Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why You Should Vote

by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

It will soon be time for America to vote again. Which means we are also due for a new bout of hand-wringing over whether or not our democracy is doomed. Our community is fraying. It’s been eleven years since Americans believed our country was heading in the right direction. Since then we’ve elected a new president, 62 new senators, and turned over at least half of the House of Representatives. We vote, but nothing seems to change. Why is this?

Maybe the problem is that we don’t vote. 2012 only saw a 58.2% of eligible voters show up. Wouldn’t we be happier if we all knew our voice was heard at the ballot box? Wouldn’t we have better leaders if more people contributed? If you have ten minutes to spare, let’s explore how expanding suffrage, a mythical fire beast, and the decline of graft have changed how we vote and what we should be voting for.

Social scientists denote voter turnout in terms of a formula: PB + D > C. Translated it means an average person will vote if the Probability of a vote influencing the race in favor of a perceived Benefit plus the perceived pleasure (D; social scientists fail at acronyms) of voting outweighs its Cost. Thanks to easier voting regulations (early voting, vote-by-mail, same-day registration), the cost of voting is quite minimal compared to what it used to be. When the USA began it had all sorts of rules prohibiting people from voting through taxes and discriminatory practices.

Of course, back then the voting pool was much smaller than today; only rich white men could vote. Back then there was a representative for every 30,000 people, a senator for about every 50,000 people, and less than half a million voters decided the president. Now it is one representative per 700,000 voters, 6.6 million per senator (though that varies by state), and 160 million vote for president. While it is a wonderful, WONDERFUL thing that our nation has grown and allows women, African-Americans and immigrants the right to vote now, it’s much less likely that an individual ballot will influence a major election.

We also doubt our voice will count because of the effect of gerrymandering. Derived from word for the ancient beast of fire, the salamander, a gerrymander is a nonsensical voting district artificially made to ensure that lots of people who vote alike do it in the same district. Observe. Every 10 years, each state is required to redraw voting districts. Some states try hard to have competitive and responsibly drawn districts, others gerrymander. If we think that our vote will have any benefit because the game is rigged, we won’t vote and we’ll resent the voting process.

Another change in our voting habits has been the decline of local corruption. In the past, politicians ran for office because that’s where the money was. Land-use directors could sell and zone land for developer buddies. Mayors would sell off or donate jobs to wealthy patrons. Everyone who supported “the machine” got paid, down to the neighborhood election officer who encouraged locals to vote early and often. Leftover spoils would be used to support candidates for national office. Local politics were often more important than national politics because you choosing who was going to get paid.

Today the dominant political organizations operate on the national level (Congress and higher) instead of the local level (city, county, and state). Campaign strategists and special interest groups have the power over political decisions because they can distribute cash nationally from the top-down instead of from the bottom-up like in the machine days. And an individual vote (or personal campaign donation) won’t have much impact on that kind of election. And increasingly, big-ticket campaigns for high office captivate our attention much more than the local ones (as evidenced in the voter turnout decline for non-national elections).

I know this is a seemingly grim picture of the value of elections, but you can change this. Instead of relying on national issues to motivate you (the PB portion of the voting equation), look to local issues. Is your city holding a referendum on universal child-care? Increased minimum wages? Legalizing drugs? Ending abortion? Aren’t these important issues? Your local councillors/selectmen/commissioners are also incredibly important in deciding the economic direction of your area, and when you get down to it I bet you they have different ideas on the future. And school boards! If you are concerned about your children’s education or the well-being of the next generation, pay close attention to your school boards. What are their stances on the Common Core, teacher evaluations, home-schooling support? These are the issues your vote will have the greatest impact on, and are no less important than electing congressmen.

If you can take time to understand your local politics, you’ll make an informed choice. When you make the informed choice you will realize how much your vote matters and what you’ll gain from the vote. You’ll feel connected to everyone else who voted (even if they all voted wrong) and be able to talk more constructively with your neighbors. And that feeling of civic connection is what strengthens a community’s trust in itself.

So don’t vote primarily for the big D’s or R’s that you’ll see so often. Find out more about what is happening in your community and vote on that. Consider the rest a bonus.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Geek Girl Con (Star Wars)

And we're back with highlights from Geek Girl Con 2014! 

