Archive for the ‘General’ Category

“Liars” in Context

Every human being I’ve ever met has lied, and certainly more than once. Now it might have been a white lie, or a lie to save someone’s feelings. It might have been calling in sick to work when they weren’t. It might have been worse than that. But all human beings lie… and if you insist that you’ve never lied, that’s a lie as well.

Why am I making this obvious point? First, because the fact that people lie doesn’t just apply to politicians; it applies to everyone. Second, what’s most important about lies isn’t that people lie; it’s the extent of the lie and the context in which they lie. Your lying and telling a friend that they look good or that a thoughtless word didn’t hurt isn’t the same as a president telling thousands of lies, hundreds of which are out and out falsehoods that can be easily disproved by verified facts.

By the same token, while almost all politicians occasionally shade the truth or don’t tell all of it, there’s a huge difference between the politician who utters an occasional lie, exaggeration, or misstatement and one who almost can’t utter an extended statement without lies or gross exaggerations.

Part of the reason that Trump gets away with all his lies, misstatements, and exaggerations is because he’s adept at exploiting a universal human weakness – human beings are mentally limited in the number of objects or thoughts that they can visualize or hold as discrete thoughts in their minds at any one time. After an individual reaches his or her limit, the brain defaults to “many.” So, in most people’s minds, there’s no difference between a politician who makes six or seven misstatements, exaggerations, or lies and one who makes thousands. Unless a person makes an effort to see each lie in context – and most people don’t – their unconscious feeling is that both politicians are “equal” liars… which clearly isn’t the case.

Then add in the fact that people don’t like to think unfavorable thoughts about someone they want to like… and it’s so easy to dismiss an opponent to the habitual liar as just another politician.

But, in the end, anyone who can’t or won’t tell the difference between the occasional liar and the habitual liar, or who thinks that there’s no difference, is lying to themselves… again.

Unethical Cowardice

On Thursday, the Utah State Legislature sent a letter to President Trump, commending him for his actions, citing reducing in size [drastically] two national monuments, repealing “onerous” federal regulations [including one that required oil and gas wells to control methane emissions], and appointing conservative judges. The commendation was sent after the legislature failed to pass two measures aimed at Senator Mitt Romney for his vote to convict Trump. The first bill would have recalled Romney as Senator, despite the fact that state restrictions calling for removal of a Senator have been found unconstitutional, and the second would have censured Romney.

Obviously, the very Republican [more than two/thirds] legislature fears Trump’s possible reprisal against the state of Utah and is trying to defuse Trump’s anger… or at least redirect it only to Romney.

And just what messages does this “commendation” send?

First, the legislature fears what Trump might do, which is a real fear, since Trump, especially this past week, has been venting his wrath on all sorts of people for simply telling what they saw or heard. But to commend a President, especially when he’s punishing people essentially for not lying under oath to protect him, is hardly a principled stand.

Second, the Republican-dominated legislature wants to punish one of its own party for voting his conscience and not following the party line. In short, ethics be damned.

But I’m not surprised. For the nearly thirty years that we’ve lived here, the Utah Legislature has invariably followed a simple unspoken Utah philosophy – Our Way or the Highway. And this was just another example, following several other recent examples, such as trying to more than triple the sales tax on food to fund a decrease in the income taxes of the wealthy [against the wishes of the vast majority of the state] and trying to gut the Medicaid expansion required by a state referendum.

1100 Have A Point

Eleven hundred former employees – Republican, Democrat, and unaffiliated – who served at the Department of Justice under both Republican and Democratic presidents have signed a petition demanding that Attorney General William Barr resign because he “openly and repeatedly flouted” the principle of equal justice under law. The petition follows the withdrawal of four federal prosecutors (one of whom also resigned from DOJ in protest) from the DOJ case against Roger Stone when Barr overruled their sentencing recommendation, after a series of tweets by Trump claiming that the sentence and even the conviction of Stone was “ridiculous.”

Stone was found guilty of lying to the House Intelligence Committee, obstructing its investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, and of threatening witnesses.

Barr also directed the top federal prosecutor in St. Louis to “review” the case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who had already pled guilty to lying to the FBI.

Now… let’s see. The President who attempted to extort Ukraine to start an investigation of the son of a potential political rival has now pressured his attorney general to lighten sentences of people convicted of meddling in the election in which the President denies there was anything wrong. These events don’t even take into account the other four (if I’ve counted right) Trump campaign associates who were also charged and indicted.

Trump has also refused to commit to not pardoning Stone. So…regardless of Stone’s final sentence, it’s likely Stone will pardoned.

And the saddest part of all this is that most Americans seemingly could care less.

Very few seem to realize that this is the most wide-spread corruption in the federal government in at least the past century, and it’s largely disregarded under the idea that all politicians are crooks anyway.

They’re not… but even if they were, just ignoring it is only going to make it worse.

So maybe everyone really ought to listen to the 1100… if only for self-interest, because one only has to look at Mexico and much of Latin America to see what happens when corruption takes over the legal system, the police, and the courts.

Educational Meltdown?

