Monday, October 25, 2021

We Have It So Awful! (No, We Don't!)

Is America a festering shithole place to live?  Why do so many people want to move here, even from other Western countries?  Maybe things aren't as bad as they seem!

A reader writes, in response to my previous posting, that I am naive that America isn't some festering third-world country ready to collapse at a moment's notice.  And I don't blame the reader for thinking that - the Internet is full of sites, comments, and articles, all translated from Russian, making the same point.

But is the USA so bad?  Let's look at things in a real light:

1. Health Insurance:  The "meme" put up by people who never lived in the United States is that medical expenses can top $8000 per month (no, they really say this) which is higher than the annual deductible for an Obamacare plan.  Right now, I pay about $250 a month for an Obamacare plan (last year, it was free - I could go to a smaller plan for free if I chose to do so).  So the idea that masses of people are without health insurance is a little overstated.

Yes, there are a few die-hard MAGA-hat wearing idiots who refused to sign up for the plan.  One fellow realized his error when his wife was diagnosed with cancer.  He quickly changed his mind about Obamacare as well as a lot of other things.  He finally woke up and realized that the people egging him on to do stupid, self-destructive things in the name of "greater issues" were just using him. And yes, most of those people he "met" online were not from the USA.

Others have health insurance through their employer.  I've had health insurance my whole life, because I worked for a living or qualified for Obamacare - and shortly will qualify for Medicare.  That doesn't mean I get "free" medical care after age 65.  I have to sign up for supplemental plans at that point as well.

If I was too poor to qualify for Obamacare (irony!) I would (or might) qualify for Medicaid.  And if for some reason, I fell through that crack, well, if you end up in the Emergency room, they will send you a bill you can never possibly pay, which means declaring bankruptcy - and you don't pay it.  Sounds dramatic, until you realize that the folks in such a situation generally have zero assets anyway, so they are not losing anything, other than a debt.   Even for middle-class people, such debts are negotiable, in terms of monthly interest-free payments or outright slashing of the overall bill.  The foolish thing to do is to pay the bill on a credit card - then the debt is harder to discharge.

Is this patchwork system better or worse than "Socialized Medicine" we see overseas?  Well, it would be nice if we had a "single payer" system, but if you talk to people from the UK and Canada, they have their own horror stories about "National Health" as well.  Overall, I think they like their system, but it doesn't run any more efficiently than our crazy system over here.  In fact, it can run far worse, and the people who have money do end up getting better care, as they can afford to go out of the system or even out of the country - indeed, often to over here.

Our incentive-based system is flawed, but then again, it tends to reward performance, which is why so many drugs and procedures are developed here in the USA, as the profit incentive exists here.  Sure, they sell life-saving pharmaceuticals in other countries for cheaper - but they might not ever have been developed, if the prices were fixed from the get-go.   So goes the argument, anyway.

It is interesting, but the USA was at the forefront of developing vaccines for the Corona Virus.  It's just a shame we can't get certain people to take it - often the same people who think our country is a shithole.  But Darwin is cleaning up that mess as we speak.  There is a whole forum online devoted to people who claimed the virus was a hoax or whatever - and died from it.  You can read their tweets over time - denouncing the vaccine and masks and whatnot.  The second-to-last tweet in the series will say how the person in question is now in intensive care, and the last tweet is their obituary.  In a few cases, the victims have a road-to-Damascus conversion, but only after the virus has ravaged their body and probably reduced their lifespan by a decade or more.  You can't fix stupid.

But this is the "Freedom!" that people are agitating for, and in the USA it exists more than anywhere else in the world.  Yes, we are free to do idiotic things.  No "nanny state" telling you that you can't have an assault rifle.  But then again, no one to blame but yourself when you accidentally shoot your kids with it.

2. Homelessness: This seems like a festering problem, particularly if you live in a major city in California and some sainted homeless people are shitting all over your sidewalk, pissing on your doorstep, and breaking into your car (not to mention screaming randomly and sexually assaulting your children).  Yea, mentally ill drug-addicted people are a load of fun!

And that's what they are: mentally ill drug-addicted people.  They are NOT "down on their luck" or just in-between jobs or whatever.  People who really are in financial trouble are NOT living under a bridge and stealing stuff for drug money, they are trying to get their life together - and there are a host of organizations, public and private, who will help such people - and do.

The drug-addicts living under a bridge don't want to better themselves - they want to get high as possible.  The good news is, this "homeless crises" constitutes a fraction of a percent of the population.  It is not some great crises that some make it out to be.

