Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Collegiate Babysitting

The fall semester is either about to begin or has already begun at colleges and universities across the United States… and one thing is already clear. The march toward turning colleges and universities, particularly state institutions, into glorified high schools is continuing.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the administration at the local university has mandated a switch to a trimester system so that students can graduate in three years. To accomplish this, each semesters has been shortened by more than a week, with no increase in class length or number of classes. At the same time, there has been a push for “greater retention,” more electronic learning, and a more encouraging atmosphere [i.e., more cheerleading and less critical evaluation of actual student performance].

The latest edict from the administration is that faculty must not only take attendance, but report absences to administration, apparently because of financial aid requirements, in effect adding another reporting requirement that has teachers doing additional administrative chores for the finance industry. What happened to the idea of student responsibility? We’re talking about 18 year olds and older, not grade-school or high school students.

My wife the professor has taught a diction and literature class for students beginning the B.M. [performance] degree in voice. It’s a fairly standard, if slightly more intensive class which covers the basics of proper diction and introduces students to classical vocal literature. The course requires students to study the music and listen to a range of classical vocal recordings by composers. The listening requirement takes roughly six hours a week for 15 weeks. The goal of the course is to familiarize students with the work and styles of the more noted composers over the last century or so.

My wife has been teaching the course at this university for 15 years, and the basic requirements have remained the same, and students have evaluated the course for all of that time, yet in the last two years, for the first time, there have been complaints about the amount of work required, one student even saying that the workload had that student in tears.

This isn’t just my wife. The majority of professors in the department have noted the same development. One administrator responded by saying that perhaps the professors should just teach less.

Teach less? At a time when either more technical knowledge and/or more education are required to compete for the better paying jobs?

The Trouble With “Action”

I’ve often been criticized for the “slow” pace of my books, especially by the “action junkies” who expect a fight, revelation, or surprise in every chapter, or at the least every other chapter. Now, I’d be the first to admit that even my books aren’t completely realistic, because there’s more action in them than in corresponding events in real life, but I try to give the feeling of real life and action by providing more lead-up events, and a certain amount of routine, than do many authors. Possibly that’s because I’ve experienced more “action” in life than I anticipated and because it wasn’t much like the way I’d visualized and imagined it, especially how much time and preparation for “action” takes.

I was a competitive swimmer in college, and even more than fifty years ago, to be competitive required at least 3-4 hours a day of practice six days a week. Yet we generally only competed once every week at most. Today, it’s more like twice that and a lot more work with weights and machines. All that for a few minutes of “action.”

But the same is true of any action in life. A one-hour military flight mission for one single aircraft will require from 10 to over 200 hours of maintenance, depending on the aircraft. So what does this have to do with writing and battle scenes? Simply that no society, especially a lower tech society, can support a lot of battles day after day right on top of each other. There’s no time for recovery, resupply, or even travel.

All right. Then why shouldn’t a writer skip over all that dull but necessary stuff in a few sentences or paragraphs and get on with the action?

In fact, a lot of writers do. Even the “slowest” writers condense the events and maintenance in between the exciting stuff. But there’s a balance. If it’s all action, the reader loses the “reality” of what’s occurring and a book becomes the unrealistic verbal equivalent of a video game. If it’s totally true to life, most readers won’t finish the book because they get overwhelmed by the details.

As an author, I give more details than most fiction authors, but that’s because I feel that those details are real to the characters and shape the way they see the battle and the action. The “boring” training, or the trade-offs between trying to make a living and also trying to prepare to fight an invader are real to those people. They’re choices they have to make, and they’re in many ways far more important than most people think because they’re what determines how the battle, the action, and the characters turn out.

There’s an old saying about war, to the effect that the competent officers concentrate on tactics, the brilliant ones on logistics. Or, put another way, WWII was won on logistics [while that’s an over-simplification, at its base, it’s true]. And for reasons like that and the fact that I don’t want my books to read like verbal video/computer games, that’s why “logistics” and “routine” are a vital part of what I write.

Being Famous…

Since at least the time of Triumphs in Imperil Rome, the phrase “fame is fleeting” recurs, year after year, generation after generation… and yet today, at least the United States, we have more and more people striving not to be well-educated, or the most accomplished in a particular field, but just famous. What’s even more amazing is that there are more than a few famous people, at least in current popular culture who, from what I can determine, never excelled in anything and who are at best moderately attractive and who are not fabulously wealthy. And, almost without exception, that kind of fame comes and then departs relatively quickly.

So what is fame… that so many strive for it?

The dictionary definition that best fits this kind of “fame” is: “the state of being known or talked about by many people.”

Most famous people have acquired their fame and notice through their achievements, and usually it’s for singular achievement or a limited series of achievements. But sustained high level achievement doesn’t always get rewarded, and sometimes those not rewarded are more famous than those who were.

Actress Glenn Close has seven Academy Award nominations without an Oscar, and several noted directors have never won an Oscar – Federico Fellini (12 nominations), Ingmar Bergman (9 nominations), Alfred Hitchcock (5 nominations). On the other hand, Meryl Streep has an unprecedented 21 nomination and three Oscars. Yet who remembers Florence Lawrence, often considered “the first movie star”? Or Lillian Gish or Jean Harlow? Or Paul Muni, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, or Douglas Fairbanks?

I doubt many people, except scholars and literary types, even remember William Golding, whose novel Lord of the Flies sold well over 25 million copies and who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 or John Galsworthy, a 1932 Nobel Laureate, and noted playwright, and author of The Forsyte Saga. And very few likely remember Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, or Edith Wharton. Even in F&SF, how many readers know who Hugo Gernsback was?

