Sunday, October 30, 2016

Cars made in "Gina" now imported to the USA?

The US Auto industry so far has been insulated from Chinese and Indian imports.  That may be about to change.

Back in the 1980's, Malcolm Bricklin, who once designed a fiberglass Deloran-like sports car in New Brunswick Canada (of all places) and who was the man responsible for Subaru coming to the States, imported a cheap Yugoslavian-made Fiat called the "Yugo" into the US.  The Yugo sold for the astonishingly low price of $3995.   Due to favorable currency exchange rates and the low cost of labor in a Communist county, the car could be sold for cheap.  Bear in mind this was about $2000 less than a Chevette, which at the time was the cheapest American car you could buy.

Of course, the gig did not last long.   While the Yugo was not particularly reliable or well-built, the fact that it was a "cheap car" meant that few people even bothered to wash and wax them.   Most went to the junkyard fairly quickly, as they were not worth fixing, or indeed, even buying new tires for.

Also, I think, Bricklin knew that more stringent emissions and safety standards would eventually kill the Yugo.   Once air bags and tighter emissions standards were mandatory, the decades-old Fiat design would have to go away, as it could not be upgraded.   So they sold them for cheap, made money, and moved on.

By that time, too, the threat of "cheap foreign imports" had largely faded.   While Japanese and German cars were inexpensive in the 1960's and 1970's, by the 1980's they were starting to cost more than American cars.   As I noted in my previous article on Free Trade, once you have free trade between countries, labor rates in the exporting countries will rise as employees have more job options.   And that is exactly what happened to Japan and Germany, which could no longer bank on "low wages" and low prices to sell cars.

And I discussed this in an earlier posting.   In the 1950's and 1960's a lot of "foreign car" companies exported to America.  But most of them faded from the scene fairly quickly.   French cars were the first to go, followed by the Italians - Fiat and Alfa.   Even British cars found it harder and harder to find a market, and MG and Triumph finally threw in the towel.

Since costs were going higher and higher, the only solution was to move upmarket.   Simple four-cylinder BMWs were replaced with six-cylinder and even eight-cylinder luxury barges.   Mercedes, of course was already selling to the carriage trade, so they had less far to travel.   Land Rover concentrated less on bare-bones "Defender" models and sold more upscale Range Rovers instead - along with slinky Jaguars (And the Defender went from four cylinders to eight, and got upgraded leather interiors and a $90,000 price tag).   Go upscale, or go home - if you were a European maker.  Most went home - even after trying the upscale move, as Fiat did in its last years here.

Japanese makers sold their cars at premium prices based on reputation and reliability.  People would pay extra for a car that didn't constantly break down, as many American cars of the time did.  And jumping on the "upscale" bandwagon, the major Japanese makers all launched "luxury" marques to cash-in on the upscale sales.

By the late 1980's and 1990's, if you wanted a cheap bare-bones car, you were likely looking at an American car, not some "cheap foreign import".

The emergence of China and India (and 3rd world countries) as low-cost producers has lead to speculation that cars from these countries may someday be a threat to American car makers.   Already, the "big three" all have factories in Mexico - which is the only place they can make smaller cars in a cost-effective manner.   Cars from China have seemed like a far-off threat - until today.

General Motors quietly announced they are importing a Buick (one of the largest brands in China) SUV to America.  Is this the beginning of the end for the US car industry?

Perhaps.  Perhaps not.   Tellingly, GM is not importing some cheap subcompact with the Chevy nameplate, but rather a midsized SUV.   GM has already been importing small SUVs from Korea, so importing a car from China doesn't seem like such a stretch.

One reason why China has not exporting cars to the US is that their market is growing rapidly and they are consuming almost all of their existing production as it is.   Moreover, cars built for the domestic Chinese market likely won't meet US emissions and safety standards.  So the idea that a Chinese "Chery" (not to be confused with "Chevy") will be coming to a showroom near you may be overstated.

And as with the Japanese and Europeans, wages and costs are rising rapidly in China.   Any automaker who plans long-term imports from that country may be rudely awakened when they find out the cost of the import exceeds their US (or at least Mexican) assembly costs.

So I think for the near-term, you may see automakers importing individual models to fill gaps in their product lineups, but not resorting to large-scale importation from China.

And I am not sure that we will see a Malcolm Bricklin-like import of super-cheap (sub $10,000) cars in the near future, as even with the low cost of production in "Gina", it would be hard to make a product at such a price point and still hit the emissions, safety, and fuel-efficiency targets needed to sell in the US market.

It is, of course, an interesting development.

If You Lost Your Job to Free Trade, Tarriffs Aren't Going To Bring It Back.

Will abolishing Free Trade result in better wages and more jobs?  No.

A lot of ink been spilled about free trade agreements. For the most part, Economists believe that free trade helps the economies of all countries over time.   Republicans traditionally were against free trade, as the Republican mantra until the twentieth century was "God, Country, and the Tariff".

With the rise of unionism in the 1920s and 1930s, however industrialists saw the cost of labor start to skyrocket.  Finding an alternative to Union Labor seemed imperative, and overseas labor was an attractive option.

Thus, over time, the Republican party has morphed from the tariff to free trade.  The Tariff protected industrial interests in the early part of our history in that it allowed native factories to flourish in competition with more established overseas entities. However once we became the dominant manufacturing force in the world, the Tariff no longer made sense.

Of course this sort of sea change in political positions is nothing new. The Republican party was also once the party of abolitionism. The Democratic Party was the party of slavery. Today the Republicans would like to see many Civil Rights walked back while Democrats seem more interested in the rights of everyone including African Americans.  So it is not unusual for political parties to move 180 degrees in their political positions.

In the 1970s we experienced an economic condition known as "stagflation".  Stagflation was brought about when high union wages drove up the cost of goods so that the average American could not afford to buy American-made Goods. Thus, American workers went on strike for higher wages so they could maintain their standard of living.  This in turn led to higher costs putting the American worker right back where he started. The idea that we can just pay everybody more and make everybody richer was proven to be a fallacy during that period.
I've noted time and time again in this blog that many consumer items that today can be had very cheaply were quite expensive back then.  A basic tube television was over $500 for a 25 inch screen and received only a few dozen channels.  Today for $500 you can get a 45 inch television that interfaces with the internet and has a much higher resolution and picture quality.  For a 25 inch screen, you can pay as little as $100 for such a TV, assuming you'd even want one.

A lot of other basic consumer goods were also very expensive in that time period.  American-made lawn mowers, for example, would cost 100 to $200, comparable to today's prices which factoring in for inflation means they cost three to five times as much.  That's why back then every town had a lawn mower repair guy who would fix your lawn mower, because buying a new one was simply out of the question.

I recall vividly my father refusing to buy a Weber type BBQ Kettle as they were "too expensive"  even though he was a vice president of a small manufacturing concern.  The Weber kettle back then was $99 which was a lot of money.  Well today it is still $99 but in the intervening 40 years that's worth about a quarter of what it was.  My father also refused to buy a Coleman steel-belted cooler as it was about $100.  Today they could be had for half that amount, factoring in for inflation means they cost about one-eighth of what they once did.

The lower cost of Labor from overseas factories means we can buy more stuff for a lot less money.  I was going through my tool box the other day and noticed that I had 10 pairs of pliers I have acquired over the years.  And by 10 pairs of pliers I mean just basic pliers - this doesn't count all the esoteric specialty pliers I have also acquired, which would bring the total up to 30 or 40.  When I was a kid, we had one pair of pliers in the house, and my brother and I were always losing them which resulted in my father screaming "where are my God-damn pliers?".  The idea of buying a second or third set and never occurred to him because they cost about $10 which was a lot of money back then.

