Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Glory of True Love

John Prine is in the hospital with the virus

I first heard John Prine's "Glory of True Love" while driving across Arkansas where I had gone to pick up an antique tractor.  Maybe it was because I was operating on little sleep, but the song really hit me - back-to-back with Willie Nelson's "It Will Always Be".   I was weeping profusely.

Anyway, this morning, in the news, John Prine is in the hospital in intensive care.   He had lung cancer previously and had part of a lung removed - and he is up there in years.  These are not good things when you catch the Corona Virus.

I hope he beats this latest setback.   He has given so much happiness to others....

Monday, March 30, 2020


The market is down, people are out of work, but I think it is just getting started.

I noted in some earlier postings that my neighbor died.  She was 98 years old.  People ask what she died of, and I reply, "being 98 years old."   The "oldest person in the world" is a crown that changes hands on a weekly basis.  Usually those folks are around a hundred and teens.  Few live that long, fewer enjoy living that long.  If you live the four-score-and-twenty the Bible claims you are due, then good for you.

But don't act all shocked when someone over 80 dies - regardless of the cause.  We should all hope to live that long.   I probably won't.   But I digress.

The new owners of her house are tearing it a new one.  They took down quite a few trees, which cost them thousands of dollars.  While they had the crane there, we had four smaller trash trees taken down, and that cost us $2400 - which our stimulus check should cover.  So much more light in our house now!   Living in the dark isn't healthy.

But anyway, there is a dumpster in their driveway, and they put in a new split-system for their "Jekyll Room" (our version of a Florida room or glassed-in porch) replacing a balky and broken window unit mounted through the wall.  They are doing the kitchen and baths and putting in a new sewer line and a new roof - your basic makeover.   Funny thing, though - if you asked me while my neighbor was alive, I would have said her house was "in good shape".   And it was, but it needed updating and the roof was getting kind of old.

Anyway, the point is, while a lot of people have been laid off from their jobs in the service sector, there are a lot more who haven't been laid off yet.   These remodeling projects - and they are going on all over the island - are still going ahead full steam.  The homeowners contracted for them before the virus hit, and they have the money to pay their contractors, at least for the time being.

But down the road, what happens?   Will people keep buying vacation homes and remodeling them?  Well, some will.  Others may hold back, nervous that their bank account and investments are diminished by the recession.  We saw this the last time around.  Contractors were going hungry - a friend of mine had their house done over for a very reasonable amount, as no one else was hiring.

This is just one example.  Multiply it by the number of contractors across the United States, currently working on jobs, but maybe soon to be unemployed.   Throw in construction workers for new homes, or office buildings and hotels (such as being built here on the island). Contracts were signed and construction should be completed, but after that, then what?

I think we may see a delay or hysteresis effect here.  It may take several months for the real effects on the economy to sink in.   It is a death spiral or the snowball effect at work.  A guy gets laid off - he decides not to trade in his jalopy on a new car, but instead conserve cash and keep the old car for another year.  That means one less car sold by Mammoth Motors.  Multiply this by thousands, and pretty soon Mammoth Motors is laying people off.  They, in turn, decide that maybe this isn't the year to buy a house, an RV, or a jet ski.

And on and on.  We saw this the last time around.  Mark got into Real Estate when we looked at a foreclosure property in 1994.  Bear in mind the Real Estate market crashed in 1989, and you can see there is a huge delay between a crash event and the effects rippling though the system.  It takes time for people and companies to give up and move on and then slowly rebuild.

So if you want to time the market, good luck with that.  The bottom of the market could have been last week, or this week, or next, or six months from now.

I think, going forward, there will be bargains for some time to come, and a bull market will emerge from this bear, in the next few months.  After all, the recovery last time around started only a month or so after Obama took office.

So even if you don't "time" the market correctly, you may still do well down the road, if you invest in a number of things, over time.

It may sound depressing to contemplate all of this, but it is just reality, and reality is value-neutral. Virus or no virus, we were headed for recession, eventually.   Trump was hoping that it would not strike until after the 2020 elections - which is why he had been goosing the economy with tax cuts, deficit spending, and low interest rates.  It is 2008 all over again - with Bush signing a bailout package to keep "too big to fail" from failing - after years of deficit spending and tax cuts.  We barely recovered from that when we got Trump.

Will people ever learn?  Hell, no.  These boom-and-bust cycles profit a few people very handsomely and take away a little bit from a lot of people (or in some cases, a lot from a few people).  Maybe this time around, people will wise up.


Virus Paranoia

It will be years before we can separate the fact from fiction with regard to this virus.  But some stories seem to be more alarmist than informative.

People are freaking out - well, some of them, anyway - with regard to this virus.  My stinking hippie communist brother sends me a message ("sent from my iPhone") that they are hunkering down in their million-dollar-plus home and sending out for groceries from Whole Foods - and then washing them in bleach.   I think the bleach may kill them before the virus does!  Chlorine is nothing to be trifled with, let me tell you.  Nor is ammonia.  I have experience with both.

But I digress.

There is a lot of paranoia going on about this virus.  Yes, it is prudent to take precautions.  Even with precautions, people will still get infected - no system is 100% perfect.   To make in 100% perfect, life as we know it would cease to exist.  And the way it is going, it is bad enough as it is.

But sadly, many politicians are using this to air their political grievances - on both sides of the aisle.  Democrats are blaming Trump, Republicans are blaming Democrats, and the New York Times is blaming capitalism in general.  None are useful efforts or accomplish anything.  All are shameful - trying to capitalize on a pandemic for political advantage or to generate click-through revenue.

Of course, it is we who are to blame for clicking on these articles or listening to these politicians as they try to lay blame on one another.  Maybe 2020 will be the year we stop being raging true believers in political causes, whether it is tea-party rightists, libertarians, liberalism, or socialism.  Maybe - just maybe - people will stop looking for universal answers to complex problems and settle for a working and functioning government.

What am I saying?  Nah!  We'll go right back to the same old bullshit we left off with - if we even stopped for a microsecond.

The media has been particularly culpable in this click-bait frenzy.  Not a day goes by without some article headlined about a "young, healthy person" who got the virus. The underlying message is fear.  "This could happen to you, buddy! It ain't just grandma keeling over dead!"  But the reality is, of course, that while anyone can get sick from this virus, the severity depends on a number of factors, including age, health, and plain damn luck. Yes, in any statistical distribution, there will be anomalies.  Some "healthy" young guy may die from this, but that doesn't mean all young healthy people will - or even all old, infirm people will.

But hey, common sense doesn't generate clicks - alarmist articles with click-bait titles do.

Another recent boner, reported in Newsweek and The Daily News, is that the virus death toll may be under-reported in China, and this factual investigative reporting is based solely on anecdotal reports of delivery of cremation urns in China.  We are told that the death toll in China may be under-reported by a factor of ten because tens of thousands of cremation urns have supposedly been delivered to the Wuhan region.

