good energy. Despising what is vile…that’s perfectly natural.