So this is the conundrum of protectionism. If we go back to "the good old days" and "make America great again" we will go back to where prices are higher.  Once tariffs are imposed on imported goods, domestic manufacturers will also raise their prices.  We saw this recently with the anti-dumping tax that the Obama Administration put on Chinese tires. The Chinese were severely undercutting tire prices United States and as a result a huge Tariff was placed on Chinese-made tires. Rather than reap the benefit of higher priced Chinese tires, American manufacturers simply raised their prices accordingly to obtain windfall profits.  The tire tariff did not improve competition or make things better for the consumer, it just made prices higher and provided excess profits for American manufacturers.  Once the tire Tariff was removed however we were right back where we started.

Plus, if we go back to the Tariff model as opposed to the free-trade model, you can expect prices of ordinary goods to rise dramatically.  Since so many consumer goods today or made in China, you can expect that almost everything overnight will increase in price by at least 10 to 20%.  While it is true that this price differential may encourage more manufacturing in the United States, it will take months if not years for American companies to ramp up production of these products.  Since labor costs are higher in the United States and since the tariffs make the competing products more expensive this does not mean that American-made products would be more competitively priced, but rather the same price as overseas products plus the Tariff amount.

In addition, almost every foreign manufacturer in the world has a factory or is planning on building a factory in the United States.  All the world's car makers have factories in at least three locations: their home country, United States, and China.  The idea that import tariffs would increase the price of "foreign" cars and force people to buy American is flawed.  People would simply continue to buy their Toyotas and Hondas, which are mostly made in America anyway.  And most of these "foreign" cars are made by non-union labor.

Thus, the idea that import tariffs would result in a Shangri-la for the union worker is a flawed idea.  Import tariffs will simply raise costs for everybody and lower everybody's standard of living accordingly.  We would go back to the old model of the nineteen-seventies where everything was so expensive that we had very little.  Remember back in those days most people had one telephone and one television.  It is not that the technologies we're not available, only that they were too expensive.   The idea of having two, three, four, or five televisions in one household was considered absurd.  Putting in telephone extension in the bedroom was costly and few can afford it.

It is true that some folks have lost their jobs due to free trade. Those who were working in industries which became obsolete or where Union organizations forced obscenely high labor rates on manufacturers, quickly found themselves out of a job.  When labor rates for union workers are four to five or even ten times as much as non-union workers, something has to give.

Thanks to free trade, a lot of industries such as the steel industry have moved overseas.  This is in part due to the high cost of labor, but also to the higher cost of regulation with regard to pollution and environmental hazards.  In addition, American steel mills were largely obsolete, both being built before World War II or during that war.  It was cheaper and more attractive to move plants overseas where labor rates would remain low and strikes were unheard of. The unions themselves made outsourcing attractive.

But even assuming you can make a direct connection between your job loss and free trade, there is no guarantee that eliminating free trade will bring your job back.  As I noted earlier, many foreign companies have built factories here, using non-union labor.  That's why the idea that your union job will come back to the United States once we slap a 10 or 20% import duty on foreign steel is somewhat flawed.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that even with free trade, your job - your new job - may be created in spite of, or because of free trade.  One aspect of free trade that people don't think about is that when goods and services freely flow between countries, it raises the economic conditions in every country involved.  And we are already seeing the effects of this in China and India where labor rates are increasing as more and more people have jobs and us are able to demand higher wages. When unemployment is extremely low, people can pick and choose which jobs they want.  As a result we are seeing China becoming less and less attractive as a low-wage producer.

According to some studies, the advantage of building products in China is rapidly disappearing. When you factor in the cost of shipping and other long-distance related costs, China has only a 5% to 10% advantage over manufacturing costs in the United States. Throw in the uncertainty of the actions of a communist government and you have a good case for making products here in the US. Since the recession of 2008, America has moved from third place in manufacturing, behind Germany, to second place behind China.  Economists predict America will once again be in first place by 2020 which is only a few years from now.

So in essence, free trade is actually working, despite the naysayers. We all have a higher standard of living in that we can buy products for much lower prices. Granted, many in the middle class have found their incomes decline as they lost overpaid union jobs and are forced to work at jobs where they are paid what their labor is actually worth.  However even at these lower wages their spending power is much higher because the availability of low-cost goods.  If we go back to the old model of obscenely priced labor, we end up chasing our tail again, as the price of goods increases and the increased pay yields diminishing returns.

Of course, this is all  heresy to many folks, who believe that if free trade was abolished, we would all become millionaires overnight.  And of course, there are other issues besides wages involved in the free-trade argument.  Many correctly point out that some overseas companies produce more pollution and lack regulations that we have in the US.  Moreover many of these overseas companies do not have to worry about worker protection laws, and often they abuse their employees.  However, I think that as money flows into these third world countries, wages will increase to the point where workers can afford to demand more from their employers, and again we already seeing this in India and China.

It should also be noted that not a single economist in the world advocates the old tariff model.  Among all the major economists, free trade is viewed as the best mode for economic prosperity.  Tariffs and protectionism are viewed as a one-way trip to recession and depression.

And the market seems to recognize this. Whenever bad news has come out for the Hillary campaign in the last few months, the stock market has dropped by dozens or hundreds of points. The most recent revelation of additional emails being reviewed by the FBI caused a 100-point drop in the stock market. The prospect of a Trump presidency and the uncertainty of free trade under Donald Trump caused the market to panic.

And to me, this is the primary issue in this election - economics.  If Donald Trump is elected we will not live in an economic Shangri-la, but rather be forced into recession.  Dramatic tax cuts and huge tariff increases will only mean decreased trade and production in America as well as far, far higher prices for goods.  As someone who is trying to live on their accumulated wealth of a lifetime's work, this is troubling.  I suspect that if Donald Trump was elected president, my portfolio would decrease in value by 20% in the first week.  After that it is anyone's guess, although I doubt it would recover very quickly.

We have already seen this in a similar situation in the UK with the Brexit vote. The value of the pound has dropped precipitously and has remained low as people are nervous as to what to expect.  It doesn't appear that the EU will let the UK have a free ride without some sort of import duties which in turn would decrease the standard of living for those people in the UK, as their country's economy is based largely on exports and free trade.

Free trade is not a dirty word - or words.  Free trade helps the economies of all nations throughout the world.  It provides jobs in countries with high unemployment at lower labor rates and lifts their standard of living, as it is done for China and India.  For other countries such as the United States, it allows us to have much much cheaper consumer goods, thus also raising our standard of living, even if wages remain flat.

Wages today may not be much higher than they were 10-20 years ago, but our spending power has increased dramatically. What matters not how many dollars you make per hour but what those dollars can buy - your effective standard of living.  If we go back to the old ways, as some suggest, we will go back to the ways of stagflation and high prices.  We will go back to the days when owning even one television was an unheard of luxury and having more than one car made you rich.

Do you really want that?

Private versus Public Lives

Is it OK to have a private life and public life that conflict with one another?

A recent decision from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that communications between a Patent Applicant and Patent Agents - who are not attorneys - may indeed by privileged as are Attorney-Client communications.   To the extent that a Patent Agent is giving legal advice, that advice and communications between the Agent and Client may be privileged, which means they may not be subpoenaed or used in court.

The concept of Attorney-Client privilege goes back for hundreds of years.  The basic idea is that a client should be able to talk frankly with an Attorney without having what they say be used against them in a court of law.   So, for example, if a client says to his attorney, "Let's assume I did murder my wife, what would the longest sentence be?" that might be a damning admission if put in front a jury.   But in order to understand his options via-a-vis a plea bargain or the like, he might have to ask these questions and his attorney would have to advise him.

