Archive for November, 2010

Data, Knowledge, and Wisdom

The   November 20th edition of The Economist features an observation on the growth of data surrounding purchases of bonds, stocks, derivatives, etc. The article notes that since the founding of the Centre for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago in 1960, initially funded by Merrill Lynch, the number of academic economic journals dealing with, analyzing, or providing such data has grown from 80 then to over 800 today.

Yet some economists, such as Robert Shiller of Yale University, according to The Economist, dispute the value of such information, noting that even with all the proliferation of data, no one can explain the market melt-down of two years ago.  Others dispute Shiller, pointing out that the market demand for such information proves its value.

In my view, they’re both right, because each is talking about a different aspect of the information.  Shiller is talking about understanding how the securities markets actually work, especially in times when markets perform “abnormally,” while all those who want more and more data are talking about how valuable they find it in making money through trading.

Combine all that data with sophisticated trend analysis and you get knowledge that can make a great deal of money, generally always in short-run situations, but what all that data won’t tell you is when something basic is going to change, and change abruptly.  And those who mine the data are more than happy to be able to use that data 99% of the time to make piles of money. As for the one percent of the time that they’re wrong… well… everything they’ve made the rest of the time covers that – for them.  What their profits don’t do is remedy the vast economic damage that ripples through the economy when one of those unforeseen market meltdowns occurs.

The problem with the computerized use of all this securities market data is that, because it works so well so much of the time for those with the resources to exploit it, there’s little incentive to fund or look into basic research in the field.  In addition, the economists who do all the short-term analysis are, according to Professor Shiller, “idiot savants, who get a sense of authority from work that contains lots of data.”   Again, the problem is that the focus on daily market economics stresses immediate returns to the detriment of long-term understanding… or wisdom, if you will.

And what else is new?

Black Friday

Today is “black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving when supposedly the Christmas shopping madness seizes the American people and drives them into a frenzy of buying for themselves and others.  While the term “Black Friday” was used at least as far back as 1869, it originally referred to financial crises, but at some point in the mid-1970s, newspapers and media began referring to the day after Thanksgiving as an indicator of what merchants were likely to be “in the black,” or profitable, because of the Christmas buying season. After a time, and particularly in the last decade, this meaning of “black Friday” has usurped all others.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this usage, and especially with the implications behind it.  Because everyone seems to want to concentrate on the economic side, I’ll begin there.  First, the idea of “black Friday” emphasizes consumer buying and consumption as the primary measure of U.S. economic power and success, at a time when the majority of the goods consumed come from other countries.  Second, it ties expectations to a given day of the year. In addition, it creates a mindset that suggests, if a retail business’s holiday revenues are not substantial, then there’s something wrong.  While that may be true for seasonal goods, not all consumer products are seasonal.

Beyond those reasons are the ethical ones.  Do we really want to continue to push the idea of consumer spending as the only – or even the principal – way to keep the economy going, particularly at a time when our entire societal infrastructure, from roads to bridges, to financial structures, to the electrical grid, among others, need rebuilding or total re-structuring?  At a time when Americans, with something like five percent of the world’s population, already consume 25% of its annual output?  Do we want to create a mindset that emphasizes consumption at a time when so many people are struggling to make ends meet?

Then there’s the purely practical question of whether it’s a good idea to emphasize consumption – most of it temporary in nature – when those goods are largely produced overseas, while neglecting building and using capital goods that will generate jobs in the United States.

Black Friday – an economic success or a societal disaster?

More on Poetry

As some readers may know, my wife is a professional singer who is also a professor of voice and opera.  Among her many duties is that of teaching aspiring classical singers diction and literature.  One notable type of song literature required of these students is that of “art song,” and a significant percentage of art song consists of poetry set to music by composers.  Various forms of art song, if called by different names, have been composed in many languages, although classical singers usually begin by learning art songs in English, French, German, and Italian.

Earlier this semester, my wife was beginning the section on American and English art song, and out of a class of fifteen students, she found that what they had read in high school appeared to be limited to a bit of Chaucer and Shakespeare, along with Emily Dickinson, and perhaps T.S. Eliot.

