Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Past, Present, and Future (The Discourses)

Why is it we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses?

There is a lot of talk about how rotten things are today and how we need to "go back to the good old days" when things were better.  It is not a right-wing or left-wing thing, either.  Young leftists opine that in the "good old days" a guy working as a safety inspector at a nuclear powerplant or as a shoe salesman, could support a family while his wife stayed home, and they could afford a nice house with a two-car garage.

A nice fantasy, but Homer Simpson and Al Bundy were fictional characters.  Yes, people lived a different lifestyle back then - Mom worked at home and "daycare" didn't exist.  And women had no place in the workforce, other than at clerical jobs where sexual harassment was a norm, not the exception.  If you want to watch more accurate fiction about "the good old days" try Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon and Fred McMurry - the latter of which playing against character as a sexual predator - in The Apartment.  No, really.  But that was more realistic than The Simpsons or Married, With Children.

And quite frankly, I think these "memes" and postings about how great it was back then are put-up jobs by our friends at the Internet Research Agency in Russia.  But I digress.

Oddly enough, the far-right has the same fantasy - but for different reasons.  They actually want the reality depicted in The Apartment, where women can be victimized by men in power, and the gays are in the closet and the blacks are delegated to menial jobs.  To them, that was paradise - being a white, straight male meant you got jobs and promotions and could take advantage of others.  Why not go back to that paradise-on-earth?

Of course, it wasn't all fun-and-games, as one reader pointed out.  Back then, even if you were a white guy, you were still a slave to the corporation.  One step out of line, and you were fired - and no one else would hire you.  At that point, you were no better than the secretary you impregnated, who had to get a back-alley abortion and could no longer marry a "good" man.  You were soiled goods, and maybe you could get some sort of crummy job where they didn't check your references.

This bifurcation of "good old days" remembrances illustrates how the far-left and far-right are no so far apart.  A lot of the people who supported Trump were hoping for a return to the days of high-paying union jobs - and they didn't care so much for right-wing politics.  They switched from Bernie Bros to Trumpians in a heartbeat, because they perceived this "good old days" mentality as being good.

But this is hardly a new thing.  It goes back ages - to the dawn of civilization.  I am sure some cave-man complained to another about how awful things are.  "Back in my day, we didn't have these fancy things like fire or the wheel - and life was better back then!  Kids today - they are so spoiled by these modern conveniences!  When I was a kid, when it got cold, you huddled under a Mastodon hide and shivered!  None of this "light a fire" crap! Laziness, I swear!"

I was reading this book about Machiavelli, and it is interesting how he has been misinterpreted over the years.  Some claim he is this heartless bastard who advocated for scorched-earth governance.  Others claim he was "just misunderstood."  The reality is, he wrote two works of note, The Prince - which discusses how monarchs should rule (ruthlessly) and The Discourses which discusses how a Republic should be run.  In the latter book, he noted that people always find fault with the present as,

"human desires are insatiable, because nature has given them the capacity and possibility to desire everything, but fortune has decreed they can only attain little.  The result is a never-ending lack of satisfaction in people's mind and a weariness in what they have attained."

So people find fault with the present, praise the past, and live in anticipation of the future, "even though they are stimulated to do so by no reasonable cause."

Reading this, the words jumped off the page.  What we are experiencing is nothing new, and our life experiences have been thought about and pondered for ages before us.  We like to think our civilization is young, and that our technological advances make us better than the primitives of the past.  But perhaps the opposite is true - we are more superficial than ever before and lack any kind of introspection and reflection.

Well, maybe that isn't true entirely.  Maybe back in Machiavelli's day, only a few people could read and write or be wealthy enough to sit around and contemplate life.  And bear in mind, The Discourses is an analysis of earlier writings of Livy that go back over 2,000 years.  This is nothing new.

The difference is, today, everyone can spout their opinions on the Internet (myself included) and thus we have an avalanche of bullshit and misdirection to wade through.  And thus, we have  new generations of "ain't it awful" philosophers who pine for the good old days - from any political perspective.

What Machiavelli seems to be getting at is what I mentioned in my posting that Life is Not an Optimized Event.  We pine for perfection and always want more.  Americans, for example, are spoiled beyond belief by global standards - overweight, overfed, and awash in a sea of consumer crap.  Yet none of us seem satisfied with even that - as evidenced by the orgy of lottery ticket sales.  We all want it all - to win, to be super-wealthy, and have everything in the Lillian Vernon catalog.

Wanting so much and being unhappy with what we have, we end up depressed.  We fail to appreciate that these are the good old days and should be enjoyed for what they are, not what they theoretically could be.  Because humans are inefficient - they operate at an efficiency of 2% or less, in my estimation, and that's on a good day.  They are constantly shedding skin cells, they have to poop and eat and do all that pesky breathing.  They are very high-maintenance machines, very fragile, and hard to motivate.

But that 2%, over time, you'd be surprised what it will accomplish.

And maybe, right there, is the secret to success.  Unsuccessful people mope about and get depressed because "everything is awful" and "the old days were better."  It is an attitude that causes depression and accomplishes nothing.  And not surprisingly, it is an attitude fostered by the media, which wants to keep us depressed so that we buy more of their crap, hoping to cheer ourselves up.

You'll never go broke telling people what they want to hear, and what people want to hear is bad news.  You'll never get elected, telling people that things aren't so bad - you have to tell them the country is in crises and that the opposition wants to destroy America!

You can see how this works.

The "good old days" did not seem so good at the time.  World wars, depressions, threat of nuclear annihilation, energy crises, Watergate, the Vietnam war, stagflation, dot-com crash, housing crash - each era has its own share of troubles, and in fact, our present era is merely an extension of these.  While the present may seem bleak, it seemed just a bleak to a previous generation - going all the way back to the dawn of time, as Machiavelli's writing illustrates.

Don't be taken in by this "good old days" nonsense - it is an invitation to depression and learned helplessness.  Once you posit that you are a victim of greater circumstances, you stop trying and eventually your prophesies of doom-and-gloom become self-fulfilling.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

False Flag Protests?

PETA has done a good job of making veganism and animal rights look ludicrous.  Could the Koch brothers be behind this latest "orange" protest against oil?

There have been a plethora of anti-oil protests, mostly in Europe, where people have blocked roads, glued themselves to things, and thrown paint on buildings and works of art.  Most people scratch their heads and think, "Gee, what a bunch of wankers!"

Global warming is a real issue, but there are a lot of vested interests in fossil fuels that don't want to see things change.  What better way to make the whole issue seem irrelevant than make it seem stupid?

You laugh, but it is like trolling on the Internet, but in real life.  One of the techniques used to discredit arguments online is to make arguments that are silly or stupid and easily debunked - the straw-man argument taken to the extreme.

People laugh at the person making the argument and then assume that since that person is so idiotic and silly, the underlying issue itself must be stupid and silly itself.

PETA has made a mockery of animal rights by making ludicrous arguments and stupid protests.  For example, they made a big promotion calling for fish to be renamed "sea kittens" to make them seem cuddly and cute so, I guess, the world would stop eating sea food?  Good luck with that.  A radical vegan agenda is really going nowhere.  If you want to eat vegan, good on you.  But you can't force other people to do so.

It is like these protesters who let the minks out of the mink farms.  Someone did it recently, and the minks ran out into the road and were quickly run over.  Well, I guess that showed 'em!

Some BLM protesters did similar idiotic things, like trying to block the highway during rush hour and of course, the rioting and vandalism.  Not to be left out, the right-wingers tried the same thing with their pickup "trucker convoy" only they couldn't even generate a real traffic jam.  They were just annoying, what with the horn-honking at all hours of the night.  Yea, that convinced people of the merits of your cause!

One has to wonder what these people were thinking.   I guess they think that any publicity is good publicity as it "raises awareness" of an issue.  But if the awareness raised is "The people who are agitating for this issue are crazy, ergo they must be wrong!" are you doing your cause good or harm?

And are the folks doing this being funded covertly by the very people opposed to the issue?  All it takes is a few agitators - and a host of useful idiots willing to go along with it.

