Archive for March, 2011

Enough is Enough!

 There are times when I’d like to torture every geek product developer who has a great idea for “enhancing” an existing product, particularly if the enhancement consists of cramming more features into an existing product to the point where any errant keystroke or movement results in some form of disaster.

Over the past year, I’d been vaguely amused when my wife complained that documents that she’d typed on her office system vanished, leaving her with a blank page.  Surely, she had been exaggerating.  Still… there was a nagging feeling there… because she doesn’t invent things like that.

Last week, I was trying to write a story on my laptop, which features the latest [at least it was the latest when I bought the laptop some five months ago] version of Word.  I was happily typing along, occasionally swearing under my breath when somehow I brushed some key when I was typing an “h” or some such and found myself with a “search and replace” screen.  That was merely annoying, but I really got angry when… suddenly… I discovered that the entire story had vanished and I had somehow “saved” a blank page with exactly the same file name, effectively erasing many hours work.  After several minutes, I did find a previous “autosaved” version, minus the several hundred words I’d written in the past half hour.  I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what combination of keystroke shortcuts had created that disaster, but couldn’t.  So I went back to work on the story. But… the same replacement/erasure problem occurred twice more… and twice more I lost work and time.  I also suffered an extreme rise in blood pressure and a reinforcement of my existing prejudice against product developers who have adopted the “churn and burn” tactics of sleazy stockbrokers and investment bankers by coming out with newer and newer versions of basic software that only gets more expensive and more costly with few real improvements.

As I’ve noted in previous blogs, enhancements aren’t “enhancements” when they create more problems than they solve.  I shouldn’t have to be an absolutely perfect touch typist in order to avoid having such “handy enhancements” distracting me and destroying my work.  This sort of thing is exactly what happens when the perceived “need” for more “features” overwhelms functionality.  It’s also why I do my writing on older and more functional word processing platforms – when I can.

I’m certain some geek expert can probably explain why such features are good or even how I can disable them.  BUT… I shouldn’t have to disable features that can create such havoc.  Nor should I have to dig through autosaved files to reclaim something that vanished because an idiot developer wanted to add another enhancement to an already over-enhanced product.

Enough is enough… but that’s another old maxim that seems to have been forgotten or ignored in the social/cultural rush for “more” and “more.”

Characters – With and Without Talents

The other day I received an inquiry from a reader who wanted to know why all of the protagonists of my series had “special” talents.  The immediate answer that came to mind was a question: Aren’t all protagonists special in some way or another?  Then… I got to thinking about that question… and came to a different realization… which I’ll get to in a moment.

But… first, and no, this won’t be a bad commercial, there’s a related development occurring across the Atlantic where Stephen Hunt, the author of The Court of the Air and other books, is taking on the venerable BBC for slighting fantasy and science fiction, because the BBC refused even to mention it in a special on genre fiction – after already suggesting by example that it wasn’t literary fiction, either. 

What does this have to do with characters with special talents?  Everything.  The question my reader raised underlies a basic difference, in general terms, between what is called “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction. Certainly in every “genre” I’ve read, the protagonists, and usually the villains, have some skill or skills superior to the average person.  Holmes, as an obvious example, has superior deductive skills, and in virtually every mystery novel, the mystery gets solved.  In the vast majority of thrillers, the good guys triumph, usually through superior skills. 

In most fantasy, the protagonists also have superior skills or talents, whether it’s the ability with magic, weapons, tactics, foresight, etc.  In my own writing, I don’t make a distinction between magical talents and other skills, nor do any of my protagonists have skills that others in their worlds do not have.  I will grant that some of my protagonists have honed their skills to a greater degree than most others, but that’s true of every skill in every world.  There’s always someone who’s better than the others, and whoever that someone may be, that person is usually the one who’s worked the hardest at it. Of course, in everyday life, the best don’t always win, for various reasons, but, as writer, I prefer not to write, generally, about the skilled “good guys” who are overcome by the greater number of idiots [although I have].

Several years ago, there was a heated discussion about whether Michael Crichton wrote science fiction, and one writer [I don’t remember who] made the observation that Crichton didn’t, because in SF science can be used for good or evil, and Crichton only posits its use in his books as evil or destructive.  And that is predominantly the case in a high percentage of so-called literary or “mainstream” [which is anything but, if sales numbers are considered] fiction.  In fact, so-called literary fiction has a high percentage of novels about people who are not skilled and who fail in some ways, if not spectacularly in many ways. 