None of the students had learned any poetry by such greats as John Milton, William Blake, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Yeats, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rosetti., Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, A.E. Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Amy Lowell. In fact, none of them even appeared to have read Robert Frost. Moreover, none of them could actually read verse, except in a halting monotone.  This lack of background in poetry puts them at a severe disadvantage, because these are the poets whose words have been put to music in art song and even in choral works.

These were not disadvantaged students. They came out of high school with good grades and good standardized test scores.  Yet they know essentially very little about the historical written arts of their own native language.  In turn, this lack shows up in their narrowness of word usage, metaphor, and general weakness in both oral and written expression. Whether it’s related or not, it does appear that there’s also a correlation between the loss of  solid English instruction and the growth of such phrases as “you know”; “I mean”; “like…dude”; and scores of other meaningless phrases used to cover lack of even semi-precise expressiveness.

Bring back the great old poets… all of them.

Bookstores, Literacy… and Economics

Although I was surrounded by books growing up, I can’t recall ever going to a bookstore to obtain a book until I was in college.  I was a frequent visitor to the local library, and there were the paperback SF novels my mother picked up at the local drugstore, but bookstores weren’t really a part of my orbit, and their absence didn’t seem to affect my voracious reading habit.  As an author, however, I’ve become very aware of bookstores, and over the past twenty years, I’ve entered over a thousand different bookstores, in forty-two of the fifty states, over 120 in the space of three weeks on one tour.  And because I was once an economist I kept track of the numbers and various other economics-related aspects of those bookstores.

The conclusion?  Well… there are many, but the one that concerns me the most are the changes in bookselling and where books can be obtained and what those changes mean for the future functional literacy of the United States.

When I first became a published novelist thirty years ago, for example, the vast majority of malls had small bookstores, usually a Waldenbooks or a B. Dalton, often two of them, one at each end of the mall, or perhaps a Brentano’s or another chain. And I was very much aware of them, because I spent more times in malls than I really wanted to, which is something that occurs when one has pre-teen and teenaged daughters.  According to the statistics, at that time, there were over 1500 Waldenbooks in malls nationwide, and hundreds of B. Daltons, not to mention all the other smaller bookstores. Today, the number of Waldenbooks stores totals less than 200 hundred, and the majority of those were closed because Borders Books, the present parent company of Waldenbooks, did not wish to continue them once it acquired the chain, preferring to replace many small stores with larger Borders stores.  Even so, Borders has something less than five hundred superstores.  The same pattern holds true for Barnes and Noble, the parent of the now-or-almost-defunct B. Dalton stores.  The actual number of bookstores operated by these two giant chains is roughly half what they operated twenty-five years ago.  At the same time, the growth of the chain superstores has squeezed out hundreds of smaller independent bookstores.

Prior to 1990, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 book wholesalers in the United States, and there were paperback book racks in all manner of small retail establishments.  Today there are only a handful of wholesalers, and the neighborhood book rack is a thing truly of the past.

Add to this pattern the location of the book superstores.  Virtually all of these stores are located in the most affluent sections of the areas they serve.  In virtually every city I’ve visited in the last fifteen years, there are huge sections of the city, sometimes as much as 60 percent of the area, if not more, where there is no bookstore within miles, and often no convenient public transport. There are fewer and fewer small local bookstores, and most large bookstores are located in or near upscale super malls.  Very few, if any, malls serving the un-affluent have bookstores.  From a short-term economic standpoint, this makes sense for the mega-store chains.  From a cultural standpoint, and from a long-term customer development standpoint, it’s a disaster because it limits easy access to one of the principal sources of books largely to the most affluent segments of society.

What about the book sections in Wal-Marts?  The racks and carrels in the average super Wal-Mart number roughly a third of those in the size of the smallest of the Waldenbooks stores I used to visit, and the range of books is severely limited, effectively to the best-sellers of each genre.

Then, because of recent economic pressures, the local libraries are seeing their budgets cut and cut, as are school libraries – if the school even has a library.

Research done for publishing firms has shown that so-called impulse book purchasing – the kind once made possible be neighborhood book racks and ubiquitous small mall bookstores, accounted for a significant percentage of new readers… and the comic book racks that were next to the book racks provided a transition from the graphic format to the books.

