Thursday, March 31, 2022

What the Hell Happened to Netflix?

Once the go-to place for streaming movies and shows, Netflix is getting to be a shallow wading pool.

My experiment with the hot spot continues.  I got Netflix to work on the Chromebook by mirroring the screen to our old Sharp television, rather than using extended screen.  I guess Netflix doesn't want you connecting a projector to your laptop and showing movies for money or something.  But it works with mirror screen, so go Figure.

Again, we sign up for one streaming service, look it over and then cancel it before the month is out.  And it has been a month or more since we cancelled Disney+ after signing up to watch the mostly disappointing Book of Boba Fett.  For some reason, it wasn't as compelling as The Mandalorian and is it just me, or is Amy Sedaris a really bad actress?  Her method of acting is shouting at the camera, it seems.

So I thought I would give Netflix another look-over.  For some reason Mark's account was wiped out and we had to re-sign-up again.  The price is now $9.99 a month and you can't see what's on the site before you sign up - the classic "sealed box auction" gag.  Well, for $9.99 I found out they have old episodes of Seinfeld and not much else.  Everything on there is either stuff we already saw or things we don't want to see.

Even "series" we like, I no longer like.  "Kim's Convenience" was cute for the first three seasons, but jumped the shark when "Kim-Chee" became the assistant manager of "Handy Car Rental".   I kind of lost interest after a while.  This same effect is true with any television series - it peters out after two or three seasons and the networks continue to flog it as a money machine after that.  Maybe one reason the original Star Trek was considered so great was that they cancelled it before it sucked too badly.  Even so, that last season...

Oh, and the interface has been changed yet again, and it sucks even more.  You can't see ratings on videos (that went away two iterations ago) and you can't even see a decent discription of the program without clicking on it.  Plus, they harp on "downloading" rather than streaming.  What's up with that?  It that cheaper for them?  My laptop might download a video, but the Chromebook won't.  Well, it will, it just doesn't have the codec to play it back with.

So I am not sure we will find much to watch on Netflix.  There is some sort of Leonardo DiCaprio (boy did he gain weight!) movie called "Don't Look Up" and I started to watch it, but I kind of felt it was hokey.  What else is there?  I mean, things not based on a comic book, a reality show from the UK, or some soap-opera type series.

Again, maybe just consuming less media is more.  In fact, I am beginning to believe that consuming media of any sort is bad for your mental health, whether it is doom-scrolling your phone, watching mindless television shows, going to hyped movies based on comic books (full of product placement) or reading click-bait newspapers and magazines online.  It all just fills your mind with dread and paranoia.  Everything is bad - that is the message of the media.  I guess it is true, the media is the message and the media sucks.

I have a month to dig through Netflix again, so I'll give it a go.  And by the way, it streamed flawlessly with the 4G hotspot, although at 480p (Netflix has three levels of signup, and $9.99 only gets you 480p).  Quite frankly, the honeymoon is over with streaming. We started nearly a decade ago and it was fun.  Today, well they are advertising that streaming "is the new cable!" as if that was a good thing.  It is the epitaph of streaming services.

On the other hand, it is funny but if you want to watch a movie - even a fairly "new release" you can still buy DVDs or borrow them from the local library or find them at garage sales or at the thrift shop for a dollar (!).  Maybe it is "obsolete" technology, but it still works and it's very low cost.  For the cost of watching older movies on Netflix for one month, I can buy ten movies from Goodwill.  And when I am done watching them, I can sell them at my garage sale for what I paid for them.  Um, so that's basically free, right?

No doubt, they will put an end to that, soon.  I suspect in the next few years, they will stop releasing movies and other content on DVDs or Blu-Ray (whatever happened to Blu-Ray, anyway?) as a means of controlling us further.

Joke's on them - we always have that one most powerful weapon up our sleeves - to choose not to consume!

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Smarten Up, Dumbing Down

Choose your friends wisely, my Mother always said.  I realize years later what she meant.

Social anxiety is a real thing and even if you don't think it affects you, it does.  Maybe you've noticed this effect, after going to a party or event and seeing and talking to a dozen or more people.  You come home and you are exhausted by the weight of it.  But you assume it was just too many glasses of cheap wine or something and shrug it off.

Others, well, they know firsthand about crippling social anxiety and find it hard to even leave home without having a panic attack.  But people figure out ways to survive. When I was at GM, they had me work in the model shop, where the tool & die makers made parts for machines to make parts.  I "shadowed" a foreman for a week and it was an educational experience as he had a different way of cajoling and dealing with each employee.  Some needed little more than a blueprint and a due date and they were off on their own without supervision.  Others required constant grooming to insure they felt needed and wanted and would get the work done.

Then there was this one guy.  He was a sweet guy in fact, but shy as all get out.  We went over to his work station and the foreman said, "Watch this - he'll go and hide!"  And sure enough, when we got to his station by a big lathe, he was gone - as if he had evaporated.  The foreman explained that since I was new, he was afraid of me.  "Half the time he runs away when I come around!" he said.  It was like trying to befriend a feral cat.  I am happy to say that he ended up liking me - much to the foreman's surprise - and didn't run away when I was around.  But it illustrates how people can have high social anxiety but still be functional in society after a fashion.  They tolerated his idiosyncrasies because he was an excellent machinist.  Of course, having such idiosyncrasies makes it harder to advance in the world.

We all have these social anxieties to one extent or another, so just get over that.  In fact, the person who is the most gregarious in a group setting might be the one with the highest social anxiety - his false bravado is just a cover-up for insecurity.  The quiet person in the corner, taking it all in, might be the least stressed.  You never know.

One problem with engaging with other people is the level of discourse, intelligence, and social status.  It is a lot easier to engage with people of your same age, race, social group, economic level, intelligence level, and educational background.  We feel awkward being around someone smarter than ourselves or someone wealthier.  We feel even more awkward being around someone poorer or less educated.  We build up these walls of isolation and perception that prevent us from interacting.

For example, people ask me what I do (or used to do) for a living and when they hear I was a lawyer, it creates this tension.  Because everyone hates lawyers, of course, and not only that, they think you are some smart guy or a rich guy or a smart rich guy, and that gets in the way of things.  Of course, I am neither smart or rich, just lucky and very, very determined and fortunate enough to have someone who supports me physically and emotionally.  But you try to explain that to people and it falls on deaf ears.  Obviously I am some sort of white-shoe Park Avenue lawyer worth billions.  Sad fact is, today most lawyers are middle-class at best - and perhaps this was always the case.

There is another aspect to this which is a bit more disturbing, particularly when we examine our own motives in life.  It is a lot easier to hang out with people who are not quite as bright as you are, or of a lower social caste or lower income, as it makes you feel more confident and superior.  It is not a healthy thing.

I recounted before about a guy in my high school who killed a young girl in a DUI accident, the day before her wedding.  As she bled out on the pavement, he ran away.  We were all pretty appalled and disgusted by his behavior.  But rather than move across country and start a new life, he hung around my home town, befriending teenagers in the local high school (easy to do when you are buying them beer and selling them pot).  The local teens thought the was "cool" as he had his own apartment and a car and of course, was older.  And in every small town (and big city) there are guys like this (and gals, too) who make themselves feel big by hanging out with the small.  It ain't healthy.

I recounted also before that when I was 25 years old, I had an epiphany and gave up drugs and alcohol and went back to school full-time.  I was hanging out with friends who were going nowhere fast - just getting shitfaced every day and doing drugs all night long.  Some came from money and didn't have to work.  Others came from the upper middle-class and were working their way down like they were on a slide at the water park.  I had to break it off with them when one friend got into cocaine and underage girls, while a couple of others were encouraging me to try this "cool new drug!" called "rock" cocaine (before it was known as crack).  I was fortunate to move on - and move away - from that.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that the reason I hung out with those guys (and gals) in addition to the mutual drug use, was that I guess I felt more comfortable being around people who were basically losers in life.   When I compared my life to theirs, well, I looked pretty good, even if I was also circling the drain.

