Monday, January 31, 2022

The Tyranny of Outrage

After a while, outrage gets fatiguing.

Going online these days is sort of a waste of time.  No matter whether you are looking at cute cat videos, or listening to alt-right propaganda, or even reading or watching the "mainstream media" the secret sauce these days - which is not so much a secret - is to stoke outrage.

A lady (and I use that term loosely, and I am sure she is used that way as well) goes "viral" for assaulting a Uber driver for asking her to wear a mask.  Funny thing, assaulting livery drivers is a felony and she is in a lot of trouble.  But if you look at her YouTube or Tick-Tock history (I didn't!), well, you see a number of outrages, including her driving 122 miles an hour while holding a cell phone so she could record herself breaking the law.  Her career consists of being a garbage human being - and we all sit in the front row with a big bowl of popcorn to watch.

No one makes money on the Internet by being a nice guy, unless they are staging a "heartwarming" video by giving a homeless guy $20 while filming themselves doing it.

Of course, outrage baiting goes back before the days of the Internet.  And by the way, I read a funny comment online the other day, from someone who said, "Gee, the Internet has only been around for a decade or so, and already it has gone to shit!"   A decade?  Geez, I remember flame-wars on dot-matrix terminals (CRTs?  Don't get fancy!) on forums like "alt.star-trek" back in the 1980s.   Kids these days.

One of the pioneers of outrage media was, of course, Howard Stern.  His schitck could be traced back to the antics of Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, Charles Coughlin, or Walter Winchell.  Even newspapers back in the early part of the last century made coin by being outrageous.  If you want to trace it back even further, I suppose the pamphleteers of the revolutionary war weren't exactly subtle.

Howard Stern brought outrage media into the modern age.

In Howard Stern's movie "Private Parts" there is a line that illustrates how this works. The station manager is reading the latest A.C. Nielsen ratings and says :

"50% of listeners LOVE Howard Stern and listen for an average of 1.5 hours. Reason given? They want to hear what he'll say next!"

"50% of listeners HATE Howard Stern and listen for an average of 2.5 hours. Reason given? They want to hear what he'll say next!"

People took notice.  Before long, every local market had its own version of the "Morning Zoo Crew!" or licensed a franchised version of it.   The formula was simple - dumb it down, a lot.   Fart jokes, sex jokes, lesbian jokes - you-name-it.  The more outrageous, the better.  And if you went over the edge and created a controversy, so much the better.  You can't buy publicity like that, and as they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The latest outrage-du-jour is actually a sheaf of commentators who are doing everything from anti-vaxxing to conspiracy mongering.  Whatever creates controversy and generates clicks, they say it, even if they are vaccinated themselves or don't actually believe the Earth is flat.  And there are a host of useful idiots out there who will pretend to go along with it so they can get attention from their friends.  As any lonely kid knows, even negative attention is better than no attention, and today most adults are just big goofy kids.

Folks like Joe Rogain don't worry about negative publicity or being taken "off the air" (is a podcast airtime?  Just asking - I never listen to them).  He has an $100 million dollar contract and collects, no doubt, whether he is cancelled or on the air.  And no doubt his ratings have gone up as a result of this recent "controversy" which itself is manufactured, as people like Rogain say outrageous things just to get ratings.

Like the lonely child.

Somebody's mommies didn't love them.  L to R: Musk, Peterson, Rogain, shitty truck. 

The photo above is interesting in that all three individuals use outrage on the Internet via their Tweets and whatnot, to generate "news" and controversy.  Musk was once the darling of the eco-Left with his electric cars and solar panels.  Lately, though, he has gone far-right with his stances on things like unionizing, worker's rights, and of course, tax rates for billionaires.  I have to wonder how that is going to work out for his company.  The Prius crowd will not be amused.

So maybe there is an end game to outrage media.  After all, who listens to Howard Stern anymore?  I wonder if he regrets signing with Sirius XM, which is an obsolete format.  Then again, he's probably obsolete by now, too.

But more likely the end game is for the listener, not the radio personality.  Eventually, we all have to grow up - or at least most of us do.  It gets pretty embarrassing if you are 40 years old and you tell people about your favorite drive-time shock DJ or your favorite "reality" television show.  It kind of marks you as a boob.  And if you are working on the loading dock, I guess no one cares.  But in the boardroom, it is another matter - or even if you just want to get there.

Another generation of outrage media consumers is always on the horizon.  Junior high school boys will always find that sort of thing intriguing.  The aging demographic of the country should worry the shock jocks of today, though.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Patent Trolls

Patent Trolls exist because our litigation system is broken.

A reader writes asking me about Patent Trolls. I have written about them before, but not exclusively.  What is a Patent Troll and how do you determine if someone is a Patent Troll?  Why do we allow Patent Trolls to Exist? Well the first question is easy to answer.  A Patent Troll is someone who obtains rights to a Patent and then sues just about anyone claiming they infringe their Patent, even if they clearly do not.  They settle for a nominal sum (hundreds of thousands of dollars) which is less than the cost of hiring a lawyer.  It is drive-by litigation - strike and settle, and move on.  Each case makes little money, but collectively, after you've sued dozens of people, you've made millions or even hundreds of millions.

As for the second question, there are a number of hallmark characteristics of Patent Trolls.  To begin with, they are companies or organizations that buy or license Patents, either by approaching inventors, or by purchasing Patents at bankruptcy auctions.  They sue not the maker of a product, but the user of it.  The sue in "friendly" venues such as the Eastern District of Texas (home to most suits).  They settle before trial, often for relatively small amounts, compared to what they were asking for.  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

I'll give you an example, based on a fellow (not a client) I talked to.  He obtained a Patent on an office phone system.  The claims were pretty narrow and it wasn't like he invented the telephone or anything, just a modest improvement, if that.  A company (TrollCo.) licensed his Patent and sued.  They didn't sue a telephone company or even a telephone manufacturing company.  Rather, they sued a soft-drink company that had worldwide offices and of course, phone systems.   The filed in a friendly venue and on the eve of trial, they settled for a hundred grand.  Then they went after another business unrelated to phone systems, but had a phone system in their offices.

These companies settle as their lawyers charge them tens of thousands of dollars - if not a lot more - per month to litigate these issues.  TrollCo on the other hand, need only go through the motions of pre-trial discovery and whatnot.  And since TrollCo has sued several companies in a row, well, they have all the forms and pleadings already written up on their computer.  It is a low-effort deal, sort of like how those billboard lawyers take personal injury cases and settle them for less than the insurance company would have given the plaintiff if he had just asked them directly.

Many people think Patent Trolling is an outrage and a sign the Patent system is "broken" and that the Patent Office is somehow at fault.  Why did they issue these Patents?  If only the Patents hadn't been issued, the Trolls would have no grounds to sue!   But as the example above illustrates, it really doesn't matter whether the Patent is valid, broad, or narrow.   Trolls sue, and use the nuisance value of litigation to obtain a settlement.  You could sue someone claiming your Patent on an ice cream machine was violated by their use of a photocopier.   They'd have to go to court to prove they don't infringe - and that costs money.  And no, Rule 11 sanctions are basically worthless.

It is akin to these "drive-by" ADA lawsuits they have, particularly in Florida.  In Florida, one man has filed hundreds, if not thousands, of ADA lawsuits against small businesses, claiming their handicap ramps or toilets or doors or parking spaces are not compliant.  The business then hires a lawyer who wants a $100,000 retainer.  Before they can pay that, the plaintiff offers to settle for $20,000.  The business owner agrees.  Two years later, he is sued again by the same guy.   The law had good intentions, the lawyers didn't.

In Texas, they just passed a law allowing anyone to sue anyone else who may have "assisted" a woman in getting an abortion.  You can imagine how this will play out.  Eventually, our economy will devolve into everyone suing everyone else all day long.

