Archive for July, 2016

Police and the “Black Lives Matter” Movement

A recent edition of The Economist featured an article on a series of studies conducted by Roland Fryer, a tenured African American economics professor at Harvard. Fryer was concerned that his own encounters with police as a teenager might color his views on the use of force by police officers in dealing with blacks and other minorities. His first study reviewed and analyzed five million cases from New York City from 2003 to 2013. The raw data indicated that blacks and Hispanics were 50% more likely to encounter non-lethal uses of force than were whites. Even after analyzing the data to account for factors such as attempted assault on an officer or flight to avoid arrest, blacks were still some 17% more likely to incur the use of force than were whites, and even in the case of blacks reported to be perfectly compliant by police, such blacks were 21% more likely to have some force used against them than were whites.

Another study, by Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, reached a similar conclusion about the disproportionate stopping and harassing of minorities.

But the most shocking figures to Fryer were those uncovered when the two separate research teams he supervised looked into the over 1300 shootings by police in ten police departments from 2000 to 2015, including the cities of Houston and Los Angeles. The raw data found that blacks weren’t any more likely to be shot by an officer than non-blacks. Fryer then dug deeper, looking through 6000 incident reports from Houston, looking at all incidents involving shooting, Tasers, or other situations where lethal force could have been justifiably used, but was not. The result remained the same. Black suspects were actually less likely to have been shot than non-black subjects, and similar results appeared in the other police districts studied.

In effect, racial bias appeared in all kinds of situations – except in the case of shootings or where police used or might have used guns or Tasers. Why was there this difference?

Fryer suggests that the reason is that incidents involving guns and Tasers all require higher-level review and that all police officers are well aware of that, and therefore take more care in dealing with such incidents, whereas less violent situations seldom see that kind of review. If that is the case, then the growing use of body cameras by police may also lead to a more equal treatment of blacks and other minorities.

But the problem of violence between police and those detained or arrested isn’t exactly one-sided. Miller pointed out that on average, every day, three people die and 150 people are treated at a hospital because they are injured by police, for total number of 55,000 annually. At the same time, Miller’s study showed that in 2012, an estimated 67,000 law enforcement personnel were assaulted, with 18,600 medically treated for injury and 48 killed. All of this shows, at least to me, that, yes, there’s a definite problem, and remedying it will be anything but quick or simple.

Political Neverland

Like millions of Americans last Thursday night, I watched and listened to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. The speech was about what I expected, but the reaction of the crowd was frightening, for more than a few reasons.

The speech ticked off and highlighted every concern and fear of the right-wingers, evangelicals, and “disenfranchised” white middle class males, and Trump’s answer to each concern was that he was going to fix it fast on January 20th, and that’s the equivalent of Peter Pan’s Neverland being transported to American politics.

Why? Because, first, Trump offered no specifics, and, second, that the vast majority of the problems that he highlighted (and I will admit that most are problem areas, if not always of the severity he claims) either cannot be “solved” by the President without action by the Congress as well, and Congress NEVER acts that fast, if it acts at all, or are problems that cannot be effectively addressed by the federal government at all. For example, except for the Capitol Police, under the jurisdiction of the Congress, police forces are under the jurisdiction of state and local governments. The various trade agreements that he deplores require Congressional action to be changed. So do most federal regulations, because they’re required by law.

Then there is the rather significant point that virtually every proposal he made requires more funding and more resources, and yet he proposed a massive income tax cut at a time when the federal deficit is already far too large.

The crowd, good Republicans all, was oblivious to all of this, and their chants, and Trump’s cheerleading, reminded me all too much of movie footage of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. What too many people either forget or never knew was that the German people felt the same way about the German parliament as many Americans do about Congress, and most either agreed or looked the other way when Hitler effectively abolished parliament, placing the blame on the communists.

At the same time, as I noted close to a year ago, Trump is raising issues that affect and worry possibly as much as half the U.S. population, if not more, although at this point a majority doesn’t appear to agree with his proposals for dealing with them. But if people perceive that these problem areas are getting worse and that Clinton doesn’t care or won’t address them effectively, Trump has a good shot at being elected President.

Add to that Trump’s total disregard for facts, his apparent failure to understand the Constitutional structure of our government (or his blatant demagoguery ignoring its limitations), and his supreme egotism, and combine those with the simplistic views of the current Republican party, and, if Trump is elected, the scene is set for some form of governmental/political catastrophe.

