Archive for November, 2017

The Betrayal of Trust?

As I’ve pointed out before, both in this blog and in various novels, public trust is vital for a working civilization on all levels. We trust that there will be water and power. Despite a handful of terrible mass shootings, we trust that, in the vast majority of times, we can walk the streets of our communities without being gunned down. We used to trust the media for comparatively honest reporting, but that trust is rapidly vanishing, and has vanished entirely in the minds of a large segment of the American population.

Because we’re a social species, we instinctively look for individuals in whom we can place trust. Most people don’t trust numbers, and they tend to trust those who try to persuade them with numbers and statistics even less. They want to trust people who are like them and who seem to tell the truth.

But what happens when more and more public figures are revealed not to be truthful in their private lives, or worse, to have engaged in reprehensible behavior that they kept secret through their power? Immediately, people begin to wonder in whom they can put their trust. Americans have already lost faith in most career politicians – one of the reasons why Trump was elected.

More than ever we’re seeing how many more politicians and media figures have engaged in far less than exemplary conduct in their private lives, and the trustworthiness of the media, never that high to begin with in recent decades, is plummeting, as is the public image of business leaders. What we don’t like to admit, either privately or publicly, is that what we’re seeing about public figures isn’t anything new, but merely a revelation of what has gone on all along. What’s different is that the formerly powerless people who used to be abused without recourse now have recourse, and the results are anything but pretty. History has also revealed that revered and beloved leaders often kept secrets that might have driven them from power, had they been revealed, but those revelations usually didn’t come out until much later.

What some powerful people also fail to realize is that, in a mass media and social media society, very little can remain hidden for long, and it’s harder and harder to keep secret personal shortcomings or abhorrent or potentially illegal or immoral behavior. And, no matter who you are, all of us have deeds or words that could be embarrassing or worse if revealed to the world. This isn’t something new. We want to have leaders better than we are, and we want them to be above reproach in everything. But our leaders don’t come from some spotless heaven; they come from society. Yet we feel betrayed when dirty secrets or sexual harassment charges appear in the media.

And that sense of betrayal makes it harder and harder for leaders to lead, and to reach any sort of consensus, partly because each side doesn’t believe it can trust the other, and partly because, when there is a lack of trust, people want absolute guarantees and, too often, an absolute guarantee for one side totally alienates the other side.

Now… if we want to reduce the magnitude of the “trust” issue in business, government, and the media, there’s one fairly straightforward way to elect politicians less likely to engage in sexual harassment, or to choose news executives and anchors who are less likely to use the “casting couch,” and that’s to put more women in charge. While there are some women who have sexually harassed others, according to EEOC figures, men in power are more than five times more likely to abuse their position than are women. Not that this will set well with most men… like most unpleasant facts.

Another possible way to deal with the trust issue is to spend more time verifying those facts that can be verified, rather than blindly trusting people we find appealing and likable. Another way is to be more skeptical and to judge political and media figures by what they’ve done… and what they’ve failed to do… and to evaluate what they propose by what the impact will be… and not by what they claim. We may not ever know all the exact details, but when a tax cut has the greatest immediate benefits for the wealthiest one percent, is it really prudent to trust the politicians who claim that it’s a great benefit for the other 99% of the population? When every nation in the world, except the U.S., has taken a stand of some sort against global warming, is it really wise to trust politicians who ignore this, or who claim global warming is a hoax.

When a political party rigs the representation in a state so that by winning less than half the votes in that state, that party controls 60% of the state legislature, can the politicians of that party really be trusted to be truthful?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to reduce our emphasis on personality or increase our emphasis on facts and actual accomplishments. We might not be quite so disillusioned then.

Writing What You Know?

Writing what you know is a well-intended piece of advice for aspiring writers that is too often misconstrued or misapplied. First, what we know is the result of our experiences, both good and bad, and also interesting and, frankly, boring. A long time ago, I spent a year as an industrial market research analyst, and my job was to analyze past sales patterns and forecast future sales of compressed air filters, regulators, lubricators, and valves used primarily in heavy industry. In the more than forty years since I departed that job, I have yet to find a way to make it terribly interesting to readers, except as a motivation to escape such detailed and precise boredom.

