Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Other Half of My Brain

A short piece of fiction that came to me in a dream the other night....

"How are we doing?"

"Nothing here on the left, you're clear!"

I pulled out into traffic.  It is nice to have someone riding shotgun, so you can see both ways.  I only wished one of us had seen that truck, but then again, it happened so quickly, no one could have reacted in time.

The blinding headache starts again.  It seems every time I think about the accident, the headaches start.  I quickly think of something else.

"Another headache?" he said.

"Yea, not bad this time.  As long as I don't think about it."

"Well, maybe the Doctor will be able to fix you up.  That's why we're here, right?"

We were driving in Jacksonville, which I never like to do.  People drive too fast and pull out in front of you.  No  one has any courtesy or respect for one another.  Or any idea of what can happen when cars collide.

Most people say they can't remember what happened in the moments leading up to a major crash.  But I can, in every detail, like one of those Russian dash-cam videos on YouTube.  The tractor-trailer rig, coming around the corner on the mountain road, going too fast and tipping over, as in slow motion, right into our lane.  A head-on collision, with a closing speed of over 100 miles and hour.  The crash of metal and glass, airbags deploying, I remember all of it.   And the headache starts again.

"Pull in here, I think this is the place."

I put on my signal and turn into a small professional office park, and find a place to park in the shade.

"I'll wait here with the dog," he says, "That way we can run the air conditioner."

The dog, as if on cue, gives me a cold nose to the backside of my arm, the way she is inclined to do.  Her way of saying "Hi."

"OK," I reply, "This shouldn't take long."

I walk up the steps to the doctors office.  I think about the wreck, and the headache returns.  I quickly think of something else.

The receptionist is nice, and the waiting room is full of old copies of Time magazine.   In a few minutes, I am ushered into the doctor's office.

He seemed like a typical shrink, with the tweed jacket with elbow patches.  No reclining couch, though, just a comfortable Stressless chair from Norway.   He asks me to sit down.

"I'm not sure why I'm here," I open with, "Since the accident I have been fine, it is just these headaches that seem to come and go."

He looks at my file and nods.  "It says here the headaches seem to get worse when you think about the accident?"

"Sometimes.  I try not to think about it, and they go away."

"The accident, it was pretty serious," he replies, "It was a terrible loss."

The headache starts again.  A throbbing at the back of my brain.  "I'd rather not talk about it."

"But we have to," he replies, "I have some notes here from your doctor.   How did you get here today?"

"We drove together - and brought the dog."

"I see," he says, sighing, "I took the liberty of obtaining a copy of the accident report."

The throbbing gets worse.   My head feels like it is on fire.

"Why would you do that?" I replied.

"Your friend..."


"Husband, yes.  He was killed in the accident.  Along with your dog."

White pain sears through my mind.  I can see nothing but red.  I feel like I am about to black out.

I shout at him, "You're full of shit!  This is some sort of psychologist's trick!  They are both right out there in the truck in the parking lot!  Why would you say such a thing!"

The headache subsides a bit.  I get up to leave.  "I'm sorry I came here." I said.

"I can't help you unless you want to be helped." he replies.

"I don't want to be helped" and I walked out the door.

Back in the truck, he says, "That was quick!"

"Damn doctors don't know anything."  I put the truck in reverse.  "Is it clear?"

"Clear to back up!" he says, and I slowly pull out.  The dog buries her muzzle in my arm.

"You know, I bug you some times, that you nag me and boss me around...." I say.

"Where are you going with this?" he says with a grin.

"Well, just that, well, keep nagging and bossing me around.  It's OK.   You're the other half of my brain.  I can't live without you."

"Oh you could.    And you will have to, someday."

"But not today, right?"

"No, not today."

Maybe more of a nightmare than a dream.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

School Buses and Military Trucks (and Graffiti Artists)

Reo Motor Car Company in World War Two
For some reason, people in the country like to collect old school buses, military trucks, fire trucks, and the like.  This represents a huge squandering of capital.

When you travel through rural areas, you tend to see the same things over and over again. And one of them is the "collector" who has a yard full of old vehicles. Usually these comprise school buses, military trucks (6x6 "duce and a quarter" trucks which are virtually undrivable on regular highways), old airport buses, city buses, and of course, fire trucks.

These things, which cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars at government auctions or sales, just sit in the side yard rotting away.  Dad takes the seats out of the bus and scatters them all over the yard, and then uses the bus as a storage shed for some old siding, which slowly rots through the floor boards.

It is, of course, an example of hoarding disorder, in particular, hoarding disorder/car.  If your husband says, "Gee, honey, let's buy an old school bus at auction and park it in the side yard!" you need to put your foot down, no matter how much of a "bargain" the price is.  Ditto for fire trucks and military trucks or whatever.  Some folks even collect old 18-wheelers or Greyhound buses - and then line them up on the lawn!  They rarely, if ever, drive them.  Eventually, they stop running and they slowly sink into the ground.

There is a demand for used school buses - in Mexico, where they are used for general transportation.  We see them all the time being driven from Virginia and Georgia down to Mexico, where they cross the boarder, paint them up nice and make them into local buses.

So why deny the Mexicans their basic transportation, just so you can let a bus rot in your side yard?

I am not sure what is going through the minds of the people who buy these things.  I guess the price is so low that "you can't afford not to buy it!" and maybe they have some vague plans of converting the bus into a motorhome - plans that never work out because they don't have the money (it is tied up in other disintegrating hardware) and the reason schools sell their old buses is that they are utterly clapped out.

Another phenomenon you see is the enormous boat parked in the yard of a home that is 50 miles from the nearest navigable waterway.   We are talking about 40' Chris-Crafts, rotting away in some farmer's yard.  The cost of just moving such a boat is staggering.  And yet I saw several during our tenure in Central New York.

Fire trucks are a special case.  One neighbor in New York had one, that he parked in a field and left there for decades.   Pray tell, why?

As I noted before, the hoarder does not treasure or take care of the things he hoards.  He often disassembles portions of these items and scatters the very hard-to-find parts to the four winds.  Then he lets the hulk rot in the yard, parked at an odd angle, sinking into the soil (as they always choose a damp area - a creek or swamp - to park these things in).   In no time at all, they are a mountain of rust.

A real collector would keep an antique fire truck in a garage or barn, waxed, polished, and ready to drive in next year's fourth of July parade.  The hoarder merely allows these things to waste.

What is the common denominator of all of these types of hoarding?   Bat-shit crazy.

And bat-shit crazy is why people end up poor, not "circumstance" or "lack of opportunity" or whatever.

Consider the graffiti "artist" - another example of bat-shit crazy.  All across the West, we see trains covered with graffiti, often in murals that must have used dozens of cans of spray paint and taken hours of their time.

You are young.  You are poor.  You are disadvantaged.  So what do you do?   Spend hours of your life painting murals on railcars that will disappear from your home town in a fortnight, never to be seen again?  Spending hundreds of dollars on spray paint (or risking jail by shoplifting it?).   How is this helping your own personal bottom line?

