Archive for January, 2016

Everyone/No One Is Entitled?

Over at least a decade, there’s been debate about entitlements and about a younger generation that may or may not feel “entitled.” Almost always, the use of the phrase is derogatory and suggests individuals or groups who feel they deserve something without paying for it. Although the actual meaning of the word “entitled” means that someone has been given the right to receive something, Americans have a problem with those whom they believe do not deserve that right.

My problem with all the debate is that it’s not inclusive enough, that all too many groups and individuals are receiving societal/governmental benefits for which they either have not paid anything or for which they have paid a minimal amount in comparison to the value of what they have received. Now… in the United States, there are certain benefits to which law-abiding and tax-paying citizens are or should be “entitled.” We deserve fair and impartial laws and a justice system that supports them. We should have a government that protects us from attack by other countries and by terrorists or by law-breakers within our own society. We have decided as a society that part of the role of government is to support highway systems and air transport systems that benefit us all, and to regulate businesses and organizations so that we all have clean air, safe food, and various safe products. For these and other services we pay taxes.

The entitlement problem comes when people are perceived to receive services and benefits out of proportion to what they have paid. When people receive welfare benefits of various sorts for long periods of time, with some families receiving them for generations, people get angry, even though statistics show that most welfare recipients don’t receive benefits for nearly that long.

Likewise, often business owners or professionals in a field get angry when younger people express the idea that they are “entitled” to a job, especially a particular position, even when they don’t have the requisite education and/or experience.

Those are the well-known examples of “undeserved entitlement,” but what about those that aren’t so well known? For example, isn’t the corporation that receives the overall services, legal system, and national market provided by the government, but which pays no taxes on billions of dollars of income, receiving an undeserved entitlement? Or the Bundy family, which is supposed to pay $1.70 per cow and calf for federal grazing rights [a fee less than a tenth of that charged on private land], yet hasn’t paid any of those fees for almost a decade and claims that the land belongs to them through what amounts to squatters’ rights? What about a company that “bargains” for tax breaks from states when relocating a new facility [which effectively places more of the burden for state services on other taxpayers]? Are oil companies and others investing in oil and gas development entitled to a “depletion allowance,” which can reduce taxable income by as much as fifteen percent, simply because it’s possible they might run out of oil and gas to extract? Why are homeowners entitled to deduct their mortgage costs from their taxable income [perhaps as a subsidy to the construction industry?], but renters can’t deduct their rent payments? Then there are the unnecessary military bases that the Defense Department can’t close because senators and representatives insist their constituents are entitled to the remaining jobs at those facilities – which means the rest of us end up paying for those entitled jobs.

So… when people start complaining about entitlements, perhaps they should consider how many they enjoy that they haven’t considered. But then, those are always the exceptions that are deserved.

A Perspective on Numbers… and Violence

More than a few commentators and political figures have trotted out words to the effect that we live in the most dangerous time in human history.

Yet, for the last several years, and perhaps for as long as a decade, a number of social scientists have been making the point that, statistically, the present is the best time to be alive because, among other things, the likelihood of death from violence is the lowest ever. The reasoning behind this is that, historically, a far smaller percentage of the population dies from violent causes today than ever before. Statistically, speaking, based on both records and the causes of death determined from ancient skeletons, in Iron Age times and before, an individual faced a ten to twenty percent chance of dying violently, depending on the locale and year. The author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker, notes that in “the transition from tribal societies to settled states, there was a reduction from about a 15 percent chance of dying violently down to about a 3 percent chance in the first states.”

In the eighth century, the An Lushan Revolt in China resulted in 36 million deaths at a time when the world held roughly two hundred ten million people – a world-wide casualty rate of more than 15% just from that one uprising. The Mongol Conquests of the thirteenth century resulted in roughly 40 million deaths at a time when the world population was between 350 and 435 million people, meaning that Genghis Khan effectively killed ten percent of the world’s humans. World War II resulted in 55 million deaths from a world population of 2.3 billion [2.4%].

There are pages and pages of statistics supporting the general conclusion that, on an individual statistical basis, we live in the safest and most peaceful time in world history. While the statistics can be convincing, very few people believe them, true as they are.