Yes, sometimes we do have experiences that are exciting, but if all you do with them as a writer is rehash the past, no reader will be interested. I’ve used my years as a Navy pilot not to relive the Vietnam years but as the basis for writing about piloting spacecraft, but even that requires integrating new information with old. What my experience does provide is the “feeling” of being in that sort of situation. The same is true of my years as a senior political staffer in Washington, D.C., where the experience and knowledge I gained become the basis for writing about politics in different governmental settings, in both SF and fantasy.

There are times, however, when using experience is counterproductive in writing fiction, and that’s when popular but inaccurate images and tropes have been fed so thoroughly to people that conveying what your experience has demonstrated is accurate conflicts with the popular images that are anything but accurate. I discovered this with The Green Progression, a then near-future SF mystery thriller I wrote with Bruce Scott Levinson about environmental politics in Washington, D.C. Although it actually got a review from a D.C. paper praising its accuracy in depicting Washington politics, the book was a miserable failure in terms of sales, largely because, I suspect, its depiction of national politics was far more mundanely brutal and cruel than the glamorously exciting, body-filled, last-minute-escape-from-danger images created by both popular thrillers and movies. What’s ironic about that was, when, several years ago, I had lunch with the head of the consulting firm I once worked for, he laughed at the fact that we had essentially written a lightly fictionalized version of what his firm did… and no one believed it. He also paid for the lunch.

Experience does matter, because a wide range of experience makes it far easier to convey in depth different settings, occupations, and environments and how people react to such settings and occupations. How much it matters depends on what you write and how you write it… and the audience for whom you write. Page-turner thrillers, from what I’ve observed, rely on action and more action, and not as much depth in other areas is required. Novels that explore character through action generally can benefit from more experiential depth.

But like all sets of advice and all generalizations, there are authors and books that are quite successful… and go against every observation I’ve just made.

Now is the Time…

…for my occasional rant about when it would be proper to start celebrations and gift buying for Christmas, that is, AFTER Thanksgiving.

Yet in most of the United States, by November first, right after Halloween, Christmas decorations appeared and sales were announced. Sirius’s XM satellite music service shut down the Billy Joel channel and replaced it with Christmas music, too much of it the elevator kind. Some Christmas decorations and sales items were appearing in Walmart in October.

While Christmas has historically been the time to celebrate the birth of Christ, only two of the gospels even mention his birth – Luke and Matthew – and none give any hint of what time of year his birth took place. Some early believers thought it was in April, but the Egyptian Christians decided to celebrate it on January sixth, while others favored the winter solstice. Eventually by the fourth century the Christian Church agreed on December 25th.

Even the Christmas tree had nothing exactly to do with Christmas, but more with non-religious German customs, and wasn’t common even in England until Prince Albert made it a custom of the British royal family in the middle of the nineteenth century.

I can understand the uncertainty about the time of Christ’s birth. I can see why, with the exact date unknown, it made political sense some seventeen centuries ago to agree on a date that matched other celebrations in the hopes of gaining converts.

What I don’t accept is the idea that a religious holiday and supposed celebration of faith should become – cancerlike – a massive commercial sales shill that threatens to gobble up [pun-intended] the comparatively non-commercial celebration of Thanksgiving.

But then, what else should I expect from a religious holiday that was moved to appeal to the pagans, now that it’s been swallowed by worship of another pagan deity – either Plutus [the ancient Greek god of wealth, from which comes the term plutocrat] or Mammon, take your pick.

Role of University President?

Before I married my wife the opera singer and university professor, my primary interests in the arts were literature, especially F&SF and poetry, and painting. My principal musical interests were instrumental classical music and “non-twangy” country music. The country music has faded to the background as I’ve also come to appreciate and enjoy opera and musical theatre.

