Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Exactly What Was That All About?

The other day I read a “guest” editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune, a moderately liberal paper that’s won a lot of awards for journalism. The editorial was fairly well-written, but I had no idea what the point was, unless the “editorial” was just an expression of frustration and rage (about which I earlier blogged), but all I could figure out was that the writer was clearly unhappy about the conduct of one of the members of the Salt Lake School Board. Even after reading the editorial three times, the only point I could discover was that the writer was upset at the perceived patronizing attitude of the school board member. I had no idea whatsoever what issue was under discussion (and with all the Covid-19 school and teaching related issues, I’ve been following the news in those areas closely). Nor could I determine who had what position and why.

Now, I’ve taught, and I’ve also had a number of children in very different school systems over the years. In all those years, I’ve seen dedicated and knowledgeable educational professionals at every level. I’ve also seen arrogant and patronizing buffoons. I’ve not only seen parents with more knowledge and understanding than the teachers they’re addressing, but also parents who are opinionated, ignorant idiots who just want things their way.

So why did the paper print what amounted to a non-specific rant, with no supporting facts, except for the fact that the school board member replied with a six page letter that the writer didn’t appreciate [because the writer saw it as patronizing], and not even a hint of what the issue was.

I have no idea why it was printed, only that it shouldn’t have been printed in the form in which it was presented. Disagreement is certainly part of life and news, but unless a reader was actually at the meeting and read the written response, I’d defy anyone to decipher what was going on, and even then they might have trouble.

While this was an extreme example, I’ve seen way too much of this kind of editorializing over the past few years, where very angry people assume that everyone knows what their issue is and the basis for their anger. Guess what? Even well informed and educated individuals may not, and, even if they do, they may have reasons for not agreeing, but they certainly can’t support such anger if they don’t know what to support, and many will tend to make up their minds about the writer based on that anger, rather than the facts.

But, of course, that’s what some political figures want… and it’s a very bad example of leadership.

The Lottery…

Shirley Jackson’s famous story – “The Lottery” – is a horror tale about how a town chooses who periodically gets killed for reasons they have long since forgotten. The victim protests that the choosing wasn’t fair, but to no avail.

Right now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers feel the same way, particularly in states like Utah where school boards are planning face-to-face teaching, starting in two to three weeks, despite the fact that cases and death rates are climbing, not declining. One teacher protesting at the state capitol carried a sign proclaiming: I can teach from a distance. I can’t teach from a coffin.

Too much of the uproar about getting children back in school, face-to-face, concentrates first on the students and second on their parents needing to get back to work (and the economy). In making decisions about when face-to-face teaching will resume, almost no one is asking about the effect on teachers and whether the school systems have the resources to safely resume teaching.

Not only are the resources not there, but in most cases, traditional teaching can’t be resumed without a high risk of contagion. When professional athletic teams, with their millions of dollars, can’t resume even practicing without spreading the disease, just how are underfunded and overcrowded schools supposed to resume classes without spreading the coronavirus?

Add to that the fact that almost 30% of public school teachers are over age fifty and 17% [close to a fifth] are over fifty-five. In Utah, the majority of substitute teachers are retired full-time teachers. At the university level, nation-wide, the situation is even worse, with more than 35% of university faculty being over age fifty-five.

On top of all that, at least here in Utah, both secondary schools and universities are still talking about resuming fall football and basketball.

Welcome to the latest version of Jackson’s lottery.

Masks as Theatre ?

A recent blog comment claimed masks, especially cloth masks, were only “theatre.” That’s simply not true, and you can prove it yourself… but first a few basics.

A cough can travel as fast as 50 mph and expel almost 3,000 droplets in just one go. Sneezes can travel up to 100 mph and create upwards of 100,000 droplets. Several studies found that larger droplets [from someone not wearing a mask] easily carried for more than two meters and as far as six meters. Those droplets and aerosols can hang around for hours, and longer in poorly ventilated areas.

The British medical journal The Lancet recently released a meta-analysis on studies dealing with “person-to-person virus transmission.” Among the many findings was one that masks were an effective way to reduce transmission, since they function as an effective “source control” restricting the flow of droplets and aerosols.

This past July 16th, the CDC released a statement specifically addressing cloth face coverings, stating that they should be used, and that studies showed that they were effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19. Masks block direct airflow, which reduces the amount of virus expelled and the distance it can travel… and that reduces contagion.

And if you’re still skeptical… look at the world map. Places with high masking rates and social distancing are doing MUCH better than we are.

By themselves, masks aren’t a cure-all. They are rated at reducing the risk of virus transmission by roughly 70%, but many flu vaccines don’t do much better. Masks also have one other problem. My mask protects you twice as well as it protects me. In effect, my fate lies more in your hands than mine. Now, that’s always been true in every functioning society, but most people don’t see it or like to admit it. We are indeed our brother, or sister’s keeper.

And that’s a problem in a country where some 40% of the population believes a President whose operating maxim is effectively, “Me first, screw you.”

Now…for that personal proof. Hold your hand fully extended in front of your mouth. Cough, hard. If you’re reasonably healthy, you should be able to feel the airflow from your cough on your fingers. For most people that’s a distance of a little less than three feet. Put on a mask, and do it again. When I do it, and I have fairly strong lungs, I can’t feel any airflow through the mask [mine is cloth, with HEPA filter inserts]. Some airflow will escape through the edges of the mask, but any aerosols or droplets emitted will stay close to the body, and combined with social distancing and adequate ventilation, will effectively protect others.

