Sunday, May 31, 2020

Radical Chic

People say that being a radical or a revolutionary is "romantic" but I fail to see how that equates with love and romance.

Getting back to lessons we should have learned in 1968, back then, people were getting radical.   The odd thing is, many of these radicals weren't disadvantaged inner-city blacks, or poor sharecroppers or illegal immigrant grape-pickers, but white, middle-class, college-educated kids, who decided that the causes of other people were their own causes, and what's more, society had to be destroyed - burned down or blown up, literally, in order to advance these causes.

Granted, there were many good-hearted people who felt they needed to protest and get involved in causes that were not their own - some even gave their lives.   But others are in it for mere thrills, or to be perceived as righteous - a lot of political posturing not for the good of the cause, but for their own good.

The folks who lead peaceful protests actually got things accomplished.  Those who resorted to violence often set their own causes back by years, if not decades.  The freedom riders, marchers, and sit-in protesters actually accomplished desegregation of buses, restaurants, hotels, and schools.  Those throwing bombs, robbing banks, and shooting police officers accomplished nothing.

And then, as now, often those most willing to resort to violence were the most removed from these causes, or were just mentally unhinged criminals.  The "SDS" accomplished nothing of consequence, other than to turn many Americans against such protest movements.

For example, one of the most pointless acts of terrorism - which is little-remembered today - was the bombing of the campus at the University of Wisconsin.   Decades before the Oklahoma City bombing, four young "radicals" decided to blow up the math building and ended up killing a researcher in the Physics building nearby.  As in Oklahoma, they used a fertilizer bomb in a truck.  The idea was to protest the war because.... the Pentagon gave a contract to the math department?    It made no sense, was a pointless loss of life, and didn't change the status quo one iota.  The spoiled rich kids who did this, ended up destroying their own lives as a result.  Sadly, three of them served only short prison sentences, one is still on the lam.

Why do people feel they need to do this?  Well, for young people, it is appealing - the whiff of danger, and the play-acting at grown-up issues.  As we are discovering today, the human brain isn't fully developed until about age 25, so you can convince a teenager or young 20-something of just about anything that sounds like fun or danger, whether it is going off to war, or getting involved in a violent protest or riot.

It is all-too-easy to go off the deep end this way.  It isn't all that far to go from SDS to Black Panthers, to the Symbionese Liberation Army, to Charles Manson - all four claiming to fight for the little man (who never asked them to fight for him) and all engaging in robbery, assault, and even murder, to advance their nonsensical "causes".   Oh, and all four were ineffective.

America eventually turned away from this sort of nonsense.  For most young people in the 1960's, protesting was a party - a political posturing they enjoyed while in college.  No one expected it to be a permanent life choice.   A few did - they never got the memo.   Some labored on for years, and even today, often living in the margins of society because no one told them the party was called off.

The harm in this sort of nonsense is threefold.  First, it harms society, in terms of the people murdered or injured, the businesses destroyed and neighborhoods ruined.   Second, it harms the very causes that people claim to be advancing.   Whatever cause "antifa" is promoting (and I am not sure there is one, other than random chaos), their tactics are insuring that the vast majority of Americans are against them.  Third, the people who get involved in this nonsense often ruin their own lives - ending up in jail, with a criminal record, or on the lam for the rest of their lives.

Choices you make - as a teenager or a 20-something - can have devastating consequences for the rest of your life, whether they are student loans or getting arrested.  Sadly, many of these youngsters (and it is mostly youngsters - older people are too smart to get caught up in such nonsense) believe that things are "so bad" they have nothing to lose.  But oddly enough, many if not most are comfortable middle-class kids with bright futures.  What they are rebelling against isn't the nominal causes they are celebrating, but the very comfort of their lives.

So what's the point of this?   Well, you have to look out for your own interests - as selfish as that may seem.  Why?  Because no one else is going to.  Oh, and by the way, the people you are trying to "help" with your protests - unless you are one of them - really didn't want your intervention.   The soldiers serving in Vietnam didn't want anyone to blow up the math building.  In fact, they would have cracked some hippie skulls, if they had their way.

The real way to achieve social change is to be successful - to have power and wealth, even a modicum of it.  Because the political system listens to people who vote - and people who contribute to political campaigns.  What brought about the most change in the last 50 years wasn't rioting or looting, or blowing things up, but our generation coming into power and changing things from within.

And whether you believe it or not, we have had radical change in the last 50 years.  Bear in mind that a little over 50 years ago, you could not check into a hotel or eat at a lunch counter in the South if you were black.   Today?   Well, despite all the "racial tension" that supposedly exists in America, I went to my local restaurant last night and saw people of different races sitting down together and eating in harmony, without so much as a dirty look.  One black fellow at the counter was sitting with his white girlfriend.   No one batted an eye.   This is Georgia, 2020 - a far different place than the Georgia of 1960, to say the least.

This is not to say things are perfect - far from it.  But some white chick from the suburbs driving into the inner city to throw bombs and start riots isn't going to change anything, and indeed, it isn't helping the cause of black people - who never asked her to do any of this.  It is a selfish act - self-aggrandizement and yes, perhaps this is  an example of "cultural appropriation" the kids talk about.  Going to a black lives matter protest, as a white person, may be supportive.   Trying to take it over, is just racist.

Yet we see this all the time - a "black lives matter" protest is cancelled in suburban town, when it was pointed out that there were no black people involved in planning the protest, or indeed, even attending.  You can't hijack someone else's cause as your own, just so you can feel better about yourself.   Maybe it is based on good intentions, but good intentions gone awry.   And the path to hell is paved with such good intentions.

The image above is of Che Guevara, who many romanticize (that word, again!) as a chic revolutionary.  My idiot brother had a Che flag when he was in college, and I even made a silkscreen shirt with that iconic image, not really even knowing who Che was or what he stood for.  It was only when I met some Cuban ex-pats that I realized he was a murderer and not some disadvantaged peasant, but a wealthy middle-class Argentinian who latched himself onto other people's causes.   He murdered people - shooting even children in the face, in La CabaƱa.  Even Castro got tired of this interloper, so Che went off to Bolivia to get involved in yet someone else's revolution.  People like him are just trouble.

