Archive for May, 2020

Back to Normal?

Those touting the need for the U.S. to get back to “normal” as soon as possible are essentially relying on the argument that the coronavirus is dangerous just to the elderly and people with certain underlying conditions, and that those people should stay at home, while the rest of the nation returns to “business as usual.”

The problem with this argument is that there aren’t just a handful of people with underlying conditions, which include those who are obese, smokers, and people with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, chronic and severe kidney problems, and compromised immune systems. According to a paper recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, 45% of adult Americans fit at least one high-risk category. But it left out people in institutionalized settings, and in nursing homes in particular, which have accounted for a hugely disproportionate number of deaths.

In effect, too many Americans want to think of the high-risk coronavirus population as just senior citizens and people with underlying conditions, which they believe consist of a small percentage of Americans. In fact, that “small” population is somewhere around half of adult America and quite possibly more. That’s not a “tiny fraction” of the United States.

And for those in that category who catch the coronavirus and have symptoms, early statistics show that roughly twenty percent will require hospitalization. Half of those who survive will require lengthy medical care, and early U.K. studies estimate that roughly as many people as those who died will be permanently disabled and unable to work.

While children and young adults, in general, have a lower risk of serious effects from the coronavirus, that risk still exists, and those effects, while rare, are often life-threatening. In addition, as every week passes, doctors are finding more and more side-effects of the virus.

Also troubling is a series of studies out of China that show that over fifty percent of people infected with the coronavirus – including people who had no apparent symptoms – suffered permanent lung damage. These symptoms are also turning up in significant numbers in the United States.

Back to “normal” fairly soon? Not without more damage to life and health than most people realize.

Local or Online?

My wife and I buy a great deal of merchandise online. That’s not by choice, but by semi-necessity. I say semi-necessity because I don’t absolutely need those shelled pistachio nuts, but we did need the cleaning supplies vanished from the shelves of all the local emporiums. I buy my shirts online, and I do wear collared dress shirts almost every day, because no local store carries any color but white or pale blue, or a wide variety of cowboy shirts, which aren’t exactly my style. Paradoxically, the western wear store which carried boots I could wear has gone out of business; so now I’m buying boots online as well.

It’s not just clothing, either. We’ve had to purchase outdoor furniture covers online because the local home improvement big box store runs out of covers within a month of initial summer stocking… and seldom reorders. Now that all the office supply stores have closed, the go-to for such supplies is Staples online.

It’s not that Cedar City is dying. The population has more than doubled over the past 10-15 years, and we have auto supply stores, tire stores, and Mexican food restaurants, as well as more than score of fast food outlets, but the nearest decent women’s wear store is 55 miles away, which might explain why my wife’s clothes and shoes are bought anywhere but in Cedar City.

Part of this might be because Cedar City is a university town, but given the significant numbers of large and elaborate houses being built here – and inhabited – I can’t believe that we’re the only people in the town who have to resort to online purchases of a significant amount of goods.

Yet, usually, if there’s money to be made, there’s some entrepreneur ready to fill that need. If Cedar City can’t support one office supply store, when at one time there were three, when the population was significantly smaller, does that reflect a diminishing need for office supplies or lower profit margins for such stores… or both? I can see the decline in the sale of dress shirts for men and classy clothes for women, at least here in Cedar City, but the decline of western wear?

And even if these and other items no longer sell in large enough quantities to be “profitable,” does this mean that proprietors want more profit, or that there really is no profit in rural towns such as Cedar City, with a market area of approximately 50,000 inhabitants?

The result is that this reduced and diverted commerce goes elsewhere and reduces overall local income, as well as entailing a tremendous amount of waste in terms of the bubble wrap and cardboard used to package and deliver online goods. But if I have to choose between driving three hours one way [the nearest city to sell items not available here] to buy what might be called standard purchases or to use the internet… the internet wins almost every time… and the economy of Cedar City loses.

Efficiency… At What Cost?

As I noted before, pure capitalism is extremely efficient at producing large amounts of goods and services at low costs. But it’s also efficient in other ways that people, especially its proponents, tend to overlook or minimize.

Capitalism is extremely efficient at concentrating wealth and maximizing income inequality, and, without regulation, it also maximizes the costs of production placed on everyone else, from workers to the environment. These two “efficiencies” have been known for decades and resulted in a fair amount of government regulation, and, in the case of income inequality, possibly a great deal less than optimal.

