Archive for July, 2012

The Curse of the Visual

The other day, my wife and I were discussing a basic change in music, one represented by the fact that very few of the younger generation can listen to complex music [anything that contains more than five non-repeating bars and a simplistic rhythm] and the fact that opera, musical theatre, popular music, and even music videos all now require elaborate and often excessive visual effects, and that so much music all sounds alike.  This goes beyond just music.  An ever-increasing proportion of the youthful population cannot listen to a teacher – or anyone else – for more than a very few minutes before tuning out. Just how as a society did we get to that point?

I’d submit that it has occurred as a result of the intersection of two factors.  The first is that sight is the strongest and most rapid of all human senses.  The second is the development of high-level, high-speed visual technology that reinforces and strengthens the dominance of human sight. What people hear, especially human speech, must be heard, translated, and then essentially reformulated. This takes more time and effort than seeing.  The same process exists with music lyrics, which must be heard and then felt.

All of this excessive reliance on the visual has a far greater downside than most Americans seem able to realize.  There’s now a huge effort to persuade teenagers in particular not to text and drive, for example, but so far, at least, the deaths from driving and texting continue.  The transit authority in Salt Lake has asked the legislature to make “distracted walking” a criminal misdemeanor because of the numbers of injuries and deaths involving people absorbed in cellphones walking into the path of light rail transit cars. Almost every school day, my wife has to stop or slow drastically to avoid hitting college students involved in texting crossing streets, oblivious to traffic.

Although a huge percentage of American teenagers have cellphones or the equivalent, comparatively few of them talk for long periods on them. Instead, they text. While there are text symbols for emotions, those symbols represent what the sender wants them to represent, not necessarily what the sender actually feels… and they make misrepresentation far easier.  Just look at how many teenagers, especially females, have been deceived through the internet and texting by people whom they would have dismissed instantly in person.

The entertainment industry has responded to the change in perception by emphasizing the visual. There are now very few if any overweight singers in opera, musical theatre, or popular music.  Popular music tour shows rely as much, if not more, on elaborate lighting, costumes, and pyrotechnics as on singing. Musical theatre has come to rely more and more on spectacle.  Music is becoming secondary to the visual, and complex lyrics are largely a thing of the past, unless occasionally accompanied by a monotonous beat in rap.

In a sense, even ebooks are a part of this trend – words on a lighted page that can be turned more quickly than a printed page, with speed skimming the prevalent and preferred way of reading, rather than an appreciation of depth. More and more, I see comments from readers that indicate that they don’t understand the innuendoes or the allusions in dialogue.  This isn’t surprising, since fewer and fewer young people can actually verbally express complex thoughts conversationally… or apparently want to, since in walking across most college campuses, no one is talking to those around them, but instead walking, hunched over, texting madly.  In fact, it’s so common that one scientific publication noted a new repetitive motion syndrome – “texting neck.”  It’s just my opinion, but when people are texting so much that it creates an adverse medical condition, it’s healthy neither personally nor societally.

Nor is it good for society when people are more interested in the visual appeal of musicians than in their musical excellence.  Nor is it healthy when fewer and fewer people can and will carry on face-to-face in-depth conversations.

But all those are symptoms of the curse of the visual, of overdosing on sight, if you will, fueled by the high-tech wizards of silicon cities across the world, more interested in the profits reaped from fueling the addiction than in the societal and physiological damage created.




Dramatic Fantasy — The Implications

The author Daniel Foster observed [in Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Greeks] that an epic poet’s protagonist embodied the virtues and values of an entire society while the protagonists of a lyric poet embodied specific virtues accepted as exemplary traits for an individual. Foster also made the point that lyric poets whose protagonists’ values differed as society changed became less relevant and less widely read, as did those whose referents became less familiar. 

While Foster used the Greek poet Pindar as his historical example, his observation, it seems to me, also applies to novels today.  While some fantasy labeled as epic meets his definition, much of current large-scope fantasy presents values often at variance with the idea of a single unified culture represented so often in traditional epic works, and situations where the individual is pitted against the culture rather than acting as its champion against outsiders.