The king of revolutionary Chic - Che Guevara - and what did he accomplish, in retrospect?  Nothing, absolutely nothing.   Communism is all-but-dead, worldwide - if it every existed in the first place. Every "revolution" created by Communists resulted not in socialist paradise, but rather totalitarian regimes.  Cuba had all but reverted to a Monarchy under Castro, as has North Korea. The excesses of Batista were replaced by..... the excesses of Castro.  I am not sure what the point of his activism or revolution really was, in retrospect.  The Cuban revolution would have been carried off without his intervention in any event.

That's the problem with being an "activist" - not much ends up getting accomplished.   Barack Obama didn't really accomplish much as a "community organizer" compared to what he did as an elected official.   And myself, I nearly fell into that trap - feeling I needed to become an "activist" in what was already a crowded field of underemployed malcontents.  Turns out, being successful in my own right did more to advance any "causes" I had than protesting or confrontation.  What puts an end to discrimination, once and for all, is when people realize that people who seem different from themselves, really aren't that much different.

And what the hell, isn't it better that doing good for yourself is, in turn, doing good for society?  I mean, that is what we call a win-win situation.

Railing against "the system" isn't an act of empowerment, but an act of powerlessness.  It doesn't accomplish much, and in fact, ends up destroying more than creating.  Just say "no" to being a revolutionary.  You'll just destroy your own life and accomplish nothing.  On the other hand, if you improve yourself, you improve society, and you'll have a greater voice in that society - and real power to make change.   It is your choice - to be a pointless loser, or a winner.

Chicago, 1968

Are we set to repeat history?

Recent events called into mind the riots of 1968 and the Democratic convention in Chicago that year.  We had moved to the Chicago area in 1965, and I was just a lad.  But my older siblings were caught up in the hippie movement - smoking pot, free love, and protesting a war that they had no chance whatsoever of being drafted in to (upper middle-class whites got deferments, so long as they were in college).

1967 was called the "summer of love" and for a brief period of time, it seemed that maybe love would prevail - and that social change was imminent and would take place without violence or disruption.  Of course, one reason it was called "the summer of love" was that LSD was legal back then, for a brief period of time.

Enter 1968.   Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated and riots break out, nationwide.  What starts as peaceful protests, escalates into violence, as a few opportunists use the protests as a cover for vandalism and looting.  When the smoke clears (literally) we find that people have basically burned down their own neighborhoods and destroyed minority-owned businesses in their own neighborhoods.   50 years later, and many of those commercial districts were never rebuilt, leading to so-called "food deserts" in parts of the inner city.

Governors call out the National Guard to quell riots.   Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.   And while the vast majority of Americans condemn the assassinations as well as the underlying discrimination and racism, the vast majority of Americans are afraid - afraid of rioters, arsonists, and looters.

That year, the Democratic party had its convention in Chicago.  The party was divided - again, stop me if this sounds familiar - as the younger voters wanted radical change and an end to the war in Vietnam.   Protests were started and they quickly devolved into riots - broadcast on the evening news.   Americans tuned in, and what they saw on television was anarchy - and the Democratic party was the symbol of that anarchy.

In the end, the convention settled on a compromise candidate that was loved by few - and certainly not by the radical left.   Meanwhile, the Republicans nominate Richard Nixon on a "Law and Order" platform, and the members of the GOP quickly fall in line.  Nixon won, not by much, but would serve four years and be re-elected in a landslide.

By the way, I had forgotten how in 1968, Nixon barely won the popular vote, and a third-party candidate was almost a spoiler for him.   Interesting....

Fast forward a half-century (am I that old?  I guess so) and it seems like we are repeating the same pattern.  America looked on in awe as Apollo 8 circled the moon - a lift we needed after the disaster of Apollo 1 the year before.   Today, we celebrate the return to space with Elon Musk's privately built spacecraft - surely the future is bright, no?

But then, at the same time, we once again have riots, and again, most Americans - the vast majority, even right-wing Republicans - are aghast that a man is murdered on the street by the Police.    I cannot fathom that event, frankly.  We now are learning that this officer kneeled on this poor man's throat for nearly ten minutes - including over two minutes after he died.   What kind of Police training says that crushing a man's larynx is acceptable?

I have a  number of friends who are policemen, and they are appalled, too.   But sadly, when something like this happens, every member of the police force is painted with the same broad brush.   And while people are protesting "injustice" the officers in question were immediately fired (instead of this usual "paid leave" nonsense) with the mayor apparently taking action and willing to risk a lawsuit in the interests of justice.  And the officer in question has been arrested and charged.

Sadly, in a repeat of history, some opportunistic people have joined these protests, some to loot for financial gain, others, of the "antifa" persuasion (suburban white kids, looking for a thrill) are setting fires and throwing Molotov cocktails.  I am not sure why white people feel that they need to do this - it isn't helping the cause of blacks at all.   If you want to protest, fine, just realize it isn't your protest and isn't your cause.   Because at the end of the day, your Dad will bail you out and you can go back to your comfortable house in the suburbs and play X-box and regale your friends how you "stuck it to the man".  The black people really affected by this have to return to the burned-out neighborhoods you set fire to.

Antifa - the real racists!    But I digress.

If history is any guide, we may be in for four more years of Trump.  I say this, knowing my track record for prediction is usually 100% wrong.  I was convinced Hillary would win - after all, who would vote for a buffoon like Trump?   Americans, apparently.  So, if I predict Trump will win, then he will be more likely to lose, right?  Reverse psychology!

