Friday, July 18, 2014

OHG! Stock Market Crashes! Maybe not...

Just a brief note.   CNN reports a "major jump in the fear index by 37%!!!"   Of course, their "fear index" is a made-up number that really means nothing (and courtesy of the bureau of specious statistics).

The upshot?  With Israel invading Gaza and an airliner shot down, gold "jumps" 1.5% and the stock market "tanks" by a similar amount.

1.5% is a major shift?   Gold  is still nearly $500 less than historic highs a couple of years back.

But then again, "Minor shift in markets" isn't a headline, is it?  You need to say "FEAR takes over Stock Market!  The Sky is FALLING!" in order to capture eyeballs.

Granted, I think you will see the market retract somewhat after a 5-year bull market tear.  And gold may bounce back due to people overseas buying it (like nervous dictators about to be deposed, or people in China and Russia looking for safe havens).

As for shooting down airliners, look where that got the former Soviet Union.  The shooting down of the Korean Air flight was arguably one of the pivotal moments in the downfall of the USSR.   It certainly didn't help us either, in our relationship with Iran.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Trip to the Casino



The Casino is an interesting machine - a machine designed to separate you from your money.

We took a trip to a casino - and didn't gamble a cent.   We are in Connecticut and our friends and their entire family like to go to the Mohegan Sun casino, and since they all lose so much money there, they are "high rollers" and can bring guests there for free meals and drinks - and sometimes even free hotel rooms.

It was, to say the least, an interesting experience.  And other than tipping the waiter, I didn't spend a cent.

I wrote before about the Mohegan Sun, as I was thinking of buying one of their bonds.  They expanded the casino considerably and borrowed a billion bucks to do it.  In the end, I decided not to buy the bonds.   While revenue is up from 2009 levels, it is not like the old days just yet.  And they need lots of revenue to pay off those debts.   Worse yet, more and more communities are building casinos - often outside of Indian reservations - so the supply of "gaming facilities" is saturating the market.   If this continues, some Indian tribes might end up broke, yet again.   Why drive two hours to some Indian reservation if they build a casino two hours north of New York City?

Once again, the red man is screwed by the white man!

But I digress....

Like the casinos in Las Vegas, the Mohegan Sun was bright and distracting, with lots of glitz and glamor, or at least things that were designed to look glamorous to the untrained eye, but looked tawdry and cheap to the trained one.  It was loud, too, but not as loud as the casinos in Las Vegas, which was a relief.  The food in the "high rollers" club (you must be a soaring or ascending member to enter!) was good, although not spectacular.   The drinks were free, but small, and the waiters had a fixed schedule for visiting tables, so your drink intake was regulated and no one got out of hand.   Casinos are like that - very controlling of your behavior.

The same is true with the buffet - all you can eat, but they provide 6" plates and serve small portions, so you eat all you take and there is less waste.   This is not a bad thing, of course.  We all need to eat less, in America.

And the cameras.  I counted 70 just from where I sat.  Nothing happens in a casino that isn't planned, controlled, monitored and watched.   Like with Disney World, you may think you are making spontaneous decisions, but your actions are preordained by the herding techniques they use.

I have a question, though.  What's with the endless miles of corridors?  We walked back to our car at the "Winter Entrance" (parked there as we could not fit in the garage) and we must have covered a quarter-mile in carpeted corridors that seemed to serve no purpose other than to occupy real estate.  50-foot wide corridors, all air-conditioned and everything.  What is the point of that?  Just wasted space.  Put a slot machine in there, or something!

But of course, the most interesting thing was the people.  Our hosts provided some real insight right off the bat.  One explained that they liked to come here as a vacation destination (they went nowhere else) and so long as you understood that the "house always wins" you will get along.   The other host said, "When I look out over here (where the playing was going on) do you know what I see?  LOSERS!  Tons and tons of LOSERS!  And that includes ME!"

Both realized that you can't "win" at a casino.   At best, you blow through some money and they give you a "free" hotel room and a meal and some drinks.  It is a like a cruise ship - a LOT like a cruise ship.    Except that the price you pay is not advertised or set in stone.   You can control how much you lose, I suppose, and the more you lose, the more you "ascend" or "soar" into the land of 3 ounce free drinks.

(For me, if I was to do this, I would not bother wasting time at the slots, but just over to the "high roller" blackjack table, blow a couple of grand on one hand, intentionally lose, and then hit the buffet.   Why not just cut to the chase and save all that time?  But of course, I would just rather pay for my food, rather than play games like this.)

Others at the casino looked very sad.   350-lb men and women playing the slots.  People stuck in front of these machines like rats in a Skinner box.   People with odd sartorial choices.  For example, one young man from New Jersey wearing pre-distressed torn jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt that was covered with fake tattoos, and the most wicked mullet I have seen in ages.  And the way he strutted around, he clearly thought it was a "look".  It was a look, alright.  Sort of confirmed what everyone thinks about New Jersey.

It was fun to go, but it struck me that it was not a happy place for most people.   You go, you lose, and then you drown your sorrows in cheap booze.   In the brochures and on the website, everyone is smiling and having fun.  In reality, most people look pretty grim, at least while they are "gaming".

What was strange is how many people brought their children there.   I was amazed they didn't have kid-sized slots for the kiddies to play.  I am not sure what the kids would do, while Mom and Dad gambled away their college fund.   Casinos and children - doesn't seem like a good mix, but then again, that baby-sitter money is better spent on the slots, right?

I guess the "value" people find in this, is entertainment.   You lose money, you get perceived "freebies" (that you are paying for, by losing) and it satisfies some need in your brain that you are getting away with something, when you are clearly not.   I cannot say how much our hosts lost that day, but I suspect at least $1000 or more, perhaps far more - far more than the meal and drinks would have cost if paid for.  But again, "Free" isn't, and by obscuring the real cost of these getaway weekends, the consumer has less of an idea of what things really cost.  The more complicated you can make any financial transaction....

