Archive for August, 2010

But then….

Over the past several months, I’ve come across more and more reader comments about my writing along the lines of “I don’t like his writing, but I can’t stop reading him” or “he’s not that good a writer, but there’s something that makes me want to finish the series.”  While I’ll definitely accept such comments over those that begin “What the f—?” the question that comes to mind is, if I’m, such an unlikable writer or storyteller, why do those readers keep reading what I write?

Some might say that it’s to see how things turn out, but that doesn’t make much sense to me, because, while I write long “series,” I’ve never written more than three books about a given character, and these readers write about continuing to read me, as if my work happens to be an addiction that they can’t control.  From the sales point of view, that’s not totally bad, but I have to say that, in a way, it troubles me.

One reason for my unease is that I keep asking what is it about my work that is addictive enough that it compels those readers to continue against their feelings.  Or is it that they somehow feel ashamed to confess that they might actually like what I write?  Is it that I’m somehow unfashionable among certain groups – in the way that many male readers hate to confess they read romances or women that they like macho thrillers?

Then too, if I only knew exactly what it might be…. Why then, I could distill it and make millions in advertising or other fields, as opposed to a merely financially comfortable living as a writer.

Perhaps it’s because my work, especially my fantasy novels, has never been classified as deep, ponderous, and earthshaking [all right, I’ll grudgingly accept “ponderous” for a few], but neither are the books fluff, not even close to it, not if one reads all the words.    And I’d be the first to admit that, for most readers, my books aren’t exactly “light” reading, although there are some readers who clearly skim them and dismiss them as such.  It’s easy enough to tell that they do, because their comments ignore facts, traits, and events in the books in favor of a superficial gloss of the plot, and usually not all of it.  Unhappily, some of those readers are professional or semi-professional reviewers, and, as I’ve noted more than once, I tend to view sloppy and slipshod reviewers with the same distain and disgust as I do of slipshod and sloppy work in any field.

Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that readers like to be able to characterize in simple terms what they read and why they do… and the complexity beneath the surface of my books makes that difficult.  In point of fact, that’s always been one reason why I’ve never sent my editor a synopsis of any book before he reads it.  Anything short enough to be called a synopsis would be overly simplistic and misrepresentative and anything long enough to be accurate would scarcely qualify as a synopsis.

Whatever the reason, I have the feeling that such comments will continue and that I’ll continue to puzzle over them in a few of the moments when I’m not writing.

Rampant Stupidity Finally Ceases to Amaze

Last week stories appeared across the media citing the facts that not only do 18% of Americans now believe that Barrack Obama is a Muslim, but that the number of such believers has been rising.  Now… I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been pleased with some of what he’s done – or failed to do – but the fact that his middle name is of Islamic origin doesn’t make him a Muslim.  Then there are the millions that believe Obama is not a U.S. citizen – except that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961, of an American mother.  Since Hawaii became a state on August 21, 1959, he was born in a U.S. state, and, again, like it or not, that makes him a U.S. citizen.

Several other areas of “mis-knowledge” that have existed for so long that, while I still shake my head, I now know are a form of “folk stupidity” are the beliefs that “foreign aid” is a huge percentage of the federal budget or that all our deficit problems can be addressed by merely getting rid of the waste in the federal budget.  Or, for that matter, that reducing taxes will solve problems – or, on the other hand, that taxing the rich will immediately balance the federal budget.  Even a cursory look at the federal budget and outlays will show the falsity of these beliefs – beliefs that have existed for more than a generation and continue to persist.

Even supposedly intelligent members of Congress support stupid ideas – such as a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Two years ago, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service completed a cost study – and among other findings, the study showed that (1) a fence along the 700 miles most heavily crossed by illegal immigrants would cost $49 billion to build and maintain for 25 years, and (2) recently built security fences stopped immigrants in those areas, but did not change the total number of illegal border crossings because illegal immigrants simply crossed where there weren’t fences. Since the entire U.S.-Mexico border stretches some 1,952 miles, fencing the entire border would cost close to $150 billion – and wouldn’t stop the flow of illegals, not when the U.S. has over 12,000 miles of ocean coastline borders and almost 4,000 miles of borders with Canada.

