Archive for May, 2015


When it comes right down to it, human beings have to operate on belief. To survive, we cannot prove and demonstrate every aspect of life anew each day. Based on past experience, we believe that the sun will rise each day. When we take trip on an airplane we believe it will get us there. But there are two kinds of belief. There is belief based on the intangible and belief based on the observable and demonstrable.

Belief in a deity or a greater power is belief in the intangible. I’m not saying that a higher power does or does not exist. I am saying that there is absolutely no physical evidence that the universe in which we live was created by such a power or that such a power intervenes directly in our lives. Nor is there any physical evidence of an afterlife. All that may or may not exist, but all religions that postulate any or some of those beliefs as fact are based on faith, not on observable or provable evidence. Conceivably, if improbably, in my opinion, that could change. Robert Sawyer wrote a science fiction novel [Calculating God] in which a future human society and an alien society discover such observable and physical proof of the existence of a higher power.

So when critics of science insist that scientists operate on belief and that the sole difference between scientists and fundamentalist deity-worshippers is in what they believe, the only element of truth in that assertion is that, by necessity, all humans operate on what they believe, to a large degree, in their everyday lives. The question isn’t whether we believe; it’s what we believe.

At one time, the Catholic Church insisted that the earth was the center of the universe. Giordano Bruno insisted otherwise, particularly that stars were actually suns similar to our own, with planets with life upon them, and that there was no “Celestial center” to the universe. Unsurprisingly, given the fervor of true believers and a Church wanting to maintain control, his “beliefs” were denounced, and he was executed. He was, of course, largely correct, especially in overall concept, and the guardians of religion were wrong, as they have been to a great degree whenever they have opposed what science has discovered.

One of the problems that believers in intangibles have is that all too many of them want a simple and complete explanation to the universe. Belief in a supreme deity offers such. So, in a more limited way, does intelligent design explain where we as a species came from – except that explanation is totally at variance with what science has discovered.

Science cannot offer the sweeping absolutes that religion does, because science is based on what we have discovered, and we have not yet discovered everything that is potentially discoverable about life and the universe. In the recent past centuries of scientific progress we have learned more and more about both, but whether we will ever learn everything, I suspect, is unlikely. To me, belief based on facts and what can be demonstrated to be so, even if such explanations of the universe and life are not totally complete, is far more satisfying than simplistic wish-fulfillment. And, in the meantime, until all the evidence is in, I’m perfectly happy in not knowing whether there is or is not a supreme deity, especially since, if there does happen to be such a deity, given all we’ve undergone as a species, there’s certainly no proof that such a deity is unreservedly just and beneficent.


Tobacco, lead, and atmospheric modification [i.e., global warming/climate change/air pollution]… what do they all have in common? It’s actually something incredibly fundamental.

All made or make billions of dollars for U.S. industry and created severe adverse health impacts for all Americans, in fact, for pretty much the majority of human beings… and the industrial conglomerates involved in producing and marketing the products that created these massive health problems fought tooth and nail against efforts to educate people and against regulations and laws to stop those impacts…and in the case of atmospheric modification and tobacco, they still are.

From the time of the Romans, people have known that lead has adverse health effects on human beings, but lead has attractive properties for manufacturers. It makes paints brighter and more durable, and in the late nineteenth century essentially all paints were lead-based, but studies showed the danger, particularly to children. As a result, in1922, the League of Nations banned lead-based paint, as did Australia, and within a few years, so did most of Europe. The U.S. did not. In 1943, a report concluded that children eating lead paint chips could suffer from neurological disorders including behavior, learning, and intelligence problems. Finally, in 1971, lead-based house paint was phased out in the United States with the passage of the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act. Even so, a study in 2000 found that 38 million housing units in the U.S. still had lead-based paint, if down from 64 million in 1990.

