Monday, June 29, 2020

Freedom versus Fairness

Can a society be both free and fair?

A lot of people from all walks of life seem to be upset these days that our society isn't more fair. They believe we should live in the United States of Even-Steven, where everyone has an equal outcome regardless of their talents, abilities, background, or even effort.  In a way this is kind of naive and infantile, as I noted in my previous posting on White Guilt Unfairness is the norm in the world, and only obnoxious two-year-olds throw temper tantrums and scream 'It's not fair!" as if some fundamental law of the universe has been violated.

At the same time, some people - often the same people as those who protest unfairness - want unlimited freedom.  Freedom to say what they want, do what they want, and be what they want.  I mean, that's only fair, right?  But freedom and fairness are often in direct conflict with one another.   You can't have unlimited freedom with total fairness and vice-versa.

Such is the schizophrenic nature of our society. And this goes back to the founding of our country. The Declaration of Independence which, although, not a legally binding document, sets forth the goals and aspirations of our Republic, holds that these truths are self-evident that all men are created equal.   The irony is, of course, that the people who wrote those words own slaves at the time

Does this make them hypocrites who should be stricken from the history books?  Or does their aspiration to freedom begin in a society where freedom was far more limited?   Did they perhaps realize they were setting their republic on the course that it has?   Good questions.  I don't have answers.

After our false start as a Confederation, we adopted a Constitution which codified inequality based on race. Black people were deemed to be worth 3/5 that of a white person, but only for purposes of counting the number of people necessary for congressional representation. Of course, they wouldn't have the right to vote.  Neither would women.  Or the poor.   Freedom and fairness were far more limited back then.

So here you have these founding fathers blathering on about freedoms, and at the same time enslaving people. And some people want to erase this part of our history by tearing down statues and obliterate the names of those who wrote these documents.  But I think that misses the point. Granted, we should not be lauding the names and images of Confederate Raiders, who basically were little more than terrorists. And even those distinguished generals for the Lost Cause were fighting for a cause that was wrong.

But we have to look at this dichotomy between freedom and fairness in terms of our national history as well as the course of human events. The American Revolution did not occur in a vacuum, but was presaged by the thinkers of the Renaissance and the enlightenment, such as Rousseau, who postulated that men had inalienable rights. Of course they were talking about men, not women. Women were still property of course!

But over the years we've fine-tuned this tension between our two idealistic goals of freedom and fairness. The problem with these two ideals is that they conflict squarely with one another.   If you are free to do with as you please with your possessions, then you can leave your estate to your children or hand them generous sums of money, giving them an unfair advantage in life. This goes against the American concept of fair play, where every person has an equal opportunity to advance based on their merits.

There is no easy answer to any of this, despite what some people tell you. Some people, it seems, want fairness to mean that everyone has an equal outcome regardless of their capabilities, abilities, advantages, or even effort. Such a system rewards lack of effort and thus become a race to the bottom.  It is the simple reason why communism never worked and why socialism struggles.

Over the years, we have tried to level the playing field to emphasize Fairness while still allowing for Freedom. We've enacted a progressive tax system which punishes those who make more money, to bring their income levels down to those who make less. We created a Gifts and Estates tax to prevent people from transferring enormous sums of wealth from one generation to the next, creating the family dynasties that strangle the economies of both Mexico and South Korea.

Of course, there is always pushback. Republicans value Freedom more than Fairness, and push for the abolition of what they call the "death tax," believing that a family should be allowed to pass on legacies between generations and create family dynasties. The problem with this model is it the guy who got there first and accumulated the most amount of land and wealth ends up owning everything.

Long before New York City was New York, it was New Amsterdam.  The Dutch families who got here before the English laid claim to vast tracts of land.  And that is why the proper society of 5th Avenue in the 1800's all had Dutch names.  It's why we had not one, but two Roosevelts as President. Before the creation of the income tax, there was no limit as to how much wealth you could accumulate, and the person who got here first accumulated the most amount of wealth. And too bad for Johnny-come-lately.

All that has changed, of course, as we no longer talk about Dutch dynastic wealth.   But of course, new dynasties were formed over the years. Industrialists of the late 1800s and early 1900s accumulated vast sums of wealth, most of which has dissipated today, in part because of the income tax, in part because of mathematical progression.  However, a new generation of entrepreneurs are accumulating even more fantastic amounts of money, mostly in the valuations of their stock in their tech companies. Whether they can create family dynasties or not remains to be seen. But they do have a louder voice than the rest of us on how the country is to be run.

We've enacted many laws to try to push fairness to the forefront. Equal opportunity is one of these laws, and very controversial. Those who criticize this law claim that it pushes forward token individuals who have no qualifications for their jobs or place at University.  Proponents argue that it's necessary in order to push people in positions of power so that in the future there is less discrimination.

The point is, we're trying.  But try as we might, I think we'll never really resolve this conflict between Freedom and Fairness. Because when everything is completely fair, is it an ideal communist state, and there is very little in the way of freedom. Freedom comprises more than the ability to say and do what you want, but also freedom in the economic field.  As I've noted before, freedom of speech sounds like a nice abstract concept, but the first thing a person does when they have freedom of speech is to stand on their soapbox complain about their taxes.  Economic freedom is personal freedom and vice-versa.

Thus, the freedom to accumulate wealth is a fundamental freedom. And if you want to take this all back to the Black Lives Matter movement and the history of slavery in this country, it is this fundamental aspect of Freedom which is at stake.  Abraham Lincoln probably said it best in that one of the fundamental horrors of slavery was it a man would toil and not benefit from any of his labor.

Not only was that unfair, it was not free. So in a way, Fairness and Freedom are tied together as part of the same concept. You cannot have Freedom without Fairness and you cannot have Fairness without Freedom. But you have too much of one or the other and you get neither.

