Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Park Model, revisited

Park model RV's can be very inexpensive - less than the cost of a new car.  But are they really cost-effective?  

We are staying in an RV park in central New York.  It is very nice and all.  Most of the RVs here are permanently ensconced - much as they are in many Florida parks.   For some folks, these are weekend retreats.  For others, they are a seasonal respite from the heat of the South - snowbirding on a budget.

One of the units is for sale - a 2008 32' Hornet, and it comes with a deck, an aluminum awning, and all the trash and treasures surrounding it, including a 2008 EZ-GO golf cart, jacked up as a "buggy" with all the tricked-out accessories any redneck would love.  It is sitting on a 1/4 acre lot with a view.   The owners are asking $17,000 and seem desperate to sell.

Sounds like a deal, right?  I mean, you can buy a vacation home for less than the price of a new car - far less.  Presuming you like the park it is parked in, and want to stay there for the summer months (June through September), is this a good deal?  Or more precisely, how much would it cost to own?

The price of the trailer, plus golf cart, is fairly reasonable.   From NADA guides:

List Price
Base Price $26,628 $13,860 $16,700
Options: (add)      
TOTAL PRICE: $26,628 $13,860 $16,700

Right off the bat, you see that the original owners are taking a bath here, and the old rule of "Depreciates 50% every five years" applies here.   The original owners paid close to $30,000 for the unit (with all the accessories) and now, five years later, are looking to unload for half that amount.   They spent $3000 a year in depreciation on what was a weekend getaway home.  That's about $200 a weekend, in depreciation, which isn't cheap.

The "lot rent" on the site is $1700 per season (June through September) or about $425 a month.   The electricity is metered as well, and can run from $50 to over $100 a month.   Let's use an average of $75 a month for our calculations.

The original owners thus spent about $5000 a year on this weekend retreat, which is a lot of money.  That comes to $312.50 a weekend, assuming you went there every weekend, which they didn't.   Like most "weekend warriors" they discovered on Friday they were too tired to drive two hours to the RV park, and besides there is laundry to do and weeding in the garden.

Let's face it - if you own a home, having a camper as a "weekend getaway" is a horrifically expensive luxury.   For $312.50 a weekend, these owners could have afforded to rent a cabin or RV at the park, or towed a smaller RV there - and have the option of paying-as-you-go.

But again, other residents use these RVs as a summer home, living there from June through September, which means the unit gets used and thus the overall cost, in terms of cost-per-day-of-stay is far lower.  If they had lived there "full time" (for the whole season) the cost would drop to about $42 a day, which is more reasonable.  However, they are still paying $1250 per month, which is more than I pay to live in my house in Georgia (which is paid for).   Suddenly, living in a trailer looks less and less attractive.

Of course, if we bought this nightmare, our costs would be less.   Assuming we offer them a fair price of $15,000, our depreciation over five years would be $7500 or $1500 a year.   This brings the overall cost to $3500 a year - a lot less than the original owners paid.  Note how depreciation is the big ticket item, but in our case, would be less than the cost of lot rent.

Of course, most folks don't calculate overall costs this way.  Rather than take into consideration the real cost of depreciation (the amount you paid minus the remainder value) they look at the monthly installment payment costs.  So they think of the trailer as costing $350 a month in payments, as that is what the loan company charges them.    This usually ends up being a smaller number than the depreciation - which is one reason many loans chase depreciation, and lose the race, leaving the owner "upside-down" on the trailer.

For us, therefore, the cost of living seasonally in this RV park would be about $875 a month, or about what a very nice apartment or small house in the area would rent for.   It might be slightly cheaper than renting an apartment or even owning a home, but not by much.

Some folks might look at this as a cheaper alternative to owning a home, as they look at the cost of owning a home in terms of the monthly mortgage payment (which they view as perpetual, and that perpetual mortgage payments are "normal").   Some folks will live full-time in such RVs or have one "up North" for the summer months, and another in Florida for the winter.   Florida is covered with such RV parks, which you realize the first time you fly there and see them as you approach the airport (they are usually located in less-desirable areas, like airport landing paths).

$875 or even $1250 a month might seem like a reasonable amount of money to spend on monthly living.  But then again, if you own a home, the costs of living there could be about the same, perhaps even less - when you factor in appreciation over time.   But again, most folks look at the monthly payment and not the monthly costs - and the two are not the same thing!   So, Mom and Dad sell the family home and downsize to an RV or trailer, convinced it is "cheaper" as they no longer have to pay a $2500-a-month mortgage payment.  But a cheaper house, "paid for" would probably be a better deal down the road.

Is living in an RV park cheaper than traveling by RV?  You betcha.   Even the cheapest State Parks charge $20 a night.   So the monthly lot rent easily exceeds $600 a month, perhaps more, as some parks are $30, $40, $50, and even over $100 a night.  Throw in $20 a day for gas (if you travel every three-four days and use one tank of gas every travel day, as we do) and you are looking at well over $1200 a month just in lot rent and gasoline - not to mention depreciation costs of the RV and tow vehicle.   

But then again, when you travel, you are traveling, and get to see new things and explore new places.   It is an entirely different mindset than living in a trailer park.

Sadly, many people buy RVs with the idea of traveling and "seeing America" in their retirement.  And they do it, for a while, before they realize that it costs a lot more money to "see America" than they first thought it would - and they end up living full-time in a trailer park, after a while, in order to be able to afford the "lifestyle".   It is one of those weird time-shifting expense deals, fueled by low-cost financing and upside-down loans.   Yes, you can do it for the first few years, and then reality sets in, and the new motorcoach isn't what it used to be, and you wake up one day and realize you've been living in a trailer park for the last five years.

It is interesting to crank the numbers on things like this - and one should crank the numbers on anything.   The original owners of this trailer we are looking at are a couple of academics working at a local university, and despite their education, might not have cranked the numbers on the overall costs of owning what turned out to be a very expensive weekend retreat.

Even at a "steal" of a price, such a deal is still pricey.   You'd better like staying at that park, or it could turn into a depreciation nightmare - as it was for the original owners in this deal.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Failed Promise of WiFi

When WiFi first came out, wild promises of free Internet access abounded.  Today, even finding a working public WiFi network is problematic.

When Nuclear Power first came on the scene, it was thought that it would be so cheap as to not be metered.  Why bother measuring consumption when nuclear power essentially cost nothing?  Of course, that turned out not to be the case, and utility rates have continued to rise over the years.

WiFi first operated under the same premise.  It was said that municipalities would wire their cities for free WiFi for all citizens - with free internet access for everyone.   That didn't happen.   Cafes and restaurants and other businesses would offer free WiFi it was said.  That happened, but it is starting to disappear.


With any commodity (and Internet bandwidth is a commodity) when the price drops down to a certain point (or is free) people will drive up consumption to the point where scarcity takes over again.   It is the balance of the free market, and we've seen this pattern in the past.   

In the 1950's electricity was cheap, and people did stupid things like build uninsulated glass-walled houses (with single-pane thickness glass) and heated them with resistive baseboard electric heat. It worked swell, for a few years, until utility rates shot up, and suddenly these energy hogs became nightmares for their owners.  Heating with resistive heat is no longer even considered, much less applied in the real world today, other than as "emergency backup" heat for a heat pump.

