Saturday, July 31, 2021

Better Call Saul!

I am not against religion per se, but most religions - if not all - have a lot of skeletons in the attic.  Saul has quite the modern desk!

I mentioned before that a lot of stuff in Christianity is not very well explained.  People believe in things like the Holy Ghost, without really understanding what they mean.   Others don't believe in things like the Holy Ghost (Unitarians, for example) or other things that are in the Bible.  To some extent, everyone selects, cafeteria-style, from their religion, because most religions teach ideas that internally conflict with one another.

For example, while Jews and Muslims eschew pork, most Christians chew it - particularly in the South, particularly Baptists.  And speaking of Baptists, most profess not to drink alcohol (while secretly doing so, in many cases) while the Bible clearly states that Jesus enjoyed a good glass wine with supper.

The problem with most ancient religions is that, well, they are ancient, and thus if you go back to the old texts, there is a lot of pandering to prejudice and bigotry of that era.  Most old-time religions (and even some newer ones) relegate women to the position of property - if that.  Children are little better off.   Talk back to your parents, and well, they have no other choice than to kill you.

Of course, some folks have figured out wiggle-room on this.  For example, in the previous cite, they argue that since it is in the old testament, it only applies to Jews (the chosen people) and since Christians get the Bible 2.0 upgrade, it over-writes that nonsense.  We are free to eat pork, shellfish, and not kill our children! Of course, that fails to explain the "full gospel" Christian churches which root around in the old testament, looking for trouble, and often finding it. Like a Rorschach test, you can read whatever you want to, in the Bible, by "interpreting" it.

Christianity is an interesting beast - it really didn't take off until it found a promoter - the famous Saul/Paul who on the road to Damascaus had a vision - "I can make something of this!  Think of the angles!" and supposedly changed his name to Paul. But others claim that the two names were equivalent in Roman times - Paul being the Roman pronunciation of Saul.

His big idea?  Christianity should not be limited to Jews.  Yes, it sounds funny today, but back then, it sort of limited expansion of the franchise.  And yes, this is a problem with most groups, including our Parcheesi club - the old members don't want to let in new ones - and black-ball anyone they don't like. It sort of limits how far the franchise can expand.  Saul's brilliant idea was to let anybody in, even if the end of their penis wasn't cut off.  And today we have the Holy Roman Catholic Church as a result. Oy Vey!

I am not picking on Christianity - every religion has its variations and divisions, and often people fight to the death over these trivial (to the rest of us) differences in theology.  Islam would surely have taken over the world, if not for the Sunni/Shiite rift, which no doubt we in the West foster. Divide and conquer, the oldest game in the book. But Christians have their own bloody history, of Protestants versus Catholics. Jews have their own sects and differences, but I am not aware they have killed each other over the difference between reform and orthodox.

You would think modern religions would suffer less from this problem.  Starting out with a clean slate and a new "Bible" that you get to write, a modern religion could eliminate all this archaic "don't eat pork" and "beat your children" nonsense.  But it seems the more modern religions have their own set of beliefs that are often hard to square with reality.  The idea of everyone getting their own planet in the afterlife (as in Mormonism) seems somewhat attractive, if not implausible (suppose you get Pluto - not even a planet!).  And Scientology, well, just sounds too "out there" of you'll pardon the pun.

The problem of course, is that every religion out there has one thing in common:  They believe they are the one true religion and that anyone else is dead wrong, even people of the same religion, but a different sect.  And sadly, they often believe that folks who think otherwise are worthy only of death.  Pardon me if I object to this sort of thing.  Yes, I know it offends your "religious beliefs" which are (pun intended) sacrosanct.  But your belief in murdering me conflicts with my belief that I should be allowed to live a natural life.

And of course, it goes without saying that if every religion is the one true religion, then a vast majority of the planet is going to hell, because by default, most folks are believing in the wrong God.

As the whole Saul/Paul thing illustrates, religions are not created by God, but my man.  Bibles are not the word of God, but an interpretation - or a series of interpretations - of what mortal men (and yes, it is usually men, not women) think is the word of God.  And men are fallible, even if God isn't.  So you have to take religion with a grain of salt, even if you are a devout believer.  Because men get things wrong, all the time.  And often, they twist things around to favor their own interests. Yes, shocking, I know.

I am not sure what the point of all of this is, other than I was thinking the other day about Pauline Christianity.  In Sunday school, this wasn't talked about a lot.  We just assumed that the day after Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity was invented and it pretty much took off from there.  Oh, sure the Romans fed Christians to the lions, but they eventually came around.  And sure, maybe the Catholics went off the rails a bit, but Mr. Martin Luther straightened them right out, eh? 

Well, maybe not.  The creation of Protestantism is itself an example of how men create religions - not Gods.  And often, the motivation behind creating new religions or sects is not based on celestial matters, but earthly ones.  Luther was pissed-off that the Pope was selling indulgences.   Henry VII was pissed the Pope wouldn't give him a divorce.  Lots of people get pissed-off at the Pope, it seems, even today.

There are more flavors of churches, as a result, than there are fast-food restaurants.  Go into any town of any size, and you will see a half-dozen churches, from the Catholic to Presbyterian to Unitarian, to storefront "evangelical" churches to Baptist churches (both black and white).  We all want to believe in something, but not the same thing.

That is the nature of belief.   It doesn't matter which version you believe it, it wasn't meant to be taken literally, but figuratively.  Belief is comfort, and can provide relief and perhaps even strength.  It is only a problem, in my opinion, when it replaces reason, or is used to justify odious things.

The man running the company that rips off thousands of people will say that Jesus blessed him, which is why what he is doing is holy.   Slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery (and yes, it is in there, in the Old Testament).  People can use religion to justify torture, war, or whatever - and have, and do, and will continue to do.

Better call Saul!

UPDATE: Two readers respond.  The first makes my point, inadvertently.  He argues that I am not "qualified" to comment on belief, that only ordained ministers, priests, pandits, Imams, Bishops, Cardinals and Popes can make such interpretations of religion!  Where do I come off claiming to know anything about God?

Exactly my point.  No one has the Copyright or Patent on God.  No one has the inside track to the almighty, even if they claim so.  Maybe some religion guy studied religion in school, that doesn't mean he knows a helluva lot more than you or I do about the great mysteries of the universe - Why are we here?  What is life?  What is consciousness? What happens when we die?

But organized religion would like to sell you these answers, for a fee, of course.  And you can't disagree or argue with any of their pat answers.  They's experts!  You know, people like Cardinal McCarrick, right?  Uncle Ted is such a nice fellow - and he knows.  So no questions, please!  Those guys are experts - don't try this at home!

I believe that God is accessable to everyone and no one at the same time.  No one is more of a expert on God that you are (or I am) and no one really has the answers to the unanswerable questions in life - except that we all get to find out, in due course.  And compared to the life of the cosmos or infinitiy, our lives are a tiny drop in the bucket.  The wisdom of 50 years or 100 is nothing compared to all there is to be known.

Another reader points out that our Pope Poopa the 1st has said we should go back to non-Latin mass, even as many parishioners live the pomp and circumstance of it.  But he's infallible so he must be right.  Problem is, the last Pope - who is still alive, btw - was also infallible, and he was the one who wanted to go back to Latin mass.

They can't both be right and both be infallible.  One has to be wrong.  And one is - but who it is, isn't the point.  The point is, they are just humans, like you and me - with failing bodies and clouded minds and one with a bad intestine.

Religion sucks.  But that doesn't mean you have to be an Atheist, either.  Like everything else, mankind takes a good thing - God - and mucks it up for good!

Friday, July 30, 2021

Stealing From The Poor is Easy!

You don't have to steal from the poor, they willingly give you their money.

Much ado has been made over the Robinhood IPO. Like most modern IPOs, they sold a pittance of the stock for a huge amount of money to chump investors.  Unlike earlier IPOs, however, they allocated one third of the IPO stock to chumps. And while the stock premiered at $38 a share, quickly sank to about $33.

Some folks are claiming this is a way for the small investor to get in on the ground floor of an IPO.  I disagree.  Retail investors (chumps like you and me) are the ones who drive up a stock price far beyond its metrics. For example, Gamestop has no real plan to make billions overnight, and with a negative 77 P/E ratio, probably never will.  But retail investors don't look at metrics like that - profit and loss, business plans, dividend ratios.  Rather, they look at pricing trends and assume "some greater fool" will pay even more for an overpriced and overheated stock than they will.  And the financial press - and now the Internet - will work to hype up the price of loser stocks.

Or, if they do look at metrics, they look at specious metrics.  EBITDA sounds sexy and all important, until you realize it basically means, "what we would be earning, if we didn't have to pay back our debts and pay our taxes".  In other words, it is a fantasy number.   It is like how the financial press breathlessly reports "revenue" as if it were profits and not merely gross income.  And the financial press has been breathlessly reporting how Robinhood's "revenue" is skyrocketing, even as it continues to hemorrhage cash.  Somewhere along the way, you have to make a profit.

So it made sense for Robinhood to do this deal - selling IPO stocks to members.  First, they get lots of press for it, and second, it makes them sound like a "good guy" even after all those SEC investigations.   But most of all, it insures that someone will actually buy the stock and bid up the price.  Or that was the plan, anyway.

Small investors are convinced they can make huge amounts of money investing in stocks like this. But one has to ask about the fundamentals of the company. The earnings per share is blank, because the company is losing about $6 per share at the present time. With the share price of about 33 to $36 this means but negative 6 P/E ratio.  In other words, they are losing money, and you have to make money to stay in business.

To me, what is really scandalous is they sold off only a few hundred million dollars of stock to these suckers, while the vaunted market cap is now listed at 30 billion. This tells you that the vast majority of the company stock is held by insiders, and the poor chumps who bought this at $38 a share or whatever are buying a tiny slice of the company. Like most modern IPOs, the entire point is to create a market for the shares so the Insiders can cash out. They really aren't interested in "raising money" so much as in cashing out.

