Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What Hath Equifax Wrought?

A lot has changed in ten years, with regard to credit reports.

A reader writes that I did not "do the math" on the Equifax data breach claims.   I noted that you can file a claim for up to ten hours of your time at $25 an hour (or $20 an hour, depending on which page of the claim site you read).   I did not infer that you would get this money.  Likely you might get a few dollars, if you are lucky.

The media has been hyping that "no one" will get anything, which is good, as it discourages more people from applying.   The fewer that apply, the greater the payout for those who do.   Over the years, I have gotten small checks from class-action suits - $5 here or $10 there.  Sometimes less than a dollar.  The lawyers usually get more.  This case is a little different in that it was brought by the FTC, but I am sure lawyers are making money somehow in this deal.   We don't work for free.

So you might get a dollar or two from this deal, if you sign up for it.  Or you may get nothing - if you don't sign up.  It takes a few minutes to fill out the form (which auto-fills with the data on your laptop) and if you fill out one claim for every member of the household....  Who knows?

Anyway, this got me to thinking about the credit reporting agencies, and how things have changed over time.  In fact, things like this Equifax breach have resulted in changes in how credit reports are handled and how fees are charged (or no longer charged) for credit report freezes.  Things have improved over time.

When I started this blog, your credit score was considered some tightly held State Secret.  I am not even sure back then you could access this even by paying for it.  The almighty credit score was considered "intellectual property" and how it was calculated, a mystery known only to alchemists.  I recall a lender showing me my credit score back then, with the admonition, "I'm not supposed to show this to you, but...."   Hard to believe back then people were not entitled to see data about themselves!

Since then, the credit score has been whoring around.   Many 3rd parties parsed out how it was calculated, more or less, and thus can "calculate" a credit score that is only a few points away from one of the "official" scores like Fair Issac or FICO as they call it.  Other credit reporting agencies came up with their own scores.  And I think, in the meantime, the importance of credit score has faded.  Some are listed as "for educational use" which is some sort of ruse to get around intellectual property claims, or avoid liability, I guess.  It is funny how they vary by ten points or more.

For educational purposes only!

As I noted before, as a landlord, I was more interested in the credit history than some number calculated on a computer.   Sometimes the best tenants were people who had a troubled credit history (and thus could not rent from the big apartment complexes) but had made efforts to patch things up (usually by marrying someone with a better credit score).   On the other hand, someone with a great credit score could be an utter con-man, although it was rarely the case.  You have to delve into the background of a person's life to really understand them.  Maybe this score number is a way of initially filtering out prospects, but it is a lousy way of making a final evaluation.

Of course, today, credit card companies, banks, and Credit Karma offer to show you your credit scores for free - either the actual scores, or one they calculate - as a bonus service for doing business with them, or as a come-on to advertise credit card offers to you.  They whore the score.

Like I said before, I don't obsess about credit score too much, and trying to "game the system" to increase your score is pretty futile.  Most of these gaming techniques result in moving your score only a few points one way or another.  Others are neat ideas, but hard to implement without a time machine.  For example, I went through my annualcreditreport.com free credit reports (done at four month intervals, as suggested by a reader) and noted a lot of old open accounts that I no longer used, such as a Sears charge account I opened in my 20's to buy a set of tires.

I closed this (and some others) and this affected my "oldest account" part of the scoring - which may have lowered my score by a few points at most.   Later on, I read this "advice" on how to game your score by keeping an older account open.   Great advice, I guess, but if you already closed the account, not of much use.  And if you don't have an older account, not of much use.   And if your credit score is in the trash anyway, and you have an older open account, what's the point?   It isn't like you can benefit from this advice much, and as you can see above, my credit score isn't hurting too badly.

If you pay your bills on time and don't over-borrow, your score - and credit history - will be fine.  You can't "game" your way around several months of late payments, a default, or a bankruptcy.  If you have a score in the low 600's, the only thing you can do is put your financial house in order.  And if you are obsessing about your credit score in order to borrow yet more money, maybe it is time to get off the debt train.

And that is the gist of it - the people who obsess about credit score the most are doing so because they want to borrow yet more money to get a new car or a jet ski, or whatever.   They end up paying the highest interest rates, which eventually causes them to make late payments, default, or go bankrupt, which in turn lowers their credit score further, which means they can borrow only on even worse terms.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

There are legitimate ways to "repair" a credit history by removing bad data.  I mentioned before that when Riggs Bank sold my mortgage to Key Bank, some 30 years ago, they reported my mortgage payment as "late" as I had sent the payment to Riggs, which did not forward it to Key Bank for over a month.   Back then, the credit score was a mystery to most folks, and I didn't realize that a late mortgage payment was a major credit score killer.

I called the bank and explained the situation, and they removed the information from my credit reports.   Today, banks usually wait 30 days or more when a mortgage is bought or sold before reporting any late payment information in order to avoid this problem.

