Archive for April, 2012

Incompetence and Uninterestedness

A week or so ago, I was making airlines reservations online – rather I was attempting to do so, but found I couldn’t because my computer wouldn’t let me get  beyond the first screen or so at the Delta website, claiming that the Delta website’s security certificate had expired or was not valid.  This had happened to me once before, because the date on my computer was wrong.  So I checked my computer.  No problems that I could find.  Then I tried the other computer.  Same results.  I called my wife at her office.  She tried on her work network.  The same results.  I called Delta. The first representative insisted it was my computer, and then I got disconnected. I tried Delta’s technical support line, waited, and got disconnected.

I waited an hour and tried Delta again.  This time the representative actually knew about the problem and informed me that the tech team was working on it – and agreed to ticket me at the online price.

But my question is: How on earth could the IT staff at one of the world’s largest airline systems, a system that depends heavily on website bookings, EVER let their website security certificate get close to expiring?  Or was this just the result of hacking?  I don’t know that I’ll ever know, but when I talked to one of my daughters, who used to run the IT division of a major chemical company, she informed me that all too many companies have IT divisions that often tend to ignore or postpone the routine “necessities” – until they become a crisis. Of course, one of the reasons she was successful was because she didn’t allow that sort of thing to happen.

I’m certain that tracking security certificates is not the most exciting of IT tasks.  Nor is the business of methodically checking to see what holes may have developed in a website’s security, but both are vital.  Just last month, the state of Utah discovered that its Medicaid/Health database had been hacked, and the hackers had access to the addresses of 800,000 people and the Social Secuirty numbers of more than 150,000… and the initial investigation concluded that “laxity” and failure to follow procedures for handling data were the principal causes.

I also find it interesting that my readers often get upset over a handful of typos in a 400-500 page book, which is annoying, and which I wish didn’t happen, but does, despite my best efforts and those of editors and proofreaders.  But those errors don’t have anywhere near the potentially disastrous impact of software glitches in an economy that has become increasingly dependent upon computers.

In the end, it boils down to one thing.  Failure to do what is required, whether what is required is routine, dull, or boring, amounts to incompetence, no matter how skilled the technicians and engineers may theoretically be, and such incompetence leads to huge problems, if not disasters.

Boredom and uninterestedness aren’t a valid excuse.  Neither is management failure to recognize the problem, regardless of the “costs.”  In the case of books, costs are a valid concern, but when lives and livelihoods are at stake, costs shouldn’t be the primary focus.


Culture… and Race

Over the years, even centuries, people, and even learned scholars, have offered various rationales about “race,” either saying essentially that all generalizations about race and racial traits are false, or at the other extreme, claiming that racial heritage is a significant determinant of such individual traits as intelligence, muscular ability or lack thereof, industriousness… and the list is sometimes endless. In the course of finishing my latest SF novel [The One-Eyed Man, which I just turned in and my editor hasn’t even begun to read], I thought a great deal about why people are the way they are, and what factors influence them.

On Earth, civilizations have risen, and they’ve fallen, and there have been pretty impressive civilizations raised by peoples of various colors. Ancient Egypt boasted one of the largest and most long-lasting of the early civilizations, indeed of any civilization to date.  The Nubians of the eighth century B.C. were strong enough to topple the Egyptians and ruled all the way from the southern Sudan to the sea and much of the southeastern Mediterranean.  There are massive ruins in central eastern African embodying huge palatial complexes that had to represent a large organized state.  The various Mayan civilizations not only represented an intricate and complex civilization but one with a mathematics involved enough to create a calendar that would be largely accurate for tens of thousands of years. The Aztecs and the Incas created significant empires despite lack of critical resources (such as beasts of burden and transportation).  Archeologists have now discovered traces of ancient large cities in the United States, along with significant earthworks and plazas.   At one time, the Chinese empire was without peer anywhere.  The most advanced sciences in the world at one time were Islamic. Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean basin for hundreds of years.

