Sunday, June 26, 2016

Requiem for a Greyhound

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

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Boaty McBoatface and Brexit

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


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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right, Trump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Saturday, June 18, 2016

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was one of our own.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Laws of Nature versus Laws of Man

Is a bicycle accident preventable or inevitable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what's the point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What Death Teaches Us About Life

What does death teach us about life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is a good thing, trust me.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Danger of Bernie Bros (and Trumpsters)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pied Piper of Burlington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then again, should I be surprised by this?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Are People That Fucking Stupid? Yes We Are!



Why do we fall for the most obvious sorts of scams?  Because we are all idiots.


I am waiting for a prescription at Wal-Mart when the phone rings.  It is "Becky from Card Services" or "Survey for Free Cruise!" or whatever.  I hang up, pissed off that a junk call just cost me 10 cents on my GoPhone plan.

Yes, these calls are illegal under the DNC registry.  Good luck tracking down these folks and prosecuting them though, they are criminals and will just re-incorporate in another off-shore shell company and then use yet another tossable phone number and auto-dialer and be back in business in ten minutes.

And that right there tells you why you should never do business with "Becky" no matter what she is selling.   And the problem isn't the crooks who run these scams, but the people to bite on them.   You see, the reason why Becky keeps auto-dialing me is that there are some people out there dumb enough to think you can get something-for-nothing and as a result, Becky makes a lot of money and keeps calling.

If people stopped biting on Becky's sales pitches, these con artists would fold their tents and go out of business.   But people keep biting.   Our consumer culture is based on the lowest common denominator - the best deal you will get is often the shittiest deal some idiot would accept.

And you see this all the time.   Years ago, I was thinking of buying a used Mercedes and perhaps even leasing it (writing it off as a business expense) and then buying the residual for my personal use.   But when I went to the dealer and looked at the paperwork, I realized that what they wanted for a three-year-old off-lease car wasn't much less than a brand new one.

I pointed this out to the salesman and he basically said, "Hey, I don't have to deal with you, some other idiot will come in here and pay full price with no questions asked!" and like clockwork a Chinese couple came in and took the car as I was standing there.  It was the 1990's and everyone thought they had lots of money to spend.  Nobody offered "deals" for the simple reason that they didn't have to.  Some other idiot would bite on a shitty deal if I didn't.

If you want to get the latest smart phone, the hot new car, the latest fashions, or the coveted concert tickets, well you have to accept the deal that the most moronic person in our society thought was fair.   Because they aren't going to offer you a discount when there is an endless supply of morons who will overpay.

So raw deals abound.  Outright scams abound.  And they will always outnumber good bargains because people are idiots - blithering idiots - even people with so-called "educations."   Consider these folks, who fell for outright cons, yet have graduate degrees no less:
1.  An attorney friend of mine who fell for the "tax denier" scheme - and spent more money attending seminars, buying books and CDs than he would have just paying his taxes.  He ended up having his wages garnished and a lien put on his house.   This is not some "dumb" poor person from the ghetto, but a middle-class white guy with an Engineering degree and a law degree.   He wanted to believe easy answers, so he suspended disbelief.

2.  A young professional couple working for a "three letter agency" (hush-hush!) in the DC area, both with Master's degrees, who went to a timeshare seminar and bought a timeshare.   They profess to love it, although with work and family that haven't been there in two years.  Of course, they say they love their timeshare because they have to.   The Timeshare is the tar-baby of Real Estate - once you buy it, you can't get rid of it.  It sticks to you like glue.

3.  Chelsea Clinton's Father-in-Law, a respected investment banker, ended up falling for a Nigerian scam and stole millions from his clients to pay for it.  He ended up in jail.   A guy who should know about money falling for such and obvious con - why?
This sort of thing makes me scratch my head and wonder why.  But the more I think about it, the answer becomes clear.   It is not that we are all stupid per se, but that we are prone to thinking emotionally and also are willing to suspend disbelief when someone tells us what we want to hear.

