Election Night 2013 – Why this was not a great victory for Virginia Democrats *updated*

I should remind myself not to go number diving on election night, it’s depressing even on the nights we win sometimes.

Total voter turnout for Virginia’s gubernatorial races:
2001: 46.38%
2005: 44.96%
2009: 40.37%
2013: ~39% or so it looks like IMO
[from Virginia State Board of Elections]

This is a very bad trend. Democrats may have won for Governor and for Lt. Gov (and perhaps by some miracle Attorney General as well), but less than 20% of registered voters voted for them. 71.78% of Virginia voters turned out for last year’s presidential election and 1.9M of them voted for Obama – there’s a *TOTAL* of 2.2M voters this year. Now I know as well as anyone how hard it is to get people to vote in non-presidential election years, but this goes beyond “it doesn’t even look like we’re trying” to “we’re measurably getting worse at this.”

I started out in Virginia politics back at the beginning of the 1980s at the same time my parents did (the events naturally having a strong causality). Perhaps it’s just nostalgia on my part, but it seems to me that the Virginia Democratic Party of the 1980s (old-school as it was) would run circles around the Virginia Democratic Party of the 2010s with all its fundraising, social media, and complete lack of a party-wide, county-by-county, precinct-by-precinct, from-the-ground-up GOTV effort.

*UPDATE* Okay, so was about to turn in for the night when I found a table of voter turnout in Virginia since 1976 (from http://sbe.virginia.gov/VotingStatistics.html — style annotations are my own: bold = presidential election years and italics  = gubernatorial elections. And the 2013 numbers are estimates based on the results with 99.27% reporting and the Nov.1 registration stats)

What the chart below shows is that we used to have about 80% turnout for presidential elections and about 60%+ turnout for gubernatorial years. Basically starting in ’96 we start drifting down to the 70% range for presidential election turnouts and have a precipitous drop to the 40% range for governor races. Basically, the best we ever did in terms of voter turnout during a gubernatorial race in recent history was 1989 — the year we elected Douglas Wilder as the first African-American Governor of Virginia and we did it with 66.5% voter turnout. As Democrats, we know we’re strongest when turnout is high, and yet as I pointed out, that hasn’t seemed to be the focus of the party for some time now.

Summary of Virginia Registration& Turnout Statistics
November General Elections: 1976 – Present
Year Total Registered % Change from Previous Year Total Voting Turnout(% Voting of Total Registered)
2013 5,240,452 -3.5% 2,160,068 41.2%
2012 5,428,833 6.1% 3,896,846 71.78%
2011 5,116,929 1.68% 1,463,761 28.61%
2010 5,032,144 1.54% 2,214,503 44.01%
2009 4,955,750 -1.57% 2,000,812 40.4%
2008 5,034,660 10.7% 3,752,858 74.5%
2007 4,549,864 – 0.1% 1,374,526 30.2%
2006 4,554,683 2.3% 2,398,589 52.7%
2005 4,452,225 – 1.5% 2,000,052 45.0%
2004 4,517,980 7.1% 3,223,156 71.4%
2003 4,217,227 – 0.1% 1,296,955 30.8%
2002 4,219,957 2.7% 1,331,915 39.4%
2001 4,109,127 0.9% 1,905,511 46.4%
2000 4,073,644 7.0% 2,789,808 68.5%
1999 3,808,754 2.3% 1,373,527 36.1%
1998 3,724,683 4.5% 1,229,139 33.0%
1997 3,565,697 7.3% 1,764,476 49.5%
1996* 3,322,740 9.4% 2,468,229 74.3%
1995 3,038,394 1.3% 1,585,783 52.2%
1994 3,000,560 0.9% 2,078,106 69.3%
1993 2,975,121 -2.6%** 1,817,777 61.1%
1992 3,055,486 9.4% 2,582,966 84.5%
1991 2,791,747 2.1% 1,371,940 49.1%
1990 2,735,339 -0.1% 1,252,971 45.8%
1989 2,737,340 -4.9%** 1,821,242 66.5%
1988 2,877,144 8.3% 2,231,876 77.6%
1987 2,657,412 1.8% 1,571,110 59.1%
1986 2,609,698 0.5% 1,115,179 42.7%
1985 2,597,904 -2.9%** 1,377,966 53.0%
1984 2,675,641 14.8% 2,180,515 81.5%
1983 2,330,595 4.3% 1,178,707 50.6%
1982 2,234,011 0.9% 1,454,628 65.1%
1981 2,214,926 -4.1%** 1,437,382 64.8%
1980 2,309,181 12.6% 1,881,648 81.4%
1979 2,050,499 1.2% 1,059,158 51.6%
1978 2,026,515 0.2% 1,251,471 61.7%
1977 2,022,619 -4.8%** 1,267,208 62.7%
1976 2,123,849 1,716,182 80.8%

OMG! What the hell have I been doing for the past six years?

50,000 tweets. That’s the milestone I just reached. That’s a helluva lot of abused hashtags, rants, and randomness. Also a lot of friends and even adopted family, fascinating discussions, and exploration into a world that continues to amaze me.

I’ve written before about Twitter (‘A Look Back @ Twitter‘, ‘IRL is Real Stupid‘, and ‘The History of the World (of Social Media), Part 1 – The Myth of Social Media‘ to name but a few). So rather than bore you with more pontification, I thought I’d do something different.

By the Numbers

(or quantifying the randomness that is my life on Twitter)

Using a copy of my Twitter archive, I uploaded it to this tool and got this report. What follows here are the highlights (as judged by me) with some pointless commentary.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.47.49 PMET
Obviously, I peaked in 2010 and it’s all been downhill since! Sort of surprised that 2012 wasn’t the highest — obviously I needed to make more fun of the election!
Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.50.10 PMET
Prosaicness personified. At least nothing here to embarrass me, though the appearance of “Obama” might haunt me. At least “like”, “love”, and “think” are up there 🙂
Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.50.58 PMET
Certainly no surprises here! Some trolls I’ve had “free and frank discussions” with made it on here, but for the most part a great collection of people that have made my life richer and more interesting.
Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.51.46 PMET
Okay, this one had me laughing. Includes some classics such as #JessGotBoomBoom, #MUPS, and #GeekCommune, as well as my own #LAFK (life away from keyboard — to use instead of IRL)
Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.52.58 PMET
I am obviously a happy person — emoticons don’t lie 😀
Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.53.34 PMET
And despite what people might think, I don’t #hashtag #everything. Just #MostThings. And occasionally even #OutsideTwitter.

