Archive for May, 2017

A Few Basics…?

Education today has become a battlefield of sorts. There are fights over charter schools, open schools, magnet schools, college preparatory schools, tech or vocational schools, and about how and what material should be taught and by whom. There are battles over paying teachers and whether vouchers should be allowed or shouldn’t, and there are great variations in educational systems across the United States. And there are good schools of almost every type and poor schools of almost every type.

Then there’s the battle over what constitutes a good or great teacher, and what kind of teaching works best. Is it a variation on “the sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”… or somewhere in between? But I’ve also seen great teachers who differ widely in how they teach, and the same of teachers who aren’t that great.

So how does one measure what constitutes a great or effective teacher? Is it how much the students learn over the course of a semester or year? That sounds reasonable on the surface, but it doesn’t take into account the variables over which teachers have no control. Have the students had breakfast and a decent night’s sleep? Students who are lacking in these will have a harder time making progress. Do the students have the language skills to understand the teacher easily, or will the teacher have to spend additional time dealing with those problems?

In general, students from more affluent backgrounds do better academically and progress faster, but even students from these backgrounds may have difficulties, emotional problems, learning disabilities, and some may just be unmotivated, or more interested in their personal electronic communication systems.

The current educational attitude seems to be that none of these factors matter. Teachers are hired to teach, and they need to get results. This is a hard-nosed business approach.

As an economist, I understand the business model. What people who apply it to education don’t seem to understand is that businesses have a level of control over their businesses that teachers don’t over their students. If an employee doesn’t come to work or do his work, he can be fired [even in government, although it takes a very long time]. Also, businesses get to examine the skills of potential employees and select who they hire. They get to specify the raw materials and equipment needed to do the job, and they can change suppliers to get the least costly or highest quality raw materials, or the quality in between. Teachers are stuck with whoever or whatever “raw material” comes through the door,and usually have little choice over the facilities and equipment they have at hand. Not only that, but the “raw material” comes in different sizes and qualities, with different “properties.” All that doesn’t matter in the educational “business model.” The teachers are the ones held responsible.

Despite all the rhetoric and the need, often expressed by politicians, to make education more business-like, education was once actually more business-like than it is today. Teachers could flunk students. Students weren’t automatically promoted when they hadn’t learned anything. Troublesome students were expelled.

The problem with this approach was that it marginalized students from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, even intelligent students with learning disabilities. It also didn’t accommodate students who had trouble learning with the listen, read, model format of more traditional education. And, equally important, with formal education being seen more and more as the key to financial success, there were too many students failing and dropping out, and that upset too many parents.

So… U.S. education has tried to change to accommodate a wider range of students, which is commendable, even though the results often have not lived up to the expectations, and the fact that they have not has largely been blamed on the teachers.

I’d just like to point out that no business could operate profitably or effectively if it had to accept any employee who wanted a job, regardless of that individual’s intelligence, dependability, and skills, or lack of skills. Nor could most survive without control over raw material and facilities. But educators are required to do just that, and then blamed if they don’t work miracles. The real miracle is that many of them do, and most of those miracles go unrecognized because they’re merely expected.

Fiction – What’s It All About?

According to A Handbook to Literature [Sixth Edition], fiction is “narrative writing drawn from the imagination rather than from history or fact,” but because of the intrusion of personal events, history, and other factors into such narratives, the Handbook then offers an alternative definition of fiction as “any of the ways in which writing seeks to impose order on the flux of thought or experience.” From my point of view, the first definition is too narrow and the alternative meaningless.

One of the aspects of the Handbook I also found most interesting was that I could discover no definition of “literature.” “Comparative literature,” but not literature. For a textbook/handbook that is all about literature, I found that omission unfathomable. But then, in the academic and critical worlds, what narratives are considered “acceptable fiction” and what are literature are all over the place.

At two universities I was considered qualified to teach writing, and one even found me qualified to teach introductory literature and a science fiction and fantasy fiction course. A third university allowed me to teach an honors seminar on F&SF literature and writing techniques, but wouldn’t let me near “regular” literature. Another writer I know never finished an undergraduate degree, but when that writer, who has published more than twenty genre fiction books [from major publishers] largely in the romance field and won awards, went back to school, the administrators of that university insisted on the writer taking a beginning course on fiction writing.

As that example indicates, there are many universities, colleges, and scholars that contend, if almost covertly, that genre fiction can’t be literature. That’s also why I found the absence of a definition of literature in the Handbook to Literature amusing. When there’s not even a written definition of what’s included, how can you logically exclude anything?

