Archive for August, 2008

The Accountability Distance and the Need for Regulation

The mortgage securitization debacle and the housing market meltdown illustrate a fundamental aspect of modern technological civilization: the loss of direct personal accountability that accompanies increasingly complex social, technical, and industrially-based cultures.

In a low-tech culture, if I purchase a hammer from the local smith, I know who forged it. If something goes wrong with the tool, there are essentially only two people who are accountable. Either the smith forged an inferior tool, or I used an adequate tool improperly. In such a setting, most of the time, it’s a fairly straight-forward process to determine responsibility and accountability. The same is true when cattle are grown and slaughtered in the same local village.

But… once these and almost all others processes become “industrialized,” who’s responsible when things go wrong… and how can any individual hold anyone accountable? The answer is that, without some sort of societal rules and regulations, with penalties, the individual can’t. The incredible abuses of the food processing industry in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century have been studied and documented in detail, and those abuses led to a range of government regulations and agencies… and many experts still feel that the oversight of the industry leaves much to be desired. The same problem led to environmental abuses and cities where the rivers literally caught fire… and even recently to children’s toys coated in lead paint.

Like it or not, human nature being what it is, all too many people who would not dare to shortchange their families or their neighbors face-to-face seem to have no compunctions about doing so in an industrial or technological society where they’re only a part of the process and where they are never personally held directly accountable.

In the mortgage mess, I doubt seriously that many, if any, mortgage lenders would have recommended that their institutions should keep the vast majority of the sub-prime loans that were bundled together and then sold to investors, especially not if their paychecks depended on the performance of those loans. Instead, all too many of the low-level originators were pressed, either directly or indirectly, to make as many loans as possible, because the originators had no sense of accountability, only the pressure to obtain high yields and fees.

For any society to continue to prosper, there has to be a high degree of accountability, and that accountability can either come from a societal tradition of honesty and responsibility, or from regulatory structures that force some accountability, or from a combination of both. In the end, however, regulation alone will fail, because unchecked human ingenuity and duplicity will force more and more regulations, to the point that the entire society becomes bound so tightly in bureaucracy that change and innovation become virtually impossible. On the other hand, with minimal or no regulation, and no cultural insistence on honesty and responsibility, human vices will destroy the trust and cooperation necessary to maintain a viable high-tech society.

So… any time you start complaining about those endless government regulations that seem to invade everything…you might consider why and how they developed.

Story Illusions — For the Hundredth [or so] Time!

I have been known to stand and lecture from soapboxes. I have even been known to pile soapbox upon soapbox and reinforce those soapboxes with yet other soapboxes… and I’m certainly going to reinforce that impression with what follows.

Point number one: There are no new plots. Heinlein said this almost forty years ago, and all too many readers, and even some writers, don’t understand this. There are twists on basic plots; there is window-dressing of all sorts; but the basic plots are still limited. They are: (1) the love story [all kinds of love stories]; (2) the man/woman/AI/alien who learned something; (3) the little shot who becomes a big shot [and the reverse is the classical tragedy]; and (4) the mindless adventure story [otherwise known as the video/board game or James Bond plot, although some would claim it isn’t a plot at all]. The first three plots can be combined; the fourth plot cannot be combined with anything except box office or other receipts.

Point number two: Books without plots have a strong tendency not to sell.

Point number three: The majority of readers prefer books with recognizable plots and characters that appeal to their individual tastes. Because individuals do differ in tastes, there are a number of genres, subgenres, and the like in fiction, and different authors often have differing reader bases.

Point number four: The vast majority of readers want to be entertained, and that entertainment is usually based on plot, characters, events, and structure that meet their needs. Some readers prefer their entertainment to be thought-provoking, but usually it’s only thought-provoking if they happen to agree with the author.

Point number five: Entertaining readers is not a crime; it’s not even a sin. Not entertaining them is occupational suicide, because successful writers must appeal to a certain minimum number of readers, or publishers will no longer publish and distribute their books.

There are scores of good and competent authors who are no longer published because their books did not sell. There are even authors who, editors claim, are exceptional and who do not sell commercially. But, exceptional or not, to survive, an author needs an audience.