I suspect that is the case with these "orange" protests, as they are doing everything in their power to promote the idea that global warming is a hoax and only stupid people believe in it.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Religion as Superstition

When one word means hundreds of people will go to Hell, well, that's superstition, not religion.

A recent article that is not from The Onion, tells the tale of a Catholic priest who got in a lot of trouble - not for molesting altar boys (that, they have no problem with) but for changing one word in the baptism recitation (from "I baptize you" to "We baptize you") which, church officials claim, annuls the baptism of those involved.  Thus, hundreds of marriages are now invalid and the husbands and wives are all fornicators.  None are allowed communion or even the last rites, which means they are all going to Hell unless they are re-baptized and re-married under the proper auspices of the church.

This is insanity.   The proper response by the dioceses should have been to call the priest and say, "I hear you are giving the baptism wrong - stop doing that!  Use 'I' instead of 'We' - OK?  Thanks.  Goodbye!"

End of story.

But no.  According to church officials, this one word means that all hell breaks loose, quite literally.  This is not religion.  This is not belief.  This is superstition masking itself as religion.  This is the sort of thing OCD people do, not men and women of God.

I noted before that religion has some positive aspects for society - provided people don't take it too literally.  And it was never intended to be taken literally.  Jesus liked to talk in "parables" which are stories which are designed to make some sort of point.  The stories don't necessarily have to be true, they are designed to get you to think about things, not pick apart the factual basis of the story.

Does this make Jesus a liar?  Hardly.  And yet, how can we reconcile the fact that the son of a carpenter, barely 33 years old, has experienced so many stories in life?  For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son - which I never thought made much sense - isn't based on some experience Jesus had, or some "friend of a friend" story, but a story that may have been made up to illustrate a spiritual or moral point.

Maybe Jesus realized that the Ten Commandments didn't get the point across very effectively.  "Thou Shall Not Steal!" doesn't stick in the mind of the listener as well as a long-winded story about someone getting their stuff ripped-off and how that really sucked.  You tell a story and people listen.  You go around telling them what to do and they will tell you to right fuck off.

That is all religion is - is stories.  In his book, Life of Pi - which is an allegory about religion and belief (a parable if you will) the author, Yann Martel, talks about belief and the "stories" told in various religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) and makes the comment that, "It doesn't matter whether the stories are true, only whether you believe they are true."  He also points out that, if you pick apart religious stories, you are "missing the better part of the story."

At first, this had me scratching my head as yet more religious balderdash and obfuscation.  But I think what he is getting at (and admittedly, I do get a lot of this wrong) is that belief is not based on certain facts of certain stories, but what the story tells.  You can pick apart any story in the Bible as being inconsistent with the same story told, for example, by another disciple.  The Jesus birth story, for example, is told more than once, and each time the details are different.  Pointing out these discrepancies misses the better part of the story.

Sadly, modern religions, particularly fundamentalist ones, seem to compete to who can be most pious and whose interpretation of the story is "right."  Fundamentalist preachers will take a sentence fragment from the Bible and build an entire theology around it - a theology that is in stark contrast to the overall message of Christianity. They have re-invented Christianity as some sort of retributive religion, where God is like a petulant child, pissed-off at everyone, all the time, and ready to kill people and damn them for eternity just for the hell of it (if you'll pardon the pun).

I mean, really?  That is what infinite wisdom brings you?  Infinite Anger?

In this instance, the Catholic Church has taken Christianity and reduced it to ritual - and they are famous for this.  You don't think about what Jesus said, you just memorize the catechism and a bunch of gobbledygook that the Catholic Church has created since its inception.  You don't practice Christian teachings, you worship some bone fragment of a martyred saint, embedded in some religious icon in a church.  And if you get even one word wrong, you're hell-bound!

In a way, it is the same with our culture and our politics.  Some on the right want our educational system to be reduced to rote memorization.  Memorize the multiplication tables, memorize spelling, memorize grammar, memorize history as a series of names and dates.  But don't actually think about these things or what they mean - or, God forbid (pun, again) think about opposing viewpoints and whether they have merit.

This is why the GOP is so much against "Critical Race Theory" even though it isn't really being taught anywhere other than in articles in the New York Times.   The right assumes that anything you teach children is basically propaganda that will be swallowed whole, without analysis or contemplation.  So they want their story told from their perspective, as they assume that if you tell another story, the kids will memorize that - and not believe anything else.

Of course, this goes against reality.  We were brought up in an era where we had to say the "Pledge of Allegiance" to the flag, "Under God" and yes, say "Amen" afterwords.  We were taught that "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!" and friendly natives welcomed him to "The New World" which he discovered.   We were taught a lot of claptrap over the years and had to memorize names and dates - and while some of it stuck, it didn't mean we closed our minds entirely.

Well, at least not some of us.

A good education should make you think.  Memorization teaches nothing.  As they told us in Engineering school, they can't teach us everything we need to know, as in the field, we will be addressing problems that had never been solved before.  They could only teach us to think like Engineers and apply our knowledge and skills to solve new problems.  Rote memorization would result in disaster - bridges collapsing, products failing, people getting killed. Problem solving requires a mind that is active and inquisitive.

Similarly, in Law School they taught us to "think like a Lawyer" as the cases we would handle could be novel and not something you could look up in a book.  No one will bring a suit if the case law is settled in that matter - you have to be able to look at past experiences and see how they can be applied to the future, even if the facts are not exactly the same.

Religion, I think, falls along similar lines.  Rote memorization of Bible verse (or the Quran, as some Islamics tend to do) isn't going to teach you how to think, but only fill your brain with dusty language.  It misses the better part of the story - what these things actually mean, and how the philosophies can be applied to a modern world.

Right now, in Iran, there is a civil war going on - about whether women have to wear something on their heads.   The old guard is of the opinion that literal interpretation of the Quran is acceptable, and that (in their interpretation) a head scarf has to be worn, and in a particular manner.  Oddly enough, other Muslims have different opinions, varying from no head covering at all, to the Burka.  And while we may think this is a tempest in a teapot, they are quite willing to kill people - an awful lot of people - and even torture and rape women over this issue.

I think they are missing the better story.

While clothing and costumes can be a grand part of any religion, they are not the point of it.  And people who take these ancillary issues and make them the centerpiece of their belief system are missing the point, I think.

It turns religion into superstition.

Sunday, November 27, 2022


Many companies have polices against "Moonlighting" - is this fair?

Equifax, the company that everyone loves to hate (well, among others...) found out, using its own surveillance tools, that the people "Working from home" for them were also working for other companies - sometimes doing as many as three jobs at once.  And by "at once" I don't mean at different times, either.

Nice work if you can get it - three paychecks!

But I've been down this road before.  Companies I worked for had me sign contracts agreeing not to "Moonlight" for others.  But of course, on more than one occasion, I did, when I needed some extra money for school or to pay off debts, I took a second job delivering pizzas or something.

Why are companies against this?  Well, if you think about it, it makes sense.  To begin with, there is the possibility of conflict of interest.  When I was at the Patent Office, we had a fellow who decided he wanted to try working on the outside.  So he got a job at a law firm writing Patent applications - but he failed to quit his job at the Patent Office!  His logic was, well, if he didn't like the law firm life, he could quit and keep his Patent Office job.  But of course this presented two problems.  First, he would clock-in at the USPTO and then leave to go to work at the law firm.  How can you be in two places at once, when you're not anywhere at all?

Second, there is the prospect of his writing a Patent application and then at the same time, being the Examiner who examines it (and no doubt, not rejecting it).  He was fired from both employers, losing two jobs and a career in one day.

But beyond that, companies want a solid 8 or more hours a day of work out of a person, and if they are working a night job, they will likely show up for work tired - and as a result not get much work done.   When I was at Carrier, there were a few technicians who did HVAC installs and repairs on the side.  One even had a van with "Moonlight HVAC" written on the side.  The fact he was stealing spare parts from the factory didn't help matters much.