Short answer:  It isn't.   It is just squandering enormous amounts of energy and money - from people with limited resources of both - into an activity that will never, every pay off.

And no, please don't tell me about "graffiti artists" who make it big - like Banksy.  Because Banksy has yet to make dollar one on his stuff, as he mostly gives it away (assuming it is a he).

People like to complain they are disadvantaged in life - put upon by the GOP, the Democrats, or Obama or whatever.  They are victims of the economy.   They are victims of globalization.   Yet no one put a gun to their head and said, "fill your yard with thousands of dollars of government surplus vehicles and then let them rot away" or "quit school and spend your youth spray painting things."   It is a foolish waste of resources, and the people who engage in this tomfoolery have no one but themselves to blame for their woes.

Oh, and in both cases, the perpetrators of this nonsense create eyesores for the rest of us to tolerate -  bringing down property values and increasing crime rates (presence of graffiti tends to make people feel they can get away with crime - the broken window theory of police enforcement, which has been shown to work).

By the way, I mentioned before about government auction sites (and listed several).  My takeaway was that most of the stuff they auction off is in really bad shape and really overpriced.  I think people get carried away with these auctions and overbid on a blown-out police car with 398,000 miles on it and shredded seats and a broken tranny.   Just walk away from these bad bargains.

And if your friends ask you to go "tagging" (spay-painting buildings) with them, maybe think about going to the library instead and spending those two or three hours reading a good book.  It will be better for you, and for society.

And if you have a yard full of old vehicles, call the junk man and have them towed away.  You could net a couple of grand in scrap value. 

But in either case, don't expect me to "feel sorry" for you as a put-upon downtrodden redneck or inner city youth.   No sale to bad goods.  And no, you don't deserve a government handout because you made poor decisions in life.

Poor choices - in every sense of the word.

UPDATE:  I forgot to mention SHIPPING CONTAINERS which many people in rural areas think are swell storage sheds.   Problem is, a used shipping container, sinking into your back yard at an odd angle basically devalues your property by thousands of dollars as it is an ugly eyesore.  It also is a crappy place to store things, as they get ungodly hot in the summer and most of them leak water (which is why they were sold off in the first place).  Just say "No" to used shipping containers as well.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Wealth and Anti-Wealth

When antimatter comes into contact with matter, both are annihilated.  Similarly, anti-wealth will annihilate real wealth.

I mentioned before in another posting that owning expensive things is not a sign of wealth, but often actually anti-wealth.  What did I mean by this?

Simply stated, for us middle-class schmucks, we are conditioned from birth to think of money in terms of how it can be spent, preferably on monthly payments with interest.  We look at "wealth" in terms of a salary - some pittance of money doled out by a benevolent employer.   Actually owning money is not something we are conditioned to comprehend.

Real wealth is not parked in your driveway, nor is it your driveway, your fancy kitchen, or a posh address.  It is not designer clothes, coffees, or cell phones.  Real wealth is money in the bank - money invested and earning more money.

Real wealth is power - power over other people.  Power to control the world.

Anti-wealth is weakness - your dependency on others, on banks, and the whims of credit agencies.

Yet, most of us, early on, choose anti-wealth, as our parents likely chose it, and we were barraged since birth (by the TeeVee) to think of money in terms of anti-wealth.   How much can we afford in payments, based on our salary?  That's how much stuff we go out and buy.   And we kid ourselves that a raise in salary means we are wealthier because we can buy more stuff or more expensive stuff.

Too late in life, most of us realize that anti-wealth is not wealth.  And that by embracing anti-wealth we have annihilated our real wealth.  Many folks who lived "high on the hog" in their 30's and 40's are discovering as they reach retirement age that they have no real wealth, only payment slips and memories of long ago junked cars, boats, and jet skis.

And therein lies the rub.  Our parents' generation, who received defined-benefit pensions, were not really hurt by anti-wealth, as they were assured a steady paycheck throughout their lives.  So long as they could make the payments, they were doing OK.   Of course, some of them, such as my Dad, ended up being forced out early and forced to confront that their real wealth was far less than they thought.

Our generation - the 401(k) generation - has to accumulate real wealth if we don't want to starve when we retire.  And by "retire" I mean something that could happen to anyone as early as age 50.   And a lot of folks reach this age, are forced out of their tech firm, law firm, or other business, and then wonder what they are going to do.  They assumed that a high paycheck would go on forever.  A poor assumption given the track record of so many that came before.

So how can you avoid this trap?   Well, if you are younger, you can eschew anti-wealth and embrace real wealth.  This doesn't mean having to live like a monk, but just disciplining yourself to save some money, to invest, and live below your income level not up to it.   Buy less car than you want.  Buy a smaller house than you want.  Spend less than you'd like to.   Spend only what you need to.  It's like dieting - you might be a little hungry all the time, but in the long run, you feel better and feel better about yourself.

I learned about anti-wealth pretty late in life - around age 45.  I still managed to preserve most of my wealth from annihilation.  But anti-wealth probably took away about half my real wealth over time.   And it was not that I needed to live like a pauper.  I could have done with one less car (five, instead of six) or maybe a secondhand boat instead of a brand-new one (which turned out to be more unreliable than a used one!).  I could have bought a smaller vacation home and rented it out when I wasn't using it.   I could have done a lot of things, in retrospect, that would have preserved real wealth, while not really changing my lifestyle very much.

Sadly, it seems that most of us have to go through this.  We make a little money in our 20's and buy a new car.  We want to drink deep of the well of life and enjoy all the things our kill-joy parents wisely denied us.   Some of us figure this out early.  Some of us, like me, wise up over time after seeing money go up the chimney.  Others never figure it out, but instead blame the government or Obama for their woes, when everything goes horribly wrong.

Anti-wealth.  It is something to think about.  Particularly before you sign yet another loan agreement.

Wasted Energy

Wasting your personal energy pining for "free energy" is foolish.

A reader writes asking me what I think of his "free energy" blog and some new purported type of cold fusion.   These sorts of blogs and discussion groups are all over the Internet.  The common denominator is that there is some kind of technology that will give us all free (or super-cheap) energy, but of course, the government and the oil companies are "suppressing it".

In these groups, Nikolai Tesla is not just a prolific Engineer who lost his mind later in life (it happens) but a demi-God who was going to give us all free energy until "they got him".

And it goes without saying that Exxon is "buying up all the Patents" and "suppressing the technology" even though Patents are published and freely available for anyone to read or develop a working model from.

The dream of free energy or cold fusion has been around for a long while, and to date, such "research" has been proven, without exception to be fraudulent.   Science by press-release is not science.

And it is never explained why our government would suppress free energy technology - and thus let other governments take advantage of this boon to their economies.

These sort of basic questions are never answered because they are never raised.   The premise of these discussion groups is that the government is all-powerful and evil and of course wants to suppress technology because they are in debt to the oil companies.   And of course, the folks who think this, never worked for the government and don't realize how poorly it is run.  Our government, on a good day, can barely conspire to make a cup of coffee, much less orchestrate a new world order.  All that stuff you see in the movies is just bullshit.