Behind all these points is a simple overriding one. Taken in terms of a world-wide perspective [or a galactic one], there are not that many different approaches in basic structure in the books written in any given language, nor in plot. The differences lie in the skill of the writer in presenting the story… and in the receptivity of the readers.

So… when a reader or reviewer claims an author used a hackneyed plot, that’s a cop-out. All plots are hackneyed. What they’re trying to say is that they didn’t like the way the writer presented the plot, or perhaps more accurately, that the writer wasn’t successful in creating the illusion of newness or difference, at least for them… or that they really don’t know why they didn’t like the book, and opted for a convenient excuse for a reason.

There is also a certain faction among readers and reviewers that decries the “endless series” and/or “doorstopper” fantasies, yet I certainly don’t see that criticism in the cases of endless sitcoms, endless TV series, or forever dragged-out miniseries… or in other genre fiction. The only real differences are that there’s a lot more money [and special effects] in the television series… and that generally the science or the fantasy in the endless books is better. As for the criticism that “endlessness” shouldn’t apply to F&SF books… why not?

Along this line, there’s essentially no difference between an author who writes an “endless” series and one who writes the same characters, structure, and plot time after time with different character and place names and different settings. In fact, sometimes the “series” author might be the more honest one, because he or she isn’t trying to give an illusion of difference that doesn’t exist.

And… finally… readers and reviewers who complain that books whose plots and characters they have just dissected in detail are “unreadable” are either lying or don’t understand the meaning of “unreadable,” which, in turn, suggests strongly that their comments should not just be taken with a grain of salt, but that they and their comments should be interred in the salt mine.

And now… it’s time to put away the soapboxes… for at least a while.

Idealizing Mismanagement, in Reality and Fiction

Depending on whom you consult, the United States is either barely slogging along economically or already in a recession. Joblessness is way up, and housing prices in some areas have fallen more in percentage terms than they did during the great depression. And how did this all come about?

In general terms, it occurred because mortgage lenders and the largest lending and brokerage institutions in the United States, in order to maximize their own short-term profits, colluded in developing various mechanisms to take marginal or even less credit-worthy home loans, bundle them together, and then sell the securitized and combined mortgages to various institutions under the fraudulent presumption that combining lots of risky loans made them somehow less risky.

As a result, ten or the world’s largest financial institutions have lost over $275 billion, just to date, and those losses don’t include the total dismantling/acquisition of Bear-Sterns, or the billions in losses at smaller institutions. But what happened to those in charge? To date, five of those institutions, including Merrill Lynch and Citicorp, have sacked their top executives.

While the departed CEOs were presiding over this debacle, they collectively earned hundreds of millions of dollars, and when they departed, they left with millions more in severance and retirement benefits. In short, they were highly rewarded for misjudgment and incompetence. The other five CEOs also lost billions and yet they still remain in their positions.

The major U.S. automakers have continued to make and sell enormous cars, and not a one really made a significant investment in developing more efficient smaller cars and SUVs. In addition, over the last twenty years, they have paid for and mounted a continuing lobbying effort to keep Congress and EPA from requiring better mileage standards for vehicles sold in the United States. As a result, when gasoline prices soared, sales of enormous vehicles dropped, and the U.S. automakers all lost billions in the last quarter, and will lose more billions of dollars in the next. But their CEO were paid multimillion dollar salaries to preside over this fiasco. In effect, they were rewarded for failure to anticipate and react to the obvious, and worse, to pay lobbyists to mislead Congress.

This is nothing new. The same sorts of excesses and CEO “rewards” occurred during and the bursting of the “” bubble, or with Enron, or with… [fill in the blank].

I once lost a job because I listened to the people who used a product and reported to my superiors that the new product would flop miserably. Six months after I departed, the new product did indeed flop miserably, and the marketing vice-president who created the disaster retired with a very decent golden parachute. For me, the failure pushed me in the direction of writing, for which I am belatedly grateful, but for those who stayed with the company, it was the beginning of a long downhill slide from market leadership to buy-out after buy-out, until the company was less than an also-ran.

The question that strikes me about all of this is: Why do we continue to reward such mismanagement?