It sounds nice - and speaks to the American spirit - to think that everything should be made 'fair' - but not only is that not possible in its entirety, every step toward fairness takes away from freedom.  There has to be a middle-ground between absolute freedom and absolute fairness.  We can't have both, or even one or the other.   We have to compromise, as messy and "unfair" as that sounds.

And by the way, fairness is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.

What I'm Talking About!

Fake News - articles designed to get you to click, regardless of whether they are truthful or not!

Recently, I did a blog entry on understanding statistics.  I opined that a lot of journalists don't understand statistics, or intentionally misrepresent data in order to sell eyeballs:
Similarly, how charts are prepared can make trends look more alarming than they are. A chart that shows a stock price skyrocketing doesn't show the scale (or does in small numbers).  It is only when you realize the Y-axis begins at $20 and has a spread of ten cents, and the X-axis is showing a timeline of the last ten minutes, that you realize the "big spike in share price!" is nothing more than statistical noise.
Alarmist title? Check! 
Misleading Data?  Check! 
Graph with Y-axis not at zero?  Check!
Missing X-axis labels?  Check!
It covers all the bases.  In this case, the misleading title is that "nearly half of all Americans are unemployed" which is deceptive, as it talks about the employment rate not the unemployment rate which are two different things.   Yes, your 93-year-old grandmother in the nursing home is "unemployed" but that is not counted in unemployment statistics as she is not looking for a job just yet.   It also includes me, as I am retired.  Similarly, your 8-year-old nephew doesn't hold down a job.  Slacker!  Young people these days - I swear!

The data is then skewed to show this alarming title is "true" technically.  But what it fails to make clear, unless you really look at the numbers is that even in the best of times, only about 60% of the population in the United States is gainfully "employed" at a job.  Housewives don't count. College students don't count.  Retired people, institutionalized people, children, people in jail - they all don't count.

So they resort to using a tricky graph which seems to show employment falling off the face of the earth - plummeting to nearly nothing!   But of course, the graph zeros out on the y-axis at 52.5%, making the change seem more alarming.  Blow up any chart large enough and even the most trivial change seems dramatic.

Is the whole thing a lie?  Well, no, not technically, but does the author of this piece sleep well at night, thinking he is following a long line of illustrious journalists?  I hope not, because this "reporting" is just crap.

Yes, it is true that unemployment is up because of the virus.  A lot of people are not seeking work, however, because their unemployment check is larger than their paycheck was, with the "stimulus" check being a nice bonus.   But it is not a rise to 30% unemployment as in the Great Depression, and hardly 50% as the article implies.  The latter is a baldfaced lie, and you know what I say about liars - the relationship ain't gonna get better.  You can pretty much write-off anything published by CNBC at this point, if they vet an article like this as suitable for publication.

I mean, we expect this behavior from Fox News.  But CNBC?  For shame!

The journalists who wrote this dreck should be ashamed of themselves.  But I doubt they are - they are laughing all the way to the bank!  Selling out their fellow man - and their country - for a few bucks.   How pathetically sad.

White Guilt Won't Work

Not surprisingly, the folks on Reddit didn't understand this comic.

We've been though this before - they even have a name for it, slacktivism.  People post memes on their Facebook page, or sign meaningless "online petitions" because, they care and they're doing something to stop racism, feed the homeless, or end war, or whatever.

Problem is, they aren't doing anything, and oftentimes, what they are doing isn't helping.

I noted before that some folks, in response to the recent killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, are going online and feeling they need to lecture the rest of us on how it is to be black. Problem is, these are comfortable, middle-class white people living in the suburbs, who have no real idea what it is to be Black, Hispanic, or even poor. They have theories about this, though!  After all, they went to college!

Again, it is nice that people want to be supportive, and people all over the world are protesting the killing of George Floyd.   Problem is, some of these people showing up at protests are rioting, and people have been murdered - including police officers - as a result of this.   It stopped being about Black Lives Matter days ago, when the looting started.

Just as some white folks feel "white guilt" for what is going on, other white folks feel they are entitled to set fire to black neighborhoods to support Black Lives Matter - when in reality, they are just looking for a thrill.

What is "White Guilt" and why won't it work to change things?   Well, I had a revelation while driving through rural South Carolina.   We went by a tidy single-wide trailer home (with a tidy lawn with no junked cars or children's toys on it) and they had a neat "TRUMP 2020" sign in the front.  Living in a trailer home, it doesn't seem like the Trump economy has done much for them, although it appeared to be recently re-sided, so there's that.

But I got to thinking about the folks who might live in that trailer.  Why were they for Trump?   Were they racists?  Did they feel "White Guilt"?  I concluded that they probably didn't consider themselves to be racist, nor did they feel any "White Guilt" given that their own standard of living was pretty modest.   What goes on the big cities is probably a mystery to them, and they likely are as confused as many are by these "pressing issues of the day" such as transgender restrooms.

You'd have a hard time convincing them of "White Guilt" as they worked hard all their lives, and tried to eke out a meager living.  They kept their trailer clean and went to church on Sunday. They are not evil people, and trying to paint them as such for not marching in someone else's parade isn't going to work.   While the world is an unfair place and many minorities in the United States start off with an unfair disadvantage, the same is true all over the world.  Whether it is racism, class, religion, or just economic level you are born into, the game is stacked against you in many instances.   Not always, and not necessarily meaning you have no options.   But unfairness is the fabric of life.

And by the way, speaking of unfair disadvantages, many young white kids grow up in poverty with few options in life.   That's life in general.  What is unfair is that per capita, more black kids face this than whites.  But in terms of overall numbers, well, there are more poor, disadvantaged whites in this country, simply because whites still make up 73% of the population.  Yea, you read that right - all this talk of "extinction" of the white race is a little premature.  It also illustrates that if you want change to occur, you have to convince at least a substantial portion of that 73% of your cause.  But I digress.

