Category Archives: Thoughts and Observations

Miscellaneous Stuff I Just Thought Of

The Invention of Science

Invention-of-ScienceThe Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750
by David Wootton
Hardback first edition Published by Harper Collins 2015

Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)

Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:

The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)

And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!

From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).

He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)

I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.

Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.

The Evolution of Everything

Evolution of EverythingThe following is a rather lengthy review of The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley. I apologize for the length, but some things just need a bit more explaining than others.

People have a natural tendency to seek agency. If something momentous happens, then someone must have caused it. If something complex exists, someone obviously designed and built it. But this natural human way of looking at things leads to unwarranted assumptions. No one, for example, planned the evolution of life.

Ridley extends Darwin’s insight about biological evolution to human culture and invention. No one planned the development of language. No one planned the industrial revolution. No one planned today’s global economy. These things evolved. They weren’t designed from the top down. They emerged from the bottom up. In this book, Ridley specifically argues that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand guides economics in much the same way that natural selection guides the evolution of life. Both emerge from the complex interplay of individual agents acting out of self-interest with no common goal. They operate without any grand plan, and yet they create (albeit unintentionally) complex, well-ordered, and reasonably efficient systems. He has great faith in the power of the Invisible Hand. Don’t try to direct it, and good things will happen.

To me, his belief in the power of the Invisible Hand seems a bit too…well, utopian. Simplistic. Possibly even a bit mystical. The Hand works in mysterious ways. We don’t know how, exactly, but we must have faith that it is all for the best and let it get on with things. As long as we don’t interfere, all will be well. Society will evolve for the better. The state will wither away, and everyone will live in peace and prosperity. His end state seems ironically similar to the one Karl Marx envisioned, and I think it’s flawed for one of the same reasons Marx’s was—people. They aren’t ready for it…yet. There are those, and I like to believe the number grows with every generation, who do not require coercion or the threat of divine or secular punishment in order to behave properly toward their fellow human beings. But many still do. The state may be an unfortunate necessity at this point in human evolution.

If it’s possible to be a cynical optimist, Matt Ridley qualifies. He makes several valid points in this book. Order can emerge from chaos. Actions motivated solely by self-interest can have unintended and broadly beneficial consequences. Human culture does evolve, and it has progressed and improved over time. But he makes an unjustified leap by concluding that it is therefore a mistake to attempt to bring about cultural change or broad social benefits intentionally. Evolution, both biological and cultural, he seems to argue, are best left to natural selection and the free market. Restraining the Invisible Hand leads to disaster.

Well, it can, except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Hand needs a shove. Or maybe it’s better to say that the Invisible Hand has more fingers than he seems to think it has.

Ridley often sounds like a cranky old man grinding philosophical axes*, and in this book, he vents his libertarian spleen on all things that smack of authority. This includes religion and crony capitalism, but his favorite target is government in all its current and historical forms. He doesn’t like government (which seems odd considering that Viscount Ridley is a member of the British House of Lords). He sees it as a top-down intrusion on the proper bottom-up evolution of human society. Let the free market work!

But there is no free market, and I doubt one would last long if there was. (See Saving Capitalism by Robert B. Reich https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24338377-saving-capitalism) Markets in our modern society depend on governments to protect capital assets and intellectual property. Governments provide the framework within which individuals and businesses negotiate contracts with one another, and they provide legal recourse in the event of contract violation. Governments maintain competition by restricting monopolies so that large corporations cannot eliminate their existing and potential competitors (e.g. through hostile takeovers, dumping goods, or intimidating suppliers). Governments also help bolster the economy by instilling consumer confidence. Because of governmental regulations, you can be fairly sure that the food and medicine you buy isn’t toxic; that your appliances, cars, homes, and other purchases are reasonably safe to use; and that whatever else you buy will function almost as well as the seller claims it will. If you are in the unfortunate position of having to work for a living, your workplace is probably safer, your workday shorter, your pay better, and you may even enjoy some kind of insurance or even paid holidays because of governmental policies.

A firm believer in laissez faire economics might argue that all of these benefits would come about on their own accord through the magic of market forces, but they didn’t, which is why these governmental policies came about. Worker exploitation, sweatshops, child labor, and unsafe working conditions were rampant only a century ago. The case of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911 is probably one of the most famous examples. (http://www.history.com/topics/triangle-shirtwaist-fire). In a bottom-up effort, voters demanded that something be done. Government responded by enacting laws. (e.g. the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972). Admittedly, these probably did not all work as well as many hoped, and some may have had unforeseen consequences, but these laws and others were passed because the ‘free’ market had not been able to prevent abuses by private businesses that exploited workers and cheated consumers. Clearly, not all business were dishonest or exploitative, but a top-down mandate was needed, not only to protect workers and consumers, but also to establish a level playing field to protect responsible business owners from unfair competition by those who were not.

So, were these societal changes examples of bottom-up evolution brought about by voter demand or were they top-down impositions on the free market by government? Both? Neither?

Personally, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Let me begin by saying that power bases emerge in human society whether you want them to or not. They form from the bottom up. We can’t prevent them, nor do I think we should try. They exist to pursue the interests of their constituents, and in doing so can provide benefits to each member that they cannot obtain as well on their own. But they can also unjustly impose their will on nonmembers. If one group becomes too powerful, or if two or more combine forces, they can oppress or exploit others. Maintaining some kind of power balance so that this does not happen can be difficult.

Prior to the Enlightenment, government, in the form of a monarch and sundry aristocracy, could be seen as a separate power base, as could the Church, landed gentry, craftsmen, and peasants. Each of these had its own unique interests, which they pursued, sometimes cooperatively but often competitively. If you wish to imagine society as something guided by an invisible hand, these would have been its fingers, the two strongest of which were the monarch and the Church.

Modern Western society has different fingers. These can be generalized as workers, consumers, business owners, and bankers. Religion is still with us, of course, and it does have unique interests and it does exert power, so it may be seen as a finger as well. As in the past, these groups may have overlapping constituencies, but they don’t have common goals, and the conflicts between them create the evolutionary pressures that move societies. Together, these five fingers shape human culture in unplanned ways. (I don’t include government as one of these modern fingers for reasons I’ll explain soon.)

All of these fingers represent their members and push society in some way. Consumers want quality products at affordable prices. Workers want secure, well-paying jobs. Religions want to spread their faiths. Businesses and banks want to earn profits for owners/investors. Democratic government is a bit different in that it represents (or should represent) interests common to everyone. As difficult as it may be to imagine at times, and despite the real differences that may exist between them, all people have more interests in common than not…safety, property, opportunity, freedom…or as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A properly functioning democratic government has the unenviable task of ensuring equal rights for all its citizens and for being an impartial arbiter when the goals of the metaphorical fingers come into conflict. Is it more important for consumers to have lower prices or for workers to have higher wages? Are these more or less important than business owners reaping high profits or banks charging high interest? When does a religion’s goal of spreading the faith intrude on the freedom of nonbelievers? These are not hypothetical questions. All have had to be addressed in the past, and it has fallen on governments to do so because market forces can’t, at least not as well. When one group attempts to dominate, exploit, suppress, or even eliminate another, the purely evolutionary solution of allowing the strongest to win is probably not the best one for the long-term survival of a civilization. The government stands in defense of all, regardless of numbers or wealth. It codifies protected rights that apply to all its citizens, and it acts as a societal ratchet to prevent these rights from being denied in the future. Once proscribed by law, such things as slavery, child labor, and racial discrimination are far less likely to reemerge. A democratic government provides a balancing force so that the many cannot dominate the few and the rich and powerful cannot prey on the poor and weak.

The balance breaks down if one societal power base exerts too much influence over governmental policies. Business control of government is just as detrimental to a society as governmental control of business. But democratic governments are self-correcting. They change from the bottom up. The dominating powers will fight to preserve their privileged positions. They’ll try to bend public opinion to maintain their position, but when voters feel that one group has too much influence, they’ll vote for change…and they might even achieve it. We may be seeing something like that happening now in the U.S. Time will tell.

There is much about Matt Ridley’s argument with which I do not agree, but his central point that complex systems evolve in unexpected and unplanned ways is undeniable. They do. No single strategy directed the course of human progress. The scientific discoveries and cultural changes humanity has made since our ancestors first chipped stones into knives two and a half million years ago (or thereabout) have created a world that no one could have imagined, let alone planned. These advancements emerged incrementally, iteratively, one thing leading to another, with all the parts interacting in complex and often unpredictable ways. In short, our society evolved. There was no grand plan, but many of the little steps along the way were planned, which is where the comparison of scientific and cultural progress with biological evolution breaks down. The two processes appear similar from a great enough distance, but they differ in the details.

Biological evolution lacks intent. Cells and microbes can’t imagine the future. They can’t plan. Over time, the individual cells that comprised the earliest forms of life came together, differentiated, and specialized to form larger and more complex organisms. This improved their survivability, but they didn’t adapt to survive. They survived because they adapted. This is an important difference. It’s a matter of cause and effect. It took natural selection billions of years to go from those earliest microbes to creatures like us because it operates without intent. It doesn’t build to a plan. Discrete biological changes (to DNA) are close enough to random to think of them as such, and most of those random mutations are fatal. Natural selection can create astounding complexity in this manner, but it’s hit or miss, and it takes a while.

Cultural evolution is faster. The time span from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens took almost two million years. The time span from steam engines to nuclear power was less than three hundred. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but complexity isn’t one of them. There are more differences between Newcomen’s steam engine and a nuclear reactor than there are between you and your multi-great grandmother a couple million years ago. A big factor for the difference in time scale is that each evolutionary step from pre-modern humans to us relied on unplanned natural selection. Each development between steam power and nuclear energy was the result of human premeditated action. Each improvement, every new idea along the way was proposed and developed by a human mind with intent.

Ridley summarizes his position in the epilogue of his book. “To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news in manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.”

Ah, if only reality were that simple. The unfortunate truth is that most evolutionary changes are failures. Unplanned evolution doesn’t always bring success but neither does planned change. Most plans people make fail as well. What Ridley’s argument seems to boil down to is that evolutionary changes that have survived are successful. True, but tautological. Extrapolating from this dubious insight by claiming that unplanned evolutionary change is good and that manmade change is bad is simply absurd. It’s like claiming that doctors shouldn’t cut out tumors, prescribe antibiotics, provide vaccinations, or attempt to cure genetically inherited diseases because the bacteria, viruses, and genetic mutations they are trying to eliminate have evolved through natural selection and therefore must be good.

Let me offer an alternate idea. Human culture and technology have advanced rapidly because when people see problems, they take action to fix them. They don’t wait around for the slow plod of evolution to make things better or, alternately and more likely, to drive them to extinction. Humans are toolmakers. The things we create, from hammers to stock markets, are tools that we intentionally design to accomplish certain tasks, and we improve upon them over time to make them work better.

By all measurable criteria, our species’ quality of life has improved over time. People today (on average) are healthier, eat better, live longer, are freer, safer, and enjoy more material wealth than at any time in history. No one planned the current state of human affairs. It isn’t anyone’s imagined end state or ultimate goal. There is no end state. There is no final goal. Evolution is a continuing process. The reason our cultures evolve faster than our biology is partly that they have something biology does not. When it comes to the components of human culture, such as our religions, laws, forms of government, economic systems, philosophies, ethics, educational systems, music, art, inventions, and all other creations of the human mind, an intrinsic part of all of them is that they include an element of intent. People designed them from the top down in response to conditions imposed from the bottom up. They saw situations that they wanted improved, considered ways of adapting what they knew to the problems facing them, and came up with ideas they thought might work. Some did. Some didn’t. Those that work are more likely to survive. Richard Dawkins calls such ideas memes, but the important point is that these ideas do not spring up spontaneously. They originate in human minds. And although each of these ideas may be intended to address separate, seemingly unconnected issues, each forms a small component of a larger evolving system. Unlike biological evolution, human progress has an aspect of intelligent design.

Which brings me back to Ridley’s issue with government and the free market. The Invisible Hand of the free market is not a separate ineffable force any more than the human mind is separate from the brain and body that create it. Both can be seen as emergent properties. But perhaps a better way to view the free market for this discussion is as a process. Just as evolution describes the process of living matter reacting to its environment, the free market describes the process of humans interacting to improve their lives. To do this, they build tools. If those tools don’t work quite as well as we’d like, we try to improve them.

Businesses are tools. Banks are tools. Government is a tool. All of these are designed, built, modified, and used by people in order to improve their lives, and, over time and not at all miraculously, our lives have improved. Since this was and is the common intent, I’d say we’re not doing too badly. Evolution gave us our toolmaking ability. It would be a shame not to use it.

 
————-
*So am I, but that’s beside the point.

————-
A few recommendations for further reading on this and related subjects:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11107244-the-better-angels-of-our-nature)

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22571741-evolving-ourselves)

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10954979-the-swerve)

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by William Rosen (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7863046-the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world)

 

Adult Content Isn’t

AdolescentContentThe way our culture uses the word ‘adult’, or alternately ‘mature’, as labels for fiction (and other things) bothers me. It is deceptive, inaccurate, and possibly harmful. Quite often, something labeled ‘adult’ is anything but. Stories told in print, on television, in music, video games, movies, and advertising equate ‘adult’ with alcohol or drug abuse, violence, crime, sex, and vulgar language. A story about an alcoholic drug dealer who is a serial rapist and murderer, and who can’t utter a sentence that does not include a word that disparages a biological function, will certainly be categorized something like Adult Content—For Mature Audiences. But the kind of behavior such a story highlights, often in graphic detail, is far from adult, and it certainly isn’t mature.

What are we telling our kids? They all want to be ‘adult’, right? They hope someday to be ‘mature’. From their perspective, adults have power. They’re respected. They’re independent. They have money. They can vote, and drive, and make all sorts of choices for themselves that children cannot.

