Actual evidence showing racism exists in America

Twice now in as many weeks I’ve run across a well meaning white friend who did not quite understand the nature of racism in America. I’m not posting this here to shame them, or for that matter to shame anybody, I’m putting this page up as a handy reference. My goal is to provide a single page with links to scholarly research (not reports, not news, and certainly not fake news) that indicates racial bias exists in America still.

Feel free to link to it if you wish.  (permalink)

For the most part the links go to original studies, not reports of studies. This distinction is important as I would like to present the data with as little slant or bias as possible. This is science, yo, not an opinion piece. Also, I respect that you came here, so I’ll try not to waste your time.

If you run across a good study that you don’t see here, feel free to email me a link. Likewise if you spot any errors please drop me a line. The goal is to keep this page as “objective” as possible with as little bias as I can offer.

 

An oldie but a goodie, from back in the early 1990s on how different races perceive each other:
Ethnic Images

This one is kind of surprising, especially the last part of the abstract. It’s about expulsion rates for children based on race (pdf link):
Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions?

This one is all about perception. It’s a Pew survey not a research paper, so consume with a healthy grain of salt.
On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.

A paper using resumes and racially biased names. This paper is the one that started me down this path.
Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Even the police will not call you back as often with a black sounding name (pdf link):
Racial Discrimination is Local Public Services…

More about racially biased names and assumptions (pdf link):
Looming Large in other’s eyes….

A longer article that references the resume study above, but adds so many more that I’m just posting this here rather than fishing out all of the links.
Think you’re not racist?
Research uncovers our secret prejudices, and ways to overcome them.

One that came out as I was typing this. Apparently police cameras are useful for more than just video.
Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect.

I’m sure there is much more. I’ll be adding to this page as I find studies I deem worthy of your time.

My thoughts on 2016

As I write this it is the morning of December 27, 2016. For those perhaps reading this post in the future, this year has seen what feels like more than its fair share of stars and idols who have died. My Facebook account if full of many curses for 2016, and a lot of hue and cry, some of which I must admit is deeply entertaining on some level, but the general thrust of these posts has sparked me to make this comment.

We have been blessed with many heroes, and not too few villains, over the years, but they are not ours–they do not belong to us–and when they go it behoves us to send them off with the respect and dignity they deserve. We were blessed to stand in the shadow of their light–in what feels like, at times, a very dark world–but now it is up to us to make our own light, however pale it might seem in comparison.

We might say to them, “Goodbye dear friend,” and, “Thank you,” but we must also let them rest in the peace they have richly earned. They had their chance, now we have ours.

On the morning after a major election.

So Donald Trump has become the President Elect. Congratulations to him for his victory. As you can imagine, I have a few things to say about this, as well as some predictions.

