Archive for August, 2009

Symptoms of Decline?

Recent studies on brain functions and learning have determined that learning associated with increased brain function is largely dependent on three factors: concentration, difficulty, and leaving one’s “comfort zone.” The first makes perfect sense and certainly is nothing new or unanticipated. If you don’t concentrate on learning — whether facts, concepts, or new skills — you won’t learn them, plain and simple.

The second factor is a little trickier. If what you’re trying to learn is simple, you may learn it, but it won’t improve brain functioning. If it’s so difficult that you can’t even begin to understand, you won’t learn or improve brain functions, either. The optimum for learning and increasing brain function and neuron creation is trying to learn something that is very difficult for you, and at the edge of your ability, but still possible.

The third factor is that for actual learning to take place, you have to consider factors and facts that move you outside your “comfort zone,” possibly to consider other viewpoints or facts that you might otherwise reject and to examine them open-mindedly, and not with a view merely to dismiss or discredit them.

Now… what do these findings have to do with “decline,” as indicated in the blog title?

First… concentration. The growth of the computer and video culture has resulted in a generation that is having an increasingly difficult time concentrating on a single subject for any appreciative length of time. In addition, all too many schools, particularly in the lower grades, are pandering to this decreased attention span by switching subjects more frequently. Any subject — or book — that requires time and effort to master, particularly if not filled with action or gee-whiz amazing facts, is termed “boring.” Unfortunately, a great many basics of any culture and civilization could be termed boring, yet mastery of many is vital to maintain civilization and technology. Perfection in engineering requires painstaking and often tedious work, but without it, equipment, bridges, highways, and buildings all can fail… with catastrophic results, as we have been recently reminded.

Second… difficulty. Because of the “every child is wonderful” syndrome permeating U.S. culture, there’s also an increasing tendency to praise young students rather than to challenge them to the limits of their ability. There’s also a tendency to limit challenges in the classroom because it will hurt the “self-esteem” of less talented or less motivated students. While many private schools and some charter schools are not falling into this trap, all too many other schools are… and since future learning patterns are set by early learning patterns, all too many children are not only not learning, but they’re not learning how to learn.

Third… comfort zones. Our entire high-tech communication and learning systems are designed and operated to allow people to maximize remaining inside their comfort zones. Pick only the friends you want. Talk to them on your cellphone, and ignore anyone else. Pick only the music you want, and isolate yourself with your earphones. Watch only the news that caters to your biases. Study at your own pace, never under pressure. This also translates, more and more, into behavior patterns where people listen less and less to those with whom they disagree, while becoming more and more intolerant of differences. We can see this playing out in our political discourse daily.

I’ve talked to scores of teachers over the past few years, from all over the country, and most of those I’ve talked to agree that, while students are certainly as intelligent, if not more so, than their parents, a majority of them have difficulty learning anything that challenges them. They especially have difficulty in transferring skills learned in one discipline to another, or even learning from their own mistakes in writing one paper and applying what they should have learned from those mistakes to the next paper.

At a time when we live in the most complex and high-tech societies in history, the ability to learn and to keep learning becomes more and more important, and even as we have discovered what is necessary to enhance and improve that ability, as a society we’re turning away from the kind of education and discipline necessary. Almost fifty years ago, in The Joy Makers, James Gunn postulated a future society where everyone eventually retreated into their own comfortable self-reality bubble, blissfully unaware that the machines that maintained them would eventually fail and unable to comprehend that, let alone develop the expertise to continue society.

Is that where we’re headed?

Customer Service?

While I’ve often bristled, especially as an author, at the slogan “the customer is always right,” perhaps because I don’t think that fiction should be totally consumer driven on all levels and that authors should make efforts to elevate their readers’ understanding, there’s definitely more than a grain of truth to the adage. It also invites a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in the business community.

In the previous blog, I noted how certain products often aren’t available because the re-sellers are actually selling space and not the product per se. In this instance, customer service clearly takes a back seat to other considerations, i.e., maximizing profit rather than customer satisfaction. While I’m the first to understand that those businesses that don’t make a profit won’t remain in operation long, I have trouble when they also talk about their commitment to the customer. The other day, my wife found a product that she really liked, from a company that was sending her a similar type of product. She liked the new product much better, but when she called to change her monthly order, the company representative told her that they couldn’t change her order, that the “new” product couldn’t be shipped under the old program. My wife’s reaction? She canceled the old order and now buys the new product from a local merchant. Her total spending for products from that company is less, and she probably would have continued to buy more if the company had been more accommodating.

There’s another firm that has a slogan along the lines of “we haven’t forgotten who keeps us in business.” I don’t patronize them very much any more — except when I absolutely have to — because they tack fees onto everything and at every turn. And I’m getting more and more irritated at the airlines for all their fees for everything. I often travel long distances, and given what I do and how I do it, it’s simply not possible to cram all the handouts, press packages, and the clothes into a carry-on. So I have to collect more paper [for the IRS, to document more expenses] that I’ve lost more than once, which costs some money over the course of the year. Then, there’s the boarding pass/baggage routing problem. Because of where I live, there are often considerable layovers, and the computers won’t issue a bag tag if too many hours elapse between first take-off and last take-off. That means I have to program extra time into things so that some overworked airline clerk can laboriously override the computer and make sure my baggage tags are printed to the right destination.