And that’s it. On a serious note, I just want to thank everyone who interacts with me on Twitter. Many of you I’ve come to feel I know and whether it’s cool and interesting links you post or just being yourself, I think of you all as windows on a world that at the age of almost-forty-three I feel I’m just beginning to learn about. I once wrote:

…I realized I was a member of a fluid, dynamic tribe all doing the same thing at the same time (and having very similar impressions) and I was okay with that. I mean, I’m the least likely to “join” anything – it’s just not my thing, but what Twitter allows is for you to identify yourself by what you tweet and who you follow, and a “tribe” of like-minded people organically grows out of that and it’s not at all static or limiting. There is no joining, there is just you being you, and then you start running into people with similar interests. It is, in essence, nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

I still feel that way and enjoy “belonging” on Twitter in a way I’ve never quite managed to do anywhere else. It’s brought me into contact with people I now regard the same as family and a broad and diverse circle of friends. Not bad for 140 characters!

Tucking this whole Jayne’s Hat business into its bunk…

I believe this will be the last I post on this — I just want to make a few observations after my post from yesterday. Buzzfeed posted an article late last night about the whole thing, and even featured some of my tweets about it. And ThinkGeek posted a couple of responses to all this yesterday and today. First, they disavow any involvement in the cease and desist orders sent to crafters selling their own Jayne Hats and secondly they’ve announced that 100-percent of the profit will go to the “Can’t Stop the Serenity, a Browncoat charity dear to ThinkGeek’s heart that raises funds and awareness in support of Equality Now.”

Well, that makes it all better, right? After all, ThinkGeek doesn’t even own the license, they just worked with the Firefly license owner Ripple Junction on the hat, and besides we all know what kind of assholes those guys at 20th Century Fox Television are! And now that they’re donating all the profits from the hat to a worthy, Firefly-oriented charity, all is well in the land of the geeks.

But…

You knew that was coming, right? But what about the crafters? Some of whom have been selling these hats for eight or more years? They kind of got stuck with the crappy end of the stick on this one, didn’t they? I don’t see anyone donating to a charity for them. And please don’t give me any gruff about how they shouldn’t have been selling unlicensed copies in the first place. Unless you’re willing and able to make 10,000 units of something, license owners won’t even answer your emails. And it’s a damn hat — a part of a costume from the show, so not covered by copyright. It’s not like Fox owns the design of the hat. There’s no way any court in the land would back Fox’s play here.

However, what crafter in the world could afford the time and expense AND risk of fighting it in court? Not a single one I’m aware of. So who is to blame, and more important what can be done to stop a cluster like this from happening again?

Well, Fox is clearly to blame for the cease and desist orders. Or are they? Under current law, if there is the smallest sign that the owner of intellectual property hasn’t enforced its rights to the fullest, it puts their intellectual property claims in jeopardy. So yes, Fox is still being a dick about pretty much everything Firefly-related, but not especially so in this instance. It could even be argued that they’ve willingly allowed this market in Jayne hats to exist for almost a decade without going after folks. Something obviously changed in the past few months then, huh?

What about Ripple Junction, the license owner? They’ve been strangely quiet, and some have said that if the Etsy listings were reported to them, they were required to pass that information along to Fox for action. That may or may not be the case, but in my experience, the companies that purchase these merchandise licenses are very aggressive (read “way too fucking aggressive”) about pursuing non-licensed sellers. I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from thinking that Ripple Junction wasn’t looking to instigate action against non-licensed sellers from the very beginning. One can easily imagine that when deciding to mass produce the hat, they did their due diligence to see how much demand there was for this product and cruised by lots of those Etsy listings well before any hats were even made or agreements to manufacture signed. As one troll noted to me on Twitter yesterday (in a different context), that’s just Business 101.

And lastly we come to ThinkGeek. Again, as I stated earlier, I’ve been a customer of ThinkGeek for ten years and very much a supporter of the company. They and Valve are usually at the top of the very, very short list of companies I repeatedly point to as doing right by their community and the world in general. But being a fan, like being a friend, sometimes means you have to call someone on their shit, and in this instance I believe ThinkGeek still deserves some of the blame. The mass produced Jayne hat was, as they have said, their idea and they worked closely with Ripple Junction on the design. It is likely that had they not done so, the C&Ds would not have been sent out. Maybe not forever, but not within months of having started to sell their licensed version.

Regardless of who owns the license, who sent the cease and desist orders, or anything else – ThinkGeek decided to …well, there’s really no other word for it… bully crafters out of the business of selling Jayne hats. They claim this was due to public demand, despite the fact that any web search of “jayne hat” back in November 2012 would have led to dozens and dozens of independent crafters selling them. No, what they did was that they saw a market ripe for the taking since they’d be selling the officially licensed version.

I challenge anyone at ThinkGeek to tell me, with a straight face, that they didn’t anticipate that bringing a licensed Jayne hat to market would result in crafters getting shut down. I mean the whole point of selling “licensed” products is the ability to get non-licensed sellers shutdown. Honestly, the fact that ThinkGeek would not be licensing the product themselves and would be working with another company who did own the license was probably seen as a huge benefit — if anyone complained, they could just point their fingers at Ripple Junction and Fox and say “Sorry guys, we’re not the ones shutting you down.” — a statement that is, while superficially factual, still misleading.

That’s it for the Parade of Blame, unless you want to pull in every US citizen that has never voted for candidates interested in making intellectual property reform a priority for our government. As it stands now, the system is pretty damn broken.

While the damage in this case has been done and can’t be undone, I do have one last suggestion for ThinkGeek, and it’s one that I sincerely hope they give some thought to as I still believe the company and all of its employees are some genuinely nice, geeky people:

Please don’t compete with the community of geeky crafters. There are probably a number of other licensed, mass-produced versions of products you can start selling. That doesn’t mean you should. You aren’t Aperture Science. You don’t need to do what you must because you can. There is more than enough business for you to keep on selling (and sometimes creating) wonderful products without looking to muscle crafters of handmade products out of business — because that is exactly what will happen every time you do.

What ThinkGeek *Should* Have Done (And Still Can!)

*update at bottom of the page*

So, just to start off, I like ThinkGeek — I really do. I’ve been a customer since 2003 and have literally spent thousands of dollars on their site (helped that my company used to give out prizes and I made sure to buy them at ThinkGeek. Also helped by the fact I’m a complete nerd.). I’ve bought stuff from them for my friends, my wife, and my kids. Hell, for me, they’re even based locally and I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow.