  1. First of all I want to acknowledge that I was wrong on this. I was pretty confident Hillary Clinton has this election wrapped up in a bag. Now, I wasn’t alone in my predictions, there were A LOT of others out there who had similar ideas about how the election was going to turn out. Some of them were giving Hillary a 95% chance of winning. At least Nate Silver at fivethiryeight was saying there was a chance the election could go the way it did. In fact, just a few days ago people on FB were claiming Nate was much too pessimistic. They’re not any more. If anything he was too optimistic, but at least he was wise enough to leave room for a Trump Victory. I think his tear-down of his own mistakes (believe me, he will), and of polling in general, will be instructive.But still it needs to be said, I made a mistake.
  2. For my many friends who are freaking out right now, please calm down. I can assure you the experience is survivable. I know this because we’ve been through this before. Almost exactly this experience. A Republican candidate winning the electoral college, but not the popular vote, after a successful eight years of a Democratic President, and the Democratic candidate loses because of a third party protest vote. Sound familiar? Well that was the 2000 presidential election. The only difference is this time we won’t have the Supreme Court stopping the recount efforts. So yeah, we’ve been here before. All is not lost. If our nation was big enough to survive a George W. Bush Presidency, then its big enough to survive a Trump one.
  3. To that end I think imperative that all Americans take a moment and find a way to come to terms with the will of the American people. Donald Trump won the election, He is the President-Elect. I think it incumbent upon us as citizens to respect the peaceful transfer of power that our country was founded upon. Come January 20th Trump will be President.To that end I am willing to cut him some slack. Hey, if I can be wrong about him winning the election its possible that I am wrong about his character flaws. So I’m willing to give him a little bit of rope. But only a little. I made the mistake of extending trust to George W. Bush, especially in terms of invading Iraq, and I will regret that to my grave. So President-Elect Trump will get my support, but only a small amount. He says he wants to be the President for all of America, which I think a worthy goal, so I will lend him enough support for him to make good on that promise. But if he fucks that up, I will be merciless.
  4. For my liberal friends, especially those who voted third party. I think it’s pretty clear this was one of the decisive elements at play in the election. From what I’ve seen Hillary could have carried a lot of the states that were close (Florida, Pennsylvania, etc.)  if it wasn’t for the protest vote. So pat yourself on the back if you want, but seriously do not be surprised at my contempt for you. You’re vote is more than how you feel. We’re all connected to it. If four years of Trump doesn’t bring home the ignorance of your position I don’t think anything I can say will.
  5. For my many conservative friends and family. First of all, enjoy. You won yourself a victory. It’s a great feeling. Enjoy it. I mean it. But when all the dust has settled, I expect you to be as critical and as harsh on President Trump as you were on President Obama. I think we all know Trump is not perfect, and I think it’s abundantly clear he’s not going to hear people from my side of the aisle complaining about his mistakes. So it’s going to be up to you to keep him in line. Good luck with that. I suspect you’re not going to like the job, but you voted the man in, so you get to deal with him.
  6. Curiously, I see a few hopeful things for a Trump Presidency. I think a President Trump will have a much better chance of getting a major medical care reform bill through Congress than Hillary would have. He has stated he wants to kill Obamacare, and God knows the congress will be happy to oblige him. The key question is what is he going to replace it with? If he just guts Obamacare, and doesn’t replace it with something similar, things are going to get ugly fast. If you don’t remember, we used to see something like 40k-100k of medical bankruptcies per year before it passed. All of the caused by the twin medical insurance demons of “pre-existing conditions” and “max. payout.” If those two horsemen of the apocalypse are let loose again expect to see serious push-back.
  7. As it happens my family and I are in a position to be fairly magnanimous about the election. For one thing we’re reasonably protected by living in a liberal state, for another we’re fairly wealthy. These two offer a great shield against anything a President Trump might do. But also I am white, and male. Two things that almost guarantee me a certain level of protection and freedom. No one is going to be pulling me over soon saying, “papers please.” Not all of my friends can say that. In terms of costs, a Trump Presidency will not be all that expensive to us.
  8. So what is it going to cost our nation? That is the $100,000 question. Judging by our 2000 election and subsequent Republican rule,  I’m going to make a few predictions. We’ll have to wait and see which one of these comes true, if any. Remember I was already wrong about Trump (see #1, above), so there’s no guarantee I’ll be right about these.I think that by the end of his first term, Trump will:
    a) See the economy rise to 4% GDP, and then drop down to 2% or less.
    b) See the deficit (right now predicted to be $590B for 2016) rise to $1T or even $1.5T
    c) Raise the National debt from the projected $14T to $20T or more.
    d) See unemployment rise by 2%
    e) Have at least one major scandal (personally, or on his staff) requiring a Special Prosecutor.
    f) See at least one very large terrorist act on U.S. soil. (which to be fair is not directly related to his actions, although he’s claimed differently).
    g) Cause at least one major rift in the Republican party.
    h) Involve us in at least one open conflict that involves troops on the ground (not just military advisors), for which he will not raise taxes.
    i) Cause our international standing to plummet at least once in a major way.
    j) Cause the Dollar to drop dramatically at least once.

 

That’s it for now. I might go and add more to my list, but I wanted it posted here for posterity.