I could go on and on… with example after example, but the point behind all of this is that all too often the slogan or the idea of customer service comes far down the line of business priorities — and yet all too many companies tout it, some of which provide very little of either customer consideration or service. I understand that there are other business considerations, but if there are, I’d really appreciate it if companies in such a position weren’t so fawningly hypocritical… and I suspect I’m probably not the only one who feels that way.

But then, if the ad or the internet says that they really serve customers, it has to be true, doesn’t it?

About that "Gaffe"…?

To begin with, let me preface what follows with several disclaimers. First, I am a registered Republican and have been my entire adult life, even serving in the Reagan Administration. Second, I’m what one might call a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” and more than a little disenchanted with and appalled by the current Republican “leadership” — which can be better described as “followership of the far right.” Third, I have six very professional daughters and an extremely successful professional wife.

All that said, I’m absolutely disgusted with the media and all the pundits who have hounded and pounced on Hillary Clinton because she questioned an inquiry about what “President Clinton” thought and pointed out that she was the secretary of state, not her husband. Media talking head after media talking head has claimed that this was a gaffe, carelessness, a serious mistake, etc., and even blamed her for distracting from the great health care debate.

Telling the truth — a serious mistake? Are we still mired in the mindset of 1890 where a woman’s opinion means less than her husband’s? Where, when a woman points out the blatantly obvious, it’s a gaffe and a mistake? Where a woman is not allowed to show a certain irritation with such a question? Where an honest response is immediately attributed to being “over-tired”?

The media reaction demonstrates, once again, that even the so-called liberal media, who flaunt their liberalism and their supposed lack of bias, are still imbued with a “liberal” amount of male chauvinism, and some of those who exhibit it are unfortunately women. Yes, the “liberal media” tended to champion Barrack Obama in the last election, but looking at history reveals another story. Black men received the right to vote — however hemmed in that right was by wide-spread prejudice, narrow-minded custom, and outright lawlessness — before women did, and the supposedly more liberal political party of the United States just one year ago decided that a black man was preferable to a white woman as the party nominee for president. The amount of criticism faced by now-Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor in her confirmation process emphasized as much the fact that she was a woman as a Latino, although the feminine aspect was clouded by almost always linking “Latino” and “woman.”

Should it be surprising that women may not reach the same decisions under law as do men, even when they have the same education? We are all products of our backgrounds, genders, educations, and experience. While I don’t agree with all the decisions rendered by Justice Sotomayor, frankly, I don’t agree with all the decisions made by other Justices, either. That divergence of opinion is exactly why the Founding Fathers created a Supreme Court with nine members, not one, or a lesser number, so that differing views could indeed be factored into interpreting the law.[Note: I stand corrected. The original number of justices was five, and then varied from six to five to ten until 1869, when it was fixed at nine, although Franklin Roosevelt tried to add more justices.] And why, exactly, are the decisions made by men automatically assumed to be correct? After all, it was nine men who once affirmed the “constitutional legality” of segregation in Plessy vs. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision that affirmed segregation and stood almost sixty years in error, a decision by a Court that has had exactly two black jurists and three women in its entire history.

Both history and the events of the past few weeks point out, once again, just how deeply male chauvinism remains embedded in even the supposedly most “liberal” institutions in this, the self-proclaimed land of the free. And the fact that I seem to be one of the few pointing it out is even more depressing.

Another Failure of the Market System?

As at least one result of last year’s and this year’s financial meltdown, economists and politicians are back to debating the relative merits of “free markets” versus “regulated markets,” and everyone has a different idea of how much, if any, regulation is required for a given sub-market, i.e., securities, mortgages, housing, health care, etc.

One of the problems with these kinds of debates is that often the debaters aren’t actually debating what they think they are. What do I mean by this? I’ll give you a very prosaic example. On a Tuesday, in mid-day, I went into a food retail giant — WalMart. Among the items I was seeking were a particular brand of non-allergenic shaving gel and a variety of cat food. I’m particular about the shaving gel because I have sensitive skin, not that the brand that works best for me is either more or less expensive; it’s priced the same as the others by that company, presumably because the base is the same, and all that differs is the additives, or the lack thereof. The cat food is also standard, neither more nor less expensive than the others, and since my cats prefer it to all others, many of which they turn their noses up at, I buy that brand.