And in any debate, the key thing to do is challenge the premise of the argument.   Often people put in statements as the underlying premise of their argument that they assume are just fundamental truths.  If you swallow the premise, then the rest of their arguments seem valid, or are difficult to debunk.

For example, the religious right loves to say, when discussing the laws of our country, "Well, the Bible says..." and then they go on to quote some section of the Bible, usually out of context.  If you swallow this premise, then you are lost, as the argument devolves into interpretations of the Bible, and not legal arguments or public policy arguments regarding the laws of this land.   The premise here is that the Bible is some sort of legal authority in the US - which it isn't, despite the best efforts of the Christian Right.  The Bible is no more legally binding than the Koran or the Torah.   And we all know how well things work out in countries where the Koran is legally binding.

Challenge the premise of any argument, rather than being reactionary and trying to respond to flimsy arguments propped up by a questionable premise.

But the real question here is, why is this fellow wasting his entire life pining for free energy?  And there are a lot of fellows like this, who spend all day long on conspiracy websites of one sort or another.  Oh, if only free energy were realized, or the truth about the Kennedy Assassination revealed!  If only the aliens held captive in Area 51 were released!  We could use their alien technology to live a life of ease!

And right there is the key.   These sorts of folks are externalizing their own problems onto a greater world.   They work in dead-end jobs if they work at all.  They have emotional problems, relationship problems, money problems. Their lives are dreary and boring (as most are!  Get over it!).   They are minute cogs in the machine of our society.  They are utterly unimportant, as most of us are.

But, when they go on a conspiracy website, they suddenly are famous - and important.  Their opinions matter.  Moreover, once free energy is released, they will be living the life of Riley!   Their personal failures in life have nothing to do with their own malfeasance or laziness.  No, no, it is the government or the oil companies "suppressing the technology" that would liberate them!

Or maybe it is the "Federal Reserve" who is keeping them down through unknown machinations.   I am not sure exactly how the Federal Reserve is screwing us so badly, but I am told that it is going on!  If only we could eliminate the Federal Reserve and go back to the gold standard, the world would be a paradise on Earth and we would all be millionaires - and the economy would once again be as stable as it was in the 1800's and early 1900's (warning: the sarcasm light is ON).

Externalizing.  I harp on it a lot here because it is important.   The more you externalize your personal problems, the worse off you will be financially and emotionally.   If you want to spend your life hating Hillary Clinton and blogging about Benghazi, go ahead.  But is it making you a happier or wealthier person?

No.  It isn't.   But there are a host of other folks in this world who realize you have this tendency, as most humans do to externalize your problems.   And the powers-that-be do take advantage of this.  If there is a conspiracy out there, this is it.   The conspiracy isn't the Kennedy Assassination or the Aliens in Area 51 or the suppression of cold fusion.  The conspiracy is that they can get you all riled up about these utterly irrelevant or made-up things, to the point where you can't see straight or take the time to understand your own personal finances and life.

Conspiracy theories are an excellent way to manipulate people and keep them downtrodden.   Right now we see this with the Republican Party.   They are courting the far-right nutjob demographic, as they can feed them tidbits of conspiracy nuttery through obscure websites and discussion groups -and get them foaming at the mouth.   Hillary Clinton's policies and ideas are not the issue - it is the erased e-mails and what supposedly went on in Benghazi - or Whitewater - or whatever.

Why do they play this game?   Well, simply because you can't get people riled up about obscure revisions to the tax code.   And when it comes to the policy wonk game, Hillary has it beat, as she is a very smart woman.   So instead of saying, "well, I think her proposals to revise the tax code are bad because..." (cue: snoozing sound) you say, "She's going to raise our taxes and give all our money to N*ggers!" which resonates well with the Duck Dynasty type of crowd.

Ditto for free energy.   You could make the rational argument that one way to save on energy costs is to drive a reasonably sized car that gets reasonable mileage or to live in a smaller, well-insulated home and keep the thermostat turned down.


It is more fun to say that the cost of gas isn't your fault, and that driving a quad-cab 1-ton dually pickup is a reasonable proposition, and that commuting 100 miles each way to work is "normal".   And a lot of people live that way, too, particularly out West.    And they believe that the reason they have to pay so much for transportation is that Obama raised the gas prices (even though, as you should know, they are at historic lows right now, and when he took office in 2009, they were topping $5 a gallon in some States!).

Who does this sort of thinking favor?  The oil company of course.  If you can grouse about "free energy" and Obama while putting 100 gallons of fuel in your pickup truck, they have you.   So long as you don't actually take action in your own life but instead blame your problems on others, they have you nailed down.

Does this mean the oil companies sit around and spread these stories?   I think not.  But if some sort of conspiracy theory floats around that ultimately benefits them, well, they certainly don't take a lot of time to squelch it.

Rich people don't believe in conspiracy theories.  Poor people do.  And the poorer a person is, the more likely they are to believe in them.

Maybe - just maybe - if you stop believing in conspiracy theories and spend that energy on balancing your checkbook, you just might end up richer and happier.

Nah.   That couldn't possibly work! 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Should You Take Care of Mom?

Is it your obligation as a child to take care of your parents?  

In some other postings, I alluded to a story about two friends of mine and their Mom.   Mom and Dad had six children, many of them successful.  Dad died, and Mom had to live on her own.  She quickly ran through what money her husband left her, mostly through foolish schemes, poor spending choices and whatnot.   In short order, she became destitute and debtors were hounding her daily.

Her daughter thought she should help out Mom.   The other five children - one of whom was a doctor - declined to get involved, even if only financially.  There was a lot of history in the family, and they knew that Mom was plum crazy.

So the son-in-law (daughter's husband) goes through her finances and discovers they are in a wreck.  She has no assets other than an old Ford Escort, and tons of credit card debt.  She is barely getting by on Social Security and has no other income.   He researches her options and finds that she is eligible for a rent-subsidized senior apartment, that will cut her monthly living expenses in half and give her room to breathe.

He calls the creditors and explains the situation - she has no money to pay these bills, and they cannot go after her assets as she has none.   They agree to take a token amount in monthly payment, and he cuts up the credit cards.   Son-in-law and daughter save the day!

Mom's car is working OK, but the tires are worn out, so son-in-law goes to the tire shop and buys her a new set of tires.   Mom should be set for at least a while.   Of course, daughter is not happy the other siblings won't help out with some of the costs incurred moving and such.

Two weeks later, Mom shows up at their house in a new car.  Well, not a brand-new car, but a used sporty model in red.   "Look!" she cries, "I bought a new car!  The man at the used car lot said I could afford it!"

The son-in-law hangs his head and groans.  He's riding on nearly bald tires on his old Volvo, and could have used the money he spent on his Mother-in-law's tires for himself.  Moreover, he knows how this will play out - Mom can't really afford the car and it will likely be repossessed down the road, leaving her without any transportation.

And when it all goes wrong, yet again, he and his wife will be called upon to bail out his Mother-in-law.