Memorial Day, 2016

His name was Conrad G. Tolladay, and he was my uncle, though I never met the man. He was also a second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps. Before today if you had told me his name I would have said, “Conrad who?” Nobody in the family used his first name, everyone called him Jimmy. I only found out about his “real” first name by searching the internet for a photo. That’s also how I learned that on January 17, 1944, flying a P-38 named “Oh Kay” over Burma, he was shot down and never seen again. He was 24 years old.

But that is the end of his story.

Jimmy’s story begins on the 18th of September, 1919, in Madera California. He was the first born son of George and Selma Tolladay, and by all accounts was a bit of a joker. On family gatherings his name came up often enough, but the stories about him were always colored with sadness. He was well loved, and deeply missed.

Jimmy was brave, fun-loving, and at times a little reckless. He was raised to be a cowboy on a working cattle ranch, like my father and my uncle. Among other things this meant he could ride hard and shoot straight; the perfect thing for a fledgling Army Air Corps in need of fighter pilots. He had just turned 22 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He must have signed up for the service immediately afterwards, like a lot of other brave men and woman.

When I was a kid I used to always think that Uncle Jim would one day show up at our house full of epic stories of survival, telling us how he clawed his way out of the jungle to come back and be with his family. Now that I’m older I can see that he must have been very lonely in India, fighting an enemy he barely understood, for a country (China) he barely liked, in an airplane that was at times both thrilling and terrifying to fly.

Now, when I think of Jim, or any of the other 404,000 Americans who died for our country in that horrible war, I often wonder what they would have said if they had known what we have purchased with their sacrifice. Would they marvel at pro Football on color television sets? Would they stand up and cheer at the civil right movement, or would it fill them with anger and disdain? What would they think of rock and roll, the Vietnam War, or President Nixon’s criminal acts? Would they love Elvis, the Beatles? What would they think of the atomic bomb, or the British New Wave? Would they think the cost of their lives was too high a price for such trivial things, or would they be proud of what we have done with their payment?

Short of heaven, these things are lost to us, like their very lives. We’ll never know what they would think of the coming world because for them it stopped the day they stepped into their plane, or their ship, or their foxhole. All we have to carry their memories forward a few photographs, and family stories.

Thus it is fitting that one day a year we raise a flag and take the time to remember the price that they paid. These brave American souls paid a heavy price so that we can sit, sipping our coffees and browsing the internet. Try to remember in the coming days that your life, your livelihood, and your lifestyle are not free; they were paid for by somebody else, at a great personal cost.

Thank you Uncle Jimmy for your life and your stories.

An Open Letter to the California Employment Development Department

The other day I had a conversation with an employee at the California Employment Development Department, which contrary to what the name implies is not strictly interested in developing employment. The reason we had the conversation was because a client of mine was being investigated to see if they had properly classified me as an independent contractor. The purpose of the call left me scratching my head. I’ve been working as an independent contractors since 1993. Why would it suddenly be different now?

Well, it turns out it is different now. Thanks to a law passed in 2011 (SB 459) the great state of California added new criteria for determining an independent contractor’s status, and as an added bonus included in the law fines for companies that knowingly misclassified employees as independent contractors. Hence the call from the EDD. The nice employee (I’m not being ironic here, the employee was pleasant on the phone and took great pains to help me understand the law, without ever leading me or telling me what to do. They are quite talented at their job.) lead me though a fairly informal interview and was careful to gather all the input I wanted to give. Finally the conversation ended, but I was left with an uneasy feeling as if I had forgotten something. I can’t be the only one here who remembers the right thing to say 20 minutes after the conversation has ended. After first writing my local state representatives asking for the Assemblymen and Senators who work on the appropriate committees, I sat around and thought about my position. The remaining paragraphs are the result of a weekend worth of pondering.

The name of the employee is intentionally omitted here, as any reference to their gender. Like I said, I found the employee talented and was obviously doing their job to the best of their abilities. In no way did I find fault with them or their actions. They don’t set the rules, our state legislature do that. If you have any complaints please take it up with them.

Dear NAME

I’m writing to you after our conversation the other day regarding COMPANY NAME. Over the weekend it occurred to me that I may have missed some points that could be pertinent to your investigation. I thought I would write in hopes of clarifying these points. Please excuse the length. I’ll try to keep this as quick as possible.