As for masks being theatre… that’s not quite true. Wearing a mask isn’t theatre, but not wearing one is… and it’s called tragedy.

Doing the Right Thing

“Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all other possible alternatives.”

This quote has often been attributed to Winston Churchill, but there’s no evidence Churchill ever said or wrote it, although one of his biographers suspected that he felt that way, and, historically, the U.S. has certainly acted in that fashion.

A number of the Founding Fathers felt slavery was wrong and should not have been allowed, but, because they allowed it, the result was the prolongation of a barbaric practice, followed by a Civil War, and another 150 years of suffering. At some point, we might actually get around to finishing doing the right thing.

The same could be said of the right to vote for women, and equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender. Or our failure to confront Hitler when it wouldn’t have cost so many millions of lives. It took rivers actually catching fire and air pollution killing people before the U.S. would enact environmental protection legislation. The carcinogenic effects of smoking tobacco were first noticed in 1912, and definitely established by the late 1930s, but the tobacco industry was disputing that evidence well into the 1960s. There are numerous other examples as well, such as automobile seatbelts and lead in paint and gasoline.

And now we have another – the fact that masks definitely reduce the spread and the fatality level from Covid-19. What’s key about this is that the greatest effect of masks is that of keeping the wearer from spreading the contagion.The medical and health professionals can and have documented this, but the President and many state governors won’t mandate masks, and because masks are inconvenient and uncomfortable, all too many people won’t wear them unless they’re mandated.

And, once again, we’re not only not doing what’s right, but adopting strategies that are demonstrably incorrect and dangerous, and which will cause tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of permanent health damage.

And people wonder why there’s a trend toward authoritarian governance [even though it has an even worse record than democracy]?

Selfishness/Stupidity and Covid-19

Here in Utah, the majority of people are effectively refusing to social distance and to wear masks. National Parks are heavily visited, if not with the huge crowds of last year, and people visiting them aren’t really social distancing or wearing masks. I suspect that this pattern is true in many other states as well. Our governor has mandated masks for anyone in government buildings, for employees of any business serving the public, for anyone in all healthcare facilities, and for all students, teachers, and educational employees.

At first glance that sounds fairly restrictive, except that it means that patrons of restaurants and businesses don’t have to wear masks, nor does anyone in public spaces. And while major chain stores are now requiring masks, most have quietly indicated that they won’t risk employee lives to enforce that requirement. The result is that less than ten percent of the population here is wearing a mask, except when absolutely required to do so.

Unless people change, and they’re showing no sign of doing so, or unless government cracks down, and it shows no sign of doing so, Covid-19 cases and fatalities are going to continue to climb.

Even as case numbers are rising, because of economic and social pressure, the state plans to open all schools and universities in September, and the local university is touting that it will have football and basketball as well.

Early studies indicate that while young children [under 8] have a very low risk of contracting Covid-19, they can still be carriers. Older students, particularly teenagers and young adults, have a much higher chance of contracting it and carrying it, especially asymptomatically, and with high numbers of cases in the state, there’s no way that some students won’t carry it into the classroom.

This problem could be handled… if caseloads were low and declining, but they’re not.

What tends to be overlooked in this back-to-school rush is that, first, teachers have families, and those families include vulnerable individuals. Second, a significant number of teachers, particularly university faculty, fall into the “grandparent” category. Third, studies show that teenagers and young adults are among the worse at hygiene and social distancing, particularly over time. Fourth, schools and universities draw students from such a variety of backgrounds that those students are bound to include those carrying Covid-19 asymptomatically or otherwise. Fifth, so far at least, there are absolutely no screening processes for students in place. Sixth, disinfecting and maintaining hygienic conditions is expensive, and thus far on the university level, class-to-class disinfecting is yet another burden being placed on faculty.

Under these circumstances, at least here in Utah, I can see Covid-19 taking out, either temporarily or permanently, a significant number of teachers. And everyone is ignoring this almost inevitable result, except for teachers, who are extremely worried, worried enough that some are retiring or resigning.

And, unless matters change, because too many people are self-centered, and won’t take precautions, teachers, once again, in yet another way, are the ones who will pay for that combination of stupidity and selfishness.

Race or Rage?

When I looked at the cover of the latest edition of the Economist the other day, the illustration held a large single word, in a black and white pattern, which I initially read as “Rage,” along with a few other words saying it was the new ideology and that there was something wrong with it.

My first thought was that rage was definitely a real problem here in the United States, but belatedly I realized that that large single word was “Race.”

In fact, both rage and race are huge problems in the U.S. and, for the most part, from what I see, the people who are the most opposed to resolving the issues around race are largely the same ones who are showing the most rage, although there are also those extremists on the left who also carry a fair amount of rage.

When employees of stores are assaulted and in some cases killed for requiring customers to wear masks, it’s more than an issue of public health. Nor is it a question of civil rights, because everyone is being required to wear a mask, but rage at having to comply with a standard they see, not as a public health measure, but as a restriction on their ability to go where they want to do dressed the way they want to dress. In short, they don’t give a damn about the health of others.

Those who loot out of rage in demonstrations about race aren’t addressing the lack of civil rights, but committing a crime under the cover of civil rights. They also don’t give a damn about others.

