Monday, May 23, 2016

They Will Not Go Quietly....

Why are angry white males supporting Trump and Sanders?   Because they feel threatened by minorities and women.

There is an interesting thing going on in this country for the last few years.   After electing a black President (well, half-black anyway) one would think that racism would start to decrease over time.   But instead, it seems that racism is more virulent and outspoken then ever before.

And it is, although the people making these loud comments are a tiny minority.  A tiny, obnoxious minority, given the megaphone of the Internet to shout with.

And in smearing President Obama, they have used every racial stereotype out there, and also made up the most ludicrous and disgusting stories imaginable.     They portray the President as little more than an animal.

But what is up with Hillary?   Hillary Clinton is poised to be the first woman to lead the free world, and that is scaring the shit out of a lot of people.  The most lewd and obnoxious things are being said about here, along with outright lies and made-up stories.   Something visceral is at work here.

Trump supporters, coming from the more conservative side of the aisle, are expected to support the idea of women in more "traditional" roles, as many on the far-right still harbor notions of women as baby-makers.   While we may find such thinking antiquated, it is what we tend to expect from that portion of the political spectrum.

But on the Left?   You expect Democrats to be progressive and welcoming women and minorities.   Yet these two demographics - which make up a huge part of the Democratic voting base - are largely absent at Bernie rallies.   If you took away the signs and slogans, a Bernie Rally and a Trump Rally look an awful lot alike - white, male, and largely middle-class.

(In a way, it is like the Aryan Nations rallies and the "bear weekend" at the gay campground - both have hoards of pasty-white overweight men running around with their shirts off, when they should be on).

But it is more than demographics.   A lot of these Bernie supporters are quite misogynistic as well.  After the Nevada convention, Bernie supporters started calling and texting the head of the Democratic Party in Nevada, calling her a 'bitch' and making death threats, because two whole delegates were allegedly "stolen" from Bernie (and as we know, that is enough for him to win the nomination!).

(Meanwhile, after Hillary wins Nebraska, but the delegates are pledged to Bernie, not one Hillary supporter cries "foul" - who is the class act, here?).

So what is going on here?  It is an example of the old guard having to step down and let new people into the process.   And this holds true even if the "old guard" is an old white guy from Vermont with a sense of entitlement.  Misogyny is not just a game conservatives play, but liberals can get in on it too - scoring twice as many points for the hypocrisy factor.

Sadly, this is not going to get better.   The Bernie camp is promising to "burn down the convention" by attacking Hillary as much as possible, no matter how much that helps Donald Trump.   Bernie doesn't have to worry about "party unity" as he isn't a member of the party, but instead took a free ride in the Presidential Primaries after running as a Socialist for so many years.

It is very sad.  By any normal measure, Bernie Sanders is not qualified to be President (nor is Donald Trump).   A man who has existed outside of either political party, who is heavily in debt and living paycheck-to-paychek with no savings whatsoever while making a six-figure salary for over a decade, believes himself to be Presidential timber.    And this woman is standing in his way!   

This woman who spent years helping her husband develop his own political career before becoming a Senator in her own right, serving as Secretary of State and working with the Democratic Party and not against it is viewed as some sort of wicked person because, well, Democrats, including the voters, like her more than him.

The real fear is that he will do something stupid like run as an independent or something.   History has shown that independents tend to be spoilers - allowing only the person with the political views most opposite of their own to be elected.

Perhaps this is just political silly season.   The latest word from the Bernie camp is that he is staying in the race to get "concessions" from the Democratic leadership to "reform" the primary process.   The problem with this theory - as with all Bernie's pipe dreams - is that it is totally unrealistic.

First of all, Bernie isn't losing because "the fix is in" or "election fraud" or the "process is flawed" but because more people are voting for Hillary.   Sure, Bernie fills huge rallies.   20-somethings like to go to stadium concerts.   A big rally with lots of pot smoking is fun.   People in their 40's no longer like to go to such things.   Hillary doesn't have huge rallies.  She has voters.

And no matter how you slice it, she is ahead in the polls and ahead at the polling places.   As for superdelegates, the Sanders people say that the superdelegates should vote for who the people chose at the polls.   Well, so far, that has been Hillary by a wide margin.   So shouldn't the superdelegates be voting for Hillary?

Well, no, in their crazy world, the superdelegates ("who haven't voted yet") should be harassed and intimidated into voting for Bernie, even though he isn't winning the popular vote.   It is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose argument.

But the big thing is this:  The Democratic National Committee doesn't control primaries.   Individual States do, and most of these States have no interest in changing their primary or caucus functions.   I have written about open primaries before - it is a good idea.  Sadly, the only State to change its primaries lately went from open to closed.

So the latest "big lie" that Bernie is spouting (after free college and whatnot) is that he is staying in the race to reform the system, when he knows full well the Democratic Party has no control over the primary system whatsoever - particularly in States dominated by GOP legislatures.  So why is he staying in?

The primary system illustrates that States elect Presidents, not people, and this has been the case since the founding of our republic.   Oh, sure, you can pine for direct election.  It ain't happening.   Too many States come out ahead with the electoral college that the end result is that nothing is likely to change anytime soon.

Rather than pine for your "perfect" candidate who has no chance of being elected (and every chance, if running as a third party of getting Donald Trump elected), figure out which candidate best represents your views.

Sadly, so many of these young people today are so addled by smoking pot they fail to realize that a Democrat in the White House is the only thing keeping their legal marijuana legal.   All it takes is a phone call from the President, and the DEA starts shutting down marijuana dispensaries - which are still illegal under Federal Law.

