Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Influencing The Influencers

The use of Influencers is an attempt to co-opt word-of-mouth.

NOTE:  I started this post before I wrote the last posting on passives and actives.  In retrospect, this is a better follow-on to my last posting.

Advertising has changed so much since I was a kid.  Back then, advertisements were quite obvious. On the radio and television, they were loud and jarring and quite clearly labeled as advertisements. Sometimes they would try to be funny or clever to attract your attention, but for the most part people found them to be annoying.

Print advertisements were clearly demarcated from the rest of a publication.  Today, this is, of course, less so.   Nevertheless, most publications will place the word "advertisement" above or below and ad that may be disguised to appear as content.

Of course, these traditional forms of advertising still exist today, but I believe they are a dying breed. A new, insidious form of advertising is taking over, particularly aimed at the younger generation. Rather than buying ad time on the radio or television or space in print media, or even ads on social networking sites, advertisers are buying people, instead.

I noted before that not a day goes by that I don't get some email from someone suggesting that they will pay me a few dollars or give me a free product if I endorse their company or link to their website in my blog. They're hoping that I will sell my credibility for a few dollars in order to attract customers for them.

But that is small potatoes.   Influencers, as they are called, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year - or even millions - by promoting products on their social media pages.

For the most part, these influencers are younger people and the products they are pitching are aimed at a young audience.  Gamers in particular are targeted, using influencers who are themselves popular Gamers who have their own YouTube channels, blogs, and social media accounts where they discuss gaming techniques and the like.  A positive word buy one of these superstar gamers can make or break the release of a new video game.

The fashion world is another area where influencers are used to promote products, particularly to young people. Young starlets, or in some cases, the children of movie stars and celebrities, will promote products on their social media pages and the like. They are paid directly for these product endorsements and can earn a nice living at it.

But even on a small scale, influencers exist.  You are a young college student, and are surprised to get an invite from one of the popular kids on campus to a party at a local bar, introducing a new trendy liquor that you've seen advertised in the "alternative paper".   You think maybe your social circle is finally improving - but you'd be wrong.   Liquor merchants and other people selling crap to college kids use "micro-influencers" to try to rope in more customers.  And often, all they have to do to achieve this is to offer the micro-influencer a few dollars, a few free drinks, or a case of crappy liquor.

At first, this sort of below-the-radar advertising seems somewhat insidious. It is somewhat like product placement in movies these days - where the product label for a beverage is placed squarely facing the camera. Whenever you see a brand name of a product appear in a movie or television show, you know money has changed hands.  If one of the main stars of the program uses the product, comments on it, or even mentions it by name, you know that major money has changed hands.

I was watching an episode of Jay Leno's garage (The YouTube channel version, not the crappy "TeeVee" show with fast cuts and shitty overdubs) which featured one of the Back to the Future DeLorean cars.  Jay was interviewing one of the writers for that movie, and he mentioned that one of the network movie studio executives wanted to change to a different make of car because the manufacturer would have paid them $75,000 to include the car in the movie.  In the greater scheme of things, $75,000 isn't a lot of money, but it does help pay for the cost of making a movie.   Throw in enough product placements, you might be able to cover an awful lot of your costs.

The funny thing is, when we watch a movie and see a product used by name, most of us figure out that product placement has taken place.  In a similar manner, most people who follow these influencers are well aware that they are paid shills for various industries.  In fact, the fact that these people are being paid to promote products is usually mentioned in the press.  It is hard to "follow" an influencer and not realize you are basically following a living advertisement.

What got me started on this was an article recently appeared about a young gamer who was paid a million dollars to promote a new video game.  He's considered a major influencer in the video game arena, and his endorsement of the game - even at the cost of a million bucks - was deemed a worthwhile investment.   Hey, if a million kids out there buy a copy of the game, it is worthwhile, right?   Beats advertising on television!

In another recent article, two of the children of a famous celebrity - who was arrested as part of the college admissions bribery scandal - were noted as being paid influencers online.  Keen, young attractive people are idolized and "followed" by other kids online.  Whatever the influencer says to do or buy - they do.  Or buy.

This whole influencer thing is sort of like professional wrestling.  If you go and ask the people at the professional wrestling association whether the wrestling is faked, they would be right up front that it is.  Who wins and who loses each match is determined in advance - as evidenced by their own scheduling which shows the expected winners of each show.  And while there is a lot of athletic ability and real chance of injury that can occur during each match, much of the violence is actually staged stunts and carefully performed to avoid serious injury.  You really can't hit somebody over the head with a steel folding chair - in real life - and not give them a major concussion.

So it is somewhat ironic that these influencers have any influence at all.  Why would anyone follow a celebrity or star or famous gamer and follow their advice when they know this advice is bought and paid for?

Perhaps there are number of reasons, some of them being psychological.  I noted before that people seem to be sheep most of the time and want to be told what to do.  People seek out direction in situations where there are unfamiliar.  You go to a party or a conference and a bunch of people are milling around who don't know each other.  No one knows quite what to do, but if you make it clear there is some sort of procedure or processes to be followed, people will fall into line rather quickly as it makes them feel more comfortable.

I noted before in an earlier posting that in terms of vacationing, many resort owners know about this effect. They create a series of activities for the guests, so the guests have a comfort level of knowing what's expected of them.  And what's expected of them is they take their wallet out and pay money for something - over and over again.  Disney is genius at this.

So maybe comfort level is part of this effect.  People will follow an influencer even though they know the influencer is really a shill for some advertiser.  They want to be told what to do, what product to consume, what style or fashion to wear or what video game to play.  No one wants to be that lamer who bought the wrong video game or the ugly girl who wore the wrong dress or used the wrong makeup.  And given that these insecurities are the highest among young people, it's no surprise that these influencers are used mostly to target youth audiences.

Of course, the influencers know that their credibility is their livelihood. So if they accept a huge amount of money to promote something that is a dud, it could end up killing their career.  Thus, for example, if the gamer recommends a really horrible game and everyone hates it (e.g. a modern version of the ET video game), no one will listen to him in the future.  Similarly, if the fashion Diva recommends a line of clothing or accessories that end up wildly unpopular, no one will listen to her advice in the future.

So perhaps even though these people are being paid, and often well paid, the consumers who are following them still follow their advice because they realize that the influencer has to preserve their credibility and would not likely accept payment to promote a product they knew was inferior or would be unpopular.  The influencer has influence so long as he has influence.  Once he loses influence, he is, by definition, no longer an influencer.

It is a very interesting new form of advertisement to be sure.  Certainly, in the past, we had celebrities endorsing products, but that was not quite the same thing. When Groucho Marx interrupted his television show You Bet Your Life to exhort us to go visit our local DeSoto dealer, we didn't really believe that Groucho was doing this out of the kindness of his heart but because the DeSoto people were paying him.  We also didn't believe that a comedian had a special insight as to what car we should buy.  Nevertheless, in the past, we gave great credence to the endorsements by celebrities, actors, and professional athletes.

But therein lies the difference.  In the past, these paid endorsements were quite clearly endorsements much as the advertisements in the past were clearly demarcated as advertisements. Today, influencers are often celebrities not based on athletic achievement or acting ability, but merely celebrities by dint of being influencers.  The influencer becomes a celebrity by dint of being an influencer, which in turns bootstraps his celebrity.

Today, you could become a professional influencer, where your only qualification is your ability to endorse things

Of course, it is not always clear whether someone is being paid as an influencer or not.  And increasingly, the line is being blurred, particularly on the internet, where the mere mention of a product in a major news article or popular video can drive up sales.  We're never certain as to whether we are being shilled or not.

The classic example is the card game Cards Against Humanity.  Back when I was reading Reddit on a regular basis - a very bad habit that you should absolve yourself of - I saw references to the card game Cards Against Humanity.  The references were not direct pitches to buy the game.  Rather, they were inferences about the game, talking about it as if everybody already knew about it.  Only someone who is completely out of the loop or a lamer would not know about this game, so everyone pretended to go along with it.