When I was working on a Cable Television litigation, we discovered a document (provided by a bitter former employee of our opponent) from their attorney saying, "We need to file this Patent right away as we may have missed the bar date and it may be invalid!"   We were excited to find this document, as it was as clear indication that our theory of the case (the Patent was invalid due to lapse of the bar date) was validated.   Sadly, the Judge would not allow this memo into court, as it was clearly advice from the Attorney to a client, and thus was shielded by Attorney-Client privilege.   Oddly enough, even though the former employee brought us a carbon copy of this memo, the opponent never mentioned the document on its privileged document list.   They likely knew about it and lied about it, or someone destroyed remaining copies of the memo.

There are other confidences like this that we generally don't allow in court, or at least allow to be excised.   A person is not compelled to testify against their spouse in court.   A minister or priest is generally bound not to disclose the confidences of the confession (except in limited circumstances).   There are valid reasons for these exceptions.   For the most part, it is to prevent our private lives turning into public lives.   Imagine our interaction with our spouses if we knew everything we said or did was being recorded and put on Facebook.   It simply wouldn't work.

But that right there is the problem.   Today with electronic communications recording everything we say or do, it is getting harder and harder to have a "private life" or private conversation, without having what we say be made public.

Richard Nixon discovered this the hard way.  The taping system set up by his predecessors to record conversations "for posterity" ended up being played for a contemporary audience, leading to his downfall.  Sometimes it is best not to document every last thing.

Confidential discussions end up as public discussions.   And in many cases, what was said can be taken out of context and made into a political attack.  And today, there are so many more ways for private conversations to be made public.

E-mails are in the news today.   People tend to think of e-mail conversations as private, but they are anything but.   Once you put a conversation down on paper, it is a document - a document that can hang you.  And sadly, e-mails are just electronic documents.   And they can hang you in a number of ways.

For example, you sent a ribald off-color joke to a friend via e-mail.   A pretty dumb thing to do.   That "friend" then forwards it to his entire contact list.   On that list is a friend-of-a-friend of yours who in turns forwards it to another friend of yours - one that is not impressed with your juvenile humor.   What you thought was a private conversation becomes a public one in short order.

And yet it is tempting to think that an e-mail is an intimate, private conversation.

Many people "save" e-mails, either intentionally or accidentally.   Most e-mail accounts will save "sent" e-mails, so even if you think you have deleted your e-mails, they are still present on a server somewhere.   And of course, even if you (or your IT person) deletes say, 33,000 e-mails (!!) the recipient of those e-mails may have them in their account.  Such was the fate of Hillary Clinton, whose campaign chairman fell for the oldest gag in the book - the "someone has hacked your e-mail, click here to reset your password!" trick.

I received a similar e-mail recently, ostensibly from "Google" saying that "Someone from Nigeria" had tried to log into my account and that I should "click here" to reset my password.   Of course, it was fake.   And if you are not sure, then go to your e-mail account and change your password.   NEVER EVER click on attached links or open attached documents.

Of course, part of the problem is the e-mail companies themselves.   I have received legitimate e-mails from Google, Hotmail, and Yahoo! asking me to click on attached links.   I never do, just out of principle.

After lengthy investigation, none of the e-mails in Hillary's account were deemed to be a violation of the law.  And this latest batch doesn't indicate any violation of the law has occurred either.  The tempest in a teapot is that the FBI is "reading" them (as they should, I guess) to see if there is a problem.   But no problem has been found - yet.   This hasn't stopped Trump from claiming the "greatest scandal since Watergate" - without getting specific on what the scandal exactly is (then again, he never gets specific about much, does he?).

But a couple of things struck me about this.   First, today we don't have private lives much anymore.   Whether you are a politician or a celebrity - or even just some average schmuck - it seems everyone has a "right" to your private life, your private deliberations, and even your thoughts.

Not long ago, in this country, a President could have an extra-martial affair and no one in the public knew about it, even if the press was well aware.  A President could be confined to a wheelchair for four Presidential terms and the entire population of the United States would not be in the know.  Why was this?  Well, back then, we viewed a person in terms of their private life (which was none of our business) and public life (which was the sole source of our judgment).    What was important to us about FDR wasn't whether he could walk or not, but what his political positions and policies were - which was far more important.

Today, he would be called out as being "unfit" for office and never would have been elected, four times. 

Similarly, with celebrities, we seem to care more about their private lives that what they actually did to become celebrities.   In fact, some celebrities are nothing more than scandalous private lives - such as the Kardashians.   They really have done nothing of merit in terms of starring in movies or whatnot.  Rather, we just hang on their every word and latest scandal (well, maybe you do, I barely know how to spell their name).

Not long ago, a dashing "leading man" actor who made all the women swoon, might have a private life that was anything but.  Whether it is Cary Grant or Rock Hudson, the private life and public persona were entirely opposed.   Or consider this song, by the Cordettes from 1954, describing their dream of the perfect man:

Mr. Sandman bring us a dream
Give him a pair of eyes with a "come-hither" gleam
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace

Back then, you could be as gay as Liberace and still viewed as a dream-boat by women.  Ironic, no?
But beyond that, we obsess about the details of celebrities' personal lives.  Take Brad Pitt.   A great actor who is easy on the eye.  I like the movies he has appeared in.   I could care less who he is married to or whether he is getting a divorce.   The press, however, concentrates more on the private life than the public persona.   A movie he stars in might get a few columns of reviews.   But his personal life takes up pages and pages of newspapers and magazines - as it somehow it was important to us.

And as I noted before, "Fans" are largely to blame for this - people who obsess about celebrities and their private lives, rather than merely enjoying their performances and entertainments.   How does knowing the name of Brad Pitt's children enhance the experience of viewing a movie he stars in?   It doesn't.  If anything, it detracts, as you are no longer seeing an actor playing a role, but instead an actor.

But I digress.  Fans suck.

The second thing that struck me was the dichotomy between Hillary and Donald regarding their private and public lives.   Hillary (and her aides) have discussed in e-mails various strategies and policies for the campaign, which is to be expected.   An aide may float a trial balloon and then have it shot down.   Some things may be said that - particularly when taken out of context - sound ugly.   But really, if you read these e-mails, nothing criminal or wrong is being said.   You are, however, privy to the sausage-making that is going on behind the scenes.

On the other hand, if you want to read something ugly or embarrassing said by Trump or one of his minions, all you need to do is read his Twitter feed, or listen to a speech or hear one of his associates awkwardly try to defend him on the Sunday talk shows.   The ugliness of Trump is right out there for everyone to see, and he's proud of it.   There is no "private life" with Trump, and he apparently doesn't give a rat's ass.  Maybe this is part of his appeal.

Every scandal, every outrageous thing, every bankruptcy - they are all out there for everyone to see.   But most don't choose to look.   And Trump, being a "celebrity" and not really a politician, understands this well.   14 years on a "Reality Television" show taught him what most Americans really like - or at least that huge number who watch cable TV all day long.   They want "dirt".  They want arguments.  They want controversy.  They want scandal.

What they don't want is to be bored.  And Trump provides them with lots of excitement - whether it is based on "Reality" or not.

