Archive for April, 2011

“Birther” Nonsense and Distractions

Let me say from the onset that I am not the biggest fan or supporter of Barack Obama, and I certainly think he’s made more than his share of mistakes, both in leadership and in the tactics he’s used or failed to use in attempting to set and carry out his policies.  That said, I am absolutely and totally appalled by the continuing furor over whether he is a U.S. citizen and the fact that he felt compelled to use his own discretionary funds to send an attorney to Hawaii to obtain an official birth certificate from the state government there. 

Copies of his birth certification have been available online for years.  There are newspaper stories in the original Honolulu papers from fifty years ago announcing his birth in Hawaii.  Come on… those couldn’t have been planted fifty years ago.  Who back then even knew that the son of an 18 year old Kansas girl and a black Kenyan graduate student would be president of the United States? 

Now, I realize that such rational arguments will not suffice against the blind fanaticism of the most rabid “birther” types, because nothing penetrates fanaticism, whether that fanaticism is of the far right or the far left, or of Islamic fundamentalists or of hard-core IRA members or of the extreme Northern Ireland protestants.

But why do the rest of us buy into this “debate”?  Why do the supposedly “reputable” members of the press keep fanning the issue to keep it alive?  Why do theoretically intelligent politicians and candidates harp on it?  Because there’s nothing too low and base they won’t do to garner votes from the most ignorant and prejudiced of Americans?  And why is it even being discussed when the United States is involved in two or more wars, when the financial and economic future of the United States is on the line, and when the Congress will have to decide the future of what our government will be like in what it funds and what it does not, and who gets taxed how much and who doesn’t? 

Is it because no one wants to face the hard issues, including the issue of global warming, which was certainly a factor in the formation of the terrible tornadoes that just devastated Alabama?  Is it because all too many Americans don’t understand much of anything beyond their daily focus… or that they just don’t care? Because the press is incompetent in conveying what is at stake?  Or because most Americans don’t want to know that they can’t keep having all the programs that now exist without raising taxes and that they and their elected representatives must choose between fewer and less comprehensive programs and comparatively lower taxation [but likely some more taxes] and continuing all current programs with much  higher taxes, particularly on the middle class [since, as I’ve pointed out time and time again, taxing just the richest of the rich won’t raise the necessary revenue]?

Both the Republicans and the Democrats are effectively avoiding dealing with these issues and threatening, implicitly, if not explicitly, to shut down government and to destroy the credit-worthiness of the United States rather than back down – and the lead item in the news is that the president has been forced by media and popular pressure to provide – once again – an “official” copy of his birth certificate?  And now some of Obama’s black supporters are outraged that he did provide the certificate, while our “bread and circus” media hypes the whole situation.

If we aren’t the laughing stock of the world over this “birther” nonsense… we deserve to be.

Entertainment… How Much Depth?

Last week I read a review of the new Robert Redford movie, The Conspirator, and ran across the following: “It should be tense and thrilling, full of rich, powerful performances; instead it will make you feel like you should be taking notes in preparation for a high school exam.  And like the last film Redford directed, the terrorism drama Lions for Lambs, it’s painfully preachy and sanctimonious.”

Since I haven’t yet seen the film, I can’t comment on the first part of the above excerpt, but the second part suggests I might like the film, possibly because I thought Lions for Lambs was a good film.  I understand why many people didn’t like it, because it hits perilously close to all too many American illusions and self-deceptions, and given Redford’s choice of topic in The Conspirator [the trial of the boarding house owner who was suspected of helping Lincoln’s assassin], I suspect his latest movie is likely to do the same, if in a historical context.

The review, however, raises a legitimate question about all forms of “entertainment,” a question I’ll put in a satiric form, given my views of most of the most popular entertainment available today.  Does entertainment have to be largely, if not totally, devoid of meaningful content, depth, and questioning to be entertaining to the majority of today’s audiences and readers? 

Obviously, this question and the answer affect me personally and professionally, but they affect all writers, directors, and producers as well.  For years I’ve been criticized, as have Redford and a few others, by some readers for being “preachy,” and it’s no secret that books and movies that raise the kinds of questions we offer seldom, if ever, reach the top of the sales charts.  That’s understandable, and by itself, not a problem.  We all know the risks involved in attempting to make something deeper and more intellectually provocative. But what I’ve also noted is that more and more reviews are defining good entertainment in terms of, if you will, total detachment from depth or reality, and the movie producers are obliging them, such as with new releases that feature almost exclusively car chases, crashes, mayhem, sex, and violence.

