Archive for June, 2020

Books Not Written

Every time I finish a book, or get near to doing so, or sometimes even sooner, a question comes to mind. “What are you going to write next?”

Sometimes, the answer is obvious. If I’ve just finished the first book of a series or sub-series, the answer to that question is obvious – the next book about those characters. Or it’s an idea I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and finally can’t ignore. Sometimes, the answer is anything but obvious.

Many of my readers, however, do have an “obvious” answer to that question. They want another book about their favorite character or characters. Another obvious answer for some of those at my publisher [thankfully, not my editor] is more of whatever series sells well.

But, whatever the book I decide to write, and, for whatever reason, that means other books don’t get written. Sometimes, even with a character I love and the readers love, there isn’t a good enough story there, as in the case of Charyn from Endgames, who has managed to put himself in a position that any real challenge to him would have to be so contrived as to be unbelievable in terms of the world he lives in (and no, I’m not going to twist the world out of shape to drag out another story for even the best of characters). Other times, an idea strikes me, but upon investigation, isn’t going to be believable and workable, even on its own terms.

Then, there are the characters and ideas that would result in good or excellent books, but which would require more than a single book to do well… and, if I’m in the middle of another series, they just don’t get my attention, although, at times, they do eventually get written. I had Saryn’s story [Arms-Commander] in mind for years before I wrote it. Even though I’ve written, on average, slightly more than two books a year over the past 30 thirty years, there will always be more characters and stories than I’ll ever be able to write… and most of those won’t get written.

But I’ll write as many as I can, so long as I can do it well, and my editor and publisher agree.

The Just-in-Time Economy

As I write this, the numbers of new coronavirus cases are approaching a new peak in the United States. How exactly did we go from declining numbers to what appears will be new highs in a handful of weeks?

Citing a slogan from another time and another context, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Almost everything in our economy is designed for the short-run. Profits are tabulated quarterly, if not weekly. Companies maintain little inventory, partly because inventory not sold by year-end is considered taxable income, and rely on just-in-time deliveries. Retailers and service industries have high percentages of employees working variable hours depending on demand, and more “professional” services are being outsourced.

According to numerous studies over the last several years, 75-80% of U.S. workers are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and 40% of all Americans can’t pay an unexpected expense of $400 without selling something or going into debt. Add to that the fact that roughly 60% of healthcare insurance is paid by employers.

So what happened when the U.S. shut down much of the economy to keep the coronavirus from spreading?

Unemployment jumped to the 13%-14% level, and government had to create massive amounts of money for unemployment, stimulus, payroll protection, and other worker and business support programs… and the funds supporting those programs are running out. State budgets are being savaged by lack of revenue and ongoing expenses, and, unlike the federal government, states can’t run long-term deficits or print money.

Over the past century, the U.S. economy has become, like business, a just-in-time operation, and with already massive government deficits…there’s just not enough money in the coffers of either governments or businesses to keep paying workers and the other bills. Almost all workers have no cash reserves to speak of, and many are already desperate. Tens of thousands of businesses will close… and stay closed… as a result of the shutdown.

So… there’s enormous economic and political pressure to “re-open” the economy, despite the fact that models show doing so will result in more than 60,000 additional deaths.

No choice is good in this situation, but the dollar cost or death toll cost wouldn’t be nearly so high if the U.S. weren’t so deeply tied to a short-term profit-maximizing just-in-time economy.

This situation reminds me, bizarrely, of an old time commercial for automotive oil filters where a mechanic explains that without good oil filters and maintenance, car engines fail. Then he says, “You can pay me now… or pay me later [to rebuild your engine].”

We haven’t even begun the long process of paying for an underfunded, over-leveraged, just-in-time economy… and we’ll be paying in both dollars and deaths, most likely for several generations.

