#180: Versers Focus

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #180, on the subject of Versers Focus.

With permission of Valdron Inc I have begun publishing my third novel, For Better or Verse, in serialized form on the web (that link will take you to the table of contents).  If you missed the first two, you can find the table of contents for the first at Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel, and that for the second at Old Verses New.  There was also a series of web log posts looking at the writing process, the decisions and choices that delivered the final product; those posts are indexed along with the chapters in the tables of contents pages.  Now as the third is posted I am again offering a set of “behind the writings” insights.  This “behind the writings” look definitely contains spoilers because it sometimes talks about what I was planning to do later in the book–although it sometimes raises ideas that were never pursued.  You might want to read the referenced chapters before reading this look at them.  Links below (the section headings) will take you to the specific individual chapters being discussed, and there are (or will soon be) links on those pages to bring you back hopefully to the same point here.

There is also a section of the site, Multiverser Novel Support Pages, in which I have begun to place materials related to the novels beginning with character papers for the major characters, hopefully giving them at different stages as they move through the books.

These were the previous mark Joseph “young” web log posts covering this book:

  1. #157:  Versers Restart (which provided this kind of insight into the first eleven chapters);
  2. #164:  Versers Proceed (which covered chapters 12 through 22);
  3. #170:  Versers Explore (which covered chapters 23 through 33);
  4. #174:  Versers Achieve (chapters 34 through 44).

This picks up from there, with chapters 45 through 55.


History of the series, including the reason it started, the origins of character names and details, and many of the ideas, are in those earlier posts, and won’t be repeated here.

Chapter 45, Slade 61

Yes, I am aware that the djinn are a factor in middle eastern/Arabian mythology, and not Norse religion.  Yet if I begin with the premise that djinn exist in a spirit realm that connects to all physical realms, it is perfectly reasonable for such spirits to interact in different ways in different worlds.

Back in the 1980s I was running an Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ game, and in creating various encounters I created a table that would include a “hitherto unknown spell” in a spell book.  That required that I create such spells, and I had quite a few.  One of them was called “Record” (the verb, accent on the second syllable), and allowed the spellcaster to make a three-dimensional visual record of a scene or event as it happened, preserved in a piece of chalk, and then replay it somewhere else.  This was definitely inspired by that, although it is different in a lot of critical details.

Chapter 46, Brown 69

The size of the butterfly was a bit problematic.  I had not really worked out how big sprites were; I was probably thinking about twelve inches tall, although I had to stretch that for Derek, making him fifteen inches tall when full grown.  Still, he is probably only about five inches tall at this point, and a large butterfly probably would seem like a hawk.

I don’t recall Derek yet using the abilities to summon and control creatures for anything significant, other than as a stepping stone toward learning more skills.

Chapter 47, Slade 62

I suppose that one thing I seem to do is give myself problems and then try to find ways to solve them.  In that way, writing the story is like playing the game.  As referee, I create problems; as player, I solve them.  When I wrote that Phasius was weakened, I did not know how I was going to solve that problem.  I had had some notion that he would know a way out of the castle–but I abandoned that almost immediately in favor of the idea that he knew a way out of the city.  This had merit; but it didn’t solve my problem.

I added motion on the battlements for two reasons.  One was because things were going too smoothly; that is, it didn’t feel like a story for Slade and Filp, now having released Phasius, to cake-walk out of the building with him.  The other was that giving myself a new problem meant I had more time to consider the solution to the old one.

Chapter 48, Hastings 106

I hit a snag here.  I realized that I had not kept up my lists of what Lauren was able to do, psionically, magically, or even physically.  During the second book, she picked up a lot of skills, and built up a lot of the ones she knew.  I had let a lot of it go by, because it was being done a bit behind the scenes–Merlin was teaching her many things, but little that was specific.  She was expanding her psionic abilities, but always in a general sense.  She taught Bethany, but I never really said what.  I realized that I was going to have to go back through the entire second novel and find all the things Lauren had learned, so they could go on the character information sheet I was using.  And I was going to have to do it before I could go much further with Lauren’s story.

What I wound up doing, as I went back to start combing through the second novel draft, was making a general statement of what she was able to do and then changing the subject.  The main thing I wanted her to do in this world was fix the disintegrator staff; I wanted it to be part of the combat against Tubrok at the end, if only to show how very powerful he was as an opponent.  I also wanted her to practice, to spend time improving her abilities.  This gave me the background for that.

Chapter 49, Slade 63

The problem was simple to resolve; and it gave me a solution to the other problem.  The use of darkness had been in my mind to help them get away from the town watch when they were trying to scale the walls; but it came up quite effectively here.  The idea of a secret garden with a door to the city didn’t seem entirely out of character (particularly given that it’s a walled city) and resolved a lot of things.

Chapter 50, Brown 70

The idea of eyes in the back of Mom’s head was the catalyst for this chapter.  I realized I could get to that by having him interested in an unseen animal, and that just saying it would give a new idea for a psionic skill which would be plausible to learn from what he already knew.  I also formed the idea of having Derek learn an entirely different set of psionic skills from those Lauren knew.  This would be difficult, because Lauren mostly knew the skills I’d devised when I was playing.  I would have to think about the skills within the framework of increasing bias but with very different applications.  The heightened awareness and specialized clairvoyance functions made good sense immediately.  I’m still working on the next step, which will be some form of telekinetic, but I don’t know what.