Of course, they have great plans to make money. By offering free trades they can create profits by... I'm not sure how.  In fact, when the stock didn't do so well out of the chute, they issued a new press release, with vague promises of "expanding" the business into other areas.  I am not sure where they could expand do - massage parlors and drug dealing?  What other financial services could they offer?

But like any obedient lapdog, the press dutifully barfed-up the Robinhood press release, after breathlessly reporting the IPO.  This is good meaty clickbait stuff here, folks!

What is interesting to me is how the media presents this.  One breathless article talks about how their "revenues" (gross receipts) have skyrocketed.  No word on net profits.  Yes, the company is losing money and has lost money.  How do they plan on making money?  That is the conundrum with "free trades" - because even if there are no trading fees they have to pay, if you are a stock market trader, you do have overhead - your license, your salary, your office expenses, your light bill.  So the question remains - how does a bank or firm stay in business offering "free trades" if they are making no money on these trades?

It is a question that troubles me not just because of Robinhood.  I have an account with Merrill Edge, which is part of Bank of America, and yes, they offer me "free trades" because I carry a balance of over $100,000 or so invested with them.  The question is, how are they making money on this?  Bear in mind that before this time, the "low cost" traders like E*Trade and Ameritrade (where I had accounts before) were charging $6.99 to $9.99 a trade and we thought that was a freaking deal.

When my grandfather died, he left each of us a small amount ($500) of Republic of Texas bank stock.  It was a solid "blue chip" stock back in the day, paying dividends and all.  I sold all of mine to pay tuition (and buy pot, no doubt) which turned out to be a smart move.  My late sister thought this would be the start of a stock portfolio, as pathetic as that sounds, but some operator took over the bank and ran it into the ground, to the point where the stock was worthless.  My poor sister - she also had a CD with a "savings and loan" run by some sketchy guy selling "junk bonds" and that dissolved into nothing as well - it was not FDIC insured.  She got the shit end of the stick in life - cancer to boot.

And you wonder why some folks think capitalism is a scam.

But when I sold that Republic of Texas bank stock, I think I paid the broker $30 or more in fees, handing him the actual share certificates, and him handing me a check.   Back then, buying and selling stock was a pain in the ass, which is why buying stock through shareholder services - with a $1 fee - seemed like a good deal - at the time.

But now.. free?  How do they make money at that?  The answer, I guess, is in part that they don't, or at least not in a way we can see.  I notice that in some funds I purchase through Merrill Edge, there are fees involved.  And who knows how much they get in kickbacks from the funds themselves, who charge a "management fee" (expense ratio) for running the fund.  No one works for free.

But Merrill doesn't offer free trades to the plebes - they want to see a certain amount of dough, which in turn insures that there is a certain amount of income.  Offering free trades to Joe Schmotz and his $500 "investment" in Gamestop isn't as enticing.

Hence the IPO.  Again, and I will say this until I beat it into your head, the purpose of the modern IPO is to allow insiders to cash out.  Unlike old-timey IPOs back in the day, where they sold off 90% of the company stock to raise capital to expand and improve, today's IPOs sell off 5% of the stock to suckers like you and me to create a market for the shares the insiders want to sell later on.  In fact, some IPO prospectuses are very up-front about this - saying baldly that the purpose of the IPO is to create a market for shares.  But no one reads the prospectus, do they?

If you did, you might find this tasty little tidbit:

We have three classes of authorized common stock, Class A common stock, Class B common stock and Class C common stock (collectively, our “common stock”). The rights of the holders of Class A common stock, Class B common stock and Class C common stock are identical, except with respect to voting and conversion. Each share of Class A common stock is entitled to one vote per share. Each share of Class B common stock is entitled to 10 votes per share and is convertible at any time into one share of Class A common stock. Shares of Class C common stock have no voting rights, except as otherwise required by law, and will convert into shares of our Class A common stock, on a share-for-share basis, on the date or time determined by our board of directors following the conversion or exchange of all outstanding shares of our Class B common stock into shares of our Class A common stock. Upon the completion of this offering, no shares of Class C common stock will be issued and outstanding. For more information about our capital stock, see the section titled “Description of Capital Stock.” 
Upon completion of this offering, all outstanding shares of our Class B common stock will be held by our founders, Baiju Bhatt and Vladimir Tenev, and their related entities
I had to scroll all the way through that document to page 1 to find that, too!  So the founders, in addition to having a whopping majority of the shares of the company, have ten times as many votes as you do for your pathetic Class-A shares.  And when they sell their shares (as they have done) they will no doubt "convert" their Class-B shares to Class-A before selling them to you, stripping you of nine votes.  So in terms of control of the company (the only real reason anyone would buy out your shares) it is a non-starter.  No one needs Class-A shares to take over the company.  They pay no dividends.  They earn no money.  In essence, they are worthless - a share certificate to the idea of Robinhood, nothing more.

Robinhood raised $2 Billion in its debut, but has a "Market Cap" of $30 billion.  Do the math on that - they sold off 6.6% of the company in the IPO.  The insiders kept the 93.3% of the rest.  Well, except the shares they sold off, that is:

The company sold 52.4 million shares, raising close to $2 billion. Co-founders Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt each sold about $50 million worth of stock. The company was last valued in the private markets in September at $11.7 billion.

Fifty million - about fifty times what you can expect to save in your lifetime, if you have a good middle-class job.  And fifty million represents a drop in the bucket compared to the "billions" they still own in remaining Class-B shares.  In other words, Fifty mil was just a taste for them - enough to buy a mansion and a new Ferrari.

Note also how the "valuation" of the company last September was only 11 billion, but the "Market Cap" - thanks to the IPO is now $30 billion.  Nice way to triple your money, overnight, if your name is Bhatt or Tenev!  This illustrates why Market Cap means nothing, really, except to insiders.

And who pays for all of this?  Little people, lining up to give them $500 here or $1000 there, with their blubbering thanks.  "Please Mr. IPO - take my money!  PLEASE!"

It also explains why the share price languished.  Not only did they have to unload the IPO shares, but the founders were diluting the market by selling off $50 mil of their own stuff!

Robinhood doesn't steal from the rich and give to the poor, the poor give them money, willingly, and make the Robinhood insiders rich.

So why do people throw money at these things?  Why indeed, when in recent history - not even ten years ago - we realized what cons these things were.  Sure-fire investments that can't go wrong - right?  People out-bidding each other for the privilege of buying an overpriced house.  It all sounds so familiar, yet people fail to see the parallels.  It is 2007 all over again.

Bear in mind that the 20-somethings throwing money at these things were barely 10 years old when the market collapsed in 2008.  Maybe they saw their parents weep when their portfolio was cut in half, or they lost their house to foreclosure.  But they didn't learn a damn thing from it.  Far from it - they will invest in clever stocks and make a fortune!  Not end up broke like their elders!

Funny thing, I was shopping at Hanniford supermarket the other day, and like most places they had a big sign saying they were hiring.  The benefits were pretty amazing, including a Fidelity 401(k) with 5% matching feature.  And I am sure few employees took advantage of this guaranteed 100% immediate return-on-investment, either.  But I am sure more than a few threw a few bucks at Gamestop or Robinhood or Bitcoin or Gold or whatever - and are "hanging in there" because it is sure to come back.

Like I said, you don't have to steal from the poor, they will willingly hand you over their money.

It is sad to watch.  Maybe I am wrong about this - that Robinhood will figure out some way to make huge profits off of free trades and become a wildly profitable company and drive the share price up to $70.  Maybe, but I doubt it.  Like Gamestop and so much of the market today, it will go up in price, but not in value, driven by the law of supply and demand, not by underlying metrics.  Clueless masses buy and buy, based on these breathless stories in the financial press and anonymous postings on Reddit.

This will not end well!

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A World Without Men? (Amen!)

Are men the cause of all the trouble in the world - or do they just have more opportunity?

Men are always up to no good, make no mistake about that.  Due to our biological differences, men have always enjoyed a more dominate role in society throughout history, and even today, throughout the world and even in progressive Western countries, despite the strides women have made.

Men dominate industry, politics, government, academia, religion, the sciences, and just about everything else.  Women are catching up, at least in Western countries, but are still far behind in terms of participation and pay.  Why is this?

Well, part of it may be biological and historical.  Women were viewed as "the weaker sex" or "the fairer sex" as they were not as large and strong as men, at least in terms of upper-body strength.  They also got pregnant.   And pregnancy meant, historically, being incapacitated for a time, not only during the latter part of pregnancy, but during childbirth and the early child-rearing years.  Historically, women were charged with raising the young, and this carried over even into relatively modern times, where jobs like teaching or nursing, which required nurturing, were historically women's roles - and often the only roles they were allowed, outside of the home.

There may be other physical manifestations as well - the dominance of testosterone versus estrogen might explain not only physical differences but behavioral ones as well.

The problem is, not only do men dominate much of society, they also create more than their fair share of troubles.  Men make up over 90% of prison inmates and are responsible for more than 90% of the crime in the world.  And it is safe to say that men are behind most if not all the wars in the world, and the atrocities and horrors - although women have lent a helping hand there as well.   But overall, it seems men create much trouble for the rest of society.

Some women - particularly Lesbians - argue that men are unnecessary.  "You finish the candy bar, you throw away the wrapper" they argue.   Men's only real contribution to "mankind" is to provide seed to inseminate an egg - something that can be done from a test tube or even artificially.   It is an interesting thought - would a society that was all women be much different than the male dominated society we have today?

There was a mythical society of women, called Amazons - no relation to the river or the online shopping site.  But of course, this was a myth created by men, and in their limited imagination, the only thing they could come up with, is a race of women who behave like men - warriors and invaders.  So I doubt that would be a model for a women-dominated society.