And speaking of complicated, try to figure out these "Momentum" levels of membership in the casino.  The more you play, the more points you accumulate!  Sounds like clipping coupons to me.    Sounds like another casino game to play, where you never actually "win" at all.

And speaking of winning, while both our hosts admitted that the "house always wins" and that they are "losers", they nevertheless regaled each other with stories of "big wins" they had or that friends had.   "Joey won $4000!!!" one would say, neglecting to mention that over the weekend, Joey's net loss was $2000.   Gamblers remember wins and forget losses.  They remember the freebies and don't remember the costs.  It is the nature of the beast, and casinos cater to it.   It is a form of compulsive behavior, and as I noted before, you can make a boatload of money catering to compulsive behaviors, whether it is drinking, smoking, gambling, sex, or iPhones.

It was interesting to go, but frankly, I can't see myself going back.   Gambling is a really, really bad idea.  And a casino just isn't that interesting place to go...

From a business model perspective, I see trouble on the horizon.  With so many casinos saturating the market - and so many more on the drawing board - they will start to cannibalize each other's business in short order.  The casinos closest to major metropolitan areas will steal business from the other ones further away (the latter being Indian casinos in most cases).

The casinos thus have to "double down" their bet, and provide other forms of entertainment, to attract more visitors.  They have to offer rock concerts, shows, conventions, and whatever else it takes, to get the warm bodies in the door (and hope they gamble).   So it makes sense that the Mohegan Sun borrowed all that money to expand.   In the casino business, the name of the game is expand-or-die.   No one is going to drive four hours to gamble, when they can gamble an hour from home, unless you have some particular "draw" such as better amenities or the like.

And since gambling is now so pervasive, the "draws" have to be greater and greater.  Most Americans live within a half-hour of some kind of gambling venue.  On the island, we have a gambling boat that goes offshore.   Even the local 7-11 offers a lottery.  The need to fly to Vegas is diminishing.  But ironically, this is driving larger and glitzier casino construction - to make the trip seem worthwhile.

It is a fascinating business.  I have no intention of patronizing it, however.

P.S. - on the way out, I stopped at their gas station to get gas.  The gas pump said "card not read" and would not dispense any gas.  For some reason, Capital One put a fraud alert on my card, as even though the card was not read, it put a $99 hold on my credit card.   The Nissan holds less than 20 gallons of gas, which at $4 a gallon could not reach $99 on a good day.  So as a bonus "fuck you" from the Casino, I had to spend an hour on the phone this morning with my credit card company straightening that out.  It just sort of confirmed the kind of sleaze factor these places have, in my mind.


UPDATE:  Apparently the overbuilding of Casinos is already having an effect on Casino-destination areas like Atlantic City, which has seen a wave of Casino closings - and not for the purpose of rebuilding, either.   Even the casino "gaming industry" lobbyists admit that Atlantic City may never bounce back to its casino heyday, as consumers would rather go to places closer to home.  

Could Las Vegas be next?  So far, the only casinos shut down in Vegas are older ones that have been imploded to make way for newer, larger, and glitzier ones.  Vegas understands that you have to "double down" your bet, if you are going to survive - and offer a compelling reason to fly there.  What's next?  under-aged prostitution?  Oh, right, they already have that.  Convention business and all.....

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why Status Sucks.

Having a bunch of nice shit may convey status.  But it also can get in the way sometimes.

We just returned from a trip to West Virginia.  It was interesting as we stayed at a campground where people form all walks of life were staying.   And it is interesting when people of different socioeconomic backgrounds mix and meet - from the very poor and uneducated, to the very rich and highly educated.  If you can get past the status barrier, people can interact with one another.  But it ain't easy.  Alcohol helps.

Status prevents you from engaging with other people.  It creates a barrier between people, that would otherwise not exist.  People of high status may refuse to engage with people they perceive to be of lower status.  People who perceive you to be of higher status may refuse to engage with you, as they may think you are "stuck up" or because your perceived higher status makes them uncomfortable and feel inferior.

And the key word here is perceived status.   Status is often an illusory thing.  people who try to project status, through purchases of consumer goods, are often viewed as low-status by people who understand than buying things on time is not real status, but a sign of poor values and an impoverished background.  Only fools are impressed by flashy clothes, cars, and motorized accessories.

Others perceive status based on vocabulary, accent, and manner of speaking.  In the South and in West Virginia, we notice this a lot.   If you talk with a typical mid-western or Northeastern accent, you stand out among a group of people with a Southern drawl.   And to "fit in" you find yourself adopting the mannerisms, sayings, and accents of the host group you are with - this is normal human behavior.

I mentioned before about a friend of mine who grew up in a trailer park in West Virginia.   She wanted more out of life than to get pregnant at age 16 and live with an abusive husband.  She changed her hair color, her name, and especially her accent, and re-invented herself as a high-end interior designer in the big city.   And it worked to.   If you walk like a duck, talk like a duck, you are a duck.   But without that status, well, no one is going to ask Lurleen from West-by-God-Virginia on how to decorate their million-dollar townhouse in D.C., right?

Status probably has some deep-seated purpose in our society.   In the military, status is enforced by the Military Code of Justice (or whatever they call it).  One big offense an Officer can commit is "Fraternizing with Enlisted Men."   Simply stated, as an Officer, you can't be friendly or friends with, any enlisted personnel.  Why?  The reason is simple.  You can't order a man to march into machine-gun fire after sharing a beer with him the day before.  He will view you as a friend, not a superior, and not obey orders.

We see this in the working world as well.  I mentioned before how at the law firm, the "partner's row" of offices was separate from the rest of use plebe associates, and how that row had a hushed tone of a funeral home.   We did not associate with the partners, as they were viewed as demi-Gods.

Some partners tried to be friendly with the associates, and I think it backfired.  Once you realize that the partner that you idolized as a legal genius was in reality a schmuck like yourself, well, a lot of the aura wore off.  And you start asking yourself why you are working so hard to make him rich, and not yourself.  Status can be a way of obfuscating reality.