But when those kids are adults, they can do these things. So what else can adults do? Well, if our fiction reflects our culture, apparently adults also love to get drunk, they want little more out of life than to get laid, and they see violence as the first and best response to any difficult situation. Physical domination makes a boy a man. Sexual attractiveness makes a girl a woman. That’s what ‘adult’ fiction seems to imply.

Current ‘adult’ fiction often makes an attempt to rise above its underlying message in that it has the ‘good’ guys winning, but these heroes are often only ‘good’ insofar as they are not as bad as their opponents. More often than not, their victory is accomplished through resorting to violence, and it isn’t as a last resort or with any sense of remorse. The violent conflict is given the central spotlight in the story, and somewhere along the way, there is a good chance that someone is going to get laid.

I can see why this kind of fiction is popular. It appeals to humanity’s lowest common denominator, our base instincts. You don’t need any special intellectual or ethical maturity to understand such stories. The behaviors they present are hardwired into our genes. A Neanderthal could probably understand them.

But while these core instincts might have been advantageous for our prehuman ancestors in a purely evolutionary sense, they are not the characteristics that allowed us to rise above other animals. They are not the traits that exemplify a rational or mature species. Sexual obsession, violence, and a poor vocabulary are, in my mind, examples of behavior that is intrinsically immature, both for a species and for individuals.

Ironically, fiction labeled as being for children or young adults often caries themes that seem to me to be more mature in the sense that they present what is best in humanity. They reflect the behaviors that make us unique—rational thought, introspection, consideration of others, cooperation, understanding…. When I think of people who are mature, those who represent what it truly means to be ‘adult’, I think of people who exemplify behaviors such as these. They are the kind of people who have enabled mankind to rise above its humble ancestry, and they are the kind of people I admire most.

The current Motion Picture Association of America ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) use the word ‘adult’ only in the final rating, but other ratings imply ‘adult’ content by warning of films that may not be suitable for children under a certain age. Producers and reviewers often site ‘adult’ content when describing films with R ratings.

Video game ratings are currently where the words ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ are used (or misused) the most. The Entertainment Software Rating Board categorizes content from ‘eC’ (Early Childhood – Content is intended for young children) to ‘Ao’ (Adults Only – Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency). Their ‘M’ rating for ‘Mature’ warns of content that “is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

As far as I know, there is no corresponding rating system for books (nor should there be), but publishers and retailers often provide warnings of ‘adult’ content.

I have no objection to ‘adult’ fiction as such. I don’t particularly like it, but that doesn’t mean others should not. I certainly wouldn’t advocate banning it. I wouldn’t even restrict it in any meaningful sense. I simply think that our current labels for it are misleading.

Rather than using the words ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ as single word definitions for content that includes senseless violence, graphic sex, or crude language, perhaps the words ‘adolescent’ and ‘immature’ would be better. At least then we wouldn’t be telling our children that such behaviors are regarded as examples of maturity, or that they are something we would recommend they strive for as adults.

That’s my opinion. If I were to summarize it as a Tweet, it would be something like this:
Dear Media, “adult” ≠ “sex.” “Adult” ≠ “violent.” ― “Adult” = “intelligent.” “Adult” = “thought provoking.” Please correct your definition.

~*~

Links to References:
Movie Ratings: http://www.mpaa.org/film-ratings/
Video Game Ratings: http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp

Off Kilter’s Final Performance

Off Kilter's Final Show. HQ full video.

Click here for a high quality, professional video of the band’s last performance on 27 September 2014.

This post falls into the category of ‘things that annoy me’, so be warned. It’s not a BIG issue. It doesn’t threaten the environment or human existence or anything like that. I suppose it only really matters to people, like me, who live near Orlando, Florida or to those from other places who are frequent visitors to the Disney World parks.

Many people get upset about the big issues. They talk about them, share their opinions, and write to politicians and whatnot, so the big things get a good deal of media attention. This isn’t like that. I doubt many people even know about it and fewer probably care, but it bugs ME, and since I haven’t seen it covered much in the local media, I figured I should say something since I’m here and writing is what I do.

Until last Saturday, EPCOT, the Disney Park ostensibly intended to appeal to adults, had a band that performed at the Canada pavilion. (EPCOT’s World showcase has pavilions representing several countries so that you can walk around a Disney version of the world in about half an hour, if you’re quick and don’t stop to see anything much.) Off Kilter began performing there in 1997. They were an instant hit, and many people came to the park specifically to hear them play. Saturday night, 27 September 2014, the music died.

I have yet to see a good explanation for why Disney executives decided to ‘retire’ the band. That was their word…’Retire’. It’s much kinder than saying they fired them, but that’s what they did. The band didn’t want to leave. EPCOT visitors didn’t want them to go. Disney not only fired them, they fired them without cause. Part of the reason I’m peeved about this is because it seems so unjust. The band was good. They were popular. They drew visitors and undoubtedly made money for the Big Mouse, and they had done so for seventeen years.

Disney decided to replace them with a lumberjack act starting in October.

The band learned of this for the first time in August during a teleconference, a day before it was announced publicly. The news came as a shock to many EPCOT guests and cast members. To say that it came as a shock to the band is undoubtedly an understatement. Not many bands are as fortunate as Off Kilter. Seventeen years straight. What a run! But they earned it. They entertained. They had no reason to suspect that Disney would not allow their act to continue.

I assumed that Disney executives understood what a good thing they had going and would never be foolish enough to mess it up. I know I expected Off Kilter to be there indefinitely. Actually, I counted on it. The band was the main reason I bought a premium annual pass (not cheap), because although there is much to see at Disney World, Off Kilter was what drew me to visit EPCOT over and over again several times a year.

I am not unique, a fact I did not fully realize until the band’s ‘retirement’ was announced and the outrage began. One fan started a Facebook page called ‘Save Off Kilter’. It currently has 2,763 members. Someone else started petition to ‘Keep Off Kilter in Epcot’s Canada Pavilion’ on Change.org. It now has 1,318 signatures. I heard that #SaveOffKilter was even trending on Twitter for a while.

I wonder if it surprised Disney executives that the band had such a strong following. If so, they certainly saw proof of it at the final performance. I was there. I saw it. Hundreds (some say a thousand or more) people from all over the country came to see the final week of performances. I spoke with people from Alabama, Georgia, Maine, Wisconsin… These weren’t just local Florida folks. People made special plans and traveled considerable distances just to be there and show their support. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it. The crowd for the last show was enormous. It stretched from the Rose & Crown pub (in England) through Canada. The area was packed. After the first set at 2:30, Disney cast members taped off an area around the stage in an attempt to contain the crowd. It failed. The tape was trampled and torn by the overflow of people. The Disney guys replaced it after the 3:30 set. It got torn up again. They moved it back, but by then it was obvious it made no difference. The crowd was far too large. Many people stayed near the stage between sets to save their spot. When the band came on, people cheered. They clapped and sang along to the songs, as many had done during previous visits for over a decade. They smiled and took joy while they could. They all knew that this would be the last time. Several walked away from the second and final encore with tears in their eyes.

I’m going to miss Off Kilter. If any of the band members are reading this, thanks for the music. Thanks for the memories. I hope to see you back.

For those who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, and for previous EPCOT visitors who could not make it to the last show, this is what you missed.

And the set before that (including a rousing version of Whiskey in the Jar):

Other sets that day:

Sets on the last day included:

2:30 Show
1. The Reels
2. Run Run Away
3. Daniel’s Jig
4. Follow Me Up To Carlow
5. Danny Boy
6. Takin’ Care Of Business

3:30 Show
1. Miracle Fingers
2. The Irish Rover
3. The Mountains of Mourne
4. Fields Of Athenry
( Happy Birthday Patrick!)
5. Troy’s Wedding

5:00 Show
1. Hey Ewe
2. Farewell To Nova Scotia/Scotland The Brave
3. The Wild Rover
4. Loch Lomond
5. Johnny B Good

6:15 Show
1. Old Wolfstone
2. Whisky In The Jar
3. Alive
4. Dirty Old Town
5. America The Beautiful
6. Amazing Grace

7:30 Show
1. Brenda Stubbert’s Reel / Metro
2. Leaving Of Liverpool
3. Queen Of Argyll
4. Alberta Bound / Tush
5. Life Is A Highway
6. Summer Of 69
ENCORE:
7. Magic Carpet Ride / Born to be wild

Links:
Disney World: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/
EPCOT: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/epcot/
Save Off Kilter: https://www.facebook.com/groups/364817680340041/
Petition: https://www.change.org/p/the-walt-disney-company-keep-off-kilter-in-epcot-s-canada-pavilion#

Related Articles on the Web:
Our Florida Project Blog: http://www.ourfloridaproject.com/theme-park-rock-stars-off-kilter-leaving-epcot-final-performance/
Dad’s Guide to WDW: http://dads-blog.dadsguidetowdw.com/remembering-kilter-2/
Disney Kate: http://www.disneykate.com/weekly-wings/the-weekly-wings-issue-2-september-6th-2014/saveoffkilter-vs-a-whole-new-worldshowcase/

No More Off Kilter

Off KilterOne of the advantages of living near Orlando (coming in a close second to not having to shovel snow off the driveway or watching my car quickly rust away because of the salt on the road) is the ability to go to the Disney parks anytime I want. It is an advantage I’m sad to admit I have not exercised often enough. It was one of those indulgences I always put off for ‘later’ —when I’m older, when the kids are self-sufficient, when I retire, or when I have more free time. I finally admitted to myself that all of these conditions were unlikely to be met in the foreseeable future, so a few months ago I broke into the contingency fund I keep for when my kids need something I had not anticipated and shelled out several hundred dollars for a Disney annual pass. This was finally going to be the year.

My favorite of the four main Orlando Disney parks is EPCOT; my favorite part of that park is the World Showcase; and my favorite attraction there is Off Kilter, a Celtic rock band that has been playing at the Canada Pavilion since before I moved to Florida. I’ve always scheduled my EPCOT visits for the days they were playing and have seen them several times.

Off Kilter was formed in 1997 and played five sets five days a week at EPCOT each year since. Every time I’ve been there, their act has drawn large crowds, and many people I’ve spoken with admit that the band is the main reason they return as frequently as they do. Don’t get me wrong; the Disney parks have much to offer, but most of it is stuff you like to see once, or maybe once every year or so. Off Kilter is a different. They’re like a favorite record or movie or book that I can enjoy over and over again. I know they were the main reason I sprung the mega-bucks required for an annual ticket. You can imagine my displeasure when I recently learned that Disney was ‘retiring’ the show. I’m still uncertain why.

I’m not the only one. Shortly after Disney made the announcement, someone began a Save Off Kilter page on Facebook, which quickly attracted over two thousand subscribers. There is also a petition on Change.org, and I know some people have been making phone calls and writing letters in protest.

saveOKbanner

To be honest, I doubt any of these will cause the Disney executives to reverse their decision. I’m sure they’ve done all sorts of cost/benefit analyses and have loads of charts and figures that tell them that it is economically safe for them to fire the band and piss off a couple thousand regular guests in the process. After all, millions of people visit Disney World each year. So what if they lose a couple thousand?

So, why am I writing this post? Well, mainly it’s to vent. It’s the same reason I vote. I’m not going to like the result regardless, but at least I feel I have the right to complain afterwards.

OKPetitionI encourage those who have seen and enjoyed Off Kilter and who enjoy engaging in futile acts of resistance to sign the online petition. You can also Tweet, visit the Save Off Kilter page, or whatever. At least you can say afterwards that yours was one of the voices Disney ignored, which will entitle you to feel a bit self-righteous afterward and to tell people, especially yourself, that it wasn’t your fault that these talented and entertaining fellows who once made you smile and sing along lost their jobs.

The last Off Kilter show is scheduled for Saturday 27 September 2014.

I found the following on YouTube, and figured I’d share. This is one of the five sets they do Wednesday through Sunday.

My Problem with Terry Pratchett

Pratchett1I actually have two problems with Terry Pratchett, but they both have to do with the quality of his writing. It’s too good. Now, I’ve never met the man, but he’s clearly brilliant, and I’m sure he’s charming and kind to small animals and all that, but he’s upset my life in ways I am finding difficult to overcome.

Discovering a new author whose work I enjoy used to excite me. When I was young, I would pick up a book based on the front cover or the blurb on the back and, if I really enjoyed it, I’d voraciously consume all of his or her other books I could find. After Pratchett, that seldom happens because now authors have to meet a higher standard. Their books have to be as good as Pratchett’s.

I know it’s not all Sir Terry’s fault. Publishing, after all, is a business, and the big publishers tend to publish books they think will have wide enough appeal to make them some money. The way they predict what will sell is by what has sold well recently, and they therefor produce a great many books that are much the same. I’ve found few new books from traditional publishers that I found entertaining. They tend to have annoying, angst-filled characters, focus on action over plot, and include far more sex and/or violence than needed for their frequently formulaic stories. Even when I find one I enjoy, one that’s original and well-crafted with truly likeable and even admirable characters, my final assessment is normally something like, ‘That wasn’t bad, but it’s no Pratchett.’

So, when I come to the final page of a book now, rather than going to the library or the internet, or one of the few remaining brick and mortar bookstores near me, I find myself going to my bookshelves and thinking, ‘What Discworld book should I reread now?’ When I do pick up a new book, it is, more often than not, nonfiction, assuming in advance that any work of fiction that may catch my eye is not going to be as good as a Discworld novel. So why bother?

That’s my first problem with Pratchett. He’s limiting my exposure to new novelists.

The last Discworld book I re-re-re…reread was Maskerade. It has four interweaving plot threads. One is about how Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg need to find a new third witch because two witches are invariably an argument without a mediator. The second is the story of Agnes Nitt, a large young woman with ‘a great personality’ and a fabulous voice who leaves the country for the big city to be a singer. The third tells the story of Nanny Ogg’s libido-stimulating cookbook and provides a few satirical insights about the publishing industry. And the fourth is a parody of The Phantom of the Opera as well as a satire about opera in general. The characters are charming. The story is intelligent, witty, and insightful. I find myself instantly engaged, and at the end, I feel a kind a bibliophilic fulfillment that is probably similar to how a gastronome feels after an exquisite gourmet meal.

