Archive for August, 2020

Denial Culture

One of the biggest reasons why Congress is deadlocked on everything, why the major political parties are polarized, and why people are at each other’s throats over politics and national policies is, in my view, because we live in a culture of denial, based on the feeling that “we” are totally right, and “they” are wrong or totally misguided.

Despite the fact that the purchasing power of the minimum wage is more than 40% lower than it was fifty years ago, and is possibly worth less than that, given the “adjustments” made to the CPI in recent years, conservatives deny that this has created enormous hardship for poor working Americans, regardless of color or class.

At the same time, while the left understands this and wants change, they deny that there are financial and fiscal limits on federal spending with the simplistic mantra that taxes on the super-rich will fund their entire array of social programs.

While I happen to agree with the fact that the ultra-rich need to be taxed more, increasing their taxes even dramatically won’t come close to solving the problem. The current federal debt is over $26 trillion. So far just this this year, the federal deficit is nearly $3 trillion dollars. According Forbes magazine, the total wealth of all 630 U.S. billionaires amounts to $3.4 trillion. That means that even confiscating the wealth of all those billionaires would barely cover the deficit for two years, let alone provide significant additional revenue for major program improvements. Even if you confiscate all the wealth of those worth $100 million, you only add another $3 trillion.

And there are plenty of other denials.

Anti-vaxxers deny the proven efficacy of vaccines, while the extreme right denies proven public health methods, such as masks and stringent social distancing, to control the spread of Covid-19.

The right denies a history of economic, political, and cultural subjugation of both the poor and minorities, while the left denies the problems created by political correctness.

Even though self-esteem movements, rampant grade inflation, and student evaluations have played a major role in dumbing down education at all levels and in turning out the most fragile students in the history of the U.S., too many of whom are largely ignorant of the history of their own country, the liberals refuse to see it, let alone address it, while the conservatives blatantly deny the negative impact of local education funding based primarily on property taxes, which effectively means that “rich” districts almost invariably get better education.

The extreme conservatives deny the human-caused aspect of global warming and the future costs of not slowing or preventing it, while the far left denies the magnitude of the costs of mitigating global warming.

The far left can’t recognize that EVERY form of power generation has environmental downsides, while the fossil-fuel intoxicated conservatives ignore the immense climate and immediate pollution created by excessive and unregulated use of fossil fuels. In fact, the best we’ll ever be able to do is fit the environmentally appropriate power source to the climate, geography, and water resources of the locale it serves.

The right denies that Trump has any significant flaws, while the left did the same for Hillary Clinton.

And both reject compromise, especially significant compromise based on verifiable facts.

How the Democrats Lose the Election

The biggest reason why the Democrats could, and likely will, lose the election [unless they change their campaign tactics] is that they’ve forgotten the basics. The election isn’t about money; it’s not about racial injustice; it’s not about Trump; it’s not about ideology; it’s not about police brutality.

It’s about power.

Now, in the U.S., power isn’t money; power’s not religion or the strength of belief; power’s not guns, or mass movements, or bodies in the streets demonstrating, peacefully or otherwise.

It’s about votes – pure and simple.

Money, ideology, civic involvement can be ways to get votes…but they don’t always translate into votes.

The Republicans have spent almost twenty years working with state laws and governments to make it harder for Democrats to vote. They’ve worked legislatures to gerrymander districts. They’ve just tried to slow down mail delivery for the same purpose.

During the last Presidential election, Hillary Clinton polled almost three million votes more than Trump… and lost. Election scholars have estimated that Democrats have to average 53% of the vote, in general, just to break even with the Republicans.

The second problem Democrats have is that they so far don’t have a single unified message. Trump does. It’s simple – keep America white. It’s not phrased that way, but it’s the basic theme.

The Democrats have lots of good ideas – and they’re still arguing over which one is best. Forget it. Now is the time to agree on a single simple theme – one like “A better life for all working people.” Don’t get hung up on details, just emphasize “a better life” or something else simple and positive that people can get behind. And then work like hell to turn out every possible voter.

An old and very successful political pro, who elected some pretty disreputable characters in his day, made this point to me: You can’t beat someone with nothing. What he meant is, no matter how awful the other guy is, you have to give voters something to vote for, not just something to vote against.

Third, all great ideas mean nothing if you can’t elect enough people to pass the laws to change things. Winning the election comes first.

Finally, most voters, especially the ones most likely to vote dependably, are risk-averse. They don’t like radical proposals, violent demonstrations, shootings, and the like. A recent study of the 1968 elections indicated that riots reduced turnout and likely support for Democrats, while peaceful actions or even peaceful protests improved turnout.