But that was then.  Today, many companies, particularly in retail and service industries, only hire people part-time, as they are not required to provide benefits to part-time workers.  So a low-wage employee has to line up two and sometimes three jobs, in order to make ends meet.  And it gets sticky when a manager schedules an employee for a shift at the last minute, when that employee has commitments to other employer for the same time period.

Back in the day, a company provided you with a livable salary and benefits.  You could support a family on a single salary.  Maybe not lavishly, but comfortably.  So you pledged your loyalty to the company and they, in turn, pledged loyalty to you.

All that changed in the late 1970's.  Suddenly, employees were no longer seen as an asset, but a liability - an expensive liability that they hoped to get off the books as quickly as possible.  Outsourcing overseas (more on that in another posting) started to become the norm, and a new generation of "businessmen" such as Mitt Romney, made money by stripping the carcasses of old companies to the bone, and then tossing the remnants on the trash heap - leaving former employees with shattered remains of pension plans and little or no options.  Of course, you could argue that if Mitt didn't do it, someone else would - and they did.  The environment was created that allowed this to happen - an environment created by a number of changes to laws and rules and social mores over time.

Some have tried to glamorize this new reality, giving it names like "hustle culture" or "side-gigs" or "the gig economy."   We will all make coin by driving for Uber or delivering food - in addition to our day jobs working in retail.  Of course, it is hard to get ahead in such a scenario - moonlighting your moonlighting.  But then again, many young people have no other choice.

Or did, until the "labor shortage" (which will soon become a labor surplus before long).  Funny how many corporations claim free-market privilege when price-gouging consumers or paying starvation wages to employees.  But when the shoe is on the other foot and employees have the upper hand for once (for what will be a brief period of time!) they cry foul and call it "quiet quitting" and "job hopping."

Funny how that works!

There is a post-script to all of this.  I mentioned to one of my fellow employees that I was delivering pizzas at night to make some extra dough.  He went off and tattle-taled to my boss, who confronted me about the matter.  I explained that I wasn't making ends meet with my salary from the company and had to take on the second job - I wasn't aware that the voluminous employee handbook prohibited moonlighting!  So he came back the next day and offered me a small raise - enough to offset my pizza dough (if you'll pardon the pun).  He could have fired me.  But he didn't because even with that raise, I was still the lowest-paid employee in the lab, and the only one who could program any of the computers.  They got off cheap.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Struck By Lightning! - Revisited

Being lucky isn't the same as being brilliant.

I wrote over a decade ago about people who confuse luck with skill.  Over the years, I have read, again and again, about people who seem to fall from grace.  And pundits and prognosticators make sage comments as to where the former superstar went wrong.  How did they screw up such a good thing?  The answer is, not knowing when to stop.

On Wall Street, the pattern is familiar.  A young hot-shot hedge fund manager or trader makes a lot of money by making the right stock picks.  It seems he can do no wrong!  The guy is brilliant and people ask for stock tips and advice from him.  But then one day, he makes the wrong pick and the scribes wonder whether he has "lost his touch" when in fact, he was just on a lucky streak and it eventually broke.

Now, in some instances, this sort of hubris amplifies itself.  The "golden boy" who can do no wrong, makes some "bad" decisions, which is to say, the law of probability finally caught up with him.  So rather than call it a day and walk away from the table with his remaining chips (which is still a fortune) he "doubles down" his bet to try to win it all back - and loses spectacularly.

From his perspective, it was a "smart move" - after all, he was the "golden boy" and surely his stock-picking skills would turn things around, right?  Of course, we always have a surplus of "golden boys" when there is a bull market.  You can pick almost any stock then, and it goes up in value.  Genius!

I recounted before reading in the Virginia Bar Journal (disciplinary committee section) about a young hot-shot attorney who had a real estate practice.  It was the 1980's and real estate just went up and up and up.  So he invested in a number of commercial properties and they increased in value.  Genius!   Actually not, of course, it was just another real estate bubble and everyone who bought real estate was a "Genius!" for a while - until the bubble burst.

The problem for a lot of these geniuses was that they had to keep rolling over properties into new properties, to avoid capital gains tax.  So they went out and bid against other people to buy another property, and that, in part, drove up prices.   When the bubble burst, this attorney fellow decided that he couldn't just walk away - after all, he was a golden boy, right?

So he decided to "borrow" some money to "tide him over" until "things got better."  It is the same song told by hapless fools who borrow from loan sharks.  Or the kind of people who whine about banks not giving them unsecured loans to "tide them over" until "things get better" - you can't borrow your way to wealth!

Problem is, he "borrowed" from his clients without them knowing.  He was doing real estate closings in his law practice.  So when someone bought a house, he would handle all the money at closing.  The bank would wire him $500,000 to his escrow account to pay for the house his client was buying.  The client now owed the bank a half-million dollars.  Meanwhile, the seller of the house had a mortgage of $400,000 to pay off.  The attorney would wire $100,000 to the seller (their profit in the sale) and then not pay off the $400,000 mortgage.

The house was now mortgaged for $900,000.  Ouch.  The attorney in question kept up this ruse by making payments on the old mortgage - using some of the "borrowed" money.  The rest he used to prop up his failing commercial real estate empire - which had a staggering negative cash-flow.  Of course, in order to do this, he had to "borrow" yet more money from the next real estate closing.  And so on and so forth, until he was tens of millions in debt.   Or more precisely, his clients were.

The whole thing came unraveled when he missed some mortgage payments on those old mortgages which were supposed to be paid off.  People started asking questions, the District Attorney got involved, as well as the State Bar. The "errors and omissions" insurance of the attorney covered some of the damage - title insurance covered some more.  Some banks took a hit.  The attorney was sued.  He lost his license to practice law - revoked forever.

He went from "golden boy" real estate investor to bankrupt and out of a job - and a career - in a very short period of time.

It is a tale as old as time.  And you've heard about the big players that fall from grace - Enron and Madoff, for example.  They started out, perhaps, thinking they were golden boys and offered  obscene rates of return.  When that didn't pan out, they resorted to fraud, hoping maybe to turn things around.  When things didn't turn around, maybe they figured no one would notice the fraud until after they were long dead.  They lived in denial, but eventually the golden boys were brought back to Earth.  I think drugs may have been involved, particularly cocaine - which makes people do weird shit like this.

The most recent example of this is, of course, Elon Musk, who has taken Twitter from 0 to insolvent in less than four weeks - faster than even a Tesla Model S.  But if you look at his history and the pattern I outlined above, you can see his downfall is inevitable.  He was struck by lightning at birth - being born to a fairly wealthy family.  He invested in a company that would eventually become PayPal and was forced out before it did.  When PayPal went ballistic, he made a fortune, not from his own hard work, but because he still owned shares in the company.  That, and the stock was way overpriced.

He repeated the same pattern with Tesla.  Only this time around, the stock price was hyped by Musk himself.  He was able to use bots and trolls to groom his image - and that of Tesla - to the point where the share price  was ridiculous.  Tesla is "the most profitable car company on the planet" (on a profit per car basis) exceeding Mercedes and BMW for the first time - but in terms of P/E ratio, the stock was wildly overpriced, particularly in what is a commodity business, manufacturing.

So lightning strikes twice - helped along by a little stock manipulation.  Surely, he can do the same thing with money-losing Twitter!  Fire all the employees, make the rest work a staggering 80 hours a week (why would anyone go along with that?) and charge $8 a month for the service - more than some streaming services are asking for real content.   Oh, and his shenanigans have caused advertisers to flee the site at a time when many advertisers are starting to realize that online advertising is over-rated.

What do I mean by that?  Well, it is not by accident that when you go on any site these days, particularly on your phone, you try to close out the many pop-ups asking you to subscribe, or close that pesky auto-playing video (who the fuck actually watches those?) that when you just are about to hit that "X" the entire page shifts and suddenly an ad appears and you just clicked on it.  Of course, you quickly close out of the ad using he back-button or whatever, but the site owner just got click-though credit and now the Internet thinks you are keen on women's pantyhose or whatever the fuck the ad was for.