People claim life is unfair, even when they got a decent shake out of it.   For example, people living in the United States, black or white, rich or poor, working or on welfare, or even in jail are far wealthier than a majority of people living in the rest of the world.   But for some folks, nothing is ever enough.  Consider this dweeb, who owns a rental property (evil landlord!) and has a job, a spouse, and a nice place to live, and yet is unhappy because his "friends" all have more, and had unfair advantages in life, he thinks.  He denigrates the beautiful meal on his plate, because his neighbor appears to be having more.   I suspect, however, that his neighbor is heavily in debt, and his "wealth" is an illusion.  And if your friends run you down as "poor" then find new friends.  Or let them think that, so they pick up the tab when you go out to eat.  Feigning poverty is excellent urban camouflage.

Of course, his "friends" may feel nervous as his lifestyle is calling into question theirs.  The guy who just leased a new SUV and is dead broke is going to make fun of you for driving a used, paid-for Camry for 150,000 miles.   Your lifestyle calls his spendthrift behavior into question.   You'll never be popular on the cul-de-sac at Foreclosure Mews Estates unless you drink the Kool-Aid like everyone else.

But his narrative is one that is popular today, particularly among the privileged white class - college kids.   They bitch and moan how awful they had it because they had to go to college and study for tests and write term papers and now they have to pay back loans.  So hey, why not riot and set fire to a McDonald's?  Never mind that "Black Lives Matter" isn't your fight, you have to show you care and are better than those other people.

Ah yes, damning and shaming - two of the ten irrational ideas in life.   In a way, this is simply a form of status-seeking.  The "Antifart" young activist has no money, as he has defaulted on his student loans to "make a statement to the man!" and thus activism becomes a new form of social status, much as a fancy car or SUV is to the suburban dweller.   The more "woke" they are, the higher the status, because they care and anyone who isn't as outraged as they are (all the time, of course) is a heartless bastard who runs over children in the street for fun.   This is the "silence is assent" mantra crowd - you not only have to agree with them (in every matter) but if you are not marching with them, you are part of the problem!

I've never owned slaves.  I've never discriminated against blacks, latinos, gays, straights, women, or whites.   I'm not responsible for the plight of inner city youth any more than I am responsible for the plight of Appalachian youth or the poor anywhere, for that matter.  Did I create poverty in India as well?   Does my modest wealth represent something "taken away" from others?  That's the real deal, right there - the idea that wealth and labor is finite, and the only thing left to do is divide up the pie into smaller and smaller slices, all directed by an all-powerful government.

Maybe that is the answer, but I am not convinced. In Batista's Cuba, dark-colored Cubans were discriminated against.   Today, supposedly there are equal opportunities in that country for everyone, regardless of race - but those opportunities are meager and limited, because of the very nature of the Communist system (and no, please put away your tired arguments about how an embargo by one country is causing Cuba grief).

But more to the point, are those the only two choices? Does equal opportunity mean only Communism, and does Capitalism mean only discrimination?   I think not, for a number of reasons.  For starters, our county is hardly 100% Capitalist.  We have a progressive tax system, even if it has been weakened by Bush and Trump.  Don't like that?  Vote.   Surprising how many "Antifarts" want change but won't even register to vote.  I am no big fan of Ms. AOC, but her election (and what looks to be re-election, as well as election of fellow progressives) is an example of how voting can create change.  Not right away, but over time.    If her ideas have merit, more of her ilk will be elected or re-elected and as they gain seniority, will be in larger positions of power.  That's how the system is designed to work.   If their ideas are a lot of hooey, they will lose re-election and other ideas will take hold.   Just because your pet theories are not popular with the majority of the country doesn't mean the system is broken.   On the contrary.

But getting back to white guilt, the US has been trying for decades to improve the plight of minorities.   It has been a struggle lasting since before the civil war.  And over time, things have gotten better and we have to recognize that. Companies are now actually trying to hire more minorities and the problem they are facing isn't institutional racism, but a lack of qualified minorities to fill these positions.   There are not many young blacks setting out to be computer geeks, Wall-street wizards, or whatever.   Education is still not valued in the ghetto - and if you are smart, you are still accused of "acting white" and will get the shit beaten out of you.  That needs to change.

Cultural values promoted to blacks suggest that thuggery and criminality are part of what it means to be black.  In any sketch comedy program, for example, the black character is always shown menacing other characters - at least in jest - while the white characters react in fear.   Yea, I'm talking about SNL, the folks who brought you episode after episode of Black Jeopardy, where black contestants are shown to be ignorant fools, schooled only in ghetto culture.   Who is writing this stuff?  Black writers?  Who is performing it?   Black actors.   Aren't they a little bit ashamed of promoting these racist stereotypes of blacks?  Oh, it's OK, so long as black people are doing it to themselves.

In the 1930's, they had a radio program called Amos 'n Andy, which was based on negative black stereotypes.  The two voice actors who performed the parts were white.   Racist?  You bet.   But when television came along, they hired two black actors to play the parts.   Was that still racist?   Hard call, for that era.   Back then, for many minorities, seeing "one of their own" on the screen was more than they were used to, even if the depiction was a stereotype.

I digress, but not by much.  I guess the point is, maybe this BLM thing will amount to something if blacks themselves, in addition to demanding change, change themselves and their own attitudes.  Because blaming all of your woes in life on "whitey" is a classic example of externalizing.   There are financially successful blacks in this country - I've met more than a few.  In fact, as a typical white person, that is mostly the blacks I do meet.  Many are from black middle-class families, so they have that boost in life - better educational opportunities, but more importantly, better cultural values.  I've also met a few folks - both black and white - who managed to pull themselves up from poverty, mostly by moving away from the trailer park in West Virginia, or the "Projects" in Philadelphia.

