Archive for August, 2019

Homage to Outdated Idols?

In the last few years, apparently the younger generation has suddenly discovered history, and in discovering it, they’ve learned, and have been outraged in many cases to discover that historic personages not only had feet of clay, but often acted in ways currently unacceptable and even illegal, as well as holding views now regarded as unfashionable and sometimes despicable.

That one-time paragon of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was not only a slave-holder, who hypocritically declaimed on freedom, but who also made his dead wife’s younger half-sister (and a slave) his mistress. It also turns out that the noble Robert E. Lee savagely beat at least one slave, if not more. In the fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln stated bluntly, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Monuments and statues have been torn down, and buildings renamed because of the “discovery” and outrage about the dead men [and all of them have been men so far as I can determine] and their acts and beliefs. Two awards in the F&SF field have been altered or renamed as a result of protests about the earlier author and editor they honored because of the racist views each held.

There seems to be a view gaining credence, particularly among those of a more “liberal” persuasion, along the lines of that we as a society should not honor dead people who held views no longer accepted, no matter how important their contributions to literature, society, or history, because their contributions do not outweigh the harm of their views.

Those opposing such renaming and destruction make the point that many of these individuals held views that accurately represented public opinion at that time and that many [but far from all] were “honorable” by the standards of their times.

We tend to forget that those times were indeed very different. For example, slavery was an accepted practice in the majority of societies and cultures across the world until roughly two hundred years ago. So, for as far back as records go, some 6,000 years, if not farther, slavery was accepted for 5,800. Now, I’m not condoning slavery, but does that mean that every monument to past powerful slaveholders, including a plethora of rulers and military heroes, should be destroyed? If not, why destroy monuments to men who grew up in societies that accepted slavery, but found society changed around them?

Yet, as we know, some “historic” figures were rather awful individuals, and the question is how we balance past positive achievements against past beliefs and past actions that we now regard as despicable. Or should we just obliterate the memory of those with now-unacceptable social and political views?


Every time I look around, it seems like there’s a new massively funded, special-effects-loaded movie about some super hero or another, most of which I’ve never heard of , except as comic-book versions of Norse gods – even though I did read a few comics in my youth, but they ended with Superman or the Fantastic Four. I never bought comics because I could read them quickly off the racks, and then I discovered that F&SF books were so much better – and lasted a lot longer.

So why is it boom time for comic superheroes?

Because viewers want complex problems power-solved? Or because they feel powerless and want to experience power vicariously? Or because they want to escape a cheerlessly complex world? Or is it that fewer and fewer can actually read well and quickly? Or that they have trouble concentrating on non-video/cinematic entertainment?

I don’t have an answer, nor do I see any answers out there, most likely because no one else seems to see it as a particularly vexing societal problem. After all, superhero movies are “just” entertainment. But some forms of entertainment are indicative of culture, or lack thereof. The Romans packed the Colosseum to be entertained by some definitely bloody and often fatal gladiatorial contests, and public hangings or guillotining always drew crowds [and in some cases, hawkers even provided refreshments]. So, by comparison, aren’t superhero movies just cotton candy or gilded escapism?

Possibly… but I still have my doubts.

Collegiate Babysitting

The fall semester is either about to begin or has already begun at colleges and universities across the United States… and one thing is already clear. The march toward turning colleges and universities, particularly state institutions, into glorified high schools is continuing.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the administration at the local university has mandated a switch to a trimester system so that students can graduate in three years. To accomplish this, each semesters has been shortened by more than a week, with no increase in class length or number of classes. At the same time, there has been a push for “greater retention,” more electronic learning, and a more encouraging atmosphere [i.e., more cheerleading and less critical evaluation of actual student performance].

The latest edict from the administration is that faculty must not only take attendance, but report absences to administration, apparently because of financial aid requirements, in effect adding another reporting requirement that has teachers doing additional administrative chores for the finance industry. What happened to the idea of student responsibility? We’re talking about 18 year olds and older, not grade-school or high school students.

