Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Retirement in the Animal Kingdom

Your retirement plan in the animal kingdom often involves being eaten alive.

We have been camping out in the wilderness, which many folks think is a relaxing and peaceful environment.   Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.   The wilderness is full of murder, mayhem, violence, and death.

Every creature in the wild depends on some other living creature in order to survive.  Your life is marked by birth and death, and death comes when you become too old to evade predators and end up being someone else's lunch.

A deer or gazelle can keep running away from predators for only so long before they become old and tired and lame and slow.   At that point, they are singled out as prey by the wolves or hyenas or whatever, and then are ruthlessly hunted down and mauled to death, often having their guts eaten while still breathing.   Your former friends and even family members run away, glad that it is not them who are on the menu today.

Humans, it seems, are alone in the animal kingdom in having a sense of decorum about death.   We started burying our dead to prevent animals and predators from eating our loved ones.   We supported our elders in their later years when they were too old to hunt or farm.   Few other animals, if any, do this.

It is funny to some extent how we decry violence in the human world and decry our tendency towards war, terrorism, murder and mayhem.   Yet if we look to the animal kingdom, we see that this is the norm, not the exception.   Our instinct towards niceness and kindness is not some natural phenomenon, other that it is perhaps a survival instinct that has allowed our species to advance and survive.   Our other baser instincts, however, still remain intact.

In Australia recently, a photo was circulated of a pair of kangaroos.  The mother kangaroo had been hit by a "lorry" and was lying dead on the side of the road.   The father kangaroo was holding vigil over her body, or at least that was what some people thought at first.   We anthropomorphize human behavior to animals, assuming that they feel and think as we do.

But a naturalist pointed out that kangaroos do not mate for life, but like deer fight for the right to mate with as many females as possible.  They are also opportunistic mating partners, who try to mate with whatever female is available.   The males do not take part in raising the young, but rather mate and flee.  The "father" kangaroo in the photo wasn't trying to console his fallen mate, but rather was trying to mate with her dead corpse.

We forget that animals are animals.   We try to keep chimpanzees as pets and then forget they will literally eat your face off if they get angry and aggressive.   We try to keep tigers as pets and then they bite your neck in half.   Animals are animals and they behave differently than we do, even if we are descended from the same DNA strands.

So what is the point of this?   I don't know, other than it struck me that we are very lucky or smart not to be eaten to death, at least in some instances.   In some third world countries today, if you get old and have no children to support you, you may literally starve to death.  This was particularly true for widows in rural India, who were tossed out onto the street once their husband died.

The modern concept of retirement is a relatively recent one and a Western one.   Retirement as we know it didn't exist, largely, until after World War II when people actually lived long enough to retire and also had the Social Security, Medicare, and the pension plans necessary to fund such a luxury.  In the history of mankind, or indeed, the history of life on Earth, the concept of retirement and leisure is one that has existed for only a blip in time, the last 50 years at most.

For the rest of the world, the rest of time, and the rest of species, it has been literally dog-eat-dog.

And this gets to the point that our society and our intelligence have achieved something that hasn't existed until recent times - the concept of leisure, peace, contemplation, and relaxation.   I guess you could call this "civilization" and it is indeed the highest achievement of mankind.   Maybe a bunch of old people playing golf in The Villages doesn't seem as great an accomplishment as the moon landing, but if you think about it, it is a startling development compared to our historical past.

And the question going forward is, do we want to retain this standard of living or revert back to a more primitive past?   It would seem there are forces in the world who thirst for blood and violence and wish to return to an earlier era.   It is still possible we could be carried off by hawks.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Retirement and Decisions

Deciding when to retire isn't easy - if you even get to make the decision yourself.   But then again, most decisions in life are hard, and making hard decisions is often the right choice.

First of all, thanks for all the e-mails and messages asking where I have been.  I don't have time to respond to every e-mail I receive, so my apologies for not responding. 

In response to my retirement posting, I received some interesting messages.  One fellow told me that retiring early was a mistake as I would have "nothing to look forward to except death" which was hard to parse.   I guess if you keep working you never die and that is a good reason to keep working?

Others were generally supportive, but wondered what on earth I would do to keep busy?  After all, without work, I would be "bored to death".    Well, so far, no boredom or death just yet.

I have spend the last two weeks camping on the Blue Ridge Parkway and traveling in the Central New York Finger Lakes region.  We are headed to the Adirondacks, then to Montreal, Vermont, Maine, and then back down through Cape Cod, Virginia, and the Blue Ridge again.  It may take a few months.   Oh, and it is as boring as all get-out.   Not really.

It is interesting traveling in that people ask you where you are from and where you are going.  When you start to rattle of a list of destinations, they get upset.  After all, the point of "vacation" is to spend a week traveling from point A to point B and then a second week traveling back.   You have to have a "destination" and a time limit.   It is funny to watch people's brains melt down when you try to explain to them that working all day long isn't necessarily a requirement in life.

But the guy I am talking to has a new 35' Fifth wheel, bass boat, jet ski, and monster truck - all parked in the campground - and is still making payments on all of it.  He has to get back to work to pay for it all, so he can use it for two weeks of the year.  He laughs at my tiny camper which is "paid-for" and doesn't understand that there is another way to live.   He might, eventually, if he can retire.  But sadly, the line of payments he has will stretch well into his 60's (and let's not talk about the mortgage!).

And I do marvel at these folks who have so much "stuff" and yet appear so young.   I mean, how can a 30-year-old afford a $65,000 pickup truck?  And the answer is, only a 30-year-old can.   Old people, having to live on a fixed income, are often forced to eschew such nonsense or risk going broke or running out of money.   It is like the States - they have to balance their budgets, while the Federal Government can engage in deficit spending, at least for a while.

Anyway, once again I digress.   One reason we are in Central New York is to look at boats.  Yes, boats again.   We were thinking that after taking the Casita to Alaska in 2017 (aboard a ferry from Seattle to Anchorage along the inside passage) it will be 20 years old and pretty wrung out.   We might sell it and buy a used cabin cruiser and cruise the Erie canal, the finger lakes (Seneca and Cayuga anyway), the thousand islands (St. Lawrence river), lake Champlain, and the Hudson.   There is a lot to explore here by water, and it is a lot cheaper than owning a vacation home!

It is an idea, anyway, and we are still in the infant research stages, looking at boats, places to go, places to stay and the costs involved.  We might nix the whole idea and do something else.   The nice thing is, a fresh water boat up here can be in very good shape and for not a lot of money.   In fact, we likely would spend more on fuel than on the boat itself, over a period of years.  We might decide it isn't worth it, though.

But speaking of decisions, the point of this blog entry was about the decision to retire.  One reason I decided to retire is that I no longer enjoy my work as much (another posting about that later) as it seems the Patent system has sort of gone off the rails.  People who actually invent things make no money from their inventions, while others with "paper Patents" and clever lawyers can rake in millions.   Attempts to fix this problem over the years have only made it worse - the solo inventor is really screwed today, while the trolls march on.  The only real function served by the system is to arbitrate disputes between giant multinationals, and even then, the result is often a tie.   But more about that later.

Also, I find as I get older, it seems my anxiety levels are higher.   I am not sure if this is just part of getting older and more conservative (risk-taking is a young man's game) or something else.   Either way, the anxiety of work is outweighing the enjoyment of it.

I look back at times in my life when I made momentous decisions and wonder who that person was.   I had a lot of balls back then, it seems in retrospect, to go to college for 14 years and get other people to pay for it.   To go to law school and get a job with a firm and prosper - only to chuck it all in a few short years and actually start my own law practice.   What the heck was I thinking?   That's far too much a risk to take!

