Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Significance… Or Insignificance?

Significance? What is it? The leading dictionary definition is “importance” or “of meaning or consequence,” but the problem beyond that is how we as individuals, cultures, and societies define what is important, meaningful or consequential.

What is actually more important to the individual [and human society and culture] is the concept of insignificance, the realization that one may have no import, no meaning, and no consequence to others, to society, to the world or the universe. Study after study has shown that human beings are motivated far more by loss aversion than by hope of or desire for gain. We don’t like losing things, anything, especially a sense of self-worth.

That is why human beings will go to almost any lengths at times to avoid being insignificant or allowing themselves to consider that they are insignificant… and why individuals who believe themselves to be insignificant have a far higher rate of suicide and attempted suicide. It’s also likely why suicide rates are higher in societies with greater levels of income inequality, since people on the bottom not only perceive that their significance is less, but also see that their chances of increasing their significance are low.

Virtually every human society has a creation story or myth involving the creation of human beings by a greater power. Such myths convey a greater significance to the human race and to individuals, as does the concept of a personal god, than the actual possibility that we are merely a product of evolutionary development, and the sometimes violent reaction against the concept of evolution may well lie in the need for significance on both a personal and societal level.

In general, there are two ways to achieve comparatively greater personal significance, first by positive deeds, including accumulation of wealth, power, or knowledge or, second, by reducing the significance of others. Those who cannot achieve greater significance, or as much significance as they believe they deserve, in a positive way often attack anyone who they perceive is not granting them adequate respect – or significance.

Cultural signs of the fear of insignificance – and of the fear that others will attack one’s significance – are also everywhere. One current sign is the anger among certain minorities when someone disrespects, or “disses,” another. Authors get upset by bad reviews , especially those that minimize their work or talent. Negative tweets often generate violent reactions.

Politicians worried about their professional and personal significant take umbrage at negative news coverage, often attacking the media, or claiming that what is reported that is critical of them is “fake news” – especially when such reports are true, or largely so.

There’s an old saying about actions speaking louder than words, and it might not be a bad idea to consider how significant we – and those who lead us – might be by actions, or lack of action, rather than by all the words trumpeting greatness and impugning those who don’t agree.

Lessons from History?

Once upon a time, I was the staff director of a Congressman’s office. He was a Republican. At that time, the Democrats held an overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. They also used that power in pushing through legislation to which the Republicans objected violently. Even when the Reagan Administration came to town, Republicans could do little to oppose the Democrats.

So the Republicans began to organize. They created initially small power bases, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee. Over time, other organizations soon followed, as did intensive grass-roots organizing in conservative areas nation-wide. Eventually, the Republicans gained and held a majority in the House and Senate, and just as the Democrats had once done, they began to abuse their power and to push through legislation violently opposed by the Democrats or to block legislation they opposed, even when polls showed that the majority of Americans supported such legislation.

Obviously, this is a pattern in American politics, but what concerns me is how, with each swing of the pendulum, the infighting and the partisanship become nastier and more violent; the attacks more personal; and the intransigence more entrenched.

The last time that political intensity in Congress may have been this intense occurred on May 22, 1856, over the issue of slavery when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate Chamber and physically attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts from behind with a metal-topped cane. Sumner was so badly injured that it took him years to recover. Certainly, the verbal intensity at present is higher, cruder, and more distorted than it has been in some time, and, combined with the political polarization of the two major parties, it doesn’t appear that there’s any sign of moderation on the horizon.

I’m old enough to have seen the swing of politics from one abusive majority to another abusive majority of a different party, but most Americans either haven’t lived long enough to see it, don’t care so long as “their” party prevails, or have no idea what I’m talking about.

History would suggest that this kind of situation, unless defused, will only get worse. The only question may be whether we’re looking at a repeat of 1968 or 1861.

Number Crunching…

More and more, business, government, and education rely on numbers, but from what I’m seeing, fewer and fewer decision-makers understand what lies behind the numbers or how the numbers are being used in ways that border lies, and all too often those in business or government who do understand the numbers are those with essentially few ethical restraints. This isn’t new. Mark Twain noted that, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Right now, there are two disparate trends in number crunching. The first is to use numbers to make everything more “efficient” and profitable, but this emphasis has two distinct problems. First, for the most part, efficiency and profitability are calculated on an ever-shorter time scale, and if something’s not profitable in terms of this year’s or next year’s budget, it tends to get slighted or eliminated, even if total profits/efficiency over time would be greater. Coupled with this tendency is the attitude on the part of decision-makers that can be expressed as: “How can you prove we’ll be better off in the future; today’s hard numbers show we’ll be better off now. Anything farther out is just speculation and guessing.”

In addition, there’s an ever-increasing tendency to use numbers to quantify the unquantifiable or to use data that’s seemingly relevant, but isn’t. More than a few studies have shown that frequent so-called performance reviews that require numerical quantification, to put it bluntly, don’t work. In higher education, the use of student evaluations has a negative correlation to evaluating the best professors, because the best professors require more of students, and, most student down-rate demanding professors. In addition, the wide-spread use of student evaluations has also led to grade inflation. Grade inflation has led to students who are unsuited to higher education staying in the system longer and usually incurring more student loan debt without being able to pay it off. And those are just a few of the problems with numerical quantification of human performance.

Paradoxically, the second discouraging trend in number crunching is the growing disregard for any numerical analysis that requires more spending now to preclude greater future outlays. The most obvious case is that of Social Security and Medicare. Congress and the last few presidents, including the present incumbent, all talk about the coming shortfall, but no one wants to do anything, yet the earlier steps are taken, the less the cost in any one year on any taxpayer. There’s a similar problem with federal deficit spending.