David Sedaris mentioned this effect in one of his short stories which might actually be based on real events.  He recalls visiting his drug dealer in a dilapidated mobile home, and sitting on a bong-water stained couch while the dealer's girlfriend asked him to "pass me the [n-word]" referring to the remote control for the TV because "it was black and it did what you told it to".   He sort of had an epiphany that drug use was taking him to some strange places - far from the safe middle-class suburban enclaves of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Of course, this is not to say you should seek out MENSA members as friends.  The comment my mother made about "choosing friends" is sort of shallow in that not only do you choose friends, they choose you.  So you can't select a friend if they don't want to be friends with you. In fact, trying to do so can be disastrous - ask any young women who tried to get in with "the mean girls" in school.  They will keep you around just for amusement, and abuse you.

No, you have to find common interests and a common level of understanding.  It is hard to befriend someone whose moral, political, and spiritual views are so radically different than your own - unless you have something else in common.  And even then, you just sort of agree-to-disagree about those other issues - something that seems to be lost on people these days.

I have friends who are far smarter than I am and have talents that amaze me.  I kind of feel like a blithering idiot sometimes, when I am around them.  On the other hand, Mark says that I intimidate other people sometimes by downloading reams of data on them, uninvited.  I like to talk about things, discuss things, think about things.  Others are more content to discuss the latest episode of their favorite reality show.  I guess we will never see eye-to-eye.

It is funny, but some folks think that having a higher social status is a good thing, a desirable thing, and something to strive for. My parents were that way - classic "Strivers" who wanted to get ahead in the world, and be accepted by "polite society" and the folks in the Country Club, as was typical of their generation.  Sadly, a lot of the folks in the Country Club are dullards who got ahead in the world not through intellect, but through chicanery and sharp practice.  In fact, intellectuals seem to be too smart for their own good, which is why they usually are decrying the antics of the rich.  How on Earth did that idiot become a Billionaire?  I'm smarter than him and I'm living paycheck-to-paycheck!  The question has the answer built-in to it - rich people often aren't very bright, they are just ambitious and have no qualms about exploiting their fellow man.  And no, they don't want to hang around with some whiny academic liberal who will harangue them about their moral failings- they want to hang with fellow "entrepreneurs" and joke about screwing the last cent out of some minimum-wage slob.  Nice folks!

OK, so I have digressed here, a lot.  I am not sure what the point of this was, other than I realized late last night that the reason I hung out with my drug friends, back in the day, was a pretty odious reason.  They didn't make me feel stupid or weak, but quite the opposite - I felt like I was just a slight notch above them at the time, and that was a pretty cheap feeling.  I wasn't being challenged at all by hanging with people like that.  In fact, I was just lording over them.  And that was pretty sick thinking.

I haven't heard nor seen my drug buddies in nearly 40 years.  I read online that one fellow, who came from a rich family, finally inherited his parents' house when his Mother passed away.  He still lives there (according to the databases online) - the same house he has lived in since he was a week old.  Another friend, who was into cocaine, has fallen off the map.  I drove by his house one day, in Syracuse, and it was a vacant lot.  Insurance fire?  Who knows?   Yet another ended up getting divorced, which was probably for the best - he was doing drugs in front of his 3-year-old daughter and also having affairs with young women while his kid was in the house.  Nice.  Why was I hanging out with him again?  Oh, right, drugs.

I had to move on and move away, not because I was "better" than they were - indeed, we are all damaged goods in God's eyes - but because I needed to look out for my own future, my own safety, and my own sanity.  I didn't have a house to inherit like my one friend did.

In retrospect, that decade (plus) of drug abuse was a major detour in my life. While I guess in retrospect I can say I learned a few lessons from it, they were indeed painful lessons.  And I don't look back at those years with fond memories.  I can't block out those memories, either.

So yea, choose your friends wisely. And sometimes it is better to have no friends at all than to have bad friends.  But the most important thing I have learned in sixty years?  All you need in life is one really, really good friend.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

My Brief Experience With Fraternities

It's not all fun and games at a Fraternity house.  And since when should college be fun and games?

Fraternities nearly died in the mid 1970s, and if it wasn't for National Lampoon's Animal House they would have died.  In the Hippie 60's, the idea of pledging a fraternity was viewed as "square" and bourgeoisie.  The idea of secret handshakes and special privileges for upper-class (white) people seemed to go against the mood of that era.

In the 1970's it was seen as a lot cooler to get your own apartment, preferably with your girlfriend, rather than hang out with a bunch of drunken squares in a subliminally homoerotic setting.  Why join a frat when you can shack up with a chick?

And make no mistake about it, fraternities were all about class privilege.  They were restricted to white (male) students from a certain social class.  Before the 1960's, people vied to join a "frat" and maybe dozens would want to join, but only a select few would be allowed to "pledge."

Of course, in addition to fraternities, there were "secret societies" in some elite schools.  Yale had the infamous "Skull and Bones" and Harvard the "Porcellian Club" - the latter of which denied membership to both Joseph Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  I think they had the last laugh, though.  The idea behind these clubs and frats was that people of a certain social class would meet and mix and later in life would offer opportunities to one another.  Back in the day of Mad Men, if you used the "secret handshake" during a job interview - and the interviewer gave it back - then you were in.  It was a system designed to keep the ruling class entrenched - and exclude social climbers and of course, minorities and women.

Yes, women had sororities, but back then, women didn't work for a living - and certainly not the type of girl who joined a sorority!  You went to college to meet a husband and marry well.  Education was secondary.

So there was a lot of elitist baggage with fraternities and sororities well into the 1970's.  And since then, many "Greek" organizations have tried to move with the times and recruit minorities and people of different social classes, but it doesn't seem to be working out too well.  Sadly, every year we are treated to stories of racist incidents, physical assaults on pledges, as well as rapes, and sexual assaults resulting from pledging activities or fraternity parties.  Funny thing, when you get a lot of adolescent young men together and leave them to their own devices, bad things happen.  Kind of odd, isn't it?  Inexplicable, really. You'd think that instead of drinking beer they would be studying the Bible, but there you have it.

Fraternities were less like "Animal House" and more like this, back in the day.

I started college in 1978, the year Animal House came out. Overnight, fraternities went from being perceived as dorky to being perceived as "cool." At General Motors Institute, we had an odd situation. The dormitory was very small - it could barely accommodate the freshman class.  So off-campus housing was the norm for years 2-5 (yes, five).  We had the same number of fraternities as my next Alma Mater, Syracuse University, but about 1/5th the student population.  As a result, nearly every  freshman was asked to pledge at least one or two, if not three, fraternity houses - they all had mortgages to pay!

I was asked to pledge two - Sigma Chi and Delta something-or-other. I pledged Signal Chi as my Dad was a "Sig" and I guess at the tender age of 18, I was still trying to gain his acceptance (it never came) and I wanted to "follow in his footsteps" by becoming an Engineer and pledging his frat. Decades later, he confessed he never got an Engineering degree as it was "too hard" and he switched to the management program at MIT in his Junior year.  Let that be a lesson to anyone wanting to follow in their Dad's footsteps!   Blaze your own trail.

The pledging thing was interesting.  Even back then there had been come celebrated "hazing" incidents where pledges were abused and actually died - from excessive alcohol intoxication or falling from a window, or whatever.   So the school had a "no hazing" policy and we were pretty much left alone.

I digress, but the fundamental problem with hazing - other than it is just pointlessly cruel - is that each successive class tries to outdo the previous class in terms of hazing cruelty.  If the class of '73 made the pledges sit outside naked in sub-zero temperatures for a half-hour while drinking an entire fifth of vodka, the class of '74 has to one-up that by making it a full hour and a full quart - and so on and so forth until someone ends up in the hospital or dead.

And this still goes on today, with pledges dying of alcohol poisoning on a regular basis. One frat decided that since alcohol was verboten to make the pledges drink staggering amounts of water- not realizing that even water is toxic in great quantities.  And yes, some poor kid died as a result.  Send your kid off to college, have him come home in a box!

Young men are desperate for acceptance from their peer group and thus are very vulnerable to such nonsense.  So they go along with this sort of abuse until it is too late.  Or in terms of sexual assault, they remain quiet while some young co-ed is roofied and raped, or are egged on into participating.  And of course, remain silent when the investigation begins.  Hey, you don't want the other fellas to call you a "wuss" or worse - "gay" - right?

Like I said, putting young men together in a situation without much supervision and left to their own devices usually results in tragedy.

Even for those who don't end up dead or going to jail, a frat can be problematic.  I had a friend of mine, a couple years older, who was an excellent draftsman and was going to become an Engineer at S.U.  He pledged a frat in his freshman year and discovered his new friend - beer.  He dropped out before his sophomore year - a complete and utter alcoholic at that point.  Sadly, "brothers" tend not to intervene when they see a "brother" going over the edge.