I’ve also moved from being immersed in national politics to being a close observer of university and faculty politics… and have come to realize that in all too many instances, Henry Kissinger was right – university politics are every bit as bad as national politics, or they were until the last year or so.

One question that keeps coming to mind for me is exactly what is the role of a university president? Are university presidents primarily glad-handers and fundraisers? Or are they supposed to set the course and policies of the institution? Or, in the case of state institutions, to lobby the legislature to obtain a share in increasingly hard to get state funding?

The current president of the local university is a lawyer, a profession that I’m convinced has created a disproportionate share of the mess in which our federal government finds itself. I have nothing against attorneys in their proper place [and I shouldn’t, given the number of them in my family], but I firmly believe that neither accountants nor lawyers should be in charge of anything. Yes, every CEO needs a good attorney for advice, but attorneys as CEOs or university presidents? Not a good idea. I feel the same way about accountants.

I’m certainly not privy to all this president has done, but I have to say that, from what I’ve seen, his priorities are… can I say, of dubious value.

Every door in the music department had to be replaced not once, but twice, for legal reasons, because professors couldn’t be observed teaching otherwise, not that there were ever any complaints. On the other hand, there’s still no funding to replace the sixty year old defective and potentially dangerous lighting system in the recital hall… although plans have finally been discussed, but the replacement has been postponed for three years running. When asked about the possibility to replace the sixty-year old and overcrowded music building, he told the faculty they needed to find a wealthy donor… and that they “knew what they were getting into” when they became music professors.

The university president religiously attends every football game and touts the football team, which has won the conference title for two of the last three years. He hasn’t commented on the fact that singers from the music department have made it to the national finals of the National Association of Teachers of Singing for the past three years. Nor has he noticed the theatre alumni/alumnae who have appeared on Broadway or in touring national productions. He certainly hasn’t noticed the professors who taught and mentored those graduates. But he has forced out the director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, one of the two men who built it into a national Tony award winning regional theatre, and eliminated the modest stipend paid to the Festival’s founder. The only music department concert he now attends is the annual choral-rock concert, and he’s inordinately proud of the university’s recent achievement as being cited as the most “outdoors-oriented” university in the country.

For more than fifty years, the university president has served as a board member of the Cedar City Music Arts Association, the oldest all-volunteer arts organization in Utah. Some presidents were more active than others; all attended board meetings [nine a year] occasionally. This president never attended and recently resigned.

So far, after three years, he hasn’t managed to land major financial support, nor has he been able to persuade the legislature to come up with significant additional funding, even though the legislature has insisted that the university accept more students every year, so that tuition continues to climb. And despite the increased enrollment, very few additional full-time faculty have been hired, but the number of adjunct faculty has burgeoned.

But the football team is better.

Educational Excellence…and Measuring It

One of the problems with excellence is something that I’ve seldom seen acknowledged, especially by those charged with determining and “measuring” it.

Simply said, excellence is individual, limited, and determined by specific accomplishments or “products.” Mozart and Beethoven wrote specific exceptional musical works. That defined their excellence, and that excellence was independent of their personal behavior, which was, to be charitable, far less than excellent. Einstein’s excellence manifested itself primarily in his theories of general and special relativity and the photoelectric effect.

These days, colleges and universities have essentially tied the idea of excellence in education to bureaucratic systems and accountability to rigid standards that miss the mark. Buzzwords like “essential learning outcomes” and “experiential learning” and “detailed rubrics” and “enhanced student retention” all abound. Syllabi have become detailed tomes that need to be written with near-legal precision. All of this and more is presented as both a means to excellence in education and as a way of measuring what constitutes such “excellence.”

And… of course, whether anyone will admit it, such methods and systems are failing. They’re failing because no one wants to look at what actually measures excellence in education. Excellence is not measured by how many students stay in school and graduate, nor is it measured by inflated grade-point averages, or university student evaluations, or by the immediate post-graduate earnings of such students. Diplomas, in all too many cases, have become almost meaningless paper credentials. First jobs and accomplishments pale, and touting the earnings of former students shows more about their interest in money than their accomplishments or their interest in actual accomplishment.