In another situation, Mark left his apartment in Florida after graduating from college.  His no-good roommate was supposed to pay the last phone bill (oh, the days of landlines!  Good riddance!) and didn't.   Notices were sent to the apartment, which of course, were not forwarded.   He ended up with a "sent to collection" debt on his report.  Again, a few phone calls and a payment of $59.82 for the final phone bill (and late fees) and the problem was solved.

So you can "fix" some things on your credit report, but no, you don't need to spend $99.99 on a "Credit Repair Kit" or pay a "Credit Repair Service" to do this.   These bogus kits and services are usually worthless or worse than worthless.  One gag going around (not so much lately) was this scam where they claimed they would "negotiate down your debt" for you, and in the meantime, to send your debt payments to them to be kept in escrow until an agreement can be reached.   Of course, your creditors simply refuse to talk to such people, and your credit score suffers from a number of delinquent payment reports.  Eventually they sue you and get a default judgement, and your minor debt problem has blossomed into a major fiasco.   Stop believing in Santa Claus

The only way to avoid this is to get off the debt bandwagon and stop wanting things you can't afford.  Once a person starts living within their means, they stop making late payments (because they have fewer payments to make) and their score will go up over time.   Eventually you won't really need the score, if you get completely out of debt.   But even then, a credit score can be needed to get a job, or even buy a car paying cash.   My last car, I wrote a personal check for, and they weren't about to let me drive it away without figuring out whether I actually existed and had a fixed address and some sort of history.   So I had to unlock my credit report so they could download it.

Sadly, so many people get caught up in this fear and paranoia about credit scores, credit reports, and "identity theft" - the latter of which is cranked to fear level 11 by the media, because it sells eyeballs.  The reality of "identity theft" is that the credit card companies and other reporting agencies are calling any credit card theft (where someone skims your credit card numbers and charges stuff) as "identity theft" whereas ten years ago, this was simple credit card theft.  So this makes the numbers look alarming when they are not.  And no, you are not liable for false charges to your credit card account, provided you notify your bank promptly, which of course you do, because you balance your credit card account daily and pay off the balance daily, right?

Actual cases of "identity theft" do occur - where someone takes out a loan in your name, buys a car in your name, or otherwise tries to impersonate you in order to run up debts in your name or access your accounts.   But in most of these cases, the person performing the theft is someone known to them, often a family member - often a close family member.   It isn't hard for a brother to swipe his sibling's driver's license and then use this (if he has a passing resemblance) to apply for a credit card or put some other debt in his brother's name.   It is very rare (but not impossible) that some total stranger will impersonate you and try to take on debt in your name.

But even then, you are not responsible for that debt, as you did not take it on.    The problem rests with the lender, who gave out a loan to someone without properly vetting them.  Of course, straightening this all out can take a lot of time and energy on your part - and in the short-term it may kill your credit rating.   But if someone buys a house in your name, you don't owe them a free house.

Locking or Freezing your credit report is one way to prevent this problem.   And in the old days, it was kind of a pain-in-the-ass and oftentimes (depending on what State you were in) you had to pay $3 each time you locked or unlocked your credit report, which discouraged people from doing so - by design.   One side-effect of this Equifax nightmare is that these credit reporting agencies are under increased scrutiny and increased pressure to clean up their acts, and thus today you can freeze your credit report for free - and unfreeze it as well.

In fact, a handy thing you can do on some of these sites is to unfreeze your credit report for a limited period of time after which it automatically re-freezes again.  So, for example, you are car shopping or buying a house, you can set your credit report to unfreeze for a day, a week, or a month.   It is handy, and it is about time these credit reporting agencies made it easy for the consumer to access and control their data.

Of course, the reason why they wanted to make it hard to lock the credit report in the first place is that the real customers of the credit reporting agencies (the ones paying to keep the lights on) were the creditors wanting to extend credit offers to consumers.   You are paying for a new battery for your car at Sears, and the clerk helpfully offers to set up a Sears charge account.  With a few clicks, and your social security number, you can be "approved" for a credit card.   All the big-box stores do this now - Home Depot, Lowes, etc.   They all want to sell you "90 days same as cash" and if it is a painless process - like falling off a log - odds are, you will agree to it.   Credit locks and such are a real cock-blocker and party-pooper.   People might actually think about the consequences of debt, if they have to wait more than a few minutes.

So, oddly enough, this Equifax Data Breach may be the best thing that happened to consumers in the last 20 years.   It made people realize that we are handing over a lot of power and control to some private organizations that can make people's lives very difficult, and maybe these organizations need to be held to a higher standard.

It is not too different from how the auto industry has been regulated.   When we built the interstate highway system in the 1950's, we put all our eggs in one basked labeled "automobile transportation".   The automakers made huge profits as a result, as Americans went from one-car-per-family (if that) to one-car-per-person today.   So the automakers can't have any beef with reasonable regulations about safety, emissions, warranties, and so forth.   The same could be said to be true for aviation.

So, oddly enough, we might be better off as a result of this breach.  That, and I might get a check for $2.87 in about eight months.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Behaviors That Benefit The Individual Versus Society

Why do we do things that don't immediately benefit ourselves?