Although I pledged, I never joined the frat.  Some of the "brothers" there were kind of cool, but others were, well, utter assholes. I realized I really didn't want to hang out with them and this whole "fraternal" thing was a complete hoax.  It was just a way of sharing a run-down dormitory that smelled like stale beer and puke.  What's not to like?

Like I said, there were plenty of other frats looking for warm bodies and they rented out rooms to students such as myself.  I stayed one semester at one frat, and one of the "brothers" was using his fiancee as a punching bag.  No one bothered to intervene.  So much for "brotherhood" - it was appalling.

It is sad, too, because I could see a world where a fraternity is a mechanism whereby young men can learn from their elders and get a leg-up in society and look out for one another.  Instead, it devolves into the least common denominator and the lowest forms of behavior - alcohol and drug abuse, misogyny, sexual abuse, and racism. You don't come out of a fraternity as a better person, but worse - viewing women as objects to be used and society as a set of privileges for you to enjoy.  I suspect that today, many a frat bro has discovered that the privileges are fleeting, if any, in this economy.

Of course, about then, I dropped out of college myself - I smoked a lot of pot and drank a lot of beer, which doesn't mix well with Engineering studies.  In retrospect, I was probably depressed as well - my career at General Motors wasn't what I thought it would be - they wanted me to be a plant Engineer working it the waste processing department at a ball-bearing plant.  It turns out that dropping out was the best thing to do - the factory closed only a few years later.  My career - in a field not of my choosing - would have been short-lived.  Sometimes our subconscious does things that are in our best interests.

So I went to work for Carrier and returned to school - at Syracuse - as a "returning adult student" which was a much better deal.  No longer were they interested in how much my parents made in determining student aid.  And the perspective of age - even if it was only a few years - made me see things in a different light.   Like I said, there were the same number of frats at SU but five times as many students.  So when I talked to other students, they were in awe of the fraternity houses - they thought that being in a frat was the coolest thing in the world and only a "lucky few" got in.  I kind of found that humorous.  The "animal house" thing was in full-swing.

I worked nights delivering pizzas - often to fraternity houses and frat parties.  And it was interesting seeing things from the outside.  They tipped well - generally - and I was happy to make the money.  Of course, those kids were paying me with their student loan money, which as we found out, was kind of stupid.

I digress, but at the time, there were separate "black" fraternities on campus - frats that were just social organizations without any kind of frat house.  I never saw the point of those.  And the hazing - it was ten times worse that any "white" frat!  The students had to dress up like Pharoes in black and gold and carry around bricks painted black and gold with the geek letters of their frat on them.   Every day they added a new brick, until the pledges were carrying a dozen bricks (the kind with the holes in them) lashed together with clothesline.  They never spoke to anyone (one of the rules) and they had to walk in single-file all in a row, like a centipede, touching one another front to back.

I remember delivering a pizza once and a string of these fellows were crossing the road, shuffling their feet, and I was bearing down on them.  I hit the air horn and boy did they truck across that road!  That was probably kind of mean, but maybe it made them re-evaluate their life choices.  From most students' perspective, we couldn't understand why someone would subject themselves to such abuse for a frat with no frat house.  I mean, you get enough abuse being a "person of color" - why would you tolerate even more, unnecessary abuse, from your own kind?  It made no sense to me then, or today.  Like I said, it is a shame fraternities don't lift people up, but instead smash them down.

I graduated and left college behind. There were no "frats" in law school that I knew of. That sort of thing seemed kind of childish in retrospect.  And since then, like clockwork, every year, we hear a story of a co-ed raped or some young boy killed by hazing.  Everyone wrings their hands and says "what could we have done?" and the fraternity is banned for a semester or a year or their party privileges are suspended (but parties go on in secret anyway).  It seems like it will never change.

There was one positive experience from the whole ordeal, I guess.  At Syracuse, I was President of the Gay and Lesbian Student Association.  The school gave us a house on Ostrom Avenue - a three-story Dutch colonial.  I installed a draft beer system and we had our own little "frat" (and I had free off-street parking!).  One night, my Vice-President came to see me and say we had "trouble" in the living room.  I went out and there were like eight guys sitting on the couch, looking very nervous.

"What fraternity are you from?" I asked, and one of the pledges blurted out, "Sigma [Whatever]".  I laughed.  It was a hazing stunt - they confessed that the "Magister" (pledge master) made them visit the GLSA and stay for one full hour.  I told them not to sweat it, to have a beer and relax and enjoy themselves.  By the end of the night (they all stayed longer than an hour!) they were a little tipsy and one said, "You know, you guys are just like regular people!" I thought that was a very thoughtful hazing "stunt" by the Magister - it taught these kids something useful.  Two of them came back the next week - and not just for the free beer.  So maybe there is hope for frats after all.

Bu you know, I didn't miss a damn thing by not belonging to a "frat" and I suspect that most folks wouldn't find much advantage to it these days.  At best it is a place to stay on campus, at worst, a way to derail your college education, career, or life.  Frankly, I think that renting an apartment and living on your own (or with roommates) is a better way of learning responsibility in life.  If anything, living in a frat insulated you from "the real world" and allows you to be a kid just that much longer.

And we have too many adult kids today as it is!

Monday, March 28, 2022

School Zone

When did picking up your kids from school become a thing?

When I was a kid, you took the bus to school, or walked, or rode your bike.  When you got your driver's license, you drove - provided you had a car, of course.  But no one that I knew of was picked up and dropped off at school by their parents.  It just wasn't done.  Parents had better things to do with their time.

Well, that's changed.  I noticed that people seem to be driving again - pandemic's over, folks! And they are all driving like manics.  Seems traffic volume has doubled in recent weeks.  And you have to be careful around school zones - the speed limit drops down to 25MPH or even 15MPH in some places!

Not only that, though, there is usually a line of cars around the block, waiting to pick up their kids at school.  Woe be to the driver who gets caught on the road when school is about to let out!

My parents never drove me to school.  Well, they did once or twice when I missed the bus.  On a cold winter morning in Syracuse, Mom would be in her pajamas and housecoat, driving the Vega, smoking a True cigarette and cursing me out the whole way.  "Why can't you get up earlier in the morning?" she would say.  Of course, she was pissed-off because she wanted to sleep late - until 10:0AM usually - and here I was waking her up at 7:00AM.  Depression is a bitch.

I learned early on not to miss the bus.  Or if I did, it was just easier to skip school.  But today, you see someone driving their kid to and from school, it isn't because they missed the bus.  And the cost must be staggering - you're looking at 50 cents a mile at least, each way, twice a day.  It's like commuting to work - twice!  And why?

I am not sure why, but maybe the "stranger danger" paranoia has something to do with it.  We have been treated to all sorts of stories about kids being kidnapped, which indeed is a tragedy.  But like with "identity theft" it is a bit overstated.  They count ordinary credit card fraud as "identity theft" to make the numbers seem larger than they really are.

Similarly, the "missing children" include "abduction" by non-custodial parents (e.g., divorced Dad) which indeed can be dangerous, as some parents are indeed deranged and feel that "if I can't have custody of my kid, no one can!" and they either go underground or kill their own child.  Father of the year, right there.

I digress, but I get flack from some readers who complain, "You don't know what it's like to be a parent!" and maybe that is true.  But from what I read in the paper, a lot of people who have kids don't know what it is like to be a parent, eitherHaving children doesn't automatically make someone special.  Or, as a comedian once noted, "I don't know how to fly a helicopter, either.  But when I see one in a tree, I know something ain't right!"

Oddly enough, you read about these cases, and it is often the non-custodial parent picking up the child at school.  He (or She) is indeed the parent after all, and the kids trust their parents, so the school officials don't intervene - or didn't in some cases.  I am sure today there is some mechanism in place to make sure the correct parent is picking up the correct kid - but how does that work, with the dozens or over 100 cars waiting in line?  Do you have to show ID?  What?  Sounds tricky. Then again, the bus is no different and you hear horror stories about kids being let out at the wrong stop or being abducted from the bus stop - which no doubt feeds the fear of "stranger danger".

