Archive for December, 2011

Public Works or Public Boondoggle?

For the past several months, an almost continual simmering issue at City Council meetings here in Cedar City has been over the new aquatic center.  First, there were the charges and countercharges over the cost overruns, and although most people eventually conceded that the additional work was necessary, there was great debate over the price tags.  Then came the continuing arguments over the operating costs, which most likely resulted in two incumbent city council members being defeated in the municipal election and the third whose term was up not even running for re-election.  At present, revenues only cover a bit more than sixty percent of the operating costs, and all three of the newly elected councilmen declare that the center should be self-sustaining.

Right!  A survey by one of the state new organizations discovered that not a single aquatic center in all of Utah had revenues that covered its costs.  One managed to recover almost eighty percent of its annual operating costs, and one only managed about fifty percent, and all the rest fell in between.  Why?  Because, like it or not, the people who use aquatic facilities are predominantly either families or seniors, and the majority of both have limited funds.  Increasing fees drops the number using the facility, and if fees are considered too high for the local community, total revenue drops even with increased per capita fees.  Add to that the fact that Cedar City is a rural university town located in a county with the lowest family income in the state, and the potential for raising fees is pretty limited.

This debate raises the eternal question about publicly funded projects.  Which are justified and which are boondoggles?  Comparatively, very few people seem to complain about public park budgets, for which no out-of-pocket fees are ever collected, but many would say that’s because they’re open to everyone.  Open, yes, but I have to say that although we have good parks here, and I’m for them, and for my tax money being used for them, I’ve set foot in them only twice in the eighteen years I’ve lived here.  I’m for them, and for the aquatic center, because they make the community a better place.  I’m also for them because I’ve lived all over the USA, and I can see that the tax levels here are low, most probably too low, and the local politicians certainly aren’t spendthrifts with the public money.  Sometimes, though, they’re idiots.

Cedar City is home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, a good regional theatre [it won a Tony some ten years ago as one of the best regional theatres in the United States] based largely on the campus of Southern Utah University.  Founded some fifty years ago, it’s grown from a three-day event to almost a half-year full repertory theatre.  The university, however, has also grown enormously over the past two decades, from around 3,000 students to over 8,000, and there’s really not enough theatre space for both the University theatre, dance, and music programs and the Festival.  The Festival professionals have recognized this, and for years have been working on an expansion plan that would make the Festival far less dependent on university facilities.  In order to obtain some state and foundation funding, the Festival requested a grant of two million dollars from the local RDA, controlled by the city council, in order to demonstrate the required local support.  Several council members objected, and the entire $20 million plus expansion project was threatened before reason finally prevailed.

Was that $2 million a boondoggle?  Scarcely.  Economic studies have shown that the Festival generates between thirty-five and forty million dollars annually for local businesses, and provided a great economic cushion for the town some thirty years ago when the iron mines closed, and that’s been with minimal economic support from the town. For fifty years the town has benefited from the University’s support of the Festival.  Yet the decreasing percentage level of state support for the University [and any higher education institution in Utah] and the need to raise student tuition to compensate has placed the University in a position where it can no longer be so generous to the Festival.  Despite the enormous economic benefit to the town from the Festival, some politicians would call a two million dollar grant a boondoggle.

A decade ago, local politicians decided the town needed a good local theatre, one independent of the educational institutions… and they built one that holds almost 1000 seats, with good acoustics and associated modest convention facilities.  As a consequence, Cedar City has been able to host events from traveling operas to American Idol vocalists and everything in between.  But once again, the new councilmen are demanding that the theatre make money… despite the fact that the previous director [who was forced out by the new council] came very close to doing so.  NO decent performance theatre in a town of 40,000 people can do that [a lot of Broadway theatres can’t, and they charge exorbitant rates, which isn’t possible here].  But what that “borderline” economic performance doesn’t show is the thousands of people who travel to Cedar City from nearby and sometimes not so nearby rural areas for those shows and other events, and the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars they spend in town on those trips.  Nor does it count the food and lodging paid for by the performers [and when those performers include 100 member symphony orchestras, that’s not inconsequential].