The con-artist is a fascinating example of how human emotion and psychology can be manipulated to persuade people to do things that are really against their own self-interest.  With just a few well-chosen words, body language, and other means of manipulation, you can persuade people into doing just about anything - even smart people.   Especially smart people.

So what are these cons that these robo-callers are trying to sell you?   The "survey cruise" scheme is an attempt to get you to believe you've won a free cruise on Royal Caribbean cruise lines.  But what they are really doing is selling you a cruise on a second-rate older cruise ship with a confusingly similar name.  The cruise is "free" but with the "taxes, port fees, and gratuities" you end up spending as much as on a basic cruise.

But the worst part is, for three hours before the cruise leaves, you have to sit through a timeshare sales presentation.  Then once you get on the boat (where you can't escape) you have to sit through another timeshare sales presentation.    If you buy, you are really screwed.  If you don't buy, well, you've paid too much to go on a second-class cruise.

Another scheme is refinancing.  "Becky from Card Services" wants to talk to you about your credit card!   It sounds like you are in trouble with your card company, but what they want to do is refinance your credit or supposedly offer you a lower rate - all for a fee, of course.  It is a rip-off.

In fact, anything sold to you over the phone or via robo-call is a rip-off.  It is pretty self-evident, if you think about it.  The robo-caller like the SPAM e-mailer is counting on an infinitesimal response rate, but a finite rate nevertheless.  If one in a million people say "yes" to your shitty offer, you need only send out a few million e-mails to get a few grade-A prime chumps on the line.   The dumbest among us are thus responsible for these robocalls and SPAM.   We could go after the spammers, I suppose, or maybe just bump off the dumbest 1%.   The net result would be the same.

But that is why this shit will never end.   People are giving up their landlines today because no one calls other than scammers.   It just isn't worth spending $30 a month or even $30 a year to keep a phone line open for fraudsters.    And on cell phones, most people - if they answer calls at all anymore - screen them out and refuse to pick up for an unidentified phone number.   Because a few stupid people responded to scammers, and because we can't go (choose not to go) after these scammers using technology, we've basically abandoned voice communication in America.

But wait, it gets worse.   We have SPAM filters and all of that, but you still get scams on e-mail.  Easier to deal with, to be sure - just click on "delete" or "SPAM" and they go away - for a while.   But they don't go away.  They come back, again and again, and we have to start this dance over and over again.

Of course, a lot of people don't even e-mail anymore so they use Facebook or Twitter, or Snapchat, or they Text on their phones.  Guess what?  SPAM, SPAM, and more SPAM - just like a Monty Python bit.

Sadly, it will never end.  It never will.  So long as people are stupid, there will be con artists and scammers.   In the year 2250, when we all communicate through brain implants, you will hear a voice in your head say, "Congratulations!  You've won the Microsoft Lottery!"

Shit never ends, does it?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Listening to Your Car





Being in touch with your car means listening to it.


A lot of folks have a hard time with cars, mostly because they don't understand how they work.   And since they don't pay attention to their cars, they take small problems and turn them into big ones, or worse yet, get stuck somewhere.

Listening to your car will help you understand whether it is working properly.   And a lot of noises cars make tell you whether something is working right or not.   Not all noises are bad things, either.  In fact, it is often the absence of noise that tells you something has gone wrong.


1.  Fuel Pump:   In many cars, when you turn the ignition key to the "on" position, the electronic fuel pump turns on for a brief moment.   It stays on for just a second, until the fuel system is pressurized, and then shuts off.  Modern cars use fuel injection which requires pressurized fuel from an electronic pump, usually located under the car or in the gas tank itself.

Listen for this whine of the fuel pump the next time you start your car.  Turn the key to the on position and see if you can hear it.   If you don't, don't worry - so long as the car starts.   Some newer cars have quieter fuel pumps, and of course, these push-button start cars don't allow you to pause with the key in the "on" position.