What is the moral of this?   Are you obligated to help out other family members, even if they are spendthifts, lazy, or just parasites?  (Or crazy?).

In a way, this is a cultural thing.  A Korean friend of mine told me he had three cars.  I said that was a lot of cars for a young law associate.  But he explained that one was for his sister and another for his brother.  As the "successful" member of the family, his parents expected him to support the less successful members - even if they were just lazy and unmotivated (hey, free cars, why work?).

Sadly, later on in life, he ended up running his own firm and was heavily in debt.  I wonder if his siblings helped him out then?  Of course, the answer is "no".

And others of other cultures have told me the same thing - that they feel obligated to support their parents, siblings, and others, because of cultural values.  Of course, they often come from countries where there is no Social Security or other safety net, and without familial support, people would starve to death.

But in America, this "helping out" often amounts to buying cars, or as I noted in another posting, the monthly stipend of $500 which the deadbeats all seem to want.

So what is the answer?   It is a personal question and you have to answer it for yourself.  But do ask yourself why you are doing it.  For many, it is a chance to play the big-shot, by doling out money to family members, who in turn, have to dance to your tune.  That is a sick way of thinking, but many people do it - of course none would admit to it.

With my friends with Crazy Mom, their efforts were immediately short-circuited.  They found ways for Mom to live a more comfortable existence, and she immediately went further into debt as if to compensate.  I am sure she got a new credit card, too, probably at 25% interest.

She was able to take care of herself, although eventually, if she lived long enough, she would have to be put in a home or someone appointed by a court to be her custodian.   A friend of mine with through this with her Father and all I can say is, it was a total nightmare.   I would not have blamed her for walking away from the whole mess and letting the County or State take control of his life.   But then again, there was a sizable inheritance involved in that case.

I am fortunate that I do not have to make such a difficult choice.  My parents set aside enough money to live comfortably, and I don't have to worry about them (particularly now that they are dead.   I was talking to someone about parents the other day, and they asked where mine lived.  I replied "Arlington......" and he said, "That's a nice place!" and I continued, "...cemetary!"  Sometimes the once-a-year visit with flowers is the best kind!).

Others have a more difficult choice, particularly if there is no one else in the family to take care of their parents (e.g., only child).

For siblings and other relatives, though, I think the question is a lot easier.  Unless they have some handicap, mental or physical, that prevents them from working on their own, doling out money doesn't serve to help them so much as make them dependent upon you.  And again, the psychological motivations for doling out money to siblings is often rather messy.    I know firsthand a few folks who do this and get off on playing the big brother or whatever - and expecting their siblings to respect them.  Sadly, it rarely works.  When you give money to people, oddly enough, they often end up resenting you.

Think long and hard before you decide it is your job to "rescue" someone else, particularly if the person needing rescue doesn't really need your help.  Someone claiming "I'm drowning" when they are standing in the kiddie pool is not crying for help, but just wants attention.   Someone who mismanages their own affairs to the point of being broke isn't often helped by throwing more money at them.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Black Eye for Volkswagen

VW, instead of spending money to make its cars emissions compliant, decided to spend money hacking the emissions testing scheme.   They are now facing fines and lawsuits and even criminal charges that could bankrupt the company.

In some previous postings, I discussed diesels.   My conclusion was that the high cost of these cars was not offset by the savings in gas.   I recently met a nice man with a Jetta diesel wagon (now sold as the Golf Sportwagon) and he bragged about his 45 miles per gallon.   I didn't want to break it to him, but the "savings" he is getting over my 30 MPG hamster are pretty negligible.   45 MPG isn't 50% better than 30 MPG, because it is an inverted fraction - the savings are more like 33%.   Gallons per mile would be a better indicia.  But fuel consumption can be a small part of the overall cost of owning a car, and often the higher price of diesel engines offsets any fuel savings.

Say he gets 45 mpg and pays $3 a gallon for diesel fuel.  If he drives the US average of 15,000 miles a year, he spends $1000 on fuel.  Meanwhile, I spend $1500 on fuel at 30 mpg, an annual savings of $500.  Since his car has a $5000 price delta (at least) he has to wait ten years to make his investment back.

But it gets worse, because in the USA, diesel can cost as much as a dollar more than regular gas.   If I pay $2.50 a gallon for gas (which is becoming the norm these days), I spend $1250 a year on fuel, and his "savings" are a mere $250.   Play with the numbers all you want, the savings are just not there. If you have a decent car that gets 30 mpg, you are doing pretty well.  Going to hyper-mileage isn't going to save you much, and it will actually cost you more, if you have to spend more on a vehicle that gets better mileage.

In response to this logical argument, I got wild e-mails from the unhinged diesel faithful.   I was missing the point, they said, the savings were there.  And diesels last forever, so there is savings in maintenance.   Maybe that was true in 1985, when Mercedes made the last of its tank-like W123 300D diesels, which routinely went 300,000 miles.   But of course, we won't talk about the cost of replacing a Mercedes automatic transmission, will we?

Auto diesels are far more fragile than their truck counterparts.  The comparison is illusory.  And gas engines, well, they go hundreds of thousands of miles these days (300,000 if you believe the unhinged Subaru faithful).   Most cars today will go 100,000 miles with little more than oil changes.  Most will go 150,000 to 200,000 before being junked.   The VW diesel doesn't have any advantage in maintenance or longevity.

But now the other shoe has dropped.   It turns out that VW, in order to pass emissions testing and offer high mileage ratings, basically hacked the emissions system - intentionally.   They designed their engine management software to operate in a "clean" mode when the car was being tested, which resulted in lower gas mileage.  The car would then revert to a higher-mileage "dirty" mode when on the road.

This is not a mere oversight or engineering error, it was an intentional act to deceive consumers and the government.  And now VW is facing fines that exceed the sales prices of the cars themselves.   Criminal charges could be brought and a class-action suit has already been brought.   The value of VW cars could plummet due to the bad publicity.  And once recalled and reprogrammed, the VW's will get crappier gas mileage.

And what was the motivation for all of this?  Market share.  VW wanted to eclipse Toyota as the largest car maker on the planet, and was willing to do anything to get there.  Rather than concentrate on the real goal - building better cars - they got distracted by the meaningless statistic of market share.  Profitability is a much better indicia to chase after, and BMW has followed that goal.

And not surprisingly, when tested in the real world, the BMW diesel met emissions standards.

All I can say is, I am glad I own stock in BMW and not VW.   This emission hacking is going to give VW a black eye for a long time.   Why?  Because consumers will have to wonder how many other shortcuts VW took in making their cars.

UPDATE:  We are traveling in Montana and for some reason here, diesel fuel is about 10 cents cheaper a gallon than regular.  I don't know if this is a temporary anomaly or a regular thing.  In Georgia, diesel is about 20-50 cents more a gallon than regular.   Regardless, you are looking at a decade or more to justify the cost delta with a diesel.  And once all those "high mileage" VWs are reprogrammed to conform to emissions standards, their mileage advantage may disappear entirely, leaving owners with cars that cost more, but deliver the same or similar mileage as their gasoline counterparts.   Maybe the class-action lawsuit will help,but I suspect the result will be a coupon good for $500 off a new VW - and millions for the law firm filing the case.

