Saturday, September 22, 2018

Power, Status, and Homelessness

You would think a crazy homeless person was powerless, but you'd be wrong.

Two incidents recently put into focus how being crazy is, in fact, a form of power.  I wrote before about the Culture of Belligerence and how powerless people - or people who perceive themselves to be powerless, use belligerence as a tool to assert power in their lives over others:
And part of this mystique is to have a bad-ass hog.  Motorcyles, once confined to enthusiasts, are owned by nearly every working Joe, who fits them with ear-splitting pipes.  And at a traffic light, they will be sure to gun the engine right next to you, just to annoy you - to make a point.  Whaddya gonna do about it, pussy-boy?  I'm a bad-ass!  Fuck you!
And no doubt, you've been exposed to this.  Someone makes a noise that causes you to experience literal pain - and even possible hearing damage - and there is nothing you can do about it.  You could call the cops, but they'd laugh at you.   Shoot the guy in the head - which he richly deserves - and suddenly you're the bad guy.  So you suck it up and move on with life.  They have the power and you, the law-abiding citizen are powerless.

Not long ago, such was not the case.  You drove around with straight pipes on your "hog" and you got a sheaf of noise violation tickets - not to mention speeding tickets, DUI, and drug offenses.  Loud pipes, like idiotic "clear taillights" on a rice racer, were "probable cause" to pull you over and bust you for a number of things.  Today, the police are too busy investigating machete slayings to worry about loud bikers - and in fact, chances are, the cop has a set of straight pipes on his off-duty Harley as well.

So you, Joe Citizen, have to suck it up when someone is belligerent.   Our society has decided that this is permissible, and we congratulate ourselves for a shrinking crime rate, simply because we are no longer classifying a lot of things as crimes.

Homeless people are often - and usually - mentally ill. They also have drug or alcohol problems.  They are parasites on society and we feel sorry for them and allow them to camp under the freeway and shit on our sidewalks.   And we also give them a pass when they set up a begging site near the subway and scream obsenities and make lewd remarks at passers-by.   If someone was running for political office, such comments would make them unworthy of election.  But we let a bum get away with it because "they can't help it."

While traveling through Watson Lake (advice: keep driving) we were accosted by two homeless "first nations" peoples (who in the States we call Indians) who were drunk or on drugs or crazy or all three.   They shouted obscenities and said rude things to us, which made us feel uncomfortable.  Under the law, this is called "assault" actually, and it is illegal.   But you can't do anything about it.  I asked a local about the homeless Indians congregating around dumpsters doing drugs and getting shitfaced drunk, and they admitted it was a problem but "there is nothing we can do about it" because homeless people are the victims here, and as homeless Indians, are double-victims.   So you have to just suck it up when they piss on your car, and it's your fault for parking too close to the dumpster.

On the Vancouver "Skytrain" we were treated to another example of how the inmates are running the asylum these days in Western countries.   Public transit is not popular in the United States for the simple reason that public transit vehicles quickly turn into human garbage trucks - hauling the dregs of society.  These are not people who are using it for the convenience factor, but because they can't afford a car because their personal lives are a wreck.   I've saw this on the Washington Metro buses when I first moved to DC.  A mid-level government clerk was sitting on the bus, and young black boys were harassing him - calling him names and knocking his hat off.  He tried to complain to the bus driver, but the driver "didn't want to get involved."  If the guy got off the bus, the young black youths might have followed him.  So he endured harassment until he reached his stop.

I saw this and thought about intervening.  But like everyone else on the bus, was afraid to get involved and end up the subject of harassment myself.  The bus driver basically gave these kids carte blanch to do whatever the fuck they wanted to, so they ran wild on the bus.  Myself, I decided to drive to work from then on, even if a parking space cost me a whopping $60 a month (which was less than the bus/train fare, and of course, took half as long).  Buses are garbage trucks.

The Vancouver "Skytrain" is largely a nice transit system, although the names of the train lines are a bit pretentious, if not dated ("millenial line" and "expo line" - I mean, really?).  And for the most part, the riders are well-behaved and mostly young middle-class types.   But tonight, we got on the train behind five young girls in their teens - apparently lesbians all.  I didn't pay attention at first, but Mark filled me in later on.

A crazy lady - dirty, unkept, and smelly - was talking to these nice young girls and apparently saying nasty, homophobic things to them.  One of the girls was so upset she walked away.   I wasn't paying attention to what was being said, but saw it happen.  When the girls all got off at the next stop, crazy lady decided to turn her attention to me and Mark.  And this time, I couldn't ignore it.  She stood up and started walking toward us.  So we move away and she shouted, "I'm following you!"and all sorts of crazy bullshit talk.  Again, it was uncomfortable and since the trains are not even manned, you have little recourse but to move to another car - but of course she followed.

I was a little concerned as to what to do.  If she got violent, should I punch her in the face or what?  But of course, I am in a foreign country - one where homeless crazy people are even more beatified than in the United States - so of course, I would be cast as a the "bad guy" beating up a defenseless homeless lady.  But as I found myself retreating further and further from this crazy bitch, I asked myself, why did I have to retreat?   Why did she have the right to harass me, and I had no recourse?

And no recourse is exactly what I had - and crazy lady knew this.  Since we "feel sorry" for homeless bums these days, they can get away with screaming at you on the sidewalk and at the very least, making you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, or at worst, end up physically assaulted.   And that is where this ends up many times.   Homeless "advocates" claim that homeless people are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators - but what they fail to explain is that their perpetrators are often other homeless people.

As recent events illustrate, crazy people, when armed with guns, knives, or even baseball bats, can wreak havoc in short order.  Even without a weapon, they can push you in front of a subway train (this happens often enough to generate pages of Google hits).  And when a homeless person assaults you verbally, you have no idea as to whether they are holding a knife in their pocket or not - and whether their crazy delusions have decided that you are Satan himself and need to be shanked.

Oh, but that is politically incorrect, of course.  But I digress.

What struck me was that the homeless crazy people in both scenarios I encountered were people who perceived themselves to be powerless in most aspects of their lives.   But they could bully people to their heart's content with no consequences whatsoever, so they do it.   And bully is the operative word here.  Making "normal" people feel uncomfortable or threatened is just a power game they play, to "get even" with society, I guess.  It is no different than the Harley guy with the loud pipes.  He has no real power in the world, other than the power to annoy.