If your car does make this noise, and one day decides not to start, check to see whether the fuel pump is turning on.   It could be something as simple as a blown fuse or a crash sensor.   Many cars have a sensor that detects whether there has been a crash and then shuts off the fuel pump to prevent everyone from being sprayed with flaming gasoline.   Usually there is a reset button in the trunk or hatch to reset this sensor, if it is set off by accident.  Consult your owner's manual and see if you have one.

By the way, running a car out of gas is really bad for the fuel pump (in most cases).   In some cars, the fuel pump is in the tank itself (making replacement a pain in the butt) and the gasoline in the tank actually cools the pump.  Running the tank to empty will shorten the life of the fuel pump and leave you stranded somewhere someday.

2.  Fan Roar:  Most cars today have multiple cooling fans.  Some have electric fans only, others have an engine-driven fan supplemented by an electronic cooling fan that kicks in when the engine gets hotter or if the A/C is turned on.

The engine driven fan usually has a thermostatically controlled clutch ("fan clutch") that engages the fan when additional cooling is necessary.  When you first start the car, you may hear the engine-driven fan "roar" for a few moments before the clutch disengages.   Make a note of this.   If you stop hearing this roar on cold starts, maybe your fan clutch is bad.

Similarly, if your auxiliary cooling fan goes South, the A/C may not work well.  When you turn the A/C on, you should hear this fan go on (or if you can see it when you open the hood, it should start turning).   If not, you need to see your A/C specialist.

By the way, fan roar is normal when it is hot out.   Many folks "freak out" when they are driving their car or truck, under load, on a hot day and the engine temperature goes up.   The fan clutch engages and suddenly you hear this "roar" from under the hood as the fan kicks in.  This is normal.   A lot of folks go so far as to seek out a mechanic, convinced the car is breaking down.

Of course, engine-driven fans are becoming a thing of the past, as more and more cars have electric fans only (particularly front-wheel drive cars).   But in trucks and some SUVs, as well as some sports cars, engine-driven fans are still the norm, and fan roar is still normal - on startup, and when the vehicle is under load on a hot day.

3.  Compressor Noise:   Similarly, when you turn the A/C on, an electronic clutch on the A/C compressor is engaged to start the A/C system.   You should hear this and also note a minor change in engine speed.   If your A/C suddenly stops working and you don't hear the usual noise (and see if the A/C pulley moving with the hood up) then chances are you have a bad A/C clutch, or the system is so low on charge, that the low pressure sensor has shut down the A/C system.

4.  Belt Noise:  Almost all modern cars have serpentine belts, eliminating the fussy v-belts of yore, that required constant adjustment.   But of course, serpentine belts have their own issues - they crack and dry out and stretch and the tensioners go south with regularity.

If your car is running normally, you should hear no noises at all.   However, if you have let the car sit for a while, particularly in a damp climate or if it was put away wet, you may hear some chirping on startup.  It is a regular "chirp, chirp, chirp" that gets progressively quieter until it goes away.  This is just rust from the pulleys working its way off.

However, as cars age, the tensioner (which is a pulley with a spring attached to it) may start to weaken, causing belt tension to loosen, which will cause chirping and squealing.   You will notice it when the A/C is turned on, or you turn the wheel hard (activating the power steering pump) or even turning on the headlights (causing a load on the alternator).   Some cars have separate belts for the A/C, and thus you can diagnose which belt has gone by listing for the squeal when you turn the A/C on.

In the old days when we had separate V-belts for every engine accessory, you could spot which belt was going South by listening for the squeal when turning the wheel (power steering pump belt) or when you turned on the headlights or some other electrical load (alternator belt).   The point is, you can figure these things out, if you listen carefully or even try.   A lot of folks "live with" squealing belts until they break and leave them stranded.  This is a shitty plan.

By the way, if you replace a belt that is going South, keep the old one in your spare tire well.   Belts can be hard to find, late a night on a Sunday, and the spare will get you home and a local gas station mechanci can replace it - or you can even do it yourself.   Save the old belt as a spare.

5.  Battery:   As I noted in earlier postings, if you are really astute, you can hear when a Battery is about to go South.   When you crank the engine you may hear it seem to be slightly slower that normal.  But this change is so subtle and takes place over time that few people notice it.