All of these civilizations had differing “racial” backgrounds, but all were great and advanced in their time. If one looks at modern industrial nations, the vast majority have individuals of virtually every racial background who have great accomplishments. Yet the Mayan civilizations of 1500 years ago vanished without a trace.  The great African civilizations are long gone.  So is the Roman Empire. Egypt has been an impoverished backwater for hundreds of years.

Historians will give many answers, and all too often the most common answer among most people is that “they got conquered.”  That’s true in some cases, as in the instance of the Aztecs and the Incas, but it most instances, the civilization collapsed from within, sometimes under pressure, sometimes not.  One of the most interesting and, I believe, revealing cases is that of the Mayan city-states in the northern Yucatan area. Although they had developed sophisticated water gathering and use systems and weathered extreme droughts in the past, another drought finished them off.  The people dispersed, from not a few cities and towns, but from thousands… and they never returned, leaving the magnificent ruins we see today.  While there is some evidence of battle and brutality… in most cases, that doesn’t appear.

What I found intriguing was that the final decline of the Maya coincided with the rise of a new, and more brutal, and perhaps even more fundamentalist religion, the worship of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl.  I’m not about to blame the decline on just that, but I do think it points out that the decline of almost every past great civilization is linked to a change in the “culture” of that civilization.  One can date the decline of the great Chinese empire to the time when a new emperor burned the entire fleet – the greatest in the world, that had explored the Pacific and all the way to east Africa.  Did that emperor change culture?  It’s more likely he reflected that change, but with that change from outward-looking to inward-looking, the decline proceeded.  At one time, the greatest scientists in the world were Islamic, and the western European world learned from them.  Then… over a few decades, that intellectually open culture closed, and the Islamic world went into a long and slow decline.

Too often, it seems to me, those people who profile “race” aren’t profiling race at all.  They’re profiling culture.  Like it or not, all too few blacks coming from U.S. inner city backgrounds, especially young males, are all that successful, and the murder rate is astounding. Is that racial? I doubt it.  Is it just poverty?  I doubt that as well. It can’t be racial, because very few black males who are raised outside the inner city culture demonstrate the traits of inner city black males, and one can also see similar traits of violence and anti-social behaviors in other impoverished groups, but they’re not identical because poor white culture isn’t the same as poor black culture… but it’s the culture that makes the difference, not the racial background.

And, like it or not, some cultures are toxic. The Ku Klux Klan is a toxic culture.  So, frankly is the current inner city black culture.  So is the pure white Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint culture.  So was the Nazi culture, and there are certainly others that could be named.  Not all cultures or subcultures are worthy of preservation or veneration, regardless of the diversity movements that are so popular among certain groups…  but I think it’s well past time time to make the clear distinction between culture/subculture and race.


Medical Economics

In late March, the U. S. Supreme Court held its hearings on the Affordable Care Act [ACA], otherwise known as Obamacare by its opponents.  At that time, polls were taken, and while a clear majority of Americans oppose the Act, a majority happens to like most of the major provisions of the law. Seventy percent of the respondents approved of the provision that forbids insurance companies from refusing to cover people with preexisting medical conditions.  A majority approves of expansion of certain Medicare coverages and the coverage of adult children of policyholders to age 26.  What a sizable majority opposes is the mandate for all Americans to obtain insurance coverage, one way or another, or to pay significant federal fines and penalties.

Exactly what will happen, however, if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual insurance mandate, but upholds the remainder of the Act?

If that occurs, and it is indeed possible, healthcare insurance costs will continue to rise, and to do so at rates as fast as regulatory authorities allow.  That won’t be because the insurance companies are greedy, but because they’ll need those increased premiums to pay the healthcare costs of their policyholders.

