Monday, September 27, 2021

Why Superheros Wouldn't Work

Superheros would solve everything - or would they?

When I was a kid, the comic book thing wasn't such a big deal.  In fact, it had sort of peaked in the 1950's and was going downhill.  It wasn't until Hollywood discovered that these old comic books could be mined for material that it became a big deal - that and the "graphic novel" phenomenon.  Stan Lee went from an obscure cartoonist to a cult figure, and the IPO of his company went ballistic (and then crashed, like most IPOs).  It's just comic books, people!  Well that, and billion-dollar movie franchises these days.

We pine for superheros, it seems - someone who will solve all the world's problem with the wave of a magic wand or a heat ray, and let us go about our normal business unmolested.  If only the bad people in the world could be dealt with.....  It is the basic premise of fascism.

My late Mother was born in the 1920's and grew up during the depression.  She came of age during World War II.  She told me, time and time again, that as a teenager, she would fantasize about getting a gun and going to Germany and "shooting that Mr. Hitler" and thus solving the world's problems.  Of course, that would not likely solve anything, as Goebbels or Himmler would just take his place.  Hard to say how the presence of absence of one man could change the world.

But that's the deal with superheros - they effectively could change the world.  And why, during World War II, they didn't have Superman, who can withstand bullets and even tank shells, just fly over to Berlin and punch old Schicklgruber in the nose (at least in the comics) is beyond me.  I mean, in a comic book war where even Donald Duck was drafted into the Army, you'd think superheros would have made short work of it - being invincible and all.

Of course, it doesn't work that way.   Even superheros can't be in all places at all times - solve every crime, kill off every petty dictator, free hostages and those unjustly imprisoned, expose every malfeasance, fraud, and scam, and of course, put an end to organized crime, once and for all!  I mean, with legions of superheros, such as we have today, this would be practical.

But desirable?  I wonder.  Sometimes late at night I wake up to go pee (which is usually better than the alternative) and before I go back to sleep, my mind wanders.  And I suppose it is a common fantasy, but what if one could have Superman-like powers?  How would you change the world?  Would you be helping little old ladies get their cat out of a tree?  Putting a stop to a mugging?  Or putting an end to wars and conflicts, or deposing evil dictators?  Maybe disarming the world's nuclear arsenal?  Disarming all weapons (as an early Kurt Vonnegut short story detailed)?

Maybe.  Or Maybe that wouldn't solve anything.  You get rid of one Ayatollah and another takes his place.  Putin is gone, someone fills in the power vacuum.  Or worse, as we learned with the fall of the Soviet Union - a power vacuum exists and it becomes a free-for-all with the strongest strongman winning the game.  How did you think we ended up with Putin in the first place?  And so on down the line.  You get rid of one military junta and it is replaced with another - or nothing.

I was reading The Feast of the Goat about the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo.  Assassins plotted to kill him - and succeeded.  But what followed was a bloodbath, as the last gasps of the Trujillo regime sought revenge, and following that, decades of instability that continue on today.  This killing off dictator thing is more complicated that it looks.

And in part, that is the problem the US has.  We have the world's largest military by a factor of seven or more.  We spend more on our military than the next eight largest militaries combined.  China is building its first aircraft carrier.  We have thirteen.   Yea, we sort of dominate the military scene, worldwide.  Problem is, we still aren't superman.

The boys from South Park put together a "Supermarionette" movie called Team America, World Police, whose premise was that as the world's strongest superpower, it was our obligation to police the rest of the world. And since World War II, we've sort of tried to do this, with mixed results.

For example, we took out "Bad Guy" Saddam Hussein (who we had installed, decades earlier) and what happened?  The same old power vacuum we saw after the fall of the Soviet Union.  With no one in charge, everyone fought for leverage, including our friends in nearby Iran.   You can't just go back in time and shoot baby Hitler and solve the world's problems.  It's not that simple.

And even if you could, what would that leave us?  The rest of us would stop trying to solve the world's problems, relying instead on benevolent (we hope) superhero overlords, who of course would not simply become our new fascist overlords because you know, absolute power doesn't corrupt absolutely.

Maybe that is the lesson from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  So long as we were willing to occupy those countries and fight off an endless insurgency, the locals didn't feel so emboldened as to fight for a country of their own.  They were content to have the government we installed - a weak government with no real support among the population.  And as soon as we left, well, it all collapsed like a house of cards.

The whole model of Superheros saving the day is an interesting daydream fantasy, but one that would not work out well in the real world.  We would become passive, submissive people, waiting for Supermen to solve all the world's problems.  We would stop trying, because there would be no point in it.

Our struggles define us and they define nations as well.  It is like money without work - no one appreciates free things, which is why this concept of "guaranteed annual gub-ment check" is a bad idea, no matter how many bong hits you take.  Passivity and sloth are evil - the Bible got that one right, or at least the Catholic church did.

It is akin to winning the lottery - we think it would be the solution to all of our problems, but in fact, it would just create a new set of problems, before dumping us back into the old set.  There is a reason why so many lottery winners (and personal injury plaintiffs) end up broke in short order - their problem isn't merely lack of money, but lack of money management skills.  Unless you willing to let Superman monitor your spending and bank accounts, not much is going to change.

And hey, I tied this topic back into the theme of this blog!

But maybe that's why I am not a big fan of explosion movies or these superhero franchises.  I mean, yea, when the first Superman movie came out with Christopher Reeves, it was a romp down memory lane. But then Hollywood decided to mine this vein forever, and we have umpteen iterations of Batman as some sort of brooding dark character with ever-more-ridiculous and clearly non-functional Batmobiles, and well, they kind of ruined it.  Sort of like Star Wars prequels.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

The world is a messy place - a non-optimal outcome.  Life is a non-optimized event, as I have noted before, and human beings operate at an efficiency level of 1-2% on a good day.   Yet, we all pine for the Superman to come save the day, take charge and tell us all what to do.   From the German perspective in 1938, it wasn't Superman than needed to kill Hitler, but Hitler was the Superman who would save Germany - by giving him all-encompassing power.

And we know how that worked out, eh?

Not much has changed since then.  Trumpism is defined, in part, by a desire of some people to have a strong-man take power and "get things done" - build Autobahns and persecute minorities.  But of course, Trump only did the latter.  In terms of "making the trains run on time" Trump failed miserably - as did his predecessors (Mussolini never made the trains run on time, either - come on, we're talking Italy!). 

And that is the problem with Supermen - they never live up to their billing.

Democracy and life as we know it is messy and difficult. Our government muddles along, clanking and wheezing like an old machine that has been patched again and again, just enough to move it down the road another mile - or another foot.  It sounds so inefficient and awful, until you consider the alternatives.  As messy as it is, it ends up being, if not the best, one of the best workable solutions, if you compare it to other governments, worldwide.

Maybe we should stop pining for superheroes to do our work for us, and get back to work ourselves!

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Happiness versus Contentment

Being content with your station in life and with life itself, is the key to happiness.  People who wonder why they are not happy all the time, are never content.  Shoot for contentment, and happiness will follow.

I listen to a lot of people and read things people write online, and the common denominator seems to be that everyone is unhappy.  No one is content with their station in life, even as they live in the wealthiest country in the world - where the poorest among us are in the top 10% of wealth for the planet.  But to hear them tell it, life is just one bitter disappointment after another, and they got a raw deal in life.  And not surprisingly, we prescribe more anti-depressants than any other.

(Caveat:  Some statistics show Iceland as beating us out as of late.  But then again, if your country has the word "ice" in the name, I think you'd be depressed, too!  But seriously, the chart above illustrates, more than anything, that prosperous Western countries have better healthcare systems and people have more time for naval-gazing than in other parts of the world).

It strikes me as odd, at first, until you think about it.  I was in the convenience store the other day and a young man in his 20's came in with a ziplock bag filled with scratch-off lottery tickets.  Judging from the giant pickup truck he was driving and its contents, he was in some sort of construction work and was making good money - not rich by any means, but solidly middle-class.  He cashed-in a number of those lottery tickers and then bought at least $100 more of them, as well as lotto tickets, etc.  It took fifteen minutes for him to make these transactions, and the line was kind of long behind him.

I thought it was odd, but then I realized that in addition to the compulsive addictive nature of these things, he wasn't happy with his station in life, and dreamed of "winning big" - where he could buy an even bigger and badder pickup truck, a fancy car, a trophy wife, a solid-gold house, and then "kick back" and do nothing for the rest of his life and finally be happy.  But as the book Ten Irrational Ideas pointed out, the idea of "kicking back" is flawed:

Irrational Idea #10you can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommittedly "enjoying yourself."  "Kick Back" the rednecks say, opening yet another can of brew.  But perpetual partying is not a way to happiness, as each generation of media stars prove, again and again.  Life without purpose is an unhappy life.