Water used to be very cheap in this country, and in many places it still is.   Cheap water meant you could water acres and acres of arid land and turn a desert into an oasis.   But then the water ran out - or more precisely, it became scarce as more and more people consumed more and more of it.  Today, people in Atlanta get $1000-a-month water bills if they water their lawns in the summer.

WiFi faced the same problems.  When WiFi first rolled out, most people went online to get their e-mail, often in text format (ASCII) and maybe visit a primitive website or two.  Animations, videos, music, and the like were not very common, if they indeed existed at all.  But since WiFi was "free" people quickly learned they could use this bandwidth to video conference (Skype), download movies, or to make phone calls.   Today, smart phones will search for and log into WiFi routers, so that the user can avoid costly cell service data limits.

As a result, finding reliable free WiFi is getting more and more difficult. If you go to a cafe and someone hogs all the bandwidth with a Skype call or by downloading a movie on their smart phone, you won't be able to get on.

And as more and more people use smart phones to access the internet (using cell data plans, not WiFi bandwidth) the need for free WiFi diminishes.  Or more precisely, the attraction of having "free WiFi" at your internet cafe is not what it used to be.  Someone with a smart phone and an unlimited data plan really doesn't care whether you have free WiFi or not.

As a result, you see less and less free WiFi sites these days.  And those that are still around are often in poor repair or not working well.   And logically, this is a predictable event.  For a business, if there is no real advantage to offering free WiFi, then there is no real reason to offer it. So more and more businesses are letting free WiFi wither on the vine.

We have been traveling across the country, and we are finding that free WiFi sites are harder and harder to come by.  We have a WiFi hotspot (on a pay-as-you-go plan) but cell service is not always available in some remote areas.

We've found some "free" WiFi hotspots, but found them in poor repair.   Busy clerks and salespeople don't have the time or expertise to fiddle with balky routers.  Maybe one or two of them know how to reboot a router and modem, but the rest, well, just say, "It was working yesterday!"

Some "free" WiFi providers have tried to limit bandwidth abuse by putting limiting devices on their WiFi routers.  However, these often end up cutting off all but the most basic communications - HTML loading of e-mails and the like.

Even "paid" WiFi services are withering on the vine.  Why bother paying for WiFi service, if you have a smart phone that is also a mobile hotspot?

Why indeed.

Today, when I try to log onto a WiFi router, the list of routers mostly includes the smart phone hotspots of my neighbors, usually with corresponding names, such as "Suzy's iPhone" (my all-time favorite is "FBI Surveillance Van" which I think I will use to rename my Hotspot).

All of these folks - and there are dozens of them often within wireless range - don't need or want the "free" WiFi provided by the campground host, or cafe owner, or whatever.  Moreover, this plethora of hotspots often means it is that much harder to log into the free WiFi provided by the business owner.

Once in a while, these folks leave their hotspots unencrypted and you can piggyback off their connection.  However, that probably is illegal and unethical.  A lot of folks who have smart phones are not even aware their phone is also a hotspot and moreover, don't realize they are paying $20 to $30 extra a month for this service!

Some business owners have attempted to offer free Wifi, or extend the range of their free WiFi by using secondary routers or repeaters (extenders) piggybacking off their primary (business) internet connection.   Often these simply don't work, or the amount of data they end up funneling through the modem ends up overloading the system.  Just because you can hang three repeaters off your modem, doesn't mean it will support the bandwidth.  Do us all a favor and just say "No" to extenders and repeaters and whatnot - unless they really work.

And just say "We don't have WiFi" if you are not going to offer a robust connection. I have wasted countless hours in Internet Cafes or campgrounds, and the like, trying to make a balky connection work reliably.  I end up just getting frustrated - and wanting an hour of my life back.  If you can't get it to work, don't entice people to enter your place of business and then say, "Gee, it was working yesterday!" and "Frank, the guy who set it up, is on vacation this week!"   Just unplug it all and drop the pretense that you even have WiFi.  Because you don't, period.

I suspect that WiFi - as we knew it and sort of know it today - will be gone in the next 5-10 years.   In its place will be dedicated "hot spots" owned by individuals, who will piggyback their personal electronics off their smart phones, pad devices, or the like.   The concept of a business owner providing free Internet connections will start to fade, as fewer and fewer people actually need such a service.   Municipalities and schools will follow suit.  Why spend the money wiring huge areas for free WiFi service, when most of your customer base has their own smart device with a cell connection?   By providing free WiFi, you are just encouraging them to use your network to make phone calls, send text messages, or try to hook up on Grinder or whatever.

So, the promise of free Internet turned out to be a pipe dream.  In its place will be millions of private WiFi hotspots, each owned and maintained by an individual and most importantly, paid for by the individual.   Why give away bandwidth for free, when people are willing to pay - and pay a lot - for it?

It is, perhaps, yet another reason to despise smart phones - they took what was free and cheap, and made it into a trendy and expensive accessory.  The prevalence of smart phones has lead to a direct decrease in the availability of free WiFi.  They will drive free WiFi to extinction in a few years, I predict.

And you wonder, sometimes, if this wasn't all by plan. Maybe 5-10 years ago, in some boardroom somewhere (perhaps at Apple), a group of executives meet around a table and say, "hmmmm, free WiFi, eh?  Well, we'll have to put a stop to that!"

UPDATE 2023:  Well, as I predicted, it pretty much has happened.  We find fewer and fewer campgrounds or cafes offering "Free WiFi" and quite frankly, who needs it?  We have a 100GB per month plan on our poverty WiFi Hotspot and it will stream movies, even at 3G.  WiFi is no longer really an "internet access" service, but more like Bluetooth - just a means of connecting your device to another device - in this case, phone-to-router, computer-to-router, or television-to-router.  All those "Cat 5" Internet cables are in the dustbin.  Who wants wires?

We do find some campgrounds still offering "free WiFi" only because they are very rural and in a cell phone dead zone.   So WiFi is the only way to log on.  However, as the weekend progresses and more and more people sign on, well, you get kicked off.  Sadly, the same thing happens with our hot spot - on a busy weekend, when everyone gets on their cell phone, the hot spot slows down further and further.  You may have four bars of service at 6:00 AM, but by noon, it is down to one.

Supply and demand!  The idea of "free" Internet bandwidth was a stupid one.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Snowbirding versus Full-Time RVing

Retirement should be a time of relaxation and enjoyment, without the worry about finances and money.   But if you don't think about the money you are spending, you could end up in a world of trouble.

For the 401(k) generation, retirement choices are going to be vastly different than those of the previous generation.   Retirees with fixed pensions have a pretty good deal, as they know how much per month they have to spend, and generally, if they spend less than that amount, they will do OK.  

For those of us living off our savings, however, it is a little trickier.   When a purchase of something like a boat or a motorhome represents 1/4 of your retirement savings, you think twice, or three times, before making such a purchase.  If you are at all smart, you don't make such purchases.

But as I noted before, many folks on pensions, lured by "low monthly payments" on 20-year notes, buy these depreciating nightmares, and end up "upside-down" and unable to sell their purchase later on, when death or illness forces such a sale.  I have written about this before and it is a common occurrence amongst retirees.

