Thursday, December 31, 2015

Big Data, Bad Data

More than ever, it seems, data, statistics, surveys, polls, ratings, and reviews are flung in our face.  Are any of these good indicia of what reality is?


In my last few postings, I was ranting (and yes, I rant) about shitty surveys, statistics, and polls.  And if you came to this blog looking for ruminations on finances, you might wonder why I talk about this.

Well, as I have noted before, it is not hard to succeed in America, if you act rationally in an irrational world.    If you can perceive reality as it is, rather than as you'd like it to be, you can make rational choices in life and get ahead.

On the other hand, if you live in a fantasy-world, you will continue to make poor choices in life (in every sense of the word) and end up miserable.

The problem is, how do we go about perceiving reality?   And compounding this problem is that there are a whole lot of forces in the world that want to skew your perception of reality.

Who am I talking about?   Merchants.  Marketers.  Religions.  Politicians.  Con Artists.   The usual suspects.

They want to distort your vision of reality so they can get at your pocketbook and get you to do something against your own self-interest.

And surveys, polls, statistics, studies, online reviews, awards, credentialism, and whatnot are used to persuade you of things that would be plainly untrue to the average six-year-old.   But they get away with it - a lot.   We are lied to on a regular basis.

The three problems with surveys, statistics, and polls is that an awful lot of bad data is collected, it is processed poorly, and then improper conclusions are drawn from it.

For example, in my last posting, some grad students at Cornell set out to prove that people order more food when they have a fat waitress.   Right off the bat you see the problem - they have a conclusion they want to reach, and set out to find data to prove it.   The data sample size was pathetically small, based on a small region of the country (not nationwide) and based on visual observation not on actual measurement.   The data is poor.

The processing of the data, I can find no fault with, as it appears they used standard statistical processes - although the correlation does seem a little weak.

And the conclusions - well they are forgone, as the set out to prove the conclusion, which tainted the whole study.

This is, of course, typical of most bad data out there.  And historically, most data has been bad.   Consider surveys and polls.   A.C. Nielsen has provided "ratings" for decades on television shows (and radio shows) based largely on self-reported data in the form of "diaries" kept by a self-selected number of users.   Today they have improved somewhat by using an electronic "Nielsen box" - but even those are problematic.

I was once asked to be a "Nielsen family" and it was interesting.   They sent me a diary and I was supposed to fill it out.   The initial selection of course, was apparently random.  Or was it?   It was random based on an address database they had no doubt purchased.   So right off the bat, people not on an address database (people who move often, such as college students) are not selected.

Second, I had to respond to the request.   A lot of folks would toss the whole thing in the garbage.   You had to desperately want to be a Nielsen family to be selected.   So there is a second level of filtering.   Busy people - people with good incomes - don't have time to fill out "diaries" every day.

The third level really filtered people out - and it filtered me out.   I was told to keep a "diary" for a couple of weeks, and then they would evaluate my diary and see if I qualified.   Since I was working three jobs and going to night school, I didn't fill out the diary regularly, so I was filtered out.   The fact that I didn't have time to watch much television probably didn't help matters any - they wanted people who watched a lot.  An empty diary doesn't tell them much, does it?

Yet, for years, the television networks lived and died by this data, which of course in my mind, is highly suspect, only because the raw data is skewed.   And the Nielsen people know this, which is why they are always looking for better ways to track viewership and listenership.

The mother of all poor polling incidents.   You would have thought we would have learned from that!

Polls work the same way.   We live and die by poll data, it seems.  But in the last few Presidential elections, it seems the polls have been off.   Close elections were called as landslides by the polls.   What the polls called as close elections, were landslides.   And different polls often contradicted one another.

Yet some people - half-seriously - think we should dispense with elections and just use poll data to elect politicians. 

The problem with poll data is the same problem with surveys - the raw data.   There is a huge filtering effect in polling in that only people who want to be polled will answer polls.   Also, only people who can be reached will answer polls.

In Truman's era, it was said that a lot of rural voters, who didn't have telephones, voted for Truman.   Since the polls were based on telephone calls, a huge portion of his support was under-reported.   So the pollsters and political hacks thought for sure that Truman's time as President was up.   They were very wrong.

Today we have a different problem.  Well, two different problems.   First, people rely on cell phones.   And most people use caller ID to screen their calls.   So if you call people to poll them, they may let the call "bounce" to voice-mail and you don't get their opinion.   You particularly miss young people this way.  Only old folks have "land lines" anymore, and are willing to answer calls from strangers and think that their opinion matters.

The second problem is that we are over-saturated with surveys and polls, and many of these today are just scams used as come-ons to steal money from people.   So when you call up with a "survey" most people - particularly young people - will assume you are trying to scam them.   We have reached survey saturation.

Paper surveys have the same problem.   You can't reach young people who are on the move, and younger people are not going to fill out a 10-page survey as they are too busy.    Even online surveys go on for a frustratingly long number of pages - usually to extract demographic data from you - and many folks just get tired and quit - or just refuse to answer surveys.

The problem with all surveys, of course is that we lie a lot - to ourselves and others.   For example, based on self-reported survey data, 70% of all people claim they do not carry a balance on their credit cards.   But the credit card companies, who can tell you the real data with a push of a button on a computer, report that 70% actually do.   We lie to ourselves - and survey-takers.   Someone carrying a balance will say they don't because they ordinarily don't or so they think, not realizing they have been paying revolving interest for over a year.   We lie about our income.  We lie about our gas mileage.  We lie about our weight.  Men lie about their penis size.  We lie like rugs.  Self-reported data is the most suspect of all, rendering most surveys almost entirely worthless.

There is a lot to parse in this simple advertising phrase.

Credentialism is another aspect of surveys and data that is highly suspect.   The above ad for Trident was beaten into our heads on the television from the 1960's onward.   But almost every word of this advertising phrase is suspect and can be picked apart.   First of all is the phrase "dentists surveyed" - how were these dentists selected?  Randomly?  The ones who responded to a mailed survey?  Telephone calls?  What?   What questions were asked?  Was it "do you recommend sugarless gum for patients?" or was it "do you recommend Trident sugarless gum for patients?"   There is a difference.

The second part of the phrase is telling, too - "for their patients who chew gum."   In other words, these dentists may be saying "oh, don't chew gum, that stuff is awful for your teeth!  But if you insist on doing it, at least use a sugarless gum!"  - this is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Then there is the conclusion - tacked onto the logo above - that "sugarless gum is good for your teeth."  I am not sure this is a valid conclusion based on the statement below it.   The 4 out of 5 dentists are only saying if you have to chew gum, use a sugarless one.  Are they saying you should chew gum as it is good for your teeth?  I don't think so.

But of course, the under-the-radar thing here is credentialism that dentists are saying this, and as we all know, dentists are geniuses.   Actually, not.  There are a lot of idiot dentists and even doctors out there (and certainly lawyers).   We have a neurosurgeon running for President who thinks the pyramids in Egypt were built by Jews to store grain.  What little respect I had for doctors (and Presidential candidates) is out the window at this point.

When I was a kid, I used to think that Doctors and Lawyers were really smart people - and some of them indeed are.   But after becoming a lawyer, I realized how easy it is to get a law degree and pass the bar exam (no really).  Moreover, since I get the journals of both the Virginia and Georgia bars, I read every month the staggering number of people who are disciplined or disbarred for utterly stupid things.  There are a whole lot of idiots out there with law degrees, and medical ones.

