Sunday, January 31, 2021

Bubble Brigade

People are unhappy unless they can manipulate their environment - even in negative ways.

What does a Capitol rioter, a model airplane hobbyist, a venture capitalist, a graffiti tagger, and a Reddit brigader have in common?  At first it seems like nothing, but then you realize they are doing something to alter their environment, even in a negative way, to get that feedback they are starved for.

I mentioned learned helplessness before - many times, in fact.  If you are a monkey in a cage, and nothing you do changes your life for good or bad, and random shit just "happens" to you - food pellets or electric shocks randomly being applied - you quickly become depressed.   It seems that animals need to have a sense of control over their environment - at least to some extent.   We crave feedback from our surroundings - some sort of indication that something we've done makes a difference.

And I opined before this is why people have hobbies and why it is so rewarding to fix things on your own, or bake a cake or make a meal, or sew a dress or otherwise create.   On the other hand, depression is usually demarcated by a stack of dirty dishes in the sink and empty pizza boxes all over the living room floor.  Nothing makes a difference, so why bother trying?

So the bored teenager from a wealthy family in Fremont, California, buys some spray-paint with his Dad's credit card, and "tags" a brand-new freeway from end-to-end.   It is ugly and destructive and accomplishes nothing - and eventually he is caught and given a stern talking-to by the judge (because his Dad is wealthy) and the county spends tens of thousands of dollars in graffiti removal.

At first, it seems this is an irrational act - and it is.  But on the other hand, it is a predictable one, for a bored teen whose life is marked by leisure and utter lack of struggle.  His parents want him to "get good grades in school" and go to college and somehow be successful - but don't really provide much of a roadmap on how to do these things.  We are fortunate that he only spray-painted a bridge, rather than shoot up a school.

Lack of feedback causes people to act out.  Not much in his life seems like valid feedback, but this graffiti thing - he is seeing instant results!   What he really needs is a hobby - an extra-curricular activity that produces positive feedback that isn't as destructive.   And that is why, traditionally, we've had these activities for teenagers - like sports, or band, or Boy Scouts.  And sadly, these are all things that have fallen from favor these days, as kids stay home and play video games instead.

It is, perhaps, why marijuana smokers end up in trouble. You sit around and smoke pot and don't accomplish much - it is a stasis drug, as I noted before.   So there is no feedback from the greater world, and the user ends up getting into a situation with a neighbor or a boss at work, or whatever.  It is human nature.

The model airplane hobbyist finds that feedback in a way that is not damaging to the greater society.  He builds a plane and when it is done, has the feedback of accomplishment.  And not surprisingly, in model airplanes - or even in full-size "homebuilt" aircraft - many builders immediately start on their next plane, once the first one is finished.  Flying the plane is fun and all, but it is the building that gives them the tangible feedback with their hands.

The venture capitalist, of course, is putting this effect to work, literally.  By taking risks and making investments, he is creating wealth for himself, and sees an immediate and rewarding feedback from his efforts - or a reward after years of work.  And that is one problem with investing - the immediate gratification isn't always there.  As I noted before, many a young person (including myself) puts a few hundred or a few thousand into their 401(k) and then gets discouraged when it doesn't turn into a million dollars overnight - or even after 30 years of steady investing.   Delayed gratification takes intellect to understand, and most of us need more immediate feedback.

The Capitol rioters are a case in point.   Many became absolutely giddy when they broke into the Capitol.  It is unclear whether most of them were bent on little more than getting in and wandering around, perhaps engaging in petty vandalism or theft.   Maybe some were bent on murder and mayhem - one dead Capitol Police Officer and several wounded attest to that.   But it is interesting to me that most seemed almost euphoric when they broke in - hollering and laughing the whole time and not sure what to do next.  They were getting feeback, long denied by Donald Trump and Qanonsense.   The Q people had been (and still are) promising big things to come, and when they didn't happen, well, it's like that old joke, "How do you keep an idiot in suspense?"

So after years of teasing and promises - and nothing of consequence happening in their lives - here was an event that was a catharsis for them - feedback from the real world, even if it was negative feedback and damaging to society as a whole.   These rioters are now discovering that their actions have consequences, and while I think a lot of them will get a slap on the wrist, like our graffiti boy, others may see significant jail time, particularly for assaulting and killing the police.  But even the least culpable will find their employment choices limited in the future - even the My Pillow Guy isn't hiring.

So what does this have to do with Reddit Brigades?  Brigading is a technique whereby things can be up-voted (or "liked" or "retweeted" or whatever) on social media, so that a posting moves to a position of prominence not only on social media, but the Internet as a whole. In the run-up to the 2016 election, for example, people were promoting memes of Hillary with the tagline "Crook" or something of that sort.  People were exhorted to "upvote" the posting, so that the image of Hillary would appear on Google if you Googled the word "Crook" - and it worked, at least for a while.  Google's algorithms include scraping social media.

To the person participating in such a brigade, the feedback is enormous.   We altered the internets!  And that seems pretty cool.   Pointless, but cool.  Of course, professional brigaders use "sock puppet" accounts which are manned by 'bots (programs) to upvote postings, which in turn insures they are featured prominently on the social media site in question.   Social media has been more aggressive in deleting these "sock puppet" accounts, which is why right-wing commentators are complaining they are losing Twitter followers in the last few weeks - most of these "followers" were not actually real people, but sock-puppet bot accounts run by the Russian Internet Research Agency.

The latest example of this, of course, is how Brigaders on Reddit are pumping stock prices on selected stocks that are being short-sold by hedge funds.  Gamestop, AMC theaters, and Blackberry are just three prominent examples.  All are companies that were struggling with changes in technology and consumer habits before CoVid struck, and are now nearly dead-in-the-water after CoVid.

Unfortunately for movie theaters, people have fallen out of the habit of going over the last year or so, and it will be hard to get people to go back, particularly if they just bought a new 84" television.  Gamestop? (EPS -$4.25)  Why go to a store when you can order online?  And while Blackberry did own some Patents on software that is being used by a number of tech companies, Patents eventually expire and there is no hot new product in the pipeline for Blackberry.

So these companies are circling the drain and the short-sellers called it right - but now have lost their shirts - or at least a shirtsleeve or two - because clueless "retail investors" (read: chumps like you and me) have bid up these stocks.   How will this end?  Not well.   The guy who started this - and there has to be someone who started it - made out like a bandit, as he bought Gamestop for a few dollars a share (or even bought an option at a few dollars a share) and now is slowly selling off at the peak.  No doubt he has already made his initial investment back, several times over.

The little people who paid hundreds of dollars a share, however, will get screwed.  Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually - likely within the next few weeks.   These companies are just not worth that much money, and eventually you run out of chumps to buy the stock, or tulip bulbs, or overpriced condos in Ft. Lauderdale, or whatever.

It's funny, but I explained this situation to Mr. See, as he hasn't been following it, and his reaction was, "Oh, we've seen this happen before, haven't we?"   Because in our lifetime, we've survived a number of bubbles in the markets - in stocks and real estate.  We've survived them all, made money on some, lost on others, but never got hurt too badly, because we never bought into the bubble mentality and sold out when we saw bubbles going down.

But this need to manipulate your environment - the need for immediate feedback - explains why these bubbles occur and why the media hypes a stock whose price has already gone up or talks about a market tanking.   The news media never reports a stock going up steadily over a decade and cranking out dividends like clockwork because that is not an "event".   Sure, once in a while on a slow news day, they might do a story about "boring" dividend stocks, but no one clicks on that.