Especially in rural areas like Iron County, whether a town or small city prospers or withers depends not just on low taxes, but also on the quality of life, and often a “good” quality of life can generate enormous economic benefits, which tend to flow back in tax and other indirect revenue sources.  Past management of the quality of life has led to Cedar City being named as an outstanding community for both families and retirees, but with the recent rise of Tea Party type politicians, there’s been a cry for lower taxes and spending, despite the fact that they’re already too low.  There’s a huge difference between managing public facilities well and concentrating on profit-loss figures from single facilities or projects as an indication of their community usefulness and “profitability.”

Yes… there are many public boondoggles, and I’ve seen all too many of them, but just because a public facility or expenditure doesn’t cover its operating costs directly doesn’t mean it’s a boondoggle… or that the town isn’t “profiting.”   And that’s something too many people and politicians fail to understand.



The Hidden Costs of Transportation

A number of family members visited us over the holidays, and I ended up having to ship gifts, ski clothes, etc., back to them.  Some of them stayed almost a week, which we appreciated because we live great distances from them and with everyone working [which, as I’ve mentioned before, more and more often requires more and more time and effort for those who have jobs and wish to keep them], we don’t get to see them often.  Staying longer does require a few more clothes, especially in the case of small children, even though our washing machine was busy at many times, and more clothes means more weight.  More weight means checked suitcases… and since Southwest doesn’t fly to Cedar City, checked bags add to the cost of travel.

Then I recalled that, at one time, a little over ten years ago, a checked bag was not only free, but you could put 60 pounds of clothes and gear in it, rather than the current 50 pounds. That ten pound reduction doubtless reduced the strain on baggage handlers, and most probably accounted for some fuel savings – and cost savings – for the airlines.  All in all, though, these cost-savings measures for the airlines add to the cost for the traveler.  They also add to the inconvenience, since the overhead luggage bins are not adequate for all the carry-ons if a flight is full – and most are these days.  Then, too, there are the charges for seats with slightly more leg-room, and the elimination of in-flight meals in coach [often replaced with a “menu” of items for which the costs are just short of exorbitant].

Airport security also adds to the time spent in travel – from an additional 30-45 minutes at small airports to more than an hour at major hubs. And time is money, meaning that the more security agents on duty [to reduce waiting] the higher the cost to government.

Then I discovered that, because December 26th was a holiday this year, all the packages we’d hoped to ship back to the various coasts on Monday had to wait until Tuesday, and one of my sons and I wasted gas and money to discover that – because the local shippers never said that they were closed – they just left messages on their telephones that they were busy and asked us to leave messages or to call back.  Now, except for the various layers of government, banks, and the stock market, most other businesses – except for the shippers – were open, obviously believing that Sunday, December 25th, was the holiday, and not Monday.

Given the “efficiency,”  “effectiveness,” and self-centeredness of government, banks, and financiers, to find shippers following their lead gave me a very disconcerted feeling… and, well… you all know what I think about government, banks, and financiers, not to mention the airline industry.


The Difference Between Science and Scientists

Recently, I’ve posted a few blogs dealing with various aspects of personal opinion and confirmation bias and how the combination can, to an outsider, make any individual, in certain circumstances, look like a complete idiot.  That even includes scientists, sorry to say, yet “science” as a whole has an unprecedented record of accuracy over time, regardless of what climate change deniers and creationists say.  If scientists can be as personally biased and opinionated as all the rest of us, how does “science” end up with such a long-term record of accuracy?

There’s one basic reason, and that is that the modern structure of science, if you will, requires proof, and all the proof that is submitted is subject to scrutiny and attack from all quarters.  What emerges from this often withering barrage almost always turns out – in time – to be more correct and more accurate than that which preceded it.  That’s not to say that, upon occasion, it hasn’t taken the scientific establishment time to get things right, but eventually better techniques and better thought proved that plate tectonics was correct, just as, regardless of the creationists, there’s an overwhelming body of evidence in favor of evolution, and that relativity provides a more accurate picture of the universe than did Newton, or the Ptolemaic theorists.