And yes, if you want to pass emissions testing in the future, I suspect they will check to make sure the software hack has been removed....  A massive recall is likely in the future.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tired of Tech

What happened to the bright future promised by technology?

We met a nice young man who was riding his bicycle across Canada.  A nice bike too, not some flimsy "road bike" that the Lance Armstrong wanna-bes ride, but rather a sturdy long-wheelbase bike with large tires and plenty of room for cargo - it looked like it could handle rough stuff.

He was from Boulder and in the tech field, working for software and computer companies, even a Patent Law firm at one time - before doing his own start-ups.   He was burned out on technology and yet looked to be little more than 35.   He confessed that he wanted to buy some land somewhere and start a bed and breakfast, which had us chuckling.  If he thought the 65-80 hours a week at the tech firm were bad, try running a bed and breakfast - or a small hotel.  Far more hours, for far less pay.

Two friends of ours from Washington who worked for The Very Big Computer Company decided to "chuck it all" and move out to Front Royal and open a bed and breakfast.  It lasted about five years, until I got an e-mail from them that The Very Big Computer Company made them an offer they couldn't refuse, and running a B&B and dealing with whiny members of the public sucked.  Not everyone is cut out to be Bob Newhart.

But I thought it was interesting that this young man was already burned out by the tech field, which today is not hardware or even software, but web-based technology.   We talked a while and I asked him how many old people were working at the companies he worked at.  Other than a few management types, of course, the answer was "none".   If you work at a tech firm - or a law firm for that matter - look around you and see how many 50-year-olds are working there.  Chances are, there are few.

Why is this? And what happens to people when they get older?  Are they turned into Soylent Green?  The answer to the first question is that you can get young people to work hard and long hours if you pay them what they think is a King's Ransom and give them an impressive sounding job title.   Mark fell for this in the retail world, being made a "manager" and expected to put in 70 hours a week - for less money per hour than the cashiers made.

The same is true in the tech world and the law business.  Get those 20-somethings in the cubicle, give them an impressive-sounding job title and more money that they have ever made before (which ain't much) and then work them to death.   They will make a lot of money for you, and when they get older and wise up, you can replace them with a new 20-something.

What happens to the older people?  Well, like my 30-something friend, they burn out.   It is hard to work at that level for more than a decade or so before your brain gets tired.   I know this firsthand.  I used to be a hot-shot Patent Attorney, and this stuff came so easily.  As you get older, it becomes more of a chore - and less enjoyable.  We all find something else to do, eventually.

It was funny, but this young man worked in Manhattan at one time, and then in trendy Boulder, Colorado.  He said the atmosphere was the same, with different indicia.  In Manhattan, people judged you by how much money you made or your job title.  In Boulder, people judged you by how many hours you spent at the gym and how fit you were.   He said it was the same level of competition, just with different goals in mind.  In both cases, people were working long hours, but had different goals.  Probably fitness is better than money, but striving to impress others is a pointless game no matter what the goals are.

I felt kind of sad for this guy, who obviously had the world at his feet.  After all, at age 30-whatever, he had a couple of months of free time to bike across Canada.   And he had some money stashed away, to be sure.  On a planetary scale, he was in the top 1%, perhaps the top 0.1%.   And yet he was unhappy with his path in life.

I soured on the tech thing long ago.  When you are young, it is cool to see all this neat technological stuff come to fruition and be a part of it, at least in some small way.  But over time, it seems that tech is more about making money off of people than in providing technology to improve lives.  It becomes more and more of a "fuck you" deal, the further it goes along - for the inventors, the employees, and the customers.   We have all this fancy stuff, and it doesn't seem to enhance our lives, but actually detract, in real terms, and monetarily as well.

And it doesn't matter how hard you work in tech.  To become successful, you have to get lucky and then be ruthless.  Bill Gates didn't invent DOS or Windows, but was in the right place at the right time to sign a lucrative licensing deal with IBM.   And then he ruthlessly monopolized the PC market with an inferior operating system.

Mark Zuckerstein isn't some genius of the Internet, but rather got lucky in that "The Facebook" (which the Winkelvoss twins claim they invented - they are a piece of work in themselves) became popular and eclipsed MySpace, Second Life, and Friendster, who came before and failed.

You can code your brains out and come up with "the next big thing" but whether you become a Silicon Valley Billionaire depends more on luck than anything else.  Luck, and ruthlessness.

And a lot of the products being sold as "tech" these days are little more than exploitation of people's obsessive-compulsive weaknesses.  Freemium games like "Farmville" or "Candy Crush" don't provide people with entertainment, but rather exploit their tendency to do things repetatively.   Facebook is little better - turning people into drones who no longer experience life but rather merely try to capture it for Facebook postings.

And don't get me started on smart phones - they are the spawn of Satan himself.

Now granted, perhaps part of this is the grumblings of a 50-something who learned to program FORTRAN on punch cards.   My elders said the same things about the personal computer, back in 1975 when "home computer" experimenters built their own PC's and shared BASIC programs in BYTE magazine.   What would people need computers in their home for?  Where will this madness end?

But perhaps the problem isn't tech itself, but the way greed has infiltrated the business, staring with the "Angel Investors" and the "Vulture Capitalists" who turn these great ideas into utter exploitation - and thus ruin the party for everyone.

I guess you can't blame them on one level.  Everyone wants all this tech stuff, but doesn't want to pay for it.   The business models of most of these companies is very profit-poor.  In order to exploit this technology, they have to exploit people - on every level - just to break even.   And based on the track record of most of these companies, breaking even is not in the cards.  Even "successful" companies like Facebook, have to constantly find new ways to generate revenue from running a website - a tricky business if there ever was one.

So maybe it is the nature of the beast - or the nature of mankind.   Either way, I am kind of tired of "the latest and greatest thing" that you can download on your smart phone or Google glass.   Maybe I am a techno-luddite, but I still think that people today are wasting memory, bandwidth, and hard drive space on a lot of useless fru-fru.

Technology should be people-driven, not profit-driven.   The promise of the "Personal Computer" was that it would liberate us all from the tyranny of IBM.   The sad reality is that we traded one harsh taskmaster for a host of others.

And sadly, I don't think it is about to change.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Tariff and Free Trade

Both Teddy Roosevelt and Taft had to fight their own parties over the Tariff.  Today, it is Democrats who are against free trade.  What changed?

I have been reading some histories lately - Doris Kearns Goodwin's Bully Pulpit, James Bradley's Imperial Cruise, Gore Vidal's Lincoln and Empire and even Nicolay and Hay's volumnious biography of Lincoln.

One thing that crops up again and again in these books is The Tariff.  In order to be a good Republican 100 years ago, you were in favor of God, Country, and The Tariff.   High import tariffs were the policy of the United States for almost the first 200 years of its existence.  And it was a policy largely pushed by the Whigs and later the Republicans, who represented the industrial interests of the country.

