Blog

Welcome to the Index

You’re no doubt wondering why I’ve gathered you all here!

I’m sorry, I’ve always wanted to say that. I blame the old detective shows I was brought up on.

I started this site because my head’s been filling up with ideas for far too long, and I’ve recently noticed that a few of those ideas are starting to look complete enough for publishing.

My goal as a writer is to make people think, to question what they think they know, and to make them enjoy the above two processes if at all possible. That’s why what you’ll find here ranges from fiction to non-fiction, from satire to deadly serious, and from prose to the occasional piece of rather dreadful poetry.

It’ll all be clearly labeled, so above all:

Don’t panic.

Ew, Freedom 5: The Empire Strikes Back (On Morality)

It’s been promised for so long, and finally it’s here! Why I hate your freedom!

Sorry, that was last month. Actually it’s… hang on, let me check my notes.

“Why true liberty involves sacrifices to Bahomet”… no, that’s next week…

Ah, here we are. Freedom, morality, and how they intersect with the government.

So the usual argument goes something like this:

Freedom is a vital part of human happiness. Freedom is a vital component of human virtue. Freedom is something loved by everyone! Heroes have died to preserve it, and those that lack it cross oceans and lead revolutions to get it. Yet government and government policies by their nature infringe on freedom. How can this be supported?

Freedom is one good of many.

We don’t just value freedom, after all! We value family, health, prosperity, love, art, knowledge, and justice. Sometimes we trade one of these goods for another. For example, when Ned Stark in Game of Thrones must decide between lying to save his daughter’s life (family) and supporting the rightful heir (duty/honor). If you prefer metaphors that are more based in reality and less based in epic fantasy deconstructions: a student who loves engineering and music might have to choose between knowledge and art when deciding on a career.

People generally act as if these goods have a hierarchy to them. Good A will always trump Good B, and so on. This often isn’t borne out in practice, however. Someone might say, for instance, “Friendship means more than anything to me!” Yet they keep working at their job for filthy lucre instead of quitting to spend time with their friends. And I suspect if you offered them $20 million to miss their friend’s birthday party, it’s the rare person who’d say no.

These goods are valued the same way other goods are valued in a market economy: comparatively. If you have the option to spend time with your friends at the cost of some amount of money, we can work backwards from your decision (and the amount of money) how much you really treasure friendship relative to cash. In the same way we determine how much steel is valued by how many heads of cabbage, or blue rupees, or barrels of oil, or (for the  most part) dollars that people will trade per ton.

Freedom is like cabbage, is what I’m saying. People will likely value it quite a bit, since it’s so vital to human virtue and happiness. People will likely value it very highly.

But – not infinitely highly.

People who valued freedom from government regulation infinitely highly would go to whichever state has the least regulations (Idaho? I’m not actually sure). Or possibly just a platform in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They would give away all their money to whichever libertarian platform had the best chance of effecting even a minuscule change.

You know, I sometimes suspect people don’t really understand the concept of “infinite”?

Most people do not move to Idaho. They value non-Idaho things – like family and friends and high-paying jobs that don’t involve potatoes – more than they value the extra freedom from government regulation.

Most people do not go live on a platform in the middle of the Atlantic. They value non-Atlantic thing, like living on land and being around other people, more than they would the large amount of freedom that doing so would give them.

Most people do not donate all of their money to libertarian charities, although the libertarian charities seem rather disappointed about this.

Freedom, then, is valued in a finite amount. We take trade-offs – a certain amount of goods for a certain amount of freedom.

Suppose that the government is considering a regulation that would ban dumping coal into the local river. I must now consider the trade-off: a certain amount of my freedom will be traded for better care of health. More specifically, I lose my freedom to dump coal into the local river, and I gain the “good” of not drinking coal water.

And since I care quite a bit about not drinking coal water, and not very much about being able to dump coal into the river, I say that this sounds like a reasonable trade-off.

This is the root of modern civilization, and many of its laws (I trade my “freedom” to steal for the good of living in an economic system that acknowledges private property).

This is all an attempt to say that many of the trade-offs proposed in modern politics are not proposed because I, or anyone else, hates freedom. They are there because they are believed to be worthwhile: giving us enough “good” to justify losing unimportant freedoms like dumping coal into rivers.

Image result for those who would trade freedom for security deserve neither

You know something interesting? That’s not the actual Benjamin Franklin quote.

What he really said was:

“Those who would trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither.”

Hence why we’re all living under a Constitution, instead of some Articles of Confederation.

But now I think we’re coming to my very favorite libertarian argument of all time:

TAXATION IS THEFT. 

I don’t think that’s in big enough letters, honestly. It’s the basis of the libertarianism I see all over my Facebook wall, anyhow.

So in response – “How can we have a holiday supporting Martin Luther King Jr? He was a criminal!”

Well, yes. He was a criminal. He broke, rather publicly, some quite racist laws against protests that the southern states had put in place to shut him up. It’s why “Letters from Birmingham Jail” is a thing.

“Criminal” is an extremely emotionally charged word. It sounds incredibly negative. It practically begs for a sharp response. Yet in this instance we’re forced to take a breath and examine the ways that MLK was a criminal – and conclude by pointing out that the ways he was a criminal don’t make him a worse person.

Or perhaps, “Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism and went to America! She was a TRAITOR!”

A philosopher might say that we’re equivocating between two meanings of words, with “traitor” and “criminal” in some cases meaning “evil untrustworthy person” and in other cases meaning their dry, legal definitions.

The English language contains a lot of this sort of thing, wherein words package moral judgments with their descriptions. “Greedy”, for example (all companies are “greedy” in that they would like to have more money, but I’m sure that’s not what you hear when someone says “greedy corporation”), or “killer” (an accurate thing to shout at soldiers, maybe, but that moral judgment remains), and of course we have the old saw of “infidel”. It only means a member of another religion.

Using words like this is a cheap trick. If someone tries to use it in a discussion, instead of a speech, I try to assume they’re only a bit obtuse, rather than deliberately trying to emotionally charge a rational discussion.

Optimism like that is what keeps me going.

Calling taxation “theft” is the exact same trick.

It only sounds and looks like an argument because those who use it hope that the people hearing and reading will equivocate “theft” in their minds with “an awful act done by terrible people.”

To be fair, some people really do see taxation as no different than a mugger holding a gun to someone and taking their wallet. I encourage these people to give all their money to libertarian charities and move to a platform in the middle of the Atlantic.

Real arguments have nothing to do with what words you can stick to things, and how nasty they sound. Real arguments have to do with what consequences those things result in.

“But You,” you say, talking to your screen like an absolute git, “since government actions practically by necessity involve the threat of force against innocent people, isn’t that morally wrong?”

Why, exactly, should it be? Consequences, remember.

“Because the threat of force has bad consequences, like making people unhappy or ruining the economy or making people wear spandex bat costumes.”

Sometimes, yes. Other times, not so much.

Take our examples of fish farming, boycotts, and charity in the earlier parts. There, the coordination problems that were solved through force meet an incredible criteria: they benefit the group and every individual in it. Not only that, but every individual in those groups knows that benefit and would vote for it.

There are other cases, such as the retirement savings plan we mentioned in the previous part, that meets a different criteria: it benefits the group and every individual in it, but not every individual in said group might realize that they benefit, and they might not support it. This is what my libertarian friends might call “paternalism.”

Other cases, of course, might fit an even looser set – they benefit the group as a whole, but maybe not every individual in that group. They might even be damaging to some. My libertarian friends might call this “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

All three instances, however, put a lie to the idea that the threat of force must always be bad on net consequences.

“Well,” you say, “it’s wrong because *INSERT MORAL BELIEF NOT ABOUT CONSEQUENCES HERE*

If a moral belief isn’t about consequences, it’s pretty poor.

The Jews believe God commanded them not to commit murder. They also believe God commanded them not to eat bacon. A lapsed Jew will likely continue to not murder, but will probably start eating bacon. I’d probably lapse the first time I saw someone put bacon bits on pizza.

Hard evangelical Christians believe God commanded them not to steal. They also believe that homosexuality is a sin. If they lose their faith and become atheists, they don’t suddenly start stealing – but they will probably stop worrying about The Gay Agenda(tm). Why?

Killing and stealing both have bad consequences; that almost seems to be the essence of why they’re wrong. Fires on Saturday and homosexuality don’t hurt anybody else, but stealing and killing do.

The argument is pretty libertarian: I can do whatever I want with my life, which includes following personal or religious beliefs. Other people can do whatever they want with their lives as well. The stuff that matters – the stuff we pull the government out for, like murder and theft – we do because it has a consequence in the physical, material world like hurting other people.

One argument I’ve seen has to do with the Non-Aggression Principle, which is the idea that no one should ever initiate force except in self-defense.

Well, you know what? It’s circular reasoning, that’s what!

Often, people attempt to derive this principle from self-ownership – the form of “private property” you need to own anything yourself, including your own body, is an extremely complex concept that requires a greater moral heuristic. And although it’s rather obvious that you ARE your body, going all the way back to Descartes, you can’t very well go “therefore the only proper philosophical relationship between you and your body is the concept of ownership as understood by 17th century English law.”

Here we seem to run up against the is/ought dilemma: that just because something IS true, doesn’t mean it necessarily SHOULD be. There may be a fact-based relationship between you and your body, but that in and of itself is not evidence that this relationship is good or important or needs to be guarded by laws.

We will eventually decide it should be (and thank heavens for that), but other values must come first. We cannot use the decision itself as a basis for those values.

The argument of ownership that comes from this rather questionable assumption runs into even more problems shortly. If your body picks an apple, the apple is yours, even though you didn’t make it. If you land on Palm Beach and plant a flag and trim a couple of trees, Palm Beach belongs to you and your descendants forever, even though you absolutely didn’t make it. If someone sails to Palm Beach the day after you landed, they have to do whatever you say or leave.

There are economic and practical arguments for all of this, but they are not moral ones. All of these rules about owning islands and not randomly punching people are good rules! But saying they all stem from you simply owning a body begins to seem somewhat… unsteady.

On a slightly related subject, most libertarians will agree that the use of force to levy taxes is acceptable in certain areas. If the nation is under external threat from a foreign aggressor, or internal threat from criminals, they will say that a small amount of taxation is necessary to get the army/police to restore order. Again, this is a very good idea (or at least, it is if you want your nation to last for any length of time), but it is a blatant violation of the Non-Aggression Principle.

(I will note that some libertarians believe even taxes for the military and police are wrong. I admire their consistency, and regretfully note that I’ve played enough strategy games to know what I would do if I was sitting next to a country with no military or police.)

My last objection to the Non-Aggression Principle is that it just isn’t very good. It’s too easily toppled by conflicting rights. For example, a person may live where he or she wants to: that’s a right! Unless that person is a child, in which case … I suppose the rights of the parent to the child trump the child’s right of self-determination. Unless the parent is horribly abusive and keeps the child locked in a closet, in which case the right of the child to decent living conditions trumps the parents’ right to the child even though that one trumps the right of self-determination. Or maybe it doesn’t, because there shouldn’t even be authorities of that sort passing laws about it? Difficult to tell.

“Well for goodness sake,” you say in a huff, realizing this has gone on far too long already, “then YOU think of a better one than the Non-Aggression Principle.”

I don’t have to! It’s called consequentialism, the idea that it is moral to do, on net, whatever has the best consequences. It’s the principle that most people use throughout their lives, as well as the one which is the driving force behind capitalism – people are trying to do what has the best financial consequences for themselves. Consequentialism just thinks we should do that with everything and for everybody, instead of just “money” and “myself,” respectively.

“So… best consequences for me, or best consequences for everyone?”

That actually kind of depends on you. If you’re completely selfish, then consequentialism says “do whatever’s best for yourself!” This likely means you wouldn’t be a libertarian, though. Thankless activism for a misunderstood and slightly unpopular philosophy seems like a rather rubbish way to go looking out for Number One. It would probably mean cheating off of other people – welfare, perhaps, if you’re poor and lazy, or people in general via crony capitalism if you’re rich and lazy. You could probably just be a liberal, too, as you get invited to all the good parties.

But. If you really care about people other than yourself, then consequentialism tells you to seek out the best consequences for those you care about. This could mean your family, your country, or the world.

Most of this essay, and the one that will follow, has been working on the assumption that you do in fact care about people, just a little.

“But people all want different things!” you say. “We’d just end up in a massive war, until all have been slaughtered or one remains as a tyrant!”

Does that sound like a good consequence? No? Then most consequentialists would try to avoid it. The same goes for slavery, dictatorships, and dystopias, the other popular boogeymen brought up in the same breath as consequentialism.

The rule doesn’t mean “do whatever sounds best if you have an IQ of 20 and only think about what’ll happen in the next five minutes.” It assumes some amount of epistemic virtue; that you’ll actually think about what might have the best consequences. This occasionally means not pursuing every harebrained idea that comes to mind.

“Still! If everybody does what they think is best, even if they all think very carefully about trying to avoid a massive dystopian war, it STILL might happen!”

That is indeed an important distinction. But that’s why most moral systems have two uses – the first is defining what morality is; the second, what to do as a moral action in situations. Consequentialism does the first, but I don’t believe it manages the second as well.

As I love metaphors, I’ll use one here.

