Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Joys of Being a Landlord

There is a reason some people rent, and it has little to do with not having money to buy.

We are renting out our condo and it is interesting to see who applies.  We spent nearly two weeks cleaning and painting the place - four coats of paint - and doing a lot of minor repairs.  When you are on your hands and knees at 2 in the morning cleaning someone else's fecal matter from the toilet,  you have to ask yourself if it is all worth it.

But think of all the money you're making, right?   Well, it ain't that much.  With a $631 a month condo fee and property taxes and insurance, we are lucky to clear $5000 a year in profits.  Well, that's a lot of money for doing nothing, right?   You did read the part about fecal matter and two weeks' of backbreaking work, right?  Sure, I could have paid someone to do that, but it would have cost... $5000 or more. UPDATE:  Over the last ten years, we have broken even on this property - making money one year, losing the next (vacancy kills!).   That is with no mortgage!

There are other things that cut down that profit and vacancy is one of them.  A tenant leaves and you have to clean the place and get it ready to rent.  It is off the market for a month or two - or three - and your agent wants a month's rent as commission to lease it.  You can see that leasing it yourself is far more profitable.

There are other issues.  For example, a neighboring condo flooded ours.  The condo association insurance paid for a whole new kitchen (and a crappy paint job) but it meant three month's vacancy as the tenant had to relocate.  And no, your insurance doesn't cover "loss of use" or consequential damages.  So although we got a "free kitchen" out of the deal, we ended up breaking even that year.

Over the last five years, we've made $13,590.16 - not per year, overall.  That's a couple grand a year.  Still sounds like free money?  Consider that this is the income from an asset worth maybe $160,000 and you can see the annual rate of return is a paltry 1.69%.   We could have done far better in the stock market or even in a Certificate of Deposit. Over the last decade we made zilch - broke even, due to repairs and vacancy. 

Still convinced your landlord is "greedy"?

Part of the problem, besides vacancy, repairs, and an unexpected flood, is the fact the condo is slated to be demolished by 2025 or 2026.  This makes it hard to sell the unit and we probably should have taken an "early out" and sold the unit a year ago  Well, that ship has sailed and we have three or four years to think about it - and another recession to live through.  It may very well be that the unit doesn't even sell in 2026.  (UPDATE:  We were able to take "early out" and are slated to close in August, as they had to reauthorize the redevelopment of the property).

Now granted, there are other ways to make money from Real Estate, such as the depreciation deduction and of course capital gains (which are, in effect, the same thing).  We fully depreciated this unit years ago, which knocked $3,850 off my income for taxable purposes from 1998 to 2008.  Yes, we paid only $38,500 for the condo "back in the day".

So we're making out like a bandit, right?  Well, the present value of $38,500 in 2022 dollars is worth $67,399.64 today, which means we are sitting on close to a hundred grand in actual capital gains.  That sounds great, until you consider how long we've had the property - nearly 25 years.  Over time, that comes out to about another $4000 to $5000 a year in capital gains, which again sounds swell, until you realize the rate of return on that money over time.  That money invested in stocks at 7% rate of return would be worth over $200,000 today.

So real estate can be quite mundane but fairly safe - "safe as houses" as they used to say in England.  Of course, you can also lose your shirt in real estate, particularly if you bought in 2022 and want to sell in 2023 - shit is about to hit the fan as mortgage rates rise to 6% and beyond.

Compounding this is that we rented the place to a friend for the first 18 years at cost, so we broke even over time. But even if we optimized our income, it still would not have been a hugely profitable investment.

There is talk today of a rental shortage and unaffordable housing. But as I noted in an earlier posting, the rent we are asking on this place is right in line with what Mark and I were paying back in 1987, factoring in 37 years of inflation. Our salaries actually would be higher today, factoring in for inflation than they were in 1987.  Patent Examiners and Assistant Store Managers are actually making more today than back when we were in our 20's.

But that doesn't stop the hue and cry from the Amalgamated Whiners, Losers, Ne'er-do-Wells, and Dudes Living In Mom's Basement.  It is all so unfair! (wah!) unfair! (wah!) unfair (wah!) and not only should rent be more "affordable" they argue it should be free.  No, I am not kidding, they argue rent should be free.  Hell, even in the Soviet Union, the plebes had to pay rent!  It is just bizarre thinking and no doubt the flames are being fanned by our friends in modern-day Russia.

