Archive for August, 2011

Another Cost

For a society seemingly governed by the bottom line, we Americans have always had difficulty in recognizing and accurately assessing any cost that isn’t expressed in dollars. We’ll cost-compare the price of any good at each place where it’s available and generally travel extra distances to get the “best” deal, while ignoring the costs of time expended, the extra gasoline, or the impact on the environment… or the cost to the community as a whole.  That’s the principal reason why such retailers as WalMart, Costco, Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowes, and other big box retailers have come to dominate local economies… and why Amazon is squeezing out many bookstores.  [It’s far from the only reason why chain bookstores came to dominate the bookselling industry, and that’s something I’ll address in a later blog].

But there are other costs to a society dominated by the bottom line, and one of them is a growing societal inability to assess and appreciate quality in any way except as a trade-off between price and “quantity,” which includes the number of features and capabilities a good has, regardless of their applicability and usefulness.  The “more” something has, the better it is.  With this societal tendency has come a change in language usage as well, call it linguistic inflation [and that inflation has been pressed into service in aiding and abetting the excessive use of praise].

Whatever happened to the praise “good job,” which meant just what the words signified? These days, especially among the young, telling someone that their accomplishment was “merely” good is taken as faint praise indeed, if not as an actual insult.  For praise to be worth anything, the words used must go far beyond good.  The accomplishment must be great, wonderful, awesome, most excellent, or even greater superlatives must be employed in service of description.

The same is true of products or people… or anything being evaluated or described.  We’ve become the society of superlatives, where a simple adjective or adverb will not suffice… and in turn, all such superlatives have become largely worthless, because everything is being described in superlatives.  If you will, comparative terms have become so supersized that there’s no meaningful comparison possible.

It doesn’t end there, unfortunately, because these linguistic excesses bleed over into other aspects of society, such as the media and politics, where such terms as “death panels” and other exaggerations are routinely bandied about with little concern for accuracy, either in degree of scope or degree.  It used to be that inflation referred only to the currency and meant that the money was worth less and less because it took more and more of the currency to buy less and less in real goods. But now, it seems, not only is the currency inflated, but so are the linguistic terms on which we rely to convey worth and value, with the result that, with all the exaggeration and hyperbole, very few Americans really have any true measure of much of anything these days… but then, perhaps I’m deluding myself, and they never did.

Still… it would be nice if we could call a spade a spade, rather than either a superannuated digging implement.  





In Praise Of…

 Recently, I’ve been spending more time among college professors, that is, in addition to my wife, and their observations on students have confirmed certain trends among younger Americans, trends that I, perhaps curmudgeonly, find disturbing, including a certainly behavior that can only be described as addictive.

To what am I referring?  The almost insatiable desire for endless praise.  The craving by students to be told over and over how wonderful they are.  The desire to be praised, if only for effort, even when their achievements merit neither praise nor acknowledgement.

Now… we all desire praise.  I know I certainly do, but praise  based on inadequate accomplishment is like junk food  – without much spiritual nutrition –and that leaves those who receive such empty praise hungry for more.  Yet our educational system is so concerned with not hurting young people [and not upsetting their parents] and motivating them solely through “positive” means that the message that comes through is that everything that they do – or even try – is “wonderful.”  Subconsciously, I suspect, in many, many cases, these young people know that their acts and accomplishments are not that stupendous, but it’s hard to protest being praised.  Unfortunately, this societal behavior has several ramifications that are anything but good.

The first is a form of “praise inflation.”  Such evaluations as “a solid job,” “competently done,” or “good job” – or a grade of “C” or even “B,” are regarded as failure.  The second is that most young people fail to understand that in most of the world, solid accomplishment is not a cause for praise – it’s what is expected.  The third is that they become ever more hungry for praise, like addicts for their next fix.

They become “praise junkies.”

 And, as praise junkies, they resent accurate assessment of their performance and manifest anger, or at least resentment, at those who won’t provide their next fix.  Teachers and professors who attempt to provide accurate and constructive assessment are regarded either as teachers who “hate”“ them or as bad”  teachers who cannot teach or who are trying to keep them from becoming successful, when, in fact, in most cases, those teachers are trying to prepare them for the real world, or at least for the reality of occupational competition that exists outside of the growing empty praise culture of the United States.