A doctor may use the gold standard in diagnosing Alzheimer’s – an autopsy of the brain after death will offer undeniable proof. For a clinical standard, however, things like tests of memory are more common.

I argue that consequentialism is the gold standard for morality: the purest, most sophisticated explanation there is. At the same time, it might be an awful idea to make everyday life decisions based on it, just as a doctor shouldn’t test his patients for Alzheimer’s by giving them all autopsies.

Once we’ve established consequentialism, though, we can begin looking at clinical standards to see which “clinical standard” of morality will result in the best overall consequences.

That, however, will have to wait.

This time, I promise it won’t be an entire month. Au revoir, friends!

The Favorite Episode

AN: Is this theologically accurate? Probably not. But I’d like to think it’s a good reminder – we’ve all got that spark of celebrity. 

John stepped through the fog that drifted near his feet and looked up at the impossibly large, pearly gates. Heaven was far more beautiful than he had imagined in his time being alive. The gates reflected the perfect, white light that seemed to shine from a sunless sky, making streaks of gold fall onto the cloudy, dream-like surface.

He made his way up to the angel, whom he assumed from his station was Peter.

“Name, please?” a voice echoed out from the being.

“John Barry Dough.”

The angel sighed. John was mildly surprised that an angel could sigh.

“You get admitted into heaven and decide to make quips?” the angel scolded.

“I’m sorry?” John asked, with as much respect as he could muster in the confusion. “My name is actually John Barry Dough.”

The angel’s shoulders went slack and it sighed again.

“Look,” it began, finally looking up to see John. It froze.

The silence drew out between them, the angel looking confused and John looking mortified. He was worried he had offended the heavenly creature. He had always struggled with first impressions, but had hoped heaven would be different.

“No!” the angel cried. “This is such a spoiler! I hadn’t seen the newest episode!”

John stared blankly at the being. “What?”

“Nothing, I’m just — oh my gosh, I’m such a fan! And I’ve been working for the last, uh,” Peter shrugged back the sleeve of his robe to glance at his wristwatch, “Forty years. So I haven’t been able to keep up with the episodes of — ”

“I’ve been dead for forty years?!” John cried. “Where is everyone I knew and loved?”

“Oh, well… no, you haven’t. Time works differently up here,” the angel said, seeming to want to move past the complex topic. “The point is, you’re here now! I can’t believe I was the Peter on watch when you showed up!”

“There are multiple Peters?” John asked.

“Well, title-wise yes, but theologically speaking – wait…” the angel nudged John’s shoulder, “Are you making a joke about how there were so many Johns in your grade school?”

“I—”

“And your high school class?”

“I—”

“And workplace?”

“I—”

“And retirement home?”

“N—”

“And grandchildren?”

“Um—”

“And cemetery?” Peter paused and considered for a second. “Well, I guess you wouldn’t really know that part. But the others?”

“Uh, yep,” John said, and then immediately regretted making a lie one of his first sentences in Heaven.

“HA! You always were a kidder! You know, I thought that your joke about the coffee maker last—”

“Peter, what’s the hold up? There’s a line forming and wait, oh my Him, why are you hugging John Barry Dough?” asked a tall, striking angel as he walked to Peter’s station.

“ZURIEL! Look! It’s John Barry Dough!”

“I know, Pete, I can see that. Oh for here’s sake, I TiVoed the last episode, but I didn’t know you died, man!” Zuriel said, clasping both hands around John’s right. “C’mon, let me show you to your place! Although,” he added conspiratorially, “you probably will have quite the welcoming party. Most people here watch your episodes live.”

“I’m sorry, I uh… I don’t understand,” John stuttered as the angel led him along a golden cobblestone walkway. “What show are you talking about? Are you sure you don’t have me confused with someone else? There are a lot of Johns in the world, after all, and—”

“HA! Because of all of the Johns in your high sch—”

“We just talked about that!” Peter interjected, almost in the clouds with laughter. “Such a classic ‘John’ moment!”

At this point, Zuriel was leaned over onto Peter, joining in on the joke. John smiled politely and tried his best not to look awkward. Zuriel stretched his back, wiped tears away from his eyes, and exhaled loudly.

“Such a classic!” Zuriel snapped his fingers. “Here you are, John, your new home!”

Where the gates had stood was now a doorway into a beautiful, modestly sized home. It was, however, completely made of gold.

“What the…” John paused, strongly considering his next word, “Mars just happened?”

“Mars!” Zuriel exclaimed, falling into another fit of laughter. “CLASSIC John Barry Dough! You always did have some cursing trouble!”

“We transport differently here, John Barry Dough,” Peter explained once he had managed to control his laughter. “Not quite like that old 2014 Toyota, am I right?”

They made their way up the small stoop to the front door, Peter and Zuriel supporting each other as they giggled incessantly. When they reached the entrance, the angels stared at him expectantly, so, not wanting to seem rude, John swung open the door and gestured them inside. He closed the door softly, and when he turned to look around—

“SURPRISE, JOHN BARRY DOUGH!” a group of glowing beings screamed. Confetti guns and a champagne cork popped.

John jumped in surprise, then forced himself to smile. “Uh… hi?”

The group burst into laughter.

“Looks like he doesn’t know what’s going on! Classic John!” someone shouted. Several others echoed “Classic John!”

John, feeling equal parts awkward, exhausted, confused by this point, lifted his hands up. “Um… thank you all for this welcoming party. I really, really appreciate it, but um… can someone tell me why you all know me?”

The average expression of the group faded from excited to confused. Peter and Zuriel, standing closest to him, gave him a worried look.

“John, you’re a famous character on our favorite show,” Peter explained as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“What show?”

“Oh, you don’t know?” Azriel gasped. “The top television show in Heaven is Earth: A Human Story! Everyone who is anyone watches it,” he smirked, giving a knowing glance to the group of angels standing behind him.

“Oh, er… so, I was being um… I mean, not to sound ungrateful, but you guys were watching me?” John asked them, feeling the heat rising in his cheeks.

“Of course!” exclaimed Marothe. “You are everyone’s favorite character!”

The angels behind her nodded and murmured affirmations.

“You mean you guys didn’t like Morgan Freeman best? He’s great!” John asked, chuckling nervously.

The group exploded into laughter.

“Classic John!” they exclaimed again.

“I don’t know this Freehand dude,” one of the angels near a window shouted, “but it is so John to deflect attention to others!”

“Amen!” another shouted in agreement. “How about that time he told the boss to give employee of the month to Shirley instead of him?”

This tidbit, which John had to feign remembering, brought on rounds of applause from the group of supernatural beings. Several smacked others on the back, enjoying the fond memory like some humans remember big baseball games or incredible concerts.

“How about when he was on that incredible streak of being at work on time?” another asked rhetorically, as if no one could ever forget.

“Five hundred and ninety-six days!” several yelled together.

“That stupid alarm!” one large angel cried.

“You set it!”

“We all saw you set it!”

“Stupid thing messed up!”

“Worst antagonist in television history!”

The crowd erupted into angelic versions of curses thrown at the alarm clock that had apparently malfunctioned. If John could recall the event, he probably would have guessed he had simply over slept.

“I dunno, remember Candace?”

Several loud groans filled the room.

“Who is Candace?” John asked.

“The cop who gave you that ticket! You weren’t even speeding. You were going fifty-four,” an angel spat in disgust.

“We even clocked the car!” another added. “Don’t have to worry about Candace up here though!”

“Oh gosh, what?” John yelled, horrified. “You didn’t ban her because of me?”

“Classic John!” the group screamed through fits of laughter.

“No, John,” Peter answered, gasping in air between the two words. “She was a terrible person aside from being a horrible ticket-writer. Totally unrelated to you, though I won’t deny we were happy to see her go.”

John smiled nervously at this, unsure how to react to someone else’s eternal damnation.

“Come now,” Azriel said, leading John to a chair in front of a large screen. “We prepared some clips for you to see!”

“I’m really not—”

“Don’t be foolish!” Marothe said. “You have to see our favorite parts!”

John felt that, even though they seemed to be adoring fans, it was still not a wise idea to disregard the wishes of the angels in Heaven. He settled himself into the chair and watched the screen flicker on. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see. What followed was a montage of office scenes and moments stuck in never-ending traffic. He remembered a time he had helped someone with a broken down car. He recognized an old lady he had helped across the street in his youth.

Between the mundane moments, however, were the ones he remembered fondly. His parents showing him how to ride a bike and how to play baseball. His friends building a tree fort and playing with cardboard swords. His more awkward high school years as he tried to find his own personality and way in the world. His years in college, spent too often not going to class. His beautiful wife and his lovely children. His friends and coworkers that brought so many smiles and laughs, even if they also infuriated him from time to time. His grandchildren and, as he was one of the lucky ones, his great grandchildren.

As he felt the corners of his eyes prickle slightly, he saw that the angels were openly wiping back tears as well. He thought he was finally coming to understand his own celebrity.

Not One More

We will never know their names.

The first victim could not have been recorded, for there was no written language to record it.

They were someone’s daughter, or son, and someone’s friend, and they were loved by those around them. And they were in pain, covered in rashes, confused, scared, not knowing why this was happening to them or what they could do about it – victim of a mad, inhuman god. There was nothing to be done – humanity was not strong enough, not aware enough, not knowledgeable enough, to fight back against a monster that could not be seen.

It was in Ancient Egypt, where it attacked slave and pharaoh alike. In Rome, it effortlessly decimated armies. It killed in Syria. It killed in Moscow. In India, five million dead. It killed a thousand Europeans every day in the 18th century. It killed more than fifty million Native Americans. From the Peloponnesian War to the Civil War, it slew more soldiers and civilians than any weapon, any soldier, any army (Not that this stopped the most foolish and empty souls from attempting to harness the demon as a weapon against their enemies).

Cultures grew and faltered, and it remained. Empires rose and fell, and it thrived. Ideologies waxed and waned, but it did not care. Kill. Maim. Spread. An ancient, mad god, hidden from view, that could not be fought, could not be confronted, could not even be comprehended. Not the only one of its kind, but the most devastating.

For a long time, there was no hope – only the bitter, hollow endurance of survivors.

In China, in the 10th century, humanity began to fight back.

It was observed that survivors of the mad god’s curse would never be touched again: they had taken a portion of that power into themselves, and were so protected from it. Not only that, but this power could be shared by consuming a remnant of the wounds. There was a price, for you could not take the god’s power without first defeating it – but a smaller battle, on humanity’s terms. By the 16th century, the technique spread, to India, across Asia, the Ottoman Empire and, in the 18th century, Europe. In 1796, a more powerful technique was discovered by Edward Jenner.

An idea began to take hold: Perhaps the ancient god could be killed.

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer mothers had to bury their daughters.

At the dawn of the 20th century, for the first time, humanity banished the enemy from entire regions of the world. Humanity faltered many times in its efforts, but there individuals who never gave up, who fought for the dream of a world where no child or loved one would ever fear the demon ever again. Viktor Zhdanov, who called for humanity to unite in a final push against the demon; The great tactician Karel Raška, who conceived of a strategy to annihilate the enemy; Donald Henderson, who lead the efforts of those final days.

The enemy grew weaker. Millions became thousands, thousands became dozens. And then, when the enemy did strike, scores of humans came forth to defy it, protecting all those whom it might endanger.

The enemy’s last attack in the wild was on Ali Maow Maalin, in 1977. For months afterwards, dedicated humans swept the surrounding area, seeking out any last, desperate hiding place where the enemy might yet remain.

They found none.

About 38 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.

You are a member of the species that did that. Never forget what we are capable of, when we band together and declare battle on what is broken in the world.

 

Author’s Note: The first words in the Wikipedia article on smallpox are, “Smallpox was”. Together, we can do great things. 

The Immortal and the Traveler

“Do you remember when we first met?” she asked, pouring the last of the last bottle.

I smiled. “I was eighteen. Physics class on the Ohio State campus.”

“Yes? Tell me what you first thought.” Her dark eyes seemed to swallow all of my peripheral vision like an entire night full of stars on the Mediterranean, centuries before I was born.

“I was stunned. You were so beautiful and so smart. You seemed to know your way about the world in every way. How nature worked. How people worked. Like you were ageless.”

“You guessed me from the start!” She laughed.

We had fallen in love and learned about each other. Loving an immortal turned out to have some complications. For her, how to keep it fresh? She had been alive for more than two millenia and seen it all. For me, how to not die? Turns out a time machine does not make a mortal live any longer.

She had a plan. A plan given to her by a strange oracle, far in her past. We had no idea of the origin of this plan, but we knew it would work.

After a pause, she asked, “Tell me, where is this Ohio State?”

I described to her a country that would be discovered a thousand years in her future and a culture that could not possibly make sense in any context of this age. How we studied in the library together and forged this strange bond while working on temporal research. A young physics prodigy and an immortal of ageless wisdom.

“So,” I asked her, “do you remember when we first met?”

“Of course!” she replied, a great mischief in her eyes. “The great steps of the city of Parsa!”

Her eyes grew distant. “I was eighteen. A thousand years ago, I had no idea I would live so long. It is still so fresh in my mind.”

“I guess I was persuasive. Or will be!”

“Oh, I was so rebellious! To be seduced by a strange foreign man!”