This normally would not present a problem to the gastronome unless he is also a chef and knows without a doubt that he could never prepare dishes like that no matter how hard he tries or how long he lives. That’s the feeling I get from Pratchett because I also write stories, just not as well. I’m not saying they’re bad. I wouldn’t write them if I thought that. I personally think they are quite good, but I could never create something like Maskerade, and the sad fact is Maskerade is not my favorite Discworld novel.

That’s my second problem with Pratchett. He’s giving me one hell of an inferiority complex.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to write like Pratchett. The best authors have a unique voice, and you can often distinguish one of their books without looking at the cover or title page. But there is an intrinsically satisfying feeling of completeness I get from reading a Pratchett work that I would love to be able to achieve in my own novels. Actually, I’d be almost as happy if other authors could as well because even though I now have hardcover editions of all the Discworld novels (about 40 so far) they are bound to wear out eventually.

More on the Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

SF-Fant2I wrote my original post on this subject in April 2012. At the time, I realized that some people were hazy on the distinction between these two genres of speculative fiction, but I had no idea it was controversial. I’m still not sure it is, but the question can certainly lead to some heated debate if you stray from the main subject far enough. This is what happened in a Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club member’s chat entitled, innocuously enough, Fantasy vs Science Fiction. Who knew such a question could be so divisive?

The Goodreads discussion began on December 8, 2012 with this innocent enough distinction:

  • Fantasy – magic and/or supernatural creatures and/or a made-up world
  • Science fiction – advanced technology (usually set in the future)

That was over ten months ago, and the thread briefly returned to sanity the past weekend after a few months abroad, although I fear it may reverse course yet again. The discussion continues. It is now the length of an epic novel. I’m not kidding. By copying and pasting one page to Word and having it count the number of words, and then multiplying that by the number of pages, I estimated there were over 126,000 words in the posts that are still showing. Depending on the font and page size, this could be as much as 500 pages in a novel, and it does not count the posts written by one of the more active participants, which he afterwards deleted (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In general, the above definitions provide a fair generalization, and most people agreed on the basic distinction between the two genres. Participants in the discussion offered quotes and aphorisms both famous and obscure, such as:

  • “…science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” ~ Isaac Asimov
  • “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction: the improbable made possible; fantasy: the impossible made probable…”  ~ Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone
  • “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” ~ Robert J. Sawyer
  • “A true SF writer is allowed only one unexplained scientific ‘miracle’ per story. Beyond that, SF becomes Fantasy.” ~ A few people participating were familiar with this or something much like it, but no one was entirely sure where it originated.

But wait a second. Don’t those definitions reflect a Western bias toward science (as one participant suggested)?

I don’t personally think so. Science may not be the only method of understanding the world we live in, but it works better than reading entrails, trying to see portents in the positions of stars, prophecies of various kinds, and all the other stuff people have used. This may seem like a cultural bias, but it’s just a recognition of what has worked reasonably well (so far) and what hasn’t. But that’s not really the point. Science fiction implies the use of science. That’s what makes it science fiction.

There seemed to be no violent disagreement over this, so why did the discussion go on?

Well, one of the problems soon becomes obvious when you try to apply the definitions to actual books. People brought up examples of stories they suspected might exist in a gray area between the two. There may be a reasonably clear academic difference between science fiction and fantasy, but it is often difficult to assign one label or the other to a specific story. This is because authors mix genres. One work of speculative fiction may include both science fiction and fantasy elements (along with romance, history, and other things). In cases like this, what genre best applies?

(The discussion did not unfold as linearly as the following account may suggest, but it remained civil… for the most part… at first.)

There was some discussion about what should be considered ‘science’ in science fiction. Some argued that FTL (faster than light) vehicles, time travel, antigravity, and other highly speculative technology should be considered fantasy because they are probably impossible. These, they claimed, were no more ‘scientific’ than hobbits, demons, or dragons. A related point was that since our understanding of reality is imperfect, we can’t know for sure what is possible.

Someone suggested the concept of a continuous line between science fiction and fantasy, that many speculative fiction stories fall somewhere between the two ends, and therefore could be placed in either genre. Others disagreed. They insisted that it is simple to make a clear call by being stringent about the exclusion of fantasy elements in science fiction. It seemed to bother no one to have a fantasy story include science-like elements, but some people argued that once an element of fantasy entered a science fiction story, that story should be considered fantasy, rather the way adding one red towel to a wash-load of white towels turns everything pink. Such stories could, however, possibly be labeled in a subgenre of fantasy such as ‘science-fantasy.’

There was some talk about the relationship of science fiction and fantasy to other genres, including romance, horror, comedy, and even history and religion. Once religion entered the discussion, all hell broke loose (figuratively speaking). One participant (the one who originally brought religion into the discussion and who later deleted all of his posts) said a plot hinging on divine miracles should not make a fictional story fantasy because many people believe in them. I think that was the point he was trying to make, anyway. It was never clear to most of us, but he did succeed in diverting the conversation onto religion for a long time and ended up repeatedly insulting a number of other people. Finally, a moderator intervened and he went away. That was a few days ago. The discussion became far more sedate after this, but he returned on Tuesday and things got lively for a while. The moderator intervened again early Wednesday morning. The poster deleted all his new posts and the moderator banned further references to religious texts from the discussion.

I think part of the problem, as someone in the forum pointed out, was that different people were using the same words but held different ideas about what they meant. That made sense to me, so I provided the following definitions from Wikipedia: (It’s not a definitive reference source, but it’s the first one that came up, and I felt that the definitions I found there would suffice.)

‘Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.’

The same source defines fiction as ‘the form of any work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not real, but rather, imaginary and theoretical—that is, invented by the author.’

At the time, I did not feel it was necessary to define fantasy, but for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll do so now (again using Wikipedia). ‘Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.’

I did not participate in any way in writing these definitions, but I do consider them a fine place to begin. Judging from recent experience, I suspect some people may find them controversial. I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything, no matter how straightforward, that enjoys universal agreement. Be that as it may, a word means what people agree it means. These definitions seem common enough, and I think they provide a way to better define what can be considered science fiction and, by exclusion, what can be considered fantasy.

First of all, I want to stress that the two things we are differentiating are categories of fiction. They are made up. They aren’t real. Some confusion may have occurred in the Goodreads discussion because the word ‘fantasy’ is also used as an antonym of ‘reality,’ and so, by implication, science fiction should be more ‘real’ than fantasy. The question we were attempting to answer wasn’t about fantasy as opposed to reality, though, but fantasy as a genre of fiction. While it is true that science fiction must be grounded in science whereas fantasy can float free of any anchor to mundane reality, this does not imply that everything in science fiction must be possible or that everything in fantasy must be impossible. Both are fiction. They both tell stories about people and things that do not exist, things that may not even be able to exist. This is true for both genres. (Yes, I’m disagreeing with the late great Isaac Asimov on this. It’s not something I do lightly, but I have a reason.)

To define science fiction, it’s important to understand what science is and what it is not. Science is not a collection of known facts. It is a process for revealing facts about the cosmos, or at least for identifying things that can be regarded as true. The popularity of an idea or the number of believers it has is irrelevant. That’s not how science works.

The defining characteristic of science as opposed to other ways of trying to understand the natural universe is the concept of systematic observation and testing, the scientific method, and this, I think, can provide the key for a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy.

If, within the context of a story, it is stated or implied that all the fantastic things described—spaceships, androids, warp drive, whatever—came about using the procedures of science, it can be science fiction. In the world of the story, these things are natural (as opposed to supernatural) and explicable to science. Science fiction requires an anchor in this world, but to insist that everything in science fiction should be possible, some even argue probable, is far too restrictive, I think.

Fantasy, on the other hand, can include anything—magic wands, dragons, mystical powers—anything, without any implication of how they came to be or how they relate to the world the reader calls home. In this sense, science fiction is more restrictive than fantasy.

But this allows things that are clearly impossible to enter science fiction. Surely that can’t be right, right?

Remember, this is fiction. Impossible things happen all the time in all genres of fiction, and we may not even notice. Take, for example, a car exploding after a crash. You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. But you’ve seen it in fiction. In the real world, a car might catch fire, but unless there’s a bomb (or explosive chemicals or the like) inside, it’s not going to explode. The probability of the events described in a speculative fiction story happening in the real world is irrelevant. The story doesn’t take place in the real world. But the rules of science must apply within the context of the fictional story for it to be considered science fiction because those rules are science. Without them, the scientific element of the story does not exist and it’s not science fiction.

But this leads to another point. Not all science fiction is created equal. If something in a science fiction story violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s almost certainly bad science, which means it’s probably bad science fiction, although not everyone is going to notice, just as they don’t notice that cars don’t explode on their own outside of stories. Sometimes a bit of scientific implausibility does not hurt. If an author wants to include dragons of the big, fire-breathing and flying variety in a book, and provides techno-babble to explain how this is possible, many readers will let it pass. An aeronautical engineer probably won’t, but that does not mean it’s not science fiction. It may even be a great story. But take the example of clockwork robots winding themselves (or one another for that matter). I’ve actually seen this in a couple stories. The fact that this is scientifically impossible does not, by itself, mean that the story is not science fiction, but it does suggest that it is not good science fiction. It goes from scientifically implausible, which I’m willing to let pass for the sake of an otherwise good story, to scientifically impossible, which I’m usually not, with one notable exception. If the science fiction story is intended to be funny or intentionally absurd, then I’m Okay with scientific impossibilities for the sake of humor. Scientifically impossible things in a humorous novel remind us that the story is just a story. It doesn’t take itself seriously and neither should the reader.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, two short proposed definitions:

  • Fantasy is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes forces or entities for which no natural and testable explanation is implied within the context of the story.
  • Science fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes creatures or technologies of a speculative nature that are governed by natural laws based on those of the real world and which are scientifically explicable within the context of the story.

What I tried to do here is separate the two genres, making the application of science the key differentiating point while still allowing for highly speculative and varied worlds to be included in the realm of science fiction. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I am sure this won’t end the discussion.
 

Related Post: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

 For Further Reading: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy? (by David Brin)

Boomenbust and the Shoemaker – A short fairytale of productivity

BoomenbustBoomenbust and the Shoemaker – A fairytale of productivity
by D.L. Morrese

 Once upon a time, a long time ago, a young elf by the name of Boomenbust, together with many of his elfish clan, worked for a kindly old shoemaker in a fairytale kingdom far, far away. A lot of stories take place there, so it must be a real place, unlike those we hear about from time to time that are just far too silly to exist, such as Europe or China or America.

Now, the shoemaker was very grateful for the elves’ help because their skill and dedication made it possible for him to make a great many quality shoes, one hundred pairs every day, and the shoemaker sold them all.

He paid the elves well from the profit, and they used their wages to buy modest little homes, shoes for themselves, and food and clothes and other things for their families, with enough left over for an occasional book they could read to warm their hearts and minds on cold nights, or to visit the country for a picnic when the weather was nice.

The shoemaker, who had become fairly wealthy, bought a new coat for his wife and new clothes for his children and a fine new house on a hill for them to live in.

The elves made even more shoes, and with experience, these shoes were of even better quality and were very popular. The elves were so good at what they did, the shoemaker no longer had to make shoes himself, but he did make more money.

ThisendupOne day, four men delivered a large crate to the shoemaker’s shop. Boomenbust the elf had no idea what it contained. The letters painted on the outside just said, ‘From: Gizmo’s Machines. Deliver to: the Shoemaker’s Shop on Feet Street.’ There was also an arrow pointing to the side, under which it said ‘This End Up.’

Soon after the delivery men left, the shoemaker arrived in a fancy new carriage pulled by a sleek black horse. He was wearing a silky coat and matching top-hat— the shoemaker, that is, not the horse. Not that it would be silly for a horse to wear a coat and top-hat. These things happen all the time. It is just that in this case, it was the shoemaker who wore them. They would not have fit the horse. The shoemaker had gained some weight over the years, but he was not yet so large that his clothes would fit a horse, unless it was a very small horse.

“This machine can make two hundred pairs of shoes every day,” the shoemaker told Boomenbust, “and it needs only one elf to operate it. You are my best worker, so I have chosen you for this honor.”

“What of all my friends and relatives?” the elf asked. “What will they do if only one elf is needed to run the machine?”

“Well,” the shoemaker said, “I no longer have work for them, so I must let them go. This is how business works, you know? I can’t pay people for doing nothing.”

“Um, will I be paid more, then?” Boomenbust asked. He felt a bit guilty about this, considering that the other elves would no longer be paid at all, but if he were paid more, perhaps he could help them out for a while until they found new jobs.

“More?” The shoemaker pretended to think about the question. “No. I don’t see how that would be right. I paid a lot of money for this machine, and I must make that good. Besides, operating this machine will be much easier for you than making shoes by hand, won’t it? It would not be right to pay you more for less work.” Boomenbust followed the path of the shoemaker’s logic, but it somehow seemed a bit twisty.

“Please let the others know about their jobs,” the shoemaker continued. “I’d do it myself, but I have to go now. I am taking my family to a very expensive restaurant for dinner soon to celebrate our new machine.”

With this, the shoemaker left, and Boomenbust sadly went to inform the others of his clan that they no longer had jobs. He asked them to help him unpack the box first, of course. He felt they might be less inclined to do so afterwards.

OperatorsManual“What’s this, then?” one of the older elves asked, eyeing the machine skeptically. It was a monstrous device with big cogs, levers, cutting blades, and chutes. It looked like something that might eat elves more than it did like something to make shoes. Boomenbust imagined it also looked hungry. A thick operator’s manual was taped to the side.