While F&SF does have novels like that, and I’m certain a number of them are good, the majority of F&SF still offers characters with special skills or talents and at least a crumb or two of hope.  As an author, I certainly fall into that category, since I’d rather offer my characters – and readers – the hope of success through hard work, trials, and skill.  More to the point of the question my reader raised, so do most F&SF writers, and from what I’ve read in other genres, so do the majority of “genre” fiction authors.  There’s no question that this aspect of genre fiction could be called “unrealistic,” at least by the numbers, because in real life there are far more “failures” than successes, but what the “literary realists” seem to overlook is that often those numerous small failures are the basis for longer-term great success.  Even if they aren’t, exactly what is the point of focusing on and dissecting failure time and time again?  People generally don’t learn from other people’s failures, and most people, again given the sales figures, prefer more optimistic entertainment.

The more optimistic outlook might be one of the biggest differences between “mainstream/literary” fiction and genre fiction… and why genre fiction outsells so-called literary fiction by a considerable amount… except for the literary fiction that wins prizes, but most of those sales come because of the prize and not because of the fiction.

Hard Candy

The other day, for various reasons, I was sent on an errand to find some hard candy – something like sour balls.  So… I went to the WalMart.  Not a single form of hard candy except cinnamon disks, Life-Savers, and lemon drops.  I tried the grocery stores, as well as the convenience stores.  No better luck there.  I did find a range of old-fashioned hard candies – if not sour balls – in the local ranch supply store.

But this search got me to thinking.  When I was younger you could find a range of hard sugar candies in every grocery store… and not just Life-Savers and lemon drops.  Now… it’s as though every form of hard candy except lemon drops is an endangered species of confectionery. WalMart and the supermarkets have an entire double aisle of candies, ranging from a vast array of chocolate in some form or another to an even greater array of “soft” candies, such as “gummi” candies, chewy worms and animals of all sorts, gourmet jelly beans… I couldn’t even begin to describe all the varieties.  What they all have in common is that they’re soft, sweet, if also sometimes sour or hot, and easily chewed and swallowed in large numbers. 

After considering this considerable amplitude of soft confectioneries, I realized that, at least in some ways, the growing emphasis on softness and ease of consumption reflects to a large degree changes in the American life-style… as well as provides a supplementary reason for the increasing percentage of overweight and obese Americans.

Candies aren’t the only area where this has occurred.  When I was a boy, a Coke was a treat, and the small glass bottle was considered more than large enough. Although recently, some soft drink companies are offering small cans and bottles, the majority of soft drinks, both regular and diet, come in at least 12 ounce cans, if not 16 ounce bottles and larger.  The same is true of beer

As for candy, though, consider this.  It takes more time and effort to suck – or crunch – a hard sugar candy.  Sour balls and other hard sugar candies were designed to last. Hard candies are, I fear, a remnant of a time when sweets were not so common, and, for many in economic times that were harder than now [no matter what the media analysts say], they were a small luxury to be savored, not to be gulped down one right after the other in rapid succession.

And like our candies, we’ve gone from being hard and tough to softer and squishier… and a lot larger.

The Magic Mouse

In the past, I’ve commented about the lack of appreciation and gratitude that permeates our society today, but there’s another factor behind that lack of appreciation that, frankly, I hadn’t considered.  What is it?  The magic mouse, of course… and I’m not talking about Disney creations.

The biggest unforeseen and unanticipated aspect of the computer and high-tech society is, I believe, the way in which it conceals the amount of work required to accomplish anything, not to mention the way in which it has shifted work. What exactly am I talking about?  Take a modern animated film, for example.  In the days before computer graphics, artists literally drew each cell, each slightly different from the previous cell, to show motion when filmed at the proper number of cells per minute.  The amount of physical work required was prodigious, even for a short film.  Today, a handful of people do the same amount of creation in a fraction of the time, and everyone takes it for granted, and dismisses it.  Except… there’s still a great deal of work being done, but much of it is behind the scenes, lying in the work in designing and building the computer hardware and software… and this is work that is seldom discussed, understood, or even appreciated. 

Once upon a time, I did economic analysis work, back before computers could crunch the numbers instantly and print out all the data, analyzed and presented under different scenarios.  Yet, more and more I find that too many “analysts” don’t even truly know what the numbers are or what they might portend… because they haven’t “worked” with those numbers.  They have no “feel” for the numbers, and because they don’t, they have no appreciation for those analysts who do… and have worked to understand what the numbers really mean.

Students, as I’ve noted more than once, more and more equate the ability to find information with the ability to understand what it means, and when asked what it means generally simply repeat what someone else, online, says what it means.  This has two negative impacts, first, the denigration of the effort needed to find and present information, because it’s available to them with a few clicks of the magic mouse, and, second, the reluctance/inability to think about that information in any deep way because of the myriad of interpretations already available.  Instead of thinking, they resort to magic mouse multiple choice among the options available on the internet.

