Archive for December, 2015


Martin Shkreli has been arrested. The man who took over a generic drug selling for $13.50 a pill and who then raised the price to $750 a pill has been charged with fraud and other financial crimes, essentially defrauding those who had money to invest in his fraudulent and money-losing hedge funds.

Yet under our laws, he can’t possibly be charged with price-gouging those who needed Daraprim order to survive, although he even claimed that he made a “mistake” in setting the price at $750 a pill, because that was “too low” and that he was behaving altruistically because Daraprim was unprofitable at the old price. Even those with insurance coverage would have ended up paying $150 a pill. In his next move, Shkreli led an investor group to take control of KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, where Mr. Shkreli agreed to license the worldwide rights of a drug used to treat Chagas’ disease, a potentially deadly parasitic infection – but at a much higher price. And, of course, most of those infected won’t be able to pay that price, which will either result in more deaths… or in gouging the public health agencies that treat such infected individuals.

Shkreli’s acts and the way the law treats them are just another example of how U.S. justice has gone overboard in recent years in “protecting the market system” – the ultra-capitalistic market system. Now, I freely acknowledge that any workable economic system has to have a capitalistic/market basis, but when the ultra-rich pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than do middle-class wage earners, when basic health care becomes increasingly less affordable for tens of millions of Americans [and when the Republican response is essentially to declare that requiring healthcare insurance is the cause, rather than a symptom of an unnecessarily overpriced private health care bureaucracy], when maximizing profits at any cost, regardless of the social and environmental costs to everyone else, has become a “necessity” for executive survival in the corporate world, doesn’t it seem that a few changes in the legal, regulatory, and taxation structure might be a trace overdue?

And if those changes aren’t made…

When the laws protect only those who have money, and it doesn’t look like matters will change, it may not be all that long before those who don’t have massive wealth decide to take matters into their own hands… and bring the entire system down. Such events have occurred more than a few times before. And I’m sure that most of the Russian and French aristocracy felt that such an uprising was nothing to worry about.


“Would anyone consider Einstein merely a ‘successful scientist’?” I don’t remember who said or wrote words to that effect, but that question has stuck with me for years. And it’s even more relevant today, I believe, than ever. Just what is success?

The first two dictionary definitions I came across were: “a favorable or desired outcome from something attempted” and “attainment of wealth and fame.”

A favorable or desired outcome. That sounds so milquetoastish…almost pedestrian. It’s not exactly soul-inspiring, and what does being rich and famous have to do with real accomplishment? Is “success” just settling for comfort, as opposed to striving for something more?

Is the United States too focused on success, especially as opposed to greatness? When I was young, people had dreams of great achievements, of being President, or a doctor or astronaut, of writing the great American novel, or coming up with a cure for a horrendous disease. I can’t recall anyone who just wanted to be rich or famous. Or of being merely a successful doctor or dentist or teacher or whatever.

Then again, world-class achievement is getting a bit harder to accomplish. Everest has been conquered, and now it’s just another mountain that hundreds if not thousands have climbed. Astronauts have walked on the moon, but not for more than thirty years, and exceeding the speed of sound in an aircraft is so passe that we’ve abandoned the only supersonic passenger jet because it was too expensive, just as manned space exploration has been put on the far back burner for the same reason – despite all the hoopla about The Martian and the record-breaking opening weekend gross of the latest Star Wars movie. Even the New Horizons mission that recently reached Pluto and sent back breath-taking images was launched over nine years ago, and I’m not aware of anything that ambitious in the works in even the unmanned exploration programs. And given that the comparatively low-budget New Horizons mission was begun roughly fifteen years ago, that suggests no “great” achievements in space exploration are likely or even possible for 20-30 years, despite a series of “successful” smaller missions.

