Friday, March 30, 2018

Flying Cars

Flying cars were supposed to be the wave of the future - will they ever arrive?  Not in our lifetime!

A reader asks me about flying cars.  Do I think this is a real possibility or not?  Not.  And let me explain why.

To begin with, I've written and prosecuted a number of Patents on roadable aircraft.   These are not "flying cars" per se, but a car that can fly or an airplane that can be driven on the road.   Think of them more like the amphibious car - a vehicle that is at home in two environments.   There are a number of these concepts out there - and there have been attempts at roadable aircraft almost since the dawn of the aviation era.

The problem is that it is hard to design a vehicle that works well in both environments.   Just as the amphibious car is a compromise between car and boat design, the roadable aircraft is a compromise between car and aircraft designs.   And the latter dominates - you have to keep weight to an absolute minimum in aircraft design.  You can't just take a car and put wings on it and expect it to fly.  Well, one guy tried that, and it killed him.

A new generation of roadable aircraft are being developed.  The better designs (in my opinion) are usually three-wheeled jobs, which can be registered as a motorcycle, and thus avoid heavy bumpers and stringent emissions requirements - and thus keep weight down so the thing will fly.  The problem is, of course, the resultant car is very lightweight and would lose badly in a tangle with an SUV or pickup truck.  The roadable aircraft would not make a very practical car for daily driving to work.

While these roadable aircraft are cars that can fly, they are not flying cars in the science fiction sense.   They are an airplane that converts to road use, so you can solve that pesky problem of how to get into town, once you've landed your Piper Cub at a small airstrip.   As it turns out, it isn't much of a problem.  Most small airports have a "courtesy car" they let pilots use to drive into town from the airport, if they are visiting.  I think our small airstrip here on the island has at least two or three.  If not, you can rent an electric car at the airport and drive all around the island.   Problem solved.

Thus, even some of the designs that have been proven to fly, such as the Terrafugia, are probably not going to find a huge market, as most pilots would prefer a traditional aircraft, and the added cost of a roadable aircraft (and the resulting performance compromises on both land and in the air) are not worth it.

But what about flying cars - like in Back to the Future or The Jetsons?   In every science fiction novel or movie, it is assumed that flying cars - using some sort of anti-gravity - are commonplace in the future, and everyone will just fly around willy-nilly without plowing into each other or buildings.   There are a number of problems with this model, of course.

First of all, anti-gravity.  It doesn't exist and I doubt it ever will.   God doesn't hand out free lunches, so I don't think "free energy" or anti-gravity will ever exist.  It is like "artificial gravity" - another thing posited in most SciFi genres.   If you think about how gravity works, you'd realize that if you set up a 1g artificial gravity field in your back yard, you would be essentially doubling the pull of Earth's gravity.  The moon would come crashing into the Earth.   Similarly, if you could "repel" gravity the same way, you would end up altering the motions of the planets.   Remember that gravity is a force that acts at a distance - an indefinite distance.   Maybe there is some get-out-of-jail-free card here, but I doubt we will find it in the next 50, 100, or 200 years.   Personally, I don't think it exists.   Life is hard, and there are no easy answers.

So if you want to have a flying car, you need to rely on traditional aerodynamic principles, such as using wings, rotors, or thrusters, to generate lift.   And this is where it gets tricky and expensive.   Flying cars are posited as hovering over the earth and landing anywhere - in your driveway or on the roof of your office building.   Hovering uses a lot of energy.  Helicopters don't get miles-per-gallon, at least in hovering mode.   Even flying at cruise speed, they might get a few miles per gallon, tops.  So we are talking about a real energy hog here, in terms of fuel consumption.

Yea, I know, they have electric planes now, and even electric octocopters and whatnot.  These are all prototypes and fly very short distances.  It is sort of like the jet pack - another modern marvel we were all supposed to have by now (as well as a vacation home on the moon!)  yea, you can build a jet pack that works, but only for a few minutes.   And they are dangerous as all hell.  More than one person has been killed by their flying jet pack.

Let's not forget other, more traditional dangers, such as weather.   We were all supposed to be getting our Domino's pizza and Amazon packages delivered by drone by now, but it hasn't happened and likely never will.  Why?  Wind.  Rain.  Snow.  Sleet.  Hail.   Not to mention that bratty kid next door with his BB gun.  Drones are fun for taking aerial pictures and whatnot - in calm, clear weather.   In a 30 mph gusting rain?   Pretty worthless.   Let's keep that factor in mind for later on.

Presuming you can solve all these energy and aerodynamic problems and build a fuel-efficient flying car, using ducted fans, or folding propellers or whatever, there remains the problem of piloting it.   When I was a kid, you used to be able to take a helicopter from the roof of the PanAm building in downtown New York City, to LaGuardia or JFK to catch a 747 "Clipper" overseas.  Those were the days.   But one day, the landing gear on one chopper collapsed, and the helicopter tipped over on the roof of the PanAm building, cutting the passengers waiting to board in half with the rotor blades.

They stopped flying to the roof of the PanAm building after that.  They realized that landing helicopters on the roofs of buildings is really dangerous.  Anything that goes wrong, and you've got a helicopter crashing into an adjacent building.   Some fun.   And after 9/11, well, the idea of flying planes over city streets doesn't seem to have much legs.  Today, they have "heliports" in Manhattan, usually on a pier, that you have to drive to, in order to take a helicopter anywhere.  Of course, some claim this will change with the advent of flying cars.   But if helicopters flying to rooftops was deemed unsafe 40 years ago, why would we think it safe today?

Obviously, we could not have individuals flying these vehicles.  To begin with, the amount of training needed to learn to fly a hovering vehicle is pretty extensive - more than most people would want to deal with.  It is not as simple as driving a car.  Flying a helicopter has often been described as simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting your head and requires excellent coordination.  95% of the population simply could not do it.   Even if you could simplify the controls using computers, so that it was a "point and and shoot" kind of deal, there would still be people plowing into things, or worse yet, drunk drivers.

One idea that has been suggested is to have autonomous vehicle flying cars.   Hey, why not?  The Uber autonomous taxi is just about ready for introduction - once they put homeless cow-catchers on the front of them.   I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right?   Autonomous vehicles are only minutes away!   Yea, I wrote some Patents on those, too - back in the early 1990's.  And the research goes back to the 1970's, if not before.   It is another idea that has been a long time coming.   This we may actually see, in a few years, if companies like Uber don't fuck it up, and people don't freak out and petition the government to ban them.

So... take this autonomous technology and put it in your flying car and voila!  You have a flying Uber taxi or whatever.   You call one and it lands in your driveway (I presume you cut down that maple tree, right?) and zooms you off to your destination while you read the paper.   The onboard navigation system adroitly avoids other vehicles and communicates with other vehicles as well, in addition to ground control, to smoothly merge with air traffic and find an appropriate place to land.  Sounds swell, don't it?

Well, yea, but.  You see, we're trying to do this right now today with commercial and general aviation, with something called ADS-B - Automatic Dependent Surveillance- Broadcast.  Instead of having "air traffic control" (ATC) radar and "airways" in the sky, each aircraft would locate its position using GPS and then broadcast that to others.  Each plane could then avoid the other, knowing the location of all other aircraft in the airspace.   You could just fly from point A to point B, without following antiquated "airways" that were established in the era of Wiley Post.

