Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The iCasino

Apple's vaunted advantage over Windows is the "easy to use" interface.  Am I missing something?

iPods are on the agenda today.   I was recently at a party and a friend commented that he wanted to add music to his iPod, but was afraid to "sync" the iPod with the iTunes software, lest it erase everything he had on there.   He asked me how to add music to the iPod and quite frankly, I have dealt with it so infrequently that I could not remember exactly how it is done.

Yes, you can load iTunes onto your computer, sync your iPod and have it scan and load all media files on your computer to the iPod, automatically - in crappy MP3 format, of course.   You don't need to sign into iTunes or anything - or even have an iTunes account.

The problem with this technique is that you end up with multiple copies of music on your iPod.   So if you copy the files more than once, you end up with duplicate copies of all the songs on your iPod.  One way around this is to wipe the iPod first, using the "reset to factory settings" and then uninstall iTunes, erase the iTunes directory in "My Music" and then re-install iTunes and have it do a search for music on your computer.   Provided you have all your music on your computer, you should not lose any songs.

On the other hand, if you have downloaded music from iTunes, you will have to go back to iTunes and re-load those songs.   It is kind of a pain in the ass.

Shouldn't a "vaunted user-friendly user interface" realize that you have sixteen copies of the same song on your iPod and then at least offer to search out the duplicates and erase them?   Maybe there is a way of doing this.  I certainly can't find it.

(Of course, Microsoft is no better - if you do a "media search" with Windows Media Player, you may end up with duplicate copies as well.   Manually going through a library of 11,000 songs and deleting duplicates is an heroic task!).

What ends up happening is you end up with this crazy mix of music listed under a number of different listings (sometimes songs are listed as albums and whatnot).   And no matter how you slice it, MP3 sound just sucks.

I keep all my music in CD resolution (using Windows Media Player) on my hard drive, which makes it easy to back up and store.  It also allows you to play the music from your computer.  Sadly, Microsoft never leveraged its advantage with Windows Media Player to develop a portable player.   They tried, with the "Zune" but decided that a music rental format was what people wanted.   What a lot of  people wanted, was a way to load their CDs onto their iPods so they didn't have to lug their CD collection around.

What people didn't want was to re-buy their music (yet again, after buying it in vinyl, cassette, and CD) from the iTunes store or to rent it from Microsoft.

Which brings us to the point of this posting.   If you want to dick around with manually loading music from your CDs onto your computer and then onto your iPod, you can do this, and it is indeed free of charge.   However, it ain't easy, and you will likely have to go through your library and edit out duplicate copies of songs and manually enter artist, song, and album names for a number of albums whose data isn't available online.

On the other hand, if you want to just buy music from iTunes, it is as easy as falling off a log.   Just get out your checkbook, or more precisely, a credit card, and start a-spendin'.   Just like the Casino, where it is easy to get in and nearly impossible to get out, they create a well-worn path that involves, of course, spending money.

And the problem is, it is a lot of money.   I have over 10,000 songs on my iPod, not counting duplicates.  To purchase this much music from iTunes would cost me well over $10,000.  That obviously is not an option.

As a result, I find I am using the iPod less and less.   It seems a pain in the ass to load music onto it and then to try to find music.

So what are the alternatives?   Well, for starters, some car stereos allow you to use USB thumb drives, which you can load with music - in high-resolution format - simply by using the Windows "copy" feature (as opposed to the archaic nonsense on iPods).   Simply copy the music to the thumb drive, insert in the slot in the stereo, and play.  The stereo will even display album names and artists, and allow you to scroll through them, just like you are accessing data on a hard drive.   How hard is that?

But as for being "easy to use" I just don't get it.   And my experience with the iPod is one reason I never bought - or intend to buy - any other Apple products.  They just want you to pay, and pay, and pay, and I have better things to do with my money than give it all to Apple, just so I can listen to music I already own.

If you have a workaround for the iPod, please let me know.  Because frankly, I think it is the biggest piece of junk ever foisted off on the American people.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Friend v. Doormat

It's OK to be a friend.   It's not OK to be a doormat.

In another posting, I was blathering on about how important it is not to let yourself be a doormat for other people and their problems.  It seems that in the USA, people are trained (likely by the television) to whine on and on about their "problems" all the time, without every trying to take a stab at solving them.

And often, these friends want you to solve their problems for them, usually by you doing things for them, or just cutting to the chase and giving them money.  And after a while, it starts to wear on you.  After all, who is solving all of your problems?   Whose shoulder do you get to cry on?

And it is interesting how this effect works.   Like I said, I think the television encourages this behavior.  These "reality" shows are nothing more than people whining about how hard they have it, so folks start to think this is what "real life" is all about.

 There is a thin line between friend and doormat.   And this thin line can cause a lot of trouble for folks.

For example, a friend comes to me very upset.   They have a friend who is engaging in very self-destructive behavior.   Everyone can see it, but no one knows what to do!   It makes his friend very hard to be around.   What should he do?  Sit her down and talk to her about this self-destructive behavior?  Try to sort them out and "fix them" so they don't do it no more?

Nice try, but you can't save people from themselves.  So don't bother trying.  I asked him, "If you sat down and talked to her, what would happen?  Would she change her behavior? Or would she likely be offended and nothing positive would come of it?"  And he had to admit the latter was probably the outcome.

So in other words, he was squandering emotional energy over nothing - trying to help people who can't be helped and don't want to be helped.

So what does that leave?   What can you do?

Well, about all you can do is be a friend and try to be friendly and helpful, but don't be a doormat.   Don't let someone else dominate your life with their problemsYou have to take care of yourself first, or you can't be a friend to anyone.

And sometimes being a friend means limiting contact with folks who are making you upset like this.   If you keep following the road of constantly being harangued by their problems, you'll end up aggravated and depressed.   It is OK to be a friend but be a friend on your own terms.  It is OK to say, "I can't see you today, as I have other plans"   It is OK to take care of yourself first.

And if your friend doesn't understand that, then they really weren't a friend, were they?

