Archive for January, 2011

Thoughts on Theories and the Need for Certainty

The other day I read a report on studies that tend to confirm the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that language affects the very fashion in which we think and even how we think. In turn, that got me to thinking about theories and the controversies which surround them.  While what Whorf postulated almost seventy years ago certainly made sense to him, and the idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis made sense to me when I read Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao years and years ago, long before I even knew that Whorf and Sapir even existed, much less that Whorf had postulated what Vance wrote about more than thirty years before the book, at the time Whorf offered their theory there was no proof… and no real way to offer such proof.  The same was also initially true about the theory of continental drift and the idea of plate tectonics, and even, if for a shorter time, that of Einstein’s theories of relativity.

The lack of proof didn’t mean that the theories were right – or wrong – but merely that they could neither be proved nor disproved at the time they were first offered.  In the cases I’ve mentioned, the preponderance of evidence suggests the theories were correct, or at least largely so.

But… how can you tell the difference between a theory which might be true, if proof existed, and one that is absurd because no proof can ever be developed?  Can you?

And what about the cases where the “proof” itself is not accepted, as was certainly partly true in the case of continental drift?

Human beings want certainty in their science, but the more we learn the more we discover, in essence, that there are exceptions, i.e., modifications, complications, refinements, etc.  Just as the human genome is finally sequenced, research discovers that genes are not even the genetic end-all and be all, because there’s an epigenetic mechanism that can modify and even override genes. 

Unfortunately, the all too understandable reaction of many people is to claim that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, or that they’re always changing their minds.  Part of this reaction, I suspect, is based on the human arrogance that we should be able to know everything, and that if our supposedly best scientific minds don’t, then they’re not the best… or they’re not good for anything. Another reaction is that mankind was never meant to know everything, and we should just look to our favorite deity for explanations – which are, of course, simple and comforting… and explain very little.

Of course, a little humility in the search for answers and explanations wouldn’t hurt, either, along with the understanding that in a universe that’s taken over fourteen billion years to develop, it might just take a bit more time than the few hundred years humans have had the technology to seek the answers to the complexity of the universe.

But then, that means you can’t get the answer on Google instant.

Could We Make a Distinction, Please?

Over at, a blogger under the nom de plume of “Stubby the Rocket” recently conducted a poll, asking readers to vote on the best fantasy and science fiction novels of the past decade. Fortunately or unfortunately, the readers aren’t.  They’re voting for their favorite books, and, apparently, reading between the lines, they’re even voting for their favorite authors, almost without regard for the comparative excellence or lack thereof of some authors’ works. What is also interesting is that when one internet-popular author made an on-line appeal, his readers immediately flooded the voting thread, and pushed his book to the top.

I have no problem with readers pushing their favorites. I’d love to have my readers push all my books – but I’m not making an appeal, because that isn’t the point of this blog, and besides the voting closed several days ago. The point is, as one commenter on the main site observed, that most of the voters aren’t voting for what they believe to be the best, but for their favorites. So why didn’t and Stubby the Rocket just ask for the books readers liked the most? Then they could publish, more or less honestly, “Reader Favorites for the Decade.”

As I’ve discussed recently and not-so-recently, there’s a great deal of subjectivity and ignorance involved in determining what comprises a good book, and while I believe that the majority of readers, if pressed, would make a distinction, the poll-takers didn’t emphasize that there’s a difference between “favorite” and “best.” Another weakness with all of these polls, and that includes such awards as the Hugos [the World Science Fiction awards, for those readers not familiar with such], is that a comparatively small number of voters are represented, usually from a distinct sub-set of readers, and are usually self-selecting, which means that they don’t represent the majority of readers.

Years and years ago, Betty Ballantine, one of the great ladies of F&SF publishing, made the observation that there are two kinds of awards in publishing, those awarded by various organizations with varying memberships and agendas and those represented by the sales figures.  A number of years ago, many of those involved with the World Science Fiction convention were truly horrified when the winner of the best novel award went to a Harry Potter book.  Was it the best book of the year, technically?  I doubt it, but it was at least an honest “favorite,” one whose sales figures also declared that it was truly a favorite.