History also offers an example.  The ancient Chinese built a massive wall on their northern borders – several times.  It cost tens of thousands of lives and who knows how much over scores of years – and it didn’t work, either, and that was in a time when rulers didn’t have to worry much about laws and civil rights…or immediately executing violators.

Politicians who opposed the health-care law on the grounds that the U.S. has the “best health care in the world” are pandering to another kind of stupidity – the idea that everyone else is “like us.”  Not everyone is – and that’s illustrated by the 44 million Americans without health care… and people do die because of that lack – like the forty-year-old brother of a neighbor who was turned away at the acute care center because he lacked insurance after being laid off, and who died that night of asphyxiation from a strep infection that caused severe swelling in his throat and tonsils.

Then again, most of what I’ve called stupidity isn’t really that at all – it’s a rationalization of what those people holding those beliefs want to believe. Because Obama points out that Americans who are Muslims have the right to built an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the 9/11 World Trade Center ground zero, a right reinforced by a law sponsored by that arch-conservative Orin Hatch, many of those who feel strongly, either about Obama or Islamic believers, insist to themselves that Obama must be a Muslim because they can’t conceive of any other reason for his statement.  Most Americans don’t want to believe that the vast majority of federal spending is actually spent on people here in the USA and with comparatively little outright waste [spending on dubious projects is not “waste,” just foolish].  And even the president is either pandering to that stupidity, or exercising it himself, when he claims that every American family that makes more than $250,000 is rich.  They may be well-off, but they’re certainly not rich, not when it’s difficult, if not impossible, to raise a family in what most Americans, if pressed, would consider middle-class surroundings and schools in the most expensive U.S. cities for less  than $100,000.  Yes… $250,000 is “rich”… in Plano, Texas, or Richfield, Utah, or Nampa, Idaho… but most people today live in bigger cities with higher costs of living because that’s where the jobs are.  Yet all too many Americans still think that a dollar is a dollar in value anywhere in the good old USA.  It’s not… and it hasn’t been for generations.

Stupidity…or self-serving rationalization?  Does it matter when the results lead to self-deception, hatred, pandering politicians, and poor public policies?

The Million Dollar Mistake

At the PGA golf championship earlier this month Dustin Johnson failed to read and heed the directions the PGA had posted.  That simple failure cost him between $640,000 and $1,080,000.  The “directions” were PGA instructions to all golfers that any sandy area on the course was considered a bunker or sand trap.  Letting a club touch the sand before making the shot is called grounding the club, and grounding results in a two stroke penalty.  Johnson grounded his club in a sandy area that didn’t “look like” a bunker, and the penalty took him from a tie for first to fifth place.  He might have been PGA champion, with all the extra endorsements and money that go with a win of a major championship.  Instead, he’s an also-ran.

While I’m certain Johnson regrets his failure to read and follow directions, there’s a bigger message here… and one that all too many people, students, in particular, fail to grasp.  Directions are there for a reason.  Students often ignore directions or deadlines because they “don’t see the point.”  While some directions are probably excessive and even unnecessary, the vast majority are issued for a reason, and, even if the reasons may seem stupid, often the penalty for violating the directions is severe, and certainly not worth saving a few moments by not reading those directions or ignoring them because you “know better.”

Sometimes, failure to read and heed results in significant financial loss – and Johnson’s example is just one of thousands, ranging from sports to finance, even to the terms of an ATM card, or credit card terms, or the instructions on a tax form. Or perhaps it might be students who illegally download music or copy copyrighted material.  Admittedly, many get away with it – but those who don’t face legal action and, often, financial burdens that will effectively destroy their future.  Others may get away with plagiarism through creative use of the internet – for a while – until it comes back to bite them, such as the case of former congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado who was discovered raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for writing columns that he plagiarized.

