Archive for March, 2020

Lead Time and Dedicated Resources

The lack of adequate personal protective equipment for medical personnel dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, the lack of adequate numbers of respirators, and the lack of advance planning in the United States is an unfortunate and yet inevitable outgrowth of the “instant internet” and “just-in-time” mindset that has become prevalent in the United States, particularly in the last twenty years. Unhappily, major crises aren’t susceptible to “instant” solutions. Solutions require time and advance allocation of resources, and extreme capitalist societies like the U.S. don’t like setting aside resources that could be “better” used for making more money now.

Unfortunately, that mindset isn’t totally new. It’s just worse, aided by a society addicted to instant satisfaction. The United States has always had a habit of trying to avoid looking at and dealing with unpleasant truths… and not wanting to spend thought and resources on preparation and understanding. I won’t go into all of the examples, but World War II and the Vietnam War were two more recent examples, as was the financial melt-down of 2008. For six years before Germany actually invaded Poland, Hitler broke treaties, annexed other countries, demonized, persecuted and killed Jews and others the Nazis found “undesirable.” By the mid-thirties the Japanese were taking over large sections of China. The U.S. reaction? Zilch. The U.S. Army was at one of the lowest levels ever, and the isolationist America First movement was the predominant political view.

The Vietnam War was largely fought by the U.S., until the very end, on the WW II assumption that massive numbers of men, bombs, high tech and costly weapons, and defoliants could defeat a popular movement using asymmetrical warfare tactics, even though the Vietnamese had driven out the French. Over more than a thousand years, China had attempted to conquer the Vietnam area, but the Vietnamese never gave up and always pushed the Chinese out, and the Chinese always had more men and better weapons. Until the very end, the military and the Washington establishment never looked at that history, or, when they did, they disregarded it.

The 2008 financial meltdown came about the same way. Even though more than a few experts and analysts questioned the over-mortgaging of American and the securitization of subprime mortgages, few policymakers wanted to look at the underlying weaknesses of the system, and no one planned for the future, because everything was about making more money “now.”

Every reputable epidemiologist knows that pandemics happen. They’ve happened throughout history, always with high body counts, economic havoc, and political instability. So what did the Trump administration do? They eliminated the very office created to deal with pandemics, and the result was the loss of at least a month of time for preparation. There also weren’t enough back-up supplies, and it turns out – not to my surprise – that it takes time to retool factories to produce surgical masks and respirators… time, it turns out, that cities like New York don’t have. The just-in-time economy and instant internet aren’t very good at dealing with crises like covid-19. We will muddle through, but more people will die who didn’t have to, and many of them will be medical professionals in the front line… and, also, in the process, a great many workers and their families will suffer unnecessary financial hardship.

There are reasons to know history and to have enough equipment of the right kind ready on standby, even though it’s not “instantly” profitable… but somehow it seems every generation has to learn that truth the hard way… and some politicians and people never do.

Covid-19 and a Few Numbers

According to the CDC, the fatality rate for influenza has historically run roughly at a rate of 1/10th of one percent, that is to say, that for every thousand people infected, one person died. The highest known fatality rate for a form of influenza was the 1918 Spanish Flu, estimated to have had a fatality rate around two percent. Presently, it appears that the fatality rate for Covid-19 runs from 1.4% to as high as 3.0%

Seasonal flu has averaged a contagion rate of roughly 1.3, meaning each infected flu victim infects on average 1.3 others. The contagion rate for the 1918 Flu is estimated to have been around 2.5, but that was before more modern treatments were available. Currently, it appears that Covid-19 – without measures such as social distancing – has a contagion rate of 2.3, very close to that of the 1918 flu.

So far this “flu year,” there have been at least 34 million cases of flu in the United States, 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 flu deaths, according to the C.D.C. By comparison, if 34 million Americans were exposed to Covid-19, even at the lowest fatality rate, there would be close to half a million deaths, and over five million people requiring hospitalization.

And remember, 34 million people amount to only about ten percent of the U.S. population.

“Timeless” F&SF ?

There are novels that wear well over time, but not all that many, because too often authors are locked into their “present,” whether through social conventions, marketing requirements, or reader expectations.

Jane Austen has enjoyed a revival because women, in particular, have enjoyed her accurate, trenchant, and well-written observations of social maneuvering in a particular time period, an analysis which is transferable in ways to current society, which illustrates how, at times, the “simple” approach of good writing can, in itself, be timeless – but only if it also somehow speaks to readers. And in a strange way, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, also has a sense of timelessness, at least in the original French.

