Archive for December, 2010

2010 – A Year of Change… Or More of the Same?

Certainly, there were many changes in the world, and in the United States, in 2010, but in many areas things seemed to stay the same.  Yet, which of the changes were “real,” and which of those things that seemed unchanged truly did change?

In the book field, an area obviously of concern to me, it’s fair to say that ebooks “arrived,” not that they haven’t been available to some degree for years, but 2010 marked the first year in which they accounted for a truly significant fraction of total book sales, although the analysts will likely be trying to ascertain exactly what that fraction was for months to come.  With ebooks has also come the rise of publishers who are essentially ebook only, and who rely on print-on-demand trade paperbacks, if pressed for a physical product.  Whether such publishers will become a larger part of the market or fade away is uncertain, as of the moment.

In science, one of the “biggest” announcements, although it received comparatively little media attention, was that astronomers have determined that the universe contains more than three times as many stars as previously thought because the number of so-called red dwarf stars had been grossly undercounted, largely because optical telescopes on Earth could not pick many of them up, even in stellar areas comparatively closer to Earth.  This also increases the chances for alien life because red dwarf stars have a much longer and more stable lifespan than do brighter stars.  Will this change anything here on Earth?  Hardly likely. 

In U.S. politics, of course, the balance of power in the legislative branch shifted considerably with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and the Democratic loss of a “gridlock-proof” [not that it always was] Senate.  That shift will likely result in very little being accomplished in 2011 or 2012 because the Republicans don’t want to accomplish anything but to roll back what the Democrats did, and the Democrats have enough votes – and the President – to stop such efforts, and neither side has either the initiative, intelligence, nor the will to work out compromise solutions.  So there really wasn’t much change there, either.

The war in Afghanistan continued in 2010, with escalating U.S. casualties, and is now the longest military conflict in U.S. history.  While the media continues to report, in small stories and back pages, various events, the majority of the American people remained content to pay lip service to the military, to allow private contractor profiteering, and in general only complained about it in terms of siphoning off funding for their desired social programs.  In short, no real change – except, of course, to the families and lovers of the increased numbers of dead and wounded.

2010 has been established as one of the three warmest years on record, at least in technological times, despite unseasonably cold winters in the northeast U.S. and in Europe, and that apparent paradox will continue to fuel opposition to dealing with the real issue of global warming, resulting in no real change in actions or positions.

The other real social change heralded in 2010, especially in western Europe and the United States, memorialized in part by the movie – The Social Network [because all momentous social movements need cinematic commemoration] – was the verification that the only forms of social contact that matter are those created and maintained by electronic means.  This is indeed a significant change, marked by the decline and possible demise of:  first meetings with significant others conducted with physical presence; actual conversations without overt and covert electronic interruptions and/or additions; efficient work habits and sustained mental concentration; and, of course, social niceties such as written paper thank-you notes.

In the end, did much really change?

When “Faster” Isn’t

I just returned from visiting family over Christmas, and, as a result of twelve hours spent in transit (and that was with NO delays), I got to thinking about “speed” in our modern society. We’re always told that technology is better and faster, but I have my doubts about such speed in the real world. It doesn’t matter how potentially or theoretically “fast” something is.  What matters is how fast it does what it does in the real world.

Because airports are ever more crowded, and over scheduled, and because commercial aircraft don’t fly any faster than they did thirty years ago, flight times are longer than they were thirty years ago – and that doesn’t count all the extra minutes, and occasionally hours, spent in security lines and screening.  Train travel isn’t any better, either. The Acela is supposedly capable of traveling between Boston and New York at 150 mph.  It doesn’t even approach 60% of its capabilities, of course, because the tracks it travels won’t handle that speed… and because it doesn’t have a dedicated rail system, but must share the rails with much slower freight trains.  All that may be one reason why, except in bumper-to-bumper rush hours in cities, most drivers exceed the speed limits on freeways and interstates whenever physically possible.  But because freeways everywhere are getting more and more crowded, they aren’t getting to their destinations any faster.

Even spacecraft aren’t flying any faster than they did in the 1960s, not markedly, anyway, and we certainly haven’t been able to get human beings any farther from Earth than we did a generation ago.