From our conversion I was left with the opinion that one of the defining characteristic of an employee (as opposed to an independent contractor) was whether the individual worked at  the office of the company and used their equipment. Since I often work at my clients offices and use their computers, I can see that this might be a determining characteristic. However, I feel like there is an important distinction here that may have been missed.

Most of my clients have dozens of computer stations set up around their offices. The computers are all similar if not identical in abilities, and all pretty much run the same software. They are as alike as the tech guys can maintain them.

Working on these computers will be a whole host of employees and freelancers, like myself. The value that each person brings to his or her computer is related to their knowledge and expertise. Broadly speaking, there are a few people who make about $15 per hour, a larger group that make around $50 per hour, and finally a few rare individuals who make over $100 per hour. When I say, “make” here I’m talking about what the individual directly charges the company, or the value they bring to the company. Because these people can move about the office, it’s quite common for a computer to have a $15/hour employee working on it one day, and a $50/per hour employee on it the next.

Now if a computer is on Monday making $15/hour for the company, but on Tuesday is making $50/hour, then it would not be accurate to say it is the computer that is bringing value to the company. Because the same computer should, if it was the source of the value, provide a similar value every day of the week. But it doesnt. In fact the computer’s value to the company varies in direct proportion to the person who is using it. That is to say the money the computer generates comes not from itself, but from its users. If they are all running the same software, and have very similar abilities, then the only difference must come from another source. That is, the users.

This is the nature of all work that is a craft; that is a type of work in which the individual “crafts” or creates an art piece. All craft is like this, be it sculpture, pottery, wood carving, or even the more abstract crafts like writing, playing guitar. Much like a potter making mugs on a potter’s wheel, or a sculptor carving images in stone, the value of the work comes directly from the value of the crafter, not from the tools. One would never praise a potter’s wheel for making finely crafted mugs, nor a chisel for carving excellent sculptures. No it is understood that the work comes from the hands of the wielder, not the tools. In the same way, one would never assume it is the computer doing the work of making quality advertising art. Like every other craft, it is the people wielding the tools that create the work, and create the value.

In this context, computers are not a source of value, they are an overhead cost, much like any other office expenses like air conditioning, desks & chairs, telephone systems, or copy machines. They may be a requirement to create the work, but they do not create the work themselves. They are no more important to the value of the work than the air conditioning system, or the type of paper in the copy machine.

So far, all of this is to argue that computers are merely office equipment, a point you likely already accept. It is this next point which I think bears greater scrutiny.

If it is true, as I have laid out above, that the greatest single value brought to any piece of craft stems from the individual doing the work, then it follows that the single greatest tool being applied to the craft resides inside the user. That is the say, the person doing the work is also the holder of the most important tools.

I know this might come across kind of crazy, so let me try to break this down for you. The worker in this context, the one doing the crafting, carries with them two essential things; their knowledge and their abilities. That is, they carry with them what they know, and what they do. These, I would contend, are the most significant differences between someone who does $15/hour work on a computer and one who does $100/hour work. The person doing the more valuable work, has more knowledge, more experience, and they have more tools. This is what I mean by tools. In this narrow context tools are ways of solving technical and artistic problems.

Some of these tools exists in the hands and the eyes of the user, but a vast majority of them reside entirely within their head.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Every computer I work on (and I work on a whole host of them) offers the exact same value when I am using them. This is because the value resides within my head. It’s not in a box I bring to the office, it’s not any special software I keep on a hard drive, it all resides within my head. Quite literally, every office I work at, I go there with my own tools. Not only are they my own tools, but they are the most significant tools in the entire process.

So when you ask if I work in my client’s offices, I will say yes. When you ask if I use their computers I will say yes, but the most important tool I use comes not from the client, or from their commuters but comes from myself. I literally am my most important tool. My head, my hands, and my eyes. It is from these things that my income flows, and nothing else.

So if the most significant tool is the one that resides in my head, then is it accurate to say I am an employee, and not an independent contractor? After all the most significant tool is not supplied by the company I work for, it is supplied by me. If I’m the one providing the most significant source of value, doesn’t that not make me independent?