You hear these kids say, "Well, it doesn't matter.  If we can't have Bernie, we might as well have Trump!" - as if far right and far left are the same thing (well, they are, if you go far enough).

But Donald Trump is endorsed by the NRA.   What do you think will happen to instant background checks if he is elected President?

What will happen to abortion rights if he appoints the next Supreme Court Justice?

What will happen to our new consumer protection agency?

People are not thinking this through, clearly.   And sadly, it seems that a big part of the problem is that the woman running for President reminds them too much of their Mom.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Aeropostal Goes Bankrupt - Lessons in Mall Fashions

Once a coveted item at the trendy mall store, now a 10-cent garage-sale purchase.

I have mocked Aeropostal in the past as an example of the overpriced crap that kids like to buy.   If you don't have the hot sneaker or the hot shirt or the hot hat, you are deemed to be a dweeb.  So the kids spend $50 on a t-shirt just to "look cool" and a few months later it languishes in a closet.

In the meantime, they don't realize that to adults, they look like a dweeb for having "Aeropostal" or "Hollister" or "Benneton" plastered across their chest.

I knew Aeropostal was going to hit the skids soon when our personal garage sale shopper showed up with an Aeropostal hat like the one shown above.   She said, "I thought you might like this and it was only ten cents!"   So, we took it, because for 10 cents, it was appropriately priced and kept the sun off your head.

I can only imagine what the original owner paid for it.  

But apparently these things have a half-life of about five years, and it is no longer "cool" to wear Aeropostal as old people are wearing the stuff after finding it at garage sales.  I speculated that the company might go out of business.   Now the company has gone bust:
AĆ©ropostale Inc. is preparing to file for bankruptcy protection this week and close more than 100 stores, according to people familiar with the matter, as the teen-apparel retailer contends with mounting losses and falling sales.
New York-based AĆ©ropostale plans to seek chapter 11 protection in the next few days before May rent payments are due, the people said. It is in advanced talks with specialty lender Crystal Financial LLC on a loan to finance its operations in bankruptcy, they added.
The retailer would close more than 100 of its roughly 800 stores soon after filing and potentially more later, the people said. The company plans to reorganize around its remaining stores, but the precise contours of its restructuring plan remain unclear, they added.
A number of mall-based specialty retailers have filed for bankruptcy in recent years as declining mall traffic, changing consumer tastes and competition from "fast-fashion" chains like Hennes & Mauritz AB and Fast Retailing Co.'s Uniqlo eat into their sales.
Teen retailer Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., known as PacSun, sought bankruptcy last month, citing the "shifting retail landscape." In 2015, women's formalwear retailer Cache Inc., teen-focused Wet Seal and surfwear seller Quiksilver Inc. filed for chapter 11 protection.

Of course, to "old people" this whole idea of basing the value of something on what name is plastered on it seems foolish.   I guess (no pun intended) it started in the 1970's when "designer jeans" became popular.   Hippies wore blue jeans, and no on really cared which brand you had.   Levis became trendy with gays - particularly the button-fly 501 style.   But frankly, if you want a good pair of jeans, go to a Western wear store and buy a pair of "boot cut" Wranglers.  They are cheap, last forever, and don't have stupid rivets on them to tear up the upholstery in your car.  Levis suck, period.   And please, no "pre-distressed" jeans - that shit is idiotic.

But I digress.

In the 1980's all the girls from Long Island wore "Benneton" sweaters when I was at Syracuse University.   They were just green and white sweaters with the word "Benneton" in foot-high letters across the front.

Why would you want the brand name in large letters on the front?

Something had changed in our society.  Suddenly, it wasn't enough to have "nice clothes" but they had to be a particular brand.   And maybe this was because more and more clothes were being made overseas and people no longer wore "suits" (whose quality could be determined by the discerning eye, not by a brand blasted across the front).

When I asked the girls who wore these sweaters why they bought them, they looked at me like I was some clueless moron.  "Because they're cool!" the said.   And everyone else in the sorority had the same sweater or one like it.  So to "fit in" they bought them.   It was the beginning of college turning into High School 2.0

I am not just picking on the girls.  The guys back then had to have brand-name merchandise as well.   Remember "Members Only"?  Click to enlarge.
And over time, the trend has accelerated.  Today, we are accustomed to having brand names plastered in large letters on much of our clothing.   And if not a brand name, we are walking advertisements for commercial products and services.   Owning or wearing "plain" clothes without something written on it is deemed to be odd.   Only a poor person would wear a jacket or shirt without a corporate logo or brand name on it!

But it is funny - fashion is fickle.    And in the old days, the "fashion store" could stay in business by changing its product mix to keep up with the times and trends.   Today, single-brand stores are popular, so long as the name of the brand (as plastered on all of the merchandise) is considered coveted and cool.   Once the cool-factor wears off, the entire company goes bankrupt and the store closes.   It is an interesting change in the paradigm of retailing.

Abercrombie & Fitch, who once sold elephant guns and fly rods to Ernest Hemingway, became a teen retailer and similarly saw its fortunes wax and wane.   Fortunately for them, they were able to create "spin-off" brands such as "Hollister" which is the new "name" t-shirt to have today.   Oddly enough teens covet the Hollister brand, but would not be caught dead today in an Abercrombie shirt.   If only they knew!

