Archive for July, 2019

Quit Bitching

For the last fifteen years, I’ve heard nothing but complaints from retailers, large and small, about how the internet is taking away their business. And, as an author, I’ve suffered as well from the internet’s “success” in destroying literally thousands of bookstores and retail outlets carrying books.

But part of the problem isn’t the internet; it’s the retailers. What was the response of Borders and Barnes and Noble to Amazon? Both of them cut their inventories and back stock, and tried to diversify. Borders always did have a poor ordering and inventory system, and carrying less stock made matters worse quickly. Then, when margins got tight, B&N started listening to the cost-cutting accountants. That’s almost always the kiss of death, and in B&N’s case, it almost was, because as they cut inventory and stock they sold fewer books, and the other merchandise didn’t make up the difference. B&N just got bought by a private fund that recently acquired the British bookstore chain of Waterstones, which, interestingly enough, has been making a comeback by, surprise of surprises, opening more and smaller bookstores closer to people. And I know a few bookstores who are still around because they address customer needs.

A retailer is in business to sell things. But if they aren’t where the customers are, or they don’t stock what the customer wants or needs, they can’t sell it. If you reduce the number of items you sell, you’re going to sell fewer goods, and your revenues will go down.

The other day I went to both of the only two big box stores in town. Both carry patio furniture, but this year neither carries the furniture covers I used to buy there. Neither does the single hardware store nor the furniture store. I still needed the furniture covers. So I had to buy them online.

It’s not just furniture covers. It’s everything from buffered aspirin [not a single grocery store or drug store in town carries it any more] to boots and shoes, from books to office supplies and printers. Even though Cedar City is now four times the size it was 20 years ago, we actually have to buy more and more goods that we used to purchase in town from the internet. There are small stores here in town – and elsewhere – that are surviving and sometimes even thriving, and it appears that they’re successful because they make the extra effort.

So… retailers…maybe you ought to focus more on what people need and where and when they need it instead of just cost margins.

Budget Busting & Taxes

The Democrats and Republicans have apparently come to a compromise over federal spending in the next two years, compromise meaning lifting the debt ceiling and incurring an even larger deficit, by an estimated additional $200 billion or more annually, with the result being a total annual deficit in excess of $1.2 trillion… and that’s if we don’t have a recession.

Neither party wants to cut spending nor to increase taxes, and the future result will either be high inflation or slow growth, if not both, and those are the best of the possible scenarios.

Everyone talks about taxes, and most of that talk centers on federal income taxes, but what people should think about isn’t just federal income taxes, but the total of all taxes that people pay. And, surprise of surprises, when you do that, it turns out that the taxes paid, both in dollars and as a percentage of income, have gone up for everyone – except for the top one percent or so of taxpayers, whose taxes have decreased significantly.

That’s because the combination of federal payroll taxes [Social Security and Medicare], state sales and income taxes, and local and county taxes increase every year. While most state income taxes are flat rate or reach a capped rate at moderate income levels, with each pay raise a worker gets, the government takes more. The same is true of Social Security taxes, at least until you make more than $128,000 [$132,000 next year], while Medicare taxes are applied to your full income, no matter how much or little one makes.

Because government measures of inflation don’t keep up with actual inflation, the vast majority of Americans actually end up with less spendable income every year, and under those circumstances, it’s understandable why they don’t want to pay higher federal income taxes.

As for the rich, even though their taxes, on average, have gone down significantly, they’re still complaining that they’re overtaxed. So the Republicans listen to the rich, and the Democrats to the average American, and they decide that they won’t raise taxes now… and that means that everyone’s children and grandchildren will pay a whole lot more, both in money and economic chaos.

Book Blurbs

A while ago, I read a blog by another author who complained about the blurbs placed on hardcover book jackets or on the back of mass-market paperbacks, blurbs which are supposed to intrigue would-be readers into picking up and hopefully buying the book. This particular author was not only upset by blurbs that turned out to be misleading, but particularly unhappy with blurbs that were composed of quotes of praise by well-known authors rather than a summary of the plot that might reveal whether a reader might like the book.

