Archive for January, 2015

Modern Barbarians and Civilization

The word “barbarian” derives from the Greek “barbaros,” which originally meant someone who did not speak Greek, i.e., an outsider, and since then its derivations through Latin and French have come to take on the connotation of an outsider who is uncultured, indeed uncivilized. The modern concept of “civilization” in turn has its roots in the Roman “civitas,” the body of citizens united under the common law that bound them together, giving them responsibilities on the one hand and rights of citizenship on the other.

An accepted and shared law that lays out responsibilities and rights for citizens is not only the definition of civilization but also a practical requirement for any civilized culture to endure. But… in this sense culture and civilization are not synonymous. One can have a civilization of many cultures, or a single culture that is in no way a civilization.

The rise of the “modern barbarian” is the result, paradoxically, of technological advances and the massive human population growth that technology has engendered. Higher technology levels and greater population density combine so that every human being has the potential to create greater harm to every other human being, often in ways not considered by or known to the individual. In order to prevent or at least minimize this harm, civilizations pass laws, such as emissions standards on cars, where certain businesses can be located, how individuals and businesses must handle waste so that it doesn’t poison their neighbors or neighborhoods, safety standards for products, traffic laws… The list is long, but the laws have generally proved necessary because there are always individuals who believe it is “their right” to do what is not prohibited.

Then there are the “modern barbarians,” who reject any law or regulation that impedes their “right” to do what they think best, regardless of the impact on others. Some of these barbarians are individuals, and some are businesses and corporations, but whatever the type of barbarian, they all ignore the laws, or twist them – or flout them – so that they can continue practices that harm others in order to make money, gain power… if not both.

Maybe we should consider a different way of dealing with the severe lawbreakers, who break the compact, and “modern barbarians,” who break, bend, or ignore it. Since they don’t want to abide by the laws, perhaps we should remove all protections and privileges of civilization from them. You don’t want to follow the laws, then the laws won’t protect you… and no one will be prosecuted for shooting you, or dumping trash on your property. You won’t have to pay taxes, but you won’t get any benefits, no medical care unless you can pay cash for it, and you can’t drive on any road or highway because you aren’t paying for its construction and upkeep… and so on.

Such an approach would never fly… but it is a useful thought experiment. Not that any of the modern barbarians would understand. Nor would most liberals be anything but horrified, I suspect, at even the thought.

Writing Despair?

A recent Locus writers’ roundtable addressed the question of “the unpublished writer’s despair,” and from the discussion it appears that there is a lot of despair out there, most likely because there are a great number of writers who have not been successful, either in getting published or in self-publishing and not selling many books. And there are more than a few published authors who either have trouble getting published at present or in living on what they make from writing. And then there are the published writers deemed successful who still despair at times.

I found myself reacting to the discussion in a fashion that was most analogous to culture shock. It’s not as though I haven’t experienced a fair amount of rejection over the fifty years I’ve been writing or trying to write. As I’ve mentioned here and there, out of the more than one hundred short stories I wrote in my first years, something like six were ever published, and it took almost four years, after almost ten years of writing short stories, and rejections by a goodly number of publishers, after I finished my first novel before it finally found a publisher and was published.

It isn’t that I don’t feel and feel strongly about writing and what I write. Like many writers, I just don’t talk much about those feelings, except to my wife. Perhaps because I have a generally upbeat nature, despair doesn’t strike me often, and so far, not about writing matters. Now… anger… and absolute fury at some of the idiocy I’ve seen published, even though I fully understand that there is a large market for certain types of idiocy… those are another question.

In the whole business of getting published and continuing to get published, I try to be pragmatic. I know that when I write certain types of books, they’ll sell less well. It doesn’t mean I don’t write books that are difficult for some readers; I just space them out. But we as writers are in a profession, and that profession is intellectual entertainment. Some writers are more intellectual and less popularly entertaining, and some writers offer little more than spur-of-the-moment entertainment with minimal intellectual content. Add to that the fact that every reader has a somewhat different view of what is intellectual and what is entertaining, and it all makes writing a difficult profession for most who attempt it, and it’s scarcely surprising that most would-be writers fail to be successful.

