Tag Archives: United States

Peeling Back the Crust of Occupy Wall Street

I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole Occupy Wall Street…thing since it hit the internet a couple weeks ago. I say “thing” because I’m not sure what else to call it. Is it a protest? A revolution? A movement? None of these words seem to completely embody what OCW has come to mean in our cultural consciousness.

The most fascinating thing to me about OCW is the strange disparity between what it looks like, and what it is. What it looks like is a movement driven by pro-socialist, anti-capitalist, nut-job hippies who want to take away all the money from the “one percent” and transition to a system where no one buys anything, and we all live off roots or something, right after Tyler Durden blows up those pesky credit card companies’ headquarters.

But what it is, is something far harder to easily classify.

What it is is people. People who are looking at a their own country, a country that used to be something, a country where hard work and determination paid off, and wondering what happened. Some of those people are indeed, the far-left anti-capitalist nut jobs I just described. But from what I’ve seen the members of OCW as well as those who have joined with them in solidarity across the country are far more diverse than that.

The protesters’s lack of unity has been the source of much derision in nearly all of the OCW media coverage in recent days. But in my opinion the lack of unity is precisely what makes this movement important. We’ve been told over and over about the widening partisan divide in America, and yet here is a group in which people from all political walks of life are coming together with the understanding that something is wrong.

Which is why I am somewhat dismayed by how some of my fellow conservatives have reacted to this movement. It seems that in their minds OCW is a symbol of the terrors of liberal thinking, the absolute extreme of left-wing evil. But they’re only looking at the surface of the movement, rather than trying to understand the underlying force behind its success.

Need we remind them that the same fear that the country was screwed up beyond recognition was the reason for the success of the TEA Party? I’m sure I’ve raised some liberal hackles with that last statement, but in my mind OCW and the TEA party are two trees grown from the same roots.

Take these quotes for instance:

“Remove all loopholes and bring the corporate rate down to something like 15%. This would actually INCREASE tax revenues by luring in more corporations as well as having all corporations pay something in taxes.”

“I’m learning more and more about how regulation actually squeezes out small businesses, and is often driven by the very companies that we consumers want to regulate.”

“We wouldn’t need subsidies for renewable energy if petroleum had no subsidies. I support this.”

And It does my little conservative, Adam-Smith-loving heart good to hear some of these guys protesting government bailouts of big banks and calling for the abolishment of the Federal Reserve. Take that John Maynard Keynes.

And these comments aren’t from ultra-radical anti-government conservatives. These statements, and many more, came from this comment thread discussing the focus of the OCW movement. I’ve only provided a few snippets, but you should click through and read as much of it as you can. It’s fascinating stuff, and it really helps to illustrate my point. Most of these people would probably identify themselves as some variant of liberal. In fact there are several derisive comments to the tune of, “keep this up and you’ll attract the libertarians, hur hur.”

But as a conservative who often feels very very alone when I step across the threshold into cyberspace, it’s revealing to see that there are no shortage of people online who think in much the same political direction as me. They likely have very little love in their heart for the Republican Party, but that is because they see Republicans as the mindless supporters of all corporations to the detriment of everything else. And now that many of the Democrats have jumped onto the “too big to fail” bailout bandwagon, no wonder they’re protesting.

OCW has the potential to be something good for our country, but only if we accept it as an opportunity to understand that our political enemies are not the mind-numbed robots we would like to believe they are. It’s easy to develop an “us vs. them” political mindset and immediately discount anything coming from the other side of the aisle.

And it’s worth noting that there are things worth fighting for, principles worth standing up for. This post is not about compromising your beliefs. Rather it is about looking across the aisle and realizing that the person you’re fighting with may not be as different as you first believed.

It is an admonishment to look past appearances and political cliches, and to see what is.

One Apocalypse To Go, Hold the Zombies

Several months ago I talked about the zombie apocalypse and how to survive it. It was a lot of fun for me to write about the end of the world at the hands of the living dead, but I’m gonna let you all in on a little secret.

I’m pretty sure that’s not very likely to happen in real life.

But today I want to talk to you about a disaster that may affect you in the coming months and years. Economic disaster.

I’m not an economist. I do not have a degree in this. But I have made this something of a topic of personal interest, to learn about what makes the economic world function. I’ve read a number of books on the topic (most notably Adam Smith’s doorstopper The Wealth of Nations) and over the years it’s become something of an increasing concern to me that the population at large doesn’t understand the basics of economics. So today I’m doing my own small part to remedy that.

Specifically I want to talk to you today about inflation. Inflation is what happens when money becomes less valuable.

“Hold on a second, Albert,” you might be saying. “Do we need to go and get that jacket with the extra long sleeves again? Money can’t become less valuable. It’s money. One dollar is always worth one dollar.”

