Sunday, November 23, 2014

Defending Bad Decisions (Investing in Ideas)

It is human nature to defend yourself, and to defend the bad decisions you've made.

One thing I keep learning while writing this blog is how much I don't know.   I think I am starting to get a handle on things and then realize there are entire areas of my life I've never really understood.   It is sad, but by the time you finally figure out one or two things in life, you have one foot in the grave.   And sadly, you can't communicate many of these lessons to the young, so the data is lost forever - or at least until the next person figures it out for themselves - if ever.

When I was younger, like most young people, I wanted stuff.   Like 90% of Americans, I thought of success in the terms they show on television - a fancy house like Jed Clampett, and a fancy race car.   Teenagers used to put posters of these things in their bedrooms - a Lamborghini and Farah Fawcett - both objects of desire that the goal in life was to accumulate.

So we go down this path of materialism - going off to college to get a degree, so we can get a "high-paying job" (and protesting Wall Street when the job doesn't appear) and then try to get the fancy car and the girl on the poster.  And we invest a lot of time and energy in accumulating these "things" - we are invested in the idea of materialism, and thus anyone who doubts the concept is a threat to us.  And we lash out at anyone who dares question the premise of it all.

In auto discussion groups, for example, you never want to raise the issue of whether it is desirable to blow all your money and run up credit card debt on questionable aftermarket "mods" to your car.  Junk like cone filters don't really improve the performance of your car at all.   They just look cool, make the car loud, and lighten your wallet.  And if go down that road, eventually, you end up with a tricked-out econobox that is worth nothing and is little more than a rolling clown car.

But you don't want to say that to the guy who just spend $5,000 tricking out his Mom's used Accord, with 180,000 miles on the clock and needing a lot of basic maintenance work.   He spent a lot of money on this junk - mostly goaded on by fellow members of an online discussion group about tricked-out Accords.  You are a threat to his worldview and you will be shouted down if you try to point out that an Accord with a fart muffler is not a Forumla-1 race car.  

And this goes for any kind of insular discussion group, whether it is online, or a group of teens talking (read: texting) amongst themselves, or just reading the same car magazines (back when I was that age).   You are programmed to think a hopped-up Chevelle is the cat's ass and end-all to humanity, when in reality it is just a cheap car made by GM with a truck engine in the front.   Oh, right, you can't say that.

It is no different, really, than people who go on mass-murder websites.   They program each others brains with bad ideas.   Or take the so-called "self-radicalizing" teens who become Jihadists after going online.

And of course, this is not really "self-radicalizing" at all, as they are actually encouraged by others online, and some of those "others" are of course shills for Al Quaeda - just as the aftermarket car parts people shill on the auto boards to spread the holy word about cone filters and stainless steel exhausts.   Same shit, different day.   Just different forms of religion - different forms of belief - and belief can be dangerous, when it is not grounded in facts.

 As with anything else in life, The teen with the tricked-out Accord will eventually learn for himself, once the Accord goes to the junkyard (in about a year or so) and maybe after five years when he is still paying off the credit card debt and it just begins to dawn on him that he was snookered.

But then again, for many, it never dawns on them.  They go on through life running up debts, convinced it is "normal" and somehow the bank snookered them into this.   Or they march off to Jihad and wonder, for a brief moment before the suicide vest explodes, whether they made a smart choice.

Recently, I was lambasted for one of my older postings about hydronic heating.   And what was interesting was, on the website where I was pilloried, they all attacked me personally rather than the arguments I made.   They made a lot of credentialist arguments ("he's a lawyer, and lawyers don't know anything about HVAC systems").  But of course, I used to work in the experimental laboratories of the largest HVAC company in the world, so I do have credentials.   But that is irrelevant anyway - how does that affect the underlying facts of the arguments presented?   It doesn't, of course, and that is the folly of the credentialist argument - you distract people with this nonsense and they don't even realize you failed to address any of the underlying facts.  

