Archive for September, 2010

Corruption [[Part III]

According to recent news reports, a significant amount of the damage caused by the flooding in Pakistan may well be the result of pressure on officials not to breach certain dams in order to release the flood waters into a designated flood plain – because individuals and families of the elite who were well-connected were using the flood plain to grow cash crops and didn’t want to lose their investment.  In short, these individuals pressured an official to do something to their benefit and to the detriment of millions of small farmers who had no such influence.

Corruption?  Certainly, at least one news story played it that way.

But what is corruption exactly?  Is it the use of money or influence to gain special favors from officials that others cannot obtain?  Is it using such influence to avoid the restrictions placed on others by law?

Are such practices “corruption” if they are widely practiced in a society and if anyone can bribe or influence an office-holder or law enforcement official, provided they have enough money?  What is the ethical difference between a campaign contribution and a direct bribe to an elected official?  While one is legal under U.S. law, is there any ethical difference between the two?  Aren’t both seeking to influence the official to gain an advantage not open to others?

And what is the ethical difference between hiring a high-priced attorney to escape the consequences of the law and bribing a police officer to have the charges dismissed… or never brought?  In the USA, such bribes are illegal and considered corrupt, but those with fame and fortune hire legal champions to effect the same end… with means that are legal.  So Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and others escape the legal consequences of their actions – or get off with wrist slaps – while those without resources serve time.

In legal and “official” terms, Northern European derived societies generally have the least “permissive” definition or outlook on what they term corruption. But are these societies necessarily more ethical – or do they just have more rules… and perhaps rules that restrict how money and influence can be used to accomplish personal ends?  Rules that limit what most individuals can do… but not all individuals?

Under the current law – at least until or unless Congress finds a way to change it – corporations now have the right to spend essentially unlimited funds to campaign for legislative changes during an election. As I read the Supreme Court decision, corporations can’t directly say that Candidate “X” is bad because he or she supports or opposes certain legislation, but they can say that any candidate who does is “bad.”  In effect, then, U.S. law allows unlimited funding to influence public policy through the electoral process, but strictly forbids the smallest of direct payments to office holders.  One could conclude from this that the law allows only the largest corporations to influence politicians.  If corruption is defined as giving one group an unfair advantage, isn’t that a form of legalized corruption?

But could it just be that that, in ethical terms, corruption exists in all societies, and only the definition of corruption varies?  And could it also be that a society that outlaws direct bribery of officials, but then legalizes it in an indirect form for those with massive resources is being somewhat hypocritical?  In the USA, we can talk about being a society of laws, but we’ve set up the system so that the laws operate differently for those with resources and those without.  While I’m no fan of the Tea Party movement, this disparity in the way the “system” operates is another facet behind that movement, one that, so far, has not been widely verbalized.  Yet… who can blame those in the movement for feeling that the system operates differently for them?

Double Standards

Recently, there was a sizable public outcry in the great state of Oklahoma.  The reason?  A billboard.  It was just a standard oversized highway billboard that asked a question and provided a website address.  But the question was: “Don’t believe in God?”  Following that was the statement, “Join the club,” with a website for atheists listed. The outcry was substantial, and that probably wasn’t surprising, since surveys show that something like 80% of Oklahomans are Christians of some variety.

There is another side to the issue, of course.  You can’t drive anywhere, it seems to me, without seeing billboards or other signs that tout religion.  And there are certainly hundreds, if not thousands, of religious programs on television, cable/satellite, and radio.  Why should so many people get upset about atheists advertising their “belief” and reaching out to others who believe there is no supreme deity?  Yet many religious people were calling for the removal of the message, claiming it was unChristian and unAmerican.  UnChristian, certainly, and, I suppose, unIslamic, unHindu, etc…. but unAmerican?  Not on your life, not while we live under a Constitution that provides us with a guarantee of the freedom to believe what we wish, or not to believe.

The double standard lies in the belief of the protesters that it’s all right for them to champion their beliefs publicly and to seek converts through public airspace and billboards, but not to allow that to those who disavow a supreme deity.

