Monday, July 30, 2012

Say something

I’ve been going to Readercon for many years, almost every year. It’s my local con, and has had a satisfyingly high percentage of Things I Enjoy At Cons. I’ve heard marvelous readings, discovered new authors, met authors I admire, listened to interesting talks, and always enjoyed the bad fiction event.

And it looks like I won’t be going back as long as they refuse to protect attendees.

Despite an undisputed case of repeated harassment this year and a written policy of banning harassers for life, Readercon only banned the harasser for two years. That reflects badly on Readercon, drives people away from attending the con if they feel either vulnerable or sufficiently offended, and adds an unpleasant tinge to the idea of going in the future.

You know what else does that? The fact that apparently not a single other person* who was aware of the harassment while it was going on reported it to anyone in charge or intervened to confront the harasser themselves.

Following an inadequate response after the fact from Readercon, there is now a strong and outraged community response. Where was that community response in the moment?

“Stop following her.”

“Stay away from her.”

“You are making her uncomfortable. Step away right now.”

Any of those may not be enough to stop the harassment. But they are enough to send a message to the harasser, to the target of the harassment, and to the other people nearby that the behavior is unwelcome and that the target of the harassment has support.

The target of the harassment spoke up for herself in the moment. Repeatedly. Good for her, and I wish that had been enough. But it wasn’t enough, and a bunch of people acting as silent human shields in a crowded environment is not the same as a bunch of people speaking up.

Readercon has always been more focused on words than on visuals. It’s even in the name. There’s a remarkably high percentage of authors at Readercon—people who make their living off the power of words. The programming includes lots of readings, highlighting the power of words uttered by the human voice. So use your words, people. Don’t wait for someone else to say something. You are the someone else. Act like it.

Or stop acting surprised when a small group of overworked con organizers act like hypocrites too.

*Perhaps someone other than the target of the harassment did speak up at the con. But that’s not prominent in the narratives I’ve read, whereas the number of untaken opportunities to speak up are prominent. Even if someone else may have spoken up, it does not excuse you from your own responsibility to speak up. Personally, I don’t want to know that Readercon will take some appropriate action in the weeks after the con. Well, I do, but that’s not the point. I want to know that other con attendees will actively help keep their fellow attendees safe right then and there.

Edited to add: In Elf’s link roundup, this post has been bizarrely labeled with a warning for apologetics. That’s ironic, since that’s what I feel people are doing when they excuse the passive onlookers for failing to speak up. I clearly say that the harasser did wrong things, that the target repeatedly did the right thing, that Readercon’s original decision was wrong, that the Readercon board acted like hypocrites, and that I’m boycotting Readercon as long as the board’s original decision stands. I do criticize the passive onlookers—the people other than the target who said nothing when seeing the harassment taking place. The problem, apparently, is that community consensus is that the only wrongs were done by the harasser and the Readercon board, and that pointing out any other failures is somehow read (at least by Elf) as mitigating those wrongs. I don’t view it that way, any more than criticizing the Readercon board’s original decision mitigates the wrongs done by the harasser.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Let God sort them out

Stop wishing that more people in the theater had been armed. Just stop.

Problem #1: Bad Guy (BG) set off two smoke grenades. Not a problem for BG, since he doesn’t care who he’s shooting. Huge problem for Armed Good Guy #1 (AGG1), who is far more likely to shoot other people than shoot BG. Because the thing about a darkened smoke-filled room is that you can’t see very well. Adding armed good guys adds to the body count.

Problem #2: BG was also shooting bullets into an adjoining theater because his bullets were penetrating the wall. If AGG1 is in the adjoining theater when bullets start flying in that theater, is he going to shoot BG who isn’t even in that theater, or is he going to shoot other people who are in that theater?

Problem #3: BG starts firing. Then AGG1 starts firing. This is what you wanted, right? What does AGG2 do? He sees BG and AGG1 both firing. They’re not wearing signs saying who they are. He should, under your logic, try to shoot either or both of BG and AGG1. And thereby becomes a valid target himself for AGG3 through AGG9. And that’s with only a few percent of the audience armed.

Problem #4: Bullets don’t always hit their targets, even when the person firing is highly trained. There’s a good reason that cops don’t usually fire into crowds.

