Archive for January, 2020

Multiplication Effect

When I submitted my first stories to F&SF magazines in the dark ages before computers, or even word processors, manuscripts had to be typed, double-spaced, and be largely error-free. Back then, I was a decent typist, but not a great one, and even with Wite-Out [a liquid paper correcting fluid], I had to retype more pages than I ever wanted to count. But that need not to make mistakes made me much more careful.

Even so, with a typewriter I was much more fortunate than the novelists of the late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, who had to handwrite their manuscripts – and to do so in clear enough penmanship so that their words could be understood by the editor and the typesetter. The limits of technology required people to be much more painstaking, because the costs and the time required for redoing were much higher.

This example applies to all technology. I’ve run across clerks who can’t see at a glance that what they punched into the computerized terminal came out wrong, because no one “needs” to know addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables – or numerical estimation. Several years ago, when my publisher went to a new system, it took over two took years to get certain royalty statements unscrambled, even though I spelled out what was wrong and how to fix it out in detail within days of discovering the errors.

When my publisher went to convert older novels into ebooks, they used optical scanners and were sloppy about the proofreading. I still get emails complaining about the typos in those conversions… and some of those messages are anything but complimentary.

The university where my wife the professor teaches shortened the semester by two weeks. It was all programmed out – except that no one clearly looked into the implications because there’s no time in the schedule to conduct juries [applied musical skill performance tests]. Nor are there any performance spaces available. At present, the powers that be haven’t come up with a solution, but when they do I can guarantee that it will cause a fair amount of disruption… and likely take more time and effort than doing it right in the first place would have.

As I’ve said before, technology doesn’t automatically make anything better. What it does do is multiply what people do. If they’re good and conscientious, it allows them to do more good work. If they’re careless and sloppy… well, it multiplies the sloppiness as well… often to the point that even technology can’t easily remedy the mess… which is something that all too many technophiles want to ignore or overlook.

Magic Answers

In our increasingly complex and technological world, politicians, executives, and voters are confronted more and more with problems that have multiple causes and complicated interactions. Most of these problems didn’t just occur overnight, nor will solutions be quick or simple.

Unfortunately, because of that reality, a great majority of people, including all too many Americans, are grasping for quick, simple “magic answers” and embracing simplistic slogans.

Build a wall! Deport ‘em! Tax the Wealthy! Free College for Everyone! Medicare for Everyone! Black Lives Matter! All Lives Matter! The Three Steps to Success! Three Strikes and You’re Out! Freedom Dividend! Pro-Life! Pro-Choice!

And those are just the some of the “magic answers” flying around, largely courtesy of the internet, and the politicians, charlatans, and unrealistic idealists who employ it to get their messages across, a welter of simplistic slogans purveying everything from impractical idealism, commercial hucksterism, political bullshit, pure deception, to malevolent hatred.

The problem is compounded by three factors. First, there’s no effective way to remove inaccuracies, untruths, and patently false assertions and claims, and, even if there were, such a mechanism would soon be abused. Second, there’s no cost to those who purvey them. Third, too many people believe things that are not in fact so because, with the huge access to information, a smaller and smaller percentage of people actually are capable of analyzing that information, and the human “default” is to judge by feelings.

But when the medium is the message and can influence feelings, feelings become less and less accurate in making judgements, particularly when they become overwhelmed by the complexity of modern problems.

That’s when people fall back on magic answers… but magic answers don’t solve problems. What they do accomplish, however, is to empower the demagogues, politicians, and dictators most adept at employing such simplistic slogans.

The simpler and more appealing the slogan, the more likely it’s either totally unworkable or impractical, if not both… or outright wrong… yet very few people seem to understand that… or want to.

Predicting All of the Future

The other day I came across an old review [August 2012] of my novel Flash, in which the reviewer wrote:

“Jonat finds himself on the wrong end of an enormous corporate conspiracy. This is the point where most protagonists would find some way to expose the malfeasance and cleverly put their enemies into a position of harmlessness. Jonat, on the other hand, embarks on a bizarre rampage of assassination and murder when confronted…”

In reading this review, I realized that in 2012 many Americans had, and some still do, the naïve assumption that merely exposing corporate or government wrong-doing is sufficient to right the situation. In the past, this may have been at least partly true. Given what’s occurred in the last four years, it’s clear [at least to me] that this is no longer a valid assumption. And given that Flash takes place more than a hundred years in the future, I’d submit that my assumption – that mere “exposure” wasn’t going to solve the problems Jonat faces – is far more accurate than the reviewer’s opinion.