Yet a lot of people believe this, and will spend an inordinate amount of money trying to achieve happiness through inertia. I have friends who go on cruises and then just sit on the ship - never going ashore - and getting drunk all day long.  I am not sure why this is better than going to a hotel in Miami and doing the same thing, or indeed, just sitting at home and getting drunk.  But maybe getting drunk all the time isn't a path to happiness.  Maybe that first drink makes you relaxed, but the second, third, or fifth will just make you woozy and tired and feel like shit the next day - so you repeat the process.  Such is the nature of addiction.

Lottery tickets, cruises, or serial trips to Didney-land, it is all the same thing.  Nothing is good enough unless it releases orgasmic pleasure. Merely being content isn't good enough for most folks, and the only alternative to happiness is depression.  So most folks are depressed all the time.

I mentioned before that pain focuses the mind.  And one way it does this is to make one realize that not being in pain all the time is sufficient.  Screw happiness - just get rid of the pain!  And if you are not in pain, feeling well, and in general good health, well, you are doing better than half the people on this planet.  Most people struggle for enough caloric intake for the day to keep their brain alive.  We complain that we are not entertained enough.

Entertainment.  It seems to be a focus of so many peoples' lives.  People devote their lives to television shows, movie franchises, comic book ("graphic novel") franchises, rock stars, reality television, political pundits, conspiracy theories - you-name-it.  Very few people seem to devote their lives to their lives.   It seems we crave constant distraction, and if we don't get it, we'll leave a one-star review on Yelp.  It is the nature of spoiled children.

Contentment comes from realizing that you have all you need and you don't need to crave for more.  Misery comes from borrowing more and more money to have "things" that will make you happy, but usually make you even more miserable over time.   I talked a lot about how borrowing money is time-shifting money - taking away from future you, so you can have something today.  Happiness works the same way.  You borrow money to buy that fancy new car and are happy today (for a very, very brief period, such is the nature of consumer happiness) but pay for it in misery down the road, as the fancy car depreciates and accrues door dings and miles, and yet you still have 69 more payments to make on it.

Owning a shiny new car with 72 months of payments might at first seem like happiness, and for a few days or weeks, maybe you will get that consumer "rush" over owning a shiny thing - as people compliment you on your new car, as if you made it or something.  Contentment is owning a secondhand car outright and not having 72 months of payments to worry about.  Maybe the "rush" isn't there, but there is a sustained level of contentment that lasts a lot longer.

I say this from experience.  Some of the things that made me the most unhappy in life were "things" that I felt I had to own, particularly expensive things that required I borrow money to own, or things that required extensive storage and maintenance costs.  We loved our small boat that we could trailer ourselves.  The big boat that you had to pay $100 to have hauled out of the water was far less satisfying.  The cars I bought used for very little - and paid cash - were the most fun.  The ones I had to pay a lot of money for (and get a car loan for) were far less satisfying.

The crazy thing is, contentment can be had at almost any income level.  The "poor" in this country have a lot of money pass through their hands - most of it goes to pay loan interest. There have been studies galore (caveat: surveys are always suspect!) that claim that people who are desperately poor are very unhappy, but that people who have enough money to get by are generally happy, while folks who are richer than that, are generally unhappy - and get unhappier the wealthier they are.

I mentioned this before, and our lottery-playing friend should think about this:  If you won a billion dollars in the lottery, it would turn your life upside-down. It would, in fact, ruin your life.  You would have to worry about the motivations of everyone around you. You would have to worry about your children being kidnapped.  You would have to say "goodbye" to all your friends and move away.  The idea that a pile of money would make you happier is flawed.  Maybe a smaller pile, but not a Billion.

When I was a technician at Carrier, making the princely sum of $17,000 a year, I had a place to live (eventually a small house) and a car, and enough money to live on back then.  But then I had to screw it all up and buy a brand-new car and suddenly, I was over an economic barrel, paying more in car insurance than I was in car payments. It didn't help any, of course, that I drove like most Americans - speeding everywhere and then blaming the cops for getting tickets.  Everything bad that happened in my life was someone else's fault!

Eventually, I got a little older, and paid-off that car loan and was debt-free for one of the brief periods in my life.  I took a leave of absence from school and finished my degree - riding my bike to school and living off modest savings, as well as my income from working third shift at UPS.  I was content, as I had everything I needed and my life had purpose and direction.

This is a pattern that would repeat, though.  When I moved to Alexandria and met Mark, we were both poor as church mice, by DC standards.  And again, I decided I needed to buy a brand-new car, and once again, got on the hamster-wheel of debt.  I was content, but once I put myself into debt, became uneasy and worried.   Contentment, it seems, is never enough, particularly when you are comparing your life to that of others.

The television is a big part of the problem, to be sure.  When I was "content" finishing my degree, I had pulled the plug on cable TV ($36 a month!  That was enough back then for a week or two of groceries!).  Television tells us that we want a shiny new SUV, or a prescription drug, or a rotary chicken-cooker (or instapot or air fryer or whatever).   Living in the city, I saw other people with fancy cars - but didn't realize that they often had miserable lives.  I wasn't content to have enough, I wanted more.

But the more you want, the less you get, because no matter how much you get, it is never enough.  Money in the bank is security and contentment, but that is usually the first thing sacrificed on the altar of happiness.  How many people do you know, personally, who whine and complain about "living paycheck to paycheck" and tell you this on a message "Sent from my iPhone XXXIV!"  Or the fellow complaining about how the Federal Reserve "took my money away!" and yet has $20,000 in tattoos on his back.(and arms, and legs and neck and.....).

It's the same old deal - we sacrifice contentment for the transitory rush of happiness. And it never ends well.

I am at a point in my life where I am content.  As I noted before, on a good day I wake up, have my coffee, and if I have a good bowel movement, it sets the tone for the rest of the day.  I'm not interested in being ecstatic, but merely not being in pain or discomfort.  I don't want to be rich, I just want to avoid being poor - and avoid going into debt, ever again.   I seek contentment, not ecstasy.

Mark used to marvel at the "old couples" down near Boca Raton, where he went to college.  They would go to the beach every day, carrying a beach bag and a cooler.  They would sit there all day, under their umbrella, and play cards or read books.  They were content to just be with each other and going to the beach cost them nothing.  How could they possibly be content?

Well, as we get older, we start to understand where they are coming from.  I noted before that so many vacation destination places have venues where you spend money, and many tourists will open their wallets because they think that is what they are supposed to do.  If you aren't spending money, you aren't having fun!  It is like rednecks - if an internal combustion engine isn't running somewhere, what's the fun in that?  Jet ski, ATV, or even just a generator, burning fuel is fun!  That, and motion and speed - two things small children delight in.

Maybe there is a lesson in this.  If we seek contentment, we are quite likely to achieve it, and happiness will follow as a matter of course.  If we seek happiness itself, we end up miserable.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Externalization - Celebrity Edition!

When your career goes in the toilet, and you've blown through millions of dollars, it's time to blame Liberals for your problems!  He thinks this is a "look"?

The Spanish film industry just gave Johnny Depp a lifetime achievement award, and people are livid.  No, not because he supposedly beat his wife, but because he was just a no-talent actor who starred in a bunch of forgettable movies, usually weird ones. His claim to "fame" was being the star of a "franchise" based on a ride at Disneyland.   Yea, Meryl Streep he ain't.

Depp, not realizing that a "lifetime achievement award" is a sign your career is over (they don't hand those out to 30-year-olds) railed against the press and liberals, claiming that political correctness has destroyed his career and prevented him from getting new film roles.

But of course, this is horseshit.  Depp, like so many other "actors" was popular in youth-based movies aimed at a younger audience, because he had that pretty-boy androgynous look so favored by the film industry.  In his first breakthrough role as "Edward Scissorhands" he played a troubled emo youth, whose pouty good looks no doubt made all the young girls horny, as they pawed through the pages of Tigerbeat magazine.

Now, granted, some actors start out as pretty-boys (or pretty-girls) and yet manage to morph their career into "serious acting" which you have to do, as you get older, as no one wants to look at your wrinkled face in any teen-based movie (unless it is a horror movie and you are Freddy Kruger).  Sure, Brad Pitt got away with it, but he can also act in addition to looking good.  He also took better care of himself, working out in the gym and forgoing the usual orgy of drugs and alcohol that destroys the careers of so many young Hollywood stars.

Depp's last major role, from what I can see, was as "Charlie" in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" - a weird movie directed by a weird director based on a weird book written by a weird author - in other words, Depp's milieu.   A friend recently gave me a copy of that movie, and we watched it (well, parts of it - we fast-forwarded through much of it and then ended it early) and wondered what the fuss was all about.  At the time, it was heralded by the critics, who thought Depp was doing his impersonation of Michael Jackson - the perpetual child.  Since then, it doesn't seem as funny or deep - or Depp.  It was just creepy and weird, and Depp's "acting" seems somewhat two-dimensional.

