Thursday, September 30, 2010

Science versus Religion - a false choice

Many folks think that Science is some alternative to religion - an alternative that disproves the existence of God.  And folks who think this are not Scientists.  And ironically, they are either atheists or religious fundamentalists.  Why is this?

"LAY-DEES AND GENTLEMEN!  I have before you, in the right corner, the representative of Science and Ev-o-lution, Mr. Charles Darwin!  (Boo!  Hiss!) and in the left corner, Mr. God Almighty himself, creator of the universe, all-powerful and all-knowing! (cheers!).

Now Gentlemen, you know the rules!  No below-the-belt, no miracles, no evolving!  Return to your corners and.... GET READY TO RUMBLE!"

Such a scenario would never exist, of course.  And yet many people on both the far left and far right, like to pit Science against Religion, as if they were competing brands of gasoline.  And yet the comparison is inappropriate and incorrect.  One is not an alternative to the other.  Nor does one "disprove" the other.

People on the left, usually atheists, like to claim that Science knows all the answers and has disproved the existence of God.  This surely will come as a surprise to real Scientists, who never set out to do any such thing, nor claim to know "all the answers".

Many on the Right, usually fundamentalist Christians, believe that Science is geared toward disproving the Bible and thus they denounce Science as a false religion.  But again, real Scientists never claimed to be starting a religion, nor trying to "prove" or "disprove" any facet of the Bible.

And on both the Left and Right, the people making these claims are not Scientists, but usually trouble-making Liberal Arts majors.

The goal of Science is to study the world, develop a model based on observation, devise an experiment to prove the model, and then revise the model in view of the experimental results.  In that regard, Science is never "done" figuring things out, as each new discovery leads to revision and correction of previous theories and ideas.  Science, by its very nature, will never figure everything out, as there is always another layer of the onion to peel.

For example, in particle physics, we keep chopping up the atom into smaller and smaller bits, with the latest gag being "string theory" where "strings" or "branes" define sub-atomic particles.  Perhaps in a decade or a century we will laugh at this model (as we did with the plum-pudding model of the atom of only a Century ago).  The point is, we will never know all in Science, and there is even a theory to that effect.

And Science cannot, and never will, answer questions like "what happens to you after you die?" or "Is there a God?" or "What is consciousness, exactly?" or "What is the meaning of life?"

These are questions that cannot be answered by Science, but instead require Faith on the part of the questioner.  Either faith to believe they cannot be answered, or faith to believe in an answer that cannot be "proven."  And therein lies the definition of faith.

Now, some atheists may argue that when you die, you decompose, and that's it.  But there is no Scientific evidence to suggest that is the correct answer.  If you believe that, you do as a matter of faith, not Science, so don't deceive yourself.

Many atheists or self-styled atheists reject conventional religion (but instead adopt an atheistic faith, as noted above) as  a reaction to the corruption and vileness of many mainstream Religions.  While Religion may have initially been intended to serve a higher purpose, in the material world, it is often hijacked by all-too-imperfect humans to worldly ends - usually to the accumulation of wealth, power, and control.

In that regard, you can't blame so-called atheists for rejecting Religion.  But embracing Science is an alternative to Religion is not right either - it imbues Science with something that Scientists never intended.

Now granted, anyone who has flown on an airplane realizes that Angels don't fly around in the clouds with wings and harps.  But disproving specific aspects of various religious texts does not mean that all religions are totally bunk - or that faith cannot be a comfort to people in answering the unanswerable questions in life.  Science may accidentally "disprove" aspects of Biblical stories, but that is not its intent.  And disproving one aspect of the Bible, Koran, or Torah does not mean the entire Religion should be tossed on the trash heap.

Many Scientists have profound religious beliefs, even if they are not latter-day snake-handlers or believe in the Book of Revelations.  But the study of Science, is, in a way, an examination of the fingerprints of God on the Universe, however you perceive God to be.

If you've ever taken a course in Electromagnetics, for example, you'll understand how little we understand how the universe works.  Ever wonder how an electric motor works - or a radio?  Well, when it gets right down to it, we can measure how electrical fields or electromagnetic radiation works, and design machinery to take advantage of these phenomenon.  We can even devise "models" describing how these natural phenomenon work.  But truly understanding?  Not quite yet, it seems.   Unified field theory is still years away.

And beyond the physical world is the world of pure thought.  I took a course in Number Theory in college once, needing an additional credit in Math to graduate, and assuming (wrongly) that this would be an easier course than yet more Calculus.  Most of my fellow students were future cryptologists for the NSA.  One was my former Math teacher from High School (she dropped out).  It was a mind-bender of a course, and one thing I took away from it was a profound religious belief.  The structure of numbers (and there is a structure, beyond 1..2...3....) is quite unique and irregular (take prime numbers for example).  But moreover, this structure underlies all physical manifestations of the Universe, and moreover is consistent from one end of the Universe to the other.  The arrangement of numbers is, to me, the clear fingerprints of God - or something greater and more powerful than we can comprehend.

Very few Scientists, at least the ones I know, are the stereotype smug professors who believe that Science disproves the existence of God.

And yet, that is a popular stereotype on both the Left and the Right.  Christian fundamentalists, in particular, seem to think that Scientists and college professors live to disprove the Bible.  One place you see this a lot in in so-called Chick Tracts, which are little comic books you may see scattered around bus stations and restrooms - designed to convert you to fundamentalist Christianity.

In Chick Tracts, the buffoon college professor, usually portly and balding, tries to ridicule and browbeat his students into denouncing God in favor of evolution.  It is a parody of what real Scientists believe.

In one Chick Tract, entitled Big Daddy, the portly, balding, and smarmy college professor tries to browbeat his students into denouncing God in favor of evolution.  Anyone who questions his teachings is ridiculed at length, until one beaming Christian boy stands up to his assaults and then flusters the know-it-all college professor with Bible verse.  Intrigued, the other students ask him about Jesus.

Just as the atheist view of Science is very simplistic and wrong, this fundamentalist view is equally wrong.  If there is a college professor who tries to "disprove" the existence of God, surely he would be in the philosophy department, not in Science or Engineering.

But ironically, the far Right ends up believing what the far Left contends - that Science is set out to pit itself against God.  And again, this is an argument being made by both extremes by people who are not Scientists.

Science sets out to answer quantifiable questions, such as "how many electrons are there in a carbon atom?"  It does not claim to, nor can it even try to, answer questions such as "is there a God?" or "What happens when you die?"  Anyone claiming to be trying to "solve" such problems is not a Scientist, but a fraud.  Anyone who claims to have answered such questions using Science is a fraud, period.

Religion may provide a lot of funny stories about these unanswerable questions.  And disproving aspects of particular stories doesn't mean anything, really.  Since the unanswerable questions in life can't be answered in any event, there is no "correct" or "incorrect" answer.

Faith doesn't set out to "prove" anything.  It merely is there as a comfort to people in trying to address these underlying and frightening questions in life.  Ridiculing or trying to "disprove" faith accomplishes nothing except to make the person making the attack look more foolish than the faithful.

On the other hand, neither should faith be taken as a literal interpretation of the world.  Many on the far-Right are trying to make a "Science" out of faith by positing "creationism" as a "science" and by trying to "prove" that certain aspects of the Bible are true (e.g., searching for Noah's Ark).  I think this misses the point, too, and is just as dangerous, if not more so, than trying to disprove Religion with Science.  You can't disprove Religion with Science, but you also can't prove it true, either.

And you can't create a "Science" out of faith, as by its very nature, faith is not scientific.  As I noted earlier, faith is not questionable and is taken on belief.  Science is always subject to review and interpretation and updating and correction (which some Religious people take as a sign of weakness or "proof" that Science is "wrong".  This is idiocy.  Science is always "wrong" in that every theory is updated, corrected, repudiated, and up for revision and correction all the time.)  So trying to disprove the existence of God or Moses using Science is about as silly as making  a Science textbook out of the Bible.  Both parties are missing the point.