But it seems to me that we have lost something along the way here.  There should be a private life, even for celebrities, and certainly for politicians.   We should be judging the latter based on their prior public lives and their future policy positions, rather than on who-said-what-to-who.   It seems we are doing just the opposite these days.   We ignore Trump's numerous bankruptcies and lawsuits, and his utter failure as  businessman.  We ignore the pleas of the thousands or tens of thousands of people he has stiffed over the years.   We ignore the outrageous things he says in public.   Rather, we concentrate on what some aid to Hillary said in a aprivate e-mail chain three years ago when discussing a campaign strategy.

I find this quite odd.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Flying the Concorde (Experiences)

Flying the Concorde for many was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I have few regrets in life.  One minor regret that I have is that I had an opportunity to fly on the Concorde, just before it went out of service, and I decided not to do it.   The tickets weren't cheap, but they were offering discounts and we could have swung it, if we reset our priorities.  It would have been quite an experience.  I could have flown over on the Concorde and then sailed back on the QE2.   But it seemed like a "lot of money" at the time, so instead, we went to Home Depot and put some shitty little amount of money on our credit card instead, to buy some useless home tchotchke which has long ago gone into the trash. 

Of course, there are others who were fortunate enough to fly the Concorde on a regular basis.   And I suppose, over time, just like WW II Veterans and Men Who Walked On The Moon, folks who flew the Concorde will die off, until one day, maybe in my lifetime, there will be a news story about "the last person to fly the Concorde has passed away".

I mean, they talk a lot about a "next generation" supersonic passenger plane, but nothing much ever comes of it.   It turns out, there isn't much of a business case for it, just as there wasn't much of a business case for the original Concorde - but they built it anyway, such was the optimism of the 1960's.  I suspect, going forward, with virtual reality being the "next big thing" we will see a drop in airline travel.   Or if it is to continue, it will be along the lines of the current cattle-car low-cost model.

But I digress.   The point is, sometimes you should just say "fuck it" and do things before time runs out.   Because you likely won't have a chance again in your lifetime to experience that thing.   For example, we were in Jacksonville the other day to see the Squirrel Nut Zippers, or at least a band calling itself that, and saw that Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate, would be playing next month.   Now, I am not a huge Bob Dylan fan or groupie or anything, but it struck me that this was an excellent opportunity to see him in my lifetime, live.  Growing up in the 1960's he was part of our culture and today a cultural icon.   So we bought the tickets, which ironically were fairly cheap.   Hopefully the experience will be more authentic than the re-constituted Zippers.

(By the way, that is precisely why I think Dylan was so ambivalent about receiving the Nobel Prize.   Being given an award like that is a bit like being bronzed - you are no longer a person, but a cultural icon.   And while I think he enjoys being baked, perhaps not bronzed).

The Squirrel Nut Zippers experience was interesting to say the least.  As an official "old person" my view of live concerts has changed over time.  Large crowds and loud noises are less appealing to me than when I was in my 20's.  The last time we saw the Zippers live was in 1998 at the Club 9:30 in Washington DC.   And live performances (and the Zippers) were different back then.   We all crammed into my creaky old grey-market Mercedes and drove into the District, finding a place to park right in front of the club.

Club 9:30 had a martini bar on the balcony, as well as a cigar bar downstairs.   It was the 1990's, of course, and we all did that - sipped martinis, chomped on cigars, and pretended to play golf.   We found seats right in the center of the balcony and had a great view.  The band was great and everyone had a good time and no one in the audience decided to make it all about them instead.

Fast-forward 20 years and the smart phone has been invented.   Enjoying music in a live venue has changed a lot.   For starters, at the Zippers show in Jacksonville, there were a lot of people texting and yes, even talking, on their smart phones during the show.  But that was not the worst of it.  Others decided they had to "document" the entire experience by making an hour-long video with their smart phone (in vertical mode, no less - how annoying to watch) and held their phone over their heads.   This of course, is annoying, as you are distracted from the actual performance by this tiny screen on the phone of the asshole in front of you.   And the asshole making the video isn't really enjoying the show, but rather seeing it all through a tiny screen.

I realized this back in the early 1990's when I bought an 8mm camcorder.   I quickly realized I was not experiencing real-life, but life through a viewfinder.   What's more, no one wanted to watch my shitty 8mm videos anyway.   So I put the camcorder away and that was that.

Today, we have "social media" and in particular, Facebook.   People post these boring videos on their Facebook pages, not because they expect people to actually watch them, but in order to say, "Gee, look at me!  I am at a cool concert!" and thus groom their online image and try to make everyone else feel jealous of their glamorous lifestyle.  It is fucking annoying.

Speaking of annoying, the blonde 20-something behind me decided that taking flash pictures with her camera throughout the show was a swell idea.   Again, this desire to document for Facebook, because "if there are no pix, it didn't happen!" or so they say.   Her cell phone camera would make an annoying pre-flash before it actually took the picture, and as a natural reaction, I would turn around and glare at her and her camera after the pre-flash, causing an unintentional photo-bombing of all her pictures.

"Gee, those are great pictures of the concert Greta, but who's the angry old fuck glaring at you in every photo?"

Age indeed was another factor of the concert.   Many of the audience were like myself - old folks who had been listening to the band since the 1990's.   But apparently they have attracted a new generation of "hipsters" who were mere children or not even born when their first album came out (I know this because some of them were carded at the bar before the show).   

And when I say "hipsters" you know the routine - guys with Hitler haircuts and lumberjack beards.   Trying just a little too hard to be cool and hip.   I guess we did the same sort of thing back in the day, too.  One of my friends who went to the 1998 concert was wearing rubber pants and Doc Martins which I guess were a "thing" with his club scene and at raves.   Of course, he never posted pictures of them to his "feed" because that shit didn't exist.

Some venues, of course, are trying to cut back on this nonsense.   Cell phones are not allowed and if you whip one out, you are asked to leave.  Some performers have actually stopped their shows when people start to record the event.   Long before smart phones, most venues explicitly said, before each performance, that no recording devices or cameras were to be used during the performance.   Back then it was a copyright issue.  Today it is one of common courtesy.   But for some reason, the smartphone generation thinks that smart phones don't apply.

It reminds me of the time we were in London, seeing that Harry Potter kid appear in Equus.   There were lots of young Potter groupies there, all wanting to see Daniel Radcliffe's "bits and bobs" and a young woman in the seat ahead of us was all set, with her flash camera at the ready.   An usher walked up to her before the show, and in his best John Houseman voice said, "Young Lady, this is the Theater, and in the Theater we do not take pictures!"

She put her camera away.   And for the whole performance, no one took theirs out or tried to take photos.   People were well-behaved.  Back then.

Today, things have changed.  If you google "Smart phone concert" you see sites with tips on "Smart phone etiquette" for taking photos and videos at concerts.  Or a page decrying the "dumb idea" of banning picture taking at concert events.   People just don't get it.

(Some "fans" however argue that they have a right to film, record, or photo events, and that performers should be "grateful" that they are doing so, as it promotes the band's brand.  This illustrates the evil nature of fandom - people who take, take, take, but never give.   If you really respect a performer, you would not say silly shit like that, and moreover, not stalk them or try to invade their personal lives.  Fans are sad, lonely people who try to steal the identity of a performer in order to enhance their own dreary lives.   But again, I digress).

How times have changed.   Social media and the smart phone seem to have made a whole generation of people into assholes of the first order.  What is important to them is documenting their lives so it can appear on social media.  Whether this inconveniences or ruins the experience for others really doesn't matter - because the experience doesn't matter, but rather just the bragging rights to say you went to it.  "Look at me!  I went to a concert!"

