Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Lord of the Flies

Decades ago, in school, I had to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a book about middle-school-age boys marooned on an island, and how all the social norms quickly disintegrate into unvarnished cruelty in the absence of adult supervision.

I found the book all-too-true-to-life then, and recent revelations in social media suggest that the nature of “pre-adults” hasn’t changed much from what Golding perceived, if in a different context, that context being social media, where “adult” supervision is sadly lacking.

A recent New York Times story revealed how “seventh and eighth graders in a Pennsylvania town set up fake TikTok accounts impersonating teachers and shared disparaging, lewd, racist and homophobic videos.” Investigations revealed that roughly a quarter of the school’s faculty discovered they were victims of fake teacher accounts rife with pedophilia innuendo, racist memes, homophobia and made-up sexual hookups among teachers. In addition, students created 22 fictitious TikTok accounts impersonating teachers at the middle school. Hundreds of students soon viewed, followed, or commented on the fraudulent accounts.

The only disciplinary action was the brief suspension of several students and a lecture to an eighth grade class. Most interestingly, few of the perpetrators exhibited any remorse for their actions.

Not only has social media helped normalize anonymous aggressive posts and memes, leading some children and teenagers to weaponize them against adults, but it’s also fostered an attitude that destroying reputations, bullying other users, and attacking others with falsehoods is acceptable. Teen suicides have increased by more than 60% since 2007 and continue to rise with the growth in social media use.

Currently, social media linked suicides are primarily in the 10-25 age group, but what will happen when older individuals are increasingly targeted and their reputations savaged anonymously? And with the increase and technical sophistication of “deepfakes,” how long before no one will be able to verify the difference between real and fake – and what happens in an increasingly “online” world, when no one can trust anything or anyone?

Toning Down the Rhetoric

After Saturday’s attempted assassination of Trump, a wave of media comments issued forth along the lines of “tone down the rhetoric’ and “hatred and violence have no place in the United States.”

Most of the commentators, well-meaning as they appeared to be, seemed to forget who exactly had been the one who started the “hate talk,” with his calls to his supporters to “fight like hell” on January 6th, calls that touched off the attack on and invasion of the US Capitol. Over the next three years, Trump fanned the flames with various extremist posts, including calling anyone who opposed him “communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” saying that shoplifters should be shot on the spot, and proposing deporting eleven million people. Not to mention restricting women’s ability to control their own bodies and opposing any additional limitations on firearms (which is ironic in itself, given that he was shot with an AR-style 556 rifle).

Yet when those opposed to Trump’s views of imposing a right-wing authoritarian government pointed out the loss of freedoms involved, and the restrictions on democracy those would entail, the Trumpists called those opponents extremists, and, now, after the Pennsylvania shooting, many in the media are telling everyone to tone down the rhetoric, conveniently forgetting who dialed it up in the first place.

The other media/popular misconception is the characterization of the United States as a peaceful society. This misconception is embedded in most of the media commentary about how this violence wasn’t what America was all about.

More than fifty years ago, H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” He was unfortunately right. The United States was created by violence. The South was originally built on the violence of slavery. New England, the upper Midwest, and the great American West were subdued and the indigenous peoples conquered and suppressed by violence. We’re so violent a society that, with only five percent of global population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 500%, far outpacing population growth and crime.

Yes, we’ve made an effort to channel and conquer that violence, but the U.S. is one of the more violent countries in the world – in large part because an unspoken part of our culture is the freedom to be violent, so long as it’s not too violent.

The problem with Trump remains. That problem is that he believes violence and power in support of his ends are justified, and he and his followers also believe that those who point out his desire to destroy those freedoms Trump doesn’t like are evil extremists.

Far too much of the media is buying that “equation of extremism,” and now that Trump has already re-created himself as a “bloodied patriot,” it’s even more likely that, inadvertently or not, they’ll help him become President.

The Tragedy of Age

Throughout history, and in literature as well, we’ve tended to see two kinds of “age” tragedies – those of great individuals whose stars shone too brightly too early – from Alexander the Great to Orson Welles – and especially those who could have relinquished power at the peak of their greatness and who chose not to, only to see their reputation tarnished or destroyed in their efforts to hang on to power they struggled over a lifetime to obtain.

It doesn’t always happen this way, but it occurs often enough, largely because power tends to blind those who hold it, or to make them think that the inevitable won’t happen to them. Age is cruel. As the coach in Any Given Sunday says, as we get older, things get taken from us, often our judgement of what we can accomplish.

Joe Biden is no exception, both in losing capabilities he once had, and in failing to see that he’s lost some of his abilities. And, as in all tragedies, too many of those around him have a vested interest in not being truthful, while he is rightfully leery of trusting the truth spoken by his enemies because they want the power he is losing.