Yet, in any debate, a losing side will resort to credentialism to prop up a shitty argument.  If their argument doesn't make sense on its face they will come up with a list of important people who they say agree with it.   They don't answer the counter-argument or say why their argument is correct.  They merely prop it up with names of important people, as if this were enough.

Related to this is the "awards" phenomenon.   Sooze Orman lists herself as an "internationally acclaimed" financial adviser, which is an interesting credential.    Someone from Canada once said something nice about me, so I guess I am "Internationally Acclaimed" as well.

A lot of awards are based on surveys - such as the J.D. Powers awards.  But since these awards are paid for by the companies they are awarded to, you have to be skeptical.  Often a new category will be created just so that some manufacturer will win.  And often these end up sounding pretty dumb - "Award for best mid-sized American-made SUV from a company with the initials G and M in its name" - that sort of thing.

Worse yet are awards or accolades given on entirely subjective evaluations.   Car magazines, such as Road and Track and Car and Driver (the same company, basically) will do a "mini-van shootout!" article and then award the first prize to the company that bought the most advertising pages.   They do this by weighting the "analysis" with subjective criteria.  "The Honda Odyssey topped in almost every category, and would have been the winner, but since 70% of our evaluation is based on ashtray location, the Chevy Astro van wins again!

Motor Trend, of course, is the worst of these, as its "Car of the Year" award seems to have either picked a total turd of a car, since 1970, or has acted as a curse on the car company in question (with Volkswagen being cursed this year, after winning last year).  Yet people rely on this data (and that of Consumer Reports, which is also famously inaccurate - calling the Tesla the "best car ever made" one year, and "unacceptable" the next) to make serious financial car-buying decisions.  Bad data leads to bad choices.

Even "hard" data can be soft, in many instances.  For example, data on crime rates, which would seem to be pretty easy to acquire, based on crime reports taken by the Police, can be inaccurate as different police organizations classify crimes in different manners.   Worse yet, some police departments are under political pressure to report fewer crimes so it makes it look like crime rates are going down when they may be going up, in that jurisdiction.   The FBI had tried to quantify "hate crimes" and "mass shootings" but has had trouble, as not every police department keeps similar records or quantifies these things in the same manner.

Statistics, even if they are based on "good" data, can be misleading, if the conclusions drawn are inaccurate or simply not justified.   For example, it is widely touted that the USA incarcerates more people than any other Western nation - indeed perhaps more than any nation, other than China.  And while "people of color" make up about 30 percent of the United States' population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. 

Now, if you are a racist, you may use this data to argue that non-whites are morally inferior and more likely to commit crimes.   However that is a conclusory statement based on correlation not causation.

If you are a Lefty, you might use this same statistic to say that the USA is fundamentally flawed and that the justice system is "racist".   There may be a nugget of truth to that, when you consider the same judge in Texas who sentenced the "affluenza" teen to 10 years of probation for killing four people, sentenced a black teen to 10 years in jail for a very similar crime.

On the other hand, you might note that poverty rates among blacks are higher, as a percentage, among whites, and that impoverished people tend to commit crimes more often, get caught more often, get prosecuted more often, get convicted more often, and get longer jail sentences.  

 We have made a lot of progress in the "war on poverty" it would seem.

But you might also note there are more white "poor" people in the USA, simply because whites outnumber non-whites by more than 2 to 1.  So if the poverty argument is to make any sense, there would be more white people in jail than blacks.  Also, note from the chart above, that poverty rates have declined among minorities, since the 1960's.   I am not aware also whether black incarceration rates have gone up or down in recent years, accordingly.


This chart shows an interesting trend.   Our "get tough on crime" and "war on drugs" has increased our prison population considerably.


So what is the correct answer?   I think there is more than one.   I don't think non-whites are morally inferior to whites.  However, in many minority communities, a culture of criminality - celebrated in movies, music, and our culture - has been created in recent decades.   While there are Black gangs and Hispanic gangs (e.g., crips and bloods) there are few nationally-known white gangs of similar stature.

And the reason for this is that white poverty tends to be rural poverty, and thus the gang mentality and the culture of criminality that is prevalent in cities tends not to take hold in the country.   Perhaps there is a survey that validates this.   Perhaps no one has bothered to ask.    Do poor white kids who grow up in the inner city end up in jail more often than poor white kids who live in a trailer in the country and go to the evangelical church?   I suspect so.

(That is one reason I say, as a personal choice, to get the fuck out of the ghetto any way you can.  If you live in such an impoverished, inner-city neighborhood where criminality and criminals are celebrated, it is only a matter of time before you are a victim of a criminal, you become a criminal, or one of your children becomes a criminal.   Why people stay in shitty neighborhoods is beyond me.  And no, it is often not a matter of what you can "afford" but choosing to have consumer goods over a good address.)

So that is one aspect.   Racism is indeed another, but maybe not as strong at the first.    Black offenders are given longer sentences and prosecuted more often than white ones.  While often this is because the white offender has a better lawyer, it may also be true that there is an institutional bias.   But I don't think that explains it entirely, as the prosecution rate of minorities in cities where the arresting officer, the prosecutor, and even the judge are likely to be minorities as well, seems to be just as high.

And the third answer is, as shown in the chart above, the increased incarceration rates in the US.   The "three strikes and you're out" law, which was part of our "get tough on crime" program, put people into jail who in the past would be through a revolving door of prison again and again.   You may be too young to remember this, but in the late 1970's crime rates soared (again, see the chart above) and places like New York City were basically unsafe.  Times Square was a place where you got mugged.  The New York Subway was like a graffiti-covered urinal - and a good place to get mugged as well.

And another part of this was the "war on drugs" which was ramped up as the crack epidemic (and now the meth epidemic) swept the nation.   And yes, a lot of drugs were dealt in the inner cities (and was easier to detect and prosecute in the inner cities).   It will be interesting to see how legalization of marijuana will affect these incarceration rates, over time.

But the main thing is, what conclusion you draw from the data depends a lot upon your preconceived notions.   If you are a racist, you view this as proof of your beliefs.  If you are a leftist, you view this as proof that the USA is a horrible racist place.

If you are a realist, on the other hand, maybe you see the conclusion as more complex and nuanced and based on a number of inter-related and unrelated factors.  Conclusions and data are two different things, and we can (and do) routinely draw the wrong conclusions from data, because we have a preconceived notion that we want to validate.   We all do this.

And speaking of incarceration rates, while we lead the world in locking people up (other than China, apparently), our crime rates have been dropping for decades.   Are the two related?   Are crime rates dropping because we are locking up the bad guys?  Or it is because we are not counting crimes as much as we used to (for political reasons)?  It is an interesting question, I don't have a real answer, other than whether or not someone should be released from jail should depend on what crime they were convicted of, not some overall statistics.  People are not statistics, and should not be treated as such.
 
Now, the online world has - or had - great promise for pollsters, marketers, and survey-takers.   Since the actual sites you visit and what you click on can be counted precisely, one would think that online data would be so much more reliable than self-reported survey data.  But a funny thing happens - online data can be skewed as well - as much if not more than, traditional data.

Consider online surveys.  Almost every site you visit wants you to take a survey to tell them how you feel about the site.   Some of these, as I have noted, are a come-on to sell you magazine subscriptions or other services.   Others are worthless as they rely on the person wanting to complete the survey.   And there are two, perhaps three reasons why people complete surveys online.

First, the smallest group, are the people who like the site and want to compliment the company for putting up a good site.   Since most people expect a website to work properly this is a very small group of people.   Very few "satisfied customers" will complete the survey.