Once upon a time, composers were truly celebrated for their works, but today in the music world great success doesn’t mean great musical work; it means great financial returns, and works that show musical excellence seldom are those that generate enormous financial returns. In pharmaceuticals, success isn’t measured so much by discovering drugs that “cure diseases,” but in finding blockbuster drugs that yield billion-dollar returns. In business, success isn’t building an outstanding product, but building one that makes billions, and whether it’s outstanding is very much secondary. In politics, success is getting and holding office, not what one accomplishes through that office.

In short, today’s “success” seldom, if ever, reflects great or lasting achievements, and I find that sad and worrisome.

Too Much in the Moment

Much has been said about “living in the moment,” and there is in fact some truth to the need to live in the moment, simply because we cannot undo what has happened in the past, nor can we do much about the future, except prepare for it, and there is such a thing as over-preparing for a future that may never come, or a future that bears little resemblance to what we’ve predicted or imagined.

Unfortunately, as many wise individuals have declared, the past and history have a tendency to repeat themselves, or at least rhyme, as Mark Twain put it, and the saddest and truest rhymes are those based on human failings. This unhappy truth has a great bearing on one of the greatest weaknesses in current U.S. culture and education – the lack of knowledge and understanding about past U.S. culture and history by younger Americans, and an almost total ignorance of even recent past world history. The failing is compounded by a great lack of knowledge of basic economics and politics and an over-emphasis on present-day culture and instant satisfaction, supplied in large measure electronically.

What most young Americans know about Hitler, for example, is that he killed a great many Jews [and some even doubt that] and started World War II. Most cannot explain either World War I or World War II. Nor do they know anything about the student protests surrounding the Vietnam War. They don’t know and can’t explain the factors underlying the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression is essentially two meaningless words to them. Oh, they may be able to cite various dates and events, but understanding is almost nil – and irrelevant to them.

On the other hand, most can recite from memory an incredible array of present-day trivia. They’re glued, if not welded, to their smartphones. Most of them are against any form of discrimination, which wouldn’t be so bad if so many of them didn’t confuse unpleasant facts and honest discussion of difficult ethnic and racial issues with hate speech. They don’t, in general, like learning facts and situations contrary to their beliefs and hopes, and they avoid doing so as much as possible. And to make matters worse, far too many educators are indulging this incredibly childish view of the world.

In short, most of today’s younger generations are largely living in the moment, shutting out the lessons of the past and ignoring the future ramifications of what is happening now. Oh, a significant percentage of the top ten percent of students and young Americans, perhaps half, don’t fall into this categorization, but, as history shows, five percent isn’t enough to save a nation against the ignorance, the indifference, and the self-centered anger of the remainder, or to stand against a revolution of the disappointed when the satisfactions of the “moment” vanish, possibly for generations.


I ran across an interesting blog analyzing/critiquing my recently released hard SF novel – Solar Express. The blog used the intriguing construct of a discussion of the book between a futurist, a science fiction reader, and a UFO researcher… and none of them were particularly pleased with the book. I’m likely simplifying, but the bottom line was that the book portrayed a future a hundred years hence that was far too much like the present, and that I’d failed to show massive social changes, or any of the potential new scientific advances predicted by SF fans and futurists.

And all three of these presumably fictional characters were generally right. I didn’t, and I didn’t because most of them won’t happen, and most certainly won’t happen in a hundred years. Now, I’m not saying that there won’t be changes, some of them dramatic, over the next hundred years, because there will be, but very few will be of the nature postulated by those three characters, or by most futurists or science fiction writers.

Why? Because, despite all the rhetoric, hype, and hope to the contrary, we’re entering the Age of Limits. I’ve touched on this before, but it’s true nonetheless. We now have, on this planet, instantaneous communications. The limitation now is our ability to process and act upon those communications, and even if we replaced our biological circuitry with instant/electric capabilities and cyborged bodies, the physical speed of effective reaction couldn’t be that much faster. Nor would most human beings, even in that state, assuming we as a planet could afford it, which we can’t, think and comprehend that much faster.

