Who Knew…

That the first true Greek language came about because someone wanted to write down the orally transmitted works of Homer, but couldn’t because none of the existing languages in that part of the Mediterranean had any vowels – and you can’t accurately transcribe poetry [or song, either, my wife the voice professor informs me] without vowels. So this original transcriber (according to Archaeology magazine) took the vowelless Phoenician alphabet and added Greek vowels, and within a hundred years ancient Greeks became literate on a wide scale.

Now, for purists, there were two prior Greek languages, known as Linear A, which has yet to be deciphered/translated, and Linear B, but it is likely Linear A was without vowels, and Linear B was definitely without vowels and was exclusively used by a very limited number of bureaucrats and merchants for record-keeping, primarily of commodities and taxes. Definitely not for poetry or literature, or even science fiction or fantasy. Roughly a hundred to two hundred years before the Greek introduction of vowels, the same transition took place in ancient Israel [so, yes, the Jews were first to add vowels to the Phoenician alphabet, but word, literally, traveled slowly in those days].

Apparently, the Greek version of language with vowels was more effective than the Hebrew version, possibly because even then entertainment topped scripture, but that also might have been because Alexander the Great conquered more territory and imposed Greek on more people. The Romans, the great practical engineers, adopted/stole everything Greek, including the idea of vowels, but streamlined and simplified the alphabet in the Latinate letters that the majority of the world uses today.

And that’s why, when I include poetry and flowery language in my books, to the dismay of the action-preferred readers, everyone can read it… all because [take your pick], ancient Hebrews wanted more descriptive language in their scriptures or ancient Greeks wanted to be able to preserve the works of Homer.

Road Kill

A report released last month by the Governors Highway Safety Association shows that the number of pedestrians killed in traffic jumped eleven percent last year, to nearly 6,000, the largest single-year increase in pedestrian fatalities ever, and the highest number in more than two decades.

And this wasn’t just because the number of traffic deaths went up due to increased driving. While overall traffic deaths increased six percent in 2016, reversing slightly a ten year decline, pedestrian deaths increased by nearly 12%. But it wasn’t just in those two years. Since 2006, pedestrian deaths have increased from 11% of all traffic fatalities in 2006 to over 15% in 2016, an increase of 25%. The increase in pedestrian deaths over the past decade occurred at time when total traffic deaths dropped by almost 17%. According to a number of sources, the greatest component of this increase is distracted walking.

Over the past year or so, I’ve occasionally commented on the increasing functional stupidity of students and others who blithely cross streets, their heads in their cell phones, not paying attention to traffic or much else. Well… now there’s some evidence that there is a cost to such stupidity, and that those who engage in it are candidates for the Darwin Awards, whose not-quite-tongue-in-cheek criterion for receiving the award states, “In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.”

Lack of intelligence around moving vehicles isn’t, unhappily, confined to homo sapiens, as a recent report in Royal Society Open Science confirms, by noting that the highest percentage of birds killed by moving vehicles were those with the smallest brains relative to their overall size.

In short, small brains makes it more likely that birds will die as road kill.

I have to wonder if we’d find the same thing if we looked at pedestrian traffic deaths.

Equal Pay

On January 29, 2016, the Obama Administration proposed a change to EEOC reporting requirements. Currently, all employers with 100 or more workers, roughly 60,000 employers with 63 million employees, already complete the EEO-1 form on an annual basis, providing demographic information to the government about race, gender, and ethnicity, but the proposed change would require employers to complete a revised EEO-1 form that included salary and pay information.

Almost immediately, the business community objected, claiming that the additional information was unnecessary, useless, and a burden. The EEOC made revisions to the proposal, which included defining “pay” as the total W-2 compensation paid to an employee, since businesses already have to compile and report that figure, and issued the revised rule in September, 2016, while extending the compliance date from March 2017 to March 31, 2018.

Business interests, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pressing the Trump administration hard to revoke the rule, saying that there’s no merit in the requirement. Trump’s Director of the Office of Management now says the matter is under review.

This is despite a huge amount of data that would appear to indicate the opposite, that, in particular, there is significant overall pay discrimination based on race and gender. The difficulty is that while statistics show that women are paid roughly twenty percent less than men, those are aggregate statistics, and both sides dispute them for different reasons.

What I find interesting is the Chamber of Commerce statement that the data would be useless. It seems to me that the data could be incredibly useful. It would go a very long way to either establishing or rejecting the idea that gender and racial pay discrimination exists.

In earlier comments, some businesses objected to the use of W-2 total compensation in the report, claiming that “base pay” was more accurate. Equal Pay advocates countered by pointing out that bonuses and other additional compensation go far more often to white males, and that total compensation – the measure adopted in the final rule – was a more accurate indicator.

The Chamber of Commerce’s opposition, at least to me, smacks of trying to keep everyone in the dark about what’s happening in the pay area, especially since business has to make the basic report anyway. It’s similar to the idea that, if the government stops funding climate research, global warming will just go away… but then, the head in the sand attitude has always been a favorite of those who don’t want things to change.

NOTE: At court hearing last Friday [April 7th], a U.S. Department of Labor regional director announced that, in investigating Google, the DOL had “found systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much throughout the entire workforce.” Google, of course, vehemently denied the charges. This was the second Silicon Valley tech company that DOL had charged with such gender pay discrimination, the first being Oracle earlier this year.