Second, are the lonely-hearts.  This is also a small group - and shrinking rapidly as our country ages and people naive enough to answer surveys die off.   These are the folks dumb enough to think their opinion really matters, so they dutifully fill out surveys, thinking this is a sacred right, like voting.

Third is the overwhelmingly largest group - the pissed-off people.  These are the folks who got fucked by the company in question and want to take the survey to give it all 1-star or less.   They are mad, and the survey acts as a punching-bag for their aggression.

So the voluntary survey ends up being a huge filter, and what you end up with is a few positives and mostly negatives.  I am not sure this data is helpful to anyone.

Online reviews work the same way.   Whether it is TripAdvisor, Yelp!, Amazon, eBay, or even a review on Netflix.  Everyone, it seems, gives five stars or one star (or the new "5/7" rating - it's a meme).  And one reason people do this, is to skew the rankings.

Restaurants will hire shills, or ask friends and family to put up positive reviews of a place (and they are not hard to spot, either) with all five stars.   People who maybe had a three-star experience (which used to mean "acceptable") will give one-star, just to bring the ratings down a notch.

Nowhere is this more true than on Netflix, where it seems that everyone gives one or five stars.   Due to "star creep" we have reached a point where anything less than a perfect score is deemed suspect.  Car dealers will beg you to give five stars on the survey the company (or JD Powers) sends you, as they need as many positives as possible to counteract the pissed-off customers they've accumulated.  The star system is wholly broken and doesn't work.

The same is true for eBay.   If someone has a feedback less than 99%, you may be courting trouble.   People live and die for perfect feedback.   You can't afford to have even one pissed-off customer anymore, it seems, unless you are an airline, in which case you just piss everybody off.  After all, what are they going to do?  Go to another airline?  Ha. ha.

Click-counting is also problematic and suspect in the age of click-bait.   Advertisers pay websites based on the number of people who view a page with their ad on it, and pay even more if customers "click through" to their own website.   To generate income, website owners have resorted to "click-bait" which usually means controversial titles to what are mundane articles.   Usually these are the "You'll never believe...." type or the "10 best" or "10 worst" kind of "list" articles.   And we all click on them, too!

But whether advertisers are really getting their money's worth is a good question.   I think many people are immune to sidebar ads these days.  And with pop-up blockers and ad blockers, well, a lot of ads are just not getting seen.   

So, to get around that, "sponsored content" was created.   These are ads disguised as content.   And it gets worse.   Now they put up postings or respond in comment sections with innocent-sounding comments that just happen to mention a product by name.   Almost all of these are ads.   But I am getting away from the main point of this posting.

We reply on data to fill in our worldview - our reality.   And if the data is bad, well, our worldview is as unreal as some simulation in The Matrix.  We end up living in an alternative reality

Take this young couple in San Bernandino - or young Muslims in the UK who go off to join ISIS.   They are living in prosperous Western countries, often have good jobs (or access to social services) and are far better off than their friends and relatives "back home".   In the case of the San Bernandino couple, he had a good government job that had great benefits and a guaranteed pension.   A nice house, a huge SUV, and apparently enough disposable income to buy a cache of weapons and ammunition.   Oh, and a baby as well.   Everything you need in this world to be happy, they had.

But thanks to online radicalization (the mother of all bad data) they decided they were unhappy.  And they also decided it would be a good idea for Islam to kill a bunch of random people.   Of course, whatever their goals were, it backfired.  These sorts of incidents only serve to convince people that Muslims in general are dangerous.

What is the reality they missed?  Well, for starters, the real issue isn't Islam, but Oil, or more concisely, power and who is wielding it.   Religion has been used, over the ages, to control people and as a pretext to get people to act against their own self-interests.  The whole Sunni/Shiite rift (or Catholic/Protestant rift) is less about religious doctrine than who is in charge.   Yet all four religions have managed to convince people that there are deep doctrinal divisions that are worth killing over.

Of course, it helps if the people you are trying to manipulate are a little crazy to start with (or a whole lot crazy).   And what is "crazy" anyway?  It is just an inability to differentiate reality from fantasy.  And it usually sets in around adolescence, when young people fail to make the transition from child to adult, because reality seems to scary - so they retreat into a fantasy world.   And of course, there are a host of people out there, willing to sell you an "alternative reality" on a moment's notice.

Or take the people obsessed by Donald Trump.  Doesn't matter if the are for or against him, they are obsessed.   And they harp that he's leading in the polls and could be the next President.

But as a Next President, the Donald has done remarkably little in the way of trying to get elected.  No real campaign.  No fundraising.  No "get out the vote" drives.  No real campaign organizations in either Iowa or New Hampshire.   In Iowa the other day, he told people to "be sure to vote" - failing to realize it is a caucus state.   By March of 2016, his campaign will wither only because it never existed in the first place.   Polls are wrong - bad data.   And no one seems to even want to address this.

So, how do you accurately perceive reality in a world that looks like a funhouse mirror?  It ain't easy, I'll tell you that.

The first step is to read and read in-depth.   And by this, I don't mean to immerse yourself in a fantasy world of books, particularly odious conspiracy theory types or political tomes of the right or left.  You are not going to perceive reality any better by reading Mother Jones or the National Review.   What I mean is to read more than just headlines or click-bait titles, or whatever it is that is in the "feed" on Facebook.   Read source documents in their entirety.  Often what someone says a document means is entirely the opposite of what they claim.

Second, be skeptical.   If someone says "X is true" think about whether this proposition is indeed true and what possible alternatives make more sense.  What underlying assumptions are being made to support the proposition?   In any argument, challenge the premise.   And that is akin to looking at the raw data and how it was acquired to see if it really supports the proposition, or in fact, is a shaky foundation.

Third, use your experiences.  Painful experiences are the most profound.   If you get ripped-off, it is a painful lesson.  But if you learn from it then it is a lesson well-learned.   Sadly, a lot of people get ripped-off and then go back to the well again and again.   Ads for MLM schemes say, "Ripped off by an MLM scheme?  Try this one, it actually works!"    Or how about, "Burned by a PayDay Loan?  Call Consumer Financial!  We have a PayDay Loan to pay off your PayDay Loan!"

People who don't even learn from their own personal experiences are destined for trouble.   And there may be a lot of psychological defense mechanisms that cause this.   First, we don't want to admit to error.  We didn't make a mistake by getting a PayDay Loan!  It was the fault of the PayDay Loan place!   Second, we like to "bury our mistakes" in our minds, rather than admit to them.  So when we do something dumb, we put it out of our minds, rather than learn from it.

Personal experience is the strongest form of reinforcement, as I noted in my Three kinds of learning.   But you can also learn from the mistakes of others - provided they are willing to own up to them - and also project - based on your experiences and common sense (logic) how some unfamiliar scenario might work out, even if you have to hard data to start with.

What is clear is that there is a lot of bad data out there and it is very hard to perceive reality as it is.  If it was easy to perceive reality, then a lot more people would be financially successful, there would be less strife and war in the world, and the world would be a better place.   On the other hand, since so few people perceive reality as it is, or perceive it very well, even if you do a half-assed job of getting it right, you will be head and shoulders above the majority of people on the planet.

It ain't easy.  Then again, it ain't impossible, either.

P.S. - and bear in mind that you are not a statistic.   Regardless of what your friends or family or socioeconomic group is doing, you don't have to make the same choices.



Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bureau of Specious Statistics, Restaurant Division

My waitress is forcing me to over-consume!


In another "water cooler chat" study ("Hey Bill, didya hear the latest...?") the "scientific journal" Environment and Behavior claims that the fatter the waitress, the more likely diners are to order more food and drink.

Their conclusion is that the fatness of the waitress gives the diners "permission" to over-consume.