Chapter 51, Slade 64

I took a break before Filp asks his question; I wasn’t sure even yet what I was doing.  But I got the ideas first that Phasius knew one of the guards, and second that he wasn’t really certain where he was or how to find him, and third that he had to take several breaks to catch his breath.  With this I started writing.  I named the guard Saiman because I didn’t want to call him Simon, which was the first name that came to mind.  It was a rather abrupt decision to make him an officer, and then again to have him on duty in the late night.

I decided that the lone guard was Saiman, but wanted to hang it there.  Besides, I knew that Slade was going to play some role, either of a servant or a nobleman seeking Saimon, but hadn’t worked out exactly what he would do or say yet.

I have lived several places in New Jersey over the course of my life–in five different counties.  I’ve also been quite a few places in Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania, and have visited other states in the northeast corridor over the years.  I joke when someone names a particularly town, “I’ve been lost there.”  Here I was turning it around on Bob, that he couldn’t possibly know where he was because he had never even been lost in this city before, so there was no chance he would recognize anything.

Chapter 52, Hastings 110

I wanted to pick up the pace on Lauren and Derek, to move toward some action, even though I didn’t know what they were going to do before the end.

I broke this in the middle, too.

Repairing the rod had long been in my mind; I wanted it to happen here.  But I didn’t want it to happen too soon–it seemed incredible for her to do it immediately.  I actually considered tossing it into the sea, or the volcano, having her give it up completely; but by the time I thought of it I had set it up as a major obstacle for her, and she could not do that.

There is a denigrating comment to the effect of “he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else,” which of course means that the referenced individual is merely human.  I was watching video from Skylab in which one of the astronauts picked up a pair of pants, grinned broadly, and proceeded to lift both legs off the ground and insert them in the pants.  It was awkward, as he was kicking and spinning backwards, but he succeeded–and as he did so, I thought not only had he not adequately thought through the process, it was not something that required zero gravity to accomplish.  I proceeded to teach myself how to put my pants on both legs at once (no, you can ask me the secret if you see me at a convention or something) and did so several times a week for many years, just because I could and I could say that I did.  Lauren doesn’t do it the way I do–she cheats, using her psionic levitation to hold herself aloft while lifting her feet and pushing them into the pant legs–but she gets the idea from me.

Chapter 53, Slade 65

I had pondered just how Saiman would get Phasius out of the city.  Another secret door was too much to ask.  I fell on a bold plan, to have them ride out the gate in search of themselves.

I also started inventing fragments of Norse religion; I hope no one takes them too seriously.  I needed to give something to Slade in all this, and couldn’t just say that he learned a lot about it without putting something to it that made sense, that fit with what I knew of Norse beliefs.  At this point it’s just a couple of aphorisms; but they’re probably the best way to include a religion in a story without overly detailing it, particularly if they capture the core of the faith, which I think perhaps these do.

I feel I owe an apology to a Finnish colleague, Eero Tuovinen.  At some point he read Verse Three, Chapter One, and in commenting said he hoped that in the future I would bring some real bits of Norse religion into Slade’s stories.  I obviously have not done that.  In my defense, by the time he had written those comments to me this book (and at least most of the next) had been completed, and the fragments of Slade’s religion that appear within it were to some degree integral to the story; and I confess to having only a sketchy knowledge of actual Norse religion in our world; and after all it is already established that Slade is learning about Odin in other worlds, worlds in which Odin is known to work with the djinn of Arabian mythology.  It’s not going to be the same myth even though it attempts to hold to the same core truths.

Chapter 54, Brown 71

In my search to give Derek psionic skills that would make sense coming from his experience and wouldn’t sound like Lauren all over again, I struck upon the idea of telekinetically playing with the steam.  Lauren doesn’t do gaseous telekinesis, or liquid telekinesis for that matter, so I could give these to Derek and so create a unique package for him.  I might come back later and fill in the gaps with things she knows, but I am enjoying the challenge of building a unique yet logical skills set.

The pain resistance and pain reduction skills also struck me as things I didn’t see Lauren doing; and the teeth gave me a good excuse to do them.

I will probably have him do some sort of pyrogenesis inside the tree next; it will be a cold winter, and his ability to warm them will be important.  But it will probably be the air he warms–she only did that once, as I recall, and it wasn’t the first thing she tried.

I’m trying to recall whether I’ve ever actually seen a video game in which you had to control objects on opposite sides of the screen simultaneously, but my video game experience is much more limited than Derek’s.

Chapter 55, Slade 66

I created this as I went, apart from having already decided about riding out the gate.  I also decided at this point that Shella had been watching them by scrying, so she would find them quickly once they approached her.

This has been the fifth behind the writings look at For Better or Verse.  Assuming that there is interest, I will continue preparing and posting them every eleven chapters, that is, every three weeks.