Where I live there’s a great deal of anger against the restrictions required to combat Covid-19, yet we’ve never had the absolute lock-downs required elsewhere. Not surprisingly, case numbers are climbing here, yet the opposition to masks and social distancing is also rising. The Mothers Against Masks broke into a school board meeting the other day, opposing any mask requirements for their children in education. I still can’t understand their rationale. Yes, children are less vulnerable, but they’re far from invulnerable, and they can certainly carry the virus to others more vulnerable.

At the same time, governors – and the President – have been reluctant to mandate masks, again I believe, because of the rage and anger it creates.

Minorities are vulnerable to economic and social discrimination that makes it more difficult for them to improve their lives, but when they protest, it’s often in anger against injustice, and it is a form of rage against long-standing unfairness. Yet their rage and the reasons for that rage have been largely ignored for generations. At the same time, blind rage against that continuing oppression just strengthens those who oppose social change.

Rage against oppression is at least understandable, if misguided, because seldom are those who suffer the effects of riots and looting the ones responsible for continuing oppression. Rage against public health standards is another matter, particularly since it’s self-centered and indulgent, badly rationalized, and, in the end, hurts everyone, particularly the vulnerable, especially poor minorities.

In either case, rage doesn’t fix public health or oppression.

The Danger of Expectations

Strictly in my opinion, one of the biggest reasons why the current coronavirus epidemic has resulted in so many unnecessary deaths is that this particular virus goes against medical and social expectations, as well as the “rules” of past epidemics. Part of those expectations also arose from the fact that we have vaccines and treatments for a score of diseases that once killed millions, and most Americans still can’t grasp the idea that this disease is a large-scale killer, because that goes against the societal expectations, even though those expectations have only been in place for little more than a generation.

While the effects and the mortality from Covid-19 generally increase with the age of those infected, its manifestations in those infected vary, seemingly from being symptomatically undetectable to being lethal, and lethal effects strike every age range, with the result that even young adults and even a few children have died.

Initially, the virus seemed to target the respiratory system almost exclusively and appeared to propagate primarily by contact. It now appears that, depending on the victim, it can affect a much wider range of bodily functions and systems, and a wide range of factors can affect how susceptible an individual is, regardless of age.

Recent research now appears to confirm that airborne droplets and aerosols are also a significant source of infection, something that the World Health Organization largely dismissed as a possibility until recent studies indicated the contrary.

Once the virus has a large presence in a population, it becomes exceedingly difficult to trace because so many of those infected are asymptomatic, and even those who do eventually show symptoms are contagious for days before symptoms appear.

All of the early misconceptions and the uncertainty and variability of infection basically created a feeling that Covid-19 was essentially an “old people’s” disease and that it would pass quickly. Even when it didn’t, and the data indicated that the virus was still a problem, states relaxed precautions, and opened up early. Almost immediately, younger adults started back to a “normal” life and became much more casual about taking precautions. And most states, and certainly the White House, ignored the possibility of silent contagion…and now the numbers of cases across the south and west have skyrocketed… and higher death rates will follow.

Which is another reason why it’s a good idea to follow the data… especially when that data indicates that “the rules” and expectations aren’t working.

What Don’t You Get?

A little more than twenty years ago, David Brin wrote a book entitled The Transparent Society, which, interestingly enough, suggested that the best way to fight the misuse of information technology was not to restrict information but to make it more widely available.

Since the book was published, between the growth of surveillance systems, the near-ubiquity of camera cell phones, and the spread of social media and the internet, it’s getting more and more difficult for most of us to hide anything [except financial shenanigans governed by algorithms, but that’s another story].

One of the reasons the Black Lives Matter movement has gained support is that people with cell phones and non-police surveillance systems have documented too many police abuses of power and spread them across the internet. Although those in the minority communities have known and complained about such behavior for decades, if not centuries, now that such events have been captured in living [and often dying] color, it becomes harder and harder for the law enforcement community to ignore or brush off those complaints about brutality and excessive force.

On a related front, while the Me Too movement was actually founded in 2006 as an effort to combat sexual harassment and abuse of women, it took off virally in social media after the exposure of the widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein in early October 2017. Here, too, the use of the internet has uncovered more than a few cases of gender harassment and sexual abuse, mainly of women, but also of men, and those of other sexual/gender orientations.

With the continuing expansion and accessibility of personal communications, this trend of what could be called “guerilla openness” is not only going to continue, but will likely expand, although more restrictive regimes, such as China, will definitely try to repress it.

Here in the United States, however, socially enforced openness is here to stay, and like most technological tools, it has its upsides and downsides. The downside is that false news, incorrect or inaccurate information can easily be spread and can destroy the reputation and sometimes the lives of innocents. The upside is that institutional and personal abuse and wrong-doing are harder and harder to conceal.

All of which brings up questions. What don’t corrupt cops get? With cell phone cameras possibly everywhere, and the increasing requirements for bodycams, just how long do they think they can continue to get away with brutality and abuse? The same questions apply to sexual harassers and abusers, particularly those in high places.

Because in a world where information – accurate and inaccurate – flows everywhere, before long there may not be that many places to hide… for better and worse.

If You Don’t See It…

In person and with your own eyes, it doesn’t exist. From where I sit in the semi-rural, very arid, mountain west, that seems to be the prevalent attitude about Covid-19…and more than a few other matters.

There’s no need for masks, unless maybe you’re old and decrepit, and social distancing? What’s that? No need of that any more, is there?