And then to get into Real Estate and buy properties and fix them up and rent them - the risk of being a landlord is far to scary to me today (although technically, I still am one, for one remaining property).   Borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars - well over a million in fact - to speculate on the market.  It could have gone horribly wrong, and in fact did for many Americans.   And then the decision to sell out when the market was at its peak - and move to the country.  What was I thinking?

I feel that today, I can't make such decisions as they make me too anxious.   But then I think again - I just made what is arguably the ballsiest decision of my life - to retire early.   So maybe I haven't lost my touch just yet.   And over the years, I have found that the decisions based on "gut instinct" that seem irrational to others are often the best decisions I have made.   Time will tell if early retirement is one of them.  In the meantime, I am enjoying the shit out of it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Age of Credit History?

Does it make sense to keep old credit accounts open to improve your credit score?   Not really.

There is a lot of mythology out there about credit reports and credit scores.   People will tell you they can improve your credit report or credit score as if it was some sort of cosmetic thing not based on your actual behavior.

Usually these sorts of folks are after your money.   And it is sort of sad how poor people will hand them over tons of money and often absolutely destroy their credit ratings by going to an agency that promises to "fix their credit".   Some of these places actually tell you to stop paying your bills and instead give the money to them and that they will "negotiate" with the lenders to lower your debts and remove negative reports from your credit.   Of course, lenders are not idiots and they don't go along with these schemes, so the borrower ends up bankrupt and further in debt.   Preying on the poor, what's not to like?

The local car dealer promises "credit amnesty" for low-score borrowers.   But of course "amnesty" only means paying horrific interest rates on a car loan - payments so high that default and repossession are almost guaranteed.   Again, the borrower is left broke and destitute and in worse shape than before he was granted "amnesty."

When someone tells you something too-good-to-be-true, it usually is.

Financial sites and discussion groups are full of "advice" on how to "game your credit score" to bring it up a few points.  Some of these techniques work, most are merely urban legends.   Some work, but only bring your score up a few points - which might be helpful if you are at 768 and want to make the vaunted 770 which qualifies you for all the better credit offers.    Others might work, but since you can't change the data on your report that easily, they don't really provide any meaningful help, unless you had a time machine and could go back and change your behavior in the past.

Once piece of advice often offered online is that you should keep your oldest accounts open, as they will improve your credit score.   Thus, if you got a Sears charge-plate back in 1979, you should keep that account open, as it will improve your score.   Is this true?  Does it make any sense?   Yes and no.

It is true that average length of your open credit accounts is one factor in determining your credit score.   But it is not a dominant factor.   If you have a 20-year average of open accounts, that's a fine thing, but if you are delinquent on your payments, it will wipe out that advantage in short order.   One late payment on a mortgage is all it takes to tank your credit score.  If you declared bankruptcy, it really doesn't matter than you have an open account from 1979.

Average age of credit history is only one factor - and arguably the least important - in determining your credit score.  (Click to enlarge)

The other problem with age of credit history is that it is based on the average of your credit accounts.   So, for example, you move to a new town and buy a house.   Your mortgage is only months old.   You buy a car.  The car loan is only months old.   You decide to get a new credit card with your local credit union.  That credit card is only months old.   As a result, you have a lot of "new credit" and maybe only one or two older credit accounts.   Your "average age" of open accounts is now lowered.

You can see why this factor is used.   If someone stays in the same house and pays on the same mortgage for 20 years, their average age of credit will be very high.   This tends to show a stable person who stays in the same place for a long time and has long-term credit relations.   It is one indicia of stability in a borrower.

But credit scores are not an exact science.   And that is why this factor is just one of many factors, and really not a major one.  And as the images above illustrate, your credit score is really not affected all that much by average length of open accounts.  It is possible to have a score well over 800 even if your "average age" of credit is low.

What is really astounding of course, is that credit score can be a really, really poor indication of someone's credit-worthiness.   Since I am largely debt-free at this stage in my life, you would think I would have a perfect credit score.   However, since I am not borrowing money anymore, the system doesn't know what to think of me.   I have no mortgage - so I must be renting, right?   And since I don't have lots of open credit accounts from years gone by, I must be a poor risk, right?

As the image above illustrates, the holy trinity of credit score is (in no particular order) credit card utilization, payment history, and derogatory remarks.  If your credit card utilization (percentage of balance to balance limit) is high, odds are you are living paycheck-to-paycheck and not paying off the balance every month.   If your payment history is spotty (late payments) then odds are you are on the brink of a full-blown credit card crises.   If you have derogatory remarks on the report (bad debt, late payments, and so on) well, you've gone over the edge.

These indicia are based more on your financial solvency than anything else, and there isn't really much you can do to change them, with some exceptions.

With regard to credit cards, I try to pay off any credit card debt before the payment is actually due and thus keep my balance low in relation to the credit limit (and I abhor having high-limit cards as they can be a lethal trap).    So you can "game your score" a bit by making multiple payments every month and thus keep your balance/limit ratio low, raising this factor.

Payment history and derogatory comments is harder to parse.   If you've really been delinquent on your payments, there isn't much you can do to fix this.   But sometimes spurious data appears on your report and it can be fixed with just a phone call or a letter.  Two examples come to mind.

When we obtained our first mortgage together, it turned out that Mark had a "sent to collections" comment on his credit report.   It seems when he left college, his drug-addled roommates had promised to pay the last phone bill (this in the ear of land-lines and before credit scores existed) and have the phone disconnected.   They did neither.

So the phone company kept sending bills until they pulled the plug on the phone.   Since the bill went to a now-empty apartment, Mark never got it.  And the total amount was about $230 as I recall.   The mortgage broker indicated this was not helping our credit report.   I called the phone company, explained the situation, and then wrote them a letter with a check for the full amount and a month later the derogatory data was removed from the report.

In a second instance, I had a late mortgage payment reported on my credit.   We had a mortgage through a local bank (Riggs) which in turn sold it to Key Bank.  I had just signed up for auto-pay on the mortgage, thinking this would prevent any late payments.  But just as I signed up they sold the note to Key Bank and then the next month's payment was marked "late" as it took more than a month for the auto-payment to be forwarded.  Again, a phone call solved the problem.   The operator at the company (whose name was Bell, oddly enough) checked the records and apologized and removed the negative data from my report.   It does take a few weeks to a month for this correction to appear, though.

I am told that since those days, most mortgage companies will not report late payments when a mortgage is sold because of the possibility of payments being mailed to the wrong address or electronic payments being forwarded late to the new lender.   This is not an excuse to make a late payment intentionally, though.   As I found out the hard way, a late mortgage payment will "tank" your credit score in short order.  Of the "holy trinity" a late mortgage payment is the ultimate sin.

Now, on the other hand, if you have been late on your credit card payments for the last two years, a phone call or a letter to the company isn't going to fix things.   They have no reason to correct data that is correct already.  So the idea that you can "fix" a shitty credit report when the shittiness is your own damn fault, is flawed.   The idea that you can pay someone to do this is also flawed.

Will keeping your oldest line of credit open increase your score?   Again, maybe, a few points.   But again, it is a "time machine" piece of advice.   If you've already closed those accounts, what's the point of the advice?

Also, I think you should base your financial behavior on sound financial practices, rather than gaming a credit score.   I closed my Sears account (which I opened in 1981, as I recall) simply because I was no longer using it.   The idea of a dormant account floating around with bills being send to previous addresses frankly scared me to death.   And it is interesting how they handled credit accounts back in the day.   I was buying a DieHard battery there once and the clerk asked me if I had an account with them.  I said, "Oh, yea, years ago, but I closed it."    He asked for my driver's license, typed in a few commands and said, "Oh, your account is still active, and I can put this battery purchase on it right now!"  Even without the "charge plate" I could still charge on the account.   This struck me as kind of dangerous, so I closed the account.   Besides, I don't need to finance a battery anymore.

