Archive for May, 2014

Buying into the Stereotypes

As I’ve noted before, stereotypes persist in all human cultures, unfortunately partly because they’re convenient mental shortcuts, and partly, again unfortunately, because the group being stereotyped almost always has within it individuals, almost always a significant minority, if not more, whose characteristics fit that stereotype. There are two kinds of buy-ins, one by outsiders doing the stereotyping and one by members of the group being stereotyped.

Part of the underlying problem with stereotyping is that stereotyping often results from pressures either within or outside the group being stereotyped. Historically, for example, Jews were stereotyped as being usurious and greedy money-lenders, but in much of Europe for centuries, money-lending and banking were among the few non-menial professions open to Jews, and certainly it was the most lucrative. Among young inner city ethnic males, failure to adhere to certain styles of dress and behavior can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being. The problem, unfortunately, is that such attire and behavior are regarded as socially undesirable, if not a warning of imminent danger, by most of those outside that ethnic male community. This obviously creates not only a social but an economic problem. The behavior and dress that allow day-to-day survival mitigate against success outside the community.

The same pressures also exist in other “communities,” although they’re seldom mentioned. Wall Street financiers are often stereotyped as greedy, heartless, and self-centered money-grubbers. The problem there is that, at least from what I’ve seen, having any sort of conscience or awareness of the impact of their actions beyond Wall Street is extremely detrimental to their day-to-day success.

At the same time, what all too many people within such groups fail to understand is that appearances and behavior matter. They affect perceptions of outsiders and how they deal with members of the group being stereotyped. What also overlooked, or at least seldom mentioned, is that stereotypes are far more detrimental to members of groups with less economic and political power. Unemployed and less educated minority youth seldom have either; Wall Street financiers and attorneys, aka shysters and ambulance chasers or, in more refined circles, “hired guns for sale to the highest bidder,” have both power and money, and money and power tend to override stereotypes, which may be another reason why so many pursue both so vigorously, rather than actual expertise in a given field.

There’s no easy answer to stereotyping, as Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, just found out, when trying to explain how he’d react to encountering various “stereotypes” on a dark street. Yet I’d be willing to bet that 99% of all Americans would do exactly what he said he’d do.


Some dictionary definitions of “monster” include: (1) one abnormal, unnatural, or hideous in appearance or (2) one that inspires hate or horror because of cruelty, wickedness, depravity, etc., (3) a fabulous creature compounded of parts from various animals, as a centaur, dragon, hippogriff, etc. Readers of my books will likely have noticed that I don’t have many, if any, alien monsters running around. There are a few dangerous creatures here and there, such as the stun lizards of Naclos in the Recluce series or the sandwolves or dustcats in the Corean Chronicles, but they’re not monsters. They’re just dangerous predators. I’ve also written about a few alien species, but they’re alien, with different motives, and not monsters, at least not in the traditional fantasy or literary sense.

Yet, lately, particularly in the last ten, perhaps fifteen years, we’ve had an explosion in F&SF monsters – werewolves, vampires, evil creatures from faerie, zombies, truly malevolent ghosts, and I’ve found myself asking why on two fronts. Why are so many authors and readers fascinated and enthralled by all these monsters, and why am I totally uninterested in reading about most of them? I’ve certainly sampled the current offerings, and I remain largely unthrilled and unenthralled.

Part of the reason these monsters are so popular with so many readers is that they show a direct danger and an obvious power, and in most cases they’re bested by a largely standard human being, or one close enough that readers can identify with him or her. I think that gives many readers a sense of meaning and power that’s seemingly missing in our complex culture where it so often seems that no one can get much of anything constructive done – especially in the last few years when so many of those who make the most money can’t even be considered to be doing anything constructive.

For me, at least personally, that poses a bit of a problem, because most of the real monsters I’ve encountered or even read about haven’t been alien – they’ve been monstrous human beings, usually very successful at rationalizing their actions in some way or another… or in justifying them by placing some sort of blame on other people because life hasn’t gone the way they wanted. But then, that kind of monstrosity doesn’t sell millions of books or make blockbuster movies. Even so, my “monsters” are likely to remain the human kind. For me, they’re much more interesting… and, hopefully, for my readers.

“Senior” Management ?

