Wednesday, September 29, 2021

History of Polarization

Politics today are patty-cake compared to the past!

I hear many folks say they are sick and tired of polarized politics, partisan politics and how divided we are as a country.  What they really mean by this, of course, is they wish "their side" would obliterate the other, so there would no longer be any disagreements!  Of course, we know how that works out in practice - new disagreements are formed for starters, and everyone ends up worse off than before.

Others claim that in the past, everyone was Kum-by-ya and held hands and taught the world to sing. Republicans and Democrats held friendly meetings where their disagreements were minor and afterwards they all went out to lunch together.

Such was not the case.  The human condition is one of violence and confrontation, of competing for scarce resources, and the resulting conflict and controversy.  It has always been this way and always will be - we are not very nice people, we humans.  We are just like the other animals on the planet.  There is no such thing as a "nice" shark.  That doesn't mean sharks are evil - they are just doing what they need to do, to survive.

You can go back throughout recorded history and see this - conflict was the norm, and in fact, it was wars and violence that were recorded as "events" in history. Long periods of peace - if they existed at all - don't get written down.  And yes, back then, people fought and killed and slaughtered in the name of religion.  That hasn't changed at all.

But just considering the history of this country, you can see that "polarization" is the norm, not the exception.  Our very revolution was a bloody affair and forced everyone to choose sides.  It isn't talked about much in schoolbooks, but "loyalists" to the crown were not some tiny minority. The revolutionaries did not treat them well, and the favor was returned.

In researching my own family history, I came across a document in the Yale archives, where one of my ancestors was forced to sign a "loyalty oath" as they fled Long Island for Connecticut.  It seems the loyalists and rebels were fighting back and forth on Long Island, and as each took power, they seized the property of the other, burned farms and caused general mayhem.  When the revolution was over, the rebels setup a little "Gitmo" camp in New York City and tried to figure out what to do with the loyalists.  Today we call them Canadians.  They were shipped out to Canada, but lost all their properties in the process.  Talk about polarization!

Not much changed thereafter. It took several years and a false start to come up with our current Constitution - which had a hand-grenade built right into it.  The institution of slavery would eventually have to go - but not without a fight - the bloodiest fight in US history - killing more people than every other war we've fought in, since.

We talk about the fights in the Senate, but at least they are a war of words.  Prior to the Civil War, senators got into fisticuffs on the Senate floor!  The polarization over the issue of slavery isn't hard to fathom.  People in the North, who had little economic interest in owning slaves, were against the practice on moral grounds.  People in the South, well, those who had slaves liked the idea pretty well, and others who didn't, well, they didn't want Northerners telling them what to do!  Sort of sounds like the same situation today - no one wants to give up a position of advantage or have someone else tell them what to do.

People like to cast slavery as a racial thing, although throughout history, slaves have come in all sorts of colors, as have slave-owners.   Slavery in ancient times was usually based on who was a conquered enemy.  In ancient Rome, it was captured Germans who were often enslaved.  In Egypt, it was "Nubians" (Africans) who were enslaved.  In more recent times, it was Africans enslaved by fellow Africans and then sold to American and European "slavers" who then shipped them to America.  This is not to say racism was absent, only that it wasn't the only factor.  In terms of managing slavery, race made a quick and convenient way for people to tell who was and who wasn't a slave - and an easy way to detect and catch runaway slaves.

I have a friend who inherited a huge fortune (millions of dollars) from her Grandmother.  Not surprisingly, she's a Republican.   When you have that much money, you get a little tired of being a whipping-boy for the Democrats and being taxed.  From her perspective, it's her money, and why should she pay it to the government?   I mean, I don't agree with that, but I get that.  And maybe I would agree with it, if I won the powerball or something.

It happens.  I mentioned before how so many rock stars and other celebrities, once they make their millions, veer off to the right, at least in terms of tax policies.  And many of them end up in trouble with the IRS, as they try to evade taxes through sketchy tax shelters or tax-denial schemes.  They burned through millions during their prime earning years, and now want to avoid paying their tax bill, so they can maintain a certain lifestyle.  It is a story repeated more often than you'd think - and many more do this on a smaller scale as well!

But I digress.  Maybe not by much, though.  The point is, people have diametrically opposed positions on issues, and this shouldn't come as a shock to us.  What's more, this is nothing new and not some recent phenomenon.   Maybe the first time they forced a "government shutdown" it was shocking, but that was decades ago, and today, well, it is just a matter of course - a game played as part of the political landscape.  Of course, those who force a shutdown often end up losing the game - at least in the court of public opinion.