The parallels go further - Hillary lost because she failed to campaign, not because Trump necessarily won.   Biden seems to be taking the same laid-back approach, figuring, as Hillary did, that with such a lead over such a buffoon, that campaigning would only serve to create opportunities for the opposition, for example, if you said "You ain't black..." or something like that.   Better to keep your mouth shut when you are ahead - or that was the theory anyway.

But getting back to 1968, Nixon - and his campaign staff, including his "dirty tricksters" (e.g., Roger Stone, et al.) realized that the vast majority of Americans were alarmed by the rioters and violence, and that a message of "law and order" would resonate.   The Republicans didn't so much win the election, as the Democrats lost it.

So here we are 50 years later, with a law-and-order President seeking election, and Roger Stone set to get out of jail.  This time around, though, no one needs to break into party offices or that of a candidate's psychiatrist.  They don't need to put out fake memos on the opposing candidate's letterhead.   No, ratfucking has moved to the electronic age, and rumors and false stories are spread online, with the help of outside forces.   No wonder Trump is alarmed that social media might call him out on his egregious lies - how can you win an election, otherwise?

I suspect we will see images of these riots in the fall, as part of campaign ads for Trump - with the tag line being "Law and Order!" because most Americans don't want race riots - or any other kind of riot, for that matter.

Funny thing, but you would think that people would have learned a lesson from 1968 - after all, some of the players, such as Bernie, certainly remember these events firsthand.   Sadly, many more on the Republican side, also remember - and remember how they leveraged this to win.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Downsides to Getting Tested

Getting tested for the Corona Virus has few advantages for the individual.

Testing capacity for the Corona Virus is ramping up and they are starting to promote it more.  Here on our island, they are offering free testing at the convention center.  Should we go?  Turns out, there are reasons not to - maybe not good reasons, but reasons.   Testing might be good for society as a whole, but not for the individual.

A friend of mine is a former nurse, and I get a lot of medical insights from them, as well as the latest data and gossip.   They took me to task the other day for forgetting my mask in the Home Depot, so I was a bit surprised to find out they didn't get tested at the free testing clinic offered on the island.

Since there is no vaccine or cure for this virus, getting tested isn't likely to help you much if you are asymptomatic.  Even if there was a vaccine, if you have the virus, it is too little, too late to take it.  If you test positive but are asymptotic (or have mild symptoms) there is really little in the way of treatment they can prescribe, other than cold medicines and chicken soup and stay home.

But if you do test positive, perhaps you can prevent others from getting the virus, by quarantining yourself.  On the other hand, if you are staying six feet away from other people, wearing a mask when going out, washing your hands religiously, not touching surfaces if you can avoid it, and minimizing your outside contacts, you lower the risk of spreading or catching the virus.

In a way, it is like HIV testing.  If you get tested for HIV and come back negative, this doesn't mean you are clear to spend a wild weekend at the local bathhouse.  You still have to practice safe sex, if you want to avoid getting the virus - or transmitting it.  Testing negative can just give you a false sense of security.  Testing positive can give you a false sense of despair.

If you do get tested for the Corona Virus, and test positive, you may become somewhat of a leper. You may be forced to quarantine for 14 days and cannot travel to some other States (is that Constitutional?  Vermont's restrictions require you log in every day for 14 days, even if you don't have the virus!).  In other words, as cruel as it may sound, if you test positive, it really doesn't help you, but it may help the rest of us.

And if you test positive, you may be grilled as to where you have been and who you have seen. There is even talk of tracking people by cell phone, to see where they have been, or to make sure they stay in quarantine.  So from the totally selfish personal point of view, getting tested has a lot of downsides and no upsides.

By the way, this "contact tracing" nonsense was tried back in the days of HIV, and it really didn't work.   People having anonymous sex don't have the names and phone numbers of their contacts, and the threat of contact tracing was enough to prevent people from getting tested in the first place, making it a self-defeating effort.   Again, what turned out to be more effective was to simply assume everyone was infected and act accordingly.  The idea you could break down the population into haves and have-nots turned out to be specious in every regard.   Contact tracing simply didn't work then, and it won't work now.

For example, I was at Home Depot yesterday.  There were over 50 cars in the parking lot, maybe more, and just as many people inside.  During the day, probably hundreds went through there, touching things and whatnot.  Suppose one of those people tested positive for the virus?   How do you track down every single person who was in the store that day?   Maybe by credit card receipts, but that leaves cash customers out.  And do you really have the manpower to do that?   It is highly likely that there was one person in the store who was infected, every single day of the week, all month long, and next month and the month thereafter.   You'd need at a least a dozen "contact tracers" as well as a bank of phones and computers, working non-stop for the next three to four months, just for that one store.

It's just an idiotic idea, but then again, Governor "I sent the patients to live with your Grandma" Cuomo is the one pushing it, and as we have seen, he is full of [good ideas] all the time.  Maybe he can raise taxes even further in New York to pay for all this, or maybe all those unemployed people can become "contact tracers" instead of welfare recipients.  Gee, no wonder the taxes in New York are at least 400% more than they are in other States!   No wonder people are fleeing the State!

Throw in the difficulty of getting tested in some jurisdictions, and you start to see why many people are not bothering to get tested.  If you have to get in your car, drive to the health department, bring a note from your doctor, wait in line, and even pay for the test, then there is little incentive to get tested, as selfish as that may seem.  Funny thing, but people tend to do what is in their own best interests - realize this and you will be less outraged in life.

Testing may not stop the spread of the virus - or not by much.  What we learned from HIV was to assume everyone you meet has it and act accordingly.    If we do the same things with this virus, I suspect that would slow or eventually stop the spread, and in fact, is probably what is causing the gradual decline in new cases and deaths.  People not practicing safe distancing, as we saw this weekend, will probably lead to a spike in new cases and deaths.   But the risk to you of those people "acting stupid" is pretty low, unless you act stupid yourself.

You should expect a spike for another reason as well - increased testing.  Since 90% of the people who get this virus (particularly those under 60) never show any symptoms at all, it is to be expected that there are a whole lot of people who were infected or are infected and don't know it.   Once we ramp-up testing, it will show a huge "spike" in new cases, which doesn't represent, necessarily, a spike in infections, but a spike in detections.

