Archive for September, 2020

Hidden Agendas

I don’t use Siri, that helpful aide on my I-phone. In fact, I’ve never even enabled Siri. Nor do I use Cortana, the aide on my Microsoft Surface Pro. I don’t have Alexa, either. Despite the fact that each of these “helpful” digital aides were created and manufactured by different corporate behemoths, they all share one characteristic.

And, no… it’s not that they can be as frustrating as they are helpful, not that I’ve experienced such, but I’ve certainly witnessed others fume while trying to use such devices.

What’s most insidious – and depressing – is that they all arrive on your device programmed to perpetuate a sexist stereotype. They’re all devices that, at least in theory, must obey their “master,” and they’re initially programmed with female voices. I’m certainly not an extreme and radical feminist, and I’m probably slow to come to this conclusion, largely because I don’t use any of them, but I find it troubling that “subservient” devices are programmed with clearly feminine voices – not male voices, not androgynous voices, but women’s voices.

Whether intentional or not, whether it’s a marketing decision or not, the use of women’s voices for such electronic “servers” is a continuation of the cultural assumption that all matters dealing with the home or subservient clerical tasks are “women’s work.”

I read widely and voraciously, and I only recently came across a reference to this (in the latest issue of Science), although Siri, Cortana, and Alexa certainly aren’t new, but the fact that the use of the female voice as a subconscious indicator of subservience is so widespread and so unremarked indicates to me exactly why women are still fighting for equal rights and treatment in so many areas. In a very real sense, every use of Alexa, Cortana, or Siri reinforces a cultural stereotype of women’s roles as subservient.


The latest phase of the coronavirus pandemic is just beginning, and it’s becoming very obvious here in whitebread Utah. The case numbers have skyrocketed in the last week with the total number of cases the past week increasing by nearly 50% over the previous week, and setting a new daily high of nearly 1,200 cases yesterday. Why? Because students have gone back to college and they’re tired of being cooped up, and all sorts of “underground” parties are taking place.

The most blatant example of this occurred in the Provo, Utah, area, home of BYU and Utah Valley University, the two largest universities in the state, with a combined enrollment of over 85,000. There, a company founded and incorporated by two young entrepreneurs has hosted a number of massive dance parties, and, predictably, the majority of the coronavirus cases has come from this area. Oh… and the company’s name is “Young and Dumb.” [I’m not kidding.]

In a way, all of this is incredibly predictable, for a number of reasons. First, fatal and/or serious cases of coronavirus are exceedingly rare among the college-age group, roughly ½ of one percent. Admittedly, those few who do get Covid-19 in that age group are in for a very rough time. But most who are infected likely won’t even show symptoms, and most of them know this. Second, pretty much the majority of Americans under 40 with any amount of college education have been coddled, showered with praise and told they’re wonderful in an educational system that, in general, has been dumbed down over the last fifty years. Their concept of applied social responsibility (i.e., actually doing something) only exists in so far as it extends to their in-group, if that. Many of them have no real concept of fiscal responsibility, and the concept of really hard work is foreign to the majority. Plus, a significant percentage have real contempt for their elders.

So why not party? They’re not the ones who will get hurt by spreading the disease. And that’s what’s happened here in Utah and in more than a few other locales.

But don’t blame them. How do you think they got that way?

They got that way because most parents didn’t want them to fail or have their feelings hurt. They got that way because most parents wanted their darlings to do well in school, and the public education system, in general, has been dumbed down. They got that way because we’ve eliminated the worst of immediate consequences for bad choices from their young lives. They got that way because there’s no requirement for public service [like a drafted military or required peace corps or the like].

And when they bring home the coronavirus, just remember who raised them… and how. [By the way, I’m from the so-called silent generation, and my offspring were raised old-style.]

It’s called payback… or karma.

Thin-Skinned and Angry

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, all societies and all religions have faults. Now, for too many privileged individuals in any society, what this translates to is that every society and every faith but theirs has faults… and too many individuals take great offense when someone, especially an author, points out those flaws.

I do my best to be even-handed about this, pointing out the flaws and foibles on all sides. So far, my writing about faith and society in F&SF societies in cultures or worlds that aren’t our own or in a future or alternative Earth that’s markedly different usually hasn’t created too many outraged readers, but I have to say that I’m getting worried.