But as the article notes, in that area, tens of thousands of people die under normal circumstances in that area in that given time period, and the excess number of urns really amounts to a couple of thousand  - about the amount of the reported death toll from the corona virus by the Chinese government:
In the fourth quarter of 2019, Wuhan also saw 56,007 cremations, a figure 1,583 higher than the fourth quarter of 2018, and 2,231 more than the fourth quarter of 2017, according to data released by the Wuhan civil affairs agency. In 2019, the Wuhan population grew by only 1.1 percent from 2018, according to a U.N. projection. These figures could indicate that the novel virus' emergence in December caused an increase in deaths—a trend that likely will have carried through to the first quarter of this year.
Don't get me wrong, the Chinese government is a lying sack of shit.  But Newsweek magazine and The Daily News (which is a tabloid) are not exactly trusted sources of information. What is interesting about this statistic is that it illustrates how the underlying death rate is higher than we think.   50 million people die every year - sort of puts a couple thousand into perspective, doesn't it?

Again, this is not to trivialize the virus.  This is only to point out reality.  The Union of Biddies, Bats, and Busybodies can take their Facebook shaming and damning elsewhere.  I'll be so glad when this is over and they can go back to Parcheesi club and torment each other, rather than the rest of us.

Most people would read the Newsweek article and think, "50,000 people dead!  That's a lot!"  But talk to a friend who works in a funeral home sometime, and you'd be surprised how many people "check out" on a daily basis, even in a small town.  But again, death in America is something we don't talk about - something deemed shameful, I guess.

But getting back to this "News Story" - what is the source of it?  Social Media.  The "reports" are based on anecdotal data posted by individuals claiming to have "seen" a delivery of 2,000 urns - at one funeral home alone!  But again, in a region that sees 50,000 deaths per quarter under normal circumstances, a couple-thousand urns is a drop in the bucket.

Oh, and this week is "Tomb sweeping out week" in China, or we call it here in the West, "TidyTomb"(tm).   So many of these urns could be used to replace old or broken ones.   It is implied in the story, but not said.

But then again, such things do not make for good clickbait headlines.   And what makes for a good clickbait headline is fear and lots of it.  Fear of missing out (FOMO) or fear of death, or fear of losing money, or fear of crime, or just plain unfocused fear.  Fear is not an emotion to be trusted.

It should be noted, too, that a lot of this fear and angst isn't being generated by old busybodies or even click-bait news media, but by Russia and China themselves (along with other countries).  China tried, for a week or so, to promulgate a conspiracy theory that the virus wasn't of Chinese origin, but a bio-weapon unleashed by the United States.  The Chinese government was laughed at for this clumsy attempt at propaganda - they apparently believed the lies they told their own people would play on a world stage.

Since then, they have withdrawn to social media - amplifying the efforts of the Russian Internet Research Agency by spreading rumors on social media (or liking or upvoting rumors or commenting on them, or linking to them, etc.)   They realize that telling baldfaced lies will get you laughed at, but putting up a Facebook page will get you "likes" and links.

So we have to be wary of that.  And one way to do this is to get off social media - it is poison for your brain, plain and simple.  The fact that Al Qaeda recruits people to become suicide bombers on social media should be evidence enough of that.  It is like going to the "Free Seminar" put up by the religious cult, the MLM scheme, or the Timeshare company - you can go if you want to, but you risk losing your mind, an awful lot of money, or both.   Why even go to such things?

What's the harm in all of this?  Only that, over time, these overblown articles will be shown to be the lies they are.  And when that happens, people will start to think maybe everything they are being told is a lie.  A lot of folks already are thinking that - which is why they discount good advice but believe anything they read on Facebook.  And when that happens, folks will start to think maybe this quarantine thing is overblown and.... that could lead to trouble.

The other problem is that people will mistrust their government and media even more.  As I noted in an earlier posting, the "pseudo-science" breathlessly reported on by the press (usually press-release news) tells people that, according to surveys, or some other form of unreliable data, that what we thought was good for you is now bad for you, or vice-versa.  So Joe Reader says to his buddies, "Those scientists don't know anything!  One day they tell you drinking is bad for you, and now they say a glass of wine is good for your heart!"

The media isn't interested in informing people, so much as entertaining them. Network news programs are classified as "entertainment" - fiction, not non-fiction.  They are not a good source of information.  And neither are newspapers, anymore - if they ever were.

I guess you kind of have to parse these things out - read the articles with a skeptical frame of mind, and be wary of one-sided stories or anything that sells you fear.  You should also be wary of anything that sound too-good-to-be-true or even things that are convenient to you, personally.    Usually, those are lies.

We're going to be all right.  No, really.  This isn't the end of the world.  Life will go on as before, even if the economy enters recession.   People live through recessions and even depressions.   I have - more than once.   During an era of 10%+ inflation, I had a job, a car, and an apartment - and later a house.   And that was in high-unemployment tax-happy New York!  At the time, though, things didn't seem all so bad - because in reality, they weren't.

We've survived far worse - we'll survive this.   But that sort of talk doesn't generate clicks!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Timing the Market?

Can you make money from a downturn in the market? 

Many are asking (and the financial press is breathlessly reporting) as bad as things are in the stock market, whether this is a good time to be buying stocks. After all, eventually the market will recover and these stocks will go up in value, right?

Right.   But the question is, which stocks and when.   Both are tricky questions to answer without a time machine.  As a small investor, picking stocks and trying to time the market is just gambling, plain and simple.

We have experience with this - a little more than ten years ago, the last time the market tanked.   As you may recall - or don't, as human economic memory lasts only 18 months, in my estimation - the real estate market collapsed in a flaming pile of shitty mortgages and overpriced condos and mini-mansions, not to mention mortgage fraud.   The stock market, which had financed a lot of this crappy debt with something called "reverse default swaps" also tanked as well.

In February of 2009, just as Obama took office, it bottomed out, and then started the longest bull market in history - which eventually was going to collapse, particularly since Trump goosed it with more deficit spending, low interest rates, and unnecessary tax cuts - which is why we are where we are today.  Oh, and a virus thingy, but that is secondary - really.   Long term, our problem isn't the virus, but the systemic problems in our financial system caused by the party of "fiscal responsibility" who has abandoned all sense of fiscal responsibility.   But I digress - or did I?

Back then, I had a few dollars in my trading account.  I decided to be a "playa" and buy some stocks I was sure would go up.  General Motors - my alma mater - was in the tank.  But GM would never go bankrupt, right?   I may not have been a fan of their products at the time, or their bloated management structure or corrupt indolent union, but they certainly were too big to fail, right?   So I threw a few thousand dollars at that.

Fannie Mae was another pick - after all, they guaranteed the mortgages for most of the country, right? And this quasi-government corporation would surely be bailed out by the Government that created it, right?  So I threw a few thousand at that, too.

Finally, there was Avis.   The press was abound with stories that Avis was going bankrupt - people stopped traveling and car rentals were in the tank.  By that point, all I had left in my trading account was $750, so with a $9.99 trade fee (remember those days?) I bought 1,000 shares for 74 cents apiece.

And then I forgot about the market for several months.  Even looking at my 401(k) was a painful experience.  As you can see from some of my older postings, I even stopped calculating my net worth at that point.    We did do a lot of partying, though.

