August 03, 2014

Wanna Understand Gaza? Start with the Tunnels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • July 28, 2014

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

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

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

    - There is a lot of math in this story.

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

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

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

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

    July 23, 2014

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

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

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

    Walter White in Space - YouTube

    July 22, 2014

    What Do You Do with an Open Carry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Call the police.

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

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

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

    July 16, 2014

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

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

    Where's The Octopus? - YouTube

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

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

    July 10, 2014

    Lock Up Your Guns and Sex Toys, Please!

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

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

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

    July 03, 2014

    The Four Bigots You Meet in the Comment Thread

    So, my latest column is up at the The Ann Arbor Chronicle: In it for the Money: Chosen People.

    It's about my own personal experience of being a Jew in the midwest, and by extension (in an imperfect way) about being a Jew in America in the 21st Century. It is likely best summarized by this sentence, pulled from near the end of the column:

    "Here and now, in this place, this is as good as it will ever get for the Children of Israel – and still, my daughter’s daycare needs an armed guard and blast-proof windows."

    The Chronicle allows comments, which are moderated by the editor or publisher prior to becoming made publicly viewable. As you might imagine, some of the responses to this column have not made it out of the moderation queue, and likely never will. Out of about 16 comments (at the time of this writing), only half were shit-canned (which isn't to say all criticism was quashed; as you can see at the link, both critical and supportive comments were published).

    But the unpublished comments are fairly indicative of the kinds of responses I'm used to seeing to pieces like this, so I thought it might be instructive to share some of those sentiments.


    1) Straight Up Hate-Speakers:

    Here I group both generic Phelps-ian "God Hates Jews! Hitler Had the Right Idea!" stuff and specifically-targeted "IM GONNA MURDER-RAPE YOUR JEW FAMILY, DAVID ERIK NESLON!!1!" notes. (PRO-TIP: Specific threats get immediately forwarded to the authorities and; email and online comments are far from anonymous, folks, and this is shit up with which I will not put). In response to this column there was a little tiny bit of the former, but none of the latter (thus far), so that's been nice. I mean, yeah, it's maybe sorta fucked up to say "It's pretty nice that no one is directly threatening to kill my family in response to an essay I wrote," but for real, I'm pretty relieved.

    2) Victim Blamers

    These tend to come in the guise of Rational Debaters, but instead of rationally addressing anything I've said--by, for example, questioning if the incidence of violence against American Jews is high enough to justify the expense of the security, or asking what the sample size of this or that poll was--they instead choose to raise something like a "kernel of truth" argument: If so many folks hate Jews, they *must* have a valid reason, right? There's almost certainly something the Jews did to earn this despise, right?

    They tend to work their way around to suggesting that the real problem, for example, is that I choose to send my girl to a "Jew-only" daycare (PRO-TIP: JCCs are not limited to Jews--just as YMCAs aren't limited to young Christian males. Our JCC daycare includes non-Jewish children [and staff, for that matter], and I know that JCCs in other cities are very popular with local gentiles who happen to like the quality of the daycare or gym facilities or whatever, and just dismiss the religious part with a multi-cultural shrug [as I myself so often do]).

    I.e., the Victim Blamers are running in to point out--as I myself did *in the fucking article*--that if I'd just stop being such a fucking Jew, I wouldn't have to worry about people hurting my family because we're Jewish. Pardon me, but even if I hadn't myself made this point, shouldn't it be self-evident? And doesn't the need to rely on circular reasoning draw into question the possible existence of a reasonable explanation for this animosity? In other words, the kernel of truth at the center of your circular argument is, in fact, a void--'cause that's the thing in the center of a circle.

    Nonetheless, these commentors treat this point as though it constitutes a stunning rhetorical victory, possibly because they are sort of gob-smackingly dense.

    3) Palestine Enthusiasts:

    There's a tendency among some American Jews to treat any criticism of Israel as inherently anti-Semitic. In case you need me to go on record: I'm not one of those Jews. There are scads of things you can say about Israel that are critical, yet do not denigrate anyone's ethno-racial creed. Go ahead, knock yourselves out.

    But observant (read: functionally literate) readers will note that *my column was not about Israel*; it was about the United States. In 3,000+words I mention the nation of Israel exactly *three times*: Once to point out Nazi war criminals go to trial there, once to point out I get nervous when Israel does bad things because I'm afraid everyone is going to blame me and my kids, and once to say "[don't] give Israel a pass on their awful domestic policies."

    Nonetheless, some folks race to the comment threads and their blogs to talk about all of the things I'm evidently saying in favor of Israel and against Palestine.

    These are Palestine Enthusiasts. No matter what, once a Jew starts talking as a Jew, Palestine Enthusiasts desperately, desperately need that conversation to be about Israel. I spent more words in this column talking about a skinned cat than I did talking about Israel, and yet something like half the published comments focus mostly on Israel/Palestine.

    Palestine Enthusiasts don't think of themselves as anti-Semites--heck, some portion of them are in fact Jews--but the insistence that every Jew has something meaningful to say about Israel and shares some special responsibility for actions taken by Israel or on Israel's behalf is inherently racist.