In the end, what represents a college’s excellence is the accomplishments in life of its students, especially in later years. The problem with this measure of excellence is that it’s long-term, and the educrats need immediate and flashy bookmarks to placate and motive legislators, donors, alumni, and parents and students paying ever-higher tuition and fees.

All too many universities recognize and honor primarily alumni or alumnae who have either attained celebrity status or donated substantial sums of money. Universities who recognize concrete and significant accomplishments of alumni with as much ballyhoo as those who donate enormous sums of money are rare. Student athletes who become successful professional athletes are touted over former students who become successful professionals in other fields.

The same is also true in terms of faculty recognition. Solid, career-long accomplishments of faculty seldom are lauded. Popular awards, awards that can be used for PR purposes, or accomplishments that gain press or increase enrollment, are all too often the faculty “accomplishments” that are touted by universities… and seldom do they represent excellence. Nor, apparently, do most people, even university alumni, even care.

They’re more interested in whether the football team has a winning record.

The Unrecognized Costs of a College Education?

For the past four decades, if not longer, Americans have been told in more ways than one that a college education is the way for a young person to get ahead, in fact, just about the only way. In 2009, 70% of all high school graduates entered college, an all-time high. Today, the figure is around 66%… but only a little more than half of those who enter college actually graduate.

The cost of higher education may be one factor for the recent decline, given that, over the past forty years, college costs to students have risen at an average rate of seven percent per year, roughly twice the rate of inflation. Part of the reason is that state colleges and universities have passed on more and more of the costs to students and their parents, and often neither can actually afford them.

The result? Forty-four million Americans have student loans. Almost 20% of those loans are in default, and the default rate is continuing to rise.

Why? The simple answer is that the former students can’t afford to repay the loans, suggesting that they don’t make enough money to cover both living expenses and loan repayments. That’s one reason why many recent graduates are still living with their parents.

One of the reasons is that, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, there aren’t as many jobs out there requiring a college degree – and thus providing the income necessary to pay off substantial loans – as there are graduates seeking those jobs.

Yet education remains “the answer.”

I won’t try to address all the occupations where this is a problem, just one area that I know something about – fiction writing. When and where I graduated from college, there were few degree programs in creative/fiction writing. I could and did take several semesters of creative writing, but had a double major in economics and political science. Today, Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) programs in creative writing have proliferated. The first M.F.A. program was established at the University of Iowa in 1936. By 1994, there were 64. By last year, according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, there were 381 M.A. or M.F.A. programs in creative writing. Annually, some 3,000 plus students a year graduate with such a degree.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently states there are 145,900 “writers and authors” in the U.S., a quarter of them are part-timers, and 56% of them make less than $12,000 annually, which would place them below the federal poverty level for a single person. This isn’t especially surprising, given that Nielson Bookscan reported that of 1.2 million books tracked, only 25,000 — barely more than 2 percent — sold more than 5,000 copies. At current prices and royalty rates, selling 5,000 copies will generate between $12,500 and $15,000 – spread over two years at a minimum. Also consider the fact that, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the average book sells less than 500 copies.

There are roughly 1,900 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and less than 10% of them make more than about $30,000 annually, according to a former officer of the association. Noted F&SF editor and author Eric Flint once estimated that only 32 F&SF authors in the U.S. earned a consistent comfortable income, presumably an income above the median family income of $55,000.

Under these circumstances, for how many M.F.A. graduates is the degree really worth the cost? And this isn’t just a problem for would-be authors, but for more than a few other fields, as well. I just happen to know the numbers for writers better.