He told them what it was and what it meant.

“But, what will we do?” one of them asked. “We have children to feed and mortgages to pay.”

Boomenbust thought about this. He was not a quick thinker or even a deep thinker, but a simple idea presented itself for his examination, and he liked how it looked.

“Well,” he said, “the people who made this machine might have work for you. After all, if this does what I’m told it does, I imagine a lot of places would want things like this.”

The elves paused a moment to consider this idea, and then the quickest among them rushed out to find Gizmo the machine maker. When the last of them had left, Boomenbust unpacked the operating manual and began to read.

The next day, he learned that some members of his clan were given jobs with Gizmo. Others were not. He felt bad for them, but what could he do? At least some of his clan had found work.

elfshoebellsAs time went on, the elves working for Gizmo helped him make even better machines. The shoemaker bought one of these to replace the old one. This allowed Boomenbust to make more shoes even faster. He was very proud of himself because he had learned all of the quirks of the new machine, and the shoes he made were just as good as those the elves had once made by hand, perhaps better. He thought of all those shoes keeping feet safe, dry and warm that might otherwise be bare. He was doing something good.

The shoemaker was pleased, too. “We’re doing very well,” he told him one day. People all across the kingdom are buying our shoes. We’re doing so well, in fact, that I’m buying another of Gizmo’s improved shoe making machines and I’m hiring more people.”

This was good news to Boomenbust because the machine was not quite as easy to keep running properly as the shoemaker seemed to believe.

“Yes, now that we are such a big business, we need executives to help me manage it. I’m making my daughter the new vice president in charge of customer research; my wife will be vice president for marketing, and my son will be vice president for manufacturing.”

“Does this mean your son is going to help me run the machines?” Boomenbust asked, suspecting that he already knew the unfortunate answer.

The shoemaker raised his bushy white eyebrows in disbelief. “Run the machines? Of course not, my good elf. Executives don’t run machines. They manage. Managing is very difficult and important work for a business with as much, um, business as ours.”

The next day, the new machine from Gizmo’s arrived, and the deliverymen helped him unpack it and place it beside the other. It operated much the same, which came as a relief, and he soon had it running. He was now making as many as a thousand pairs of shoes a day, and the shoemaker may have been right about the new executives because they were selling almost all of them— for a while. But then, for some unknown reason, sales fell.

Then, they fell some more. The better shoes, those that were expensive and stylish and didn’t last long, still sold well enough, but they made few of those. Common shoes that regular people wore to work or to school or just to go out to shops or whatever had stopped selling well, and those were most of the ones they made.

elfshoesredyellowThe shoemaker’s daughter who was the vice president for consumer research thought they weren’t selling because they were ugly, so Boomenbust tried to make them prettier with different colors and fancy stitching. It didn’t help.

BuyshoesThe shoemaker’s wife who was the vice president for marketing thought they just needed to advertise more, so they did. They hung posters and put ads in the newspaper. This also did not help.

The shoemaker’s son who was the vice president for manufacturing thought that someone else might be selling shoes even cheaper, but he walked all over town and found no one who was.

Soon, it was quite clear that Boomenbust was able to make more shoes than the shoemaker could sell.

“I’m sorry, Boomenbust,” the shoemaker said to him one day. “I don’t have enough work for you anymore. I’m going to have to cut your hours.”

“Does this mean…?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. It has to come with a cut in pay. It would not be fair to full time workers if I paid you as much as them.”

“But you don’t have any—”

“That’s beside the point. If I did have any, I would pay them more. You’re a good worker and you’ve been with me a long time, but with sales not increasing as much as I would like, I just don’t have enough work for you to do anymore.”

When Boomenbust finished his four-hour shift at the shoemaker’s that day, he went to Gizmo’s machine shop. He knew his former coworkers would put in a good word for him, and, after all, two part time jobs were almost as good as one full time job.

The elf who met him at Gizmo’s shop was one who used to work with him at the shoemaker’s. He did not look happy.

“A job?” the elf asked. “I think not, my good Boomenbust. I am the only elf working here now, and Gizmo just told me he’s cutting my hours!”

“But why?” Gizmo said. “You must be selling a great many of his fabulous machines.”

“We are. We’re doing so well that Gizmo bought a big house on a hill next door to the shoemaker’s, but we’re also making a great many machines. You see, once we learned all about the machines by making them, we helped Gizmo make a machine that makes machines. It only needs one elf to operate, so he let all of the other elves go.”

“Oh, my!” Boomenbust said.

“Oh, me, too!” said the other elf. “I was hoping the shoemaker might have more work by now and hire me back.”

Boomenbust shook his head. “No. Sales are down, and we don’t know why, but the simple fact is that I’m making more shoes than he can sell.”

Both elves sighed. They did not know where else to go, so they went everywhere. They went to the tailor, to the potter, to the weaver…. All the shops and businesses in town were much the same. Productivity was up but sales were down, and no one was looking for more worker elves.

“On the positive side,” said Boomenbust who always tried to not feel negative, “we have more free time, now. Let’s go see how the other elves are doing. They must have found other work to do.”

So they walked to the elfish sector of town and past the small school where a number of pointy-eared children were running about on the playground. Now, neither of the two adult elves walking by was ever out this time of day because both of them were normally busy working in town. It is therefore not surprising that what Boomenbust noticed is something he had never noticed before. He stopped and stared. He could not believe it. Most of the children were barefoot. Those who were not barefoot were wearing worn and obviously secondhand shoes. How could this be? He made enough shoes for everyone. There should not be a naked toe in town.

“Excuse me, young man,” he said to one of the boys. “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”

The boy looked at him as if the question was so simple a child could answer it, which he did. “Don’t have any, duh!”

“Why not?” Boomenbust responded.

“I’ve got no older brothers to pass any down to me.”

This was perplexing, so Boomenbust asked the question he probably should have asked to begin with. “Why don’t your parents buy you new shoes?”

“Shoes cost money.”

“Yes…?”

“Don’t have any, duh!” the boy repeated.

“Oh, I see. They lost their jobs, didn’t they?”

“Duh!” the boy said again, and then he ran off to join his friends.

Boomenbust asked a few more children similar questions, and their responses were always the same. Their parents were out of work because shops and businesses had become more productive. They could make all they could sell with fewer hours of work. The owners’ solved the imbalance by firing workers.

Boomenbust now knew why the shoemaker and the rest were not selling as many things as they would hope, but, as has been said before, he was neither a quick thinker nor a deep thinker, and he did not know how to solve the problem.

Do you?

© Copyright 2013 D.L. Morrese

Why Indie is good for Fiction

BookstoreThe traditional publishing business is, above all else, a business. Like every business, its primary purpose is to make money for its owners and investors. It does this by selling books.

In the past, a large publisher’s most profitable strategy was to publish a relatively small number of different books with wide appeal, those for which they believed there was a large market. The large volume offset the cost of editing, cover design, printing, and promotion. This made perfectly good business sense. There were a few predefined genres, and books that fit the currently popular trends in each of those were what ended up being published and displayed on the limited shelf space in bookstores. This model worked well for the publishing business, but it didn’t provide much variety for readers.

When I was a kid, I read mostly space operas and sword and sorcery epic fantasies. That’s what the stores sold, and for speculative fiction, that was about all they sold because that is all the traditional publishers were publishing, which they did because they sold…

These books were often very much alike. If you tore out the title page, there is a good chance you would not be able to guess who wrote the story. They were as generic as fast food hamburgers and for the same reason—mass appeal, low cost, predictable content, and reasonable quality.

It seems that traditional publishers are still working to this model, and if you really want to read a new post-apocalyptic, dystopian, paranormal, vampire romance with demons, zombies and a teenage wizard, they’ll have one for you.* They’ll probably have dozens, in fact. That kind of stuff sells. They know this because they’ve already sold a bunch much like them. This doesn’t mean any of these books are good, nor does it mean all of them are bad, but it does mean that readers who want something completely different are going to have a hard time finding it.

Fortunately, the constraints of limited shelf space and mass appeal no longer apply, although I don’t think traditional publishers know this. Many authors and readers may not, either. Things are changing, though, and the change is good.

Online retailers do not need to be concerned about shelf space. This allows them to follow a different model. They can offer a wide variety of items to suit different needs and tastes rather than focusing on a relatively small number of currently popular items. Amazon may have been one of the first to adapt this idea to books, and they quickly came to dominate the book market because of it.

Then they went a step further by creating the Kindle, which made them the leader in digital books as well. They further expanded their eBook selection by encouraging writers to bypass traditional publishers and sell their books directly to readers (who had Kindles). I’m sure this wasn’t out of some altruistic concern or even due to some sense of duty to rescue the art of fiction from the doldrums. They are a business after all, and the primary business of business is, as we know, to make money, and I suspect Amazon is making a respectable profit from digital book sales. I have no idea how many eBook titles they now have available, but I imagine it’s a lot. They probably don’t sell many copies of most of these, but a few here and a few there can add a very large pile of nickels and dimes to their bottom line.

I did not realize how truly limited my book selection had been until I received a Kindle as a gift two years ago. In the years BK (Before Kindle), I got books from the library, brick and mortar bookstores, and online, but all of those books were published on paper through the gateway of a traditional publisher. I had no idea what I was missing. In the years AK (After Kindle), I have found many books that were fresh, different, that defied genre and convention, and, because of this, they were great reads. But they didn’t come from traditional publishers, which are still working to the old model of formulaic fiction for mass audiences. Many of the most enjoyable books I read last year came from small, independent publishers or were self-published by the authors.

The rise of indie publishing makes more books available to readers. But quantity is not what makes indie revolutionary. If all it did was increase the number of new vampire romances or zombie apocalypse stories released each year from a hundred to ten thousand, it would hardly be important. The greatest contribution of indie publishing is that it makes many different kinds of stories available to readers.

For a publishing business, the purpose of producing books is to make money. For many (but not all) indie writers, the purpose is simply because they have a need to create and share stories that are not like those coming out of the big publishing houses. Sure, indie writers would love to make piles of money, but few expect to, and I don’t think it’s why most of them write, especially those who are consciously not following the mass-market book trends. What this means for fiction readers is greater variety, more books, lower prices, and a better chance of finding a book that is fresh and wonderfully different.

I used to read about twenty new books a year. Now I read about seventy or eighty. The main reason for the increase is that I can now find more books that appeal to me. And, if this wasn’t enough, ‘indie’ eBooks tend to be much cheaper than their traditionally published counterparts. Many indie books are free. Not all of them are good of course, but not all the books published by traditional publishers are, either.

I have come to view traditional publishers as something akin to fast food chain restaurants. They offer items with wide appeal and consistent quality. I’ve found that some traditional publishers of speculative fiction tend to do this better than others do, but their variety remains limited and the difference between them is like that between Burger King and McDonalds. Indie publishers are more along the lines of local mom and pop diners. Some are good and some are not, but a few offer great things you cannot find anywhere else.

This is a good time for fiction writers. They can write stories they believe in and offer them directly to readers. It is a good time for readers whose tastes do not match those of the crowd. It is still difficult to find great books that match our individual tastes, but, because of the rise of indie publishing, those books are far more likely to be out there. What is now desperately needed is a way to sort through the many thousands of indie books available to find those that we’ll absolutely love. Variety is great, but it can be overwhelming.

 

*This is a slight exaggeration. Most popular books won’t have all of these elements. There is only so much, um, ‘stuff’ that will fit in any one bucket.

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The Myth of the Lone Hero

PhilSpecs1Last year, a disturbingly large number of incidents involving lone gunman here in the United States dominated the headlines. Any sane person would have to wonder why. Can anything be done to prevent such things? The tragic events at a Colorado theater in July, and at a Connecticut elementary school in December, were especially disturbing. The latter was quickly followed by the shooting of firefighters near Rochester, New York. I expect such things will continue.

I think our gun violence problem is far more complex than just the easy availability of guns, although that is certainly a big part of it. Guns are the means, but the motives for such acts involve culture, psychology, economics, and possibly even biology. These are difficult things to change, but perhaps we can at least recognize them. Culture seems a good place to begin.

Americans, well, some Americans, have an unrealistic and overly glamorous concept of ‘individualism.’ There is meme in our culture that one man (usually a man and often with a gun) can right wrongs, solve problems, protect the weak and defend the innocent by simply taking a determined (and violent) stand against evildoers. It’s evident in our movies, pulp novels, and other stories.

I think this is how many of the worst offenders in cases of gun violence see themselves. They are taking a stand against something they regard as wrong, allowing the meme of the lone hero to completely overwhelm their ethical instincts and their reason. They don’t see themselves as villains. They see themselves as heroes or perhaps as victims, and they may be somehow rationalizing their sick delusions on the mythic figure of the lone defender of justice.

Lone heroes are fine icons for fiction, and we all like to cheer for them, but in real life, no one is that self-reliant. Each of us is the result of tens of thousands of years of biological, cultural, and technological development. We are dependent on the invention and labor of many people who have worked together to do things we could never accomplish alone. Even if we are stranded alone and naked on a desert island, we still hold within us a storehouse of knowledge, painfully acquired by others and passed down to us in a variety of different ways. We are who we are because of the contributions of others, including many who are currently alive and others who are long dead. From a philosophical perspective, we have never been and we will never be alone.

Yet our culture perpetuates and glorifies the myth of the lone hero. From our fiction, which includes much of what politicians and ‘news’ programs report, you might think that none of this communal interdependence exists, as if the food, clothes, and guns we have such easy access to are somehow ‘natural,’ and that ‘real’ men should stand apart and alone. In reality, they don’t and they can’t.

I’m not saying one person cannot make a difference. If, at the end of the day, you have spread some joy, well being, or understanding, then you have, but the myth of the lone defender of justice is a fiction. And, with all due respect to Batman and talk radio hosts, believing it true is, at the very least, a sign of dangerous arrogance. There are exceptional people, but I think there is one clear truth. If you think you are one, it proves you are not.

