Archive for April, 2016

Just in Time

One of the ever-increasing problems created by technology – and especially the internet and cellphones – is a failure, particularly by the younger generations, to understand that waiting until the last moment can be a problem, sometimes even a disaster. I’m perfectly well aware that procrastination has been a fault in every “younger” generation since before the time of Plato, but from what I’m observing, that particular fault seems to be lasting longer among the young and spreading to a greater segment of the population.

Part of the reason for this, I’m personally convinced, is because of the “instant” nature of communications. Especially in the high-tech world, one can reach people immediately, and more and more businesses are expecting their employees to be available electronically all the time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this has some considerable downsides, but one of those downsides I haven’t mentioned in any depth is that such communications expectations lead to other expectations, particularly that physical products and goods can be available equally swiftly.

In this regard, Amazon has also been fostering unrealistic expectations. It’s one thing to be able to pack and ship an existing product in less than twenty-four hours; it’s something entirely different to be able to create something unique in the same period, or to write a detailed analysis about something new, with which the analyst has had no experience, in the same period. In short, doing the work actually takes far more time than one-day shipping the product, or electronically zapping an analysis to whoever needs it.

My wife the professor sees this all the time. Students think that they can learn a piece of complex music overnight or at least in a few days. They think they can write papers overnight… and they indeed can, except that such papers seldom make sense because they simply throw things together because they haven’t spent time doing the background study necessary.

Then there’s the associated problem. All this technology that we use today has a far higher failure rate than the old-fashioned manual typewriter did…and when that’s combined with waiting until the last moment… is it really anyone else’s fault when your hard drive fails at four in the morning because you put everything off? Is it anyone else’s fault if the internet goes down for the two hours just before the deadline for acceptance of the paper, project, grant application, or whatever? Or that the color printer runs out of toner and the office supply store won’t be open until nine o’clock?

This just doesn’t happen to students. Boeing screwed up the production of its new 787 because the company decided to outsource manufacturing and relied on “just in time” delivery. It became such a disaster that Boeing had to build more facilities to manufacture certain key components. The “instant” aspects of technology aren’t infallible, and they’re only part of the process, and everything requires lead time and planning – something that all too many people from students even to engineers seem to be forgetting.

Well-Written…. But…

On a recent trip, I read a book by an author I’ve known, on and off, for more than twenty years, a book that had gotten good reviews from a publication that seldom gives them. I’d never read the author’s work, but others I know have and thought highly of it. So I read the book.

The first thing I’ll say is that it was extraordinarily well-written. The language, the sentence structure, the revelations about the main character, the pacing… and I had to force myself to finish the work, although I did.

Why did I have such trouble reading to the end? Because it was about an extremely gifted and creative artist, who was intelligent and perceptive, often empathetic, and sometimes kind… yet also arrogantly and persistently self-destructive in pursuit of greater and greater “shock value” in the name of artistic creativity. The writer portrayed the protagonist brilliantly, and in a fashion that left little doubt about the writer’s understanding of the protagonist’s struggles, faults, and failures in dealing with the world, but primarily in dealing with other largely self-destructive and arrogant individuals. The book ends on a single upbeat note… with the absolute implication that the struggles, failures, and self-destructive behavior will continue past that momentary resolution and single grace note of happiness.

In some ways, it’s almost a masterpiece, and in some readers’ minds it likely is. It’s certainly true to life, because I’ve not only read about such self-destructive behavior, but I’ve also seen it and known individuals like that, particularly creative ones. I’ve also seen far too many painters, film-makers, writers, photographers, sculptors, musicians, and others attempt to perpetuate shock value for the sake of shock value while touting it as creativity. The book certainly raises the question of whether creativity and self-destruction are the two faces of the same coin, as well as the suggestion that there’s a darkness beneath the font of creativity, and to that last possibility I’d have to agree. With what I don’t agree is the near-absolute correlation the author suggested between extreme creativity, shock value, and self-destructive behavior, although there’s little doubt in my mind that there have been and likely always will be those highly creative individuals who are also highly self-destructive.

In the end, I could barely finish the book simply because I find that self-destructive behavior, and shock value for the sake of shock value by creative individuals is a waste of human potential and talent, perhaps a tragedy in the case of those who cannot help themselves, but all too often a failure to accept the fact that creativity is almost never fully appreciated by the majority of the human species and almost invariably is ranked well behind material sustenance and personal power, regardless of the greatness and excellence of that creativity… or the toll taken on those who create.

A book that portrays creativity as the path to self-destruction and near nihilism certainly represents one possible life-path, especially today, when the public value of any artist is measured primarily by the cashbox, and when all too often the excesses of shock value are highly rewarded. I just can’t praise a book so depressing, or find a character that unwilling or unable to turn away from the darkness worth either a mention by name or a read of subsequent adventures. Creating is hard enough and good creators scarce enough that reading about those who cannot deal with the pressures and the challenges of their own abilities [and turn to the dark side, if you will] is the last thing I want to read about. But sometimes, it takes just such a book to remind me of that.


