Archive for September, 2014

The No-Inflation Con Game

I don’t know who’s computing the Consumer Price Index that shows the U.S. has low inflation, but their computations don’t square with my real-life experience. The filing cabinets brought it home to me, once again. Somewhere around ten years ago, I bought a legal size, two drawer, black steel filing cabinet. Last week I brought one almost identical to it, from the same big box office supply company from which I’d bought the last one – except for the price, which was almost exactly double what I paid for the one I purchased ten years earlier.

According to the U.S. Consumer Price Index, the inflation rate over the past ten years has been 25.5%, or just a shade less than 2.0% annually. The change in the price of the filing cabinet represents a rate of inflation at 8% annually, or four times the official rate. The majority of that increase is likely due to the fact that the cost of iron has almost quintupled since 2004, but by that logic, anything manufactured out of steel or iron should have increased markedly over the last ten years – far more than the 2% per year official inflation rate. Interestingly enough, over the same period the price of copper has tripled, while lead and tin are 2 ½ times what they were in 2004.

Housing prices are, overall, about the same as they were in 2004, although in some areas they’re still below 2004 levels and in others, such as Denver and Honolulu, they’re more than 20% higher. This year, one of the biggest factors holding down inflation has been the decrease in gasoline prices – except that’s just for the first nine months of this year – and gas prices are still almost double the average of ten years ago.

Then, too, the CPI has the price of men’s shirts as going down. If that’s so, why do my shirts, bought largely at sales or discount houses, but the same modest brands as I’ve worn for at least fifteen years, cost twice as much as they did ten years ago?

As for milk, its price has almost tripled since 2004, but I will admit that the cost of computer printers has definitely gone down – as has their service life – while the cost of ink and toner have gone up, again roughly double what they were ten years ago. A ream of paper now costs more than twice what it did ten years ago. My work boots have increased more modestly; they cost only 53% more than they did ten years ago.

Now, one of the ways economist discount/minimize increased prices is by factoring in “product improvement,” which definitely makes sense in some areas. There’s no doubt that cars are safer than ever before, but that improvement comes at the much higher cost for repairs of dents and dings. Several years ago, my daughter’s thick-skulled canine Woofie [short for Beowoof (intentional name pun)] side-swiped the front quarter-panel of an almost parked Volvo moving at perhaps 2 mph. Woofie got a headache and lived happily on for several more years. The damage he inflicted on the nearly new Volvo was close to $1500. Crumple zones don’t care what hits them. I also seriously doubt that this kind of cost, which certainly drives up the costs of maintaining a vehicle – and the cost of insurance – is accurately factored into inflation calculations.

While I really can’t discern any “improvements” in paper, shirts, boots, and filing cabinets, as a former economist, I can certainly note, while not exactly appreciating, the ingenuity of government economists in measuring inflation rates, in what I personally believe is a statistical con game.

Anger, Frustration, and…

Apparently the FBI has just released a report on mass shootings, covering the last fourteen years. According to the news reports I’ve seen, for the first seven years, “mass” shooting incidents in the United States hovered around and averaged six per year, while over the last seven, they’ve averaged sixteen per year. While correlation does not prove causation, it is interesting to note that the increase in mass shootings does track rather closely the Great Recession from which we have not yet fully emerged. That is, business profits, dividends, and executive compensation have more than recovered, but employment and the salaries and earnings of everyone else have not. Theoretically, inflation has only increased by something like 18% over the last seven years, but for a large percentage of American workers, wages and salaries have not kept pace, and many are making far less than they did seven years ago. Many of those fortunate enough to hold their income levels or even get modest increases are faced with far heavier workloads… with no apparent relief in sight.

Another source of frustration, or pressure, if not both, is our “everyone-is-available-all-the-time” electronic communications system, where bosses and colleagues seem to want continual answers and updates.

Then there are the feelings of discrimination… and, no matter what anyone claims, racial, sexual, gender, and economic discrimination do exist. Add to that the feeling that the discrimination has gone on long enough, and that fuels anger even more.

There’s also another form of discrimination that is on the rise – and that’s the preference by employers for credentials, such as degrees, rather than experience or actual ability to do the job. Credentials don’t always mean ability, but any employer who picks greater ability with lower official credentials over “higher” credentials risks a lawsuit… and that’s frustration for both those with greater real-world ability and for perceptive employers.