Will this lead to new lockdown restrictions, more stay-at-home orders and quarantines?   Maybe, but then again, maybe not.  I think our "new normal" has already been reached.  People are going out again and going shopping (yesterday in particular!).   But most are being respectful and following the guidelines - wearing masks, staying six feet away from other people, washing their hands, using hand wipes, or wearing gloves.

Will this stop the spread of infection 100%?   No, no it won't, just as "safe sex" wasn't 100% effective in stopping the spread of HIV - but is was a heck of a lot better than doing nothing.  And as we discovered, you can't stop people from having sex, just as you can't stop them from socializing, shopping, working, or just getting out of the house.  The idea of perpetual lockdown just isn't workable.

What will be interesting, in the weeks to come, is whether a reliable antibody test can be developed, and if implemented, see how many people have had this virus already, which I am guessing is a very, very large number.   It would also answer questions about whether antibodies make one immune from further infection.  Some are speculating this is not the case, but offer no reasons why, nor can they point to the legions of re-infected individuals - or even one.  There is a small minority of voices who want to say this virus means the end of mankind as we know it - and provide no basis for this view, other than to spread fear and malaise.  Perhaps they are just Russian trolls - or useful idiots who are reading Russian troll posts and believing them.

There are always those pining for the end of the world - it is a common fantasy, as evidenced by the plethora of books, films, and television shows which have that as their main theme.  If the zombie apocalypse comes, well, I won't have to pay back those student loans!  And won't Mom and Dad be glad I spent countless hours in the basement playing Zombie First-Person Shooter on my Xbox console!  And they said I would never amount to anything!   Who's laughing now?

Of course, the religious types have the same fantasy - their massive credit card debts (caused by tithing 10% of their income to Pastor Cashflo) will all be wiped out when the Rapture comes!   My Jewish neighbors will be so chagrined to see me flying up into the sky to meet Jesus!  I''ll show them - I'll show everyone!   Oddly enough, the most common Christian fantasy about the "end times" is about being "left behind" which makes no sense to me - what's the point of all that praying and tithing, if in the end, you get the shaft?   But then again, people like that never make much sense to begin with.

No, this isn't the end of the world.  It is a virus, and all things considered, not as dangerous as other viruses we have had in the past, such as the Spanish Flu that struck worldwide, a little over 100 years ago.  We survived that, in an era where medicine was far more primitive than it is today.  Somehow, I think we will survive this, too.   Maybe not all of us, but most, and mankind in general.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Great Inventors....

What we are taught in school in McGraw-Hill textbooks was often wrong.

A reader takes me to task for saying the telephone was invented in America, when in fact, Alexander Graham Bell was Canadian, which I should have known, having been to his estate in Nova Scotia and seeing his hydroplane displayed in the museum there.  In addition to his telegraph and telephony experiments, were his ventures into things like hydroplanes and even aeroplanes - although his tetrahedral kite experiments failed due to the high amount of drag involved.  Then again, maybe his tetrahedral kite was the predecessor of the Rogallo wing, and hence hang-gliding and even ultralights.

All that being said, as a Patent Attorney - or a former one, anyway - I have to admit that no great idea exists in the mind of just one man.  Most invention is a collaborative effort, and the awarding of Patents to just one person or group of persons, while it stimulates innovation, often rewards the "inventor" - or more precisely, the corporation who owns the Patent - who files the earliest and has the best Patent Attorney (and I'm retired now!).    The realities of inventing are a little messier than the success stories we are taught in textbooks.

For example, there are a plethora of voices who claim Bell, while inventing the magnetophone, was not the original inventor of what today we would call the telephone.   Well, what in 1960 we would call the telephone - an electrically-powered device that amplified signals from a carbon microphone and sent them over twisted pairs of copper wires.   Today, the landline is all-but-dead, and even though a smart phone can send voice messages, few people even use this option anymore.   Bell was deaf, so I think he would be texting today.

Oddly enough, his initial experiments with the "harmonic telegraph" are eerily similar to the spread-spectrum ideas that we use today both for DSL and Cellular communication.  But then again, we all know than Hedy Lamarr invented that!   Hedy, not Hedley.  But I digress.

As I noted, others point out that similar inventions came about at the same time, but Bell was the first to file at the Patent Office - and presumably first-to-invent as well (we have since reverted to a first-to-file system).   But without improvements by others - such as the carbon microphone invented by Edison - the modern, well, mid-century-modern, telephone, would not exist.

Oh, right, Edison.  The "Wizard of Menlo Park" who invented the phonograph cylinder - but not the phonograph record (the latter of which may have been an attempt to design-around his Patents) and the electric light and a host of other things.   Like Bell, he was an inventor.  Like Bell, the mythology and reality are hard to separate sometimes. Many argue that Edison took credit for anything invented at his Menlo Park laboratories, regardless of who actually invented it.   And in my experience as a Patent Attorney, I've seen this sort of thing happen - supervisors or company owners insisting their name be listed - first - as primary inventor on any Patent application, even if their contribution was tangential.  And I've seen, in litigation, an example of an "inventor" who took credit for work a former co-worker did, after he left the company.

But that is complex reality, and we like simple rags-to-riches stories, even today.  Bill Gates invented Windows (he didn't).   Steve Jobs invented the iPhone (ditto).   Elon Musk invented the electric car, the tunnel boring machine, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and the Dragon space capsule (ditto, ditto, ditto, etc.).  Jeff Bezos invented online retailing (no, just no).  And of course, Zuckerberg invented social media (but should take the blame, neverthless!).

But back in the day, it was the same deal.  Growing up in the 1960's, our elementary school textbooks taught a story of American exceptionalism - continuous and glorious growth from 1492-onward (bectcha didn't know Columbus was an American!  Why else would he name the new world, "America"?  Like, duh!).   Of course, school textbooks are simplified and streamlined for the novice mind, and complexity and details serve only to confuse young children.  And since all of our textbooks are vetted by the Texas Board of Education, they tend to take a pro-America, conservative tone.