Advertisers are figuring out that these bogus clicks are not real, and that their ads are far less effective than they thought they were - or what the site owners were telling them they were.  And odious content?  That was what sank Glenn Beck.  He had good ratings, but his fan base was broke and wasn't in the market for anything but guns and survival food.  Kind of hard to sell $50,000 pickup trucks to that crowd.  By embracing the "basket of deplorables" Twitter risks going down that same road.  Racists generally are not wealthy people - or at least the type that go online and type the N-word over and over again for a reaction.  In fact, most of those folks are teenagers.  I guess you could sell them zit cream.

The other problem with Twitter is hardly anyone uses it - relatively speaking. There is a core group of people who are literally addicted to it and cannot stop tweeting all day long.  Politicians, celebrities, and media types - they all love Twitter as it gives them a megaphone to shout out to the masses.  But most ordinary people read "Tweets" that are republished on other platforms - on Facebook, Reddit, or on news sites.  Everyone has heard about Trump's Tweets, not from Twitter itself, but because every news outlet felt that "covfefe" was worthy of ten minutes of airtime.

So now, Twitter is saddled with debt, including a billion dollars a year in interest payments, in addition to the billion dollars a year they were losing before Musk bought it.  And people wonder, has he lost the golden touch?  Or maybe it never existed - he was just getting lucky on a massive scale.  Eventually, luck runs out.

The above chart illustrates Tesla share price, earnings per share (EPS), and Price-to-Earnings (P/E) ratio.  A you can see, the stock price got way ahead of itself at one point, when the P/E ratio went over 1,000.   Even in the hundreds, it was wildly overvalued.  GM has a P/E ratio of 25 or so, Ford, a bargain-basement 9. Most car companies have ratios in the low double-digits and they pay dividends which Tesla doesn't do and has pledged never to do.  Which stock is a better investment?  Which car companies are making millions of cars a year and paying dividends - and introducing new models yearly?  It ain't Tesla, that's for sure.

The chart is interesting, as at the beginning, Tesla was making a small amount of money.  Then Musk plowed money into expansion - in China and Germany - and then bought-out his cousins in their Solar City venture, using Tesla sharehoders' money.  So for a long time, the profit was negative and the P/E ratio undefined.  It is only since the pandemic (and the so-called car shortage) that Tesla has made any money.

But at the same time, the P/E ratio has declined from its dizzying heights to a somewhat more rational 60 or so - which would imply Tesla is still overpriced by a factor of three (at the time of this writing - in recent days, the stock has taken a further hit).  What has changed is that Musk has had to sell off a lot of his stock to cover the loans he took out, pledging half of his shares. And no doubt the rest are pledged to other loans he took out to buy Twitter - as well as money he needed to make that transaction.  When the major shareholder of a company starts selling huge chunks of it, the share price plummets.

This is a real-world, real-time illustration of why Market Cap is Bullshit.  If Bill Gates sold all his Microsoft stock, the result would be the same - or Bezos his Amazon shares or Zuckerberg his "Meta" - or whatever.   First, you are dumping a lot of stock into a market than can't absorb it - the law of supply and demand.  A lot of shares for sale, and not enough instantaneous buyers.  Second, buyers would be nervous that the insiders are cashing out - do they know something the rest of us don't?

For example, that maybe Tesla's aging products are going to get creamed in the marketplace by lower-cost competitors?  For EVs to succeed, the prices have to come way down.  I noted before that doing the math on even a hybrid, it often makes no sense.  The thousands extra you pay for an EV or a Hybrid would buy a lifetime's supply of gasoline.  Sure, I could buy a $100,000 EV and "save on gas."  Then again, the $60,000 I would pay for the vehicle would buy 115,000 gallons of gasoline at $4 a gallon. That's well over 200,000 miles of travel, even towing a trailer.

And let's face it, people who buy $100,000 cars aren't worried about the price of gas.  Or if they are, they are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Musk is making noises about building a "more affordable" Tesla, which means they have to plow more money into R&D to design such a vehicle - and update their already dated designs.  Speaking of which, where is the "Cybertruck?" anyway?  Ford and GM have beat Tesla to market here.  And they (and others) are beating Tesla to market in the low-price field.  Low-price cars mean low-margins.  No more making $9000 per car!  You'd be lucky to make a grand apiece!  GM and Ford actually lost money on their low-price cars, which is why they stopped making them in favor of high-margin SUVs.

But maybe Musk is trying to get out of that game, entirely.  A new CEO of Tesla has been appointed, and Musk is selling off shares and taking less of a role in Tesla due to his obsession with Twitter.

Besides, I am sure that now he is part of the GOP and the "Club for Growth" his new peeps are not happy that he is selling electric cars - an anathema to the far-right.  "Welcome to the Club for Growth, Elon!  We're happy to have you as a member!  But hey, that whole electric car thing?  Not cool, dude!"

So maybe he is throwing Tesla under the bus, so to speak, to appease his new friends, who are giving him a love-bomb for making Twitter a "free speech" (read: hate speech) platform.

The golden boy has really lost his touch, hasn't he?  Of course, he never really had it in the first place.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Merry Artists, or How We Spent Thanksgiving

Holidays get a bit predictable after a while. Try something new!

I noted before that I am not a big fan of holidays for a number of reasons.  My childhood was marred by unhappy holidays - they were viewed by my Mother as a test of her homemaking skills, and no matter how "perfect" the holiday was, she always felt she came up short. Drinking and arguments would ensue.

They're also boring as all get out.  Thanksgiving in particular is so predictable - the same foods, year after year, including the incredibly difficult-to-cook turkey (which takes hours and makes a huge mess) and the football games, parades, and then the hanging out with relatives.  Most people secretly wish they could do something else.  And they could, too - they just see it no other way.

That is why, I think, in part, why "Black Friday" became so popular.  People were like, "Oh, God, I will do anything to get away from my family!" - so they go shopping.

Throw in the second-busiest travel time of the year, with crowded roads, airports, hotels, restaurants, and what's not to like?  The model of "Hey everyone!  Let's all do the same thing at the same time, so commercial interests can make big profits!" is just dumb.  Time-shift.  Go off-season.  Pick a different day.  There is nothing magical or special about the last Thursday in November.

And what are we celebrating in particular?  The Puritans?  We euphemistically call them "Pilgrims" but they were not making any sort of pilgrimage - they came to a new country to practice their backward form of strict fundamentalism.  They screwed over the Indians who tried to help them, and then once they got established, started hanging people for witchcraft.

You know what?  Screw the "Pilgrims" - they are not really even a major part of the American story, but rather a tiny footnote of a settlement in Massachusetts.  If you really wanted to honor European invaders of the New World, there were plenty of other settlements up and down the East Coast of the US that would probably better qualify.  We don't celebrate the Dutch settling in "New Amsterdam" - what is now New York City - do we?  The whole "Thanksgiving" holiday smacks of being made-up, and indeed, it was - by Abraham Lincoln.

But I digress.

This time of year is a busy one for Mark - 12-hour days volunteering at Goodyear Cottage for the annual "Merry Artists" show and sale.  It started a few years ago when an artist cancelled their show for December at the last minute.  Mark and others pitched the idea of having a show and sale for all of the Arts Association members.   We do get a lot of tourists this time of year, and they are often looking for inexpensive items ($5 to $500) to give as gifts or for themselves.   Well, the first year was a big hit, so they decided to make it an annual deal.

Problem is, there are literally hundreds - even over 1000 - items for sale.  Every item has to be logged into the system and a bar-code price tag attached.  And then it all has to be displayed so it looks good and not like a "garage sale" as some would say.  An army of volunteers helps with everything, and Mark uses his retail skills to make it look appealing.

So, for several days he has been working.  First, the old show (the weaver's guild) has to be taken down and then everything removed from the "shop" (where member's wares are sold year-round) and the entire building reorganized as one giant store.   He is fortunate to have a lot of good volunteers to work with, who work like dogs for days at a time and still keep their good humor.