In the early years of the Republic, American manufacturing was far behind that of Europe.  Protective tariffs were a way of evening the playing field and making American products appear cheaper to consumers.  The idea worked, and American industry took off.  Oddly enough, the Japanese did the same thing after World War II and we denounced them as "protectionist".

But until the 1980's protective and retaliatory tariffs were the norm in the US.  During the 1960's, the US got into a dispute with Germany over their tariffs on imported chickens.  In retaliation, we enacted the "chicken tax" which taxed small trucks 20% or more, which is why you don't see a lot of Volkswagen Transporter (pickup truck models) after 1965.  

As I noted in a previous posting:
And this is not a new trend.   During the Taft administration, a "free trade agreement" was proposed between the US and Canada.   Conservative Republicans, who believed in "the Tariff" (more on that in another posting) tried to derail the treaty in the Senate.  It passed.   Frustrated, they spread rumors in Canada that this free trade agreement was the first part of a plan to "annex" Canada into the United States.   That was all it took to call for new elections and install a new government, which quickly kibosh-ed the proposed free trade deal.   If you want to hit a hot button with Canadians, it is their underlying fear of a US takeover.
But in the late 1970's and early 1980's as the US economy stagnated, the idea of protective tariffs started to fade and "free trade" became the new standard of the Republican Party.   Free trade agreements were signed with a number of countries, and the idea of free trade now dominates most economic thinking.

The idea is, tariffs tend to stifle economies.   When goods become so expensive, people stop buying.  And in many impoverished 3rd world countries, this is particularly true.  In most Central American countries, automobiles are slapped with a near 100% import duty.  As a result, they are very expensive and most people don't have one.   Of course, this has not helped create a domestic auto industry in places like Costa Rica or anything, it just means things cost a lot, and owning a car is an expensive pain-in-the-ass.

What some of these countries are also worried about is trade deficits.  If imports are freely allowed, then people will spend money on imported goods and wealth will leave the country.  Whether this is true or not, I don't know.  It is just one argument people raise.

In the early days of the Republic, Democrats were against the Tariff and for Free Trade.   The Tariff not only made imported goods expensive, it allowed domestic manufacturers to raise their prices as well.  Since Democrats represented the workers and farmers and other "little people" who had to pay the high prices for goods, they were against the Tariff.  Eliminating the Tariff, they argued, would make all goods cheaper and the average American wealthier as a result.

And there is some truth to this.  As I noted in an earlier posting on tire prices, the Obama Administration slapped a hefty "dumping" penalty on China for selling tires in the US at low prices.  Overnight, Chinese tires got very expensive.   And overnight, domestic manufacturers (including those owned by European companies) all raised their tire prices across the board.   Suddenly, I was paying $300 for one tire as opposed to an entire set.   Protective tariffs raise prices across the board, not just on the tariffed goods.

So now we have free trade, for the most part.  You'd think the Democrats would be happy now, right?  Well, one aspect of free trade is that everything it turns out, can be shipped across borders, including labor.   In a free trade market, labor is one commodity that can be traded freely.  And particularly with low-skill jobs, it is a lot cheaper to make things overseas, if there are no import Tariffs.

The high import tariffs were what allowed union workers at GM to demand raise after raise, under the threat of strike.  Once the foreign auto plants were established in the US (and the 20% "chicken tax" avoided), they no longer had this leverage.

So now the Democrats are against free trade because those foreigners "took our jobs".  But in reality, what is happening is that labor is now a commodity that can freely be imported and exported across national boundaries - in the form of consumer goods.

They took 'ur jobs!

But what about the Democrat's original argument?  That consumer goods would be cheaper as a result of free trade?  Well, I keep harping on this in this blog, but no one wants to listen.  We are a far wealthier country in real terms today than we were 30 years ago.   While many people complain about losing jobs or living "paycheck to paycheck" they say this over their new iPhone, with a yard full of internal combustion engine vehicles sitting outside.

Simply put, we have a lot more crap than we used to have in previous generations.   Kurt Vonnegut made a point of this in his novel Player Piano, where unemployed workers were told that they were richer than "the King of France" because after all, he never had a snowmobile.

And it is true - Napoleon dined off Aluminum flatware, as it was considered the rarest and most coveted metal on Earth.  Today, rednecks toss aluminum beer cans out of their aluminum pickup trucks and think nothing of it.

But it goes beyond changing values of minerals or new technologies.  We simply have more shit that previous generations.  We have more food, and most of it is prepared in restaurants - our new kitchens.   We are all grossly overweight and suffering from numerous medical maladies related to an overly-rich diet.   Even the poorest among us has a television, a phone, and usually a car.   And much of this is because all this stuff is so cheap.

In my parent's time, a television cost a month's salary or more.  Today, it costs less than a week's.   And having a second car was a sign of being upper-middle-class.  Today, the poorest hovel has three parked out in front (running) and another five inoperative in the back.

Simple things like barbecue grills or coolers, which cost $99 back in 1970 now cost....$99 in 2015.   With inflation, this represents a drop in prices by a factor of ten or more.   My Dad couldn't afford a Coleman cooler back in 1968.  Today, I have several such coolers, some given to me by friends.  We throw this shit away, today.

So is free trade a good thing or a bad thing?  Should we be all upset by the latest treaty being signed?

I think for the most part, free trade ends up being a good thing.  And over time, it will tend to even out.   And I say this because I see the cost of labor and prices from China and India and other "low cost" producers starting to rise.   People in these countries are starting to make money - a lot of it - and they are starting to demand more in pay.  When you already have money, it takes a lot more money to incentivize you to work.

We were just in Lake Louise and Japser, Alberta, and it was amazing to see how many Chinese people were there - affluent Chinese people.  One young couple brought their parents and grandparents on vacation.  And I had to marvel at the sight. Grandpa no doubt lived through the glorious revolution of 1949 as well as the Cultural Revolution.  He probably knows what it means to be hungry and perhaps nearly starve.   And yet, here he is, on vacation in Canada with his wealthy grandchildren, who are putting him up in the Fairmont Hotel.   How times have changed.

And good on him.   A wealthy China is a stable China.   We should be happy that these countries are thriving and doing well and establishing a solid middle-class.   Because they are learning that the international language of commerce isn't English, but Money and as a result, they are less likely to want to rock the boat.

Meanwhile, the USA has become a more attractive place to invest.  As I noted in an earlier posting, many overseas companies are investing in the US - building factories and making products.  Our labor rates have dropped to the level where they are now once again competitive on a world market.  So Nissan builds a plant in Mississippi because people will work there for $15.50 an hour.

And while that sounds like not a lot of money, bear in mind that $15.50 an hour will buy you more goods than it did back in 1980 when the labor rate at GM was about the same.  To folks who want to compare dollars to dollars, it looks like you are coming out behind.  But when you compare the cost of an air conditioner in 1980 to one today, you see your dollar is going a helluva lot further.

