Archive for December, 2013

2013 In Passing – Miscellaneous Thoughts

The year 2013 is on its very last legs and, from my point of view, sprinting to the finish. Like most years, it has had its good and bad points, the bad ones largely related to politics and government, which is scarcely surprising, since politics reflect the intersection of beliefs and power in the extreme, and the extreme of belief and the extreme of power represent the ugliest facets of human nature.

On the other hand, what is astounding, and I do mean that, is what Pope Francis has already said and demonstrated are his goals in rebuilding the Catholic Church, unlike the theocrats of the LDS faith who have now pressured the Utah legislature to undertake a massive lawsuit against gay marriage, a lawsuit that the Federal Appeals Court has already suggested the state will lose. And I have to say that I never thought that I’d see the leader of the Catholic faith more enlightened than any other major faith, even the LDS faith.

The last year has seen ebooks come close, from the figures I’ve observed, to undermining, if not destroying, the dominance of mass market paperbacks in providing comparatively lower-cost fiction in the field of F&SF. That’s a very mixed blessing, because with ebooks comes the ease of piracy, and regardless of what “studies” show, the sales and royalty figures for new releases indicate to me that piracy has had a definite negative impact on new releases. The upside is that ebooks enable longer and more profitable sales of an author’s backlist. How this will work out won’t be clear for several more years, I suspect.

The recent wave of state legislatures beginning to enact laws that allow gay marriage, as well as the accompanying court decisions and the significant shift in public opinion, give some hope to the idea that marriages in the United States might be better judged on whether they’re loving, supportive, and successful in matters such as raising children rather than being judged on whether they meet a particular theological criteria.

The public in general and the “education establishment,” on the other hand, for all the studies and rhetoric, still can’t accept the fact that student success requires not only good and responsible teachers, but also good and responsible students – and parents. Without all three, no real improvement or progress is possible, yet both parents and the education administrators, as well as politicians, continue dump all responsibility on the teachers… and, unhappily, I don’t see this changing in the near future.

The record profits of corporate America, the highest level of Wall Street stock indices ever, and the growing income inequality in the United States all go hand in hand with an economy that has still not fully recovered from the Great Recession. As I’ve said before, and as has Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize-winning economist, it’s almost impossible to have robust economic growth with an economy based on consumption when you don’t have an export surplus and you don’t pay your workers enough to buy all that you produce. Not that anyone in corporate America or Wall Street listens to either of us.

So I’ll just have to take “consolation” [actually, it’s far more than that] in the fact that I’m still writing, still enjoying it, and still have readers who also enjoy what I’m writing. Here’s hoping you all had the best 2013 you could, and whether you did or not, my best to you for 2014.

Last Minute Crush

Both UPS and FedEx announced that a significant number of Christmas packages were not delivered on time and in time for Christmas, although both package delivery services admitted that those were packages promised for Christmas delivery.  The non-delivery was the result of a confluence of circumstances, some of which were unforeseen and some of which should have been anticipated.  The unforeseen factor was the occurrence of the worst ice storms in ten years in the northeastern United States.

The factors that should have been seen and planned for were: (1) the shortest period between Thanksgiving and Christmas in years, effectively allowing buyers a week less to purchase and ship goods; (2) the growth in the number of Americans who wait until the last minute to buy and ship Christmas gifts; and (3) the growing shortage of “free time” among higher-earning gift-givers.

Despite the ever-earlier onset of the Christmas shopping season, a substantial number of shoppers do not begin shopping for Christmas gifts until after Thanksgiving.  This year Thanksgiving fell on one of the latest dates possible, effectively cutting off one week of shopping (and shipping) time, in effect meaning that the shipping needs of those shoppers were jammed into 80% of the time they normally had, and most likely many of them never even realized that until a week or two before Christmas, when they suddenly needed to buy and ship.

In addition, with the growth of overnight shipping and the entire U.S. culture of “you can have it now,” a significant and growing percentage of Americans don’t plan that far ahead and then cram it all in at the last moment.

Some of those shoppers feel as though they have no choice, and paradoxically some are those employed in various retail industries.  Because in many retail fields, the financial success of the business depends on the Christmas season, executives and employees in those fields are pressed into working longer and harder.  In other areas of the economy, businesses tend to press their employees to complete projects before Christmas, knowing that many will take off vacation or leave time to spend time with family over the holidays.  This is certainly true in at least some publishing firms – I’ve been asked to have manuscripts, proofed galleys and other materials to my publisher well before Christmas for the reason that very little gets done in the week after Christmas.  Effectively, much of the business year ends around December 23rd.