Some have claimed that books will be replaced by the screen and the I-phone and other screen “aps,” and that well may be… for those who can already read… but the statistics show that while fewer Americans are totally illiterate, an ever-increasing percentage is effectively functionally illiterate.

Is that functional illiteracy any wonder… when it really does take a book to start learning to read and when books are becoming harder and harder to come by for those who need them the most?

Voting Influence

Decades ago, the late science fiction writer Mack Reynolds wrote a novel depicting a future United States in which citizens received one “basic” vote, and then could “earn” additional votes for various accomplishments, such as earning advanced degrees, completing a period of military and/or public service, etc.  At the time of the book, Reynolds received a great deal of flak for that concept, and I suspect, were anyone to advance such an idea today, the outcry would likely be even greater.

But why?  In point of fact, those with great sums of money already exert a disproportionate amount of influence over the electoral process, especially in the United States now that the U.S. Supreme Court has granted corporations and wealthy individuals access to the media that is only limited by the amount of their resources, in effect granting such entities the impact of millions of votes. The rationale for the court decision, which has in effect been legally sustained, is that restriction on the use of money for advertising one’s political views and goals is in effect a restriction on first amendment freedom of speech rights.  The practical problem with this decision is that, in a culture dominated by pervasive mass media, the result is to multiply the effect of exercising freedom-of-speech rights manifold for those who have large amounts of wealth.  Since, given the costs of effectively using mass media, only the top one or two tenths of one percent of the population can exercise such media-enhanced rights, the result of the decision is to give disproportionate influence to a tiny fraction of the population.  Moreover, as a result of the decision, in most cases, donors to groups and corporations availing themselves of this “right” do not even have to disclose their donations/spending.

The Court’s decision essentially grants greater weight in determining who governs us strictly on the basis of income and wealth.  Are not other qualities and accomplishments also of equal or greater value to civilization?  And if so, why should they not be granted greater weight as well? That was really the question Reynolds was addressing in postulating such a change in American society, and it’s a good question.

Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, consider the fact that the way in which our current system operates grants greater governmental influence to a small group of people whose principal talent is making money.  It does not grant such influence to those who teach, who create, or who perform unheralded and often dangerous military and public service, and as the revelations about Iraq have showed, at times such money-making operations have in fact been based on taking advantage of American soldiers deployed abroad, so that those with great sums of money not only gained electoral influence, but did so at the expense of those who served their country… and many of whom died doing so.

Then… tell me again why we don’t need an electoral or regulatory counterbalance to unbridled use of wealth in trying to influence elections.


The other day, someone commented on the blog that, unfortunately, Imager’s Intrigue and Haze were boring and major disappointments.  I replied directly, something I usually avoid doing, at least immediately, because the comment punched several of my buttons.  As many of my readers well know, my first fantasy, The Magic of Recluce, features Lerris, a young man who, at the beginning of the novel, finds virtually everything in his life boring, and everything that he railed against at the beginning far less so at the end… yet the world in which he lives has changed very little.

I have no problem with readers saying that they personally found a book of mine – or anyone else’s – boring… or whatever.  I have great problems when they claim the book is boring, without qualifications.  A book, in itself, is neither exciting nor boring.  It simply is.  When a reader picks up a book and reads it, there is an interaction between what the reader reads and what the writer wrote.  What a reader finds interesting depends at least as much on the reader as the writer.  There are some books that have been widely and greatly acclaimed that I do not find interesting or enjoyable, and that is true of all readers.  In general, however, books that are well-written, well-thought-out, and well plotted tend to last and to draw in a greater percentage of readers than those that are not.  The fact that books with overwhelmingly positive reader and critical reviews that also sell large numbers receive comments like “dull,” “boring,” and “slow” suggests that no book can please everyone.  That’s not a problem.