This past weekend, an interesting analysis appeared in a number of newspapers, showing that the highest-paid people in medicine weren’t the doctors, but the “senior management” types in healthcare. Hospital directors make a lot more than the most expensive surgeons, and multiple times what general practitioners do. This is a problem, but it’s not confined to medicine. It’s everywhere. The senior executives in pharmaceutical companies make ten times what their top researchers make – if not hundreds of times. In my wife’s university, from what I can determine, nine of the ten top-paid individuals are “management” types, and most of the top fifty are either management types or professors of business or management. The same has long been true in corporate America as well.

The question is, then, just why are these management types so much more valuable than those under them who actually do the work, design and make the products, do the market research, sell those new products, teach the students, build the highways, heal and repair the sick. Not only that but even among the top executive types, pay levels are marginally related, if even that, to actual performance or worth to society. The highest-paid individuals in America are hedge fund managers and other financial types whose greatest accomplishments are speculation and speed-trading, which is essentially legal high-speed graft and extortion, justified by them as “providing market liquidity.” Study after study has shown that the highest-paid executives tend, overwhelmingly, to be taller, good-looking males – whose actual performance on the job is, on average, less than that of either shorter male CEOs or women.

These facts are anything but unknown. So why do we continue to select and reward individuals and occupations that aren’t the best for improving life for the vast majority of us? For that matter, why don’t corporations pick executives and managers based on more than a modicum of talent and a maximum of appearance and charisma? And what’s the societal point of minimizing productive people and resources in the United States so that a comparative handful of executives and speculators can pile up more hundreds of millions or billions of dollars?

Are we really that self-destructive?

“Cost” of Education

The last few days, with graduations occurring somewhere practically everywhere, it’s not surprising that I’ve run across columns, letters, and blogs all decrying the increase in the cost of education. They’re all correct in the fact that the cost of education has increased faster than the rate of inflation, and almost all of them are wrong about most of the rest of it, especially their “remedies” for reducing costs.

The first thing that people tend to forget is that a huge component of the increased costs is the number of students attending college. In 1960, only 7.7% of the population had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2013, the percentage was 33.5%. Now, considering that the U.S. population was 180 million in 1960 and was 317 million in 2013, that means that there were only about 14 million people with an undergraduate college degree or higher in 1960, while there are 106 million today. No one seems to be considering the cost of at least tripling the infrastructure needed to educate close to a hundred million more students. And in some ways it’s worse than that, since in 1960 roughly forty percent of graduating high school seniors entered college and fewer than half graduated from college. Today, more than 66% of all high school seniors enter college, and still only about half make it through. With a still increasing population, that requires more facilities and more teachers.

Some of this problem could be solved by stricter admission standards and more rigorous grading and higher academic standards, especially on the secondary school level, both to improve preparation for college and to weed out early those students either unable or unwilling to do college-level work. Greater investment in teaching high level, non-college skills would also help, but all of these are currently politically highly unlikely.

The second factor is that in all areas, but especially in the more technical areas, the cost of educational equipment and facilities has increased. When I taught university more than twenty years ago, most faculty didn’t have computers. Now they all do, and they’re necessary, given state and federal requirements. Laboratory equipment is far more expensive, as are building and safety requirements.

Interestingly enough, while university personnel costs have increased significantly, the largest area of growth has been in administrative personnel, while cost growth in teaching faculty has been restrained by hiring far fewer tenured and tenure track faculty and ever greater numbers of part-time adjuncts, so that on average college and university faculty have gone from being more than two-thirds full-time faculty to one third full-time and two-thirds adjunct, while the numbers of high-paid administrators have continued to increase, in some instances by as much as ten times the increase in full-time faculty.

Then, as I’ve mentioned earlier in other posts, the share of who pays the overall cost of education at public universities and colleges has also shifted dramatically over the past fifty years, from the majority of such costs, often 90%, being paid by the state in the immediate post WWII era, to the present, where, on average, 90% is now paid through student tuition and fees.