It was one of those crowdfunded deals, I believe, and they were successful in selling it, at least initially.  And of course, I fell for the entire thing and went out and bought a copy of the game online. We played it a few times and it was kind of fun - for a while.  But then it ended up on a shelf and was never played again - which is probably the fate of most board games and card games or the like.

And while I enjoyed playing the game a few times with friends, I can't help but feel that I was influenced by those postings on Reddit, which were probably carefully placed to induce me to get me to buy that card game.  And that is one of the many reasons I no longer peruse Reddit, as I feel that most of the postings on there are designed to manipulate me or manipulate my opinions, by making subtle - or not-so-subtle - product placements or mentions.

Of course, you could argue that that's the point of all communications - to manipulate people - get them to act, get them to change their mind.  Indeed, my very blog here expounding my own hot air philosophies could be construed as an attempt to  change people's minds about things.  It is, of course. not very effective, which is why I'm only offered $15 to be an influencer.

But I think it's more than that.  I think our society has changed to some extent, in part because of the internet, in part because of social networking, in part because of the smartphone, and in part because of how we have changed as people.   Modern electronic communications have made us more and more skeptical of the world.  Blatant advertising appeals to fewer and fewer people these days, and subliminal advertising perhaps is it more effective way of getting into our heads.

And that's the unsettling thing.  A lot of people are complaining about the antics of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and what goes on on Twitter and Instagram and whatever.  People are alarmed by how the cell phone has changed our behavior - to the point where people literally walk into lamp posts because they're so engrossed in an alternative digital reality that they fail to appreciate the real world around them. Or worse yet, people are motivated to shoot up a mosque or join ISIS based on a  YouTube video or an 8chan posting.  We sense that something is off and that something is going wrong, but it's hard to put our finger on it.

Influencers are not the problem, merely a symptom of the problem.  They are merely a data point on a chart or graph showing a trend or a direction in which we are headed.  How to stop this trend, or at least divert it, is hard to say.   Should social media channels be regulated the way television stations were?  Should an influencer be required to divulge they are paid to influence (and would it make any difference?).   Or will people adapt to this new reality and take influencers with a grain of salt?

It is hard to say.

Perhaps, in the future, instead of our 15 minutes of fame as predicted by Andy Warhol, we each will have our 15 minutes of influence.
Maybe that is where we are headed.

Just bear in mind that the influencers are mere puppets - and that they themselves have influencers influencing them, usually with dollars.   That is where the real power lies.

People Want To Be Told What To Do.

Extremist religions are on the rise and liberalized religions are on the decline. Why is this?

I've said time and time again in this blog that I am not an advice columnist.  Yet people write to me regularly asking me for advice on what they should do with their financial matters.  I noticed this trend also online with various financial advice pages, where people put their fate in the hands of somebody they hardly know - and give them only a partial set of facts from which to draw conclusions as to what would be the best course of action for them.

People, it seems, crave direction.

Normative cues - I have harped on this concept a lot in this blog.  People are desperate for normative cues in their lives.  I realized this when attending a law conference.  During a break, people were gathered around nervously in the lobby wondering what it is they're supposed to do next.  Without someone showing the way, or some schedule, or some other form of organization, people feel uneasy and anxious.  Religion, with its easy answers to complex questions, assuages this anxiety in people.

It seems, sometimes, that humanity is divided into two groups. The first group are actives - people who take action their lives and know what they want to do or at least have an idea of what they like to do. Often these ideas are foolish and poorly thought-out.  Nevertheless, they are certain as to what they want to do with their lives and although they will consider advice of others, they use their own internal compass in making decisions about their own situation.

The second group is the passives. These are people who want advice and instruction on every aspect of their daily lives.  These are people who wouldn't know what to do in the morning if they didn't have to get up and go to a job.  They constantly seek advice from someone else, and won't do anything without first consulting an expert in the field. These are the sort of folks who consult with Consumer Reports before they even buy a toaster.

And the second group outnumbers the first group by about 10 to 1.  And this is why religions that tell people what to do in every aspect of their lives succeed, while liberalized religions fail.

Of course, sometimes people shouldn't have choices - or when choices are presented to them, they choose poorly.  The children's menu is an example where sometimes too many choices is not a good thing.  You no doubt have been to a restaurant where a well-meaning parent asks their child what they would like from the children's menu - the chicken nuggets or the cheeseburger. The child pouts and says, "I want a hot dog!" - which of course isn't on the menu.

As Mark has often noted, when we were children, parents made decisions for us - as to what to eat, what to wear, what to do - at least at that early age.  There was no discussion as to whether we had a choice in the matter. We were children and children really don't need to have choices in these sort of things, as given a choice, a child will typically choose poorly or be befuddled by the concept of choice.  It's not a cruelty to control young children at age 5.  It's a cruelty to offer them too many choices when they expect authority and control from their parents.   Yes, the child in all of us wants to be told what to do - it is in our makeup.

Arab Spring is another example where people, when given choices, choose poorly.  Many people in the West assumed once free elections were held in many Arab countries, they would choose democracy over totalitarianism.  However, in an almost a knee-jerk reaction, many Arab countries immediately voted for Islamic theocracy - effectively destroying the future possibility of the choice that they just had.  Their first election was, in fact, their last.   When given a chance to vote, they vote for no more voting!  Some people shouldn't have choices.

The Catholic church, over the years, has liberalized its theology.  Starting with Vatican II, the church has opened itself up more and more to new ideas.  For most of us who are actives, we consider this good news.  We bristle at the thought of the church telling us how to manage every aspect of our daily lives, based on teachings of sometimes crazy people from thousands of years ago. But for the passives in the world, liberalization is an anathema.

Without the church telling them what to do, their lives do not have a rudder or compass.  Where will they go, what will they do?

When a church revises or liberalizes its positions on issues, parishioners are not happier as a result. "What, you don't know what you're doing either?" they ask. People want their authorities to be confident and consistent and not self-doubting and questioning their own dogma.  When dogma can change at a whim, people realize that the rule-of-law handed down by the church doesn't come from God, but rather was crafted by mortal humans.   And we can't have that, can we?   That is to say, you can't expose the man-behind-the-curtain in any religion - it scares the plebes.   They might stop tithing!

So it comes as no surprise that during the 1960's when traditional mainline religions were liberalizing their theologies, that many new forms of religion and cults became popular. These cults often demanded absolute obedience to the authority of the cult leader, which is what people crave.  People of that generation felt lost and adrift in a crazy new world of "do your own thing" and no rules.  Suddenly here was this magnetic personality telling them exactly what to do, with no self-doubt or questioning of his own authority or righteousness.  And they all fall in line, even if being told exactly what to do means begging on the streets or being the guru's sex slave.

This, in part, is why fundamentalist Islam has become more popular in recent years and why many people in the West have converted to Islam and even gone off to fight in Islamic Wars.  People are puzzled as to why ordinary folks would listen to a recruiting video on YouTube and suddenly find religion even though they were raised as Anglican or Catholic.

And the answer is simple. Fundamentalist Islam provides all the answers without any pesky questions. Other religions seem to be waffling or self-doubting.  Islam is the final authority in all matters and thus leaves followers with a feeling of security and that their religion is as immovable as a rock.

And in many religions the metaphor of the rock is often used to define the religion.  The belief system is fixed and doesn't vary with social fashions or changes.  The rules of a religion are inflexible and firm even if they are unfair or unjust.   That, in short, is what people want.

And in many religions, people are controlled to a great extent.  People are told what to do and when to do it. They were required to attend church several times a week or even pray several times a day. They may be forced to wear funny hats, funny underwear, or in case of Scientologists, ridiculous grins on their faces.

Controlling even the clothing you wear is the way of constantly reminding you of your obligations to the religion.  Some members of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic sect, supposedly wear something called a "clinch" on their leg, which bites into the flesh so that the pain will constantly remind then of their obligations to the church.  Lesser Catholics would carry a rosary, wear a cross, or some other form of religious accessory.  More liberal religions generally don't require much in terms of regular attendance habits or special clothing, although Unitarians do require that you buy a Volvo or Subaru.