Strangely, it seems to me, timelessness is harder to come by in science fiction. A number of once-popular SF novels of the 1950s and early 1960s are also hopelessly dated by technology. Venus the green planet has been supplanted by Venus the lead-melting hellhole. We now know that the Barsoom of John Carter never could have existed on Mars … and there’s also less enthusiasm for honorable but clearly patriarchal heroes of that mold. That, of course, doesn’t stop intrepid “SF” authors, for whom the latest authorial trick has been to invent an alternative universe or history conducive to the pulp-style tales they want to tell.

I obviously have no problem with inventing alternative universes, but I do wonder why such authors would want to create a pseudo-pulp solar system based on concepts popular in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Then, again, I suppose that’s a form of timelessness, where modern science has been excluded. At the same time, calling the stories in such universes “science fiction” is a bit of a stretch, but SF has seen survived such stretches and will continue to do so, especially since the limits of hard science are increasingly inimical to space-operatic swashbuckling.

Still, despite the limits of hard science… some science fiction novels, such as LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness, have a certain timelessness, but such books are comparatively rare. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, while dated in the sense that we still can’t do what he theorized, has its own sense of timelessness.

Fantasy is much more suited to timelessness, especially with such works as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it’s a bit early to tell how time will treat The Wheel of Time or any of my fantasy series or those of other best-selling or acclaimed authors. We may turn out to be timeless… but it’s more likely we’ll merely be authors forgotten in time, which is the fate of the majority of authors.

“So we worshipped the Gods of the Market….

“So we worshipped the Gods of the Market who promised us these beautiful things…

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew…”

Kipling – “The Gods of the Copy Book Headings”

So… in less than two weeks, countries, corporations, small businesses, and huge numbers of individuals are facing economic ruin, not to mention the fact that virtually everyone’s retirement and portfolio have been trashed… and potentially a great deal more.


Covid-19 didn’t cause this. What caused this mess was the leveraging of greed at every possible level in human society.

Leverage is a great idea, in perspective. Who doesn’t want to get more for less effort, less investment, fewer employees?

Take just-in-time supply chains. They cut inventory costs because a firm doesn’t pay for components almost until needed [and the way some companies handle payment probably until after the components are already in a product on its way to be sold, if not already sold]. The company doesn’t maintain inventory for the government to tax [taxing inventory may prove to be one of the worst a decisions ever made in modern economic history]. There’s no cost for additional warehousing space. Ideally, that means a cheaper product [practically, it means higher profits and executive compensation].

Automation is another form of leverage. Improvements in technology mean that AI-guided systems replace human guided systems. That results in greater precision at lower cost and a smaller human workforce. Computerization is drastically reducing administrative jobs, which also has resulted in increasingly high workloads on reduced numbers of lower-level “executive” employees.

Outsourcing and off-shoring are other forms of leveraging capital, often essentially human capital, although they’re seldom described that way.

And, of course, raising money in the stock-market so that others pay for much of the capital in a company is also leverage. Again, I’ve never seen it described that way, but that’s what it is.

Then, add in specialization, where a few firms, perhaps only one or two, produce just one component vital to a number of firms…and spread this across not only the U.S. economy, but the world economy, and have an economic system the like of which the world has never seen. The only problem is that while all this specialization and leverage has enormous benefits, it also has enormous fragility, something that “the smooth-tongued wizards” of the Gods of the Market have ignored and downplayed. That’s a failure that the smooth-tongued wizards never pay for.

Unfortunately, we, as a society, will pay mightily for being seduced by the siren song of pure and over-leveraged capitalism, and for failing to recognize that we needed to master and restrain capitalism, rather than allowing ourselves to be mastered by it.

Writing Thoughts

Every writer has his or her own personal requirements to be successful, and that’s often why workshops and courses sometimes don’t work, and why writing gurus often think, I’ve spelled it out step by step. Why doesn’t the idiot get it?

I was once one of those idiots.

The first time that I tried to write a story, I was around fourteen. I didn’t want to write it. I knew I wasn’t a fiction writer [which really meant I hadn’t learned and found the process too daunting. I didn’t have a choice. It was a school assignment. I wrote it. It was grammatically excellent. As a work of fiction, it was far beneath God-awful. As I recall, my English teacher’s comments were something like, “Grammatically fine. Not much there.”

And some readers, for whom action is the only mark of story, might well say, “Not that much has changed.”

It wasn’t that I disliked writing. I had no problems with writing lengthy history papers, but I tended to underestimate the time required to do a really excellent job, a trait not uncommon among teenaged males. I enjoyed going against the grain when I wrote “critical” English papers, and usually got brought up short, but every once in a long while… I actually surprised a teacher, favorably, that is. And I liked writing stories for the tiny mimeographed school newspaper.