So...what does this have to do with finances?  Probably nothing, except that both self-styled atheists and fundamentalist Christians sometimes annoy the piss out of me.

That, and obsessing about the imponderables in life is probably a sure way to squander what little time you have here on this planet and let a real life pass you buy.

Because regardless of whether you believe the afterlife to be decay in the grave or flying with the angels, the bottom line is that both views embrace the reality of a finite and limited life.  So rather than divert what finite energy you have trying to chase down "answers" to imponderables, you might better channel your energies into the living.

Because if you really want to know what happens when you die, you need only wait a few decades, and you will know soon enough.

And I guess that is my view on the question.  Live a good life.  Try to be nice to people.  Try not to be evil.  And as for whether there is a God or an Afterlife, the answers to those questions will be apparent to you soon enough.  And we all get to find out, in the end, for sure, what the answers are.

So Science really doesn't need to "prove" the answers anyway, right?

Not enough TIME!

Note: This is a cross-posting from my Losing Weight Now! blog.  A recent Grooming comment on my Schwan's man post made me realize that this should be cross-posted here.  If you are coming home from work "too tired to cook or shop" then something is wrong with both your diet and lifestyle.  Taking the path of least resistance is never a good idea!

Read the following post and get an understanding why watching TeeVee and thawing frozen entrees is not the answer to "today's hectic world" but rather a recipe for poverty, obesity, and an early death.

Most people claim they don't have enough TIME to diet and take care of themselves!  But you have to make time to be kind to yourself - no one else will!

My apologies to the three people who read my blog for not keeping it up as of late.

We are in the midst of selling our vacation home, which is distracting to say the least.  As such, I have no "time" to keep up on my blog.  This is a bad idea, if I really want to lose more weight.

For me, this is a temporary issue.  We need to pack up all our belongings, have garage sales, take things to the dump, to the goodwill, prepare the house for showing, and do 100 other things in the interim, including our jobs - and of course all our friends want to visit the lake house one last time!

But lack of time is one excuse given by many people as to why they cannot diet effectively.  "Who has time" they say, "to portion your food, cook your own meals, and keep track of all your calorie intake?"

Yes, in today's modern now-a-go-go world, who has time?  You do.  And you should.  Most people squander their time, taking care of THINGS and watching TEEVEE rather than taking care of themselves.  Taking care of yourself is not "selfish" but your primary duty before taking care of anyone or anything else.

Consider my schedule, back when I was a salary slave:

12:00 Midnight to 7:30 AM: Fitful sleep (ate too much rich food the night before)
7:30 AM - alarm goes off. Hit "snooze" several times.
8:00 AM - wake up in panic, shower quickly, wolf down coffee, huge bowl of cereal
8:00 AM to 9:00AM - commute to work
10:00 AM - meeting in conference room.  Coffee and donuts (ate three)
12:00 Noon - lunch with co-workers, Chinese restaurant.  1000 calories minimum
3:00 PM - mid afternoon coffee.  Leftover donuts or pizza in break room
1:00 to 7:00PM - work.
7:00 to 8:00 PM- commute home
8:00 PM - turn on TeeVee, make dinner (or call for pizza).
8:30 PM-  dinner - 1200 calories
9:00 to 12:00 Midnight - sit in front of TeeVee, fall asleep watching Leno.
* Repeat ad infinitum*

It is not much of a life!  Weekends were mostly catching up on housework, laundry, shopping, yard maintenance, and all the other things there was "no time for" during the week.  And occasionally, instead of eating at home, we'd eat out at a restaurant (1200 calories or more) with friends.  And over the years, we got fatter and fatter, 100 calories a day, 1200 calories a month, which works out to 1 pound a month, 12 pounds a year, 120 pounds in a decade (if you let it).

And many, many people I know live a life like that - for 20-30 years until they keel over dead.  They are "too busy!" to change their life.  But we both know this isn't really true.

If you look at the schedule above, you can see that television is the big time-waster, second only to commuting.    If you've read my blogs, you know how I feel about television.  It sucks 4.6 hours out of your life every day - if you are an average American.  This is twice what you waste commuting, about half what you spend working (for which you at least get paid) and probably half what you spend sleeping.  Television takes and takes and never gives.  And what little it does give is a series of horrible normative cues and really bad ideas, like dialing for take-out pizza.

Commuting- what a waste! The idea that you have to live in the outer suburbs and spend hours driving to work is nonsense.  If you spend a lot of money on a house, you may feel that you can't move closer to work.  But a smarter move is to rent a place, or own a smaller house, so you are not financially stressed and more mobile.  Think about it - which would you rather have, 10 hours more time a week, or a huge house in the suburbs (identical to everyone else's) that requires an entire weekend of maintenance every week?

It takes courage and confidence to say "The way everyone lives is not for me"  and to do something different.  Humans are herd animals, and we all nervously watch the rest of the herd for cues as to how we should behave.  Where to graze, when to move, when to stampede.  But we all know what happens to cows in the herd, eventually.  Life ends at the end of a ramp, with a retained-bolt gun to the head.

It does take time, particularly initially, to start taking care of yourself better.  Finding time to figure out what it is your are eating and  how to change that is hard.  Finding time for a walk in the afternoon or evening seems hard at first.  But when you cut out all the other time-bandits, you'll find you do have more than enough time - in fact, your available time expands.

Consider this change to the schedule of the "working stiff" above:

12:00 Midnight to 6:30 AM: Good night's sleep (light dinner the night before)
6:30 AM - alarm goes off. Get up right away.  Take short walk around the block
7:00 AM - shower and dress, coffee with balanced breakfast, prepare lunch
7:30 AM to 8:00AM - commute to work (live closer, spend less time commuting)
10:00 AM - skip meeting in conference room - just people hearing themselves talk. Eat prepared mid-morning snack instead.
12:00 Noon - skip lunch with co-workers.  Spend half-hour eating prepared lunch
3:00 PM - mid afternoon coffee. eat prepared mid-afternoon snack
1:00 to 5:00PM - work.  Get more done in less time, go home earlier.
5:00 to 5:30 PM- commute home, take walk around block
6:00 PM - make a small dinner, possibly have friends over.

7:30 PM- take a walk, work on your finances, clean the house, read a book, whatever
9:00 to 12:00 Midnight - sleep soundly
Sounds like a much better schedule, but it does require effort to create less effort in your life, as odd as that seems.  Preparing and making meals is the hardest part.  Many people get like small children and whine, "I don't know how to cook!" or stare into an open refrigerator with a dumb look on their face as if the food they bought magically got there somehow and they have no idea how to prepare it.  Yes, it takes time to make all these meals - but you end up with more time as a result.

The main problem many Americans have is that their blood sugar rises and falls during the day, due to their poor food choices.  Carbohydrate meals, in particular (cereal for breakfast, donuts for a snack, lots of rice in the Chinese food, pizza slices, etc. in first example above) tend to give you a carbo-sugar "high" which makes you too manic to get anything done.  Then you crash, and you are too depressed to get anything done.  If you are lucky, there is a brief period between the high and the low when you might be cognizant enough to work.  So you end up spending more time at work, wondering why you aren't getting any work done.

Changing your life doesn't mean going to the gym 5 times a week or having to puree wheat germ in a blender.  It just means not eating the horrible foods most people eat and not having the totally sedentary lifestyle most people live.