For most of the current Covid-19 pandemic, we haven’t seen many cases. Most people here don’t even know someone who’s had it. But now Covid-19 is beginning to creep, and even leap, into southwestern Utah. But I don’t see many masks, or much social distancing.

I do happen to wear a mask when I go out, and gloves. As a former Navy pilot, my feelings tell me nothing’s going to happen to me if I don’t, but I’m intelligent enough to know that sometimes feelings are wrong. That’s why I wear a mask, one with filters in it. In ninety degree heat, it’s not particularly comfortable, either.

In the statistical world, there’s a term that very much applies to Covid-19, and that term is “low probability, high impact.” It applies very much to the current coronavirus. Most healthy people without comorbidities won’t suffer much if they get Covid-19, but that’s far from absolute. But if you happen to draw the short straw… Death is definitely a high impact effect, even if it’s low probability for those under thirty.

Recent studies show that 4% of adults in their 20s who get Covid-19 will require hospitalization. That’s four out of a hundred, and that hospitalization will likely last weeks, and it will be expensive. Now, four out of a hundred doesn’t sound too bad, but, in California over 40% of the new cases are young adults, and as I write this, yesterday California had almost 6,500 new cases, of which 260 young adults will likely require hospitalization, and three will likely die. Those numbers are just for one day, and since hospitalization lasts several weeks, if those numbers continue, just the young adults will require another 4,000 beds, more if their hospitalization lasts more than two weeks.

In some southern states, over half of all new cases are people under 30, and those are just the diagnosed cases.

And, unfortunately, death from Covid-19 isn’t so low a probability for older Americans. More than 80% of Covid-19 deaths have occurred in people over 65, and most of those cases originated through infection from much younger people.

Besides the fact that not taking precautions (like wearing a mask, handwashing, and social distancing) could literally result in the death of more vulnerable others, it could also have a rather negative effect on younger, supposedly more resistant people. That’s because the other 20% of deaths have been adults between 18 and 64, and those deaths are roughly spread evenly across ages.

Most people wear seatbelts because automobile accidents are another variety of low probability/high impact personal disaster, and that disaster can also affect others, just like Covid-19. Only self-centered idiots refuse to use seatbelts.

The same can be said of those who refuse to wear masks in public spaces.

“We’re All in This Together”

I’ve seen and heard those words too many times in my life, most recently from a university president explaining why he was choosing to endanger faculty and students by deciding to have an in-person commencement in a month and to open classes in two, despite being in a state where the numbers of new coronavirus cases are at an all-time high and seem likely to go higher.

In a general sense, those words are accurate. If an institution, group, or country faces a problem, it’s likely to affect all those in whatever group is being addressed either directly or indirectly. I’ll grant that.

But what such rhetoric ignores or talks past is that, more often than not, the problem affects those whom the speaker addresses far more than it does the speaker. In the instance above, the university president faces a far smaller risk from Covid-19 than do the professors, instructors, and staff dealing with students. And in terms of age and medical conditions, the faculty and staff face a greater risk than do the students.

If a general or admiral says words like those about a coming military action, they’re unlikely to be the ones wounded or dying. The president of a large public company faced with hard times and possibly failing will certainly come out of a failure better than the vast majority of his employees, and if he turns the company around, he’ll definitely fare better than his employees.

I’ve seldom heard those words from really good leaders, and then usually when that leader was actually in a position similar to those he addressed, but more than a few times from those whose leadership is suspect. Maybe that’s just my experience, but I’ve been in more sectors of the economy, including business, government, and the military, and seen more geographically than most people.

To me, the phrase “We’re all in this together” is all too often an attempt to suggest that everyone shares the burden and the risk equally, to which I’d say in the words of another hackneyed phrase, “Tell me it ain’t so, Joe.”

Books Not Written

Every time I finish a book, or get near to doing so, or sometimes even sooner, a question comes to mind. “What are you going to write next?”

Sometimes, the answer is obvious. If I’ve just finished the first book of a series or sub-series, the answer to that question is obvious – the next book about those characters. Or it’s an idea I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and finally can’t ignore. Sometimes, the answer is anything but obvious.

Many of my readers, however, do have an “obvious” answer to that question. They want another book about their favorite character or characters. Another obvious answer for some of those at my publisher [thankfully, not my editor] is more of whatever series sells well.

But, whatever the book I decide to write, and, for whatever reason, that means other books don’t get written. Sometimes, even with a character I love and the readers love, there isn’t a good enough story there, as in the case of Charyn from Endgames, who has managed to put himself in a position that any real challenge to him would have to be so contrived as to be unbelievable in terms of the world he lives in (and no, I’m not going to twist the world out of shape to drag out another story for even the best of characters). Other times, an idea strikes me, but upon investigation, isn’t going to be believable and workable, even on its own terms.

Then, there are the characters and ideas that would result in good or excellent books, but which would require more than a single book to do well… and, if I’m in the middle of another series, they just don’t get my attention, although, at times, they do eventually get written. I had Saryn’s story [Arms-Commander] in mind for years before I wrote it. Even though I’ve written, on average, slightly more than two books a year over the past 30 thirty years, there will always be more characters and stories than I’ll ever be able to write… and most of those won’t get written.

But I’ll write as many as I can, so long as I can do it well, and my editor and publisher agree.