And how many people will remember then-prominent political and business figures, such as Alexander Johnston Cassatt, Jay Gould, William Jennings Bryan, Darwin Kingsley, John F. Queeny, Eugene Debs, or even Millard Fillmore?

Yet, for all that, and despite Shelly’s Ozymandias, people still strive desperately for fame.

So Much for The Great “Recovery”

A recent news article caught my attention, largely because it confirmed a number of trends that I’ve mentioned over the past few years, that an increasing percentage of U.S. workers experience lagging wages, eroding benefits, and demands to do more for the same or even less pay.

A 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) reported that: (1) a third of U.S. workers found work has become significantly more demanding; (2) 20% of workers reported that they had too much work to do everything well; and (3) 75% had to work extra hours every month, much of it without compensation. All of these were a significant increase from 2006. A Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study reported that, over the last 20 years, corporate profits have far outpaced employee compensation.

As I’ve noted before, public universities and corporations are employing greater and greater numbers of part-time employees without benefits and fewer full-time staff, and more and more companies are outsourcing menial jobs to contractors who employ large numbers of low-paid part-timers.

The result of all this, as has been reported from multiple sources, is that the incomes of more than 90% of Americans have been stagnant or decreasing over the last 20 years, despite all the hype. They’re working, when they can, more hours for less, or multiple jobs to make ends meet. Fewer and few young workers, even college graduates and beginning professionals, can afford to buy a house, and may not be able to for years because of massive student loan debt.

There was only one part of the article which was, in my view, erroneous, and that was where it said “public companies have made shareholders their top priority.” That’s not exactly accurate, and it understates the extent of the damage caused by rampant and unchecked capitalism. Actual returns to shareholders, i.e., dividends, are extremely low by historical standards. What the present group of robber-barons and high-level corporate executives have done is to use cheap money and the even lower interest rates to inflate the prices of stock, through stock buybacks and other devices, to incredible multiples of earnings in order to turn their stock options and stock payments into capital gains. That penalizes small investors without the capital to use such tools and is, in effect, a disguised Ponzi scheme preying on those comparatively smaller investors, as well as on mutual funds, pension funds, and individual retirement accounts.

When the next recession hits, those CEOs will already have cashed out many of their holdings at a lower tax rate than paid on earned income, while the majority or smaller investors will find their investments drastically reduced in value, both in terms of nominal cash value and in terms of real purchasing power, given the last twenty years of “hidden” inflation, hidden because the government’s “standard” measures of inflation don’t accurately measure many of the real costs of living.

For example, the latest CPI indicates an inflation rate of 1.8% from July 2018 to July 2019, which includes a 2.0% decrease in the price of energy. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but the winter here was warmer than last year and the average summer temperatures so far have averaged 3 degrees below last summer… but my energy costs are up. So are our health and property insurance costs, our communications costs, and our food costs, all by more than two percent. Add to that a roughly 40% increase in property taxes, which is an amusing side note, because most of that occurred because our house was reassessed and its value increased by 32%. So while we’re living in the same house, and the tax rate only increased 2.2%, the actual increase in taxes amounted to 40%. This sort of thing happens to homeowners everywhere, and we’re far more fortunate than most, because our overall property tax levels are much lower than the national averages, but there’s no way that our basic cost of living increased only 1.8% over this past year, and for people living in urban areas, the annual cost of living has to be increasing by far more than 1.8%.

So… go ahead and tell me how great the recovery has been for most Americans.

Trump’s a Liar and a Crook? So?

For some time, I’ve wondered how a man who’s defrauded his investors, lied every time he’s opened his mouth, and most likely obstructed justice isn’t called to task by a greater percentage of the American people and why so few seem to care about Trump’s actions along those lines.

The other day I got an answer. I was talking to my cobbler, a man likely older than I am who’s been resoling and repairing my boots for more than a decade. He asked me what I thought of Trump, and I, fairly certain that he was a conservative Republican, said that I worried about Trump’s “solutions” and his ethics.

The cobbler’s response was simple. “Aren’t all politicians crooks?”

Now, that’s not true. I worked as a staffer in Congress long enough to know that a comparative small percentage are crooks, and most of those aren’t crooks in the sense of overtly breaking the law, but they’re good at taking advantage of its weaknesses and loopholes, and in the process of doing so able to gain considerable financial advantage.

But that’s not the point. I’ve heard about politicians being liars and crooks for years. A century ago, Mark Twain was saying the same thing. The point is that a significant percentage of Americans believe that politicians are crooked, and they’ve heard it for years.

That may well be why charges of being crooked or corrupt don’t stick to Trump. I suspect there’s a subconscious feeling on the part of many voters that, since so many politicians are crooked, and that they all lie, why single out Trump. This feeling may have also contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat because, while most crooked politicians are male, women aren’t supposed to be crooks, and by calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary” Trump was playing to the subconscious bias that women shouldn’t be President, especially women who are crooks.

I also suspect that, unless the Democrats can come up with hard and solid evidence that Trump committed illegal acts, as opposed to the almost entirely circumstantial evidence presently known, any actual vote of impeachment in the Senate will fail, and that the ethics issues won’t be a major factor in the next election.

One Big Fix?

Two mass shootings over the weekend, and more than 250 since the beginning of the year… and people are demanding a solution. Then there are racism and misogyny, poverty, and inadequate education, not to mention the problems of health care, immigration, and climate change.