That is a problem right there.  A young black man from a prosperous family doesn't grow up in the inner city and have the same values and acquire ghetto slang.  He is as uncomfortable around inner-city blacks as I am among rural whites.  They can tell by my manner, dress, and accent, that I am not a local.  Discrimination is not just about skin color, it is also about social standing, cultural values, and a host of other subtle cues.  The idea that it will be eliminated forever in any form, is something of a fantasy.  We can improve the system, but mostly we need to improve ourselves.

Even in eras where discrimination was much worse, people still succeeded.  In an era where there are more opportunities than ever, effort is still required.  There is a mythology among many in the Left that some privileged folks have it easy in life.  They go to college and get a degree and are immediately rewarded with a corner office and a six-figure salary.   The Moneyist article cited above is an example of this - someone who has done well in life, but is unhappy because they are convinced others had it easier, or at least that appears to be the case.

The irony is, that many of these young "Antifarts" who believe this sort of nonsense have firsthand experience that it is not true.  Their union High School teachers promised them high-paying jobs if only they would go to college and get a degree in French Literature.   They know firsthand that there is  no guaranteed "in" by going to the right school or joining the right fraternity, whether you are white or black.  And yet they go rioting, decrying the unfairness of life, in that others somehow succeeded in this scheme, where they failed.   Maybe not taking advice from unionized government employees is a great start - unless you want to become one yourself.

White guilt is a non-starter, only because the majority of whites don't feel guilty and Americas are overwhelmingly white.  In order to effect change, you have to convince a huge portion of those white folks of your cause. Trying to shame them for something they didn't do simply isn't going to work.  Most white people in this country never discriminated or otherwise disadvantaged a black person, and few have ancestors who owned slaves.   Many white folks in the US have ancestors who came to America in the 1900's, and struggled to fit in, facing discrimination of their own.    How are they responsible for the plight of blacks?

Not only will "White Guilt" not work, it will backfire in a big way. The Democratic party has one huge image problem, and that is the image of the scolding schoolmarm telling everyone what rotten people they are, and how they need to fork over all their money so it can be given to others.   It is not a cheerful image, and as I noted before, the reason why Trump is popular with his "base" is that he tells them they are beautiful people and have nothing to be ashamed of.    Which  strategy will work in the long run?    People eventually get tired of being told they are pieces of shit, even if they are masochists at heart.

As a result, there could a backlash - a very powerful one.   People will get tired of the rioting, arson, and looting, and demand - and back - a strong response to this.  Law-and-order will win the day in the long run, unless this "movement" can coalesce around a leader or leaders who present reasonable and feasible demands.   Open-ended protests that go on forever with no real goal or point, on the other hand, will accomplish nothing, particularly if the protesters allow rioting and lawlessness to occur.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Understanding Statistics

Understanding statistics goes beyond understanding the mathematical aspects.

We are bombarded with statistics every day.  Everyone wants to get a point across, financially, politically, medically, or whatever - and are willing to use statistics to prove their point.   At first, statistics seem like an irrefutable argument - the ultimate cite to authority, expertism run wild.  How can you argue with the numbers?

Well, as it turns out, a number of ways.   Believe it or not, some statistics are entirely made-up.  Yes, act shocked, people lie to get their point across.   But even if they aren't lying, the raw data they may be using to get their point across may be flawed.

Telephone surveys, for example, are problematic, in that they only survey people with telephones or people who answer telephones.  Back in 1948, many people in rural areas didn't have phone service, so the newspapers called the election for Dewey, as their urban readers when surveyed by phone, all claimed to be supporting that New York Govenor.

And of course, that is what they claimed.   Surveys are the worse sort of statistics of all, not only in the way they are accumulated, but in how people self-filter by answering them.  The idiot who fills out a ten-page survey on his car-buying experience has filtered himself out as the kind of chump who answers ten-page surveys.   And people lie in their answers - again with the lying!   We lie to ourselves and we lie on surveys.  "How many drinks do you have a day, 0-1, 1-2, 2-3, or 3 or more?"  Oh, 1-2 surely.

So, raw data and the way it is collected is the first area where statistical data can be deeply flawed.  How it is processed and displayed is a second.   For example, in the "gun violence" chart I discussed earlier, not only was the data apparently faked, the criteria used - "gun deaths among wealthy countries" made the US appear to be an outlier.  But when you factor in all countries, we come out behind Mexico and Montenegro, among others.   This is not to say gun violence is not a problem in the US (and apparently in Montenegro) but that false comparisons to make a point don't really make the point - but actually discredit your argument.

Similarly, how charts are prepared can make trends look more alarming than they are. A chart that shows a stock price skyrocketing doesn't show the scale (or does in small numbers).  It is only when you realize the Y-axis begins at $20 and has a spread of ten cents, and the X-axis is showing a timeline of the last ten minutes, that you realize the "big spike in share price!" is nothing more than statistical noise.

Noise is something that most people don't understand.   As an Electrical Engineer, you know about it - the background static that appears in any signal, if from nothing else, echos from the big bang, or solar flares or whatever. There will always be minor statistical variations in any signal, and it is often easy to confuse these with meaning.  A share price goes up or down a few fractions of a percent - it may mean nothing, or it may be a start of a trend.   You don't really know until you accumulate more data and that takes time.   Trading on some transient condition can result in disaster.

But there are other ways to skew the presentation to make your point.  I noted before that not putting data in terms of per capita is a way of making it seem more alarming.   The US has more deaths due to Corona Virus than anyone else!   But in terms of per capita (at least at the time) the rates were far lower than Italy or Spain.  Sort of an insult to the dead in those countries, no?    The media loves to publish charts showing the cumulative deaths or infections from the virus - charts which by their very design will always show numbers shooting up, up, up.