And like bullies everywhere, once they figure out they can get away with bullying, they continue to do so.  So long as no one says, "Sorry, you can't do that" or "You're under arrest" they will continue to engage in more and more outlandish behavior until they are caught - which likely will be never.  (But of course, being crazy, even the threat of being caught is often not enough to stop them from bullying behavior.)

While this might not be a conscious mental calculation for the obnoxious Harley guy or the homeless crazy bitch, it nevertheless is a calculation made somewhere in their brain.  "Let's go harass some citizens!  It's fun and we can get away with it!"  So they do.

They are bullies, plain and simple.  And yet, our society says we should "feel sorry" for people like that - who bully us on a regular basis, refuse to work, badger people for money, and sit around and do drugs all day long, shit on the sidewalk, and steal your stuff.   The "homeless advocates" argue that all homeless people are saints - often quite literally.   One advocate (who later hanged himself) used to put up a "homeless manger scene" in Washington DC, trying to make the analogy that Mary and Joseph were the original homeless couple, and not just a couple of people on their way to pay their taxes, who forgot to make a hotel reservation in advance.   The metaphor is not subtle - homeless people are all Jesus. And some folks even argue that "If Jesus returned to day, he'd be a homeless guy!"

I certainly hope not.  Otherwise all of Christianity is based on the insane mutterings of a bum.   But I don't think that was the case, 2018 years ago, or even today.

So what's the point of this?  Probably nothing.  Just my frustration at being attacked verbally (and fortunately not physically - yet) and not being able to do anything about it.   But worse yet, the idea that somehow the people bullying me are, by virtue of being crazy, are better than me and should be admired, worshiped, and adored, or at the very least, their every whim accommodated. When exactly did the world turn upside-down?

Nothing will likely change in my lifetime.  But there was a time in this country when if you could not run your own life, and were a burden to the State, the State took control of your life.  You weren't allowed to run wild and do whatever the heck you wanted - with everyone else paying for the consequences.  We had institutions, and maybe they were imperfect, but they did serve a function.  And rather than improving or reforming these institutions, we simply abolished them and let all the crazy people out onto the streets, where they became the "homeless" instead of mental patients.   And the narrative from the Left, of course, is that this is all because of capitalism and high rents and evil Republicans, and has nothing to do with the fact these "homeless" people are all bat-shit crazy and on drugs.

So, like I said, nothing will change.   At least not in my lifetime.   But I won't be switching to public transit anytime soon, thank you.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Raise Federal Park Fees!

People can afford to pay more to visit Federal Parks, believe me!

Suppose you ran a coffee shop.   You had plenty of customers - a line out the door, in fact.  You sold out of coffee every day before 9AM.   There were so many people buying coffee, that you created a traffic problem in the neighborhood.  To reduce congestion, you set up a website and app for customers to "reserve" their coffee in advance - it too, is sold out in minutes.   But this way, there are no long lines anymore, just people driving up and getting their coffees until you are sold out.

Despite all these customers, you are losing money - hemorrhaging it, in fact.  So you hire a consultant, who goes through your books and makes a startling discovery.  "You're selling coffee for only 50 cents a cup!" he says, "and lattes and specialty drinks for 75 cents!"

"Is that too low?" you ask.

"Well, you are losing over a dollar a cup on every cup you sell!" he replies.

"But I want my coffee to be affordable for the average person," you reply, "that way, I can practice social justice!"

"Look out the window," he says, "You see the customers driving up to the service window?   In their Mercedes?  Their $70,000 pickup trucks?  Do they look like they need social justice?   They are just taking advantage of you is all.   The shop across the street charges $2 for a cup of coffee!  And their customers are often poorer than yours - they don't have the wherewithal to reserve coffee online through their cell phones!"

Of course, such a scenario would never play out in real life.   You'd go bankrupt in short order, selling coffee for less than cost, or using "social justice" as your business plan.   You have to charge more than the cost of operating the business, in order to stay in business, as Elon Musk will shortly find out.

That is, of course, unless you are the government.   If the government ran a coffee shop, no doubt some politicians would try to curry votes by lowering the cost of coffee to 50 cents, while having taxpayers take up the slack.   And they would argue that lowering the cost of coffee and subsidizing it with tax dollars is "more fair" to poor people who can't afford coffee.   But of course, you have to ask yourself why someone who is desperately poor is buying designer coffees in the first place.   And you have to ask yourself whether it is "fair" that the same low price be charged to everyone, regardless of income.   In terms of "social justice" it doesn't even make sense - you are offering subsidies to both the rich and poor.

But that is exactly what is happening in our State and Federal Parks systems.   The going rates for staying in parks are less than half that what commercial parks are charging.  As a result, most government-run parks are at full capacity at all times, which creates a lot of wear and tear on the facilities and increases the cost of labor and overall costs.   While the government doesn't have to pay property tax or a mortgage on their land (as private park owners do) they do have overhead to cover.

Every time Congress tries to raise fees to a level even approaching free-market rates, the social justice types cry foul.  "How will the poor be able to afford to visit our nation's parks?" as if the homeless have a vacation days coming up.   And we see this even on our little resort island, where retired New York school teacher couples, taking in over a hundred grand a year in pension money, have decided to "preserve our island for the average Georgian!"

In their condescending minds, the "average Georgian"is a hillbilly with no shoes, riding his donkey to the campground.   The reality is somewhat different.   Those rednecks you scoff at have a fifth-wheel trailer nearly as large as your first house - and are towing a second trailer behind it with a bass boat, a golf cart, a four-wheeler, or perhaps all three.   They hardly need a subsidy to go on vacation, and in fact, they don't mind spending money on vacation - that is, indeed, what one does on vacation.

Artificially lowering prices on commodities doesn't enact social justice - it just creates a windfall for some lucky winners and distorts market prices.   After the war, New York City enacted "rent control" which locked the rental prices of certain apartment buildings at artificially low rates.   The net result wasn't "social justice" but that a lucky few won the apartment lottery - and kept their apartments for decades, even after they moved out.   Many very wealthy people keep a pied-à-terre in New York, thanks to rent control.