Why are so many people hooked on screens, whether it’s Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, instant sports streaming, or something else? Instant gratification, of course. Entertainment, news, weather, or even quick short research inquiries. Convenience as well, of course, with driving directions dictated to you by Siri or some other compliant [usually, anyway] electronic voice.

I’ve already offered comments, mostly negative, on Google, and the fact that algorithm-based short popular answers amount to “Top 40” knowledge, and that Google provides knowledge with less depth than a wading pool while giving its users the illusion that they know a great deal when what they know is usually little more than a superficial gloss that they won’t retain because true knowledge is rooted in deeper study and actually knowing the underlying structure and principles.

Unfortunately, there’s another, and darker side, and that’s the impact on education. Over the past few years, I’ve talked to educators across the United States, and almost all of them are having problems with the ability of younger Americans to concentrate and to stay focused on anything not involved with a screen, preferably an interactive screen. They’re also easily “bored” and want to be “entertained” by their instructors, and the highest ratings on student surveys almost invariably go to the most entertaining professors.

This isn’t exactly new, but it’s gotten steadily worse. If memory serves me correctly, back in 1960 Fred Pohl wrote about this problem in a book called Drunkard’s Walk, although that wasn’t the main theme of the book. Pohl accurately predicted the growth of what I’d call “edutainment” where college professors can only keep the attention of students so long as they’re entertaining.

At the same time, as social media has allowed college students to withdraw more and more from day-to-day personal face-to-face interactions, they have become more and more emotionally fragile, less able to take even constructive criticism, and more and more needing constant praise and encouragement. The number needing counseling has skyrocketed.

On top of that, far too many of today’s students have trouble remembering information discussed in class or information that they’ve read, even from a screen. Again, this isn’t totally new. Cram and forget as a technique for passing classes was certainly around when I was a student, but back then some of that information was actually retained.

But this all fits in nicely with the new order, where a President can say something, and then deny it a day or two later… and no one remembers except the purveyors of “fake news,” who aren’t believed by anyone who disagrees with them.

So maybe it’s better this way, where no one remembers history, or unpleasant contradictory facts, so long as they’re entertained and everyone praises them.


The more I see in “social media” and in the news media, the more obvious it is to me that, not only do most people really not understand how politics, government, and the legal system work – or fail to work – most of them really don’t want to understand… and the media, in large part, abets that lack of understanding.

Trump, or any other President, proposes an annual budget… and immediately there are headlines about what the President is going to do…. and all sorts of reactions. No… that’s not necessarily what is going to happen. That’s what the President says he wants to happen, but it’s going to take authorizing legislation and then appropriations to change the existing way things are done. I’ve never seen a President’s budget proposal adopted without significant changes, and many Presidents have had their budgets totally ignored by Congress.

If Congress gets hung up, and it usually does, then a continuing appropriations bill will let matters proceed as they did in the previous year. But any change – positive or negative – requires authorizing and appropriations legislation by both the Senate and the House.

Likewise… for all the rhetoric… no one is going to take all guns away from the American people. The most Congress will ever do – even the most left-wing Congress possible – is to prohibit specific weapons, as it already has with machine guns and fully automatic weapons, and the number of bullets in a magazine. Anything more would require the repeal of the Second Amendment, and that isn’t going to happen. Yet a huge number of gun advocates are deeply convinced that a ban on assault weapons will lead to a ban on all weapons… or that limiting magazine sizes is tantamount to “taking their guns.”

Three years have passed since Trump promised to revitalize the coal industry. Despite relaxation of some environmental standards, there are fewer coal jobs now than then. Why? Because alternative power sources and natural gas are cheaper than coal. Net result – more pollution and fewer jobs. But there’s scarcely a word about that in the coal producing states… or anywhere else.

During the long Presidential campaign, at least two candidates have been questioned on their performance as public prosecutors… and the possibility that they prosecuted minorities too vigorously, especially in cases where later evidence showed that some of those prosecuted were unfairly convicted. That’s tragic… but the blame shouldn’t immediately fall on the prosecuting attorney. If a prosecutor ignores existing evidence, that’s a real problem, but if the prosecutor prosecutes based on the evidence presented, then they’re doing their job, and the blame for evidentiary failure should fall on the law enforcement system that provided the evidence. Prosecuting attorneys are overworked as it is, and to expect them to add detailed evidence-gathering and checking to their duties is not only unrealistic, but impractical. It’s not their job, but apparently the media and some political reporters aren’t interested in either accuracy or practicality.

Then there’s the right-wing claim that convicting Trump of the impeachment charges would overturn the election results and change government. Exactly how? As I’ve noted before, Mike Pence who is a Republican even more conservative than Trump would have been President. That fact didn’t ever seem to get raised or noticed.

I could go on and on… but…maybe… just maybe… I have trouble getting my head around how so many seemingly intelligent people don’t know or don’t want to know anything contrary to what they want to believe… even when it’s laid out in law and the Constitution… or in dollars and cents.

Hail Caesar?