But with growth comes change — note I did not say ‘progress.’ As highlighted with the recent Jayne Hat issue, ThinkGeek has made a conscious decision to eschew crafter created pieces (which they used to carry a smattering of), and focus on mass-produced, licensed products. One can argue if it was an intended or unintended consequence, but part of the upshot of this is that FOX is now going after crafters of fan-created art on Etsy like a pack of hybrid lawyer-dementors. Reportedly this includes other Firefly-related items, but has mostly been focused on sellers of the aforementioned Jayne hats.

Sadly, the irony of mass producing a knit hat that in the show was handmade by Jayne’s mother is lost on ThinkGeek. Evidently also lost was what the impact of cease & desist orders would be on the crafters who had been selling these items for many years. (And let’s not forget the irony of FOX “protecting” the Firefly intellectual property when they’ve repeatedly done everything in their power to screw over the show itself.)

Now ThinkGeek could have done a number of things differently. They could have gone with an unlicensed hat and just called it something else — FOX doesn’t own the intellectual property of the style of hat (though I’d love to see them try and establish prior art for it!), just the association with Firefly and the character Jayne. Or they could have even said “Hey, we COULD mass produce this hat, but really part of the whole phenomenon of this is that they’re handmade, so maybe we just shouldn’t bother.” However, if they really felt there needed to be more Jayne hats in the world, as they told me in a tweet earlier today, why not think a little more boldly?

What I’m about to suggest is something I’ve tossed around as a business idea of my own for awhile and discussed with a number of friends — but let’s face it, I’m middle-aged, married, with kids and a mortgage — my days of startups are probably behind me. Instead, I’ll gift this idea to ThinkGeek in the hopes that they really do want to do the right thing (unless they want to hire me to help run it, in which case, let’s talk):

Imagine, if you will, the force for geeky goodness that ThinkGeek could be if they decided to create their own online storefront for geeky crafters? Instead of having to wade through billions of potential Regretsy items to find the real quality stuff, imagine going to thinkgeek.com and in addition to seeing Portal gun replicas and Annoy-a-trons, you could find handmade hats of an especially cunning design, handmade Chell costumes, and handmade hobbit pipes. That would be pretty fricking cool, wouldn’t?

Imagine the benefit to those geeky crafters, having their wares brought to the attention of folks already actively looking for geeky products? ThinkGeek wins, crafters win, and more importantly all the rest of us win. There is assistance and advice ThinkGeek is especially well suited to offer these small scale crafters, especially on shipping and possibly even on avoiding the traps of intellectual property infringement. Basically the only loser would be Etsy, and you know what? Screw Etsy.

For me, part of being a geek is tied into the maker culture — geeks tend to really like making things themselves or they have a lot of love and respect for those who can and do. If ThinkGeek followed my suggestion they could in essence offer the best of the entire geek world while remaining true to the spirit of what, at least to me, it means to be a geek.

Otherwise, they’ll continue to move to be a part of everything that runs counter to that spirit, and hurt crafters — the very ones who embrace that ethos with their time, energy, and hard work.

Finally, to be absolutely clear, FOX is the main bad guy here – but ThinkGeek can’t license from them without acknowledging that said license obligates FOX to pursue non-licensed sellers. That is part of the basis of a licensing agreement, part of which usually says something to the effect of “Hey, we’re going to pay you a bunch of money to be the official seller of this item representing intellectual property you own, and to protect that investment, you’re obligated to go after anyone else who tries.” That’s just what licensing is, so ThinkGeek’s fingerpointing at FOX and trying to act the innocent is disingenuous at best.

I wrote a post some years ago titled “Why I ❤ Crafters (and Other Artists) And You Should Too” in which I explained why I have so much respect and admiration for them. Towards the end of it, I wrote “…surround yourself with those who are creative and bring a little more beauty into existence, and you will find it easier to do the same.” I still very much believe that and it is advice I’d like to see ThinkGeek take to heart.

*Update April 9, 2013* So ThinkGeek has corrected themselves and now state that the manufacturer they worked with on the hats is actually the license holder. However, I still stand by what I said — the best that ThinkGeek can claim is that they decided to bring a mass-produced and inferior product to market that directly competes with what was offered by the geek crafting community. And they did so with a company that makes all of it’s money off of licenses, Ripple Junction — and I believe there is still information to be had about that company’s role in the cease and desist letters that went out. It’s extremely common for license holders to push to have C&Ds sent out to products they view as infringing on their license.

*Update April 10, 2013* See here

 

The History of the World (of Social Media), Part 1 – The Myth of Social Media

Focus can be a dangerous thing.

Have you ever played golf? I do on occasion. It’s generally not pretty. Whenever I get a golf club in my hands, even if it’s just at a driving range, I face a battle. The battle is between trying to be mindful of how to swing a thin stick made of carbon fiber composite with this funny little bend at the end at a ball in such a way as to make the ball go straight and far…and completely forgetting I’m doing any of that. Usually  what happens are one or two good shots and then some wicked hooks and slices.

…and then that’s when I knocked over Doc Ock’s mailbox.

There are many pursuits which are similar — learning a musical instrument, playing video games, and for me — driving a stick shift. Everything goes along swimmingly until that moment you realize what the hell you are doing and then it precedes to all go sideways (which if you’re driving a car is usually the wrong way to go about any sort of forward progress). However, when it’s right, you forget what you’re trying to do, the world falls away and you just do it.

What is usually referred to as “social media” is like that. The best examples of social media gone wrong are usually the result of someone over-thinking and trying too hard. It feels false to anyone who sees it and thus whatever effect was intended is lost. (See the recent Applebee’s fiasco for an excellent example)

Almost three years ago, I wrote a piece titled “A Look Back @ Twitter.” It was, by far, the most successful, most read piece of writing I’ve posted here and continues to be found and read (more than 2,000 views out of the more than 10,000 I’ve received on this blog). At the time I wrote it, I’d been on Twitter for almost 3 years but only seriously using it for about a year. I have now been on Twitter for more than 5 years (it will be 6 next July) – which is like a millennium in web timescales. If you’re interested, I think the post is still pretty true and has held up relatively well, so it may be worth your time if you haven’t read it. I only bring it up to point out that since I wrote it, Twitter has changed — as well it should.

When the modern Internet developed (not back in the ARPA days, but more recently in the boom times of the 90s when the idea of it went mainstream), it was a tool in search of a problem. A number of people and companies came forward, sure in the knowledge they had figured out the secret, and they tried to make the Internet and the World Wide Web (that term sounds so freaking archaic now!) fit that vision: commerce, communication, whatever. Most of them failed. Some had some success and everyone kept trying because it was just this huge, wondrous thing that everyone knew would be vital…somehow.