I honestly doubt that there’s any fair or accurate way to determine a “best” book.  So why don’t all the pollsters ask for favorites or books that are best-liked?  That way, at least, we wouldn’t have the charade of popularity being mistaken for excellence or the equally misleading charade of self-selecting groups foisting off their favorites as the “best of the decade” when they really mean the “favorite books of this group for the decade.”  But then, who wants to publish a list of “favorites” when “best books” sounds so much better and more “official” in print?

The Finance Types Just Don’t Get It

Well… it’s now “bonus season,” I understand, for high-level executives among the banks, investment banks, brokerage houses, and the like.  At a time when even supposedly well-off working professionals aren’t doing all that well, early reports are that the financial institutions are set to pay near-record bonuses once again.  Why?

Oh, I know the official reason.  Profits are up, and therefore these executives are to be compensated for playing a part in obtaining those profits.  But then again, the entire country played a part, last year and the year before, in rescuing the financial community from the results of its excessively reckless pursuit of profit at any cost.

At the same time, unemployment is hovering close to ten percent nationally, and it’s likely in excess of fifteen percent if you count in the people who aren’t included because they’ve been out of work so long they’ve given up looking.  Those figures don’t really include people who are working part-time because they can’t get full-time jobs, and the unemployment rate for minorities is close to twice the overall rate.  Even once-secure high-paying professions are feeling the pinch.  Law firms are booting out partners and aren’t hiring.  Thousands upon thousands of law school graduates have no jobs and student loans that can amount to $100,000 and more.  The fees paid to primary care doctors – you know, the ones who actually see you – are essentially frozen, while insurance and other costs continue to rise.  And unlike specialists, primary care physicians don’t rake in the big bucks.  Middle management jobs are continuing to shrink, as are positions for teachers all across the country.  And, as for us authors, paperback book sales are down, and ebook sales haven’t yet, if they ever do, made up the difference in royalties.

And the finance community is going to pay record bonuses?

For what?  Are banking services improving?  Not when banks are automating everything and trying to use as few real bodies as possible.  Not when they’ve grown ever more adept at finding fees for everything and reducing the billing cycle.  And now, my wife has discovered yet another indication of just how little the banks care about you and me.

The other day, she was trying to balance her account – and it wouldn’t balance.  The reason it wouldn’t balance was because the bank deducted $253 from her account for a check she wrote for $153.  Even the bank’s photocopied records showed that the check was for $153 – but they still deducted $253.  When she finally got a real person on the line, after a ten minute hold because “we are experiencing unusually high call volume,” and explained the situation, it took five minutes more to verify that the bank had goofed, and then the customer service [this is service?] representative explained that it would take 3-5 business days to rectify the error in my wife’s account.  Three to five days in this era of instant electronic banking?  When they made the error in the first place?  Oh… and when this isn’t your local bank but a large regional bank?

Would they have rescinded all the fees they would have collected if their error had caused her to overdraw her account?  I have my doubts.

So… tell me again how all those finance types deserve record bonuses?  They’re either totally out of touch with the rest of the United States… or they’re so contemptuous that they don’t care.  Either way, they don’t deserve those bonuses.

More on Entertainment Simplicity

I just read a review of a recently released movie, and since I haven’t seen the film, and may not, I can’t say how accurate the review is, but one line of the review struck me as particularly relevant, especially in view of my previous blog.  That line said approximately, “You can’t tell whose movie this is, the star’s, the co-star’s, or the supporting actors’.”  From the rest of the review it was quite obvious that there was no confusion about the story lines or who was doing what to whom or why.  What the reviewer was stating was that he wanted the movie to emphasize without a doubt which story was the predominant one, and to make every one else subservient.

My question to the reviewer is:  “Why?”  Have viewers become so simple-minded that they can’t enjoy intersecting story lines, and the fact that at one time one part of a story becomes more dominant and that at another time another character and part do?