I have heard from some feminists (and again, Lesbians) that they believe that women work differently than men.  Men want a hierarchy, with someone on top, and then layers of authority radiating downward to the bottom.  And indeed, corporations and the military are arranged this way.  You take orders from above, and give orders to those below - unless of course, like most people, you are on the bottom rung.

Men, they argue, compete and conflict with each other, to claw the way to the top of this pyramid.  And historically, some leaders - Presidents, even - have played off one subordinate against another, figuring that this competition leads to greater achievement. Others might argue it leads to wasteful infighting and disunity, when pulling together as a team might be more productive.

Women, they argue, work cooperatively, and in a woman-dominated society, people would work together, in concert, and use consensus, not strongman leadership, to determine what course of action to take.  Everyone would live together in peace and harmony!

Maybe.  Or they might show themselves to be assholes like men are.  It is hard to say, given that we haven't had a chance to experiment with society this way.

When I worked at Planned Parenthood as an intern, I was shocked that I was one of the few men working there.  The women explained to me that the janitor did the heavy lifting of boxes and changing lightbulbs, and the director oversaw the entire operation.  And then there was me.   I was flabberghasted that this women's health organization was headed by a man. "Oh, you have to have a man running things," one of the 'liberated' woman told me, "if we had a woman in charge, we'd spend all day tearing her down!"  The other women nodded in agreement.

As an aside, I should note that I learned a lot about men while at Planned Parenthood.   The boyfriends would \sit in their hopped-up cars listening to 80's rock in the parking lot, while their girlfriends were fitted for a IUD.  Nice.  But worse were horrific stories, such as one told to me by a woman from the Dominican Republic, who explained that her boyfriend would beat the crap out of her, every time she got pregnant (her fault, right?) and kick her down the stairs.  Men - what's not to like?

But getting back to topic, maybe back in 1985 women thought men needed to run things.  Maybe it isn't true today.  But then again, a friend of mine recently retired from a charity organization that was staffed entirely by women.  He was the director, and the women there said the same thing as the women at Planned Parenthood back in 1985 - that they would respect the authority of a man, but would tear down a fellow woman if she was put in charge.

Maybe this isn't true.  Or maybe this is the flaw in the "consensus" theory of management.  If you manage by consensus, it goes without saying you can't have someone "in charge" - elevating their opinion above the consensus of the group.

Of course, there is another possibility.  Women, given the chance, would turn out to be as evil and domineering as men can be - they just haven't had the chance to do so.   They would start holy wars and Jihads and invade countries and create strife and difficulties just like men do.   It is possible - that the only reason women aren't more represented in these statistics is that they have traditionally been in the background, supporting their men, but not risking their own situation in the process.  Every evil dictator in the world had a wife or girlfriend.   Men marching off to war are supported by their families back home.  You look at the Nazi parades of the 1930's and there were plenty of women giving the Hitler salute.

Maybe it is just that men, having more time on their hands, get into more trouble.   Some biologists claim that sleep in animals isn't just a chance to rest and recuperate from the day's labor, but a way of keeping animals inactive so they stay out of trouble and are not eaten by other animals.  Maybe men get into more trouble because they have more spare time on their hands.  Maybe if they spent more time at home, raising the kids, the world would be a better place.  Maybe.

On the other hand, women have proven themselves to be competent in almost - if not every - field of endeavor that men engage in.  In my lifetime, I've seen our society go from an era where a "woman doctor" or a "lady lawyer" was a novelty, to the point where they are starting to dominate these fields of endeavor, at least in terms of recent school graduates.  And women in the military went from being an auxiliary service to combat roles.  Maybe we don't have an army of Amazons - yet - but it is clear women can be warriors and killers, if they choose to be.

This makes me wonder - do we need to build more women's prisons?  Are crime rates starting to equalize as well?   Some statistics seem to indicate this is the case - the incidence of women in crime is on the rise.  If this is the case, perhaps men and women aren't so different after all - we are all humans, and whether or not we engage in certain behaviors depends more on opportunity than motive.

Perhaps.   I guess we'll never really know, at least in my lifetime.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

You Don't Have to Live as a Refugee!

There is a difference between living and warehousing.

In my previous posting, I mentioned how some folks working at Amazon are little more than warehousing themselves like the goods they are picking and packing.  Hanging out in a rundown RV, walking across the street every day to the looming building, and working for long hours and low pay. How did they end up like that?  And is that really living?

For many people, life is something that happens to them, and not the other way around.  Things, events in their lives, occur, and it is like the weather - they can't see it coming, and they have no control over it.  These are the folks who think that money is like rain - some days it pours buckets, other days are a drought. And its been pretty dry lately.

This is not to say that we have absolute control over our lives - we are always at the mercy of outside forces and the almighty (or the law of probability - take your pick).  But there is a difference between being proactive and inactive.

For example, in some postings from many years ago, I noted that in order to change my life situation, I had to move away from depressed Syracuse, New York.  And a good thing I did, too - the factory I worked at is not only closed, they bulldozed it to the ground.   I guess they felt they had to salt the earth to make sure nothing would grow there, ever again.  But the main thing was, it allowed me to change my life, forever.  Sometimes you have to move to where the money is.

As I noted before, I left Syracuse in 1987.  Within a decade, I was a law school graduate, owned my own home, owned my own office building, had my own law practice - as well as two investment properties - and found the love of my life.   Something to think about, if you ever start to believe that nothing in your life will ever change - or that such changes will take forever.

It did not come without some effort, of course.  And teamwork.

In response to that posting, I received a number of comments which were disheartening.  First off, some were saying, "Well, how can you leave your friends and home behind!  It's your hometown!  Your friends!  You owe them something!"   Kind of hard to parse that, but it is funny how people will see an attachment to a run-down community and drug-addicted and/or mentally ill friends, to the point they sacrifice their lives in the process.

The second comment - the subject of this posting - was something to the effect of, "Well, I guess I should move, then.  Where do you think I should move to?"  And this reflects the "refugee" type behavior we see so much in the USA, particularly in Florida.

When I moved to Washington, it wasn't some stupid willy-nilly move, taking city names out of a hat and then deciding where to go.  I interviewed with a number of companies across America, and I decided to take a job offer from the Patent Office, after talking to an old family friend who recommended I give it a try.  Mark moved here after college with a job offer in hand from Williams Sonoma, to open their new store in Georgetown Park as a manager.

We both didn't just load up a U-haul with our crap, towing an old, inoperable Camaro behind, and just drive until we ran out of gas and then set up shop there.   You'd be surprised how many people do just that.  They hear there are "jobs a-plenty" at such-and-such location, and like the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath, they load up the truck and a-move to Beverly.  Hills, that is.  Swimming Pools, Movie Stars.

It is living like a refugee.  They may find a job, but never a career.   They move from one flophouse or trailer park to another, from one low-wage, low-skill job to another, never advancing very far, never getting out of debt, declaring bankruptcy more than once, and often hopeless and depressed.  And yes, drugs and alcohol figure prominently in this equation.

That is, in part, how I was able to turn my life around in a decade. I gave up drinking and pot-smoking and moved on.  Funny how that works!  Within a year, I had graduated from Engineering school (after toying with a degree for nearly a decade).  As I noted before, it was like letting go of a pile of cinderblocks I had been dragging around - I raced ahead, a man unleashed.

But beyond that, I had a resume, a work history, a career path.  I wasn't just moving willy-nilly and hoping someone was hiring when I got there.  That is the difference between living, and living as a refugee.

And the comparison to refugees we see across the world, I think, is apt.  Or more precisely, they are one and the same.  Worldwide we have a refugee crises, as people flee hunger, drought, violence, and persecution.  Often, they wait too long before moving - often after it is too late.  Often, they move to a new area, with no concrete plans as to what to do, carrying all their possessions on their back, at the mercy of the fates and the goodwill of others.  Often, it does not work out well for them.

There are some, like Yassir Arafat, who benefit from keeping people as refugees as long as possible.  He kept his own people in refugee camps, in primitive conditions, knowing that it was good eye-candy for the news media and would generate sympathy - and aid checks, which he cashed and deposited to his Swiss bank accounts.  Letting people settle and make a living would spoil all of that.  Funny thing, though, the Arabs who didn't flee Israel are still living there, working and voting.  But I digress.

When I was at Syracuse University, I met a young Palestinian fellow who was in a wheelchair (due to an accident).  He was studying Engineering. His goal was to get a good job in the US and get the hell out of the West Bank, where there was no future for him.  Oddly enough (or not so oddly) many "back home" thought he should give up his life and dreams and move back to "fight the good fight" and sacrifice his life so Hamas could score some politcal points or whatever.  He was fortunate, but also smart.  He got the hell out.

Throwing your fates to the winds is never a good idea.  And while fate plays a hand in all of our lives - including and especially the final chapter - that does not mean you should give up on making any attempt at improving your lot in life. And yes, sometimes this means making sacrifices - giving up the drugs and booze and "friends" who want to drag you back down.

But of course, the people living as refugees aren't reading this.  They aren't typing up their resume or thinking about their career path.  At best, they hope to get a job somewhere, maybe a "good-paying" job that doesn't involve a lot of work.  And maybe someday, they'll strike it rich, through some unknown means - perhaps a lottery ticket.   Maybe then, they'll restore that 1985 Camaro they've been dragging around from place to place.  That would be bitchin!

But of course, these dreams never quite work out, and such folks end up resorting to petty crimes and often end up in jail.  You see it all the time down South - the infamous "Florida Man" (it's just one guy?) who is always up to some sort of antics.

When I see folks living like that - like refugees, whether in their depressed hometown or on the road like the Joad family in a U-haul - I kind of feel sorry for them.  They are trapped in a jail-like existence, but yet they carry the key to their cell on their belt.   They just can't seem to find it, or figure out how to use it.

You don't have to live like a refugee.  Unless you want to, of course.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Conudrum of Jeff Bezos

People aren't always the way we pigeon-hole them to be.