Of course, the entire point of "brands" as they were originally envisioned, was to allow consumers to determine the source of goods or services - that is the definition under Trademark Law.   You sought out a reliable brand not because you wanted to show off the brand to friends and strangers, but because you knew that brand was reliable.   Today, it is all switched around.   Everything is made in China and is of about the same quality level.   The only distinguishing feature of a "Hollister" shirt is the name on the front.   You are literally buying a Trademark to wear, not an actual piece of clothing.  Or more succinctly, the cost of clothing is incidental to the transaction - the bulk of the "cost" and the value to the consumer is in being able to display the brand.

It is, in a way, hilarious.   And it illustrates how people are sheep.   You tell people that it is desirable to drive a nail into their forehead, and within a week, you will see thousands or millions of people with nails sticking out of their head.   Oh, wait, that sounds a lot like the body-piercing trend, doesn't it?   Once again, I try to be sarcastic and it comes too close to reality because reality is so ridiculous today.

But it is ridiculous.  And if you were to say that people are going into credit card debt so they can overpay for a t-shirt with someone's name plastered on it, in the abstract, you would think that was insane.   But it is the reality of modern consumerism.

And we wonder why we're broke!

Job Dependency

When did it become the norm for candidates to promise to "create jobs"?

Today a lot of people can't remember a time when government was the public sector and the business was the private sector - and rarely the twain would meet.   For most folks today under 50, the idea that the President or the government should do everything in its power to "create jobs" and act as steward of the economy is the norm.

Why is this and when did it start?

Well, to be sure, the Great Depression did start the whole ball rolling.   Roosevelt started the WPA and a whole host of other programs (many later found to be unconstitutional) with the idea of getting the economy rolling again and putting people back to work.    Of course, government spending, in the form of World War II really put the economy back on its feet, although by that time, the economy had largely recovered organically.

After the war, though, the idea that the government should manage the economy and create employment sort of fell from favor.   After all, that was the snake-oil the Communists were selling, and in that era, you didn't want to be accused of being a "Red".

Things started to go off the rails in the 1970's.   Richard Nixon, when he wasn't being distracted by Watergate, tried to control rampant inflation with "wage and price controls" in phases.   It seems odd today that a Republican President would attempt to use command economy tactics, but then again, what it means to be a Republican then is different than today.   For example, Nixon was the one who opened the door to China.   Today, Trump wants to close it.   Same party, different philosophies.

By the end of the 1970's, stag-flation was in full bloom.   High wages for union employees, coupled with high energy costs, meant that everything cost a fortune, and people started buying less.   You may not recall this, but there were shortages of gasoline, coffee, and peanut butter (!!) at the time.   The latter came about not because of a real shortage, but because we were all so poor we resorted to what was once a cheap staple item to live on, and demand shot up (as did price).

From then on, if you wanted to get elected, you had to promise to "fix the economy" and "create jobs".   Once again, Republicans found themselves in the position of contradicting one of their fundamental tenets - that the government should take a hands-off approach to the economy and business.  Instead, you had to promise "programs" that would create employment and prime the economy.   Since then, it is the fixture of every Presidential campaign.

Why the paranoia about jobs?   Well, at the time, people were losing their jobs.   A lot of manufacturing jobs went overseas and never came back.   Of course, new jobs were created.   There were no "IT guys" back in 1979, but there are millions today.   New industries, such as the wireless business, were created, and new jobs in new technologies emerged.   This was little consolation to the guy who made a living pounding steel in a forge plant - he wasn't about to configure servers for a living.

Recently, Hillary made headlines when she said that she would like to see big coal go out of business - replaced, of course, by the newer and cleaner energy businesses of solar, wind, and other renewable resources.   Despite this comment, she still won the Kentucky primary.   Pundits thought that people would be outraged by this, and indeed some were.   But I thought to myself, "Does anyone really enjoy working in a coal mine?"   I mean, do people say, "Gee, I love working a mile underground in the dark where it is all dusty and nasty and at any time I could die in a cave-in, flood, or explosion, or just slowly linger over black lung in my declining years!" - really?

I doubt it.   I am sure that most coal miners would rather work above-ground in a wind or solar farm - but lack the skills to work there - so they are stuck.  And the mine owners don't want to see their investment go away, even if what is good for them is bad for America and the environment.

In a way, it is like Edison and his DC current.   Edison set up DC generating stations and sold them to local utility companies.  These companies didn't have the capital to pay him, so they gave him stock (where do you think "Consolidated Edison" came from?).   Thus, he owned a lot of stock in a lot of utility companies and was dependent on their success.   If they failed, he would be ruined.

Westinghouse put DC power out of business.   This put a lot of people out of work, but created far more jobs in the long run.

So it is no surprise that he lead a campaign to discredit Westinghouse and AC current - even though the technology was clearly superior and would win the day eventually.   He spread rumors and lies that AC power was "dangerous" compared to DC, which really wasn't the case.   While his tactics did delay the entry of AC power, it did not stop it.
Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. --Victor Hugo.
Similarly, a dozen years ago, if you told me that electric cars, solar power, and wind farms were the wave of the future, I would have said you were a hippie dreamer.   But in recent years, there has been a pronounced technological shift.  Lithium-Ion batteries solved the "battery problem" with electric cars (and newer versions will go even further).   Cheap solar panels from China are making the payback with solar more effective - putting it on a par with more "traditional" power sources.  And those same Lithium-Ion batteries might solve the problem of "what happens when the sun doesn't shine?"   Elon Musk is the new Edison - or Westinghouse, or Tesla or whatever.   Hence the name of the car.