Later on, when the dust had settled, I found I lost my entire investments in GM and Fannie Mae stocks.  But that Avis stock went up over 1000%.   My $750 investment was worth over $7500!   In other words, it neatly made up for my losses in the "too big to fail" companies.   Oh shit.   It is why I say, never confuse getting lucky with being brilliant.  Throw 1,000 darts at a dartboard, one will hit the bulls-eye.  This doesn't make you a darts champion, though.

Picking the right companies is problematic. Today there may be some airlines that go bankrupt - even with bailout money.  Prior to the "crisis" we saw inklings of trouble, particularly overseas, with low-cost or government-run airlines, many of which were hobbled with debt and excessive costs.   They were already going belly-up, leaving travelers stranded on a moment's notice.  It was in the papers, people!  But few cared - some British "package tours" people stranded, or folks in India or Pakistan - it doesn't affect us, right?  Right?

And the car companies.  Before the virus, they were offering "employee pricing" - something they did during the last recession - and zero percent financing. Even with these boosts, they were predicting that 2020 would be a slower year and cut back on production ahead of time.   Again, this was all in the papers, but few cared.   Hey, I don't work in an auto plant.  Nothing is happening - right?  Didn't ya see how the Dow is doing?  All time highs!   And we chose not to think about it.

Then there are the retailers - in the US and abroad.  Much ink was spilled about how "online retailing" and Amazon put these companies out of business.  But the reality usually was, these companies were leveraged with debt, often by our friends the "Venture Capitalists" who milked those junk bonds for all they were worth, paid themselves handsome bonuses, and then allowed the shell of the company to collapse, taking the pension liabilities with it.  This too, was in the papers.  Few bothered to care.   So what if one of five sporting goods chains goes bust?   We had too many for the market to support, right?   Same for electronics stores, or office supply stores and so on and so forth.  These companies expanded quickly, using leveraged debt, hoping to put "the other guy" out of business.  Today, only one of each remains standing, for the most part.

Who will survive the remaining rounds?  Lowes versus Home Depot?  Michaels versus Hobby Lobby?  Beats me.  Maybe both will survive and prosper.  You'd have to do a boatload of research on debt load, overhead, market trends, locations, cash-flow and so on and so forth.

Therein lies the problem.   When I bought companies during the last recession, I didn't really do much research because I couldn't.   There is a guy on Wall Street whose job it is to spelunk the quarterly reports of the major automakers.  Probably one guy - or an entire department - just to think about GM stock and bond prices.   They do this 24/7 for decades.  You've spent ten minutes reading press releases and looking at the stock price trends.   Who do you think is going to win?

So forget stock picking.  Choosing an individual stock you think will survive the recession is a crap shoot.   Unless you have done an awful lot of research, it is just gambling.  And even if you did the research, shit can happen - like this virus thing - that is unpredictable and unexpected.

Then there is the timing.  When will the market bottom out?   We've seen huge drops and huge increases - swings not seen since the 1980s - or more ominously, since the 1930's.  A lot of people think the stock market in 1929 crashed and then slowly recovered through the 1930's, but that really isn't the case. Prior to "Black Friday" there were wild swings in the market, and it wasn't until later that "the bottom fell out".   During the 1930's, recovery was painfully slow - and there were mini-recessions, such as in 1937-1938 which dampened recovery somewhat.  Imagine that - a recession during a depression!

Oh, right, I forgot.  Today's generation has it worse than any preceding generation before it!  The "Greatest Generation Ever" had to endure the depression, and then got drafted to go off and fight the Nazzies.   Kids today - they want to become Nazzies - or Communists, or Socialists, or whatever.   The parallels to today and the Wiemar republic are frightening.  It is only a matter of time before they come after the Gays and the Jews.   Well, let's hope not.

But getting back to topic, the market may have already bottomed out or may hit another bottom in the near future.  Which is it?  Just guessing,but I suspect we'll see more bad news before we see good. Even with the bailout, many companies are going to report some pretty shitty earnings and poor balance sheets at the end of the next quarter - and the quarter after that.   Consumers (e.g., human beings) will be spending less in the coming months.  The working class, missing a few paychecks, will be playing catch-up on their bills.  Those with money will be reluctant to spend, given how their 401(k) has been ravaged.  Nervous seniors will be hoarding cash, worried they may run out of money in retirement.   The economy may be in recession for quite some time.

Recall that after the 2008 meltdown, foreclosure sales were going on for years afterword.  In fact, there are people today who are still clinging to upside-down homes from that debacle.   After the collapse in 1989, I was buying foreclosure properties at late as 1994 and "distressed sale" properties in 1998.   We bought the condo in 1998 and paid less for it than the previous owner did in 1988.  She was glad to unload it!

So there could be quite a long time of depressed prices in the housing business - it may take years for prices to recover.  Timing the market there could be difficult.

It takes a while for people to read the writing on the wall and give up.  After the 2008 debacle, I knew a lot of people who lost their high-paying jobs.  Six-figure jobs like "human resources manager" which seemed redundant when there were no human resources left to manage.  They hemmed and hawed and tried to find a job just like the one they left and often stayed unemployed for years.  But most threw in the towel and found a second career - sometimes paying more than the first, most times paying less.  It takes time for people to give up.

Just as it takes time for companies to give up.  Radio Shack and Sears, for example.  People predicted their demise in 2009, but Radio Shack hung on for a long time - then went bankrupt, re-emerged as a private equity company and then finally crashed.   Sears had momentum to survive nearly a decade before it, too, went bankrupt and re-emerged as a privately held company.   Do you think it will survive this latest round?   Who knows?  It takes time to kill a vampire - or a zombie.   This doesn't make them good investments, though!

So.... if you can't pick the right stocks and you can't time the market what should you do?    Sit in a corner, cowering and whimpering and closing your eyes and hoping it all goes away?   Well, that's no answer either.  But sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something.

I sold out my IRA last year and the money is sitting in a cash account (still in an IRA of course - I don't want to pay taxes on it!).   I need the cash, as I am retired, and the prospect of "making money in the market" seemed pretty marginal given my time frame for investment.    Mark left his IRA in mutual funds, and they dropped 30% or so.  Given his timeline - five or ten years behind mine - his funds will likely recover.

The worst thing he could have done was to sell out after the crash.  This ends up locking-in losses, which may be difficult to recover from.  I recounted before an oldster here on the island who, in February 2009 said, "I sold it all!  I wanted to get out before it got worse!"   But of course, it didn't get worse, it got better, and if he tried to buy back in, he would be buying back the same funds or stocks for $1.50 that he sold for $1.00 months earlier.  Buy High, Sell Low - the sure route to bankruptcy! 

Of course, what is an old guy doing with his money in high-risk stocks anyway?  Oh right, greed and fear, the two things that drive the market.  Greed kept him in high-risk, high-yield stocks at an age he should have been in safer, lower-yield investments.   Fear made him "sell out" at the bottom of the market.  Since then, he has passed on. His wife was left pretty destitute.

So, if you didn't sell before the crash, I don't think now is the time to sell.   But that is your choice, not mine, which is why I don't give advice.

Us "little people" don't have working time machines or the ability to research these companies and funds to understand what is and isn't a smart pick.   All we have in our arsenal are time, diversification, and dollar cost averaging.

If your investment timeline is in decades, not months or years, your investments should recover over time.  And over time, you should move to more and more conservative investments, so when you need the money - as I do now - it is there, and not plummeting in value due to the next recession (and there will be one).