Details of actual history, as are likely to be brought up in The Conspirator, can’t possibly compete in terms of instant visual appeal, but do all movies have to have the same kind of appeal, and do movies that don’t have such appeal have to be denigrated because they don’t?

One of the things [among many] that bothers me about the kind of reviews such as the one I’ve quoted above is the implication that anything with detail can’t be entertaining or engrossing, and that anything serious has to be “thrilling” to compensate for the seriousness, as if a quietly taut drama can’t be entertaining.  One of the most “sinister” movies I’ve ever seen shows no violence and contains no direct threats and yet reveals total social control of a family and a society where everyone is perfectly behaved.  It’s called The Age of Innocence.  Of course, just how sinister it appears to viewers depends entirely on their understanding of history and how societies work.

If you want dark and sinister, truly dark and sinister, review the backroom deals leading to the last financial meltdown – no car chases, no shootings, no bombs, no speeches, and no rabble-rousing.  Just men at desks pursuing profit and destroying millions of jobs, thousands of businesses, and creating uncounted suicides and broken homes.  But those details aren’t entertaining… and showing them in a movie would be far too preachy, and definitely not entertaining, or even exciting.

Give us zombies, the living dead, vampires, or car chases any day.  We just want pretend thrilling, not the truly sinister… and that’s fine, but enough of running down movies and books that deal with aspects of reality.  If reviewers don’t like them, they should just say that they’ll bore most people because they’ll make them think too much… that’s if they’ve got the nerve to say so.

Feminist Propaganda?

As a result of a blog earlier this month and the paperback publication of Arms-Commander, I’ve received inquiries about and statements declaring that I’m a man-hater and pushing “feminist propaganda.”  Now, I’d be the first to admit that I’m fond of women. More than fond, in fact, but then, after having been married three times, if far more years to the lady whose companionship I now enjoy and appreciate than either of the other two, and having six daughters as well as two sons, it would be strange if I didn’t have a great interest in and appreciation of women.

That appreciation, however, has little to do with the facts of the situation on this planet and in the United States.  As I noted earlier, even in the relatively more “advantaged” United States, on average, working women make about 25% less than working men do.  The differential between men and women doing the same jobs ranges from almost nothing to as much as 40% at the higher corporate executive levels, but women’s pay remains, on average, significantly below that of men in the same or similar positions, as documented rather clearly in the current lawsuit against WalMart currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although a recent article in the Wall Street Journal declared that working single men and women between ages 22 and 30 earned roughly the same amount, that purported equality doesn’t address the fact that there’s still a huge discrepancy between genders among married men and women and among older age groups. Despite the fact that women have had the ability to vote and run for public office in the United States for roughly a century, less than twenty percent of members of Congress are women. 

The situation was far worse in the past, and still is in many other nations across the world.  People tend to forget that less than two centuries ago, in the good old USA, married women could own no property, and all a woman’s clothes and her jewelry, even if provided by her family or earned or made by her, belonged to her husband.

Yet… when I write a book, such as The Soprano Sorceress or Arms-Commander, which depicts a woman in a fantasy world fighting against situations such as this, it’s called by some feminist propaganda or ultra-feminist. 

Come again?  I’ve depicted conditions similar to those which have existed for the majority of the time that human culture has existed on Earth… and I’ve had the nerve to suggest that, first, such conditions aren’t exactly fair to women, and, second, that a talented woman might just do better than a bunch of chauvinistic men. It’s not exactly my imagination that the three British rulers with the longest time on the throne were all women – Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II – and two of those three lived and ruled in a time when ruling wasn’t just ceremonial, and the times that they ruled were among those when Britain’s power was at a zenith.

It’s considered “realistic” when a novelist depicts sword-play and blood and gore in visceral detail, but unrealistic or propagandistic when he or she depicts sexual politics and traditional and historic gender roles in equally accurate detail?  But then, those who complain may really be suggesting that I’m pushing propaganda by suggesting that a woman can and would do better. 