In the movies, they use a sound effect that was taken from a 1940 Dodge with a six-volt electrical system.  In those cars, when the battery went South, it would crank slower and slower and them stop cranking.   People expect that kind of behavior today from 12-volt systems, and it largely doesn't work that way.   Modern cars start one day and then don't the next.  All you hear is the "click" of the solenoid, and then not even that.

But again, if you are astute, you will notice that the car cranks a little slower than when new, and if the battery is a few years old (five or so) it may be time to replace it.   And if it was going bad, you will notice the difference with the higher-pitched sound when you start the car with the new battery.

6.  Tires:   Tire noise is annoying and wears on your spirit.  Here in Georiga we have "noisy pavement" that makes a grinding noise as you drive on it.   When you hit the Florida border - blessed silence!   Why this is, I don't know, other than I presume we use cheaper pavement.

But tires wear over time, and modern radial tires tend to "feather" as they wear.   Again, the process is gradual.  When the car is new, it is silent.  Over time, the tire noise gets louder and louder and you have to turn up the radio.

Rotating your tires is a good way to cut down on this noise and make them last longer.   If you run your hand over the tires, particularly the front ones, you may notice it feels smooth in one direction but catches your hand in the other.  This is classic "feathering" and it is somewhat normal.   The front-end of a car isn't straight, but instead, the tires are slightly (ever so slightly) pigeon-toed (what we call "toe-in") to keep the car driving straight.

This does cause more rolling resistance - and many car makers set very low toe-in at the factory in order to up gas mileage.  This in turn causes many modern cars to have a vague and wandering feel.   Our truck was this way, until we dialed in a little more toe-in, and now it tracks straight.

But over time, tires wear in a pattern and this pattern can cause noise.  Rotating the tires regularly (every 10,000 miles or so) can cause them to last 10,000 miles longer and also reduce tire noise.

And it goes without saying that before you decide to put "monster truck" tires on your truck or SUV you should think about tire noise.   The grinding noise you hear going down the road will wear on your nerves over time, cost you a lot in fuel economy, and cause a lot of tire wear.   And for what?   The appearance that you are going to go off-road but never do?   Just own up to reality and get regular tires and be happy.

* * * 

These are just a few sounds your car may make that you should be aware of - when they occur and when they stop occurring.   It always amazes me when someone says, "My car won't start!" and I ask them if the fuel pump is running.  "How would I know that?" they reply.  "Well, did you hear it kick on when you turned the key?" And they reply, "I dunno, I never notice those sorts of things!"

Similarly, when their A/C stops working,  you ask, "Well, did the compressor come on?  What about the auxiliary cooling fan?" and again you get the blank stare.   They know when their refrigerator or air conditioner is running in their home, but for some reason, the noises their car makes are an utter mystery to them.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The (New) Great Dictators

Has the rise of fascism in the 21st century followed an historical pattern?  Perhaps.

After the stock market crash of 1929, a lot of interesting shit happened.   People wanted change and they voted for it - electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President.   Folks on the Right were appalled by Roosevelt, and thought his "new deal" was some new form of Communism.

But folks on the Left through that Roosevelt didn't nearly go far enough.  They wanted to overthrow Capitalism entirely - and many young people were drawn to the Communist party or parties sympathetic to Communism.   They looked to Russia as an example of how things should be run.   Later on, in the 1950's during the "Red Scare" many of these same folks regretted flirting with Communism in their youth.

It was a heady time for liberalism.   People were promoting far-left ideas in many parts of the world.  In Wiemar Germany, liberalism reached a new pinnacle.   People were living openly as gay and forming clubs and organizations to promote alternative lifestyles.   For a brief heady period (as described in the move Cabaret) Germany was a bastion of liberalism.

But at the same time that wild liberal solutions to the world's problems were being bandied about, others were proposing wilder solutions of another kind.    In response to the perceived "failure" of existing governments, many proposed that we hand over power to one strong-man who would "get things done" and make the trains run on time.