So… Democrats… if you want to hand the election to Trump, keep on with your scattered radical messages, bland unfocused generalities, and claim those messages and all the riots and violent demonstrations are just demonstrating free speech. Being “right” in that way before the election may well insure that you’ll never get the power to actually change things.

“Unpronounceable” and Other Names

Every so often, I get a reader comment about my “unpronounceable” names, and I don’t know whether to be amazed, irked, or just disappointed, because every name in every one of my books is perfectly pronounceable. The spellings may differ from “standard” usage, and many of them are derived from names or words in other languages. I’ll admit freely that I don’t use “Bob” or “George” or “Sam” or other simple “meat and potatoes” names, but there’s reason behind the names, one way or another.

“Quaeryt” – the name of the protagonist in Scholar and four subsequent Imager Portfolio books – is derived from the Latin verb “quaero,” which means to seek or to question, and, incidentally, is also the root for “question.” And Quaeryt is definitely a seeker and a questioner. The woman he loves is Vaelora, a name derived from the Latin verb meaning “to be strong,” which she certainly is.

In Quantum Shadows, Corvyn is the protagonist, and is known as the Raven or the Shadow of the Raven, and that makes sense because his name comes from the Latin “corvus,” meaning “raven,” and “Corvus” is also the species name for ravens and crows. The vast majority of names in Quantum Shadows come from or are derived from the names of deities from other cultures, which is essentially required, given that Corvyn is searching through future religious hegemonies to seek out a power that could destroy the world of Heaven.

Sometimes, I play with names. Blaine Donne is the protagonist of The Elysium Commission, and he has the last name of the poet John Donne. I sprinkled short allusions to and quotes from Donne’s poems throughout the book. Part of that was just to have fun with my editor, David Hartwell, who, in addition to being an editor and a scholar of F&SF, also had a Ph.D. in comparative medieval literature. Johan Eschbach is the protagonist of the “Ghost” books; it’s also the name of one of my ancestors. Gerswin, the main character of The Forever Hero, has a special musical talent, and guess where his name, modified slightly, came from?

In the Recluce Saga, variations on names sometimes get passed down through the generations, just as in our world, but even there, I occasionally steal. The co-protagonist of The Towers of the Sunset is Megaera. I stole her name from Greek mythology, where Megaera is one of the Furies, known as the jealous one… and “my” Megaera is definitely furious and jealous of her sister.

I don’t know how other authors come up with names, but there’s almost always a reason for those I choose, beyond the fact that a name sounds good… and the names are all pronounceable, even if they don’t appear in American/English lists of names.

The Little S**t

These days, almost all of us face not only the principal requirements of our occupation, but also all sorts of little chores and duties, both at work and at home, and I’ve noticed that most people take one of two approaches to dealing with the “little shit.” The most common approach is to ignore it until it either goes away or until it can’t be ignored any longer, often in order to concentrate on “the important stuff.” The second approach is to devote almost all available time to the little shit, usually because the individual really doesn’t want to deal with his or her major occupational requirements.

Because people are different, different methods are in order for different personalities. Since I’m mildly obsessive-compulsive, anything left undone nags at me. So back when I was managing lots of people in a situation where there were unending urgent demands from people who couldn’t be ignored [yes… it was in my political life], I devoted the first hour of the day to dealing with as much of the little stuff as I could. That way, the list of the little items didn’t become longer every day, and my subconscious had less to worry about.

As a full-time writer I still follow that general formula, if not quite so rigidly, answering email, updating the website, even paying the bills, etc., before I get down to what earns the money to pay the bills, and that’s the writing. For me, that approach means I have less on my mind to distract me from writing, but one reason why that works for me is that the little stuff is secondary to writing, and I just want to handle it as efficiently as possible. I also know that most of it doesn’t go away, and it often multiplies if unaddressed.

But… that’s me.

I know others, writers among them, who would never get around to doing real work if they followed my approach, because they’d never escape the little stuff, which they find more appealing than dealing with what they ostensibly should be doing. So…they need to set firm limits on dealing with less important matters.

Then, there’s the third group…whose “little stuff” would consume their entire day, even if handled quickly and efficiently. All they can do to survive is triage the little stuff, ignoring what can be safely ignored, delegating anything that can be delegated, and dealing with anything that is likely to multiply immediately before it can… while making time to hunt for a new job.

Political Manners

Once upon a time, that is to say before June 16, 2015, while the major party candidates for President played rough and took liberties with the truth, those liberties usually consisted of telling partial truths and slanting the facts favorably. Once elected, to the same or to a lesser degree they continued the same practice. At times, they managed to imply unfavorable characteristics or behaviors about their opponents with edited or tailored photos or quotes. They often claimed that, once elected, their opponents would do terrible things. Lyndon Johnson ran a tear-jerking but brutal ad that implied Barry Goldwater would lead the U.S. into a nuclear war… and it worked.

