Waiting…

I’m definitely a Type A, sometimes a super type A. I feel like I’m late if I don’t arrive somewhere at least a few minutes early, and especially more than that at the airport.

One of the things that bothers me, sometimes absolutely infuriates me, is waiting for things that have been promised by a certain time or date and don’t arrive or aren’t completed. I get especially angry when there’s no explanation or when the explanation is clearly a farce. I understand that disasters happen, and that people have personal or family crises upon occasion. But I get very tired of people who have them all the time… especially when they have the same predictable excuses all the time.

I have a friend who’s a contractor, and the bane of his existence is subcontractors. Now, he has his own crew that can do much of the work, including demolition, framing, finish work, tiling, and a number of other aspects of construction, but he’s essentially a custom homebuilder and very detail oriented. He has his preferred list of subcontractors, but he’s made the point more than once that in terms of quality and being on time, the “preferred” list, with a few exceptions, consists of the most reliable of the unreliable.

I also understand, having been in the consulting business, where all too much is wanted on short notice, and where one gets paid only for work delivered, and usually as late as possible [otherwise known as “wise cash flow management” on the part of the person or business who pays you] that there’s a huge temptation to overcommit because there’s no certainty as to when and what the next contract will be or what it will entail.

But when someone makes you wait for a product or service you’ve contracted for, or even comes late to meetings consistently, it’s either a sign of poor personal management or a statement that the individual who makes you wait regards their time as more valuable than yours. Too many doctors fall into that trap, but they’re certainly not the only ones. As I indicated above, even the best intentions can be derailed by events beyond our control, but when they derailed more often than not, it’s time to look at the way in which you’re operating…

And if you’re an author, you’d better be as good as George R. R. Martin if you’re going to make your publisher and readers wait for years for the next book.

Writing Celebrity?

Almost thirty years ago, I attended a science fiction and fantasy convention on the east coast, where a then-popular writer was toastmaster, and he made witty remarks, and was in fact the toast of the convention. Around fifteen years ago I attended a large national convention in the Rocky Mountain area, where, again, another locally popular writer was toastmaster and made witty remarks and was generally fawned over. What I’ve found interesting was that the first writer sold a handful of books, then a few written-for-hire Star Wars books, and then essentially vanished. The second writer sold one book, had a falling out with his editor, switched publishers and his second book flopped miserably, but remained a “celebrity’ for another few years before fading from view.

These two examples represent perhaps the extreme, but their cases are far from rare. There are other authors who sold well for decades and were never “celebrities,” except perhaps to a few hundred fans… and tens of thousands of readers who never thought of them as celebrities, just good writers whose books those readers bought… and bought. And then there are the handful of “rock-star” writers whose few public appearances at signings engender lines around blocks and limits on how many books the author will sign for any one individual.

From what I’ve observed over the years, there’s only a marginal relationship between having a celebrity “personality” or public attractiveness and being a good or popular writer, because I’ve seen poor writers treated as celebrities, and good ones who sell well but not spectacularly almost ignored at conventions and signings. Yes, there are good writers who are celebrities, and some are handsome or beautiful, but some are not.

The most obvious problem with being a celebrity is that it requires time, and in that respect, I’ve been most fortunate to be modestly recognized, but never a celebrity. If celebrities aren’t available to be celebrities their appeal fades quickly. At the same time, if celebrity is based on writing books, the time required to appear takes time away from writing, and fewer books get written… and celebrity fades, unless, of course, it’s fanned by a multi-million dollar television spin-off. Then too, for some writers, adulation and praise goes to their heads, and they become, as one publisher put it, “uneditable,” which usually lowers the quality of what they write.

Over time, though, one way or another, the celebrity fades. It fades more quickly for those writers with less ability, but it fades for all “celebrity” writers… and in the end, the books have to stand on their own, and some do. Most don’t.

So if you have the skill and talent and good luck to become a celebrity writer, enjoy the ride while it lasts, because that part of your writing career always ends before you think it will.

Ferguson

I recently ran across a Pew Research Center national poll about the police actions and killing of Michael Brown, the eighteen year old black male shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. The poll’s results were interesting, in that roughly 2/3 of black respondents said that the police had gone too far, while only 1/3 of white respondents felt that way. Now, many people would immediately claim that such differing reactions represent either white racism or black overreaction. While some of the white response likely is racist, and some of the black response overreaction, I have strong doubts that majority of the difference between whites and blacks represents those at all. I suspect it represents something far deeper than hatred, racism, or prejudice, not that I’m condoning or excusing any of that.

The problem with ascribing the differing reaction of whites and blacks to racism is that racism and overreaction are too simple an answer, and, more important, attacking the problem by trying to eliminate racism or overreaction won’t solve the deeper difficulty lying behind that difference in opinion.