Every country does this, of course.   We criticize Japan for teaching their kids that their country won World War II and that Koreans were so grateful to be "liberated" by the Japanese army (ditto for China).   We run down Russia for its similar pro-Russian propaganda, Iran for pro-Shia nonsense, and so on and so forth.  In some ways, we are no different, other than, well, we are allowed to critique these things, such as I am doing here.
Pursuant to the Executive Order Preventing Online Censorship, the above paragraph is to be stricken from this blog.   This is your first and only warning.  Further "Censorship" of the President's MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN - OR ELSE! platform will be met with strict, severe and unspecified punishments.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!  Covfefe!
What was I saying again?  I can't remember, some loud clanging noise just occurred in my ears, making it hard to hold any thoughts.

Oh, right, textbooks.   As a kid, we had an "American History" textbook which taught us about "the great explorers" starting with Columbus, going on to DeSoto, and Lewis & Clark, all the way to John Glenn.  The next chapter was on the "Great American Inventors!" which detailed how Morse invented the telegraph, Bell invented the telephone, Franklin invented electricity, Edison invented the record player and the light bulb, Ford the automobile, Westinghouse the electric motor, and Marconi the radio.

All of course, were Americans, or at least honorary Americans, or had the common-sense to come to America at some time or another.  It was only when you got to things like "television" that the textbook would admit that it was a collaborative effort of sorts, although the British like to tout Baird has having invented mechanical television first, but there were even precursers to his efforts - and the Nazis, like so much else, got involved with some of the first broadcasts of electronic television,  but they were more imitators than innovators.

But this does illustrate two things.  First, we - as human beings - like simple, direct stories.  We like the story of the solo inventor toiling in the garage in Palo Alto inventing the personal computer, even if it is something of a myth.   Complexity and nuance are not something we are comfortable with, as it calls into question our belief system - and these are beliefs we have, not science or fact, to be sure.  And of course, nuance and shading are hardly appropriate for grade-school children, who like everything in black-and-white, or at most, in bright primary colors.   No pastels or complex colors for the children, please, other than the "flesh" colored crayon in the box of Crayolas!

But a second thing I almost mentioned in passing - that Nazis were great copiers but not necessarily great innovators. Nazi scientists would be the first to admit that the work of Goddard - in the United States - was the basis of all their rocket experiments.   But in a totalitarian regime, their direction of research was of course, strictly guided.  It is fortunate for us, but not unexpected, that the Nazis would dismiss nuclear physics as "Jewish Science" and limit their research in this area.   Stalin did the same thing, often advancing people and ideas that were not proven, and whose "technology" was in fact based on wishful thinking, if not outright mysticism.

Today, the Chinese are in the same situation. Early on, they were slavish copiers of Western technology, and as their society opened up to capitalism and more personal freedom, more and more innovation took place.  Sadly, the bamboo curtain is slated to come down again - as totalitarianism once again takes hold in China.  This, in turn, will stifle innovation, which will kill off the Chinese technological miracle - particularly if they chase away Western technology partners, and markets.

Our Patent system is arguably unfair - awarding to one or more inventors, almost randomly, the rights to an invention, which may be more of a collaborative effort by many more.  Our quasi-capitalist system is also arguably unfair, awarding billions of dollars to people who are in the right place at the right time, or have the right connections.  Why should Bill Gates be a billionaire and not Gary Kildall?   Why should Jeff Bezos be the richest man in the world, and not someone else who started a similar online retail shop (and there are many, I am sure) whose name is lost to history?  Why should Zuckerberg be so rich, while Tom Anderson labors in obscurity (he co-founded MySpace).

The results are uneven and arguably unfair.   Well, blatantly unfair in many if not most, cases.   It isn't the outcome that drives innovation and technology, though, but the promise of the outcome.   Every inventor knows, going into this gig, that they may not succeed. They need to develop an invention that people want - or need - and then market it successfully and hope someone else didn't beat them to the punch, or that their Patent is held invalid, or someone steals their ideas - or whatever.

Bell patented the telephone, but had to sell off more than 90% of his interest to investors, as the cash was needed to build the tremendous infrastructure needed to make a phone company.  Go big or go home - you also need that cash to fend off competitors as well.   Even still, he made out OK, although he hardly was a captain of industry.   It is only when inventors fail to realize this, that they end up in trouble - thinking that inventing is the only relevant part, and that riches pour in, automatically, once you come up with an idea.

The potential reward is there - but many, many are competing for it.  And it is not always rewarded, or rewarded fairly. Outcomes in our society are not preordained nor are they evenly distributed.   Some argue this is an injustice, and perhaps it is.  But in other societies - totalitarian societies - rewards are evenly distributed, which is to say, little or no reward at all.  In the Soviet Union, they awarded "Inventor's Certificates" to Comrades who came up with new ideas (and were not shot for doing so). The Certificate entitled the inventor to... nothing, because in an ideal socialist society, no one has advantage over another, right?

The free expression of ideas and freedom of thought is necessary, and like the Chinese - and other countries worldwide - we seem to be lurching toward a totalitarian thought-control State, where "freedom of expression" is limited to those in power.  Seems harmless enough, but when you suppress the right to express your opinion - whether that opinion is of an individual or a corporation doing fact-checking - you suppress innovation and in turn, economic growth.

Yes, I've digressed a long way from elementary school textbooks here, but somehow, it all ties together.  Reality is messy and nuanced, and not like an elementary school textbook.  Some people, it seems, would rather it was more black-and-white.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

RV Rentals

Renting an RV isn't cheap, but if you've never had one before, it might be a good idea to rent one before you buy one.

RVing isn't for everyone - and oftentimes it makes little sense, economically.  The whole business started out in tents.  People went camping, up in the mountains, or down by the sea, and brought their tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and later on, cots, and tables, and chairs and so on and so forth.