Making your finances more complicated than they need to be is never a good idea in my opinion.  Doing so to "game" your credit score is, in my opinion, totally idiotic.   I have a good credit score simply because I don't need credit anymore.   That is how it works - to get a loan you first have to prove you don't need the money.   It is an old joke, but a truism nevertheless.

If you pay your bills on time, that has a far more serious impact on your credit score than playing games with account age.   If you keep your debts as low as possible, that has far more impact on your credit score as well.

Of course, today, credit scores are a big deal.  They can determine whether you get a job, a house, a car, or even a spouse.   Not long ago, credit scores didn't even exist.   But today, at least, we can readily view these online, as a free service from our Credit Card provider, through CreditKarma (which will make you all sorts of shitty credit offers) or the like.   You can view your actual report, of course, through which is the only really free legitimate government-sanctioned credit reporting site.

In the not-too-distant past, credit reports and credit scores were a mystery to most consumers.   You only found out about negative credit information only after you applied for a loan, and even then, the lenders were reluctant to let you see your own credit report.  They finally passed a law making it mandatory that you had a right to see your credit report but only if you were refused credit and you made a request in writing.  They finally passed a law saying you had a right to see your credit report, but only once a year by going to the site.   Credit scores, however, were deemed "proprietary information" that you had to pay for.

In the last few years, the credit industry had just let its pants down and let everyone see their credit score through a number of means.   Paying money (such as through Soozie's "FICA Score Kit!") to see your score is kind of dumb these days.   So it is a good thing that consumers at least can see how they are being evaluated and why.   And the reason the industry didn't want us to see these scores and data was that they were concerned that people would try to "game" their scores, which you sort of can do, at least a few points one way or another.

But you can't "game" a 580 to an 800.   It just isn't possible.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

How Weird is Status?

How did stainless steel appliances morph from commercial kitchens to status items?
Status is an odd thing and I talk about it a lot here, as it has a way of draining your bank account for no real apparent reason.   We spend two or three or ten times as much money on things in order to impress people we don't even know.

Now, granted, it is nice to have a house with "nice things" in it.   A house that is calming and peaceful and beautiful.   But oddly enough, status items are often just the opposite - garish and ugly and loud and stress-inducing.    And they are particularly stress-inducing when you stress yourself financially to have them.

But what is a "status item" and how do they become one?    It is odd, but we as humans often ape (poorly) the actions of others to obtain perceived status.   And most of the junk you may crave as status items has its roots in ridiculousness.

For example, take the stainless-steel $3000 refrigerator.   You can spend thousands of dollars today on a refrigerator, and that's not even getting one with a television in it, or WiFi, or a little camera that shows whats inside it (I kid you not!).    They don't refrigerate food better, of course, and often they are far less reliable and don't last as long.   A basic two-door refrigerator can last decades.   These high-end fancy appliances with digital readouts go to the junkyard when their electronic control panels fail.

But all that aside, why did stainless steel become a "thing" in the first place?    Historically, commerical kitchens used stainless as it was easy to clean, lasted a long time, and was considered sanitary.   It didn't rust or corrode and held up to the severe use of a commercial kitchen.

Back in the 1960's or 1970's even rich folks had white appliances.   But a few of the very wealthy - who had servants - had in-house commerical kitchens in their mansions, as they would occasionally host 200-person parties that needed to be catered.   I recall when growing up, going to a rich friend's house and they had a kitchen larger than my living room, complete with a HOBART commercial dishwasher, the giant stainless-steel Wolf range, and built-in SubZero refrigerators.   It was a restaurant kitchen, basically.   Practical for an 12-bedroom mansion with servant's quarters, perhaps.   Not so useful for the three-bedroom tract home.

In the 1980's, people started reading these home magazines that showcased expensive homes.  Prior to that, magazines like "Better Homes and Gardens" were less about mansions and estates than about middle-America and its tastes.   Today, it is all about designer homes, of course.   And as the plebes read magazines like "Veranda" and saw the insides of the estates of the "Rich and Famous" on television, they would see these commercial kitchens and think, "Gee, I would like to have stainless steel appliances just like the rich people have!"   And Norm and Dave on This Old House reinforced this notion by showing how you could afford an ordinary refrigerator made in stainless steel.

And pretty soon, it became a "thing".

Even stuff as lowly and practical as a bicycle is subject to this sort of aping of status.   When I was a kid, you had a bicycle and it had one speed, or maybe a three-speed hub.   It had fenders to keep the rain off you, and a basket to carry your crap.   They were heavy, dumb, cheap, and pretty durable.

But the racers in Europe had lightweight bikes with no fenders, 10 speeds, and "rams head" handlebars.   And it wasn't long before they became popular in America.   But the versions that the plebes bought at Sears or Western Auto were hardly racing bikes, with cheap riveted derailleurs and welded steel frames.  They were just bikes styled to look like racing bikes and as practical means of transportation they left a lot to be desired.   Cheap steel rims bent easily and there was no place to store your gear.   Hit a puddle and you were sprayed with water.   But we all had to have them, because, well, status.   You wouldn't want to be caught dead with some old English 3-speed bike, no matter how practical it was.

Today, the same is true with Mountain bikes.   At least their wide tires and soft suspensions provide some advantages for the average rider.   But most are just bikes styled to look like mountain bikes and not really equipped to handle a downhill ride.

A Wal-Mart "mountain bike" may be OK for riding local flat trails, but certainly is not a serious bike for going down the side of a mountain.

Once again, we are victims of style and status.   More appropriate bikes for daily use do exist, but we eschew them in favor of the look of a serious mountain bike, even if it leaves you with a posture that is uncomfortable for daily riding (there are ways of fixing that, of course).

It is what I call the "Z28 Effect".   Back in the 1960's, General Motors offered on the Camaro, a special racing option for Can Am racing, known as option Z28 (GM's option sheet uses letters and numbers to designate options for their cars).   It featured a 5-liter engine (not the largest available), no heater or radio, no automatic transmission, no air conditioning, no sound deadening, and not even nice wheels (dog-dish hubcaps on steel wheels).   A set of headers was thrown in the trunk for dealer installation.

It was meant for racers only, but soon word got out that the ultimate and rarest of Camaros was a Z28.   And pretty soon, people were clamoring to have this rare and unique car, even though it was not a very comfortable car for daily driving.   "I want a Z28!" the buyers would say, "But with air conditioning, automatic transmission, and an AM/FM radio!"

And General Motors, sensing a market opportunity, did just that, offering fully pimped Camaros with the Z/28 moniker (now with a slash) to the masses.  What was once an option package designation became a model brand.   And once again, consumers are aping the actions of others, without really understanding why they are doing so.

Name a status item, and chances are, it is subject to this effect, in one way or another, usually by design.   By now, you should know that diamonds are carefully marketed and the supply controlled to create demand for them as "luxury" items.   The diamond industry invented the diamond engagement ring and created the myth that diamonds are rare and coveted, when in reality they are plentiful and useful only for industry.   In terms of attractiveness, they are rather ugly compared to colored stones.   But we are all convinced they are desirable, so they are.

The joke is, of course, that today we even covet costume jewelry.   When I was a kid, rhinestones were considered the ultimate in tackiness.   They were called paste, glass, or costume jewelry.   And folks who wore such trash were looked down upon.  Today, we call them "Swarovski Crystals" and they are considered the height of luxury, at least by some, who actually pay a premium for them.

Others, however, realize that from more than a few inches away, a piece of glass and a piece of diamond look pretty much the same, and they embrace "costume" jewelry for its appearance, not its status, value, or collectability.