Apparently, Dylan is one of a growing number of artists who are strictly enforcing a "no smart phone" policy, and I for one applaud this.   If you go to see someone perform, then go see them perform.   Experience the moment, don't try to document it for posterity.  Because as a documentarian, you are missing out on the experience of the moment.

And worse yet, you are causing a lot of other people to miss the experience as well.

P.S. - while staying at the hotel, we were treated to 500 channels of cable TV.   Ugh.  I don't know which is more evil - television, smart phones, or social media?   They seem to be the Devil's own trioika.   Life is far better without any of them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is Polling Obsolete?

Calling people on the "phone" insures only that you get a skewed sample, for a number of reasons.

Donald Trump says not to listen to the polls.  And like a stopped clock, he is right about some things, at least twice a day.   Polling numbers are hard to quantify these days.  One crazy poll that Trump loves to cite, uses the same base of respondents over and over again.  They call this a "tracking poll" but it is really tracking very little.   Since the base of a few thousand voters includes one black man who is in favor of Trump, it incorrectly suggests that Trump has a huge black following.

The problem with a "tracking" poll also is that if you keep asking the same people their opinion, chances are, they will give you the same opinions.   So if your sample is mostly pro-Trump people, it will continue to show a bias toward Trump (or toward Hillary, depending on the initial sample).  It only tracks "undecided" voters, who let's face is, are utter morons.   When I hear someone say they are "not sure" who to vote for, or that "both candidates are alike" I wonder if they flunked that Kindergarten test of "one of these things is not like the other"  (no shame, I flunked it myself).

But telephone polling is another form that is still used today and is utterly obsolete.  Bloomberg just released a poll showing Trump with a 2-point lead in Florida.  This is not surprising, given that the only people who have landlines anymore or answer the phone are old people.  Young people don't have landlines and screen their calls on their smart phones - answering only those calls from people they know, letting the rest bounce to voicemail.

Young people assume - correctly - that most unknown callers are likely scam artists these days.  And if anyone calls asking you to complete a "survey" chances are it is also a scam.  So young people don't answer surveys as much as old people do.

Also, when doing a telephone survey, who do you call? (and no, it ain't Ghostbusters).  The Bloomberg poll apparently uses people in Florida area codes, as evidenced by this first question in the survey:
"First, I just need to ask if you currently live in the state of Florida. (If needed:) People sometimes take their phone number when they move to another state, so we just need to determine what state I’m talking to."
In other words, they are aware that just because you have a 305 area code, it doesn't mean you live in Miami, as you may have moved to Texas and taken your number with you.   But they don't consider the opposite effect - that a lot of people who move to Florida, particularly in the last decade, kept their old cell numbers from "up North" even as they live in Florida.  A couple I know who live in The Villages still have their 315 area code phones, which is a far cry from 305.  One is Syracuse, the other is Miami.   They will never be called by Bloomberg unless Bloomberg is polling Central New Yorkers.

So you see the flaw in the Bloomberg poll - it only captures people who have been living in Florida a long time, and moreover, it might never capture newer residents, who have no incentive to change their phone number just because they moved.  As I have noted in other postings, area codes mean nothing today, and I am a prime example.   Not only are my cell phones in area code 703 (Northern Virginia) but my "landline" (NetTalk VoIP) as well.

Alas, in this modern era, where phone calls are basically dead, the pollster has a difficult problem to solve - how do you contact people and get their opinions?  Or more succinctly, how do you get a representative sampling of opinion?   Because quite frankly, if Bloomberg called me with its poll, I would probably hang up.  They ask far too many questions and I have shit to do.   As a result, every poll as a built-in filter in that it samples only people who want to answer pollsters' questions.   The longer the poll, the smaller this demographic group is.

What it gets down to is that the only poll that counts is the one on November 8th.   Or the 28th, if you are voting for Trump.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reddit and the Disinformation Campaign

Reddit posited itself as the "front page of the Internet" but really is just the front page of a tabloid.

A reader suggested I check out the website "Reddit" which has made a lot of news lately as being the home of a lot of "alt-right" hate speech and Trump supporters (I am being redundant).   The site is designed to allow people to submit links to articles from other places on the Internet and then they are up-voted or down-voted to see what ends up on the "front page" of Reddit in sort of a Wiki-like manner.

As you might imagine, this model is fraught with problems.   You can program "bots" to vote up or vote down certain articles in order to promote stories or dampen others.  The Trump supporters are accused of doing this, and some believe these "bots" are coming out of Russia.   In response, Reddit tweaked its algorithms to dampen the effect of "bots" or try to detect when they are being used.   But of course, this leads to charges of censorship.

There are also many "subreddits" - thousands of them - covering everything from video games to online gaming to discussions of games and controversy about gaming.   I am being facetious of course, but it does seem that the vast trove of data on Reddit is mostly related to online gaming, and that every day, the "front" page has a lot of gaming-related posts.   You start to get a picture about the demographics of Reddit users from this.  Young.  Male.  Lonely.

And of course, Reddit was the home (at least in part) of the "gamergate" controversy where some gamers lashed out at female game designers because, well, I frankly don't give a fuck darn.  It was about the silliest "controversy" that ever existed, but for some reason, people were taking the opinions of 14-year-old "gamers" with dead seriousness.

Prior to that, Reddit was also host to "watching [black people] die" - a nice subreddit that had links to videos of black people being killed.   This was removed, of course, as being racist.  But they still have a "sub" for "watching people die" which links to videos of people being killed.  Fun stuff.  This is shit that is really bad for your mental health.  Fortunately, you don't have to worry about your kids seeing any of this, as they have to click on an "I am 18 or older" page to get in, so they cannot access the site (the sarcasm light is ON).

It also had other subreddits that were virulently racist, homophobic, misogynist, and whatever.   They still have a subreddit for rape apologists who "take the red pill" and live in the "real world" where women are sex objects to be used by men for their own needs.   Again, you see the sort of demographic they are pandering to here - fat slovenly gamers who spend all day staring into the blue glow of a computer screen and never get laid.

Reddit has tried to clean up its act - jettisoning its most odious subreddits.   It is after all, owned by (through a shell company) Conde Nast, the famous publisher who would never dream of putting "Watch [black people] die" in the New Yorker.   So they had to finally go in and clean out the worst of it, out of sheer embarrassment, even if the click-through revenue was strong.

And speaking of revenue, one way Reddit makes money is by allowing certain "viral" posts to float to the top of its septic tank.   It is no coincidence, but you will suddenly see dozens of postings about a new movie, clothing item, video game (natch), or other product or service flood the "front page" and even other subreddits.   These are structured not to appear too obviously as advertisements. 

For example, when the movie "Dead Pool" came out (which appears to be some kind of superhero movie), Reddit was flooded with postings, not about the movie, but the marketing for it.   For example, a teaser billboard was posted and discussed.  And it worked.   I was made aware of the movie and the comic book which I had not been aware of before.   But the sudden flood of postings was too coincidental.  Since then, I have noticed a pattern of postings nearly every day, relating to some new product or service, and it can't be all that coincidental.

Reddit has already demonstrated that it can control what reaches the front page when they shut down most (but not all) of the Trump Spam that was being upvoted by bots.   And what appears on the front page, oddly enough, isn't always what gets the most "upvotes" for some reason.   They control what appears, either manually or through algorithms, so clearly they could easily allow a paid advertiser to put their spam on the front page if they chose to do so.

The upvoting process does allow outsiders to influence content, and there have been allegations that the Russians are trying to manipulate world opinion against the United States.   Actually, these are less allegations than statements of fact.  Psychological Operations have been going on for decades between our two countries.   We each try to psyche the other out by manipulating public opinion, just as corporations do to influence consumers.