Some clever fellow got the bright idea of putting all this junk onto a trailer and towing it behind their car, as it got to be too much to carry in the car.  Besides, if you had all your "camping gear" in a trailer, it was easy to hook up and go - less packing!   Well, from that, some other clever fellow quickly figured out that, hey, maybe we could set up the tent right on the trailer and not have to camp on the ground.   Why not attach the tent to the trailer so it just "pops out"?   And so the pop-up trailer was born.

That was quickly followed by the camper trailer.  Why have some flimsy tent, when you can have a flimsy trailer instead - with "solid" walls and windows - a regular home-on-wheels?   Taking that a step further, people put homes on old truck or bus chassis and the motorhome was born.  RVing took off from there.  (Of course, none of this is true.  RVs didn't exist until ten years ago when Millenials "invented" something called "tiny homes" and discovered the Avocado).

Some of the early pioneers are still with us today, albeit in different forms - Airstream, for example, or Serro Scotty.   But since those early days, we've taken the whole concept to new and crazy levels. Professional bus chassis are used on million-dollar motorhomes, which were originally designed for touring rock stars and NASCAR drivers - people who had to travel long distances between gigs or races, and needed a place to relax and get work done while on the road.

Pretty soon, the average weekend warrior decided they needed one of these, and if they could not afford one, the industry would build something that looked like one. Motorhomes went from the dorky looks of the mid-60's Winnebago (now considered a classic) with one door in the middle, to the "bus motorhome" look, with one door in the front.   While these look like the rock-star buses, they are just a styling effect, just as the ten-speed bike you bought at Western Auto in 1976 was hardly the racing machine they used on the Tour de France.  It's all a style statement.

Nevertheless, prices have crept up and up, and you can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on RV equipment, which is a lot of money to go camping.  Some people "justify" this expense by "full-timing" in their RV, which means they live in a park in Florida for six months of the year, and spend the rest of the time in a park "Up North" in the summer - travelling between the two.  I've heard more than once, a "full-timer" justifying the expense of a half-million-dollar coach with "It's our only home!" which is a line I first read in The Good Sam magazine, Highways, which is now little more than an advertising supplement.   Of course, the largest dealer of motorhomes in the United States has no vested interest in helping you justify blowing your life's savings on a rapidly depreciating asset.   Funny how that works - from consumer advocate to shill for the industry, in less than a decade.

But even if you buy a "lesser" rig, and spend "only" $50,000 to $100,000 on it (and maybe a tow vehicle) you are still spending a lot of money.  And if you buy one of these "on time" you may find yourself "upside down" on the loan for years - even a decade - which gets sticky if you need to sell the unit, say, because you lost your job due to a pandemic or something.  Placing yourself in financial peril for the sake of a recreational toy is never a good idea.   Doesn't matter if it is a motorcycle, RV, Boat, or hobby car, my philosophy is simple:  If you can't pay cash for it, forgetaboutit!

Even paying cash, the depreciation on these things is murder.  Anything with a motor on it depreciates pretty linearly - 50% every five years.  Sure, there are some things with "low" depreciation - only 40% every five years - or "high" depreciation - 60% every five years.  But there are no motorized vehicles and toys that don't depreciate over time, simply because motors wear out, better ones are made, and it makes no sense to pay as much for a used item as a new one, particularly when new items have warranties and don't have half their useful life used up.

This is why I am big fan of the travel trailer, as I discussed before.  We bought our Casita 15 years ago for $8375 and sold it last year for $7500.   No motor - no depreciation!   Meanwhile, we went through two vehicles to tow it - the X5 and the Nissan - both of which depreciated like cars do.  but since you have to have a car anyway (or at least some people do) this is not an additional motor vehicle to own and pay for, in terms of depreciation.  And its not an additional motor vehicle that sits for months on end, unused, which is death for most internal combustion engines.

But again, all that being said, maybe you don't like RVing, so if you buy a travel trailer and decide you don't like it, well, you are probably going to lose money in the transaction, as even with "low" depreciation, trailers still depreciate, particularly brand-new ones.

My neighbor decided to rent an RV for a week to see the Blue Ridge and try out this camping thing.  They saw our trailer in the driveway many a time, as we loaded it up to go North, and thought, "Maybe that might be fun!"

They came back after two days of uncomfortable sleeping, constant bickering, and not having funGood thing they didn't drop a hundred large on a new 24' Class-C!   Renting an RV can be a good idea before you buy.  Granted, a rental RV isn't quite the same experience as owning one.  Most rentals are motorhomes, not trailers (although trailer rentals are on the rise).  And most rental RVs are configured very slightly different from those sold to consumers (although used rental RVs are often sold to consumers - sometimes with the consumer not being aware of it!).

If you see an old Class-C motorhome with no awning, a huge cargo compartment (for all the Germans' luggage) and no retractable step (but rather a lowered door) chances are, it may be a former rental.  If it is branded with the nonsense brand "Majestic" then it is definitely a former rental RV. Some folks have bought former rentals and not realized it until gassing up late at night under the florescent lights and seeing the faded outlines of the decals that once graced the side of the coach - "RENT ME!"

Used rental motorhomes are not a very good deal, much as used rental cars are not a great deal.  A horrific deal?  Not necessarily.  A great deal?  Rarely.  Most have high mileage put on them in a short period of time.  And since they started out as rentals, the resale value will be affected accordingly.  Yet, the sales prices at the rental places are sort of "meh" - we looked into buying one (with 80,000 miles on it) for $18,000 and decided it was easier to buy a unit from an original owner that had only 20,000 miles on it - for $2000 more.