The famous ventriloquist Jeff Dunham once made the joke (Well, "Walter" made the quip) that "Men age like fine wine.... women age like milk!" which is not a dig at women so much as an observation as to what our society views as "beauty" or "handsome" in our culture.  Sadly, it seems Depp has aged like an open container of cottage cheese, left in the trunk of a car, in the hot sun, for a week.  The guy is plug-ugly and his fashion choices (the "I'm not going bald" hat) make it even worse.  For a guy who made a career being a pretty-boy, he has really let himself go.  And no one wants to hire an ugly pretty-boy, do they?

He's only five years older than Daniel Craig (the current star playing James Bond) but geez, Craig has keep himself up at least.  Heck, I'm older than Johnny Depp and I'm better looking that he is.  Maybe it is genetics, but he's been hit with an ugly stick - twice.  And sadly, such is often the fate of teen hearthrobs, who, once they round the corner of 30, go downhill fast.  Their ugly bloated faces appear in the supermarket tabloids in a "where are they now?" article, and we all feel a little schadenfreude about it.

Of course, none of this would be a problem for Depp if (a) he saved some of his millions and could afford to retire, or (b) learned to be a serious actor instead of just a pretty face, and morphed his career to more serious roles.  It's been done.  John Travolta was another pretty-boy who pretty much disappeared from the scene.  He resurfaced as a bloated middle-aged hit man in Pulp Fiction and audiences were amazed - not that he had let himself go so much as he could act.  And other roles followed - from playing a Bill Clinton type in Primary Colors to donning a fat suit and playing Edna Turnblatt in Hairspray.  This, even with his controversial religious views. No amount of fat suit is going to save Depp, though, if he can't act.

Movie producers want famous names for films because they know they are a "draw."  People will go see a Brad Pitt movie because Brad Pitt is in it.  They would go see a Johnny Depp movie because he was in it - even if his acting is, well, not very good.  And women in particular are drawn toward handsome leading men, provided they are not wife-beaters, drug addicts, or have let themselves go.  Depp was a "name" actor, but like many a professional athlete has discovered, your "name" isn't worth squat if you are caught running a dog-fighting ring.  It's on you, not on your sponsors, or the industry.

The wife-beating thing?  Yea, that didn't help, but it wasn't the sole cause of his career nosedive.  I suspect the substance abuse had something to do with it as well.   People have recovered from worse.  Woody Allen is still working - making movies that no one actually watches.  I think Depp's problem was the way he handled the whole thing in this "woke" era.  The Trumpian technique of deny, deny, deny and attack, attack, attack only worked for Trump and even then, Trump seems to have lost the magic touch there.

Depp tried to sue for libel in British courts - something that Oscar Wilde tried to do over a century ago, with disastrous results (he was convicted of sodomy and sent to jail).  It wasn't "cancel culture" that destroyed Depp, it was Depp that destroyed Depp.

But like any spoiled child - or any American, for that matter - someone else has to be to blame.  And blaming some amorphous "other" is all the vogue.  So "cancel culture" - a name that you cannot attach to any one group, person, or organization - is a convenient whipping-boy.  And boy-oh-boy did Depp make Fox News happy with that statement!  No doubt, Depp is the darling of the far-right, which makes you wonder what Depp's politics are these days.

Externalization!  A game anyone can play at any level of income or fame! From the poorest homeless man, to the richest man in the world, everything bad that happens to you is someone else's fault.  Because you know, we are all perfect people made in God's image.

Fuck Johnny Depp.  No-talent has-been!

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Brand-Name Poor

Oddly enough, the poor are more likely to buy brand-name products than the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Strivers - the folks who want to have the appearance or feeling of wealth, but never achieve real wealth.  They view wealth as a series of purchases you make - not the money you keep.  And if you buy the right brands, you can be wealthy, or at least appear to be so.

These are folks who define their lives by the brands they choose.  And you can't blame them for that, as the television - the ultimate propaganda and brainwashing machine - tells them so.  You are what soft drink you choose, what brand of car you swear loyalty to, what brand of crappy liquor sold to the youth market you swear by.  And by combining these selections, you can kid yourself you've come up with a unique combination of brands that uniquely identify you as a person.

You think I am kidding.  I am not.  We recently were at a trailer park and there was a "shot party" at one of the trailers.  "The Jäger Boys are putting on a party!" which was good news for the trailer park owners, as he didn't have to entertain his guests - his guests entertained each other!  The "boys" were very generous, pouring trays of shots of Jägermeister as well as other aperitifs, such as the peanut-butter  flavored "Screwball" for everyone to consume.  Their trailer was adorned with promo items for Jägermeister - light-up signs, banners, posters, and whatnot.  The local liquor distributor must love them!

I tried some - it tasted like Crest toothpaste. But I thanked them nevertheless, as it was generous of them to throw a party for everyone.  But it struck me as odd that these two fellows decided to identify themselves by a brand name of liquor - to the point they had a sign professionally made up to advertise their trailer as the home of "The Jäger Boys."   People do this all the time, though - particularly men - pledging undying loyalty to a brand of pickup truck, a flavor of lite beer, a sports team, a porno magazine, or ISIS.

I kid about that last one, but it is probably the same concept.  A young man in the Arab world is radicalized, and thinks, "Hmmm..... should I pledge loyalty to Al Qaeda, or to ISIS?  And if Al Qaeda, which one?  Don't want to pick the wrong terrorist group to join!  Maybe I'll just join Hamas instead!" But of course, which group he picks depends on whether he is Sunni or Shi'ite, another choice and another brand to swear loyalty to.

Lest you think I am attacking Islam, all religions are about the same this way.  I mentioned before how my Dad, raised a Catholic, decided to change teams in order to get ahead in life.  Not many Catholics in the board room of major corporations, back in 1948, so he went with the winning team instead.  And during my lifetime, my parents switched churches several times - dabbling in Unitarianism at one time, in order to get in with the right social set.  When we moved to New York, the "in crowd" went to a liberal Presbyterian church - so we went there.  As you can see, they had deep religious convictions - no deeper than most - which is probably a good thing.

The weird thing is, when I shop at Walmart, it seems to me that the folks who are the poorest have the most brand-name products in their carts.  When we are shopping for something, whether it is tomato sauce or mayonnaise or whatever, we read the ingredients, look a the prices - particularly the price-per-unit - and then chose the product that we feel has the best quality and best price.  For example, Walmart-brand tomato sauce has no high-fructose corn syrup or even sugar (check the label to be sure - some varieties may have it!) but the heavily advertised "brand name" kind, with the fancy label, is loaded with sugar (usually the third ingredient after water and tomatoes) or worse - high fructose corn syrup.

We agonize over which to buy, but the person who pulled up behind us in the parking lot in the clapped-out 1996 Impala with bling rims is buying the brand name Prego sauce and not even looking at the label or prices.  Retailers love customers like that!

And back in the day, I used to buy things without looking at prices, and thought it was a sign of class and wealth that I could.  Only poor people read labels and checked prices!  But I was wrong - I was working-class poor, because I bought things without checking prices and labels.  But I learned later on that it was the smart people who made the smart choices, the poor people who made poor choices.

I learned my behavior, in a way, from my parents. I have mocked my Mother's cooking abilities before.  The poor thing - she was ill-suited for the role of housewife, and worse yet, her Mother had a bachelor's degree in home economics.  Mother lived in fear of a visit from her Mother - who would put on white gloves and run her fingers along the top of the door and window trim and tsk-tsk at all the dust.

It was perhaps, a generational thing.  Mark's Grandmother - a dear old lady when I knew her - would torture Mark's Mother with similar antics.  "Barbara, you haven't changed the shelf paper since I was last here!" she would say.  "Yes I did, Mother!" Barbara would reply.  Mark's Grandmother would peel pack the corner of the shelf paper in the nearest cabinet and say, "Don't lie to me, Barbara!  See, I wrote my initials in the corner here, along with the date!"

Women are so cruel to each other - particularly Mothers and Daughters.  I don't understand why they do this to each other - or why they crave acceptance from one another, either. Just move on and move away and tell Mom that you don't even use shelf paper (gasp!) and worse yet, sometimes not even underwear!

Just kidding.  I digress.

Anyway, my Mom, who couldn't boil water on a good day, had weird brand preferences.  She always bought Land-O-Lakes lightly salted butter.  Her explanation was that Dad once brought home some "oleomargarine" as a cost-cutting measure when they were first married.  Mom put her foot down.  "As God as my witness!" she cried, "I will never eat oleomargarine again!"