I see authors who portray traditional ( i.e., western European post-Victorian) social and sexual mores in their work being called out and labeled as unwilling to embrace diversity, but I also see them attacking writers and critics with a more liberal, PC, pan-sexual, and diverse outlook. I see publications and awards effectively ignoring writers whose views and works aren’t “flavour du jour,” and while that has always been true, it seems to me that this is the first time in my life that this tendency has been so pronounced… and too often vitriolic

More important than that, though, is that it’s becoming almost impossible in the United States to point out factual problems in society that are counter to beliefs. I fully understand the outrage when an innocent and unarmed person of color is murdered by police, but I have great difficulty when a national movement makes martyrs out of petty criminals.

Yes, when police over-react, especially abusively, they should be subject to the full force of the law, particularly because they’ve abused a position of trust and authority. But petty criminals are still criminals, not martyrs, and abusive police officers are also criminals, not the untarnished blue line, no matter what the right-wing law and order crowd thinks. Yet each “side” seems to think that “their” lawbreaking is minor or necessary, and what the other side does is beyond the pale.

I have the same difficulty when right-wing Republicans make a deity out of a lying, cheating, real-estate con man who assaults women and who has habitually stiffed contractors and workers out of their earnings, and who denies that he’s mismanaged the entire Covid-19 pandemic… and that’s just for starters.

And the abuses of religion, all types of religion, have been legion over history, and on all continents, including North America, and those abuses continue, often violently, but heaven help the person who points out a particular religion’s abuses, particularly if the religion, cult, or sect isn’t Christian.

That’s why attempting to point out such facts in life, or in fiction, risks creating violent anger, and, if you’re not careful, especially with the far right or far left, bodily harm.

The Cubage Racket

I’ve used UPS to ship overnight or two-day packages for years… but not any longer, not after a rather “interesting” encounter.

My wife the professor, who’s been overwhelmed by the combination of the university term beginning, complying with all the additional procedures and necessities as a result of Covid-19 and the additional problems of a university insisting on transitioning from a semester system to a trimester system at the same time, asked if I’d take care of shipping a few small presents to a daughter-in-law for her birthday.

I made the mistake of deciding to send them in a modest sized box – 12x12x9, inches, that is – with some light-weight padding as insurance against breakage, filled out my shipping label, since I have a UPS account, then took the package to the UPS office, which verified the weight as two pounds. Except that when I got the bill, the total shipping cost was for one hundred dollars. Because the package was so light, UPS charged me for the size of the package, not the weight, and that didn’t make any sense to me, either. I’ve sent ten pound manuscripts to the same area for $55, but even after I protested UPS was absolutely firm – one hundred dollars, sucker. I can see a modest surcharge, but a $60 surcharge?

And it’s not that UPS is hurting because of Covid-19. In fact, UPS has never been busier, but apparently with that surge have come more charges and more and more packages damaged in transit, most likely because UPS is overloading its existing work force.

At the same time, the current administration is trying to hamstring the U.S. Postal Service, which, had I known and thought better, I could have used to send the package priority mail for a fifth the cost of UPS, and it only would have taken one day longer.

But the USPS remains hamstrung by a pricing model that’s totally senseless, whereby mail-order businesses can print and mail millions of catalogues, the majority of which are discarded unread, a huge subsidy to such businesses, while not having enough revenue to cover costs.

Because we live in a university town in the middle of beautiful but sparsely populated lands, we do a fair amount of catalogue/online shopping, but we’ve seldom if ever found any of the unsolicited catalogues of any value, and I’m putting 20 plus pounds of unread catalogues into recycling every week. As I’ve pointed out before, if that kind of marketing is cost-effective, it’s only because taxpayers and first class mailers are subsidizing it.

Because of the business and package-mailer subsidies, and the failure of Congress to make up the revenue losses caused by such subsidies, USPS revenues are inadequate for the tasks required of it and mail-handling is slowing… but USPS can certainly deliver Amazon packages on Sunday. At the same time, alternative transmission systems, like UPS and FedEx are increasing rates for rapid-delivery services, both directly [and indirectly, as I just discovered].

And who’s going to end up paying most of the increased costs, one way or another? Everyone but business.

Cost-Effective Incompetence?