Please note that I'm not attacking religion per se.  The same effect is found in many people who consider themselves non-religious.  Rather than following Priests or Imams or Rabbis, they subscribe to the secular religion of materialism.  They look to the almighty TeeVee for instruction as to what to buy, what to do, and even what to say ("wassup!").  Many more make a belief system out of politics - if only "our guy" could get elected, the world would be a paradise!   Not much different than fundamentalist Islam, which pretty much promises the same thing.   Even atheists make a religion that of non-religion - conforming to another set of informal standards, but conforming nevertheless.   If you don't have a "Coexist" bumper sticker, you don't belong!

We see this throughout history.  People prefer to have an authoritarian government that is consistent over a democratic government that vacillates and changes its mind - even if the latter is more fair and just.   The Wiemar republic was liberal and democratic - and doomed.   Germans back then just didn't know what to do with Democracy, once it was handed to them.    But with fascism, once you know what the rules are, you can play the game - even if it is rigged.

We saw this play out in Afghanistan where the Taliban ended up ruling the country by default. The people of Afghanistan were desperate after the Soviet Union had left.  Various warlords vied for power and indiscriminately bombed their own people.  The Taliban promised to put an end to all of that and institute a new Islamic theocracy.  Maybe it wasn't what people wanted, but it was a consistent and reliable set of rules they could follow.  So long as your beard was of the proper length, you were okay.

Theocracies or dictatorships or other forms of totalitarianism are often preferred by many people to democracy.  Such absolute forms of government are far more powerful than vacillating democracies where people's opinions vary over time and laws are changed on a weekly basis.  People see this as weakness, instead of the strength that it is.   The idea that you should think things through and maybe change your mind if you were wrong isn't seen as an act of wisdom, but an act of feeble-mindedness.

Our democracy is under attack by these types of totalitarian forces, and has been since the dawn of our Republic.  Often it is the people within a country that cause it to fail, rather than those from without.   What people crave from Donald Trump is a firm set of rules and guidelines and not the vacillating hand-wringing questioning that the opposing party seems to present.  This is why Trump is so popular with the passives - such as the unemployed factory worker, who like a deer in the headlights, has no clue what to do, once the factory closes.

(It also illustrates how many actives like Trump as well, as his laissez-faire kleptocracy is ideal for the sort of folks who live by no rules at all, other than taking everything they can get their hands on.  Sadly, such folks are most likely to go for petty grabs, not grandiose ones).

America wants a Daddy, one with a leather belt who isn't afraid to take Junior out to the woodshed if he misbehaves.  As long as everyone knows the rules - and the consequences - they can live with that. What people don't like is uncertainty - vacillating positions, re-thinking of ideas, inconsistency of message.   Indeed, one reason why so many on the Left are enamored of Alex Occasional-Furniture, is that she presents a totalitarianism of the Left - a future where the government will tell us what is best for is, keep us from polluting, pay us a "guaranteed annual income" and provide medicare and free college for all.  Comforting thoughts for passives - an anathema for an active who wants to start their own business.

This, of course is a problem for you, if you are one of the actives and not a passive.  Of course, we all perceive ourselves to be active people who want to take control of our lives, but in reality, in many instances, we want other people to make decisions for us, because of this so much easier to do - and it avoids conflict.  So, we go along with a lot of bad ideas.

I'm not sure where this takes us, other than to explain why fundamentalist religions and cults are on rise in the world.  But, perhaps this also illustrates how all of us tend to gravitate toward authority and authoritarianism.  If we can resist this urge within ourselves, it can work our own personal advantage.  Act rationally in an irrational world - all you need to do to get ahead.

Of course, acting rationally quite often means going along with some of these religious doctrines or at least appearing to do so.   It doesn't pay to be a heretic or a revolutionary, if the end result is you are burned at the stake.  If you can't fly under the radar and avoid religious persecution, the other alternative is to become part of the religion and lead it.   Because, let's face it that's where the real money is.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Car Wash

Car washes have gotten expensive!  Are they worth it?

The other day, we were waiting to pick up the new truck, and we had to wait while they programmed a second key (something to check on these days, as extra "keys" for modern cars can cost hundreds of dollars).   So we thought we would go down the street and get the hamster washed at the local car wash.

Nearly $20 later, we are wiping soapy water off the car with rags they provided.   It was a modern, state-of-the-art mechanized car wash place, but the end result was, well, expensive and a lot less than expected.   When we got home, we had to re-wash the car.

Back in the day - before I started this blog - I would think nothing of dropping $10 or more on a car wash at the local car wash place in Ithaca, New York,  You could even buy a "coupon book" for a dozen washes and save a few bucks.  But the idea of spending $100 on car washes, in retrospect, seems obscene to me now.  Sort of like paying for a haircut - when I get them for free.

It isn't hard to wash a car, and it doesn't take that much time.   I worked my way through college, in part, by washing UPS "Package Cars" - the delivery vans you may call "trucks".    I learned quickly how to efficiently wash a large vehicle, and it was a good lesson to learn.   I had also learned car detailing from a friend of mine when I was at GMI.  He was from the inner city, and he had a 1978 Hurst/Olds.  He showed me a lot of tips on how to make a car look like new.

Today, I am not as obsessive about car detailing, but I do try to keep our cars clean.  I buy car wash soap at Dollar Tree (for a dollar) and use a half-bottle (50 cents worth) in a bucket of warm water with a sponge or car wash glove.   They used to have large bottles for a buck, but today they seem to be selling "Armor-All" car wash concentrate, which seems to work as well.  Rinse down the car, starting at the top and working your way down.  Then, wash the entire car, again, starting at the top and working your way down.   Don't let the soap dry on, or you'll have to do it over.  Be sure to overlap your sudsing, so you don't leave those unsightly marks where the old dirt shows through.  Then rinse thoroughly - again, from the top down.

Drying is the key.  I use old bath towels, which I keep for that purpose.  I use one to get most of the water, and then two others to remove the rest.  If you don't dry, water spots will form, and if you have hard water, it will leave spot marks.   Open the doors, trunk, and hood, and wipe down the door jambs and door edges, trunk edges, etc.

For a car like the hamster, this can take a half-hour or so, maybe less.  It takes about as much time as it does to go through a mechanical wash (or one of those coin-op deals) and hand-dry the car.  But it costs a whole lot less.

Some car washes are now over $20 a throw!

For some reason, car washes lately have gone high-dollar.   And trust me, you don't want to get the "economy wash" they offer for eight bucks.   It just blasts soapy water on the car and leaves a mess.   They want you to "upgrade" to the de-luxe wash with tire treatment and tri-color foam coral "wax" (because three colors of foam is better than just one, of course!) and so on and so forth.   If you opt for the whole enchilada, it can run close to twenty bucks - perhaps more in some urban areas.

Now, granted, if you live in an apartment building, they might not let you wash your car on site (although some places do - our condominium used to provide a space with a hose so you could wash off your car).   So you are stuck with having to deal with coin-op or going to a washateria and paying the going rate.  But if you can wash the car yourself, well, boy-howdy can you save a lot of dough.

And if you own a house with a garage (or condo, or apartment, or whatever) keeping the car indoors can keep it cleaner longer.   In both Virginia and Georgia, the big problem for us was pollen.  If you left the car outside, it would get covered with pollen.  Then, during the night, it gets cold, and in the morning, dew forms on the car, turning the thin layer of yellow pollen into a spotted mess.   Cars kept in the garage overnight tend to look cleaner, longer.

And of course, near DC, we had to deal with acid rain and other pollutants.   If you have a garage, keep your car in it.  If your garage is full of "stuff" instead, as yourself why.

