September 11, 2014

So this is 9/11

At about this time on September 11, 2001--shortly after a jetliner hit the north tower of the World Trade Center--I was doing basically what I'm doing right now: Dicking around online when I should be working. The work in question was sundry administrative stuff (filing, I believe) in a small, alternative K-12 where I taught part time, filling out my work day as a sort of low-level assistant in the office. I heard about the "accident"--or, at least, we hoped it was an accident, I prayed it was an accident--on, which is what I was reading instead of working.

I went down to the high school room (it was a *small* school) and told the teachers and kids what had happened. Some of the high schoolers walked to the resale shop up the road and bought a TV so they could watch the news coverage (the school didn’t have a TV that would pick up broadcasts, and getting this one to do so took a bit of jerryrigging, as I recall). They watched all morning, and all afternoon. They saw folks jump from buildings. They saw Tower 2 collapse. They heard overtaxed reporters say “fuck” and "shit," and just plain absurd things: "The tower, it came down, it peeled apart like a banana, but a banana full of people."

I heard a man from the NSA say, “We’re still reviewing all the calls from that morning." This I remember quite vividly. This was 2001. This was on national news, live. Edward Snowden was still in high school.

Later that day my cousin--whom I hear from hardly at all--emailed me because she knew a different ”Dave Nelson“ who’d died when the towers fell.

Outside the sky was clear and blue, cloudless, not a single contrail. You know, like a TV tuned to a dead channel. There are only two days whose weather I can meaningfully recall: 9/11 and my wedding (which was outdoors, in a gazebo, on 9/13/2003).

I don't know what we're supposed to *do* with this day. It's like Armistice Day, but inside out. Maybe this should be a day for remembering wars that we lost by starting--which is to say all of them. Maybe a day to remember that the only problem that violence can conceivably solve is the problem of having too many live people, too many unraped people, to many standing buildings, too many passable roads, too many non-orphans, too much electricity and drinking water, too much industry, too much progress.

Maybe 9/11 should be a secular Yom Kippur, when we are free to honestly meditate on all the places we went wrong and screwed up, and all the suffering that's created. There's a thing we do during the Yom Kippur service, a "collective confession" where the entire congregation, together, reads aloud a litany of sins: We confess to arrogance and bigotry and jealousy and flattery, to being stiff-necked and holding grudges, to sexual impropriety and dishonest and abuse of power, to sinning in secret and openly, freely and under duress, in thought and in deed. And it isn't like you just read the ones that you did; you read them all. We all read them all aloud, because we all have a share in it. If I've been honest, but I've let someone else's dishonesty slide, then I'm part of that dishonesty. If I've been violent because I thought that violence somehow stopped some worse violence--it's still violence.

So, I hated the wars and you hated the wars and we all think and thought the wars were all a bad idea--but they still happened, and most of you reading this helped pay the bill. These are our wars. This huge violence is ours, and it keeps getting bigger, and that's ours too. So, if this is a day for anything, maybe it's a day for all of us, simultaneously, to fess up to our transgressions, our weakness, our pettiness, the monumental destructiveness of these faults, and to ask humanity's forgiveness and to, in turns, grant that forgiveness to the rest of humanity. Humanity kind needs a do-over.

And then let's move on, further, together.


September 10, 2014

"Reading matters much more than writing"—Barbara Liskov #writing #protip

The above quote is from the below video, which I've been watching as background research for some client work:

The Power of Abstraction - YouTube

Liskov is a very highly regarded computer scientist, and in that sound bite I used as the title she's talking about programming (in a great deal of detail that is largely inscrutable to me, just yet), not books of any sort. But I believe what she says here applies to *all* writing, from fiction and creative essays to workaday ad copy and stereo instructions. My sound-biting also makes it sound like she's saying that reading (e.g., to expand your own knowledge) is more important than creating new stuff. Although I *also* believe that, she's actually saying something different. Here's the pertinent bit of her talk, in its entirety (from around 17m37s into the video):

"I think it’s much more important to make programs easy to read than it is to make them easy to write, because you write a program once and you yourself have to read it over and over again, other people have to read it, and eventually someone else maintains it. Reading matters much more than writing"

In other words, hers is a strictly--and gloriously--Utilitarian claim: For the good of the many, our focus (as people-writing-things) should not be on expressing that which we want to express, but in expressing things in a way most thoroughly intelligible to readers.