Toxic Relationships, of course, can't saved by any means.  And sometimes, just walking away from people who are mean, nasty, abusive, or upsetting, is really the only option you have.   For the sake of your own emotional health, sometimes being a friend means being a friend to yourself first.

One-Sided Stories and the Internet

People like to react to one-sided stories, even though it is easy to research on the Internet, why is this?

The news media likes to report a lot of "shocking" stories that are designed to pique your interest. Every day, there is some new outrage, it seems.  Another "unarmed black man" is gunned down by the fascist Police.   Some injustice is going on in some part of the country.   And people are quick to shake their heads in disbelief and pile on with some outraged sentiment.

But the funny thing is, you pick away at the edges of these stories, and you find something different.  It wasn't quite the way the media presented it.

The most obvious example of this, of course, is the Ferguson story.  Even though preliminary reports indicated that the suspect had lunged into the Police car to try to seize the officer's weapon, and then lunged at the Police after a brief chase, the narrative the media chose to tell was that of "witnesses" who came to the scene later on and then told reporters rumors they had heard.

Overnight, "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" became the story, and when the Grand Jury - reading the actual witness testimony - decided that hey, the truth is, the guy didn't have his hands up, well, rioting ensued.  And after that, Police officers were actually assassinated on their beat.

Far too late, the Obama administration released a report that confirmed what the Police and the Grand Jury had already concluded - that the shooting was justified, and the narrative of an "unarmed black man gunned down by Police!" was a made-up media story.  Granted, this is not to say that the Ferguson Police department didn't have it share of issues, only that this particular shooting incident was not the raging injustice it was made out to be.

Even though the Obama administration has tried to tamp down these flames, many people today still refuse to believe the reality, but instead the media story.  And from the media's point of view, it was a good story - a story with "legs".   After all, it insured that people from all walks of life would watch the story, even when there was no story.   The week leading up to the Grand Jury decision was filled with speculation on every network - speculation on the verdict, speculation on the amount of rioting, and so forth.

And when rioting occurred, well, the media was having an orgasm.   Another story to cover!  And a story they largely created by hyping up the potential for riots, a week in advance.

William Randolph Hearst said it best:  "You give me the photos, I'll give you the war!"   The media has a terrible responsibility in reporting the news.   They can start a war (Iraq) or lose one (Vietnam).  They can cause a riot overnight, and often over nothing.   The media can lead the mob into doing just about anything.

Recently in Afghanistan, a woman was beaten and burned to death after it was rumored that she had set fire to a Koran.   We recoil in horror, of course, at such primitive behavior, and we congratulate ourselves that we are not such a primitive people to believe outlandish rumors and to engage in vigilante-type mob justice.   We are not like those primitive people!  Nosireee! 

No, we are much more modern and sophisticated than that.   We have electronic mob justice in our country!   We have texts and tweets and 24 hour news media to spread rumors and assemble flash mobs.   We don't rely on old-fashioned word-of-mouth like they do in Afghanistan!    We are sophisticated Westerners!

The sad thing is, we have really little excuse for our behavior.   Nearly every American these days carries a smart phone - which has instant access to the largest database in the history of mankind.   People, when confronted with an "outrage!" story tend to bite on it and spread it further on social media.  No one bothers to Google the story first and see if there is "another side" to the story.

So, for example, the media reports that there are "dangerous levels of arsenic" in our wines!   People fly off the handle without bothering to check other sources.  And other sources note that these levels of arsenic, while higher than drinking water, are less than half the maximum allowed in Canada and 1/4 that allowed in Europe (the US has no arsenic standard for wine, only water).   Further, the person "peddling" the story is a guy running a chemical lab in Denver who is trying to sell arsenic certification services to the very wineries being sued.    Now you know the rest of the story(tm).

Or take this story about a lady who was put in a mental hospital "because she claimed Obama was following her on Twitter!"  The outrage is, we are told, is that Obama was actually following her on Twitter!    Such an outrage!   Oh wait.

Turns out, if you use this newfangled "Google" thing, and read some other version of the story, that the reason she was put in a mental hospital was that she was freaking out when her BMW was towed away, and the Police thought she was behaving irrationally.   And of course, President Obama wasn't following her on Twitter.  He doesn't even have a twitter account.   Rather, the fundraising arm of his political PAC was sending her SPAM messages.

I get them all the time in my e-mail inbox.  They are addressed "Dear Robert..." and are "from" President Obama.  But I don't harbor any delusions that the President of the United States has sent me a personal message - but rather a 'bot has sent me SPAM.

In other cases, the other side of the story can't be told or isn't told by the media.   Someone goes on television and blathers on about an injustice being done to them, which is the source of a lawsuit.   The media asks the opponent in the suit for comment, and they wisely decline to comment on a lawsuit in the media.  So you get a one-sided story.   What you have to ask yourself is, what is the likely other side, and why is one side trying their case in the media instead of in court?

Even when there is no other side to be found online, you can kind of guess what the other side is.  This NPR story, for example, is entirely one-sided.  A former magazine "publisher" and "Golden Gloves" boxing contender trips while at work and she claims she can no longer walk because of a localized pain problem.  Of course the mean old insurance companies are to blame here, denying coverage after 17 years of treatment.   The other side of the story remains untold (which is typical of NPR).  I wonder what that other side could be?   It ain't hard to come up with some scenarios.

Once you hear the whole story, or think about the other side untold, suddenly it seems less outrageous.  But outrage sells and the media is in the business of generating clicks and capturing eyeballs.   And evenhanded stories, even "fair and balanced(tm)" are not going to get ratings or click-through revenue.   You need to outrage to get people's attention, it seems.

There is a bumper sticker you see in Ithaca that says, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention!"  Sadly, I think the reverse is true.  If you are outraged all the time, you are just destroying, literally, your own life, to make your media masters happy.   If you really pay attention and do the research a lot of what you think is "outrage" is really just sort of ho-hum kind of stuff that is hyped by the media into the outrage du jour to get ratings.