However, you could draw a number of other conclusions, such as: fat people tend to pick fat waitresses, or, fat waitresses pick tables with fat people in them (if there is a choice).

Or... the entire "study" is bullshit.


"A team of research assistants visited 60 restaurants, where they observed a total of 497 interactions between diners and servers. While visiting the restaurants, the research assistants recorded the estimated body characteristics of both the diners and the servers. They also recorded how much food and drink was ordered."

There are two obvious things wrong with this study.   First, their sample size is less than 500 people.   This is not so much a study as two people who wanted to be paid to dine out a lot - and just watched people eat and took notes.  The sample size is far too small to draw any dramatic conclusions.

Second, their study is not based on any hard data - the actual height and weight of the waitresses (weighed on a scale) was not measured.   No one reviewed actual copies of the restaurant "tickets" at the end of the shift to tally the exact amount of food and drink ordered.

Rather, they just sat there an estimated the Body Mass Index of the waitress based on her appearance and then estimated how much people were ordering based on observation in a noisy, crowded restaurant. 

Blinding me with Science!

Like I said, someone probably gave them a research grant for this, and they just went out drinking and had a good time.   Where do I get in on this racket?

The value of such a study is zero.   It doesn't tell us anything about consumption patterns, public policy, health, or whatever.   The conclusions are flawed, the methodology is flawed, and it is just not science, period.

And even if this was valid data and valid conclusions, so what?  How does this help humanity?   Do we make it a policy that only slim waitresses can serve people?   Would that reduce over-consumption?

I doubt it, because I see a lot of fat people coming out of Hooters, and all their waitresses are pretty slim!

Oh wait, that's a "scientific study"!  Give me some grant money so I can do a more "in-depth" follow-up on breast size versus portions ordered.

I should need only about $500,000 to complete the study, I expect.

(As you might expect, the "study" was done on a college campus - Cornell University, to be exact.  I suspect a couple of grad students had a ball, spending every evening down at Viva Taqueria at the commons, drinking beers and "doing research" - all in the same of science!   Looks like someone else is getting a worthless degree from Cornell!  Enjoy paying back those student loans!)

Trump, the ISIS Candidate

For ISIS and other terrorist organizations, Trump is the ideal candidate as he makes us look like bullies and idiots.


When I was in Junior High school, I used to take the bus to school.  My house was the last stop on the route, so by the time I got on, I had to stand for the three mile ride to school.  There was a pig-tailed little girl, possibly in the fourth grade or so, who would sit near the front, and she was like to tease me.  I don't how how it started or why, but she would poke and prod me and try to provoke me by saying nasty things to me.  Maybe she had a crush, I don't know.   She was annoying as shit.

The problem was, I was a few years older than her, twice her size, and a male.   If I hauled off and whacked her one, she would start crying and claiming to be a "victim" and no doubt the bus driver would say what a horrible bully I was, and I would be suspended from school for hitting little kids.   In fact, nothing I could do would work in my favor.  If I talked back to her, or even prodded her back, that just encouraged her more.  It was a lose-lose situation.

ISIS is like that little pig-tailed girl.   Small and whiny and annoying, but you can't haul off and bitch-slap her without looking like a jerk yourself.   ISIS doesn't have nuclear weapons.  ISIS doesn't have a single aircraft carrier - or indeed any serious aircraft.   They are small and weak and despite what you read in the paper, they are on the run, losing territory, leaders, and soldiers, with every passing day.   It is not a matter of whether the "Caliphate" will fall, but when.   But of course, even after they are mopped up, you can bet some other group, or the remains of that group, will continue to cause trouble.  It is a never-ending battle.

What ISIS wants to do is bait us in the classic sense.   The reason they commit horrible atrocities is to get attention - like that little pig-tailed girl - and hope we haul off and smack them good, so they can cry "foul" and show that the benevolent United States is carpet-bombing civilians and blowing up hospitals.   Moreover, they are hoping we will do stupid things like "ban Muslims" and basically give away the freedoms we have in the Bill of Rights (freedoms hard-fought and won) so they can point out our Hypocrisy.

"The Americans talk about freedom," they will say, "But look, they now censor themselves, suppress free speech, and suppress the freedom of religion!  They claim to be free, but they are just slaves!"

And they would be right - if we let them get under our skin and allow them to bait us into giving up our own freedoms or commit atrocities to squash what, on the world stage, is really an insignificant mosquito.

So how did I deal with the little pig-tailed girl on the bus?  Well, first of all, I realized she was not a real threat to my well-being.   While she may poke and prod and say nasty things, she wasn't going to hurt me, unless I was dumb enough to play a 4th grader's game.   Ignoring her was the best solution.   Eventually she got tired of playing the game and stopped.

Reacting or responding to her provocations would have been the worst thing I could have done.   I would have ended up in trouble.  She would have "won" and I would have "lost" - big time - all over nothing.

This is not to say we should ignore ISIS.   On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to be baited by ISIS, and are reactive rather than proactive, we could end up being drawn into a nasty mess.    Already there are civilian casualties in this war in Syria.  Carpet-bombing civilians isn't going to win the larger war, and only create more martyrs for jihad.

ISIS is already losing the war.   Every day more territory is lost, another city is taken, another supply line is cut off (supply lines that lead right to the borders of countries that claim to be enemies of ISIS, such as Turkey).   The recent terror attacks in Paris are not a sign that ISIS is winning, but rather that it is losing and getting desperate.  They cannot win on the battlefield, so they are moving the battlefield elsewhere, hoping for a "Hail Mary" pass (if you'll pardon the expression) to save them in the 4th quarter.   ISIS could be a moot point by the time the next President is sworn in, in 2017.

As for the San Bernandino attacks, I am not sure this is an "attack by ISIS" but rather two unhinged people with guns (the great American narrative) who tacked on an ISIS postscript to their attack as an afterthought.   They were radicalized against the West in general more than they were pro-ISIS.   And this radicalization is made much easier by calls for carpet-bombing of civilians and other hoo-ha nonsense..

Islamic radicals love Donald Trump.   They love his hateful rhetoric against Islam as well as Mexicans and other minorities.   He is living proof, in their minds, that American's talk about "freedom" and "equality" is all bullshit.   Donald Trump is the greatest recruiting tool ISIS has - along with the other GOP candidates eager to jump on the hate bandwagon.

It takes maturity to show restraint, and to realize that responding to provocation is not the way to win a battle, but the best way to lose the war.  Once the supply lines of ISIS are cut off (which should have been done long ago) and they lose more and more territory, the "Caliphate" will collapse with remarkable speed.  And by this time next year, hopefully, we will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Carpet-bombing civilians, on the other hand, will just create more refugees and jihadis willing to become martyrs.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Rock Stars and Income Taxes



Some Rock and Movie Stars mostly claim to be liberal in their politics.   But when the tax bills of liberal politics come due, they are the first to high-tail it out to low-tax havens!


In a previous posting, I noted that people of all political stripes, ages, and persuasions are greedy.  People act in their own self-interest, that is just a given.   Get over it and move on.

For example, I have a friend who runs a politically-correct hippie theater.  They hardly make any money from admissions, as few people will pay more than a few dollars for a poorly performed hysterically political avant-garde show, held in some sort of converted barn or whatever.   So how do they keep going?   Well, as he put is, his wife is a genius in filling out grant forms, and the way they keep body and soul together is to get grant money from the government or from private foundations - usually the former.

So, not surprisingly, they think the government should spend more money on funding the arts (e.g., them), spend less money on defense, and tax the rich more.  Funny how that works to their favor, no?