Recently, I was talking with some "snowbird" friends who have a house in New York for the Summer and a house in Florida for the Winter.  Snowbirding is fun, and I did it for nearly a decade before giving up and deciding it was cheaper and easier to have one house (or at least have cheaper houses!).   Charlene and Derrick both are retired from a large company and have nice pensions.  They have two houses, each worth about $125,000, for a total equity of about $250,000.   They spend six months each year, in each house.

Their friends Suzy and Frank are also retired from the same company.   After a few drinks, Frank berates Derrick for being so "foolish" as to waste money on owning two  homes, when he can enjoy the carefree lifestyle of full-time RVing!   Suzy and Frank have a $250,000 motorcoach, which is nice, but certainly not a "high end" unit (which cost a half-million or more).   They spend six months a year at a campground in Florida, and six months at a campground in New York.

Frank touts his low-cost lifestyle.  No maintenance on two homes!  No property taxes!  Just carefree living!

Is Frank right?  These two couples make the same amount of money in retirement, but have chosen to spend it differently.   Frank and Suzy own a rapidly depreciating asset which is worth 50% less, every five years.   They live in trailer parks for months at a time, chock-a-block next to other campers.   While they don't pay property taxes or have to mow lawns or clean gutters, they do have to pay lot rent, and pay for fuel for the motorhome, which at 5-8 mpg, is a lot of money.    They also have to pay for maintenance on the motorhome, which as it ages, gets expensive, and very fast.  Just a set of tires for such a "motocoach" can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.

It got me thinking.   The touted "RV lifestyle" is nice and all, but it is really any savings?   Charlene and Derrick's houses are very nicely appointed - far nicer than any motorcoach could ever hope to be.   And yet they cost about the same to purchase.   The cost of taxes and maintenance on the homes is not a lot more (if about the same) than the cost of lot rent, fuel, and maintenance on Frank and Suzy's motorhome.

And the big kicker is, even if housing values stay flat, Charlene and Derrick will likely get all their money back when they sell either or both of their homes - and likely make a tax-free profit.   Frank and Suzy will be lucky to get half of the money they spent on their coach, back.  And in fact, they may be "stuck" in the RV, as the balance on the loan is more than the coach is worth.

Which may be the real reason Frank runs down Charlene and Derrick's lifestyle choices.  Frank is self-justifying a bad decision.  He sees Charlene and Derrick with not one, but two very nice houses, while he and his wife are forced to live in trailer parks.

Frank did admit, in a moment of candor, that maybe buying the motorhome was a mistake.  "I wish I hadn't bought a brand-new model," he admits, "as the depreciation is murder!"  And that is true - he would have been better off buying the same model for $100,000, five years old.   But even then, that is a lot of money to spend on a depreciating asset, if you are a middle-class person.

But what about travel?  What about it?  Yes, Frank and Suzy do travel to visit relatives on their annual sojourn between New York and Florida.  But at 8 mpg (on a good day) it is expensive to drive very far out of your way.   And staying for short-terms at RV parks is expensive.  Rates can run to $60 or even $100 a day - or more!   Unless you get a "monthly rate" it becomes expensive - fast.

And Charlene and Derrick travel as well - in their car, which gets 25 mpg on the highway.  Yes, they have to pay $60 for a motel room now and then, but compared to lot rents, this is not that much of a difference.

We have been traveling in our small camper trailer ($8000, paid-for, in cash, thank you) for the last couple of months.   We met one couple who are retiring next week, and just bought a high-end motorcoach.   They are all excited now, but I wonder what will happen if they have to sell it in a few years, and find out they are "upside-down".

Another couple cheerfully reported that they sold their house and took the proceeds and bought a new motorcoach.   Now, instead of having a nest-egg, they have a mountain of depreciation.   I didn't have the heart to say anything.  It's not like they can do anything at this point anyway.   Funny thing, though, with this "money-saving" RV lifestyle, the couple was complaining that they had to "scrimp" on things to make ends meet - and get cheap site fees, often near the Interstate on-ramp.   In other words, the "money-saving" RV lifestyle isn't saving much money.

RVing isn't cheap.  Even with our cheap trailer, which is paid for, we spend about $60 a day on fuel, when traveling.   And even State Parks are $20 a night.   Private campgrounds can be $35 as night to a whopping $125 (in New Orleans).   Now bear in mind that the cost of living in our "paid for" house is about $35 a day (including taxes, utilities, insurance, everything).  And that's for a $450,000 house.   A cheaper house would cost far less.  And in retirement, well, you've had 30 years to get your house "paid for" so there should be no mortgage.

In other words, RVing is a luxury, not a cost-saving "alternative lifestyle".   If you want to "see America" (and Canada and Mexico) as we have done (and are doing) it can be very, very expensive, as you are on the move a lot, and thus pay more in fuel and lot rent.   But even if you stay in one place for months at a time, the costs could equal or exceed that of owning or renting a home or apartment.   There are no real savings in living in a trailer.

Yea, poor folks live in trailers.  That is why, in part, they are poor.  They make poor financial decisions.  They buy mobile homes and make payments on them, and they depreciate.  After a decade, they buy a new one, and so on.   They end up with nothing but receipts for lot rent and payments to the finance company (at onerous rates).

Smarter and wealthier people buy a home instead - for about the same amount of money spent on payments on a new double-wide, plus lot rent, you could buy an inexpensive home.   But it does require that you save up money for a down payment, and of course, have good credit.  The poor have neither, so they take crappy deals and stay poor.

And that is one dirty little secret of the RV game.  It is not exactly an "upscale" lifestyle.   The most expensive RV's are designed to the tastes of the most plebeian folks - slathered with mirrors, twinkle lights, fake brass trim, and other gaudy accessories that poor folks think of as "classy".   You can spend all you want to have the most bad-ass trailer in the trailer park, and still be in a trailer park.

We enjoy our little, cheap RV.  It is a home-away-from-home and not that expensive to own or maintain.   But "investing" in an RV "lifestyle"?   It makes no sense at all, from a financial perspective.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Speeding in a Prius

If you own a Prius and speed, tailgate, and floor it to red lights, you are missing the entire point of the car.

I was tailgated by a Prius today.  Funny thing, we were in a small residential community, you know the kind where people put those plastic signs that look like the outline of a child, with the words "SLOW DOWN!" on them.   Of course, when they say "slow down!" they mean other people should slow down, not them, because they, of course, never speed in their own neighborhood.


So the Prius was speeding in his own neighborhood, that is until he nearly ran into my bumper, as I was doing the speed limit.  And he pulls into a driveway flanked with not one, but two "Slow down! Children at Play!" signs.

Externalizing, yet again.  "Other people" are driving too fast and causing all the problems.  But us?  Oh, dear me, no, I never drive too fast!   

I recounted in another posting how "concerned Moms" (there are no other kind, other than the choosey ones who choose Jiff) called the police and complained about "Speeders" cutting through our neighborhood.   So the police set up a speed trap, and after ticketing about 15 "concerned Moms" the issue was dropped.

But once again, I digress.

