Category Archives: Essays

This is a very boring name for me writing about the stuff that’s on my mind. I strive to make the essays more interesting than the word “essays” and this description.

Politics: Neither Fun nor Profitable

Schlock Mercenary is, in its heart of hearts, satire. It has always been political, but those messages are delivered in the abstract. It is sociopolitical satire framed in military sci-fi comedy. It invites the reader to laugh as they ask questions, but it does not commit to giving them hard and fast answers.

On rare occasion the blog posts beneath the comic have been a bit more explicitly political. Over the years I’ve determined that political punditry isn’t something I enjoy, and that the people who find it profitable seem to also encourage a widening of the spaces between us, driving both the left and the right to more entertaining¹ extremes. Mostly, then, my blog is about movies and merchandise.

Of late, however, my Twitter feed has been extremely political. This isn’t because I enjoy politics, nor because I’m seeking attention. It’s because important things are happening², and I believe they’re important enough for me to expend a bit of my social capital to boost critical messages. I still tweet the slice-of-life silliness I used to, but the mirth is diluted a bit.

The pattern described above is likely to continue:

  • Schlock Mercenary is going to follow the outline I’ve established for it, and won’t wander off into what would definitely be the weeds for the story I’m telling in order to take specific political positions.
  • The blog below the comic is going to focus mostly on movie review things, merchandising, and the occasional public service announcement.
  • My Twitter feed is going to reflect my personal opinions on matters of the soul, the State, and a scattering of other things. It’s going to remain on the side-bar here at schlockmercenary.com, but you’re neither required nor expected to read it.

Regardless of what is said in any of these spaces, each of them belongs to me. I’m under no obligation, legal or moral, to give equal time to positions other than my own³. I do feel a strong obligation to say things that are true. I aspire to the high levels of journalistic integrity currently demonstrated by people like Farenthold and Tapper, but I’m not a journalist, so I’m much more likely to get things wrong from time to time.


¹ “Entertaining” in the same way that watching a car accident is entertaining. I hold the modern pundit-provocateur in extremely low regard. 

² Political protest appears to be on track to be the American national pastime for 2017, displacing Baseball.

TakeMeOutToTheProtest

³ My personal political positions have changed over the years, and some have flipped nearly 180 degrees. You can peruse howardtayler.com/blog if you’d like (not everything there cross-posts to schlockmercenary.com) but only the most current stuff is going paint an accurate reflection of what I think.

 

Welcome to 2017, Now Let’s Get to Work.

Back in 1999 I had a boss who would consider our team’s approach to over-engineering some solution or another and say “I don’t want you to boil the ocean. Just make a nice cup of tea.” Put another way: “Don’t try to fix everything. Fix the thing right in front of you.”

I’ve been thinking about how bad 2016 was, and I’ve determined that most of the worst bits were parts over which I had little or no control. A few of the worst bits, for me anyway, were totally my fault, but they weren’t bad enough to make the news so they don’t show up on the global score card. In short, the oceans aren’t my fault, but this cup of tepid water is totally on me, and I can do better.

“Doing better” does mean looking beyond the top of the teacup. Maybe not all the way to the ocean, but at least to the rest of the mugs, cups, glasses, and carafes in the room. It’s possible that I can fix the thing right in front of me AND fix a few things that happen to be within reach. If I pay close attention, I may find that my reach even extends beyond the white-room drink station of this metaphor, and into the wider world of insufficiently incalescent beverage preparation.

But first, a pot of hot water, right here. And as long as I’m heating water, there are things that can be cleaned in it, like the dishes, the laundry, and oh! A hot bath!

2017 is here. I don’t know what opportunities and crises will present themselves, but I’m here for them, as ready as I can make myself. And if I need to keep a pot of boiling water handy, at least that’s a thing I know how to do.


Revisiting the Threaded Thanks

We’re all connected, and I’m thankful for that.

Last year I wrote this piece on the subject, and this year I think the idea is worth revisiting because we’re much less likely to spew hatred and vitriol when we recognize our connections.

Consider today’s feast, if you’re an American participating in the feasting, or if you’re a human who happens to be eating: farmers from around the world contributed to the things on the table. If you’re enjoying poultry it may be local, but the spices applied to it were likely grown much further afield—Hungary for your paprika and Vietnam for the black pepper, to name two likely contenders.