In her 2014 acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters given by the National Book Foundation, Ursula K. LeGuin took dead aim at the fact that the corporate profit motive can be contrary to the art and truth that can lie in fiction and to the freedom necessary to express them. That’s true enough, but what often gets overlooked is that there are two other factors that can also strangle art and truth in fiction. One is sheer popularity. I have absolutely nothing against popularity. Any writer who does is a true hypocrite. But popularity has nothing to do with excellence. There are excellent books that are multi-million copy bestsellers, but damned few. Since most multi-million best-sellers range from almost terrible to fairly good, when publishers concentrate on finding and publishing primarily ginormous multi-million copy best-sellers, fiction and readers both suffer.

One of the character traits I loved about the late David Hartwell, who was my editor for 36 years before his untimely death not quite a year and a half ago, was his ability to make quite a number of good and sometimes excellent books “popular” enough that their authors could continue to be published, rather than merely seeking the best-selling and the popular. David’s editorial and marketing skills, and his mentoring of a huge percentage of editors, contributed markedly to the improvement of “literary” quality in F&SF, while still ensuring a good storyline. In a time when publishing margins are razor-thin, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to David’s legacy in this area.

The other factor that has a tendency to strangle good and great fiction is the proliferation of so-called impartial or judged awards that are essentially “insider” awards, awards given on the basis of criteria judged “great” or “vital” by a small group. No matter what any “expert” declares, there are too many ways in which writers can artistically convey great ideas, images, action, thoughts, and more for those ways to fit inside a fixed mold. Ironically, critics from both Salon and The New York Times have declared that the annual National Book Awards have become awards for insiders. There’s also a set of F&SF awards that is fact similar [and it’s not the Hugo awards, which are a straight fan popularity contest].

So… long live all kinds of fiction, especially all kinds of F&SF, because without all kinds, we won’t have the gems buried among the others.

The War Against Rational Thought

We have a President who cannot accept the fact that he lost the popular vote count and that his inauguration crowd wasn’t the largest ever. Despite innumerable scientifically proved facts, such as increasing global temperatures, the massive shrinkage and loss of glaciers world-wide, the unprecedented [in the last hundred thousand years] loss of arctic sea ice, the arrival of spring weeks earlier than any time in human history, roughly fifty percent of Americans deny that global warming is caused by human activities, even though more than 97% of the 12,000 published scientific papers since 1991 on climate change recognize that the major component of rapid global warming is human caused. The Republican Party is the only major political party in the world, including all major conservative parties, that rejects the need to address global warming.

Now, this “anti-science” attitude isn’t just a conservative problem. A recent study cited by New Scientist found that a significant proportion of liberals reject published scientific findings on vaccines, genetically modified foods, and the causes of autism.

So it appears that what scientific findings people accept or reject are determined in large part by their political leanings. The problem is, however, that when roughly half the population rejects certain scientific findings, and the other half rejects others, science and rational thought end up taking a beating.

While the much-maligned John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind,” most people, when confronted with facts that contradict their beliefs, either ignore those facts or scurry to find or invent facts to support their beliefs. Donald Trump, unfortunately, follows this practice all too often.

It’s been said that science progresses one funeral at a time, but the problem today is that we’re facing problems that need to be addressed a bit more quickly than that. Part of the problem is that we’ve become a technological world, and technology multiplies everything. Benefits become vastly greater; problems do as well; and everything moves more quickly because technology multiplies the rate of change. Yet human beings are conservative by nature and by evolution, and that conservatism means we don’t respond well to rapid change, particularly change we don’t agree with, and this means our own behavior and beliefs all too often war against rational thought.

Add to that the difficulty that humans are supreme rationalizers. There’s a quote from the movie The Big Chill about the impossibility of getting through the day without rationalizing. Unfortunately, it’s getting too late to keep rationalizing about the issues of science, not without incurring extraordinarily high costs that will be passed on to our children and their children.

Folk Wisdom?

For the past month and a half the temperature here hasn’t dropped below freezing even at night, and the high temperature has been in the high 70s [Fahrenheit] or low 80s almost every day. It’s also been not only warm, but dry, and I had to turn on the sprinklers a month ago to keep the lawn from turning to straw.