That wasn’t the only lead problem. In 1921, General Motors came up with a new gasoline formula to allow high compression engines – tetra-ethyl lead. Despite the fact that scores of employees producing TEL either died or suffered severe lead poisoning, GM and its subsidiary, the Ethyl Corporation, effectively lobbied against regulations and managed to avoid prohibition of lead in gasoline for another sixty years. By the time the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive in 1986, so much lead been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children registered toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease. As lead affects cognitive function, chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in IQ scores of exposed children during the leaded gas era. And more recently, researchers have suggested that TEL exposure and resulting nervous system damage also contributed to violent crime rates in the 20th century. Within twenty years of the prohibition of TEL, average blood lead levels dropped so markedly that today less than a million children have lead blood levels of concern, although no safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known sufficiently small amount of lead that will not cause harm to the body.

As for tobacco… in 1912, Isaac Adler published the first medical monograph on lung cancer which suggested that the cause might be toxic effects of smoking tobacco and alcohol consumption. The first known controlled study, by Franz Hermann Müller at Cologne Hospital, appeared in 1939, and five separate and detailed studies appeared in the early 1950s, all showing the direct and adverse effects of smoking.

This was no surprise to the tobacco companies. As early as 1946, Lorillard [producer of Old Gold, Newport, and Kent cigarettes] had a report from its director of research observing that scientific studies linked tobacco use to cancer. Despite the fact that a confidential 1953 ‘Survey of Cancer Research’, written for upper management at RJ Reynolds, makers of Camel cigarettes, concluded that tobacco was ‘an important etiologic factor in the induction of primary cancer of the lung’, cigarette manufacturers buried the evidence and continued to oppose public and government efforts to link smoking to lung cancer.

The 1964 Surgeon General’s report, which officially recognized smoking as a cause of lung cancer, wasn’t a discovery, but an acknowledgement of 20 years or more of research, yet as late as the mid-1970s, Phillip Morris was still spending millions on PR claiming that second-hand smoke was not dangerous to non-smokers.

All of this is scarcely surprising, given that the annual world production of cigarettes is about six trillion and that the annual profit of cigarette manufacturers runs to around $60 billion. The industry clearly doesn’t care that cigarette consumption will result in six million deaths in 2015 or that, according to a report of the Surgeon General just released, the annual cost of smoking just in the U.S. now is $300 billion a year, of which $130 billion are direct medical costs.

Regardless of the rhetoric from deniers, climate change is real. Irrefutable evidence from around the world that includes record temperatures, the incredible shrinkage of Arctic ice coverage, rising sea levels, the overwhelming preponderance of retreating or disappearing glaciers, ,the marked increase in extreme weather events, and record temperatures all point to the fact that climate change is happening now and at rates much faster than previously thought. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) incorporates the work of more than 2,500 scientists from more than 130 countries (and that’s one of the largest bodies of international scientists ever assembled to study a scientific issue) and has concluded that most of the warming observed during the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. IPCC’s findings have been publicly endorsed by the national academies of science of all G-8 nationals have publicly endorsed these findings, as have those of China, India and Brazil.

Yet in the United States, climate denial skeptics still abound, or seem to. Why might that be?

Well, according to various sources, the Koch Brothers, owners of Koch Industries, a privately-held fossil fuels based conglomerate with annual revenues estimate at $115 billion annually [enough to rank #17 on the Fortune 500], have so far spent almost $80 million in funding politicians and organizations denying that global warming/climate change now exist. Exxon Mobil has made over $10 million in traceable donations to shill or right-wing, fellow-traveler organizations that deny global warming, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, among others.

And interestingly enough, Exxon Mobil has been consulting with those folks in the tobacco industry on how to fight science, and they’re adopting the same tactics as big tobacco, and even some of the same consultants.

Given just these three examples, you might see why I tend to be rather skeptical when industry types, and all the organizations that they fund, assure me that whatever they’re doing really isn’t a problem… and, in fact, that the problem isn’t even a problem at all, just like lead and tobacco weren’t.

Always a Solution?

After forty years of teaching at the collegiate level, my wife the professor is getting exceedingly tired of new administrators and presidents who have the “next great idea” or plan or system, but who are largely re-inventing the wheel. Part of that is simply a lack of understanding of the past and failing to take time to learn what has already been tried and worked, at least to some degree, and what hasn’t.