Cars are a prime example.   The whole "SUV" thing exploded from the 1980's when four-wheel-drive became a "thing" and ordinary people decided they needed a rugged "off road" vehicle to drive to work every day.   People would think they were having radical off-road adventures every weekend!  Those lamers in their sedans don't know what they're missing!

But of course, the SUV buyers quickly tired of rough suspensions, live axles, and plebeian interiors.   And pretty soon, nearly every car made was called an "SUV" and came with (or was available with) some kind of all-wheel-drive (without those messy and hard-to-use levers, of course!) and leather seats and soft rides and whatnot.   Since none of them ever went off-road, it really didn't matter if they didn't have any off-road prowess.

And so on down the line.   People buy an iPhone or a Macbook because of the Apple logo on the back.   They are worth twice to ten times as much as other brands, we are told, because they are.   But try running half the programs available for a PC on a Mac - you just can't, particularly games.  There is really no inherent advantage to a Macbook or an iPhone just as there is no real advantage to owning a stainless steel refrigerator.   All you have are bragging rights, which are worth nothing.

So, why do we do this?   And we all do it, so let's be honest right there.   Even if we are paddling in a canoe, we look down our noses at those in a rowboat - never mind the 50-foot yacht next door.   It is human nature to want to be unique, different, special, and above the soiled masses.   We all do this, go get over it.

Even being anti-consumption is a status symbol, or can be.   And when it comes to status symbols, the reality is, it doesn't matter whether other people perceive you to have status, so long as you believe it to be so.

So what is the point in all of this?   Well a few things.   First, realize when you are buying status or worse yet, aping status.  Because status costs you money, and if you can avoid that, you can save yourself a lot of dough, even if the housewives on your street will snicker at you for having a plain white refrigerator or an ordinary sedan.

Second, you can save a boatload of money if you can avoid status, or at least seek out things others are overlooking because of status.   Right now, automakers are giving away cars because everyone wants an SUV, even though most SUVs never, ever, ever go off-road.   If you really look at your automotive needs rather than status desires you can score a better deal on a vehicle that costs less to buy and gets better gas mileage to boot (and won't have expensive AWD repairs down the road).

And it is not like you will be living a deprived life, either.   Rather, you just won't have bragging rights with your brain-dead neighbors, as they sip their Starbucks while texting on their iPhone while driving their overwrought SUV - all while hopelessly in debt.   In the long run, who is really better off, you or them?

Because that is the real problem with status - people strive for status and often bankrupt themselves doing it, either literally or morally.   Even if they can "make all the payments" on their collection of overpriced junk, they are under-funding their retirement or working harder than they should, just to have "things" they never have a chance to use.

And I say this from experience.   Having fancy things is indeed nice.  But when you have to work long hours to have them and never have a chance to enjoy them, what exactly is the point?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Requiem for a Greyhound

Ginger, a.k.a. D.C.'s Doodle, b. July 27, 2002  d. June 14, 2016

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Boaty McBoatface and Brexit

A level of silliness has taken over much of the Western world, with possible dire consequences.

The recent "Brexit" vote turns out to be, in retrospect, not unexpected.   It is not that most people in the UK were clamoring to leave the EU or even thought about the consequences, but rather that they thought it might be "fun" to disrupt things.

Now that the vote has passed and the pound is worth about a buck, the reality of the situation has set in and many are complaining that they thought their "protest vote" wouldn't be taken seriously.   This is, of course, one reason our forefathers came up with the electoral college and why the Democratic party has "superdelegates" - you can't trust the voters to take things seriously all the time.

In a recent contest to name a new boat, people got together and "brigaded" the voting site to put "Boaty McBoatface" as the number one entry.   They thought it would be funny to screw up a simple boat naming contest, just for the hell of it.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and decided to scrap the contest when it was clear that immature people were voting.

Maybe the Queen can do the same thing with the "Brexit" vote.   Just a thought.   What's the point of being "sovereign" if you can't throw your weight around a bit?

For Americans, the "Brexit" vote is a non-starter.  Sure my net worth was dinged about 2% yesterday, but that's about it.  Maybe the value of my euro bonds will drop somewhat.   But the value of the pound is down, so maybe it is a good time to visit the UK.  Meanwhile, the US dollar is stronger (bad for exports, good for imports) and the world once again flocks to America as a haven of stability and sanity.

Oh, right, Trump.

You see, the Trump phenomenon is the same thing as "Brexit" and "Boaty McBoatface" - voters who just want to be disruptors and see the system torn down, without thinking much about what will take its place. 

And history is rife with such folks.   People vote for a dictator without thinking of the consequences, hoping that the authoritarian rule will "get things done" for a change,when in fact, stasis and inaction are often the best things a government can do.

The Brexit vote will be bad for the UK.   Exports from that country will be expensive, as the EU no doubt will be in no mood to cut special deals for the Brits.   Nissan just built a car plant there, the first new car plant in, well, decades.   Exporting to the mainland will be more expensive.   The Chinese and Indians might want to move production of Land Rovers and Jaguars to Europe or even their home countries, if tariffs make their products unaffordable.   It remains to be seen. 

But one positive aspect of this vote is that it illustrates to voters why voting is important and should be taken seriously.   While a "protest vote" might sound like fun and all, there is a real risk that your candidate might actually win or more likely allow an opposing candidate to win.  Boaty McBoatface people voted for Nader and allowed Bush to win.   Today, they are still saying Bernie might win (no, really) and the thought of a Bernie 3rd party candidacy is frightening - it might allow Trump into the White House.

The movement behind Trump is one of disruption - and even Trump's supporters admit this.   They want to completely spoof the system and tear our world down, without a concrete idea as to what will replace it.

Will we throw away our civilization out of sheer boredom?  It has happened before.

This raises the question - will we simply destroy our existing civilization out of sheer boredom?  Will we bring on Armageddon just to see what happens?   There is precedent for this.   Civilizations don't fail from external forces, but from within.  When people are convinced that their civilization isn't worth saving, they let it fail.

And today, a lot of people are saying this and thinking this - that our mighty civilization, the apex of thousands of years of development, is corrupt and vile and should be destroyed.  Because 1%'ers make more money, it should be torn down.  Because so many people are on welfare, it should be torn down.  Because their neighbor doesn't believe in the same God, it should be torn down.

And perhaps this is how all civilizations die.   The Anasazi people of the American Southwest built amazing irrigation systems and cliff dwellings and then mysteriously disappeared.  Maybe their kids didn't think maintaining irrigation ditches was a worthwhile endeavor.   Maybe the Incas and Aztecs were fallen by a similar fate - a generation born into wealth that took for granted all they had, and wanted only more, without work or labor.

The promise of "Brexit" is the same promise that Trump is making, that "if only" we could keep out foreigners or impose levies or taxes on imported goods, we would all be Billionaires just like he is.   Except that he isn't a Billionaire, by most accounts, but actually a failed businessman who would have done better putting his inheritance into Treasury bills than into casinos.

It really gets down to the same old "something for nothing" argument that I have railed against in this blog for years.   People get into personal financial trouble when they think they can get something-for-nothing, whether it is credit card debt, student loans, a leased car, or a refinanced mini-mansion.

And countries and governments get into the same trouble when they think the same way, that "if only" we could nationalize industry, or throw out the (fill in the blank) or whatever one-size-fits-all solution to difficult problems that is being tossed around, then the world would be a paradise-on-earth.

And if we can't have paradise-on-earth, then fuck it, lets burn the motherfucker down - right?

I can only hope that the "Brexit" vote is a forewarning to American voters that they should consider carefully how they vote and who they vote for.