Jeff Bezos went up into space in his giant dick-rocket - and unfortunately, he returned.  It is not that I dislike him personally - I have no idea what his personality, if any, is like - but I dislike the way he runs Amazon, which tries to deceive me with every single checkout into either signing up for "prime" or paying for shipping.  Deceptive practices usually mean deceptive people.

I recently ran into a guy who went to work for an Amazon warehouse.  He left after two months - the last of the dozen or so employees they had hired in his group.  Sounds like my experience at United Parcel.  Turnover at Amazon is apparently staggeringly high.

He went for the job interview two months earlier, wearing a nice shirt and tie - after all, it was a job interview, right?  The other dozen applicants were not so nicely dressed.  Some were wearing tank tops, others in flip-flops.  More than one smelled like they hadn't bathed in days.  All twelve were hired.  Most quit within a month.  He and one other guy were all that was left after two months.  The work was grueling and the pay low and the benefits nonexistent.

They promised him a full-time position, but only if he made quota.  He had to "pick" 400 items an hour, which means about one every nine seconds.  The bins he had to pick from might contain several different items that all were about the same size.  It was the smaller items that were the hardest - tiny things that all looked alike, and you had to sort through the bin to get the right thing.  This cut into your picking rate.   Since he never consistently made 400 picks per hour, they never offered him a full-time position, and thus no benefits.   How convenient for Amazon!

His story was interesting and correlated with my experiences camping.  We were in one run-down trailer park in California, and most of the people living there - in old, dilapidated RVs - walked across the street every morning (or evening) to the giant Amazon warehouse.  Like the goods inside, they too were being warehoused - not really living, but just getting by, one day at a time.  This whole "gig economy" thing is about the same - people driving for Uber and living in their cars.  The only people making money at these gigs are the people at the top.  Sure, early on you might do OK, but then they change the rules, much as airlines change frequent flyer miles redemption terms.   You never win.

What struck me as odd about the whole situation is that Jeff Bezos is supposedly a "liberal" and owns the liberal Washington Post, whose masthead he changed to Democracy Cries In The Darkness.  And I think, at this stage, we can freely call the Washington Post "liberal" and Fox News "conservative" and toss away this pretense that our news outlets are trying to be impartial and neutral, in news reporting as well as opinion pieces.

Liberals are supposed to be for the people, right?  Pro-worker, pro-union, and pro-family?  Yet Bezos is a union-buster with the best of them - perhaps putting our robber barons of the 20th century to shame with his effectiveness.  Worse yet, he is (or is trying to be) a monopolist.  Dominating the online sales market, he has now raised prices as well - raking in billions of dollars and expanding his empire to include everything from computer services for the government to rockets into (suborbital) space.  We haven't seen this type of conglomerate-building since, well, since before the great depression.

Of course, the labels "liberal" or "conservative" or "Republican" or "Democrat" are deceiving.  I grew up in Republican New York State, where governor Rockefeller lead the liberal wing of the GOP.  Big government would solve all our problems, and Albany would have all the answers.  Later on, next door in Massachusetts, Republican Governor Mitt Romney would institute a government-run health care system that today would be (and is) decried by "conservatives."

People can't be pigeon-holed into neat compartments.  Not every Republican is against abortion and for Qanon.  Not every Democrat is against the death penalty and in favor of open borders.  People pretty much lay out on a spectrum of beliefs, and they usually pick the candidate most closely aligned with the beliefs they hold most dear.  I have Catholic friends who voted for Trump, not because he is a Godly man, but because to them, the most important issue in the world is abortion - and they wanted the Supreme Court packed with conservatives.  Their own priest told them, from the pulpit, to vote for Trump.  So they did.

But when January 6th came around, they quickly pulled down their Trump yard signs.  Everyone has their limits.

What motivates Jeff Bezos?  I mean, besides money and fame and whatnot?   Why would he own a newspaper championing the left, when his practices are, well, about as right-wing as a businessman can get?

Some on the right might argue there is a method to this madness.  I mentioned before that things like food stamps and ADC and other programs to help the poor are often also a big help to low-wage employers.  Walmart can pay its employees less, if the employees get a subsidy from the government in the form of food stamps or an Obamaphone or whatnot.  And the Walmart employee website has (or at least had) helpful links for employees to click on, to help them obtain these benefits.  Why bother offering people full-time jobs, where health insurance could cost the company $20,000 per year per employee?  Make them part-time and they qualify for a full subsidy on Obamacare.  Pretty neat trick, eh?

But it goes further than that - at least according to some folks. I am not so sure that the leftists like Bezos are that Machiavellian.   Some argue that leftist thinking - which posits that the government should provide cradle-to-grave services in a Socialist state - is designed to get people to be dependent on the government for basic survival.  Once you have people "hooked" on government programs, they argue, it is a lot easier to keep them in line and get them to vote for you.  So every election season, the Democrats trot out all the welfare benefits they are providing to the poor, and insinuate the poor should therefor vote for them. And of course, Republicans are raked over the coals for trying to cut these benefits.  Unfortunately, the poor are very inconsistent voters - if they vote at all, they are likely to vote for the "wrong" candidate - particularly poor rural whites. So I am not sure it is a theory that works.

The net result (according to this theory) is that people stop providing for themselves and look to the government as the first (and only) step in solving their personal problems.  Once conditioned to believe that government can solve any problem, they stop looking for other solutions - such as taking their own initiative or changing their own behavior.  For example, the opioid epidemic isn't the fault of those abusing the drugs, but the fault of government for not providing more drug treatment programs!  Of course, those same rightists who advance such theories would never suggest that perhaps the real problem is a system that rewards a few companies (and one family) billions of dollars for promoting prescription opioid abuse.

Like I said, it's a theory, and not one I necessarily subscribe to.  But it has certain angles that make a little sense.  And in understanding Bezos, maybe some of this is true.  By owning the Washington Post - which he promises to take a "hands on" approach to, now that he has "stepped down" as CEO of Amazon - he can whitewash his reputation, much as Andrew Carnegie did by building libraries, with money he made off the backs of the people.   In fact, most billionaires do this - listen to the list of "sponsors" on NPR sometime - most of them are foundations based on the remnants of wealth of robber-barons of the 20th Century.  The Rockefeller foundation does good deeds, John D. Rockefeller did horrific things to make his millions.  The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation helps people in third-world countries.   Microsoft used monopoly practices to extract huge amounts of money from the wallet of every American - and provided a third-rate operating system in exchange.  Bezos is just the latest example of these sharp-practicing businessmen trying to take the tarnish off their reputation.

The conundrum isn't just for us to decipher, but for Bezos himself.  He champions the little guy, but at the same time, union-busts.  But if Amazon were unionized, costs would skyrocket and he would have to raise prices dramatically - allowing other competitors, particularly smaller mom-and-pop operations to get a foot in the door.  Maybe this is already happening.  I bought a set of tires online recently, and Amazon, TireRack, and Walmart all wanted $258 a tire (no price-fixing here, folks!) while a small company in Wisconsin wanted only $208.  Bezos, or more precisely, Amazon, needs to keep costs low, so they can undercut the competition and run the small player out of business - the same game plan that John D. Rockefeller used to create Standard Oil.

Of course, Bezos claims he is "helping the little guy" by providing us with all this cheap crap made in China, delivered to our door, where porch pirates can then steal it.  No problem!  Amazon is asking landlords for keys to get into your apartment building, so your precious new piece of electronic crap doesn't get swiped.

That is the problem with Amazon, however.  It isn't poor people being helped by low prices and free shipping (if the prices are indeed, actually low and the shipping indeed, actually free) but middle-class people who buy this junk while surfing at the office.  The guy in the warehouse or the guy driving the Amazon truck are not making out as well.   But they are head-and-shoulders above the poor bastard in China who is working in sweatshop conditions for pennies an hour to make us all this enticing junk.  The whole system is based on exploitation - at one part of the planet or another.

As I noted in another posting, I don't buy as much from Amazon as I used to.  If I am shopping for an item, I pick the particular item (often using part number) and them open a plethora of tabs for different shopping venues.  Amazon is usually the last choice.   I often find what I am looking for at a better price on the manufacturer's website or that of a small mom-and-pop online store.   Amazon often has the highest prices.  I only resort to Amazon if there are no other options, or if I want something very quickly.

But of course, Bezos doesn't have to worry about that anymore.  Once you've made your Billions, you can retire and spend the rest of your life setting up foundations and doing good deeds and driving your Ferrari around the deck of your mega-yacht.  Meanwhile, Amazon is taken over by professional managers, who are paid in stock options and will have every incentive to jigger-up the share price, and cut wages and benefits further.  Eventually, this could result in unionization, and Amazon may go the way of Sears and other retailers before it - a slow death that may take decades to occur.

Meanwhile, the Bezos foundation will linger on, for a century or more!

I mentioned before (I think) about the Lemelson foundation.  They also "sponsor" on NPR and are the sponsor of the Smithsonian Museum of American History and also the management school at MIT.  Who is Lemelson?  Well, to hear some people tell it, he is the biggest Patent troll of all time - extorting money from companies right and left, by alleging infringement of his somewhat vaguely-worded Patents.  Whether you believe that or not is not the the point - the point is, once he made his millions (a measly half-billion, while he was alive, according to some sources) he set about to polish his reputation through these donations to institutions which would use his name in return.

Once you have billions and a yacht, and all the fancy cars, the trophy wife (or wives) and the mansions across the globe - then what?  You want people to respect you.  You want to be let into their little club, in Davos or Bohemian Grove or whatever.  I mean, it is what drives Trump - he cannot stand the humiliation of losing an election, so he just claims it didn't happen.  And no matter how many country clubs he buys, they won't let him into the club, which just makes him angrier and angrier.  How this guy hasn't had a major coronary is beyond me.

