Archive for January, 2018

Non-Universal Uniformity?

In the January 13th issue of New Scientist was a report about a series of measurements designed to determine the mass of protons. Despite the extreme precision of the equipment [designed to be accurate to one part in ten billion] the discrepancy between the various sets of measurements by different laboratories was even greater – something like four standard deviations, which, according to the article, has a probability of less than 3/10 of one percent. Part of the problem in measuring protons is that their mass varies depending on the configuration of the nucleus of the atom being measured, so that, although both a deuteron and a helium-3 atom contain two protons, one neutron, and one electron, the total mass differs as a result of the internal configuration of the nucleus.

What I find interesting about this seemingly rather pedantic discussion about the accuracy of determining the mass of a proton is the assumption, which underlies the entire basis of science, that a proton should have the same mass in the same configuration at all times. So far, repeated measurements are suggesting that this may not be so.

Einstein’s theory of relativity works on a cosmic scale, but not on a sub-atomic scale, while quantum mechanics work on a sub-atomic scale but not on a cosmic scale, and for almost a century scientists have been working on a “theory of everything” that would unify the two.

Now… add to that the problem of dark matter. Way back in 1970, the astronomer Vera Rubin discovered that the stars in the Andromeda Galaxy revolve around the galactic center at the same speed, unlike the planets in our solar system, where the inner planets move much faster than the outer planets. This research was the basis for the confirmation of dark matter, but the problem remains that while a huge variety of measurements indicates that dark matter exists, to date no scientist has been able to identify or measure any individual constituent of dark matter, although the sterile neutrino is considered one of the possible components.

A similar problem exists with dark energy. According to the standard model of cosmology, the universe cannot be expanding at its present rate without the contribution of dark energy, and the best current measurements indicate that dark energy contributes 68.3% of the total energy in the universe. The mass–energy of dark matter and ordinary matter contribute 26.8% and 4.9%, respectively, and other components such as neutrinos and photons contribute a very small amount. But, again, no one has been yet able to detect or measure such energy.

One of the reasons that scientists have theorized the existence of both dark matter and dark energy is the assumption of uniformity, i.e., that the speed of light, the force of gravitation [or in Einstein’s terms, the mass-warping of spacetime], and the various “atomic” weights and forces are constant throughout the universe. So far as light and gravity are concerned, they certainly have seemed to be uniform in our small section of our galaxy.

Except now… there’s a real question of the uniformity of the mass of the proton, and I have to ask whether that might suggest that on a vast cosmic scale there’s not the standard uniformity that scientists have assumed.

What’s Lost

Language and literature reflect culture. That’s a truism, one that’s accurate, yet there’s an aspect of that truism that’s seldom explored. Everyone focuses on the additions to literature and to the new words and expressions, but almost never is there much examination of what’s gone out of fashion, or effectively been eliminated, in one way or another.

In one novel, I brought up the point that the change in meaning of the word “discriminate” had an untoward aspect to it. Once upon a time, the word “discriminate” was a positive term, meaning to choose wisely among alternatives. Now it means to treat others unfairly because of their race or skin color. What’s overlooked in this shift of meaning is that the English/American language has lost its only single word term meaning “to choose wisely” among alternatives.

That’s not an insignificant change for both the language and culture, because it implies that to rank or choose among alternatives is somehow no longer meaningful, perhaps even bad.

In past posts, I’ve lamented the loss of rhythm and rhyme in modern poetry, and the other day I came across an old recording, on the radio, of a hit song in the 1950s, “The Twelfth of Never.” One of the lines in the song reads, “I’ll love you till the poets run out of rhyme/ Until the Twelfth of Never, and that’s a long, long time…”

The poets have indeed run out of rhyme, but why? What does it mean, and what does that loss signify about our culture?

From what I can determine, modern poetry seems to present images and emotions. Some of those images are indeed striking, and the emotion ranges from stark and raw to delicate and nuanced. And almost none of it remains with the reader once he or she has turned from the page.

Rhyme and metered rhythm are largely what allow the human brain to retain structured human language unaltered. The ancients knew this well, and without the printing press and cheap reproduction of songs or poems, for either song or stories to last and be passed on, meter and rhythm were necessary.

What the change in poetry reflects is the triumph of transitory, contorted, and exaggerated images over the balance of words, meanings, rhyme, and rhythm that once were necessary to ensure that poetry endured. Today, printed paper copies, or electronic copies, ensure that no one needs to memorize poetry for it to last… at least theoretically.

But since the vast, vast majority of modern poetry is not, and cannot be, memorable, those images and emotions might as well be written on sand because there’s very little left in the mind of the reader to draw those readers back to such modern verse.

