Not So Fast!

A great many people in the United States feel that progress is an unmitigated good. I’d even agree that real progress is indeed good, BUT… these days so much of what is considered progress is either a commercial scam or someone putting out a product that’s really not progress at all… or a marginal improvement to an existing product or system, and all too often those “new” products that are really incremental improvements are rushed to market with bugs in them.

When it’s a case of computer software, such bugs can be an annoyance, as in the case of a personal computer, or far worse, if that software is part of something much larger.

The latest tragic example of this is the Boeing 737 Max 8, an aircraft that, in terms of actual improvement in passenger convenience, travel time, and maintenance time, is at best a marginal improvement, BUT it’s nine feet longer than the 737 Max 7 and carries 21 more passengers in standard configuration, and it’s fourteen percent more fuel efficient. The cabin design has to be less expensive and lighter because Boeing removed all the passenger seat consoles in favor of “streaming entertainment,” meaning that the passenger has to carry his or her own computer, cell phone, or tablet.

Boeing also installed more “pilot-error” proof software, except that, in the rush to get the 737 Max 8 into service in the competition against Airbus, Boeing apparently went “light” on pilot re-training, claiming that not that much was needed since the aircraft was the same “type” as the most recent 737 predecessors… which is largely true… except when certain sensors malfunction and then the aircraft software drops the nose, even on take-off, and the pilot has to know exactly which three switches to turn off… and know that in seconds. And in the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes, the pilots didn’t know that, even though the Ethiopian captain had more than 4,000 hours in earlier versions of the 737.

Now, with over four thousand 737 Max 8 aircraft sold and delivered, the probabilities of such a malfunction are low… but the consequences can be brutal if and when they occur. In this case, as a result of this rush to market, two airliners crashed and killed everyone on board, and Boeing has admitted that the grounding of the 737 Max 8s will cost Boeing $150 million just in first quarter, possibly over $1 billion before all the glitches are fixed.

Was the rush really worth it? To anyone but Boeing, that is?

After Mueller?

Once again, the anti-Trump factions have underestimated the man. Now, as anyone who’s followed my blog knows, I’m anything but a fan of the President, but his opponents are making the same mistakes that so many have made regarding Trump over the years. First, because Trump makes statements that seem stupid not only to his opponents, but statements that are factually inaccurate, they think Trump is stupid. Second, because they think he’s stupid, they underestimate him.

Trump is extremely dangerous because he ignores the “conventional” rules of politics. In general, conventional politicians either use correct facts in the general ballpark of “truth” or correct facts incorrectly… or they appeal to the beliefs and ideals of their constituents without directly invoking the facts.

Trump will use falsehoods and misstatements in a continuing flurry of tweets and public utterances without any regard for the truth. He doesn’t care in the slightest about the factual truth. He cares only about encouraging his supporters and continually reassuring them that he’s on their side. And because he has the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency [as Teddy Roosevelt once called it] and because the media covers that pulpit non-stop, he has effectively overwhelmed truth and accuracy in energizing his supporters.

He’s also used various powers to have others do the dirty work, as Michael Cohen’s testimony revealed, and, so far as anything disclosed so far has revealed, he’s been careful not to leave his own fingerprints on anything. He’s excellent at suggesting that others should do the dirty work, but he appears to do it in a fashion where he never directly orders them to do something he knows is against the law. It’s not against the law to buy silence from a porn star. It may well be against the law to do so with campaign funds, but Cohen bought off the porn star with his own funds, and then apparently was reimbursed from a non-campaign account.

He suggested that the Russians look into Hillary’s emails and other matters, but he apparently never met with Russian agents to discuss anything specific. Others may have, thinking that was what Trump wanted, but it’s doubtful that Trump ever ordered anything that specific.

In the meantime, with his continual barrage about immigration, more and more Americans are feeling that immigration is a huge problem. While immigration is not an urgent national emergency, one that a wall won’t solve, it is in fact a problem, because the U.S. hasn’t and likely won’t spend the money to deal with immigrants humanely and effectively, and that shortcoming will only increase the problem, especially if the Democrat-led House of Representatives doesn’t do something besides oppose the wall.

