Archive for July, 2013

Should you…?

The New York Times recently ran an expose of Goldman-Sachs’ venture into the commodities markets, and the result of the firm’s purchase of a company that effectively gave Goldman control over the spot market in aluminum.  The upshot of the Goldman purchase is that, as a result, the price of aluminum – that essential metal for both aircraft and soft-drink cans – has doubled, as have delivery times, and the additional cost to consumers is roughly $5 billion annually.

Now… I can see the argument for large business takeovers that benefit someone besides the company taking over, and I can see some benefits to at least someone in corporate behaviors such as those of  as Walmart that have driven out thousands of local stores through lower prices and lower wages to employees. The average consumer benefits by getting lower prices, even if the workers get screwed, and small store owners and employees lose their jobs. And there are cases where huge financial corporations do get caught for illegal manipulations, which appears to be the case in the recent charges by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that J.P. Morgan illegally manipulated the price of electricity.  The Goldman aluminum case is a bit different.  Prices are up, as are delivery times, and everyone gets screwed but Goldman.  The thing is… it’s perfectly legal under existing law.

In fact, as Americans are slowly realizing, a great deal of the financial machinations that led to the financial crisis, from whose results which we are hopefully finally beginning to emerge, were also perfectly legal.  It turns out that it wasn’t illegal to lend money to borrowers who could not repay those loans, at least so long as the documents weren’t fraudulent.  It wasn’t illegal to collateralize and securitize those bad investments, and it wasn’t illegal to create such a mess than the government had to bail out those institutions in order to keep the banking sector from collapsing. These are facts hammered at me by more than a few legal, financial, and mortgage types over the past several years.

All this brings up a more fundamental question.  Just because something is “legal,” does that make it right?  Should you engage in legal but unethical behavior?  All too many business types do this every day, and such behavior illustrates a basic change in American as well as other societies that has occurred gradually but inexorably over the past century or so.  Once upon a time, much of the law was merely a limited codification that outlawed what society viewed as the worst excesses of human behavior. Human social codes and behaviors also exerted a certain pressure on individuals and businesses to be more ethical.

But as laws have swelled and become more complex and prescriptive, those social conventions have eroded, more and more people seem to have come to believe that, if the law doesn’t forbid something, it’s all right to do it.  In turn, in the United States, and elsewhere around the world, people have reacted by attempting to put their own parochial religious and moral beliefs into the law… which generates more and more conflict of the type that the Founding Fathers wished to avoid by separating church and state.

Years ago, a political science professor I studied under observed that when people used power excessively and irresponsibly, society always eventually reacted to reduce or eliminate that power.  We’re beginning to see that reaction… and the result is most likely to be something that few of us will enjoy. All because we’ve decided, as a society, that if it’s not illegal, we can do it… whether we really should or not.



In a recent column, Bill O’Reilly made the observation that while Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy, it was also an example of the dangers of confrontation, in that Zimmerman was told by the 911 dispatcher not to follow Martin and not to confront him.  While we don’t know exactly what happened between the two, what we do know is that Zimmerman did not avoid Martin, nor Martin Zimmerman… and the result was fatal. O’Reilly went on to point out that he often has to back away from confronting stupidity or error, simply because doing so would be far too dangerous, either physically or legally.

On the surface, this is simple wisdom. Don’t get into confrontational situations because they can escalate into dangerous or even potentially fatal incidents… or result in huge lawsuits, if not both.  But, the truer that advice may be, the more it suggests how violent and/or litigation-happy our society has become… as well as how intransigent all too many people have become. I’ve seen and experienced the absolute arrogance displayed by all manner of Americans, from the anti-abortionists, the gun-rights-absolutists to militant feminists who declare that every act of heterosexual intercourse is an act of rape, to the arrogance of minority youth whose speech and attitudes show no understanding or respect of anyone clearly not able to flatten them, and that range of arrogance and intransigence also includes professors and politicians, red-necks, students and professionals… and a whole lot of others.