Then add Biden’s concerns about his opponent — a lying, conniving, power-mad narcissist who effectively wants to undermine if not overthrow the basis of democracy – and Biden’s belief (based more on the past than the present) that only he can stop Trump, and the United States faces a potential disaster well beyond Biden’s personal tragedy.

The entire scenario would make an incredible movie, but, in this instance, I’d definitely rather see the movie than be a bit player in the coming real-life reality show that combines the worst of King Lear and The Apprentice.

Please, Joe, open your eyes and exit gracefully, preferably stage left.

Unchanging Change

After more than fifty years in collegiate academia, my wife the professor has observed a lot. One of the most predictable aspects is what happens all too often when a new president, provost, or, occasionally, a new dean takes office. Too many of those individuals immediately want to change things, or as she puts it, to “reinvent the wheel.”

There are reasons for change, the most common being an attempt to improve the way things run, but all too often change only makes matters worse.

That’s because systems in any institution, whether political, commercial, or academic, come to be because they work. At times, they don’t function well, but they function after a fashion. Yet, seldom does any new administrator ask the most basic questions, such as how a system came to be, or whether the alternatives would be any better.

Usually, the system can’t be measurably improved because of the requirements placed on it. Improving the quality of education and the abilities of graduates requires asking more of both professors and students.

Asking more of students invariably results in more students failing, transferring, or complaining, if not all three. All of these reduce graduation rates at a time when professors are being pressured to increase graduation rates.

As most good teachers know, not all students learn in the same way, and the greater the diversity in students, the more that multiple different approaches are required to reach all the students. Any single approach will not reach some students. Reaching all students requires more time and/or more teachers, if not both. In the past, students whose learning styles weren’t addressed were effectively marginalized or flunked. Under current political conditions, this isn’t acceptable, and administrators pressure professors to use multiple approaches. Practically speaking, having a professor use multiple approaches without increasing the classroom time and homework or by keeping classes small (which aren’t economically feasible because universities are under pressure to keep costs down) means less material is taught, effectively dumbing down the curriculum.

At the same time, almost all college administrations require student evaluations of faculty. The majority of students downgrade demanding and challenging professors, and lower student evaluations result in adverse consequences for professors. So, often, the professors who require better work and accomplishments are rewarded less than “cheerleading” professors who require less… and professors who require excellence are often “counseled” to be more “positive” – or simply pushed out in one way or another.

The results are that, today, “cheerleading” seems to be prevailing, particularly because it keeps students happier and increases graduation rates.

This isn’t likely to change. Since the U.S. produces twice as many college graduates every year as there are jobs requiring a college degree, employers and graduate schools are cherry-picking the best graduates, and the employers are hiring a smaller percentage of graduates and using an increasing range of AI-styled systems, leaving a higher percentage of formerly “happy” students saddled with student loans they’ll have trouble repaying.

The system does work… after a fashion… but the increasing pressures on the universities and faculty result in more students flooding most campuses and less being learned by each student, while paying more.

This isn’t sustainable, but few in politics or academia will admit it, and those who try are usually marginalized or removed.

Change and the University

The usual reason for change in an organization is a professed desire to make the organization more effective and efficient. Yet many organizations, especially colleges and universities, make change after change without any significant improvements, and often those changes aren’t for the better.

Those running such organizations aren’t usually idiots; so why do they persist in seeking change that seldom results in anything but cosmetic change?

From what I’ve observed, they all believe that, in any organization, there’s room for improvement. And in an overall theoretical view, it often looks that way, but the problem is that too many managers/administrators are looking at managing people as if they were machines or tools.

In this sense, if largely subconsciously, the legislators in my home state of Utah regard colleges and universities in just that way. The state is paying the university in question to be a graduate-producing factory and the faculty and staff as machines in that factory, a factory that needs to increase the percentage of students obtaining degrees.

The factory analogy doesn’t work that well for colleges for several basic reasons. First, the raw materials (i.e., the students) aren’t, if you will, a standardized feedstock or even standardized parts. They exhibit a wider range of abilities, and over the years, universities have effectively been coerced and forced into accepting an ever-greater diversity of students.

Seventy-five years ago, that wasn’t nearly the case. Students were predominantly white males, largely from at least middle-class backgrounds, graded for possibilities and intelligence by standardized tests, and by far more rigorous secondary school grading than today. Colleges were designed to smooth off the rough edges and impart a basic ability to think and solve higher-level problems. Those with greater abilities, including the ability to roughly conform, were groomed for higher education in select professions. Along the way, those who lacked adequate intelligence (as measured by the system), lack of persistence, and lack of ambition (as defined by the system) were weeded out, with the result that in 1950, only a little more than 6% of Americans had a college degree.

Since then, universities have diversified the range of applicants that they accept and the fields of studies that they offer, so that 61% of high school graduates enter college, and over half of them graduate. As a result, today 54% of working age Americans have a college degree, either a four year degree or an two year associate’s degree, while census estimates for 2024 indicate 37% have a four year degree. On average, it also takes more time and resources, with 22% of students gaining bachelor’s degrees taking six years to do.