But such gamesmanship isn't new.  Democrats walk out on a legislative session in Texas to prevent a quorum, and Republicans act shocked.  But such tactics are nothing new - we just fein outrage over it all.  Decades earlier - when Democrats were Republicans (i.e., racists) and Republicans were Democrats (i.e., big government), George Wallace "stood in the schoolhouse door" to prevent integration of schools in Alabama.  Talk about polarization!  And lest you think this is some "Southern" thing, it was the "Southies" of South Boston, who pelted school buses with rocks when "busing" was an issue there in the 1970's.   Racism is a game everyone can play.

Polarization is nothing new...

But was it only about racism?  Again, you can understand why a parent wants their kids to go to "good schools" which is a code-word for white schools.  They want their kids to absorb cultural values from their own social class.  They don't want their kids learning cultural values from the ghetto - or from the white-trash rural trailer park, either (or the Hispanic barrio).  You could say that is racist or elitist, or just a survival mode.  Parents don't want their kid joining a gang.  Funny thing, that.

Who's right?  Who's wrong?  That's not the point of this posting. The point is, over the history of this country - and the history of the world - polarization in politics has been the norm, not the exception.  Maybe you think the 1960's was an era of peace and love - and maybe 1967 was.  But by 1968 it was assassinations, riots, bombings, and protests.  Not much has changed, has it?

But we all want to think that our generation has it worse than the last - that our experiences are somehow unique or different.  That things "today" are going to hell in a handbasket and that the end times are surely near.   We thought that yesterday as well - and the day before, the year before, the decade before, the century before.

When I was a kid, it was the bomb - going to drop on us and obliterate mankind.  It could still happen, of course, but we seem to be used to the concept by now.   My parents were convinced that Nazism was going to be the end of freedom on the planet, and they saw their friends fight - and die - to preserve Democracy.  World War II - talk about polarization!

I guess the point is, not to get riled up by political window-dressing.  In order to get people to vote - or to donate money - you have to get them upset.  Fear is not an emotion to be trusted.  But both sides use fear to generate money and votes.  They'll take away your guns!  They'll make abortion illegal!  They'll turn us into a Socialist State!  They'll tax us to death!  They'll turn us into a fascist State!  They'll overthrow the government!

Well, OK, that last one is a bit concerning - when you have politicians decide that the Constitution is something you should invoke to do what you want to do, but something to trample upon when things don't go your way.  I think people don't realize how close we came to losing our Democracy on January 6th - if it wasn't for the actions of a few noble elected officials - many of them Republicans - we would be under a dictatorship today.  A few people did the right thing.  But it only takes a few people to do the wrong thing for very bad things to happen.  If you look at the history of revolutions in Latin American countries (often financed by one of the superpowers) it is often a small band of people who end up taking over governments.   It doesn't take much.

Yet, people are quite blasé about that, and yet riled up about some political posturing by some politician.   You have to choose your battles wisely.

The world is changing, and change is scary to some people, and downright impossible for others.  The guy who owns the coal mine in West Virginia isn't happy about cheap fracking gas powering the local power plant - a power plant that ran on coal for decades.  But he's fighting economic forces, not just social justice or environmental concerns.  Republicans cry out against electric cars, and then quietly offer Ford Motor Company a half a billion dollars to build an electric pickup truck and battery plant in their State.  It seems the industry that the GOP is trying to "protect" from "unnecessary regulation" is quietly going its own way - they see the writing on the wall, just as the power companies do.  Politics are a fine thing and all, but economics trump politics every time.

So Trump can claim he "digs coal" but if it costs more to burn it than it does to burn natural gas - or build a windmill or solar farm or whatever, no one gives a rat's ass about it.

And maybe that is what is going on right now.  Economics would have made slavery obsolete, eventually.  Farms today are automated - harvesting equipment was starting to replace slave labor by the time the Civil War came about.  But the guy who invested thousands (today, millions) in slaves, saw his "investment" disappearing entirely.  People invested in fossil fuels today are in the same situation - although there will always  be a demand for oil for other uses, such as plastics, lubricants, and so on.  Coal?  Not so much.

So maybe this latest iteration of polarization is just another example of economic change taking place - with the old guard pointlessly fighting against the future.  In 1865 it was the Democrats fighting social and economic change.  Today, it is the Republicans - blinding themselves to the fact that it was their party who created the EPA.