The point of this posting is I very, very rarely see a Prius or other hybrid car being driven properly.   The entire point of a hybrid car is not speed or performance, but fuel economy, reduced emissions, and saving the environment.  Driving a Prius like a Jackass just proclaims to the world that your commitments to environmental causes are phony and mere posturing.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to many of us.  We all posture and play and try to achieve status, in various forms, and one way that many liberals try to achieve status is through "political correctness" which they view as merely selecting different brands of products to consume - such as free-trade coffee, Subarus and the aforementioned Prius.

But you can't consume your way to a better environment.  Consuming less is one way to help the environment, if that is your concern.  It also helps you on a personal level.  I am not sure why buying a Subaru will save the planet, as they were horrific gas hogs (only recently getting somewhat better mileage, but still not great).  I suspect it has to do with all the ad space they buy on NPR and the lip service they pay to environmentalism in their magazine ads (touting zero landfill nonsense and such).

But a Prius, well, that could get twice the mileage of a Subaru.  Or less, if you drive like a jackass.   The entire theory behind the hybrid is that energy normally wasted in braking (turned into heat and brake dust) is recaptured and used to recharge the onboard battery.  When you accelerate again, well, that energy is used to bring the car back up to speed.   That is why Hybrids manage the neat trick of getting better mileage in the city than on the highway - if driven properly.

However, if you accelerate toward red lights and slam on the brakes at the last minute, well, the service brakes are going to kick in and convert all that kinetic energy into heat and brake dust.   You have to anticipate stops and slow down ahead of time.

Tailgating in particular wastes fuel, as you have to accelerate and slow down constantly.  It is also just annoying and rude - not to mention dangerous.

If saving fuel is your goal (or saving the planet) then it makes no sense at all to speed.   Speeding just wastes fuel and doesn't get you to your destination very much faster - if at all.

Yet, I have to say that most Prius drivers that I see on the road do all of these bad things - speed, tailgate, and fail to anticipate stops.   As a result, they are not getting the mileage they could be getting.  One even admitted to me that while her Prius could get 45 mpg, "with the way I drive, it rarely breaks 35".   Tee-Hee, she thought that was funny. 
But it isn't.  It is just sad, as it shows that she is a poser and a phoney of the first order.  Playing at saving the environment by sorting her recyclables, but not really making much of a real difference, so much as making a political statement.
And that statement is, "I'm better than you, because I care about the planet!"  Status rears its ugly head, yet again.

 The sad thing is, there are plenty of non-hybrid cars that could get 35 mpg for a lot less money.  But they don't declare your love of the planet, do they?
There are, of course, a few Prius drivers and other hybrid owners who do "get it" - and drive carefully and get the vaunted high mileage these types of vehicles can provide.   But sadly, it seems these folks are few and far between.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Garages Became Convenience Stores

Most gas stations find it more profitable to run a convenience store than a repair shop.  Why is this?

People like to pine for the "good old days" and will tell you that cars back then were "better" than "all that computerized garbage" today.


If you drive through any town, you will see the remains of a number of old gas stations, now closed.  And you will also see a lot of old gas stations whose repair bays have been converted to convenience stores.   The old days of "Mechanic on Duty" are gone forever.

Why is this?  Cars are far more reliable than they were 50 years ago.

Those fabulous cars of the 1960's rarely went over 100,000 miles before they were junked.  Most were burning oil by 50,000 miles, and had engine, transmission, and rust problems.   Exhaust systems lasted 18 to 36 months.  Batteries maybe two years.  A set of bias-ply tires lasted 30,000 miles, if that, and handled poorly.  Shocks wore out after two or three years.   All of these items broke and needed to be repaired regularly.

And of course, carburetors needed to be rebuilt, engines constantly tuned up (about once a year), timing chains would snap, and valve jobs would need to be done.  And flat tires were a way of life.   The "good old days" sucked, frankly.

Today, cars easily last 100,000 miles or more, most going 200,000 miles without too much effort.  The reasons for this are multifold.  We have better oils today, better gas, and fuel injection - which means a cleaner, better controlled burn, and no gasoline in the crankcase.   High energy ignition means spark plugs can last 100,000 miles (instead of 15,000) and computer controls mean that tuneups simply don't exist.  You cannot adjust the timing or replace points anymore.   The former is controlled by a computer that does a far better job than a distributor ever could.  The latter simply doesn't exist.

So all those repair shops became obsolete.   Why run an auto repair shop when cars need less repair?   Granted, some still soldiered on - the ones that did good work and learned how to repair modern cars, instead of whining about how they hated "these fancy new computers".   And yea, I have seen mechanics says this to me.  If one says it to you, run away - you don't want him working on your car.

So here's the irony.  There are fewer repair shops today.  Fewer mechanics needed to repair cars.  And yet, jobs for auto mechanics remain unfilled.  Why?  Because few folks want to go to school and actually learn how to repair a modern car.  And it really isn't harder than repairing those cars from "the good old days" either - just different skills.  In fact, it is easier, as diagnostic tools can pinpoint problems in a real hurry, and most repairs amount to replacing sensors or actuators.  Valve jobs and major engine overhauls are almost a thing of the past - with most cars being junked rather than having such work done.

So, is this such a bad thing?  We get better, more reliable cars out of the deal.  There are fewer places to get your car repaired, but then again, less of a need for repairs.   There are fewer jobs for mechanics, but there are still opportunities for quality trained mechanics (and maybe more of the shady ones are out of business).

But regardless of whether you "like" it or not, we are not going to "go back" to unreliable, poorly built, rusty, polluting cars, just to "create jobs".   It makes no sense, and it ain't gonna happen.

Reality is value-neutral.  How you perceive it to be is your decision.

The Conundrum of Automation

Large Corporations, like General Electric, used to be able to afford "corporate retreats" like this one on Association Island, which is now an RV park.  Today, corporate budgets are much tighter, and employee's labor so valuable, that it can't be wasted on such perceived silliness.   Whatever happened to the promise of Automation?  That we would work less and live like kings?

A reader recently suggested a posting about how automation is "taking away our jobs!" based on a YouTube video he had watched.  At first, I dismissed this out of hand, as it did not seem relevant, and I had addressed the topic before.  But then I realized I was vacationing on Association Island, a former General Electric retreat for its managers and engineers.   The activities on the island were parodied in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Player Piano, which I downloaded into my Kindle and am re-reading for the first time since 10th Grade.

Speaking of Kindles, how many people has the Kindle put out of work?  Lumbermen who cut trees, paper mill workers, slowly getting cancer, booksellers, retail clerks, truck drivers - the list goes on.   Paperless book put the paper business, out of business.

But on the other hand, it also means an obscure convince-store clerk can rise to literary super-stardom, in this brave, new digital world.

Vonnegut seemed pretty cool when I was a sophomore in High School, but in retrospect, seems sophomoric.  Now, I don't want to take a piss on Vonnegut, lest he go off the deep end and do a Robin Williams on us.  Celebrities are so sensitive, and we need to boost up their egos, lest we lose another one.  (We're safe here, Vonnegut died in 2007).

Was that too soon?  Perhaps.

Anyway, after 40 years, Vonnegut seems more like a second-rate Socialist agitator than anyone with real insight.   His views on automation and technology, while raising some interesting questions, don't really provide any answers.  Moreover, the problems he describes in his book have yet to come to fruition.  In fact, with increased automation, it seems that more and more of us are working harder and longer than ever before.