The appeal of Communism and Fascism, it turned out, was the same appeal.   Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo, and Stalin had one thing in common - they didn't have to answer to anyone for their actions, and they were more than willing to use brutality and violence to achieve their end goals.

Even as world economies improved (or perhaps because they improved) liberalism started to fade and fade fast, and fascism quickly took its place.   And we know how that worked out - minorities and dissidents were snuffed out or marginalized, and the bloodiest war in history was fought.

Today, we see the same pattern.   A worldwide economic collapse followed by the popularity of both extreme liberalism (socialism and communism) as well as far-right neo-fascism.   And this is happening in a number of places around the world, all at the same time.

Here in America, we are polarized by the "lite" versions of this trend.   We have Bernie on the far-left promoting a socialist agenda, while Trump on the far-right promises to rule by imperial decree.   This is bad enough, but what is going on overseas is truly frightening.

The President of Turkey, Erdo─čan, has been jailing journalists and anyone who dares to speak out against him -  a pattern we are seeing in other countries in the region, such as Egypt.   Freedom of the press is the first victim of the assault by the far-right.

In Russia, people embrace Billionaire Vladmir Putin, who is now firmly in power, perhaps for life.   A new nationalist fever is sweeping the country, and dissidents and anyone who doesn't fit in to his new world order is beaten or even killed.

Nearby, in Poland, a new right-wing government has basically neutralized the judiciary, and like Putin, seems prepared to rule indefinitely.  And even though the Ukraine is fighting against Russia, they are largely fighting to support their own dictatorial and corrupt government.

As you go around the world, you see the same pattern repeated again and again.   Sharia law being proposed in country after country.   President Maduro in Venezuela calling out the military to suppress dissent and threatening to dissolve Parliament (who wants him removed from power).   A new President in the Philippines who threatens to shoot journalists who disagree with him - and has already done so as Mayor.

Why would the Philippine people elect such a thug?   He promises law and order in a lawless land.   With Islamic terrorists in parts of the country kidnapping, and just ordinary crime in the big cities, people are fed up with normal tactics and "human rights".   A man who promises to use vigilante death squads to keep the peace seems like an easy solution to difficult problems.

Of course, easy solutions are rarely the right ones.   Death squads sound fine and all, until they knock on your door one night.  Once they get done with dissidents, journalists, and "criminals" they won't stop.   And absolute power means they can take whatever they want - and kill those who object.  You own a store?  You'd better pay off the death squad, or find your body bleeding in the street.

People are just not thinking this through.

The pattern of these developments is eerily reminiscent of earlier times.   And the pattern is almost an exact match.   First we have economic chaos - recession, depression, and people in dire straits - or perceiving themselves to be so.   Second, folks start to embrace far-out political theories - convinced that present governments are "broken" and unable to address crime, economic problems, or whatnot.   Third, we have the movement that is most prone to using force or violence coming out on top.

Look at the refugee problem in Europe and see how the pattern works.  The refugees from various middle-eastern and African countries are leaving impoverished and war-torn countries for a better life.  They are not staying and fighting for their homelands but instead fleeing, leaving the strong, powerful, and ruthless to dominate in their former homes.

Meanwhile, the influx of refugees in Europe leads to the rise of nationalistic and neo-fascist parties there, bootstrapping the move rightward.   The Left, of course, is powerless to fight back, as they believe in political and non-violent solutions to these problems.  The Right burns down a refugee camp.

The only "Leftists" who survive are those like Maduro who are more fascist than Leftist, as they are willing to use brute force and rule by dictate in order to stay in power.   It becomes a perfect fascist world-wide circle-jerk.

It is hard to say where this will all lead, other than to more and more misery.   Here in the United States, we might be subject to only the "Lite" version of this nonsense, provided people still respect the rule of law.   Given the fantastic amount of gun and ammunition sales in recent years, as well as the increasingly violent rhetoric of the far-right, it is possible that we might see things unwind here, and in a real hurry.    So far, the far-right hasn't had a dynamic leader to form a coalition of the gun nuts, sovereign citizens, end-times theologians, and tea-party nut-bags.    I think many were hoping Trump would be that leader, but I am not sure he is entirely that crazy.   But I've been wrong about Trump before.