After breaking pretty much every convention, and certainly the expectations of the Founding Fathers, Donald Trump has essentially declared he is Emperor, or at least as much of an emperor as is currently possible. But, I have to give him credit, he’s done things that I didn’t think were possible.

With the exception of Mitt Romney, who’s now facing potential censure by the Utah state legislature for his vote to convict Trump, Trump has turned the Republican Senate into slobbering and apologetic lap-dogs. He’s continuing to gut environmental protection, and the people who suffer the most are, paradoxically, those who support Trump. His tariffs and trade wars are hurting the farm sector, and he’s kept the support of out-of-work or underemployed and undereducated white males, as well as the evangelicals, despite having given them nothing but enormous quantities of the rhetoric they want to hear.

His supporters cite the great economy, but the vast majority of economic benefits have gone to the top 5-10% of the population. Serious and well-researched studies show that real inflation is running at 6% annually, while the “official” rate is 1.8%, or thereabout. Who cares? The stock market is at an all-time high – except all the Trump cheerleaders don’t seem to understand that the stock market is so high and the Fed can still push T-bills because there’s no other place to get any return on savings… and, again, those capital gains and dividends [now approaching an all-time low, by the way] aren’t generally going to Trump supporters, who are lucky to get 1-2% on their savings accounts, if they even have enough money to save.

Is Mitt Romney the closest we can come to a Brutus? Well, the original Brutus ended up committing suicide after Antony and Octavian defeated him in battle. While I don’t expect Mitt Romney to do that, he’s definitely committed political suicide, particularly with the Republicans.

What’s overlooked in comparing the United States republic to the Roman Republic is that the root cause of the disaster that destroyed the Roman Republic and threatens ours wasn’t a bullying strongman like Caesar or Trump, but the underlying corruption of the Senate… and just like Brutus’s assassination of Caesar, which simply resulted in one strongman replacing another, the figurative or literal assassination of Trump, or even his defeat in the next election [which is appearing highly unlikely] will not address the underlying problems of corruption, especially a Senate that’s up for sale to the highest bidder.

The “Truth” Problem

One of the “interesting” aspects of the Trump presidency is the amount of misstatements, false statements, and contradictory statements that issue from the man’s mouth and tweets. One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the polarized reaction of Americans. From what I’ve observed, the President’s supporters either endorse those statements, in many cases finding them true, or admit that many aren’t… and that they don’t care. His opponents reject pretty much anything he says either unheard or with outrage.

Obviously, people have very different ideas about “truth.” I did some research and discovered that philosophers have about as many definitions of truth as there are philosophers, and that there are quite a number of theories that attempt to define truth… or not.

I was clearly misguided; I thought the degree of truth of a statement rested on how close it came to objective verified facts.

In a way Immanuel Kant addresses this, by saying that truth “consists in the agreement of cognition with its object,” which I’d interpret as meaning that if what I see seems to agree with what the object is and does, that is truth. But that means truth is defined by my belief, not necessarily by factual objectivity.

Some philosophers at least deal with the possibility of objectivity.

According to Søren Kierkegaard, at least as I understand what he wrote, there are two kinds of “truth” – objective and subjective. Objective truths are based on facts, while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being and what they believe.

These days, however, especially in the United States, there’s little distinction between these two kinds of truth, which isn’t totally surprising in a nation that all too often equates popularity with excellence and where many believe in promoting self-esteem based on words alone, and not upon achievement.

Martin Heidegger pointed out that the essence of truth in ancient Greece was lack of concealment or bringing into the open that which was previously hidden. That’s definitely not the sort of truth favored by politicians.

And then there’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who essentially rejected any objectivity in truth and claimed that the arbitrariness of human nature meant that humans defined truth as an assemblage of fixed conventions for the practical purposes of repose, security, and consistency… and possibly of gaining power, although I didn’t find that spelled out directly. But it seems to me that Trump could just claim that he was following Nietzsche.

Personally, I tend to favor Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

And Trump is exceedingly good at treating partial truths, or even tiny shreds of truth, as whole truths that his supporters swallow whole… or, as the old saying goes, “hook, line, and sinker.”

Multiplication Effect

When I submitted my first stories to F&SF magazines in the dark ages before computers, or even word processors, manuscripts had to be typed, double-spaced, and be largely error-free. Back then, I was a decent typist, but not a great one, and even with Wite-Out [a liquid paper correcting fluid], I had to retype more pages than I ever wanted to count. But that need not to make mistakes made me much more careful.

Even so, with a typewriter I was much more fortunate than the novelists of the late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, who had to handwrite their manuscripts – and to do so in clear enough penmanship so that their words could be understood by the editor and the typesetter. The limits of technology required people to be much more painstaking, because the costs and the time required for redoing were much higher.

This example applies to all technology. I’ve run across clerks who can’t see at a glance that what they punched into the computerized terminal came out wrong, because no one “needs” to know addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables – or numerical estimation. Several years ago, when my publisher went to a new system, it took over two took years to get certain royalty statements unscrambled, even though I spelled out what was wrong and how to fix it out in detail within days of discovering the errors.