The U.S. higher education system has moved from a limited factory model where a high percentage of pre-selected students graduated (particularly those who survived their first year of college, since a number of state universities tended to flunk out disproportionate numbers of first year students in the years prior to 1960) to a non-factory model with far wider opportunity… but with a far higher cost for that education.

The second problem with the current factory model is that it doesn’t reflect the changes in the economy and society, yet politicians and too many educators tend to cling to the “factory model,” even though it’s no longer applicable, and keep tinkering with the system, year after year, seeking even higher graduation rates without realizing that roughly 40% of graduates end up unemployed or “underemployed” every year.

Tinkering with universities to increase graduation rates isn’t a solution particularly beneficial to students when there aren’t enough jobs for existing graduates, but I’ve yet to see any university leader or politician address that issue, most likely because universities have become job creation centers for not only the administrators, faculty, and staff, but also for the local community – especially if the college or university has a strong and profitable athletic department.

Given the astronomical cost of higher education, there’s also an incentive for the financial community to provide student loans. All the economic beneficiaries of college are supported largely by student tuition and fees, including the funds paid by the forty percent of the students who will never get a job making enough to pay off their loans.

But the pressure to increase graduation rates continues, even as college students, in general, learn less than their predecessors and pay more for that privilege.

Cold, Calculated, Cunning, and Cowardly

That’s my summary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with Donald Trump’s assertion that the President is immune from all criminal charges by virtue of his position.

Superficially, but only superficially, the decision makes sense. From the way I read it, as do virtually all legalists commenting thus far, the Court declares that the President is immune to criminal charges for actions related to his official duties, but is not immune for acts unrelated to his duties.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s guidelines for what constitutes an official act are so broad that, effectively, almost all conversations and acts with other federal officials could be considered as part of his official duties, even deeds as clearly criminal as tasking special ops to remove a political opponent.

Yet, at the same time, the Supreme Court did not really define what duties were official and what were not and returned the case to the federal district court. This took months to determine?

But the delay and the guidelines effectively foreclosed Trump coming to trial before the election, both actions reflecting political calculations to benefit Trump, and cowardice in keeping the lower courts from making a decision before the election.

In real terms, the Court has overturned the long-standing precedent that no one, even the President, is above the law.

More important than that, however, the Supreme Court’s decision is another step toward establishing in law what amounts to an Imperial Presidency in which the President is answerable to no one – and that is truly frightening, since 150 years of futile attempts to convict an impeached President have proven that Congress is incapable of reining in the President.

Behind the Numbers

In the latest edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, a reader wrote in asking why the Transportation Department was spending unnecessary federal funds and threatening to crack down on the airlines for abuse of “ancillary fees” when out of the millions of people who flew last year only 2,442 complained about those excessive fees.

This is yet another case of using irrelevant numbers to justify an abuse of power. Like millions of other travelers, for years I’ve resented having to pay extra to check a bag, to get a few inches more leg room, and in some cases, even having to pay extra to sit next to my wife. But did I complain to DOT?

Of course not, because I knew it would be futile. Even with DOT’s recent regulation requiring airlines to reveal all those extra fees, DOT doesn’t even have a mechanism for quantifying the complaints, let alone an accurate quantification of the cost of the fees.

So the fact that 2,442 passengers did complain only reveals that a small number were angry enough and had enough time to make a fruitless complaint. Also, the numbers are from last year, before DOT issued its ruling and provided a more open way to lodge a complaint. In addition, last year’s complaint numbers – and this year’s, when they become available – reveal little or nothing about the number of passengers inconvenienced or forced to pay additional fees at the last moment or for the total additional costs and aggravation imposed on airline passengers.

Another factor is that in a large number of cities and towns, there’s no effective competition. Take Cedar City. The only choice is Delta. In neighboring St. George (an hour drive, one way), we have American, Delta, and United, but there’s still no choice, because each of those airlines flies to radically different destinations.

Of course, since Aviation Week & Space Technology is an industry trade publication, there was no apparent comment by the magazine on the misleading figures. Now, I may have missed an article or two on the “ancillary fees” issue over the years, but I’ve been reading it since I was a Congressional staffer in the 1970s, and I don’t recall that much discussion about this issue. Even if I did miss such stories, allowing such a brazen misuse of numbers is poor journalism at best.

The other aspect of the letter that’s equally disturbing is the direct implication that neither the government nor the airlines should address problems unless lots of people complain. No reason to change unless people bitch, even if there’s no effective way to complain? And when there’s no real competition, more often than not? That’s just another example of corporate America at its worst.