And yes, I've written a number of Patents in this field as well.  The problem is, of course, the aviation community has been dragged kicking and screaming into the ADS-B era. There have been delay after delay in implementing the technology, and the technology has changed over time.  Small aircraft owners object to the high cost of the equipment, of course.  ADS-B will eventually be our new standard.   But if you are an air traffic controller, well, don't worry about losing your job just yet.

The point is, we are trying to develop and implement a far simpler navigation system than autonomous flying cars - and running into a lot of difficulties on the political, economic, and technological fronts.   This is something we are trying to do today, and struggling with it.  From what I understand, the new deadline for implementation is now 2020 - so we may finally see it in effect, shortly.   But this is only after years and years of delays.

Now, take all of these problems one at a time, and then put them together.  You need to design a flying vehicle that is fuel efficient and can hover and land anywhere (including in 30 mph cross-winds, in the rain, during snowstorms, and whatnot) and has an autonomous navigation system that will prevent it from colliding with people, buildings, trees, and other flying cars.  Hell, I could design that in ten minutes on the back of a cocktail napkin!  I mean, what is so hard about that?

But seriously, it is a challenge.  And maybe in the future we will see octocopters and electric aircraft that have usable practical ranges.  But I am not sure we will see these flying through the skyscraper canyons of New York City anytime soon.  Probably not in my lifetime.

And yet, clickbait articles abound, claiming that this technology is only a few years away.  In a way, it is kind of charming, how mankind, and in particular, Americans, put so much faith in technology.  Scotty's transporter beam, on Star Trek, can only be a few years away as well, right?

Well, when it comes to science fiction, never confuse a plot device with futurism.   Science fiction shows and movies posit there is "artificial gravity" in the future simply because it is a lot easier to shoot on a set here on Earth than to try to simulate zero-gee.  The "transporter beam" on Star Trek was one such plot device.  It was a lot easier and cheaper to just "beam people down" to a planet, than to have elaborate shuttle-craft shots.   Of course, the special effects for the "beam" itself proved expensive, so later in the series, they would just show Kirk entering the transporter room - and then a quick cut to the planet surface.

Every good science fiction story has a laser, phaser, or "death ray".  In the 1930's in particular, it was always "rays" of one form or another - atomic rays, or heat rays or whatnot.   This doesn't mean these things will exist in the future.   Sure we have lasers - in your mouse or remote control even.   But you aren't blasting through steel doors with them or making aliens go "poof" anytime soon- at least not with some handheld device.   Don't confuse fiction with reality.

Similarly, flying cars are often used as props in movies and on TeeVee, as they are "futuristic" and the "next logical stage" in the development of the automobile, right?  You can't just show a boring old car on a SciFi show - it has to fly!  That's how the audience will be keyed in that this is "the future" - right?  Again, don't confuse a science fiction trope with reality.

Would I like to see flying cars?  Sure, that would be cool.  Although I am not sure I could get Mr. See into one.  I've manged to wedge him into some bi-planes on occasion, but he does have a fear of heights.  He does this in spite of his fears, and to appease me.  But I am not sure he would be comfortable in a flying car, on a regular basis.   And I suspect a lot of other people would have similar problems with it as well.  Although perhaps a new generation, raised on flying cars, would get used to the effect.  But it illustrates there are more than technical issues at stake - there are social and political ones as well.

But quite frankly, I don't see it.  The costs are too staggering and the efficiency very, very low,  And even with autonomous controls, accidents will happen, and a flying car crashing into Times Square would injure and kill a whole lot of people.  And would people really accept a new reality with flying cars constantly buzzing overhead?  Flying at eye-level with the people in adjacent office buildings?  Some folks, I think, might object.

No, I think we need to chalk this one up to "ain't happening anytime soon" despite all the hype and hoopla.

UPDATE:  A reader points out that I missed two huge problems with flying cars:  noise and blast.

Airplanes are noisy, that is true.   Reducing airport noise has been an ongoing concern for the last several decades.   People (including a former neighbor of mine in Virginia) have the airport noise complaint line on speed-dial, and will call in whenever they feel there is "too much" noise from a passing jet.

Helicopters and other vertical lift devices are even noisier - they have to be at maximum thrust during takeoffs and landings.   We have military helicopters do touch-and-goes at our little airport here on the island.   Most of us think it is pretty cool, even if they do fly over the house, sometimes late at night.   Others are less enthused.

Now imagine Uber electric octo-copters taking off and landing in your neighborhood, 24 hours a day - every time someone wants to go somewhere.   It would be unworkable.  On the plus side, the lawn guy's leaf blower wouldn't seem so bad in comparison.

And no, you couldn't have an Uber "airport" to drive to - that would defeat the whole point of the flying car - point-to-point transportation.  Not only that, do you know how hard it is to permit a new airport these days?   Small general aviation airports are being turned into condominium developments at a rapid clip as it is!

In the cities, the noise factor would be horrendous - with these flying cars jumping from rooftop to rooftop.   Yes, we can deal with the occasional helicopter today, because they are occasional - they are so darn expensive, only a few rich people or organizations can afford to operate them.  But flying cars or taxis - for everyone?    It wouldn't work - not even if they were limited to even just the moderately wealthy.

But speaking of leaf blowers, the thrust from these vertical-lift devices would also be horrendous.   Land one in your back yard, and watch your lawn furniture get blown into the pool.   Sure, some rich guy can land his helicopter on the lawn of his vacation home - he owns hundreds of acres of land.   But for the rest of us?  Simply unworkable.

The blast issue would be less of a problem, perhaps, for these proposed rooftop landing zones.   But in order for this air taxi or flying car to work, you have to have a place to fly to.   And the places you fly to, would have to have some sort of safe landing zone free of obstructions and far enough away from neighbors who might complain about the noise.

So the idea of taking your flying flivver to work every day, is, well, a wee bit overstated.

The point of this is (and I did have one) the whole "flying car concept" thing is a prime example of the over-exuberance Americans have for "the next big thing!" technology.  We are convinced that if we throw enough investment money at something, it will happen.   And many people have thrown money at this idea - and many others have been willing to catch it.

In Order To Lose Your Mind, You Must First Have One

One of the weird things of our era is the tendency of people on the far-left and far-right to change places.  Maybe it isn't just our era.

Rosanne Barr made headlines with her new sit-com reboot.  I never liked the original one much - it was very depressing.  In an interview, Ms. Barr claims that television never has ordinary working class families on television shows.  This may come as a surprise to the Honeymooners, the Flintstones, Drew Cary, All in the Family, Married with Children, just to name a few - all funnier than the Roseanne show ever was.

But according to Ms. Barr, she alone represented the working class on television - breaking new ground with her show.  Megalomania much?

That last point is valid, as she admits she has serious mental health issues (and apparently Tom Arnold concurs).   So it comes as no surprise, I guess, that she went from ultra-left-wing liberal, despised by the far-right, to ultra-right-wing Trump supporter, darling of the far-right. To crazy people, political views are like fashions - you take one off, and put another on.

To say that she is delusional is an understatement.   Not that she is delusional for supporting Trump.  There are perfectly rational people out there who support Trump (I have yet to meet one, however).  I suppose you could rationally believe that massive deficit spending and tax cuts for corporations and the rich - as well as trade wars - are good for the country.   Particularly if you are the owner of a steel mill, and just saw your personal taxes and your corporate taxes slashed, and protectionist barriers erected to protect your industry.   That would make sense, I guess.