The real issue is again, our "Freedom!" which we cherish so much.  Freedom not to pay taxes (as our European neighbors do) to support mental health facilities and drug rehabilitation centers.  Freedom to live under a bridge without being hassled for "vagrancy."  Freedom not to be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital unless you actually kill or seriously injure someone.

Again, the people who run down America in one breath are the same ones who decry "socialism" or higher taxes to pay for mental health care.  Make up your freaking minds, people!

Yes, when I was a kid, we didn't have a "homeless problem" because we had mental institutions across the land.  If you were caught wandering around muttering to yourself or screaming at the squirrels, they hauled you off to the State Home and you had to live there.  We had a "homeless problem" but it was kept under wraps - institutionalized.

In the 1970's we all saw (and read) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and thought that mental institutions were cruel (and indeed I am sure some were).  Politicians saw a wave to ride - close the hospitals and cut the budget at the same time!  And our friends in the pharmaceutical world offered a solution with a new range of drugs, which worked, sort of, if people kept taking them.  But the first thing a crazy person does when they get well is stop taking the medications, which with the side-effects, is pretty understandable.

But this is not just an American problem - our Western allies have the same problem, although perhaps not as bad - it's worse!  Germany has 650,000 homeless, which is lot, given the size of the country.  It is actually more than we have in the United States, by some counts.

Once again, "Freedom!" rears its ugly head. In Afghanistan today, the Taliban is rounding up drug-addicted homeless people who are literally living under bridges in Kabul, and forcibly putting them in "rehab" centers after shaving off their hair (for some reason).  In a totalitarian State, you can do that - force people to not do drugs and not be homeless.  In many Asian countries, the penalties for using or dealing drugs are severe - even death.  People still do drugs, though.

Meanwhile, in America, we have legalized some drugs and people are seriously talking about legalizing others.  Freedom!   Ready to give that up?

Uh, wait, what was the issue?  That life in Europe is better than here in the USA?  This is worth overthrowing our government for?  Once again, we are throwing away something good for nothing.

3. Income Disparity and Poverty:  Again, it is taken on faith that America is a horrible place, with everyone living hand-to-mouth and paycheck-to-paycheck while Jeff Bezos drives his Lamborghini around the deck of his super-yacht.  The reality is something different.

While income "inequality" has risen over time, the fact remains that the USA is one of the richest countries in the world and our standard of living is higher than most other countries, including most other Western democracies. 

Yes, I know, life is better in the UK - even after Brexit!  But the reality is something different than that.  A middle-class existence there is to own a small car and live in a row house with a tiny twee garden in back.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is a lesser existence than what the middle-class, or indeed, even the poor have, in America. Food over there costs more, fuel alarmingly so, and people typically don't have the four or five cars parked in the driveway as we do in the States.

Europeans, we are told, are alarmed by how many bathrooms we have - usually one for each person in the home - ditto for television sets, computers, and smart phones.  Nearly everyone in America has a car - and often this is only because you have to have one to live here.

But is our way of life better or worse than theirs?  To some extent, this is a philosophical question - having less often means having more, as I have learned over time. But on the other hand, I suspect most Americans would be loathe to give up their lifestyle to live overseas, even if the food is much better there (but costs twice as much).

Again, this "Freedom!" thing rears its ugly head.  People in the USA make good money, but they spend a penny more than they make - and run up credit card debt as a result.  They feel put-upon by banks and finances because they don't manage their money well.  Maybe overseas they have better "Nanny-State" protections to keep people from buying timeshares or joining Scientology (which is basically illegal in Germany).

America?  You are free to blow your brains out, quite literally.  Sign your life away in a contract.  Join a cult religion - your freedom to do so is guaranteed in the Constitution.   You are expected to be astute when it comes to finances - yet so few of us are.

Maybe it would be better if we had more regulations to prevent such malfeasance.  Maybe higher taxes on the rich would equal things out.  Maybe - but these things are hard to enact, particularly when the very folks who would benefit from such social change are the ones most dead-set against it.

Look at the pictures of the January 6th rioters.  See any Billionaires in the crowd?  Probably not even a millionaire.

But again, historically these things run in cycles.  We had very high taxes (well over 50% marginal rates) back before I was born.  Over time, these have been cut back.  I suspect they will go up again in the future, but it won't happen overnight.  It will take a lot of people voting and organizing to make it work.  But as recent elections show, it can be done.