As women take their places in more and more critical and important occupations, it’s becoming all too clear that very often they can do better than many of their male predecessors and peers, as incidentally that Wall Street Journal points out, and perhaps the fact that I occasionally depict that [as well as occasionally depict some truly competent and villainous women] troubles those readers who seem to think that the past gender roles of men and women were as matters should be and that I should not even attempt to suggest otherwise, either in science fiction or fantasy.

That’s feminist propaganda?

Snap Judgment Versus Discernment

As described in the April 2nd issue of The Economist, human beings are highly influenced, in fact, excessively over-influenced by designer labels.  Researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands did extensive research on the impact of designer labels on people and discovered, among other things, that people’s perceptions of others varied widely depending in the label/logo of the clothes they wore – even when the clothes were absolutely identical except for that label/logo. 

This influence ranged far beyond merely “rating” people.  When soliciting for charity, for example, volunteer solicitors were again clad in clothing identical except for logos, and those wearing “labeled” clothing received almost twice as much as those wearing garments without logos.  In various transaction games, those participants who wore designer labeled clothing were trusted with more than a third more in funds than those wearing unlabeled clothing.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally asked people why they’ll pay so much more for a “designer” outfit, and, invariably the response has been that they want the quality.  Yet I can recall, years ago, when Ralph Lauren created several items where the logo was not easily visible to others or in at least one case, not visible at all.  Those items were produced for less than a year because sales were so poor, even though the quality was the same as that of other Lauren clothing.  One customer even complained to my son, who was working at a Lauren outlet during his college years, that he didn’t want to buy any Lauren clothing if the label didn’t happen to be visible.

While there are people who can tell the difference between various styles and makes of clothes at a glance, studies have shown that the vast majority cannot – which may explain where the label/logo comes in. In fact, they even have trouble in discerning bad fake logos and labels. In the animal kingdom, such displays as the peacock’s tail essentially can’t be faked.  The healthier and stronger the peacock, the larger, brighter, and shinier the tail. An unhealthy peacock just can’t present a splendid tail. And the pea hens and other peacocks can tell the difference.

Humans clearly don’t have that ability.  According to the researchers, while people can pick up on human bodily physical clues fairly readily, they’re far less discerning when it comes to judging artifacts and clothing – which are stand-ins for wealth and power in a more affluent and technological society.

Could it just be that, in that inimitable human fashion, once again, humans are looking for the shortcut to making a decision?  Or is it a calculated decision because we know, deep down, that most others can’t really tell the difference between a good shirt and a great one, between a good one without a logo and a poorer one with a logo? 

That might mean, again, that we’re all about making decisions on superficialities.  And that we don’t want to admit it, even to ourselves.  But then, is that really anything new?

In the Theocracy of Deseret

Over the past eighteen years, I’ve humorously noted that I live in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret… and over the past week or so events in Utah have reminded me of that even more. The first of those events was the pronouncement by the LDS Prophet and Revelator that young men, particularly returned missionaries, needed to immediately settle down and get married, rather than enjoying the life of a single male.  Now… considering that something like 98% of these young men are 20 or 21 years old with either no college education at all or a year or so at most, and considering that almost all men anywhere marry someone their own age or younger, this pronouncement struck me  as a commandment with the direct impact of keeping women effectively barefoot and pregnant, since I’ve observed that, in the vast majority of young married couples in Utah, the woman forgoes or postpones education in order to support and educate her husband.

The Prophet also stated that men should treat their wives as equals, but no one seems to have remarked on the incredible condescension buried in this statement, because it carries the implication that women are not equal, but should be treated as such.

Interestingly enough, several other recent events and reports reinforce and illustrate this problem.  First, the Utah State Department of Education just sent a letter to a number of high schools declaring that a slide show that the state had developed on birth control methods “must not be used.”  Even more interesting was the fact that the slide show, in accord with Utah law, did not advocate using any form of birth control, but only factually presented various methods and emphasized that abstinence was the only 100% effective form of birth control and that condoms were not fully protective against many forms of sexually transmitted diseases.  That wasn’t enough for lawmakers and various activists, who successfully pressured the State Department of Education into withdrawing the presentation.