At other times, the penalties are even more severe – such as death, if one fails to heed warnings about everything from trespassing to electrocution.  Earlier this month, I was in Boise, and all the news was about a couple who had drowned while tubing because they’d ignored the warning signs posted above a seemingly gentle river spillway.  Both had been caught in a circular undertow, and neither had been wearing a life jacket.  They’d looked at the apparently gentle current swirls and ignored the warnings and the directions to leave the river and walk around the low dam that “only” dropped a few feet.  They either ignored the warnings, or they “knew better.”  They’re dead.  So are the two men who attempted to float through the slot canyons of Zion National Park on a homemade log raft without any safety gear and against posted warnings. So are… but the list is truly endless.

Think about it… especially when you “know better.”

Does Anyone Really Listen?

Last Sunday, I made a trip to the local KFC outlet for our annual fast-food fried chicken fix.  When I arrived inside, I was greeted by an enthusiastic server – male, twentyish, Caucasian, speaking unaccented Utah American, asking for my order. I told him, very distinctly, that I wanted, “Two two-piece meals, extra-crispy, each one with a wing and a breast, one with coblet and wedges, the other with wedges and macaroni and cheese.”

He immediately told me that it would be a ten minute wait for the original recipe thighs and wings.  I pointed out that I’d ordered wings and breasts.  He said that I’d still have to wait for the wings.  I pointed out that I’d ordered extra crispy, not original recipe.

All I’d said to him was my order.  I was the only customer. I was polite.  I didn’t whisper, and I didn’t yell. Why wasn’t he listening?  He wasn’t wearing IPod earphones.

One of the reasons I carry a list of my books in print with me to signings and conventions is because I’ve learned that even many readers can’t remember what I said a few minutes before.  I don’t remind them of this, not when my objective is to sell more books. I just circle the book in question on the list and hand them the paper.

My wife had to tell a clerk at a local store three times what pieces of dinnerware she wanted ordered, and then had to call back three times because the order had somehow been forgotten.

I’d like to think that these are unusual occurrences.  Unhappily, they’re not.  Every teacher in my wife’s department reports happenings like this, day after day. Students ask, “When was that due?” not three minutes after they’ve been told, sometimes when the date is also on the assignment sheet right in front of them.

On a related note, I’ve also seen at least five different reports in the media stating that rates of criminality don’t differ at all between American citizens and illegal immigrants. Yet, time and time again, I see anti-immigrant rhetoric deploring the higher crime rates of immigrants… or claims of higher crime rates in Arizona at the same time that the FBI has listed Phoenix as one of the five safest cities in the United States.  Yes… I know that certain border communities have higher crime rates… but that’s like claiming American citizens are more prone to crime because certain sections of New York City or any other large American city have high crime rates.

Has the proliferation of blackberries, Iphones, and the like resulted in acute hearing loss, or accelerated attention deficit disorder?  Impaired short-term memory loss?

Or is it because, with modern communications, we can increasingly tune out anything we don’t want to hear, immerse ourselves only in the music and news that suits us, and refuse to talk to anyone except those on our personal e-communications net?

The Media Commodification of Hate-Mongering

The past year has been a banner one for hate-mongering.  We’ve had Proposition 8 in California and all the money and rhetoric on both sides of the issue of various gay rights in California and elsewhere.  We’ve had the vitriolic debate over healthcare, and the increasingly bitter strife and arguments over immigration and illegal aliens.  We’ve had the TEA Party explosion over taxation, which has been so irrational that at times [as I’ve noted] the TEA Partiers have sunk some of their strongest and most effective legislative allies. Lurking in the background remains the bitter and often violent controversy between “pro-choice” and “right-to-life” factions over abortion.

