Archive for the ‘General’ Category

The Anger Problem

As I noted earlier, there is growing incivility in the United States, and that includes the rapid resurgence of hate groups. Why are so many people so angry?

One reason often postulated is that the American middle class is being “hollowed out” by rapid changes in technology that drastically reduced the number of well-paid semi-skilled jobs, and by the perception that immigrants who take low-paying jobs keep all wages depressed… and these losses fuel anger.

Next are minorities, women, and others affected by the history and legacy of racial and gender discrimination. They’re tired of endlessly waiting for equality, and with ethnic, racial, and gender discrimination continuing, those feeling that discrimination is continuing are also getting angrier and angrier.

Then there are those people who are angry at social change, at the acceptance of more liberal sexual mores, at the emergence of the LGBT culture, at women demanding equal pay.

In short, a lot of people are angry… and the evidence of just how many lies in the election of Donald Trump and the support for Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t seem to matter to these people that the vast majority of Americans have a higher standard of living than their predecessors did or most people elsewhere on Earth. They feel deprived.

All of them have reasons. Some reasons are good; some are understandable; and some are neither.

Those who lost jobs to off-shoring and automation want those jobs back, or something similar. They’re not getting them back, because times have changed. This isn’t new. It happened in England in the early 1800s, when the automation of textiles and weaving was introduced, and comparatively well-paid weavers were replaced by factories. The “Luddites” revolted, and a number of them were executed or exiled to Australia… and nothing changed. In a sense, both the Luddites and those who lost semi-skilled jobs in the last few decades were angry because they felt entitled to those jobs.

For better or worse, however, a capitalistic culture doesn’t recognize entitlement, whether of factory workers or others. And it’s not just happening to factory workers. Jobs for lawyers are drying up, with 55,000 fewer jobs for attorneys this year than 10 years ago, while the number of attorneys has increased by almost 200,000, and a good part of the decreased demand for lawyers results from improved technology in a number of areas.

Technology is continuing to improve, and that means that other semi-skilled and even some skilled jobs will be replaced by technology, most likely creating more displaced and angry people. While technology does create jobs, so far the number of well-paid jobs created doesn’t match those replaced by technology. Unless trends change drastically, and they don’t seem to be, despite predictions of more skilled and paid-paid jobs, more and more the most available jobs will be those requiring personal lower-level skills, while those paying more will be a smaller and smaller fraction of those available.

And that’s not going to help the anger problems… or American politics.

Missing Prices in Fantasy?

The other day I was trying to work out price equivalences for certain goods and services in a forthcoming Imager Portfolio book when I suddenly – and clearly, very belatedly – realized how seldom prices – for anything – appear in most fantasy novels, or at least, so it seemed to me.

What makes this surprising to me is that every society in Earth’s history, once beyond the Stone Age level, has been governed by some form of market economy, where the necessities of life have a cost and daily items must be paid for. Yet prices and costs, especially exact prices and costs, appear to be missing from many fantasy novels. I’d almost [but not quite] be willing to say that they’re missing from the majority of fantasy novels, especially in those scenes depicting daily life, except for a token mention.

A search of A Game of Thrones came up with only scattered references to coins, occasionally gold, but virtually no actual numbers. For Words of Radiance, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, there were some thirty references to money, but no specifics. Nor could I find specifics for coinage in Tolkien. I tried some urban fantasy, including newer works such as the Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans and Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen, but found nothing there. There were one or two specifics per book in Patty Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, and while Simon Green’s Nightside books do mention money, I could only find one specific – a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. Paul Cornell’s urban police fantasies occasionally mention specifics, but only big numbers, like payoffs of ten thousand pounds, but nothing about daily expenses, not that I could find.

Patrick Rothfuss, on the other hand, uses “talents,” and gives specifics, as does Scott Lynch in his Gentleman Bastards series, but of the books and series I searched, I couldn’t find any other authors besides the three of us who give consistent specifics and prices. Given the number of authors writing fantasy, I’m sure that there are quite a few others, but, even so, if my sampling is any indication, authors who do are definitely in the minority.

Although I’ve read several thousand F&SF books [I lost count years ago], there have been more than 40,000 F&SF books published over the last twenty years alone, so I have no idea how representative my reading is about the use and frequency of specific costs and prices in fantasy books.

What are your experiences… and good and not-so-good examples?

Congressional Selfishness

Just last week, the House of Representatives was dealing with the massive Defense appropriations bill. The Pentagon had proposed an actual common sense measure that would have required Congress to look at military base closures and submit a report on recommended closures by 2021. The Republican majority barred any base closures and voted down an amendment that would have allowed the Pentagon to proceed.

We’re not even talking about closing bases, but about a report to determine which bases might be closed, and a report that wouldn’t even be finished for four years. What such Congressional action signifies isn’t a desire for a strong and effective national defense, or even more support for wounded and disabled veterans, but merely the political requirement for local pork-barrel defense make-work jobs.

There’s one thing I’m very certain about, and that’s if the incredibly conservative Pentagon says it doesn’t need a base… it really doesn’t need that base. And I’ll admit readily that the generals may not always be right. That was one reason why the proposal was for a commission to study the recommended closures. The fact that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives wouldn’t even look at the closure issue is a good indication of how present-day politicians have no desire to even look at anything that might cost them votes, even if it is in the national interest.

In fact, I’m not certain that more than a handful of national politicians give a damn about the national interest. Certainly, for all their rhetoric, none of those recently elected from my state do. I’d go even further. It’s gotten to the point where almost any politician who goes against his or her party line or popular opinion is likely to be viewed as a traitor.

Admittedly, there’s a need for consensus for any group to get anything done, but when challenging that group consensus is treason, we, as a society, have gone from a fractious representative democracy to a nation riven and paralyzed by cliquish group-think, represented by men and women either afraid, unwilling, or unable to follow Burke’s statement to the electors of Bristol that, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

And that’s not only sad, but if it continues, will likely be terminal for the experiment begun by the Founding Fathers.

Story Agendas

The other day I read a reader review of one of my books, a review that summarized the book as “a good story ruined by an agenda.” I had to shake my head at the naiveté/ignorance of the reader.