At the same time, over the past twenty years or so in my intermittent teaching and continual observation, I’ve seen that poets of the first half of the twentieth century have been read less and less, and, more important, when read, are understood less and less.  Part of that loss of understanding certainly lies in the loss of meaning of the references and allusions, because today’s young people are such a culture of the present that the majority of them know very little of the culture of as little as a single generation past, and without an understanding of what those references represent, the poetry loses much of its power. Most contemporary verse appears to appeal to shallow but universal feelings, interestingly enough, even as most novels pit an individual against at least some “universal” societal values. 

This trend in contemporary novels also exemplifies a change in basic societal values in the United States, or at least in the idea that there are some basic societal values that trump individual freedom of action. The belief held by many that the right to bear any kind of weapons is one example of this turn away from the idea that a society represents certain universals. Instead, we have ideological splintering, where various segments of society each believes that society should adopt its universals.

According to Foster, the composer Richard Wagner believed that the evolution of the poetic tradition ran from epic forms to lyric and finally to dramatic, where, in the dramatic form, the writer’s protagonists portray an out and out struggle against societal norms while still striving to live out individual virtues – in essence, a totally futile struggle because, in the end, without societal standards, there is no society.

I’m most likely overgeneralizing, but it seems to me that we’re seeing this conflict today in what is being published in current fantasy and, to a lesser degree, in science fiction.  One could actually characterize the fascination with zombies as a metaphor – with zombies representing a dead and somehow alien past that the protagonists are struggling against.  Vampires are a bit more ambiguous.  Are they the blood-sucking past drawing life from the vital present? Or are they the misunderstood new future nourished by the past?  Either way, both sub-sub-genres – as well as that of werewolves – represent a dramatic conflict embodying the premise that a society with unified and widely accepted common values is a thing of the past, and this represents a major change in western cultural values, largely among the younger readers… possibly another manifestation of both the generational gap and why the poets of the past no longer speak to the readers of the present.




A Cost of Privilege?

The most disturbing aspect of the latest mass shooting in Aurora, to me, is the fact that, on paper at least, James Holmes was a comparatively privileged young man… as were both of the Columbine High School shooters ten years ago. We’re not talking about poor oppressed minorities, but about young people who grew up in moderately affluent family situations.  In the case of Holmes, he was even an honor student at the University of California, Riverside, but he couldn’t get a job better than minimum wage, and he entered a doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where he struggled and then dropped out.  Somewhere around that time, he began to buy weapons and ammunition.

So why would a quiet young man from a comparatively privileged background commit such a terrible crime?  I’d submit that one of the key factors was precisely that background.

As I’ve expressed more than a few times, the continual expression of the Lake Wobegon theme [the place where all the children are above average] is not only false, but has been incredibly damaging to the younger generations.  Because they’re not all outstanding.  By definition, only a small percentage can be well above average, and the perks and privileges and jobs are going to go to that small percentage.  Even if a greater number of young people are brighter than their parents – which I doubt, but even if it is so – it doesn’t matter.  The positions at the top are limited.  They are in any society, and more education doesn’t mean better opportunities.  It means that college graduates essentially have the same opportunities as high school graduates had two to three generations earlier.

As noted by Joel I. Klein, the head of the New York City School system in 2010, “In 1950 high school dropouts made up 59% of the United States workforce, with just 8% represented by college graduates. As recently as 2005, these numbers have nearly reversed: 32% of workers have a college degree, while 8% are high school dropouts.”

This change in work-force composition has several ramifications.  First, an undergraduate college degree is likely not going to be the passport to a high paying job that it was in past generations. According to initial reports, that was one of the frustrations expressed by Holmes, that even with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, he could only find McDonald’s level jobs.

In addition, the dumbing down of both high school and collegiate undergraduate curricula and requirements has resulted in an entire generation of young people, of whom only a tiny percentage have been truly tested, and who have been told time after time how special they are.  In general, they’ve been shielded from failure and told they’re wonderful. In essence, not until his mid-twenties did Holmes discover that he really wasn’t that special and that the world didn’t care. The fact that our culture also values “personality” over technical and subject matter excellence, no matter what anyone says, adds even more fuel to the fire for those who are bright and socially awkward, as Holmes was said to be.

