Archive for the ‘General’ Category

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.

Motivating the “Latest Generation”

I’m fed up with the all the education and policy bullshit that declares that the U.S. – and sometimes even the world – needs to revamp education totally in order to motivate students of the present generation.

Exactly why is it the responsibility of educators to provide motivation for students who have none? Recently, more and more students insist that they know what they need to learn… and how they should be taught. And the more educators follow those demands, the less the students learn.

I’m sorry. Eighteen to twenty year olds, for the most part, don’t know what they need to know. Many of them know, or think they know, what they want to be and where they want to go in life, but the majority have no idea of the intellectual and nuts-and-bolts skills that they’ll need.

And, frankly, some educators don’t, either. I ran into some of those when I was in college studying political science and politics. I had my doubts then, but kept my mouth shut. Looking back after a career in politics, I now know that several had no real inkling of what politics was like. But I also have to admit that most of them did know what they were talking about, and several had real-time, real-life political experience.

I happen to be married to a professor of voice and opera who was also a professional singer, and in the course of that professional career, she’s sung and been paid to sing everything from opera to musical theatre and even on one occasion, a country and western demo record. She didn’t graduate from a big name university or conservatory and had to work her way up. After fifty years in the field, and more than thirty as an artist in residence or a professor, she knows what’s required to be successful. Students who took her seriously have been successful; those who haven’t have never gotten anywhere, simply because they never did the work to develop not only their voices but the necessary ancillary skills, such as the ability to learn music both accurately and quickly, or the keyboard skills necessary to work out music and memorization – because you can’t use sheet music onstage to sing opera.

But more and more of the younger generation are looking for short-cuts, and they want to be inspired. They don’t want to go to concerts, or even to listen to recordings of outstanding singers. They want to be the center of attention – now. Otherwise, they’re not interested.

I also find it interesting that thousands upon thousands of young people in the U.S. suddenly became highly motivated to address the issue of school shootings – because, all of a sudden, it struck them that they and others like them were getting killed. In a way, the same thing happened in the late 1960s when it dawned on the then-younger generation that they were the ones being sent to Vietnam and getting killed in what they perceived as a useless war.

The problem with this sort of interest is that it only centers on the immediate. And once the immediate passes, or society doesn’t react to the protests, the interest fades. The same is true of students in higher education. But what they need is the ability to work, not only at what interests them, but at the facets of whatever area they’re studying that don’t interest them, because there’s not a single profession anywhere or anytime that doesn’t have drudgery and mundane and routine work involved.

Nor are there that many high-paid professions that don’t require reading and writing. The need to master both isn’t about to go away for one simple reason. We live in an information culture, and reading is by far the fastest way to assimilate information. Yet college students are protesting more and more about too much reading, when today’s students are required to read only a fraction of what previous generations did.

Memorizing music is hard and repetitive work, especially in the classical field, because the singer can’t rely very often on simplistic repetitive musical phrases. Economists have to peruse and analyze a great deal of very boring data, and so far, computers can’t find the less obvious patterns… or figure out what those patterns mean. As for writing… almost all writers go through multiple drafts, followed by editorial corrections, followed by proofing galleys, etc., and those are the successful ones.

And in these and most other professions, there’s no one cheering you on, either note by note, or data-point by data-point, or word by word. That’s life, and college is where students should be learning that the only inspiration that matters is their own, not where professors cater to every whim, or where students must have their grades on a daily or weekly basis because they can’t be bothered to calculate them on their own.

University professors should be engaged, encouraging, knowledgeable, accessible, current in their fields, and willing and able to impart knowledge and skills to those willing to work and learn. They should not be required to be cheerleaders and motivators, not in college. Classroom motivation is a large and necessary part of elementary school, but along the way, students need to learn self-motivation, and how to work and succeed on their own by the time they leave high school.

The Rise of Snowflakes and Teacups

Over the past several months, I took an informal survey of professors at roughly a dozen colleges and universities across the United States, asking about students who entered their respective schools in the last year or so… and what might be their most outstanding characteristic.

So far, the overwhelming majority reported that the incoming class had the highest percentage of what I term “snowflakes” and “teacups” that they’d ever encountered before in their teaching careers. “Snowflakes” are students who melt into a puddle under the heat of academic pressure, while “teacups” are those who shatter under the slightest pressure. They also reported that they’d never heard so many students say, “I’m so stressed out.”

Yet in terms of academic rigor and pressure, today’s colleges don’t come close to requiring what was required academically of students a generation ago, and definitely not close to what was required fifty years ago. In addition, the classwork, homework, and grading are easier at state institutions, and even at prestigious and supposedly more rigorous elite institutions grading has been documented as far easier than in the past.

So why are so many students so “stressed” and so fragile? Fifty years ago, stress made more sense. A student who flunked out might find himself drafted and on his way to fight in Southeast Asia. Not so today. Uncertainty about life? Well… it seems to me that students in the WWII era, the Korean War era, the Cold War era, and the Vietnam era faced far more uncertainty than students today.

The one area that I can see that could be more stressful is that of financial pressure. Higher education costs more, both absolutely and relatively, than it ever has. But that can’t explain it, not by itself, not when many of these “stressed-out” students are on full-tuition scholarships.