The Importance of Crashing

Over the holidays my mother was kind enough to gift me David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. This week there was an opening in my “to be read” schedule and I picked it up. I got about half way through last night, far enough in that I got to and past the major event at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903 (the first powered flight of an airplane) and past the conclusion of their testing the next year of their second powered plane, this time flown in a large pasture just outside of Dayton, their home town. McCullough is a talented writer of history, he is wonderfully good at taking you into the details of a figure’s life–in this case the Wright Brothers–without bogging you down in them. So I now know about Wilbur and Orville Wright, their family and friends, and roughly how they went from successful bicycle manufacturers to become the first men to crack the problem of powered, heavier-than-air flight.

If you are a fan of history, or of airplanes–I happen to like both–than this book is more than sufficient to warrant your attention. However, this isn’t a book review, in the strictest sense, there are plenty of those to go around upon this book and/or this topic; this dear reader is something different. You see, as I read of the experiences of the Will and Orv, as they liked to be called, I was struck by something really remarkable: The famous Wright Brothers of historical fame crashed their planes a lot.

Their first glider, which they flew out at Kitty Hawk, NC, crashed and was rebuilt several times. By the time they were done testing with it that fall the glider was so abused and rebuilt that they gave it away, it was literally in pieces by then. Their second glider flew worst then the first one, at least until they rebuilt the wing, but it crashed and was rebuild several times afterwards. Their third glider crashed once so bad it took two weeks to rebuild, and it eventually crashed so often it was all but discarded. Even their famous Flyer, the first powered plane ever, crashed on its first major test flight, bending the propeller shafts so bad Wilber had to travel back to Dayton and have them rebuild. The reason why they didn’t make their historic 1903 until December was because they had so many crashes on the Flyer’s delicate frame that the plane could not get off the ground until then. Once it had flown, making three flights, each one successively longer than the last, it was picked up by the wind like a kite at the beach when they stopped for lunch and toppled over forcefully several times, almost injuring a man who was tangled in the rigging. The first powered airplane in the world came back to Dayton in pieces and was never flown again.

The Wright’s second powered plane was a slightly different design than the Flyer, and was test flown practically in their own back yard. But even this plane crashed so often that it needed constant repairs. By this time Wilber was keeping a diary, logging each flight, so we know for instance that they once went for three months with nothing but crash after crash on this airframe. When they learned to turn a plane around, they crashed. When they learned to launch it with their ingenious catapult, they crashed. When they learned to fly higher off the ground, they crashed. In fact, the place was so cantankerous, the flights so short, the crashes so often, that their friends and people from the press simply gave up all interest, thinking them mad men because their progress was so slow and so littered with repairs. By the time their third Flyer was constructed, the first truly reliable aircraft, the two brothers had done hundreds of flights with a health proportion of those ending in destruction. In short, the Wright Brothers were adept at the art by this point they could have been rightfully called the Kings of Crashing.

The reason for all this crashing is not unknown. To their credit the Wright Brothers knew going in that they were attempting to do two very difficult and interrelated tasks; they were trying to discover the laws of aerial mechanics, that is to discover how to design and build a plane than can repeatedly fly through the air, and they were also learning the art of flying such a plane, both at the same time. Neither of these things had ever been done before, in fact many of the leading scientists of their day proudly proclaimed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible for humans. So not only were they blazing two different trails into the unknown simultaneously, they were doing so with no certain knowledge of their success. There were no maps, no methods, and even the most learned men of their day were completely wrong in their theories, which the Wright Brothers discovered to their chagrin.

This is the nature of doing something truly new. It doesn’t matter if it is working at the leading edge of science, or something so prosaic as falling in love, once you step foot down the path that no one else has trod before, you enter the world of the unknown. And the unknown has a lot of pitfalls.