Then came “Web 2.0” — a defunct marketing term if ever there was one — and after that “social media.” While there was much corporate verbiage thrown about related to leveraging communication, targeting consumers, engaging audiences, and other such nonsense, what it all basically boiled down to was a bunch of people throwing stuff up on the wall and seeing what stuck and never being quite sure why it did.

But what sticks is this: LIFE.

Zen on the Beach
“And we’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere. And to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

People want to do what they’ve been doing since we started banging rocks together: find and acquire things (food, love, a good place to find the right kind of rocks), talk to other people about the things that interest them (food, love, what kinds of rocks are best to bang together), and knit themselves into a supportive social web of people that will make it a little easier to bear all the times when you can’t find food or love, or when you bang your thumb with a rock.

Where a lot of people (and companies spending obscene amounts of money) went wrong was in thinking that the “technology revolution” would change society. Instead what it has meant is that technology has changed. If you’re as old as I am, you remember what technology used to be: centralized, top-down, and hierarchical. Think mainframes. Think Ma Bell. Think broadcast network television. It was all still based on being pushy with electrons, but now it is more often (but by no means always) crowd-sourced, bottom-up, and nonlinear.

And that brings us back to Twitter (and Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Google+ and anything else ever referred to under the umbrella term of ‘social media’). Some of the people I met online during that my Twitter early days have bemoaned, as I have on occasion, that Twitter back then was more fun. No one knew what the hell we were doing and it worked. Most of my strongest relationships with people I’ve met online were started during that time period, with many having become close friends in my life-away-from-keyboard (aka #LAFK).

Outside the Twitter bubble, I always surprised to still encounter a lot of antagonistic feelings about Twitter and other social media services, often expressed as: “Why would I want to post everything I do online?” “No one really cares to hear that I am having coffee and a bagel!” and so on.

What I think almost everyone missed (even the folks working at Twitter) was that the reason it works is not that it’s some genius piece of technology, people are incredibly narcissistic, or that it’s a revolutionary communication tool — no, the reason it works is that it’s Life with a capital letter. Life is full of messy conflicts, vacillating between order and chaos, between breathtakingly mundane and prosaically entrancing. But when Life is presented concisely and with most of the uninteresting bits edited out, it’s pretty damn riveting.

Yep, pretty much.

So for all the self-described social media gurus, experts, wizards (and all the other inflated, meaningless titles) out there — stop it. Just stop it. Quit trying to con people into thinking that good technology requires an elite priesthood to understand or use it when the exact opposite is true. The better the technology becomes, the less separation there is between it and us. That’s the whole point really.

I guess this is my roundabout way of revisiting that “A Look Back @ Twitter” piece I wrote ages ago. Twitter has grown since then, and the ways we all use it have changed, but it continues to be a part of my life because it is inseparable from my life – I don’t mean I couldn’t live without it…just that there is no part of my life that hasn’t always had a place in how I use Twitter. As my wife knows better than anyone, my Twitter posts are a pretty damn accurate representation of who I am — random interesting bits I want to share, snarky commentary on things I don’t like, and keeping in touch with the people who are important to me. And the people I follow on Twitter reflect what I look for in the world around me – humor, intelligence, beauty, new ideas, and people basically not being dicks. For better or worse (and it’s probably both), it’s authentically me.

This is why the idea of “social media” is a myth. It’s not new; it’s the same thing humans have always been doing. We get too hung up on the details of the mode of communication and spend too little time focusing on what we’re communicating. This does not require a digital priesthood of gurus showing us the way, it does not require us to engage in the “right” way – it merely requires that we communicate in a meaningful fashion. This is true for corporations just as it is true for people.

Having a “social media strategy” is like what having a “telephonic device strategy” would’ve been like at the beginning of the 20th century. If you have to compartmentalize a method of communication that thoroughly, chances are you’re doing it wrong. Technology and buzzwords change too quickly for that ever to work. Just be who you are and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, “a ‘tribe’ of like-minded people organically grows out of that.”

The more any technology allows that to happen, the more successful it will be and the more ubiquitous it will become. The further from that a technology or service strays from that by attempting to subvert, control, or manipulate (*ahem* Facebook), the less successful it will be.

Communication is older than humans. Older than mammals. Bees doing a dance to show the way to a food source, ants identifying others from their own colony — even these aren’t as far back as it goes. Think single-celled organisms releasing and receiving chemical signals. But for the past 100,000 years humans have communicated better than any other lifeform on the planet, and we’re still not that great at it a lot of the time. We’re getting better at it though and technology is the only real way it’s going to continue to improve.

What has been called “social media” is part of that improvement I think, and at the moment, I still think Twitter does it better than any other similar technology. But identifying it all as something separate from “communication” is a pointless exercise – it’s like picking one fork of a river and saying “This is separate and distinct from everything else! I declare this water behaves differently than that water over there!”  I’m pretty sure that would come as a surprise to a fish swimming downstream.

I’ll conclude here with my not-so-secret secret for social media success, if that kind of thing is important to you: Just stop thinking about what you’re doing and be who you are — and if you don’t like the results of that, trying becoming who you want to be. If you can do that, I promise you will never need a social media guru. If you can’t do that, the problem isn’t how you use social media, it’s you.

Yes, the title of this piece is a reference to the Mel Brooks movie, and like the movie, I’m not sure there will ever be a part 2.

Fear, Truth, and Consequences

I’m tired of senseless death. It will always exist, but after this past year I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed by it. After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had felt the grip of cold fear as I thought about my own children. Every parent knows fear — it’s part of having children. Afraid for their safety, afraid you could somehow fail them…the list goes on. And as parents, we all know that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best.

Because in the end, the truth about parenthood is that you are not in control. When it comes to your child, you can guide, inform, punish, and influence — but you can’t be in control of another person. No matter how much your child is a chip off the ol’ block – they are their own person and as a parent you need to come to terms with that sooner or later. And most of all, we can’t completely control what the world does to our kids. So we try our best to prepare them for whatever the world throws at them and hope with all our heart that it’s enough.

Fear is not a terribly useful emotion in the modern world. It can be great to help you anticipate and react if you’re in a life-threatening situation, but in a (hopefully) rational, civilized society it’s often counterproductive. It short-circuits our reason and makes us respond on an emotional, sub-rational level, so in essence, it makes us give up all the advantages of evolution and civilization and turns us into small, quivering creatures hiding from a Great Big Bad Thing and wanting more than anything for it to all go away.