Whatever the outcome, I can only assume it will get worse before it will get better.   People toss away a good thing in favor of some promise of wealth and prosperity.   It is only when the promises are broken that folks realize that what we had was a pretty good thing, and then they pine to go back to that.

What is scary to me is that we have become accustomed to the violence, intimidation, and bullying tactics that are going on, worldwide.   The new President of the Philippines promises to kill journalists using language startlingly similar to Trump:

Duterte raised the case of Jun Pala, a journalist and politician who was murdered in Davao in 2003. Gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead Pala, who was a vocal critic of Duterte. His murder has never been solved. “If you are an upright journalist, nothing will happen to you,” said Duterte, who has ruled Davao as mayor for most of the past two decades and is accused of links to vigilante death squads.

“The example here is Pala. I do not want to diminish his memory but he was a rotten son of a bitch. He deserved it.”

That last quote sounds exactly like something Trump would say - in his typical double-talk.  I do not want to diminish his memory but he was a rotten son of a bitch.  This about a man you had murdered.


Classic Trump! 

What is odd is that no one really seems to care.  Tony Soprano has been elected President of the Philippines and promises a reign of terror and no one seems to care, just as they don't care about what is going on in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, or anywhere else for that matter.   

Perhaps we are just too overwhelmed by bad news these days.  We want to hang on to what we have and the rest of the world can go sit on a tack.

Which falls into the same pattern we had in the 1930's - a return to isolationism, and a lack of alarm over alarming incidents happening all over the world.


Just the sound of history repeating....

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Perils of Refinancing

How much can you save?   Taking on more debt - which almost always happens in a refinance - doesn't necessarily save you anything, even if it frees up "cash flow".   Cash flow isn't wealth.


I received a refinancing offer in the mail the other day.   Since I don't have a mortgage, it was of no use to me.  But it was fascinating as to how these deals work and how they get people (including me, in the past) into trouble.

As I noted in earlier postings, there are a number of ways to "time shift" money, and borrowing is one of the most obvious ones.   You can borrow money now and end up in a world of woe later, even though things seem swell for the first few years.  It is like selling one of your kidneys.   All fun and games and  a new  car when you are in your 20's.  But later on, you'll pay the price when your remaining kidney is shot.

Refinancing is appealing as it lowers monthly cash-flow rates.  During the high-interest-rate era of the 1980's and 1990's many of us had mortgages as high as 14%.   I had one at 11-5/8% at one time.  An offer to refinance at "only" 8% seemed like a godsend at the time, even though it negatively affected my finances overall, due to my poor financial habits.

And one of those bad habits was taking "cash out" to pay off other debts.   You see, when the refinance game started (when interest rates went down in the 1990's) the deal was to lower your rate, which is what I did when we refinanced for the first time.   Our monthly payment was lower (whoo-hoo!) but of course, we basically pissed away what little we had paid down on the loan for the first five years - and added more to cover closing costs.

As the refinancing market got saturated and rates declined, they started offering "cash out" deals to allow people to pay off higher interest loans, such as car loans and credit card loans.   Take a short-term loan, amortize it over 30 years, add to the balance on your mortgage, throw in a few grand in junk fees and points, and while your monthly payment is lower, your overall net worth is lower as well.

When that well was pumped dry, they started offering ARMs, which is where the trouble began.   Once people got addicted to ARMs, they went with even lower and lower rates - often "come on" rates of a few percentage points (whose actual cost was made up in points).   This lowered monthly payments for a few years, but eventually the piper has to be paid.

Let's take a look at this offer in the mail and see why it could be a harmful deal.  Today, it is hard to get much lower than the fixed rates of 4.5% or so.   Thus, the refinance people have to resort to games, such as floating ARMs, to get you to refinance.   This offer is for a 2.75% 5/1 ARM which has an effective annual rate of 3.463%.