The Housing Dilemma

For reasons of occupational necessity (jobs for lyric soprano opera directors/voice professors are rare), my wife and I moved to Cedar City in late 1993. At the time Cedar City had a population of a little under 14,000 people, while Iron County’s total population was 22,000. Today, Iron County’s population is 66,000 people, of whom 42,000 live in Cedar City, with an additional 9,000 people living in adjoining Enoch (which wasn’t even incorporated until 1996, and only had 2,000 people in 1993). In addition, the university, which had 3,500 students in 1993, now has an enrollment of 16,000.

When we arrived in 1993, we could see every house for sale in less than a day, and the pickings were slim. Every house we looked at was comparatively modest, and almost all the houses on the market were priced at less than $200,000. There were very few large houses, and fewer even on the market. We settled on the best existing house among those few we could afford… and then spent 20 years improving and adding to it.

Today, the average house for sale in Cedar City costs $400,000, up from roughly $114,000 in 1993. While $400,000 for a house sounds like a bargain to people from Colorado, California, and Las Vegas, and the lower cost draws retirees and others to build their “dream house,” all too many houses and even apartments are out of reach for most local young families, because Iron County has among the lowest average income of any county in Utah, roughly $36,000. And now, for the first time ever, we have a measurable population of the the homeless.

Yet now, we also have at least three “gated” communities with houses over a million dollars. Developers are building everywhere. The area around the university is filled with apartment complexes newly built for students, primarily because the university has only built two new student dorms over the past decade. And the formerly empty hills west and northeast of town are filled with mansions and mcmansions, largely occupied by immigrant retirees, while the flatlands that once held sheep and ranch and farm land hold newly-built cookie-cutter “average” houses that get inundated with every, if occasional, flash flood.

Cedar City has been discovered, but that discovery has been a mixed “blessing.”

The Reality Envelope

For better or worse, I read comments on my work by readers. I call them comments (although a tiny percentage are rants) because they usually reflect an emotional reaction rather than a deeply considered assessment. That’s fine with me because people largely buy books based on how they feel about them.

At the same time, I’m still surprised by some of the comments I read, where two readers of the same book (at roughly the same time) experience it so differently, one claiming it’s one of my best books, and the other declaring it’s the worst book they’ve ever read.

Sometimes, the reason for that discrepancy is obvious. When I write a book in the present tense, I don’t do it to be “literary” or pretentious. I do it because that brings a greater immediacy to the character and events and because I feel that’s the best way to tell the story. But I also know that a certain percentage of readers hate tales told in the present tense. That’s one reason why editors and agents are leery of books written that way, especially by new authors.

Another reason for differing reactions has to do with what I’d call the degree of mental openness of readers, and that openness – or lack of it – takes many forms. Although he was a brilliant attorney, my father never could get into what I wrote. His world view was circumscribed by cold hard reality. My mother was the one who understood and accepted change and other possibilities.

At the time I was first getting published, a majority of science fiction readers were male, and many of them were quite comfortable in accepting everything from faster than light speeds to time travel, conventions widely used, but still practically and theoretically impossible, but those readers were very skeptical about strong, well-rounded female characters. They were open to technological change but didn’t want to read about basic social change. In short, their enjoyment was restricted by the limits of what they could find socially/culturally acceptable.

Another aspect of why the same book gets differing reactions is because some readers conflate the behavior of a character with the author. If I write a character who is socially awkward in dealing with women, I get a percentage of readers who will say that I cannot write romance well. If I write a strong female character, certain readers will comment on the fact that I don’t understand women well. I’ve written several young women characters who embody characteristics of women I know, sometimes quite well, and been told that those characters are unrealistic because they’re not anything like the women the reader knows, i.e., my presentation conflicts with their reality envelope.

In general, most readers will accept fantastic technology and improbable magic systems set in economically and politically impossible societies more easily than a realistic portrayal of a society based on different cultural mores, which is something that all authors need to keep in mind.

Trust and Forced Trust

What most people fail to understand is that all working societies are based to a great degree on trust, but the type of “trust” varies from society to society, ranging from open and cooperative trust to forced trust.

In general, in authoritarian societies “trust” is based on fear and respect for power, the idea that if one doesn’t follow the rules, both those laid out in law and those enforced by those in power, those in power will either insure you follow the rules, willingly or not, or remove you from society in some fashion.

In the most democratic societies, trust is based primarily on shared values and the expectation that others will follow the rules, with a moderate policing system for those who refuse to follow the rules and a justice system to provide a check on that policing power.

Obviously, human societies cover a range between those extremes, although at present, the majority of nations tend to be either on the authoritarian side or extremely repressive authoritarian regimes.

That’s unfortunately understandable, because with the unrest and the comparatively rapid shifts in the ethnic/cultural mix within nations, large segments of the population in many nations don’t share the same values, or even the same language, and, while very few politicians or sociologists seem to want to talk about it, every language reflects and embodies a culture.