Ah, yes. Let me explain. You see, dollars have no inherent value at all. You can’t eat them. You can’t live in them. And if you light your cigars with them you just look like a snob.

Dollars only mean something if you can trade them for other things. Things like bread, and houses, and Zippo lighters. When I talk about dollars becoming less valuable I mean that you can’t trade them for as much stuff. For instance you can’t buy as much bread for one dollar today as you could in 1980. Why? It’s not because the bread we have today is so much more valuable than the bread we had in 1980. It’s because the dollars are less valuable.

“Wait a minute, Albert,” you might be asking. “How does this happen? Do dollars have some kind of half-life that causes them to lose value over time?”

No indeed. The factors that cause the value of dollars change are the same factors that cause the value of anything else to change. One the one hand we have “supply” and over here we have his brother “demand”. You may have heard of them.

Supply is how much of something there is. Demand is how badly people want it.

If supply does down, value goes up. If I’m the last guy in the world with a glass of water you had better believe that glass of water is going to be valuable.

But when supply goes up, value goes down. If the earth is covered in a deluge of drinking water, I’m not gonna have much luck trying to pawn off my one little measly glass of water to the guy in the next boat over.

If demand goes up, value goes up and vice versa. The more people want something, the more it’s worth.

The value of the dollar has been going down pretty steadily over the last eighty years or so because the Federal Reserve has been adding to the money supply a little at a time.

Why have they been doing this? Because they don’t want the dollar to become more valuable (there are a number of reasons for this and we can’t get into them here for the sake of length.)

“Okay Albert, so what’s the big deal? The value of the dollar has been going down steadily over the years which means that prices have gone up a little at a time. This does not seem like that big of a deal.”

And on the whole I’d say you’re right. Except.

Lately the Federal Reserve has been doing its money creation thing way faster than normal. Again, the reasons for this are kinda complicated, but remember what we said about what happens when supply goes up? Value goes down. That means that your dollar won’t buy as much as it used to.

You’re probably seeing it already, in the price of groceries. I know I have. The increased supply of dollars is creating lower money value which translates into higher prices.

Meanwhile, the US government is experiencing financial difficulties. That means that other governments are giving us the sideways eye, wondering what’s going to happen to the US economy. Result?

The demand for dollars in other countries could drop, and anything we get from overseas (which is almost everything these days) will necessarily cost more.

Now comes the scary part. You see increased prices now at the grocery story, but it’s possible things could get much worse, and if they do, it’s likely it could happen very fast. In other countries where this kind of thing has happened, prices of basic commodities would skyrocket in a matter of months or even weeks.

So what can you do? Not much. But if you have investments, it might be a good idea to take stock and see if they’re likely to hold their value as the dollar takes a plunge. I also recommend owning your own home, because if you can weather the storm of inflation, the mortgage you’ll be paying on the other side will be worth way less than it was before the whole thing collapsed.

Oh, and on the bright side, your paycheck will probably go up eventually. It won’t mean anything because the dollars will be worth less, but it’ll feel good. So that’s something.

And maybe none of this will ever happen. As I said before, I’m not an expert. And I’m certainly not a prophet. My main goal is that you all be informed, that you understand how money works. So you can watch the headlines and decide for yourself how likely all of this is.

You know what they say: Knowing is half the battle.

The other half is superior numbers and overwhelming firepower.

Asa Jackson’s Amazing Perpetual Motion Wheel and Other Stories

My parents are awesome people. I know I’ve talked about them in this blog before, but really, you can’t ever say enough about a cool set of parents. One of the things I love about my mom and dad is that they really know the kinds of stuff I’m into, and whenever they can they try to encourage my interests.

Case in point: a few years ago they went on vacation in West Virginia and visited  The Museum of Appalachia. While they were there they bought me a book about a man named Asa Jackson who lived back in the 1800’s during the time of the Civil War. Why was Asa Jackson so special?

Only because he built possibly one of the impossibly cool pieces of machinery ever. I am refering of course to the Asa Jackson perpetual motion wheel.

Now that picture may not mean much to you, but to me it’s well nigh awe inspiring. See, I had something of an obsession with building a perpetual motion machine as a kid. I’d spend hours with magnets popsicle sticks and bits of string, trying to find some magical combination that would prove all those fuddy duddy physicists with their fancy laws of Thermodynamics wrong. I’d be famous. I’d have my name lauded abroad by thousands. My machine would bring free energy to the world (Well, almost free. After all, what’s free energy if you can’t get rich off of it?)

It might surprise you to find out that this did not in fact occur.

But my own obsession with perpetual motion made me uniquely qualified to appreciate Mr. Jackson’s passion to find some method of breaking those ever-so-inconvenient laws of nature and writing his name in the history books.

