A fascinating journey of discovery

I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.

It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.

In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.

As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?

The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.

But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).

The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.

The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.

So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.

That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.

So why did they fall?

The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.

My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.

When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.

In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.

Sound familiar?

The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.

And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.

Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.

Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.

Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.

Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.

And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?

So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.

The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.

Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.

Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.

I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.

So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.

Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.

It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.

So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.

Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!

Thoughts on Genesis Earth

So I finished rereading Genesis Earth, in preparation for writing the sequel, and I have to say it was not what I expected.

It wasn’t disappointing. There were some annoying ticks that I noticed, like too many said bookisms or turns of phrase that I wouldn’t have written today. Also, the book was a little wordy or slow in parts, compared to my more recent writing. But those were relatively minor issues. The story was quite solid. I’d actually forgotten some of the plot twists, so it was fun to watch them unfold. A bit like reading the book for the first time.

But one thing above all else struck home: the person who wrote Genesis Earth is not the person I am today. I doubt that that person would have been able to write Gunslinger to the Stars. And if I were to go back and write Genesis Earth from scratch, it would be a completely different book in every meaningful way.

It’s bizarre. When you’re caught up in day-to-day life, you never really get a sense that you’re changing. And yet, the truth is that we’re always changing, hopefully for the best, but not always. It’s impossible to experience life and still remain unchanged.

I also got a sense of this when I finished the 2.0 draft for The Sword Keeper. Perhaps it was just me reliving my own memories from the times when I wrote it, but the first half of the book seemed very different from the second half. I wrote the first half while living abroad in Georgia, and the second half years later here in Utah.

There’s a couple of things I’ve taken away from this experience.

First, it’s not always a good idea to put a WIP on the back burner. By the time you come back to it, you may not be capable of writing it exactly the way you first envisioned it. Better to push through whatever’s blocking you and strike while the iron is hot.

Second, at anything you want to do well, it’s important to always strive to improve. Even when you’re at the top of your game (and I’m certainly not at the top of mine—not yet anyway), if you’re not always trying to do better, to learn and to grow, you’ll fall off really fast.

In reality, there is no “top,” because nothing is ever static. Improvement is a lifelong process, because the moment you stop improving is the moment you start getting worse.

One thing I really need to work on is writing every day. In the past, when I’ve been working on revisions, or prewriting, or getting a book ready for publication, I’ve slacked off on this. But the truth is that writing new words is the best way to sharpen your writing skills, and that writing every day is the best way to always keep them sharp. And there’s always something to write, even if it’s just a short story. If I could write a short story every week for a year…

So yeah, lots to think on. And I’ve got a few ideas for Edenfall as well. But first, before I move to Iowa next week, I need to get Gunslinger to the Stars ready for publication. Harder, better, faster, stronger—our work is never over!

Unthinkable truths

If you told the average person that you believed with near 100% certainty that intelligent alien life exists in the universe, they would consider you crazy. Yet the truth is that our universe is so incredibly vast, so full of Earthlike planets, that the odds that intelligent life only emerged here are low enough to be indistinguishable from zero.

Yet the near-certainty of intelligent life is, to most people, an unthinkable truth. It’s something that many people, perhaps even our entire society, just cannot accept.

Our world is full of unthinkable truths. Indeed, our society is built upon them. We can find examples of them in our taboos and social mores, or in the unspoken things that everyone “just knows.” In order for civilization to function properly, there are certain things we must all agree on, such as the idea that all men are created equal, or that we all have certain rights. It’s easier and more efficient to just program people not to accept some ideas than it is to encourage them to examine everything, and hope that truth prevails.

For Americans, one of our most unthinkable truths is the idea that our constitutional rights and freedoms are fragile, and can all be taken away. Those of us who were born in this country don’t realize that the United States is, in many ways, an aberration. We take it for granted that the world around us will continue the way it always has, and that our nation will endure. Anything else is unthinkable.

But how many nations have endured? How many republics have survived the crucible of history? Rome barely lasted a thousand years, and the republic was dead long before the empire reached its greatest glory. The Middle East is full of the bones of dead empires, from the Hittites and Babylonians to the British and the French. Even the most powerful dynasties ultimately fall into ruin, and the periods of relative freedom are the exception in history, rather than the rule.