The Just-in-Time Economy

As I write this, the numbers of new coronavirus cases are approaching a new peak in the United States. How exactly did we go from declining numbers to what appears will be new highs in a handful of weeks?

Citing a slogan from another time and another context, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Almost everything in our economy is designed for the short-run. Profits are tabulated quarterly, if not weekly. Companies maintain little inventory, partly because inventory not sold by year-end is considered taxable income, and rely on just-in-time deliveries. Retailers and service industries have high percentages of employees working variable hours depending on demand, and more “professional” services are being outsourced.

According to numerous studies over the last several years, 75-80% of U.S. workers are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and 40% of all Americans can’t pay an unexpected expense of $400 without selling something or going into debt. Add to that the fact that roughly 60% of healthcare insurance is paid by employers.

So what happened when the U.S. shut down much of the economy to keep the coronavirus from spreading?

Unemployment jumped to the 13%-14% level, and government had to create massive amounts of money for unemployment, stimulus, payroll protection, and other worker and business support programs… and the funds supporting those programs are running out. State budgets are being savaged by lack of revenue and ongoing expenses, and, unlike the federal government, states can’t run long-term deficits or print money.

Over the past century, the U.S. economy has become, like business, a just-in-time operation, and with already massive government deficits…there’s just not enough money in the coffers of either governments or businesses to keep paying workers and the other bills. Almost all workers have no cash reserves to speak of, and many are already desperate. Tens of thousands of businesses will close… and stay closed… as a result of the shutdown.

So… there’s enormous economic and political pressure to “re-open” the economy, despite the fact that models show doing so will result in more than 60,000 additional deaths.

No choice is good in this situation, but the dollar cost or death toll cost wouldn’t be nearly so high if the U.S. weren’t so deeply tied to a short-term profit-maximizing just-in-time economy.

This situation reminds me, bizarrely, of an old time commercial for automotive oil filters where a mechanic explains that without good oil filters and maintenance, car engines fail. Then he says, “You can pay me now… or pay me later [to rebuild your engine].”

We haven’t even begun the long process of paying for an underfunded, over-leveraged, just-in-time economy… and we’ll be paying in both dollars and deaths, most likely for several generations.

Hidden Costs

Most adults know that basic goods have a cost to produce and a price at which they’re sold, and if the producer doesn’t cover his costs with enough to spare for him to live on… then he’s not going to be in business that long [unless someone’s subsidizing him, but that’s another question]. Most of us also know that there are other costs in life. If you want to be a doctor, then there’s the cost of medical school, and the time spent as an intern and a resident – and maybe more training beyond that in some specialties. Most “professions” require additional education and training beyond four years of college.

But there are other non-dollar “costs” that aren’t so obvious, and many aren’t considered costs at all.

I spent roughly twenty years in politics as a staffer, political appointee, and consultant, and two of the unacknowledged costs were long hours and the requirement to live in Washington, D.C., with high costs of living and/or a long commute, if not both. Political professionals who want to make a living at politics are essentially limited to living in restricted locales – large cities, state capitols, or Washington, D.C. Perhaps the highest cost is the effect of high pressure on health. Yet another cost is uncertainty. In those twenty years, I could have been released or fired at a moment’s notice [and it did happen]. Then there’s the psychological cost of continually trying to please [or at least not displease] conflicting constituencies convinced that their viewpoint is the only correct one while trying not to be undermined by your supposed friends [who are politically often more dangerous than the opposing party].

Other professions have similar costs. Academic university-level jobs that can support a family, especially these days, not only require a terminal degree, but will likely require relocation, sometimes more than once, and working under rules and practices that constantly change without apparent rhyme or reason, while laboring under various delusions, such as that every American child deserves and is capable of getting through four years – or more – of collegiate pedagogy or that technology can replace expertise, or that the newest idea is the best.

Professional actors and musicians, or for that matter, professional athletes, all compete in fields where essentially about 1/10 of one percent of those who finish their training ever make more than a bare-bones living, and those who do can almost never stay settled in one place, and, on top of that, can usually look forward to perhaps a decade of substantial income, possibly two at the outside, not to mention that the profession can easily destroy a personal life.

As in most fields, law is intensely competitive, particularly at the highest levels, and very few of the hotshot young attorneys actually make partner, possibly because some of the saner ones decide it’s not worth it – and then, given the nature of law, there’s the fact that they have to deal with clients with either insurmountable problems or more insurmountable egos.

Writing’s not any easier. I know a bit about that. In the first years of writing, I never even thought about self-promotion, but when I became a full-time writer, it became rather more important. Over a ten year period, I visited every bookstore I could manage to get to, somewhere in the neighborhood of 700-800 hundred [of course, you can’t do that now; there aren’t nearly as many bookstores]. That’s a time and effort cost. Then there’s the website, and answering emails and letters, and going to conventions and comic-cons and doing other author-outreach efforts. Most successful authors do a great deal of this [unless they have movie or TV deals], and with all budget tightening by publishers, bookstores, etc., authors have quite a range of non-dollar costs.

But these non-dollar costs aren’t unique to the professions I’ve mentioned. Virtually every job has non-dollar costs…and we tend to overlook them or accept them as a necessity. But they’re still costs, even if they can’t be totaled in dollars, pounds, Euros, pesos, yuan, or whatever.