Of course, why she fixated on a brand-name of butter, I do not know. Store -brand butter is just as good, and in fact, unsalted butter is even better, I have learned.  I agree with her that real butter is better than any fake kind (much of which had trans-fats in it, which actually caused heart disease) but buying brand-name?  Maybe that was her way of punishing Dad.  They had a weird relationship.

Being brand-loyal has a lot of disadvantages.  To being with, you end up paying more for products than you would if you shopped around on price and quality.  Not only that, but brands are just labels - the underlying product can change over time.  Some venture capitalist buys out an old-line company with a loyal brand following and then proceeds to gut the content of the product, knowing full well that the brain-dead brand-loyal customers will keep buying for a long time before they get wise - if they ever do.  In the meantime, he shows wild profits, which isn't hard to do, when you cut quality to the bone.  He does an IPO and sells the company and doubles his money.  Years later, it all comes crashing down as even the most brain-dead brand-loyal customer admits the products are now crap.  I've seen this happen several times, in my lifetime.  It is a common "business plan" these days.

In addition, being brand-loyal blinds you to new opportunities.  When Japanese cars first became a thing, many Americans refused to even consider them, claiming they were "junk" without even bothering to investigate.  Oddly enough, the American car companies of that era (late 1970's) were the ones pushing real junk - shoddy engineering, crappy gas mileage, atrocious assembly quality, rust problems - you name it!  But a Toyota?  Crap, right?

I hear the same thing today about KIA and Hyundai - making some of the best values around, in terms of price and quality.  Some yahoo in a 2016 Impala tells me knowingly that Korean cars are crap.  Then I ask him why they don't make Impalas anymore.  Deafening silence.

Of course some people have since branded themselves to new brands.  Today there are people who pledge their livers to Toyota or Nissan or Honda - even though they may have, at one time, denounced those brands as "crap." But products change over time, and brands, like I said, are just labels. Trademark law was created so people could identify products and determine quality by a brand name.  But today, brands are bought and sold, and many products, such as clothing and accessories, are little more than brand labels attached to inferior goods - and people will pay through the nose to have the right brand attached to their product!

Some of the poorest people I know "have to have" an Apple phone, because being seen without that logo on your phone (or a starbucks logo on your coffee cup) would be akin to being seen naked in public.  And the poorer they are, the more they are obsessed by brand-name consciousness.  And appearance as well - I see the very poor spend more money on hair care, manicures, designer clothes and designer bags, than the middle-class.

Maybe there is a method to this madness. Knowing that they will never be wealthy, they can at least have some of the trappings of wealth, and thus play at pretend wealth and project status - at least among their peers.  And in days gone by, this was the case, too.  Back in the day, you didn't leave the house without wearing a suit and tie and hat - for men, or a nice dress, high-heel shoes, stockings, and of course a nice hat - for women.  Rich or poor, you had these standards of appearance. Today, well, maybe it is global warming or something, but we run around dressed in what back then would be considered pajamas as best - or underwear at worst.  You would probably be arrested back in 1940 for wearing what we consider "normal" clothing today.

But a lot has changed since then.   Back in the day,  you went to work for a company, pledged your life to them, and then you collected a gold watch at age 65 - presuming you lived that long - and had a modest "pension" which paid out over the three or so years you lived past retirement age.   The idea of a long, luxurious retirement in a golf community or on the water somewhere was alien to most Americans.  Only the very rich lived that way - or lived that long.

Today?  Even with the pandemic, you might live to be 80, 90, or more.  In fact, if you make it to 60, there is a good chance you will live well into your 80's - defying the actuarial tables.  And today, it is likely you will be forced out of your job by age 55 or so, and forced to seek a new career.  So you may have this 30+ year time in your life where you are not working and cannot work, but still need to survive.  And no, there are no pensions anymore, except for some government workers.  You have to save your own money.

I saw a "meme" the other day which said something like, "The idea of working for 40 years and saving money so you can live for a few short years before you die is just wrong!  We need guaranteed annual income!"   From a 20-something perspective, it seems like that, I guess - you work forever and then retire only to be measured for a coffin, with maybe two years of hobbling around in a walker.  So you might as well spend it all now, right?  Buy that Tide detergent - and that Land-O-Lakes butter!

But of course, that is a false view of what life is like today. Your retirement years may exceed your working years.  On the other extreme are the "FIRE" people, who have similar "memes" about retiring at age 40 on $7000 a year.  This is just as asinine a proposition as the idea that "I'll work until I'm 70!" or "Retirement is a joke for our generation!" or "I'll never be able to afford a house!"   The latter is what I thought, at age 25.  By age 35, I owned four houses.  Things change quickly in life, particularly if you work at it.

The trick isn't to win big in the "Stonk" market, or to follow some get-rich-quick guru.  Nor is it a matter of turning off lights in the room when you leave, or  knitting your own sweaters from pocket lint you saved from the dryer. Extreme get-rich-quick schemes are just as false as extreme "stingy" schemes.

The answer - for me, anyway - is to accumulate wealth over time, a little every day.  And one way to do this is to cut back on spending.  In fact, it is the only way to do this.  Saving $5 a day might not seem like much, and it isn't hard to do.  Just drink the coffee in the break room (which is free) instead of going to Starbucks with your brain-dead friends.  Just buy a cheap phone instead of an Apple one.  Just buy store brand rather than national brand (they are often made in the same factory).  Buy a used car instead of leasing a brand-new one.  A few dollars here, and there, and it adds up.  And you have to cut spending in order to save.

As I noted before, the worst thing to do (and we all do it) is to pledge an inordinate amount of money to savings (say, in a 401(k)) without cutting spending.  What ends up happening is you run out of money at the end of the pay period and put things on a credit card - which never gets paid off.  And speaking of which, most of these "brand-conscious" people (who are unconscious most of the time) are carrying a credit card balance and paying interest to a bank, every month.  And yea, they pledge allegiance to a brand-name credit card, too!  Most Americans have a credit-card crises in their lives at some point.  I did, more than once.  Dumb!

But of course, this advice falls on deaf ears.  I know when I was younger, I would have rejected it, too. "I'm not buying some crappy store brand!" I would have said, "I want the good stuff!" - never mind that the store brand is often better or at the worst the same damn thing.  I worried more about what other people thought of me - including people I didn't even know.  It is a human thing - we all want to project status, and the younger you are, I think this is more the case.  Watch two five-year-olds fight over a toy sometime, you'll see what I mean.  Gumme!  Mine!

Am I brand-loyal?  Yes, up to a point.  I look for products I have had good experiences with, at a reasonable price.  But I have learned, over time, that sometimes products change, and often prices go up when a product becomes popular.  Years ago, Mark and I shared a bottle of "Toasted Head" Chardonnay and we liked it.  So we bought it pretty regularly for a few years.  But as it got more popular, the price went up - from $7 a bottle to nearly $20.  And maybe my tastes changed, or maybe they changed the product to seek a greater market share, but it seemed to be sweeter over time.   We moved on to other things.  Funny thing, it seems to have re-appeared on the market again, at a lower price.

I used to love Japanese cars, but they have changed over time - becoming more like their American counterparts, and that is not a good thing.  Maybe this increased their market share among Buick buyers in the midwest, but for folks who waned a Japanese car, it was something less.  And BMWs?  As the ultimate driving machine, I think they peaked in 1992 with the last iteration of the E30 M3.  Today, they are just overwrought, complex, expensive cars sold to people craving status - people who often don't even know how to drive.

Brands have their uses, but increasingly, I think, they are less and less useful, particularly as people buy brands just to have the brand - the status.  If you can look beyond that - look beyond the herd mentality, you can get ahead in life.  Act rationally in an irrational world.  The center of the herd is a safe place to be, but the grass is all trampled down and pooped upon.  And brand-loyalty is the ultimate pooped-on grass.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Is EZ-PASS Accurate? Hard to Tell!

In the future, you may be forced to use EZ-PASS or other electronic toll collecting device.  Are these all that accurate?

Toll "booths" are going away, as I noted before, twice.  They were expensive to operate and maintain and dangerous.  Every year, some jerk would plow into a toll booth at 70 MPH and kill some poor toll worker.  So electronic solutions had to be found.  The two that seem to be most popular are electronic transponders (EZ-PASS or SUNPASS or the like) or Toll-by-Plate.  Both have their issues.

A recent article online mourns the loss of revenue from un-tolled cars.  Only 93% of tolls are being collected by Toll-by-Plate, which sounds alarming, until you realize the cost of all those government employees who are toll-takers - some at every exit, on some highway systems.  7% "leakage" is probably far less than the labor cost.   And oddly enough, little of this loss is due to intentional blocking of license plates (e.g., tinted plate covers, etc.) but due to things like luggage and bike rakes obscuring the license.