Car detailing is another matter.   Some folks pay tens of dollars - or even over a hundred - to have their car hand-washed and "detailed".   This includes cleaning every inch of the interior, treating surfaces (vinyl, leather) with protectants, detailing the engine, cleaning the carpets, trunk, and so on and so forth - in an effort to make the car look as brand-new as possible.   For some folks, unable to detail their car themselves, it might not be a bad idea to do this once in a great while, to get the grime off the car.   But to do this on a regular basis is simply unaffordable for most folks.

It seems like a small thing - car washes.  But like anything else, added up over time, it adds up to a lot of money.   Of course, one "solution" is to not wash your car, which might be an option if you own a piece of crap car - it doesn't affect the looks or value very much.  But if you have a newer car, you are accelerating the depreciation even further (and creating problems down the road) by letting dirt accumulate.  I helped a friend detail their Jetta after it had been sitting out for a couple of years.   Dirt had accumulated around the inside of the trunk lid, causing the drain holes to clog and letting water into the trunk.   Similar things were happening to the doors.   Once water enters a car, mildew forms, the car smells like a swamp, and you don't want to own it anymore - nor does anyone else.

So it pays to wash your car, at least occasionally, if it is any sort of car at all.

The other problem with these washaterias is that they can actually damage your car.   Some still use nylon bristle spinning brushes, which can create a patter of thin scratches in the paint, over time.   Even the "soft cloth" brushes can cause fine scratches, particularly if the car ahead of you was especially dirty.   So-called "brushless" car washes are often useless, or use harsh chemicals and high-pressure sprays to blast dirt off your car.

Like I said, if you live in an apartment, maybe you don't have a choice.  You have to go to at least a coin-op place to wash your car, on occasion.   However, if you are efficient in your use of a coin-op spray booth, you can often get away with a good wash in a minimal amount of time and money.  When travelling, we often have to resort to coin-op places to blast the dirt off.   We bring a bucket and wash brush and fill the bucket with soapy water.  One of use rinses while the other one scrubs, and between the two of us, can wash the truck and trailer in a minimal amount of time.  That being said, it can still cost several dollars to wash the truck and trailer.

Some campgrounds allow you to wash your vehicle on-site, but most do not.   One trick I have tried is to make a big soapy bucket of water right before a rain storm is forecast.   Once the rain pours down, I put on my raincoat, soap down the rig, and let Mother Nature do the rinse job.   It's been known to work, and rainwater is very soft water!    But it is hard to predict rain storms with that much accuracy on a consistent basis.

But if you own a home and have a hose and spigot, there is no point in spending $10 or $20 to wash your car at a car wash.   It is just a waste of money and you can do a better job at home.

Don't have the time?  Just try not watching one television show that week.

That's Worth Something!

Just because you paid a lot of money for something doesn't mean it's worth anything.

One of the oddest things about personal finances is that we, as human beings, will pay an awful lot of money for something that is almost immediately worthless - or at least worth half its purchase price the moment we buy it.

Cars, of course, are classic example and one that most people have personal experience with - at least after a few decades of living on this planet.  You buy a brand-new car, and the moment you sign the papers on it, it's worth about 10% less than what you paid for it.  Bring it back to the dealership after two or three years and you'll be lucky to get 2/3 to 3/4 what you paid for it as a trade-in.  (That is, of course, assuming that the dealer isn't playing some sort of inflated trade game to get you to think that you're getting more for your old car than it's worth).

After five years, the car is worth about half what you paid for it. And that five years after that, half again, until it diminishes down to scrap value.  Maybe decades later, if it's kept preserved - or more than three or four times the purchase price is spent restoring it - it may be worth its original purchase price.  Only years after that, it might actually appreciate in value.  But generally speaking, cars are pretty shitty investment all the way down the line - even coveted "collector" cars.

After you lived on this planet for a few decades and owned a few cars, you start to realize this is true and a pretty inflexible rule . Things just wear out over time and just not worth as much used as they are new. But there are the things that are in perfectly good condition when used, that are still not worth as much as new.  Why is this?

What got me thinking about this was that we were sitting on the porch admiring the sunset and Mark noticed that a small area rug that he inherited from his stepmother was getting wet from some water splashed out of the hot tub.  "She paid a lot of money for that rug," Mark said, " it's worth something."

I responded that if it was really worth something why did he place it out on the porch where it was exposed not only to the elements but to dripping chlorinated hot tub water?  I think it was at that point he realized that the rug was really not worth very much at all.  It was just a fairly ordinary throw rug, and not some priceless antique oriental rug from India.

Yet, this is a trap I see a lot of middle-class people falling into, including myself, my family, and Mark's family.  We have what we think are precious Objects d'Art which are really little more than  tchotchkes that we accumulate over a lifetime.  Maybe they're worth something to us because they have sentimental value, but they aren't worth anything to anyone else, once we are dead and gone.

As an example, Mark has another small throw rug that his grandmother made.  She got into hooking rugs for a while and made individual rugs for each one of her grandchildren.  They're worth something to Mark because it's a precious gift he got from his late grandmother.  But once we're dead and gone, somebody will buy it at a garage sale and use it as a bath mat, no doubt.

That sounds harsh and unsentimental, but it's the reality of the situation.  Stripped of the sentimental value, it's just another small area rug, perhaps worth something to someone as a curiosity but little more than that.

But getting back to ordinary, non-sentimental consumer items, consider your typical sofa.  You go down to the furniture store on the weekend to buy a new sofa and let's assume you buy good quality made sofa at what is considered a fairly reasonable retail price.  You have it delivered or take it home where you put it in your living room and use it for a few years.  You're very careful not to spill drinks on it or damage it or mark it in any other way.

After a few years, you're transferred overseas and it's not worth moving the sofa so you decide to sell it. The sofa is in perfect, like-new condition, and is not out of style.  Yet when you try to sell it online, or a garage sale, or through the local paper, you find that the price you get for it is less than half what you paid for it only a few years before.  Not only that, it's less than half the price the sofa store is selling the same model sofa for brand new still.

Why is this? Clearly, the real value of the sofa is in its resale value to the average consumer, not the retail price you paid at the sofa store.  So why is there a huge disparity between retail prices and actual values?  Or put another way, why are retail prices completely made-up numbers?

I think a lot of it has to do with supply and demand and also the availability of money, which in effect, is the same thing. The sofa store has a steady stream of people coming in to look at furniture. They have loud ads on television and the radio and big flashy multicolored ads in the newspaper. This drives up demand and drives up foot traffic.  They offer E-Z financing, so more people who do come in, can buy.   So they have a supply of customers which generates demand.

In reality the term "supply and demand" is redundant.  It really is "supply and supply" - supply of customers, supply of money, supply of product.   Demand is simply the supply of customers with money ready and able to spend.  It is not a different thing than supply, just as different aspect of it.

By the way, this is why college tuition skyrocketed once both government-backed and private student loans proliferated.   When you increase the supply of available money to spend, you increase the supply of customers (demand) and thus prices can go higher - and they do.

When you try to sell your used sofa, you don't have the flashy showroom, loud ads, and E-Z financing.   All you have is a poorly worded Craigslist ad with a badly shot photo you took with your cell phone.  Few people are looking at it, and fewer still are willing to take time out of their day to drive out to your house and look at your sofa, fully expecting it to be full of cigarette burns and food stains.

Availability of money is the other half of the equation which also drives demand.  A person going into the sofa store can finance entire living room set with easy low monthly payments provided by the consumer financing company that the sofa store contracts with.  All you need to do is give them your social security number and maybe a pay stub and they can pre-approve you for a loan.

Or, the sofa store accepts credit cards, which you can't do as an individual seller - or at least you're not inclined to do.  As a result, it's a lot easier to sell sofas at higher prices at the retail store. People look at the sofa in terms of monthly payment, not overall cost.  And not as many people have the full amount of cash to pay for the sofa.

Again, the supply of money determines the demand for the product or more precisely the supply of people willing and able to buy.  I noticed this before with regard to older cars. Back in the day, banks were reluctant to loan money on used cars that were over five years old.  And a funny thing happened. When you saw a car for sale that was four and a half years old, the price was rather high. The once the car was five and a half or six years old, the price dropped precipitously, even if the condition was better and the mileage was lower the corresponding four year old car.