On the other hand, overthrowing the government and installing a fake-blonde-haired weak strong-man with orange skin will do little, other than to insure that the rich get richer.

Just because social change doesn't occur on a timetable to your liking does it mean the whole system is utterly broken and should be discarded.

* * *

Oddly enough, another reader writes:

I think the idea of just tuning out seems like the remaining plausible alternative - irrespective of which side of the isle you lean. I talk to buddies who are on the opposite side and they are seeing it too. Maybe all these stories of angst and drama are there to distract and divide. Who knows.

All of that said. It’s getting into fall and we need to clean out the garage. Mulch the beds and get the car winter ready. Those activities seem a much better use of time!
He gets it.  Being "outraged!" all the time doesn't make your life better - it makes it worse.  It also makes you a prime pawn for someone else.  Vote.  Donate money to political campaigns, if you can. But protesting and rioting aren't going to improve your life, but make it worse.  Not getting vaccinated to "prove a point" won't make your life better, but will likely end it.  Yet so many people concentrate most of their energy in these fruitless pursuits, while letting their personal lives disintegrate.

Of course, that is the point.  It is all about Externalizing.  If you fail at life, it is a lot easier - and more convenient to blame others for your woes rather than to look inwardly and see what you could have done differently.  It is easy to say "hormones make me fat!"  It is harder to say, "I shouldn't have ordered that huge entree at the fast-casual restaurant - and a little exercise wouldn't be a bad idea, either!"

You know the type, too.  You've met, no doubt, in your life, the loser who has been fired from several jobs, and each time, he has an excuse as to why it "wasn't his fault" that he got fired.  The boss was an asshole, he'll tell you.  And he wasn't sexually harassing that secretary at that other job - women, right?  And the  last place - they accused him of stealing, but they couldn't prove anything!  If you haven't met "that guy" yet, become an employer - you'll met him, eventually.  Hopefully you don't hire him.

I came from a family of outraged! people, and early on in life, I learned that being outraged! was the thing to do.  There are greater issues at stake! - that's the rallying cry of the outraged! types.

I had friends and family members who went down this path - their personal and family lives were often in a ruin, but they could give you the latest dope on the Kennedy Assassination - as if decoding this event from 60 years ago would somehow balance their checkbook. People get into debt, lose jobs, lose spouses, lose careers - but they don't stop.  Perhaps they can't - it is like gambling addiction.

And yes, this is something to be outraged! about, but being outraged doesn't help much. A lot of these people who are sucked into Qanon or Anti-vaxxing or Stop the Steal are not going to quit cold turkey.  So don't bother trying to talk them out of it.  It would be as fruitless as trying to talk someone out of an MLM scheme or Scientology - your "resistance" merely confirms to them they are right.

It sounds heartless and cruel, but the best thing you can do for society is look out for yourself.  If a friend is about to drive their car off a cliff, make sure you are not in the back seat.   The world needs more rational people - rational actors - in our society.  Becoming unhinged because others are unhinged isn't solving anything, it is in fact, making it worse.

And in that regard, if you listen to all this crap in the news and online and start to believe that the United States is a "shithole" as our first reader suggests, it will do nothing to make your own life better, but instead lead you down the rat-hole of depression and obsessing about conspiracy theories and other nonsense.

That's the irony of it all - the very people who obsess about politics rarely contribute to political campaigns or even bother to vote.  "Why bother?" they will tell you, "the whole thing is rigged anyway!"  This is real brain-trust thinking!

The world is a beautiful place, but that is not reported on the "news" because the "news" by definition is just reporting about bad things that happened, just as "history" is a recounting of wars and disasters, not the positive things in life or extended periods of peace.  The Titanic sinking was a "news" story and history.  If they had missed that iceberg by ten feet, well, it would not have been either.

So walk away from obsessing about politics and "the news" - and negative thinking in general.  The difference between successful people in this world, and the great unwashed masses boils down to one simple thing:  Successful people are not chronically depressed, nor do they obsess about things other than what is on their own plate.  As a result they get to manipulate the world more than you do.  This is why we call them "movers and shakers".

Learned helplessness, on the other hand, is a great way to keep people passive and inactive.  And sad to say, platforms like "social media" and network television are designed to make you passive and helpless - to keep you outraged about your situation in life, but prevent you, at the same time, from doing anything about it.

And it goes without saying, preventing you from seeing how good things actually are....

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Madness of Crowds

This is not an insurrection, just a market adjustment - according to one reader.