Well, it's all done.  And it looks great.  My job was mostly to stay out of the way.  I went after-hours and installed some track lighting and I went one day and brought Mark some lunch.  But it's his deal and it's best if I stay out of it for the most part.  Besides, I'd probably piss someone off.  I'm pretty good at that!

The show and sale starts tomorrow, so the place is closed today.  We went over and had tuna salad sandwiches and I cut down some old bar stools that we salvaged from a restaurant here on the island.  They wanted them for the pottery shop (studio) but they were 6" too tall.  An easy fix with a battery-powered circular saw!  It was quiet, just the two of us, and the occasional curious tourist on a bicycle, cruising by.  It really is a low-stress way to spend the holiday.

We did get invited to someone's house to spend the day eating turkey and whatnot, and it was kind of them to ask.  But after several days of backbreaking work, Mark just wanted to relax and chill out.  It's more our speed.  Maybe it is closer to the real meaning of Thanksgiving than turkey, football, and shopping.

And no, he wasn't in the mood to spend hours cooking a turkey.

It's funny, but we have friends who are doing the traditional bit, and they don't seem happy with it.  One friend had their stove die the day before Thanksgiving!  Talk about stress!  But a kindly appliance repairman fixed not only that, but their dryer as well - for cheap, too!  Another friend has an out-of-town in-law coming to visit who, without fail, will complain about everything from the food to the decor to how lumpy their mattress is - and start some sort of argument with a sibling or parent.  Without fail.  Every damn year.  Why do people torture themselves like that?

Family.  I get it.  Most of ours are dead, thank God.

The funny thing, I think, is that I meet so many people who feel they have to do certain things at certain times of the year.  They let society and tradition lead them around by the nose.  "I have to do this!  Everyone else does!" and they get very scared when you suggest there are other possibilities.  Some folks go so far as to marry someone their parents picked for them or follow the career path their parents selected.   They concept of "free will" seems alien to them.  I guess most people are sheep.

Maybe some year we will do the traditional Thanksgiving thing again.  We have in the past, and it can be a lot of fun.  But then again, it can also be a pain-in-the-ass and if you aren't having fun, why do it?

One year, Mark invited some friends over and served turkey tacos with stuffing and gravy and a little cranberry as well.  Actually, they are pretty good.  Some of our friends were not amused - they wanted Big Tom Turkey and "all the fixin's" laid out on the table.  It was like we had renounced God or something.  It is funny how orthodox some folks can be.

The holidays are what you make of them.  There is no rule saying you have to do this or you must do that.  It is all up to you.  And if you are busy doing other things, why stress yourself?

Anyway, the sale starts tomorrow.  Tonight we're having hamburgers with bleu cheese.

Sacrilege!  I know!

P.S. - We found hundreds of feet of lighted garland (LED no less!) in a dumpster behind the club.  We cleaned it up and threw away the broken (unlit) strands and ran it all around the house.  So before anyone accused me of "Bah! Humbug!" I did decorate the house for our "festival of lights."  So there!

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Firing the Right People

In any organization, 50% of the people do 90% of the work.  Fire the other 50% and your organization will prosper.  Problem is, usually the wrong 50% get fired.

Elon Musk is getting a lot of flack for being a bull in the China shop - firing everyone and then realizing he needs them to keep Twitter from imploding.  Yet, there is a certain logic to what he is attempting to do.  When I worked at GM and UTC, as well as the government and private law firms, it always amazed me that there was a core group of people doing most of the real work - and an awful lot of slackers doing little or nothing.

Go on one of these "antiwork" discussion groups and you will hear tales from people whose job description was forgotten - they had little to do but show up for work every day and do the crossword puzzle.  Sometimes this goes on for years before someone figures it out and lays them off.

This is why, I guess, when an organization exceeds the size of Dunbar's Number, it becomes increasingly more inefficient.   People spend more and more time on social grooming and for each additional person hired, an incrementally smaller amount of work gets done - like a differential equation.  Eventually, you get to the point where the last person hired does no work at all.

The problem, of course, is that if you want to prune the tree, you have to cut off the right branches so as to not kill the tree entirely.  And sadly, some "managers" go all lumberjack and just cut the tree down, as we seem to be seeing with Twitter.  Often, the people doing the pruning are from "corporate" and make decisions based on spreadsheets, not on boots-on-the-ground data.

I recounted before at one company, we had two test room Engineers who were charged with designing and maintaining test rooms.  One would carefully document every detail in big binders and schematics, with all the wiring color-coded.  His test rooms never needed repairs, always worked properly, and worked efficiently.  The other "Engineer" (who had no degree) never documented a thing, and wired everything in a rat's nest of yellow wiring.  He would periodically unplug one wire when everyone was at lunch, so as to cause the whole test room to crash.  Everyone would be looking for him (he was sleeping the ductwork) and when they finally found him in the restroom, he would come back and plug that one wire back in, and thus be a "hero" for a day.  Managers marveled at how "indispensable" he was.

Meanwhile, back at corporate, a Vice President is puzzling as to why we have two test room engineers and then fires the one with the highest labor cost.  The guy who actually did his job and documented everything was let go.  He had some health issues and was older, so he cost the company more money.  The remaining guy was useless, of course - and couldn't even read a schematic.  They laid off the wrong guy.

But I get it, what they were trying to do.  The company was losing money on certain products and they needed to cut back on overhead.  Today, that whole factory is shut down, gone, and the building bulldozed to the ground.  And everyone there I knew is either retired or long-dead.  Life goes on, and a new factory will be built somewhere else, making new products.   You can't live in the past forever.

Cutting the fat from an organization is damn difficult to do.  So I appreciate the struggle Mr. Musk is going through.  What makes it so hard is that the people who do the least amount of real work spend most of their time trying to make themselves look important and indispensable - taking credit for the work of others (which Musk himself, does) and basically brown-nosing and gladhanding management to the point where mangers say, "That fellow is a real go-getter!"  Meanwhile, their opinion of the guy in the back room, doing all the real coding, is poor.  "I never see that guy!  Does he even work here?  What does he really contribute to the bottom line, anyway?"

It is a pattern we see in companies all the time - they lay off the workers and keep the slackers.  Or worse, the real workers see the writing on the wall and get jobs elsewhere, until the whole company is nothing but coke-snorting bullshit artists.  And you can't keep going on bullshit and cocaine forever.  Problem is, you can't convince a coke-head of that.   It goes without saying that if you try to point this folly out to senior management, you've basically put a target on your back.

I am so glad to be retired.  It amazes me that any organization gets anything done at all, considering how everyone works at cross-purposes or doesn't work at all.  Henry Ford was a genius in using the assembly line - a mechanism that forces you to focus on one job, done on a certain time scale.  If you don't do that job, it becomes readily apparent to everyone.  Of course, this has the effect of dehumanizing people and turning them into machines.  Seems you can't win at this game!  Besides, while an assembly line may work for putting "bolts on cars" (as one of my professors at GMI phrased it) it doesn't function for more esoteric and creative work.

Firing people based on how many lines of code they wrote doesn't take into account that some simple tasks use repetitive lines of code, while some more difficult tasks use far fewer.  In fact, in programming, the hardest thing to do is make compact code.  Sure, I could solve an iterative equation by simply writing out each iteration - and using thousands of lines of code in the process.  It is a little harder to create a loop that solves each iteration.  According to Musk, the former gets you promoted, the latter gets you fired - and then he whines about how the code is bloated and slow to load.

Go Figure.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Counterfeit Postage Stamps - DICUSPS SCAM!

I must be losing my touch not to see this as a scam right away.

A few weeks ago, I saw an ad online from the postal service (or so I thought) offering a "sale" on "forever" postage stamps for as much as half off!  It looked so legit at first glance that I bookmarked the link and e-mailed it to myself.

Weeks later cleaning out my inbox, I clicked on the link and got a warning that it was an unsecured site and not USPS.COM but something called "DICUSPS" which made me re-think this whole thing.