And the reason was pretty simple.  People could afford to buy a four or five year old car through a car dealer or by getting financing from their credit union.  So the supply of money and the supply of buyers is higher for such vehicles.  However, for the car over five years old, the pool of buyers was only those who can afford to pay cash for such a purchase - and that's an awfully damn small pool. The supply of cars exceeds the demand or more precisely the supply of vehicles exceeds the supply of buyers (the supply of available money), and prices drop accordingly.

When the price goes down, this means more people with cash can afford to buy, so the supply of buyers increases until there is market equilibrium.

Of course, that was more than a decade ago.  Today, banks and finance agencies will loan money on all sorts of jalopies up to a decade older - maybe even older.  Back in the day, in order to avoid being stuck with a bad loan, they usually required a large down payment and limited how old the vehicle could be before they loaned money on it.  The idea being there should be some sort of collateral there they can collect on if the loan went bad.  And after a car is over five years old, most of its useful life is behind it.  So you're not going to write a five year loan on a five-year-old car because by the end of the loan, the car is worth nothing - and during the term of the loan, its value is less than the loan balance.

Well, that was then, this is now.  Today, people will write 7-year loans on 10-year-old cars and wonder why it all goes horribly wrong when the buyer defaults.  The buyer is under water for the most of the life of the loan and thus have little or no incentive to pay off the loan over time, but rather just hand the keys to the bank and turn in the car.  And so the lenders go to the government for a bailout based on their poor choices and poor financial lending standards.  But I digress.

The interesting thing about this phenomenon, is that it points out how you can save an awful lot of money in life by looking for bargains that exist, rather than looking for outright steals or looking for special schemes to get ahead.  If you can find that really well maintained sofa that's only three or four years old, you can buy it for half the cost of the brand new one and get similar life span expectancy out of it.

Now, obviously there are laws of diminishing returns at work here.  Yes you could buy a twenty-year-old sofa, but it's likely full of cigarette burns and food stains and perhaps smells bad. The upholstery is ripped and it's really just junk.  Things do wear out over time, which is something you realize once you've been on this planet a few decades.  Nothing stays in pristine shape, even if it's never used. Those so-called "barn find" cars that you read about in the paper are usually completely clapped-out because they haven't been used for so long.  It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to put them back into working order.  And even then, antique cars like that are usually more a talisman of cars than actual vehicles, as their parts are so delicate that they can't be driven very far before they break down again and again.  The Weibull curve cannot be denied.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, only that that the "it's worth something" mentality drives me nuts.  Mark's family was into this and my family was as well.  They would say that such-and-such object was precious and collectible, but it was really not worth anything to anyone.  As I noted in a very early posting, I inherited ugly old shoe from my mother which was supposedly made in the 1700's. Yes it is an antique, but it's not something you want to look at or even play with or touch or show off to others.  It was just an ugly little shoe, and it was very, very old.  I sold on eBay for a few hundred dollars, which was a lot better than having an old shoe.

Would someone have paid thousands of dollars for the shoe at auction? I doubt it. Shows like Antiques Roadshow and things of that nature tend to drive this idea that people will pay astounding amounts of money for old things, simply because they're old.  Also, the idea that people will pay a lot of money for things that are ugly because of their rarity, which I think is also flawed. 

This idea that things you paid a lot of money for in the past are still "worth something" can be crippling.  I know a lot of people who hang onto possessions out of pride, because they won't sell them for their real market value - which is often less than half, or even one tenth of what they paid for them.  Worse yet, they rent one, two, three or even as many as six (!!!) storage lockers, paying hundreds of dollars a month to store things that, in reality, are barely worth thousands.  Worse yet, people will spend thousands of dollars to move possessions worth hundreds - possessions that could be sold and converted to cash and moved in your pocket.

Possessions are a trap and can be crippling.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Facebook Offers New Messaging Service!

Everything Old is New Again!

(Menlo Park, California) In the most recent Facebook blog post, Mark Zuckerberg has waxed lyrical about his ‘vision’ for the mammoth social networking and messaging platform, promising a “privacy-focused” future for the service and announcing a number of changes that he intends to eventually implement.

According to the post, Zuckerberg has been doing some thinking about the nature of the internet and the increasingly significant role that privacy plays in online interactions. It could be argued that this thinking has been provoked by the privacy breaches and user data-related incidents afflicting Facebook in recent times – it’s likely not a coincidence that the one year anniversary of the breaking of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is coming up.

Nevertheless, the post mentions the increasing popularity of “private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups” in online social networks, attributing it to a growing caution of permanent online records, and the desire to connect more immediately with friends, family and relevant groups. As such, Facebook will be looking to build a “simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first”, and it hopes to achieve this with a similar approach it took to its development of WhatsApp: ”focus on the most fundamental and private use case – messaging – make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that”.

This new "simpler platform" will allow users to create a "contacts list" similar to their friend lists of the past.  Each "contact" will have a "mail address" which will allow the user to send private messages to that "contact" or to a group of contacts.  The messages may be formatted in something called "HTML" -  a text-formatting language which Facebook is also developing.

Users may even attach photos, video, or documents to each message! Messages can be stored in an "inbox" or put into a number of "folders" or may be deleted at the discretion of the user.  The public need not see the content of these messages, unless the user "forwards" them to others. As a result, private information, formerly on a user's "wall" will be kept private.

To prevent abuse of the system, Facebook is developing something called a "SPAM filter" which will eliminate unwanted messages from third parties, or messages deemed fraudulent. Facebook developers haven't yet announced when this new technology will become available, or what the new service will be called.   Some preliminary ideas are to call it "electronic mail" or "e-mail" but no final decision has yet been made.

Rollout of this new "e-mail" technology is expected in the latter half of 2021.

Television Changing Again

Streaming television "programs" is out.  Watching other people is in.

We are thinking of cancelling our Netflix subscription (again - I usually cancel it when we go away) as it has gone up to $8.99 a month, and it has been several weeks since we watched anything on it. The problem with Netflix is that it stopped being a movie channel long ago (when it had the lucrative STARZ contract, and a huge back catalog of movies to surf from) and turned into just another network television station - albeit one you can stream.

But that advantage is minimal.  With TiVo (a new invention the President has!) you can watch regular television anytime you want to - so in effect, the "watch what you want, when you want" advantage is not limited to streaming - and never was, provided you know how to program a TiVo unit.

So that leaves content.   And the content on network and cable television really sucks.  Maybe it is because I am older, but I find I cannot watch a lot of programs for more than a few minutes before I say, "really?" and turn it off.  Unless the program becomes comfort food, where you tune in to see the beloved characters (e.g., M*A*S*H, Blue Bloods, etc.) you lose interest in the thin plot lines and bad jokes pretty early on.

Netflix had a lot of great movies back in the day.  Then they lost the STARZ contract and started making their own content or licensing content from others.   And a lot of this stuff just ends up being "regular television".   For example, "Grace and Frankie" has a great lineup of stars to watch, but the writing is terribly thin, the jokes predictable, and the setups almost painful.   I could barely watch the last season - and I am not sure I need to see another.   Usually a television show peaks in the second season and goes downhill from there - they fire the writers after the second season, then cheapen the production values (location shooting, salaries, etc.) to make more money.  You know the fix is in when one of the big stars unexpectedly leaves.   That's how the system works.

"Kim's Convenience" - a Canadian television production - seemed funny at first.  Knowing and working with a lot of Korean-Americans, I thought the premise was interesting.   And at first, it was funny and poignant.   But I noticed over time that it slowly morphed into The Simpsons, Korea-style.  And by that, I mean the latter 10 years of horrible Simpsons episodes.  "Appa" started to lose his carefully crafted accent and mannerisms, and each episode turned into yet another "Jerk-ass Appa" episode much as The Simpsons morphed into Jerk-Ass Homer.