And my answer is that we pay CEOs and others far too much in terms of “present” profits and success and don’t build in compensation — or lack thereof — for future success or failure. Just how much of these failures would have occurred if the CEOs’ salaries were capped at a few measly million and their “rewards” were based on the company’s value and profitability five or ten years after they left or were booted? Certainly, a lot of workers’ futures are tied to the companies they work for. Why not the financial future of those who direct them?

Because I am a writer, not only my present but my future is determined by how well I write… how I do my job. But then, from what I’ve seen, all too much executive compensation, even senior administrator compensation in government and academia, is based on immediate profits, likeability, image, and charisma — and not on long-term competence. Add to that the share-holder, media, and marketplace pressure for quick and unrealistically high profits — or unrealistic “cost-effectiveness” — and you get what we’re now receiving.

Interestingly enough, in most of the futuristic SF I read, seldom do writers target this human obsession with excessive profit. It’s usually always about power and the abuse of power in controlling people, while the greatest abuse of power — seeking what the marketplace and the economy cannot support — seems to be consistently overlooked. But then, institutionalized greed just isn’t sexy enough to sell books… it just sinks economies and destroys futures, even while societies continue to reward and idealize those who practice it.

Youth, Accomplishment, and Writers

Two weeks ago, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. While I was there, I became aware of a debate, instigated, it appeared, by younger writers and readers, who, if I understand the issues, were concerned about the fact that very little recognition and not many F&SF awards were going to “younger writers,” i.e., those under forty.

Human accomplishments tend to be age-related, and how great they are at what age depends on the field, although there are certainly individual exceptions. Reputedly, very few mathematicians make their greatest mark after age 35, although recognition may lag for years. Certainly, very few athletes are world class past around age forty, Dara Torres excepted, particularly gymnasts. Opera singers tend to peak in their forties, but pop singers usually burn out their voices earlier. Finance analysts seldom remain at the top of that game past forty.

On the other hand, writers usually do not do their best work young — unless it is a single book that they never surpass, and I can only think of a handful of writers who were successful young and continued writing good work into middle age, or older. I suspect this is particularly true in F&SF because great success in the genre not only requires technical skill in writing, but the ability to create and evoke whole worlds and cultures, and usually with a mythos/rationale behind such cultures. These abilities usually require practice and a range of knowledge that spans a number of disciplines. Add to that the fact that English is a highly irregular and complex language, with the largest vocabulary of any language yet developed, and you have a profession where early mastery of skills is going to be comparatively rare.

In terms of awards in F&SF, there are essentially two kinds — those awarded through popularity, such as the Hugo and Locus awards, and those which are judged in some fashion or another, such as the World Fantasy Awards. Because popularity-based awards require that those voting know the author in some fashion, it’s rather unlikely that newer and presumably younger authors will even be nominated for such awards immediately because readers have to be aware of an author before they can vote for them, and building awareness can take years.

Juried awards, of course, are designed to reflect the judgment and experience of those selecting the awards, and they usually do. [Disclosure — I was once a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.] The judges do tend to be widely read, and they don’t tend to reward popularity, but skill in writing, which as noted above, normally does take some time to develop.

Thus, it’s neither discriminatory nor surprising that newer/younger writers are “under-represented” in terms of awards.

On a side note, I was unaware, until I read The Economist last week, that Barrack Obama had written two autobiographies. When I mentioned that to a group of people, one immediately replied, “What has any politician, especially one in his forties, done that merits even one autobiography?”

While the comment was somewhat flippant, it also bears a certain truth, and that truth is, alas, at variance with both perception and human desire. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the protagonists is a woman vice-president of a railroad. Years ago, my father noted, acerbically, “No railroad has ever had a 32 year old vice president, let alone a woman.” So far as I’ve been able to ascertain, he was right, both for practical and cultural reasons.

Because of the underlying requirements for accomplishment in the creative, economic, and political worlds, while there will always be a handful of youthful standouts, the majority of solid and lasting achievements will, in fact, be based on experience and expertise developed over time, a fact that those who are young have always chafed against, and, I suspect, always will.