But the other side of the coin has yet to be explored.  Are we being accurately charged for these tolls?  Because if you have an EZ-PASS you know what I am getting at - the billing is opaque as all get-out.  To being with, the tolls listed on the site are in codes - brief abbreviations for the name of the toll collecting terminal, which can be hard to figure out.  Go from one end of the NYS Thruway to the other, and you may ring up over $100 in tolls, particularly towing a trailer.  Worse yet, the tolls are not charged all at once, but some may appear days or weeks later, on your account.  It gets confusing, and since many toll stations are in the middle of nowhere (and you whiz by them at 65 MPH) you have no way of keeping track of what toll was collected where and for what.  It's not like they are labeled or anything.

So you get a report like this, which is hard to parse:

LEE - WES...
Lane 02
09:48 -$0.90 $5.88

What is this toll for? And where?  What is disturbing is that the toll appears yesterday on my account, but as it indicates, I was in Massachusetts last week, which I was (checks credit card receipts) but of course, who keeps track of these things?  I have to trust them that their accounting is accurate, as I have no way of determining otherwise.

I wonder what would happen if someone made a fake license plate with my number on it (or someone else's) and drove through these toll stations.  You could really mess someone up, if you went on Reddit and brigaded this - hundreds, nay thousands of people all going through the toll stations with the same plate number.  Of course, that would be illegal, but as the Pennsylvania story points out, getting caught is awfully hard to do.

But at least with toll-by-plate, you get a photo of the car in the mail, along with a bill for your toll - a hefty bill, too.  There are discounts for using EZ-PASS or SUNPASS or other electronic toll devices, so it makes sense to get one, even if some of them (such as Ohio EZ-PASS) charge a 75 cent per month "maintenance fee" even if you don't use it.

And if you have more than one pass - watch out!  In parts of Florida, they take both EZ-PASS and SUNPASS and if you have both transponders on your windshield, guess what?  Yea, you get charged twice (I called to check on this).  So when I am in Florida, I put my EZ-PASS in a metal box, just to be sure.  Sadly, the SUNPASS is a sticker with a chip and cannot be easily removed like the EZ-PASS (which is a plastic box with velcro attaching it to the windshield).

These tolls are not an insignificant sum, either.  Granted, we are towing a trailer, so we get dinged with "two extra axles" and charged the same as some commercial users.  But like everything else in life these days, it seems there is a bit of sticker shock - it costs as much in tolls to traverse some roads as you'd use in gas - maybe more, if you have a Prius or electric car.  The days of tossing a quarter in the basket as you slowly drove by are gone - tolls are in the dollars now, and there seem to be plenty more of them.

Of course, some have pointed out this may lead to a situation of haves and have-nots - a dystopian future where only those with automated cars and automated toll devices can run on high-speed expressways.  The poor will have to muddle along at low speed on local roads, always stuck in traffic, or a series of stoplights.  Or, they risk tickets or arrest by trying to sneak onto toll roads, with obvious consequences, particularly if they are driving a car in a road restricted to automated Teslas.

Perhaps that won't happen - we'll create some sort of toll subsidy, just as the "Obamaphone" was created during the Reagan administration because people were dying for lack of basic 911 phone service.  Maybe there will be a "Bidentoll" (because Republicans can never admit to passing such laws - even if they are popular with the people) for the poor to use to access the superhighways of the future.  Maybe.

Already there are some "private" toll roads in America - although technically, this is nothing new - it goes back to the founding of our country.  Back in the day, for example, near my hometown was a "corduroy" road, made of logs placed on the ground.  It was a bumpy ride to be sure, and needed constant maintenance, but in an era of foot-deep mud roads, it was a big improvement.  And yes, they were privately owned and you had to pay a toll.  And yes, people tried to cheat the toll-taker by cutting into the road after the toll house (no cookies for you!).

But a funny thing happened.  The corduroy roads went away with time - as well as many private"turn-pikes" of the 19th Century - killed off by the canals and railroads.  How odd, because the railroads would later kill off the canals, and the car would later kill off the railroads - at least for passenger traffic.  It is possible that virtual meetings and telecommuting may kill off the car - or at least see a lot less traffic as a result - as I predicted before.  It took a pandemic for the rest of the world to see it. And maybe this is good news - but of course, no one wants to hear good news, do they?

Traffic during the pandemic was so light that a man set a coast-to-coast speed record in a rented Mustang - of 26 hours.   Thank God for unlimited mileage! He averaged 108 miles per hour.  Average - which means he was going much faster than that, most of the time.  But with no traffic - thanks to the pandemic - he flew though what were formerly congested cities and towns.  It makes me wonder if my prediction of a "Beltway Museum" may indeed come true - as traffic shrinks and we all stay at home "cocooning" the need for superhighways may diminish.  Only local truckers will be using them.  That and Amazon and Grubhub delivery vehicles.

Talk about dystopia!  It may have already arrived.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Another Day, Another Tot Mom....

People channel their energies into non-productive and even destructive pastimes.

A reader writes, in response to my posting about anger politics, as to whether there is a better way of channeling that energy.  That was sort of the point of the posting.  The successful people in this world don't get upset by the daily news or politics - they make the daily news and they make the politics.  They focus on their own game, and not on the fru-fru window dressing that distracts small children and cats.

Disconnecting from the 24/7 news cycle is a good way of doing this.  Nothing on the television, other than a tornado alert (and you get those on your phone) is so important that you have to watch it right this very minute.  In fact, you are better off reading about "current events" ten years from now, in a history book, where time puts things in perspective.

I mentioned before how appalled I was that the local bank set up a television in the lobby so the tellers could follow the "Tot Mom" trial on a minute-by-minute basis.  It was almost comical, how these 30-something ladies were so engrossed by it - to the point where they were miscounting the money.  "Well, thanks, but I cashed a check for $100, not $1000!"  Maybe they harbored some fantasy about murdering their own children, I don't know.

I intentionally tried not to find out about the trial as I felt I was being baited.  Some white-trash tragedy played out in a trailer park somewhere, no doubt.  My participation and opinion on the matter was irrelevant, unless I was on the jury - and I wasn't on the jury.  But these ladies at the bank!  They had detailed opinions about forensic evidence.  They should have become pathologists instead of bank tellers!

What got me started on this was I clicked on the MSN news site - always a mistake.  I used to use the MSN app, but I found it seemed to concentrate on sensationalized news.  So I switched to "AP" which stands for "Always Palestinians" - the have a very, very slight anti-Israel bias.   If the Palestinians fire 4,000 rockets into Israel, it is the justified response to the Israeli police trying to quell a riot near a holy site.  But if Israel goes after the rocket-launchers, well, they are a bunch of baby-killers.  I think the truth lies somewhere in between.  But that's the news business for you - it is biased and always has been, so don't believe this nonsense about how we are polarized "today" and politics "today" are worse than in the past.  It ain't so.

One nice thing about AP, though, they don't feel the need to "update" constantly, when there is no real news to report.  Many other news sites have lots of "news" and it changes minute-by-minute.  I can log onto AP and not see anything new, even though I haven't checked it in a couple of days.  Those people are really out of it at AP!

But getting back to MSN, I was kind of appalled by their site - lots of sensationalist news, and many, many articles about a young blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, who was "missing" and now her fiancee has gone missing, too - and they suspect foul play.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in the United States, a dozen prostitutes have been found dead (it happens every day, in every city in the county) and no one gives a shit because they are not blond-haired and blue-eyed and don't have good head-shots for the evening news.

This is not to say I don't care about this poor lady, who was likely murdered and dumped in the Everglades.  But her plight is no different than the dead hookers washing up on the beach in Long Island, other than we don't give a fuck about dead hookers.  Funny thing, that - the dead hookers need better P.R. - tearful backstories and nice photos, preferably in cap-and-gown.  Maybe then, we'd give a shit.  Oh, wait, they're mostly minorities, so we won't.

This isn't the first or the last time the media will go after this bone.  A few years back there was some guy who dumped his wife in the San Francisco bay, and everyone followed that "Tot Mom Trial" with bated breath.  Did he do it or didn't he?  Stay tuned for more courtroom tee-vee!  Then there was the guy who put his wife in an oil drum or something.  Same shit, different day - attractive, youngish people, white, blonde, and that can't happen to one of us, can it?

