Wednesday, April 9, 2014


"Rubble doesn't cause trouble." -- John Derbyshire

The political news has been monotonous lately, and I'm disinclined to dwell on matters as tawdry as philandering Congressmen and combative Attorneys-General, so here are a few more chunks of concrete from the wreck of the recent past. Mind the asbestos!

1. Conversations I: Torture.

CSO: Fwughmp!
FWP: I've never heard it put quite that way before.

CSO: It's just this damned post-nasal drip.
FWP: A nasty affliction. Among non-lethal nuisances, it's one of the worst.

CSO: Think someone somewhere is working on it?
FWP: You never know. There are people researching why toddlers fall off their tricycles.

CSO: Say, what about applying for a federal grant?
FWP: Well...maybe, but the research might be put to evil purposes. Which would you rather endure? Post-nasal drip or being waterboarded?
CSO: Forget I said anything about it.

2. Conversations II: Fashion.

My diminutive (5' 0.5") Vietnamese-American sweetie Duyen, probably the smartest shoe addict in America, stunned me yesterday with a declaration I never expected to hear from her: In her opinion, women's high heels are getting too high. This led to the following exchange:

FWP: Coming from you, that's a revelation. Do you think they're too high to walk in at all?
DK: That's never been an issue with the really high ones. A woman wearing high-high heels doesn't expect to walk more than a few dozen steps in them.

FWP: So what's the issue, then?
DK: The proportions. The shoes are starting to look grotesque. They don't flatter the wearer. The proportions are all wrong.

FWP: The thick platforms?
DK: That and all the crap the designers hang on them.

FWP: The implications are disturbing.
DK: What do you mean?

FWP: You're going to need a new way to squander your vast fortune.
DK: I'd have to anyway. All my closets are full.

The laws of physics win again -- in two domains at once, this time.

3. Matters fictional.

Just yesterday, Ol' Remus and I were exchanging thoughts about contemporary science fiction -- neither of us thinks much of most of it -- and it occurred to me that part of my loss of interest in what other SF writers have been producing arises not from craft -- most contemporary genre fiction is written better than that of fifty years ago -- but from a pandemic exhaustion of imagination.

The speculative genres' major tropes have repeated almost without variation over the decades since Gernsback. While the improvements in their craft have been considerable, few SF writers seem capable of coming up with anything genuinely new. The fantasy genre seems equally bereft of novelty. As for horror, please! Being compelled to read one more novel about vampires, werewolves, or zombies might send me into a killing spree of my own.

This struck me in part because, as old people often do, I've been returning to old favorites lately. I've recognized virtually every SF, fantasy, and horror motif of importance in books fifty years old and more. Those older novels lack much of the precision, grace, and flair I've come to expect from newer works, but the newer books very seldom innovate in matters of plot and genre-motif.

For one whose principal pleasure comes from the printed word, this is particularly disturbing. So, Gentle Reader: have you any recommendations of new writers and works for an old SF / fantasy aficionado? Books that genuinely bring something original into those genres? My reading stack is getting thin!

4. Shortages.

Milton Friedman said on more than one occasion that "Economists don't know much, but we do know how to create shortages and surpluses." [From Free To Choose] He went on to explain that what gives rise to a shortage is the compulsory fixing of the price of a good below what people are willing to pay to "clear the market." An old gag has some point:

Elderly Shopper to Butcher: How much is your ground beef?
Butcher: $4.99 a pound.

Elderly Shopper: That's outrageous! Why, across the street they only ask $2.99 a pound.
Butcher: Then why aren't you buying it across the street?

Elderly Shopper: They're all out of ground beef.
Butcher: Well, Madam, when I was all out of ground beef, it was $2.99 a pound here, too.

Demand, that all-important microeconomic concept, isn't just "what people want;" it's "what people want and are willing and able to pay for it." Which brings us to the subject of medicine and medical insurance.

At this time, the Affordable Care Act has decreed fixed prices, de facto, for medical insurance. Those prices are well beyond what many Americans are willing or able to pay for coverage. This has given rise to a "shortage:" a large pool of uninsured who would not be uninsured in a free market. The effect will be compounded as insurers raise their premiums in response to the skew of the insured pool further toward persons whose ages and conditions imply elevated payouts. We've already seen average increases of about 12% over the past six months; there will be more.

But a shortage of a widely desired good is never unaccompanied by another phenomenon of governmental price fixing: a black market.

I've wondered for a while now what form the American black market in medical insurance will take. Insurance is a kind of bet, and we certainly have black markets in gambling of other sorts. I predict that this one will be no exception...and I tremble to think what that will mean for the enforceability of the black-market insurer's obligation to pay for the contracted coverage.

To live outside the law, you must be honest. -- Bob Dylan.

In a black market, honesty develops from the ugliest and most violent imaginable processes, though they're no less necessary for that. That doesn't make the prospect any prettier.

5. Bread.

Please, Gentle Readers, keep the bread-price quotations coming. The ones I've already seen are most illustrative, but I need as comprehensive a set as possible to continue the assessment of actual (i.e., as opposed to federal-fantasy) inflation (i.e., dollar deterioration). On your next shopping trip, just jot down the price of a pound loaf of Pepperidge Farm (or whatever the first-echelon commercial bread is in your region), and attach it to the post below as a comment.

