Log in

Previous 10

Jul. 22nd, 2010


Given that I have no control over who "friends" me here at Livejournal, I have made the decision to mothball this variant of The Pondering Tree. When livejournal gives me the ability to kick such people out of my blog, I'll bring it back to frontline status.

In the meantime, I can still be found at wordpress and blogger.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Jul. 1st, 2010

Pondering Shooter Games.

I've had the new XBox for about a week or two now. For those that lost track, Trinity got me an XBox 360 as an early birthday present. I've always wanted one but I've always been somewhat worried about getting one. My fear is that the damned thing will chew up my time that should be spent on writing, with my girlfriend, teaching, working out, reading and the like.

Althought I've had some long sessions, in one case from 10 pm to 3 am last Thursday, I've been pretty good about keeping my XBox time under some level of control. And I think Trinity likes it because it keeps me in the Pod. We do not have internet and when she is busy doing homework or reading, I tend to head out to a wifi hotspot.

Further, strangely enough, she can sleep through the racket when I am playing the shooter games she got for me. I do not know how anyone does that. Yes, she tells me her two sons used to play those games and yes she had to get homework done when her family was steadily melting down into chaos (five people, even at full functionality, are probably going to get pretty noisy).

So, my thoughts.

The first game she purchased was Battlefield: Bad Company 2, just out this year. A sequel, obviously, we follow a squad of misfits through a campaign against the Russians. The dialogue and the wisecracks are pretty good. The characters have a certain level of development, though somewhat based on stereotypes. I think the African American Sergeant Redford is probably the most fully developed and sympathetic character in the series.

The plot? Meh, Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Kelly's Heroes and the Dirty Dozen. Not bad, not great. Besides, no one plays these games for the deep literary meaning and the plot, right?

We're playing for explodey goodness.

First, a gripe.

These games are not an accurate reflection of reality. By that I mean that when you are playing the game, you have to react differently and use your tactics somewhat differently than you would on an actual battlefield.

For instance, due to the nature of the television screen, you lack peripheral vision. I've lost track of the number of times I got tagged in shooter games due to threats from the sides. It is just as likely that I might have been killed or eliminated in the real world, but I have enough training experience to know the difference.

In training exercises as an infantryman, I often detected threats to my flanks, which is something given how bad my actual vision is.

Second, one's perception of sounds is different. If someone is behind you, often you simply know someone is behind you. Not always, but usually there is some sort of pressure back there, a weight, a stillness in the air, something that is difficult to describe. That is absent in the game. The screen is in front of you while you are sitting in an easy chair in the real world.

Finally, accuracy of fire. I will say that in Bad Company 2 it is possible to use controlled, accurate fire to achieve your objectives. Given the nature of the video environment, when possible, I preferred to engage targets at a distance. I knew that if I came to grips with opponents at close quarters that it would become a spray and pray match. There would be no time for accurate, aimed fire. The control inputs simply do not allow for that, at least they do not seem to.

The graphics are certainly better. I can see the improvement between the sequel and the first Bad Company, which I bought this week. That said, it seems to me that there is not much difference in terms of game play between the Bad Company shooter games and the games I played years back at demo stations.

It does seem to me that in a multiplayer environment, an older, calmer player with more experience in the real world might be able to outwit and outsmart their younger spray and pray style opponents with the use of controlled fire. My feeling is shaped by my experience with the Street Fighter 2 arcade game. I would often find myself going up against people who knew the Special Move and only the Special Move. If one timed their attack correctly, it was possible to negate their ability to use the Special Move (which always takes a couple of seconds to pull off, even if you are really fast) and defeat the opponent.

One thing I'd like to see, and perhaps this is the writer in me, is that the protags in these games have enough actual depth to generate emotional resonance in the players.

That way when they get "killed," they might feel something more than aggravation that they have to start the scene all over again. Maybe that is coming some day.

So it goes.

The Teaching Front

Finished the Second Quarter a day early so I'll drop a surprise on the students. Since they are almost certainly reading this blog (hi there) I'll keep the surprise to myself.

After the Fourth of July weekend we'll move into the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and the Federalist Era. I plan on revising my Federalist Era lecture into something more thematic. If that works, then I'll do the same with the Jeffersonian Era.

I also have a test to build.

The Writing Front

Today and tomorrow are slated for revisions on JWP-02.

So it goes.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Jun. 23rd, 2010

Writer's Block: Fight or flight

Have you ever struck someone in a fit of anger or self-defense? If so, did you live to regret it?

Yes, in self defense, on at least forty plus instances over the course of thirty-eight years.  