As I noted in my companion Living Stingy blog, the secret to wealth is not some elaborate scheme or plan, but merely making rational market choices in a largely irrational world.  You need only not buy the seminars and tapes proffered by the con men, not buy the gold advertised heavily on TeeVee, not get payday loans, not lease new cars.  All you need to do, in fact, is just see all the idiotic things the herd does and not do them!

Similarly, to lose weight, all you need to do is not buy diet books, not buy diet powders, not buy prescription foods, not go on Jenny, not join a gym, not eat delivery pizza, not go to lunch at restaurants 5 days a week, not eat 1200 calorie entrees, not sit in front of the TeeVee.

Americans don't like to hear that.  They want there to be a magic secret "trick" to wealth and weight loss - because then they can convince themselves that "but for" knowing that trick or secret, they would be thin and wealthy.  No one wants to believe that the real reason they are fat and in debt is because of their own actions.

Getting back to my delinquency, I have no excuse for not staying with the program.  Now that we have been doing this nearly a year, it is becoming more second nature.  My desire for more food is dropping, but it still takes some effort to avoid over-eating.  The last month has been a stressful time, selling this house and selling off nearly half my possessions (two cars and a boat, furniture, and a lot of junk - so far - with more to go!).

The good news is that my weight has stayed at a flat 229, which is about 7 pounds more than my low of 222 earlier this summer.  The other good news is that I have not had any serious gout or diverticulitis attacks this year.  And this was the main reason I started this blog.

Once the house is sold, and I no longer need to spend so much time on house maintenance, I think we can have a lot more TIME to take care of ourselves.  But in the meantime, I will make time for myself, as no one else will.  Starting with a good walk this afternoon.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spamming, Grooming, and Shilling - Understanding the Internet

A lot of people are just learning how to drive on the information superhighway.  The trick is to get where you are going without getting run over.

UPDATE:  Since I wrote this more than a decade ago, people are pretty much all on the Internet - and kids get their first smartphone at age 3!  Yet, today more than ever, people fall for Internet tricksters, cons, and trolls.  Not much as changed, even as everything has changed!

* * *
 While it seems like nearly everyone is on the Internet today, a lot of folks, particularly older folks, are just now starting to explore it.  And unfortunately, they are prime bait for the sort of nasty people who now populate the Internet, looking for folks to rip off.

Relax.  The Internet isn't all that scary.  But just as in any town, there are certain neighborhoods you don't want to walk through after dark, there are things about the Internet that any "newbie" - or even experienced user - should know.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, the Internet was a small community of mostly computer geeks, who lived by a certain set of unwritten rules.  Certain things just weren't done!  As a result, much of the Internet was designed (or not designed) with any checks and balances.  While people behaved in a certain way - because the community was a certain size - there were no physical or electronic limits on what people could get away with - to some extent.

By the mid 1990's, we started to see a lot of non-traditional users starting to utilize the Internet for the first time.  And for the first time, the Internet became a place for advertising, commercial activity, pornography, and criminal activity.  It seemed with every new day, some new scheme, virus, worm, spambot, or other annoyance, was being contrived.  The small-town community of nerds who could shame each other into behaving properly, was gone for good.

The Internet is too powerful to simply walk away from.  You need it today, to book a flight, get your boarding pass, rent a car, balance your checkbook, send and receive messages, and increasingly, get the news, download television shows or movies, talk on the phone, or whatever.  In addition, the Internet allows you to do research on a number of things, from basic pricing information, to the rules of Mahjong.  Living without the Internet puts you at an economic disadvantage, just as living without a cell phone is very, very hard these days - now that pay phones are gone.

The following discussion is by no means a complete encyclopedia of things to watch out for on the Internet.  But it highlights some common things you should look out for.
1.  Spamming - One of the very first annoyances on the Internet was Spamming.  In the old days of "newsgroups" you could go online for a discussion of anything from particle physics to cake recipes and post and read messages about that topic.  One day, in the early 1990's, you might notice a posting with an advertisement in it, particularly one off-topic.  The users rose up in arms!  At first, the users who posted SPAM were shouted down, or their userIDs revoked.  But that honeymoon lasted only a short while.

Within a year or two, there was so much SPAM that you couldn't keep up with the attempts to stop it.  And the SPAMMERS came up with clever ways of hiding their tracks, so they couldn't be found and shut down.  Pretty soon, most Newsgroups were nothing but SPAM and the SPAMMERs shut them down.

SPAM, of course, is a reference to a Monty Python comedy bit, which reflects the entertainment interests of the computer geeks of the time - introverted, slightly overweight, pasty white males who had every line of various Monty Python bits memorized.  And the name stuck.

But SPAM didn't end there.  People stopped using the Newsgroups mostly, and today they are pretty dead.  If you are looking for a discussion group on a topic, chances are, it is on a moderated website.  Most of these sites monitor for SPAM, but increasingly even there, the SPAMMERs get away with murder.

In many cases, they cleverly hide their messages, and use SPAMbots (automated programs) to patrol the Internet, looking for discussion groups, and then automatically posting messages promoting a product.  And usually, these efforts at SPAM are completely transparent, because they include a link to a commercial website.

For example, on one car board, a message about battery "charge" was responded to by a SPAMbot with a message about charging the air conditioner.  The 'bot was clearly programmed to look for the word "charge" without context.  Making it even more clearer was the fact that the same message was posted several times at once on the site.

SPAM also takes the form of e-mail SPAM, and if you are on the Internet long enough, you will  get SPAM e-mails.  Fortunately, modern e-mail programs, particularly web-based ones, will filter out and delete most SPAM messages.  It goes without saying that you should never buy products or services from someone send you an unsolicited e-mail as it only encourages more SPAM.  In addition, as I have noted before, any economic transaction predicated on a LIE is not going to get better as you go along.  The SPAMMER has already shown you what a low-life he is by SPAMMING you.  Why would you expect him not to cheat you later on?

Today, advertising on the Internet is becoming more and more sophisticated.  And the term SPAM has come to mean almost any advertising on the Internet.   But SPAM is still SPAM, and much of what is heavily advertised on the Internet is basically a raw deal.  If you see an ad on Facebook, chances are, it is a raw deal.  You see an ad on Google, pretty much it is a raw deal.  If you get an e-mail SPAM message, chances are it is pretty much a raw deal, if not outright CON.

And of course, you have to look carefully to tell the difference between the paid ads on the Internet and real links.  Advertisers try to make their ads look like article links or Google hits.  Again, deception - and if you are foolish enough to do business with someone who snags you based on a cheap deception, who is to blame when it all goes horribly wrong?.

It is the same, however, in the "real" world - ads in the back of Smithsonian for "Gov't Gold" that are faked up to look like magazine articles.  And almost anything advertised heavily is usually a raw deal these days.  Good deals don't need advertising.  Bad deals do.  So that SUV that is hyped on television with "low, low lease rates" that are good only this weekend - that's a raw deal.

So the Internet is no better or worse than "real life" in that regard.  You have to be astute and walk away from shiny lies and shaded truths.  As a general rule of thumb, I never, ever click on an advertised link or use the services of a company that advertises heavily on the Internet.

2. Trolling is a name given to an odious behavior that occurs in discussion groups, and while harmless enough, is sort of like being called names in High School.  The troll will post something in a group that is designed to get people all riled up so that they post angry responses.  It is a classic form of baiting.

This sort of behavior started occurring at about the same time that SPAMMING came into fashion.  Discussion groups were being populated with more and more "newbies" and were becoming more and more anonymous.  Some folks took to trolling in the same way kids call each other names in High School - as a means of baiting someone into responding.

Of course, it is pretty silly stuff, and no economic harm can come of it.  But it does illustrate that discussion groups, like social websites, can be huge time-wasters for many people.  If you find yourself being drawn into such a discussion, chances are, it means you are spending too much time on the Internet.