A great deal of this I attribute to a society-wide attitude that anyone has the right to do anything in public short of actual physical violence to another [and sometimes even that] and say anything to anyone, regardless of how hurtful, how hateful, or how anger-provoking it may be.  Or for that matter, how disruptive it may be.  Hate speech may be a “right,” but it’s neither ethical nor wise. Allowing screaming children running through the supermarket is not only unpleasant but disruptive and can be dangerous… but you risk physical damage if you suggest curtailing hate speech or someone’s unruly offspring… and that’s just the beginning.

Now… I’m scarcely arguing for confrontation, because I’m not, but whatever happened to such things as moderate behavior, in both expressing an opinion and in reacting to it?

Violent confrontation shouldn’t be socially acceptable, and neither should unruly, anti-social, or disruptive public conduct.

The Reason Why…?

I just read an online review of Princeps in which the reviewer declared that he was wrong about my motivations in writing the subseries in The Imager Portfolio that begins with Scholar.  Apparently, the reviewer had originally thought I was fighting off stagnation with Rhennthyl, but didn’t want to abandon the series.  The reviewer’s second thought was that I’d created such an enormous back-story that I just didn’t want to abandon all that work.

If this reviewer had just looked at any of my fantasy series, or even some of my science fiction, he or she might just have realized that I like to write a sweep of history… and that even in my stand-alone books, history plays a large part.  But no… the reviewer has to imply that, if I “abandon” a subseries after three books, I must be fighting stagnation or dying to use all my back-story material. What about looking at where Rhennthyl is in his life?  He’s surmounted all dramatic enemies, and now, for the remainder of his life he has to be essentially a high-level Imager bureaucrat [unless I chose to write totally unrealistic books] and a teacher, both of which are vital to the future of Solidar, but not generally the stuff of dramatic adventure. Or what about looking at what I’ve written or how… or even asking? As long-time readers know, the five books about Quaeryt and Vaelora are the sole exception to my never having written more than three books about a given set of characters.

All this points out the danger of ascribing motives to writers, and of not doing a certain amount of “homework” before writing a review.  Such ignorant arrogance is also the mark of either laziness or incompetence… or total amateurism, if not all three.  But it’s also symptomatic of all too much criticism and commentary that pervades the world-wide web, in that all too many “writers” or “critics” believe that all it takes to be either is a pedestrian command of language, a computer, and a little knowledge.  And, after all, all opinions are equally valid.

But they’re not, except in the mind of the opinion-giver. Everyone has an equal right to an opinion, but that right has little to do with accuracy… or understanding.

Now… I’m certainly not the only writer to be “blessed” with this sort of condescending “analysis.”  Almost any writer who has published for any length of time has received similar comments and reviews.  While I often wince at so-called factual reviews, which suggest flaws in style or in content (often non-existent, in my opinion), those reviews at least deal with the words on the page… rather than gratuitously attempting to ascribe motives to the author. The same is true of critiques of style, pacing, etc., all of which deal with what has been written, rather than motivational analysis.

So… for all of you critics and would-be critics out there… stick to what we wrote.  You can even suggest what we didn’t write and should have.  Leave the psychoanalysis to our wives, husbands, partners, or shrinks.  That way, you have better odds of being closer to accurate.

Education and the “Administrative” Model

A question occurred to me the other day, and that was why, in some organizations, such as colleges and universities, once one becomes an administrator, salaries go way up, and real accountability appears to go down.  Even as a tenured full professor, my wife has to fill out an annual report on what she has accomplished, and how, and then face post-tenure review every few years.  I can’t see that any administrator faces that kind of scrutiny.