And, of course, there’s the global warming problem, which for all the rhetoric, isn’t going away, and won’t. And each year that meaningful remedial measures aren’t taken means greater future costs. No… in the next few hundred years, we won’t destroy the planet’s environment, but at the current rate of ice-cap melting, which is increasing faster every year than most scientists calculated, in some thirty years, the U.S. alone will have to replace, repair, and relocate millions of structures, highways, port facilities, and utility infrastructures, as well as build seawalls, and redesign and rebuilt harbors and ports — all just to keep places like New York City functional. Just one storm in New York already flooded the subways and cost hundreds of millions to repair. And that doesn’t include all the naval facilities in Norfolk, a good chunk of Florida, Sacramento and the interior bay area, and a great deal of other valuable real estate, not to mention millions of houses and businesses. What no one seems to want to recognize is that we’re facing a monumental construction, relocation, and remediation problem that will cost trillions of dollars just in the U.S.

Yet, at the moment, the U.S. is running a huge current account deficit; the interest on the national debt will soon exceed the defense budget; billions of dollars in student loans will be defaulted; our existing infrastructure is crumbling; and those are just for starters for U.S.-based problems.

Then add to that military problems and massive social unrest caused by tens of millions of refugees fleeing drought-and-flood-caused famines around the globe because of climate change – a fact that the notoriously conservative U.S. military has already raised as a growing problem.

Yet all the politicians are worried about keeping taxes low this year and for the foreseeable future, claiming that economic growth will take care of the deficit and all the other economic problems. Even the most optimistic economists don’t see any reductions in the deficits, and that’s with budgets that don’t address any of the major increasing costs. That means that we’re pushing off addressing all sorts of future problems, in large part because no one really wants to look at the numbers impartially… and especially not if it means taking on fiscal responsibility.

But don’t worry; the worst won’t occur, if we’re fortunate, until most of us are dead.

Don’t Tell Me…

One of the unspoken rules of the current Administration seems to be “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know.” That’s especially true where science or impartial technical expertise is involved.

For the first time since 1941, there is no White House Presidential science advisor. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, gutted the EPA Science Advisory Board, and replaced the scientists with industry shills. Ryan Zinke, the Interior Secretary, has transferred and otherwise marginalized or replaced scientists. Agency after agency has changed guidance and policy to minimize the use of scientific data and studies.

Why? While there’s been a muted denial of these events and statements along the lines of “redressing the balance” and “ensuring that the views of industry are heard,” the bottom line is simple. Quite a few industry practices are damaging to the environment and to public health, and the science is unequivocal on these points. There is no science that says more ozone from auto emissions isn’t unhealthy, or that fine particulates don’t cause lung damage, or that current coal mining practices aren’t contributing to black lung disease, or that coal mining tailings ponds aren’t endangering community water supplies – just to name a few issues out of many more.

Economists who pointed out that the “tax cuts” would create far greater long-term economic and only a one-time short term economic boost have been ignored, as have those who’ve pointed out that increasing tariffs would lead to trade wars, higher costs of living, and more international tensions.

Mr. Trump’s continual attacks on the Mueller investigation are another aspect of the “don’t tell me” attitude that pervades the administration. When Mueller’s legal team is obtaining not only indictment after indictment, but also guilty plea after guilty plea, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a witch hunt with no substance. There’s also evidence to indicate that a number of people warned Trump about problems with Michael Flynn, and Trump ignored them because it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Add to that the fact that he didn’t want to hear the irrefutable facts and pictures showing that his inauguration crowd was far less than he claimed or his continual denial of the facts showing that voting fraud by Americans is minuscule, especially compared to the significant evidence that the Russians attempted to influence the Presidential election. From all these examples, and quite a few others, it’s more than clear that this administration is ignoring anything and everything that doesn’t agree with its beliefs, and to a far greater extent than any previous administration, given how pervasive this willful ignorance has already become.

The real question is how long Trump and his supporters will be able to deny economic, scientific, legal, and other technical aspects of reality… and how much it will cost the rest of us to pick up the pieces and repair the damage… and how many people and organizations will be permanently injured by this cavalier mindset of denial.

Income Inequality?

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a great deal of talk about income inequality and also, to a lesser degree, about intergenerational mobility, that is, the changes in a family’s economic status between successive generations. What’s been surprising to some, and what many better-off Americans have trouble believing, is that the United States is no longer the leader in inter-generational family wealth/income upward mobility. A variety of studies over the last decade has shown that the United States had about one third the mobility of Denmark and less than half that of Canada, Finland and Norway. France, Germany, and Sweden also had higher mobility, with only the United Kingdom of this group being less mobile than the U.S. Less than four percent of Americans born to a family with income in the bottom fifth end up in top fifth.

Forty-two percent of U.S. children born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain in the bottom, while 39 percent born to parents in the top fifth remain at the top.

Studies of wealth and income inequality all find that education and parental income play a significant role in determining the income mobility of their children, but there’s one factor that’s all too often downplayed, and that’s the role of family. First of all, the relative stagnation of middle and lower class wages, the rising costs of living, and, frankly, rising expectations – have all made it more and more difficult for families, especially families with children, to live on a single income. Today, men’s earnings still constitute the majority of total family income, but their share has dropped from 75 percent of average family earnings to 61 percent. In other words, for most families, even holding the same income position as one’s parents, let alone obtaining upward family income mobility, requires a couple’s combined earnings. Two-partner families increase, on average and over time, their assets by 16% more a year than single parent families.