It’s even worse when that fear is felt by a group or society, as fear is possibly the worst possible basis for public policy. Look at any bad law, policy, or government action, and at its core you will find fear. Fear of people who look and act differently, fear of change, fear of a lack of control, fear of what we don’t understand.

The events in Newtown brought this into sharp relief for me. What I felt, what I saw, and what I read all boiled down to fear: fear for the safety of loved ones; fear that the government will take away guns…and fear that they won’t; fear of the unknowable and unexplainable.

Hell, TV news folks interviewing elementary age school kids who were present in the school when the shooting happened was driven by fear of ‘losing the story’ to someone else and fear of losing ratings. And why do we need news interviews from those personally involved in a tragedy? I think it’s driven by the public’s fear that those in power won’t tell us the whole story, so we want the news channels to do those interviews so we have the “real” story.

And what does all that fear give us? Besides the rush of adrenaline and the worry, not a whole lot. After September 11th, 2001, what did it get us? Two wars, the deaths of countless more innocents, the Patriot Act, a huge increase in debt and a national malaise because I think at some level we all understand nothing we’d done made any real, meaningful change.

So is fear bad? Not in and of itself, nor could we in any healthy way stop feeling the emotion. What’s bad is letting a 200-million year old part of our brain trump the human neocortex (which is only about 195,000 years old).

What we can do is reclaim the birthright of our forebrains and the fruits of thousands of years of civilization and try to actually make the world a better place…not with our emotions, but with our brains. (Yes, at heart, I’m a hippie — deal with it)

Do guns need to be banned? I don’t know – generally speaking I would prefer most people didn’t have them. I certainly think we need to put a bit more emphasis on the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment. Certain types of guns clearly have no place in a sane, civilized world. For those that do have guns, the requirements for their ownership and use should be at least as stringent as other dangerous items. Currently there seems to be more sophisticated and onerous controls over decongestants than guns (at least in my state) and that does strike me as out of balance. But again, I don’t know what the solution is, as too often both sides argue out of (and to incite) fear. Guns are not “special” — they are merely another method for producing destruction. If we can regulate bombs, tasers, knives, and yes, even cars, we can and should regulate guns.

I also know that this country needs a much, much better mental health system. No one can tell me that a 24-year old shooting up an elementary school is the act of a sane, well-balanced individual. The issue of him having a rifle and two handguns should be secondary to why he was unbalanced in the first place. No, of course, we can’t stop everyone from snapping and going on a rampage – but shouldn’t the general mental welfare of everyone be one of the most important things we should aim for? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal by itself?

But more than anything, we need an answer as a species, as a country, and as individuals to learn to deal with the reptilian part of our brain and the fear it injects in our thinking. We need to be mindful of when we are letting it drive our decisions and work to overcome it with the only thing we have going — our intelligence and reason. In essence, we all need to apply the same type of thinking a good parent does — we need to remember that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best. And realize that any control we think we have is likely a not-terribly-helpful illusion.

Not much of an answer, I know. But what we’re doing is obviously not working, and repeating the same mistakes over and over again is not very likely to change anything for the better.

Which of course brings us to the truest and best thing Frank Herbert (or perhaps anyone really) ever wrote:

The Litany Against Fear

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

10 Ways to Celebrate Kylee Lane’s Birthday

*Revised, extended, and made increasingly silly for 2012*

As I did with birthday posts for Ruth / ChulhuChick and Jess / Toasterlicious,  I’ve done the same for my Made-Up Pseudo-Sibling (#MUPS) Kylee Lane. As today is her birthday, here are some ways to appropriately mark the occasion:

1.SOAP

Well, you could order some soap, but hopefully you already have some, because it is literally the best, most incredible stuff ever made. No, that’s not hyperbole, I used “literally” correctly – I’m just stating the straightforward truth. Even better, don’t order any right now (unless you really need some), as she is spending her birthday making soap for everyone already. But after the holidays, put in an order. The geeky soaps are fun, but really, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t tried any of her all natural, organic soaps or her shaving soaps or shampoo. Because most commercial scents actual make me nauseous because they smell so bad, I used to buy as many unscented products as I could find. Buying from Kylee now, I not only get soap that’s good for me, but often times it smells good enough to eat. But as Kylee always warns — DON’T EAT THE SOAP!

2. STAR TREK

Watch some Star Trek. Even better, spend several hours figuring out how to convert where you live into a replica of the Enterprise. You get extra bonus points if you do the planning while watching Star Trek: TOS on a used projector you picked up on the cheap. Extra bonus points if you figure out how to install some Jeffries tubes. Extra, extra bonus points if you know why they are called Jeffries tubes. Extra, extra, extra bonus points if you’re somehow watching it on VHS or watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture on LaserDisc. Creating a holodeck is optional, as is creating a working transporter. If you get the transporter working, please let either Kylee or myself know — we need it to ensure a constant flow of goods in the soap / cookies / chili powder economy in which we now live.

Oh, and if you don’t have any Star Trek, then yes, Star Wars may be substituted as she loves it as well. However, I just have to ask “What the hell is wrong with you!?” as Star Trek is all on Netflix now. So in summary: if you’re not watching Star Trek, you’re lazy and can’t be bothered. Just saying.

3. TATTOOS

Don’t get a tattoo. Yes, Kylee has tons of very beautiful tattoos and each has a story behind it. You should only get a tattoo if you have a story to tell. 🙂 However, today would be a great day to think about what kind of tattoo you’d like to get — as long as you’re comfortable knowing that it won’t be as cool as hers. Getting a tattoo of her would be sort of cool, but also creepy (so I’ve been told…repeatedly), so probably best to avoid.

4. ZOMBIES

Put together your zombie/killer robot apocalypse survival kit and go through some practice drills.  Kylee knows something like this is coming and she’s ready, so we should all be ready too — there will be a lot of downsides to such an event, but the fact Kylee will undoubtedly still be around and making soap makes it seem like a slightly less horrible catastrophe.Who ever knew washing off after a zombie attack could be so enjoyable!

Extra bonus points if, after watching Star Trek, you watch some of The Walking Dead. Minus 1,000,000,000 points though if you mention anything about the current season to her. She waits until the season is over so she can watch the whole thing at once in one big zombiegasm. [Note: “zombiegasm” may be one of the single most disturbing things I’ve ever concocted and Ruth may never forgive me for it, but trust me…for Kylee, a zombiegasm is just pure, clean, geeky fun. Really.]