Hidden Costs

Most adults know that basic goods have a cost to produce and a price at which they’re sold, and if the producer doesn’t cover his costs with enough to spare for him to live on… then he’s not going to be in business that long [unless someone’s subsidizing him, but that’s another question]. Most of us also know that there are other costs in life. If you want to be a doctor, then there’s the cost of medical school, and the time spent as an intern and a resident – and maybe more training beyond that in some specialties. Most “professions” require additional education and training beyond four years of college.

But there are other non-dollar “costs” that aren’t so obvious, and many aren’t considered costs at all.

I spent roughly twenty years in politics as a staffer, political appointee, and consultant, and two of the unacknowledged costs were long hours and the requirement to live in Washington, D.C., with high costs of living and/or a long commute, if not both. Political professionals who want to make a living at politics are essentially limited to living in restricted locales – large cities, state capitols, or Washington, D.C. Perhaps the highest cost is the effect of high pressure on health. Yet another cost is uncertainty. In those twenty years, I could have been released or fired at a moment’s notice [and it did happen]. Then there’s the psychological cost of continually trying to please [or at least not displease] conflicting constituencies convinced that their viewpoint is the only correct one while trying not to be undermined by your supposed friends [who are politically often more dangerous than the opposing party].

Other professions have similar costs. Academic university-level jobs that can support a family, especially these days, not only require a terminal degree, but will likely require relocation, sometimes more than once, and working under rules and practices that constantly change without apparent rhyme or reason, while laboring under various delusions, such as that every American child deserves and is capable of getting through four years – or more – of collegiate pedagogy or that technology can replace expertise, or that the newest idea is the best.

Professional actors and musicians, or for that matter, professional athletes, all compete in fields where essentially about 1/10 of one percent of those who finish their training ever make more than a bare-bones living, and those who do can almost never stay settled in one place, and, on top of that, can usually look forward to perhaps a decade of substantial income, possibly two at the outside, not to mention that the profession can easily destroy a personal life.

As in most fields, law is intensely competitive, particularly at the highest levels, and very few of the hotshot young attorneys actually make partner, possibly because some of the saner ones decide it’s not worth it – and then, given the nature of law, there’s the fact that they have to deal with clients with either insurmountable problems or more insurmountable egos.

Writing’s not any easier. I know a bit about that. In the first years of writing, I never even thought about self-promotion, but when I became a full-time writer, it became rather more important. Over a ten year period, I visited every bookstore I could manage to get to, somewhere in the neighborhood of 700-800 hundred [of course, you can’t do that now; there aren’t nearly as many bookstores]. That’s a time and effort cost. Then there’s the website, and answering emails and letters, and going to conventions and comic-cons and doing other author-outreach efforts. Most successful authors do a great deal of this [unless they have movie or TV deals], and with all budget tightening by publishers, bookstores, etc., authors have quite a range of non-dollar costs.

But these non-dollar costs aren’t unique to the professions I’ve mentioned. Virtually every job has non-dollar costs…and we tend to overlook them or accept them as a necessity. But they’re still costs, even if they can’t be totaled in dollars, pounds, Euros, pesos, yuan, or whatever.

The Big Gamble

Donald Trump isn’t wearing a mask. Neither are most of his supporters, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, and certainly most of those supporters who live near me aren’t. The Vice President insists that coronavirus cases are going down, even when CDC data says the opposite. Tomorrow, Trump will be holding an indoor rally for 20,000 people in Tulsa, with as many as 100,000 expected outside, and I’m willing to bet that most of them, if not the great majority, won’t be wearing masks, either. A number of Republican acquaintances have made it known to me that they believe that the danger of the entire coronavirus situation is overblown, if not an outright hoax. The university system here in Utah is declaring that fall classes will be conducted in person and begin on schedule, despite the fact that Salt Lake City is still in condition orange, and is considered a hotspot by the CDC.

So… what’s this all about?

It’s definitely not about public health, not with U.S. deaths over 120,000 and increasing daily, and with case numbers rising in 23 out of the 50 states.

