I recently read a piece in the Arizona Republic on the fantasy writer Sam Sykes. The article’s author was Michael Senft. I don’t always sit down to posit over articles, but this one was a special read. Mr. Sykes is a regular panelist at the Phoenix ComicCon and has just released a new book called The City Stained Red. He will have a book signing at the Poison Pen Bookstore on Scottsdale Rd. at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 31.

The article caught my attention because I enjoy reading authors talking or writing about writing. Mr. Sykes did not disappoint. Here is my favorite quote:

…the biggest part of writing [is] figuring out why your characters can’t be happy.

It seems to me that this simple truth, turned inward, is a big part of healthy living too. Mr. Sykes goes on to say, “I have little patience for some writers who act like it is some mystical art. It is at its core something simple and primal, it’s understanding why people are people, and why they do what they do.”

This is solid advice for any writer. It gives us a clue as to how and why the audience senses bad writing. It’s kind of like that old saying about porn—you know it when you see it. If a writer does not capture the truth about a character in a given situation, it doesn’t matter what universe that character is from or if that character possesses some super-power. The reader quickly sniffs out the bad writing and just stops reading.

Sometime ago, I watched a TED Talk by someone named Mac Barnett. Mac Barnett is a children’s author, and he opened with, “My job is to lie to kids, they are honest lies; you see I am a fiction writer.” He went on to quote Picasso. It was a great quote that I will not relate here. The point is that it was Mr. Barnett’s contention, and Picasso’s before him, and even Mr. Sykes too; that art lies at the intersection of truth and lies—fact and fiction, and that is a basic rule about storytelling.

Figure out why your characters can’t be happy and you will understand them. And, like I said, perhaps this is a good life lesson as well.

The raison d’être of business is to make money. Over the past 25 – 30 years the mantra rose to a crescendo. Everyone joined the choir: blue-collar Reagan Republicans, politicians, certainly the grassroots of the [Republican] party, even academia. In this instant gratification world, profits were king.

Wha happen?

Get rich quick schemes, favored by Wall Street, were sold to the public, as patriotic as microwaveable apple pie. Of course they crumbled. The tail (financiers and hedge traders) wagged the dog (corporate boardrooms). This was done in the name of “liquidity.” But note that get rich quick schemes are the favorite tool of con men. They are inherently unstable. So “too big to fail” is what happens when Brobdingnagian business meets instant trading.

The watchdog role of government was cuckolded by anti-government rhetoric and political campaign contributions.

Here’s a blog by Michael Reardon. His idea is to establish the “George Bailey” award. It would be given annually to deserving business persons who best exemplify the spirit of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Many dislike the politics of Frank Capra. But even the most hardened cynics get teary-eyed if forced to sit and watch this fabulous piece of storytelling. Admit it, the film is a tidy counter balance to the “me, me, me society” of the 2000’s.

Read Mike Reardon’s blog at:

Is the legend true?

I attended a meeting of the North-East PAChyderm Coalition last week.  The PAChyderms were hosting a forum for the Republican candidates for Corporation Commission.  The new candidates on the republican slate are former Senate President Bob Burns and former Scottsdale Councilwoman and CAP Chair Susan Bitter Smith.  I have a little history with both, so I thought it might be interesting to attend.

The PAChyderm Coalition bills itself as a “Reagan Republican organization.”  This particular chapter seems rather small, but they may have been up-staged by the fact that two of the republican candidates for President of the United States were making appearances in the Valley at the same time.

The meeting was headed by a guy named Howard Levine.  Howard seems like a likeable, sincere guy, eager to “make a difference” in government.  Howard also seems intelligent, but definitely has a bad case of what I call “Dogmaticia Extremicus” (extreme dogma).  This affliction makes people blow things up way out of proportion, and seems to cause irrational fear–similar to the legend of the elephant and the mouse.

Howard is incented by the mandate that requires that 15% of APS and SRP power be generated from renewable sources by 2025.  None of the candidates endorsed the policy; they all called it an “experiment.”  They all agreed that the mandate should not be enlarged, but they also felt it was too late to roll the mandate back.

Howard disagreed.  He kept pushing the panel for a “repeal” date.

Now remember, these are all really conservative candidates.  Although I wasn’t familiar with the incumbent, Commissioner Bob Stump (great name though!), I would say that all three seemed ideologically aligned.  From my past history with Bob (Burns) and Susan, I am sure they would make wise and fair judges for the Commission.

But that wasn’t enough for Howard.  He kept pressing.  You could tell the panel was uncomfortable, if for no other reason than not wanting to boil highly complicated (and boring) regulatory matters down into neat little sound bites.  Finally after much prodding they agreed that the only date certain was 2025.  Howard seemed to lose sight of the fact that the mandate actually sunsets in 2025.  Still he seemed satisfied:  “Maybe then we can throw away our solar panels, and rates will go down.”