Why?  Because the cost-savings projected with the ACA were based on increasing the pool of those insured and because all the features everyone likes will increase costs in ways that the opponents of the Act aren’t facing.  The most notable problem that strikes me is what will happen if people who aren’t insured, and who won’t be required to purchase health insurance, come down with serious health care problems.  As the prohibition against not covering preexisting conditions kicks in, those with problems may very well be able to purchase insurance only after they get sick – and still get coverage.  Then, given the high cost of insurance, more people will opt out of health insurance, until or unless they need major medical treatment.  This could easily undermine the entire healthcare system. And most of those involved with the pending court decision have already noted that this would be a problem and that if the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional, the wider coverage and prohibition of denial of coverage for preexisting medical conditions would also have to be struck down or repealed.

As it is, there are more and more doctors who refuse to treat patients covered by Medicaid because they literally lose money on each patient, and some doctors every year who are caught “overbilling” Medicare insurance, many of whom claim to do so to cover costs. All insurance is based on spreading risk across the population and across a lifetime.  Wisely or unwisely, the ACA attempted to extend benefits by mandating extended coverage.  Without that mandate, regardless of all the rhetoric, the current economics of American medical care will require both higher insurance rates in some form and more denials of expensive medical procedures.

If the universal mandate is struck down, the only ways out of this mess, in general terms, are to:  (1) totally reform the entire health care system [which is impossible in the current climate]; (2) deny more and more care to a wider number of people [possible and likely, but politically unpalatable]; or (3) continue on the course of raising prices in some form or another [higher deductibles and co-payments, higher premiums, etc.].

Once again, we have the conflict between what the public demands and what that same public is unwilling to pay for… or wants someone else to fund.




A Right to be Paid for Writing?

The other day I came across a commentary in the Libertarian e-zine Prometheus Unbound, in which the commenter declared that while writers, maybe, should be paid for their work, they had no right to be paid, essentially because ideas should not be able to be copyrighted. After I got over my disbelief, and swallowed my anger, I got to thinking about the question… and decided that the commenter was not only misguided, but an idiot.

While I’d be the first to admit that ideas are central and crucial to my work, frankly, that’s not why most people buy books.  Nor are ideas the difficult part of writing, as most authors, if they’re honest, will admit.  What takes work is the process of creating a work of entertainment than embodies those ideas in a way that draws in readers.  Readers buy works of fiction to be entertained, and it takes me, and every author I know, months, if not longer, to create and provide that entertainment in novel form. By the fallacious logic suggested by this Libertarian idiot, no one in any field has the right to be paid for their work.

Why?  Because the vast majority of occupations in a modern society require the combination of ideas and knowledge with the physical effort required to put those ideas into practice, whether in providing a service or a physical product.  Just how long would any society last if doctors, dentists, teachers, plumbers, electricians, salespeople, and almost any occupation [except perhaps politicians] did not have to be paid, except at the whim of those who used their skills and services?  Not very long.

No one is forced to buy books, mine or anyone else’s, but if they do want to read something produced by an author, why shouldn’t they pay for it?  It’s one thing to question the marketing of books, and the prices that various publishers, distributors, and booksellers charge… or even to question how authors should be paid and how much.  But to claim that a creator doesn’t have a right to be paid if someone uses something that took months to produce, that’s not Libertarian, as I understood it.  Except… I looked into it and discovered that there are actually two forms of Libertarianism, one which recognizes private property of the individual as basis of societal order and one which believes in community property, i.e., socialist communalism. Obviously, the commentator belongs to the second group, because he is saying that a novel, which as a physical form of entertainment [not an idea], belongs without cost to the community. I may be a bit old-fashioned, but that doesn’t strike me as Libertarian, but as confiscatory socialism.

All professional authors know full well that there are no original plots and very few truly original ideas in fiction, but to say that authors have no right to be paid for what they produce out of those ideas because these plots and ideas aren’t original is about as valid as saying that a doctor shouldn’t be paid because all doctors know the same medical knowledge.

Knowledge without application is useless and worthless; it’s the application of knowledge that takes work, and for that work the worker has a right to compensation. One can argue and bargain about the amount and the method of payment, but the principle of pay for honest work is fundamental to any functional society.