Picking one stock or one fund is literally putting all your eggs in one basket.  If that basket breaks, you are screwed.  Oh, sure, I've heard the mantra before, "Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket closely!"   But what happens when the handle breaks?  You can "watch closely" as all your eggs break.   Diversification is the key for the small investor.

Dollar cost averaging also makes sense - to some extent.  If you invest over a period time - a small amount every month, such as a 401(k) deposit, you average out the fluctuations in the market.  As I noted before, this is not an investment "strategy" but rather the way most of us are forced to invest, as we only get our money in dribs and drabs in these bi-weekly things we call "paychecks".

So maybe the best thing to do, is to do nothing.   That geranium may look down and out, but when winter turns to spring the flowers bloom.  Sometimes the best thing to do is leave well enough alone.

And in retrospect, that is what worked best for me the last time around.  In 2009, I stopped even checking my investments, for months on end.  Not only was it depressing to do so, it was a temptation to "do something" when doing nothing was a better option.

For the small investor, it is foolish to think one  can outsmart or out-time the market.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Let The Damning And Shaming Begin!

This virus thing is bringing all the kooks out of the woodwork!

I made the mistake of looking at Facebook the other day.  One of our friends is on it, and they said there was some kind of Jekyll Island group.  There are actually several.  The Island Authority has a page, the Club Hotel has a page, the "Citizens Association" has a page, and the "Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island" has a page (which basically criticizes everything).   There are also phantom blank pages which Facebook created for Jekyll Island, just as they created the bogus page created for my former law practice.

Facebook is creepy, let's face it.  And so many "business" sites these days will set up a page for your business and then ask you to "claim" it.  They now do this for people, too.  I don't suggest you claim any of them - it is a scam.  Shame on Facebook for getting into that.

Anyway, there is at least one other Facebook page for our island, created by "residents".  It is listed as a private page for residents only, and lists over 1300 members, which is a neat trick for an island with only 600 homes on it.

I was on one of these pages, which has a "public" wall, and the craziness I mentioned previously - restroom vigilantes going around checking to see the restrooms were locked - was in full bloom.  They have "closed" the beaches and even the picnic pavilions, even though there are no people "congregating" on either.   The few people on the beached were 40 yards apart from one another.  There was zero risk of spreading any kind of infection.

(Like I said before, politicians want to be seen as "doing something" even if the something they are doing is pointless.  Mrs. Kravitz no doubt called and complained that people weren't taking things seriously enough, so the poor government servant on the other end of the line sighed and said, "Clem, go close something.  Mrs. Kravitz called again!")

On this Facebook page, the response to the beach closing were two disturbing comments.   The first opined that the whole island should be closed to everyone except residents, "So we can enjoy the beaches by ourselves".   Once again, the "private club" aspect of life rears its ugly head.  One reason the Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island hates Jekyll Island (but won't move away) is that ten years ago, the place was largely abandoned, and it was kind of nice to have the place to ourselves.  But, you can't expect that to be the rule forever - plans were afoot to rebuild the old hotels, conference center, and shopping district.  And they are plans that are working out just fine, thank you, despite the actions of the "concerned citizens" who shout into the wind.

The second comment was more disturbing.  IN ALL CAPS someone shouted, "THIS VIRUS IS AIRBORNE, PEOPLE!  STAY OFF THE BEACHES!!!!"   Emergency Mouse is on the job.

Thankfully, someone calmly noted that no, it is not airborne, and you can't catch it from the beach, unless there is someone there, two feet away, sneezing in your face - which could occur anywhere. But for some reason, the videos played over and over again on Fox News, of "irresponsible millenials" congregating on the beach has conflated into "beaches are dangerous".  Superstition trumps science.  And I say trumps in both senses of the word.

Like I said before, the real virus is Facebook.   This virus is not a threat to humanity - humanity's reaction to it is, however.

Take for example, the run on gun sales.  People are apparently buying guns and ammunition so they can hunker down in their bunkers and defend their hoard of toilet paper.   This is nothing short of sick behavior - assuming that civilization itself is on the verge of breakdown because of a pandemic.

And perhaps it is - not because of the virus, but because of our reaction to it.  President Trump (throw up in mouth a little bit) got a lot of flack for suggesting that the low mortality rate of this virus isn't worth destroying our economy over.   More damning and shaming - "How can you put a dollar value on human life?"   Well, as I noted in a previous posting, you can, quite easily, and down to the last penny - we do it every day.

Somewhere along the line, someone is going to have to make that call - exactly how many lives is it worth wrecking the economy over.  And more to the point - when it reaches a point where people can't get food or basic supplies, are we saving lives or risking more?   I did the math on this before, and if we assume each person is "worth" about 9 million dollars (the amount governments and trial attorneys use in the USA) then we can tank the economy for years.   But eventually, the survivors will find their lives in jeopardy if everything is shut down for too long.

While it isn't worth anyone's life to preserve Trump's faltering real estate empire, perhaps it is worthwhile to preserve civilization itself.   The real risk to us isn't this virus, nor a plunge in the Dow, or even huge unemployment claims.  The real risk is the breakdown of society itself, if we quarantine an entire planet because of a virus with a fatality rate of less than 3%  - which may actually be closer to 0.5% or less, despite what we are seeing in Italy.

But let the damning and shaming begin!   "Oh you say that now, buddy!  Wait until you or a loved one is on a ventilator!"   But the reality is, we all die eventually, and accepting this is part of life - or should be.   Our ancestors knew this - death was quite familiar to them.  Our generation shuffles death off to retirement communities and old folks' homes.  We are not as intimate with our own mortality, and thus are far more scared of death.  Your death is awaiting you, down the road, or maybe next week - maybe in the next ten minutes.  It isn't fair, of course - life never was, death even more so.

You could keel over from an undiagnosed aneurysm in your brain. A sudden blinding headache, and you fall unconscious and are dead in minutes.  It's happened to friends of ours, here on old people island - more than once. Or cold and flu season comes around and your weakened body can't withstand the stress and finally gives up - that kills an awful lot of people as well, and it is what is killing the majority of those who die from this new virus - which is a more deadly version of the common cold, which is also a corona virus.

People act all shocked that Grandma, aged 86, succumbs to the virus, as if otherwise, she would have lived forever.  Odds are, that simply isn't true.  The media, wanting to crank up the scare factor, is having a field day touting deaths by "otherwise healthy" younger people. And while that does happen - after all, death like so much else in life, is distributed along a bell curve (no relation).  But those are anomalies, not the norm.

Yes, people dying is tragic, but what we are seeing is hardly the major cause of death in the world for 2020.  Over 50 million die every year from various causes.  Over 50,000 die during cold and flu season from complications of those illnesses (and again, the cold is a corona virus as well).  To date, there are over a half-million cases diagnosed worldwide and about 27,000 deaths.  This will no doubt rise in the coming weeks, but to date, it hasn't even surpassed the death rate from our normal flu season.

This is not to trivialize this virus, only to put it in perspective.   Damning and shaming might make some self-righteous people feel good about themselves, but that behavior is not constructive or helpful - in fact, quite the opposite.