And all of these problems have one thing in common – people are looking for a simple, single, and quick solution, if you will, a form of a big fix.

There isn’t one. Not to any of these problems.

Mass killings are created by a confluence of factors in each case, and while anger, almost always male anger, is a key factor, others, depending on the killer, are also critical, but not all of these factors are common to every mass killer, and that means that making significant progress means addressing more than one factor. Yes, reducing the number of firearms and who can carry what would make a huge difference, but with over 300 million in circulation and the current wording of the Constitution, to remove all firearms from private hands would require a Constitutional amendment and the approval of 38 states. That’s unlikely any time soon, and that means pursuing a number of other initiatives, from background checks to limiting the kinds of weapons allowable, possibly requiring gun owner licenses or gun registration. It means more coordination between mental health professionals and law enforcement. And that’s just the beginning.

The same problem exists with health care. For all the fuss of about Medicare for all and the cost of insurance, co-pays, pre-existing conditions, and the like, the basic problem is that healthcare in the United States costs too much. It costs too much for a variety of reasons, one being that the economics are structured so that U.S. sales of pharmaceuticals and medical devices bear all the costs of development and marketing, and that the profit motive is totally out of control. Other factors include an FDA that is slow and politicized and reluctant to approve competing generics, a law that prohibits the government from negotiating drug prices, a legal climate that rewards litigation, and a public that, for the most part, doesn’t do enough to keep itself healthy. Differing state requirements for licensing and insurance don’t help either. And, just passing Medicare for all won’t address any of these.

Merely building a wall across the southern border of the U.S. won’t even begin to address the myriad of smaller problems involved in the massive immigration problem. It won’t even stop the flow of immigrants.

The problems of racial injustice weren’t created just by slavery, but by a plethora of smaller injustices, ranging from a lack of education or systemically inferior education, economic discrimination, various forms of “redlining,” voter suppression, terrorist violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, judicial support of “separate but equal” provisions, “Stop and Frisk” and other unequal policing systems, just to name a few, and each of these denials of rights and truly equal opportunity needs to be addressed separately, simply because trying to address them all at once doesn’t work.

And U.S. educators have been trying to come up with a single, one-size fits all educational solution for decades, ignoring the facts that no one methodology meets the needs of differing communities and student bodies or that schools within the same system can differ incredibly. Education administrators have also become so obsessed with measuring achievement and accountability that their measurements often hamper more than they help because teachers have less time to teach and students less time to learn.

Climate change presents the same problems. A carbon tax would definitely help, but such taxes have to be levied by all major carbon-emitting companies, just for starters.

The “one big fix” is just another useless aspect of a media culture that has forgotten and doesn’t care that all solid accomplishments rest on painstaking methodical steps toward the end. Sweeping generalizations just don’t cut it, but that’s all I hear any more. People and their politicians need to stop looking for the big fix, the miracle cure, and start addressing, step-by-step, all the smaller components of the big problems.

Observations on Military Flying

It’s been almost fifty years since I stopped flying helicopters for the U.S. Navy, although I do maintain an interest in military aircraft. My first military trainer [in primary] was a T-34, not the turboprop variety later developed, but a pure piston-engine aircraft derived from the Beechcraft Bonanza, with a top speed of around 190 mph. The second was a T-28, with speeds and capabilities roughly equivalent to early 1940s Navy fighter planes, and was also the plane with which I made my first carrier landings in early 1967.

Now, since it’s been nearly fifty years since I last flew a military aircraft, I got to thinking. Fifty years before I first flew was in 1916, when all military aircraft were essentially low-powered, cloth-winged biplanes. Less than twenty-five years later, military aircraft were travelling three times as fast. And that progress continued. From WWII to the Vietnam War, fighter plane speeds increased by a factor of four.

And exactly what’s happened since then? Most top line fighter planes today have top speeds slightly less than the fastest F-4 of the 1970s, yet all of the current top-line fighters would take the F-4 to the cleaners, so to speak, because it turned out that speed was seldom ever used. Part of that lack of use was the fuel cost of speed. Full afterburner usage can drain a fighter’s tank in a matter of minutes, and enough fuel to keep the plane in the air longer would make it too heavy to take off [a slight over-simplification, but essentially true]. Maneuverability and weapons systems – and low radar profiles – have become the key to air superiority.

Unhappily all that technology doesn’t come cheap. In 2018 dollars, the flyaway cost of an F-4 would be roughly $19 million. An F-35 comes in at $80-$90 million, four times as much, and with the U.S. projected to buy 2,443 aircraft, the current cost estimate is an estimated US$323 billion. But then, in 2018 dollars, the roughly 4,000 F-4s procured by U.S. military forces [my estimate out of the roughly 5,200 built] cost around $80 billion in 2018 dollars. While we’re paying four times as much for a little more than half as many aircraft, an original F-4 can’t stand against fourth and fifth generation fighters – and if we built “new” F-4s with modern avionics and weapons, I have the feeling that they wouldn’t be all that much cheaper… and they’d likely cost more to operate and wouldn’t have as much range… and we’d likely lose more pilots.

What it all seems to mean is that air combat isn’t ever going to be any “faster” than it was 50 years ago, but it’s definitely more complex and more expensive and likely to keep getting more so… yet technology makes most other things cheaper. And that suggests that it’s getting more and more expensive to destroy things than to build them. But I don’t see much progress in realizing just how much more it’s costing to build more and more sophisticated systems of destruction as we engage in what might be called the Red Queen’s arms race.