But Ms. Barr still espouses liberal views, and claims that Donald Trump does as well.   The problem is, of course, that Trump says a lot of things, but doesn't mean most of them.   The actions he takes are more telling, including who he appoints to cabinet positions and judicial posts.  He may claim to be friend to the working man and that "the gays like me!" but his actions say otherwise.  His policies favor corporate interests, the wealthy, and conservative causes.

And like I said, if you own a corporation, are wealthy, and conservative, then it makes sense you support Trump, I guess (although you have to ask yourself how these policies will affect the country in the long-run, which in turn could be against your own self-interest).  Or perhaps you are a successful actor and comedian who is tired of paying high taxes - maybe that would steer you toward Trump, perhaps moreso than his ideas about helping "the little people".  (Politicians, by the way, who claim to want to help the "little people" are often the most dangerous kind.  Expect everyone to act in their own self-interest, and those who claim otherwise, are usually lying).

But taking aside Ms. Barr's 27 multiple personalities (including Hitler as shown above - she claims to be his reincarnation) and other mental health issues, I just don't think she is all that very smart.  Yes, she was funny, when she started out in standup.  But clever?  Smart?  Intellectual?  No, I don't think so.   Yet, people hang on every word a celebrity has to say about an issue, as if being a famous comedian or actress suddenly makes you the perfect policymaker.

And it isn't just Barr.   People love to hear what Ellen Degeneres has to say about the issues of the day.  Again, what exactly are her qualifications here?  I'm not saying that I'm smarter than she is, or that my opinions are better than hers, only that they are no better or worse.   Yet we seek out the advice and thoughts of celebrities and ignore our own inner voice.  I am not sure why.  What Leonardo DiCaprio thinks about anything is really irrelevant to me.   And yes, sorry, even George Clooney.  When actors and celebrities make political statements at awards ceremonies, I just cringe.

It is, however, I think, a certain level of genius to depict a Trump-supporting family on television.   I mean, these people exist, and it is healthy to bring out these issues and discuss them.   And her television husband, while playing a Trump supporter on TeeVee, may have other views in his personal life.  That's acting.

But since I don't get cable television (in both senses of the phrase) I won't be "tuning in" to watch Roseanne, anymore than I did the first time around.  Like I said, it was a depressing show to watch as it seemed all the characters made really poor life choices and then posited themselves as victims.   I heard that in the last season or so, they changed the plot line to make it that they won the lottery - a typical white-trash dream.  And dream it was, apparently, as they later wrote it off as a dream sequence, much as they do on soap operas.

But my point is, and I think I had one, maybe we should care less about what celebrities think, and care more about what we think.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Sophisticates

People who think they are really smart, usually aren't.

I have noted before that any idiot can become an attorney and I'm living proof of that.  I never saw myself as very "smart" or "clever" - just determined.  I keep butting my ahead against things until I get something done.  Perhaps not the most effective way of doing things, but often it works, and often you learn more in the process than by taking shortcuts.

I recently received an e-mail from one of my brothers.  He is reading an old book that belonged to Mother, (Flaubert, no less) in which she underlined passages.  He is hoping to better "understand" her by reading this marked-up book.

Oh, boy.  Trying to "understand" Mother was how my Sister wasted the few short years she had on this planet.  And for some reason, it is something women do more than men.   For the most part, Mothers and Daughters often have an antagonistic relationship - this is normal.  But the television depicts the Mother-Daughter bond as "best friends forever!" and this leads people to think they are abnormal, because they don't spend all their free time with Mom, shopping for shoes and having a pedicure.  You know, girly stuff.

But that is not the norm.  You can't spell "Smother" without "Mother" and most parents have some level of estrangement from their kids - this is normal and don't be alarmed by it.  It is the impetus that gets you to leave home and start your own life.   Your parents' values are obsolete in today's economy and society.  So it is understandable that you might have different views and maybe not even get along.  My Mother's Mother was a virulent Southern racist.  I am sure glad Mother didn't bond with that!  Needless to say, they had diverging views about the "colored issue".

Compounding this is that parents aren't perfect.  No license is required.  No test need be taken.   Five minutes in the back seat of a Camaro, and BOOM!  You're a parent!   So it is not unusual for parents to not like each other, having rushed in to marriage at an early age.  And yes, your parents may have mental health issues of their own.  Mom and Dad seem indomitable when you are five years old.  But as you get older, you see them more and more as vulnerable and flawed people, struggling to get along in life.   You can kind of feel sorry for them - sometimes.

I told my brother than there is nothing to really understand about crazy - and my Mother was batshit crazy.  It started long before I was born, and blossomed into full-blown crazy, just as all my other siblings left home.  Am I mad at her?  Do I feel sorry for her?   Hard to say.  Knifey McStabmore is dead, is all I can say.   She had a sad, unhappy life, and I was fortunate enough to have a strong personality to withstand the abuse.

What struck me as odd, reading my brother's e-mail, was how my Mother felt she was "sophisticated" and intelligent.  Mental illness, to her, was a sign of superiority - like the inbreeding of royal families.  She was an English literature major (as was my brother - the one who lived in an unheated barn for a decade or more - a useful degree!) and felt that was the only degree worth getting in the world.  My Engineering and Law degrees were somehow flawed and worthless - even as she exhorted my other brother to go to law school (and offered to pay for it - hello!).

She would say stupid things like, "All the best authors and artists killed themselves!" as if suicide was some sort of noble and intellectual deed.   The problem with suicide is that you only get to do it once, so it kind of sucks.  Of course, dramatic suicide attempts can be repeated over and over again - as my Mother did - to get attention and I guess, prove your street cred as an "intellectual."  Whatever.  I have no time for such drama.

It struck me, though, that perhaps part of her problem (besides being a closeted Lesbian, alcoholic, manic-depressive, bipolar, and fill-in-the-blank) was that she came from another era, and read too many books (and read too much into them) from an even earlier era.   We love to read and watch those old "drawing room dramas" such as "Sense and Sensibility" in which the men are noble and strong (or cads and bounders) and the women are good at.... well, fainting and getting sick.

In seems that in the movie at least, Kate Winslet spends a lot of time in the sick bed, garnering sympathy from the male leads in the story.  And in each case, she ends up sick because she dramatically runs off into the fields wearing little more than a nightgown, in the pouring English rain. And perhaps this reflected a reality of that era - when being sick was a pretty regular thing, dying young was a given, and dying in childbirth even moreso.  Men fought battles and worked in finance, or ran estates.  Women got sick.

So maybe that is where Mother got this idea that being fragile and whatnot was a sign of class.  I guess some women today play the same game - the "fragile snowflake" syndrome.   Today, even men play this game - pretending not to know how to work their cell phone or repair their car, and wearing ignorance as a source of pride, because, well, royalty doesn't get their hands dirty with shit like that, right?  Maybe.  I don't buy it myself, I just find it annoying.

But getting back to Mother, she fancied herself a sophisticate - with refined tastes in literature, music, theater and food.   I have learned, over the years, however, that her tastes were, well, pretty plebeian.  She liked the music that was popular in her era - Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and other crooners.  Judy Garland, she particularly liked, because of her tragic drug and alcohol abuse - which Mother thought was "classy" instead of just trashy and stupid.  Remember, she felt that self-destruction was something to be lauded.