Given all these factors, and the fact that public universities and colleges, who educate the vast majority of students, have essentially limited staff and faculty pay to less than the rate of inflation over the past twenty years, any significant cost cuts in teaching personnel are not possible, no matter what anyone claims, and no one seems willing to even look at administrative bloat. In addtion, because the college-age population is still increasing, the need for more facilities and equipment isn’t likely to shrink, either. The only question is whether voters and taxpayers are willing to increase the state and local governments’ share of funding higher education, so that less of a cost burden falls on the student or the student’s family, or whether the United States will, by default,effectively restrict higher education to those of greater means and to the comparative handful of less affluent students who are so brilliant that they can obtain scholarships and grants.


The biggest problem American companies and probably every other corporate-level business in the world has is that few of them, if any, understand that there can indeed be too much of a good thing, or at least too much trying to obtain too much of a good thing, especially when that “good thing” happens to be increased revenues or profits or increased CEO and high-level executive compensation. Revenue and profit have become such a dominating target that almost none of their CEOs or corporate boards ask, “How much is enough?” Those that do ask invariably answer, “As much as we can get.”

I’m not against profit, just as I’m not against eating, but trying to gorge on profits is the corporate equivalent of gluttony, and sooner or later it results in either corporate unwellness, terminal corporate illness, or societal malfunctioning on a grand scale. Corporations are continually trying to do more with less, in order to increase revenues and profits, but none of them ask what the results of their “success” will be, or the implications for the future.

The other day I went to get a plastic pipe joint for my sprinkler system – just a piece of PVC pipe maybe five inches long at most. When I got home I discovered I actually had an unused one, but I thought they were different. They were. The new one was almost an inch shorter than the older one, which means that it’s not as strong. I suppose it doesn’t make that much difference for a buried sprinkler system pipe, but the problem is that making things smaller and cheaper while selling them for the same price or even more doesn’t stop at PVC pipe. It goes into things like General Motors car ignition switches, whose failure resulted in people being killed, all for a savings of a dollar a car. And the only lesson Detroit has learned since the Pinto fuel tank disasters is that people eventually forget.

The problem with doing more with less and maximizing profits is that the goods and services are cheaper, that fewer employees have good paying jobs, and the profits go to those already well-off, either through dividends, capital gains, or higher compensation. All that makes executives happy and well-paid, and investors equally happy – but only for the moment. The problem is that ninety-five percent of Americans (and before long it’s likely to be 99.5%, it isn’t already) aren’t sharing in this wealth, and, as I’ve noted before, in a consumption driven economy that also imports more than it exports, as income inequality increases, the ninety percent have less and less to spend, and that means that they buy less and they buy cheaper goods. It also means that welfare and food stamp program costs go up, yet with tax revenues already in deficit, that means that infrastructure programs have lower funding, as do research, defense, and education, among others necessary for the successful functioning of society.

In effect, the quest for greater revenues at all costs is bankrupting the country, slowly but inexorably. And for what, so the top 25 hedge fund managers can make more money than all the kindergarten teachers in America? So U.S. corporations can outsource more and more jobs? Maybe, just maybe, if the top ½ of one percent of the earners in the United States had to pay taxes at U.S. levels in the 1960s, they might not be so obsessed with profits, and we could pay for the basics society needs without running deficits, and we might get back to 1960s prosperity. And… please… don’t talk about welfare cheats; the biggest cheats are in the finance industry.

But don’t count on any real tax and structure reform happening so long as the Republicans claim that higher taxes are job killers. Higher taxes on the right people aren’t. Tell me, honestly, exactly what benefit do all those exorbitant multi-million dollar compensation packages provide for the country?

Benghazi and BLM

The Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have formed another committee to investigate the so-called Benghazi scandal. Besides being a waste of time and money, it’s also an example of the total self-centeredness and the failure of the Republican Party even to follow their own self-proclaimed principles. The deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and three others were tragic. They shouldn’t have died, but let’s look at the situation. The two possibilities for the cause most cited are: (1) the killings were motivated by a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video produced in the U.S. or (2) the attack was planned and executed by anti-American Islamic terrorists. The bottom line is that four people died because a great many people in Libya and throughout the Middle East hate Americans and because security was not adequate. In the larger context, it doesn’t matter that much which anti-American cause led to the killings. The real cause was poor security, and and that was not caused because the Congress had cut State Department funding, but because the career staff of the State Department, not the Secretary of State, not the political appointees, had allocated the security personnel as they saw fit and failed to offer adequate support for the ambassador when he visited a CIA post in Benghazi. Yet the Congressional investigations continue to focus on former Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, for their misleading political statements about the issue, rather than on those in the State Department who were actually responsible for the lax security. Of course, Clinton and Obama tried to spin the issue after the fact. So did the Republicans, and they’re still trying. The problem here is that yet another hearing won’t do a damned thing to solve the problem. It will convince die-hard Republicans – again – that Clinton and Obama are out to mislead the public. It will also convince die-hard Democrats, again,that the Republicans are continuing to avoid doing anything constructive while using the Congress as a basis for personal attacks. And, guess what? The left and the right are both correct… and totally ignoring the real problems and issues.

