Archive for July, 2019

Accident?

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.

Assumptions

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.