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.

Incompetence

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.