The Big Gamble

Donald Trump isn’t wearing a mask. Neither are most of his supporters, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, and certainly most of those supporters who live near me aren’t. The Vice President insists that coronavirus cases are going down, even when CDC data says the opposite. Tomorrow, Trump will be holding an indoor rally for 20,000 people in Tulsa, with as many as 100,000 expected outside, and I’m willing to bet that most of them, if not the great majority, won’t be wearing masks, either. A number of Republican acquaintances have made it known to me that they believe that the danger of the entire coronavirus situation is overblown, if not an outright hoax. The university system here in Utah is declaring that fall classes will be conducted in person and begin on schedule, despite the fact that Salt Lake City is still in condition orange, and is considered a hotspot by the CDC.

So… what’s this all about?

It’s definitely not about public health, not with U.S. deaths over 120,000 and increasing daily, and with case numbers rising in 23 out of the 50 states.

Rather, it’s clearly about economics and politics, particularly politics, in the case of Donald Trump. Now that recent poll numbers show that, at least for the moment, a significant majority of Americans believe that Trump has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has apparently decided that the only way he can win re-election is if he can revive the economy, and that’s exactly what he’s pushing for, regardless of the number of additional deaths this may cause.

The rally tomorrow is clearly a gamble. If 20,000 or more of his supporters appear, and there’s no significant increase in coronavirus cases, he can trumpet to the world that the risks are overstated, and what’s important is the economy. This position is helped in public perception by the time lag between exposure and the appearances of symptoms, as well as by the fact that many of those infected won’t show symptoms, even though they’ll spread the disease. Also, if the crowd comes from a wide area, once they disperse, it will be difficult to trace development of infection. All the while, Trump, or his team, will be saying words to the effect that the coronavirus isn’t so bad, and look what Trump has done for the economy.

And, anyway, so far as Trump is concerned, another few thousand deaths, or even more than that, is a small price to pay for getting re-elected.

And… it just might work.

Automated Frustration

In this era of automated everything, where businesses large and small are doing their best to reduce costs, one aspect of most businesses has become the automated telephone system. Such systems come in two varieties. Those that aren’t excessively frustrating and those that are.

Among the systems that are most frustrating are those with a long menu and no option for anything besides specific topics that aren’t what you’re calling about. So after nine options, none of which relate to the subject of your call, you have to go through the menu and guess which option is the closest to what you’re calling about. That gets followed with a second menu that often turns out to have nothing to do with the subject you’re calling about. If you’re fortunate, you may find what you called about.

Then there’s the system that actually asks you the subject of your call. Except… it often doesn’t recognize the words you’re using because it’s only programmed to “accept” certain words.

The best systems, to my mind, are like the one used by my local pharmacy. If you know your prescription number and your phone number, you can refill the prescription automatically. If you don’t, you can switch directly to a pharmacy technician. If it’s after hours you can leave your name and number and describe your problem, and someone will call you back during working hours – and they do.

On the other hand, there’s the current IRS system, where there’s been no way to get an answer to your questions either online or by telephone for two months, and there’s no way to reach a live person. My inquiry wasn’t vital. After three months, I just wanted to know when I might get my refund. Even though I filed electronically, and received a confirmation, the automated system couldn’t even find my return. I’ll certainly survive, but there are millions of people out there who are facing financial distress… and a whole lot of them are in the same limbo…and for them it’s serious.

Even before the coronavirus hit, for anything other than a simple problem, it took an hour or more to reach a real person. I know. Last year, the IRS lost a check I sent them for an amended return [because you can’t file amended returns electronically, nor pay them electronically]. I knew the USPS didn’t lose the check because the Treasury cashed it, but it took three months for them to acknowledge that they found it [and I spent HOURS on hold waiting to talk to a real person].

Computers, automated answering systems, and incompetence can combine to create even more frustration. My wife didn’t get a bill on schedule from a financial institution for her credit card and wanted to know what she owed. So she called the institution last week. Even with her credit card number, Social Security number, address, and email, they wouldn’t tell her unless she could tell them what her last purchase had been. She had several small purchases recently, but she couldn’t find the receipts or give them exact numbers. Without that exactitude, they wouldn’t reveal her balance. She could, of course, go online and set up access to her account, something that she’s been reluctant to do, and which would just create another system with another password. They did agree to send another copy of the bill to the email on file and by regular mail. So far, she’s seen neither.

Then there were the pastries we ordered. Somehow the vendor’s system decided to send them to our daughter, because that was where the last order went. When we discovered that – three minutes after we got a confirmation email – we called the vendor… and ended up on hold. Twenty minutes later, someone answered. We corrected the shipping address. The person on the other end assured us everything was taken care of. Four days later, the pastries ended up at our daughter’s house. I’m sure she and her family will enjoy them.

Setting and Enforcing the Rules

Rules are critical in games and government, and there are two aspects to rules: (1) whether they’re fair and (2) whether they’re enforced fairly.

In both games and government, it’s sometimes difficult to determine the fairness of rules and enforcement, but these days, with the growth of both national and personal recording media, i.e., cellphones, it’s gotten easier to show unfairness in both the rules and their enforcement.

For example, in the 2018 NFC championship game between the Saints and the Rams, a Ram defensive back slammed helmet-to-helmet into a Saint receiver as he was about to receive the ball, clearly illegal under the rules. No penalty was called, even though millions saw the impact. Later, the NFL admitted it was a bad no-call. Effectively, that no-call changed the outcome of the game. It cost the Saint’s players money and the chance to play in the Superbowl. The problem wasn’t the rules; it was the enforcement of the rules.