She told me of her unbridled passions, her indignant family and flights in the darkness. Strange stories of living for ever and taming time as a ship tames the waves.

We had been living here in Cyprus for a year. We dated each other one year at a stretch, together in the most interesting places on earth, at our whim. Our year here had drawn to a close and it was time to move on. There was no packing to be done. The time machine would move only itself and my naked body.

“Where will I find you?” I asked her. This always filled me with dread, but of course she was certain she would find me.

“Alexandria. At the library.” That mischievous grin. Her and libraries. “Take one month to get there, and then go back exactly 100 years. Meet me on the day of Mercuralia.”

I just drank in her beauty for a moment. It would be hard to be away from her for more than a month. I hoped that she would remember me after a hundred years. But of course I already knew she would – for me, that year-long date was last year. And in due course she asked, “Where shall I find you?”

“Constantinople. One hundred years from now.”

Her eyes fell. It was hard for her. It broke my heart but part of me was reassured that her love endured. I sometimes wondered if she took lovers in the long intervals, but I as long as we came back to each other, I never thought about it too hard. We kissed passionately one final time on the island. But before we parted, she stopped me.

“When you go back to Alexandria. When you arrive in the past. Find a sword, first thing. Even before you find clothes.”

She looked worried. I must have looked bewildered.

“When we met – when we meet – in the library, you told me to remind you.” She held me a moment longer.

“It will be alright,” she added. “Whatever it was, you were unharmed. But you wanted me to tell you, you will need that sword.”

We parted. She would live out the next hundred years to meet a slightly younger me in Constantinople. And I would travel to Alexandria, then hop backwards in time to meet an ageless her.

Ew, Freedom 4:Why Freedom Is Immoral

So tell the truth: did you just click because of the title?

I knew it.

You’re contributing to the downfall of Western Civilization, you monster. Buzzfeed exists because of people like you.

Anyway, I am deliberately pretending to be a strawman of the anti-libertarian argument, hopefully as a way of showing how just shouting “BUT FREEDOM” over everything just doesn’t always work.

And today we’re talking about the social and taxation concerns I have with libertarianism, so it fits right in!

Let’s start with the social issues.

The libertarian argument here generally goes something like this:

The harder you work, and the smarter you work, the more money you’ll get. We shouldn’t begrudge those that get a lot of money, but instead praise them for all the good to society they must have contributed in order to provide so much satisfaction to so many customers.

Those who do not work as hard, or as smart, do not get as much money. Only if they work harder should they get more. If you get money without working harder or smarter, this is unfair, and is entitlement that results in eventual societal ruin. 

Modern liberalism, unfortunately, has resulted in the opposite viewpoints. People with a lot of money are seen as greedy, hogging it all for themselves and stealing from those who work less hard. Unless they give away their ill-gotten gains, we should hate and fear them. This results in the “progressive” taxation system, which also eventually ruins society – it is both morally wrong and will result in economic catastrophe. Leaving a bigger slice of cake to the rich will result in them spending it, leaving extra wealth to “trickle down” to the poor. 

Let’s take a look at this claim of government being the recourse of the moochers, and hard work/intelligence being the main factors in success.

Many libertarians claim that the wealthy earned their money by the sweat of their brow, and the poor are poor because they did not. The usual counterclaim to this is that the poor never stood a chance.

Luckily, this is something that can be solved by empirical data.

Image result for star trek data

Wrong data.

What we want to do is simply check to see whether children from rich families are more or less likely to end up rich than children from poor families.

By defining “rich” as “income in the top 5% in America”, and “poor” as “income in the bottom 5% in America”, we find that Richie Rich is about 20 times more likely to end up rich than … Poory-Poor? Poor Pauper?

Peter Parker?

In any event, that’s rather extreme. Let’s expand the boundaries a bit and make it upper class vs lower class, if only so that Marx’s ghost can stop yelling at me about how the proletariat will rise.

Defining “upper class” as “top 20%” and “lower class” as the reverse, we discover that a person born into the lower class has a 50/50 shot of making it out someday. Not bad odds, all things considered, if a little lower than the 80% that chance would expect.

Making it into the upper class, though?

Only a 3% chance.

Upper class children are 6 times more likely to end up in the upper class than the lower class; lower class children are 4 times more likely to end up in the lower class than the upper class.

Mathematically speaking – and I hate math, so I hope you all understand what a sacrifice this is – this can be called “intergenerational income mobility”, and it’s rated somewhere between .4 and .6.

In slightly more understandable terms, that means about half the difference in people’s wealth is explained solely by who their parents are.

(Please note that you may occasionally encounter a libertarian who shows you a study that claims that poor children are more likely to end up rich than rich children are. Claims of this sort mostly come from a rather discredited study which, to sum up, claimed that 32 year old young professionals making more than college students was a fact about social mobility. The study can be traced to a think tank called the “American Enterprise Institute”, and a more detailed rebuttal of the study is here.)

An argument may come that this needn’t be parents setting their kids up with healthy trust funds. It could be genes for hard work, or intelligence! It could be that rich parents just instill a better work ethic!

This all falls apart slightly when you look at studies that compare American socio-economic mobility with other developed countries. Of 11 developed countries in one of these studies, the USA came in 10th. The “intergenerational income elasticity” was rated at .47 (falling nicely between the previous number we’d have of “between .4 and .6”), while other countries had elasticity as low as .15 (Denmark), .16 (Australia), .17 (Norway), and .19 (Canada).

Government spending obviously plays a large part in this, since education has a major role in one’s social mobility. Poor children in America are much less likely to go to Harvard or Yale, whereas UToronto or McGill are much more of a possibility for poor Canadian children, where tuition is mostly government-subsidized.

Even if it is true, the argument may come, that rich children have an advantage, don’t all these studies show that it’s still possible for a poor child to become rich? So in the most important sense, if you are not rich, it is still mostly your fault.

99% of people born in Ecuador become Christians. 99% of people born in Saudi Arabia become Muslim. It follows, therefore, that any chance of a native-born Ecuadoran becoming Christian is 99%, and the same is true of Islam for a Saudi – with only a 1% chance of becoming Christian.

One could say, then, that it’s basically free entry into heaven for Ecaudorans, but people in Saudi Arabia can go to hell. Literally, as it were.

And it might be argued that this 1% means a great deal. That against all odds, a few will still choose Christianity.

But what does this kind of freedom mean, when external circumstances make 99% of people in Ecuador choose one way, and in Saudi Arabia the opposite way?

It is the mind, in the end, that chooses to accept or reject Christianity, to accept or reject Islam. Yet the world around shapes that mind before it does its accepting and rejecting. There is no contradiction in saying that it is up to free will what religion one chooses, and also saying that what one chooses is almost entirely determined by culture.

In the same way, every poor person may (by their hard work, intellect, and perseverance) become rich. Whether that poor person grasps the opportunities presented them is determined by that poor person’s personality.

And that personality is shaped by factors outside that person’s control.

If success comes from externals, it only seems fair to “pay it forward” and try to improve the externals that will influence the lives of others. This simple idea is a good deal of the justification for government aid to the poor.

You want a concrete example? Lead poisoning. Children with lead poisoning permanently lose 5 IQ points for every extra ten millionths of a gram per deciliter concentration of lead in their blood. People exposed to higher levels of blood lead as a child are 50% more likely to be arrested for criminal behavior as adults.

Self-control, intelligence, and attention lead to economic success. It is grossly unfair to blame people for not grabbing opportunities to rise above their background when their very background has ravaged the organ responsible for grabbing opportunities.

The significance of whether success is personally or environmentally determined is this:

It provides justification for engineering an environment in which  more people can succeed, and for the redistribution of wealth. 

Now, onwards to taxation!

“Isn’t taxation taking other people’s money by force, and isn’t that inherently evil?”

I promise I will address this once I get to the moral issues section.

I promise I will, at some point, get to the moral issues section.

Donating chocolate is a great way to get me to write faster, and yes, I know it’s bribery.

But let’s talk about the libertarian idea that the progressive tax system (i.e. taxing the rich more than the poor) is unfair.

The best explanation for this I’ve seen has to do with movie tickets and a concept called “marginal utility”.

Let’s say that different people are allotted a different number of movie tickets every year. Some get one or two, others get thousands.

One of the people with only two movie tickets would love to get an extra one. Perhaps she wants to see Star Wars, Avengers 3, and whatever monstrosity Michael Bay has just released. As it stands, she can only see two of the movies she’s super-hyped to see this year.

Someone with ten tickets would still enjoy an extra ticket, but would get less value from it. They can see all the movies they REALLY want to see this year, but the extra ticket would let them see one that they sort of are pretty excited for. Even if it won’t be one of their favorites.

A person with a hundred movie tickets wouldn’t care much about an extra ticket. You’re not likely to see a hundred movies in a year, and if you tried, you’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of things you could bear to sit through.

For a person with a thousand tickets, an extra ticket would be practically worthless.

Not entirely worthless, of course. You could always write memos on the back of it.

All movie tickets provide an equal service, then, but they are valued differently – and 50% of their holdings represents something different to different people. If you only have two tickets, you suddenly can’t watch the second-best film of the year. If you have a thousand, you can see all the year’s best films, and at worst have to buy a new scratchpad for your memos.

Money is like movie tickets. Your first hundred dollars determines whether you live or die. The next thousand determines whether you sleep under a roof or freeze on the streets. And by your hundred billionth, you’re just buying a slightly bigger golden tower.

Progressive taxation attempts equality not by lump sum, but by burden.

Now, here’s an argument I’ve sometimes heard that shows zero understanding of how the tax system works.

The progressive tax system is perverse and blatantly unfair! Imagine the tax rate on people making $100k or less is 25%, and if you make over that, the tax rate is 50%. You make $100k a year, and at the end of the year your boss gives you a bonus of $2. Now all of a sudden you’re taking home $50,001 instead of $75k! How is that fair?

Well, it isn’t. So it’s rather lucky that’s not how our tax system works! Your first $100k, no matter how much you earn, is taxed at, say, 25%. All that you make AFTER that is taxed at 50%. So if your boss gives you that $2 bonus, you would end up with $75,001.

Most libertarians don’t make this mistake, of course, and there are much better arguments against progressive taxation. I’ve just seen this one around, and thought I’d take care of it while passing.

“But taxes are so high it’s ridiculous!”

High by what standards?

“Historical ones! Big Government means people pay more taxes than ever!”

People on median income are paying some of the lowest effective tax rates they’ve paid in the last 50 years.

“I meant for the rich.”

Them too.

“But the amount of tax revenue coming from the rich is at its highest level ever!”

This is true. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. More money is in the hands of the rich, and so they pay more. Effective tax rates on the rich are still at historic US lows.

“I meant for corporations.”

Them too. Among the lowest effective tax rates in the past 50 years.

“I mean that if you raise taxes too much, people stop producing. That’s bad for the economy AND tax revenue!”

That’s called the Laffer curve, and it definitely exists. But studies show that the actual result is high elasticity of taxable income – which is to say, the more you raise taxes, the more loopholes people try to find, making revenue go down. However, what this means is that although raising taxes by 10% will not bring in 10% more, the overall revenue is still higher. Relevant studies include Saez, Slemrod, & Giertz and Gruber & Saez.

Trickle-down, you say?

Between 1969 and 2008, average income grew by $11,684. All of this growth went to the top 10%. Income for the bottom 90% declined. Trickle-down should be classified as an interesting economic theory that empirical data has disproven.

“But taxes are a racket! They just spend it all on foreigners and poor people.”

Foreign aid comprises around .6% of the budget. Food and housing for the poor is around 5%. The majority of taxes go to programs that benefit middle class Americans, such as Social Security and Medicare (and to programs that “benefit” middle class Americans, like the military).

And wait – what’s this? Have we finally come to the moral issues section?

No.

2000 words is just right for an essay. Too much longer and things just get silly.

So stay strong! It’s coming this weekend! Who knows where we’re going after that! Who knows what we’ll talk about!

Adventure is out there, friends! Be on the lookout!

Ew, Freedom 3: Trying to Finish Economic Libertarian Concerns

I swear I have thoughts on libertarianism besides just the economic ones.

I swear.

Anyway! Last time we were here, we were talking about how libertarianism only works if people make rational choices – and that most of the time, the choices people make are irrational. But what do we mean by this?

A study was done in 2007 with a company called Thaler, wherein the employees were given the opportunity to sign up for a pension plan. They contribute a small amount of money each month, the company also contributes some money, and overall it ends up as a pretty great deal for the employees involved, providing an excellent retirement. Only a small portion of the employees sign up for it, though.

A libertarian would say that this is perfectly fine. The employees know their own finances, after all, and while you might have some outsider condescendingly declaring it to be “a really good deal”, they may have a better pension plan elsewhere. Or maybe they don’t trust the company, or don’t expect to need that much money in their old age, or what have you. Any number of reasonable answers.

For some outside force to declare they are wrong to avoid the pension plan, or worse, force them into it for their own good, would be a horrific kind of arrogant paternalism, attacking the employees very dignity as rational human beings.

But then, the company decides to switch tactics. This time, it automatically signs up the employees for the pension plan, and gives them the opportunity to opt out. And only a small portion of the employees do.