Among the reasons why the United States was initially successful was that the founding fathers shared a basic value system and language, and that those pressures also forced immigrants to adopt the English language and customs, which tended to reinforce those values, particularly in the non-slave states.

One of the seemingly unrecognized problems caused by slavery was that, in the slave-holding states, there were two conflicting value systems – the laws of the land and the values behind those laws and the absolutely authoritarian rule governing slaves, which also instilled a belief in both slaves and slave-holders that the most important value in life was not freedom, mutual trust, or cooperation, but power to compel others to obey, a mindset all too prevalent in the states of the old south.

What I see at present, both nationally and internationally, is growing distrust of those seen as “different,” combined with the absence of a desire to unite around a set of fundamental ethical/moral beliefs that the majority of people share or could share, and a growing desire to force those who are different to comply with the beliefs of those in power, while groups not in power compete to obtain power to use the government to enforce their beliefs.

And, as history so clearly shows, “forced trust” requires ever greater power and oppression to maintain itself.

The Consistent Liar

Even after being convicted of 34 counts of falsifying business records, Donald Trump is claiming he’s a victim of political persecution by a “weaponized” federal justice system, despite the fact that the case was brought by the state of New York and that there was no federal involvement whatsoever – except for the Secret Service agents guarding Trump.

But Trump’s no stranger to lies. The Washington Post followed and documented Trump’s false or misleading claims (otherwise known as lies) during his term as President, which totaled an incredible 30,573. What was more interesting was that the longer Trump was in office, the greater the number of daily lies.

For years Trump trumpeted a grossly exaggerated value of his real estate holdings, which is why he and the Trump corporation were found guilty of falsifying the value of properties in order to get more favorable terms from financial organizations.

Yet with this background and with all the furor about Trump’s conviction, the most striking aspect of the New York hush money case has been almost overlooked by the politicians and media.

That aspect? The case was all about lies Trump made to further his political career. He falsified business records to cover up paying a porn star not to go public about what amounted to a one-night-stand.

Whatever Trump does and wherever he goes, he spouts lies or grossly misleading statements, and the irony in the hush money case is that he wouldn’t have been in legal trouble if he’d told the truth or even if he’d simply not tried to pass off the payments as a business expense.

But Trump’s always played fast and loose with both the truth and other people’s money, and he continues to do, raising funds from political sources to pay off his legal expenses, while claiming that he’s a victim of political persecution.

The truth is that he’s finally the victim of his own lies, not that he or his supporters will ever see that, because it’s so much more satisfying playing the victim than acknowledging the massive array of lies and misleading statements.

The Wrong Question

The unequivocal “Guilty” verdict in the Trump hush money case has pundits and politicians all scrambling to answer one question: How will that verdict affect the November election?

The problem with focusing on that question is that it ignores a far deeper and more important question and that is how on earth such a profoundly unethical and unscrupulous man is still in contention for the presidency.

Trump had already been convicted of sexual assault, followed by two separate convictions of defaming the woman he assaulted. Now he’s been convicted of thirty-four felony counts of falsifying business records. He’s claimed that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. And the day after the latest guilty verdict, the news came out that he’s suing his niece for revealing details of his sordid behavior dealing with his own father’s estate.

That doesn’t even take into account his attempts to turn a mob on his own vice president and his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Or the boxes of classified material he illegally tried to hide at Mar-a-Lago. Nor does it include report after report of his vindictiveness, or his unparalleled record of documented lies.

Yet he’s still in close contention for the Presidency.

Some pundits claim that much of the vote for Trump is more of a vote against the too-liberal Democratic Party. That may be, but Trump’s record on carrying out his professed agenda is abysmal, possibly because his real agenda is simply to obtain personal power. Despite the Trump and Republican rhetoric on illegal immigration, both Biden and Obama actually have done more to slow the flow of illegals than Trump did, but they couldn’t say much because too many Democrats oppose stringent immigration controls. Biden’s done more to bring jobs back to the U.S. than Trump ever did.

Yet Trump is still in close contention for the Presidency.

The right question just might be:

Why is half of the United States so desperate that they’ll vote for a lying, scheming criminal whose greatest skills are wildly exaggerated and fallacious self-promotion and vicious untruths?

Concentrating Only on the “Now”

Last week Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen took issue with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after she criticized student pro-Palestinian protestors for not knowing enough about the history and politics of the Middle East and, for that matter, history in general. Van Hollen insisted that the protesters understood the current situation.

Yes, they probably do understand the terrible loss of civilian lives taking place right now, if only because that’s what the media is currently emphasizing, but Clinton is absolutely right in insisting that the vast majority of students aren’t all that knowledgeable about in-depth history and politics, including the history and politics of the United States.