Unhappily, we live in the age of double standards.  Those who champion subsidies and “incentives” for business, but who oppose earned income tax credits or welfare, practice a double standard as well.  For all the rhetoric about such corporate incentives creating jobs, so do income supports for the poor, and neither is as effective at doing so as their respective supporters would claim.  But… arguing for one taxpayer-funded subsidy and against another on so-called ethical or moral grounds is yet another double standard.

Here in Utah, the governor has claimed that he’s all for better education, but when his opponent for the office suggested a plan to toughen high school graduation requirements, the governor opposed it because it would limit the “release time” during the school day that allows LDS students to leave school grounds and attend religious classes at adjoining LDS seminaries – and then the governor blasted his opponent for sending his children to parochial schools.  Wait a minute.  Using the schedules of taxpayer-funded schools to essentially promote religion is fine, but spending your own money (and saving the taxpayers money to boot) to send a child to a religious school is somehow wrong?  Talk about a double standard.

Another double standard is the legal distinction between crack and powdered cocaine, especially since the legal penalties against the powdered form are far less stringent than those for crack, and since the powdered form is used by celebrities and others such as Paris Hilton, while crack is the province more of minorities and the denizens of poorer areas.  I may be misguided, but it seems to me that cocaine is cocaine.

I’ve also noted another interesting trend in the local and state newspapers.  Crimes committed by individuals with Latino names seem to get more coverage, and more prominent positioning in the same issue of the paper, than what appear to be identical crimes committed by those with more “Anglo” surnames. Coincidence?  I doubt it.  While it may be more “newsworthy,” in the sense that reporting that way increases sales, it’s another example of a double standard.

Demanding responsibility from teachers, but not from students, a practice I’ve noted before, is also a double standard.  So is the increasing practice of colleges and universities to require better grades and test scores from women than from men, in order to “balance” the numbers of incoming young men and women.  Whatever the rationale, it’s still a double standard.

Going into Iraq theoretically to remove an evil dictator and to improve human rights, but largely ignoring human rights violations elsewhere, might be considered a double standard – or perhaps merely a hypocritical use of that rationale to cover strategic interests… but why don’t we have the courage to say, “Oil matters to us more than human rights violations in places that don’t produce goods vital to us” ?

Double standards have been a feature of human societies since the first humans gathered together, but it seems to be that the creativity used in justifying them is increasing with each passing year.  Why is it that we can’t call a spade a spade… or a double standard just that?

The Coming Decline and Fall of American Higher Education?

The September 4th edition of The Economist included an article/commentary entitled “Declining by Degree” that effectively forecasts the collapse of U.S. higher education, citing a number of facts and trends I’ve already mentioned in previous blogs and adding in a few others.  For example, an American Enterprise Institute study found that in 1961, on average, U.S. students at four year colleges studied 24 hours a week, but today only study 14.  While U.S. household income has grown by a factor of 6.5 over the period, the cost of attending an in-state public college or university has increased fifteen times, while the cost of private universities, pricy even in 1960, has increased 13 times.  Yet educational outcomes are no better, and less than 40% of all students graduate in four years.

While the commentary identifies many of the causal factors I’ve mentioned, such as the incredible administrative bloat and building elaborate facilities not directly related to academics, i.e., football stadiums and lavish student centers, it addresses the problem of faculty as “indifference to student welfare” and inflated grades to faculty preoccupation with personal research and scholarship. I’d agree that there is considerable institutional indifference to student welfare, despite all the inflated claims and protestations to the contrary.  Based on my own years of teaching and more than twenty years of observing my wife and several offspring who teach at the university level, that indifference generally does not come from the individual faculty member, but from the combination of administration, parental, and student pressures that most faculty – especially non-tenured, tenure track junior professors – are unable to withstand if they wish to keep their positions.

Like it or not, grades have become the sine qua non for entry into graduate programs or jobs, and, also, like it or not, virtually all university professors are judged in large part on how good their student evaluations are, and, according to studies, the higher the grades a professor gives, and the less demanding the student workload, the better the student evaluations.  The other principal aspect of gaining and retaining tenure – especially now that more and more universities are instituting post-tenure review – is the faculty member’s scholarship and/or research.  In addition, to cope with the incredible increase in tuition and fees, more and more students are working part-time or even full-time and/or taking out significant student loans, which they intend to pay back by getting a high-paid job after completion of their education, and they see the pay they will receive as at least in part determined by their grades/class ranking.  As an illustration, an incoming student at my wife’s university inquired about the percentage of As granted in each class for which he was registered – and immediately dropped the hardest class after the first week of classes. He wasn’t the only one; it’s a pattern that faculty members recognize and note year after year.