This makes it quite hard to spin the first condition as the employees rationally preferring not to get in on the pension plan, since the second condition seems to show the opposite. To me, it just seems as though people in general can’t be bothered to devote the mental energy to signing up (or in the latter case, signing out). Employees rationally deciding something is all well and good, but if they are blatantly not choosing things based on self-interest, but out of mere laziness, then clearly having someone who has better considered the issue is preferable.

You might well ask what IS going on, in that case.

Old-school economic theory presents the idea of “revealed preference” in choice, that an individual’s choices reveal all there is to see about their actual preferences. Imposing other preferences on them will result in less choices being truly satisfied

Economists have sadly gone to absurd lengths to defend this model. Noted economist Bryan Caplan once argued that when drug addicts say they wish they could quit, they must be lying. After all, if they really wanted to, they would have already done so. Seemingly unsuccessful attempts to quit must be nothing but an elaborate deception, convincing people to keep supporting them while they enjoy their drugs as they ever did.

The past fifty years of cognitive science, to put it lightly, disagrees – and this disagreement is practically the foundation of the field of behavioral economics. This research relates to our current topic because it says that people don’t always make the best choice according to their preferences – they may make the easiest or most superficially attractive choice instead. And further, it means that while people’s decisions may be irrational, they are often irrational in predictable ways, following patterns of irrationality. If people who are aware of these irrationalities may be able to do better in fields where these irrationalities are common, then paternalism could sometimes be justified.

Why should the government protect people from their own irrationalities, though?

Well, most people will have their preferences satisfied and will generally be happier if they do not make irrational decisions. By free market principles, the economy will improve as people make more rational decisions.

If this question is meant in a moral sense, as in “How dare the government presume to defend me from my own irrational choices!” then I am afraid you must wait until I manage to get to the update on Moral Issues.

What significance does predictably irrational behavior have?

It justifies some consumer safety and labor regulations, government-mandated pensions, public health promotions, concerns about addictive drugs, and advertising relations, among other things.

And finally, we manage to get to the last part of my economic concerns: lack of information.

What I mean by this is that many theories of economics start off with the assumption that everyone has perfect information about everything. If a company’s products are unsafe, for instance, the consumer will become aware of this and so buy less of it.

Now, no economist literally believes this. But still, many ideas revolve around consumers being motivated to get information on things that are important to them. If you care about product safety, for example, you will fund investigations into product safety, or only buy products that have been certified to be safe by some credible third party. The only time a consumer would buy something with no information on it is if the consumer doesn’t care about having that information, or wasn’t willing to pay as much for said information as it would cost – both of which would be a success, not a failure, of the market. In libertarian thought, if people really care about efficiency, ethics, and product safety, the market will ensure them itself. And if they don’t care? That’s okay too.

The next section I’m planning on doing has something to do with some of the irrational choices we can predict in people. You know one of the big ones? That people don’t spend as much time or effort as they should into investigating what they’re buying. So the non-libertarians are right: people who care a lot about safety and efficiency would be stuck buying unsafe and inefficient products, were it not for government regulation, and the market simply would not correct these failures.

You may doubt this, so below is a list of facts about products. Some are real and some are made up, and I encourage you to guess which are which without Googling them.

  1. Commonly used US-manufactured wood products, including almost all plywood, contain formaldehyde, a compound known to cause cancer. This has been known in scientific circles for years, but was only officially reported in recent times due to a concerted effort by lobbying by the chemical industry to keep it a secret. Formaldehyde-wood products are illegal in the EU and most developing nations.
  2. Some processed food items, including most Kraft cheese products, contain methylaracinate, an additive which causes a dangerous anaphylactic reaction in 1/31000 people after consumption. They have been banned in Canada, but continue to be used in the United States after intense lobbying efforts from food industry interests.
  3. Total S.A., an oil company that owns filling stations around the world, uses slave labor in repressive third-world countries to build its pipelines and wells. Laborers are shot or tortured if they refuse, and the company helps pay for the military muscle needed to keep these juntas in power.
  4. Microsoft has cooperated with the Chinese government to turn over records from the Chinese equivalent of Bing and its hotmail service, despite knowing these records would be used for the express purpose of arresting and silencing dissidents. At least three dissidents were arrested using the information, and are currently believed to be in jail or “re-education” centers.
  5. Wellpoint, the second-largest US healthcare company, has a long record of refusing to provide expensive healthcare treatments promised in some of its plans by arguing that their customers have violated the “small print” of the terms of agreement. They make it so technical that almost ALL customers unknowingly violate them, and then proceed to only cite the ones who need expensive treatment. It has been sued for these practices at least twice, and both times has used its legal muscle to tie up the cases in court for so long that the patients were forced to settle for a fraction of the original benefits promised.
  6. Ultrasonic mosquito repellents like those made by GSI, which claim to mimic frequencies used by natural mosquito predators such as the bat, do not actually repel mosquitoes. Studies have shown that exactly as many mosquitoes inhabit the vicinity of the mosquito repellent as they do anywhere else.

Now, you probably aren’t sure of most of these (although if you’d like to, you can Google them now).

And we live in a country that guarantees we’re probably in the top 10 percent in the world, in terms of intelligence and education.

And we live in a world where there are many organizations, both private and governmental, that exist to evaluate products and disseminate information about their safety.

And all the companies and products listed are popular ones that most American consumers have encountered and had to make purchasing decisions about. When I selected those, I tried to choose safety issues that were extremely serious and carried risks of death, and ethical issues involving slavery and communism, which would be of particular importance to libertarians.

If this was at all challenging, it means that some of the best-educated people in a world full of consumer safety and education organizations don’t bother to look up important life-or-death facts specifically tailored to be relevant to them about the most popular products and companies that they use.

And if that’s the case, why would you believe that less well-educated people in a world with less consumer safety information trying to draw finer distinctions between more obscure products will seek out the information needed to ensure they avoid unsafe, unethical, or ineffective products?

You may perhaps say that of course people don’t look up consumer information now, because the government regulates that for them. But of the true items listed, they were true in spite of government regulation. Clearly, even in a regulated environment, there are significant issues. And if you honestly believe that you have no incentive to look up product information because you trust the government to take care of that, you’re more statist than I – and I’m the guy writing anti-libertarian essays.

Other effects of no consumer regulation might be that small businesses suffer.

Think about it.

In the absence of consumer regulation, you’d have to trust corporate self-interest for quality assurance. To some degree you can do that. Wal-Mart and Target are both big enough that if they sold tainted products, it would make it into the news, there would be massive pushback, and they would be forced to stop. In a libertarian environment, one would (ironically) feel quite safe shopping at Wal-Mart.

But the interesting-looking mom-and-pop store around the corner, well, you don’t know anything about that. If they sold tainted or defective products, it would be unlikely to make the news – for a small enough store, it might not even make the Internet. You might assume the CEO of Wal-Mart to be a reasonable man who understands his own self-interest, but you have no idea whether the owner of the mom-and-pop store is stupid, lazy, or (with justification) assumes that people aren’t going to bother to check on his misdeeds. You avoid the unknown and head to Wal-Mart, which you know is safe.

Repeated across the country, big businesses get bigger, and small ones get smaller.

Lack of information justifies some consumer and safety regulations, and the taxes needed to pay them.

When we return, we’ll be talking about social/moral issues and the related arguments.

So treat yourself on having made your way through this, and get a Starbucks or something.

Ew, Freedom 2: Electric Boogaloo

A double warning before we begin: this one is a tad long.

And as I mentioned last time, this part will mainly be focused on the economic concerns surrounding libertarianism, which some find to be extremely dry. If it helps, I’m one of those people.

Arguments For: 

In a free market, all trade must be voluntary, so you will never agree to a trade unless it has a benefit.

Furthermore, you will not make a trade unless it is the best possible trade for you to make. If you could make a better one, after all, you’d hold out for that. Trades in a free market, therefore, must not only be better than nil, but must be the best possible trade you could make at that time.

Labor is the same as any other transaction in this regard. If you agree to a job, it’s because it benefits you more than whatever else you could be doing with your time, and your employer won’t hire you unless it benefits them more than whatever else they could be doing with their money. A voluntary labor contract, then, must benefit both parties, and must do so more than any alternative.

If free market trade benefits both parties, any interference by the government must hurt both parties. Put more simply, help can come from giving more options, but never from taking them away. And in a free market system where all involved start with options open, all the government can do is take them away.

Counterargument: 

This treats the world as a diarchy held by consumer and producer, rather than an integrated system made of parts that affect everything else. In addition, consumers in this system are treated as things that know variables which affect them – “utility”, “demand”, and the like. In reality, people are confusing and contradictory things and are rarely so logical.

As an example of the first point – the world is an integrated system and trade often affects more than one person – let’s say that I sell my land to an amateur wolverine breeder. She’s an amateur, though, who previously only worked with spiders. The result is that her wolverines often run amok, biting people on neighboring lands and instigating rebellions against Communist states.

This is an externality – trade that affects people who weren’t involved with it. While the trade benefited the wolverine breeder and myself, it wasn’t very good for all our neighbors, who are now hiding in their kitchens clutching cans of industrial-strength Wolverine-B-Gone.

Of course there are libertarian ways to get around this. You could refuse to settle in a town unless the people in it had signed a contract declaring they wouldn’t raise wolverines. You could try making something like a neighborhood association to sign contracts banning certain dangerous things, like carcinogenic chemical factories, lumber mill/optometrist combination plants, or breeding grounds for furry mammals of the family Mustelidae.

All it takes, though, is only one person who refuses to sign the contract, and next thing you know you’ve got the bitey little creatures all over the place. Or coal dust in your water supply, as it were. A better option might be to start your own town and refuse to let anyone settle unless they belonged to this association of yours, and agreed to abide by its rules. You could even collect dues from the members to pay for what you’d need to enforce said rules.

At this point, though, it’s no longer a clever libertarian way around government. You’ve just reinvented the concept of government and slapped a libertarian sticker on it. There’s no way around it – there is no loophole-free way to protect a community against externalities besides government, and so government remains a necessity. On this, I think we can all agree.

More importantly, externalities as a concept justify significant parts of a government – mainly environmental, zoning, and property use regulations. 

The next argument against has to do with coordination problems.

These are basically cases where everyone agrees on what would be the best action, but the free market system cannot guarantee this action would take place.

One of my favorite metaphors I’ve seen illustrate this has to do with fish farms, and (with regards to Scott Alexander, its originator) it goes as follows:

As a thought experiment, let’s consider aquaculture (fish farming) in a lake. Imagine a lake with a thousand identical fish farms owned by a thousand competing companies. Each fish farm earns a profit of $1000/month. For a while, all is well.

But each fish farm produces waste, which fouls the water in the lake. Let’s say each fish farm produces enough pollution to lower productivity in the lake by $1/month.

A thousand fish farms produce enough waste to lower productivity by $1000/month, meaning none of the fish farms are making any money. Capitalism to the rescue: someone invents a complex filtering system that removes waste products. It costs $300/month to operate. All fish farms voluntarily install it, the pollution ends, and the fish farms are now making a profit of $700/month – still a respectable sum.

But one farmer (let’s call him Steve) gets tired of spending the money to operate his filter. Now one fish farm worth of waste is polluting the lake, lowering productivity by $1. Steve earns $999 profit, and everyone else earns $699 profit.

Everyone else sees Steve is much more profitable than they are, because he’s not spending the maintenance costs on his filter. They disconnect their filters too.

Once four hundred people disconnect their filters, Steve is earning $600/month – less than he would be if he and everyone else had kept their filters on! And the poor virtuous filter users are only making $300. Steve goes around to everyone, saying “Wait! We all need to make a voluntary pact to use filters! Otherwise, everyone’s productivity goes down.”

Everyone agrees with him, and they all sign the Filter Pact, except one person who is sort of a jerk. Let’s call him Mike. Now everyone is back using filters again, except Mike. Mike earns $999/month, and everyone else earns $699/month. Slowly, people start thinking they too should be getting big bucks like Mike, and disconnect their filter for $300 extra profit…

A self-interested person never has any incentive to use a filter. A self-interested person has some incentive to sign a pact to make everyone use a filter, but in many cases has a stronger incentive to wait for everyone else to sign such a pact but opt out himself. This can lead to an undesirable equilibrium in which no one will sign such a pact.

It should be self-evident that, contrary to libertarian objections, fishermen will generally not abide by the sort of pact that would benefit everyone. The Northern Cod Fishery collapsed in almost exactly this manner.

You could maybe say, “I bet that (insert privatization scheme that takes into account cod immigration patterns and population growth here) would have ensured the Atlantic cod’s survival!”

And maybe you’d be right. But on their own, no fisherman suggested it, and it’s government regulations that stopped the overfishing.

Coordination problems of this nature mean that the government should be involved in ethical business practices. The libertarian counterargument is that if a business is engaging in unethical practices, people will boycott it, and that business will either fall to bankruptcy or change its wicked ways.

This falls apart quickly when examined.

Let’s say there’s a company, Sam’s Self-Sealing Stem Bolts, that engages in some kind of horrendously unethical practice that makes it $15 million per year. Sam’s Self-Sealing Stem Bolts – let’s just call them SSSB, for kicks and giggles – has a million customers, each of whom pay SSSB $100 per year. They make $115 million annually, then.