The reality is this.   If you are reading this, you own or have access to a computer.  That immediately places you in the top 30% or so of the planet, in terms of wealth and income.   Chances are, you are well-fed, if not a bit overweight.  You have a place to live, some sort of job, likely a car (in a nation with more cars than people) and a number of electronic appliances in your home (microwave, television, refrigerator, maybe even a washer/dryer).

You are, in short, fat and happy, although the media wants to make sure you are not the latter.   They want you to be outraged, depressed, and a helpless victim of circumstance, even if the circumstance is that you don't have granite countertops or a BMW.

The reality is, you are among the luckiest people on the planet, and yet you are squandering most of this on these fake outrages, depression, and feeling sorry for yourself.   And it is a dead-end game, too.   No matter how much money you make in America (or how much you collect from the government) it is never enough, as there is always someone else who is better off, and that is, of course, another outrage.

Unplugging from the media is really important if you want to get ahead personally, emotionally, and financially.    If you simply don't watch the news for days on end, you will miss most of these "gripping stories" that are conveniently forgotten by the masses within one "news cycle" anyway.  And if you do hear about some raging outrage, think about it carefully and ask yourself whether there is another side to the story and Google it.

Because chances are, there is.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why I'm Done With German Cars

German cars once had a reputation as high performance, finely engineered indestructible German tanks.  That has all changed.

I'm done with German cars.  They no longer represent any kind of value to the consumer.  While they were once finely engineered Teutonic cruisers designed for the autobahn, today they are just unnecessarily expensive, delicate, and annoying cars to own.   The compelling need to own a German car - other than to project status - has long since evaporated.

To understand German cars, you have to understand the history of them.   Of course, Mercedes is the first brand that comes to mind.   And historically, Mercedes has always been the purveyor of the "German Tank."   Hitler loved his big, red, supercharged Mercedes - a car nearly as long as a city block and weighing nearly as much as a switch engine.   Mercedes back then were finely engineered and overbuilt cars - a reputation that would continue largely until the mid 1990's.   Today, they are just wildly overpriced Toyotas.   And we'll get to why, later.

BMW started out as a motorcycle manufacturer, and then started making tiny cars (the "Dixie") under license from Austin motors (those Brits do get around, Austin America - the Bantam company - designed the first Jeep.  Sadly, the British motoring industry is largely extinct).  They were just starting to gear up to make serious sporty cars (such as the 328) when World War II broke out.   Of course, like Mercedes, they had experience in aircraft engines (hence the spinning propeller Roundel).  After the war, they sort of floundered around with the hideously outdated "Baroque Angel" and the ridiculous Isettea, which was based on an Italian design.  It wasn't until the mid-1960's that BMW got its act together, making the relatively inexpensive but superior handling 1600 and eventually the famous 2002.

BMW's reputation was hardly secured, though.  Its larger cars, such as the "Bavaria" were generally rustbuckets within a few years of purchase.   A few esoteric models, such as the beautiful and exotic 3.0 CSi coupe were certainly stunning.  But their bread-and-butter car was the 2002 with the nearly bulletproof M10 four-cylinder engine.  No power windows, no A/C, no power steering.   Hardly the stuff luxury cars are made of.   And yes, they rusted too (like most cars of the era).

In 1980, BMW introduced the first "Yuppie" BMW, the 318i, which is wholly unloved by BMW enthusiasts today.  It had luxury features, to be sure, but gave up the sporty go-cart-like handling of its predecessor.   BMW's best car - ever made - arguably was the successor to that car, the E30 3-series (318i, 325i, etc.).   The Bavaria was replaced with the 5-series, and the lumbering 7-series appeared on the horizon.  BMW started selling "luxury" as was Mercedes, with cars coming to America fully loaded with luxury options - and often priced far higher than identical cars sold in Europe.

The reason for this, I discussed before.   In the 1950's, 1960',s and 1970's, those "funny foreign cars" were cheap to buy, because post-war currency exchange rates made them cheap.   So people bought based on price, not luxury or status.  In fact, a foreign car was largely an anti-status symbol.   But by the 1970's, the field had winnowed out to a few foreign importers, and the Japanese had the low-end of the market locked up.   Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Renault, Peugeot, and a host of smaller marques had left - or would shortly leave - the market.   The remaining non-Japanese importers had only one choice - move up-market, move sporty, or both.

In order to sell a non-Japanese "foreign car" in America, you had to offer something other than a price proposition.  Fiat, before it left the US, tried to do this, selling sporty cars, upgrading interiors to leather, and jacking the prices to well over $10,000.  Sadly, the reputation of the rusty and cheaply built 1970's models destroyed what little chance they had of remaining.  By the early 1980's, they pulled the plug.  MG. Triumph, and a host of British marques would hang on longer before they too, succumbed to the inevitable.

But the Germans soldiered on.  BMW was now offering "sporting sedans" that had a good reputation for quality, as well as luxury and status.  Indeed, many E30 BMW 3-series from the 1980's and early 1990's still soldier on today, not as collector's items, but as daily drivers.  I dare say I see more E30's on the road today than its successor model, the E36.

By the early 1980's, Mercedes was doing the same thing, albeit in a less sporty mode.  The W123 Mercedes diesel (300D or 300TD) is still coveted today as a 300,000+ mile tank-like car that seems to want to run forever.   Many (including the one I owned) were grey-market imported as they were just ordinary - and ordinarily priced - cars in Germany, but sold in America for thousands (even as much as $10,000) more than in the home country.   Ze Germans convinced us that their ordinary cars were somehow "status symbols" and Americans ate it up.

And in the 1980's, prices were still somewhat reasonable, and the cars being made were, well, German Tanks.  You could justify the cost of a 300D Mercedes or a 325i BMW by the fact that it would easily go well over 150,000 miles - perhaps far more.   But as we shall discuss below, that has changed dramatically in recent years.

But what about Volkswagen?   Well, what about it?   First of all, VW encompasses Porsche and Audi.   Porsche literally shares DNA with VW.  Audi (Auto Union) was once a purveyor of German Tank-like cars in the pre-war era.  Today it is just a brand name for gussied up Volkswagens, with a few exceptions, such as the A8.

