Archive for November, 2014

The Real “Message” of Ferguson

… has almost nothing to do with Michael Brown. Nor does it have all that much to do with “police brutality.” Those who focus on either are missing the underlying point and will only make the situation worse by polarizing the fear and hatred without doing a damned thing to address the underlying cause… and that cause is not just the unfair treatment of blacks and minorities. The unfair treatment of blacks and minorities and women is just one aspect of something much larger. And no, I’m not a socialist, or a communist.

I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility at all levels, and the overall problem facing the United States and, from what I can see, all too many industrialized nations is that we have institutionalized and effectively legalized a system that all too often absolves those with resources from personal responsibility, and in some cases decriminalizes certain forms of unethical or irresponsible behavior on their part while retaining penalties on those who are poor, or otherwise economically challenged.

The great legal innovation that made possible the rise of large corporations was the development of limited liability or incorporation, whereby organizations gain the legal status of individuals, thereby shielding the officers or owners of corporations from both damages and direct responsibility for acts committed by the corporation. In practice, that means no individual can be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or any other equivalent charge as a result of the faulty GM starter switch, the unsafe placement of the Ford Pinto gas tank, the sudden acceleration of certain Toyota vehicles. No individual in the banking establishment has ever been nor could they ever be prosecuted for developing and implementing the widespread financial tools that crashed the economy. Over the past century, company after company has engaged in acts and behaviors that have killed or ruined the health and environment of millions of Americans, and after more than twenty years in the environmental regulatory field, I’m not aware of a single prosecution of any corporate decision-maker on environmental grounds. Oh, there have been prosecutions of and successful damage lawsuits against corporations, but those violations and damage were paid out of “corporate funds,” i.e., revenues generated by corporate operations, usually the same polluting and/or unsafe operations that were found to be illegal. Slightly ironic, isn’t it, and more than a little hypocritical.

I’m not opposed to capitalism. In fact, I’m in favor of “pure capitalism” as opposed to the “unfettered” capitalism that so many business types claim as the pure thing… and isn’t. Unfettered capitalism was what the robber-barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century practiced, capitalism without rules or restrictions. In practice, this meant minimizing costs by paying workers as little as possible, providing few if any benefits, paying the lowest taxes for government services possible, not worrying any more than absolutely necessary about product quality, and despoiling the environment, and thus dumping the environmental costs on everyone else. In short, unfettered capitalism thrives on pushing off as much of the costs of production as possible on everyone else. Under “pure capitalism” [which I admit freely isn’t yet possible], businesses would be required to cover ALL the costs of production in the price of their products, including total environmental clean-up [zero pollution], safe products and working environment, and livable wages for workers. While a handful of businesses today meet this standard, most don’t, and possibly can’t under current economic and legal structures, especially with the insatiable American demand for goods and services at the lowest possible prices. As result, we have a considerable number of large corporations that employ huge numbers of part-time workers and send jobs overseas, where labor costs are lower and environmental requirements far less stringent. None of this translates into better wages and jobs for economically disadvantaged Americans, a significant percentage of whom are minorities.

In a sense, the same structural mindset is also true of government, in that no member of Congress or group of members of Congress can be prosecuted for giving tax breaks to specific firms [appropriately couched in general language that boils down in practice to applying to one or two or only a few corporations or individuals], even though such “tax breaks” that apply to a minute few of all taxpayers essentially amount to theft from all other taxpayers, which is ethically definitely a form of corruption.

As a result of this kind of governmental and legal structure, we have developed a business and societal structure that rewards unethical behavior by those with great resources, removes those individuals from personal legal sanctions and responsibility for actions that damage if not kill anywhere from scores to millions of people, and minimizes the impact of criminal penalties on those in the upper middle class and upper class. The legal penalties for so-called white collar crime are so much less stringent than the penalties for what might be called street crime, and even drug laws are effectively aimed at the economically disadvantaged.

