Living in Interesting Times — 30 Years Past 1984

How much is our world in 2014 like the 1984 that George Orwell described?

(George Orwell. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In other words, how much of our world as it exists now — particularly the technology-saturated Western world — would Orwell recognize as reflecting his cautionary tale?

The television in my living room doesn’t watch me watching it, the way the citizens’ did in the novel, but it certainly has enough electronics to keep track of what I watch and deliver that information to marketers without my being aware of it. And my laptop has a camera that could have been watching me as I typed this blog entry — and it could have done so without my knowledge. In addition, consider the proliferation of closed-circuit TV surveillance cameras in big cities around the world. Orwell might say we were indeed living in the world of his novel.

And remember, his novel was written in 1947-48, and published in 1949.

I can think of a few other parallels between our world today and the dystopia Orwell envisioned:

  • In the novel, Oceania is locked in a near-perpetual war with Eurasia and Eastasia. No matter how hopeful about (or intent we are on) extricating ourselves from the Terror War, it seems likely the terrorists will have different ideas (something I wrote about in my 2002 essay, “Yogi Berra, Polybius, and the Recurring Jihad”). And that says nothing about the rise of Chinese power and the resurgence of Russian ambitions (e.g., their looming presence over Ukraine).
  • In the novel, history is frequently rewritten to excise people and ideas that have fallen out of favor, something that was observable in Orwell’s day especially in the Soviet Union. Today, the ‘Net and its archives may prevent that kind of complete removal, but here in the U.S. some “progressive” historical interpretations are changing the perceptions of our traditional heroes — history being rewritten not to excise, but to diminish, people and ideas no longer favored.
  • In the U.S. recently we have seen a lot of animus toward the “top 1%” as well as emphasis on the shrinking middle class and the expanding ranks of people dependent on the government for their support. In some respects this seems to mirror the class structure depicted in the story.

And of course we have Orwell’s famous concept of “doublethink,” which we encounter almost daily at both ends of our political spectrum. Especially with respect to the idea of personal liberty, many people at either end seem simultaneously to support and resist personal freedom; or perhaps those who support all personal freedoms equally, from bearing arms to abortion, just don’t attract much attention.

What do you think? Even though it’s 2014, are we close to 1984?

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New Year, New Free Downloads Available

Happy 2010, folks! Hope your New Year has started off well.

I’ve been meaning to make some new items available for download on my GrayMan Writes web site, and today seemed like a good day to do it.

First, a new essay: “An Unsolicited Proposal for the Secretary of Education.” Here’s the opening:

We often treat education in the United States as a utility; i.e., we take it for granted the way we take for granted that the lights will work when we flip a switch. As long as it appears to be working, most of us give little thought to education, and it only takes a little interruption to arouse a great deal of attention. The Department of Education could and should help this vital national “utility” run better and produce uniformly excellent results, but to do so it should do more than collect and disseminate research, and more than dole out Federal funds for various programs.

With that in mind, we offer this proposal for how the Department of Education could lead by example: the Department of Education should establish, staff, and operate a charter school in metropolitan D.C. and make it the best school in the country….

The full essay is at this link.

Second, some free fiction: a historical short story entitled, “The Surfman.” The market for historical short fiction is almost nonexistent, but hopefully folks who like historical fiction will be able to find it on the web site. Here’s how it begins:

Several hundred yards off Long Beach Island, New Jersey, the small freighter should have been slipping along the wavetops headed who-knows-where. Her captain must’ve been drunk or incompetent to have hit the shoals in broad daylight with a favorable tide, but that didn’t matter to Silas Jacobs. It didn’t so much matter that the ship had ten or twelve sailors on board, and most couldn’t swim a lick; deep ocean sailors were like that. What mattered to Silas was that the ocean was trying to kill them….

If you want to read the story, you can download it here.

Both of these downloads are licensed under Creative Commons, so you can feel free to share them with anyone — all I ask is that you include the right attribution.

And I hope you have a terrific New Year!

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Ignore the Tour Guides, If You Can (Free Download)

Have you ever gone to a museum and been annoyed by overzealous or talkative tour guides who kept you from enjoying the experience?

Have you ever gone to a worship service and been annoyed by singers or musicians who kept you from enjoying the experience?

I’ve uploaded a brief essay I wrote about worship leaders as “tour guides,” and the need for us to be as unobtrusive as possible so that we call attention to God and not ourselves. You can download the essay as a PDF file here.

Too many of us come together to “praise the LORD” not because the LORD is great and “worthy to be praised” (Samuel 22:4, Psalm 18:3), but because we need to feel good — to get that emotional high in order to make it through the coming week. We do not bring the “sacrifice” of praise, because the very word “sacrifice” reminds us that we have to give up something — and what we have to give up is our pride, our illusions, our very selves. And so, too often, those of us who are trying to lead and guide the worship experience call undue attention to ourselves.