For the most part, modern verse has become a one-time consumable image, and because those word-images cannot compete in vividness to the electronic screen or to the thundered resonance of current popular song, most of which has an electric sameness to it, poetry has become less and less a vital part of literature and culture. A hundred fifty years ago, the great American poets were almost the equivalent of great pop stars. Most known poets today are popular as much as for their dramatic talents as for their words.

Either way, the words are now quickly forgotten, and the loss of what poetry once was reflects, in another way, our cultural obsession with momentary images.

Honest Politicians?

There’s an old question about how one determines an honest politician, and the answer is that, when bribed, he stays bought.

Even by this shady definition, the current President isn’t an honest politician. Successful politics requires commitments and deal-making, even compromise. As the events surrounding the government shut-down over the weekend revealed, the President is perfectly willing to commit to something, and then change his mind, especially when some part of his “base” objects.

This behavior not only makes deal-making difficult, to say the least, but it reveals, again, that the President’s word can’t ever be trusted. It also reveals that Trump often doesn’t consider what’s acceptable to his base and what’s not. It’s one thing to refuse to agree to something because it’s not in one’s perceived political interest; it’s another to agree to something in order to obtain another desired end and then, after others have made concessions, to change your mind and go back on your word.

This makes the opposition not only angry, but also less likely to make future concessions. It also makes one’s supporters in Congress wary of attempting to find a middle ground, lest they have the President undercut them.

[Updated]As I write this, the House has agreed to, and the President has signed the Senate-authored short-term funding extension with the promise from the Republicans to the Democrats that some limited immigration reform will be taken up in the next three weeks, particularly a fix for DACA, so that the young people brought to the United States as children don’t face deportation threats to countries most have never even known. The Democrats offered a compromise in terms of some funding for Trump’s wall, which Trump first accepted, and then decided against.

If either the President or the Republicans renege on that promise to deal with DACA, the next year is going to be especially bitter in Washington, D.C., and I suspect that bitterness will harm the Republicans far more than the Democrats, but then, it’s an emotional issue, and emotional issues are almost never decided by ‘reason.’

It’s too bad that Congress can’t act on the emotional appeal of nearly a million young people and children who’ve grown up here, most of whom think of themselves as Americans, and who’ve never known any other country, but that emotional appeal, so far, at least, has lost out to the generally right-wing visceral dislike of anyone who wasn’t born here and isn’t descended from “white-bread” stock, despite the fact that every single American citizen, even including Native Americans, is either an immigrant or descended from immigrants, most of whom couldn’t have gotten into the country “legally” under current immigration laws.

But then, it’s pretty clear that the issue for Congress and the President isn’t about fixing the problem, or any problem, but about avoiding blame from those who neither want to recognize the problems nor to accept solutions that deal with the concerns of both sides.

Majority Rule?

There’s been a lot of talk about majority rule, and what it means, including the fact that, although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, she lost the election in the Electoral College. Or the fact that in a number of states, including Wisconsin, the political party that controls the most seats in the state legislature actually received less votes than the “minority” party.

The other day I came across another set of statistics that provided additional insight on the issue, even though I couldn’t say that I was necessarily surprised. A national poll by the Gallup organization revealed that 61% of Republicans believed that President Trump was leading the Republican Party and the country in the right direction, but that 71% of all voters, including Republicans, believed the opposite, that Trump was taking the country in the wrong direction.

Now, on first glance the figures don’t seem to add up, but they actually do. Currently 25% of all voters identify themselves as Republicans, and 61% believe in Trump’s policy direction. That means that the Republicans supporting Trump only amount to 15% of the voting population. Add to that the fact that only 7% of Democrats believe Trump’s policies are good for the country, and since 27% of all voters identify as Democrats, these Democrats represent about 25% of the electorate. Then add in the 48% of voters who call themselves independents, and 68% of them oppose Trump’s policies.

So… the political party that represents, theoretically, 25% of the population is enacting policies opposed by 71% of the people. While the government is stable and at least marginally functioning, can the United States actually be considered a functioning democracy in the sense that government reflects the wishes of the majority?

Reader Perceptions

One of the dangers of being a writer is that there’s a tendency for some people, thankfully usually a minority, to make all sorts of assumptions about you, based not even on what you write, but on what those readers thought you wrote or how they believe a given character reflects your personal beliefs.

Over the years, I’ve been accused of being everything from a right-wing ultra-conservative to a far leftist. Part of that is because I engage in thought experiments in my writing, raising questions based on what would happen if a government or an individual had a particular political slant, and more than a few times, in different books, the protagonist and those around him take very different philosophical positions. In Adiamante, Ecktor deJanes and the demis believe that they should NEVER take an offensive action first, no matter what the cost, and they act in accord with that belief, even when the cost is horrendous. I addressed another side of that issue with The Parafaith War and The Ethos Effect, where Trystin Desoll initially implements a compromise of sorts… and then comes to the decision that preemptive action, rather than reaction, is the only solution that makes sense. Over the years, in both F&SF, I’ve presented multiple workable and very different governing systems, including matriarchal societies. [I will admit that there is one consistent theme/belief in my work – that political extremism of any sort is a disaster.]