VW of course, famously started out making the cheapest car known on the planet.  And while the "Beetle" was wildly popular, it was also a very unsafe piece of crap.  Ralph Nader wrote about the VW before he excoriated the Corvair.  All of the problems of the Corvair could be traced to its spiritual predecessor, the Beetle, which GM slavishly copied (other than the body design, which ironically, became an inspiration for the Neu Classe of mid-1960's BMWs!).

So Volkswagens are crap cars, basically.  Econoboxes that you buy, drive, and dispose of.   When the Beetle became so embarrassingly outdated (and clearly not capable of meeting future safety and emissions standards) they designed the Rabbit or Golf as it was known in Europe.  The first generation Golf was a good car, but trying to compete with Japan, on price, in the USA, was killing VW.    So they opened a UAW plant in Pennsylvania and made second generation Golf's in the USA, with disastrous results.

Have you ever wondered why VW has a 100,000 mile powertrain warranty on its cars?  The reason was the horrific cars they made in the late 1980's.  VW closed the Pennsylvania plant, which is a pretty radical thing to do - as the quality of the cars was so bad, that sales tapered off to nearly nothing, and the company was almost bankrupted by the fiasco.  And yes, I owned one of those Pennsylvania Golfs - a 1987 GTi.

Today, VW is back - and back in America with a new factory and a new de-contented version of its German cars.  Whether this round two will be successful remains to be seen.  Their stated goal is to be the largest carmaker on the planet, but it looks as though they will have to duke it out with Toyota and GM first. (Update:  the diesel scandal nearly killed VW, and the popularity of Pickups and SUVs - even overseas - has made life difficult for them).

Audi are nice VWs, and usually made in the home country (they are imported to the port of Brunswick, right by my house, and come wrapped in silly little blankets).  Porsche, once a bare-bones lightweight racecar, has evolved - out of necessity - into a purveyor of luxury cars and SUVs as well as high-end "exotic" cars.   The new hardtop Cayman (a Boxster with a fixed roof) being more of a throwback to the original, simple, cheap(er) and tossable Porsche (and selling like hotcakes as a result).  Again, German car makers had no choice but to go upmarket, as trying to compete with the Japanese on price just doesn't make any sense.

In the 1980's, German cars made sense - whether it was a BMW 325i, a Mercedes 300D,  or a Volkswagen Rabbit.  They were more expensive than Japanese cars, but they handled better and lasted longer, and were fairly simple to maintain.  Parts were not too dear, and it wasn't impossible to find someone to fix such a car.  A German car was a value proposition.

But, things have changed since then.   Today, the trend toward selling "Luxury" and "Status" has continued.   The German carmakers have no choice, really.  Trying to complete with Honda and Toyota on price is just not in the cards.   VW is bravely trying to hold on, with its de-contended US-made Passat, trying to out-Camry the Camry, and undercut the price to boot.  That doesn't sound like it will end well.

The problem is, these cars have become incredibly complex, costly, and difficult to repair.   Once out of warranty, they are nearly impossible to fix, without taking them to a dealer.   And even the dealers cannot do most major repairs.   If there is a fault code in the transmission, their only solution usually is to remove the transmission and replace it.  They simply don't have the technicians or skills to do major transmission repairs - or even minor ones.

Independent shops often don't have the computers needed to read codes or diagnose complex problems.  They may have an inexpensive OBD II code reader, but not the complicated "Dealer Only" computer than can diagnose problems and also change settings.   Everything today is special tools and special knowledge - the latter often jealously guarded by the manufacturers.

The idea of a Mercedes or a BMW (or a Volkswagen for that matter) going 200,000 miles is becoming harder and harder to realize.   Sure, if you want to throw money at the car, you could do this - or if you got lucky.   But usually what happens to expensive German Luxury cars at about 150,000 miles, is some sort of expensive and difficult engine or transmission repair, which would cost almost as much as the car is worth, to perform.   

The $50,000 Mercedes, at this point, may be worth $10,000 or less.  And a $6000 transmission job just doesn't make much sense, on a car worth only ten grand.  And that is why, in a nutshell, you don't see a lot of BMWs and Mercedes from the 1990's and even early 2000's still on the road - while more plebeian cars are still out there doing yeoman duty.

I have noted before that most cars depreciate about 50% every five years, without much deviation.  The only difference between a $50,000 Mercedes and a $25,000 Toyota is that in five years, you've lost $12,500 in depreciation in the Toyota, but with the Mercedes, you've lost enough to buy another Toyota, outright.  High prices mean high depreciation.

In the past, due to their tank-like construction, a used German car was a value proposition.   Yes, a used Mercedes or BMW cost as much as new anything else.  But what a car!  And it would last longer, too!   Alas, today that is not the case, and many used German cars from the 1990's and 2000's can be utter fright pigs that bankrupt their owners worse than an old Jaguar.

Throw in things like 92 octane gas,  8 quarts of $15 Castrol Syn-Tech, $350 $500 hard-to-find tires, and even "routine" operating expenses escalate the cost of ownership by 2x, 3x, and 4x or more.

Suddenly, this is no longer a "value proposition".

Of course, the US Automakers have largely abandoned the luxury segment of the car market at this point.  The biggest selling "luxury" cars made by the Ford and GM are basically trucks (Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade) and like their cars, are just warmed-over versions of their lesser brands, slathered with cheap leather and wood and electronic gee-gaws.   Mercedes and BMW are not losing any sleep.

If you want a car today to project status, unless you are a rap star or live in a trailer park, you head off to the German car dealer.   They sell you prestige and the idea that you have sophisticated tastes.  And brainless status-seekers, such as yourself, will go along with the gag.   But to most folks, what you are trying to pull off is readily apparent, particularly if you are a poor driver.   Having the "ultimate driving machine" doesn't mean much if you text while you drive.

