Archive for April, 2015

Creativity or Parasitism?

There’s a lot to be said for green plants. From water, carbon dioxide, and a handful of chemicals, they grow, reproduce [often producing edible fruit or vegetables in the process], and eventually die, enriching the soil in the process. That is, of course, a great oversimplification, because there are parasitic plants among the more “creative” ones, but it’s not a bad model. And it works in nature so long as there are a lot more creative plants than parasitic ones. In considering this plant “model,” I realized that one could definitely make analogies to modern technological societies… except others have done so, and long before me.

Extreme conservatives, of course, are always insisting that government is the parasite, taking income and resources and otherwise penalizing those who create goods, services, and jobs, and redistributing those resources to help those unable or unwilling to work. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, claim that all too many businesses are the parasites, preying on underpaid workers, polluting the environment, avoiding paying taxes whenever they can, and failing to contribute enough to governments in return for the services and infrastructure they receive.

Both sides concentrate on their “costs.” Power companies have appealed EPA’s latest regulations on coal-fired power plants to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that compliance costs will cost more than $9 billion annually over the next ten years, while EPA studies show that the benefits from reducing mercury and particulate emissions exceed $90 billion annually by reducing health care and clean-up costs, etc. Studies show that the national direct health care costs for treating asthma, just one of many health conditions worsened by air pollution, exceed $20 billion annually, and I suspect that figure is low, given the just the prescription medication costs incurred annually by the asthmatic in our family. Those medical costs also don’t take into account lost wages and indirect costs. And to put the matter into perspective, an EPA study based on Census Bureau data showed that the total pollution abatement spending by U.S. manufacturers represented less than one percent the total value of goods they shipped [nearly $5 trillion].

And then there’s the minimum wage/benefits question. Since in the United States, we largely, but not totally, try to not to have people die of starvation and acute medical problems, we provide various benefits to those practically unable to work… or to those whose earnings don’t cover many of the costs of living at a low level. There’s always been a question about how many of those of those individuals are truly needy and unable to work and how many are parasitic. Then add to that the question of wage levels, when in many areas of the U.S., a full-time job at the minimum wage won’t cover even the basic cost of living. Is legislating a higher minimum wage parasitic on business, or are low minimum wage levels a form of parasitism on workers who cannot find jobs that pay more?

So…who’s preying on whom?

And what about our national obsession with guns? A recent study completed by Dr. Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation calculated that annual cost of gun violence in the United States is $229 billion. Regardless of what position one takes on gun control, $229 billion is a fairly substantial price tag for the freedom to bear arms. Are those with those guns parasites, since they’re spreading the cost of their bearing arms across the entire population? Yet can you imagine the outcry if someone suggested an annual seven hundred and fifty dollar tax on every firearm in the U.S, since that would be the pro-rated cost per gun?

A nearby town here in Utah was considering a parks and recreation sales tax. It wasn’t very much, a penny on every ten dollars of sales, and the money was to be used for park and recreation projects to improve the community. The measure barely passed, largely because a great number of retirees protested that they would derive no benefit from it, because the parks were used by others. Parasitism or community improvement?

Or does the definition just depend on who pays the bill?

Showing Up

In a previous blog, I mentioned a student who failed an art class, simply because he never showed up – and because he never showed up, he never did any work. Failure to show up goes far beyond education, however. Many, many years ago, I was a lifeguard at an outdoor pool, and in the last week of August, we got a snowstorm that dumped half a foot of snow on everything. I figured that with all that snow, there was no reason to go to work. I didn’t… and I almost got fired because my supervisor thought it would be a good time to do all sorts of maintenance. While I didn’t get fired, I wasn’t hired back for the next summer.

The often praised and also often criticized actor/director Woody Allen once observed something to the effect that ninety percent of success is just showing up. I think he got the percentages wrong, but the idea is simple: If you’re not on the job, or working at what you do, you’re not going to be successful. And if you’re there, but your mind isn’t, then you’re also not there, and sooner or later, you’ll fail… or worse, you’ll do something careless and someone will be hurt, lose money, get angry at you, or even die.

Unhappily, there are many ways not to show up, besides not being physically present. The latest version of this is to be present, but to keep most of your attention on your smartphone so that you won’t miss any texts or tweets… or to be driving with your attention on whomever you’re talking to… or walking and doing the same. If it’s in class or a meeting, well… you might flunk or get fired, and if you’re walking or driving in traffic, you might get killed… or kill someone else.