Are the Democrats much better? Their platform certainly promises more than Congress will ever deliver, but what Clinton proposes is at least technically doable, if not necessarily desirable, but Clinton’s less flamboyant approach isn’t likely to win over middle class males feeling disenfranchised, and those Americans with immigration and terrorists at the top of their worry lists.

In the end, the question is whether a woman promising the costly and largely possible, at the expense of the wealthiest Americans, can top a man promising to do the impossible in a campaign based on fear and nostalgia for a past that never was.

Stress and Risk

In terms of fatal risks, the most dangerous occupations in the United States are those of loggers, fishers, pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, and ranchers. Police rank fifteenth on the list, a fact pointed out by some of my readers.

The problem with that listing, though, is that it’s a single factor listing.

Compare that list to another list, that of the most stressful jobs. According to a study by CareerCast, the most stressful jobs of 2016 are, in order: enlisted military personnel, firefighters, pilots, and police, followed by 24 other positions. Other sources add to the high stress jobs such professions as surgeons, teachers, and nurses, but almost all the various high stress job ranking lists include military personnel, firefighters, pilots, and police officers in some order at the top of the list.

One of the highest factors leading to stress for most people is uncertainty, of not knowing what to expect or when. In fact, almost any job can be high stress, especially if high expectations are placed on the worker without giving that worker either sufficient resources, time, or enough control of the situation, but what’s interesting about the “top four” high stress jobs is that all of them have high levels of uncertainty, ranging from all the time to part of the time, and that three of the four, all except pilots, almost always have to operate with insufficient resources, time, and control, while pilots have to deal with a different set of stresses, such as the responsibility of hundreds of lives in their hands, often terrible and unpredictable weather, and an unrelenting schedule.

Although all of the “top four” jobs involve uncertainty, only police and pilots face it largely unremittingly, and speaking as a former military pilot, except in combat, pilots don’t generally have to worry about the possibility that at any moment someone could be shooting at them. This knowledge can’t help but trigger anticipatory stress for police as well as for deployed military personnel.

Those who hire personnel for those jobs also recognize that fact by allowing people in those fields to retire early, a tacit and real acknowledgement of just how great a toll those occupations, with their combination of stress and risk, can take on people, not only mentally, but physically, and interestingly enough, recruiting enough qualified police and pilots is becoming more and more difficult.

The Slam-Bang Opening

Recently, a reader who is also a writer trying to get published wrote me lamenting the fact that her writing is similar to much of mine, in that it doesn’t begin with an immediate crisis, killing, or an action forcing everything into a literary hundred yard dash. Or, put another way, she doesn’t write slam-bang action openings, and it appears to her – and to me – that there’s more and more emphasis in F&SF for just such openings.

Now, I have nothing against openings with action. Fall of Angels begins with a violent battle scene, followed by a failing ship, and an emergency abandon-ship scene. Of Tangible Ghosts opens with a murder. An assassination by explosives sets the stage in Imager’s Intrigue. But frankly, most of my books open more prosaically with the killings, battles, explosions, treason, wars, etc., coming a bit later. And that’s usually the way real life is.

The problem with beginning with lots of action is that anything that comes after that seems like a let-down, especially to those readers who read only for the action. Those are the readers, of course, who usually won’t enjoy my books anyway because they’re “toooo slooow,” to quote one of them. But an action-packed opening can be a trap because it tends to imply that more and more action will follow, and if the action level doesn’t increase, that lets down “action-oriented” readers, and even if the level of action stays the same, then it’s just “more of the same,” and to avoid that an author needs to ratchet up the levels of violence, and often, sex and gore.

I’ve been reading F&SF for about sixty years, and it appears to me, especially in the last fifteen to twenty years, that the violence, speed, action, and shock-value quotients, so to speak, have all accelerated and become ever more prevalent. I’m certainly not against action, or even violence, and my characters, have, upon occasion, done some terrible deeds – and I’m talking about the protagonists, not about the villains – but I have the feeling that more and more authors are relying far too heavily on action and violence and shock value for the sake of shock value, rather than on plot, character, and, frankly, the technical strength of writing, in order to reach and hold readers.