There’s not much reason for an individual customer to boycott SSSB. Switching to Super Saving Self-Sealing Stem Bolts Ltd. would cost an extra $75. And of course, Sam himself is still making $14,999,900 of what he originally was. There is significant inconvenience to the customer, and Sam neither cares nor stops his horrendous unethical practices.

Now, if our hypothetical customer thinks that two hundred thousand other customers would join her – well, then. Suddenly Sam is losing more than he makes off of the unethical act, and for his own self-interest he will likely stop. But if a customer does not believe that others will join the boycott, there is no tangible benefit.

Of course, if a customer believes that 199,999 other people will already be boycotting Sam, there’s no real reason for them to keep doing it. It saves them $75, after all, and the other boycotters will changes Sam’s mind regardless of their participation.

To me, this says that boycotts will generally be a failure on the market – something confirmed by data. Despite many companies doing unethical things, there have been very few boycotts which were successful.

Government regulation fixes this problem. So long as >51% of people agree with our customer that the practice is unethical and should be stopped, they don’t have to worry if any of them will boycott the company. A law is passed, and the action is banned.

But surely if people really object to something, they’d boycott it, no?

Well. No.

Are you boycotting the Coca-Cola company because they have union members in Colombian sweatshops murdered, kidnapped, and tortured?

No?

Me neither. What am I going to do, drink Pepsi?

If a poll was conducted, I’m pretty sure that 99.99% of the responses would agree that hiring death squads to torture and kill people is wrong. So why is there such a disconnect between words and actions? Are people just lying?

More likely, the explanation is more complex. Maybe people just can’t keep track of all the shady things massive corporations do. Maybe they compartmentalize their lives. Maybe Coca-Cola is just really good at friendly marketing, and people can’t mentally connect that fuzzy white bear with Colombian death squads. Maybe some people are actually just looking at it from a game theory point of view, and figure there’s no incentive to join a boycott.

If we can’t trust people to effectively boycott companies that use death squads and sweatshops, why should we trust their purchasing decisions to morally regulate the market?

Can the government really be more effective, though?

It sure looks that way to me. There’s plenty of laws that go against businesses engaging in unethical practices now. It could be argued that the very existence of these laws proves that boycotts are a terrible way of allowing people’s morals to influence the conduct of corporation – if 51% of the people weren’t able to form a successful boycott. Just enough to pass a successful law.

Coordination problems prove the necessity not only for government regulations on business ethics, but on charitable giving, labor unions, and other labor regulation. The inherent power differential between the boss and the worker means that we do not live in the ideal world where if someone does not like their working conditions, they can just quit and get another job.About 300 American citizens commit suicide yearly due to work-related stress. I think we can assume that more feel miserable where they are, but not so miserable as to kill themselves.

In the days before labor regulations, employers would sometimes ban workers from leaving the floor during their shifts, even to use the bathroom. This would often result in the workers wetting themselves. This is of minimal benefit to the bosses, and results in massive humiliation to the workers, so… you’d sort of think the free market would naturally get rid of it. Yet factories that held such policies never lacked for employees. Other companies would lock their employees inside the building until work hours were over, resulting in tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Despite that fire, locking employees inside buildings didn’t stop until regulation was passed against it by the government.

How am I almost at 2000 words already? Clearly, I underestimated economics.

If you’ve survived thus far, thanks for enduring all this dry economics business. I’ll be publishing a second part, covering the remaining economic portions, soon.

Ew, Freedom

Man, that title is clickbait.

But let’s face it, isn’t that basically what being a non-libertarian is? Going, “Ew, freedom”?

Well, imagine there are two hypothetical countries – one that says only blue-eyed people should have political power, and one that says only people with red caps should  have political power. If you met someone from one of those countries, say, a Blue, you’d think they were silly. But not because you were a Red.

You would be against the Blues because you think the whole dichotomy to be inherently nonsense – people should be elected based on their intelligence, care for the people, and wisdom in ruling. It is impossible to know if they’d be a good leader based on whether they have blue eyes or wear red caps.

Saying that if you disagree with libertarianism you must be a statist is like saying that if you’re not a Blue, you must be a Red. In the same way that it is preferable to choose leaders based on merit instead of color, so people must judge policies based on merit and not on whether they increase or decrease the size of the state.

There are those, dear reader, that truly believe the effectiveness of a policy is so closely integrated with the size of the state that the two are not worth distinguishing. One can be certain of a policy’s greater effectiveness – not perfect effectiveness, but perhaps greater effectiveness – by it being more libertarian and less statist.

Most of the following is an attempt to say that no, one must judge an individual policy on its merits, and libertarianism is not something to be worked towards.

“So”, you ask, peering down over your glasses at the screen, “why do you hate libertarianism? Why (in an aggrieved voice) do you hate libertarians?”

For countless folk, this ideology is simply a reaction against what is seen as an overly regulated society. A voice trying to spread the good news that many seemingly impossible problems may be solved by privatization and a general lack of government involvement. Many libertarians, and some of my good conservative friends, have made argument for why these certain libertarian policies are to be preferred. It is not these that I wish to write all of this about. I find this strain to be a valuable political thought process that serves as a much needed buffer against the opposite, which is found elsewhere. It serves as the counterweight to which this ponderous country manages to keep on the tightrope with.

 

But.

 

There is a peculiarly American strain of libertarianism which I find myself in the occasional spat with. Rather than analyzing specific policies and choosing if the laissez-faire approach is most helpful, it begins with the tenet that government is inherently a bad thing, and private industry and capitalism are (inherently) good things – and of course, uses this idea to push over any waft of more careful arguments. They are not averse to discussing politics by any means. I would blame it all on Ayn Rand, but I have a horrible sinking feeling that most of those most invested in sharing various self-aggrandizing intellectual posts on it have never read her. I will tentatively blame Reagan, and wave goodbye to those conservative friends of mine who had made it this far without preemptively dismissing me.

For all those first kind of libertarians, though, I do apologize for writing something attacking a caricature of your philosophy. Rest assured that I would not do so were that caricature not alive, well, and smugly posting memes on Facebook.

“So,” you continue, “are you trying to say that government intervention is better than the free market?”

What, all the time? Good heavens no.

I am attempting to avoid anything too close to a proof positive right now, as my thoughts on proper and optimal taxation policies involve a great many statistics and numbers that would quickly send this spinning off into rabbit holes. It may even have different answers depending on area and circumstance. I simply want to disprove theories that say free market works better than government as a starting point. Perhaps afterwards we will find that there are areas where this is the case, but it must be proven, and not taken as a first principle.

Why write a non-libertarian post at all, though? Isn’t statism a larger problem than libertarianism?

Well, yes. But you  never run into Stalinists at parties. Not the fun parties, anyway, and not serious Stalinists. They’re mostly found on the internet and passed around as strawmen by every Facebook page with the word “FREEDOM” in the title.

And yet especially after the most recent election, when there was so much attention drawn to libertarianism as a viable third option, there seem to be more libertarians than ever. There are several critiques of various positions – arguments for why the military/police/fire department/et al should be an exception, those in favor of gun control, people calling for universal health care. But libertarianism’s big draw is that it is a unified system, unlike the mish-mash of positions that the Democrat and Republican parties are made up of. It is quite coherent, and if you take a good look you can see some pretty clear first principles.

If you desperately want a libertarian position to use on overly statist friends, I assume there’s something out there.

A quick Google search has revealed something called the Libertarian FAQ. Knock yourself out, or rather, use it to do so to Cousin Becky when she’s skulking about the kitchen at Thanksgiving.

I am considering briefly addressing some founding principles of economics (and may abandon ship early, as I’m not sure even I can make talking about economics all that interesting) and then moving on to counter the bait-and-switch that sometimes goes as follows: convincing them government regulation can be effective, being told that it doesn’t matter because the use of force is morally repulsive, and after countering that being told that it doesn’t matter because it never works anyway.

This will be serving as the first part. Economics will be the second, social and political issues the third, and moral and practical issues the last part.

Stay tuned, kind reader, and welcome back to the Index.

Rainbow Valley Adventure: Episode 1

The Rainbow Valley Adventure

(Part the First)

I don’t know how long I was out cold. I just know I woke up with a splitting headache, staring up at the night sky. It looked… odd. I couldn’t tell you why. Too bright, I think. Too purple-y. Whatever. I wasn’t in a state to think it over though. I blamed it on being dazed from the blow to my forehead, and sat up.

I groaned and carefully felt my head with one hand– then tried again, this time removing the metal gauntlet first. No blood, no bones shifting around or soft spots or anything. Nice big fat goose-egg on my forehead though. I guessed I was okay. I retrieved my helmet, gingerly putting it back on. If current events were any indicator, my head probably needed the protection.

I got to my feet, wobbling a bit. I pulled a flashlight out of my belt (safety first, kids) and took a wary look around. I was in a grassy clearing, surrounded on all sides by trees. Behind me was a statue of… a winged woman? I did a double take. More demon than woman. Wearing armor. I looked closer; the thing had fangs and claws, too… the hell? What kind of lawn ornament was this?

Where the heck was I? I didn’t know of anybody who’d plant something like this in their back yard.

There was a noise out among the trees. I turned and saw lamplight in the distance. Something told me I’d better be careful; wherever the heck I was, I sure wasn’t invited, and I was pretty sure whoever owned this place wasn’t expecting guests. Or maybe they were – and considering how I’d arrived, that didn’t seem like a real good thing either. I switched off my flashlight, turned off my glowing eyes, and hid behind the base of the statue, my back to the cold stone, hoping my all-black costume would disappear in the shadows.

Beams of lamplight started flickering across the clearing. I heard people chattering, mostly children. They were all chattering about what a great haul they’d gotten, and a couple of grownups telling them to all stay together…. Trick or treaters? I got sucked up by some weird evil black portal through time and space just to be dropped on some trick or treaters? I stayed hidden and listened as the children came tumbling into the clearing.

After a few second a female voice spoke. “All right children, it’s time for the Dream of Darkness story. Everyone gather round and listen to Ms. Y’atha.” Dream of Darkness? Y’atha? Another woman spoke up, this one with a much deeper voice and the fakest African accent I’ve ever heard. And I’ve been to Kenya; I know.

“Come with me and very soon you’ll hear a tale of darkest moon. Gather in my little dears, I’ll tell you where you got your fears, of Maiden Dream, so dark and scary. Of the squat counselor, who makes you wary…”

I rolled my eyes and stifled a groan. Some parents or teachers were doing some sort of “oh how cute” little Halloween outing for a batch of rugrats, complete with a cutesy pootsy little ghost story. In rhyme. I listened in… unwillingly… while Sister Shaka went on, Doctor Seussing the kids about some boogyman she made up called Dream of Darkness, and hoo boy, you better fork over some candy as tribute to the statue or she’ll get mad – all of it in rhyme, of course. I’d heard variations of that old wheeze when I was a kid. I had always loved it when they’d done that with us; it had meant I’d be sneaking back after everyone left and scoring an entire extra bag of free candy.

Then came offering of the tribute. I hunkered down as small as I could while I listened to the kids shuffle up through the fallen leaves to drop their loot at the foot of the statue. I wasn’t feeling sentimental or anything, but popping out of the shadows and accidentally scaring the tootsie rolls out of a bunch of trick-or-treaters and getting the adults all mad at me was a headache I didn’t want. I would just wait until they dropped their candy and left. Of course then I’d be swiping some of it for myself, but hey.

The little rugrats were taking forever, it seemed like. Apparently the kids were a bunch of marshmallows, and were scared of the statue. I could hear the adults chivvying some of them to man up and walk up to the statue. After about the fourth kid had to be wheedled into making the march up, I started getting impatient. “Jeez, already,” I grumbled.

Did I mention I forgot to turn off the voice-changing microphone in my helmet?

My words came out in a bass rumble loud enough to hear across the clearing. I slapped my hand over my facemask, but it was too late. I heard the crowd on the other side of the statue gasp. Some of the kids let out little screams. Aw, sugar.

“Somehalf’s back there!” I heard a little girl shout. (somehalf?) Footsteps pattered through the leaves and a flashlight beam bobbled, heading around the statue in my direction.

“Sunny, no, stay back!” Whoever Sunny was she didn’t listen. Crap, they would have some brave little idiot in the group. I braced myself for what was coming and turned to get to my feet, just as the kid came charging around the statue.

Then my brain broke.

It was an elf. A cartoon elf, one that didn’t even come up to my knee. She had bright pink skin, bright pink hair, and huge blue cartoony eyes. And she was wearing a bumblebee costume with holes cut in the sides for two long, pointed, bright pink ears. She had a paper bag in one hand, and a flashlight in the other.

It… I just… I swear, I could literally hear my brain make a sound like a cartoon spring shooting out of the back of a cartoon clock. I dunno, I think it was just all those things at once that did it. I could have handled one or two of them; the fact she was tiny, or pink, or even that she was talking despite looking so damn cartoony, for crying out loud – but not all at once. I think it was the bumblebee costume that put it over the top, really. All of it together was like getting whacked in the face with a wet flounder.

I mean… a freaking bumblebee costume.

 

She froze and stared up at me. I froze and stared down at her. “What… the… HELL???” I bellowed. My voice changer made it come out like the bellow of a dyspeptic gorilla.