According to the BLS, there are roughly 800,000 employed lawyers in the U.S. today, and those who are employed make an average of $118,000… BUT the BLS also states that every year there are more unemployed law school graduates because the number of graduates is greater than the number of new positions created. This is also true in higher education, where the job market is so tight in most fields that educators with doctorates from good universities can only find part-time positions as adjuncts.

Such numbers also raise another question. Given the increasing costs of higher education, isn’t insisting on a college education risking becoming another form of economic segregation, potentially bankrupting those with heavy loans who don’t win the “jobs lottery,” not to mention offering unrealistic hopes to far too many young people?


Earlier this week, I flew back from the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, with what I thought would be a comparatively simple itinerary, at least for me, given that getting to and from Cedar City isn’t ever a single flight – except to Salt Lake. My first flight was from San Antonio to Salt Lake City on a fairly comfortable aircraft, an Airbus 320.

Boarding was without incident. Then a few minutes before scheduled push-off from the gate, the pilot announced that there was a fuel discrepancy that needed to be resolved. It took more than an hour and ten minutes to resolve the “discrepancy” and handle the paperwork.

The pilot had announced that the aircraft had the proper amount of fuel, but that the discrepancy still had to be addressed. So, believing that we had been sitting around for more than an hour just to unravel a bureaucratic paperwork snafu, I inquired into the nature of the discrepancy. One crew member finally told me that the problem wasn’t the amount of fuel, but that its location was. Apparently, there was a 20,000 pound imbalance of some sort. How this occurred or whether the crew member had it precisely right, I don’t know, but I do know that an Airbus 320 has two tanks in each wing and a center fuselage tank. To me, a 20,000 pound fuel imbalance sounds serious [especially given that the maximum fuel load is roughly 42,000 pounds], and according to FAA regulations, aircraft are prohibited from taking off with significant fuel imbalances, not that I knew that at the time

As a result, once we arrived in Salt Lake, despite my sprinting between gates, I missed my connecting flight to St. George by ten minutes… as did at least three others, who were either smart enough or pessimistic enough not to run. That meant a five hour wait for our connection. Several others couldn’t leave Salt Lake City until the next day, while a few “fortunate” souls could sprint and make their connections. I finally got home at close to one in the morning.

While I’m very thankful that the pilot caught the error/problem, the incompetence of the refueling crew cost everyone time and money, and had the problem not been spotted, it’s possible that matters could have been far worse.

I may not like weather delays for aircraft, or Air Traffic Control delays, or even some maintenance and repair delays, but delays created by incompetence are another thing entirely. Now, it could be that I’m getting more curmudgeonly as I get older [although some of my offspring might claim I’ve always been that way], but it appears to me that I’m seeing a great deal more of this kind of sloppiness. My wife sees it in students; an Army lieutenant colonel who’s a battalion commander tells me that new soldiers need much more training and “reminders” about the importance of details, and has the statistics to back up his statement; and our son, who runs a very high-end retail outlet, has had to fire more people in the last two years than in the previous decade for exactly the same reasons.

Yet I see statistics insisting that the young people of today are more intelligent than ever. In my view, intelligent people don’t misfuel aircraft or require continual occupational reminders and babysitting.

And then I got a survey from Delta asking how they could have better handled the situation. My answer won’t be considered, I’m sure. I suggested that passengers who are delayed and inconvenienced by incompetence should be financially compensated, and that such compensation should be funded by deductions from the paychecks of senior airline executives.

The Opioid Mess

The number of deaths from opioid overdoses and misuse continues to climb. All sorts of legislative and regulatory proposals have been floated, almost entirely, from what I can tell, dealing with controlling or restricting the prescription and distribution of opioids. Most recently, the President has signed an executive order purportedly addressing the opioid crisis.

Almost none of these measures will work, just as the measures proposed to deal with illegal drugs have failed miserably. And these “new” approaches will fail for a very similar reason: They don’t address the real problems leading to opioid deaths.