I don’t cite this as an “I told you so” theme, but as a reminder that both authors and reviewers often carry unconscious assumptions about how society operates and project those assumptions into the future, without considering how technological change, either forward or backward, and social change may change basic personal assumptions about society.

Too often, reviewers make that mistake, even when an author, as I believe I did, depicts a society with different social and cultural mores, and, in this case, where mere “exposure” is meaningless, because no one knows whether that “exposure” is accurate or fabricated… as seems to be the case more and more today… a mere eight years after the review I cited… and not one hundred.

Writers work hard to depict future societies, or fantasy worlds, and the impact technology or magic can have on society, but it’s also a good idea to show how those changes impact individual behavior and personal assumptions, to predict all of the future, if you will, but that can be a challenge when the changes an author projects go against current deeply-held and almost unconscious assumptions of readers… and even reviewers.


For most people in the world, “freedom” is very limited, if not a total illusion, at least if they don’t want to pay an inordinate price.

Take “freedom of speech.” Even in the supposedly liberal or protected sphere of higher education, it doesn’t exist in all too many institutions. I personally know of three tenured faculty members who no longer have academic jobs because they spoke out against a university president. It turns out that revealing unflattering “confidential” information, especially if reveals administration acts against university rules and policy, is apparently cause for dismissal. In another case, a university brought assault charges against a professor because he fought an unfair dismissal, even after all the review boards exonerated him, most likely because he’d earlier protested university policies. The court dismissed the assault charge as totally unfounded. But he still doesn’t have his job back, after more than three years, because this public university keeps dragging out the matter legally.

Then there was the tenured choral director at prestigious private university. He upset people so much that the university abolished the entire choral program to order to fire him, because he hadn’t done anything remotely wrong, except for what he said – and then reinstated the program several years later. Or the dean of a university library who was removed from his position because he told the university provost that the library couldn’t provide all the services demanded without more resources and people… something about the fact that longer hours require more staff or overtime.

Or the recent revelations about Placido Domingo, who made unwanted advances toward young female singers for decades… and because of his power, those women, if they wanted a career, couldn’t say anything and had to avoid him as best they could and endure it when they couldn’t.

It’s been revealed that some of the hedge fund and banking middle managers who protested against overleveraged, securitized bad loans were told either to approve them or leave. And if they left, who was going to hire them?

Now, I’d be the first to admit that not all universities or opera companies or businesses are that restrictive, but I’d wager that most are, if only in places. I also could come up with more examples, as I suspect almost anyone who’s spent time in academia, professions, government, or business could as well.

Outside of the professional fields, it can be even worse, as recently documented work practices at Amazon have shown. Yes, you can quit, but that assumes there are other jobs… and that someone will hire you.

What’s even more insidious is that it’s often more dangerous for one’s career to speak out the higher up you are… and correspondingly more difficult to find another comparable position once one is past the age of fifty, especially for women. And yet, as the new saying goes, this is a “first world problem,” and sadly doesn’t even compare to the lack of freedoms people face in developing or underdeveloped nations.

Or, as Janis Joplin sang in Me and Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…”

The Latest Hot Writer

The other day I read an interview with yet another hot new [comparatively, at least] writer, in which the writer made a comment about being “frustrated with the way fantasy worlds have this stasis… a medieval stasis for ten thousand years.” Then the writer’s subsequent comment dealt with that writer’s latest work that included inventors and social change, which, while not groundbreaking, were new to the writer.

Needless to say, my first instinct was to seek out and strangle the younger [and well-selling] hot writer, given that for thirty years I’ve been writing best-selling fantasy with settings that have been anything but static, and which include technology well beyond the medieval, multiple government systems, and diverse cultures.

My second thought was to do a little research. Even a brief stint of researching suggested that, while there was a period lasting into the mid-1990s where there were some number of medieval-stasis-type cultures in fantasy, it seemed to me that fantasy writers, for the most part, tended to focus on periods in specific historical eras and riff off them, sometimes medieval, sometime Byzantine, sometimes Renaissance, sometimes Regency, as well as, in more recent years, riffs on non-European history and cultures, etc., and that very few of those writers created endless static societies(although there has been a notable and excellent recent SF novel about an apparently endless and static empire).