The plain fact is that all stories have agendas. Those agendas may be conscious or unconscious, or some of both, but all stories reflect their writers in some fashion or another, and thus, reveal either what the writer wants to reveal or reveals what he or she doesn’t want to reveal… or perhaps some of both.

Occasionally, the agenda is direct and simple – just tell a straight-forward story. But that agenda has its own sub-agendas. One thing I’ve learned in life is that everything is more complex than it seems, and some of the greatest lies begin with words like “keep it simple” or “it’s really simple.” An author who tells a direct and simple tale may be entertaining, and that may be the writer’s obvious agenda, but what such an approach also says is that nothing else is really important, despite the fact that, in life, as the old saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.”

Sometimes, stories or novels are incredibly detailed and twisted so much so that most readers will recoil and think, “Nothing in life is this complex.” That’s another agenda or set of agendas, because, while life is complex, those complexities range from fairly simple problems to thornier ones, and very few people’s lives are an ongoing, never-ending maze of incredible complexities.

I’ve seen well-written books where everything seems tied to sex, and others where gender issues and or politics, or both, are clearly part of the writer’s agenda. There are others where there’s little thought, and action and reaction dominate almost every page of the book, suggesting either that the writer is aiming at that market, or that he or she honestly believes that human beings act on impulse and minimal thought… or perhaps both.

I’m not judging authors or agendas. All authors have them, and that range of agendas is exactly why a great number of authors have very different readerships.

I don’t write simple stories, and any reader who thinks I do is missing a great deal. I’m a cynical romantic and idealist who spent too many years in the military, politics, and business to believe that anything is as straight-forward as it seems, even though I’d often like it to be, or that any long-lasting romance is ever simple or without cost.

My overt agenda is to write the best story I can, given the complexities I know and have seen in life, while showing that dreams can be achieved, but only if the cost is far higher than the reader and the characters ever thought possible and that paying that price means learning costly lessons. At least, that’s what I strive for, but I’m also certain that parts of my subconscious slip in other aspects as well. I suspect this is true of other authors as well, at least in the vast majority of books I’ve read.

So when a reader complains about an agenda, what that reader is really complaining about is that the author’s agenda didn’t match the reader’s agenda and expectations.

The Civility Problem

There have been more and more appeals for civility in politics and public discourse, in the media, and almost everywhere… and from what I can see, matters are not getting any better, and in some areas they’re definitely getting worse.

One of the reasons for this is that too many groups and too many people are attempting to legislate personal beliefs into law… and on the legislative front, the battle lines have been drawn. Little or no quarter is being given, and if it continues, we’ll all be defeated.

The United States is a country founded on certain principles, but most people fail to understand that those principles – such as freedom, equality, and equal opportunity – are ideals, and that, in the real world, implementing those ideals is far harder than talking about them, particularly when different groups of people have different ideas about what those ideals mean and how the laws to uphold and protect those freedoms should be written and enforced.

Because those differences exist, for a society to function, compromise is essential, and secular laws are, in effect, a compromise, laying out the ground rules on which the majority of groups agree… and leaving other matters to personal or group determination.

Today, one of the problems is that too many groups believe that their interpretation of the principles of the Founding Fathers should be enacted into law and that anyone who has a different interpretation is not only wrong, but effectively a mortal enemy and that such “enemies” should be forced to comply with the interpretation of whatever group has the power to enact such narrow interpretations.

What is overlooked is that the Founding Fathers did not want a bureaucratic or religious state where only one set of religious beliefs was enshrined in iron-clad laws. They attempted to create a system where basic rights were protected, but one where beliefs were not imposed by law.

Needless to say, the initial attempts were flawed, in allowing slavery and in denying the franchise to slaves and women. These failures alone should suggest the error of claims of the “originalists” that the Constitution was perfect, a lack of perfection that the Founding Fathers themselves realized by allowing Congress the power to make laws and to amend the Constitution – with the approval of the states.

The structure established by the Founders was a statement in itself that changes would be necessary and that compromise would also be necessary. Unhappily, the message about compromise seems to have been forgotten as each ideological group has decided that its principles, and only its principles, should be enacted into law.

Principles should be how each of us guides his or her own life. Laws should be the framework under which we undertake that guidance, not tools to force beliefs onto others – with the sole exception that the law should protect individuals from harm caused by others.

Unfortunately, that necessary exception has created enormous conflict because there are areas, such as abortion, gender, and civil rights, where absolute individual rights conflict, and rather than compromise, one or both sides become intransigent and demand that their view become the law of the land, rather than hewing to the Founding Fathers’ attempts to place the rights of the individual above the state, except where such individual rights harm others.

And even that principle requires compromises… and civility.


As I write this, the largest active forest fire in the United States is burning through the mountains some twenty odd miles to the northeast of Cedar City, having consumed more than 70,000 acres of trees and vegetation. What started the fire was a homeowner who decided to use a weed torch to clear away weeds on his property. The fire swiftly went out of control and reached a stand of trees killed by bark beetles, growing to close to a thousand acres overnight. Currently, close to 1,500 fire fighters are engaged in battling the blaze, estimated to be 75 percent contained. The homeowner is liable for the damage and the cost of fighting the fire, a cost that the state of Utah estimates will exceed twenty million dollars. Fortunately, there have been no deaths and less than twenty homes destroyed… so far.

Just about a week before the Brian Head fire began, here in Cedar City, a local resident tried the same thing on his weeds on farm property inside the city– at a time when winds were gusting from fifteen to twenty miles an hour! Predictably, the fire got out of control. Thankfully, there were no trees nearby and the fire department and BLM firefighters managed to contain the fire in a five acre area, although three old livestock buildings and several horse corrals were destroyed.

In addition to these two examples, there have been three other fires in the area in the past weeks, and the fact that all of Utah is now considered high risk for fires has been in the news for weeks. Yet it’s clear that more than a few individuals haven’t listened or ignored what they heard or read.

At least to me, these fires came about because those who caused them succumbed to some of the oldest human weaknesses, the idea that they were above taking into account the conditions around them… or that such considerations didn’t apply to them.