Recently, say, over the past ten years, I’ve seen an increase in letters and emails to me that say that I’m one of a handful of authors that the writer can still enjoy reading because too many authors focus on action, sex, and violence. In the first twenty-five to thirty years of my professional career, I doubt that I got even a handful of such communications. Obviously, many of these writers are older and more traditional readers, but some clearly are not.

Given this reaction, limited as it may be, and my own continuing ability to sell books, I do have the suspicion that there’s still a market for a less violent approach to writing F&SF, but, as in many things, only time will tell, but I will say to any aspiring writer that the story should trump the marketing appeal of the slam-bang opening.

Everyone’s Shouting

Last week a shooter killed five Dallas policemen and wounded nine others at a protest held in Dallas to protest the killings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. This is the largest single killing of police officers since 9/11.

Too many people remain focused almost exclusively on police abuses, and such abuses clearly exist. There’s absolutely no doubt that they do. And for all the light shined on such abuses, they continue to occur. Some police departments have made great strides in dealing with the issue of discriminatory “over-policing” of minorities, especially blacks, and some have done far less to address the problem of police abuse, especially of black males.

Police officers need to realize that the problem isn’t going to just die down and go away. It won’t, not so long as abuses continue, so long as black anger increases, and so long as there are three hundred million guns in the United States.

Yet, from what I’ve seen reported, the Dallas police department is one of those that seems to have been trying hard and doing well in this regard, one headed by a black police chief, and one where the officers killed were on duty protecting a peaceful demonstration, ironically against police excesses – until the shooter opened fire.

That said, the black community has to face up to some very hard facts as well. By any standard, even taking into account poverty, poor schooling, and various systemic problems that cause discrimination, including racial profiling, the crime rate among young black males is unacceptable. Other impoverished minorities face a great many of the same structural and social problems, and the crime rate of their young males comes nowhere close to that of young black males. Drive-by shootings and random violence and killing of children as a result of gang fights are not deaths caused by police behavior.

Yet all too many on each side of this divide, and it is a divide, refuse to see or address their own problems, and the anger and the shouting seem to grow louder. While neither side is totally blameless and neither side is totally to blame, too many on each side are behaving that way. In effect, it’s another example of polarization.

David Brown, the Dallas police chief, said it well, that the divisiveness has to stop, but it won’t stop until the majorities and minorities on each side in all metropolitan areas and towns take a long, hard, and honest look at their own problems. There’s been progress, but not nearly enough, and we as a society are running out of time.


Theoretically, the words “diva” or “divo” are Italian for the most prominent singers, either female or male. Among professional classical singers, usually when those terms are applied to a singer, they’re meant in a much less complimentary way, a form of shorthand for a self-important pain in the ass, who makes life difficult for colleagues, conductors, accompanists, or anyone else who does not worship at the diva’s/divo’s feet.

While such divas or divos may be even outstanding and highly acclaimed, few end up having long or lasting careers. One of the very basic reasons for this is that, compared to the number of extremely talented professional singers, the number of top-flight and high-paying opera houses is very limited, and the number of good roles suited to even the best singers in each voice type is also limited.

There’s also a misconception that divos and divas only exist in the world of music, but I’ve certainly run across them in other fields, particularly in politics, but also in education, and even among F&SF writers. No… I won’t name names, because that’s not the point of what else I’m going to say. The point is simple. If you’re enough of a pain in the ass, no matter how talented you are, sooner or later, you’re going to be replaced. If you have enormous talent and ability, it will occur later, but it will happen. This is true whether you’re a writer, an artist, or an editor.

And if you’re a beginning author, you won’t even get to the point of being recognized as a divo or diva. I know. I’ve seen it happen on more than a few occasions, where an author insists he knows more than an editor and that the editor doesn’t know how to market his book or doesn’t understand his genius… or something else. In most cases that I’ve seen, those writers never really went anywhere. [And by the way, from what I’ve seen, in writing, there are more divos than divas.]

I’m not saying that editors are always right. They’re not. But almost always, a seasoned editor is far more likely to be right than a beginning author. The seasoned editors got there by having a better track record than other editors, and if you don’t think editing is a competitive business, talk to a few editors.

All that doesn’t mean an author can’t ask why, especially if the asking is done politely. And it doesn’t mean an author can’t suggest. But unless you’re already at the top of the bestseller lists, you’d best not demand. And even being at the top of the list isn’t proof against divo-self-destruction of career. I’ve seen that happen, too.