But part of the reason programs and systems are discarded by institutions is because NO program or system offers a “one size fits all” solution. Yet, in the always-chasing-rainbows mindset of too many idealists, politicians seeking votes, and university presidents trying to please legislatures and alumni, all too many good approaches have been tried, worked for a large majority of faculty and students, and been discarded because they weren’t successful enough, because some group didn’t benefit.

The same, unfortunately, is also true in national politics. Despite close to a century of U.S. government programs to help the disadvantaged, while the vast majority are better off, the problems of the poor, and especially the minority poor, still remain. In some areas, one might argue that they’re worse.

All this leads to a question no one, but no one, wants to ask. Is there really a complete solution to such problems? Can all children really learn enough to get a college degree or advanced vocational training so that they can be economically self-supporting with a decent or better standard of living? Can we really come up with effective treatments for all those with mental illness? Can the U.S. military police every foreign conflict that might have an adverse impact on the United States?

Most thinking individuals would answer that there aren’t solutions to such problems that will be universally effective, but everyone shies away from trying to answer the logical next question: What degree of success is realistically obtainable and affordable for a given program or system?

No matter what anyone says, not all children can grow up to be economically and socially self-supporting. Not all those with mental illness or impairment can be treated to make them societally functional. But right now, expectations in so many areas are so out of line with reality and generations of experience and evidence that good programs are saddled with demands for impossible results, and many are junked and discarded because they cannot meet expectations… and another set of administrators, executives, and others must set out to reinvent the wheel once more, usually doomed to fail before they start because expectations demand a physically impossible level of perfection.

What Isn’t There

All species with some form of cognition, especially humans, have a cognitive bias that we almost never consider. We focus almost exclusively on what exists, if you will, what we see, hear, feel, and believe we know exists, not on what doesn’t. This sounds supremely rational at first glance, but it’s not, because we ignore the impacts and the costs of what is not present, but might otherwise be.

What brought this to my attention was a demonstration of canine skills by the local police organizations’ canine [K-9] units. One of the points that emerged was that while trained police canines are not cheap, they save lives and money, at least in our region. Just over the last ten years, there have been more than a score of documented cases where armed suspects who were involved in narcotics, armed robberies, and other stand-off situations would not surrender to police officers, but who immediately or quickly surrendered when they were faced with police canines. This not only likely saved the lives of officers, but also saved the lives of the suspects. Even those suspects brought down by canines came out better off, suffering at the most the need for a few stitches, rather than being shot and likely severely wounded or killed. The medical costs alone that were avoided in these cases likely far exceeded the costs of acquiring the dogs and training these K-9 units, not to mention the costs of deaths and burdens on families that were also avoided, but I’ve never seen even an estimated quantification of costs that were avoided.

A study whose results were just published in New Scientist attempts to quantify in general terms how U.S. elections would be different if the death rates and imprisonment rates of African American males were the same as those of Caucasian males, and according to the analysis the effects of the absence of those dead and imprisoned blacks, as well as those who died prematurely because of health factors, would have been significant. You might say it’s another unquantified effect of how black lives matter.

I mentioned in an earlier blog how American aerospace R&D is decreasing. What’s not decreasing are the R&D efforts of major players outside the U.S. What’s not there – more basic research and development – will definitely have an impact in years to come, but I doubt many will trace it back to what wasn’t spent on R&D over the past few years.

Today, everyone in politics and business talks about cost-effectiveness, about how to do more with less, but I don’t see anywhere close to the same enthusiasm about asking what investments that we are not making could reduce costs. And sometimes, I suspect, what isn’t there just might be more important than what is.

Everyone Wants More

Like most people, I do try to be charitable, both in attitude and in making an effort to give something to organizations whose charitable purposes with which I agree. But I’ve noticed a change in almost all of them over the past five to ten years. Now, it seems, as soon as I contribute, not only do I get a thank you, but another plea for more money, and another… and before long, another. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but repaying my charitable efforts with more and more demands for contributions tends to make me less charitable, not more… and I find myself more willing to contribute to groups that don’t press me and less willing to give to those who do.