I wrote before about the book The Madness of Crowds which, many years ago, a reader recommended to me. I started this blog after the real estate bubble burst in 2008, this nearly 20 years to the day after the previous (but smaller) bubble of 1989 - a bubble some said never happened, in 2006 or so.

Another reader wrote to say that bubbles never happen - just "market adjustments" - and there is no "evidence" that the tulip bubble ever occurred. I mean, other than all those people writing about it, and who knows? They could all by lying, right? And about the South Sea bubble, and the railroad bubble, and the various gold and silver bubbles as well. People believe what they want to believe and most people want to believe what is convenient to them, personally.

Convenient belief, however, never ends well. Whether it is singing the company song at an MLM meeting in a hockey stadium, or investing your life savings based on what some anonymous "stonk" predictor said on a website forum, it often ends in tears - in fact, it always does.

But those are mere economic situations - transactions where someone uses a victim's beliefs against them, or at least their willingness to believe.  Unscrupulous folks take advantage of others by cheating them out of money.  Of course, those doing the cheating may rationalize their theft as merely "doing business" - after all, how can they be responsible if someone they recruited to an MLM scheme doesn't recruit ten more "distributors" of their own?

People live delusional lives - we all do, sad to say.  That is why the mantra of this blog has been "Act Rationally in an Irrational World" - at least for the last few years.  It seems to me, after writing for more than a decade, that irrational behavior and belief is the norm with mankind and that logical thinking is in short supply.

This pandemic has illustrated exactly how irrational people can be. Even people in professions - medical professions - hold irrational beliefs.  A small but surprising percentage of "medical professionals" don't believe in medicine, it seems.  And sadly, every year, another nurse or medical professional is convicted of actually murdering patients by intentionally administering the wrong drugs, or in one recent case, injecting air into patients' veins.

No, I don't view doctors as Gods - if I ever did.  Maybe my early experience with the medical industry is to blame.  Or even more recent experience.  Or consider all the doctors who run "pill mills" (even here in my home town!) or prescribe fatal drugs for celebrities. This is not to say I hate doctors or think they are all Quacks - only that they are human beings like the rest of us, prone to frailty.  I recounted before about a doctor I had who believed fervently in veganism.  I am not against veganism, but to him it was like a religion - which is troubling when someone is working in a field of science.

But it ain't just doctors.  We have airline pilots losing their minds mid-flight (as if it wasn't already bad enough that the passengers are behaving poorly) and a small but surprising percentage who don't believe in vaccination.  You would think that someone versed in technology would be logical, but then again, pilots are not Engineers.  "Kick the tires and light the fires and let's go!" - that's the mantra of the airplane pilot.  They don't worry about whether the thrust bearing on the Number 2 engine has sufficient lubrication, or whether the mechanic left a wrench in the engine housing.   That's the sort of shit that worries me, and as one friend who is a commercial pilot told me, "I'm glad you don't fly with me!"

So irrational thinking plagues us all, at one time or another.  At some point in all of our lives, we do stupid things.  We date the wrong people - or worse yet, marry them.  We blow money on stupid ego-boosting things like cars or motorcycles or look-at-me houses.  We borrow money to go on vacation.  Or worst of all - and most people do it - we let credit card balances creep up over time until "one day" we "suddenly" have a credit card crises.  Most everyone does one or more of these things in life - I think I have done most all of them.  I have yet to sign up for an MLM scheme or buy a timeshare.  But the day is young.

But lately, maybe it just seems people are more irrational, or maybe I am just noticing it more.  Sure, we didn't have an "insurrection" back in the 1960's or 1970's.  But we did have rioting - people burning down entire neighborhoods, largely due to the same issues we are confronting today. And back then, we had unreconstructed racists and bigots just as we do today.   Back then we had SDS people bombing buildings and killing people - including the police.  Some of them later became lawyers at white-shoe law firms or law professors - stranger things have happened.

So maybe there are two explanations. First, maybe people have always been crazy and today it is just easier to spot crazy due to the Internet.  Second, maybe this is a cyclical deal - every 30-40 years or so, the world loses its mind and everyone starts going berserk.

Perhaps. Some like to blame the Internet and "social media" which I think is merely an amplifier of all of this nonsense, but not the cause of it.  Back in the day, we did have a set of societal norms - as evil as some of them were - but norms we all agreed upon.   Yes, women were basically property, and blacks and other minorities had no rights.  Gay men were murdered and the police rarely bothered to investigate.  Those were the "norms" we all lived with, reinforced by the television and the newspapers.  There were few media outlets, so there were few avenues for people with dissenting views to voice their concerns.