Even if you’re at seated at a desk at work, comparatively safe physically, do you really think your peers or supervisor don’t know? Think again. When I was in charge of a department with some fifty odd employees, I had a very good idea who was really “there,” and who wasn’t. Most good bosses know. I made a habit of dropping in on those who had a tendency to space out, and then I’d ask about their latest project or assignment.

If the job is that bad, why are you there? If you’re there because you need the money, then you’d better be “there” if you want to keep getting paid. That sort of behavior on the job might just lead to a bad recommendation or reference, unless, of course, your boss just wants you to leave, but betting on that is akin to occupational Russian roulette.

Along the way, in the writing business, I’ve come across a handful of authors and would-be authors who really weren’t “there,” but it was amusing to see how soon they snapped back into reality when a big-name author or publisher appeared. Most of them didn’t make it, either.

Perspective on the Hugos

The fallout continues, at least in some quarters, about the controversial, but very legal, “ballot stuffing” of the nominations for the World Science Fiction Convention’s annual awards – the “Hugos.” Essentially, as I’ve noted before, slates proposed by the “Sad Puppies” and the “Rabid Puppies” [which overlapped greatly] gained enough votes that the vast majority of the finalists for the awards were from those combined slates, swamping most votes cast by the more “traditional” attendees and voters [termed “social justice warriors” (SWJs) by the Sad Puppies]. As a result, at least two nominees have withdrawn their work from consideration, and Connie Willis has relinquished her position as the presenter at the awards’ ceremony because she felt she would be collaborating with the Rabid Puppies.

From what I can tell, no side claims to be inclusive of all readers, but the message I’m getting is that all of the conflicting factions believe that the others are less inclusive. And that’s probably true, because the reading public that favors fantasy and science fiction is so much larger than the number of those who are squabbling. Although more than 10,000 people were eligible to vote for the Hugos, slightly over 2,000 nominating ballots were cast this year, roughly a hundred more than last year – less than a twenty percent turn-out of eligible voters, and those eligible voters could only represent a fraction of one percent of just the U.S. F&SF readers.

Let’s put that in perspective. More than half a million readers bought copies of each volume of Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time, and even more bought the Harry Potter books. I’m far from the top-selling fantasy author, but the Saga of Recluce has sold close to three million copies. And we have separate groups all contending about whose “slate” or preferences are most representative of F&SF – based on 2,000 votes representing three specific interests, votes effectively changed by a bloc-vote of 200-300 voters?

In one respect, the Sad Puppies group is absolutely correct. The traditional/SWJ voters are a self-selected group whose membership represents a definite view, one tending to be more “liberal” [for lack of a better word], more interested in authors of different ethnicities, gender orientation, and cultural diversity who write in a way to illustrate those issues, and that viewpoint has tended to ignore writers who don’t write that way. And there’s nothing wrong with having a preference. There is something wrong with claiming that such a preference is the only one that represents “the best” in F&SF. At the same time, the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies can be faulted for exactly the same sin – because what their slates represent is even narrower, and the “leader” of the Rabid Puppies is so far right as to make the Tea Party look moderate.

What also gets lost here is that one of the initial purposes of Sad Puppies was to point out the narrowness of the traditionalists, but that has degenerated into much name-calling and many assertions of literary and moral high ground. Diversity, social liberalism, multi-culturalism, and gender issues and problems should be a significant and continuing part of S&SF, but they shouldn’t be canonized, either.

In the larger sense, this is actually very much analogous to our political system, where the activists of the left and right have come to dominate the issues and the debate – and for exactly the same reason… because most of those eligible to vote don’t get involved in the initial political process before the nominations are made.

George R.R. Martin has commented to the effect that the Hugos may be broken, possibly beyond repair… and that’s possible. But if the Hugos become captive to any one interest or viewpoint, no matter how praiseworthy that outlook appears to that group, then are they worth saving?