And we see this all the time in employment relationships.   You can't have a secretary or other clerical worker in a firm or company thinking anything but that you are a bloody genius and a demi-God.   If they get the idea that they can do YOUR job, it is all over for you.   And in industry and the military, they have a term for this, "insubordination" - the lack of respect or subordination an employee has for the employer.   And it is all based on status, or perceived status.

Perceived status is why some folks make a million dollars a year and others make less than a hundred thousand.   Granted, there are some talented few who deserve such large paychecks.  But there are also others who are just making the dough based on a job title alone, and are utter frauds otherwise.  Again, status, or perceived status gets in the way - in this case, of the marketplace effectively evaluating the value of one employee over another.

In the recent recession, however, we saw many folks lose these "status" based jobs, once it became apparent that their high salaries were based on status alone (or perceived status) on not on their real worth to the company.   Middle-managers who flail about trying to show their worth to the company (typically by doing stupid things like hiring consultants or motivational speakers or getting ISO certified) end up being shown the door.

Speaking of which, I saw a rest stop in Pennsylvania the other day that was "ISO 14000 Certified".   They are up to 14,000 already?   And why is a urinal that is ISO certified better to pee in than a non-certified one?   Moreover, hasn't the world seen through the scam of ISO certification yet (meat for another blog posting, I guess).   But in particular, isn't there someone at PENNDOT that needs to be fired for wasting money on this sort of nonsense?   I mean, that is taxpayer dollars there, right?  But once again, I digress...

It is easy to acquire status or at least perceived status.  Buy a lot of expensive shit (or expensive-looking shit) and people will assume you have money.  Talk without an impoverished accent and use an extensive vocabulary, and people will assume you are well-educated (unless you use those vocabulary words improperly, like Herman Cain, and it backfires).

Shedding status, on the other hand, is much harder to do.  You may come across as "talking down" if you try to simplify your speech or try to adopt the speech mannerisms of others.   It is a tricky deal.   In fact, it is probably best to try to avoid this, as it can backfire even worse than Herman Cain's attempts at vocabulary building.   Just be yourself, I guess, and if they don't like you, fuck 'em.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Linking is Not a Crime!

Is Google good or evil?  Or is it run by Doctor Evil?   I think today, more of the latter.

I recently received an odd e-mail from a company that complained that I linked to their site, and as a result, Google was removing them from their search engine listings, as they had too many "unnatural" links.

What the heck are "unnatural links" anyway?   This site (which I am unnaturally linking to) explains it further.

Simply stated, Google doesn't like websites which have a lot of links from other websites.   Google thinks that the site owner is trying to Search Engine Optimize (SEO) his site by creating fake links from a number of other sites (listing order in search engines is often predicated on how many sites link to the site in question).

If Google thinks you are trying to game their search engine algorithms, they will send you a nasty note and then threaten to remove you from their search results (so much for Google showing you the world, right?).

I removed the link as a favor to the site owner,  and also googled "unnatural links penalty" - which was an interesting education.  Google certainly throws its weight around these days.  I am not sure what the point of these penalties are.

Time was, people were happy if you linked to their site, as it generated traffic.  I guess today, Google wants to dominate the search engine field, and doesn't want anyone finding a site except through them.   Pretty weird stuff.

How odd that Google has its own laws, like a separate country.   I am surprised someone doesn't sue them over this.

It raises some interesting questions.   For example, a competitor could set up a bunch of these kind of links and then get someone else's site shut down from the search engines.   Google's policy could be used maliciously.

What is chilling to me is that Google's policies, once again, end up curtailing discussion and research on the Internet.  The link in question was to a company that sold salt, and had an article about sodium and its effect on blood pressure.   I was citing that link in a discussion about salt and diet - and not trying to "steer" people to their site for commercial gain.

These "unnatural link penalties" have the chilling effect of curtailing debate.  If a company sells a controversial product on their site, and a lot of bloggers and websites link  to it, then that site may be removed by Google from search engine results.

For example, suppose a lot of "Right to Life" people decide to write blog entries about Planned Parenthood or some Abortion Clinic.   The plurality of links would trigger one of these audits and a shutdown of that site on the Google search engine.   The net result would be that those seeking information about abortion would find nothing on Google, except from "Right to Life" sites.

I wonder what ever happened to Google's slogan of "Don't be Evil"????

Maybe it is time to look at Microsoft and MSN again.

But they are no better.  If you buy a new computer running Windows 8, you are basically forced to set up a Microsoft account, if you want to use any of the features or apps (such as Skype).   Everyone in the tech business is trying to bully us, one way or another.

Maybe it is just time to walk away from the Internet?   It was fun while it lasted - until three major Corporations (Microsoft, Google, and Apple) decided to make it proprietary and completely and utterly destroy it.

It's Good to Be a Plebe (the Wal-Mart Lifestyle)

People laugh at our tiny camper and cheap Japanese pickup truck.   But being a plebe has its advantages.

We had another garage sale this weekend.   We made $861 or so, selling off a lot of stuff we weren't using and would have no intention of using.   That is the simple test for me - if something has been languishing in a closet or attic or in a box or tote for a year or more, chances are, it is time to sell it.

For example, I had this nice framed set of antique postcards of Coastal Georgia.  It was beautifully framed and all, and it hung in my office for five years or so.  But then I took it down to hang something else, and it never was hung up again.   It languished in a closet for two years.   I realized that it would get ruined by dampness if I left it there any longer, so I sold it to a neighbor down the street who collects antique postcards, for less than half what I paid for it.

Could I have gotten more money for it?  Maybe.   Maybe not.   The point is, I have more money in my pocket than I would have, if I had decided it was "worth something" and let it moulder in the closet a few more years (until it grew fur).   Better off to liquidate unused stuff and move on than to hoard.

But once again, I digress.....

The interesting thing about the garage sale was the people.  Many were guests on the island, staying in rented home or campers, many arriving by "buggy" (modified golf cart) which as I noted in an earlier post, is viewed as the height of amusement for rednecks in Georgia.   