But my true love was poetry – traditional poetry. About as far as I’ve gone in enjoying [but not in reading] “modern” poetry are poets such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas. That’s probably because I love words and the way they sound and how rhythms, rhymes, and meanings forge something stronger than the evanescent mist of most modern poetry. The other aspect of why I liked poetry didn’t dawn on me until later – I could work on something until it was right… or as right as I could make it.

Of course, by the time I graduated from college, where I had two outstanding professors [William J. Smith, who later became U.S. Poet Laureate, and Clay Hunt, a truly brilliant scholar and literary analyst who tragically died far too young of cancer], traditional poetry was largely passé or relegated to chapbooks or the smallest of literary magazines. This hasn’t changed. Even today, rhymed or even semi-traditional poetry is almost verboten at The New Yorker and other “literary” magazines. While I was in the Navy and for a few years after, I submitted to various magazines…and very occasionally got accepted, but only by small magazines and only for work in the “Eliot” vein.

My problem in developing as a fiction writer was fairly basic. At that point in my life, all the explanations about how to construct a story simply did make sense to me. Oh, I understood the terms, the concepts, and I could see exactly why they were all necessary, but assembling a story that way just didn’t work for me.

It wasn’t until I put together “dreary and involved” economics with a beleaguered Coke-swilling junior economist like I’d recently been with money-shifting here and there and no one seemingly caring that the basics clicked. Simply put… I had to feel the story… really feel it.

Now… turning that understanding into reliable professional success, that took almost another twenty years.

How Much Background?

The other day I came across a term new to me (“loreporn”), or at least new in the context in which it was used, that being the idea of excessive background information in novels as analogous to the excesses of pornography. I’ve occasionally run across “porn” used as a suffix before, negatively denoting excesses of various sorts, but I have to admit that I’d never seen it used as a derogatory term for excessive literary or fictional background.

The problem with this sort of labelling is that writers, being writers, have different styles. Some like more background, some almost none. Also, readers of different genres have differing expectations. Readers who favor fast-moving action tend to favor less historical background and find legends that take more than a sentence to explain distracting. Some fantasy readers find more lore and background intriguing and fascinating, others less so. And that’s fine.

It’s one thing to point out that a writer’s “lore” doesn’t work as supposedly designed, or that it was borrowed from feudalism or Shinto, or other cultures, and really isn’t applicable to the society described by the writer. It’s also fair to point out when there’s more background than story, or where the background has more character than the protagonist.

But to brand anything that doesn’t fit into one’s own perceptions of what is proper as “loreporn” is more often than not a cheap shot and misleading. One could thoughtlessly apply the term to much of Tolkien, but all of that lore is an enormous part of what makes The Lord of the Rings what it is.

What I find disturbing about such a term is the almost moralistic condemnation it implies to a style that a reader finds not to his or her taste. There are societal and practical reasons to derogate, or at least be skeptical of excessive depictions of sexual acts, but to equate expansive descriptions of history, myth, or legend to out and out pornography seems more than a little excessive to me. And using a single derogatory word to describe any author’s lore, legends, and myth is carelessly and cruelly excessive.

But then, we live in an age of excess.

The Power of Names

Over the years, fantasy has explored the power of names, and the degree to which knowing someone’s “true name” can give a wizard or witch or someone else the power over that individual. Even if that’s a dubious proposition in the real world, studies and practical experience suggest that names do have certain impact.

Studies show that, in general, voters prefer politicians with simpler names, and that, even in the legal profession, supposedly devoted to legal impartiality, attorneys with easier to pronounce names were more likely to make partner, regardless of the ethnicity of the name. Again, in an overall sense, stocks of start-up companies with easy to pronounce names do better initially than those with names harder to pronounce (later on financial performance tends to take over).

Just calling someone by name can get their immediate attention.

But how much do names tell you about someone? Does what someone was named affect who they are and who they become?

I have to admit that, if someone had asked me those questions thirty or forty years ago, I would have said that names tell some things about a person, or at least their background, but I would have been dubious about names affecting personal behavior. Now… I’m not so sure. But is that just what we want to see? Or do names shape how people develop?

Just because every “Summer” either my wife or I have ever met has been bright, but ditzy, does that reflect just the coincidence of our meeting ditzy “Summers” or does the name do that to them? Likewise, why is every “April” we’ve met flighty and lacking even a semblance of a work ethic?

Then there’s the name/nickname trade-off. I’ve encountered a number of men with the birth name of “Richard.” All of the ones who went by the nickname “Dick” (despite current connotations to the contrary) were solid, bright, individuals. Those who went by “Richard”… not so much so.

On the other hand, I haven’t had much luck with guys named “Bob,” and neither did the composer Menotti, whose weak-willed drifter in his opera The Old Maid and the Thief was also named Bob.