But there are other downsides to this relentless efficiency. One of these occurs in the efficiencies of food production. Factory farms are efficient at producing meat at low costs, but they’re also efficient at creating and spreading antibiotic resistant bacteria quickly, not to mention the coronavirus. Pesticides and fertilizers are efficient in producing more grain and produce, but that efficiency has also been effective in creating agricultural runoff that is quite successfully making large sections of the Gulf of Mexico uninhabitable to almost any form of marine life.

Another is our efficient air traffic system which is a highly effective way of spreading the coronavirus.

And the great efficiency of just-in-time supply chains creates highly efficient slow-downs and bottlenecks, if just a single supplier fails – and that was one of the causes for the lack of PPE, the other being the unwillingness to create stockpiles because inventory is money wasted in a just-in-time economy.

And, of course, there’s the Boeing Max groundings, the result of relentless efficiency in eliminating “redundant” sensors and not wanting to conduct greater pilot training in the new systems.

Then there’s the efficiency of the part-time and “gig-economy,” which not only reduces costs for businesses, but also leaves millions without affordable health care… and that certainly increases the effectiveness of the coronavirus and other diseases in spreading.

And because of our oh-so-efficient economy, states and businesses have to open up before it’s really safe because, otherwise, the economy will totally crash and millions will go hungry… or worse…

And, in even in short run, that’s efficient?

Packages and Their Wrapping

Some people wrap gifts elaborately. Others place them in a decorated bag, perhaps surrounded with colored tissue. And others don’t bother with wrapping at all. Likewise, some gift-receivers admire well and tastefully wrapped packages and make over the wrapping. Some gift receivers even carefully remove the wrapping, trying to preserve it [believe me, some people do]. Other receivers make a comment, such as “lovely wrapping,” and then get on with unwrapping the gift or package. Still others, especially younger children, rip away the wrapping and discard it, just to get to what’s inside.

Many readers see novels as having two separate components – the core story, i.e., the package, and the wrapping, which consists of the background and the way in which the story is told. For the most part, these readers either want as little “wrapping” as possible, or at least, minimal “wrapping.” They tend to want an action- or event-driven story with obvious motivation, and when it’s done, the “present” of a clear resolution.

And, because, just as there is a range of readers, there exists a range of writers. Among those authors are those who write in the “wrapped-present” style, and in fact, I’ve been accused of that by some readers, largely because, I suspect, my protagonists are either competent or learn to be competent and because they learn from experience. Many of their antagonists don’t learn. But I really don’t write in that style because the events and environment in which the protagonists find themselves shape them and influence how they reshape or influence their world.

A “basic” wrapped-present story would be one where the author could change every background detail and those changes wouldn’t affect the characters, the plot, or the resolution.

Then there are authors where everything is so tied together that almost any change in the setting, background or culture would affect everything. In that respect, Gene Wolfe comes to my mind, as do Ursula K. LeGuin, and Sheri Tepper, and there are certainly others as well.

Most writers fall somewhere in between, and more than a few have books that differ greatly in the degree of integration of story, setting, and presentation. And often, what is one reader’s unnecessary wrapping is integral to another reader’s appreciation and understanding… as well as to the full range of what the author has set forth.

Who Really Believes That S**t?

I’ve always been a big fan of facts. When I was in school, though, I often got in trouble because I didn’t apply the scientific method to so-called facts I ran across. Some of those “facts” I embraced were from extended family members and some from unreliable print sources – like the 1910 encyclopedia from my grandparents’ attic, where some facts weren’t so much wrong as outdated. As I grew older, I did learn a bit more about facts, and when it might be painful to insist on factual accuracy. For example, adults didn’t like it when interrupted with an observation that their facts were incorrect, even when a reference book showed they were nowhere close

In college I learned in depth about another way of presenting facts – statistics. Later on, as an industrial economist and as a political staffer, I learned more than a few ways of lying, or sometimes just exaggerating, with absolutely accurate statistics.

But, really, facts and accurate statistics, even accurately and objectively presented, won’t change people’s minds when they’re emotionally convinced of something.