What was I thinking?  Responding to an internet ad - mistake number one!  No bargains are going to appear on Internet ads.  They are either outright scams, or they are "targeted ads" that are based on keywords you typed or even spoke.  They know you are thinking about buying a new orbital sander, so they show you ads for orbital sanders (none of them are particular bargains).

And yes, having said that, I will see, shortly, in the coming days, an ad for an orbital sander, on my computer or my phone.

The second mistake was disengaging my brain.  What was I thinking?  Why on earth would the post office have a sale on stamps - and not only that, for half off!  They would be insane to do this, particularly for "forever" stamps.  You could buy thousands of dollars of them and have a 100% gain right away, and an increased gain, over the years, as the postage rates went up.  It would be better than a government bond!  And yea, if you had a store, you could sell them - they would be snapped up by every independent postal service center in the country.

And the answer is, of course, the post office isn't selling stamps on-sale and certainly not for half-off.  You might get a few cents off, buying stamps at a "big box" store where they have an agreement with the USPS to buy stamps at a slight discount.  But half-off?  Get real!

So what are these DICUSPS people selling?  Counterfeit Stamps.   It is genius if you think about it - criminal genius.  Stamps are not very ornate or difficult to counterfeit.  For a while, the USPS was even allowing you to make your own stamps online, with your own images on them.   Sort of ripe for counterfeiting, if you ask me.

Look at a stamp sometime (yea, I know, no one uses stamps anymore!).  I bought a roll last year and it likely will be the last roll of stamps I ever buy.   No one mails anything anymore, other than packages, it seems.  Maybe a post card, maybe a holiday card.  Not much else.  But if you look at a typical "forever" stamp, it is not hard to copy.  It is just a printed image of an American flag that could be easily reproduced in a foreign print shop.

Of course, it is the end user who would get in trouble for using the stamp - if they bought these online.  Although one wonders how hard it would be to get caught.  Does the USPS have scanning equipment that can detect counterfeit stamps?  These are questions I cannot answer.

But it made me a little nervous that I didn't see this as a scam right away.  I bookmarked it for later investigation, but I should have just seen it as the scam it was, right away.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably always is!

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Do I Stay or Do I Go, Now?

When should you sell a property?  Maybe before now!

I recently got some correspondence from our condo association.  We bought this condo years ago so our cleaning lady would have a place to live.  She paid the condo fee and the insurance and it was a break-even deal, and quite a deal for her.  In retrospect, maybe too good a deal.  It was so cheap for her to live there that she delayed returning home to Mexico until she was almost invalid.  Hard to say, of course.  You try to do the right thing, but altruism is always suspect.

Anyway, once she left, we cleaned the place up, painted it, and rented it out.  Since we were not "on site" we hired a management company that wanted the first month's rent as a fee, plus about $100 a month to collect the rent and deposit it to our account.  They also handled maintenance and repairs, using their own selection of expensive plumbers and repairmen.   We made maybe a few thousand dollars one year and then lost as much the next.  At the end of each lease, the tenant would leave and they would suggest raising the rent, which meant the place was vacant for months at a time, leading to more losses.

Our last tenant had cats and smoked and the place was sort of a mess.  The manager guy wanted $5000 to clean it and spray-paint it (spray-and-wipe, I call it - they spray everything beige and then wipe off the overspray from light switches and whatnot - it looks like crap).  So we drove up there and two backbreaking weeks later, it was cleaned, repainted, and carpeted.  It looked crisp and new.  And we found a good tenant who wanted to rent for a year.

One reason we hung on to the place was that they finally decided to tear it down and build new medium-rise condos there.  There were systemic problems with the place as the buildings were sliding down the hill, slowly, due to marine clay, and the infrastructure was over 50 years old and poorly maintained.  Yes, Never Own A Condo!  Condo associations will slash maintenance budgets to get short-term gains at the expense of long-term costs.  And this is a prime example.

At least the buildings didn't collapse killing hundreds.  Well, one balcony collapsed - good thing no one was on it - or under it!  Anyway, they have this horrifically complicated deal going on, tearing down units in stages, selling off land parcels to different developers (there are 22 acres in all!) and some people want to stay to the bitter end, others want to "early out"and leave ASAP.  If your unit is slated to be torn down early and you want to stay, they will relocate you to a unit that someone else wanted to "early out" from.

Well, we thought about it and decided to stay until the end.  That was a few years ago.  Anyway, the condo association dithered and dawdled and the original plan expired and we had to vote on a new plan - and have another opportunity to "early out" - so we did.  In August of 2023, they should pay us about $160,000 for the unit and we walk away.  The tenant's lease expires in June, so that should not be an issue.

Since there are no real estate agent's fees, closing costs should be minimal, if non-existent.  However, if we decided to keep the money, the capital gains taxes would be about $27,000 in Federal taxes and $7800 in State Taxes (!!).  Plus, this would cause us to lose our Obamacare subsidy for at least one year, or another $16,800.  So if we "walked away" and took the cash, we would end up with $106,400.  This is assuming miscellaneous closing and other costs of about $2000.

Why sell?  Well for an asset worth $160,000, we are earning maybe $5000 on a good year, losing money on a bad year (like this one).  Over the last ten years, cumulative, it has been a break-even kind of deal - with no depreciation deduction.  We should have sold it a long time ago!   That money in the bank could have made us a lot of money over time.  Not sure what we were thinking, other than once the redevelopment started, it was kind of hard to sell.

Today, the majority of units are held by investors and as such, regular mortgages are hard to come by - only VA and portfolio-backed loans are available if the unit is less than 1/2 owner-occupiers.  Units that are selling are going for $155,000 or so, minus a 6% real estate agent fee.  So, veterans or cash buyers, basically.

One alternative to paying all those taxes is to do a 1031 or so-called 'Starker" deferred exchange.  After selling the unit, you have 45 days to "identify" a property and 180 days to close.  Your basis in the property is transferred to the new property and no capital gains taxes are due.  If you eventually move to that property and then declare it as a personal residence for three years out of five, you can then sell it and walk away paying no taxes at all.  Nice work if you can get it.

Timing markets is difficult.  But it seems with rising interest rates, real estate prices may drop off in the coming months.  Like I said before, there is a lot of hysteresis in the system, so people are still paying prices that made sense in an era of 3% mortgages, at a time when they are pushing 7%.  Some folks will end up in trouble, no doubt.

Timing markets is difficult, to be sure.  But I am going to take a gamble here that in 2023, $160,000 in cash will buy a nice property more locally to us.  We can rent it out and make a little money and be able to manage it ourselves (which would eliminate about $2500 in management fees every year).  And if it was something we could "downsize" to later in life, it might work out as a tax-free deal.  We could sell our existing house, tax-free at that time.

Worst case scenario, we walk away with a hundred grand in cash, which invested might yield $7,000 to $10,000 a year in income, or spent, would keep us afloat for another three years without having to tap into our IRA.   Or the money could be used to buy a "big ticket" item down the road, like a new roof for the house, or maybe a car someday, when the hamster finally wears out.

First world problems, I know.  But it is funny, looking back at our ownership of this condo, we really didn't "make out like a bandit" on it, as we broke even over the years on the rental income (this does not account for our labor, however!).  Yes, we end up with a capital gain of $160,000 (as we depreciated the original purchase price of $38,000 down to zero).  But if you look at that in terms gain over the 25 years we owned the place, it comes to about $6400 a year.  For an initial "investment" of $38,000, compounded for 25 years at 6%, that works out to about.... $160,000.   Nice steady growth, yes.  Obscene profits?  No.   Of course, the first 18 years were rented out at-cost.   Being "nice" is expensive!

Anyway, we'll see how it works out.  Maybe things will turn around next year and prices will go even higher - and $160,000 will buy you a Big Mac.  Who knows?

It is good to have such problems.

Monday, November 21, 2022

All the Angry People, Where Do They All Come From?

People have anger issues these days.  What's up with that?