But getting back to rentals, what do you rent, where, and from who?   Well, as I noted above, there are a number of different types of RVs, starting from "pop-up" trailers, to "tow-behind" camper trailers. van-type "Class-B" motorhomes, slide-in truck campers, chassis-van-based "Class-C" motorhomes (the kind with a bed over the cab, that looks like a motorhome is consuming a van) to the boxy-type "bus"-style "Class A" coaches.   The letters mean nothing - not a rating system, but just an arbitrary nomenclature identifying different motorhome types.   But that being said, the "Class-C" motorhome is usually the worst of the lot - often handling poorly, constructed poorly, and rattling and bumping going down the road.  Unfortunately, the Class-C motorhome is the most commonly rented RV - they are cheap and flexible, and thus popular with the rental companies.

I am limiting my discussion to the USA for the most part, but rentals are available in various parts of the world, including Australia and Europe, where RVs are often called "Caravans".

I noted before that trailers aren't rented often, but seem to be on the rise.   If you are in the military, check out the rentals available at the local military base as part of the "Morale, Welfare and Recreation" program Some military bases keep (or kept, anyway) small pop-up trailers for servicemen to rent.  We saw several of these in the Keys, I believe they were from the naval air station there.   A low-cost and easy way to go, but limited to those in the military, and perhaps stationed at that base.

Dan's trailer rentals,in Woodland California, rents Caistas and Scamps, which can be easy to tow.

There are places that rent RV trailers, but usually these are local outfits.  For example, this guy advertises on Craigslist, renting out small Casita and Scamp trailers, which are pretty easy to tow for a mid- to large-sized SUV.  Back in the day, U-Haul used to rent such trailers, custom-made for them.  Today, they are somewhat of a collector's item, although they are fairly small.

Larger trailers aren't often rented.  There is more to towing a trailer than just "hooking up" - you may need a brake controller in your tow vehicle, plus a weight-distributing Class III hitch head with a 2-5/16" ball.  The 1-7/8" or 2" ball you use on your jet ski trailer and the Class II hitch on your minivan ain't cutting it.   And you may need a sway controller, too.  In fact, it may take you a few weeks to sort out the "lashup" of a larger RV trailer and tow vehicle, if you don't want to dump the whole works by the side of the road.   I think that is why you don't see a lot of trailer rentals out there, other than pop-ups and smaller trailers.

There are also peer-to-peer rental places, such as Outdoorsy or RVshare, that allow individuals to rent out their RVs to other people, much as the peer-to-peer car rental model did (how did that work out?).  Myself, I am not sure I would get involved in that from either end.  I would feel nervous about renting my RV to someone, as they might damage it (and would insurance cover that?) or just not come back (trailers can be fairly easy to steal and alter the ID numbers on - or be turned into hunter's camps after being dragged deep into the woods).  I would also worry that something would break or go wrong and the customer would be unhappy. I tried to rent a car this way - through Turo in California.  It didn't work out, and frankly, it seemed just as expensive as the local car rental agencies.

More and more places are renting "Class-B" vans which are easier to maneuver but a little tight for more than two people.

Class-B vans are becoming more and more popular, as the larger Mercedes/Freightliner/Dodge "Sprinter" chassis was employed to build these.  Today, Dodge (now called "Ram") uses a "ProMaster" chassis which is made by Fiat, and Ford has its larger Transit line - both of which are also used for Class-B motorhomes.  These may be harder to find, but I think the "Big-3" nationwide rental places are starting to get into Class-B territory, too.

Sometimes, maybe you don't even need a Class-B!

If you are more adventurous, and don't need even a Class-B to rent, there are places which rent small vans - usually a Dodge minivan - with a platform tent bolted to the roof, and a small kitchen that opens up from the rear hatch.  Juicy Van Rentals is one such place.  No bathroom, of course, but many people end up staying in campgrounds with communal bathrooms.

Five Ways Wicked Camper Rentals Can Ruin Your Holidays | WanderWisdom
Not sure I want to rent this van...

There are others, too.  Another place has similar vans for rent that are "decorated" with spray cans - often having nasty slogans painted on the sides of them.   If you are trying to fly under-the-radar, maybe that is not an option.  There are other companies that offer funky paint jobs that are not obscene.

The Class-C is the most common rental unit.

There are a number of nationwide or regional RV rental companies - Cruise America (and Cruise Canada), El Monte RV, RoadBear are three of the largest.  Some rent nationwide, although even the nationwide places usually are located in areas that are popular with tourists.  Some, such as RoadBear, seem to specialize in renting to Germans.  Most of the big-3 specialize in renting Class-C motorhomes, although in places like Alaska, they often rent slide-in truck campers on 4x4 pickup truck chassis - an interesting alternative to the Class-C rental.

Saw a few of these in Alaska - not so much in the lower 48

Some of these larger nationwide rental places also offer Class-A motorhomes, too.   One gag that the big rental places like to play is to upgrade your rental to the next larger size.  Like car rental companies, they often don't have the size RV you want in stock, and thus reserve the right to "upgrade" you to the next larger size (or even larger) for the same price.  And  yes, like car rental companies, they might even try to charge you for this, if you are particularly passive about it.

Small RV Rentals - Class C
CruiseAmerica (and CruiseCanada) is probably the largest of the nationwide camper rental companies. Sadly, when they sell these units, they take off the full-body wrap and then re-label them as "Majestic" motorhomes.  Let's face it, the body wrap looks a lot better!  Note the lack of awning and retractable step, and the huge "German luggage locker" in the rear.

For example, we rented an 18' motorhome (Class-C) - about the smallest you can get - as we wanted something maneuverable.   After we arrived (after flying out to California) we were told that the 18' and 21' units were sold out, and were offered a 24' unit instead.  It wasn't so bad, but it wasn't as easy to drive, to be sure.  And some Class-C motorhomes go up to over 30' in length.

RV sewer connections are nothing like this.  In fact, I beleive Robin Williams is holding a clear plastic dryer vent hose in this picture.