But getting back to Bezos, I think he wants to polish his reputation as a Benevolent Billionaire.  He's one of us!  Fighting for the little guy with his newspaper, while at the same time, screwing the little guy with his business practices.  Not only is he screwing the employees, but the suppliers and online merchants - and anyone who dares to compete with him who doesn't have the deep pockets of a Walmart.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Influencers and Investments

Influencers can sell a lot of things, including investments.

Probably one of the most interesting developments in marketing in the 21st century has been the rise of the influencer.   Sure, influencers existed in times past, but on a much more primitive scale.  Perhaps, as a teen, you'd follow the antics of your favorite rock star or celebrity, and then try to mimick their behavior and clothing styles.  And you'd buy their albums and go to their movies or whatever other venture they were involved in.

But it was rare that such influencers sold more than their own products.  In fact, we would have rebelled if some rock star started blatantly hawking products - they would be selling off their own authenticity, which in turn was their very currency.  Imagine the Rolling Stones interrupting a concert to make a pitch for Coca-Cola.  It wouldn't have gone over well - back then, anyway.

The Simpsons, in an early episode (before, I think we can all agree, Fox turned it into crap) featured Krusty the Clown doing edgy stand-up comedy in the mode of George Carlin.  He decries corporate greed and the wall street fat cats, until they make him an offer he can't refuse.  He ends up hawking the "Canyonero" - a bloated SUV - and his fans flee in droves.

Of course, since those days, we expect our celebrities and rock stars to endorse products other than their own.  Athletes compete for endorsement contracts from sporting goods makers and makers of sports drinks.  They hire marketing experts of their own to groom and enhance their image, and figuring out what products to endorse is part and parcel of this.  Rock stars blatantly have "sponsors" for their rock tours, even as they charge $200-and-up for a ticket to an "oxygen seat" in a stadium, where the performer appears to be the size of a head of a pin.  And of course, our movies are now invaded by product placements, where a character will just casually consume a soft drink or beer, with the label of course, facing the audience.  Even Schindler's List had product placements in it.

Of course, many sci-fi franchises suffer from lack of product placement.  You can't put a can of Coca-Cola in the hands of Darth Vader, as he lives in a galaxy far, far away.  But never fear, George Lucas has done a bang-up job of marketing numerous products spun-off from the franchise, from toys to t-shirts to just about anything.

But in the early 2010's, we started to see a new form of "influencer" on the Internet.  These were people who had blog sites and YouTube channels and whatnot, that attracted "followers" (Like and Subscribe! as they say) and would "review" products and get paid - an awful lot of money.  A young kid, barely 7 years old, makes millions just playing with toys.  Well, his parents made millions, anyway.  It remains to be seen what the kid will get when he turns 18. Despite "Coogan's Law" child actors are still being ripped-off by their parents. Ask McCaulay Culkin about that.  But I digress.

Mark follows some of these channels.  And sometimes, they can be helpful.  When we bought a roll-top tonneau cover for our pickup truck, we looked at a dozen "review" sites online, run by guys who were hoping to make that sweet YouTube bucks by putting up videos and getting followers.  Most don't make squat.   They do get free product from the manufacturers, of course, and some were up-front about this, which made their reviews more honest.  But you can kind of read-between-the-lines on these things, and I am not sure we were so much "influenced" by the videos as they confirmed the choice we intended to make was the right one.   But the human brain is a tricky thing, and often we don't understand how it works ourselves.  So, who knows?

And perhaps that is the scary part of this.  When we see a blaring ad on television, we turn the sound down.  We know it is an ad, and maybe it influences us by making us aware of a product or learning the jingle of the company.  We realize, consciously, these are promotions.  But then again, they also subtly influence us.

Influencers, on the other hand, can be more subtle.  Or not. There are legions of idiots out there who will follow any pied piper, and will willingly buy any product endorsed by their favorite influencer.  If this means a new pair of shoes endorsed by the Kardashians, or a widget for your camper endorsed by some couple Airstreaming Across America! (tm), the harm is pretty low.

But then, someone figured out that you can sell Investments this way.  In a recent article online, some young folks decry being "influenced" to buy some sketchy "altcoins" online.  They are pissed off because these alt-coins are scams, they claim.  But of course, Bitcoin isn't a scam, right?  And Elon Musk and Sooze Orman aren't influencers, are they?

Go online and google "Bitcoin Price" and you will be treated to a host of SEO articles and sites where "experts" on Bitcoin say things like, "My target price for Bitcoin is a Trillion-Zillion Dollars!" without really saying any concrete reason why this would be.  Again, Bitcoin, like all digital currency, is based entirely on scarcity.  Scarcity of any commodity determines price, not underlying value.  So for example, the price of gold is determined by scarcity - the law of supply-and-demand - or perceived scarcity, which is what drives the price of diamonds. 

Diamonds, it turns out, are pretty common things.  You can make them, flawlessly, in a laboratory (or factory).  And at first, the diamond people had an informal arrangement with the lab people to only make "artificial" diamonds for industrial purposes - diamond grit for grinding equipment and saws and whatnot.   But that sort of went by the wayside when larger and larger diamonds could be made.  So today, the diamond mining people extol the virtues of "natural" diamonds, which have flaws in them, unlike "artificial" ones.  Oddly enough, it wasn't long ago, that the same people were extolling the virtues of a "flawless" natural diamond.

But diamonds and gold have a uses in the world, other than as investment.  Diamonds have a number of industrial uses, and gold is a great conductor that doesn't tarnish or corrode.  Both are useful for jewelry, too.  But cryptocurrency?  It's only real "use" is in paying ransoms or buying arms, drugs, or children.  And since governments are clamping down on these things, these "uses" may disappear in short order.  The US Government was able to "claw back" much of the ransom paid recently in a ransomware attack.  If that's the case - what's left for Bitcoin?   And no, you will never be able to use it to buy a Starbucks - the cost of each transaction exceeds the price of a cup of coffee.  It isn't a currency.  At best, it is a clunky expensive way to transfer money, semi-anonymously.

So that just leaves scarcity.  The "Sooze" Orman opined that it intrigued her as a "virtual gold" investment.  But like I said, at least gold has a real value.  Even if the price is bid up over its production value (as happens, time and time again) it can't crash down below its real market value - at that point, smarter investors buy it.  But crytpocurrencies?  They can go all the way down to zero - much as stocks sometimes do, when companies go bankrupt.   And many "cryptos" have done just that and more will likely.

That's what made me fall out of my chair laughing, reading that article.  These folks, many of them young men, blindly bought something they didn't understand, because some "esports" star was promoting it or whatever.   I guess if they only lost a few hundred dollars, it was cheaper than tuition at a local college.  That is the tuition in the school of hard knocks, however.  And in that regard, if all they lost was a few hundred or a few thousand, they got off cheaply.

But this extreme case is just the tip of the iceberg.  It seems that all sorts of investments are being hyped these days - and this isn't going to end well.  It never does.  Retail investors (read: chumps like you and me) are highly irrational investors.  The "invisible hand" of the marketplace can be easily swayed by emotional beliefs, with FOMO being the worst of them.   Buy now, before you are priced out of the market!  Don't you wish you bought Apple back in the day?

But of course, Apple stock has a tortured history - it languished for decades, and Steve Jobs was actually fired from the company at one point.   And even today, Apple is based on one product - its smart phone.  And recently, Apple has sank from Number two to number three in the marketplace, being supplanted not only by Samsung phones, but by phones from Xiamoi in China.  In terms of platform, however, Apple has a tiny share of the market - with Android phones making up over 70%, much as PC's make up the dominate share of that market as well.   Again, perception trumps reality - people will pay $1200 for an iPhone, when you can buy an Android phone for less than half the price.   But then again, you don't have bragging rights and a trendy logo.

Apple sells most of their phones in the US, much as Mercedes and BMW sell most of their cars here as well.  Americans love status - and they can afford it, or so they think, anyway.  Americans are highly irrational people - overweight, overfed, and overpaid.  So we breathlessly buy whatever thing we think will make us look better, or what will make us fabulously rich.

In the past, I fell for this as well - and still do, on occasion.  When the economy fell apart in 2008, I started this blog, as I was trying to figure out what went wrong and what I did wrong.  While others were blaming big business or Wall Street, I tried to look inward and see what I could do to change my lot in life.

This article about clueless "gamers" buying alt-coins based on promotions from influencers, is a case in point.  The people who lost money in this scam don't blame themselves for being idiots, but rather blame the influencers for making them do it.   Nothing is ever our fault!  You put your finger in a light socket and electrocute yourself, it has to be the fault of the electric company, right?

Taking control of your own life means not handing over control to others.  Asking others for advice is one thing, blindly following it, is another.  When someone tries to sell you an investment, promising you riches beyond your wildest dreams, you have to ask yourself why they are telling anyone about it.  Because if it was such a sweet deal, they would be investing in it themselves and not telling anyone about it, because they'd want to keep all that profit.

Oh, right, they want to help out their fellow gamers!  Give me a break - history has shown how awful gamers treat each other - SWAT-ing and Doxxing one another, and tearing each other down online.  You want to take investment advice from them?

Or anyone?   Taking investment advice from anyone who has a dog in the fight is always a bad idea.  The nice man at the storefront investment company (and you know which one I am talking about - coming to a strip-mall near you!) gets a percentage of your investments.  So he tells you to invest with them.  The life insurance salesman gets a commission on each sale - so he sells you one policy after another.

I suppose even I have an angle, but I have yet to figure it out.   But not a day goes by without someone e-mailing me asking to do a "guest posting" about payday loans or extended car warranties or whatnot  (and not in a negative sense, I am sure).  So there are influencers who try to influence influence.  It never fucking ends, does it?

I don't feel sorry for these "esports" (Really? Gaming is a sport?  Will in be in the 2024 Olympics?) players.   What is sad to me is that they learned nothing from their experience, choosing instead to blame the influencers and not themselves for being so stupid to buy into investment advice from strangers on the Internet.