Yet, despite the obviousness of these factors, on December 24th, UPS admitted that the volume of packages accepted for shipment and delivery before Christmas day exceeded the capacity of their system.  I understand the problem the company faces.  UPS doesn’t want to create and maintain a system built to handle a volume of packages that only occurs a few days a year.  FedEx didn’t say much beyond admitting that very few of their packages were delayed – except one of those was purchased a week before Christmas by my wife, and, as of the time I write this, still hasn’t arrived, although promised for Christmas delivery. At the same time, neither FedEx nor UPS nor the various merchants really want to impose cut-off dates for Christmas delivery because it goes against the explicit promises they’ve been making for years.

But… given the changes in culture and consumer expectations and perceived needs, I don’t see this as a one-time problem.  Then again, maybe by next year, when it happens again, most people will have forgotten the previous year’s problems.

Holiday Thought

As the years pass, I feel they go by faster and faster and seem to get closer and closer together. Most people my age and older seem to feel the same way.  Some who are younger do as well, but having watched grandchildren and listened to them, it’s clear that time often drags for them and that they want things to happen “faster.”  Those of us who are older want to say something to the effect of “Don’t ever wish for that; it will happen soon enough.”  Sometimes we actually voice that thought, and usually the young person looks at us as if we’re out of our minds.

Christmas tends to emphasize that difference in viewpoint.  For small children it seems as though Christmas Eve or Christmas day will never come.  For all too many adults, it seems as though there’s never enough time to get everything done before Christmas…

Whichever applies to you… Merry Christmas!

Lawyers and Legalese

The university where my wife the professor teaches has just completed a search for a new president, necessary because his predecessor was hired by a much larger university for twice the salary he was paid here in Utah.  I’ve never met the new president, but I’m already worried. Why?  Because he was the president of a Utah junior college, and he’s a lawyer.

The junior college business concerns my wife especially, because, over twenty years, virtually every junior college transfer coming into the Music Department from anywhere has been below average, despite grades and test scores that would indicate otherwise, including all those from the institution that the new president headed.  Every single one has required remedial work or extensive individual coaching, if not more.  So have some transfers from other four year institutions, but certainly not 100% of them.  What makes this more telling is that S.U.U. is not an Ivy League college, nor even a research university, although it does have a very good music program.  While there may be, and doubtless are, junior colleges with high academic standards, I’m sorry, for the most part junior colleges don’t provide academic rigor.  So that’s one reason for concern.

The second one is the lawyer business.  As several commenters have noted, almost every institution of any size in the United States is already inundated in legalese.  Colleges and universities require more and more paper.  Course syllabi at S.U.U. – and probably everywhere – have more than quintupled in length over the past two decades as the legal types have turned what used to be a simple course guides and assignment sheets into massive legal documents, almost contracts.  Every year professors are briefed on all the things they cannot do, some because of federal law, and some because of the fear administrators have of litigation.  Unhappily, it’s a fear justified by the explosion of litigation in the United States. Given that my father was an attorney, as is a daughter and a son-in-law, and several cousins, I’m not unduly prejudiced against lawyers, but lawyers need to be reined in, especially in institutional settings.

And when existing university administrators are already coming up with more paperwork requirements for professors, requirements that do nothing to improve teaching, but only provide meaningless statistics to satisfy some vague idea of accountability, the last thing a university needs is more legalese… or a president more interested in legally covering the university’s collective rear end than in improving teaching and all that entails.

That’s why we’re worried… and hope we’ll be proved wrong.  But I’m not about to bet anything on that.


All too often I concentrate on talking about problems to be solved, but something occurred the other day that pointed out the value of a virtue too often ignored by students and others.  My wife the voice professor had a series of voice juries – the performing equivalent of a final examination – and one student didn’t make her jury.  That’s usually an automatic failure, but this student has always been intelligent, hard-working and so dependable that my wife’s immediate assumption was that something had happened.  And it had – a freak snowstorm south of us and just north of Las Vegas – had closed the interstate through the Virgin River Gorge for almost a day, trapping hundreds of motorists and trucks there, including the student – and, by the way, there’s no cell phone reception there. Obviously, this was something beyond the student’s control, but there was no doubt on my wife’s part, even before she knew the reason, that something out of the ordinary had happened to the student… and the jury was rescheduled.

There are other students who have an excuse for everything, and then when something truly exceptional happens, professors are dubious, to say the least, along the lines of the old fairy tale about the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often.

What tends not to be realized, particularly by young people, is that, in a very real sense, dependability/reliability is a form of personal insurance. If you’re always reliable and dependable, when something happens truly beyond your control, that dependability may just prove very useful… or at least mitigate the consequences.  Obviously, it won’t save you from the physical consequences of automobile accident, where someone else broadsides you, or from the physical results of the flu – but if you’re not one to take sick days at the drop of a hat, your employer or professor is going to be far more inclined to give you break.