Education falls into the same twin-level structure. Those with resources can obtain a better education for their children by either living in an affluent community with good public schools or sending their children to private schools. The poor – and the bulk of most minorities are poor – have no such choice. Add to this the fact that almost all the education “reforms” so far implemented [as I’ve discussed in great depth over the years] are largely ineffectual in improving education for anyone who is not affluent, except in the case of a comparative handful of charter schools, and “more” education isn’t helping the majority of the poor and middle class all that much. The skyrocketing levels of public college tuition [fueled largely by the reluctance of state legislators to maintain past levels of state contributions because of an unwillingess to raise taxes] impact, again disproportionately, those students who come from middle class or lower economic backgrounds, especially minority students.

Then add in the growing income inequality in the United States, which reduces even more the ability of those without resources to climb out of poverty and otherwise succeed.

Michael Brown was no angel. He wasn’t even close. But that isn’t the point behind all the demonstrations. In effect, Michael Brown was shot because he wanted more and stole a box of cigars to get it. That theft set off a chain of events which led to a confrontation during which he was killed.

On the other hand, Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who definitely wanted more, weren’t killed for destroying Enron and devastating the lives of the 4,000 employees. And recently Skilling effectively “bought” a reduction in the jail time he’ll have to serve. GM and Ford upper management weren’t prosecuted for approving cost-cutting designs that killed people. Although coal companies have polluted and rendered undrinkable almost a quarter of the surface water streams in West Virginia, causing thousands of health problems, and likely hundreds of deaths, if not more, I haven’t found evidence of a single criminal prosecution that has been undertaken against an individual. Not a single individual could be prosecuted under current law for the banking and financial manipulations that almost crashed the entire U.S. economy in 2008 and led to the Great Recession. These are just a few examples of what is a wide-spread pattern of corporate behavior.

But we can criminalize minor drug possession, and throw people in jail for life for three crimes, not involving murder, that might affect as few as three people.

The outrage over Michael Brown’s death, whether all those protesters realize it consciously or not, is an outrage over a system that has become more and more closed and more and more tilted toward those with resources.

The Cruelty of Absolute Certainty… the Arrogance of the True Believer.

So many of the news headlines today reflect both — another aid worker beheaded; hundreds of villagers of a different faith beheaded; kidnapped schoolgirls forced into marriage because women shouldn’t be educated; Republicans decry President’s amnesty executive orders, but refuse to pass legislation that isn’t 100% of what they want; and pretty much the vast majority of elected officials ignore anything they don’t want to believe, regardless of the amount of evidence to the contrary.

The sad part of this is that so little of it is new. Five hundred years ago, in England and across Europe Catholics were burning Protestants as heretics, and Protestants were killing Catholics in various ways because each was absolutely certain of the supremacy of its faith, and the evil of the other guy’s faith, and it was guys, because women didn’t count for much back then.

Not only that, but all of the various religious beliefs, past and present, are based on the teachings of men, and one woman, who have attempted to assure their followers that they knew, absolutely, the will of the Deity… and that in all too many cases, the will of that Deity was to slaughter and/or enslave all who did not share their beliefs. Despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence of such a Deity, and the fact that a great number of beliefs based on such teachings have been found to be totally inaccurate, if not completely baseless, tens of millions of people are ruled by such absolutist believers, and U.S. history has its share of such.

Four hundred years ago, European colonists began a two-century campaign to conquer North America, and in the process to displace the native American peoples because they were “inferior.” Slightly more than a hundred and fifty years ago, the leaders of the Confederacy began a civil war because they believed their way of life, based on slavery and “states’ rights,” was superior to a federal government had the temerity to suggest that perhaps enslaving other people might not be such a good idea – and at that time the federal government had only restricted the extension of slavery to new states. We still have those people who believe in the unlimited right to have and bear arms, despite the fact that the United States has one of the highest rates of civilian deaths by firearms – and certainly the greatest absolute number of such deaths.

The consequences of such absolutist beliefs have always been deadly, and usually terrifying, and that hasn’t changed, either. That was a lesson the Founding Fathers understood, and understood well. Because they didn’t want an absolutist government, they did their best to come up with a system that required a certain amount of compromise to work.

Well… now no one wants to compromise, and guess what… the system doesn’t work. What about that, exactly, is so hard to understand?

