Archive for June, 2024

Behind the Numbers

In the latest edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, a reader wrote in asking why the Transportation Department was spending unnecessary federal funds and threatening to crack down on the airlines for abuse of “ancillary fees” when out of the millions of people who flew last year only 2,442 complained about those excessive fees.

This is yet another case of using irrelevant numbers to justify an abuse of power. Like millions of other travelers, for years I’ve resented having to pay extra to check a bag, to get a few inches more leg room, and in some cases, even having to pay extra to sit next to my wife. But did I complain to DOT?

Of course not, because I knew it would be futile. Even with DOT’s recent regulation requiring airlines to reveal all those extra fees, DOT doesn’t even have a mechanism for quantifying the complaints, let alone an accurate quantification of the cost of the fees.

So the fact that 2,442 passengers did complain only reveals that a small number were angry enough and had enough time to make a fruitless complaint. Also, the numbers are from last year, before DOT issued its ruling and provided a more open way to lodge a complaint. In addition, last year’s complaint numbers – and this year’s, when they become available – reveal little or nothing about the number of passengers inconvenienced or forced to pay additional fees at the last moment or for the total additional costs and aggravation imposed on airline passengers.

Another factor is that in a large number of cities and towns, there’s no effective competition. Take Cedar City. The only choice is Delta. In neighboring St. George (an hour drive, one way), we have American, Delta, and United, but there’s still no choice, because each of those airlines flies to radically different destinations.

Of course, since Aviation Week & Space Technology is an industry trade publication, there was no apparent comment by the magazine on the misleading figures. Now, I may have missed an article or two on the “ancillary fees” issue over the years, but I’ve been reading it since I was a Congressional staffer in the 1970s, and I don’t recall that much discussion about this issue. Even if I did miss such stories, allowing such a brazen misuse of numbers is poor journalism at best.

The other aspect of the letter that’s equally disturbing is the direct implication that neither the government nor the airlines should address problems unless lots of people complain. No reason to change unless people bitch, even if there’s no effective way to complain? And when there’s no real competition, more often than not? That’s just another example of corporate America at its worst.

The Housing Dilemma

For reasons of occupational necessity (jobs for lyric soprano opera directors/voice professors are rare), my wife and I moved to Cedar City in late 1993. At the time Cedar City had a population of a little under 14,000 people, while Iron County’s total population was 22,000. Today, Iron County’s population is 66,000 people, of whom 42,000 live in Cedar City, with an additional 9,000 people living in adjoining Enoch (which wasn’t even incorporated until 1996, and only had 2,000 people in 1993). In addition, the university, which had 3,500 students in 1993, now has an enrollment of 16,000.

When we arrived in 1993, we could see every house for sale in less than a day, and the pickings were slim. Every house we looked at was comparatively modest, and almost all the houses on the market were priced at less than $200,000. There were very few large houses, and fewer even on the market. We settled on the best existing house among those few we could afford… and then spent 20 years improving and adding to it.

Today, the average house for sale in Cedar City costs $400,000, up from roughly $114,000 in 1993. While $400,000 for a house sounds like a bargain to people from Colorado, California, and Las Vegas, and the lower cost draws retirees and others to build their “dream house,” all too many houses and even apartments are out of reach for most local young families, because Iron County has among the lowest average income of any county in Utah, roughly $36,000. And now, for the first time ever, we have a measurable population of the the homeless.

Yet now, we also have at least three “gated” communities with houses over a million dollars. Developers are building everywhere. The area around the university is filled with apartment complexes newly built for students, primarily because the university has only built two new student dorms over the past decade. And the formerly empty hills west and northeast of town are filled with mansions and mcmansions, largely occupied by immigrant retirees, while the flatlands that once held sheep and ranch and farm land hold newly-built cookie-cutter “average” houses that get inundated with every, if occasional, flash flood.

Cedar City has been discovered, but that discovery has been a mixed “blessing.”

The Reality Envelope

For better or worse, I read comments on my work by readers. I call them comments (although a tiny percentage are rants) because they usually reflect an emotional reaction rather than a deeply considered assessment. That’s fine with me because people largely buy books based on how they feel about them.

At the same time, I’m still surprised by some of the comments I read, where two readers of the same book (at roughly the same time) experience it so differently, one claiming it’s one of my best books, and the other declaring it’s the worst book they’ve ever read.

Sometimes, the reason for that discrepancy is obvious. When I write a book in the present tense, I don’t do it to be “literary” or pretentious. I do it because that brings a greater immediacy to the character and events and because I feel that’s the best way to tell the story. But I also know that a certain percentage of readers hate tales told in the present tense. That’s one reason why editors and agents are leery of books written that way, especially by new authors.