As I noted when I started this piece, there is a reason some people are renters, and it has a lot to do with their attitudes in life and this loser mentality that "everyone else" has it so good and they are put-upon.  Tenants can leave a rental unit in horrible condition (ask me how I know!) and walk away from the smoking wreckage with little or no consequences, other than to lose a security deposit (which as we know, was so unfair, man!).   Those holes in the wall?  Well, we were doing MMA in the living room and someone's foot went through the wall.  Or was it his head?  I forget.  Anyway, that's just normal wear and tear, right?  That is the mentality you are dealing with when renting to tenants, particularly young "dudes" who are rambunctious and have no clue how the world works.

With any luck, however, we will be out of the landlording business in a few years.  As the above example illustrates, you have to be "on site" to really make money at landlording.  If you have to pay someone to paint a unit or fix the stove or find a tenant, it gets expensive quickly and your thin margins become even thinner - or go negative, as they likely will this year.

All you want, as a landlord, is to have a tenant who will pay the rent on time - because you have to pay the mortgage, condo fees, taxes, and insurance on time.  Most landlords are not making a huge profit on their properties and often are beholden to others just as you are beholden to them.  As a landlord, you also want someone who isn't going to destroy the place - and that can happen and be quite costly.  In our case, it was just a tenant who was dirty - they smoked and didn't leave the place clean - so we had to scrub-a-dub and paint and it was exhausting work, or would have been expensive work if we hired it out.

If you have a tenant who damages the property, it can wipe out all your profits for the year.  And yet so many tenants are so irresponsible and word gets around about them - or you can figure out what they are all about.  A tenant who wants to move in "right away" is a red flag - they are probably being evicted from their current situation, or their roommate finally put their foot down when they left yet more dirty dishes in the sink.

You want to find good, reliable tenants - and they are hard to find!  You can't blame a landlord for not leasing a place to a tenant with a sketchy rental history, a shitty credit score, unverifiable income or previous rental history.  It is almost guaranteed that they will not pay the rent and trash the place, as they will harbor these juvenile ideas that the landlord is an "asshole" and is making "tons of money" on the place.  Yes, marijuana is involved.

Despite what you may hear or may think, landlording is a hard business and you have to be hard-minded.  Ideas about being "generous" with tenants or being soft are just not workable - even the nicest tenant will walk all over you, once they realize that they can be 15 days late with the rent with no consequences.  For the amount of labor involved - as well as risk - you might as well just get a regular job, in many instances.

Yes, sometimes it can pay off and pay off big.  It can have tax advantages, too.  The big companies that own hundreds of units hire an army of people to service them - and hence, their bottom line gets even smaller.  You might think they are "making out like a bandit" but if they were, someone else would enter the market and offer to rent for a dollar less and start a price war.

Funny thing - that ain't happening.  I wonder why?

Monday, January 30, 2023

Is China a Threat?

Is China going to take over the world?  We said the same thing about Japan back in the 1990's!

A reader writes, citing an article that shows China is now a net exporter of cars.  Is this something to be worried about?  I mentioned before how the Japanese made big inroads into the US market back in the 1970's - and the Koreans followed suit in half the time.  Would China and India be next?  After all, they already have imported Chinese and Indian made cars into the USA.

Could the Chinese "take over" like the Japanese and Koreans did?  New tariffs have put that idea off, at least for the time being.  One thing is for sure - China and India will be sources of auto parts for most cars made, worldwide.  Your 'Merican pickup truck may have a lot of Chinese parts in it - particularly microchips.  And your new Ford Ranger?  Assembled in Mexico with an engine made in India.

The final assembly of a car is really the least important part - but the part everyone wants to see.  It is the eye candy part, where metal stampings are welded together and then rustproofed and painted and then an engine and drivetrain installed and then all the trim and interior bits are added until, well, suddenly it becomes a car and rolls off the assembly line like magic.

In the old days of body-on-frame cars, the real "eye candy" part that factory tours liked to show was the "body drop" where the finished body (sans fenders and hood) would be rapidly dropped down from the floor above via a hoist, onto a waiting chassis.  It was the moment that all those pieces became a car.