This will not end well!

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Demands Are Not News!

The News isn't something that just happens, it is often something that is created.

I started writing this blog entry weeks ago, but couldn't figure out the angle I was looking for.  A helpful reader filled in the blanks for me with a link to this article about "pseudo-events."  It sort of filled in the blanks for me.  The "news" doesn't just happen, it is manufactured.

We watch the "news" on television or on our phone or read the paper (really?) and think that what is being reported is what is newsworthy - the events of the day.  But over time, you start to realize that what is considered "news" is really crap. As I noted before, with financial "news" the sudden movement of a stock, up or down, is considered "news" and thus people read about ACME stock shooting up, and think, "I should buy ACME stock, it's going places!" - and it is, into the dumpster.  Once a stock shoots up, and once the press notices, it is likely too late to get on the train.

Similarly, if ACME stock tanks, that is "news" and people panic-sell because it is going down.  Again, a bad move, as it may recover over time.  Buy high, sell low - the path to bankruptcy.  And I know this as when I started out investing in stocks, I did these dumb things.  Today, I put money into mutual funds and then pretty much leave it alone.  Investing based on the "news" is a flawed idea, as what is "news" is often specious, and even when accurate, a bad way to buy and sell stocks.

The "news" doesn't report slow-moving trends, in general, or if they do, it is a story buried deep in the paper or hardly noticed.  AJAX stock has slowly increased in value over the last two decades, and the company makes a good product at a reasonable price and has a good reputation.  Better still, it pays a regular dividend.  BORING!  No one wants to read about that!  So you never hear about stocks or companies like that, because there is no "event" for the news to report.  And without an "event" it isn't, by definition, "news."

Marketing people and public relations people, on the other hand, can create an event when there is none, as the link above notes.  Starved for attention?  Want to hype the stock price a bit?  Issue a press release.  Send it out and the news media will pick it up and print it verbatim.  Worse yet, you can actually pay the news to print it.  AP, for example, routinely runs articles that are little more than paid ads - and they admit to being paid to run them.

But you needn't pay much, if anything, because the news business is staffed and understaffed by lazy people, who will print or show anything with a catchy title and some eye-candy graphicsThree-wheeled car?  Rotating skyscraper?  Air-powered car?  Whatever scam you are running, the news media is your friend, which is how Bitcoin got started.

Recently, I have noticed a new form of "news by press release" in the form of "demands".  Republicans, now out of power, have trouble making headlines.  You want to keep your name in the paper, get name recognition, and stay in power (or get into power).  Let's face it, most voters will pull the lever for the candidate with the greatest name recognition - which is why in some primary and local races, it has been reported that candidates with names confusingly similar to another candidate have literally been hired to run, to siphon off votes from low-information voters.

But - conundrum!  How can you stay in the news as the minority party, when nothing you do (other than being obstructionist, which is your only lever of power - and both parties do it, when out of power) makes news?  Simple.  Issue a press release "demanding" that someone in the opposing party do something, or apologize, or whatever.   The next day, it makes headlines.  "Republicans DEMAND that President Biden apologize for calling Trump a doo-doo head!"  The shit just writes itself.

To me, however, these are nonsense headlines.  Demands are something you can only make if you are holding hostages.  "We have your daughter, and if you want her released, you must meet our demands!" reads the note made from letters cut from a magazine.  Say, what will kidnappers do in the future once print publications disappear?  Kind of hard to cut-and-paste from articles on your smart phone.  Just wondering.

Without leverage, demands are meaningless and in fact, are not demands.  In fact, they mean nothing.  In fact, it is just bullshit.  It isn't news, it is just crap - designed to get you to click.  And if you are Republican, you click to see what "your team" is doing and cheer them on.  "Way to go, Turtle-boy!  Telling those Demmy-crats what for!"  Or, if you are a Democrat, you click on it to see what latest outrage those heartless Republicans are up to now - probably cutting school lunches for starving overweight children again.

Or... you could just not click on this crap, or just not read the news in general.  I find that the "news" is like a Skinner box these days.  You click on a news app, and you find less and less of real interest to read.  It seems most of the "stories" are designed to trigger obsessive-compulsive people with made-up "controversies" that they hope will outrage you.  Yes, there are real events and tragedies, such as the collapse of the condo building in Surfside last month.  But like anything else, it takes weeks, if not months or years before you understand what really happened there.  In the meantime, all they present is click-bait stories designed to get you to read or watch.  And it goes without saying that no one reported the slow decay of the rebar over the last 20 years - that's not a story.

Maybe the "news" isn't all that necessary to daily living.  Yet so many people obsess about it - we all do.  My Dad used to come home from work every evening, and the six-o-clock news would come on with Walter Cronkite.   Funny thing, back then, people didn't work until eight or nine at night like they do today.  You went home at five, and were there in time to catch the news.   Of course, later on, my Dad would "work late" with his mistress - he found something more interesting than the "news" it seems.

But as a kid, you were "shushed" if you talked during the "news" and God forbid you should make noises during "60 Minutes" which as we know, is the paragon of honest news reporting.  60 Minutes would always have these "investigative reports" going after some small-time hustler working out of a storefront in Miami, who would put his hand over the camera lens and say "No comment!  Now leave my office!"  Then they would cut to a commercial for burial insurance or a car lease deal or rent-to-own furniture.  Good thing 60 Minutes is going after the bad guys!  And bad guys always are small-time hustlers, not major corporations that advertise on TeeVee, right?  Normative cues, again.

Of course, 60 Minutes was the show where they "exposed" George Bush's war record by using an obviously manufactured letter, supposedly printed on an IBM Selectric typewriter, but clearly using the kerned fonts of Microsoft WORD 2000.  I mean, any idiot could have spotted that from a mile away.  Apparently not Dan Rather.  I mean, not that Bush wasn't a draft-dodger who used big-money influence to get a cushy National Guard assignment.  Beats "bone spurs" though.  But I digress.

The point is, and I think I had one, is that people obsess about "the news" when in fact it adds nothing to their lives, other than to increase their stress levels, manipulate them into believing nonsense, and not informing them of much of anything.  Why is it so important for a retiree to know what is going on in the world?  Yet, on our retirement island, we have older people (mostly men) obsessively watching Fox News for hours at a time, every day.  They become more and more outraged (by design) as the news stories are designed to get you outraged, with clever word choices and slanting of stories.  And I am not picking on Fox news - they all do it, Fox is just "better" at it than most.

And like any good Skinner box, the more you dive into it, the smaller and smaller the rewards are. Pretty soon, you find yourself watching hours of "news" trying to get that dopamine rush from a juicy story, only to discover that they keep repeating the same old stories in a 22-minute format.  The news "apps" are no better - you find yourself obsessively checking the "news" every hour to see if anything interesting is happening.  It isn't. I mean, not for lack of trying - they try to make the Olympics seem interesting, but the only thing people click on (mea culpa!) are the controversies and the corruption and the scandals.  We all love a good scandal, don't we?    Put a "-gate" suffix on that!

What is interesting is that when camping in the forests of New Hampshire or whatever, we are often out of cell service range for days at a time (this is becoming less and less frequent, as the cell companies put towers everywhere - apparently they get paid to keep us connected to the Matrix).   An entire "story" can go from one end of the "news cycle" to the other, and you don't even notice it.   Maybe months or years later, you read about that story, but not likely, as it turns out it wasn't much of a story to begin with.

For example, the "latest outrage!" (TM) is that Nancy Pelosi (Boo! Hiss! - if you are a Republican) isn't going to let Qanonsense Republicans onto the January 6th Committee, because, of course, they would simply disrupt it with Pizzagate conspiracy theories or UFOs or whatever.  This is an outrage!  Keeping Republicans off the investigation after they voted not to have an investigation!

No, it is a tempest in a teapot, and will quickly be forgotten.  The investigation committee will simply re-hash what we already know from the court cases, but it will keep the whole event in the news for months to come, with one startling "revelation" after another - which is the point of the investigation. Which is the point of the Republicans trying to thwart the investigation, or failing that, discredit it as partisan.   That's the point of this "news" snippet - it is another "We Demand!" story designed to change how you think.  This isn't news, it is just political posturing.

If you are off-the-grid for a week, you would never know the story even happened, because, in the greater scheme of things, it isn't that important.  But... if you are connected to the grid 24/7 and obsessively watch "the news" then your outrage meter is pegged, regardless of what your political affiliation is.  It just keeps your brain programmed right or left, depending on which channel you watch, and thinking the other guy is "evil" and "your side" is holy and righteous.

The reality is, it is just more political posturing - sound and fury signifying nothing, a tale told by an idiot.  Nothing to write home about.

It is manufactured news, "pseudo-events" as a helpful reader provided.  It isn't informative or helpful and in fact is harmful to your psyche.  The people who got sucked into Qanonsense or Antifartism aren't evil (necessarily) - it is just they got sucked into these websites and channels that promote strange ideas and they obsessively visit them.  The Qanonsense thing was, in fact, genius in the way it was presented. If they published all the Qanonsense as a book, people would scoff at it.  But presenting it as a series of clues and puzzles and letting people suss it out for themselves, well, that made it Skinner-box compulsive.

It is like Scientology.  The Scientology folks tried to keep their texts "secret" because if you told a new recruit the Level-5 crap - that we are all space aliens or clams or whatever - people would scoff at it, and then not hand over their money.  But if you tease it out through level after level, taking a little (or a lot) of money at each step, well,  you can tell whatever grand story you want to, as they will swallow it in little bites at a time.  Try to force-feed them the whole meal at once, they will throw up.