My wife the professor has taught a diction and literature class for students beginning the B.M. [performance] degree in voice. It’s a fairly standard, if slightly more intensive class which covers the basics of proper diction and introduces students to classical vocal literature. The course requires students to study the music and listen to a range of classical vocal recordings by composers. The listening requirement takes roughly six hours a week for 15 weeks. The goal of the course is to familiarize students with the work and styles of the more noted composers over the last century or so.

My wife has been teaching the course at this university for 15 years, and the basic requirements have remained the same, and students have evaluated the course for all of that time, yet in the last two years, for the first time, there have been complaints about the amount of work required, one student even saying that the workload had that student in tears.

This isn’t just my wife. The majority of professors in the department have noted the same development. One administrator responded by saying that perhaps the professors should just teach less.

Teach less? At a time when either more technical knowledge and/or more education are required to compete for the better paying jobs?

The Trouble With “Action”

I’ve often been criticized for the “slow” pace of my books, especially by the “action junkies” who expect a fight, revelation, or surprise in every chapter, or at the least every other chapter. Now, I’d be the first to admit that even my books aren’t completely realistic, because there’s more action in them than in corresponding events in real life, but I try to give the feeling of real life and action by providing more lead-up events, and a certain amount of routine, than do many authors. Possibly that’s because I’ve experienced more “action” in life than I anticipated and because it wasn’t much like the way I’d visualized and imagined it, especially how much time and preparation for “action” takes.

I was a competitive swimmer in college, and even more than fifty years ago, to be competitive required at least 3-4 hours a day of practice six days a week. Yet we generally only competed once every week at most. Today, it’s more like twice that and a lot more work with weights and machines. All that for a few minutes of “action.”

But the same is true of any action in life. A one-hour military flight mission for one single aircraft will require from 10 to over 200 hours of maintenance, depending on the aircraft. So what does this have to do with writing and battle scenes? Simply that no society, especially a lower tech society, can support a lot of battles day after day right on top of each other. There’s no time for recovery, resupply, or even travel.

All right. Then why shouldn’t a writer skip over all that dull but necessary stuff in a few sentences or paragraphs and get on with the action?

In fact, a lot of writers do. Even the “slowest” writers condense the events and maintenance in between the exciting stuff. But there’s a balance. If it’s all action, the reader loses the “reality” of what’s occurring and a book becomes the unrealistic verbal equivalent of a video game. If it’s totally true to life, most readers won’t finish the book because they get overwhelmed by the details.

As an author, I give more details than most fiction authors, but that’s because I feel that those details are real to the characters and shape the way they see the battle and the action. The “boring” training, or the trade-offs between trying to make a living and also trying to prepare to fight an invader are real to those people. They’re choices they have to make, and they’re in many ways far more important than most people think because they’re what determines how the battle, the action, and the characters turn out.

There’s an old saying about war, to the effect that the competent officers concentrate on tactics, the brilliant ones on logistics. Or, put another way, WWII was won on logistics [while that’s an over-simplification, at its base, it’s true]. And for reasons like that and the fact that I don’t want my books to read like verbal video/computer games, that’s why “logistics” and “routine” are a vital part of what I write.

Being Famous…

Since at least the time of Triumphs in Imperil Rome, the phrase “fame is fleeting” recurs, year after year, generation after generation… and yet today, at least the United States, we have more and more people striving not to be well-educated, or the most accomplished in a particular field, but just famous. What’s even more amazing is that there are more than a few famous people, at least in current popular culture who, from what I can determine, never excelled in anything and who are at best moderately attractive and who are not fabulously wealthy. And, almost without exception, that kind of fame comes and then departs relatively quickly.

So what is fame… that so many strive for it?

The dictionary definition that best fits this kind of “fame” is: “the state of being known or talked about by many people.”

Most famous people have acquired their fame and notice through their achievements, and usually it’s for singular achievement or a limited series of achievements. But sustained high level achievement doesn’t always get rewarded, and sometimes those not rewarded are more famous than those who were.

