Thursday, August 31, 2017

New York State of Mind

Republicans talk a lot about regulations crimping the economy.  You don't realize what they are talking about until you travel from a Red State to a Blue State.

New York is wonderful in the summer.  But the New York State government seems almost oppressing.  They provide so many reasons you can't do something, which after living in the South, you chafe at.

Here is just a list of a few "rules" I have run afoul of since visiting New York.  I've run into these in the past, of course, but it seems more than ever these are petty regulations and rules that don't accomplish anything:
1.  Deposit Laws:  I've written about these before, and if you look at the list of States listed on the side of a can or bottle that have deposit laws, you can see a connection - these are all mostly depressed States (except for California) and are rust-belt nightmares.  They've chased away all industry, but we can all make money collecting cans for deposit.   Deposit laws are just government nannyism.  They don't result in less litter (seriously - drive from a deposit law State to a non-deposit law State and tell me if you see a difference.

2.  Recycling Nazis:  The cold truth is that cardboard and aluminum are recycled.   All those plastic bottles and glass are just thrown away - not worth anything in the recycling market.  Sure, you can carefully wash and sort those old jars of mustard for the recycling man.  He throws them in the garbage.   New York State Parks all have smelly garages for recycling, where everything from apple cores to banana peels have separate bits.   It is all a bad joke.  The "Landfill shortage" is a political creation, aided and abetted by the Mafia, who runs the garbage business (and much else of New York).  The Mob knows, from prohibition, that if you make something illegal, you can profit from it.

3.  Gas Pump Latches:  I wrote about this before.  They take the latch out of the gas pump nozzle so you have to sit there and pump gas by hand.  Not as bad as some States which won't let you pump your own gas.   I stuck my key in there once to latch the nozzle and the attendant - a nerdy guy who had a little authority, which is a dangerous thing - came running out and said, "You can't do that, it's New York State Law!"   Well, call the State Police, because I'm a scofflaw.   Again, there doesn't seem to be much difference in States with these latches and States without, other than being a pain in the ass.  And by the way, how about a law making it illegal to put televisions in gas pumps and then forcing you to watch and listen to them when you get gas?  That seems like the real injustice here.

4.  Online Pharmacy Data:  Walmart has a great system for drug prescriptions - you get your prescription there and you are on their massive computer system and can get a refill in any State in America where there is a Walmart.   Oh, except New York.   "New York Law!" the pharmacist cries - as if it was handed down on tablets by Moses.   So we have to re-enter all the data by hand, call (on a phone) to the original pharmacy and then move the prescription to New York, as if I was going to spend the rest of my life here.   A beautiful streamlined computerized system fucked up by stupid State regulations.

5.  Wine in the Grocery Store:  In New York, grocery stores sell only beer, no wine.  The idea is to protect the wine wholesalers (the Mafia again) and the retailers.   But if you go to a State, like Georgia, where wine is sold in grocery stores, you see vibrant wine and liquor stores doing a good business.   Somehow, the lack of restrictive regulations didn't put them all out of business.   In New York State, you can't get "Two Buck Chuck" at Trader Joe's, and that's a damn shame.

6.  Registering Your Car:  In the South, when you buy a car, you put a piece of cardboard in the rear window that says, "Tag Applied For" with a Sharpie.  In New York, this would get you pulled over an arrested.   When I registered my boat in Georgia, they said, "Keep the old numbers on it and use this piece of paper that you filled out as a temporary registration.  We'll send you a registration and new numbers in a few months."   This relaxed attitude is a realization that registering boats is just nonsense and quite frankly, registering cars isn't much better.   Why stress over things?   In New York, if you so much as move a car without tags on it, unless it is on a tow truck, you're in big trouble.   And let's not talk about safety and emissions inspection.   I can see the need for the latter, but I am not convinced that safety inspection is just a sop to the gas station owners to troll for unnecessary repair work.
OK, taken by themselves, these regulations aren't enough to sink an economy.  But add them up, and you find yourself constricted in what you can and cannot do.  And this is just a very, very short sample of what sort of restrictions you face.  Talk to a business owner up here - they will tell you they spend half their time fighting Albany and regulators.   Businessmen are just assumed to be criminals, but of course the real criminals (organized crime) skate through regulations quite easily.   You see how regulations can have an unintended effect - to suppress new business as a barrier to entry, and preserve older business in a crony-capitalist type scenario.

The other problem is, of course, that it is easy to enact a regulation but damned difficult to get rid of one.  New Yorkers love their deposit law, because they don't know any different.  They have regulation blinders on, and they love their leash and harness, once adjusted to it.  And I can say this from experience, when I moved South and saw people with hand-made signs on their cars saying, "tag applied for" and was outraged - outraged - that they could "get away with that"!

Then I realized the logic of it.   Licensing cars is just government nonsense and why be so strict about it?  Maybe it is the relaxed way of doing things in the South - "You-all register your ve-hick-el when you get a chance, willya?"  Arresting people and putting them in jail for what really is a made-up bit of nonsense is really silly.

And then you realize that New York, despite its "Blue State" pretensions, is really more of a Police State that many Red States are.  New York is where "stop and frisk" was invented.  And while other States experiment with legalizing marijuana, "liberal" New York drags its feet.   Again, the Mafia doesn't want to lose its monopoly.   Make everything illegal, and the the Mob can clean up.   And by everything I mean everything - even something as innocuous as throwing your trash away.

This is not to say that all regulations should be abolished, only that sometimes, well, you have to pick your battles wisely, and things like latches on gas pumps seem kind of trivial in the greater scheme of things.  Just because it would be nice to pass a law, doesn't mean we have to.   Laws add up, and are easy to add to the books, and hard to get rid of.

And the results speak for themselves - people are fleeing highly-regulated Blue States and moving to places where there are fewer laws and regulations because the economies there flourish.   Our 50-State experiment in Democracy creates 50 petri dishes of government experimentation.   The idea of the big-government know-all, see-all, and do-all, which seemed so successful in the 1960's is showing itself to have failed in the long run.   Without New York City and Wall Street to prop it up, New York State would be in worse shape than Illinois.

UPDATE:  A friend in Elmira New York reports and interesting situation. She was forced to repair the sidewalk in front of her house because the city no longer has funds to repair sidewalks and homeowners are required to pay for repairs. She contacted a local concrete company and they started the work not realizing they need a permit from the city. The city inspector came out and shut down the whole deal until they got a permit. However, once they got the permit, he harassed them on a daily basis expanding the cost of the project considerably and making them redo the work several times.

The punchline was the city inspector said, "Why didn't you come to us in the first place? We would have given you a list of pre-approved contractors to do the work." In other words, the city inspectors were taking kickbacks from contractors to be "pre-approved" to do the work. I am sure a $100 bill stuffed in his shirt pocket would have solved the problem in short order.

A friend of mine asked how the economy in this depressed Central New York town could be improved. Eliminating corruption and organized crime would be a good start, followed by eliminating the unions.

New York is a classic example of how government can kill an economy.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Why Texas Will Survive

Will we just have to abandon Texas at this point and start over?  The media seems to think so.