What’s overlooked by too many writers, successful or unsuccessful, is that most who attempt a career in any field relying on a degree of popular appeal do in fact fail. Talented people fail. Even writers whom editors love for their style, technique, and stories have failed – miserably.

And I have failed in other occupations and endeavors, sometimes miserably. I was possibly the worst musician to ever lift a clarinet, and certainly one of the worst real estate salesmen in the state of Colorado, and was less than a rousing success in dealing with internal corporate politics. And, frankly, no one cared… or cares now. Nor did anyone really care for the ten years when I was fortunate to sell one short story a year… and I never expected that anyone would.

But no one is granted the “right” to be successful in anything, and success can vanish in a moment. I’ve seen it happen time and time again… and I live and write knowing that it could happen to me as it has to others [although I believe I work hard to avoid that]. All of which is why I find writerly “despair” a foreign country. I don’t find anger, discouragement, indignation, frustration, and consternation foreign… just despair. But maybe that’s because I’ve failed enough in other areas to know that it’s not the end of the world… and also because I’ve also seen how fickle popular taste can be, and how it often has little to do with the worth of what is criticized or rejected… and then, too, I’ve read enough unpublished manuscripts over the years to know that some unpublished writers should remain unpublished.

For understanding all that… and seeing the despair in other writers… I still find despair a foreign country…and one I hope never to inhabit.

A Reality Check?

After President Obama’s State of the Union, quite a number of Congressional Republicans were both perplexed and almost outraged. Why, the Republicans had won overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate. Why wasn’t the President seeking cooperation? Why wasn’t he acknowledging that the “people had spoken”? How could he not “listen” to them? One even declared that the President needed a “reality check.”

I have no inside track to the President. I’ve never met the man, and I think he’s made a number of mistakes, many of which weren’t necessary and got in the way of what he wanted to do. I also think he’s gone overboard in a number of areas. Technically, I’m a registered Republican and always have been, and even was staff director for a Republican Congressman and served in the Reagan Administration. More to the point, I’m not terribly happy with either party, and I suspect I’m far from the only one.

As for the President, why would he want to “cooperate” with Republicans? They have a radically different ideology than his, and one even more right-wing than the beliefs of the majority of Americans [just as the Congressional Democrats have an ideology far more left-wing than the majority of Americans], and they’ve rebuffed what few attempts he’s made in that direction. Republicans have been very clear on what they want – and that’s nothing for anyone but business. “No,” if you will, except for “yes” to big business and vested interests. They harp on the need for lower taxes, despite the fact that individual tax rates are the lowest they’ve been in more than sixty years and that the country needs massive infrastructure replacement and repair; they want less government interference, i.e., less regulation on business, especially on big business and the financial community that has already wrecked the economy once; and they’re demanding a repeal of health insurance just gained by millions of Americans… and that’s just for starters. Exactly why would a President want to “cooperate” with a Congress whose agenda is to dismantle what few things he has been able to do?

As for the people speaking, well… the people spoke twice in electing and reelecting Obama, and the Congressional Republicans didn’t listen to the people then, but they’re expecting him to listen when they “won”? But did the Republicans even win in the larger sense? Oh, there’s no doubt they won the majority of the votes cast in all those districts and states, but given the fact that turn-out was just about the lowest on record, because it was an off-year election and because a significant number of Americans are disgusted with both parties, to characterize the GOP majority as a mandate of any sort is misleading at best. Obama actually won far more votes than the Republicans in 2008 and 2012, and the Republicans certainly didn’t consider that a mandate.

Reality check for the President? What about for the Republicans?

And what about some “cooperation” in the areas where they actually agree… and there are more than a few of those. That way, we could at least see some progress.