The same effect occurs in our parks system.   People stay up until midnight, 364 days ahead of their scheduled arrival date, to click on "RESERVE" at 12:01 AM to lock in a site at Bahia Honda or John Pennycamp State Parks in the Florida Keys.   These are not "poor" people looking to vacation on a budget, but rather middle-class and upper-middle-class people with expensive motorhomes who want an exclusive vacation campsite on the beach.   And thanks to the nonsense pricing the government uses, they get it.  You drive down there and look for a site, it is all reserved a year in advance.   So you end up paying two or three or even four times as much to stay at a much less desirable "commercial" campground.

Worse yet are these "golden years" passes that the Federal government and States hand out.  I was in Florida recently and offered a 10% discount for being over 55.   While I gladly took the discount, I didn't feel that by dint of being "older" I deserved it.  In fact, the young couple behind me, staying in a tent with a young baby, needed this discount far more than I did.  But again, we have social justice rearing its ugly head.   "Old people are all poor and need financial assistance!" they cry.  Yet the sorts of folks "full timing" in a $250,000 motorcoach are hardly poor and hardly need a subsidy.  But they will take one, if you offer it.  And oddly enough, if you ask them, they will tell you they are entitled to it.

The other unintentional effect of subsidizing park fees is that often you end up with people living in parks.   The fees are so low - and many parks offer huge discounts for weekly or even monthly rates - that many people decide to simply live in an RV at a State or Federal Park.   Parks try to fight this by limiting stays to 14 days or so, but often this just means moving to another campsite in the same park, or indeed, merely shifting to a neighboring park, every two weeks to a month.

The fees we are talking about are often not a lot of money.   Many parks charge only $15 to $25 for an overnight stay - certainly "affordable" for anyone.  There is headroom to increase fees.   Granted, entry fees for "name brand" parks like Yellowstone, Denali, or Yosemite are far more than that - and camping fees charged on top of that.  But when you have a line out the door - well, that usually means you are undercharging for your service, and you need to raise rates.

As Mark learned in Hotel/Restaurant Management school, if your hotel is full every single night, you are doing something wrong.   Your rates are far too low and you are actually making less money than is optimal.   You are better off charging more and having a few empty rooms than to lower prices and sell out every night.   Your labor costs and wear-and-tear are less if the hotel is only 3/4 full, and you have extra rooms available "just in case" something comes up, like a guest setting off a sprinkler head (I've seen it happen!).

This is not capitalistic "greed" as the social justice crowd would have you believe, but just good management and good stewardship of resources.  And when it comes to public lands, good stewardship is in everyone's interest.

The coffee shop scenario illustrates the fallacy of using social justice as business model.  Yet that is, in essence, what socialism or communism are all about - having politicians, not business-people, set prices and policies for businesses, often to appease voters who want something-for-nothing.   Governments can prop up money-losing businesses, but not for long.  Eventually, they run out of money.

And often the people benefiting from this government largess are not the poor and downtrodden, but the middle-class who just wants free shit - or stuff at a discount.  But those are people who - unlike the poor - actually vote and thus actually have a voice.   So they badger their congressman to lower fees or keep fees low, and get away with it.

The Republicans posit that the Democrats get into power and stay in power by offering bread-and-circuses to the masses.  The Democrats argue the Republicans get into power and stay in power through trickery and offering lower taxes to the rich.   Both are right, to some extent.  But often, it is the middle-class, wanting its special discounts (such as the home mortgage tax deduction) which drives the political process.   The middle-class votes and has political power.  And they argue for special treatment and special discounts on the grounds they are "helping the poor."

But in fact, they are merely helping themselves!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Threshold of Pain Theory and Tesla

Lack of capital won't kill Tesla.  Elon Musk's strange behavior won't kill Tesla.  Slow production of the Model 3 won't kill Tesla.  Threshold of pain theory will kill Tesla.

Back in the 1970's, foreign cars were still considered odd, and many brands were imported to the US.  The market had not shaken out to just the Japanese and Germans just yet.  You could still buy Italian, British, and even French cars in the United States - at your own risk.   Yes, I know, you can still buy a "Jaguar" today, but it isn't quite the same deal.  And a Ferrari and a Fiat are not the same thing, even if you own a Fiat Dino.

A friend of my Dad's was into "foreign cars" which he bought at the "foreign car dealer" who sold five or six different marques. He had a Jaguar, an Alfa, and even a Citroën DS.    My parents even got into the deal, buying a 1970 Fiat 124 Sports Spider - which they quickly traded for a 1973 Vega - which believe it or not, was actually more reliable and less rusty, which isn't saying a lot.

Back then, foreign cars, other than Japanese and German cars, were largely unreliable, expensive to repair, and rust-prone.   And yet, people still bought them, often complaining about the cost of ownership as if it were a badge of courage.  "Yea, the Jag is always in the shop, and the cost of repairs is staggering, but you wouldn't appreciate how it handles.   You have to appreciate fine motorcars to really understand!"

It was - and is - a perverse form of status.    The threshold of pain of owning esoteric technology has always been higher than owning more plebian things - something I finally figured out after owning five BMWs.  Today I drive a plain-Jane Nissan and a Kia Hamster - cars I enjoy using, but do not fawn over.   You turn the key, they start, they run, and they require little or no maintenance.  Sometimes it is better to be a plebe.

And therein lies the problem for Tesla.   When Tesla started out, they took an old Lotus roadster and fitted it with lithium-ion batteries and an electric motor.  It was, in a way, a more professional version of the various kit cars and home-made electric cars that hobbyists had built before - taking old cars and removing the IC engines and fitting them with lead-acid batteries and DC motors.  The difference was, the original Tesla roadster was well put together and the energy density of the lithium-ion battery not only made it a more practical car, but an astoundingly fast one as well.

Nevertheless, if you wanted to own one, you had to pay a lot of money for one.  And with no dealer network or repair centers to take it to, owning a Tesla in those early days was a challenge.  But "early adapters" are known to have a high threshold of pain.  Like my Dad's friend, they view the hassle as the price of having a sophisticated piece of machinery.

