Archive for December, 2020

Wake-Up Call

Trump’s latest actions, and the Congressional reaction, show, again, the need for greater responsibility, and reform, in Congress.

Trump went off to sulk and play golf, addressing the possible government shut-down and the Covid relief bill, at almost the last possible moment, after a great deal of rhetoric and no action for weeks, a lack of action that harmed a great number of Americans. Then there was his rash of pardons, largely not for people punished unjustly, but for individuals justly convicted, often of offenses committed in getting him elected in 2016, to which Congress offered no reaction.

Now… Congress in fact should have recognized that leaving matters not to just the last minutes, but effectively the last seconds, of this session has put both the Congress and the American people in an incredibly difficult position. A major part of the problem also lies with the American people, most of whom have willingly and often enthusiastically sorted themselves into separate tribes, each of which fervently believes that only it is correct and that the other tribe is knowingly pursuing an evil course.

Polarizations this violent have too often escalated into violence and bloody war, as in the cases of the American Civil War and the conflict between the followers of Martin Luther and those who backed the Catholic Church – a conflict that killed almost a third of the population of Germany over the course of a century or so. Both these conflicts, as well as others, resulted from the unyielding anger and polarization of beliefs on each side.

While sometimes there is indeed true evil in a belief, as in Nazism, the one thing I am certain of is that no group, religion, or political party represents unalloyed good. In the case of U.S. politics, I’ve been around long enough and involved enough in politics to have seen that neither party is that “good” or that “evil.” Both occasionally have good ideas, and both more often try to carry matters to extremes, sure of their own virtue, and neither recognizes that extremes and absolutes are never virtuous… and that their own extreme “virtues” can often be as bad as the other parties “evils.”

And, so far, neither one has been able to recognize that. That recognition is long overdue, and if it does not occur, matters will escalate into greater and greater social unrest and violence.

Lost Words from Yesterday

When Ben Bova died a few weeks ago, I got to thinking about my various interactions with Ben, as I suspect many of us do when we lose someone who made a difference in our lives. Ben was my editor for two different publications, one being ANALOG, but the other being Omni online, which, as I recall, only lasted as an online publication for a little over a year roughly in the 1995-97 time period, at least as I recall.

When Ben was editor of the online version, he reached out to me, not for stories, but for several columns dealing with future economics and politics. One was on the economics of interstellar trade. But I have no idea what I wrote because, right after the online Omni shut down, a victim of being established far too early when the market wasn’t ready for an online magazine, my writing computer fried itself. Now, I’d backed up all of my fiction, but not those columns. I’d gotten paid for them, but I didn’t even have a subscription to the publication, and, in fact, I actually have no idea whether all or any of the columns (two or three) were even published, only that I got paid. If I printed out those columns, the print copies have long since vanished or have been swallowed up in my back papers.

With a bit of diligence I did find the table of contents of all of the print copies of Omni, but nothing relating to the online version. This, I suspect, is going to be more and more of a problem in years to come. With paper copies, there’s at least a chance of tracking down something, but purely electronic data can be incredibly ephemeral, even when it’s theoretically “saved,” especially if there’s no documentation or no devices left to “read” that data.

On the one hand, I’d like to dig those old columns up, or at least the record of their existence, but on the other… do I really want to know what I spouted forth in economic terms some 25 years ago?

The “Hype” Problem

Last weekend, in the third quarter of a game where his team was losing 28-7, a fifth year senior quarterback [third string, because the second stringer was out with an injury] took over for the touted first-string quarterback of the University of Utah. The replacement quarterback, who had been a walk-on, several years earlier, had never taken a single snap in a game. It was his last college game, and in a calm and collected way, he turned the game around and led the Utes to thirty-eight unanswered points and victory. He didn’t make any truly sensational passes; he just ran a good team professionally and successfully, unlike the first string quarterback, who has completed an incredibly uneven year, combining miraculous throws with bonehead decisions.

Why didn’t anyone give the third-stringer a chance any earlier?

I don’t know, but I’d guess it’s because he doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, isn’t a sprinter, and he wasn’t “hyped” in high school. Mostly that he wasn’t hyped.

This problem isn’t limited to college football. It happens in many fields, where all the attention focuses on someone with charisma, or some flashy special skill, and others, who are far more capable, overall, tend to be overlooked.