Quit Bitching

For the last fifteen years, I’ve heard nothing but complaints from retailers, large and small, about how the internet is taking away their business. And, as an author, I’ve suffered as well from the internet’s “success” in destroying literally thousands of bookstores and retail outlets carrying books.

But part of the problem isn’t the internet; it’s the retailers. What was the response of Borders and Barnes and Noble to Amazon? Both of them cut their inventories and back stock, and tried to diversify. Borders always did have a poor ordering and inventory system, and carrying less stock made matters worse quickly. Then, when margins got tight, B&N started listening to the cost-cutting accountants. That’s almost always the kiss of death, and in B&N’s case, it almost was, because as they cut inventory and stock they sold fewer books, and the other merchandise didn’t make up the difference. B&N just got bought by a private fund that recently acquired the British bookstore chain of Waterstones, which, interestingly enough, has been making a comeback by, surprise of surprises, opening more and smaller bookstores closer to people. And I know a few bookstores who are still around because they address customer needs.

A retailer is in business to sell things. But if they aren’t where the customers are, or they don’t stock what the customer wants or needs, they can’t sell it. If you reduce the number of items you sell, you’re going to sell fewer goods, and your revenues will go down.

The other day I went to both of the only two big box stores in town. Both carry patio furniture, but this year neither carries the furniture covers I used to buy there. Neither does the single hardware store nor the furniture store. I still needed the furniture covers. So I had to buy them online.

It’s not just furniture covers. It’s everything from buffered aspirin [not a single grocery store or drug store in town carries it any more] to boots and shoes, from books to office supplies and printers. Even though Cedar City is now four times the size it was 20 years ago, we actually have to buy more and more goods that we used to purchase in town from the internet. There are small stores here in town – and elsewhere – that are surviving and sometimes even thriving, and it appears that they’re successful because they make the extra effort.

So… retailers…maybe you ought to focus more on what people need and where and when they need it instead of just cost margins.

Budget Busting & Taxes

The Democrats and Republicans have apparently come to a compromise over federal spending in the next two years, compromise meaning lifting the debt ceiling and incurring an even larger deficit, by an estimated additional $200 billion or more annually, with the result being a total annual deficit in excess of $1.2 trillion… and that’s if we don’t have a recession.

Neither party wants to cut spending nor to increase taxes, and the future result will either be high inflation or slow growth, if not both, and those are the best of the possible scenarios.

Everyone talks about taxes, and most of that talk centers on federal income taxes, but what people should think about isn’t just federal income taxes, but the total of all taxes that people pay. And, surprise of surprises, when you do that, it turns out that the taxes paid, both in dollars and as a percentage of income, have gone up for everyone – except for the top one percent or so of taxpayers, whose taxes have decreased significantly.

That’s because the combination of federal payroll taxes [Social Security and Medicare], state sales and income taxes, and local and county taxes increase every year. While most state income taxes are flat rate or reach a capped rate at moderate income levels, with each pay raise a worker gets, the government takes more. The same is true of Social Security taxes, at least until you make more than $128,000 [$132,000 next year], while Medicare taxes are applied to your full income, no matter how much or little one makes.

Because government measures of inflation don’t keep up with actual inflation, the vast majority of Americans actually end up with less spendable income every year, and under those circumstances, it’s understandable why they don’t want to pay higher federal income taxes.

As for the rich, even though their taxes, on average, have gone down significantly, they’re still complaining that they’re overtaxed. So the Republicans listen to the rich, and the Democrats to the average American, and they decide that they won’t raise taxes now… and that means that everyone’s children and grandchildren will pay a whole lot more, both in money and economic chaos.

Book Blurbs

A while ago, I read a blog by another author who complained about the blurbs placed on hardcover book jackets or on the back of mass-market paperbacks, blurbs which are supposed to intrigue would-be readers into picking up and hopefully buying the book. This particular author was not only upset by blurbs that turned out to be misleading, but particularly unhappy with blurbs that were composed of quotes of praise by well-known authors rather than a summary of the plot that might reveal whether a reader might like the book.

I can understand that author’s feelings, but, as is often the case, there’s another side to the “blurb problem,” one with which I’m all too familiar. In my entire career, I’ve never sold a book on a synopsis or a proposal. That’s because I’ve never found a way to accurately summarize one of my books, at least not in few enough words to fit on a book jacket or a rear cover, without creating a summary that wasn’t misleading in at least one major way… if not more, or wasn’t so generally simplistic as to be essentially meaningless. And merely emphasizing the main plot line can often be misleading and deceptive. Even when it’s not, in most good books there’s so much more.

Now… one could immediately conclude that I just can’t write a good summary, except that all of the editors and their assistants who’ve worked on my books for the last forty years have had the same problem, and I’m certainly not the only author with this problem. I’ve never seen a Gene Wolfe book blurb that wasn’t either overly general or highly misleading. Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness doesn’t lend itself to a short and meaningful summary, nor does Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning… or any number of other books.

In fact, I’d be inclined to suggest that most books [but not all] where an accurate summary, and one that doesn’t leave out major aspects of the work, can fit on the book jacket are books that are, shall I say, ones that I’m less likely to be re-read.

Nonetheless, editors and publicists do their best to convey the flavor of a book… and often even that is difficult to do accurately. For just that reason, at times, the editor writing the jacket copy may well feel that quotes from other authors are more accurate in giving a feel for a book than a misleading summary would be. Some books just don’t summarize, and to blame that on the publisher, publicist, or author is often unjustified. And that’s also why there’s just no substitute for reading a few pages.