Instead of appreciation for all these technological miracles, more and more there’s a range of feeling from acceptance to dissatisfaction, and, more important, it bleeds over into everything else.  There used to be employers who appreciated good work;  now employees are viewed more like computer aps and software – disposable and replaceable with the latest version.  Students and parents used to appreciate teachers; and teachers got notes of appreciation from students and parents.  Now all the teachers get is complaints. 

While there are many factors behind this change, the one that I don’t see being addressed is that of the “magic mouse,”  the idea that anything just takes a click of a mouse or a finger across a smart-phone to get the job done.  When everything is perceived as easy or almost effortless, there’s little reason to appreciate anything – and all too many Americans don’t.

Groups, Good Ol’ Boys, and Gangs

Some time back, I came across an article buried in one of the journals I take.  I don’t even remember the title, but it was an analysis of why women haven’t made the strides that many expected in U.S. business, especially since we’re now entering the third generation since it’s been at least technically possible for a large number of women to be considered for corporate executive positions. The author(s) discovered that, in general, women were superior to their male counterparts in every aspect of business – except one, and that one “lack” made all the difference.  What was that “lack?”  The inability to build and maintain wide-spread and growing networks and alliances.  Further, the authors also noted that this lack was prevalent even when there were enough women in an organization to do exactly that.

In a way, considering the history of the species, none of this should come as a shock.  How else could a bunch of semi-intelligent monkeys end up as the top species in a world that featured, on an individual basis, species that were tougher, stronger, faster, and more deadly?

In more recent history, say the last 6,000 years or so, more than a few examples tend to support the “male groupie” theory.  With the possible exception of Christian Science, virtually every religion that has transcended “local cult” status has been launched and networked into prominence by men.  The vast majority, if not all cultures, feature interlocked male networks, beginning in early adolescence. And failure to go along with the group, especially those groups that function as gangs, can be anything from painful to deadly, as human history has demonstrated.  What seems to get overlooked about these group dynamics, however, is that they remain predominantly if not overwhelmingly male, and that personal and physical power rather than overall ability determines the group dynamics, whether it’s a local gang or an investment bank.  Study after study has shown that tall men get more respect and more money than shorter men who are more able, and even short men get more money than more able women.  The tall guys are also generally able to build and control wider networks.

As far as business goes, there are other trends.  One is setting up structures and office politics where, somehow, especially when there are few women, they almost invariably end up being positioned [by men] in a way that they’re competing against each other, or against the only man who’s on the outs. After more than thirty years in government, business, and academia, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this scenario.

Here in Utah, we’ve just witnessed another graphic example of what happens, even when you’re male, and you go against the group, or the good ol’ boys.  Late in 2008, the Bush Administration directed the Bureau of Land Management to make 149,000 acres in Utah available for oil and gas leasing, with an auction set on December 18th, despite wide-spread environmental protests that the land was environmentally protected.  A 29 year old student, Tim DeChistopher, unable to even witness the auction unless he registered as a bidder, did in fact register as a bidder.  As a protest, he bid for parcels of land for which he could not pay, effectively keeping the lands from being auctioned off.  He was charged with fraud and disrupting the auction.  Subsequently, federal judges declared that the Bush Administration’s actions were illegal, and the Secretary of Interior withdrew the land from consideration on environmental grounds.  Even so, for two years, the federal prosecutors pursued the case, and last week the student was convicted of two felony counts for disrupting an auction declared illegal by the courts two years earlier.  Interestingly, enough, since the courts made the auction moot, in effect, Tim DeChristopher defrauded no one.  But he didn’t go along with the good ol’ boys, and he made them look bad.  That means he may go to jail, and he won’t be accompanied by any of the Bush Administration officials who also effectively violated federal law.

My favorite case along these lines was the conviction of Martha Stewart for inside trading.  She went to jail for using inside information in trying to make some extra cash on stock trades of her own stock of her own company paid for with her own money.  Should she have been convicted?  Absolutely – but why should she have gone to prison, when her offense involved mere thousands of dollars and when virtually no men convicted of the same type of offense, often involving far larger dollar sums, got much more than fines, probation, or slaps on the wrist?  And recently, more to the point, not a single man involved in all the offenses that caused the financial melt-down of the economy has been even charged, let alone convicted, or sent to prison.  Have any of the thousands who created fraudulent securities, based on fraudulent mortgages, with fraudulent ratings seen the inside of a courtroom?  No… the good ol’ boys of finance, with their interlocking networks, have sold the world a bill of goods that the financial crash was somehow an act of God [also male, in most theologies].