But, with one horrendous exception, there was a general consensus that blatant falsehoods, particularly about the other candidate’s life, were not to be used and that, unless someone in a candidate’s family was a political figure in his or her own right, they were off-limits, as were politicians who had retired from the arena. That didn’t mean that unflattering events that actually happened weren’t used. They certainly were. Terribly misleading and even factually impossible claims about a candidate’s plans and how terrible things would be under his leadership were often presented, but blatantly false lies were seldom employed. Nor were degrading personal epithets often used.

They may not have been perfect, but those were the traditional political manners.

When Donald Trump decided to run for president, and even before, he decided to break all the rules, most of all those accepted political manners dealing with truth. He continued to trumpet the falsehood that President Obama wasn’t a citizen, and he’s quietly pushing the idea that Kamela Harris isn’t either. He claimed that Mexico would pay for his wall. It’s tragically absurd when a President has non-violent protesters tear-gassed for a photo-op to appeal to the religious right, or when he says that the U.S. is handling the Covid-19 pandemic better than other nations, given that, with 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the cases and 21% of the deaths.

When The New York Times documented thousands of Trump’s complete falsehoods, what was Trump’s response? He claimed those who pointed out those falsehoods were peddling “fake news.” What’s even worse is that those who support him have adopted the same methods.

I mentioned above the one horrendous instance when those traditional political manners broke down before – that was when, in the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy ran around claiming that anyone who opposed him was a Communist or a Commie-sympathizer. It was a dark period in American history and one not remembered by many and seldom taught in schools.

But right now, what Trump is doing makes McCarthy’s acts pale in comparison… and Trump’s supporters either don’t know that or, more likely, don’t care, which is why the rest of us should, more than ever.

Everyone Knows What a Story/Novel Is

One definition of a novel is “a long narrative work of fiction with some realism, often in prose form, and published as a single book.” Another is “any extended fictional narrative in prose that represents character, either in a static condition or developed as the result of events or actions.” A Glossary of Literary Terms provides a five page definition, which I’m not about to quote.

As a writer, I’ve learned that every reader has his or her own definition of what a “satisfactory” novel is, and what aspects are absolutely necessary for that reader.

There are readers for whom action is what is absolutely necessary, and any aspect of a book that slows the action makes it less pleasurable for those readers. There are readers who don’t like graphic sex and violence, and readers who don’t like books written in anything but third person past tense. There are even readers who are stopped cold in their reading by the slightest of typographical errors.

When I started writing, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I wrote poetry. Along the way, I discovered that the traditional definition and forms of poetry were falling out of favor. I liked those forms… and I persevered, and found my publication opportunities pretty much limited to VERY small literary magazines, and not many of those, at that. That was my first encounter with reader/editor rejection based on what one might call “popular form preconception.”

Then, after I began to write science fiction, I was just trying to tell a story. This was in the post-pulp, “Golden Age,” pre-New Wave (or whatever) where authors just wrote… or so I thought. Most of what was printed back then was presented in straight-forward narrative, usually in third person past tense with predominantly male protagonists… and, although there were a few exceptions (very few), most SF novels had vaguely similar structures, and everyone reading SF “knew” what a novel was. Except what I was writing was on the fringe of that conception, and I was rejected by every major F&SF house until one enterprising editor [David Hartwell] decided to buy my work, first for one start-up ][Timescape] and then, after Timescape was folded, for Tor.

Those days are long gone, for which I’m thankful, but most readers, from what I’ve seen, have a subconscious idea or model of what they think a novel should be, and many of them tend to be disappointed when a favorite author departs from the model or type of novel that first hooked that reader. That’s one of the reasons why many newer writers use different pen names when they write different kinds of books. It’s why I have readers who only read my fantasy or my SF, although there are many who read both.

What I don’t understand, and probably never will, is why some readers keep buying the work of authors they seemingly don’t like because the author doesn’t fit their mental model… and then complain about it. I try quite a number of authors who write well, but whose approach or style don’t click with me. That’s fine. I’ve tried them, and unless it’s clear that a later work is very different, I probably won’t try them again, but I don’t badmouth them because they’re not to my taste. And even if their approach is, and they do it badly, in my opinion, I still don’t. I’d rather talk about the books that intrigued me.

Today, especially with Indie publishing, the range of what’s being published is wider than it’s ever been… and there should be authors out there who appeal to readers with different views of what a novel is and should be.

The Sacred “Me”

Right now, it seems as though not a day passes before there’s not another news story about some form of protest against wearing a mask. A number of people have been shot, and some have been killed, for asking or requiring others to wear masks.

Shooting someone who’s trying to stop the spread of Covid-19?