Star Wars Fangirls

It's a pretty sure bet that if you have a panel on Star Wars, I'm likely to be there.  Star Wars was my first big fandom and my introduction to geek culture - and more importantly, Star Wars made me feel comfortable in interests that are (or were) traditionally assumed to be male dominated.  I've previously told the story of how I first came to know Star Wars; Leia was the only woman I knew who had any connection to space, and she was the reason that I could feel like my female-ness was welcome in space, or in sci-fi.  I can't even believe how important that is, because if I'd never found her, I would have assumed that space and sci-fi "weren't for me."  I would have gathered that those areas were for boys, and I was a girl, so I should be interested in other things.

This is what the struggle to change geek culture is all about - making all areas open and welcoming for everyone, regardless of gender - and it's something the panel covered in exhaustive detail.  Despite its kick-ass rebel princess, Star Wars doesn't exactly have a great track record when it comes to female characters, and since the sale to Disney that's only become exacerbated.  You may be aware of Star Wars Rebels, the latest TV show aimed squarely at getting kids hooked on the Star Wars marketing machine.  But not just any kids - boys.  The powers that be want boys, and the marketing has reflected that with almost painful precision.

Despite the fact that there are great female characters in the show, and despite the fact that there's definitely a demand for Star Wars stuff from girls, none of the trailers for the show featured the female characters.  None of the tie-in books starred the female characters; none of the Hasbro action figures released included female characters; none of the Halloween costumes on the market were for girls.  Probably the most egregious error, in my opinion, is that when t-shirts and other Star Wars clothes were released, the female characters were left out entirely.  Despite the fact that the show is, reportedly, about these kids being a "family," the merchandise (geared entirely towards young boys) cut out the girls.

The panel felt that there was a strong "wait and see" element to the new face of Star Wars - from Star Wars Rebels to Star Wars Ep. VII, the initial roll-outs were heavily skewed male, and female characters appeared only after backlash from fans.  It's good that there's a response, and that more female characters are making their way into the canon, but the fact that they're always second isn't great. 

Taken together, these two issues send a damaging message, especially to the kids targeted by the marketing.  Girls feel unwelcome; boys learn not only that girls are unwelcome, but that female characters are less important.

All told, I'm not extremely hopeful for Ep. VII - but I'm not despairing just yet, thanks to two things.  One, an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Kiri Hart, the leader of the story group for Ep. VII.  When asked about diversity, she states that Star Wars should be diverse because it's a big galaxy. Ms. Hart doesn't solely bear the responsibility of making Star Wars diverse, nor does she necessarily have that power, but the more women - and particularly women of color - I see involved in the making process, the more confidence I'll have in the end result.  And two, Disney paid a lot for the Star Wars franchise and they need to make a profit.  The panel pointed out that this was one way in which audience power could affect the marketing and the series.  It's not great that female characters seem to be an afterthought, but at least there's been a response.  Perhaps we can build on that.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Monday Writing: 5 Reasons Writers Should Have A Day Job

Like many career artists, I have a day job.  I think that the dream for a lot of artists - the sort of ultimate confirmation that you've "made it" - is to quit the day job in triumph, having discovered a way to sustain oneself on one's art alone.  But having spent much of my adult life in pursuit of a day job which will provide the perfect balance of financial support and time to perform/write, I've found that the non-arts job can provide a multitude of benefits in addition to simply being a way to pay the bills.  I've long felt that every human being should be required to work retail simply to have an idea of what it's like behind the counter; recently I've added to that the thought that all writers should have a day job, at least once.  Here's why.

1. Stable income and benefits
This is THE reason why writers have day jobs - writing is a tough way to make enough money to pay the rent.  A day job can provide not only the financial stability and peace of mind necessary for you to have the mental energy to write, but it can also (if you're lucky) ensure that you're able to see the doctor and save for retirement.  (You are saving for retirement, right?)