UPDATE:  Since I wrote this, trolling has gone pro - to advance political agendas, affect international politics, destabilize entire countries, or advance economic interests and protect the reputation of corporations.   Life was simpler back in 2010!

3. Phishing started about the same time, or shortly thereafter.  It was not hard to do - you send out an e-mail to someone saying that your account has been "hacked" and by the way, can you tell us your password?  At first, these might have been pranks, but they quickly escalated into major criminal activities and are the #1 source of trouble for newbies on the Internet.

The idea of Phishing (which derives its name from fishing and the band of the same name) is not new.  In the old days, con artists would call old ladies and say "Ma'am, I'm from the fraud department at Citibank, and your credit card has been involved in a number of suspicious transactions."  In short order, they convince the victim to hand over the credit card number, the expiration date, and any other information needed to use the card fraudulently.  They may go so far as to tel the victim that they will let the "criminal" charge several transactions on the card as a means of ensnaring them - but the real reason is to prevent the victim from having the card canceled.

The Internet has just made this easier to do on a more massive scale.  Most of these Phishing schemes involved phishing for passwords to e-mail accounts, so the criminal can send out SPAM messages or virus messages to the mailing list of the recipient.  The recipient opens the message, thinking it is from a friend (and thus not a virus) and a worm or virus is loaded into their computer.  The criminal then can take control of the computer (as a background job unnoticed by the user) and use it as a platform for sending SPAM or hacking into other systems.

Other phishing attempts are more direct - they solicit credit card or banking information and PIN numbers so the criminal can steal directly from the user.

Avoiding these scams is not hard to do.  No company will ever send you an e-mail asking for your passwords or other information.  If you do get one, log out of the Internet and then open a new browser window and log into the company website using the regular link you use (which you should bookmark to prevent accidentally logging into a "typo" website) and see if the issue is legit.  If at all in question, CALL the bank or other agency directly.  NEVER EVER just "click" on a link in an e-mail purporting to be from your bank, credit card company, or whatever.

And it is not hard to copy the logos and formats of legitimate companies in an e-mail.  So even if an e-mail "looks" legit, don't fall for this form of Social Engineering.

4. Social Engineering is the name given to the technique for obtaining information from users.  Many people believe that a "hacker" can just randomly break into their computer at whim.  But if you are using a firewall (usually built in to your router) and don't download virus loads, then it is very hard for someone to "hack" into your system.

The term Social Engineering was used to describe how hackers break this last link - by getting the victim to willingly hand over password and other information so as to allow the hacker entrance into their system.

Again, these may be official sounding e-mails or the like that warn of dire consequences unless you hand over your password and other information ("Hotmail will close your account unless you re-activate it now!").

5. Toxic Websites bear special mention.  These are websites that, when you visit them, may produce a pop-up message that fakes a windows error message.  The fake pop-up will look like a real windows error and say "Windows has detected the presence of a virus!  Click here to scan!" or something to that effect.

But of course "Windows" has not detected a virus (Windows does not have that capability) but instead the fake message is generated by the website.  When you click on the link, it downloads a toxic program into your computer that could be a virus or other malware.  But usually the gag is, they want $39.95 for software to "remove" the virus.  When you pony up the dough, they steal your credit card number, and then load the "virus cure" which is more malware.

Google and other search engines are getting better about filtering out such websites, and on Google in particular, such sites may be blocked or a message will pop up asking if you really want to visit the site and giving you other warnings.  Note that such sites could purport to be anything, from pornography sites to IEEE publications.

6. Grooming is a name given to two internet techniques.  Pedophiles may "groom" young people online.  But that is not what I am talking about here.  Rather, I am referring to companies that patrol the Internet to "groom" their image by posting messages on websites and discussion groups, either anonymously or under fake names - or under their own name - either disputing negative information about their company, or lauding their own company.

Often, one goal of grooming is not to refute the message criticizing the company, but rather to attack the messenger by baiting them with personal attacks.  The idea is to paint any criticism of their company as unreasonable or irrational.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a company refuting allegations that are untrue or responding to allegations with contrary information.  What should be a tip-off, however, is when a company spends more time online grooming its image than providing better customer service.

Companies that use saturation advertising often are selling bad bargains, and they need saturation advertising to constantly get new customers.   Companies that spend a lot of time grooming, in my opinion, are also suspect.  If you have a quality product or service, you don't really care what someone says about your business - you will get customers regardless.  But if you have crappy products or services, then grooming makes sense - as you don't want the real word getting out about your company.

When looking at postings online, consider the nature and frequency of grooming posts and it will help you understand what is really going on.

7. Shilling is a term from the auction business, and it refers to a person in the auction audience who actually works for the auctioneer, and "bids" on items to pump up prices or to prevent an item from selling for below a certain price.  Auctioneers use shills to manipulate the audience and also insure higher prices for items sold.

On the internet, there are shills on auction sites, although on most sites (eBay) it is illegal (although hard to trace!).  It is not hard to call a friend and have them bid on an item to jack up the price.  I've never done it, of course, but others could and surely do.

But shilling also refers to someone who goes online and pretends to be a disinterested consumer and posts a laudatory post of a good or service, in order to generate business.  And it works.  People will read a laudatory review of a product and it generates traffic.

When you go on a site and see postings like that, take them with a grain of salt.  Many companies practice this odious technique to generate sales for themselves.  For example, in the automotive accessories business, shilling goes on all the time on car boards.  A supposedly disinterested customer will say "I buy all my parts fromXYZ company!  They are the best!" and then some other user will note that the IP address of the poster was the XYZ company server.  Most shills are not that clumsy, of course.

Manipulating public opinion is the goal of any advertising man.  If you can take a woman's cigarette and then do an ad campaign with cowboys, well, pretty soon, you've created "Marlboro Country" and sold what was a ladies' product (with a red tip to hide lipstick) as the ultimate in manly consumption.  That's all very well and fine when ads are ads, and not subtle product placements.

But shilling, like product placements, flies under the radar.  If you are not astute, you don't even realize you have been had - ever.
The Internet is a powerful tool that can liberate you or enslave you, depending on how you use it.  For me, it is a portal to my work life, my financial life, communication, research, entertainment, and even socialization.

However, in using the Internet, you have to be astute and question the premise of a lot of things presented to you.  Taking things at face value - whether they be a social engineering e-mail, a phishing bait, a shilled posting, or some corporate grooming - is sure to cause you grief.

1. Log on to every few days and read about the latest updates (and real information) on rumors, internet scams, and virus scares and the like.  You will learn about things going on long before they end up in your inbox, and also recognize cons. (UPDATE:  Since I wrote this, Snopes has gone down the toilet. The Internet seems permanent, but it isn't.  Something that keeps Zuckerberg up at night!)

2.  Install Spybot Search and Destroy (and not some similar sounding product or advertised website) and immunize your system and check for problems, at least weekly.  Update it regularly.  It is FREE.  If you go to a site that sells "Spyware Doctor" or some such nonsense, or charges for the software, you are on the WRONG SITE (note that on Google, the "advertised" link is NOT to Spybot!).  You can DONATE to Spybot, but they do not REQUIRE payment. (UPDATE:  Most operating systems now have built-in virus scanners and Spybot and other virus scanners are redundant.  Just be sure your built-in scanner is enabled and updated periodically!)

3. Also install Malwarebytes and do the same.  There is a FREE version of this (see link) and a paid version. (UPDATE: Ditto of above).

4.  Use Yahoo mail, Hotmail, or  g-mail or another web-based e-mail which has a built-in virus scanner.  If you do this, you probably don't need to pay McAfee or some other company for a computer-slowing (and data harvesting) "anti-virus" software.  All attachments you receive will be scanned automatically.