The pattern manifested by Holmes – and others – is familiar to forensic psychologists.  While not all young people who are alienated, depressed, and angry are violent, it appears that almost universally the violent are alienated, depressed, and angry. In the case of Holmes and the Columbine killers, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, it is highly likely that a key motivating factor is anger by those from a privileged background who couldn’t deal with failure and wanted to blame others for it. They believed they deserved more, and the fact that they hadn’t gotten what they wanted must have been the fault of others.  Hadn’t everyone told them how special they were?

Now… there will be years of study, and debate and counter-debate, but I’d be very surprised if anyone actually discusses the issues I’ve raised.  After all, how could we go wrong as a society by telling our wonderful children how special they are?


Economic Myths and Half-Truths

Although business/economics has become the foundation of western culture, its practitioners have circulated and tend to believe a number of myths and truisms, many of which are in fact half-truths.

You get what you pay for.

No.  You can’t get what you don’t pay for, but between over-inflated prices of certain goods (ranging from luxury products to certain prescription drugs and other aspects of health care), counterfeits, and cheap knock-offs, you often don’t get what you pay for.

 High pay is required to assure competence, especially in upper management.

High pay attracts people who are motivated by money, and higher than average pay is required for people with specialties that require long and expensive training, but there’s an upper limit, and this half-truth varies greatly in different segments of society.  More than a few studies have shown that comparatively lower-paid CEOs who are not “personalities” in general out-perform the highest-paid CEOs.  In addition, a significant percentage of the highest-paid money managers actually lose more money over time for their clients than gain it.  Likewise, money-motivated competence varies tremendously across fields.  A professional academic musician generally has more education than any MBA, but makes a fraction of the income of those MBAs in business and usually at least 30%  less than a business professor with an MBA and more like 50% less than a law professor with a J.D.  The same salary differentials apply to other academics teaching “humanities,” as well as most teachers.

Supply and demand always works better than regulation.

 This is a half-truth because it’s true as far as it goes, but doesn’t consider the implications, or what is meant by “better.”  Supply and demand is indeed the most “efficient” way to determine the allocation of goods and services, but that efficiency doesn’t take into account other values.  In a total free-market economy, in a famine, those who have money will pay higher prices for food… and will survive.  The poorest would not.  In addition, in a high-tech society, as noted above, even the most sophisticated consumer cannot determine the quality of certain goods, such as drugs, some beverages, even some foods, and therefore may well pay more for goods than “true” supply and demand would require. We’ve seen a similar issue in health care, where the “supply” of certain health care services costs more than many people can afford, which is one [but not the only] reason why tens of millions of Americans cannot afford health care.

The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

It is often true, in the case of dividend-paying stocks and bonds, that higher-risk issues have to pay out more than less risky ones, but this analogy truism breaks down in society.  Fire-fighters and police officers certainly face far greater risks than hedge fund managers, but they make a small fraction of the income that financial professionals do.  In professional sports played by both genders, such as basketball or golf, the risks are the same, but the males make more.  Now, this is justified historically by the argument that the demand for watching males is higher, and that can’t be disputed, but that points out that all of these myths/truisms are anything but absolute, even though they’re all too often dragged out as absolutes, especially by business people in pursuit of the bottom line and more of everyone else’s money.

The business model works better.

This half-truth has recently been promoted as the answer to virtually every ill in public institutions ranging from schools and universities, to municipalities, charities, public hospitals, and prisons. And, of course, the question is, again, what is meant by “better.”  In education, the business model has been applied in terms of teacher-pupil ratios or in higher-education, what disciplines are most “cost-effective.”  Unsurprisingly, the hard sciences and the performing arts are the least cost-effective educational disciplines, because the sciences require expensive equipment and additional laboratory sessions and the performing arts require intensive one-on-one training, especially in vocal music. While good financial management is clearly a necessity in any organization handling significant resources, the bottom line of the business model is to cut unnecessary expenses, and services/products which do not cover their costs, and to maximize revenues.  The business imperative is to look out for the business, and only to look beyond the business as necessary to assure its profitability and survival.

Public institutions, by their nature, provide goods and services that society has deemed necessary, even if not “profitable” for the specific institution.  That is why they are public institutions. Public hospitals are mandated to provide health care to people who will never pay their bills.  Schools must handle problem students and disabled students whose education is anything but profitable or cost-effective from the business standpoint.  Fire-fighters will often spend more time and effort putting out a fire than a structure is worth, even when no others are threatened.