Just like singers, we authors are kept in business and kept writing by having enough people buy our books that the royalties pay the bills for us and for our publishers – and the same is still true if you self-publish. Most editors handle a number of authors. They tend to resent authors who take up a great deal of their time unless those authors produce incredibly good sales numbers, and they still resent those authors, which means, if you’re one of those, when the sales numbers drop, that editor isn’t going to be quite so solicitous. And if you’re not one of those authors, and are barely making the sales cut, when someone else comes along who’s much easier to work with, your books will go on the back burner, and that’s if you’re lucky.

I suppose the point I’m hammering is simply: Be the best you can be, but never be a divo/diva.

The “Belief” Deception

Most of us, as human beings, tend to feel very strongly about those beliefs that we hold dear. In most places, those strong feelings center on religious faith, sometimes on the family, sometimes on political or social beliefs, and to a lesser degree on other matters, at least for most people, from what I’ve observed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with believing in something strongly, even passionately, but most of human history is replete with violence seemingly triggered by those passionate beliefs. Why do I say “seemingly”? Because, in the overwhelming majority of instances, those seeking power and dominance use those beliefs in causes against others in order to bolster their own position and power.

Henry VIII’s split with Rome and the Catholic faith, and his creation of the Church of England, had little to do with the vast majority of tenets of the Catholic Church, but everything to do with his desire to divorce his queen and remarry in order to have a son to inherit the crown – surely an issue of power and dominance.

Luther’s ninety-five theses nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparked the Protestant Reformation, which was initially far more about reforming abuses of power in the Catholic Church than about changing fundamental beliefs in God and Christ.

The split in Islam, between Shia and Sunni, arose essentially over the issue of who should lead the faith after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 A.D. While other issues separating the two have arisen, the split was basically about power and dominance, and it remains the same today.

While Ireland has seen a long history of Protestant/Catholic conflict and animosity, that conflict is far more rooted in power than doctrine, since the vast majority of those in power in Ireland after the end of the Williamite War in 1691 were, prior to the Irish Revolution of 1916, members of the Protestant Ascendency. After the partition of Ireland and the end of most hostilities in the Republic of Ireland in 1923, the Protestants retained economic and social control in Northern Ireland, and that conflict continued almost unabated until the agreement of 1998, although hostilities still simmer, largely because of economic and political inequalities.

The American Revolution, for all the talk of freedom, was about who controlled the resources and the economy of the then thirteen colonies and about British restrictions on trade and manufactures.

The Taliban and ISIS, while they claim to be Islamic, seem to be far more interested in power and control than in any of the more peaceful aspects of Islam. And certainly, the Crusades were far more about power and plunder than religion, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.

This desire for control, and wanting to have government force people who are different to “do things my way” remains a disturbing aspect of politics in the United States, and elsewhere.

No matter what anyone may say in religious terms about the abortion/anti-abortion conflict in the U.S., that conflict is purely and simply about who has control of a woman’s body – the woman or an outsider, whether that outsider is either a religious belief, her husband, or the government. All the rationalizing and reasoning, all the saying why, doesn’t change that basic fact. It’s about control. So is the issue of who can marry whom.

Yet government has to have laws, and enforce them, or there will be chaos. As a number of politicians and sages have noted, liberty also requires order. Order requires popular support. So any law that enslaves or unnecessarily controls a significant percentage of the population eventually creates unrest and often violence. This rather obvious truth tends to be ignored by those who use beliefs to obtain or maintain power over others.

As far as laws or practices being unnecessarily controlling, there’s a simple question that can resolve many of those questions. Does the law in practice physically or economically harm certain groups of people? It would seem to me, simple man that I am, that believing in a different god or the same god in a different way harms no one. Taking up a gun to force that belief does so.

The bottom line is whether beliefs are used for self-motivation and guidance or whether they’re used to force beliefs on others – or to harm or kill those who believe differently.

Beware those who trumpet beliefs while brandishing laws or weapons and ask who will gain control of what – and how.

Color Perception

The other day I ran across an interesting statement from a scientist (which I’d attribute if I could recall where I read it) to the effect that the “universe has no colors.” He went on to explain that what we see as colors are essentially the different energy levels of photons either emitted by or reflected from objects and that colors are the interpretation of those levels by our brains. Experiments and observation have determined that this visual perception differs from species to species and between men and women. Women perceive more different shades than men in the ranges of blue and green.