Now the point of all this is not to claim the Wright Brothers were losers. Obviously they became a household name for a reason, and it wasn’t for their many spectacular failures. In fact I’ll bet that up until you read the above you had no idea how often they crashed. Until I read McCullough’s book I certainly didn’t know, and I’m a serious history buff and n airplane buff. I guess if I had thought about it at all it would have been obvious. I mean, there’s no way to learn how to fly and what is flyable, without making a lot of errors. Anyone who has ever designed or learned to fly a radio controlled airplane can tell you that, and I’ve done both. It’s a process the is fraught with trial and error. If I had thought about it at all I just sort of assumed “they figured it out.”

Which leads me to another point: the people around you, what Christians call “the World”, they do not care about your crashes. To them, your crashes, no matter what the cause, are not all that important. What they want to see are your successes. Turn on any news channel and you can see hundreds of examples of people who have succeeded at something, rock stars, movie stars, lottery winners,and  CEOs of large corporations. What you will not see on the news are the many and spectacular failures, crashes, that each of us, all of the time, are doing. If you take the wrong exit off the freeway, it’s not going to be on the news. Neither will be dating a person not suited for you, or failing to miss your stop on the bus. Make a spectacular success and you might make the news, make a mistake and you won’t. Crashes it seems aren’t newsworthy, they’re not important, because they’re too common.

What it comes down to is this: like the Wright Brothers, each of us will find ourselves at some point powered by an inner passion. Maybe it’s to be an actor, a musician, or an artist; maybe it’s to be a wife, or a husband, a mother, or a father; maybe it’s to be a mechanic, or a theoretical physicist, a nurse, or a salesman. It doesn’t matter what the path is, only that it is new (at least to us) and it is difficult. To accomplish our goals we’re going to have to walk over new ground, we’re going to have to claim new metaphorical lands for our purposes, climb new mountains, seek out new ideas, and try on new opinions.

All of these attempts, of course, are going to be ripe for failure. There is an absolute certainty that we’re going to make mistakes, some of them quite large. We’re going to crash. Crash and crash hard. Perhaps even crash fatally. We risk injury and ridicule at every turn. We’re traveling into the unknown and the only truly known thing we can count on is that it will not come without a cost. Pain is certain. Crashes will happen.

Not only will they happen, but when they do we will have no control over them. Think about it, if we knew they were coming we would avoid them, right? The only thing we can control is how we react to them. A crash could mean you’re a terrible person and are never going to amount to anything, or it could mean you made a minor mistake and you need to correct for that. When the Wright Brothers crashed, they got right up, and immediately began repairing their plane. Oh they talked about the crash, believe me they did, but only from the point of view of discovering the problem so they could avoid it in the future. They were learning a difficult task, after all, and mistakes were bound to happen. They just didn’t think those mistakes were based on their own moral failings, nor did they think each crash was a sign that God didn’t approve of their direction. In short, they didn’t think the crashes they caused were a reflection of their own shortcomings. That idea seemed to have never entered their heads. They saw them for what they rightly were, small mistakes on the road to understanding. To them each crash was a way to discover a new problem and thus reduce their ignorance.

As we can learn from the Wright Brothers, crashes are not good indicators of failure, only the inevitable. The only way to truly fail is to either avoid crashes, or even worse to assume the cause of the crash is something other than what it is. Failure doesn’t come from crashes, failure comes from not learning what went wrong when you did crash. And you will crash my friend, indeed you will.

And not only will you crash, but when you do crash you will discover that no one cares. Friends, family, etc. not a one of them is going to be interested unless they are directly involved. Its interested to note that while the Wright Brothers were testing their second aircraft, just minutes away, a short trolly ride, from downtown Dayton, not a single reported from either major newspaper came out to investigate. The Wright Brothers didn’t hide what they were doing. They were flying in plain sight of a trolly line. It’s just that they crashed so much no one was interested. The man who finally broke their story, Amos Root, was an eccentric who had made himself a name by selling bee keeping equipment. The Wright’s first real exposure didn’t come from the press, didn’t come from their friends, it came from a newsletter called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Think that one through for a moment. The only reason Amos was able to write an accurate story about the Wright Brothers experiments was because he was patient enough to visit them several times until they could demostrate to him a reasonable success. In fact they first flight he saw was done by Orville because Wilbur has been in a wreck so bad he couldn’t fly for a month. Very few people are going to be patient with your crashing process. Hold on to those that are. They’re worth more than gold.