The same thing is true in terms of work products.  We all screw up somewhere or some time.  But if you’re always conscientious and almost always turn in a good solid and workmanlike result, if once you don’t, you just might get some allowances, as opposed to the door.

And besides that, the more you concentrate on being dependable, the more you will be, and the less likely things are to go wrong… and that makes life easier and a lot more enjoyable.

Reading… and Reading

There’s a huge difference between being able to decipher letters and grammatical structure and to recognize or say the words on the page and being able to truly read, that is, to understand what those words actually mean. I was reminded of this earlier in the week by events at the university.  Students in the music program cannot take their final performance jury [applied examination] until they have paid all their fees. Similar policies are in effect in other departments.  A number of students discovered when appearing for their juries that they would not be allowed to take the jury.  This practice is not arbitrary or capricious.  The Music Department discovered through bitter experience that, without this policy, a substantial number of students never paid those fees. As a result, course syllabi carry that warning; every applied music instructor is required to announce that policy; and signs are posted on the bulletin boards for the week before finals reminding students of the consequences.

Yet with each succeeding year, more and more students, primarily first year students, discover that the warnings are accurate. This suggests to me that we have a generation – or at least a portion of a generation – that either (1) does not truly comprehend written instructions, or  (2) feels that there is no responsibility to read such instructions, or (3) feels no compunction to follow such instructions, or (4) believes that no instruction applies unless it is specifically addressed verbally to them on repeated occasions, or (5) applies only to everyone else, or (6) possibly all of the above.  This phenomenon is not new.  There have always been individuals who have ignored warning signs, wet paint signs, and the like, but when a growing and significant percentage of college students protest “I didn’t know [whatever]” after being told at the beginning of the semester, reminded in their course syllabus, after being reminded in their last class, and having notices posted on the bulletin boards, then we as a society have a problem… and so do those students.

Part of the problem, frankly, lies in the secondary school system which has become so preoccupied with “student success,” i.e., getting students through, that far too many students enter college with no understanding that failure to do the work – all of the work and not just what they like – and to finish it in the time period required is not only necessary in college, but in the world beyond college. Each year college syllabi become longer and more detailed, partly because incoming college students also cannot or choose not to listen, possibly because it is difficult to hear when one spends most of one’s time with earbuds in both ears.  Now, it appears, many also do not respond to written communication, possibly because both eyes are so locked on  smartphones that nothing written registers, either.  Yet the education gurus respond to this by declaring that faculty need to use more interactive technology to reach students.

At what point will all the “reformers” realize that students have responsibilities… and not just faculty?

Having It Your Way

“Have It Your Way” was the central theme behind a series of Burger King commercials first aired in the early 1970s and then re-introduced and re-emphasized in the 2000s, and the idea has clearly a special resonance with Americans.  According to a Google search, there are over 80 million ads and approaches on the idea of doing it “your way.”  Then there’s the iconic song, “My Way,” written by Paul Anka and popularized by Frank Sinatra, which is one of the songs most recorded and performed by other artists. While Sinatra reportedly later stated that he hated the song and found it self-serving, it remains one of the most popular songs sung at funerals.

Although there is nothing wrong with wanting things to go our way, and trying our best to make them so, there’s a difference between aspirations or goals and expectations, and a generation or more of commercial enticements based on the theme that we “deserve” to have things our way seems to have created – or definitely boosted – the expectation that “things” ought to go our way.

In economic terms, American businesses, as I’ve discussed more than once, are concentrating almost exclusively on maximizing profits – having it their way, if you will – without regard to either employment wage levels of their employees.  Employees, those that can, are pressing more and more for jobs that are “meaningful” to them, often regardless of what business needs happen to be.  Increasing numbers of college students have begun to tell their professors what they think they should learn and how much work they should do, while state legislatures are telling state universities what percentage of students should graduate in how many years, without any consideration of the costs or the number of instructors or professors necessary to meet those goals.

The same expectations are revealed in national politics.  Eighty percent of Republicans believe President Obama lied to pass the Affordable Care Act, while seventy-five percent of Democrats believe he didn’t.  What makes these numbers interesting is that the majority of Republicans believe that the ACA will hurt them personally and financially, while the majority of Democrats feel that the ACA will benefit them.  In its latest issue, the Economist published graph illustrating how the legislative process has changed in the United States Senate drastically over the past thirty-five years, showing legislation that in the late 1980s the majority of legislation was passed by cooperative efforts of both parties and how that has changed over the years so that, by 2013, almost none was passed cooperatively.

I doubt if anyone can say which came first, the commercial emphasis on “having it your way” or the social change in attitude that found that message so appealing, but how it happened matters far less than the devastating effect that belief is having on American society and politics.