Now… I suppose that wouldn’t be so bad if I could only figure out what all those administrators do.  Over the time that she’s been at the university, the student body has essentially tripled, while faculty, including adjuncts [as full-time equivalents], has only grown a little more than fifty percent, yet the administrative positions have tripled, including more deans and vice-presidents. Despite all these new administrators, the administrative requirements placed on full-time faculty have continued to increase.  The salaries for clerical staff and faculty have not, on average, kept pace with inflation, but administrative salaries have soared. Although the university president’s salary has more than doubled, as I noted in a previous blog, the Board of Regents wants to increase it by more than 13% this year, while holding faculty salaries to a one percent increase and essentially negating that by the increases in health care costs paid by faculty and by increasing the health co-pay by 50% -100%.

I tend to find this whole thing disconcerting, because the faculty members are the ones doing the teaching [and at this university, teaching, not research, is what they’re paid for], while the administrators do… well… I have yet to figure out what about half of them do, except create more work by faculty by demanding more information and more reports, and by implementing new systems that are more often than not worse and more time-consuming, at least for faculty, than the previous system. I’m certain I’m misguided in this modern age, but I was under the impression that administrative systems are supposed to support the business at hand, not hamper it.

While I have a number of problems with professional athletics, in that field, there’s at least some recognition that you can’t field a team or win games without paying players what they’re worth [if sometimes way more than they’re worth].  In education, again, at least at state universities, the big salaries seem to go to administrators – and their close relatives, the business professors.  Then come the high-profile professors, whether they’re good teachers or not.  In the middle are the tenure and tenure-track professors, and near the bottom of the full-time pile are the clerical and low-level administrative aides.  At the very bottom are adjunct instructors and teaching assistants, who now comprise over 50% of the teaching faculty at most universities.

In major league sports, even the lowest paid journeymen get a living wage, and the players outnumber the administrators. Not so in academia… which just might have a bit to do with the increasing costs of higher education.

Impeach Obama?

This past weekend, I got an unsolicited telephone message with a Washington, D.C., area code and the identifier “Impeach Obama.” I didn’t answer it.  I don’t answer most unsolicited calls, especially political ones, but the “identifier” bothered me.  I’ve been involved with or close to national politics for more than forty years, and I’ve never seen this kind of extremism before, particularly the hate-mongering in the guise of “fundamental” values on the part of groups associated with the tea partiers or the Republican Party.  I certainly don’t expect people to be wildly pleased with the president if he wasn’t their choice in the first place, but there’s a difference between informed opposition, even uninformed opposition, and rabid unthinking hatred rationalized by simplistic [and factually incorrect] sound bites and prejudice.

There’s a great deal that Obama’s done with which I don’t agree, and a great deal that I think he should have done and didn’t, but I can’t think of a single major act he’s taken that isn’t similar to at least one of his predecessors, if not several.  He’s not the first president to spy on Americans in the United States; he’s certainly not the first one to attempt to address immigration issues and to try to give illegal immigrants legal status.  He hasn’t made the kind of radical changes in the position of the federal government that Franklin Roosevelt did.  His one “arms scandal” was minute compared to Reagan’s “Iran-contra” arms deals.  He isn’t the one who struck down the Defense of Marriage Act – the Supreme Court did that all on its own.  He’s been trying to close Guantanamo Bay for years, and the Congress won’t let him. He didn’t even try to repeal the Second Amendment (although the NRA would have all its members believe that); he just wanted background checks on gun purchasers and a few restrictions on certain weapons and the size of magazines. As for the Obamacare business… has anyone else even attempted to address the plight of 46 million Americans without health insurance?  If the Republicans, or others, had attempted anything that would actually have accomplished something, I might be a tad more sympathetic, but “NO!” isn’t a program or a solution to anything.

If we’re talking about political dysfunction, the most dysfunctional branch of government isn’t the Executive Branch, but the Congress.  It can’t agree with itself on anything.  But I don’t see any large political movements to throw out members of Congress, or telephone solicitations with “Impeach Congress” identifiers. 

Some state governments are almost as dysfunctional – and stupid – especially when they pass laws that attempt to override or nullify federal law.  Like it or not, the supremacy clause of the Constitution means that states cannot override federal law, and passing laws in contravention of federal law is generally counterproductive and a waste of taxpayer dollars.  Again… I don’t see any rabid reaction to such waste and stupidity there, either.