Although recent tests of U.S. students’ proficiency in civics and history show a marked decline over the past four years, Americans have never excelled at history, which makes the latest declines even more worrisome. Americans have, for better or worse, never concerned themselves much with the past, as exemplified by Henry Ford’s contention that history was “bunk.” What Americans have always had trouble realizing is that the past determines the future, and our current media-centric concentration on the “now” means that fewer and fewer Americans have the knowledge base to realize just how much the past matters and how it influences the present.

Some of those student protesters have such a short attention span that they seem to have forgotten what happened on October 7th, barely six months ago. Most of them appear to have no understanding of how and why the creation of Israel occurred. Nor do they understand the past brutality of Hamas, or the fact that some two million Palestinians supported or acquiesced in allowing Hamas to take over Gaza with the avowed goal of destroying the only Jewish nation in the world.

Is Israel perfect? Hardly, and Netanyahu is little better than a Mafia don in silk suits, trying to hang onto power by cultivating and placating the worst elements in the Israeli government. But Hamas is far worse, with leaders who’ve made no secret of the fact that they’re willing to sacrifice the vast majority of the Palestinian people in an effort to destroy Israel.

Yet all too many of the student protesters in the United States have little or no comprehension of a history of anti-Semitism that extends some 3,000 years into the past. Not only that, but those so-idealistic student protesters conveniently overlook the fact that the Palestinian people themselves support or allow the subjugation and brutalization of their own women.

As one old saying goes, the past is prologue, but since the U.S. student protesters don’t read history, much less understand it, and apparently don’t want to, how could they know?

Over-Protection

As I’ve mentioned upon occasion, my wife the college professor was an opera singer. In addition to singing professionally, she also has taught voice and directed the opera program at the local state university for the past thirty years.

Unfortunately, teaching young singers has gotten more difficult every year, not because she’s gotten older, but because of the increasing restrictions placed on teachers, especially in her field.

Classical music is a small world, where the slightest impropriety or poor behavior is immediately spread, but as a result of the #Me Too movement, any professor who uses those words to warn young singers, true as they are, can face disciplinary action because those words are automatically classed as a threat.

In recent years, more and more vocal competitions have been conducted in the initial stages through video or zoom, which artificially reduces a singer’s full range and overtones, while increasing the importance of appearance, dress, and physical presence.

Yet, at the same time, the university has effectively forbidden professors to even suggest ways for students to improve their attire or physical presentation, because doing so would “belittle” the students. Even though grossly excessive weight reduces vocal capabilities and limits stage performance, and even though singers are also judged on their professional demeanor and appearance, professors cannot even make a bland observation for improvement in those areas.

In addition, constructive criticism, i.e., telling students what needs improvement and why it’s necessary, is frowned on unless surrounded by lots of praise. Heaven help a voice teacher who bluntly tells a student that they’re singing out of tune and that they will not get into graduate school or have any chance at a career if they don’t get the basics down first.

Unsurprisingly enough, at my wife’s university, the popular “cheerleading” professors have far fewer graduates who go on to professional careers in music than those who “tell it like it is,” but the professors who tell it like it is get poorer faculty and student evaluations, despite producing more successful graduates.

So, in effect, by insisting that teachers “protect” the poor delicate souls, these well-meaning administrators (or perhaps those terrified by the thought of legal action) are reducing the ability of professors to improve the chances of their students to compete and succeed, and that’s especially true in the case of less prestigious state universities, which is exactly where undiscovered students with raw talent and little else often end up.

Knowing the Real Market

My wife, the university opera director, is always looking for chamber operas suitable for largely undergraduate performers. And while there are more than a few chamber operas out there, she seldom finds many that her students can perform. Why?

First, far too many operas written today, including chamber operas, are far too experimental and musically difficult for undergraduates, and also have limited audience appeal because melody too often takes a back seat to “experiment” and “novelty.”

Second, like most university opera directors, she’s limited in the number of talented male singers with a surplus of female singers, particularly sopranos, yet the vast majority of operas, both past and present, require more male singers.

Chamber operas that are meaningful, musically sound, melodic, and dramatically interesting, with more female roles, are rare. When she finds one, such as The Ghosts of Gatsby, which her company presented in 2023, she’s delighted.

But, as an economist, what I don’t understand is why so many composers today ignore the opportunity presented by hundreds of university opera programs, all of which have “too many sopranos” (actually a title of a good chamber opera). Presumably, given the excess of starving composers, such composers would like to have their work presented and receive a chance at royalties for their effort.

Yet in going through some twenty recently composed chamber operas available for production, my wife could find exactly one where the number of female singers exceeded the number of males.

At some point, this might change, that is, if composers actually want to have their works presented and to be paid.

On a parallel track, of sorts, when I started writing professionally, most writers were male, and most wrote science fiction, as did I. The speculative fiction field both grew and changed, and I changed with it. When I looked at the best-seller lists for the past three months, I noticed that something like 60% of the best-selling books were by women, and most of the men on the list were older. Even Brandon Sanderson is approaching fifty, and I’m certainly no spring chicken.