Why “Higher” Education Isn’t the “Solution”…

… or not nearly what those who endorse it claim. Far too many social theorists, educators, and politicians push more education, especially higher education, as a solution to the problem of too many people who are poor or economically disadvantaged. The President’s latest initiative of wanting to provide free community college education is certainly well-intentioned, but, even if enacted, which frankly appears doubtful, would at best only provide marginal improvement. From what I can tell, the push for more higher education is based on two undeniable facts. First, in general, people with more education make more money. Second, more and more of the highest-paid salaried jobs demand higher education as a prerequisite for entry and employment.

Unhappily, very few people seem to be looking at the other side of the equation – jobs. There are only so many high-level, high paying jobs in any society, and American business has been quite busy reducing the number of decent-paying mid-level jobs. If we as a society continue to produce more and more graduates of traditional higher education every year, what is the likely result? More competition for those jobs, more unemployed or underemployed graduates, and most likely an eventual reduction in pay.

In my wife’s field, which is classical voice and opera, the United States produces more graduate singers, especially sopranos, in a year than jobs for them are created in roughly more than five years… and does so every year. The result is that competition for those jobs is absolutely brutal, and that the pay, until a singer reaches the very top tier, which only a fraction of a percent do, ranges from abysmal to modest. The other day I was talking to the conductor of a fairly well-known Russian symphony, and he observed that the United States has, overall, the best training and education for singers of any nation… and that even some of the very best end up taking jobs in Europe because there are so few openings in the United States.

Despite or perhaps because of all the MFA programs that profess to teach writers, the same thing is true in the field of writing, except since the U.S. is effectively the largest single market for fiction, there are few alternatives.

Now, the lack of remuneration in the arts, except for a comparatively small percentage of success stories, has always been a fact of life, but it’s even more noticeable now.

What’s different is that we’re also beginning to see gluts in other fields. The number of moderate and high-paying jobs for lawyers has decreased even as law schools produce more graduates. There are more job seekers in health care than there are jobs, with the possible exception of doctors, and most of the openings for physicians are in small towns, inner cities, or rural areas. There is far higher unemployment, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, among scientists and engineers than is recognized, far higher than in professions such as physicians, dentists, and registered nurses, and surprisingly high unemployment exists for recent graduates even in fields with alleged serious “shortages” such as engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent).

Half the twenty-two year old college graduates over the past three years are working in jobs not requiring a degree. Only 27% of all U.S. jobs require a college degree, but now some 47% of the workforce has a college degree, and the number of jobs requiring such a degree is forecast to grow by less than one percent per year.

The problem isn’t just one of education, and, in fact, education may be making the problem even worse for those with only a high school diploma – or less – as over-educated graduates continue to push the less educated into less and less remunerative fields.

The Current Economics of E-Books

The mass market paperback book is rapidly becoming a threatened species. Now, I knew that the paperback market has largely collapsed, as least for science fiction and fantasy, but until I talked with my longtime editor last week and went over some numbers, I hadn’t realized just how bad it had gotten. I did know that my own paperback sales had dropped off, but the increase in ebook sales has largely compensated for the paperback decline in my own case…. but only because I have a large backlist, since the increase in ebook sales from more current titles has not compensated for the drop-off in mass market sales of those titles.

Historically speaking, for most authors, more than half, if not more than eighty percent, of paperback sales of a title occur in the year or so after the initial paperback release. Because the decline in mass market paperback sales has been so precipitous, more and more authors sold by major publishers, especially midlist authors, are discovering that their only print publication is either in hardcover or trade paperback, after which the titles are only available in ebook format.

At the same time, it appears that self-publishing in ebook format is becoming increasingly competitive and that, as a result, for many authors who’ve chosen this route their ebook revenues are also dwindling. Then add to this the fact that Amazon is still pressing, if less obviously, for the top price for ebooks to be $9.99, and the fact that author revenues for ebooks are calculated as a percentage of the net revenues based on the sales price and not the list price. In addition, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program in a very convoluted way [involving an opaque pooling system] that I’m not about to try to explain in a blog will reduce the revenues of participating authors considerably. Then add in the impact of the shift/increase in VAT tax rates for EU countries, and the likely decrease in revenues from that, one way or another.