Part of the problem, from what I’ve seen, is that an enormous percentage of these students, well over half, cannot write a series of coherent paragraphs, cannot synthesize and summarize information, and cannot draw a conclusion from a body of information. Critical thinking used to be one of the requirements for students in higher education, and all too many of this generation’s students have multiple-choice and Google-it-up mindsets and have never learned true critical thinking or analytical presentation of information.

No wonder so many are stressed out. They’ve never been truly prepared for higher education.

They’ve also been encouraged to think of themselves as “wonderful.” For most, life has come easily, especially compared to past generations, and those others, for which life has not come easily, are often angry and believe that life should come easily… and that they deserve an easier path.

I’m not saying that all students are like this, because there some that are not, but those who are not, who can think, who can and do work hard, and who don’t expect anything to be given to them – they’re becoming rarer and rarer, while the snowflakes and teacups proliferate. And that doesn’t bode well for the United States.

Coaches and Professors

For some time now, I’ve observed a certain strange difference between the way both individuals and the media differentiate between collegiate coaches and college voice professors.

Both professions prepare students, at least in theory, for a professional career involving both brains and athletic ability. And don’t tell me that’s not true. Professional athletics require more than physical skill these days, and no classical singer can succeed without being an athlete, although I certainly grant that the proportions required in each field differ, as well as differ within each profession.

One obvious difference is that coaches are paid much, much, more than are voice professors. In fact, the top collegiate coaches are not only paid more than the top voice professors; they’re also paid more than the top classical singers.

But it’s more than money. I see news story after news story about coaches, about how they influence and shape young men and women, about how important they are in the lives of those would-be professionals. There’s virtually no coverage of voice professors, even though they also shape and produce professionals on a one-on-one basis, just like athletic coaches do.

It’s almost unknown to the general public that the best of collegiate singers are not only athletes, but competitive athletes, yet the results of those competitions are seldom reported even in collegiate newspapers or websites, let alone in larger media outlets, even when those competitive singers have a better record than an institution’s sports teams.

Classical singers have to memorize an enormous amount of music, sing it professionally with no teammates to help them while performing all alone on a stage. Even in singing opera, each singer is largely performing solo with all eyes on whoever is singing. Singing classical music requires considerable physical stamina… and singers don’t get oxygen between songs.

It’s been said that no one considers singing teachers important in developing singers because anyone can sing, but the majority of people can play some sport, yet sports coaches are paid and heeded.

Of course, the simplest reason why no one pays any attention to voice professors is that classical singing isn’t a big money activity for universities. In fact, developing good singers is one of the most expensive college majors, because it requires even more one-on-one instruction.

All the same…the distinction suggests that both collegiate alumni and the general public have far less interest and understanding of real higher education than they profess, and that both understanding and interest have continued to wane over the years since, over a century ago, there were few collegiate sports, and all were low budget.

And that reflects, in my view, a more than disturbing trend.

College Teaching

As long-time readers of this blog may have discerned, I have quite a few links to higher education, including a three-year stretch as a college lecturer. I’m anything but pleased with what I perceive as the trends in so-called higher education, because in areas outside the hard sciences, what I’m seeing in the vast majority of universities and colleges is the unbridled growth of “consumerism,” where institutions are competing for the favor of students and where numbers rule with little understanding of what those numbers really mean and what the result of chasing them is turning out to be.

Right now, the big push is for student retention, but in all universities, the results are dismaying, because teachers are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, pressured not to flunk non-performing students. In the more “competitive” institutions, grade inflation is rampant. The average grade point average at highly selective colleges is now right around a B+. The national average GPA is slightly above a B, a full grade increase over the average GPA a generation ago. Part of this grade inflation is the result of student evaluations being factored into the performance evaluations of college teachers, because teachers who are demanding and who don’t give “easy” grades get lower evaluations, and that jeopardizes their being able to hold their jobs – no matter what administrators claim.

Students apparently now can’t even calculate their grades. My wife the professor provides the formula so that any student can calculate his or her current grade at any time in the semester. So do most professors at the institution, but the students at her university, and indeed, throughout the country, are pushing for real-time current grades being electronically available. Even with computers, this takes a considerable amount of time, because the grades have to be entered into a separate system, whereas under the old system a professor only had to enter and calculate periodically, rather than continuously.

These days, a course syllabus resembles a legal contract, partly because of federal regulations, and partly because of student pressure, but what’s ironic is that most students don’t actually read the entire syllabus, and some don’t read it at all and don’t listen when a professor tells them the important parts. Then they complain that they didn’t know something that was spelled out in the syllabus.

Students are also demanding multiple choice tests [imagine that]. That just might be because there’s only a small percentage who can actually learn material and accurately synthesize it, and then write a logical and factual essay test or paper, despite all the administration and educational rhetoric about teaching “critical thinking.” I’m sorry, but if a student can’t frame and write a logical assembly of facts to support or rebut a point, that student’s critical thinking ability is limited.

As for studying… that’s suffered as well. A generation ago, the average full-time student spent 28 hours a week outside of class studying. Today, it’s less than 14 hours, and tests have shown that 46% of students learn almost nothing in their first two years of college [and most of the drop-outs or failures fall within this group].