The media is at it again, wearing out its thesaurus trying to find adjectives to describe the devastation of hurricane Harvey.  This is not to trivialize the amount of damage and death that is occurring in Texas and Louisiana, only that the media tends to exaggerate things and should not be trusted for a fair analysis of any current issue.

Compounding this are politicians on both sides of the aisle which one to make political hay out of natural disasters.  One thing that turns me off from the Democratic party is their use of Katrina "victims" who are still considered to be victims of hurricane over a decade after it has struck.  This is not to say they were not victims at one time, but there should be a time limit on victimhood and least with regard to economic losses.

The media today is rife with reports that Texas will never recover from this flooding in the Houston will remain devastated for centuries to come.  Well perhaps they are not being that dramatic in reporting, but they are coming awfully damn close.  The reality is, Texas will survive and recover far more quickly than people expect.

Houses will be repaired, some rebuilt.  Those flooded cars will be sold at auction and repaired.   Restaurants will clean up and re-open (and not be permanently closed as some media outlets suggest).  Oil refineries will go back online faster than you think.   But the media, of course, will keep looking for the cloud in the silver lining, as that sort of story sells and sells big.

We've been through a number of hurricanes, having lived in Florida and also survived one here in Georgia. And in every case, we've noticed a pattern with these storms and the storm stories.  The media likes to show pictures of extreme flooding and extreme damage, but never bothers to show pictures of areas that are relatively unharmed, which often make up the majority of a community.

The media hypes fear and tells you to wait in line for hours for a bag of ice - so they can film you in line for hours waiting for a bag of ice and then say how awful things are (A better idea is to stay home, forget the ice, eat canned goods - that's what we did).

The media also likes to put up stories about people who lost everything in a hurricane, but don't talk to their neighbors who came through just fine.  This puts forth the wrong impression that everyone in the area was devastated by the storm which may or may not be the case.

Storms and natural disasters are not unpredictable wild events that come out of the blue or are so-called "Acts of God."  They are actually rather predictable events in your lifetime, as I noted we have survived several of them already.  To live anywhere on the east coast and say that you would never expect to encounter a hurricane is akin to someone in California saying they would never expect to encounter earthquake, or somewhere in the midwest saying they would never expect to encounter a tornado.

These are predictable events.  And as I noted earlier posting, you have to prepare for predictable events, and not act surprised when they occur.   You ride a motorcycle, you can expect to end up in a hospital - yet so many young people will forego health insurance so they can make motorcycle payments.

Other predictable events in your life include a health crises, car accidents, and possibly even a house fire. This is why responsible people buy insurance and save up money for predictable events, rather than live paycheck-to-paycheck so they can own lot of crap in their yard.

Undoubtedly there are many people in the Houston area who don't have flood insurance, and I suspect in some poor neighborhoods, have no insurance at all.  If you travel to New Orleans even today, you will still see from the interstate, some houses in the 9th Ward which were never rebuilt. These are people who never bought hurricane insurance or flood insurance while living in an area that was below sea level.

But many others, in fact, most people rebuilt rather quickly after Katrina, and in fact New Orleans is quite prosperous today.  And I suspect it will surprise everyone how quickly Houston will rebound from flooding, particularly once the insurance companies show up and start handing out checks to those who had the foresight to buy insurance.

Is sad that news stations hype the "ain't it awful" mentality of human nature, as it sells news stories and clicks - but tends to lead viewers to mental depression.  Depressed people like to watch a lot of television which makes them further depressed.  And television caters to the need for bad news.

At a time like this, no one wants to hear good news - namely that people will rebuild and get back and move on with your lives more quickly than many will suspect.  But I think that will be the case, once you peel back the hysteria of the news media and the political blatherings of the politicians.

UPDATE:  Today the media reports that heartless landlords are evicting tenants from apartments that were five feet underwater.   What heartless bastards!  Where will the tenants live?   But of course, if the landlord let the tenant stay in an underwater apartment they would be castigated (and rightly so) as irresponsible for letting someone live in an unsafe mold factory.  What is the media trying to say here?  Oh, right, what sells, which is landlords are bad and we are all victims.

Other media outlets claim that renters are being "forced" to pay rent on flooded apartments, but of course, the destruction of the apartment is grounds to terminate any lease, provided you put it in writing.  Get a pen and paper people, this ain't rocket science.   But again, rich people (landlords) are bad and we are all victims with no way out other than religious-based charities and government assistance.

That is the narrative they want to sell us.  I ain't buying it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Paradise On Earth?

 Do artichokes prove the existence of God?

Every time I eat an artichoke I am affirmed of the existence of God.  It is always amazing to me that we have such a plethora of fruits and vegetables and other foods which simply grow out of the ground for us to eat.

Of course, biologists would point out that many of these food plants were carefully bred over centuries and eons to produce the yields that they do today.  Monsanto Roundup Ready corn was not necessarily a creation of God but one adapted by mankind.

And an economist would surely point out that I am one of the lucky few people on the planet to receive more than enough calories for subsidence on a daily basis.  Most people in this world struggle everyday to make a few pennies, a few rupees, or a few rubles just to get by.  Here in the West we are so fortunate to have too much of everything, yet we complain that everything is not enough.

The Bible tells us that mankind originally started out in the Garden of Eden which was a paradise where everything was available to mankind except the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.  The same religions that tell this story also tell us that even as we struggle to survive here on planet Earth, once we die, we will end up back in Paradise where everything will be free and easy.  According to religion, Paradise is something that we once had or will have in the future but something we will never have in the present.

And this is a great story to tell somebody who is on the brink of starvation because they are being exploited economically.  Go back to the copper mines, they tell us, and eventually you'll have your pie in the sky when you die.

But I think another form of existence is possible, and again maybe the Bible hints at this as well.  We were told to go forth and multiply but also to be the stewards of our planet and manage its resources.  In other words, use our brains to figure out how to make things sustainable for everyone in build a paradise here on Earth.

Maybe most theologians get the Genesis story wrong.  We were not thrown out of the Garden of Eden as punishment for biting on the fruit of knowledge but rather sent out to turn our own planet into a Garden of Eden, based on the knowledge we acquired and now have.  In other words, it is a test.  We bit at the fruit of knowledge and God said, "Fine, go use that knowledge and make your own Paradise!  See how easy it isn't!"

And I think it is possible that we could build a paradise on Earth if we chose to do so.  However,  it seems we spend more time arguing over whose religion is right, which is often just a smokescreen for arguing over who has the rights to minerals or fisheries or land, than figuring out how to best utilize the resources we have for everyone's benefit.

What I do realize, is that personally, I do live in a paradise on Earth, even though much of the population of the United States feels they are put upon and exploited. We are a very lucky segment of the worldwide population to have such wealth and relative ease.

And that's what I think about every time I have an artichoke.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Return to Wegmans

Wegmans turns grocery shopping into a theme park experience.