I have also hit people in anger, though perhaps on a handful of instances.  I have not used force in reflexive anger since I left the Army.  It is simply too costly to do so.  

But I reserve the right to self defense by physical force.  I also reserve the right to intervene in the defense of others when they are clearly outmatched by their attacker.  

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, MIssouri

Jun. 21st, 2010

Post Crispy Monday with some history, writing and video game ponderings.

Trinity and I, at long last, finally made it to the pool yesterday. The cloud cover cleared off around 1230 hours and from then on out we had perfect blue skies until we left at 1630 hours for dinner.

The pool in question is The Springs north of Zona Rosa off I-29. It features a water park element and a proper Olympic sized swimming pool. A first class facility if you ask me. The only fly in the ointment is that we failed to use the proper sunscreen and thus today we are crispy in the worst possible way. Even Trinity is burned which is unusual given her mixed Latina heritage.

So no workout for today. The plan is to return to the pool tomorrow, the gym on Wednesday.

The Writing Front: Maternal Soldier

I got a response back on Maternal Soldier yesterday which gave perhaps the best feedback yet. I got high marks for tactics, extrapolation of military hardware and the like but the problem stems with the protag's central conflict.

Or lack of one. The Editor was very clear that "The Choice" had been made by a character related to the Protag and thus there was very little to do about the lack of interpersonal conflict.

My mom (yes, my mom reads my stuff, so does my girlfriend for that matter) has a solution but unfortunately I do not agree with it. Yes, it works in terms of resolving the problem within the story but here is the problem.

I do not believe the protag would utilize the option of leaving the Army to solve their problems. Consider it, agonize over it, worry about it, feel guilty about it, sure. But actually leave the Army?

No. And because I always knew that the protag wasn't getting out of the Army (even if the protag wasn't sure) that is probably part of the problem.

If I can rectify this, then I think this story might work. And I can see, years later, what happened. I spent a great deal of time working over the tactics, the hardware, the unit in question without putting so much into the conflict. Yes, I know a great deal about the characters but I didn't know THE RIGHT information.

So it goes on that score.

The Writing Front: Joint Writing Project-02, In the Early Morning Rain

Berry Henderson sent me back his latest mods to this project, which is an alternate history piece. It is something I have wanted to work on for quite sometime but I never felt I had the cultural chops to handle it from the perspective I had in mind.

I may have created the concept but rest assured, Berry gave this project her soul.

I printed out a copy of the latest draft for marking up and revisions. Hopefully by this weekend I'll have something sent back.

The Teaching Front: Test Day

I've got a stack of thirty exams that I am working my way through. They are breaking out into two general groups.

Pretty good and pretty bad.

I'm slowly getting through the stack. I should have them graded by tomorrow but I'll hold off on returning them until Thursday. I've got some make up students floating around out there who still need to take their tests.

The XBox 360 Front

I've been asked which games I have. They are as follows, with brief commentary on them:

Battlefield 2: Modern Warfare. Trinity got me this game with the XBox. I'm not sure what I think of it yet. Gritty with realistic dialogue, I find the campaign mode a bit frustrating. From time to time one must drive vehicles but dismounting the vehicles is not intuitive at all. Further, the vehicles seem to have limited utility in terms of actually achieving one's goals.

Bullet drop is apparently something to keep in mind as well. Compensating for it on a 19 inch analog TV set is a bit dicey. In fact, more often than not, if I can get a sniper rifle or a fairly accurate infantry rifle, I find that I prefer to stick with that.

I am not a spray and pray type shooter in these games.

Gears of War: This is a used copy. I like the backstory, which I read about a couple of years back. I like the visuals. I also like the dialogue, which feels gritty and realistic enough.

On the other hand, this thing is definitely a rip of the Warhammer 40K's Imperial Guard.

I do not like the combat system. This game's strength is very much a matter of spray and pray. There is no way to take aimed shots that I have detected thus far. Yes, there is the chainsaw bayonet but I think that is a bit silly myself.

So I'm not so hot on this one.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2: I have played this game at demo stations around town when it was out a couple of years back. Of all of my games, I think this one is probably the most realistic. Aimed shots are preferrred to spray and pray, accuracy of fire over volume of fire. You are placed behind the shooter which compenstates for the lack of true periperhal vision.

I suspect the game's major downfall is that it can seem a bit too slow for someone who wants more frenetic, Hollywood like action sequences. But then again, that is what I consider to be realistic about the game. Sometimes you have to take your time approaching an objective. Sometimes you have to wait for the best opportunity. Sometimes you have to actually AIM the fucking weapon before taking the shot.

We got Call of Duty 4 but the disk isn't working so back to Game Stop it goes.