So, last week, I got to thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, I could plant my tomatoes. I don’t do gardening, except for a single modest flower bed, some perennials… and the tomatoes. The tomatoes are because my wife truly loves garden-fresh tomatoes. So we have a moderate sized tomato garden, and I thought that planting them a week or so earlier would mean they’d be ripe a week or so earlier.

When I mentioned this, she shook her head. “Not until a week after Mother’s Day. That’s the local saying.”

Ignoring that bit of folk wisdom, I made the mistake of saying, “We’re suffering global warming.”

She gave me a look that chilled the local warming, and I deferred on planting the tomatoes.

Two days after Mother’s Day, the temperature dropped 45 degrees, and it snowed on and off for two days. As I write this, it’s forecast to freeze again tonight.

But the forecast for the weekend is warm and sunny. I might plant the tomatoes early next week, more than a week after Mother’s Day.

Who Are “the People”?

This past week, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, toured two recently created National Monuments here in Utah pursuant to an Executive Order from President Trump requiring the Secretary to re-evaluate whether these areas, and 25 others, should retain National Monument status, and if so, whether their boundaries should be reduced to allow other uses of the federal lands.

“I’m here to get acquainted with the issue,” said Zinke upon his arrival. “I like going to the front lines and actually talking to people.”

But to whom did Zinke actually talk? Although Zinke said he intended to “make sure the tribes have a voice,” the Secretary had just a single one hour meeting with the tribal council, and spent perhaps another hour over his four days talking to other tribal representatives, while spending close to a day with the governor and Utah lawmakers.

The rest of Zinke’s Utah monument tour continued this way, with the Secretary spending very little time with supporters of the monument, and considerably more time with prominent monument opponents such as House Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; State Rep. Mike Noel, R; Gov. Gary Herbert, R; and San Juan County commissioners. He also refused to meet with local businesses and business groups in favor of retaining the two areas in their current status as National Monuments, groups such as the 49 members of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce who expressed unanimous opposition to downsizing the monument and who pointed out that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had actually increased local employment and commerce, contrary to all the claims by opponents that it would hurt the local economy.

And when Zinke left Utah, what did he say? He declared, “This is the first time we’ve given locals a say.”

Right! For the most part, the vast majority of those with whom he talked were Republican elected officials [remember that Utah is a one-party state, and the most conservative in the United States at present] representing business and energy interests.

According to a spokesman for Gov. Herbert’s office, the Secretary was “very much guided by the executive order itself,” which specifically required that he consider the “concerns of State, tribal, and local governments affected by a designation.”

Well, the Secretary certainly listened to the state and local government officials [all Republican], but the local tribes, businesses, environmentalists, and others supporting the national monument status definitely got short shrift.

But Zinke can claim that he talked to the locals, and I suspect that’s all that matters to him and Trump.

The Password Proposition

With the digital revolution and a world-wide economy and high-tech communications system comes a world in which more and more can be destroyed, ransomed, or stolen electronically. With an ever-greater proportion of our lives, our privacy, and our assets susceptible to hacking and electronic theft comes an almost insatiable need for passwords, and that means “strong” passwords, using upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and even a symbol or two. By the way, don’t use the same password twice, or any combination that’s easy for you to remember, because that makes it easier for the hacker.

My digital presence is likely moderate. I don’t do Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or a host of other applications. There’s the website, email, and a “few” other applications… except those few applications actually added up to another dozen… and I probably forgot a few that I seldom use. And that means fourteen unique passwords that need to be changed regularly. Right now, certain applications I regularly have to try twice, because I inadvertently type the old password, or some combination.

Because of the requirements of her job, my wife likely has twice as many passwords to remember, or write down in a hidden place. I have trouble with fourteen. I can’t imagine twice that amount. Now, I notice that at least one internet company is now offering password management and protection services, which will require most certainly just one password to access all the others, but what if the company gets hacked?

Years ago, I read a science fiction story where all the knowledge of the world was basically stored in a very secure computer but small installation, surrounded by thousands of indices needed to access it…and everything in the world crashed because access was lost. Now, that’s an oversimplification because we’ll always have hundreds if not thousands of knowledge databases… BUT…there will only be a handful monitoring the electric power grid, the New York Stock Exchange, even the computers monitoring municipal water and sewage systems… and has everyone forgotten how three tiny computer glitches in the past two years resulted in thousands of flight delays and cancelations by United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and British Airways?