Very few writers (and I will claim to be one of them) create their worlds from whole(r) cloth. I use the qualifier “wholer” because what we know comes from our own background, education, and experience, and there’s likely no way to create a new world from totally “whole” cloth, so to speak, but I do know of other writers who do the same, and none of those worlds are “medieval” or “static.”

Yet this hot writer is either dismissive or unaware of a fair number of books already out there which have already accomplished what this writer has so recently completed. I have not met this writer, but my first impression is less than auspicious.

For those of you aspiring to be the next new hot writer, I suggest that a bit more humility and little more knowledge of the field would be most useful. But then, I’m just a curmudgeonly old writer who broke in using that obsolete word-setter called a typewriter and who has the equally old fashioned idea that it’s helpful to know the past of one’s field and what other writers have done and are doing.

Electoral Racial/Gender Diversity?

Senator Cory Booker has just dropped out of the Democratic Presidential campaign, following the departure of Julian Castro and Camilla Harris. Except for Andrew Yang, the remaining men and women are all white.

According to various polls, none of the black candidates succeeded in gaining more than a few percent of the support of Democratic voters, despite the fact that there are more than forty million Americans classified as black. Even with nearly sixty million Latinos in the United States, Julian Castro couldn’t raise enough funds and support to stay in the race.

In short, with over a third of the U.S. population comprised of minorities, not a single minority candidate garnered more than a few percent of Democratic voters, even though over 80% of black voters have historically voted Democrat. Although less than ten percent of black voters have voted for Republican presidential candidates in the past, and the higher levels of the Republican Party effectively remain a white male preserve of privilege, polls show that Trump has higher levels of black support than any previous Republican candidate.

Since 1980, a higher percentage and a greater number of U.S. women than men have voted in every election, and in 2016, ten million more women than men voted, and that likely accounted for the all-time high in female U.S. Representatives and Senators in Congress, but women still only account for roughly a quarter of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.

As I have noted before, gerrymandering certainly accounts for the diversity discrepancy in national offices, but I have trouble understanding it being the cause of the diversity discrepancy in Democratic Party politics. Poll after poll shows that roughly half of black Democrat voters favor Joe Biden, and more black Democrats favor Bernie Sanders than any of the black candidates. If Bernie and Joe aren’t old white males, no one is.

All of this suggests to me, old white male that I am, that diversity isn’t what black Democrats, or indeed the vast majority of Democrats, are looking for, and the fact that Biden, the most “centrist” of the remaining candidates, has the greatest support among black voters also suggests that an ultra-liberal Democrat nominee, particularly a female ultra-liberal, may well spell disaster for the Democratic Party in the Presidential election.

The Cost of Staying Alive?

In the latest issue of Science, there’s an article about Trikafta (elexacaftor/ivacaftor/ tezacaftor), the first triple combination therapy available to treat patients with the most common cystic fibrosis mutation, which was approved by the FDA this past October.

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 30,000 people with cystic fibrosis, an inherited condition characterized by the buildup of thick, sticky mucus that results in progressive damage to the respiratory system and chronic digestive system problems, and that can have other complications as well. A generation ago, children with CF seldom lived to adulthood, and even today CF sufferers seldom live to age forty. Currently, there are more than 30,000 people in the U.S. with the disease.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a personal interest in cystic fibrosis, because almost forty years ago one of my daughters was given a preliminary diagnosis of CF, which was indeed terrifying. Fortunately, additional tests determined that she didn’t have CF, but a combination of other factors mimicking it, which were treatable, and she recovered without lasting ill-effects. But that experience definitely made me aware of the devastating effects of cystic fibrosis.

So, the development of Trikafta struck me as a godsend for cystic fibrosis sufferers… until I saw the price tag, $311,000 a year [the “list” price], every year. That’s what it will cost to provide CF sufferers with the chance to live a close to normal and productive life.

Since Trikafta is designed to deal with the most common form of cystic fibrosis, it won’t work for all CF sufferers, but even if it only works for 60%, the annual cost to those people, or their insurors, would total nearly $6 billion.

Needless to say, some medical insurance companies have already turned down patients.

Somehow, I doubt that developing Trikafta cost anywhere near $6 billion, and it strikes me that, at least from everything I’ve seen published (and I hope I’m wrong), this is just another form of medical extortion.