5.  Avoid forwarding e-mails with rumors, funny pictures, or the like.  It only makes you look like a doofus to others, and clogs other's inbox.  If you really want to do that sort of thing, facebook is a better venue than e-mail (UPDATE: Except for you half-assed conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxer nonsense!).  The Internet is a powerful tool.  Don't use it for silly stuff like that - you are more likely to download viruses and other garbage from forwarded e-mails than anything else.
Be skeptical and be careful!  And good luck!

Should you buy from the Schwan's Man?

Schwan's is convenient, in that they bring frozen food to your door.  But the prices are not a huge bargain and the calorie content of many entrees is rather high.

Should you buy from Schwan's?  The delivery drivers are very personable and make the rounds in every neighborhood from time to time.  But is the food a bargain?  And is it good for you?  Probably not on both counts.

I love the Schwan's man - he is a lot of fun.   But if you are on a budget or on a diet, buying from him is probably a bad idea.

To begin with, Schwan's reverses the buying process - they come to you and say "here is what I have on special this week" - thus changing buying into shopping - where instead of making of list of what you want, you select from a list of what is available.  And since you are in no position to do price comparison, you are at a disadvantage.  In addition, there is some pressure from the sales tactics, as no one wants to be impolite to someone making their living driving the Schwann's truck - so you may end up buying things to be nice.

Many of the entrees are also pre-prepared frozen entrees, which, while easy to prepare, are often the most costly way to eat.  Preparing your own food is much cheaper than thawing and cooking something already made for you.

Finally, there is the calorie count and food content.  If you eat one entree item and then prepare some fresh vegetables, salad, etc. to go with it, it might not be too bad a food mix.  But if you eat only their frozen entrees, you might find your calorie, fat, and sodium content off the charts and your fiber content lacking.

I am not picking on Schwan's here - all pre-prepared frozen entrees are this way.  Most Americans won't eat food that is not salty, fatty, and high in calories.

But like anything else, you could find some fairly healthy items on their menu, if you check the calorie and nutrition information.   But I still don't see their food as any real bargain.

So overall, I'd have to put this one down as a "not often" as it is no real bargain and not a real healthy food choice, overall.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Understanding Neural Networks

Neural networks are deceptively simple and yet subtly complex.  Even this simple three-layer network can produce startling results.  Now imagine your brain with billions of such nodes - and what it is capable of.

The human brain doesn't come with an operating manual.  And yet, understanding how your brain works is important if you are to avoid some of the major pitfalls in life.

Your brain is a highly complex neural network, of which the diagram above is a very simple example.  What is a neural network?  Basically, it is a learning computer.  A series of nodes are connected together in layers, with an input (stimuli) entering one end, and an output (action) coming from the other.  Each node accepts a signal from a previous layer, and then outputs another signal, multiplied by a weighting factor.

To "program" a neural network, you set initial weighting factors to the nodes and then "train" the network with sample inputs (stimuli) and then look at the outputs (actions) and then use them to modify the weighting factors to alter the output to a desired result.  Over time, with additional training, the network "learns" to output the desired result, and is then considered programmed.

One of the early test applications of neural networks was to use such a network to distinguish between male and female faces.  An image recognition network was designed and then "trained" on a series of sample facial images, to distinguish whether they were "male" or "female".  The network learned quickly and once trained with the sample images, could distinguish subsequent images with a high level of probability.

Now think about this a second - the computer was not "told" what to look for in the images as "male" and "female" characteristics.  It was just given a sample set to learn from, and then the network determined what was "female" and "male".  In a way it is a little spooky, but in a way, it is exactly how your brain works.

Think about it.  You can recognize a "male" or "female" face in a second, but if I asked you to tell me how you can tell it is male or female, you would have to think for minutes of a list of distinguishing features that you could cognitively recite.  And if you programmed that list of features into a traditional digital computer, it would get the recognition wrong half the time.  No, you recognize "male" and "female" faces instantly, as your brain is programmed to recognize them.  You do not look at a face and check off a list of features and then make a decision.

And this brings us to the first observation about how your brain works, by the way.  It turns out that facial recognition is not a trivial function of the brain, but one of its main functions.  As discussed recently in a New Yorker article, facial recognition can be tied to a particular part of the brain.  And if that part is damaged, people have trouble recognizing faces.  Facial recognition was no doubt important to our early ancestors, for whom recognition of "friend or foe" (a military term, which will crop up later in this report) was a matter of life or death.  Our brains are literally programmed to recognize faces.

And this is one reason why we tend to see faces in things.  A mound of dirt on Mars looks like a face, so we say there is a "Mars Face" and people run off to create paranoid theories about how NASA is suppressing lost civilizations of Martians.  Or people see the face of Jesus or Mary in a taco or a shirt stain, and suddenly, it is a "miracle" and people flock to pray to the taco.  But in reality, it is just that our brains are programmed to "see" faces, and in particular, look for familiar faces.  Think about this for a second - how you can scan a crowd of people and see a familiar face among thousands, almost instantly.  Neural networks are powerful computers.

We even see "faces" in inanimate objects.  Cars, for example, have "faces" we recognize, and often the styling of the car produces a "face" that is either happy, aggressive, or aloof, depending on whether you are trying to sell a car that looks fun, sporty, or luxurious.

So the first observation to take away from this, is to understand how you perceive things in life.  Seeing  a face on Mars or on a taco is no cause for alarm, but a side-effect of how your brain works.  Running off and starting a blog about NASA suppressing evidence of a race of lost Martians makes no more sense than saying that GM has suppressed a long-lost race of '55 Chevies.  Just because something has a face on it, doesn't make it alive - or a miracle.

OK, you say, the human brain is this huge face-recognition neural network.  How does this help my finances?  Well, bear with me, because like any complex idea, this gets complicated.

One of the early applications (and misadventures) involving neural networks, was the attempt by the military to use neural networks for image recognition.  The military wanted a way to program a missile to identify American or Soviet tanks ("Identify Friend or Foe") and then target only Soviet tanks.  They hoped to use this technology in the Maverick Missile, which you may recall "60 Minutes" did a show on.

So they did the usual - designed an image-recognition software and programmed it with sample pictures of Soviet and American tanks until the network appeared to be able to distinguish between the two.  Then they installed this network in a Maverick Missile and took it to the firing range and.... fiasco!

What happened?  It all worked so well in the lab!  Well, later analysis revealed that the photos used to train the network were at fault. The images of the US tanks were all "beauty shots" from the manufacturer, in full light, showing off the Abrams M1A1 in all its glory.  The photos of the Soviet tanks, on the other hand, were dimly lit spy photos or other clandestinely obtained photographs.  From this, the missile "learned" to go after poorly lit tanks, regardless of nationality.

So what do we learn from this?  A big lesson.  When you program a neural network, you may think you are teaching it one thing, but it may be learning another, entirely different lesson.  If you are parents of a teenager or if you are a school teacher, well, you probably know first hand how this works.  You try to teach a teen one thing - by setting up a system of rules and feedback - and they learn another thing entirely - how to beat your system!

So you have to be very careful when trying to train others - or even yourself, that your feedback is precise enough that you are not mis-programming your brain as a result.  You may think you are learning one thing, but your brain, deep down, is learning another.  You set up a system, such as production goals at work or grades at school, and some folks may "learn" to get positive feedback from the system.  Others just "learn" how to game the system, identifying poorly lit tanks, instead of Soviet ones.  And oftentimes, the gamers seem to come out ahead, at least initially, until they are put into battle and get everything wrong.