Rather, it’s clearly about economics and politics, particularly politics, in the case of Donald Trump. Now that recent poll numbers show that, at least for the moment, a significant majority of Americans believe that Trump has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has apparently decided that the only way he can win re-election is if he can revive the economy, and that’s exactly what he’s pushing for, regardless of the number of additional deaths this may cause.

The rally tomorrow is clearly a gamble. If 20,000 or more of his supporters appear, and there’s no significant increase in coronavirus cases, he can trumpet to the world that the risks are overstated, and what’s important is the economy. This position is helped in public perception by the time lag between exposure and the appearances of symptoms, as well as by the fact that many of those infected won’t show symptoms, even though they’ll spread the disease. Also, if the crowd comes from a wide area, once they disperse, it will be difficult to trace development of infection. All the while, Trump, or his team, will be saying words to the effect that the coronavirus isn’t so bad, and look what Trump has done for the economy.

And, anyway, so far as Trump is concerned, another few thousand deaths, or even more than that, is a small price to pay for getting re-elected.

And… it just might work.

Automated Frustration

In this era of automated everything, where businesses large and small are doing their best to reduce costs, one aspect of most businesses has become the automated telephone system. Such systems come in two varieties. Those that aren’t excessively frustrating and those that are.

Among the systems that are most frustrating are those with a long menu and no option for anything besides specific topics that aren’t what you’re calling about. So after nine options, none of which relate to the subject of your call, you have to go through the menu and guess which option is the closest to what you’re calling about. That gets followed with a second menu that often turns out to have nothing to do with the subject you’re calling about. If you’re fortunate, you may find what you called about.

Then there’s the system that actually asks you the subject of your call. Except… it often doesn’t recognize the words you’re using because it’s only programmed to “accept” certain words.

The best systems, to my mind, are like the one used by my local pharmacy. If you know your prescription number and your phone number, you can refill the prescription automatically. If you don’t, you can switch directly to a pharmacy technician. If it’s after hours you can leave your name and number and describe your problem, and someone will call you back during working hours – and they do.

On the other hand, there’s the current IRS system, where there’s been no way to get an answer to your questions either online or by telephone for two months, and there’s no way to reach a live person. My inquiry wasn’t vital. After three months, I just wanted to know when I might get my refund. Even though I filed electronically, and received a confirmation, the automated system couldn’t even find my return. I’ll certainly survive, but there are millions of people out there who are facing financial distress… and a whole lot of them are in the same limbo…and for them it’s serious.

Even before the coronavirus hit, for anything other than a simple problem, it took an hour or more to reach a real person. I know. Last year, the IRS lost a check I sent them for an amended return [because you can’t file amended returns electronically, nor pay them electronically]. I knew the USPS didn’t lose the check because the Treasury cashed it, but it took three months for them to acknowledge that they found it [and I spent HOURS on hold waiting to talk to a real person].

Computers, automated answering systems, and incompetence can combine to create even more frustration. My wife didn’t get a bill on schedule from a financial institution for her credit card and wanted to know what she owed. So she called the institution last week. Even with her credit card number, Social Security number, address, and email, they wouldn’t tell her unless she could tell them what her last purchase had been. She had several small purchases recently, but she couldn’t find the receipts or give them exact numbers. Without that exactitude, they wouldn’t reveal her balance. She could, of course, go online and set up access to her account, something that she’s been reluctant to do, and which would just create another system with another password. They did agree to send another copy of the bill to the email on file and by regular mail. So far, she’s seen neither.

Then there were the pastries we ordered. Somehow the vendor’s system decided to send them to our daughter, because that was where the last order went. When we discovered that – three minutes after we got a confirmation email – we called the vendor… and ended up on hold. Twenty minutes later, someone answered. We corrected the shipping address. The person on the other end assured us everything was taken care of. Four days later, the pastries ended up at our daughter’s house. I’m sure she and her family will enjoy them.