And for what it’s worth, Asa Jackson’s perpetual motion wheel, functional or not, is a work of pure genius. Imagine building something like that out of nothing but wood, with simple hand tools and only a rudementary knowledge of mechanical design.

But more than anything, when I look at that wheel, when I think about Mr. Jackson and his passion to live the impossible dream I think, What fantastic fodder for a story.

Can you imagine it? I mean from a human perspective can you see how perfect it is? One hillbilly in the backwoods of West Virginia obsessing over a machine of unbelievable complexity. What must have his family thought of his strange passion? Did he neglect them to spend time with his monstrous machine? Did they suffer for his madness? Or did they join in the delusion, pouring themselves into the success of a doomed enterprise?

This is the stuff great stories are made of, and every time I think about Asa Jackson, I wonder where all these yahoos get off asking writers where they get their story ideas.

I want to shout at them: They’re all over the place people! You just stepped in one. Look! You got its inky gooey guts all over your shoe. And it’s still moving it’s little segmented legs. At least have the decency to put it out of its misery you murderer!

Bottom line: Asa Jackson was crazy awesome as well as awesome crazy.

Bottom line #2: Story ideas are everywhere.

Bottom line #3: My parents are crazy awesome, but not awesome crazy (or any other kind of crazy for that matter.)

The Parable of the Super-Duper Quarter

Once upon a time in a reality plane far far away, there was a planet which was inhabited entirely by quarters. The quarters lived a happy but uneventful life until one day when they spotted an alien space ship in the skies. The space ship landed and alien scientists came out of it.

“Oh dear,” the quarters cried. “Have you come to probe us and infect us with your larvae?”

“You are all quarters,” said the alien scientists. “We do not even know how that would work.”

“Then what do you plan to do with us?” asked the quarters.

“We are going to flip you all and observe the results,” said the alien scientists. “But do not worry. No harm will come to you.”

The quarters were very happy to hear that the aliens would not hurt them and many of the quarter had always secretly longed to be flipped, so they happily queued up outside the flying saucer and waited for the the aliens to do their experiments.

Sometimes the quarters landed with their heads up, and sometimes they landed with their heads down. The alien scientists all made careful notes each time a quarter was flipped. But then after many, many thousands of quarters had been flipped many many times, something strange happened. One of the quarters went in to be flipped and he landed with his head facing up every single time.

When the other quarters heard the news they were all astonished. Clearly any quarter that could land with his head up on every flip must indeed be a super duper quarter. From far and wide the other quarters came to see the super duper quarter. Newspaper stories were written about him, and he was interviewed on late night talk shows for quarter TV stations.

The other quarters asked the super duper quarter what his secret was. They wanted to know how they could land heads up every time too.

“It’s very simple,” said the super duper quarter. “I eat 47 pounds of avocados every morning for breakfast. No one else I know eats so many avocados. This is the secret to my success.”

Soon the quarters were all clamoring for avocados and the quarters who were avocado farmers got very rich.

But it made no difference. Sometimes the quarters who had eaten avocados landed heads up and sometimes they landed heads down.

When the alien scientists finished their research they told the quarter people they would be leaving in the morning, but when the quarters all went to bed the alien scientists snuck into their houses and took them all and put them in a big bag. Then the alien scientists loaded the big bag onto their flying saucer and took off. When they got back to their home world they used all the quarters to buy soft drinks, and they drank all the soft drinks in one go. The soft drinks gave the alien scientists a stomachache and subsequently their entire race died out in a bizzare accident involving rubber bands and pancakes.

The quarters lived inside of the soft drink machine while the alien civilization crumbled outside. They were very thankful for their new home and they praised the super duper quarter for bringing them into such good fortune. They were so grateful that they  made the super duper quarter their king.

All the quarters lived happily ever after. Except for the super duper quarter, who rather missed his avocados.

The End

Moral: Too many soft drinks may not be very good for your health.

Moral the Second: Everything is better with avocados.

Moral the Third: Alien scientists are generally not to be trusted.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

I almost didn’t write this review. I said to myself, “Albert you reviewed a non-fiction book two weeks ago. A biography of Joseph Priestley hardly fits under your “bizzaro” designation does it? Why not just give it up and write another film review? I know you’ve been itching to talk about Primer.”

And all of those are good arguments. But to be honest…I love this book.

Because even though at it’s heart it’s a biography of Joseph Priestly in reality The Invention of Air is a book that touches on topics as diverse as philosophy, science, religion, politics, and history.

The fundamental question of this book, and the thing that made it truly fascinating to me was, What is at the core of greatness? Is it personal genius? Some kind of intelectual zeitgeist? Socioeconomic factors? Or could it be that it is a combination of all these things?