We all have expectations, pretty much about everything, and from what I can tell, that’s the “normal” condition for human beings. We also have a tendency to rate, judge, or assess much of life and its components by how well those people, items, products, books, movies, and even the weather meet our expectations. That’s also normal.

The problem with that “normal” behavior, however, is that our assessments, and thus, our expectations, may not be especially accurate or in accord with the expectations of others. If we’re reasonably accurate in our assessments, and so are all those with whom we associate, few are likely to question us, and those questions are easily dismissed.

But what if our assessments are not all that accurate, and we’re in agreement with most of those with whom we associate? The general reaction, from what I’ve observed, is, again, to dismiss contrary opinions as inaccurate and unfounded, and to re-affirm bonds with those with whom we associate. Sometimes those dismissals even take the form of “I expected better of….”

But when time and events demonstrate absolutely that certain expectations were wrong, how many people ever admit that past assessments and expectations were in fact inaccurate.

Again, from what I’ve observed… very few. Reactions range from denying that one ever had that opinion to denying that the facts and events even existed. Today, the Turkish government is busily denying that millions of Armenians were killed about a century ago, despite a wealth of absolute evidence. Millions of Christian believers deny evolution and some even deny the age of the universe, again, despite a massive amount of rather substantial evidence.

I do wonder what the rabid supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders will say when it becomes factually obvious that what those two promise cannot and will not be accomplished. Will they claim they were deceived by their expectations? Or will they blame the candidates? Or blame those of us who never had any positive expectation that they would accomplish political miracles? Or will they say, “I expected better…”

Conflict Management…

…might just as well be called dominance management, because conflict usually arises when two parties can’t agree with each other. The most likely results are: (1) one party gives in rather than deal with the conflict; (2) one party forces the other to give in through greater force of some sort, physical strength, financial strength, political strength, strength of personality, sheer endurance, some combination of those, or the threat of those; (3) compromise of some sort; or (4) total disengagement, which can range from polite and cordial agreement to disagree to absolute and continued hostility, either concealed or overt.

Most people, I’ve discovered, don’t think of conflicts in that way, but from what I’ve observed that’s the spectrum of responses to ideological, political, financial, or physical conflicts.

What complicates such conflicts is usually, but not always, the assumption by one or both of the parties of some form of superiority, either moral, intellectual, or physical, which can make any form of real agreement difficult. And when one party is forced to agree to or to accept the terms of the other party, the result is almost inevitably anger and resentment, particularly when the party forced to agree believes fervently in his or her moral or intellectual superiority, which is all too often the case, or that they’ve been wronged in some fashion.

That also means when someone is coerced/forced into agreement against their will, such agreement will only last so long as the “superior” party can enforce their will.

All of which is a reason why the United States eventually “loses” wars and conflicts in places like Vietnam and the Middle East, because we don’t want to pay the price for continuing to enforce our desires on others, which is what is necessary when the belief structure of the majority of the people of a country is at odds with our belief structure. In places where we have “won,” it has taken generations of occupation to shift belief structures, and, in the case of our own southern states of the Confederacy, one could make the case that even 150 years later, those “old south” belief structures still persist in a large number of people.

That doesn’t mean the United States can always avoid using force, but if we don’t want to spend or bleed ourselves dry, most use of force should be restricted to simply stopping the worst of what we can stop, without attempting to force ideological/political change on other cultures.

On the domestic front, we’ll also end up locked in an exhausting and debilitating deadlock unless we return to the basics of the “civil society” envisioned by the Founding Fathers, that is, a society based on a compromise over what should be legal and what should not be, because with more than a fifth of the country now identifying themselves as non-religious, and with very differing core beliefs between evangelicals and other faiths, any attempt to impose religion-based strictures on the entire population will only fuel more conflict… and that’s the last thing any of us need in these troubling times.

The No-Action Default

Philosophers have debated what is a good or moral action for thousands of years, but from what I can tell, there’s one aspect of the problem that I’ve not seen often debated – and that’s what constitutes an act or action.

This might be illustrated by the “runaway trolley” dilemma. An empty trolley breaks loose and is heading down the track toward a group of five unsuspecting workers. A bystander sees a switch and realizes that she can throw the switch and divert the trolley onto another track, where there is only one worker. Should she turn the switch?

If she does, one argument goes, she has taken an action that will kill one person, and that death is by her act. If she does nothing, the trolley does what it would do, absent intervention, and kills five, but the bystander did not cause those deaths.

Now, speaking frankly, I think the reasoning here is absurd, but it’s clear that there’s a school of thought [the intentionalist school] that believes that it’s somehow less moral to throw the switch because that’s an affirmative act that causes a death. The results school of thought, of course, simply says that one death is preferable to five.