The symptoms of this excessive praise culture are everywhere, from little leagues where everyone gets a trophy or a ribbon, in schools where effort is considered as equivalent to actual achievement and rewarded as such and where every student gets As and Bs, and even by legislation such as No Child Left Behind, which fails to recognize that the only way no child can be left behind is when there are no real standards of actual achievement… because there are always those who cannot and/or will not meet real standards of academic achievement, and it’s a societal delusion to think otherwise.

But… after all, if you praise children, that’s all it takes to get real achievement.




The Easy Button

There’s a well-known retailer whose advertising features “the easy button.”  Needless to say, I hate the ads.  Even more to the point, I hate the implication behind them, the suggestion that everything will be easy if only you go to the “right” retailer.  Yet this preconception appears everywhere in American culture, sometimes as overtly as in the “easy button” ads and sometimes only by implication – but it’s there.

If everything is so “easy,” why does the United States have the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression?  If it’s so easy, and there’s only one right and easy way that should be obvious to everyone, why are society and politics so polarized?  [Except… I forgot, my “easy” way is the right one; yours is wrong] If everything is easy, why does the U.S. government have huge annual deficits?  Why is the housing market first overbuilt and then in the dumps?  Why does the stock market go down as well as up?  Why do we still pay the Wall Streeters who caused much of the economic mess millions, and lay off teachers, FAA employees, police officers, and the like?

The fact is that, from the first human being who figured out something new, and even well before that, life has never been easy.  It’s definitely not as difficult today as it was for early humans or for those who lived in times of plagues, famines, and pestilence [except we still have those in places], but life has always presented challenges and difficulties… and always will.

What seems to go unrecognized is that as technology improves the quality of life for its beneficiaries, first, the gap between the beneficiaries and those who do not benefit or even benefit partially increases and, second, the consequences of system failures, bad judgments, greed, tunnel vision, and other human and technical failures become greater and greater.  Technology is essentially an even-handed amoral force multiplier.  It magnifies the capability to do good or evil.

In that sense, the people who believe in the easy button are correct.  It is indeed easier to do anything.  It’s far easier to be stupid and make a careless mistake that will hurt scores, if not millions of people.  Unfortunately, the laws of probability work against “good” easy mistakes, because most mistakes are not beneficial.  System designers know this, and that’s why, as a number of readers reminded me, the amount of computer code has multiplied drastically, largely to keep bad things from happening, both inadvertently and deliberately.

Technology also multiplies complexity, and sorting out the best solutions is anything but easy. Just look at the governmental policy chaos across the globe.  Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the politicians involved are anything but stupid.  They may be self-interested, selfish, beholden to special interests, ideologues, demagogues… and the like… but stupid?  Only a small percentage, and those individuals tend to weed themselves out [often it seems, recently, through the “easy” solution of texting inappropriately].

In the end, the bottom line remains the same.  While getting goods and gadgets has gotten much, much easier, the damage one can do with them and the complexity involved in determining how to use them has made acting wisely even more difficult… and anything but “easy.”



Update Mania/Idiocy

Last year, because of my travel schedule, I finally replaced the old laptop I hadn’t used as a laptop for almost a decade with a new one.  Since my travel and appearance schedule is irregular [to say the least], there are times I don’t use the laptop for days at a time, but for various reasons, I didn’t even open the laptop for the last three weeks of July.  When I did, I was faced with “urgent warnings,” necessary updates, and priority downloads.  Now, when I was using the laptop every few days, I didn’t quite grasp how much time was required to keep the device “updated.”  I knew I was always updating the tower computer in my office, but never paid much attention to exactly how long it took, because I could just work on the writing computer [which is not connected to the internet] while all the updating and installing took place.

This time I kept track.  The required updates for the laptop took almost four hours      when I first signed on, and another two hours after I signed off. Add to that another hour   after I signed back on after all the updating.   Seven hours required in a little more than half a month less than a month.  Oh… and the computer informed me that it has been required to make 16,060 update operations.

Now… so far as I can tell, with the exception of virus and security protection, which, interestingly enough, took almost no time at all, almost none of these updates measurably improve my computers’ operation and speed.  In fact, it’s likely that each one marginally degrades their performance, and each one marginally pushes the software toward greater and greater problems because every change affects the operating system in some way or another.  Yet, if I don’t upgrade, before long I can’t use other data, can’t open documents produced by “upgraded” systems, etc.  So I, and every other user, am effectively being blackmailed to continually upgrade.