Of course, runaways (and throwaways) account for another big chunk of "missing child" statistics.  And again, it is sad, as I witnessed firsthand, when a teenager runs away from home.  You try to explain to them how long a 14-year-old can live on the streets without being abused or killed, but it falls on deaf ears.

I suppose after-school activities is another reason for Mom (or Dad) to play chauffeur.  The kids have soccer or karate or band and need to be driven to a different location for these activities.  If so, then Mom is really putting the miles on the SUV every day!  It is funny, but we talk about dual-income families so much these days, and yet I see Moms (and it is mostly Moms) waiting in line when school lets out, their engines idling, for a half-hour or more.  Do they not have jobs?  And it isn't just at the upscale schools, but even the elementary school in the ghetto.

It is funny, but we were in Atlanta once and going to this restaurant.  We got stuck in "Mommy-traffic" at a Montessori school.  All the upscale Moms were driving Tahoes or Suburbans, mostly black or dark blue, with the sticker of the school logo in the corner of the rear window - indicating they were authorized to pick up a kid, I guess.  I felt really bad for the one Mom in a mini-van.  I am sure the rest of the Karens mock her and don't even talk to her.

The worst example was in Alexandria, Virginia - again at a Montessori school - where this tiny lady was driving a Hummer.  And I don't mean an H2 or H3, but the original Desert Storm model, two lanes wide, on a narrow side-street.  She was blocking traffic both ways.  We all had to wait until her precious precious was ready to leave.  It was hilarious.

I am not sure what the point of this is, other than it is one of those things you wake up and notice one day.  You notice that the entire world has changed in some aspect or another, and the change was so gradual what we don't notice it.  It is like smart phones.  We all mocked the people who bought the first ones and walked around looking at them intently and then walking straight into a parking meter.  Today, we are all brain-dead smart-phone users, doom-scrolling for the latest news or trying to "stay in touch" via social media, while at the same time, insulating ourselves from the immediate world at large.

Picking up your kids at school is now a thing and it probably won't change very soon.  It is funny, but I recall an article in the Washington Post about a woman who let her 9-year-old son take the subway to school.  This was, of course, during the brief heyday of New York City when Mayor Bloomberg practiced "broken window policing" and the subways were clean and new and people well-behaved.  Today, they are homeless shelters and we can't do anything about it - it's impossible!  Right?

She was, of course, excoriated online as the World's Worst Mom.  And maybe because people remember the Etan Patz case.  Etan was only six years old when his parents allowed him to walk to the bus stop alone and some deranged idiot kidnapped and killed him.  Yes, this does happen - just as runaway 14-year-olds are vulnerable to sickos and psychos.

But there has to be some sort of happy medium.   Otherwise, why bother having school buses at all?  I suppose the self-driving car will be an answer of sorts to this problem.  It could be programmed to take the kids to school - and only school - and the doors locked once they get in.  And video monitoring (already a fact of life) will let Mom keep an eye on the tots while she sips her coffee at home.  Perhaps.

I am trying to think back to my early school days.  In Illinois, the bus stop was across the street from our house.  My brother (three years older) and I would wait there along with several other kids from the neighborhood.  Safety in numbers.  But in terms of "free range kids" we were allowed a lot of latitude.  We could ride our Stingrays a mile or more to the candy store.  We run wild through the neighborhood, climbing the skeletal framing of the new houses going up - and then jumping from the second story onto a sand pile.  We would throw rocks into the wet concrete of the newly poured basements - and then show them to the kids who moved in once the houses were built.  I guess it was a different world, a simpler time.

Or was it?  We were shown the "stranger danger" film more than once in school and admonished "never to take rides (or candy) from strangers!"  So the risk to kids was known even back then.  Of course, back then, a "small family" was four children and I guess parents felt that they could afford to lose one or two along the way.

Not everyone subscribes to the kiddie chauffeur model, however.  My neighbors have their children ride the buses to school (there are more than one) and I am awakened every morning to the sound of air brakes.  But the bus drops them at the end of the driveway, so I am not sure there is much "danger" on our little island from strangers or otherwise.  Incidentally, when we moved here there were hardly any children on the island.  "God's waiting room" is changing and we are seeing more and more kids around.  Time to move, I guess.

Maybe if gas goes to $5 a gallon, people will put their kids on the bus again.  Maybe, but I doubt it.  It seems to me people would rather bitch and moan and complain about gas prices rather than actually do something about it.  During a recent trip to Florida with the trailer, we got an amazing 14 MPG on the way down, and 15 MPG on the way back (tailwind!).  That doesn't sound like much, but most RV'ers are getting 8-11 MPG on a good day - or less.  The secret was, of course, to stay in the right lane and go about 60 MPH.  It was amazing to me how so many people were speeding and cutting each other off - even truckers - just to get somewhere ten minutes faster.  With gas at $4.80 a gallon and diesel at $5.65 you'd think they'd slow down, but it is easier to put a "Let's Go Brandon!" sticker on your bumper instead.

The cost of driving your kids to school could be a lot more than you think.  Operating a car is more than just the cost of gas.  But it is a luxury we can afford - I guess.  For now.

Sunday, March 27, 2022


Leave it to America to turn the Apocalypse into an marketing opportunity!

A reader writes that they used to subscribe to a mailing list for survivalists.  They were interested in survival gear as they spent a lot of time in some rough corners of the world.  But what turned them off was that the discussion group became less about discussing survival techniques and more about "reviews" of the latest and greatest survival gear, with "influencers" pushing one brand or another of the latest gadget you need for the end times.

When we traveled to Alaska, we went through places like Idaho (no, youda hoe!) and eastern Washington State.  There were a lot of right-wing crazies out there (being redundant again) and we saw stores with signs saying "Prepper Supplies!" and copies of "Prepper" magazine for sale in the grocery store or gas station.  I noticed when we got back that the wholesale club had pallets of survival food for sale for thousands of dollars.

Survivalism is largely a dead-end, and as it turns out, just an opportunity to sell you a different line of consumer goods.   Unlike Qanon, which doesn't have a line of products associated with it (well, other than firearms, perhaps) survivalism has a plethora of products you can buy - but will never likely use - such as bomb shelters, remote cabins, firearms (again), survival foods, survival tools, and so on and so forth.  These things cost a lot of money and yet they will never get removed from their packaging.  And let's face it, if the bomb drops or Armageddon comes, you'll want to be at ground zero and not some zombie survivor slowly dying of radiation sickness.

As our reader's example illustrates, not all survivalists engage in survivalism for the same reasons.  Some are religiously oriented, others political, still others are looking for a particular lifestyle.  While you can't pigeonhole people in one mode or another, many are a combination of one or more of these:

Back to the Land:  Some people who are into "survivalism" are not worried about nuclear war or the end times or whatever, but just want to go back to a more agrarian lifestyle.  And this trend is centuries old.  You may recall Henry David Thoreau and  his Walden Pond.  Like so many others throughout history and especially today, he wanted to chuck the city life for a more organic "back to nature" existence.  The hippies in the 1960's claimed to want this - starting communes and later abandoning them when human nature reared its ugly head.

But it didn't begin or end there.  People have always have naive ideas about country living - as exemplified by the television show "Green Acres" where a city lawyer chucks it all for country livin'.  I remember a book my Mother had for sale in her store about going back to nature.  It was written in the late 1950's by a couple who chucked their high-paying careers in Manhattan to live in the "country" which in this case, was rural Connecticut.  They called it the "Have-More Plan" and it detailed how you could set up a pocket farm on not a lot of land, and have chickens and goats and maybe a cow and some rabbits and grow your own vegetables and compost your own trash.  The chapter on slaughtering the goat wasn't very pleasant, however.

Going back in time, you see early on in our country's history this desire to get back to nature.  Communes didn't begin with the hippies - all sorts of religions (Shakers, Quakers, whatnot) started their own communes or "communities" such as the Oneida community which became famous for its silverware.  The Amish are probably the best example of this - eschewing modern living (up to a point) for a more agrarian rural lifestlye - and yes, religion enters into this (more about that later).  Of course, like all commune-dwellers, the Amish have figured out that they have to engage the greater world to some extent, and have worked technology into their lifestyle through an arcane set of rules.  You can't own a cell phone, for example, but you can rent one from an "English" when you are doing work for "English" in order to earn hard cash to pay your property taxes.  Ditto for things like power tools.