Every week I read about new authors who are supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, or the next great genius of the written word, and yet, by next year, most have vanished or are slowly fading, to disappear several years hence when their third book cannot earn out, while other authors, ignored by the hypesters, produce works that continue to sell. I’ve also been in the field long enough to observe that almost none of the works of those hyped and vanished authors ever turn up as “forgotten masterpieces.” Yet, James Oliver Rigney, Jr., more popularly known as Robert Jordan, who created the Wheel of Time series [which has sold more than 14 million copies and redefined fantasy in the process] won no major awards in the field, except one, that one seven years after his death.

This is nothing new. Vincent Van Gogh sold exactly one painting in his lifetime, but today his works are worth millions, while the “big names” of that time, such as Ludwig Knaus or Eduardo Zabala, have faded from view and their works don’t even sell, or sell for a few hundred dollars. Very few people even knew of Franz Kafka until after he died, and Edgar Allan Poe never made enough money to support himself.

Then, and now, it’s often all about hype, but hype is overrated all too many times and seldom has staying power.


Sociologists classify the population in a society in various ways, including by income level, class, or education level. But I’d like to suggest another system of classification, by competence. Over the years, I’ve observed that only a small percentage of individuals are highly competent in their field, followed by a larger percentage that are moderately competent, with the next grouping being marginally competent, followed by those who are incompetent, and, finally, those who are actively and dangerously incompetent.

While such a classification might be idealistically pleasing, in practice, it’s impossible to implement. Where does one place the brilliant surgeon who is incompetent in human relations? Or the politician who is extraordinary in gathering votes, and a total disaster in governing? And why is it that so many people are a mixture of various levels of competences in different areas?

One of the problems that humans have is that all too many people who are very successful, and competent, in one area think they’re equally competent in everything, that they are, quoting someone known to all, “stable geniuses” in everything. There are people like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin who excel in more than one field, but even Jefferson was totally incompetent in managing his money.

Add to that the fact that studies have shown, time after time, that people overestimate their own competence, and what’s worse is that, in general, the less competent people are, the more likely they are to overestimate their competence.

I think I’m pretty well-rounded, but no one should ever let me mess with the inside of any engine, or any form of plumbing besides, possibly, the inside of a toilet tank. Nor do I know squat about computer coding, but at least time has made it clear to me that I have definite limitations. Yet we’ve all seen doctors and scientists who are competent, if not excellent, in their fields, carry that assumption of excellence to fields where they know far less, usually with poor results.

Then, there are the people who are incompetent because they really don’t care, like the medical technicians who lose messages or scramble records, the bank employees who take forever to process simple deposits, the education administrators who are more interested in test results and appearances than actual student accomplishment, the tree surgeons who never show up for appointments, the supervisors who change long-scheduled assignments or meetings for their convenience, thereby disrupting dozens of other professionals’ schedules and work… (and that list is far too long for a blog).

There are also those who suffer spells of drastic incompetence because they don’t pay attention to what they’re supposed to be doing, like the driver who was texting and drove into a transformer box and knocked out power for a third of the university, or the hundreds of driving texters who have killed or injured others, the train engineer who lost track of where his train was and entered a curve at too high a speed,

The other problem with competence, or lack thereof, is that we live in a fairly high-tech society, and technology magnifies everything, including incompetence. That’s one of the reasons why automobiles have ever more sophisticated safety-features. You can mess up enough to kill yourself in mishandling a horse, but it takes great effort to do more than that. On the other hand, a single small mistake at high-speed in a modern SUV can wipe out all your passengers, several other vehicles and block an interstate for hours, causing all sorts of subsidiary accidents and additional injuries.

All of which suggests that we’re doomed to endure incompetence in various forms, including our own

Weather Forecasts

Over my lifetime, weather forecasts have, in general, reached the point where they are accurate enough that they actually can be useful – except all too often in Cedar City, Utah, which is where we live.

On Monday morning, the weather forecasts from the major networks said that the snowstorm that had hit northern Utah was moving out to the east and that no storms were forecast in southwest Utah for the next several days. Roughly, an hour passed before it began snowing. Four hours later, it was still snowing, and there were at least three inches of snow on the ground. The snow flurries that followed lasted until dark.

This was hardly an isolated occurrence.

Now, I don’t blame the forecasters. Cedar City is a college town of roughly 40,000 people and is scarcely a population center or a media market on which forecasters might focus more expertise. There’s also the fact that its geographical location makes accurate forecasting a bitch. The town is located twenty miles north of Black Ridge, and the south side of Black Ridge drops almost 3,000 feet in roughly four miles, and another 1,000 feet over the next twenty. The east side of town literally climbs partway up red hills and cliffs that are the lower part of mountains that rise another 4,000 feet.

