From The Editor
Bill Girdner
Story Date:   
Religious Schism

     I was watching news footage last week of Syrian government officials walking quickly into a hall in Damascus for a meeting with the Russian foreign minister. There was a moment when they were jostling and a couple stumbled, as they rushed forward.
     I said out loud, "Those guys are nervous."
     Their dignity, their pomp had disappeared.
     Ever since I played a lot of pick up sports in college, instead of doing my studies, I have reflexively checked a person's gait, their physique, the way they move, and it can be telling.
     I thought the sycophants were scared, and had good reason to be.
     Syrian rebels, as both BBC and Al Jazeera reported, had sent a wave of mortar shells into the Syrian capital the day before the foreign minister's arrival, a wicked kind of "Greetings!" But it also said they were close and they were confident.
     I was trying to explain my remark to my girlfriend Sanae who is less of a news hound than I am.
     She asked if it was the Islamic State that was making headway. I thought not. But they had broken the log jam of the Syrian civil war.
     It seemed like an eternal stalemate, with an ever-climbing number of displaced and dead. And then in recent months, the Syrian government's dominance drifted away like a time-lapsed puff of smoke.
     As reported by the media, the groups pushing west into the heartland of the Syrian president's strength and south towards the capital are an ever-shifting polyglot assortment of militias.
     To the north, the Islamic State appears to be stalled, with newspapers reporting effective coordination between Kurdish ground forces and American warplanes.
     Sanae asked a straight-forward question: Did the Russians support the Syrian government.
     Yes, I answered, as does Iran. But Russia seems to be going to a possible middle ground, probably because they are playing the odds that the Syrian government might fall.
     Is the Syrian government Shiite, she asked.
     No, but the government's tribe of Alawites has historically been opposed by the Sunni tribes of Syria. And, thus Shiite-dominated Iran supports the government because they share an opponent.
     On the other side of the Syrian conflict, the rebel groups are indeed primarily Sunni, as widely reported, whether it is the Al Qaeda-related groups, the Islamic State, or the more moderate reformers.
     A cursory look at the region's history confirms a thousand years of opposition between the Alawites and Sunnis. Little surprise that the current conflict falls along the same lines.
     What surprised me in my conversation with Sanae was how easy it was to give an analysis of the day's news in the Middle East when it followed the axis of the great schism within Islam.
     On the same night, the same two news networks reported a similar advance on the capital of Yemen.
     An analysis of that second story based on religion also went smoothly.
     The Houthi rebels in Yemen are associated with the Shia faith and supported by Iran. The Saudis, of the Sunni faith, are the principal force behind the advance of the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen associated with the former government, also Sunnis.
     Like everything in the region, there are shadings in the conflict. The Houthis are renowned for the rugged lifestyle, marksmanship and bravery. They are also poor and looked upon as backwards by the more affluent Sunnis.
     So, yes, there is a class division, as well.
     Finally, on the same news night, the networks showed the images of the immigrants arriving in Greece, mostly from Syria. I looked at the faces, the clothes, the gait. They did not look like the poor, the downtrodden, the suffering. They were well-spoken, comfortably dressed and showed no sign of deprivation. They were mostly young men, fighting age and in good shape.
     And I wondered, can this story too be analyzed along a religious axis.
     Are these folks possibly those who supported the government, and who, like the officials in Damascus, see the rebels gaining strength and are getting out while they can. Only some good reporting will tell us the story behind the boatloads of Syrians now floating towards Greece and demanding entry into "Europa!"