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#179: Right to Choose

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #179, on the subject of Right to Choose.

It made the news this past week, that a teenager in Arizona (her name is Deja Foxx, and her stated age is 16) challenged Republican Senator Jeff Flake with the statement, condensed in headlines as “Why is it your right to take away my right to choose?”

Senator Flake, Photo by Gage Skidmore
Senator Flake, Photo by Gage Skidmore

Let’s be fair to Miss Foxx.  What she actually said, according to transcripts of the town hall meeting, is

So, I’m wondering, as a Planned Parenthood patient and someone who relies on Title X, who you are clearly not, why it’s your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood and to choose no-co-pay birth control, to access that.

That’s a little different, and a considerably more defensible question.  I also want to examine the more fundamental question, though, the one presented in the headlines, because that question comes up quite a bit, particularly in arguments about abortion:  why does anyone have the right to take away anyone else’s right to choose?

The first thing to say is that law is fundamentally about taking away the right to choose–or more precisely, about creating negative consequences for choosing conduct we as a society want to prevent or discourage.  You do not have the right to choose to help yourself to retail products off the shelves of a store without paying for them.  As much as you might wish to do so, you don’t have the right to kill your annoying little brother.  You don’t have the right to operate a motor vehicle on public roads while under the influence of an intoxicating substance.  You can, if you wish, choose to do any of these things; if you are caught, you will face penalties for doing them.  Whether or not you have the right to do things, in our society, is defined by the laws on which we, through our legislatures, executives, and judiciaries, agree.

So the people of Arizona who elected Senator Flake to office gave him the right to take away some of our rights, to curtail our freedoms, to put limits on what we can and cannot do.

Yet that is not quite what Foxx means.  She had prefaced her question with a tirade about how she, as an underprivileged homeless black girl trying to finish high school, was dependent on Title X (read “ten”) funding for Planned Parenthood, recently cut by a new law barring funding for any family planning center that also provides abortions.  She was fundamentally asking what right America has to refuse to pay for that; she would not have put it in those terms, but that’s the essence of the question.

There are a lot of questions we could ask in response to this.  What right does she have to expect that we are going to fund her promiscuous life choices?  When I was sixteen I did not need any funding for birth control.  I knew, and everyone I knew knew, that if you had sex you risked having children, and there were a lot of consequences to that.  There were ways to reduce the risk, but it could not be entirely eliminated.  Most of us made the intelligent choice:  we did not have sex.  If you want the privilege of making stupid choices, you should expect to bear the costs of that yourself.  If you stupidly steal from grocery stores, expect to go to jail.  If you stupidly drive while intoxicated, expect to lose your driving privileges.  If you stupidly engage in sex, expect to face the risk of pregnancy (which is clearly a risk for boys possibly even more so than for girls).

Of course, hidden in both sides of that is the fact that the new law has not terminated funding for low-cost no-co-pay birth control.  It has cut funding to organizations that fund or perform abortions.  There are other programs that provide birth control and birth control advice that do not promote abortion in the process.  Further, Planned Parenthood could continue receiving as much money as it has been receiving simply by terminating all programs related to terminating pregnancies–and in the process would have more money for the other birth control programs because none of its funds (which as we previously noted are a fungible resource) are going to those cancelled programs.  The government is not providing less money for birth control services and advice; they are only refusing to provide that money to or through those who would advise you to kill your unborn baby, and who would help pay for that.

So if the question is who has the right to decide that American taxpayer money will not be given to organizations that kill unborn babies, the answer is that American taxpayers have that right.  In fact, American taxpayers technically have the right, if we so chose, to refuse to provide any kind of support for teenager promiscuity.  It is American generosity that provides those things; Foxx has no superior right to expect them from us, whatever she thinks about supposed entitlement arising from her lack of privilege.

There is, though, the other level of all of this, the level hinted by the headline, the question Foxx was not asking but which Planned Parenthood undoubtedly wants us to hear in her question:  what right do people like Senator Flake, people like me, people like roughly half the American population plus anyone else who agrees with them, have to tell a pregnant woman that she cannot abort the preborn child she carries?  What right does anyone else in the world have to tell that woman that she does not have the right to choose whether to give birth to that child or not?

And let me agree that for millions of women, their choice of what they do with their own lives, their own bodies, is not my business.  Should they want facelifts or breast implants, stomach banding or tattoos or piercings, however they wish to improve or mutilate their own bodies, my approval or disapproval is immaterial.

However, your own body is where that right ends.  If you want to kill that annoying little brother, I think he has a right to object to that–and I think the rest of us have a responsibility to protect his right.  Indeed, if you want to kill your own annoying preschool child, that child has a right to choose to live, and we have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of that child.  Further, if that child happens still to be inside you, it has the right to choose to be alive, and we the corresponding responsibility to speak on its behalf to protect that right.  We certainly have the right to refuse to help you do it.

So ultimately the question

who gave you the right to take away my right to choose?

is one that every unborn child can ask of its mother, and of Planned Parenthood and anyone else who becomes involved in deciding that the child does not have the right to live.