When I got to the shaving gel shelf, there were no cans of my variety. Every other variety — except the one I wanted — was stacked to overflowing. This is far from the first time this has happened. It’s so frequent that I usually buy two, and often pick up some when I don’t even need any. Needless to say, the same was true of the cat food… and that was nothing new, either. I’ve seen the exact same thing happen year after year with other items, as well as these products, in other grocery chains. Now… in a truly “rational” market, why would a retail seller have the shelves filled with items that don’t sell and continually sell out of those that do without restocking more frequently? For two reasons. First, in most grocery chains, we’re not talking about the sale of product, but the “lease” of shelf space to the manufacturer, who clearly puts a higher premium on trying to sell a wider range of products than in maximizing profit from a best selling item. Second, customer product preferences often vary from store to store, or region to region, and many manufacturer clearly must believe that the cost of maximizing sales of a given consumer product on a store-by-store or even a regional basis is less profitable than adopting a standard shelf-stocking model.

This has been a problem for F&SF sales in the big-box stores, because, depending on locale, F&SF sales can be the largest fiction seller in a store… or the worst, and sometimes that depends on as little as whether the section manager, or even one employee, is enthusiastic about a given genre. But again, the primary consideration for some booksellers isn’t necessarily maximizing sales, but minimizing costs. Of course, if you don’t sell enough books, or anything else, minimizing costs merely prolongs the time before you have to declare bankruptcy — which has been one of the problems, in my opinion, facing Borders.

In terms of healthcare, similar questions arise. One question that many, many women raise is why so many healthcare plans stint on things like birth control and preventative care, while paying for erectile dysfunction drugs and expensive heart procedures for older white males? Is it because health plans are run largely by men with those priorities or because there’s a wealthy section of the health-care marketplace, albeit through generous insurance plans, willing and able to pay for those health services? Or are there other economic reasons?

The biggest reason for the housing and financial services meltdown lay in the fact that there was a far greater profit margin — short-term, to be sure — in selling houses — and mortgages — to borderline homeowners than in servicing honest and reliable homeowners.

All of this leads back to one question: Rational and profitable economic behavior for whom… and at what cost to everyone else?

Free… Oh Really?

For the past several years, I’ve been running across a mantra, or slogan, along the lines of “knowledge wants to be free.” This is complete bullshit. Knowledge isn’t an entity; it’s a compilation of data, information, insights, and the like. What the simplistic slogan means is that people want knowledge, information, and entertainment to be free, and many, if not most of them, will pirate songs, stories, e-books, and the like under the excuse that those who create it are already making exorbitant profits… or that it’s somehow their right to have such “knowledge” without paying for it. Now… we have a rationalization of this in book form.

A gentleman by the name of Chris Anderson recently released a book entitled Free, which I have not read, but which, according to interviews and commentary, which I have read, makes the point that the internet is the marketing model of the future, where content is free, because that’s what people want. I’ll agree with half of that. People always want good things for less than they cost, but a great deal of what’s free really isn’t. In fact, most of it isn’t. It’s paid for in other ways.

Take this blog. Whoever reads it gets the contents without charge, but it didn’t come for nothing. Tor paid for the design and pays for the servers on which it is hosted, as well as for the technical people who put on the artwork and book covers. I write the text, questions, schedules, and news, and no one pays me. The hope is, of course, that both Tor and I will be repaid by readers who go out and buy more books. But free, in the sense of costing nothing, it’s not.

Mr. Anderson also apparently believes that whatever appears on the web should be free and that whoever creates it should profit, as do some musical groups, apparently, by sales of tickets to live events and selling merchandise. This may be fine if one has other merchandise to sell, but if one’s livelihood is gained from people buying intellectual property, one has to limit what one provides for free. I can provide economic, political, and fiction-related insights here for free, because I have fictional “merchandise” to sell through online and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Other writers, I have to admit, are far better at this than I am. But what of editorial writers? What will happen to that profession if news goes entirely on-line for “free”? Or musicians and songwriters? We’re already seeing a dwindling of truly professional smaller musical groups, the kinds that actually could grub out a living by touring small clubs across the nation. In fact, I recently read that some clubs are now actually charging the musicians, rather than paying them. Is this because something like 90% of the “recorded” music out there is either “free” or pirated? Or because the smaller groups can’t effectively use the “free” aspect of the internet to promote money-generating concerts that will repay the costs of providing “free” services? In a related aspect, my wife the singer and opera professor has noted that the cost of sheet music has skyrocketed because singers and students are buying far less because they can copy it easily… and consequently, the music for more and more songs and operas is out of print, because those songs and operas are less popular and sales won’t pay for even the printing costs.

In addition to these questions, there’s another one, and to me, it’s far more troubling. It’s the idea that worthwhile services — whether insights, music, or entertainment — should be marketed as “free,” because they’re not. They’re paid for indirectly and in other ways, either by advertisers, or subsidized by the sale or other goods and services, and often the user/consumer has no way of knowing who or what is behind anything. Some “free” providers are very up-front, as am I in offering this blog to interest readers in my books. But how many people know how many hundreds of millions of dollars Google has poured into YouTube? Or even who all the other providers of “free” stuff happen to be, and what their agendas might be?

To me, the disguised “free” content idea is just another way in which social institutions end up separating responsibility and accountability from making money. The concept of “free” is also intellectually dishonest… but… all that “stuff” is free, and that excuses everything… doesn’t it?