Don't get me wrong, they were nice people and all, just not very bright.   For example, they all thought we were poor, as we were selling off stuff, and didn't have a fancy bus motorhome camper and all.   One told me that he "had to have" a 40-foot camper, as you can't go camping for more than a week or so in "one of those little ones."

I bit my tongue and didn't mention that we spend about four months a year in our tiny camper (shown above) which is smaller than a Supermax prison cell (which are single occupancy).  Of course, we can be paroled at any time, which makes a difference.

Sometimes, though, I think it is good to be a plebe, and let people think you are poor.   It is better than pretending you are rich by borrowing tons of money to buy shit - and then having people resent you for having apparent wealth.

And the honest truth is, you can live quite well in this country, on not a lot of money.   Most people chose not to, of course - they spend as much as possible, buying "upscale" goods, or just shopping for crap and jamming their houses with junk (which then needs to be sold at a garage sale, lest you become a hoarder!).

I had the oil changed the other day at a 10-minute lube place.  They did a good job and even hand-washed the truck, all for $38.   Try that at a BMW dealer.   Even changing the oil myself on the X5 meant mail-ordering prescription motor oil (all 8 quarts of it) and filters.  Throw in prescription tires and premium gas, and you've got a vehicle which, although it is very nice, costs a lot more to own than a more pedestrian make, for no apparent gain or reason.

Living below your income and wealth level isn't a bad thing.  You fly under the radar, and you can take advantage of some stellar bargains out there.  And it allows you to live as a human being, as opposed to working all day as a consumer.

When we went to the AT&T store recently, to get our free replacement GoPhones, some of the other people there no doubt thought we were "poor" as we could not "afford" a smart phone with a texting plan, as they could.   And it is kind of fun, to live this charade, letting people "look down on you" as not having status items and such.   And sometimes it plays to your advantage, as folks think you are broke, and then offer you better deals.

But it also points out how some folks spend money to gain what they perceive to be status.   Whipping out a new smart phone (this year's model, please, not some crappy POS from 12 months ago!) is a sign you can afford to buy one and pay for the plan - or so you think.   And I don't know how many people have told me that one reason I don't have a smart phone is that I can't "afford one".   And frankly, it is good to keep people thinking that.

Many people, of course, simply cannot imagine not wanting status or status items.   Steve Inskeep, as I noted before, made an idiotic comment about how Friars would covet cell phones:

"On NPR this morning, was a story that had an offhand comment which typically illustrates the problem.  The interviewee, predictably hawking a book, tells of how he spent time with various religions, including a time with some Franciscan Friars, who have taken a vow of poverty.

The interviewer, Steve Inskeep, an NPR intellectual lightweight if there ever was one, says something stupid like, "Don't you just ever wonder if those monks wake up every morning just wanting a new iPhone 4? Tee-Hee-Hee!"
Hey, Steve, first of all, they are Friars, not Monks.  Second, no, there are a lot of people who don't want to consume and don't feel the need to own things as an indicia of their self-worth.  NPR airheads, of course, are not among them."
The sad thing is, I recently heard an interview with Steve Inskeep, where he was the interviewee, not the interviewer.   And a funny thing, once he reset his voice from "Morning Edition Giggle Simper" mode to real-life, he really came across as a serious person.   NPR must force him to make these inane comments.  Maybe not.  I wonder how he can live with himself.  Once again, I digress....

The point is (and I did have one) is that most people simply cannot conceive of not wanting more and more stuff and assume that anyone who doesn't have more stuff is simply poor or stupid.

Right there is a little nugget of truth, and one of those "secrets of how to get ahead" that the con-artists selling seminars and books promise to deliver but never do.   If you can just go against the herd mentality of humanity and see things as they are, you will do very well in life.

And part and parcel of that is turning away from status and things and trying to impress people you don't even know.

We live the Wal-Mart lifestyle.   This is not to say that everything we own is cheap or bought at Wal-Mart, only that we don't eschew bargains simply because of status.   We are selective, spending money where it counts, and cutting corners where it doesn't.   There is no point at buying toilet paper at the high-end grocery store.  On the other hand, they have a nice selection of cheeses.

I noted before about a friend who was running out of money and asked me for financial help.   It turned out they didn't want my advice so much as they wanted my money.   I gave them advice, which they rejected.  I did not give them money, of course.

Why?  Well, one thing they did was shop at high-end stores, as they thought that was their right and privilege in their station in life.   "Shop at Wal-Mart?" they said, "I would never set foot in the place!"

And so on down the line.   They were so obsessed with preserving status in their lives that they spent themselves into the poorhouse.   And whose fault it that?

Eschew status.  Live like a plebe.  It ain't so bad, in fact, it is better.

Enjoy life and not things.

Living Off Your Savings

The point of saving money is to reach a point in your life where you can spend it, and not have to work anymore.

Some folks, reading this blog, might come away with the idea that I am one of those crazy money-hoarders.   You know the type, they are mentioned in the media occasionally - some crazy lady who lives almost like a homeless person, but has a million dollars in the bank and leaves it all to charity.

But that is not what this blog is all about.   I am not sure it is worthwhile to scrimp and save all your life and then leave it all to the Salvation Army, so that they can give it all away to drug addicts.   But that is a lifestyle choice, I guess.

Rather, I think it is worthwhile to scrimp and save so you won't have to work for a living and be beholden to others the rest of your life.

And this is not something we have a choice about.   Eventually, you will be laid off or retire, or be downsized or your income will drop - at least most of us face that probability.   And at that point, you have to live on Social Security and what you have saved up.   And if you spent it all on Jet Skis and Cable TV, well, you'd wish you hadn't.

But most people today do just that - spend every penny they make and then borrow a penny more.   And as a result, they have to work, work, work, for hours every day, just to pay for it all.

This Fourth of July, the island was invaded by a horde of campers - all of them Georgians pulling trailers that were pulling trailers - the latter loaded with "buggies" or golf carts.  They spend thousands and thousands of dollars on golf carts, and then drive them around the island, which apparently is the height of amusement.   Frankly, I thought driving a golf cart was cool when I was 12 years old and my Dad took my golfing.   Since then, the thrill of operating motorized machinery has worn off somewhat, as it does for most adults.   Others, however, never grow up.