Actress Glenn Close has seven Academy Award nominations without an Oscar, and several noted directors have never won an Oscar – Federico Fellini (12 nominations), Ingmar Bergman (9 nominations), Alfred Hitchcock (5 nominations). On the other hand, Meryl Streep has an unprecedented 21 nomination and three Oscars. Yet who remembers Florence Lawrence, often considered “the first movie star”? Or Lillian Gish or Jean Harlow? Or Paul Muni, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, or Douglas Fairbanks?

I doubt many people, except scholars and literary types, even remember William Golding, whose novel Lord of the Flies sold well over 25 million copies and who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 or John Galsworthy, a 1932 Nobel Laureate, and noted playwright, and author of The Forsyte Saga. And very few likely remember Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, or Edith Wharton. Even in F&SF, how many readers know who Hugo Gernsback was?

And how many people will remember then-prominent political and business figures, such as Alexander Johnston Cassatt, Jay Gould, William Jennings Bryan, Darwin Kingsley, John F. Queeny, Eugene Debs, or even Millard Fillmore?

Yet, for all that, and despite Shelly’s Ozymandias, people still strive desperately for fame.

So Much for The Great “Recovery”

A recent news article caught my attention, largely because it confirmed a number of trends that I’ve mentioned over the past few years, that an increasing percentage of U.S. workers experience lagging wages, eroding benefits, and demands to do more for the same or even less pay.

A 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) reported that: (1) a third of U.S. workers found work has become significantly more demanding; (2) 20% of workers reported that they had too much work to do everything well; and (3) 75% had to work extra hours every month, much of it without compensation. All of these were a significant increase from 2006. A Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study reported that, over the last 20 years, corporate profits have far outpaced employee compensation.

As I’ve noted before, public universities and corporations are employing greater and greater numbers of part-time employees without benefits and fewer full-time staff, and more and more companies are outsourcing menial jobs to contractors who employ large numbers of low-paid part-timers.

The result of all this, as has been reported from multiple sources, is that the incomes of more than 90% of Americans have been stagnant or decreasing over the last 20 years, despite all the hype. They’re working, when they can, more hours for less, or multiple jobs to make ends meet. Fewer and few young workers, even college graduates and beginning professionals, can afford to buy a house, and may not be able to for years because of massive student loan debt.

There was only one part of the article which was, in my view, erroneous, and that was where it said “public companies have made shareholders their top priority.” That’s not exactly accurate, and it understates the extent of the damage caused by rampant and unchecked capitalism. Actual returns to shareholders, i.e., dividends, are extremely low by historical standards. What the present group of robber-barons and high-level corporate executives have done is to use cheap money and the even lower interest rates to inflate the prices of stock, through stock buybacks and other devices, to incredible multiples of earnings in order to turn their stock options and stock payments into capital gains. That penalizes small investors without the capital to use such tools and is, in effect, a disguised Ponzi scheme preying on those comparatively smaller investors, as well as on mutual funds, pension funds, and individual retirement accounts.

When the next recession hits, those CEOs will already have cashed out many of their holdings at a lower tax rate than paid on earned income, while the majority or smaller investors will find their investments drastically reduced in value, both in terms of nominal cash value and in terms of real purchasing power, given the last twenty years of “hidden” inflation, hidden because the government’s “standard” measures of inflation don’t accurately measure many of the real costs of living.

For example, the latest CPI indicates an inflation rate of 1.8% from July 2018 to July 2019, which includes a 2.0% decrease in the price of energy. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but the winter here was warmer than last year and the average summer temperatures so far have averaged 3 degrees below last summer… but my energy costs are up. So are our health and property insurance costs, our communications costs, and our food costs, all by more than two percent. Add to that a roughly 40% increase in property taxes, which is an amusing side note, because most of that occurred because our house was reassessed and its value increased by 32%. So while we’re living in the same house, and the tax rate only increased 2.2%, the actual increase in taxes amounted to 40%. This sort of thing happens to homeowners everywhere, and we’re far more fortunate than most, because our overall property tax levels are much lower than the national averages, but there’s no way that our basic cost of living increased only 1.8% over this past year, and for people living in urban areas, the annual cost of living has to be increasing by far more than 1.8%.