5.DUDES

If you are William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, or Michael Dorn, give Kylee a call and wish her a happy birthday. Really, it’s the least you could do. Extra bonus points if you can get the ghost of James Doohan to materialize, as he looked in 1968, and wish her a happy birthday. She has sort of a thing for him. But who doesn’t. Oh, and if you’re are Rick Moranis, Kylee would like to…well, the less said about that the better. Let’s just say she’d be open to a number of offers.

scotty_bday_question

6. FIGHT CLUB

Don’t talk about Fight Club. Crap. I just broke this one, didn’t I? *hangs head in shame*

…moving on…

7. IDEAS

Live your life today remembering that ideas really are bullet-proof. Extra bonus points if you remember this tomorrow and every day after. This also obviously means that if you have lots of ideas, you can create a bullet-proof vest of ideas. (this is only guaranteed if the bullets are made out of ideas as well. Just so you know.)

Also remember a good idea is better than a belief, and no one ever made a mistake by coming up with a new idea.

We are the music makers… and we are the dreamers of dreams

8.CREATE

Create something. Doesn’t even really matter what. Just engage in the act of creation. I don’t believe there is a single more defining characteristic to Kylee than her need to create. Whether it’s making soap, creating custom stamps with her husband Rory, or using salvaged library catalog cards (and the card catalogs themselves!) , she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. We should all try to do the same – the world would be a better place.

9. LOVE

Spend time with your loved ones. This may seem rather general, but honestly, Kylee derives more joy out of being around those she loves than anyone I’ve ever met. All the hard work and everything she does begins and ends with her family.

10. LIVE

Eat some frosting, drink some wine…in other words engage in some harmless hedonism. Everything in moderation — even (and maybe especially) moderation. And ENJOY it. That’s the key. Take whatever is in front of you and really, truly, deeply enjoy it, experience it, and revel in it. That’s life and it ain’t for the weak hearted. I can’t think of anything more Kylee than that.

Extra bonus points: Buy a mansion (you can either literally buy a mansion or just try for something everyone will think you’re crazy for doing, and then try and do it anyway)

Or if you prefer, simply wish her a happy birthday . . . but with all these other options, that just seems kind of lame.

Extra, Extra bonus points: Write nice things about her and make her blush and giggle (which is absolutely priceless to see in person!)

Oh, and a warning — you lose points and possibly forfeit if you 1) sing her Happy Birthday 2) tell her she can’t do something 3) violate Wheaton’s Rule

Let’s not meet in the middle… Political deadlock and how money changes everything

Ahh, the heady warm-breeze of overheated election year politics. And amidst all the claims and counter-claims, many talking heads and regular citizens bemoan the lack of civility and the intransigent deadlock of the extremes of both parties working against each other. These protestations are almost always concluded with a sad shaking of the head and a fervent call to embrace the ideological middle ground so that some progress can be made.

Horseshit.

Okay, not the lack of civility — that really is a problem and more on that later. What I’m calling “horseshit” is this belief that the ideological extremes of both parties are holding us all hostage. Hell, even Scientific American gave this some credibility with their interview of researcher Jonathan Haidt (who recently published a book titled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.”). Mr. Haidt’s view is that the country has been splitting apart into different cultures and that is the source of all our woes. Some quotes from the interview:

But as the culture war between left and right was heating up, and as the two parties were completing their 30 year process of segregating into a pure liberal party and a pure conservative party, I began to see left and right in this country as being like different cultures.

and

Ultimately, the solutions to our polarization and political dysfunction will be legal and institutional changes which reduce the power of extremists in both parties, and which force the parties back to their traditional strategy of competing for the middle, rather than the strategy, used since 2004, of pleasing one’s own base.

I find a number of faults with his assumptions and his proposed solutions, but I do think they’re examples of what many well-meaning folks believe.

I think the easiest way to start examining this is to look at the Democratic and Republican parties and the ideological underpinnings of the American voter. First, let’s see where the numbers are for registered voters by party identity, according to the folks at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

As you can see, we’re all divided, by party identification, into roughly thirds. This isn’t just true now, but has been roughly true for many, many decades. Democrats, while generally enjoying an advantage in sheer numbers, have lost a few, while independents have grown and Republicans have remained fairly constant. How does this tie into the above points by Mr. Haidt? Well, if the major political parties were truly becoming more polarized, we’d expect to see the numbers above for both parties dropping and independents increasing as the moderates in both parties felt excluded and move to an independent status. That does not seem to be the case at all.

But let’s not get stuck on party labels – after all, the ideologies of the parties can change over time. Let’s look at a breakdown of American voters by ideology and let’s throw some more years in there. This is from the American National Election Studies:

Again, you see some fluctuations, but nothing really out of a fairly confined range. The only real datapoint that stands out to me is the number who reported “Don’t know / Haven’t thought about it” which had a significant jump from 1980 through 1990 before settling down again up until 2008. Maybe what some folks are seeing is that since roughly the middle of George H. W. Bush’s administration, people have become less apathetic? Many of the media talking heads voicing distaste for partisan discourse are age 40 and up – might they just have been strongly influenced by becoming aware of politics in their 20s and 30s when strong ideological beliefs had a momentary lull? I’m not certain, but it does seem like it might be a contributing factor.

So where is this unprecedented great divide that’s breaking our country apart? Party identification hasn’t really changed. Self-identification to slices of the ideological spectrum don’t seem to have shifted much. If you can bear with me for one more table, let’s look at the strength of independents compared to partisans of both parties. Again, this from the American National Election Studies:

This is perhaps the biggest refutation possible of the idea that partisan ideology is the source of gridlock or pretty much anything else. From 1952 up until 1964 we saw those strongly partisan as fairly stable and then in 1966 it fell off a cliff and never really recovered. Weakly leaning partisans however saw a pretty big fall off in 1986, and again pretty consistent downward trend. Meanwhile, those leaning independent started a steady, but occasionally fluctuating rise starting in 1972, while those solidly independent have remained fairly stable with but small bump between 1966 and 1982.

BTW, for those wondering what might have started these trends, there were probably a number of factors. My guess would be changes that started post-1964 were as a result of the Civil Rights Act causing a major restructuring of voting blocks (Southern whites leaving the Democratic Party, progressive Republicans reclassifying themselves as independent and occasionally voting Democratic), disaffection amongst some former Republicans after the loss of Barry Goldwater, and then further pushes towards the middle in the post-Watergate era.