I got into an argument on Facebook (yes, I’m back on Facebook, though I haven’t decided whether to stay back permanently) where the other person said, quite unironically:

We live in an Era in which our rights are secured by the free dissemination of information; not through the ability to send rounds down range… the fact that you can type those words is proof enough that [you don’t need an AR-15].

As a student of history, this argument strikes me as obscenely absurd. There are numerous countries in the world today that have access to “the free dissemination of information” via the internet just as we do, but are horribly repressive even by historical standards. In China, for example, political prisoners are held in concentration camps and harvested for organs. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS burns people in cages and carries off young non-Muslim girls as sex slaves. In Canada and Europe, you can be imprisoned or fined for merely saying things on social media that the government deems “right-wing.”

The mere existence of Liberty does not guarantee its preservation. The only way that any people have ever remained free is by cultivating a culture of self-sufficiency. Without the right to bear arms, self-sufficiency is impossible, because it forces people to depend on the government for their own self-defense and preservation of their Liberty.

I’ve blogged before about why I need a gun. This post is largely a continuation of those thoughts. It’s unthinkable to us here in the United States that our country may one day fall, but if history is our teacher then that fall is inevitable. It may not come for another thousand years, but it may also come within the next ten.

Truth prevails—even the unthinkable truth.

Happiness is always a choice. So is being offended.

Happiness is always a choice. Always. So is taking offense. No exceptions.

Anyone who says otherwise does not want you to be an empowered, liberated human being. They are teaching you to believe that you are a powerless victim, unable to control your own destiny.

There are only two classes of things in this world: things that act, and things that are acted upon. Empowerment is when you give somebody the ability to act for themselves, independent of outside forces. Disempowerment is when you take that ability away.

There is nothing more empowering than to realize that no matter where you are in life—no matter how shitty your circumstances—you can always still choose to be happy.

Happiness is a feeling that only exists inside of you. It is not something external that is forced or bestowed upon you by outside forces. It is wholly internal to your heart and mind. It is a reaction to outside forces—a reaction that you choose to make.

If happiness is not a choice—if it is something over which we have no control—then we cannot have any control over any of our feelings. Our passions are external forces that act upon us, and we are powerless to stop them because our emotional development ended at age two.

Is there anything empowering or liberating about this philosophy? No. Quite the opposite. It debases mankind and makes us no better than the animals. It destroys our agency and makes us slaves to our passions.

Happiness is always a choice.

In a similar way, it is always a choice to feel offended. Why? Because offense is a reaction to external forces, just as our feelings are reactions to external forces. If we cannot choose how we react to the things that happen to us, then we have no agency—no power to act for ourselves.

If taking offense is not a choice, then we are always at the mercy of those who offend us. Forgiveness is impossible because we are powerless to react in any other way. We are, and always will be, victims.

Does this mean that if someone hurts us, it is our fault for feeling hurt? No, because there is a difference between being hurt and taking offense. Hurt is a result of external forces, while offense is an internal reaction to those forces. It is impossible to love someone without giving them the power to hurt you, but how you respond to that hurt is always your choice.

In politics today, there is an increasingly popular idea that being a victim somehow makes you virtuous. This is where intersectionality comes from: so that people can claim to belong to two or three victim groups at the same time. It grows out of the idea that fairness is equality of outcome, and it is completely anathema to the idea of personal responsibility.

What does “responsibility” mean? It comes from two words: “able” and “response.” When you are responsible, you are able to choose your own response to the things that happen to you. You are an empowered free agent, a liberated human being.

Can you see how the modern cult of victimhood completely undermines this? How things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions are all calculated to destroy our individual agency, and thus render us powerless to control our own destiny?

The flipside of the coin of Liberty is personal responsibility. Anything that erases the latter will destroy the former with it, and those who give up their responsibilities also give up their freedom. When we surrender our ability to choose our own response, we are no longer people who act but people who are acted upon.

Brigham Young wisely said:

He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.

Offense is not something you are, it is something you take. And it is always—ALWAYS—a choice.