The Model S was a big step up from the converted Lotus roadster.   It was a very sophisticated car and very, very expensive.   People who bought Porches or Mercedes, or indeed, even Ferrari's or Lamborghini's, would buy a Model S, as it was a status symbol.  I recounted before how, at a tony restaurant in Winter Park, Florida, I saw a Model S parked in a line with Bentley's, Rolls, and Ferrari's right in front of the restaurant by the velvet rope.  It was "valet worthy".

So Tesla could sell the Model S and charge a boatload of money, because people liked having an exclusive product, and were willing to pay a lot of money for what was - and is - a very fast luxury sedan.  They were also willing to put up with the hassles of owning a Tesla, such as lack of a dealer network, and long waits for repairs and parts.  Their threshold of pain was very high.

But could this magic filter down to the lower classes?  This is where Tesla is failing and will eventually fail.  The Model X was the first sign of trouble.  People will spend a lot of money for a luxury SUV, and put up with a lot of pain in the process.   A tenant of mine spend a wad of cash on a Land Rover Defender 90 - a car more suited to the Kalhari desert than the streets of Washington DC.  Others spent even more on Mercedes Geländewagens, again, a vehicle better suited to the deserts of Africa than the streets of Manhattan.  But once again, status rears its ugly head, and people seeking status will endure extreme discomfort just to show off.   It is no fun to drive a Lamborghini or a Ferrari in stop-and-go traffic.  But people do it, just the same.

The Model X featured gull-wing doors.  So did the Delorean and the Bricklin.  When you see gull-wing doors, run away.  Yes, Mercedes put them in the famous 300 SL (W198) but again, that was an impractical car for daily driving.  Go to any car meet and you will see the owners driving around with the doors "up" - the car turns into a greenhouse in the sun, and the windows don't roll down.  And no, it didn't come with air conditioning - not even as an option.

Gull wing doors are notoriously difficult to fit and make work properly, particularly over time.  And not surprisingly, a lot of complaints about the Model X relate to the doors.  SUV buyers, particularly in the Model X price range, have a lower threshold of pain, and expect a functional vehicle and reliable service centers for the price paid.   Oddly enough, the less you pay for something, the lower your threshold of pain can sometimes be.   Up to a point, that is.  If something is very, very cheap, you often tolerate quality glitches and other problems on the premise that, "Well, it was such a deal, I can't complain!"  That is how the Yugo got sold.

So, very cheap, very expensive, you get a high threshold of pain. You can sell crap and people accept it.

In the middle, however, people expect serviceable products at a reasonable price.  They want cars where you get in, turn the key and they run - for 100,000 miles without a hiccup.   And with the Model 3, this is where Tesla will get into trouble.

Moving downmarket to the middle-class, the expectations will change.  These customers are people who have owned a Camry or an Accord and driven them 150,000 miles with only periodic oil changes.  And they are used to going to a dealer or mechanic and finding someone who knows how to work on the car - and parts that are readily available.   Their threshold of pain is relatively low, and they would throw down a fit if you told them that their car needed expensive repairs or that it would take weeks to get fixed.

And that is what happened when Consumer Reports bought a Model S.  At first, they called it the "best car they ever tested" or some such nonsense (Consumer Reports is, of course, pretty clueless).  After owning it a year, they called it the worst lemon they ever owned (or something to that extent) complaining about excessive repairs and long wait times for parts and service.  After testing and owning many reliable cars, the threshold of pain at Consumer Reports was rather low.   They could not tolerate the hassle for the sake of status.  Maybe they aren't all that dumb after all.

Can Tesla provide Camry-like reliability with the Model-3?   Early reports seem to indicate not.   But of course, all of the early cars are loaded models with prices approaching the range of the Model X and Model S - close to 100 grand.   So maybe in the short run, the "early adapters" of the Model 3 will overlook shortcomings, as they have a high threshold of pain and are willing to tolerate a lot of bullshit, such as delayed deliveries and whatnot, just to be the first one on the block with the "economy model" Tesla.

But as the lesser-optioned and lower-priced models come off the line (if ever) the expectations of consumers will change.  These are folks for whom a Tesla is a financial stretch.  And when it breaks and breaks bad, they will get royally pissed off, particularly when the car is out of warranty.  Their threshold of pain is very low, and to satisfy them, you need to offer a car as reliable and brainless to own as a Camry or Accord.

And Tesla can't do that, apparently.

Of course, there are other factors, as I noted above - the lack of capital, FTC investigations, odd behavior by the CEO, and so on.   Worst of all is competition from other makers, such as Porche and Audi - and no doubt later on, Ford and Chrysler (and maybe people will remember that GM has been making the Volt for many years now, and Toyota  the plug-in Prius).  How many people with "reservations" for a Tesla Model 3 will eventually throw in the towel and buy a Prius?   An awful lot, I suspect.

Making things isn't sexy or profitable.   The actual manufacture of goods is a marginal business.   Apple makes huge profits selling iPhones.  The companies in China which actually make them (and the components) scrape by with a few percentage points in the margins.   The car business is even worse.   If you can make a few percentage points in profit, overall, you are doing pretty well.   It is a cut-throat business, and manufacturing capacity, worldwide, is nearly double the demand.

I suspect the demise of Tesla will not be a matter of lack of capital, but lack of the ability to deliver a reliable product and product support that will meet the threshold of pain of the middle-class buyer.  Lack of demand will kill Tesla, not the lack of supply.


UPDATE:  This is my 4,000th posting.   Will I ever shut up?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Language and the Nature of Control




I can't even understand English anymore...

Like many of you, I read today that Time magazine was sold to some dude who runs a company called "salesforce" which does something related to "cloud" computing.   I heard of the company peripherally, but since I am no longer in the technology business, and since I don't live in Silicon Valley - or indeed work at all - I had no idea what the company did.   So I looked it up on Wikipedia, and after reading the description, I still had no idea what the company did (except make a lot of money, apparently):

Salesforce[edit]Salesforce is the primary enterprise offering within the Salesforce platform. It provides companies with an interface for case management and task management, and a system for automatically routing and escalating important events. The Salesforce customer portal provides customers the ability to track their own cases, includes a social networking plug-in that enables the user to join the conversation about their company on social networking websites, provides analytical tools and other services including email alert, Google search, and access to customers' entitlement and contracts.[17]

Oddly enough, the reports about the sale of Time don't mention what Salesforce does, as I guess the reporters can't figure out, either.  I can sort of figure out roughly what they do, from that description, but most of the language is tech-speak and remarkably vague (same thing).  I didn't get what "cases" referred to - legal cases?  Briefcases?  What?   What is probably true is that I have interacted with software written by this company sometime in my life already - probably on some website or other, hopefully not one of these 404 error-ridden ones (like Blue Cross or Holland America).   But then again....