But the funny thing was, on Sunday, over 101 campers left the campground, all racing to get back to "home" so they could march off to work on Monday.   They can afford to spend $10,000 hopping up a golf cart, but they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

Which is better, owning a hopped-up "buggy" or owning yourself?

I own myself, bought and paid for, "title in hand" with no liens.

What does that mean?

Well, simply stated, I can choose not to work if I want to, for the rest of my life.   If I can live on the median income of the United States (about $50,000 a year) then I can afford not to work for well over 30 years, at present.   And that is a pleasant prospect to consider.

Of course, we never know how long (or how short) our lives will be, so the conundrum is how long should you work?   If you quit too early, you might run out.  And health insurance costs can skyrocket between ages 55 and 65, until you can finally qualify for medicare.

At this point in my life, I still work a bit - but I also live off some of my savings, tapping a few thousand dollars a year so I can afford to work part-time.   This means my portfolio continues to grow (the amount I take out is a tiny percentage of the overall amount) but it also means I can take four months off every years and do little or nothing in the way of work.  I think this represents a good balance between quitting work entirely (and spending it all too soon) versus working until I am 80 (and leaving tons of money to ungrateful heirs or charities).

But the key is, using the money to live, not to buy gaudy "things" and pay for them in installments for the rest of my life.  If I choose to consume then it would take only a few years to burn through my life's savings.   To me, that is not a smart choice, to own things when you can own yourself instead.

Part of the reason I am able to work less (or afford to work not at all) is that I have stripped down my lifestyle and eliminated a lot of expensive money-consuming stuff and services from my life.   Smart phones and Cable TeeVee don't add quality to life, but suck the money out of your bank account, with little to show for it.   Is it worth working extra hours per month so you can watch Cable or text your friends?  That is the question.

And it is a question that most people don't ask, as they don't see it.   Since they work all day long and have only weekends to contemplate their lives, they don't ask whether spending 10% of their annual income on a golf cart (when they don't even play golf!) is a smart idea or not.   They just want to have "fun" for the few hours a month that their employers allow them to have free.

But again, these are lifestyle choices, like the lady who lives as a pauper and leaves millions to charity.   It is a choice, not a destiny.   You can't complain about "living paycheck to paycheck" and text it on your smart phone.   Many do.

So, we are off for three months.   Boston, Provincetown, Montreal, Ontario, Saugatuck, West Virginia, the Natchez Trace, and finally New Orleans.    Somehow, we will make do without a "buggy" or a smart phone.

See you in October!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Quantum Economics




The wave nature of the electron is what makes atoms have the properties that they do.  It also means that we cannot think about the electron in an atom as a little ball whirling about the nucleus, but a cloud of probability that is smeared out over the orbit.

NOTE:  This is an older post I worked on a while ago and abandoned.  I finally revised it today.

In Quantum Mechanics, Physicists try to describe the nature of the atom, in part by admitting that you can't describe the nature of the atom, except in terms of probabilities.   And the uncertainty principle basically states that you can't really accurately measure the position of a particle and its momentum, or more precisely, the more you know about one variable, the less you know about the other.

In the mid 20th Century, some economists came up with a Quantum Economic Theory, which is interesting only in its obtuseness.   It tends to focus on the macroeconomics of societies in general and even international economics, for example, arguing for an international currency.   I am not sure this is a proper application of the term "Quantum" as macroeconomics is looking at the large picture, and not economics at the particle level.

And the particle level, to me, anyway, would be the economic actions of individuals, like you and me, who are mere particles in a larger economic structure that exists planet-wide.   And it is that that level that I think some aspects of Quantum Theory can be applied to economics, not at the macro level.

Each of us is like an electron in an atom.  We have certain predictable behaviors, but only in terms of probabilities.   Most of us follow a well-worn path, but there are are outliers as well.   We do not always follow predictable rules and paths.

For example, Adam Smith, with his famous "invisible hand" of the marketplace, posited that in general, a free market will find, automatically, the best price for goods or services, in response to the law of supply and demand, and thus remain in equilibrium - much as an atom in its ground state.

The problem is, of course, that just as electrons do odd things, so do people.   While the bulk of us will follow the herd and try to optimize our outcomes according to the "invisible hand" of the marketplace, there are always outliers who will oddball things with their money.   And these can be predicted and plotted on a chart, much like the probabilistic mapping of electrons as shown above.

So, for example, while the vast majority of folks will invest their money in fairly safe and sound investments, some will go for wild, risky things, which may pay off - or leave them bankrupt.   While still others will blindly believe idiotic nonsense and either choose not to invest at all, or give their money to a fraudster, con-artist, or MLM scheme.

In a way, it reminds me of a model used to design staircases for evacuation of buildings.   When designers assumed that each person would walk down the stairs at a given rate, they could design a staircase that would evacuate even a large building in minutes.  In practice, it didn't work.   Not all people behaved the same.  Some tried to walk up the staircase.  Others were too slow or uncertain.  Still others just ran around in circles.   When these predictable and probable behaviors were modeled, the staircases could be better designed to handle real-world evacuations.

And this is predicable, with certainty, in any given size group of people.   You get enough people together, you can rightly assume that some of them will exhibit this outlier behavior.   It is a predictable outcome.

Of course, as a society, we have this aversion to letting people starve to death, when we live in plenty.  So we have created social "safety nets" for these outlier people who find themselves "less fortunate" that us (their situation usually having less to do with fortune than with their own actions or inaction).  So our free-market, in terms of investing, is not really free at all, as no one is truly free to utterly fail.   You can blow it all on drugs, or not invest at all, or invest poorly, and still expect to get Social Security, SSI, food stamps, or any one of a number of programs.

This, of course, skews the probability somewhat.  Our distribution of outcomes is no longer a smooth map, but one with a flattened side.   The electrons all have a minimum energy level that they cannot sink below.