Certainly, life is like that, and much as we’d all like to be the center of attention and action, no one always is, not even the most powerful and most famous among us. Or is it that we feel our own lives are so complicated that we can only enjoy a movie when it’s straightforward and simple.

Or is it that, while many of us enjoy complex movies, more and more the media pundits and critics want to oversimplify matters for us.  That’s definitely been the case among the political analysts and the media talking heads who report on national politics.  It’s become the case with the economic “analysts” who present such data in the national general media.

As I’ve noted more than a few times before, we live in a highly technological society, and such societies are anything but simple.  And, in a riff on that theme, perhaps that’s really the gulf between the United States and many of the fundamentalist Mid-East cultures.  They want to hang on to the comforting simplicity and clarity of their traditional past, and can see all too well that such clarity vanishes in the conflicts of a modern technological society.  For that matter, even within the United States, that conflict exists, although so far, despite the horrible events in Arizona earlier this month, the violence around political events has been largely confined to verbal outbursts, despite the growing [until last week]intemperance of both media and political types.

And this movie’s review may well have bothered me because it’s yet another symptom of the conflict between “comforting” and clear traditional simplicity and modern complexity.  The problem with those old traditional clarities is that they cover up a multitude of injustices and prejudices under the guise of morality, rather than striving for a better ethical code, and one more suited to a technological society. Like it or not, until we can juggle those complexities better, and in an overall improved ethical fashion, we’re going to have problems, and all the entertainment that regales us with comforting simplicities won’t help in the slightest, just as the majority of the “popular” literature at the end of the 19th century did little to prepare Americans for the need for the changes required in a developing technological society.

The Death/Decline of Nuance and Subtlety

A week or so ago, I received the worst review of a book of mine in thirty years.  Not surprisingly, it was the Publishers Weekly review of Empress of Eternity.  The only good thing I can say about the review was that it appeared almost two months after the book was released.  Now… I’ve had good reviews and not so good reviews, and questionable reviews throughout my career, but never a review that so thoroughly trashed a book, especially a book that had received numerous rave and favorable reviews elsewhere.  I’ve already been the first to admit that Empress of Eternity, like Haze, is not a book to appeal to everyone, and I certainly wouldn’t object to a review that said just that… and said why.  What bothers me about this particular review is that it exemplifies a trend in both books and movies that is both deplorable and, I believe, culturally dangerous.

By its very approach, the review essentially states that, if something isn’t immediately obvious and clear, it’s trash.  If it’s not simple and direct, then it’s worthless.  That’s like saying a one pound hamburger with American cheese is far superior to a custom-broiled filet mignon with cordon bleu béarnaise sauce.  Obviously, tastes differ, and there are times when a hamburger just hits the spot… but please don’t tell me the hamburger is superior in culinary terms.

It’s becoming so that too many reviewers and readers can’t tell the difference between a book that has no characterization to speak of and one in which the characterization is nuanced and subtle.  If the writer doesn’t effectively come out and say, “Joseph was devastated,” these readers and reviewers don’t pick up the other clues.  The same is true of foreshadowing.  The author practically has to post signposts that state “this is important,” or it goes over their heads.  This tendency isn’t new.  There have been readers with such problems since there have been books.  What is new is that, in this “new” era of “everything in your face,” there are more and more of them, and they’re infiltrating the ranks of the reviewers and critics.

The same trends have already occurred in movie-making, and it’s to the point where almost any movie trailer will tell me if it’s an “in your face” movie.  In fact, almost all the block-buster movies are these days, and it’s getting harder and harder to find movies with depth, subtlety and nuance.  Once upon a time, the banana peel humor was largely limited to the Saturday morning movie serials, and the scatological humor to pornography.  No more. Once upon a time, many movies [certainly not all, or even a majority, but enough that one didn’t have to search through a haystack of dross] actually presented brilliant dialogue and depth.  No more.