In response to my last couple of meanderings, a reader writes that they studying this stuff in college, and that survival (in a Darwinian sense) is based on benefits to the individual, not society as a whole.   Maybe I phrased what he said correctly, I do not know.

Of course, benefits to society benefit the individual.  Humans are somewhat unique in that once they leave the womb, they are vulnerable for years, unless cared for and coddled.  And it may take further years for a human to mature and learn the tool-making skills handed down from prior generations, which are needed in order to survive.

As our technology has become more complex, this post-gestation period has lengthened.   In the 1800's a couple might get married in their teens - sometimes early teens - and be settled and raising a family before they were in their 20's.   Today, many a bounce-back youth lives with their parents well into their 30's before figuring out what is is they want to do with life.  The age of consent, the drinking age, and some propose even the driving age - have all been raised in fairly recent times, a recognition that our children remain children for a longer period of time.

From a purely individualistic standpoint, raising children makes little sense.   Besides the transitory pleasure of sex, there is little benefit to either parent, in real terms.   Childbirth is no picnic, nor are 3AM feedings, dirty diapers, temper tantrums, and notes home from school.   Many a parent I know lives in fear that their child will "fail to launch" and return home with some odious new friends, spend all day playing video games and smoking pot, and buying swords and guns - and eventually going on a shooting spree.  It is a thing - read the papers.

We are programmed from birth to see big-eyed, big-headed, weak and helpless children of any species as "cute" and adorable.   If not, the species would not have survived.  If your kid looked like a wombat, you might strangle it in the crib - that is, unless our brains were programmed to find wombats "cute" - in which case, we'd all look like wombats and "human" looking humans would have gone extinct long ago.

So, most humans have this urge to reproduce, which satisfies the needs of old Charles Darwin.  But some of us don't, it seems.   Why would this urge not exist in some humans?   There are a number of behaviors in the spectrum of human behavior that are destructive, anti-social, self-destructive, or just violent and crazy.   Why do these exist?

Many conventional thinkers would argue that these are aberrations or genetic anomalies - wrong behavior that is "sick" in medical terms.  We tend to look at things this way (again, probably some sort of survivalist behavior) in terms of wellness and illness.   It is akin to this "invasive species" nonsense - the idea that some species is "not natural" and must be slaughtered, when in reality, it will eventually find a way to occupy that environmental niche, whether you like it or not.  The species doesn't see itself as invasive.   Well, at least we humans don't see ourselves that way.

But getting back to human behavior, why would some people be crazy, hear voices, or be uncontrollably violent?   My theory (and I have no background in this, so it is just me rambling) is that in some circumstances, a society benefits from such behaviors on occasion and thus they are survival skills.   Every 100 years or so, you need a Joan of Arc who is hearing voices and obviously schizophrenic.   She leads your troops into battle and you declare victory.   Then you burn her at the stake as a heretic, because you're done with her.  The urge to destroy that which is different or non-conforming is also probably a survival skill.

Take serial killers and psychopaths.  In peacetime, they are an aberration, to be hunted down and imprisoned or killed.  In wartime, they are lauded as heroes.   In a recent event, a Navy Seal was charged with murdering civilians and prisoners of war.   His teammates described him as "pure evil" (he was acquitted of the most serious charges, however).   Whether he did these things or not is really irrelevant - in wartime, you need people who do not hesitate to kill.   That's the guy you want a platoon leader, not some wishy-washy "Genevea Convention" guy who is going to get you all killed.

In this era of modern warfare, however, where we are trying to win the "hearts and minds" of the people we are bombing, such behavior is unacceptable, so we point fingers at him and castigate him as an outlier, when in earlier times, his behavior would have been excused, it not lauded.

Speaking of warfare, why do we do it?   Mankind is the top predator on the planet (shark attacks notwithstanding) and we prey upon ourselves more than any other species does.   Every few decades or so, the world goes berserk and decides to start killing each other.  And the weird thing is, people know they are going to do this and prepare for it.

What was the cause of World War I?  If you say, "the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand" go to the back of the class.  I have asked this question of many history majors and professors and you get a lot of hand-waving and 20-minute long unsatisfactory explanations.  As I noted time and time again, if someone can't answer a simple question in ten words or less, they are probably lying to you.

What is weird about that war - or any war - is that people saw it coming, and actually prepared for it, building and stockpiling arms for the inevitable conflict.  I was watching a "History Guy" video about a bad British train wreck during World War I, and what was interesting to me was that years prior to the war, the "War Department" knew a war was going to happen in the future, and planned for it by setting up a department to handle train schedules in the event of war.  They knew this shit was going down, but rather than try to stop it, they simple armed for it.

I am thoroughly convinced that our species has some sort of gene or genetic programming to go berserk every few years and just start killing people.  Maybe it is triggered by population density, pheromones, or something, but historically, this seems to be the case - with many bloody and murderous wars being fought over what seems in retrospect, nothing.   And what concerns me most, is that we haven't had one of these Jim-Dandies in a long time, and may in fact, be overdue.