So a portion of people who might be considered "survivalist" are not necessarily doing so because they think Biden is the Antichrist, but because they want to chuck their city jobs and move to a cabin in Alaska or Oregon and go back to nature.  And living "off the grid" means being self-sufficient.  So you need things like solar-powered satellite phones, or generators, or a chainsaw, or reserves of canned goods.  It doesn't mean you are a freak - necessarily.

Political Freaks:  This is a different subset of people, but may overlap - in Venn diagram fashion- with the back-to-the-land people.  These are folks who subscribe to extreme political beliefs - usually right-wing, but not always.  They are going back to nature not because they want a more holistic lifestyle, but because they want to get away from the government and other people.  These are the sorts who don't register their cars and claim to be "sovereign citizens."

And they're good little consumers, too.  Unlike the "back to nature" freak who wants to compost his toenail clippings, the political freak wants all the comforts of modern living - a huge generator, a big diesel pickup truck, the latest smart phone, and of course, lots and lots of firearms.

These folks are convinced the end-of-the-world is nigh, but not because Jesus is coming, but because of nuclear annihilation or the collapse of society (all them city folks will starve to death once the revolution comes!) or civil war or whatever.  And yes, these things are possible (and seem more possible with each passing day).  But as I noted before, banking on the Apocalypse as a retirement plan is short-sighted.  Odds are, it won't happen in your lifetime, and if it did, all the survival gear in the world won't save you from radiation poisoning and nuclear winter.

Religious Freaks: Again, these groups overlap sometimes, but the religious survivalist wants to get away from modern society not because of the government, but because of our permissive society and of course, their conviction that Jesus is coming and boy is he pissed!  The conundrum about these folks is that they fervently believe that within their lifetime Jesus will come back and the faithful will all rise up to heaven, flying through the air, because they are devout Christians.

If so, why "prep" for the end times?  You'll be the first one to fly to heaven!  And yet, their literature is full of "left behind" prophesies, where born-again Christians somehow missed the bus and end up living in a post-apocalyptic hell-on-earth.  So, you'd better stock up!  It makes no sense to me - but then again, most "organized" religion makes no sense to me, either (other than as a blatant power-grab).

Of course, there are other reasons for going "off the grid" and one of them is trying to insulate yourself and your family from the perceived "evils" of society.  Premarital sex!  Transgender Lesbians!  You have to protect your children from these evils!  Yet the highest teenage pregnancy rates are among evangelicals.  Sarah Palin's family is not an outlier, but the norm for that group.

I have a friend who is an evangelical Christian (he doesn't have horns, I checked!) and he mentioned that some of his kids were home-schooled. I asked him why and he said, "I didn't want them to go to the gub-ment school!"   I guess he saw the shocked expression on my face and he laughed and said, "gotcha!"  Turns out half his kids go to the local high school and half do not.  He gave them the choice.  And given how toxic public schools can be, I can see why some might choose a different path.

But as he put it, people ascribe motivations to you once they find out you are a evangelical.  "For example, everyone assumes I'm building a cabin up in the mountains and stocking it with canned goods for the end times," to which he added, "well, I am building a log lodge in the mountains, but only because we like to go skiing!"  So you see how this works. The rest of us build a vacation home in the mountains, but if you are religious it is some sort of Ted Kaczynski unibomber cabin.

And yes, if you build a vacation cabin in the mountains, you might want to stock up on canned goods and have a generator, as the power does go out a lot and the roads can be impassable after a big snow storm.  Does that make you a survivalist?

Explorers:  I mentioned briefly yet another group - people who go to areas where civilization is thin, such as our reader.  We had some friends who hitch-hiked around the world - twice - in their 20's, and they had to take everything in their backpacks.  So they had a tiny lightweight tent that would withstand a blizzard on Everest and "mummy" sleeping bags rated for 30 below.  And they had a little cooker and kettle because they were British and you have to have tea.

If you are going to some third-world country or war zone, where cell service is sketchy and the power goes out twice a way, yea I get it that you might want a solar-powered satellite phone or a portable cooker and a water purifier.  These are logical things to bring.

But as our reader noted, this can be co-opted like so much else.  When I had my BMWs, I would visit discussion forums and if you announced you just bought an E36, some "helpful" individual would then lecture you on all the stuff you had to replace right away with aftermarket parts, and of course, he had the URLs for the companies selling these parts.   It was the dawn of the influencer era and as I noted before, one of these fellows was caught when someone noticed his IP address was the same as the company he was shilling for.

So you subscribe to a survivalist discussion group and pretty soon you are inundated with recommendations on "must-have" equipment to bring with you to Somalia.  But if you bought all the junk they recommend, you'd need a helicopter to haul it all around in. No problem - they have recommendations as to the best helicopter to buy - I am sure!

* * *

I guess the point is, there is a lot of overlap in these various groups.   But the main point is, I guess, that we are all being marketed to, all the time.  Even if you subscribe to an anti-consumerism or anti-materialism discussion group, I am sure they will have a list of things you need to buy to be anti-materialistic, and I am sure the irony is lost on them.

Buying shit seems to be in our blood.  Whenever we are confronted with an unknown situation, it seems the first instinct is to shop.  Pandemic?  Better buy toilet paper!  It was never explained to anyone why toilet paper would be in short supply due to a virus, and indeed, it never really was (it may have disappeared from store shelves, but it was well-stocked in everyone's bathroom vanity!).

And indeed, this is the genius of Disney or any resort location.  Always present an opportunity to buy.  Nervous tourists, not sure what to do in an unfamiliar situation, will whip out a credit card if there is a kiosk selling crap-on-a-stickIt's what you're supposed to do!  You don't want to be the only family not wearing mouse ears, right?

I'll give you another example.  Here on our island, you can drive your golf cart on the road.  We bought one for $300 and put another $2000 into it (including new controller, batteries) and use it nearly every other day - it is a lot of fun.  Others, well, they go out and spend $15,000 (I kid you not!) on a Kustom Kart and then never drive it anywhere.    They are afraid the batteries are going to go dead, which is a self-fulfilling prophesy as they never charge the damn thing.   They use it once a year for the annual cart parade and when the grandchildren come.  But that's it.  They have this expensive thing because everyone else has one - but actually using it?  They get in their car to drive a half-mile to the store!  On a nice temperate sunny day, too!

You can sell ice to Eskimos (or Inuit peoples, I guess they are called now).  All you have to do is convince them that everyone else is buying ice.  But not that brand of ice - this one!

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Affordable Communications Program (ACP) and 100GB Hotspot Update

It took a while, but it finally works, sort of.

I signed up for the "Affordable Communications Program" (ACP) back in February.  The deal is, if your household income is low (and ours is) you qualify for a $30 credit on your monthly phone bill or Internet bill.  One of the options was a 100GB mobile hotspot for $25 a month.  We are paying $10 a month, apiece for a total of 20 GB of hotspot data on our phones, so this seemed like a good deal - for $5 more, we get five times as much data.  And since we are 100% wireless at this point, it made sense.

So I signed up for the ACP and uploaded a copy of last year's tax return.  Almost right away I got a notice from the ACP people (FCC) that I was approved.  I went on the AT&T site to sign up for a plan and they said, "thank you for your submission, we will contact you in 24-48 hours by phone or text" and then..... crickets chirping.

I figured the program was new (12/31/2021) so maybe they were having teething pains (they were) or maybe one of those "unknown caller" phone calls I got was from them.  They claimed they tried to contact me.  I filled out the form again - and again - and nothing.  That probably made things worse.  User error.

Calling the AT&T support center was a nightmare.  I was on hold for 1 hour and 23 minutes and no one picked up.  I finally got through and of course, it was an overseas call center.  They told me I had to get my "device" first and a SIM card.  So I went to Walmart online (suggested by the call center and the website) and bought a 4G LTE hotspot for $49, which they delivered in two days, arriving on a Sunday no less - free shipping.

Now the fun begins.  I installed the SIM card and went on the AT&T prepaid ACP site and typed in the SIM number of the card and the IMEI number of the device (long numbers and don't get even one digit wrong!) and..... "Sorry, we already have you signed up for the ACP program on another device!"

Really?  Which one?  Because both our phone plans renewed this month at the standard rate (we use autopay which gives a $10 discount).  So I called the number on the hotspot instructions to set up the device.  The nice lady input the SIM number and IMEI number again and..... same deal.  So she calls an "ACP Specialist" and they tell me I have the ACP set up for my own phone number (they ask for a "contact phone number" and I guess the system took this as the phone number for the device.