Recent archaeological discoveries in Central America have revealed a great deal about the fall of the great Mayan culture. That culture flourished in an area where the rains only fell from May to October. To keep the gods happy and the rains coming, the Mayans offered human sacrifices to the gods. Then in the late ninth century, the weather changed, and there was almost no rain – anytime. The Mayans began to increase their sacrifices, but the rains still didn’t return. Then came the wars… and more sacrifices… and finally the collapse. Sad to say, all that true belief didn’t matter at all, but the mindset of true believers is to claim that that is because the other guy believed in the wrong god and faith. That’s the all-too-human reaction – the other guy is wrong. Add to that the problem that very seldom do most people understand that following a belief that doesn’t have a grounding in facts is likely to cause problems, if not lead to disaster.

Americans have progressed… slightly. We now follow politicians whose views comfort us the most and give us the reassurance that the other guys and gals are wrong… and we can’t really understand how people can kill for religion… even as close to seventy thousand Americans die every year because of our belief in the freedom to drive automobiles at high speeds even while drinking, distracted, and texting and for virtually everyone to bear firearms, regardless of their capacity to use them wisely.

State of Emergency

Apparently, Missouri governor Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and alerted the National Guard in preparation for possible violence in Ferguson, Missouri, because the grand jury is close to a decision on whether to indict policeman Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.

Heaven knows that the Ferguson Police Department is not up there with the best of police departments. Reports from everywhere seem to suggest that, while the department is better than it was years ago, it has a long ways to go. And some analyses of the way Darren Wilson handled the beginning of the confrontation with Michael Brown suggest that there might have been better ways to approach Brown.

That said, let’s be honest. No matter what Brown’s friends, family, and supporters say, Brown was not the innocent near-angel portrayed by his supporters. Minutes before the fatal confrontation Brown stole cigars from a local convenience story and brutally shoved the clerk and owner out of the way. This was caught on the store surveillance camera. The owner reported the theft immediately and described Brown. Police were looking for him. No one knows for certain what happened in detail after Wilson stopped Brown, except that Wilson did suffer injuries, that a quantity of his own blood was found in his squad car, and that Brown was fatally shot.

Some sort of confrontation occurred; Wilson was injured enough to bleed and have minor injuries; Wilson shot Brown. An autopsy performed by the former chief medical examiner for the city of New York, at the request of Brown’s family, found that the shots had all been fired at a distance of from one to four feet; this finding was consistent with the other medical examinations.

Now…for a moment, forget about the race card. A six foot four inch young man weighing 292 pounds who has been identified as a robbery suspect strikes a policeman… for whatever reason. The policeman shoots him at short range. This is not a violation of civil rights. It may have been an unwise split-second decision by a panicked policeman facing a giant of a young man who had just committed a crime, and that decision resulted in a fatal shooting. Or it may have been self-defense on Wilson’s part. In any case, Michael Brown was no innocent. Most likely, Darren Wilson wasn’t either.

But, however the grand jury rules, this shouldn’t be a case for rioting and great clamor over civil rights. And by the way, what about the civil rights of the shopkeeper who was robbed and assaulted by Michael Brown? I haven’t heard a word about his rights… anywhere.

The Non-Integrated Society

No… I’m not talking about discrimination, at least not racial or gender discrimination, but about the growing inability of younger Americans, say a huge percentage of those under fifty, to integrate information and knowledge into their studies, lives, and social and economic behavior.

This is scarcely just my personal evaluation. Since my wife is a university professor, and one daughter a secondary school teacher, and two others graduate school professors [one in law and the other in medicine], and all of them interact with others in their fields, the data-base from which I’m drawing is both broad geographically and in terms of fields. And all of them, and the vast majority of their colleagues, all agree on one point – the majority of U.S. students cannot integrate information. They cannot offer a coherent, fact-based oral or written presentation that is both organized and logically supported.

This deficiency goes well beyond education. We have far too high an unemployment rate, and an especially high underemployment rate, in this country, yet we have business after business claiming that they cannot find skilled employees and, often, not even potential employees who can be trained. Why not? Because pretty much every job above the basest form of manual labor requires a degree of information integration.

In the case of students, the majority of them are not stupid, nor are they inherently slow. They couldn’t be with the speed at which they text. But they’ve never been taught how to take discrete bits of information, to evaluate them, and then to integrate that information into their world-view, or even just into their work-view or school-view.