I’ve talked with more than a few of the types that support this kind of “impeachment” rhetoric, and they all come up with semi-rational reasons.  They just can’t explain why, if they feel this way, they haven’t applied the same standards to previous presidents… or, for that matter, to other politicians… except perhaps to Bill Clinton, also perceived as too liberal, who faced impeachment essentially for lying about sexual indiscretions, as if sexual indiscretion had much to do with public policy, unlike the lies of the Reagan administration about Iran-Contra arms deals, but somehow the right wing wasn’t concerned enough about those lies to push through impeachment proceedings.  They just indicted eleven lower-level officials, all of  whom either had their sentences vacated on appeal or were pardoned by the first Bush administration.

So why do apparently Republican offshoots and/or sympathizers organize clearly significant telephone solicitation campaigns to “Impeach Obama”?  I have the very uneasy feeling that it’s a political appeal based on a barely concealed form of racism, and that appeal is being made because they either (1) don’t have another even halfway reasonable set of constructive proposals with wide enough popular appeal to win the presidency, (2) can’t raise enough support for what they really believe in; or (3) just can’t stand the thought of a black president popular enough to be elected twice.

The idea of elections is that, if the majority of Americans want a change in government, they can vote for someone else.  Clearly, a majority doesn’t want that change, or at least they didn’t in the last Presidential election.  Yet whoever is behind the “Impeach Obama” campaign can’t seem to accept the results of the election.

Whatever the reason, it’s a chilling representation of a certain mindset.

Pushing Boundaries

The other day, my wife the university professor asked another of her very good questions: “Why do so many critics equate pushing boundaries with excellence?”

Why indeed?  Does more violence, more nudity and sexual content, or the detailing of the depths of human depravity have much at all to do with excellence?  Let’s face it.  Nude human bodies are similar to other nude human bodies, and death and violence have always been with human beings. So have depraved behaviors.  With the advent of HDTV, Blu-Ray, and similar high resolution video media, nudity and violence are now depicted in stunning visual detail right in the home.  As I recall, the science fiction writer Marian Zimmer Bradley (who also wrote pornography under various pseudonyms) once made an observation to the effect that pornographic sex was like writing about plumbing.  And, in a way, excessive sword and slash fantasy is like rather crude dissection.  If adults want to watch detailed plumbing and dissection, so long as it doesn’t involve children or other perversions, that’s largely their right under the first amendment… but let’s not equate it with excellence.

At least in my mind – and historically – excellence is the concept for striving for something higher, not a depiction in greater detail of something sordid, fatal, or demeaning. And while Game of Thrones, for example, certainly has great supporters, and its visuals – at least from the trailers/ads – are stunning, I gave up on the books shortly after the first one, simply because, although Martin writes well, that skill is employed most effectively at portraying a society where there is really no such thing as excellence except in violence and betrayal.

Perhaps I’m dated, or old-fashioned, but to me, the employment of talent to portray the worse in human behavior with no counterpoint of the best in human nature is the equivalent of moral pornography, in addition to the pornography of sex and violence.  And even if it the best is portrayed along with the worst, humans being humans, they concentrate on the worst. In addition, such graphic portrayals also desensitize at least a percentage of younger viewers, a trend that is continuing in pretty much all forms of the arts, so that music must be louder and simpler to retain its appeal, movies – at least the blockbusters – are simpler (and, as an aside, there are so few good songs in movies that the Academy Awards might as well eliminate that category) and ask less and less of the audience in terms of knowledge and understanding, all of which is perfectly understandable from the marketing point of view.

Then again, it could be that pushing boundaries is the only thing some of these movies and mini-series have going for them… and the rest don’t even have that.

The Dependability Fallacy

In almost every bit of advice about success there’s something about the need to be dependable.  Even Woody Allen, who, for all of the craziness of his personal life, has certainly been artistically and professionally successful, once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”  In other words, be there on a dependable basis.