It struck me that times have changed so much in the last few years that I don't understand basic English anymore.   Engineers and techies have always talked in a secret code, of course, whether they were referring to things like entropy and enthalpy in mechanical engineering, or things like parity or checksum bits in computer engineering.  It is just noise to people not familiar with the science.  But today, it seems that more and more of this "science" is the science of doing business and manipulating people through online experiences.

And I guess it struck me that advertising, social media, and all of this hooey that I decry is just a way of controlling people - with a carrot, not a stick.  And perhaps this is why capitalism is superior to communism.   Advertisers and other manipulators create demand for products or services.  You watch television for hours on end and then decide (on your own, of course) that you need to have a honking big new SUV or a racy Camaro.   So you sign your life away with loan papers and you get your new toy, but now you are beholden to your job and your boss, so you can make money to pay for this nightmare.   But it is a nightmare you signed up for, willingly.  So you trudge off to work - or ride off in your shiny new SUV - happy to have a bauble.  And the system is happy they have controlled you without having to order you around.

In a communist country, the opposite takes place - the stick is used.  You go to work, or else.   There is no carrot involved at all, other than the carrot you might be allowed to buy at the end of the day to stave off starvation.   There is no incentive to work, other than the fear of being punished by the secret police.   And in short, that is why communist countries fail and why capitalist countries succeed.   People prefer the carrot to the stick, even if the end result is the same - they are chained to a desk all day long and are beholden to others.

And folks in those communist countries, they want shiny new Camaros, but never, of course, will get them.  Maybe after years on a waiting list, they can buy a Trabant.  But that's about it.

In a way, it is a beautiful system.   We are all manipulated and controlled and forced to do things against our will, but at the same time, we believe we are doing these things on our own "free will".   We work to have a shiny car to impress people we don't even know, or to have a look-at-me house that impresses no one (because everyone else on the block has the same house).   We desire "things" and are willing to enslave ourselves to get them.   And advertisers and managers and businesspeople know this.   My boss was never so happy as the day I showed up for work with a new car and a string of car payments.   He knew I wouldn't be quitting my job anytime soon!

But it is all one and the same thing, really.  Whether it is a blaring ad on the television, a billboard by the highway, a snarky posting on social media (from the Russian Internet Research Agency) or whatever.  We are prodded and poked and provoked into doing things, and the beauty of it all is that we end up thinking we came up with these ideas on our own.

And you can see this, sometimes, when you talk to people who have swallowed the hook, and barf up, intact, the "talking points" they heard on Fox News or some other media outlet.   I ran into a nice British lady the other day, and I asked her about Brexit.  She barfed up, word-for-word, talking points from Boris Johnson (Boris? Isn't that a Russian name?) about how the Polish are over-running Great Britain and taking up all the space in hospital and university - to the point where they've run out of the word "the."

I doubt she experienced any of this directly - that she was elbowed aside from the emergency room by some Polish immigrant or asylum-seeker.  Rather, it was a talking point she heard on television.  Not mentioned in these talking points are the economic consequences that will occur when London no longer is the primary or even secondary economic center of the world - but instead becomes relegated to backwater status.   Oh well, it was a nice empire for a while.  Such is the fate of all empires, I guess.

But then again, is this an original idea of my own?  Or am I too, being manipulated?   The sad answer to the latter is, unfortunately, a solid "Yes."  Because we all are.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Why Black Lives Matters, Matters

Image result for black lives matter protest


When people feel they can't trust the police, civilization suffers.

In previous postings, I have expressed some skepticism as to some of the cases that have been brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement.  It is not that injustice doesn't occur, but that the poster children that they have picked to use as exemplars of police misconduct are often poorly vetted.

Being a policeman is a difficult job.  You have to make split-second decisions with often with deadly consequences. And if you make one mistake, you will be vilified by an entire nation.  Given how lousy the pay is, who would want this job?

That being said, there are valid incidents where police brutality and excessive violence have been documented, including even murder.  But these are the exception, not the norm.  However, to residents of the inner city, they don't see it that way.  They see the police not as a friend but as an enemy.  And this is corrosive to our culture.  Whether you are right-wing or left-wing, you don't want to see trust in the police eroded.

I was discussing recently, with a friend, about our trip to Mexico two decades ago when we went to visit our cleaning lady in Cuernavaca Mexico.  She was quite distraught when we saw her. She said "my son has joined a criminal gang!"

When we ask her what gang had joined, she said  "the police".

We almost laughed at this comment, but at the time it was largely true and indeed even true today. And after having been "shaken down" by police in Mexico - twice - we understood what she meant.  In Mexico, government officials are corrupt from the very top, down to the lowest levels.  Policeman seek out and accept bribes for almost every routine incidental transaction, everyday.  As a result, when a crime is committed, few people are willing to go to the police as they often believe they will be victimized a second time.  At the very least, nothing will happen.  At worst, the police will be in cahoots with the criminals and inform the criminal gangs that you have ratted them out.  Your body will be found on the street, sans head, as an example to others.

Mexican people, as individuals are great.  They are hard-working and dedicated.  Despite what Donald Trump says about Mexican immigrants, they are an asset to our country even if a small minority engage in criminal activity.  One of the reasons people from Latin American countries come to America is that their own governments are so wholly dysfunctional.  There is no trust for government agencies, including the police.

It struck me, as I related the story to my friend, that we have a similar situation developing here in the United States. You can argue all day long whether it is based on perception or reality, but a large segment of people living in urban areas have absolutely no trust in their local police force.  This is a dangerous situation and a destabilizing factor for our government.