According to the National Institutes of Health, over 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and opioid-related overdose fatalities have doubled over the past ten years to more than 60,000 last year. While the NIH has recognized that pain and overdose deaths are related, and that medical pain treatment methods need to be improved, the underlying problem is incredibly simple… and presently not solvable for the majority of those suffering long term severe pain.

Opioids are the only legal way to relieve pain for most of those individuals suffering long-term severe pain. Continuous use of opioids requires higher and higher dosages to be effective and also makes users increasingly more sensitive to pain. In addition, chronic intense pain makes sleep difficult, and sleep-deprived individuals have even more difficulty handling pain. The medical profession has also been successful in “saving” people, at the associated cost of painful and chronic medical conditions.

While researchers are seeking other non-addictive pain remedies, so far as I’ve been able to determine, no non-opioid medication useful on a daily and long-term basis for a range of pain conditions has reached the stage of human clinical trials, and until something meeting those criteria is developed we’ll continue to face an “opioid crisis.” Restricting prescription painkillers will only drive people in pain to illegal drugs on a greater basis than at present, and that’s frightening, because overdose rates for illegal synthetic painkillers such as fentanyl are now approaching 20,000 deaths per year, an almost six-fold increase since 2002.

The problem isn’t opioids; the problem is pain. And very little of the rhetoric even acknowledges that.

Who’s Going to Pay?

Early this week, the Department of Interior announced plans to increase the entrance fees to some seventeen of the nation’s largest national parks in 2018, more than doubling the previous fees during the most crowded times. Among those parks are several here in Utah, including Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, and Arches.

The local reaction was fierce and immediate, not to mention negative, all along the lines that families can’t afford to pay $70 per car [now $30] or $30 per individual [up from $15] just to get into a national park. And if families can’t or won’t do that, Utah tourism will take a significant hit.

I understand the reaction, even if the proposed fee is far less than a day at Disneyland or Disney World. But I also understand the problems facing the National Park Service, which needs desperately to repair decades-old and damaged infrastructure, an infrastructure that gets damaged more each year by the increasing number of visitors. Currently, the Park system’s maintenance/repair backlog exceeds eleven billion dollars.

What also struck me was that this is the same reaction to all too many government programs, whether it’s SNAP/food stamps, health insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, disaster relief, interstate roads and bridges, tuition and fees at state universities… the list is seemingly endless. The least affluent members of society are hit the hardest by either increasing costs or decreasing services, and because politicians don’t ever want to raise taxes on anyone, either things don’t get fixed, or a few things get some help, and federal spending is financed more and more by increasing deficits.

It’s a national epidemic of “We need this, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

And yet, despite ballooning deficits, the Republican-led Congress and the President are pushing for massive tax cuts, claiming that such tax cuts will fuel growth that will wipe out the deficits. This is political bullshit and voodoo economics erroneously based on the experience of the tax cuts proposed by President Kennedy and signed into law by President Johnson as the Revenue Act of 1964, which reduced the top individual rate from 91% to 70%. The corporate tax rate was reduced from 54% to 48%. In fact, there was a moderate but significant growth attributed to those tax cuts.

Today, the tax rates are much different, and much lower than then. The top individual rate is 39.6% for individuals [with taxable incomes above $418,000 a year] and 35% for corporations, although the average rate paid for corporations is closer to 20% [and some large corporations pay no tax at all]. In addition, statistics show that there’s plenty of unused capital that’s not being invested in new businesses or jobs because the demand isn’t there. Since most of the tax cuts will go to the well-off, they won’t increase spending by the bulk of the population, which is what would be required to stimulate demand significantly.

And that means that the problem of “needs” being greater than the funds to pay for those needs is only going to get worse. And while many decry the growth of Social Security and Medicare, exactly how else, at present, are we as a nation going to provide for people too old and too infirm to work? Then, too, regardless of political philosophy, meeting some of those needs, such as our aging infrastructure, an overcommitted military, disaster relief and rebuilding, and yes, the national parks and the environment, are vital to the future of the country.

But no one wants to pay for enough for them… or to agree on what spending can be cut.