Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is Polling Obsolete?

Calling people on the "phone" insures only that you get a skewed sample, for a number of reasons.

Donald Trump says not to listen to the polls.  And like a stopped clock, he is right about somethings, at least twice a day.   Polling numbers are hard to quantify these days.  One crazy poll that Trump loves uses the same base of respondents over and over again.  They call this a "tracking poll" but it is really tracking very little.   Since the base of a few thousand voters includes one black man who is in favor of Trump, it incorrectly suggests that Trump has a huge black following.

The problem with a "tracking" poll also is that if you keep asking the same people their opinion, chances are, they will give you the same opinions.   So if your sample is mostly pro-Trump people, it will continue to show a bias toward Trump (or toward Hillary, depending on the initial sample).  It only tracks "undecided" voters, who let's face is, are utter morons.   When I hear someone say they are "not sure" who to vote for, or that "both candidates are alike" I wonder if they flunked that Kindergarten test of "one of these things is not like the other"  (no shame, I flunked it myself).

But telephone polling is another form that is still used today and is utterly obsolete.  Bloomberg just released a poll showing Trump with a 2-point lead in Florida.  This is not surprising, given that the only people who have landlines anymore or answer the phone are old people.  Young people don't have landlines and screen their calls on their smart phones - answering only those calls from people they know, letting the rest bounce to voicemail.

Young people assume - correctly - that most unknown callers are likely scam artists these days.  And if anyone calls asking you to complete a "survey" chances are it is also a scam.  So young people don't answer surveys as much as old people do.

Also, when doing a telephone survey, who do you call? (and no, it ain't Ghostbusters).  The Bloomberg poll apparently uses people in Florida area codes, as evidenced by this first question in the survey:
"First, I just need to ask if you currently live in the state of Florida. (If needed:) People sometimes take their phone number when they move to another state, so we just need to determine what state I’m talking to."
In other words, they are aware that just because you have a 305 area code, it doesn't mean you live in Miami, as you may have moved to Texas and taken your number with you.   But they don't consider the opposite effect - that a lot of people who move to Florida, particularly in the last decade, kept their old cell numbers from "up North" even as they live in Florida.  A couple I know who live in The Villages still have their 315 area code phones, which is a far cry from 305.  One is Syracuse, the other is Miami.   They will never be called by Bloomberg unless Bloomberg is polling Central New Yorkers.

So you see the flaw in the Bloomberg poll - it only captures people who have been living in Florida a long time, and moreover, it might never capture newer residents, who have no incentive to change their phone number just because they moved.  As I have noted in other postings, area codes mean nothing today, and I am a prime example.   Not only are my cell phones in area code 703 (Northern Virginia) but my "landline" (NetTalk VoIP) as well.

Alas, in this modern era, where phone calls are basically dead, the pollster has a difficult problem to solve - how do you contact people and get their opinions?  Or more succinctly, how do you get a representative sampling of opinion?   Because quite frankly, if Bloomberg called me with its poll, I would probably hang up.  They ask far too many questions and I have shit to do.   As a result, every poll as a built-in filter in that it samples only people who want to answer pollsters' questions.   The longer the poll, the smaller this demographic group is.

What it gets down to is that the only poll that counts is the one on November 8th.   Or the 28th, if you are voting for Trump.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reddit and the Disinformation Campaign

Reddit posited itself as the "front page of the Internet" but really is just the front page of a tabloid.

A reader suggested I check out the website "Reddit" which has made a lot of news lately as being the home of a lot of "alt-right" hate speech and Trump supporters (I am being redundant).   The site is designed to allow people to submit links to articles from other places on the Internet and then they are up-voted or down-voted to see what ends up on the "front page" of Reddit in sort of a Wiki-like manner.

As you might imagine, this model is fraught with problems.   You can program "bots" to vote up or vote down certain articles in order to promote stories or dampen others.  The Trump supporters are accused of doing this, and some believe these "bots" are coming out of Russia.   In response, Reddit tweaked its algorithms to dampen the effect of "bots" or try to detect when they are being used.   But of course, this leads to charges of censorship.

There are also many "subreddits" - thousands of them - covering everything from video games to online gaming to discussions of games and controversy about gaming.   I am being facetious of course, but it does seem that the vast trove of data on Reddit is mostly related to online gaming, and that every day, the "front" page has a lot of gaming-related posts.   You start to get a picture about the demographics of Reddit users from this.  Young.  Male.  Lonely.

And of course, Reddit was the home (at least in part) of the "gamergate" controversy where some gamers lashed out at female game designers because, well, I frankly don't give a fuck darn.  It was about the silliest "controversy" that ever existed, but for some reason, people were taking the opinions of 14-year-old "gamers" with dead seriousness.

Prior to that, Reddit was also host to "watching [black people] die" - a nice subreddit that had links to videos of black people being killed.   This was removed, of course, as being racist.  But they still have a "sub" for "watching people die" which links to videos of people being killed.  Fun stuff.  This is shit that is really bad for your mental health.  Fortunately, you don't have to worry about your kids seeing any of this, as they have to click on an "I am 18 or older" page to get in, so they cannot access the site (the sarcasm light is ON).

It also had other subreddits that were virulently racist, homophobic, misogynist, and whatever.   They still have a subreddit for rape apologists who "take the red pill" and live in the "real world" where women are sex objects to be used by men for their own needs.   Again, you see the sort of demographic they are pandering to here - fat slovenly gamers who spend all day staring into the blue glow of a computer screen and never get laid.

Reddit has tried to clean up its act - jettisoning its most odious subreddits.   It is after all, owned by (through a shell company) Conde Nast, the famous publisher who would never dream of putting "Watch [black people] die" in the New Yorker.   So they had to finally go in and clean out the worst of it, out of sheer embarrassment, even if the click-through revenue was strong.

And speaking of revenue, one way Reddit makes money is by allowing certain "viral" posts to float to the top of its septic tank.   It is no coincidence, but you will suddenly see dozens of postings about a new movie, clothing item, video game (natch), or other product or service flood the "front page" and even other subreddits.   These are structured not to appear too obviously as advertisements. 