On the list of things to obtain is Red Dead Redemption. I'm interested in trying this one out.

So it goes.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Jun. 6th, 2010

Personal wars and their cost.

Personal wars, not the kind of wars fought between nations or non-state terrorists, but the interpersonal kind between people, that is what I'm pondering today.

Lord knows I have fought enough of these wars, ruinous, destructive in their own way, costly in terms of time, emotional wear and tear, reputation, social and political capital. Most readers know that I have an ongoing war of sorts with Asimov's current editor. Most readers probably know I have an even longer war with That Market Which Shall Not Be Named Here. Then there are the self appointed politically correct fascists in the field of science fiction and fantasy, the same sort that Ray Bradbury complained about in his coda to F-451 long before their were a term called politically correct.

I fought personal wars with my sergeants in the Army to include a particularly nasty and vicious war which nearly destroyed my career during my year in Korea. I have fought such wars with my college instructors, notably a college philosophy instructor who rose to a position of some prominence and in turn, I believe, blocked me from teaching for six years.

I am actually pretty good at fighting these wars. I can win the tactical victory, engage in the war of attrition, slowly wearing my opponent, hammering them with invective, snide remarks, valid criticism and biting honesty which illustrates their flaws.

I am so good at fighting these wars that what I frequently hear from my opponents or people on the sidelines is, "Yeah, Murph, you've got a point. You are right about that."

Which led to my frequent response, "I'm tired of being right, why don't you fucking fix it?"

Aside from feeling wiry and amped after these battles, I never saw any real cost to these wars. I figured it was better than doing what so many people do when they are being screwed, blued and tattooed by people taking advantage of them, which is to do nothing at all.

Don't rock the boat. That is what Trinity's soon to be ex-husband likes to say. Don't rock the boat.

Which in my mind may as well translate into, "Just hand them the vaseline."

Cicero once said that money provides the sinews of war. At an intellectual level I have always understood this. The weapon I was issued in the Army was paid for by the US Taxpayer, as was my uniform, ammunition and the like. I couldn't afford to purchase that gear and field myself in the way an Athenian Hoplite might.

Conversely, here in the last year or so, I began to realize that personal wars, even if they don't cost any money to fight, even if they don't result in jail sentences or felony convictions, cost something in order to fight them.

Case in point. Once upon a time I think it is safe to say that I had a fair amount of social capital built up in the American Science Fiction Community. I built it up with my contributions to Asimov's Forum, which didn't always entail flamewars though toward the end it got that way. I had enough capital that I was able to fight limited conflicts with some of the known assholes of the community.

Thing is, these conflicts grew to consume my time and attention. They cost increasing amounts of social capital which I was not replacing. And while I may have been winning the battles, I was most certainly losing the war to win the hearts and minds of the members of the community.

I made one other mistake during those wars.

I felt that publication provided me with additional capital and prestige with which to take the war to the next level.

It didn't. Instead, publication raised the bar on what was expected of my conduct. It was okay to behave a certain way as an aspirant, but quite another to behave that way as a published writer.

And it didn't matter that many of the things I was fighting against, going to war over, were valid causes.

There are bullies in the field who use political correctness as a means of hammering anyone who disagrees with them into silence. Some of these bullies have no problem with attacking people when they are ill, or when they are well established, respectable members of the community like Gardner Dozois.

I suppose the good news about these wars is that I have been a great deal more careful about which hill I decide to fight and die on in my academic career. There aren't many wrongs or causes where I work. To be honest, teaching at a local community college is one of the best jobs I have ever had. I have a Boss I respect who in turn gives me the freedom to run my classroom as I will (within reason).

I try to run my personal life on the same principle. Do I really need to fight and die on this hill today? Do I really need to object to this?

Maybe something to consider is this.

What if you wanted to start a war with Steven Francis Murphy? How would you go about doing it?

Here is a list.

1. Lie to me.

I hate liars. I hate people who lie even when they don't have to. Yes, everyone tells lies, and I've been known to tell a few (in fact, so few that I can remember most of them, why I told them and when).

One example of a lie which might start a war is to ask me to do something for you, let's say provide free child care. You might state that you are working all weekend and thus need someone to watch the kids.

Then let me find out that on Saturday night you are out getting hammered. Which leads me to wonder why you couldn't be bothered to spend time with your kids on a Saturday night?

2. You don't play straight with me.

This is the classic reason for the war with Asimov's current editor. Without rehashing the whole story, I had a story that nearly sold, was asked to rewrite it (the instructions were muddy) and then rejected by the previous editor who, if he had still be in charge, would have bought it.