Of course, no one is sitting on their hands here.  New laws have been enacted to allow for "3rd Party Re-Exam" of Patents at the Patent Office.  So, instead of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars just to start discovery in litigation, you can spend a few thousand asking the Patent Office to reconsider.  The small problem with that technique is that the Patent Office often does allow the Patent a second time, which makes litigation even harder. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury - the Patent Office examined this Patent not once,- but twice! - and found it valid!"  Of course, that assumes the case ever gets to a jury - few do.  The smarter trolls settle and move on.  A jury trial might result in something messy, like your Patent being found invalid and non-infringed.

The Patent Office is also trying to do a better job of issuing Patents, and I have to say, before I retired, the issue rate seemed to be in decline, and the appeals process much stricter.  Some Examiners seem to have the attitude that anything software-related was just trolling.  It isn't like the USPTO isn't aware of the problem - and in fact, seems to have a chip on its shoulder about it.  But like I said, Patent trolls don't need to have a Patent on the invention they are suing about - they will take a Patent on invention A and apply it to invention B.

There was one fellow, we'll call him "Mr. X" who was, depending on who you ask, the "greatest inventor you never heard of" or the biggest Patent Troll of all time.  I offer no opinion on either claim.  He has made hundreds of millions of dollars ($450 million before his death) litigating Patent cases.  The most famous was a Patent for a Hot Wheels type of track and you can guess who he sued over that.  But most of his work was related to "machine vision" systems, or at least the Patents I looked at and reviewed.

Another change in the law that was designed to curtail Patent trolls was to limit Patent terms to 20 years from the date of filing.  Before that, you could file for a Patent, and if it took 10 years to issue, your Patent term (17 years back then) wouldn't start until then.  For example, I researched a case involving a microprocessor clocking circuit.  The Patent Office was, back then (and even today) very strict about issuing anything computer-related. It went to the Board of Appeals twice and was rejected again and again.  A decade later, it was issued, but by then, this clocking circuit was heavily embedded in every microprocessor sold by every maker worldwide.  If the Patent Office had just issued the damn thing, the Patent would have expired before PCs became popular, and competing chipmakers could have designed around the Patent.  As it was, the Patent Office inadvertently handed the inventor (and the company he worked for) a gold mine.

Today, we publish pending Patent Applications (but it is, sadly, an opt-out system, unlike the rest of the world).   The idea is, if you publish the pending application, people can object and notify the Patent Office that a case pending should not be allowed.   It also allows competitors to "design around" others' inventions, so as to avoid possible infringement, should their Patent issue.  And yes, designing around a Patent is one of the motivations of the system - to spur innovation.

Back then, you could chain together applications, one after another, each claiming "priority" from the previous one.  In order to reject a case, the Examiner would have to find a reference with an effective date earlier than the earliest application in the chain.  So, for example, in one Mr. X Patent I researched, it claimed priority back to the 1950's - for a bar code scanner.  The original Patent showed a box going down a conveyor belt, interrupting an electric eye - something you see in nearly every grocery store checkout.  By the time the 10th application in the chain was filed, the electric eye became a laser and the box a bar code.  Mr. X made a lot of money off that Patent.

Sadly, there are still Mr. X applications pending today (or at least before I retired).   Older cases under the old law were "grandfathered" in, so I suspect in the year 3000 there will still be a Mr. X application pending - unless they change the law by then.  Maybe they have.  I don't keep up anymore.

Now, some people claim Mr. X is a nogoodnik, or perhaps his lawyer is.  But they haven't broken any laws that I am aware of - they just used the system as it is exists.  In the case I researched, we charged the client tens of thousands of dollars just for an opinion about validity and infringement (there were a dozen Patents involved and the research was extensive).  Our conclusion was that the bulk of the Patents were either unenforceable or not infringed.  But a couple were sort of a toss-up.  Meanwhile, the Mr. X people offered to settle for less than what we charged for the infringement opinion, so the client settled, much to our chagrin.

Mr. X is dead now, but you might have heard his name - it is attached to cultural institutions and his estate sponsors various charitable causes.  I guess he felt he needed to buy some respectability.

People get frustrated by the existence of Patent trolls.  And by people, I don't mean the CEO's of major corporations, but ordinary individuals who are outraged by it all, after reading a few articles on the subject.  It is like people who are outraged by the McDonald's cup-o-coffee case, either because they believe personal injury attorneys to be agents of Satan himself, or the evil McDonald's corp to be the same.  They probably both are, if you think about it. Getting outraged doesn't help you, though, personally.

The CEOs of fortune-500 companies probably don't give a shit.   Paying a hundred grand to a Patent troll is just the cost of doing business.  And since big companies have resources to hire lawyers and litigate these things, the Patent trolls leave them largely alone.  You don't go nibbling on a shark or an alligator when there is smaller fish to be had more easily.

The real injustice, if there is one, is that small to medium size companies are often targets of trolls, as they cannot afford to pay for litigation and die a "death of a thousand cuts" if they are sued serially by troll after troll.  Patent trolls thus act as a barrier to entry in the marketplace - you have to go big, fast, in order to afford to fend off the trolls.  If not, you are sunk.  And that's why many start-up companies wisely sell-out to larger companies to avoid such headaches.  And its why the Fortune-500 companies don't mind the trolls so much - they keep competition down.

Could the system be fixed?  Can we kill off the trolls entirely?  Should we?  Because one problem in tamping down trolls is that you also tamp down small inventors - individuals and start-up companies with real ideas and real products.   You make it harder to get and enforce a Patent and, well, it makes it easier for the powers-that-be to just steal the ideas of smaller companies and get away with it.  Funny thing that - either way, the big companies win.

But overall, it is not a problem with the Patent Office or the Patent system, it is a litigation problem.  When lawsuits cost more to litigate than the actual damages involved, the threat of a lawsuit can be used as a weapon to silence critics and squelch opponents (as a certain ex-President was fond of doing) - or just cash-in on some quick and easy money.

Our ligation system allows plaintiffs to request a jury trial, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. Moreover, juries are not very technologically sophisticated and they tend to favor Patent holders in many cases, as they see infringers as scofflaws and "bad guys".  You don't litigate the merits of the Patent, you litigate the personalities involved.  The first person to go technical, loses - so goes the thinking of litigators.

Overseas, they do things differently.  They've always published patent applications and limited terms.  They also have a "first to file" system (which we also finally adopted) and have no one-year "grace period" for filing.  They also have a lot less litigation.  The Japanese tend to cross-license among large companies.  In Germany, a "special master" is appointed as judge, jury, and attorney, in any Patent litigation.  Maybe those are more efficient systems, but they are also weaker in terms of Patent enforcement.  There are trade-offs involved.

No, ours isn't a perfect system - nor will it ever be.  Here's a wake-up call: neither is our tax system, our justice system, our politcal system - or any system designed by or operated by mankind.  If this shocks you, maybe the problem lies within yourself.  So many people today - and historically - have gotten themselves all worked up by comparing the world as-it-is to some hypothetical and unattainable ideal that could never be realized - and then getting depressed when the world doesn't transform itself to their ideal.  "If only we had Communism!" the young unemployed man argues, "the world would be perfect!  We'd all live in a worker's paradise!"  But somehow that never seems to work out that way, and people often exchange one set of horrors for another, often far worse.

We could eliminate Patent trolls entirely, but to do so either means gutting the Patent system entirely or gutting our litigation system entirely.  Both would destroy the rights of legitimate Patent holders and litigants in the process.  I think the best we can hope for - and have started to do - is reform both the Patent system and our litigation system - the latter of which is the real problem.  No, it is not a perfect solution - nothing is - but it's a start! 

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Unions Are Capitalist!

Unions are not communist, they are capitalist!