Cedar City is also known for its winds – strong and frequent. There’s a local saying about the town – that the Mormon settlers only stopped here until the wind died down, only to discover it never did. I’ve personally seen, and weathered, winds here that ripped the shingles off houses, and in one case peeled the vinyl siding right off the west side of a dwelling. We’re not talking tornadoes or hurricanes, just wind, Cedar City style.

And the weather can be freakishly weird – like the fifteen inches of snow we got on Mother’s Day weekend six years ago – incidentally also unforecast. We’ve often gotten a foot of snow in early September, and then sweltered through 80 degree weather for a month afterward.

And that’s why, while forecasts are useful most of the time, here in Cedar City, you still have to be wary about the weather.

Cowardly or Stupid?

Or unprincipled, lying, and hypocritical? Or all five? In case you haven’t guessed, I’m referring to all the Republicans lining up behind Trump’s claims of victory and election fraud on the part of Democrats, although Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security announced that the election was the most secure ever, and state after state has affirmed the same.

One of the latest of the sixty-odd frivolous lawsuits was filed by the Texas State Attorney General (who, by the way, has been charged with securities fraud and just might be hoping for a Trump pardon in return for filing the lawsuit). The Texas lawsuit claimed that election law changes in four states — Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania — which allowed more alternative ways to vote, violated existing law by essentially making it easier for citizens to cast their ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the lawsuit, and that dismissal vote included three justices appointed by Trump.

Not only did Republican attorneys general from 17 states sign on to the lawsuit, but so did 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives, which raises another question. How can a ballot be fraudulent at the top and not at the bottom? If Biden’s election was fraudulent because of the process, how can their election not also be fraudulent?

The Trumpist Republican Attorney General here in Utah signed onto the Texas lawsuit without consulting either the Republican Governor or Lieutenant Governor, both of whom immediately denounced his action. His action was also hypocritical because Utah has had universal mail-in voting for the last two elections, and there’s never been a problem with fraud.

While Trump is stirring up those voters, the fact is that they’re easy to stir up, and that’s why so many Republican politicians don’t want to stand up against Trump’s claims. Most of those Republicans who have stated that the process was fair and without fraud have been subjected to threats, often death threats. So have quite a few electors.

Depending on the poll and the wording, between sixty and seventy percent of Republican voters think the election was “illegitimate.” What this means is that Republicans don’t like democracy or democratic processes when they don’t win. This isn’t a supposition; it’s fact. For last decade, if not longer, Republicans have been working methodically on the state level to restrict voting access to people who are less likely to vote Republican, including reducing the number of polling places in minority districts and “purging” voter registration records in minority districts, even removing the names of people who voted in the previous election and who didn’t die or move.

The United States was founded on the idea of equal opportunity, limited at first just to white males, but over the more than two centuries since its founding, we’ve legally determined that the votes of everyone born here or naturalized as a citizen are equal. Now, because Trump lost the election, Trump has decided that the votes in just certain states or certain parts of those states shouldn’t be counted because he says there was fraud – fraud that no Republican, or anyone else, has been able to prove… or even come up with a shred of verifiable evidence.

That hasn’t stopped Trump or the majority of Republican federal office holders from trying to use the courts to change the election results, something that has never happened before in our history. Why do these Republicans support an attempt at a de facto coup?

Pure and simple, they’re putting their political survival above the national interest, and they seem certain that their supporters won’t call them on it. Unhappily, all the polls and most of the Republican reaction seems to indicate that an attempted coup is all right with the majority of Republicans.

What’s also so sad and amusing about it is that if they all said to Trump, “You lost,” Trump wouldn’t have any power at all because he’d exhaust both his funds and public patience if he tried to attack them all.

So… all of those Republican politicians and officeholders who refuse to tell Trump the truth are either indeed cowardly, stupid, self-centered, unprincipled, or hypocritical, if not all of those… and the voters who support them are at the least stupid or totally ignorant… and if they aren’t stupid or ignorant, then they’re self-centered, unprincipled, and hypocritical.

Unless, of course, that they honestly believe that a right-wing dictatorship is preferable to an elected moderate President.

The Evil Empire?

As most of my readers know, as a writer I don’t quite fit into any stereotype. My books get published through the traditional system [otherwise considered as equivalent to the “evil empire” or the dark side by some “indie” authors], but what I write doesn’t quite fit into any neat pigeonhole, at least not if one reads it carefully. I don’t have an agent and never had. But I spent almost twenty years in jobs requiring suits, and sometimes three-piece suits at that.