I’ve also had readers accuse me of repeating, verbatim, episodes that, first, I never wrote before and then accuse me of “cutting and pasting.” I don’t mind owning up to the mistakes I made, but it’s a bit difficult to deal with readers who insist on something that simply isn’t so, because they firmly believe that what they remember is what I wrote – even when I didn’t.

Then, there’s also the problem of people making assumptions about your family members, based on what you write. The Soprano Sorceress tells the story of an opera singer and junior professor who finds herself in a medieval-level world where magic is controlled by music. I obviously drew on the expertise of my wife, who is an opera singer and voice and opera professor, but neither of us ever expected what happened to her one day several years ago, when a new voice student introduced herself to my wife and immediately announced, “I’ve read The Soprano Sorceress, and I know all about you.”

Yes, there is some of me in everything I write, as there is with every writer, but when you’re as old as I am and you’ve been with as many people in as many settings, it’s better for everyone that readers not to make too many assumptions.

Due Process

A few days ago, Nevada District Court Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed all charges against rancher Cliven Bundy “with prejudice,” meaning that Bundy and the two other defendants cannot be tried again on those charges, because she stated that prosecutorial misconduct made a fair trial impossible.

Bundy was accused of leading an armed rebellion against federal agents to block a roundup of his cattle from public lands. Bundy has now grazed his cattle on federal lands for almost twenty years without paying federal grazing fees, which was the reason BLM agents attempted to round up his cattle in lieu of payment, but were stopped when scores of armed men appeared, outnumbering the BLM agents.

Navarro cited “flagrant prosecutorial misconduct,” calling the prosecutor’s actions “outrageous” in withholding evidence, which resulted in violating “due process rights” of the defendants. All of that is certainly understandable, and we should all be afforded a fair trial.

But what I don’t get is how a man can fail to pay for something for twenty years, then use armed force to run off federal agents, and get away with it. Why was the BLM so lax in dealing with Bundy? Why didn’t they file a lien on his property or the equivalent?

Obviously, since I only have a background in environmental regulatory law, and not criminal justice, I’m clearly missing something. Why isn’t the judge filing or asking for charges of prosecutorial misconduct to be filed? And what about the twenty years of unpaid grazing fees?

Bundy isn’t a western federal lands’ rights hero. He’s a thief, pure and simple, who got armed thugs to bail him out, and then used federal legal incompetence to escape.

There are two sets of criminals here: Bundy and the criminal incompetence of the BLM and the prosecutors, and it appears that both sets are getting off free… and taxpayers will foot the bills.

Dogs, Cats, Other Animals, and People

Years ago, an author whose name I can’t recall wrote a story about a man who saw the essence of people as the animals they most resembled, only to discover than his fiancée resembled a very predatory feline… and he, figuratively, had feathers. Along the same line, one of my daughters has observed that while dogs are generally loyal, cats are opportunists. Having both cats and dogs, I’d agree with her observation… and to some degree to the idea put forth in the story whose title and author I cannot remember.

Others, obviously, must share those thoughts, or why would a general’s nickname be “mad dog” and why are some women termed “catty” and some men “mongrels” or “birdbrains” or “cold fish”? In fact, I found several internet sites that list scores of animal names purported to be those applied to acquaintances of the lister, which ranged from the relatively understandable, i.e., mule, jackrabbit, honey bee, bull, and squirrel, to some that, shall we say, were a little more exotic – snake, whistlepig, shadface… and a few unsuitable for print, at least in my view.

Of course, given that we share a certain amount of DNA with all mammals and lesser amount with virtually all living creatures, it’s not totally improbable that there are some vague resemblances… or that we think there are. Or that we’d like to impute unfavorable ones to certain individuals. I know one individual who is referred to as “Sir Hiss” – not favorably – by certain of his relations because his slinky superficial charm conceals a great amount of disguised venom.

This is a long-standing human tradition. In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare compared one male character, simultaneously, to the lion, the bear, and the elephant, and in Othello, came up with the description of a supposedly faithless woman’s tears as crocodile tears. In The Comedy of Errors, Dromio is termed a snail and a slug.

Many, many years ago, when I was a teenager [yes, that long ago], there was a rock ‘n roll song that was the number one country single by the Everly Brothers, entitled “Bird Dog,” with the lines, among others, “Hey, bird dog, get away from my quail/ Hey, bird dog, you’re on the wrong trail…”

And, of course, in one of the earliest commentaries on male proclivities, in Homer’s Odyssey, the enchantress Circe turns most of Odysseus’s crew into swine after a banquet, but the wily Odysseus charms her and gets his crew back, but it takes him a year before he can break away from her enchantments and resume his voyage homeward [I wonder if he ever mentioned that to his wife, faithful Penelope].