For example, when the movie "Dead Pool" came out (which appears to be some kind of superhero movie), Reddit was flooded with postings, not about the movie, but the marketing for it.   For example, a teaser billboard was posted and discussed.  And it worked.   I was made aware of the movie and the comic book which I had not been aware of before.   But the sudden flood of postings was too coincidental.  Since then, I have noticed a pattern of postings nearly every day, relating to some new product or service, and it can't be all that coincidental.

Reddit has already demonstrated that it can control what reaches the front page when they shut down most (but not all) of the Trump Spam that was being upvoted by bots.   And what appears on the front page, oddly enough, isn't always what gets the most "upvotes" for some reason.   They control what appears, either manually or through algorithms, so clearly they could easily allow a paid advertiser to put their spam on the front page if they chose to do so.

The upvoting process does allow outsiders to influence content, and there have been allegations that the Russians are trying to manipulate world opinion against the United States.   Actually, these are less allegations than statements of fact.  Psychological Operations have been going on for decades between our two countries.   We each try to psyche the other out by manipulating public opinion, just as corporations do to influence consumers.

And on Reddit, it seems there is a steady drumbeat of bad news in general, and in particular, bad news about the United States.  If you click on "news" or "world news" you would think the United States was the worst country in the world.   There are a lot of links to articles from The Independent which is a slow-loading tabloid website from the UK that delights in reporting stories that make the US look like a third world country.   If you read only The Independent, you might come away with the impression that crime is rampant in the US, with blood running in the streets and that our government is corrupt and venal and vile.

And sadly, many people here in the USA would agree with that last statement, which is sad, as our system of government, even with its flaws, represents the apogee of civilization since the dawn of mankind.    You have to look carefully at the history of the world and also look carefully at how 90% of the world lives before you pass judgement on the USA.   Oh, sure the people in Sweden have cradle-to-grave socialism.   But they have their own internal problems as well, that are usually not reported on in the US press.   But outside of the West, life is not so sweet.  And we should think long and hard before we discard democracy based on a spur-of-the-moment feeling.

For example, today the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up 100 points on better than expected earnings.   You'd think this would make the front page of "news" but it does not.  Instead, you are treated to depressing stories about crime and police shootings and other "America is Awful" sort of crap.  It is not that some of these stories are not newsworthy or even untrue, only that they dominate Reddit and good news is, well, just not shown.

Because of all of the above, I find that Reddit is less than useful.  It is little more than a propaganda machine, trying to tell you how to think, what to buy, and who to vote for.   What's worse, it seems to be easily manipulated by outside forces to achieve their own ends.  In that regard, it is even worse than MSN or YAHOO.  MSN just keeps trying to sell you a "surface" and Yahoo a new car.

But the most important thing is that like most Internet websites, discussion groups, and social media outlets, Reddit fosters mental depression in its readers.   If you spend a lot of time on Reddit, you will get depressed over time.   Like any other online group, it is filled with trolls and haters and flame wars.  Spending any time there at all will only insure that you end up feeling empty and sad.   The articles that they collate as "news" or "the front page" are hardly representative of real life, unless you spend 10 hours a day behind a gamer console and view the world outside your darkened bong lair as an evil and maleficent place.

So no, I don't think Reddit is really "the front page of the Internet" or even a worthwhile site to visit.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Hoo-Doo Economics

Is religion just a way of dealing with the stress of our own mortality?

I was reading an article recently about stress and anxiety and one passage struck me as very astute.  The author, some sort of psychologist, mentioned in passing that we all have an underlying stress or anxiety over our own deaths.

I thought about this and it struck me that is one reason why we have religions and why religion is a natural part of the human existence.  It is a way of dealing with the ultimate stress in life, by putting time and energy into a belief system which makes life seem worthwhile to live.

Death is, of course, horrifying on a number of levels.   Teenagers love to go to horror movies as they are young and death seems like a far-off thing.  Older people are less entranced by horror shows as they are living them in real-time.

Death is horrific on a number of levels.   First is the inevitable decline and decay of the human body over time.  We get old and quite frankly, horrifying.  If you don't see a good friend or family member for a decade or so, the first thing you think is, "Gee, they've really gone downhill!" - but of course our friend or family member is echoing the same sentiment.   Getting old isn't for sissies, as they say - it can be incredibly difficult.

The second horror show aspect of death is the messiness and pain of it.   Unless you are one of the lucky few to die in your sleep or be crushed instantly by a 3-ton hydraulic stamping press, you are in for a real fun time as your body shut down or some disease or illness slowly and painfully kills you off.   Some fun, eh?

The third aspect is the prospect of what happens next?  Do we just stop existing or is there some sort of afterlife?   Most people find comfort in the latter prospect and thus tend to believe it, even if they profess to be atheists or whatever.

The fourth aspect is the sense of loss - felt more by the living that the dead.   When someone dies, well, gosh darn it, you miss them.   When our greyhound passed away this year, we had been through the first two aspects of death - seeing her lose her health and faculties over time and the messiness and pain and discomfort of her actual demise.   That was horrific enough.  But the hardest part was in missing her and having memories triggered over little things, time and time again.   When you really love someone, it is hard, as you miss them terribly and they aren't coming back.

For people you don't care about or don't like, well, this is less of a problem.   By the time my alcoholic Mother died, it was more of a relief than anything.  Finally we were safe from knife attacks and 3AM phone calls.  In a way she did us a favor - by making her persona so toxic towards the end, we didn't miss her too much, and the grieving we had done for the Mother that was, we had done long ago.

But getting back to religion, one reason we find the need for religion, I think, is that we want to make some sense or meaning of our lives, and also comfort ourselves as we face this horror show that is life - and death.   By believing in Jesus or Mohamed or Moses or Buddha or whoever, we feel there is some grand meaning to our lives - some sort of master plan - and that our existence isn't just some brief flare that sputters and burns out.

(And of course, that is one problem with religions.  There are dozens of mainline religions in the world, and each has dozens of sects within it.  Each sect believes that all other religions are false and that theirs is the only and only true way.  If so, a lot of people - the vast majority of the planet - are going to hell.  So if you go the religion route, be sure you pick the right one!).