What tends to get overlooked is that any password, security system or the like designed either by people or computers falls, at least theoretically, into two categories, one so secure no one can access it, or one that is at best semi-secure, where people and computers with high abilities can break in, regardless of the security. The first kind is fine until it needs to be fixed, updated, and then everything crashes. The second will always be hacked.

But, for the sake of profit and convenience, we want everything computerized, that is, until our identity is the one stolen, our company data is the data stolen or ransomwared, or our bank account the one drained.

In the meantime, be very careful with your construction of passwords, and be aware that, even if you are, computer security is still a form of Russian roulette, just with odds much more in your favor than one bullet in six being fatal. The downside of this is that when you are hacked, especially in some extreme cases, you’ll likely be so exasperated and furious that you may want to kill someone – except you’ll never be able to physically reach whoever did it, which is exactly why computer crime is soaring and will continue to do so.

Numbers… and Meaning

Everywhere I look, there are numbers, and pressure to provide numbers. Fill out this survey. Fill out another for a chance to win $1000 worth of groceries. Tell us how you liked this book. Tell us how you liked your flight. Tell us how the service was at the bank. Rate your purchase.

And that’s just the beginning. The President’s popularity is down – or up. This television program will return next season because the numerical ratings are up, that other one… so long. Advertising rates are tied to ratings as well, and because the attention spans of Americans are down, negative sensational news or quick laugh or quick action entertainment get higher numbers, and higher numbers mean higher profits.

All the stock-tracking systems show continuous numbers on public companies, the stock price by the minute, the latest P/E ratio, ratings by up to a dozen or so different services. The state of the economy is measured by the numbers of GDP or inflation by the CPI numbers [or some variant thereof] or the unemployment rate… always the numbers.

Why numbers? Because for the data to be effectively aggregated and analyzed, it has to first be quantified numerically.

All these numbers convey a sense of accuracy and authenticity, but how accurate are they? And even when they are “accurate” in their own terms, do they really convey a “true” picture?

I have grave doubts. As an author, I have access to Bookscan numbers about my sales, and, according to Bookscan, their data are 75-80% accurate. According to Bookscan, I’m only making about 25-30% of what my publisher is paying me. Now, my publisher is a good publisher, with good people, but Macmillan isn’t going to pay me for books it doesn’t sell. That, I can guarantee, and a number of other authors have made the same point. For one thing, Bookscan data represents print sales in bookstores and other venues that are point of sale outlets, which Walmart and Costco aren’t. Nor are F&SF convention booksellers, and ebook data isn’t factored in. So those “authoritative” numbers aren’t nearly as accurate as Bookscan would have one believe.

Similar problems arise in education. My wife the professor also feels inundated by numbers. There’s the pressure to retain students, because the retention and graduation numbers are “solid,” but there’s no real way to measure in terms of numbers the expertise of a singer or the ability of a music teacher to teach. And the numbers from student evaluations [as shown by more than a few studies] track more closely to a professor’s likeability and easy grading than the professor’s ability to teach singing, teaching, and actual thinking. A student switches majors because they’re not suited, and even if that student graduates in another field, the major/department in which the student began is penalized with lower “retention” numbers, which, in effect, penalizes the most demanding fields, especially demanding fields that don’t reward graduates with high paying jobs.

Yet, the more I look around, the more people seem to be relying on numbers, often without understanding what those numbers represent, or don’t represent. And there’s a real problem when decisions are made by executives or administrators or politicians who don’t understand the numbers, and from what I’ve seen, all too many of them don’t understand those numbers. We see this in the environmental field, where politicians bring snowballs into Congress and claim that there can’t be global warming, or suggest that a mere one degree rise in overall world ambient temperature is insignificant [it’s anything but insignificant, but the data and the math are too detailed for a blog post].

The unemployment numbers are another good example. The latest U.S. unemployment rate is listed at 4.5%, down from 10% in October of 2009. Supposedly, a five percent unemployment rate signifies full employment. Except… this number doesn’t include the 20% of white males aged 25-54 who’ve dropped out of the labor force. Why not? Because they’re not looking for work. If you included them, the unemployment rate would be around 17%.

Yet, as a nation, in all fields, we’re relying more and more on numbers that all too many decision-makers don’t understand… and people wonder why things don’t turn out the way they thought.

Numbers are wonderful… until they’re not.