But those figures ignore another aspect of family – and that’s the support, financial and otherwise, that doesn’t show up on balance sheets or in statistics. When parents help a couple over a hard financial period, or a medical catastrophe, or even lend a car when one breaks down, these acts of support often prevent the total disintegration of a family’s well-being. Obviously, such support is easier to give and obtain in families with higher incomes, yet this kind of support is even more comparatively valuable for lower middle class and working class families

Unfortunately, as a result of a number of factors, including the fact that financial problems are the largest single cause or marriage break-ups, marriage rates have plummeted in the lower-income socio-economic groups, resulting in a comparatively larger number of single-parent families. While such families have always had a harder time economically and especially in providing the additional education for children that is necessary for their economic success, this change makes it even harder for families in such groups to improve the financial situation.

This is rapidly becoming a vicious circle, because economic inequality reduces marriage rates and educational opportunities for the poorest members of society, which in turn makes it ever harder for them to escape poverty, while improving the opportunities for wealthier families to remain prosperous, even when the efforts and abilities of their offspring may well be less than those of others lower on the economic totem pole.

And, unless we find a way to break this cycle, income inequality and the concomitant anger and resentment of the less-fortunate will continue to increase, and, with it, social unrest and violence.

Hatred and Arrogance

Humans are beings who can both think more deeply than other creatures [at least from what we now know] and feel, often intensely. While these dual capabilities provide certain advantages, they also create problems which we tend to ignore, and this willful ignorance, at which we’re also very good, often makes the problems of overthinking and overfeeling worse.

As I’ve mentioned before, all too many overthinkers believe that correct logic leads to good solutions, but that’s not necessarily true, especially if the premises or assumptions or “facts” are incomplete or incorrect, or if the logic is designed to change people’s feelings, because emotions aren’t easily swayed by logic.

On the other side, strong feelings, especially hatred, can easily turn otherwise intelligent people into stupid idiots. And when hatred is linked to a need to belong to a group, or extreme frustration, and especially to both, the results range from horrible to catastrophic. Riots are almost always the result of emotions overriding intelligence, and the results of riots benefit no one and simply reduce the resources available, and usually that means fewer resources are available to those who had too few to begin with.

This allows those with resources to point out how “stupid” the rioters were, because most riots have the greatest destruction in the areas serving the rioters and the most loss of life among the rioters, at least until the frustration and hated among the under-privileged results in a national revolution, which has happened more than a few times.

Those with resources, more often than not, are not blinded so much by hatred, but by arrogance, or by supreme self-confidence in their own righteousness and abilities, which allows them to rationalize the idea they’ve earned, all by themselves, everything that they have, and that those with less have less solely because they have less ability and less determination.

Each “side” feels the other to be unreasonable and spoiled, and those feelings exacerbate hatred.

And, unhappily, this growth of hatred and arrogance is what has led to where we now stand, which is on a course toward severe social upheaval, if not worse.

Publishing in a Changing Market

Even a decade into a market changed by ebooks, it’s clear – at least to me – that a significant fraction of readers [and some rather large publishers as well] don’t really understand what’s happened and the implications and ramifications of those changes.

First off, despite all the words and arguments to the contrary, the costs of getting a book published haven’t changed much, except that they’ve increased. What has changed, particularly with self-published authors, is who is paying what costs. The cost of physically printing a book was never the majority of cost. From what I’ve been able to determine, the actual cost – just of printing – a hard-cover book runs in the range of three to six dollars, depending on the length of the book, the quality of paper and cover, etc. The costs of physically distributing print books likely run around a dollar a book. A standard publisher’s other costs — editing, proofing, typesetting, cover art, marketing, etc.– still run around ten dollars a hardcover. Those costs are all attributed to the first two years of sales for most publishers, but only a small percentage of books bring in significant revenue after two years. Now, I might be a bit off on some of this, but I’m in the ballpark.

Under the old marketing agreements, and those that still exist for printed books, the publishers sell books to stores at fifty to sixty percent of list price. Since most large publishers are barely more than breaking even, and some are losing money, there’s not a lot of profit involved. Add to that the fact that, even for the most successful publishers, almost half of all books sold lose money, which is why publishers need best-sellers.

So… how come all these independent authors can sell their ebooks for $3.99 or $5.99? Well… they can do that because they’re personally absorbing all the costs that are born by publishers. They have to come up with the cover design and artwork. They have to line up editors, or alpha or beta readers; they have to do the formatting or hire someone else to do it. They have to do the marketing, and make the arrangements with Amazon or someone else [who takes a percentage, of course]… or spend the time handling the finances and the bookkeeping. And the vast majority of these authors – probably 98% – actually lose money… in addition to spending a huge amount of time for which they’re not compensated, except if the book sells really well. Now, the ones who are indeed successful reap solid rewards, if not as much as most people think, because they’re not saddled with the costs of books that didn’t earn out in the way a standard publisher is.

So the lower prices of all those cheaper self-published books come out of the hides of their authors… and those dollar and time costs are substantial. Why do you think that almost all indie-published authors who are offered deals by major publishers take them… gladly?

For those of us who are with major publishers, and who aren’t multi-million sellers, the rules have also changed. We have to spend more time personally marketing, arranging appearances, attending things like comic-cons and conventions, for some of which we may be partly compensated and for some of which we’re not compensated at all. We spend more time and effort, generally for less return, than authors did twenty years ago – just like almost everyone else. And authors whose later books lose money also risk losing their publisher, requiring either more non-writing work or trying to make it by self-publishing or going with a small press [and a great many end up taking on more non-writing work].

