Archive for March, 2019

Sloppiness

Back in the dark ages when I wrote my first story, the few computers that existed were generally refrigerator-sized, if not larger, and extremely rare. I’ve never been against technology, and back then, the most advanced off-the-shelf technology for a writer was an IMB Selectric typewriter, non-correcting. I later upgraded to a correcting Selectric with an electronic spellchecker of sorts. Finally, when the 286 processor was developed, I shifted to using a computer to write. That made me a little later in adopting computers than some other writers, but the 286 was the first processor that fit my writing style. That meant that, for the first eleven years of my professional career, I typed out every page of every draft of my stories and novels.

There’s one effect of the shift to electronic production of manuscripts that’s seldom noted, except by those of us who had to struggle with the need to turn in a clean typescript manuscript, laboriously typed out manually, because there was no real alternative. We had to be careful, because, even with correcting tape or Wite-Out, too many mistakes meant getting rejections or retyping, by hand, the entire page – especially if you were working on submitting your first novel. Unless, of course, you were wealthy enough to hire a secretary, which very few struggling writers seldom were, or are, even today.

We had to be careful. There were no electronic spellcheckers and no grammar checkers, and one of the unspoken requirements for a real editor to look at your work was submitting at least a moderately clean manuscript with correct grammar, except where required in dialogue. Also, redrafting a novel took a LONG time. In that time period, one of the great advantages Isaac Asimov had was that he could type well, accurately, and moderately fast and that his understanding of grammar was good enough that he usually only needed to type one draft.

Today, far too many would-be writers don’t really understand grammar well enough, and they leave the “details,” such as spelling, to the computer, and it shows. Unfortunately, this excessive reliance on computers extends far beyond the mechanics of writing. Too many young people don’t understand the limitations of Google or other search engines, and they’re used to multiple-choice tests, and instant answers and satisfaction.

The result is all too often sloppiness in all aspects of their work… and what’s worse, all too many of them don’t see that sloppiness… or care.

Despite all protests to the contrary, technology amplifies everything, including sloppiness.

Cultural Appropriation?

So far as I know, as an author I haven’t been attacked for cultural appropriation, but we’re seeing a continuing barrage of such charges in many areas in the U.S., sometimes justified, sometimes not, and sometimes… it’s just hard to tell.

For example, take Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. It was written as a spoof and critique of upper-class British manners and mores through the use of “faux-Japanese” culture. There’s no doubt that it does a certain amount of violence to Japanese historical culture, but it was neither meant to be accurate about that culture nor meant to demean it. And, of course, it was written over 130 years ago. But, depending on how one defines cultural appropriation…

Then, in the opera world, there’s a trio of well-known operas that have been the center of the cultural appropriation debate – Aida, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot – set, respectively, in ancient Egypt, 1880s Japan, and in an unnamed year in China, most probably after the twelfth century. All three operas are, as operas usually are, a mish-mash of sources that take great liberties with history. Turandot, for example, is actually based on a story taken from the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami, but transferred from Persia to China. For all that, there’s been an outcry in some quarters about whether these operas should be performed and who should sing what roles. But the music is Italian in nature and doesn’t appropriate the music of the countries in which they are set, and two of the stories [Aida and Turandot] are totally fictional, including much of the supposed “culture”, while the other is based, if loosely, on an actual occurrence.

I think it’s fair to say that, in the case of the opera itself, neither Aida nor Turandot qualify as cultural appropriations, simply because about the only thing we can determine that was “appropriated” was the name of the country. Everything else is effectively fiction without specific definable cultural roots. For Madama Butterfly, however, there is a definite aspect of appropriation in the portrayal of the heroine, simply because, for the most part, she’s portrayed as a demeaning stereotype that was widely accepted in the west at the time Puccini wrote the opera almost a hundred years ago.

The question of whether it’s cultural appropriation if a singer doing the role isn’t of the ethnicity of the role strikes me as largely irrelevant. In recent years, singers doing these roles have been from multiple ethnicities; in my opinion, the question should be about how well they sing and perform, not their ethnicity. The larger question is whether individual opera companies are preferring singers based on ethnicity, as opposed to ability.