Now… in this light, let’s look at the BLM mess in the west. We have a Nevada rancher who has refused to pay grazing fees for twenty years. After twenty years of essentially doing nothing, the BLM suddenly decides to seize his cattle. Hundreds of self-proclaimed militia appear, armed with everything from handguns to high-powered rifles and semi-automatic weapons. The BLM backs down, again, and the “militia” remain patrolling the area and stopping residents and others at will. This is hardly an issue of an overbearing government. For years, the BLM has charged grazing fees set as low as legally possible, at rates often as low as ten percent of what private land owners charge and far below the rates charged by states on state-owned lands. In addition, the BLM has failed to maintain the lands, at least with regard to wild horses, so that there are tens of thousands of wild horses on federal lands that can only support a fraction of that total, and excess of 2,000 alone in just Iron County, Utah. Yet, last week, a BLM wrangler was threatened by two men, one of whom was armed, for actually transporting horses to a holding area, and an elected state official led an illegal ATV ride through a roadless area closed to motorized vehicles, in protest of BLM procedures protecting environmental and archeological features of the area.

In both of these cases, we have Republicans and Democrats both playing politics… and neither side seems in the slightest interested in addressing the underlying problems. We don’t need another political Benghazi investigation; we don’t need posturing over citizens’ and states’ “rights” to claim federal lands, so-called “rights” that have no basis in law. And we certainly don’t need self-proclaimed militia telling residents and government alike what to do. What we need is less posturing and more action, but, of course, almost no politician really wants action because enforcing the law and looking into real incompetence, as opposed to politically-trumped-up issues, just upsets various political interests and costs votes, and votes are apparently far more important than law or good government to the vast majority of politicians. But then, maybe after so many years in politics, they really can’t even tell the difference.

Belief or Thought?

The vast majority of people believe what they want to. What distinguishes a thinking individual from a believing individual is that thinking individuals do their best to evaluate all the facts in their environment and in the universe, not just the ones that support what they believe. What complicates this is that some individuals believe in things that are so; that is, what they believe is aligned with what the facts indicate is in fact so, but they do so out of belief, and often the basis for those beliefs rests upon other biases not grounded in fact. Add to that the fact that someone can be a thinking individual in some respects and a total “believer” in something that is anything but grounded in fact in others. In life, most of us are a mixture of thinker and believer.

From what I’ve observed and from what some psychologists report, all too often when “loyalties” that require adherence to a belief ungrounded in fact [and by that I mean the preponderance of fact and not just selected facts] conflict with the preponderance of fact, loyalties almost always win out. Thus, a far greater number of Republicans believe President Obama is a Muslim than do Democrats, while a far greater number of liberals oppose all genetically modified foods than do conservatives. Extreme fundamentalist Christians cannot accept evolution because it conflicts with an essential loyalty. Extreme libertarians believe that minimal or no government secures the most freedom for the most people, despite the bloody evidence of all human history to the contrary.

What makes all this even more of a problem is that when one marshals even what might seem an unassailable array of facts and proof against a belief with little or no support grounded in reality, all such an assault does, in the vast majority of instances, is to strengthen the belief. Which is why a small army of self-proclaimed and armed militia members continue to patrol the side-roads around Bunkerville, Nevada, most firmly convinced that Cliven Bundy, the man who owes the federal government [i.e., the taxpayers] over a million dollars, is a patriot supporting states’ rights, in particular rights that the state of Nevada relinquished in writing upon gaining statehood, and rights that are superseded in writing in the Constitution, that very document those true-believing militia types insist they are upholding.