I can understand that author’s feelings, but, as is often the case, there’s another side to the “blurb problem,” one with which I’m all too familiar. In my entire career, I’ve never sold a book on a synopsis or a proposal. That’s because I’ve never found a way to accurately summarize one of my books, at least not in few enough words to fit on a book jacket or a rear cover, without creating a summary that wasn’t misleading in at least one major way… if not more, or wasn’t so generally simplistic as to be essentially meaningless. And merely emphasizing the main plot line can often be misleading and deceptive. Even when it’s not, in most good books there’s so much more.

Now… one could immediately conclude that I just can’t write a good summary, except that all of the editors and their assistants who’ve worked on my books for the last forty years have had the same problem, and I’m certainly not the only author with this problem. I’ve never seen a Gene Wolfe book blurb that wasn’t either overly general or highly misleading. Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness doesn’t lend itself to a short and meaningful summary, nor does Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning… or any number of other books.

In fact, I’d be inclined to suggest that most books [but not all] where an accurate summary, and one that doesn’t leave out major aspects of the work, can fit on the book jacket are books that are, shall I say, ones that I’m less likely to be re-read.

Nonetheless, editors and publicists do their best to convey the flavor of a book… and often even that is difficult to do accurately. For just that reason, at times, the editor writing the jacket copy may well feel that quotes from other authors are more accurate in giving a feel for a book than a misleading summary would be. Some books just don’t summarize, and to blame that on the publisher, publicist, or author is often unjustified. And that’s also why there’s just no substitute for reading a few pages.


This past weekend, I was shopping at one of the local grocery emporiums and had paused my cart to obtain an item, when I was rear-ended by another cart enthusiastically pushed by a young male of perhaps five or six years and which struck with a certain amount of force. The cart basket hit my lower back not quite hard enough to bruise anything, but the lower bar slammed into my legs just above the ankles with an impact that could have been painful, if not worse, except for the fact that I wear cowboy boots.

I turned to the young fellow and said sternly, but not loudly, “You need to watch where you’re going, young man.”

At that point, the boy’s father appeared and said to his son, “What do you say?”

He murmured, “I’m sorry.”

Then the father said, “It was an accident.”

Because I didn’t want to make a scene, I said, “These things happen.” Then I turned to the boy and said evenly, “I’m not angry with you, but you do need to be careful.”

What bothered me most about the entire, almost insignificant, incident were the father’s words, and the implication that there was no lack of care or responsibility on his part or on the part of the boy. Six year old boys should not be running full speed pushing grocery carts down an aisle, especially with their three or four year old sibling in the basket seat. If he’d run into one of the very old shoppers, they could have been injured. If he’d run the cart full speed into one of the adjoining freezer cases, his sibling could have been hurt.

But the father said nothing to his son, and they continued shopping, as if nothing had happened.

One of the lessons I attempted to impart to my children many long years ago was that while they might make a mistake and accidentally hurt someone, the fact that it was an “accident” didn’t change the fact that what they did hurt someone. It didn’t excuse their carelessness.

My wife the professor has come across the same lack of understanding with college students, the idea that because they didn’t intend to do harm, that because it was “an accident,” they bore diminished or no responsibility for adverse consequences.

And I just witnessed where it all starts.

Cheap Congratulations

The other day, I discovered that one “professional” social media site was sending out messages along the line of “congratulate [fill in the name] on [two or five] successful years with [whatever company/organization].” I could possibly see congratulations on fifteen, or twenty-five years, but praise for making it two years? If someone needs praise for that, there’s either something wrong with them or the company or organization they’re working for.

It’s not just that. Our entire society in the U.S. is overrun with cheap and meaningless ceremonies of celebration and congratulations. Social media is inundated with brief and almost cursory birthday wishes, the majority of which seem to be from marginal acquaintances.

There are “graduation” ceremonies for children going from nursery school to kindergarten, from kindergarten to grade school, from grade school to middle school/junior high, and from junior high/middle school to high school. A generation ago, and certainly two generations ago, such “celebrations” would have been considered ridiculous. “Getting through” seems to be much more important than learning anything.

There are participation trophies for children in all too many sports, and producing such trophies has become a profitable endeavor in itself. Really… a trophy for just showing up? Isn’t this sending a message that merely doing the job is worth praise? Praise used to be for going beyond just being there.

On the high school and college level grade inflation is so rampant that grades have become less and less significant in evaluating potential incoming students, and that means that applicants tend to be evaluated on other factors, including standardized test scores or what schools the student attended, most of which work to the disadvantage of poorer and disadvantaged students. In some universities, the “average” grade is somewhere between a B and a B+.