Today?  We are chasing the tail.  Facebook makes money from "engagement" and they can cater to smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. And often, this "engagement" means encouraging people to go off the deep-end.  The conspiracy theorist is their best customer!  He will spend hours online trying to "decode" Qanon, while the rest of us have jobs to do and real lives to lead.

But of course, this raises the question, who is advertising on these radical sites?   Many a mainstream corporation has been shocked to see their cheerful ads appearing as sidebars on a holocaust denial web page.   People rightfully have tried to shame companies into cutting off advertising dollars to odious venues and odious personalities.  Some call this "censorship" but I think in the long run, advertisers will realize that end-times preppers aren't interested - nor can they afford - a $100,000 pickup truck or the latest fashions from 21 Forever or whatever.  Sure, you can sell them guns and survival food and camouflage pants, but that's about it.

It is like the fad of "country" television shows in the mid-1960's.  The ratings for Green Acres and Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction and so on and so forth were great.  But then the advertisers realized that the audience for such shows didn't have any money and the whole thing came crashing down.   Nielsen numbers are one thing, but in advertising, you want more than just ratings - you want paying customers!

So it is possible - possible - that the "Facebook Problem" will correct itself - as corporations realize that marketing your latest gadget next to "Stop the Steal!" pages isn't a cost-effective use of their advertising dollars.  But of course, this is of little consolation to those stuck in the middle in the meantime.  It would be like going back in time to 1940 and telling people waiting in line at the gas chamber that within five years, the camps would be liberated and Hitler would be dead - so don't worry!   Cold comfort that "eventually" people will come to their senses.

The current situation has one thing in common with other periods of disruption in world history - people are throwing away (or trying to throw away) a good thing because they have been convinced that things are worse than they really are.   Back in the 1960's, many a young person (including my siblings) were ready to move to Canada or blow up a math building, to protest a war that they had little chance of ever fighting in.  College students got deferments from the draft, and even if drafted, chances are they would be sent to Officer Candidate School or given some more technical stateside job.  It happened to my Dad in World War II - as a "college kid" he sat out most of the war, being sent by the Army to.... college.  Meanwhile, high school grads like Mark's Dad, were bundled into a B-17.

But speaking of that war, one of the ironies of Nazism is that the German economy was well on the road to recovery when the Nazis took power.  The worst of the great depression and the privations of the Versailles Treaty were behind them, but the Nazis convinced the general public that order needed to be restored.  And they did this by street-fighting with Communists, much as "Proud Boys" and other right-wing groups go at it with "Antifarts" in street brawls and even murders - both sides being egged on by people who want to see things go to pot.

Or take the Russian revolution - the peasants and serfs overthrowing a tyrannical Czar, right?  In reality, more of a revolt of the middle-class than the rural peasants.  But that isn't a story that sells well for thinly written history books.   The idea that revolutions are caused by deep privation is a better story - going back to our own revolution.  What was the big beef again?  People starving in the streets?  Oh, right, a tax on tea.

That is the real concern - that we will throw away a perfectly good country and a perfectly good government, on the premise that we are somehow "oppressed" in the richest and most-free country in the world.  No one is starving in the streets - indeed our biggest health problem is the opposite of malnourishment; obesity.  The people attending these protests are all driving there in their cars, documenting their malfeasance with $1000 iPhones, which they pay $75 a month to use.  And the real nutters all have thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars worth of firearms - firearms that would be illegal to own in 99% of the world.  Yet we are so oppressed!

But all that being said, tamping down this kind of madness is like trying to extinguish one of these mega-forest-fires which are part of our new norm.  You can drown out one "hot spot" and another will flare up.  The only thing that really puts a stop to it, is running out of fuel.

But by that point, most of the forest is gone.

Cheerful thoughts for a sunny Sunday!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Pressure Washing and the Joys of Home Ownership

Owning a home is a series of chores.

A reader writes asking whether I am still alive, as I have not been posting regularly.  Rest assured, if I was dead, I would let you know.

No, rather what is happening is we returned home and have to spend countless hours doing back-breaking work getting the house in order - and cleaning the camper and getting it ready for storage.  Perhaps if we never left, it wouldn't seem so bad, but when you come back after four months and try to do everything at once, well, you realize cumulatively, how much work a house really is.