Another source of frustration, I’m convinced, is the increasing tendency of American society, and perhaps many other more societies, to focus on instant gratification. The problem there is that some things cannot be obtained “instantly.” Fast food, instant internet access to entertainment of choice, overnight deliveries of goods – those are possible. Obtaining the skills to be a successful doctor, engineer, classical singer or pianist, or even a professional athlete takes time and a great deal of just plain hard work. Too many young people have never had the experience of learning through hard work, especially for any length of time… and all too many get frustrated when finally confronted with that necessity and they’re told that their efforts and their level of achievement are not yet acceptable. A significant percentage get angry, as if it’s the fault of the employer or the college professor that they can’t instantly master the skill in question… and some actually place all the blame on employer or professor.

Then add the growing and often crushing burden of student debt for recent college and professional graduates, some of whom can’t find jobs with enough pay to cover their loan payments.

Now…obviously, most people who feel these sorts of frustrations, and others I haven’t even touched on, don’t go out and shoot people, but I suspect that there are hundreds, if not thousands who’ve wished they could.


Academic Bureaucracy

Over the last several weeks, my wife the university professor has been deluged with various new and additional academic requirements, touted by the administration as “improvements.” From my past, if limited, three years of teaching at the collegiate level and having watched my wife do it for almost twenty-five years, I’m convinced that absolutely none of these improvements have anything to do with improving teaching.

First was the requirement for rubrics in student syllabi. For those unfamiliar with rubrics, while the dictionary definition states that a rubric is a traditionally a heading or brief direction usually printed in red, in education a rubric has become an explanation for why something is required. At the collegiate level student syllabi used to be fairly short documents stating the course objectives, the assignments required to be read and by when; the dates for tests, and when papers, projects, performances were due; the grading policies and on what the grades were based. Now, the typical student syllabus runs fifteen to thirty pages. A sample “new” syllabus, incorporating the recommended rubrics, developed by the associate provost last year ran to almost sixty pages. Some students don’t even read that much in assigned readings, and many don’t even read the current syllabi. Exactly how is this near-contractual, rubric-laden syllabus, filled with the required extensive legalese, going to improve teaching or learning? It’s certainly going to require scores of additional hours on the part of professors, hours having little to do with improving the course or their teaching. What it does do is attempt to reduce the university’s legal exposure and shift it, as much as possible, to the individual teacher, especially if he or she doesn’t have a “contractual” syllabus.

The next bureaucratic assignment was to revamp all course descriptions and to modify all syllabi to incorporate ELOs, otherwise known as “educational learning outcomes,” in a format consistent with a pilot computer assessment program not yet used by any other university in the state. The format must be consistent in all fields of study, whether hard sciences, languages, art, music, physical education, business, pre-med, or economics, essentially attempting to shoehorn all disciplines into the same format and standards.

The latest pronouncement was that all documentation for professional evaluation will begin to be required in electronic format, PDF to be precise, in order to create greater efficiencies and reduce paper use. In addition, all job applications and supporting documentation must be electronic. Even as a tenured full professor, my wife is required to provide extensive documentation of her achievements annually, but the problem here is two-fold. First, most of that documentation exists in paper format and much of it will for years to come. This requires scanning and file conversion, plus learning additional computer programming skills, which is far more cumbersome and time consuming than making a simple paper copy. Second, since most senior faculty are also on tenure and promotion committees, when they review junior faculty for tenure and promotion, they have to read literally hundreds if not thousands of pages of documentation, documents that are virtually unintelligible on anything but either hard-copy paper or a full-sized computer screen. In the past, most professors would take the then-paper portfolios home and read them there, rather than stay late into the evening at their offices. Now, they’ll definitely have to stay, or print out paper copies for convenience. Even with the internet and WI-FI, trying to access the university computer system from off-campus is a tiresome and often frustrating experience.

From what I’ve observed, all of this, along with dozens of other smaller bureaucratic changes, has little to do with improving teaching, but more with bureaucratic ass-covering for the administrators. It’s all about making things easier and more efficient for the administrators. All of this paperwork – or the digital equivalent – does little to improve teaching, and just puts more work on the professors.

Interestingly enough, at least theoretically, administrators are supposed to facilitate making teaching better and to remove those barriers to better teaching, instead of imposing more non-teaching duties and requirements. Also, again theoretically, universities are supposed to be about teaching. So why are there more administrators, clerical staff, and athletic staff [some 57% of the total] among the 750 full-time employees than there are professors and full-time lecturers [43%]? Or, as my wife puts it, what does filling out endless forms about what she does and how she does it have to do with excellence in teaching? Especially when these bureaucratic requirements take so much time from preparation and teaching?