So the problem is human nature - how our brains are programmed.  We need feedback - we crave feedback.  Without it, we slowly go insane, or at least become very depressed.  Now think about 12 months of "lockdown" due to CoVid and you understand why it seems the world is going a little crazy.  People want to see a reaction, even if it is a negative one.  The Anti-Vaxxer "Karen" Mom doesn't mind when you challenge her beliefs, she is hoping you argue with her.  The same is true for the guy flying the Trump flag(s) from his pickup truck - he wants to go on the "Trump Train" and ride through town in a parade of like-minded people and hey, maybe end up on the evening news!

I mentioned before that on our little island, we once in a great while get some bikers.  They come here, pay $8 apiece to get over the bridge, ride around and then leave.   What's the point of having loud pipes on your Harley if you can't annoy the locals?   They ride around our largely deserted island and get bored very quickly.   Utter lack of feedback just kills them.

That is, perhaps why some folks say the best way to deal with annoying people is to ignore them.  And sometimes that works.  You can't argue with a Qanonsense person - they want you to argue with them so they can talk about all the "evidence" of election fraud (which is always talked about, but never produced).  Or, you can preserve your own sanity and just walk away from crazy people.

Of course, the problem with that approach is that while it makes your life easier, the Qanonsense person now becomes even more isolated and spends even more time on Qanonsense sites, and just gets crazier and crazier - and before long, they are storming the Capitol or accumulating bomb-making materials.

I am not sure what the answer is to that, but at some point, you have to look out for your own self, and not sacrifice your life to "save" others who don't want saving.   It is depressing to be around crazy, depressed, or drug-addled people (and often these folks are all three - the "trifecta" of crazy).   We've had friends who succumbed to hoarding disorder, and it was sad to watch.  It was even sadder to visit their hoarder house and see the nightmare in person.  We just had to walk away from it.  It's OK to take care of yourself - after all, who is going to rescue you?

So what's the point of all of this?  Well, on a personal level, we need to take this need for feedback and put it to good use - and not negative outcomes.  I think if we can realize when we are being destructive to ourselves and our communities, and turn that energy around, we are capable of great things.

This also means that people need work and "jobs" more than they need another CoVid "relief check" or extended unemployment.  Funny thing, but last time around - in 2008 - we extended unemployment benefits for a year, and "OWS" protesters camped out in parks and set fire to McDonald's.  Once the unemployment ran out, people went back to work and the protests dropped off.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps people just crave feedback, whether it is from work or from a riot.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Red Pill, Blue Pill

You have it backwards, my friend. Oh, do you have it backwards!

A reader writes that he is refreshed by my perspective in my previous posting in that I am embracing the "blue pill" philosophy. Unfortunately, I think he has it backwards.

In case you were late for school, the red pill / blue pill trope derives from the movie The Matrix, where you are given the choice of taking a red pill and seeing how the world really works, or taking the blue pill and going back to the superficial world we live in, where everything is a fantasy.  Bear in mind that The Matrix was an entertainment, not a documentary - the premise is laughable and the plot is full of holes.  It is a roller-coaster ride, cotton candy, and not meant to be taken seriously.

In online forms, this trope can take on an entirely different meaning. There is a "how to pick up women" forum (and of course, books for sale) that uses this analogy. The red pill people are the people who understand how to abuse women and manipulate their emotions in order to violate them sexually. The blue pill people are idiots who can't figure out what's going on and never get laid. Needless to say, the people who subscribe to the sort of nonsense are not only idiots, they're misogynist. Moreover they probably never get laid. It's funny, but as a gay man, I probably had more sex with women than they have. I'm not bragging or anything it's just the truth.  When you feel entitled to sex, you rarely get it.

What my reader gets wrong is the idea that embracing the red pill, or the reality of the world means embracing conspiracy theories.  It is like the annoying man I met who opened his mouth and told me his entire life history. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, but then he started expounding upon various conspiracy theories and told me what a rotten place the world was now it was filled with all sorts of horrible things. And not surprisingly, he was a chronic underachiever and was living with his mother.

If that's the red pill, you can have it. I guess that is the red pill experience - living in your mother's basement and going on the internet and exposing all these grand conspiracy theories. But how does that profit you personally?

The rest of us, the people who work at jobs and save money and invest in our 401(k) and become wealthy over time, we're the stupid dumb-ass "sheeple" as they call us, who just have nice houses and nice cars and money in the bank and can pay for things. Oh, and we make society work. We're not the ones shouting up the basement stairs for our mothers to make us another plate of chicken tendies, while they surf the net looking for more biting information to expose George Soros, once and for all.

It is hard for me to embrace these alternative realities.  Getting a degree in Engineering is about as red-pill as you can get.  You learn how the physical world works and how technology works.  And that is part of the problem right there - most people today are technologically ignorant and proud of their ignorance.   Cell phones are a mystery to them, so of course it "makes sense" to them that 5G causes Covid - I mean, they came out at the same time, right?   Sadly, when you are an Engineer, it isn't possible to indulge in such fantasies.  They won't let you.

Getting a law degree is even more red pill - you learn how our society works - because that's what laws are, the rules of the game of this thing we call civilization.  Tax law, for example, was a real revelation to me, and what started me thinking about my future and my "net worth" which at the time was zero.

This is not to say, however, that all Lawyers and Engineers are rational - think Rudy Giuliani.  Maybe he was rational at one time and then lost it - it happens.  Or an lawyer friend of mine who got caught up in a "tax protester/tax denial" scheme.  I mean, how can you pass the bar exam and believe that the tax laws are imaginary?  So it happens, even rational people go off the rails.  And these days it is happening a lot.

I think one reason why is that a lot of people can't make sense of their world, as it is changing rapidly - too rapidly for some.  I predicted a decade ago that many colleges would go bankrupt, and indeed, small, expensive, liberal arts colleges were struggling for the last decade, and many have gone out of business in response to the CoVid epidemic.  The problem is, being small, they have huge overheads and small endowments.  Tuition is expensive and a Liberal Arts degree doesn't take you very far in life.  It might be nice to have education-for-education's sake, but today, you do need some sort of marketable job skill.

In my parent's generation, you could get such a degree and get a job "in industry" starting in the mail room and "working your way up" to the top floor and corner office.  A college degree - any degree - meant you were smart and ambitious and would succeed.  Well, that was 1948, this is today.  And high school guidance counselors are giving out career advice that is well-past its sell-by date.  I suspect that quite a few college-age kids these days are re-thinking this advice, as they have read, for the last decade, the horror stories about student loans.  The kid signing a loan doc today for a worthless degree?  I don't feel sorry for him at all - this problem has been well-documented by now and there is no excuse to plead ignorance.

I suspect a lot of these conspiracy theory people are folks who feel cheated by the system.  They filled in all the boxes and checked-off everything on the list, and yet they are broke and living with their parents. They delve into conspiracy theories, which insures no one will hire them, as no one intentionally hires a mentally ill person - the liabilities are just too great.  This in turn, alienates them further from society.  The folks in the alt-right arrested at these various protests are often discovered to be unemployed or underemployed and living with their mothers. The fellow in Charlottesville, for example, or a recent one arrested today, who bore a pouch at the insurrection with the motto, "Mom thinks I'm special!"  She does indeed.

Lest you think I am picking on the far-right, the far-left (which is the same thing, really, they overlap) is made up of the same sort of people.  "Anarchy" and "Antifart" are just as ridiculous as Qanonsense.  Same shit, different day, and it would not surprise me if people from each group switched sides on occasion, which they do, as more than one "Bernie Bro" has turned into a Trumpian, without understanding what either side stands for.  And oddly enough, many Trump supporters today are asking, "where's my stimulus check?" not understanding what the words "Conservative" and "Republican" mean.

If the red pill / blue pill an analagy has any merit, it's entirely opposite of what our reader states. If you want to understand the truth of how the reality of how the world works, you have to confront reality. You have to realize that you're constantly being marketed to and manipulated by various commercial and political factions. The people selling you the Qanonsense conspiracy are not acting in your best interest, they're trying to manipulate you into acting into their best interests.