The recent meltdown in the "antiwork" subreddit got me to thinking about things, which is always a dangerous pastime.  The "subreddit" was founded by some young men (well, transwhatever) who were "anarchists" whatever that means (whatever you want it to mean) and also Communist or whatever.  They had links to Maxists literature in the "about" section and for years, their membership never got above 70,000 people.

Then the pandemic comes and people start quitting their jobs to get higher pay - and they post "I quit!" letters on the subreddit, which overnight jumps to 1.7 million subscribers.  The problem was, of course, these new readers were not interested in Marxist ideology, but in unionizing or getting better pay.  There was a dichotomy - a schizophrenia - between the two camps, so when "Doreen" gave the disastrous interview, it wasn't entirely unexpected.  He/she was defending the idea of not working at all (how does that work, again?) while most of the readers were interested not in lazing about, but bettering their situation in life.

By the way, it turns out "Doreen" had been accused of rape and apparently admitted to improprieties.  One of the other moderators also was ousted when it turns out they were big fans of incest, pedophilia, and bestiality subreddits.  Yea, Reddit is a swell place.   You want to buy stock in it?  They're going public!  You don't have to be crazy to believe in Communism, but it helps.

But again, I got to thinking about unions and how my brother and I followed different paths in life.  When he graduated from college (Middlebury) with a degree in drama, he went to live on a commune and was essentially broke most of the time, putting on puppet shows about how America was a lousy place.  At age 18, I went to work as a salary employee of General Motors.  Later, I would work for Carrier as well.  And at one point, I was actually a Teamster.  I worked in factories, worked in warehouses.  I was a "worker" so to speak.

My brother had a lot of Communist ideas and even carried around Mao's "Little Red Book" which was full of nonsense sayings.  "The rights of the workers are being trampled upon!" he'd say, but his experience with "workers" was all theoretical.  He never worked in a factory nor did he even know anyone who did.

I told my brother that if he came down to the factory harping on all that commie shit, the blue-collar "workers" would pound his ass into the ground.  You see, it turns out the workers are pretty conservative, both socially and economically.  They want to work, make money, get a pension, and see their world stay pretty static.  They aren't interested in great social changes.  They aren't interested in paying more taxes so "antiwork" people can goof off all day long.  Back then, they voted for Nixon - and again for Reagan.  They voted for Clinton as he came across as one of them - not the Eastern elite.

Unions are capitalist, not communist.  They are an organization selling a product - labor, or more precisely, labor peace.  In a way they are more akin to organized crime - they extort companies for money by threatening to shut them down and bankrupt them, which in some cases, they have done.  This is not to say unions are bad, only that they are not Communist hug-fests where everyone gets an equal slice of the pie.

If the union took over the factory and ran it, and then distributed the profits to the workers, that would be Communism.  But they don't do that.  They bargain with management and get as much money and benefits as possible for their members - classic marketplace bargaining.  Of course, like any other capitalist enterprise, it is prone to corruption, as we saw with the Teamsters back in the day and even with the UAW recently.  Union leaders will sell their members out, if they get a cash payment from the company.

In fact, corruption in unions is sort of a sure sign they are Capitalist and not Communist.

I think most people appreciate that anyone working for a living wants to obtain the best benefit from their labor.  Of course, the best benefit may also include long-term employment.  A short-term pay raise or benefits promise may mean nothing, if the company goes out of business, or even just shrinks in size over time.  If the jobs go away because the company is uncompetitive, well, all the benefits and pay raises are for naught.

And that in short is what happened in the 1970s - the era of malaise.  Older factories could not compete with shiny new postwar factories overseas.  Labor unions demanded maximum pay - often two to four times prevailing wages.   Workers saved none of it and spent it all - thinking their pensions would protect them in old age.  Meanwhile, the company was starved for cash needed to develop new products and introduce more efficient machines - if union rules didn't outright prevent such efficiencies from being introduced.  GM was forced to keep on the same number of workers, even if their jobs were automated.  Many were paid to stay home.  GM went bankrupt.

As years went by, a lot of power that the unions had went by the wayside.  They were dissipated by internal corruption for starters.  Laws and regulations and court cases made it harder for unions to extort outrageous wages from companies - to the point today where they are almost toothless.  Companies have gotten better and more aggressive in tamping down unionizing.  Workers are forced to watch hour-long videos that denigrate unions.  Vague threats are made about what will happen if they vote to unionize.  And today, well, they can legally close plants and replace workers if they go out on strike.

That being said, the way the demographics are working out, we could see a resurgence of unionization - not because people are embracing Communism, but because they are being Capitalist - and selling their labor to the highest bidder.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Living on $100 a Day

Setting a daily budget might be easier than trying to budget every damn thing.

Almost every financial site says "set a budget!" and then doesn't say too much about how to go about doing that.  Even the Federal Government struggles with their budget forecasts.  You can't predict things like wars or pandemics, which tend to toss carefully planned budgets into disarray.

Very rarely is a project brought in "on time and under budget" unless the contractor is savvy enough to quote a much higher price than anticipated (often to yield bonuses for bringing the project in under budget!).  Budgets are just estimates - rough ideas about how much we are spending and what we are spending it on.  They are not roadmaps or plans for our lives.

Most people don't budget.  I can't really do it myself - trying to figure out where all the money goes, down to the penny, is hard to do, even if I log every damn thing in Quickbooks.  It ia hard, as if you go to Walmart, for example, and buy groceries, flashlight batteries, wax for the car, and a case of beer, do you log this under "groceries" or do you try to split everything out?  I only split it out (and even then, only by estimation) if I am buying like a case of wine at the wholesale club.  Budgeting is not an exact science.

Funny thing, though, now that I am retired, I know exactly how much I will spend every year, thanks to Obamacare.  Obamacare subsidizes health insurance based on your income.  So if you can keep your income, say, under $40,000, you will likely get a subsidy of most if not all of the premium.  It is a screwy system, because the "normal" premiums would be $1,500 a month - which you would have to pay if you made over, say $70,000 a year as a married couple.  So think about that.  You make 70 grand and end up spending twenty of it on health insurance - making your net income fifty grand.  You might as well just make less money.

Like I said, it is a screwy system and it encourages people to make less money.  But it is what it is, for now, and if it stays in place until we reach medicare age, we're set.

So, every January 1st, I take $30,000 out of my IRA and put it into my Capital One savings account (which actually pays interest) and over the year, transfer $5000 every other month into my checking account.  On a good year, we might make another $5000 in rental income (after expenses) so that brings us to about $35,000.   I mentioned this to a neighbor who has a nice pension.  She asked, "Don't you have a pension?" and I kind of laughed.  She's about ten years older than me.  "No," I replied, "In 1978 - the year I graduated from high school - they enacted this 401(k) and IRA thing and we never had pensions."   I explained to her how we live on thirty grand a year and I think she was horrified.  We were poor people!   Millionaire poor people, but poor people nevertheless.

You see, she has two mortgages and car payments and so on and so forth.  They have a steady income, so they shop at the upscale grocery and have all the cable channels and new iPhones and all of that.  Good for them.  I could do that, too, and maybe get away with it.  Or, I might run out of money before I die - and I can't take that chance.   So you see how the IRA/401(k) changes the whole dynamic of retirement.  The really scary thing is that some people have no IRA or 401(k) - and no pension, of course - and they are really fucked.  So don't cry for me, living on "only" thirty grand a year - we're having a ball doing it - debt-free.

Anyway, I realized that there are 365 days in the year and our income (and spending) comes out to about $100 a day.  Since I do log all my purchases on Quickbooks and since most of them are by credit card, I can easily determine how much I have spent so far in the year and see whether I am ahead or behind on our budget.