But aren’t we in the age of electronic superspeed?  Not from what I can tell.  Because of all the bells and whistles, firewalls, and electronic security, even my brand-new laptop loaded with one of the fastest processors, and more memory of more types than I’ll ever come close to using, takes longer to boot up and load than my ancient 1996 laptop.  Email doesn’t get there any faster, and the whole process effectively takes longer because, even with all those electronic devices and systems, I still have more and more spam that results in my having to take more time than I used to… and any way you look at it, that means slower.

My wife reminded me that not only is the mail slower, but deliveries are fewer than when we were children.  It also costs almost 1500% more per ounce than then.  This is progress?

As far as I can figure, about the only thing that, in practice, goes faster than it did a generation ago is the money, because, regardless of the “official” statistics, everything that most people need costs more every year.  Now… if we could just get everything else moving that fast…

The “Other”

In fiction, a great deal has been written on the theme of the “other,” the outsider, the stranger, the one who doesn’t fit, and what has been written ranges from horror to the romantic, from the impossible to the trite, from Camus’s L’Etranger, the man who looks and acts normal, but isn’t, to Alien, a creature so different that it screams of otherness, even to the vampires of Twilight, who apparently seek sameness and try to conceal their otherness… and the list and examples go on and on.

But to me, there’s another “other” that is far more socially, politically, and economically horrifying. Or in political terms, as the late senator Russell Long proclaimed, “Don’t tax you; don’t tax me; go tax that fellow under the tree.”  Unhappily, this practice of singling out the “other” for responsibility, whether it be for taxes, political change, educational blame, immigration problems, etc., has gotten so far out of hand that no one seems to even recognize what’s happening.

Take education.  This morning I just read an article about the problems a local, open- enrollment university has in getting students to actually complete their degree programs and graduate, and, once again, the “other” singled out for responsibility was essentially the faculty – the faculty has the sole responsibility for inspiring these students, for making sure they’re “interested” enough to attend classes, to choose their curriculum responsibly, to study, to learn the material.  On top of that, the state is pushing the idea that raising the percentage of college graduates will effectively solve a various assorted problems, from high unemployment to creating “better” jobs.  The target is something like 50% of all high school graduates graduating from college.  Duh… has anyone looked at the jobs required to maintain a civilization, including highly skilled ones that don’t require a college degree?  Electricians, plumbers, heating and air conditioning contractors, computer technicians, sheet metal workers, machinists, the list goes on for pages.  People need skills, but thinking that 50% of them should come through college degrees is insanity.  And, as I’ve noted before,  rather than deal with the problems of lack of student initiative and responsibility, lack of resources, lack of work ethics, failing parental responsibilities, it’s so much easier to focus on the teachers.

Then there’s the responsibility for paying for federal government services.  While I’ll concede that those who make more should pay more, the exact formula being far more questionable, why exactly should close to 40% of the population bear no responsibility for those services at all – and insist that a smaller and smaller minority of the population bear a greater and greater share – that the so-called rich become the “other.”

Immigration falls into the same category.  Massive numbers of Hispanics have flooded and are flooding into the United States, if at a lesser rate in the last year or so, and most of them are looking for a better life – why are they to blame for that, when ALL of our forebears did exactly the same thing?  Why are they to blame for fleeing the drug-trade induced violence that permeates Latin America when the high demand for those illegal drugs in the United States is what has caused that violence?  Especially when we seem powerless to stop the trade through criminalization and by imprisoning millions of users… and unwilling to control it by legalizing it?  Rather than looking at the root causes of the immigration problem, it’s so much easier to single out the stranger, the immigrant as the cause, when they’re only the symptom.

The problem of teenage pregnancies follows a similar pattern.  Because of the “benefits” of modern civilization, young people are becoming sexually mature at younger and younger ages, yet the complexity of a technological society is such that the economic maturity comes later and later.  Human beings are not built biologically to abstain from sex for the ten to fifteen year gap between physical maturity and social-economic maturity – and the vast majority can’t and don’t.  Yet religious fundamentalists of all stripes and varieties preach “abstinence” and “morality” – and blame sexual “immorality” on everything from culture to the media [not that they both don’t contribute], while pumping billions into purchasing the offerings of the media and ignoring the root causes and addressing them in a meaningful way.