While industry-wide publishing statistics indicate that ebooks only comprise around a quarter of total book sales, I have serious doubts about the applicability of those statistics to fiction publishing and especially to F&SF sales, since Nielsen statistics indicate that for the last quarter of 2014, 65% of all ebook sales were adult fiction of some sort.

The bottom line is pretty simple from what I can see. On average, the very top authors will continue to sell about as many units as they recently have, but will make somewhat less money. Best-selling authors below the top hundred [that’s an estimate] will see noticeable declines in revenues per title released… and authors below that level will likely see even greater decreases in income unless they increase their output and/or marketing efforts. This is, of course, a prediction of a general pattern, and there will always be some authors who will prove the exception… but I doubt there will be many.

Extremism in Pursuit of…

Everywhere I look, today, large numbers of people are taking things to extremes, and declaring they’re exercising their Constitutional rights. Some are; and quite a few are carrying the exercise of those “rights” to extremes. Even when the extremes are legal, and many aren’t, is this always a good idea? Even when one can make a case for such excess, is it good when so many “rights” are being pushed to the limits… and beyond?

The first amendment grants and protects the “right of the people to peaceably assemble,” as it should, but all too many assemblies these days are anything but peaceable. The first amendment also prohibits abridging the freedom of the press, and with each year the media pushes out more obnoxious, vulgar, intolerant, and generally inflammatory content, with less and less factual substance. It’s become more and more about “stirring people up,” as a fictional politician in the movie Primary Colors once declared.

And somehow, the Religious Right seems to believe that: (1) allowing women to decide whether they want to be pregnant or not violates religious rights of the Religious Right; (2) private corporations are individuals that can impose their beliefs on their employees; (3) while insisting that every zygote be carried to full term and born, they also insist that government should provide no aid or support for all those unwanted children once they are born. And they honestly feel that these beliefs are not in the slightest extreme.

Then there’s the second amendment. Now that there’s no doubt that any gun-lover in the United States can own and shoot semi-automatic weapons with fifty bullet magazines, what’s next? Private armored personnel carriers [after all, the police now have them] or your own suitcase A-Bomb?

How about a little self-restraint? Not that our media will allow that, because restraint doesn’t sell. As a matter of fact, at least one media outlet has suggested just such restraint – and has been roundly criticized in some quarters for betraying “freedom of the press.”

Charlie Hebdo carried freedom of the press to extremes; the gunmen who brutally assassinated twelve people at the newspaper carried their beliefs to extremes. Is this the world we wish to create, where extremes battle extremes, and the one with the most firepower wins?

And, please, forget about declaring that extreme use of words and cartoons isn’t the same as extreme use of bullets. No, it’s not, but what the extreme users of words and symbols so easily forget or ignore is that such extreme use of words shapes social and political structures, and that shaping influences those with bullets, just as the words and “teachings” of extremist Islamists influenced the killers of those at Charlie Hebdo. Being one step removed from causing violence doesn’t remove all the blood from your hands. Like it or not, people are swayed by words and symbols, and the extreme use of either all too often results in disaster. Just look at what Hitler accomplished, and it all began with words… just words.

What’s the reason for all this extremism? Is it because we’re all so busy trying to be heard and to make our points that the din we’ve created drowns out all our efforts… or is it because we’re so preoccupied with what we’re doing that we’re not listening… or is it because we’re so convinced of our own “truth” that we disregard the “truths” of others?

Whatever it is, the result is the multiplication of extremism in all forms, and that is the road to hell, superbly paved with our good intentions based on the assumption that we know best, and that only we have the truth on our side in exerting our “freedoms” and beliefs to their extremes.