Accident?

This past weekend, I was shopping at one of the local grocery emporiums and had paused my cart to obtain an item, when I was rear-ended by another cart enthusiastically pushed by a young male of perhaps five or six years and which struck with a certain amount of force. The cart basket hit my lower back not quite hard enough to bruise anything, but the lower bar slammed into my legs just above the ankles with an impact that could have been painful, if not worse, except for the fact that I wear cowboy boots.

I turned to the young fellow and said sternly, but not loudly, “You need to watch where you’re going, young man.”

At that point, the boy’s father appeared and said to his son, “What do you say?”

He murmured, “I’m sorry.”

Then the father said, “It was an accident.”

Because I didn’t want to make a scene, I said, “These things happen.” Then I turned to the boy and said evenly, “I’m not angry with you, but you do need to be careful.”

What bothered me most about the entire, almost insignificant, incident were the father’s words, and the implication that there was no lack of care or responsibility on his part or on the part of the boy. Six year old boys should not be running full speed pushing grocery carts down an aisle, especially with their three or four year old sibling in the basket seat. If he’d run into one of the very old shoppers, they could have been injured. If he’d run the cart full speed into one of the adjoining freezer cases, his sibling could have been hurt.

But the father said nothing to his son, and they continued shopping, as if nothing had happened.

One of the lessons I attempted to impart to my children many long years ago was that while they might make a mistake and accidentally hurt someone, the fact that it was an “accident” didn’t change the fact that what they did hurt someone. It didn’t excuse their carelessness.

My wife the professor has come across the same lack of understanding with college students, the idea that because they didn’t intend to do harm, that because it was “an accident,” they bore diminished or no responsibility for adverse consequences.

And I just witnessed where it all starts.

Cheap Congratulations

The other day, I discovered that one “professional” social media site was sending out messages along the line of “congratulate [fill in the name] on [two or five] successful years with [whatever company/organization].” I could possibly see congratulations on fifteen, or twenty-five years, but praise for making it two years? If someone needs praise for that, there’s either something wrong with them or the company or organization they’re working for.

It’s not just that. Our entire society in the U.S. is overrun with cheap and meaningless ceremonies of celebration and congratulations. Social media is inundated with brief and almost cursory birthday wishes, the majority of which seem to be from marginal acquaintances.

There are “graduation” ceremonies for children going from nursery school to kindergarten, from kindergarten to grade school, from grade school to middle school/junior high, and from junior high/middle school to high school. A generation ago, and certainly two generations ago, such “celebrations” would have been considered ridiculous. “Getting through” seems to be much more important than learning anything.

There are participation trophies for children in all too many sports, and producing such trophies has become a profitable endeavor in itself. Really… a trophy for just showing up? Isn’t this sending a message that merely doing the job is worth praise? Praise used to be for going beyond just being there.

On the high school and college level grade inflation is so rampant that grades have become less and less significant in evaluating potential incoming students, and that means that applicants tend to be evaluated on other factors, including standardized test scores or what schools the student attended, most of which work to the disadvantage of poorer and disadvantaged students. In some universities, the “average” grade is somewhere between a B and a B+.

Adjectives such as “wonderful,” “hard-working,” “brilliant,” and “talented,” are thrown out like cheap candy, and professors who aren’t handing out constant praise risk criticism on student evaluations [which most universities factor into evaluating faculty for raises and retention] as well as complaints to the administration for not being supportive or “creating a hostile classroom environment.” Actual honest evaluations by faculty, especially junior faculty, can now cost professors their jobs.

As both I and Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, have noticed, virtually every professional musical theatre production gets a standing ovation, something once reserved for truly high quality performances. High school and college productions now routinely get standing ovations.

True excellence in anything is rare, and the effusive praise and compliments should be reserved for that, but then, I wonder how many people really recognize excellence or confuse it with what they like or what pleases them. And with all those “cheap candy” compliments and praise, is it any wonder that people mistrust what other people say more and more?

The Dragon Illusion

Recently, I think I’ve seen a resurgence or perhaps a continuation of “dragon books.” I couch it that way because I’m not keeping a tally on how many dragon books are being written and sold. Certainly, dragons are popular, popular enough that lots of books about them are sold and that DragonCon is one of the largest of F&SF conventions

As a writer, I’ve never had much interest in them, most likely because I find the giant ones, in particular, rather unbelievable. From what I can determine, Drogon from Game of Thrones, [if I have this right] has a body some fifty feet long, roughly six times the length of a large adult male tiger and four times higher. Such a tiger would weigh between six and seven hundred pounds [the largest recorded was 850 pounds]. That would put Drogon’s weight well over 14,000 pounds, and Drogan certainly appears to be built as massively as a tiger.

But most dragons supposedly fly. The golden eagle is one of the largest raptors, with a wingspan of from six to eight feet and a corresponding weight of from eight to fifteen pounds. So, assuming some correspondence between weight and wingspan, a 14,000 pound dragon would need roughly a wingspan of 25,000 feet [structurally, of course, that doesn’t work]. By comparison, the wingspan of a B-52 is 185 feet. If a dragon were built like a golden eagle, a 185 foot wingspan would only lift a body weighing 375 pounds, but if magic is equivalent or superior to jet fuel, the Navy A-4 [with a 28 foot wingspan] might be an approximation to a 14,000 pound dragon.

Even in a very verdant environment, a tiger requires a minimum of 20-30 square miles, and in the Siberian locales it’s more like 250 square miles. How much land and how many villages would it take to support just one dragon? And for how long would the villagers put up with it before leaving or becoming troglodytes?