Before that, after college, I started out as a conventional naval officer – technically, a line officer – but quickly decided that it wasn’t for me. So I qualified to be considered for either SEAL training [I figured more than ten years of competitive swimming couldn’t hurt] or flight duty. When I saw all the running that the SEALs did, however, and considered the fact that I have short legs and small feet and that they were always running through sand, I opted for flight training, in the middle of the Vietnam War, giving up relatively safe duty for something that was anything but safe. I ended up as a helicopter search and rescue pilot, flying off of carriers, and occasionally landing on tight places on cliff-tops.

Although I’d read science fiction from my early teens on, I didn’t even consider writing it until I was nearly thirty, after I’d spent fifteen years writing poetry that only got published in small literary magazines… when it got published at all. And it took twenty years after my first story was published before I could afford to become a full-time writer.

All of that is likely why I’m somewhat surprised by an attitude I’ve seen in a certain segment of F&SF writers, who quite vocally, or rather in print, are so disparaging of “traditional” publishing. Traditional publishing really shouldn’t be called that – it’s large-scale commercial publishing. So-called “traditional” publishers are interested in selling large numbers of copies of what they print. Given their systems and cost structures, they can’t afford to sell less than roughly 5,000 hardcovers of a novel [these figures may be out of date, but the basic point remains]. They may occasionally do so, for books that editors think are “special,” but that doesn’t happen often.

A generation ago, an author who couldn’t sell that many books had nowhere to go. Happily today, with the advent of small presses, print-on-demand, and even Amazon [ another evil empire], authors who sell below the unofficial cutoffs of traditional publishing can still publish and sell their work, always assuming that they have a body of readers. To make a decent living that way generally requires a great deal of work… and the ability to turn out several novels a year. Some authors, but not that many, I suspect, who publish this way do quite well. Every year a few are even “recruited” by traditional publishers. From what I’ve observed, some gladly accept, just as I’ve seen some traditionally published authors walk away because they found traditional publishing too confining.

Yet I see comment after comment talking about the evils of traditional publishing, and even forecasts of its coming collapse. I don’t see that happening. I do see an industry in the middle of massive change. The numbers of mass market paperbacks printed and sold, once the preferred reading material of F&SF readers, have shrunk to a fraction of former sales, largely replaced first by e-books, and more recently by audiobooks. Hardcover sales, on the other hand, so far seem to be holding up.

Some readers, of course, now bemoan the costs of e-books released by traditional publishers, which, after the first year of release, are priced roughly the same as mass market paperbacks. That bemoaning, I suspect, is because self-publishing “indie” authors offer their books at a lower price. That pricing gains them readers, but the author pays for it in another way. He or she also has to deal personally with the details for covers, publicity, editing, proofing, etc., or hire others to do so… or risk presenting a technically inferior package. In effect, those writers are trading off writing time for production time.

But unlike the evil empire of Star Wars, traditional publishing isn’t out to destroy “indie” or self-publishing authors. Those publishers, like everyone else, are trying to make money. For the author, it’s much more a question of which costs an author chooses or is forced to bear, the “tyranny” of the “evil empire” or the greed of the readers in the self-publishing market, but they do have an option besides traditional publishing, unlike writers of an earlier time.

Another Big Legal Loophole

As some readers of F&SF may have read, the Disney corporation is stiffing author Alan Dean Foster. According to Foster, Disney has not paid royalties since 2014 on Star Wars books that Foster wrote. Disney has not responded to his inquiries and claims, and, in fact, Disney’s attorneys won’t even discuss the matter with Foster unless he signs a non-disclosure agreement. Alan and his wife are in poor health, and it would certainly be helpful to have the royalty payments he’s owed.

All Disney has said is that they only bought the “properties,” but not any contractual liabilities associated with those properties. If this position is applied across the economy, any corporation could sell itself and all its holdings to another corporation and shed its liabilities, stiffing its creditors.

Now… from what I can determine, while corporation employees can at least bring payment problems to the Labor Department, the only recourse Foster or any author or independent contractor has for non-payment is a civil lawsuit. The problem with this “recourse” is that virtually all independent contractors lack the financial resources to afford the extensive legal costs required to sue a mega-corporation and, if they had the resources, it normally wouldn’t make sense financially to pursue such litigation.