Unlike our political system, however, it appears to me that most F&SF books are not published primarily in hopes of being nominated for a Hugo and that F&SF readers could care less about the Hugos. They just want to read a good book of the type they like by an author they like, and that’s something for which I’m very grateful, especially to all my readers.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

Yes, I know that’s a quote and rip-off from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, but it also expresses my feelings about the lilacs in my front yard. I confess that I love the scent of lilacs, and I look forward every year to their blooming… and four out of five years I’m disappointed. This year is no exception. After two months of spring in winter, yesterday, just as the lilac blooms began to open, the temperature dropped to twenty degrees and it began to blow and snow, and it wasn’t just a few flurries, but a good half foot. Most years where we live, it’s like that. No matter when the poor lilacs attempt to bloom, it snows, and I don’t get to enjoy their fragrance.

Last year, I planted more lilacs, a slightly different variety, and put some of them in more sheltered locations. It didn’t matter. When you have temperatures in the twenties and winds over fifty miles an hour, and snow coming down hard, the lilac blooms don’t stand much of a chance. Now, of course, in two days, the temperatures are forecast to be back in the sixties, but that’s a bit late for the lilacs.

Houseman had it right, except his cherries seemed to bloom without fail every spring; my lilacs face much longer odds.

Still… there’s always next year,

But the lilacs remind me that those rare times of beauty, whether floral or otherwise, are to be cherished, because no matter how things are planned, especially where beauty is concerned, you can’t count on anything except what’s there at the moment to enjoy.

Wagging the Dog

Last week Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, issued a blistering attack on the NCAA, declaring that college basketball was “horrible” and “ridiculous,” and that the college game wasn’t preparing college players for the professional game played in the NBA.

Cuban may well be right about how inadequately college basketball prepares players for the pros, but his attack illustrates two enormous problems with American colleges and universities and an equally large problem with American business.

The first problem is why colleges and universities are paying enormous sums of money to field sports programs at a time when the cost of a college education has gone through the roof. No matter what anyone claims, college sports don’t pay for themselves. No doubt some particular sports at given universities might, but given the new contract awarded to Urban Meyer [over $5 million annually] by Ohio State, I have my doubts about even that.

The second problem is that not only does Mark Cuban regard college as a vocational school, but so do most state legislatures and students, and the problem there is that in today’s fast-moving and ever-changing society and business culture most students can expect to change professions a minimum of seven times, if not more. For them to be successful throughout life, they need more than a single set of skills. They need critical thinking and decision-making skills, not to mention written and verbal communications skills – all of which are skills sadly lacking in far too many college graduates, even for a significant percentage of those obtaining graduate degrees.

Cuban’s comments also illustrate an on-going basic problem with not only the professional sports businesses, but American business in general. They all want someone else to do the hard work of training and screening potential employees, and a college education largely fulfills this requirement. In the past, a large portion, if not all, of this training/screening was paid for by state legislatures through state tax revenues, but state funding as a percentage of each student’s education cost has dropped to an all-time low.

In effect, Cuban wants someone else to train his players at their cost, and he’s complaining that the NCAA isn’t meeting his standards. So sad…

Helicopters and Profitability

All too many years ago, I was a Navy pilot who flew helicopters both for odd utility missions and then for search and rescue off a carrier. Back in those ancient days, the first “big” helicopter I flew was the Sikorski H-34, the last front-line helicopter to use an internal combustion engine – the nine-cylinder Wright 1820 Radial. For those of you for whom this conjures no image, the H-34 is the bird that attempts to retrieve Gus Grissom’s waterlogged capsule in the movie The Right Stuff.

The other Sikorski I flew was the H-3, a twin turboshaft powered helicopter originally used for anti-submarine warfare, but many were converted to search and rescue birds during the Vietnam era because the Navy’s principal SAR helicopter – the Kaman H-2 – was originally only a single turboshaft helicopter that lacked the power to do heavy lifting in the high density altitudes of Southeast Asia. I flew the H-2 for a short time as well before transitioning to the H-3.

Like most helo drivers of that time, I loved the Sikorskis. They were strong, durable, and reliable. And they definitely didn’t have all the glitches of the H-2s , about which I wrote a SF story, in a way [“Iron Man, Plastic Ships”].

So… I was rather shocked to learn that United Technologies (UTC), the parent company of Sikorski, is looking at “strategic alternatives” for Sikorski, including spinning off the company as an independent entity. Why? Because its projected annual growth rate is only 3-5%, and its profit margin is only 10% – on annual revenues of $7-8 billion, compared to 15% for Pratt & Whitney, the other principal division of UTC . Although Sikorski has an order backlog of $49 billion, more than any other military helicopter manufacturer in the world, and firm orders and deliveries scheduled into the late 2020s, this apparently isn’t profitable enough for the suits at UTC, despite the fact that Sikorski just landed over a billion dollar order from the Indian navy.