I have noted before that most of us live lives that are relatively bereft of any meaning.  We are born, we are raised, we work, we retire, and then we die.   Our existence on the planet has little or no greater meaning in life for the most part.  A middle-manager in a corporation is pretty interchangeable.  What most of us do for a living is not really that important and could be done by someone else.   When we die, and everyone who knows us dies, it will be like we never existed.

Some folks find this prospect depressing.   I find it liberating.   It is just a fact of life, frankly.   How you perceive it is up to you.

(Some folks find solace in rearing and raising children.  This is, indeed, one way to become immortal, provided you do it correctly.   The vast majority, it seems, sort of have litters of children and treat them indifferently, and then wonder why they are estranged from them later in life).

But for many, religion puts life into a framework.  It makes the individual a part of a greater good.   And while many find religion to be a bunch of hoo-doo hooey, perhaps there is a nugget of truth to this.   Maybe your life when viewed in the abstract seems pretty pointless.   But yourself, as the cog in a greater machine, is part of a greater whole.   Your asinine opinions and beliefs, by themselves, mean little in the greater scheme of things.  But as part of a huge human computing system that comprises our society and our planet, perhaps creates something that is greater than ourselves.

So yes, all that money you spent voting in "America's Idol" actually meant something, sort of.

Religion taps into this.  As an individual maybe your life means little.  As part of a larger organization of beliefs, it is something far more powerful.  Even atheists, who decry the excesses of religion, in fact make a religion of non-religion.  Their goal in life is to make the world a better place by abolishing religion - the same goal some of the religious have by making their religion universal.

Still others try to make themselves immortal through fame and fortune.  If you become famous - or infamous - you live on forever.    Others still work their whole lives, building a business or a career, making that the centerpiece of their lives in an effort to drown out the deafening silence in their lives.  These are not necessarily bad things, but often wonderful and fine things, if they make themselves happy in the process.

Myself, I try not to worry about it too much.  I am not sure that there is an afterlife, but if there is, it is not predicated on whether you obeyed the will of other people here on Earth.  That just seems like too pat an answer crafted by people hoping to accumulate power in this life.   The long and the short of it is, within the next 20 years or so, I will find our for sure.   So, I had better put the next 20 years to good use, rather than obsess about the end game.

As for religion, it seems to me to be an organic aspect of humankind.  Every civilization and race on the planet has developed - either in conjunction with another or independently - some sort of religion to explain the world, what happens when you die, and how the world was created.   It seems a part of human nature to look for answers to questions that cannot be answered rationally - why are we here?  What is consciousness?  What happens when we die?

In that regard, the atheists have an uphill battle.   Since religion is an organic part of the human existence, it will be hard to eradicate, if not impossible.   In fact, only by making atheism a religion of its own, will they hope to make any real inroads at all.

But that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Character versus Policies - Emotional Thinking versus Logical Thinking

When a politician doesn't want you to examine his policies too closely, he attacks his opponent's "character".

In the last few elections, one "issue" seems to have come to the forefront time and time again, and it really isn't an issue per se.   "Character" seems to be driving the political conversation and debates and both sides seem to enjoy wading in the mud to assassinate the other fellow's character.

And the media plays along, of course, because they love a good cock-fight and it is good for ratings, as CNN recently admitted.   And of course, we the consumers of media eat this crap up, so ultimately we are to blame for favoring flash over substance, appearances over reality, character over policy, emotional thinking over logic.

Does character matter?  To some extent, yes.   You don't want a convicted embezzler running for town clerk.   You don't want a convicted child molester on the school board.   And maybe someone who pledges allegiance to ISIS or some foreign power shouldn't be a US Congressman or President.

On the other hand, should elected officials be selected only from a pool of choir boys and nuns?   Does it make sense that we have some sort of character litmus test for public office that is so strict that none of us could ever pass it?

And that is the problem right there.   The Clintons are arguably the most investigated political couple in the history of the country.   Literally (and I mean literally) dozens of Benghazi investigations have turned up nothing - but a swell Hollywood movie begs to differ.  The decade-long Ken Starr investigation of everything the Clinton's ever did came up with nothing, other than Bill got a blowjob in the White House and then (like most honorable people) lied about it, because people with character don't brag about their sex lives in public - or in private for that matter.

And the sad thing is, there was a little meat on that bone.   I mean the perjury thing was kind of thin - expecting someone to admit an adulterous affair is kind of far-fetched.  Moreover what relevance does that have to the workings of government?   But he did apparently arrange a government job for Lewinsky after the fact, and that could have been (and should have been) the real "crime" if there was one, albeit minor in the scheme of things.

Sadly, Republicans decided to drop that line of inquiry and instead concentrate on the fact that the President had sex with someone not his wife as if that was some sort of major crime of the Century or something that never happens to the citizenry of the USA.

And they did this because it tested well.  As I recalled before, two friends of mine (who are now Hillary supporters) wanted to see Bill Clinton impeached.  They were conservative Democrats and supported Bill Clinton in the past, so their turnabout seemed odd to me.  They both explained that they had "ex'es" who had cheated on them, and they felt abused by their former spouses.  The Monica Lewinsky affair hit them right in the gut, which is exactly where the GOP hoped it would.   Go right past the logical brain and get the old emotional lizard brain to bite on some tasty tidbit.

And that is the main idea of the "character" argument.   Forget that I am selling trickle-down snake-oil or tax cuts for people who make three times as much as you do.   Forget that I am going to cut back on social programs that you benefit from - such as Social Security and Medicare - and think more about whether the other fellow slept around.  If I can distract you on the one hand, I can get away with murder with the other.   Every magician knows this.

But of course, those who live by the sword, die by it.  And in this election cycle we are seeing how Trump has been hoisted by his own petard.   Trump has been very sketchy on policies, other than to say things will be "brilliant" and "beautiful" and "great" and "huge" and the "best".   Instead, his entire platform consists on attacking the character of others - including people he beat in the primaries months ago.  He gives people derogatory nicknames and then repeats lies and half-truths about their character  as if that was enough to elect him President.

The problem with this approach is twofold.   First of all, when you don't stand for anything yourself, people get antsy - at least people who think.   The dumber set doesn't notice, as they project their own views onto your blank policy slate.   People attending Trump rallies think he is for their agenda, even if he hasn't said one word indicating so.   He is the Rorschach candidate.  He is whatever you think he looks like - white supremacist, anti-abortion crusader, pro-union trade warrior, fundamentalist Christian - even if he isn't really any of these things.