According to the numbers above, we are actually MORE nonpartisan now than we have been in 60 years. The combined independent and leaning independent blocks have gone from 26% to 40% in that timeframe. And ideologically, the numbers haven’t budged significantly in 40 years. America has maintained the basic ideological patterns, while the numbers of those strongly identifying as the extremes of the major parties has decreased. I won’t bother with another table, but if you’re interested, here’s a page showing degrees of party identification for the past 60 years. Neither ideological or partisan extremes are the issue at all.

Why can’t we get anything done? That really is the million dollar question.The cheap and easy-to-answer question (which has probably already occurred to some of you): Okay, so the voters haven’t changed, but what about our elected officials? This is where it gets interesting – by nearly every serious measure devised, the U.S. Congress is more sharply polarized along partisan lines than it has been in a very long time.

There’s lots of people who have sought to measure, quantify, and analyze this partisan divide in Congress. From the voteview blog (some of the folks best at this), comes what should hopefully be my last chart:

What this shows is the size of the partisan divides in the U.S. House and the Senate. You’ll notice that since 1977, the US House has gotten more divided every single year since then (other than  brief plateaus between 1985 and 1987, and 2005 and 2009). The US Senate, on the other hand, has only been on an uninterrupted rise since 2003.

We have a country that has essentially remained unchanged in terms of our ideological and partisan makeup for 60 years, and yet within that same time-frame, our elected officials have indeed become more divided. This makes absolutely no sense, right?! It would seem almost surreal to say that in a country with a representative democracy, we’d see this kind of split between what the voters believe and how their representatives operate.

Surreal or not though, that’s exactly where we are. …at least in terms of a division existing between both parties. But is it their ideology/partisanship that is really to blame, or something else?

Whenever I think about this, and similar stories have been mentioned a number of times this election cycle, I always think about how it used to be. Speaker of the House (and Massachusetts liberal) Tip O’Neill would indeed have a regular end-of-the-week drink with President (and Republican Golden Idol) Ronald Reagan. Can you imagine current GOP House Speaker Boehner sitting back with President Obama, having a drink and just talking? Me neither. And, after a lifetime of being an inside-the-Beltway-brat, my understanding is that was just how it was done throughout much of our nation’s modern history.

Perhaps more importantly was how opposing partisans worked together. Liberal Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy regularly worked with some of the most conservative Senators like Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, and many others (and they with him) to draft legislation. In fact, to get anything done back in the day, what had to happen was that the extremes had to talk to each other, come up with a workable plan both could support, and the moderates in the middle would follow. The solutions never really came from the middle, they came from both extremes hashing out a compromise and the middle following suit.

What caused the shift away from this compromise-based approach to legislation? After all, this is clearly an effect and not a cause. If the voters aren’t the problem, and the past shows us that the extremes used to be instrumental in forging consensus, what changed? There’s a number of causes, but I think it comes down to the following, in order of priority:

  1. Money: It really does seem to me to be the root of all evil. It’s tied directly to the influence of lobbyists, the revolving door between Capitol Hill (for both those elected and their staff) and the lobbyists, the cost of elections, and all the other ways those with power use money to generate influence, power, and more money. It is the only force capable of the complete subversion of the will of the people we see from both parties. Just since 1998, we’ve seen the amount reported being spent on lobbying go from $1.44 Billion dollars a year to $3.33 Billion in 2011. It’s more than doubled in the space of 13 years. And since the number of lobbyists has stayed steady (even dropping in recent years), where do you think all that money is going? And as the hunt for money for elections has heated up, what legislator can afford to be seen compromising with their colleagues across the aisle? The cherry on this little shitty sundae is of course the Citizen’s United decision which further eroded what minor checks there were in place to control the effect of money in politics.
  2. Redistricting: Most people aren’t even aware of how this process occurs. In most states, after the decennial census, state legislators revise the congressional districts, often subject to approval by the state’s governor. To do this in a partisan manner is called gerrymandering, as it is quite easy to, for example, move two congressional representatives from an opposing party into the same district or redraw the district’s boundaries to make the seat harder for the opposing party to hold. That was gerrymandering 1.0. The current version is far more insidious — it basically comes down to a gentleman’s agreement to keep the districts as strongly partisan as possible, thus ensuring easy elections for both parties (for more on the problem and possible solutions, see Fairvote.org’s resources on this). And because both parties are doing this, no one says anything. Some states (only six to be precise) have independent bodies do the redistricting, but as these bodies are often appointed through bipartisan action, it doesn’t really change much. This is the power of incumbency taken to a ridiculous and ultimately damaging extreme. Fixing this would work far better and more democratically than something like term limits. Honestly, all it would take is a truly independent body that relied exclusively on a straightforward software application to parse the census data and, following the federal guidelines (these are federal elections after all), redraw the districts. Interestingly enough, many such software programs exist already — used by both parties to ensure their re-elections. If you want to take a detailed look at what exactly this would mean, check out this Daily Kos piece on nonpartisan redistricting.
  3. The media: With the rise of 24-hour news channels, “news” has become big business. And they’ve got a lot of time to fill. This, far more than the Internet, has been what really killed newspapers, and the traditional role of journalists along with it. It’s true that the Internet does make it harder for newspapers to capture eyeballs, but they’d already been losing them to TV for years. With the cable news networks, newspapers not only lost subscribers, they lost their relevance in being the “first” with the news as well as all their journalistic integrity. Quality of newspaper coverage has generally been trending downward in quality because it’s very hard for cogent, reasoned analysis to compete with the immediate timeliness and flash of TV or Internet news sources. And rather than falling back on what made them special and unique, newspapers seem intent on a race to the bottom. The result, more superficial coverage that pretends to be news and is actually just reciting talking points, which either with or without partisan spin is not the same as “journalism.”

The second issue above is the easiest to address and fix. The first is definitely a little more difficult, as every previous effort to contain the power and influence of money in politics has found. However, it still should be able to be made better than it is now. The third issue is not fixable from the outside in my opinion. I do remain optimistic though that it will be fixed…somehow.

In the end, we have the government we deserve, as it was still, however imperfectly, elected. We’re all victims and we’re all to blame, and no one can fix it except us. Sucks, huh? But not surprising. Welcome to representative democracy. Changes in election laws, campaign financing and technology have created a vacuum that allows money to have a greater and greater effect on not only elections, but the legislative and governing processes that occur afterwards.

But it can be fixed. As stated and shown above, the American public still contains roughly the same distribution of ideologies. We know what worked before in terms of progress coming from ideas and compromises by the extremes of both parties. In short, we know why it used to work and is now broken. The only thing left to do is figure out the details of how we get back to there from here.