If the red pill is the path of truth and enlightenment, then it doesn't mean falling down into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Those are indeed the blue pill.

Act rationally in an irrational world. That has been sort of the mantra my blog. If you can see through the smoke and fog of the world, and the people who constantly try to deceive us, whether it is Vladimir Putin with his Internet Research Agency, or merely Procter & Gamble trying to sell you a new bar of soap, you can get ahead in the world. There are a countless number of people who want to manipulate you, toward their commercial or political ends. And it is not that they're necessarily evil people, it's just that they're acting their own best interests, not yours.

Vladimir Putin doesn't see himself as an evil person. Believe it or not, he believes himself to be someone trying to save Russia from encroachment by Western powers.  And he's willing to do anything it takes, including poisoning his opponents, to preserve his own power base and to preserve the status of his own country. And if you put yourself into his shoes, you probably do the same thing, if not similar things.  The fact that he is lining his own pockets in the process doesn't create any cognitive dissonance for him.

Yeah I know, it's shocking, human beings act in their own best interest and act in the best interests of their own survival.  People don't just lay down their lives so that you can have nice things.  The key is, of course, for you to act in your own best interests, not theirs.  The people "exploited" in this world by and large let themselves be exploited, whether it is signing a payday loan or a lease on a new Camaro.  Or falling down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories - which allow one man to get elected, so he can enact policies that certainly don't benefit you.  Turning your life over to someone else's politcal cause is just plain stupid - as these Capitol rioters are just now finding out.

The marketplace is a battlefield. I noted that a long time ago. You have to look out for yourself and you have to embrace reality.  And no, reality is not subjective like in the movie The Matrix, where there is a superficial shell of reality and then an underlying reality which is not apparent except to the enlightened few.   Reality is there, right in front of you, not on some weird website or youtube video.

Rather, reality is available for any of us to view, but few of us choose to view it - probably because it is boring, involves hard work, and personal responsibility. We all rather live in a fantasy land of consumerism, where all we care about is what next shiny bauble to buy, whether it's a new video gaming console, a giant television set, or latest smartphone. Or maybe the fanciest new SUV they're advertising on the giant television and the new smartphone.  The thing bootstraps itself.

Again, it's not that there's some evil intent on the part of these advertisers and marketers. Really, they're acting in their own best interests, much as Vladimir Putin is acting in the best interests of Russia – and of course his own private financial empire. You can choose to be a pawn in their game, or you can choose to do something different. It's all up to you.

(Jeff Bezos, Vlad Putin - same shit, different day, although Bezos hasn't poisoned any of his opponents, yet, mostly because he doesn't want to get caught, and likely because he doesn't need to.   By the way, using poison was considered, in ancient Rome, to be a woman's form of assassination.  No real man would use poison - he would stab you, and not in the back, either.  So we see what sort of coward Putin really is.)

But one thing there'ss absolutely no profit in whatsoever is believing in conspiracy theories. You can believe in Qanonsense or you can believe in some other conspiracy, but what does that do for your own bottom line?  Unless you are the one selling the conspiracy books, you don't make dollar one at it.  Have any of these Qanonsense followers people become wealthy or famous? The most famous of the Qanonsense people is probably the my pillow guy, and by embracing Qanonsense he's destroyed his own pillow empire. He claims that there is some sort of conspiracy against him, but the reality is the majority of us don't embrace these wacky conspiracy theories. Moreover, we don't want to support them by buying pillows from some guy who supports these theories. Sales of his pillows have dropped off the edge because  we don't want to buy them and that's not censorship. We can choose not to purchase things from crazy people. Too bad for him.

If he had taken the red pill, he would realize that the reality of the world is that people will buy anything that is advertised on infomercials, and that is the sole "secret" of his success, not any inherent superiority of his pillow.  If you keep your product value-neutral, people keep buying it. Walmart understands this. General Motors understands this. You don't want to politicize your product, or at least not politicize it too much.

For an individual, the same is true.  You become a Qanonsense believer, odds are, you'll find employment opportunities wither, and your popularity diminish.  Women by and large don't want to date a conspiracy theorist, unless they are one themselves.

If you look at reality the way it is, you realize that reality is actually pretty decent. The world is actually a pretty nice place, and one of the nicest places in the world is United States of America. We have it really well here it if you bothered to look. Compare existence in our country to that in any other country in the world, and most cases we come out ahead. And yet, there's some people willing to throw this all away for... I'm not sure exactly what. Some sort of abstract concept of "freedom" or something. They can't even articulate it themselves, other than they feel they're being exploited her downtrodden for some reason, as they text this idea to you from their smartphone while they wait in line at McDonald's for their supersize meal while their bloated SUV idles.  They are so oppressed!

It's hard to fathom, other than to think that they've taken the blue pill.   They've poisoned their own minds with conspiracy theories and other forms of derangement that made them believe the things are far worse than they are.  By going down this rabbit hole, they do make things worse for themselves. Their friends and neighbors and even family members become estranged from them because they've gone off the deep end. They lose their jobs and their spouses and their children in their pursuit of Qanonsense theories. And before long they're completely isolated and they wonder why the world is turned against them. But the world is not turned against they've turned themselves against the world.

I mentioned before that when you stack yourself out against the system, it only seems like the system is stacked against you. It's just a lot easier (and far more profitable) to go along with our society at least up to a point, and realize you can benefit greatly from interacting with other human beings. People want to see you succeed, whether you believe it or not. Hillary Clinton doesn't hate you or does she want to suck the blood out of your children. People want you to succeed only because when you succeed you pay your taxes and then the whole system works. When you fail, then the rest of us have to support you. And one sure way to fail is to embrace conspiracy theories and other oddball beliefs and end up in a mental institution - then the rest of us have to pay for your sustenance.

So just say no to nonsense and conspiracy theories and nutty beliefs. It's a one way trip to zero. There's really no upside to it. The Qanonsense people will never win, and even if they did, only for a brief period of time.  Recall that Nazi Germany existed for only a few short years before they are trounced by the rest of the world. And in the process they would end up destroying so much, and created so much hardship for everyone else. It's just absolute utter nonsense and there's no reason whatsoever for it. So just stop. Please.

The world is a beautiful place.  Let's not destroy it - over nothing.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Not Knowing

Belief is a comforting thing for people who are uncomfortable not knowing.

A reader writes that he liked my November 23rd posting about Belief and Stories and then linked to a podcast that is selling a book.  I am not sure if I am being trolled here or not.   The video in question has lots and lots of comments gushing about the author's book.  I get suspicious when that happens.

I get lots of e-mails from people asking me to write something about a particular topic - in addition to the pleas for "guest postings" and product endorsements. Maybe they have a paper due in class or something - or want content for their own site.  Most of what I have written has been reposted in shitblogs across India - text farms that hope to generate click revenue.

I could try to have them removed, but it is like playing whack-a-mole and Google wants a separate complaint form for each entry copied (and there are nearly 5,000 of them!).   Oh, well, on the plus side, if Google closes down my account for some reason, I can always find my content elsewhere.

But anyway, in that earlier posting, I noted:

Story-telling has a long history, as pre-historic (irony) people sat around the fire and an elder would keep them enthralled with his stories of derring-do and days gone by. Probably a good thing for him, too, otherwise the rest of the tribe would see him as a useless parasite and sacrifice him to the Gods.

So, sitting around the campfire, a boy asks the tribal shaman what the stars in the sky are made of.  The shaman has no way of knowing, of course, so he tells a story - maybe a story he heard when he was a boy from an elder shaman of that time.  And so belief is born.  No one sitting around the campfire understands what the stars mean, of course, but now they have a comforting label or story to categorize them with.