I hope they don't produce another season of Kim's Convenience, but they likely will, so long as the ratings are high and the money is pouring in.   The show is not as ground-breaking as it first might seem.  It uses the same tired old tropes and plot devices that situational comedies have used for generations.   Will Sam and Diane finally get married? (Cheers) - the same gag is used in Kim's Convenience.  Sexual tension makes for a good plot line and keeps viewers "engaged" for season after season.   Will Jung ever reconcile with his father (Appa)?  Stay tuned!   Of course, you know, once this sort of tension is released, the series is essentially over.  So they will keep the gag going for season after season, if they can get away with it.

I've tried watching older programs from the 1960's and 1970's, which are sometimes available on YouTube.   Dragnet is fun to watch, only because of the comfort-food aspect of the characters, and also to marvel at the amount of smog in LA at the time.   Life was indeed simpler back then - or so its seems on YouTube.  But most of the other stuff we watched at the time, in retrospect, was utter dreck.  Hogan's Heroes? - hard to watch, particularly when you know that the star was beaten to death as part of a kinky video sex ring.   The rest falls along the lines of My Mother the Car, or The Mothers-In-Law - basically unwatchable.  Even "beloved" series like The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, or I Dream of Jeanie are difficult to watch, other than to see the comfort-food characters.  The plots and dialog are, well, embarrassing.

And again, as I noted before, this is largely because back in the days of three networks, they had to write shows to the lowest-common-denominator, which was about an 8th grade level.  So the humor is low, the jokes are lame, and the dialog is forced.   Even "groundbreaking" shows like All in the Family are pretty silly, in retrospect, even if they tackled contemporary issues.

So what does that leave?   In recent years, networks have embraced "Reality Television" and ratings have soared.   They are cheap shows to make - you get a bunch of unknown people who will work for cheap, put them in a situation, and then make hours of video, prompting the people to fight and argue with each other.  You then edit it together to make "compelling" video from it and put it on the air.   And folks lap it up.   It turns out, what people really want to see is spying on their neighbors.

In that regard, YouTube has moved onto the next level already.   Most of what is on YouTube are videos made by ordinary people (even I have a "channel") which people watch, not necessarily for the content, but to pry into the lives of others.  One of the biggest stars on YouTube (and indeed, television in general) is an 8-year-old boy who made $22 million dollars simply by unwrapping and playing with toys.    That's it.   No plot.  No dialog.  No writers.  No big production costs.  Dad runs the camera, and the kid plays with a toy.   People watch.

And it is strangely addictive.  It is like the car-crash videos you see on YouTube (Russia's major export, besides oil and gas).   It is interesting to see real people in real life, get into a crash (and hopefully come out OK) as opposed to some convoluted stunt on regular television, where cars do ridiculous things (jump canyons, or explode in mid-air when they go off a cliff).   Reality television on the networks was just the start.  The future is in reality-reality television.

And it need not always be car crashes, crimes, or people arguing.   Many folks like to watch gentler fare - such as the aforementioned kid with his toys.   We've found one channel where a kindly Australian gentleman carefully restores Matchbox cars - one channel of many devoted to restoration of these as well as Mattel Hot Wheels.  Why is it hypnotizing to watch someone working at their hobby?  It is hard to say.  For us, I guess it is partly the nostalgia about toys from our youth.   But there is something about the voice and music and images (as well as the final "reveal" comparing the restored and unrestored vehicles) that seems to trigger something in the human brain.

Maybe we are headed to a new reality like that in Fahrenheit 411 where, in the future, we all watch each other on television.   If so, it might end up being a very boring show.

But overall, I think television is changing yet again - before it has had time to settle on any one mode.   We stopped watching network and cable television over a decade ago - when the ad-to-program ratio approached 50/50.   Netflix was a lot of fun for a while, but it seems that committing to a two-hour movie, or worse yet, a three-season series, is just too much hassle.  And with content like Birdbox (the most ludicrous dystopian tales ever made!) it seems like Netflix is morphing more and more into just another network channel, despite its Oscar pretensions.

But perhaps it is just me that is changing.   Unlike the average American, who watches about 4.5 hours of television a day (which means about two hours of advertising) we usually watch maybe an hour a day - if that.  And most of that is commercial-free, although YouTube is sneaking commericals in, here and there, usually only 3-5 seconds in length.   Although I notice they are slowly getting longer and longer - and even interrupting longer videos.   It is only a matter of time before YouTube screws the pooch as well - and everyone moves on to the next big thing.

Who knows, maybe looking out the window will replace YouTube channels.  Or maybe reading a good book - printed on paper.

Anything is possible!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Jussie Smollet Syndrome

Just because somebody falsely cries wolf doesn't mean wolves don't exist.

I refrained from commenting on the Jussie Smollett case since it came out, as I thought the story sounded fishy from the get-go.  I mean, after all, two white guys in Chicago wearing MAGA hats, beating a black man and saying "This is Trump Country!" - in Chicago - it just sounds off.

In Chicago.

Just seems not likely.  Idaho, maybe.  Chicago, no.

But it was best to let it lie and see how it played out, and as it turns out, it was a hoax - a cruel hoax at that.

Cruel, as some folks on the right will use this as an excuse to downplay the incidence of real racial violence, or to argue that "hate crime" laws should be abolished.   And make no mistake about it, racially motivated crimes do exist - and are horrific - which makes Mr. Smollet's false claims all the more odious.   Racists have dragged a black man behind a pickup truck until he was dead.  Racist teenagers went looking for black men to beat up and ran one over - again, with a pickup truck.

So it is pretty odious in light of real hate crimes like that, to fake a hate crime just to keep from being written out of a television show.

Of course, as some argue, all crimes are hate crimes.  I recounted before how a group of angry young black men (four in all) chased me and a friend of mine as we took an ill-advised shortcut across campus at night.   The lead one had an 18" section of galvanized steel pipe that he no doubt would have used to bash our heads in.  Whether the motive was robbery, our race, or perhaps sexual orientation, I do not know.   All I know is that I ran like hell toward civilization until they gave up the pursuit.  When we called the Police, they sent someone over who told us "those boys were just having fun with you!" and although they knew who the perpetrators were, they declined to investigate further.   Yes, blame the victim was a popular game, even back then.

I learned a valuable lesson back then.  The Police, in many instances, will only show up and put a toe-tag on your corpse, once a crime has been committed.   The majority of crimes committed in this country - including assaults and murders in many jurisdictions - go unsolved.   The Police often do their best, but often they simply cannot catch or convict the bad guys.   And in other situations, they seem less inclined to even bother to look - depending upon how sympathetic a victim you appear to be.

And that's when the victim mentality comes into play.   The Jussie Smollet case isn't some sort of anomaly.   There have been, over the last few years, a number of faked hate crimes.   Not a substantial number, to be sure.  But it is disturbing that there are any at all.  People have spray-painted their own homes or cars with racial or other slurs, in order to generate sympathy and perhaps a few dollars on a gofundyourself page.   When a schoolbus "monitor" gets nearly 3/4 million dollars after posting of a YouTube video showing her being "bullied" by grade-school kids, you have to think to yourself, "how do I cash in on this victim gig?"

(Back the day, if a kid tried that, the bus would be stopped and the kids thrown off.   Today, parents would howl with outrage if their special snowflakes were treated as such - treatment that they richly deserved.   Maybe the problem isn't "bullying" but letting kids get away with it out of fear of lawsuits from helicopter parents.   Just a thought).

In other words, Jussie Smollet wasn't being irrational or insane when he faked this hate crime, he was making a rational market-based economic choice.   He just did a shitty job of it, is all.   He should have hired two white guys (and paid them more than a few thousand dollars - once again, black people are underpaid compared to their white counterparts!) and staged the attack more convincingly.   If you are going to go the MAGA-hat route, at least do it someplace more convincing than Chicago, Illinois.   Maybe somewhere in rural Indiana, perhaps - not a very far drive from the Windy City.