It’s not just charities. It’s everywhere. The U.S. air transport and aerospace industries are investing less and less in research and development and spending more and more on share buybacks and dividends. Airline profits are up, thanks to all the extra fees and charges levied on travelers. This trend is sweeping business, as I’ve noted before. Not only that, but now business after business wants the consumer to do their market research for them, by asking for customer feedback on everything from banking services to lodging, consumer products, transportation, automobiles, and who knows what else. Company after company wants me to go paperless, but I can’t go paperless for many because the IRS likes paper receipts and documentation, and if I go paperless, I’m the one who has to take the time and paper to print out all those receipts and documents.

Our state electric utility now wants to charge customers who use solar and wind power – because their use of less electricity will impact the utility. Politicians want more and more contributions for their re-election, and, in turn, business lobbyists want more and legislative favors for those contributions.

Students coming to universities not only want scholarships and more financial aid, but they also want better grades for less effort, and unhappily, due to the fact that most universities had bought into using student evaluations as part of the formula for determining faculty raises and retention, they’re getting higher grades for less effort. Of course, fewer of them are being taught by full-time experienced faculty.

All too many readers want books that are cheaper and cheaper – if not free – and I’ve had more than a few readers complain that the prices of my books are too high. Yet, given inflation, and market pressures, most publishers are making less per book, in real dollar terms, than they were ten or fifteen years ago, and that goes for almost all authors as well.

In ways large and small, almost everyone is being asked to do more, give more, spend more, do more of businesses’ work. Is it any wonder many people are less charitable in thought and deed?

Religious Freedom

As the 2016 Presidential campaign gets underway, one of the initial issues, particularly for Republican candidates, appears to be “religious freedom.” The fact that this issue is becoming more and more politically volatile seems ironic, because it appears, from all the rhetoric, that everyone’s for religious freedom.

The problem is that an awful lot of socially conservative religious groups and their followers seem to believe that their religious freedom includes the freedom to restrict the rights of others and essentially force non-believers to conform to the standards of those conservative groups.

Drawing the line between one person’s free exercise of religious rights and others’ freedom of action is getting both trickier and more litigious, especially with regard to same-sex marriage. Some conservatives have opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, because their scriptures define marriage as between a man and a woman. Others believe that same sex marriage should be legally accepted, just as heterosexual marriages are, and it’s likely that the Supreme Court will rule on the issue this summer. But so long as the law does not require heterosexuals to enter into same sex marriage or mandate that clergy of a specific denomination perform same-sex marriages, how would the legality of a same-sex marriage infringe on the rights of believers who oppose such a marriage? The only thing it infringes on is their ability to dictate who others shoulder marry. There have also been several associated lawsuits dealing with the issue of whether providers of goods and services must provide such to same sex couples, especially, for some reason, wedding cakes.

In the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court held on a 5-4 decision that corporations privately held by a limited number of persons did not have to provide medical insurance coverage for contraceptives because that practice violated the religious beliefs of the corporate shareholders. I suspect that the decision will spur other “religious freedom” lawsuits because it sets a precedent, however limited, whereby plaintiffs can use the combination of economic power and religion to impose their beliefs on others – or at the very least, make them pay more to exercise beliefs at variance with those of their employers, or more than others employed elsewhere would pay.

Personally and practically, especially after having spent more than twenty years living in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, i.e., Utah, I am very leery of conservatives agitating for “religious freedom,” because that is almost always code for, “we intend to do our best to make you conform to our beliefs.” And in Deseret, the good old Mormon boys are very good at it, which might be why Utah has one of the greatest discrepancies between male and female wages in the entire United States, and why almost no state legislation can get passed without the tacit approval of the LDS General Authorities.

Voters should look closely at the “religious freedom” issue. I suspect what the conservatives have in mind isn’t going to make life easier for religious minorities, which is what religious freedom would seem to mean, but an attempt to impose “Christian” standards of some sort on everyone else… or at least to declare that the candidate would do so if the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way… and by the way, all of those Presidential candidates hopping on the “religious freedom” bandwagon, at least so far, are men.