In F&SF, the cultural appropriation issue seems to center on whether a writer should write about cultures not his or her own. Now, as my readers know, I’ve never depicted a present-day or near-future culture that’s of a totally different ethnicity from my own. I have speculated at times about where various cultures might end up in the future, based on what I’ve studied and observed, but I don’t believe that constitutes cultural appropriation, and I wouldn’t call it that even if a writer from a different ethnicity speculated on a dismal future for the United States or Caucasians in general.

Speculation about the future is what F&SF does, and no writer should be criticized about what culture she or he writes about, but, by the same token, we should make a concerted effort to be accurate, and to be open to balanced and thoughtful criticism, painful as it sometimes can be. I would hope, of course, that such speculations be done with care, but then, all writing should be done with care.

Newspapers and “News”

I’m beginning to wonder how long print newspapers will last. I happen to like print newspapers, at least the way newspapers used to be printed and distributed. These days, however, I’m finding them of less and less value.

For example, take our local daily newspaper, which theoretically serves Cedar City and St. George. It has a smattering of national news, largely garnered from the USA Today news feed, as well as perhaps two local stories, and a few more St. George stories. It used to cover cultural and entertainment events in Cedar City as well as the local university and high school sports teams. I’ve seen exactly one university sports story in the past several weeks, one high school sports story, and no cultural stories for Cedar City… and maybe one story a day about local Cedar news. And the coverage of the university in St. George isn’t much better, except about the scandal that occurred when the University president tried to fire tenured professors on various trumped up charges.

And for 20% of the content that the paper once delivered, the national conglomerate that owns the paper has now doubled the subscription price.

I also take the Salt Lake Tribune, except I can only get the “paper” edition on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and most of the time the paper never gets delivered before 11:00 A.M. and sometimes, it’s after noon. Like the local paper, the Tribune has cut back on staff and coverage. It seldom covers events south of the Salt Lake Metro area, and, from what I can tell, it’s almost given up on covering books, with one Sunday edition dealing with books every month or so.

We do have a weekly “county” newspaper, and it does a far better job on local news and local high school sports, with spotty coverage of the university sports, and minimal, if any, coverage of cultural events at the university.

Electronic media, at least so far, hasn’t filled in the gap, and as a result, attendance at cultural events is down markedly, unsurprisingly, since they’re not being covered, and one concert series that’s been in existence for over 80 years may well phase itself out in the next year or so.

One of the problems, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, is that there are really no “general” electronic news/communication networks. While I hate doing it, I can cobble together national news in some depth from internet electronic services, but for local news…forget it.

Burgeoning Corporate Irresponsibility

On January 29th of this year, the mega utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) filed for bankruptcy, citing billions of dollars in liabilities stemming from wildfires in the 2018 California Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, and killed 86 people. PG&E has acknowledged likely responsibility for triggering the Camp Fire.

Although PG&E has assets estimated at around $70 billion and liabilities of approximately $50 billion, the tort claims are estimated to amount to around $35 billion, and PG&E filed what is termed a defensive bankruptcy to protect its assets, and to cap the amount it may have to pay in claims against it. And, in addition, PG&E canceled the planned distribution of $130 million in bonuses to rank and file employees.

Some have stated that PG&E is the first major corporate “victim” of global warming, but while global warming was certainly a factor in exacerbating the damage caused by the fire, what tends to get overlooked is that PG&E has a half-century long history of environmental irresponsibility.

Not only had PG&E not built and insulated its power distribution system all that well, which led to the Camp Fire disaster, but way back in 1952, PG&E began dumping chromium-tainted wastewater into unlined wastewater spreading ponds around the town of Hinkley, California, located in the Mojave Desert (about 120 miles north-northeast of Los Angeles). From 1952 through 1966, PG&E dumped some about 370 million gallons. To date, PG&E has spent over one billion dollars for damage claims and remediation. The movie Erin Brockovich told the story of the damage claims and how PG&E denied and tried to cover up what it had done. Today, Hinkley is almost a ghost town.