It is funny, living in the wealthiest country in the world.  People drive enormous gas-guzzling vehicles and then complain about the price of gas.  People are 100 lbs overweight and complain about the price of food.  People vote against healthcare, and then complain about their medical bills.   Americans are, quite literally, insane.

We left the island the other day - a novelty for us.  There is a five-mile-long causeway and the speed limit is 55 MPH in most parts and is strictly enforced.  We have our own State Police substation here, with several officers with nothing much to do, policing an island of well-off old people.  So they set up speed traps and also traps for people who run stop signs.   You get the idea real quick that it is pointless to speed on an island 7 miles long with a 35 MPH speed limit (max).

One of our neighbors, who is well over 70, has one of those "Hellcat" cars - over 700 HP.  It is loud as all fuck, and only old fucks can afford cars like that (and the insurance).  I keep wondering whether he'll buy a grown-up car someday.   I mean, 0 to 60 in four seconds is nice - but again, the speed limit here is 35 MPH.  I sold the M Roadster when I realized I never got out of second gear.  It was a pointless toy.

But I digress.

Anyway, we're driving down the causeway, doing a little over 55 MPH which is the speed limit, and some jackass in a pickup is tailgating.  Behind him is some jackass in a cheep Jeep Cherokee or something, tailgating the pickup.  You know, an "SUV" that is really a car with all wheel drive.  Anyway, the causeway is straight and most of it is a passing zone, but these two bozos don't pass - they just tailgate.  I guess they were on the phone?

Finally, in a no-passing zone with oncoming traffic, the pickup passes followed by the Jeep, who cuts us off and then throws a can of "energy drink" (which is a concoction of sugar and caffeine that no one in their right mind would ever drink, unless type-II diabetes is their goal). at us.  Mark deftly swerves - the hamster does handle better than an SUV.

Anyway, we were kind of puzzled by this - what was his problem?  And of course, we caught up to him at the stop sign at Route 17, two miles down the road.  Was he really going to "make time" on the causeway or something?  Or he was just an immature jerk?

I guess he doesn't live or work here - that would sort of be burning bridges a bit, eh?  I mean, if he worked for the Authority and they saw this video of him... goodbye State Pension!

Maybe I hit on the reason when I said "energy drink" - diabetes.  We ran into this problem with Mark's Stepmother who was very overweight and had a horrible diet and undiagnosed diabetes.  She would peak and valley, calm one minute and angry and pouting the next.  Turns out, it was her blood sugar and nothing else.  Once she was medicated, she turned into a sweetheart.

I see a lot of people who are in poor physical shape who are angry all the time - a recipe for a heart attack.  I mentioned before how depressed I got the other day in Sam's Club, watching a dozen or more people in electric scooters, most grossly overweight, some with amputations, buying the worst sort of foods - candy, cakes, chips, and soda-pop.   The brightly colored packages of sugary food stacked to the ceiling was somehow obscene.  What was worse was to see so many grossly obese children - hardly in their teens and 100 lbs overweight.  One grabbed a double-box of "Lucky Charms" (Now with twice as many marshmallows!) and threw it in her mother's shopping cart, disdainfully.  He was only 13 and had already developed a bad attitude.

No matter how lucky we are, someone else has it better.  The neighbor has the new gaming system - why can't I have one?  This crappy one is almost a year old!  You see how this attitude is nurtured in the crib.  These are the kids that grow up to be Kyle Rittenhouses - chubby cherubs who go looking for a fight - and finding one.  Or worse, the new breed of Nazis, Klansmen, and Misogynists.

Of course, diet isn't the only reason.  Drugs play a part, too - particularly methamphetamine and cocaine, both of which turn ordinary people into assholes.  Supplements may play a part, too - I mentioned before that testosterone supplements tend to make people more angry and aggressive - a survival skill in the time of cavemen, something that will land you in jail in a civilized society.

Also, too, the culture of belligerence is rife in our society and worldwide.  Being loud, obnoxious, and angry all the time is seen as "cool" by people of a limited brain capacity.  And of course, young people buy into this as well.

But beyond all those excuses lies character.  We all may make mistakes on occasion and go overboard.  Some people, however, behave badly all the time, and think nothing of it.  They are always right and everyone else is wrong - sounds like some billionaires and political figures we know.  Even wired on crack, you have to know you are doing something wrong, if you have a good character.  Then again, people of decent character are rarely wired on crack.

Of course, living well is the best revenge.  And contentment beats happiness every time - and blows misery off the map.  This fellow is obviously an unhappy person.  He bought a bland SUV made by a company famous for its horrific quality - and no doubt has 72 more payments to make on it.  He's late for wherever he has to go (or just feels he has to go as fast as possible, even if he has nowhere to go) and it is not hard to imagine how his driving record looks or what his insurance rates are like.  To him, life is one sucky disappointment after another.  He is lucky that the State Patrol wasn't on the causeway right then, as I suspect he'd get a ticket for more than just littering.

We, on the other hand, are in no hurry, our car is paid-for (since we didn't buy a useless, cramped, and overpriced SUV) and since we don't do stupid stunts like this, our insurance is cheap, cheap, cheap.  Oh, and we're retired - and have been since our 50's.

Who's really "winning" here?  I guess that's why he's so angry.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

I Have Read Thousands of Tweets...

...But never on Twitter!

The big problem for Twitter is making money.  Twitter never made money, and in fact lost a billion dollars a year.  Now it has a billion dollars in interest to pay, every year, on top of that.  Unless the Saudis are willing to pony up two billion a year, it is unclear how the service can continue.  Maybe a Chapter 11 reorganization?  But then Musk loses all his investment (as well as the Saudis) and the banks call their loans - with Musk's Tesla stock as collateral.

Well, maybe it is time he retired, anyway.  Always know when to leave - and leave at the top of your game, not rock bottom.

But I digress.

I have read thousands of Tweets over the years - often against my will. They are published online on news sites and other websites (Facebook, Reddit, etc.) and even in print periodicals. The problem is, when republished, none of these Tweets are accompanied by advertising. So if you advertise on Twitter, your audience is pretty limited.  Not many people use it, and those seeing the Tweets on other platforms (which is probably the majority of viewers) never see the ads.

So why would anyone advertise on Twitter - even before the whole hate speech and impersonation fiascoes?

Elon Musk claims that Twitter is the number one driver of site referrals.  But not only is that wrong, but laughably so.  This guy didn't do his due diligence.  Facebook still drives over 70% of click-through, while Twitter comes in at a distant second place, tying with Pinterest of all things, with 7%.  That's a big, big difference.   If Musk really thought that, now I understand why he overpaid for Twitter.

That, in short, is the problem with trying to monetize any online site - social media or not.  If people talk about the site but don't actually go on it and read the ads, what is the point of advertising on the site?

Like I said, over the years, I have probably been forced to read over 1,000 Tweets - possibly far more - in news articles and on other sites, such as the one linked above.  I have never visited the Twitter site and thus never read an ad on Twitter.

Twitter ends up creating free content for other sites - particularly news sites - and I doubt Musk can charge them royalties for their use, particularly if they are embedded in the site.  But more than that, news organizations can republish a Tweet under the "fair use" exception to Copyright law.  If an important political figure makes a Tweet (like you-know-who) the media has the right to print that and discuss it as a newsworthy item.   And even beyond that, it has long been held that short phrases and sentences are generally not copyright-able (which is why t-shirt slogans aren't protected - you can't claim copyright to "have a nice day!")

While Twitter has, in the past, succeeded in Copyright cases involving photos, I am not sure that short phrases would pass muster as being copyright-able material - and "Fair Use" might just blow it out of the water.  But all that being said, Twitter would spend more money on litigation than would be realized in damages, and the shear volume of cases would drive it bankrupt.

It is an interesting conundrum for Musk - he owns this thing that is worth very little, but he paid a lot for it.  Trying to "monetize" it won't work, either - $8 a month is what Netflix charges and they provide more than mere Tweets.  Yes, there are theoretically some 186 million Twitter users (not all are active) but of those, how many will pay $8 a month for a blue checkmark?  If Musk could get all of them to pay, sure, he could rake in 17 billion dollars a year.  But so far, the only people paying the $8 are folks who paid it once to set up a parody account, which was quickly deleted by Musk.  No doubt, the users requested a charge-back from their credit card company.