Not only is this lack of information integration prevalent in schools and universities, but it’s now pervading everything, from politics to business to entertainment.

What is overlooked so often today are some very simple points. Without facts to back it up, any viewpoint is just prejudiced opinion. Without knowledge of how a tool works and what its limitations are, the worker who uses it is an accident waiting to occur.

According to poll after poll, around 90% of all Americans are displeased, if not furious, with the American Congress. Yet in the last election, over 96% of all incumbents were re-elected. A little bit of cognitive dissonance there? If you’re that displeased with Congress, why did you reelect the same folks you’re so displeased with? Take your choice – (a) people are incredibly stupid, (b) they can’t put the facts together, i.e., they can’t integrate information, (c) party loyalty supersedes factual information, i.e., most people are illogical, or (D) some combination of the above.

Now, polls show that the majority of voters in any given district/state have a favorable view of their own representative or senator, even when that elected official continually votes against the voter’s declared interests.

As I’ve noted more than a few times, all too many businesses seem unable or unwilling to integrate data and events that indicate that the insistence on higher short-term profits puts them on a long-term course for disaster and lower profits. GM’s faulty starter switch was a perfect example. Saving less than a dollar a car by installing substandard switches in roughly 30 million cars for more than ten years “saved” GM something like $30 million. GM has already paid the National Highway Transportation Board more than $35 million in fines and faces more than one billion dollars in costs, not including additional lawsuits by almost a thousand claimants.

The last thing the United States needs is another generation that is even less adept at integrating and analyzing information, but with schools clearly not being able to teach such skills and the instant-media-communication thirty-second news bite and the growing popularity of Twitter and texting, I’m getting the distinct feeling that information integration and analysis is falling even further behind in the list of skills valued by Americans.

“Discovering” SF

Last week the New York Times book section led off with a review of a book whose title I’m not about to name, for reasons that will become obvious. The book in question was a “science fiction” novel by a “mainstream” author and was highly praised. The reviewer opens by stating that just as the Apollo missions showed the beauty of our planet, in the same fashion a “comparable journey takes place in the best works of science fiction – an imaginative visit to speculative realms that returns the reader more forcibly to the sad and beautiful facts of human existence.” So far, so good.

But then, even as the reviewer admits, the author breaks no new ground with his tale of a missionary’s trip and experiences on an alien world [with no reference to The Sparrow or A Case of Conscience, I might add], but praises him as “a master of the weird” and, after summarizing the plot of the novel, concludes by comparing the author to Hilary Mantel [whom he declares has made the historical novel “newly respectable”] and saying he hopes the author “can do something similar for speculative writing.” The author is, of course, an international seller with several movies based on his books.

All of this gave me the almost insane desire to borrow weapons – as many as I could – from Larry Correia and go on my own monster hunt against the so-called mainstream literati, such as the reviewer, who clearly feels that no existing F&SF writer, no matter how good, can possibly do what this author, as an outsider, may be able to do. The sad part is that the reviewer just might be right, not because there is not a great deal of highly literate and well-written F&SF, but because there seems to be a view among literary reviewers that such literature does not exist.

In the case of such “mainstream” reviewers, I just can’t forgive ignorance and/or total disregard of an entire long-standing genre, particularly when that ignorance has existed so long and so willfully. Praising a novel that clearly examines issues and tropes that have been examined in detail in F&SF for years, if not longer, often brilliantly, as if no one has ever done it before, in the hopes that a talented outsider can bring more readers and “enlighten” them to the fact that within &SF exist a great many brilliant works of literature, seems to me to reveal that the so-called mainstream literati continue to exhibit either ignorance beyond ignorance, or ignorance compounded by arrogance.

And for those reasons, I’m not about to give ink or mention to either the reviewer or the author,

Life is Not Multiple Choice

… and the test results are in. Utah high school students just received the results of a new test that measures achievement in language, mathematics, and science… and on average, less than half the students met the standards in any of the test areas. Two things about the new test were especially interesting, first that the standards and what was being measured didn’t change and, second, that half of the new test required answers from the student – no guessing from choices provided. While there were schools whose overall student mastery levels reached or exceeded 90% mastery, there were also schools where the mastery levels averaged in the 10%-20% range.