To my way of thinking, the problem with the intentionalist view is that it doesn’t recognize that the failure to act is in fact an action. Deciding not to act should be judged on the same grounds as acting is.

Yet more and more I see people deciding not to act, or not to get involved, because they see all courses of action, particularly in politics, as immoral or unethical. All too often, they’re correct about the perceived courses of action, but what I don’t think they’re correct about is that not acting, i.e., participating, discussing, voting, even running for office, is also an immoral action, because it abdicates responsibility for the outcome to those who are willing to dirty their hands, particularly since, in this day and age, those willing to speak out long and loudly, and vote, and persuade others to do so, seem to be those who represent the extremes in civil dialogue and politics.

Today, in a political sense in the U.S., we’re facing a form of the runaway trolley dilemma, and part of the dilemma occurred in the past when fewer and fewer non-extremists decided not to get involved in grass-roots politics, either through inertia or through the misguided belief that political involvement was immoral.

Failure to act is an act.


Currently, it appears as though terrorism is almost everywhere in the world in some form or another, and while Islamic/Jihadist terrorists seem to be the most visible and active, they’re certainly not the only ones.

What tends to get overlooked both in dealing with terrorists and terrorism is the long-term result of such activities. The immediate result is, of course, hundreds and thousands of deaths and injuries annually, and a great deal of anger and fear. For all of the so-called idealism or religious fervor of the Islamic terrorists, the goal of their terrorism isn’t to inspire the creation of some great Islamic state. It’s to disorganize and destroy civil society, to create chaos and unrest, and to demonstrate that civil society cannot cope with terrorism. Once such chaos exists, the only way to restore order is through absolute force – and in the Middle East in particular the only unified forces that exist are largely based on some version of Islam.

But what gets overlooked in all of this is that terrorist acts and murders don’t in themselves destroy civil society. Popular reaction to those acts does. Moreover, the popular reaction is almost always the strongest in countries and societies that already have the most authoritarian and repressive societies. It doesn’t matter that the Taliban might be even worse than the Afghan warlords; the warlords are so oppressive and corrupt that there’s already little love of the civil society, especially in a land that still remains tribally fragmented. It also doesn’t matter that ISIS is even worse than the Syrian government… and so it goes.

This kind of scenario is scarcely new. In a way, the Russian revolution followed a similar path, as did China, and much of southeast Asia… and the groups that had already gathered and mustered a monopoly on force were the ones who ended up governing.

A strong civil society is the greatest bulwark against the long-term effects of terrorism, but for a civil society to remain strong requires that the great majority of people support it. In turn, the greater the degree of oppression, perceived inequality and discrimination, and the greater the perception that there is no hope of advancement and improvement for most people, the more likely terrorism will be effective in fragmenting a society… which is the first step to revolution or social chaos and break-down.

Does that sound at all familiar?

What Characters Do – Or Don’t

The other day I realized something that probably should have been obvious, but that I’d never thought much about. There are millions of readers in the world, but there are very few characters in books who actually read books. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t recall a book I’d read – except my own – where a character reads a book or mentions one or quotes from one. It could be that my memory was faulty; so I went to my bookshelves and looked at all the books lined up there, and tried to think of a single one that mentioned reading or writing books, and I finally found one – Joe Haldeman’s The Hemingway Hoax – and recalled another one – Gene Wolfe’s The Borrowed Man.

Now, I’m certain there are others out there, but I’m willing to bet that the percentage of F&SF books that have characters who actually read or write books is less than five percent. I’m not talking about reading or writing books as the focus of novels, but just as a mention of part of the character’s lives.

Yet biographies of great people usually mention books in some fashion or another. Almost every biography of Lincoln has the story of the borrowed book that he had to replace, and Jefferson’s love of writing and books is certainly renowned. Patton read the classics, and Churchill won a Nobel Prize in literature. Scores of famous people mention the Bible or quote from it, but seldom do authors depict the equivalent in F&SF.

Likewise, almost every human culture has some form of music, and while a larger percentage of F&SF books mention/show music, the percentage is small compared to the field as a whole, despite the ubiquity of music in history and life.

Then there is the issue of family. Families play a part in everyone’s life, and whether immediately present or not, definitely influence actions and motivations. Again, there are more books that show this than there are novels that depict books…but comparatively few F&SF books use familial interactions and pressures.

Just a few thoughts on what’s often not there.

Social Contract

Way back in the middle of the seventeen hundreds, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau came up with the idea of “the social contact.” The simplified concept is that government represents a tacit contract between the people effectively to be governed and behave in order to escape the “natural state” [which Rousseau tacitly admits never existed, but that’s another story].