Or am I missing something?

“I Know”

Perhaps one of the most infuriating responses, especially when repeated day after day by students, subordinates, or someone hired to do a job, is “I know.” When a contractor tells a subcontractor that a line of bricks has been mortared in place crookedly, and the mason says, “I know,” the initial response of any contractor is probably, “If you know that, why in hell didn’t you fix it?” So, most likely is the reaction of a supervisor or employer when an employee responds to a correction with those same words.

My wife the professor, who teaches classical voice at the university, must hear that phrase a dozen times a day, because, almost uniformly, when she tells a student that the student has mispronounced a word [and no, in most classical singing, you don’t get to choose your pronunciation; there is just one correct pronunciation], failed to sing in rhythm, or sung off the pitch, the student almost invariably replies, “I know.”

Do people use that phrase because they don’t want to admit their ignorance? Don’t they understand that, if they admit that they know better, they’re really saying “I know I’m doing it wrong, but I didn’t want to put in the effort to do it right.”? Or that they don’t have the skill to do it right?

The bottom line is that if you “know” it, fix it… or ask for help fixing it.

Which Statistics?

There are any number of statements about numbers, including those that cite “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” which was a statement Mark Twain attributed to Disraeli, but which appears in none of Disraeli’s written statements. And then, there are statistics that are accurate, but which misrepresent when applied to smaller segments of whatever’s being characterized by those statistics.

Several weeks ago I was talking to my editor, who read me something from some publishing statistics that indicated that ebooks now represent about thirty percent of all book sales, but the rate of increase in ebook sales has supposedly slowed. After thinking about this for a while, I decided to analyze my own royalty statement [and given the way the figures are presented, it does take a certain amount of raw mathematical number crunching before one can analyze, because the figures are broken down book by book]. If I’m at all remotely representative of the F&SF field, that thirty percent number is way off for fantasy and science fiction books, since for my last royalty statement, sixty-five percent of my sales were in ebook format, and if one eliminates new releases the percentage is even higher.

In terms of revenue, especially for new releases, however, the story isn’t quite so clear. For new releases my sales in the first year are around sixty percent hardcover, and forty percent ebook. In addition, on average, I receive about sixty percent more for a hardcover than for an ebook – and that’s for the initial $14.99 ebook. So while ebooks are a good deal for buyers, even at the higher initial price, they’re anything but a good deal for the author in terms of new hardcover releases.

In the case of backlist books, though, the calculus reverses, especially in my case, because my backlist is so extensive that no bookstore, even the F&SF specialty stores, carries anywhere close to a significant percentage of my backlist, which means that readers can easily purchase ebook versions of books that are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in print versions.

Generalizing from a sample of one is extremely risky, fraught with danger, and often highly inaccurate. Even a sample of seventy books [roughly the number of separate titles of mine in print – including omnibus editions] is an incredibly small sample, given the millions of books out there. And, on top of that, I have to admit that I’m probably not the average F&SF writer in terms of sales, because I have a pretty substantial backlist, and quite a few books on that backlist are hard to obtain in print format, which will pump up the ebook numbers to some degree. But other authors also have titles that are hard to find in print, and when my numbers come out at twice the supposed industry average, I have to suspect that what’s happening is that the sheer volume of cookbooks, how-to books, and other “genre” books that don’t lend themselves to ebook format or whose readers aren’t as interested in ebooks, for whatever reasons, are overwhelming fiction numbers, and especially F&SF numbers.

I don’t doubt the statistics, but I do doubt their applicability to fiction, and especially to F&SF, and that illustrates the danger of applying “industry-wide” statistics to a sub-set of an industry, because using correct, but misrepresentative statistics… well, that tends to fall into the category of statistics that Twain was describing.

Nonetheless, the numbers I’m seeing personally suggest that brick and mortar bookstores specializing in fiction are facing a very uphill struggle to survive… unless the present trends slow or change rather dramatically… or unless I’m incredibly unrepresentative.

The Greatest Addiction ?