The reason governments and health officials are freaking out over this new Corona Virus is that it is far more lethal than ordinary cold viruses or the flu.  A 3% mortality rate (which may be closer to 1.5% or even less - we may never know for sure) seems very low in the abstract, but it is far higher than the mortality rate of traditional colds and the flu.   50,0000 people dying from ordinary cold and flue sounds like a lot, but not in terms of a planet of billions and a nation of hundreds of millions - where tens, if not hundreds of millions catch cold at least once a year - if not more.

The fatality rate of the flu, for example, is about 0.1%.  So even assuming a low-end figure for mortality with the new virus, it is at least five to ten times as deadly as the flu - perhaps thirty times.  It is something to be taken seriously.

But to what extent?   If it gets to the point where people run out of food and civilization itself starts to break down, do we continue to quarantine or figure out ways to let people get back to work, at least in some limited capacity?

China seems to be doing this already, with quarantine restrictions being lifted, at least in part, in the Wuhan district.  Factories in China are reopening and production starting again.  The problem they have now, is who is going to buy all these products?   Other than bored, quarantined Americans ordering junk online (mea culpa, I've been doing it), will commerce continue as it did before?

If China's timeline is any indication or forecast of what is to come here, then in a month or so - perhaps less - things will start to get back to "normal" in the USA as well.

If we let it.

That's the problem - some people are enjoying this a little too much.  They are getting off on being restroom vigilantes or being in "emergency mode" all the time.  Again, it is like the government drones in Washington DC, who freak out every time there is a snowstorm - finally, a chance to chuck it all and revert to feral living!  No more commuting to work!  We'll just build an igloo in the back yard and hunt baby seals!    No need for some stinking "job" - right?

Wrong.  And no, it isn't "irresponsible" to suggest that this isn't the end of the world as we know it.  Even if this virus spread like wildfire and killed off as much as 3% of the population, the world would continue to spin on its axis.  Humanity has survived pandemics and epidemics before - far deadlier ones.   The "Spanish Flu" or influenza epidemic of the early 1900's had a mortality rate of 2% or more.  50 million dead, worldwide.  Then again, the trench warfare of World War I had a mortality rate even higher - 20 million dead - but not as many were "infected" by that virus.

Mankind still has a leg up on viruses, when it comes to killing mankind, it seems.

So what's the point of all of this?   Only that fear is not an emotion to be trusted, and a lot of people are succumbing to fear.   Everything is going to be OK, trust me.  By this time next year, we will be looking back and thinking, "2020 was a shitty year, but we've moved on!"   We said the same thing after 9/11, and after every other natural or man-made disaster in the past.  Even the Queen moved on from her "annus horribilous".

Stay at home and follow the CDC recommendations.  There ain't much else you can do.   Running around monitoring restrooms or making paranoid pronouncements on Facebook isn't accomplishing anything, other than to add the general feeling of angst that is sweeping the nation.

Maybe this is a good time to get off Facebook, close that account, and while you're at it, cut the cord from Cable TeeVee.   That shit is just bad for your brain - and the reason people are freaking out, too.

Emergency Mouse!

Thank God for Emergency Mouse!

Once upon a time, there was a mouse named Roderick, who lived with other mice near a small stream in the woods.  The other mice made fun of his name, but he didn't care.  He felt he had important things to do in life, he just couldn't figure out what they were just yet.

One day, he came upon a doll helmet that a child had discarded from their play set.  He put it on and it was a perfect fit!   "This is what I have been waiting for my whole life!" he said, "I'm going to be the Emergency Mouse and take charge in case of emergencies!"

The other mice made fun of him and told him he looked like a dork with the helmet on, but he just smiled and said, "Just you wait! When there's an emergency, you'll come running to me!"

The next day it rained and rained hard - harder that anyone remembered for a long time.  "An emergency!" cried Emergency Mouse, "To the rescue!"

And so he ran from mouse-house to mouse-house, to apprise everyone of the emergency, and to tell them to sit tight and wait out the storm.  "Why should we listen to you?" some said, to which he replied, "Because I'm the Emergency Mouse!"

"It's just raining" they said, "It will stop eventually."

"We don't know that!" Emergency Mouse nearly shouted, "and How Dare You question my authority!  What's wrong with you, anyway?  Mice could be drowning in this storm, and people like you just don't care!"

And sure enough, some mice did fall into the swollen stream, trying to cross it on a rotten branch, which gave way.  "See, I told you so!" said Emergency Mouse, "From now on, you have to listen to what I say!"

But they didn't listen and went on with their lives.  Emergency Mouse, on the other hand, kept finding new emergencies that he felt needed his intervention.  Later in the year, it snowed - an inch or so - and once again Emergency Mouse declared an emergency, and went from mouse house to mouse house, solemnly advising the mice how to survive this snow emergency.  Most slammed their mouse-doors in his mouse-face.  "Get a job, Roderick!  We know how to deal with snow, thank you very much!"

And so it went, throughout the year, with each new development being decried as an emergency by Emergency Mouse.  One day, a bulldozer came to the woods, to clear land for new houses for the humans.  They didn't bulldoze by the stream, but the ground shook and the mice, in terror, fled their mouse-houses until the shaking was over.  Once the humans left, the mice started to return to their homes.  Emergency Mouse stood in their way.  "It isn't safe to return to your mouse houses just yet!" he cried, "Until I declare the emergency over, you can't go back!"

"Get a life, Roderick!" one of the mice said, and they pushed past them to get to their mouse houses.  "But I'm Emergency Mouse!" he cried, "You have to listen to me, I'm in charge!"  The other mice laughed and ignored him.

Then one day, the neighborhood cat came a-calling, trying to catch unwary mice. "There's a cat!" cried Emergency Mouse, "Run for your lives!"  But the other mice had already seen the cat and had retreated to their mouse houses, leaving only Emergency Mouse standing out in the clearing.  The cat snapped him up in her jaws and chomped on his neck, snapping it.  His tiny toy helmet fell off, and the cat spend the next hour playing with the dead corpse of Emergency Mouse, until he got bored with even that, and dropped it on the doorstep of his owners, as a "gift".

Life went on by the stream in the woods, and the other mice soon forgot about Emergency Mouse, as they were too busy foraging for nuts and seeds. Whenever his name came up in conversation, the mice would shrug their shoulders and say, "What was the deal with him, anyway? I mean, what a weirdo!  He felt he had to be in charge of everything, but really accomplished nothing."

"Well, I guess that's what happens when you name a mouse Roderick." one said, and they forgot all about Emergency Mouse and his antics.

The End.

Moral:  Don't be an Emergency Mouse. It isn't our job to patrol restrooms or Facebook, or to "self-investigate" pizza parlors for pedophile rings.  It isn't our job to shout down others or to shame and damn people - or to start pitchfork parades.  Emergency Mouse was an asshole, and got what he deserved.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Bailout Package and the Same Old Politics

There is no "right" or "wrong" in this.