So… maybe, just maybe, those classical opera composers should think about why so few of them are getting produced.

Changing Times

Sometimes, shopping at Walmart can tell you far more about how life is changing in the United States than all the polls and surveys. Why do I use Walmart? Because the prices on staples are far lower than the other three markets in Cedar City, and since Cedar City is on I-15 – the most direct route to California – the produce is not only better, but far less expensive.

Because my wife the professor works long hours on a regular basis, and I can shop when it’s not crowded, I do almost all the grocery shopping, usually once or twice a week. On my last trip, I had two items on my list that I only need to replenish once or twice a year, if that – black boot/shoe polish and black edge-dressing or scuffcoat.

Except this time, Walmart had neither. And it wasn’t that they were out of stock. That whole small shoe section had been reduced to one shelf, with neutral polish and other items having nothing to do with polish, surrounded by insoles for all sizes of feet.

Perhaps it’s my upbringing, or possibly the years in the Navy, but I’ve always liked my boots to be polished. And I wear boots because almost any kind of shoes, even expensive designer shoes or high-end athletic shoes, get painful within hours, if not a few minutes. Except for my work boots, scuffed and dirty boots or shoes, to me at least, suggest a certain slovenliness or lack of character. It’s not that I particularly enjoy polishing boots, but that I dislike appearing unkempt or sloppy (except when engaged in manual labor, where I can quickly get unkempt).

As I was pondering the lack of shoe polish, I realized another fact – that the local cobbler had closed his shop a month previous, and there was no one repairing or resoling shoes or boots in Cedar City any longer. I’ve had some of my boots more than ten years, and I’m hard on them. So I’ve needed new soles and heels on a continuing basis, but getting them repaired is obviously coming to an end.

So, I suspect, are the days of polished leather boots and shoes, replaced by the ubiquitous sneakers or extraordinarily expensive athletic shoes that wear out quickly, none of which are designed to fit my clearly Neanderthal feet.

And it’s not just me. For years, my wife has bemoaned the fact that it’s almost impossible for her to find shoes that fit, ever since shoe manufacturers simplified their sizing. If a woman has a moderate forefoot and a narrow heel, she’ll end up slipping out of a standard shoe (although some manufacturers supply pads), and any shoe narrow enough to fit her heel will be too tight to accommodate her forefoot.

Yes, the times are definitely changing, from head to foot, especially for feet.

Déjà Vu, the Lilacs

Almost every year in late spring, just about this time, I write about my lilacs and their never-ending battle against the vagaries of the climate here in Cedar City. My lilac bushes are deep purple, and I love their scent – provided I have the chance to enjoy it.

We’ve had a comparatively warm winter, often with rain instead of snow, and by the first of April the daily highs were in the mid-sixties, and it was no longer freezing at night. By the twentieth of April, daily the temperature was flirting with all-time highs. Last Wednesday, the temperature neared eighty, and the lilacs decided that it was time to leaf out and bloom. By Friday night I could smell just a trace of their scent.

By Saturday morning, however, the wind picked up, ranging from twenty to thirty miles per hour, blowing away any scent that the lilacs emitted. Sunday morning, the wind was even fiercer, with cold gusts well over forty miles per hour. Then, around three o’clock we got small hail that turned into sleet, which after fifteen minutes turned into heavy snow. The temperature dropped to thirty-seven degrees and by six o’clock we had some four inches of snow.

For the lilacs, it didn’t get any better, because by ten o’clock the temperature dropped to below freezing and stayed there until sunrise. By then the temperature rose above freezing, although the lilac bushes –and blossoms — were still festooned with snow. By midday, it was clear and sunny, with a temperature of 48 F, and there was no trace of snow on the lilacs, and the blossoms weren’t frost-bitten.

Unfortunately, the combination of wind, snow, and cold destroyed any chance of enjoying the rare chance smelling lilacs in bloom… again.

Memory

We all tend to hold memories in which we firmly believe… but sometimes those firm memories aren’t as accurate as we think they are.

For years, I “remembered” when the Denver Broncos opened the season by winning eight straight games, and then lost eight straight and never made the playoffs. But when I checked the actual records, I discovered that no such season ever existed. The closest season to that was in 1962, when the Broncos won six of their first seven games, then lost six of the final seven games. While that was close to what I remembered, obviously my brain wanted to emphasize the magnitude of the Broncos’ collapse, for whatever reason, possibly because of how bad the Broncos were in the early years.

Now, some people have better memories than others. A relative of my wife was a singer and a conductor. More than forty years ago, he conducted university choirs at a program where the late Grace Kelly, the former actress and then the Princess of Monaco, gave a poetry reading. He honestly didn’t remember that, and his former wife had to dig out newspaper clippings to prove he had conducted Kelly’s program there and had even been at the reception. I think it’s fair to say that a former professional musician who cannot recall being on a program with Grace Kelly has definite memory difficulties.