It doesn’t make sense. First, requiring a mask doesn’t endanger your health, nor is it a significant restriction on personal freedom. Second, legally, public health proscriptions are indeed constitutional. And third, if you’re caught, you’re going to spend a number of years incarcerated.

The so-called “freedom” not to wear a mask is a declaration that non-mask-wearer has the right to infect others, some of whom will get ill, possibly seriously, and some possibly fatally. But some individuals have declared that the vulnerable should just lock themselves up until a “solution” is found.

There are several problems with that assertion. First, while we know certain groups of people are vulnerable, there are still significant numbers of deaths and longer-term health effects among people not thought to be vulnerable. Second, as I’ve noted before, in many professions, from 20% to as many as 35% of those professionals are in the vulnerable category. Potentially endangering even a fifth of a range of professionals, whether teachers, doctors, nurses, or others, is going to harm them and those who need their services. Third, failure to wear masks by even a fifth of the population will prolong the epidemic. Fourth, a longer pandemic will penalize the vulnerable economically and socially, and in fact, will penalize society as a whole.

In the end, any individual who asserts his or her “freedom” not to wear a mask is declaring that he or she has the right to harm others through such “freedom.” That’s not freedom, it’s extraordinary narcissism masquerading as freedom… but what can we expect when the President continues to set an extreme example of narcissism at the highest levels?

Money, Technology…and the Complexity Problem

The other day, I realized that I needed to change some details on a bank account and to switch to another class of account. While the representatives with whom I talked were knowledgeable and helpful, the process took close to two hours. Why? Because of the combination of federal regulatory and bank/federal security requirements, even though I’ve been a customer for more than thirty years. They could not legally use the information on file. Every bit had to be re-verified, and I had to listen to several federally required disclosures.

What’s interesting about this is that it takes far less time to open a new account than to make changes to, or close, an existing account.

I understand the need for such precautions, and, unfortunately, they’re necessary, in today’s modern economy, where bank accounts can be hacked and identities stolen. But it’s essentially a “modern” problem. Too many people have no realization that the first true credit card wasn’t issued until 1958 [although that’s in the dark ages for most people].

The simple fact was that, if someone wanted to buy something, they had to pay cash for it. Banking was strictly local. There were essentially only three types of financial crimes, high-level stock and financial swindles, embezzlement, and bank robberies. The growth of commercial credit, amortized mortgages, and, finally, the internet changed everything… because the user convenience and availability also increased access for criminals, with the result that the FTC estimates financial crimes in the U.S. cost the victims $50 billion annually.

And that’s despite all the security systems and procedures.

The bottom line is that when a society gets wealthier and technology improves, there’s more to steal and more ways for criminals to do so, and that means that simple matters like changing accounts become far more complex and time-consuming…and that requires more time and effort.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that improved technology results in my having less and less free time and being required to deal with more and more minutiae every year.

Exactly What Was That All About?

The other day I read a “guest” editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune, a moderately liberal paper that’s won a lot of awards for journalism. The editorial was fairly well-written, but I had no idea what the point was, unless the “editorial” was just an expression of frustration and rage (about which I earlier blogged), but all I could figure out was that the writer was clearly unhappy about the conduct of one of the members of the Salt Lake School Board. Even after reading the editorial three times, the only point I could discover was that the writer was upset at the perceived patronizing attitude of the school board member. I had no idea whatsoever what issue was under discussion (and with all the Covid-19 school and teaching related issues, I’ve been following the news in those areas closely). Nor could I determine who had what position and why.

Now, I’ve taught, and I’ve also had a number of children in very different school systems over the years. In all those years, I’ve seen dedicated and knowledgeable educational professionals at every level. I’ve also seen arrogant and patronizing buffoons. I’ve not only seen parents with more knowledge and understanding than the teachers they’re addressing, but also parents who are opinionated, ignorant idiots who just want things their way.

So why did the paper print what amounted to a non-specific rant, with no supporting facts, except for the fact that the school board member replied with a six page letter that the writer didn’t appreciate [because the writer saw it as patronizing], and not even a hint of what the issue was.

I have no idea why it was printed, only that it shouldn’t have been printed in the form in which it was presented. Disagreement is certainly part of life and news, but unless a reader was actually at the meeting and read the written response, I’d defy anyone to decipher what was going on, and even then they might have trouble.

While this was an extreme example, I’ve seen way too much of this kind of editorializing over the past few years, where very angry people assume that everyone knows what their issue is and the basis for their anger. Guess what? Even well informed and educated individuals may not, and, even if they do, they may have reasons for not agreeing, but they certainly can’t support such anger if they don’t know what to support, and many will tend to make up their minds about the writer based on that anger, rather than the facts.

But, of course, that’s what some political figures want… and it’s a very bad example of leadership.