Pressure washing, for example.  The eaves and soffit of the house - the trim pieces around the roof - all get covered with dirt.  Some runs off the roof and sticks to the facia board.  Spiders build webs and nests and poop out dead bugs all over the place.  Dead leaves and pine needles collect (far less than in the past, after we've had about six trees removed) on the roof and sidewalks.  Shrubs grow over the windows and roof of the house.  It is a lot of work to put everything back in order.

Some folks never do, of course.  If you live in a house all year long, maybe you don't notice the shrubs growing over the eaves - the classic "haunted house" look.   The windows are covered by shrubbery so it gets dark inside and the people inside the house get depressed and go crazy.  The house actually becomes haunted, in a manner of speaking.

You have to keep up with this stuff, otherwise it overwhelms you.  And as you get older, it gets harder to keep up.  Our house has vinyl and aluminum trim, so it is fairly easy to scrub it with a brush-on-a-stick and some Simple Green and use the low-pressure Karcher to blast off the dirt and spiders.   Other houses have painted trim, which makes using the pressure washer a little trickier, if not impossible (even the low-power Karcher will blast the paint off).  Of course, one alternative is to use brown trim paint, so you don't see the dirt.  It's still there, though, and eventually you will see it, particularly the spider webs.

Now, back in the day (and even today) rich people had big houses and an army of servants and hired help to keep everything spic and span.  And many of those rich folks lost their fortunes and the "Great Homes" of the UK and US fell into disrepair.  It was just too much to keep up with.

For us middle-class "strivers" the problem is even more acute.  Joe and Josephine Striver buy a "mini-mansion" with a "rich people's roof" - steeply inclined with many valleys and corners.  Everything is brand-new, from the appliances to the foundation, and for a decade or so, everything goes smoothly.  A yard service takes care of the lawn, and the house looks pretty good, even if the stucco is starting to crack in spots.

But after 10-15 years, well, that fancy roof needs to be replaced - and guess what?  All those valleys and the steep pitch mean it will be a bitch to re-roof, and the prices quoted by roofers reflect this.  Like aging British gentry, the middle-class Americans find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

We are experiencing this on a smaller scale - our house isn't a mini-mansion, but a three-bedroom ranch.  But everything was replaced fifteen years ago, and you know what that means.  So in addition to "regular maintenance" we have to budget for various overhauls, from new flooring, to paint, to a roof, to new appliances, new plumbing, new electrical, and so on and so forth.  We're about halfway through this, so far.

What is interesting is that at age 61 this starts to seem like an awful lot of work, and I can't imagine doing this at age 70 or so - it would just kill me, probably literally.  The only solution - if you want to stay in the house you are in - is to hire people to do all of these tasks, which gets tricky and expensive.  Tricky because unscrupulous contractors know they have old people over a barrel and as a result, they are regularly the victims of con artists.

But even with honest contractors, the cost of home maintenance is anything but cheap - particularly these days as labor costs and material costs skyrocket.  You reach a point where you wonder whether you own the house, or the house owns you.   Yet, so many people are slaves to houses, it seems.

It is a pretty funny thing, how human beings want their own 1/4-acre and a few rooms to live in, a comfy sofa and a big-screen tee-vee.  We all live in houses - or claim to want to live in houses - and some folks, it seems, never leave them.

Again, going away makes you realize this. So many people we meet "camping" are just spending a day or two in a park, only to rush back to their house so they can go off to work on Monday morning.  The idea of living in any other way is alien to them - as indeed it was to me, when I was working.  You need a place to crash, between shifts at the job, I guess.  But more than that, we want a place to call "home" - which is a nest or "crib" (interesting slang term) as well as a status symbol.

Of course, there are other ways of dealing with houses.  Many older folks let their houses fall down around them, and in a perverse manner, this makes sense.  Why bother plowing money into a house, when odds are, you'll leave it feet-first in a few years, or be trucked off to some retirement living place?  So they let the place go, and the next owner guts it and starts over.

A beautiful park on the water- but it needs a new bath-house!

Which, by the way, is another approach.  We were staying in an Army Corps park in Alabama, and it was quite nice - on a lake and all.  We were in the "old section" which was a little decrepit, but the sites were right on the lake.  The "new section" had all 50-Amp service, sewer connections, pull through sites with concrete slab driveways - perfect for the new generation of mega-campers.

We were kind of disappointed at how the Army Corp had maintained the "old section" - the roads were falling apart, and the bathroom was a little creaky.  But then we realized that either they were going to close this old section completely (there were some erosion issues) or just bulldoze it all and start over with new slabs, new power, new sewer, and a new shower house.  It would be cheaper than trying to "fix" the existing infrastructure.