But symphonies?  They went - and often left early, as her attention span was short.   And food, well.  She simply couldn't cook at all, and often the food she made was inedible.  She made this boiled chicken dish that turned decent chicken breasts into rubber, with protruding bulging veins in them.   I am not sure where she got the "recipe" but it may have been the back of a Campbell's soup can.

I am not saying this to run her down - only to be realistic.  That was who she was - a pretty typical suburban housewife of the 1960's, caught between an era when women were baby-makers and baubles, and a new era where women were lawyers and doctors and astronauts.   And many women of that era anesthetized themselves with psychotherapy, pharmacopoeia, and alcohol abuse.

What a drag it is getting up!

Is it wrong to think you are sophisticated or smart?   I am not sure.  Growing up, my Mother imbued upon us that we were "better than other people" which was an attitude that got me into trouble many times in life before I figured out that other people felt the same way about themselves.  You don't make a lot of friends in this world by being a smart-ass or a smarty-pants.  And it is an instinct that is hard to suppress, to be sure - we all feel we are somehow above average, right?  But on the other hand, it did raise expectations for us - we were expected to do well in school because that's what people like us did.

It was, in part, a values system.  Much as Mark's Grandmother used to say, "just because you are poor, doesn't mean you have to be dirty!" which translates to, no matter how little you have, there is no reason to wallow in squalor.  You can do better than that.   So I guess there is a positive aspect to "having an attitude" in that regard.   Just keep it to yourself, maybe

I am not sure what the point of this was, other than when I heard my brother say he wanted to "figure out" Mother (who has been dead now for two decades), I felt very bad for him.  Because he won't find an answer or find closure or whatever.  There was nothing to figure out, really.  Just a person like you or me, struggling to get along in the world, perhaps with a few more handicaps than other folks - one being a bottomless source of self-pity and depression.

You can try to analyze it or figure it out, or just move on with your own life.  Because there is little profit in naval-gazing or dissecting the past.   You have to move forward with the future that remains to you.

Because it will slip away faster than you think, and you don't want to realize, on your death bed, you spend far too much time agonizing over the past!

Perhaps even this posting is too much time spent!

The Art of Billing

Billing is an art form - crafting a bill that a consumer will pay without complaint is tricky business.

I was fortunate to learn from a Jedi Master of law firm billing, how to craft a bill that clients will love to pay.  It is funny, but many law firms have shitty billing practices, and end up alienating their clients.   Many have "billable hour" systems where associates and partners log in and track their hours.   At the end of the month, a huge printout is sent to the client, with a staggering number at the end, with each 6-minute increment listed with cryptic comments.   Clients often refuse to pay, or at the very least get pissed off.  And in a relationship that can last a decade or more, having a pissed-off client is not any fun.

The secret is to put down what it is you are charging for - in detail - without itemizing too much.   Clients often accept thousands of dollars in charges for legal work, but balk at $50 for photocopying.   You will get a phone call about the photocopying bill, but not the $5,000 you charged for your services.

The problem is, of course, to provide detailed bills, without spending half your day preparing detailed bills.   When you spend an hour preparing a bill for an hour's work, it makes no sense.   One approach I found was to use transactional billing and create "items" to bill for in Quickbooks.   Each "item" was a service, and each came with a detailed description that auto-loaded into the invoice.

As my boss told me, you have to explain to the client what it was you did.  You can't just say, "Prepared Amendment, $2000" and expect to be paid.   That doesn't sound like much in the way of real work.

A better description might be:
"Review of Office Action; Consideration of further course of action in view of Examiner's rejection; Review of Prior Art cited by Examiner (if applicable); drafting of proposed amendment and forwarding of same to client for review; discussion with client regarding proposed amendment; revision of amendment (if applicable) and filing of same with Patent & Trademark Office; reporting of same to client"
As my boss told me, put in what you did - there is a lot of consideration and review involved, not just preparing the amendment.   Detail it, but don't break it out line-by-line, as the client may want to use a "line item veto" on your bill.

Mark learned this the hard way with his catering business.   He sent a proposal to a client for a wedding reception.  Included was the coffee service with dessert.  He broke it out as follows:
Coffee Cups:  100 @ #0.xx per cup.
Saucers:  100 @ #0.xx per saucer.
Spoons:  100 @ #0.xx per cup.
Sugar:  50 @ #0.xx per package.
Cream:  10 tables at @ #0.xx per table.
His charges were reasonable, but people forget that catering a wedding is like setting up an entire restaurant overnight.  Clients often use as reference, what they paid in the grocery store, not a restaurant, for their food.  The latter is a better comparison.

Anyway, the client, being unhappy with the escalating costs of the wedding, asked if maybe they could forgo saucers to save some money - after all, it was broken out separately, right?   And maybe the spoons, too?   Mark replied, "what are they going to stir their coffee with, their fingers?"

He learned a valuable lesson that day - maybe two.  First, never break things out like that.  Itemize, to be sure, but provide one price under "coffee service" and don't give them the option of striking things out line-by-line.

Second?  Don't go into business and serve the public.  It is one reason why we are both retired.   It simply wasn't worth it.

The goal, in billing, is to get the client to pay without that dreaded "phone call" asking for explanations as to what the bill encompasses and why it is so high.  You want to put forth all the time you put into the project and what you did, but not provide a computer printout with page after page of "review of legal matters, 15 minutes" with no explanation as to what was being reviewed, or why.

Amazingly, some of the largest law firms still bill this way - and often get away with it, with deep-pocket clients.  Other firms are finding out that the old ways don't work anymore, and you have to work for a living - and work efficiently, too.  And part of this is billing in a concise and efficient manner that lets the client know what you are doing and why it is worth it to them - without providing a line-by-line iteration of what you did in timed intervals.

Some lawyers I have talked to actually think this is the only legal way to bill people.  You have to buy an expensive "time tracking" software system and present the crazy and inexplicable bills it spits out, to the clients.   Anything less is malpractice or would get you disbarred.   You are obligated to track every minute of every day and bill for it, regardless if the resulting bill makes no sense whatsoever.

And maybe that works for some practices.  But in transactional fields, where people have expectations as to what to pay for services, it simply doesn't work.  You can add up all your "hours" into a project and multiply it by your hourly "rate" and people simply won't pay the resultant amount.  So why people spend so much time and money tracking hours, is beyond me!

The bill shown above (click to enlarge) is poorly done.  The description is too sketchy.  Affidavit? For what?  And there is more to "preparing an Affidavit" than merely "preparing" it.  You have to sit down with the person attesting and get their statement, write it up, proofread it, go over it with the client, make corrections, and finalize it.   Put that all in there!

And the hours - you spent only "1.1" hours on it?  I would think more than that.   Put in all your hours and then write off the excess.

Ahhh!  That's the real trick.   Put down all your hours in the project and then indicate what you are writing off to "courtesy" to bring the bill in line with expectations.   The client appreciates you are giving them a discount - and that you put more time into the project that most other attorneys would do.

Like I said, billing is an art.  And different businesses have different secrets and tricks to billing.  Sadly, a lot of people look at billing as an onerous chore, and thus end up creating bad bills which result in client phone calls and a lot of bad feeling on both sides.