So Tim DeChristopher and Martha Stewart get convicted, and the executives of Goldman-Sachs get billions in bonuses.

In the end, little has changed in the last thirty years.  Despite the fact that women, according to the study, do everything better than men – except gang-mentality bullying of a slightly more refined nature, charitably called networking – they still only represent three percent of the chief executives of the thousand largest companies in the U.S., despite the fact women-run companies tend to perform better.

As for that study… I haven’t seen a single follow-up, or another mention of it or other studies along that line.  I can’t imagine why.

Desirability Versus Affordability

Over the past month, particularly in Wisconsin and a few other states, and on the federal level, there’s been a surfeit of political rhetoric about the need for fiscal responsibility, affordable public services, and the need to cut back on unnecessary government/public spending.  On the surface, and indeed on the balance sheets of many states and the federal government, this looks to be an accurate picture of the fiscal status of the United States, or at least of the governmental entities of the United States.

But just how accurate is that “picture,” especially if examined in a larger context?  And how did the states get into that predicament?

I can’t speak to all the states, but here in Utah, when times were flush, the state legislature cut tax rates, reducing revenue by more than 10 percent as well as cutting sales taxes rates on food.  Of course, once the economy turned sour, so did tax receipts, but it’s rather duplicitous to blame government for “wasteful” spending, especially when Utah has the lowest per capita spending on education of any state in the union.

Similar patterns seemed to have occurred in other states as well, and yet no one seems to be talking about returning tax rates to previous levels.

According to BLS statistics, the average American household spends about as much on entertainment, tobacco and alcohol as it spends on education [through its share of state and local taxes].  And if you add in fast food, the average household spends 60% more on  entertainment, tobacco, alcohol, and fast food than it does on public education [through state and local taxes].

In general, more than 90% of public primary and secondary education costs are paid through state and local taxes, including sales taxes.  And, on average, these taxes run 8-9% of family income. While much has been made of the fact that 47% of all U.S. households owe no federal income taxes, I’d be among the first to admit that figure is misleading.  The problem is that it’s so misleading that it clouds the issues.  In fact, less than 10% of all households pay no federal taxes, and the average federal tax rate for the “47 percent” runs about 14 percent, taking into account federal payroll taxes, federal gas and excise taxes, and other indirect federal taxes.

The problem here is that the same math applies to those in higher tax brackets as well, so that someone in the 30% federal tax bracket may well be paying 50% in taxes, after one factors in state, local, and sales taxes.  In practice, this tends to suggest that additional funds can’t be obtained easily from trying to hike taxes significantly from supposedly more affluent families who are “undertaxed.”

Yet…less than a one percent increase in state income tax receipts would resolve the budget problems of all but a handful of states [such as California, Arizona, and Nevada], and the monthly increase in state taxes would range from $20- $60 a month for most families, which, by the way, is about 10% of the average family’s monthly fast food bill.

So… is the question really about “affordability”… or is it about politics, and the fact that both politicians and Americans value fast food, entertainment, and other items they view as necessities more than they do education?

Once More… Getting It Right… Sort Of…

Once upon a time, there was an author who wrote a near-future science fiction thriller about a former military officer who had pioneered a technique for evaluating product placement in entertainment.  In case, you haven’t guessed, I was that author, and the book was Flash, which was published in September 2004.  Well… last week, Entertainment Weekly [on] published a story on the Brandcameo Product Placement Award Winners for 2010.  Yes, there’s actually a series of awards about the effectiveness of product placement in movies.

At the time I wrote Flash, product placement was just taking off, and I thought that, once various devices that let viewers flash past commercials on television become more common, product placement would be the advertising of the future… and it still is, because people are still watching television commercials, and, in fact, commercials are becoming a form of entertainment, at least for some viewers.  Where product placement has really taken off is in the movies.

The movie Iron Man 2 won the award for the most commercial placements, with 64 different placements, while Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps won the dubious award for the worse product placement.  And Apple won an award for the most appearances in hit films, with Apple products showing up in ten (or 30%) of the 33 films that were number one U.S. box office films in 2010, outstripping any other single brand for the year.  Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.

Obviously, I wasn’t as far ahead of events as I thought I was.  In fact, I was behind the times in some ways, because when I checked into the product placement awards, I discovered that they’ve been awarding them since 2001, three years before Flash was published, and two before I even wrote it – and I’d never even heard of the awards until this year.

On the other hand, I’m still ahead of the times in terms of what I postulated, because product placements haven’t yet replaced commercials on television and… so far, unlike my hero Jonat deVrai, no one has yet figured out the effectiveness of a given product placement.