She screamed, the flashlight dropping from her twitching hand and bouncing away across the grass. She spun around and dashed back the way she came.

I’d always wondered why Alice had chased after that rabbit. I mean, common sense tells you that she should have gone the other way. I think I understood where her head was, after that. You see something that unreal, it’s like you just have to follow it, just to keep it in sight till your brain can decide whether it believes what your eyes are telling it.

I looked around the corner of the pedestal.

They were all elves. Elfs, elves, whatever. There were about a dozen of them standing there, mostly little mid-calf ones, but one or two who came up to above the knees. The adults, I figured. They were dressed in all sorts of costumes, and most were carrying bags of candy. Some with tiny little wings sprouting from their backs. The adults were standing in front, grouping up, some of them had tiny glowing horns (horns?!?)  or a glow around their fists or flaring their wings at me. (wings?!!?!) Leading the group was one with bone-white skin and pitch-black hair in a witch costume. “Come out of there, you big disgrace! Quit your hiding, show your face!” she shouted, in that pseudo-African accent.

Poleaxed, I came staggering out of the shadows after her, slapping the side of my helmet, trying to jar my brain back in place, accidentally turning my glow-eyes back on in my attempts to commit percussive maintenance on my skull. I looked up and knew a little head-slap wasn’t going to fix things. Beep. We’re sorry, the Brad you have dialed has been disconnected. Please try again later. Beep! I staggered out of the shadows and into the lamplight. “THE HELL ARE YOU?” I screamed in Vader-ese.

The crowd… troupe, whatever… got a load of me in my spike-studded death metal glory. All the tiny ones screamed.

“Suh-WEET Aunt Jemima’s do-rag!” the one in the witch costume shrieked, staggering back with her eyes bugged out. “Aw, NO! Run for it, y’all!” All of them turned and ran in a stampede.

The screams and stampeding little elf boots faded in the distance. I don’t know which way they went. I was too busy screaming and running in the other direction.

I ran off blind, gibbering and arghlebargling to myself as I flailed through the forest, tripping over rocks and banging headlong into trees.  I was concussed, I was insane, I was drugged, that was it, someone had slipped me some acid at the party, that had to be it, LSD in that bottle of beer or mescaline in the mesquite barbeque…

I don’t know how far I ran or how long, just that I kept going till I was so tired I couldn’t run for all the stumbling. I finally regained some of my senses. This could not be happening, yes, I know it’s a cliche, I know everyone says that in these kinds of stories but that’s because all you can say when reality goes on a bender is THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING, and it’s a hell of a lot more meaningful when you’re really going through it and not just sitting comfortably in a chair someplace reading about it with narrative omniscience on your side.

But whatever was happening, a piece of me knew I was panicking, and panicking was bad. I clutched the sized of my helmet with my hands. “Get a grip, Brad,” I said through gritted teeth, “Get a grip, get a grip, get a GRIP – ” I was sliding into a panic attack –

 

And suddenly I… wasn’t. For a real short second, the world around me went greeny-black-purple, like the lenses on my helmet had been tinted. This was it; a blood vessel must’ve burst in my brain… Then there was this sort of rush through my body, spreading out in a wave from my chest, and I was calm again.

I can’t explain it or describe it. People don’t do that. They don’t go from having reality itself flipped upside down on them to being perfectly rational and adapted and crap. The thought about drugs at that party crossed my mind again; I haven’t mellowed that fast since that time I went to the ER with a broken leg and the docs bombed me out on morphine. But I squashed that that thought as fast as I could with another: DEAL WITH IT.

I pushed that thought hard, squeezed out anything else that tried to sneak into my head. Whatever had just happened, had happened. It didn’t matter if it was a dream or a hallucination or an acid trip or whatever. If I was going to survive I needed to stay calm and trust my senses.  I was just going to have to ride it out.

The adrenaline crash hit me a second later. I had stumbled up to an enormous fallen tree, a hollow log big enough for a small car to fit in. Ignoring the smell of decaying wood, I crawled back into the dark and collapsed on the dry earth and grass inside. Pink and yellow elves, black-light tornadoes, bumblebee costumes, all of it, I could deal with in the morning. I wrapped my ratty fake-fur cloak around me and was out in an instant.

I woke. It was morning. The birds were singing, the sun was shining in through the cracks in the hollow log and someone was pulling at my boots.

I carefully opened my eyes and looked out at the world through my helmet lenses. Something large and kobold-like was hunched down at my feet, pulling at my stompy goth boots with enormous green-scaled… well, I struggled to call them “hands”. More like paws. It looked about as large as an ape. Two others, slightly smaller, crouched behind it. I froze. I’d never had a run in with any wild animals before but I recalled the advice was to play dead. I lay still and held my breath.

My eyes focused a bit more and I nearly had another panic attack. These weren’t bears or wolves or… anything. They looked like, well like really ugly scaly apes, with short mashed faces and mouthfuls of mismatched fangs that stuck out from behind their lips. Except… they were fully bipedal. Yeah. Two legs with feet, two arms. They had hands, huge clawed hands and arms like Popeye. They had short tails with clubbed, spiky ends, and yellow eyes. They were wearing crude armor, breastplates of some sort that looked like they were banged together out of pot metal and old sewer lids. And they talked.

“Get boots,” one of the things grunted.

“Can’t,” the one yanking on my boots growled back. He sounded like Bobcat Goldthwait with a hangover. “All straps, can’t get off!”

“Too dark dis place, too small. Drag ‘im out, we cut ‘em off,” the third one said, hefting a crude knife. “Get other loots too.” They seized my legs and started tugging.

That did it. Playing dead wasn’t going to do it; these mutants looked perfectly capable of lopping my legs off just to get my shoes. I should have started hyperventilating right there. Instead, another wash of stay-frosty-itis rolled over me, and I decided that if the passive route wouldn’t make them go away, it was time to be proactive. I had wired my voice-changer and my glowing eyes so that I had switches and a volume control in my gauntlet. Carefully moving my thumb, I flicked my eyes on, cranked the volume on my speaker to eleven, and sat up.

“WHO DARES DISTURB MY SLUMBER!” I bellowed as my eye lenses flared molten red.

The response was gratifying. The trio of troll-things shrieked in terror and tumbled backwards out of the log, leaves and bark flying everywhere. I decided I’d better press my advantage. I grabbed my staff – huh, I’d managed to hold onto it through all that mess last night– and rolled out of my hidey hole. I sprang to my feet and brandished my staff, flaring my cape and trying very hard to look much bigger than I was.

The three troll-apes cowered together in a ball and howled. The little one started squalling and ki-yi’ing like my grandma’s ratty little Pekingese when the cat went after it. Perfect; these things might’ve been ugly, but they were easily intimidated. The little one kept shrieking, the sound went right through my head like a railroad spike. Holy crap, I wanted to punt the little thing. “SILENCE!” I roared. The howling and shrieking faded into quavery little whimpers. “Who are you?” I said, pointing my staff at them. “What are you??”

Cringing, the middle one prostrated himself. “W-we orks,” he said, his voice trembling. “I Grunt. This one Dead Rat, him, Rotter.” He indicated the other two.

Orks. Ohhhh…kay. Right. Like… from Lord of the Rings? Or World of Warcraft? Or Skyrim? “And you were trying to steal my shoes because?” I demanded.

“Boots have shinies,” One of the others, Rotter I think, said. “We get shinies for Bossman.” I looked down at my boots. Yeah, the buckles were sort of big and square and silvery. These dimwits probably thought they were silver. Their “Bossman” was probably their pack leader. If these things even had packs… Okay, it was time to go fishing for some info.

“Where are we now? What is this place?” I said, waving my hand around, indicating the woods.

Grunt started getting this crafty look on his face. I didn’t think I liked that. “Halfies call this White Tree Woods,” he said. “They live close in halfie town and – CLOBBER, CLOBBER NOW!”

Now I’m no bad dude buttkicker, but I’ve been in a few fights, so I was smart enough not to cringe back and let them bulldoze me. I lunged forward instead, and punched the middle one, Grunt, straight in the chest as hard as I could. There was a loud “BRANK”, like someone punching in a car door with a sledgehammer, and the ork went sprawling backward, a dent the size and shape of my fist in his breastplate. Crap, what was it made out of, aluminum?

I brought my staff around in a swing, cracking the skull across Rotter’s jaw. His head jerked to the side, then he shook it off, spittle flying, and came at me again. Crud.

It was at that point I decided to take advantage of a design flaw in their protective gear:  they were only armored from the waist up. I brought my staff around in a golf swing, straight between Rotter’s nads. Ka-RUNCH. He moaned and dropped, clutching himself.

Dead Rat tried to make a go for my leg then, snarling and grunting. I hauled back and punted him as hard as I could. I must have put some adrenaline behind it because he went sailing into the air off my boot and disappeared in the undergrowth twenty feet away, his dying-moose-sounds dopplering into the distance. All of us gaped in the direction he’d disappeared in astonishment. Man, he’d caught some serious air. He must’ve weighed less than a Nerf ball.

I remembered what I was doing and returned my attention to the two fuglies lying at my feet. By that point I had a head of steam going. Grunt seemed to be the leader. I planted my boot on the back of his neck, crushing his face into the dirt. “You were saying?” I growled.

“Mercy, mercy,” Grunt whimpered.

“You try that again and you’ll find out how much mercy I don’t have,” I said, pressing down for emphasis. They said nothing. They lay there clutching themselves and looking at me with intimidated expressions that gladdened my happy little heart.

The next instant Dead Rat came running back into the clearing, yelling like his scales were on fire. He threw himself into a huddle with the others. The shrieking was like nails on glass. “ARGH! Shut UP already!” I yelled at him, readying another kick.

He cringed back. “Mercy! Mercy!” He wailed. I held my kick back and he toned it down. “Gots trouble,” he whimpered, looking back the way he came and shivering.

I caught a whiff of something on the breeze. It was like rotting leaves and compost and something else I couldn’t identify. The scaly little trolls could smell it too. I could see their noses wrinkling. They started whimpering and moaning. Faint growls echoed through the trees.

“Rock hounds,” Grunt moaned.

“Lots and lots,” Dead Rat agreed unhappily.

I saw the eyes first. Dozens of pairs of glowing yellow eyes, appearing in the shadows all around us. I grabbed my staff in a two-handed grip and waited for their heads to poke out of the stones around. They drew closer, growling, and I realized – their heads were the undergrowth. They were made out of cobblestone and wood!

They slunk into the clearing and I got a good look. It was a blend of wood and rock from nose to tail: bark, stones, dead leaves, pebbles, lengths of driftwood. Weird yellow light glowed where their eyes should be. I could see more of that same light seeping out between the bits of bark and rock that made up their skin.

Rock Hounds. I got the joke. I wasn’t laughing.

They formed a circle around us. The orks snarled at them; the rockhounds didn’t look impressed. I could figure out what would come next. I’d seen it on Animal Planet. They would keep us surrounded, penned in. They’d take turns lunging at us, harrying us till they wore us down; then they’d pile on us and tear us apart. My heart was hammering in my chest. I was scared spitless…

…No. No, I wasn’t. My emotions were backfiring again. I wasn’t scared. I was pissed. Some little part of me took a moment to be confused by this– then the first one lunged. I brought the head of my staff around in a grand-slam swing. Boom, headshot.

The hounds’s head exploded.

“What the…?” I said. Gone, head go blooey. Bark, gravel, and bits of rotten wood and leaves rained down. The hound staggered in place, like it was confused. I caught it in the ribcage on the backswing. It burst like a lawn and leaf bag, rotten bark and punky wood going everywhere.

“Hell!, they’re nothing but wood!” I laughed. “Just rocks on the outside – wood and junk all the way through!” I lit into the others, swinging like Babe Ruth on uppers. Limbs… heh, get it?… went flying everywhere. Three or four of them latched onto me, trying to bear me down. Their teeth barely dented my costume armor. I grabbed them in my gauntleted hands and smashed them against the ground, against the trees, against each other. It was compost carnage.

In a minute or so I’d busted the last of them to pieces. I smashed the last one’s head on a rock just for the irony and dusted my hands off. Sweet Mary and Joseph, that was satisfying. I dusted my gauntlets off. “So much for that,” I said. I turned around, just in time to see the first one reforming.

Oh.

A pile of leaves, rocks, and debris, shot through with yellow glowing foxfire, was slowly pulling itself together. The three orks were bashing away at it for all they were worth, but it wasn’t doing much good; it was growing too fast. The head formed and snapped at them; they retreated, whimpering. It finished forming and prowled towards us, a growl rumbling in its chest. It was bigger, much bigger. And it looked a lot tougher.

I looked back; the ones I had just smashed were pulling together now. It looked like the seven or eight rockhounds were now clumping into three, much larger ones.  Their heads now came up to my chest. They pulled themselves up, fully formed, snarling.

Apparently they decided I was the bigger threat. They ignored the cowering orks and rushed me.

I lashed around me with my skull staff, cracking a bit of them with every blow. Wooden, fanged jaws closed on my arm and leg. This time, it hurt. They snarled and savaged at me, bearing me down. I screamed in pain as I felt fangs pierce my costume armor and sink into my flesh.