From what I’ve observed, both directly and indirectly, over a moderately long life, and what is also revealed by various studies, is that, in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, blacks and whites react differently to authority, particularly “white” authority. Like it or not, white authority has a history with the various black subcultures of supporting white suppression of black rights. It doesn’t matter that this white authority today ranges from not very much different than in the past in some areas to close to equal treatment in others. The perception by all too many blacks, particularly young black males, is that police authority is to be distrusted, avoided, and sometimes even flouted. Given history, and given the way the enforcement and provisions of law, particularly drug laws, where drugs prominent in the black drug culture receive far stiffer sentences than the same drugs used by whites, if in different formulations, this distrust, anger, and resentment has a basis, if sometimes tenuous, in fact.

On the other hand, whites, again in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, have a far more positive experience in dealing with law enforcement.

This difference in outlook further gets exacerbated by economics and by reality. Again, like it or not, police are far more likely to encounter violence and life-threatening situations in economically depressed areas, and far more areas where blacks live are economically depressed. Then add to that that young males are more likely to act out and do stupid things than any other age group, and unemployed young males even more so, and add onto that the factor that a greater percentage of young black males are unemployed. All of these factors make police far more wary and frankly skeptical of groups of young blacks. That skepticism, especially when overtly displayed, in turn fuels resentment and anger among minorities, especially blacks. By the same token, the often seemingly arrogant reaction by young blacks when stopped or questioned by police doesn’t make matters any better… understandable as that reaction is when those stopped are innocent.

All of the outcry over Michael Brown also tends to ignore that being a police officer in the United States is a dangerous job. According to FBI figures, over the last ten years, on average 170 police officers died every year in the line of duty, roughly half of whom were shot. More than 50,000 officers were assaulted each year, and more than 15,000 were injured every year. With 300 million firearms in circulation and a long history of violence, the United States is not the safest nation in the world for police officers, and the majority of areas with high levels of economically depressed blacks are even more dangerous. The leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 44 is homicide, and in something like 90% of those shootings, the shooter was black.

Compounding this problem is that the statistics show police distrust, in general, nation-wide results in black arrest rates that are far higher than for whites – even when the statistics show that blacks are no more prone to certain types of law-breaking than are whites. Marijuana use rates, for example, are the same for whites and blacks, and with more than six times as many whites as blacks in the U.S, one might think that the arrest rates would be similar, but a New York Times study noted that blacks are four times more likely to be arrested and charged than whites.

In an interesting counterpoint, there have been demonstrations, but no violence to date, in Salt Lake, where last week a “non-white” police officer shot and killed an unarmed 20 year old white male. Unlike in Ferguson, the officer was wearing a body-camera, although the photos have not yet been made public. I do think that body and police car cameras would be a very good start in Missouri, and everywhere, since at the very least, they would eliminate much of the speculation about who did what and when. So would better training in how to approach individuals about whom police have concerns. Again, studies show that greater politeness by police actually reduces violence and confrontation, which actually makes the police safer as well. More ethnic balance in police forces is also useful, particularly in places like Ferguson, where only three out of fifty-three officers are black.

Nonetheless, with all these factors in play, in some respects, it’s amazing that there aren’t more incidents between police and young black males. I frankly don’t have an answer, easy or otherwise, but I do have great concerns that the extremists on both sides are making matters worse, one side in demonizing the police and the other in demonizing young black males. Both sides have legitimate concerns and worries, but a “them” versus “us” confrontation isn’t going to do much to improve things in Ferguson… or anywhere else.

In Praise of Excellence?

Except that the vast majority of people not only don’t praise excellence; they don’t even recognize it. They only think they do. This is to a greater or lesser extent in all fields, even in science.

In 1912 the German geologist Alfred Wegener proposed the idea of continental drift, now called plate tectonics, and he was ridiculed by the scientific community. It wasn’t until more than 20 years after his death in 1930 that his ideas gained credibility, and are now accepted by that same science community. It goes the other way as well. When he died in office in 1923, President Warren Harding was beloved and respected. The revelations and scandals that followed showed his ineptitude and the corruption of his administration, including the infamous Teapot Dome scandal in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall received substantial bribes to secretly lease a Naval Oil Reserve to private oil companies for nominal rates.

Study after study has shown that taller men are thought to be more competent and that they’re paid more than shorter men. The same studies show that there’s absolutely no correlation between height and performance, yet people consistently praise and reward taller men consistently more than shorter men.

I’ve seen the same thing in writing. Readers praise what is popular, and few seem to realize that popularity and excellence are not synonymous. On the other side, I’ve seen academicians and critics praise tedious and obscure prose as excellent because they apparently believe that complexity per se equates to excellence. Certainly, the World Science Fiction awards (the Hugos) have become, if they always weren’t, a popularity contest among attendees of the convention.