None of us is the sole competent judge of what is right, of what is best, or of how things should be— at least not for others. We have the inherent right and duty to make choices for ourselves, but no individual has the omniscient wisdom to pass judgment on the worthiness of another person or on humanity as a whole. This is why we have society. Our collective decisions on such things may be no more accurate or even more ethical than those of any individual, and we each may object and even oppose them (peacefully) as they apply to us, but they do tend to mitigate the impact of the truly insane.

So, one filter I try to keep in my philosophical spectacles is the just this. Heroes exist, but they do not stand alone. Those who believe they do, are most likely villains.

A Cable Modem Story

coax cableMy cable bill arrived last week. I normally pay little attention to it, but, for some reason, this time I did. On a second page there was a notification that, starting next month, I would be billed an additional $3.50 for rent of my cable modem.

I was outraged. Not because it’s a large amount of money, but because I have an inherent distaste for paying money unless I receive something of value in return. The modem has been in my house since 2008, and it was my understanding that it was provided ‘as part of the service,’ for which I am already being charged, what I feel, is an outrageous price. Why, all of a sudden, does the cable company need to tack on an additional fee for the thing? It certainly hasn’t increased in value in the last five years. In fact, it’s probably obsolete.

The obvious answer is because they can. I suppose the CEO needs an extra million in his bonus package or something. I am not sympathetic.

In any case, there was also a note that said that if I did not want to pay the monthly fee, I was welcome to buy my own modem. The URL for a listing of their ‘approved’ devices was conveniently provided.

I went to their website and, indeed, I did find a list of makes and model numbers for modems. Unfortunately, when I searched for these on line, I had trouble finding many that were for sale. It seems that several were normally only sold commercially. I suspect this is also intentional.

Eventually, I found one on eBay. It was one of those listed by the cable company as an especially good one, capable of providing ‘lightning high speed internet’ (if you paid extra). Since I thought I might decide to spring for that someday, I bought it.

It arrived the next day. Seriously. Less than 24 hours after I hit “buy” on eBay, the modem arrived in the mail. I don’t care what people say about the U.S. postal service. I have always found them efficient and reliable. They deserve more respect. But, back to our story.

Yesterday, I connected my new modem. The lights went on the way they should and everything seemed fine. I didn’t have internet, of course. I needed to call the cable company to provide them with the MAC address for the new modem first.

I called them on my cell phone since the house phone stopped working when I disconnected the old modem. After a sufficient amount of time on hold, which is, I suspect, scientifically calculated to make sure that you are aware that they, not you, are in charge of the interaction, I reached a nice lady whose only goal in life was apparently to help me and make sure I had a great experience with their service. She was quite charming.

I read her the serial number and MAC address of my new modem. She took it all down, paused, asked me to wait a moment, and placed me on hold.

The moment passed. When she came back on, she was quite apologetic but said she could not connect my new modem. There was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was one of their better ones. That was the problem. It was theirs. It had been reported ‘lost.’ I had bought a ‘lost’ modem.

I was not upset, exactly. I’ve been taking muscle relaxants for a back injury, and they have a somewhat calming effect. But I was not happy and I so informed the nice lady on the phone. It did not seem right that I should suddenly pay a new fee on an old modem.

She said she could not waive the charge, but she could send someone out the next day with a newer modem. I agreed. At least I’d feel like I was getting something for this additional expense. She made an appointment to have a technician come by between 10:00AM and noon the next day.

I went back to eBay and contacted the seller. They responded right away saying that if I returned the modem, they would refund my money. I repacked it in the box it was delivered in and brought it to the post office. I’m sure it will be delivered promptly. I’m not so sure I’ll get my money back.

The cable guy arrived shortly after 12:30 today. I suspect this, too, was intentional. He was later than promised, but not so late as to be annoying. This is probably intended to make me feel appreciative that he arrived at all.

The first thing he did was check all the cable connections. This is what every cable guy who has ever been here has done. Like the others, this one clipped off some old connecters, put on some new ones, and said that this would correct a ‘leakage’ problem. I’m assuming these connectors have a variable life span measured in how long it takes the customer to complain about something unrelated and they are forced to send someone out to make the customer feel his concerns are being addressed.

“What about my new modem?” I asked. I tried explaining about the rental fee.

“Oh, I’ve tested your old one and there’s nothing wrong with it. It works fine.”

“But the lady on the phone said I could get a new one.”

“It wouldn’t make a difference. It would be exactly like this one.”

I couldn’t prove he was wrong, so I let him leave. He really was very nice. I think he may have been from India.

So now, I have some new cable connectors and an old modem for which I’ll be paying an extra $3.50 a month. Even if I am refunded for the cost of the ‘lost’ modem I bought on eBay, I’m also out for postage to ship it back to the seller. Somehow, I feel that I’ve not gotten a good deal in all of this.

Embracing Uncertainty

PhilSpecs1When we are young, I think we are all looking for certainty, and there are good evolutionary reasons for this. Unknown things can kill you. Anything from not knowing where your next meal is coming from to being surprised by a leopard hiding in tall grass can have seriously unpleasant consequences. We want to know what is out there, what we can expect, and we want to know with certainty.

Unfortunately, the universe is not required to provide what we want. In cases when it appears that it does, it’s time to step back and ask if our philosophical spectacles are distorting our perspective. We may be seeing what we want to see because we want to see it, not because it is there.

It was not until I was well into adulthood that I appreciated that uncertainty is a good thing to maintain, both for individuals and for cultures. It is, I think, a much better attitude to adopt toward life, the universe, and everything than the alternative. For one thing, it is arrogant to think we can know anything with one hundred percent certainty, whether it concerns philosophy, religion, physical reality, our romantic relationships, or the absolute best way to run a government or to make scrambled eggs.

The universe is a complex place, and we are just a small part of it. We’re an insatiably curious part of it, though, so we explore, we observe, we reach out physically and intellectually to discover new things. We ask questions and we get answers, and then we question those answers. Still, no matter how much we learn, there will always be more to discover, and no matter how certain we are of our conclusions about any particular subject, I think it is important to leave room for doubt. We must always humbly admit that we could be wrong.

Even when we are tempted to think there is no room for doubt, there is. Say, for example, your mother tells you the Easter Bunny left a wonderful basket filled with candy and colored eggs for you in the backyard. Eagerly, you look out the window. On the picnic table, you see a large, decorated basket overflowing with goodies, and that’s not all! Peeking from behind a tree is a large, white rabbit — and it’s wearing a vest, which looks a lot like a picture in one of your storybooks. It must be the Easter Bunny! She tells you to put on a jacket and some shoes and then go get your basket. You rush to your room to comply, and when you get outside, the basket is there, but the bunny is gone. You’re certain about how the basket got there, though. The Easter Bunny brought it. You have the word of someone you trust, the corroborating support of a favorite book, and the evidence of your own eyes. What more could anyone require?

Some kids might be convinced. The existence of the basket and the glimpse of the bunny provide clear evidence of both effect and cause. You, however, being a bit wiser, might remain skeptical. After all, Easter Bunnies don’t really fit well with most of your other observations about the world. Your parents might have provided the basket. The bunny could be an escaped pet. It could be a stuffed toy put there as a joke or as a willful act of deception (because parents everywhere seem to think it’s somehow good for kids to believe in all sorts of unlikely things). You might be dreaming. The wild mushrooms your mom put in the spaghetti sauce you ate with dinner last night may not have been as healthfully nutritious as she thought they were, and they are causing you to hallucinate. There are a large number of possibilities, and though they may all be exceedingly unlikely, they do exist.

Still, with the evidence at hand, the existence of the Easter Bunny might provide a good working hypothesis that you could accept as if it were true. This truth, however, should be accepted as provisional, and you should be willing to reexamine your conclusion in the light of new evidence or a better explanation. If you don’t, you, or at least your kids, are likely to be unpleasantly surprised when the Easter Bunny fails to make an expected delivery some day.

Although I suspect that uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the universe, as well as a rational recognition of our own limitations, some adults may still find the idea uncomfortable. It is a truism that we know what we like, and we like what we know. Some may not want to consider new facts or new ideas that challenge what they ‘know,’ and they may feel no need to. Imagined certainty provides a comforting sense of security, which is a difficult thing to sacrifice for some philosophical generalization.

I think part of this discomfort comes from our instinctive need for as much certainty as possible, and the failure to appreciate that this is different from absolute certainty, which is realistically unattainable. Absolute certainty is also counter-productive.

I have observed that certainty seems to take two forms. There is certainty that the full answer to a question is already known, and there is certainty that the answer is unknowable. Both, I think, are derived from arrogance about our own abilities. With dark lenses like these in our philosophical spectacles, we fail to recognize the simple fact that we might be mistaken. When our minds close, our eyes shut, and we become blinded to new information and new ideas, unless it is to disparage them. We close ourselves to the possibility of finding better explanations or solutions to our problems. What’s the point in continuing to ask questions if we are already sure of the answers? Certainty is like intellectual quicksand. It bogs us down and prevents us from moving forward. If we are certain that our current view is the best one possible, we remain stuck where we are. It prevents us from looking elsewhere. If we have no doubt, we lose our sense of wonder and make no additional progress. There is no need for more learning and no chance of further discovery.

But how can we hope to accomplish anything if we are constantly unsure?

That’s a good question. I’m glad I asked it. In our daily lives, we act as if we are certain while knowing we never can be, at least not entirely. When I get in my car in the morning and turn the key in the ignition, I’m certain it’s going to start. It always has. I plan my day on this being true. This kind of thing, however, is the type of certainty we all accept as provisional and with good reason. Although my current car has always started, I have had others that did not.

But what of other certainties? At one time, everyone ‘knew’ that Earth was flat and had been appropriately placed by God in the center of the universe. Some were certain that a woman’s place was in the home and that Rock and Roll was evil. Most of the people who held these positions were not fringe lunatics, at least not by the standards of their time. These were prevalent beliefs held by people of power and position, acknowledged experts in their fields. Today, some experts are certain that cold fusion is impossible, that the speed of light is unbreakable, and that low tax rates on the unearned income of the very wealthy somehow improves a nation’s economy. They accept these ideas and proceed as if they are true. They may be right, although I personally am not convinced of the veracity of at least one of them. But, true or not, we must always accept that some new discovery or fresh idea can challenge any notion we may hold as an absolute truth and be willing to reconsider our cherished certainties in light of them. We must remember that understanding is a process. It’s a journey more than it is a destination.

This is how science, generally speaking, approaches things. It takes what is known, or at least what has been observed about some aspect of the universe, and it works with it to learn other things. It formulates hypotheses about how various things interrelate, which provide clues and predictions about other things. And although the scientific method has been very successful in making new discoveries, it offers no certainties, just probabilities. Some may approach 100% confidence but none reaches it. The next bit of evidence or a better theory can come tomorrow, which may cause a revision to a previously accepted idea, and thousands of scientists around the world are constantly observing, testing, and forming hypotheses to discover it. There seems to be no greater goal for a scientist than to modify or overturn an accepted theory. This is what can earn them a Nobel Prize.

Yeah, but what about the big questions science can’t answer?

This question itself implies that some things may not be testable. This may be the case for things such as the existence and nature of gods and ghosts, string theory, and the question of whether or not our dogs really love us or if they’re just faking it for the biscuits. If we’re convinced the questions make sense, there’s nothing wrong with accepting an answer as if it were true or, better yet, simply accepting that we don’t know. If it matters to us, we can make a choice about what to believe, but we should leave some space for doubt. Others may choose differently, but if we are honest with ourselves about why we prefer one answer to another, we will better understand why it works for us. We may also better appreciate why it may not work as well for others.

I’m not saying there are no “right” answers. Some are clearly better than others are in that they are consistent with what can be observed, but if we are honest about our own limitations, we will be better able to make good choices about what to accept as if it were true and change our minds when circumstances warrant. Our current understanding may be quite serviceable about a great many things, but we should never conclude from this that we know everything about anything or that our present understanding of something is necessarily much more than a useful fiction.

I try, therefore, to maintain a good, healthy uncertainty. I make choices like everyone and I would like to think they are sometimes good ones, but I endeavor to keep in mind that those choices were made with incomplete knowledge by an inherently imperfect decision maker. I may need to change my mind at some time, and acknowledging my own limitations from the start makes this easier to do.

Philosophical spectacle lenses that tint uncertainty as something positive can prevent us from becoming intellectually stubborn or philosophical arrogant. They can inoculate us against zealotry, and they may allow us to adapt more easily to new ideas and new information. Uncertainty is a good thing.

Philosophical Spectacles

PhilSpecs1Everyone has opinions about a great many things. This much is obvious, but I think there may be a relatively small number, perhaps a few dozen underlying ideas, that shape most of our separate opinions. I know I have them, although I’m not entirely sure I could make an accurate list. They can be thought of as philosophical spectacles because it is through these ideas that we see the world and ourselves.

Our philosophical spectacles are important. They can tint what we see to a lovely rose color or make it appear dark and foreboding. They can distort it, bring it into sharper focus, or obscure it entirely. What we see depends as much on our perceptual filters as the thing we are looking at.

I’m not talking about brain chemistry. Our brains take the signals transmitted by our senses and impose meaning on them based on our neural construction, our instincts, and our experiences. This is the only way we can experience a mass of subatomic particles and electromagnetic waves as something like a table, or an apple pie, or anything else. That is a different aspect of subjective perception. What I’m talking about here is more personal, more philosophical than scientific.

Everything we have ever seen, read, or experienced has gone into creating our philosophical spectacles and has shaped whom we are today. I don’t think we normally even consider how our previous experiences alter our current perceptions. We tend to assume that we observe things, events, and ideas as if they are unobstructed, as if we somehow witness them objectively. We don’t, and because we don’t, it seems to me to be a good idea to try to recognize what our philosophical spectacles are made of.