And on Reddit, it seems there is a steady drumbeat of bad news in general, and in particular, bad news about the United States.  If you click on "news" or "world news" you would think the United States was the worst country in the world.   There are a lot of links to articles from The Independent which is a slow-loading tabloid website from the UK that delights in reporting stories that make the US look like a third world country.   If you read only The Independent, you might come away with the impression that crime is rampant in the US, with blood running in the streets and that our government is corrupt and venal and vile.

And sadly, many people here in the USA would agree with that last statement, which is sad, as our system of government, even with its flaws, represents the apogee of civilization since the dawn of mankind.    You have to look carefully at the history of the world and also look carefully at how 90% of the world lives before you pass judgement on the USA.   Oh, sure the people in Sweden have cradle-to-grave socialism.   But they have their own internal problems as well, that are usually not reported on in the US press.   But outside of the West, life is not so sweet.  And we should think long and hard before we discard democracy based on a spur-of-the-moment feeling.

For example, today the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up 100 points on better than expected earnings.   You'd think this would make the front page of "news" but it does not.  Instead, you are treated to depressing stories about crime and police shootings and other "America is Awful" sort of crap.  It is not that some of these stories are not newsworthy or even untrue, only that they dominate Reddit and good news is, well, just not shown.

Because of all of the above, I find that Reddit is less than useful.  It is little more than a propaganda machine, trying to tell you how to think, what to buy, and who to vote for.   What's worse, it seems to be easily manipulated by outside forces to achieve their own ends.  In that regard, it is even worse than MSN or YAHOO.  MSN just keeps trying to sell you a "surface" and Yahoo a new car.

But the most important thing is that like most Internet websites, discussion groups, and social media outlets, Reddit fosters mental depression in its readers.   If you spend a lot of time on Reddit, you will get depressed over time.   Like any other online group, it is filled with trolls and haters and flame wars.  Spending any time there at all will only insure that you end up feeling empty and sad.   The articles that they collate as "news" or "the front page" are hardly representative of real life, unless you spend 10 hours a day behind a gamer console and view the world outside your darkened bong lair as an evil and maleficent place.

So no, I don't think Reddit is really "the front page of the Internet" or even a worthwhile site to visit.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Hoo-Doo Economics

Is religion just a way of dealing with the stress of our own mortality?

I was reading an article recently about stress and anxiety and one passage struck me as very astute.  The author, some sort of psychologist, mentioned in passing that we all have an underlying stress or anxiety over our own deaths.

I thought about this and it struck me that is one reason why we have religions and why religion is a natural part of the human existence.  It is a way of dealing with the ultimate stress in life, by putting time and energy into a belief system which makes life seem worthwhile to live.

Death is, of course, horrifying on a number of levels.   Teenagers love to go to horror movies as they are young and death seems like a far-off thing.  Older people are less entranced by horror shows as they are living them in real-time.

Death is horrific on a number of levels.   First is the inevitable decline and decay of the human body over time.  We get old and quite frankly, horrifying.  If you don't see a good friend or family member for a decade or so, the first thing you think is, "Gee, they've really gone downhill!" - but of course our friend or family member is echoing the same sentiment.   Getting old isn't for sissies, as they say - it can be incredibly difficult.

The second horror show aspect of death is the messiness and pain of it.   Unless you are one of the lucky few to die in your sleep or be crushed instantly by a 3-ton hydraulic stamping press, you are in for a real fun time as your body shut down or some disease or illness slowly and painfully kills you off.   Some fun, eh?

The third aspect is the prospect of what happens next?  Do we just stop existing or is there some sort of afterlife?   Most people find comfort in the latter prospect and thus tend to believe it, even if they profess to be atheists or whatever.

The fourth aspect is the sense of loss - felt more by the living that the dead.   When someone dies, well, gosh darn it, you miss them.   When our greyhound passed away this year, we had been through the first two aspects of death - seeing her lose her health and faculties over time and the messiness and pain and discomfort of her actual demise.   That was horrific enough.  But the hardest part was in missing her and having memories triggered over little things, time and time again.   When you really love someone, it is hard, as you miss them terribly and they aren't coming back.

For people you don't care about or don't like, well, this is less of a problem.   By the time my alcoholic Mother died, it was more of a relief than anything.  Finally we were safe from knife attacks and 3AM phone calls.  In a way she did us a favor - by making her persona so toxic towards the end, we didn't miss her too much, and the grieving we had done for the Mother that was, we had done long ago.

But getting back to religion, one reason we find the need for religion, I think, is that we want to make some sense or meaning of our lives, and also comfort ourselves as we face this horror show that is life - and death.   By believing in Jesus or Mohamed or Moses or Buddha or whoever, we feel there is some grand meaning to our lives - some sort of master plan - and that our existence isn't just some brief flare that sputters and burns out.

(And of course, that is one problem with religions.  There are dozens of mainline religions in the world, and each has dozens of sects within it.  Each sect believes that all other religions are false and that theirs is the only and only true way.  If so, a lot of people - the vast majority of the planet - are going to hell.  So if you go the religion route, be sure you pick the right one!).

I have noted before that most of us live lives that are relatively bereft of any meaning.  We are born, we are raised, we work, we retire, and then we die.   Our existence on the planet has little or no greater meaning in life for the most part.  A middle-manager in a corporation is pretty interchangeable.  What most of us do for a living is not really that important and could be done by someone else.   When we die, and everyone who knows us dies, it will be like we never existed.

Some folks find this prospect depressing.   I find it liberating.   It is just a fact of life, frankly.   How you perceive it is up to you.

(Some folks find solace in rearing and raising children.  This is, indeed, one way to become immortal, provided you do it correctly.   The vast majority, it seems, sort of have litters of children and treat them indifferently, and then wonder why they are estranged from them later in life).

But for many, religion puts life into a framework.  It makes the individual a part of a greater good.   And while many find religion to be a bunch of hoo-doo hooey, perhaps there is a nugget of truth to this.   Maybe your life when viewed in the abstract seems pretty pointless.   But yourself, as the cog in a greater machine, is part of a greater whole.   Your asinine opinions and beliefs, by themselves, mean little in the greater scheme of things.  But as part of a huge human computing system that comprises our society and our planet, perhaps creates something that is greater than ourselves.

So yes, all that money you spent voting in "America's Idol" actually meant something, sort of.

Religion taps into this.  As an individual maybe your life means little.  As part of a larger organization of beliefs, it is something far more powerful.  Even atheists, who decry the excesses of religion, in fact make a religion of non-religion.  Their goal in life is to make the world a better place by abolishing religion - the same goal some of the religious have by making their religion universal.

Still others try to make themselves immortal through fame and fortune.  If you become famous - or infamous - you live on forever.    Others still work their whole lives, building a business or a career, making that the centerpiece of their lives in an effort to drown out the deafening silence in their lives.  These are not necessarily bad things, but often wonderful and fine things, if they make themselves happy in the process.

Myself, I try not to worry about it too much.  I am not sure that there is an afterlife, but if there is, it is not predicated on whether you obeyed the will of other people here on Earth.  That just seems like too pat an answer crafted by people hoping to accumulate power in this life.   The long and the short of it is, within the next 20 years or so, I will find our for sure.   So, I had better put the next 20 years to good use, rather than obsess about the end game.

As for religion, it seems to me to be an organic aspect of humankind.  Every civilization and race on the planet has developed - either in conjunction with another or independently - some sort of religion to explain the world, what happens when you die, and how the world was created.   It seems a part of human nature to look for answers to questions that cannot be answered rationally - why are we here?  What is consciousness?  What happens when we die?