Look around the world, how many people are setting fire to barricades and protesting, often over issues that seem, well, less than worth dying over.  People in Iran are willing to die over the price of gasoline?  It makes no sense to me, particularly when the brutal regieme ruling that country has no qualms about massacring people and covering it up.  Ditto for China.   But then again, a whole generation has been raised in China not even knowing about Tienanmen Square.   There's a hint for you right there - if you are going to brutally suppress your citizens, make sure subsequent generations are aware of it, or the lesson is lost.

But getting back to my point, and I did have one, I think a lot of our behaviors that are self-destructive or at the very least not of immediate value to us as individuals might be useful to society or useful to the survival of the species, maybe not always, but on occasion - so these behaviors are passed down.   Maybe not the actual behaviors but the propensity to do them.   Recall that as the result of a Parkinson's medication test gone horribly wrong, people gambled their fortunes away when given a particular drug.   Turns out our vaunted "self-control" and "free-will" are less about what we think, but what the chemicals in our brains tell us what to think.   Give someone a certain chemical, they become wild risk-takers and gamble themselves into the poorhouse.

We tend to look at compulsive gamblers, or drunks or drug addicts or other people who fall down the social ladder due to self-destructive behaviors, and tsk-tsk at their lack of self-control.   But on the other hand, their lack of self-control might be in part due to some makeup in their brain or genetic disposition.

It gets back to what I was trying to talk about in the first place.   Some of us end up as Presidents of companies, while others of us end up janitors.   There might be hundreds of people in an organization who have the intelligence, disposition, and ambition to lead the organization, yet only one is chosen for the top role.   How exactly does that work?  And aren't the people passed-over for that job kind of bitter and disappointed?   Or do they accept their subservient role and move on with life?   It is, to me, and interesting question, as in my experience, it is not always the "best and brightest" who rise to the top, and if you doubt me on this, visit 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue these days.   Where in the heck did we get this guy who can't even speak, other than in sentence fragments?  And he's not the first one, either!

Perhaps - and again, I am talking out of my ass here, as I didn't "go to college" for this - our self-destructive behaviors are a way of keeping us down so we don't get ahead in life so that others will.   On the other hand, if the guy at the top keels over dead, there are people waiting in line who are qualified to take his place.  We are kept in reserve, so to speak.

This is, of course, a very simplified view of human behavior which is a very complicated thing.  But I firmly believe that nothing in our behavioral spectrum happened by accident - there is some purpose served even by outlier behavior.

This is the time of year they play that Rankin & Bass stop-motion production of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - a story which many have pointed out has some very weird psychological messages in it.   Rudolph is an outcast - bullied in school and literally cast out of society, due to his genetic defect (which he tries to hide to "fit in").   He is sent off (or runs off) to live with other outcasts, until later on it is realized that his deformity has some positive use to society - at which point, he is lauded as a hero, largely for something he had no control over in the first place.   You would think after the way he was treated early on, he would have told Santa to fuck off.

It is an interesting message to young people - don't be "different" unless you can be of use to society.  I suppose an ancillary message (to those who are not different) is that we should tolerate difference, at least to the extent that society benefits from it.   Like I said, it is a weird message to send kids.

There is, of course, an opposite end of this spectrum as well - people who do things that only benefit themselves, often to the detriment of society.  The term "sociopath" is often tossed around, which is an interesting term, in that it encompasses the root of the word "society" in it.  We view as abnormal anyone who puts their own needs exclusively above society in general.

So what is the answer?   In order to get ahead, do we have to become narcissistic sociopaths and trample on other people?   A lot of people who do "get ahead" do go this route, it seems (again, Pennsylvania Avenue).   On the other hand, the fellow who is a "causista" who goes to every protest march (and accompanying riot) while neglecting his personal business is trying to serve greater society, but not taking care of themselves (which as I note, is a disservice to society).

Like anything else, I think there is a happy medium.   You can do well in life and help society by helping yourself.  Not being a social parasite is probably the biggest service you can offer to society - to work at a job, provide value to your employer, save some money, and be able to support yourself.  It might seem "selfish" or not serving some "greater cause" but one less protester on welfare is a benefit to us all.

OK, so I am rambling a bit here.  But it just struck me as odd that some people I knew in life who were capable and talented ended up not going very far, while others succeeded.   And of course, there are others who succeed, without seeming to have any sort of talents, skill, or hard work.    It isn't fair, of course, but life isn't guaranteed to be fair.  And trying to "make" things fair often results in more unfairness.

Maybe there is some happy medium here.  If we can recognize and deal with our internal struggles that are keeping us back, it may be more effective for us than trying to externalize our problems.   Well, anyway, it worked for me.

Equifax Data Breach Settlement

Is it possible to get some money from this lawsuit?   Maybe.