Why not? First off, very few of us live the life depicted by the statistics. Compared to a slave in 1850, an inner city black male today is statistically far better off – but compared to a white male junior executive, he’s a lot worse off. And when some thirty percent of women, just in the United States, suffer domestic or sexual abuse in their lifetime, it really doesn’t mean much to them to hear how much worse it once was. While it may be “statistically comforting” to know that the murder rate for males has dropped from 15% to less than one percent over the centuries, that isn’t exactly comforting to the families of the nearly ten thousand men killed in the U.S. every year, or the fact that almost fifteen percent of all males will suffer severe physical violence during their life.

Second, most people don’t relate to numbers and statistics. They relate to people they know, to what they hear from acquaintances and friends, and to visual images they see, especially on television and social media. And those stories and images convey danger, danger, danger. But while each of those personal stories or received images is largely accurate, they don’t represent the totality of the world.

There is also a third factor, which bothers me. Although it is uncontestably true that the percentages of death by human violence have been decreasing over the years and centuries, human population has been growing, with the result that the number of deaths caused by World War II, for example, would have wiped out the entire human population of the world three thousand years ago, or a third of it at the time of Christ. Or consider that over 100 million people died as a result of war in the twentieth century, equivalent to roughly half the world’s population at the time of the Roman Empire.

Somehow, saying that it’s a lot better than it used to be isn’t as comforting as some of the statisticians claim, but, at the same time, it is a whole lot better than it once was. The improvement’s just not near as good as it should be… or could be. And, please, don’t tell me it could be worse. It has been, and, if we’re not careful as a species, it will be again.

David Hartwell… Legacies

As many of my readers should know, my long-time editor and friend, David Hartwell, died last Wednesday, January 20, 2016. He died from a burst cranial artery either from, during, or incident to a fall down a staircase while lugging an expensive bookcase. The glass in the bookcase was undamaged, which, in a bitterly and ironically strange way, could only have happened to David, the editor of countless books and the passionate and incredibly knowledgeable collector of so many more. I’m still a bit numb from losing someone with whom I shared so much for so long and so regularly, but David’s death brings up the fact, again, that no one gets out of this life alive. Yet so often, we act as if death is something that always happens to other people.

Perhaps that’s an instinctual survival mechanism, a denial of the inevitable, just as perhaps so is the belief in an afterlife or reincarnation. Yet death also can be a poignant reminder to the survivors not only of what we have lost, but also of what we still retain.

What I have retained from David’s death is all that I learned from him and all we shared over the years, and that was a great deal. I also know, because of the great number of both authors and editors whom he mentored and taught, that what he stood for and believed in will endure far beyond his passing, and if those whom he influenced in turn pass on that legacy, his contributions to society and culture will likely long outlast his name, for names are forgotten, even while the effects of the acts of those names ripple down through the ages.

That’s also true of the words and stories that were published under his editorial oversight, because the number of authors he developed and/or supported and backed over more than four decades is truly astounding, and some of us would never likely have been published without David’s expertise and understanding. David was never about finding the next best-seller; he was about finding the next good and great book that had something to say and then getting it into the best form and content possible, and then getting it published, month after month, year after year. So far as I know, few of the authors he published wrote mega-best-sellers, but many were best-sellers, and a very high percentage of them sold well.

In thinking about David’s death, I realized that upon several occasions, I have had mishaps on staircases that could have been serious, but were not. A casual acquaintance and neighbor of mine went walking several weeks ago and slipped on the ice and suffered internal cranial bleeding. When and if he will recover is uncertain. I, too, have slipped on ice while on my morning walk, and somehow managed only to bruise my back and shoulders. I could list other similarities, but that isn’t the point. What these terrible accidents brought to mind was how narrow the margin is between minor injuries and fatal impacts, and, if you will, how uncertain life is… and how important each moment can be.

And that is something with which David would have agreed, as well, because he did his best to make every moment count with not just me, but with everyone he knew, during all the years we shared.

The Decline and Fall of Opera?

When I married an operatic soprano more than two decades ago, I had absolutely no idea how much that would change my life and also affect my writing. One of the earliest directly observable results was Of Tangible Ghosts, the first of the three books comprising the “Ghost Series.” Later came the Spellsong Cycle, as well as other books and other characters. I’ve also come to enjoy opera, not all operas, I’d be the first to admit, but many, and I’ve been introduced and observed a great many opera professionals, largely because my wife is a national officer in a national opera association as well as president of the local music arts society and in charge of bookings and contracts for classical artists and groups.