In that regard, the atheists have an uphill battle.   Since religion is an organic part of the human existence, it will be hard to eradicate, if not impossible.   In fact, only by making atheism a religion of its own, will they hope to make any real inroads at all.

But that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Character versus Policies - Emotional Thinking versus Logical Thinking

When a politician doesn't want you to examine his policies too closely, he attacks his opponent's "character".

In the last few elections, one "issue" seems to have come to the forefront time and time again, and it really isn't an issue per se.   "Character" seems to be driving the political conversation and debates and both sides seem to enjoy wading in the mud to assassinate the other fellow's character.

And the media plays along, of course, because they love a good cock-fight and it is good for ratings, as CNN recently admitted.   And of course, we the consumers of media eat this crap up, so ultimately we are to blame for favoring flash over substance, appearances over reality, character over policy, emotional thinking over logic.

Does character matter?  To some extent, yes.   You don't want a convicted embezzler running for town clerk.   You don't want a convicted child molester on the school board.   And maybe someone who pledges allegiance to ISIS or some foreign power shouldn't be a US Congressman or President.

On the other hand, should elected officials be selected only from a pool of choir boys and nuns?   Does it make sense that we have some sort of character litmus test for public office that is so strict that none of us could ever pass it?

And that is the problem right there.   The Clintons are arguably the most investigated political couple in the history of the country.   Literally (and I mean literally) dozens of Benghazi investigations have turned up nothing - but a swell Hollywood movie begs to differ.  The decade-long Ken Starr investigation of everything the Clinton's ever did came up with nothing, other than Bill got a blowjob in the White House and then (like most honorable people) lied about it, because people with character don't brag about their sex lives in public - or in private for that matter.

And the sad thing is, there was a little meat on that bone.   I mean the perjury thing was kind of thin - expecting someone to admit an adulterous affair is kind of far-fetched.  Moreover what relevance does that have to the workings of government?   But he did apparently arrange a government job for Lewinsky after the fact, and that could have been (and should have been) the real "crime" if there was one, albeit minor in the scheme of things.

Sadly, Republicans decided to drop that line of inquiry and instead concentrate on the fact that the President had sex with someone not his wife as if that was some sort of major crime of the Century or something that never happens to the citizenry of the USA.

And they did this because it tested well.  As I recalled before, two friends of mine (who are now Hillary supporters) wanted to see Bill Clinton impeached.  They were conservative Democrats and supported Bill Clinton in the past, so their turnabout seemed odd to me.  They both explained that they had "ex'es" who had cheated on them, and they felt abused by their former spouses.  The Monica Lewinsky affair hit them right in the gut, which is exactly where the GOP hoped it would.   Go right past the logical brain and get the old emotional lizard brain to bite on some tasty tidbit.

And that is the main idea of the "character" argument.   Forget that I am selling trickle-down snake-oil or tax cuts for people who make three times as much as you do.   Forget that I am going to cut back on social programs that you benefit from - such as Social Security and Medicare - and think more about whether the other fellow slept around.  If I can distract you on the one hand, I can get away with murder with the other.   Every magician knows this.

But of course, those who live by the sword, die by it.  And in this election cycle we are seeing how Trump has been hoisted by his own petard.   Trump has been very sketchy on policies, other than to say things will be "brilliant" and "beautiful" and "great" and "huge" and the "best".   Instead, his entire platform consists on attacking the character of others - including people he beat in the primaries months ago.  He gives people derogatory nicknames and then repeats lies and half-truths about their character  as if that was enough to elect him President.

The problem with this approach is twofold.   First of all, when you don't stand for anything yourself, people get antsy - at least people who think.   The dumber set doesn't notice, as they project their own views onto your blank policy slate.   People attending Trump rallies think he is for their agenda, even if he hasn't said one word indicating so.   He is the Rorschach candidate.  He is whatever you think he looks like - white supremacist, anti-abortion crusader, pro-union trade warrior, fundamentalist Christian - even if he isn't really any of these things.

But the second and more important problem with this approach is that it leaves you vulnerable to the same kind of attack.   Hillary hasn't been asleep since the days of the Starr investigation.  She saw what they did to her Husband (and to her).  She saw how Swift-boating worked on Kerry and how Al Gore let George W. define him.   Once you let these character slurs go, the other side wins.

And often the only way to win the "character" battle is to attack your opponent, mercilessly.   Bush took what was potentially a liability - his lackluster war record - and turned it against his opponent who was a decorated veteran.  By election day, the tables were turned - Bush was the real hero, and Kerry was a draft-dodging medal-thrower.

"Bounces off me and sticks to you" is also a classic Trump move - and it worked, for a while at least.

So Trump tries to smear Hillary with Bill's alleged affairs and an entirely made-up story about how Hillary "laughed at a rape victim" (which is not true at all).   Rather than concentrate on real policy issues or real issues of character, he used these tangential claims because they involved sex and Americans are obsessed with sex.   Moreover, while Americans are very sexually liberated and our media (movies, television) depicts everyone actually having sex (a lot) - on our public stage we are still puritans, it seems, and we act shocked that anyone is actually doing it, even though we do it ourselves.

He opened the door for this sort of sleaze and Hillary drove a Mack Truck through it.   Well, we don't know if the Clinton campaign is behind the sleaze tapes and the numerous accusers (nine and counting) but they certainly aren't upset about this turn of events.

And it turns out that this - like the infidelity thing - is something that goes right to the gut and bypasses the brain.   A lot of women really don't like it when you grab their privates, it turns out.   Funny, I know, but they are that way.  Something to keep in mind, guys.  And I think these sort of revelations will help Clinton in terms of voter turnout and also in the number of "secret" Clinton voters in many swing States.   A lot of Fox-News-watching husbands will assume their dutiful wives will also be voting for Trump, but when the curtain closes on the voting booth, many a white, middle-class, middle-aged Republican woman may pull that lever (or push that button) for "one of our own."   Maybe it is time a woman ran things - after all, their pre-dementia husbands can't be trusted to even take out the trash, right?

But the sad thing about this situation is whether you root for one candidate or another, we don't really get to hear concrete answers (and criticisms) as to policy positions.  Trump is very vague on what he would do as President, other than build a wall, deport Muslims, and put Hillary in jail.  Hillary has detailed policy positions on her website (snooze!) but we never hear real concrete criticisms of them from Trump.

And perhaps this is by design.   If we actually discussed the candidate's positions on the issues, we might actually see through the smoke and fog more clearly.   Sadly, it seems many today still vote based on emotional thinking, and if you don't believe this, look at any Trump or Sanders rally footage.   People are voting for someone they think is a rock star, not a bundle of policy points.

I am not on Facebook, but Facebook is on me.

Facebook has created a web page for my now-defunct business, without my permission or authorization.  What the heck is this all about?  Click to enlarge.

About a year ago, some idiot put up a Facebook page about Fibromyalgia and started staying really hateful things about people who claim to have it.  He taunted them and tweaked them and tried to troll them.   He then linked to my entry on the topic, leaving the impression that I was somehow affiliated with his hateful actions or endorsed his bullying.

If you read my article, it only asks the question as to whether Fibromyalgia is a real disease (and indeed the guy who came up with the name for it says he no longer believes it is).  The guy on Facebook, on the other hand, was taunting people and calling them "fakers" just to get a response.  And sadly, Facebook allows (or allowed) people to anonymously set up "groups" like that with no accountability.