Don't give me the runaround.

3. False accusation.

From time to time I have been accused of things which are patently untrue. As a general rule, I'll fight this sort of thing whether I have the capital to fight it or not.

4. Take advantage of me or someone I care about, repeatedly.

Trinity and I presently have a situation with one of her daughters, who apparently thinks that child care is an entitlement. We watch her two children (whom we both love) while the daughter goes out and gets hammered. I've been told this daughter is working but I, frankly, don't believe it anymore. Yesterday I checked this daughter's facebook profile and found one of those promotional invites to something called Sinful Saturday, which took place last night down in Lee's Summit.

I'm not an idiot and I simply refuse to believe that this individual went home and enjoyed a quiet evening with her father in front of the television set. I'm not going to be a party to this.

5. Attack my personal or professional reputation.

That is pretty much the list. I'm sure there are things I have forgotten but I am actually pretty easy to get along with if you remember to tell the truth, be straight with me and don't fuck with me or the people I care about.

As of today I posted at Trinity's facebook, where her family members including this particular daughter can see it, that we are getting out of the free child care business. I didn't want to do this. I've been warning for months that I would take precisely this course of action if I so much as thought this daughter was doing anything but working.

Turns out we're enabling a party lifestyle. And perhaps I could swallow that, maybe, if the two children in question came with sufficient clothes, underwear, food and car seats. This weekend we were left without car seats and they are too small to be without them.

And what particularly makes me angry is that the boy in this situation spends the bulk of his time with his father. When he comes over on the weekends to be with his mother, it seems, strangely enough, without fail, that this mother has to work.

Work, then get hammered. Go to work again on Sunday.

You know, if I had more freedom as a science fiction writer, I'd write this situation up as a sort of science fiction story and send it off to market. But I know better than to do that. No market will touch a story that portrays a single mother in an unflattering light, even if it is an honest, accurate reflection of an ongoing trend in our present day society.

So it goes. I've got it off my chest. Now maybe I can get ready for classes tomorrow.

Hopefully this war will end before it even gets started. I neither have the time or the capital to fight such a conflict. I'm not angry at Trinity or the two children in question but my gut tells me that I'm looking at collateral damage if this goes on for any length of time.

Maybe another way to look at it is to picture the mother holding a gun to the heads of her two kids.

"If you don't watch them for me while I get hammered, I'll shoot them." Or in this case, "I'll make sure you never see them again."

Ah, but the status quo can not continue unabated either. Someone's got to put their foot down.

I guess it'll have to be me.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Jun. 4th, 2010

Book Trailer: After America by John Birmingham

Also known at this blog as Research Project Number - 04.

I had a very, very small part in this and it gives me goosebumps to see the trailer.

So buy the book when it comes out this summer!

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

May. 26th, 2010

Pondering the Fallacy of Presentism in History Classes and in American Science Fiction.

Sometimes when I read my student's essay responses to the exam, I wonder what they are thinking. Or worse, what they are being taught outside of my classroom.

One frequently essay question which appears in my American History 121 classes is the issue of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. It is one of the most controversial issues in American History today and is often grist for the revisionist's mill in politics, history and even science fiction.

I give a pretty extensive lecture on the Rise of Japan stemming back to the 1840s and 1850s with the efforts of Commodore Biddle and later Commodore Perry to open Japan to trade with the United States. The lecture is perhaps more broad and than deep but in my defense, it is a survey course and I feel that it does provide some aspect of multiculturalism for the students. It is also a classic clash of two different cultures. I also give an extensive lecture on the causes of the war between the Empire of Japan and the United States, the nature of that war and the views of the Japanese Government up to the use of the atomic bomb.

Students are asked to analyze the options facing US leaders in 1945, consider the alternatives and then provide an opinion. In order to get most of their essay points, the student must demonstrate that they have a grasp of the events, particularly the causes, motivations and perceptions on both sides of the fence.

As a rule, when I give this lecture, I do not give my personal opinion on the matter. There are a number of reasons for this. First, I do not want my students regurgitating my own words back to me. Second, I am not trying to create intellectual clones/drones, I want them to learn to think for themselves. Third, I do want them to struggle with the material and give a solid, well argued opinion.

On the better essays, I get the usual arguments pro and con which have been exhaustively debated elsewhere. The pro-bombing argument is that it shortened the war, saved lives and was the only thing that would break the Japanese. The anti-bombing argument is that it was immoral, a war crime, and used primarily to dissuade the Soviets from invading the Japanese mainland as well as to show them who is boss in the post War world.