Setting and Enforcing the Rules

Rules are critical in games and government, and there are two aspects to rules: (1) whether they’re fair and (2) whether they’re enforced fairly.

In both games and government, it’s sometimes difficult to determine the fairness of rules and enforcement, but these days, with the growth of both national and personal recording media, i.e., cellphones, it’s gotten easier to show unfairness in both the rules and their enforcement.

For example, in the 2018 NFC championship game between the Saints and the Rams, a Ram defensive back slammed helmet-to-helmet into a Saint receiver as he was about to receive the ball, clearly illegal under the rules. No penalty was called, even though millions saw the impact. Later, the NFL admitted it was a bad no-call. Effectively, that no-call changed the outcome of the game. It cost the Saint’s players money and the chance to play in the Superbowl. The problem wasn’t the rules; it was the enforcement of the rules.

The same situation exists in government today as well, particularly in terms of police enforcement of the criminal codes. When enforcement is badly handled, it often goes viral, as in George Floyd’s death and in dozens of other instances.

But when the “rules” are flawed, that’s often not as obvious, particularly when seemingly “objective” rules or laws aren’t nearly as objective as their proponents claim.

Requiring a photo ID to vote is simple for many people. They already have one. But if you don’t, it can be difficult and time consuming to obtain one because virtually every form of ID requires confirmation, either other ID cards or a birth certificate, and if you don’t have a birth certificate in your possession, it can be time consuming, and sometimes almost impossible to get a certified copy without supporting documentation or appearing in person, and given most bureaucracies, can easily take hours, if not longer, spent waiting. This places a far heavier time and loss of income burden on lower-income workers.

So does having elections on weekdays. Most professionals can juggle their schedules or just take time off to go vote. A significant proportion of hourly-paid workers can’t… not without losing money, which is hard when every dollar goes toward basic necessities.

College admissions based on SAT or ACT scores were designed with the purpose of creating a way to evaluate applicants for college more fairly. And they worked reasonably well [for those applying] when the majority of applicants came from upper middle class or upper class white families. It’s clear that they’re far less accurate in evaluating abilities of applicants from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Part of the “rules” problem lies in the fact that most rules are created by elites of some sort, who write the rules, i.e., laws, based on their background and understanding… and then attempt to apply them to everyone, with enforcement based on the same assumptions. This works reasonably well in homogenous societies, but far less well in societies with significant numbers of differing ethnic/cultural groups… and much of the world is becoming less homogenous… and the previous homogenous majority, in more and more nations, is either failing to act or reacting adversely… which can and has led to civil unrest and violence.

Why Everything Takes Longer

Because we really needed to do some cleaning out – understandably necessary after living in the same house for almost twenty-seven years – about two weeks ago I rented a construction-sized dumpster, not because I thought we had that much “stuff” that had outlived its usefulness, but because the smaller sizes came with restrictions on what we could put in them, and the range of what I knew we had to get rid of exceeded those restrictions. I also rented it because, first, there were items that wouldn’t fit in my old Tahoe, and, second, because the local dump is a twenty minute drive from the house – one way.

The dumpster arrived on schedule, and I started disposing, and, after four days of intermittent serious effort, and my creative use of a moving dolly, I’d managed to lever and haul the two hundred pound plus broken down massage chair out of the garage where it had been residing for half a decade, because, unlike other appliances, the one we wanted didn’t include – even for a fee – the removal of the old one. Then there were the cheap and battered veneer over particleboard or oriented strand board computer desks, or the set of iron patio chairs that ended up in the storeroom after we discovered that the non-removable castors had a tendency to snap and break in a way that was not repairable [at least not without access to a machine shop and welding gear]. And there was more… including a raft of barely usable and decrepit devices, the incredibly heavy “portable” dog fence that a relative had gifted to us [and which turned out to be totally useless], the non-functional stereo designed for cassette tapes…