But then, how many of us have beliefs ungrounded in fact and reality that we uphold against the evidence all around us, evidence we choose not to see because it conflicts with what we need to believe?

Short Stories

As at least some of my readers know, I began my career in science fiction by writing short stories, initially primarily for ANALOG when Ben Bova was the editor. I still have a love of short stories, but, since they don’t come anywhere close to paying the bills, for me, and I suspect for most writers, short stories are either a labor of love or to get experience, if not both, along with a little income.

One of my very personal problems with a great deal of the short fiction that I’ve read in the last decade is that, in my very prejudiced and personal opinion, too many of the stories being published are either techno-gadget stories or excessively dark. I have nothing against either a good techno-gadget story or a dark story. I’ve certainly written my share of techno-gadget stories, particularly early in my career, and I’ve written a few dark stories – not insanely dark and vicious ones, but quietly dark tales. I do have a dislike of dark and gimmick stories in great numbers, but that’s a personal preference of mine, clearly not shared by many editors and readers.

From what I’ve seen, the predominance of “dark” stories isn’t limited to F&SF, either. In fact, “dark” seems to be the predominant flavor all too much of the “mainstream.” Now… I know there’s a great deal of funny and witty chick lit being written, but as a male, for me a little of that goes a long way.

I still do write short stories, although the last one I had published appeared in print over two years ago, but to achieve what I want in a short story seems to require intense bursts of work, followed by weeks or months of unconscious contemplation, followed by revision, more contemplation, and more revision, all in the spaces between novels, or at least chapters of novels. Then, add to that the fact that most of the stories I write seem to appeal more to anthologists and book editors than to U.S. magazine editors. Beyond that… yes, there are more short stories coming, but not for a while.

EBooks and Paperbacks… and Backlists

The other day I was talking to my editor, something I attempt to do weekly, and in discussing the industry he made the observation that hardcover sales were largely holding on, overall, although this varied to some degree by author, and that the explosive growth of ebooks had stopped, with a very slight increase in overall sales last year, while the sales of mass-market paperbacks had continued to decline far faster than the sales of ebooks had increased. In my own sales, I’m seeing a modest increase in the combined sales of hardcovers and initial ebooks, although the percentage of hardcovers is declining slightly while the percentage of initial [i.e., higher-priced] ebooks is increasing. The sales of ebooks sold at the “paperback” price continues to increase, but not as much as the sales of mass-market paperbacks have declined. On the other hand, ebook sales of older books have strengthened, largely because, I suspect, few bookstores carried new copies of older paperbacks, and readers who want those books are turning to ebooks.

Obviously, I can’t speak for other authors, but what I’m seeing suggests that a strong backlist may become even more of a necessity, at least for those authors who do not become instant, or near-instant, mega-sellers. The problem for newer authors, of course, is how to get published enough times so that you have enough of a presence in readily accessible venues, largely internet these days, so that readers who have not read you will see your name enough to want to try your work. The associated difficulty is making certain that the venues where your name appears are venues that appeal to those who will like your books. This can be anything but easy. For example, there are several forums where the forum-leader [for lack of a better word] or leaders are inclined to be favorable to my books, but from both the tenor and volume of the comments, it’s fairly apparent that either a great number of the forum frequenters are not… or that those who do like my books refrain from commenting… and I‘ve never been able to ascertain more than the obvious fact that some frequenters of those forums and sites like my books and some don’t. I hope for the dominance of the silent readers who like and buy my works while continuing in all ways that are feasible and cost-and-time effective to maintain a certain visibility… but that’s far easier for an established author than a newcomer with only a book or two out there.

I could name a handful of relatively new authors who have been incredibly successful in building sales through an internet presence, but they all seem to have a very good and accessible sense of humor, both in print and in person. I can also name a number of authors whose careers have essentially vanished because their public presence is almost non-existent and their personal appearance and presentation are less than stellar, and some of them are technically better writers than others who have continued to publish and sell. Yet I can also name at least one best-selling author who has essentially no public presence outside of the books and whose personal appearances have often been reputed to be disasters to the point that the author’s publisher prefers not to tour the author.

All of which goes to show, I suppose, that continuing success in writing doesn’t ever boil down to a magic formula that any new or would-be author can follow to the letter and gain success. But then, hasn’t this always been the case?