The problem, as I see it, is that there are more and more of such unthinking comments, and those comments reflect an underlying attitude that the writer must write to please that particular reader or the author has somehow failed if he or she has not done so.  This even goes beyond the content of the books.  A number of my books – and those of many other authors – are now receiving “one-star” or negative reviews, not because of faults in the book, but because the book was not available immediately in cheaper e-book versions at the time when the hardcover is published.  Exactly how many people in any job would think it fair that they received an unsatisfactory performance review because they didn’t offer their services at a lower rate?  Yet that’s exactly what the “one-star-reviewers” are essentially saying – that they have the right to demand when and at what price what version of a book should be released.

It took poor Lerris exile and years to understand that Wandernaught was not boring, but that he was bored because he didn’t want to understand.  But that sort of insight seems lacking in those whose motto appears to be: Extremism in the pursuit of entertainment (preferably cheap) is no vice, and moderation in the criticism of those who provide it is no virtue.

The Failure of Imagination

On my way to and back from the World Fantasy Convention, I managed to squeeze in reading several books – and a bit of writing.  One of the books I read, some three hundred plus pages long, takes place in one evening.  While I may be a bit off in my page count, after reading the book, I thought that of the more than three hundred pages, the prologue and interspersed recollections and flashbacks amounting to perhaps fifty pages provided the background for the incredibly detailed action, consisting of sorcery, battles, fights and more fights, resulting in… what?  An ending that promised yet another book. To me, at least, it was more like a novelized computer game [and no, it’s not, at least not yet].  If I hadn’t been on an airplane, and if the book hadn’t come highly recommended, I doubt I would have finished it.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more it bothered me, until I realized that what the book presented, in essence, was violence in the same format as pornography, with detailed descriptions of mayhem in realms of both the physical and the ghostly, with just enough background to “justify” the violence.  While I haven’t done as much reading of the genre recently as I once did – I read 30-40 books in the field annually, as opposed to the 300 plus I once read – to offer a valid statistical analysis, it seems to me that this is a trend that is increasing… possibly because publishers and writers are trying to draw in more of the violence-oriented gaming crowd.  Then again, perhaps I’ve just picked the wrong books, based on the recommendations of reviewers who like that sort of thing.

And certainly, this trend isn’t limited to books. In movies, we’re being treated – or assaulted, depending on one’s viewpoint – with more and more detailed depictions of everything, but especially of mayhem, murder, and sexually explicit scenes. The same is true across a great percentage of what is classified as entertainment, and I’m definitely not the first commentator to notice that.

Yet… all this explicitness, at least to me, comes off as false.  Older books, movies, and the like that hint at sex, violence, terror, and leave the reader and viewer in the shadows, so to speak, imagining the details, have a “reality” far more realistic than entertainment that leaves nothing to the imagination.

This lack of reader/viewer imagination and mental exploration also results in another problem, lack of reader understanding. I’m getting two classes of reader reviews on books such as Haze, in particular, those from readers who appear truly baffled and those who find the book masterful. The “baffled” comments appear to come largely from readers who cannot imagine, let alone understand, the implications and pressures of a society different from their own experience and preconceptions… and they blame their failure to understand on the writer.  The fact that many readers do understand suggests that the failure is not the writer’s.

All this brings up another set of questions.  Between the detailed computer graphics of games, the growth of anime, manga, and graphic novels, the CGI effects in cinema, what ever happened to books, movies, and games that rely on the imagination? A generation ago, children and young adults used their imagination in entertainment and reading to a far greater extent. The immediate question is to what degree the proliferation of graphic everything minimizes the development of imagination. And what are the ramifications for the future of both society and culture?

The Technology Trap

Recently, I read some reader book reviews of a science fiction novel and came across a thread that surfaced in several of the reviews, usually in a critical context.  I realized, if belatedly, that what I had read was an underlying assumption behind much science fiction and something that many SF readers really want.  The only problem, I also realized, is that what they want is something that, in historical and practical contexts, is as often missing as present.

What am I talking about?  The impact of technology, of course.

Because we in the United States live in a largely technology-driven, or at least highly technologically supported, society, there is an underlying assumption that technology will have a tremendous impact on society, and that every new gadget somehow offers an improvement to society.  I have grave doubts about the second, but that’s not the assumption I’m going to address, but rather the first, the idea that in any society, technology will triumph.  I’d be the first to agree that one can define, to some degree, a culture or society by the way in which it develops and uses technology, but I’d have to disagree on the point that developing technology is always a societal priority.