Third, in the wake of Equal Pay Day, figures from the Utah Department of Workforce Services revealed that Utah has: (1) one of the worst wage gaps between men and women’s wages; (2) the greatest gap between the wages of college-educated men and women of any state; and (3) is the only state in the union where the percentage of women graduating from college has declined compared to all other states.  Nationally, women earn 77% of what men earn; in Utah, the figure is 68%.   Nationally, men with bachelor’s degrees earn 1.3% more than women do.  In Utah, men with undergraduate degrees earn 6% more than do women with the same degrees; the state with the next worst discrepancy is Idaho, where men with a bachelor’s degree earn 2.7% more than do women with the same degree.  In 1980, Utah women graduated from college at a higher rate than women in all other states.  Although the graduation rate has increased somewhat, the increase has been so small that women in other states now graduate at a higher rate.

Another interesting fact is that Utah, for all of its cultural emphasis on marriage for life and eternity, actually has a divorce rate higher than the national average, and two-thirds of all Utah women with children work.  So… it’s not exactly as though all that support of husbands actually relieves Utah women of any financial burden or requirement to work.

And the Utah reaction to this?  Well… Senator Orrin Hatch opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, designed to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, because civil penalties on employers who discriminated in paying women less were too high.  Also, the vast majority of the Utah legislature, as I noted in a previous blog, attempted to gut the Utah open records law and to remove references to the names and genders of state employees – which would have effectively made disclosure of pay discrepancies by gender impossible.

Now… if I have this all straight… young Utah men are supposed to get married before they finish their education, requiring their wives to support them and delay and forgo their education, and schools are not supposed to offer factual information to those young women about birth control, and… by the way, Utah has the highest birth rate in the nation and the greatest wage discrepancies between college-educated men and women… and the majority of Utah law-makers oppose both dissemination of birth control information and measures that would reduce pay discrimination against women.

Reporting straight from the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret…

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

The other day I read a technical article about music, a subject in which I have great interest, but less talent, except for appreciating it. According to the article in the May 2011 issue of Discover, a scientist investigating the structure of music used the technique of lossless compression [“which exploits repetition and redundancies in music to encode audio data in fewer bits without losing content”] to analyze the structure of musical compositions.  He discovered, amazingly, that pop music was far more complex than classical music.

Although no one has yet pointed it out, so far as I can tell, he was wrong.

His rationale was that when he used the lossless compression technique, popular compositions only shrank to sixty to seventy percent of their original volume, while compositions by Beethoven shrank to forty percent of their original volume.  From this, he deduced that, underneath the apparent complexity, classical music must be composed of simpler patterns,


All music is composed of, or built up from, simpler patterns, including pop music and rap.

What he apparently isn’t considering is that classical music pieces are far, far longer than pop pieces, and incorporate a complex structure that contains repetitions of motifs, restatement and re-orchestrations, etc., all of which can be encoded in such a way as to compress the music to a greater percentage than can be done with a simpler and shorter work of music.

By way of analogy, take the statement, “Mary had a little lamb.”  There’s no way to reduce that statement more without losing clarity or meaning.  You might be able to remove the “a,” and get a reduction to 94%.  Then take something like, “Sheep (Ovis aries) are quadrupedal, ruminant mammals typically kept as livestock. Like all ruminants, sheep are members of the order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates. Although the name “sheep” applies to many species in the genus Ovis, in everyday usage it almost always refers to Ovis aries. Numbering a little over one billion, domestic sheep are also the most numerous species of sheep.”  The second passage can indeed be reduced in volume without losing meaning, possibly by twenty to thirty percent, but because it can be reduced in size more than the first statement does not mean it is simpler.

The scientist is question appears to be drawing the wrong conclusion from correct data, or using accurate but incomplete data.  This is, of course, an age-old human failing, which includes the Ptolemaic astronomers who created elaborate models of the solar system with the earth at the center.  When I was an economic market research analyst I saw this happen more than a few times, where senior executives would look at the data, which was as accurate as we could make it, and then draw unsupportable conclusions, like the senior executive who used reliability findings to support developing a technically superior compoment that no one would buy because the customers didn’t need a component that was reliable for 30 years when the product to which it was attached had a useful life of five years.

In the first case, that of the compression of music, long classical pieces can be compressed more than shorter popular pieces.  That’s a fact, but it’s not because the popular pieces are more unique, but because they’re shorter and simpler, another bit of data not considered by the scientist in question… and a reason why some scientists end up in trouble, because they don’t think beyond the scope of the problem they’ve addressed.