Consequently, I’ve ended up doing a certain amount of research in the field, and I have to say that I’m worried about the future of opera. While the number of tickets sold to operas nationwide has not seen a significant decline, overall, the number of patrons has declined, but the decline in diverse patrons has been offset by the fact that core supporters – those who really love opera – are buying more tickets. One of the problems with this, though, is that many of these patrons really love old established operas. Part of this may be due in part to the fact that a number of the newer operas are more avant-garde and have fewer singable melodies. That’s not to say that some new operas aren’t gripping and melodic, but for whatever reasons, new operas are staged less frequently and don’t appear to draw as large an audience as the old chestnuts.

Another critical factor, and this is strictly a personal belief on my part, is that all too many opera directors are so wedded to “period,” i.e., the movements and the way the opera is believed to have been originally sung and staged, that they’ve forgotten the basic and original purpose of opera – to entertain the audience. To me, it appears that the press for the new and different and the emphasis on “period” and tradition tend to come at the expense of entertainment value.

As I’ve noted before in my blogs, the first thing that I as a writer must do, if I’m to continue as a professional writer, is to entertain my reader. If I don’t do that, nothing else I do will count, because I’ll lose readers rather quickly, possibly all of them.

This is not a new issue in the history of opera. Almost all early operas were about gods and other mythical figures, or about rulers. Mozart broke convention by writing operas about everyday people – like a valet and the lady’s maid he loves – in The Marriage of Figaro and in other operas. This trend proved wildly popular for Mozart and other composers, as evidenced by the subsequent success of La Boheme [with a consumptive seamstress and starving artist], Carmen [cigarette factory girl and love triangle between her, a soldier, and a bullfighter], or many others, not that a few royalty-based or diety-based operas also weren’t popular, but they all emphasized human qualities and entertainment.

When she directs, my wife is well aware of this precept. She has to be, because she’s presenting operas in a university town set in rural Utah where a majority of the students are from rural backgrounds and even most of those from urban backgrounds have never seen an opera before. What she presents has to both be true to the basics of opera and yet to entertain… or she won’t have an opera program, regardless of its educational and instructional value, because universities do look at both student participation and audience numbers. She’s been successful, as evidenced by the fact that her program is in its twenty-third year and that a significant number of her students have gone on to careers in music, and while some of her operas have won national awards, she’s also been criticized by those judges for not being “period” or traditional enough.

I’ve seen some of the more “traditional” presentations, both professional and scholastic, and frankly, I’ve been bored stiff in some cases, possibly because a beautiful voice or set of voices and a “stand and plant” presentation of an aria just doesn’t do it for me… and I have my doubts that it did it for Mozart either, if The Magic Flute is any example.

“Political Honesty”

To begin with, the term “political honesty” is an oxymoron, a complete contradiction in terms, and a practical impossibility in governing a nation as diverse as the United States.

Yet large numbers of people clamor for politicians and candidates who speak their mind simply and directly and stick to their guns, so to speak.

The problem with such “honesty” is that, because we live in a diverse and highly complex society, both socially and technologically, anything that most people think is simple and “honest” is so oversimplified that it’s inaccurate and anything but honest. And any politician or public figure who tries to give a more detailed and accurate depiction of matters can’t fit that within the sound-bite limitations of the media and the attention span of the majority of voters, all too many of whom distrust what they can’t understand and who seldom make the effort to understand anything not required in their everyday life.

Add to that the fact that the growth of lower-wage jobs that are physically tiring and often emotionally stultifying has built a culture of anger and resentment among those individuals who hold them and who more and more want simple and satisfying answers – except simple and satisfying is usually simplistic, misrepresentative, and inaccurate.

Then there is the fact that those who are fortunate enough to have higher-wage jobs find themselves being asked to do more and more as business after business strives to be leaner and meaner than the competition, which results in all too many of those higher-paid individuals also being time-stressed and forced to focus on their jobs and family [and sometimes not even family] in order to hang on to their jobs.

To this mix, add a generation of career politicians, for whom the first priority is keeping their office. Combine with a gerrymandered political system, and the result is that almost any politician who says anything his or her constituents don’t like is likely to get voted out in the next primary election, “primaried,” as it were. And since only a tiny percentage of Americans actually understand the issues in depth – or even want to – most voters really don’t like anyone, either an incumbent officeholder or a challenger, who tries to explain why “simple” won’t work.