As we all know, or should know, some deeply held beliefs aren’t rational. I have an acquaintance who is absolutely and deeply convinced that a ban on assault rifles… or even a ban on rifle magazines that hold more than 25 cartridges – will inexorably and immediately lead to the repeal of the second amendment. There are a few facts in the way of that development. First, to ban all firearms would require a Constitutional amendment, and such an amendment has to win a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress, and then must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, meaning by 38 states. Right now, Republicans control legislatures in 31 states, and with the polarization in the U.S., there’s no way Congress, even by a simple majority, would vote to outlaw all guns, let alone thirty eight states.

Doesn’t matter. This acquaintance is absolutely convinced that any “weakness” by firearms’ rights activists will lead to the loss of all their guns. And he’s not the only one, and it’s not the only issue where people’s mindsets and what they believe have no basis in the facts.

There’s no reputable evidence or study to support the vast majority of claims by antivaxxers. Doesn’t matter. They’re not about to change.

There’s no recent evidence of massive voter fraud. The Heritage Foundation, an ultraconservative think tank, did its best to dig up voter fraud in the U.S. and documented almost 1,300 cases of voter fraud in all elections in the U.S. for more than 20 years. That sounds like a lot, but virtually all the cases involved individuals, and were spread across multiple elections in fifty states. At a minimum, that involves ten federal elections in 50 states, and with both primary and general elections, that’s 2,000 separate elections. So the average fraud level was less than one person per election. That’s an insignificant number compared to the number of voters and elections. Yet right wing conservatives are convinced massive voter fraud exists… because that’s what their emotions tell them.

So who believes all that shit? People who want to, regardless of solid facts.


The 2018 film, The Green Book , depicts a 1962 tour by Don Shirley, an extraordinary black classical and jazz pianist, who melded jazz and classical music on that tour and in the majority of his public performances. What most viewers of the movie likely didn’t know was that in terms of ability, Shirley was one of the greatest classical piano virtuosos of the 1950s and 1960s. The composer Igor Stravinsky, a contemporary of Shirley’s, said of him, “His virtuosity is worthy of Gods.”

Shirley also wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the 1939 novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of “Variations” on the 1858 opera Orpheus in the Underworld.

Although he performed with a number of the great symphony orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic, the majority of his income came from his classical-jazz fusion performances and recordings, because, in the 1950s, only a handful of classical pianists could make a living, and many classical venues felt that a black classical pianist would not draw audiences.

Shirley was able to stay in music because he was versatile and gifted enough to shift his focus and performance largely to jazz. It was certainly his decision to do so, but the choice he faced was whether to starve as a black classical pianist and composer or to use his talents in another musical genre. In a real sense, if he wanted to remain a musician, he had to put classical performing and composing on a back burner.

Shirley certainly wasn’t the first musician or creative artist to run into difficulties not of their own making that forced a change in career emphasis. In music, the changes in popular tastes are obvious, and popular tastes dictate who, and how many, can make a living performing or composing in a particular way or style. 1950s style rock and roll is gone. For the most part, so is the folk music of the sixties, etc. Some musicians are versatile enough to shift; others aren’t. Those who aren’t tend to be marginalized or totally unable to make a living.

In writing, times also change. How fast they change depends, from what I’ve seen, on the literary genre. What is published and “popular” in poetry has changed drastically over the past fifty years, largely, I suspect, because poetry is not commercially successful and is effectively subsidized in various ways. Because the “market” has changed, I suspect that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a “traditional” poet, no matter how accomplished and how talented, who emphasized formal rhyme and meter to be widely published or acclaimed.

On the other hand, F&SF is a commercial marketplace, meaning that it’s big enough to support a range of subgenres, based on the preferences of readers. Even so, I’ve seen that certain of my books sell far less well than others, and that’s one reason why I don’t write many of that type, much as I enjoy writing them, but, like Don Shirley and others, I still need to make a living… and it’s the kind of choice most creative artists have to make, one way or another.

Overcount? Undercount?

How many people in the U.S. have died of the coronavirus? According to the official U.S. death toll as I write, this, the number is 76,600. Today the Christian Science Monitor reported that, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos poll, 63% of Democrats say that number is an undercount, while a plurality of Republicans (40%) believes the figure is inflated.

Yet a wide range of studies and reports conclude that undercounting coronavirus deaths is widespread.

A New York Times study concluded that in just nine states, in March and April alone, the death undercount was close to 9,000. A study by the Yale Medical School reported in the Washington Post came to a similar conclusion.