Worse yet, though, is an attorney I know (now deceased) who cut-to-the-chase and simply spent all his time generating bills without doing any legal work at all.   Yes, that is fraud, and had he lived, he likely would have been disbarred.

Obviously, there is a happy medium here!

It's The Debt, Stupid!

Massive debts due to private equity takeovers are what caused many retailers to tank in recent years - and more to tank in the next few months.  For some reason, the media ignores this in favor of an "Amazon" narrative.  Why is this?  It sells eyeballs!

A recent article in Money Magazine argues that the biggest toy store left standing after the bankruptcy of Toys R Us is the obscure Build-A-Bear franchise which allows people to assemble teddy bears in their stores.  Technically, this may be correct, as the Build-a-Bear people may be the largest dedicated toy chain, albeit not one that carries a full line of toys as Toy R Us did.

The article goes on to repeat the mythology that Amazon is destroying retail as we know it.  And while Amazon a certainly a big factor, it is not entirely the whole picture.  The largest toy retailer left in the United States is not Build-A-Bear, it is Walmart.  Visit any Walmart and you'll see how big their toys selection is, not just during the Christmas season when it goes really berserk.

The real factor in the retail apocalypse is debt.  The Money Magazine article mentions, almost in passing, that the Build-A-Bear company has no debt on its books.  With no staggering debt load to service, the company has earned consistent profits for four years in a row.  I know this sounds really stupid but in order to make money in the business your income has to be greater than your expenses - it's really that simple.

A company like Build-A-Bear can make money because it has no staggering debt to service.  And perhaps also they don't have enormous overhead in terms of leasing space.  A lot of ink is also been spilled about the "Mall apocalypse."   In a recent deal involving two the largest mall owners in America, many Wall Street analysts were surprised that one of the company sold off a huge portion of its portfolio for far less than what Wall Street analysts felt it was worth.  People are just now waking up to the idea that retail space maybe isn't worth its weight in gold.  Someone should tell that to the Sears guy!

Malls are not dead, they are just overpriced.  We see the same effect here in our small town.  During the last decade, local real estate entrepreneurs build more and more retail space in the form of shitty little strip malls.   Most of them are empty or have only one tenant.

The landlords here are "good old boys" who play an odious game with retailers. If you start a restaurant or store or something and start to make money, they jack up the rent as soon as the lease expires, thus forcing you out of business.  We have seen more than one store or restaurant go out of business even though there were lines out the door.  Sometimes the landlord then tries to lease the property to friend of theirs to open a similar business which usually fails.  I guess they figured that they could piggyback off the success of their own tenants, but it's a plan that rarely works out.

Brick-and-mortar retail isn't dead - and it could still thrive, provided it is economical.  A retail company can make money with a physical store provided it is not saddled with debt and the lease costs are reasonable.  What we will see in the coming months and years is a shake out in the industry, as the severe over-building and overcapacity in retail space causes one company after another to go bankrupt and new companies snap up these properties for pennies on the dollar.  They then can lease them out for far less than was charged in the past, which may create opportunities for retailers to build successful business models with low overhead.

Just as the bankruptcies of the "dot com" era provided low-cost office space, servers, and fiber optic bandwidth for a new generation of internet entrepreneurs, the meltdown of traditional retail will provide opportunities to re-use and re-purpose all this retail space.   Some malls are already experimenting with mixed-use commerical and residential applications.   Why not?  It would be like living in an apartment building with the world's biggest lobby.   Or how about a retirement community?  Elderly mall-walkers are usually the only ones left in malls, anyway.

The model of the previous generation was just simply flawed.  Private Equity firms bought major retailers and took them private, saddling them with huge amounts of debt to pay off the shareholders.  As one reader said to me, "I don't understand how that works.  You buy a company and then have the company borrow the money so you can buy it?"  It does seem a bit odd.  Sort of like buying a car, and asking GM to co-sign the note!

These Private Equity firms felt they could "turnaround" these retailers and then spin off the companies in IPOs.  But they failed to realize that the retail Market has been changing and people no longer flock to retail stores the way they once did.  Shopping, as an activity, has fallen from favor, particularly after number of economic setbacks and shocks.

Moreover, the popularity of enclosed malls has faded, as people are more inclined to go to strip malls or big box stores like Walmart where they can find the same products or similar products for far less. Walmart has become the de-facto department store of our era.

And Walmart succeeds where others fail because it tends to build its own structures, usually in low-cost areas at the edge of town, and this is not saddled with heavy overhead costs or lease payments. Also since the company is successful, it isn't saddled with a staggering amount of debt that has interest payments due every month.

This is not to say that Amazon and other online retailers haven't changed the game.  They have, but the game has been changing since I was born.  When I was a young kid, my Mom and Dad would take me down to the toy store and we would look at toys and then decide which one to buy.  The toy store was sometimes upstairs at the hardware store, and was almost sort of an afterthought. They would have shelves with toys on them and we looked at the toys and decide which ones we desired. This is how I ended up with a pink Jeep.  It was on the shelf at the toy store and I decided I wanted it.

But by the mid-sixties a lot had changed in the toy industry.  Heavy saturation advertising particularly on Saturday mornings exhorted kids to desire particular toys.  And we dutifully nagged our parents to get us whatever toy was advertised on television.  The toy store started to change.  No longer did they have a selection of different toys, but rather pyramidal displays of the same toys stacked up in quantities of 20, 20, or even 100.  All the kids wanted the same toy - the toy they saw advertised on television.

And big mega-sellers started to emerge - Mattel, Kenner, Hasbro, among others.  Toymaking went the way of the car business, with a "big three" swallowing up almost everyone else.  Toys were sold based on advertising - mass-market saturation advertising.

So shopping for toys changed.  No longer did you go to the toy store to see what was available and make a selection.  Rather, your children selected for you, based on what they saw advertised on television. Then, you sought out where you could buy that product for the lowest possible price.   By the 1970s and 1980s this phenomenon became so severe that they were shortages of the "hot" toy every Christmas.  And the media was complicit in this by hyping shortages of particular toys so that parents would go out and seek them - because everybody wants to get what they can't have.

The sets up a scenario which is ripe for online sales.  If your kid knows exactly what he wants in terms of a toy, then you can go online and find the toy for the lowest possible price and have it shipped to your home.  Why bother going to a dedicated toy store to purchase?

And of course, increasingly today, toys are tied into a franchise of movies, cartoons, books, comic books, and whatnot.  It's very hard to find a generic toy these days just doesn't have some sort of branding associated with it.  We are taught at an early age to seek out brands which have value and status among our peers.  We are taught at an early age to judge ourselves and others by what brands they choose and how much they can accumulate.  Hence the trailer home  with the front lawn littered with toys - it is a status symbol for both parent and child.

Amazon also was recently in the news as president Trump has set out to destroy it.  Or at least that seems to be the gist of his comments.  Although it has been explained to the president several times now that the postal service is not losing money by shipping things for Amazon, he continues to perpetuate this lie via Twitter.  And I think he realizes it is a lie, but he's hoping that it will resonate with his supporters, who all believe their tax dollars are funding the post office.  Let me just point out again, for the umpteenth time, the post office is a quasi-independent government corporation that is self-funded through postage.  Thus, Amazon is pouring money into the coffers of the post office not taking money away from it.  The future of the post office lies in parcel deliveries as ordinary mail has all but died.