But people are still afraid of change.   If people go to electric cars, what will Exxon do?   On a local level, what will the guy at the service station do if everyone is plugging in at home or at charging stations on the street?   What about my job?

This gets us back to the point of this post (Once again, I digress!) and that is why people are so paranoid about "jobs" in the last few decades.   In 1979, it was because folks were losing them regularly.   Today, it is about debt.    People buy a lot of crap, because the banks are willing to loan on easy terms.   And many Americans - if not most - live "paycheck to paycheck" with their six-figure salary barely covering the payments on all of their debts.    One of these debt-slaves (Bernie Sanders) is actually running for President - blaming all of his personal problems, as well as those of a nation, on "The Big Banks".

And I have talked about this before,  Specifically, "paycheck-to-paycheck" people who mortgage their lives to the hilt so they can have monster trucks, jet skis and tattoos, but are vulnerable at work.  When the boss says, "dump that toxic waste in some third world country" they can't afford to day "No, I won't that.   I don't need a job that badly.  I quit and I'm blowing the whistle on this!"

Instead, they say, "Yes sir!" because they need that paycheck to "survive" or so they think.

So our debt generation becomes a subservient generation, willing to do anything at all to keep a job and willing to vote for whoever promises to "create jobs."

When people are struggling and there is no work to be found - as was the case in 1929 and 1979, one can understand this subservient attitude.   Oddly enough, one popular hit song in 1979 was "Take this job and shove it!" which was an anthem to these job-subservient people, who could sing along and fantasize about living in a world where they actually would be financially independent.

In 2009 we had another recession.   But people weren't selling apples on the sidewalk or waiting in line to buy gas on even or odd days.   Rather folks took to the streets (and the internet) to decry the loss of their "things" or the cost of the horrendous debts they racked up.   The Joads weren't being forced off the farm, but the Jones' were losing their mini-mansion in Foreclosure Mews Estates.   The dream of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances was being taken away and someone had to be at fault!

Similarly, young people were (and are) offered huge sums of money to go to college, and many took it.   Why struggle and scrimp and save to attend college when you can have a brand-new car?  And I am serious about this.  I know one young man who said he wants to go back to college for a graduate degree, not because he thinks he needs it, or because it will help him pay off his staggering undergraduate debt, but because college was more fun that "real life" and he could live large on more borrowed money and get another new car, because the one he bought as a freshman is already five years old!

This time around, it is different.   We are job-dependent not by necessity but by choice.    In the 1970's it was a struggle to make ends meet.   But if you were older, you had your house paid for so you didn't worry too much.   Today, people are at retirement age with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and yes, Bernie Sanders is poster-boy for this mentality.    A lifetime of work, decades of six-figure salary, and nothing to show for it whatsoever but a mound of debt and an upside-down house.
This is the new norm, and when asked about it, people say, "Well, Bernie is like one of us!  He's just an average American!"

And sadly, the are correct.   A vast majority of people today are helplessly in debt, with no plan or no idea as to how to pay it off.   The idea of getting by with less stuff is alien to them.   They crowd debt sites with pleas for help - "How can I pay off this staggering debt, but of course, without actually changing any any of my habits or lifestyle?"

It is like the fat girl who wants to lose weight and is willing to try anything - anything that is, but eating less, exercising more and going hungry.

It is sad to me that we have created an entire generation of debt-slaves.   Sad enough!   But sadder still is that these folks see no alternative to having debt and believe that their debts were the fault of someone else.

Their lives will never change, so long as they believe this.   Someone else will always be calling the tune, and they will have to dance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Cars of the Future?

In the future, cars may be all the same under the sheetmetal, but people will still personalize them for status reasons.

In C.M. Kornbluth's science fiction short story, The Marching Morons, he describes a future America dominated by incredibly stupid people.   The few smart folks remaining try to hold everything together by operating a secret shadow government and appearing as "assistants" to the nominally elected or promoted heads of State or companies.   Given how the Bush administration worked, he was very prescient.

He also describes how cars in the future will look and work.   No doubt influenced by the gaudy be-finned and be-chromed monsters of the 1950s, he describes cars that are flashy and showy and have a dashboard that looks like a jukebox.   And while they make an enormous amount of engine noise and while the speedometer shows the car going 150 miles an hour, in reality, it is barely going over 40 - for the protection of the idiotic occupants.

Again, Kornbluth is prescient.  People today have the worst sort of driving habits.   People text and drive, eat and drive, drink and drive and do everything, it seems, other than actually driving.   And when they do actually drive their cars - watch out!   Something as simple as merging onto an expressway is a lost art today - people have no idea what "Yield" means and expect four lanes of heavy high-speed traffic to slow down, move over and "make room" for cars entering the highway - as if they had the right of way!

And sadly, if you talk to most people, they say this is how you are supposed to merge - just pull onto the Interstate doing 45 or so, and a big truck doing 70 is obligated to lock up his brakes to "let you in".   Once you are settled in, have your coffee opened, eat your hamburger, set the radio station, and catch up on your texts, you can then accelerate to highway speed - but of course, you never, ever use cruise control, right?   That's for driving in the desert or something.

Because of all of this, we have six, eight, or ten airbags in our cars.  We have retractable seatbelts and lane drifting indicators.  We have blind spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, and a host of features designed to drive the car for you, so all you have to do is point and shoot.   And of course, this technology is combining with other technologies to create the self-driving car, which may be a reality in 10- years or so - maybe sooner.