2. Fodder for stories
You know where funny/strange/interesting things happen?  Where ideas for stories wander around just hoping you'll bump into them?  It's not in your little office, or on your couch, or wherever you write.  Holding down a day job offers a full cast of characters and characteristics, especially if you're in a public-facing job.  Not only that, but now you have experience with a type of work.  Perhaps your character is a barista - well, since you've lived that experience, you know what it's like.  The old adage is to write what you know, so why not know as much as possible?

3. Social interactions
Most of the writers I know are introverts, so this is a big one.  Social interaction provides you with interesting material (see above) but it also allows you to practice your people skills (important for those writing conventions and classes and working with your agent and/or editor).  Plus, you never know who you might meet.  Connections are everything.

4. Business skills
This is a big one, because it's an area in which many artists are lacking.  As a writer, you're essentially setting up your own small business - or, at least, you hope to in the future - and along with that comes all kinds of responsibilities.  If you want an income, there's a good chance you need to be able to market yourself, and then if you're getting an income, you need to file business licenses and pay taxes.  You'll also want to know how to send a business letter (to potential agents/editors) and interact professionally with places that might sell your work or host and promote your readings.  You may not get experience in all these areas from one job (unless you work for a small non-profit) but you can certainly get valuable experience in the running of a business from being part of a functional one.

5. Focus
It can be daunting to lock yourself up in your office and stare at a blank screen.  Now imagine doing that full-time five days a week.  I don't know about you, but I would go completely stir-crazy.  Plus, it can be hard to focus when you're staring down eight hours of writing.  Perhaps you need a snack first.  Perhaps the snack was good but now you remember that you need to do the laundry.  Well, if you're doing the laundry you might as well change out your summer and winter clothes, and if you're going to do that, why not clean the whole closet?  Etc.  I find that breaking up the day with a day job in the morning allows me to focus better in the small chunks of time sprinkled through the day I have dedicated for writing - two hours in the early morning, half an hour each way on the bus, one to two hours in the afternoon before dinner.  Having to go to a day job makes your writing time that much more precious, and that can translate to increased productivity.

What are the reasons you're glad you have a day job?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Life: Spinach Cheese Squares

When I was a young thing, my family moved across town to a new house. We were in the South at the time, and so as we were settling in, our new next door neighbor, a lady of the old school, brought over lemonade to welcome us. Thus began a long and happy association that resulted in the devouring of many cookies and other goods including a recipe that became our go-to car trip snack: spinach cheese squares.

I'm told that when I was little I had a great fondness for spinach; I still do, if it's cooked, and even more so if it is covered in cheese. This recipe is easy enough that a child can make it, and you can use either frozen or fresh spinach depending on what you have on hand. Additionally, it can be cut into squares and packed in Tupperware for your next thirteen hour road trip (make sure to have it on ice, though, as there are eggs involved.) It's a delicious, filling snack and I'm sure the spinach makes it somewhat healthy.

Spinach Cheese Squares

2 Tbsp butter
1/2 c flour
1/2 c milk

1/2 tsp baking powder
2 c shredded cheese (sharp cheddar is best, but you can mix it up)
10 oz (1 package) chopped spinach
3 eggs, lightly beaten
½ tsp garlic salt
¼ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and melt butter in a 1½ qt baking dish to grease. Beat the eggs, then mix in milk, baking powder, flour, and seasonings. Add the cheese and spinach and stir. Spoon into the baking dish and bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 45-50 min or until lightly browned.  Can be served hot or cold.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Don't Panic (About Ebola)

by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

Ebola is not going to kill you.

Americans are protected from a mass epidemic by societal factors and are unproductively fearing this disease. Even CNN, the hyperactive fear monkey of news channels has realized this. People in West Africa are vulnerable to the disease for the precise reasons Americans are not: problematic food supply, lack of medical care, and lack of governance. We fear ebola because we don’t know much about it. If you can spare five minutes, read on to discover more about ebola, why it spread in West Africa, and the benefits of good government.

First and foremost: ebola is found only in the bodily fluids of the infected. It is extremely likely that it will stay that way: science has never observed any disease like ebola becoming easier to transmit. Second, it takes about 30-42 days to run its course, during which time about 50% of the infected die. This is lower than related outbreaks which had a mortality (death rate) of up to 90%. Third, while there is no cure or vaccine yet, two are undergoing accelerated testing in volunteers. Currently in America, only travellers from West Africa and hospital workers are at risk.