But I wonder how they would feel if they won the lottery.   Well, I don't have to guess, as I pretty much know how that would work out.  And you can figure this out by watching what happens to movie stars and rock stars, when they start to make a lot of money.   When they are poor and trying making ends meet, they all parrot the same liberal line that most young people toe to - more money for government social programs and tax those rich fuckers,  please.

But once they get that big record contract and make their first million dollars, it all changes.   After all, they are the rich fucker now, right?   Aren't they going to hand over 70% of their income to the State so that their friends can all go on the dole?   I mean, that is what they believed in, only a few short years ago, right?

Of course not.  They are not idiots.  They will act in their own self-interest.   And often this means moving to some other country that is a tax haven with lower taxes.   They will even repudiate their own citizenship if it means paying less into the socialist system.   They show their true colors.

The UK has a long history of gouging rock stars for taxes.  Take the case of the Rolling Stones, who moved to France in order to escape an 83% tax rate.  The result was Exile on Mainstreet
Bowie moved to Switzerland for much the same reason.  Members of Pink Floyd all left the UK for a year to avoid getting soaked.
Bad Company, Rod Stewart, even Cat Stevens bailed on the UK rather than give more than 80% of their income to the government.
More recently, U2 moved their business dealings out of Ireland to the much more tax-friendly confines of the Netherlands.
Yes, even the politically-correct Bono and U2 ditched their native land to avoid paying taxes to support their fellow citizens.   Pretty fucking ironic, no?  I mean, these are the same superstars who exhort us to "feed the world" and "let them know it's Christmas time again!" but at the same time play scrooge with their own money, because they want a new Bentley and that ain't gonna happen if they have to pay taxes like the little people do.

Apparently even being knighted by the Queen isn't enough to keep you from fleeing your native land.  "Sir" Sean Connery, who long has identified himself with Scotland, wasn't afraid to pull up and leave, to avoid paying tribute to his native land.  "Sir" Mick Jagger blazed this trail of course.  "Sir" Michael Caine followed suit.

So what's the point of this?   Only that "tax the rich fuckers" sounds like a good government policy until you are the rich person being taxed.  Not only that, it illustrates how easily rich people can avoid these kinds of taxes simply by moving away.   Having a house in a Bahamas is certainly not a burden, particularly when it "pays for itself" in tax savings.

It also illustrates how we are all hypocrites in this regard, particularly people who profess "liberal" views.

The sad part is, these multi-millionaires can afford the accountants and lawyers who can lower their tax bills.  They can also afford the villa in the South of France of the house on the beach in the Bahamas.

The middle class and the upper middle class - stuck with the tax bills after the very rich have fled - cannot afford these sort of dodges.

They just have to pay.

Horror Show


Why do horror movies always show the villain as an older person?  Maybe because the ultimate horror is aging.

I've never liked horror movies, even as a kid.  When I went to a horror movie, I would scream like a little girl - and still do - even at the non-scary parts.  Some of my friends seemed to enjoy them, particularly the bloody parts.   That's one reason I decided to find new friends, frankly.

But I think as you get older, horror movies lose their fascination.  It is a young person's genre.   Old people don't go to horror movies.

Why?

Because if they want a real horror show they need only look in the mirror.

Yes, death to old people is not some far-off hypothetical thing, but a nearby friend, ready to strike at a moment's notice.   And like in the horror movies, it can be horrific, in terms of pain, suffering, and sheer shock value.

I went to an estate sale once in our apartment building in Alexandria.  The aging high-rise, just South of the Woodrow Wilson bridge was full of aging little old ladies, often living alone.   We saw a sign in the elevator that said "estate sale" and followed the signs.

The last worldly possessions of a little-old-lady were there for sale.  Pretty pathetic, really.  Used toaster ovens, that sort of thing.   I asked the lady running the sale what was going on, and she said she volunteered with an organization that helped settle the estates of old ladies like this, who had no one else to handle their affairs.  They also tried to "check in" on women like this, to make sure they were OK.

I asked how she had died, and she said that the lady fell and broke her hip.  "Oh, did she go to the hospital?" I asked.

"No, she died right there..." she replied, pointing to a large stain in the hardwood floor that I was standing on, "...after several days."

Talk about a horror show.  The poor old lady had fallen down and slowly died, unable to reach the phone and summon for help, no doubt soiling herself after a few hours or days.  Waiting for the inevitable - hoping someone would come.  Knowing that no one would.  Crying out for help until you are hoarse.

Sadly, she had not signed up with the charity to have someone check on her.  So no one came to rescue her.

A real horror show, no?   And all I kept thinking was, I was living in the same building, sleeping peacefully while someone died horribly only a few floors away.  Could I have not visited her regularly to check on her?  I didn't know she existed.  It made me very sad.

That's getting old, right there in a nutshell.   No wonder old folks don't want to go to horror movies.  They are living it.

To young people, death seems far off.   They take risks and get away with them.  They fall off their skateboards and heal quickly.   Life seems like a joke.  You are young, life is long, and you heal easily from cuts and bruises.

That phase doesn't last long, believe me.

Pretty soon, you are staring death in the face, on a daily basis, and no matter how you slice it, it is a messy deal for all involved.   Even if you die peacefully in your sleep, you leave a surviving spouse to deal with the horror of discovering your corpse, the sorrow of losing you, and the pain of living on.

I guess that's why I don't see the fun in horror movies.   Here on retirement island, we are living it.



Bureau of Specious Statistics - Islam Division



Do a frightening number of Muslims support terrorism?   Perhaps.  A frightening number of non-Muslims do as well!


In recent months, people have been assembling an arsenal of statistics to prove that a large number (but usually far less than a majority) of Muslims either support terrorism directly, or think that it is "OK" to support terrorism, or Sharia law.   From this data, I guess we are supposed to be afraid of Muslims.   But again, fear is not an emotion to be trusted.  And when someone tries to sell you an idea based on fear, watch out, because they are probably lying to you.

There are two problems with these surveys and statistics.  First is we don't know how the surveys were taken and second, how conclusions are drawn from them.   As I noted in my previous posting, the University of Michigan polls the same 20,000 people every two years and then tells us amazing things like "most people live 18 miles from their Mom!" which may or may not be true.   There are a lot of flaws in these surveys.   The number of people surveyed is small.  They keep asking the same people - who are getting older and older and tend to move closer to their kids.   The way the raw questions are asked is not shown.   The conclusions may not be justified by the data, and I think they likely are not.

And the same is true with these Muslim surveys.   For example, if you ask someone, "Do you think there are instances where terrorism is justified?" that is a pretty open-ended question.   For example, during World War II, the "resistance" would blow up or shoot German Officers in France, as an act of terrorism, designed to demoralize German troops and force Germany to place more troops in occupied France, thus weakening their forces elsewhere.   Clearly, this form of terrorism was justified, unless of course, you are a Nazi, in which case you might think it was unfair.

So if that is the question that was asked, well, an awful lot of people are going to answer "yes" to it, including myself.   And if they answer "yes" they may be thinking of specific situations.   For example, they may be thinking of the situation on the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and not the World Trade Center - not that terrorism is justified in either case.

But of course, a certain percentage are going to say, "Yea, go for it, kill Americans!  Death to the Great Satan!" as that is sort of a popular thing in many Middle-Eastern countries, as evidenced by the number of terrorists acts committed worldwide in the name of Islam.