Your Pain Doesn’t Count

Right now, statistics show that, in the United States, working class men without college educations in the 25-54 age group now have the lowest workforce participation levels ever, with one of five not even being in the workforce. This cohort is the only segment of the U.S. population that has shown an actual decrease in life expectancy, a marked increase in illness and suicide, and a declining earnings level – bringing it close to the same lower statistical levels as less-educated minority males, who have not shown any declines (but no significant improvement in recent years, either). In fact, the mortality level for middle-aged, non-college-educated white males is now thirty percent higher than for blacks, the first time in history that any cohort of white males has had a higher death rate than blacks of the same age.

This hollowing-out of the middle class workers who used to get paid far better wages than at present for semi-skilled work has led to a great upwelling of anger among them, and that anger was focused against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in the last election and largely in support of Donald Trump. These men, and their families, are angry, and they’re hurting and lashing out at pretty much anyone and anything they think is getting a “better deal” from government and industry. They’re essentially claiming that no one is hearing their pain.

I understand that. What I don’t understand is why this group is so angry at women and minorities.

Here in the United States we’ve had two groups that have been minimalized and denied rights ever since the U.S. was founded, and while one group technically and legally received the right to vote over a century and a half ago, in practice that right was denied in one way or another in most of the country until little more than fifty years ago. The other group not only didn’t even get the legal right to vote until the twentieth century, and for much of U.S. history in many parts of the country did not even have the effective rights to hold property.

African-Americans and women remain comparatively disadvantaged to this day, no matter what stories individual white males can come up with anecdotally. I can recall stories about black men who lived in shacks but owned Cadillacs, but I didn’t learn until I was older that was because all too often they were denied decent or, sometimes, any real property. There was an ancestor in my wife’s family who had a hard time in North Carolina. It might have been because he was mulatto, part-black. Then he moved to Kentucky and passed as white. He became a very successful farmer and was one of the first to own a car, largely, I suspect, because he passed as white. He didn’t change; the community acceptance did.

After watching three wives and six daughters – and they are privileged compared to many women – battle gender discrimination in a wide range of occupations and fronts over the past fifty years, after watching how men gamed the federal government civil service system to benefit males, after seeing how much easier it was for me to raise four children for several years as a single father than it was for single women, and after living and working for more than twenty years in the extremely patriarchal culture of Utah, otherwise known as the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, I tend to lose patience with people who complain about “reverse discrimination.”

Bur regardless of my impatience or what all too many people seem to believe, the plain fact is that all three of these groups are hurting and that the current political system is pitting them against each other. What’s worse is that each of these groups is pretty much ignoring the other’s pain. Is this really going to improve the situation or help any of them… or the United States?

The Violence Addiction

If one compares movies or television shows of the 1960s to those of today, it’s fairly obvious that the level of action, especially violence, and the frequency of violence have increased dramatically. So has the graphic depiction of that violence. I’m far from the first to have noticed this; it’s become almost a cliché.

Nor I am the first to have pointed out that exposure to so much violence tends to inure those who watch it to violence, both real and entertainment violence. What’s paradoxical about all this is that, as Steven Pinker and a number of scholars have pointed out, on average, life, particularly in the U.S., is far less violent today than it ever has been, yet on screen it’s more violent than it’s ever been, and U.S. parents, also interestingly enough, are far more worried about such violence occurring to their children than ever before, even though violence against children in the U.S., especially for children of the middle and upper classes, is markedly lower, rather than higher.

Yet, as a society, we seem to be becoming more and more addicted to violence in entertainment. Some scholars have pointed out as well that the continuing increase in violent public entertainment was a hallmark of the declining Western Roman Empire. Today, violent acts caught and broadcast via the internet seem to spark copy-cat actions.

All of this would seem to suggest that the emphasis on violence in public media and entertainment is anything but a welcome trend, yet it continues to increase with each television season dripping with more blood and action-packed violence than the previous season, certainly suggestive of a societal addiction to voyeur-violence.

At the same time, there’s an aspect to this that is generally overlooked, and one that, to me, is equally worrisome, if not even more troubling. As many of my readers know, for the most part I tend to keep graphic violence to a comparative minimum. I certainly acknowledge that it exists and is a part of any society or culture in some form, but what is overlooked about violence is that the vast majority of violence is a symptom of other factors or a reaction to another’s violence.

Thus, the concentration of attention on the violence itself, or the application of violent force to stop otherwise unchecked violence (while it may be necessary) tends to overshadow or minimize the causes of the initial violence.

But then, trying to solve problems that lead to violence just doesn’t play well on the screen, and it doesn’t have the satisfying crunch of seeing the so-called villain pulverized at the end of a great action sequence.