Jefferson wrote that we were endowed with inalienable rights–rights that no government could take from us without just cause and due process–and the first of these is life.  They, those unborn children, have the right to choose life.  Who are you, to take that right away from them?

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#178: Alive for a Reason

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #178, on the subject of Alive for a Reason.

I heard a woman on the radio recounting how she had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed nose-first into an oncoming car.  Rescue workers had to cut her out of her vehicle.  She says, and everyone who hears her story says, God has a reason for you to be alive.  You have a purpose.


It is something we often hear in similar situations–the person rushed to the hospital who survives a heart attack or some other life-threatening condition or incident, the person who has, or nearly has, a potentially fatal accident and walks away unscathed.  It is often said of such people, by themselves and by others, that God has a purpose for them, a reason for them being alive.  “I should be dead,” they say, “but God has a reason for me to be alive.”  In fact, we hear it from people who somehow missed being at a disaster–accounts from people who were supposed to be at the World Trade Center when it was attacked, for example, have been collected in a book somewhere recounting how it just happened that they didn’t get there in time to die.  They should be dead, and many of them credit God’s intervention for the traffic jam, the sick kid, the emergency call, whatever it was that diverted or delayed them such that they were not there.

Of course, the skeptics will say that this is nonsense, that these people were simply very lucky.  We hear that all the time:  “You’re lucky to be alive.”  I think a mechanic once said that to my mother when he found that the front wheel of her car was loose and had cut through three of the five lug bolts and was working on the other two:  “You are one lucky lady.”  I was in the car at the time, so that must make me lucky, too.  However, I am inclined to credit God for these survivals; that’s not the problem I have here.

The ultimate statement of this lesson is this:  You are alive, therefore God has a reason for you being alive, a purpose for your life.

My issue is, did you really need to come within a hair’s breadth of death to learn this?  There is nothing in that truth, as stated, that requires such a harrow.  It applies to anyone who is in fact alive, regardless of how close they have ever seemed to have come to not being alive (and really, close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and atomic warfare).  You were born; there was a purpose for you to be alive.  You are still alive; there is a purpose for that as well.

In Philippians 1:21ff Paul makes this point from the opposite direction.  He says that he would be happy to die and be with the Lord, but apparently they (the Philippian recipients of the letter) still need him.  Since he was still needed on earth at that time, he concluded that he was not going to die–a very real possibility given that he wrote from prison awaiting a trial that could have ended in his execution.  Yet as long as there was a reason for him to be alive, he knew he couldn’t die.  The same is true for you:  as long as you are needed, as long as God has a purpose for you being here, you will be alive; therefore, as long as you are alive, it is proof that God has a purpose for you and your life.

Years ago I shared this with the mother of two young girls who was concerned about whether she was going to survive upcoming medical procedures.  I told her what Paul had said, and admitted that this did not mean we knew she would not die.  What it meant was that God had already taken into account the needs of her daughters, and if she did die she could do so resting in the assurance that He already knew a way to care for them without her that was better than caring for them through her.  If He needed her to care for her daughters, she would not die; if she died, it was because she was no longer needed for that.

Incidentally, she has not yet died.  Apparently, God still has a reason for her to be here.

I have not yet died, either.  I tell my wife that I am required to stay here as long as she needs me here, and then I will be permitted to die.  She tells me that in that case she is going to die first, because she is never not going to need me as long as she lives.  Of course, we don’t really know that, but I did think I was going to die once, and it turned out that I was still needed, so here I am.

Doctor, doctor, will I die?
Yes, my dear, and so will I.
Doctor, doctor, tell me when?
When you do, and not ’til then.

Does this mean we effectively have “plot immunity”, that we cannot possibly die until our time and can do nothing to live beyond that?  That’s a much more difficult question.  Did Keith Green’s plane crash because he carelessly overloaded it, or because God had decided there was no purpose to keeping him here any longer?  That, though, is an entirely different question, the question of whether we are able to thwart God’s purpose for our lives–and the answer is that millions of lost people do that every day.  Carelessness is not God’s will for your life.  God will keep you alive as long as you are needed, and that means as long as He can use you.  Your purpose might not be active–the world needs people who need help, because most of us need to learn how to be servants, and there might come a time in your life in which you are that person who is needed specifically to be the burden on those who need to learn to bear the burden.  Many lost people are alive because mercy is giving them time to be saved, but some lost people are alive because we need to learn to love the lost and serve them.

However, that is not the question with which we began.  The question is not even what your purpose in life is.  It is only whether you have one, and the answer is, as long as you are alive, God has a purpose for that.  You should not need to experience some miraculous escape from death to know this–for all you know, you may have been saved from death a thousand times simply by His intervention in ways of which you were unaware, delayed by the traffic light keeping you from the accident, tossing out the old lamp that would have caused the fire, eating at the restaurant that would have been the bomber’s target had he not taken ill that morning.  You could be dead.  You are alive.  Ergo, you have purpose.

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#177: I Am Not Second

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #177, on the subject of I Am Not Second.


Bill Cosby said it:

I am not the boss in my family.  I don’t know how I lost it; I don’t know if I ever had it.  But I’ve seen the boss’s job, and I don’t want it.