As I’ve noted before, the idea that information wants to be free is little more than saying people want as much as they can get from other people without paying, and that’s being an intellectual freeloader, not a what I’d call a true Libertarian… but what do I know?


DOJ and Macmillan

Most people know that the U.S. Department of Justice has sued Apple and five publishing companies for “price fixing.”  One of those companies is Macmillan, the parent company of Tor, which is my publisher.  The DOJ suit focuses on the use of the “agency model” as a way to keep e-book prices higher than the prices that Amazon was charging consumers for e-books. Obviously, the entire lawsuit bothers me, but one of the principal reasons why it why it bothers me is that the Department of Justice lawsuit is, in effect, a lawsuit in support of price fixing and predatory pricing by Amazon. I’ve seen comment after comment about how Apple and the publishers were ripping off readers.

And I’ll admit that, in the short run, allowing Amazon to continue to sell e-books at a price below their cost, which is what Amazon was doing, would have resulted in temporarily lower prices for e-books.  There’s absolutely no question about that.

But… doesn’t anyone think about the longer term?  At the time that Macmillan insisted on the “agency model,” Amazon was selling 91% of all e-books.  That’s a far, far, greater market share than Standard Oil had a century ago when the federal government insisted on breaking the Rockefeller Standard Oil trust as a monopoly.  In addition, Amazon was subsiding its losses on e-books not just from its book-selling business, but from its other more profitable online businesses.  None of the independent booksellers nor Barnes and Noble, nor Borders, nor Books-a-Million had such a source of cash. Amazon’s practices, which the DOJ lawsuit effectively supports, were the very definition of both monopoly and predatory pricing… and DOJ did nothing to stop Amazon.

Does anyone in his or her right mind really believe that once Amazon consolidated a true monopoly that Amazon would continue to lose millions of dollars on e-books?  No, two things would have happened.  First, Amazon would have pressed the publishers to lower prices for e-books… and once Amazon had control of the market most of them would have been hard-pressed to resist.  The publishers’ costs, like it or not, wouldn’t have gone down, and that would have pushed many more authors out of publication.  That would limit just how much prices could be reduced, and prices would have crept back up, but with Amazon having a larger share, and in the end, readers wouldn’t end up paying much less for e-books, and there would have been no competition at all… and fewer authors.

As for the DOJ claim of collusion, as far as I can see, Macmillan colluded with no one.  In fact, Macmillan insisted on the agency model alone for weeks.  I know, because Amazon retaliated by refusing to sell ANY Macmillan books for those weeks, not just e-books, but all titles, and I and all the other Macmillan authors took hits, as did Macmillan.  Now… the other publishers did finally join the push for the agency model, but they joined Macmillan. And I think it’s rather interesting that most of the other publishers immediately settled with DOJ.  To me, that suggests that, if there was any collusion, they were doing the colluding. So in the end, DOJ is prosecuting the one publisher, it seems to me, that was NOT colluding.  Now… I could be wrong, and if this goes to trial, we’ll see what actually happened.

What I do find interesting is that, now, something like two years later, Borders has gone bankrupt and vanished, but Amazon only sells a little over 60% of all e-books, rather than more than 90%… and DOJ is targeting the companies and the model that resulted in increased competition and more e-book outlets.

Could it just be that the administration is pandering to the “I want it cheap now” mentality in an election year?  I also find this deplorable in that publishing is a very low margin business, and the administration is taking on a struggling industry when DOJ has done very little in terms of dealing with extensive and real corruption in the investment banking and financial sector… which had a far more devastating impact on the economy and the consumer.

Politics and more hypocrisy, anyone?


Religion and Education

Last week various news outlets ran a story on the “most religious” states.  I wasn’t exactly surprised by the rankings, but then I noticed that the two “most religious” states [Mississippi and Utah] are the two with the lowest per pupil spending on public primary and secondary education and that there appears to be a huge correlation between low spending on public education and a high degree of “religiosity” and a fairly strong correlation between more spending on education and less professed faith among the population.