Adjectives such as “wonderful,” “hard-working,” “brilliant,” and “talented,” are thrown out like cheap candy, and professors who aren’t handing out constant praise risk criticism on student evaluations [which most universities factor into evaluating faculty for raises and retention] as well as complaints to the administration for not being supportive or “creating a hostile classroom environment.” Actual honest evaluations by faculty, especially junior faculty, can now cost professors their jobs.

As both I and Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, have noticed, virtually every professional musical theatre production gets a standing ovation, something once reserved for truly high quality performances. High school and college productions now routinely get standing ovations.

True excellence in anything is rare, and the effusive praise and compliments should be reserved for that, but then, I wonder how many people really recognize excellence or confuse it with what they like or what pleases them. And with all those “cheap candy” compliments and praise, is it any wonder that people mistrust what other people say more and more?

The Dragon Illusion

Recently, I think I’ve seen a resurgence or perhaps a continuation of “dragon books.” I couch it that way because I’m not keeping a tally on how many dragon books are being written and sold. Certainly, dragons are popular, popular enough that lots of books about them are sold and that DragonCon is one of the largest of F&SF conventions

As a writer, I’ve never had much interest in them, most likely because I find the giant ones, in particular, rather unbelievable. From what I can determine, Drogon from Game of Thrones, [if I have this right] has a body some fifty feet long, roughly six times the length of a large adult male tiger and four times higher. Such a tiger would weigh between six and seven hundred pounds [the largest recorded was 850 pounds]. That would put Drogon’s weight well over 14,000 pounds, and Drogan certainly appears to be built as massively as a tiger.

But most dragons supposedly fly. The golden eagle is one of the largest raptors, with a wingspan of from six to eight feet and a corresponding weight of from eight to fifteen pounds. So, assuming some correspondence between weight and wingspan, a 14,000 pound dragon would need roughly a wingspan of 25,000 feet [structurally, of course, that doesn’t work]. By comparison, the wingspan of a B-52 is 185 feet. If a dragon were built like a golden eagle, a 185 foot wingspan would only lift a body weighing 375 pounds, but if magic is equivalent or superior to jet fuel, the Navy A-4 [with a 28 foot wingspan] might be an approximation to a 14,000 pound dragon.

Even in a very verdant environment, a tiger requires a minimum of 20-30 square miles, and in the Siberian locales it’s more like 250 square miles. How much land and how many villages would it take to support just one dragon? And for how long would the villagers put up with it before leaving or becoming troglodytes?

Obviously, 14,000 pound dragons must be very magic…or at least too magic for me to want to write about them.

Ideals, the Communications Revolution, and Consumerism

Once I’d spent time as a political staffer and then as an administration appointee in the federal government, it became more than clear to me that, for the most part, what passes for leadership in the federal government is nothing of the sort. It’s more like followership.

Even the Founding Fathers were responding to their background and education, but that wasn’t entirely bad because they at least knew history and had thought over what government did well and what it did poorly, and they also, as best they could, tried to craft a governmental structure they hoped would survive despite human greed, stupidity, and unbridled ambition. In doing so, they only had to hammer things out between themselves, and even that was dicey.

Also, they didn’t have to deal with the continuous pressure of public opinion and pressure created by the modern electronic media. Yes, there were totally scurrilous newspapers, and false and misleading broadsheets, but it took time, effort, and money to use them, at a time when money was limited, and when writing letters was severely limited by lack of time, money, and education.

Government was limited, by funds and the necessity of the times, to more basic aspects of governance, such as a system of laws, national defense, trade and foreign policy, including tariffs, and providing an overarching structure for often squabbling states.

Today, anyone who wants to know can find out what happened in government within hours, if not minutes, and can make their feelings known. Part of the great communications revolution we’ve undergone in the last generation means that media pundits and media idiots can frame issues and positions and broadcast them everywhere, drowning out more thoughtful voices, simply because, in our world, nothing is as simple as it seems, and simple appeals to people more than thoughtful, because thoughtful considerations of volatile issues usually require more complexity and time for reflection and analysis.

On top of that is that as technology has advanced, human abilities have increased, and that means that any action has more repercussions than in a simpler society. Those repercussions can’t always be foreseen, and even when they are most people who don’t like the forecast oppose any action to mitigate future problems. That means society and government become more and more reactive because it’s difficult to get a consensus to act until after the problems surface, and while government is dealing with the old problems, advancing technology is creating more.