And that is the conundrum of Automation.

Back in the 1960's, most women stayed at home and raised children.  Half the work force was out of the work force.  And most of us worked 40-hour workweeks, and if you were an executive, you took an hour-long two-martini lunch.   We worked hard, but hey, we played hard, too.

Companies like General Electric could afford to buy an island, and then ship off its top talent for a week every year to goof off, attend "seminars" and just generally act like a bunch of drunken frat boys.  Today, such "corporate retreats" are becoming rarer and rarer, as increased scrutiny of costs and labor have meant that every dollar and every minute has to be watched like a hawk.

Back in the 1960's, every company had an army of accountants, clerks, mailroom boys, secretaries, and whatnot, filing away papers on every aspect of the company's operation.  Mainframe computers had less computing power than your cell phone (far, far less, in fact) and were limited to a few accounting and inventory applications, using punch cards).

All that is gone, and all those jobs no longer exist.

And in the factory, it took twice as many men (and they were all men) to assemble a car, as each machine was operated by hand and every weld was done by hand.  Robotic welders and painters and assembly machines have more than halved the labor force in most factories today.

On the farm, larger and larger equipment - which is also more automated - means less labor needed to farm a given acre.  No longer do we bale hay into little cubes and then stack them by hand with a half-dozen helpers.  A single man can create enormous hay "rolls" which then can be stacked with a fork-lift.  The population of farmers has been on a steady decline since 1900, and yet our production has continued to skyrocket.

Yet today, we work longer hours than ever, have shorter vacations, and what's more, most women are in the labor force as well.   And there are far more of us today than 50 years ago.   All this robotics, automation, computers and whatnot, and we are still on the treadmill.

Despite all the hue and cry about "unemployment" these days, it still remains relatively low (under 10%, approaching 5%) and really is at background levels.   Most of us - the vast majority - are still working and still working hard.

What happened to the forecasts of the 20-hour workweek?  In the future, we were told, consumer goods would be cheap, and everything would be done by robots.  We would laze around and play golf and have a good time and whatnot, while our machine servants did all the work.

What happened?

What I think happened is that automation did not "take away jobs" but merely made some jobs obsolete - while creating new jobs.  It also meant that we can produce more products and more technologically complex products than in the past - at a lower cost.

I keep saying this, but no one listens (because we all like to feel put-upon): We are an enormously wealthy country, and far wealthier than we were 50 years ago.   Today, a person living below the poverty line has a house, a car, air conditioning, a microwave, a refrigerator, and a flat-screen television.   Some of these products simply did not exist 50 years ago.  Others, such as microwaves, were owned only by the very rich.

We own more "stuff" than in the past - or have the opportunity to do so.  Most choose to do so.  In 1960, a "fancy" motorhome might be a 30-foot Winnebago, built on a bread-truck chassis.  Today, people cruise into the campground in a rock-star bus built on a commercial bus chassis, and costing more than their house.  Whether this is a smart financial move is debatable.  The point is, we have far nicer shit than in 1960.

And that is where the automation went - in making products better and more complex, but at a price far lower than before.   

My Dad's first Color television, and RCA "Colortrak" 25" set, cost over $500 in 1975, and got three channels.   Today, you can buy a flat-screen television with six inputs that will get a dozen "high definition" stations off-the air, for less than half that price.  In 1975 dollars, it would be 1/10th the price.

Vonnegut does address this issue in Player Piano, and in fact, mocks it.  Corporate shills, in his book, advertise to the masses that no matter wealthy the King of France was, he never could have had a snowmobile.  In effect, people today are wealthier than Kings in the past.  While Vonnegut says this sarcastically, there is a nugget of truth to it - we are wealthier than in past eras.  We no longer worry about hunger, but how to lose weight.  We no longer worry about dying of dysentery or getting polio.

Of course, automation has really yet to get into high gear.  The big drop in product costs in the last 20 years has been cheap labor, not necessarily in automation.   We have things made in Asia, because labor costs are cheap.   However, once the Chinese and their brethren taste a bit of middle-class living, their labor costs will go up - and there are signs this is already happening.  American companies, just to be competitive, have to use robotics and minimize labor costs.

And there are signs this is happening.  With increased automation and cheaper labor costs, many overseas companies are investing in America, building products here, and exporting them all over the world.

Of course, this comes at a price.  The post-war boom era that Vonnegaut wrote in, is long gone.  Back then, a man could get a brainless job in a factory, being a human machine, and get a fairly nice middle-class paycheck.   Today, such jobs are rare, and most now require some computer training.   A lathe operator doesn't operate one lathe anymore, he rides herd over a half-dozen NC (Numerically Controlled) machines and needs to know how to program them.

But that earlier era was an anomaly, not normality.   We tend to view the postwar era as the "good old days" and wonder what went wrong.  The reality is, we milked the system for all it was worth, in terms of strikes, labor unrest, higher and higher wages, and deferred pension obligations.  It all started coming home to roost in the 1970's when energy costs skyrocketed and the system became unsustainable.  It took another two decades for "the walking dead" to finally collapse, and the industrial base of the "rust belt" to collapse.

Is this a bad thing?  You can view it as such.  It is just reality, playing its ugly hand, and you can't deny reality for very long.

And in that regard, the point is moot.  Automation, Computers, the Internet, and so forth, are here to stay.  We are not going back to vinyl records, paper books, or hand-welding cars.   No one yearns for the days of the paper punch card (and IBM's monopoly on the business).  Moreover, if you start to scratch the surface, the "good old days" were not always that good, particularly for women and minorities.

Automation has provided us with a better lifestyle.   We can choose to have a lot more shit today - or choose to live on less and have more wealth.  Most choose the former and then look for external sources to blame for their predicament.  Political parties, wall-street fat cats, outsourcing CEOs, or, I suppose, automation, are the boogeymen for these weak thinkers.

The reality is jobs remain, and many of these new "high tech" jobs remain unfilled - for lack of qualified applicants.  Few want to do the hard thing and study subjects like mathematics, engineering, or computer programming.  Kids today like to play video games, few think about a career in designing them.  Kids like to hop up their Mom's old jalopy, but few would think about becoming an automotive Engineer or even a Certified mechanic.   It is far easier to complain that there "are no jobs" and ask for a handout.

And the pace of automation will continue to increase, over time. Whether this will result in the dreamed-of 20-hour workweek and robot butlers, well, we'll see.   Frankly, I think that people need work not for just an income, but for other reasons - a sense of self-worth and value to society.   And that was one point of Vonnegut's book that did make sense - not that automation was bad, per se, but that people need work to feel they have value.

We have been traveling across the country in our RV, and it is interesting to see how many State Parks are cutting back, shutting down, or limiting services and access. The reason given is the lack of money in the budget.  But at the same time, we have bloated our budgets with government give-aways in the form of food stamps, welfare, and the like.  And a core group of people complain that they can't find work.  It would seem an obvious answer, that instead of paying people not to work and then shutting down government services, to instead put those people to work at those cut-back jobs.

But of course, that runs you headlong into the government employees unions, who will demand not only a middle-class salary and benefits for those workers, but upper-class salary and benefits.