Whatever the problem, there’s always an “other,” whom all too many of us find convenient to blame… and I find that “other-seeking” mentality far more horrifying than the “others” of cinema and fiction.  More than thirty years ago, the cartoonist Al Capp, in his Pogo strip made the observation, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The problem is that it’s so much easier to blame the “other.”

What Ever Happened to Gratitude?

That’s the question my wife asked me the other day as she reflected on the semester she’d just completed.  As director of the university opera theatre program, she produces and directs at least one student production every semester, and she has done so for more than twenty years.  What she noted was that even ten years ago, students would offer cards or notes, or even small tokens of gratitude, for the efforts she made in producing and directing these programs – a gratitude, if you will, for the funds she expended that were not reimbursed by the university, the hours and hours of extra time provided in rehearsing and providing additional personal instruction to performers who needed it.

This year, for the first time ever, she received not a single card, even though she is teaching more students than ever before.  Paradoxically, this was also a year in which her student evaluations were among the best ever; so the lack of cards or tokens of appreciation weren’t likely due to student unhappiness.  It’s also not something that happened this year.  Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t unusual for her to receive thank-you notes from students who successfully completed senior recitals, or from those she helped into graduate programs. Over the last few years, those notes have dwindled away to nothing as well, again, even though she is even more successful in getting more and more students to perform at a higher level.  And this is not something limited to my wife, but a change in social climate that her colleagues both in her university and elsewhere have noted.

There’s also an increasing interest in grades and less interest in mastering the techniques of singing and performing. Along with this increased emphasis on grades and “credentials” and the decline in expressed gratitude, or perhaps because of it, she and others have noted a growing attitude among students – and among younger faculty and professionals in the field – that these younger people have “done it all by themselves.”

There’s little or no awareness or recognition that no one “does it by himself or herself.”  Virtually all of us have had mentors, teachers, or benefactors somewhere along the way, who made a difference, whether or not we wish to recognize them or not.  Along with this, I’ve also overheard more and more young professionals ask, when requested to do something professional, “What’s in it for me?”

To me, this growing focus on self, both in academia and in business, is a disturbing trend, and one that is mirrored by the trends in the financial community, where the focus seems to remain on how much compensation individuals can build up, rather than upon what they are accomplishing.  In the political area, the focus is on getting re-elected, no matter what the cost to the community or nation.  And in all areas, there’s less and less gratitude for what we’ve received and more and more complaints about what we haven’t… and yet, at the same time, more and more people are less and less willing to go out of their way for others.

Might it just be… just perhaps… that so much of the polarization in society is fueled by anger that others don’t appreciate what we’ve done, even as we fail to appreciate what others have done?

The Unmentioned Costs of Freedom

A federal judge in Virginia has declared a section of the recently passed healthcare law unconstitutional.  That section, which would not have taken effect until 2014, is the one that requires individuals to purchase health insurance or to pay various tax penalties.  While there’s little doubt that the question will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, I would not be surprised to see this ruling upheld, because there’s a vast difference in law, and in practice, between requiring individuals NOT to do something “bad,” and in requiring them to take an affirmative action at their own expense – or pay a penalty for not spending money as required by the federal government.

This distinction can be a very fine line, but it still exists.  For example, car manufacturers are required to incorporate costly safety features in their new cars, but no consumer is required to buy a new car.  Manufacturing companies are required to meet standards for safety and emissions, but no corporation is mandated to build a new plant to produce widgets, etc.

The problem with a democratic system is that our freedoms often exact costs, and often those costs fall on others in one way or another.  One example of this in health care hits fairly close to home – my home.  My wife is a professor of voice, and she teaches college students.  Over the last 18 years, never has she had a year when she has not been confronted with sick and contagious students, as well as some with severe throat, sinus, or lung problems, who have no health insurance because neither they nor their parents have such insurance.  Not only do these students often infect others, but at times, their lack of insurance threatens their own permanent well-being.  More times than I want to count, my wife has paid for visits to doctors, and she has negotiated special rates with specialists for certain tests and procedures for her students. In the vast majority of cases, these students or their parents, and it is usually their parents’ doing, have made the choice of not paying for health insurance.  But there is a cost, either in time lost from work or studies [and lower grades, possibly even resulting in the loss of a scholarship], in overall health, and in the costs imposed or assumed by others.  One of the largest costs in the health care area is that of emergency room costs.