Then, there’s the problem of student comfort. Most students today don’t really want to be challenged intellectually, even though learning new things and ways of looking at them is one of the necessities for really learning. Learning new things makes most of them uncomfortable. You think not? Then why all the problem over trigger warnings and the like? They also have a very limited attention span, except, apparently, for video games and cell phones, which may be why some education gurus are suggesting curriculum revamping based on video games. Imagine, learning based on what students find interesting rather than learning based on making necessary knowledge interesting, but apparently little that isn’t electronic is interesting to this generation.

Too many of today’s students don’t like to learn basic facts, and they don’t seem to understand that without knowing basic facts, they can’t progress to understanding the more complex features of the field in which they’re studying. Not only that, but the majority of them take little personal responsibility for learning. Both the students and the administrators are requiring teachers not only to teach, but to motivate all the students. I’m obviously old-fashioned, but it seems to me that students need to motivate themselves.

The more dedicated college teachers are struggling with how to deal with these issues without dumbing down their curricula or succumbing to grade inflation, but their creativity in dealing with this is hampered by ever more prescriptive requirements from administrators, ranging from more and more regulations impacting every aspect of their job to actual instructions to emphasize teaching to the “various student learning styles.” Teaching to a variety of learning styles effectively means teaching less content because it requires presenting the same material in different ways. Add to that the recent requirements for dealing with student psychological difficulties, effectively requiring professors to be psychologists as well.

To all that, add the fact that, over the last generation, cost pressures have resulted in university faculties shifting from roughly two-thirds being full-time to less than a third now being full-time with benefits. Since part-time faculty don’t have benefits and are paid poorly, they often have to take adjunct positions at more than one institution. This isn’t conducive to getting the best teaching or teachers.

It’s almost as if administrators have decided that college teachers are essentially intellectual factory workers whose job is to process “X” number of students per year and pass them through, keeping the students happy, whether they learn anything or not… or whether they can use facts, think, and analyze the elements of a complex problem or situation.

Welcome to Higher Education: 2018.

How Long Will It Be…

…before Republicans and others who supported Trump will acknowledge their mistake? Will they ever?

Trump hasn’t been true to much of anything in his entire life. Not to his three wives. Not to keeping his word. Not to actually doing the entire job.

Evangelicals supported him over Clinton, largely because of Hillary’s spouse, and because she’s a woman, and women in power have never been all that acceptable to traditionalist patriarchal believers, let alone appealing. Can anyone accurately claim that Trump is either more religious or moral than Clinton? Anyone who does has a different view of morality than is set forth the Bible that evangelicals hold so dearly.

More than a few business interests supported Trump largely, it appears, on his promise to cut taxes, totally ignoring the massive deficits those cuts will create, and,the fact that, after the first year, the tax structure won’t increase demand, not to mention, interestingly enough, turning their backs on the Republican Party’s former longstanding rhetoric about the need for fiscal responsibility.

Trump promised to drain the swamp of Washington, D.C. Instead, he’s brought a degree of insider dealings and cronyism not seen since the wide-scale corruption of the Harding Administration almost a century ago.

For all the rhetoric, I don’t see any increase in jobs in the coal industry. Nor any massive on-shoring or return of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

And the firing of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe two days before he could take full retirement was incredibly petty, especially since McCabe is actually a Republican. Neither decency nor loyalty in that action.

Trump’s been quoted, as least once, and possibly more often, as saying that people will believe whatever you tell them, if you just keep telling them that. And, unhappily, he’s proved that, at least for more than thirty percent of Americans, he’s absolutely right.

And that’s why, despite his dishonesty, immorality, lack of understanding of either government or economics, his increasing alienation of foreign heads of state of present allies, and his treachery in dealing with both subordinates and Republican politicians, he’s likely to remain President for some considerable time… and that makes the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate complicit in all that the President has done and will continue to do.

Conflicting Values

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, writer and scientist Alison Gopnik lays out the basis for one of the greatest and most unacknowledged value conflicts in American life – the conflict between family/community and higher-level professional success. She doesn’t quite put it that way because she’s exploring the associated problem of contempt, and why those who value family and community are contemptuous of those who place a higher value on professional success while a large segment of the “professional” class, especially scientists, academics, and creative artists, are at least equally contemptuous of those who exalt home, family, religion, and community above professional success and values and all they entail.

Although I never quite thought of it in those terms, my brother and I, while sharing many political views, are on opposite sides in prioritizing what is and has been most important in our lives. That’s not to say that we both weren’t ambitious, yet, in the end, we somehow switched priorities along the way. I certainly started out more in the traditional mold, serving as a Naval officer as had my father and grandfather and then returning to Denver and preparing to go to law school in order to join my father’s law firm, while my brother, upon graduation from college, took a job with a large and prestigious multinational financial institution. Three years later, he was back in Denver, if still in the financial area, where he has remained ever since. He’s the one who holds the family traditions dearest, and who, to some degree, sacrificed opportunities to remain part of a community he has always valued.

While I valued, and still do, family, I found that I could not accept the “legal” tradition, decided against law school, and then discovered that there was no way to provide for a growing family, to write, and, frankly, to make something more of myself while remaining in Denver at that time. My opportunities, such as they were, lay in the staff side of politics and in Washington, D.C. My wife, the professional singer and voice and opera professional, found that she could not succeed in her field without frequent moves and often great inconvenience, not if she wanted to remain involved in music on a professional level. Those conflicts led to both of us ending up single, meeting years later, and marrying.