My advice to you my friend is to crash and crash often. Only its important to learn from your crashes, don’t make the same mistakes over and over. And remember, no one, except a very rare few, are going to care about your crashes. Ignore what others think or do. They’re not the one’s risking their neck in the crazy contraption that you are. Hell, they probably don’t have the first clue what you’re trying to do, so ignore them and focus on the task at hand.

Happy landings.

 

The thing about the Sequoias.

IMG_4693_cropThe thing about the Sequoias, or why you cannot photograph the Sequoiadendron giganteum.


Recently my family and I spent a delightful few days of vacation in California’s gold country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. While there we took a day trip up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park where we hiked the less visited South Grove trail. Thanks to some intense activism this grove of Giant Sequoias is entirely unlogged and remains largely in its wild state. It is, with the exception of the trail and a few signs, almost exactly like hiking in a virgin forrest. I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time in the Sierras, but this grove is to my knowledge singular. What follows is my attempt to capture the experience of hiking the trail in words. I highly recommend you do not take me at my word, that you do not believe what I have written here. Rather I would prefer you hike the trail for yourself.

As you wander down the trail, the low woods, mostly dogwood and small pines, keep your horizons close. There are a large amounts of dead trees scattered about the forrest floor and plenty of new ones working their way up from the decaying material. The ferns and bushes dot the ground, but do not fully cover it. The whole effect is one of a forest that grows no more than three meters above the ground. It’s not unlike walking through a neighbor’s garden that has been left unattended for years until it’s shape has pushed past any human convention into a wonderful random jumble.
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No sooner than you seen this, you start to notice that this “garden” is underpinned by dark vertical columns. These are the mature pines, sugar pine and ponderosa mostly, with the occasional lodgepole pine added for splash. In about equal measure with these pines are the cedars which grow in clumps like nurseries with large parents overlooking tiny rivers of baby trees, most of them shorter than a man.
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So now your view becomes used to these columns shooting darkly upwards through the light green forest floor. As your eye traces their vertical lines upwards you notice they branch out at around three meters and point their way upwards in long thin triangles. The tops, some of them 200 feet or more above your head, can be seen only from a distance. But these are not unfamiliar trees. These are the taller more wild cousins of the Christmas trees that have been decorating our homes every winter for millennia. We know these trees, we live with them for a few weeks to a month every year. True they are quite a bit larger than the ones in ours houses, but they are essentially scaled up versions of what we know. Scaled up the way 100 tables at a wedding reception are not all that different from the single table you use at home. It is simply more of the same.
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But then, as you wind your way along the trail, you start to see still larger shapes looming out of the forest floor. At first they look like normal trees, but then as you approach them they start to get wider and wider until your mind is so startled by the impossibility of a tree at those dimensions that it forces you to pay attention. These are trees so large they trigger that part of our brain we use to warn us of an incoming threat. Trees that are so large they literally scare you into seeing them. You’ve now arrived at the Giant Sequoias.
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Approaching

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Closer still

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Getting bigger

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Holy Cow!