Reason, Logic, and Null-A

In one of the latest editions of New Scientist, there are something like seven articles which purport to give rationales as to why people don’t like “reason.” While I firmly believe that both “reason” and “logic,” particularly as applied in our society today, are severely flawed, what I found interesting about the New Scientist commentaries was how shallow most of them were.

Over sixty years ago, A.E. VanVogt wrote The World of Null-A, in which he postulated an alternative means of thinking, called “Null-A,” which rejected Aristotelian logic. Van Vogt’s premise was essentially that straight-line Aristotelian logic was inadequate for a complex technological society. Insofar as the book goes, describing his system is largely avoided, except in describing it as something like, as I recall, “multi-valued logic,” which is employed by the protagonist with the equivalent of two brains.

Weak as his written support for his concept may have been, Van Vogt was on to something.

The overriding problem with the use of logic and reason in a modern technological society is that, simply put, they often don’t work. Oh, lawyers, business theoreticians, and all of the practitioners of “applied” logic and reason can prove quite logically why their theories and approaches work. But while that may justify the theories to their developers and implementers, that doesn’t make the “business model” and all the other theories any more accurate.

The problem lies in human beings. We’re complex creatures who take in a vast range of sensory, physical, and intellectual inputs. But not all of those inputs can be quantified in mathematical or logical terms or outputs. That’s why so-called intuition — perhaps better described as conscious/subconscious integration of multiple inputs — often beats the models cold… IF that intuition is from someone who actually has enough data and experience. I suspect this was what Van Vogt was trying to explain or show through his novelizations.

But… even when someone who doesn’t have such a background comes across “cold logic” models, they often reject the conclusions because they don’t feel right.

To my mind, this is the “problem with reason” — that the verbal and mathematical terms used restrict the discussion or argument to those facts or processes which can in fact be reduced to quantification in a meaningful way… and all too often they can’t be.

Yet, surprisingly, not a single one of the distinguished authors seemed to want to touch this aspect of “reason” … although a science fiction author raised the issue sixty-three years ago.

The Future Problem of "More"

Prosperity in modern industrial society is absolutely and economically linked to “more,” more production of goods, more use of services, higher levels of profits, and so forth. And when “more” is not forthcoming, the problems begin. For example, due to the higher prices of gasoline, Americans have cut back on driving by more than 40 billion miles over the past year, and by almost 4% last May. That meant they bought less gasoline, and lower gasoline sales meant fewer tax revenues, and for the first time ever, tax revenues that go to the Highway Trust Fund will be more than $5 billion less than projected federal spending on construction, maintenance and repairs in the coming year, resulting in either cutbacks in maintenance [already well-behind replacement requirements] or an addition to the already burgeoning federal debt. Consumers are cutting back on purchases, resulting in layoffs in all manner of industrial areas. Even nail salons are seeing less business. Housing sales have dropped to something like a quarter of what they were last year at this time, and it appears likely that more than a million construction workers are no longer working in that area. It’s very likely that these cuts in employment and earnings will also create more of a drain on Social Security revenues.

All the various policy remedies being suggested are variations on getting more funds into the hands of consumers and creating a climate of opinion that will encourage them to spend those funds in order to maintain a demand that will support the production of “more.”

In short, if economic prosperity depends on producing “more,” what happens when we either can’t physically produce more, or when we can’t afford to buy more in order to pay for producing more? Is there any way to maintain economic prosperity without always having to produce more? Or do we as humans instinctively define prosperity in terms of “more?”

Certainly, there’s a general sense of rejection of life as a zero-sum game, where, for everyone who succeeds or exceeds the societal average in terms of income, accumulation of resources, or prestige and power, there are others who fail and fall below the “average.” That rejection, however, is based on the experience of the post-Renaissance era, where, in the industrialized world, at least, the ability to produce goods and services on a scale always exceeding past years created the impression that a continual supply of “more” was not only possible, but a societal right.

But is production of “more” possible on a global and sustained basis? Even if it is, for a time, is it a “right?”

And… since science fiction is supposed to explore the future, why haven’t more novelists taken on this challenge? Or taken it on without falling back on a government-controlled or tradition-bound solution [as in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed]. Is there a practical and politically acceptable economic and technical approach to maintaining prosperity? Or are humans hard-wired into “more” as the definition of prosperity?