When my publisher went to convert older novels into ebooks, they used optical scanners and were sloppy about the proofreading. I still get emails complaining about the typos in those conversions… and some of those messages are anything but complimentary.

The university where my wife the professor teaches shortened the semester by two weeks. It was all programmed out – except that no one clearly looked into the implications because there’s no time in the schedule to conduct juries [applied musical skill performance tests]. Nor are there any performance spaces available. At present, the powers that be haven’t come up with a solution, but when they do I can guarantee that it will cause a fair amount of disruption… and likely take more time and effort than doing it right in the first place would have.

As I’ve said before, technology doesn’t automatically make anything better. What it does do is multiply what people do. If they’re good and conscientious, it allows them to do more good work. If they’re careless and sloppy… well, it multiplies the sloppiness as well… often to the point that even technology can’t easily remedy the mess… which is something that all too many technophiles want to ignore or overlook.

Magic Answers

In our increasingly complex and technological world, politicians, executives, and voters are confronted more and more with problems that have multiple causes and complicated interactions. Most of these problems didn’t just occur overnight, nor will solutions be quick or simple.

Unfortunately, because of that reality, a great majority of people, including all too many Americans, are grasping for quick, simple “magic answers” and embracing simplistic slogans.

Build a wall! Deport ‘em! Tax the Wealthy! Free College for Everyone! Medicare for Everyone! Black Lives Matter! All Lives Matter! The Three Steps to Success! Three Strikes and You’re Out! Freedom Dividend! Pro-Life! Pro-Choice!

And those are just the some of the “magic answers” flying around, largely courtesy of the internet, and the politicians, charlatans, and unrealistic idealists who employ it to get their messages across, a welter of simplistic slogans purveying everything from impractical idealism, commercial hucksterism, political bullshit, pure deception, to malevolent hatred.

The problem is compounded by three factors. First, there’s no effective way to remove inaccuracies, untruths, and patently false assertions and claims, and, even if there were, such a mechanism would soon be abused. Second, there’s no cost to those who purvey them. Third, too many people believe things that are not in fact so because, with the huge access to information, a smaller and smaller percentage of people actually are capable of analyzing that information, and the human “default” is to judge by feelings.

But when the medium is the message and can influence feelings, feelings become less and less accurate in making judgements, particularly when they become overwhelmed by the complexity of modern problems.

That’s when people fall back on magic answers… but magic answers don’t solve problems. What they do accomplish, however, is to empower the demagogues, politicians, and dictators most adept at employing such simplistic slogans.

The simpler and more appealing the slogan, the more likely it’s either totally unworkable or impractical, if not both… or outright wrong… yet very few people seem to understand that… or want to.

Predicting All of the Future

The other day I came across an old review [August 2012] of my novel Flash, in which the reviewer wrote:

“Jonat finds himself on the wrong end of an enormous corporate conspiracy. This is the point where most protagonists would find some way to expose the malfeasance and cleverly put their enemies into a position of harmlessness. Jonat, on the other hand, embarks on a bizarre rampage of assassination and murder when confronted…”

In reading this review, I realized that in 2012 many Americans had, and some still do, the naïve assumption that merely exposing corporate or government wrong-doing is sufficient to right the situation. In the past, this may have been at least partly true. Given what’s occurred in the last four years, it’s clear [at least to me] that this is no longer a valid assumption. And given that Flash takes place more than a hundred years in the future, I’d submit that my assumption – that mere “exposure” wasn’t going to solve the problems Jonat faces – is far more accurate than the reviewer’s opinion.

I don’t cite this as an “I told you so” theme, but as a reminder that both authors and reviewers often carry unconscious assumptions about how society operates and project those assumptions into the future, without considering how technological change, either forward or backward, and social change may change basic personal assumptions about society.

Too often, reviewers make that mistake, even when an author, as I believe I did, depicts a society with different social and cultural mores, and, in this case, where mere “exposure” is meaningless, because no one knows whether that “exposure” is accurate or fabricated… as seems to be the case more and more today… a mere eight years after the review I cited… and not one hundred.

Writers work hard to depict future societies, or fantasy worlds, and the impact technology or magic can have on society, but it’s also a good idea to show how those changes impact individual behavior and personal assumptions, to predict all of the future, if you will, but that can be a challenge when the changes an author projects go against current deeply-held and almost unconscious assumptions of readers… and even reviewers.


For most people in the world, “freedom” is very limited, if not a total illusion, at least if they don’t want to pay an inordinate price.

Take “freedom of speech.” Even in the supposedly liberal or protected sphere of higher education, it doesn’t exist in all too many institutions. I personally know of three tenured faculty members who no longer have academic jobs because they spoke out against a university president. It turns out that revealing unflattering “confidential” information, especially if reveals administration acts against university rules and policy, is apparently cause for dismissal. In another case, a university brought assault charges against a professor because he fought an unfair dismissal, even after all the review boards exonerated him, most likely because he’d earlier protested university policies. The court dismissed the assault charge as totally unfounded. But he still doesn’t have his job back, after more than three years, because this public university keeps dragging out the matter legally.