So… go ahead and tell me how great the recovery has been for most Americans.

Trump’s a Liar and a Crook? So?

For some time, I’ve wondered how a man who’s defrauded his investors, lied every time he’s opened his mouth, and most likely obstructed justice isn’t called to task by a greater percentage of the American people and why so few seem to care about Trump’s actions along those lines.

The other day I got an answer. I was talking to my cobbler, a man likely older than I am who’s been resoling and repairing my boots for more than a decade. He asked me what I thought of Trump, and I, fairly certain that he was a conservative Republican, said that I worried about Trump’s “solutions” and his ethics.

The cobbler’s response was simple. “Aren’t all politicians crooks?”

Now, that’s not true. I worked as a staffer in Congress long enough to know that a comparative small percentage are crooks, and most of those aren’t crooks in the sense of overtly breaking the law, but they’re good at taking advantage of its weaknesses and loopholes, and in the process of doing so able to gain considerable financial advantage.

But that’s not the point. I’ve heard about politicians being liars and crooks for years. A century ago, Mark Twain was saying the same thing. The point is that a significant percentage of Americans believe that politicians are crooked, and they’ve heard it for years.

That may well be why charges of being crooked or corrupt don’t stick to Trump. I suspect there’s a subconscious feeling on the part of many voters that, since so many politicians are crooked, and that they all lie, why single out Trump. This feeling may have also contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat because, while most crooked politicians are male, women aren’t supposed to be crooks, and by calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary” Trump was playing to the subconscious bias that women shouldn’t be President, especially women who are crooks.

I also suspect that, unless the Democrats can come up with hard and solid evidence that Trump committed illegal acts, as opposed to the almost entirely circumstantial evidence presently known, any actual vote of impeachment in the Senate will fail, and that the ethics issues won’t be a major factor in the next election.

One Big Fix?

Two mass shootings over the weekend, and more than 250 since the beginning of the year… and people are demanding a solution. Then there are racism and misogyny, poverty, and inadequate education, not to mention the problems of health care, immigration, and climate change.

And all of these problems have one thing in common – people are looking for a simple, single, and quick solution, if you will, a form of a big fix.

There isn’t one. Not to any of these problems.

Mass killings are created by a confluence of factors in each case, and while anger, almost always male anger, is a key factor, others, depending on the killer, are also critical, but not all of these factors are common to every mass killer, and that means that making significant progress means addressing more than one factor. Yes, reducing the number of firearms and who can carry what would make a huge difference, but with over 300 million in circulation and the current wording of the Constitution, to remove all firearms from private hands would require a Constitutional amendment and the approval of 38 states. That’s unlikely any time soon, and that means pursuing a number of other initiatives, from background checks to limiting the kinds of weapons allowable, possibly requiring gun owner licenses or gun registration. It means more coordination between mental health professionals and law enforcement. And that’s just the beginning.

The same problem exists with health care. For all the fuss of about Medicare for all and the cost of insurance, co-pays, pre-existing conditions, and the like, the basic problem is that healthcare in the United States costs too much. It costs too much for a variety of reasons, one being that the economics are structured so that U.S. sales of pharmaceuticals and medical devices bear all the costs of development and marketing, and that the profit motive is totally out of control. Other factors include an FDA that is slow and politicized and reluctant to approve competing generics, a law that prohibits the government from negotiating drug prices, a legal climate that rewards litigation, and a public that, for the most part, doesn’t do enough to keep itself healthy. Differing state requirements for licensing and insurance don’t help either. And, just passing Medicare for all won’t address any of these.