The health care area is just one example. Another is our presumption of innocence.  Under our system of justice, someone arrested or charged with a crime is presumed innocent.  That presumption results in literally billions of dollars being spent to prove guilt and convict presumed criminals, many of whom escape punishment not because they are innocent, but because they had better lawyers.

Another area is child welfare.  Because we choose not to send poor families to poorhouses and debtors’ prisons, but to allow them freedom, we end up paying significant sums to welfare mothers and others, and subsidizing food – largely in the hope that at least some of it will get to children – rather than taking the children and letting their parents fend for themselves.

Yet another is the freedom of movement.  We allow people great freedom to own vehicles, to operate them at high rates of speed, and even presume that they will do so sensibly.  We also combine that freedom with that of drinking.  This “combination” of freedoms costs more than 40,000 lives annually, and billions in damages and destruction.

The last freedom we provide in the United States is simple.  In allowing people the freedom to innovate and to be successful, we also allow most people the freedom to make enough bad choices to hurt, if not destroy, themselves.

Am I suggesting a more totalitarian approach and an adoption of the Napoleonic Legal Code?  Heavens, no!  But what I am suggesting is that there are real and measurable costs to “freedom,” restricted as some think it now is, and that it is anything but “free,” and part of those costs are included in our taxes, in our insurance bills, and in the costs of the goods we buy… as well in human suffering and tragedy.

The “Value” Problem in Taxation

More than a few commentators on the left and elsewhere – as well as a host of Democratic legislators – are deploring the idea that families who earn more than $250,000 will be allowed to share in the continued lower tax rates of the so-called Bush tax cuts, and more than a few letters have graced the pages of various publications declaring that the rich and super-rich shouldn’t get such benefits.

Were the people who made $25,000 in the mid-1950s “rich?”  Certainly, no one I knew thought they were rich.  Well-off perhaps, even affluent, but certainly not anywhere close to rich.  Yet an income of $250,000 today is worth about what $25,000 was 60 years ago, perhaps even less, adjusted for inflation.  In real terms, even gasoline prices aren’t that much higher than then, and they’re certainly far lower, in terms of the purchasing power of the dollar, than they were during the “gas crisis” of the early 1970s.

To be fair about this, I’m just as appalled by those on the right who declare that increasing the taxes on those making more than $250,000 will bankrupt small businesses.  If a business making, say, $500,000 annually can’t afford an additional $10,000-$30,000 in taxes, then that business is in trouble already.  If the business is making enough to worry about increased taxes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s not a small business, besides which, at that level it should be incorporated and passing on those taxes to its customers, the way all the other U.S. corporations do – which is part of the reason why the whole idea of taxing corporate profits doesn’t make economic sense in a world economy… not that most politically motivated tax policies make economic sense.

I’d be among the first to admit that the United States government faces a fiscal crisis, but the reason why isn’t because the rich are greedy, or too many of the “poor” are undeserving, or that immigrants are “milking” the system, all of which are overblown stereotypes based on true anecdotes that are statistically a small proportion of what has caused our unbalanced budgets and deficits. The reason is that the American people, as a group, really have no understanding of numbers or what those numbers mean, and, unfortunately resist anyone or any institution that wants to enlighten them.  Nor is there any serious questioning of the basis of the whole idea of taxation as now practiced.  Admittedly, if we want government services, they have to be paid for.  But why do we continue with a system that isn’t raising the revenue necessary to cover the services we demand and yet reject either reducing demand or changing the basis of taxation?

If I walk into a McDonald’s and order a Big Mac, the cashier doesn’t ask me how much I make and price the sandwich accordingly.  The same is true at every retailer in the U.S. and for the majority of commercial services.  In fact, larger commercial customers usually get discounts for their larger orders. Yet all the services that the U.S. government supplies are essentially based on income and “cost” more the more someone makes.  Someone in the upper fifth of income in the U.S. pays a great deal more for his or her share of national defense, national parks, etc., than does someone in the lowest fifth, who often pays nothing at all.