And for the life of me, I am not sure why anyone would put their national sovereignty up to a vote on a whim.   America had its own "exit" vote, so to speak, in 1860, and it resulted in the bloodiest war in American history - over a half-million dead.

People may criticize the electoral college system or our "superdelegate" system, but these "check valves" in Democracy might be essential to prevent voters from truly having their way.   As the "Brexit" vote illustrates, voters can be irrational and stampeded into making bad choices.  Sometimes, it is best if "one man, one vote" exists only in theory.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Low Self-Esteem, brought to you by... Religion!

If you raise someone to be self-loathing, you can manipulate them to your ends.

When I heard on Sunday morning that some guy shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, two thoughts went through my head.  First, why did it take three hours to storm the club?  I don't mean to second-guess the Police, but a lot of people "bled out" during that time, and I thought after Paris, the Police realized that rapid intervention was the key, not calling the SWAT team and trying to "negotiate".   But I wasn't there, so maybe there were circumstances.

But the second and more important thought was, the guy was likely a closeted homosexual.   And as events are unfolding, this turns out to be the case.   Conservatives want to blame this on ISIS or "Radical Islam" because it fits their political narrative.   Donald Trump wants to protect Gays and Lesbians from Muslim extremists - but who protects us from Donald Trump and his followers?   Until Sunday morning, anyone on Reddit's the_Donald who disagreed with Trump was called a "Faggot" or worse.   Trump is no friend to Gays - or any other minority for that matter.

But why did I assume the shooter was a closet homosexual even before this was reported?   Well, I have some experience in this area.   If you want to spot a closeted homosexual, just look for the guy shouting "Faggot!" the loudest.   Yes, this includes the late founder of the Westboro Baptist Church.   People who are obsessed with homosexuality are themselves conflicted about their own feelings.

It is like the well-established theory that many policemen join the force because they really want to be criminals, but their upbringing prevents them from being law-breakers.  Being the guy who busts law-breakers is the next best thing.   It is a theory, anyway.  And maybe it explains why some cops end up going rogue.

The problem is religion.   Religion is a very neatly planned little psychological experiment that preys upon the minds of the faithful.   By making you feel guilty for your own natural urges, they can get you to do whatever they want you to do, simply by calling you a "sinner" or "unholy" and getting you to suppress your urges - which warps your mind in a number of ways.

Our brains are programmed from the get-go to do a number of things.  We breathe.  We drink.  We eat.   And if we want the species to survive we have sex, which is probably a more powerful drive than anything except perhaps breathing.   Sex is pleasurable, so we seek it out as humans.   And often as humans, who we are attracted to has less to do with having babies than with having fun.

But religion tells us that sex is bad.  Unless you are making babies in a marriage, just forget about it!   Even heterosexual sex is a sin, outside of marriage and if not for making babies.

So the religious faithful are conflicted.  They have these urges and are told they are bad.  And to even have such urges makes them horrible people who deserve little more than death.   

But the joke is, of course, everybody has these urges in one form or another.   Oh, sure there are a few people who claim to be asexual but even then, I'm not buying it.   I think a lot of those folks are just trying to get attention.

And the really sick joke is, the people who run these religions often indulge themselves in whatever form of sexual deviance they desire while at the same time decrying even the most innocent sex acts in their parishioners.   The Catholic Church is not some outlier or anomaly.

Muslims claim that homosexuality is sin.  Yet in Afghanistan, a favorite sport among wealthy Muslims is "Boy Play" or "Bachi Bazi".  Imams who run madrassas where young men are indoctrinated into Islam are routinely accused of molesting their followers.   Homosexuality is suppressed in the Middle-East, and yet it also flourishes.   They just live in more denial than even Catholics.

Sadly, this creates a cognitive dissonance in the mind of young men.  Left unchecked, it leads to full-blown schizophrenia.  They live in two worlds - their own mind, with its "unclean" urges and impulses, and then in their religious world, where they are one of God's own chosen few.

And as it turns out, this shooter in Orlando grew up in the house of crazy, with a Dad who claimed to be President of Afghanistan, making hour-long YouTube videos, claiming to fight for the rights of the Pashtun, even if he didn't speak their language.

And of course, crazy if often hereditary.   So Dad tells his son that being gay is bad.  Son meanwhile wants to date men.   Schizophrenia sets it.   He sees his urges as evil.   What's more, it angers him that other people are apparently happy and carefree about their own urges.   Why should they be allowed to have fun, when he has to obey his religion and his Dad?

Now, a more rational person might say, "you  know, fuck religion.  And Dad's crazy.  Fuck him, too.  I'm moving out of this town, getting place of my own, preferably in a State far away, and living my own life, happily ever after!"

A rational person might do that.   A lot of other people feel "obligated" to do what their parents say, even well into their 30's or 40's.  They believe that their birth family is everything in the world and that forming their own family and their own relationships is secondary to worshiping their Father and Mother.

Funny thing, too, religion reinforces this crazy notion, probably because it keeps people closer to religion and closer to the indoctrination.

But we do have choices in this world.   And parents and religions can be crazy and pointless.   It is sad that this young man could not stand up for himself and say, "This is who I am, not who my crazy Father thinks I should be!" and then go live his own life.   

And since he couldn't do this, he was angry, at himself, his wives, and the world.   But this anger was totally unnecessary.   Living in America, you can re-invent yourself to be whoever you want to be.   You don't have to live the life your parents or your religion says you have to.

Now, some Conservatives will say that the fellow "pledged his life to ISIS" during the shooting.   But this was just a cover story, so as to explain the gay away.   He had no real connection to ISIS or radical Islam.   He was a closet homosexual.

And closeted homosexuals are thus prized in many Muslim countries where terrorism is breeding.   If you are a young gay or lesbian in, say, the West Bank, you have two choices in life.   If you come out as Gay, you will be beaten or stoned to death and your family will be shamed.   However, if you strap on a suicide vest and blow up a bunch of Jews, your family will be honored, given money and a new home, and you will be remembered as a "martyr".

It is a compelling recruitment technique.   And it is one reason religion wants you to feel bad about yourself and your natural sexual urges.   By telling you that you are inherently "bad" - and getting you to believe it - they get you to believe that your life is worthless, and that you should surrender yourself to their machinations, even sacrificing your own life in the process.

This fellow who shot up the nightclub wasn't an Islamic terrorist bent on avenging Islam.   He was something far, far worse.

He was one of our own.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Laws of Nature versus Laws of Man

Is a bicycle accident preventable or inevitable?

In an earlier posting, I mentioned that riding a bicycle in the street is a very dangerous activity.  Just as with motorcycles, the possibility of a collision with a car is pretty high, and the consequences are almost always devastating.

Sadly, there are people in this country who seriously believe that these activities can be "made safe" if we pass laws, enforce laws, or "raise awareness" of these safety issues.   This is, of course, living in a fool's paradise.

You see, there is a difference between the laws of man and the laws of nature.   Mankind makes laws for its own behavior, and they are routinely flouted.  Hence we have a police force and a criminal justice system to try to enforce the laws - and punish those who break them.   But this does not mean the laws are always enforced.   Our laws are imperfect and weak, and they are more often breeched than obeyed.

The laws of nature, on the other hand, are immutable.

What laws am I talking about?   Well, two come to mind.   First, the laws of physics.  Second, the laws of probability.

The laws of physics dictate that when a 4,000lb SUV hits a bicyclist, the bicyclist will be injured severely or killed, and that the motorist will nary have a scratch.   This is not open for debate.  You can do the math, calculate the momentum and forces of impact and come to the same conclusion time and time again.   You don't want to tangle with cars, period.