Indoctrination, it is called.  And today, the news channels and apps and "papers" (which are websites) are all in this business.  Why?  To convince us of a particular political point of view?  I think not so much.  I think rather that once you get someone addicted to MSN or FOX or whatever, you can get them to compulsively watch.  You get your click-rate up, your Nielsen numbers up, and that means your ad revenue goes through the roof.  And when that happens, you get paid - a lot.  So the news anchors and the producers and whatnot get salaries in the millions.  That is their motivation, not politics - money!

So what does this mean?  Are we doomed to devolve into warring factions, egged-on by a news media that is more interested in profits than our nation?  Well, as recent events illustrate, there are limits to this model of money-making.  Most major media channels pulled back after January 6th and have taken pains to point out that the allegations of election fraud are fantasies.   Even with that, however, a large number of people still "believe" and in no small part due to dog-whistling from certain media outlets.

That and the anti-vaxxer crap has been shown the door on many media sites (including Reddit, which at one time was one the biggest cheerleaders for that and Pizzagate and bitherism).  Of course, some on the right cry "censorship!" which again, is another pseudo-event or "Demand" news article.   How ironic that after the GOP fought long and hard to get rid of the "fair time" provisions of the FCC regulations, that they now want a similar provision reinstated for online news.  But of course, the first Amendment - if you bother to actually read it - only proscribes government censorship.  And while I think they would like to be considered governments, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are not quite at that level of power just yet.

It is funny, though, how the loudest voices in these debates are the ones decrying "censorship" and claiming that their voices are not being heard.  Kinda ironic, too.

I don't know what the overall answer is, but on a personal level, I am trying to unplug more and more.  It doesn't help me, personally, to read "the news" every day and to worry about it or obsess about it.  It only serves to raise my blood pressure, which, now that I have backed away from the news, has dropped back into the "good" zone.  Funny how that works!

Friday, July 23, 2021

Rethinking Japan

We have always admired Japanese culture, without thinking about it too much.  Maybe it is time to re-think this.

Americans are fascinated with Japan, and the feeling is mutual, for opposite reasons.  We marvel at their efficiency, their engineering prowess, their ancient traditions, and their national spirit and sense of team play.  They, in turn, are fascinated by our wild recklessness, our rock-n-roll, our lack of discipline, and our free spirit.  There is something to be said about both approaches to life.

But recent events with regard to the Tokyo Olympics cause one to re-think Japan.  One of the organizers was discovered to have made holocaust jokes in poor taste.  Perhaps something to apologize for and to be contrite about.  But far worse, was that the composer of one of the opening theme songs admitted - while laughing - to abusing disabled students when he was in school.  And by abusing, we don't mean name-calling, but physically abusing those less powerful than he was - forcing them to eat excrement, in one instance.

What makes the whole thing worse is that everyone in Japan knew about it, as he confessed (laughingly) to these crimes - and they were crimes - back in the 1990's and he still went on to be a popular rock star, some comparing him to Beck or Brian Wilson - both of whom I am sure are horrified by the prospect.

Funny thing, he was called a "Japanese [fill-in-the-blank American rock star]" but you never hear about an American being called an "American [fill-in-the-blank Japanese famous person]".  Funny how that works.  Funny also that no one in America ever heard about this jerk until now.  Big in Japan just isn't big, even if you can fill stadiums there.

But the problems with Japan go far deeper and further than just the malfeasance of two people.  Bullying isn't some isolated situation, but is institutionalized.   Bullying is Japanese culture - going back to World War II, the Rape of Nanjing, the invasion of Korea, comfort women, the Bataan death march, just to name a few.  But today, of course, Japan admits that none of that ever happened and that is a second disturbing aspect of Japanese culture - denial.

It is bad that this kid bullied and physically assaulted disabled kids - that is the mark of an utter coward.  It is bad that he admitted to it while laughing about it.  But what was worse was the Japanese tendency to sweep things under the rug - to preserve "face" by pretending things don't happen when they do.   For example, the idea that racism and crime in Japan don't exist - because they are never talked about.

For example, crime.  Japan is famously crime-free and its policemen don't even carry guns!  Right?  Well, not exactly.  When I was in Osaka, I had two experiences which seem to negate this.  First of all, reading the English-language local paper, I read two stories about local crime.  In one, an owner of a small chain of video rental shops (this was back in the 1990's) was found dead, bullet in the head, floating face-down in a canal - no doubt the work of the Yakusa - the Japanese Mafia.  More about them shortly.

In another story, a youth was shot and killed by those unarmed police, after he went on a rampage. Apparently, he was sniffing glue and doing other drugs and went berserk.   Another myth shattered - the orderly, hard-working, hard-studying Japanese youth.   But of course, such things exist in every culture - we just have more of it, I guess.

But tellingly, these stories did not appear in the Japanese-language newspapers - and hence the locals are lead to believe that crime is almost non-existent because no one talks about it.  In America, we'll talk your head off about these things - until you beg us to stop.

But it is true that the average Japanese is painfully honest.  Drop your wallet and not only will no one steal it, no one will touch it until the Police come and retrieve it. The average America is far less virtuous.

The second thing was a run-in I had with a Yakuza member.  I was trying to make a reservation on the JR Rail line, and was in their local office.  Two young people were manning the desk and they looked to be about 14 years old.  The young girl was so excited to try out her English on me - and the Japanese speak very good English - and helped me with train and hotel reservations.

Then a burly man in a purple, shiny, pinstripe suite came in.  He had oily curled hair and a dark complexion, and was missing his pinky finger.  Yakuza.  He talked with the boy at the next desk and became more and more angry.  He finally started shouting and knocking over the displays of vacation brochures.   I thought it was over, but then he started bitch-slapping the boy, again and again.  The boy just stood there an took it, apologizing repeatedly as he was slapped again and again.

I thought about intervening, but realized I was in a foreign country and the guy was with the mob.  I could end up face-down in a canal somewhere.  I asked the girl what was going on, and she said, "Going on?  Nothing is going on!"  Denial - the Japanese way of life!

I gave the Yakuza guy an angry glare and that snapped him out of it.  He realized his error - he had caused Japan to lose face in front of a foreigner!  A dirty Gaijin!   He quickly picked up the scattered displays and the very nervous boy started fixing whatever was wrong with his reservations.  Meanwhile, the girl landed us a hotel suited in Kanazawa that we certainly couldn't afford on our budget - for $99 a night!  Perhaps she was trying to help sweep things under the rug.

Crime, like everything else in Japan, is highly organized.  And until recently, the Japanese found this entertaining. They had Yakuza movies, much as we had Martin Scorsese and The Godfather movies - movies that celebrated Mob life and had you rooting for the bad guys, much as we did with The Sopranos.   But over the years, it stopped being funny.  Yakuza would infiltrate banks and force bank managers to offer them "loans" which would never be paid back.  Entire businesses were infiltrated and taken over.  It is one reason the Japanese economy has stagnated over the last few decades, even as their businesses have taken off all over the world.

But let's not talk about it, right?  Sweep it all under the rug.  Must preserve face!

Crime is a problem in Japan, but the criminal justice system in Japan is something of a bad joke.  Not as bad as in Italy, but bad.  The recent arrest and escape of Carlos Ghosn is a case in point.  You can't blame the guy for trying to escape a justice system with a 99.9% conviction rate.  You don't get a fair day in court in Japan, nor is there much of a presumption of innocence-until-proven-guilty.  Maybe we let too many criminals get away with murder in America, but in Japan, once you are arrested, it's all over for you.

And again, I have a small experience with this.  We were in Tokyo District Court many years back, trying to obtain testimony from a manufacturer of cable television boxes.  The deal was, the company that was suing us was having these things made in Japan and selling them in the US more than one year before they applied for a Patent, and if so, well, their US Patent was invalid under the laws back then (in most countries, there is no such grace period).  We had documents suggesting this was the case, and testimony (and documents) from one of the US co-inventors.  But it wasn't an airtight case.  If only we could obtain testimony from the Japanese Engineers!

Well, good luck with that.  As a foreigner in a Japanese court, you will not be treated well.  The Judge in the case struck down each one of our requests, over-ruled our objections, and bent over backwards to see things in the light of the Japanese defendant.  Even our own local lawyer seemed ill-inclined to lose any goodwill with the court by risking argument in our favor.  The deck was stacked against us, and against anyone trying to seek justice in a foreign court.

Granted, the same is true here, to a lesser extant.  Another attorney I worked for defended an anti-dumping case involving DRAM chips.  This was at the height of the "Japan is taking over!" furor, when the Japanese were buying up golf courses and whatnot all across America in the 1990's.  Of course, they ended up selling them back to us for pennies-on-the-dollar later on, and Japan today looks much less a threat than China. 

Nevertheless, the paranoia was high back then, and the Plaintiff's exhibit #1 was a map of the world, centered over the Pacific Ocean showing "The Path of Importation of Infringing Chips" with a giant red arrow arcing over the Pacific from Japan to the US.  It looked like Admiral Yamamoto's invasion plans and this irrelevant piece of "evidence" was placed on an easel all throughout the trial, facing the jury, who was easily swayed by patriotic sentiment and easily confused by technical arguments.

So it is pretty much true in every country to some extent.  The difference, I think, is that in Japan, native prejudice is more institutionalized.

Many of my Japanese friends and clients expressed fears about coming to America.  "There is so much crime!" they said, "My wife thinks I will get shot!" - this after a Japanese exchange student, in Halloween costume, was indeed shot and killed by a Texas homeowner who claimed he was fearing home invasion.  And yes, our reported crime rates in America are much higher in Japan, which is amplified by the fact we tend to report crime more here and don't sweep it under the rug.

My Japanese friends also rake us over the coals over racism.  "So much racial strife in your country!" they tell me.  Yes, because we have races - plural.  In a mono-cultural society, there isn't so much talk about racism, particularly when, once again, it isn't talked about.   Americans are like the uncomfortably honest friend who tells you about their sexual problems with their husband.  Too much information!  Similarly, we are very open and honest about our problems in America - or at least more open and honest than many other countries, who put patriotism and public image ahead of introspection.