But making all those pieces is just as important as the sexy part of final assembly.  And over the years, as I noted before, the "Big-3" automakers went from the Sloan "vertical integration" model, where, for example, GM made every part of the car, other than tires, motor oil, and the gasoline in the tank, to the Japanese-style captive-supplier "Keiretsu" model, where independent suppliers are pitted against each other for the lowest prices on every part.  For some companies this means even body stampings are farmed out to local suppliers.  As a result, assembly plants look neat and sexy, while the dirty work (e.g., casting and forging) is done elsewhere.

Initially, it may seem scary that China is exporting cars - it sounds like an alarming headline until you break it down.  As a "net exporter" that means only that they sell at lest ONE car more than they import.  But of course, they are starting to export more than that - just not to the United States (with one present exception).

China doesn't import a lot of cars - anymore.  Sure, at first, BMWs and Mercedes were imported, but over time, most "foreign" manufacturers set up factories there - much as the Japanese, Koreans, and Germans all have plants in the USA (we live near a car port - cars are imported, but also exported from here).  Similarly most "foreign" car companies have factories in China now - and not much in the way of imports.  And this was by design - high import tariffs meant that domestic production was the only way to go.  Even Tesla has a factory there - in fact, it is probably their most profitable.  GM (Buick) was making a majority of their profits in China, from cars assembled in China, in a typical Chinese joint-venture.

But if you want to buy a "Chinese" car, in America, you can do so today - at your local Buick dealer.  The Buick Envision is still made in China.  China has large import tariffs (and other barriers as Japan did) to limit imports.  We slapped a 25% tariff on imported cars from there, in retaliation in 2018, which has delayed plans to bring over more Chinese-made and Chinese-branded cars (I think they will have trouble with the latter, due to emotional reasons).

But if those tariffs are lifted, you could expect a flood of cheap imports, "captive" at first (branded with US brands) and then maybe Chinese makes. The prices would be so attractive that many Americans would likely swallow their pride and buy one.  They would capture the lower-end of the market, where the "Big-3" refuse to play anymore.  Hell, the big-3 have even abandoned the small truck and SUV market these days!  Hmm... a similar thing happened back in 2008.  How did that work out?

India is the other country to watch, and yes, you could buy an Indian-made car today at your Ford dealer (used) in the form of the EcoSport.  Alas, it left the market in 2022 and Ford is closing its assembly shop in India (after a disastrous foray, ditto for China).  But it could be done, with the right product and the right brand.  India has some problems, apparently, with infrastructure - building the cars isn't the problem, getting them from the factory to the port and on a ship, is.

Ford really screwed up in India.   My understanding is that Ford expanded way too rapidly and overbuilt plant capacity.  Meanwhile, its products were not well received in the Indian market.

So the "threat" of exports from China and India seems to have abated, for now.  Of course, Ford has other plants overseas that export to America - notably the Transit van plant in Turkey.  Classic case of "Tariff Engineering" too!  But maybe that will come to an end as well.

That being said, China and India have been and will continue to be a source of PARTS for "US Made" cars for a long time.  Ford may be closing its car factory (assembly plant)  in India, but the engine plant is remaining - and exporting engines for the Ford Ranger, which is assembled in Mexico. Merica!  Fuck Yea!  We gave up on small cars - we can't even profitably make small trucks! 

And China?  Heck, most "American" cars are chock full of Chinese parts as well - as we all found out during the pandemic when "supply chain" issues meant that trucks and SUVs were leaving the factory without engine management computers.  They sit in lots, waiting for parts, before they can be shipped.  Ford is building a semiconductor plant in the USA (in Malta New York of all places) to avoid this issue in the future (a return to vertical integration?) and maybe it is more than pandemic-induced supply-chain issues at stake.  With the political situation in China, it may be a smart move to inshore parts production, lest an embargo cripple your industry.

Incidentally, Ford also dropped the ball in China - one of the few "foreign" car companies to not capitalize on the burgeoning Chinese market.   Although I hear they are now making a Chinese-market version of the Mach-e in China, so maybe they will turn things around.  Quite frankly, given the rise of nationalism in China and the emergence of Chinese-branded automobiles in that market, it may be seen as unpatriotic (and against the party!) to be driving a "foreign" make of car in the next few years there. At that point, GM may have to walk away from its investment, if it fact it is not nationalized by the Communist government in some sort of tit-for-tat diplomatic dust-up over Taiwan.