In this time of Covid-19, I suspect more than a few of us are ordering items for delivery. In order to be able to get better ventilation while teaching singing, my wife the voice professor needed two enormous floor fans. Since there were no such fans to be had in Cedar City, she ordered them. Given their size, I was the designated assembler.

The first fan arrived. I got everything out of the battered and enormous cardboard box, and tried to make sense of the directions. It soon dawned on me that two critical parts were missing, one of them the lower support for the fan. How it vanished from the box I have no idea, but considering that it was a steel tube nearly three feet long, I definitely couldn’t have misplaced it. So everything went back in the box, and I carted it (literally, since the box declared it was a “two person lift) to the SUV, levered it inside, and drove to Home Depot to return it. That took over an hour, and I reordered the same model (they couldn’t just replace it; they had to refund the money, and then order another new one), which wouldn’t arrive for a week.

In the meantime, fan number two arrived, just slightly smaller. I got the base and fan assembly together, despite the instructions, which insisted that I place the high tension spring inside a tube that was smaller than the spring itself, but when it came to attaching the fan motor assembly to the support structure, I ran into a “small” problem. The support bolt was round on one end and was to be secured in place by a hexagonal nut, which fit into a hexagonal hole. The problem was that to tighten the bolt meant tightening the round end of the support bolt. Even with channel lock pliers, I never could fully tighten it, despite gouging the metal of the bolt head. What idiot designed the end of the bolt that had to be tightened as round? I did manage to get it assembled and working, but I had to set the fan higher because the motor assembly drooped slightly.

Then the replacement for fan number one arrived, with all the parts. Once again, the directions were less than clear. There was no mention of where the support spring went, or the bolt cover assembly, but the biggest problem was that the diagram for the fan motor assembly was printed in faint gray ink on shiny paper. Now, although my vision is about 20/25, the only way I could read the directions was under high illumination with a magnifying glass. But I did get it together, and so far it’s working well.

These are certainly not the only problems I’ve run across in goods requiring assembly, but a little more competence in directions would be useful. And, of course, it’s unlikely that my recently acquired expertise in fan assembly will be of much use when the next item of a different type arrives with similarly inadequate directions.

Low Minimum Wage = Business Welfare

In 1968, the average annual poverty income level ($3,410) for a family of four was almost exactly what a minimum wage worker could earn in a year of full time work. Today, given inflation, the average annual poverty level for a family of four is $26,200, but a worker receiving the federal minimum wage working full time for a year only makes only $15,000, 43% below the poverty line.

For the last forty years, or since the beginning of the Reagan administration, Republicans and businesses have opposed raising the minimum wage, claiming that it hurt business and the economy. In truth, raising the minimum wage does hurt certain businesses, often small businesses, but that should never have been the question. The first question should have been whether it was fair to penalize workers on the edge of poverty to keep marginal businesses going. Supposedly, the idea behind the minimum wage was to keep business from taking advantage of poor workers.

Now… when minimum wage workers can’t make enough to live on, what happens? They suffer, and so do their families…and they start applying for federal and state benefits. Those benefits are paid for by taxpayers, in effect subsidizing the various businesses benefitting from paying lower wages. The use of part-time workers, who don’t make as much and don’t get benefits provides an even greater indirect subsidy to those businesses.

Those indirect subsidies aren’t primarily paid by corporations, but by individual taxpayers, including the higher paid employees at those businesses, which is another revenue stream to support this indirect business subsidy.

The second question is what is the overall economic effect of keeping the minimum wage low. Because salaried wages are to some degree pegged to the minimum wage, especially those of workers paid by the hour, this depresses wage levels compared to prices. Combined with the loss of purchasing power by minimum wage workers, the result is that a significant proportion of workers have less and less money to spend. Add to that the fact that the lower a family’s income is, the greater the percentage that’s spent. Tht means that when lower-paid workers have more money, the economy benefits more than when those funds are hoarded in corporate coffers. Because the U.S. is essentially a consumer-driven economy, people buy less and the rate of economic growth slows.

A comparison of the minimum wage to the poverty level indicates an overall trend that, on the average, there has been more economic growth when the minimum wage is closer to the poverty level and that growth rates have generally declined as the minimum wage was frozen and costs-of-living have increased.