Sometimes I see arguments which make me wonder what is going on in their heads. For instance, one option was to continue General Curtis LeMay's firebombing campaign. I take great pains to point out, for a lot of reasons, that the firebombing killed far more Japanese civilians than both nuclear weapons combined.

To my horror, I have seen students argue that firebombing is better than the atomic bomb. Which leads me to wonder about their thinking. It is okay to firebomb but not okay to nuke? How is one any better than the other? They will argue that using the atomic bomb is unethical under any circumstances. Once they've made the statement, they do not elaborate on why the atomic bomb is unethical and how that compares to firebombing.

I will say that the anti-bombing side has never argued for a ground invasion, nor have they argued for a naval blockade to starve the Japanese into submission. No, what I have seen, on very rare instances, is something that bothers me.

Students on the anti-bombing side will argue that the cause of the problem stems back to Biddle and Perry's efforts to open Japan. That, on the face, is a pretty sophisticated argument and one worth conceding. It does ignore the reality that a European power was likely going to open Japan up to trade anyway but since I do not lecture on that and the textbook doesn't even cover that topic I give them a pass on that score.

What follows is what troubles me. Basically it can be summed up as follows.

If only Perry and Biddle, as well as the United States, had been respectful of the culture of Japan, perhaps the hundred years of diplomatic strife which lead to World War II could have been avoided.

Read that line for a minute and tell me if something bothers you about it. It seems pretty solid, doesn't it? It shows that the student in question (multiple students have used this argument, I might add so I am not singling any one particular student out). Even with my qualification, I have to admit that I've been reluctant to blog about this. My concern is that students will troll the internet looking for material to use in their essays or papers at other campuses. I have additional concerns but I will keep those to myself as they do not quite pertain to the matter at hand.

The problem with the statement in italics is that it is a fallacy. It makes the assumption, a false one, that Perry, or any other American dealing with Japan up to 1856, didn't respect Japanese culture. In fact I'd argue that Perry had a great deal of respect for it in that he studied what he could of their culture in order to figure out how to accomplish his mission, which was to open Japan up to US Trade.

What he learned, from Biddle's failure and his studies, is that the Japanese respected belligerency and strength.

Perhaps what the student meant by respect is that the United States respect Japan's desire for isolation and not resort to belligerency in order to open the Empire up. Thing is that Commodore Biddle tried the diplomatic, tactful approach during his mission in the 1840s and was pretty much blown off. Worse, he left the Japanese with the impression that America was incredibly weak and not deserving of respect.

The problem I'm describing, and I relate this in lecture, is a clash of differing cultural values on what constitutes respect between the Japanese and the Americans of the time.

What is probably most likely is that the students in question feel that if Perry and Biddle had a respect for Japanese culture in a 21st Century American sense, then perhaps the war could have been avoided.

And herein lies the core problem, the fallacy of presentism. Presentism is when a student of history takes their present day values system and makes a historical interpretation through that filter or bias.

If only Commodore Perry had been through a sensitivity session. If only he had our 21st Century values.

Well, you can and probably should make a moral judgement on those grounds, but does it get at the historical truth of the matter? Do we gain a clear perspective of what Perry was thinking in the 1850s?

Or perhaps I should put it this way.

To expect Commodore Perry to behave as a 21st Century US Naval Officer would is no different than expecting Socrates to hold forth on the Petrine Theory of Papal Supremacy. It'd be pretty difficult for Socrates, Plato or Aristotle to do any such thing as the Catholic Church didn't exist yet. Or perhaps just as unlikely would be to expect Marcus Tullius Cicero to write extensive essays on the Enlightenment or Marxism.

Out of what time warp is Perry supposed to get these values? He isn't a product of 21st Century America, he is a product of early 19th Century America. He simply wouldn't see the problem of contact with Japan in the same manner as we do.

He wouldn't have foresight of coming historical events either. I suspect if the Americans did have a crystal ball showing them what was down the pike that they probably would have behaved far more aggressively than they did.

How does this apply to American Science Fiction?

Well, a classic example is The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson. Ostensibly an alternate history concerning the use of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945, Robinson uses a protagonist who is somehow inculcated in the values of late 20th Century Liberal America. The protag, Captain January, is disgusted by the bomb and believes that he best alternative is to drop the bomb into the ocean near the coastline. When he does so, the Japanese see the effect of the bomb and surrender.

The moral of the story? If only we had tried something else then things could have ended better than they did.

Aside from presentism, the story is also flawed due to a poor understanding of what was going on in the halls of Japan's government in 1945. Their reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima was simply to state, and I paraphrase, "We lose more in firebombings than we did with this one atomic bomb. We may as well continue to fight."