Whether most people want to acknowledge it or not, professional success in many fields often entails and sometimes demands relocations and moves. Professionals and others who make those moves are effectively prioritizing their professional beliefs and values above the traditional model of a lifetime close to family and in the same community. There are also other conflicts that arise as well.

For example, when industries change, traditionalists don’t like the idea of having to move to find a job, because not only is there the strain of unemployment, but also the strain of losing community and family support.

There is no single absolute “right” way to prioritize one’s life; that has to depend on the individual. The problem today is that most people and most politicians don’t recognize that there is an unrecognized and growing rift between “traditionalists” and those whose lives are, for lack of a better term, “professionally values oriented.” The “contempt” problem that Gopnik addresses arises from the fact that each group, either consciously or unconsciously, believes that its priorities should be the basis for government, when, in a modern high-tech world, government needs to accept and recognize both sets of priorities, at least to the degree that neither group’s priorities should be imposed by law upon the other, except in cases of public safety.

This Worried Age

Because I’ve been involved with F&SF for a considerable period of time, I’ve seen trends in writing come and go. I’ve seen writers burst upon the scene and then fade, while others creep in and persist, and occasionally, one of those who bursts upon the scene does in fact persist. I also have made it a habit, particularly over the last decade or so, to read as many of the newer writers as I can. This is why I have only read one book of quite a few writers. To be truthful, in some cases, given my tastes, one book was quite enough. In other cases, I would have liked very much to explore more of that writer’s work.

What I have noticed is that in my sixty-odd years of reading F&SF, I have the feeling that I’ve never read nearly as great a percentage of books with worried or pessimistic outlooks. Now, I can understand this to some degree with science fiction, because the present suggests some rather disturbing, if not horrifying, possibilities. But there are also some rather better possible future outcomes, and the future we face, if history is any indication, is likely to be a mixed bag. But I don’t see much SF that reflects that.

Even a large percentage of fantasy seems to have a gloomy tone, and I have to wonder exactly why, because fantasy doesn’t have to be linked so closely to “reality.” Is it because the expectations of earlier, post-World War II generations were unrealistically optimistic, and there’s a wide-spread perception that reality has turned out to be so “disappointing” to many? Or is it because technology has changed the structure of society so that certain abilities are worth far less and others far more?

I’m old enough to remember classmates paralyzed by polio or who wore braces. I know people whose eyesight was permanently damaged by measles. I can remember when women couldn’t get credit cards except through their husbands. My uncle died a long and painful death from complications caused by strep that now never occur because of antibiotics. The rate of and absolute numbers of people suffering extreme poverty world-wide has been roughly halved in the past generation. And if we’re talking economics, the U.S. mortgage interest rate twenty years ago was two to three times what it is today. In roughly a thirty-year period in the first half of the twentieth century there were two world wars; and while we’ve had wars since then, we haven’t had devastation on that scale.

Do we face threats? Absolutely. Will some of them cause regional problems and devastation? Some very well may, especially if we don’t address them soon and effectively, but at present, and on balance, most people in the world are very much better off than they were a generation or two ago. Yes, the white male American middle class that once made a good living off semi-skilled manufacturing and mining isn’t doing as well and, apparently, that means to too many of them that the entire world has gone to hell. On the other hand, working conditions and pay for women and minorities are improving, even if they have a ways to go.

In writing, there’s been great change. The collapse of the mass market paperback and the whittling away of the chain bookstores because of the growth of ebooks and electronic publishing has throttled the careers of some writers, and sparked the careers of others through the availability of self-publishing.

As always, life presents a mixed bag, but in speculative fiction, there’s a difference between pointing out problems and dwelling on them and presenting them as awful and insoluble. And I happen to think that it’s time for a more balanced outlook by F&SF writers. I’m not denying there are and will be problems. And some problems won’t have solutions and will require accommodations, but our future depends on both problem-solving and accommodation… and an attitude that’s a bit more optimistic.

But then, that’s what I’ve always tried to write… and I’m the first to realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Some people really like to read and write gloom, doom, and despair. I’m just not one of them.

Certainly Not “The Best”

I recently read an anthology of “best science fiction” from 2016, published in 2017 and co-edited by a respected editor with whom I’ve previously worked. I’m not revealing more because the purpose of this critique is to point out a disturbing trend in short fiction in at least one part of the F&SF field.

To say that I was appalled would have been an understatement. The anthology might better have been entitled “Best Horror Science Fiction,” except that I have the feeling that the stories likely weren’t horrifying enough to be considered horror these days.

Add to that the fact that virtually none of the stories really had any real science in them, and only one of them even had an SF setting, except that story was essentially a ghost/horror story. Most were what I’d classify as extraordinarily improbable fantasy takes on reality, including several with monsters, none of which monsters were even remotely scientifically possible.

Then there were the stories that had the plot line of “repetition in hopes of a better ending is futile.”

An additional problem for me was that all but one, possibly two, of the stories were “ugly,” and, out of all the stories, only one could have been considered even remotely upbeat. There was also only a single story that could be called clever or polished, yet all of them were reprints of works published elsewhere.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the occasional “ugly” story, or downbeat and gloomy stories, and certainly not with fantasy, but I do have a problem with an anthology marketed as “best science fiction” that essentially has no science fiction, is largely comprised of horror stories, and offers the message that only gloom, doom, and despair are “excellent.”