Still… I’ll take being partly right any day, especially in regard to television and its commercialism.


The Glorification of…?

Over the past few weeks, there have been two news stories whose juxtaposition has fascinated me, and I suspect they’re not the ones most readers would think of – the Wisconsin teachers’ protests [along with associated demonstrations across the country] and the hoopla surrounding the movie The Social Network, which claimed four Oscars at the recent Academy Awards ceremony.

What is so intriguing, horrifying to me, in fact, about this juxtaposition is the values behind each and the way they’re playing out in the press and politics.  The Social Network is “only” a movie, but it portrays how an egocentric and brilliant young man, with few ethics and less scruples forged a multi-billion dollar corporation by pandering to the need of Americans to essentially be recognized at any cost and by creating the social media structure that so many Americans, especially young Americans, seem unable to function without.  In practice, it’s about the glorification of self and the exaltation of emptiness within those who seem unable to function without continual affirmation by others.  What’s also disturbing about the film is the support it has received from the “younger” generation, who seem oblivious to the issues behind both Facebook and its creator.

The Wisconsin teachers’ protest is about a Republican governor who wants to remove rights and benefits from public school teachers because the state and the body politic cannot “afford” to continue to fund those benefits.  This is happening at a time when almost every public figure is talking about, or giving lip service to, the idea that the future of the United States depends on education. And yet, across the nation, as I’ve noted more than a few times, teachers get little recognition for what so many do right, and whenever budgets are tight, education gets cut.

So… on the one hand, our great media structure is suggesting even more rewards for the monument to self-promotion and inner emptiness represented by Facebook and other social networks and on the other a branch of our political structure is punishing those individuals who are supposed to be the ones on whom our future depends.

To me, this appears to be paradoxical and sends the message that Facebook is great, despite the fact that its social benefits are dubious and those who created it are even more so, and have made billions off such pandering, while a self-serving governor in Wisconsin and politicians, generally but not exclusively Republicans, across the nation are making political capital by castigating teachers for benefits and salaries they negotiated in legal and proper ways over generations… and firing thousands of them along the way.  Are all teachers and public employees perfect?  Heavens no!  But to glorify those who made money by capitalizing on vanity and by setting ethics aside while penalizing those who earn far, far less under far more onerous conditions certainly sends a message as to what we as a nation really think is important.

And yet, I haven’t seen anyone else point out this juxtaposition.  I wonder why not.

Reversion Under Stress

The other day, my wife, the opera singer and professor of voice was lamenting an all too common student problem – the fact that when singers, particularly young or inexperienced singers, get stressed, they tend to revert to their old bad habits and ways of singing. Most every voice teacher has to deal with this problem at one time or another, but I realized, perhaps far later than I should have, that it’s not just a problem for singers.  It’s a problem for societies and civilization.

It’s no accident that most social and legal progress tends to happen in times of prosperity, and that in times of economic and cultural stress, societies and individuals tend to regress.  For example, in World War II, the land of the free, the good old USA, got so fearful that the vast majority of individuals of Japanese descent on the west coast of the United States were packed off to relocation camps, their lands and property seized, much of it never restored.  Fear and stress made a hash out of the Bill of Rights and due process.  Under the fear of communism, Joe McCarthy ruined the lives of thousands of law-abiding Americans who made the mistake of believing in free speech during the early cold war.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most Jews believed Germany was one of the most progressive countries and one that granted them the most freedom, but thirty years later, in the depths of the greatest depression, stress and fear gave rise to the Third Reich, and we all know where that led.

Under stress, most people revert to old habits we thought we’d left behind, and those habits usually aren’t the best, because the habits we’ve worked to leave behind are the ones we’re usually not too proud of… or the ones that have worked against us in school or in whatever occupation we’re involved in.  Unhappily, that also seems to be the case in societies as well.  Under stress, dictators and rulers who’ve been showing a softer side, revert to weapons and violence.  Under stress, Americans who’ve been talking about the need for better education collectively decide to cut billions from education, but not from farm and industry subsidies.  Under stress, political and religious discussions get uglier and less compromising and understanding.  Under stress…

I hope you get the idea.

The problem with all this is that the old bad habits of societies and individuals are even less productive and useful in poor political and economic times… and yet, time after time, generation after generation, this pattern repeats itself.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that my wife has trouble with students in this.  They can hear that they sing better with their new techniques.  They know it, and they can hear it… but when they get stressed, most of them subconsciously retreat to the “comfort” of their old poorer technique, and then they don’t do as well in recitals and competitions.  It’s only the very best who can surmount their fears and stresses.

So… which will we be?  The ones who surmount fear and stress and progress… or those who collapse under it and revert?