As a means to examine the components of my own philosophical spectacles, I’m planning to write occasional blog posts in which I will try to identify the big, overarching ideas that most affect how I see things. Since I’ll be looking at my spectacles through my spectacles, there are likely to be inconsistencies and contradictions in my observations. That is also a good reason to do something like this. If we discover that the components of our spectacles don’t fit well together, it may be time to change some of them. What we end up with may not clarify our worldview, but at least it will distort it consistently, possibly showing everything slanting a bit to the left or a bit to the right.

What I’m going to focus on in this series of blog posts are those basic thoughts and ideas that I suspect shape my view of the world, things I think are important to remember. The first of these big, overarching thoughts is that we all have philosophical spectacles.

I believe in Santa Claus

Santa with small treeJPGWhat? People who know me well might call me a skeptic, maybe even a cynic. At times, I can be both, but I do believe in Santa Claus.

Well, okay. I don’t believe he climbs down chimneys or that he has flying reindeer, and I’m a bit iffy on all that naughty or nice stuff. However, I do believe in Santa as a metaphorical symbol of sharing, peace, and good will. Santa being physically real is simply one of the little lies we tell children until they can see the truth behind the lie, and I’m okay with that.

I like many of the things Santa represents. I’d like to think that it is possible for people to live together in peace with understanding and compassion for one another. The day when this is a global reality may be a long way off, if it ever happens, but personifying the idea for our kids could be one way of helping the idea along.

We tell our kids fictional stories to teach them about things and ideas in a way they would find difficult to understand if just the bare facts were presented to them. They may not be able to grasp, or stay awake for, a dissertation on philosophy or ethics, but they will listen to stories about Santa. This old man is kindness and sharing personified. They like him, they may even want to emulate him, and we should encourage these qualities.

Then, when our kids are older, we tell them that the stories are not literally true. This does three more things. It helps them understand the concept of allegory, it teaches that the true value of something may not be what is most obvious, and it demonstrates that they should not believe everything they hear.

Of course, this won’t work if the adults in the equation truly believe Santa is physically real, but that’s a different problem. (That was the cynical part of me. It wanted to have the last word.)

A Day in the Life of a Teenager’s Dad

FocusSmash1I have a seventeen-year-old daughter. She is a darling young lady and I love her to death, but I swear she’s going to kill me. I don’t think she’s planning to or anything like that. I think it’s just a consequence of her being seventeen and me being nuts.

Yesterday, for example, she wanted to get a Christmas tree after school. Since I drive a Miata (which is completely unsuited for carrying a tree or anything else larger than, well, me and a none-to-large passenger), we took the car she normally drives to school, a small station wagon. I bought it well used not long ago to replace the station wagon she drove previously, a picture of which is shown above. It provides some indication of why a replacement was required. (The roads were wet and the truck in front of her stopped suddenly. The resulting impact caused no damage to either her or the truck, but the poor car was left with the towing company as compensation for removing it from the road. I’m assuming they gave it a good burial.)

But, back to the current story. She wanted to drive. Okay. She drives to school every day. She can do this. No need to be concerned. She just wants to show off her driving skills to her dear old dad. Unfortunately, well, let’s just say that dad may be a tad stodgier a driver than his darling daughter. She pulled out of our neighborhood with too little room between her and the car approaching on the main road, especially if you’re driving a station wagon that accelerates like an overloaded dung cart pulled by an asthmatic goat. I’m not sure I would have tried it even in my Miata, and that accelerates like a rabbit surprised by a drooling fox.

The approaching car swerved around us (thanks for not honking) and everything was fine except for my heart and, regrettably, my language. This may have made her nervous, but I was nervous by then and had an overwhelming need to share.

All the way to the store, I was giving driving advice, to which she replied with increasingly exasperated claims of, “I know, Dad.”

Yes, I’m sure she did. She drives every day. Of course she knows all about lanes and signals and whatnot.

We arrived unscathed at the store where a tent filled with freshly cut trees stood outside in the parking lot. She parked, a bit crooked but, as she told me, between the lines. We selected a tree, which I tied securely to the top of the car. She got in the driver’s seat and I held my breath until she pulled forward — into a chain.

More explicit language ensued, which proved unnecessary since she noted her error immediately and put the car in reverse.

The drive home proved uneventful. She’s fine. The car remains undamaged. I may have a few more gray hairs, and the tree will end up being mulch in a few weeks, but it was doomed anyway.

Now, as a dad, I worry whenever she is not home. It’s part of the job, I suppose. And I can’t say this experience does not make me even more concerned. I won’t restrict her mobility, though. She has to learn, but next time we go anywhere, I’m driving.

A True Story of Life, the Universe, and Everything

I recently rewatched Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the TV mini-series created by Carl Sagan, which was originally broadcast on PBS in 1980. I did this partly as research for the novel I’m currently writing, but also because I love this series. It remains my favorite science documentary. When I first saw it over three decades ago, it changed my perception of life, the universe, and everything. That’s a significant accomplishment for a TV show. If you have not seen it, or if you have seen it and wish to watch it again, I urge you to do so. The entire series is on YouTube and (with commercials) on Hulu.

With equal parts of skepticism and wonder, Cosmos presented not only some of the discoveries of science, but also an explanation of what science is, how it works, and how it is different from other methods people have used to try to understand the universe. If I could recommend only one video series for all people to see, it would be this one. It has been sixteen years since Carl Sagan’s death and twice that since Cosmos first aired, but he still speaks to us, or at least to me.

The universe began about fifteen billion years ago. It is difficult, if not impossible, for any person to grasp such a vast period, so Cosmos includes a translation of this into a length of time we can intuitively understand. Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar portrays the entire span of the known cosmos as a single year, with the Big Bang in the first second of January. On this scale, each second represents five hundred years, and all of recorded human history occurs in only the last few seconds of the last minute of December thirty-first.

This is an enlightening and humbling perspective. From a cosmic point of view, we have not been around long, and most of what we have achieved, most of our understanding about our place in the universe, has occurred only in what amounts to a few heartbeats at this scale. To me, this emphasizes not only how brief our existence has been but also how fortunate we are to exist at all. It also implies a certain responsibility to survive and to continue learning. As Carl Sagan once said, we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. It would be a shame for us to waste the opportunity.

The following video is an excellent remix of the Cosmic Calendar. It is based primarily on the first episode of Cosmos, although it replaces some of the original art with computer animation. It comes from the Carl Sagan Tribute Series on YouTube. I invite you to watch it.

Mars Life and the Nature of Science

On 20 November 2012, NPR broke a story that NASA was in the process of discovering something ‘earthshaking’ on Mars. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, was quoted as saying, “This data is gonna be one for the history books.” (See the NPR broadcast here: Big News From Mars?)

The data he is talking about comes from the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instruments incorporated into the Curiosity rover. The purpose of these is to ‘investigate the past and present ability of Mars to support life.’

Because of this, my guess is that the earthshaking discovery is the existence of organic compounds that are strongly indicative of past life or, perhaps, even evidence of present microbial life on Mars. It could be something else, of course. I’m only guessing, but it’s my blog, so I can guess what I want to.

This is a significant difference between the busy folks at NASA and my humble self, a simple science fiction novelist. I can make a wild guess about something like this and share it with the world, or at least with the miniscule portion of it that reads what I write. The people at NASA are more constrained. What they do is science, real science, which means they have to question and test their conjectures before they proclaim them. They also have to try to prove that their assumptions, their expectations, the things they think are reasonable, and especially those things they wish to believe, are not true, or at least not conclusively demonstrated. They have to be careful not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, especially if those conclusions are what they hope to find because this is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves. That’s what real science does. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would certainly qualify as extraordinary in my opinion, not in the sense that it is unlikely, but in the sense that it would be the first evidence of life somewhere other than Earth. The chemicals required for life are common in the universe, so the surprising thing to me would be if it did not exist elsewhere. We’ve never found any, though, but then we’ve only just developed the ability to search for it.

Undoubtedly, many dedicated men and women around the world will be spending long hours collecting and analyzing the SAM data, trying to determine what it implies, and trying verify and, at the same time, discredit their own conclusions. This is how science does things. It’s meticulous and inherently skeptical, and it is the best method available to us to know the universe.

I understand that NASA’s conclusions about this earthshaking finding will be released in December. I look forward to seeing them.

We Know What We Like

I never wanted to be a blogger. I don’t want to be one now, which may seem like an odd way to begin a blog post, but it is true nonetheless. It’s not that I object to sharing my opinions. Obviously, I don’t. I’m a writer. Most people, with a little encouragement, will tell you what they think, or what they believe, which is a different thing entirely. The first is based on rational connections and can be explained; the latter is based mostly on feeling and is far more personal.

So why am I blogging? Well, because it’s something novelists have to do now. They need a ‘platform,’ which includes a media presence, a large part of which is a blog. My problem with the whole blogging thing is that I prefer to spend my time writing novels rather than blog posts about what I think or feel about one thing or another.

Some bloggers write about their lives. Mine wouldn’t make a very interesting story. I was born at a very young age, survived several years of mediocre schooling without any serious emotional or intellectual impairment, worked a few tedious jobs until I managed to escape to what, at a distance, appeared to be somewhat less tedious jobs, got married (twice), raised some wonderful kids… The same things many people in the Western world do. Now, I write novels, and despite what you may think, this does not consist of dashing off a few brilliantly creative words in the morning and having the rest of the day free. Mostly, it involves sitting in front of a keyboard until an idea hits you hard enough for you to notice. This can often take quite some time, ranging from minutes to weeks. Eventually, this idea becomes a jumble of words on your computer screen, which later need to be extensively reorganized, revised, and rewritten.

Some bloggers write about things they’ve discovered. Computer geeks (for whom I have the utmost respect) especially do this. Information in blogs like these can be very helpful, and if I find out something I think might be useful to someone, I’ll share it. Normally when I learn something, it’s because I found the information on line or in a book, though, and you would be better off finding it there, too.

Other bloggers share their opinions. I’m loaded with those. Like most people, I have opinions on all the subjects people normally feel they are inherently entitled to have opinions about, such as politics, religion, music, the future of mankind, and what makes for a good breakfast. Also like most, I don’t really know enough about these things to justify my opinion in any purely rational sense. My opinion, like everyone’s, is based on incomplete knowledge and understanding. It’s probably also subconsciously influenced by mostly forgotten and seemingly unrelated personal experiences, and there may be some genetic factors as well. The point is that my opinions are just MY opinions. They are the conclusions I jumped to using the incomplete knowledge at my disposal. If I’m sane, (a debatable point I won’t dwell on here) my opinions are consistent with what I know, but they rely just as much on things I do not and probably cannot know, which means I could be wrong.

Possibly the only thing we all know for absolutely sure is what we like, although we often only realize this after the fact. We may not know beforehand. Not for sure. Whether it’s a movie, or a book, or an idea, or a tasty treat, we discover we like it after we’ve tried it. Likes are opinions but without any implications. When someone says, “It’s my opinion that the Earth is flat,” it implies that it should be your opinion, too, or at least that they have some good reasons for it. When someone says, “I like the idea of a flat Earth,” it implies several things, but not that it should also appeal to you, unless it’s your boss or someone like that and it is said suggestively.

Because of this, my blog posts tend to be short reviews of the books I’ve just read, and what these say, for the most part, is what I especially liked about the book. If I didn’t like the book at all, chances are I didn’t finish it, and I don’t review those.

Now, what I like in a book may not be what you like. Most people agree on a few things such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but even these are not absolute, and they certainly are not sufficient. A book can be technically correct in all these regards and still be a stinker. On the other hand, a great book can include nonstandard spelling, punctuation, and grammar and be quite wonderful. Dr. Seuss comes to mind in this regard, although in his case, it’s intentional, and few novels I’ve read adhere strictly to the Chicago Manual of Style. Still, whatever objective criteria you choose to name, coherent plot, realistic dialog, author intrusion on the narrative, or believable characters, you can find books you enjoy that fail these tests in one way or another.

When you read books published only a few decades ago, you see things that would probably make them unacceptable to traditional publishers today. Would one take a chance on something as quirky and rambling as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if it were submitted today? It’s one of my favorite books. Would they say Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings starts too slow, or is too long, or too wordy, and has too much backstory? Few of the books written earlier than this would stand much of a chance. I doubt anything by Charles Dickens, for example, would get into print now, although to be fair, writers in the middle of the Nineteenth Century had more words and many more commas available to them than modern ones have. Although these older books may not meet current fictional norms, they are still great books, and a book written today that does not match contemporary expectations does not mean I, or you, won’t like it. It just means it’s out of the ordinary, which could be a very good thing.

So, if you’ve landed on my blog intentionally or by chance, let me just say that if you see one of my posts and it says I like something, it just means I like it. It doesn’t mean that I think you should like it. It does not imply that it meets any objective standard or that it will have wide appeal. I’ll normally say why I like something, whether it’s a book, or an idea, or something else. If I notice things about the subject that others may not like, I’ll mention them and say why I do or do not consider them flaws. This is really all I can do with any confidence. You many not share my opinions, beliefs, or tastes. I don’t know what appeals to you. All I really know is what I like, and knowing what we personally like may be all any of us can know for sure.

On Paid Book Reviews

About a month ago, a friend and former coworker emailed this Salon article link, The Dreaded Amazon Breast Curve, to the members of our informal discussion and self-assigned world problem-solving group. Despite the article’s strange title, it is about authors, specifically independent authors, paying for reviews of their books.

The Salon story begins like this, “The fact that many authors pay services to write positive Amazon reader reviews of their books…

Wait a minute! That’s not a fact! That’s the opposite of fact. It’s a fabrication, exaggeration, misinformation, politics, spin, a lie! It’s also not true. As it’s authority for this slanderous statement, the Salon article sites a report from the New York Times, The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.