On the other hand, I’ve learned that, if my wife recalls something – that was the way it was, because what she recalls is always accurate, particularly with regard to people and events. She does not remember telephone numbers well, which, as I mentioned some time ago, created difficulties with a financial institution, who insisted she had to remember the telephone number of the house where she lived some forty years ago (back before the era of cell phones).

Despite my mis-recollection about the 1962 Broncos’ season, I’m generally more accurate with numbers and facts, but obviously not as accurate as I’d like to believe, and I suspect that’s true of most of us.

Second-Guessing

Because I’m originally from Denver, and because my grandfather bought season tickets back when the Broncos were terrible and tickets were actually affordable, he took me to a few games when I was a teenager. As result, I do follow the Broncos, if neither religiously nor obsessively.

I was mildly surprised to see a headline that the Broncos had drafted Bo Nix – the Oregon quarterback who’s gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. I was then even more surprised to learn that, despite the fact that the Broncos desperately need a first-rate quarterback, and not a retread from elsewhere (despite their short success with Peyton Manning), and the fact that Nix was about the top of those available when the Broncos picked, all the football “pundits” decided that the Broncos had made one of the worse choices possible.

I read a bit further and discovered those same pundits had trashed the choices of a few other teams as well, all of which irritated me. Choosing which college players will make it in the NFL is anything but a sure thing, and the pundits are often wrong. Sometimes, players no one ever heard of make it big time. Brock Purdy, the current SF 49ers quarterback, was “Mr. Irrelevant,” the very last player drafted in 2022. Back in 2000, the New England Patriots took the 199th pick in the draft to choose a fellow named Brady.

On the other hand, who remembers JaMarcus Russell, Terry Baker, Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, or quite a few other high draft picks who never lived up to their college performance and hype?

It’s one thing to judge a professional football player on his NFL statistics and career, or a coach on his won-lost record, but it’s another to second-guess a football team’s picks well before the fact. One of the reasons I don’t like such second-guessing is that almost no one holds the second-guessers to account. By the next draft, everyone’s forgotten inaccurate second-guessing, but the negative impacts to coaches and teams tend to linger.

But then, I’ve never been fond of negative second-guessers in any field, particularly in politics, where all too many of the inaccurate second-guessers don’t have that much in-depth experience, and in writing, where too many second-guesses reflect more what critics and reviewers like as opposed how well the author accomplished what he or she set out to do.

Fake News?

In the April 22nd and 29th issue of The New Yorker, in “How Gullible Are You?”, Manvir Singh writes about “misinformation and the nature of belief.” It’s a decent article, in which Singh discusses misinformation, some of its recent history, and discusses French philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber’s distinction between “factual beliefs” (i.e., chairs are real) and symbolic beliefs (God is real) as well as the efforts of various theorists who offer ways to combat misinformation.

Singh points out that virtually all efforts to fight false fabrications and misinformation rest on the assumption of human gullibility while ignoring “the far larger forces that drive the phenomenon,” particularly the lack of trust in government and other social institutions. And essentially, that’s where the article ends.

What he doesn’t really or fully address is why misinformation and, for example, Donald Trump’s insistence that major media peddle “fake news” have gained such a hold on so many people.

The answer, as I considered the matter, is actually simple, and, in a way, profound. Much of what the media and the Democrats are pushing is in fact “fake news” to the people who endorse the Trumpist and MAGA rhetoric.

Declining unemployment is “fake news” to people who don’t have jobs and who live in situations where they cannot get decent paying jobs. In more than a few parts of Appalachia, jobs requiring college degrees or even graduate degrees pay less than what coal truck drivers used to make. In fact, one of my wife’s cousins made more driving a coal truck than she did as a tenured college professor. But most of those coal jobs vanished with the closure of the mines, and the inadequate “reclamation” and the massive rains of two years ago have destroyed thousands of homes, with no repairs or replacements. Tell all those people that times are better, and they’ll likely think you’re purveying fake news.

Tell all the young people who’ve mortgaged their future to get higher education and graduate degrees and who can’t find jobs paying enough to service their debt that times are improving, especially when we’re producing more college graduates than we have higher paying jobs for.

Inflation rates are down, but food prices and housing costs are not, and telling people that inflation is down doesn’t agree with what they are paying for groceries and lodging, and that equates to “fake news” in many people’s minds.

The only thing that will change the views of most of these people is real improvement in their lives, and that’s unlikely to occur any time soon, given the multiplicity of factors compounding the problem, ranging from high housing and transportation/relocation costs, the mismatch between skills and/or lack of skills and existing job requirements, to the unwillingness and/or inability of unemployed or underemployed people to relocate.

All that means that “fake news” will remain “fake news” for the foreseeable future.