I am not the boss in my house, either.  The boss tells me what I need to do and when I need to do it, and anything I think is important I do on my own time.  I’d like to tell you that I am second, but I don’t think that’s true.  I think actually the dog is second; in any case, I’m pretty sure he outranks me.  If he wants to go outside in the middle of the night, he wakes me so I can let him outside.  If somehow his whining and wheezing does not get a response from me, he wakes the boss–and the boss wakes me, and tells me to let him outside, usually with the words, “You’re not going to make me get up and take him out, are you?”  Thus it is clear that the dog outranks me and gets to decide when I am going to give up my sleep so he can go out.  This is the same dog of which I said, “I don’t want a dog,” and “you can have a dog as long as he is never my problem.”  He is also the same dog that I feed and water every day, and let out several times a day, and deal with whenever he is a problem for someone else.  So I am not second; both the boss and the dog rank above me.  There are almost certainly other people who rank above me, but I don’t really want to try to enumerate them at the moment.  It sometimes (read “often”) feels like everyone in the world outranks me; I am pretty far from second.

This tirade was inspired by what is apparently a fairly successful ministry under the name “I am second.”  I expect it’s the best Christian catchphrase since “What would Jesus do?”  I get it.  It’s saying I need to take myself out of first place and put Jesus in first place; that puts me second.  The thing is, it doesn’t, really–or it shouldn’t.  I had a bad reaction to it the first time I heard it, and my wife had the same bad reaction quite independently of me.  I am not second, and I am not supposed to be second.  Whoever might will to be first of you will be slave of all.  I am not called to be second; I am called to be last.


The problem with the formulation “I am second” is that it might state my relationship to God correctly, but it misstates my relationship to the dog.  O.K., maybe not to the dog–but to everyone else, certainly.  The hierarchy in my life is not supposed to be Christ, me, everyone else.  It’s supposed to be Christ, everyone else, me.  I am not second; I am last.

I am sure that it is a wonderful ministry doing wonderful things, and I do not mean to denigrate it.  However, I feel that a significant point has been missed here.  Don’t put yourself second.  There are a lot of other people who should be above you in the hierarchy.  And remember, it is not a single fixed universal hierarchy.  Jesus is always first for all of us, if we have it right.  In the hierarchy that governs my life, you–all of you, each of you–outrank me; but in the hierarchy that governs your life, I, along with the rest of us, outrank you.  We were called to serve each other, to put everyone else above ourselves, to be a long distance from second place in our own lives.

Don’t put yourself second, either.

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#176: Not Paying for Health Care

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #176, on the subject of Not Paying for Health Care.


I am not certain whom to blame for this; I don’t know whether it was a passing comment in conversation or a post in an online discussion or an article, but someone presented to me the suggestion that no one should ever be denied health care because he or she could not afford it.  I also have the feeling that the word “entitled” was used, as in “everyone is entitled to receive needed medical care”.

It is a noble idea, but problematic.

I don’t know what you do for a living.  Maybe you don’t.  Maybe you sit home and collect government checks–and I mean no disrespect for that, as I know people who receive social security because they are too old to maintain a regular job, or disability because they are too infirm sometimes to get out of bed, and I think it a wonderful thing that we provide money to support these people.  If we are supporting you because you are unable to support yourself, if you are a “burden on the taxpayers”–well, we the taxpayers have decided that it is worth a bit of our money to care for you.  But odds are good that most of you “have jobs”, do something that brings in the money some of which goes through the government to those who do not work.  We think that the elderly and the infirm are entitled to our support, and we use that word–entitled–athough usually as a noun, entitlements.

We also think such people are entitled to free and discounted medical care, which we also pay to provide.  Our idea of what people need, and therefore that to which they should be entitled, keeps growing.  People need, and are therefore at least in some places entitled to, cellular phones, Internet access, college education, transportation, and the list is growing.

I like the idea of entitlements; I’d like to be entitled.  People need clothes.  It would be nice if I could walk into a clothing outlet and help myself to jeans, shoes, shirts, socks and underwear, maybe a nice suit for special appearances.  I’m not permitted to wander naked, and wouldn’t particularly want to do so anyway, so that makes clothes a need.  No need to pay; I’m entitled.  If you work in garment retail, don’t look at me–I get my clothes free.

I also need to eat; what if I can’t cook?  Let me walk into a restaurant and order from the menu, have someone bring me food.  I am entitled.  If you’re the waitress, don’t expect a tip–I am entitled.

There isn’t a public bus within five miles of my home, and frankly almost everywhere I need to go, other than the hospital, is over there on the bus routes.  Transportation is a need around here, and one for which the government provides for the elderly poor.  Perhaps I should be entitled to a free ride whenever I want to go anywhere–call someone on my free phone and have them transport me to the store or the doctor or the movies, wherever I need to go, and then take me home again.  The driver should provide this, because I’m entitled.  Or perhaps I should just walk into a showroom and pick out my free car, and take it to the gas station for free gasoline.