The laws of probability dictate that if you ride your bike in busy traffic, you will eventually get hit by a car.   The more you ride, and the more recklessly you ride, the more probable it is this will happen.  And because the laws of physics dictate the outcome, it is almost an assured thing that if you ride in busy traffic long enough, you will eventually be seriously injured or killed. 

Some people, particularly "serious bicyclists" disagree with the laws of nature, and believe that the laws of man will protect them.

"I have a right to a full lane!" they cry - even if it isn't quite the law in their State.   "A bicycle is just like a motor vehicle, under the law!"

Perhaps under the laws of man but not under the laws of physics or the laws of probability.

And it is not a matter of people intentionally trying to run over bicyclists as apparently happened over the weekend.   Rather, people are inattentive, distracted, have poor reaction times, or just are losing their faculties as they get older (eyesight, reaction time, hearing).  They may be texting.  They may be drunk.  They may be high.  Yes, some of these things are illegal.  They are breaking mankind's laws.   But mankind's laws are routinely broken and rarely punished.

The laws of nature, on the other hand, are always enforced with deadly precision.

Yesterday we were driving on our island.   We have 20-30 miles of bicycle trails that are separate from our roadways.   If you ride on them, the odds of tangling with a car are very low.    But our roadways are very narrow with no shoulders.   If you ride on them, well, the probability is, you will tangle with some oldster with poor reaction times, poor eyesight, and poor hearing.   Or a vacationer who is distracted, texting, or drunk.   And the outcome will not be pretty.

And yes, I have seen one bicycle accident already here, where a minivan hit a bicyclist, who was lying in the road in a pool of his own blood.  He wasn't dead, but he didn't look all that happy, either.  The van tried to pass, apparently, at the same time the bicyclist tried to turn left, without signaling or even aware the van was behind him (he did not have a rear-view mirror).

The odds are even worse if you do stupid things.   We came across one bicyclist who had the whole "Lance Armstrong Starter Kit" replete with "sponsor" team jersey (although no one was actually sponsoring him), expensive bike, and the whole kit - sans the steroids, as far as I know.  We were trying to pass him in a particularly narrow part of the roadway when he suddenly veered out into the center of the roadway to prevent us from passing.

You see, he was one of these "bicycle rights" nuts who thought that no one should be allowed to pass him, ever, as he has a "right" to a full lane of the road.

And under mankind's laws, maybe he is right.   Of course, by nature's laws, he will end up dead wrong.   Swerving out into the path of a 4,000 lb car is just plain stupid.   You may be making your "point" but you will end up dead.

So what's the point?

This does raise the question, is it safe to pass a bicyclist?  And this is where it gets tricky, and where "serious" bicyclists are utter hypocrites (as are many motorcyclists).

A friend of mine, who is very old, refuses to pass bicyclists, even in a passing zone.   So she tailgates them in her 6,000 lb quad-cab pickup truck.   Is this safer than passing?   I think not.   If the bicyclist falls or stops suddenly, he is instantly run over.   It is better to execute a safe and quick pass than to linger behind a bicyclist for miles and miles.

And I have had people do this to me, too.   I was riding in the road on one of the few occasions I do so, and someone just followed me.   So I pulled off onto the grassy shoulder, eight feet from the road edge and stopped.

The car stopped too.   For some reason, they thought they were obligated to follow the bicyclist forever.   But I had no desire to be at the head of a "parade" of 5 cars going down the road at 15 mph.   No thanks!

No, it is better to execute a safe pass.   And when a car passes you, as a bicyclist, you should stay to the RIGHT and get onto the shoulder if possible.    Not that that is the "law" it is just common sense as the laws of physics and laws of probability are stacked against you.   Swerving out into the lane to "prove a point" is beyond idiotic.   It is suicidal.

And this is where "serious" bicyclists get hypocritical.    When you are trying to pass one in a car, these bozos will swerve out into the lane to "assert their lane rights!"    They believe you should not pass unless there is a passing zone and you can move into the oncoming lane to pass.   Theoretically, this may be the law in some States.  Realistically, it ain't gonna happen.   Just move over, let the cars go by, and get back to enjoying riding without some Buick breathing down your neck!

At the next intersection, however, the same bicyclist who "asserted his lane rights" will then try to "lane share" with you, by riding between cars or between cars and the shoulder to pass everyone waiting at a light or stop sign.   And once they get to the light or stop sign they run the light or stop sign and continue on their way, once again swerving out into traffic to prevent cars from passing them.

(Motorcyclists do this all the time to zip through traffic, and apparently "lane sharing" in some States is indeed legal.  However it is very, very dangerous.  Someone stuck in traffic opens their car door to spit, and you are toast!).

This is asinine.   If you believe that bicycles are "just like cars" and should follow "the rules of the road" then you should follow all the rules of the road.    You can't do this cafeteria style by following only those laws which work in your favor and ignoring the rest.

And speaking of ignoring the rest, when you run a red light or a stop sign on your bicycle, you are really ignoring the laws of physics and the laws of probability.  As I noted in The A-Pillar Accident, rolling stop signs or running red lights predictably leads to an accident, not because of luck or skill, but because of science.   If someone's A-pillar is blocking their view of you, they have no idea you exist.

And yes, I was almost run over on my bicycle just standing at a stop sign when a car driver cut the corner and couldn't see me because his A-pillar blocked the view.   It was only when I was on the hood of his car that he saw me.   And of course, he blamed me for "not stopping" (when I had both feet on the ground!).   Lesson learned (not by him, of course!) - square your corners.   Being lazy and rounding corners and passing into the oncoming lane is just a really bad idea.  Yea, I know, it takes that whole extra turn of the wheel, but it is worth it.

Because of incidents like this, as well as a friend of mine being severely injured in a bike accident, I have pretty much given up on riding on the roads.   If there is a bike path, I take it.   And when I ride on the road, I stay the fuck away from cars.   I keep to the right as far as possible.  If there is a shoulder, I ride on it and let the cars pass.   I am not out to make some political "point" about what the laws of mankind are, because I took a course in physics and a course in probability.    As a lawyer, I understand how weak mankind's laws are, and as an engineer how immutable are the laws of nature.

I frankly don't understand the "serious" bicyclists of the world.  They spend literally thousands of dollars on racing bicycles and say they are doing it "for the exercise".    But when you ask them why they don't get a mountain bike and ride on a bike path, they say, "Too much resistance!  Too heavy!" - but wasn't exercise the entire point of biking?

Of course, not all of these "serious" bikers are this way.   Most get out of the way of cars.   Some ride two abreast, but will revert to single file when they see traffic behind them.   They wear helmets, have rear-view mirrors, wear colorful jerseys, have LED lights, and so forth.  They want to be safe and they don't want to get run over, as they understand the horrific consequences.

But others go out of their way to be dicks - intentionally swerving out when a car comes up behind them, or suddenly deciding to ride 2, 3, or even 4 abreast, when a car comes up behind them.   Legally, they may be in the "right" but morally, I am not so sure. 

It is like the thing with the Lesbian wedding cakes.   It is one thing to be offended when some Christian baker refuses to make your wedding cake.   It is another thing, in my opinion, to seek out Christian bakers and intentionally try to start some confrontation.   And this goes for both sides of that, or other debates.   You can't blame someone for being discourteous when you intentionally set out to make them so.

Bicycle safety means you have to understand the laws of physics and the horrific consequences that occur, with regularity, when cars and bicycles collide.   Bicycle safety means doing everything in your powers to reduce the probability of such horrific events from occurring, simply because they are horrific.  Bicycle safety does not mean seeking out confrontation with motorists, as you have no idea who the motorist is, and what they may or may not do.   You could end up dead, and it just isn't worth it.