Unhappily, this particular anthology doesn’t stand alone, although it is by far the most extreme version of “only grubby negativism represents excellence” that I’ve so far seen. I’m certainly no Pollyanna, and I’ve written some grim futures, but one can write “dark” well, and not crudely, as Shakespeare definitely demonstrated, and human history has always been a mixture of elegance and crudity, excellence and slipshod incompetence, kindness and depravity, and the conflict of many more opposing forces. Wallowing in crude depravity and ugliness, while ignoring the other side, and all the other aspects of life and the universe, and calling such dark stories “the best” is both inaccurate and a disservice to readers and the field.

Obviously, the editor has gone over to the dark side of modern mainstream fiction, and I hate to see that in the F&SF field, especially in these times.

The Real Problem With Finance

What’s not to love about the burgeoning U.S. financial sector? After all, the U.S. finance, insurance and real estate sector now accounts for 20 percent of GDP — compared with only 10 percent in 1947. And since 1980, the growth in the finance sector has accounted for a quarter of all growth in the entire services sector.

This is anything but an unmitigated good, with more than a few downsides. For example, corporate conglomerates, which used to provide long-term, decently paid employment and stable retirement benefits have largely been broken up as a result of the pressure of financial markets for short-term gain, also called “shareholder value maximization.” This development has also shifted much corporate decision-making from the boardroom to a conditioned response to national and global financial markets, in turn drastically slowing down real capital formation in the U.S. and the E.U., as well as gutting basic research funding by U.S. industry.

In addition, the growth of finance has resulted in significant income transfers from the working middle class to financial professionals and executives. One of the results of this income transfer is that demand for goods and services has not increased nearly so fast as in other times of economic expansion, simply because the working middle class hasn’t been able to afford as much in terms of goods and services and because the well-off and wealthy don’t spend as high a percentage of their income on goods and services. The lack of demand has also kept wages down, and while the Trump “tax cuts” will likely spur demand this year, that’s strictly a one-time economic boost.

Those who think corporate tax cuts will offer significant improvement are also bound to be disappointed come next year. Despite record profits in many areas, the majority of improvement in corporate balance sheets has gone anywhere but to workers, and there’s no sign that corporations are going to give significantly more to rank-and-file workers. To professionals and executives, yes, but not to those lower on the corporate food chain. A lot of those profits are going to corporate share buybacks, to keep the stock prices up, rather to workers or even to shareholders through increased dividends, all of which benefits executives with stock options.

All of this is the result of American businesses falling for the short-term siren song of the finance boys’ [and the overwhelming majority are still men] “shareholder value maximization,” which, ironically enough, often doesn’t even benefit anyone but short-term shareholders or corporate executives who’ll likely be gone in five or ten years.

And, if you still believe in the goodness of the financial sector… you’re likely to be part of it.

Is Freedom Killing Us?

Most Americans, from what I’ve heard and seen, like to think of themselves as a peaceful people, who only fight when provoked and to defend their freedoms. Certainly, over the
decades, pundits and politicians have pondered “the price of freedom.”

Now, most people are at least vaguely aware of the price of freedom. One measure of that is the number of dead and wounded in wars. U.S. military casualties in wars from 1775 through 2016 totaled roughly 1.35 million dead and 1.5 million wounded, but those don’t include civilian casualties, which were significant in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There are some conflicting figures concerning the Civil War, but I’ve used the latest, and higher, consensus estimate of 750,000 Union and Confederate deaths.

But there’s an additional price we pay, and that’s the price we pay for our relatively unlimited right to bear arms. From just 1968 through 2015, 1.52 million Americans have died through the use of firearms, largely from suicide and homicide. This figure has been fact-checked repeatedly, and it still holds up. Other historical sources show that in 1910, roughly 10,000 Americans died from the use of firearms, and by 1920, the annual deaths were close to 20,000. Add in the firearms deaths from 1900 through 1968, roughly 1.5 million, and the total of non-military deaths by firearms over little more than a century is double the number of military casualties in the entire history of the U.S.

But we shouldn’t single out firearms. For most of the past fifty years, annual deaths from motor vehicles have run higher than those from firearms, but in recent years have declined to close to those deaths from firearms. More and more safety features have been required for automobiles and more training for young Americans, but fatalities continue at a high rate.

In 2016, more than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, a number higher than either automotive-caused or firearm-caused deaths. Then add to that, according to a 2013 Columbia University study, almost a fifth (18%) of all deaths among white and black adults aged 40-85 was caused by obesity. The CDC has calculated that another one fifth of all deaths were caused by smoking. And the vast majority of such deaths resulted from conscious choices by those who died, from freedom, if you will.

Then there’s the question of how many deaths were inflicted on others by another’s freedom. Smokers inflict lung damage and eventual death not only on themselves, but on others through second-hand smoke. Careless drivers kill others. Opiod misuse and addiction often involves others. Thirty-five percent of all firearm deaths are homicides. How far should as society let “freedom” go?

In addition, from these numbers, one could reasonably assume that a significant percentage, possibly half, of all Americans really aren’t looking out for their own best interests. But then, what else is new?

Puppetry

In this day of video-everything, the old-time art and skill of puppetry is still hanging on, if by a thread, so to speak [and yes, it’s a terrible pun]. In fact, one well-known F&SF author – Mary Robinette Kowal – is also a successful professional puppeteer. And there still is something fascinating about what a skilled puppeteer can do.