As I’ve noted before, and more than once, a great majority of “upgrades” are nothing of the sort, but consist of either patches or fixes or represent the grafting of more and more features onto existing programs, making them harder and harder to use for all but the geeks who never found a new feature they didn’t love and adding more time to my workload to learn the impact of the changes.  This all reminds me of “the Red Queen’s race” in Alice through the Looking Glass, where the Red Queen announces to Alice that running as fast as she can is only sufficient to stay in the same place and that to get anywhere she must run even faster.

What ever happened to the idea of “getting it right” in the first place?  Is the tech marketplace so fixed on being first that it’s required to come out with a new product before it’s ready… and then dribble out the fixes until it’s time to issue another new product that’s not ready?

To paraphrase Billy Joel, “if this is moving up, then I want to move out” … except, like everyone else who relies on computers… I can’t.


Reading and ‘Rithmetic “Abilities”?

In some ways, the current definitions or interpretation of literacy in the United States, and, for all I know, elsewhere can be misleading.  Literacy is currently assessed by: first, whether an individual can look at a section of printed language and decode the symbols in order to recognize and identify the words; second, understand the mean of those words; and third, respond appropriately to the words, whether by describing what has been read or answering the question posed by those words.

Various measures of U.S. literacy range from 65% to 97% of the population being “literate.”   Effectively, the 97% figure refers to the basic ability to decode letters and form words, while the sixty-five percent figure comes from an assessment from the U.S. Department of Education which measures the ability to locate information in a text, make low-level inferences using printed materials, and to integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.  Other studies have shown that less than 40% of those recently granted post-graduate degrees possess the ability to accurately analyze moderately sophisticated essays written at the level of newspaper editorials, and for those with “mere” four year college degrees, the level of success is below 30%.

A similar range of figures appears to apply with regard to the mathematical and computational skills of Americans as well, although there have been far fewer studies of “innumeracy.”  Department of Education studies do indicate that American innumeracy rates show that about 40% of American adults have severe deficiencies in handling day to day computational skills, and for calculations more complex, the lack of ability is even higher.

All of this may help to explain at least some of the reasons for the current political debacle over the debt crisis… and why I periodically find myself asking why various readers and reviewers who claim to have read my books clearly seemed not to have understood even the basics of what was on the page.

Functional reading and numeracy require the ability not only to read the words and add or subtract the numbers, but to understand the implications of what the information conveyed by the words and numbers happens to mean.  Too many Americans don’t understand those meanings, with the result that, among other things, over half of all Americans pay no federal income taxes, yet feel that they are overtaxed, while those with incomes over a million dollars pay less in percentage terms than do the majority of middle class and upper middle class professionals – and also claim to be overtaxed – while the federal deficit is roughly 40% of the budget. Oh… and they don’t understand that the solutions proposed by neither the Tea Partiers nor the far left are workable.

All too many political pundits have decried the growing polarization of the U.S. electorate, and many have blamed the media, the politicians, but what about the fact that 70% of the population just doesn’t really understand?  They know what they want, but they don’t understand the numbers and the logic that show why what the body politic, i.e., the United States, demands from government can’t be funded by what people are willing and able to pay, and so one side insists that the solution is simply cutting spending, without considering the economic death spiral created by the abrupt cessation of federal programs, and the other side insists that taxes have to be raised, almost entirely on the people who are already paying all the taxes that support federal spending, without understanding the difference between wealth and income or the economic implications of what tax impacts what.

Most people talk about the future of federal spending being a choice between alternatives, and it is, but the real alternatives aren’t those presented by the left and the right, but between a rational discussion based on understanding and an irrational decision based on emotion supported by ignorance created by lack of understanding.


Justice Revisited

Last week in Utah, Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison and fined $10,000 for trying to defraud the government.  It was not, as I noted in an earlier blog, exactly the normal case of fraud. DeChristopher is an environmental activist who bid on federal oil and gas leases on federal property without having the funds to pay for those leases.  He made the bids because he felt that the BLM had illegally opened the lands for bidding.  A federal judge later ruled that the process was illegal and voided the leases awarded, but the federal government still decided to prosecute DeChristopher, and in March he was convicted.

The judge who issued the sentence indicated that DeChristopher might well have avoided jail time if he had not been so publicly outspoken, even though DeChristopher was always polite in his statements and did not incite anyone to violence or public protests, but merely tried to explain why he had acted as he did.  So the judge punished him for exercising his first amendment rights as well.

Now… if I understand all this, DeChristopher got no money or gain from his acts, and the government didn’t lose any, either, because a federal judge had already declared the lease sale void.  But, if DeChristopher loses his appeal, he’ll go to jail for two years for trying to stop something that the courts eclared illegal, if many months after DeChristopher’s illegal protest bid.