And… most likely, the fettered simplicity of pop music is exactly why it’s popular… because listeners don’t have to work out all the patterns.

Why the Finance Types Oppose Openness, Among Other Things

They oppose openness in financial transactions, whether consciously or subconsciously, because such openness is the only way to stop financial cheating and the shenanigans that so drastically boosted their income… and still do. A recent article in New Scientist by Mark Buchanan [March 19, 2011] cites several studies on the matter, including one from the Quarterly Journal of Economics that makes the point that every possible regulatory “fix” can be gamed or evaded so long as the details of transactions are kept secret.  In short, the key factor that enabled investment banks to extort over a trillion dollars from the American people and the government and to pay and keep paying multi-million dollar bonuses to thousands of employees was not primarily inadequate regulation but secrecy.

In short, secrecy enables criminality. We all know this, I suspect, in our heart of hearts, because, except for psychopaths, we all behave far better when we’re under observation… or know that we could be.  It’s amazing how traffic slows to the speed limit when a highway patrol cruiser is sighted.

So why do we continue to insist on the details of our lives, particularly the financial details, being kept secret?  How long would discriminatory hiring and salary practices exist if everyone’s salary in a company happened to be public?  Is it any wonder that less wage discrimination tends to occur in the federal government, where salaries are pegged to known scales that are public?

And could all of those strange and discriminatory loans that fueled the last boom and bust have been made to the same extent and degree if the details would have had to have been made public?  I have my doubts.

Yet, for all this, I have no doubts that most people would cringe, if not do worse, if more openness were required by law – at least openness for them.  I recently mentioned the action of the Utah state legislature to effectively gut the Utah open records law, and I can now report, for those who have not followed this, that the public outcry was so great that the legislature repealed the very law they had passed the month before, a law which would have, in practical terms, exempted all electronic communications from the provisions of the open records law, among other things.  So it was very clear that the public believes that legislators should be publicly accountable.  Yet if such provisions were suggested for individuals, or for corporations, the howling would deafen everyone. 

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a wage-discrimination case filed against WalMart, as a class action suit on behalf of female employees.  The suit alleges that WalMart systematically paid women less than men in exactly the same jobs with the same duties.  In their questions at the hearing, a number of justices raised the question about how difficult implementing any decision would be, suggesting that even the Supreme Court doesn’t want to get involved in making such records public, let alone making a ruling that could indeed lead to more openness for all corporations.

So often we talk about not wanting everyone to know our business, our income, etc., but the problem with this is that while our neighbors and our friends may not know… the government already knows, as do most corporations.

Perhaps it’s time that we know the same about them.

Disasterism on the Rise?

Is it my imagination, or are there more and more movies and books, not to mention television series, dealing with what I’d call either disasterism or grandiose triumphalism?  What I mean by disasterism is obvious – great and awful cataclysms, either natural or man-made, that threaten nations or the entire world or what the world is like in the wake of such disasters. Grandiose triumphalism – those are the stories whereby the single hero or the small band of heroes saves the world or the nation from evil aliens, or “bad guys” or cosmic disasters.

If you go back thirty years or longer, such movies were far fewer in number, and they generally were relegated to Saturday serials or grade B or below low-budget films. Now… they’re everywhere.

One possibility is, of course, that the incredible improvement in special effects and computer generated graphics allows film to capture/create events that simply couldn’t be filmed before, and that the appeal of such epics was always there, but could never be exploited because the industry lacked the ability to portray them in any even semi-realistic fashion.

Another possibility is that the audience has changed.  Certainly, immediately after WWII many Americans, indeed many across the world, had just experienced the greatest single global conflict the world had ever seen… and it just could be that they really didn’t want to see another, even in futuristic cinema, whereas today a comparatively small percentage of movie-goers in the western world has ever personally experienced that sort of disaster, and a cinematic disaster doesn’t recall past personal experiences. 

A third possibility is that the growth of disaster books and movies and their popularity in the U.S. is occurring because we don’t want to face the disasters we’ve already created – the ones that will take years and years of discipline and drudgery – and rather than consider them, we escape into the vast and unreal disasters and challenges, in essence saying, “What we’re facing isn’t as bad as what’s in this movie.”

But… for whatever reason, doesn’t the growth of all the disaster flicks and one man/one group against the aliens/world/nature/galaxy seem just a little creepy?