The problem is that, when people ignore common sense and practical precautions, the rest of us are the ones who get burned, both by property being destroyed and by taxpayer funds being spent to deal with the fires and the aftermath – and that’s not just the case with fires.

An Apology to My Suitcase [As Occasioned by Our Recent Vacation]

My dear suitcase,

I am deeply sorry that we must part, but the debilitating effects of your last flights make it impossible for us to travel together any longer. I understand that you had no control over the TSA inspector, or whoever it was that shredded not only the protective covering of the ends of the inner zippers that provide closure and containment, but ripped the zippers from their anchor points. Nor was it your fault that the handlers amputated the supposedly indestructible rest studs so that you always tipped over when placed on your side.

Nor could you do anything about the tracked behemoth that left black scars on your once shining gray surface and inflicted that last mortal wound to both your pride and your structural integrity. I can remember when we first met in New York, and the saleswoman assured me that you would be the last piece of luggage I would ever need. And for two years, that was indeed true, but your mortal enemies – indifferent baggage handlers and automated conveyor systems – have taken their toll on you.

Yes, you have given me the best years of your life, three long years of enduring scrapes, bruises, continual pressure changes, temperature variations, sitting on baggage carts in rain and snow while baggage handlers ignored your plight, selflessly maintaining as much water-tightness as possible, wielding off slush and snow, stoically enduring the blazing heat of the Saint George airport or the winter chill of the Cedar City airport. You have endured delays and misroutings, gouges, grooves, bruises, and more, far more than you ever bargained for when you first traveled with me, shimmering gray and proud.

You have borne it all without complaint, and I can only hope that your spirit will find peace in some other dimension where faithful luggage is rewarded for selfless service.

The Negative Agenda

Hillary Clinton should thank her lucky stars she’s not President. Trump’s election has shown exactly what the Republican agenda is… and isn’t. In point of fact, the Republicans, and Trump supporters [and while they overlap, they’re not all the same in their exact views], all campaigned and were united by a rejection of Hillary and of what they perceived as a Democratic agenda. For all the talk of making America great again, the underlying agenda was primarily negative… and still is.

To begin with, this administration can’t even fill all the political appointments. Why not? Because anyone who ever deviated from Republican doctrine or ever said an unkind word about our dear President appears to have been rejected, no matter how qualified he or she (rarely are potential appointees women) might be. It’s not about who can contribute positively, but about their perceived negatives.

And it’s not just the President. Congress is just as bad.

Even the so-called health care bill is negative – how much can be cut from healthcare insurance spending and how many people can be denied insurance. There’s absolutely no action or interest in the more basic underlying problem – that the profit-obsessed pharmaceutical and health care industries have created a U.S. health care system with the highest costs in the world, for only average health care [unless you’re wealthy].

The environmental agenda is a retreat from environmental and climate improvement based on the fallacious idea that allowing more pollution will revitalize U.S. industry and create more jobs in the fossil fuels industries, when most U.S. coal isn’t competitive economically and when the technological success of oil and gas fracking has not only kept the price of energy down, but made any expansion of coal production unlikely. Where are the [positive (?)] tax credits for environmental improvement? Or for reduction of greenhouse gases?

The anti-abortion agenda is theoretically positive, since it’s pro-life, except that it’s not. It’s pro-birth at any cost, but the same people who are pro-life are not only opposed to abortion and to birth-control, but also opposed to any government support of all the children born unwanted whose mothers have no way to support them, and the Republican contention that abstention from sexual activity will solve the problem is another negative approach that time and history have shown to be flawed. What reduces overpopulation and unwanted children are positive programs of health care, education, and economic improvement, not negatives.

Then there are all the cuts proposed in federal research. Science doesn’t advance without the funding for R&D, and corporate basic R&D is essentially non-existent. Corporate R&D is about creating products, not about the basic science that underpins those developments.

We’re now almost six months into the new Congress, and so far as I can tell, even with majorities in both the House and Senate, neither House has yet to pass anything positive, unless you consider a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans positive. The Republicans have forgotten how to do positive, if they ever knew.

Now… if Clinton had been elected President, given the negative bent of the Republicans, we’d most likely be watching impeachment proceedings going forward, either on Benghazi or on the Clinton Foundation or anything else…because negative is all the Republicans know or care about.

Hillary… you don’t know how fortunate you are you didn’t become President.

The Problem with Profit

The other day, I ran across an article in a prominent business publication [Bloomberg Businessweek] that made the point that bringing back manufacturing jobs to the United States – as President Trump promised – might not be the great thing that Trump and his backers seem to think.

As Bloomberg pointed out, manufacturing has declined to twelve percent of gross domestic product from twenty-six percent some fifty years ago, but total U.S. manufacturing output is actually higher, and the U.S. still accounts for nineteen percent of total global manufacturing, more than Germany’s and Japan’s shares combined, if somewhat behind China’s twenty-five percent. More important, in Bloomberg’s calculus is the point that profit margins of companies actually engaged in physical manufacturing is far lower than in companies such as Apple (with profit margins of 21% on revenues), and which manufactures nothing, but subcontracts out all manufacturing and parts to largely off-shore companies that only make profit margins in the middle single digits [and most of the U.S. suppliers offshore part or all of their contribution]. Yet Apple employs some 80,000 people.

Bloomberg also makes the point that the only way to increase manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is to, in one way or another, raise the price of imported manufactured goods, and that raising the price of imports might well decimate the retail industry, which accounts for 25% of all U.S. jobs and which is already struggling. Yet the bulk of the jobs in the retail sector are among the lowest paid positions, along with food service.

The Bloomberg conclusion is that “Trump should press for an even freer global exchange of goods and services so U.S. corporations can best organize their operations to maximize profits.”

Especially in the retail and service sectors, maximizing profits means minimizing wage costs, relying on part-time employees in order to avoid the higher cost of paying benefits.