Why I need a gun (and you do too)

If you had lived in Germany before the Nazis came to power and a time traveler had told you how history would play out, what would you have done about it?

The nation was reeling from a massive economic depression after a decade of war exhaustion. In this troubled time, a charismatic democratic socialist ran on a platform promising to share the wealth of the top 1% (the Jews) with the rest of the nation. Violent protesters routinely disrupted his opponents’ political rallies. People in general were fed up with the political system and were eager for a change.

Obviously, there isn’t a 1:1 parallel between 1930s Germany and 2010s United States. But let’s take a quick look at some of the policies that the Nazis successfully championed:

  • Nationalized healthcare
  • Centralized education
  • Taxpayer subsidized abortion
  • Government mass surveillance
  • Arbitrary limits on free speech

And finally:

  • Abolition of private gun ownership

Can you see the chilling parallels between what the Nazis did and the agenda that the Left has been pushing for the last eight years?

Right now, the United States is reeling from the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history. The perpetrator was a domestic terrorist who pledged allegiance to ISIS, just like the last mass shooting which happened in San Bernardino. But instead of focusing on the radical Islamic ideology that motivated these shootings, the national discourse is focused on gun control.

This is patently ridiculous.

When a teenager commits suicide because of online bullying, is the solution to censor the internet?

When people spread lies and false rumors on social media, is the solution to place general restrictions on the use of social media?

When a battered wife is stabbed to death with a kitchen knife, do we call for regulations on the length and sharpness of all kitchen knives?

When large numbers of people die in car accidents, do we enforce a ban on “high-capacity” cars that can drive faster than 45 mph?

Better yet, do we allow car owners to sue the manufacturer if they ever get into an accident? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that wasn’t in the terms of the last government bail out.

We’ve had this debate over gun control many times before. Whenever we have a mass shooting in this country, the bodies of the victims are not yet cold before all of the old arguments on both sides are trotted out. So let’s go to the moment when the emotions were hottest, in 2012 after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary:

In an interview with Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro later said that Piers Morgan had actually brought one of the kids from Sandy Hook onto the set to come on in the second segment of the show. The kid was in a wheelchair, and Piers was going to use him as political prop to make a cheap appeal to emotion. Of course, after Ben called him out for standing on the graves of children, Piers’s whole debate strategy fell apart.

This is my response, which is currently the top comment on YouTube:

“Do you genuinely believe that your own government is going to turn on you in a way that you require an AR-15 to challenge them?”

Holy flying fuck, Piers Morgan. Do you have no self-awareness at all? You are talking to a Jew, Piers. A JEW. As in, one of those people who were systematically exterminated by a tyrannical regime called the Democratic Soc—sorry, the NATIONAL Socialist German Worker’s Party. Also known as the Nazis, Piers. The Nazis.

You are familiar with the Nazis, are you not, Piers? You know: the smartly dressed German guys with the swastika flags who bombed your homeland relentlessly for 3+ months back in 1940. If I remember my history correctly, you fought something of a war with them, did you not? Or are you as bad at history as you are at US constitutional law?

People like you are the reason I need an AR-15, Piers. Crybullies like you in the mainstream media who stand on the graves of children as they browbeat the rest of us into giving up our rights and liberty, all in the name of leftist ideology.

And you know what, Piers? When I do get an AR-15, I’m going to name it in your honor. I’m dead serious, Piers. I’m going to etch your name right on the barrel. I’ll keep it right next to François, my Mossberg shotgun (which I named in honor of another anti-gun wanker).

And you know what sound it’s gonna make when I fire it, Piers? That “ratatatat” when I pull the trigger?

That’s the sound of Liberty.

Here is why you need a gun:

When the founding fathers drafted the Constitution, they envisioned a political system unlike any other in existence at the time—one where the government exists only by the consent of the governed. This, they rightly believed, was the way to ensure Liberty.

In order for the system to work, however, the people had to be able to live without fear of the State. In other words, the government had to fear the people instead of the other way around.

The Declaration of Independence had already set the precedent that it was the right of the people to overthrow their government if it ever became tyrannical. The only way for that to happen was for the people to have the right to bear arms.