A border wall won’t work. Neither will lowering income taxes further. Neither will turning federal lands back to the states [besides the fact that doing so is unconstitutional]. Neither will trying to deport eleven million “illegal” aliens. Neither will banning the teaching of evolution or absolutely banning abortions. Nor will free universal college educations [at least not without significant tax increases]. All of which means that almost all of the “simple and satisfying” solutions proposed by the “honest politicians” can’t be implemented and won’t work.

As the Founding Fathers designed, we have a government that requires cooperation and muddling through… and that’s another honest fact that few politicians want to admit… if they want to keep their jobs, anyway.

Parachutes and Sir James Dewar

One of the problems with good language and good ideas is that more than one person can come up with a good thought or idea – honestly, without plagiarizing the idea. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both were working, initially independently, on the idea of natural selection and evolution at the same time, and, in fact in July of 1858, both their papers on natural selection were jointly presented to the Linnean Society of London.

Dozens of men were trying to develop the first powered aircraft at the same time as the Wright brothers. And the first mechanical computer, as I’ve noted previously, wasn’t that of Thomas Babbage in 1837 [although the entire simplified analytical engine was never actually constructed in his lifetime], but the Antikythera device of the ancient Greeks, which has been dated to 100-150 B.C., and which was, and is, an ancient mechanical analog computer (as opposed to digital computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions.

Which brings us to parachutes and minds…

Until last week, I’d never heard of Sir James Dewar, perhaps because he was a noted British chemist of the last century and because chemistry was the only general science course I never took in either high school or college. Then, I ran across a quote attributed to Dewar:

“People’s minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.”

This took me a bit aback, because, having never read Dewar or even heard of him, some twenty years ago, in writing The Parafaith War, I had one of my characters note:

“Minds, like ancient parachutes, function better when open, but, like fists, they strike harder when closed.”

What I wrote was not quite the same as what Dewar said or wrote, but it was eerie to see a quote so similar when I had thought myself so original. Well, I was original, in the sense that I thought the idea up independently, even if I hadn’t been first, and so far as I know, I was the first to complete the idea in the way I did… and, in the time since I did, American politics have once again demonstrated the effective striking hardness of a closed mind.

Which all goes to show that there’s a certain risk in claiming originality.

By the way, for those as ignorant of Dewar as I was, he was born in 1842 in Scotland and died in 1923, and was a pioneer in the solidification of gases. He invented a special double-walled vacuum flask, now known as a Dewar flask, that facilitated his work in liquefying oxygen and hydrogen. He was also a co-inventor of cordite smokeless explosive powder, and was awarded the Copley Medal, Rumford Medal, Franklin Medal, Albert Medal, and the Lavoisier Medal. Reputedly, he was also a fascinating lecturer.

Double Standard

Over the past year, there have outbursts of sporadic violence as a result of police actions regarded as excessive by American blacks, many of which have indeed proved to have been excessive. These outbursts have been followed by at least some political efforts to improve police behavior and tactics in a number of locales, but they have also resulted in some locales in higher crime rates because of local police deciding to patrol less aggressively. All of these instances deal with one side of the “justice problem” — the perception, and in many, but not all, cases the fact that the law and law enforcement appear targeted more intently on poor and minorities.

In one basic sense, any form of punishment for criminal behavior will fall more heavily on the poor and disadvantaged. If someone lives from paycheck to paycheck, or doesn’t even make enough money to get from paycheck to paycheck, any fine, any time in jail, even any requirement to take time off from work to deal with charges or citations – any of these are a far harder burden on the poor and minorities than upon middle-class or affluent Americans. Interestingly enough, some Scandinavian countries have recognized this to a degree – and wealthy individuals there can receive mere speeding tickets with five-figure fines, based on the rationale that such high penalties are equivalent in impact to much lower fines for poor or less affluent speeders.

At the same time, over the same period, I’ve watched how “justice” deals with certain white and more affluent Americans, such as Cliven Bundy, the rancher who refused to pay over a million dollars in overdue gazing fees to the government, fees that, to begin with, were a fraction of what private landowners charge for leases. Bundy gathered a militia and forced a stand-off with the BLM, who relented and released the cattle they had been seizing for non-payment… and so far, roughly a year later, from what I can tell, the BLM has done nothing.