Education – A Few Things I Don’t “Get”

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story about college athletic scholarships, and the story revealed something new to me. A full-ride athletic scholarship generally covers tuition, room and board, and books and fees, but most of these student athletes will now also receive something called a “cost-of-attendance” stipend. These stipends vary greatly from university to university within the “Power 5” conferences, but are designed to cover additional expenses such as travel to and from school, laundry, cell phones, wireless access and more. The figures published in the Tribune ranged from a high of $4,500 a school year at BYU to a low of $1,580 at USC [except the Gannet News Service lists USC’s COA at $4,151]. Some schools in the SEC are offering close to $6,000 a year for football scholarship cost-of-attendance stipends. That’s in addition to the opportunity for a college education, pretty much all expenses paid. Right now, on a national average basis, a college education is running $25,000 a year at major state universities [which is where most scholarship athletes are going]. In effect, these athletes will be paid over $100,000 for four years… and, if they apply themselves and graduate, they’ll also have a degree that should enhance their lifetime earnings even if they don’t have a career in professional athletics. What I don’t get is why universities are paying that kind of money when none of it goes back into academics or academic facilities.

I’ve also heard a great amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the cost of higher education by non-athletes. My wife’s university does offer music scholarships, and some are even full-tuition. The music program is good, but, admittedly, it’s not in the class of Julliard or Manhattan or some of the big-name music schools. Good students graduating from the university do get regularly accepted by solid graduate schools of music. But the percentage of students who audition for the program and are offered scholarships – and don’t even reply to the offer – astounds me. If they decide they don’t want to attend, that’s understandable. But not replying when all they have to do is check a box, either accepting or declining, and put the reply back in the envelope? It’s not only rude and ill-mannered, but it also just might deprive another student of the opportunity for a scholarship. Tell me all you want about the “concerned” nature of up-and-coming students, but the percentage of non-replying would-be students has gone up every year, even while scholarships have continued to keep pace with tuition. I don’t get this, either.

Then there’s the whole question of the need for higher education, and how to fund it. I understand that times are tight. I understand that state legislatures are under pressure to keep costs down, and that people costs are one of the largest components of running a university. What I don’t understand is why the number of administrative, non-academic employees at colleges and universities has more than doubled over the last thirty years, and has close to tripled at my wife’s university, while the real wages [adjusted for inflation] of university professors at state universities have often not kept up with inflation and why there are fewer and fewer tenure track faculty and why half of all university teaching slots are filled by part-time adjuncts. Strikes me that the students and the faculty are getting screwed, and the bureaucrats are getting fat. Why most Americans don’t see this either, I don’t get.

Police Brutality

I live in a large town transitioning into being a small city. When we moved here over twenty years ago, murders were so rare, generally less than one a year, as to be remarkable. Now we have them far too often. The minority population was low, less than ten percent, but now it’s approaching twenty percent, and those minorities are almost entirely Hispanic and Native American. We also have a definite drug problem, although some of it is fueled by the fact that we’re located on I-15, which has become a major highway transport link from both Mexico and Southern California so that every week there are drug arrests by the Highway Patrol involving significant amounts of hard drugs. There is also a continual effort to weed out [pardon the pun] illegal marijuana “plantations” concealed in the neighboring and extensive national forest lands, and the amounts grown and confiscated have been in the hundreds if not thousands of pounds.

So far, at least, we’ve had no cases of anything remotely resembling police brutality, even with law enforcement agencies that are largely white, but we have had quite a few attacks and assaults on law enforcement personnel. One officer took a shotgun blast to the chest and despite his vest, almost died. Another in a neighboring county was shot and killed by a drug dealer, and on at least three occasions I know of, lawbreakers shot at and wounded law enforcement personnel responding to reports – before the officers even were within yards of the lawbreakers. And a local senior law enforcement officer said bluntly, and very much off the record, that the combination of these events with the national negative publicity about law enforcement was making it harder and harder for law enforcement agencies in Utah to obtain the quality of new officers that they’re striving to maintain… and that more and more senior police are looking forward to retirement – which wasn’t the case a decade ago.

By comparison, nearly seventy percent of the population of the city of Baltimore consists of minorities, the largest component of which are blacks, at roughly 64%. The mayor, the chief of police, the prosecuting attorney, and three of the six officers charged with homicide in the Freddy Gray case are black. Police brutality issues and charges have also been a problem in other cities with high levels of black populations and black mayors, just as they have been a problem in cities with white mayors and large white populations.