So they set up a new phone number for the hotspot.  You can't take calls on a hotspot but you can get text messages.  They are a cell phone that doesn't take calls, just Internet, but it needs a "phone number" anyway.  This is not my first experience with hotspots - I had a T-mobile one years ago (before 3G even) and I think a Verizon one as well.  They were always cranky - and expensive.

We get the phone number and I set up the account online with the PIN.  I log into the AT&T Prepaid website and it says I owe $55 (the standard rate).  So back to the "ACP Specialist" and she has to call the FCC (ACP people) to "transfer" my ACP benefit to the new number.  More time on hold, which I use as an opportunity to refinish a chair.

Finally she comes back, they apply the benefit, and the amount billed drops from $55 a month to $25 a month and I set up autopay - it says "next bill due April 20th for $25" - and I get four bars of service.

Total time on the phone, 1 hour, 12 minutes, 35 seconds.  Ouch.  If I wasn't dicking around with the ACP program, it would have been done online.  If I hadn't screwed up the process (apparently) it would have gone smoothly.  HINT:  Buy your device first (and SIM card) from Walmart or another source of AT&T prepaid (or used from eBay or whatever) and it is much easier to setup online.

Does it work?  I am using it to type this.  But it isn't as fast as Mark's 5G phone and not as consistent.  It runs about 15Mips download if I elevate it and have it near a window.  Other times, it drops to nearly nothing.  Mark's 5G phone does a blistering 30-40Mips.  They are shooting a movie (The Color Purple?  I though that was done already!) on the Island and our cell service drops when the island is busy.  When the Governor comes, the GBI brings their own portable cell tower for security.

So we streamed YouTube with no problem on the new Chromebook, but PlutoTV simply refused to load, claiming there was "no connection" - is AT&T throttling?  (Maybe it was "stream saver" being engaged).  Disney+ would not load, either.  And Netflix said, "You cannot display Netflix on a secondary screen!" (why?) and claimed Mark's account no longer existed (it was suspended, but I guess they decided to delete it - fuck you, Netflix, circling the drain much?).

I will try to set up the chromebook so the screens are mirrored or we are on one screen.  I guess Netflix doesn't want you streaming to a projector and showing movies for money or something.  I was able to get PlutoTV to work on Mark's old Samsung pad device - quite well in fact.  So he can watch pottery YouTube videos on that device.  With 100GB of data, I can leave the hotspot on all the time and not worry about going over data limits.   It opens up all sorts of opportunities - and we can take it with us on the road as well.

The hotspot has 2.5 and 5 GHz channels, of which only the Chromebook recognizes both. All the other devices seem to be limited to 2.5GHz.  5Ghz is faster, supposedly, but the hotspot has to be closer to the device to work.  I ended up putting the hotspot on the porch where it got 4 bars.  Next to the Chromebook, it dropped to 1 bar.  More experimentation is needed.  We may need to upgrade to a 5G hotspot.  They had one at the AT&T store - they wanted $500 for it (It was a franchise store, selling "plans" - not a "real" AT&T corporate store).  (UPDATE:  Elevating the hotspot from the table seems to work best  - about 12" like on a roll of paper towels.  Goes from one bar to three!).

So far, it is working "OK" but the streaming issues are troubling.   It could be an issue with the physical hotspot itself (I did buy the cheapest model, after all) or it could be AT&T throttling "foreign" services or services that don't pay a fee to AT&T.  You know, that whole "Net Neutrality" thing.  Of course, the ultimate answer is to consume less media which we do.  We sign up for one service at a time, watch for a month and then shut it down.  You can pretty much watch all the worthwhile content of any given streaming channel in a month.  Disney+ for example, is pretty thin, once you go outside the Mandalorian sandbox.  I mean, there are only so many kiddie movies you can watch.  Netflix has devolved from a "movie" service into a lame TV-show service, with these "Netflix Original Content" series that rely on you getting hooked on the soap-opera characters.  No Thanks.

That just leaves me watching 1960's car dealer training films and Mark watching channels of camping lesbians who bake in wilderness - on YouTube.  But the new CEO of YouTube is trying to make that as toxic an experience as well, plastering with ads, auto-loading videos and videos that don't close all the way when you close them.

Speaking of ads, what's up with PlutoTV?  Sure, it is the go-to site to watch old episodes of "Mission Impossible" or "Hawaii Five-O" - but the ads are all for laundry detergents and suicide prevention.  And all feature African-American female actors.  What's up ladies?  Is doing laundry that depressing?  And why do the poor always buy brand-name products?  It is interesting to watch, as we just get a big jug of whatever the cheapest crap is at the wholesale club.  I am not interested in "Tide Pods" either to eat or do laundry.

It is funny, but most Americans watch 4.6 hours of television every single day.  And yet, we watch a streaming show for maybe an hour or two every other day or every third day.  Some nights, it just seems like it would be more relaxing to read a cheap paperback or just sit and talk than to be pummeled in the head by some television show.  And of course, it is always more profitable and productive to actually do something than to watch Tee-Vee.  You'd be surprised how many people are up-to-date on their "latest shows" or know about the latest outrage on Fox News, but their laundry rests in a pile on the floor in their basement.

There is a reason I call the television "the depression box".

Friday, March 25, 2022

Trump Steps in the Dogshit (Again)

The old Trump strategy of "I'm rubber you're glue, bounces off me, sticks to you!" is backfiring.

Donald Trump learned at the knee of Roy Cohn, who was advisor to Joe McCarthy.  When the bad guys are closing in, you go on the offensive.  If they accuse you of fake news, you say, "No, you're the fake news!"  If they accuse you of corruption, you say, "No, you're the corrupt one!  Lock her up!" and so on and so forth.  He takes accusations against him and flips them around - or at least tries to.  I suppose next, he'll claim that it was leftists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th.  Oh, wait, he already went there.

The Russian Collusion thing was sort of put to bed.  While there was a litany of smoking guns, it seemed that no one was willing to do anything about it, as courts were reluctant to get involved in what they deemed to be political squabbles and Congress didn't have the votes to convict on two impeachment trials.

So, that's all water under the dam, right?  Well, no.  Seems the shit is about to get real, and perhaps with the imminent fall of the Putin government, documents might come out that impugn Trump.  Manafort has already been pulled off a plane trying to leave the country.  Others may follow suit.  Investigations are still ongoing into Trump's business affairs and taxes.

So, what to do?  The classic Trump playbook is to hit the ball back to "their" court.  But this time, it may be a fatal error.

Trump has filed a civil suit against Hillary Clinton, among others, claiming that the Russian Collusion investigation amounted to a tort against him and a RICO violation.  Big Mistake.  You see, by filing suit, this means the opponents can depose Trump (and he can't weasel out of that or claim executive privilege) and also he has to hand over documents and other materials, including, presumably, his tax returns and financial records.  In other words, he has opened up a door he has tried to nail shut for over five years now.

What's more, this gives the media a chance to air Trump's dirty laundry once again, including whether or not he starred in the "Pee-Pee Tape" and if so, what was in it.   Rather than let sleeping dogs lie, he has sicked a nest of hornets on them.  This will not end well - for Trump.

It is highly doubtful that even under the standard of preponderance of the evidence that he would succeed in his lawsuit. And even if he did, it would be a Pyrrhic victory - the entire Russian Collusion thing would be once again brought front and center for everyone to discuss and think about.  It would give voters on the fence another reason to move away from Trumpism and back to a more traditional view of Republicanism.

Worse case scenario could occur if Putin is ousted and a new, more Western-friendly government is installed, and documents from the Kremlin come to light.  Russia has nothing to lose at that point by admitting to interfering in the election - and much to gain in terms of lifted sanctions.

This case reminds me of the Oscar Wilde prosecution.  Wilde filed a libel suit against the Marquis of Queensbury, whose son he was banging.  The Marquis had called him a poofter (which he was) and Wilde lost the suit.  Sadly, by bringing attention to the matter, Wilde ended up prosecuted for sodomy and spent a few years in a hard labor prison, which essentially broke him.

They say the best defense is a good offense, and maybe that is true - sometimes.  Other times, if you can just slink away and get away with what you did, that might be a better option.

Who the heck is advising Trump these days - Giuliani?