A couple of years ago, there was a data breach at Equifax, and some people's personal information was exposed.   Whether this resulted in anyone having their identity stolen isn't clear.  But the FTC filed suit, and Equifax settled for $380 million, which will be divided up among claimants.  If you have actual damages you can document, you might get reimbursed.  Most people who were not directly impacted might get $125 out of the deal, if that.

If you have actual cash damages and can document them you might actually get more.  But if all you suffered was "inconvenience" you might get a little, or maybe nothing.

The process to sign up isn't hard.  You can do it online at:

Even if you have no documented cash damages to claim, you can claim your "time" at $20 an hour, up to ten hours, without any additional documentation.   For example, when I learned of this breach, I locked my credit reports, changed all my passwords, set up two-step authentication, and signed up for a credit monitoring service (free, of course). This did take some time - how much time you want to claim for it, I leave that up to you.  Suffice it to say, it was far more than an hour, but not more than ten.

Whether anything comes of this, I do not know.  I will update this posting if they ever send us any checks.

But it can't hurt to ask!

UPDATE 2023:  In January of this year (four years later!) we each received a check for $21.06 (total, $42.12) which I guess is better than nothing.   One good side-effect of this settlement is that many of the credit reporting agencies now allow you to lock and unlock your credit report for free, and make it much easier to do.  And no, no one stole our "identity" - that is a largely overblown meme.  When you call ordinary credit card theft, "identity theft" then it does make the numbers seem scary.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Death-Defying Stunts!

Self-destructive behavior might also be a part of our psyche that tries to defy death.

In response to my last posting, I got some e-mails from readers asking about the folks I used as examples (including myself) of self-destructive behavior.   What happened to those folks?   What was the outcome of their life story?

Well, self-destructive behavior doesn't always end up causing utter self-destruction, only that it caused misery and discomfort for most.  My sister raised a family and became a kindergarten teacher.  She did well, but spent a lot of her life regretting some life choices and was angry a lot, particularly at people who were successful, which included her younger brother.

My hippie brother finally realized that there was no future in the commune and went out on his own, went back to school (well into his 40s!) and now is an academic. One of his friends moved to LA and got a job doing a television show.   I recall at the time my brother implying he was a "sell-out" for being successful.  Decrying success is sort of idiotic, particularly when you crave it yourself.  Just because you don't achieve it, it is nothing short of sour grapes when you run others' down.

Crabs in the bucket.

And it illustrates how people will tear you down if you try to become successful - it is the crab-bucket mentality, which is why, if you want to be successful, you often have to leave friends and family behind, or at least keep them at arm's length.   If you go through life trying to please your friends and family - or trying to defy them - you will be taking actions that are not aligned with your own best interests.

Others, well, I am not so sure, what happened to them.  People do what they have to do, in order to survive.   And even after making poor life choices, people struggle and figure out ways to put food on the table.   The point is, it can be far less a struggle if you make fewer poor life choices.   And doing things that are self-destructive to "get even" with others is really a poor life choice.

We all have regrets.

If I hadn't spent a decade smoking pot and being an underachiever, my life would have turned out differently for sure.   But of course, I would be a different person.   Do I have regrets?   Non, Je ne regrette rien.  Actually, we all have regrets, and I suspect the little sparrow might have a few, despite her protests to the contrary.

But this got me to thinking about another aspect of self-destructive behavior - the idea of defying death.  In Mexico, they have a big annual celebration, the day of the dead (dia de muertos).  The celebration has a number of origins and purposes, but one of them is to mock death - to look death in the face and not be afraid, because after all, it is inevitable.   By mocking death or defying death, it provides us with a psychological way of dealing with it.  Perhaps.

So the smokers smokes a cigarette and says, "see, that didn't kill me!" or the party-boy downs another beer bong and all his mates cheer him on.  Teenagers spend endless hours trying to skateboard down someone's stair railing - often with quite predictable results. Maybe there is a reason - an evolutionary reason - why we engage in self-destructive behaviors.

Like I noted before, this is how terrorists recruit suicide bombers - a job choice that is pretty hard to sell at "career day" at the local high school.  Just play upon peoples' low-self-esteem and their natural inclination to self-destruction.   It is easier than shooting fish in a barrel.  And without young people in the tribe willing to "die for the cause" there would be no tribe left.   Self-destruction may, in fact, be a survival skill, not for the individual, but for the species.   Maybe that is why individualism is, at its most basic, anti-civilization.

So what is the point of all of this?  Perhaps not much.  But perhaps if one can avoid or at least minimize self-destructive behavior, maybe one can be happier in life and have fewer regrets later on.  Seeing how life plays out here on old people island gives one a perspective on this.  Nary one oldster wishes they smoked more cigarettes in their earlier days, as they wheeze and cough and slowly smother to death.   Folks who ran out of money later in life regret foolish spending they did earlier.

Of course, this is assuming that people make the connection between their actions and their subsequent conditions.  With smokers, it is hard to avoid.   Once you have lung and heart-related illnesses, it is hard to argue that outside forces were at work, when you smoked three packs a day.  Well, some still play the blame game.   Somehow the government did it, right?