We are back in central New York, actually Erie Pennsylvania, had a chance to visit Wegmans once again.  If you get a chance to go to Wegmans you should go, as it is really an experience.  On the same note, if you get a chance to go to Disney World, you should go there too, as it is a lot of fun.  This does not mean, however that you should live at Disney World, only visit it at least once in your lifetime.

And the same is true for Wegmans.  It's an interesting grocery store although it is not really a grocery store the traditional sense, as they really don't sell groceries, but instead the idea of groceries.  I'm not taking a piss on Wegmans here, they are doing the same thing that Whole Foods and a host of other stores are doing, namely going where the market leads them.  And the market is leading them toward a lot of money in selling prepared meals.

I wrote earlier about Wegmans, and their serpentine track method of steering customers through the store.  When you first come in, you are directed to the produce area and then threw the vegan, and gluten-free, and organic food areas.  The "real food" area is only later in the store and you only reach that after you've already bought a package of $15 gluten-free potato chips.

The big thing they're doing though is prepared meals.  As we are walking through the store, helpful clerks are presenting free samples a prepared foods that you could take home for the attractive price of $10 per entree.   For example, they had a fish entree that came in a metal pan complete with vegetables and teriyaki sauce.  All you had to do, the man offering the sample suggested, was placed the package into an oven at 350 and wait 20 minutes and you have dinner.  He confessed to me that "I really don't know how to cook" which maybe wonder why he was wearing a chef's toque.

If $10 per entree sounds familiar, it is the same price that Blue Apron uses for their entrees mailed to your home.  It seems to be the price point that the grocery stores are moving towards.  Again, it's not that the food is bad or anything only that it is very much overpriced.  You can go to the store, even within Wegmans and buy the same food items by the package and assemble these meals yourself for far less.  If you want across the street to Price Chopper or Walmart, you could probably assemble the same food items for one quarter of the cost.

The grocery industry is moving to where the money is, and you can't blame for doing that.  They are finding that consumers want convenience over all else and also they want to be perceived as being gourmands or special - it is a status thing, once again.  So if you can sell them an upscale food item people will buy it, because they want to be perceived as being better than average and unique. People are also lazy and they don't want to spend a lot of time preparing their own food.

The good news is, there are still grocery stores that sell groceries these days and you can buy packaged items and cut them up yourself and prepare them, rather than having somebody else cut them and place them into a pan ready for reheating. It is a personal choice you can make, whether your time is so valuable that you can't spend five or ten minutes preparing a meal and paying somebody else to do it.

What we found nice about Wegmans was they had a lot of unusual food items that are hard to find in more mainline grocery stores.  Thus, if you go to a place like Wegmans or Whole Foods, be sure to shop for unique and unusual items that you can't find a you everyday food store.  There's no point in buying paper towels or soap at a place like this when you can buy that sort of thing at the Dollar Tree for a lot less.

Although, I thought it was funny that Wegmans, in the section that normally held a beer and wine, had a huge "warehouse" section selling pallets of diapers and paper towels and whatnot at "wholesale prices."  It was not very busy and I suspect they will tear that section out for more meal kit promotions.  But clearly they knew that consumers were aware of shopping clubs and we're trying to compete at that level as well. It was a bit of irony here, as they were trying to do the wholesale club thing as sort of a mock-up in one corner of the store, and at the other end of the store they were trying to do a Whole Foods thing with outrageous prices and trendy prepared meals.

If you do decide to go to Wegmans, go there after lunch.  They do have a restaurant there that sells food in a buffet bar and charges by the pound.  Unfortunately, by the time you fill up your clamshell with food and take it to the checkout counter to be weighed, you will find who bought $15 worth of lunch which is a bit excessive.  They're counting on the fact that most people are too embarrassed to walk away or try to put food back.

Wegmans is slowly spreading across the East Coast United States recently opening stores in Maryland and I am told one in DC and Virginia, working their Way South.  They are astutely concentrating on areas where there people with high incomes were willing to spend extra money on groceries, or more money than they need to spend.

Like I said, if you have a chance to go do it. It's a fun experience and a great thing to do once in awhile, but just like Disneyland you don't want to live there full-time.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Crash is Coming

Will the market go down?  Well, it has to, eventually, which could really be the deciding factor in whether Trump is re-elected in 2020.

We are starting to see signs that the exuberant market of the last few years may be starting to turn.  The housing market is down, as housing prices are too high and nobody can afford to buy.  Builders are obsessed with building million-dollar homes, but nobody can afford them.  Meanwhile young people starting out find that there are no affordable starter homes available in their price range.  The two bedroom, one,bath home of my generation seems to have disappeared from the landscape.

Meanwhile, the car industry is in rapid decline. While SUV sales continue to hold on, the sale of automobiles, that is to say cars or sedans, are in the toilet.  It's a good time to buy a lightly-used off-lease four door sedan, as nobody seems to want them these days . But even sales of pickup trucks and SUVs - once you money makers for the Big 3 in Detroit are starting to fall - with huge incentives being used to keep them moving out the door.
Compounding this is the plethora of tech companies which have yet to make dollar one.  I was recently reading stories about Uber, which everybody assumes is a big money-making tech company - selling rides to people via cell phone app.  People assume that since the service is so popular that it must be a big moneymaker and must be worth a lot of money.  However, Uber is hemorrhaging cash, and whether investors will bite on an IPO remains to be seen, once they realize how much Uber is paying each driver and passenger to use their service.

Uber is just emblematic of a number of do-com companies or websites which have become wildly popular in the financial press, but have yet to make any money.  Eventually there has to be a comeuppance.  A company has to turn a profit or go out of business.  People will not continually lend money to a company indefinitely with no signs of return.

Each one of these aspects of the market would not be enough to predict a recession.  However, when housing, automobiles, and tech stocks are all in decline at once, it seems like a perfect storm to me. Throw in an inarticulate and possibly crazy president who keeps making weird and random threats, and I think we are headed for a downturn at least for a few years.

The trigger for this recession just might be the $1000 smart phones that both Samsung and Apple are offering this year.   They may find out that financially stressed consumers may take a pass on a smart phone that cost more than two laptops or three PCs.   When that happens - like the Windows 95 debacle - it may trigger a re-evaluation of the market that could have a domino effect.

And in today's paper, apparently a lot of people are taking money out of stocks - the most since 2004.   Interesting times ahead!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

You Can't Pay People to Give a Shit (Revenge of Mom and Pop)

You can't just hand off a business to a manager and expect them to run it efficiently, unless you pay them a handsome sum.  And even then...

Mark sometimes tells me stories of his adventures in retail, which are illuminating to me in understanding, for example, why the malls fell apart and why so much "brick and mortar" is going under (and no, it isn't Amazon that's the reason).

The problem was - and is - that you can't run a business by remote-control and hire people and pay them squat and expect them to maximize profits at a store.

When Mark started out in retail in college he worked at a cheese store in the mall.  It was a small chain of mall stores, and they hired people and paid them as little as possible.  His manager was a skinny girl who had a drug habit and loitered all day long at the bar in the Mexican restaurant across the hall.  Drugs were involved, as well as employee theft.   Eventually, they fired her - after several years.