In all of these instances, parties on all sides assert that  they’re asserting their first amendment rights of freedom of speech.  Such assertions seem to be accepted without reservation, as if this right is unlimited.  In fact, it is not.  In 1919, in Schenck v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision affirming federal law limiting freedom of speech.  In that opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., held that in wartime, conditions are such that greater restrictions on free speech are indeed constitutional, and that:

“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the  substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

Although the Congress has not declared war in the conflicts in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the United States is still engaged in the longest war in its history, and many other freedoms have been effectively curtailed.  Air travel requires in-depth search of self and belongings without any criminal intent on the part of the passenger and certainly no probable cause. Yet we not only allow, but actually support and pay for virtually unlimited hate-mongering by media personalities.  That hate-mongering stirs up civil unrest, state legislation that is most likely unconstitutional, uncivil behavior, and discrimination… and all in a time of war.

Why is this occurring? Because it’s profitable for the media outlets.  The more conflict that’s generated, the more the number of listeners increases, and the more advertising rates and revenues increase.  In effect, the media has succeeded in successfully turning hate into a paying commodity – and all too many Americans are buying it… and effectively working to destroy many of the very principles on which the nation was founded.

As I have stated before, every single person in the United States is either an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants.  Exactly what is the difference between those seeking to live in the United States and our forebears?  Some will claim that our ancestors came legally.  Some doubtless did, but many were convicts and criminals.  Others were fleeing chaos and war – just like the majority of those trying to reach the USA today.  The hate-mongers claim that the “illegal” immigrants bring more crime.  Statistics show that the rates of crime between “legal” Americans and “illegals” are almost identical.  Such facts tend to get buried in the hate-filled rhetoric.

Interestingly enough, given the magnitude of the financial melt-down and the subsequent Great Recession, we’ve had comparatively little hate-mongering against Wall Street and the financial types who perpetrated it.  Even Bernie Madoff got off comparatively lightly in the media.  Why might that be?  Could it just possibly be because the media pundits who stir up all this hate don’t want to bite [at least not too hard] the hands that pay them for all this hate-mongering?

But, of course, any suggestion that Congress consider restrictions on broadcasting hate and inciting civil unrest will immediately draw cries about how free speech can never be infringed.  Except that the Supreme Court already ruled that in times of war… it can.

We have laws against other toxic substances.  What about toxic speech?

Is Excellence Enough?

One of the problems that the “social” scientists have historically had is the lack of empirical evidence and data necessary either to support, reject, or modify their theories of human behavior. The July 24th issue of New Scientist contains a story reporting a source of such data – the internet and the world electronic communications net, both of which track large numbers of people and their behavior.

In one on-line tracking experiment involving 14,000 people, dealing with the popularity of music downloads, the researchers investigated the influence of excellence and of “popularity.”  Their results showed, unsurprisingly to me, at least, that recordings that listeners rated as good in terms of quality rarely did poorly and those rated as poor seldom did well.  But… when listeners were able to see how others rated a recording, termed “social influence,” the popularity of some “good” recordings soared, often wildly, and the popularity of “poor” recordings declined even more.  In addition, the researchers concluded that, when social influence is a factor, accidents as much as true quality determined which songs were at the top of the chart… and that herd instinct played a significant factor in amplifying the effect of those accidents.

While no research to date has apparently been published focusing on book sales, this early research on social influence tends to support my own observations – that the bottom-line requirement for success as a writer is to be able to write well.  Beyond that, how popular a writer is depends largely on crowd dynamics and social influence.

Certain writers have been able to create some of that influence through blogs and Twitter, but those who have are [sorry to say, for all their efforts] the beneficiaries of luck and timing as much as anything else, because for every writer who has been able to generate such “social influence” there are scores who’ve gone through the same steps, some offering better “quality” and some offering less, who’ve not been anywhere near as successful.  In short, “wild” success still remains a crap-shoot, but pretty much any sort of success remains dependent on at least competency in writing and story-telling.

What the research doesn’t address to date, and probably never will be able to address, even with the wealth of information on the internet, is how closely reader or listener perceptions of how good something is tracks actual excellence, given the subjectivity involved in assessing such excellence.  I’ve noticed, for example, that there’s a definite difference in reader perceptions of my books, as manifested in reader reviews, between the reviews on the Amazon Canada, the Amazon UK, and the sites.