The same situation exists in government today as well, particularly in terms of police enforcement of the criminal codes. When enforcement is badly handled, it often goes viral, as in George Floyd’s death and in dozens of other instances.

But when the “rules” are flawed, that’s often not as obvious, particularly when seemingly “objective” rules or laws aren’t nearly as objective as their proponents claim.

Requiring a photo ID to vote is simple for many people. They already have one. But if you don’t, it can be difficult and time consuming to obtain one because virtually every form of ID requires confirmation, either other ID cards or a birth certificate, and if you don’t have a birth certificate in your possession, it can be time consuming, and sometimes almost impossible to get a certified copy without supporting documentation or appearing in person, and given most bureaucracies, can easily take hours, if not longer, spent waiting. This places a far heavier time and loss of income burden on lower-income workers.

So does having elections on weekdays. Most professionals can juggle their schedules or just take time off to go vote. A significant proportion of hourly-paid workers can’t… not without losing money, which is hard when every dollar goes toward basic necessities.

College admissions based on SAT or ACT scores were designed with the purpose of creating a way to evaluate applicants for college more fairly. And they worked reasonably well [for those applying] when the majority of applicants came from upper middle class or upper class white families. It’s clear that they’re far less accurate in evaluating abilities of applicants from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Part of the “rules” problem lies in the fact that most rules are created by elites of some sort, who write the rules, i.e., laws, based on their background and understanding… and then attempt to apply them to everyone, with enforcement based on the same assumptions. This works reasonably well in homogenous societies, but far less well in societies with significant numbers of differing ethnic/cultural groups… and much of the world is becoming less homogenous… and the previous homogenous majority, in more and more nations, is either failing to act or reacting adversely… which can and has led to civil unrest and violence.

Why Everything Takes Longer

Because we really needed to do some cleaning out – understandably necessary after living in the same house for almost twenty-seven years – about two weeks ago I rented a construction-sized dumpster, not because I thought we had that much “stuff” that had outlived its usefulness, but because the smaller sizes came with restrictions on what we could put in them, and the range of what I knew we had to get rid of exceeded those restrictions. I also rented it because, first, there were items that wouldn’t fit in my old Tahoe, and, second, because the local dump is a twenty minute drive from the house – one way.

The dumpster arrived on schedule, and I started disposing, and, after four days of intermittent serious effort, and my creative use of a moving dolly, I’d managed to lever and haul the two hundred pound plus broken down massage chair out of the garage where it had been residing for half a decade, because, unlike other appliances, the one we wanted didn’t include – even for a fee – the removal of the old one. Then there were the cheap and battered veneer over particleboard or oriented strand board computer desks, or the set of iron patio chairs that ended up in the storeroom after we discovered that the non-removable castors had a tendency to snap and break in a way that was not repairable [at least not without access to a machine shop and welding gear]. And there was more… including a raft of barely usable and decrepit devices, the incredibly heavy “portable” dog fence that a relative had gifted to us [and which turned out to be totally useless], the non-functional stereo designed for cassette tapes…

But… after all the junk was in the dumpster, the need for true-deep cleaning became obvious, and my ingenious wife presented me with a brand-new power washer she’d ordered in advance to really deep clean the deck and the brick and concrete patios below. The catch was that I had to assemble it, because it came in a box – since, of course, there wasn’t one to be had in Cedar City. The instructions suggested that “five minutes” assembly time was all that was required. I’m not a mechanic, but I’m reasonably handy, or I thought I was. It took almost two hours, one hour of which was finding two screws the size of the ones that weren’t included in the box, which was necessary if I didn’t want to wait a week or two for the manufacturer to send what they hadn’t included.

Then, it took me almost an hour to figure out how to actually operate the machine. I’ve flown military helicopters. In the early days of computers I actually replaced components to improve performance. Part of the problem was that the directions never mentioned how to change the pressure coming out of the nozzle. So it was trial and error.

After that, it actually took less time to power-wash more than eighty linear feet of concrete sidewalks and brickwork than it did to assemble and learn to operate the machine.

But it seems in our ever more technical world, matters get more complicated, even when they shouldn’t. The afternoon after the power-washer fiasco, a new printer arrived [by delivery because we have no computer stores anymore in Cedar City] to replace the old one, a printer that, although not that old, had decided only to print in two of four colors, even after “cleaning” and the purchase of brand new cartridges, which also I’d had to order online. Now, over the years, I’ve gone through close to a score of printers. So I thought it wouldn’t be that hard. Wireless printers… no sweat.

Wrong. First, the on-screen directions on the printer stopped at “choose wireless or Ethernet.” I found a way around that. Then the damned printer wanted to connect to the wrong network and wouldn’t let me enter the right one. So I shut everything down and started over. I got it connected to the right network, and it said everything was fine. Except that it wouldn’t print because the printer was “off-line.” The computer settings wouldn’t let me change that, either. So I had to delete the printer from the computer and reinstall it. It works fine now, but to go through essentially three and a half installations?

My wife won’t let me print the details of the three hours it took her to work out the installation of a “simple” additional app to our satellite TV system.

I could go on for pages about all the stuff that’s supposed to be easy to install and use… and it never is.

How about you?

Violence Won’t Solve the Problem?