The combination of these pressures effectively communicates to faculty that their own welfare is determined by their popularity and by their scholarship and research, not by how well they prepare students. For at least ten years, the vast majority of professors I’ve known who require in-depth preparation and learning on the part of students have had to resist enormous pressures from their superiors, and sometimes even from colleagues, not to be “too hard” on the students. Under these circumstances, it’s not hard to see why American college graduates are, as a whole, less prepared than their predecessors, and why more than half of the graduating college seniors are effectively marginally literate… or why The Economist cites the coming decline of U.S. universities. You can’t put professors in a situation where, to improve student performance, they effectively have to destroy their own future, and expect the vast majority to be that self-sacrificing.

The problems and trends are indeed real, but, as in so many cases that I discuss, few want to look at the root causes.

Let’s Try This Again

A while back I commented on the fact that one of the problems with all the education “reformers” was that virtually all the rhetoric and the effort was concentrated on teachers and schools, but primarily upon teachers. In recent weeks, there have been new programs, press interviews with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and the national head of the teachers’ union, not to mention all sorts of other commentary to coincide with the beginning of the new school year.  And what do we continue to hear?  It’s all about how getting better and more inspiring teachers will improve education.

Who can disagree with that?

Except… it’s only focusing on half the problem.  It’s like saying that a good coach will always have a good team, no matter what sort of players the coach has, no matter what their background and motivation are.  That is, pardon me, bullshit.  Good teams require good coaches and good players.  Likewise, good education requires good teachers and good students, and unlike coaches, teachers don’t have the luxury of selecting and educating only the best students.  Putting all the focus on teachers, especially at a time when teachers have less and less respect from students and parents and, frankly, fewer and fewer tools to maintain discipline in a culture that has multiplied manifold the possible distractions and student problems, is not only unrealistic, but short-sighted.  Placing all the responsibility on the teachers is, however, far more politically and personally attractive than addressing the “student problem.”

What almost all of these “reformers” overlook are some of the key reasons why private schools and the best charter schools have better records in improving student performance.  In addition to better teachers, the parents are more involved, and they play a far greater role in demanding more of their children.  In addition, disruptive and disinterested students can be dealt with, and removed if they don’t improve their behavior. In short, they deal with student motivation and aspiration, and provide a supportive and disciplined structure for learning.

The other problem in focusing on teachers is that the growing emphasis is on test scores and their improvement.  Teachers tend to oppose this focus – and for very good reasons.  No matter how good the teacher, a classroom composed of inner-city students with poor educational backgrounds and difficult personal situations will not progress as fast as one composed of the best and most highly motivated students in the school.  How do you measure what progress represents a “good” teacher?  It’s easy enough to determine a terrible teacher, but an excellent teacher may put more effort and skill into creating a modest improvement with a difficult class while a competent teacher may show greater improvement with a less educationally-challenged class.

In addition, excessive test-oriented teacher evaluation creates pressures to “teach to the tests,” rather than pressure to teach students how to learn.  This further emphasizes teacher behavior and test-related causality, rather than dealing with the long-term needs and requirements of the students.

So… when are we as a society, especially the educational reformers, going to address the entire spectrum of problems with education, rather than placing the entire responsibility on the teachers?

Communications Technology – The Path to Devolution?

One of the key elements in human society and human relations is the capacity for communication on a person-to-person basis.  People who have trouble reading emotions and responding appropriately to them – whether through a genetic factor, such as Asperger’s Syndrome or autism, or brain injuries – are severely disadvantaged. Humans are a social society. In interacting with others, we learn to read people’s body expressions, their tone of voice, the minute expressions in their eyes, and scores of other subtle signals.  These skills are increasingly more vital in a complex society because, frankly, the majority of people don’t understand the technology and the institutions.  What most people are left with is their ability to read other people. In addition, one of the factors that reduces hatred and conflict is empathy with others, and that’s generated through face-to-face experiences. Electronic technologies, particularly cellphones and hand-held texting devices, are expanding to the point where they’re largely replacing face-to face and even aural communications.  Texting, in particular, removes all personal interaction from communications, leaving only a written shorthand.