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Putin Isn't Hitler, He's Mussolini!

Hitler was able to invade and conquer most of Europe, at least for a time.  Mussolini was only able to bomb a defenseless African country into submission.  One was strong, the other weak.  Both were misguided and evil.  Putin isn't Hitler - He's Mussolini!  By the way, both of these guys are about as "buff" as William Shatner was on Star Trek, which is to say, "keep your shirt on, please!"

The war drags on and the first casualty in any war, is the truth.  It is hard to understand what is going on right now.  The Russians say losses are minimal and the war is almost won.  The Ukrainians claim over 10,000 Russian dead and the offensive bogging down (quite literally, in bogs).  US Intelligence is somewhere between the two, leaning more toward the Ukrainian version.

In the modern era, wars of conquest haven't gone well.  Putin has made a lot of noise about how the US is "just as bad" as he is (he admits to being bad?) by invading Iraq and Afghanistan.  Point well taken Vlad.  Say, what happened to those invasions?  Oh, right, we spent two decades, trillions of dollars, killed an awful lot of people, and accomplished nothing.  In fact, it was worse than nothing, as our enemies are now emboldened and in fact, in power.  The Iranians hold sway in Iraq and the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan.

And Putin should know this, as his country invaded Afghanistan before us and suffered the same fate.  So when he says "Well you did the same thing!" well, duh.  And how did that work out and how will it work out for you?  Why will it be different this time?   Answer:  It won't.  Even if Putin "wins" in Ukraine, there will be an insurgency going on for years until the Russians get tired and call it quits.  Sanctions against Russian will continue indefinitely until their economy collapses - as it did after they lost in Afghanistan.

This will not end well for anyone.

But it goes beyond regional oil wars.  Japan attacked the United States and it did not end well.  Hitler invaded Poland and France (and the USSR) and it did not end well.  The US invaded (if you will) Vietnam and it did not end well.  North Korea invaded the South and it did not end well.  Even when we "won" a war, we realized that going after someone on their home turf would be deadly.  We dropped the A-bomb on Japan in part because we perceived that the Japanese would fight to the death to protect their homes - and kill millions of American troops in the process.  Similarly, the only way we "won" Germany proper was by annihilating it.  In both cases, we quickly ceded control back to the Japanese and Germans, rather than trying to install puppet governments or remain as occupiers.  In both cases, we faced insurgencies while we did stay.

Short of killing every single person in a country there is really no way to "take over" another land militarily.  Even if you "win" the results are fleeting - the 1000-year Reich lasted a decade or so.  The Soviet Union, barely a century (the postwar version, 50 years) - these are blips on the radar in terms of human history.

But in terms of world warmongers, Putin is more akin to Mussolini than Hitler and I'm not the first person to make this connection.  Hitler had a well-tuned war machine and a legion of rabid followers.  He had the best generals, the best weapons, and the best strategies - at least early on.  Mussolini, on the other hand, did not have nearly as big an army, not nearly as many planes, tanks, and other weapons, and didn't really have much in the way of military success other than bombing Ethiopia to smithereens, which was easy to do as the country was largely undefended.   Mussolini's military machine, such as it was, quickly fell apart under stress.  He was the first of the axis powers to surrender, or actually run away.

Mussolini fostered a cult of personality but also one of machismo. He liked to appear shirtless and bragged of his fitness. Hitler, on the other hand, was small, frail, and hardly an Übermensch. He never appeared in public with his shirt off or bragged of his physical prowess.  He didn't have to.  While all dictators are compensating for something, either with vanity-fanning rallies or grand architecture or big military parades (like Trump desperately wanted), not all tie in their need for power with their physical abilities.  To me, it is more a sign of weakness than strength.

But there are other parallels.  Putin reminds me of Saddam Hussein, particularly his statements (and that of his proxies) leading up to the Gulf war.  You may recall at the time, we used the pretext of "yellow cake uranium" and "weapons of mass destruction" to start the war (much as Putin used "denazification" as his justification for the Ukraine war - both blatantly false).   Saddam Hussein, rather than argue this and profess his innocence, made bold pronouncements about how Americans would be wiped out in droves if they attacked Iraq.   It was sort of like Khrushchev's promise "We will bury you!" at the UN.  That never happened.  We buried Khrushchev, though.  Each statement by Hussein pushed him further and further into a corner.  He sounded like a scared child trying to talk big to intimidate an opponent.  But it wasn't convincing.

By all accounts, Russia has thrown everything they have against Ukraine, other than biological or nuclear weapons - which is everyone's concern.  By the way, people rightfully ask why the Ukraine invasion gets so much attention while military actions in Somalia and Yemen and Myanmar go unnoticed.  It is not that those wars are unimportant or that they only involve "people of color" - it is just that the threat of nuclear annihilation isn't on the table there.  The Ukraine invasion is right on Europe's doorstep, and it would be all-too-easy for this conflict to devolve into a World War.   And yea, it is also because we don't care about brown people killing each other - as much.  Not nearly as much.

I am writing this a few days before publishing it.  So when it is published, the war could be over, either way, or entering a new phase.  I think no matter what happens, it is obvious we can't go back to "business as usual" with Russia, as they would be emboldened to either try again, or if they "won" over Ukraine, set their sights on the next former Communist bloc country to invade.  It would never end, which is why the West went after Hitler after he invaded Poland - the writing was on the wall.

But I don't think the analogy to Hitler goes further than that.  Putin is trying to rally the Russian people through propaganda, but is starting too late.  There are a hard core of Putin followers, but I suspect they will become disillusioned with him as economic conditions in Russia deteriorate.  In his biography, Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and later minister of war production, noted he was shocked to see that up until late in the war, Hitler was diverting resources away from armament production in order to satisfy the needs of German consumers.  Chemicals needed for making weapons were being used to make cosmetics.  Hitler realized his support among the German people wasn't deep, and if they were deprived of everyday luxuries and necessities, their support for the war would wane.  It was only when the war was lost and Germany was being bombed that Hitler relented and went to a full-time war economy - which prolonged the war by another year, by some accounts.

Putin doesn't have that luxury - the average Russian was struggling before the war (compared to Western standards) and now is even worse off.  It is not clear whether they will see the West as the villain in this struggle, or Putin himself.

Of course, the ultimate parallel to Mussolini is that eventually he ran away and was found and hanged by his heels - liberating the Italian people, at least for a moment.  Supposedly, Putin has removed his immediate family to an underground bunker and may be planning on fleeing Moscow in the near future for a flying doomsday plane.  But those are just rumors at this point.

If Putin was removed from power, however, it would solve a lot of problems.  It would end the war and end the sanctions and re-establish a working relationship with the West.  That can't happen so long as Putin is around.  So Oligarchs, you know what to do - and you have the money to do it with, right?

Who knows, maybe by Thursday, everything will change.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Study The Test!

You will be tested a lot in life. It pays to study the test!

I recently read online that Tucker Carlson, he of perpetual surprised Pikachu face, argues that the latest Supreme Court nominee should be disqualified because "Biden" refuses to disclose her LSAT scores!  Yes, Joe Biden control access to LSAT scores from decades ago.  He also controls the price of gasoline!

And I guess to a lay person, this seems important.  But it is about as important as what grade you got for your science project in the 6th grade.  Does that disqualify you from working for NASA?

You see, the LSAT is a test you take to get into law school, just as the SAT is a test you take to get into college.  No one gives a shit what you got on your SAT test - what matters is if you graduated from college and what your grade average was.  Even then, five or ten years down the road, no one gives a shit about where you went to college or what your grade average was - indeed, some of the most successful people in the world are college dropouts - I'm one, too.

But I did ace the LSAT - does that mean anything?  No, of course not.  I scored in the top 1% for the country, and mostly that was because I was an Engineer and also I do well on standardized tests.  When I took the review course - and you should take the review course - the teacher told us about the various portions of the test and one of them was on mathematical relationships.  "Don't worry about that part!" he said, "No one does well on that.  So if you don't finish it, don't worry, no one finishes the math part!"

I finished the math part with a half-hour to spare.  So I did it twice.  To anyone who studied calculus and differential equations and maybe a little number theory, it wasn't all that hard.  To someone with an undergraduate degree in "Political Science" or some other "soft" major, it seem insurmountable.