With Trump’s insistence that he did not collude with the Russians [and why would he have done so, when they were working on his behalf without any meetings] and the likely conclusion of the Mueller report that there’s no proof of such collusion, more and more Americans are going to believe that the Democrats have in fact been “witch-hunting,” and unless the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York come up with solid and undisputable evidence that Trump personally did something not only illegal, but significantly illegal, it’s very likely that Trump will run for and win a second term, because every minute of his presidency, he’s been selling himself to his base and their friends, while the Democrats are united only in their dislike and disdain for Trump… and still fail to understand exactly what he’s doing.

What he’s doing is the formula followed by every successful dictator. It’s very simple. Demonize and minimize your opponents while reassuring your base – emotionally, because facts count for little – that they’re special and that you’re the only one that they can trust… and that the “elites” have sold them down the river. And the Democrats also have the “small” problem that much of the “old” middle class has indeed been sold down the river, if not directly by elites, but indirectly through technology, computers, and automation. Protesting that “you” didn’t do it doesn’t address the fears and needs of Trump’s base.

Nor does it matter that Trump has rewarded the rich far more than his base, or that he seldom tells the factual truth. He’s selling “emotional truth,” what people want to believe… and he’s anything but stupid.

The stupid ones are those who think he is.

Corporations and “Limited Liability”

As I pointed out in the earlier post about PG&E, the corporate structure shields corporate executives from personal responsibility and effectively allows the corporation to pay large sums of money as recompense or as fines, even for felonious conduct that, if attributed to an individual, could well result in prison time. In the San Bruno pipeline explosion of 2010 that killed eight people, injured 58 others, and destroyed 38 homes, PG&E was found guilty of six felony counts of violating pipeline standards, and not a single individual was held responsible. Damages and fines exceeded $2 billion, but Peter Darbee, the chairman and chief executive of PG&E Corp., the utility’s parent holding company at the time, retired a year later with a golden handshake of some $35 million. Christopher P. Johns, who was president of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility subsidiary, in 2010, retired as its vice chairman in December 2015 with a pension package of $17.8 million.

BP [formerly British Petroleum] has literally pages of environmental and safety violations, including the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and injured 16 others, not to mention totally fouling most of the Gulf of Mexico with crude oil. While the company pleaded guilty to 11 counts of felony manslaughter, two misdemeanors, one felony count of lying to Congress, and agreed to pay more than $4.5 billion in fines and penalties, not a single not a single individual was held responsible. Before that, in 2005 the BP Texas city refinery explosion killed 15 people and injured 180 others, and was followed two years later by toxic chemical releases that injured another 143… and again no one was held personally responsible.

The three largest creators of toxic waste Superfund sites are Honeywell, Chevron, and General Electric. General Electric so polluted the Housatonic River in Massachusetts and Hudson River (some 200 miles worth) that both were classified as Superfund toxic waste sites, and despite lawsuits and EPA action, GE still hasn’t completed the clean-up, more than 30 years later. Honeywell (through its subsidiary, Allied Chemical) dumped mercury into Lake Onondaga for over sixty years, and has so far spent over half a billion in remediation. Chevron has acknowledged that it’s a “responsible party” at 180 Superfund sites, and it has over 20 multimillion dollar fines for environmental violations.

In addition to the issue of no executive being personally responsible for criminal environmental violations and felonies, there’s another large problem with the corporate liability structure. That’s the fact that none of the money paid in fines, damages, and remediation comes out of the pockets of corporate executives. It comes out of corporate revenues, and that means that the executives are not only shielded from criminal charges, but they’ve passed off the costs to others.

While some form of limited corporate liability is likely necessary, letting the CEOs and other executives off scot-free is one of the principal reasons why corporations try to pay their way out of trouble with what amount to shareholder funds… and why ethics mean so little to them. They really don’t answer to anyone.


Back in the dark ages when I wrote my first story, the few computers that existed were generally refrigerator-sized, if not larger, and extremely rare. I’ve never been against technology, and back then, the most advanced off-the-shelf technology for a writer was an IMB Selectric typewriter, non-correcting. I later upgraded to a correcting Selectric with an electronic spellchecker of sorts. Finally, when the 286 processor was developed, I shifted to using a computer to write. That made me a little later in adopting computers than some other writers, but the 286 was the first processor that fit my writing style. That meant that, for the first eleven years of my professional career, I typed out every page of every draft of my stories and novels.