Belief is a way for people to understand things they cannot understand - to hang a "story" on to something and thus categorize it.  In a way, Science isn't much different.   In Science and Engineering, we build a theoretical model of something - often a mathematical model - and then perform experiments or tests to verify or dispute the model.  If the test data doesn't fit the model, we adjust the model or throw it out and start over.

So, for example, our understanding of the atom isn't based on what we can see inside it - indeed, our sense of sight is based on photons, and structures inside the atom are smaller than the wavelength of a photon. We make hypotheses as to how this structure works - based on previous hypotheses and experiments, and then run new experiments to verify or dispute that hypotheses.  But when you get down to it, these models or theories are, in a way, like the "stories" told around the campfire.

The difference is, of course, that Scientific theories are always in dispute and always being revised and improved.  Part and parcel of science is the idea that you will never know everything there is to know - that the "one theory of everything" will never be complete, that the "edge of the universe" will never be found, and that you can't count to infinity.  Science is always about telling a better and better story - but realizing the story is never finished.

Belief, on the other hand, is often telling the same story over and over again, even long after it is readily apparent the story is wrong.  The world is not flat, nor does it rest on the back of a celestial turtle.  And no, what month you were born in and the position of the planets doesn't affect your personality one iota. It goes without saying that what some guy said, years ago, who wore a sheet and wiped his ass with his hands, isn't the last word on anything.   Yet many people today believe the opposite.  The key word is believe.

But even belief can be revised, as I noted in that previous post. Christianity was a "reboot" of the Judaism franchise, which itself was a reboot of polytheism.  Islam was a "reboot" of Christianity, or a side-story, depending on your perspective. And even among Christians, there are many derivative beliefs - as many different brands of churches as there are brands of gasoline.  Belief is constantly being revised and re-tooled for a new generation.  And it goes without saying, people will kill each other at the drop of a hat over belief.

Which is another advantage of Science.  Since no one is every "right" in science, few have resorted to violence to enforce their theories on others.  On the other hand, people who are heavily invested in belief are usually quick to resort to violence against men of science - as history has shown, time and time again.

And perhaps that is why we see people who are invested in beliefs such as Qa-nonsense, willing to commit violence against politcal figures and attack our very government.

But there is another way of living.  For some, there is contentment in merely not knowing and not having to have explanations for everything in life. The afterlife? For me, it is enough to not know and realize that in a very short period of time (on a cosmic scale) I will find out, one way or another.  And I realize that other people who have lived about as long as I have (on a cosmic scale) don't have any particular insight that I don't. And no, long-ago stories that we are not allowed to contest or question seem to me to be highly suspect, particularly when the people pushing these stories are the first to resort to violence if you don't believe them.

The Kennedy assassination?  I am content to not know whether there is "another story" besides what the Warren Commission said.  Why?  Because it makes no freaking difference in my life and does not add to my happiness one way or another.  It certainly could detract, however, if I obsessed about it.   Are there aliens in Area 51?  I doubt it, but either way, I am not going to waste my life over it.

It is sad that other people chose a more difficult path.  A young man in Michigan just plead guilty to attempting to kidnap and murder the Governor.  He is facing 20 years in jail, at age 25.   Even if he was to get a shorter sentence, his life is basically ruined at this point - only with a lot of hard work and perseverance can he turn his life around, now that he has a felony record and a reputation as a crackpot. Such a waste - and all because he let belief run his life off the rails.

You see now why I say belief is evil?  Or at least it can be, if you let it.

There are so many things we don't know about or understand in this life and this universe.  You can go out seeking answers and never find them - or find the wrong answers, or find silly stories which may comfort you in times of trouble, but never fully answer your questions.

Or, you could just be content not knowing.

You Don't Need A Lot of Income To Live

Retiree income is very low - should we be alarmed about this?

A recent article online argues that the median household income of a retiree is a paltry $29,000 and we should be concerned about this.  And indeed, for many Americans, this may be a real concern, particularly if they are paying rent on an apartment or a mobile home lot, or if they have car payments or credit card debt.  And yes, I have known folks like this, right here on our island, and they ended up broke, trying to live on Social Security alone, with no savings.

But the article made me chuckle a little bit because $29,000 is my income in retirement and is one reason why I have been able to retire early.  Every January, for the last couple of years, I have taken $25,000 out of my IRA and put it into a money-market fund.  Every other month or so, I transfer $5000 into my checking account.  That, and the income from our condo (about $5000 a year) makes about thirty grand - in taxable income.

 "But wait a minute," you say, "You live in a half-million-dollar home on a resort island, and just bought a fancy pickup truck and a new RV!  How can you afford all that on thirty grand a year?"  And the answer is, we don't.  We spend another $10,000 in after-tax savings, which brings our spending up to $40,000 a year.  Still, that isn't a lot of money for the lifestyle we lead.

The key is, of course, we are no longer paying banks interest.  With no mortgage, no car payments, no credit card debt, no student loans, you don't need a lot of money to get by on a day-to-day basis.   We paid all that off, over the years, and yes it was a struggle and seemed impossible at age 30.  But time is an amazing thing, and if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish a lot of things over time.  That is the key, of course - time.  There are a lot of folks around these days who want it all, right now, without any effort on their part.  Hey, pay off my student loans!  Why can't I be, at age 30, as wealthy as my parents have become after they worked for 45 years?   Amazing that college teaches so little these days.

But of course, others are not in the situation we are in.  We have friends who have fat government pensions - pulling in more than a hundred grand a year, combined.  Sounds sweet, but they often have no real savings - maybe thirty grand in the bank, if that.  They have a mortgage and car payments well into their 70's and 80's.  In fact, they may die insolvent, leaving nothing to their children.  They have a good lifestyle - perhaps nicer than mine - but it is all premised on a steady cash-flow of income, and a mountain of debt that must be serviced.

They bought into the "debt is good" mentality, as the interest was "deductible" - so their accountant told them.  So why not get a mortgage at age 70 and then deduct the interest from that fat pension check?  It sort of makes sense.  Heck, you can even deduct the interest on a vacation home, which might include a boat or RV - if it has a kitchen and bath.  Of course, the problem with this scenario is that if you end up upside-down on these borrowed items, you may not have the cash to buy your way out, as has happened to friends of mine.  It gets ugly.

But there are others who are in a far worse boat - they approach retirement age with little or no money in the bank, huge debts to service, and little or no income.  That has to suck - and those are the folks that do have it bad - but often because of poor decision-making on their part.  These are the same folks who bought fancy cars, boats, motorcycles, or whatever, and then flung it in your face back in the day.  You quietly put money in your 401(k) while they saved nothing.   Kind of hard to feel sorry for them, but then again, they probably will end up getting some sort of bailout from the government.

But speaking of the government and bailouts, one place where "Living Stingy" really adds up is in terms of taxes.  The less your taxable income is, the lower your taxes are - seems like a simple thing, really.  When you are working, you have no choice about taxes - you get this big paycheck (we hope) and have a big tax bill.   You can take deductions, of course, and use tax credits you qualify for.  But you can't deduct your way to wealth, and one mistake I see a lot of people making is assuming that chasing tax deductions will make them wealthy.  If a $250,000 mortgage gives them a tax deduction, then a $500,000 mortgage is even better - right?   Problem is, you have to pay that money back, and larger, more expensive homes are more expensive to maintain.

It is like leasing a car (or truck) for your business. Yes, the lease payments might be deductible (provided the vehicle is used mostly for business).  But no, your business doesn't become more profitable if you lease two cars, or lease a more expensive car.  It still is an expense, you just don't have to pay income tax on it - which doesn't make it free.