What to me is so obvious, but what has been overlooked for years by both parents and educational bureaucrats, is that multiple choice tests don’t accurately show student subject mastery – they’re far more likely to reward speed readers with moderate subject mastery and great test-taking ability. And multiple choice testing certainly doesn’t measure the ability to reason out a mathematical concept or to write an accurate and grammatically correct paragraph.Those students who excel at multiple-choice testing are generally those who (1) have learned the material and can regurgitate or recall it quickly; (2) those able to read and process the questions quickly, (3) those with a comprehensive understanding of common and standard language and society, and (4) those with higher levels of self-discipline. Not surprisingly, those abilities tend to be associated with families with higher incomes and with students from more demanding schools [most of which are either schools in high income areas or charter schools with extraordinarily dedicated and highly professional staff, as well as generally better resources. There are exceptions, of course, but exceptions, as the saying goes, often prove the rule.

The other long-standing problem with multiple choice tests is that they provide an unrealistic view of the choices in life outside and after schooling. Sometimes, usually very infrequently, life presents you with clear and multiple choices. Most of the time, your choices either aren’t obvious, tend to be between less obnoxious alternatives, or you don’t have a real choice at all. Even when choices seem obvious, they often aren’t, because the most appealing one in the short run may turn into a long-range disaster.

The “advantages” to multiple-choice tests are that (1) they’re theoretically more objective, since whether one adequately written paragraph is better than another can result in subjective grading; (2) theytake far fewer resources and are far easier to grade; (3) they allow theoretically more objective comparisons of teachers, schools, and school systems [except most really don’t measure how much a given teacher has improved the skills of a particular student or set of students].

The fact that Utah test scores dropped drastically across the board when open-ended questions were added underscores dramatically just how limited multiple choice tests are – as almost any veteran classroom teacher can explain.

But then, since multiple choice tests are graded on the immediate answer, and we have two generations in a row raised on multiple choice tests, is it any wonder that we’ve become a society dominated by instant gratification and superficial knowledge, with a continuing decline in true critical thinking?

Religious “Values” in Politics

Last week, just a week before the election, two candidates for an open Utah congressional seat got into a “contest” of sorts in which each claimed to hold the most “Mormon/LDS” views, although the assertions weren’t quite that boldly stated… but enough so that the headline from the Salt Lake Tribune played it that way. The idea of claiming “values superiority” isn’t something unique to Utah, unhappily. I’ve seen more than a few elections over the years in which candidates vied to prove who held the more “Christian values.” And for that matter, isn’t the primary cause of ISIS in the Middle East to create a land governed by the most “Islamic” values? Didn’t England suffer through centuries of internal conflict over which church’s values would be predominant? Not to mention the bloody conflicts that wracked Europe immediately after the Reformation?

Just what do people really mean by such assertions? Let’s see. “Most Christian” — today is that code for right-to-life, anti-feminist, pro-gun rights, anti-minority, and thoroughly patriarchal? If it is, that’s rather at variance with the doctrines of that carpenter on whose name and deeds Christianity is theoretically based. On the other hand, Joseph Smith was a patriarchal polygamist who was definitely a right-to-life type, but is that what those two candidates meant?

Or were they just trying to claim, “I’m just like most of you.” But… if most of their constituents want a supremacy of religious values in government, where does that leave all those who don’t share those values?

Like the Founding Fathers, I’m rather skeptical of putting religious values ahead of everything because one immediate question arises – whose religious values? And the second question is of even greater concern – to what degree will a candidate or incumbent attempt to use government to strengthen or impose those values on those who do not share them? All of which brings up a third question – if a candidate doesn’t intend to strengthen or impose those religious values he or she is trumpeting, exactly why bring them up except to gain an advantage. And if that’s the case, what does that reveal about how far the politician or candidate will go to obtain or maintain power.

As for me, I tend to vote against candidates who trumpet religious values – unless their opponents have even greater flaws, which, these days, is more often the case than I can ever recall… and that’s a sad commentary as well.