Problem #5: BG was wearing body armor. Exactly what type of ammo are you wishing was standard? Do you understand that if AGG1 is firing armor-piercing rounds in a crowd and hits someone who isn’t wearing body armor, he’s likely to hit the person behind as well?

Your fantasy that the shooter can be stopped by more people being armed depends on everybody else having perfect judgment, perfect aim, perfect sight, perfect situational awareness, and God-like abilities to identify the intentions of every person with a visible weapon. That’s a lovely fantasy, as long as you recognize it as a fantasy. Because a lapse or failure in any one element of your fantasy will more likely lead to a higher body count than a lower one.

If you try to turn your fantasy into a movie, you’ll find a willing audience. If you try to turn your fantasy into actual policy, you’re delusional and dangerous. Sadly, in this country you’ll still find a willing audience.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bumping noses

Photo by Michael

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Trying to figure out 529 plans

I’ve been trying to figure out whether we should set up a 529 plan for our son. It’s a particular type of investment account for saving for college education. Federal taxes on the earnings are deferred, and as long as you spend the money on college expenses, you don’t pay federal taxes when you take the money out.

What if it’s a mistake? What if you need the money for something else? You can take the money out, but you pay federal taxes on the earnings and a 10% tax penalty as well. But the 10% tax penalty is only on the earnings, not the principal, so if you had any significant amount of compounding tax-free then the additional compounding will largely offset the 10% penalty. I tried running scenarios of 4 years, 10 years, and 17 years with a compounding calculator, assuming 4% earnings or 10% earnings. That gave me a range of possibilities, and the tax penalty was just not that bad. For example, put $1000 into a 529 and grow it tax-free for 10 years at 4%, and you have $1480.24. Pull that out and pay the 10% penalty and 15% tax on the $480.24 of earnings, and you’re left with $1360.18. But if you had used a regular investment account instead and paid 15% federal taxes each year, you’d be compounding at 3.4% (earn 4% and pay 0.6% in taxes each year), and your $1000 would turn into $1397.03. That’s not a whole lot better, so the mistake scenario doesn’t look too costly. The higher the compounding rate, the less important the 10% penalty is. It’s certainly a smaller penalty than the bonus on the flip side of not having to pay taxes on the money spent on college.

The tax penalty is larger if you compare it to an investment strategy that defers the federal taxes, such as buying and holding stocks for many years. But the variation in earnings from different investments seems much larger than the variation due to tax strategy. And that’s the biggest difference with a 529 plan—in a 529 plan, someone else makes essentially all the investment decisions. Each plan is essentially a mutual fund. I don’t know anything about choosing mutual funds, and this is a way not to have to worry about the choice repeatedly over time. Just pick a 529 plan, and call it a day. That appeals to me.

But you still have to choose a plan, and that’s annoying. Every state has one or more plans, and they’re all a little different. If your state doesn’t offer you any specific advantage for choosing your own state’s plan, then there’s no reason to choose your own state’s plan. New York has one direct-sold plan, but a bunch of options within that plan. You can just let the plan choose an option based on how old the child is (and let the plan automatically adjust to more conservative options as college draws closer), which is what we are likely to do. I no longer kid myself that I have an investment philosophy, so I like the idea of letting someone else make the decisions, at least with this.

So a 529 is a Roth IRA with really limited options, where the money is used for college instead of retirement.

A lot of other questions about 529s were pretty well answered for me at since apparently I think more like a grandparent than like a parent. You can change the beneficiary to another family member of the original beneficiary. Other people can contribute money if they want. You can use the money for trade school or grad school, but not for private high school. And this is different from a tuition prepayment program, which is an entirely different proposition.

I’m still hesitant to set this up, because I don’t think college financing will look anything like it does today when my son is old enough to go to college. The current system is not sustainable. But I suspect there will still be higher education options, and those options will still cost money, so money will still be helpful. And if it’s not, or if my son doesn’t want a higher education, or if he finds a free ride somehow, then the 10% penalty isn’t so bad. That’s something of a comfort.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Library in a camper

I’m working on shelving plans for my home office this summer. Angled shelves aren’t the most efficient use of space, but sure are appealing.