Mark went to work for another shop, that made gift baskets and sold cheese and wine and charcuterie and whatnot, and was run by an old Jewish couple, who taught him a lot about the food business as well as giving a boy raised in rural Maine some cultural lessons.   For example, one day he answered the phone and a lady said her husband had died and they were "sitting shiva" and wanted a deli platter sent over.

Mark misunderstood, and like a clueless goyim, said, "well, if you're shivering, why not put on a sweater?"   Needless to say, his new bosses thought this was the funniest thing they ever heard.  Fortunately, the client wasn't offended, either.

But the point is, the shop he worked for, his bosses were also the owners and thus didn't spend all day lounging in the bar across the street or dealing drugs out of the back room.   When you have skin in the game, well, you make sure the floors are swept, the employees are on time and the bottom line is closely watched.

Mark went on to work for other stores.   Sheets 'N Things has since gone out of business, and it is not hard to see why.  Even though he worked at one of the largest volume stores in the chain, the waste was enormous.   The managers and district managers were not motivated to seek out the last dollar of profit, and so long as a store was profitable,  no one in higher management wondered whether it could have been twice as profitable but for the excessive waste and abuse.  The company went bankrupt eventually.

Today, we look at "old line" stores like J.C. Penny, K-Mart, Sears, and whatnot and think, "Well, this is what happens when Amazon takes over!  Brick and Mortar stores are dead!"   And yet, Wal-Mart is really the store that is killing these old-line stores, that and online sales to companies including Amazon, but also eBay and even small Mom-and-Pop shops online that sell things directly to consumers.

Back in the 1960's, you went to work for a store and maybe worked there for life.  We are visiting some of our older friends who have moved back home to be close to family, as they are starting to become infirm.  They worked their entire lives at Sears and J.C. Penny and are drawing pensions from those companies (hopefully long enough until they pass on).  They never got rich working for these mid-level department stores, but they did raise a family.  But the company was loyal to them, so they were loyal to the company.

Today, working at Sears or J.C. Penny is something you might do part-time or while in college or as a temporary job until you find your "real" job.   And the manager of the department or the store is not paid enough to give a shit whether the store is profitable - and quite frankly, the situation handed most of these managers is an impossible one - declining traffic, declining budgets, low pay for associates, and low pay for managers.  The "who gives a shit at this pay grade?" attitude comes from the top-down.   No longer does the company take care of you from cradle-to-grave - to the point where you might think that losing your job as the end of your world.

Today?  Losing your job at one of these companies is almost a blessing.  Take advantage of some "unenjoyment" and food stamps for a few months and then find the exact same low-paying slacker job at some other place not unlike where you just left.   We don't pay people enough to care, so they don't.

And that, in a nutshell, is the death sentence for Sears and J.C. Penny and all the other mall stores that are not run by the people who own them.   You can't just hand off responsibility to people and expect them to make you millions while you pay them a pittance.   Not for long anyway, before they start stealing or just giving up.

Some on the Left complain that managers at some companies are paid outrageous sums that should go to "the workers" instead.  But these companies aren't just giving away money, they are paying people to make them money, and often this means paying someone millions of dollars to fire everyone.   What they are paying them top dollar for is to give a shit, not to just show up and punch a clock.   And yes, sometimes these schemes backfire, as people are paid in stock options, and they gin up the stock price to cash in - trading long-term stability of the company for short-term one-time gains.

Back in the day, companies could foist off responsibilities onto lowly paid employees and still make money.  But things were different back then.  For starters, companies had layers of bureaucracy, and how a Sears store was run was decided in board rooms and by number-crunchers at the main office.   Lower-level managers at the store level needed only follow instructions, merchandise according to the plan-o-gram, and then watch the money roll in - for the company.   In return, the company was loyal to them, providing benefits and lifetime employment.

Today, it seems that many of these chain stores have lost the touch.  There seems to be little guidance from up above - no rules on how to run the place that a manager can follow.  And since the lower-level employees are not paid well or expected to stay long, there is little loyalty going upstream.   It is no shocker that places like Sears look like crap, with aging fixtures and empty shelves and employees who make themselves scarce when customers show up.

In a way, this is a victory for the Mom and Pop stores, however.   The small retailer was written-off as dead meat years ago, as the malls, both indoor and strip, took over and put the local stores out of business.   As I noted in that earlier posting, the small clothing stores of my hometown were put out of business, first by the downtown department stores, later on by their branches in the suburban malls, and then by the big-box stores like Walmart, who offered lower prices, if not the same class of goods.

The economic collapse of the middle class in the late 1970's and 1980's changed the landscape considerably.   We all started shopping on price - in an era of dollar gas (like $5 today) available only on even or odd days - if available at all!   Suddenly, the mall and the big department store seemed like a luxury we could not afford.   Maybe things got better in the 1990's, but the trend was set.

This does offer a glimmer of hope, however, for companies other than Amazon or Walmart.   Small Mom and Pop operations, if run efficiently, can still thrive in the marketplace, as the people behind the counter, who are also sweeping up at the end of the day are also the people who own the place.   There is room for economic expansion, I think, for the retailer who can serve customers and keep overhead low - in ways that "big box" stores can never do, as they don't pay their employees and managers to give a shit enough to find those savings an entrepreneur can find.

I am not sure what the point of all of this is, other than the idea that you could build shopping malls, create stores, and then put zit-faced teenagers in charge of them and expect them to make money was, in retrospect, a fantasy.   People have to have skin in the game, either in their paycheck or in terms of company loyalty - in both directions.   Failing that, business will fail.

Why Robin Hood Gave Up

Stealing from the rich is a lot of work.  It's a lot easier to steal from the poor.

One thing that confounds a lot of people is why scammers and rip-off artists target the poor.  Certainly, it would be more lucrative to steal from the rich, right?   After all, in all those "caper" movies, the plucky heroes rob the vaults of the evil casino owner, or pull over a "sting" on a mob boss, right?

Well, wrong.   You see, as a business model (and that is all crime is, a business model) it really isn't that profitable and is also has high risk factors.   The very rich are tighter with their money and are more skeptical of con artists.  They also can afford to come after you if you steal from them.   So if you want to break into the vault at the casino, expect to have your legs broken at the very least, if you don't end up in a shallow grave in the desert.

But what about stealing from the poor?  Well, the old joke is that Robin Hood stole from the rich as the poor don't have any money.  But a lot of money does pass through the hands of the poor, and if you can take a dollar here or a dollar there, you can end up with tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars.

And no one in their right mind is going to come after you for stealing a dollar from them, if they even notice the theft.  Even if you take $5000 or $10,000 as invention brokers do, the poor are not going to come after you, as they are largely powerless and the cost of legal fees would exceed the amount recovered.

Stealing from the poor is a much more lucrative and safer deal.

So how do you steal from the poor, you ask?   Well, there are an infinite number of ways to do this.   For large companies, it means adding a dollar or two here or there to a bill for worthless services.   For example, you lend money to a young man for an auto loan.  He pays through the nose in interest rates already.  But you sell him the idea of "loan insurance" so his car loan will be paid off if he is dead or incapacitated.   And many people sign on to this idea (mea culpa, I did at one time) not realizing that if they were dead, the car loan would be the least of their worries, and if they were incapacitated, they wouldn't need a car.