Perhaps this is all a bit of nonsense.  Well, actually not perhaps.   But I guess the point is, when we talk about public policy and behavior of individuals, we have to expect this quantum effect in behavior.   You can try to steer or goad people into certain behavioral modes, and there will always be an outlier group who decides to do weird, oddball, or even criminal things.

And a lot of our public policy is predicated on people acting in concert, dancing to a tune set by Mr. Smith's Invisible Hand.   We are told to invest in our 401(k) and guided by tax incentives.   And yet, many choose not to do so - at all.  And many folks who do, make horribly bad choices, which over time, leave them destitute.

The alternative, of course, is a forced arrangement of electrons into their shells, to their specific states, where we know their speed and position with accuracy.   Rather than relying on their probabilistic distribution, we can force them into energy states and insure a perfect outcome for everyone involved.   Socialist and Communist States have tried to do this, with little or no success.  Everyone ends up in a ground state - a lowest common denominator of existence.   And the outlier behavior doesn't vanish, it merely moves underground.

I am not sure what the relevance of all of this is, other than it got me to thinking that government policies are often predicated on coercing or inducing people to do certain things (pay taxes, sign up for Obamacare, contribute to a 401(k), or whatever) and for whatever reason, a certain percentage of people will not do what the government intends, or do quite the opposite.   This is Quantum behavior, and sort of predictable, when you get a large group of people together.

The Dishwasher is Useless!

One of the most useless appliances in the kitchen, in my opinion.  By the way, who washes 20 place settings at a time, as illustrated in this photo?

We recently rehabilitated our old condo, and this meant replacing the 20-year-old appliances which were well beyond their design life (they may have been older than even that!).  For a few days we didn't have a dishwasher, and I was fine with that.  Dishwashers are useless or worse than useless, unless you have a large family - and even then.

Why do I say that?   Well, the dishwasher is a study in passive-aggression.   No one wants to load it.   No one wants to unload it.   It is a pain-in-the-ass (or more precisely, the back) to use, and it just ends up hoarding dishes.

Oh, and it doesn't wash dishes very well.   That.

If you are single or just a couple, the amount of dishes you use is pretty minimal, and you can wash them by hand and put them in a drying rack (or hand dry them) and put them away in a matter of minutes, without having to bend over, load some machine, run it for two hours, and then put things away.   The dishwasher doesn't save labor, it creates more.

For single people or small families, one approach is to load the dishwasher until it is "full" with several days of dirty dishes, and then run it.    Once "clean" (we'll get back to that later) it is a huge pain in the ass to take nearly every dish, cup, saucer, glass, and piece of silverware you own, and put them away.   No one wants to do it, and as a result, a lot of people end up just taking dishes out of the dishwasher and using them, instead of putting them all away.

The plates and cups and such are not such a problem.  It is all those weird utensils and pots that you don't know where to put, and end up putting away in the wrong place.   A sure sign, by the way, that you have too many utensils pots and pans.

So the washer sits half-full (or half-empty if you are a pessimist) and you have a dirty dish and you accidentally put it in with all those clean un-put-away ones, and you have to run the damn thing yet again because the clean dishes are now "contaminated" or whatever.

And that right there is the problem with the dishwasher - it plays to this paranoid fear of germs.   We are told the dishwasher is better because it "sanitizes" our dishes and kills all those nasty germs.  But I am not sure that is the case - or that a few stray germs are going to kill you (they are everywhere, and if you don't build up an immunity to them, sanitizing everything isn't the answer).

The cleaning aspect is the other problem, on two fronts.   First, despite the claims of the dishwasher makers (in their TeeVee ads) that you can put some crusty old pot of dried-on crud in the washer and it will come out looking like new, you still have to hand scrub your pots, pans, and dishes, before putting them in the washer, or they won't come out clean.   In fact, the machine will just bake-on your old food until it is like epoxy on your plates.   If you put a wine glass in the washer without rinsing it, it will come out with dried-on wine on it.

And even if a dishwasher could wash all that crud off your dishes, are you going to let dirty dishes accumulate in your washer for a few days and stink up the place?  I think not.   So there is problem number one with dishwashers - you have to wash the dishes before you do the dishes, so you are not saving any labor, but are in fact, doing it twice.

Second, dishwashers don't use real soap.   They use some sort of chemical that is caustic in nature and has that weird dishwasher chemical smell and texture.   Dishwasher soap will take the paint off a car, it is that powerful.  And that is how dishwashers "clean" - not by scrubbing, but by dipping your dishes in a solution so caustic that it basically etches your plates and glasses.

(And I should note that dishwasher detergent and rinse agents are not cheap, either.   You can spend a pile of dough on those little pucks you put in the dishwasher - far more than you would on traditional "dish soap" for hand-washing).

It also leaves a thin film on all your plates and glasses, which particularly is a problem for wine glasses, as they end up with this milky film on them.   Rinse agents only eliminate spotting, not the film problem.   And getting this film off requires you to hand-wash the glasses, so now you are washing them three times.  Any kind of dishware with a concave back or top will hold water, no matter how long the scalding-hot dry cycle runs, leaving this hot liquid on your dishware, and a corresponding ring-stain as well.

I like my glasses to be clear, not milky-coated with some funny-tasting chemical.  And if I'm having company, I'm not going to serve them in milk-glass wine glasses with funny stains and smells on them.   So I end up hand-washing all the wine glasses and coffee cups (dishwashers don't remove coffee and tea stains, they embed them!).

And of course, it goes without saying that if you have fine china, crystal, and silver, well, that ain't going in the dishwasher, unless you want to ruin it.  Ditto for cast-iron "seasoned" pans, anything made of wood (cutting boards, salad bowls and forks, etc.) or even some anodized aluminum pieces.   And never put your Tervis(tm) tumblers in the dishwasher or you'll ruin them!

So why not just cut to the chase and hand-wash everything?  It takes only a few minutes after each meal (as opposed to letting this stack of dishes accumulate and then washing them all at once).  You don't have to bend over to ground level and strain your back loading those damn racks that never work quite right to hold the dishes anyway.  And every year, some kid ends up impaling himself on a knife in the dishwasher.   Why are dishwashers at ground level anyway?