The problem with this outlook, as I see it, is that the “high profit” model creates an employment structure where a comparatively small percentage of the workforce is well-paid at creative and professional jobs and where an ever-larger percentage of the middle-class, particularly the formerly modestly well-paid semi-skilled workers, must compete for lower-paid service positions in retail, sales, and other service positions.

What often gets overlooked is that in 1955, U.S. Steel had nearly 270,000 employees, as opposed to 43,000 today. General Motors had 570,000, compared to 200,000 today. Today, the largest employer in the U.S., is Walmart, with something like a million and a half employees in the U.S. Now, high-tech firms pay well, but those high-paying jobs are limited. There’s a reason why the labor force participation of men from 25-54 is the lowest ever — there aren’t enough jobs for which they’re qualified that they want to take. According to Labor Department figures, there are currently some four million unfilled jobs, but there are ten million men in the 25-54 age group who aren’t looking for work, for one reason or another.

But when national growth depends on spending, and the profits go to people who spend a smaller percentage of their income, the high-profit model just might not be the best one for the country as a whole, which doesn’t seem to bother all too many of those who are the beneficiaries of that model.

The “Deep North”

For a good part of my early life, to most of those people I knew, the “deep South” was essentially synonymous with the slave-holding states of the Confederacy and “Jim Crow” politics that enforced segregation and dual school systems for whites and blacks. Then in the mid-sixties came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which resulted in turmoil and change, but there’s still a lingering suspicion about the “deep South” on the part of northerners and westerners.

When I was in college there was a statement going around that, in the south, blacks could live where they wanted, but they’d better not try to get any higher [economically], while in the north the attitude was that blacks could go as high as they wanted economically, just so they didn’t live next door. Both representations were flawed, but many people accepted them anyway, especially, I suspect, northern liberals. At least, I thought they were flawed, but now…

Recently, a series of reports from the Urban Institute used census figures to show that the ten most segregated U.S. metropolitan areas, both racially and economically, were: Philadelphia, Bridgeport, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Detroit. Interestingly enough, all of them are in the north. Not only that, but the pace of economic segregation has increased since 2000, particularly in the north, but also in places in the Midwest and west. So just how did the north, all those states that fought the Civil War, at least in part to end slavery and racial discrimination, come to be the most notable practitioners of segregation [and the Urban Institute data shows that this trend is increasing faster in the north, as opposed to the south]?

The answer is breathtakingly simple – the use of economics. If you incorporate separate municipalities around cities, then build high-income housing, and zone out low-income housing, you don’t have to engage in overtly racist discrimination. There’s more to it than that, but it amounts to the use of economics and the legal system to break metropolitan areas into economically, and thus largely different ethnic/racial areas. Given that school systems are funded in most states by property taxes, that means that the high income areas can better fund education and all manner of public services.

The “segregation” of property tax revenues means that the economically poorer communities simply can’t provide the same level of public services as the wealthier communities, and with the popular revolt against increasing state and federal income taxes, neither states nor the federal government can make up the difference.

Welcome to the “deep North.”

The Imposition of Meaning

From what I’ve observed, human beings tend to take on one of two overall philosophical attitudes toward life, or to alternate between the two. One “outlook/attitude” is to survive in the least painful or most pleasurable state possible. The other “outlook/attitude” is to seek meaning, either in life, the universe, or the theological/metaphysical beyond the tangible we perceive. Some individuals try to balance both outlooks; few, I suspect, succeed. Part of that problem is that, if one isn’t successful at surviving, one doesn’t have the time or resources to seek meaning.

Most, but certainly not all, intelligent individuals I’ve met want to survive as well as possible, while devoting some time and thought to meaning, almost as sung in the now-ancient pop song, “Alfie,” the opening line of which is “What’s it all about, Alfie?” [The song was first a hit sung by the British singer Cilla Black, and then later recorded by Cher, Dionne Warwick, and Barbra Streisand, as well as more than twenty other singers.]

Now there are those human beings for whom meaning beyond maximization of survival is irrelevant. For those who are truly poor, survival has to come first.

But there are those who carry maximization of survival to extremes. As Bud Fox asked in the first Wall Street movie, “How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?” For such maximizers, meaning lies in how much power and wealth they can accumulate. Even if they owned the entire earth, what would that mean? [I’ll offer an answer to that at the end.]

Not surprisingly, most individuals searching for meaning seem to seek that through religion, as if nothing else could explain and attribute meaning to anything as vast and majestic as the universe, especially since every decade more refined measurements show that it is far vaster than the last set of measurements found it to be. The usually unspoken part of that quest for meaning is: “How am I meaningful in this universe?”

The answer to that is, bluntly, we’re not. The latest calculation on the size of our universe by the Institute of Physics is that it contains two trillion galaxies, each containing something like 200 billion stars.

We’re only meaningful to ourselves and to those who care about us and – for those who believe in a personal Deity – to that Deity. Yet we all want to mean something, somehow, to someone, or to lots of someones.

The only entities that appear to understand this need are other human beings, and most likely, not even all of them.

Yet, in all too many cases, the followers of each religion or variation of that religion, rather than appreciating the need and the quest for meaning, seem determined that their particular views are the only “true” way of reaching understanding and meaning, and today and historically, seem determined to prove in one way or another, that their belief is the only “true” faith, just as the maximizers of survival are trying to convince themselves and others that billions of dollars mean anything to the universe.

Really? In a universe where the planet on which we live is less than one eighth of one two hundred billionth of one two trillionth of the known universe?

Isn’t that a bit arrogant? Either way?

Maybe we should find a bit more meaning in other people, rather than trying to impose our meanings on them, and in turn, they should stop trying to impose their meanings on us. Then, we might, just might, be able to work on what’s meaningful to all of us.

Book Price Complaints

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more than a few complaints about the price of books, especially the price of ebooks, and how they have gotten more and more expensive, and how the people who complain just can’t afford to buy new books.

How does price factor into this? Since 2013, print book prices have stayed relatively the same, but the average ebook price from traditional publishers has increased about a dollar to about $9.50.