At the time, I told my friends that the examples provided in these articles must be exceptions. Very few self-published authors would stoop to buying good reviews. For one thing, it costs money, and that’s something most indie authors have in short supply. Another thing is that it’s dishonest. As someone who should know, I confidently informed our little group that the generalizations and extrapolations made by these articles were simply unsound. The idea of authors buying good reviews seemed so ridiculous to me, I thought little more about it…

…Until, this morning. I was driving one of my kids to school, when I heard this report on the radio — Five Ways to Spot a Fake Online Review (from NPR). Now this report specifically focused on restaurant reviews, but it began by talking about authors buying or posting fake book reviews.

I don’t know about restaurants, but obviously rumors about how widespread the practice of buying misleading book reviews is continues. I still don’t believe it is common. In fact, I believe it’s relatively rare. I’m a self-published author. I sometimes stop by forums and read blogs by other authors, and the consensus about this seems to be that the idea of buying positive reviews is repulsive.

I have never and I will never pay someone to review my books. Asking for reviews is fine. Providing an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) or a promotional copy of a book to a potential reviewer is fine. But this is the only form of payment I think an author (or publisher) should ever offer, and promotional book copies must be given without any guarantee that a review — good, bad, or indifferent is forthcoming.

I probably read (or reread) about one-hundred novels a year. Most come from the public library, others I purchase, and I sometimes grab a free Kindle book during giveaways on Amazon when they sound like something I would like. I’ve reviewed several from all three sources. Normally, I post my reviews on this blog, on Amazon, and on Goodreads. Where I got the book has no impact on the likelihood of me writing a review. I have never and I will never accept money from an author to review one of his or her books. It would be inappropriate.

I believe there is a place for professional reviews and professional reviewers. I have no problem with reviewers being paid for unbiased reviews if they are employed by a magazine, newspaper, or similar media outlet, provided that the funding does not come from the authors, publishers, or anyone else with a financial interest in the books being reviewed.

I understand how hard it is for self-published authors to be noticed. I know this painfully well because I’m still struggling with it. So what, you might ask, is wrong with an unknown author paying for an honest review? How else will a new writer get attention?

Second question first — There are many, well, at least a few dozen websites that will consider reviewing books by self-published authors. Some only review indie books, and they do this impartially and without cost or any expectation of return favors. Some do it simply because they like reading and reviewing stuff they might not otherwise see. Search the web. You’ll find them.

First question second — The main reason authors should not pay for reviews is a matter of perception. It’s a matter of how the general book-buying public will perceive what is happening. We are not talking about paying someone to give you, as the author, an honest assessment of your book. We are talking about the author paying someone to tell the world how good his book is. Do you see the difference? Can you honestly not see why this might provide an impression of bias?

Authors live and die by reviews, especially independent authors. Traditional publishers don’t promote most of their authors as much as they once did perhaps, but one thing they do provide, by the very nature of being professional publishers, is a stamp of approval. A traditional publisher’s mark on a book tells readers that someone, other than the author and perhaps a few of his closest friends and family members, thinks his books are worth reading.

Chances are an indie author doesn’t have an agent, promoter, publisher, or anyone else helping him spread the news about his books. He needs his readers to help him do that, and one of the best ways his readers can help is by writing reviews. When the legitimacy of those reviews is called into question, what is left to show the world that someone thinks an indie author’s books are worth reading? Pretty much the author’s word for it, and no one expects him to be unbiased.

This is why reviews are so very important to indie writers. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say they are precious to them, and I believe this is why most indie authors are appalled at the idea of purchasing biased reviews. Doing so undermines the best way we have to build a reputation with readers.

I personally see the purchase of biased reviews as unethical, inconsiderate, and selfish. It’s also likely to backfire on the writer. Once it is discovered that he has paid for reviews, (or loaded Amazon with biased reviews he himself has written under bogus names) his work will be tainted. No matter how good it might be, the reviews will be discounted, even the honest ones from regular readers. If that taint fell only on the guilty, it would be poetic justice. But it is not that well targeted. It stains all of us.

Related Posts:

 

In Recognition of Towel Day

A picture of my Towel

There are other holidays and commemorations, but none is as important, significant, popular, meaningful

Let’s start again.

Towel Day 2012 will be widely celebrated, observed, recognized

Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will recognize this book’s immense contribution, significance, importance

 

……

……….?

Okay. Towel Day is fairly obscure, if you are judging it based on reality, but, as Douglas Adams reminds us in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, “reality is frequently inaccurate.” (I’ll get back to that.) The point is that Friday, May 25, 2012 is Towel Day, a commemoration of the life and work of Douglas Adams, and especially of his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The first Towel Day was held in 2001, two weeks after Adams’ death on May 11. Fans around the world are encouraged to carry a towel with them on May 25th of each year in his honor.

Why a towel? Well, if you are acquainted with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know. If not, here is what it says (in Chapter 3) about towels.

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)”

Another picture of my Towel

Now you know what the Guide says about towels. You can ignore the rest of this because I’m about to get philosophical and impart symbolic meaning to things Adams may not have intended. Yeah, the symbol is the towel and it relates a bit to the quote about reality being inaccurate. I think he’s right — sort of — in a way. It’s not because there is no objective reality. I’m fairly certain there is, it’s just that I don’t think many people actually live there. People wrap a towel of subjectivity around themselves and interpret reality through it. They see things that are not really there (like I’m seeing the symbolism of the towel) and ignore things that are, sure that if they don’t see them, they can’t cause any harm, rather like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. Adams may be pointing out how people filter their perceptions to create personal subjective realities, and I think one of the themes of the book is that we can take these subjective realities far too seriously. Using humor and absurdity, he helps us realize that our beliefs are choices, our perceptions are subjective, and our fears and problems are often simply a matter of how we look at things. Sometimes, our subjective interpretation makes problems of things that don’t need to be, or at least make them seem larger. Shifting perspective may be all that is needed to eliminate a problem, or at least make us feel better about it.

On the other hand, I’m probably taking all of this far too seriously, and one thing I think Adams would caution against is taking anything too seriously, especially his books. So, with that in mind, let me just wish a Happy Towel Day to all you hoopy froods. I hope you remember where your towel is, and, whatever you do, Don’t Panic!

 

The Problem with Productivity

I may have mentioned before that I stay in contact with a number of friends collectively known, at least among ourselves, as the “Mutants of the Round Table.” Our group appellation has nothing to do with Arthurian legend. It derived from us meeting in the cafeteria of the office complex where we all once worked and sitting at a large round table for lunch. There we would discuss weighty issues of politics, philosophy, religion, and other things geeks talk about among themselves when there is little chance of offending ‘normal’ people. Occasionally, other subjects would come up — things like women or sports, but as many of us were relatively unfamiliar with these or found them less interesting, our conversations about them tended to be brief. We’ve gone our separate ways since then, but we keep the email conversation going. There are still world problems to resolve.

We are not a diverse group. We are all white, college educated, and male. Despite these similarities, we have varied political and philosophical outlooks and our conversations can become heated. When especially incensed, some of us have been known to RESPOND IN ALL CAPS – sometimes even ending with an exclamation point! Yes, we can be an impassioned and opinionated bunch.

One topic that resurfaced recently was the economy. This one comes up a lot. We all have ideas about what should be done or not done to fix things – including those who don’t believe anything needs fixing. I’m in the camp that sees a fundamental problem and I hope there is something I’m missing.

Let me take a moment to digress here. I read a lot of science fiction. I especially enjoy tales that look at current events and extrapolate what the future might hold and how people respond to changes that occur over time in science, technology, politics, or belief systems. Normally in such stories, as in real life, a culture will survive if it can adapt to change. If it cannot, it collapses. (I prefer those stories in which people show enough intelligence to prevent catastrophe.)

(Yeah, I do have a point and I plan to get to it soon. It’s not funny or related to my books, writing, or anything like that. This post falls into the category of ‘things that momentarily excite, annoy, or distract me.’ Feel free to skip it, but thanks for sticking with me this far. I’m sure I lost all the non-geeks a couple paragraphs ago. I probably need to figure out a way to put more sex and sports in these things.)

I believe we (the U.S.A., Europe, and the U.K. especially, and soon the rest of the world) may have an emerging economic problem related to our success and we will need to adapt to deal with it. High unemployment might be a symptom of this.

(Just another digression. I’m especially peeved about unemployment because my son who recently earned a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering can’t find a job in the field and he has student loans to pay. If anyone can offer him a job building spaceships, I’d appreciate it. His thesis was on nuclear powered spacecraft, and I have no doubt he could design anything from a robotic asteroid miner to a multi-generational interstellar starship. He’s a bright lad and quite good-looking, too. He takes after his humble dad. His likeness appears on the cover of my book ‘The Warden War.’ But enough of that. Now, back to our previously scheduled blog post.)

The success I’m concerned about is productivity. In terms of human work hours per unit of production, we have made great improvements in productivity since the industrial revolution in all areas I can think of. Whether we are talking about a piece of hardware, transportation of a product, a ton of food, an article of clothing, or pretty much anything else, it takes fewer hours of human labor to produce now than it did before, and those productivity improvements are continuing in many areas. We’ll probably never get to a point where it will take no human labor to produce everything we need. Unless somehow we have robots doing everything, to include designing and building new robots, people will still need to be productively employed. In the future, however, it seems likely that we will be able to make whatever we need with less human labor than it now takes.

So why is this a problem? It’s not, or at least it doesn’t need to be. Productivity improvements have led to items costing less. Most people really can now have ‘a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,’ as Herbert Hoover summarized prosperity in his 1928 Presidential campaign slogan. People have benefited, their lives have improved, and all we have to do is continue on like this, producing more and consuming more until everyone can have an infinite number of chickens and cars, right?

Well, no. At least, I don’t think so. The more production / more consumption train can’t go at full speed forever. Resources are one limiting factor. If we could continue to consume as much as we could make, we’d eventually run out of the resources to do so. Even if resources were infinite, though, we would still have a problem.

No matter how productive we become and how inexpensive we make things, there will be a point of market saturation. Even considering population growth, there are only so many things people are likely to buy. Certainly, creative advertising can entice us to spend vast amounts of money on things we don’t need, but even incredibly rich people who have more dollars than sense can only buy so many houses, cars, or yachts.

The problem we may have in the future if productivity continues to improve is that we will have the ability to make all things we might need except for people able to buy them. By making more stuff with fewer people, we will end up with a surplus of both stuff and potential buyers for that stuff, at least from a free market perspective.

From a purely economic standpoint, businesses are motivated to produce as much as they can sell, to employ only the number of people needed to make those items, and to get as much production from each employee as possible. They will not make things they can’t sell and they will not employ people they don’t need.

You probably see what I’m getting to, but I’ll try to summarize a bit. Let’s say you are an automobile manufacturer. You will produce as many cars as you can sell, right? So let’s say that in 1920, it took one-hundred hours of labor for you to make a car. In order to keep selling cars, you need to produce them as efficiently as possible because if you don’t, your competitors will. That’s all well and good, and it encourages advancements in technology. You’re successful, you embrace new technology and methods, so by 2020, you can produce a car with only ten hours of labor, and it’s a much better car. (Note – these are not actual figures.) There is no problem so long as the demand for cars continues to increase. With greater productivity, you increase your production far more than you increase your workforce. This increases profits and makes your investors and managers very happy. But eventually, everyone who wants a car has one. They replace them when they can afford to, but your slacking customers are not producing new consumers as fast as you need them to. Your market has plateaued, but your productivity improvements have not because you are still motivated to be more productive than your competitors. The only way to increase your share of the market is to take it from someone else. Some companies will continue to grow but only at the failure of others. Regardless of which companies come out on top and which go under, eventually, the industry overall will have to reduce its workforce.

But those who end up out of a job as a result were not just workers, they were also consumers, and without a job, they are likely to be consuming far less.

No problem, right? They’ll just get a different job. But all other businesses have the same motivation to improve productivity, and they, too, can find themselves requiring fewer workers to produce all they can sell to meet a now shrinking demand. The result, if you stick with our current definitions for ‘fulltime’ work and compensation, is increased unemployment and shrinking demand, which dominoes. The workforce shrinks, causing the market to shrink, causing businesses to cut back, causing the workforce to shrink again…. One can only increase the market so much, and no matter how good your advertising is, you can’t sell to people who don’t have jobs or money. It’s like telling the peasants to ‘eat cake.’ I’m sure they’d love to, but they can’t, so they don’t.

The problem isn’t productivity per se. Increased productivity allows us to produce more with less labor. Who would say that’s a bad thing? The problem is that we see labor as a cost of production to be minimized and profit as the thing we want to maximize. Instead of filtering productivity benefits to the actual people who produce things, it turns into profit for owners and managers who must reduce their labor force to remain competitive and keep their profits flowing as long as possible.

At this point, the most conservative of the Mutants would probably argue that the owners will use that money to buy things like yachts and planes and that will create jobs. Yes, a few. But use the same amount of money to keep a thousand people employed, and they’ll buy a thousand homes, and a thousand cars, and keep local small businesses open. They also won’t be drawing unemployment or welfare and will be less likely to resort to crime. In terms of best use of capital for the overall economy and society, there’s no contest.

“Ah, but you can’t do that,” he might say. Why would anyone hire more people than  they need even if they did have the money to do so? It makes no sense. And, of course, he’d be right if labor hours per employee were fixed, but they’re not.

The ‘normal’ eight-hour workday is a fairly new idea. Up until late Nineteenth Century, a ten or even twelve-hour workday was common and worker benefits were rare. But increases in productivity allowed the possibility for shorter work hours. Of course, businesses had to be willing to share the benefits of increased productivity with their workers rather than reap all of the benefit as profit. Many would not do this willingly. Workers had to strike for an eight-hour workday. The most famous such strike, perhaps, was the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, which ended quite messily and which is now commemorated each year by International Workers’ Day on the first of May. (Oddly enough, it is not so recognized in the U.S.A., which celebrates ‘Labor Day’ in September instead.)