But it is a funny thing.  If you want to sell a house or a condo, you have to put in a dishwasher.   People would rather sacrifice cabinet space, even in the smallest of kitchens, than not have a dishwasher.

If you don't have a dishwasher, don't sweat it.   If you are looking at an apartment or condo and it doesn't have a dishwasher, don't dismiss it out of hand.  Sure, use that as an excuse to bring the price down.   But from a practical standpoint, you may come out ahead not having that space-wasting box under the counter.

Some friends of mine are similarly disillusioned with the dishwasher.  A childless couple, they find that it is not a labor-savor, but a time-waster.   They eat, hand-wash their dishes, and then put them away.  Well, that is to say, they put them on their drying rack to dry first.   But of course, they don't own a drying rack.   So instead, they use the upper rack of the dishwasher as a drying rack, and then once the dishes are dry, put them away.

So, I guess a dishwasher does have a use - it is a slide-out under-counter drying rack for hand-washed dishes.

Beyond that, it is pretty worthless!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Invasive Species?

Some folks claim that the ordinary house cat is an "invasive species".    Watch out, Poland!


Your tax dollars at work.   Here on the island, they have attached little cameras to cats to monitor their behavior.  The University of Georgia is funding the study, which in turn is funded by your taxes.

They also have sent out a "feral cat awareness survey" to everyone on the island, and again, this is funded by UGA.   The "survey" is more of a "push-poll" in that it asks questions that are more answers than questions.  "Did you know that cats are responsible for killing billions of songbirds every year?" - that sort of thing, courtesy of the bureau of specious statistics.

Actually, the results of "kitty-cam" so far are that cats (1) lick themselves a lot, (2) sleep, and (3) eat cat food.   Only one cat has been caught killing for food, and no word on whether it was a rodent or a bird.

But the oddest thing about this "poll" was that they were trying to characterize house cats as "invasive species" by the way the questions were asked.

"Invasive Species"  is the hot, new, trendy term for biologists and wildlife managers to use - and one they use to justify poisoning the air, water, and soil, all in the name of "preserving nature".

We are told (get this) that some species are "native" and others are "invasive" and that the latter need to be slaughtered, as they will push out the "native" species over time.

This may or may not be true.   The point is, the species doesn't consider itself "invasive" anymore than the species it is displacing (which at one time was no doubt "invasive" as well).

Some try to put a spin on this based on a human vector.   If the species is relocated due to some act of mankind, then it is "invasive", whereas if it just migrated here, I guess it is natural.  This also is a load of hooey, as the vectors that move species from one area to another have little to do with whether the species would eventually get there under its own power, or whether it would adapt to the new environment.

And speaking of "invasive species," this sort of discussion usually neglects to address the most invasive species on the planet - a species that has occupied every ecological nook and cranny on the planet and adapted itself to harsh environments and even space.

Yea, I'm talking about you and me - human beings.   We have over-run the planet, but no one talks about euthanizing or neutering people on a massive scale.

On the other hand, we can poison some trees or a carp or whatever, and that's going to fix everything up just Jim-Dandy!

I think biologists who believe that have their head up their ass, or are just looking for grant money.

In the Northeast, we are told the Zebra Mussel is "invasive" - but it has turned murky brown lakes crystal clear.   The powerplant that has to clean its inlet screens, we are told, is justification for dumping poison in the water, or for fining some unwitting fisherman hundreds of dollars for dragging a piece of seaweed on his boat trailer.  The upshot is, the zebra mussels are winning, much as the lamprey eels are (and the snakehead fish).

In the Everglades, we watched as "wildlife managers" drilled holes in trees and filled them with poison.   Their crime?  Being non-native.   Whether this will permanently kill off these trees is debatable, and the long-term effect of poisoning nature is something not studied.   And the cost of this "cure" is pretty staggering.

Nature expands into environments where it can adapt, and you can't stop that.  It is like Boyle's law about gas - it expands to fill a vessel.   Trying to hold back the tide of species is pointless and fruitless (pardon the pun) as nature will sneak around at every turn, as soon as you let your guard down.

Yes, it is bad there are Boas in the Everglades.   It is also irrelevant whether they got there as escaped pets or were dropped from an airplane or swam over from South America.   They are there, and trying to extinguish them is going to be a long, difficult, and expensive job that will never get done.

Here on the island, a couple runs a program that captures and neuters cats and then releases them.  It has been effective as the cat population has plummeted from the 1990's until today.   (They did a similar thing in Key West, and now there is no cat problem, just a chicken problem).

But on the other hand, we are being overrun by deer - and not in the sense that "the deer ate my flowers" nonsense.   We simply have more deer than the island can support, and they are becoming smaller and more sickly as a result (and more brave, as they are not afraid of humans at all).   New breeding stock was brought in to try to reverse the trend, but it has not really helped.   Talk of managing the deer population or relocating deer is shouted down as "inhumane".

But apparently, it is open season on cats.

(Disclaimer:  I do not presently own any cats.  I like them, but don't like cleaning out litter boxes.  Hence I have no cats).

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Today's Shooting Roundups!


There are so many shootings these days, that I could start a second blog that just summarizes the days shooting events.

Note: due to travel, this posting was delayed by a couple of weeks.

Shootings are taking place at a rapid clip this week (pardon the pun).   And by shootings, I don't mean the run-of-the-mill crimes of passion or robberies, but the wacko assault-style shootings of schools, stores, malls, police stations, courthouses, or other "targets" - usually by mentally ill people with lots of high-powered "tactical" weaponry and accessories.

According to some sources, deaths from gun violence will be greater than that from auto accidents, as soon as 2015.   In case you were not paying attention, the slaughter on America's roads has been a huge concern for decades - resulting in the institution of "safe highways" measures, seatbelt laws, airbags, safer cars, and in the near future, driverless cars.

Yea, we thought that losing 40,000 people a year was alarming enough to invent robot cars.   But losing the same amount to gun violence isn't worth doing background checks over - to screen out criminals and mentally ill people.   No matter what solution is proposed, it is shouted down as "it wouldn't work!"    We just have to live with daily shootings.