Now… the rationale for higher individual costs of government [i.e., taxes] rests on the assumption that wealthier people benefit more from government and upon the idea that poorer people cannot afford to pay taxes.  Moreover, there is a feeling that it is somehow “unfair” to tax a well-off person and a poor person the same percentage of their income.  Yet, if one taxes someone who makes $100,000 at a ten percent rate, and someone who makes $20,000 at that same ten percent rate, the person who is better-off is paying $8,000 more than the poorer person for the same government services. That’s 400% more. If one then adds in the “progressive” tax structure, the person who is well-off may be paying tax rates of more than 20%, which works out to 900% more. Does that person who is well-off get nine times more government services?  No.

In fact, it’s likely that the poorer individuals get more government benefits than wealthier individuals.  I emphasize the word individuals because once one factors in corporations, that picture changes.  Various organizations, from foundations to industries, do in fact get large benefits, and because, in effect, as I’ve discussed many times before, corporations essentially pay no taxes because they pass those costs on to the customers and consumers,  they have often have no real costs, or reduced costs, for the government services they receive.

Larger homes on larger lots pay more property taxes just about everywhere.  But do the owners of such homes actually require more municipal services?  The odds are that they don’t.  In fact, they may require fewer.

All of this brings up a larger question: Why do we tax people and their property on their income and the value of their property for government services?  Why don’t we just tax them on the basis of services?

The simple answer is that it’s politically unwise.  A recent example occurred in a Utah county that imposed a fee for police services for those areas of the county not belonging to the municipalities that paid for police services.  More than a few people simply refused to pay – and that could lead to the situation that occurred in another state, where firefighters refused to fight a fire where the homeowner had not paid a $75 firefighting fee, and the homeowner watched his home burn to the ground.

The second answer is that a significant fraction of the population cannot pay such fees, and failing to provide such government and municipal services would endanger those who can pay even more than those who cannot.  Allowing crime to go unchecked in neighborhoods that cannot pay for police services would only result in crime spreading, and in the end, those who can pay would pay even more to protect themselves.  A similar practicality applies to a number of services, from roads to sanitation, to regulation of food and highway safety, and so on.

Any community requires a baseline of services to survive.  So do nations, although that baseline varies by culture and the times.  The problem the United States faces today is that, as a nation, we’re asking for more in government programs and services than the majority of people wish to pay.  It’s no secret that 10 % of the population pays more than seventy percent of the taxes… and that, essentially, they pay for the privilege of being successful.  The plain fact is that those who are well-off pay more in taxes comparatively, percentage-wise, and in absolute terms because they’re a minority and because society as a whole insists on it, not because it’s fair.

Today, the majority of Americans don’t and won’t pay for the bulk of services that they think government should provide. That same majority thinks that it’s wrong for the richer minority to object to paying the bulk of those costs.  Why exactly is it wrong for the “rich” to object to paying a disproportionate share, and why is it right for the majority to demand services it won’t support through taxes, especially when 30% of the population pays no federal income tax at all?  McDonald’s doesn’t give free food to thirty percent of its customers, and no one thinks that’s unfair, but government certainly gives free or reduced price services to more than thirty percent of its citizens.

Another Single-Focus Education “Fix”

Apparently, the latest “fad” to enter the education reform arena is an intense focus on “subject mastery,” unfortunately to the exclusion of other skills necessary for student success. There’s nothing wrong with the idea that students need to master the subject matter that they’re supposed to be studying.  Such mastery is absolutely necessary, but again, the reformers, at least all those mentioned in The New York Times article on it on November 28th, are throwing the baby out with the bath water.

They have observed, wonder of wonders, that many students with terrible grades actually know the material, and that many other students with good grades don’t.  They have rightly identified a real problem in many American schools – that appearance and behavior and apparent attitude often result in inflated grades for students who really don’t learn what they should.  Unfortunately, from there, a number have gone to the assumption, and even implemented revamped curricula and standards, that very little besides subject mastery matters.  Homework is downgraded to counting not at all, as are attendance and behavior.