The chart above is the "our world in data" Corona Virus death chart.  I like to use this chart to see how things are going, as it seems these folks have no dog in the fight.   But they can only chart the data that they get from sources.  And it turns out, each country or even State reports these statistics differently.   So even though it is comforting to look at this chart and see the deaths going down, we really have no way of knowing whether this really is true or not.  And the recent "spike" in the chart illustrates why - several States (and I can only guess which ones) have upped their body count recently to include "probable" deaths, which is an interesting concept.   So the data spikes for one day, but that one-day spike doesn't represent a sudden flood of bodies in the morgue, but rather numbers added based on guesswork, to a one-day total, from "probable" deaths over a period of time.

The infection rate data has the same problem, and yes, President Trump is right in that if you test more, you will find more infections (and I am sure the real infection rate could be far, far higher than we presently report).   But the media dismisses this out of hand, while at the same time saying the same thing - that so many people are undiagnosed.  They dismiss what Trump has to say, as they want to do a story about infections "spiking" because of millenials romping on the beach in Florida, and anything that disagrees with that narrative is dismissed.

It is sad, but both sides of the political spectrum are making hay from this nonsense. Florida, for example, is trying to force New Yorkers to quarantine for 14 days if they enter the State (is that legal?).  Not to be outdone, in a Red State-Blue State tit-for-tat, Governor "mob boss" Cuomo is now requiring residents from Florida to quarantine for 14 days upon entering New York. I'm glad both sides have put aside petty politics in this time of crises.

Like I said before, good data is hard to come by.   We like to believe the government is expert in accumulating and processing this data, but the reality is it is an inexact process, and we need to take these numbers and their methodology with a grain of salt

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Facebook's Float

It is easy to run a website with no moderation.   When you start to moderate, it becomes a full-time job and an unprofitable one at that.

Readers ask me why I don't have comments enabled in this blog.  One advantage of the "new" Google format is that I can erase the comments block entirely, instead of having the frustration of the comments section with the notation of "only members may comment" which is an obtuse way of saying "no comments".

Comments sections, like forums, require a lot of work.  You have to curate these comments forums to erase obvious SPAM, as well as squelch flame wars and nonsense baiting posts.   And you have to do this without pissing anyone off.   If you have a robust forum or comments section, you get a lot of "engagement" from people, which means if you monetize your blog, you make some money.

So, for example, I go to a forum for BMWs, or Russian motorcycles, or Casita travel trailers.  I used to do this a lot, and contribute a lot of  "content".   It becomes addictive - going every day to check to see what new thing has been posted, or whether someone responded to your previous post.   I stopped doing that for the most part, because I found it to be depressing.  Most of the comments and postings were positive and fun, but there was always some crank who would go off on what you said, telling you that you were "uninformed" and needed to "educate yourself" or whatever - today what we call trolling.

These are unhappy people.  There was a guy on a BMW forum who sold his BMW years ago and now drove a Corvette.  He really didn't know much about cars - the BMWs he owned and the Corvette he had were leased, so it wasn't like he was wrenching on them.  Nevertheless, years after trading-in his last BMW, he felt the need to go on the site and tell everyone they were wrong about every damn thing.   I never understood it.

It was like the guy on the Casita site who mocked the idea of an electronic door lock for your camper.  "What happens when the penlight batteries go bad?   Then you're locked out!"   OK, Grandpa - penlight batteries gave away the game.  We bought one of those door locks and it is handy has hell - no longer do we have to remember if we brought the right keyring (and with a camper there are LOTS of keys) or have to remember to bring keys with you.

That's when I realized that there was little to be gained by cruising these forums, other then depression and negativism. Comments sections, particularly on places like YouTube, quickly devolve into flame wars and negative comments - probably by design, as our Russian friends want us all to be unhappy in the richest country on earth.   And from the people I meet who spend a lot of time online, it seems to be working.   Keep it up, Vlad!  You'll tear down the United Statesd by getting its own citizens to destroy it for you!

But getting back to online forums, the "genius" of Mark Zuckerstein was in seeing this was a "thing" - that people would spend obsessive amounts of time online on discussion groups, posting pictures, articles, and notes about themselves and them commenting back and forth.  Early discussion groups had you set up a "profile" complete with pictures and personal information.   Then came MySpace.

MySpace took the concept to the next level, being a discussion group about everything and nothing at the same time.   But as first-to-market, MySpace was last in the marketplace.   "Tom" became your default friend, whether you liked him or not, and he suddenly started recommending various garage bands to you.  MySpace decided, oddly enough, to become limited to a grunge rock discussion group, and people fled - right into the arms of Zuckerstein.

But Facebook wasn't immune from tolls, flames, and all the other problems associated with online forums.   I quit Facebook because there was something creepy about it that I could not put my finger on.  Plus, having been on specialty forums for years, I was getting tired of the concept. The deathknell for me was when a friend got online drunk one night and posted what they thought were hilariously funny comments about some photos of one of my remodeling projects. She was a chronic television watcher, so she thought that making derogatory comments was "funny" because the people on the sitcoms do that all the time.   I erased the most egregious of her comments and she got pissed-off and "unfriended" me and I realized that Facebook wasn't anything new, but more of the same.

r/comics - Influencer.
Facebook brought us the era of the "influencer" and it feels kinda bad.

Facebook, of course, lost money at first. They started spamming the site with ads including video ads, and managed to keep people from running away at full steam.   They also have done a good job of trying to co-op word-of-mouth, by doing subtle product placements and whatnot.   Facebook brought us the "influencer" and Zuckerstein will have to answer for that in the afterlife.

With billions of users (supposedly) they made a lot of money, and one way they did this was by not moderating or curating the site.   It was - and still is - a free-for-all on there, and if you want to post noxious content or just troll, there are few consequences.   Moderation is expensive - you have to hire people to look at what people are posting, or have a "report this post" feature so that someone can eyeball it and see if it violates one of the rules (and you have to create a careful set of rules, too) or whether someone is just mad at them and wants to harass them by flagging a posting or page.