For a mortgage of $355,000.12 (the offered amount) the monthly payment sis $1449.26.  If you are coming from a 4.75% mortgage with a payment of $1852 per month, this is a "savings" of over $400 per month, but only in cash-flow.  There are no actual savings.

You see, you are resetting the clock on the mortgage to 30 years again, so you might end up paying more interest overall by refinancing.   For example, if you compare the two 30-year mortgages, you would see that at 4.75% you are paying $311,665.30 in interest over 30 years.   This is a lot more than the $166,732.23 at 2.75% over 30 years - in fact almost double.   Of course, the 2.75% loan is only that rate for five years, so it is really a false comparison.
But assume you've had your house for 10 years and have been making payments at the 4.75% rate.  Your remaining balance is only $285,847 or so, and over the remaining 20 years, you'll pay only $157,483.60 in interest.  The same amount, refinanced over 30 years, will yield $134,253 in interest payments, a much, much smaller "savings" than 50%.   But again, no one is offering 2.75% for 30 years, only for five years.  And even then, not 2.75%.

You see, the mortgage requires two "discount points" which means you have to pay two percent of the balance of the mortgage at the onset.   For our $355,000 mortgage, this comes to $7100 added to the balance of the loan (with interest paid on that as well!).   And if you are looking to refinance, well, you ain't got $7100 laying around, so you do fold it into the balance of the loan.   So right off the bat, you are $7100 poorer than when you started.   And let's not forget "origination fees" and "document fees" and "overnight courier fees" (often charged even when nothing is overnighted) and other "junk fees" added into a loan.   You may also need an appraisal, so throw in $300 to $1000 for that (the later what we paid in New York State!).

And this assumes you aren't taking "cash out" (adding even more to the balance of the loan) to pay off other debts, such as credit cards and cars or student loans or whatever.  Taking a car loan of five years and amortizing it over 30 isn't saving you money, it is costing you more, as you will end up paying a lot more interest.

But the real kicker is that after five years, the loan "resets" at prevailing rates.  Currently, these rates are around 3.5% to 4.0% with no points (which goes to show you, getting a loan in response to some mailing is a shoddy idea).  What those rates will be like in five years is anyone's guess.   Given that rates today are at historic lows, it makes no sense to go with an ARM.   It is all but guaranteed that rates in five years will be far, far higher than today.

Let's assume Harry and Harriet Homeowner bite on this deal.   They borrow the $355,000 offered in the mailing, have the required 740 credit score and Harriet is a vet (as required by the loan terms).   They had a balance of $285,847 on their house, but had two car loans, student loans, and credit card debt totaling about $60,000.  With the points on the loan and closing costs, the total comes up to $355,000 - the amount offered in the mailing.   They go to closing and put no cash down and eliminate all of their monthly loan bills for one low monthly payment of $1449.26

The Homeowners are ecstatic.    They have taken a monthly cash-flow requirement of well over $3000 for credit card debt, student loan debt, and car payments, and reduced it to under $1500.  No more struggling to pay the monthly bills!  No more nagging credit card debt that was increasing over time!

Now, if they were smart, they would take that $1500 a month they were putting into higher interest debt and applying to this lower-interest debt and bring down the balance in a real hurry.  

But they aren't smart.   They are human.   How do you think they accumulated all this debt in the first place?   Plus, the credit card company, seeing their balance drop to zero overnight, sends them a letter saying, "Congratulations Mr. & Mrs. Homeowner!   In view of your excellent payment history, we've increased your credit line to $20,000!"  - and that was just for one of their four major credit cards.

So rather than try to chip away at this debt, they go out and spend more.   And quite frankly, the amount of "surplus" income in their cash flow isn't the $1500 a month they are "saving" in debt payments.   Since they were living beyond their means for years, they were living on borrowed money - which is why their credit card debt kept increasing and why it was quickly becoming intractable credit card debt.

And that is why the Homeowners bit on this refinancing deal in the first place - they were starting to get desperate.  The credit card bills weren't getting paid on time and the limits on the credit cards were being breached on a monthly basis.   The refinancing offer was a lifeline.