Then there was the tenured choral director at prestigious private university. He upset people so much that the university abolished the entire choral program to order to fire him, because he hadn’t done anything remotely wrong, except for what he said – and then reinstated the program several years later. Or the dean of a university library who was removed from his position because he told the university provost that the library couldn’t provide all the services demanded without more resources and people… something about the fact that longer hours require more staff or overtime.

Or the recent revelations about Placido Domingo, who made unwanted advances toward young female singers for decades… and because of his power, those women, if they wanted a career, couldn’t say anything and had to avoid him as best they could and endure it when they couldn’t.

It’s been revealed that some of the hedge fund and banking middle managers who protested against overleveraged, securitized bad loans were told either to approve them or leave. And if they left, who was going to hire them?

Now, I’d be the first to admit that not all universities or opera companies or businesses are that restrictive, but I’d wager that most are, if only in places. I also could come up with more examples, as I suspect almost anyone who’s spent time in academia, professions, government, or business could as well.

Outside of the professional fields, it can be even worse, as recently documented work practices at Amazon have shown. Yes, you can quit, but that assumes there are other jobs… and that someone will hire you.

What’s even more insidious is that it’s often more dangerous for one’s career to speak out the higher up you are… and correspondingly more difficult to find another comparable position once one is past the age of fifty, especially for women. And yet, as the new saying goes, this is a “first world problem,” and sadly doesn’t even compare to the lack of freedoms people face in developing or underdeveloped nations.

Or, as Janis Joplin sang in Me and Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…”

The Latest Hot Writer

The other day I read an interview with yet another hot new [comparatively, at least] writer, in which the writer made a comment about being “frustrated with the way fantasy worlds have this stasis… a medieval stasis for ten thousand years.” Then the writer’s subsequent comment dealt with that writer’s latest work that included inventors and social change, which, while not groundbreaking, were new to the writer.

Needless to say, my first instinct was to seek out and strangle the younger [and well-selling] hot writer, given that for thirty years I’ve been writing best-selling fantasy with settings that have been anything but static, and which include technology well beyond the medieval, multiple government systems, and diverse cultures.

My second thought was to do a little research. Even a brief stint of researching suggested that, while there was a period lasting into the mid-1990s where there were some number of medieval-stasis-type cultures in fantasy, it seemed to me that fantasy writers, for the most part, tended to focus on periods in specific historical eras and riff off them, sometimes medieval, sometime Byzantine, sometimes Renaissance, sometimes Regency, as well as, in more recent years, riffs on non-European history and cultures, etc., and that very few of those writers created endless static societies(although there has been a notable and excellent recent SF novel about an apparently endless and static empire).

Very few writers (and I will claim to be one of them) create their worlds from whole(r) cloth. I use the qualifier “wholer” because what we know comes from our own background, education, and experience, and there’s likely no way to create a new world from totally “whole” cloth, so to speak, but I do know of other writers who do the same, and none of those worlds are “medieval” or “static.”

Yet this hot writer is either dismissive or unaware of a fair number of books already out there which have already accomplished what this writer has so recently completed. I have not met this writer, but my first impression is less than auspicious.

For those of you aspiring to be the next new hot writer, I suggest that a bit more humility and little more knowledge of the field would be most useful. But then, I’m just a curmudgeonly old writer who broke in using that obsolete word-setter called a typewriter and who has the equally old fashioned idea that it’s helpful to know the past of one’s field and what other writers have done and are doing.

Electoral Racial/Gender Diversity?

Senator Cory Booker has just dropped out of the Democratic Presidential campaign, following the departure of Julian Castro and Camilla Harris. Except for Andrew Yang, the remaining men and women are all white.

According to various polls, none of the black candidates succeeded in gaining more than a few percent of the support of Democratic voters, despite the fact that there are more than forty million Americans classified as black. Even with nearly sixty million Latinos in the United States, Julian Castro couldn’t raise enough funds and support to stay in the race.

In short, with over a third of the U.S. population comprised of minorities, not a single minority candidate garnered more than a few percent of Democratic voters, even though over 80% of black voters have historically voted Democrat. Although less than ten percent of black voters have voted for Republican presidential candidates in the past, and the higher levels of the Republican Party effectively remain a white male preserve of privilege, polls show that Trump has higher levels of black support than any previous Republican candidate.

Since 1980, a higher percentage and a greater number of U.S. women than men have voted in every election, and in 2016, ten million more women than men voted, and that likely accounted for the all-time high in female U.S. Representatives and Senators in Congress, but women still only account for roughly a quarter of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.

As I have noted before, gerrymandering certainly accounts for the diversity discrepancy in national offices, but I have trouble understanding it being the cause of the diversity discrepancy in Democratic Party politics. Poll after poll shows that roughly half of black Democrat voters favor Joe Biden, and more black Democrats favor Bernie Sanders than any of the black candidates. If Bernie and Joe aren’t old white males, no one is.