It gets difficult, and no matter how careful you are, someone will claim you allowed child porn or nazi glorification or the spread of ISIS or whatever.   On the flip side, the same Nazis will scream "censorship!" and "first amendment rights!" and of course, these are people who never read the US Constitution or the bill of rights and fail to realize that the first amendment is directed only toward .government censorship, not what a private company chooses to publish.  Just because the Washington Post doesn't print your letter to the editor, doesn't mean your first amendment rights have been violated.   But today, everyone screams about rights, but few about responsibilities, which is why we are in so much trouble.

So to make money, Facebook under-moderates and over-advertises.  It is a model that works, after a fashion, although younger people seem less inclined to join Facebook, preferring to go on Snapchat  or Instagram so they can send each other naked pictures which erase instantly.  Facebook, it seems, is more and more a haven for Old Biddies, Bags and Busybodies. Whenever someone tells me the latest gossip they got from Facebook, I have to roll my eyes, as there is a 50/50 chance it is utter bullshit.  Twitter is also popular, but still unprofitable, and the bullshit factor there is even worse.

Recently, Unilever, which is the host company of a thousand brands of soap, pulled its Facebook and Twitter ads, at least until after the election.  The problem with Internet advertising is that when you make a "buy" of ad space, you have no realistic control of where your ad appears.   You may have an ad for Hertz car rental appear on my blogsite saying what a crappy deal used rental cars are.   Or your ad for wholesome family soap products appears on some neo-nazi or anarchy site promoting violence.  People may think you are endorsing the thoughts on those sites or pages or whatever.   Or they may think you are endorsing the entire scheme.  It is only after the outcry that you realize you ad appeared somewhere noxious and then you can direct Facebook or whoever not to advertise there.  But the damage to your reputation has already been done.

Unilever's move is an interesting strategy, but one that could backfire.  Unilever is basically telling Facebook to clean up its act.  But to do so would cost a lot of money.  Facebook would have to hire and vet thousands upon thousands of moderators to scan flagged content, and the result would be uneven, of course, as one man's "edgy" humor is another man's obscenity.  But the bottom line is that Facebook has been floating for a while, on its own success, which they have amplified by taking a largely hands-off approach to moderating their content.   If they start to moderate, costs will go up and profits will go down.

And if enough advertisers flee, well, they will be stuck again with "one trick of the tiny belly" and other odious ads, much as Hannity and his ilk are stuck with marginal ads for fake Viagra and penis enlargers (and end-times prepper supplies and of course, gold).  This will drop income significantly, making improved moderation even more unaffordable and squeezing profits even further.  And as profits drop, so does the almighty share price, which is how the insiders make money.  So you see, this is a real pickle for Facebook, particularly if other advertisers follow suit.

Of course, it could also be that Unilever is finding their bang-for-the-buck in Facebook and online advertising in general isn't what they thought it would be.  As I noted before, with so many adblocking options online, one wonders why anyone bothers to advertise online anymore.  Who are you reaching?  The stupid demographic?  Yet, many pine for that market share, particularly scam artists.

In a way, though, this is not an unexpected development.  The same thing happened to television.  Early on, advertisers would pull their ads from shows they thought were "controversial" and consumers would threaten to boycott advertisers who advertised on controversial shows.   So networks had "Standards and Practices" departments which would self-censor any racy or controversial content.   Pressure from advertisers - and consumers - is what started that, so in a way, it is not surprising this is taking place at Facebook, only surprising it took so long.  Facebook has been floating for a while on its reputation, and failing to make structural changes to insure its longevity.

But of course, it is far easier to manage a television network, where your content is provided by a handful of production companies, including in-house.   Facebook has billions of content providers, so you can see how expensive the process could become in a real hurry.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out!  Will others follow Unilever's lead?  And if so, what will Facebook do - real action or just go through the motions?

In addition to losing advertisers, they could lose users, too.  Already they are struggling to attract younger people - the target audience for advertisers.   As I noted before, in the forums of years gone by, we see a pattern, where a forum becomes very popular, and then sort of flames out.  One or two loud voices take over the forum, drowning out all other thought.   Newbies are shamed by the "Old Timers" who are convinced no one can tell them anything new.   It is a pattern in all of these kinds of sites.  Is Facebook immune?   I wonder.

Stay tuned.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Chemical Veganism

Going vegetarian or vegan isn't an entirely bad idea, but some of the options offered these days seem worse that a balanced diet.

I wrote before about "Candy Vegetarians" - the young college kids who decide to become "vegetarian" in order to alarm their parents and to be a special snowflake and make life difficult for the college cafeteria workers.  Kids discover that by inventing food restrictions, they can be pandered to - at home, in school, or even on an airplane!  It is a lot of fun to get special attention. While on the plane, be sure to bring your service ferret.

Hard to believe this is the same country that beat the Nazzies back in dubya-dubya-two, ain't it?  "Charge that machine gun nest, Private!"  "Not without my service ferret, Sarge!"    I wonder if they had vegan meal options on a B-17?   Probably not, is my guess.

Of course, if you want to be a special snowflake, there are plenty of other options, such as gluten-free, or something called "keto" (which appears to be recycled Adkins) or whatever.   And the food industry is more than willing to accommodate you, as they can charge double for special foods, be it halal, kosher, gluten-free, non-dairy, vegetarian, vegan, free-range, cruelty-free, or whatever.   The last one kills me (no pun intended) as how can you be cruelty-free to an animal that you are slaughtering to eat?    Myself, I prefer to buy extra cruelty products, as they are usually on sale.  Then again, as I noted before, if lost in the Andes with the Chilean soccer team, I would probably gain weight.   Pets or meat!