But is Islam alone in this?   When I was a kid, growing up in a mostly Irish-Catholic small town, the IRA was at war in Northern Ireland, and the Catholics and Protestants were really going at it - blowing up pubs and bars, shooting people dead in the street, gruesomely torturing people to death, the whole bit.   Now, granted, Northern Ireland is a much smaller stage for terrorism, so you could argue it was not as big a deal as say, the Middle East.

But at the time, my Irish Catholic friends were raising money for the IRA (the "widows and orphans fund" it was called) and the IRA was using slogans like "give us the guns to do the job" to raise money.  My Catholic friends would say things like, "Yea, we need to kill those nasty old Prots!" to which I would reply, "You mean like me?" and then they would get silent and say, "Well, present company excepted, of course!"

It seems every religion has its share of terrorists.   Fundamentalist Protestants, for example, blew up the Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people.   And the two people who did this had accomplices - people who gave them shelter and emotional, if not fiscal support.   And far more people in the fundamentalist movements, if not supporting them directly, would say things like, "Well, after Waco, you have to expect this sort of thing!  Serves the government right!  It's all Hillary's fault!" or something to that effect.

Even Sikhs, who seem like pretty laid-back dudes (although they have a reputation as fierce warriors in the British Army) once blew up an airplane going from Canada to India, and I have absolutely no idea what was pissing them off - and I suspect most other people do not, either.   Apparently they had some beef (pardon the pun) with Hindus, who themselves have been known to go nuts and kill people on occasion, such as when India became independent and many Muslims were slaughtered, or as recently as 2008, when they raped and disemboweled over 100 Christians who refused to convert.

Even peaceful Buddhists will go nuts and kill people, as has been shown recently in Myanmar.


"But wait," people say, "Muslims are different!  Haven't you read the Koran?  It tells followers to go and kill people!  It condones stoning people to death!  It is full of evil!"

Maybe so.  But in my opinion, all religions are evil in that they are just a mechanism to brainwash people and to get them to do things they otherwise wouldn't do - because they are not in their own best interests.  Moreover, almost every religious text published has a lot of evil shit in it.   One reason the Koran has a lot of  "go kill so-and-so" in it is that the same shit was in the Bible and the Torah.    The problem isn't Islam in particular, it is all religions in general.   You can find support for terrorism in most religious doctrines, if you bother to look for it.

 In this video, a copy of the Bible was disguised as a Koran, and Old Testament versus read to people, who believed they were from the Koran - as they advocated killing people for no particular good reason.

This is not to say I am defending Islam.   However, I think as the youngest of the three inter-related religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) they are at the stage of, perhaps, where the Catholic church was during the Spanish Inquisition.   The early days of any religion, it seems, are marked by extreme violence.

But even today, people are finding excuses for violence in the Bible or Torah.   Recently, some Jewish settlers on the West Bank celebrated the immolation of a Palestinian toddler by some Jewish extremists.   And yet, no one is saying this is an indictment of all Judaism (whose religious documents condone slavery, stoning, and the subjugation of women, much as Islam does).

Most Jews condemn such behavior.   And they also realize it is really, really bad P.R. for Israel and Judaism in general.   Hard to get world sympathy when you're burning up little kids, right?   But not everyone in Israel supports that and to say they do is kind of unfair, to say the least.

Is Islam dangerous?  It is backward?   Well, perhaps the context of where Islam is practiced helps put it in perspective.   The majority of Islamic countries are not what we would call wealthy countries.  Even the oil-rich Arab states have a few very wealthy leaders (who indeed are very westernized) and a whole lot of very, very poor citizens - many of whom are indoctrinated in Madrases when they are very young, taught no job skills - taught nothing, other than to memorize one book.  So they are poor and remain poor, and ignorant as well.

And if you look across the world, you will see a correlation between poverty and fundamentalism.  In the rural South, the most fundamentalist Christian religions are prevalent.  In wealthier cities, people tend to go for more relaxed religious practices.   The wealthier and smarter people are, the less they tend to believe in idiotic things like end times theology or Sharia Law.

Even with the IRA thing, it was not the wealthy Brahmans of Boston who supported the killings, but the lower-class Southies who were also virulent racists, gangsters, and thieves.  In other words, they were not nice people on a number of levels other than their religion.

Thus, you will find that wealthier, more educated Muslims tend not to believe in things like stoning adulterers or keeping women under Burkas.  In fact, the wealthiest and most sophisticated are very Western in their thinking, even (or perhaps most often) in places like Iran.  Sadly, not everyone in their country agrees with them, and often the fundamentalists are the ones in power, after taking over from dictators that we've propped up over the years.   If fundamentalist Islam is a problem, it largely is a problem of our own making.

The problem also is, as in Latin America, weak leaders lean on the "blame the USA for everything" crutch, which distracts the population from their real problems, which is usually their religion and their government (which are often intertwined).

The deal is, we are being sold a story here, based on fear and it is not a story to be trusted, just for that reason alone.   Moreover, you are not a statistic, nor is anyone else.   To generalize behavior of people is not only wrong, it is also inaccurate.   You might as well say all black people are criminals, because the statistics certainly back that up, right?  And a far stronger correlation that Muslims and Terrorists.

Or you might just as well say that all Americans want to kill Muslims, based on actual events that have occurred in recent months, where people have shot or killed people who were Muslim or that they thought were Muslim (often Sikhs), or set fire to or vandalized Mosques.   Do these people represent a majority of Americans?  Of course not.

That being said, I have little patience or tolerance for extreme religions.  And by extreme, I mean any religion that tells you what to think, which of course, pretty much encompasses all of them.   If you belong to a religion that requires you to wear a funny hat or costume, I don't have much respect for you as a person, because you are being an idiot, no mater how nice the hat is.  If you want to wear the hat, that's fine.   But to be forced to wear it, that's not right.  And the test is, whether you can take it off.

And if you belong to a religion that thinks that everyone should wear a funny hat and if they don't they should be killed, then fuck you.   I ain't wearing your hat.

What really makes me laugh at these religious types, however, is the amount of hypocrisy they engage in, in order to be "fundamentalist" and yet still appear to obey their religious doctrines.  Baptists say that drinking is evil - even though the most holy sacrament of Christianity involves drinking wine.   The real deal is, of course, many Baptists - particularly the ones who sing the loudest in the choir - are closet drinkers.   They say one thing and do another.

Amish are pretty laid-back people and I've hired a number of them over the years for home improvement projects.   While they eschew modern electronic conveniences, they have a host of "exceptions" to their rules that allow them to use technology.   For example, if they are working on a job, it is OK to use a cell phone, provided they don't own it.  So they hire a non-Amish person to own the phone - and the power tools, air compressor, and pickup truck - all of which they use, but don't own, so it's OK by them.   All I can say is, when you see an Amish on the cell phone it is a bit disturbing.   I haven't seen one obsessively text - yet.

As many people have pointed out, the practices of ISIS or ISIL, which claims to be Islamic, actually go against the tenets of the faith.  But then again, you can find support for any sort of malfeasance by quoting scripture out of context.   After all, the Bible condones slavery and the oppression of women.  It was the style at the time.

And so on down the line.  Jews eat shellfish - and pork, on occasion - and yet go to Temple every Saturday.   Catholics practice birth control, and yet take communion.  People make accommodations in their religion which ironically they would not make for others.  For example, the closet-drinker Baptists decide to outlaw liquor in their county - or forbid beer sales on Sunday.   I can see if they want to not drink, that is fine by me.  But why is is allowed for them to impose their religious views on the rest of us?   Why someone hasn't taken these "blue laws" to the Supreme Court under the "establishment of religion" clause is beyond me.