What Trump does make a good point about sales tax.  Back in the 1980s there was a Supreme Court case involving mail order catalogs in which the Court held that companies that do not have a presence in the state do not have to pay state sales tax.  This is been a windfall for the mail order business and today, online sales.  Of course, a company like Amazon which has branches and warehouses and offices in almost every state would end up paying sales taxes anyway.  But it's possible at the court may revisit this issue in the future, and that sales taxes will be collected.

But don't write the obituary for Amazon and other online retailers just yet.  There is more advantage to shopping online than merely not paying sales tax.  I live about 10 to 15 miles from the nearest Walmart or other store.  Thus it's about a 20 to 30 mile round trip for me to drive into town to buy something.  That is not only just taking a lot of time - about a half hour each way - but also costs me a lot of terms of wear and tear on the car, as well as gasoline cost.

If we go by the AAA's average cost of operating an automobile, it's costing anywhere from $20 to $30 just to drive into town to buy a $5 item.  This is not really cost-effective.  If I can find the same product online from Amazon or other retailers, even if I pay sales tax, it still works out to my advantage to order it rather to drive into town.

Not only that, there's a very finite real chance to what I'm looking for it won't be in my small town.  I can find all sorts of products online pretty easily - and competing products as well.  If I drive into town, I might have to go to store after store looking in vain for something that's kept in stock.  And since many retailers are feeling the pinch from online sales, many are reducing their inventories of products, which are the bootstraps the whole thing.

More than once, I have driven into town to find something, only to be frustrated in not finding it.  I end up driving home and ordering it online.   Today, I already have an idea of what things to order online - things which I simply don't bother to look for at local stores, because I know they won't have it.

The Money Magazine article argues that retailers have to come up with some new and unique experience to get people to come into the store.  And they argue that the Build-A-Bear company is not just selling toys but selling the experience of building your own bear.  And perhaps this is true. Maybe retailers will have to come up with something new in order to attract people.  But the bottom line is, even if you have the most novel shopping experience to attract buyers, you still won't make money if you have to pay off staggering junk-bond debts and are paying too much for a mall lease.

Those are the two factors more anything else that are driving brick-and-mortar retailers out of business.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Tesla Crash

Investing in high tech stocks is not for the faint of heart.  Certainly not for me!
FLW certainly invented the penis-shaped car!

Imagine a world where the utility companies are out of business - as are the oil companies.   People charge their electric cars from their solar roofs.  Factories run on solar power.  The world is a clean, green garden and the air is safe to breath.   It is a wonderful dream.  And dreams are great.  But reality is what it is.

Tesla is trying to ramp up to making 5,000 cars a week (about 250,000 per year!) at the old NUMMI plant in Fremont California.  Where once Corollas - and before that, Sevilles - rolled off the line, now the Model-3 is set to change the world.  Problem is, the cars aren't rolling off the line, and the company may run out of money before they do.

Bear in mind that the largest and most productive plant in the United States is the Ford plant in Kansas City, which cranked out 300,000-some-odd cars in 2012.  Bear in mind that Ford invented the assembly line and moreover has been making cars for over 100 years now.  Tesla hopes to do, within a year or two, better than that.

And the car is far more complicated to make than a Focus.  Tesla saw some initial success with the Model-S, as it was sold as an expensive, hand-made luxury car.  We saw them parked in front of exclusive restaurants and hotels, next to Porches and Mercedes.   People were willing to pay top dollar to be "early adapters" and also have a lightning fast electric car.   Whether this can translate to mass-production and mass-sales remains to be seen.  Will driving a Tesla have the same status level once the model-3 is ubiquitous?  Money-losing model-3 sales may kill off profitable Model-S sales.

According to some sources, there are nearly a half-million "reservations" for the Model-3.   If this is so, and Tesla is able to meet its 5,000-car-per-week goal, it could satisfy all of those reservations in two years.  Will people continue to buy the cars after that?   This is assuming that Tesla can build all these cars before it runs out of money, of course.

The problem for the electric car is cheap gas - as I noted before.  Every time someone buys a Prius or a Tesla, their consumption of gas declines, and this drives down demand ever so slightly.   As demand drops, so does price.   And as gas prices drop, the economic advantages (if indeed there are any!) decline further.  It is the Ouroboro - the snake chasing its own tail.  The electric car, when successful, it is its own worst enemy.

The problem for the electric car is that we are trying to create a transportation infrastructure using government tax incentives and a top-down economic system.   The gasoline-powered car had no such plan, but rather developed organically over time.   Rockefeller developed his "Standard Oil" not to make gasoline for automobiles, but to make lamp oil.   Up until that time, we burned whale oil - until we started running out of whales.   Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, and a new source of oil - kerosene - was developed.   Gasoline was a waste product of the refining process.

And some unscrupulous vendors would "water down" their kerosene by putting gasoline in it - which tended to cause kerosene lanterns and stoves to explode.   Hence the name "Standard Oil" - a reassuring trademark to consumers that the oil they were buying was safe and regulated.

Of course, the electric light came along, and the demand for lamp oil diminished.   But at the same time, the internal combustion engine - running on gasoline - was developed.  Actually, IC engines can run on a number of fuels.  My 1941 Ford tractor had an option to run on kerosene.  You would start it on gas, and once it vaporized enough kerosene in a heater attached to the exhaust manifold, you could switch over to "cheaper" kerosene use - because by 1939, kerosene was cheaper than gas, which was no longer a "waste product" of the refining process.

Economics drove the gas engine, not government policy.  Oh, sure, governments subsidized road construction and whatnot - but roads are roads, and you can drive any kind of car on them, regardless of its power source, whether it is a 1919 Baker electric or a 2019 Tesla Model-3.   Some might argue that the oil industry itself is subsidized, with cheap leases for oil exploration and whatnot.  But you could make the same arguments about cattle grazing or various forms of mining as well.  Governments got ahead of the parade, when it came to the IC engine, they didn't lead it from the get-go.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think the dream of solar-powered electric cars is a wonderful one.   But I don't invest in dreams, as they are based on belief and not rational thinking.   What is keeping the price of Tesla stock higher than a Space-X rocket can fly is not rational thinking, but a lot of small investors who want to believe in this wonderful dream.   But the reality is, there are no profits, no cash-on-hand, and no realistic expectation that this 5,000-per-week production schedule will be met before the money runs out.   Banks are already downgrading Tesla bonds from "junk" to "junkier".

The nail in the coffin, I think, is Trump.   The current coal administration is hostile to solar power and electric cars.  The tariffs slapped on solar panels will essentially kill off that market in the US - a market that made solar "affordable" by using cheap Chinese panels and generous payments from the utility companies - the latter of which died off last year.  Home solar installs have dropped to nearly nil - and no one is talking about this, yet.

Subsidies for electric cars will likely be next on the chopping block.  Or perhaps the lithium-ion batteries that are the heart of the electric car will be the next victim of Trump's trade wars.  No matter how you slice it, Elon Musk has an uphill battle ahead of him.   Even success could spell failure, in the long run, at least for his company.

But then again, first to market is often last in the marketplace.  The failure of Tesla might not spell doom for the electric car, but pave the way for the next competitor - who will have an easier time of it.

But invest in Tesla?   Uh, no thanks.  I can't risk my livelihood on someone else's dream!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Why Statistics, Surveys, and Polls are Often Wrong.

Are surveys, polls, and statistics actual science or just junk science?