But their allies in this latest fight are the same folks as back in 1865.  I noted before that the typical "rebel" soldier in the Civil War owned no slaves and had no real dog in the fight, but was goaded on into fighting by things like patriotism and peer pressureToday, the same is true - the GOP gets the poor and destitute to do their dirty work for them, by claiming that electric cars are a threat to their freedom.  Our Miss Margie does a campaign ad, where she shoots at a Prius with a high-powered rifle, and it explodes.  The symbolism isn't lost on the low-information voters.

If history is any guide, however, the side pining for the "good old days" and fighting social or economic change, rarely, if ever, wins out, over time.  Sure, maybe some dictator comes into power and can prevent change from happening - but only for so long.  And the longer they deny reality, the stronger the ultimate reaction, when the rubber-band snaps back.

During the Civil War, more than one Confederate "rebel" soldier started to question what the heck they were doing there - particularly as they saw their friends being wounded or killed for no purpose whatsoever.   They realized they had no dog in the fight, and the war would be lost.  As in most armies, they had to execute a few soldiers to keep the desertion rate down.  Such is the nature of war.

In our current economic war, I don't think anything so dramatic will occur - or let's hope not, anyway.  I think what will happen, however, is that the folks who are "against" change will come around, once they see the advantages of it.  Many a person on Obamacare has changed their mind, once they realize they have health insurance - for the first time in their lives, in some instances.  People against vaccines are learning hard lessons as they see loved ones die.  Others will realize that a hybrid or electric vehicle - such as my neighbor's hybrid F150 - are better than the alternative.  But these things take time, but eventually, even the most died-in-the-wool redneck embraces technology.  I recall back in the 1970's, many an "old school" hot-rodder railing against electronic ignition, until they started losing races without it.  Ignorance isn't always bliss.

We'll have to wait and see how this pans out.  But in terms of polarization, I don't see our country more or less polarized than in the past.  And somehow I doubt people are willing to start another Civil War over social programs or solar powered wind-farms.

Well, let's hope not, anyway.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Why Superheros Wouldn't Work

Superheros would solve everything - or would they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we know how that worked out, eh?

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Happiness versus Contentment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 24, 2021

Externalization - Celebrity Edition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck Johnny Depp.  No-talent has-been!

UPDATE:  I received the usual hate mail from the Johnny Depp Fanboys.  Don't be a fan.  Fans are stupid and waste their lives rooting for someone else and not themselves.  You may recall the recent "protests" by Britany Spears supporters - as if a Hollywood has-been is worth protesting about!  Or Michael Jackson - whose "fans" turned out in number to protest his prosecution.  Ditto for "America's Dad" Bill Cosby.  Why would anyone protest for a private individual?  And what level of fandom excuses bad behavior?

I may enjoy the performances of a singer, actor, athlete or whatever, but I don't blindly devote my life to them - that's for chumps!

The reason why Johnny Depp isn't getting film roles or his latest biopic snooze-fest released is that he isn't a pretty boy anymore and never was a very good actor.  I mean acting drunk to play a pirate isn't acting - it is just a drunken actor.

And yes, wasting your life away weeping for the plight of multi-millionaires is the height of idiocy.

STOP WORSHIPING CELEBRITIES!   Think about your own life instead.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Brand-Name Poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just kidding.  I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Is EZ-PASS Accurate? Hard to Tell!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about dystopia!  It may have already arrived.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Another Day, Another Tot Mom....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, that is sick, sick, sick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:  Kelly's satirical take on it:

It seems I am not the only one sick and tired of the media playing this game, even the poor girl's Dad has come out and said "enough!" as the attention placed on his daughter by the media isn't solving the crime or prosecuting the perpetrator (but often has the opposite effect).  It also takes away from the numerous people of color who go missing, or people who are just not 5 O'Clock News ready.

We need to stop doing this.  And it begins with you and me.  Stop watching tot mom trials and stop clicking on tot mom news stories!  I made it a point not to click on ANY story related to this recent case.   Besides, all you need to know is in the headlines anyway.....

UPDATE:  It seems the guy killed her and then offed himself, so no show trial!  The network heads were disappointed.  They will have to schedule something else for ratings week!  Never fear, there is always another "Tot Mom" in the making!  Stay Tuned!

Sunday, September 19, 2021

People Are Their Own Worst Enemies...


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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