The other question, given the growing role of “social influence” created by on-line social communities, Twitter, and by reader reviews on sites such as and, is how long excellence, as opposed to being “not terrible,” will even matter.  Certainly, in popular vocal music the overall technical quality of singers is on average far lower than it was sixty years ago, and back then the singers didn’t have the electronic “correction” technologies now available in every recording studio.  Admittedly, the performance spectacle element of pop music concerts and music videos can be awesome, and that’s not surprising, not with the ever-greater emphasis on the visual, but does this mean that manga and anime will continue to elbow out “real” books in bookstores and other book outlets?

Given the factors of excellence, visual appeal, and social influence, I’m getting the feeling that quality [not even excellence] is coming in last in determining what books are published and how well they sell.  But then, excellence has always tended to be last.  It just wasn’t that far back a century ago.

Corruption [Part II]

At one point, I wondered why the United States has less overt “corruption” and bribery than most other nations, but that was before I analyzed what corruption is and the different forms that it takes.  Although recent usage of the verb “to corrupt” tends to emphasize terms like “to pervert” or “to destroy morality” or “to debase or ruin,” the original meaning of the Latin roots means “to break thoroughly or completely.”

Governments are the institutional means by which societies accomplish common social goals and keep the peace.  In the original sense of the word, a government that cannot do either or both is thoroughly broken, i.e., corrupt.  What lies behind a society’s ability to function, as well as a government’s effectiveness, is the simple matter of trust.  If a government official cannot be trusted to do his or her job without a bribe, or in the worst cases, even after a bribe is paid, then that official is corrupt.  There’s an old definition about an “honest politician” – he’s the one who stays bribed, and there’s an element of truth to that, because that sort of “honest politician” can be trusted to carry out whatever the bribe was for.

In the United States, in this context, how much is “broken” by corruption and in what fashion is it broken?  Commentators, particularly on the left, claim that the political system has been “corrupted” by the power of special and moneyed interests, and that the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the right of corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in “public interest” campaign spending symbolizes that corruption.  Yet… is that corruption, when it is accomplished through the workings of the system society has set up?  It may not be “good,” according to those who oppose the unchecked power of money, but is it corrupt?  On the other hand, by any definition, politicians who take cash, either under or over the table, are corrupt… but what about those whose votes are determined by whose legal campaign contributions are the largest and most faithful?  Yet, compared to most countries, the U.S. has a comparatively low percentage of politicians who take bribes or illegal cash.  Does the “legal” granting of favors amount to corruption?

I’d have to say it does not, because, under the terms of that argument, answering to voters becomes a form of corruption, since the politician is taking the favor of votes in return for providing various goods to his constituents.  In essence, any legal trade-off could be called corruption.  In fact, the system works.  We may not like the results, but we have the right, and the power, to change it. In a truly corrupt nation or municipality, the people, by majority vote or act, do not have such a choice.

Why has it worked out this way in the USA? I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers to this, but I suspect it’s because our terribly convoluted and complex system offers many avenues for people to influence the outcomes of governmental decisions and because the government has historically been generally trustworthy. I would note that “trustworthy” does not necessarily mean “excellent”; it means that the government and its officials keep their word and carry out policies and rules generally as they’re laid out.  You and I may not like those laws and policies, but they carry them out.

That issue, in another sense, is what lies behind the Arizona immigration law and furor.  The people of Arizona don’t believe that the U.S. federal government can be trusted to carry out what they believe are federal responsibilities.  The problem there is that the government believes it is carrying out its responsibilities under the law. Technically, I doubt there’s much question about that, but there is an implied contract involved, which, although unwritten in more than general terms of “enemies foreign and domestic,” implies that government needs to protect people against “invasion” and loss, and the people of Arizona believe that contract is being broken.