Unfortunately, there are puppeteers in our lives that go totally unrecognized. Most people recognize slanted news as a form of puppetry, and, of course, “slanted” refers to the news we’d rather not hear, rather than inaccurate news. Most people don’t make a distinction between accurate slanted news and inaccurate slanted news, which is a shame. I’d define “accurate” slanted news as news where every fact is correct, but where facts are missing or where accurate facts are presented in a misleading context. Obviously, inaccurate slanted news is where both facts and context are wrong and deliberately mislead. Equally obvious is the fact that even accurate facts in a correct context can be perceived as misleading and totally slanted and inaccurate news can be perceived as accurate and truthful by those who wish to believe it.

Advertising can also be another form of puppetry, with a myriad of techniques used to influence and guide potential buyers. One could also call campaign donations as at least a form of attempted puppetry.

But there’s another form of puppetry that grows daily in its influence and sophistication, and that’s the online/internet algorithm. Everyone knows about algorithms, at least in the general sense, and how they pop up suggesting that you buy “X” because you purchased something similar. Because I periodically check on how my books are selling at certain outline retailers I get lots of emails and ads suggesting I buy more of my own books. This sort of puppetry is obvious, and often annoying, but among the algorithms that really bother me are the ones that govern search engines, because those algorithms are “optimized” for someone other than me, and for the most part, from what I can discern, for “popular” tastes and requests. That means it’s a lot more work for me to find what I want. In fact, it seems harder and harder every year.

But the deeper problem is that with more and more people using search engines and with the breadth of the internet and its comparative shallowness [unless you have access to an academic/university library database], what generally comes up in response to any inquiry on a given word and subject is pretty much the same. It’s popular, but is it accurate? How can you effectively cross-check it? Well… if you want to read every entry, you might get a better idea, or you might get a hundred versions of the same thing.

In a way, the convenience of the internet and algorithms can make an unsuspecting user a puppet, while conveying a sense of being informed that’s not always warranted. Despite the myth of the “wisdom of the crowd,” that was based on estimating numbers of physical objects that were physically present, not on evaluating the complexities of a high-tech society. Marketing and search algorithms have little to do with factual accuracy, only with popularity, and that’s something always to remember, because as human beings, we can be so easily seduced by popularity.

Freedom?

The Libertarians are all about freedom, no matter what their freedom does to others. The currently-elected Republicans, for the most part, only want it for the privileged, or anyone who wants to carry as many firearms as they want, no matter what they claim in their rhetoric and campaign pitches. Too many of the currently-elected Democrats praise freedom, but tend to fight the facts that some level of arms-bearing is enshrined in the Constitution and that freedom always has downsides, including the fact that such freedom can allow killings that can’t always be prevented.

And all of them are ignoring a basic requirement of a civilized society. The greater the population density and the higher the technology the more freedoms must be restricted – in some fashion – if you don’t want an extremely high body count, and I’m not just talking about weapons.

A few families in the middle of a few thousand acres at a medieval level of technology can do mostly what they want on their land and to that land without too much adverse impact on other individuals. Even terrible land management and violence to the immediate others around them will redound to their own detriment more than to others. This doesn’t hold true with families on suburban half-acre plots, or urban apartment dwellers. There have to be restrictions on water use, sanitation, traffic and transportation, and that’s just the beginning. Without regulations on food safety, tens of thousands died or were poisoned. Without worker safety regulations, even more died.

Now… most sane individuals will agree that there has be rhyme and reason to such restrictions, a compelling reason for imposing them and a prioritization that establishes which are more important and an agreement on what should not be regulated. We may disagree, often violently, on what should be regulated and how, and what those priorities are, and how they impact our freedoms, but sane individuals do not dispute the idea that some level of societal regulation is necessary. They do dispute what that level should be.

The Founding Fathers also considered the matter, and they had more than a few thoughts about freedom, or liberty, but the first time such thoughts were laid out in a general consensus form was in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”

A good percentage of Americans can cite those words, but not that many note the priority of those “Rights.” First comes the right to life, because without life, there’s no possibility of the other rights. Second comes liberty, because without it, people don’t have the ability to pursue happiness.

That states, pretty directly, that the right to life trumps absolute liberty, or freedom, if you will. Or put more bluntly, some restrictions on your right to “bear arms” are allowable to preserve my right to life. This is also a point supported by a number of Supreme Court rulings. And, yes, the second amendment also establishes the point that, without a Constitutional amendment, some level of “bearing arms” must be retained. All of that means that the NRA’s insistence that the “liberals” can take all their guns is unmitigated bullshit, and that there is a precedent and Constitutional basis for restricting who can carry what arms where, and that the Founding Fathers valued the right to life over totally unrestricted “liberties.”

Unfortunately, the only group that seems to understand that point at the moment are high school students, and that’s a sad commentary on the political structure… and the voters who elected those politicians.

Gun-Toting Teachers?

The idea that teachers armed with guns will in any way stop or mitigate the deaths of students being killed by unhappy other students or other individuals is not only one of the dumbest ideas I’ve heard, but it shows just how little the President, the NRA, or others who advocate this know about schools, students, teaching, and teachers.