So… the next time someone starts spouting these economic “truths,” it wouldn’t hurt to think about just how “true” they are in the case in point, especially if it’s a politician doing the spouting.



Senator Mike Lee of Utah protested the representation of his position on the television show “Newsroom.” On the show the lead character, a news anchor, states that Lee is for the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment.  He also says that Lee has a double-digit lead over Senator Bennett, the most conservative member of the Senate. For those who actually follow politics, the show is only partially correct.  Lee only favors repealing the part of the Fourteenth Amendment that allows citizenship to any child born in the United States of foreign-born parents here illegally, and Bob Bennett never got to a primary election because he didn’t even get 20% of the votes in the Republican state caucus.  The problem the writers of the show faced was that trying to explain what really happened would have lost most of the audience.  So they opted for a simplification that was essentially true to the spirit of the situation, showing Lee’s ultra-conservatism and his appeal to the far-right Republicans, but, factually, it was a misstatement, resulting in a half-truth, if you will.

This whole tempest in a Utah teapot, however, raises a much larger issue.  How does one raise vital issues in a complex world with a twenty-second attention span without either losing the majority in the details or oversimplifying into half-truths that can often be misleading? In the case of Mike Lee, the half-truth is partly incorrect, but not misleading.  He is now in all probability the most right-wing senator serving in the Senate, and if not, so close to it that in political terms it makes little difference.

Although I’ve criticized the opponents of the Affordable Health Care Act for their misleading statements and half-truths, the fact is that, for all its virtues, its supporters have also engaged in a campaign of half-truths, because the act won’t solve all of the health insurance problems facing the United States.  Even the individual mandate features won’t force full coverage, because the fines imposed for not having coverage are most likely to cost non-compliers less than insurance would, for those who could afford insurance, and for those who cannot, it’s rather difficult to obtain funds from those who have none.

Senators and U.S. representatives who head to Washington promising to balance the federal budget and get spending under control are spouting half-truths, if not total falsehoods, because no senator and no representative can do that by himself or herself.  Any successful legislation requires in these days 60% of the Senate and a majority of the House of Representatives, and all the rhetoric in the world won’t change that.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the world in which we live.  As I’ve noted before, we all prefer simple answers and explanations, but most of the problems we face don’t have simple answers.  The tax code, for example, is a complete nightmare of complexity.  Why?  Because straight and simple taxes are often unfair and fall disproportionately on certain individuals or people who live in different places or under differing circumstances. New industries might never develop without certain tax breaks, and so Congress, almost as soon as an income tax was made constitutional, began to amend and change the tax code, both in the interest of “fairness” and in order to encourage and discourage certain behaviors. Those who wanted those changes certainly didn’t tell the “whole truth.”  They said what they hoped would get what they wanted.

In the end, everyone wants the “other guy” to tell the whole truth, but not to tell it themselves, and that hasn’t changed a lot since the dawn of government, and certainly not since the founding of the United States, but too many half-truths result in fundamental misunderstandings and problems in a time of greater complexity and greater ramifications arising from all too many business, political, and technological changes.

That said… will half-truths persist?  Of course. They’ll even multiply, based on the all too human need for a simplicity that doesn’t exist in a modern world.



The other day I was reading a report on the results of a psychological survey.  I can’t say that the results shocked me, but they were interesting.  Controlling for all other controllable factors, those people who are the happiest are married, religious, conservative extremists.  The next most happy are married, religious, liberal extremists, but there are a whole lot fewer of them, because very few extreme liberals are also religious.  And needless to say, according to the study, the most unhappy are unmarried, non-religious moderates.

The study didn’t attempt to analyze the reasons behind those findings, but from what I’ve seen, people tend to be the happiest when their lives are the most stable.  Being married, especially for a long time, makes for stability.  So does a philosophical mindset that remains stable and undisturbed by facts contrary to that mindset, and extremists almost never consider that which might upset their beliefs.  Likewise, for the religious, religion provides great stability and comfort.

Now… it’s no secret that the American political process has become polarized, and each of the major parties has come to embrace platforms and issues tending toward the extreme.  Yet, as each election in recent years has come around, there’s been an apparent groundswell of voters saying that the parties don’t represent them, that they’re more middle of the road. I’m beginning to wonder about that.