What are the implications if one society insists on “more” and another insists on “balance?” Is that the resource equivalent of Heinlein’s observation in Starship Troopers that peace achieved through pacificism is impossible because any culture that practices it will soon be wiped out by those who don’t?

Future Scam: Cost-Saving for "Them"

For what seemed the millionth time, I opened a bill and was confronted with the invitation to “go paperless.” Instead of tracking down the idiots and fraudsters who generated the idea and assassinating them, which would prove an endless chore, given how many institutions have bought into this sham, I decided to write this blog. Going “paperless” is NOT cost-saving, space-spacing, or time-saving for most of us; it is cost-saving, space-saving, and time-saving for all of the institutions who promulgate the idea.

Of course, they don’t want to print out monthly statements for hundreds or thousands of customers. Nor do they want to pay to mail them out. Instead, they want to maintain an electronic database that they already have, and they want you and me and all the other customers to spend our time and electricity to access the data and print out what we need. In practice, this is known as “cost-shifting.” “Going paperless” shifts costs and time from them to me and you.

Because writing is my business, I need receipts and documents, both to compile my taxes and to retain as “evidence” should I ever be audited. So when my bank cheerfully informs me that no longer can I get back canceled checks, but only miniature photocopies, which take a microscope to read, this is anything but time-saving or efficient for me, and because they’re printed on both sides of the paper, I end up having to make copies just to be able to sort things into the right folders. Of course, I could purchase some electronic bookkeeping system. But I once had one of those systems and, guess what, it took more time and effort to use and maintain it than to simply keep a set of file folders… and I still need the documentary evidence anyway.

Just the other day my wife received a frantic email from the editor of a scholastic publication to whom she had submitted a report. The editor’s computer had crashed, wiping out everything, and for some reason, so had the back-up. This is far from the first time these sorts of events have occurred, but the frequency is far greater in the electronic age than it ever was in the typewriter age. And that puts a greater burden on the author… in this case, my wife.

In the past three years, I’ve had three credit cards canceled and re-issued by financial institutions, not because I lost a card or had one stolen, but because someone had hacked into or compromised the institution’s systems or databases. Of course, this probability, backed by experience, means we carry more credit cards than we need, which increases our costs and potential exposure.

And as for the vaunted savings and efficiency provided by the electronic age… they’re vastly overstated, and the costs are vastly understated. The internet is highly useful for people and professions who need one discrete piece of information at a time and sometimes for those who belong to corporations and institutions who can afford and pay for access to all the various data-bases extent. But, for the rest of us, trying to find detailed, in depth information on the net without paying a fortune is an exercise in frustration and exasperation. Also, if you have to compare, charts, statistics, and the like, you end up having to print them out because you can’t [not on any system I know] call all of them up and put them side by side on the screen.

For most names, I can find out general information more quickly and with less exasperation by picking up my handy Wordsworth Dictionary of Biography [$2.50 at Half-Price Books] than Googling it. The same is true in a number of other areas… which is why I have a short shelf of quick reference books close to the computer.

But it’s not just in information. Take gasoline stations. When I was very young, and even when I started driving, they were known as service stations. You drove in, and an attendant pumped the gas, washed the windows, even checked the oil. Now… we do it all, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have reduced the costs.

Today the majority of “restaurants” are fast-food based, and the customers wait in line, carry their food to their table, gather their own straws, napkins, and necessary utensils, and presumably dispose of their waste, thereby transferring costs from the provider to the customer. The same principle applies to “big-box” stores as well.

Another example is telephone information. It used to be free. Now, most local service providers charge the customer to find telephone numbers that aren’t listed or are in distant cities. Think about it. We pay for the service, and then we pay again to find the number we’re going to call, for which we’ll be charged a third time.

These changes haven’t come overnight. They’ve crept into society, bit by bit, but they all have one thing in common, they shift time and costs from those providing goods and services to those paying for and receiving them… and Americans wonder why they have less time than ever before?

That’s because, and in the name of so-called convenience, we’ve allowed ourselves to become the unpaid employees of others… and while each little bit of service we do isn’t much, the sum total is anything but insignificant.