Dropping the bomb into Tokyo Bay would not have impressed them anymore than the actual bombing of Hiroshima did.

I have also seen this in the Fantasy and Steampunk movements. There has been an effort over the last few years to modify the traditional medieval style Fantasy away from the original European roots into something that is more reflective of our 21st Century progressive values. The same can be said for the Steampunk movement with calls issued to move away from depictions of racism, colonialism, imperialism, and sexism.

As a fiction writer, I'm supportive of the idea that you ought to be able to write whatever it is you want to write. As a reader and a historian however, I have to admit that I find these politically correct fictionalizations of the past to be something of a disservice. Part of why the Fantasy genre doesn't interest me in the first place is that it seems to focus to the exclusion of all else on the nobility. Everything is too clean, too neat, with most problems whisked away with a sword or magic. I suspect before long it will be this way with Steampunk as well, a distorted, sanitized view of what Victorian culture was like.

The past as it should be, not how it was.

Such things I am pondering today.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

May. 24th, 2010

What is America?

A couple of semesters back I took American Literature II with Terri Lowry, who is the instructor in a Creative Writing class that I take over and over again to maintain some level of skill. It should be noted that while I hold a minor in English, none of my coursework is in American Literature.

In fact, I avoided it when I was going through undergrad the first time.

I could have gotten more out of the class than I did, all things considered. It can be incredibly difficult, playing college student and college history instructor at the same time. Turns out that your teaching takes priority when the rest of your life isn't. That said, Terri had a question which she put to the class.

What is America? What does it mean to be an American?

There is no right answer in my mind, though I hear a lot of answers that simply exasperate me.

A common narrative theme in American History classes is this.

The United States of America is an aggressive, racist, imperialist superpower which is bent on crushing everything beneath her feet. It ruthlessly exploits the resources of the planet as well as non-Americans, engaging in wars of conquest which rival that of the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany. It is a pseudo Christian theocracy which suppresses dissent and demands conformity.

That is off the top of my head but I think that is a pretty accurate reflection. It is a theme I heard repeated over and over again when I went to Park University for my undergrad in the mid-1990s. It was prominent in the news media of the time and if you tune to the right channel, you'll hear it again and again. Go for a stroll in the Livejournal Science Fiction Community and you'll see variants of this narrative as well.

Basically, America is evil personified. She needs to have her wings clipped.

A narrative like this has some basis in fact. Let's run through them.

1. The systematic conquest and oppression of the Native American populations of North America.

Sometimes this is referred to as genocide, which I think is overstating the case. Efforts were made to reach some sort of understanding with various Native American tribes which would preserve them. Yes, agreements were made and frequently broken. Yes, the United States did engage in wholesale slaughter but genocide in my mind is indicative of an effort to completely exterminate a given population. I do not think this is the case.

Which doesn't really matter, semantics aside, what was done to the Native Americans was pretty bad.

Yet you ought to ask yourself if it could have happened differently. I personally do not think so though some historians would argue, "If only we had been more respective of their culture." Expecting someone like George Armstrong Custer or Andrew Jackson to embrace the concepts of tolerance, multiculturalism and diversity is not much different than expecting Julius Caesar or Marcus Tullius Cicero to start holding forth on the better points of the Enlightenment.

2. The United States is a racist, Eurocentric society which systematically oppresses people of color.

Historically, this is valid. Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, Segregation, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc, etc, the list goes on.

3. The United States is an imperialist power.

I suppose that depends on how you define "imperialist power." We do not presently have significant colonial possession in the traditional sense. Granted, you could argue that this is because we have either let them go, such as the Philippines, or made them states, like Hawaii.

But would you call South Korea a colony? I think think they'd appreciate such a comparison even if their peers in the North would make just that point.

There is Iraq and Afghanistan but neither of them look like colonies to me. Afghanistan doesn't even possess anything of real value when you get right down to it. We are there mainly due to the events of September 11th. As for Iraq, I'd argue that putting paid to a dictator like Saddam Hussein was a good thing, not a bad one.

4. It ruthlessly exploits the resources of the planet.

We have a population of 300 million plus living in a petroleum based economy. Show me a first world nation that isn't exploiting the resources of the planet ruthlessly? Show me a developing nation that isn't exploiting the resources of the planet ruthlessly?

5. It is a pseudo-Christian theocracy.

Speaking as a militant agnostic, borderline atheist, I would argue that there is plenty of religious diversity in this country. Granted, the country is not particularly friendly towards the Islamic faith at the moment but then one might want to refer to a hole in NYC as the cause.