Lots of well-meaning people have said this, or words to that effect over the years, generally after an egregious example of police brutality or a miscarriage of justice against blacks has ignited tempers and buildings. I’ve been one of those who said that… and the words are indeed true. But those words have become, it appears, merely an excuse for not doing very much after the violence dies down.

As a result, the injustices and brutality continue… and, when another terrible instance goes viral, so does the violence. That’s understandable… and unfortunate… because people get even more angry and frustrated when unfairness persists and major problems don’t get fixed.

Often, officials and politicians say it takes time. Oh? How much time did it take to get massive stimulus packages out to largely white-owned businesses? How much time did it take to get a massive tax break for the upper 1%? Trump can come up with an Executive Order to punish Twitter overnight, because they fact-checked his tweets, but he doesn’t seem inclined to deal with a double standard of justice, possibly because he thinks, as he did in the Charlottesville white power rally, that there are “good people” among the racists.

Many of the people who go along with the racists aren’t truly evil people, but they don’t understand just how pervasive the structural injustices are, and when someone attempts to remedy the problems, all they see is the government spending money on people they perceive as undeserving, and money that’s not spent on them.

What they don’t see, and often can’t or won’t see, is that almost every law on the books is enforced more harshly on people of color, and there are years of studies to prove it.

And, in the meantime, those who use the violent reaction to the latest example of blatant police brutality as an excuse for doing little or nothing might ask themselves how patient you’d be if you, your parents, your grandparents, and your ancestors had been subject to such brutality for roughly 400 years… and the politicians and courts still hadn’t put an end to it, in a country that hypocritically has praised itself for equality under the law for over 200 years.

Back to Normal?

Those touting the need for the U.S. to get back to “normal” as soon as possible are essentially relying on the argument that the coronavirus is dangerous just to the elderly and people with certain underlying conditions, and that those people should stay at home, while the rest of the nation returns to “business as usual.”

The problem with this argument is that there aren’t just a handful of people with underlying conditions, which include those who are obese, smokers, and people with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, chronic and severe kidney problems, and compromised immune systems. According to a paper recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, 45% of adult Americans fit at least one high-risk category. But it left out people in institutionalized settings, and in nursing homes in particular, which have accounted for a hugely disproportionate number of deaths.

In effect, too many Americans want to think of the high-risk coronavirus population as just senior citizens and people with underlying conditions, which they believe consist of a small percentage of Americans. In fact, that “small” population is somewhere around half of adult America and quite possibly more. That’s not a “tiny fraction” of the United States.

And for those in that category who catch the coronavirus and have symptoms, early statistics show that roughly twenty percent will require hospitalization. Half of those who survive will require lengthy medical care, and early U.K. studies estimate that roughly as many people as those who died will be permanently disabled and unable to work.

While children and young adults, in general, have a lower risk of serious effects from the coronavirus, that risk still exists, and those effects, while rare, are often life-threatening. In addition, as every week passes, doctors are finding more and more side-effects of the virus.

Also troubling is a series of studies out of China that show that over fifty percent of people infected with the coronavirus – including people who had no apparent symptoms – suffered permanent lung damage. These symptoms are also turning up in significant numbers in the United States.

Back to “normal” fairly soon? Not without more damage to life and health than most people realize.

Local or Online?

My wife and I buy a great deal of merchandise online. That’s not by choice, but by semi-necessity. I say semi-necessity because I don’t absolutely need those shelled pistachio nuts, but we did need the cleaning supplies vanished from the shelves of all the local emporiums. I buy my shirts online, and I do wear collared dress shirts almost every day, because no local store carries any color but white or pale blue, or a wide variety of cowboy shirts, which aren’t exactly my style. Paradoxically, the western wear store which carried boots I could wear has gone out of business; so now I’m buying boots online as well.

It’s not just clothing, either. We’ve had to purchase outdoor furniture covers online because the local home improvement big box store runs out of covers within a month of initial summer stocking… and seldom reorders. Now that all the office supply stores have closed, the go-to for such supplies is Staples online.

It’s not that Cedar City is dying. The population has more than doubled over the past 10-15 years, and we have auto supply stores, tire stores, and Mexican food restaurants, as well as more than score of fast food outlets, but the nearest decent women’s wear store is 55 miles away, which might explain why my wife’s clothes and shoes are bought anywhere but in Cedar City.

Part of this might be because Cedar City is a university town, but given the significant numbers of large and elaborate houses being built here – and inhabited – I can’t believe that we’re the only people in the town who have to resort to online purchases of a significant amount of goods.

Yet, usually, if there’s money to be made, there’s some entrepreneur ready to fill that need. If Cedar City can’t support one office supply store, when at one time there were three, when the population was significantly smaller, does that reflect a diminishing need for office supplies or lower profit margins for such stores… or both? I can see the decline in the sale of dress shirts for men and classy clothes for women, at least here in Cedar City, but the decline of western wear?

And even if these and other items no longer sell in large enough quantities to be “profitable,” does this mean that proprietors want more profit, or that there really is no profit in rural towns such as Cedar City, with a market area of approximately 50,000 inhabitants?

The result is that this reduced and diverted commerce goes elsewhere and reduces overall local income, as well as entailing a tremendous amount of waste in terms of the bubble wrap and cardboard used to package and deliver online goods. But if I have to choose between driving three hours one way [the nearest city to sell items not available here] to buy what might be called standard purchases or to use the internet… the internet wins almost every time… and the economy of Cedar City loses.