Electric cars are rapidly advancing.   New battery technologies, hybrid drivetrains and whatnot mean that electric cars are no longer pie-in-the-sky ideas, but real products for sale in showrooms across the country.   You can decry electric cars as a fad or whatever, but it is highly likely they will supplant or supplement most internal combustion engines within a decade or so as well.

Carmakers, of course, are faced with making the most complicated cars ever built.  People decry modern cars as "too electronic" and pine for the days of their '65 Chevy and four-barrel Rochester carburetor and points ignition.   But those days are gone for good, and if you think cars today are complicated, wait until these self-driving cars come out.  The number of sensors will be multiplied by a factor of five - not to mention the number of computer modules.   And without expensive diagnostic equipment, the local shade-tree mechanic will be hard-pressed to do little more than change a tire - if he can even do that without mucking up the tire pressure sensors.

Since the cost of developing a new car "platform" is so high, carmakers are increasingly looking to share platform development costs.   Companies buy parts and engines and even complete cars from one another and have been doing so for a long time.   Fiat is selling Miatas now - and their 500 is based on the same platform as the Ford Ka.   BMW is doing a joint venture for the new Z5 with Toyota, who will built a new Supra on the same platform.  But the car will be made by neither company, instead being assembled by Magna Steyr in Austria.

And so on down the line.  Toyota and Subaru combine forces on a new sports car.    Particularly for low volume cars (like sports cars) it makes sense to join forces and reduce overhead costs.   Of course, this raises issues - aren't you competing with yourself?  Or if you agree not to compete, is there some sort of anti-trust issue here?  

The CEO of Fiat-Chrysler is still shopping the company around, after being turned down by both GM and Ford (Hint:  Honda has little or no presence in the SUV and big truck market, they might be willing to go in on a deal.   Everyone else already has trucks and SUVs - why would they want to merge?).   His  logic is compelling - the cost of platform development is staggering and there is far too much build capacity worldwide.   As cars continually improve, they become more and more standardized.

GM started this trend in the late 1960's.   Each division had its own engines - usually around the same size and horsepower.  It made little sense.   They decided to standardize to three engines - the small block Chevy, offered in 300 and 350 CID displacements (and 400 sometimes) expanded with different carburation to a number of horsepower offerings, as well as the old 250 CID inline six.  By the 1980's, these offerings were narrowed further to the 300 and 350 small blocks, the 3.8 "corporate" V-6 and a smaller V-6 as well, as well as a couple of four-cylinders.

People got upset and sued GM, claiming they expected an "Oldsmobile" engine in an Oldsmobile.   But we know how that worked out - Oldsmobile is no more.   The idea that you needed to many different lines of the same car was ludicrous.  With increased emissions, crash safety, and fuel economy requirements, certifying different engines and different cars became staggeringly expensive.

And with self-driving cars, this cost will become even more staggering.   No doubt such cars would have to be certified to a number of Federal safety requirements, and such certification will not be cheap.  So it will make sense to share platforms among a number of different car models and types.   And such platform sharing will make sense from a functional standpoint - in self-driving car traffic, it will be helpful if each car had similar driving characteristics - similar acceleration rates, similar braking abilities, similar handling.   Particularly in automated highways - where blocks of self-driving cars might travel at 80 mph with only inches apart.

So it goes without saying that the trend in recent years toward sharing of cars, engines, platforms, electronics will only accelerate over time.   As more car companies combine or engage in platform sharing, cars will become more and more alike.   Self-driving cars may become as standardized as the transportation pods Woody Allen envisioned in "Sleeper".

Not only did Woody Allen predict self-driving pod cars, he also got the sound right.

Of course, electric cars are eerily silent, which annoys a lot of people for two reasons.  First, they can sneak up on you, which is disturbing if you are a pedestrian, doubly so if you are blind.  So many carmakers, such as Nissan, have artificial "sounds" piped through external speakers so people are aware of the car's presence.

Second, people want a car to sound like, well, a car.  They want a throaty roar of an engine that screams of dying hydrocarbons.   And as in Kornbluth's story, today many carmakers are resorting to fake sounds to enhance the driving (and riding) experience.   Volkswagen, Audi, Porsch, and BMW have been caught adding sound-making devices to their cars or piping engine sounds through the stereo system, as the sounds made by cars today are often disappointing.  EPA noise requirements mean that cars often sound like "a UPS truck" as one wag noted.   Even on my old BMW E36 cabrio, there was a sound valve in the muffler, so that engine noise would be attenuated at low speeds.

Cars of the future will be electronic and probably electrically driven.   And many folks may forego car ownership entirely and instead just call up an Uber self-driving taxi and take that where they want to go.   But a lot of folks will probably still own cars, for practical reasons as well as status reasons.   If you live 20 miles from town, waiting for a self-driving car to come to your home may be time consuming and costly (no doubt you would be expected to pay for the car having to travel far out of the mainstream).  It would be more convenient to have your own car so you could travel when you want to.

Other folks would prefer to have "their" car with a custom leather interior and all the appointments (no doubt including a refrigerator and bar, so they can snack and drink will cruising down the road.   And of course, what is the point in having a car of your own if it just looks like everyone else's?   You'd want styling that says "I spend money on this, you plebe in your self-driving Uber taxi!" and car makers would supply the market with unique and different styles - all on the same chassis or "platform" of course.