You get the idea.  It would be nice if everything in the world were free, but then, who would pay for it?  Medical care is not free in the sense that it has no cost.  Even apart from whether drug companies are overcharging for medicines or whether hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are making too much money, medical care costs money.  The drugs are made from materials through chemical processes that are not always simple, and in facilities that are designed to prevent contamination as much as possible–costs, even without the people.  Patients are treated not only with medications, but with often very expensive diagnostic and treatment equipment (Computer Axial Tomography and Magnetic Resonant Imaging are very expensive, and are fairly standard in emergency room diagnostics).  Again, facilities can be expensive as well.  Much of the equipment is computerized.  The machine which automatically takes your blood pressure costs more than a typical laptop computer, but in the long run saves money over having a person come into your room every fifteen minutes to do the job; the machine that measures the medicine as it goes into your arm is another small computer.  Even the furniture is sophisticated–a hospital bed is capable of doing many things the typical patient is not aware that it does, and costs considerably more than most of the admittedly usually more comfortable beds patients have at home.

So maybe we’re overpaying the people–but what do we require of them?

If your doctor has been working for two decades, it is likely that his student loan debt still exceeds the amount you owed fresh out of college.  Further, medical professionals–not just doctors–are required to take continuing education classes, to keep up with current knowledge in the field.  Usually they have to pay for these classes.  They also have to be recertified regularly in a host of areas, depending on their particular fields, from starting IVs to running a “code” (“Advanced Cardiac Life Support”), requiring classes and tests to ensure they know current best practice.  Even so, medical knowledge is advancing so fast that it is said you are more likely to get the best care from a newly licensed graduate than from a seasoned professional with a decade or more of experience.  Your doctor spends a substantial amount of his “free time” on continuing education for which he pays.

Because we allow patients to sue doctors, doctors also pay for malpractice insurance.  It is likely that your obstetrician/gynecologist pays more for his malpractice insurance every year than the market value of his home.  There is no easy fix for this–but that’s probably another article.

The point is, everything we give away “free” to anyone costs someone something–you can take money out of the equation entirely, if you like, but it still comes to the three basics of economics, land, capital, and labor, and that has to come from somewhere.  We can give more of our money to the government and have the government provide more things “free”.  Indeed, we can give all our money to the government and have the government provide everything “free”.

There is a name for a system in which everything is free.  It’s called socialism.  In its purest form, everyone of us works as hard as we can at whatever we can do, and every one of us is free to help ourselves to as much of everything as we can reasonably use.  The pure form doesn’t work for the fairly obvious reason:  if you were told that you can have as much as you think you need in exchange for working as hard as you think you can, just how hard would you work and how much would you need?  Thus we have the practical form, in which someone is given the responsibility of overseeing how much you work and how much you take, in which you work as hard as your overseer thinks you can and take as much as your overseer thinks you need.  When that’s a private sector system we call it slavery; when it’s run by the government we call it communism.  Either way, if you want the government to provide everything free, you have to expect to pay for it somehow.

Of course, the people who say that medical care should be free don’t mean it should be free for everyone.  They mean it should be free for those who can’t afford it.  But then, who can afford medical care for calamitous conditions or events?  Who gets to decide what you can or cannot afford?  Does the fact that you own your house mean you can afford medical care up to the equity you have in your house, since of course you could sell the house and move your family to the street to cover the bill?  If you own a small business, does that disqualify you from free medical care, even if it’s running in the red?  Who gets free medical care?  Who is entitled to it?  Who has to scrape up the money for the bills or suffer for it?

Free medical care for everyone is a wonderful idea.  It is also an expensive one, one that will cost every one of us a fair amount of money and may change the quality of our medical care going forward.  If we want to go that direction, let’s at least consider ways to do so with the least amount of upheaval.

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#175: Climate Change Skepticism

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #175, on the subject of Climate Change Skepticism.

It has happened to me again:  I posted a link to an article, and quickly got embroiled in an ar–er, a discussion which was going to require more of a response than could easily be managed in a Facebook thread.  So here I am attempting to answer here comments made there, and it will be necessary to get you up to speed in case you missed all of that.


First, I should refer to the articles in question–but as I have since realized that The Boston Globe, original publisher of these articles, permits a limited number of free article views and then charges a weekly subscription fee, and I referenced two, I should summarize the sense of the articles along with the links.  I made that point that these were published in The Boston Globe, a paper never known to be particularly conservative.

The first article is Why are climate change models so flawed?  Because climate science is so incomplete.  It was produced by staff columnist Jeff Jacoby (March 14th, 2017), and was defending a comment made by the new Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt.  When asked (on CNBC) whether he believed it had been proven that CO2 was the primary control knob for climate, Pruitt replied that “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no–I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

This stirred a huge reaction as liberal environmental activists called Pruitt a “denier”, but Jacoby says Pruitt gave the correct answer to the question that was asked.  Jacoby then notes that the factors impacting climate run into the hundreds, few if any of which are well understood by present science.  He concludes “That is why calls to radically reduce carbon emissions are so irresponsible–and why dire warnings of what will happen if we don’t are little better than reckless fearmongering.”