And sadly, that is what is turning away what used to be a core constituency for BMWs and Mercedes.  The "sporty sedan" driver who bough a 1988 325i isn't going to be looking at the overwrought and complicated machines being offered today - with magnetic electronic steering with little or no road feel.   The loyal oil-burner who finally had to retire his 300D isn't looking at any diesel models in the Mercedes lineup - if indeed there are any to be had anymore.  The "value" buyer isn't finding "value" at the German car dealer anymore - just horrendous purchase costs, regular maintenance costs, and staggering repair bills that will send their Teutonic jewelry box to the dumpster long before the neighbor's Camry is even broken in.

But the Germans will soldier on and be profitable (BMW is the most profitable car company on the planet, and yes, I am a shareholder - so please go waste money on a new BMW!) mostly because Americans (America is their largest single market) will pay through the nose to impress people they don't even know.  I doubt Lincoln, Cadillac, or Chrysler will ever be able to build cars on a par with their German counterparts, or imbue them with the same level of status.   They have, basically, the market to themselves.

(One fly in the ointment, however, could be the decline in resale values for these technological nightmares.   A used 7-Series or a used S-class can be had for very cheap, after 100,000 miles have rolled over the clock, as no one wants to deal with the horrific repair bills.   Will people keep paying top dollar for these cars if they are so expensive to own?   This effect can filter up to new car pricing, as resale prices drastically affect leasing rates).

Quite frankly, at this point in my life, I no longer want a "look at me!" car but a "blend in with the crowd" car.   I don't want a car with a $6,000 transmission repair, but a car that cost so little that I can just sell it and buy a new one long before such a repair is needed.

And maybe that is just me - getting older and not caring so much about status.   But I think something has changed in the way German cars are made and sold today.   The Teutonic tanks have long disappeared from the showroom.   Replacing them are delicate and fussy cars which demand far too much intervention - and money - on the part of the owner, to own.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Business

One man's trouble is another man's opportunity!

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 * * *

You have to love lawyers, eh?   People are suffering with Student Loan debt, so why not make a buck off of them?  Misery loves company.

What is disturbing about this pitch is the "no experience necessary!" and "start practicing the next day!" pitch, which might be attractive for a young unemployed lawyer who is paying off his own massive student loan debts.

The problem is, can you really help these people, or just take their money?   As I noted in an earlier posting, a friend of mine in the immigration law business got out after a change in immigration laws made it much harder to allow folks who were here illegally to stay permanently.  Under the REAGAN (yes, that Reagan) Immigration Amnesty law, he could represent people, help them through the process, and help them get permanent resident status.

Once the law changed, well, you got caught, you get deported.  If you want a green card, you have to re-apply from your home country.   That did not stop a lot of immigration attorneys from promising clients that they could get them amnesty.  They would take large retainers ($5000 or more) represent them in the court hearing and then wave bye-bye to their clients as they got onto the deportation bus.

Just because you have representation, doesn't mean things will go your way.  And many unscrupulous attorneys will take a case that clearly cannot be won, simply because the client will pay.

There are few ways to get out from under Student Loan Debt - and bankruptcy is usually required.  Thus, I am skeptical that an attorney with no bankruptcy law experience will do well in this area.   Once you declare bankruptcy, you may be able to discharge some or all debt if you can show undue hardship.  As one case on the Debt Guy site illustrated, this is not easy to do.   The lady in question had co-signed  a student loan for her son.  She makes $20,000 a year and has Lupus.  The loan payments were more than her income (!!).   Her debt was partially discharged.

In order to meet the hardship standard, you have to show that you will never, ever be able to pay back these loans, no matter how hard you worked.   Choosing to work at a lower-paying job is not an excuse, either.   It is a tough hurdle to breach.

Another tactic is to see whether the school was accredited.   Apparently, some "for profit" schools were not properly accredited with the student loan authorities, and thus the loans are not immune from bankruptcy.

Both of these are fairly narrow exceptions.

There is a partial loan "forgiveness" program recently expanded by Executive Order by President Obama.  It allows people to pay 10% of their discretionary income for a limited time (20 years in most cases, 10 years for public service).  It appears that this only covers Federal Direct Student Loans, and not clear whether it covers private student loans:

"The president will sign an order directing the secretary of education to ensure that more students who borrowed federal direct loans be allowed to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their monthly incomes, the official said.

Federal law currently allows most students to do this already. The president's order will extend this ability to students who borrowed before October 2007 or those who have not borrowed since October 2011, the official said."
Of course, the "partial" student loan amnesty program might not help a lot of people.  You still may have to make payments, of 10% of your "discretionary" income, for decades.   Discretionary income is the amount you earn above the poverty line for your family size.  In other words, there may not be a free lunch here, so don't sign the lease papers on that new Acura just yet:
The chart below shows the maximum repayment period for a Direct Consolidation Loan or FFEL Consolidation Loan under the Standard Repayment Plan depending on total education loan indebtedness.
If your Total Education Loan Indebtedness is…
…your Repayment Period will be…
At Least
Less Than

10 years
$ 7,500
12 years
15 years
20 years
25 years

30 years

So I suppose there is an area of "practice" to be carved out here.   You set up shop, hang your your shingle, and help confused kids fill out forms to get partial loan forgiveness or go through bankruptcy to try to get the whole enchilada.

And along the way, well, you can charge them a modest or not-so-modest fee to do this.  And if it turns out they make too much money to qualify for partial loan forgiveness, well, you can charge them anyway.

And of course, you can make a lot of money by helping people do something that can achieve themselves through a website.


As the Forbes article notes, this program ends up having unintended consequences - it allows people to take very low-paying jobs, including those in public service, while attending very expensive schools.  It removes the connection between demand for jobs and the cost of training.   It encourages people to go into fields which are already crowded and low-paying.

And it further subsidizes college, which really isn't fair to those who don't go to college.

Outrageous Today, the Norm Yesterday

Odds are, I had more student loan debt than these kids do, yet I never thought to ask to have it "forgiven".  What has changed in the last 20-30 years?  The system, or people's expectations?

In a series of recent posts, I noted that what seems an outrage to today's generation was quite the norm for my generation and earlier.   What sort of things are we talking about?