But there are several “problems” with the scientific method.  First, establishing more accurate knowledge, information, or theories takes time, and often large amounts of resources, as well as winnowing through and considering a fair amount of uncertainty at times. Second, it requires reliance on data and proof; mere opinion is not sufficient.  Third, it’s not as set in stone as human beings would like.  The early Greek scientists had a fair idea about the earth and the moon, but their measurements and calculations were off.  As methods, equipment, and techniques improved, so did the measurements, and Newton did far better, and his methods and theories result in a high degree of accuracy for most earth-bound measurements and systems, but Einstein and his successors have provided an even more accurate explanation and more accurate measurements. And fourth, at present, the scientific method isn’t absolutely precise in predicting specific future results of massive interacting inputs.

That lack of absolute precision in dealing with future events often causes people to doubt science as a whole, even though its record is far better than any other predictor or prediction system.  Part of its accuracy comes from the fact that science as a structure adapts as more information becomes available, but some people regard this adoption of new data and systems as unsettling, almost as if they were saying, “If science is so good, why can’t you get it right the first time?”  An associated problem is that science is far more accurate as a descriptor than a predictor, and most people subconsciously assume that the two are the same.

Even so, one could easily adapt Churchill’s statement about democracy to science, in saying that it’s the poorest way of describing the universe and predicting how things will happen – except for any other way that’s ever been tried.  And that’s because the structure of modern science is greater than any individual scientist.




Lateness as a Reflection on the Pool of Self

The other Sunday, I was finishing up my morning walk/run with the crazy sweet Aussie-Saluki some two blocks from home, and the church bells rang the hour.  A few minutes later, as we passed the church, I saw cars speeding in and people hurrying into the church.  A block later, people were still hurrying to the church [not my church, since I confess to being a less than diligent congregant at another one]. Once upon a time, I was indeed a most religious young man, president of a church youth group and an acolyte at services every Sunday. Consequently, I had the chance to observe just how many people were late to services, and, frankly, late-comers were rare, extraordinarily quiet, and invariably their body posture reflected a certain discomfort. I doubt I saw as many late-comers in all the years I served as an acolyte as I saw on my walk on that single recent Sunday morning.

This observation got me to thinking, realizing that lateness and/or lack of interest in punctuality has become an increasing staple in our society.  When my wife produces an opera at the college, there are always between twenty and fifty attendees who come in after the first break, and that doesn’t count those who struggle in during the overture.  When we attend local concerts, the same thing is true.  More and more college professors I encounter relate their tales of students who cannot seem to arrive on time, and some have had to resort to locking doors to avoid disruptions from late-comers.  My wife even got a jury notice emphasizing that, if she were picked for jury selection, she needed to be punctual or she could face a stiff fine. This morning, in the paper, there was a story about a surgeon who was late to a court appearance — and who was imprisoned when the judge was less than impressed.

What exactly has happened to a society where cleanliness was next to Godliness and punctuality was a virtue?  And where even professional people who should know better don’t?

Oh… I know this is a western European-derived “virtue.”  When my wife did a singing tour of South America, no concert ever started “on time,” and in one case, the performance actually started more than an hour after the announced time because there was social jostling among the “elite” to see who could be the most fashionably late… as if to announce their power to make others wait.  And I have to confess that I tend to have an obsession with being on time because my father almost never was.

Still… what is it about being late?  Is it because, as our lives have gotten more and more crowded [often with trivia], we have trouble fitting everything in?  Is it because, with an internet/instant communications society, each of us feels more and more like the center of the universe, and our schedule takes precedence over that of others?  Is it merely a way of demonstrating personal power and/or indifference to others, or a lack of caring about the inconvenience being late can cause to others?  Is it a symptom of the growing emphasis of “self” over others?

I don’t have an answer… but I do know that I think most uncharitable thoughts about late-comers to anything, apparently oblivious or even enjoying the scene, whose lateness disrupts everyone else’s concentration and enjoyment… or even more important activities, like judicial proceedings.  And I seriously doubt I’m alone in those thoughts.