A reader writes asking about RV rentals and how to work all the gadgets in the RV.   I think I know where they are coming from - fear of the dreaded sewer tank, which is the subject of inaccurate folklore throughout the ages by non-RVers.   In movies like the Robin Williams comedy "RV" they make it out like there are pumps and switches and valves and hoses and all sorts of complexity that a mechanical engineer would have trouble figuring out (but of course, rednecks instantly understand).

Relax. It's pretty simple - one hose, two valves.   Buy a box of rubber gloves.   There are two systems - grey water for the sink and shower drain water, and black-water, for the toilet.  Why not one?  It works that way at home, right?  Well, in the olden days, you could drain grey water on the ground legally (not so much anymore - I would not advise it) so it made sense to have two tanks.  If you took a long shower and had only one tank, you might be chagrined to discover you could no longer use the toilet until you dumped!  While it is possible to fill the grey water tank in a day or two (particularly with a family aboard) the black water tank can - if you use water judiciously - go for a week without dumping, depending of course, on your tank sizes.

This really couldn't happen in real life.

You hook up the hose to the RV at one end (simple bayonet fitting, 1/4-turn) and put the other end in the dump-station drain.   Put a rock over that or have someone hold it down with their foot, lest the water pressure cause the hose to pop out and dump all over.   Pull the "black water" valve and dump that.  When it stops running, close it and open the "grey water" valve and let that drain.   When done, rinse the hose with the water tap provided (do NOT use that tap for your drinking water, nor use the "potable water" hose provided by the campground to rinse your sewer hose) and put everything back and go.  Don't put the sewer hose in a compartment with your luggage or other possessions.  Sadly, most rental places do not provide separate sewer hose storage compartments. Bring a black trash bag.

Now, some folks have tried to make this more complicated than it needs to be.  Some manufacturers like Airstream, combined the grey and black water tanks on some models. Others use a "macerator" and a garden-style hose to evacuate the tanks.   Why?  Just stupid complexity and more stuff to break.  Oh, and the macerator probably would spray you with poop as shown in the picture above.  Gravity feed is a lot simpler - and safer.

Some folks will spend an inordinate amount of money and time ripping out all the plumbing and putting in a "hippie shitter" - the so-called "composting toilet."   Just avoid unnecessary complexity for the sake of complexity.  And avoid people like that.  You meet someone tries to tell you the composting toilet is a great invention, just keep on walkin'.

Woman arrested for DUI after RV gets stuck in Taco Bell drive-thru ...
Motorhomes and drive-through windows are not a good mix.

Driving a motorhome isn't too difficult, but it is a large vehicle with huge overhangs.  While on Vancouver island,we watched in horror as a German family pulled out in a 26' Class-C rental, and turned sharply, scraping the entire rear side of the coach against a tree.   The damage wasn't as bad as it could have been, but I suspect he might not get his deposit back.

We talked with the salesman when we briefly thought about buying a used Class-C from a rental place.  He told us stories about smashed-up Class-C motorhomes.  A typical scenario is that Hans, from Germany, decides to fly the family to America and rent a motorhome and do "Route 66" and the national parks and "See America!"  One thing they want to experience is the drive-through window at McDonalds, which of course, has an overhang that tears the roof off the vehicle.   The salesman told me they sometimes cut the rest of the body off and put a flatbed on it and sell it, or even send it back to the factory to have a new body installed (they can do that?).   Needless to say, watch your overhang, and watch your height.   A dream vacation can turn into a nightmare if you destroy the RV.

But that is why smaller is better.  Our old Casita was small enough to pull anywhere - and turn around even on a narrow road.  Our new trailer, only four feet longer, seems like a whole new world - you have to plan more where you are going.  With the larger rigs - 30' and up - you have to really plan, and many of the "big boys" in the large motorhomes, towing a car, get very, very nervous travelling more than a mile from the Interstate.  If you are towing a car on all-four wheels, you can't back up, at all.  What's the point of that?

The rest of the RV is pretty self-explanatory.  Modern refrigerators either work or they don't - and automatically switch from propane to electric when you plug in to shore power.   The hot water heater is pretty much the same deal, although you may have to turn it on (with a switch).  The rental companies try to make these things as mindless as possible, hence many order units with no retractable step or awning (two less things to worry about).  But they do go through the whole rig when you pick it up, and show you how everything works.  You can also download instructional videos from their website, before you even get there.

Water isn't hard either - you either use the water tank (usually about 20-40 gallons) by activating the water pump (whose switch, like the water heater, is on a central control panel) or attach a hose to the campground site water connection.   Usually the rental places will sanitize the tanks between rentals.  Just a smidgen of bleach (less than 1/4 cup - often far less) in the tank will kill off germs, mold, and mildew.  As an owner, we do this once ever few weeks on the road.  As a renter, you probably don't need to deal with it.  But like with any travel, foreign water can cause digestive problems.  At $4 a case, purified bottled water may not save the environment, but it may save your intestines.

Is renting an RV a good deal?   Well, it can cost hundreds of dollars a day.  If you have a small family, it might be cheaper than hotel rooms, and provide the added ambiance of camping.  Then again, a lot of commercial campgrounds leave a lot to be desired - some little more than parking lots.  It helps if you can ask someone about where to go and things to see - someone who has been there.  But like anything else, if you are willing to be a risk-taker, you may see cool things and have novel experiences - but have to accept that every day in an RV is not a continuous Disney orgasm.

Our neighbors who rented their rig, splurged on a whole week - and returned after two days.   Unless you are coming from overseas, you might want to try a shorter trip - and mid-week might be cheaper, too.   You might decide, after two days, that this whole RV thing is for the birds - and I get that, too.  Sometimes, you do wonder why you are dragging around a house behind you.

Then again, other times, not.   Particularly when traveling, it is nice to always have a bathroom no more than 20 feet away.  A clean bathroom, at that.   And it is nice to know you never have to worry about where you are going to sleep at night - there are plenty of free places to stay, if it comes down to that - such as Harvest Hosts, which allows you to stay overnight at a winery, brewery, farm, or museum.   It all is a matter of using your imagination.