It is easy to declare yourself to be vegetarian in college (and gay as well) and then later renounce it. As I noted in that earlier posting, the local Wegman's had a "vegetarian aisle" that was loaded with boxes of sugary cereals and even candy!  Did you know Jolly Ranchers are not only vegan, but gluten-free?  Yup!  No meat or bread in pure cane sugar!   Doesn't mean it's good for you.

But there are other people who are serious about a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, and unfortunately, my doctor is one of them.  He preaches this lifestyle, which troubles me, as he seems less concerned about our health than converting us to his religion.   Mark likes him, but I suspect in a few years, he too, may become uneasy.  Supposedly, we are told that he beat the crap out of some guy he found was sleeping with his wife.  Went right out on the golf course and beat him with a 9-iron.   Sounds like he needs to chill out with a new vegetable - vitamin 420!  But I digress.  Doctors are people, too, and have all their own neuroses and troubles.   Maybe sometimes more than the rest of us.

The problem for vegetarians and especially for vegans is that in this country, there are few food choices at the local grocery store or restaurant, other than raw vegetables in the produce department, or a side dish "vegetable medley" which has a near-zero calorie count.  At the grocers, there is a tiny section usually of tofu and boca-burgers, the latter being some sort of vegetable patty that falls apart when you eat it and is utterly unsatisfying as a meal.

There are also a host of "chemical vegan" foods, and sadly, most are designed to mimic or imitate the look, feel, and taste of some meat product.   Like diet Coke, it doesn't eliminate your desire for Coca-Cola, but perhaps just increases it.   When you go to fake meat, you just desire the real thing more.

Morningstar farms makes a great line of these products.  We bought their morning breakfast patties once only because in the camper, you don't want to be frying bacon or sausage (or much else for that matter) and they were easy to prepare, and provided they were not overcooked (which turned them into shoe leather) they had sort of a look, feel, and taste of a real sausage patty, well, at least a McDonald's sausage patty.

They had a host of other products, some hits, some misses.  Their "bacon" (and any other type of vegetarian bacon) was just disgusting.  The sausage "links" were not much better.  But their "Chick Patties" and faux chicken tenders would fool the most astute fast-food consumer, at least, again provided they are not overcooked, at which point the texture gets weird.  They also make, oddly enough, vegetarian corn dogs, which again, are indistinguishable from the real deal at the State Fair.  How odd to mimic one of the foods most reviled by vegetarians and vegans, as a vegetarian-friendly food.  They are really good, though, the real ones and the Morningstar variety.

There are plenty of other brands as well.  We bought as a novelty, a line of "chick" tenders made with pea protein and bamboo fiber (!!) which sounds like eating the furniture.  They were OK, but were made with egg whites, which would knock out all the vegans out there.  Plus, a serving size of four tenders was 220 calories (!!) which is a lot for a snack.    And the price - well, you could buy a whole bag of chicken wings for the price of this dozen novelty tendies.

Of course, you never want to turn over the package and read the list of ingredients - there are more chemicals in these things than at a DuPont plant.   It goes on for paragraphs with additives and preservatives and something called "natural flavor" and "spices" which I think may be a euphemism for MSG.  I am not sure the alternative to meat and dairy is a chemistry set.

(I am not going to mention by name the company that recently did an IPO and made a big deal about selling fake meat - even getting it sold, albeit briefly, at fast-food restaurants.   It was just another IPO flash-in-the-pan, not a real new development, from what I can see.  And I say this based on the hype on the Internet about the company, which evaporated right after the IPO dropped.  No profits, no dividends, and no prospects of ever doing so - more hype than substance.  And yes, like any good IPO, the share price spiked, allowing the founders to cash in, and then tanked, causing the little people who invest based on advice from Reddit, to lose their shirts).

That right there is the problem, of course.  Going to fake meat, or fake cheese or fake whatever as a substitute isn't the solution to a vegan or vegetarian diet.  Rather than try to get vegetables to ape the look, feel, and taste of meat and dairy products, it is a better idea (I think, anyway) to embrace vegetables for what they are, rather than try to make them into something they aren't.

Every Thanksgiving, someone tries and fails at making a "Tofurky" out of Tofu.   So many vegetarian and vegan dishes turn out this way - very unsatisfying and unappetizing.  A friend of ours who is a vegetarian, but eats dairy (which she claims includes eggs, but I refer to as mono-cellular chicken) and actually works for a vegetarian organization, put is this way:  Cooking a vegetarian meal requires you put together dozens of ingredients, cook it for hours, and it still comes out tasting like crap.  Now, that's a vegetarian talking, not me - you heard it from the horse's mouth!

A better approach is to prepare these foods as they should be.  Tofu is a traditional food in Asia, and stir-fried (with vegetable oil) and assorted vegetables, herbs and spices, is a satisfying meal.  Trying to sculpt a fake turkey from it, on the other hand, will have the family setting out for McDonald's right after dinner.

Are we going to go vegetarian or vegan as our doctor suggests?   Not likely, but as you get older, you find you cannot digest meat, particularly red meat, as easily as when you were a youth.  I used to have a drinking buddy when I was in my 20's, and we would go to the grocery store and buy the largest, cheapest cut of meat we could find and grill it in his fireplace (of all places).  He called it, jokingly, a "mis-steak" and he was one of those meat-eaters who was always very thin, despite wolfing down such awful food.  Back then, I could partake in "mis-steak" but at my age, I would be up all night sweating after a meal like that.

So, naturally, we are inclined to move away from red meat, and more toward vegetables, as we get older.   Cheese and dairy are the real killers (often quite literally) and our country is awash in a sea of cheap cheese as I noted before.  When I was a kid, McDonald's sold hamburgers - tiny things, really - for 25 cents apiece.   Cheeseburgers were some kind of novelty back then, and I remember my Dad making a big deal about putting cheese on a hamburger (which of course is not kosher!).   Today, it is pretty much the norm.   Can you even get a regular burger anymore?