We aren’t going to see superfast interplanetary or interstellar travel either. While there are some intriguing theoretical possibilities, using those possibilities would require massive amounts of energy,and for interstellar travel that would mean harnessing energy at the level contained in small black holes, and using that much energy near any planetary body or surface would have devastating impacts.

We now have ebooks, the instantly available electronic texts on every subject… and it doesn’t appear that they have markedly increased literacy or learning [and may have decreased reading longer works among the younger population], which is scarcely surprising, given that learning is limited by the individual’s biological and cultural cognitive development. Technology itself doesn’t automatically improve cognition.

It’s very possible that we’ll see solar voltaic films with much higher power generation efficiency than anything so far developed, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see that, but to use that energy requires supporting technological devices, and while 3-D printers can do a lot of that on an individual basis, where will all the raw material come from, because not everything can be printed solely out of carbon-based feedstocks?

We’re seeing incredible advances in medical technology, but those increases have come with equally incredible price tags, so that the real limitation on the implementation of some of these technologies wouldn’t be the technology, but the resources with which to pay for them. Greater and greater percentages of even the citizens in developed countries are either unable to afford or are precluded from obtaining cutting edge medical treatments, and using those technologies to extend and save lives only increases a society’s energy and resource requirements. Add to that the fact that population is still increasing and is projected to exceed 11 billion by a century from now. That means a greater demand on resources.

The bottom line is that the universe has physical limits, and human societies do as well. We have to make choices about how to allocate the application of effort and resources, because we can’t do everything we theoretically could do for everyone. And that’s why any halfway realistic portrayal of the near future is going to incorporate many factors and limitations of the present. They just don’t vanish because it’s the future.

Does this mean that Solar Express is a total “downer”? I scarcely think so. The greatness of human beings, I believe, lies not so much in exceeding limits, but in the struggle for meaning and greatness against those limits. That’s why, as an author, I’ve struggled against portraying unrealistically great and soaring achievements, and why my characters usually pay very high prices for their achievements – because struggling against the limits of the universe – any universe – is costly.

But recognizing this is hard for most people to accept, and that’s another reason for the proliferation and success of mighty heroic, and totally impossible, comic book heroes in movies and books these days. And why some people who call themselves futurists really aren’t at all, because the future our children and grandchildren will live in will be based, like it or not, or aspects of the present-day reality.


Human beings are the ultimate tool-using species on this planet, and in this Solar System, it would appear, and yet… all too often our most powerful tool is ignored, minimized, and overlooked. I’m referring to language, the use of words. Without language, our tool-making skills would likely be stuck in the Stone Age, if not before.

Despite its power, it often seems to me that people go out of their way to abuse language. The other night I watched part of the Hundred Year Grammy Celebration of the birth of Frank Sinatra, and listened while a bevy of Grammy Award Winners performed a host of Sinatra’s original arrangements. I came away from what I watched with two impressions. First, none of those talented Grammy artists sang those songs as well as Sinatra had. Second, all of them sounded better singing Sinatra’s arrangements than they did singing what made them successful and popular. Now, that’s just my opinion, but it was so nice to actually hear and understand the words the more “modern” artists were singing.

Why is it that so much modern vocal music effectively degrades the use of words, twisting them and singing them against a melodic cacophony that so often makes it impossible to decipher what they might have been? Or for that matter,even finding the melody line itself [and I can certainly do without high bass volume repetitive percussive abuse]?

But pop music isn’t the only offender. Attorneys, bureaucrats, education administrators, politicians, entertainers, programmers, and even writers, often torture language to the point where it becomes excessively jargon-laden and meaningless.

These days it often seems that the most used aspect of language as a tool is not to communicate ideas, not to educate, not to share emotions or experiences, and not even to entertain, but to persuade people to buy, to buy ideas, goods, propaganda, various religions, and, of course, political candidates. But then, humans are also the ultimate opportunists, and it’s clear that our market-driven culture knows just where the highest value of words lies, and that’s in sales.