That is sort of the downside of globalization.  It is fine and all to set up factories in India, China, Romania, Russia, and Turkey - where labor is cheap and regulations are lax.  But these are also politically unstable areas, and many companies have walked away from Billions in investment in Russia already.  War is bad for business, in a globalized age.   But then again, we went through this before.  The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because we stopped selling them oil.   IBM continued to supply Germany with punch card machines (which were used in the death camps, as well as slave-labor factories) up until America's entry in the war - and they collected back royalties once the war was over.

I mentioned before that prior to WWII, the tiny instrument bearings used in artificial horizons and other aircraft instruments were all imported from Germany.  America had to go on a crash program to develop the machinery and factories to make them.  The best machines for making such small bearings all came from Germany (and probably still do - or did back in the 1980s anyway).   It isn't hard to get caught with your pants down if you put 100% of your production overseas with an unreliable supplier.

That being said, it seems unlikely - or just plain stupid - for China to cut off its number one customer over political issues such as Taiwan.  Then again, it would seem just as stupid for Russia to piss-off the largest customers for its oil and gas.  Political leaders are often short on logic.  Often they are preoccupied with two main issues - acquiring power and maintaining power.  Everything else is secondary.

And maybe it is just plain stupid for America to put such heavy reliance on unstable or nationalistic foreign governments for components that are critical and essential to our economy.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Big Tee-Vee! (Maybe Not)

You pay a premium price for the latest-and-greatest.  Sure you can't wait a year?

I saw a posting online where some guy was trying to sell his 12-year-old 40" television on Craigslist for $140 and got an offer for $50 and was insulted.  Someone else pointed out to him that a brand new 40" television (which today is considered small) sells for $140 - and is 4K compatible and also has "smart" television features (able to access Netflix et al. via Internet).

I thought about this and saw where he was coming from.  No doubt when he bought that 40" television back in 2011, it was a state-of-the-art machine, costing hundreds of dollars - perhaps thousands.  It was a big deal at the time and now it seems like $140 is just giving it away.  But electronics become obsolete very quickly, and besides, 12 years is about the design life of most appliances (and about twice the service life of most flat-screen televisions, in my experience).  So fifty bucks was a generous offer, if anything.

A friend of mine was showing off his new television - over six feet across! He had to screw some panels on the side of the cabinet supporting it, it was so wide!  And it cost thousands of dollars, as it was the "top of the line" model at the time.  That was a year ago, they already make larger ones.  I am not sure where this size war will end - YouTube is full of humorous videos of people trying to stuff 60" televisions into hatchback cars - they simply don't fit.   How soon before even a pickup truck can't carry one of these monsters - or it doesn't fit through the front door?  Or there is no wall in the house large enough to place it against?  There has to be an end game to the size wars, somewhere.

Personally, I have never paid over $500 for a television, as we tend to go for smaller sizes - 48" or less.  Mark doesn't like the television as home decor - he thinks it is tacky and tends to dominate the room.  And he is right on both counts. But moreover, if you buy today, what only two years ago was considered a "big" television, you'll find the prices have dropped - often by a factor of ten.  The 48" television was once a $5000 top-of-the-line screen.  Today, it is available for 1/10th that price, with better features, technology, and better efficiency.   Like any other "bleeding edge" situation, you pay the highest price for the "latest and greatest" and offer suffer the most pain as well - in terms of reliability and depreciation.

I noted before that the reason why super-jumbo televisions cost so much initially is yield rate.  When flat-screen televisions first came out, they were like semiconductor chips.  You make 10 of them, and maybe one actually works. You scrap the rest.  As time progresses, your yield rate improves and the cost comes down - by a factor of ten or more.  So, if you can wait a year or two, that "must have" $5000 television will cost you only $500.  I think that is well worth the wait.

(Lest you think I am kidding about this, some of the ultra-jumbo super-high-def accu-jack and ultra-fuck televisions can cost close to $25,000 even though they are only a few inches larger than a $999 screen!  They say size matters, but do you really want to pay that much for a few inches?)

One thing I learned during my years writing Patent Applications for cable companies and computer companies was that increasing screen size or resolution doesn't always mean an enhanced viewing experience.  The human eye doesn't "see" anything, but rather the human brain assembles an image from the signals from the eye - often "filling in" blank spaces with what it expects to see.   This is how, in the early days, we got away with such heavy signal compression - we realized that it was pointless to make every single part of an image in high resolution, when you could just concentrate on the parts people actually look at.