The media is at it again - and the political types.  They are reporting breathlessly about the bailout package as if it is already law, when it still has to passed by the House and signed by Trump.  Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

And the political hacks are at it again - each blaming the other party for "delaying" the package, each claiming the other wants a "carve out" for "special interest groups".   Trump wanted a $500 Billion "slush fund" that he would administer personally, to hand out to industries he felt were in need. "I'll be the oversight!" he said, like the fat boy who wants to be in charge of the sweets.  What a nightmare that would be!  Given his track record, this would end up being a giveaway to his friends and revenge time for his enemies.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and some oversight was written into the bill.  It remains to be seen how much oversight that is.

Republicans, after ridiculing Andrew Yang's "guaranteed annual income" decided to hand out checks to likely Trump voters.   No, really.  The original proposal was to hand out $1200 checks to people making less than $75,000 a year, but more than $25,000 a year.   So blue-collar middle-class people get a check, but not those poor folks or rich liberals on the coasts.   For some reason, they wanted to hand out money, but not to the very, very poor.   I am not sure why this is - you would think the chump working the minimum-wage job would need it the most.  But I am sure Republicans are looking out for their best interests (literally - their own interests) as these poor people would just blow the money on drugs or tattoos or bling rims.  Sadly, they probably would, but that would help the bottom line of the local drug dealer, tattoo parlor, and bling rim rental company - some of which might be Republicans themselves!

Democrats objected to this poverty cutoff, and there is no word whether any change was made to the bill.  The press is strangely silent about this - publishing fluff articles that really don't go into the nitty-gritty details.   I mean, after all, for the average reader, the main concern is where's my money, bitch?   Who gives a shit whether Boeing gets bailed out.

Speaking of which, Boeing gets bailed out, along with the airlines, which in turn indirectly also bails out Boeing.   Is a bailout of Boeing fair?  If they hadn't mucked-up the 737 Max, all those airplanes sitting on the tarmac would have been delivered to the airlines and Boeing would have been paid for them - it would have been the airline's problem, not Boeing's.  By bailing out Boeing, the government is, in effect, covering their 737 Max losses, not just virus losses.  Maybe that was the intent of this whole "crises" all along - to cover up an inevitable crash in the economy using this virus as an excuse.  But we don't truck in conspiracy theories here.

Unemployment insurance is another issue. The last time around - ten years ago - they extended "unenjoyment" to the point where a lot of people just stopped looking for work.  Oh sure, they went through the motions, but why bother taking a low-wage job when your unemployment paycheck is equal to that or higher?   It was only when these extended benefits ran out that people started going back to work.   Republicans proposed an amendment that would limit unemployment to no more than 100% of the salary of the job you lost.  Seems like a simple thing, but this time around, it is the Democrats who are damning and shaming with the "how dare you?" attitude.   I guess they want to buy the votes of their constituents, just as the GOP is targeting theirs.  Again, no word on whether this amendment was inserted or squelched.  The media isn't interested in telling the story, they are interested in clicks.

Now, it goes over to the House.  And Nancy Pelosi thinks she can get all 435 members (sans those who are in quarantine) to unanimously agree on this by Friday.   Ms. AOC seems to have other ideas.  And if the House passes a different bill, well, it goes back to Committee to work out the differences and then gets voted on again.   But the way the media tells it, it is a done deal.   I guess we'll find out today.

Is stimulus a good idea?  Perhaps.  Sadly though, Trump shot his stimulus wad over the last three years, trying to jerk-off the economy and bring the Dow to orgasm.   The economy - well, at least the stock market, which isn't the same thing - shot up during his tenure, and now we've lost all of those ersatz gains.  The stimulus will prevent serious failures of many businesses and help some individuals.  But it will add to our deficit and national debt, and thus make it even harder, during the recovery, to pay this all back.   Trump had a chance, for three years, to bring down deficits and lower the national debt - something he promised to do, when running for office.  Sadly, he's done the exact opposite, and now that we really need to engage in deficit spending, we are up Shit's Creek.

Who in their right mind would want to be President after Trump?   I mean, he's basically wrecked everything, and whoever has to clean up the mess will get no credit whatsoever.

Just ask Obama!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Germany and the Columbine Effect

Whatever the outcome of this virus thing will be, we can be certain that in five or ten years, we will realize our understanding today was completely wrong.

Being "on the ground" and seeing things at a granular level often results in myopia.  We tend not to see the big picture, until much later on.  Immediately after 9/11 most of us didn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite, Iran and Iraq, or Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera (as illustrated by this SNL skit, which seemed to be equating the television network with the terrorist organization.  Of course, some on the Right claim that the two are indistinguishable).

Anyway, within months, we were invading the wrong country, and the rest is history.  At the time, though, we all felt - based on the tee-vee nooze - that invading Iraq was the answer.  Anyone who said otherwise was shouted down as unpatriotic or worse, sympathetic to terrorists.

Today, we see the same effect at work.  Anyone who suggests that perhaps we are over-thinking this, or that maybe it won't be as bad as people think, is shouted down as cruel or crass.  "People are dying!" they scream.   Hundreds of people are indeed dying - in a nation of 330 million.  Thousands are dying - on a planet of billions.  Meanwhile, other illnesses and causes - including our own transportation system - kill far more people, but no one really cares about that - or they have gotten used to the slaughter on the roads.   Familiar death is acceptable death.

One of the largest killers on the planet - responsible for one out of five deaths annually, or over five million people, is one you may have never heard of, but which I am quite familiar with - sepsis or peritonitis.  When an infection ravages the body, it basically shuts down organ after organ until you die.   Having had diverticulitis for about three decades now, I am all-too-aware of this, and how it will likely kill me someday, in a very gruesome and painful manner.  Simply put, if you get an infection in  your abdominal cavity, because, for example, your intestines burst, there isn't much they can do for you, other than pump you full of antibiotics and hope for the best.   A friend of mine just got back from a nine-day hospital stay  - not his first either - from sepsis related to intestinal blockage.

But since such illnesses are not spread like a virus, and since there is a familiarity with them, you rarely hear about them.  The fact there is no real cure for them, either, is one reason why you don't hear about them much, either.  It is like highway deaths - we have grown to accept this as part and parcel of the cost of doing business.   40,000 people nationwide, 1.2 million worldwide, every year.  Likely someone you know, too.   But I digress.

I wrote before about the tenth anniversary of Columbine, and how after a decade, we finally realized that everything reported at the time was 100% wrong.  Not just slightly off, but completely fucking wrong.  The only thing the media got right was the names of the two creeps who did it:
Ten years after the Columbine massacre, the television news reports to us that, well, everything they've reported to us over the last ten years about that "story" was, um, wrong.   The story about two Goth teens in the "Trench-coat Mafia" who were bullied by "jocks" and out to get "Christians" was, well, wrong.   No such "Trench-coat Mafia" existed at the time, the two kids were not members of it, they were not "Goth" freaks, they were not bullied, and they did not single out any specific person or group.  Rather, they were just two mentally ill people with guns.  Not a very exciting story is it? Just tragic.
The same will be true about this virus as with 9/11 and with Columbine.   Five or ten years from now, things will be readily apparent that today we can't see.  And my gut reaction is that we may be over-reacting, and maybe (just maybe) the mayhem and fear we are seeing is being aided and abetted by our friends at the Russian Internet Research Agency, who love to divide us and spread fear and uncertainty. Perhaps it is they who are behind the recent cyber-attacks on the World Health Organization.