We are right back where we started, in the postwar era - where autoworkers could demand the wages of doctors, just to slap bolts on cars.

Of course, Vonnegut anticipated this as well - positing that in the future, the Government would absorb all excess labor in the Army or in the "Reeks and Wrecks" - a Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps similar to the CCC.  This never materialized, mostly because unemployment due to automation never really reached levels where government intervention of this sort would be required.

Vonnegut's dystopian future was set in the late 1950's.  Since then, automation has expanded considerably, and with each wave of new technology (industrial robotics, personal computers, the Internet) thousands if not millions of jobs were obsoleted.  Yet, for some reason, the unemployment rate has remained fairly steady over the years, varying from 7-10%, sometimes less.

One would have thought that, given this huge cultural and technological shift, that unemployment rates would approach 50% or more.   But not only has unemployment remained steady, the economy has absorbed an increasing population of workers, and the entry of women into the workforce.

In short, the concept of "automation taking away our jobs" just isn't going to happen.   If it had, it would have happened by now.

This is not to say that people whose job skills are obsolete will have to retrain for other work.  It is not impossible to do - I have changed my career several times already.   And it does not mean that some folks, approaching retirement age, will be obsoleted before they are ready to retire.  I have written about that before - expecting a steady job until age 70 is foolish thinking.  You could be out on the street for a number of reasons - besides automation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Is the world crazy, or getting crazier?

Are we collectively going nuts?

In response to a recent posting, a long-time reader writes about his frustration with friends, family, and relatives.   They all have basically disassociated themselves from reality it seems.

His experience mirrors that of most folks these days.  A sister enmeshed in an MLM scheme, latching on to whatever trendy weight-loss program that comes down the pike.  In-laws who are convinced that day-trading or stock picking is the way to assured riches (no doubt buying gold as well).  And of course, a crazy Uncle who forwards conspiracy-theory e-mails.

And everyojne buying everything on time, leveraging themselves further and further into debt, and then whining about it on Twitter using their smart phones.

And of course, they all have to keep up with their favorite "reality" television programs.

Were we always this dumb, or is this a recent phenomenon?

Perhaps a little of both.   In the 1960's, a unionized factory worker could piss away a fortune over his lifetime, buying junk on time.  And then he could retire with nothing - as he had a fat pension plan from a major corporation to fall back on.   That all evaporated in the 1970's and 1980's, as defined pensions were replaced with 401(k) plans and foreign labor competition shut down the union factories.

So yea, we were always this crazy, but conditions have changed to make crazy have much more dire consequences.

And perhaps out politics are more polarized today than in 1968.  We generally don't have riots at political conventions anymore, so maybe that isn't quite right.  Hard to say, actually.

Some would claim that our markets are more volatile today - with all the "little people" playing the market and all the shenanigans the big fish are playing, stocks can soar and plummet in a matter of days or even hours.

But then again, the same thing happened in 1929 - when grocery clerks were buying stocks, with predictable results.   When average people think they can get ahead without work or thrift, well, it goes South in a hurry.

The vast majority of the great unwashed are, well, unwashed.  That was the point of the last posting.  My family is about the same.  I have a brother who really believes that Communism is a swell idea and "if only" we'd given the Soviet Union a chance, well, it would be a Socialist Paradise today.  I have another brother who believes in conspiracy theories, and also that anything bad that happens to him is because of other people who are "assholes".   Yea, he smokes a lot of pot, too.

It goes on and on.  People believe what that want to believe - what is convenient for them, and what makes them feel good.

Because, let's face it, reality sucks and is depressing.  Escapism is much more fun.  Blaming your misfortunes on others is a lot easier and makes us feel better about ourselves.  Unless you have a really, really strong constitution, perceiving reality for what it is could be a deadly game - it could lead to depression and death.  Maybe that is what happened to Robin Williams, I dunno.

So maybe living in a fantasy world is a survival instinct.  And as a race, it keeps us glued together and keeps people busy with what amounts to make-work.

And maybe that is why few people are able to act rationally in an irrational world.  The CEO of a large company is paid a million bucks a year simply because there are few people out there who can live in reality.  You need a guy who can make hard decisions without sentimentality or delusion.  And sadly, most companies lack such CEOs - cranking out crappy products and running inefficient money-losing factories that should have been closed years ago.  But too often, people, even CEOs, fail to perceive reality as it is, and as a result, they get cashiered.   And the "new guy" is called an "asshole" because he does what needed to be done a long time ago.

We are in Massena, NY, which borders the St. Lawrence Seaway.  I was watching a documentary at the visitor center (hosted by a young, circa 1958 Walter Cronkite).   He talks about the cheap hydro power and how ocean-going ships will bring commerce to the great lakes - and how cities like Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit, will become prosperous inland ports.

Cheap hydro power or not, all of these towns have shut down their factories, and huge jumbo container ships drop off their loads at deepwater intermodal ports, where they are put on trucks and trains and sent to their destinations.  The dream of the St. Lawrence Seaway has passed by.  We are camped next to the Eisenhower Lock, and maybe one ship a day passes through, if that.  How sad.

But how predictable.  With staggeringly high labor costs, manufacturing in the "rust belt" died off over the last 40 years.  Without capital to invest in new machinery, companies one after another folded.   We still make some things in this country, but not so much along the Great Lakes.  Michigan now bills itself as the "beer state" not the home of auto manufacturing.

Who knows?  With cheap land costs, maybe these areas will come back over time.   But sadly, the unions (and mafia corruption) will keep labor and overhead costs high, for years to come.   Towns like Massena (which has an Alcoa plant) will remain sad and depressing for the foreseeable future.

But that's just my perception of reality.  Some of the locals here, not having seen other parts of the country, no doubt think the high-paying union jobs are coming back "any day now" or that someone "took away their jobs".   No one will look inwardly and wonder if maybe the union antics of the 1960's were to blame.

Once again, I digress...

Monday, August 11, 2014

Should You Be Afraid of the Koch Brothers?

Are these Billionaires to be feared or admired?

A lot of ink has been spilled lately about the Koch brothers.  Some dude recently wrote a book about them.   Fear-mongers among the Democratic party like to tout them as Satan's Own Spawn.

Who are these dudes and should you be afraid of them?

Well, for the first part, you can start by reading online here or you can read "Sons of Wichita" on your pad device.   Rather than barf up their biographies, I'll just summarize it briefly.

Their Dad, Fred, came up with a new method of cracking oil to make gasoline. If you studied petroleum engineering and know how a cracking tower works, you appreciate how important this invention is.  Like Howard Hughes' Dad (who invented the modern oil well drill) it turns out that you can make more money in selling the accessories for the oil business, than in the business itself. Ask Halliburton about this.  So the Koch brothers started out life very, very wealthy.

As I noted in another posting, inherited wealth tends to dissipate within a few generations.   If you are a rich kid, set to inherit more money than you can spend in one lifetime, you have three options.  You can (1) live carefully off the money and never work again for the rest of your life - which is the safest option.   You can (2) blow it all on drugs, fast cars, and women, and end up broke by age 25 - that is the stupid option, of course (but quite a popular one).   Option (3) is the riskiest - you can take your inherited money and "double down" your bet by risking it all on a new business venture.   You might end up 10 or 100 times as wealthy as before, or dead broke like your deadbeat playboy brother who chose option #2.