This cheapening and over-simplification of societal entertainment bleeds over into everything else, from supersizing fast foods to the Sarah Palinization of politics, where “in your face” direct simple solutions are the answer.  And because everyone has a “simple” solution, no one can understand that big simple solutions don’t work… and never have, not without an extraordinary cost to people. Unfortunately, this past weekend we’ve had what appears to be a reminder of those costs with the shooting of a moderate Congresswoman in Arizona, who, from all accounts was popular with the majority of her district, and unpopular with the extremists in both parties.

So I’ll say it again.  Big, simple, extreme solutions aren’t the answer, and never have been. After all, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was certainly a big and simple solution.  So were Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Castro’s Cuban Revolution… as well as all the ethnic cleansing movements throughout the globe.  By contrast, from the beginning the American Revolution embodied compromise, a fact conveniently overlooked by the Tea Partiers. Interestingly enough, what it created lasted… so far, but will it survive the “in your face” era?

Debate, Not Hate… Except…

As a result of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last week, there has been an outpouring of rhetoric and petitions along the lines that Americans need to turn away from appeals to hatred and violence.  I certainly agree with the sentiment, but this movement in a large degree begs the question.  The first question is why in recent years Americans have turned to more and more violent rhetoric and why the political climate has turned uglier and uglier.  The second question is whether “debate” is the answer.

I don’t think so, at least not given the way debate is being approached today.  It all reminds me of a woman I know, who divorced her husband when no one could understand why, since he was such a rational and logical fellow. Her answer, which almost no one accepted or understood, was that his logical and rational approach was the problem.  Whenever she disagreed with him and tried to explain her views, he was so busy thinking up arguments to undermine her position that he never listened to what she was saying or what lay behind what she was saying.  And that is the problem with political and social debate and problems today – on all sides of the political spectrum.

Everyone’s talking, and no one is listening.  The Republicans are determined to repeal the health bill.  Is anyone there listening to the more than forty million who don’t have and can’t get health care in a time when healthcare costs are spiraling out of control.  The Democrats refuse to consider limitations on legal claims and windfalls for attorneys proposed by the Republicans, which certainly add to health care costs.  The Democrats demand tax increases on the “wealthy,” but insist the wealthy include the upper middle class and small businesses that have always generated the majority of “new” jobs in the economy, while the Republicans want the uber-rich, those who make millions, to get the same tax cuts as everyone else, when the corporate fat cats are the ones who are making millions by cutting jobs. Citizens in border states face huge problems with illegal immigrants, and Congress has done nothing.  On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country illegally as children who know no other homeland, and Congress isn’t listening to them, either, and yet deporting or allowing them no legal status punishes them not for what they did, but for the sins of their parents.  The Democratic Party ignores the problems illegal immigration has created, and the Republican rhetoric ignores the suffering of too many innocents.  The Republican rhetoric, if followed literally, would create an American version of the Berlin Wall, but not doing anything isn’t working, either, and not allowing a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who’ve lived here for years and who had no choice in the matter, isn’t exactly in keeping with the American tradition.  The list of polarized issues goes on and on… and everyone’s talking, and no one is listening… and the anger continues to build.

What we need is more listening… and some compromise… so that Americans can get a sense that something is being done.  Try splitting the difference.  Let each side get something, and I don’t mean the past political compromise of spending more money and splitting the spoils. And it might not hurt to ask another question when facing yet another “simple” solution: How will this benefit or affect everyone? 

Debate isn’t an answer.  We’ve had years of it. Without more listening, more debate will only create more hate.

The Illusion of Energy Efficiency as a Solution

In 1865, an Englishman named William Stanley Jevons published a book entitled The Coal Question, as I discovered in an article entitled “The Efficiency Dilemma,” in the December 20th issue of The New Yorker.  What was striking about the book was its “proof” that energy efficiency leads not to less energy use, but more.  Over the years, economists have debated this proof, and others that followed, but the conclusions noted in the article seem indisputable:  Energy usage for any given application of the same task and scope tends to decline, but overall energy usage increases.  Cars become more efficient… so they become larger with more capabilities, and their overall worldwide usage increases markedly.  The same is true of refrigerators and air conditioners, computers, cell phones, etc.