Merely building a wall across the southern border of the U.S. won’t even begin to address the myriad of smaller problems involved in the massive immigration problem. It won’t even stop the flow of immigrants.

The problems of racial injustice weren’t created just by slavery, but by a plethora of smaller injustices, ranging from a lack of education or systemically inferior education, economic discrimination, various forms of “redlining,” voter suppression, terrorist violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, judicial support of “separate but equal” provisions, “Stop and Frisk” and other unequal policing systems, just to name a few, and each of these denials of rights and truly equal opportunity needs to be addressed separately, simply because trying to address them all at once doesn’t work.

And U.S. educators have been trying to come up with a single, one-size fits all educational solution for decades, ignoring the facts that no one methodology meets the needs of differing communities and student bodies or that schools within the same system can differ incredibly. Education administrators have also become so obsessed with measuring achievement and accountability that their measurements often hamper more than they help because teachers have less time to teach and students less time to learn.

Climate change presents the same problems. A carbon tax would definitely help, but such taxes have to be levied by all major carbon-emitting companies, just for starters.

The “one big fix” is just another useless aspect of a media culture that has forgotten and doesn’t care that all solid accomplishments rest on painstaking methodical steps toward the end. Sweeping generalizations just don’t cut it, but that’s all I hear any more. People and their politicians need to stop looking for the big fix, the miracle cure, and start addressing, step-by-step, all the smaller components of the big problems.

Observations on Military Flying

It’s been almost fifty years since I stopped flying helicopters for the U.S. Navy, although I do maintain an interest in military aircraft. My first military trainer [in primary] was a T-34, not the turboprop variety later developed, but a pure piston-engine aircraft derived from the Beechcraft Bonanza, with a top speed of around 190 mph. The second was a T-28, with speeds and capabilities roughly equivalent to early 1940s Navy fighter planes, and was also the plane with which I made my first carrier landings in early 1967.

Now, since it’s been nearly fifty years since I last flew a military aircraft, I got to thinking. Fifty years before I first flew was in 1916, when all military aircraft were essentially low-powered, cloth-winged biplanes. Less than twenty-five years later, military aircraft were travelling three times as fast. And that progress continued. From WWII to the Vietnam War, fighter plane speeds increased by a factor of four.

And exactly what’s happened since then? Most top line fighter planes today have top speeds slightly less than the fastest F-4 of the 1970s, yet all of the current top-line fighters would take the F-4 to the cleaners, so to speak, because it turned out that speed was seldom ever used. Part of that lack of use was the fuel cost of speed. Full afterburner usage can drain a fighter’s tank in a matter of minutes, and enough fuel to keep the plane in the air longer would make it too heavy to take off [a slight over-simplification, but essentially true]. Maneuverability and weapons systems – and low radar profiles – have become the key to air superiority.

Unhappily all that technology doesn’t come cheap. In 2018 dollars, the flyaway cost of an F-4 would be roughly $19 million. An F-35 comes in at $80-$90 million, four times as much, and with the U.S. projected to buy 2,443 aircraft, the current cost estimate is an estimated US$323 billion. But then, in 2018 dollars, the roughly 4,000 F-4s procured by U.S. military forces [my estimate out of the roughly 5,200 built] cost around $80 billion in 2018 dollars. While we’re paying four times as much for a little more than half as many aircraft, an original F-4 can’t stand against fourth and fifth generation fighters – and if we built “new” F-4s with modern avionics and weapons, I have the feeling that they wouldn’t be all that much cheaper… and they’d likely cost more to operate and wouldn’t have as much range… and we’d likely lose more pilots.

What it all seems to mean is that air combat isn’t ever going to be any “faster” than it was 50 years ago, but it’s definitely more complex and more expensive and likely to keep getting more so… yet technology makes most other things cheaper. And that suggests that it’s getting more and more expensive to destroy things than to build them. But I don’t see much progress in realizing just how much more it’s costing to build more and more sophisticated systems of destruction as we engage in what might be called the Red Queen’s arms race.