All of this suggests to me, old white male that I am, that diversity isn’t what black Democrats, or indeed the vast majority of Democrats, are looking for, and the fact that Biden, the most “centrist” of the remaining candidates, has the greatest support among black voters also suggests that an ultra-liberal Democrat nominee, particularly a female ultra-liberal, may well spell disaster for the Democratic Party in the Presidential election.

The Cost of Staying Alive?

In the latest issue of Science, there’s an article about Trikafta (elexacaftor/ivacaftor/ tezacaftor), the first triple combination therapy available to treat patients with the most common cystic fibrosis mutation, which was approved by the FDA this past October.

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 30,000 people with cystic fibrosis, an inherited condition characterized by the buildup of thick, sticky mucus that results in progressive damage to the respiratory system and chronic digestive system problems, and that can have other complications as well. A generation ago, children with CF seldom lived to adulthood, and even today CF sufferers seldom live to age forty. Currently, there are more than 30,000 people in the U.S. with the disease.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a personal interest in cystic fibrosis, because almost forty years ago one of my daughters was given a preliminary diagnosis of CF, which was indeed terrifying. Fortunately, additional tests determined that she didn’t have CF, but a combination of other factors mimicking it, which were treatable, and she recovered without lasting ill-effects. But that experience definitely made me aware of the devastating effects of cystic fibrosis.

So, the development of Trikafta struck me as a godsend for cystic fibrosis sufferers… until I saw the price tag, $311,000 a year [the “list” price], every year. That’s what it will cost to provide CF sufferers with the chance to live a close to normal and productive life.

Since Trikafta is designed to deal with the most common form of cystic fibrosis, it won’t work for all CF sufferers, but even if it only works for 60%, the annual cost to those people, or their insurors, would total nearly $6 billion.

Needless to say, some medical insurance companies have already turned down patients.

Somehow, I doubt that developing Trikafta cost anywhere near $6 billion, and it strikes me that, at least from everything I’ve seen published (and I hope I’m wrong), this is just another form of medical extortion.

An Unacknowledged Double Standard

There are many “double standards,” and I’ve written about some of them, many involving gender, such as the fact that the behavior that men – and even some women – describe as tough and strong when performed by a man is regarded as “bitchy” and controlling when a woman’s the one who does it. Blunt and honest comments by a child are charming candor, but unacceptable when uttered by adults, particularly subordinate adults. When crooks kidnap someone and demand a huge ransom for that life, it’s criminal extortion, sometimes punishable by death, but when pharmaceutical companies essentially do the same thing, it’s justified as “the cost of doing business.”

In an oldish movie – The Big Chill – when one character rationalizes a decision he made, another calls him on it, and the first character objects, to which the second character replies with words to the effect that, “Have you ever been able to get through a day without a rationalization? Have any of us?”

We all rationalize, some far more than others, and, like it or not, most people throw in a few lies along the way, lies like “it won’t make any difference” or “who really will know?” All that’s human nature.

At the same time, none of us like being lied to… but we also want to hear what we want to hear, and we tune out, or disagree with people who tell us what we don’t want to hear.

Politicians are people, too. In this country, we elect them, and we don’t want to elect people who don’t think the way we do. But one of the problems with human nature is that we feel more strongly about negatives. So… if a politician disagrees with us on a few issues, even if we agree with him or her on most issues, we tend to oppose that politician. And there are scores of issues about which some groups feel strongly, which means that no politician can please anyone on everything, and negatives impact voters much more than positives.

Politicians know this. That’s why they waffle on hot-button issues, or try to word their stance in ways that don’t rile people.

Then people really get upset. “He [or she] led us on… lied to us…”

Voters don’t want honesty; they want agreement… on everything they think is important.

But there’s never enough money for everything everyone wants, and no way to satisfy a majority on all the issues people feel strongly about. But politicians want to keep their jobs. So what do they do? They behave exactly the way their constituents do; they rationalize, with occasional lies.

Under those circumstances, exactly what else should we expect? Except we expect the politicians we elect because we identify with them to be so much better than we are, and we get angry when they aren’t.


A few nights ago my wife and I were at a small dinner party held by a friend. One of the other guests was a retired sales executive, who’d spent most of his working life with a reputable and well-known company. Somehow, the talk drifted from small town politics to the national scene, and I made the mistake – and it is a mistake in the state in which I live – of disparaging the probity of the present occupant of the White House, and noting that he’d set an all-time record for falsehoods. My second mistake was to assume that someone who had spent his entire professional life counting numbers and basing his decisions on them would show equal rationality with political numbers.

His immediate response was. “He’s no different from the others. What about ‘I never had sex with an intern?’ or “You can keep your own doctor?’ They’re all liars.”

No… they’re not. As I’ve said here before, based on my personal experience of eighteen years in various staff capacities in national politics – all as a card-carrying Republican – while there are a significant number of politicians who waffle, who bend the truth, or who employ accurate facts in an inaccurate context, the number who deal in bald-faced and blatant falsehoods is comparatively few, and almost none of those come close to Trump in the extent and blatant untruthfulness of prevarication.