One of the interesting facets of his concept was that the social contract tended to break down if the income inequality between the rich and the poor became too great, which in fact is exactly what happened with the French Revolution several decades later in the last years of the century, and after Rousseau’s death. In point of fact, it’s rather interesting to note that in the more than 300 years since Rousseau made that observation, there have been more than a few revolutions and a great deal of social unrest in times of great income inequality.

At present, the United States is in one of those periods. According to Rousseau, the popularity of either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump should scarcely be surprising, given that income inequality in the United States has now surpassed the income inequality of the previous period of greatest inequality in the 1890s, which was, of course, the time during which William Jennings Bryan ran for President as a fundamentalist/pro-silver/anti-big-money Democrat. After three years of economic depression, in 1896, Bryan carried 22 of the 45 states at that time and took almost 47% of the vote, despite being outspent by a five to one margin by McKinley.

Today, what is interesting is that the “establishments” of both major U.S. political parties are being challenged by those within the respective parties who feel economically and/or politically threatened or disenfranchised by the current political system. And, no matter how the next election turns out, the problem of income inequality isn’t about to disappear.

The greatest danger is, in fact, is if people think that the election resolves the problem, because then, nothing effective will be done, and most likely both income inequality and economic conditions will worsen.


It’s fairly simple. Right now, corporations and other institutions are literally sitting on close to a trillion dollars in uninvested dollars. These dollars are not invested because those holding them do not see a market for the goods or services that could be produced with them. The reason for this is that too many Americans are too poor to purchase anything but the basics. The idea that low taxes on high earners makes more money available to create jobs is, like a lot of simplistic “solutions,” half-right. It does make money available, but no one is going to use that “excess capital’ to create that many new jobs in the U.S. if a huge percentage of the population can’t afford the goods and services created by those jobs.

This is where a massive government-funded infrastructure development program would help, provided it’s designed right, and not merely a subsidy to the construction and technology industries. We have hundreds of thousands of unsafe and/or rapidly decaying bridges and tunnels, unsafe municipal drinking water systems, an air-traffic control system that verges on the obsolete and inefficient, a power grid that could be destroyed by a solar flare, thousands of miles of highways that are crumbling, national parks that have billions of dollars of delayed and deferred maintenance… and we do nothing about any of this, while nearly a trillion dollars of uninvested capital sit largely idle because unemployed or underemployed workers haven’t the money to buy anything except the extreme basics – if that.

Yet, as I’ve argued, and as have others, in the end, those ultra-high earners, the one tenth of one percent, could likely make even more money if they were taxed a bit more and those taxes put to work in improving infrastructure.

Will it happen?

I have my doubts. I suspect it won’t until the social unrest and economic stagnation become even worse, which they will, unless matters change in the mindset of the American political system. The problem is that, if matters get too much worse, we may face a revolution, rather than an evolution. I could be wrong, I’ll be the first to admit, but right now, the odds are in favor of pessimism.


The past six-month period has been one of the worst for us that I can recall in years in terms of the number of friends who have suffered, some of whom have died. All this suffering that I’ve witnessed has brought home to me a tremendous short-coming in our modern medical system or structure. It’s simple enough. In prolonging life, especially in treating some forms of cancer, in saving wounded soldiers and victims of accidents who surely would have died in earlier times, in fact as recently as a decade or two ago, we have created a massive problem and source of suffering – a huge increase in people suffering agonizing pain.

So many forms of medical treatment can now keep people alive, but at the cost of continual pain. According to the National Institutes of Health, 17% of all Americans suffer severe pain intermittently, and 65% of those – 11% of the U.S. population – suffer daily, chronic, and severe pain. Yet while we have relatively effective forms of pain control for mild pain, the only substances currently effective for severe pain are opioid-based, and the problem with these is that with continued use, they become both addictive and less and less effective. So those in pain take more and more, and often mix those painkillers with alcohol, just so they can dull the pain and sleep, which is another reason why there are so many deaths as the result of combining alcohol and painkillers.

Yet this problem is scarcely recognized by most people. Nor is there any real recognition of why this pain problem has occurred. I certainly didn’t grasp its magnitude until recently, when more and more people I know ended up with excruciating pain. Instead, there’s an incredible push to stop the “overuse” and “abuse” of opioid painkillers. In my home state of Utah, the LDS Church effectively blocked even a modest piece of legislation that would have allowed the medical use of cannabis products and extracts [all specified as non-hallucinogenic]. The upshot of all these efforts appears to be that even terminally ill people are often being denied painkillers adequate to mitigate their suffering, but if they’re terminally ill, why worry about whether they’ll become addicted?

I’ve seen reports on promising new developments in non-addictive and non-hallucinogenic painkillers, but it will be years before any of them are widely available. In the meantime, what are we going to do for the more than 25 million Americans dealing with severe pain on an on-going basis? [And, no, I’m thankfully not one of them.]

Just tell them to hold on because we don’t want them addicted to opioids or marijuana?