One way or another, lower prices for ebooks come at the expense of the authors of those books. In addition, the consumer demand for cheaper books is creating a secondary market of generally lower-paid writers who are all competing with each other to write and produce books at a lower cost, and that means either lower quality or even more cost and strain on the writer. The demand for lower-cost ebooks also fuels the demand for pirated works, usually of best-sellers, but that piracy reduces the sales of those best-sellers, in turn reducing the risks that publishers will take on new or unpublished authors… and they’re definitely taking less of those risks, for the most part. That reduces the scope of what’s available from some major publishers and in some bookstores, and it means that readers have to work harder to find those kinds of books in the mass of hundreds of thousands of self-published or indie-published electronic works.

In short, no matter what anyone says, lower ebook prices have a lot of costs that no one really thinks about, and even fewer care about – just like they don’t really care about what’s behind the lower prices from Amazon and Walmart, or not enough to change their buying patterns.

The Change in Publishing/Book Marketing

This past weekend, as announced on the website here, I was at the Phoenix Comic Fest, where I was selling my books at Bard’s Tower, and doing some panel appearances. With me at the booth were Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Alan Dean Foster, Jody Lynn Nye, Melinda Snodgrass, David Butler, Christopher Husberg, Mark Gardner, Kevin Ikenberry, Amity Green, and Brian Lee Durfee – an array of writers ranging from old-timers to rising young authors.

So why were all of us at a “comic fest”?

Because of the dramatic change in the publishing world. Twenty to twenty five years ago, Tor –and other publishers – used to tour quite a few authors fairly often, and I was one of those toured. I was on the low-budget tour. Tor would fly me to a city, give me a formal signing or two each day, and I’d use the rental car to visit every bookstore I could get to where I wasn’t doing a formal signing so that I could talk to the staff and sign whatever stock they had of my books. I’d also leave a bound bookstore/press packet with glossy photos of covers of most of my books with a brief description, as well as other information that the bookstore would find useful. There were times when I’d visit ten to fifteen bookstores in a day, in addition to the formal signing. It worked fairly well back then.

It doesn’t work now… not unless the author is literally selling at least a few hundred thousand copies of a book, and it doesn’t because: (1) the number of bookstores has dwindled drastically; (2) e-books have grown considerably; and (3) despite what everyone contends, electronic book piracy has reduced paying sales without increasing overall sales. In addition to that, tours and book signings offered a venue where authors could meet readers and interest them in books and authors they hadn’t previously read. But because tours are no longer even remotely close to break-even exercises, except for high best-selling authors, publishers don’t tour nearly as many of their authors as they once used to do.

So… how do authors get new readers? Some invest heavily, both in time and money, in social media and an online presence. But as several newer authors I know have discovered, sometimes a huge social media presence doesn’t translate into sales. In fact, on a percentage basis, success through a social media presence is relatively infrequent [but, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that only a small percentage of would-be writers ever turn out to be commercially successful]. At a comic-con or a comic fest, however, there are thousands of people, many of whom are readers, and there’s a good chance to meet some potential new readers… and right now, it’s one of the few person-to-person venues left open to authors… which is why I – and other notable authors – appear at them.

The market’s changed, and if we don’t adapt with it, in some fashion, we’ll become less relevant. Besides, I had a good time talking to those readers, even when they didn’t buy my books.

Male Rights?

Apparently, I’ve been too generous toward at least some members of my gender, thinking that they might just understand why women are less than thrilled with the various fashions in which they’ve been treated by men over the past several millennia.

No… apparently at least some men believe that they have the right to have sexual relations with women, and even the woman of their choice, regardless of whether she shares that desire. Three recent fatal attacks, including the Santa Fe High school shooting, have been motivated at least in part by such self-professed sentiments on the part of the attacker, and are fairly clear symptoms of what I can only term a new “hate group” – so far, only a subset of the Incel [involuntary celibate] movement.

As with a great many groups that feel themselves disenfranchised in one way or another, while most incels do feel like outcasts, the majority obviously haven’t resorted to killing and violence, but laying the blame on women isn’t going to solve their problems or resolve the situation. Neither is telling these (mostly young) men to “just get over it.” From the limited studies on them, most have lacked opportunities, strong positive male father figures, and decent educations.

Part of what’s behind this “movement” is the feeling by these men that in the past men did have access to women, especially for sex, and that such availability no longer exists, but throughout history groups of men, especially young men, and often large groups of them, have suffered involuntary celibacy. So have women, and in fact the term “Incel” was actually coined by a Canadian woman some twenty years ago.

But now online male Incel communities are showing up, and some are more than vocal and demeaning toward women, including voicing resentment at being denied “their God-given rights to have sex with women.” [Personally, I find it incredibly disturbing how various uses of force and weapons are being touted as being “God-given” rights.] Before it was banned and removed in November of 2017, Reddit had a subreddit entitled “Incels,” with more than 40,000 members of that subreddit.

As women as a group become more highly educated, more financially and socially independent, fewer and fewer will need to be subservient to men… and the Incel movement may only be the tip of the iceberg as a manifestation of male dissatisfaction in the way the world is changing. While violence isn’t the answer, neither is ignoring the situation until we’re facing more and more incidents such as the few that have recently occurred.

But then, since when have we reacted in any other way?

A Less Moral Nation?

The other day I read an editorial that cited quite a few statistics to the end that most Americans feel that the country is “less moral” than it was fifty years ago. I don’t dispute the fact that people feel that way, but I’m not nearly so sure about the accuracy of those feelings.

As shown by all the revelations surfacing in the wake of the Me Too Movement, there has been a continuing pattern of sexual abuse by men, particularly powerful men, dating back to the beginning of the United States, and even before that. The fact that it’s been revealed doesn’t change what happened or make the country any less or more moral, although it does reveal that we certainly weren’t as moral as we thought we were.