I presented much the same conclusion sometime last year in web log post #80:  Environmental Blackmail, which you can read for free, although (quick commercial break) your contributions through Patreon or PayPal.me are greatly appreciated.

The second article was a letter from a reader, Patrick Moore (March 27th, 2017), extolling the good sense of the first article, 10,000 years ago?  That was climate change.  Today?  Not so much.  Identifying himself as “a lifelong ecologist and environmentalist” he says “much of the environmental movement [has been] hijacked for the purpose of alarming us about the future of the climate” and “no weather event or change in climate during the past century is anywhere near out of the ordinary with the climate of the past 10,000 years”.  Certainly it is possible that someone might want to label the writer a “denier” with no interest in the environment, but he has been identified as a former president of Greenpeace Canada, so I at least would be hesitant to challenge his credibility on the subject.

Most of my point was made in my previously mentioned article.  I favor sound environmental policy; I distrust climate change extremism for a host of reasons.  When it comes to trusting current scientific opinion, it should be noted that over the past century what was current scientific opinion said that smoking was good for your health, margarine was better for your heart than butter–well, the fact that current opinion happens to wear the label “scientific” does not alter the fact that it is still current opinion.  It was not that long ago that current scientific opinion included that the production of greenhouse gasses was necessary to prevent the recurrence of an ice age.  We do not know to what degree humans are impacting climate change; we know that climate change happens naturally (Greenland actually was a more comfortable place than Iceland when Vikings first discovered and named it, but has since become considerably colder), but not to what degree we matter to it.  Climate change alarmists are using scare tactics to gain support for their environmental program, and in the process lining their own pockets.  The facts are not so clear as they would like them to be.

So that brings you up to speed, and now I have comments I need to address from three persons.

Nikolaj found the article “mostly…reasonable”, but asked

Why would it be irresponsible to keep in account that it might be true?  Wouldn’t it be less responsible to blatantly ignore the fact that we might be ruining our climate because it’s hard to prove it?

I might be missing the point, but wouldn’t it be like looking at w[h]ether or not to provoke a nation that might have a nuke, or might not, and choosing to provoke, because, hey, they might not have one?

Well, let’s start with the second part.

Any nation might have a nuke.  Indeed, any faction, any terrorist organization, any militant group might have a nuke.  True Lies is certainly not the only movie in which a core part of the plot is that some unknown splinter group obtained a couple of nuclear weapons.  We think it unlikely that anyone who is not a nation has such a device, but we have several instances in which graduate physics students have drawn up plans for functional explosive devices, and no one controls all of the high-grade fissionable material in the world.

So when you say that a nation “might have a nuke”, you obviously mean more than that there is a theoretical possibility (at least, I hope you do).  You mean that a sane assessment of the situation has yielded a probability that reaches some threshold considered significant.  What that threshold is might depend on whom you ask.  Certainly most people would be cautious if the probability was eighty percent or better; some people would be cautious if the probability reached twenty percent, and some would consider a probability of two percent significant enough that caution is required.

Yet what do we mean by “choosing to provoke” versus exercising caution?  World War II was not so long ago, and what was significant in the preface to World War II was that World War I was still fresh in the minds of everyone in leadership.  Hitler took the view that if he demanded that territory claimed by other sovereign nations should be ceded to Germany because it was once German territory, and threatened to start a war over it if it were not done, his demands would be met; Chamberlain took the view that as long as England’s immediate interests were not threatened Germany could have anything it wanted to avoid a war.  What if we had a similar situation in the modern world–if perhaps North Korea said that it had an arsenal of nuclear weapons and an intercontinental delivery system of some sort, and it wanted immediate ownership of South Korea, then further demanded Japan, Taiwan, and other western Pacific nations?  The question is, how high a probability would we require before we took those threats seriously and considered acquiescing to those demands?  If we thought it ninety percent likely that North Korea could and would carry through on those threats, that would be a very different situation than if the analysis said two percent.

The problem with the climate change issue lies in this analysis.  Climate change extremists argue that there is near a one hundred percent chance that our current production of greenhouse gasses will result in an ecological disaster in a very short time.  It is so far from clear that this is an accurate (or even unbiased) assessment of the danger.  If the probability really is high, then it calls for more drastic measures; if it is not so high, we should approach it more moderately–and remember, about a quarter of a century ago (probably within the lifetimes of everyone participating in this discussion) there was a serious scientific concern that human production of greenhouse gasses was needed to prevent drastic climate change.  The issue is not that clear.

So to return to the first part of the quote, no one is suggesting that we “blatantly ignore the fact that we might be ruining our climate”.  The extremists want you to think that there are only two possible paths–drastic measures or business as usual.  Those are not the only options.

The situation is also impacted by the fact that nothing in the world happens in a vacuum.  That is, there are environmental problems, and they need to be addressed.  There are also economic problems that need to be addressed, and social problems, infrastructure problems, political problems–problems of all kinds.  So what constitutes a reasonable response to the environmental problem?  Should we divert all monies currently going to social service programs such as Welfare, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Food Stamps, Housing Assistance, and put this into programs to reduce carbon emissions?  (After all, saving the lives of the poor today is meaningless if their grandchildren will all die in our ecological catastrophe.)  Should we shut down all transportation systems that use any form of energy that relies on any kind of combustion–cars, planes, trains, trucks, buses?  Remember, hydroelectric is a very small percentage of our electric grid, and we have stifled the development of nuclear power, so even our electricity is dependent on burning something.