Imperial China used technology, but there certainly wasn’t a priority on developing it past a certain point, and in fact, one Chinese emperor burned the most technologically advanced fleet in the world at that time.  The Chinese developed gunpowder and rockets, but never developed them to anywhere close to their potential.  As I’ve noted in a far earlier blog, the Greeks developed geared astronomical computers thousands of years in advance of anyone else… and never applied the technology to anything else.  Even the British Empire wasn’t interested in Babbage’s mechanical computer.  And, for the present, at least, western civilization has turned its back on supersonic passenger air transport, even though it’s proved to be technically feasible.

Yet, perhaps because many SF readers are enamored of technology, there seems to be an assumption among a significant fraction of readers that when an author does not explore or exploit the technology of a society and give it a significant role, at least as societal background, he or she has somehow failed in maximizing the potential of the world depicted in the novel in question.

Technology is only part of any society, and, at times, and in some places, it’s a very tiny part.  Even when it underpins a society, as in the case of western European-derived societies in our world, it often doesn’t change the societal structure, but amplifies the impact of already existing trends.  Transportation technology improves and expands the existing trade networks, but doesn’t create a new function in society.  When technology does change things, it usually does so by changing the importance of an existing structure, as in the case of instant communications.  And at times, as I noted above, a society may turn its back on better technology, for various reasons… and this is a facet of human societies seldom explored in F&SF and especially in science fiction, perhaps because of the myth — or the wish — that technology always triumphs, despite the historical suggestions that it doesn’t.

Just because a writer doesn’t carry technology as far as it might go theoretically doesn’t mean the writer failed.  It could be that the writer has seen that, in that society, technology won’t triumph to that degree.

Election Day… and the Polarization of Everything?

The vast majority of political observers and “experts” – if pressed, and sometimes even when not – will generally admit that the American political climate is becoming ever more polarized, with the far right and the far left refusing to compromise on much of anything.  For months now, the Republican party in the U.S. Senate has said “No!” to anything of substance proposed by the Democratic leadership, and in the health care legislation, for example, the Democrats effectively avoided dealing with any of the issues of interest to the Republicans, some of which, such as medical malpractice claims reform, have considerable merit.

Yet, if one looks at public opinion polls, most Americans aren’t nearly so radical as the parties that supposedly represent them, although recently that has begun to change, not surprisingly, given the continual public pressure created by the tendency of media news outlets to simplify all issues to black and white… and then to generate conflict, presumably to increase ratings.

Add to this the extreme media pressure placed on any politician who seeks a compromise or another approach outside of either party positions or his or her own past pronouncements, and we have a predictable outcome – polarization and stalemate.

There are times when stalemate may be preferable to ill-considered political action, but at present, there are a number of areas affecting the United States where some sort of action is and has been necessary.  A relative of mine just got her latest health insurance bill – over $1,000 a month for single-party coverage – and this wasn’t a gold-plated health plan by any means.  For two people, the premium would have been over $1,600 monthly, or over $19,000 a year.  Now… the median family income in the United States runs around $50,000 at present, and a $1,600 a month health insurance bill is over 35% of that – and doesn’t include deductibles and co-payments.  Single parent households have a median family income of  roughly $35,000, and $1,000 a month is more than a third of before-tax income.  These figures do tend to suggest that some sort of action on health care insurance was necessary, but the vast majority of one party effectively declared that they weren’t interested in anything proposed by the majority party, and the majority party effectively refused to consider any major issues brought to the table by the minority.  By parliamentary maneuvers, the majority slid through legislation thoroughly opposed by the overwhelming majority of the minority – and further increased the political polarization in Washington.

Similar polarization can be seen on other major issues, from immigration to energy policy and climate change legislation, and, of course, taxation.   One party wants to soak those who have any income of substance, and the other wants to reduce taxes so much that we’ll never dig our way out of the deficit.  Those who would suffer the greatest taxation don’t have enough to cover the deficit, and cutting or eliminating taxes, as some have proposed, would destroy us as a nation.

Tell me… exactly how does this polarization resolve anything?