Fire, I needed fire! I fished in my pocket for a lighter. It was Halloween; I’d loaded my pockets with odds and ends for cheap pranks, and a lighter was key to most of them. I got the lighter out just as a set of stone jaws closed on my hand. Thinking fast, I rammed my arm down the monster’s throat as far as I could and flicked the lighter. For a second the hound stood there, doing its level best to tear my arm off at the elbow. Then the leaves and tinder mixed in with the chunks of wood caught. smoke started rolling out of its nose and ears and it let go of my hand. It started doing a mad dance, shaking its head wildly as it caught fire from the inside out.

“HAH!” I gloated– then I lost my grip on the lighter. I went to one knee as claws and fangs tore at me, watching helplessly as the little plastic lighter skittered away into the leaves.

One tore at my arm; the other lunged over my back, clawing and snapping at my face. Any second now and it would rip my helmet off and that would be it.

Rage exploded inside me. The world went greeny-purple-black. I hated those creatures, hated them more than anything in the universe at that moment. “Burn, beasts!” I roared, and rammed my clawed fingers into its throat. Wood crunched under my grip like balsa. I might as well have been squeezing a stump for all the effect it had on the rockhound, though… then black flames burst from my fingers.

Nnnnot jet black, really. Bloody red, but shot through with black, sort of like molten lava looks, you know? It’s hard to describe in words, but you’d know it if you saw it. Whatever it was, it certainly burned like ordinary fire; in an instant the rockhound’s head and neck burst into flame. Like, fwoosh.  I let it go, and it fell to the ground, writhing and thrashing. It’s head was already a blackened lump by the time its body caught fire.

I turned and saw the third one running away. “Oh, not a chance,” I said. I clutched the black flame in my hands and… threw it at the fleeing rockhound. A jet of black flame streaked out of my hand and hit the wolf square in the ass. There was a FWACKOOM, and the rockhound exploded in a ball of fire, burning wooden dog (dogwood, heh) shrapnel raining down everywhere.

I stood there for a minute, my lungs heaving, staring down at my hands. Blackish flames were still licking up and down my fingers. They didn’t hurt. They weren’t even singing my gauntlets.

I had shot fire from my hands. FIRE. RED-BLACK fire. From my HANDS. It was about at this point that somebody decided that it was okay to freak out now.

“Who are you?” I heard Grunt quaver.

I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy listening to my brain make that noise Beaker from the Muppet Show makes whenever Bunsen brings out a new experiment. MI MI MI MI MI MI MI…. “What?”

“Who? Who are you, Dark One?”

That pulled me out of it. Well, partway out of it. I was still silently going oh my god oh my god oh my god I have Dark Magical Powers oh my god… Pieces of an idea started tumbling into place.

“I am….” I thought quick. I was still a little giddy from shock and power rush but Oh what the hell. “I am DARTH VOLDEMORT.” I pounded my fist against my chest. “…From the planet VULCAN!”

… Yeah. I know.

The three of them made some faltering attempts to repeat it, finally settling by consensus on “Darth Voldemort! Hail Darth Voldemort!” They kowtowed and groveled.

I stomped over and picked up Grunt by the scaly scruff of his neck. “Now. Who do you work for?”

“We work for Bossman. He makes us gather gems and shiny and blood and GAK.” My fist around his throat changed his mind. “You, we work for you, you Bossman now,” he squeaked. I let up on his windpipe.

I let my eye lenses light up, bathing his face in their red glow. Almost looked like an ugly pug from this angle. He couldn’t see it, but I smirked in victory. “Good dog,” I said.

Rainbow Valley Adventure: Prologue

The Rainbow Valley Adventure

(Part the Prologue)

Some authors open stories with what is called “in media res”, where you’re tossed into a scene with no idea of what’s going on or why. It is generally agreed that authors do this so as to gently cackle to themselves upon returning home, possibly while stroking a cat and sipping tea. There can be no other explanation, given the difficulties that naturally arise when a reader is attempting to understand who these characters are, why they are there, and what on earth (or, given author proclivities, off it) is happening.

The chains clinked idly against the wall where I dangled as I considered this. I had to admit, as my thoughts turned from authors to abattoirs, I was kind of impressed. I had no idea how they’d managed to cobble together a whole human-sized dungeon cell, manacles and all, in the time since they’d gotten ahold of me. Especially the manacles – I mean, it couldn’t have been easy making them with those tiny hands.

I saw a tell-tale shadow coming around the corner, outside my cell. The shadow became two one-foot-tall beings dressed in Roman-style armor who were carrying weapons strapped to their sides and matching sour expressions on their faces. They stopped outside my cell door, glaring at me like they’d like to run me through with their horns.

Yeah. You heard me. Tiny people in armor. With horns.

Right behind them came the source of the light; a tall woman in a white shimmering dress… well, almost more of a giantess, she was nearly eight times the height of the guards… with flowing, candy-floss hair and two massive feathered wings tucked in at her sides. There was a shimmering near her forehead that made me suspect she was packing the same kind of nonsense as the guards, but I wasn’t about to say anything. She was wearing a golden choker, trim golden boots, and a golden tiara.

I rolled my eyes. Oh boy. A Princess. Or possibly a Queen. A Princess that looked like the (un)holy spawn of a Greek myth’s Pegasus and frickin’ Galadriel. Could this world pile up the girly cutesy pootsy crap any higher?  I was amazed she didn’t fart glitter.

 

The shimmer near her forehead solidified into a spiraling horn of light… oh great, Magic Using Pretty Princess. So yes, it could. The cell door unlocked itself and she stepped inside. She nodded to one of the tiny beings sitting outside the cell, who nodded and pulled out a quill and scrolls and began writing. The bars slammed shut behind her.

Whoa, these guys really had no experience with bad guys if they were handling things like this. I mean, her inside with me, and her bodyguards outside? That sounded like a potential hostage crisis to me.

Then again, I wasn’t exactly an expert on these things. And I was manacled to a wall so I wasn’t likely to cause her any difficulty.

Come to think of it, what I knew about the “characters” in this little kid’s fairy tale world gone wrong didn’t make things better for me. From what I’d seen, the more sparkly something was, the more frickin’ powerful it was. Big surprise, right? She had wings and a horn and magical hair that kept changing colors (still have no idea how it does that) and was wearing all the fancy jewelry; that probably meant that she wasn’t locked in here with me; I was locked in here with her.

“I am Queen Aures, the Invictus, Protector and Shield of the Lands of Cwm Emfys,” she said. “And I would have words with you.”

She glared at me with her big over-mascara’d eyes. It didn’t look like a “now you die” sort of glare though. It was more like, I dunno, that look you get from an angry parent.  Like she was going to scold me for breaking into the cookie jar. That just flew all over me. Here I was, the dread and terrible scourge of Come Enfis or whatever-it-is, and Princess Glitter Hair was going to pull the ‘naughty child’ stare on me? It just got on my last nerve. No way I was going to be patronized by this screwball.

I looked her dead in the eye and proceeded to deliberately stick my foot in my mouth. “So, how’s it hanging?” I said glibly. She couldn’t see the smirk behind my mask, but she could certainly hear it.

That did it. That stern maternal air got a lot less maternal. She glared at me, swelling up in that way you see mothers do when they’re about to lower the boom. She stepped in front of me and looked me in the eye, lowering her head level with mine despite the fact I was standing tippy-toe in my manacles, and slowly unfurled her wings. The tips of the feathers glowed menacingly. “Now, sorcerer,” she said, “We are going to get some answers from you. If you value your life and your freedom you will answer all of them, immediately and truthfully. If you do not, you will regret it immensely.”

 

“Who are you?”

I gave a mental shrug. Stuff it. “Brad.”

There was a pause. “…Brad,” she replied.

“Brad,” I agreed.

There was another pause. “…That is not the name you gave my sweet halfies when you were rampaging through Cwm Enfys, Brad,” she said a trifle sarcastically. Wow, they do sarcasm. I was starting to wonder.

“And I’m sure everyone calls you the Invictus,” I sighed. “Wasn’t exactly my first choice to go around with a nom de guerre, but your ‘sweet halfies’ weren’t exactly going to back off from the Dread Sorcerer Brad.”

“So which shall we call you by?” she said with mock civility. “Your actual name, or your name of choice?

“… Darth Voldemort?”

My snort of laughter confused her. Dang, hearing that name come out of the mouth a sparkly winged magic princess just was too much. Her bewildered look only made it funnier. I spluttered and snorted for several seconds, till I finally gave up. I managed to nudge the visor of my Darth Vader helmet with my shoulder so it flipped up before I suffocated on my own spit. “Ay, whoo, fresh air,” I said, panting for breath. “Forget it,” I said to her baffled expression. “You wouldn’t get the joke if I explained it to you.”

Her expression turned cross. Her pointed ears twitched, her horn flared, and her wingtips started pointing at my face again. “Enough. I have tolerated your flippancy long enough; now answer my questions. Who are you, why are you here, and why have you been persecuting my sweet halfies of the Rainbow Valley?”

“Fine, you freak of nature,” I said. “My name is Brad. I have no idea how I got here. And I’ve been making life for your sweet, sappy, stupid saccharine halfies miserable because they’re JERKS. That clear enough?”

She seethed for a minute. “Fine. I shall make my questions more direct.” She put one glowing wingtip against the pendant locked around my neck. “How did you come into possession of the Amulet of Darkness?”

I smirked at her. “Ding ding ding! You asked the right question…”

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. It’s the simplest holiday for one reason: No social obligations. No weird relatives visiting – or traveling a thousand miles to visit them yourself. No awkward family dinners. No struggling to buy just the right card or just the right gift. No desperate flop-sweat while you wait to see if that special someone sends you a valentine back. The only expectation is (maybe) you have a tub of candy to hand out to the little rugrats when they come to the door. Other than that it’s just costumes, parties, candy, pranks… what’s not to love?

Especially the costumes. Yeah, I love doing costumes, even though I don’t do it as much anymore. Hey, not everyone can run off to Comic-Con at the drop of a hat, and besides, if I ever showed up at one of those Nerd Herds these days the guys back home would have never let me live it down. Yeah yeah yeah, I’m a peer-pressure driven wuss, get it out of your system. And yeah, whatever. I’m just not stupid and socially tone deaf. Unlike geek boys, I remember that I have to go to school and work and do things with regular people after the party’s over. You go prancing around dressed like Batman in public all the time and then act all astonished and hurt when people laugh at you later, you deserve what you get. Me, I kept it to socially acceptable norms – as in, Halloween.

Of course, at the current year I was kind of stumped for ideas. I was sifting through the debris of an old curiosity shop, looking for inspiration. I’d had a pretty good run the previous couple of years. Last year I’d managed to score an old Darth Vader helmet at a Goodwill store, thrown on a cape and farm-hand style overalls, and gone as “Darth Bubba.” (“Aw, shoot son, come on over to the dark side, it’ll be a hoot!”) That’d been worth a few laughs.

I wasn’t finding anything interesting on the shelves, and was about to the point where I was seriously considering wearing last year’s costume again (sacrilege!) when there was this enormous BANG! somewhere overhead. The shelves around me rattled and jumped. I yipped and hopped out of the way as some of the items hanging overhead came tumbling down.

After my pulse slowed down I checked the shelves overhead where the bang had come from. I figured one of the plugged in displays had blown a bulb, or something. Sure enough, there was a ruptured lava lamp and what looked like the remains of a plasma ball. The bits were scorched and smoking faintly; it looked like a power surge had hit the socket they were plugged into. A couple of other electronic widgets were flickering or acting like they’d burned out too. Crazy old coot who ran the store always plugged too many things into one socket…

I let the owner know what had happened. He came up the aisle, griped and moaned when he saw the mess, and started untangling cords and unplugging burnt-out novelty junk. While he was pulling the ruined merchandise off the shelf, I noticed a stray piece of junk jewelry in the middle of it. It must have fallen off the rack above the display. I reached over his shoulder and plucked it out of the mess.

I don’t know why it caught my eye. It wasn’t particularly flashy at first glance; it was made of some dull grey metal, with a gem in the center the color of dried blood. Plus it had these wing-like pointed ears on the sides, and a slit-eyed cat’s head. I am so NOT into anything that looked as fancy-fairytale as that.

But the more I looked at it, the more gnarly it seemed. Heck, it looked like the sort of medal an evil overlord would give one of his minions for terrorizing the highest number of helpless peasants that financial quarter, or for shooting down the most heroic rebels. I started to have a rush of inspiration to the head. “Hey, how much for this?” I said.

He barely even looked, and rattled off a price. I parted with some filthy lucre and claimed my prize.

When I got home with it, I got out the old Darth Vader costume parts and went to work.

You ever look at the original Darth Vader costume? I mean REALLY look at it? It’s actually kind of, well, weak. It gives an impression of badass armor at first glance, but then you look again…. and you realized the helmet is kind of plain, the shoulders are sloped and narrow, the panel of buttons on the front of the suit looks like a vandalized jukebox, the gauntlets and boots are just cloth and heck, the actual torso is nothing but a onesie made out of quilted cloth. Why settle for Darth Vader? Why not take old school Darth Vader, and see if I could crank it up to eleven?