It is a pretty neat trick, and politicians and lawyers do it all the time.  For example, there are two rape allegations going on right now, one against Bill Cosby, and the other against the director of the X-men movies.   In both cases, the lawyers for the accused aren't attacking the allegations, but the people making the allegations.   "Well, she's a convicted criminal, ergo, everything she says is a lie and you can't believe her, end of story".   In the other case, the young man who was the accuser filed suit in Hawaii (which does not have a statute of limitations) and lied about his qualifications to be in that jurisdiction.   Again, the lawyer for the accused says, "Well, he was found guilty of lying in court, so he's a liar and everything he says is a lie!"   The problem is, the fellows who had the child-sex orgies in their Hollywood mansion (where the X-man director admits he was present) have already pleaded guilty to the charges, and were convicted years ago.  The story is not as fantastic as it might seem.

And I'm not saying I've never made a credentialist argument, either.  We all do it, I guess it is human nature.   But we should be aware when one is being made, and whether the underlying facts and argument are being swept under the rug in favor of a discussion about whose diploma is better than whose.

In addition to personal attacks, there was the Nitpicking argument.  The argument here was, "Well, he doesn't even know there were two kinds of plastic piping marketed under the trade name PEX, so he doesn't know anything!  Thus, everything else he says is wrong!"  I won't go into detail about the nature of the Nitpicker as it is elaborated on in the link.  But again, it is a sideshow distraction designed to get you to re-think the discussion in terms of the nitpicker and thus blow off all the other salient points.

And politicians get sucked into this all the time.  Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky, Benghazi - all the same nitpicking arguments.  "What did the President know and when did he know it?"  The underlying crime or event is swept under the rug in favor of more trivial matters.   With Benghazi, the burning issue, we are told, is that news programs were misinformed for almost 24 hours!   Somehow, the ambassador to Libya would be less dead if only the folks on Meet the Press knew sooner.

And of course, this just bootstraps all the Benghazi rumors, spread on websites that are no different in function and form that the "Hop up Your Accord" or "Become a Jihadist" or "Become a Mass Murderer" or "Hydronic Home Heating is Great!" - circle-jerks of people telling each other what they want to hear and reinforcing each other's beliefs.  The crazy shit the Benghazi people tell each other is legion - and of course, all suppressed by the Liberal Main Stream Media, such as Fox News.   No really, they think this.

So why all the negativity?   Why can't people address arguments on their face?   Why do people make personal attacks instead?

You are a threat to their world-view, plain and simple.   They guy who covered his truck with "I Hate Obama" stickers has invested a lot of personal energy in making Obama a talisman for everything that went wrong in his personal life.   He doesn't want to hear that maybe everything he believes in (well at least a lot of what he believes in) might be wrong.

The kid with the 1999 Accord with Lamborghini doors doesn't want to hear that the car is still a plebeian grocery-getter and by the way, he's blown his credit rating over nothing.   And the guy who just spend $15,000 on a home heating plant that should have cost $5000, doesn't want to hear that maybe "warm floors" isn't enough of an excuse to create a home leak-fest and money pit.  He literally has a lot invested in this.

And this is why online discussion groups are not a good place to hang out - and one reason I don't have comments on this blog.  I don't want a discussion group.  No circle-jerking here.   Get your information from a variety of sources.  I have the right to be wrong about a lot of things.  Of course, hydronic heating isn't one of them.....  gotcha.

The reason I know all this about "investment" is that I've fallen into the trap myself - again and again - over time, and probably still do.   I've been on the discussion groups and rah-rahed for the car, boat, or whatever it was that people were convincing themselves was the greatest thing in the universe.

But as an Engineer, however, I have to have one foot in reality.   I had a Russian sidecar motorcycle for a while, and while it was a lot of fun, it was made in Russia, with everything that implied.   Parts, such as carburetors, literally fell off as you drove it (I got home once by literally holding the carburetor against the cylinder head with one hand, while steering with the other).   When you point out to people that hey, these are fun and all, but they are Russian-made pieces of crap, well, you get shouted down.