Obviously, 14,000 pound dragons must be very magic…or at least too magic for me to want to write about them.

Ideals, the Communications Revolution, and Consumerism

Once I’d spent time as a political staffer and then as an administration appointee in the federal government, it became more than clear to me that, for the most part, what passes for leadership in the federal government is nothing of the sort. It’s more like followership.

Even the Founding Fathers were responding to their background and education, but that wasn’t entirely bad because they at least knew history and had thought over what government did well and what it did poorly, and they also, as best they could, tried to craft a governmental structure they hoped would survive despite human greed, stupidity, and unbridled ambition. In doing so, they only had to hammer things out between themselves, and even that was dicey.

Also, they didn’t have to deal with the continuous pressure of public opinion and pressure created by the modern electronic media. Yes, there were totally scurrilous newspapers, and false and misleading broadsheets, but it took time, effort, and money to use them, at a time when money was limited, and when writing letters was severely limited by lack of time, money, and education.

Government was limited, by funds and the necessity of the times, to more basic aspects of governance, such as a system of laws, national defense, trade and foreign policy, including tariffs, and providing an overarching structure for often squabbling states.

Today, anyone who wants to know can find out what happened in government within hours, if not minutes, and can make their feelings known. Part of the great communications revolution we’ve undergone in the last generation means that media pundits and media idiots can frame issues and positions and broadcast them everywhere, drowning out more thoughtful voices, simply because, in our world, nothing is as simple as it seems, and simple appeals to people more than thoughtful, because thoughtful considerations of volatile issues usually require more complexity and time for reflection and analysis.

On top of that is that as technology has advanced, human abilities have increased, and that means that any action has more repercussions than in a simpler society. Those repercussions can’t always be foreseen, and even when they are most people who don’t like the forecast oppose any action to mitigate future problems. That means society and government become more and more reactive because it’s difficult to get a consensus to act until after the problems surface, and while government is dealing with the old problems, advancing technology is creating more.

Then add in the fact that the United States has become a consumer nation. Everything is a consumer good. News certainly is; it’s become entertainment for ratings, pandering to the views of various segments of the population, with fewer and fewer real facts.

A college education isn’t about learning to consider and think; it’s considered a vocational passport to a higher-paying job. Most college students, no matter what they say, think of education as an entitlement, and one that they deserve in order to get into a higher paying job or, sometimes, into the profession they want to enter, whether they’re qualified or not. This also means that a great number of supposedly educated people can’t or won’t really think. But all the communications technology and systems we have allow them to bombard their elected representatives with their views… and heaven help the representative who disagrees with the majority of his or her constituents, even if what they believe is at odds with the facts.

Today, a great many “idealistic” issues aren’t about ideals at all. They’re about political promises of goods and services, and there’s little substantive or realistic discussion about how to actually pay for and implement such promises.

Healthcare for everyone? It can’t exist. What they really mean is a certain level of basic medical care for everyone, that level being decided by the system, because potential healthcare costs are unlimited. For those who have effectively no healthcare, it’s a great improvement. Everyone else will pay, one way or another. Those who are wealthy, regardless, will have more. Is any politician really saying this? Hell, no. They’d be crucified.

Free college isn’t about education, it’s about a good. If you want better college education, limit admission to the top 20% of students [after finding a way to eliminate wealth/family structure bias] and make it free for all of that group. But that won’t happen because it will be viewed as discrimination. Instead, all the liberals are clamoring to give higher education to everyone who wants it, even though it can’t work financially.

At the same time, there’s very little discussion about supporting training in practical computer use, electronics, electrical work, heating and air conditioning, and all the skilled trades and fields that require specialized training (and often pay more than “college-educated” fields). Who is actually addressing this shortage?

Maybe the best way to address all this would be to ban all media news programs and political commentary, and limit the airwaves and the internet to either pure entertainment or verified facts, but that’s a “solution” worse than the problem, besides which, then people would find a way around that as well, most likely using verified facts in misleading ways.

So… I really don’t see any true leadership, not so long as the media and social climate reward followership more than realistic leadership, and government is regarded more and more as a provider of goods and services rather than a structure setting the rules for others to provide the goods and services.

Assumptions

A great many problems facing the United States today are the result of the unthinking acceptance of various mantras or beliefs by large groups of people.

For example: College is good for everyone. No, it’s not. Post-high-school education or training is generally beneficial, but there are all too many people in college today who don’t belong there, either because their abilities don’t lie in the areas benefitted by college or because they won’t do the work. That doesn’t include students who incur massive debt in obtaining degrees that won’t ever repay those obligations. This assumption also doesn’t take into account that every year twice as many students graduate from college as there are jobs that require a college education.

Ultra-liberal politicians seem to think that the “rich” can and will pay for massive federal programs. Guess again. While the rich underpay taxes massively, the U.S. federal deficit is currently close to a trillion dollars, and that doesn’t include any of the costs of what the far left is proposing. Right now, the top one percent of all taxpayers, some 1.4 million, in total, reported gross income of slightly over $2 trillion and paid $540 billion in taxes [about 27%] If we took 70% of the income of the top one percent, that would amount to $1.4 trillion, leaving, after paying off the deficit, some $400 billion. That sounds like a lot, but it’s not, given what the far left is proposing.