Feedback is one of the keys.  We tend to emphasize some positive results and attenuate negative ones.  Thus, for example, the gambler remembers winning and forgets about losing.  As a result, his brain becomes programmed to "learn" gambling, by providing positive feedback from wins, while not adjusting those weighting factors from losing.  In fact, if you watch people gambling, particularly with slot machines, it may remind you of the Skinner Box experiments, where rats press levers repeatedly until they receive a reward.  The rats learn from the lever press than generates the reward, not from the repeated presses that do not.  Eventually, you can "program" the rat to press a lever 5,000 times to get a food pellet.

Similarly, people will "learn" to get the high from drugs, while ignoring the negative feedback produced by the drug lifestyle.  They will "learn" to enjoy having shiny products by financing them on time, and attenuate the negative feedback from years of payments, onerous financing terms, and perpetual poverty such spending habits produce.

The common denominator, it seems, is that positive feedback programs our brains far more than negative.  And again, this is probably a survival skill for the species.  In the wild, we learn quickly to avoid danger (negative feedback) - that is, provided we survive it.  But an animal that is constantly avoiding danger cannot reap a reward (food) without going out and looking for it.  So while the negative feedback from danger may make a deer wary, they still venture out, in hunting season, to find food.  Otherwise they'd starve to death.

So applying this to personal finances, we see that the consumer is at a disadvantage from the get-go.  All of our financial experiences in life are designed to promote positive feedback.   We are drawn to shiny and new, even though the cost is high.  We buy things to please ourselves, without thinking of the real cost over time.  And we tend to trivialize or forget our mistakes (and go right back and repeat them, again and again, expecting different results!) while at the same time amplifying what we perceive to be rewards.

To succeed financially, you have to cognitively analyze your finances - try to break down what makes a face male or female, so to speak, rather than merely use facial recognition.  In other words, you have to rely less on impulse and more on analysis.  The only exception to this, I think, is when you have a "gut reaction" that is negative.  As negative feedbacks are attenuated to a level far less than positive ones, you have to listen to negative feedback a lot more.

For example, when you are at the used car showroom, and the salesman in the loud plaid suit is trying to sell you a shiny used sports car for $5000 over book value, you may be getting two types of feedback.  Part of your brain is saying "shiny! shiny! New car!  Whee!" and is ready to sign the papers on any sort of onerous deal.  But another part is saying, quietly, "I don't like this, I don't trust this person.  Something is not right here!"  Listening to that quieter voice is perhaps the key.

And perhaps in popular culture, this is reflected as the two sides of our nature - the "angel" and "devil" sitting on our shoulders.  And which one do we listen to more often?

Another important aspect of neural networks that we can apply to our own lives is that they continually learn over time.  Each piece of feedback reprograms the weighting factors on the network - perhaps slightly, as the network "zeros in" on a desired feedback.  But over time, as the stimulus (input) changes, these weighting factors can change substantially.  In effect, your brain is reprogramming itself over time.  You - and your personality - are constantly changing.

You may notice this (and I have written about this before) when you go to a high school reunion, or meet up with an old friend on Facebook.  You may have been "tight" with a friend in college - hanging out with them all the time, completing each other's sentences, and generally tuning into the same wavelength.  But 30 years pass - 30 years in which you have had dramatically different life experiences.  Suddenly its like, "You've changed, man!" and that person no longer seems the same to you (or you to them).

Long periods apart may cause people to drift apart, only because their intervening life experiences are different.  The longer and more different their lives are, the less likely they will connect later on in life.  So long-distance romances are hard to keep up, once you live in different States and have different life experiences.  And when two people are separated for long periods of time, it may be hard to get back together.  A veteran returning from the horrors of war may find it hard, initially, to "connect" with a spouse back home, whose life has been dramatically different in the intervening months and years.  This is normal - to be expected - not an anomaly.

This would suggest also that the more time you do spend with someone after a separation like that, the better the chance you will stay together - as you both reprogram your brains with common experiences.

The good news you can take away from all of this is that your brain CAN be reprogrammed with proper training and stimulus.  Of course, the older you are, the harder it is to "retrain your brain" as the nodes in your network have been continually programmed over the years with old data.  Teaching an old dog new tricks is indeed hard, but not impossible, as the saying would lead you to believe.

So, if you can retrain yourself to find more substantial rewards in financial behavior, you may be able to improve your financial condition.  Finding a "reward" in having a balance in your bank account rather than a shiny object parked in your driveway will mean you are ultimately happier down the road.  If you can learn to avoid the adrenaline rush of the gambler, you may be able to reprogram your brain to avoid that ruinous habit.  It is possible to change your brain, although granted, it is not easy.

Neural Network theory is being applied more and more in technology today.  Many newer cars have neural network computers that "learn" shifting or engine management.  Software can crawl the web looking for data and "learn" what results are desired.  Applications for this technology are ever-increasing.  And in terms of understanding the human brain, neural network theory may revolutionize the fields of psychology and psychiatry by replacing antiquated ideas with a more scientific understanding of how the brain functions at a network level.

Understanding your own brain, and how it works, will help you understand your motivations - both good and bad - and help you lead a better life.  And I think understanding Neural Network Theory is a key to understanding your brain.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Street Level Scams!

Scam artists are everywhere.  One common denominator is that they con people who are willing to believe in the old "something for nothing" bit.  Another is to use FEAR to get people to cough up money or information.

I came across this interesting law enforcement scam page:

From the Lakewood, Georgia Police Department.

(Note, while a helpful page, it has a lot of ads on it, including pop-ups for screensavers which probably have malware in them.  Use with caution!)

Yea, I know, you're "too smart" to fall for scams like the ones listed there.

But smart people get snagged by these sort of things as well!

Ask Chelsea Clinton.  Her Father-In-Law just got out of jail.  Seems he got scammed in a classic Nigerian Con, and when he ran out of money, stole from his clients to make up the difference.


So never think it can't happen to you, and don't let shame or fear prevent you from reporting a scam or warning your friends.

Scammers are out there.  I just spent a half-hour helping someone recover from a Social Engineering scam - they got an e-mail saying that their account was being hacked, and that the fraud department was "on the case" and, oh by the way, what is your password?

NEVER give out that information.  When in doubt, close your browser, open a new one, and then log into the account in question from the real, bookmarked page.  NEVER click on a hotlink in an e-mail, no matter how "official" it looks!

It is sad, but our society is getting worse and worse this way.  And how the elderly can protect themselves from this sort of thing, I don't know.

I do not look forward to getting old!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Different Ways to Move

There are a number of ways to move these days, including relatively new methods, such as ABF U-Pack moving, which uses commercial freight trailers, parked at your door.

We are moving some of our furniture to Georgia, and need to find a way to move it.  Today, there are more choices than ever for moving thing.  Let's explore the pros and cons of these moving techniques.

But first, let's make sure we really want to move this stuff.  All too often, I see people spend more money to move an item than it is worth.  Paying $25 to move $10 worth of stuff is not cost-effective.  In fact, paying money to move things that you can sell at a garage sale and then re-buy at your destination (at someone else's garage sale) doesn't make sense.

If you have time before your move, liquidate things on Craigslist, eBay, and garage sales.  There is no point in moving junk, and no point in moving things you can easily buy there for the same price you sell here.  Moving is a good time to cull your life of excess possessions.

But Beware:  Don't fall into the trap of selling off all your "good stuff" and then moving all the absolute crapola.  Decide what is worth moving - things that you cannot sell for a reasonable price (and buy at your destination) or things that have special value to you.

I've seen a lot of people moving absolute trash on the Interstates.  People actually pay money to rent a trailer to move a broken-down Camaro.  A move such as this is a good time to dump that "project car" that will never be completed.

THE BEST MOVE is one where you sell it all and take only a toothbrush.  And eventually, we will all make this move - to the rest home, or to a pine box.