But a lot of people fail to see this - they don't really understand how the tax system works, only what their accountant says.  A young friend of mine who was making six-figures and living in a "luxury apartment" decided to buy a condo - at the height of the real estate bubble - because "my accountant told me to do so".  Apparently the accountant made an offhand comment that the $2500 a month he was spending on a de-luxe high-rise apartment would be better spent on a mortgage on a house, as the interest would be deductible.   And that would be true, in most cases.  Sadly, my friend, taking this advice at its most superficial level, decided to go out and buy as much condo as he could afford, thinking that the more he spent, the more he saved.  Now you see why I don't give advice - people take advice the wrong way.  Punchline:  The market crashed and he sold the condo at a loss five years later when he had to move.  He blames his accountant for "giving bad advice."   You see how this works.

But getting back to deductions, one of the nicest ones I took was the depreciation deduction by purchasing investment real estate back when it was cheap (after the bubble of 1989).   Of course, the key was to buy low, sell high.  When I sold out, a lot of the people buying were thinking - like my condo friend - that they would "make out" on the deal, what with the tax deductions, not realizing that unless you have an underlying profit, it is all going to go South in a hurry.  But I digress.

I no longer have to chase deductions - they are pretty worthless to me.  My income is so low that my taxes are basically zilch - a few hundred a year for State and Federal income taxes.   If I had a mortgage to pay, credit card debt, car payments, and whatnot, I would have to take out more money from my IRA every year, which would mean my IRA would be drained dry in no time, but moreover, I would have to take out even more to pay taxes, as while there are little taxes on $30,000 a year income (married couple) if I went to $50,000 or $70,000, the tax bill would be substantial.  The snowball effect kicks in, yet again.

So if you can approach retirement with some after-tax income (perhaps in a Roth IRA) you can use that money to pay for "big ticket" items like cars and whatnot, and not have to borrow money and pay interest - and worse yet, tap that 401(k)/IRA and pay income taxes.   And it makes a difference, too.  If you structure your retirement so that you need $100,000 a year to live, then a million dollars in your IRA will last you only about ten years or so - and you will pay a boatload of income taxes on it.   On the other hand, if you have no debt, then that same amount of money could last 30 years or more - in fact, if the market is doing well, it could conceivably last forever, if you have a minimum 3% rate of return on your money, which isn't too hard to do, even these days.

But it doesn't end there.  A lot of government programs and subsidies are based on annual taxable income and not overall wealth.  Again, our screwed-up society equates wealth with income and vice-versa.  The media calls someone making a million dollars a year (like Kamala Harris and her husband) "millionaires" when in fact, they might be broke.

The point is, the lower your income, not only do you save on taxes, you save on a lot of other things.

Say, for example, I had a mortgage of $400,000 on my house (as my Fidelity advisor suggested).  That would mean I would have to cough up $2000 a month or so, every month, which means I would have to take another $24,000 out of my IRA every year.  This would kick me into a higher tax bracket, and also mean that my IRA would not last nearly as long.   Not having to pay this every month amounts to a phantom $24,000 in income, but also has tax benefits and other benefits as well.

If my income was now nearly $60,000 a year (in order to pay that mortgage) I would only receive half as much subsidy on my Obamacare plan - a cost of $10,000 a year or more, about half that mortgage payment.    Mortgage interest deduction or not, it ends up costing me more in the long run. 

I am not sure this means we would qualify for food stamps (nor would we want to) but it illustrates yet another savings aspect of not paying interest.  

Apparently, I am not the only retiree to live this way.  I recall talking to our local bank manager and she said she was amazed how little income some retirees on the island make - as their houses and cars are paid-for.  When you put only 5,000 miles a year on a car, well, you don't need to be leasing or buying new cars every few years.  The savings add up.  She was flummoxed by the math, as she was earning "good money" as a bank manager, and had a series of debts to service that pretty much ate up that "good money" every month.  In other words, she was caught up on the hamster wheel that so many of feel trapped on, during our working lives.

I only wish, in retrospect, that during that working life, I learned to live on less and borrow less.  I was able to start my own law practice and live a fairly comfortable life.  But the stress of debt - unnecessary debt - was always there, and I feel foolish now, for taking on some of those debts, particularly the credit card variety.

The amount of money you earn in life is a finite number - and not hard to calculate.  You will likely be forced into retirement earlier than you anticipate - by fate or circumstance.   The amount you "need" to retire with will be whatever it is you end up with when you crash-land there.   You can't wait until age 50 to start saving.  And the only way to save is to make savings in your lifestyle.

The good news is, you don't need a lot of money to live, in retirement, if you can pay off debts before you get there.  On the other hand, if you hit retirement age with an onerous mortgage to pay, unless you have a fat pension to pay it with, you are screwed.  For us folks in the 401(k) generation, that simply is not an option, however.

Of course, why wait until retirement?  If you can live on less, you can save more, and end up wealthier, which in turn means you can do what you want to do in life - retire early, for example, see the world, do what you want.  Also, the less you live on, the more opportunities you have in life.  Debt-slaves are never able to start a business or take advantage of lucrative opportunities in life - which is why they remain debt-slaves.  Fortunately for us, most people choose to be debt-slaves, which means a better life for the remainder of us - those who choose to follow the trail of bread crumbs.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Social Media Harnessed By Stock Speculators?

Nothing good ever came of social media, but maybe shooting down short-sellers is a good thing.

I mentioned before that amateurs have no business buying derivatives.  Derivatives, as the name implies (from Calculus) are bets placed on the direction a stock price will go.  When you buy a stock, you are betting the price will go up and maybe it will pay dividends.  When you sell it, either you need the money, or you are worried it will go down in price.  But a derivative merely is a bet - a highly leveraged bet - that the price will go up or down (long or short) in a specified period of time.

The problem with derivatives is they can bankrupt you.  If you spend $5000 on a stock, the most you can lose is $5000 - if the company goes bust.  But odds are, you won't lose that much, unless you make a really bonehead investment, or put all your money into some speculative IPO or something.  But if you spend $5000 on an option, you have the potential to make tens of thousands of dollars - if not more - in a very short period of time.   So it appeals to gamblers - and those who have inside information.

Problem is, like all gambling you can lose.  But unlike a slot machine or a stock purchase - where all you can lose is what you put in, with a derivative, you can lose far more than you bet.  And often this creates chaos for the bettor.  For example, Joe Blow buys a option on a stock price.  He pledges his stock portfolio as collateral.  The stock price doesn't go in the direction he thought it would, and he loses everything as a result.  A $5000 "bet" results in a $50,000 loss - or more.

I stopped viewing Reddit because it was like all other social media - toxic.  I liked the comics, but the comments by the "Redditors" were kind of stupid and predictable after a while.  I found online comics at other locations - and the better artists have their own sites or are hosted elsewhere.   Reddit was a good place to go for news about gaming, the new games, controversy about games, and of course, a little misogny. Reddit brought us the_donald and today they are just as busily hyping left-wing causes. It is interesting how "brigading" can drive Internet traffic.

One of the more odious "subreddits" on the site was "Wall Street Bets" - and some legitimate news sites, on a slow day, would quote from it.  Most of it is bored teenagers, posting hypothetical "profits" that they could have made had they done such-and-such a trade.  The media would then write an article as if these were actual trades and some guy invested $7000 and turned it into millions in a matter of weeks - the odds of which, are, to say the least, quite long.  It is sad reflection not on Reddit, but on the "mainstream media" for reporting such dreck without much of a qualification that anonymous postings on the Internet could be..... bullshit.

The evil in Wall Street Bets starts with the name - they are encouraging gambling as a form of investing, turning markets into casinos.  This sort of thing does not end well for the small investor.   It is prime for "pump and dump" schemes, where a stock is hyped online and people buy it, driving up the price (which appears to validate the hype, driving the price up further) until it eventually collapses.  A lot of little people get hurt in these schemes, but sometimes big players do as well - and we don't feel sorry for them.