Both Clinton and Obama – who are so often cited as lying Democrats by rationalizing Republicans, have essentially each been attacked for one “lie.” Clinton’s lie was about a semi-consensual sex act, which, while it revealed his sexual amorality, was essentially irrelevant to his performance in office… and, frankly, was little different from a whole line of previous Presidents, a number of who have been called “great.” And, as for Obama’s ‘keeping your own doctor” remark, that statement was what Obama thought the act would do, and, in fact, the majority of people did get to keep their own doctor. Obama’s biggest problem was his inability to understand that almost no executives in big medicine, big medical insurance, or big pharma have anything even faintly resembling integrity… or care for anything except bigger profits.

Just like that former executive, who rejected what I pointed out, Trump’s base and most remaining Republicans have little or no interest in evaluating events in context. One or two “lies” by a Democrat that they don’t like is the same as thousands by Trump. Trump’s falsehoods are indeed in the thousands, and they also involve dubious, if not illegal, acts affecting government, the integrity of our elections, and trying to keep his “people” from being held accountable.

While there may be lies, damned lies, and statistics… there are great differences in lies, and calling them all equal is the coward’s way.

Hard Choices

Unless Donald Trump actually shoots someone, or does something equally stupid or horrible, the Senate won’t even come close to convicting him on the articles passed by the House of Representatives. The reason most analysts give for this conclusion is the polarization and tribalization of American politics.

At the same time, I don’t see anyone going into the basic reason behind the polarization of government. There are plenty of commentaries and articles offering reasons why the electorate is polarized, but in our history there have been many times where there’s been significant civic polarization, but only one other time, at least as I see it, where the legislative branch has been so polarized.

And the reason for those two instances is the triumph of short-term greed over ideals and long-term economics.

Most people don’t quite understand the basics behind the Civil War. That conflict is often presented in a form of good versus evil. Sometimes, it’s presented as a struggle between two different economic systems. In fact, it really wasn’t either. It was a struggle between two different visions of capitalism. The economic elites of both North and South were capitalists, but their forms of capitalism differed. The North invested much of its capital in equipment, and paid near-starvation wages to those who worked in the factories. The South’s “capital” was largely invested in slaves; they were the equivalent of machines, and they were also often poorly fed.

Because the South’s “capital” was largely in slaves, and in land worked by those slaves, any form of abolition would have immediately bankrupted or at least severely impoverished most Southern landholders… which was largely what later occurred as a result of the Union victory. Yet the southern elite could see no way out of the problem, simply because so much wealth was in the slaves they held. That meant that Southern politicians could not compromise, not when any compromise would have meant economic disaster in the Old South. Those politicians felt they could not make hard choices, and they refused to look to the North or to the rest of the world, where most industrialized nations were outlawing slavery and the slave trade.

The result of failing to make hard choices in the years leading up to the Civil War led to an even greater disaster in the long run, just as today’s failure to deal with economic and environmental problems will make the eventual reckoning even more costly and disastrous.

We face a situation similar to the 1840s and 1850s today, if in a more fragmented way. For example, coal is viewed as cheap energy, just as slaves were cheap labor. But what those whose economic well-being has been based on cheap coal don’t want to see is that coal is anything but cheap if all its costs are considered. Over 80,000 miners are known to have died from black lung. The costs of black lung disability benefits now exceed $100 billion. According to a report published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences back in 2011, the external costs of coal-fired power are twice the direct costs. In other words, it costs twice as much to deal with health, waste, and environmental costs of a coal-fired power plant as it does to generate the power.

There have been more than a few documentaries on Amazon’s brutal workplace practices, which are the 21st century equivalent of the wage-slaves of early industrialization. At the same time, the real wages of the majority of Americans are declining. Life expectancy of certain economic and age-groups has actually declined in the last decade, for the first time in a century.

But the Legislative Branch of our government is polarized, and in considering some issues, paralyzed, largely because any realistic solutions are seen as politically unacceptable. The right wing feels the industries supporting its senators and representatives cannot or will not change because the costs are too high. The left wing won’t compromise from idealistic standards that cannot possibly be funded [regardless of what Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders claim]. Members of either side refuse to make the hard choices because they fear that, if they do, they won’t be re-elected… and re-election is far more important than the future of the country… or the planet.

So no one will make hard choices… and, if they don’t…


Earlier this week when I sent the manuscript of Isolate to my editor, we encountered a number of technical glitches because various “improvements” in Word created difficulties we’ve never encountered before.

This isn’t a new problem for me; it’s a recurring one. Even though I’m using Word 2010 on my writing computer because it had features that don’t work on later versions, the “updates” often limit or cripple those functions. For example, in Word 2010, I used to be able to do a global word search for a particular word in all the files in a given directory. Now, that’s become spotty and unreliable, and it’s impossible [at least I haven’t found any way to do that] on later versions of Word. This is particularly useful function for me, and losing it for all the “improvements” that I don’t use is irritating. Likewise, the three-keystroke speed keys that shift me out of what I’m working on because I made a typo [and sometimes lose some of what I’ve just written] are also annoying. And my editor has other problems that she never has had before in terms of compiling what authors send her.