When you get up close to one, you notice a Giant Sequoia doesn’t look like the other trees. They stand like some weird alien creature that has been imported to the forest. They resemble the other pines pretty much the same way that an elephant covered in fur could be mistaken for a wolf.
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These trees are so large that you cannot fit them into a single photograph. They simply will not fit. If you shoot one up close all you get is a trunk. These shots look just like a regular tree only shot much closer. If you add a human in front for a sense of scale the tree takes on the appearance of an amusement park model. Its so large it looks more like architecture than nature. If you point your camera upwards then the top will be hidden behind the bottom branches (some of which are as large as entire trees nearby). If you step back far enough to capture the entire height then the sequoia resembles an ordinary large tree, reducing the apparent height of the huge pines around it to the size of seedlings. If you add humans to this shot they appear too distant for the eye to scale, or they’ll be so small as to not matter. Another pixel lost in a sea of pixels.
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No matter how far back you get or what lens you use, you cannot capture a Sequoia in a single shot. They are so large they can only be pieced together by the mind of the observer. Its about then that you discover they’re not as much a tree as they are living geology. To stand next to one as it extends upward into the heavens at that impossible height is to stand next to a million years. It’s not a thing. It’s too big for that. It’s a living metaphor. It’s a rock wall that lives and breathes. It is a battleship made of living wood, set adrift in a remote and arid sea.
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As you come across them on the trail, sometimes alone surrounded by a coterie of lesser trees, sometimes in dense clumps of two or three, you start to run out of superlatives. Each tree as it is revealed to you is so impossible that you simply run out of words. As with photography, these trees are so huge you cannot capture them language. They will not fit within a single sentence. And after a few tries you realize even whole paragraphs won’t do. Finally you get to the point were all you can do is stand at the base of such a tree and stare upwards in mute and lensless wonder. Every attempt you make to describe these trees will fail. They simply can not scale down to human size. Even a holiday as large as Christmas cannot contain them.
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No wonder the first white men who saw the Giant Sequoias were not believed. They had to cut one down to prove they existed, and then they tried to cut the rest down because trees that large are a threat. They’re too big. They don’t fit our mechanized world. They’re not just tremendously old, they are time itself. Many of them were born long before Jesus walked this earth, and they come from a race as ancient at the dinosaurs. You can beat against one with your fists a thousand times and they will not notice. They are too old, too indifferent. No wonder we chopped them down. These trees don’t know we exist. Nothing makes a white man’s blood boil faster than irrelevance.
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Finally, this is what you take with you as you walk out of the forest with a camera full of impossible photos that no one will believe; your irrelevance. You have gazed upon a thousand years. Everything you do in this life will be as nothing to these giant creatures. Short of destroying one, you will never gain their notice, and you will never find their approval even if you searched a thousand years. Such a thing does not exist. You are irrelevant. You are nothing. You are a part of the great and beautiful forest we call life, but you are not the biggest part, nor the most important.
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And in the end this is what the Giant Sequoia teaches us; our rightful place.

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Bad Writing Advice #1 On setting goals for your characters

Rule #1 in a non-existent series of bad advice for writers.

When you (as a writer) introduce a character to a reader, it is like introducing them to a new friend. But that character won’t really become your reader’s friend until you give that character a goal. Once you give him or her a specific goal to direct their actions–they need to avenge their father, they need to kill a monstrous whale, or even they need to get home to their family–it is at that point that the reader will start to anticipate that character’s actions. And that is the point of stories. We live to anticipate.

For example: If you are playing a game of chess only a few minutes of your game time is taken up with the physical movements of the pieces. This is true even of a game that lasts for hours. The vast majority of your game consists of watching your opponent and anticipating both their moves and your own. And it is in this watching and predicting that we take our enjoyment. In short, the enjoyment of the game comes from the anticipation.
In the same way, a reader will enjoy your story as long as they can anticipate your character’s direction. It doesn’t matter if they anticipate wrongly (indeed there are many good reasons to mislead your reader) what matters is if they can. Objects and obstacles only enhance the experience of the reader. They love to see the impossible pulled off. But they need to know what to anticipate, and if you don’t provide that (in terms of a clearly defined goal for your characters), then you’ve failed.

 

The other time travel story

I’ve been working recently on a time travel story. Its the one I finished last week, as least finished the first pass. (as I’ve discovered, the first pass is only the start of a story.)

So last night I had a dream in which I was telling someone about that story. And then I told them about the other time travel story I had written. The second one was completely different from the first; different protagonist, different plot, different everything except perhaps they both exist in the same fictional universe. It sounded really cool, better and shorter than the first one.

When I woke up this morning I realized I had yet to start on that second story. Probably because I hadn’t even thought it up yet. Even now all I can remember is that I thought it was really fun, and it featured a female protagonist. In my dream the story seemed completely familiar, exactly like any story I’ve written. I could tell right away it was one of “mine.” Only of course it has yet to be written.

So was it dream from the future? What do you think?