I should mention that this is another one of those causation versus probability things, that usually demarcates the young from the old (but not always - the "bicycle rights" doo-doo head we nearly ran into was well into his 70's).   Kids believe that mankind's laws will protect them.  They believe that putting up signs and bumper stickers that say, "watch for motorcycles" or "share the lane" will help reduce the incidence of horrific motorcycle and bicycle crashes.

They believe that "but for" some action by a motorist, or a slick of oil on the road, or a blowout of a tire, or some other causational factor that they will be safe from accident.    It is only when someone fails to do their duty that accidents happen!

And there may be some truth to that.   But as you get older, you realize that the law of probability is inflexible and must often be fed with blood.   If you ride a motorcycle, there is a high probability you will be in a wreck.   If you ride in busy city traffic, the probability goes up.   If you ride like a jerk, it skyrockets.   Yet so many young people get into motorcycle wrecks and say, "Well, if that little old lady hadn't turned left in front of me while I was doing a mile-long wheelie at twice the speed limit through a residential neighborhood, I wouldn't have been hurt!"   In their minds it is "but for" the little old lady turning left, everything would be OK.

In my mind, being older and having been in a couple of wrecks, I see the little old lady as inevitable.   And one of my "little old ladies" was actually an off-duty cop, and a Harley rider of 30 years to boot.   When Police Officers can negligently run into you, all bets are off.  And they do, too, as Police Officers are human like the rest of us.

For bicyclists, it is the same story.   You may argue that if everyone obeyed the rules, you would be as safe as in your Mother's arms.   And that might be true.  But it ain't likely to happen.   What is far more likely to happen is you do get injured or killed.  Every day, two people lose their lives in bicycle/motor vehicle accidents.   Statistically, this is a small number of people in a nation of 330 million.   However, statistically, it is a far larger percentage of the number of bicyclists out there, as bicycling is just not very popular in the USA, while driving is.   In terms of the number of man-hours spent bicycling in the USA, it is probably an appalling number.

Pedestrians fare far worse - clocking in at 12 per day.   But there are far more pedestrians in the world than bicyclists.  A pedestrian is someone who parked their car.  And crossing a street is sort of unavoidable.

And of course, the injuries are reported at about 50,000 per year for car/bicycle accidents.   And by injury, we could mean anything from a skinned knee to months of reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation, as my friend went though.  Maybe it isn't as bad as dying, but it isn't any Swiss picnic, either.

So what's the point of this?   Well, what you learn from this can be applied to all different areas of life.   If you engage in high-risk behaviors, you can expect bad consequences to occur, as the law of probability will eventually catch up with you.   If you drive recklessly, speeding and tailgating all the time (which some folks think is "normal driving" - I know I did at age 25!) you can expect to get into accidents or at least get tickets and your insurance to soar.   Whining that it is "unfair" and that those "mean insurance companies" are "just out to make money!" isn't helping your personal situation, even if you could pin the causation on them (which you can't).   The laws of probability kick in, and insurance is all about the laws of probability.

Similarly, if you engage in risky financial behavior, odds are you will end up in trouble.   Rewards cards with high interest rates sound like fun, but if you can't off the balance even for one month all those "rewards" are flushed down the toilet in short order.  And no, blogging about how your bank is mean and rotten isn't going to change this.   Nor is voting for Bernie Sanders.

Believing in causation as the source of your difficulties is a form of externalizing.  It is a way of relieving yourself of personal responsibility.   When you take risks - and we all do on a daily basis - we have to take responsibility for the outcomes, both good and bad.

Increasingly, it seems as a society we want to do the reverse.   We want to take risks and when they turn out in our favor we want to reap the rewards.  When they turn out to our disadvantage, we want to avoid the consequences, blame other people or institutions, and somehow "pin" the cause on to a single person, company, or government agent.

It is a popular sport, to be sure.  But one that leaves you with little satisfaction if you are bleeding out on the pavement.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What Death Teaches Us About Life

What does death teach us about life?

Recently a relative died, and then our doctor died.   Living on retirement island, we see a lot of neighbors and friends leave the island feet first.   Death has a way of putting life in perspective.  What we think are things of critical importance end up being junk thrown in a dumpster only days after we pass on.

Some folks have trouble with this.  I noted before about a friend who has spend five years now, weeping over their parent's possessions, spending close to $100,000 in property taxes, insurance, utilities, and whatnot, to keep an unused house because sorting through (and throwing away) the parents' possessions is too traumatic.

For me, wasting $100,000 is far more traumatic.

It is not hard to see where this comes from though.  Cleaning out a loved one's home isn't easy.   All the "stuff" in their lives which seemed so important only days before is not just crap to be hauled away, given away, or sold off as quickly as possible.  And nowhere is this more true that with material possessions.

You may, as a young person, obsess about your car.  After all, it cost so much and it is so cool to have a sporty hatchback, right?   But the minute you are dead, the car is just some routine possession to be sold off to settle your estate.  In the greater scheme of things, it really isn't important at all.   Neither is your computer, your stereo system, your wall-screen television, or your X-box.   All just junk that is gotten rid of very cheaply, as it really isn't worth much.

Now, you may say this sounds depressing, but depression is literally a state of mind.   I am just reporting the facts in a neutral manner.   If you choose to perceive reality as "depressing" that is a personal choice.   And many do just that - preferring to live in a fantasy world where nothing downbeat ever occurs.  Sadly, such fantasy worlds end up causing more depression, as they inevitably collide with mean old reality, which seems twice as "depression" because you've avoided it for so long.

A better plan is to appreciate reality for what it is, and learn to like it.   99% of the world's problems - maybe all of them - are caused by people choosing to live in fantasy worlds, be they religious, economic, political, or emotional.

My perspective on all of this is positive, not depressing.  The realization that most of what we consider "important" in life is in reality utter bullshit is not a depressing thing, but a liberating one.  The "stuff" we accumulate life that we think of as "important" ends up being piles of junk our next-of-kin shovels into a dumpster.   The lesson here is a good one - stop obsessing about "stuff" and obsess more about life.

Stop trying to document your life through mementos or tchotchkes or facebook pages and start actually living it.   Stop looking at life as a series of possessions to accumulate or achieve, and instead look at it as a set of experiences to savor.

When I was younger, I though of life more in terms of things to buy.  If only I had a house, I would be set for life.  If only I had a cool car, I would be set for life.   Once I achieved these "things" I would be happy.   What I realized was, later on in life, that the things we did were more important than the things we did them with.   Getting attached to a boat, or a car, or a motorcycle is kind of dumb, in my opinion.

And one factor that caused this paradigm shift was aging.  As a kid, you think a car is going to last forever, because 10 years seems like half your life, and in fact, probably is half your conscious life.    But after you've driven a car from the showroom to the junkyard - more than once - you realize that these things are transitory possessions.   They are things that serve a purpose in your life, and when they stop serving a purpose, you should dispose of them and move on.

Hoarders can't grasp this concept.   To them, things are the holy grail.   You'd better not throw that out!  You might need it some day!   But of course, whatever it is you need "some day" you can probably find on a store shelf or someone's garage sale for cheap.

My friend with the house full of possessions is also a hoarder - an organized on.   They have multiple storage lockers with racks of shelves and lots of "things" carefully organized for the later day when they will be called upon to be used for some purpose.   In the last 1/4 of their lives, I am not sure what purpose these things will be called upon for, but that's the logic of it.   And I am not sure that one can enjoy "things" when they are locked up in a storage locker.

But maybe I am missing the picture.   Maybe the whole experience for them is to visit the storage locker and fuss over the possessions.   Maybe that is the fun they get out of it.   The things are never to be actually used other than their fondling, organizing, and storage.   I suppose in a way, it is the "joy" a numismatist or a philatelist gets similar joy from pawing over their collections as well.  If so, then I guess there is an experience there of some merit.