Someone, somewhere, in the news media made a conscious decision to promote these cases and hype them.  They know they are good for ratings, and what "makes the news" is what is good for ratings.  So no dead hookers (sorry girls!) but lots of dead white middle-class clean-cut kids.  So there are a dozen articles on the MSN page, breathlessly updated us on the latest status of the case of one missing person in a nation of 330 million people, where about 50 people per day are murdered.  Yet this one story will dominate the news cycle for weeks.  They will cover the discovery of the body, the arrest of the perpetrator, the pre-trial hearings, and of course, the trial (which will go on for weeks, if not months) and the eventual acquittal - which will occur only because the media makes such a circus of the whole thing.

In that time period, hundreds, if not thousands, of other people will be killed and no one will care.  Why this case?  Why this woman?  Why is is always a woman?  A blond, attractive woman?  Perhaps the core audience (women) identify with the victim or suspect and thus are drawn into it.  Who knows?  All the networks know is Nielsen ratings, and the ratings on blond middle-class women being killed are boffo.

And yes, that is sick, sick, sick.

But that's not the point of this posting.  The media has always been and will always be, like a small child with a toy drum.  Bang! Bang! Bang!  Look at me!  I want attention!  And be sure to watch these 20 SUV commercials! Doncha like "sitting up high?"

The problem isn't the media, it is the brain-dead bank clerks who breathlessly watch this shit and then wonder why their own lives are a personal trainwreck.   They can never seem to get ahead in life.  "No time!" they argue, they are "so busy!"  Too busy to balance the checkbook or do their own laundry or wash the dishes or make their own food. They blow four hours a day following the latest "Tot Mom" controversy and then end up sending out for Pizza.

It isn't the fault of the media, it is the fault of us - the people who follow this crap.  And if it isn't a "Tot Mom" debacle, it could be something else - sports, or a video game, or some other time-waster (blog writing) that the people who pull the levers of our society don't bother to waste their time on.

I remember watching an interview with Katie Couric or some other morning show personality and they were asking them what their day was like.  They have to get up at 4AM, get ready, drive (or be driven) into the city, in makeup by 6, briefed on the day's stories, and into the studio by 8.   It is an exhausting schedule, but of course, they are paid millions a year to do it.  The interviewer asked, "What is your favorite television show" and the morning newshead let slip a boner: "With my busy schedule, I don't have much time to watch television..." Suddenly there are frantic hand-waving motions from the control booth.  Don't let the plebes know you don't watch tee-vee!  They might get ideas!

Too late.  I got ideas.  I turned off the set and thought to myself, the people who make television don't waste their time watching television.  Why am I wasting my time this way?  Being "plugged in" whether it is television or a smart phone - you waste hours every day doing nothing of consequence.  The very wealthy and successful people aren't watching the news, they are making it.  They don't have time for time-wasting fru-fru in their lives.  They don't obsess about politics, they make politics.

And that is the difference.  We plebes have a lot of energy and time on our hands, so we have stupid hobbies which are little more than time-killers.  We build model airplanes - or real ones.  The successful people build airplane companies.  Takes about the same amount of time, too.  We get distracted with trivia and nonsense. Old Joe can tell you all the stats about every quaterback in the NFL and he religiously watches every single game.  The guy who owns the sports team or the million-dollar quarterback has better things to do with his time - or if he does do those things, at least they are profitable to him.

To some extent, this is inevitable.  There has to be an audience - we can't all be stars - and there is nothing wrong with being a plebe - in fact, you should embrace it.  Embrace your mediocrity and be happy about it.  We all can't be chiefs or superstars - someone has to mop the floors.

The surefire way to unhappiness, however, is to cry out that you should be a superstar, by dint of your watching all the Tot Mom trials or obsessing about politics.  The rabid political types are certain that "if only" their party would win, the world would turn into shangri-la and they would become fabulously rich.  It never works out that way.  You can't watch your way to success.  You can only squander your time.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

People Are Their Own Worst Enemies...


I met a man recently, whose only enemy was himself...

People are their own worst enemy, they say.  And it is true - we all do self-destructive things.  The key, I think, is to do fewer of them.

I ran into a guy who was on a one-way ticket to a personal hell.  He was at least 150 pounds overweight - his belly "dunlopped" over his belt, and I am sure he hasn't seen his own penis in years - at least without a mirror and without holding his belly flap up.  Yea, I know, gross - and that kind of limits your romantic opportunities.  And he was a nice guy, too!

The excess weight was wearing on his knees, as you might expect, so he was wearing a knee brace.  He told me he was out walking - 22,000 steps! - and I mentioned that maybe if he was having knee problems, that wasn't a swell idea, until he lost some weight.  But never-mind, he's on Oxycontin, so he's feeling no pain as he walks.  The damage to his knee joints is still occurring, he just isn't feeling it.  And when he comes down from the Oxy, the pain will be unbearable, so he will take more Oxy.  You know the end game on this - it is often fatal.

I suggested maybe he try alternatives, like CBD oil (and a diet, for chrissakes!) but he would have none of that.  "I am against drug use," he said, without irony. Oxycontin wasn't a "drug" but a prescription.  So it's OK because its from a doctor who went to a big-pharma convention in the Bahamas, all-expenses-paid by the Sackler family.

Of course, the perils of Oxycontin and other opiates are well-known today.  Well, they were well-known 50 years ago, but for some reason (a money reason) people decided that Heroin was no longer addictive if precribed.  Actually, the "science" on this is frightening.  I read an article about this once - how a letter to a science journnal that suggested that the addictive qualities of opiates were overstated and that doctors should not be "afraid" to prescribe them, was, in turn, cited as "authority" in dozens of subsequent articles (which in turn cited each other) and created this new era of opiate addiction, which put billions into the pockets of some pharamceutial companies (and one family in particular).

"I believe the science" people say - often people without science degrees.   So yea, I get it that maybe being skeptical of the medical industry isn't a totally unreasonable thing.  And that is the danger of things like ads for prescription drugs and the opiate epidemic - it degrades our entire faith in science and medicine.  Hey, if a doctor is willing to turn you into a junkie so he can pocket a few bucks, who is to say vaccines don't cause autism?   I don't believe the latter, of course, but I can see where it might come from.

You have to be your own patient-advocate, and not take anything a "doctor" says as gospel.  Get a second opinion.  Think about things.  I had a doctor tell me that only a vegan diet made sense - and he charged me $5000 for an unnecessary heart procedure.  But he won an award for it - after all, he was the first doctor to ever find a heart in a lawyer!  Nobel Prize!   I kid.  He's a good doctor, but he has his own wacky opinions about veganism and cheese.  Funny thing, though, those French love their runny cheeses, and yet their incidence of heart attacks is lower than ours.  They also live better.

But I digress.

It was distressing to see this guy driving his car off a cliff.  It isn't hard to predict how his life will turn out - and he's only in his mid-40's.   The oxy thing will take over - it almost always does - as the pain gets worse and worse.  His "cure" of walking 20,000 steps a day will only make things worse.  He will seek solace from the depression by eating more bad food.  Eventually, he will be out of work more and more for medical problems, which may lead to him losing his job and going on disability.  I see a little electric scooter in his future.

That is, of course, if he doesn't die of an opiate overdose first.  What ends up happening in many cases, is that these folks build up a tolerance to the drug and want more and more.  The fellow admitted he was "flying" on Oxy at the time and "in outer space" and "feeling no pain" and it is a nice feeling, too.  That's why it is so addictive.  You want to re-live that feeling, again and again.  So he goes back to the doctor for more pills and an increased dosage, until the doctor cuts him off.   So he seeks out a second doctor, or a third.  No shortage there - our small town has a half-dozen "pain management clinics" and "sports medicine practices" - even though there are few sportsmen in our area.   If you thought the opiate epidemic was over, think again.

But eventually, they succumb to the illegal side of the street.  The Chinese and our friends in Afghanistan are pumping fentanyl and heroin on to the streets of the USA.  Eventually, the man I met will find someone selling this shit.  It killed Prince.  It killed that kid from Glee.  It can kill anyone.

So what to do?  Do I try to "rescue" this fellow from himself?  Hell no.  Like I said, when I suggested CBD oil (which to my knowledge has yet to kill anyone) he dismissed it as being a "drug" and he was against drugs.  Where are you going to go with that?  You are just shouting against the wind.  Like with Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to let them find their own rock-bottom.

And besides, what about our own situation?  Are we in a position to preach?  I recently had a mild diverticulitis attack, after attending a party where we, well, overindulged.  I cut back on food and gave up drinking for a week and funny thing, I felt better.  Funny thing, too, once the pain went away, I was "high as a kite" on my own endorphins, which is why I understand how Oxy could be so addictive.  You are indeed "flying high" and feel invincible and go back to the same bad behaviors yet again, learning nothing in the process.  We are all our own worst enemy.

Maybe that's the only thing we can take away from all of this. Maybe this can serve as an instructional lesson for us. We can examine our own behaviors and see where we, too, might be self-destructive. And maybe we can try to change these behaviors before they destroy us completely.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Anger Politics - Why?