But… after all the junk was in the dumpster, the need for true-deep cleaning became obvious, and my ingenious wife presented me with a brand-new power washer she’d ordered in advance to really deep clean the deck and the brick and concrete patios below. The catch was that I had to assemble it, because it came in a box – since, of course, there wasn’t one to be had in Cedar City. The instructions suggested that “five minutes” assembly time was all that was required. I’m not a mechanic, but I’m reasonably handy, or I thought I was. It took almost two hours, one hour of which was finding two screws the size of the ones that weren’t included in the box, which was necessary if I didn’t want to wait a week or two for the manufacturer to send what they hadn’t included.

Then, it took me almost an hour to figure out how to actually operate the machine. I’ve flown military helicopters. In the early days of computers I actually replaced components to improve performance. Part of the problem was that the directions never mentioned how to change the pressure coming out of the nozzle. So it was trial and error.

After that, it actually took less time to power-wash more than eighty linear feet of concrete sidewalks and brickwork than it did to assemble and learn to operate the machine.

But it seems in our ever more technical world, matters get more complicated, even when they shouldn’t. The afternoon after the power-washer fiasco, a new printer arrived [by delivery because we have no computer stores anymore in Cedar City] to replace the old one, a printer that, although not that old, had decided only to print in two of four colors, even after “cleaning” and the purchase of brand new cartridges, which also I’d had to order online. Now, over the years, I’ve gone through close to a score of printers. So I thought it wouldn’t be that hard. Wireless printers… no sweat.

Wrong. First, the on-screen directions on the printer stopped at “choose wireless or Ethernet.” I found a way around that. Then the damned printer wanted to connect to the wrong network and wouldn’t let me enter the right one. So I shut everything down and started over. I got it connected to the right network, and it said everything was fine. Except that it wouldn’t print because the printer was “off-line.” The computer settings wouldn’t let me change that, either. So I had to delete the printer from the computer and reinstall it. It works fine now, but to go through essentially three and a half installations?

My wife won’t let me print the details of the three hours it took her to work out the installation of a “simple” additional app to our satellite TV system.

I could go on for pages about all the stuff that’s supposed to be easy to install and use… and it never is.

How about you?

Violence Won’t Solve the Problem?

Lots of well-meaning people have said this, or words to that effect over the years, generally after an egregious example of police brutality or a miscarriage of justice against blacks has ignited tempers and buildings. I’ve been one of those who said that… and the words are indeed true. But those words have become, it appears, merely an excuse for not doing very much after the violence dies down.

As a result, the injustices and brutality continue… and, when another terrible instance goes viral, so does the violence. That’s understandable… and unfortunate… because people get even more angry and frustrated when unfairness persists and major problems don’t get fixed.

Often, officials and politicians say it takes time. Oh? How much time did it take to get massive stimulus packages out to largely white-owned businesses? How much time did it take to get a massive tax break for the upper 1%? Trump can come up with an Executive Order to punish Twitter overnight, because they fact-checked his tweets, but he doesn’t seem inclined to deal with a double standard of justice, possibly because he thinks, as he did in the Charlottesville white power rally, that there are “good people” among the racists.

Many of the people who go along with the racists aren’t truly evil people, but they don’t understand just how pervasive the structural injustices are, and when someone attempts to remedy the problems, all they see is the government spending money on people they perceive as undeserving, and money that’s not spent on them.

What they don’t see, and often can’t or won’t see, is that almost every law on the books is enforced more harshly on people of color, and there are years of studies to prove it.

And, in the meantime, those who use the violent reaction to the latest example of blatant police brutality as an excuse for doing little or nothing might ask themselves how patient you’d be if you, your parents, your grandparents, and your ancestors had been subject to such brutality for roughly 400 years… and the politicians and courts still hadn’t put an end to it, in a country that hypocritically has praised itself for equality under the law for over 200 years.