In terms of maintenance, they have to use their own salaried employees, who could barely empty the trash cans.  They weren't about to get on a ladder and paint the shower house.  And contracting for such repairs would be time-consuming and cumulatively, more expensive, than simply writing on contract for a whole new building.  Similarly, patching the roads, over time, would cost more than just re-paving the whole place - and perhaps changing the layout to accommodate the bigger rigs of today.

Sometimes it makes sense to start over - either with a whole new buildings, or a gut-and-remodel.  So perhaps we are wasting out time and energy by trying to "maintain" our house, when the end result will be, when we leave, that someone will come in and tear it all out, if in fact, they don't tear it all down.  We've been through this before - more than once!

Our house on Washington Road in Alexandria, was bulldozed to make room for two new houses.  Our condo in Huntington is awaiting demolition as we speak.  Mark's parents' house was bulldozed flat to make room for a "look at me!" vacation home for rich folks.  You can try to hang on to a place, but in the end, it eventually becomes a building lot for the next guy - or at the very least, a shell to re-hab down the road.

Maybe this is an American thing.  I recall my Japanese friends marveling at how we in America tear out kitchens and bathrooms every 10-15 years, if not sooner.  I was amazed at how buildings from the 1950's were so well preserved and maintained in Japan, and not allowed to become festering eyesores, until they were torn down.  On the other hand, The Imperial Hotel - they tore down a Frank Lloyd Wright structure to put up a bland Bauhaus monstrosity.

But then again, Wright.  He built not for the ages, but for the years.  If he were alive today, he would be amazed that any of his structures were still standing and indeed would be outraged they were "preserved" as museums, rather than being gutted and re-done time and time again - as he did with many of his projects, such as Taliesin.  Houses are not forever.

On the other hand, it seems so wasteful, to me, to spend so much time and energy just keeping up a place to squat - to make it "look nice" for the people driving by at 40 mph, who never notice your efforts anyway.  It is weird, but we spend a lot of time and energy in this life making things "nice" for people we don't know or will ever know.  Lawn mowing, for example, serves no purpose other than to make a nice green space for others to look at.

Well, sometimes it seems that way, anyway!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Loudness Wars

Music from the 1990's sucked, not because of content, but because of how it was produced.

I recently went down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole and ended up on the "Loudness Wars" page.  It was an interesting revelation, as I sensed something was wrong about modern music, but couldn't put my finger on it.

It all started in the 1960's with Phil Spector and the "Wall of Sound".  Spector was later convicted of shooting his girlfriend, but before that, he was the master of mixology and record production. Instead of just recording a band playing, he filled in the sound with all sorts of instrumentation, over-dubs, and reverb, so that the sound seemed "fuller" and sounded better on the car radios of the era.

Karen Carpenter - and her brother, who produced her albums - did sort of the same thing.  The would "overdub" her voice by singing over and over again on the same track, until the resulting recording was a half-dozen or more Karen Carpenter's singing together.  This results in the harmonics being emphasized and the off-notes being cancelled out.  The voice sounds better than it actually is, and also has that echo quality.  It was auto-tune before auto-tune was invented.

Actually, Auto-tune, (first made famous by Cher in "Live After Love") as I understand it, does pretty much the same thing - it "corrects" the frequency of the voice to a predetermined score.  You can be a total monotone singer, and yet create music these days, provided you have a good producer and audio engineer.

And that's the key, right there.  Sir George Martin (knighted no less!) was known by some as "The Fifth Beatle" as his studio engineering created the sound of many Beatles records (and Phil Spector had his hand in it as well).  Studio music can be created artificially using recording equipment, to produce a sound that can never be reproduced live, which is why many bands basically lip-synced their live performances using a cue track to sing along with.  There was no way you could play, live, a song that required 50 takes and was assembled electronically on tape.

But those efforts were primitive in comparison to what can be done today and what could be done on the CD. Using compression and other techniques, studio engineers could increase "loudness" creating a "brick wall" of sound - making Phil Specter's "Wall of Sound" look like a picket fence.  Some claimed this technique made music sound better - particularly to record company execs.  Others thought (as I do) that it is a crutch that musicians use to make crappy music sound better.

Whatever the reason or motivation, many albums from the CD era had this overproduced "Brick Wall" loudness, and as a result, sounded like crap to many folks.  Music was - and is - a product sold to us like a gallon of gasoline or a pound of potatoes.  More like McDonald's food, I think - generic and bland and bad-tasting.