6. It isn't much different from Nazi Germany or the Roman Empire.

Hmm. There is a saying about the Romans, something to the effect that they make a desert and call it peace, meaning that they do not play patty cake with their enemies. The United States operates a little differently but I'll get to that in a second. As for the comparison with Nazi Germany, I simply do not see it.

Or consider this, if the United States of America did operate the way Nazi Germany did, here is how history might have unfolded since September 11th.

First, the response probably would have been nuclear in nature. I suspect a truly Fascist state would not hesitate to bomb whole populations out of existence simply on principle alone. Second, we probably would have invaded any state suspected of harboring people sympathetic with Osama Bin Laden.

In other words, we would have given Bin Laden exactly what he wanted.

Third, we would simply lock up/execute anyone considered to be either a terrorist or a dissident.

Strange thing. You can't really do that here in the United States of America, at least not for long, as someone will eventually find out and stop you.

Still, the record is pretty damning.

Does the United States of America have any redeeming traits? Or should it be relegated to the dustbin of history as soon as possible?

Well, I wouldn't write us off just yet.

Here is a narrative theme that I explore in my classes.

The United States of America is a work in progress, flawed in many respects, prone to mistakes and yet she constantly strives to better herself. She has expanded the rights and freedoms of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights originally reserved for white male aristocrats to ever growing numbers of people. She has sent her own sons and daughters overseas to help restore order. She offers aid and comfort to other nations in times of need and in the aftermath of various wars fought through history. She is a center of technological, cultural, and political innovation, pushing forward to improve the standard of living for everyone.

A more perfect Union. I think that is what America is. We are constantly arguing with ourselves as to what that means, who will be included in it, and how they will be included in it. We have committed crimes in our past but I think our accomplishments, our contributions, and our ongoing self examination give us some shred of redemption from those who would cheerfully damn us.

What did we get right?

First off you have the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights. These two documents helped to frame a Federal Republic which would serve as a model for other nations as they moved away from absolute monarchy and/or tyranny. It is an amendable document which enables us to correct flaws contained within it such as the 3/5th Clause and adapt to changing conditions in the society with amendments that permit women and ethnic minorities the right to vote.

Second, over the last two centuries, we have expanded the ability of all of our citizens to participate in government.

Third, we have overturned laws which discriminated against people of color. We have also passed laws which are designed to redress grievances created by decades of systematic discrimination.

Granted, personally, I agree with the grievances but not the current solution, which I think punishes people for crimes they did not personally commit. That said, as a historian, I count programs such as affirmative action as a sign that we are trying to right the wrongs of the past.

Fourth, we helped Europe get back on their feet after World War II. This was as much out of economic self interest as anything else.

Fifth, we have served as a powerhouse of industrial and technological innovation. We may be moving away from this, the jury is still out, but our contributions in science, industry and technology can not be disputed.

Sixth, we feed the planet. While we are an industrial nation, we are also an agricultural nation.

Finally, in terms of culture, I think we have done a great deal to push forward the ideals of equality and egalitarianism. Granted, our greatest problem is that we do not always practice what we preach nor do we always live up to those ideals, but I think we strive to reach them as best we can.

So I guess I'm not as down on my country as many writers and historians are. I am not particularly a "My country right or wrong," sort nor do I see my country with rose tinted lenses.

But I don't see us as the arbiter of all that is evil, corrupt and wrong on planet Earth either.

In these ramblings, I do not know if I really answered the question Terri put to us. When I wrote a paper on this topic in her class (this is not a reproduction of that paper but I suspect if I found it that it would cover similar themes) I do not think I ever came up with a satisfactory answer either.

I will say this.

The United States of America is my homeland. She isn't perfect by any means, but I'm proud to live here while acknowledging her flaws.

And her contributions.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Apr. 30th, 2010

First Week of Lifeguard Training, among other things.

The Lifeguard Front

Good news. I passed the initial swim test. Granted, it was not pretty but I passed. It was probably not smart eating a slice of cake an hour before the exam but I was tired and hungry. I didn't think it would do to fall asleep in the pool.

We spent most of last night learning entry and extraction techniques. My entries suck. Yours truly sinks to the bottom of the pool like a rock when he jumps in. Entry from the raised platforms is especially problematic as I am trying to maintain my balance while keeping the tube under my arms.

My kick isn't strong enough to move a human body so I have to pin the victim to the tube and use my side stroke. Also, just as in fencing, it is more about finese than brute force.

By time it was all said and done last night, I was pretty well worn out.

I've got four more sessions of training before it is all said and done. I need to get back to lap swimming today in order to build up my endurance. Further, I think I need some lessons to improve my kicking ability.