 The only problem with this is that it isn’t totally true. From what I’ve observed, in the military, in business, in government, and in education, people who are talented and dependable are all too often viewed, particularly the longer they’ve been in an organization, as solid and… well… dull, not terribly innovative and creative.  And I can also say that I’ve seen the same thing happen in the field of writing.  Time after time, I’ve watched talented and dependable people pushed aside for younger, more “brilliant” newcomers, and in a reversal of the Woody Allen percentages, I’d said that in about 80% of the cases, those new, “young,” and brilliant types managed to screw things up.  Often the work of the “dependable” individuals is actually more creative and innovative than that of those who make brilliant presentations but never actually accomplish more than a mediocre job.   

 There is, of course, an underlying reason why the “dependable” are so-often shunted aside, minimized, or even discarded, and it’s fairly obvious, and simple, and usually ignored.  All organizations have limits.  People who are talented and dependable – and responsible – understand those limits, either implicitly or explicitly. They know that, for example, why a seemingly brilliant idea won’t work, and, in many cases, has failed several times, each time with another charismatic individual who is convinced that force of personality will accomplish the impossible.  Once in a very great while that happens, but the benefits of that infrequent success doesn’t begin to cover the costs of all the unsuccessful efforts.  But no new supervisor or executive wants to be told that his or her brilliant idea won’t work, and the dependable workers get faced with an impossible situation – if you oppose the idea, you and your career are toast, and if you do your best and it fails you’re toast.

 All this, of course, also ties into the “new is better” philosophy, which is often even worse than the “we’ve always done it this way” philosophy, which, at the very least, works, if not so well as as an incrementally better way might, but in most organizations steady incremental improvements are overlooked in favor of a single “brilliant” one-time achievement. I’ve seen, more than a few times, a middle-management professional double or triple, or in some cases quintuple output with the same level of resources, but because they did it over five or ten years, it’s overlooked in favor of the professional who posts a one-year 25% increase by spending more and burning out people so that improvements for years to come are negligible.

 Then, too, in large multi-layered organizations or institutions, those who make the decisions on raises and promotions often never really understand what goes on at lower levels and rely on summaries and aggregated statistics presented by immediate subordinates who tend not to stay in any position very long. 

This is often why the best of  small companies are often quite successful… and then become less productive or even fail when they’re acquired by large conglomerates – because the expertise and dependability necessary for a smaller company to survive is less vital to more senior executives whose success often depends more on political maneuvering than day-in, day-out task-oriented performance.

 The result, from what I’ve observed, is that, in the majority of organizations and institutions, the higher one moves, the less dependability is valued, unless dependability is defined as being dependably loyal to those who can reward and advance one’s career.

Not Wanting to Know

Recently here in Cedar City, there have been several letters decrying the direction of the university as a “liberal arts” institution and complaining about the high cost of tuition.  My initial – and continuing – reaction has been along the lines of what planet are these idiots from? 

The university has always had a liberal arts/teaching focus, from the days of its founding over a century ago, and its tuition is so low that its out-of-state tuition and fees are lower than the in-state fees of many universities in other states.  Now, admittedly, tuition has increased more than the administration would like, entirely because the state legislature has decided to cut per-student funding while mandating enrollment increases, not only for the local university but for most of the state institutions.  Even so, considering the quality of many programs, state tuition here and elsewhere in Utah is a comparative bargain. Here, the music, art, and theatre areas have won national awards against much larger schools; the nursing program is rated as one of the best in the state and region; pre-law and pre-med students have an enviable rate of acceptance at graduate schools; and the physical education program has been so successful that it’s known as the “coaching factory.”