Then add in the fact that the United States has become a consumer nation. Everything is a consumer good. News certainly is; it’s become entertainment for ratings, pandering to the views of various segments of the population, with fewer and fewer real facts.

A college education isn’t about learning to consider and think; it’s considered a vocational passport to a higher-paying job. Most college students, no matter what they say, think of education as an entitlement, and one that they deserve in order to get into a higher paying job or, sometimes, into the profession they want to enter, whether they’re qualified or not. This also means that a great number of supposedly educated people can’t or won’t really think. But all the communications technology and systems we have allow them to bombard their elected representatives with their views… and heaven help the representative who disagrees with the majority of his or her constituents, even if what they believe is at odds with the facts.

Today, a great many “idealistic” issues aren’t about ideals at all. They’re about political promises of goods and services, and there’s little substantive or realistic discussion about how to actually pay for and implement such promises.

Healthcare for everyone? It can’t exist. What they really mean is a certain level of basic medical care for everyone, that level being decided by the system, because potential healthcare costs are unlimited. For those who have effectively no healthcare, it’s a great improvement. Everyone else will pay, one way or another. Those who are wealthy, regardless, will have more. Is any politician really saying this? Hell, no. They’d be crucified.

Free college isn’t about education, it’s about a good. If you want better college education, limit admission to the top 20% of students [after finding a way to eliminate wealth/family structure bias] and make it free for all of that group. But that won’t happen because it will be viewed as discrimination. Instead, all the liberals are clamoring to give higher education to everyone who wants it, even though it can’t work financially.

At the same time, there’s very little discussion about supporting training in practical computer use, electronics, electrical work, heating and air conditioning, and all the skilled trades and fields that require specialized training (and often pay more than “college-educated” fields). Who is actually addressing this shortage?

Maybe the best way to address all this would be to ban all media news programs and political commentary, and limit the airwaves and the internet to either pure entertainment or verified facts, but that’s a “solution” worse than the problem, besides which, then people would find a way around that as well, most likely using verified facts in misleading ways.

So… I really don’t see any true leadership, not so long as the media and social climate reward followership more than realistic leadership, and government is regarded more and more as a provider of goods and services rather than a structure setting the rules for others to provide the goods and services.


A great many problems facing the United States today are the result of the unthinking acceptance of various mantras or beliefs by large groups of people.

For example: College is good for everyone. No, it’s not. Post-high-school education or training is generally beneficial, but there are all too many people in college today who don’t belong there, either because their abilities don’t lie in the areas benefitted by college or because they won’t do the work. That doesn’t include students who incur massive debt in obtaining degrees that won’t ever repay those obligations. This assumption also doesn’t take into account that every year twice as many students graduate from college as there are jobs that require a college education.

Ultra-liberal politicians seem to think that the “rich” can and will pay for massive federal programs. Guess again. While the rich underpay taxes massively, the U.S. federal deficit is currently close to a trillion dollars, and that doesn’t include any of the costs of what the far left is proposing. Right now, the top one percent of all taxpayers, some 1.4 million, in total, reported gross income of slightly over $2 trillion and paid $540 billion in taxes [about 27%] If we took 70% of the income of the top one percent, that would amount to $1.4 trillion, leaving, after paying off the deficit, some $400 billion. That sounds like a lot, but it’s not, given what the far left is proposing.

Take free college tuition. Tuition here at the local university is around $8,000 a year, far below that at most state schools. There are currently 20 million undergraduate students in U.S. colleges. That works out to $160 billion annually… Nationally, the average in-state tuition is $10,230, according to the College Board, and at that rate, “free college” will cost over $200 billion a year, and that’s just one program.

The New York Times
asked a number of economists and think tanks to cost out the increased costs of “Medicare for all.” The lowest estimate suggested a $2 trillion increase, the highest $3 trillion. Given that estimates are almost always low for government programs, these costs can’t be paid by just the top one percent of taxpayers, or even the top ten percent.

And we’re not even talking about our overwhelmed immigration system or our underfunded schools or our crumbling infrastructure.

Nor our National Park System, which doesn’t have the funds to repair everything and is operating with roughly 20% fewer rangers at a time when visitor numbers are higher than ever.

But everything will be all right once we really tax the rich.