Why then, is American news so full of warnings about ebola? I propose there are three reasons: the news media over-portrays negative stories, narcissism, and selective interpretation on the facts. You’ve probably heard the expression: “if it bleeds, it leads” used to describe the order in which tv, radio, print and online journalism presents stories. Mediascope, a media consulting firm, has verified that "Market research suggests that stories of crime and violence increase newscasts' ratings." The fear potential in a currently incurable fatal disease makes it attractive for editors who adhere to the bleeds/leads school.

News reporting on the disease’s impact on West Africa, where it is most deadly, has slowed while reporting on the minimal impact of the disease in the West has rapidly increased. This narcissism falsely equates the devastation there with a handful of deaths here. Unlike affected nations, Westerners possess strong food-supply chains and rarely eat bats (“bush meat”), which is thought to be the origin of the ebola family of diseases. We have large, strong hospital systems with about 1,000 times more doctors per person and about five times as many hospital beds per person than worst-affected countries. This means we can treat victims better and isolate them from the public. Finally, we have a government that can treat victims, maintain public order and if necessary, institute quarantines. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone lack all three of these abilities because their citizens do not trust their government after years of civil war and corruption. To equate the danger of ebola there with here implies that American lives are worth an order of magnitude more important than West Africans’.

The final reason we read/hear/see so much coverage about ebola is that we have a societal fear that we cannot handle ebola. We fear that our government is inefficient, corrupt, irredeemable, and will fail to stop the disease like what happened in West Africa. It’s why we have stories about Gov. Perry, Pres. Obama and the new Ebola “czar” dropping the ball in the response. Such stories neglect to mention prior illnesses that “were going to kill us all”:

West Nile Virus (1999; 283)

SARS (2003; 0 deaths)

H1N5 Bird Flu (2006, 0 deaths)

H1N1 flu (Variant of the seasonal flu; 2009; 3,300 deaths)

These have all failed to kill us all because we have a functional government. We have a government that can battle disease, encourage proper medical treatments, and maintain public order. Despite hearing the phrase: “government is broken” ad nauseam, we should look to how our government is doing with ebola: only one person has died, our survival rate is 88% instead of 50%, and over half the possible cures being worked on around the world are developing here (supported by government grants and tech).

Diseases are a fact of life. The deadliest disease outbreaks in the United States in the last 50 years have all been variations of the annual winter flu. And it will continue to be so until we finally figure out the cure for the common cold. Until then, we have more to fear from the mundane than exotic viruses from far-away places.

Ebola will not kill you, but it is killing people in West Africa. If you have an additional two minutes, consider donating to Doctors Without Borders to fight ebola and other similar diseases.

Next Week: Gerrymandering, or, Why Your Vote Counts But Your Representative Doesn’t

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wednesday Culture: The Empire Strikes Back Uncut

Today's movie of choice is truly a testament to...something.  How much Star Wars stuff people have just lying around, maybe.  The creativity and imagination of humanity.  How deeply a story about good and evil and space wizards and rebels resonated with the world.  The incredible technological power we have at our fingertips.  The importance of story-telling in our society.  This movie, filmed by friends, families, and some professionals, in schools and malls and living rooms, with handmade costumes and props made from cardboard and household goods, gave me a little more faith in people.  Maybe it's because of all the gender-bent characters, or the dad-and-daughters combos, or just the sheer willingness of people to be very silly for fun.  Or maybe it's just because I love Star Wars, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to know that hundreds of strangers love it too.  Whatever the reason, I hope you enjoy this mesmerizing, sometimes bizarre, take on "The Empire Strikes Back."

And look for my two favorite moments - Yoda as portrayed by a baby with a large bag, and an Imperial  Officer with a sheet of what looks like sudafed pinned to his chest.  (Also, a shout-out to Seattle group &@, who did part of the Han torture scene. Among other things, they have a very creative Hamlet you should see.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday Writing: Should You Do NaNoWriMo?