At the same time, roughly, not a single one of the Wall Street bankers and real estate securitization wizards has been charged with a single crime.  These were the “wizards” who created bundled securitized high risk mortgages and fraudulently sold them as prime low-risk securities… and created the largest financial meltdown in U.S. history.

Obviously, Tim DeChristopher broke the law, and some penalty should be exacted, but it ought to be more on the line of 30 days in jail or time served or the like, especially compared to the “justice” [or lack thereof] meted out on those upstanding investment bankers… who, by the way, are still using practices that have been declared less than perfectly legal to foreclose on mortgages of delinquent homeowners.

What amazes me is the depth of public support for the politicians who not only bailed out the bankers and their overpaid managers, but who refuse to change the tax laws on compensation so that hedge fund managers and the like pay, by law, only 15% in federal income taxes on the bonuses they received for effectively defrauding the government and the American people.  [And no, as an author, I don’t get that kind of favorable tax treatment, and in fact, as a self-employed one, I end up paying both halves of Social Security taxes.]

All this suggests to me, and likely not just to me, that the legal structure we’ve built in recent years has strayed far from justice and is more a question of creating a form of legal financial and taxation discrimination in favor of the obscenely wealthy… and to a lesser degree, to those who are not truly poor, but who manage to exploit the “safety-net” of programs designed for the truly needy.

Meanwhile, a man who protested an illegal lease sale, if his appeal is refused, will serve more time in jail than those who destroyed billions of dollars in savings and investments, as well as millions of jobs.


The “Undo” Buttons

One of the unspoken functions of parents and teachers with regard to their children and students is to guide them in ways that keep them from making huge mistakes that will forever blight their lives and their futures.  Despite the prevalence of laws and devices [such as seatbelts, automobile airbags, campaigns against drugs and underage drinking], both parents and teachers are at best losing ground slowly, and at worse losing it far faster.

Teenage pregnancies continue to abound; drug and alcohol abuse remain high; high school drop-out rates remain high; actual educational achievement is far lower than test scores indicate… the list of continuing and growing problems is far longer.

How did this all happen in a nation with the resources and wealth of the United States?

I’d be the first to admit that there’s no single “cause,” but I’ll also submit a causal factor that I don’t see any social or political entity addressing in a meaningful way or on a national scope.

It’s very basic.  In a national effort to motivate young people, our culture has either ignored or forgotten to teach them one fundamental truth: all actions have consequences, and the consequences of many actions are irreversible.

Oh… we tell them that all the time, but we undo the effect of the words by giving them “second chances,”  extra credit, do-overs, and the like.  Even our day-to-day technology undermines the law of consequences for young people.  Back a generation or so, if I made a typographic error on a paper, I either had to fiddle with White-Out or retype the entire page from scratch, if the error was bad enough.  And if you were using carbon paper to make copies, there was no choice.  You re-typed the entire page.  If there’s an error now, just back-space, or use the mouse or the appropriate key-strokes to click “undo.”

Intellectual property theft or misappropriation [otherwise known as plagiarism] used to be automatic grounds for academic dismissal.  Now, in many institutions, the punishment is failure on that paper, if that, and a do-over.

My wife the professor sees college student after college student who, after getting a bad grade – or missing a test – wants to know what they can do to make things up or get a better grade, looking for an “undo” button in life.  She can’t count the number of students who ignore their advisor’s advice about the classes they need to take to graduate… and then complain that they’ll have to spend another year or two to get their degree [because in our higher educational system, faculty can’t insist on a student taking a particular course, even required ones; they can only keep them from taking higher level courses or withhold degrees for failing to meet requirements].  The thought that there are consequences for failure is almost beyond many students.  And, then, when this does happen, they all want an exception because their situation is “special.”

Back in the bad old days, when I was in college, if you were an able-bodied male, there was a definite consequence for failure – being drafted and sent to Southeast Asia – and almost no one was “special.”

This failure to understand consequences goes far beyond classes.  There are consequences to using a cell phone or texting while driving.  Despite the fact that thousands of teens are injured or killed as a result of inappropriate cellphone and IPod use, the deaths go on. And that, to me, is entirely understandable, because we as a society have inadvertently taught them that everything bad can be “undone.”

And most of them believe that, at least on a subconscious level, until they’re confronted with a situation that can’t be undone… and by then it’s usually too late.