But the second and more important problem with this approach is that it leaves you vulnerable to the same kind of attack.   Hillary hasn't been asleep since the days of the Starr investigation.  She saw what they did to her Husband (and to her).  She saw how Swift-boating worked on Kerry and how Al Gore let George W. define him.   Once you let these character slurs go, the other side wins.

And often the only way to win the "character" battle is to attack your opponent, mercilessly.   Bush took what was potentially a liability - his lackluster war record - and turned it against his opponent who was a decorated veteran.  By election day, the tables were turned - Bush was the real hero, and Kerry was a draft-dodging medal-thrower.

"Bounces off me and sticks to you" is also a classic Trump move - and it worked, for a while at least.

So Trump tries to smear Hillary with Bill's alleged affairs and an entirely made-up story about how Hillary "laughed at a rape victim" (which is not true at all).   Rather than concentrate on real policy issues or real issues of character, he used these tangential claims because they involved sex and Americans are obsessed with sex.   Moreover, while Americans are very sexually liberated and our media (movies, television) depicts everyone actually having sex (a lot) - on our public stage we are still puritans, it seems, and we act shocked that anyone is actually doing it, even though we do it ourselves.

He opened the door for this sort of sleaze and Hillary drove a Mack Truck through it.   Well, we don't know if the Clinton campaign is behind the sleaze tapes and the numerous accusers (nine and counting) but they certainly aren't upset about this turn of events.

And it turns out that this - like the infidelity thing - is something that goes right to the gut and bypasses the brain.   A lot of women really don't like it when you grab their privates, it turns out.   Funny, I know, but they are that way.  Something to keep in mind, guys.  And I think these sort of revelations will help Clinton in terms of voter turnout and also in the number of "secret" Clinton voters in many swing States.   A lot of Fox-News-watching husbands will assume their dutiful wives will also be voting for Trump, but when the curtain closes on the voting booth, many a white, middle-class, middle-aged Republican woman may pull that lever (or push that button) for "one of our own."   Maybe it is time a woman ran things - after all, their pre-dementia husbands can't be trusted to even take out the trash, right?

But the sad thing about this situation is whether you root for one candidate or another, we don't really get to hear concrete answers (and criticisms) as to policy positions.  Trump is very vague on what he would do as President, other than build a wall, deport Muslims, and put Hillary in jail.  Hillary has detailed policy positions on her website (snooze!) but we never hear real concrete criticisms of them from Trump.

And perhaps this is by design.   If we actually discussed the candidate's positions on the issues, we might actually see through the smoke and fog more clearly.   Sadly, it seems many today still vote based on emotional thinking, and if you don't believe this, look at any Trump or Sanders rally footage.   People are voting for someone they think is a rock star, not a bundle of policy points.

I am not on Facebook, but Facebook is on me.

Facebook has created a web page for my now-defunct business, without my permission or authorization.  What the heck is this all about?  Click to enlarge.

About a year ago, some idiot put up a Facebook page about Fibromyalgia and started staying really hateful things about people who claim to have it.  He taunted them and tweaked them and tried to troll them.   He then linked to my entry on the topic, leaving the impression that I was somehow affiliated with his hateful actions or endorsed his bullying.

If you read my article, it only asks the question as to whether Fibromyalgia is a real disease (and indeed the guy who came up with the name for it says he no longer believes it is).  The guy on Facebook, on the other hand, was taunting people and calling them "fakers" just to get a response.  And sadly, Facebook allows (or allowed) people to anonymously set up "groups" like that with no accountability.

Well, it didn't take long for the pitchforks and torches to come out and people started sending me threatening e-mails and whatnot.  I tried to make clear that I am NOT on Facebook, and not only that, I think all "social media" is for idiots and morons.

I will not taunt or insult you for thinking you have Fibromyalgia.  I will however call you a fucking moron for even having a Facebook page or going on Twitter, Snapchat, or whatever.   Social Media has been one of the most evil and corrosive things to ever come out of the Internet, as it has turned into a haven for lies, mis-truths, misdirection, and addictive-compulsive behavior.  And let's not forget ISIS recruiting.  It has not liberated us as the Internet has promised to to, but enslaved us to checking our "smart phones" every ten seconds to see "updates" to our "feeds" so we can swallow marketing messages and lies (I am being redundant).

By the way, "feed" is something you feed cattle.

A lot of people think otherwise.  What is the harm in Facebook?  Putting up pictures of your kitten or the meal you just ate?   The problem is, it becomes a compulsion.   It also becomes a race to see how you can make your life look better than other peoples'.   The reality of course, is that like television, Facebook just causes you to get depressed as your "real life" cannot even come close to being as good as your online life appears.  So you try to make your Facebook life even more fabulous and the cycle continues - a downward spiral.

I got a weird solicitation phone call the other day from a 757 area code number, which turns out to be a source of a lot of telemarketers, including those IRS scammers.   It was to Mark's phone, though, and they asked for me by name.  So I searched online with my name and his number and I found that there is a Facebook page for "Robert Platt Bell & Associates" in "Alexandria Virginia" - a subchapter-S corporation I abolished over a decade ago.

I had never created such a page.  Again, I am not on Facebook.  What the fuck was going on?

It appears that Facebook will create pages based on what people are searching for and thus they created a Facebook page for me, without my knowledge or consent.   This is utterly fucked up.

A small disclaimer appears at the bottom:

"This Page is automatically generated based on what Facebook users are interested in, and not affiliated with or endorsed by anyone associated with the topic."
I mean, if you want to destroy your life through Facebook, knock yourself out.  But to drag other people into it?  That's just sick.

Not only that, people can create "pages" this way and then post all sorts of derogatory content on them without the person involved even being aware of it.   I only became aware of this page by accident.

If I was on Facebook, I could contact them to protest this page.  A lot good it would do.  If an individual tries to hijack your identity, they have a form to fill out, where you put in the offenders "ID" and a copy of your driver's license and they will remove the page.

But since this page was created by Facebook itself apparently I have no recourse.   Very odd.