    I am an American-born Jew. I have never crossed the Atlantic in my life, nor had any desire to do so, let alone go anywhere *near* Israel. Like most of my fellow citizens, I'm *woefully* under-informed on international politics. I've never taken any position on much anything that Israel has done or suffered--apart from generally supporting all humans finding non-violent resolutions to their conflicts. The only Israelis I know, or have ever known, are *ones who left Israel* (obviously, since I've *never been to Isreal and have no desire to go,* and thus couldn't have met any Israelis in Israel).

    I'm sorry to be tedious, but I evidently have to bend over backward to make it clear how little I have to do with Israel. In fact, that's why I *didn't* write a column about Israel: Because it doesn't interest me, and I have nothing of value to share on the topic.

    I've never extended Israel any political, material, or even vocal support (apart from my mealy-mouthed pacifist bullshit, which I basically offer all humans free-of-charge, because I'm a shaggy hippie).

    And yet somehow I need to atone for Israel's actions.

    If you want to argue that, as an American taxpayer, I've supported Israel with my tax dollars, I think that's a totally valid claim, and I agree that, like it or not, I have indeed done so--just like every other non-tax-refusing American citizen. So, I ask the gentiles in the audience: As a tax-payer, when was the last time someone asked *you* to explain anything about Israel, or personally apologize for something Israel did, or defend Israeli policy, or accused you of being a Zionist, or wanted you to "stick up for and protect those who need protecting in the occupied territories of Palestine"? Why don't the Victim Blamers from #2 blame *you* as much as they blame *my toddler*? 'cause *she* doesn't materially support Israel--she doesn't even know what a nation *is*--but you do, and you do support that nation by paying taxes. Israel is as much your fault as mine--probably more so, because there are a ton more of you than there are of us, and to believe we--a scant 2% of the voting population--have some magical influence over US policy as pertains to Israel simply by virtue of our being Jews is a plain endorsement of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and all its heirs. There's simply no way around it.

    The fact is Israel seems to be overwhelmingly a White Christian-American issue, not a Jewish-American one. And those numbers are worse than they sound, because we're talking about percentages of populations of very different sizes. In the end, that works out to 65 million White Evangelical Christians with a mad-on for Israel, vs. only 2.4 million Jews. Do you really think politicians are kowtowing to those 2.4 million Jewish voters, or is it maybe just possible that it's the 65 million Christians that impress them?

    Nonetheless, Israel is my daughter's problem and not yours, and if someone wants to shoot her over it . . . well, shit, she maybe might just have it coming, according to those crack logicians in Group #2 above. We should really talk that all out, rationally, because every perspective is equally valid. Fair, balanced, etc.

    When was the last time a writer talking about Christmas shopping or Hobby Lobby's day in court saw his or her comment thread hijacked by questions about why the Greens hate Palestinian children?

    Exactly *never,* because the Greens are rich-ass tax-paying Christians, and we all know that Israeli and US policy basically falls entirely under the purview of my toddler and wife and the folks we hang with one Friday Night each month. We share some prayers, drink some wine, nosh our challah and quinoa salad and potluck lasagna, then troop down into the secret vaults, don our black robes, fire up our babies'-blood-fueled Macs, and plot out Israel's next move. That's just *exactly* how the world works. Thanks for chiming in.

    4) "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" Truthers:

    These are folks eager to out the "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a hoax" hoax. They are also Holocaust deniers--or deny that it was *really* that bad, or what have you. It would be sort of funny, if it wasn't also sort of terrifying. I include this example (I found the link among the unpublished comments, twice I believe) for a few reasons:

    1. It was briefly syndicated by various like-minded blogs.
    2. It's a really interestingly bizarre alternate-reality reading of what I wrote (as is generally the case in this genre).
    3. I like that I'm described like so:

    "Detroit-born David Erik Nelson (Jewish) is an award-winning science fiction author and essayist."

    That's inaccurate (I was born *near,* not *in* Detroit, and have never stated otherwise), but it's nice that even the haters feel obliged to give me my propers.

    Bonus: "Not All Gentiles!" Gentiles

    Every time there's an online discussion of sexism or race in America, a White dude has to swing in shouting "Not All Men!" or "Not All White People!"--as though the fact that not *all* of the Majority are *purposefully* doing something to harm the folks in these Protected Classes somehow lessens the hurt. "Yes, you were raped--but Not by All Men!" That must be super comforting. I don't want to dwell on it, but I guess being brutalized by all of a major portion of the population is indeed worse than getting brutalized by some smaller subset of that portion. Thanks, "Not All Men!" Guy! You put it all in perspective!

    I want to be clear that I feel where the "Not All Men" Men are coming from. First because, agreed: It's not *all* men; according to reasonable figures something like 94 percent of all men don't sexually assault anyone. But it certainly is *some* men, and it's the awkward inaction of the Majority of men that gives that small percentage cover to go on being rapists and assailants.