1.  Traffic Tickets:   For the young and poor these can be devastating financially, yet these two groups drive the fastest and most recklessly.   When I was young, there was no talk about "indexing" traffic citations based on income.  And we knew that when you got a summons to go to court, you didn't just blow it off!   For some reason today, this is an urgent debate.  What changed in the last 20 years to make this a raging injustice?

2.  Student Loans:   Many students are graduating with what they consider massive student loan debts and no way of paying them off.  I have heard people - with a straight face - say they are "burdened" with $25,000 in student loan debts.  I had $38,000 in debts, from 1992.  I paid them off.   While there are some folks who are indeed graduating with more than $100,000 in debts, they are generally people getting graduate degrees.  Moreover, these debts were assumed voluntarily by people smart enough to go to college.    Granted, in the far distant past, people went to college and their parents paid the tuition and room and board - as was the case for my siblings.   But back then, only rich people sent their kids to college.   Why are these debts an outrage today but not an outrage when I graduated in 1992?

3.  The Economy:  For some reason, we are told that the economy today is the worst ever, and that the generation graduating from college has it so much worse than everyone else.   Inflation is less than 1%, Mortgage rates are about 4%.   Unemployment is about 6%.   These are good numbers, compared to when I graduated and inflation and unemployment were running 10% and mortgages were 14% or more.   Our parents had to deal with the Great Depression and a World War.  But to hear it told by young people today, we had it "easy".

4.  Getting Arrested:   Not too long ago, when you were asked to "Step out of the car and put your hands behind your back" you complied, because the other fellow had a gun, and your realized he would shoot you if you didn't - and be justified in doing so.  Today, an arrest is supposed to be a chance to negotiate with the Police and try to talk them out of arresting you.  And if you resist arrest and start fighting, the Police are supposed to just let you go.

5. Consumer Debt:  People run up debts, often with odious "e-z pay" consumer loan agencies.   Whiles these places charge scandalous amounts of interest, their practices have been well-known for decades now.   In the past, you'd be called a fool for borrowing money at 30% interest.  Today you are a victim and are profiled in a weepy story in the newspaper.

6. Drug Busts:  Kids have been "set up" by cops in drug stings since I was a kid.  Since they are stoned, they end up falling for these obvious cons.   They get busted and often face long jail sentences.  In my youth, it was the "Rockefeller Drug Laws" - today it is Mandatory Minimum Sentences.  The net effect is the same - and the consequences are well-known.

* * *

The list goes on and on.   For some reason, kids today are outraged when everything doesn't go their way.   Have things really gotten that bad, or have young people changed over time?

I am beginning to think the latter.  When I was a kid, you got spanked, or even whipped, when you did something wrong (sometimes by a teacher!).   Mess around in school, and you got detention, suspension, or expelled (I did the trifecta!).   There were consequences to your actions, from your parents, your school, your employer, or the government.

Today?  Less so.   Spanking a child is considered child abuse and on a par with breaking his arm or even  murdering him.    Schools can't suspend or expel a child without expecting some protracted and expensive lawsuit from the child's parents - as well as media attention as to "the injustice of it all!"

Perhaps it is just my perception, but it seems that "kids these days" are pampered, coddled, helicoptered, and laden with praise (often undeserved) all in the name of promoting "self-esteem."

We've raised the drinking age to 21, and some propose raising the driving age to that level.  We have infantilized an entire generation.  Adults, who once would have been given onerous responsibilities, today are treated like little children -well into their 30's.

And this is not the kids' fault.   I am not blaming these young people, but the environment we have created for them.   Children today are fawned over in a manner that previous generations never had.   When I was seven years old, I was allowed to ride my bicycle several miles to the candy store, with other kids, to buy candy.   Today, parents don't even let their kids wait for the bus by themselves, lest they be snatched by kidnappers.

So consider the plight of the middle-class adolescent today.   He's been told he's "special" since the day he was born, by his parents, well-meaning teachers, and the bumper stickers on his Mom's car.   And he's been given a staggering amount of bling, his entire life - a computer, a game system, a smart phone, and of course, his own bedroom and bath as well as a brand-new car.   Children come to expect a certain level of comfort, and get upset when it is taken away.

For the first 18-22 years of their lives, pretty much everything they do is consequence-free.   High schools pass kids from grade to grade, lest they feel the wrath of outraged parents.  When kids fail, it is the teacher's fault, not the child's.   And if you think I am kidding, I have seen this, in person, more than once.   I have been treated to the long-winded treatise by the outraged parent about how their stupid child flunked fourth grade because of a "bad teacher" - all the while the kid flies around the room on his seventh Mountain Dew.   The parents and the child are not to blame - someone else always is.

So, these kids graduate from college.   They had a good time, as they expected to.  They took easy classes and got a useless degree.  And they lived the high life, racking up student loan and credit card debt.  Now real life kicks in, and it sucks, big-time.  

Suddenly, there are rules and consequences and it seems all so "unfair".   After all, whenever they got into trouble before, the parents bailed them out, or someone else or some other entity could be blamed, right?   Whatever it is they did, they cannot be at fault, right?

To some extent, I saw this pattern as I lived it in my own life.   My life wasn't quite as pampered as middle-class kids today.  I had no computer, no game system, no cell phone.   I drove a series of junkers in high school.  I did get a van when I went to college, as I was a GM employee and got the employee discount.  But I did have to work in a factory, and in some respects, that was the best thing that happened to me.   I learned at age 18 that I needed to get serious and be taken seriously.   My compatriots, going to "regular" colleges, were going to frat parties and learning to act silly and stupid.

But when I left college and started a life of my own, I remember the outrage well.   Suddenly, everything I did had consequences and often expensive consequences.   Borrow money?  You gotta pay it back, with interest.   Get a speeding ticket?  Your insurance goes through the roof!  

The techniques I developed as a youth for dealing with adversity (crying loudly and decrying "It isn't fair!" and throwing a tantrum) didn't work as an adult, and in fact, they often made things worse.