This idiocy – and it is idiocy – ignores so many factors I almost don’t know where to begin.  However… first, homework.  If homework is designed properly, it should both require learning and skills mastery. It should also teach students research skills and get the point across that you just can’t find answers in one place.  Admittedly, all too much homework is indeed busywork, but that’s not a problem with the idea of homework;  it’s a problem with how teachers use homework.  Second, if homework isn’t graded, in our society, unfortunately, it doesn’t get done, because we’ve taught children, by example, that the only things that are important are those that “count,” either in dollars or grades.  If homework doesn’t get done, then skills mastery suffers for most students.  In addition, both higher education and jobs requiring that higher education also require “homework,” doing projects and presentations, research, etc., and removing that facet of education or downplaying it into insignificance does students a great disservice.

Second, attendance.  Like it or not, most jobs require attendance.  It doesn’t matter how smart you are, because, if you’re not at work, sooner or later you’re going to get fired.  Discounting attendance because there are a few students bright enough to learn matters without being there – and those students are indeed a minority – sends a societal message that encourages a self-centered and eventually self-destructive attitude.  The same is true about behavior.  Employees who continually misbehave get fired.  College graduates who do the same seldom ever make it in either professional or executive positions.

Students not only have to master skills, but they have to learn how to learn, how to apply that learning in society, and put all three together.  Yes, skills mastery is vital… but without the other factors, it’s also useless.

When will we as a society ever get away from the “one-big-simple-fix” attitude?

Cultural Isolation… and Reading

The kind folks at Goodreads featured two of my books, one fantasy and one science fiction, as their November choices for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Club members to read and comment on, if they wished.  The books were The Magic of Recluce and Haze.  As I suspected, I took a certain amount of flak on one aspect of The Magic of Recluce, and that was my “creative” use of textual sound effects.  This was something I’ve known for years, especially since Dave Langford’s “poem” created solely from the sound effects in the first few Recluce books.  Needless to say, the later Recluce books have far, far, fewer sound effects.  And some Goodreads readers also noted that I was a bit too elliptical in areas, a tendency I think I’ve largely corrected in later fantasy books [after all, The Magic of Recluce was my very first fantasy book, written over twenty years ago, and I have learned a few things more about writing in the years since].

The negative comments about Haze, however, bothered me more, not because a number of readers didn’t like the book, because that’s to be expected.  Any book by any author will find some readers who don’t like it.  What bothered me was why these readers didn’t like the book.  Almost all of those who posted negative comments made the observation that they couldn’t connect with Keir Roget, the main character, because he showed no emotion.  In point of fact, that is not true.  He shows no overt emotion beyond politeness and tactfulness, or a quiet reserve, even when his life is threatened. It’s not that he has no emotions; it’s that they’re kept under tight rein, because in both his culture and his profession [security agent] revealing emotions can be dangerous, if not fatal, particularly when you’re already under suspicion, as Roget is.  The safest way not to reveal emotions is to repress them so that you don’t feel them strongly yourself, and this is exactly what Roget does.  There are numerous clues in Roget’s small actions as to what he feels in his actions, but these are subtle.

From a reader’s point of view, this clearly presented a challenge, and that difficulty was magnified because the “culture” is future Earth, and future southwestern Utah in one series of events.  That’s a future where at least some U.S. readers “expect” a certain emotional pattern from the character, and Roget didn’t deliver.  Of course, if he had, he wouldn’t have survived even to the point where the book actually begins. I suspect that, had I made the entire culture more Sinese and the main character had been identified as of Chinese heritage and genetics, readers would have had less difficulty, but perhaps not.

But what all the comments underline is that at least a certain percentage of readers are so isolated in their own culture that they have great difficulty in getting “outside” their own cultural and personal expectations, in particular when the setting “looks” familiar.  Yet that was actually one of the basic points of the book, shown in many ways – that what looks familiar may not be at all and that our own future may be far more alien to us than many could possibly imagine.  The problem of course, was that, for some readers, I succeeded in making that seemingly familiar future so alien that they could neither accept nor identify with it… and that doesn’t help sales a great deal.

What I’ve experienced with Haze may also reflect why comparatively few SF books, especially those with high sales levels, depict heroes or heroines with emotional complexions more than slightly different from those in current western society.  Emotional differences are far more alien than physical differences, it would seem, at least in current SF, and that’s why so many aliens are really just humans in disguise.