My vegetarian friend eats cheese - and this illustrates how different vegetarians view these things.  Some call themselves vegetarians but eat fish (pescatarians) while others make other variations on the theme.   But dairy foods can be as bad for you as red meat, if taken in large quantities.

And I guess that is the real answer - everything in moderation.   Americans, of course, have lost their sense of moderation in recent years, as more and more people use restaurants as their kitchens, and commute to work in vehicles that were once only the province of utility companies and commercial plumbers.

We are at a campground, and the folks we are meeting are all from the big city, and all work in the medical field - doctors, nurses, medical technicians, etc.   I mentioned that the medical industry (and it is an industry) is one of the largest in the country - larger than manufacturing!   A nurse replied, "Hell yea - thank you very much McDonald's!"    And that right there told me a lot about what sort of patients he was seeing and what the bulk of the medical practice is these days - trying to cure people from their self-induced problems.   And I guess without cigarettes, cheese and meat are the new drug.

Maybe my doctor is right!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Everything In One Place, Or All Over The Place?

Getting organized is important. But how do you organize?  By the way, the day you finally organize all of your tools is the day you stop using them.

Mark and I have fundamental difference in philosophy as to how to organize things. I like to put everything of one type in one central location, carefully labeled and positioned so I know where it is. Mark likes to spread things out all over the place so they're handy for when he needs them.

There's no right or wrong answer here, it depends on what the thing is that you're organizing. Putting everything have a like nature into one box or one location may be convenient in that you always know where that thing is, but it's also more convenient, in some instances, to have these things spread all over the place so you always have one handy.

For example, if you're about to sneeze, it's very handy have a box of tissues next to your chair as opposed to be in a cabinet somewhere.  On the other hand, if you shop at the wholesale club and buy that lifetime supply of tissues, maybe you want to put one box by each chair, but the rest in one known location.

What got me started on this was tools.  Growing up, my Dad had one hammer, one screwdriver, and one pair of pliers.  Yes, he wasn't a handy-man. Tools were also a lot more expensive back then.  My brother and I would "borrow" his pliers to fix something and he'd come home from work and say, "Where are my goddamn pliers?" in a drunken rage, and we'd have to scramble to find them. The idea of owning more than one pair was alien to us - those things cost money!

Today, thanks to cheap products from China, you can own multiples of these things, and I do.  I have a tool chest the size of our refrigerator, and each drawer has multiples of things in it.   My English socket drawer has hundreds of sockets, as does my Metric socket drawer.  And my pliers drawer is full of them - different sizes, shapes, and types.

Of course, having everything in one location can be wasteful.   If you own several pairs of pliers, why put them all in the same place?   It isn't like you are going to use more than one or two at a time.   We have a small shed attached to Mark's studio, where we keep the lawn mower and rakes and other yard implements.   Recently, we dumpster-dived several 4' x 8' sheets of pegboard (painted white, no less).  I had previously accumulated (via dumpster-diving) a set of pegboard tool holders.   So we cut and screwed the pegboard to the inside of the garden shed - all four walls - and organized all the rakes, hoes, and shovels and whatnot.  With some extra wood laying around (again, dumpster) we made a small workbench or potting bench with pegboard behind that.   Total cost: zero.  Even the screws were free.  Some guy dumped a bunch of stuff from his Mother's house he was cleaning out, into a neighbor's dumpster.  One of the items was a brand-new unopened box of sheetrocking screws. Why would you throw those away?   It would be like a smoker throwing away a pack of cigarettes.

Anyway, we were admiring our handiwork and Mark suggested that maybe I should set up a mini-tool-room in the shed, so that I would have some basic tools - hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, etc. if I needed to work on the lawnmower or the weedwhacker or whatever.   It was a good idea.  Having some tools in your car, or as we do, in the camper, is also handy.

But where does this distributed-method of organizing just devolve into hoarding?   Mark always like to have tissues and lip balm handy, so he has dozens of these balm items squirreled-away around the house.  And I guess it is the squirrel technique, just as I tried to squirrel away money.   Unfortunately, this means we find empty lip balms in his shorts after they have been through the wash or ones that melted when left in the car.  Or they are just found nestled somewhere, years after they were bought, set down, and forgotten.

The distributed or squirrel model has its merits, provided you don't forget (as squirrels sometimes do) where you put things.   And the more things you have, the worse this is.   Squirreling becomes hoarding in short order.   If you own something and forget you have it, or if you remember you have it but cannot find it, it is like not owning that thing at all.

Often, I go through closets and drawers and find things stuffed into them when Mark "tidies up" or decides a particular piece of tchotchke should not longer be displayed.   Some of these drawers, cabinets, and closets are stuffed to the brim, which is depressing.  I dig through them and Mark says, "Oh,. that's where that went!" as if the item marched off to the corner of a closet by itself and wasn't put there.  This worries me, because I think this is how hoarding starts.

There has to be some happy medium to this.   When living in the camper, it is good to know what you have and where it is - you cannot simply keep buying things as you run out of room and the weight becomes a factor.   Before each trip, we go through the cabinets to see what is needed and what should be left behind, and what should be added.  This way, we also know exactly what we have.   It is one reason I love living in the RV and wouldn't mind a smaller space to live in - less stuff and less places to "lose" stuff.

Stuff drags you down and stuff costs money, even at discounted Chinese prices.  My Dad had one pair of pliers in part because he was cheap and didn't want to spend money owning multiples of an item that he knew would be used infrequently.   Accumulation was less of a problem back then, as people had less "disposable income" to spend on "stuff".    In fact, the concept of "disposable income" was pretty alien to their generation.   Money wasn't something to be disposed of, or spent willy-nilly.

It is interesting how differently our generations lived.