The poor tend to bite on things like this - selling "peace of mind" by selling them towing insurance or roadside assistance or extended warranties and whatnot.   Granted these are all not outright ripoffs (in that they take money and provide no benefits whatsoever) but that even the best of them take what are ordinary life expenses, amortize them, and then add a hefty profit margin.

For the individual crook who wants to gouge the poor, the options are a little more difficult.   The basic idea, of course, is to prey upon the greed of the mark.  People will hand over their money if you make promises to make them rich or give them something-for-nothing.   Tell them you are selling them a money-making scheme, for example, which could be an MLM type thing or maybe a "system" for buying and selling houses.  There is no end to these sort of things, of course, you just have to use your imagination.

For example, poor people want things, so you sell them the idea of things.  You put an ad in Craigslist advertising some gaudy trinket that the poor covet - like a jet ski or a motorcycle - for a fraction of its actual value.  You then make up a long-winded story about how you are settling your dead brother's estate and need to unload the item quickly- but only if the mark will wire you $500 by Western Union.  It helps to be overseas if you want to pull this off and not get caught, of course.

Each transaction might not yield a lot of money, but $500 here and $1000 there add up, particularly when you have 5,000 ads on Craigslist and other venues, and 50-100 suckers on the line at any given time.

So what's the point of all this?   Instructions on how to be a con artist and a crook?   No, not that.  Only an illustration of why the rich get richer and why the poor get poorer - and a hint of how you can avoid the latter.    Criminals prey upon the poor because they are gullible and easily swindled.   Stop being gullible and easily swindled and your life may change in amazing ways.

Robin Hood gave up and started stealing from the poor, because frankly, it was a far more lucrative gig.   The Sheriff of Nottingham stopped chasing after him, and the two became fast friends - particularly after Robin Hood contributed a large sum to the Sheriff's re-election campaign (the poor voted for him, as he promised to "Clean up Sherwood Forest!" and outlaw abortion).  The two of them now play 18 holes in the Sherwood Forest Golf Resort - paid for, of course, by the taxpayers of Nottingham.

Frankly, it was a much better deal for Robin!

Is Wi-Fi Dead? Part Two

Have smart phones killed off free WiFi?  Probably.

When traveling by RV, you become dependent on the cell phone and local WiFi to communicate. Keeping track of your bank balance and catching up with emails is important, and you need some method of accessing the internet in order to do so.

In past years, we relied on Wi-Fi from internet cafes and campgrounds and hotels in order to go online. We would lug our laptop with us and log on - or try to log on - to the local wifi network and check our bank balance and answer emails.

And often this was a difficult process, as WiFi networks managed by coffee shop owners often didn't work very well as the coffee shop owner was not skilled in IT.

A year or so ago, we bought to used Samsung Galaxy 4 phones on eBay for $99 each.  We use a GoPhone plan for one of them which costs $40 a month and provides us with 3 Gigabytes of data and unlimited calling. The other phone, which I use, uses $100-a-year basic GoPhone plan for voice only, which provides a thousand minutes.

For data usage, I simply setup Mark's phone as a WiFi hotspot and then piggyback off his data plan.  To date, we've never hit the 3 Gigabyte limit, and supposedly our unused data rolls over to the next month. Either AT&T is not enforcing this limit or we have rolled over so much data we don't need it.

What's interesting to me is that for a campground owner or hotel owner or Cafe owner, there are two choices in providing data access for your clients.  One would be to have better cell service which would allow everyone to go online and download data and also receive texts and voice calls.  This is arguably more attractive solution as today people are more oriented toward their cell phones.  Not only that, it requires little or no effort on the part of the business owner and they don't have to become technical experts in handling WiFi routers and configuring them.

The other alternative, providing improved Wi-Fi to your customers, is an expensive proposition. You have to pay for the connection to the internet, you have to pay for the routers and antennas and repeaters, and you have to pay somebody to configure it all and maintain it.  You also have to deal with complaints from customers when it all doesn't work properly - as it often doesn't - as Wi-Fi appears to be 50% science and 50% magic is most RF systems are.

For me, the solution would be simple.  As a campground owner or other business owner, rather than spend money on an elaborate WiFi network and high-speed data access, I would petition the phone company to install more cell phone towers in my area. This would be a more painless solution and involve a lot less work on my part and also cost less in long run.

And I think going forward, this is where things are going to go.  It is so much easier for me to connect my laptop to Mark's cell phone via WiFi and download even a 96 page document out in the wilderness with only two bars of service, than to struggle with some half-assed configured router from some local Bubba who doesn't know what he's doing.  It is also more secure.

The concept of free Wi-Fi is dead.  There is really no economic motivation for business owner to provide WiFi for their clients, as it is just a real hassle and fewer and fewer people will actually use it when they have 4G cell service for better.

Sure, Wi-Fi will still exist, as people will use their cell phones as WiFi hotspots is Mark and I do.  I can connect my laptop or my cell phone or pad device to Mark's phone through WiFi and access the internet at remarkably high speeds.  And the cost to me is basically nothing, and the system almost always connects effortlessly.

And GoPhone is fairly inexpensive too, costing us only $40 a month ($40.75 with tax, with autopay). Speaking of which, I ran into a young man who told me that his wife and kids are all on a group plan that costs $260 a month for 4 cell phones with 3 gigabytes of data.  I was kind of appalled he was paying that kind of money.  He told me he doesn't even get a free upgrade to a new phone every few years even though he spends that much money a month which I would consider to be close to a car payment.  He could go on GoPhone for $163 a month, taxes included, with no contract.

Stranger still, some folks pay an extra fee every month to use their phone as a hot spot - which many people never even bother to do (when I log onto WiFi, I can see a lot of people have their cell phones set up as hot spots, but can't all be possibly using them as such - and they wonder why their battery life is so short!).

Don't get me wrong, if a business owner has a strong Wi-Fi network I will connect to it, rather than use our own data.  But so far it seems that data usage has not been an issue.  Toss in security concerns, and well, 4G beats free WiFi every time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Lazy Journalism

Are journalists today lazy, or have they always been this way?  Why do they have such a profound lack of curiosity and lack the ability to do basic research?

When I was a student at Syracuse University I had the opportunity to write an article for the Daily Orange, the student newspaper at S.U.  That student newspaper was unique in that it issued on a daily basis and it was staffed mostly by students who were studying at the Newhouse School of Journalism. They had fairly high standards for a school newspaper.

I had wanted to write an article about a school leadership retreat I had attended where one of the Deans of Students, an elderly woman, admonished me for criticizing the school's response to a date-rape incident involving one of the football players.  She told me, "Mr. Bell, what you don't understand is how much money the football program brings into the school!" 