In a recent "controversy" someone has been hyping the stock of Gamestop, which is the Blockbuster Video of computer games.  They have - or had - a plethora of brick-and-mortar stores selling video games and gaming accessories.  But the combination of online sales (and downloading) as well as CoVid have hurt the company and they are closing locations.   It seemed like a no-brainer for some big investment firms to short-sell the stock.

So, someone started a thread on Wall Street Bets and they hyped the crap out of the stock, and lots of little people bought it. The share price went up 700%.   Again, market cap means nothing, and this doesn't mean GameStop was now worth billions, only that the last sucker in paid the highest price.  In thinly traded stocks, even small trades can drive the price up or down considerably.

Think of it this way.  Suppose you had a small company with 1,000 shares of stock, mostly held by you and family members and maybe a few employees.  Someone wants to buy a share of that stock, but there are so few, and so few owners, that no one wants to sell.  So the buyer has to offer a sizable amount of money to convince someone to sell, which they eventually do.  Suddenly, your stock price has gone up by 20-30% or more.  You're sitting on a gold mine!   But word gets out that your stock price went up, so others are interested in buying - but the shareholders, seeing all these gains, are even more reluctant to sell.  So someone offers even 20% more and a shareholder sells - and the stock price is on a tear!   Within a few trades, your share price could double overnight.  But it doesn't mean diddly.

Similarly, suppose one of your shareholders decided to sell - they need the money.  It is a thinly traded stock, so there are not a lot of buyers - and the seller has to accept a low price just to get rid of the shares.  By the way, this is a real problem for very small, family-owned companies - most times, the shares are worth nothing, and they don't even pay dividends.  But now the share price has tanked, and the other shareholders panic - the stock price has gone down!  Better sell now before it is too late!  Greed and Fear rule the market.

Now, scale this up by 1000% or more and you can see how a pump-n-dump scheme will work.  In most cases, the people getting hurt are the small investors.  A teenager in New Jersey buys an e-mail list and then hypes an obscure over-the-counter stock selling for pennies a share.  He had previously bought 1000 shares, which helped drive the price up - fulfilling his promise that the "stock price is going places!"  It helps if the company has a name that sounds technical.  People buy a few shares of the stock ("What have I got to lose?) and it goes up further.  The teenager sells his shares and the price collapses.  Everyone loses a little bit, and the teenager makes tens of thousands of dollars - if not more.   And yes, this actually happened and still goes on today.

With the GameStop deal, it is a little different, in that the people getting hurt (so far) are hedge funds who were short-selling their shares.  Their options are not only worthless, they owe money as they have to buy those shares they "borrowed" at a much higher price than their option.   The little people who bought into this nonsense - and drove the price through the roof probably will lose money, too, particularly those who bought at the height of the bubble.   And no, GameStop isn't suddenly worth ten times its previous valuation - it is a pump-and-dump bubble.

Of course, given that Reddit is all about gaming, it is obvious why the people behind this scheme - and it is a scheme - picked Gamestop.  They are also doing a similar pump-n-dump with Blackberry, although I can't imagine why, other than some hedge fund is short-selling that as well.

It is hard to feel sorry for some hedge fund who short-sells stocks, however.  And maybe there is some poetic justice in a rabble of online investors sticking it to the man - although I suspect a lot of those small investors will lose their investments, as small as they are.

People have tried to short-sell Tesla stock, too, and have had their ass handed to them on a platter.  Tesla is no doubt over-valued.  Sure, they make a fine car, but as it turns out, the biggest source of income for Tesla is carbon credits sold to other car companies.  What happens when those car companies start producing their own electric cars?   Tesla's carbon credits may be worth less, although perhaps not worthless.   Also, the entire profit scheme is based on carbon-credit laws, not on actual profits made in the marketplace.   A change in laws could make such carbon credits worthless overnight.  Elon Musk is no doubt happy Biden is President.  Speaking of which, it is my imagination, or has Musk been hitting the buffet a lot lately?  He looks kinda puffy.

So what does this mean for the small investor?  Well, you do what you want, but to me, it means run away as fast as possible.  Getting caught up in someone else's scheme to pump-n-dump a stock sounds great for them, but what does it do for me?  This is my survival, my livelihood at stake - nothing to play with as if it were a game.

So no, I won't be buying derivatives, nor will I be buying stocks hyped on Wall Street Bets or Robin Hood.   And the reason why I say this is, I've seen in the past how people have lost everything getting involved in schemes like this.   Everyone wants a shortcut to wealth, but often these shortcuts are just a ride off a cliff.

But the real lesson here is about the power of social media. Reddit and Facebook and Twitter made a President and then unmade him.  A cute trick, but one that didn't really profit anyone too much.  Today, we see a more profit-oriented use of social media, and this particular pump-n-dump isn't going to be the end of it.   Expect to see more stocks hyped on Reddit and other social media outlets, unless the SEC gets involved.

Of course, maybe that won't make much of a difference. When that teenager in New Jersey was fined by the SEC $50,000 for his pump-n-dump schemes, all he said was, "do you take a check?" - as he had made far more than that hyping penny stocks.

Gambling is not investing, and investing is not gambling.   If you want to play games with your money, fine.  But don't cry when it all goes horribly wrong.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Impeachment is Trump's Megaphone

Impeaching Donald Trump won't accomplish much, other that to put him in the national spotlight for a few more weeks.

Donald Trump is looking forward to his impeachment trial.  It is a gift from the Democrats.  We have been treated to silence from the big man (in the literal sense) for a couple of weeks now, and it has been bliss. No longer does his ugly countenance glare at me through my phone every morning.  No longer does the radio blare his latest hateful, belligerent tweet.

But not for long.  I suspect Twitter and Facebook will discover what radio stations found out about Howard Stern ages ago - as obnoxious as Trump is, he is good for business. People are morons, and they watch crap like "reality teevee" and Trump was a star on "The Apprentice" whose ersatz premise was that Trump was a "successful businessman".   The plebes lapped it up and made him President.

So after a period of mourning - two to three weeks, tops, hey, this isn't a school shooting, right? - they will let him back on their "platforms" if nothing else to "let him defend himself" during impeachment.

And the impeachment trial will be a circus - Republicans will make sure it is so.  They will dredge up every false story about "election fraud" and argue that Trump wasn't inciting a riot.  It doesn't matter whether it is true or not - impeachment is a political process not a judicial process and the judicial rules don't apply. What matters isn't the facts, but whether 17 Republicans will vote to convict, and looking at the tabulation right now, it doesn't appear they have more than five.

It isn't quite as stupid as the last impeachment - where Democrats knew going in that the wouldn't even have a simple majority, much less 67 votes.  There is an old saying in the law, you never bring a case you know you are going to lose.  You never put a witness on the witness stand without knowing what they are going to say.  Democrats are flying blind here, and flying right into a trap.

It isn't that Trump isn't going to play the victim card (he is - and the irony will be lost on Conservatives, who claim Liberals are the ones who play the victim game) but that he will use this trial to rebuild his image and position himself as the embattled underdog - and America loves underdogs.  He also will cement the loyalty of his "base" who feels as he does - under attack.

This is not to say he will run in 2024.  Maybe he will, maybe he won't.  If he does, I suspect he may insure four more years of a Democrat in the White House, whether that is Biden or Harris.  But then again, who knows?  Maybe in four years, America will be tired of Kumbaya politics.  And who knows how the economy will be?   A lot of people voted for Trump because of abortion, or tax cuts, or regulation cuts, or because they hate electric cars and LED lightbulbs.  They may dislike Trump personally (not the base, of course) but they will pull the lever based on policies, not personalities.  Perhaps.