My wife, who is a professor of music, opera director, and performer, sees the same thing among music lovers. When she’s explained why a particular piece of music is excellent, she’s often gotten the reaction of, “I know what’s good,” from people who have virtually no background in music. They know what they like, and that’s what they think is good.

This is a close to universal human trait. When most people say that they praise excellence, what most of them are praising is at best the appearance of excellence. What they praise is charisma, presentation, appearance, or whatever else appeals to their tastes, biases, and preconceptions.

Paradoxically, that trait may also explain the popularity of sports. Charisma doesn’t make you faster if you’re running track or a competitive swimmer. It doesn’t score points if you’re a football or basketball player. Being tall helps, but it doesn’t make you a better tennis player or basketball player. For all the faults, and there are many, in amateur and professional sports, excellence is largely decided on performance, unlike in government, politics, and business, where a minimal level of competence and a maximum level of appearance and charisma will get most people further than maximum ability combined with merely average levels of charisma and appearance.

So… think about it when you’re judging people… or art, writing, music, or any number of things. Are you judging the actual excellence, or the appeal to you?

Mindsets

The word “mindset” is so descriptive. The most common definition is something along the lines of “an established set of attitudes held by an individual.” We all have mindsets of one sort or another, beliefs or attitudes, but the most dangerous problem with any mindset is that too often long-established or firmly held mindsets make it impossible to see beyond one’s own assumptions and beliefs. I’m not advocating either changing or not changing one’s beliefs when they come in conflict with another’s, but I am saying that, for all too many people, their mindset makes it impossible for them to see problems, especially problems that others face.

In a previous blog, I mentioned an individual who said that rising sea levels weren’t that big a problem – that people could move. This individual lives in a wide-open state with good highways where the poorest individuals have at least limited freedom of movement. This person was literally unable to comprehend that someone living on an island in the Maldives or any other of innumerable low-lying islands has nowhere to move, and most have no funds with which to move, and that, these days, very few countries will accept such refugees.

My wife the professor attended a meeting dealing with the problems of sexually abused women in certain Middle Eastern countries and was astounded to hear college-educated women ask such questions as, “Why don’t they leave?” “Why do they put up with that?” Some of these women, and they were not unintelligent, could not comprehend the fact that in more than a few strict Islamic societies, women are chattels, with no rights beyond what their father or husband grants them. Without rights, they cannot own property, and even their clothes belong to a man. If they are raped, even if they fight valiantly and they are innocent of anything except being a victim, they can be killed because they have “dishonored” their husband and family. This isn’t hyperbole, but fact, yet it is so far from the experience, especially of “liberated” and privileged Americans, that many cannot accept that fact and place a certain level of responsibility upon the “dishonored” women. And even today, as recent statements by at least one American politician have demonstrated, some American males still manifest a version of blaming the victim.

Gender-based wage discrimination exists in the United States, and it is more prevalent in Utah. Last week a group presented a statistically-based initiative pointing this out, which received state-wide media attention. Several days after that I got a blog comment declaring that the state is opposed to such discrimination, and that the commenter had never seen such discrimination. The state may indeed be “officially” opposed to such discrimination, and that it is technically illegal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that such discrimination is not subtly encouraged by the dominant religion, which I also believe to be the case. Regardless of my mindset and beliefs, however, the documented disparity for pay between men and women holding the same jobs is more than a mere belief… and it didn’t “just happen.”

Mindsets come in all varieties. Liberal educators, in particular, have the mindset that everyone can benefit from an education and that if one praises students to raise self-esteem, that praise will solve half the problems immediately. Conservative educators believe that the business model will solve educational difficulties. Neither mindset seems able to observe that reality differs from their beliefs. The praise-team approach hasn’t worked, and neither has the business model, except in filling college faculties with underpaid adjunct instructors and dumbing down courses because simplified and objectified courses are easier to teach and grade. For that matter, excessive praise does the same thing.

The business mindset that profit is everything is destroying the American economy and middle class, and possibly even society if it continues unchecked, and so few business leaders seem to see that. It’s not that profit isn’t important, because it is. It’s just that profit can’t be the only goal, or the goal that reduces all other business objectives to third-tier tasks that are only undertaken if they don’t reduce profits in the slightest. By the same token, automotive unions pursued the highest possible wage and benefit package for their workers, regardless of the long-term goals… and now Detroit is almost a ghost town and millions of former middle class workers have suffered hugely.

Getting locked into your mindset so tightly that you cannot see beyond it is almost inevitably a recipe for some sort of disaster, and yet, the worse things get, the more tightly most people hold to an ever-narrower mindset. As if what got you into trouble will get you out… except it’s not your mindset; it’s other people’s. But how do you know when that’s true, and when it’s the other way around, if you can’t see beyond your own mindset?