Often one of the statistics used as a proxy for “morality” is the teen pregnancy rate, but teen pregnancy rates have decreased by almost eighty percent since 1957, and that decline has continued steadily since 2000. Some of that decline is doubtless due to the use of birth control, but the CDC attributes a significant share of the recent decline to sexual abstinence by teenagers.

While a great number of people have cited President Trump as immoral because of his sexual behavior, Trump is an absolute piker compared to President Kennedy… or even Lindon Johnson. And while Richard Nixon may not have strayed sexually, given the Watergate scandal, can one say that he was more “moral” than recent Presidents? I served as a Congressional staffer some forty years ago, and there were more than a few sexual scandals involving powerful senators and congressmen. The difference was that the media didn’t report them as often or in any detail. So, ignorance fosters, at least partly, the idea that our past leadership was more “moral.”

As a nation we had to enact legislation to even begin the process to allow minorities and women equal rights with white males, and even as late as 1960, it was often difficult for a woman to get a credit card in her own name. In 1965, in most of the south, buses, lunch counters, rest rooms, and still many schools were effectively segregated. Where was the greater morality in that?

Admittedly, the crime rate today is higher than in 1960, but the peak in the crime rate, depending on the type of crime, was between 1980 and 1990, and the rates have declined since then. What about marriages and divorce? The per capita divorce rate peaked in 1980 and has declined ever since, although marriage rates are also declining.

So why do so many people feel that we’re a “less moral” nation today?

Is it because more and more people have defined what is moral in terms of their personal beliefs? Or because economically, a large percentage of the middle class has seen their economic position decline, and that equates to a less moral society? Or because there’s always a tendency to recall the favorable aspects of the past and forget the less favorable ones?

Facts and facts

Fact: The past April was the coldest April in twenty years in the United States and the thirteenth coldest in the past 124 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fact: The American southwest was warmer than usual, as were the southern plains, with record dryness in the southwest and mid-Mississippi Valley.

Fact: The United Kingdom had an unusually warm April, with days that were the hottest in 70 years, so hot that horse races were cancelled.

Fact: The German National Meteorological Service reported that April was the hottest month in the recorded history of German weather.

Fact: Italy also had a warm April, with five cities – Trieste, Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and Grosseto – recording record temperatures for the month.

Fact: Australia had a warm April as well, with parts of the country measuring the second hottest April on record.

Fact: On April 30th, a city in Pakistan – Nawabshah – set the world heat record for April, with temperatures reaching 122.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the city of over a million, causing heatstroke deaths, power outages and general misery.

Fact: Even with cold temperatures in North America, world-wide, April 2018 was the third warmest on record.

So… which facts do you choose to believe?

Do you pick the ones that reinforce what you want to believe? Or the ones you’ve experienced? Or do you look at all the facts and try to sort them out?

Can you even sort them out?

I did a quick scan of news stories I could find on April weather that were published in the last month. Out of some 280 stories, only fifteen mentioned the heat in any other part of the world, and only five mentioned the point that April, world-wide, was much hotter than average and the third warmest on record.

Most of the stories available in English focused on the unseasonably cold U.S. weather without any world-wide perspective. That’s understandable in some ways, because news outlets cater to their local constituencies, but it’s also deceptive because it reinforces a very localized perspective.

All of which bring up a question we need to keep asking ourselves. From just where did we get the facts we so blithely trot out to support what we believe?

God-Given – Part II

Although few want to admit it, the reason why “rights” are so often attributed to a deity is because it endows them with a sense of being elevated beyond mere people. This also why commandments and morality are usually tied to religion and presented as being from a superior being. After all, what value is there in rights or moral values because Sam Nobody or Sara Somebody said it they were the way in which people should conduct themselves?

But in fact, the vast majority of legal codes practiced today, while tied to some form of religious faith, either loosely or strictly, were set forth and presented to the people by other people [with the possible exception of the ten commandments, but even then we only have the word of Moses that God inscribed those stone tablets]. As some commenters have pointed out, even the Founding Fathers deferred to a deity, but in fact they were the ones who wrote the actual language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Why do we have such a problem in admitting that the beliefs and laws that, for the most part, govern us and our behavior were devised by other people? Is it because we don’t like admitting that someone else had a better idea? We certainly accede to the fact that others are physically stronger, or that “might makes right” in terms of war or the threat of largest battalions.

Yet, the idea that someone else might have a better code of behavior, especially one not based on religion, is an anathema to most Americans, and certainly to most Islamic believers. I suspect the only reason most Americans are leery of a theocracy is not because of the idea of a theocracy itself, but because there’s the real danger of the religious values being imposed just might be those of some other faith. That was most certainly the concern of the Founding Fathers.

Then, too, there’s the question of how any deity could grant us “rights.” Proclaiming that such rights are “God-given” doesn’t make it so, although it may legitimize those rights in the eyes of the faithful. But then, maybe that’s the point of the claim. The problem with such “legitimacy,” however, is that when the laws of a country don’t reflect what a given group of believers think is in accord with their faith, they want to change the laws to reflect their faith, regardless of the conflict such changes causes with the beliefs of others.

In practice, human “rights” only exist so long as human beings recognize such rights and conduct themselves in a way that supports those rights. All too often in history, the rights of one group or another, and often their very existence, have been destroyed through intolerance of differences and in the name of another belief, a rather strong indication that no deity created those rights and that no deity actively defends them, only people of both character with the will to act and to oppose injustice.