Needless to say, this wasn't a lesson I learned overnight.   It took a long while, and I started to get an inkling of the things my parents were trying to teach me but were not able to.  Life isn't all about Rights, but also about Responsibilities.

As I have noted before, the epiphany came when I was 25.  I realized that the road I was going down wasn't going to end well.   Continuing to behave irresponsibly and indulging my every whim (with as much as I could afford and borrow) wasn't a winning solution, even though initially, it seemed that I was getting lots of "stuff" and getting into altered states as often as possible.

It took a decade or more to figure out.   And I am still figuring it out as I go along.   What I discovered, over time, is that you have to pay attention to things more closely, because if you don't, you end up screwed big-time, and no one has any sympathy for you (the subject of my next posting).  Your bank balance, your credit cards, your investments, your driving habits - everything.   Because there are consequences to screwing things up, and no one to blame but yourself if you don't pay attention.

I think the kids today are going through what I went through as a kid - only on steroids.   When I was a child, we were treated a little more indifferently.   While we were told to get good grades in school, this "everyone is special" nonsense wasn't practiced.   We were allowed to fail and get bad grades and be told, "No, you are not on the honor roll".   We didn't have these staggering amounts of after-school activities that kids have today.  And if we did, we took the late bus - mother didn't shuttle us around in a mini-van with juice-box holders and a complete entertainment system to amuse us.   Kids today are chauffeured in a manner than the Billionaires wouldn't have known, in the past.

So what's the answer?   To some, it is to continue this trend - to keep giving young people a "get out of jail free" card.   Ran up student loans?  We'll forgive them!   Got a speeding ticket?  Skipped a court appearance?   No problem, every first Thursday of the month is "amnesty day" and all tickets are settled for $15, and you get a discount with every third ticket.  Unemployed?   Hey, it isn't your fault you majored in something stupid and got shitty grades.  It has to be Wall Street and those rich people!  Over-extended on a mortgage on your mini-mansion?  No problem, we'll just adjust the balance of your loan!

The first problem with this model, is that it keeps training the neural network that is your brain that easy answer are always available to any problem.  And when people seek out easy answers, they often get ripped off.  The second problem is that such "get out jail free" deals are unfair to other people who acted responsibly.   Moreover, why should a "rich" person pay $500 for a speeding ticket and the "poor" person pay $50?  Are we "indexing for income level" or just punishing rich people for being rich?

And when society provides easy answers, well, people live consequence-free lives.  Well, they do, that is, for a while.   But there are forces in this world - forces of nature even - that cannot be denied through legislation.   Eventually, people have to face consequences for their actions - or inactions.  You get a parking ticket, you have to pay the fine, or it doubles, triples, or quadruples.   You run up a debt, you have to pay it off, or a nasty collection agency will come after you.  No one can be completely insulated from consequences.   Well, if they were, no one would obey traffic laws anymore, and no bank in their right mind would lend anyone money.

The idea that someone eliminating consequences for our actions will solve these sort of problems, is appealing at first.   But then you realize that down the road, it only creates more problems.   And you realize that the reason why people are outraged today by things we took for granted in the past is that today, people are leading relatively consequence-free lives for the first two decades of their existence.   

They get into their 20's and suddenly the rules have changed and no one told them about this.  Mommy and Daddy won't intervene with their employer the way they did with the High School Principal.  Suddenly it all seems so "unfair" and they throw a temper tantrum like a small child - and that is all these "Occupy Wall Street" protests were, a temper tantrum that accomplished nothing, other than to make the participants look like fools.

I suspect that most of these kids will go through what I went through - just as my elders did when they morphed from Hippies to Yuppies.   Even my dirty stinking Hippie brother eventually realized that sleeping in an unheated barn in the middle of a Vermont winter in some sort of "commune" was really going nowhere fast - although the got the memo a lot later than most (today he drives some sort of Jumbo SUV Tahoe, according to his last voicemail.  The circle is unbroken).

This transformation, however, will be painful and protracted, just as it was for me, perhaps moreso.   It takes a long, long time to realize that you can't always have your way, and that "unfairness" is part of life, and that throwing a fit isn't solving anything.   A long, long time.   And the more one is coddled and the longer one is coddled, the harder and longer this process will be.

So, we are not doing our kids any favors by raising the drinking age to 21.  We are not doing them any favors by telling them they are all "special".   We are not doing them any favors by shielding them from consequences of their actions.   In fact, by doing all of these things, arguably we are being cruel by giving them the false impression that life is just easy street, and if you holler loud enough, everyone else will do what you want.   In a way, it is bully training.

But you'll pardon me if I don't think the latest outrage-du-jour is really an outrage at all.   Not when I was faced with the same situation and had to face the consequences myself.


Under the proposed Religious Freedom Act, companies can refuse service to anyone, if they can claim a religious belief compels them to do so.  How would this work? 
(Mockup of proposed sign under the new law)

Many folks have a lot of questions about the proposed "Religious Freedom Act" that is currently in the Georgia Legislature. Similar bills have been proposed or passed in Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, and other States.

1.  Why are these laws being enacted?   Good Question.   All across this great land of ours, thousands, nay, tens of thousands of florists and bakers are being forced by government storm troopers to bake gay wedding cakes or make floral arrangements for gay weddings.   Gay people are intentionally selecting Christian businesses so they can "flaunt" their gayness and "force" Christians to accept their deviant lifestyle.   Those who refuse to bake these cakes or make these floral arrangements are sued out of existence and left homeless and destitute.

2.  Can you give me an example of someone who was sued and forced to go out of business for refusing to bake a cake or make a floral arrangement for a gay couple?  I'll get back to you on that.  But two bakeries in States with anti-discrimination laws were brought before a Commission or an Administrative Law Judge and forced to make gay cakes!  Can you imagine the indignity of having to write "Good luck Steven and Jim!" in icing?  Surely they will now go to hell!   Because, as everyone knows, without a cake (or a floral arrangement) you simply cannot get married!