On the Matter of Lives Mattering

Recently, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, signs have sprouted in numerous places and at a number of rallies and protests concerned with “police brutality” and the way in which police are alleged, and certainly do at least at times, to deal with minorities, particularly those of African-American descent. Those signs read “Black Lives Matter.” Since I cannot read the minds of those creating and parading the signs, I will assume that the full meaning of those signs is that black lives matter just as much as white Caucasian lives, especially in the administration of law by the police. That is certainly an appropriate and understandable principle.

Except… principles in theory and administration in fact are two different things.

In point of fact, I know very few people who value all lives as equal in meaning and value. The vast majority of us value our own lives highly, and those of our nearest kin highly. Some parents value their children’s lives more highly than their own; some do not, but almost all individuals value the lives of those near and dear to them more than the lives of those they do not know, or know but slightly.

People also value the lives of those who have accomplished worthwhile goals more than the lives those who have not. They may deny that, or even say something to the effect that, in the eyes of whatever Deity they worship, all lives are equal. That’s a polite admission that they don’t place equal value on all lives.

While the laws of the land, and those who enforce those laws, should in fact treat all those innocent of wrong-doing equally, and should presume someone innocent until proven guilty – or, at the very least, observed in wrong-doing – that does not mean that all lives are in fact equal, or that we truly value them as equal.

At the same time, the fact that we place differing levels of value on life, depending on who we are and where we live, does not justify differing treatment under the law. Laws are meant to be applied fairly and evenly to all. Unhappily, often they are not, and at times, as I have noted before, sometimes the laws themselves have been written in ways that disadvantage one group or unfairly advantage another.

Equally unfortunate, however, is when laws are applied equally, and some group or another believes that they are not.

Then, too, there is the very difficult problem of dealing with those apprehended for breaking the law when such individuals do not wish to be detained or arrested. The Garner case is an unfortunate, but illustrative, example. No matter what anyone claims, Garner was not choked to death. One cannot say he “can’t breathe” a number of times if his airway is blocked. That doesn’t mean that the police efforts didn’t result in his death. Based on the situation, his ill health, and the autopsy reports, he most likely died of an internal violent asthmatic reaction to stress and to his attempted arrest. The simplistic explanation that he was choked to death, unfortunately, obscures the more difficult problem facing police officers. To what degree should force be used? How are officers to know if someone has a health problem, as Garner did, especially if they resist arrest? Garner’s situation is truly unfortunate, but it’s also an example of how complicated the issue of “rights” can be.

While one can and should expect police officers to treat people equally, what exactly does “equally” mean when they are dealing with individuals whom they have either witnessed committing a crime or who they have strong reason to believe have committed a crime – as in the case of Michael Brown? The recent case of the two New City detectives who were shot by individuals committing a burglary is an illustration of the other side of the issue.

What also seems to be overlooked is that mandate laid upon police officers is to keep the peace and apprehend law-breakers. Are they supposed to ignore less violent crime because the perpetrator is black or another minority? Perhaps they should, given that current law certainly doesn’t require the immediate arrest and hand-cuffing for white-collar crime, a less violent form of crime committed disproportionately by whites. And maybe, just maybe, we might then see some “interesting” results.

Either way… the issue is anything but simple, and simple slogans, by themselves, won’t resolve it.

Thoughts on Shoveling Snow

While Cedar City does have winter, often bitingly cold, if not nearly so cold as Canadian winters, it does reach below zero [Fahrenheit] temperatures a handful of times most winters, and most winter nights have sub-freezing temperatures. We also have lots of wind. Because at almost 6,000 feet, Cedar City is high desert, we don’t get huge amounts of snow, but it does tend to stay around, and we usually get 2-5 significant snowfalls, significant being more than a foot where I live. And because I do walk a lot for exercise, half on trails and half on streets/sidewalks, when this occurs, as it has in the last few weeks, I do notice which houses evidence snow removal, which do not, and how much is cleared, either by shovel, snow-blower, or plow.

There are those houses, thankfully a minority, where no snow ever appears to be shoveled, and where the inhabitants merely pack down the snow into a solid mass on driveways and sidewalks. Eventually, this turns to ice or a reasonable facsimile thereof. In time, in our dry air, it eventually sublimates, but not before causing slips and falls.