It’s simple. When people don’t have enough money they can’t buy things. Moreover, when the government is providing a greater share of the income of underpaid workers, because they can’t earn it, not only can’t people buy as much, but the deficit also grows, the indirect subsidy to business gets greater, and economic growth slows.

And, in a way, keeping the minimum wage below the cost of living is essentially a form of fascism, supporting business through government intervention.

Future Publishing?

Over the last several years, I’ve certainly read and heard a great deal of speculation about the future of publishing and books. When ebooks were first introduced, some viewed them as a trendy but short-lived novelty, while others felt that they’d dominate the entire industry. Only a few old-time industry professionals and not many more of the newcomers foresaw the way the market has sorted itself out.

One aspect of publishing that’s overlooked is that that the non-fiction and fiction markets are very different, even though most major publishers handle both. So, if you look at overall publishing revenue, print books outsell ebooks almost four to one, but those figures don’t break out non-fiction from fiction (at least the figures I can easily find) and they don’t include the full impact of independent authors self-publishing, which is largely e-publishing. Non-fiction also tends to sell a higher percentage of print books, as opposed to ebooks, and much of the printed non-fiction sells for higher prices than fiction. So aggregated revenue figures tend to misrepresent the market.

One of the more interesting statistics I ran across was that in 2019 ebook sales comprised 18% of the total book market by revenue generated, but 36% of the number of books sold, and that 36% number tracks fairly closely to my unit sales figures – excepting audiobooks.

Not surprisingly, sales of mass market paperbacks for most authors have declined precipitously. Regardless of all the rhetoric, for most authors mass-market paperback sales have declined to a third or less of what they were twenty years ago, and that assumes that a traditional publisher will even print mass-market paperbacks for midlist (or lower) authors.

Right now, unless there’s major shift in the economics of publishing, mass market paperbacks are on the way out for most authors. Only million-copy sellers are likely to be published in mass market paperback within a decade, if not sooner. Hardcover volume for fiction seems likely hover in the same range and may even increase slightly for non-fiction.

My personal belief, backed by no statistics, is that the number of self-published “indie” authors will taper off and only track future growth of the fiction-reading public, for several reasons. First, while indie authors get a much larger percentage of sales revenue, readers expect “indie” books to be cheaper (with the growth of indie sales, some readers also expect ebooks published by traditional publishing firms to be cheaper, which I don’t see happening, except for promotional events). Second, most indie authors sell fewer copies per book. That means writing more books per year. That’s damned hard, especially if an author wants to maintain any quality, and if the author outsources editing, that adds to costs.

The other factor is that ebooks can be easily pirated, and I don’t care what anyone says or what any studies purport to show, piracy cuts revenue to authors. The drop in mass-market paperback sales has in no way been compensated for by a corresponding and equal growth in ebook revenues.

So, however it turns out, I don’t see authors or publishers getting any great windfalls from ebooks.

Comment Translations

Every once in a while, I read comments by readers, which my wife insists I shouldn’t, but, because I’m a glutton of sorts for punishment, I do. The words on the left are what the reader wrote. My translation, based on the rest of their comments, follows on the right. I will also add that such reader comments were comparatively rare… but this is my way of suggesting that some few readers are, shall we say… less than perceptive. I say that, because it should be obvious from all the years of writing and comments that, while I do have a fair amount of action, especially in some books, I don’t write action for the sake of action. I write action scenes as a result of what people think, desire, and feel.

Boring: It doesn’t have a fight, murder, battle, or explicit sex in every chapter.

Repetitive: The protagonist actually has a job and responsibilities.

Anticlimactic: No battles or deaths to end the book.

Too much military detail: Forget about logistics, training, and discipline; get on with the slaughter.

Marginal excitement: Not enough battles.

Uninspired: The protagonist succeeded as he planned.

Poor Ending: It has a happy ending.

Pedantic: There’s actually explanation.

Too much political intrigue: Wanted more action

Tedious: Too much detail.

Bland: Too subtle.

Too PC: Women are actually people in the book, and men are portrayed accurately.

Needs editing: Cut out the details and get on with the action.

Disappointing: Not enough action.

Now… those are my translations… and they’re obviously somewhat subjective, but occasionally writers get to be subjective about readers, rather than the other way around.