My point here isn’t that workers need to unionize or strike for shorter work hours. My point is that a shorter workday may be one way to avoid unemployment and economic problems resulting, ultimately, from increased productivity. A market economy is, at the core, a balance of production and consumption. It is people earning money by producing goods and services and exchanging that money for goods and services provided by others. From a narrow, individual perspective, both that of a worker or of a business, the goal is to maximize the amount of money earned and minimize the amount of money spent to buy what you need or want. From a broader societal perspective, the goal is go keep everyone employed so that the production/consumption cycle is not broken. When the amount of labor required to produce everything needed falls, the best course of action for a business is to reduce the number of employees. The best course of action for the society at large, however, may be to reduce the number of hours each employee must work for the same pay and benefits. At least, that’s how it appears to me. The advantages to such a strategy seem obvious so I won’t belabor them. The only disadvantage I see is to business profits, which, at best, would be short term if they were gained at the expense of employment.

Of course, worker pay and benefits, if such exist, must be retained at least at present levels, though. Many companies, especially retail stores, already limit the number of hours per employee so they won’t be considered ‘fulltime’ and therefore eligible for benefits such as medical insurance or paid holidays. This makes perfect short term sense for them. They can reduce the cost of labor overhead by hiring more people who each work fewer hours. Reducing the number of hours people work each week may be necessary in the future, but it must not come at the cost of worker pay or benefits. From a purely economic standpoint, this makes the employees poorer consumers.

Another possible mitigating strategy might be to lower the retirement age so that people can retire earlier and open jobs for younger folks. I just don’t see a realistic way to do either of these things, though, because both will cut into short-term business profits, and business profits, at least in the U.S.A., have somehow achieved a sacred status that lowly workers must admire from afar but dare not touch. I’m fairly sure nothing will be done anytime soon that might adversely affect them, so I’m doubtful that our society can adapt to the economic changes caused by increased productivity. If something like this does not happen, though, I can’t see how increased unemployment and a declining economy can be avoided without a whole lot of government spending, which is also unlikely given the current political environment. But that’s another issue and one I won’t rant about, at least not here.

As you may have probably surmised by now, the Mutants can have rather long, esoteric emails. I will try not to write any more posts like this, but this issue has been on my mind recently, not as something I can do anything about but mainly as an intellectual and philosophical question, as are most of the things the Mutants discuss. In any event, I promise my next blog offering will be much more fun and related to books and writing.

A curious photo, a touching story, and how lies can be true

I have been in email contact with a number of people pretty much since email existed. Today, one of them sent me the following picture.


Touching, isn’t it? It is certainly a poignant message about the costs of war. The symbolism is clear. The bicycle represents youth and innocence, the condition of it represents how such things are lost and abandoned because of war, and the tree shows how the natural world continues without regard for such conflicts between men and prompts us to reflect on why we continue to engage in such things.

The trouble is that it’s not real. Not entirely. The photo is real. There really is a bike in that tree. The story is made up, though. According to Snopes, a boy by the name of Don Puz from Vashon-Maury Island in Washington State was playing in the woods with some friends in 1954. He was the only one who brought his bike. When his friends left on foot, he joined them, leaving the bike leaning against a tree. He didn’t much care for the old bike, which had been given to him. He owned at least one other, so he never returned for it. The tree grew around it and it became an internet curiosity half a century later.

That’s not as good of a story, though. The one the email came with is better. So which is truer?

Well, the one about Don and his abandoned bike is more factual, but the fictional story about the boy going off to war in 1914 is also true, in a way. The message is true. The theme is meaningful. War really is as disruptive and wasteful as this fictional account implies.

Whereas I resent being lied to, and I don’t appreciate it when people fabricate or misrepresent evidence to make their point, I do appreciate a good story. I am a fiction writer. Telling lies with true meaning is what I do. The story someone pasted onto that photo is a good piece of fiction. I like it. Had it been presented as fiction, it would have been better. If it carried the disclaimer that you often see in front of books (mine included) that all characters and events in them are fictitious, I would have no problems with it at all. However, I am also an advocate of not confusing fact with fiction, even when the fiction is true. Implying something is a fact when it is not is simply a lie no matter how true the message is. I try my best not to do this. Lying to make a valid point is still lying.

With that said, it is time for full disclosure. Nothing in the books I wrote actually happened. None of the people in them is real. Many of the things I say in my stories, however, are completely true. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which those are.

Bookstores & Paradigm Shifts

  My email circle of friends and (self-imagined) world problem solvers recently discussed the expanding role of e-commerce. As with most of our conversations, this one began with something else. One member of our august group forwarded an email of dubious accuracy, which ostensibly related humorously poor predictions of future events by people who could be considered experts about such things.

Here they are:

  • “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” — Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”
  • “The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” – – Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project
  • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” –The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
  • “But what is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981
  • This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,” — Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
  • “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” — A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)
  • “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.”
  • “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make,” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
  • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
  • “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this,” – – Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.
  • “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy,” — Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
  • “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.
  • “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value,” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France.
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.
  • “The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required.” — Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University
  • “I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” — The head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.
  • “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse , 1872
  • “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

I didn’t fact check any of these quotes, and I’m sure some are inaccurate or at least taken out of context, but the point of the email, I think, remains valid. It is difficult for anyone to predict what comes next. It may be even more difficult for experts in the field because they are so heavily invested (intellectually, not monetarily) in the status quo.

Of course, our email discussion drifted to computers and how none of us imagined a time when we’d need more than a couple of floppy drives and a dot matrix printer, then it shifted to what we use our computers for now, and eventually it evolved into a discussion about internet shopping.

That’s when I brought up Borders Books and its unfortunate demise. I would never have predicted it. I went there often, and the place always seemed busy. People would go there to shop, browse, seek help from polite, knowledgeable employees, or just sit and sip coffee at the in store cafe while working on their thesis or next book. I loved this place. But I must reluctantly admit that if Borders did not have what I wanted in stock, which most often was the case, I went home and bought it from Amazon.

That got me thinking – a dangerous habit, to be sure, but I can’t seem to help it. Was the closing of Borders indicative of some broad paradigm shift that extends beyond just their business model? The explanation I most often see for Borders’ failure is that they were slow getting on the e-book bandwagon. I don’t know if this is truly part of the reason. I’m sure it’s not the whole reason. A retail store that sold CDs and videos also went out of business near me and it brings me to wonder if there may be something even more fundamental underlying the issue that may affect not only other bookstores but all other types of exclusively brick and mortar retail stores as well.

A physical store has to limit its inventory because of space. This was not a problem when peoples’ tastes were limited by whatever radio, TV, and magazines made popular, and when consumer choices were limited to what major producers made available. The internet is a game-changer. It expands our options and allows us to sample different things we would never have been exposed to without it. Before the internet, many of these things probably would not have existed. They would have been squashed in infancy because major producers did not feel they fit current tastes, and people’s tastes were largely constrained by what these cultural gatekeepers allowed to become available. Of course, I am speaking mainly about books and music now, but it may apply to other areas, too.

My first experience with this was with music. What you heard when I was young was whatever they played on the radio. That was pretty much it, and it was fairly limited. I won’t say some of this wasn’t great music because it was, but a composer or band that created something different that music producers did not think they could sell easily would have little chance of wide exposure. If you didn’t live next door to these garage bands and heard them practicing, chances are you would never have had a chance to hear what they came up with.

Digital music changed this. Bands could reach out to the world on the internet. I recall the first time I heard an online recording of a song by a then fairly obscure European band, which quickly became one of my favorites. I had never heard music anything like this before. I loved it. I’m not sure where I found it, now. It may have been on YouTube or possibly provided as a link in an email from someone, but the point is that before the days of the internet, I would never have heard this. It certainly would never have been played on the radio because it did not fit an established genre and I doubt any producer would think it would ever become popular. I doubt it could be called popular now.

This is the point I’m driving at. Mass popularity may soon be an outdated idea. The things people know, believe, and like are limited by their exposure to them. With a worldwide internet, they are exposed to more, so their tastes can become more diverse.

Small publishers, music producers, and individual artists can now compete for audiences. I find that much of this ‘indie’ stuff appeals to me more than that which is cranked out by big companies. Physical stores won’t carry it. They couldn’t if they wanted to. Even if the worldwide market for it is large, it may not be big enough in individual areas to justify a carrying it in a brick and mortar store, which can only stock that which they can sell in enough volume to turn a profit. If your tastes deviate from mass market ‘pop’ stuff, the local store may not be the place for you to find what you will most like.

We are just starting to see this with books and music. I seldom find music I like in stores because they don’t carry it. Yes, they can order it (usually), but so can I. In fact, I can get it instantly by buying the MP3 album. The same kind of thing may be happening now with books.

I still shop at physical stores. Sometimes I even browse. But if I’m looking for something in particular, chances are I’ll be shopping for it online.

A Personal Note – What I accomplished in 2011

Now, for something completely different…

This is a personal post. It is not about writing (really) or self-publishing. It is not about my books (much) or anyone else’s. It is a short, personal indulgence. Feel free to ignore it.

I knew 2011 would be a transitional year for me. In 2010, I decided that 31 January 2011 would be when I left my thirty-year career in military acquisition and logistics. I would have about two weeks more than I needed to qualify for an early retirement then. I say I decided in 2010, but the January 2012 date was my target long before that. In a way, I started planning it thirty years ago. Military logistics was not my career of choice. I had no career of choice, other than a vague dream of being a fiction writer–someday. The U.S. Army called me after I took the Civil Service exam when I was in graduate school, and they made me an offer too good, or at least lucrative, to refuse. I did well, eventually becoming a supervisor, and I was good enough at the job, I did not dread each new day at the office. I wanted to leave anyway. It still was not what I wanted to do. In 2010, I determined I could retire and still pay the mortgage. (So far, so good.)

As the date neared, my coworkers “knew” I would change my mind, or at least return as a contractor. I was too young to retire. They did not see me as the type who could relax and do nothing other than putter around the house, which is what retirement implied to them. They were right and they were wrong. I never reconsidered my decision to retire, but I never found much time to putter afterward either.

The first thing I did was remodel my kitchen. Actually, I designed it and hired a contractor to do the work, knowing I lacked the required tools and skills. It took about three months. While the various carpenters, plumbers, and tile workers tore down and reconstructed my kitchen, I sat in my home office working on the two books I began seven years earlier but never found enough time to complete. I finally did. This was my first major accomplishment. (The kitchen turned out nice as well.)

My second accomplishment was to self-publish them. That was a last minute decision. I originally planned to try to find an agent and get a contract with a traditional publisher. A number of things I read suggested it would be better to self-publish though, so I never sent out the lovely query letter I had drafted. Instead, I published. I realized later that I did this too soon, but it is an accomplishment nonetheless because I learned from it and I have gained a small following as a result.

My third accomplishment was to create a social media presence. This website is the biggest part of that. I find I am enjoying it more than I thought I would. I am also finding it is more work than I thought it would be. After I get it into a form I am happy with, I think it will take less of my time. I also have a Twitter account, and Facebook, and Google+. The only one I check often is Twitter. Still, this modest presence is more than I had in January so it qualifies.

The third thing I consider an accomplishment is completing the first draft of my third book. The one thing my premature publishing error did that I consider positive, is to make me feel I could start a new book. This one is more of a Young Adult novel than the previous two, with a younger protagonist and single point of view. I think it is a good story, a bit more traditional than the others are, but I think it will be a fun read once I have it in a publishable form.

I also planted a garden. The tomatoes should be ripe in another month, I think. I am not sure about the peppers. It looks like there are only three of them but I am sure they will be delicious. The only things I have sampled from my garden so far are lettuce, parsley, and basil. Since this is my first attempt at growing food, I consider it an accomplishment as well.

That’s what I did in 2011. I’m hoping for greater things in 2012.

Wishing Everyone a Happy Whatever

 It seems people have become overly sensitive about respecting one another’s traditions and beliefs, especially around this time of year. You can’t say “Merry Christmas” because this excludes those who aren’t Christian. But if you try to be inclusive and say “Happy Holidays,” there are those who say you are being disrespectful of their personal beliefs.

If you truly wish to extend warm wishes and voice a hope for “peace on Earth and good will toward all men” at this time of year, you may feel you are on shaky ground. If you know the particular beliefs of the person you are addressing, you can choose your greeting, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukah,” “Good Bodhi Day,” “Happy Samhain,” Happy Pancha Ganapati,” “Joyous Yule,” or whatever to match their beliefs. But what if you don’t know or are uncertain? What if you are extending the wish to multiple people with different beliefs? Personally, I’m just fine with “Happy Holidays” but given that some find this objectionable, let me try to extend my wishes for a warm and happy season to people of all beliefs and nationalities with all due respect for personal sensitivities.

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, nonaddictive, gender neutral celebration of whatever festival or event you honor around the time of the winter solstice. At this time of year it is especially important to respect and remember the traditions of your particular religious persuasion or secular philosophy while also respecting the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.

I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, with all due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures.

These wishes are freely extended without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, nationality or sexual preference of the wishee.
This greeting is extended with the following terms and conditions:

  • This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal.
  • It is freely transferable with or without alteration.
  • It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for
    her/himself or others.
  • It is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher.
  • This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first.
  • There is no explicit or implied warranty that the recipient will actually, or even is more likely to, have a happy holiday (of his or her choice) or new year (if applicable) as a result of receiving this greeting although the recipient, if dissatisfied, may exchange this greeting for another exactly like it or for a different but similar holiday wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.
  • This offer is void where prohibited by law (secular or holy as applicable).

Disclaimer: No trees were harmed in the posting of this message however a small number of electrons were slightly inconvenienced.

Best Wishes,

DL Morrese

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