Of course, there are going to be one-time charges that occur throughout the year, such as car insurance or homeowner's insurance or property taxes, that will blow the budget out of the water, at least temporarily.  And of course, the big deal is inflation, which is really getting noticeable.  A trip to Sam's club to day was eye-opening.  They carried a line of inexpensive sparkling wine for the mind-boggling price of $6.35 a bottle.  Not anymore - it's up to $8.67They were selling frozen lobster tails for $40 a pound (!!) when only a few weeks ago, they were less than half that.  What the heck is going on?  Sorry, but I was buying fresh lobster last summer for $8 a pound right from the lobsterman - maybe $15 a pound at a restaurant.  And gas just shot up 30 cents as well.   This is really screwing up my retirement plans, to be sure!

But look at me here, bitching about the price of champagne and lobster.  Life is so hard in the United States!

I digress.

Anyway, it got me to thinking, why didn't I do this when I was working for a living?  Because back then, my annual salary was a known quantity, along with my tax liabilities - so I knew how much my annual take-home pay would be, year-in and year-out.  Yet, I spent money willy-nilly, got into credit card debt problems, and never really got ahead of the game for decades.  I mean, we made some right decisions - funding those 401(k) plans (and creating our own when self-employed).  But geez, it would have been so easy to just figure out how much I had to spend, every day, and then make it a goal to keep spending less than that.

What I ended up doing was trying to "budget" and that never worked out.  So many financial gurus say to set up a "budget" but never really say how to do this.  They make it harder than it has to be.

A much simpler way to budget, I think, would be to:

1.  Take your annual income amount and subtract taxes.  If this is too hard to figure out, just look at your typical paycheck and then multiply it by how many checks you get in the year.  Now you have your net income after taxes.

2.  If you want, subtract known regular monthly payments - rent or mortgage, student loan payments, 401(k) contribution, and other expenses that are unavoidable (so many seem unavoidable, but are not, of course).'

3.  Now you know how much money you have to spend in a year.  Divide that by 365 and you know how much you have to spend each day.

This is a lot easier than trying to set up dozens of spending categories and then trying to reconcile your actual spending with what you estimated.  Most people have no idea what they spend money on.  For example, as I noted before, cars are a huge money pit - a simple $25,000 car can cost you $8000 a year to own, simply because of the depreciation involved.  People love to say a boat is a "hole in the water you throw money into" and that is true - but only because it is just a floating car.  I guess the only difference is a boat is a luxury and we view cars as necessities.

But all that being said, once you know your daily allotment, you might think about spending it differently.  For example, the guys at work want to go out to lunch - which will cost you $25 to $50 depending on where you eat (or could be a lot more!).  If your daily allotment is $100 a day (after taxes, rent, etc.) maybe you'd think twice about blowing half of it on lunch alone.

I only wished I thought of this back in the day, when I was a salary slave in the cubicle.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Nice Movement Ya Got Here. Shame If Sumptin' Happened To It...

Most movements collapse under their own weight....

Note:  I started writing this a couple of days ago - and had been thinking about it for over a week.  Then, well, this happened.   Pretty funny if it wasn't tragically sad.

I noted before that population demographics are the reason why today we have a "labor shortage."  Labor is a commodity like gasoline, and when there is less of it, prices go up and sometimes gas stations run out.   I am at the tail-end of the baby boom and can collect Social Security this year.  So every one of the "boomers" is either retired or is eligible to retire.  And with the pandemic, many are deciding that maybe it is time to retire.  It is not so much "the great resignation" as much as it is "the great retirement."

I retired at 58.  A friend of mine about that age realized that he had two years of sick leave and vacation time coming to him, and he was eligible to retire at age 60.  So.... he's retired today, while still on the payroll.  A lot of people in their 50's make that choice if they can afford it.  Many more are forced out of jobs at about that age, as I noted before.  And when you leave a "good paying" job at age 55, no one wants to hire you.  Even retail and fast-food places don't want you - you are too old for the fast pace and physical labor required.

The age pyramid is more of a minaret.  And we've tried to cut back on immigration.  So we have a labor shortage.   To get new hires, companies offer more money - more money than they are paying existing employees.  The existing employees find out and get pissed-off.  They ask for a raise - and are denied.  So they quit, not to "antiwork" but to get a job somewhere else.  Others try to unionize, and we are seeing greater union efforts, although it is nothing like the old days.

Some unionized shops recently went out on strike for higher wages or better work rules.  Kelloggs was on strike - it was settled, but no word whether the workers got a good deal or not.  Railroad workers have gone on strike because of a new attendance rule - a judge temporarily blocked that strike for the time being.  Several Starbucks stores voted to unionize - again no word whether it helped the workers or not.  Unionizing is only the first step - getting a contract is the important part, and companies can drag that out for a decade or longer.

My Dad's company went on strike in the early 1970's. They were demanding tremendous wages compared to prevailing pay.  As a kid, I asked my Dad why they couldn't just close the dilapidated factory and move to a less union-friendly State.  My Dad replied that the NRLB wouldn't allow that - it was not "bargaining in good faith."

Well, since then, things have changed, and today, yes, you can close the factory, fire everyone, and move to Alabama - or Mexico.  And that is why the labor movement is so weak in America.  Granted, the unions took a good thing too far back in the 1970's.  But now the pendulum has swung the other way.

For example, nurses in Wisconsin got fed up with their jobs.  They are not paid much and due to the pandemic there is a big nursing shortage.   To fill in the gaps, hospitals hire "traveling nurses" on contract and pay them twice as much as full-time employees.  The nurses noticed.  A hospital across town offered higher wages and several of the nurses decided to quit - and move to the other hospital.  Their employer filed for - and received - a temporary injunction preventing them from working at the new hospital.  The judge couldn't prevent them from quitting, but he could prevent them from working.  Due to the outcry, the injunction was removed.  Their employer was willing to do anything to keep those nurses - anything except pay them more.

Funny how that works.

Some have tried to put this all into some sort of  "movement" - but as I noted, it is not so much a movement anymore than a gas shortage is a movement of the oil companies.  When a commodity is in short supply, well, prices go up, shortages exist, and there is disruption in the economy.

But in addition to all of that is the horrific behavior of people these days.  Maybe it is insanity brought on by the pandemic, but people are assaulting and even murdering retail employees and other service industry employees over enforcement of mask mandates or even something as stupid as the correct dipping sauce for their McNuggets.  Companies who have the mantra, "The customer is always right" are not defending their employees when these confrontations occur - often requiring the employee to apologize to the offending customer.  Not surprisingly, employees quit and the "Karens" of the world feel more empowered.

Several years ago, a young transgender youth who apparently was a follower of Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang, founded a "subreddit" on Reddit, called "r/antiwork."  He labored in obscurity for nearly a decade before the "subreddit" took off with over 1.5 million members.  And it was a hot mess.  The moderators of the group leaned toward Marxist and Communist philosophies, or that no one should be required to work at all. Others wanted to "abolish Capitalism" and some hangers-on, who were likely trolls, would chime in with comments about overthrowing the government.

The bulk of people in that group, however, just wanted to be treated better and get a better job with better pay.  One of the staples of the group was resignation stories - which may have be real at first, but "karma-whores" and trolls turned it into a creative writing experiment.  "My boss told me to take out the trash and I told him to fuck off.  I got my kantana and decapitated him and after playing basketball with his head, left it on a spike by the front gate of the company as a warning to others!"  It wasn't hard to spot the fake postings.

But some good came out of it.  People realized that no, you are not required to give two weeks' notice.  And no, it isn't illegal to discuss your pay with co-workers, in fact, it is illegal for employers to forbid it.  And stories about people not getting paid, tips being poached, and so on and so forth drove home that a lot of employers are not very nice people.  They prey on the innocence of young people and exploit them.  Yea, that happened to me, too.  When I was 17 and working at The Olde Tyme Gas Light Restaurant the manager told me the time clock was set to 15-minute increments, so if I clocked in at 4:01, I wasn't getting paid until 4:15.  That sort of shit is illegal.