Similarly, on BMW sites, people will say what great cars BMWs are - and they are.   But they don't fly through the air, and in fact, historically they have not been high-performance cars, just well-made sedans than handle well.   Well, don't say that to the guy who is trying to make a dragster out of an old 3-series.  You will get shouted down.

The same is true with houses.  We are trying to sell an inherited house and one problem is that the family members, over the years, have led themselves to believe the place is priceless (after all, this is Mom and Dad's house!).  More circle-jerk thinking.  They reinforce their beliefs by quoting prices paid in 2007 for nicer houses, but neglecting lower prices of more recent sales of comparable homes.   And this happens all the time, which is one reason why many estates end up abandoned when no one can agree on a realistic price for the house.  "I not just giving it away!" one heir cries.  So they pay taxes for a decade while the house is vandalized and degraded.

And this is true with most houses - which Real Estate Agents call "homes" as that sounds more emotional.   People whine about "losing their home" as if it were the family estate and they are the Joads being forced from the farm.   But in reality it is a tract home they bought four years ago, and could never afford in the first place.   They cash in their 401(k) to "keep the home" when getting rid of the nightmare is probably a better option.  And sadly, politicians pander to this emotional thinking - convincing us all that mortgages are only obligations if you can afford to pay them.

With politics, it is the same way.   I used to follow the "party line" as a Democrat coming from a family of wishy-washy Liberals.   But over time, you realize that a lot of what the Democratic party stands for is nonsense.   Once you join the Teamsters, you realize that Unionism sucks.  And while much of what the GOP stands for (what is it they stand for again?) is nonsense, they are not necessarily the minions of Satan himself.

Try telling that to the party "faithful" on either side of the debate.  They will both eviscerate you.  But a funny thing - a majority of Americans don't feel "faithful" to either party.  So maybe people are smarter than they look.  Some of them, at least.

So what is the point of all this?   Well, in a way, it is a telltale sign - a miner's canary - that when you start defending yourself because you've invested yourself in a car, boat, Jihad, the GOP or whatever.   It is, like the Sacred Cows in our lives.   When you mark off one area of your life as inviolable, chances are, that one area of your life is what is giving you the most trouble.

Think about it.   Religious types, for example, have marked off this huge area of their life as "off limits" to discussion, debate, or criticism or analysis.   They tithe 10% of their income to their church and wonder why they can't pay down the credit card debt.   They spend inordinate amounts of energy and time devoting themselves to what are really political issues guised in the form of religion.   They obsess with what will happen in the afterlife, while ignoring what is happening to them in this life.   They complain and whine and moan about how awful their lives are - and how they want to change it.   But the one thing dragging them down is not up for discussion.  And if you mention it, you will be attacked.

The same is true for the Biker dude.  "Live to Ride, Ride to Live!" - he has it tattooed on his arm.  That and "Never Sell Your Bike!" are the mantras repeated on the online discussion groups, at the bike meets, and in the biker bars (BTDT!).  But then he ends up in credit card debt troubles.   He doesn't ride the bike much anymore, but sell it?  Never!  And to suggest otherwise is heresy.

I had a number of sacred cows like that, that I was invested in at one time in my life or another.   I am happy to say, I have far fewer today.   I don't feel that anything is "off limits" anymore.   Everything is up for discussion.   And yes, I was "invested in" hydronic heating, and it was only when one expensive repair after another piled up that I started to realize that fancy heating systems are fine and all, but not really worth the cost delta.

Cars, boats, houses, politics.   They all went by the wayside.   Today I am not "invested" in much.   I have no car that I feel I "have to keep" or house that I believe "I always will live in".   Things come and go in your life - they have their uses in our lives, but should not dominate them.  When I start to feel "invested" in something, maybe it is time to re-examine why.  It is a warning sign that I am not applying logic, but instead relying on emotion.