First off, most teachers teach. That means that when an attack occurs, they’re in the classroom. Every shooter enters the school and is then in a hallway, and in the vast majority of the mass shootings, this is where majority of students are shot. Second, if the teacher’s classroom door is locked, he or she is immediately faced with the choice of risking his students’ lives by unlocking the door. If the teacher does open or unlock the door, even if the teacher has a weapon, he or she will be faced with chaos – screaming students most likely fleeing, with no initial indication who is shooting or from where. The teacher just becomes another target, and even if that doesn’t happen, in trying to return fire in that chaos, there’s a high probability that the teacher will wound or kill innocent students. As a side note, I might add that the SWAT team in the Florida shooting labeled and restrained a totally innocent student, and they’re supposed to be trained in that sort of matter.

Then there’s the question of expertise in weapons. These days most teachers I know, and I know a great number of them, are already overwhelmed by the continual increase in duties and responsibilities, many of them administrative and bureaucratic accountability requirements. So in addition to making teachers responsible not only for teaching, but for inspiring students, many of whom have little desire to exert themselves in learning, and for providing endless reams of paper and data to administrators and politicians, those who want to arm teachers want to add the duty of bodyguard. And effective bodyguards need lots of training and practice. So who’s supposed to pay for that? The teachers? In the United States, we already ask too much of teachers for too little pay. [There was a story in the Salt Lake Tribune in just the last day or so stating that beginning, degreed, full-time teachers in many districts actually qualify for food stamps.]

Some may also claim that having armed teachers will serve as a deterrent. Having armed police who are trained in weapons doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent in society. And in a school setting, having a few armed teachers won’t matter, either, especially to a disturbed individual, most of whom, it appears, don’t seem to even care if they get killed so long as they can kill others to make a point or even some unknown score.

Like it or not, more arms, whether carried by police or teachers, won’t do a damned thing to stop or even reduce school shootings and student deaths. Giving better psychological healthcare and screening and keeping semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of would-be shooters would do far more.

But then, that would restrict everyone’s freedom to carry weapons designed for multiple murders.

“They’re Coming After Us.”

Apparently, someone in Kentucky doesn’t like the National Rifle Association. That someone spray-painted a blank billboard with the words, “Kill the NRA.” So far the painter hasn’t been discovered.

What I find most interesting about this is the reaction of the NRA, which immediately sent out “warning message” on Facebook to all of its members, saying, “This is a wakeup call. They’re coming after us.”

Despite the brutal school shooting in Florida, which took seventeen lives, as well as those in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, and elsewhere, the vast majority of “opponents” of the NRA don’t want to take away all guns. They want to take away oversized magazines, auto-loaders, and other devices such as bump stocks that turn semi-automatic rifles into functioning automatic rifles. They want to close the loopholes on unrecorded gun sales, and they want effective background checks and ways to keep weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable individuals. The vast majority of Americans don’t want to repeal the second amendment, but they do want sensible regulations on guns.

We regulate other equipment and substances that pose a danger if misused, from pesticides and drugs to trucks and cars, including regulations on who can use such substances or devices, and Supreme Court rulings that have held that Congress and the states may in fact prohibit certain weapons.

It’s more than obvious that the NRA clearly doesn’t want any regulations at all over firearms held by civilians and has consistently misstated both the law and the Constitution in its efforts to block such regulations. In that sense, one could also say that by its endorsement of a fully weaponized citizenry, the NRA has always come after anyone who opposes its policies.

So… maybe it is time to truly come after the NRA, since, despite all its rhetoric, it’s an organization whose efforts only result in more and more preventable deaths

Managing People

The turnover of the President’s White House political staff in his first year in office is the highest ever. I’d submit that it represents a simple fact. The President doesn’t know how to choose or manage people. His management style seems to be to try out people he likes or thinks might have skills and then throw them out when either he doesn’t like what they do or say, or when it turns out that they have skeletons in their closet that no one investigated before they were appointed.

FBI Director Wray just revealed that the White House had the information on Rob Porter much earlier than the White House had claimed, suggesting either incompetence or willful disregard of Porter’s abuse of both former spouses.

Trump also has filled the fewest number of political appointee slots in the executive branch of any President in the first year in at least the last half-century, and that lack of mid-level political leadership has made it even more difficult for him to pursue any sort of coherent and unified program. Add to that the number of people clearly inexperienced in any sort of political bureaucracy or those whose competence is minimal or suspect, and it’s not surprising that the only significant accomplishment of his professed agenda is the tax cut legislation, which is something the majority of Americans agree on, even if many of them oppose the structure of those tax cuts.

An additional problem facing the White House and the Trump administration is the number of appointments or proposed appointments of individuals with either blatant conflicts of interest or extreme conservative views. While one would expect appointees with conservative views from a Republican administration, the problem with extremists, either ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative, is that too many of them let their views blind themselves to what is both structurally and legally possible. Even in blocking Trump’s initial travel bans, the courts were clear to say that the President had authority in that area, but that authority was limited by the law and the Constitution and that such a ban could not be based on religion and other factors prohibited by law. Extremists tend to believe that their view of the Constitution and law is the only view. The courts have almost always taken a more “centrist” view, sometimes unfortunately, as in the case of segregation until court cases in the 1950s and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s.

The chaos and unpredictability surrounding Trump has also meant that many well-qualified and experienced conservatives have declined being considered for positions in the administration, which has resulted in a lower quality of appointees. Justice Gorsuch is likely one of the comparatively few highly qualified appointees [although I personally believe he’s too much of a legal originalist] put forward by the Trump Administration.