None of this is necessarily particularly surprising, and while colors may only be an interpretation of photonic frequencies by my gray matter, I certainly prefer that interpretation to shades of gray. To me, it would seem that living in a world of gray would be rather depressing, but that just might be my personal bias.

Years ago, Charles Harness wrote a book entitled Redworld, set on a world around Barnard’s Star where colors and color perception are very different because Barnard’s Star emits largely reddish light and the planetary atmosphere is an oxygen/ammonia mix. The result is that all the planetary phonic frequencies, if you will, are overwhelmingly shades of red and ochre, and the intelligent humanoid life there has evolved to discern a wide range of reddish shades, but infrequent “colors” like violet or yellow are perceived as gray or black. I won’t speak to the accuracy of this depiction, but since Harness had an undergraduate degree in chemistry, I would suspect it’s largely correct.

In retrospect, Harness was on to something, although I didn’t see it that way when I first read the short novel nearly thirty years ago. Since “colors” are more easily and quickly distinguished than are shades of gray, that interpretation enhances our perceptive ability, and as a result, our survivability as a species, and the same would have held true of Pol and his people in Redworld.

Yet how many people consider how perception colors not only our views of the world [yes, it is a terrible pun], but biases how we think? And yet, that perception of the universe varies between individuals and species… and yet, as the protagonist in Redworld is told, white [or blond] for him is black.

Financial Transaction Tax

Earlier this year, all of the Democratic candidates for the presidency proposed a new tax, one targeted almost exclusively at the wealthiest Americans. Such a financial transaction tax (FTT) would impose a sales tax on trades of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other securities. The tax levels proposed differ, and range from one basis point [one hundredth of one percent] to as high as fifty basis points, although most economists seem to think the lower ranges will actually generate more tax revenue. Just to keep this in perspective, an FFT of one basis point would raise revenues of just ten cents on a transaction of one thousand dollars. A $100,000 transaction would raise just ten dollars.

That doesn’t sound like it would raise that much in revenue, but consider that annual trades in stocks alone in the U.S. are approaching fifty trillion dollars, and the total trading in stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other similar financial instruments exceeds six hundred trillion dollars, according to the Tax Policy Center. Depending on the tax level chosen, annual revenues would range from around $40 billion to as much as $210 billion.

The interesting aspect of the FTT is that the vast majority of the taxes would fall on the wealthiest Americans and particularly on high volume automated securities trades, those trades which contribute the least to economic growth and perhaps the most to the pocketbooks of hedge fund managers and the like. Over 75% of the tax would fall on the top fifth of the population in earnings, and 40% on the top one percent, but even for the top one percent, the tax would increase their overall tax liability by less than one percent, and for those in lower income brackets, the impact would be less than a quarter of a percent of income.

Some of those in the finance industry complain that such a tax would reduce trading volumes without decreasing market volatility, especially if an FTT is imposed with tax levels as high as those under consideration in Europe, but even the highest rates proposed to date in the U.S., by Senator Sanders, are well below the proposed European levels. Critics also suggest that an FTT would turn investors away from U.S. markets, but in practice that seems highly unlikely, given that such taxes either already exist elsewhere or are under active consideration.

Critics of the FTT tend to overlook several basic points. First of all, high-speed stock trading is simply using advanced technologies in order to get information a millisecond before other traders. High-speed trading doesn’t make markets more efficient, but it does increase stock prices, out of which the traders make money. It’s actually a sophisticated form of an old practice, called front-running, which was illegal. High-speed trading doesn’t create efficiency, but it does create the possibility of debacles like the “Flash Crash” of May 2010.

Second, use of high-speed computers, sophisticated algorithms, and confidential information unavailable to small investors doesn’t improve the productivity of financial markets. Such technology and systems just tilt the market in favor of those traders. Likewise, trading in ever more complex derivatives – making bets on bets – doesn’t add real value. It’s merely speculation that makes the system more vulnerable to big losses, as occurred in the financial crisis of 2008.

Third, one of the aspects of the finance sector that’s been overlooked is that it now produces a quarter of corporate profits while creating just 4% of American jobs. Who says speculation and computerized market-churning doesn’t pay?

Given all that, why shouldn’t we push for a financial transactions tax? Especially since most of those insisting that we need to balance the federal budget are the very people who’d pay most of the tax?