Just once again, for those slow folks out there (who are on Social Media, and thus slow), I AM NOT ON FACEBOOK OR ANY OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA.

Any site that claims otherwise is lying.   And links to my blog are not endorsed by me, and since I don't go on Facebook, I have no idea who is linking to my blog.

Thank you.  Facebook sucks.  Get off it.  Social media is for dimwitted fools and narcissists.

Food Hoarding

Americans store too much food in their refrigerators.

We had just returned home when the hurricane struck.  So we had little food in the refrigerator to worry about.  We put that in the camper and left town.  No problems.

Going away for a couple of months every year, we empty the refrigerator and turn it off while we are gone.  Not only does this save electricity, it is probably better for the refrigerator.  Even "frost-free" models can accumulate ice after a while.  And it is always a good idea to clean and sanitize your refrigerator at least annually (if not twice a year) with a Chlorox wipe or a bleach/soap solution and paper towels.

Our European friends think we are quite insane about storing food.  American refrigerators are huge compared to those overseas, or even in adjacent countries.   A friend of ours who moved overseas actually had an American refrigerator shipped over at great expense.  "Their refrigerators are so small!" she complained.  I suggested that maybe they should live there a while and understand why they use smaller appliances.   The country has a sketchy electrical system, and most house wiring is pretty lame.   Electrical rates are also very high.   They also have a lot of good local fresh food at the local market every day, and local restaurants are so cheap as to be competitive with home-cooking.  There are reasons they have smaller refrigerators.   And they are pretty good reasons.
In America, we buy food in bulk and load up our refrigerators with it.  In other countries, shopping is done more often (sometimes daily) and very little food is kept in cold storage for any period of time.  As a result, we tend to be food-hoarders in this country, and it is somewhat disturbing and perhaps unhealthy.   At the very least, unappetizing.

Some folks are aware of what they are doing.  Others, less so.  One friend of ours admits she tends to store "fiddly bits" of food in the refrigerator - bits of cheese or vegetables that are little more than a bite or two.   These she wraps in cling-film and puts in the refrigerator until they turn into science projects.

Others are less self-aware.   We cleaned out a deceased relative's refrigerator recently and it was a mess.  She kept buying food and just shoving it in, pushing older food into the back where it was crushed.  It was like an archeological dig - layers of food from different eras.  In the back, eggs had been crushed against the wall and had dripped down and fossilized.   Pretty gross.

Still others just keep food around for months and even years.   When we go away, we unplug our refrigerator(s) and empty out all the contents and sanitize the cabinet.   We know others who leave for months and leave opened bottles of ketchup in the fridge for when they return.   The problem with this model is not only is the food stale, but a prolonged power outage could spoil food and make it dangerous to eat - and you may not be aware that such an outage has occurred.

Some modern fridges will post messages like "high temperature event, 36 hours" or have a power outage light.   But even if the the power doesn't go out, refrigeration is not some panacea that prevents food spoilage indefinitely.    And it seems to be an American thing to want to keep food for weeks or even months in the refrigerator.

Compounding this problem is supplemental refrigerators and/or freezers.   Many Americans have an old fridge in the garage for "beverages" with perhaps the freezer used to hold long-term storage of frozen meats or foods.   Others have larger freezers and buy food in bulk for storage.   We seem to be averse to the idea of shopping regularly or perhaps we just have food shortage anxieties.

The problem is, of course, that the only real emergencies that would require large quantities of stored food are the same emergencies where the power goes out.   So all that hoarded food goes bad when a natural disaster occurs.   You'd be better off with a small supply of canned goods, or just leaving the area.

Still others try to solve this problem by installing whole-house generators so their precious hoarded food stays frozen when the power goes out.  This raises costs by a factor of ten, of course.

The savings in "buying in bulk" are of course offset by the cost of a freezer and the cost of electricity to run it.   So I am not sure that buying 15 pounds of pork chops on sale is a good thing, if you end up paying for a years' worth of electricity to preserve them.

During the recent hurricane, we lost power for several days.   Many here on our island tried to "save" food that had come to room temperature.   No doubt there will be many visits to the doctor as a result of this.   It just isn't worth saving old food if the end result is you get sick or die.

Yes, it seems "a shame" to throw away "good food" but it isn't good and really isn't food once it is contaminated with listeria or salmonella.   But it begs the question, why do you have so much food in your refrigerator in the first place?   Maybe buying smaller quantities of food and hoarding less is a better idea than stuffing a refrigerator and freezer with a month's worth of meals.

And one way to avoid this trap is to simply plan, at least once or twice a year, a time when you empty out the refrigerator of everything and either consume the food or throw it away, and then unplug the refrigerator and clean it and let it sit empty for a while.   A vacation trip or other absence can be a good opportunity to do this - work through your food inventory in the weeks leading up to the trip and then clean out the fridge and unplug it while you are gone.   When you get back, you come back to a shiny clean and sanitized refrigerator, with no science experiments inside.

Just a thought.

UPDATE:   If your refrigerator doesn't have a "high temp" alarm, you can try this simple trick to see whether the power has gone out.   However, it is a lot simpler just not to have so much fucking food in the refrigerator and to empty it out when you leave for vacation or a storm.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Can ObamaCare be fixed?

Obamacare has some structural issues that may not be easily fixed.

After a year on Obamacare, it is interesting to see how it plays out.   We've spent nearly $14,000 on premiums, which is a lot of money for someone who made hardly three times that amount the year before.   We have yet to file our tax returns and see how much we "get back" in terms of a tax credit, so we don't understand the real costs involved.   It may be that our actual cost, after the tax credit, is less than what we were paying before provided we don't go above the artificial cutoff of around $63,000.

Fix #1 for Obamacare - cutoff the cutoff.   As I noted before, the Obamacare subsidy tapers off with income until you hit about $63,000 and then it dies completely, leaving people in a situation where they end up paying thousands more in taxes than someone making a dollar less.   It makes no sense until you realize that no one thought premiums would go this high.   Rather than a "cliff" cutoff, the subsidy should taper off gradually so the middle-class doesn't get socked for making a dollar more than 63 grand.