If Trump follows through on this threat to form a modern "Bull Moose" party (the"MAGA" Party as he is now calling it, as "Patriot Party" abbreviates to "PP" and you know...the tapes) he could end up splitting the vote and keeping Democrats in power for another four to eight years.  Perhaps. The moral of Teddy Roosevelt was, however, that third parties just don't succeed in America, and I suspect a "MAGA" Party would insure Trump's fade into oblivion.

But of course, he isn't serious about it - it is a threat, a bargaining tool, his "art of the deal" to negotiate with the party.  It is the mutual-assured-destruction pact he wants to make with Mitch McConnell, to get him to pull back from renouncing Trumpism.

Don't get me wrong - he should be impeached, and prohibited from holding office ever again.   But I am not sure that is going to happen in the coming weeks.  Rather, we will have to endure that horrible, whiny voice of his, his orange countenance and bizarre hair.  We thought we were rid of him once and for all, and here the Democrats are giving him a Megaphone to speak with.

The unpleasantness will be back, yet again, if it was in fact, ever over.

Change Your Life Forever!

Buying things isn't going to change your life at all...

I mentioned infomercials in the last posting and I have addressed this before. The premise of an infomercial - any infomercial - is that your life will be divided into two parts.  The first is the dark days before you bought the product in question. Your life was miserable, your dog was ugly, and your wife was going to leave you.  Then there is the second part - the light and goodness, when you purchased the item in question, and all was right with the world - you got a raise at work, your neighbors threw a party for you, and your wife even agreed to perform oral sex.

Whether it is a rotisserie oven, some new kind of vacuum cleaner, a diet plan, or an exercise device, it doesn't matter - the same sales pitch is used.  Diet plans are particularly notorious for this.  The "before" photo shows someone frowning, slouched, with their hair unkempt.  The photo is shaded and dark and the angle, unflattering.  The "after" photo is bright, the person is standing up straight, their hair done, and they are smiling!  You might not even notice that they really haven't lost any weight.

We all fall for this, of course, even in ordinary commerce.   You buy a car and you think it will change your life forever - or at least make it marginally better.  But within a few months, well, it is just another used car, you have 48 months of payments to make on it, and you just scratched the fender driving it out of the garage.  The older you are, of course, the less this effect is noticeable.  By age 50, buying a car seems more like a chore than fun - you know they are going to try to snooker you, and you are not emotionally involved as much in the process.  But a 22-year-old salivates at the prospect of being able to buy a hot little hatchback, even if is just a glorified econo-bucket.   That's why marketers love that age 15-35 demographic - they still believe in the magic unicorn of commerce and consumerism.

Lately, I have noticed a trend in small table-top appliances.  It seems every six months or so, some new counter-hog comes along, promising to "change your life forever".   Now, granted, these sort of things have been around for a long time - before I was born.   They just are re-imagined for a new generation.  Informercials pushed the George Foreman Grill, or the Ronco Chicken Rotisserie.  Everyone went through that phase where they "had to have" a Paninni press, instead of just mashing your grilled cheese sandwich on a frying pan.  And of course, there were all the fancy coffee machines.  And don't forget the popcorn machine craze of the 1970's - followed by the air-popper craze of the 1980's - before the microwave replaced both.

The Keurig was the first of this modern era of counter-hogs, promising to "change your life forever!" by letting you make hot beverages from little Patented cartridges which cost 2-5 times as much as ground coffee or basic teabags (the original cartridge drink).  The machines were expensive and huge, at first, and after a while, they clogged up, as I found out when someone gave me one that stopped working (hint: they do make a cleaning solution - a de-liming agent - for these things).   But the idea of spending $99 or $199 on a coffee machine that locks me in to buying my food in cartridges made no sense to me.

Well, that was ages ago.  Funny thing, these machines are still around, but the prices have dropped considerably.  Not only that, but I don't see as many cartridges for sale anymore.  Could it have been a fad?  Perhaps - we'll see.  The point is, at one time, people told me "Oh, you have to have one!" and I took a pass, and time went on, and neither of our lives changed very much.

The next counter-hog was the Insti-pot, which is a cross between a crock-pot (the counter-hog craze of the 1970's - which can be had for as little as $10 today) and a traditional pressure cooker.  Our lives would change forever! - we were told.  And online, all I heard about was Insti-pot this, and Insti-pot that - of course, not by accident.  Yes, they shill these things on the Internets.

Well, I suspect a lot of Insti-pots have made their way into cupboards, and the appliance that was going to change the way you cook forever! hasn't.   And if you didn't buy one during the height of the craze, well, worry not, they are selling knock-offs for cheap these days.

The latest gag is the air fryer.   Again, someone is hyping this somewhere and several friends of mine have bought these.  We'll fry our potatoes and be healthy! - not realizing that the worst part of fried potatoes isn't the frying, but the potatoes themselves - the carbohydrates and calories.  Like anything else, eating in moderation they aren't bad for you.  But you aren't going to turn an unhealthy 1000-calorie plate of french fries into a health food by air frying it.

But they sell, and I see them in my friend's houses, and I am sure that eventually they will make their way into a cupboard somewhere, next to the insti-pot, the keurig, and whatever other counter-hog that stopped getting used.

Granted, some "air fryers" have been combined into toaster oven, and I believe Cuisinart makes one.  Now, I am a big fan of toaster ovens (being old and all) but that particular model is so tall, it won't fit on your countertop, without hitting the cabinet above.   I just don't see the advantage of taking a toaster oven (a $25 appliance) and turning it into this counter-hog $199 nightmare.

Of course, some of these counter-hog promoted items fall flat on their face.  Juicers have been around for decades - my parents had an art-deco one from their wedding in 1948.   But lately, people have been on this kick that somehow if you juice things, it's healthy.  But often what they are juicing amounts to little more than a milkshake, or a 1000-calorie fruit punch.   A new generation of fancy juice machines has sprung up to meet this demand.  Taking a cue from Keurig, the Juicero people thought they could make juice into a cartridge deal - but it fell flat on its face when people discovered you could just squeeze the bags by hand and let the juice out.

One might argue the Juicero was an anomaly, but I think it is just a ridiculous example of how stupid single-use appliances are - or at least expensive, counter-hog single-use appliances.   In any sort of "money-saving" blog or article, by the way, "single use appliances" are often singled out as an example of a utter waste of money.

A reader writes that they love their waffle iron, and indeed, there really is no other way to make waffles without one.   But then again, it is an appliance you get out to make the food in question and then put away.  It doesn't sit on the counter all the time, unless you shell out $199 for one of those fancy "Belgian waffle" makers.  A regular waffle iron can be had at the discount store for under $25.

But then again, like so much else, having waffles every day for breakfast would sort of be boring - and it is a carbo-nightmare, particularly with maple syrup on it (please, no "Mrs. Butterworth's" high-fructose corn syrup nightmare!).   Things that are a once-in-a-while treat should remain that way.  French fries should be served scalding hot, with a side of ketchup, mayonnaise, or vinegar, dripping with hot oil from a deep fryer.  Soggy fries blow-dried with a hair-dryer just aren't the same.  And no, buying a "fry daddy" isn't going to repeat the restaurant experience.  Leave the deep fryers to the restaurants, for once-in-a-while meals.

There are appliances that people need and use.  If you cook, you'll need a good mixer.  If you make drinks, you'll need a good blender - they still make the original Fred Waring model in all its art deco glory.  Beyond that, not much else, although any good Asian or Cuban kitchen needs a rice maker.

The best small appliances are timeless and inexpensive.  They are not going to be the ones hyped on the Internet or on an infomercial. You can drive yourself broke buying "the latest and greatest new thing!" whether it is an automated steak fryer or the latest gaming console.  A better approach is to wait and see where this is going - and ask your clueless friends if they are still using product x after six months.  Chances are, half the time, it is stuck on a shelf somewhere.  But if not, by waiting - even a short period of time - you'll find that product, or one just like it, half-price on sale, as the buzz dissipates.