None of us can have everything all “our way” all the time, or even close to it, not if we want to have a working economy and an even halfway functional government in the years to come, and it’s past time that we not only came to grips with that, but started doing something about it.


One Trick (or Song) Ponies

Take two singers.  One is a talented all-around musician, with a full grasp of her craft, pleasantly attractive, but not beauty pageant class.  The other is beauty pageant class, with a good natural singing voice, and one knock-out classical song, and not much else.  Do you want to guess which one wins singing contests that involve an audition of only one song?  There are also certain singers who win or place highly in competitions, but never have a career because the only thing they’re really good at is winning competitions, just like those pleasing personalities who are so good at interviews and much less competent at doing the job.

Take the CEOs of large companies.  There are the competent-looking tall ones with a commanding presence… and then there are the others – except a number of studies over the years have shown that while there is a far higher percentage of  tall and competent-looking CEOs at larger companies (who get paid significantly more, on average), there’s absolutely no correlation between appearance and their performance as CEOs.

It’s a bit different with authors, but there are more than a few who publish one book and nothing more. Possibly the most famous authors who only wrote a single book are Harper Lee  [To Kill a Mockingbird] and Margaret Mitchell [Gone with the Wind].  The music industry is filled with singers and musicians who had only one hit song in their entire career. It’s no different in politics, and it would be hard to count the members of Congress who served exactly one term… and who are now long forgotten.

The problem with all too many of these one-hit wonders and one-trick ponies is that, all too often, their one trick overshadows others who are actually far better at whatever field it may be.  The least glamorous CEOs are generally far better than the ones who merely look good, and a great many executives who don’t have the height and “look” likely never get the chance because their talents are deeper but less obvious. There are significant numbers of authors who have produced large numbers of good, and sometimes great, books who’ve never made the big best-seller lists, but whose total sales have been respectable if not substantial over a long period. And there are authors who didn’t have the “flash” or trick to impress agents or publishers who self-published and later made the best-seller lists.  In this, Richard Paul Evans comes to mind.

There are good character actors who are far better at their craft than many big name stars, and whose careers have lasted far longer, and, unhappily, there are younger actors with the same kinds of talent and determination who will never get the chance because they’re solid, dependable… and don’t have a flashy trick… or gimmick, as the old song says.

Solution or Description?

Being married to a performing singer and university opera director means that I get to meet all sorts of people, ranging from students to retirees, from those who are very creative and interesting to those who are financially very well-off and support the arts, some few of whom are also creative.  I also have been drafted at times to craft various documents, including fund-raising letters, and this has led to some interesting situations. 

Although the university is located in the Utah county with the lowest individual and per family income, with a large rural component, and no heavy industry and only a comparatively few mid-tech or light industrial concerns, several directors of one charitable group absolutely refused to allow the use of those facts in a fund-raising appeal.  Why?  Because, first, they felt it would alienate any executives in the small manufacturing community, because it implied to them a criticism of their wage scales, even though the appeal specifically noted that the small manufacturing community was an exception to the generally prevailing low wage scale.

When I attempted to discuss this with one of the individuals who insisted on deleting the statistics, that individual provided a detailed explanation of how his company paid far higher wages than the local average and how their training program had enabled workers to move from the bottom to the top of the wage scale, all of which was absolutely true.  He then claimed that that low income problem was because of four factors: a local culture that emphasizes large families at a young age; the lack of high-tech manufacturing; a rural economy outside of the city proper; and the fact that “people choose their life-styles.” 

The executive who listed those factors was largely correct in his assessment, and, more than likely, equally correct in assessing how his peers would react, but that assessment didn’t make the problems go away. It did make it more difficult to explain why an organization needs funds for programs to benefit the children of those who are less fortunate without pointing out that more of such families exist in one’s community.  It’s as if some of these more financially fortunate individuals want to deny the reality of a situation while attempting to ameliorate some of the problems caused by that reality.

I’d be the first to admit that people make both good and bad choices, having made some of both myself over the years.  And some bad choices do lead to low incomes and, often, poverty, but the fact remains, after all the rhetoric, that the county does in fact have the lowest per capita and family income in the state, and  not all of that can be explained away by poor choices on the part of individuals.  In addition, children don’t choose their parents, what work those parents do, or what culture exists where the family lives. Geographically isolated small cities and towns without plentiful water supplies will not have much, if any heavy manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the mindset represented by those who didn’t want the facts listed has an impact well beyond local charitable appeals.  Problems of all sorts don’t go away just because there is a “good explanation” for their cause.  Put in a lighter way, one of my friends, a retired engineer, observed that, when the highway department installed a huge sign on the interstate highway stating “Bump Ahead,” the highway types thought they’d solved the problem.  They’d only described it… and solutions have to go beyond description.