However, having been to one-too-many estate sales, I am not so sure I really need to own too much anymore.   Possessions at this stage in life seem more a burden than a joy.  Just another "thing" that needs to be taken care of, put somewhere, and worried over.  And with mechanical and electrical things, yet another opportunity for disappointment as inevitably they break or fail to meet up to their over-hyped expectations.

What is left behind when you are gone isn't the stuff you bought but rather things you made whether they are friends and family, a piece of artwork, or a poem you wrote.   These are the things that are intangible for the most part - that are expressions of your life, and thus closer to life itself.

Your wallet and credit cards, your money, your house, your drawers full of junk - they are gone in a matter of weeks and mean little or nothing to anyone, even yourself, if you think about it.

And this is a good thing, trust me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Danger of Bernie Bros (and Trumpsters)

People often participate in politics not because of personal beliefs, but because it is fun.

For a lot of folks, politics is a game where you root for your team.  Actual policy issues and how they affect you are often secondary.   Such folks are dangerous as they can be persuaded to support very odious candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, often in succession.

Today we see this on the Left and Right with so-called "Bernie Bros" who are young white males who are very agitated about the election and are claiming that Bernie was "robbed" of the nomination.   On the Right, we see a similar group of all-white males campaigning for Trump.   In both cases, it is a fun party, to be sure - with everyone congratulating each other on how great their candidate is, and how the US will be a Socialist Paradise or "Great Again" if their candidate wins.

It is sort of like a cult, actually, with a lot of group-think and professed loyalty to the fearless leader.  Not a lot of critical thinking goes on, nor is it encouraged.

What is scary about these sorts of folks is that their political affiliations are very shallow.  They are there for the fun party (not the political party) - the cult aspect - to see their side "win".   And over time, their allegiances can change, and we have seen this happen before.

The photo above is of Jerry Rubin, who was co-author of DO IT!: Scenarios of the Revolution and a lot of other counter-culture trash of the 1960's.   Not a decade later, he ended up renouncing his former position and embracing capitalism, investing in Apple and becoming a millionaire.  When the system worked out well for him, well, he liked the system a lot better.   He pointed out that activism was hard work and that the abuse of drugs, sex, and private property had made the counterculture "a scary society in itself."

And that was sort of the point of a lot of the 1960's - the drugs and sex made attending a political rally a fun time.   College kids, whose deferments meant they had little chance of being drafted, went out to protest a war that most of them never were in danger of fighting.   But hey, horny hippie chicks and LSD is quite a potent cocktail - better than Molotov!   But speaking of which, ain't it fun to riot once in a while?  Sure is!

The 1960's hippie movement was mostly young white privileged people protesting.  Sounds familiar.  Oh, right, that is what is going on today.   And they are pissed off they are losing, because all their lives they've "won" at life, as this author notes.

And that is what scares me.   These "Bernie Bros" are not really dedicated to a cause, so much as they are dedicated to the idea of being dedicated to a cause.   And the subliminal racism and misogyny they've demonstrated in the past tells me they really aren't progressive in any sense of the word.

These are folks who will switch allegiances, as Rubin did, once someone makes them a better offer.   And indeed, the Trump people are recruiting Bernie Bros, even though they are from opposite sides of the political spectrum!  They don't care about issues or even candidates, they just want to support the winning side.

And therein lies the danger with the Bernie Bros.   They really aren't interested in dramatic social change or revolution, so much as they are interested in free college, their student loans forgiven, and other "free stuff" for themselves.

The Pied Piper of Burlington.

They want, in short, to externalize their personal problems by converting political thought into sloganism and name-calling - much as the Trumpers like do to.   No real analysis or critical thinking, but rather a "what's in it for me?" and "The other guy is a doo-doo head!" mentality.

Externalizing is fun, let's face it.   You get to blame all of your problems on others.  And being part of a "movement" makes your personal problems seem insignificant.  The reason why so many are reluctant to call it quits on the revolution is that they will then have to stop phone-banking and blogging and think about getting a job, paying their student loans, and moving out of their parents' house.   Dull, dreary, day-to-day living is not nearly as much fun as being part of a revolution!

And this is why many of them will switch over to Trump or some other demagogue in a heartbeat.   So long as the demagogue-du-jure promises them something for nothing and tells them that their problems are someone else's fault, then they will flock to that person, regardless of whether the politics are right-wing or left-wing.  And it doesn't hurt if they promise a swell party in the process - another reason to forget their personal issues for a few months longer.  Being a political junkie is like being a real junkie.  You forget your troubles and drown them in addiction.

So, maybe this "Big Banks and Wall Street" message failed.   How about "Mexicans and Blacks are to blame?"  That has always been a hot seller, although the Trumpers use euphemisms like "low-information voter" instead of actual racial epithets.

But the message is the same:  "You would be a millionaire right now and not have to work if [fill in the blank] was called to task!" - where "fill in the blank" can be 1%'ers, big banks, wall street, evil corporations, CEOs, blacks, China, Mexicans, or what not.   You see, it really doesn't matter whether the demagogue is "Left" or "Right" the message is the same - if we can just pounce on this one minority group of people, life would be sublime.

Sadly, we have seen this pattern again and again in history.  Jews were a favorite target, comprising both the 1%'ers, the bankers, and a marginalized minority group rolled into one.   In Communist countries, it is "counter-revolutionaries" which is a neat catch-all for anyone who disagrees with you or just people you want out of the way.  In America, we've gone after everyone from Chinese to the Irish, to Catholics, to Jews, and of course Blacks.   Mexicans seem to be in the hot seat this time around.  Maybe them and the gays.

It is also a great way for leaders to deflect criticism as we are seeing right now in Venezuela (which is Bernie's idea of a perfect government).  The economy isn't tanking because Socialism failed, it is tanking because of Yankee machinations and "counter-revolutionaries" and "profiteers" or whatever.  Most Latin American countries have played the Yankee card this way - blaming all of their problems on the US.   Cuba claims the trade embargo is the reason their economy is in the toilet - neglecting, of course, to mention that they do trade with every other country in the world.   Somehow, our lack of trade is the straw that broke the camel's back.

Of course, the Jerry Rubin example is a ray of hope.  Rubin denounced the revolution when he found out that the system was, well, actually pretty good to him.   And a lot of other people of his generation did the same thing.   By the time you are in your mid-30's, with a job, a mortgage, and a baby on the way, the idea of overthrowing the system seems less appealing.   And solemn pronouncements made in your 20's suddenly seem rather juvenile.

Oh, but right, this generation is different than previous generations.   Different except it is pretty much the same.   The vaunted "punishing student loan debts" averaging $25,000 per student are hardly insurmountable obstacles to success for most.   Yes, there are a few darlings of the media who have hundreds of thousands in debt and no job prospects - those are the outliers, not the norm.   The vast majority of so-called "millenials" will in time end up running things, just as their baby-boomer forebears did.   And once they are in charge, they will find that the status quo is what is worth preserving, as they have literally bought into it.

But between now and then is a real risk that we could throw away the greatest civilization in the history of our planet - all because of some very radical and immature thinking.   Other countries and other governments have succumbed to this kind of thinking - that no one should have to work, that money should be "redistributed", that criminals are all innocent, and that the police and government are the real enemies.   These governments have largely failed to succeed.

Of course, it takes time and maturity to see that.   When you are 25 and broke, taking money from other people seems like a swell idea.   But it is a dangerous idea.  And it saddens me that these Bernie Bros and the Trumpsters both are so eager to embrace externalizing their problems.

But then again, should I be surprised by this?