Take free college tuition. Tuition here at the local university is around $8,000 a year, far below that at most state schools. There are currently 20 million undergraduate students in U.S. colleges. That works out to $160 billion annually… Nationally, the average in-state tuition is $10,230, according to the College Board, and at that rate, “free college” will cost over $200 billion a year, and that’s just one program.

The New York Times
asked a number of economists and think tanks to cost out the increased costs of “Medicare for all.” The lowest estimate suggested a $2 trillion increase, the highest $3 trillion. Given that estimates are almost always low for government programs, these costs can’t be paid by just the top one percent of taxpayers, or even the top ten percent.

And we’re not even talking about our overwhelmed immigration system or our underfunded schools or our crumbling infrastructure.

Nor our National Park System, which doesn’t have the funds to repair everything and is operating with roughly 20% fewer rangers at a time when visitor numbers are higher than ever.

But everything will be all right once we really tax the rich.

NEW COMMENT POLICY

IN THE INTERESTS OF BREVITY, I WILL NOW BE EDITING ALL COMMENTS THAT EXCEED ROUGHLY 250 WORDS. I WILL ALSO REMOVE SUBSEQUENT POSTS THAT APPEAR TO BE AN EFFORT TO GET AROUND THAT LIMIT. COMMENTS ARE WELCOME, BUT TOO MANY HAVE BECOME LONG PHILOSOPHICAL EXPOSITIONS, AND SUCH LENGTHY EXPOSITIONS SUBVERT THE PURPOSE OF COMMENTS.

Hard Choices

In any society, some individuals will succeed… and some will fail… and some, for various reasons, will only make a minimal effort, if that. In the so-called natural state, which never completely existed, the results would be obvious. Those who failed or could not or would not work hard enough to survive would die.

For all of human history, such a totally natural state has never existed. Fossil and other remains show that all societies have assisted people, at least at some stage of their life, who would have died much sooner otherwise. So every society has faced the question of who gets help and under what circumstances. Because humans are incapable of surviving without assistance for years after birth, all societies help the majority of infants, but not always all of them.

Only in the last century or so, however, have societies embarked on large-scale, societally-wide programs of assistance. Some programs, such as many of those involved in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, were designed as much as economic stabilization efforts as assistance efforts, but the creation of the Social Security system was definitely a program of assistance for the elderly.

Over the seventy or so years since then, U.S. federal government assistance and support programs have grown enormously, to the point that so-called assistance “entitlement programs” comprise roughly 42% percent of total federal spending and are projected to increase yearly, yet last year almost 30% of federal spending had to be borrowed, i.e., deficit spending. Over any length of time, that much of a deficit can’t be financed without catastrophic economic impacts

The largest assistance programs are Social Security and Medicare. Without an SSA tax increase of some sort, the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted in 15 years, and under current law, benefits would have to be reduced by roughly 20% because incoming SSA taxes would only cover 80% of benefits. The situation with Medicare is worse, given the skyrocketing costs of healthcare.

While many people like the idea of wealth taxes and higher income taxes on wealthy individuals, such taxes, even if they were enacted in a fashion that disallowed subsidies and selective taxable income exemptions and cuts, which is not at all certain, couldn’t make up the current deficits, let alone future ones, without effectively confiscating the majority of income from the upper middle class and upper classes, and I seriously doubt that most of them would stay around for such taxes to take effect.

So any realistic reform is going to have to include significant but not confiscatory tax increases, especially on the wealthier members of society, coupled with spending cuts and reforms in a vast array of programs. The political problem is that no one wants his or her benefits/programs cut, and everyone, including the rich, wants someone else to pay for it.

All the rhetoric – on both sides – won’t change this reality. But people and politicians, being what they are, will insist that their one-sided approach will solve the problem.

Welcome to the 2020 political misrepresentation season.

Taxes and Income

Over the past two years, there’s been an incredible furor over income and wealth inequality, which has been compounded by the fact that the U.S. government has been running huge deficits, because Congress doesn’t want to tax people enough to pay for what Congress wants the federal government to do. Then add to this the fact that the incomes of most American families, i.e., those in at least the bottom sixty percent of all families, have on average stagnated or declined. Add to that the fact that government inflation measures don’t include all costs of living.

As a result, liberal politicians are pushing for programs to benefit those hurt most by stagnant or declining incomes, pressing for increasing taxes on the rich and especially the “super rich.” Those proposals include higher tax rates on those with incomes over, say, $10 million annually, or even annual wealth taxes.

Conservatives, in response, cite figures that show that the top ten percent of all earners pay 70% of all income taxes and that the top one percent of earners pay more total taxes than the bottom ninety percent combined.

And both sides are wrong, in a number of different ways. First, both sides are either not understanding the tax system or misrepresenting it, if not both. Second, concentrating on taxable income ignores the fact that the rich have ways of legally under-reporting their actual income, ways that are not open to taxpayers less well-off, as well as the effect of vast wealth. Even without taking into account that under-reporting, the top one percent, on average, only pay effective federal income tax rates of about 23%.

The 70% marginal tax rate on incomes over ten million dollars means just that. After you’ve made ten million, you would only get to keep $300,000 out of every subsequent million. It doesn’t mean that the government gets 70% of your first ten million, although a lot of people on both left and right, from what I’ve read, seem to think that’s what it means.

More important, a lot of that purported revenue won’t get collected. Why not? Because if the income arrives through capital gains or qualified dividend checks, the tax rate is still only a maximum of 20%. Or if the income qualifies as “carried interest,” or… [a good tax accountant can fill in all the other exceptions, but that’s the idea].