High school and college students walk around with earbuds all the time, ignoring those around them, often fatally, as when they walk in front of light-rail, cars, and buses.  But that’s not the only danger.  The excessive volume used in such devices, perhaps boosted to isolate them from others, has resulted in permanent hearing loss in roughly 20 percent of the teenaged population of the United States.  In addition, the self-selecting effect of electronic communications removes or limits the interactions with others who are different – at a time when in the United States in particular, cultural homogeneity is disappearing in a multicultural society.  Perhaps some of the impetus for electronic isolation or segregation is a reaction to that trend, because a less homogenous society represents unpleasant change for some… but ignoring it through the filter of self-selecting electronic social networking does nothing to address a growing cultural and communications gap.

The vast majority of users of Facebook and MySpace and other social networking sites reveal all sorts of personal information that can prove incredibly helpful to identity thieves, information that most people would balk at telling to casual acquaintances – yet they post it on networks for other users – and hackers across the world – to see and use.

Likewise, for all the rhetoric about multi-tasking, study after study has shown that multi-taskers are less efficient than “serial-taskers” and that, in many cases, such as texting while driving or operating machinery, multi-tasking can prove fatal.  Equally important, but more overlooked, is the fact that electronic multi-tasking erodes the ability to concentrate and to undertake and complete tasks that require sustained continuous effort and concentration.  In essence, it can effectively create attention-deficit-disorder.

Add to that the fact that even email is becoming a drag on productivity because all too many supervisors use it to demand more and more reports – and those reports only detract from more productive efforts.

So again… why do we as a society tout and rush to buy and gleefully employ electronic equipment that is ruining our hearing, reducing our abilities in assessing others and thus handicapping us in making good decisions while amplifying negative traits such as negative stereotyping, seducing us into often dangerous patterns of behavior, increasing the chances for costly identity-theft, and reducing the productivity of millions of Americans? Or, put another way, why are we as a society actively promoting and advocating technology that will effectively replicate the effects of such handicaps as Asperger’s Syndrome or attention-deficit disorder?

If the Islamic terrorists released a virus that accomplished these ends, we’d consider it an act of war… but we seem to be doing it all on our own, and, at the same time, denouncing anyone who suggests that all this personal and social-networking high-tech communications isn’t in our best interests as a technophobe or a“dinosaur”… or “not with the times.”

But then, thoughtful consideration seems to be one of the first casualties of extreme technophilia.

It’s Not Just All About You

Earlier this year, my wife received a job application from a singer with a master’s degree who had not only sung professionally across the United States, but who made that very clear in her vita. She also knew my wife… and made a point of noting that in her cover letter.  In fact, my wife had taught the woman for the majority of her undergraduate years, but what was most interesting about the application was that the applicant’s vita never listed my wife as ever having taught her.  Yet my wife had spent more time teaching this singer than had several of those the woman had listed as her teachers – and the position the woman was applying for was to teach voice students on the undergraduate level under my wife’s supervision.

By comparison, such world-renowned singers as Rene Fleming and Kelli O’Hara make a practice of recognizing their first teachers.  Yet this applicant not only failed to acknowledge her undergraduate teacher, but had the nerve to apply for a job from her with a resume that didn’t even list her as one of her teachers.  If this applicant did not happen to be favorably disposed toward my wife – and that does happen – why would she want to work for her?  If she happened to be desperate for the position, why did she not at least acknowledge her former teacher?

It’s also possible that the letter and resume were “merely” general and sent to many institutions, but whatever the reason for such an oversight, the result suggests either a focus just on the applicant alone or a lack of care on the part of the applicant or a certain lack of respect – not any of which are exactly characteristics an employer prefers in an employee.  What was also somewhat amazing is that the applicant was not someone just out of graduate school, but a singer with professional experience in her forties.  Was the approach the result of having been a diva… or just stupidity?