Accuracy Gets No Notice

The December issue of The Atlantic Monthly contains a rather interesting article [“I was wrong, and so are you”] by Daniel Klein, a conservative/libertarian, who had published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal in June of 2010 arguing that, based on a study that he and another economist had earlier conducted, liberals/progressives had a far poorer grasp of basic economics than did conservatives.  Right wing and conservative groups trumpeted the results, and comments on the study were the second-highest of anything published in the Journal for the month in which it was printed. Klein’s in-box was also filled with messages suggesting that he had rigged the study.

After considering the reaction and the criticisms of the analysis of that study [which had been designed for another purpose], Klein and his co-author designed a second study specifically for the purpose of evaluating the accuracy of people’s economic perceptions and comparing their political outlook to the accuracy of their economic views on various issues.  To Klein’s surprise, the second study indicated that [astonishing] that all across the political spectrum of the respondents, each group was equally wrong when evaluating the accuracy of economic statements at variance with their political beliefs. As Klein wrote, “the more a statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did” [in accurately evaluating the statement].

In short, in all cases, respondents were less accurate in economic judgments that conflicted with their underlying biases and views, and the greater the conflict, the lower the accuracy.  What was even more interesting was that the level of education seemed to matter very little or not at all.

To me, all this was scarcely surprising, but what was surprising was that, while scholarly reviewers found the new study accurate, there was essentially no public or media reaction to the release of the results of the follow-up study, even though Klein was very clear in declaring that the new study invalidated the results of the earlier work.  Given that the results of the second study were also at variance with Klein’s own political predilections, it would seem likely that there might be at least more than polite notice of the second study.

There wasn’t. The few academic/critical reviewers who did comment essentially said, “there’s a lot of confirmation bias out there.”  The conservative/right wing types have said nothing, in contrast to their trumpeting the earlier [and incorrect] work, and there seems to be little liberal reaction either.

In short, we all want to hang on to our biases, even in the face of information to the contrary, and the more that information challenges what we believe, the more strongly we dispute it.

Is it any wonder Congress can’t get anything constructive done?


The “Ap” Society

One of my smallest granddaughters is enchanted with the “aps” on her mother’s smartphone [she can’t be enchanted with mine, because I only have a new version of an old-fashioned cellphone], and everywhere I look or read, there’s another “killer ap.”  And I don’t have a problem with “aps.”  I do have an enormous problem with what they represent… in the deeper sense.

The other week, I was reading an article about the difference between inventors and “tweakers,” and one of the points made by the writer was that, in general, initial inventions seldom are what change society.  It’s the subsequent “tweaks” to those basic innovations that make the difference.  Bill Gates didn’t invent the personal computer, but the tweaks provided by Microsoft made it universal.  Steve Jobs was a superb tweaker and marketer, and those abilities led to the I-Phone, among other commercial and societally accepted and successful products, and all the smartphone clones that are changing communications patterns in technological societies.  And, of course, killer aps are another form of tweaking.

But… as I’ve noted before, for all our emphasis on tweaking and commercialization, we’ve seen very little development and implementation of basic technological innovation in more than a half century. We still generate the vast majority, if not essentially all, of our electricity based on 1950s (or earlier) principles; aircraft and automotive propulsion systems are merely tweaked versions of systems in use more than a half century earlier, and we don’t travel any faster than in 1960 (and actual travel time is longer, given security and other problems).

In some areas, we’ve actually shelved technology that was superior in performance to currently used technology for reasons of “economic efficiency,” i.e., cheaper. That tends to remind me of the ancient Chinese and the Ptolemaic Greeks, and even the Romans, who never implemented technological advances because slaves or servants were cheaper.

Take Burt Rhutan, one of the most prolific and dynamic aircraft designers of the past generation.  What I find most interesting is that for all of the technical success of his designs, few indeed have ever resulted in being produced in large numbers – and it’s not because his aircraft are particularly expensive [as aircraft go, that is].

Of course, all this raises the question of whether we’ve reached the effective limits of technology. This issue was raised more than a century ago, when some U.S. luminaries proposed closing the patent office because there was nothing new to discover.  It certainly wasn’t so back then, but all the emphasis on tweaking and commercialization I see now raises that same question once again, if in a slightly different perspective.  Have we hit the limits of basic science and technology?  Or are we just unwilling to invest what is necessary to push science further, and will we settle for a future limited to “killer aps”?