Oh… as for the science fiction story, the young man found another fiancée, one who was a love bird like him, and they ended up very happy.


Possibly because a high percentage of science fiction and fantasy authors don’t always fit comfortably into “conventional” roles in society, an equally high percentage of F&SF is about outsiders or some sort or people who fit poorly into the society in which they find themselves. Yet how many “outsiders” are there? What percentage of people don’t really fit?

That all depends on the degree of “outsiderness.” Certainly, at least some members of the Society for Creative Anachronism [SCA] feel different enough from U.S. society that they participate in SCA events and pay dues – but the paid membership of the SCA is about 30,000, or less than 1/1000 of one percent, and these are individuals who, for the most part, are anything but total outsiders, most of whom fit without obvious notice into society. A darker kind of outsider is represented by the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership is estimated at between five and ten thousand. But, as members of groups, are these individuals really “outsiders”?

Certainly, historically speaking, while true individual “outsiders” may be striking figures, they seldom threaten societies as a whole and almost never change them. While Jesus and Mohammed were outsiders, what changed societies as a result of their preaching and doctrines was their converts. Once someone has thousands or millions of converts, that individual is no longer an outsider, but a competing cultural force.

Another kind of outsider is the “inside-outsider,” the individual who is apparently part of a culture, but who perceives it, or some part of it, in a very different fashion than almost anyone else. In the 1930s England, one could have cast Winston Churchill in that role. He’d been disgraced by the Gallipoli disaster in WWI, and he had very few supporters within the British government, especially given his unwelcome warnings about Adolf Hitler at a time when no one wanted to listen. In a way, one could also categorize Bill Gates initially as an “inside-outsider.”

Then there are outsiders who create their own groups to challenge the status quo. Certainly, Dorrin in The Magic Engineer is an outsider at the beginning. Even his friends don’t understand or appreciate his obsession with machines and devices. Creslin in The Towers of the Sunset is clearly a total outsider, almost from birth, but he can’t accomplish much of any lasting significance until he can enlist others and build support.

The reason I bring this up is because in life (and as it should be even in F&SF) a true outsider who stays an outside can do little except create mayhem against a limited number of people. To do any more than that requires resources, comrades/accomplices, and supporters… and anyone who’s developed all that isn’t truly an outsider. Harry Potter isn’t the outsider; Voldemort is.

The “New Year”

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a cynic about the “New Year,” as I am when someone hypes something as “the newest and greatest.” Just because the annual calendar starts over doesn’t really change anything. We’re all just a day older than we were twenty-four hours earlier, even if it is officially 2018, instead of 2017. The extra weight I gained from excessive holiday consumption didn’t magically vanish, nor will it, new year or not.

I’m also not happy about another phenomenon that I’ve observed about “new years.” They seem to come faster than they used to. When I was very young, the month of December seemed to last years. Now, it’s come and gone before I know it, and the deadline on my next book appears to be rushing toward me, without my having written all that’s necessary to meet it. Realistically, that’s not quite so, but it’s the way it feels. When you’re young, it seems as though you have time, rushed as you may be. I still feel rushed, but it’s clear I’ll never have enough time to write everything I want to write.

Being a curmudgeon about the “new year,” I also find I have fewer grand expectations about change, especially unbounded change for good. Once upon a time, I thought we might have regular space travel, at least to the moon, in my lifetime, and supersonic commercial air travel. The first is looking more and more unlikely, even if I live another thirty years, and the second may be possible, but only for the very rich, simply because of the “dismal science” of economics, and the requirement that greater expenditure of resources is necessary to move a given amount of mass at higher and higher speeds, but all the rosy expectations of my youth in these areas ran afoul of the results of Einstein’s now-effectively-proven [or so far not disproven] theories.

For similar reasons, some things won’t happen in 2018. There won’t be a huge increase in clean vehicles or in non-polluting power plants. Nor will there be any significant increase in coal-mining jobs or U.S. steel plants. That’s not because of politics or sinister acts by one side or the other, but because great changes in existing systems and industries require advance planning and extensive economic support… neither of which is forthcoming.

Some good things will happen in 2018, but they likely won’t be anything I, or almost anyone else, will be able to predict, because anything good requires change, and change upsets those whose position is dependent on the status quo. So visible change for good, such as a better and more workable health care system or further significant reining in of the patriarchal power structure, will have to come from unforeseen developments below the radar of the establishment. The good aspect of this is that American society is varied enough that some changes for good will occur. The bad aspect is that there won’t be as many as there could be.

But then my cynicism may just be the result of years of collision of my fundamental optimism with reality.