3.  How would the law work?  What constitutes a religious belief?  Say for example, you are part of the "Christian Identity" church.   This church, as part of its core beliefs, believes that white people are superior to all other races, and moreover that all other races are "mud people" who should be exterminated from the earth.  The same goes for Jews and Gays.   Thanks to the religious freedom act, they no longer have to serve "mud people" in their places of business.   They can simply put up a sign saying, "No Jews, No Blacks, No Gays, No Colored".

4.  Well, suppose I run a chain of barbecue stands, and I want to take money from Blacks and Jews, but don't want them mingling with my white customers?   No problem, so long as this is a strongly-held religious belief.  You could simply set aside a different area to serve these customers, with a sign saying, "Colored out back".

An example of a sign in compliance with the Religious Freedom Act.

 5. That sounds fine and all, but how do we keep the Jews and Queers and the colored folks from sneakin' in?   Good Question.  One proposed amendment to the bill would provide stiff fines or jail sentences for anyone attempting to breach the color barrier or other religious barriers.  So for example, if a Jew comes into your store, even though you have clearly posted a "NO JEWS ALLOWED" sign in compliance with the act, at the front of your store, and then he lets slip an "Oy Vey!" you can call the police and have him arrested.

Cheery and easy-to-spot badges will be required for minority groups whose existence may offend some Christian sensibilities, in order to prevent them from "passing" as Christian and White.

To better identify Jews, Gays, and "high yellow" Negros (as well as Muslims) who may attempt to "pass", one amendment to the bill proposes that such minority groups be forced to wear clear identification badges, so that they can be easily spotted for what they are (the spawn of Satan) and Christian business owners can more readily deny them service at their place of business and moreover have them arrested for violation of the act.  Jews would wear a star of David, Gays a pink triangle, and so forth.   Apparently, this has been tried before and shown to be effective.

6.  That sounds fine and all, but what about other businesses?   That's the beauty of it.  There is no limit to how far the act can go.  You run a hotel or a motel?   No reason you should be forced to rent rooms to Negros or Faggots, not when there are good, white, God-fearing Christian customers who would be offended by the presence of such folks.  There is no reason you should be forced to repair a car, cook a meal, build a house, or perform any other service or supply any type of goods to people whose very existence offends your core religious beliefs.  You have carte blanche to discriminate, my friend!

7.  But we only accept MasterCard and Visa.   Nevermind.  It's just an expression.
8.  How would this apply to me as an employer? The act would also allow you to discriminate in employment, too!   All this EEOC nonsense can go right out the window.  When hiring, you can put "No Blacks need apply!" or "No women need apply!" if your religion so dictates (many Muslims are on board with regard to this latter provision).

9.  How would this apply to me as an employee?   Ahh, that's the beauty of it too!   You could apply for a job as a meat inspector at a pork sausage factory and once you get the job, you could claim religious objections to inspecting pork (as being non-Kosher or not Halal) and get paid to do nothing.  Or you can run for town clerk, and then refuse to grant marriage licenses to Lesbians, even though you knew it was part of the job from the get-go.  Needless to say, this aspect of the Religious Freedom Act is a little disturbing to some Republican employers, and the act may be modified to only allow Christians to assert their "strongly-held religious beliefs."  After all, we can't let Islamists or Jews take advantage of this act, can we?  That would offend our strongly held religious beliefs!

10.  Well, what about reverse discrimination?  Could my wife still get her hair done by "Mr. Paul" even though I threw him and his buddies out of my restaurant?  Could those minority groups discriminate against us God-fearing Christian white folks?   Well, as we all know, most of these people are devil-worshiping atheists anyway, and thus they cannot claim their religion forces them to discriminate against Christians.  So relax, your wife can still get her hair done and go antiquing.

11.  Well, who would determine what constitutes a "strongly held religious belief" anyway?   Ah, this is the best part of it!  The Government would decide whether someone's claimed religious belief was strongly-held or not.  So we have a great opportunity here to get the government into the business of deciding what people's religious beliefs are, and which are correct.   And of course, we all know whose religious beliefs will be determined to be "strongly held" (wink wink) - right?

* * *

OK, so that parody was a little over-the-top.   But then again, claiming "religious discrimination" because you are forced to write two women's names in icing on a cake is a little over-the-top, too.   Claiming "religious discrimination" because your floral shop is forced to make a floral arrangement for a gay wedding is not only over-the-top, but frankly, quite implausible.   Heterosexual florists?  I suppose they exist.  And if they did, I would suspect they end up knowing an awful lot of gay people.  But why would a gay couple seek out the Christian florist?   And how does the florist know the flowers are going to a gay wedding?   It all sounds so farfetched and trivial.

(BTW, If there are any gay couples who are intentionally seeking out Christian bakeries, florists, wedding photographers, just to "make a point" then shame on you!  Intentionally antagonizing people is just dumb, and it makes no sense to engage a business that is hostile to you, when there are other businesses around.  Vote with your dollars, unless they are the only business in town).

But the question remains.   Do we really need a law about this?  And moreover, how would the law work?  Would people be allowed to put signs in their shop windows saying they refuse to serve certain customers based on religious beliefs?  Because you know, if they could do it, some people would.

And where does it end?   If one person claims that serving gay people violates their freedom of religion, who is to say that serving minorities, blacks, women, Jews, Muslims or whatever is not a violation of theirs?   The Christian Identity Church has, as part of its core beliefs, racism.   And it is well documented that some Muslims do not believe that women should be allowed to leave home without a male present, and should be covered with a veil.  So does the Halal grocery store get to put up a sign saying, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Veil, No Service"?   They could argue this is a core value of their religious beliefs.  Why would that be "ridiculous" but baking a gay wedding cake be legit?

But more importantly, aren't these sorts of laws just pandering to a certain base (in every sense of the word) support group of the GOP?   Like the "War on Christmas" the far-right is creating a crises that simply doesn't exist, and then using this as a "wedge issue" to divide our country, pit one group of people against another, and just create a lot of ill-will and bad feeling.

But perhaps most important of all, is this just the nose of the camel under the tent?   If we go down this road of making exceptions to public accommodation laws, where does it logically end?

So maybe my bit of parody is not so ridiculous or over-the-top after all.