UPDATE:  Mr. See reminds me of some more useless appliances.  Having worked at Williams Sonoma and Sheets 'n Things, he saw a lot of weird stuff.  He had a chance to bring some home at scratch-n-dent fire sale prices, but took a pass on most of them.  Yes, we still have a Pannini press, and it gets used less than once a year, if that.

There was a fad for a while for a donut machine, where you poured batter into a circular mold and dribbled oil on it and them combined the two halves like a waffle iron.  I am not sure that is how donuts are made, traditionally.

Then there was the hot dog maker - a toaster with two round holes for accepting hot dogs, and a slot for the buns.  Must have been gross to clean up.

For a while, in the wholesale club, they had a three-crock-pot rack that had three tiny crockpots.  I guess you were supposed to put different flavors of meatballs in each crock, "for the big game" - but it struck me as kind of a one-use appliance.   Of course, they are all sold at alarmingly low prices - which makes them seem "affordable" until you add up the costs over time.

Turkey fryers?  William Shatner nearly burned down his house with one!  A lot of people have "low country boil" cookers around here - giant 40-quart pots that sit on a cooker that attaches to a propane tank.  Great for boiling 50 pounds of shrimp for that family reunion.  Sort of clutters up your garage the rest of the time.   Saw one for sale at a garage sale once, I took a pass.  Still have memories of the $3000 gas grill - that was an idiotic purchase if there ever was one!

And no, that didn't change my life forever either!

UPDATE: A reader reminds me about the 1990's craze for bread machines.  A friend gave us one (free, a price I can cope with) and we do use it once a week.  It is a counter- hog and Mr. See has set up a bread kitchen in the laundry room as a result.

Wait long enough, this junk is free.  But it still doesn't change your life much, if at all....

There Is No Such Thing As A Good Night's Sleep!

Americans are obsessed with their sleeping habits.

The real genius of the My Pillow Guy isn't that he's a rabid Trump supporter, nor that he designed some fancy new pillow that changes your life forever, but that he seized upon America's obsession with sleeping habits.  You can make a lot of money catering to people's obsessions.  Sleep and losing weight are two good ones to work with.

In a classic example of Arbitrage, he mortgaged his home and businesses to raise $500,000 to put on an infomercial advertising his sleep pillow. The infomercial was saturated on cable television and before long, orders came pouring in.  If you build it, they will come.   You can sell utter crap on cable television, and people will buy it - hence the shopping channels.

The same effect is used today on the internet. Clickbait sites advertise heavily on legitimate websites, paying heavily for the privilege. They're hoping you will click on their cleverly worded headlines and scroll through a 50-page slideshow which will generate more revenue than they spent luring you in.  That is one reason why internet advertising is so shitty.  You would think that by now, it would be mostly big companies - the folks who used to advertise on network television.  But no, it still is bottom-of-the-barrel crapola, but instead of "one trick of the tiny belly" it is "You'll never believe how these 50 celebrities now look!" - which leads you to a 100-page slideshow with banner ads, pop-up ads, pop-under ads, and ads on top of ads.

The My Pillow guy did the same thing. He lured people in using one of the oldest anxieties Americans suffer from, their obsession that somehow they're sleeping wrong.

It's not just pillows, although there are a variety of pillows for sale out there which promise you a good night's sleep. They're also things like Tempur-Pedic mattresses, Sleep Number mattresses, and fancy mattresses that go up and down - as well as all sorts of different types of bedding that supposed to improve your sleeping ability.  If that's not enough, you can go to the doctor and have a sleep study to be told that you are sleeping wrong, and possibly be prescribed with some sort of breathing machine.

People are obsessed with this idea of getting a good night's sleep. According to the fantasy promoted by the television, you go to sleep and have pleasant dreams all night long and wake up to the sunrise, refreshed, with the birds chirping and the flowers blooming.  You jump out of bed and start your day! Anything less than that is that is abnormal.

But such is not the case.  In reality, sleep is a coma-like state that you fall into - and coming out of it is no Swiss picnic. Nobody talks about arising from a long, refreshing coma.  Rather, if you do revive from a coma, you're going to be in a groggy and debilitated state for days if not weeks.  Nobody jumps out of bed after coma and says, "Gosh I feel refreshed!"

There are so many problems with sleeping it's not even funny. To begin with, it's a period of six to twelve hours where you have absolutely no hydration whatsoever, and moreover no food. There's a reason we call breakfast "break-fast" in that you are breaking the longest fast that you have during a day -  that long stretch of time during the night when you're not eating.

So when you wake up in the morning, you're dehydrated and your blood sugar level is at its lowest in the day.  It's no wonder that you feel groggy and lethargic. In fact, it would be surprising if you didn't.  In addition, you're going from a state where your metabolism is at its lowest, to a wide-awake condition, something that your body is not used to doing.  No one springs out of bed in the morning, that's just a myth.

Worse yet, your body contorts to all sorts of positions during the night. If you could see yourself while you're sleeping, you look like a dead body, with your limbs twisted and all sorts of different directions. Your heart rate drops, your breathing is shallow, and your blood circulation slows. Your arms legs may "fall asleep."  As your breathing drops down to nearly nothing, and you may start snoring as your airway is obstructed because of the weird position you've contorted yourself into, often caused by some horribly designed pillow, maybe even from the My Pillow guy.

Sleep really is an odd thing, when you think about it. Some people think that sleep is necessary for your body to rejuvenate itself from a hard day of work.  Others think that is something the mind needs to do to unwind.  Yet others point out that if animals don't sleep, they tend to get to a lot of trouble, and their life expectancy shortens.  We may not so much need sleep, as we need to just stop doing things for half the day. The bunny napping in his burrow is less likely to be eaten by an owl or hawk than the one that is up all day and night.

Sleep is also a time when your body digests food. As I noted before, a doctor explained to me than eating late at night is not a good thing for your sleep habits, as your intestines have to run a marathon while you're sleeping.  So in addition to going for 6-12 hours without food or drink, your body has to work hard to digest all the junk you ate during the day. Who in the hell would wake up refreshed from that?

Considering all of this, it's no wonder nobody gets a good night's sleep. In fact, I doubt such a thing actually exists.  But this anxiety about sleeping is something that people can market to, and do so successfully. People think that "if only" they can get their sleep habits in order, their entire life would change and all of a sudden everything would be so much better.  They would have all this extra energy and they be happier and less depressed.  But the reality is, no one gets a good night's sleep, just as no one gets a good night's coma.

The super duper mattress or fancy pillow or night guard or sleep goggles or CPAP machine or whatever aren't going to change your life dramatically. At best, we'll just drain your bank account or maybe add had to your credit card debt. A better approach, I think, is to realize there's no such thing as a good night's sleep and just let it go at that.  Spending money isn't going to make you happier or solve your life's problems, despite what they tell you.

This is not to say that people don't have "sleep disorders" only that the are far rarer than we think.  It is all-too-easy, particularly in old age, to become too introspective with your body, and go looking for trouble, which is why Medicare costs so much, and why you see advertisements for medicines to cure problems you never knew you had.  Restless leg syndrome?  Another sleep-related malady and a cure you can buy.  Or drink some water - chances are you are dehyradated.

As I noted before, back in the day, Grandpa snored - he didn't have sleep apnea nor did he need a CPAP machine because they didn't exist. Grandpa lived to be 98 - funny thing that.  People were tired when they got up out of bed, not because they "didn't get a good night's sleep" but because they just awoke from a coma-like state where their entire metabolism was at its nadir.

This whole sleep nonsense is part of this obsession we have in America about "changing our life forever!" which I talked about before and will address in my next posting.