The point that is in danger of being overlooked is that police brutality can occur regardless of whether the political authorities are black or white, and whether the police officers involved are black or white or brown. While correlation does not prove causation, police brutality seems to be linked in some fashion to high crime areas and areas with high levels of minority populations, regardless of who is in charge and who is patrolling.

Is it that the stress of patrolling such areas wears down officers? Or that officers strong enough or moral enough won’t accept jobs in such cities? Or that political pressures to make arrests and “find someone guilty” eventually brings out the worst in some officers. Are we as a society asking too much of police officers? I’m not about to offer an answer, but it’s very clear to me that there’s far, far more involved than just the simple explanation of “racism,” much as racism is certainly a contributing factor. And it’s also equally clear that slogans and politics as usual won’t contribute much to the solution, either.


If at times I feel that, with regard to critics and readers, writers can’t please everyone, all I have to do is to think about editors, who often get blame they don’t deserve, and seldom get the credit they do merit.

I occasionally get comments about typographical errors, and often those comments blame the editors for those errors. Nope. With electronic publishing, I’m the one who made almost every typo that exists. If one slips past the editors, they get blamed. As I have noted in earlier blogs, a few typos in a 200,000 word book does not “destroy” it. After all, five typographical errors in a million characters is still an accuracy rate of 99.9995%. As a side note, I’ve also observed that those typos that tend to escape editors’ usually eagle-eyes take place in either the “driest” or the most exciting parts of books.

The other comment that I often see is to the effect that my books could use editing to get rid of all the “extraneous” material or “padding.” That doesn’t mean either exists; what it means is that the reader is reading the wrong book for his or her taste, and that they expect three hundred pages of non-stop action and the SF/fantasy equivalent of continual shootings and car chases, interspersed with various other salacious and/or extraordinarily violent encounters. As most of my long-term readers know, I don’t write those kind of books. [Try George R. R. Martin].

Editors are always faced with the problem of considering whether a scene is “necessary” or not, and the difficulty is that what is extraneous to one reader is vital and interesting to another. What a good editor does is to consider the “necessity” of a scene in light of the author’s readers or expected readers. This is also something that good reviewers do as well, and it’s frankly the mark of a bad reviewer to condemn a book for doing something well that is essential to the integrity of the book and to the expectations of the majority of its readers, but contrary to the desires and expectations of the reviewer.

I’ve often told beginning writers that, if an editor has a problem with something in a manuscript, there’s almost always a problem – but that it may not be exactly the problem that the editor thinks, since editors see where the problem appears, but not necessarily where it begins (because the error may lie in something that the writer did not do).

Editors sometimes even get blamed for the cover art, although it’s seldom entirely, and sometimes not in the slightest, the editor’s fault, since cover decisions vary to some degree from publisher to publisher and involve to varying degrees the editor, the art director, the marketing people, and sometimes the publisher. [But I can say that almost never is a predominantly green cover as good idea… and in my experience, lots of yellow doesn’t help much, either.]

Good editors can also keep authors from making horrendous mistakes, provided the author listens to them, which, unhappily, I’ve seen too many beginning authors fail to do. Part of such authorial failures lies in the fact that editors like to have books succeed, and succeeding means selling enough so that the publisher doesn’t lose money. So editors do tend to advise authors against writing strategies and books that are likely to fail. Sometimes… editors are wrong, but if you bet consistently against the editors, you’ll lose, as do most [but not all] authors who do so. A good editor can also mean the difference between success and failure for an author, and some authors will take a higher advance from another publisher and end up with more money in the short run, but find themselves with an editor either less suited to them. And, unhappily, at times an author has little choice about the editor with whom that author must work. Depending on the author, that can be very good, very bad, or make little difference.

Most of what I’ve noted above must be taken with more than a few grains of salt, given that much of it comes from observation, rather than direct personal experience because, in almost forty years of writing and publishing books, I’ve worked with exactly two book editors, one of them, and his various assistant editors, for all but two books, and, for me, that has worked out extraordinarily well.