Once you have winnowed down what you need to move, consider the following alternatives for moving:

1.  Traditional Movers are a dying breed and an example of how you can destroy your own industry without too much effort.  When I was a kid growing up, this was perhaps the only practical way to move.  And for many folks, the company you worked for you pay to move you to a new city if you were relocated.  My Dad did this several times and reports that they even moved their garbage, since they weren't paying for the move.

There are a number of inherent problems in using traditional movers.  These types of movers (Allied Van Lines, Mayflower, NorthWest Van Lines, etc.) show up with a large 18-wheeler and then have hired "movers" take all your stuff and pack it into the truck.  It is the most expensive and labor-intensive way to move your things, and also the most problematic.

The problem is, since few households fill an entire truck, it is likely that your truck will "share" space with someone else's move.  Worse yet, your load may be unloaded, put in a warehouse, then reloaded to another truck, perhaps more than once. In these scenarios, a lot of stuff goes missing, gets broken, or otherwise gets lost.  The complaint rate for these types of movers is astronomical.

While the idea behind such movers is great - you get curb-to-curb service, and all the labor done for you - the reality is less than ideal.  Stuff arrives broken or is missing, and despite all your complaints, little or nothing gets done about it.

My parents went through this with one van line company, whose driver went crazy and took off when his wife left him.  He sold off some of our furniture along the way to pay for fuel.  Eventually the van was found, abandoned.   Granted, it is an extreme example of what can happen.  We waited months for our furniture to arrive, and many items were never recovered.  Two decades later, they used the same company (after vowing "never again") and while no one went crazy and drove off with their stuff, many things did go missing from storage and other things were broken.

I met a former van driver for the same company, and he had horror stories to tell from his side.  He owned his rig and leased it to the company, which paid him just enough to survive on.  Many times, he would show up at a house, and find that the company had not hired any movers to load the van.  At that point he had two choices - sit at the curb while angry homeowners fumed about the lack of loading progress (with home sale closing dates approaching rapidly) and wait for the company to send movers.  Or start loading himself, and throw out his back working for the company for free.  At the other end, often the same thing happened, and he ended up unloading furniture and not being paid for it.  He eventually too the third option and quit - selling his truck.

He told me that many times, the "movers" the company hired were just people from the local labor pool or temp agency, with little or no moving and packing experience.  And many times, the company would not send enough people to load or unload within one day.  So even when the "movers" showed up, he still ended up having to help pack the truck, usually doing the lion's share of the work.

The cost of such traditional movers is staggering - in the thousands of dollars, usually.  Much of this goes to salesmen's commissions and the like, or to moving brokers who take a big chunk off the top (but never answer your calls once your furniture goes missing).

Poor service, high prices - it is no wonder that you don't see moving vans on the Interstate anymore.  And let's face it, since most people today own inexpensive Chinese-made junk, it ain't worth moving most stuff anymore.

There are a few specialty van lines left out there that deal in local area moves or special point-to-point moves (New York to Florida, for example) and have stellar reputations for their service.  But usually, they are not cheap.

For most people today, the traditional mover is not an option.  Back in the day, the company you worked for might pick up the tab.  But today?  Fat chance.  So many people look for alternative options.

2. U-Haul and the like came into being after WWII when people started moving to the suburbs.   You can rent a trailer or truck from them and move a fairly large amount of possessions.  During our last move from Virginia to New York, we rented two of their largest vans (26 feet) and a 14-foot trailer and moved everything ourselves.

It was not too bad, in terms of price, but it was a backbreaking amount of work.  In retrospect, I would have tried to move less (moving houseplants was fruitless - most died after the first year).

U-haul can be cheap - at times - and you can hire local deadbeats through them (from a labor agency or temp pool) to help you pack and unpack the truck.

Many people own large SUVs or Pickup Trucks today, and renting a trailer is one dirt cheap way of moving small amounts of possessions.  Trucks are a lot more to rent, but haul a lot more, and of course, if your only car is a Geo Metro, a truck might be your only option.

In the old days, U-Haul had some issues, to say the least.  At our local U-haul in Alexandria, if you wanted a local rental, you had to show up at 6AM, get in line, and try to rent one before they "ran out".  Today, the large moving centers, such as the one in Lorton, Virginia, take reservations for local moves, and are much better run than the Mom and Pop franchises of years past.  If your local U-haul doesn't take reservations for local moves, try reserving online for a "one way"move from your location to an adjacent city.  It sometimes works!

And speaking of which, one way to save a LOT of money on U-Haul and the like is to go online and play with the reservation dates and cities.  For example, we wanted to rent an 8-foot trailer to take from Ithaca, New York, to Brunswick, Georgia.  Plugging in the data online yielded a staggering $1000 charge for such a rental - almost enough to buy a used trailer outright.

But by changing the starting city to Syracuse, New York (an hour's drive away) and the ending city to Jacksonville Florida (ditto), the rental cost dropped to $400.  If you want to do one-way rentals to oddball or small towns, there will be extra charges, as it is likely that someone will have to hump your equipment back to a hub in a major city.  So play with locations, and you can save a lot of dough.

There are a number of complaints online about U-Haul, most dealing with equipment problems or reserved equipment that fails to materialize.  Shit happens, as they say, and if you have a narrow window for moving, things can go horribly wrong when the equipment is out of service for repair, or breaks down en route.  One way to avoid this is to avoid moving on the weekends or the end of the month, when equipment usage is at its height.  If you leave yourself only a half-a-day to move, and that day is the 31st of the month, on a Saturday, well, you've set yourself up for a fall, big time.

The advantages of U-Haul and the like are that you are in control of your things at all times - no one is unloading your possessions at a warehouse, sight unseen.  And since you loaded it, you have no one else to blame when things break.  This is not to say things won't break, of course.  And cost is another big factor as well.  U-Haul can be fairly cheap, depending on what you are renting, where, and when.

The downside is, if you are not strong enough to pack stuff yourself, you may need help.  And even then, you can throw your back out moving stuff, as we both did on our move to New York.  Is it worth back pain to own anything?  Now you see why I am becoming an anti-materialist.

3.  PODS stands for Portable On-Demand Storage and is an outgrowth of the crate packing systems used for years, particularly in the military.  But instead of wooden crates, the PODS are water-tight mini-garages that can be dropped at your door, loaded at your leisure, and then stored or moved to the location of your choice.  Since you pack it and you lock it, it eliminates the light-fingered mover problem and also puts the onus of breakage on your shoulders.

The only two problems with PODS are cost and availability.  At the time we last moved, they did not have branches in our area, so they could not move our stuff.  And the cost was nearly double that of a U-Haul truck, which seemed kind of steep.  Since then, PODS is serving more areas, but still not all.  And the cost is still fairly high.

I think they are really aiming more at the local market and the storage market as well, at least at the present time.

4.  U-Pack is a division of ABF freight company, and is shown in the above photo.  A friend of mine recently used them and reported it went very well.  They bring one of those tandem freight trailers to your home, and you pack it up, installing a load wall between your goods and the rest of the trailer.  They then take the trailer to the hub, load boxes or whatever in the rest, and put it in the system, bound for the hub nearest your destination.  Once there, they unload their freight, and then take the trailer to your home.  You have 2-3 days to unload your stuff, which was locked behind the load wall.

The rates are competitive with U-Haul, and you don't have to drive the equipment or pay for the gas. So it is an attractive option.  One nice feature is that if you need more room, you simply buy it by the foot (if you need less, you pay for less).  So the problem of not renting enough equipment is not an issue.

U-Pack also has a PODS like module called a Relo-Cube, which they will deliver to your door or to a local terminal, and you can load.  At the destination, you can either store the Cube for $99 a month, or have it sent to your door, or unload it at the local terminal.  We are using the Relo-Cube for this next move, as we have items that need to go into storage for a month or so, while we build a new studio.  Unfortunately, ABF won't bring the Relo-Cubes to the island, so we will have to do a daily local truck rental from U-Haul to unload the cube and bring the stuff to the island.