And there’s another factor involved.  When I was a much younger man, in high school and in college, when young people were asked what they wanted to be, most had fairly concrete ideas, not that many didn’t change their minds.  They wanted to be pilots, doctors, electricians, even plumbers, and some even wanted to be President. Today, when I or my wife asks college students what they want to be, the single largest response, dwarfing all others, is:  “I want to be happy.”

So does anyone who is sane, I think.  Who really would want to be unhappy [although I’ve known a few people in that category]?  But the problem with that response is twofold.  First, in practical terms, happiness isn’t really a goal;  it’s a mindset and response to what else you’re doing in life.  Second, if happiness does become a goal, what makes it most possible?  Apparently, a mindset that, over time, is incompatible with a representative democratic republic comprised of a population with a growing economic and ethnic diversity.

Just a few thoughts….


Intellectual Property Piracy: A Few [More] Thoughts

Given a number of reactions to my last blog, as well as the ongoing discussions, I realized, if rather belatedly, that two aspects of the whole question of the piracy of items mainly of intellectual property, e.g., movies, books, and music, seem to have been overlooked, or at least greatly minimized.  The first aspect is the fact that people regard items largely embodying intellectual property as fundamentally different from other items of property that are also bought and sold in commerce. Many people, as indicated by a number of comments on this blog, tend to regard the purchase of a piece of music or a book as a permanent license to that music or book, with no requirement to purchase another copy when the first is no longer available or useable.

My wife is a singer and a professor of voice and opera.  She has original, i.e., bought and paid for, sheet music for over 5,000 songs, largely from opera, oratorio, art song and the like, or music theatre.  Sheet music is expensive.  And at the end of every school year, she has to replace some of that sheet music, some because it’s old and literally falling apart, or otherwise damaged or unreadable, and some because it has “disappeared,” in one way or another.  Voice students who enter competitions must supply one or two [depending on the competition] original pieces of sheet music for each song that they have on their competition entry sheet.  Use of copies disqualifies them.  Often the student’s teacher supplies one copy [legally borrowed from the teacher], and the student supplies the other. It doesn’t matter how many times my wife or a student has bought a particular piece of sheet music; copies are not allowed.

Likewise, and perhaps this marks my mindset, there certain books that I’ve bought several copies of over the years when the previous copy deteriorated or was damaged or lost.  I didn’t feel that I “owned” the right to Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light when the dachshund dragged it off the lowest shelf of the bookcase and used it as a chew toy.  I bought another.

When we buy a pastry from a fancy bakery, we don’t think that we should get all subsequent versions of that pastry for free… or reduced rates.  So why do people think that books or music are different?  Goods in trade are goods in trade.  Admittedly, probably the only reason other goods aren’t pirated is because there’s either no way for an individual to make a copy or the cost of making it would exceed the cost of buying it.

What’s different about ebooks, music, and movies is that we as a society have reached the point where these items can be copied cheaply and almost undetectably.  Because the cost of copying has become so cheap, at least some people, and that “some” becomes tens of millions in the aggregate, equate the cost of duplication to the value of the item.

One commenter justified making pirate copies of DVDs because his videos were damaged in moving by events beyond his control.  Well… by that token, shouldn’t all of us be able to pirate or get knock-off copies of anything that’s been damaged or stolen by others [and I’m not talking about insurance, because you pay for insurance]?  Another claimed that the movie industry was flooding the market, and that publishers were doing the same, but in point of fact there are fewer movies released annually today than there were in the years between 1930 and 1960, and in F&SF, the number of books released by major and specialty publishers has remained fairly constant for about ten years.  What that commenter was essentially saying was that people can’t afford all that is out there, and because the quality is uneven, they pirate. Not having the money to afford goods or because the quality is uneven is a valid excuse to pirate?