During this period, ebook sales have declined about three percent, while print book sales have increased slightly less than one percent, but what is interesting is that juvenile fiction sales of print books are up 13% since 2013, while adult fiction print books are down by 7%. Those numbers don’t include ebook sales because they’re based on BookScan data, which doesn’t track ebooks. Sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks are up, but, not surprisingly, the sales of mass market paperbacks are down by over 25% in the last four years, and they’ve been declining steadily for almost fifteen years. In most reading categories, print books make up something like 65-80% of sales – except in adult fiction, where ebooks comprise 48% of sales.

The high rate of ebook sales for fiction makes sense to me, because much fiction is read for one- or two-time enjoyment, and ebooks are more convenient for many people, and that convenience is definitely a component in the steep decline of the mass-market paperback. And, no matter what anyone claims, ebook piracy is a definite factor in the decline of the mass market paperback/ebook reading sector, given that ebook sales have been flat for the past four years while mass market paperback sales have plummeted.

As for the complaints about book pricing, I did a little research, and while some of that research involves my own books, that’s because I know the prices and times. For example, the hardback version of The Magic of Recluce was published in 1991, and the list price was $19.95. According to the CPI calculator, which likely understates inflation, an equivalent price today would be $36.67. The mass market paperback version came out in 1992 at $4.99, which equates to $8.80, compared to the current list price of $9.99 [discounted to $7.70 by Amazon], and an ebook price of $10.00. A more recent book, Imager’s Intrigue, was published in hardcover in 2010 for $27.99, and an inflation-adjusted price today would be $31.31, but Treachery’s Tools, a book of equivalent length, published in late October of 2016, also lists $27.99.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness came out as a mass market paperback from Ace in 1969, costing $1.25 for all 284 pages, which would equate to $8.64 today, also now list-priced at $9.99 and discounted to $7.70. Adjusted for CPI inflation, most mass market paperbacks published more than ten years ago cost slightly more today in inflation-adjusted dollars than when published, but given the discounts, actually sell for less.

Yet compared to other forms of entertainment, books are anything but exorbitant. Today, the average movie price in the U.S. for a one-time ticket is $9.00, the average pizza price around $13.00, and a single Big Mac costs just over $5.00, on average, yet people complain about $10-$15 ebook prices. This desire to get books cheaply has had a definite effect on authors and publishers. Many major publishers are barely profitable, even after often massive cuts in staff and editors, and reductions in the numbers of books published.

As an author, I can’t complain,because I make a comfortable living from writing, but while my hardcover sales numbers [including those ebooks released at the same time as the hardcover] are slightly higher than fifteen years ago, my mass-market/ebook sales on an individual title basis [these ebooks being those priced comparably to mass market paperbacks] are down by more than 30 percent, and so is my total income. Without my extensive backlist, the drop would be catastrophic, which is why a number of authors who publish fewer books have literally dropped out of the market. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, this situation affects all but about the top one percent of authors. A recent U.K survey found that of British authors who published work in the previous year, only 11.5% made a living wage in 2015, compared to 40% in 2005.

Author Earnings – a website devoted to writing – recently reported that only 4,600 authors made more than $25,000 a year, and only 1,340 made more than $100,000, compared to 1,696 NFL players in any given year drawing an average salary of $1.9 million. Given the methodology used by Author Earnings, I suspect that those numbers are a bit high, because they’re based on gross sales and include self-published authors, without deducting all their costs of promoting and producing.

So… do you really think that books and ebooks are that expensive?

Americans and Illusion

As a nation, Americans have generally been more optimistic than other countries, but how much of that optimism has been based on facts, and how much on the embracing of various illusions?

Some illusions are deep-rooted, such as the ideal of the United States as “the land of the free.” Well, yes, if, at the time of the revolution, you happened to be a male, white, and a property-holder, but not if you were black and in the American south. Not if you were female, and little more than a chattel of your father, husband, or other male relative.

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain more than 30 years before the U.S. did, and it didn’t take a brutal Civil War in which between 620,000 and 750,000 died. And even after the Emancipation Proclamation and two Constitutional amendments, it took another century, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for most blacks to even have decent chance at voting. Women didn’t get the right to vote until almost 150 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Illusions have also cloaked American political personalities from the beginning and have continued to this day. Franklin Roosevelt concealed, and the press abetted that concealment, the severity of his disability, as well as his several marital affairs. . Dwight Eisenhower had a public image as a genial, avuncular man, but in private was cold and calculating. John Kennedy was portrayed as a healthy vital young man with a solid domestic family life and a beautiful wife. The wife part was true – although even she hid her chain smoking – but Kennedy was having affairs continually and was actually a sick man racked with a bad back and Addison’s Disease, which required continual cortisone treatments, a condition so severe that when he underwent back surgery in 1954, he actually received the last rites. Yet Richard Nixon was perceived as far less healthy, despite his living to the age of 81. Such illusions haven’t always been favorable. Gerald Ford, possibly one of the most athletically gifted of American Presidents, was portrayed by the press as clumsy, because he had a terrible slice when he played golf and because he once stumbled on camera, but that illusion helped defeat him for re-election, combined with his pardon of Richard Nixon, enabling the genial, honest, and well-meaning Jimmy Carter to be elected, who was, unfortunately, also cloaked by an illusion, that as a governor, he’d been a good manager, when in fact he was an excessive micro-manager.

There’s also the American self-illusion that we happen to be a peace-loving people, except that, paraphrasing Citizen Kane, we’re peace-loving on our own terms… as are most nations. Despite the protection of two large oceans, we’ve managed to get involved in close to a hundred armed conflicts over the last three centuries, including fifteen large-scale wars. We’re also the most gun-toting nation on the planet with over three hundred million firearms in private hands. To me, that doesn’t exactly square with peace-loving.

Then there’s the illusion about having the best medical system in the world. Again, if you’re talking about medicine for those who can afford it, there’s no doubt we do have the most high-tech and advanced system, but if you’re poor – or even rich and ill-informed – it’s another story. We definitely do have the most-expensive health care system in the world and the most technologically advanced, hands down, but the best?