One of the oldest helicopter manufacturers in the world, with solid profit margins, and lots of future sales, isn’t making enough money. And Sikorski builds really good helicopters. But apparently, making solid profits and producing an outstanding product isn’t enough for corporate America.

And that’s more than sad.

“Good” Fiction Writing

There’s currently a kerfuffle over the “Hugos,” otherwise known as the World Science Fiction convention’s annual awards for best writing, art, etc. The uproar lies in the fact that one group agreed on a “slate” of novels, short stories, novellas, editors, artists, etc., eligible for the award and legitimately used social media and the rules for nomination to essentially overwhelm the traditional members. The upstart “Sad Puppies” movement did this because, if I understand the matter accurately, they felt that the “traditional” voters were more interested in diversity and social issues than story itself, which is apparently why they labelled those traditional members/voters as SJWs [social justice warriors].

From where I stand on the fringe of this literary internecine kerfuffle, the conflict boils down to the contention by the Sad Puppies that the SJWs have essentially marginalized “story” in F&SF fiction writing while giving awards for non-story concerns such as multi-culturalism, gender diversity, and other liberal beliefs. The so-called traditionalists seem to believe that “good” fiction requires more than merely plot and action.

That’s probably a simplistic summary, but I think that’s the gist of the conflict, in which case the issue is really over just what it takes for fiction to be really good.

As often occurs, I find myself firmly in the middle, because I find straight “action” stories or novels, no matter how intricate the plot, and no matter how clean the style, rather shallow. On the other hand, I find anything that is used that overshadows the characters and the story to be excessive. Yes, there is a place for multi-culturalism, diversity, sexual/gender issues, or any number of environmental and political issues – but only if they’re an integral part of what affects the characters and the development and resolution of story and plot.

I also don’t think that writing an issue-oriented novel for the sake of the issue usually results in the best fiction. I write about women and their issues because, with my background, I’ve been surrounded by intelligent and highly competent women with stories to tell. Likewise, with a long history in politics and environment, I know the stories to be told there, but I never set out with “an issue” as the main focus of a book. The issues arise because of the characters and the story, not the other way around.

So my feeling is that issues shouldn’t drive the story, nor is a novel or a story that ignores the issues that would arise in such a setting anything more than wish-fulfillment escapism – and there’s nothing wrong with that… except that escapism that ignores the issues that should be there if the whole story were told usually fails to be the best fiction, perhaps the best escapism, but not the best fiction.

The Vision of Tomorrow?

Do the people of the United States have anything close to a common goal for the future of the country… or of the world?

From what I’ve observed, there is a welter of conflicting goals, and the vast majority of those goals are highly personal, and most could be reduced to two words: “more” and “celebrity.” That is, most people want more of everything, and they want to be famous… or at least become “someone.” And there is also a large contingent of people who just want to be “happy.”

Now, I’d be the last one to deny personal ambition, but I’d like to point out that the big problem with these three “goals” is that people seeking them directly will almost always fail. They’re all by-products of other acts and ambitions. Yet more and more my wife the university professor sees students with these sorts of general and vague visions and goals. When I was young, a long time ago, young people had much more specific and focused ambitions. They wanted to be doctors, professional athletes, pilots, president of the United States, or to build houses or buildings, to be the first man or woman on the moon. The focus was on accomplishments, not upon the results of accomplishments.

There are still young people with specific accomplishments as goals, but there are far fewer of them. Equally unfortunate is the fact that virtually no national politician or aspiring politician seems able to articulate a clear vision of a future for the nation except in general terms, such as “to return to the values of the past” or “to be a force for good in the world” or “to strengthen our nation and economy” or “to seek equality and fairness” and so forth.

Exactly how are we supposed to accomplish any of these, even assuming that they’re worthwhile, and I have grave doubts of that in the case of some of these general platitudes?

Any policy or goal that’s specific seems to get shot down before it can even be discussed. Rebuild our infrastructure? Too expensive. Enact measures to stop global warming? Also too expensive, and besides we couldn’t really do anything. Improve health care for those who lack it? You can see what happened there.

All of this raises a more fundamental set of questions. Do we really want leadership and challenges? Or do most Americans just want “more” ?