I’d like to say that this happened to be an isolated incident.  I can’t.  I cannot count the number of times either my wife or I have run across similar cases – such as the time when I was guest of honor at a science fiction convention and I introduced myself, at the request of my editor, to an up-and-coming young writer.  His first words to me were, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know who you are.”  That was despite the fact that my name was on the front of the program.  Needless to say, although I never mentioned the fact, until right now, to anyone but my wife, the once young author has up and come and largely departed the scene.  I had nothing to do with his career path.  Like the singer I mentioned above, he took care of it all by himself.

At the higher levels of any profession, whether it be politics, writing, music, or anything else, the communities are comparatively small, and sooner or later, everyone tends to know more about everyone else than most of those entering the field have any idea or understanding.  Ability and even genius alone are usually not enough to succeed.  In the end, like it or not, we all need other people in order to succeed in what we do… and actions that offend or insult people, whether intentional or not, are less than career-enhancing moves.

Not matter how talented you are, it’s not all about you.

Books, Market Segmentation, and Sales Ramifications

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasing trend with regard to the sales of my books.  When a book is initially released, it generally ranks much higher on the sales list than it does on the B& list, and that ranking stays correspondingly higher for somewhere between one and two months after publication, and then plummets on the list.  This holds true whether the book is electronic, hardcover, or paperback, although the difference appears to be getting greater with regard to paperback sales of books more than three months past publication date. From what I can tell, the pricing policies don’t change in these time frames so that it can’t be that Amazon suddenly stops discounting after so many weeks or months or that B&N gives a greater discount for older books.

Although I haven’t the time to track the corresponding figures for other authors, I suspect that from my casual observations the same is generally true for most of them as well.

And, if so, what does it mean?

Put bluntly, it means that Amazon, as the cutting-edge on-line bookseller, appeals to a far larger proportion of readers who are more computer-innovation-invested and more interested in what’s “new” and that older, more stable Barnes and Noble appeals to, if you will, a  clientele somewhat less interested in instant gratification and computer glitz.

As a side note, I used the term “more computer-innovation-invested” advisedly, because there’s a tendency on the part of those who seek the latest computer and communications technology as soon as they become available to view those of us who only adopt new technology when it makes sense for our uses and needs as “out of touch” or “dinosaurs,” yet most of the difference is not whether those like me use newer technology, but when we adopt it and how much of it we find useful… and this is a different mindset that appears to be reflected in book-buying as well.

The problem with the approach taken by Amazon, especially with regard to bookselling, is that the appeal to the “I want it now” crowd tends to hype what is immediately identifiable as “popular,”  not to mention also increasing the sales of electronic books, especially those in Amazon’s Kindle format.  Because Amazon competes on price, this also has other ramifications.

Greater e-books sales at the expense of hardcovers, as I’ve noted previously, reduce hardcover sales, and such reduced sales result in lower hardcover revenues.  For Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer, the lower revenues don’t result in their not writing more books.  For hundreds, if not thousands, of midlist authors, it will and perhaps already has.  According to at least one large independent bookstore, some publishers have indicated that they will no longer even offer the books of some midlist authors in paperback format, only in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats.   Because ebooks are not replacing paperback titles on anywhere close to a one-for-one basis, this will result in fewer and fewer midlist authors being able to support themselves on their writing income.

At the same time, scores of new ebook publishers are rushing titles into “print,” often at significantly lower prices… and I’ve seen enough of the works of these new ebook publishers already to observe that their content and technical presentation are, with very few exceptions, inferior to that of those soon-vanishing midlist authors of large publishers.  At the same time, I’m seeing these cheaper titles popping up on Amazon.

As it is, the electronic “revolution” has resulted in an erosion of grammar and style among supposedly literate individuals, to the point where the majority of graduates with advanced degrees are marginally literate.  The proliferation of lower quality ebooks isn’t going to be any help in improving that situation, to say the least, although it’s certainly likely to continue to swell Amazon’s profits and perhaps, after a suitable delay, those of Barnes & Noble as well.

And, after all, aren’t greater profits always paramount in this land of freedom and opportunity?