A recent article in the news questions why Germany has such a low death rate.  By low, we are talking 0.4% or so.   There are a number of possible answers:
1.  Germans have some sort of genetic immunity to this virus. 
2.  German health care is better, so people are surviving. 
3.  More people are tested in Germany, so they are catching this sooner, before it turns into terminal pneumonia. 
4.  They are testing more people, so the actual death rate is being seen.
Number one seems far-fetched.  Numbers two and three sound plausible.  Number four gives one pause.

Widespread testing hasn't been done worldwide for the simple reason that such tests are not widely available, and thus limited to at-risk persons or persons showing symptoms.   As a result, the death rates calculated based on the number of people tested are much higher, and that may explain why Italy has such a high death rate and why Germany has such a low one.  The rates are based on the number of reported cases not the actual number of infections (which is an unknown number).

In fact, many people may have had this virus, gotten over it, and are now immune, as recently happened to a famous football coach.   Expect to see more stories like that in the coming weeks.  People who are immune to this virus (and cannot spread it) have no reason to stay at home and quarantine.  They will want to go back to normal life - soon.  But there is no test to determine whether you have the antibodies to this virus - yet.  So we have no way of knowing how many people are infected or were infected, and may, in fact, never know.

In fact, Mark and I may have already had this, along with some friends of ours.   As I noted back in early February, we were both down with a "bad cold" whose symptoms seem remarkably like those of this virus.   Sinus headaches, bad congestion, and it started spreading to the chest, before it went away.  We had just returned from a trip to Florida a couple of weeks earlier.  Hmmmm.......  But of course, that could just be cold and flu season, and now we are into allergy season (yellow pollen falling like snow!).   Like I said, we may never know.  Once this blows over, there will be little incentive to test for the antibodies.

There is a lot of talk about "herd immunity" in the press, and that ultimately will likely be what causes this to die down.  Simply stated, if no one is immune, and one person comes back from Wuhan China (where this all started, and no that is not racist to say that, and no, the source of this virus is not up for debate) and sneezes on five people, they, in turn, sneeze on five more, and so on and so forth and it spreads like wildfire.   This is, basically, the definition of pandemic.  This happens every year in cold and flu season, and yes, a lot of elderly people die from that as well, but perhaps not as many as from this new virus.  Since colds and the flu are recurring, WHO doesn't define them as a pandemic - but their definition as it is, is vague at best.

But if half the population gets this virus and recovers from it (which is very likely, given the relatively low mortality rates reported) then those people cannot catch it again or transmit it.  The one person who sneezes on five people infects only half of them, who in turn infect only half again. The curve flattens not necessarily because of quarantine, but because people get over it - and thus transmission, even to those vulnerable, decreases.

The initial mortality rates were reported as about 3% from our friends in China - and everyone knows the Chinese State Media is almost as good as source of accurate information as Fox News and CNN!  Actually they all suck. The State Media of China is motivated to spin things in favor of the government.  American news media spins things so they generate click revenue (and these days, they are having an orgasm).  Since vast numbers of people in China likely remain untested, it may be impossible to know the actual mortality rate, even there.

Like I said, we'll know in five or ten years what the real answer is. Who knows?  Maybe it has a much higher mortality rate - but nothing seems to indicate that so far.  I suspect what is going on in Germany might be the real clue.

But of course, to even discuss this is to bring out the hysterical types from Facebook - the restroom vigilantes and the damners and shamers and the torch and pitchfork crowd - all egged on by our friends in Russia.  Facebook people - there is a special place in hell for them.

The real tragedy is that this virus kills people the same way colds and the flu does.  If the infection spreads to the lungs, your immune system will flood your lungs with white blood cells and whatnot and you basically drown.  Draining the lungs helps, along with antibiotics to help with secondary infections.  Ventilators help you breath until the cure takes effect - or you die.  If you have pre-existing problems with your lungs or heart, dying is far more likely, if not inevitable - like I said, this is how a lot of people die every year from colds and the flu.  Living here on retirement island, I see this happen to friends every year.

The mortality rate of this virus, however, is much higher than traditional cold or flu viruses, and thus hospitals are being over-run with cases, and not enough staff or equipment to handle it.  It is not that we are seeing millions of cases, or even hundreds of thousands, but even mere thousands can overwhelm the system which is used to having hundreds, at best.

An awful lot of elderly and infirm people will die in the next few weeks, to be sure.  And this is tragic.  But it isn't the end of the world, either.  Eventually, this will turn around.  More and more people will develop immunity, having been exposed to the virus and not dying.  Many may not even show symptoms.  You may have already had it and not know it.   Others, particularly the elderly who remain quarantined and practice safety guidelines, may remain uninfected.

But a lot of the nonsense being batted around today is just that - nonsense.   People are afraid - and fear is never an emotion to be trusted.

As the extreme efforts being used today to contain the virus illustrate, it is damn near impossible to contain a virus.   We are fortunate that the mortality rate of this virus appears to be only 3%.   In the future, if confronted with a more lethal virus.... well, maybe this is just practice.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Signing Out of Amazon - Not Easy!

Amazon wants you to remain "signed in" all the time, so they can figure out what you are shopping for at those "other" places.

We recently were looking for a new bathroom faucet for the camper.  The existing faucet is a cheap plastic job that costs $28.95 online and has a shower diverter.  It is a "wet bath" and when you want to shower, you pull a knob and the shower head (on a hose) turns on.

Problem is, the faucet is so small you can't get your hands under it to wash.   We wanted something a little taller.  We had this problem in the kitchen of the Casita, and replaced the cheap plastic faucet with a bar sink faucet from Home Depot, that allowed you to put a pots and pans under it to wash.  I am not taking a piss on either camper - these are built to a price point, and this means they have to use $29 faucets.  After all, some folks use these only a few weeks a year - why bother putting in expensive fixtures?  It would just raise the price and make the camper unaffordable.

We looked online and found a nice marine faucet, but like anything with the word "Boat" in it, they doubled the price.  I was about to give in and order it - $230! - when I found this "Whale" faucet for $114 including shipping.  It is the same faucet we had in two of our boats - the Riparian Day II & III and it worked well.   Plastic, yes, but low profile and easy to fit in a confined space.

I found it for as little as $103 online, but with shipping, it came to $113.  eBay had it for $108 with free shipping, but "buyer pays return postage" if it didn't fit, so bit the bullet and went with Amazon, which had it for $114.  Damn you Jeff Bezos!  Damn your eyes!   It makes it so easy.

I had just cleared all the cookies on my computer.  For some reason, all the sites I visit lately have cookie warnings.  I thought I should clear these out and was appalled to find the "disable 3rd party cookies" switch on Chrome set to "off".  Oh, well, clear them all and start over.

Amazon freaks out and wants a one-time access code to log in (So does Google).  So I do this via e-mail and order the damn thing.  Hey, two-level authentication - I get it.  Saves us both a lot of money and hassle.  Now if only they can thwart the porch pirates - I wonder how much Amazon loses on this every year.  And I wonder how many homeowners "stage" porch pirate thefts, complete with doorbell cam videos of a "stranger" in a hoodie taking their new Apple computer from their front door.  Just wondering.