Please ignore us, if you can.

If you like it, if you disagree with it, if you share it with your pastor or worship leader, or even if you wonder why I was so uptight that I needed to write an essay, I’d appreciate any and all comments.

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Introducing: The GrayMan Writes About Taxes

The next few days look pretty light in terms of major space anniversaries,* so it’s as good a time as any to run through a series of blog posts on taxes. Not on how to do your taxes (I use TurboTax, just like our Treasury Secretary … make what you will of that), but on a few tax ideas I’ve had rattling around in my head. I want to get them out of my head, because I need to make room for some other things up there.

I’ve written about taxes in the past, and thought a lot about them during last year’s Presidential campaign; maybe I should’ve logged all these things in my scribblings on the Anti-Campaign. Instead, I wrote an essay on one of the ideas and I’ve been shopping around that essay for months. At the moment, it’s submitted to Reason magazine (even though they would probably prefer my essay on The Ornery American web site, “Taxes, Direct Deposit, and Choice”).

The essay that Reason is considering — at least, I hope they’re actually considering it — has to do with the U.S. corporate tax rate. Many people know that our 35% corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world, meaning that companies can do better financially if they either move to places with lower tax rates or find creative loopholes that reduce their tax liabilities. At the same time, corporations are under scrutiny for how much they pay their top executives. My essay proposed making the corporate tax rate variable according to the “pay gap” between the highest- and lowest-paid company employees: i.e., companies could self-select a lower tax rate if they reduce the gap in employee pay.

So, while I’m waiting to hear from Reason, I thought I’d toss out some of the other ideas I’ve had about taxes and tax policy. Starting tomorrow, over the next few days I’ll present ideas about encouraging investment, rewarding instead of punishing savings, reducing the tax burden on new businesses, and a few other ideas. Hope you enjoy it!

*Considering our trend of focusing on anniversaries in 5-year increments.

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Book Review: BEAUTY AND DYNAMITE by Alethea Kontis

If I’d had my wits about me, I would’ve posted this review four days ago, on Alfred Nobel’s birthday.* Since he invented dynamite, of course. But my wits are often everywhere except about me.

Not so with Alethea and her collection of essays, BEAUTY AND DYNAMITE. Her wits never seem to leave her, and the result is delightful.

(Full disclosure: Alethea is a most charming young lady whom I count as a friend as well as a colleague. If you think my review may be biased as a result, I can only say: you may be right. After all, she actually included the gibberish I contributed, giving me probably my only opportunity to be listed in the same table of contents as John Ringo.)

BEAUTY AND DYNAMITE is primarily a collection of Alethea’s essays for Apex Digest, with a smattering of poetry, blog entries, and “How I Met Alethea”-type entries from a few of the many, many friends she has made as a “genre chick.”

I could relate quite well to Alethea’s notes about Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, since I went through the bootcamp experience a year after she did. My interview subject wasn’t nearly as interesting as hers: That lady felt free to share her remarkable story with Alethea, no doubt because she knew Alethea would appreciate the story she had to tell. That quality is one thing that makes Alethea such a perfect fit in the publishing world: she appreciates the stories and the act of story-telling itself.

And she tells good stories, even when she’s not the star. She was able, for instance, to shine the spotlight on Sherrilyn Kenyon as she wrote about their time together at a convention, and on the grand dame of science fiction, Andre Norton, as she wrote about visiting her home and library.

Some of the essays, because they deal with more heartache and hurt than happiness, are harder to read than others. But they all share a singular virtue: they express truth as the real world presents it to us, and growth as we deal with the world on our own terms. They are beauty, and they are dynamite.

To order a copy of BEAUTY AND DYNAMITE, visit Apex Books.

*Actually, if I’d had my wits about me, I’d have posted this review right after Labor Day. I finished the book while I was at Dragon*Con, after all — holding it up in front of me where a thousand or so people walked by and saw it. Oh, and Alfred Nobel was born October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden.

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A Little Nuclear Detection History, and a Big Gripe

Forty-five years ago today, the first nuclear detonation detection satellites, Vela-1 and Vela-2, were launched from the Eastern Space & Missile Center. Considering the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons, NUDET is as vital today as it ever was, and those spacecraft paved the way for the capabilities we have now. Just thought you’d like to know.

Now for my gripe.

It’s really not that big a gripe, despite the title above. It’s based on the trials of the write-submit-receive rejection-submit again cycle. I can’t gripe about the cycle itself; it’s part and parcel of the business of writing. But sometimes ….