Depending on what kind of writing you think of as "writing" (and the value you place on "self-expression" *shudders*) you may believe something very different than this. That's nice. But regardless of how you feel about this approach, I *can* tell you from personal experience that when you set your mind on writing for longterm readability (rather than self-expression), you get paid better, have a *much* easier time selling your creative work, and people generally like you more.

September 02, 2014

Let's Throw Boomerangs and Launch Water Rockets in Manchester, Michigan!

On Thursday, September 4, I'll be hosting a make-n-take event at the Manchester Farmers' Market on behalf of the town's fantabulous public library--come hang out! We'll make and launch DIY water rockets and boomerangs, with supplies on hand to send at least the first few dozen folks home with their own water rockets or boomerangs. Here's a pretty damn delightful write-up.


  • WHAT: Make-n-take Water Rockets & Boomerangs!
  • WHERE: Manchester Farmers' Market @ Main & Adrian St in Manchester, MI
  • WHEN: Thursday September 4, 4-7pm

  • August 31, 2014

    #FACT: Being trapped in an elevator with Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift would probably be pretty goddamn delightful

    I have a lot of thoughts about both of these songs and videos--their sampling choices, the cultural expectations they embody and tweak and leverage, their wry commentary, the possibility that the cultural construct called "Nicki Minaj" is a day-glo voodoo space-witch mind-bender escaped from a DARPA project, while the cultural construct called "Taylor Swift" is a scrubbed alabaster voodoo space-witch mind-bender escaped from a DARPA project--but more than anything, the lasting impression is this:

    Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift would be fun kids to be stuck in an airport lounge with during an indefinite flight delay. They are, at their core, Weird Al-style goofballs, and in a dire and inescapable emergency, goofballs are the best.

    August 03, 2014

    Wanna Understand Gaza? Start with the Tunnels

    Let's face it: You probably know next to nothing about Israel and Gaza right now. You hear a lot of highly partisan screaming, but it's all *so* polemical and contradictory that it's pretty obvious that no one is being straight with you. So, if you want to understand what the hell is going on with Gaza, I strongly urge you to get your head around the tunnels; they are a very informative microcosm of the region's politics.

    You've probably heard of the "terror tunnels"--which have only really started to get the press they warrant in the last week or so. If you need a catch-up: Hamas has a tunnel-network of unknown size and complexity that allows soldiers to pop up on remote locations in Israel and launch attacks.

    But that's the least of the tunnels--and the easiest to understand (after all, it's not that different from similar tunnel networks that were the nightmare-terrors of U.S. grunts in Vietnam).

    It's the *other* tunnels that can tell us so much about politics in Gaza, and Gaza's relations with *all* its neighbors. These are trade tunnels that run into Egypt. Check out this 2012 paper by Nicolas Pelham (" a writer on Arab affairs for The Economist and the New York Review of Books. He is the author of A New Muslim Order ... and coauthor of A History of the Middle East ... , and has reported on Gaza extensively") for the Institute for Palestine Studies ("the oldest independent non-profit, public service, research institute in the Arab world."):

  • "Gaza's Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel's Siege"

    Simple fact: This is as close as I've seen to a non-partisan article about Israel and Gaza. I'm not offering you a tl;dr, because I urge you to read the whole thing and see what you see.