Howard’s questioning bore little resemblance to the complicated spreadsheets commissioners must wade through.  Never mind such pesky things as capital outlays, depreciation and revenue streams.

What does all this mean?  Here is an example of smart guy trying to make a complicated issue fit into a tidy, somewhat over-simplified vision of the world.  Why?  I can only assume because it makes Howard feel better.

Now I’m not saying that some of his concerns are baseless, but isn’t the complexity of utility regulation the reason why we elect commissioners?  It was if he was trying to prove that a pair of pants is really a shoe.

For the record, the RINO Dude is actually for the 15% mandate.  I think it withstood early and withering conservative skepticism and has really emerged a winner for the state.  I am not; however, interested in raising the mandate to a higher percentage.

In an earlier post entitled “A Closer Look at the Clowns in the Cockpit,” I detailed how in 1990 NASA had determined that 65% of all airline accidents stemmed from pilot error, and that such errors came from the pilot’s own “godlike certainty” (their words not mine).

History is full of “group-think” mistakes carried out by people with “godlike certainty”.  Howard Levine is a nice, well-meaning man—but even well-meaning people can lose their moral compass when they think they have all the answers.

I know this put me at odds with the current mind-set within my party.   But it is a condition that, in my opinion, is not only consuming our party, but it is paralyzing our country.

Apparently I am also at odds with the Ronald Reagan quote featured on the PAChyderm website:

“A political party cannot be all things to all people.  It must represent certain fundamental beliefs, which must not be compromised to political expediency or simply to swell its numbers…. And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these conservative principles, then let them go their own way” (emphasis added).

What can I say?  Those are strong words meant to lead the true believer.  But quotes can be taken out of context.  Here’s another quote from a pretty famous republican: nothing is right 100% of the time.  And another, this one from scripture, which says:  there is a time and a place for everything under the sun.   This is why I cringe every time I hear from people so filled with certainty.  And, with all due respect, by definition, a political party certainly is many things to many people–that is the nature of the big tent (another circus allusion, see how tidy that is!).

For an interesting “Myth Buster” on the elephant vs. mouse legend watch here:

The “Tea Party” and “Yes We Can” are two sides of the same coin.

Think back two years.  October 2008, the improbable was happening.  Then Senator Obama’s dark horse presidential campaign held a significant lead in the home stretch.  Even more amazing, it was about to be swept over the finish line by Wall Street’s crumbling infrastructure–infrastructure built on a foundation of Neo Conservatism.

The slogan “Yes We Can” effectively summed up what candidate Obama was selling:  optimism in the face of wide-spread dissatisfaction over an already worsening economic environment and the Iraq war.  A close look at Senator Obama’s actual policies never occured.  The Republicans were in disarray.  Senator McCain was too busy shoring-up the right wing of the party to be mounting a serious campaign for the hearts and minds of moderates.

But had Mr. McCain been able to do so, perhaps he could have said this, “There is nothing new about Mr. Obama’s rhetoric.”   Oh there was talk about opportunity afforded by a new “green economy,” but there was no realistic roadmap on how to get there other than some reheated Keynesian thinking (and perhaps a dash of central-party planning).  Boiled down, for Obama and the Democrats, change meant returning to FDR-style policies.

Fast forward to today.  The Republicans are poised for big wins in the House and Senate.  This seems to be a reaction to the continuing awful economic environment, perhaps combined with an Obama backlash (political scientists tell us this happens to some degree with every first-term president).  But what horse are Republicans riding in this race? 

The Tea Party would like to believe it is the same one rode by Paul Revere himself, but if you believe that—well you probably belong to the movement.   No, if you take out the anger, and the immigration debate, from an economic policy perspective, this is the same stuff Ronald Reagan ran on.  Get the government out of the way and everything will be fine–not really any different from Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.

We're all mad here...

The reality is that neither idea is new.  Strict adherence to one or the other does not offer any new answers to the long-term debt and employment problem faced by the U.S. (and Europe and Japan for that matter).  Both extremes perpetuate the same idea, which lies at root of our problems:  that you can get something for nothing.  And, unfortunately, until the “you know what” really hits the fan, it seems unlikely that we are destined to make progress on the real issues—Social Security, health care, and defense. 

The good news is that it seems we’ll always have Washington to blame for our problems.

Embrace Complexity

In the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a baby is born to old age and then reverts to infancy.  More on point, the author of the Dune series opines that societies become “soft” once they become dominant, eventually decaying and passing from glory because they are no longer shaped by hardships that led to greatness. 

I do not mean to suggest that anyone’s particular lot in life is easy.  Life in general is often cruel and unfair.  But step back and view life in the United States as others see it.  We all should be thankful to be Americans.  Often times, when I listen to political rhetoric, I would think we are an oppressed people.  Anger and fear are so persuasive that I hardly recognize this country as the one I grew up in.  I believe this reaction stems from the complexity of our modern world.  Problems are so intertwined and change happens so quickly, that we suffer from burn-out.   