Over at Cheeseburger Gothic

John Birmingham has an interesting image up at his blog. It is this.

The link takes you to the first page of his manuscript edits. I think this is a handy thing for aspiring writers and college students to look at. What you see is a series of scribbles, questions, concerns and ponderings all over the document. Perhaps what I like this most is that my nearly finished projects feature the same sort of scribbling edits all over them.

Anyway, go take a look.

The Teaching Front

We covered Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese reaction to the bombs in American History 121 today. It is part of their final essay question asking them if they thought the use of the bomb was justified or not.

I never give my personal opinion and on the off chance that a student might drop by, I won't issue it here either. I think it is important for them to look at the evidence, the alternatives and try to generate their own opinion.

More and more I am thinking of leaving baseline historical information up to the textbook. I spend a lot of my time filling gaps, putting baseline information onto what are essentially blank slates. I'd like to spend more of my time talking about information not covered in the textbook such as the Rise of Japan and the nature of the war in the Pacific.

I'd also like to have them do more writing. I've already raised the bar by issuing three essay questions per exam. They never quite know which one they'll get. It hasn't hurt overall grade yields one way or the other in my classes. This semester's classes are performing about on par with last semester's, which had to deal with one essay per exam.

The big question is this. Just what other writing assignment could I give them? Term papers are not viable as many of our students haven't had the college level english they'd need. I could issue a supplementary essay assignmented tied to a targeted reading project. This essay would be part of the requirement for getting an A in my class. It would push serious students to learn more, get more out of the experience. Those that are happy with C's can just drag along.

There needs to be more social history I suppose, but I think I've decided that the textbook will be responsible for that. I can generate an essay question designed around the textbook, targeting elements of social history. That way I can say, "I covered it."

Things I am pondering.

The Writing Front

This weekend I'll prep my portfolio for Terri Lowry's Creative Writing class. When I do, I'll see about sending those projects off to those who volunteered for the new E-Lite Reader Corps. I will also send off a crit that I owe.

I'll see about looking over Joint Writing Project Number Two with an eye towards sending it back to the Partner.

A Limb Knitter's Love is still out to market and past the 30 day marker. When it reaches 60 days then I can query. But at this point, no news is good news.

A friend has been asking about more Tearing Down Tuesday based stories. I have a number of them but they all seem to suffer from some horrible flaw that I can't fix. I'm going to look those over here in the next month to see what can be done. I want to use the gap between the end of the semester and my projected summer job (I think I have a line on one) to work on them.

Hopefully if things work out right, I can get back to writing this summer.

Other Fronts

Dad's back from the hospital. We've got rain today and tomorrow is payday (none too soon if you ask me). If I can get this lifeguard gig nailed down, that will bring an end to the monthly march from payday to payday.


So it goes.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Apr. 26th, 2010

Pondering the Things Doing On.

Dad's back in the ER this evening, making it his second trip in as many nights. Not good.

Have a thought for him.

The Doings On

Well, potential snag on the lifeguard front. It seems when I signed up that they are short two students. Hopefully they'll square that up or run the class anyway. In any case, I should noodle around the googleverse to see if I can find a backup.

This morning I talked about Pearl Harbor and the early phase of the Pacific War up to Midway. I didn't do my usual tactical lectures, in fact I find, as I was told I would, that it is best not to do them. The students are militantly resistant to learning that material. Granted, you have some gamers and military history buffs that like that stuff but you can count them on one hand, maybe one and a half hands. The rest of the students will zone completely out.

Conversely, last semester in Western Civ when I talked about Roman Marriage, they perked right up. Well, all except for the students who were more interested in learning about scutums, the gladius, and the pilum.

I assigned material up to Civil Rights but I suspect I will not get to lecture on it. The pop quizes chewed up a lot of time in that class. I won't make that mistake next semester. It doesn't seem to do anything to push them to perform better on their exams.

In my evening class and the other two day classes we are moving into the Civil War. Again I'll refrain from tactical lectures for the most part. It just doesn't seem to get an instructor anywhere.

I have to admit, I get pretty disgusted about this. I have to use an imaginary cat to illustrate what it means to "outflank" someone or some unit. And God forbid you start using terms like enfilade and defilade fire.

That said, I've got pretty good classes this year. However, I've got one class that just can't seem to get with it. I don't know what the malfunction is. Time of day maybe? Personality mix is off? Who knows?

Then I get other classes where the students are dialed in, responsive, even excited to be there. I am not doing anything particularly different from class to class. So it causes some headscratching.

In any case, a week and a half to go before lectures are over. Then we move to finals.

So it goes.

Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
North Kansas City, Missouri

Previous 10