Fix #2 for Obamacare - connect the disconnect.   The other problem with a tax credit is that most people in the USA have no idea what a tax credit is or how it works, as I have noted time and time again.   Taxes are a mystery to most people.   So when you get a huge health insurance hike and then are told "you'll get a tax credit" most people don't see the connection, but instead only the huge bill they cannot pay.   Rather than force people to apply for tax credits, the premiums should be based on your last year's Adjusted Gross Income and the subsidy then obtained directly from the government to the insurance company.  This way, citizens can see directly the actual cost (to them) of their plan.

(NOTE:  Some have pointed out that at the present time you can have your premiums reduced by the subsidy directly by estimating your income for next year and then, at the end of the year, correlating this with your tax returns.  The problem with this approach is that if you underestimate your income, you may end up with a HUGE tax bill, particularly if you go over the $63K subsidy limit.   For self-employed people - who are covered under Obamacare - estimating your next years' income is difficult at best.  Why not use last years' actual income instead?   It is a known quantity and there is no need to make corrections at the end of the year or have unexpected "gotchas" at tax time).

Of course, both of these "solutions" fail to address the high costs and the lost revenue to Uncle Sam.

One other problem with Obamacare is that people are making what in some instances is a rational choice to just pay the fine rather than get coverage.  If coverage costs $14,000 a year and you are healthy, and you can basically sign up for Obamacare almost anytime once you get sick, it make "sense" to just go without coverage and then sign up when you do become seriously ill.   Since "pre-existing conditions" are covered, your new illness will be covered by Obamacare.

So, for example, if you are like me and go to a doctor twice a year for a checkup and that's about it, it might make "sense" to drop Obamacare coverage and pay the tax fine.  If you become ill later on, well, you just sign up for Obamacare and you are covered.   Even though the sign-up "window" is only once a year, some "life changing events" such as moving to a different county, might allow you to sign up even outside this window.   A lot of people are making this rational choice.

I am not suggesting it, of course.   If you do have to wait until December to sign up, and you get sick in January, you can run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills in the interim.

Another option is to get the cheapest plan possible - a stripped down HMO plan from Humana for $800 a month (still a lot of money) and then if you get seriously ill, simply upgrade to a platinum plan at the annual window.   Obamacare is, as some wags have put is, akin to selling life insurance to dead people - or car insurance to folks after they got into an accident (and then paying out for that accident).

Fix #3 for Obamacare - make coverage mandatory.   Get rid of tax "fines" and just sign everyone up, period.   This of course, may be very hard to do, as we have something called a "Constitution" - mandatory coverage that we have to pay for directly might be a violation our freedom.

Fix #4 for Obamacare - eliminate the tiers.   Get rid of "Platinum", "Gold", "Silver" and "Bronze" plans and just have a single plan.   With tiering, only sick people will buy the more expensive plans, and those who are not sick will buy cheaper plans - and then upgrade if they become ill later on.   There really is no logic to having different levels of health care for different people - and that sort of defeats the idea of "universal" health care.  And by the way, most insurers have dumped "platinum" plans already as they are far too expensive.

Of course, none of these solutions address the fundamental problem - spiraling costs.   Drug companies have famously doubled, tripled, or quadrupled the "retail" prices of some drugs, knowing that Obamacare will pay whatever they decide to charge for their drugs.   When people cry out injustice, they offer "generic" versions or coupons for those who are poor.   Those versions are not sold to Obamacare, however.   

The insurance companies are not making money on Obamacare.  Doctors are not making money on Obamacare - except perhaps some specialists.   Drug companies are cleaning up as they can sell all the opioids they want to, and get the government to pay for it.   Uncle Sam is now the nation's largest drug dealer, and we are all paying for it - sometimes with our lives.

Fix #5 for Obamacare - set drug prices.   Medicare already does this, telling drug companies what they can charge for certain drugs.  Granted, this is a tricky "solution" as if we remove the profit incentive from the pharmaceutical business, the incentive to research and test new drugs may evaporate.

Fix #6 for Obamacare - stop drug dealing.   The opioid "epidemic" in the USA is a legal drug problem.   Doctors are writing prescriptions for various opioids and getting people - ordinary people - "hooked" on the drug.   They then graduate to heroin and then to overdosing and death.   We simply need to rein in prescriptions for these drugs - as we did in the past for medical cocaine and morphine.

But even with all of these "fixes" I am not sure the problem will be solved.   And if you implemented all of these "fixes" you would end up with, well, Medicare - a "single-payer" national health insurance system, like they have in Canada or Europe.

And therein lies the problem - is this what America wants?   Some have argued that Obamacare was designed to fail - but both sides of the political spectrum.   Republicans want it to fail so we can go back to the "good old days" of insuring only healthy people.   Democrats want it to fail so that a "single payer" national health insurance system looks more attractive.

Even if you could get this idea on the table, some powerful interests would fight tooth and nail to prevent it from being implemented.

Sadly, neither candidate seems to have articulated a concrete plan of action to fix or replace Obamacare, other than vague promises to make it work or come up with something "beautiful" and "excellent" to replace it with.

In the meantime, the "window" for Obamacare is coming up again this year, and we are hearing noises of 20% premium increases already.   I may have no choice but to make the logical decision to change to the cheapest HMO plan I can find and then change to a "gold" plan later on if I get ill.   Since my doctor died this year, there is little need to stick to the plan I have, since I will be forced to change doctors anyway.

Of course, plan B is to simply drop coverage entirely, although that sounds a bit extreme in my circumstances.   I will have to see how it plays out in the tax credit department first, before I make a decision, so I can understand the real costs (to me) and make a logical choice.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Cohn Connection

"I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy."  McCarthy never produced this list.

 "I do want to say that I was just endorsed and more are coming next week, it will be over 200 admirals. Many of them are here, admirals and generals endorsed me to lead this country. That just happened."  Actually it didn't.  88 retired Generals and Admirals endorsed Trump.  Given the number of Admirals and Generals in the Pentagon, this is not a huge number.  Again, we never get to see the list.

Communist-hunter (and witch-hunter) Senator Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump have more than one thing in common.   They are (or were) bombastic and insulting.  And people stayed tune "just to see what thing he says next!"   They both ruined lives of many people through their machinations.   But the one thing that really underlies their similarities is that they had the same advisor and mentor, the infamous attorney Roy Cohn.