In addition, states with populations that profess higher degrees of faith, in general, have state legislatures that tend to pass legislation imposing “faith-oriented” restrictions on school curricula.

While at least several science fiction authors, such as Rob Sawyer in Calculating God, have written books about cultures and civilizations based on faith that welcome education and knowledge, and strive to expand knowledge, it appears that, all too often here on earth, faith continues to be the opponent of greater knowledge and education, as witness Senator Santorum’s allegations that college education destroys faith, although that is but one example among many.

But does education destroy faith… or does it erode simplistic faiths and beliefs?  And who set up the structures of those simplistic beliefs?  Despite faith in such items as the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments or the golden plates of the “original” book of Mormon, there’s no real proof of their existence or of even of their original meaning, if they did in fact exist.  No… all faiths have been revealed by human beings, interpreted by human beings, and proselytized by human beings.  No deity has ever written across the sky – “I am God. Here are my tenets.”

So why do so many people cling to beliefs that have little root in proved reality or that have real world tenets that been proven to be false and/or unworkable?  Why can they not believe in a higher power that does not require simplistic faith? And most critically, why do they try to restrict the development of greater knowledge and the education of children in that knowledge?

Perhaps I’m missing something, but if there is a Deity, why on earth would that Deity want human beings to believe in what is not true?  Or to exalt ignorance above knowledge?


More “Magic Thinking”

“Magic Thinking” is the idea that belief can change the physical world.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that someone’s beliefs can motivate them to accomplish great things, but in the end it is the accomplishments that can change the world, not the beliefs.  Belief is the first step, and at least in my experience, often the easiest.

Yet today, all over the United States, we’ve had a resurgence of “magic thinking” totally divorced from reality.

How can a culture that promotes Viagra, movies and television with intense sexual content, that supplies its young people with private transportation and funds, and that now has the largest gap between the age of physical maturity and financial and social maturity honestly believe that abstinence is going to be practiced for ten years or more by a significant fraction of the young population?  It isn’t; and the facts show it, but legislators across the country continue to push abstinence as the solution and to reject any form of realistic sex education.

Here in Utah, as well as in other states, legislators are busy passing laws that are clearly unconstitutional, laws that their own legal counsels have advised them against.  The latest here is a proposal to “reclaim” all federal lands and declare them state lands.  And at a time when state finances are is short supply, they’ve even declared themselves willing to spend $3 million on a futile lawsuit – while “boasting” the worst-funded primary and secondary education system in the state.  They’re going to send a message to Washington – and to anyone who doesn’t believe as they do – and they believe such messages will change things, even as they reject the messages of others who don’t share their beliefs.

We even see magic thinking in sports, with the recent episodes of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos [although Tebow is now a New York Jet], the feeling that belief will overcome a less than stellar passing capability – and for a time, given the impact of belief on performance, it did, but belief has a tendency to fall short over time when confronted with superior abilities and equal determination.

When manifested in international relations, magic thinking can be deadly.  Too many American politicians have shown this over the past fifty years by actions supporting their belief that all that’s needed in the Middle East and elsewhere is “democratic government.”  But they tend to ignore the practical fact that democracy doesn’t work well in cultures that have enshrined bribery and corruption as social necessities, or that continue to regard women as property, or the possibility that people in other cultures, even with more representative and honest governments, may still oppose U.S. policies and aims both politically and militarily.

In the end, there’s a simple fact that all too many “magic thinkers” don’t understand:  The strength of one’s beliefs does not make something so. All the denying in the world isn’t going to stop global warming.  All the religion in the world isn’t going to overturn the fact of evolution, and all the belief in abstinence isn’t going to stop hot-blooded young people from having sex.  Nor is all the belief in the supremacy of American “ideals” unsupported by a massive commitment of physical power going to ensure that American policies and beliefs spread and triumph, although it’s likely to get thousands more American soldiers killed.