Of Mice, Men, and Ethics

I hate sticky traps. But sometimes, there’s no recourse, not when the rodent hides in crannies where the cats can’t follow, and in spaces where it’s impossible to place “humane” or regular traps.  But sticky traps create another problem – and that’s what to do with a living creature that looks at you with fearful eyes.  Despite having seen the damage mice can do when uncontrolled, I still hate having to dispose of them.  But it takes days to clean and sterilize the mess even one mouse can leave… and, like other creatures that sample domestic comfort, mice that are released have this tendency to return.  So I have a simple rule with various pests – stay out of the house, and I’ll leave you alone.

In the aftermath of the rodent, however, I was reading a commentary by a reviewer on “ethics” and whether characters by various authors lack ethics when they kill without showing remorse and angst, even when those they kill are people who, by any reasonable standard, are truly evil.  Since some of my characters have been charged, upon occasion, with such behavior, I couldn’t help thinking about the issue.

What it seems to me is that the issue for all too many people is either whether the “killer” feels sorry or concerned about his acts or whether the acts take place in a setting where the one doing the killing has “no choice.”  And over the years, I’ve realized that, for many, many, readers, the ones who are dispassionate or don’t feel “bad,” regardless of the impact of their actions, are generally considered as bad guys, or antiheroes at best, as in the case of Dirty Harry or others, while the good guys are the ones who reluctantly do what must be done.  If a protagonist doesn’t show reluctance… well, then he or she is either a villain, soulless, or an anti-hero without true ethics.  Part of this attitude obviously stems from a societal concern about individuals without social restraints – the sociopaths and the psychopaths – but is it truly unethical [and I’m not talking about illegal, which is an entirely different question, because all too often application of the law itself can be anything but ethical] to kill an evil person without feeling remorse?  And does such a killing make the protagonist unethical?

How can it be more “ethical” to slaughter other soldiers in a battle, other soldiers whose greatest fault may well be that they were on the “other side,” than to quietly dispose of an evil person on a city side street?  Well… one argument is that the soldiers were ordered to kill, and no one authorized the disposal of the evil individual.  By that reasoning, Nazi death camp guards were acting ethically.  Yet… we don’t want individuals taking the law into their own hands.  On the other hand, what can individuals do in such a circumstance when the law offers no protection?

These are all issues with which we as writers, and as citizens, must wrestle, but what bothers me is the idea that, for some people and some readers, the degree of ethics rests on the “feelings” of the individual who must face the decision of when to use force and to what degree.  Was I any more or any less ethical in killing the rodent vandalizing my kitchen because I felt sorry for the little beast?  It didn’t stop me from putting an end to him.  Isn’t the same true in dealing with human rodents?

And don’t tell me that people are somehow “different”?  With each passing year, research shows that almost all of the traits once cited as distinguishing humans as unique also exist in other species.  Ravens and crows, as well as the higher primates, use tools and have what the theorists call a “theory of mind.”  The plain fact is that every species kills something, whether for food, self-defense, territory, or other reasons.

So…perhaps a little less emphasis is warranted on whether the feelings about the act of killing determine whether the killing is “ethical” or not.  Admittedly, those characters who show reluctance are certainly more sympathetic… but, really, should they be?  Or should they be evaluated more on the reasons for and the circumstances behind their acts?





Insanity – Political and Otherwise

At the end of the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the protagonist says something like, “Insanity is doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different result.  All of us are insane at times, but what happens when more and more of us are insane at the same time?”

Recent off-year city council elections here in Cedar City reminded me of this rather forcefully.  Two of the candidates running for re-election were incumbents, and both were handily defeated – and replaced by candidates with exactly the same backgrounds, views, and general attitudes of the incumbents – and those new councilmen have absolutely no experience in municipal government. As I noted more than a year ago, the voters of Utah did essentially the same thing in replacing the then-incumbent ulrea-conservative Republican Senator with an ultra-conservative clone.  In a national politics generally, the Democrats continue to reinforce their ideology and the Republicans theirs, and in general each party is continuing to do the same thing they’ve always done with the hope of a different result.