Unfortunately, this disregard for the facts isn’t just about college education here in Cedar City, but is symptomatic of a larger problem.  More and more, I see people ignoring the facts that conflict with what they feel and want.  It’s as if they actively avoid facts and circumstances contrary to their beliefs, as if they simply don’t want to know.  Whether it’s global warming or deficit spending, immigration, income inequality, decreased social mobility, education…or a dozen other subjects… they don’t want to know… and trying to get them to consider “contrary” facts just makes them angrier.

Part of this is an effect of civilization. If, earlier in history, you didn’t want to believe that the perils of the time – predators, floods, fire, famine, and raiders from other tribes, for example – you ended up dead.  Now that civilization has eliminated or limited the effects of those perils, and the dangers we face are more indirect and take more time to affect one, people ignore the facts about dangers.  In this regard, global warming is a good example.  I can recall predictions dating back almost twenty years suggesting that weather would get more violent with even modest rises in overall global temperatures.  Temperatures have risen; weather has become more violent; and still people debate whether global warming and its effects are real. 

On a personal level, there’s and even more stark and direct example — obesity.  Excessive weight is one of the primary causes of early death and other health hazards.  There’s absolutely no question of that… and yet Americans are the most obese nation on the face of the planet… and they scream bloody murder when a politician suggests banning serving soft drinks in 32 ounce sizes.  For heaven’s sake, does anyone really need a quart of carbonated beverage at one sitting?

But then, I suppose, why anyone would want that much at once is one of those facts I don’t want to know.


“Real” Fiction

The New York Times best-selling author Jeannette Walls was quoted in the Times this past weekend as saying, “I’m not a huge fan of experimental fiction, fantasy or so-called escapist literature. Reality is just so interesting, why would you want to escape it?”  This kind of statement represents the kind of blindness that is all too typical of all too many “mainstream” writers and critics.

In fact, the best science fiction, fantasy, and other “escapist” literature puts a reader, in a real sense, “outside” the framework of current society and reality in a way that allows a perceptive individual to see beyond the confines of accepted views and cultural norms. Some readers will see this, and some will not.  As a simple, but valid example of this, take my own book, The Magic of Recluce, in which the “good guys” are ostensibly and initially portrayed as the “blacks.”  In western European derived cultures, as demonstrated by all too many westerns, where the good guys wear white Stetsons, and the bad guys crumpled black hats, in the United States, in particular, there is an equation of the color white with purity and goodness.  But this is far from a universal norm.  In many cultures, white is the color of death, and other cultures use other colors for purity.  My very deliberate inversion of this western color “norm” was designed to get readers to think a bit about that… and then, when they’d thought a while, I started writing other Recluce books from the “white” perspective, in an attempt to show the semi-idiocy of arbitrarily ascribing “color-values” to people or societies, or values to colors themselves.

I’m far from the only F&SF writer to use the genres to explore such themes or to question values or concepts, and I could list a number of writers who do.  So could most perceptive readers of F&SF.  This fact tends to get lost because fiction is for entertainment, and if we as writers fail to entertain, we don’t remain successful professional writers for very long, and, frankly, if we’re extremely successful at entertaining, we tend not to be taken seriously on other levels. Stephen King, for example, is technically a far, far better writer than is recognized, largely because of the subjects about which he writes, and not because he writes poorly – which he does not.  Only recently has there been much recognition of this fact.

Even with critics within the F&SF genre, there’s a certain dismissal of writers who are “commercially” successful as writers of “mere” popular escapism, as though anything that is popular cannot be good.  Under those criteria, Shakespeare cannot possibly be good or have any depth.  For heaven’s sake, the man wrote about sprites and monsters, faery queens, sorcerers and witches, along with battles, kings, ghosts, and ungrateful children.

Good is good;  popular is popular; and popular can be anything from technically awful to outstanding, although I’d be among the first to admit that works that are both good and popular are far rarer than those that are popular and technically weak or flawed.  And the same holds for so-called escapist fiction, no matter what the mainstream “purists” assert.

Then too, the fact is that all fiction, genre or mainstream, is “escapist.”  The only question is how far the author is taking you… and for what reasons.