But… is it?  And if it is, who is breaking that contract?  The government… or all those who hire illegal aliens and all those who buy the illegal drugs of the illegals’s gangs?  Is it the government that is broken. i.e., corrupt?  Or is the government taking the brunt of the blame for not addressing the “corruption” of others in the way that large segments of the population would like?

Corruption [Part I]

Corruption is, in some form or another, endemic to human societies and has been throughout history. The only question seems to be in what forms it exists and to what degree it impacts societies and individuals.

At present, the United States is facing a heated political issue over immigration, but what I find disheartening about the debate is that it is centered almost entirely on the symptoms of a larger set of problems, rather than on the problems themselves.  The estimated eleven million illegal immigrants that have flooded into the entire United States, but especially into and through the American Southwest are a problem, yes, but they’re symptoms of a far larger set of problems that the majority of individuals and politicians are ignoring with various phrases along the lines of, “We have to stop the illegal immigration and deal with it first before we can address the other problems.”

Duh!  Given that we share a border of over 2,000 miles with Mexico, there is no cost-effective and practical way to seal that border.  Doing so will require spending tens of billions of dollars erecting and manning guard towers and shooting people – or doing the equivalent with RPVs and technology.  Among other things, I really don’t like the idea of the United States, the land of the free, being reduced to creating the western equivalent of the Berlin Wall, while instituting a police state within those walls to determine who’s here “legally” and who’s not.

The second problem is that it’s still not likely to work, because the pressures that have created that massive flow of immigrants still remain and are increasing. One of those pressures, like it or not, is that a significant percentage of the Mexican government, especially on the local level, is so corrupt that the drug cartels are often considered more honest and reliable than the government. The associated problem is that the drug cartels operate one of the most profitable lines of business in the world – and the most affluent customers in the largest single national market happen to be Americans.  Because corruption in Latin America has rendered government often powerless, the various cartels are fighting for market share of the drug market there – and in parts of the American Southwest – and unlike American commercial enterprises, they’re fighting for that market share with guns and bullets.

One of the other aspects of governmental corruption is a proliferation of paperwork, regulations, etc., that cannot be surmounted except through some sort of bribery.  This makes any sort of business growth extremely difficult, and often dangerous, and without business growth the economy and people suffer.  While the United States has its share of regulations and paperwork, our form of “bribery” is a “legal” combination of bureaucrats, lawyers, and politicians [it’s more complex than this, but the extended principles still hold in the more complex reality of U.S. commerce and law].  We have more bureaucrats than we ought to have because, without them, we’ve discovered over our history, the business and moneyed interests have tended to work people into an early grave under unsafe conditions.  To combat the excessive zeal of the bureaucrats, we have attorneys.  And we have politicians, who respond to both campaign contributions and voter ire.  It’s frankly, a form of legalized bribery and interest pandering,  but it does get the job done without having every petty official demanding a bribe under the threat of shutting down a business or sending someone to jail for violating this or that minor rule.  It also tends to keep competing for consumer dollars and market share confined to the economic arena and political arenas, rather than fighting it out with guns.

The problem is that, for whatever reason, very few Latin American governments have been able to institutionalize within a legal framework the power-struggles of competing interests or to control “corruption,” and as the economic stakes get higher and higher, so does the level of violence.  Thus, given the increasing lack of safety in Mexico, the ever-increasing number of deaths and kidnappings, not to mention the lack of economic opportunity, is it any wonder that people want to leave?  And since the problems exist to some degree or another in all too many Latin America countries, what destination is the logical choice?

“Merely” building a wall won’t solve the problems.  Nor will ignoring the fact that one of the driving factors behind all this is the apparently insatiable appetite of Americans for illegal drugs.  The United States imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation in the world, the vast majority these days for drug-related offenses, and all that imprisonment doesn’t seem to have put more than a small dent in the drug trade.

So… in a very real sense, our own “drug corruption” is fueling the chaos and fighting over drug market share in Mexico and the American Southwest… which in turn fuels the pressures for immigration to the United States.  [To be continued]