The late Harlan Ellison pursued copyright violations with a vengeance, spending over $40,000, according to one report, just in going after internet pirates. He also sued publishers and CBS, among others, but most of those lawsuits were before media became mega-corporations. He once was hired by Disney as a writer, and was almost immediately fired by Roy Disney. Most writers and independent contractors have neither the time nor the funds to do the same… and they shouldn’t have to.

Equally to the point is that the legal precedents go far beyond Alan Dean Foster’s situation or the applicability to other authors. I certainly can’t find any federal criminal statute that applies to failure to pay independent contractors, and with the expansion of the “gig economy,” unless something is done legislatively, it’s quite possible that other mega-corporations will follow Disney’s example. In effect, corporations could fail to pay independent contractors, as Trump has done on more than a few occasions, or underpay them even more, almost with impunity. While I suspect this is already occurring in cases besides that of Alan Dean Foster, unless the law is changed, those occurrences are bound to increase… and it’s just another example of why government action is necessary to rein in the mega-corporations, because individuals can’t muster the power or the resources to obtain fair treatment.

“Socialist” Scare Tactics

With the election of Joe Biden as the next President, the right-wing scare-mongers have revved up their rants about how the “ultra-liberal” Democrats are going to impose “socialist” measures of all sorts on the United States.

Even if, unlikely as it is, the Democrats win both Georgia Senate seats, they’ll only have a one vote edge in the Senate and that includes two independents, one of whom is Angus King, who left the Democratic Party almost thirty years ago because it had become too liberal. Add to that Joe Manchin, who has consistently opposed almost all “liberal” Democratic positions.

Any legislation that has a chance of passing the next Congress is going to have to have bipartisan support in the Senate or be a small and incremental improvement on existing programs and laws. In addition, as President, Joe Biden will be limited in creating new initiatives through Executive Orders.

Trump was successful largely because the vast majority of his successes lay in destroying or limiting existing programs. While Biden could restore some environmental regulations, he will be very limited in creating new programs without Congressional approval, and he’s not going to get approval of anything even remotely close to what the right-wing scare-mongers are claiming and projecting.

Some of what he may be able to get is a statutory ban on using pre-existing medical conditions to deny health care insurance or to require higher premiums for such insurance. It’s conceivable he might be able to get an increase in the federal minimum wage, but is it all that radical to push for a minimum wage that’s higher that the present one – which is set at 60% of the poverty level? He might also be able to reinstate some air pollution regulations rolled back by Trump, which would be helpful in allowing people to breathe without greater damage to their lungs.

But there won’t be any “Green New Deal” or “Medicare for Everyone,” no matter what the scare-mongers claim. Even getting improvements in the Affordable Care Act, beyond a ban on pre-existing conditions, will be difficult.

The votes just aren’t there, just as the votes weren’t there for Trump to be reelected, but that apparently doesn’t matter to the far right, which is, again, busy creating an alternate political reality, rather than trying to fix the one we have…and the one in which all of us, including Trump, will have to live.

Scam Season

There are always scams and scammers, but one of the scams that’s taken off this year is one that, I have to say, really burns me, for several reasons. It’s not a scam that I would have guessed to be one of the “hot” scams of the season, but the fact that it is makes a very sad sort of sense.

What am I talking about? Puppy scams!

When we thought about getting another dog, we discovered that the internet is filled with fraudulent sites claiming to be reputable breeders/sellers, sites filled with pictures of adorable puppies. There’s also a site that deals with listing fraudulent sites called Petscam, and the numbers of such fraudulent sites are staggering. Because we have a fondness for dachshunds, I checked out the listing of fraudulent dachshund sites, and there were close to two hundred listed over the past two years [if I counted correctly]… just for dachshunds.

I checked out several of those sites, and while the pictures show healthy adorable puppies, the sites I looked at were short on specifics, such as addresses, references and other details that could be checked, and offered pure-bred dachshunds at well under the going rate [purebred dachshunds aren’t cheap!]. They also offer unnamed, nonexistent, and inexpensive “pet courier” services. Having had to transport a dog in the past, I certainly couldn’t find any courier that was reputable and inexpensive, and I suspect it’s even harder today.

Why are puppy scams up? I’d guess it’s because people are lonely, both children and adults. It’s been a long isolating year for most people, and puppies aren’t under quarantine. In addition, dogs are loyal at a time when loyalties have been strained for many people.

The internet has made scamming almost risk-free for scammers, and scammers always go for those who are vulnerable. Still, understandable as it may be why puppy scams are flourishing, and given that all scammers are lowlifes, I can’t find those who are engaging in this kind of scam anything but particularly despicable.