It may be comforting to know that this problem is not new and probably tied to simply being human.  Certainly change and complexity have picked up in the modern era (defined as post enlightenment).  Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”  I find Lincoln particularly inspiring because at a time of unmatched difficulty and discord, he guided the nation by two stars:  the importance of individual liberty and the importance of the American experiment, the union that guaranteed such liberty to its citizens. Read the rest of this entry »

Desparados Muchacos

When I was a young boy, my grandparents retired and moved to Tucson from a suburb of Chicago to be close to my family.  I’ll never forget what my Grandmother told me.  Paraphrasing, she said something along the lines of:  “We must try to understand the Mexican culture, as it has been here in this part of the country longer than we have.”  That was my Grandmother, though staunchly conservative, she was always an independent thinker.  In a previous post I suggested that the best strategy for Republicans in regards to immigration reform is to hold Democrats accountable to their pledge of closing the border.   I understand the desire to do something more about illegal immigration, but with one exception, I still believe that is the best strategy.   

The exception is pretty huge.  It comes from my perception that sometime during the 90’s, the federal government made a big push to effectively “close” the California border to illegal immigration.  Arizona then became a major thoroughfare, but has received little assistance from the Fed’s ever since.  As a matter of fact, former Governor Janet Napolitano used to make this a big talking-point during her administration. Read the rest of this entry »

This blog has often characterized the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the party as out of touch with the realities of twenty-first century living.  My main point has been that today’s social programs, which have already been incurred by government (primarily Social Security and Medicare) together with the cost of projecting  military power worldwide, and the cost of education necessary to compete in the modern economy render the “Starve the Beast” view of government unworkable, at least for the time being.  I do believe that the libertarian philosophy and a true federalist system with its emphasis on local control is an important vision, but one that is more likely to be achieved in the twenty-second century than now.  As the national spotlight is now focused on the topic of Wall Street Banking, I think it is a good idea to look back on the history of regulation and federalism.

Federalism in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s amounted to state’s rights.  At that time, joint-stock  corporations were a relatively new concept.  Division of labor had reached the states, but by and large, America was primarily a source of raw material for European manufacturing.  Jefferson’s vision was to have de-centralized power and an agrarian lifestyle.  The Whig or federalist side believed in strong central control, and were intent on developing a strong manufacturing base.  This side scored big with the passage of the U.S. Constitution and the creation of the Federal Reserve, although state’s rights advocates did secure important concessions along the way including the separation of powers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Hey wait a minute, who's running this country anyways?

President Obama ran on change.  Is change what we got with healthcare?  Maybe it seems like change to a voter trying to check things off a list, but to me it sounds like more of the same.  Maybe it feels like change for the President’s own party faithful.  But I ask the question again, is change what we got?  I had to smile at this line that I picked out of the Sunday NY Times:  “What if they through a revolution and nobody came?”

The truth is President Obama never really showed us his healthcare hand.  Perhaps he truly recognizes the problem of mushrooming U.S. healthcare costs, particularly in light of the eminent retirement of the baby boom, but if I had to guess, this is what his brain trust were thinking: Read the rest of this entry »

I have a public confession to make.  I am a Christian.  That seems pretty simple to say, but for me it has been really hard.  Perhaps I’m a victim of modern-day political correctness, or perhaps it’s because this is an area loaded with so many landmines.  That being said (and you can ask my wife about this), I have arrived at my faith by a rather circuitous route.  You see my wife and kids are Catholic, but for some reason, I continue to resist “taking the bread.”  The kids attended Catholic school, so it’s pretty obvious why 80% of our friends are Catholic (though some practice more than others).  Interestingly, this was true even before I met my wife.  Some day I may pull a “Tony Blair” and convert simply so I can take communion with my family, but for some reason I’m not that comfortable making the conversion until the Catholic Church unpacks some of the baggage it hauls around. 

For me, chief among these is the sexual abuse scandal.  It is the proverbial “elephant in the room.”  For better or worse, the scandal will continue to rock the Church to its foundation until it drills down deep to deal with these issues.  So this is where I begin to look for answers, both metaphorically and physically. Read the rest of this entry »

We Arizonans adore the image of our state as one of the last bastions of the “Wild, Wild West.”  We are, after all, the forty-eighth state (the last on the mainland), the home of Geronimo (the last Indian renegade), and Tombstone (perhaps history’s most infamous gunfight).  We also boast Senator Barry Goldwater, the rugged individualist who was probably the last national politician to forgo image consultants.  Senator McCain has carefully cultivated his image as a maverick, it is this tradition that Sarah Palin and Scott Brown seem to aspire to.

Formal Western American Romanticism as an art form started (as many things originally American things did) in Boston; however, its real genesis probably started in Northern Europe whose populace held America up as the land of opportunity.

Academia tells us that Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which is probably true, but it is historical irony that the Industrial Revolution produced the very tools used to conquer the last bastion of the wild and romantic West. Read the rest of this entry »

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