Then PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2001 because it was caught in a cash-flow squeeze when the wholesale price of the power the company purchased on the open market rose above the rates the company was allowed to charge by the California Public Utilities Commission. Prior to the 2001 filing, PG&E could see in advance what was happening, and, as part of its “bankruptcy estate planning” process, “pushed” extensive cash holdings into subsidiaries for distribution to shareholders, effectively “ring-fencing” those profits to “protect” them from creditors. As a result, the 2001 PG&E bankruptcy resulted in a settlement that would ultimately cost its ratepayers approximately $7 billion.

During none of these disasters were any PG&E executives ever held criminally liable or negligent, and the costs of dealing with the problems never fell on them, while they collected hefty compensation and foisted the costs of on the rate-payers, rather than on either stock-holders or corporate executives.

The original idea of limited corporate liability was to limit liability claims to the corporate body, and not to those who ran the corporation, on the grounds that no one would undertake building massive steel mills, factories, or the like when a single disaster could destroy them personally. That rationale, unhappily, still makes sense, but the evolution of law and the corporate structure means that even when corporate actions, as in the case of PG&E, kill people and destroy entire towns in violation of laws and standards, no individual is ever held responsible, and the corporation shifts the costs of those violations onto its customers, rather than to the stockholders or executives.

Until executives are personally held responsible for such violations, nothing will change, and interestingly enough, right after PG&E declared bankruptcy, the stock price went up almost twenty percent.

Principles?

A headline in the morning paper caught my attention, largely because it shouldn’t have. The headline? “Border Vote Tough for GOP Senators

And why is this tough for Republicans? Apparently, a great many of them believe that the President’s declaration of a “national emergency” infringes on the rights of Congress under the Constitution. Now, I happen to agree with them. The Constitution is rather specific in declaring that the Congress controls the federal purse strings, but these Republican senators apparently fear that voting their principles isn’t a good idea if it just might “upset” their beloved [or feared] President… and, of course, his far-right supporters.

As I recall, we had eight years of Republicans protesting Presidential “overreach” by the last Democrat President, and he didn’t go nearly so far as to declare a non-existent national emergency to build a wall because Congress hadn’t given him the money he wanted. His action that most upset the far right was to declare he wouldn’t deport teenagers who’d lived the vast majority of their lives as Americans.

Now we have a Republican President who’s gone against the Constitution and against a principle that Republicans claimed for years that they hold dear… and they don’t want to vote for their principles? After years and years of protesting about Executive Branch overreach?

As one fictional movie protagonist said, in protesting McCarthyism, “People are their principles.” But only if they act in accord with those principles. Otherwise, they’re just self-serving hypocrites.

Special?

In 2014, David McCullough, Jr., published a book entitled You Are Not Special, in which he took dead aim at society and the education establishment’s efforts to make students feel “special.” McCullough was dead right then, and very little has changed since then, especially not for the better.

But, unhappily, it’s not just students who are demanding to be treated as special. It’s pretty much everyone in the United States, or so it seems.

Most dictionaries define special as “distinguished by exhibiting unique, superior, or outstanding characteristics” or in similar terms.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the current U.S. population is 327 million people. I’ll grant that everyone is “unique,” in the same meaningless way that every snowflake is said to be unique, but not everyone, not even a majority of people, is outstanding in any way, except, of course to ourselves and the handful of people who truly care about us.

Being, or not being, of a particular race, creed, ethnicity, gender does not make one “special.” Believing in a particular creed or religion does not make one special. Having great innate intelligence or athletic ability does not make one special. What makes anyone outstanding is not that a person exists, but what that person has done with that existence, particularly what they have done that makes the world, or a part of it, a better place in some fashion.

That view is, of course, somewhat Calvinistic, and definitely at odds with the idea that merely believing in a deity is enough to obtain some sort of stature or theological grace. In the end, what gets things done, especially for the better, are focused and consistent actions to that end.

You’re not special…except through your actions.