As events in Chicago illustrate, when people no longer trust their police, crimes become almost impossible to solve.  Someone is shot on the street in broad daylight with dozens of witnesses present.  The police show up and nobody says a word.  No one wants to talk, because they don't want to get involved, which could result in them spending countless hours giving testimony and showing up in court, often to see the criminal end up free on the streets.  And if they do testify or talk to the police, they may be victimized themselves.

So in a way, this Black Lives Matter movement really does matter - regardless of whether you are black or white, live in the inner city or a gated suburban community.  It's not that the police should be treated as criminals or hounded or otherwise shamed.  Rather, we need to develop trust between the police and the local communities that they serve, so that people will feel the police are on their side and be willing to cooperate with them.  This is a monumental task to say the least.

I'm not sure that the methods of Black Lives Matters will take us there, either.  Their confrontational approach to the issue seems to be polarizing people even further.   By turning this into a racial issue and trying to use it for political gain, not much is getting done.  And in fact, it is probably turning many people in inner cities even further away from the police and causing more distrust.  And there is always the possibility that such movements can be nurtured by foreign powers (as was illustrated during the last Presidential election) to encourage dissent and divide us as a nation.

The nature of police work being what it is, there will always be incidents where people are unjustly arrested or assaulted or even shot and killed by policeman.  You and I can make mistakes in our jobs and the consequences are often trivial or can be easily corrected.  At worse, we may end up having to pay money in order to fix things.  But in other jobs such as those of doctors or policeman, when mistakes are made, people often die.  Doctors are richly rewarded for taking this risk.  Policemen are not.  And oftentimes the people dying are policemen themselves.

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

Should you flee a country due to war or poor economic conditions, or stay and fight?

The world is awash in refugees, in a worse way since World War II.  Refugees are fleeing various African and Arab countries, trying to get to Europe, where no one is shooting at them, and economic conditions are much better.   Venezuelans are fleeing to other Latin American countries as basic staples in life (other than gasoline) cannot be found on store shelves.    Muslims flee Myanmar due to violence  and genocide.  Look at any part of the planet, it seems, and people are trying to escape.

This has, of course, put a lot of pressure on countries that are not at war, and are more economically successful.  One reason for the rise of nationalism across the planet is the reaction to the influx of refugees, particularly in mono-cultural countries.  Folks in Nordic countries are not suddenly becoming racist, they are just waking up to a world where everyone isn't blond-haired and blue-eyed and speaking Swedish - and it is jarring.

But the question remains, on both a personal and national level, should you flee a war-torn country (or one even in economic decline) for a better life for yourself, or stay and fight for a better life for your country?   The question is a valid one, I think, as one reason why these various dictators and autocrats are able to stay in power as long as they have is that the best and brightest (and wealthiest) people often flee, leaving behind only those loyal to the government.

Venezuela is a prime example.  I had clients there, and they were among the country's elite - or at least the middle-class.  They could afford to work around economic conditions, at first.  But they were also the first to find refuge in other Latin American countries (or the US) and could afford to leave early.   As a result, there was a "brain drain" on the country, as well as an economic drain, leaving the country poorer in wealth and in spirit.  It also meant that for each person who left, there was one less person to oppose the Maduro government.

As a result, the people remaining suffer more - and are even more powerless to effect change.  They too, leave, eventually, fleeing by bus for Colombia.   Pretty soon, all that will be left are the government officials and the military.   So long as soldiers are paid, Maduro stays in power.   Once they start to starve.... well, all bets are off.   And sadly, the only people who seem poised to take power are would-be dictators who are even more corrupt than the present government - ex-military officers who even the Trump administration turned their nose up at - and that is saying a lot!

If more people stayed and fought, in places like Venezuela or South Sudan, maybe real change could take place.  When they flee, the "bad guys" end up winning, as the opposition is that much weaker.

Of course, this is easy to say, hard to do.   We were watching the mini-series War and Remembrance a few years ago, starring the very under-rated Robert Mitchum.  It was the sequel to the series Winds of War, both based on books by Herman Wouk.   The frustrating part of the sequel were the episodes starring John Gielgud, who plays a Jewish scholar living in fascist Italy.   Gielgud's character continually plays down the risk to himself and his family, arguing that the fascists would not go so far as to harm him (and of course, at the time, Nazi atrocities were mere "rumors").

You find yourself screaming at the television, "Get the hell out!  Now! While you still can!" - because you know how the series will end, with Gielgud trudging off to a gas chamber.  In retrospect, it is easy to say that he shoulda got while the getting was good.  Leave and don't look back - your life is on the line.

And on a personal level, that is the mathematics going on, in every part of the world today.  Do I want to stay in a country while the economy slowly melts down and wait for the secret police to come fetch me and torture me to death?  Or do I want to live in a war zone, while religious zealots decide who is the one and only true God - at gun point?   Or do I leave for better opportunities and a safe and healthy life elsewhere?

Or suppose the country I live in is merely overpopulated with people with no job skills and no hope?  It is in my best interests to flee to another country which offers refugee status, an apartment and a monthly stipend.   And to what extent is such largess the merciful and kind thing to do, versus acting at a "bug light" attractant to potential migrants?   These are not easy questions to answer.

It is a pertinent question for anyone these days, even folks living in the United States.  It may seem we are a long way aways from living in a Police State - where your every move and thought and Facebook posting are monitored by the government, and you await that knock on the door at midnight.  On the the other hand, we have a President who calls a free press, "the enemy of the people" and wants Op-Ed writers to be "turned in" by their newspapers as "traitors" to their country.   And while the secret police are not knocking on my door just yet, if you are here illegally, you have every right to be frightened these days.   Are these mere shadows of things to come, or just an aberration that will be corrected in short order?

Many Americans claim they will "move to Canada" if things get worse in the US.   Of course, Canada might have other ideas about this, particularly if people start flooding the border, as many illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers in the US already are doing.   From what I understand, you can migrate to Canada pretty freely, if you have a certain amount of money you pledge to invest in the country (the US has a similar policy, which is why Eric Trump was selling Condos in Trump tower to the Chinese - claiming an "investment" in a personal residence would qualify them for citizenship).