Then there’s the illusion of opportunity. While a century ago, it was truer than now, study after study shows that the odds of an individual’s economic improvement over a lifetime have dropped significantly over the past forty years. Most people who were born at the bottom of the economic ladder will stay there, and most born at the top will stay there. Although the United States is supposed to be a land of opportunity where young people can expect their quality of life will be better than their parents, a U.N. sponsored study shows that the U.S. isn’t even in the top 20 countries when it comes to opportunities for young people, ranking twenty-third on a list of 183 countries based on 18 indicators that measure progress for youth ages 15 to 29. Eight of the top 10 countries are in Europe, plus Australia and Japan. Now because, our standard of living is still higher than in most countries, it doesn’t mean young people are starving, but it’s another indication of an illusion – most young people aren’t going to live comparatively better than their parents did. The same perhaps, but not better.

And one of the problems with all these illusions is that people cling to them, rather than recognizing them, because you can’t change things without recognizing reality.

It’s one thing to have ideals, and to strive for them, trying to reach them, and another to profess that we’ve attained the ideals and that all is well when we’re falling short.

A Few Basics…?

Education today has become a battlefield of sorts. There are fights over charter schools, open schools, magnet schools, college preparatory schools, tech or vocational schools, and about how and what material should be taught and by whom. There are battles over paying teachers and whether vouchers should be allowed or shouldn’t, and there are great variations in educational systems across the United States. And there are good schools of almost every type and poor schools of almost every type.

Then there’s the battle over what constitutes a good or great teacher, and what kind of teaching works best. Is it a variation on “the sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”… or somewhere in between? But I’ve also seen great teachers who differ widely in how they teach, and the same of teachers who aren’t that great.

So how does one measure what constitutes a great or effective teacher? Is it how much the students learn over the course of a semester or year? That sounds reasonable on the surface, but it doesn’t take into account the variables over which teachers have no control. Have the students had breakfast and a decent night’s sleep? Students who are lacking in these will have a harder time making progress. Do the students have the language skills to understand the teacher easily, or will the teacher have to spend additional time dealing with those problems?

In general, students from more affluent backgrounds do better academically and progress faster, but even students from these backgrounds may have difficulties, emotional problems, learning disabilities, and some may just be unmotivated, or more interested in their personal electronic communication systems.

The current educational attitude seems to be that none of these factors matter. Teachers are hired to teach, and they need to get results. This is a hard-nosed business approach.

As an economist, I understand the business model. What people who apply it to education don’t seem to understand is that businesses have a level of control over their businesses that teachers don’t over their students. If an employee doesn’t come to work or do his work, he can be fired [even in government, although it takes a very long time]. Also, businesses get to examine the skills of potential employees and select who they hire. They get to specify the raw materials and equipment needed to do the job, and they can change suppliers to get the least costly or highest quality raw materials, or the quality in between. Teachers are stuck with whoever or whatever “raw material” comes through the door,and usually have little choice over the facilities and equipment they have at hand. Not only that, but the “raw material” comes in different sizes and qualities, with different “properties.” All that doesn’t matter in the educational “business model.” The teachers are the ones held responsible.

Despite all the rhetoric and the need, often expressed by politicians, to make education more business-like, education was once actually more business-like than it is today. Teachers could flunk students. Students weren’t automatically promoted when they hadn’t learned anything. Troublesome students were expelled.

The problem with this approach was that it marginalized students from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, even intelligent students with learning disabilities. It also didn’t accommodate students who had trouble learning with the listen, read, model format of more traditional education. And, equally important, with formal education being seen more and more as the key to financial success, there were too many students failing and dropping out, and that upset too many parents.

So… U.S. education has tried to change to accommodate a wider range of students, which is commendable, even though the results often have not lived up to the expectations, and the fact that they have not has largely been blamed on the teachers.

I’d just like to point out that no business could operate profitably or effectively if it had to accept any employee who wanted a job, regardless of that individual’s intelligence, dependability, and skills, or lack of skills. Nor could most survive without control over raw material and facilities. But educators are required to do just that, and then blamed if they don’t work miracles. The real miracle is that many of them do, and most of those miracles go unrecognized because they’re merely expected.

Fiction – What’s It All About?

According to A Handbook to Literature [Sixth Edition], fiction is “narrative writing drawn from the imagination rather than from history or fact,” but because of the intrusion of personal events, history, and other factors into such narratives, the Handbook then offers an alternative definition of fiction as “any of the ways in which writing seeks to impose order on the flux of thought or experience.” From my point of view, the first definition is too narrow and the alternative meaningless.

One of the aspects of the Handbook I also found most interesting was that I could discover no definition of “literature.” “Comparative literature,” but not literature. For a textbook/handbook that is all about literature, I found that omission unfathomable. But then, in the academic and critical worlds, what narratives are considered “acceptable fiction” and what are literature are all over the place.

At two universities I was considered qualified to teach writing, and one even found me qualified to teach introductory literature and a science fiction and fantasy fiction course. A third university allowed me to teach an honors seminar on F&SF literature and writing techniques, but wouldn’t let me near “regular” literature. Another writer I know never finished an undergraduate degree, but when that writer, who has published more than twenty genre fiction books [from major publishers] largely in the romance field and won awards, went back to school, the administrators of that university insisted on the writer taking a beginning course on fiction writing.

As that example indicates, there are many universities, colleges, and scholars that contend, if almost covertly, that genre fiction can’t be literature. That’s also why I found the absence of a definition of literature in the Handbook to Literature amusing. When there’s not even a written definition of what’s included, how can you logically exclude anything?

In her 2014 acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters given by the National Book Foundation, Ursula K. LeGuin took dead aim at the fact that the corporate profit motive can be contrary to the art and truth that can lie in fiction and to the freedom necessary to express them. That’s true enough, but what often gets overlooked is that there are two other factors that can also strangle art and truth in fiction. One is sheer popularity. I have absolutely nothing against popularity. Any writer who does is a true hypocrite. But popularity has nothing to do with excellence. There are excellent books that are multi-million copy bestsellers, but damned few. Since most multi-million best-sellers range from almost terrible to fairly good, when publishers concentrate on finding and publishing primarily ginormous multi-million copy best-sellers, fiction and readers both suffer.