Being angry all the time only serves to blind you to reality.  Anger politics favors the powers-that-be, at your expense.  Left or Right, it doesn't matter, they just want you to get riled up.

In the campground across the field is an older motorhome flying a Trump flag.  People stop by on occasion - perhaps they are planning another insurrection.  One fellow who drove in had a sticker that said, "We the People... are pissed off!" which I thought was odd, as he was driving a brand-new pickup truck, and was clearly well fed.  What was he pissed off about again?

It is no different than the folks in Ithaca, New York, who have bumper stickers saying, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention!"  Mark and I once joked that when Ithacans buy their new Subarus, the dealer will carefully remove the bumper-stickers from their trade-in and re-apply them to the new car, for a small fee.  Or perhaps they could offer "sticker packages" for various political stripes, to pre-apply to the car before delivery.  Left-wing or Right-wing, it doesn't matter, you just need to plaster the back of the vehicle with crazy.  It could be a decent business model - and it's yours, for free!

But make no mistake about it, anger politics either attracts crazy people, or it makes normal people go crazy.  Consider this fellow - the Bradley Manning of the far-right!  Wanted to blow up a mosque because it was an affront to his Christian beliefs, but at the same time, wants a sex-change operation.  Now he will spend 50 years in a women's prison.  Time to transition to Lesbian!

Democrats have their out outrage sideshow as well.  Best to ignore that, too!

So why do both parties do this?  Why do they cultivate outrage and what are the consequences of this?  Well, the latter, we have seen - everything from attacks on the Capitol, to someone shooting up a Congressional softball game.  People actually buy into this nonsense, and fail to realize it is window-dressing.

But the why is money.  Every day, in my inbox or SPAM box (because I mark 'em!) are pleas from various Democratic politicians.  I'm on a mailing list - and not by choice.  Each e-mail is designed to alarm me - and of course ask for money.  Trump will be reinstated unless I donate $10 by midnight tonight!  The election of 2022 will be lost unless I donate NOW!  Never mind the election is a year off.  We need the money!  And some of these organizations have odd-sounding names and I'm not sure if they are even legit.

But even the legit ones go into survival mode, and you don't survive and prosper unless you can panic your supporters.  It is the classic page from the NRA playbook - "The Gubment is coming for your guns!  Unless you send in money NOW, your rifle will be confiscated by Nancy Pelosi!"  And people believe that.  Right or Left, it doesn't matter, but the right lately has been honing their techniques pretty well, and it was the Right who came up with the "Prayer in School" and "Right to Life" and "Coming for your Guns" messages that resonated with the "low-information" voters so well - something to get people not merely to vote, but to get outraged - all while ignoring real issues and real policies that often work against their own interests.

Organizations go into self-preservation mode, and just as the NRA folks started wallowing in the cash (as the United Way people and the NPR people did before them) many liberal causes are finding out that the leaders of a PAC or organizing group can take home six or seven-figure salaries with not a lot of effort.  If you can get a million people to send you ten dollars, that's the trick.  Take a little from a lot, and no one will notice.

But anger politics doesn't just affect your pocketbook through donations and yard signs - indeed, this may be a trivial amount of money for some folks - although others will pour thousands of dollars they can ill-afford to lose, at political causes or evangelical churches, which to some extent, is a redundant statement these days.

Yes, churches too, have found that alarmist messages puts butts in the pews.  When I was a kid, you went to church and the minister told you to be nice to people, because Jesus said so.  Then he would launch into a boring sermon that put half the congregation to sleep.  Not surprisingly, attendance in the 1970's started to taper off.  But a new breed of "evangelical" churches with funny names came into being.  They preached that the world was going to hell - or would end soon - and you'd better do something about it, buddy!  Even conventional churches jumped on the bandwagon.  A friend of mine told me she voted for Trump because her (Catholic) Priest said to do so - during a church service!  Politics and religion are one and the same, today.  And again, the sense of urgency is driven home.

It is,of course, a classic marketing technique.  You are selling cars and a "prospect" seems interested in your De-Luxe 2022 Hupmobile.  But he dithers.  Maybe he should think about it.  "Well, you know," you say, "There was a fellow in here the other day excited about buying this very car, and they didn't make many in chartreuse!   If you don't buy today, I can't promise the car will be here tomorrow.  And I can't promise when we'll get another one in here just like it - if ever!"   Sale closed!

So these e-mails I get, don't talk about 2022 like it is a year or more away, they talk about it in terms of midnight tonight.  They compare their fundraising goals with that of Republicans,or recent poll numbers - as if those were the elections, not what happens at the polls (something both parties seem to conveniently forget, from time to time).

But getting back to personal economics, how does this harm the individual, other than the cash spent on Trump signs or "Coexist" bumper stickers?   Well, I think there are several ways is harms people.  First, it degrades one's mental health.  As I have noted before, mental hygiene is like personal hygiene - you have to work at it.  When you find yourself going "down the rabbit hole" (and we all know when it is happening, too - don't deny it) one has to pull back and think where this is going.  We all get upset by politics or stupid human behavior.  The guy in the car ahead of you cuts you off, and you wish you had a missile launcher mounted under the hood, so you could blow his car to smithereens and drive through the cloud of wreckage.  But that's just a childish revenge fantasy,not a practical solution to the rough edges of daily living.

When people buy into these extreme political views, they start to lose their minds.  And this means losing friends, family members, spouses, jobs, and even careers.  Some of the people arrested in the January 6th insurrection - including the "Qanon Shaman" claim they have had a road-to-Damascus experience and now realize they have been snookered.  Whether they are sincere or not, I do not know.  I am sure some are - ordinary people who now realize they have lost their jobs (some of them actually cops, too!) and careers as a result.  No one will ever hire them - or it will be hard to find a job - when "insurrectionist" is on their resume.  They've destroyed their lives, and for what?  So some Jackass at Mar-A-Lago can call them a "political prisoner."

But the same is true for leftists.  We saw in the 1960's, young people threw their lives away for "SDS" - to end a war they never were in danger of fighting in. They became criminals - some killed people - some spent decades in jail - some their entire lives.  And for what?  It isn't like anything they did accomplished anything.  By the way, notice how the link above include a pop-up window exhorting you to donate $10 to the cause....

People get caught up in these political "causes" and damage their own lives.  I know in my own family, this was true.  My elder siblings bought into this idea that "materialism" (not being poor and destitute) was somehow bad, and thus rejected advancement and success.  My brother lived in an unheated barn in Vermont for a decade, following the orders of a sketchy "Guru" (who even looked like Manson) instead of advancing his own career.  It wasn't until I was in law school that he decided, two decades later, to go back to college and get an advanced degree.  My poor (in every sense of the word) sister renounced materialism and married a man who could barely provide for himself, much less a family.  But that was better than marrying some bourgeoisie executive who would have taken her to the Opera.  Too late in life, she realized the error.  But you don't get a do-over in life.

Myself, I derailed my own career with 10 years of drug use.  It was only my hard work and strong personality that saved me - as well as going to work for General Motors at age 18 - and realizing that not being poor and wanting wasn't something evil, but in fact, quite the opposite.   It took me a long time to realize that pledging your life to "causes" was stupid and something that only losers in society (usually middle-class losers, too) do.  The revolutionaries in any society don't come from the lower classes - they are the failed sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes.

And too late, they discover that their efforts for the "lost cause" were futile.  Ask Trotsky about that.  The revolution didn't quite turn out the way he thought it would, and he went from being a hero of the people to an enemy of the State.  And speaking of "lost causes" - how many dirt-poor Southern sharecroppers lost everything - including their lives - fighting for an unjust cause that was not even their own?  The vast majority of soldiers in the Confederacy didn't own slaves and never would have.  Their officers, of course, did.  These poor dirt-farmers gave their lives to support an economic system that was exploiting them, as well as the slaves.  It made no sense, but you can get people to do anything in the name of  "patriotism".

As we see today....

Thursday, September 16, 2021


Slide-outs are all the rage, and in fact, it is hard to find a camper without them.  Are they worthwhile?

I recounted before how a friend of ours had a "paid-for" RV motorhome, but when they went to the "Motorcoach Resort" they were mocked by a neighbor - someone they didn't even know and would never see again - for not having a slide-out on their camper.  Duly shamed, they went to the nearest RV dealer to trade-in their "old" camper for a de-luxe model, which was repossessed a year later, when they couldn't make the payments.

There was a time, when slide-outs first became widely popular, where you could buy a camper without a slideout, for cheap, as everyone "had to have" a slideout, and in many cases, it was a matter of "me too!" engineering - adding a feature for the sake of having a feature.  And sometimes, it was ludicrous.