Well, it didn't take long for the pitchforks and torches to come out and people started sending me threatening e-mails and whatnot.  I tried to make clear that I am NOT on Facebook, and not only that, I think all "social media" is for idiots and morons.

I will not taunt or insult you for thinking you have Fibromyalgia.  I will however call you a fucking moron for even having a Facebook page or going on Twitter, Snapchat, or whatever.   Social Media has been one of the most evil and corrosive things to ever come out of the Internet, as it has turned into a haven for lies, mis-truths, misdirection, and addictive-compulsive behavior.  And let's not forget ISIS recruiting.  It has not liberated us as the Internet has promised to to, but enslaved us to checking our "smart phones" every ten seconds to see "updates" to our "feeds" so we can swallow marketing messages and lies (I am being redundant).

By the way, "feed" is something you feed cattle.

A lot of people think otherwise.  What is the harm in Facebook?  Putting up pictures of your kitten or the meal you just ate?   The problem is, it becomes a compulsion.   It also becomes a race to see how you can make your life look better than other peoples'.   The reality of course, is that like television, Facebook just causes you to get depressed as your "real life" cannot even come close to being as good as your online life appears.  So you try to make your Facebook life even more fabulous and the cycle continues - a downward spiral.

I got a weird solicitation phone call the other day from a 757 area code number, which turns out to be a source of a lot of telemarketers, including those IRS scammers.   It was to Mark's phone, though, and they asked for me by name.  So I searched online with my name and his number and I found that there is a Facebook page for "Robert Platt Bell & Associates" in "Alexandria Virginia" - a subchapter-S corporation I abolished over a decade ago.

I had never created such a page.  Again, I am not on Facebook.  What the fuck was going on?

It appears that Facebook will create pages based on what people are searching for and thus they created a Facebook page for me, without my knowledge or consent.   This is utterly fucked up.

A small disclaimer appears at the bottom:

"This Page is automatically generated based on what Facebook users are interested in, and not affiliated with or endorsed by anyone associated with the topic."
I mean, if you want to destroy your life through Facebook, knock yourself out.  But to drag other people into it?  That's just sick.

Not only that, people can create "pages" this way and then post all sorts of derogatory content on them without the person involved even being aware of it.   I only became aware of this page by accident.

If I was on Facebook, I could contact them to protest this page.  A lot good it would do.  If an individual tries to hijack your identity, they have a form to fill out, where you put in the offenders "ID" and a copy of your driver's license and they will remove the page.

But since this page was created by Facebook itself apparently I have no recourse.   Very odd.

Just once again, for those slow folks out there (who are on Social Media, and thus slow), I AM NOT ON FACEBOOK OR ANY OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA.

Any site that claims otherwise is lying.   And links to my blog are not endorsed by me, and since I don't go on Facebook, I have no idea who is linking to my blog.

Thank you.  Facebook sucks.  Get off it.  Social media is for dimwitted fools and narcissists.

Food Hoarding

Americans store too much food in their refrigerators.

We had just returned home when the hurricane struck.  So we had little food in the refrigerator to worry about.  We put that in the camper and left town.  No problems.

Going away for a couple of months every year, we empty the refrigerator and turn it off while we are gone.  Not only does this save electricity, it is probably better for the refrigerator.  Even "frost-free" models can accumulate ice after a while.  And it is always a good idea to clean and sanitize your refrigerator at least annually (if not twice a year) with a Chlorox wipe or a bleach/soap solution and paper towels.

Our European friends think we are quite insane about storing food.  American refrigerators are huge compared to those overseas, or even in adjacent countries.   A friend of ours who moved overseas actually had an American refrigerator shipped over at great expense.  "Their refrigerators are so small!" she complained.  I suggested that maybe they should live there a while and understand why they use smaller appliances.   The country has a sketchy electrical system, and most house wiring is pretty lame.   Electrical rates are also very high.   They also have a lot of good local fresh food at the local market every day, and local restaurants are so cheap as to be competitive with home-cooking.  There are reasons they have smaller refrigerators.   And they are pretty good reasons.
In America, we buy food in bulk and load up our refrigerators with it.  In other countries, shopping is done more often (sometimes daily) and very little food is kept in cold storage for any period of time.  As a result, we tend to be food-hoarders in this country, and it is somewhat disturbing and perhaps unhealthy.   At the very least, unappetizing.

Some folks are aware of what they are doing.  Others, less so.  One friend of ours admits she tends to store "fiddly bits" of food in the refrigerator - bits of cheese or vegetables that are little more than a bite or two.   These she wraps in cling-film and puts in the refrigerator until they turn into science projects.

Others are less self-aware.   We cleaned out a deceased relative's refrigerator recently and it was a mess.  She kept buying food and just shoving it in, pushing older food into the back where it was crushed.  It was like an archeological dig - layers of food from different eras.  In the back, eggs had been crushed against the wall and had dripped down and fossilized.   Pretty gross.

Still others just keep food around for months and even years.   When we go away, we unplug our refrigerator(s) and empty out all the contents and sanitize the cabinet.   We know others who leave for months and leave opened bottles of ketchup in the fridge for when they return.   The problem with this model is not only is the food stale, but a prolonged power outage could spoil food and make it dangerous to eat - and you may not be aware that such an outage has occurred.

Some modern fridges will post messages like "high temperature event, 36 hours" or have a power outage light.   But even if the the power doesn't go out, refrigeration is not some panacea that prevents food spoilage indefinitely.    And it seems to be an American thing to want to keep food for weeks or even months in the refrigerator.

Compounding this problem is supplemental refrigerators and/or freezers.   Many Americans have an old fridge in the garage for "beverages" with perhaps the freezer used to hold long-term storage of frozen meats or foods.   Others have larger freezers and buy food in bulk for storage.   We seem to be averse to the idea of shopping regularly or perhaps we just have food shortage anxieties.

The problem is, of course, that the only real emergencies that would require large quantities of stored food are the same emergencies where the power goes out.   So all that hoarded food goes bad when a natural disaster occurs.   You'd be better off with a small supply of canned goods, or just leaving the area.

Still others try to solve this problem by installing whole-house generators so their precious hoarded food stays frozen when the power goes out.  This raises costs by a factor of ten, of course.

The savings in "buying in bulk" are of course offset by the cost of a freezer and the cost of electricity to run it.   So I am not sure that buying 15 pounds of pork chops on sale is a good thing, if you end up paying for a years' worth of electricity to preserve them.

During the recent hurricane, we lost power for several days.   Many here on our island tried to "save" food that had come to room temperature.   No doubt there will be many visits to the doctor as a result of this.   It just isn't worth saving old food if the end result is you get sick or die.

Yes, it seems "a shame" to throw away "good food" but it isn't good and really isn't food once it is contaminated with listeria or salmonella.   But it begs the question, why do you have so much food in your refrigerator in the first place?   Maybe buying smaller quantities of food and hoarding less is a better idea than stuffing a refrigerator and freezer with a month's worth of meals.

And one way to avoid this trap is to simply plan, at least once or twice a year, a time when you empty out the refrigerator of everything and either consume the food or throw it away, and then unplug the refrigerator and clean it and let it sit empty for a while.   A vacation trip or other absence can be a good opportunity to do this - work through your food inventory in the weeks leading up to the trip and then clean out the fridge and unplug it while you are gone.   When you get back, you come back to a shiny clean and sanitized refrigerator, with no science experiments inside.

Just a thought.

UPDATE:   If your refrigerator doesn't have a "high temp" alarm, you can try this simple trick to see whether the power has gone out.   However, it is a lot simpler just not to have so much fucking food in the refrigerator and to empty it out when you leave for vacation or a storm.