Collateral Damage

After literally centuries of oppression and minimization of women, I can understand the fury and anger that fuels much of the Me Too Movement, particularly since I’ve witnessed that on-going and still continuing minimization and disregard by men toward my wife and my daughters. It’s well past time for change, and that change needs to be considerable in scope and duration, but such change isn’t going to take place without passion and, frankly, fury.

Unfortunately, there are also going to be excesses and collateral damage. When there are profound social changes in society, there always are. And there’s the very real danger that those excesses will produce a backlash. In fact, if the excesses are too great, the backlash will also be great.

In addition to the considerable and well-documented revelations about powerful men, from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to Donald Trump, there have also been what appear to be charges against other public male figures, and even one female figure, based on far less substance, and in the case of one well-known author, a series of anonymous and undocumented charges, charges that remain without any support, three months later, and, in the case of a respected commentator, a single dubious charge, one refuted by the commentator and roughly sixty other female media personages.

After some forty years as a published author, I do know a considerable number of authors, male and female, and quite a few of the women authors I know are disturbed by some of the anonymous and so far unsupported charges being bandied about.

Now… there is no excuse for unprofessional behavior and particularly not behavior that degrades or damages others, especially women, given the abuse and minimization they’ve endured for years, but charges of abuse and minimization need to be documented and accusers need to put their names on the line and not hide behind anonymity. In those cases where the accuser fears retribution, evidence is still required.

There’s also one other danger that needs to be avoided, especially in the field of writing, and that’s equating criticism and considered judgment with gender-based minimization. Men and women can both write great books. They can also write terrible books. If a man believes a woman’s book is poorly written, and says so, that’s not minimization – even if others think he’s wrong. The book or story is not the person – even though all of us authors do in fact take it personally when we get negative criticism.

On the other hand, when authors’ advances and/or royalties are based in any degree on gender, rather than on sales or projected sales, or when female authors get less publisher support when they have comparable sales levels to male authors, those are examples of gender-based discrimination and totally unacceptable. But we need to keep in mind the difference between criticism or literary opinion and actual discrimination. And, yes, a negative comment or review can harm an author, but so long as the negativity is based on the book and not the author, that’s fair game. Over the years, I’ve occasionally gotten some terrible reviews. I never cared about, and often never knew, the gender of the reviewer. Books and their reviews need to stand on their own.

However… for all that I’ve just written… there is going to be collateral damage. I can only hope that it’s kept to a minimum, because the backlash could even be worse. After all, for better or worse, isn’t backlash one of the reasons why we ended up with President Trump?

God-Given Rights?

Today, the local newspaper featured a letter from a reader who was totally irate about the stance of a previous reader, who had suggested that some gun-control legislation was in order. The irate commenter stated that no one had the right to infringe or abrogate his “God-given rights” to carry weapons.

I’ve heard and seen that wording and argument more than a few times over the last few years, until I’d like to stuff the barrel of a weapon down the throat of any idiot who utters any more nonsense about God-given rights, especially about weapons. I’ve read the Bible more than a few times, and I’ve never come across any mention of the right to bear weapons. Yes, the God of the Old Testament often exhorted his chosen people to take up arms, but it’s never stated that there’s an absolute right to carry any weapon you choose in any circumstance. I’ve read the Koran, admittedly in translation, and I’ve gotten the same impression about Allah, but, since I can’t read Arabic, I have to rely on the translation.

Even if a holy text did state something like that, the “word” comes through prophets and not directly from the deity, and given that all individuals have agendas, I’d have to express some doubts. In addition, there’s the rather large problem that the Constitution expresses a separation of Church and state, and definitely does not endorse any specific deity…or that deity’s commands… as statutory or Constitutional law.

Now, many of these individuals citing “God-given rights” may think that they’re quoting the Founding Fathers. They’re not. The Declaration of Independence clearly states: “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” Three specific rights, and not one deals with weapons, and as for the other rights, they’re never mentioned, especially not in terms of firearms. The Constitution allows firearms under certain conditions, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that reasonable limitations on that right are allowable and permitted, and that right wasn’t granted by any deity, but by men who framed our governmental system.

In tradition in practice, “rights” are set forth by men and women, usually men, and whether they believe they’re acting out the will of a deity, those rights exist under human law, and not under a divine command. Besides which, if you read the Bible closely, the Christian God isn’t even consistent with what the prophets reveal about him, especially in regard to killing.

So… lay off the crap about “God-given rights,” especially with regard to firearms. Just confine the debate to the existing legal structure and what might actually work… or might not, and why.

False News – A Different Perspective

Like most of what Donald Trump says, there’s a grain of truth in his claims about “false news,” and it’s a grain of truth that most reputable news organizations are essentially ignoring, and by doing so, are acting against their own best interests… and the best interests of the rest of us.

That grain of truth is that too many news media people are acting and reporting on rumors and rumors of rumors all too often before coming anywhere close to reporting hard facts.

Why? There are two reasons. First, to call a spade a spade, a large percentage of mainstream media analysts and reporters dislike him, and that intense dislike blinds them to the fact that they’re often cutting corners and not getting all the facts. Each time they print an incorrect rumor or incorrect charge, they’re reinforcing Trump’s contention that they’re printing “fake news.”

Second, news media has been captured by the profit motive, excessively captured, so that getting the first scoop, whether correct or not, too often trumps [pun intended] accurate and factual coverage.

Part of this need for speed comes from a realization that the public attention span is so short that by the time the actual facts surface, most of the audience has lost interest. But news media are supposed to make money, or at least not lose it, and waiting until facts can be confirmed costs circulation and ratings… and money. And money trumps accuracy, these days, in every way.