[Dis]Economies of Scale and the Future

Many long years ago, a political science professor educated me to the law he termed the “revolution of rising aspirations.” By that, he meant that once people learned what was possible, they always wanted more. Once they had a bicycle, so to speak, they wanted a motor scooter, and then a car, and then two. The downside of rising aspirations is that, being aspirations, they’re insatiable. No matter how much most people have, they always aspire to more.

This tends to create problems in a modern industrial society, especially when combined with a mass-production society and “economies of scale,” where the more of a good is produced, the lower the unit cost [up to the limit of the equipment], and the more profit per unit [again, up to the limit of the equipment and assuming you can sell that many]. This structure leads to decisions that are often uneconomic for society as a whole as well as inappropriate.

Take hamburgers. A fast food restaurant must pay for the building, the equipment, the insurance, and the staff before it sells a single hamburger. And there’s very little difference in staff time and effort between creating a single patty hamburger and a triple colossal cheeseburger deluxe. Likewise the difference in the costs of ingredients is not nearly so great as the difference in the prices that the restaurant can charge. So… in terms of profits and pricing, the restaurant has every incentive possible to maximize the sale of its most expensive — and most caloric — burgers. Is this to the advantage of the health of the consumer? Is it the best use of resources overall for society? I’d say not, but it does maximize profits, and that’s the bottom line.

Now… apply that same model to automobiles. For years, everyone associated with the automotive field has known that “big” cars and SUVs had sometimes twice the profit of smaller and more efficient automobiles. Americans could get “more car for each dollar” spent on a large vehicle, and so long as fuel prices stayed low, the operational costs didn’t dissuade them, and the automakers made higher profits. As a practical matter, not everyone needs a three-ton SUV to commute one person to work, but the short-term profit motive, low gasoline prices, and production economies of scale resulted in American manufacturers concentrating on “big” cars. Then when the 1970s gasoline crunch and high prices came along, they were anything but prepared… and they lost market share, most of which they never regained even when big cars became popular again. Now, with the latest gas crunch, the gas-guzzlers are sitting on the dealer lots, and Ford has posted a quarterly loss of close to nine billion dollars, and Toyota looks poised to become the largest automobile manufacturer in the world.

Because people aspire to more, they want bigger hamburgers, bigger or more luxurious vehicles, and since bigger is easier and more profitable in an “industrial” economy than truly better or what is appropriate, more and more resources get wasted, because “economies of scale” don’t allow for great diversification. Yes, you can get a car in a range of colors, and trims, and limited and set accessories. Try getting a four-door, four-wheel drive, fuel-efficient, moderate-sized SUV with a stick shift. You can’t, not in the good old USA. That’s because economies of scale aren’t all that economical in meeting anything more than cosmetic ranges of choice. They’re a form of one-size-fits-all with cosmetic cover, and that’s not suitable for the future.

Why? Because over time, one size does not fit all needs and requirements — except maximizing profits. It’s also wasteful and inefficient in terms of resources, and those who espouse the approach are ignoring the growing problems facing the world today created by the unrecognized conflict between “economies of scale,” the revolution of rising aspirations, and the law of appropriateness.

For years, my wife has been irritated with various educational bureaucrats and politicians who mandate broad and sweeping policies and laws that are highly inappropriate to what she does. I’ve seen the same thing occur time and time again in environmental and economic regulations and in corporate planning. And most of it arises from trying to fit everything into the same mold, or as my wife puts it, failing to understand that “one size does not fit all.”

When an educational bureaucrat decrees that all classes taught in a university must have the same cost/credit hour efficiency, he demonstrates that fallacy of assuming one size fits all. Science classes need more equipment, and that’s more costly per credit hour than lecture classes in literature or economics or political science… or business. Many music classes require one-on-one instruction. They can’t be taught effectively any other way, and that’s “inefficient” because it doesn’t fit the old industrial/business model of economies of scale.

In nature, evolution has demonstrated over millions of years that there is an “appropriate” size for every ecological niche. If a predator gets too big for its prey, it becomes extinct. Prey that’s too large or too slow does as well. In nature, one size does not fit all, nor do aspirations that exceed one’s abilities.

Those are lessons that an intelligent species should learn, but will we?