And yes, I am being a bit sarcastic, but only a little bit. The underlying truth is, when we celebrate victimhood as the greatest achievement a person can attain, it is no wonder that some people would seek out victimhood.    Although the number of people faking hate crimes for one reason or another is rather small, there have been, historically, a number of people who have claimed victimhood of one sort or another, in order to get attention or to get money.   After every disaster, someone is caught claiming to be a victim of fire, flood, or tornado, and asking for money.  And thanks to the Internet, it is all-too-easy to spread your "story" about how you lost it all, and have good-natured and good-hearted people send you a few dollars here and there - adding up to thousands or perhaps even close to a million, in the case of the schoolbus monitor.

Why do people do this?  Well, the financial incentive is certainly there.   Mental illness is also an issue.   A lot of fake crime reports are made by people with emotional problems who want attention.  False rape accusations are particularly troublesome, as they can ruin the lives of the accused and also make it harder for real rapes to be taken seriously.  You'd have to be mentally ill not to see how a fake accusation is such a slap in the face to real victims.   Jussie Smollet claims to be a "victim" here, but his false allegations are particularly troubling in the light of real hate crimes.   His actions are an insult to real victims.   Who in their right mind would do this?  But alas, it already appears that he has some mental health issues - I would not be surprised if substance abuse was also part of the problem.   The point is, no rational-thinking person would do this, unless they were particularly evil.

Speaking of evil, it turns out the story of the "homeless stabber" turned out to be a hoax - and not only that, an attempt to cover up a real murder.  This is not to say that homeless people are not, in fact, dangerous.   Getting back to the victim mentality, there are a host of people in this country who would lead you to believe that a man ranting and raving on the sidewalk, haranguing you for money, is just a "victim" of Wall Street greed or Republican malfeasance.  He's just a nice guy who is "down on his luck" (because luck is how you become successful, right?) and it could happen to you in a heartbeat if you miss one mortgage payment.

Nice try.  The reality is that the vast majority of homeless people are folks with severe mental health problems and/or drug and alcohol abuse problems (which often go hand-in-hand, as we are learning over time).    The minority who really are "down on their luck" are not begging on street corners with well-worn "just evicted" signs made of cardboard and a Sharpie®.   Those who really are in trouble are seeking out help from the various agencies that make up our safety net.   The folks begging on the street are usually drug addicts looking for easy money (in addition to the government assistance they receive) to buy drugs with.   You can't buy meth with food stamps.

So in a way, there are two people crying wolf here.  The couple who are accused of murder used the specter of dangerous homeless folks as a means of diverting suspicion from themselves (it didn't work, as seems to be the case in most of these schemes).  They claimed to be the "victims" here when they were not.

But the drug addict panhandling for money is really not much different.  He or she is plying your good nature to get you to believe that they are a "victim" of circumstance and not of their own malfeasance - so you hand over a dollar or two, or - as I have seen in some instances - a crisp new $20 bill.

Good-natured people want to help and want to help those "less fortunate" than ourselves.   And there are legions of con artists out there who play upon our good nature - panhandlers in some countries actually rent children and pets to use as props to garner sympathy from tourists.  I mean, how fucking evil is that?  Renting a child, smearing his face with dirt to make him look sick, and then begging for money for "medicine" for your rented child?   That's like five levels of evil, right there.  Yet we saw this, firsthand, in Mexico, decades ago.  I am sure it still goes on.

If you want to help a homeless person, then donate to a homeless shelter or charity.   Donate to a program that tries to help people get out of homelessness.  Giving money to a panhandler only insures that they have more drugs for that evening - it perpetuates their plight, not alleviates it.   Not only that, but every time you give money to a panhandler, it insures that he will be there the next day - and that more will show up as well.  The bug-light effect kicks in.  When we make being a drug addict an attractive lifestyle alternative, people will engage in it.  When we make it harder, less people will do it.   Sometimes you have to throw the unruly kids off the bus.

The fact that we feel sorry for others speaks volumes about our good nature.  But we shouldn't let our better nature allow others to take advantage of us.   Homeless people are often dangerous people - to themselves, and to others.  They are often the victims of violence, as well.   But again, giving a homeless person a dollar, only insures they can live on the street another night, where they are more likely to be victimized.

Mentally ill people and/or drug addicts are not fun people to be around (and I can attest to this, having grown up in a family of mentally ill drug-addicted people, who were often violent).  While some homeless "advocates" want to make them all out to be gentle, helpless people who mean well and have a "heart of gold" (as often depicted in the movies) the reality is something different.   There are some "aggressive panhandlers" out there who will scream at you and harangue you if you don't give them money - or even physically assault you (it has happened to me).  If you try to fight back, well, you are the bad guy, because, as we know from the movies, homeless people are all nice and just down-on-their-luck.

So what does this have to do with Jussie Smollet?   It all comes down to perception of reality.  If you can act rationally in an irrational world, you can make out like a bandit.   On the other hand, if you are drawn into a series of false narratives, driven by agendas of other people and organizations, you end up in a world of woe.   It may seem that being a victim is a sweet gig, but it rarely works out for anyone involved.  The guy who won "litigation lottery" with his personal injury suit is rarely happy, particularly if he was actually injured, in which case, all the money in the world doesn't make up for being paralyzed or whatever.

Having sympathy for others is a good thing - unless of course, the person is just making a show of it to show everyone that they are better than you because they care about those less fortunate than themselves.   In that case, it is just ugly status-seeking raising its head once again.  And sadly, that seems to be the case, most of the time.   People don't donate money, unless they have have their name emblazoned on a plaque, program, wall, or brick paver.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Down Jacket Craze . . . of 1976

The only thing "That 70's Show" got right about the 1970s - besides the fact that all the kids were smoking pot - was the down jacket (and vest) craze.

A lot of people like to romanticize the 1970s as an era of excess.  In the hazy filtered lens of retrospect, it seems that everyone was snorting coke at Studio 54 and driving enormous Chevrolet Monte Carlos and living the high life in simpler and more wholesome times.  It is, in a way, how we romanticize the 1950s and make them into something they weren't.

To begin with, things you think happened in one decade actually happened in another.   The film American Graffiti didn't take place in the 1950s.  Indeed, it's tagline was "Where were you in '62?"   A lot of what people think of happened to the 1950s actually happened very late in that decade or early on in the 1960s.  Similarly, a lot of things that people think happened in the 1960s often occurred very late in that decade, or early in the 1970s.  Remember that Woodstock occured only a few short months before the end of 1969.

As teenagers in the 1970s, we sought out styles that conformed to our own social group, which teenagers do in every generation.  But back then, there was sort of a hippie aesthetic that was popular. Indeed most of the 1970s was an impoverished era, what with stagflation and all.  So we never had a lot of money to spend.  The style for my peer group was dressing as a hippie - wearing old blue jeans, a work shirt, work boots and then maybe a down vest or jacket.

Wearing a down jacket back then was a practical matter.  The 1970's was a very cold decade, which is one reason why global warming seems so much more apparent today.  We had an awful lot of cold temperatures and snow in the 1970s compared to the 1980s and 1990s.   And before the "sunbelt boom" of the 1980s, most people lived in the chilly Northeast.  Having a good warm jacket was not just a luxury, but a practical thing.

But once again, creeping expertism raises its ugly head.  Back then, people were getting into things like hiking and camping outdoors, and having the proper expert equipment was part and parcel of that deal. Thus, it wasn't sufficient to just wear a jacket, you had to wear a down coat like the people exploring Everest or something.  So even though we had a limited budget for a clothing (mostly paid for by our parents) we wanted to have the proper expert gear.

Most down jackets back then were basically two layers of ripstop nylon sewn together into series of squares filled with goose down.  Of course, there were various levels of quality for down jackets.  I recall at the time reading in Rolling Stone magazine advertisements for various down jackets exhorting their quality differences.  We were told to look for particular types of goose down and eschew jackets that had cheaper variations.  Another design used small panels between the inner and outer layers of ripstop nylon to create a box-like formation that supposedly would hold more goose down and prevent it from clumping.  We all wanted to have that.