Most people have forgotten that the time between the Watergate burglary and the time Nixon was forced to resign was two years and three months. Even the Woodward and Bernstein article that revealed the scope of the Nixon campaign in the burglary wasn’t published until October 10, 1972, almost four months after the burglary, and it took almost two more years for all the depth of White House involvement to become public and for Nixon to be charged with impeachment by the House.

So let’s hear it for profit at any cost, regardless of what those costs are.

The Most Basic Technology?

Most people, when they think of technology, immediately think of advanced forms of tools, and certainly the Greek roots of the word “technology” mean “systematic treatment of art or craft,” which tends to suggest tools or some sort.

But those tools and that systematic system would never have occurred without another innovation, one that we don’t think of in terms of technology, but one that’s absolutely vital – and that innovation is simple and obvious… and invariably overlooked. It’s called the group, or group cooperation, and it’s far more important than most people want to believe.

From what remains and skeletons that archaeologists have so far discovered, it appears that not only were Neanderthals stronger than homo sapiens, but they also had larger brains, yet they died out, and we didn’t. One very likely reason for this is grouping patterns. From all the evidence we have, it appears that Neanderthals never formed large groups. Humans did. Recent evidence also suggests that Neanderthals had most of the same tools as did humans at the time Neanderthals died out. So… if they were as smart and stronger, why didn’t they make it? There’s a strong indication that their small groups couldn’t compete with the larger human groups.

Despite the myth of the “lone genius,” that doesn’t happen often, and even when a lone genius does discover something, it takes a group to implement it and make it work. As I’ve noted before, technology is a multiplier, and because groups multiply individual achievements and discoveries, the society/culture with the most effective groups tends to be the most successful.

Unhappily, like technology, group dynamics can multiply not only the good, but the bad, and there’s one area where groups are especially effective at multiplying evil – by “demonizing the other.” Social scientists have known for a long time that one of the most effective ways of unifying a social group is to identify a common simple belief and a common enemy that opposes that belief and then to blame all the evils facing the group on that enemy. Demagogues have done this successfully throughout history, and it’s continuing today.

Like at least some of the Founding Fathers, I’m tired of groups with absolutist agendas, whether the group is a political party, a religion, a gender, a lack of gender, the in-boys, the in-girls, a culture, an ethnic group… I’m sick and tired of all of them, because all of the absolutist groups, for all of their protests to the contrary, attempt ostracize and marginalize “the other” with simplistic charges.

The environmentalists/liberals are destroying the coal industry. Civil rights for minorities is reverse discrimination. Any form of gun control will lead to taking away your guns. Balancing the budget will destroy social programs. Immigrants take away your jobs. The list of these sorts of simplistic and hate-mongering slogans is seemingly endless.

We live in a complex world, one that’s not amenable to simple solutions, but the problem is that simple solutions have great appeal, and that great appeal makes them ideal for demagogues to use the technology of group dynamics to demonize those who either oppose them or can’t accept simplistic solutions, and, currently, the only technology seemingly able to fight back is the other side using the same techniques… and people wonder why we’re getting more and more polarized?

Gratitude and Appreciation

Most of the teachers, professors, and others from whom I learned the most and whom I appreciated the most are dead. That wouldn’t seem surprising, given my age, but several of them died far too young. Even when I was much, much younger, I did contact them to let them know of my gratitude and appreciation – with one exception, a professor who died while I was deployed as a pilot. I’d meant to write him, but I procrastinated and then I was in a place [long before the internet] where I couldn’t get his address, and by the time I could, he was dead of a fast-moving cancer I never knew he had. There were some I only contacted occasionally, largely because they never responded, but I still made those occasional contacts. Those who did respond I kept in touch with until they died. But I still regret the one letter I didn’t write.

Oh… I’ve dedicated books in his memory, and I’ve told many of how much he meant, but I wish I’d told him that what he taught me literally formed one of the pillars of my literary success, but then, when he died, I was a barely published poet, and certainly no great success, and I think that I wanted to be able to tell him more… and instead I told him nothing.

Because I’ve taught, and because I’m married to a professor who’s spent fifty years singing and teaching, and because I have grown children who teach, and have acquaintances who’ve taught most of their professional lives, I’ve seen hundreds of students come and go, and know of hundreds more, and the vast, vast majority of them seldom express any appreciation beyond a quick verbal thank-you, if that, even to teachers and professors who’ve gone out of their way for them, far beyond any call of duty.

Some will say that this is just the present generation, but I have my doubts, perhaps because of a story my mother told me. She was the salutatorian of her high school class, and she felt she owed a thank you to the teacher who helped her prepare her speech. So she wrote him a note expressing her appreciation. A year later, when she came home from college at Christmas, her mother told her that she’d run into the teacher at the grocery store, and that he was so grateful for that note, since it was the first one he’d received in all his years of teaching. That was in 1937.

At this time of year, with graduations approaching, I wonder how many students, whether graduating from high school college, or graduate school, will even think about those teachers who went out of their way for them… or will they merely think that they deserved all that extra time and effort?

Ideals, Ideologues, Politics, and Corruption

Sometimes, when discussing highly volatile subjects, such as politics, it’s best to begin with definitions. So here are four.

Ideal – a standard of perfection; a principle to be aimed at.

Idealist – a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations.

Ideology – a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

Ideologue – an uncompromising and dogmatic adherent of an ideology.

The Founding Fathers were essentially pragmatists who attempted to create a form of government that provided a flexible framework based on ideals. For the most part, they weren’t ideologues attempting to create an inflexible legalistic system with absolutely rigid boundaries, but one where law was a tool used by imperfect men aiming toward a set of ideals.