    In case you need it, here's an link to same. Why would you need this? Because the Institute for Palestine Studies webpage has been going up and down a lot, since pro-Israel bloggers recently went nuts linking to this two-year old study, under headlines like Hamas Killed 160 Palestinian Children to Build Gaza Tunnels – Tablet Magazine. Funny thing is this: Most of these posts are focused exclusively on the following 100-word excerpt from the 8700 word article:

    A similarly cavalier approach to child labor and tunnel fatalities damaged the movement’s standing with human-rights groups, despite government assurances dating back to 2008 that it was considering curbs. During a police patrol that the author was permitted to accompany in December 2011, nothing was done to impede the use of children in the tunnels, where, much as in Victorian coal mines, they are prized for their nimble bodies. At least 160 children have been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials. Safety controls on imports appear similarly lax, although the TAC insists that a sixteen-man contingent carries out sporadic spot-checks.

    The bloggers go on to make much about how Hamas has sacrificed 160 children in the name of facilitating their terrorist siege of Israel (or whatever), even though that claim cannot be supported by this source; I don't know if they're purposefully muddling the waters or simply didn't read the article, but Pelham is talking about the *trade* tunnels in that section, not the *terror* tunnels. Those children were sacrificed in the name of *commerce* not war or freedom or terror or Allah or whatever--which, to my mind, says a helluva lot more about our world, which is, after all, that's why I brought you this nugget to begin with. It's a two-year old econ article about trade taxation and border infrastructure from an obscure think tank--it's practically the *definition* of boring--but right now, today, it is fascinating and it is informative, and it will tell you something of use about the humans who live in a particular place under a particular set of constraints, and how they respond to those constraints.

  • July 28, 2014

    FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION Interviews Me About "The Traveling Salesman Solution"

    A few weeks back C.C. Finlay, who guest edited a volume of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction did a really nice interview with me--which I promptly neglected to tell any of you about. My bad!

    At any rate, the interview is largely about "The Traveling Salesman Solution"--which is my story in the issue Finlay edited (still available at your local bookseller, online, and through Amazon--who offer a FREE trial subscription!) It was a nice chat and helped me realize that, among other things, the story is sort of a weird sublimated love-letter to mathematicians:

    - There is a lot of math in this story.

    I was a crappy math student, but I never had a math teacher I didn’t like. Mathematicians are a sorely underserved community.

    For real, mathematicians are almost invariably very rad people. That I'm *terrible* at getting my head around their life's work is an indictment of me, not them.

    At any rate, you can read the rest (it's brief!) here: Interview: David Erik Nelson on “The Traveling Salesman Solution” : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (I give a layman's rundown on the Traveling Salesman Problem, talk about military service and the "handicapped," tell a seemingly random anecdote about Whole Foods--it's *just like* hanging out with me in person, except there is no risk of me sticking you with the tab.)

    If you like what you see but fear commitment, you can get a free copy of my award-winning time portal story "The New Guys Always Work Overtime," and get a sense of whether or not I'm the sorta dude you might wanna hang out with for 12,000 words.

    July 23, 2014

    They Sent this BREAKING BAD Bobblehead to the Edge of Space #DIY #OMFG

    Things like this stop my heart, they're so beautiful. These are average Americans jerking around with stuff any of us could buy and hack together, and they're able to send a craft to the edge of space and retrieve it. It's absolutely breathtaking. When I was a boy—which wasn't all that long ago—we schemed about doing things like this, but they were simply impossible. And now? Now we don't do them not because we can't, but because we can't be bothered.

    What other amazing things are we not doing right now because we are wrapped up in dicking around with inconsequential shit on our phones or bickering on Facebook? How badly do we let down the twelve-year-old versions of ourselves each day?

    Walter White in Space - YouTube

    July 22, 2014

    What Do You Do with an Open Carry?

    An Open-Carry Guy popped up in my neighborhood the other day--a white guy walking with his lady, a black 9mm or .45 automatic in a drop-leg holster on his right. As it happened I was in a rush with my kids, so I didn't stop to talk. Just to put it in context: I live in a strictly residential area, within a 10 minute walk of four schools, three houses of worship, a major commuter corridor, a bustling business district, at least three daycare centers, and this guy and his gal were walking along the edge of an apartment complex that's home to the counties densest population of Asian immigrant families.