People like to criticize the United States and say that our electoral process is flawed.  But you have to admit our electoral process is certainly not predictable.  There were just two elections, one in Russia and one in Egypt, and no one doubted the outcome of those elections for even a nanosecond.  Whereas in America, it's still possible for a surprise winner whether you like it or not.

We have a real democracy (sort of) and the winners are not predetermined by the powers-that-be.  If that were the case, then Hillary would be President today.  So maybe president Trump is a good thing - it's proof that we do have a democracy or at least an electoral system that is not outright rigged.  And no, Russian influence on people isn't the same thing as rigging an election.  People listening to Russian trolls are just being foolish.  But the Russian trolls aren't pushing the voting levers in Pennsylvania, Indiana Ohio, and Wisconsin - people are.   Foolish people, but people nevertheless.

On the eve of that election, the polls showed that Hillary would win in a cake walk.  Granted, she did win the popular vote, but pollsters also know about the Electoral College - and they still predicted she would win and the states that she lost - the critical "blue wall" turned out to be anything but blue.  How could they get this so wrong?

Statistics, surveys, and polls are often wrong - dead wrong - for a variety of reasons.  Surveys are particularly problematic as they often rely on self-reported data. But when you conduct a survey, it's almost impossible to get a cross-section sample of a population group because the very nature of the survey selects certain people.

For example, if you called me on the telephone saying you're conducting a survey, I probably would hang up on you. Even if it was legitimate survey, I would be skeptical that it wasn't some sort of scam designed to take my money. And moreover I'm a busy person. I have better things to do than answer a bunch of stupid questions. And often, surveys go on and on with far too many questions. If in written form, they often go on for page after page. I noted before when we bought our pickup truck we received this enormous survey from some Automotive Quality Group that asking increasingly personal questions. After I reached page five, I realize I was being an idiot, and threw the entire thing in the trash. And that's the other problem with surveys - many of them are just bogus and an attempt to harvest your demographic data.

Surveys tend to be answered by people who are either lonely or are older or have a lot of time on their hands or really think that "their opinion matters". Younger people are more jaded today and don't believe somebody calling them on a landline with a survey.  Of cours, most young people today don't even have a landline. So the very nature of a survey ends up being a filtering factor. The people answering the survey are not a representative sample of the population as a whole.

But worse than that, the people who answer the survey often lie. I noted before that when surveyed, 70% of Americans claim they paid off their credit cards every month.  The credit card companies, which have computers which track actual data, show that 70% of Americans carry a balance. Clearly a group of about 40% are lying to themselves or to the pollsters.

And this is the problem with things like focus groups as well. You get together a bunch of people in a conference room and ask them what they think of the new Pontiac Aztek.  They  make a bunch of half-ass suggestions, and if you followed them, you'd end up with a car that is so ugly and unsalable no one would end up buying it - not even the people in the focus group. The focus group people have no skin in the game, and they're not obligated to buy the car, so they're going to say ridiculous things - often egged on by other people in the group. Sure, let's put a tent in the hatchback.  What could possibly go wrong? 

So that's the big problem right off the bat - bad data. It's hard to harvest data in a manner which is entirely "clean" that obtains accurate data for an entire population or a truly representative sample of that population. Granted, today, with computers and social media and whatnot online, it's getting easier to track people's actual purchases and actions which is a far greater indication of their real feelings than what they say in a survey or poll.

But even then, the data can be flawed. As I noted in my knitting experiment posting, I went on to YouTube and liked nothing but knitting videos.  Even today, YouTube is convinced that I'm a knitting fanatic.  And even though it's gone back to World War II bombers and hot rods of the 1960s (for the most part) it still offer suggestions for knitting videos - nearly a year later.

The crude algorithms used by many commercial programs assume that since you bought a washing machine that all you're interested in is buying washing machines. However, these are usually purchases you make once, and you're not interested in buying again and again - or at least you hope not to, in less than 15 year intervals.

So you have to find a way to collect accurate data - either exact data for every person in the population you were sampling, or a truly representative sample of that population and that the answers are not self-serving or false or otherwise skewed or distorted.

Then, your next task is to make sense of that data - to show that there is some correlation between the data and some other phenomena, and then show that there's a causation between these two events. And here's where it gets tricky.  Because oftentimes the surveys are conducted with the answer already in mind. The researcher is doing research to prove certain particular theory.  And thus, they fit the data to the theory rather than the other way around.  And oftentimes this research is funded by a company which has a vested interest in having the results come out a certain way.

It is human nature - present in all of us. Clients would call me up and asked me if they should get a patent. They're already convinced they should get a patent, they just wanted me to validate their decision.  And they would selectively give me information steering me to agree with their decision that they should get a patent.  But when I press them for more details, I would find out that somebody else already patented the invention, or they didn't really invent it, or they had abandoned the invention or whatnot.

A reader who is an accountant complains of the same thing with regard to his clients. They call him and ask him if they should take Social Security at 62, 65, or 70.  They've already made up their minds, they just want the accountant to tell them what they already believe.  So they give him selective facts to steer him to the same decision - so they can blame him later on if it goes horribly wrong.

It's human nature for us as people to seek out validation of our preconceived notions.  And it's also human nature for us as professionals giving advice to want to please people and give them the advice they want to hear. This is the sort of thing that usually ends up causing trouble for people and corporations.  "Sure you can steer the Titanic and high-speed through an iceberg field - at night! - what could go wrong? Full speed ahead, Captain!"  Nobody wants to be the naysayer and say, "Gee maybe something could go horribly wrong!"

In Academia there's another effect, publish or perish.  Professors at universities don't get tenure by not publishing papers in scholarly journals.  They need to get noticed.  Thus, they have to keep coming up with "startling new research" to justify their hefty salaries and pensions.  So when you do "research" you when have something that will make a big splash in the media or at least generate a couple of articles - preferably with quotes from you and your associates.

Again, this is human nature.  I'm not necessarily criticizing professors and their ilk for doing this - they have to in order to keep their jobs.  So they come up with startling revelations based on statistical data, - revelation which may or may not be true.

And one way to fudge the data is to change your definition of termsAs I noted before in an earlier posting about homeless children, the federal government claims that homelessness for children encompasses living with somebody else other than your parents.  Thus, for example if a child is living with his grandmother because his mother is a crack addict, then he seemed to be homeless.  A child living in an RV park even if they're in a multimillion-dollar bus motorhome, is deemed to be homeless.  A child living in a motel that's provided by the city as part of housing for the poor is deemed to be homeless.  Based on these definitions it's damn hard not to be homeless!

When you throw in the specious definitions of homelessness, you can come up with some alarming statistics that something like one out of five children is homeless or some sort of nonsense like that. And this helps your department because then you can get more funding from Congress when you go before them and the bright lights and cameras, and tell them with a tear in your eye about all the homeless children America were forced to live with their grandparents.  And Senator Klaghorn, not wanting to appear to be completely an asshole, will vote for another billion dollars for your department to combat homelessness.

And that's just one example.  Every other organization, government agency, corporation, and whatnot does the same thing.  Defense contractors regularly crank up paranoia about Russian and Chinese aircraft carriers, even though we have more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, times two or three.  But reality doesn't get funding for yet another aircraft carrier, so you get people all riled up about the Chinese taking over.  And some fake CGI pictures of the "new Chinese Carrier!" certainly help crank up the angst.