    Beyond that, I think the "Not All Men!" Men are maybe like the Righteous Gentiles that get huffy when we talk about the lingering face of anti-Semitism: Basically good folks who want the world to be basically good, and feel bad that the world continues to often be pretty shitty, and frustrated that they seem to be able to do so little about this state of affairs. Also, I think that sitting and just listening--which, really, is all you *can* do when someone is telling you about horrible things they've suffered at the hands of folks who look and act like you--feels like being scolded, and the "Not All Men!" Men need to make clear that they are *not* these guys, these bigots, these rapists, that these are things they would never, ever do or contribute to.

    Again, it is because they have basically good (if naive) hearts that the "Not All Men!" Men make assholes of themselves and come off as totally insensitive jerks.

    Anyway, I note the conspicuous lack of "Not All Gentiles!" commentors. Heck, I don' think I've *ever* seen a gentile feel the need to rush in and point out that not *all* gentiles take pot shots at Lubavitchers walking to synagogue, or what have you. I don't know what to do with that little kernel. It just sits there, being what it is: A very interesting silence.

    July 02, 2014

    Check out my latest short story--"The Traveling Salesman Solution"--in F&SF

    My story "The Traveling Salesman Solution" is in the current issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (July/August 2014). And it's reviewing pretty well:

    Sam Tomaino, SFRevu Review: "Our narrator is a wheelchair-bound ex-serviceman who has just heard a strange story from his brother-in-law. Seems he was beaten in a marathon race by a dentist from North Platte, Nebraska. His brother-in-law says he never even saw the guy but the RFIDs that are used to monitor a runner passing each checkpoint says he was at every one. Our narrator investigates further and finds some anomalies in this. The more he investigates, the stranger things get and he discovers that the son of the dentist has discovered something very dangerous. This was a good solid story with well-drawn characters."
    Lois Tilton, Locus Online: "One of those stories where the problem is more interesting than the solution. In fact, even the narrator isn’t happy with his solution, although it comes as quite a plot twist. A good, strong narrative voice actually makes a mathematical problem interesting to this dyscalculia victim."

    Pro-tip: If you liked "The New Guys Always Work Overtime" or "There Was No Sound of Thunder," then you'll like this story, too.

    The issue is on newsstands now or, if you're a digital baby, available for a dirt-cheap .99 cents(!!!) on Kindle. That's cheaper than I'd price this novelette as a stand-alone download, and you'll get another dozen stories to boot. Good deal!

    June 24, 2014

    On the Quiet Heroism of Bureaucrats

    I continue to write a monthly column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and it just dawned on me--on the eve of the publication of my June column--that I totally neglected to post a link to my May column (which is significantly more upbeat). It begins like this:

    The Ann Arbor Chronicle | In it for the Money: Equal Marriage

    Back in March, for just shy of 24 hours, Michigan was willing to license, solemnize, and recognize the marriage of any two people without getting all particular about their genitals. [1] The three-judge appellate panel is still out on whether the question of a happily-ever-after for non-bigots and wedding-lovers here in Michigan. But that was still a pretty wonderful day.

    In one sense that day resulted from a specific victory in court: A courageous couple embarked on a legal battle in order to protect their adopted children in the case that either parent dies, lawyers argued the case, and based on the merit of those oral arguments and the testimony of experts a federal judge issued a very strongly-worded decision.

    By itself, all of that was a wonderful example of our legal system basically working as we’d hope.

    But here’s the thing: If that was all that had been done – just plaintiffs and lawyers and experts and a level-headed judge – no one could have gotten married on Saturday, March 22, 2014. No offices would have been open, no staff would have been on hand, and the appropriate forms would not have existed.

    So today I want to sing the praises of the quiet heroism of county clerks – who are, for the vast bulk of law-abiding citizens, the daily executors of the Law, which is to say our Will as a People. This column is meant to record in something approaching a permanent way their mettle in helping to bend the Arc of the Moral Universe towards Justice. . . .

    And goes on in that manner for a reasonable number of words, then stops. In the middle, we cover the intricacies of marriage applications and the weird contortions that bigoted laws demand.

    If for no other reason, please click through to reap the benefits of reading the piece's lone footnote.

    June 18, 2014

    Celebrate Summertime and the NATIONAL DAY OF MAKING with FREE Kid-Friendly DIY Projects! #nationofmakers

    By Presidential Proclamation today, June 18, is the National Day of Making.

    Since it's also the start of the summer break, I thought it would be a swell time to offer up a few of the projects from my DIY book Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids. The book is filled with projects that will 1) result in something neat while 2) teaching you a neat skill, and 3) costing little or nothing to build. These particular projects are great summertime fun (rain or shine), all-ages kid-friendly, and made from all upcycled materials:

    1. cardboard boomerangs in both indoor and outdoor models.

    2. The ever-popular sock squid/sock Cthulhu sewing project (as seen in the picture at the left)

    3. Quick-n-Easy water rockets, like these:

    Always a crowd pleaser!

    Have a great summer, and keep making *more*! Check back here next week (or just sign up for the newsletter) to get instructions on making a steampunk whisky-bottle hummingbird feeder.


    About the Author

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

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    Make cool things (water rockets, cardboard boomerangs, a $10 electric guitar, a sock squid, etc.) while learning cool skills (basic soldering, sewing, carpentry, woodburning, etc.), and do it all on the cheap (most projects are under $10, many supplies are *FREE*).
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