Right now, the tax code is riddled with so many exceptions, variable rates for different sources of income, and credits for various types of investments [often justified under the dubious rationale that such investments create jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist] that changing rates will do very little to affect the income taxes paid by the top one percent. They will have an effect on well-paid professionals in the top five percent who are moderately well-off, but not well-off enough to benefit much from the tax avoidance available to the super rich.

What tends to get overlooked in concentrating on income and tax rates is the impact of wealth. In the last thirty years the share of wealth held by the lower 90% of the population has dropped by ten percent, so that now the top ten percent hold almost eighty percent of the nation’s wealth, while the top one percent hold half of that, forty percent. That stock of wealth is held in various means, but it all produces, over time, income that is taxed at a far lower rate than income earned by working. This is one of the principal [pun intended] reasons behind the old saying that the rich get richer. If you make more money than anyone else and you’re taxed at a lower effective rate than the hard-working professionals in your company… of course, you’re going to get richer.

But the bottom line is simple. Under the current tax structure, fiddling with rates won’t raise that much more money, and that includes lowering them, Laffer Curve enthusiasts to the contrary. The only thing that will increase tax revenue is eliminating all the subsidies and loopholes, and varied rates for the same amount of income (based on its source)… and then see what happens. Right now, no one really knows just how much tax revenues have been bled off through those devices, but it’s definitely substantial.

But until Congress actually works on the tax structure by eliminating all the special treatments of various types of income and by eliminating all of the exemptions and tax credits, merely changing marginal tax rates won’t address the real problems or the deficits, no matter what the rhetoric is.

The “Race” Problem

Recently, I came across an article in New Scientist dealing with genetics and race, which pointed out that there is no single gene or even a group of genes that could define “race.” Then someone called my attention to white supremacist propaganda ranting about how certain groups are trying to destroy “the white race” by supporting unlimited immigration to the United States.

While human beings come in a range of skin, hair, and eye colors, regardless of those traits, they’re all biologically compatible and can have offspring together, and in a few generations it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to tell their origins. The descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings range in color and complexion from apparently “pure Caucasian” to “pure African” [not that either genetically pure Caucasians or pure Africans exist, because everyone is mix of genes whose origins go back at least hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, albeit with occasional mutations, e.g., blue eyes and red hair, cropping up along the way].

Test after test has shown that, while there are ranges of physical and mental characteristics among any set or group of people, all groups of all colors, given adequate nutrition and nurture, have the same general ranges of abilities and intelligences, with minor variations. History shows that there have been great empires built by people of every color and that there have been great geniuses of every color.

So why the hell do so many people get upset about “race”?

Because most people are most comfortable with others like themselves, and they’re wary, if not fearful, of people of a different color or a different culture. And when times are troubled, or people have a hard time making ends meet, it’s far easier to blame those who are different.

Right now, there’s a whole group of former middle-class workers in the United States who feel disenfranchised, and who have certainly been hurt economically, by off-shoring, by automation, and the global economy… and most of the white supremacists come from this group.

Yet the problems these people face weren’t created by minorities of color or by migrants; they were created by, if you will, money-grubbing white Caucasian males looking to maximize their profits in a capitalistic society that currently permits all manner of economic excesses.

So why aren’t the white supremacists blaming those who really caused their problems? Why are they fervently supporting a blond, blue-eyed white male who personifies all those who’ve created their problems?

How Detailed Is Enough?

Many, many years ago, I wrote occasional reviews for a semi-noted SF&SF magazine… until I got into an argument with one of the editors about some details in a book. Two of those details stand out in my memory. In one case, the protagonist was using dental mirrors to look around corners, except dental mirrors aren’t that good for looking any distance. Bicycle mirrors would have been much better. The second detail was an address. The author placed a stylish town house in Georgetown on a street in the middle of an area that has been exclusively commercial since at least the 1950s [and the novel was set in the 1980s], and where such stylish dwellings have not existed for decades. And the book wasn’t alternate history, but supposedly set contemporaneously.

Now, I didn’t trash the book in my proposed review, but I gave those two examples and several others and said that the author’s lack of attention to detail detracted from the overall quality and that while it was a good book, it wasn’t a great book. The editor said that he couldn’t publish the review unless I removed the specifics. He didn’t dispute the accuracy of my observations; he just didn’t want them in the review, and I got the feeling that he really wanted me to be more enthusiastic about the book.

That was the last review I ever wrote.

Obviously, as my readers know, I like details. And I try like hell to make them realistic and relevant to the story. Some readers suggest I go overboard with details, but to me, at least the main streets in books should have names, unless the town is as small as Haven and only has one main street. Bricks come in a range of colors, but those colors are determined by the local clays, which means that bricks in a given town, especially a small town, are likely to be of the same color and shade. The kind of roofs a town has should reflect the economy and the climate.

Likewise, music in lower-tech cultures tends to be based on percussion or rhythm and rhyme because non-rhymed, non-rhythmic lyrics are difficult to remember. That’s why I get irritated when writers put down what are supposedly ballads or folk tune lyrics that seem to have neither rhyme, meter, nor rhythm.

And then there’s money. EVERY culture has a medium of exchange, and even in this day and age, it’s amazing how many books never even mention what that medium might be.

Not every street needs a name, nor does every dwelling need to be described, nor every transaction counted out… but lack of detail makes a book a generic throw-away- after-reading, and too much detail makes it a throw-away-before-finishing. And, of course, each reader has his or her threshold of what is too much or too little detail.

But…as the old saying goes, the devil’s in the details.