Just to cover their debt load of a billion dollars a year, they would have to get 10,416,666 people to pay that eight bucks a month - or about 5% of users.  According to some sources, ten percent of Twitter's "active users" drive most of the ad revenue for the company.  And the number of "active users" is in the decline. Whether Musk expects the people creating wealth for him, for free to pay for the privilege remains to be seen.

It is akin to blogging.  I create content here and I don't get paid for it.  I tried to "monetize" my blog once, but found out what many bloggers and vloggers and podcasters and Youtubers have learned the hard way - your "van life" podcast isn't even going to pay for gasoline, much less make you a living.  I cleared about $2500 after a year, and the site was so clogged with scam ads, I felt it wasn't worth it.

Therein lies the rub - the Internet used to be a fun place where people did things that were about more than raking in cash.  Whenever someone tries to monetize something on the Internet, it usually starts to suck in short order, as it becomes more like commercial television or a carnival barker.

And when that happens, users flee in droves - as happened to MySpace back in the day.

People never learn!

UPDATE:   Maybe Musk isn't so dumb after all.  As a CREDITOR of Twitter, he and the Saudis may be protected in bankruptcy.  Shareholders would lose their shares, bond-holders become shareholders.  So he ends up owning Twitter (with the Saudis) debt-free and can start over.   I guess we'll have to wait-and-see.  Can he keep it going with this massive debt-load and daily losses?

If advertisers don't come back (very possible now that "free hate speech" is online) I don't see where else it could go...

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Welcome to the Fuck You Internet

The Internet has turned on us.

When the Internet first became popular, it seemed the possibilities were endless.  We would have all the data from the history of mankind at our fingertips.  A new "information age" would be launched and we all would be smarter and better for it.  It seems the opposite has happened, however - a new online dark ages has emerged, where the world is flat, vaccines cause autism, and dictatorship is freedom.  We haven't seen shit like this since the 1500's.

But beyond that, it seems the bloom is off the rose. The Internet promised us "e-commerce" where things would be cheaper than "brick and mortar" and the selection greater.  We could download or stream video and tell those evil cable companies to go to hell.  And we could stay in touch with family and friends through social media.  How's that working out?

Recently, however, a number of events have occurred simultaneously - or nearly so - that seem to indicate an orchestrated campaign to make the Internet, well, as shitty as cable tee-vee.  What am I talking about?  Well consider this:

1. Chrome is updating in January to ban ad blockers:  The rumor is, the next release of chrome in December or January will disable all ad blocking software.   If you have ever used the Internet without an ad blocker, you know what a nightmare of pop-ups, pop-unders, sidebar ads, banner ads, and whatnot, it can be.   Some sites are so deranged with ads as to be unreadable.  Most news sites, for example.  Adblock plus was fun while it lasted, but of course, "they" couldn't let us off the leash for long, could they?

2.  The suckiness of Amazon:  Amazon prices are skyrocketing with the rest of the market due to inflation, but also, I think because they have reached a "critical mass" and figure people are too lazy to shop around.  I get more and more solicitations from manufacturers to go directly to their own sites and get 30% off, rather than use Amazon or other e-commerce sites.   Amazon, of course, still plays "Prime" games - telling me I can get free shipping when it is already available without Prime - and then adding on shipping charges unless I decline them.   That is just shifty bullshit and I find myself using Amazon less and less.  No wonder they are closing distribution centers and laying off people - while donating money to charity at the same time!

3.  eBay:  It used to be a place to buy and sell things.  Now it is just an online marketplace to buy things.  They have made it so difficult to sell things on their site that most people - myself included - have simply given up.   If you do sell something, expect to hear from a host of crackpots and scammers, but at least it is not as bad as...

4.  Craigslist is dead:  At this point, anything advertised on Craigslist is pretty much a scam.  And if you advertise on Craigslist, you will likely get scammed.  You'll get the "Is the item still available?" e-mails, of course, and then weird requests to sell your $1500 item for fifty bucks.   Or you get dreamers who want you to "hold" the item for them while they decide whether or not to buy it.  It just sucks.  Facebook Marketplace seemed like a better alternative, but the horror stories I am reading online seem to say otherwise.

5.  Streaming Services Suck:  When it was just Netflix for a few dollars a month - and no ads - and they had the entire STARZ catalog to stream, it was cool.  Then came the rate increases, the "Netflix Original Series" (about 3/4 of which are not worth watching) and now advertisements.   Oddly enough (or not so oddly) the plethora of other streaming services are also announcing rate increases and advertising tiers).  Conspiracy? Price-Fixing?  Perhaps.  Even Youtube is in the gag - offering to "buy or rent" movies and making the "suggested" videos nothing but crappy clickbait. "You'll never believe what happens..."  Yes, I will. I will have no trouble believing.   And of course, YouTube is desperately trying to be like Tick-Tock and that sucks as well.

6. This Page Looks Better in the App!  I have noticed a lot of sites, when you try to access them by phone, will pester you with pop-ups and banner ads (often covering the functional features of the site!) exhorting you to load the "app" instead.  Why?  So they can track you online and understand what you are doing.  Sure, you can clear your "cookies" in Chrome (for the time being anyway) but an app is forever, and many run in the background, silently listening and watching everything you do.   And they can sell this information to advertisers. So they make the online experience SUCK so you will load the app.  I would rather just not use the site, period. 

7. The death of social media?  Facebook is laying off people and losing subscribers as Zuckerberg goes "all in" on the metaverse.  A new headset ($1500) is now available - to very mixed reviews.  Is anyone actually buying into this, other than dweebs and early adapters?  Twitter - do we need to even talk about this?  Tick-Tock is just stupid - people gyrating to asinine music and the DoD thinks the whole thing is a Chinese Trojan horse.  Maybe something else will come to take the place of these platforms - maybe.  Meanwhile, the crazies and loonies are insisting that privately run websites have to host their toxic ideas as "free speech" - completely missing the point of the first amendment.

Of course, as with any form of commerce (and the Internet is commerce) there is always the choice of consume less.   The price of food is skyrocketing, but then again, when I go to the wholesale club and see people with Type-II diabetes, with a leg missing, in an electric scooter, loading up the basket with cases of orange pop and chips, I have to wonder, "Maybe high food prices aren't such a bad thing - maybe it will induce us all to eat less and lose weight!"

And the same is true with gasoline.  The guy in the monster truck with a ridiculous lift and cheap Chinese-made bend-o-matic rims and crappy low-profile tires (which means the truck can no longer actually haul anything as a truck) whines about the price of gas, but at the same time insisting he has a "right" to drive 5,000+ lbs of metal around, just to get to work - by himself.  We do have choices and choice #1 is to consume less.

And so it goes with the Internet.  I resisted buying a "smart phone" for years because I saw what it did to people - and what it eventually did to me.  Like a small child who can't help touching himself, we can't help touching those stupid smart phones.  Maybe Zuckerberg is right - we all want to live in a virtual reality, as the real reality is too scary and anxiety-inducing.

But maybe, just maybe, making the Internet SUCK so badly will cause more and more people to turn away from it - or at least use it less.  Just as the cable companies made Cable Tee-Vee suck so badly that people pulled the plug, Internet providers are making their sites suck as well - thinking that we have no options but to consume their content.

But content is cheap.  We go to campgrounds and people have book and CD and DVD exchanges - yes the old "hard format" - but it is free.  I chuckle when I see a streaming site like YouTube offer to sell or rent or "free with ads" a movie that I picked up for free at a campground or bought for a dollar at GoodwillAnd there are always books to read - there are so many "little libraries" as well as regular ones out there with mountains of content, all at the low, low price of free.

So, maybe less screen time and more book time.  It can't hurt, can it?  And besides, I don't think I can stand reading even one more clickbait title before I throw my phone against a wall...