Cohn was a piece of work - a flamboyantly gay man who insisted until the day of his death (from AIDS) that he was not gay.   Yes, gays often make the best right-wing conservatives, particularly closeted gays.  They also make the best Nazis.

Cohn was famous for taking a "scorched earth" approach to everything in life.   When he was the acolyte to Senator McCarthy, he advised him to "go after" his opponents, a strategy which failed only "after at long last" it was shown that McCarthy had no shame.   McCarthy's time in the limelight was brief, and he flared out quickly and public opinion turned against him in a big way in a real hurry.   Once a popular Senator with a popular cause, today he is viewed as the epitome of evil.

McCarthy died shortly thereafter from his alcoholism.   Cohn lived on for a few more decades.   And in that time he took under his wing another bombastic figure - you guessed it - Donald Trump.   Trump's approach to business resulted from his tutelage with Cohn.   Go after your enemies, go after them hard, never concede, and never surrender.   And for a long time, this approach worked.

Cohn died in 1986, but the lessons he imparted to Trump seemed to stick.   Although I suspect his debacle in Atlantic City would not have occurred had Cohn had lived to advise him otherwise.

But like McCarthy, it seems that the public's fascination with bombast and insults has a very short shelf-life.   Overnight, it seems, people are abandoning Trump in droves.   It is not that the recent "revelations" about his behavior have tipped the scales, but rather, I think, that people are finally waking up to what kind of person he is, and realizing that the roller coaster ride, while fun, is actually quite dangerous.

It also turns out, guys, that chicks really don't dig it when you grab their vaginas, uninvited.   Yea, it is hard to understand, I know.   But there you have it.   Not only do they not like this, it appears to be a big issue with them.   So just a suggestion to all you dudes out there, before you grab, ask.

The parallel struck me during the debate.  One of McCarthy's favorite tactics was to pull numbers out of his ass.   So many "communists" in the State Department or the Army or whatever.   Lists he "had in his hand" but would not show to anyone.   Trump did the same thing, with 200 Admirals or 33,000 e-mails (which became 39,000 e-mails later on) or other things he "didn't have time" to show us, but were "beautiful", "huge", "excellent" or otherwise "the best".

Same old shit, different day, different asshole.   I only hope that America saw through this, unlike our counterparts in the rest of the world who have fallen for snake-oil salesmen like Trump.

Brexit, anyone?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Is the Cloud Safe? Probably Not.

Storing sensitive data on the cloud might not be a good idea.

I wrote before about "the cloud" and how the term got started from white-board drawings.   While the Internet has been a great boon to mankind, the powers-that-be are trying to use cloud computing to basically take away power from users of personal computers.

The Personal Computer was a revolution for mankind in that it allowed individuals to operate their own computers.  Prior to that time, the mainframe computer was an enormous beast, locked away in specially air-conditioned vaults and attended to by a small army of acolytes - much as today's server farms are.   If you wanted almighty data from the computer, you had to ask nicely of the computer nerds, or you wouldn't get anything.

The PC changed all that - allowing small companies and individuals to process their own data, at first just spreadsheets and documents.  With the Internet, this expanded to include data searching and online communication.   But the PC remained the center of power for the individual.

And we can't have that, can we?

Early on, "thin client" products were bandied about - stripped-down PCs which would operate off a central office server, often with no real storage (hard drive) in each PC.   I worked at an office who bought such a system.  It worked fine until the mirrored drives in the server crashed and it took a week to recover our data.   In the meantime, we had to run WordPerfect for DOS on floppy discs to get any work done.

Thin client puts all your eggs in one basket, which is fine, so long as someone is watching that basket.

Today, the same idea is being promulgate through "cloud computing" which is the same concept only using online servers to store all of your data or even run programs (which increasingly are referred to as "apps").   So instead of loading your word processing program on your computer and storing your files on your hard drive, they want you to subscribe to a word-processing app and then store all your documents in the cloud - on someone else's server somewhere out there.

And you can guess what happens if you stop paying the subscription fees.   Once again, we find corporations getting greedy, no longer content to just sell software but instead sell subscriptions.   And over time, the consumer will succumb to "subscription fatigue" as they pay more and more every month for everything from cable TV to XM radio to Pandora to online magazines, and now, for storage and software.  It starts to add up over time - to a lot of money.

The appeal to companies, such as Microsoft, is obvious.  You get a steady stream of income every month, even if you are not really doing anything.   Unlike the software upgrade, the consumer has no choice but to keep paying and paying every month, every year, for decades.

Older software that works doesn't need to be upgraded.  I run an older version of Quickbooks and it works just fine.  Since I have the installation DVD I can load it onto any machine I own.   The only downside is that I can't export files to other users, as Quickbooks makes sure to make older file types non-compatible with newer version.   And this is not by accident.

I wrote before about .DOCX documents and Microsoft's attempt to obsolete the very functional Word 2000 in favor of a newer version.   By making the documents incompatible with older versions of WORD, they force users to upgrade to the new version (or like I do, use the shareware OpenOffice suite to view and convert those documents to .DOC format).

Word 2000 works just fine, thank you.  And Windows 7 Ultimate beats the crap out of Windows 10, particularly on an older computer.   And that is the other part of the equation - many of us stopped upgrading our PCs ages ago as Internet speed turned out to be the real limiter of PC performance, not processor speed or hard drive access time.   So my old computer (and it is nearly a decade old, an eon in the computer business) will continue to soldier on for a few more years, well into my retirement.  It may in fact be the last computer I buy as a laptop or even phone might serve my needs in the future.

Of course, the smart phone is the ultimate cloud computing device, as they don't have a lot of memory to store data (even with a large SDRAM installed) or programs.   So much of what we do on smart phones is based on the cloud.   Although I found I could install 10,000+ songs on an SDRAM in high-resolution .wav format (MP3 sucks) with little difficulty.

The cloud won't go away anytime soon, as companies will continue to push and prod us into storing data there, arguing it is "safer" than a crash-prone hard drive.   And I know a lot of folks who have lost albums of data and their entire music collections as iPods or hard drives crashed and were unrecoverable.   Of course, they failed to back up their data redundantly, so part of the error is on their part.   Also, it is not a bad idea to just let data die sometimes.   Keeping lots of records and stuff might seem like a keen idea, but it can be awkward and difficult.   You really only need financial records back about 7 years or so.  Keeping your old paper-route ledgers is really kind of stupid at this point in your life.