So much for the Bard, A Brief History of Time, “The Waste Land,” “Easter 1916,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or even The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or War and Peace.

Beyond PC

From what I can determine, PC, or political correctness, has become almost a tired and trite phrase, and I can see why. It really doesn’t fit the politics and cultural conflicts of the present, and the reason it doesn’t is because there’s very little that’s “correct,” let alone accurate or effective, in most of today’s politics, political policies, and especially in the shouting past each other that passes for political discussion.

Add to that the fact that very few political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders excepted in some, but not all cases, have the political courage to “tell it like it is.” And for that matter, neither do most individuals in positions of power… because almost all of them are afraid that accurate evaluations of situations will cost them power…as well as endless litigation.

I’ll offer a few examples. With the exception of the comedian and political commentator Bill Mahar, no one seems willing to offer a public assessment of the Islamic faith. How can anyone with a shred of objectivity offer a favorable assessment of a faith that predominantly believes that: (1) women are second or third class individuals whose rights should be determined by the men in their lives; (2) that anyone who leaves the faith should be put to death; (3) that anyone who criticizes or mocks the prophet deserves to be put to death; (4) that women are responsible for all sexual violence perpetrated upon them and should be killed for dishonoring their families in such cases. Studies from all around the world confirm that a majority of Muslims believe all of the above, and what a religion truly is must be based on what its practitioners believe and what they do, not by its scripture. This isn’t a just matter of “differing beliefs.” Those beliefs, as presently manifested by the opinions, attitudes, and actions of Muslim believers, denigrate and literally demonize those who do not agree with them, with the results being everything from mass murder to honor killings in the name of Allah.

In historical terms, the Catholic Church wasn’t much better, at one time turning most of Europe into a charnel house with religious wars, and Catholicism still minimizes the worth of women and places their value as vessel for childbearing above anything else, while denying them equality in the theological structure.

The United States certainly isn’t particularly honest in its self-assessments, either. The LDS faith and extreme Christian evangelicals are both essentially and excessively patriarchal and place women in socially and theologically inferior positions, with their greatest value apparently as brood mares, and yet anyone who says this is ignored, dismissed, or attacked.

Yet anyone who mentions loudly these problems is shouted down for being “disrespectful” of other religions. Accuracy in description is disrespectful?

The failure to face facts goes well beyond religion.

The idea that more weapons in more hands will stop crime is insane, especially given that we have both 300 million weapons in private hands, the greatest number of deaths perpetrated by private individuals of any country in the world, and also the greatest percentage of our population incarcerated. Likewise, given those 300 million weapons, the idea of getting rid of privately owned firearms is a pipe-dream. Black male inner city culture is toxic and a disaster, and while poverty, discrimination, and police procedures definitely play a huge role in the excessive murder rate of blacks by blacks, the role of inner-city culture is conveniently dismissed as another facet of discrimination. Yet a comparison of black murder rates to other poor areas with different racial and ethnic backgrounds still finds blacks with a far higher murder rate than other poverty-stricken ethnic groups. When in certain cities, police patrols recently became less intensive, the crime rates in those inner cities went up.

Now, stories are appearing about how college students are actually suppressing free speech and demanding “trigger warnings” because they don’t want to hear news, facts, discussions, or opinions contrary to their feelings or beliefs – and all too many of them see anything that disturbs them as disrespectful or even verging on “hate speech.” In fact, a recent Pew Research study found that forty percent of Americans in the 18-40 age range favored government censorship to prevent speech offensive to minorities. One of the big problems with this idea is that even the most accurate and relevant facts can be offensive to someone’s beliefs, as I’ve certainly discovered over the years.

The largest overall difficulty with all of this is that it’s impossible to even attempt to find solutions to problems if any form of complete discussion of these problems is effectively muzzled by the desire not to offend and the outrage of those who are offended… and when the only people who will bring them up bluntly are demagoguing politicians like Donald Trump or liberal comedians like Bill Mahar.