Myself, I subscribe to the "man in a sheet who wiped his ass with his hands" theory.   Every religion in the world (and I mean every) was started by a man.  Always a man.   And usually it was long, long ago, back when people wiped their ass with their hands.   Yea, that part is true.  Most religions were devised before we invented toilet paper.  Yet those ancients were so wise, weren't they?

And they all wore sheets, of course, or "robes" which today makes them look mystic.   They knew stuff back then, apparently, and today, we don't know jack shit.    So whatever Moses or Jesus, or Mohamed said way back when, well that's the law, buddy and you'd better get with the program because those folks knew it all, right?

Right?   Well, only if you choose to believe that kind of nonsense.  The reality is, our ancient ancestors were a primitive lot, afraid of much of their world.   Refusing to eat shellfish or pork not because it was "sinful" but because you'd get sick doing it.   

However, in 2000 years, we've learned to refrigerate lobster and to cook our pork before we eat it.   We understand so much more of how our world works.   Do the ancient prohibitions still make sense?  Of course not, and most intelligent people realize this.

In the backwoods of Alabama or Kandahar, though, people still cling to primitive beliefs.  And there are host of people who would prefer it stay that way, as it makes people easy to manipulate and control.

Which brings us to the real deal.   What is behind all this violence and strife in the world?   Do Muslims really want to force their religious views on the rest of us?   Are Christians declaring a crusade against Islam?   Of course not.   

What is happening is that people are competing for resources - oil, water, food, land.   And certain people want to be in power.   They want control, they want riches.   And you can use these religious ideologies or nationalism or whatever other brainwashing technique you want to use, to get people to blow themselves up in the name of religion or whatever, so that you can take over the oilfields and establish a Caliphate or whatever it is you want to do.   The leaders of these groups never volunteer to wear the suicide vest.   Of course not!  They're too important for that sort of thing!

Of course, the idiots who are dumb enough to follow a religion - any religion - never figure this out.  Whether it is dying for a cause or giving all their money to a fundamentalist preacher who drives a Rolls, they are being used, and in the worst sort of way.

And so long as the world keeps churning out billions of idiots (again, the stated goal of almost every religion - "go forth and multiply, so we can outnumber the others!") this trend will continue.   For all religions.

Maybe, the real upshot of this all is, is that we need to re-think what religion is, what it should be, and whether it really has a place in modern life.

Because the ultimate struggle of mankind is the struggle of reason over fear, logic over emotion, and reality versus fantasy.   And we know which side of this struggle religion (all religions) lies on.

And sadly, I think the side of reason may lose out in the end.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why I'm Not A Billionaire (And Why That's OK, Too).

Non, je ne regrette rien


A lot of people are up in arms lately about class warfare and income inequality and a lot of other nonsense.   Maybe there is some point to all of this.   All I know is, in order to get ahead in the world, you have to look after your own interests first, before attempting to change the world around you.

The reason I am not a Billionaire, or not even a ten-millionaire has more to do with my own actions, rather than those of the 1%'ers or whatever.   I am not a victim of some scheme by the Illuminati, but rather my own malfeasance.

And yes, I could have been far, far, wealthier than I am today, and not just in hindsight.   My lack of income and wealth is due, in most part, to my own laziness and malfeasance - as well as stupidity and desire for consumer goods, mind-altering substances, and gaudy distractions.

What do I mean by this?   Well, let me tell you a few stupid things I did in life, which if I had chosen not to do, would have made my life different.

1.  I chose not to save.   My lack of savings started at an early age.   When I got money, from a birthday check or from Mother's purse, I spent it as fast as I could, usually on stupid things like candy and toys, which provided transitory pleasures and also (with regard to the candy) certainly didn't improve my health.   Saving money wasn't something I started doing until I was nearly 30 years old and that is pretty pathetic.

2.  I didn't take education seriously enough.  I had great opportunities handed to me in life, and like a lot of middle-class kids, squandered them.   I could have gotten better grades in school and gotten into a better college and thus had greater work opportunities later on.  I was even accepted at a prestigious prep school - but turned it down in favor of a lesser-known one, and then got tossed out of there.  I ended up flunking out of college, which was costly in terms of money and grade average.   I still ended up doing all right (there are second acts in American lives!) but not as well as I could have.

3.  Drugs.   My siblings thought that I should be turned on to drugs and alcohol at age 13.  I am not sure that was a good idea, but I decided to go along with it.  The next 12 years of my life was affected (and indeed my entire life) from that decision.   It could have been a lot worse.   Some of my friends who went down that road ended up in jail or dead.   For me, it meant that my education suffered and that I burned through a ton of money that I could have invested.  The good news was, of course, that I was able to change my mind on this later on.  Others choose to stick with the drugs.

4.  Consumer Goods.   I spent a ton of money in life "treating myself" to bling and crap and cable television and electronic toys, instead of thinking seriously about money and using it to make my life better, not just more comfortable.   And a lot of the crap I bought was just that - crap.  Stuff I convinced myself I "had to have" and later on regretted buying.   This doesn't mean I had to live like a monk or something, of course.  But many of the things I bought over the years that I thought were going to give me pleasure, were just toys used to drown out the deafening silence in life.

5.  Investment Choices:   While we made some good investment choices, we were rather conservative in our bets in life.   A builder Mark worked for offered to sell us a townhouse for $180,000 that doubled in value the next year.  I was too afraid.   We had a chance to buy a number of positive-cash-flow condos for $38,000 apiece (worth $150,000 today!) and walked away, not only out of fear, but because we were blowing all our money on toys, we didn't have enough capital to afford them.  When we did make risky investment choices, they were poor ones - investing in stocks touted by the television and the media - they all tanked, without exception.

6.  Laziness:   I am a lazy person.   I'd rather goof around than work.   And you pay for that.  I never had that burning desire to succeed in life - to make millions and be a big player.   I've worked for men who were like that.   They wanted to make it big, and were willing to do anything to get there.   It takes a lot of hard work, and from what I could see, they weren't very happy people.   I grew up with the children of men like that - they were not from happy families.   So to me, it was like, "Gee, if I can make enough to get by, have a nice comfortable lifestyle, well that's fine with me!" - and most of us make that sort of choice in life.

So what is the point of this?  Do I have regrets?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  You cannot relive the past.  It is a zero-sum game.

What I do realize is that the main reason I am not wealthier than I am has more to do with my actions than the government, the "big banks" or the "1%'ers".   I could have chosen to be wealthier, but chose differently, instead.

And those were my choices and no one else's.

No one took my money away, I spent it.

I had numerous opportunities to get ahead, but chose not to.

And that's OK, quite frankly.  My life is what it is, because I made it what it is.

My choices, no one else's.

I have no regrets.

Bureau ot Specious Statistics, Old Folks Division

"The typical America lives only 18 miles from Mom" is a compelling headline.   But how was this data acquired?   From surveys, not from actual address data.

A recent clickbait article from - of all places - The New York Times, draws incorrect conclusions from a specious "survey" of older people.   This survey, however, draws broad conclusions from very limited data.  From the survey itself, this description of how the data is acquired.  And by the way, this survey, despite its governmental-sounding name, was actually done by the University of Michigan:

"Every 2 years, thousands of older Americans tell their stories. Quietly, compellingly, they answer questions about every aspect of their lives—how they are feeling, how they are faring financially, how they are interacting with family and others. They do this as participants in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study (HRS), one of the most innovative studies ever conducted to better understand the nature of health and well-being in later life.  The HRS’s purpose is to learn if individuals and families are preparing for the economic and health requirements of advancing age and the types of actions and interventions—at both the individual and societal levels—that can promote or threaten health and wealth in retirement. Now in its second decade, the HRS is the leading resource for data on the combined health and economic circumstances of Americans over age 50."
This folksy homespun description of their survey technique sounds intriguing.  And from this collected data, nice click-bait articles are generated, such as one recently claiming that "The typical American lives only 18 miles from Mom!"   You know it is click-bait, because they use the high-index word "Mom" instead of "parents."   It is like the stupid ads on Facebook that scream "Obama wants Moms to go back to school!" or "This one tiny trick invented by a Mom!"   It seems that Mom and Apple Pie still bring 'em in, in the United States, or at least Mom does.