Another reason for differing reactions has to do with what I’d call the degree of mental openness of readers, and that openness – or lack of it – takes many forms. Although he was a brilliant attorney, my father never could get into what I wrote. His world view was circumscribed by cold hard reality. My mother was the one who understood and accepted change and other possibilities.

At the time I was first getting published, a majority of science fiction readers were male, and many of them were quite comfortable in accepting everything from faster than light speeds to time travel, conventions widely used, but still practically and theoretically impossible, but those readers were very skeptical about strong, well-rounded female characters. They were open to technological change but didn’t want to read about basic social change. In short, their enjoyment was restricted by the limits of what they could find socially/culturally acceptable.

Another aspect of why the same book gets differing reactions is because some readers conflate the behavior of a character with the author. If I write a character who is socially awkward in dealing with women, I get a percentage of readers who will say that I cannot write romance well. If I write a strong female character, certain readers will comment on the fact that I don’t understand women well. I’ve written several young women characters who embody characteristics of women I know, sometimes quite well, and been told that those characters are unrealistic because they’re not anything like the women the reader knows, i.e., my presentation conflicts with their reality envelope.

In general, most readers will accept fantastic technology and improbable magic systems set in economically and politically impossible societies more easily than a realistic portrayal of a society based on different cultural mores, which is something that all authors need to keep in mind.

Trust and Forced Trust

What most people fail to understand is that all working societies are based to a great degree on trust, but the type of “trust” varies from society to society, ranging from open and cooperative trust to forced trust.

In general, in authoritarian societies “trust” is based on fear and respect for power, the idea that if one doesn’t follow the rules, both those laid out in law and those enforced by those in power, those in power will either insure you follow the rules, willingly or not, or remove you from society in some fashion.

In the most democratic societies, trust is based primarily on shared values and the expectation that others will follow the rules, with a moderate policing system for those who refuse to follow the rules and a justice system to provide a check on that policing power.

Obviously, human societies cover a range between those extremes, although at present, the majority of nations tend to be either on the authoritarian side or extremely repressive authoritarian regimes.

That’s unfortunately understandable, because with the unrest and the comparatively rapid shifts in the ethnic/cultural mix within nations, large segments of the population in many nations don’t share the same values, or even the same language, and, while very few politicians or sociologists seem to want to talk about it, every language reflects and embodies a culture.

Among the reasons why the United States was initially successful was that the founding fathers shared a basic value system and language, and that those pressures also forced immigrants to adopt the English language and customs, which tended to reinforce those values, particularly in the non-slave states.

One of the seemingly unrecognized problems caused by slavery was that, in the slave-holding states, there were two conflicting value systems – the laws of the land and the values behind those laws and the absolutely authoritarian rule governing slaves, which also instilled a belief in both slaves and slave-holders that the most important value in life was not freedom, mutual trust, or cooperation, but power to compel others to obey, a mindset all too prevalent in the states of the old south.

What I see at present, both nationally and internationally, is growing distrust of those seen as “different,” combined with the absence of a desire to unite around a set of fundamental ethical/moral beliefs that the majority of people share or could share, and a growing desire to force those who are different to comply with the beliefs of those in power, while groups not in power compete to obtain power to use the government to enforce their beliefs.

And, as history so clearly shows, “forced trust” requires ever greater power and oppression to maintain itself.

The Consistent Liar

Even after being convicted of 34 counts of falsifying business records, Donald Trump is claiming he’s a victim of political persecution by a “weaponized” federal justice system, despite the fact that the case was brought by the state of New York and that there was no federal involvement whatsoever – except for the Secret Service agents guarding Trump.

But Trump’s no stranger to lies. The Washington Post followed and documented Trump’s false or misleading claims (otherwise known as lies) during his term as President, which totaled an incredible 30,573. What was more interesting was that the longer Trump was in office, the greater the number of daily lies.

For years Trump trumpeted a grossly exaggerated value of his real estate holdings, which is why he and the Trump corporation were found guilty of falsifying the value of properties in order to get more favorable terms from financial organizations.

Yet with this background and with all the furor about Trump’s conviction, the most striking aspect of the New York hush money case has been almost overlooked by the politicians and media.

That aspect? The case was all about lies Trump made to further his political career. He falsified business records to cover up paying a porn star not to go public about what amounted to a one-night-stand.

Whatever Trump does and wherever he goes, he spouts lies or grossly misleading statements, and the irony in the hush money case is that he wouldn’t have been in legal trouble if he’d told the truth or even if he’d simply not tried to pass off the payments as a business expense.

But Trump’s always played fast and loose with both the truth and other people’s money, and he continues to do, raising funds from political sources to pay off his legal expenses, while claiming that he’s a victim of political persecution.

The truth is that he’s finally the victim of his own lies, not that he or his supporters will ever see that, because it’s so much more satisfying playing the victim than acknowledging the massive array of lies and misleading statements.