And others pointed out that the minimum wage hadn't been raised in ages, and in fact, labor rates have fallen way behind over the years, due to inflation and lack of real raises. People today are making less money in real terms than in the past.   And this is true - I think - for all types of work.  Time was, writing Patents was a lucrative business and lawyers in general were well off.  Today, a few lawyers make a lot of money, while the bulk labor in "sweatshops" hoping to someday make partner - most don't.

Of course, some of the people posting were clearly problem employees - people who were serially fired from one job after another for cause.  These were folks who literally didn't want to work and felt that stealing from their employer was something fun to do - and that everyone should do it.  Real mature, Kevin!

Another angle which makes some sense, even from a corporate view, is that health care should be disconnected from employment - as it is in most Western countries.  Companies are hiring workers part-time simply to avoid paying for health insurance.  People who do find work full-time are loathe to leave, because of the threat of losing their health insurance. It is a logical argument that health insurance and health care should not be tied to one employer - but like so much else in the world, it isn't likely to change soon.

It occurred to me, reading some of the stuff in that "subreddit" that it would be all-too-easy to co-opt such a "movement" - which a subreddit isn't.  There were the bulk of postings which appeared to be sincere, but quite a few were oddball postings, arguing that only armed overthrow of the government would solve these "problems".  There was no coherent or cohesive thread or movement here, and the moderators ("mods") didn't manage the subreddit very well to keep it on topic.  For example, stupid and fake "I quit!" stories were left up, with the notation, "Probably fake, but we like it!" which is sort of immature.

They also allowed a lot of infighting to occur - infighting that was instigated by trolls.  If you want to disband a movement, all you need to do is turn people against one another.  Once they start fighting amongst themselves, they forget their common enemy.  So a lot of troll posts appeared with Boomer-hate messages. Boomers have all the money.  Boomers are hoarding money.  Boomers treat younger people poorly.  Boomers should be killed off and we take all their money (don't worry about that last part - they are starting to die off in droves!).  The "mods" tried to tamp down this generational warfare, but it just re-erupted as class warfare.   It wasn't the workers versus Jeff Bezos, but the workers against your retired parents who have a vacation home in Rehoboeth.

It was a hot mess.  And my thought, when I started thinking about writing this blog entry was that maybe some of the people posting on that site are not really interested in labor reform or labor organizing, but just trying to sow dissent and tear down the whole thing from the inside.

They didn't have to try to hard.  The moderators did a poll to ask the readers whether they should respond to media requests.   The media these days (or maybe all days) starts out with a story idea and then finds someone or something to prop up the idea.  It is inverse of the scientific method, where you come up with a theory and then run an experiment to prove or disprove the theory.  In journalism, you come up with the story idea and then bend the data to fit the preconceived notion.

And I have some small experience with this.  I called in to "car talk" and was chagrined to see that they recorded me saying "uh-huh" and then repeated this several times to make it sound like I was agreeing with them.  I was interviewed for an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine, and they basically took my life story and twisted it around to fit their narrative. One observer called it "the mother of all trolling efforts."  I was trolled, but I really didn't give a shit.

There is an old saying that you don't understand how poorly written the newspaper is, until you read an article about something you know about - or yourself - and realize how full of shit the authors are.  Then the next day, you go back to reading the paper and believing everything in it.  And this goes double or triple for television and quadruple for online media and octuple for social media. I learned this firsthand, writing an article for the student newspaper at Syracuse.  Everyone has an agenda, and their agenda was not to piss off the school administration too much.  So a scathing article was toned down to "students meet, discuss issues."

So it was no surprise that when the moderators of the "antiwork" subreddit decided to go on Fox News (against the advice of the members of the subreddit) they had their ass handed to them on a platter.  Fox was no doubt salivating at the chance, and they had their perfect patsy - a caricature that hit nearly every Fox News Talking Point™.  The moderator was a young, somewhat unkempt transgender person wearing a hoodie (just like Trayvon Martin!) speaking from an unkempt room (just like "Doctor" Jordan Peterson!) who mumbled for three minutes about how they walked dogs for a living (10 hours a week, it turns out) and wants to "teach philosophy" someday.   Fox News roasted them like a pig.

This fit the narrative that "those young people" who are quitting their jobs (for higher wages elsewhere) are "just lazy" and "have everything handed to them!" and thus should not be listened to.  The interview was so bad, that some wonder if "Doreen" the transgender mod, wasn't in fact paid by Fox to do it.  News organizations do pay people to make appearances, so it is possible.  Whatever the motivation, it was a disaster, and you would think they would have picked a more friendly outlet than Fox News to do a media interview.

People are trying to salvage the wreckage.  The "subreddit" r/antiwork is gone - for now - and people are promoting a new one, r/workreform. They point out that they are not against working, but just want what everyone in the world wants, better pay and better working conditions.  At least this is a more focused subject and not a scattershot (and scatterbrained) approach to labor.  Gone are the Marxist-Leninist leanings and the rage-quit posts and memes.  Maybe something will come of it.

But as others have noted, a "subreddit" is not a movement anymore than online petitions express the will of the people or are effective in any way.  Slacktivism isn't activism. Real organization requires real people, face-to-face, to vote for unionization and better wages.  People quitting their jobs for better jobs and better pay isn't a "movement" but just a career move - something I've done several times myself.  Sadly, in order to advance in the world, you often have to make lateral moves - go to work for a different company to get a pay increase and promotion.  Companies, for whatever reason, are reluctant to promote from within.

As for Doreen, well, you have to feel sorry for someone who ends up crucified on the Internet like that.  You say one wrong thing these days and your online life is over.  I hope he/she is OK and maybe uses this experience to reconsider their life choices.   Maybe something good will come of it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Anti-Vaxxing is a form of Mental Illness?

 

Just because the government wants you to do something, doesn't always mean it is bad.

A reader writes that I am full of shit for criticizing anti-vaxxers.  They are not getting the CoVid vaccine because, "I feel the government is pushing it on us!"  And of course, any time the government wants you to do something, it probably is bad for you.  Boo Government!

At first I was going to dismiss this complaint out of hand, but then I thought more about it.  I have harped time and time again, that you can spot a bad deal at 100 paces simply by the way it is presented.  You drive by "Mattress Land!" with the big orange-and-red-and-yellow signs proclaiming "Big Savings!"   Across the street is "Mattress World!" with the same signs.  And you quickly figure out there are no bargains to be had at these places - and financing a mattress is nonsense - a bunch of padding that is covered with fabric isn't worth thousands of dollars.  And no, it isn't a "Scientific Good Night's Sleep!"  If you are having trouble sleeping at night, odds are, it ain't the mattress.  I've gotten a good night's sleep on the ground or the floor - a mattress is just a bonus.

But I digress.

The point is, when you see something hyped, you should be suspicious.  When you see the bandwagon going down the street with people encouraging you to jump on, you should be wary.  And our reader, although I think they are wrong, is right to wonder why they are pushing the vaccine - and doing so badly.  And it isn't just our reader, it is a worldwide phenomenon that many people don't trust the way the vaccine is being rolled out.

In totalitarian countries (and no, this isn't the USA by a long shot!) such as China, you get the vaccine or else.  Lockdown?  Enforced with a vengeance.  China has done a good job of tamping down a virus that admittedly originated in their country.  The rest of the world has crazy ideas about personal freedom, and as a result, has struggled with this pandemic.

In many Western European countries, lockdowns and mask mandates have been ordered, and although vaccines are not mandated, if you are not vaccinated, you may find yourself unable to get a job, take a train, fly on an airplane, or whatever.  It is like "constructive discharge" in employment law - they can make life so difficult you give up.  And people in Europe are protesting this, although the vast majority are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated and using masks and following other recommended guidelines.