One of the character traits I loved about the late David Hartwell, who was my editor for 36 years before his untimely death not quite a year and a half ago, was his ability to make quite a number of good and sometimes excellent books “popular” enough that their authors could continue to be published, rather than merely seeking the best-selling and the popular. David’s editorial and marketing skills, and his mentoring of a huge percentage of editors, contributed markedly to the improvement of “literary” quality in F&SF, while still ensuring a good storyline. In a time when publishing margins are razor-thin, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to David’s legacy in this area.

The other factor that has a tendency to strangle good and great fiction is the proliferation of so-called impartial or judged awards that are essentially “insider” awards, awards given on the basis of criteria judged “great” or “vital” by a small group. No matter what any “expert” declares, there are too many ways in which writers can artistically convey great ideas, images, action, thoughts, and more for those ways to fit inside a fixed mold. Ironically, critics from both Salon and The New York Times have declared that the annual National Book Awards have become awards for insiders. There’s also a set of F&SF awards that is fact similar [and it’s not the Hugo awards, which are a straight fan popularity contest].

So… long live all kinds of fiction, especially all kinds of F&SF, because without all kinds, we won’t have the gems buried among the others.

The War Against Rational Thought

We have a President who cannot accept the fact that he lost the popular vote count and that his inauguration crowd wasn’t the largest ever. Despite innumerable scientifically proved facts, such as increasing global temperatures, the massive shrinkage and loss of glaciers world-wide, the unprecedented [in the last hundred thousand years] loss of arctic sea ice, the arrival of spring weeks earlier than any time in human history, roughly fifty percent of Americans deny that global warming is caused by human activities, even though more than 97% of the 12,000 published scientific papers since 1991 on climate change recognize that the major component of rapid global warming is human caused. The Republican Party is the only major political party in the world, including all major conservative parties, that rejects the need to address global warming.

Now, this “anti-science” attitude isn’t just a conservative problem. A recent study cited by New Scientist found that a significant proportion of liberals reject published scientific findings on vaccines, genetically modified foods, and the causes of autism.

So it appears that what scientific findings people accept or reject are determined in large part by their political leanings. The problem is, however, that when roughly half the population rejects certain scientific findings, and the other half rejects others, science and rational thought end up taking a beating.

While the much-maligned John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind,” most people, when confronted with facts that contradict their beliefs, either ignore those facts or scurry to find or invent facts to support their beliefs. Donald Trump, unfortunately, follows this practice all too often.

It’s been said that science progresses one funeral at a time, but the problem today is that we’re facing problems that need to be addressed a bit more quickly than that. Part of the problem is that we’ve become a technological world, and technology multiplies everything. Benefits become vastly greater; problems do as well; and everything moves more quickly because technology multiplies the rate of change. Yet human beings are conservative by nature and by evolution, and that conservatism means we don’t respond well to rapid change, particularly change we don’t agree with, and this means our own behavior and beliefs all too often war against rational thought.

Add to that the difficulty that humans are supreme rationalizers. There’s a quote from the movie The Big Chill about the impossibility of getting through the day without rationalizing. Unfortunately, it’s getting too late to keep rationalizing about the issues of science, not without incurring extraordinarily high costs that will be passed on to our children and their children.

Folk Wisdom?

For the past month and a half the temperature here hasn’t dropped below freezing even at night, and the high temperature has been in the high 70s [Fahrenheit] or low 80s almost every day. It’s also been not only warm, but dry, and I had to turn on the sprinklers a month ago to keep the lawn from turning to straw.

So, last week, I got to thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, I could plant my tomatoes. I don’t do gardening, except for a single modest flower bed, some perennials… and the tomatoes. The tomatoes are because my wife truly loves garden-fresh tomatoes. So we have a moderate sized tomato garden, and I thought that planting them a week or so earlier would mean they’d be ripe a week or so earlier.

When I mentioned this, she shook her head. “Not until a week after Mother’s Day. That’s the local saying.”

Ignoring that bit of folk wisdom, I made the mistake of saying, “We’re suffering global warming.”

She gave me a look that chilled the local warming, and I deferred on planting the tomatoes.

Two days after Mother’s Day, the temperature dropped 45 degrees, and it snowed on and off for two days. As I write this, it’s forecast to freeze again tonight.

But the forecast for the weekend is warm and sunny. I might plant the tomatoes early next week, more than a week after Mother’s Day.

Who Are “the People”?

This past week, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, toured two recently created National Monuments here in Utah pursuant to an Executive Order from President Trump requiring the Secretary to re-evaluate whether these areas, and 25 others, should retain National Monument status, and if so, whether their boundaries should be reduced to allow other uses of the federal lands.

“I’m here to get acquainted with the issue,” said Zinke upon his arrival. “I like going to the front lines and actually talking to people.”

But to whom did Zinke actually talk? Although Zinke said he intended to “make sure the tribes have a voice,” the Secretary had just a single one hour meeting with the tribal council, and spent perhaps another hour over his four days talking to other tribal representatives, while spending close to a day with the governor and Utah lawmakers.

The rest of Zinke’s Utah monument tour continued this way, with the Secretary spending very little time with supporters of the monument, and considerably more time with prominent monument opponents such as House Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; State Rep. Mike Noel, R; Gov. Gary Herbert, R; and San Juan County commissioners. He also refused to meet with local businesses and business groups in favor of retaining the two areas in their current status as National Monuments, groups such as the 49 members of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce who expressed unanimous opposition to downsizing the monument and who pointed out that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had actually increased local employment and commerce, contrary to all the claims by opponents that it would hurt the local economy.

And when Zinke left Utah, what did he say? He declared, “This is the first time we’ve given locals a say.”

Right! For the most part, the vast majority of those with whom he talked were Republican elected officials [remember that Utah is a one-party state, and the most conservative in the United States at present] representing business and energy interests.

According to a spokesman for Gov. Herbert’s office, the Secretary was “very much guided by the executive order itself,” which specifically required that he consider the “concerns of State, tribal, and local governments affected by a designation.”