But getting back to the site... I go to log off Amazon.  Where is the "log off" icon?   Nowhere to be found!

Oh, there it is, under "account" if you hover over the link and the pull down menu appears.  "Log out" is at the very bottom of the menu and does not appear at all if you are using a laptop or smaller screen (in landscape, not portrait).   You have to carefully move the mouse down to "Log Out" but not too far, or the mouse goes off the edge of the world and the whole pull-down menu evaporates.  Start over.

After five attempts, I manage to log out.  On a whim, I decide to log in again,  Once again, Amazon asks for a access code via phone or e-mail.   WTF?  I do this several times.  Once you "log out" it must erase the cookies and you have to re-register the device with the powers-that-be at Amazon to proceed.  Kind of creepy, really.

It is weird, but they do watch us.  I search for something online, and days later, it appears in an ad on MSN news.  I was looking for as sprinkler timer to replace one that died, and today - nothing but ads on for sprinkler timers on MSN news.  I bought the damn thing on eBay, after searching on Google (aha!).  How are they finding this out?   Of course, while it is creepy, it is also ineffective.  I already bought the damn thing, thank you.  It is like the ads I still get for Ford pickup trucks.  I guess they thought since I bought one, I need five or six more - like toilet paper or something.

This concerns me, because it used to be you got some screaming bargains online in the past.  But today, it seems like "meh" bargains - with Amazon and Google lurking in the background and perhaps skewing your Google search results to only find things that cost as much as Amazon or some other online merchant - if not more.

You can still buy incredibly cheap stuff on eBay, shipped directly from China in those oddly-shaped "China Post" packages - although increasingly, these sellers are shipping from offices in the US and getting things here in days, not weeks.   Gotta love those Chinese - they are astute business people!  If they can just overthrow their government - and if we could do the same here... or at least regime change.  But of course, eBay listings rarely show up on Google searches.  In fact, it you want to search eBay, you best do it from eBay, not from Google.  eBay isn't paying Google enough, apparently.

But of course, eBay is no fun for Amazon!  People comparing prices and checking out the best deals?  Lately, Capital One has been hounding me, every time I log on, to try some sort of price comparison system called "Wikibuy" that guarantees the lowest price online.  I am skeptical because I know there is no free lunch out there.  There are sites a-plenty that promise to compare prices - or mortgage rates, or credit card offers, or whatever - but they turn out to be little more than lead aggregators - harvesting your information and then selling the packaged "leads" to merchants, who then inundate you with phone calls.  There is one amazingly positive review of Wikibuy online - so amazingly positive that one wonders if it is a setup.  Actually, one doesn't wonder so much.... we know how the Internet works these days.

Yea, no one is giving away free money samples this week.  Wikibuy offers "credits" for shopping through them, so no doubt they are getting kickbacks from retailers in return for steering you to their sites.   The amazingly positive review also suggests buying with a "rewards card" and making even more money!  Shop your way to wealth!   Play the coupon game!  What's the name of your yacht?  While it may be a "hassle" to search online manually, you do pick up other retailers who are not paying Wikibuy to be listed, and thus have a lower overhead.   Any time someone says, "do all your shopping through me!" whether it is Amazon Prime or Wikibuy, I would be skeptical.

Walmart used to have a price comparison feature on their app.  Scan in your receipt, and if they found a lower price online, they would give you a refund.  It was pretty painless - too painless in fact.   There was no incentive not to scan in every damn receipt and wait for your refund.   Walmart wasn't really making money on this.  The whole point of couponing is to incentivize people to buy, not to reward them if they were buying anyway.   That gets lost - but not for long - on a lot of discount and coupon schemes.

Some credit cards used to offer "price protection" - you buy something and later find out it was $50 cheaper elsewhere.  The credit card company would refund the difference.   Problem is, with online shopping, you can more easily find lower prices and credit card companies were losing money on this deal.  It is like Best Buy's policy of matching advertised low prices.   This encouraged people to fake up prices by altering online ads (which isn't hard to do) by inserting lower prices.  This was even a plot device on one episode of "Kim's Convenience" (which like most television shows was interesting for the first season or two, and then quickly became derivative).  Stores are wising up to this, however, and insisting on printing out or viewing online offers themselves, which sort of gives up the game.

But of course, that doesn't stop the raging true believers - the something-for-nothing mentality people who think they can pull a fast one on a major multinational corporation staffed with armies of psychologists, marketers, accountants, and computer geeks.  If you think, for one minute, that you pulled the wool over Jeff Bezo's eyes, think again.  I mean, yea, I did get a free toilet from him once, unordered, but it was just the lower half, and I ended up throwing it away.

No, no, these fuckers have us all figured out, down to the last decimal place.  They know what we are looking for online, what we are ordering, what we are talking about on Facebook, what's in our e-mails, what's in our texts, what we are thinking.   Whenever someone sends me a link (or I send a link) to a product or service we "found" on the Internet, I don't kid myself that it was just a happy accident.   Nothing happens by accident on the Internet anymore.

The "viral" videos and memes are all carefully orchestrated.  The "subreddits" on Reddit were all created by people employed by Reddit and moderated by people employed by Reddit.  Oh, sure, they let one of us "little people" be a co-moderator once in a while - sort of like letting Benny, the retarded boy, score a "touchdown" once in a while.  But the content, for the most part is created.  Hell, can you imagine how boring the site would be if they had to rely on people posting stuff?  Worse yet, can you imagine if it was really just links to stuff people read?   No one reads anymore!  They want funny videos, animated gifs, hilarious memes, and of course, carefully scripted "funny" comments.

Anyone who thinks any of that shit - or anything on Facebook - is "real" probably thinks "Reality Television" is real as well.   It is akin to thinking that "Gilligan's Island" was a documentary.   It just ain't so.

So what is the answer?  Crawl into a hole and die?   Well, no.  Realizing we are being manipulated is the first step - that anything you read, anywhere - even here, or particularly so - may be suspect, whether by intent or not.   People post positive online reviews either because they are paid trolls or useful idiots - the difference is really negligible.

I guess the second step is to consume less.   You can't get ripped-off or pay too much if you buy less crap.   I suppose I could have done without the faucet, although we spend three months a year or more in this camper, and it was getting awkward.  At least I found a solution that cost half as much - and is something I have some experience with.

And I guess the last thing is to always be skeptical but don't let it make you jaded.  Yes, Jeff Bezos is a greedy bastard trying to manipulate us, either online, or through the mouthpiece newspaper he owns.  But he has also brought us an online consumer market that has changed the way we shop - even if we shop at one of his competitors, such as Walmart or eBay.   The American way of life may be crass and commercial, but it also brought us the miracle of the modern supermarket - something folks in most parts of the world would would be envious of.  We have the fattest and richest "poor" people in America - the fact they get ripped-off by payday loan places doesn't diminish this much.

Our main complaint in America isn't that we don't have enough, but that we want so much more.   We don't want to "pay too much" because that means we would have less "stuff" to play with, eat, or drink.   We are very lucky to have so much - more than any peoples at any time in the history of our planet.  And we should appreciate that.

I just wish shopping online wasn't so darn creepy!  I feel like I am being watched.