Of course, acing the LSAT is meaningless.  It doesn't mean I am a top-shelf lawyer as indeed, it is an entrance exam to law school, not a qualification test like the bar exam (the latter of which is pass/fail). There are not even any "law" questions on the LSAT (what would be the point - you are not even in law school yet!).   I aced the LSAT, but that doesn't make me some sort of genius - if you read my blog you understand that.  And conversely, if you don't ace it, it doesn't make you an idiot or a bad lawyer, either.  So Tucker Carlson obsessing about this, is just nonsense to get Fox News viewers all riled up over nothing, which is what Fox News is best at.

But the main reason I did so well on the LSAT was that I took an LSAT review course.  I did well on the SAT because I took an SAT review course.  I did well on the bar exam (well, I passed on the first try, anyway) because.... wait for it..... I took a Bar review court (BAR/BRI).  These courses are taught by people who look over the questions and answers for the last decade - and they know that about 30% of any standardized test comprises recycled questions.  So if you look over old exams and take them by yourself, you get used to certain questions and answers and this allows you to breeze by those questions, leaving more time for the newer, harder questions.  And in any exam, they throw in a few "unanswerable" questions that are there to stymie you - the best thing you can do is move on from there and come back to it later, time permitting.

Someone wrote me once saying they wanted to go to law school.  I tried to talk them out of it, but suggested they take an LSAT review course if they wanted to go.  They said they would just "wing it" and that probably wasn't a good idea.  Study the test, learn the test, pass the test.

Now, is this unfair?  Perhaps.  I wrote before about the annoying girl in college who thought you could "wing it" through Engineering school by studying old tests.  And in many instances, you can pass a course and even ace it by doing this.  But you don't learn much about Engineering.  And thanks to the alumni newsletter, I found out her Engineering career was short-lived.  But that is about getting an education, not getting into college.   You don't "learn" from the SAT or LSAT exam, it just tries to measure your skill level.  The Bar Exam?  Actually, studying for this coalesced a number of legal principles in my mind and made me realize that much of law school is just professors playing hide the main idea.  It all came together with BAR/BRI.

And sadly, I wasted the first two years of law school trying to study what the professor taught in class, which I learned only later on, wasn't what was on the Exam.  Law school requires that you learn one thing in class and another on the exam.  It makes no sense, but it is why second year law students skip classes - a lot.   It wasn't until my final year that I figured this out and in addition to going to class, studied old exams.

I didn't go to Harvard, or graduate in the top 10% of my class.  I graduated and got a job.  No one cared or even asked about my LSAT scores, much less my law school grades.  And five years into the business, no one really cared where I went to law school.  That's the nature of careers in general - eventually you are judged on performance, not academics.

But more than that, no one cares about (a) your SAT score, (b) your LSAT score, (c) where you went to high school or your grade average there or the fact you were in band.  So this idea that this lady's LSAT score is somehow important and being "suppressed" is nonsense.  She graduated Magna Cum Laude  from Harvard - that counts more than an admissions test.  And quite frankly, what she did since graduating is far more important than even that.

I couldn't provide you with the paper results of my LSAT score and I doubt the LSAT people even have it on file anymore - that was 30 years ago.  I tossed that crap decades ago.  Anyone who brags about their LSAT or SAT scores is a sad, sad person.  It is like these MENSA people or folks who take online "IQ" tests.  It really means nothing in the greater scheme of things.  I don't even have a copy of my high school diploma anymore - who gives a flying fuck about that?  I'm 62 years old for chrissake.  None of that crap from 40 years ago is important in the least.

But at the time, of course, it was important - for a brief moment.  You need that diploma to get into college - and a decent SAT score.  You need the LSAT if you want to go to law school.  You need to pass the bar if you want to practice law.  Once you pass - well that's something that rapidly vanishes in your rear-view mirror, not some sort of accomplishment you can crow about for years on end.

And once you retire, no one cares that you used to be a lawyer, I can tell you that!

Since these tests, at the time, are so important to your future life, it pays to study for them, and a review course is the way to go.  Study and take old exams, and sit in a room like the exam room and time yourself as a proctor would.  You get used to the procedure - comfortable with it - and when the time comes, you feel right at home.

Some people don't do well with standardized tests.  They freak out and stress themselves out - and a review course would really help them the most.  When I took the LSAT they put half of us in a classroom and half in an auditorium with these tiny fold-out classroom tables about a foot square.  It sucked, but I dealt with it.  Another guy, who no doubt thought his entire life hinged on how well he did on this test, freaked out and started screaming that "this was unfair!" and delayed the whole thing for a half-hour until the proctors - after calling the main office - said, "you can take exam another day and leave, or take it now - those are your two options!"  The guy literally melted down.  No doubt some Political Science major who thought he was going to be the next Steve Bannon.  Probably was Steve Bannon, now that I think of it.  Did he go to law school?

In college, "cheating" by looking at old exams isn't necessarily a bad idea, provided you are actually learning the material.  If you only learn the exam, in college, you don't learn. Most professors will publish their old exams online or allow you to copy them or even hand them out.  I had a professor for organic chemistry who, realizing he wasn't the greatest teacher, handed out old copies of the exam and told us to study it carefully.  The actual exam was a photocopy of questions from the older exams, cut-out and pasted together (you could see the lines in the photocopy!) and had I studied the old exams I would have passed.  Since I decided I would "study the material" instead, I flunked - which is hard to do with organic chem.  Years later, I re-took the course and wondered why I thought it was so hard.  Oh, right, I was high the first time.

Entrance exams, on the other hand, are not a way of learning, but a way of evaluating.  So "cheat" all you want by studying old exams - this is your future we are talking about here.

Standardized tests have come under fire in recent years as being racist or prejudiced against students from impoverished areas.  It is said they favor white, middle-class thinking.  And maybe that is true - but all the more reason to take a review course to understand the questions and what they are getting at.  The standardized test is a way of evaluating applicants, but not the only way of evaluating them.  And that is why college admissions offices consider other things like your grade average, your application essay, and even in-person interviews.  And... one other thing.


Yes, every school wants to fill the seats with warm bodies, preferably paying warm bodies who aren't asking for tuition discounts and scholarships and whatnot.   Students who pay the full-price for tuition are highly valued.  Better yet, a student whose parents will donate money to the school - that's the hot ticket.  Act shocked, Pikachu face!  Two of the schools I went to - Syracuse and George Washington - were definitely "pay as you go" schools.  Syracuse was the quasi-ivy for kids from downstate who were dumb as a rock but whose parents had money.  As one Dean explained to me (after I won a small scholarship) "we need students like you getting good grades to keep the average up" - so they let me in.

GW was the law school for the kids not ambitious enough to go to Georgetown - but were willing to pay.  Here's all my money, where's my law degree, Goddammit!

That was the problem with the "Admissions scandal" recently - the parents bribed coaches to get their kids in college, when they should have been bribing Deans.   If you are going to throw $100,000 at a college to get your kid in, do it with a sponsored scholarship (in addition to your disappointing offspring's tuition) and you won't be breaking any laws.  "Legacy admissions" works the same way - they let your stupid kid in, not because you are a "Legacy" but because you've be donating to the alumni fund.  Duh.

But of course, most of us don't have parents with that kind of cash, so we have to do well on these standardized tests.  And if you need to do well, study the test, not the subject matter.  Take a review course, go over old questions (they will hand you a book with hundreds of them in it during the review course) and take the test again and again by yourself.  Come test day, you will be used to looking at and answering these questions - some will seem like old friends by then.

And you will do well on the SAT or LSAT and get into school.  And no one else will give a shit thereafter, other than Tucker Carlson 30 years later.... because he's a moron who never went to law school.

From his Wikipedia page:

Carlson was briefly enrolled at Collège du Léman, a boarding school in Switzerland, but said he was "kicked out".[53] He attained his secondary education at St. George's School, a boarding school in Middletown, Rhode Island, where he started dating his future wife, Susan Andrews, the headmaster's daughter.[54] He then went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, graduating in 1991 with a BA in history.[33] Carlson's Trinity yearbook describes him as a member of the "Dan White Society", an apparent reference to the American political assassin who murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.[55][56][57] After college, Carlson tried to join the Central Intelligence Agency, but his application was denied, after which he decided to pursue a career in journalism with the encouragement of his father, who advised him that "they'll take anybody".[33][58]

The "Dan White" society?  What a sick, sick fuck!