Here’s the story: Back on August 23rd, I submitted for the first time an essay entitled, “An Unsolicited Proposal for the Next Secretary of Education.” It was rejected, and since then it’s been submitted and rejected two more times and is currently in review at a fourth venue. With every submission, I’ve tried to tell the editorial staff that this is a timely piece, and last night’s Presidential debate proved me right.

Referring to education, both candidates pointed out the difficult situation in the Washington, DC, school system. That’s great, but it irritated me because one of the central tenets of my essay had to do with establishing a model school in DC.

😡 Timing is everything, and once again it’s something I don’t have.

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Space Past, Space Recent, Space Present

Space Past: 35 years ago today, the Skylab-3 mission splashed down in the Pacific after astronauts Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott spent almost two months aboard the station. You can read more about the mission on this Wikipedia page.

Space Recent: I missed this when it was on the Discovery Channel, but a recent experiment demonstrated the technology for beaming power from space-based solar collectors. This interests me because one of my Ornery American essays was on using space-based power to help recovery efforts after natural disasters.

Space Present: The folks at Sea Launch successfully lofted the Galaxy-19 satellite yesterday. (I worked as a technology security monitor on the Galaxy IIIc launch, which was a great adventure.) Congrats!

Space Present II. Also yesterday, the House passed a waiver that would allow NASA to continue purchasing Soyuz flights to the International Space Station beyond the 2011 expiration of the current waiver.

Because it takes three years to build a new Soyuz, an INKSNA waiver extension is required for NASA to avoid unmanning the station starting in 2012. If the Senate goes along and the extension becomes law, NASA would be able to maintain an uninterrupted presence on the lab complex and bridge the gap between the end of shuttle operations in 2010 and the debut of its replacement in 2014 or 2015.

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Rising, as opposed to falling, stars

Only saw one meteor last night, and it was so quick and faint it may have been my imagination — unlike the night we sat behind our house in Nebraska and so many fell and seemed so close I thought I might reach up and catch them. But last night I needed to sleep, since I’m driving to Asheville this morning.

On an up note, however, two rising stars of SF&F — who just happen to be two of my favorite people in the world — are featured in a hilarious interview: Alethea Kontis, author of Beauty & Dynamite (which I am enjoying reading), interviewed Edmund Schubert, editor of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, on topics ranging from how he came to edit IGMS to his “PenguinMan” superhero persona. It’s wonderful. Click through from one of their web sites or read it here.

And take a look at the book trailer for Beauty & Dynamite. It just went up on YouTube recently, even though the book has been out for awhile. The trailer is classy and understated — unlike Lee, who is classy and exuberant — and was produced by a certain daughter of mine.

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A Unique Idea that Wasn't

Found out this week that the “direct deposit” tax idea that was the foundation of my March 2007 Ornery American essay was actually published in the Summer 1993 issue of The Whole Earth Review. Ain’t that a kick in the teeth?

It was a prediction made by Kevin Kelly as part of an “Unthinkable Futures” piece he wrote with Brian Eno:

Software gains allow a certain portion of taxes to fall to the discretion of the payer. John Public can assign X amount of his taxes toward one service, to the exclusion of another. It’s a second vote that politicians watch closely.

I saw it this past Thursday, quoted on Futurismic. The Futurismic story referenced a BoingBoing piece I’d seen earlier in the week, but the quote didn’t appear in the BB item.

An online version of the original item is found here. My essay is at this link.

I went back into my archives and found the original version of my essay: I wrote it in February 1996. So even though the essay was over a decade old before I polished it enough to be publishable, the central idea was older and put forward by someone not me. Which goes to show that many people can have the same idea at close to the same time, but not everyone will do the same thing with it.

Still, my teeth hurt a little.

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Taxes, and the Heart of America

With tax day approaching, I was interested to read that “California Republican John Campbell yesterday introduced in the House his ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is Act,’ which would amend the tax code to allow individuals to make voluntary donations to the federal government above their normal tax liability.” Notwithstanding that you can already do that if you want, which the Wall Street Journal editorial points out, I of course thought of my Ornery American essay on taxes:

Tax day offers us the privilege of demonstrating our civic duty and pride by giving our fair share….

Imagine if we had a new 1040-series form … with boxes for various agencies and programs from Agriculture to Commerce to Transportation and beyond. You could check as many boxes as you like, to split your money between different agencies….

That’s not exactly what Representative Campbell suggested, but his bill would put a box on the 1040 form that you could check if you want to donate extra to the government. So warm up your checkbooks!


With respect to the “heart of America,” this was one of the most moving things I’ve read in a long time:

A young Iraqi translator, wounded in battle and fearing death, asked an American commander to bury his heart in America.

Read Michael Yon’s Wall Street Journal op-ed for more. And be proud of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who stand in the gap and make life better for oppressed people. I salute each and every one of them.

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