Note: For those who fault the above analysis because it only looks at the partisan and ideological leanings of registered voters instead of the populace at large, too bad. If you don’t at least register to vote and then make your way to the voting booth, guess what? Your opinion doesn’t matter. Apathy is not a viable political philosophy.

Teleprompters and DeadWoodPulp-prompters? There was one Republican who wouldn’t have cared.

I see Fox News is trumpeting that “Condoleeza Rice Did Speech Without Teleprompter” …umm, so “JOBS!” then? They admit she did it from “notes” (aka the papers on the lectern in front of her…which is, you know, just a DeadWoodPulp-prompter)

This is the level of political discourse and “journalism” that the fate of our country now hangs on. According to this mindset, who ever reads what predigested pap in which overly-scripted and overly produced pageant best wins I guess.

And evidently it’s a severe point deduction to read off a teleprompter, or really to make any prepared remarks that smack of coherence. You know, like a certain president did, on the back of an envelope, when he wrote a speech of just ten sentences that helped define what it means to be an American.

One has to wonder how the current GOP would castigate Lincoln for daring to write down prepared remarks for just a two minute speech.

10 Ways to Celebrate @Toasterlicious’ Birthday

And now to complete the trilogy (bet you didn’t even know it was a trilogy, huh?!) – I bring you 10 ways to celebrate the birthday of my Made-Up Pseudo-Sibling (#MUPS) Jess (@toasterlicious). As I did with my other #MUPS Kylee Lane and the ever amazing Ruth/CthulhuChick, I’ve offered some ways to appropriately mark this happy occasion:

1. Read something good. Shakespeare would be the obvious choice, but by no means the only one. Savor the words. Think about what you’re reading. Immerse yourself in it. Jess does that sort of stuff all the time. (Optional) Either write about what your reading or talk about it with a friend. Or, if you’re very literal in your interpretations and have no new obvious insights, talk about it with an enemy.

2. Read something bad. How can you have good without bad, right? Well, it’s not like we’ll ever know —  we’re not in any danger of running out of bad writing anytime soon. However, reading bad literature does two things: 1) helps us realize what makes bad writing really, awfully, horribly bad; (Hint: adverbs) 2) it allows us to post frakking hilarious YouTube videos about how bad it actually was. Such as this, this, and this. (Oxford comma usage just for Jess! Doing it when it wasn’t necessary — well, that was just for me because I’m a smart-ass.) [Editorial Note: There used to be videos at the end of those links and now there are not, but trust me when I say that they were amazing. No, seriously, trust me.]

3. Go to grad school. I mean, it must be really cool, right? All these brilliant, smart people seem to do it, so hell, we should all probably do it. *checks price of tuition* *checks bank account* Hmmm… maybe that’s a bit too much. Instead of *actually* going to grad school, how about just for today, you work twice as long as you normally would (doing your boss’ work in addition to your own would be the most authentic approach), go home and splurge with ramen, eggs and toast, or (not “AND”) some other entree that can be had for less than $2, and then sit around your apartment having an existential crisis vis-à-vis why the hell are you doing this, what the hell are you going to do with your life, how your entire approach to your work is never going to be understood by those other idiots in the department and why the hell can’t you have a life.

On second thought, let’s leave this for the folks who can actually handle it. Instead, just drive by a local university and throw some food at the grad students. One or two might follow you home, but it’s worth the risk.

4. Sketch something. Let your mind go and your pencil will follow 🙂 As her made-up pseudo older brother, I have encouraged Jess in many things (not hard to do, she is honestly one of the single most intelligent, capable people I’ve ever met — basically my encouragement usually boils down to “Hey, all that stuff you’re doing? That’s awesome! Go do some more of that!”) but I have to say the one I think I’ve enjoyed encouraging her about the most is her drawings.  Jess continues to protest to this day that she can’t draw. I continue to tell her that’s bullshit. My dream is that someday she and I will collaborate on what will possibly be the funniest and most disturbing children’s book ever created. We’ll both write, she’ll illustrate, and possibly we would be the only ones laughing at our awesome absurdity, but I’m telling you it would be EPIC! I could point to many examples of her drawing, but that would only make her uncomfortable, so I’ll just highlight three favorites:

5. Write some crazy notes in the margin of a book you’re reading. Again, Jess does this all the time. In fact, this may be one of the reasons she is pursuing a life in academia — just so she can get paid for writing in books for the rest of her life. Extra bonus points if you go back later and have no idea what the hell you meant when you wrote whatever you did. That’s how the pros roll.

6. Watch some Battlestar Galactica…or Big Bang Theory, or really anything sufficiently nerdy. Or just anything you can be sufficiently nerdy about really. Again, if you’re looking for extra bonus points, write up the episode as you’re watching it. As an example of what you’re aiming for, may I present Jess’ “transcript” (ironic air quotes hers, not mine) of the “Happily Ever After” episode of LOST,

7. Wear a nerdy t-shirt. Again, this can be something universally regarded as nerdy (like this or this) or just something nerdy you enjoy. Also accepted: wearing a costume (“Post-apocalyptic Dorothy“). For this one, extra bonus points can only be earned by creating your own nerdy t-shirt, preferably with a partner in crime.

8. Play a video game. You all have a lot of latitude here — everything from Portal to Skyrim. BUT YOU MUST JUMP A LOT. And push all the buttons, because you never know what might happen. It is preferred that you also worry about how well you are playing the game, despite the fact that flies in the face of why most people play games. If possible, choose a game that is multiplayer or co-op, because that will be much more entertaining to your friends.

9. Use interesting swears. A lot. “Frak” is an obvious choice, but really just let your creativity fly here. Try for something on par with “blistering fuckweasels.” (which is indeed a Jess-ism) Bonus points for using them in insults when talking to your brain on Twitter, e.g. “twat waffle.”

10. Care about things, people, animals…just something. Even when it hurts, or is difficult, or other people don’t care about them. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from Jess is that in a world that constantly seeks to define us, the best way to fight back is to define ourselves through what we’re passionate about. And if that’s not a central tenet of what it means to not only be a geek, but just a quality person in general, I don’t know what is.

Or you can just simply wish her a happy birthday. 🙂

(there is actually an 11th way to celebrate, and it is a ritual that is shared with observances of Ruth’s birthday — If you are of a persuasion to appreciate it, spend a few minutes in quiet meditation and contemplation over this: bit.ly/dropthetowel. Personally I don’t get it, but I’m told this is of almost religious significance.)

(Update 2015: And because there is no gag I love like a running gag, here’s the 12th way to celebrate Jess’ birthday: get drunk, read Shakespeare, and make a video of the proceedings)