I could envision that folks would even want to have "vintage" or "retro" styled cars - much as they do today.   However, the Camaro of 2040 probably won't even have a steering wheel, much less a gas pedal or a shifter.    You'd just sit in it and enjoy the view, while turning up the "engine noise" knob so you could enjoy the "muscle car experience".

Oh brave new world....

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?   It depends on your point of view.  If you enjoy downshifting through a corner and feeling the response of a car, it is a Utopian nightmare, of course.  If you are one of the tens of thousands of people who are potentially maimed, injured, or killed in auto accidents every year, it sounds like paradise.

I suspect there will still be "auto enthusiasts" in the future, but actual driving of a car will be limited to very rural roads or perhaps to track events.    The few dire-hards who want to burn hydrocarbons will find it to be an expensive hobby.   Once demand for gasoline tapers off, the supply will be very short and prices will be sky-high - on the order of $20 a gallon or more (in today's dollars" if not more.  

Some would decry this as automotive heresy.   But it is the future, and while we can grumble about it, it isn't going to change just to suit our whims and tastes.   And it is a future that future generations will embrace.  Already, it appears that the current generation of young folks are less enthusiastic about owning cars or owning performance cars.   And perhaps the somnambulistic feedback and handling of today's cars (which are faster and handle better than cars of the past, but feel more isolated than ever before) is part of the problem.

When cars are all basically the same, it is hard to get excited over a car.

Requiem for a Good Doctor

It is hard to find a good doctor.  When you find one, hang on to them!

My doctor died yesterday of a sudden, undiagnosed condition.  Yes, death happens, even to doctors.   Things like brain embolisms, strokes, and congenative heart defects can escape the diagnosis of even the most talented of doctors.   Mark's Mother was a nurse, and yet she died at age 54 of a sudden heart attack, which is a tough thing for a 14-year-old to have to watch.

Dr. Doreen Kinney was one of the best doctors I had the privilege of being treated by.   She was incredibly smart and was able to diagnose patients almost the moment you walked into the examination room.    She never promoted expensive "brand name" medicines or expensive procedures, when less expensive alternatives were available and more effective.  She was sweet, she was decent, she cared about her patients, and she gave effective treatment.  No higher praise for a doctor can be had.

I will miss hearing her say, "I'm gonna listen at your heart now".

Sadly, finding a good doctor these days is hard to do.   Politicians like to blather on about "bad doctors" and there are really very few "bad" doctors out there, in terms of people who have no idea what they are doing or mis-diagnosing patients.   Rather, there are a lot of doctors out there who are in the practice to make a lot of money as their primary goal.   And those sort of doctors are not "bad" but they should be avoided.

I mentioned before the dentist I visited who suggested $10,000 worth of oral surgery including having my jaw broken and reset, as well as whitening treatments.   When I expressed that I thought that was a lot of money, she said that insurance would cover it.   When I explained that (like most people) I had no dental insurance, she said, "Oh, well, then you really don't need those procedures, anyway."   The need for treatment, in her office, was based on the availability of insurance money to pay.   I changed dentists.

Similarly, there are doctors who prescribe brand-name prescription medicines because the pharmaceutical rep told them that if they write so many 'scripts, they will get a free vacation business trip to a seminar in the Cayman Islands.   So they write the prescriptions, whether you need the medication or not, and you don't get well, but they (and the pharmaceutical companies) make a lot of money.

Worse yet are the doctors who write prescriptions for opioids at the drop of a hat.  Mark went to a back specialist for back pain and the first thing the doctor asked was whether he wanted oxycontin.   We later found out he advertised on a billboard as "Dr. Painfree" or some such nonsense, and his waiting room was full of very young, healthy-looking people who apparently were all in chronic pain.

Similarly, we have an explosion of "sports injury specialists" in our area, because you know, all the folks round these parts are so athletic.   I am being sarcastic, of course.  The most exercise people here get is walking to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Still other doctors - like my former dentist - like to suggest unnecessary procedures, particularly if insurance will pay.  One reason health insurance is so expensive (and the same reason college is so expensive) is that the government or insurance companies or "someone else" is paying the bill, so there is no incentive to think carefully about costs or the necessity of treatment.   Once you are on medicare, it is amazing how many medical procedures you suddenly need.

(We also had a good Doctor in New York who was a vegan, if you can believe that.   He had a sign in his waiting room telling the pharmaceutical reps not to leave their pens and "gimmies" laying around as he felt it was a conflict of interest to even accept a notepad with the name of some drug on it.   An acquaintance of ours who was a pharmaceutical rep (who was also a drug addict - an occupational hazard when you drive around with a trunk-load of drug samples) said he was "no fun" as he didn't want to "play the game" the way it was supposed to be played.)

Dr. Kinney was a good old-fashioned General Practitioner who could diagnose the bulk of the woes that the body is prone to - and get it right the first time.   She followed the Hippocratic Oath, Primum non nocere which is a Latin phrase that means "first, do no harm."   She was one of a vanishing breed of Doctors.

And it sounds selfish, but not only do I miss her and feel bad for her friends, family and staff, but I worry how I will ever be able to find a replacement for her.  Because let's face it, the new breed of doctors out there today are something entirely different.   Since we have regulated the profession and made it as unattractive as possible, a doctor today has to play games to make ends meet and pay off their student loans.    While it is easy to blame the doctors for the current state of Medicine, we have created a system where young interns are graduating with mounds of debt and promises of riches.   So it is no surprise when they tend to seek them out.