The issue is determining how serious the threat to the environment is, and what steps would actually be effective in reducing it without doing more damage to other problems.  The answer is not to forget about every other problem the world faces and focus every resource on doing something we are not even completely certain will help.  It is to work out the severity of the problem and the best approach to solutions.

Hopefully that covers most of what I needed to say, and my responses to my other two participants will be shorter.  Harry said

Even if everything…turned out to be false[–]why does that make sustainable energy and cleaning up the planet somehow a *bad thing*?  Why does it make pumping coal dust into the atmosphere and bringing back acid rain somehow something we should be *trying to do* by doing away with the regulations that got rid of that stuff in the first place?

Again we have the suggestion that the extremes are the only options.  I am entirely in favor of developing sustainable energy and maintaining reasonable controls on air pollution.  I am not in favor of taking drastic steps that will crush the economy in the name of doing something whose benefit to the environment is inconclusive.  Zero emissions does not happen even with zero production–we cannot even cook our food without producing some greenhouse gasses, and there are a number of fundamental natural processes (forest fires, volcanic activity) which we cannot control.  The issue is what is an acceptable level at a reasonable cost.  As a sub-point of that, if the economy is crashing, do we loosen environmental regulations temporarily to stimulate recovery?  That’s a more difficult question than I can readily answer, but the answer lies in exactly the kind of analysis we are discussing for the reverse:  will the benefit to the economic problem be worth the cost in environmental problems?

I don’t favor drastic steps in either direction.  For one thing, drastic changes usually have drastic unanticipated side effects, and if we can move slowly in our efforts to find the right policy, we are more likely to reach a working program that preserves the environment without destroying the economy.

Bryan wrote

even those whose income is dependent upon fossil fuels will admit that it’s a finite resource.  Eventually it runs out, and if we don’t have robust alternatives in place by the time it does, we’re going to be in trouble.

Yes, and no one that I know is saying we should not be working on them.

When I was in college I went to hear an advertised debate about nuclear power.  The debaters were to be one of our biology professors and one of our physics professors.  The biology professor’s starting position was that nuclear energy was extremely dangerous, bad for the environment, and that we should be changing to solar power as rapidly as we can, not investing in dangerous nuclear power plants.  The physics professor said that that was a wonderful notion, but he had gotten his doctorate in solid state electronics and knew that the technology was just not there–there would not be significant solar electricity for years, probably decades, and particularly not in the relatively dark latitudes of New England (where Gordon College is located).  Meanwhile, the alternatives were all dangerous.  He had nightmares about the way liquid natural gas was transported and delivered.  Nuclear power had problems, but it had benefits–some of them environmental.

O.K., in the United States nuclear power lost that debate, probably because of the accident at Three Mile Island.  It was not helped by Chernobyl.  France used nuclear generated electricity for a significant part of its power (about 40% of its total energy, over 75% of its electrical production, in 2004), apparently safely.  We’re also talking about the state of solar technology in 1975; those needed decades have now passed.  Solar energy is now emerging as a viable energy source–but it is not going to replace fossil fuels overnight.

There is an economic tipping point.  I think we have not quite reached it.  A tipping point is a simple concept.  Usually old technologies become less practical over time; always new technologies improve and so become more economical over time.  Capitalists, whether industrialists or homeowners, want to use whatever is the cheapest option.  There are two obstacles.  One is fluctuation–neither the increase in cost of the old nor the decrease in cost of the new is going to be consistent (the price of natural gas fell drastically over the past decade)–the other is the changeover cost (I might know that gas heat is less expensive than oil, but have to factor in the cost of replacing the furnace and laying the pipe).  However, once the price of the new is sufficiently below that of the old to cover the transition costs, people change.

When people are not changing, it demonstrates that they are not persuaded that the new is the better option.  The change is starting, and the tipping point is approaching–and government programs to make solar available more cheaply are helping, but also demonstrating that there is still an economic barrier.  That is, if solar power actually were economically better than other options, we would not need artificial (government) inducements to switch.

By all means, let’s find better ways to create electrical power.  However, let’s not crush the economy trying to do it.  Let’s make environmental concerns one of our issues, but not our only issue.

I’m puzzled as to why “conservatives” are opposed to “conservation.”

They’re not.  They’re opposed to making it more important than everything else.  Nor are conservatives necessarily all climate change “deniers”–only skeptics, people who believe that the jury is still out, that we do not know what the climate is actually doing nor why it is doing it.  Maybe the world is warming, returning to the climate which prevailed two thousand years ago before it entered an abnormally cold stretch.  Maybe we are contributing to that, and maybe we aren’t.  Let us not “go off half-cocked”, creating a lot of other problems in other areas trying to create solutions for a situation we are not completely certain is a problem, and not completely certain we can change.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and contributions to the process.  This is how we learn.

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