Reports from numerous sources indicate that both the number of covid cases and deaths in Texas have been significantly under-reported, particularly among prison inmates and people in nursing homes, and Governor Abbott has refused to address the discrepancies.

According to the CDC and other health organizations, virtually all pandemics have been initially undercounted, for various reasons, partly because not all health workers recognize the signs of a new disease and then because record-keeping suffers when the health system gets overwhelmed.

So why the wide discrepancy between Democrats and Republicans?

One reason for that discrepancy is obvious. All of us tend to believe what we see around us. I live in an overwhelming Republican state with only one moderately large city and a whole lot of space elsewhere. The entire state has less than 6,000 cases, and less than 70 deaths. Needless to say, most Republicans here think the problem is overstated. Republicans tend to predominate in rural areas, and those areas generally, like Utah, are spread out more. Republicans also tend to have a greater percentage of those well-off who live in less crowded and more sanitary areas – which means they don’t see the deaths and the suffering to the same degree.

And it doesn’t help when the Republican President downplays the severity of the situation.

Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to see the deaths or be personally affected. The coronavirus thrives best in densely populated and connected areas, which is why New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as Detroit and Chicago and other dense urban areas, are getting hammered by the virus. In those locales, health professionals and others have been storing bodies in refrigerated trucks and makeshift morgues. New York has discovered funeral homes overwhelmed with bodies. Under those conditions, undercounts are far more likely than overcounts. And those areas are also highly Democratic in their voting allegiance.

No… the coronavirus hasn’t taken a strong hold here, and it may not, given the more rural nature of Cedar City, which so far has only had 30 cases and one death, and the folks here have a tendency to discount just how bad it can be elsewhere. But we have a daughter who’s a doctor at a major medical center in Virginia, and grown children in New York City, Boston, and the Washington, D.C., area, and everything they’re telling me is a far different story than what’s happening in Cedar City.

While we’d like to believe what we see is what the rest of the country is like…sometimes, it just isn’t, and, if you don’t see this, you should consider giving more credence to those media reports you distrust than to your own pleasant surroundings.

“Free Stuff”

Everyone likes “free stuff,” especially if they don’t consider the costs of those “free” goodies, but there’s a cost to the “free” stuff. Facebook is “free” to users, but, as one tech type put it, that’s because the users are really the product. This was brought home to me personally when I installed AdBlock on my computer, and suddenly I couldn’t get access to all sorts of excerpts from publications unless I whitelisted them or removed AdBlock. Mostly, I just don’t bother.

But there are other kinds of “free stuff” that aren’t free, and were never meant to be considered as such, that are targeted by the political extremists on both sides. Right wingers have a tendency to classify social programs such as SNAP ((once known as Food Stamps), Medicaid, and AFDC as free stuff for the poor. These programs are generally considered a social and practical necessity, even though some participants continually abuse the system. The reason why politicians keep funding the system is because of something no one really wants to admit publicly – that without funneling aid to families a lot of children would suffer, if not die, of starvation. So far, no government anywhere has figured out a practical and legal way to feed needy children without also feeding a certain proportion of not so needy adults – and sometimes adults who could work but who’ve discovered that welfare pays better than the jobs they could get paid to do.

What’s more often neglected in the criticism of “free stuff” are other services paid for by taxes where the users of those services get such services at well below costs. Some of those I’ve mentioned before, such as the massive subsidies received from the U.S. Postal Service by charitable or non-profit organizations who can send me a letter for roughly 11 cents, while it costs “regular” users 50 cents… or the massive subsidies for bulk rate mail – and don’t send me refutations unless you include the infrastructure costs as well [because those aren’t included in USPS cost justifications, and using marginal costs is a scam when more than eighty percent of your volume by weight is from discounted service].

For the past several years, banks have been able to borrow money from the Fed almost “free” because of federal fiscal and monetary policies, and that means anyone with a savings account has been screwed, which also resulted in investors trying to get better returns in the stock market, which has caused all sorts of other problems. But I don’t see the financial community complaining about the ills of “free money.”

Nor do I see corporations with healthy profits who pay no federal taxes complaining about that sort of “free money” or wealthy individuals who pocket “free money” in the form of lower taxes because of exemptions or loopholes that the majority of Americans can’t use because they don’t have the assets to do so.

So… when you complain about “free” stuff, make sure you include the free or discounted goodies you get.