But is it true that the "typical American" lives only 18 miles from their parents, or specifically, their Mom?   It may be, it may not be.  The way the data is collected and projected is, to me, suspect.

Surveys have one huge problem - they collect data only from people who want to take surveys or are willing to fill out long forms.   Most busy people hang up on survey calls, figuring they are some sort of scam.   More and more people are getting rid of land lines, and no one wants to answer survey questions, particularly long ones, on their cell phone.   Filling out and returning survey forms is a pain in the butt, and smart people have better things to do with their time.

So with any survey, there is a filtering effect.   You get results from the types of people who like to complete surveys, which creates a subset of the population that may or may not reflect what the "typical American" is all about.   

People who complete surveys may tend to be bored, lonely, or have an aggravated sense of their own importance.  They may also be more trusting, older, and less skeptical.   This in turn, may tend to create a survey base of people who are, well, perhaps from a certain demographic - old middle-class and lower-middle-class people with a lot of time on their hands.

The survey methodology is not really disclosed in the report.  Vague statements about the number of people surveyed are made, and sometimes seem to be contradictory in nature:
"During each 2-year cycle of interviews, the HRS team surveys more than 20,000 people who represent the Nation’s diversity of economic conditions, racial and ethnic backgrounds, health, marital histories and family compositions, occupations and employment histories, living arrangements, and other aspects of life. Since 1992, more than 27,000 people have given 200,000 hours of interviews."
These "interviews" - are they on the phone or in-person?  In either case, you get people who are either stay-at-home types, or willing to spend a lot of time giving their opinions on things - both filtering agents.

But worse, it seems that the same people are interviewed from year to year.  20,000 people are interviewed every year, but the total number interviewed in over two decades, has been only 27,000, which means the same people are interviewed every two years - with new people (the 7,000) replacing the older folks when they die, presumably.

So we are not getting a random sample of older people, but instead talking to the same people over and over again.   And out of a nation of 330 million people (give or take) is a sample of 0.006% of the population really telling us anything?

And speaking of death, who is interviewing the dead people?    To be more succinct, the survey interviews older Americans and asks them how far away their children live - presumably to discuss issues about support infrastructure for older Americans.   But the opposite isn't true - it is not surveying younger people and asking them how far away their parents live (as the title of the click-bait article implies).

And if we were asked, the answer would be "infinity" because our parents are dead.   So, how does that data factor into the "typical American" scenario?   Among Americans with living parents....the typical American lives X miles from their parents.   Given the age of the country, more than half of Americans have dead parents, however.

As I am one of the "over 50" people the survey represents, how would my data be factored into the "average" distance between me and my non-existent children?  Does that count as a "zero" or "infinity"?

Regardless of the flawed methodology of this study, they are not afraid to draw broad conclusions based on this specious survey data:
"The United States offers less government help for caregiving than many other rich countries. Instead, extended families are providing it, whether they never moved apart, or moved back closer when the need arose." 
Ahhh... we get to the upshot - a little USA-bashing, which the "grey lady" is all-too-willing to wallow in.   A broad statement with ambiguous quantifiers ("less government help", "many other rich countries") is used to imply that our country is somehow inadequate.  But "less" government help than compared to what?  Mexico?  Who are the "other rich countries"?   Saudi Arabia?  We are not told.  However, it is clear that we are just such rotten bastards in the USA, letting old people die in the streets like Calcutta.

Score:  New York Times: 1  USA: 0

But the game is rigged.

However, you could draw other conclusions from this data.  Radically different conclusions, particularly if you've witnessed how older people live - and die.

For example, here on Retirement island, very few people live within 18 miles of their children, at least initially.  But if you read the obituaries, you see a lot of folks listed who no longer live on our island.  They get old, they get infirm, and they can no longer take care of themselves.   So they move into an assisted living center for the last few years of their lives.

Where is that going to be?   Near our retirement island?   No, not likely, because there isn't a good one around here.   Plus, all your friends aren't going to visit you in those last few years.   Moreover, they don't have legal authority or guardianship over your bank accounts or your person.

So, people move to where their kids are, in many instances, to an assisted living center, where costs are lower and the kids can visit and also manage their affairs.  So, toward the end of life, yes, they may live within 18 miles of their children.  This is not some weird anomoly.

The implication of the study, however, is that the "typical American" never moves more than 18 miles away from his parentsAnd that is not supported by the evidence, in my opinion.

So what's the point of this?   After all, click-bait articles like this are just the fodder for water cooler talk at work the next day.  "Say Bill, did you know the typical American only lives 18 miles from his Mom?"  "No Bill, that's intriguing.   Tell me more while we slack-off from our jobs!"

What the authors of this study want to do is change public policy with this data.   And if the data is flawed, then we may be making public policy based on inaccurate information.

They also seem to be gleefully using this data to do a little USA-bashing as noted above.  The big, bad, old USA, not taking care of older people (even though we have the largest social safety net on the planet).

And the New York Times is happy to pile on with more class warfare, noting that poorer people tend to live closer to their parents, while college graduates tend to move away to find jobs (as if this were some earth-shattering revelation).   The big, bad old USA, once again, with its class divisions!

But of course, it is another case of confusing causation with correlation.   If stick around your hometown and live with or near your parents, odds are, you are never going to succeed in life or get ahead.   Why?  Because there are limited opportunities in your hometown.   You have to broaden your horizons if you want to succeed in life - and that means casting a nationwide net for job searches, not just a local one.

During the recession, I recall a plea online (I think it was CNN) from someone who was "unemployed" and lamented there were "no jobs" in their rust-belt hometown.   While everyone moaned about how bad the economy was, I noted that there were jobs available in other cities and towns.   "But then I'd have to move!" they cried - as if staying in a depressed area was an inalienable right, and that a job should be created just for them (no, people really think this way - go to a Bernie Sanders rally sometime and you'll see what I mean).

So the causation of this "class divide" is not that poor people stay close to family because they are poor but that people who stay close to family remain poor because they are forgoing opportunities that are available elsewhere.

The Times article ends with a gloom-and-doom prediction that as more and more "Baby Boomers" retire, their children will move closer and closer (17 miles?  16?) to take care of them.   But I am not sure this is a valid conclusion at all.

Again, I see a lot of old people, and in most cases, their children are not changing their adult diapers.  The idea that younger people will have to become caregivers for their parents is a little more than flawed, particularly in a country with Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.   Even if a child is appointed guardian of a parent, this may extend only to legal and financial matters.  Chances are, Mom (or Dad) is in some care facility, where a paid employee is handling the chores of daily living.

This is not to say the opposite is never true, only that the sweeping conclusions and generalizations made in the Times article should at least be challenged.

You can't go broke selling bad news, or giving unconventional advice.   And alarming or unusual titles make for excellent click-bait.   And sadly, it seems these days that the New York Times and in particular, The Washington Post have jumped on the "modern journalism" bandwagon by generating these sort of "churnalism" articles with alarming headlines, just to get people to click.