I thought it was a pretty appalling thing to say then, and even more so today, with our heightened awareness of sexual assault.  However what was interesting to me was the process of writing the article for the Daily Orange.  "Punch it up with quotes!" the editor told me, asking me to get direct quotes (or paraphrase them) from a number of other people who attended the conference.  The one quote that really made the article, he was hesitant to use, as he was afraid of offending the school (his "publisher" so to speak) and didn't want to use the quote unless I had three sources to verify it.

What I found was interesting was that journalism today isn't about researching and reporting facts, but rather talking to people and getting them to say a quote on the record.   This is particularly true with television.   I have been interviewed by a number of journalists in the last few years for a few articles relating to my blog.  In each case they wanted to quote me rather than quote the blog itself.  Journalism today is the science of quoting people.

I guess I was naive, as I thought the journalists would research subjects, going to the library and looking up things in books or tracking down other articles or other sources of data.  Maybe at one time journalists did this.  I'm sure Woodward and Bernstein did more than just quote people but actually did real investigative journalism in dissecting Watergate.

What drove this home to me, was recently I was approached by another media outlet asking me for quotes about the Elio fiasco that is playing out in Louisiana, where the old Hummer Factory was leased out to Paul Elio to build his three wheeled car.  According to recent SEC filings the production date of this car has been delayed yet again to the fourth quarter of 2019 which would make it almost a decade since the project was first announced.  Given the financial status of the company and their stated need for $300 million more in funding, it appears the project will never get off the ground.

In an earlier posting, I question where all the money had gone in during that time. They had received millions of dollars of deposits from would-be buyers, sold stock under Regulation A on the over-the-counter market, and borrowed money from various entities.  All this time the principals of the company were paying themselves six-figure salaries and receiving stock options.

All of this data was publicly available in SEC filings which can be readily found online just by searching. Also corporate registration filings can be searched at the Secretary of State's office in most states.  There is a plethora of data available online if you just bothered to look.   And I really didn't get a chance to look very far.  Others have researched this even further.

A Reddit user named "snugglesdog" has extensively researched the issue and provided a plethora of links to various filings, illustrating where all the money went in this project and what is really actually going on.  Part of the issue is that the massive factory is being leased to a real estate developer who is in turn re-leasing it to the Elio company.  After so many lease payments, the real estate developer could end up owning the building including 600 acres of land, outright, for not a lot of money.  And apparently in the interim, two large foreign car manufacturers have approached Shreveport looking to purchase the property but were turned away as the property was already tied up with Elio deal.

All of the data is out there and readily available, but you have to go look for it.  At the very least, you have to go to a few websites and read a few pages.  The reporter who contacted me, however, apparently couldn't be bothered to actually do this initial basic research but rather wanted me to feed her the story and provide some provocative quotes to spice up the text.  Again, journalism is the business of selling eyeballs and selling clicks, not telling stories.  It takes time and effort to develop stories, and it is a lot easier just to have somebody tell you the story.  It also shields the newspaper or television station from liability, as they are reporting what someone else said, not their own opinion.

The problem with this approach is that news stories become less about telling facts than giving people's opinions.  And as a result, stories tend to be one-sided these days, as you often only get one opinion in the matter.  Even worse are stories where journalists provide "both sides of the story" and "let the viewer decide" even if one side is more fact-based than the other.  It perpetuates the idea that opinions are all of equal value, and that selecting an opinion is merely a matter of choice, not logic.

Like I said, perhaps I am naive, and maybe journalism has always been this way.  But it seems like we've entered a new era of lazy journalism, where journalists basically barf up whatever they can get somebody else to say, rather than doing basic research on their own first.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tone Deaf or Dog Whistle?

Is  Trump just tone deaf or is he dog-whistling the far-right?

A lot of ink has been spilled about how Trump handled - or more precisely, mishandled - the protests and violence in Charlottesville.   The Police mishandled it as well - allowing people to show up at a rally carrying weapons.   Boston showed us how free speech and personal safety can go hand in hand - and no, carrying an axe handle to a protest is not "protected speech" under the constitution.   And no, that was not a question - nor an invitation to discussion, but a statement of fact.

The problem is, of course, that whatever crazy shit Trump says, always has some nugget of truth behind it, which often gets lost because he is the most inarticulate President we've had.   Ronald Reagan was "the great communicator" and even if you disagreed with his policies, you could understand what he was saying.   George W. Bush lowered the bar considerably, speaking in sentence fragments and inventing new words.

Our Reality Television President speaks in the 140-character lexicon of Twitter, and thus doesn't get even his half-assed points across.   And as a result, his message is muddled.   As I noted in an earlier posting, folks who attend protests carrying weapons are just plain wrong, and it doesn't matter if they are alt.right or "antifa" or anarchists or whatever.  Trump called that out as wrong, and then one mentally disturbed white supremacist decided to use his car as a weapon, and all hell broke loose.

Trump's refusal to disavow white supremacists and nazis right away was viewed by many as a dog-whistle to the far-right.   The KKK certainly thought so - that Trump was giving them a nod and a wink and saying "job well done, boys!"   His later comments about confederate statutes and equating Confederate terrorists (e.g., Nathan Forrest)  with our founding fathers further muddied the waters.

Again, there is a nugget - a slim nugget - of truth here.  If we take down statues of slave owners, not only Confederate generals but also founders of Harvard (which has happened already) then where do we stop?  Statues glorifying Jefferson, Washington, and the rest of the gang - who all owned slaves - could be seen in the same light.

Of course, what Trump fails to realize is that these Confederate statues were erected years later, often during periods where the KKK was resurgent, or during periods of de-segregation.   It is like the "In God We Trust" motto, which replaced "E Pluibus Unim" during the height of the civil rights era and the height of the "prayer in school" debate.   The words "One Nation, Under God" were also added to the pledge of allegiance at about the same time.  And yet many people would think these things trace their roots back to 1776.

The message of the Confederate statue in a public place is clear - it is asserting that the government is endorsing the "lost cause" of slavery and honoring the "heroism" of people fighting to subjugate an entire race.   And no, their heroism is no cause for celebration, any more than the heroics of those who fought for the Nazi cause are to be honored.  In fact, in Germany today, it is illegal to "honor their legacy" and there are no discussions there about "heritage, not hate".

The Civil War was a slaughter of human beings - the most vicious and deadly war America has ever fought in, killing more people than all our other wars combined.   And it was fought over a principle so vile it defies explanation.   The people who claim a connection with this "heritage" are using it as a smoke-screen to advance their cause of racism.   My Great-great-great Grandfather Robert S. Thompson fought as a Colonel for the Confederacy.  He also owned slaves.   I am neither proud of his "heritage" or ashamed of it, because genealogy is pure bunk and I have little or no connection to him, other than a few stories of only three sentences long, told to me by my racist Grandmother, many, many years ago.

People who tell you they have some deep spiritual connection with their "rebel" ancestors are basically lying.   Unless they are historical re-enactors (who are largely harmless, if not a little creepy and boring) odds are, their display of rebel paraphernalia is a smokescreen for advancing racist views. 