Several other commenters made the point that the drop-off in paperback sales is due to high prices.  That’s frankly bullshit… or a cop-out, if not both. I went back and looked at the paperback prices of my fantasy novels in 1995.  That was before the big drop-off in paperback sales began. Paperback versions of my fantasy novels were then priced at $6.99.  My latest paperback novels are priced at $7.99.  Over this period U.S. inflation, measured by the U.S. CPI, has been just about exactly 50%, while the price of paperbacks has gone up 14.3%. In real dollar purchasing power, paperback books [at least mine] now cost less in real purchasing power than they did 17 years ago. Pricing shouldn’t be an excuse. Now, it may very well be that many would-be readers today don’t want to pay as much as either they or their predecessors once did… but please… it’s not the price “increases.”  And by the same token, an ebook priced at $7.99 today would “cost” $5.34 in 1995 dollars.

Another possibility for the drop-off is simply that reading skills have declined. Studies show that a greater percentage of the population has difficulty concentrating on long reading passages, and if reading is a chore, then it’s not enjoyable, and those people won’t read as much. Reading also takes a lot longer for a pay-off/satisfaction…and we have become a more “instant” society.  So… in terms of price, people may well not wish to pay as much for a book as they once did… but it’s not because the books are more expensive, but because people wish to pay less, and that’s not the same thing… and, again, justifying piracy or theft because the price is more than one wants to pay is in fact intellectually dishonest, not to mention illegal.

Finally, the second, and equally disturbing, aspect of intellectual property piracy is that it effectively devalues the creators of such property, particularly in the case of authors, in comparison to other occupations in society, not because the worth of those creations has changed, but because the easy of pirating them has increased manyfold. Twenty years ago, most F&SF books sold 30,000- 100,000 copies in paperback, if not more.  Today, the same authors and authors of the same level of popularity and ability are only selling 10,000 – 40,000, and their ebook sales only make up a fraction of the difference.  Is the product worth that much less?  I don’t think so, but I’ve seen author after author vanish as their sales decreased below the level of profitability.  I’ve mentioned this on and off for the past four years, and people nod and agree, but paperback book sales have plummeted, and hardcover sales have declined, and ebook sales have not made up the difference.

Buying a book equals unlimited free lifetime copies?  Not until I get free unlimited lifetime pizzas for purchasing one pizza.


High Tech Dishonesty

I hate to suggest it, but there’s more and more evidence out there that either high technology users are more dishonest than the rest of the population or high technology has a greater attraction for the dishonest… if not both. The June  20th edition of Scientific American reports on the results of a study on movie piracy, and it turns out that the movies with the highest percentage of piracy are science fiction and high-tech thrillers, and that the annual cost of such piracy in just those genres exceeds a quarter of a billion dollars.

There are literally scores of bit-torrent sites advertising my books for free, at times even before the first hardcover release, so many sites that it would take almost all my time just to even contact them to demand they stop making the books available.  And frankly, I don’t care what a handful of authors say about the wide-spread dissemination of their work resulting in greater sales of their newer works.  In point of fact, most authors have suffered significant losses from internet piracy.  An admittedly random survey of such sites also indicates, as with movies, that a significantly disproportionate number of titles fall into the F&SF area.

Part of this, I’m convinced, is that high-tech oriented people are, in general, less patient.  They want it NOW.  Many of them have little patience for the quirks and foibles of marketing and for the reality that some people in any field, including bookselling, are not as competent as they could be, nor are these individuals particularly understanding of what goes into producing information.  I’ve even seen gripes that ebooks are being priced higher than bargain or remaindered versions of hardcovers.  Alas, I also know authors, some of long-standing in the field, who fail to understand this and go around spouting the wonders of the internet, without comprehending the costs to themselves and to the field.

Then, there’s the “information wants to be free” group, who, as I’ve discussed before, all too often really just mean, “I don’t want to pay for any information.”  Sometimes, this is disguised under the idea, such as with ebooks, that because the marginal cost of transmitting and disseminating the information is so low, the prices charged for information [books] are too high. In this regard, I’d like to point out one small matter.  I manage to write a little over two books a year, and it takes me roughly five months to write a fantasy novel. How would any of you who “justify” using torrents or other illegal sources to get my work for nothing like to feel that users of five months of your labor shouldn’t have to pay anything?  That doesn’t count the services of cover artists, proof-readers or editors.