In America, we have tried a patchwork approach, with various States enacting different policies, with some, such as Michigan, enacting strict lockdowns, while others, such as Florida, seem to be encouraging anti-vaxxing.   Mandates by the government have been struck down by the Supreme Court, but given that we are a free country, companies are still entitled to fire people who are not vaccinated, as is the military (indeed, to be a soldier, you are first given a plethora of vaccines in basic training).  Some people call this "tyranny" but they've never been to China, so they really don't know.

The problem is, the way this vaccine thing has been rolled out has made a lot of people suspicious - and I am not just talking about the Qanonsense people or the Karens on Facebook who want to be attention whores by posting nonsense about how they are using holistic medicine on their children instead of getting a smallpox vaccine.  That shit has been going on long before the pandemic - sort of like young vegan girls who starve their cats to death by feeding them nothing but broccoli.  It is just doing something outrageous to get attention.

But I get it - a lot of the vaccine information (not disinformation) is being presented in a way that makes it seem like people are jumping on a bandwagon.  And by banning people from jobs and airplanes or cruise ships, it makes it seem that people are being coerced into getting vaccinated.  And quite frankly, as someone who has been vaccinated (I didn't need coercion!) I do cringe a bit at how they are trying to "persuade" people to get the shot.

I recounted before how a lot of anti-bullying efforts are preordained to backfire. The third grade teacher tells the kids, "Be nice to little Billy or you'll go to the Principal's office!"  And little Dirk, the bully, smiles that sickly smile and says, "Of course, Mrs. Beasley!" and waits until recess to beat the crap out of poor Billy.  You can't force people to like you and attempts to do so, will backfire.  We see this today with a lot of this transgender nonsense - trying to "make" people accept that it is OK to allow a child to pick their gender and pronouns, and to use the wrong pronoun is akin to throwing acid in their face.

It is a plan that backfires in a big way - people try to be "nice" but let's face it, it doesn't make you a horrible person if people different from yourself make you feel uncomfortable. That's 50,000 years of instinct and is hard to overcome.  But again, I digress.

Or did I?  Because I think the same thing is going on here.  People mean well and want the world to be a better place.  Unfortunately, what they do is say, "If only everyone would do THIS, then everything would be better!" - where "THIS" is not bullying, or accepting transgender kindergartners, or getting the vaccine.  The net result is that some folks feel they are being pushed around, and they push back.

We should be encouraging people to get vaccinated, but forcing them, directly or indirectly, will only backfire - has only backfired.  So while I was initially wanting to shout down our reader for being an anti-vaxxing idiot, the more I thought about it, the more I realized what they were getting at.  Because even I think the efforts to get the whole population vaccinated are ham-handed and poorly done.

Granted, most people realized that vaccines work.  Coming from the post-polio era, I realized that getting vaccinated was a good thing - our health in America is far better than it was in the not-too-distant past.  My parents had to worry about things like polio as well as a host of other diseases that we have - or had - virtually wiped out.  Having a technical background, I appreciate how the science works.  Note that I didn't say "I believe the science!" because that is an idiotic statement - science isn't based on belief but the painstaking efforts of trial-and-error, revising theories, and peer review.

And so far, the data backs up the vaccine.  The vast majority of people dying from CoVid today are the unvaccinated.  The vast majority of those getting seriously ill and clogging up the ICUs across the country are the unvaccinated.  If you have the vaccine, odds are far greater that you won't get sick, or if you do, the effects won't be as bad.  I don't like getting sick.

Of course, the hard-core anti-vaxxers have an answer for everything - a made-up answer.  "Millions of people are dying from the vaccine!" they say, with zero evidence to back this up, other than a "meme".  Meanwhile, the hard data is dismissed out of hand as "coming from the gub-ment!"  This sort of nonsense is why I initially rejected our reader's argument out of hand.

Sadly, this is part of an overall trend, as the government, has, for years, been "telling us what to do" in terms of improving our health and safety.  We are told to stop smoking and taxed if we do.  We are told to wear seatbelts and drive carefully - and are fined heavily if we don't.  We are told to do a lot of things that are actually in our own best interests, but we don't like being told what to do.

And granted, the government has lost a lot of credibility over the years.  The Iraq war, for example, sort of ruined government credibility both at home and abroad.  We invaded the wrong country, killed an awful lot of people, and accomplished nothing other than to perhaps empower Iran further.  Even the invasion of Afghanistan, even if it was the "right" country, accomplished little.  We should have realized after Russia left that country with its tail between its legs that trying to "Nation Build" was a fruitless task.

Our government has done a lot of wrong over the years.  We declared a "war on drugs" and after ruining a lot of people's lives and incarcerating more people per capita than even China, accomplished nothing, other than to make even more people distrust the government and the Police.  The government, has done a lot of wrong over the years.  But that is only because it is a government of people and thus prone to failure.

A lot of other governments have done a lot worse.  There is no such thing as a perfect government.  But that doesn't mean that the government isn't right some of the time - or much of the time.

As with evaluating good or bad deals, you have to look at the motivations of the actors involved.  The car salesman will tell you leasing is a good deal because "it frees up your cash flow!" and because of "opportunity cost!" - both of which are nonsense arguments. But they are arguments that make you feel good about a bad deal and more importantly, get you to sign those papers.

In the case of vaccines, what is the government's interest?  The hard-core anti-vaxxers argue that the vaccine will kill off millions of people - almost the entire population of the USA or indeed, the world.  I am not sure how this would benefit the government at all - it would cease to exist, which oddly enough, many hard-core anti-vaxxers seem to secretly want.

Others claim it is a conspiracy between the government and "big pharma" and somehow the vaccine will make the pharmaceutical companies very rich.  Maybe they will make money on the vaccine, but again, you could say the same thing about any government program - it makes no sense.  "Big Asphalt" is going to profit from repaving the Interstate!  "Big Bridge" is going to make money from "Build Back Better" infrastructure program!  "Big Defense" is going to make billions of dollars from the new stealth submarine!   All of these things are true.  Then again, it is kind of hard to build roads, bridges, or a military, without spending money on it - and you have to spend it with the people who make the things you need.  As a former government contractor, I know how this works.  Or am I just a mouthpiece for "Big Patent"?

We have a pandemic - and yes, it is real.   And yea, I "get it" that people want to deny horrible things that happen.  It is comforting when an insane person with an assault rifle guns down grade school children to simply believe it never happened.  But reality is what it is, and another theme of this blog is that denying reality will come back and bite you on the ass big time.  The better you can perceive reality, the better off you will do.  That's why crazy people and drug addicts are usually poor - their perception of reality is clouded.

We have a pandemic - so how do you stop it?  You can quarantine infected people.  You can wear face masks.  You can come up with a cure or a vaccine.  We've been doing all of the above.  The fact that it is being orchestrated by the government doesn't mean these are bad ideas.  But again, I "get it" that the government has squandered a lot of credibility over the years and the way this is being sold is off-putting to some people.  That doesn't make it a bad idea.

Will the pandemic end?  Eventually.  One way or another it will.  Even if we did nothing, it would end, eventually.  A lot more people would die prematurely, to be sure, if we took that route.  The old, infirm, the unhealthy, the sick - they would be the first to go.  The remainder - those whose immune system could fight of the virus - would survive and perhaps pass that immunity on to the next generation, which would work until some new virus came along or generations later, we lose that immunity as it no longer becomes a survival factor.

The problem with that approach is that those who support it fail to realize that they may be the ones who die or get very sick from this virus.  So long as it is "the other guy" getting sick, it sounds like a good plan.

The problem we've had, with this pandemic, is that just as it seems it is under control, people get anxious and insist on abolishing lockdowns or getting rid of mask requirements and the whole thing blossoms all over again - three times now. The only saving grace is that this latest variant, while more easily transmissible, isn't as deadly.  Nevertheless, I'd rather not get sick from it.