First off I added some huge, swept-back horns to the helmet. I had some glowing-eye spectacles from an old “faceless wraith” mask – I hotglued those to the inside of the helmet so that Vader’s black beetle eyes now glowed a hellish red on command. A battery powered voice changer went inside the mouth. No wheezy rasp for me; this thing made me sound like I gargled sulfur every morning before breakfast. I’m a dab hand with simple mechanical devices; I’d re-cut and rigged the faceplate so it could pop up like a knight’s visor. After all, I wanted to be able to eat and drink while I was running around in this getup without pulling the entire helmet off.

The bodysuit was a cheap pair of black coveralls. I upped the ante by adding spiked plates: elbow plates, shin plates, knee plates, shoulder plates. A pair of big black stompy boots I spotted at some ex-goth’s yard sale served for footwear. Fake metal gauntlets from a fake suit of armor replaced Vader’s much wimpier Naugahyde gloves. And his flowing black cloak went by the wayside; I had an old black fuzzy bathrobe that had fallen afoul of my kid sister’s attempt to stone-wash her jeans by throwing chunks of brick into the washing machine. It was ratty and tattered and coming unraveled in places so much that it looked like dead muppet roadkill. A little work with a pair of scissors, though, and it made a perfect barbarian-esque cloak. (Hmm. Muppet Slayer. Gotta remember that one for next year.)

I wavered the longest time on the weapon of choice. I wanted to make a sort of cross between a lightsaber and Skeletor’s sword, but I spent too long dithering about how to make the blade. I ended up bunting, and made a staff out of a fist sized ceramic skull and a six-foot stick of driftwood I’d found. It was less Dark Jedi and more Evil Overlord, but what the heck. The final touch was the amulet, which I slung around the neck of the gorget and pop-riveted the chain in place, so that the pendant rested right at my collarbone. And yes, I put lifts in the boots. I topped out at over six feet tall with ’em. A little short for a Sith lord? Never.

That and black paint. Loads and loads of high-gloss, metallic black paint.

And I tell you, I put that outfit on and I looked jagged.  It was so grimdark you’d think I belched bats. I looked like the guy Sauron would call “Boss.” Anakin Skywalker would have wet his Jedi robes if he’d run into me. “Oh yeah,” I said to my reflection, the voice changer turning my voice into a rumbling gravel bass. “I am gonna own this party.”

Halloween finally came. Someone, I forget who, I think it was the guys from the football team, they had gotten together the stuff for a real blowout. Seems one of them lived in some virtual mansion out in the boonies, an old converted farmhouse or something sitting on a few hundred acres surrounded by woods, you know how rich people do when they buy some place away from all the peasants – well anyway, plenty of room for a few hundred teenagers, their cars and trucks, and the makings of an enormous Halloween costume party/rave/tailgate party. Pretty much the entire senior class and half of the underclassmen were invited, and the rest crashed. Nobody cared, though; as long as you brought a cooler full of something to eat or drink, you were golden.

I arrived and parked my van on the edge of the town . The house was lit up, the music was blasting, and there were high schooler ghouls and ghosties as far as the eye could see. Oh lawd, and the cheerleaders too. Halloween truly was the best holiday. I bagged a can of beer and some ribs from some dude’s tailgate grill and rocked my way into the throng.

Massive rounds of thumbs up all over the place for the outfit. Pretty soon I was chatting up some hot chick dressed in a naughty zombie french maid costume (bonus points for a two-theme costume, double bonus points for making it any variation of “naughty” – and making it work, ding ding ding!) And making one hell of a good first impression, I might add, when there was a commotion nearby. There was some laughter from a couple of jocks, and staggering up through the masses, propelled by a couple of trips and shoves, comes… I dunno, it takes me a minute to figure it out. His hair is purple, his face is sunflower-yellow, he’s wearing some sort of Roman guard armor, and he has two massive pointed ears springing from either side of his head –

Aw, crap. It was a Halfie. Some loser had come to the party as a HALFIE.

Look, I didn’t follow all the trending stuff. But it was hard not to know about these effeminate little weirdoes; they were popping up everywhere. We even had a couple running around the halls of our backwater-town school.  Dudes running around collecting toys and wearing t-shirts with cartoon tiny elves on them and crap. It was as girly as hell, and creepy as hell too.

In fact, I think I recognized this one. Some dork who had a locker a couple of steps down from mine; Joe or Fred or Mike or something, who cared. He used to be kind of cool, I guess, or at least not a total loser. Then he’d started showing up at school in a t-shirt with “Rainbow Valley Knight” on it and that was it. He was a laughingstock by the end of the day.

What made it worse is that he didn’t seem to care. It made me wonder if he was retarded or something.

I gave him the once over (side note: black Darth Vader mask with glowing glass eyes; perfect stone face for scoping people out). He’d done a good job on the costume; that sort of made it worse. He’d used yellow body paint on his face and arms, his hands wearing what looked like actually well-made fake gauntlets; his face was touched up a little bit to make it look more “elvish.” He even had a pretty good prosthetic horn, and the ears sticking out from under his tousled purple wig looked almost real. The wig ran down the back of his neck and down his spine between his shoulders – it was actually glued in place, making it into what was practically a lion’s mane. He was wearing a pair of boots that, I swear to God, had sparkles on them. The rest of his outfit was a cheap off-the-shelf suit of Roman centurion armor.

“What the hell are you supposed to be?” I blurted out.

“A gaywad!” someone in the surrounding crowd shouted.

Everyone hooted. Joe, or Fred – Nick, that was his name, Nick – just snorted and brushed himself off. He gave me the once-over right back. “Brad?” He said, his brows furrowing. “That you in there?”

I froze briefly. “Yeah, it’s gotta be you,” Nick laughed. “Only Brad would put that much hardcore effort into a Halloween costume. So what’s up?” This is what made him personally annoying. He was still all the time trying to hang around me, too, howdy, hi, how ya doing, wassup, acting like we were best buds or something. “Hey, have you seen my date?”

“Date?” I repeated.

“Yeah. She’s wearing a Knightess Saturday costume?” he said. Like I knew who the hell Knightess Saturday was supposed to be. And furthermore, yeah, girlfriend. Right.

“Look, I don’t know you, dude,” I said. My voice rasped through the microphone.

“Sure, we got lockers next to each other. Heck, my mom knows your mom–”

“I said I don’t know you, man,” I growled.

“Fine. Whatever. Nice costume anyway, Brad.” He looked at me again and grinned. “Heh. Cool halfie reference.”

“What?”

“The Amulet of Darkness.” He pointed at my collarbone. “So what, you’re supposed to be Darth Mist, or something?”

“Wha–?” someone around us got the joke and laughed. I didn’t.  I could hear a couple of the kids standing round making remarks and laughing.

Nick started to laugh. “Dude, you don’t know what that is?” he said.

The zombie/maid hottie rolled her eyes and backed away from us both. Great. Loser by association. I got pissed. Nothing makes me madder than people making fun of me with references I don’t understand. We were near the edge of the party, out by the woods. I grabbed the dork by his arm and dragged him off to the treeline. Once we were out of earshot I let him go and glared at him. “The hell?” He said, rubbing his arm.

“What is wrong with you?” I snapped. “Don’t you get what a freak everyone thinks you are?”

Nick rolled his eyes as he kneaded his shoulder. “Why no, Brad,” he said. “I never would have guessed that. Thank you for pointing that out, you are so insightful. And I should care, because?” He looked at me.

“And you don’t?” I said.

“Hey, what would be the point?” Nick shrugged. “Look, I’m not a dummy. Most fanboys– Trekkies, anime fans, whatever – get all hurt and outraged when nobody treats them like the rare and precious snowflake they think they are. But I knew the moment I got into this that people would give me crap about it, and I accepted it. It’s a kid’s show, you know? World only moves so fast, even if it is good fun. The real question is why do you care so much about what people think?”

“Look, dumbass, I don’t get your stupid halfie jokes, okay?” I said. “Just stay away from me and quit making me look like a loser.”

Nick curled his lip at me. “Like you needed any help with that,” he said. He flicked the medallion on my chest with a finger. “You don’t want to hang out with people who watch RVA, maybe you shouldn’t wear a prop from the show around your neck.”

“What?”

He laughed. “Brad, that’s a replica of the Amulet of Darkness,” he said. “It’s from the second season of the show. You might as well be wearing a day-glow t-shirt that says “I Heart Rainbow Valley” on the front.”

What? I’d been walking around all night with kid’s show princess jewelry junk on my chest? I felt like an idiot; I’d picked up some sort of Rainbow Valley junk at the curiosity shop and riveted it to my three hundred dollar costume without even realizing it. I felt my anger just explode. I swore and grabbed the medallion, trying to tear it off.

Trying, I said, because it didn’t budge. “The hell?” I muttered, giving the thing a yank. Nope, it wouldn’t budge. Baffled and frustrated,  I tried to pull off the gorget it was riveted to, instead. That wouldn’t come off either! I went from angry to furious. I must have gotten glue on the stupid seams or something. I flipped up my visor so I could get my fingers under the collar at my chin.

Nick’s face went from amused to surprised. “Whoa,” he said. “How’d you get your eyes to do that?”

“What’re you talking about?” I snapped, still pulling mightily at the collar. What the hell was this thing made of? I thought it was plastic– but it felt as tough as steel!

“Your eyes. They’re all red-greeny-purple, like in the show – ”

“Will you shut up about your damn cartoon show?” I yelled. I felt my temper go up in a ball of flame like a frozen turkey dropped in a deep fryer. I was grappling double-handed with the gorget, doing a frenzied dance trying to pry the thing and the medallion on it off my neck. My little performance was gathering an audience. A girl came running up and took Nick by the arm. “Nick, what is it?” she said. Well dang, the mythical missing girlfriend. Even in my aggravation I noted she was darn cute. She was wearing a platinum-blonde wig with pointed ears even longer than Nick’s, gold feathered angel wings, and a blue leotard decorated with silver arrows and stars. Sonofagun, a halfie chick. The myths were true.

“Dunno, I told him he was wearing the Amulet of Darkness and he started doing this,” Nick answered. “Brad, what’s wrong?”

More kids gathered. I started cussing and swearing for all I was worth. When I ran out of curses I started stringing words together at random. I think I spoke in Klingon at one point. The kids standing around gawping at my display backed off a step. I didn’t even notice. I didn’t even notice the sickly purple-greenish illumination, like some sort of weird inverted black light, shining on them.

I certainly didn’t notice that the weird light was coming from me.

“Omigawd, it’s real!” the cute halfie girl suddenly shrieked. “It’s the real Amulet of Darkness! Just like in the show!!”

“What?”

“Look at his eyes!”

Something in me, I dunno, it was like something came uncorked. My guts just flooded with rage. “Screw your stupid halfie crap!” I snarled, wheeling on them. Everyone took a serious step back. Whoa. That voice changer was effective. “Screw your stupid Rainbow Valley! If I could I’d burn that stupid cutesy fairyland to the ground and piss on the ashes just to see the looks on your stupid faces!”

Yeah, it was complete overreaction. But hell, I was a senior in high school, and here I was doing the I’m-on-drugs-get-the-spiders-off watusi with a couple of Rainbow Valley Adventure fans in front of the entire school. I still had another half a year of high school to look forward to and my rep was undergoing a ritual killing right in front of me. So, not a happy place.

There was a loud roaring sound; wind suddenly sprang up around us, stirring up a torrent of leaves and dirt and whipping cloaks and other loose bits of costume around in the air. It was like someone had opened a wind tunnel Weird light the color of a festering bruise bathed everyone. We all looked up. Several people screamed; a black-light colored funnel cloud a dozen yards across had formed directly overhead. I could see more purple-black glowing light glowing in the depths of its throat.

Directly over my head.

Before I could do more than scream (thank God my voice changer made it sound like a much more manly roar) I was plucked off my feet by the roaring wind and hurtled into the sky. The last thing I saw before I disappeared into the dark whirling void was Nick and his girlfriend staring up at me, mouths hanging open. Then the funnel closed and I was hurtling through blackness.

Well, not blackness blackness. It sort of looked more like the sort of “darkness” you get on a black-light posters; black boiling clouds interspersed with lots of luminescent tinged linings of indigo, purply lightning veins, flecks of bilious green. Afterward I would reflect that it seemed there was an artist with a very limited palette involved in the whole mess. At the time though I was too busy grimacing and screaming to appreciate the thematic continuity.

I hurtled. Or fell… or… flew… for – I dunno… a brief bit of forever. All around me the darkness, it, it raged. I could feel it. It was like the universe itself had a hole torn through it, and I was plunging through it.

Then the purpling void opened up in front of me and I fell. I had just enough time to appreciate the still, starry night around me before I noticed the ground rising up to meet me at speed. I started to scream again – I think I managed to get out “Aiee” before I slammed face down, full length, into the very, very hard ground.

Pain. Pain, pain, painy pain pain. Every part of me hurt simultaneously. At least all my spiky pads had protected me. Though I was kind of regretting not going for the armored codpiece.  I rolled over slowly onto my back, groaning, and pulled off my helmet so I could clutch at my head unimpeded.

I looked up just in time to see my missing skull-topped staff plummeting out of the sky, skull first, straight towards my unprotected face.

“Sh-“

then forehead met forehead and the world went sincerely dark.