Compounding this problem is the fact they refinanced on an ARM.   After five years, the rate resets to "market rates" which could be 5% or more.  They could be 7%.   Who knows what they will be in five years or ten?   And no, you can't "refinance" at that point to a lower rate, as the rates have gone up.   And since they have added to the balance of their debt, if market values ever go down, they cannot refinance as the debt-to-equity ratio can't exceed 70%.

(Quite frankly, the limits imposed on these offers are so strict, few qualify for the best of terms, as I am assuming the Homeowners have here).

And in five years, well, their old cars have worn out and the Homeowners bought new ones - and ran up more credit card debt.   Plus they needed that new furnace and the kids needed braces.   And of course, they took that "dream vacation" after refinancing, as they could "afford it now".

The end result is, even more debt piled upon debt.   And now they can't refinance again, as they are maxed out on debt load - in terms of their income and the equity in their house.   They literally have no where to turn.   And if they start making late payments on credit cards, or worse yet, their mortgage, their credit rating will be shot, making refinancing impossible.

Now all of this may sound harsh, but it is based on real-world experience - that of myself and my neighbors.  I was never so dumb as to go for the ARM, but I did do a few refinances in my day, adding to the balances of loans, taking out cash, and generally being an idiot.    And yes, I went right out and spent that "savings" in my monthly cash-flow rather than apply it toward reducing debt as I should have.

Others I know did even dumber things and were unlucky (or dumb) to get caught in the downturn of 2009.   They refinanced again and again (one lawyer cheerfully telling me she was a "serial refinancer" - as if this was something to be proud of.  She had a $5000 pocketbook).   And when Real Estate values went South, they got upset and asked "who took all the money away?" when in fact no one did, they just spent phantom equity in their home on vacations and handbags and luxury cars, and now they owed all the money they spent.

Now to be sure, refinancing isn't always a nightmare.   Most people don't stay in their homes for 30 years and pay off their mortgage over time.   The average person moves every 5-10 years depending on region and demographics.   This makes the 2% in "points" all the more lucrative for the banks.   Serial refinancers end up adding these points to a loan over and over again.

 But if your house continues to increase in value over time, and you make your payments (and maybe make a few extra to bring down the balance) you can sell out and walk away with no debt.   But if you have loaded up your house with debt, there may be no equity to take out at the end of the day (particularly after paying 6% commission and closing fees) to use a down payment on another house.

Also if you have only 20 years left on your current loan (or 25 or whatever), refinancing for the same term might make sense, as it insures you really are paying less in interest.   Not only that, the rates for 15 and 20 years mortgages are far less than for 30 year ones, and competitive with ARMs amortized over 30 years.

And it goes without saying that a fixed rate mortgage with no fees or points (if you can get one!) is going to be a better deal in the long run than paying 2% for the privilege of borrowing money.

If I had been smarter about refinancing, I would have refinanced for a shorter term (20 years) equal to the current length of the loan I had.  And I would have shopped around aggressively on price and points to get the lowest rates and least amount of add-on fees.   Instead of adding to the balance of the loan, I would have been decreasing it.

And rather than celebrating a refinance as an example of stellar financial acumen and spending yet more money, I should have taken it as a warning sign that I was living beyond my means.

But a lot of folks (including myself) did the opposite.   Offered cheap and easy money, we took it and failed to think about how we were going to pay it back.   Once you have loaded a house up with debt, your equity drops to nothing.  And a lot of people end up "staying in their house" for this reason.   How many folks have you heard say, "Well, there is no point in selling, as I wouldn't get much more for it than the loan balance, and then where would I go?"

I was fortunate (or smart) to sell out at the peak of the market, pay off these debts and walk away with cash.   We can't always count on being fortunate or smart, particularly today.   Refinancing sounds like a lot of fun, and the carrot of the lower monthly payment is awfully attractive.   But it can be a trap for the unwary.   If you are thinking of refinancing, make sure it is part of an overall financial plan, and not just time-shifting more debt so you can live beyond your means today.