Over time, the down jacket craze started to fade from the scene. There were problems with these types of jackets. For one thing the down would tend to settle for the bottom of these square pockets in the jacket and you occasionally would have to turn it upside down and shake it to move the down around. And maybe it was the warming trend of the 1980s that led to the demise of the down jacket. Or maybe it's just the general trend in styles, where things become popular and then not popular as something else takes over. Wearing a down jacket to the disco would mark you as a dork - if the bouncer would even let you past the velvet rope.  Times were changing, and the down jacket was out, and the "leisure suit" was in.

It may also be a technological thing, too.  We had new synthetic materials like "thinsulate" which were warmer and lighter (and less hassle) than down.   Even in the better jackets, down feathers would find their way through the ripstop nylon over time.  And when the nylon wore through, well, it was a real mess.  So maybe changing tastes and new technology were why we left down jackets behind.

More likely, however, is that we started having more money in the 1980s and 1990s and could afford more than one jacket. Myself, I gravitated more toward leather jackets at that point, but back then I was into motorcycles and leather jackets were a practical thing to have. I only had one, of course, a real motorcycle leather, not some split leather "fashion" accessory fake bomber jacket that they sold at the trendy stores around the University.   Back then, the girls were showing up with white sweaters with green sections that had BENETTON written in large letters.  Who the fuck is "Benetten" and why is his name on your titties?   But it was a big deal for girls then - that and those "flashdance" sneakers that you never laced up - and potato chip clips in their gnarly hair.   I think that's about when I decided I was gay.

During our recent sojourns to Canada, we noticed that a lot of Chinese tourists were wearing puffy down jackets as if it was the 1970's again.  At first we thought this was kind of funny Chinese fashion trend - until we realized a lot of Canadians were wearing these as well.  We kind of thought it was an interesting throwback to the 1970s and perhaps a Canadian oddity.  Some of the jackets were just puffy, and clearly not down-filled.  They were thinner than the old down jackets and didn't look like you were wearing pillows sewn together.  The Canadians seemed fond of these types of jackets.

But the Chinese were wearing old-school down with some stupid patch on the shoulder.  It wasn't until we were back in range of WiFi that I logged on and realized these were a new trend in idiocy - a $1000+ down jacket that says "Canada Goose" on a patch on the shoulder.   And like clockwork, people are cranking out fake "Canada Goose" jackets or even just the patches (so you can upgrade your lowly jacket to fashion status with a needle and thread).

What the heck is going on here?  How did something as lowly as the down jacket become a high-fashion item that people are paying through the nose for?   Well, again, status rears its ugly head.  The whole point of having the "Canada Goose" patch on the shoulder of the jacket is to let the world know that this isn't some $100 jacket from J.C. Penny, but rather that you paid a lot of money for it, because you can afford it (so you think) and you are the kind of person who has nice things because you deserve that.

It is no different than people paying $200 (or much more) for status sneakers which cost $10 a pair to manufacture in China or Korea.   It isn't that you are going to do jump shots or run a marathon, but rather that you want people to see the unique design and know you spent a lot of money on shoes.   Status works that way - it is all about trying to impress people you don't even know by putting on a show that you have money - even if you don't.

What got me started on this was a weepy piece in the Atlantic written by some lady who spent nearly $1000 on what she thought would be a "Canada Goose" jacket, but turned out to be a counterfeit.   What is funny about the article is not that the jacket didn't fit, or that it didn't keep her warm, but that the patch on the shoulder wasn't authentic enough, and thus if she wore this jacket, people would quickly think she was a wanna-be.  Kind of hard to feel sorry for someone who is willing to spend nearly a grand on a jacket that costs maybe a hundred bucks to make - or is unwilling to explore cheaper alternatives that are out there.

By the way, I am not sure why the patch says "Canada Goose Arctic Program" on it - almost in a pidgin English phrasing - perhaps their target audience is Chinese strivers?  If so, they hit their demographic target.  Make no mistake about it, no one is exploring the arctic in these fashion jackets. But again, the "Arctic Program" nonsense makes it appear this is expert-wear, and thus you can become an expert arctic explorer if you wear one, just as you can become an expert cook if you buy an expert stove.  Or an expert SUV driver if you get a "professional grade" GMC.

It was sad - pathetic almost - how this lady in the article justifies "treating herself" to a $1000 jacket.   She admits money - as a writer - is tight, but thinks that this jacket will last the rest of her life, which she believes to be 30 years.  At that rate, it is only $31 a year for the jacket!  And she can leave it to her daughter in her will!   This is, of course, insanity.   Even if she got a "real" Canada Goose jacket, it likely will be hopelessly out-of-style in about 2-3 years tops (if indeed, the trend hasn't already peaked, after all, I am noticing it, which means that it has filtered down to the bottom of the pond).   It will be relegated to the back of a closet for several years, and then donated to charity - if it hasn't in fact fallen apart before then.

May I suggest buying something sturdier and cheaper and putting the balance in your 401(k)?  As a legacy to your daughter, that money, compounded with interest, will be much more appreciated that some moldy 30-year-old moth-ridden coat.   This is what the author ended up doing, perhaps after reflecting on the folly of buying trendy fashion clothing.

Paying a lot for stuff these days is kind of silly, considering most everything is made cheaply in China - or can be found cheaply there.   Rather than blow money on stupid crap that is "trendy" it is much smarter to either buy things on the cheap and toss them when they wear out, or buy quality stuff that doesn't go out of style or wear out quickly.   I still have a leather jacket, made by Perrone Aviation Apparel and it was kind of expensive, but has lasted more than two decades (I actually sent it back to have a new zipper installed).  It was a few hundred bucks, but it weighs a ton, as it is real leather - heavy leather.

My first two motorcycle jackets from the 1980's, I outgrew over time.  But I was able to sell them to a "vintage" leather store for $100 each, as "distressed leather" became a style thing in the interim.  That pretty much meant I broke even on those jackets.   Don't expect anyone to pay $1000 for your "Canada Goose" jacket at a second-hand store, 20 years from now - or even ten.   I suspect that the fate of "Canada Goose" crap will be more along the lines of Abercrombie or Aeropostal junk, which were once the objects of desire, and now can be found at thrift shops for pennies on the dollar.   When something shoots way up in price, it has only one direction to go.  I'd put Canada Goose right up there with Cabbage-Patch kids and Beanie Babies.  It's a fad, people.

In addition to my leather jacket, I also have some jackets that cost a lot less.  We went to one of these stores that gets goods by the containerload from China - in Provincetown, no less.   It was cold out and we had neglected to pack jackets.  For $99 you can get a nice leather jacket that will last a few years - or at least it has lasted that long so far.  But I beat that at a Boot Barn in Arizona (which also sells inexpensive and long-wearing Wrangler jeans) that had a really nice insulated denim jacket with a corduroy collar.  It is snuggly warm and has a lot of pockets and the moment I put it on, I realized it fit perfectly (the sleeves are nice and long, a pet peeve of mine - so many shirts and jackets cut for my size end up with short sleeves).   When something fits so well it feels good on me, I tend to buy it.   Maybe it isn't a fashion statement, but it was on sale for $40 closeout - not much demand for winter jackets in Southern Arizona, I guess.

We are going back to Canada this summer - Vancouver Island again.   And once again, I will get whacked in the head by a charming young Chinese girl brandishing a selfie-stick and wearing a "Canada Goose" jacket.   And no, that is not a stereotype, it has happened to me more than once during previous visits.   When you see a busload of 20-something Chinese girls arrive at a tourist site, run for you lives.  They will bruise you - and then blame you for "getting in the way."   No lie!  They are so cute, though, it is hard to stay mad at them.

Leave the real down jackets to the wilderness campers and real arctic explorers.   But if you really think you just have to have one, just drop by REI - they have all sorts of camping gear, and down jackets starting at $68 - about 1/10th the cost of a "Canada Goose" jacket.   I guess that patch on the sleeve costs $600.

People are freaking idiots, no?