All that being said, there is another aspect about these mandates and requirements - the unvaccinated are as able to spread the virus as the vaccinated.  So why require that everyone have a vaccine in order to get on an airplane?  It is an interesting question, and I think the answer is this:  while having everyone vaccinated on the airplane might not stop the immediate spread of the virus, if everyone was vaccinated, we would kill this thing once and for all, and put an end to masks and vaccines and lockdowns forever. So, for example, if you are running an airline or a cruise ship, you don't just want to stop people from getting the virus onboard, you want to wipe it off the face of the earth.

I read a quote somewhere along the lines of "It is easier to convince someone of something than to convince them they are wrong about something."  And I think that is what is going on today.  People retreat into their positions and beliefs and if you attack their beliefs they get defensive and think you are attacking them.  So it is pointless to get in someone's face and try to convince them they are wrong.  You might as well not waste your breath.

So I have no interest in convincing our reader to get vaccinated - that is indeed a personal choice.  But I would point out that I have no sympathy - none whatsoever - for someone who proclaims to be an anti-vaxxer and then ends up getting sick of the disease they could have been vaccinated against.  CoVid or Polio, it makes no difference.  And that's where their personal freedom intersects mine - because when I can't get into the hospital because every bed is taken up by anti-vaxxers and they run up a million-dollar bill in the ICU and don' pay it, that affects me (and other people) directly.

And maybe right there is where the government is coming from, because this is a public health matter more than a private one.

Monday, January 24, 2022

It's Just One Guy (Revisited) - The Evil of Social Media

Social media isn't evil because of the mass of humanity, but rather the actions of a few people directing the mass of humanity.

A recent study shows that the bulk of anti-vax information on the Internet is being created and spread by just a dozen prominent "influencers".   This is startling information, as one might think that anti-vaxxer movements are comprised of a legion of people - as evidenced by mass (maskless) protests worldwide.  but like any good "flash mob" it isn't so much the actions of the many, but the few - the few people who instigate and promote dissent.

It is akin to the "Stonks" or "Crypto" movements.  A few smart people put up thousands of postings (or have them put up at their bidding) and millions of "useful idiots" read these and decide to buy.

\Are there really that many idiots in the world? Well, drive by your local "prosperity theology" mega-church on a Sunday morning and count the clapped-out cars in the parking lot.  These are poor people who have had life crises, and yet fork over 10% of their pre-tax income to some pastor who is banging his church secretaryThere are a lot of idiots in the world, don't add to the collection.

It isn't just social media - regular media ends up being a megaphone for single voices, in this case, Sinclair communications.   Just because you "don't watch Fox News" doesn't mean you aren't being fed propaganda, in this case, conservative propaganda.

This is not a vast conspiracy theory, just facts.  In fact, conspiracy theories are the way these sort of folks keep the useful idiots in line.  Think about it for a second - how do you get people to vote for a political party that continually promises to cut the taxes of the very rich, get rid of (or privatize) social security, reduce regulations designed to safeguard our financial markets, our workplaces, or the environment (among others), slash programs that mostly benefit the working class, and at the same time, outsource their jobs to China?  Tell them there is a vast conspiracy on the Left to torture babies for their glandular excretions.

Farfetched?  Beyond that.  But that is Qanon in a nutshell (emphasis on "nut" shell), tying in other conspiracy theories such as the Kennedy assassination and even aliens in Area 54.  And people willingly believe this shit - and willingly watch, stream, and download it all day long.  If Qanon doesn't work on you, well, they've got a religious angle - vote for me, and I'll make sure your kids don't get gay-married or have abortions - and well ban all those naughty books in the school library, too!

Any good magician doesn't use magic - it doesn't exist and they don't need it.  The trick is to get people to watch what you are doing with one hand - by making dramatic gestures and movements.  In the meantime, with the other hand, you are palming cards or doing some other chicanery.  It's not that really hard to do, if you are dexterous.  The secret is in the showmanship - the distractions.

"But Bob!" you say, "I'm smarter than that!  I'm not one of those legions of idiots who is absorbed by their phone or Fox News or Infowars!"   That may be true.  And maybe you have "legitimate" reasons to support the GOP - you want the government to get tough on crime or lower your taxes (because you are in one of those higher brackets).  OK, I get that.  But all of us are subject to this sort of indoctrination, all of the time, every day, every night.  You start reading right-wing news, your opinions tend to move rightward.  You start reading left-wing news, your opinions tend to move more to the left.  It isn't a matter of us being smart and them being dumb, we are all subject to indoctrination.  Everyone - you and me included.

So how do we escape this trap?  It ain't easy, to be sure, because everyone - everyone - has an agenda these days.  It is easier to walk away from end-times theology, scientology, prosperity theology, Qanonsense, Antifartism, ISIS recruiters, and whatnot.  Only the most dense of people fall for those sort of cults.  But what about more nuanced influence?   That's where it gets tough.

I see online a lot of criticism of Elon Musk, for example, and there is a lot not to like about him.  But then again, there is a concerted effort to union his factories, and one has to wonder where the Musk hate is coming from.  On the other hand, when you read the comments accompany such an article (always a bad idea) you see people defending Musk in terms he would enjoy - denigrating and attacking the authors or anyone who dares suggest their idol might have a few flaws.   When you parse it out, the firs thing you have to ask yourself is what is the motivation of these people?  Why is someone attacking Musk, and why would anyone defend him?  Is it possible that any of them have an agenda?  Perhaps some of these people are paid trolls?

If you start to look at it that way, you can sort of see the more obvious ones.   After all, why would someone be a "fan boy" of a billionaire - when he can afford to hire an army of 'bots to do his fan-boyism for him.  And if you think that is a conspiracy theory, think again - every major corporation, organization, celebrity, and politician has a publicist and public relations company they hire - and grooming the Internet is part and parcel of any public relations strategy.  If it wasn't, I'd fire my publicist.

We only notice this when it is done poorly.  A white, conservative Congressman posts messages as a "Gay Black Trump Supporter" but on one occasion forgets to log out of his personal account before posting as his alter ego.  Amateur hour!  Smart folks let the experts handle this sort of thing - not only is it time-consuming, but you are far less likely to get caught at it.  And if your public relations company gets caught at it, you can argue it was a "rogue" operation, just as companies release distasteful "viral" ads and then claim later on they had nothing to do with it.

I guess what I am getting at is skepticism, but even that can be co-opted, as people become skeptical of logic and science, but fully embrace para-science and "belief".  Time was, we used to have a consensus in society - worldwide - as to what norms were and what truth was.  Sure, we had disagreements, but no one seriously believed the world was flat (I am still convinced that started as a drunken bet between two operatives of the Russian Internet Research Agency - "I'll bet you 10,000 Rubles that I can get them to believe the Earth is flat - they are that dumb!"  He collected on that bet.).

Speaking of the Russian Internet Research Agency, one of the largest sources of disinformation is, in fact, governments themselves.  And this is nothing new, as I noted in an earlier post. "Disinformation campaigns" go back decades, and both the CIA and KGB were active participants.  The only thing that has changed is that today, you need not bribe or blackmail journalists or other opinion-shapers, you can get them to volunteer to do it - over the Internet.  You need not even meet them in person - or even know them or talk to them over the Internet.   And you can cover your tracks very effectively.

Whenever you read something on the Internet, assume the story is false, exaggerated, slanted, or otherwise fabricated or manipulated.   Shocking, I know, but people actually put up postings online just to get clicks.  I am not sure exactly how it works, because I refuse to get involved, but apparently, if you get enough "followers" and clicks and click-throughs, you can command a decent amount of money for endorsing products or services.   The anti-vaxxers documented above get a lot of clicks - and a lot of associated ad revenue.  Some actually sell bogus "cures" for CoVid.