Then there are those houses where only the driveway is shoveled, clearly indicating that the thought that anyone walks anywhere except from or to a vehicle has never occurred to the inhabitants. Next come the houses where the sidewalk to the street and/or mailbox is shoveled, as well as the driveway, but nothing else.

Finally, there are the houses where every walk and driveway is shoveled/cleared. Ours fits this category, except for the redwood deck that’s effectively unusable in winter and inaccessible except from inside the house – although I do clear the access to the bird feeder.

In observing all the different stages of snow removal or lack thereof, certain thoughts have occurred to me. First, clearing sidewalks – especially the walks other than those providing access to house, mailbox, or vehicle – is essentially a matter of both courtesy and safety to others.

Second, snow removal appears to be largely deficient in those dwellings harboring teenagers and young adults, except as necessary to obtain vehicle access.

Third, a high percentage of older couples still manage snow removal, although, understandably, it often takes them longer.

Fourth, after one or two winters, a certain percentage of retirees who moved here from California decide to move south.

Fifth, I’m really glad I have both a snow-blower and an ergonomic snow shovel.

Jumping to Conclusions

The other day I read a reader review of Heritage of Cyador which stated that “Modesitt’s Utah heritage and belief system comes through in his writing.” That’s about half right. My books do reflect to a greater or lesser degree my beliefs. I believe that to be true of almost all writers, although it is more obvious with some writers and less so with others.

“Utah heritage,” however is another question, since I am neither of the LDS faith, nor am I a native-born Utahan. In fact, if we’re talking “heritage,” I’m a fourth generation Coloradan, who didn’t even move to Utah until I was fifty years old, years seasoned by nearly two decades spent in Washington, D.C., and whose beliefs are probably best described as Anglican/agnostic, and the reason I say Anglican rather than Episcopalian is because whatever religious traditions I do have are rooted in the King James versions of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, which the Episcopalians abandoned years and years ago.

Why any of this matters is because it reflects on the human tendency to jump to conclusions based on inadequate or inaccurate facts… or even ignoring easily available facts. Since I write in a certain style and have lived in Utah for a number of years, this reader has immediately pigeon-holed me and assumed that my heritage is entirely based on my locale. This is obviously just one reader, but I could have given many examples of other equally erroneous “deductions” buy readers and others. At the same time, several more perceptive readers have deduced my “Anglican” aspects from the ritual passages describing the anomen services in the Imager Portfolio books, but such deduction requires more knowledge and thought, especially when there might be multiple explanations.

One reason often cited for jumping to conclusions is Occam’s Razor, which states that among competing hypotheses or ideas, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected, but all too often those who think they’re operating accurately under Occam’s principle fail to consider the linkage between a fact and the assumptions made based on those facts. Just because 62% of Utah’s population happens to be LDS, and 62% of the current population happens to have been born in Utah, doesn’t automatically or even statistically mean that because I live in Utah my heritage is Utahan – especially when my biography says I was born in Colorado. But it’s so much easier to assume I’m LDS and have a Utah heritage because I live in Cedar City and my writing meets a preconceived notion of what “LDS writing” is like. I explore moral themes. So do other writers. Some are LDS; some are not. To assume that a writer “is” something because of perceived similarities and where the writer lives, especially when there are published facts to the contrary, is not only intellectually sloppy, but also reflects a culture that wants quick and easy answers without much thought or research.

Then, too, it could also reflect the simplest interpretation of existing facts. My wife graduated from a Utah university, and has taught at two separate Utah universities for quite a number of years. I’m clean-shaven, don’t drink or smoke, and generally don’t use blasphemous curses in my writing [other kinds, definitely so]. We have far more than the average number of children… all of which suggests – erroneously – a certain religious affiliation.

And all of this also suggests why I tend to be most skeptical of people who cite Occam’s Razor, especially when they jump to conclusions. Life and the universe just aren’t that simple.