This so-called improvement isn’t limited to Word or Microsoft; it seems to be everywhere. I don’t do MP3 music downloads, but I discovered that, in the interests of getting a lot of music into MP3 format, something like 90% of the actual music/”tone” is eliminated in order to obtain the necessary file compression…and the majority of listeners apparently don’t notice or don’t care.

My wife the music professor has discovered that, with every new version of certain technical vocal pedagogy software programs, the newer versions are both simplified [leaving out important technical details] AND also more expensive… and that the older and better software doesn’t work on newer operating systems.

How many of these “improvements” are just so the manufacturers can force upgrades to yet more glitch-ridden software and systems that provide “features” that only a minuscule number of users will ever utilize while compromising and eliminating more utilitarian features employed by a far wider range of users?

The Free-College Fairytale

I’d be among the first to admit that the U.S. higher education system is flaw-ridden and too expensive. The cost of higher education is, in a practical sense, financially impossible for more than eighty percent of the population, at least without either financial aid or going heavily into debt, but making it “free” to all U.S. high school graduates won’t improve the situation. In fact, it’s likely to make it worse.

No one wants to look realistically at the situation. Today, every year, roughly twice as many students graduate from college as there are jobs requiring a college education. In addition, the real wages of the bottom 60% of those graduates are declining and have been for a decade. Third, twenty-five percent of all Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 cannot pass the basic reading literacy test required by the U.S. armed forces, and unhappily that includes a percentage of college students.

At the same time, there are literally millions of jobs going unfilled in the United States because job-seekers lack the skills to perform those jobs. Part of this is simply because, more and more, businesses don’t want to train new employees because the training time is unprofitable and lower level skilled employees tend to change jobs quickly, and colleges don’t want to get into what they consider “vocational” training… and they’re not staffed or equipped to do so.

All too many college bachelor degrees have become test-passing “credentials” and little more. The ranks of public university faculties are increasingly filled with adjunct teachers, the vast majority of whom are underpaid and overworked, often working part-time at two or more colleges or universities to cobble together enough income to barely make ends meet. Yet universities, especially state universities, are hiring fewer and fewer full-time faculty, and even those faculty members are burdened with all sorts of non-teaching requirements.

The result of these and other factors is that the majority of graduates of public universities, except for a few handfuls of elite public universities, are at a distinct disadvantage in the quality of the education they receive. Oh, there are still outstanding professors in every state university, but they’re far and few between, and all too many of them are leaving teaching, either through retirement or dissatisfaction. That means that the graduates of elite private universities and the few handfuls of elite first tier public universities have a tremendous advantage in getting jobs or into the best graduate schools.

Pumping billions of dollars into “free tuition” isn’t going to solve any of those problems, and it also ignores the fact that living expenses for college students are anything but insignificant.

In short, the well-educated and well-off are going to continue to prosper, while the poorer students… and the taxpayers… suffer.

Rule of Law

This past weekend, I watched a conservative legal scholar [who supported the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court] list the legal reasons why Trump should be impeached and convicted. At present, more than five hundred legal scholars from all across the nation have also signed documents in support of impeachment on detailed legal grounds.

So why does something like at least 40% of the American population oppose impeachment when there’s a considerable legal consensus that the President’s acts and behavior meet the legal tests of impeachment.

Many of those people, including the President, claim that the Democrats are trying to “undo” the election and take power. That’s not only untrue, but nonsense. Even if Trump were to be impeached, his successor is Vice President Pence, who is a right-wing, evangelical Christian far more conservative than Trump. Making him President will actually make things worse and harder for the Democrats and liberals.

No… I’d submit that the reason many people don’t want Trump impeached is because at heart they don’t believe in either actual government by the people or the rule of law.

They want what they want and think Trump will either give it to them or keep the Democrats from enforcing the laws. They believe, despite the progress we’ve made in cleaning up the environment over the past forty years, that environmental laws don’t do that much good and hurt them. They would rather have tens of millions of people breathing air that literally kills them over time so that these non-believers in law and science can make more money or get paid in industries that destroy the environment and the health of the poorest of Americans.

They believe that equal rights for all people under all circumstances go too far. And if you think that’s far-fetched, just consider what happened in the South after Reconstruction was abandoned – the rights granted to former slaves by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment were essentially abrogated by the southern states for a century. And in terms of redlining and financial discrimination, the North wasn’t that much better.

We’re still seeing police discrimination against minorities, despite laws that require equality. All Americans are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, but the majority of Trump Republicans want to cut off the opportunities that our ancestors had, and the Trump administration is accommodating them, often violating the law in doing so.

Trump’s even said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. And if that’s not disrespect for the law, I don’t know what is… well, except for saying that the President is above the law, which is exactly the way in which Trump has behaved.

We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. That was what was supposed to make us better. But Trump and his supporters are claiming that the laws don’t apply to them.

And what happens if everyone decides to follow that example? Is political tribalism important enough to tear the country apart? We’re still paying for the last time a chunk of the union decided that economic gain outweighed rights, rights for everyone, not just rights for white males.