Did anything sit in your refrigerator? Components for that miraculous bit of technology were built by engineers from many nations, using materials that include petroleum products and rare earth metals. When you open the refrigerator you’re operating equipment with bits from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Russia, the United States, Australia, and Saudi Arabia, and that’s the short list.

The “threaded thanks” exercise works in this way: Pick a thing for which you are thankful, and then read up on that thing. Where did it come from? Before it came from there, where did its parts come from? Who hauled it from all those places to the place where you got it? How were they able to make the trip? Find the thread and keep pulling, and identify as many connections as you’re able to. Then express your gratitude for each of those connections.

It might take a while. Probably don’t do this while others are waiting to eat.

There is no room for jingoism or any other dehumanizing belief system in this exercise. There were no “lesser” people involved in bringing you the things that made today’s meal possible. You depend on them, and when they sit down to eat, they depend on you. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that I depend upon you in some way for the meal I’m enjoying. My own living is earned in a massive web of transactions that include the streams of data moving to and from the device upon which you’re reading this text.

Last year at this time I described myself as a thankful person. To me, being thankful means acknowledging the countless hands that bear me up, and expressing my love and appreciation for them. It means being grateful, and learning to whom I owe the debt of gratitude. It means embracing the idea that when I pay for a thing and bring it home, the financial transaction is just one small part of the established connection.

We are all connected, and I am thankful for that. You’re part of those connections in more than just one way. I’m thankful for you, and the work you do to make our world a better one.

 

 

 

A New Common Core

There’s talk these days about college educations being too expensive—and by “too expensive,” some experts have said it’s simply not worth the money. I’m not currently working in the field I studied, but I don’t regret college at all. In part, I suppose, because it’s been paid for.

Of the many things I remember from my years in school, these two stick out:

  • “You don’t know how to think until you know how to write” (from Freshman orientation)
  • “There is more than just one way to learn a thing” (from an honors seminar on epistemology)

Those two points served me very well as I moved from career to career, and I think they can be expanded upon to form their own field of study. With a substantial portion of all human knowledge instantly available to us on our handbrains¹ it can be argued that the acquisition of such knowledge needs to be cheaper than a one-year service plan.

On the down side, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Per Sturgeon’s Law², “90% of everything is crap.” A formal education might be the best defense against inadvertently filling one’s head with digitally disseminated falsehood, folklore, and folderol.

The current model for formal education involves front-loading our brains with material delivered by professionals whose authority we’re not truly invited to question. They may teach “question everything,” but they never really support us questioning whether their class is worth our money.

That’s why I think that the class we all need, and which should likely be the first class taught to the rising generation, would teach the following skills:

  • How to gather information online
  • How to evaluate that information’s validity
  • How to make a decision based on the available information

Simply put, it is learning how to learn, and learning how to act on what we’ve learned. I imagine the class running for about three months, and presenting increasingly complicated problems for students to solve using online resources.

It may seem a little silly, and even a little too basic, because it’s an extension of what most of us already do. But as more and more information becomes quickly available to us, this process  will inevitably become the dominant mode for learning things. Doing it sloppily will be disastrous.

Obviously the things learned from online research will need to be supplemented with practical experience, but there are manifold paths open to us once we’ve figured out that first bit. It may be that autodidacts³ of the future will move directly into medical school, skipping the undergrad and pre-med programs on their way to becoming doctors.

Or maybe the doctors of the future will go to school for bedside manner and periodic maintenance of the surgeon-bots and all their super-precise robot friends who never forget to wash their hands⁴.


¹Have you ever had a professor quote to you from their own book, which you were required to buy as part of the class? I’ve always aspired to that level of grift. 

²What we call “Sturgeon’s Law” was called “Sturgeon’s Revelation” by Sturgeon, and he never got around to condensing it into six words of pith. 

³A fancy word for “folks who are self-taught.” Useful, but pretty much everybody I know has taught themselves a great many interesting things, so at some level the word “autodidact” simply means “human.”

Still a problem among modern surgeons. It’s the surgeon equivalent of using your turn signal when driving.