Now, Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, leads another “militia” group that has seized and occupied a Fish and Wildlife Service building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Ammon Bundy and this group vow to stay there until the federal government returns federal lands “to the people” and that the government release two ranchers jailed for arson and other offenses on federal lands, despite the fact that the lands have always been federal lands, and before that they belonged to the local Native American tribes. If the government acquired those lands by fraudulent means, which Constitutional scholars agree it did not, then the lands should revert to the local tribes, not to white ranchers and loggers. Yet, so far, the federal government has done nothing to deal with young Bundy and his backwoods white toughs.

After County Commissioner Phil Lyman illegally not only rode an ATV through a federal roadless area, and one of the protected and most sensitive archeological sites in the state of Utah, but also organized and championed that ride, he was fined and sentenced to ten days in jail – and the state legislature commended him and attempted to pass legislation to reimburse him for his legal bills.

The Bundy and Lyman cases are certainly a far cry from the “justice” received by all too many of those far less affluent, and what bothers me is that these are just examples of what happens every day. That’s not to say that I’m unabashedly in favor of anywhere close to all the recommendations made by the more extreme of those in the “black lives matter” movement, but the plain fact is that if a group of black men had behaved the way Phil Lyman or either of the Bundys have, they’d almost certainly been dealt with far more strongly. I can’t imagine an armed black lawbreaker owing the federal government millions of dollars confronting government officials with high powered weapons, being allowed to continue to refuse to pay what he owed, and being allowed to continue his lawbreaking unimpeded.

Some of this “double standard” rests on political beliefs. White environmental activist Tim deChristopher, as I chronicled earlier, submitted a fraudulent bid to lease oil and gas rights on federal lands,in order to keep the lands from being despoiled,and was sentenced and served 21 months in jail, despite the fact that, even before he was sentenced, the U.S. Solicitor General had voided the lease sale as illegal, while the same “justice” system merely sent Phil Lyman to jail for ten days, although Lyman destroyed archaeological artifacts and flouted federal law, while deChristopher’s acts cost the public and the public welfare very little.

All this tends to suggest strongly suggest that affluent and well-connected white conservatives definitely are treated ultra-leniently, unless of course they fraudulently take money, or threaten to do so, from ultra-wealthy white conservatives… and then, of course, all bets are off.

More on Statistics

It’s not often that a F&SF writer can use one of his own books to show the shortcomings of statistics. However, as I write this, Solar Express has an “average” rating of three stars [3.2 stars, to be more exact], yet precisely one reader has given it a three star rating. Fifty-nine percent of the reader reviewers like it fairly well or a lot, and thirty-eight percent dislike it a little or a lot. So much for averages.

Yet as a society we tend to rely on statistics, all too often without really understanding what they mean. How often have you read a news item that states that eating something or using a certain product will increase the likelihood of getting cancer, or diabetes, or something else horrendous by ten or twenty or even a hundred percent? Yet do these statements ever point out the baseline risk?

For example, some advocates of using statin drugs [such as Lipitor] claim that use of statins reduces the incidence of heart disease by 50%. According to clinical studies over any five year period, roughly 2% of American males in the 50-60 age group will suffer a non-fatal myocardial infarction. Studies also show that statin use will reduce that rate to one percent. That is indeed a fifty percent reduction rate, but it’s only an actual risk reduction of one percent. Other studies showed that the decrease in mortality from fatal heart-related factors was offset almost completely in patients older than 70 by a corresponding increase in cancer deaths. But unless you or your doctor read the fine print in the studies, all you’re likely to hear is the fifty percent reduction in heart events. And if cancer runs in your family… well, you just might be better off not jumping at that “50% reduction.”

And take family income. In 2014 average [mean] family income was $72,641, but the median income [the amount where half the families make more and half make less] was only $51,939, or $20,702 – 40% less than the average. As a result, actually, about 67% of U.S. families make less than the “average.” Nor do such averages consider that one third of all American families live “paycheck to paycheck” and that 66% of those families are middle class with a median income of $41,000, well below the “average” family income.

Or take firearms. While there are 88 guns for every hundred Americans, all those firearms are actually in the hands of 43% of U.S. households.

Or… if you look at the Amazon stars, Solar Express is just an average book, despite the fact that only one person thought so.