Given the President’s temperament, I don’t see much change forthcoming, but if it’s not, the mid-term election results will be very interesting.

Facts

I have to say that I’m getting more than a little concerned about the idea that there are “different facts” or “alternative facts.” There are accurate facts and inaccurate facts [which I don’t regard as fact, but error], and there can be considerable dispute over what facts signify or how to interpret them and how accurate those interpretations may be.

The only thing “factual” about opinions not supported by verifiable facts is that such opinions exist. When pictures show the comparative size of crowds, such as inauguration crowds, an opinion that the small crowd is larger is factually untrue, unless, of course, such photographs were altered. When there is a multiplicity of photos from different sources, then the chance of alteration is essentially non-existent.

When photographic studies of glaciers show that, over time, virtually all of them have shrunk in size, and many have disappeared, that is factual evidence that those areas are in fact warmer, and when those studies encompass virtually all the glaciers, that’s a fact, or series of facts, that’s not factually contestable. What those facts signify for the future is up for debate, but that those sections of the planet are now warmer is not.

When NOAA says that the last ten years are the warmest on record, compared to existing data, that data represents a series of measurements. Those measurements come from the same sources. Therefore, temperatures at those sources are warmer. One can contest whether temperatures from those sources are an accurate representation of planetary warming, and whether temperatures from earlier sources are as accurate, but not the fact that the NOAA numbers represent higher temperatures at those places.

The fact that there’s been a first-year turnover of more than thirty percent of political appointees serving on the President’s White House staff is not disputable, nor is the fact that it’s by far the highest first year turnover of any President. What this means can be debated, but it cannot accurately be dismissed as false news.

The growth of fake or false news not only represents the growing polarization of American society, but also bodes ill for the future, because, if Americans cannot even agree on the facts surrounding issues, the “public validity” and “truth” of such “facts” will be determined by popular opinion or power, not upon the facts themselves. When policies are made upon the basis of facts that are not accurate, they’re far more likely to be flawed.

For example, while one study by scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Tulane University School of Medicine showed that eighty-percent of health news stories posted on Facebook concerning the Zika virus were largely accurate, the study also showed that the most popular story [ “10 reasons why Zika virus fear is a fraudulent medical hoax”] was totally inaccurate, but was viewed 530,000 times and shared almost 20,000 times, while the most popular totally medically accurate story, posted by the World Health Organization, was viewed 43,000 times and shared by less than a thousand users.

But too many people don’t want to hear that the number and percentage of crimes committed in the U.S. is higher for native born Americans than for either legal or illegal immigrants, and that the lowest crime rates occur among legal immigrants. They don’t want to hear that increasing coal usage will increase the rate of global warming, or that the tax laws just passed will make economic conditions in the future much worse.

We’re already in the dangerous position where popularity is more and more becoming the determinant of the perceived accuracy of facts, rather than measurements, observations, or science.

Or, put another way, with Trump’s “alternative facts,” Orwell’s Newspeak is already here.

Trump: Solution or Problem?

President Trump’s supporters clearly feel that if he isn’t the solution to a myriad of problems facing the United States, then he is at least the only one in American politics capable of addressing the issues of a broken immigration system, a weakened military, a hollowed-out middle class, a law enforcement system that’s too easy on “free-loaders,” corporations that send jobs overseas and keep wages low… as well as host of other concerns.

Trump’s opponents seem to see him more as a sexist, racist, narcissist, with the behavior of a spoiled child and the morals of serial sexual predator, who seems bent on destroying democratic values, the free press, and the environment, while handing the government over to business and his rich cronies and minimizing the rights of the marginalized in society.

And a significant majority of both supporters and opponents are absolutely adamant in their feelings and beliefs about Trump.

As in all political polarizations, both sides have at least shreds of proof behind their beliefs, although some of those shreds are pretty small, and a few, especially about Trump’s personal characteristics or the hollowed-out middle class, are anything but small.

But what seems to be overlooked in this polarization over Trump is that Trump is not so much primarily either solution or problem, but a symptom of what’s gone wrong in American politics and society, a personification of political and social intransigence.

It used to be that Americans disagreed over the meaning of facts; now people invent facts, or deny them, when proven facts don’t suit their beliefs or politics.

This hasn’t happened overnight. It’d been a long time coming. When I first became involved in politics, the two parties could agree enough to actually pass appropriation bills before the next fiscal year began. Then it took longer and longer, and they changed the congressional process to give themselves more tine. That bought them twenty years. Now… we’re at the point that we’re roughly halfway through the fiscal without any actual appropriations, running on continuing resolution after continuing resolution because neither party can apparently work out a compromise.

Now… everyone’s blaming Congress, and public approval of Congress is at all all-time low, and no one’s looking at the reason. That reason? Every member of Congress, with a few exceptions, is voting exactly the way the majority of voters in his or her political party in his or her state or district wants them to… because any time they don’t follow the party line they’re likely to get voted out, or at the least, face a contentious and expensive primary.

So don’t blame Congress. We, the people, are the intransigent ones… and unless we figure that out and decide to be more flexible, and go back to accepting proven facts and working out our disagreements on what to do about them, we just might end up with the equivalent of a second civil war (or a third, for those who believe the Revolution was really a civil war).