But the question remains, is the cloud a safe place to store data?  And with recent "hacks" of e-mail accounts, you have to wonder if it is.  I recently read online about how Yahoo! had about 500 million accounts breached.  That's a lot of accounts.  And they took their sweet time telling people about it - like a couple of years.   I changed the password on my old dormant Yahoo! account immediately, of course.  There doesn't seem to be any indication of anyone tampering with my account.

Of course, others fall prey to common Yahoo! trolling e-mails, whose badly worded pleas scare consumers into thinking their account "will be closed by the security department!" unless they provide their username and password by return e-mail.   These clumsy attempts often work, and they get less clumsy over time.   Most of my friends who have Yahoo! accounts have fallen for this gambit at one time or another.

But getting back to my dormant account.  When I logged on, I was kind of shocked to see how much personal data I had put on the cloud.   Copies of my tax returns were stored in the e-mail account, as sent from my late accountant.  These included my address and Social Security number!  I also had uploaded backup copies of my Quickbooks files, which included a lot of financial data.   I quickly erased all of these e-mails, including responses in the "sent" files.   I also made sure to empty the TRASH file once the e-mails were deleted.

If someone had hacked into the account (through Yahoo!'s data breach) they might have been able to obtain a lot of financial information which could have been used for a tax refund hack (filing a false return in my name, using my social security number, to claim a refund) or some sort of bank account or credit card hack.

I also realized that there was no point in keeping this data in the cloud.   Old financial records are just that - old and obsolete.   I would not need them for anything in the future.   My current records on the hard drive were more than sufficient - and backed up onto two portable drives, two laptops, and three PC hard drives (a septuple redundancy) which is arguably more robust than the cloud (memory sticks or SDRAMs are another viable option).

The promise of the cloud is enticing.   You can keep all your data there and never have to worry about it.  You can access your data from any device, without having to load it onto each device and sync and update it.   But that promise is somewhat flawed on a number of fronts:
1.  Your data can be hacked or stolen, if the cloud server is not secure.   In the past, this seemed far-fetched.  But major companies such as Yahoo! are being hacked with regularity, so the idea that your data is "secure" with a big company is sort of flawed.  You may also be vulnerable to social engineering hacks if you are not careful.  Either way, your data can be compromised.

2.   The company can lose the data.  Servers crash and backup files can be corrupted.  I am sure if you read the Terms of Service for these cloud deals, the companies absolve themselves of any liability for your lost or stolen data.  If they didn't they'd be fools. 

3.  Companies go out of business.  As I found out the hard way with Webshots, companies can be sold and the new owners might decide to delete all your carefully manicured data.  Webshots took all my photo albums, stripped off the lengthy captions and comments, and then tossed them into a bucket in random order.   After a while, they deleted even that.  One reason I got off Facebook (and earlier, MySpace) was that they kept changing the user interface, which required reformatting and re-doing your page again and again with each "upgrade" - it simply wasn't worth it after a while.
So when you put all your eggs in the cloud basket, you are taking a risk that the data could be lost or stolen or simply abandoned.  While it may seem like a swell idea to back-up or sync data with the "cloud" it really ends up just being an enormous pain-in-the-ass to do.   Relying on the cloud exclusively seems rather foolish.

You may have documents stored in the "cloud" and not even know it.  Google's gmail seems particularly snarky in trying to get you to upload things to google drive.  If you click on an attachment, it offers this option and it is easy to click on it by mistake.   Also, things you delete from your e-mail account may end up in the "deleted files" section of google drive.  I was kind of shocked how much data I had stored on google drive - by accident - when I checked it out.

Over time, I am learning that the smaller footprint you have on the Internet, the better.   And for that reason, I may end up deleting my blog in the next year or so, once I am done writing it.  Of course, many posts will live on in perpetuity, thanks to 3rd-world click-bait artists who republish my content without permission.

Keeping a lot of data in the cloud, whether it is actual records and documents, or just a facebook page and e-mails, does have a risk attached to it.   Quite frankly, I am seeing less and less of a benefit to uploading data to the cloud.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Is Trump a Coke-Head?

The sniffling and narcissism would seem to indicate he is a coke-head.  His bloating body weight might indicate otherwise.   But then again, John Belushi.

In a recent article, Carrie Fisher, who apparently knows what it is to be a coke-head, opined that the sniffling of Trump at the debate indicates he is doing lines.   We listened to the debate rather than watching it, as we were trapped in Western Georgia during the hurricane (no damage, thanks) and had only NPR to listen to.  Like with the Kennedy-Nixon debates, those listening had a different experience than those viewing.

We heard a LOT of sniffles from the Trumpmeister.  After every sentence it was "SNIFF!" and we thought either he had wicked allergies or had done a few lines before the debate.

And in a way, it makes sense - the narcissism and the constant blathering about how "great" and "beautiful" and "huge" things will be are all part and parcel of the coke-head milieu.  I have had to deal with coke-heads in the past, and I can tell you they are fucking annoying.  They always have grand plans, but are very vague on details.

And when you press them for details, they get very angry.   In the business world, coke-heads get ahead by taking credit for the actions of others and then denigrating and attacking anyone who disagrees with them.   They succeed - for a while, sometimes a long while - until eventually they crash and burn as reality, long denied, comes crashing into their fantasy world and eventually even their most ardent supporters abandon them.

Is Trump a coke-head?   It would certainly appear so.  His penchant for coke-head styles and fashions (glitzy and glamorous and tacky) seem to fit the bill.   And while usually coke-heads are deathly thin, there are exceptions to the rule, such as the aforementioned John Belushi and his successor Chris Farley.  So chubby Trump could be a coke-head, even though he is fat.

But in the end analysis it makes no difference.   Because a Presidential candidate who acts like a coke-head is just as bad as one who is - perhaps worse.   If he acts the way he does without the influence of drugs it is all the more appalling.   After all, one can blame poor behavior on drugs, and then quit the drugs and end up a respectable citizen.

But if you are just an asshole normally, well, there is no cure or re-hab, is there?