As our Asian friends demand more money and their economies grow, the cost of their goods will rise.  The sins of America will be visited upon them, as they discover labor troubles and high production costs.  Meanwhile, industry will expand in the US, until it it too, reaches the same point of stagnation, and the process repeats all over again.

The upshot is, of course, that in the process, we are all wealthier and better off than in a scenario of limited production, high wages, protectionist tariffs, and stagnated commerce.

Whatever the sins of Free Trade are, protectionism isn't the answer to anything.


Canadians love to plaster the maple leaf all over everything.  Some Americans do the same with the stars and stripes.

One thing about visiting Canada is the chance to view a culture through different eyes.  One thing you notice right off is the prevalence of maple leafs (leaves?) on everything.  Canadians love to put them on everything from cars to clothing to furniture.  Every Canadian RV seems to have a prominent maple leaf on it, just to get the point across.  This ain't no stinkin' American RV!  Nosirree!

At first, I thought this was odd, but then I realized that an equal number of Americans go ape shit with the stars and stripes, putting them on everything from motorcycle gas tanks to helmets, jackets, cars, and of course, even flags.

In Canada, the maple leaf often sneaks into products to make them seem more "Canadian".  Living next to the United States (and the majority of Canadians live within 100 miles of the border), it is hard to keep a separate cultural identity.  Moreover, American companies like to Canadian-ize their products to make them seem more unique and, well, Canadian.  For years, General Motors took their cheapest cars (the Nova, the Chevette) and called them "The Acadian" replete with a tiny maple leaf logo.   I am not sure it fooled anyone in Canada, as it was the same car, albeit with a standard block heater.

Ditto for Ford's Mercury pickup trucks, which were available only in Canada.  American companies pander to the Canadian need to have a separate national and cultural identity.   Often, this amounts to little more than adding a maple leaf to your logo.  Wendy's, for example, uses a maple leaf as an apostrophe in their name.  McDonald's puts one discreetly under theirs.   My Canadian friends in college gleefully told me their McDonald's was "different" because you could get vinegar with your fries.

It's the little differences you notice...

Of course, most of these are pretty superficial changes.   The lack of high-fructose corn syrup in all the foods is one real difference that is appreciated.  But for the most part, Canada is, as Homer Simpson put it, "America, Jr." and I suspect that is one reason there is a lot of flag-waving up there.  They don't want to get lumped in with us, or absorbed into our culture.

And this is not a new trend.   During the Taft administration, a "free trade agreement" was proposed between the US and Canada.   Conservative Republicans, who believed in "the Tariff" (more on that in another posting) tried to derail the treaty in the Senate.  It passed.   Frustrated, they spread rumors in Canada that this free trade agreement was the first part of a plan to "annex" Canada into the United States.   That was all it took to call for new elections and install a new government, which quickly kibosh-ed the proposed free trade deal.   If you want to hit a hot button with Canadians, it is their underlying fear of a US takeover.

But the point of this post wasn't to take a piss on our neighbors to the North, but to illustrate how we all like to wear logos or flags and use our bodies, cars, and houses as advertisements for our national loyalties, team loyalties, and brand choices.   As I have noted in a number of postings, while you may wear a hat that says "Chevy" on it, the President of General Motors (an old classmate of mine!) doesn't wear one that says "Earl".   You may be a fan of them, they don't know you exist.

Of course, much of this logo-ed stuff is given away for free. But others actually pay money to have someone's commercial advertisements on their clothing.  The humorless road cyclists (road bikes, man, why?) love to sport jerseys with names of companies on them, as if they were being sponsored to race, rather than merely being billboards for others.   Harley-Davidson has made an empire out of licensing its trademarks and logos to third parties, and people willingly line up with credit cards in hand to put these ads on their bodies.

And sometimes this is literal - people tattoo company names on themselves.

I thought about this and realized that since our old American flag wore out, we don't even own one.  No flag stickers, no bunting, no stars-and-stripes shirts, pants, chairs, or whatever.   Apparently, I am utterly unpatriotic.   Or perhaps I think that patriotism is a little more than merely wearing symbols.

Ditto for corporate logos.  I do have one BMW hat that was given to me at the Amelia Island Concours.  But Mark wears that, when he finds it crumpled up under a seat of the roadster.   I do have a lot of t-shirts and clothing with names of places we have been, which I like because they remind me of trips we have taken or are a good way to start a conversation.    But for the most part, my life is logo-free.

Being a "fan" of anything, I think, is sort of silly - whether it is a sports team, a company, a product, or even a country.   And sometimes, I think the folks who are fans are, in addition to being boorish, sometimes dangerous.   Soccer (football) fans routinely kill each other (and even the players) in some countries in the world - all over a stupid game.    Nationalists who wave their country's flag and proclaim it the best place on earth (uber alles) often cause all sorts of trouble the world over.

And being a fan of a company or product is sort of the height of stupidity, in my opinion.   Companies make products to make money - selling them to you.   Being a fan of the person you bought something from seems sort of odd to me.   And companies change over time, as well as their products.  You might proclaim yourself a "Chevy man forever" but what happens when the company goes bankrupt and their products start to suck?  Do you keep on buying because you are a fan?  Or do you check out what is for sale across the street?

I am not sure what the point of all of this is, other than to question why it is we do the things we do.   It's OK not to have a logo or flag on everything you own.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fuck Bank of America

Although I have been a cheerleader for Bank of America, they finally figured out a way to fuck me.  Fuck them.

Traveling is fraught with stress.  You are in a foreign country and the money looks funny and everything seems expensive.  You worry about your house while you are away and whether the bills are being paid on time or whether you have a summons for jury duty.  It can be a pain in the ass.

So, you rely on people like neighbors to watch your house and collect the mail.  And you rely on your financial partners to keep track of your money and make sure the bills are paid.  It is a matter of trust.

And if your neighbor lets all your houseplants die while you are gone, well, you don't ask that neighbor to watch the house for you again.  And if your bank arbitrarily decides to freeze your account and stop paying your bills, for example your health insurance, car payment, property taxes, and whatnot, well, you'd probably change banks, right?

My little nightmare began with an innocuous e-mail from Bank of America:

We’re letting you know that due to changes in the status of your account(s), your Bill Pay service has been inactivated. Any automatic payment plans, electronic bills (e-Bills), and external Pay From accounts that were set up in Bill Pay have been canceled. In addition, if you had any pending payments through Bill Pay, those have also been canceled. Please ensure that alternative arrangements are made for any payments that are canceled.

At first I didn't give this much thought, until I realized that the poor sap I pay to mow my lawn while I am away probably was just issued a bad check, if he got one at all.  Then I logged on to BoA and realized that my health insurance premium which was shown as paid is now shown as unpaid.   What was going on?

Unfortunately, I was in Canada at the time, and it is hard to dial a 1-800 customer service number (not that it would have done any good, as I later found out) on Rodger's Wireless.   Also, since Internet service was spotty, it was hard to get online.  When I did, I found out that I could not e-mail BoA or "chat" regarding BillPay issues.