There’s one effect of the shift to electronic production of manuscripts that’s seldom noted, except by those of us who had to struggle with the need to turn in a clean typescript manuscript, laboriously typed out manually, because there was no real alternative. We had to be careful, because, even with correcting tape or Wite-Out, too many mistakes meant getting rejections or retyping, by hand, the entire page – especially if you were working on submitting your first novel. Unless, of course, you were wealthy enough to hire a secretary, which very few struggling writers seldom were, or are, even today.

We had to be careful. There were no electronic spellcheckers and no grammar checkers, and one of the unspoken requirements for a real editor to look at your work was submitting at least a moderately clean manuscript with correct grammar, except where required in dialogue. Also, redrafting a novel took a LONG time. In that time period, one of the great advantages Isaac Asimov had was that he could type well, accurately, and moderately fast and that his understanding of grammar was good enough that he usually only needed to type one draft.

Today, far too many would-be writers don’t really understand grammar well enough, and they leave the “details,” such as spelling, to the computer, and it shows. Unfortunately, this excessive reliance on computers extends far beyond the mechanics of writing. Too many young people don’t understand the limitations of Google or other search engines, and they’re used to multiple-choice tests, and instant answers and satisfaction.

The result is all too often sloppiness in all aspects of their work… and what’s worse, all too many of them don’t see that sloppiness… or care.

Despite all protests to the contrary, technology amplifies everything, including sloppiness.

Cultural Appropriation?

So far as I know, as an author I haven’t been attacked for cultural appropriation, but we’re seeing a continuing barrage of such charges in many areas in the U.S., sometimes justified, sometimes not, and sometimes… it’s just hard to tell.

For example, take Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. It was written as a spoof and critique of upper-class British manners and mores through the use of “faux-Japanese” culture. There’s no doubt that it does a certain amount of violence to Japanese historical culture, but it was neither meant to be accurate about that culture nor meant to demean it. And, of course, it was written over 130 years ago. But, depending on how one defines cultural appropriation…

Then, in the opera world, there’s a trio of well-known operas that have been the center of the cultural appropriation debate – Aida, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot – set, respectively, in ancient Egypt, 1880s Japan, and in an unnamed year in China, most probably after the twelfth century. All three operas are, as operas usually are, a mish-mash of sources that take great liberties with history. Turandot, for example, is actually based on a story taken from the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami, but transferred from Persia to China. For all that, there’s been an outcry in some quarters about whether these operas should be performed and who should sing what roles. But the music is Italian in nature and doesn’t appropriate the music of the countries in which they are set, and two of the stories [Aida and Turandot] are totally fictional, including much of the supposed “culture”, while the other is based, if loosely, on an actual occurrence.

I think it’s fair to say that, in the case of the opera itself, neither Aida nor Turandot qualify as cultural appropriations, simply because about the only thing we can determine that was “appropriated” was the name of the country. Everything else is effectively fiction without specific definable cultural roots. For Madama Butterfly, however, there is a definite aspect of appropriation in the portrayal of the heroine, simply because, for the most part, she’s portrayed as a demeaning stereotype that was widely accepted in the west at the time Puccini wrote the opera almost a hundred years ago.

The question of whether it’s cultural appropriation if a singer doing the role isn’t of the ethnicity of the role strikes me as largely irrelevant. In recent years, singers doing these roles have been from multiple ethnicities; in my opinion, the question should be about how well they sing and perform, not their ethnicity. The larger question is whether individual opera companies are preferring singers based on ethnicity, as opposed to ability.

In F&SF, the cultural appropriation issue seems to center on whether a writer should write about cultures not his or her own. Now, as my readers know, I’ve never depicted a present-day or near-future culture that’s of a totally different ethnicity from my own. I have speculated at times about where various cultures might end up in the future, based on what I’ve studied and observed, but I don’t believe that constitutes cultural appropriation, and I wouldn’t call it that even if a writer from a different ethnicity speculated on a dismal future for the United States or Caucasians in general.

Speculation about the future is what F&SF does, and no writer should be criticized about what culture she or he writes about, but, by the same token, we should make a concerted effort to be accurate, and to be open to balanced and thoughtful criticism, painful as it sometimes can be. I would hope, of course, that such speculations be done with care, but then, all writing should be done with care.