A Few Defense Costs

Many years ago, I was a Navy helicopter search and rescue pilot, and, consequently, I do tend to follow aircraft developments… and their costs. The first helicopter I flew as a full-fledged Naval Aviator was a Sikorsky UH-34, the last large piston-driven helicopter, and, as I recall, each cost somewhere less than a million dollars. Today’s Navy uses Sikorsky Seahawks [SH-60R/S] for carrier search and rescue, and they come with a price tag in excess of $30 million each.

The other day I was reading a report on the Air Force’s proposed new long range bomber. Each one is projected to cost something like $564 million, and the total program cost of the one hundred planned high tech stealth bombers is expected to exceed $80 billion. This may seem expensive, but the most expensive bomber procurement ever was that of the B-2. Only 21 B-2s were built, and the total program cost for each amounted to $2 billion per bomber.

The newest U.S. advanced fighter plane is the F-35, rated with a top speed of Mach 2.25, each one of which will cost a minimum of $163 million. Unhappily, the program appears to have run into a number of problems, including a flight test in which an F-16 apparently bested an F-35 in a trial dog-fight, which created some consternation, given that the F-16 is a far older aircraft with a forty year old design, giving rise to concerns that the F-35 might not live up to its billing.

Prior to that, the unit cost for an F-22, a stealth air superiority fighter, was $155 million each in 2009. By comparison, in 1965 a Mach 2 capable F-4E Phantom jet fighter cost $2.4 million [$18 million in today’s dollars].

So, we now have a fighter aircraft that is only ten percent faster that the top-rated fighter of fifty years ago, but which costs nine times as much. Why the difference? A good aircraft designer could give a better answer, but some of the most obvious reasons for cost increases are the need for stealth technology and design and the incredible advancement in avionics and missile technology.

As an old-line pilot, though, I have to wonder. Even years and years ago, the F-14 had an incredible “stand-off “ capability and was theoretically able to destroy aircraft beyond the pilot’s range of vision… and so far as I know that capability was seldom if ever used, simply because there was no way to reliably determine whose aircraft the F-14 could destroy. Now we have even greater stand-off capability at far higher costs… but do we dare to use it?

Effective Leadership?

Let’s ask a question. What do Cyrus the Great, Alexander, Ramses II, Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khomeini, Mao Zedong, Vlad the Impaler, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Mohammed, and Jesus Christ all have in common?

Besides the fact that thousands, if not millions, died either because of their actions or policies, or as a result of their teachings… they were all men. And I could have made the list longer, a lot longer, but it does bring up another question. With the record that males have compiled while they’ve been in charge of countries, religions, armies, institutions, corporations, and other groups… why do human beings continue to allow men to lead anything?

The simple answer is, of course, that men in general have been and remain larger and physically more powerful, in most instances, than women. Another answer is that studies show that men, either for genetic or cultural reasons, tend to defer to other males who are taller and present an image of greater personal power, often even when it’s obvious that such men are largely lacking in other areas, such as foresight and intelligence.

From historic times onward, and possibly before, men have almost always controlled societies, and in almost all of them used their power to keep women in a secondary position, invariably opposing attempts to give women legal and social status and power equivalent to men. Even today, the vast majority of women across the world are still in a secondary position and a significant percentage are little more than slaves.

All this leads to yet another question. Just how well have men done at ruling and directing societies, governments, and organizations? The “boys” in control over the last century have presided over two world wars, a long-running “cold war,” not to mention more than fifty smaller wars, rebellions, insurrections, and various other lethal conflicts across the globe.

Because so few women anywhere have political and military clout, it’s difficult to make a direct comparison, but, recently, studies have shown that U.S. corporations where women have voice and power close to that of men outperform corporations dominated by men. But it certainly doesn’t seem that this is welcome news to the good old boys in the boardroom. Might it be that, despite their insistence that they’re looking for the best talent, they’re only looking for the best male talent, and performance comes second to maintaining male superiority?

Now… where would I ever come up with such an outrageous idea?