There is no talk of racism in Japan because there are no races, for the most part.  But racism does exist.  Japan has deep ties with Peru, as there is an ex-pat colony of Japanese who settled there ages ago.  Some Peruvians have managed to illegally immigrate into Japan - we saw some on the subway - but they are not treated well, and certainly stick out more than even I did.   People who are "different" and have darker colored skin tend to be shunted away from life - Hokkaido people, some call them, as many are from that northern island.

So racism exists, it just isn't talked about - like World War II, the Yakuza, crime, and anything else that might put Japan in a bad light.  Sweeping things under the rug is the norm. And people who speak up are squelched.  "The nail that sticks up is hammered down" so goes (allegedly) an old Japanese saying.  This is great for cohesiveness, but not so much for innovation and creativity, which may explain the stereotype of Japan as being a great nation of copiers, but not innovators.

There are many other things disturbing about Japanese culture, even as we admire it.  For example, vending machines.  Vending machines are everywhere in Japan and they always work.  "Out of Order" is not a sign that exists in Japan.  We got off a train in rural Japan - high in the mountains, and there was a vending machine selling hot coffee in cans (it's a thing) leaning up against a barn. It was advertising "Playboy Drink!" with the Playboy logo.  I went to get a can of coffee, and Mark said, "No way that machine actually works!" to which I replied, "Mark, this is Japan, everything works!"

And we admire that.  We are all tired of the half-assed way things work in America - how customer service is non-existent and companies just don't give a shit whether you got what your ordered or not (never in Japan!  Loss of face!).  We are also tired of the way American workers do everything half-heartedly, even as we ourselves do the same.  But Japan - everything is freaking perfect, the way it should be.  And that creates a lot of pressure on people.

You can buy anything in a vending machine there, even pornography.  Even child porn.  And people read porno comic books in the Subway without embarrassment.  We never bought any - we didn't have to, as people would throw them away and you would find porn comics laying on the street.   But it is disturbing, how Japan was one the last "Western" countries to make child porn illegal, but even then, only the photographic type.  Child porn comic books still thrive, and the stereotype of the "Hentai" Japanese school girl porn comic still exists and is freely available to just about anyone in Japan.  It is somewhat disturbing, thinking that your Dad enjoys reading comic books about raping school girls.

Yea, there is something deeply wrong about that.

Some say it is a way of blowing off steam, of relieving pressure, and perhaps that is true - making everything "perfect" as a tea ceremony does result in a lot of stress, which is another thing that is disturbing about Japanese culture.  Childhood as we know it doesn't really exist.   From a very early age, children as exhorted to succeed.  A series of grueling exams take place during their formative years - exams that may determine their fate for life.  Education is often measured by how many Kanji symbols you can memorize, so rote memorization takes precedence over problem-solving or native intelligence.  And if you fail the exams?  You're screwed for the rest of your life.

No pressure now!  Gee, and you thought American High School was fun - all you had to do there was be "popular" and the dumber you were, the better you were at that.

All of this has lead to a disturbing trend in "stay at home" young adults.  Yes, here in America, we have adult children living at home in their parents' basement, playing video games all day long, waiting for life to start.  In Japan, we have kids who refuse to leave their rooms, forever.  They are so overwhelmed by the pressures of society that they just decide to stay in their bedroom, for months at a time.   In some respects, you can't blame them, particularly if they never did well on their exams!

This sort of thing compounds another problem - Japan is aging.  The cost of raising children and the cost of living in general has dissuaded many from having more than one child, if any, and as a result, the population is becoming geriatric and there is a lack of young people to take the place of their seniors.  It is a very odd scenario, to be sure.  But again, let's not talk about it.  Sweep it all under the rug, like the Nuclear power plant fiasco.

By the way, the press breathlessly reported that the "Daiichi" nuclear power plant melted down, as if it was the name of the plant or something.  But as any American school child knows that "ichi" is Japanese for "one" and "Daiichi" means "number one" - it is just a numbering, not a name.  But Americans love anything that sounds Japanese-y, and will get tattoos of Japanese Kanji characters that mean nonsense, just as Japanese love English words.  We saw, in Kyoto, a vendor selling t-shirts, one of which said, "T-shirt with English words on it" - apparently the manufacturer took the vendor's order request quite literally.   And kids wore them, too.  They want to be like us, we want to be like them.  It is an interesting conundrum, to be sure.

I took a Japanese client to a baseball (basobaru) game at Camden Yards in Baltimore.  They were appalled that not only did we not all sing the team cheer in unison (the "wave" was as close as we could get to doing anything orchestrated) but that some "fans" were screaming obscenities at the players.   A better contrast of Japan and the US, I cannot imagine.  It is like the Japanese Engineer I met, who after a few beers, went on about buying a bottle of Maker's Mark and how he was fascinated by the "wax" dripping off the top.  "You just let it run down!" he said, which mystified me, until I realized that in Japan, such randomness would not be tolerated.  A bottle of Suntory whiskey, if it had wax on the cork, would have some Geisha make a delicate butterfly imprint on it, using a feather or something.  Letting the wax just drip down!  Never!

They are fascinated with our relaxed attitudes, and mimic them, but never successfully.  In a park in Tokyo, young "garage" bands play at designated bandstands, all rebellious and youthful, but in an organized way.  Their fans all dress alike, dance alike, and after each song or set, all applaud in unison.  Even mayhem is organized.  Like with basebaru, it is the same, but not the same at all.

But what about the vaunted Japanese culture?  Sumo wrestling - two morbidly obese people trying to push each other out of the way, while some old man in a bathrobe shouts at them.  I can see this anytime I want to, as two tubbies fight over the last chicken wing at the Ole Time Country Buffet.   Funny thing, Japanese baseball players sometimes move to America to play in the major leagues.  You'd think we'd export our legion of morbidly obese to Japan and overwhelm their Sumo business.

But what about the arts?  Tea ceremony?   If you think about it, what is so special about a Geisha in white makeup making a pot of tea?  I mean, after you've seen that a dozen times.... Samurai swords? Kabuki theater?   Anime? Are we over-romanticizing Japanese culture?  And in doing so, are we just as guilty in helping them "save face"?

This latest incident with the Tokyo Olympics made me think about these things.  Bullying is a way of life in Japan, not some isolated incident.  And rather than confront this, the Japanese instinct is to try to suppress discussion about it.  Forget it, or failing that, re-invent history.

While in Tokyo, a flatbed truck, festooned with banners, rolled by, with a huge P.A. speaker blaring.  A man was screaming at the top of his lungs, and the volume was turned all the way up. It was deafening.  Bullying, once again. My hosts were clearly embarrassed.  "What was that all about?"  I asked.  "Oh, nothing," they characteristically replied.  Denial rears its ugly head.

Turns out there is a small but vocal minority in Japan (that may be growing) that thinks that they won World War II, and in fact, that militarization was a good thing and the Chinese and Koreans need to be subjugated.  These are ultra-nationalists and they still believe the Emperor is a God.

Oh, right, the Emperor.  In this day and age, having a king or a queen or emperor or other monarch is sort of embarrassing - like masturbating in public.  It is anti-democratic to have some person who comes into office based solely on inheritance, even if that office is largely ceremonial.  And yea, I am looking at you United Kingdom, or Great Britain, or England, or whatever (The Incredible Shrinking Empire?).  The problem with monarchs, is that once you have them, it is darn hard to get rid of them.  Look at the Brits - they killed theirs off, and then changed their mind and went shopping for a new one - and bought one, secondhand, from Germany.  The house of Windsor, indeed!

But I digress.

Yea, we have problems here in America.  And we talk about them, ad nauseum, which sort of pisses the rest of the world off.   Imagine some starving kid in India listening to us. "Let me get this straight, your number one problem is you eat too much food, and your second problem is you have too many over-sized gas-guzzling cars - and your third problem is cheap gas?  I weep for you!"   That's why they call us at all hours trying to sell us worthless extended warranties - clearly we have too much money!  But we are an open society and as bad as things are here, at least we talk about them, rather than try to present a "good face" to the world by pretending these problems don't exist.

And yes, bullying is a problem in our schools, but we are talking about it - and not laughing.  And as bad as bullying is here, I don't recall any children, particularly disabled children, being forced to eat shit.  Nor do I recall anyone bragging about such exploits (not even on Howard Stern!), or people willing to overlook them.  Maybe our culture of shaming has gone overboard, but... geez.

I am not against Japan, nor do I hate the Japanese.  But I think we need to stop romanticizing Japanese culture so much.   I, for one, am sick and tired of Japanese comic books and cartoons, with their big-eyed children and their cheap low-frame-rate animation.  This isn't high art, it was throwaway crap children's entertainment.  Yet a whole generation of fedora-wearing computer nerds think otherwise.  I think they are embracing a false sense of what Japan is all about - a cartoon Japan, not the real thing.  The real thing isn't like the comic books (although, granted, the Japanese school girls pretty much look like that in real life).

There is something wrong with the culture of bullying and the culture of denial. And yea, we have that here in the USA, too - but at least we talk about these things and try to shout them down.  Americanism, at least in theory, if not practice, has always been about helping those less fortunate than ourselves - the better angels of our nature.  But then again, talking about problems and being empathetic is sometimes seen as weakness - when in fact, it is strength.  The strong-men of the world are not strong, but blustering bullies, hoping we don't see through their charade.

Once reason Trump was so popular with certain types of folks is that he made them feel good about being American.  We talk so much about our problems that people feel bad about their country and want to "Make America Great Again!" - mostly by not talking about our problems, the Japanese way. And bullying?  It was his modus operandi - threaten to sue, scream and shout, and hope no one notices that he was in fact, a failure at almost everything he did in life, even the Presidency.

Maybe that is what appalls me about these certain aspects of Japanese culture.  I see them in our own country as well.