We are in rural Ohio right now, following the Ohio river up past one abandoned factory after another (and a few still in business).  This is Trump country, and we've laughed at how many cars and pickup trucks we've seen with Ohio tags and Confederate flag stickers on them.   "Heritage, not hate" - right?   But these history buffs seem to have forgotten which side of the Civil War that Ohioans fought for.

As for Trump?   I just assume he isn't smart enough to dog-whistle the right.  He's just an horrific communicator with muddled ideas.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Why Does the Mainstream Media Act Afraid of a Website?

A website run out of someone's basement is not a "powerhouse" of journalism.

The New York Times and the Washington Post are at it again - trying to get us all confused and scared and to keep us clicking on their pages so they can sell ad space.   Trump is good for their Business, and so is Steve Bannon.  What they are selling is fear, and fear, as I have noted time and time again, is never an emotion to be trusted.

The latest gag in fear-mongering is Steve Bannon.   Now ousted as White House Strategist, he is "declared war!" on the Trump Administration, and everyone is waiting with bated breath as to what he will say next.  Behind the desk of his all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Breitbart News, he can control the news cycle for years to come.   Petty newsletters like the Times and Post cannot possibly compete!

Or can they?   What people fail to realize is that Breitbart is nothing more than a website, that until recently, was operating out of Steve Bannon's old townhouse basement near Capital Hill - and moved to a new location only because of zoning restrictions (operating a business in a residential area).   Their staff is very limited, which is by design - coming up with crackpot "news" stories doesn't require a staff of investigative journalists, just a few people with creative imaginations, lead by a paranoid.

That is reality.   Breitbart is a very small megaphone, that talks only to a small "base" of people who are presupposed to listen to nonsense anyway.   Nothing much will change with Bannon back at the helm, declaring "War" or not.   Mainstream journalism still predominates.  Breitbart and The Druge Report are still in the margins and always will be.

So why does The New York Times and The Washington Post make so much of a website run out of someone's basement?   Well, the short answer is, they need a bogeyman to wave in front of their readers, to convince them that somehow lunatic fringe websites - and that is all they are is websites - are a threat to their readers.   That somehow a website run by three people in a townhouse basement is going to take down the grey lady and that Democracy will Die in the Darkness.

In a way, it is like Twitter.  No one actually uses Twitter except media types, which is why Twitter is losing money.   I've never been on Twitter, but I've been forced to read hundreds of "Tweets" as journalists think that Tweets are News.   Similarly, I've never read an article on Breitbart, but have been exposed to dozens of them by The Times, The Post and other mainstream media outlets which report on stories published on fringe websites.

Maybe - and this is just another one of my wild crazy ideas - if the mainstream media stopped re-posting crap from Breitbart, it would not seem to have as much impact or credibility as the media seems to think it does.   Breitbart is not a megaphone for the alt-right, the New York Times is, when they report on Breitbart as if it were relevant.

Bitcoin Versus Real Estate

When people start building condos in cornfields, the market is overheated.

Within my lifetime there have been two major real estate bubbles, the latter being far more serious than the former.  What happened was that people started buying houses and thinking they were made of gold.  Pretty soon people start to think that any house was worth a lot of money regardless of how well it was built or where it was located.  As a result, builders started building in places where no one really wanted to own a home, such as in the middle of a cornfield, two hours from major city.

A friend of mine bought such a place in 1988.  It was a long, long way from work, but on the weekend when he went out to look at it, it seemed like a short drive in the light weekend traffic.  Besides, everyone was getting in on this Real Estate deal, so why not him?   When the market collapsed in 1989, he had to cash in $10,000 from his 401(k) to bring to the closing to unload the condo, which no one wanted to buy at that point.

Housing bubbles collapse.  I experienced this first in 1989 and then again in 2009, neatly 20 years apart.  People never learn from experience, as their economic memory is only about 18 months old as I have noted time and time again.  I was fortunate in that the free-standing house we bought in 1988, within commuting distance of the city, largely held its value during those lean years.   The entire Real Estate market went down from 1989 to about 1994, but some properties fared better than others, and the condos-in-cornfields did the worst.

Many prognosticators have noted that there appears to be a similar bubble taking place in cryptocurrencies.  It is not that Bitcoin has heated up to an unsustainable level necessarily, but that there are so many other cryptocurrencies hitting the market at once, as everyone wants to get in on this "cryptocurrency" deal.

In terms of a real estate analogy, perhaps Bitcoin represents the prime condominium development located near the center of the city, which was sold out early on and which is still highly desirable, if not overpriced.  Many of these newer Johnny-come-lately cryptocurrencies represent the condominiums built in the cornfields hours away from the center of the city.  People think these later developments are worth as much as the former, but they are mere shadows of the original idea.

In the Real Estate venue, when the market collapsed, the condo-in-a-cornfield depreciated in value very quickly, while the more desirable properties fared better.  However, the entire market was affected as the result of the crash.  Similarly, when stock markets decline, even premier equities decrease in value, as we saw in the stock market crash of early 2009.  The real gems recover quickly, but the real stinkers go bankrupt.

If you apply this analogy to cryptocurrencies - at it is a valid analogy, I think - you can see a similar thing may take place.  A lot of these Johnny-come-lately cryptocurrencies will be like those condos-in-a-cornfield.  They will depreciate rapidly and end up going bankrupt.  But the major players the market will also be affected, and their value will decrease accordingly.  Bitcoin, being the premier cryptocurrency, will be severely affected by the ultimate crash of these other "crap-to currencies" but may recover where others fail.  People will still lose money, however.

There can be too much of a good thing in any Market.  And the market cannot support an infinite number of cryptocurrencies, or condos in cornfields.

Why Staring At The Sun Is Idiotic

Mormon missionaries prepare to view the eclipse.

The media loves to hype things, and for some reason, this year, a relatively routine event - the periodic eclipse of the sun by the moon - is being hyped as the end-all to humanity.   I am not sure why, because we no longer live in the middle ages, and things like comets and eclipses are no longer viewed as signs of God's wrath, witchcraft, or whatever.

We are told that we "must" go to some place to view the eclipse - an event that is over in a matter of minutes - and spend thousands of dollars booking hotel rooms, flights, etc. to see this "once in a lifetime event" - which I have seen at least twice in my lifetime.

What really irks me is that the media has accompanying stock photos with most of these stories, showing grinning yuppies staring at the sun, wearing nothing but sunglasses.   Only one media outlet that I could find actually had an article about the dangers of staring at the sun (it can blind you for life) and a testimonial from a oldster who nearly did just that.

I remember the total eclipse of 1970, and back then, people were advised not to look at the sun, but rather to construct a shadow-box.   Crazy ideas like looking through exposed film were discouraged.  The media was a little more responsible back then, interested less in capturing eyeballs (no pun intended) and more in real journalism.

I am sure there will be plenty of "Eclipse Apocalypse" stories tomorrow, about all the traffic and crowds, and people visiting emergency rooms with eye damage.  And the media will wring its hands and say, "who knew that staring into the sun could be dangerous?   Who knew???"

And we will set ourselves up for the next eclipse mania, which is only a few short years from now.....