Outsiders

Recently, I’ve run across a number of articles, including some of the scholarly variety, which address the issue of “false news.” Several of them have made the points that so-called human “rationality” evolved to facilitate cooperation, not necessarily rational analyses of facts, and that the majority of human beings will accept “false news” that facilitates their inclusion in their belief group and reject verified facts that are in conflict with group beliefs.

If this is so, and from what I’ve observed, it seems to be for large groups of people, it gives rise to another question: How have human beings ever managed to evolve and develop a technological society?

The first response that came to my mind was: That’s why progress has been so slow and spotty, because you need consensus for a new way to become part of society.

One of the corollaries to this is that groups that more easily accept new and better changes will be able – still cooperatively – to outcompete groups or societies that don’t. And history tends to show that this is in fact true. When the Chinese culture essentially and gradually closed itself off to outside influences, symbolized by the government decree to destroy all ocean going ships in 1525 A.D., that marked the beginning of the long, slow, and inexorable decline of China, ending with the effective destruction of the “traditional” culture in the early twentieth century.

As I’ve noted in various previous blogs, a great number of more “modern” inventions, including the mechanical computer embodied in the antikithera mechanism, were actually developed and forgotten hundreds if not thousands of years before some society finally adopted them. Some were discarded because they were seen as uneconomic, others because people didn’t want to change existing ways of doing things, but what’s often overlooked is that economic factors aren’t entirely “rational,” but also part of a belief structure.

Some twenty-five years ago, my wife pointed out to an executive in the retail clothing world that there was a growing number of older women with money and taste who wanted professional and tasteful clothing not designed for twenty and thirty-year olds. The executive told her that there was no market for such clothing. I now know of several large retail firms making hundreds of millions, if not billions, from that market… but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the group-belief in the clothing industry was that there was no market.

That’s where outsiders come in. They’re the people who are at least marginally part of society but who really aren’t part of a group, the ones who can set aside non-functional group “beliefs” and come up with changes.

Being an inside outsider can be dangerous, particularly in areas of belief. Many of the first theologians who started the movement that became the Reformation, like Jan Hus, ended up being executed. Although Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift in 1915, he was ignored and ridiculed for more than fifty years before conclusive evidence vindicated him.

But even inside outsiders can be trapped by believers, because, if they’re successful, they tend to attract a group of people who either share the same beliefs, or profess to share those beliefs, and, in time, that reduces the former outsider’s objectivity. Companies started by outsiders, such as Microsoft, Apple, or even Walmart, often have this problem after a while. One of Edison’s great advantages was that, for the most part, but not always, he relied on what he could prove or disprove, an attitude that often goes against group beliefs.

The problem, of course, is that for every outsider with a good idea, there are a dozen with bad ideas [which is often why they’re outsiders]. The fact that bad new ideas always outnumber good new ideas may also be why stable societies tend to be conservative. It’s also, I suspect, why when a society incorporates too much change too quickly the results are almost always disastrous, or close to it. Yet, without change, cultures stagnate and collapse… or are taken over or conquered by other cultures.

All of this is why I’m speculating, and it’s only a speculation, that societal/cultural success depends over the long run on the successful use and management of “outsiders” and their ideas.

Books – Getting There or Being There

There are so many different ways to categorize or analyze books that anything I write is likely to have been said or written many times before, but the other day something struck me, in an analytical sense, that I’ve known so intuitively that I never really ever verbalized it. It was simply that there are some books that one reads merely to get to the end in order to find out what happens, or who did what in what fashion, and there are others where each page is a delight, and one is disappointed when the book ends. The first kind of book is about “getting there,” and the second is more about “being there.”

Just as there are both kinds of books, and a great many that fall in the middle, readers also tend to fall along that spectrum as well.

Personally, I tend to like books that incorporate both aspects, and, obviously, I try my best to create both feelings, but my books, I suspect, tend to have a strong component of “being there,” and I’m reminded of that when I see reviews or comments by readers who complain about too little action or not enough battles or too many meal scenes.

But there’s more to “being there” than just language or description of mundane events. As a former Navy search and rescue pilot, I can’t help but recall the description of Naval Aviation that instructors brought up more than a few times – “ninety-nine percent routine boredom and one percent pure terror.” I also held a variety of fairly senior staff positions in national politics over nearly twenty years, from the Nixon Watergate years through Reagan years and some of the first Bush presidency. There were some tense moments there, about which the less said in this or any other public forum, the better, but the bottom line was the same. Pulse-pounding, heart-stopping action is rare and infrequent, as is political tension and true drama… and both are usually caused because someone’s screwed up the “being there” and routine parts of life [as we’re now seeing in the U.S. political arena at present].

That’s another reason why I write the way I do, because I like showing just how that can happen, and how disaster so often comes as a result of carelessness, thoughtlessness, lack of understanding, or incompetence in dealing with the routine. Seeing the protagonist fix the disaster, of course, is what most readers enjoy, but I’ve found in many novels that there’s little detail or creation involved in what causes the disaster, and that often there is problem after problem that, when considered for more than a moment, come off as improbable.

That’s why it helps to have at least at bit of “being there” because it makes the “getting there” more enjoyable and a deeper read… at least in my view.