And the spenders, well, some of them will claim that the government or the rich "took their money away" when in fact they blew it all on cars and boats and vacations and credit card debt.  Yea, I did that too.  I don't blame the government for my woes.

Sadly, a new generation is being groomed to blame others - by both political parties.   Kids sign up for student loan debt, and than are encouraged to blame the government or wall street for their debts.  People get into credit card crises (as I have, more than once in life) and are encouraged to blame the "evil 1%'ers" - as if taking money away from Jeff Bezos will pay off your Citibank card.   People really think this way.  They do.

And I suspect, that down the road, they will regret that sort of thinking, and wish they had instead buckled down and paid down their debts - or never took them on in the first place - rather than wasting their time and energy hoping for massive social change.

Because, quite frankly, the only massive social change we've seen in recent years has been entirely in the opposite direction.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Destroying Yourself to Prove a Point

You can't "get even" with society, your family, or your peers by destroying your own life.

Self-destructive behavior is an interesting phenomenon.   We all do it, to some extent, whether it is gambling, drinking, smoking, driving too fast, eating too much (or eating the wrong foods), spending too much, saving too little, borrowing too much, or whatever.  The urge to commit slow-motion suicide is all-too-common among people.

Take smokers.  Sure, they are  addicted.  But you know the type - who smoked defiantly, as if to say, "Take that, society!  You can't tell me what to do!"    They take almost a perverse pride in their own destruction.

Or take young folks who get blackout drunk at a fraternity party - and then boast of their drinking "skills" later on, even as they destroy billions of brain cells and their liver (and end up puking behind the dumpster at the frat house).   They seek status in perceived bad-assedness.   It is quite common, in fact, among all levels of society.

We were watching some "off road failures and saves" videos the other night - people who take extreme 4x4 vehicles off-road into some pretty hairy situations, such as fording streams or driving up steep inclines.  In these videos, often the rigs end up drowning in the stream - the engine sucking in water, which basically destroys it.  Or the vehicle rolls over several times, rendering it useless.   The reaction is interesting - people laughing and giggling, including the drivers/owners of these rigs.  They just destroyed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars of their own property, and are giddy about it.   It is not much different that frat brothers laughing at themselves and each other as they get falling down drunk.

I mentioned before a brother who "rejected materialism" which was a way of rejecting my parents' social values.  My parents' generation strove to climb the social ladder, be accepted into "polite society" and the restricted country club.  The were one or two generations removed from poverty, and didn't have any glamorous ideals about non-materialism.  My parents had big plans for my brother - he was to become a lawyer!  They ended up stuck with me.  Sorry.   My brother rebelled against this, and rebelled against success itself, as if decrying personal accomplishment would somehow "get even" with society or my parents' generations values.

My sister was the same way - she was groomed to marry "a young executive on the move" much as my Mother did.   Parents only know what they experience.   My sister rebelled against his and married someone who was "a nice guy" but not a very good provider.   Before she died, my sister confided to me that she remained married for a decade longer than she intended, so as to not "prove Dad right" when he said it was a poor match.   Sadly, her life was cut short - and she was pretty angry about how things played out.

I use these two as exemplars, not to tear them down. We all do this, to some extent or another.   Myself, I spent a decade embroiled in an orgy of drug and alcohol abuse, as a youth, until I literally sobered up and wondered what the heck I was doing with my life.   Others never get that wake-up call, but rather continue down the path of self-destruction - often aided, abetted, and goaded on by their peers, much as at a fraternity house.

There is a lot in our culture and media that promotes self-destruction, too. Young people are encouraged to engage in nihilism, whether it was during the rock and roll era, or heavy metal, or punk rock.  Even the "fabulous" disco era was marked by promiscuous sex and heavy drug abuse.  Studio 54 wasn't all about dancing and having a good time, but about debasing yourself as much as possible, particularly in the infamous balcony.

Kids adopt identities in high school which are often self-destructive, sometimes literally harming themselves, thinking that it is somehow "glamorous" to tear oneself down.  My own Mother, for example, thought that it was glamorous to be self-destructive.  "All the great authors killed themselves," she would say, as if cowardice was a sign of nobility.  That crappy Shakespeare - must not have been a very good author, eh?   Needless to say, she spent much of her life in self-destruct mode, trying to tear others down at the same time.   It was a pretty stupid thing to do, in retrospect.  Then again, mental illness never makes much sense.

The urge for self-destruction is how terrorist groups are able to recruit suicide bombers so easily.  They make blowing yourself up seem glamorous and desirable.  In the abstract, this seems absurd, but then again, you can convince people under the age of 25 just about anything.  That, in a nutshell, is why we never send old people off to war - they would question the whole deal from the get-go.  Self-destruction sells, particularly among young people, who think "dying for a cause" is a great and noble thing to do.  Older people think it is much more noble to get someone else to die for their cause, which is why those Imams with the radical jihadist videos are so old.   They ain't stupid.