People being people, most of us believe that our beliefs/ideals are the best ones, and that’s not a problem until politicians decide to rigidly codify the details of beliefs into hard and fast laws, with few or no exceptions, with punishments for those who don’t comply.

There’s a reason why “murder” has a number of legal definitions, and why there are trials for those charged with committing a murder. Was it self-defense? An accident? Were there extenuating or mitigating circumstances?

Yet today we have battles between ideologues on one side or the other over the issues of gun control, abortion, immigration, drugs, border controls, among others, and these ideologues insist that there is only one correct and absolute legal answer. Abortion should be always legal or always totally illegal. The United States should embrace all illegal immigrants or deport them all. Every American should have the right to any and all personally-carried weapons of choice or no civilian should have any right to deadly weapons.

This sort of absolutism is not only insane, but totally illogical, because absolute government control is tyranny and absolute lack of control is anarchy. Yet, at present, more and more individuals seem to be adopting one form of absolutism or another, and any politician who tries to take a moderate position tends to be crucified, at present only figuratively, but what lies ahead?

In 1874, Lord Acton made the observation that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but I personally hold to what David Brin said much later – that “power attracts the corruptible.” I’d take it even further and contend that as power tends to be more and more concentrated in the United States, whether in government and politics, business and finance, and even in non-governmental organizations, corrupt individuals are more and more attracted, and less corrupt and most likely more able individuals shy away from such fields – or find themselves forced out because they won’t stoop to do absolutely anything in order to gain power.

Today, what we have in Donald Trump is an ethically corrupt individual who is posing as an ideologue of the far right, much in the way that Lenin, and later Stalin, appealed to the ideology of the Russian working class, or that Hitler appealed to the working class of 1930s Germany, corrupt individuals cloaking themselves in a popular ideology in order to obtain power.

And, historically, whether in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, any number of Chinese empires and other absolute monarchies or dictatorships, corrupt individuals cloaking themselves in popular ideologies have wreaked havoc upon their lands. Why do so many people think we’re any different?

Free Market “Environmentalism”

This weekend, an interesting story appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune about how Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has proposed rolling back emissions regulations on producing oil and natural gas wells located on federal lands in western states. The reason for the regulations imposed by the Obama Administration was because significant amounts of methane were either leaking or being flared from these wells, 9.5 billion cubic feet of methane from wells in Utah over the past several years. The regulations required less gas to be flared and for leaking drilling, production, and transmission systems to be tightened up. One of the reasons for this was that those emissions have contributed to high levels of air pollution, particularly in winter, along Utah’s densely populated Wasatch Front, where, due to geographic features, inversions are frequent.

Secretary Zinke announced the proposed roll-back because the “costs of compliance” were too heavy on many operators of these wells, particularly wells classified as stripper wells producing small amounts of oil and gas daily, and would cause many of these wells to be shut down. As someone who has some experience in this area, I was flabbergasted at this proposal, one that’s not only environmentally unsound, but economically stupid.

At this point, air pollution along the Wasatch Front is a far greater problem than high natural gas prices for heating. Currently, the price of natural gas is near all-time lows and output is at or near record levels. And that doesn’t even include the downside of massive methane leaks contributing not only to air pollution, but to global warming.

The Republicans are always talking about free markets and excessive regulation, but I have a problem with them declaring that stopping massive natural gas leaks from facilities on leased federal lands is excessive regulation.

We need more methane emissions so that we can create an even greater oversupply of natural gas? An additional supply of natural gas that will keep prices down and make marginal wells even less profitable, if not drive them out of business anyway? And make breathing harder for everyone living in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front?

Politics, not Solutions

President Trump doesn’t understand either economics or foreign trade. Neither, unsurprisingly, do most of his supporters. As a businessman and a college graduate, Trump ought to understand comparative advantage. He clearly doesn’t. He also should understand that, under current world economic conditions, a trade war based on increasing tariffs will hurt the U.S. more than China and will push up the U.S. cost-of-living without creating significantly more, if any, jobs in the United States. His actions are entirely “political,” to demonstrate his toughness on China to his political supporters.

Sending National Guard troops to our southern border won’t do much to deal with the immigration problem, because the majority of the current immigration problems don’t lie there, and the number of additional troops will have little effect. They won’t deal with resolving the problems of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as small children who’ve known no other country and who are able, willing, and ready to work and pay taxes. But they will make Trump’s supporters think he’s doing something meaningful.

He’s also pared back wilderness and national monument acreage on the grounds that it will increase coal production. That’s anti-environmental action that will have no economic benefit whatsoever, given that there are only 50,000 coal jobs at present and that coal usage is declining as natural gas, wind, and solar power increase, as evidenced by the almost a quarter of a million jobs in various aspects of solar power.

Where are the infrastructure programs that will rebuilt the thousands of decaying highways and bridges? Or a program to upgrade our hodge-podge and overstrained electrical grid? Or the improvements to our air traffic control system, also largely outdated and overstrained?

Where are the proposals to deal with overpriced prescription drugs and the most-expensive and least efficient health system in the industrialized world?

Where are the economic proposals to reduce wasteful spending and to balance the federal budget? So far the only legislation dealing with this has been a tax cut that has increased the deficit and largely benefitted the wealthiest of Americans.

Where is the realization that Vladimir Putin is an intelligent thug who is playing Trump for a sucker? Or any understanding that Russia is already conducting cyberwar against the United States?

Of course, I can point all this out, as others are doing as well, but it’s not likely to change much, because too many people want to believe what isn’t so, and modern communications technology has ensured that they can all get together and reassure each other that our “beloved” President is standing up for America, even as almost every action he takes weakens it.