For most of us, option #1 seems like the best choice, and two of the Koch brothers apparently chose this option, choosing to be artists and philanthropists, rather than get into the game.   Two of the other brothers - the ones we are supposed to hate with a passion - decided to double-down their bet.

Charles and David Koch are no dummies.  They both have Bachelors and Masters degrees in Chemical Engineering.  Right off the bat, you can see that these guys were not satisfied to just collect the inheritance and hang out.   Engineering isn't easy (it took me 10 years to get my degree!) and not for Country Club dilettantes or Wall Street protesters.

They then fought their brothers for control of their Father's company, which earned them the ire of many.   And once they controlled that company, they expanded it considerably, taking what was a considerable inheritance and turning it into something far, far bigger.   Along the way, they acquired spandex/lycra from Dupont.   Some folks call for boycotting these products.   I guess Jane Fonda will have to wear some baggy cotton pants for her next workout video.

But what really sticks in people's craw is that the two brothers contribute a lot of money to political causes, mostly GOP candidates and causes, which they argue is unfair (the Democrats only have George Soros). 

But the Koch's are not born-again right-to-lifer's who want to see immigration outlawed and Gay Marriage banned.  Rather, they are funding conservative economic causes, such as lower taxes, less government spending, and the like (and in terms of payback for their dollar, they are getting as shitty deal from the GOP, as while they cut taxes slightly under Bush, they compensated by spending money like drunken sailors).   That a Billionaire would fund causes to cut spending and reduce taxes seems kind of, well, obvious.  They are more Libertarian than Republican.   And that tells you a lot right there about how the GOP uses "social issues" as window dressing (as do the Democrats).

Are these two a threat to Democracy-as-we-know-it?  No more then Scientology is a threat to your mental health or whatever.  But people like to have a boogey-man to be afraid of, and certain business interests (and political and religious) like to sell fear to the masses.   So they trot out Tom Cruise or the Koch Brothers as scarecrows, on a regular basis.

I am on some sort of Democractic mailing list, and every day I get alarming e-mails (which I keep trying to filter into my trash bin and mark as SPAM) telling me alarming things about what the GOP is up do (as if I don't read the news) and how I need to send them more money.  The Democrats need to read the Aesop fable about the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" as their pleas are starting to sound all alike and are as over-the-top as a pitch from Motley Fool.   But I guess that is the level of discourse you have to stoop to, in order to get the attention of the smart phone generation.

The reality is (and again, perceiving reality is the key) that Barack Obama was elected not once, but twice, despite the Koch Brothers best efforts.  Yes, they may help influence some Senate and House races here and there.   But it ain't hard to get a GOP candidate elected in a Red State.   Throwing money at candidates doesn't necessarily turn the tide, except perhaps in a few close elections.  They threw a lot of money at the tea party, but it didn't manage to do much good.   The tea party seems to have been squashed by the US Chamber of Commerce and people in the GOP tired of grandstanding tactics that do little good and cost a lot of goodwill.

The bottom line is, weak thinkers will always be influenced by television ads.  Not much you can do about it.  Some dumb redneck who is heavily in debt (but has a new jet ski and a gun collection) is going to vote Republican, convinced that all the black-people-on-welfare "took his money away".

And similarly, the hippy-dippy who is similarly in debt (but for his Prius and pot habit) will vote Democratic, convinced that the "Wall Street 1%'ers" are the ones who "took all his money away".

Myself, I am not so worried about the Koch Brothers or George Soros, or whatever.   Despite all the big money in politics (or maybe because of it) people still vote the way they want to vote.   You can blame these big-name donors for your political defeat, but the reality is, it is the voters who hand you victory or defeat, in any election.

It is like the housing deal.  People want to blame the banks, the government, the Democrats, the Republicans, the "Wall Street Fat Cats" or whatever.  No one wants to blame themselves - the 330 million people in this country who collectively lost their minds and thought that it was rational that a pedestrian house could appreciate in value by 20% a year or more, indefinitely.

It is easy thinking and weak thinking to blame an individual or group of people for all of your woes.   But it really doesn't do much for your own bottom line, other than make you feel better about yourself for a few minutes.  However, the more you engage in such thinking, the further you are removed from reality.

And the further you are removed from reality, the poorer you will be, in life.

Act rationally in an irrational world.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

All the Starving Children in India

When I was a kid, I was told to finish my meals because children were starving in India.  Today we import food from there, as well as other third-world countries.

I wrote before about the Dollar Tree and some of the bargains there.  Walmart also has some pretty inexpensive food these days as well.  And Trader Joe's, the darling of the hip set, has rock-bottom prices on a lot of upscale foods.  What do they all have in common?

Well, they import food from what where once (or still are) very impoverished countries - India, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, and the like.   When I was a kid, the idea that we would import food was alien enough.  The idea that we would import food from countries that were back then receiving care packages from the Red Cross, well, that was unimaginable.

That we import food is no surprise, of course.  We have always imported products that are not made in America - French wines and cheeses, Swiss chocolates, German beers and bratwursts, Polish kielbasa and other specialty foods.   But lately, we are importing more and more prepared foods from overseas, and often from countries that were once struggling to feed themselves.  It is very odd.

I recounted in another posting that a few years back, Mark picked up a package of frozen cocoanut butterflied shrimp, which was unusual, as we don't usually buy a lot of "prepared" foods like that.  What was really unusual, though was that this $5 package of shrimp was stamped, "Made in Vietnam".


They grow the shrimp in ponds there, and then process them, cook them, freeze them, and then package them.  Then they are put in refrigerated containers, each with a chugging freezer package running on diesel fuel, and then send them off by freighter, halfway around the globe.   Here in the States, they are unloaded, sent to warehouses, trucked to stores, and then carried home in a plastic bag.   Quite a journey for ten shrimp to make.

Talk about not buying local.

What is really bizarre is that right next door to us is Seapak, which processes, cooks and packages wild Georgia shrimp (which taste better and are larger than pond-grown Asian shrimp).

Yet is is cheaper to ship shrimp from Vietnam than from a place less than five miles from my house.

In some respects, I guess this is progress.  Formerly destitute and struggling countries are now prosperous enough to export food.  And food is like any other product, if you think about it.  So why not export it, particularly to a country that has low import duties.

We still are net food exporters, I believe, as we send out so much bulk grain cargo (some of which also leaves in huge ships, not five miles from my house, docked right next door to the Seapak plant, no less!).  

Where the cost savings is, is in the labor and cost of doing business.  It is cheaper to run a canning or processing plant overseas, and the cost of sending a container across the planet is, apparently, not much more than sending it a dozen miles or so.

I am not sure what this has to do with my blog or anything.  Just a thought that struck me.   There are, of course, still children starving in India (according to some sources) but not apparently due to a lack of food itself, but to more esoteric economic reasons.

Dumber Than You Think..... (weak thinking)

Are people really that dumb?  Oh, yea...

I regularly check for the latest Internet rumor debunking and scam alerts.  It is a useful site, and rather than forward Grandpa's latest angry anti-Obama e-mail rumor, you might want to check with Snopes, first.