Selling self-destruction isn't hard to do, as we all suffer from low-self-esteem.   It is like shooting fish in a barrel.  It isn't hard to destroy someone's life through credit card debt (or today, student loan debt) as people willingly sign up for this nonsense, convinced perhaps that they deserve to be punished.  Read any posting on a student loan debt forum - it is all about low-self-esteem.   Yes, they are angry at the banks and schools and government, but mostly angry at themselves.   Everyone else, it seems, is successful in life, while they are getting probably what they deserve.

How do you avoid this trap? Well, it isn't hard to spot the signs.  If you are doing something that really isn't in your own best interest and something that you really, in your heart of hearts, don't like to do, just to "fit in" or be self-destructive, maybe it is time to move in a new direction.  If you are doing something you don't like to do, just to appease your peers, maybe it is time to pack it in and move on.

Because the bottom line is this: If you engage in self-destructive behavior long enough, you will succeed at your task. And then you will have no one but yourself to blame at that point (but nevertheless, I'm guessing you'll blame the government and people with opposing political views to your own, anyway).

Friday, December 27, 2019

Fresh Home-Made from Scratch - by Hand! (Advertising Puffery)

What is advertising puffery?

When I took a course in contract law from Professor Pock at GWU, he talked a lot about "advertising puffery".  He also talked a lot about a four-cylinder Opel car that someone bought that had dealer-installed air conditioning that never worked.  I suspect that someone was him - he just couldn't let that go!  Breach of Contract!  He was a great professor, though, just not a car guy.

But what is advertising puffery, exactly?  It is language that seems descriptive, but often is not.  It is just laudatory wording that is not contractually enforceable. When someone advertises a car as "clean!" and "nice!" these are subjective terms, and not legally binding on the seller.  What you perceive as "clean" or "nice" is different than other people (look around you, particularly the next time you are in a parking lot). 

Puffery is meaningless gibberish that just tries to hook you emotionally.

What got me started on this was we drove by a chain restaurant called "Cheddars" which cracked me up.  I mean, naming a restaurant after a cheese?   And in the USA, Cheddar cheese, unfortunately, is all-too-often a bland, inoffensive cheese that for some reason is artificially colored bright orange, which no cheese is, naturally.   Yes, we do have wonderful sharp cheddar cheeses, but you have to hunt for them - like anything else worthwhile in life.  Somehow I suspect the cheese at "Cheddars" isn't Vermont extra sharp.

Curious, I downloaded the menu on my phone.  Google is all-too-good these days at promoting advertised hits.   A lot less so, in terms of doing original research.   For example, I googled "Why are flags at half-mast today?" (which they are here on our island, at least) and all I got was hits about memorial day.   Whatever.   Please let me know what the new Google is - one that provides real data, and not just advertisements and attempts to hack my doorbell.

Anyway, what was interesting about the menu was that things were advertised as "home made" or "hand made" or "made from scratch" which struck me as a lot of puffery.  And it turns out, in most cases, this was true.

Maker's Mark prevailed in a case involving the term "hand made" as the court correctly noted you can't make whiskey by hand (you'd burn your hands down to the bone, in the still).  If this is controlling case law, then the term "hand made" is pretty meaningless.  Those "hand made" biscuits may be made with a rolling pin and a whisk, or made in a Hobart commercial mixer and rolled out by a machine - the buttons of the machines, of course, being pressed by hand.

So I doubt "hand made" has any legal meaning. "Made from Scratch" is informally defined as meaning "made from base ingredients" and not from other prepared parts.  Whether that is a legally binding definition, I do not know.   What isn't clear is where those base ingredients are combined.  You could argue the boil-in-a-bag entree is "made from scratch" because it is - in a commercial kitchen, thousands of miles away, in a vat the size of a swimming pool, before it is processed, bagged, frozen, and shipped to the local outlet.  Whether this is what "Cheddars" means by "made from scratch" I do not know.   All I know is, I would not put too much meaning into it  I doubt Aunt Mabel is back there in the kitchen, rolling out biscuits by hand - but you never know.

The "made from scratch" sides seem, well, a little impossible not to make from scratch, as most have single ingredients. Yes, a baked potato or french fries are "made from scratch" just about everywhere. Steamed Broccoli comprises only two ingredients - broccoli and steam.  No word on whether the broccoli is frozen or not.  One reviewer noted that the "made from scratch" claim might be a bit overblown, as he tried to make a substitution (deleting ham from a Monte Cristo sandwich) and they couldn't do it for some weird reason.   But then again, they never anywhere claim that everything on the menu is made from scratch, only some "sides" from what I can tell.   And besides, a "Monte Cristo" sandwich is just gross - a ham and cheese sandwich (with jelly?!?) deep fried.   Ouch.