For example, we saw an 18-foot travel trailer (which is pretty small) with a slide-out that went out one foot Why not simply make it a 19-foot travel trailer?  Same amount of room, and a lot cheaper to make and sell - and a lot fewer hassles down the road.

Well, OK, that's a small, low-end unit. The large bus motorhomes and 40' fifth wheels with four slides - that makes sense, right?  Well, maybe.  To begin with, such units are already huge, so there is already a lot of room.  And in many cases, these are the coaches that retired couples use, so there are only two inhabitants in these monster rigs.  And the room?  It is not very useful space.  We were in one Fleetwood coach (before the crash in 2008) and with the slide-outs out, there was a ton of interior room, suitable for ballroom dancing and not much else.  I mean, room is nice, but just empty space?  Is that worth the cost and hassle?

The other problem is with the slide-outs in, there often isn't any room at all.  Dinettes and couches on the slide-outs are now in the middle of the room, and the walls of the slide-out block access to the back of the coach.  In some models, you cannot reach the bathroom without sliding out at least one slideout.  Handy when traveling!

But beyond that is the design and quality. I addressed the quality issue before in another posting.  But it is the fundamental design which is the problem.  The slideout, by nature, is a box that slides out, and relies on a seal to keep water out of the coach.  The top of the slide-out is flat, so the water doesn't run off naturally - the seal has to keep it out.  And this is a sliding seal, not a permanent seal, so over time, it can leak - or even leak from the get-go.

Your car windows have a seal to keep out water, right?  So why do those work so well?  Well, the answer is, they don't and they are not designed to make a perfect seal, as auto manufacturers realized a long time ago that relying on a sliding seal to seal 100% of the time is foolish.  Instead, a small amount of leakage is expected, and water runs into the door and out the bottom through "weep holes" - which need to be kept clear of pine needles and detritus, lest the door fill up with water during a rainstorm.  You should check this. 

Sunroofs are the same way.  Clueless owners claim "the seal is leaking!" but they are designed to leak, at least a bit.  The water is channeled away through channels in the side of the opening, through hoses, and down the A- and B- pillars and out the bottom of the car.  Again, if these channels are clogged, water backs up and suddenly there is a "leak" near the headliner.  Find those drain tube outlets on your car if you have a sunroof, and make sure they stay clear.  I covered this before, by the way.

So, slideouts - how do they handle water?  The designers assume the seals will always seal, and maybe they will at the factory.  But wear over time, UV light and other forms of degradation, plus the rocking and rolling motion of the trailer going down the road (which flexes even the most expensive coaches) will result in slight gaps and leaks, over time.

The fix?  A classic patch that would make Microsoft proud!  They put little awnings over the slides to keep rain out - and it works, provided the rain always falls directly down at a 90 degree angle to the horizon.  Anything else, and the water lands on the top of the slide.  And the awnings sag over time, so owners inflate a beach ball and put it under these awning-ettes to keep them from holding water.  This means, of course, you have to have a step-ladder lashed to the back of your rig, so you can access your beach-balls. Some fun! And super-convenient, too!

This doesn't even address the big problem - the slide mechanism itself. They are remarkably primitive and while some provide a manual crank backup, most newer ones do not.  So if the slide refuses to go in, you are stuck at your campsite until the "Mobile RV Repair" guy shows up.  Each campground brochure has paid advertisements from at least two or three Mobile RV Repair outfits.  It is a lucrative business!  And often the problem is something as simple as a blown fuse - but not a fuse in the fusebox, but rather hidden inline fuse or fusible link, buried behind the sofa or above the water tank or some other convenient place.

So why do people obsess about slides?  Well, to some extent, as I noted, you cannot find an RV without them.  No RV maker wants to lose a sale by not having a slide, so the "me-too-ism" effect strikes again.  This effect is noted in many other venues, such as computers or cars, where manufacturers feel the need to up the "features" (feature creep) so their product appears competitive on paper with their competition.  So they add a non-functional USB port, so they can claim the feature - expecting that few people will use a USB v.1.0 at a time when there were no USB products to plug into it.  Years later, though, people discover they paid extra for a non-functional feature.

If you make an RV with a slide - even a ridiculous slide like these 1-foot jobs - people who insist on having a slide are satisfied.  The non-slide or I-don't-give-a-damn people will also buy the same unit.  But the no-slide unit?  It has a niche market at this point.

There are, of course, some instances where a slide is helpful.  If you have a family of six and are buying a 40' "bunkhouse" model, you may need all that room for the family.  But in other instances, it is a matter of raising the level of complexity for no real gain.  For example, some modern rigs have slide-out bathrooms and slide-out kitchens.  Think about that for a second - such slideouts require flexible electric lines, plumbing lines, and sewer lines - not to mentions propane lines.  What could possibly go wrong with that?  What's more, think about what would go wrong if it went wrong.  Sewage on the ground, Propane leaks burning down your rig.  Nothing major, of course.

The other aspect of this is, modern RVs now tower over their predecessors, as manufacturers like to make full-width slides, so they mount the entire chassis above the tires to eliminate wheel wells entirely, so as to allow slides anywhere on the chassis.  So modern RVs are a lot more top-heavy than their predecessors, but then again, so are the tow vehicles - jacked-up pickup trucks that need a jacked-up 5th wheel trailer, just to clear the bed.

The full-length slides are particularly problematic.  Take a cardboard box and cut one entire side out of it.  Now place a book on the box and see what happens. Odds are, it will sag or collapse.   Now drive that box down a bumpy road at 70 mph and see what happens.

You might think all of this is carefully engineered and tested, but you'd be wrong.  I've visited more than one RV manufacturer, and the "Engineering" department comprises one or two guys and a drafting table (today, a CAD system).  Much of the engineering is provided by the component suppliers, who are not necessarily testing the final product. While your car may undergo millions of miles of testing and abuse at the manufacturer's proving grounds - and on the road in the real world - most RVs are made and then sold and you are the Beta-tester.  Real problems are often not discovered until years later, once the warranty has expired.

I related before how a friend of ours had a slide-out where the motor burned out.  They put to lounge chairs in the trailer and one leaned up against the slide-out switch.  "What's the humming noise?"  "What humming noise?  I don't hear it!"  "Well, don't you smell that electrical burning smell?"  Old people lose their senses and miss these things.  Yes, that was classic "user error" and they were fortunate - the slideout came with a crank so you could slide it in manually.  It wasn't hard to do, either - I did it for them on more than one occasion.

My brother-in-law bought a used "Titanium" fifth wheel - a monster of a thing and the pride of Canada.  Problem was, all the seals, such as they were, were shot.  The slideout was starting to settle on the frame, too, so even with new seals in place, you could see daylight with the slide-out slid in.  Not good.  And no way to fix it.

Of course, more expensive rigs have better quality slide-outs.  But you'd be surprised how even expensive rigs can fail - the very design is the problem.  When you rely on a sliding seal to maintain a perfect seal at all times, something bad is bound to happen.  For example, you camp under a tree, and leaves fall on top of the slide-out.  Or acorns, or a small twig.  Or God-knows-what.  You slide in the slide-out, and this detrius jams into the seal - which may let water in, tear the seal, or deform it.

So you get out your stepladder and broom and before you slide your slide-out in, and you climb up there and sweep off all the leaves and junk and remove your beach ball.  Again, convenient.  The idea that you can just care-free slide the thing in without checking is somewhat overstated.   And we see this all the time - people with elaborate 4-slide 5th wheels taking an hour or more to hook-up, because a half-hour is devoted to slide slavery.

Isn't there a better way to design slides?  Some way so the water runs off and the seal is not so critical?  Maybe a channel to capture water that gets by the seal and drain it off like a sunroof drain?   Maybe, maybe not.  One manufacturer I know of offers peaked slideouts, so the water will run off at least.  But the seal is still there, and wind blowing against the unit could force water past the seal, if it has any faults whatsoever.

It is just a basic Engineering principle that the more complicated you make any machine, the more possible modes of failure you introduce.  One reason I was a little hesitant to buy the King Ranch was that it had all these "toys" on it, and more modes of failure as a result.  We've already had two instances where the main screen failed to "boot" - which means no navigation, no radio, no HVAC controls. Fortunately, pulling the correct fuses (or disconnecting the battery) re-booted the screen.  And it hasn't happened since.  Hopefully it won't happen again.  But such is the nature of modern cars - they are more reliable than in the past, so we keep loading them up with more features to bring the reliability level back down.

From a personal perspective, there is a point to all of this. If you don't "need" to have a slide-out in your RV you may be in the catbird seat, as you will find that the prices of non-slide units are far lower (they cost less to make and are less in demand).  They also will provide you with one less thing to deal with while camping, and one less repair headache, or better yet, one less thing that can never really be repaired.