So with the death of Dr. Kinney, we are seeing the death of an era of medical practice.   The old days when a GP could set up shop, heal people, and make a good living and drive a new Buick every few years, are gone at last.

R.I.P.  Dr. Kinney - you will be missed!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Filtering Effects

"Special Offers!" in the mail are not special nor are they offers.  They are just advertising brochures.

Not a day goes by when I don't get some piece of mail saying I have been given a special offer.  Or I get a faked-up check that is actually a coupon for a discount on a home alarm system, roadside assistance, or whatever.  More disturbing are envelopes that say, "Important Information - Do Not Discard!" which of course, have no important information and should be discarded.

I get phone calls all the time - although lately I don't bother answering the phone unless it is a number I know.   A carpet-cleaning service in Maryland wants to clean the carpets in my home! (That would be a long drive for them!).   Suzie from "Card Services" has important information about my credit cards!  And yesterday, I get not one, but three calls from a "Manhatten" phone number saying that the IRS is going to take me to court and the Sheriff is on his way right now to arrest me!

And if you have e-mail, you get a regular retinue of pleas and messages from Nigerian Princes with special offers for "the sum of USD$1,000,000!" if you contact them right away.  Or "your bank" is going to "freeze your account" unless you respond to an e-mail with your account number and password.   And so on and so forth.

These are, of course, all scams, and to most people, obvious scams.  We wonder why they bother sending out these mailings, making these robo-calls, sending the SPAM e-mails.   If you are going to do this sort of thing, why not take a little time to make it more legitimate looking?   If you are going to send "special offers" in the mail, why make them look like such obvious carnival come-ons?   If you are going to robo-call, at least make your pitch plausible.   If you are going to e-mail SPAM, at least get your spelling and grammar correct and make it look legit, right?

Well, it turns out, there is a method to this madness.   Nigerian scammers perhaps stumbled upon it by accident.  The only people who respond to their poorly worded e-mails and obvious come-ons are people who are not very smart themselves and moreover, raging true-believers in the something-for-nothing mentality.   Skeptical folks don't respond, which is good for the scammer, as if they get a skeptical person, he is just wasting their time.  The skeptical guy will ask for more information and then tell the Nigerian scammer to piss off.   That's valuable hours wasted when you could be grooming a real schmuck for the con.

But this filtering effect doesn't just apply to Nigerian e-mail scams.   Take the loud full-page ad in the newspaper with the come-on prices and "sales" for cars.   Or the local dealer who mails me a "key to my new car!" - All I have to do is come down to the dealer and see if it fits.   Of course, it is a fake key, and they want me to enter a contest that the dealer's nephew "wins".   But if I am dumb enough to shop for a car this way, well, they know they can snooker me on the price.

Which is why just wandering into a car showroom is one of the worst ways to buy a car.   The salesman will presume you are unprepared, did no research, and are an impulse-buying schmuck.   You will not be offered a better price.   If you research online and then call around, get a price and make an appointment, then they know you already have an idea of what is a reasonable price, you've done the research, and indeed, they have quoted you a price already, so there is no finagling later on.

The same is true for mailings.   If you respond to a promotional mailing, the merchant already knows what kind of person you are - one convinced that offers, promotions, coupons, and "sales" are the way to get ahead in life.    So you get the runaround because they know you are a true-believer in the "deal" and they can actually get you to pay more and walk away convinced you paid less.

The telephone solicitor things works the same way.  If you respond to these pitches, they know you are a schmuck.   But they also know the minute you start asking intelligent questions, you are a waste of time and will hang up.   For example, the "IRS audit" people will hang up on you the moment you say anything that questions their veracity.   They are not going to stay on the line and try to convince you they are legit - there is little profit in it.  They hang up and move on to the next schmuck who will eagerly wire them money out of fear that they are going to jail.

These are very effective filters to use.   In a nation of 330 million people, you want to sieve out the gold nuggets - the total buffoons who have no idea of how to handle money, who live in fear half the time and are greedy the other half.   Once you have narrowed down the field, the pickins' as they say, are easy.

In the sales business, they used to call these "leads" and I mention this before.   Leads are people who respond to surveys or phone calls or advertisements.  These are folks who are inclined to bite on your sales pitch when you make it.   Why bother making cold calls or pitching to people who are skeptical?

This is not to say that salesmanship is inherently crooked.  Without salesmen, perhaps half the goods sold in America would remain unsold.  But salemanship seems to have changed over the years.  The come-on and the scheme seem to predominate in today's market, and no one seems to be interested in just making a regular sale to a customer willing and able to consummate a transaction.

Who is to blame for this?   "Evil Corporate America?"  Maybe.  Evil salesmen and retailers?   Maybe too.   But maybe the bulk of the blame rests on the American consumer, who continually bites on shitty deals and tells you that shit tastes good.   Because if a large enough segment of the market buys overpriced crap, then the market becomes dominated by overpriced crap.

The next time you get an annoying robo-call, or a piece of SPAM e-mail, or some junk mail flyer, bear in mind that you have your fellow citizens to thank for the proliferation of thus stuff.   So long as some lunkhead falls for this stuff, it will continue to go on.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Bernie's House

This is the house that some describe as a "small modest colonial"

In my last posting I was analyzing Bernie's finances, which is hard to do based on a single year of tax returns.  Funny thing, but this guy who wants to make our government more transparent is very opaque when it comes to his own income - most other candidates have released two, three, four or more years of tax returns (in the case of Hillary, nearly all of them!).  What is Bernie hiding?