I finally got a hold of customer service a couple of weeks later.  They explained that "compliance" had randomly frozen my accounts.  This was after 15 minutes on hold.  15 minutes more and I am put in touch with "compliance" who wants to know what country I was citizen of.  "US" I reply.  "I'm sorry, I can't hear you!" they say. So I chant "USA! USA! USA!" and then shout "AMERICA!" and start singing the national anthem, America the Beautiful and God Bless America until they got the point.

Apparently their computer "randomly" decided to "audit" my account and since my citizenship wasn't on file (although I gave them my passport when I opened the account ten years ago) they sent me a letter which I did not receive of course, because I am on the road.  To the minds of the cubicle-dwellers at BoA, no one ever leaves home, but instead waits by the mailbox for a letter from the bank, just in case they decide to randomly cancel your account.

They could have called me, they have three phone numbers on file. They could have e-mailed me asking for the information or even asking me to call.  Instead, they just sent a weirdly worded e-mail saying my billpay was cancelled for some unknown reason.

So, my health insurance is now cancelled, as Blue Cross hasn't received their premium.  No word on the lawn guy, whether he was charged $20 for presenting a bad check.   I am out more than an hour of my time on the phone (at ten cents a minute) to straighten it out.

Bank of America's response is, "Gee, we're really sorry".   But that's it.  No one is accountable for this fubar, and no one will say, "Gee, maybe this was a really shitty thing to do to one of our better customers!"

I mean, after all, I transferred nearly a quarter-million dollars from one of my Fidelity accounts to Merrill Edge to become a "Platinum Customer" with them.  I can only wonder how they treat the bronze customers.  Do they just kick them in the teeth or what?

This on top of a whopping $17 ATM fee from Scotia Bank - after being told by BoA toadies that I should use their bank in Canada to withdraw money as there are "no service charges".   So much for that.

One thing is clear to me:  I can no longer trust Bank of America.  I set things up for automatic payment and they totally screwed things up.   Anything important, like money, I can no longer trust them to deal with properly or responsibly.

And since no one at Bank of America will own up to being responsible for this or even trying to keep me as a customer, I have no other option but to move on in life.  And as a shareholder in the bank, this disappoints me.  Because likely I am not the only one to be screwed this way.

It is not like I am some low-life slacker with $17 in his account, bouncing checks right and left.   I didn't do anything to trigger this action.  Nothing was my fault.   But I am expected to follow up with all my bill pay accounts, insure that bills are paid, and apparently now, shop for new health insurance (the Obamacare enrollment window is opening soon, I hope I don't get sick before then).

As a consumer, you have only one choice, and one choice only, and that is to vote with your feet.  If you don't like a company, service, or whatever, you can choose not to use them.  And that is what I will choose to do.

There are other banks out there (and thank God, I do have an account with a local bank in Georgia already - everyone should have at least two bank accounts, if they want to travel).   But I will be looking for a new bank to do business with.  One that actually wants my business.

Fuck Bank of America. 

UPDATE:   Bank of America has unfrozen my account, now that I have told them verbally I am a US Citizen and a Patent Attorney (thank God for this high-tech security!).  However, my Bill Pay setup has been erased, which means any future bills set up to use Bill Pay are erases, the Payee names are erased, and the account numbers and addresses are erased.  All... Gone.

FORTUNATELY, I tend to use the push-method of billing lately, using the payee's website to draw from my checking account using ACH DEBIT.   So most bills are not a problem.  Others charge to a credit card.

However, since the account was frozen for a week, any debits or checks were refused, which may result in some BOUNCE FEES, which Bank of America said they would pay, provided I CALL customer service, wait on hold for another hour, explain my life story to Sanjay in Bangalore, and then, hopefully, they will reimburse me. 

No word on what happens when my lawn mower guy gets nicked $20 by his bank.

All this, DUE TO THEIR ERROR and now I have to jump through hoops to fix it all.

Part of me wonders whether this is an intentional ploy by Bank of America to get rid of me as a customer.  Since I declined their "rewards" credit card, they really have no way of getting their hooks into me.  And since they have to comp all their bank fees now that I am a "Platinum" customer, it is costing them money.

Maybe this "mistake" on their part was a way of chasing me away.  Perhaps!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Selfie Stick

"The Tourist Destroys the Thing He Comes to See"

Traveling to tourist destinations is an interesting experience.  It seems that tourists fall into one of two categories. 

The first is the Objective tourist.  They want to see the objective - the sight, the view, the photo opportunity, or whatever. Today, they reach that objective, take a photo with a selfie stick, and then post it on Facebook and then get back on the bus.  Another objective crossed off the list of things to visit.

When we were in Japan, we noticed this effect, and perhaps it is an Asian thing (although most Americans seem to fall victim to it).

Back then, you would go to a tourist area and get a little "passport" booklet, which had pages for stamps.  Each tourist site had a small table with a rubber stamp on it, and you could stamp your "Visa" to show you had been there.

The actual being there was secondary, the act of achieving the objective was primary.

Today, with social media, this effect is enhanced.  You go do an activity and then post it on social media.  As the folks on Facebook say, "No pictures?  Didn't happen!"

It is an odd philosophy.

The second kind of tourist is more interested in experiences than in documenting achievements.  They want to spend time absorbing local cultures or local topography, rather than just check off a box on a list.

For example, years ago, we went to Dead Horse Point in Utah.  It is a point, as you might expect, that juts out into a beautiful canyon.  We parked our old motorhome on the rim, set out the awning and chairs and had a picnic and spend about four hours there, just looking at the view.

It was interesting as after two hours, you saw things you never saw in the first hour.  It took a long time to really soak up the ambiance of the place.

In the meantime, we were chagrined to see a host of people drive in (at a great rate of speed) park, and then spend an average of about five minutes looking at the canyon.  Box checked off, time to move on.

Supposedly the same thing is true of the Grand Canyon - the average visitor spends about five minutes looking at the view and then moves on.

Tourist destinations thrive on this effect.  People show up in a tourist town and don't know what to do.  They have to be doing something after all, checking off a box. So they ride the ducks or go to the wax museum or whatever tourist trap is available that will take their money and provide a selfie-stick opportunity.

We love to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Parkway is long and varied, and there is no "it" spot to really see, but rather a continuous line of travel.  There are a few sites (such as the music center or folk art center) that are "spots" to check off the list.  But for the most part, the real point is that there is no point - it is a continuum, not a singularity.  And the selfie-stick people loathe it for that.  There is no one "spot" to go see and have your picture made and show that you were "there".

Others, convinced the Blue Ridge Parkway is an actual road get frustrated when they cannot travel 85 mph and "make time" to their destination.  Again, the destination is the key for them, an objective to be reached, a box to be crossed off.  The journey itself is just some hassle to be dealt with to get that selfie on Facebook.

And that is sad, to me.  As in most things, the journey is the real point of the matter, not the destination.  Because the ultimate destination is, of course, death.  And there is no hurry to get there!