So, again, if you have the money, you can afford to move away.   The question is, when is the right time to move?   Clearly, in Venezuela, the time to leave was years ago.  But people stay on, hoping things get better at the next election - not realizing that elections can be rigged, negated, and elected bodies abolished overnight (or courts, as is the case in Poland and West Virginia).

And of course, this begs the question, what happens when we run out of places to run away to?  Canada is a fine county, of course - very liberal and very caring.  However, it has simmered on the edge of civil war itself, in the past few decades, as the people of Quebec aired their grievances.  How long will it be, before this world-wide trend of nationalism, right-wing thinking, and new dictatorships also infects Canada?

I guess I can only hope I shuffle off this mortal coil before the shit truly hits the fan.  Or perhaps, I will shuffle off this mortal coil, like John Gielgud's character, on the way to a gas chamber.

It is hard to say.  It is hard to know when to stay or go.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Canadian Cheese

Cheese and other dairy products are alarmingly expensive in Canada.  Why is this?

I noted before that in Canada, everything sinful is expensive.  Gasoline is expensive.  Booze is expensive.  Dairy products are expensive.

How expensive?  Nearly double the cost in the United States - and the selection leaves much to be desired (the phobia about Swiss cheese also extends to Alaska as well).   There are a number of reasons behind this.   The Canadians are protective of their dairy industry and basically exclude a lot of "milk protein" products from the United States due to their "Class 7" pricing on milk proteins.  And this is something the Trump administration plans to fix, through the new NAFTA negotiations (but don't call it NAFTA, right?).

But America is protective of its dairy industry, in other ways.  We subsidize the snot out of our dairy industry, supporting prices by purchasing surplus butter and cheese and just letting it sit in warehouses.   We subsidize the entire industry, and as a result, America is awash in cheap dairy products, much of it bland, orange cheese.


And one way of supporting prices was to buy up huge amounts of cheese and butter.  How huge?  Huge.  When I was in Washington, I recall reading about a fire at a government-run warehouse in Maryland (as I recall).  The warehouse was filled with stockpiled butter - tons and tons of it - and when it caught fire, the butter started burning.  The entire warehouse melted down into a twisted wreckage of burnt timbers, bent steel beams and millions of gallons of melted and coagulated butter.
What a mess to clean up, right?  How much would they have to pay to do that?  Nothing, as it turns out.  Companies bid against each otherfor the right to clean up the coagulated burnt butter- so it could be processed and fed to hogs and put in other animal feeds.  A mountain of government butter represents millions of dollars of protein!


So Canadian farmers have a point - if American "milk proteins" are freely allowed to cross the border (isn't that what "free trade" is all about?) subsidized American farmers will quickly put Canadian farmers out of business - unless Ottawa wants to get into the subsidy business as well.

This trade spat illustrates how "free trade" is anything but.   Different countries subsidize different home industries, such that if you allow nominal "free trade" one country can easily come out on top. And it could be something as simple as currency manipulation, state subsidies of industries, or low-interest loans to manufacturers.

Compounding the problem are ancillary factors such as wage and labor laws, safety standards, environmental standards, and other regulations.   It costs less to make cars in China or India simply because labor is less costly, safety standards are lax, and environmental laws are in their infant stages.   Ford can't make a small car in America competitively, simply because the cost of doing business here is so much higher.  Well, that, and the demand for small cars is very low, and thus tooling up a factory to build them (as Trump seems to think will happen) is even less cost-effective.  The Focus Active Sport Wagon won't be coming to showrooms near you very soon.  The good news is, a new Ford Bronco will - albeit about five years too late and just in time for the next gas crises and recession.

If this new NAFTA agreement goes through, it may lower prices for Canadian consumers.   Of course, with about 90% of the Canadian population living within 100 miles of the US border, many are already stocking up on low-priced American goods during regular border crossings.  So the point may be moot.

But the price differential is startling.   We bought 18 eggs for a dollar (a dollar!) in Minnesota.  They were at least three to four dollars a dozen in Canada (and not much less in Alaska).   Milk and cheese were the same way.   Canada is an expensive country to live in and visit, even if the exchange rate with the US Dollar is more favorable these days.

That being said, if you want to visit Alaska, you might want to consider just driving to British Columbia and the Yukon instead.  The scenery is just as breathtaking - if not moreso - and it is a lot closer to the States.  The ride down Route 99 (Cariboo Highway) to Whistler is spectacular - if not a bit nerve-wracking.  Thousand-foot cliffs on the side of the road - with no guard rails!  Hairpin turns that have to be taken in first gear.  The brakes on the Nissan are now completely shot.

But the Provincial parks - as always in Canada - are great.  In the Yukon, they provide free, unlimited firewood, all for a park fee of $12 Canadian, which is like $9 bucks American these days.   Oh, and the roads are in much, much better shape than Alaska.

Sadly, the Canadians are far behind Alaska in terms of roadside survivalist "compounds" and junked car collections, although their Indian Reservations (excuse me, "first nations people's lands") give Alaska a good run for their money.  Never look out the side windows - one way to avoid depression while travelling in depressed areas.

The point is, and I did have one, is that it looks like Trump will score a "win" with this re-negotiated NAFTA deal.  While everyone within the beltway is wondering who wrote the "anonymous" editorial (and I doubt many are really wondering - that is just the Post and Times putting spin on things) there are actually policy changes taking place.  And right or wrong, Trump can say he is taking credit for these.  He will be able to argue that perhaps he got a better deal out of Mexico and Canada than his predecessors.

So while we are all consumed with political theater, stuff is actually getting done.  And when push comes to shove, will people really vote against getting stuff done?   The Democrats have to run on a platform that is something other than Trump-hate.

Otherwise.....four more years.   Good God!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Select, Farm-Grown Potatoes!

Image result for gluten free potato chips

The more flowery the language, the rawer the deal will be.

On our trip, we have indulged in a guilty pleasure of buying potato chips.  They aren't bad for you, but they aren't good for you, either.  Loaded with carbs and sodium, they can really mess with your diet.  And the potato chip and snack food industry (which has a lobbying group of the same name in Alexandria, Virginia!) knows this.  So they use flowery language on the chip bags to make these diet-killers seem benign.