An Unacknowledged Double Standard

There are many “double standards,” and I’ve written about some of them, many involving gender, such as the fact that the behavior that men – and even some women – describe as tough and strong when performed by a man is regarded as “bitchy” and controlling when a woman’s the one who does it. Blunt and honest comments by a child are charming candor, but unacceptable when uttered by adults, particularly subordinate adults. When crooks kidnap someone and demand a huge ransom for that life, it’s criminal extortion, sometimes punishable by death, but when pharmaceutical companies essentially do the same thing, it’s justified as “the cost of doing business.”

In an oldish movie – The Big Chill – when one character rationalizes a decision he made, another calls him on it, and the first character objects, to which the second character replies with words to the effect that, “Have you ever been able to get through a day without a rationalization? Have any of us?”

We all rationalize, some far more than others, and, like it or not, most people throw in a few lies along the way, lies like “it won’t make any difference” or “who really will know?” All that’s human nature.

At the same time, none of us like being lied to… but we also want to hear what we want to hear, and we tune out, or disagree with people who tell us what we don’t want to hear.

Politicians are people, too. In this country, we elect them, and we don’t want to elect people who don’t think the way we do. But one of the problems with human nature is that we feel more strongly about negatives. So… if a politician disagrees with us on a few issues, even if we agree with him or her on most issues, we tend to oppose that politician. And there are scores of issues about which some groups feel strongly, which means that no politician can please anyone on everything, and negatives impact voters much more than positives.

Politicians know this. That’s why they waffle on hot-button issues, or try to word their stance in ways that don’t rile people.

Then people really get upset. “He [or she] led us on… lied to us…”

Voters don’t want honesty; they want agreement… on everything they think is important.

But there’s never enough money for everything everyone wants, and no way to satisfy a majority on all the issues people feel strongly about. But politicians want to keep their jobs. So what do they do? They behave exactly the way their constituents do; they rationalize, with occasional lies.

Under those circumstances, exactly what else should we expect? Except we expect the politicians we elect because we identify with them to be so much better than we are, and we get angry when they aren’t.


A few nights ago my wife and I were at a small dinner party held by a friend. One of the other guests was a retired sales executive, who’d spent most of his working life with a reputable and well-known company. Somehow, the talk drifted from small town politics to the national scene, and I made the mistake – and it is a mistake in the state in which I live – of disparaging the probity of the present occupant of the White House, and noting that he’d set an all-time record for falsehoods. My second mistake was to assume that someone who had spent his entire professional life counting numbers and basing his decisions on them would show equal rationality with political numbers.

His immediate response was. “He’s no different from the others. What about ‘I never had sex with an intern?’ or “You can keep your own doctor?’ They’re all liars.”

No… they’re not. As I’ve said here before, based on my personal experience of eighteen years in various staff capacities in national politics – all as a card-carrying Republican – while there are a significant number of politicians who waffle, who bend the truth, or who employ accurate facts in an inaccurate context, the number who deal in bald-faced and blatant falsehoods is comparatively few, and almost none of those come close to Trump in the extent and blatant untruthfulness of prevarication.

Both Clinton and Obama – who are so often cited as lying Democrats by rationalizing Republicans, have essentially each been attacked for one “lie.” Clinton’s lie was about a semi-consensual sex act, which, while it revealed his sexual amorality, was essentially irrelevant to his performance in office… and, frankly, was little different from a whole line of previous Presidents, a number of who have been called “great.” And, as for Obama’s ‘keeping your own doctor” remark, that statement was what Obama thought the act would do, and, in fact, the majority of people did get to keep their own doctor. Obama’s biggest problem was his inability to understand that almost no executives in big medicine, big medical insurance, or big pharma have anything even faintly resembling integrity… or care for anything except bigger profits.

Just like that former executive, who rejected what I pointed out, Trump’s base and most remaining Republicans have little or no interest in evaluating events in context. One or two “lies” by a Democrat that they don’t like is the same as thousands by Trump. Trump’s falsehoods are indeed in the thousands, and they also involve dubious, if not illegal, acts affecting government, the integrity of our elections, and trying to keep his “people” from being held accountable.

While there may be lies, damned lies, and statistics… there are great differences in lies, and calling them all equal is the coward’s way.