This is why the second amendment is the second amendment, not the ninth or the sixteenth or the twenty-eighth. It’s also why the second amendment never specified what kinds of arms should be allowed. The idea that founders’ original intent was to restrict gun ownership to muskets is patently ridiculous:

In my experience, people who favor stricter gun control laws generally fall into one of two camps: those who are simply afraid of guns, and those who want to vastly expand the powers of the State.

The first camp of people are generally well-meaning, if a little bit sheltered. Most of them have probably never owned or fired a gun of any kind. Their arguments for stricter gun control tend to be rooted in emotion. When a mass shooting happens, they feel like they need to do something to prevent this kind of massacre from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, these people have been spoon-fed lies from the second camp, which wants to disarm the general public NOT to reduce gun violence, but to vastly expand the powers of the state.

These people are fundamentally opposed to the idea of a government that exists only by the consent of the governed. They want to tear down the Constitution because it prevents them from using the power of the State to advance their political agenda. The principle of Liberty is a roadblock to them, and they want to abolish at every turn, not only with the second amendment, but the first, the fourth, the ninth, etc.

One of their main arguments is that there is no place in this country for private ownership of “assault rifles.” The argument is that these are “weapons of war,” and that therefore they have no place in civilian life.

To someone who has never owned or fired a gun, this is a pretty convincing argument. The term “assault rifle” is never clearly defined, but it effectively conjures up all the fears of guns and gun violence that many of these people have. To push the envelope even further, gun control advocates always associate “assault rifle” with AR-15, the most popular rifle in the United States.

The AR-15 is a de-clawed version of the M-16, which (unlike the AR-15) is fully automatic. That means that with an AR-15, you only get one bullet for every time you pull the trigger. AR-15s are most often chambered in .223/556, a round that is smaller in diameter than the most common handgun rounds. The reason it’s a popular weapons system is because it’s the Mr. Potato-head of guns: you can swap out basically all of the moving parts, or build one from scratch. No matter your needs (hunting, home defense, recreation, competition), you can adjust an AR-15 to meet them.

It’s actually not a scary gun at all, if you know how to use it properly. And judging from how many of them are circulating in the market, responsible gun ownership is the rule, not the exception.

Is the AR-15 a “weapon of war,” though? It can be if you want it to be. That’s kind of the point. Remember, one of the reasons for the second amendment was to enable the people to stand up against a tyrannical government. Without the right to bear arms—broadly defined—you cannot have Liberty.

This is where we get back to the Nazis. There is a reason why totalitarian governments always ban private gun ownership before they commit their worst atrocities. In the words of Mao Zedong, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” When the guns are in the hands of the people, the people have political power and influence over their government. When they lose their guns, they lose that power.

But Joe, do you really fear an American holocaust? Do you genuinely fear that your government is going to turn on you in a way that you require an AR-15 to challenge them?

Yes, I do.

We tend to have this idea that the Holocaust was a historical aberration, a nasty horrible thing that never happened before and has never happened since. That simply is not true. Systematic interment and murder by tyrannical governments is actually the norm throughout history. The only thing that made the Holocaust any different was German efficiency.

Look at the sack of Carthage by the Romans. Look at the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols. Look at all five times that Jerusalem was destroyed. In our modern era, look at the excesses of the French Revolution, the genocide of the Armenians, the British concentration camps in South Africa—indeed, look at the concentration camps IN THE UNITED STATES that were set up by FDR. Even before that, we had our own horrors like the Indian Removal Act and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

And lest you think the world learned its lesson after Auschwitz and Dachau, read up on the Soviet Gulag and Chinese organ harvesting of political prisoners. There is a reason why the wait time for a kidney transplant in China is so ridiculously low.

The flipside of the coin of liberty is responsibility. In order for a people to be free, they need to take the responsibility of governing themselves. Part of that responsibility is learning how to defend yourself, not only from criminals, but from an overreaching, tyrannical government.

That is why you need a gun: because there is no Liberty without the means to defend it. That is also why I bought my first gun this past week (François) and why I’m building an AR-15 (Piers). Whenever there is a systematic effort to take away your fundamental rights, it becomes your duty to exercise those rights before they get taken away.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!