One of the greatest addictions that’s ever struck a nation has engulfed the United States, and it’s making great inroads elsewhere in the world. It’s an addiction so powerful that it’s caused mothers to ignore and or neglect infants and small children, as well as fathers, if to a lesser degree, resulting in thousands of deaths, if not more. It costs businesses billions of dollars annually in lost work and pyramiding inefficiencies. It’s responsible for thousands of pedestrian and automobile accidents, and thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.

What is the cause of this addiction? The common everyday cellphone. In its addictive powers, it’s very similar to alcohol. Just as many people can do without alcohol or limit themselves to a few drinks, so can many cellphone users. But a significant proportion of American cellphone users can’t. They’re on the cellphone every moment that they can manage, either talking or texting.

You don’t think it’s an addiction? Just look at the faces of those are addicts. There are two kinds. One kind gets a rush when the cellphone rings or indicates a text. You can see their faces light up in pleasure, and they can’t wait. The other kind is the hard-core addict. Their faces don’t light up in pleasure when their cell rings because it so seldom rings or buzzes or tweets or barks – because they’re never off it. The worst cases clutch their electronic heroin in a death-grip, never letting go of it. They text all the time, in meetings, in concerts, in the car, on the bus, on the sidewalk or in hallways, so wrapped up in their electronic world that the real world around them ceases to exist, except as an inconvenience through which they must negotiate in order to experience their electronic communications fix. They’re not all that far from inhabiting the virtual world postulated by James Gunn in The Hedonist – first published back in 1955.

Not only does this addiction cause deaths, but it’s also eroding the structure of human society, or at the very least, changing it drastically as electronic connections take precedence over physical and familial connections. College students no longer talk to classmates they see in classes or on campus. They don’t even see them because they’re so wrapped up in their cellphones. Last year, my wife directed the western U.S. premiere of an opera by Michael Chang [Speed Dating Tonight] which featured a scene in which a dating couple never talk to each other, but communicate by texting even when they’re sitting across the table from each other. The older members of the audience were amused and appalled. The younger members were amused, but scarcely surprised. But when electronic addiction makes it into an opera, it’s a pretty good indication that it’s anything but rare.

And yet, for all of the evidence and all of the addictive behaviors produced by the cellphone, very few people seem to recognize or want to acknowledge that cellphones do create addictive behavior in a significant percentage of users. And that’s denial on a societal scale.

It’s Not Personal…

Or… it’s just a job. Anyone who thinks either of these thoughts often, perhaps more than once, should be considered for flogging, a firing squad, or cruel and unusual punishment. Especially if they utter those thoughts out loud. That won’t happen, of course, because one can’t punish someone for what they haven’t said, or, in the case of these two utterances, for those particular words.

I cannot recall exactly how many times I’ve heard someone, usually an executive, businessperson, politician, or administrator, make the comment, usually after being confronted about the impact of an act or policy they’ve just put in place, “It’s not personal.” Or “Don’t take it personally.” None of them seem to get or perhaps want to admit that ANY act or policy that affects someone else adversely is in fact very personal, whether intended or not. That’s not to say that sometimes such acts are necessary. Reductions in force when sales have plummeted are often necessary, but claiming it’s not personal is not only cowardly and despicable, but also reinforces the idea that those affected are not even “persons”; such words suggest that they’re disposable widgets.

Likewise, for someone to excuse poor performance, lack of performance, or lack of initiative in doing a job with the statement that “it’s just a job,” is equally despicable and dishonorable. Someone is paying for the job to be done. If that job has to be redone, or doing it late or not at all creates problems for someone else, whoever didn’t do the job right has committed a form of theft. Again, I’ve heard similar words, and certainly seen people acting as if they’d said those words, all too many times in recent years. Part of that may be because those acting in that fashion have been treated like disposable widgets, but can’t get, or feel they can’t get, better jobs or positions, and they feel disposed to do the minimum required, because, to them, it’s “just a job.”

The bottom line is simple, and all too often forgotten. Jobs are not just jobs, and anything that affects the people who are doing them or affected by them is indeed personal. And that’s something that too many employers and organizational bureaucrats have forgotten, which has led to too many workers taking the same attitude – and, in the end, everyone suffers.

Education — Excellence and Quantification

I’m often asked about how I write, and while, like most writers, I’m perfectly happy to flaunt my knowledge and expertise, one of the things that I’ve learned over a long career is that almost every successful writer is unique in the way he or she approaches the craft. Oh, there are similarities, and a certain degree of grammatical competency is a necessity, but there are hundreds of variations on the theme of writerly success, and most people seem to understand this.