Now, again, I must stress, I am NOT against technology. I am against its abuse. As part of this same trend, internet scams and other high-tech enabled crimes have skyrocketed over the past decade so much so that no enforcement authority really has any idea just how prevalent this is.  There are only estimates, some possibly accurate. I must get 20-30 of these daily, most but not all trapped by my spam filters.  And the behavior and business ethics, or lack of same, by internet and tech entrepreneurs such as Bezos and Zuckerburg doesn’t do much for presenting a case for high-minded behavior in the tech arena, either.

Much of this, I realize, is simply that high-tech offers greater opportunities for everything, and dishonesty is part of those opportunities. The second part is that, because of the impersonality of high-tech, particularly the internet, it becomes easier for those inclined to cut corners or be dishonest to rationalize their behavior, i.e., authors make lots; they won’t miss the sale of a few books; anyone who’s stupid enough to fall for the phishing scheme deserves to lose their money; the entertainment moguls charge too much for movies – and so it goes. It’s still rationalizing dishonesty, and it’s anything but a healthy direction for society, and it particularly distresses me to learn that a disproportionate amount of it comes from the F&SF –oriented sector.


Flash Culture?

A few weeks ago I came across an article in a magazine that I thought had at least a vestige of culture and sophistication.  The article claimed that rap singer Kanye West was an “American Mozart,” and I didn’t bother to finish it. Now, I will admit that I’ve only heard perhaps two songs, if that, by Kanye West, and I don’t care for rap, because every rap song I’ve tried to listen to comes across as essentially hip and violent with a monotonous driving beat.  I do know that the man has designed special Nike shoes that sell for something like $245 a pair.  But really, jumped up sneakers for $245?

The follow-up is that the latest edition of that magazine contained a letter to the editor objecting to the characterization of West as an “American Mozart,” to which the writer of the article had replied to the effect that West was indeed that, since he was appealing to the culture of today, just as Mozart had appealed to that of Vienna in the late eighteen century.

After I pulled my jaw back in place, I thought about the whole thing. To begin with, Mozart was never an eighteenth century “pop star,” even in just Vienna, or even just in the court of Emperor Josef.  According to compilations I’ve seen, four other composers had more performances of their works, and to greater acclaim and popularity.  The “pop music” hero of the time was more likely to be Salieri, not Mozart.

So, I wouldn’t have objected nearly so much, if the writer had characterized Kanye West as an “American Salieri,” here and highly popular, and then likely to be forgotten, because his work is essentially forgettable – not necessarily for lack of talent [although I will leave that judgment to others], but because the very form in which he works, like the popular works of Salieri and other popular composers of that time, lacks the breadth, depth, and sweeping sophistication of a Mozart or a Beethoven, or even of a Liszt [who was both a classical and popular sensation of the nineteenth century].

And what’s the point of this comparison?  It’s not a niggling about Kanye West, but a reflection of a far larger concern – that we are fast becoming a “flash” culture with little understanding of what is transitory and what may be permanent, and even less knowledge or understanding of our past, historical or artistic or technical. I understand that the person in the street, if you will, might not understand the historical nuances and references, but to me, it’s disturbing that a writer featured in a magazine which prides itself on reporting on “culture” apparently has neither that knowledge nor that understanding.

This lack of understanding, unhappily, goes well beyond culture.  According to surveys taken by  the American Revolution Center, sixty percent of Americans could identify the number of children of reality TV couple John and Kate Gosselin, but more than a third could not tell in what century the American Revolution took place. More Americans know the names of Michael Jackson’s hit songs than that the Bill of Rights is part of the U.S. Constitution. A shocking 70% don’t even know what the Constitution actually is. Only 20% of Americans understand the principle of the scientific method.  More than 40% believe that antibiotics are effective against viruses.  Forty percent believe dinosaurs existed at the same time as human beings, and forty-five percent don’t know how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun.

But ask them about pop songs, and they know… so long as they’re current. Most college freshmen in a popular music course in my wife’s university didn’t know who Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland were.

Welcome to the world of the flash culture.



For reasons I won’t go into, I do not have a personal Facebook page.  Nor will I join LinkedIn or any other social network or media. I have so far been able to respond to all emails, as well as any inquiries posted on the “Questions for the Author” section of the site — provided, of course, that a valid email address is provided.  I cannot and will not respond through Facebook or social media, however, and, since I’ve recently received some messages which can only be replied to by Facebook, I thought I should make this clear.