And the ultimate goal of the gun proponents is becoming increasingly clear - a heavily armed society, where everyone - and I mean everyone, walks around with a gun, as evidenced by the "right to carry" laws and proponents in Texas, who are taking AK-47's and AR-15's into lunch counters and scaring the shit out of everyone.

What the fuck is going on here?  What the hell happened to our country?

A lot of things, it seems.

The idea of "an armed society is a polite society" goes back to Robert Heinlein, and perhaps further.   In his Lazarus Long stories, he harped on that concept again and again, depicting his characters as all being heavily armed (and usually killing off policemen by the dozens, with glee).   Other science-fiction writers have taken up similar threads.

But that is science fiction for chrissakes.  And as Scientology has clearly illustrated, any societal concept based on a science fiction story is probably not a very good idea.

The problem with Heinlein's argument is that we've tried it before.   In the 1800's in the "Wild West" nearly everyone went around heavily armed.   You had a pair of six-shooters, perhaps, as well as a rifle and a shotgun, and of course a brace of knives of various sorts.   There was little law out there, and as a result, you needed to protect yourself from the lawless.

And the carnage was pretty intense.   People would gun each other down at will, and use intimidation and violence to get their way - even "law abiding" citizens.   Fights over grazing rights and water rights escalated into range wars, with little in the way of justice being served.

You see, the problem with the "armed society is a polite society" theory is that the fellow with four of his armed buddies is always going to be able to outgun you.   So not only do you need to be armed, but you need to travel in a pack.

And today, we have that society in a part of the world known as Afghanistan, where people band together in tribes for protection (much as our ancestors did), ruled by a "Warlord".   And the carnage is terrific.

Is that how we want to live?   With people riding around in posses in the back of pickup trucks, armed to the teeth and manning checkpoints?   With neighbors resolving disputes with drawn weapons at 50 paces?

Do we really need to go back to dueling?

With every wacko shooting, the NRA harps back that, "Well, if other citizens were armed, they could have disarmed the attackers!"

That may be true, but then again, not.   You see, if everyone is armed and someone decides to "go off" and start shooting people, the result is not the attacker being disarmed but a shootout.

In Las Vegas this week, two armed police officers were shot at point blank range while they ate lunch.  These are trained men, who had sidearms readily available, and knew how to use them - and were ready to use them.   They could not defend themselves.   The ultimate "Good Guy With a Gun" could not stop the "Bad Guy With a Gun" as Wayne "Call me Crazy" LaPierre postulated. 

How did we get this far, and were things always like this?

The answer to the last question is a resounding "NO".   The second amendment was never interpreted, historically, to hold that the States or the Federal Government have no powers to regulate firearms whatsoever.   Rather, such regulations must be shown to be necessary and not outright forbid gun ownership across the board.

Thus, you cannot own tactical nukes.  You can't even have a Howitzer (that works).  You can't have hand grenades or mortars (except ones that shoot fireworks).   And we can regulate where and when you can carry a weapon, and whether you can carry it concealed or not.   When I was a kid, getting a concealed weapons permit was a big deal - and you first had to show need to have one.

For some reason, the NRA has re-written history and gotten people to believe that the second amendment is an absolute right, and that "gun control legislation" is some sort of recent innovation that is unconstitutional by its very nature.   The opposite, is of course, actually true.   We've long had regulations about firearms possession and carrying, and it is only recently that these regulations have been repealed, mostly in red States like Texas and Florida.

The problem, of course, is not individual guns themselves, but the ready access to firearms, by people who should not have access to them.  The NRA pays lip service to the idea that "bad guys" should not have access to firearms, but then thwarts any attempts to actually implement laws to do this - such as the background check laws, which have a huge end-run in the form of private sales and gun shows.

Attempting to monitor and track people with mental illnesses is also problematic, in our "free society".    Back in 1956, they passed a Federal law to implement mental health care in the "Alaska Territory" before it became a State.  Until then, mentally ill people in Alaska were shipped to Oregon for treatment, which was expensive and less effective.   A proposal was made to set aside the income from a huge tract of land, to pay for a mental health institution in the Alaska territory.   The John Birch types went nuts (yes, bad pun, and redundant too) and claimed that the goal of the law was to create a Siberian-type prison camp, where anyone in the United States could be committed and whisked away and kept up on the cold tundra, away from the prying eyes of the country.    It was, of course, a ridiculous argument, not based on the actual law.  It took Barry Goldwater to push through the bill and to quiet the "Crazy wing" of the GOP.

Since then, being crazy has become a lot more popular, and there is a movement afoot to discredit any mental health sciences and institutions as "brainwashing" people from the "real truth".   Yes, the conspiracy theory nuts and tinfoil hat adherents are worried that they might actually be committed for being as crazy as they are.

And entire gun/crazy culture has been created, in the interim.   I recall my mentally disturbed brother reading magazines like "Firepower" along with his "High Times".   Having an AK-47 or a Mac-10 seemed like just the right accessory to go along with the bong.   And later on in life, he started getting in to guns, although he hasn't shot anyone - just yet.

There is an old saying that if you try to boil a frog by dropping him in a pot of hot water, he will jump right out.  But if you put him in a pot of warm water, and then slowly raise the temperature, he will sit there and boil to death - not noticing the slow and steady change in his environment.

It seems we are being boiled like frogs.   In the half-Century I have crawled around North America, things have slowly changed, and many of them not for the better.   When I was a kid, only a few collectors could own automatic weapons.  And only off-duty police officers or private detectives or security guards could carry concealed weapons - often with a permit.   Gun dealers didn't sell guns to crazy people, not because it was illegal, but because it was the wrong thing to do.  Sure, there were occasional mass-shootings, like the famous "tower shooter" in Texas.   But they were so rare as to be notable.

Today, we hardly take note of them.   Gun deaths will eclipse auto deaths as early as next year - and no one seems to notice or care why or how this came about.   And no one wants to do anything about it, either.