What most people don’t understand is that what is true in writing is also true in all professions requiring skill and thought. Once one gets beyond the mastering the necessary and basic competencies, the variations among the great and the successful are considerable. Again, the result must be outstanding, but how one uses competencies to achieve the result can differ considerably.

All that is why I’m appalled at the current educational craze for quantification and assessment along standardized lines. Using a building metaphor… that’s like saying you need to use a saw twenty percent of the time with a certain motion, a hammer thirty percent, a trowel fifteen percent, etc., regardless of what you’re building or what materials you’re using. Good and great teachers come in all flavors and talents, as do mediocre and poor ones, and trying to shoehorn teachers and students into the same methodology is a recipe for disaster.

Those who favor testing as a determinant don’t do much better, because tests essentially measure the use of certain skills in a short time period and the retention and regurgitation of information under pressure. That’s absolutely necessary in some professions, and counterproductive in others. Test are useful in measuring certain fundamental skills, such as mathematics, grammar, reading, basic history and government, but far less useful in determining how well students will apply those skills in the real world. Winston Churchill was an indifferent student at anything that bored him, but ended up winning a Nobel Prize in literature for his History of the English Speaking Peoples and The Second World War, not to mention becoming prime minister of Great Britain.

Then there is the fact that, whatever the testing methodology, it will play to the strengths of some students and against the strengths, or weaknesses, or others, while not necessarily measuring true ability. Those who think swiftly do comparatively better on objective tests, and may do less well on essay tests requiring longer concentration and focus, while slower, but surer thinkers may not do well on any form of timed test.

Yet it seems that all too many of those involved in education in the United States, whether as teachers, administrators, politicians, or parents, are looking for a magic solution that will instantly tell who is learning well and who is teaching well.

There’s no such thing, not instantly. The results are there, but they take years to show up, when it becomes clear that significant numbers of students from a school, or students who learned from a specific teacher or professor, make their marks on the world in some fashion or another. In this impatient society, that just won’t do. We need to know… now!

And so, flavour du jour solutions come and go, and rather than adapting a system that generally worked well for white middle-class and upper class students to a broader range of students, that system is being replaced with another, every few years, because no one can tell what worked and what didn’t. New buzzwords and approaches inundate the educational community almost every year, and yet there’s little improvement in the overall performance of American students, even while the “reformers” ignore those schools that have actually gotten results because they don’t fit the current new idea or they try to replicate on a large scale the results of a phenomenal teacher, ignoring the fact that great teachers are individuals and cannot be cloned, just as great writers cannot be cloned.

Excellence is individual and unquantifiable; mediocrity is shared and easily quantified.


I’m definitely a Type A, sometimes a super type A. I feel like I’m late if I don’t arrive somewhere at least a few minutes early, and especially more than that at the airport.

One of the things that bothers me, sometimes absolutely infuriates me, is waiting for things that have been promised by a certain time or date and don’t arrive or aren’t completed. I get especially angry when there’s no explanation or when the explanation is clearly a farce. I understand that disasters happen, and that people have personal or family crises upon occasion. But I get very tired of people who have them all the time… especially when they have the same predictable excuses all the time.

I have a friend who’s a contractor, and the bane of his existence is subcontractors. Now, he has his own crew that can do much of the work, including demolition, framing, finish work, tiling, and a number of other aspects of construction, but he’s essentially a custom homebuilder and very detail oriented. He has his preferred list of subcontractors, but he’s made the point more than once that in terms of quality and being on time, the “preferred” list, with a few exceptions, consists of the most reliable of the unreliable.

I also understand, having been in the consulting business, where all too much is wanted on short notice, and where one gets paid only for work delivered, and usually as late as possible [otherwise known as “wise cash flow management” on the part of the person or business who pays you] that there’s a huge temptation to overcommit because there’s no certainty as to when and what the next contract will be or what it will entail.

But when someone makes you wait for a product or service you’ve contracted for, or even comes late to meetings consistently, it’s either a sign of poor personal management or a statement that the individual who makes you wait regards their time as more valuable than yours. Too many doctors fall into that trap, but they’re certainly not the only ones. As I indicated above, even the best intentions can be derailed by events beyond our control, but when they derailed more often than not, it’s time to look at the way in which you’re operating…

And if you’re an author, you’d better be as good as George R. R. Martin if you’re going to make your publisher and readers wait for years for the next book.