And the result?  Overall energy usage continues to climb… and it will continue to grow even as energy efficiency increases as well.  In short, we can’t “efficiency” our way out of the energy problem.  Does that mean we shouldn’t continue the efforts toward greater efficiency?  No… we need all the efficiency we can squeeze out of our technology. 

The problem is economic… and political.  When goods or services are less expensive, we humans use more of them.  We also have a “good idea” [whether we do or not] of what those goods and services “should” cost.  An example of how this perception can be skewed was the furor over ebook prices in mid-2010.  Many readers insisted ebooks should be cheaper because electronic downloads and copies cost almost nothing, and blank discs are cheap.  They really didn’t consider all the other expenses going into producing a book.  In essence, they were insisting that ebooks be priced at the marginal cost of production, rather than factoring in any of the sunk costs, or the lost revenues coming from the decline in hardcover and paperbook sales.

In the case of energy, however, governments and societies face a different problem.  Energy is cheaper, in real terms, than it used to be, and people are using more.  The only way to cut back on energy usage is to make it more expensive, or to ration its usage.  And since technology is making it currently less expensive overall, and since people don’t want to pay more for “cleaner” energy such as wind and solar power, the only way to increase costs is either to mandate greater use of cleaner energy or to increase the taxes on energy.  This, needless to say, is politically unpopular, even if government made such energy taxes “progressive,” with higher tax rates on larger energy consumers.  People would create a political backlash, and others would opt for their own generators and solar panels once the taxes got too high.

Energy rationing would effectively be a non-starter in most democratic nations.

And, as a result, it appears that the energy “problem” will simply be pushed farther into the future, until true costs can no longer be denied, and prices inevitably rise, along with the costs of goods and services requiring energy inputs – and that’s almost everything.

Life Out There?

Scientific findings in two areas seem almost in conflict, at least with regard to the question of whether there’s other intelligent life in the universe and how frequent it might be.  The first set of findings reports that life exists across a far greater spectrum of temperatures and pressures than most biologists dared to hope.  The second set of findings comes from astronomers, who are finding that, at least so far, other solar systems appear far more bizarre than ours, with planets in odd orbits, planets circling their suns in retrograde orbits, massive gas giants in tight solar orbits, all creating conditions that appear less favorable to life, or to complex cellular life, than in our solar system.

At this point, it’s clear that we are far from knowing enough to speculate knowledgeably about the frequency of life in the universe, let alone intelligent life… and yet…

Could it just be that life, of all sorts and kinds, arises under all ranges of conditions and under strange suns and stars?  Given the billions and billions of planets in the universe, and given the range of conditions under which life has evolved on earth, how could there not be life elsewhere?

But… given the immensity of the universe, and the distance between stars, will we ever know for certain?  And does it matter?

I’m afraid it does.  It matters because too many people in too many cultures have come to believe that somehow “we” – homo sapiens – are special merely because we exist, that some deity created the entire universe and put us at the center of it.

Yet… how special are we?  In almost every decade over the past century, archeologists and paleontologists have discovered yet another variety of human forebear – homo neanderthalensis, homo floresiensis, homo africanus, homo erectus, etc., and many of these were not our ancestors, but cousins.  And all of them are extinct, with the exception of the Neanderthals, who live on in the genes of much of the world’s population.

Recently, a team of archeologists discovered a big-brained dinosaur, one they believe was on the way to what we would call true intelligence – except it ran out of time when the climate changed.  Perhaps it, too, thought it was special, merely through the fact of existing.

Will it take the discovery of alien artifacts and signals to prove that we’re not that unique in the grand scheme of the universe?  Or would that discovery just trigger xenophobia and racial paranoia?

I don’t know, and I doubt anyone does, but what I do find intriguing as a science fiction writer is that the majority of novels written in the genre and dealing with such subjects tend to deal with humans trying to prove they’re special or acting as if we are.  All that, of course, raises the question of whether, if there are aliens out there, they’d even want to deal with us at present.