Like with the U-Pack truck, if you need more cube, they will send one.  If you don't need a cube that you ordered, there is no charge for it.  So it does provide flexibility in loading.  One reason we had that 14-foot trailer (in addition to the two 26 foot trucks) during our last move was because we realized at the last minute that all our stuff would not fit into the two trucks.  It was nerve-wracking!

* * * *

This time around we are moving a lot less stuff.  We sold a lot of our furniture to the home buyer - which is an excellent way to get rid of stuff and also to get new furniture at your destination.  So rather than move, we used the magic of MONEY (the Greatest Invention Ever) and converted THINGS into CASH and then move them, like Captain Kirk's transporter beam, across the planet.  Money is easy to carry and doesn't throw out your back!

The next move after this, I hope to move even less "stuff" than before.  But we'll see....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Status - it's not always what you think!

To most people, this is the only example of a "Status Symbol".  But human beings all crave status, and in ways beyond the mere flaunting of wealth.  Recognizing this odious aspect of human nature is one step to avoiding financial problems.

We talk a lot here about Status - how human beings crave it and seek it out.  We all want to have Status - to show people we don't even know that we have value as human beings.  And a dark side of human nature is the desire to show people that you are better than they are.

Think you are immune?  Sorry, Charlie.  Unless you are a robot from Mars, you crave Status.  We all do - it is burned into our hard memory. 

So rather than claiming you don't seek status (which, as we will see, is just another way of seeking Status) let's examine this all-too-human condition and what it really means.  Because you may be shocked to discover that there are many forms of status-seeking.

Status-seeking isn't always about money - that is just the obvious example.  Underlying all status-seeking is the premise that the seeker wants to distinguish himself from everyone else, by saying, "I am unique, I am special, I am better than you!"

So you see, when you try to tell me that you are not a Status-seeker because you are "better than that" you just fell into the trap of status-seeking.  It isn't all about money.  And it ain't pretty in any of us.

There are a number of forms of status-seeking, and they can all be costly to you as an individual:

1.  Luxury goods:  This is the obvious example that most people think is the ONLY form of status seeking.  Without the status-seeking impulse, things like Bentleys, Rolex watches, and the like would never get sold.  Even more plebeian consumer goods like Cadilliacs would never leave the showroom if it weren't for status-seeking.  Granite counter-tops and upscale homes would not exist if not for status-seekers.

2.  Bad-assedness:  In many poorer neighborhoods, or in prisons, people seek status as a "bad ass".  You want everyone to think you are tough, which is one reason this whole "gangsta" movement has started, first among rap stars, and now trickling its way down to white suburban teenagers.  But it goes beyond that.  Muscle cars and Penis boats cover both bases in terms of luxury goods and bad-assedness.  If you have a loud, expensive Harley, well, you're rich and bad-ass, right?  Of course, usually the owner is neither, just a financially over-extended Dentist from Bayonne.

3. Political Correctness: The Prius owes its existence to this group.  They buy politically correct goods to flaunt their perception that they are better than the rest of us, because "they care about the planet".  The rest of us are neanderthal knuckle-draggers who are raping the rainforest and depleting the ozone layer.  Of course, owning ANY car is basically raping the planet, and there are plenty of non-hybrid cars that get the same mileage as a Prius.  But driving a Chevy Aveo doesn't scream "I care about the planet" but rather "This is the only car I can afford!"  So, Prius drivers don't opt for cheaper and less complicated cars that get the same gas mileage (and don't require strip mining of rare earth metals from Bolivia to make their batteries).

4.  Heritage:  If you make a big deal on being descended from people who came over on the Mayflower or whatever, you are falling victim to heritage status.  Oh, yes, we know, it is just a hobby and all.  But many folks in America still believe in the "He comes from good stock" type of deal, as if humans were AKC registered dogs that shouldn't interbreed without proper papers.   This is perhaps a fading status symbol in this country, as it borders on racism and is less relevant today.  The "blue bloods" of yesteryear all interbred and now are dirt poor and have genetic diseases.  Not much status in being a Kennedy, a Sedgwick, an Auchincloss, or whatever.

5. Race:  Again, in the USA, it would be tacky and awkward to assert your status based on race.   But it used to be done, on a large scale, and still occurs in many parts of the country on a smaller scale.  Given the amount of "white trash" in this country that tries to assert racial superiority, the argument often undercuts itself. But in other countries, this is still a major status item.  Many Latin-American countries suffer from this problem, as people of indigenous blood are often treated poorly and are far down the economic ladder.  Lighter skinned peoples tend to view themselves as superior and claim to be of pure Spanish descent.  I once inadvertently insulted a friend of mine from Costa Rica when I told him he had the face of a Mayan God (which he did, along with fairly dark skin).  He nearly hit me, and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that he was of pure Spanish descent, with no "Indian" blood in him!  Of course, his genetics screamed otherwise, but it was a cultural deal, to be sure.  And it shows how far our Latin American friends have to come in terms of racial equality.

6.  Religion:  The religious nut will tell you that HE is going to heaven, but you're on the highway to hell.  "Christians aren't perfect, Just Forgiven!" one popular bumper sticker chirps.  I'm better than you, it is saying, because God likes me best!  It is very sick and also very un-Christian, if you think about it.  What would Jesus do?  He wouldn't have such a sticker on his car, that's for sure.  Being smug about religion is a pure form of status-seeking.  Claiming to have an inside track to God is the ultimate status, if you think about it.  Of course, such claims are illusory.

* * *

The list goes on and on, although these are some basic items I can think of.  The basic idea, again, is to project an attitude that you are somehow better than the rest of us, based on these specious criteria.  But again, claiming to be better than the rest of us only makes you one of us - a fellow status seeker - so the whole process is rigged from the get-go.

Status-seeking is odious, to be sure, and not a pretty aspect of our human nature.   But we all do it!  Many folks engage in the more obvious form by buying things on credit, and thus projecting an image of success, while at the same time going bankrupt.  The problems with this sort of status-seeking are self-evident.

But others, who perhaps have less access to credit, will use other indicia of Status-seeking that are less costly, at least in apparent economic terms.  The political junkie, the conspiracy theorist, and the politically correct might not have the money for a new Hummer, but they can afford bumper stickers that proclaim their better way of thinking.  "I'm better than you because I care about a living wage!" screams the bumper sticker (not literally, but that is the interpretation).

The problem with this latter form of status-seeking is that while bumper stickers are cheap, being a political junkie can take up a lot of your time, and also make you unpopular with others, including employers.  And let's face it, you are only lying to yourself by claiming to have some sort of moral high ground.   Being a perpetual protester is not really a career path, and growing old and poor is not going to be fun, even if you are morally "right" in all of your causes. (And chances are, the guy with the Hummer, who can afford to donate to political campaigns, will have a greater impact on society than the protester).

Religious nuts squander both time and money on their churches, and usually for the most odious reason of all - to claim to be chosen by God himself as one of the special few.  Many of these "new" religions demand a huge amount of time and money from their parishioners.  They eventually leave, of course, bitter and angry about the time and money wasted on false theologies.

Recognize status-seeking in your own life.  Don't pretend you don't do it - we all do.  We all want to think we are smarter, wealthier, prettier, morally superior, and in every way, better than other people.  And it is true that we are all unique.  But status-seeking can cause a lot of financial trouble for an individual, if they allow it to skew their financial planning towards status-seeking enterprises.

And yes, trying to save money could be status-seeking in itself.  Making a big deal about living on less is, I guess, a form of status-seeking.  But at least, it is a money-saving form of it!