Joseph Priestly was a scientist who flourished in the era leading up to the Revolutionary War. He discovered that plants produce oxygen, as well as discovering oxygen itself. But he was also much more than this. He was a dissenting minister who preached radical doctrines which brought the ire of the Church of England down on his head. He was a political activist who argued strongly for America’s right to be an independent nation, and eventually fled there when his radical views sparked outrage in England.

But as I said, this book goes beyond simply recounting the evens of Priestly’s life, and delves deep into the world that Priestly lived in. It goes to great lengths to help us understand the forces that helped to bring that world (and by extension, Priestly himself) to into being. Steven Johnson creates a fascinating framework for history stepping far back and envisioning world events as nothing more than the transfer of energy. The energy bound up in England’s shallow coal deposits, the energy of the Gulf stream bringing warmth to the British Isles, all of these and more conspiring together to create an environment where knowledge and intellectual passion could finally blossom in the age known as the Enlightenment. Reading this book, one comes to understand that the individuals we focus on in our historical texts are simply a small part of a much larger movement, shining examples of an entire world as it changes.

I was also fascinated by how studying Priestly’s life unveiled the deeper facts of America’s founding. From Franklin’s reluctance to go to war to the role that gunpowder from the French played in the American victory, viewing history through the lens of one man’s life brings out so many little details that seem to get lost in the overview historical accounts we’ve all learned in school.

And a deeper knowledge of history is invaluable to understanding the present. Priestly’s involvement with the Alien and Sedition Acts directly parallels the kinds of arguments Americans are still having today over detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely. Seeing similar events through the perspective of history helps to put political and constitutional debates today in better context. Despite the doomers and the gloomers the truth is that from the very beginning our republic has had to face upheaval and uncertainty, and despite many the many pitfalls and setbacks, we’ve managed to pull through.

And if for no other reason than to learn that lesson, The Invention of Air is well worth reading.


Aaaand I’m still shilling for my Old Yeller meets Night of the Living Dead novella called A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw. If you don’t have a Kindle there are now multiple formats including but not limited to EPUB PDF and TXT available at Smashwords. Do check it out if you haven’t already.

Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and the Steampunk Space Race

So I’ve got this problem see? A little over a year ago I had the idea for a story. Like many of my story ideas it was crazy, weird, and difficult to catagorize into a specific genre. (By the by, I’m petitioning for “crazy, weird, and difficult to categorize into a specific genre” to be it’s own genre, but so far, no luck.)

The basic premise of the story was this: wouldn’t it be neat if there was a space race between the North and South during the American Civil War?

Don’t laugh. It’s not as outlandish as it sounds.

Okay, yes. It’s exactly as outlandish as it sounds. But the the idea was to write a story that seemed believable, a kind of non-fiction account of an alternate history of the Civil War with a dash of steampunk thrown in for good measure.

I wanted to make the story as believable as possible, so I started doing some research into the flight technologies of the era, which were mostly limited to balloons and maybe a few gliders. Almost immediately I stumbled across a gentleman named Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, a pioneer in the field of aeronotics and head of the Union army’s balloon corps.

When I read Mr. Lowe’s story something clicked in my head. “That’s my guy,” I thought. “He’s the one I’m going to build this story around.”

Why? Well, for starters his name is Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe. If that doesn’t scream EPIC right in your ear then I don’t know what will.

Thaddeus was a self-made scientist and balloonist. He rose from humbled beginnings and eventually became recognized by the scientific community as an expert in his field. When the Civil War started, Thaddeus demonstrated how the use of balloons could greatly enhance the army’s ability to gather inteligence regarding the movement of enemy troops. Despite stiff competition from several other noted baloonists, Thaddeus was eventually offered the position as head of the Union balloon corps where he served until 1863 at which point questions about the effectiveness of the balloon corps were raised, and Lowe resigned in disgust. A few short months later, Thaddeus recieved a letter from a mysterious gentleman who claimed to represent the interests of the Southern forces which proposed Lowe come to work on a project of far larger scope: the building of a device which would “gain far greater heights than a balloon ever could.”

No, wait. That last part didn’t actually happen. I made that up. Because, hey, I’m a writer. That’s what I do.

The problem is that, to a certain extent, I’m writing about real people in real history which means…deep breath, I can do this…research.

I mean really, I graduated high school for a reason you guys.

And sure, I could just go ahead and fabricate whatever I want to. I mean it’s not like anyone’s going to get bent out of shape that my book about space flight during the Civil War is historically inaccurate, but…darn it if these Civil War balloonist guys aren’t the kookiest, craziest, most egotistical nutcases you’ve ever seen in your life. Even if I wanted to just make it all up, I don’t think I could make up anything as interesting as what actually happened.

I’m still planning to go ahead with the book, but it’s going to take me longer than I initially expected. I’m going to have to dig up all the facts I can about Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and his wacky contemporaries. Something about this is starting to smell a lot like work.

But you know what? I’m kind of looking forward to it.