And that different result isn’t going to happen, because increased taxes [the Democratic view]can’t cover the annual deficit, let alone the debt ; and there’s no way to cut federal programs and regulations [the Republican view] to the degree necessary to reduce massive deficits without destroying both government and the economy.  But both sides resist compromise, and continue to do the same thing… and that is truly insanity, and no one is calling them on it.

From what I can see, this is exactly what’s happening politically in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere around the world as well.

Have we reached the point in society where our illusions mean more to us than the survival of our society?  Where ideological “purity” is all, and practical compromise is a dirty filthy thing not to be mentioned anywhere?

Well… certainly various forms of purity have run rampant before, such as the Nazi effort for racial purity, the endless wars/massacres over religious/ethnic/political purity, ranging from those that plagued Europe for some 500 years, to the Chinese and Russian revolutions, to Pol Pot in Cambodia, to even the Mountain Meadows massacre in Utah.  And somehow, after all the fighting was over, and the hundreds of millions of dead bodies buried or ignored, there were still two sides left, two views conflicting, if temporarily more quietly.  Protestantism and Catholicism still exist in Europe, Ireland, and the British Isles.  The Mormon Church remains predominant in Utah, but it’s far from exclusive, and non-Mormons outnumber Mormons in Salt Lake City itself. Both China and Russia have had to come to terms with capitalism, and right wing racial hate groups still exist, if in far smaller numbers, across Europe.

Perhaps… it just might be well to recall that when “ideals” ignore reality, they all too easily become illusions.  Yet, without ideals… everything is sold to the most powerful or wealthiest.  And balancing ideals with reality is also a compromise… like life.

Insanity is not only doing the same thing time and time again and expecting the same result; it’s also failing to recognize that inflexible adherence to any ideal inevitably leads to unrest, disruption, and all too often… death and destruction… all the time while each set of true believers claims that everything would be fine – if only the other side would realize the error of their ways.


Another Take on Hypocrisy

Some ten years ago, I attended a memorial service for a woman who had died from a heart attack – the last of a series over a year or so.  The church was filled to overflowing, and everyone had wonderful things to say about her.  She was excellent technically in the position she held, and, as a single woman, she had even fostered a wayward teen girl and tried to set her – and her daughter – on the path to a more productive life.  She worked hard and long at her job, and she was helpful to her colleagues. But she had one fault. She wasn’t averse to pointing out when she was given a stupid or non-productive assignment, and, worse, she was almost invariably accurate in her assessments.

The result?  Her superiors piled more and more work on her while effectively cutting her pay and status, and because she was in her late fifties or early sixties trying to support herself and two others, she had little choice but to keep working.  For whatever reason, the one colleague with whom she worked well had her job abolished – only to have it reinstated a year or so later and filled by a man [who didn’t last all that long, either].  Employees in other departments who tried to be advocates for her were either ignored or told that it was none of their business… and, besides, she brought it on herself because of her sharp tongue. After her first heart attack, as soon as she could, she went back to work because her position wasn’t covered by short-term disability insurance, and she was too young for Social Security.  She died, of course, some months later, after she’d lost her house and was living in a trailer.

Just another sad story, another one of the countless tales of people who have run afoul of adversity after adversity. Except… a goodly portion of those people who had offered tributes at her memorial service were the very people who had effectively undercut her and driven her to her death.

They praised her talents, but hated her honesty.  They praised her charity toward others, while practicing little toward her.  And, in the end, after the memorial service was over, she was quietly forgotten, and the once-wayward teen moved out of town, and life went on for the men who had driven an honest, if acerbic, woman to death.

Why do I remember these events?  Because, in reflecting on one woman’s death, I see them played out on a larger and larger scale, day after day, when the voices of honesty and reason are drowned in a sea of rhetoric, often quietly fomented by those who created so many of today’s major problems, especially the politicians and the financial community.  At the same time, no one with the power to resolve the situation wants to or to recognize the embarrassing facts about their part in creating the current problems… even while romanticizing the acts and deeds of deceased politicians with whom they often disagreed while paying lip service to hard-working Americans whose real wages have declined over the past decade.

But then, maybe calling the acts of the perpetrators and their subsequent rhetoric mere hypocrisy is too generous.