    I'm a gun owner, and I fully respect his constitutional right to own basically whatever gun he chooses. I respect the CCW system as it works here in Michigan, and haven't had a beef with CCW holders to date. I *don't* believe that there is a constitutional right to openly transport guns in whatever manner one chooses, and have to say that, thus far, the law is with me in Michigan (for example, although any adult can open-carry on foot, you cannot open-carry in a motor vehicle without a CCW).

    While I respect his rights, I don't respect the judgement he was showing, and the tremendous insensitivity to the community (which is full of schools, children, and families). That this encounter came just a couple weeks after folks online were cheering my and my family's ultimate death--and just as shit is once again heating up in Israel--didn't help.

    At any rate, I'd already been mulling over this piece about the appropriate response to meeting Open Carry Guys, and had been interested in this suggestion:

    PQED: How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists?

    [The Institute for Philosophy In Public Life blogger's] proposal is as follows: we should all leave. Immediately. Leave the food on the table in the restaurant. Leave the groceries in the cart, in the aisle. Stop talking or engaging in the exchange. Just leave, unceremoniously, and fast.

    But here is the key part: don’t pay. Stopping to pay in the presence of a person with a gun means risking your and your loved ones’ lives; money shouldn’t trump this. It doesn’t matter if you ate the meal. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just received food from the deli counter that can’t be resold. It doesn’t matter if you just got a haircut. Leave. If the business loses money, so be it. They can make the activists pay.

    That said, I'd like to make an additional suggestion--one for situations like mine, where you happen across someone inappropriately armed in a non-commercial setting:

    Call the police.

    1) There is a fine line between "carrying" and "brandishing." For example here, in Ann Arbor, MI, if this guy had unholstered for *any* reason (other than surrendering the weapon to an officer, I suppose), the police would write him up for brandishing. Likewise, I'm under the impression that openly carrying a long gun in any manner (apart from cased--which isn't "open carrying" anyway--or in a scabbard) is likely to fall under brandishing. Would these charges stick? Frankly, that's for the courts to sort out.

    2) If you are frightened by a person's public behavior, you are frightened. That is an issue for law enforcement to address. Just for comparison, if someone was out in the street *screaming* at his or her kid or partner, you'd likely also call the police, because you'd be frightened, and because addressing frightening situations for citizens is what we have police for.

    In the end, the most important thing is this: Open Carry Guys aren't openly carrying because they happen to be hunting, and that's how hunting works. They aren't Open Carrying because they are on the job (like a security guard or armed-car driver) and their job requires they be armed. They are openly carrying in order to make a political statement about a foggy area of the law. Our job, as citizens, is to clear that fog. It gets cleared by the courts, and that means folks getting arrested, having their day, and duking it out. As responsible citizens, it's quite arguably our *responsibility* to usher these activists into the system so that they can move their issue forward and we can all live under a clear and reasonable set of legal expectations for public behavior.

    July 16, 2014

    Oh. Your. GOD! We are all totally *screwed*! #cephalopods

    Face it: Sea levels are rising, and these are our new overlords:

    Where's The Octopus? - YouTube

    BONUS VIDEO: A cuttlefish attempts to blend into a tacky British sitting room:

    So, when the Cthulhoid Rising comes, I suppose our only hope is to shelter-in-place in crappy London flats. I guess we get our choice: gibbering madness on the one hand, being devoured by a Shoggoth on the other.

    July 10, 2014

    Lock Up Your Guns and Sex Toys, Please!

    I'm a gun owner, I don't particularly believe in keeping guns for "personal protection"[*], and I *love* this ad. Please spread the word: Lock up your guns (and sex toys)!

    This Epic Front-Yard Dildo Battle Suddenly Becomes a Pretty Amazing PSA | Adweek

    Continue reading "Lock Up Your Guns and Sex Toys, Please!" »


    About the Author

    David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

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