At that point in my life, I drifted away from music. I sold my "killer stereo" that was something I desperately wanted when I was 20 years old, but at age 40, seemed juvenile and pointless.  I listened to less music, and much of what I listened to was older. I thought at the time that perhaps this was just part of my getting older - that older people listen to less music than teenagers and 20-somethings - and perhaps this is true.  But I think something else happened as well - the music changed.  And the "Loudness Wars" were part of this - packaging music as an overproduced product, to be processed and artificially sweetened until it was palatable, even if the core ingredients were dreck.

In a way, it was like television shows - they "sweeten" them with canned laughter, which you often don't notice until it is absent.   They have people applauding wildly and laughing loudly at things that are not entertaining or even funny.  This was parodied astutely in "Heil Honey, I'm Home!" where each character gets a standing ovation just for entering the room.

Television, like music, wasn't something we just happened to watch, but a product engineered for us, much as a "Spicy McChicken Sandwich" is engineered and focus-group tested until it becomes something that bears little resemblance to actual chicken or a sandwich.

There is, of course, hope.  The loudness wars encouraged a backlash, and many musicians have come out against this form of over-engineering of music - that is, until their album flops and they seek out the "sugar" to revive their career or pump up the numbers on a lame release.  Given the loudness levels of much of today's popular music - as well as the warbling and auto-tune - I doubt that over-production is gone for good - it will just morph in new ways.

The real shame is that really talented artists are falling by the wayside, and people with no talent, but an image and reputation are taking their place - their "music" being manufactured in a studio by Engineers, instead of being performed by artists.  All a modern recording artist need do is read the lines of lyrics out loud, and the Engineers can do the rest - making him or her sound like a songbird, albeit an electronic one.  Add a little loudness, some over-dubbing, and a host of backup studio musicians, and well, hell, I could be a "rock star" today.

But then again, that was the point of rock since the 1960's - it was all about selling an image, not music.  Sometimes the music was actually good, too.  But without an album cover showing pouty androgynous late-teens or early-20's males on it, well, the stuff didn't sell.  Rock and Roll didn't die - it never was alive!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Happy Amerigo Vespucci Day!

We need an Italian hero!  May I suggest?

Columbus day has come and gone and the usual complaints about Columbus are being aired.  And they are, for the most part, true.  Columbus engaged in enslaving an entire race of people and then wiping them off the face of the earth.  And he either participated in, or condoned, the use of sex slaves as young as nine years old.

A reader of mine tried to convince me that such actions were the fault of his Spanish cohorts and that Columbus was just the navigator - he drove the getaway galleon.  But under the felony murder rule, it makes him just as culpable as the rest.  And besides, letters he wrote which still exist today, document his greed.

Perhaps it was not so much greed as a need to be vindicated. The Spanish throne funded his exploration and all he had to show for it was a couple of lousy islands with little or no treasure on them - other than potential slaves.  So he argued for yet more money to explore further and find more riches - which he did, but those riches primarily being more slaves.   His abuse of the natives was so bad, he was tossed in jail later on - something that was covered in my 3rd grade "history" book, but not the reasons why (we were told he was "in debt" or something).

So, fuck Columbus.  He didn't "discover" much other than present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  He missed two entire continents that were only a few hundred miles away. And besides, the Norse got there first - among Westerners.  The place was "discovered" of course, thousands of years before, by Asians crossing over from Siberia - the ancestors of today's Native Americans.

As I noted before, American Indians were no saints, either - often slaughtering one another in tribal warfare. The Aztecs and Incas were apparently quite fond of this - but not very efficient. Spanish explorers brought horses, muskets, cannons, and diseases - and wiped out the natives at a far greater pace.

So... Columbus Day is problematic. But as I noted before, it had become more of an "Italian-American" day celebrating Italian heritage - using a guy who lead a Spanish Expedition as a talisman.  It has a number of structural problems.

But the push-back to "cancelling" Columbus Day is in part from Italian-Americans who don't want to lose "their" holiday, even if its roots have little to do with being Italian.  So why no pick another day and another name and just move on?  Let's face it - "Indigenous Peoples Day" just doesn't have legs.

May I suggest Amerigo Vespucci Day - from all accounts, Amerigo - who was Italian - never enslaved anyone.  But he named the "Americas" with his own name (a nice trick) and thus we can celebrate him - and Italian heritage - without worrying about exploitation of anyone.

There you go.  Problem solved!  Next!