Well, the Secretary certainly listened to the state and local government officials [all Republican], but the local tribes, businesses, environmentalists, and others supporting the national monument status definitely got short shrift.

But Zinke can claim that he talked to the locals, and I suspect that’s all that matters to him and Trump.

The Password Proposition

With the digital revolution and a world-wide economy and high-tech communications system comes a world in which more and more can be destroyed, ransomed, or stolen electronically. With an ever-greater proportion of our lives, our privacy, and our assets susceptible to hacking and electronic theft comes an almost insatiable need for passwords, and that means “strong” passwords, using upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and even a symbol or two. By the way, don’t use the same password twice, or any combination that’s easy for you to remember, because that makes it easier for the hacker.

My digital presence is likely moderate. I don’t do Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or a host of other applications. There’s the website, email, and a “few” other applications… except those few applications actually added up to another dozen… and I probably forgot a few that I seldom use. And that means fourteen unique passwords that need to be changed regularly. Right now, certain applications I regularly have to try twice, because I inadvertently type the old password, or some combination.

Because of the requirements of her job, my wife likely has twice as many passwords to remember, or write down in a hidden place. I have trouble with fourteen. I can’t imagine twice that amount. Now, I notice that at least one internet company is now offering password management and protection services, which will require most certainly just one password to access all the others, but what if the company gets hacked?

Years ago, I read a science fiction story where all the knowledge of the world was basically stored in a very secure computer but small installation, surrounded by thousands of indices needed to access it…and everything in the world crashed because access was lost. Now, that’s an oversimplification because we’ll always have hundreds if not thousands of knowledge databases… BUT…there will only be a handful monitoring the electric power grid, the New York Stock Exchange, even the computers monitoring municipal water and sewage systems… and has everyone forgotten how three tiny computer glitches in the past two years resulted in thousands of flight delays and cancelations by United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and British Airways?

What tends to get overlooked is that any password, security system or the like designed either by people or computers falls, at least theoretically, into two categories, one so secure no one can access it, or one that is at best semi-secure, where people and computers with high abilities can break in, regardless of the security. The first kind is fine until it needs to be fixed, updated, and then everything crashes. The second will always be hacked.

But, for the sake of profit and convenience, we want everything computerized, that is, until our identity is the one stolen, our company data is the data stolen or ransomwared, or our bank account the one drained.

In the meantime, be very careful with your construction of passwords, and be aware that, even if you are, computer security is still a form of Russian roulette, just with odds much more in your favor than one bullet in six being fatal. The downside of this is that when you are hacked, especially in some extreme cases, you’ll likely be so exasperated and furious that you may want to kill someone – except you’ll never be able to physically reach whoever did it, which is exactly why computer crime is soaring and will continue to do so.

Numbers… and Meaning

Everywhere I look, there are numbers, and pressure to provide numbers. Fill out this survey. Fill out another for a chance to win $1000 worth of groceries. Tell us how you liked this book. Tell us how you liked your flight. Tell us how the service was at the bank. Rate your purchase.

And that’s just the beginning. The President’s popularity is down – or up. This television program will return next season because the numerical ratings are up, that other one… so long. Advertising rates are tied to ratings as well, and because the attention spans of Americans are down, negative sensational news or quick laugh or quick action entertainment get higher numbers, and higher numbers mean higher profits.

All the stock-tracking systems show continuous numbers on public companies, the stock price by the minute, the latest P/E ratio, ratings by up to a dozen or so different services. The state of the economy is measured by the numbers of GDP or inflation by the CPI numbers [or some variant thereof] or the unemployment rate… always the numbers.

Why numbers? Because for the data to be effectively aggregated and analyzed, it has to first be quantified numerically.

All these numbers convey a sense of accuracy and authenticity, but how accurate are they? And even when they are “accurate” in their own terms, do they really convey a “true” picture?

I have grave doubts. As an author, I have access to Bookscan numbers about my sales, and, according to Bookscan, their data are 75-80% accurate. According to Bookscan, I’m only making about 25-30% of what my publisher is paying me. Now, my publisher is a good publisher, with good people, but Macmillan isn’t going to pay me for books it doesn’t sell. That, I can guarantee, and a number of other authors have made the same point. For one thing, Bookscan data represents print sales in bookstores and other venues that are point of sale outlets, which Walmart and Costco aren’t. Nor are F&SF convention booksellers, and ebook data isn’t factored in. So those “authoritative” numbers aren’t nearly as accurate as Bookscan would have one believe.

Similar problems arise in education. My wife the professor also feels inundated by numbers. There’s the pressure to retain students, because the retention and graduation numbers are “solid,” but there’s no real way to measure in terms of numbers the expertise of a singer or the ability of a music teacher to teach. And the numbers from student evaluations [as shown by more than a few studies] track more closely to a professor’s likeability and easy grading than the professor’s ability to teach singing, teaching, and actual thinking. A student switches majors because they’re not suited, and even if that student graduates in another field, the major/department in which the student began is penalized with lower “retention” numbers, which, in effect, penalizes the most demanding fields, especially demanding fields that don’t reward graduates with high paying jobs.

Yet, the more I look around, the more people seem to be relying on numbers, often without understanding what those numbers represent, or don’t represent. And there’s a real problem when decisions are made by executives or administrators or politicians who don’t understand the numbers, and from what I’ve seen, all too many of them don’t understand those numbers. We see this in the environmental field, where politicians bring snowballs into Congress and claim that there can’t be global warming, or suggest that a mere one degree rise in overall world ambient temperature is insignificant [it’s anything but insignificant, but the data and the math are too detailed for a blog post].

The unemployment numbers are another good example. The latest U.S. unemployment rate is listed at 4.5%, down from 10% in October of 2009. Supposedly, a five percent unemployment rate signifies full employment. Except… this number doesn’t include the 20% of white males aged 25-54 who’ve dropped out of the labor force. Why not? Because they’re not looking for work. If you included them, the unemployment rate would be around 17%.

Yet, as a nation, in all fields, we’re relying more and more on numbers that all too many decision-makers don’t understand… and people wonder why things don’t turn out the way they thought.

Numbers are wonderful… until they’re not.