As an experiment, someone posted a thing on 4Chan that drinking your own urine was a "cure" for CoVid.  It was a joke - to see if the "mainstream media" picked it up.  Well, sure enough, within a fortnight, it was picked up and rebroadcast by "influencers" and the media picked it up, to report to controversy - which only bootstraps the whole thing.  What started out as a joke, ends up being taken seriously.

But the trolls made their point - you can get people to believe just about anything.  Well, at least some of the people, some of the time.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Things You Should Never Pay For - or Pay Much For!

Small appliances are a huge mark-up item for retailers.  Yet they can be had cheap secondhand.  Odds are, you will find out you didn't want one in the first place.

We've had a lot of small appliances over the years.  Counter-hogs I call them - they take up so much space and have limited uses.  Consumer magazines always put single-use appliances at the top of the "useless" list and I have to agree.  I have to agree having bought so many of these machines over the years, only to get bored with them and let them sit in a cabinet somewhere or sell them at a garage sale (or donate to Goodwill) for pennies.  I've also bought such machines at garage sales or Goodwill for pennies, and the experience was about the same as buying them brand-new, other than I also had the satisfaction of not paying very much.

Take bread machines.  Back in the 1990's it was a real fad.  All the morning talk shows (which we watched religiously back then) talked about them and one Christmas, I think I bought one for Mark.  We had a lot of counter-hog appliances back then, but Mark worked for Williams-Sonoma and later for Sheets 'n Things and got a lot of these things for a few dollars as "scratch and dent" items.  Williams-Sonoma was so crazy back then with their return policies.  One lady brought back an appliance that they didn't even sell and the store manager gave her money "back" on it.  It sat in the back room for years until the GM told Mark to take it home if they wanted it - I think he declined.

Speaking of crazy - that was the Tyson's Corner store.  They had the store on one level and the storage area on another.  So they had this brand-new Chevy van they used to haul merchandise between the levels.  It never left the mall parking garage.  It was like five years old and had 3,000 miles on it (oil never changed, no doubt) and the battery went dead - so they went back to using carts.  Again, the GM or DM told Mark to keep the van if he wanted it and foolishly he said, "What would I want a van for?" and by the time I talked some sense into Mark, another employee pounced on it.  It would have come in handy for his catering business.  But I digress.  Retail is so wasteful sometimes!

Anyway, we used the bread machine for year or so.  It made these odd-shaped loaves of bread and it was OK, I guess, but over time, maybe the heating elements got weak or something, as the loaves got smaller and smaller.  It got put away in the back of a cabinet and then taken out a year later and rediscovered and then we got bored again.  Eventually, it was sold at a garage sale, when we had stopped using it for several years.  I am not sure that the point of it was, as you can make bread (many do!) without a machine.  Bread is also one of the cheapest staple foods out there, even those fancy breads.  So I am not sure what the point is.  Better bread?  Not really.  Saving money?  Plueeze!

Last year or the year before, a friend of ours .gave us a bread machine, and it being a pandemic and all, we decided to give it a try.  Oddly enough, it seems everyone else had the same idea, as the local gocery store was sold-out of yeast and bread flour.  It worked OK, I guess, and we used it for a couple of months and then.... back into a cabinet somewhere.  Bread isn't bad for you, unless you eat huge quantities of it.  It is like anything else - you consume cyanide every day and it doesn't harm you.  Eat enough of it, it will kill you.  Bread will kill you a lot more slowly, of course, unless you choke on it.

The great thing about the internet is that you can find lots of documentation for older appliances.  I typed in the model number of the bread machine and downloaded the user manual and a cookbook from the manufacturer.  It makes OK bread, but lately we have been experimenting with making pizza dough with it.  I want to try using it in dough-mode to make dough that we can later use in the oven to make normal loafs of bread, boules, or french bread loaves.

Could we have lived without the bread machine?  Sure.  But it was free - or at least the second one was.  And in fact, over the years, I have seen many such machines sold at garage sales for pennies, once the fad wears off.  Today's "must have" insti-pot/slow cooker/air fryer/microwave is tomorrow's garage sale fodder.  People shell out a ton of money on these things and then later on discover it hasn't changed their life forever, or in fact, done much of anything.

I am deeply suspicious of any trend that causes people to do things en masse.  Crowds are irrational and dangerous, and usually they are on their way to some sort of crucifixion, witch burning, or stoning.  So when I see dozens of "people" on the Internet ooh-ing and aah-ing over the latest piece of techno-garbage, I get very nervous.  When I see a pyramid of these appliances on display at WalMart and all the plebes scurrying to get one in their cart, I get very turned off.

If you really want to find out what the fuss is all about - no matter what the "must have" appliance or game or tech crap or whatever - just wait a year.  Pretty soon, it will be in the bargain basement section or you will see one for sale, cheap, on Craigslist or whatever.  People get bored with this trendy shit in a real hurry and these things end up in a drawer somewhere or pushed to the back of a closet.

It is funny, too, how quick we are to kick things to the curb.  At Goodwill the other day was a pristine, never-been-used Faberware electric percolator, art deco style right out of the Raymond Lowey sketchbook.  We bought it ($5!) for the camper and it works great.  We both remember, as a kid, getting out the electric perkolator and our parents saying, "Put that away! We have Maxwell House instant!" which parents of that era thought was "good coffee".  Besides, the percolator was a wedding gift or something and was expensive (probably $5 back then!) and you might break it or something.

People go ga-ga over a "cartridge" coffee maker that increases the cost-per-cup by a factor of five or more, (not counting the cost of the machine itself) and yet overlook perfectly good percolator devices and coffee machines (of all sorts) which are cheap or sometimes even free.

But of course, the "logic" if you will, at the time, is that "I can afford to pay $200" [or $300 or $500 or whatever] "for the latest and greatest thing everyone is talking about, because I am making good money!"  And that was the logic I used, over a lifetime, thinking that "keeping up" with technology and styles and trends was somehow living and not just squandering my life forces.

Because that is what it is.   I get some pushback from some folks that I am obsessed about money.  But no, I am not.  Lack of money and debt - yea, those things concern me.   Today, I am debt-free and as a result I don't have to worry about money, except perhaps running out of it.  But since I earn more in dividends, interest, and capital gains (at least in recent years) than I spend, it isn't much of a worry.  Even if my portfolio went flat, I have enough cash to last another 30 years or so, God willing.  Others are not so fortunate.  In fact, most are not.

Unless you are born into wealth, it takes labor - your life force - to earn money.  And no matter how much you make (or think you make) every bit of spending is dissipating that life force.   Every new car you buy is another year you have added to your working life and one year subtracted from your retirement.  But of course, we don't see it that way - retirement and "old age" sneaks up on you and one day you wake up and wonder what the fuck happened.

It is funny, too, how you look back, even a few years or a decade, and think about how your priorities have changed, how your interests have changed.  When we moved to Jekyll Island, 15 years ago or so, we had five cars, two boats, two houses, and a ton of "stuff" that we thought was oh-so-important.  We also had jobs and thought our potential income was unlimited - when in fact it is a finite amount.

And I guess you can say you did it and look back on those experiences.   And yes, you also look back with regret at each missed opportunity.  Mark still kicks himself for not taking a free van.  But you can't go through life with regrets.  All you can do when you make a mistake is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try to learn something from it.  If you can learn from someone else's mistakes, so much the better.

And no, spending $200 on a bread machine isn't going to bankrupt most folks, although that money, invested over time, would be worth over $1000 today.   If I had waited a year or two, I could have had the same machine for nearly nothing.

Paying extra to be trendy or have "the latest thing!" is one mistake I made in life.  A simple thing, really, but once you "have to have" something, you might as well just hand them your wallet.  The marketing people create this "buzz" to sell products at premium prices, whether it is "hard to get" concert tickets, a tickle-me-Elmo doll, or a new PlayStation that "scalpers" are "hoarding".  It is a gag they have been using against us since the dawn of time.

Being trendy or having the latest gadget is not wealth, it is anti-wealth.