On a bag of Canadian Potato chips, we are told the potatoes are "select" - or as noted on a different brand, "selected".  Indeed, the non-selected potatoes, by definition, are not used.   Another brand proclaims their potatoes are "farm grown" which sounds so much better than the kind that are made in a factory.  Oh, wait, all potatoes are farm-grown.  "Select Farm Grown Potatoes" is a phrase that translates from advertiseese into English as --potatoes--.   Nothing more.

But wait, there's more!  Did you know the potato chips are gluten-free?  Yes, that's right!  Somehow they've managed to remove all the bread from potato chips, likely by the simple expedient of not adding any.

If that isn't enough to convince you, well did you know they are GMO-free?  Yes, potatoes are not genetically engineered, at least according to a company that certifies this to be so, after being paid by the potato chip company to obtain such certification (no doubt, they are ISO-9000 certified as well!).

Another bag described the potatoes as being "carefully sliced" which is better than haphazardly sliced or indeed, unsliced.    Again, translating from advertiseese to English, "carefully sliced" means merely "sliced", which indeed all potatoes in potato chips are.

Not mentioned on the bag are phrases like "fried in hot oil" or in the case of some "kettle" chips, fried in lard.   That certainly doesn't sound healthy, does it?

Other chips are described as "Dutch" or "Dutch Made" (or "maid" if they want to play on words).  We are lead to believe the Dutch invented the potato chip - once again, white people taking credit for a black man's invention!

It goes on and on.  Some chips were "created by a Mom!" or maybe a teacher, or a teacher who was a Mom.  Or they are "healthy" or "natural" or "fresh" or organic or whatever.  Or they have sprouts in them or something.  They are no longer junk food, they are part of a healthy diet!

What struck me about all of this, is that the language used, in most cases, was what my Contract Law Professor (thank you Professor Pock!) called "mere puffery".  It carries no legal weight and cannot be enforced as a contract term.  It is akin to saying a new car is "good" or "sexy", or even "fast" - these are all terms that are hard to quantify and yet resonate with prospective purchasers.

And it struck me that potato chip puffery is just an example of how bad deals are slathered in similar flowery language.  In order to sell you something that is a bad bargain, they use a lot of these meaningless words to make a bad deal seem like a good one - a dumb deal seem like a smart one.  Take car leases for example...

The next time you look at an advertisement, look at the wording and look to see what is merely "advertising puffery" and what is actual factual data.  Odds are, even the prices quoted (if any) are not really facts after all, but mere talking points.   So many things in life are simple and direct.  Why bother dealing with bargains that use elusive and evasive language?

Even on a bag of chips!

Princess Cruise lines Buys Alaska

Image result for princess cruise logo
Why not just cut to the chase?

 Juneau – Princess Cruise lines' parent corporation Carnival cruises, along with the State government of Alaska announced an historic agreement today, with the cruise line purchasing the entire State for an undisclosed sum.   “There is precedent for this,” the governor explained, “Alaska has been bought and sold before!”

Representatives for the cruise line noted that “It just make logical sense.  We’ve bought bus lines, vacation lodges, and even entire railroads.   Why not just cut to the chase and buy the entire State?”

Alaska will now be known as “Princess Alaska” and the State flag will be modified to include the Princess cruise lines logo.  All residents of the State will now be Princess employees and “brand ambassadors”, given Princess name badges, and tasked with helping clueless tourists with maps and directions and restaurant recommendations.  “Since Alaskans are already doing this, not much will change,” a Princess spokesman noted, “this will also give the legions of homeless in Anchorage something to do.”

Residents will each be given stock in Carnival cruise lines as payment for the purchase of the State.  Residents will receive dividend checks from the cruise lines, in lieu of their annual dividend checks from the State Permanent Fund.

President Trump hailed the agreement as an excellent example of how privatization can be used to replace old, outmoded, and inefficient democratically-elected governments.  Libertarian Rand Paul agreed, citing privatization as the logical outcome of libertarian theory.  Meanwhile, President Trump, emboldened by the news, has moved forward with his plans to privatize New York and rename it “Trump/NewYork”.

However, the President indicated that the Justice Department will block a move by Alphabet, Inc., the parent company of Google, from purchasing and privatizing Northern California, on anti-trust grounds.  "There can be too much of a good thing," the President noted via Twitter, "companies with a liberal bent privatizing?  Don't think so!"

The Great Alaskan Gravel Shortage


What would Alaska do without gravel?

Juneau, Alaska   Governor Bill Walker announced today that gravel rationing will now be required for all citizens of Alaska, in response to the catastrophic gravel shortage.  “Gravel is a way of life in Alaska," he said, “and in order to preserve our way of life, we need to conserve this valuable resource.”

The gravel shortage developed last year as the last of the glacial till was extracted and used for a mobile home pad.   Alaskans use gravel for a number of uses – for roadways, walkways, RV parks, and erosion control, just to name a few.  Since Alaska is largely permafrost and mud, gravel is an essential element for building just about anything.  “Without gravel," governor Walker continued, “Alaska as we know it, would cease to exist!”

Plans are underway to possibly import gravel from Canada, but this plan is being met with some opposition.  “Canadian gravel just isn’t the same quality as good old Alaskan gravel,” as one resident noted, “It doesn’t have the same compaction factor and delightful gray color.  It's rounded for chrissakes!  It isn't gravel, it's pebbles!”  Compounding the problem are the 50% tariffs the Trump administration has placed on imported Canadian gravel.

The gravel shortage is being felt statewide.  Anchorage resident Homer Gulsap reported standing in line for three hours, only to be allowed to purchase a five-gallon bucket of fine gravel.  “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked, “make a rock garden?”

Sadly, as an inevitable result of this shortage, reports have trickled in of gravel-jacking incidents.   Biddy Haines, of Seward, reported that her entire trailer court was scraped clean of gravel by thieves overnight.  “It’s tragic – all the trailers are now sinking in to the mud!”   The perpetrators have yet to be caught.

Gravel rationing coupons will be issued by the State for each resident.  In the meantime, residents are being encouraged to seek alternatives to gravel.  One proposal is to use shredded bits of junked cars as a gravel substitute.  As the governor noted, “We have no shortage of junked cars in Alaska!"

More to follow...