As for “Donald”… the “Dons,” so far anyway, have been good people. As for the “Donalds…” you can probably guess my thoughts about them.

And I have to admit that I’m not consistent. I address all of my children by their full names, although most all of them have names that can be and often are shortened – except the eldest, who’s named after me… and I call him by the same nickname that my father had and that I have. That just might be the reason why he didn’t name either of his sons after me. And, as you all know, I don’t write under either my full name or my nickname.

Super Tuesday…

Everyone will have some sort of take on the Democratic Presidential campaign after Super Tuesday… and the apparent political resurrection of Joe Biden from the “political dead.” I’m no exception, but my thoughts/points don’t fall into grand conspiracies, possibly because most theorized conspiracies don’t exist… and never have. Human greed, stupidity, and incompetence, along with blind and unthinking belief, usually do a better job of explaining events than conspiracies.

So… my observations…

First, no matter how smart and competent she is, Americans as a whole, even supposedly progressive Democrats, shy away from nominating or electing a woman. All this is disguised and rationalized by various “explanations.” “I’m for women, but not [that woman].” “I worry that a woman can’t stand up to Trump.” “I’m for women, but most people aren’t, and we need to win.” And those are just the beginning.

Second, most people – except those who feel they have nothing to lose – are leery of revolutionaries, because they want to keep what they have and are looking for improvement in their situation, not a total restructuring of their life by government. Trump’s appeal in 2016 was not that he was going to change things, but that he was going to “restore” things. Make American Great Again was code for putting minorities back in their place, restoring higher paying semi-skilled jobs [which couldn’t and didn’t happen], keeping out immigrants, and continuing to prop up the stock market and financial sector with cheap money.

The vote for Biden on Super Tuesday was a vote for incremental improvement. Support for Sanders in California and Nevada reflected how expensive life there is and how the young people and minorities there don’t see how mere incremental improvement will help with the problems they face.

Third, Americans are wary of detailed plans and programs. The results, at least to me, were a rejection of detail and of thoughtfulness. Almost meaningless rhetoric and generalities once again triumphed.

Fourth, young people talk and tweet a lot, but it’s the older people and a dedicated core of voters who show up and vote in higher percentages. Black voter numbers were up, as were suburban white voters, from the reports I’ve seen, but not numbers of young or Latino voters. Most black voters, particularly older black voters, studies and numbers show, are actually wary of radical political propositions and those who push them.

How all of this will play out in the months ahead is another question, especially if Elizabeth Warren stays in the race.


One of the topics I’ve discussed over the last several years is how both the media and the internet have in essence fragmented U.S. society. There’s a news channel for everyone, and if that’s not enough for the far right and far left, there’s the “twitterverse.”

For whatever reason, the remaining Republicans, that is, the hard-core Republicans who believe that either Trump can do no wrong or that even Trump is better than any Democrat, seem less fragmented than the Democrats, as is clearly demonstrated by the increasingly bitter Democratic presidential primary.

On the far left is Elizabeth Warren, with plans for everything, but, as an economist who’s worked in government and the private sector, I can’t make the numbers work, despite her insistence that those plans are financially doable. Ditto for Bernie. Combined, they seem to have the most support.

Then you’ve got the moderates, with Joe Biden still having the most support, although that support seems squishy to me, despite his victory in South Carolina. Those moderates are at least trying to push changes that might be marginally financially feasible, but, guess what, not that many Democrats seem that thrilled with “moderation” (although Republicans, and even some Democrats, would find their proposals as unpalatable as those of Warren and Sanders). The fact that Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar have dropped out strongly suggests that there aren’t that many moderates among the younger Democrats.

Then there are the billionaires, and somehow, I don’t see either of them igniting a wave of warm support, as witness the fact that Steyer has ended his campaign.

But that’s not the biggest problem. The greatest difficulty is that the far left is trashing those with more “moderate” policies as being uncaring and ignoring the “needs” of the people, while the “moderates” keep asking how the country can pay for the proposed extravagance of the ultra-liberal policies. And even Warren and Sanders are bickering.

Yet this increasingly bitter fight over the nomination ignores basic reality. The next Congress won’t pass any ultra-liberal financially costly legislation, because even if the Democrats flip the Senate and hold the house, they’ll only have a one or two vote margin in the Senate.

In the meantime, the bloodbath is providing Trump with all the talking points and tweets he’ll need for whoever the Democrats nominate, especially since, given the past success in Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression, the Democrats will likely need close to a five percent advantage in the popular vote in order to get a very tenuous control over both the presidency and the legislative branch.

And they’re going to get it through ideological “purity” tests and trashing each other?

But then… let’s see what tomorrow’s “Super Tuesday” brings.