Ah, October!  That month of crisp sunny days and fall colors (or, in Seattle, grey rainy days and sodden trees), that time of pumpkins and Halloween, that build-up to NaNoWriMo.  Yes, friends, it is that time of year when writers all around the world take a good hard look at their lives and ask themselves that age-old question - will I do NaNoWriMo this year?

I have participated in (and won) NaNo for five consecutive years and took last year off to edit the previous year's manuscript, so I have a pretty good idea of what I'm getting into.  I love NaNo, and I've written before about what you can get out of NaNoWriMo, but it's true that writing 50k words in a month isn't for everyone.  For those of you pondering NaNoWriMo for the first time, here are some things to ask yourself.

1. Is your significant other in agreement?
This is just common sense, and it is doubly important if there are small children involved.  You must get your family onboard.  You are not permitted to drop all household chores and childcare on your partner for the duration of NaNo unless you have talked it over and your partner has agreed to said deal.  Yes, NaNo requires discipline, and some things in your life are going to have to slide, but don't be a jerk.

2. Are you in grad school/working more than two jobs?
There were two times in my life I said no to NaNoWriMo - the first year I heard of it, when I was in grad school, and last year, when I was working three jobs and editing a manuscript on the side.  Be smart about your scheduling and don't kill yourself trying to do one more thing, even if it is a fun thing. The same goes for major life events - if you're getting married or having a baby in December, maybe consider doing NaNo next year.  Yes, people have added to their word count from the delivery room, there's nothing that says you can't, but you might consider whether doing NaNo is going to improve your life or make it temporarily harder.

3. Can you handle stress?
Make no mistake, NaNoWriMo is stressful.  I've finished every year with well over 50k words (once up to 75k) and it's still stressful.  You're working towards a deadline, and again, even if it's a fun project, the looming nature of November 30th and the sheer number of words you have to get in is going to raise that blood pressure just a little.  You must be able to do three things: manage your stress so that you are not miserable to the people around you, take NaNo less seriously so that you have as little stress as possible, and be able to recognize the point at which NaNo has become so stressful that it's not worth finishing anymore.  If you can do these things, you'll be fine.

4. Do you thrive on deadlines?
Speaking of deadlines...the whole point of NaNoWriMo is to provide support for an arbitrary deadline. If you just can't work with deadlines - either they stress you out to the point of being unable to write at all or they don't put any pressure on you to finish - then maybe this isn't the writing challenge for you.  If you're unsure but you've had good answers for every other question on this page, then consider giving NaNo a try.  At the very least, you'll find out if deadlines work for you.

5. Are you ok with a terrible first draft?
It's going to be terrible.  It will be wonderful, too - there are definitely parts of my NaNo drafts that I love - but it's going to be awful.  It's going to require a ton of editing and probably a major reworking.  Prepare yourself for something that doesn't follow consistently, has lots of long boring parts, is filled with clich├ęs, and basically needs to be taken apart and put back together again.  You will love it anyway, but you have to accept that it's going to be bad.  And that's ok!  NaNo is about quantity, not quality.  The quality comes in the editing and the rewriting.

6. Do you have other writing goals you should be meeting?
THOU ART NOT PERMITTED TO USE NANOWRIMO TO PROCRASTINATE ON A WRITING GOAL.  Thou mayest, however, use NaNo to take a two-month break from a project you're struggling with in order to emerge with a draft for a future project provided that come January, you're back to the struggling project and the NaNo draft goes into a drawer.  (If you have an editor waiting, no, you may not do NaNo.  Be nice to your editor and get your project in on time.  You can do NaNo next year.)

7. When will you write?
Think this through carefully.  You need 1,667 words per day.  How long does it take you to write that many?  And where are you going to find that time?  I've squeezed in words by writing on the bus to and from work (usually about five hundred words), getting up early, staying up late, writing on lunch breaks and once, during work (I don't recommend this unless you have the kind of day job that allows it.  I did, once, and it was glorious).  That time is going to have to come from somewhere, and while you may find that your writing patterns shift somewhat during the month as your life adjusts to make room for all this writing, it's best to have some scheduled writing time set up for at least the first week.

Will you be doing NaNoWriMo?  What's your story?