 
Coyote Speaks
Robert Kahn
Story Date:   
How to Become Stupid

     "Do you pat bees?" Gracie asked.
     Jane was finishing up a real estate closing and I was sitting with her clients' kids and our dogs on the back porch. Bumblebees buzzed around the big pot of catnip on the picnic table.
     "Umm, no," I said. "I don't pat bees."
     Gracie patted the bees.
     "They're soft," she said. "They don't mind it if you pat them."
     Leave it to kids to teach you something new. I'm beginning to think adults are incapable of it.
     Gracie's brother took a break from throwing tennis balls for our retrievers and sat down with us.
     "Do you have dogs?" I asked him.
     "We have three dogs," he said.
     "Are they big dogs or little dogs?"
     Cyrus gave me a look of apologetic commiseration.
     "I don't want to insult you," he said, "but our dogs are bigger than yours."
     Doris Lessing said that all children are geniuses until they're around 7 years old. Then, she said, they become stupid, and most of them stay stupid for the rest of their life.
     I've never been a fan of Doris Lessing. Probably because she wrote most of her stuff when she was 8, or even older. But she was right about that one.
     Parrots are probably smarter than kids, which is why parrots are so obnoxious. And I say this as a parrot owner who loves my parrot.
     A successful parrot breeder whom I shall not identify because he works undercover busting parrot smugglers explained this to me. I'll call him Butch. Butch is a very smart guy. He's worked as a cop and has a degree in psychology.
     Most people think parrots are about as smart as a 3-year-old kid. "I think they're smarter than that," Butch said. "I think they're at the 5 to 7 break."
     The 5 to 7 break, Butch said, is when kids begin to understand that they and their families are not the center of the world - that there's a big world out there, which they can't control, and into which they're going to have to learn to fit in.
     The 5 to 7 break is also around the time that kids learn how to lie. They're not very good at first, of course, but they get good pretty fast.
     As they learn to do all this, they become what Doris Lessing calls stupid.
     That's why you never see little kids involved in mass political movements. They're too smart for that. Also, of course, because we won't let them. But they wouldn't do it anyway.
     Genius, Baudelaire said, is childhood recovered at will. And there is something childlike about most great artists, except for the really obnoxious ones. Brahms, for example. That guy was born old.
     Creative scientists are childlike too, Richard Feynman being one. I read a reminiscence from another Nobel laureate just yesterday, whom Feynman persuaded that there are twice as many numbers as there are numbers.
     Most of the people who run the world are stupid, because they've devoted their lives to figuring out how to fit into it, and control it. They're great liars, and immensely powerful, and stupid as hell. I could name names.
     Ah, well. You probably know all this. You just forgot it. So do I. That's why I like to talk to little kids.
     Sitting on the back porch, I told Gracie and Cyrus I had to go to the store for a minute, but I'd be right back. We'd known each other for about 10 minutes.
     Gracie walked me to my car. "I'm sorry you have to go," she said.

 
From The Courts
Milt Policzer
Story Date:   
Sad Puppies

     More highlights from my fabulous vacation trip to the Pacific Northwest.
     Friday, Aug. 21:
     I wanted a nice, restful few days at the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane. A time to get away from the world's legal and political strife.
     But nooooo ...
     Eastern Washington seems to be burning down. The city has been redubbed Smokane, and a bizarre form of politics seems to have corrupted the Hugo Awards voting.
     A whole bunch of people are upset.
     I'm not going to attempt a full explanation. Google Sasquan and Sad Puppies if you're interested in the details.
     Suffice it to say that a few obsessive writers/publishers who believe that science fiction should be limited to tales of heroic males blowing up planets or dragons or something have gamed the award nominating system to combat the pernicious effect of women, minorities and/or interesting plots on the minds of innocent sci-fi readers.
     It's being compared to Gamergate. (You can look that up too.)
     As a result of this, "No Award" is among the favorites in several of the 16 award categories.
     I have no idea why anyone would think this is important enough to bother about, but political arguing and sensitivity seem inescapable.
     You're either too sensitive or too politically correct, or more likely, both.
     What's even more depressing is that I find out that the free book I won at a game show session is written by the guy who coined the term "sad puppies."
     There are two guys with guns on the cover, an emblem with a sword, and a blurb on the back that includes the phrase, "It is run with an iron fist by a brutal warlord ..."
     I'm not going to read it. It might have a bad effect on my impressionable mind.
     
     Saturday, Aug. 22:
     I am the only person in a very large hotel's fitness room.
     I feel thin!
     (NOTE TO SELF: I'm not thin. I've got to stop saying that. I need to get back to Southern California.)
     Later, I have an ice cream cone.
     The convention may be making me feel thin, but it's also making me feel stupid. A Science and Technology of Discworld panel consists of a geologist, a biologist, a paleontologist, a computer engineer and a couple of programmers.
     Discworld is one of my favorite things but I may not have been qualified to read the books.
     The highlight of the day - and a lesson for democracy - is the Hugo Award ceremony in the evening in front of a packed performing arts center audience.
     "No Award" wins five times.
     In the 60-year history of the Hugo Awards, "No Award" has won only five times before. The Sad Puppies have been thoroughly routed.
     This has been my dream for American democracy for a long time. I long for the day when I can vote for "None of the Above" in government elections. If all the alternatives are bad, why should we be stuck with any of them?
     Once again, science fiction shows us the way to a better future.
     
     Sunday, Aug. 23:
     Quote of the day: "Plucky teens make great rulers."
     Yes, I'm taking that completely out of context, but it makes me think. Maybe we've got this age-restriction thing for high government office backwards.
     Instead of requiring a president to be at least 35, we should require him or her to be at most, say, 25.
     Look at our crop of presidential contenders. Are you going to seriously say that experience is a good thing?
     Consider how idealistic you were when you were young and how cynical you are if you're old. (If you're not cynical, you're not paying attention.)
     Consider how much less you (or at least most of you) needed corrupting money and material possessions when you were young.
     We want our food fresh and wholesome. Why shouldn't our politicians be the same?
     With kids running things, we old people and can relax and let them show us how to work things.
     Yet again, science fiction shows us the way to a better future.