It is just another chain restaurant serving what we call "brown food" - fried everything.  By the way, while I am ranting (take that, Lewis Black!) what is the deal with huge billboards showing ultra-close-ups of food - often greasy burgers with way-too-many ingredients, with grease dripping off the fat meat.  I mean, gross.   Worse yet are billboards showing people eating often with food in their mouths or bites taken out of the food.  Others are just weird.  Near Florida is a huge billboard showing a huge spoon of corn with the notation, "Cracker Barrel, Exit XX".    Arrrgh!  Ye turn right at the giant spoon 'o corn, my friend!  Blackbeard's treasure is no doubt buried nearby.

I guess that is what they eat at Cracker Barrel - corn.   But I thought all those old people had diverticulitis?   Maybe not, I guess.

Cheddar's is part of the Darden restaurant chain - the folks who own the Onion Garden and Seasons 52.   They are smart folks, and I bought stock in the chain (and recently sold it at a tidy profit, thank-you-very-much) and I am sure their restaurant will do well, or better than they did with Olive Lobster.  Oddly enough, it originated as "Cheddar's Casual Cafe" and when Darden bought it, the "Scratch" thing was added.  The chicken-tenders are "hand-breaded" doncha know - the way I like my tendies.   Gourmet food!

But my point wasn't to pick on Cheddars.  It is just another in a series of casual restaurants serving brown food that is not very good for you.  We went to another such restaurant, the unfortunately named "BJ's Brew House" and I left feeling bloated.  Oversized entrees, too many beers, and lots of fried food.  You really just have to split an appetizer at these sort of places - or just not go.   But I guess this is what Americans eat, which is why Europeans are so mystified by us.   But say, Croque Monsieur, didn't the French invent the Monte Cristo sandwich?   Take that, Europe!  And certainly German and Polish cuisine isn't exactly low-cal.

This whole thing reminds me of Outhouse Steak House and their "fresh" beef - something you really don't want to eat, unless you have cannibalistic tendencies.  Beef should be aged, as I noted in another posting.  But "Fresh" is another word that is largely meaningless.   Legally, you really can't serve "un-fresh" foods - i.e., rotting filth.  So saying your food is "fresh" is just another way of saying it is "food" (although I guess some would argue it means not frozen, perhaps).

But getting back to puffery, another term thrown around besides Fresh, Made from Scratch, and Hand made, is "Home Made" - what does that mean, exactly?   Exactly nothing, of course.  In order to be "Home Made" in real life it would have to be made at someone's home.  And unless people are living in the back rooms of Cheddar's, technically their soups and salads are not "home made" - unless workers are bringing them in from home - which is probably a violation of a number of health codes.  But again, "home made" doesn't mean "made in someone's home" but rather "made from their own recipe" at least in restaurant parlance.  Or translated into language you and I can understand, "This didn't come off the back of the Sysco truck!" (Insider Tip:  Look for "House Recipe" ketchup on the table!)

Speaking of which, the Sysco truck. Yes, there are about two or three major food distributor companies in America.  A friend of mine works for one of them.   They go to these restaurants - from big chains to Mom and Pop's - and sell them entrees, much as the Schwan's Man does.   You can sort of spot a "Sysco Restaurant" even if the truck isn't parked out back, unloading pallets of pre-made food.  The same entrees appear on the menu as everywhere else.  It is a plug-and-play restaurant, all you have to do is teach a teenager how to use a microwave.

Act shocked.   And that little boutique you go to with all that cutesy stuff?  Yea, it all comes from the Merchandise Mart (owned by the Kennedy family, it turns out) - from the scented candles to the Man-A-Way Spray(tm) - it all comes by UPS truck, and it is the same crap in every candle-and-card district in every damn tourist town in America.

If I sound jaded, I am not.  You see, a lot of the stuff in America is just like all the other stuff in America - and this is true all over the world.   Europeans look down their noses our debased culture, yet there is a Burger King on the Champs-Elysées - and someone is eating there.  Maybe all those yellow vest people, between riots.

What this drives home is that when you do find something special and original, and good, it is all the more special.   It makes seeking out unique experiences all the better.  And this is not to detract from or denigrate these chain restaurants - only to point out the obvious.  I've been to Seasons 52 - another Darden property, and as I noted before, it is a place where cubicle dwellers can go and pretend to be executives.  The happy hour specials are not half-bad.  But then again, I don't eat there more than once or twice a year.   No one should use restaurants as their kitchen - it is unhealthy and too expensive!   The Darden people know their audience, and I suspect they will do well with Cheddars as well (and I will buy more stock, once it crashes during the recession), although I think I am less likely to visit that chain, ever, unless trapped at an airport or something (on a Sunday, and the Chik-Fil-A is closed).

But I guess it just cracks me up - this "home made" this and "hand made" that, "fresh" and "from scratch" as if it actually meant something.   Why is a biscuit "made from scratch" better than one made from prepared dough?   I've had some pretty shitty hand-made, home-made, from-scratch, fresh meals in my day - many prepared by myself!   Even assuming these terms have some real meaning beyond advertising puffery, they are no indicia of quality, value, flavor, or goodness.  A boil-in-a-bag entree can be actually better than something "made from scratch" if the latter is not made well.

These sort of terms are, in the ultimate analysis, just advertising puffery.