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tourists, not Terrorists

Is tourism destroying Barcelona?   Why did terrorists target the tourism industry there?

A recent article on the BBC profiles a young man who is part of a leftist effort to destroy tourism in Barcelona.  These leftists argue that tourism is destroying the city as it is raising rents and making it harder for locals to find a place to live.  Of course, what they fail to consider is that tourism is a huge part of the local economy, and many of them cannot afford to live there at all if there were no jobs and income generated by tourism.

The recent attacks by terrorists on the tourism district underscore that this is not just a cause of the far left, but also the Islamic right. Islamic Terrorists have systematically attacked tourist destinations worldwide, in Islamic leaning countries and elsewhere, where westerners like to vacation.

Many people assume wrongly that their goal is to decrease the influence of decadent foreigners on Islamic societies.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Their goal is to destroy the underlying economy, so that people become so desperate they will embrace radical Islam.

Fascists have known this for decades.  If people become so desperate they are starving, they will embrace fringe ideologies as a means of solving the economic problems.   This is how the Taliban took over Afghanistan and was welcomed as liberating heros at the time.  If conditions are not desperate, then what you need to do is make them desperate.  This is why many on the far left were happy to see Donald Trump elected, as they knew that Bernie Sanders and his ilk could not be elected to public office outside of Vermont, unless conditions became desperate.

This is why the New York Times and the Washington Post report with glee every the mis-step of the Trump Administration.  Every stupid thing that Donald Trump says or does is one more paving brick on the road to an  Elizabeth Warren presidency.

Leftists and Catalonian separatists in Barcelona have the same goal.  If they can destroy the lucrative tourism industry, people become desperate and vote to secede from Spain and institute more far-leftist policies.  When everyone is making money, no one wants to rock the boat. When people are starving, they're willing to try anything.

It seems odd that Islamic radicals and Spanish leftists both have the same goal - to destroy the tourism industry of Barcelona.  But when you think about it, they really have the same goal - to disrupt and destroy in order to promote their own radical agendas.

Maybe what Spain needs - what the world needs -  is more tourists and fewer terrorists.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Why Robotics Are A Sign Of Our Failure

 Are robots the ultimate sign of humanity's defeat?
Many people have held that robotics are a sign of the advances of our society.  However, it has occurred to me that the implementation of robotic devices is not a sign of humankind's advance, but rather an admission of its ultimate defeat.

We are traveling in our camper and driving on the highway.  And it's not hard to see why the Federal Highway Administration has been pushing for self-driving cars for several decades now.  People drive horribly.  And by this I don't just mean the people who are inattentive or make mistakes, as we all do on occasion, but the people who intentionally drive badly because they feel they need to get ahead.

If there is even a slight backup, such as when a truck passes a truck, people start racing around each other trying to get advantage.  It is human nature at its worst.  "Out of my way, I'm a motorist!" they seem to say, as if nobody else needs to get anywhere but them.

Self-driving cars, while being a technological advance, are an admission that we no longer have the ability to drive.  Even over-the-road truckers, professionals who were once the "Knights of the Road" swerve in and out of their lanes as they look at their phones and texting devices will driving 50,000 lb rigs.

We stopped at a rest area in South Carolina, and a plaque proudly proclaims the restrooms are "fully automated" - everything from the toilets, to the urinals, to the soap dispenser, to the faucets, to the hand dryers, and the paper towel dispensers are automated and only you need only wave your hand to be served with a flush or a wipe or a dollop of soap.

Again, this is an advance in technology that would amaze our ancestors of only a few decades ago.  But the reason for these automated devices has a dark side.  In the past, people would wad up rolls of paper towel and shove them in the toilets and sinks and leave the faucets on or flush the toilet repeatedly in order to flood the restroom in and act of petty vandalism.  And judging by the signs I'm seeing in various public restrooms - imploring people not to flush paper towels down the toilet - this activity still occurs regularly.

Automated soap dispensers and paper towel dispensers are not only convenient and sanitary, they also regulate and control the amount of product dispensed.  People are greedy and selfish, and gladly grab for more paper towels or soap than they really need, not thinking about the cost or the inconvenience to others when the dispensers run out.

The same is true with manufacturing and even retail.  People are concerned that minimum wage jobs in fast food restaurants may go away as kiosks replace order takers, and automated machines flip the burgers and make the french fries.  And indeed, part of this is to save money and in an era where minimum wage unskilled workers are demanding $15 an hour - another sign of our greed and selfishness. We all believe we are due a certain amount of income regardless of our lack of skills or incentive to work.   Where did you think the idea of "guaranteed minimum income" comes from?

But from the customer side of  the equation, we all quietly applaud these moves toward robotics.  The order-taking kiosk is more accurate and easier to use than talking to a person behind the counter who may be heavily accented or barely speak English.  Not only that, the kiosk is faster, as we don't have to wait behind some self-entitled fellow citizen who feels that since they're at the head of the line it's their turn to make everyone else wait.  Again, the baseness of human nature rears its ugly head.

And granted, fast food is bad and poorly made, but most of this is because the people making it don't do a very good job.  I've noted before how in may fast food restaurants, there's a passive-aggressive game with a french fry machine, as nobody likes to put down the fries or take them up because they get splattered with hot grease.  As a result, nobody actually makes the fries until there's a backlog of people in the parking lot, at which point they hastily make several orders of fries which are not cooked sufficiently enough.

An entire Subreddit exists of people posting pictures of what their fast food sandwich is supposed to look like from the pictures on the menu, versus the mashed up piece of crap they actually get in the box or package.  Automation would fix this problem, and the food would be prepared consistently and perfectly every time, something that humans no longer seem interested in doing, but were once capable of.

Of course, the excuse given by the people working at such places is, that since the pay is poor they should do a shitty job.  However pay in restaurants and diners has always been shitty throughout history and yet we have often been able to get very good food from such places in the past, but not today.  As a result, today, we tend to accept shoddy service and poor products.

Even when pay is high, humans no longer seem to be interested in doing good work.  Robotics have already taken over in many industries.  Automobile production today is largely automated, mostly by necessity.  In the past, cars were largely handmade, even if they were made on an assembly line.  If you look at old videos of automobile assembly plants, you'll notice there's dozens of people at each station and thousands of workers overall.  And back then, those were top-paying jobs in the community.

Like the fast-food workers today, auto workers by the 1970s decided that doing a shitty job is all they were paid for, and quality of American automobiles plummeted, mostly because of poor assembly.  Today, we have robots paint cars which come out consistently even and perfect.  Critical and essential elements are assembled by robotics and bolts are no longer missing from cars as they go down the line. Today, no one would accept the build quality of automobiles for the 1970s or should they be expected to.

Robotics represents a failure of American management, failure of the American worker, and the failure of our society as a whole.  The impetus for robotic technology is not necessarily the availability of it, reducing labor, or reducing costs, but the fact that human-based labor has such a poor track record, which is the fault of both labor and management.

Perhaps in the brave new world of robotics, our robot overlords will finally get us straightened out as human beings and put us back to work - this time, not allowing for mistakes and slacking-off.