Thanks in advance.


Xealot said...

For your third point, I can only say that I wholeheartedly agree. Furthermore, this principle extends beyond the written word and into all forms of entertainment.

I am a professional DJ and Electronic Musician, and I can say that music today is better produced than it ever was. Technology and experience have led to better mastering techniques, cleaner sound and more accurate reproduction. Concerns and shows have pyrotechnics, powerful sound systems and amazingly coordinated light shows. Yet, somehow, the quality of music has declined anyway. The great ballads of earlier years have given way to catchy but utterly common little ditties. The creative force behind it has diminished.

I find this to be true of cinema and Broadway as well. Once again, everything is better produced. Not just special effects, mind you, but cinematography, soundtrack production and direction as well. Yet both Hollywood and Broadway have taken to recycling old works, sometimes quite literally in the form of remakes (common in Hollywood) or blatant pilfering from other mediums (such as the Lion King and Wicked on Broadway). The original, creative spirit has left.

And so it is no surprise to me that the written word suffers the same malady, too. It is the Zeitgeist of our age. Every chain restaurant is clean, perfectly designed with flawless menu layout and carefully considered architectural details. The food is cooked more evenly. The flavor is more consistent. But it has lost something that, for all its other failings, the old Greasy Spoon dive still had.

lelnet said...

#1: The CSO clearly does not suffer from the same degree of postnasal drip as some of us do. Given a choice of "waterboarding XOR postnasal drip", I'd choose the former without regret. Of course, I'd want to see some convincing evidence first that it really was XOR and not OR. :)

#4: My guess would be that, since what most people desire is less health _insurance_ than health _care_, the alternative market that forms in response to the meddling of government will have little, if anything, to do with insurance or other gambling, and be focused primarily on the provision of medical services in exchange for direct payment by the consumer. Which is (fortunately) not yet entirely illegal in the US. (Even the brits aren't _that_ stupid...among Western industrialized countries, only Canada has gone that far over the edge.)

Tea Party Guy... said...

FYI... Can't comment on bread but here is a real world perfect example of where we are heading on sugar...

03-22-14 - Frost buys 5lb bag of store brand sugar for $1.97... equals = 0.394 cents per pound.
04-01-14 - Frost buys 4lb bag of store brand sugar for $2.09... equals = 0.5225 cents per pound
Frost wanted a 5lb bag, not a 4lb bag, but apparently according to the store manager 5lb bags may have become a thing of the past!

End result... Frost is paying 32.614% more for the sugar he used to make his Kool Aid on April 1st than he did 10 days earlier on March 22nd. So, soon, Frost will be like Cousin Eddie and Hamburger Helper... and Frost will be making his Kool Aid without sugar. Wait a minute Michelle O. and Bloomberg will probably be very happy about that.

Malcolm Hays said...

Interesting that you bring up the notion of books. I've recently finished reading Brandon Sanderson's latest entry in his mammoth "Stormlight Archive" series. It's truly an epic, magnificent work of fiction. There are manly men, heroic virtues, and an amazingly original world to explore with many different societies. He also puts the relationship between men and women under a microscope in a way that you would probably approve of. The first two books are only 1,000+ pages apiece, so I figure a voracious reader like you could finish them off this weekend...

Tad Williams most recent series is also somewhat unique. "The Dirty Streets of Heaven" and it's sequel (of a trilogy) has an angel fall in love with a demon and then go into Hell to rescue her. Tad Williams creates very weird--yet very human--characters and worlds. (His Shadowmarch series is also excellent.)

And Robert Jackson Bennett writes contemporary urban fantasy/science fiction. "American Elsewhere" takes bizarre and original to whole new levels.

I've read A LOT of fantasy and science fiction and see the same "staleness" creeping in. It is hard to imagine "new" ideas because in some ways all of the old "new" ideas have become reality. Where do we go from here?

Swami Rabbitima said...

In Milwaukee, WI, Pepperidge Farm is $3.89.

daniel_day said...

I have a somewhat lukewarm book recommendation - Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe. It is not science fiction, more of a Kafkaesque mystery. I have read about 1/3 of it twice, but was reading it in Japanese, and bogged down partly in Abe's very wide vocabulary and partly in his style. He alternates chapter to chapter between the story and a "digression"; for example, the main character is an insect collector, and Abe spends a chapter discussing insects. The character goes to a sandy area of Japan, and Abe spends a chapter discussing sand. These digressions are partly foreshadowing, and I've been working up the patience to tackle the book again, since my Jse is better now, but have not cracked the book yet. Anyway, there you go, a recommendation.

CGHill said...

I must of course agree with Duyen: what was done to cars -- one standard shape, several thousand tasteless gewgaws -- is now being done to women's shoes.

Anonymous said...

Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne, then Blood and Iron (same author), books 1 & 2 of the Penrose series. I'm looking for the 3rd to hit the shelves.

Steve S