So where does this leave us?  Is all of this data false or "fake news" as our President likes to say?  Not necessarily.  You just have to filter all this information, and not just take it on faith that what is being reported in the press is actually true.  The press likes click-bait. They want to sell newspapers, back in the day - your eyeballs, today.  Do research of your own, online and use your common sense. Discount anything from wildly radical politicized websites and for God's sake, stop listening to memes and all that crap!   Stop believing what is convenient for you to believe and confront harsh realities, instead.

In a previous posting I took a dump on two professors, one from Ithaca, New York and the other from Australia, who claimed that taking early retirement causes you to die.  I pissed on this because it's typical of the sort of bullshit statistics and pseudoscience is being promulgated today.  Sociology is not a science, just advanced navel-gazing.  And the ultimate conclusion from that "study" - in addition to being questionable - is really worthless and not really research.  Because the information is not really helpful to anyone, from people contemplating retirement, to policy makers, to insurance companies or whatever.  As I noted in that earlier posting, people retire early usually because they have to - they have health issues that force them to retire, or are laid-off in their 50's and never work again.   Telling them they are going to die a premature death, based on some sketchy observations, isn't helping much.

I suppose, however, that policy makers might take this data and encourage people to retire early.  After all, the sooner people die, the sooner they stop collecting social security, right?

But of course, the authors of the study had to publish something in order to justify their existence. And I'm not sure why somebody from Australia as an expert on American Social Security. Apparently you have to go to Australia to get an objective view of what's going on. Or perhaps maybe they are offering junk degrees on American Social Security studies, at Australian universities

Why does it matter?  It matters because people read about these surveys and studies in the press and take the information to heart.  They stop eating one thing and start eating another, because some "study" said that margarine made with trans-fats was better for your heart than real butter.  Whoops.   Pseudo-science is misleading and causes people to lose faith in science.   You've heard it before, I am sure, people saying, "well those 'scientists' said we should all stop eating this, and start eating that, and then they changed their minds - again!"   And the problem isn't "scientists" but pseudo-scientists publishing statistical nonsense.   The real dirt hasn't changed much, all along.

Pseudo-science is not science.  And surveys and statistical studies are often the stuff of pseudo-science.  When you see some article that is based on surveys, statistics, or polls, bear that in mind.  Someone is trying to convince you of something, in a way that shuts down all conversation or discussion.   After all, surveys, polls, and statistics can never be wrong, right?


Monday, March 26, 2018

Genealogy is Bunk, Revisited

Genealogy really doesn't affect your life as much as you might think.

A reader sends me a link to a site about genealogy and Elizabeth Warren.  This was timely, as I was going to update my "Genealogy is Bunk" posting.

In a partial defense of Ms. Warren, it was sort of a wasp-y tradition back in the day to claim you are descended from Pocahontas.  After a few drinks, my Mother would lay claim to this - not so much to claim Indian descent, but to claim descent from Captain John Smith.   You see, it is a "thing" in America to claim to have been here a long time.  My late Mother-in-Law was a member of the "Mayflower Madams" or some such nonsense, claiming heritage back to the Mayflower.

I am not sure why.  The Pilgrims were the original Mass-holes.   They practiced a form of religion that most of us today would find repugnant.  Their descendants hanged people for witchcraft.  I likely would have ended up at the end of a rope, had I lived in Pilgrim times.

Others, in New York, for example, claimed Dutch heritage.  Names like Roosevelt carry some weight as "old money" dating back to the New Amsterdam days.

And so it is with Pocohontas - claiming to be descendant from the Virginia colony, not the Indian side.   Like I said, it was a wasp-y thing to do back in the 1960's, and I am sure that is where Elizabeth Warren got it from.

But no one in our family checked off the "Native American" box on government forms (why do we have these offensive "race" designation boxes to begin with?).   Well, my Brother once checked off "Eskimo" just to "mess with the man" but he was probably high at the time, and not actually seeking some advantage from the situation.

It is not clear that Warren obtained any advantage from claiming native American ancestry on a form once, but nevertheless, it probably would be a good idea if she didn't run for President.   She has some good ideas about consumer protection, to be sure.  But I am not sure that her far-left ideology would sell well with Americans.  And make no mistake about it, the GOP would make her look further to the Left than Karl Marx.

But getting back to genealogy, Mark's brother found a book of genealogy research that his late step-Mother had.  Like I said, she was in the "Mayflower Madams" and went to meetings and such.  What they did there, I don't know.  Likely the number one order of business was keeping other people out -which is often what genealogy is all about.  Sounds like Parcheesi club material to me.

What was fascinating about the research was that of course, she traced her ancestry back to the Mayflower (how else to get into the club?).   But her husband's ancestry was traced back through Ellis island, several different spellings of the last name, and came to an abrupt end when she found Isaac and Rebecca Sie in Northern France.    Mark's Dad had Jewish ancestry!   And we can't have any of that sort of nonsense in the Mayflower Madam's society!  So she closed the book on her husband's ancestry, leaving a big question mark.

Of course, Mark is having fun with this.  While the Mayflower Madams might be antisemitic, we view being part Jewish as an advantage.   After all, what other minority has desirable traits ascribed to it?  But of course, being 1/64th Jewish doesn't make you a Jew, so it is just irrelevant data, really.  You go back enough generations and we are all related to each other - and it is fewer generations than you think, too.

What struck me as odd, too, was that for many people, their genealogy ends at Ellis island or some other port-of-entry.  Many black folks point out that for them, tracing their "ancestry" isn't as easy, as poor records were kept of where their ancestors were imported from, and there are no records back "in the old country" for them to research.   However, for many caucasians in America, their ancestry traces back only about as far.  My family's history sort of ends at a question mark about Ireland or Scotland.   Beyond that, no one really knows.  And this likely may be due to the fact that some of our ancestors came here under less than honorable circumstances.   Some were escaping debts, or perhaps criminal conviction.   What is clear is that they didn't impress upon their children much information about their life before America - and their children didn't seem to remember or pass on much of what little was said.

And yes, discrimination comes into play.  The influx of Irish Catholic immigrants caused riots in the United States - literally.   Many, including some in my own family, re-imagined themselves as "Scottish" Protestants, and found the doors to success were now open to them.   If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  And history is full of these sort of incidents.   Perhaps the Sie family went through a similar conversion, in their journey to America.   Whatever the case is, of course, it really doesn't affect Mark's life today.  Knowing about this ancestry (which may or may not be correct - records can be confused, lost, or inaccurate) really doesn't change much.  Although maybe it will keep him out of the Mayflower Madams club - which is probably a good thing, anyway.

It seems today people are looking inwardly more than ever.  People are sending off DNA samples to "23 and me" or whatever, and hoping to find insights into their ancestry.   But other than as a parlor game, it really is of no use, other than for people trying to find their birth parents, if they were adopted.

Oddly enough, though, according to the article cited by my reader, one of the biggest areas of inquiry for DNA testing companies is people asking whether they have Indian (Native American) ancestry.  I don't think this is related to Elizabeth Warren-like claims, but rather people hoping to claim ancestry so they can qualify for some of that casino or oil money.   And that is an interesting area of inquiry, as who is an Indian is a difficult question to answer.  And maybe someday, no one will care, one way or another - but that is a long time in the future.

For the rest of us, though, genealogy really means nothing.