Property tax records and deeds are a matter of public record, of course, and you can find this data online.  Finding his house address online so I could spelunk the database was kind of hard.   But after some sleuthing, I was able to find his home address and tax records.   The Bill Maher site had a photo of Bernie's house, and this site, had a map with the house which gave a street but no address.   Fortunately there is a "fantasy football" company on the same street, which gives an address number, and from that, we can find the range of house numbers.

Zillow provides a list of home prices on the street, but when I click on Bernie's house, they offer no opinion as to its value (they have no trouble doing this with my house!).

The assessors office lists the property under the name of "not available" - obviously the secret service has been at work - good job boys!  It took repeated attempts at a number of sites to find his property tax data, but I was able to find it.  But I am not interested in knocking on his door (God forbid, he would physically attack me as an evil 1%'er even though his income is about 5 times mine).

According to the tax records, the poor bastard bought the house in 2009 for $405,000.

Parcel ID029-3-008-000Address

SPAN Number114-035-12991Land UseSingle Family
Mailing Address,

Current Assessed Values
Total Value$321,900Building Value$231,000Land Value$90,900Yard Items$0

Current Property Taxes
Total Property Taxes$7,889.12HS-131YesPct Business
Pct Rental
(Tax information updated: 7/7/2015 9:30:22 AM)

Most Recent Sales Information
Grantor Sale Date Sale Price Book & Page
DRISCOLL, LIZA K 5/13/2009 $405,000 1067-697
OCONNOR,MANON L 9/28/2005 $361,000 935-6
OCONNOR MANON L 10/19/1993 $170,000 492-715

Property Details
Acres0.6166Gross Area4,280Finished Area2,352
Building TypeCOLONIALYear Built1981Units1
Rooms8Bedrooms4Baths (Full/Half)2 / 1
ZoningRL FoundationCB Depreciation11.80 %

Sketched Areas
Card # Area Description
Gross Area
Finish Area
1 BMT BASEMENT 1,176 0
1 FFL 1ST FLOOR 1,176 1,176
1 SFL 2ND FLOOR 1,176 1,176
Additional unsketched basement finished area
Card # Area Finish Type
Alt. Pct.
No unsketched areas listed
When I try to find the value of his home on Zillow, it says "address not found" for every house on the street.

 Even if we go by assessed value of $321,900 he is underwater. A nearby home on the same block is for sale for $289,900 - although that appears to be a duplex.

It is hard to say what Bernie's house is worth.  If he bought in May of 2009, he bought at the low point in the market - months after Obama was inaugurated and the market had crashed.  Was he really that dumb to buy a house for well over market value after the market had crashed?  This is what is troubling. 

One thing that is puzzling is that his property taxes are shown as $7,889.12 while he claims over $14,000 in property taxes on his tax return.   It appears he has a rental property, but the property taxes for that should be shown on a Schedule C, not as personal property tax deductions.  I found out later he has a condo in DC, which probably accounts for the balance of the property taxes.   He certainly lives in some high-tax areas, to be sure.  Nice thing about Socialist States, they do tax you to death. But Bernie is angry at Bankers and not at himself, of course.

It may be that my data is all wrong and I have the wrong house or wrong address.   But I think the "not available" moniker on the listing is an indication it is the right house, because if you search on the last name "Sanders" nothing comes up, and he clearly lives in Burlington and the photo of the house is the same as the one shown on television

A search of the deed records of Burlington, Vermont is interesting - it turns up a number of records in the name of him and his wife.  It appears they own or have owned a number of properties in Burlington through the 1980s and 1990's.  The current house was bought in 2009 as the tax records indicate.  He also appears to own a rental property in Burlington.   Old Socialist Bernie is also an evil landlord exploiting the working class!  Well, he does seem to take in $4500 a year on the property, about what I make on mine, in a good year.   So maybe we're both evil, or not. 

The weird thing is they show a "discharge" of a mortgage on their current house in 2013 to MERS which is a loan servicer.  Since he is claiming $22,000 in mortgage interest in 2014, I can only assume he refinanced his house and that may explain how he paid off the $25,000 to $65,000 in credit card debt reported by other sources. If this is true, this is not a very astute thing to do.  What is even more troubling is that he is reporting $22,000 in mortgage interest.

I am trying to use my mortgage interest calculator but I cannot get it up that high, even if I assume the total debt is $400,000 at 5%.  Is he using sub-prime lending?  Or is he lumping his rental property payments in with his home payments (which is improper, rental income property interest should be reported on Schedule C, which is what I do!). It leaves me with more questions than answers. Of course, I did a little more research and it appears that Bernie also owns a Condo in DC which is also mortgaged for $50,000 to $100,000.

 What is interesting about Sanders' disclosures is that they are so skimpy in details.  One year of tax returns, and a financial form which includes only ranges we can estimate from.   Even assuming he has a $100,000 mortgage on the DC condo, the $22,000 in interest is still hard to fathom.   This guy is mortgaged to the hilt. 

But I think I found out why Bernie is angry.  He over-paid for a house that is strangling him with tax bills and interest payments, and since he is "upside-down" on the house, he is house poor, even with a six-figure income. And this has to be someone else's fault, right?   Those nasty bankers!  Loaning him all that money!  He'll fix them!

UPDATE Check out this article about the Burlington College Real Estate Deal:

The Sanders' are not very astute about Real Estate! 

UPDATE: The college is now closed, a victim of the crushing debt imposed by Mrs. Sanders, as well as the problems I have noted before about small liberal arts colleges.