Lately, however, most of the "What's New?" section of Snopes deals with rumors spread over Facebook and other "Social Media" (e.g., Twitter, aptly named, for Twits).   Some of these rumors and postings are so idiotic that it defies credulity.   Do people really believe this shit?

Some idiot posts a "Celebrity death hoax" posting on Facebook, and within minutes, 5,000 idiots have re-posted it, along with their condolences.   It is pretty scary.

The Snopes "Hot 25" Internet rumors and Urban Legends gives one pause.  People really believe that the drinking age is going to be raised to 25 - but for some reason, no media outlet in the country has bothered to mention it.  Steve Jobs is still alive an well and living in Argentina (no word on why he would fake his own death). 

People take photos from Worth1000 contests or other sites and then tack silly stories to them and post them online.  Why they do this is a good question (it is akin to vandalism or graffiti - anti-social behavior).  But what is scarier is that people actually believe the stories and then forward them to others.  Mermaids have been discovered in Russia!  Oh my!

There are a lot of really, really stupid people in this world.  It took me a long time to figure this out.  I had always assumed that most folks were pretty bright, but just lazy thinkers on occasion.  The reality is, of course, that most people are dumb as posts.  Even so-called "smart" people with important jobs like airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, or even congressman, can be dumb as dirt and believe the stupidest things.

I used to think this was just lazy thinking - weak thinking.  And maybe it is - or isn't. What is weak thinking?  It is believing what you want to believe - whatever is convenient for you, rather than taking a hard look at reality and accepting things that often are not favorable to you, personally.

Weak thinking says, "I'm not that fat!" while hard thinking says, "Gee, I am really getting bloated like a whale here!" 

Weak thinking says, "Let's buy a jet ski!" while hard thinking says, "Gee, maybe we should pay down some debts and fund our 401(k) first!"

Weak thinking is fun and hard thinking is no fun at all.

Believing in fairy tales is fun.   So believing whatever nonsense you read on Twitter or Facebook is the intellectual equivalent of scarfing down an entire box of Russel Stover chocolates, all at once.  It really isn't even very good chocolate.  But it is fun to wallow in crapulence once in a while, ain't it?   Or perhaps, all of the time.

I still would like to believe that people in general are mostly honest, smart, decent, and thoughtful.  However, it seems increasingly that weak thinking is not some acquired talent or something encouraged by poor normative cues, but rather is some sort of inbred (in every sense of the word) trait.  I hope I'm wrong.

And maybe I am wrong in that regard, as I know from personal experience that is is possible to break free from weak thinking, although it is a daily battle to stay on the right side of goodness and light.  Weak thinking is like the devil - it temps you daily with its easy answers and invitations to sloth and excess.   Perhaps weak thinking is the devil, or more precisely, what ancient religions meant when they talked about evil and Satan.  Because if you look at all the evil in the world, it is largely the result of weak thinking - people believing in easy answers and committing horrendous atrocities in the name of them.

Of course, sadly, today, most religions are the core of weak thinking.   Most religions today preach the convenient thought that if everyone could just be forced to conform to their religious beliefs, God would be happy with us and the world would turn into paradise.   Since some folks won't go along with this, they should be killed.   And I am not just talking Islam here, Christianity, Judaism, and even Buddhism all teach variations on this theme - and have practiced or are practicing them as we speak.

Marijuana is now "legal" (sort of) in a couple of States.   It is the drug of weak-thinking, and again, I know this from experience.  Marijuana users want to believe whatever nonsense favors their own personal viewpoint, no matter how bizarre the thinking is.  If they get fired from a job (and they do, regularly) it is because the boss was a "jerk".  If they get in trouble with the law (not related directly to marijuana use, possession, or sale) they say it is because the cops are "pigs".   And if their girlfriend or wife leaves them, it is because she is a "bitch who cares only about money" because she thought that paying the mortgage was an obligation, not an option.   But hey, it is more fun to just do another bong hit and forget about all those harsh things.  It is a weak-thinking drug.

When I was young, I engaged in a lot of that sort of thinking.  Mostly because I was smoking pot.  Also because I was young, and young people tend to be weak-thinkers (which is why we recruit young people for military service, and not older people).   The "target demographic" for advertisers is age 16-35 as this is the weak thinker peak age group.  And men are more prone to weak thinking then women - which may be biologically based, as women, having a womb, may tend to think more about where the next meal is coming from, having a roof over their head, and that sort of thing.  So marketers love to sell to men ages 16-35, as they will buy just about anything.  Particularly anything with bacon on it.

Could weak thinking be some sort of survival skill in a Darwinian sense?  Perhaps.  It does seem to be part of our human nature.  Perhaps it is a necessary evil and thus part of our makeup.  Young folks need to be weak thinkers, so they can be malleable and manipulated by their elders.   We need them as consumers, soldiers, workers, and debtors.  If young people started thinking hard about the pile of crap they are being handed, well, we might have a revolution on our hands.  And that is worrisome to older people - unless of course, they are the ones leading the revolution.

Many weak thinkers believe in conspiracy theories.  One popular one today (and in the past) is that there is a secret cabal of "Illuminati" who run everything in the world.  When I was a kid, it was the Trilateral Commission, or whatever load of bullshit the John Birch Society was selling that week.   There is, of course, no such formal cabal running things in the world.  But there is, of course, a demarcation between the halves and the have-nots.  And that is the demarcation between weak thinkers and hard thinkers.

If you think hard, and are willing to accept ideas that do not paint everything in your life in a flattering light to you, you may be able to perceive reality as it actually is - not as you would like to see it.   You will then realize that you are being foolish with money, eat all sorts of horrible foods (and too much of them), drink and/or use drugs too much, believe in foolish nonsense, and of course, squander most of your day on foolish pursuits like watching cable television and tweeting with your smart phone - rather than working, relaxing, or just cleaning out your closets or doing something else that is either productive, or at the very least, not destructive to your personal life.

The people who run the world - the successful ones - are realists.  They better they perceive reality, the more successful their are.   Yes, to be sure, some real delusional folks occasionally rise to the surface.  But their time at the top is usually limited, as once their fantasies crash with hard reality, it all comes apart in short order.  The "cabal" of people running the world is not any cabal at all, but just people who perceive reality as it is, not as they would like it to be (but perhaps they try to shape it to be as they would like it to be).   There are no secret handshakes or initiation rites.  But I am sure fellow "members" recognize each other by their mutual respect for reality.

Act rationally in an irrational world.   And that means turning away from time-wasting brain-candy like the latest rumors on Twitter or Facebook "feeds" or "Reality Television."  Those are the mind-wasting, time-wasting, mental junk food that is foisted off upon the masses by people who can perceive reality more clearly than you and understand that you are a weak thinker and want to hear sweet lies, and not hard, difficult truths.  They feed you this crap - you don't have to eat it.

So, yea, people are dumb.   Maybe some of them can't be helped as they were born dumb and will stay that way for life.   But I think many more just chose to be lazy thinkers and enjoy the pleasure of weak thinking, because, let's face it, it's kind of fun.

But it is a choice, for most of us, not a destiny.  And we do have choices!