So when 4K came out, I was kind of skeptical (and still am).  I mean, resolution is nice and all, but it always comes at a cost - in terms of hardware and bandwidth.  And in this day and age, we have to pay for both - often by the gigabyte.   My beef with Disney+ was that they default streamed to their highest resolution (4K) which used up 1GB per hour.  You could burn through a month's allocation within a few days at that rate, depending on your plan.  Fortunately, you can change this setting (buried under five layers of menus) but once you sign up again, it defaults to 4K.

We grew up in the ear of tube televisions, which were analog and whose images were fuzzy to begin with.  The largest screen size - for the longest time - was 25".  Later this expanded to over 30" but the end game for CRTs was on the horizon.  In addition to all that, we had off-the-air signals (all three channels) which, being analog, were always full of "snow" and other artifacts.  We just got used to that.

Why?  How?  Well, believe it or not, television is mostly an aural medium.  Yes, the old saying that the television is "the talking lamp" is true.  We listen to the television more than look at it.  And this is particularly true with some shows where they show the same video over and over again.  The video enhances the audio, rather than vice-versa.  Or take online "channels" - many, such as The History Guy use stock photos and footage as a background to his story-telling narrative.  Often the photos are laughably unrelated to the story at hand.  It doesn't matter - you're listening to the story.

So, in my mind, paying top dollar for the largest television and the highest-bandwidth service, so you can watch "Reality TeeVee" in 4K just makes little or no sense.  Even for sports channels, I question the value - they still broadcast baseball games on the radio and that's with no picture at all.

Of course, maybe my eyesight isn't what it used to be.  Or maybe I don't care about impressing the neighbors by showing off my home video room.  To me, television watching isn't something to be proud of - almost ashamed of.  After all, it is so bad for you mentally and physically.  It is almost as bad as spending all day on social media.

And I just don't see the point in spending thousands of dollars on a television, when in a year or two, you can buy a better one, for mere hundreds.

But that's the beauty of our system - we all have choices!

Saturday, January 28, 2023

History Channel Versus The History Guy

Cable television promised so much and yet delivered so little.  Will the Internet do the same?

One of the unlikely success stories of the Internet was the rise of The History Guy.  His story is pretty interesting - he lost his job and was sort of flailing around for something to do, and decided to make YouTube videos about historical events.  One of them went "viral" - which is key to succeeding online - and he put more effort into it.  A check arrived for a few hundred dollars.  Then another.  Before long, it was paying the mortgage on his house.  Not long after that, he was making a living at it.

The topics he covers are all over the map - from natural disasters to military engagements to even things like Syracuse Salt Potatoes (it is a thing, just not an Albany thing).  His videos are pretty compelling, but what sets him apart are his story-telling abilities.  He tells a story with each episode, and isn't afraid to give us a lot of details and facts.  The accompanying video appears to be pulled from internet sources and online archives, and usually doesn't have accompanying audio - just his voice, which to be fair, is sometimes a bit grating.  But as NPR has taught us, to be successful in show business, it pays to have an unusual voice, or better yet, a speech impediment.

Now take "The History Channel" - please!  It started out with a lot of historical documentaries, but quickly devolved into click-bait eye-candy.  And it is so peppered with ads (nearly 50% of airtime it seems!) that half the show comprises a "recap" of what was said before the previous commercial break.

And the topics?  Anything, it seems, but history.  Most of the shows are of the "reality" variety, usually following the lives of blue-collar workers in unusual jobs, such as "Ice Road Trucking."  And like most reality shows, the topic becomes more about the interaction of the actors, than it is about the subject at hand.  I am not sure why "Swamp People" is considered "History" but there you have it.

Of course, like most cable channels, The History Channel has morphed from its roots.  Just as MTV no longer plays music videos (but alas, has also succumbed to "reality" television) or the Discovery Channel, which went from science to the paranormal, almost overnight.  Many have changed their names or resorted to using their initials instead.  "Arts and Entertainment" network, which promised to bring highbrow content to cable, changed its name to "A&E" and devolved into - you guessed it - reality television and docudrama.

It seems these corporations that buy up media empires routinely reduce them to shit. AM radio devolved into a top-40 format, so people fled to FM radio, which was the domain of classical music, public radio, and album-oriented rock - but not for long.  FM became the new top-40 domain, with even classical music stations resorting to "Performance Today" - the Casey Kasem version of classical music.  And public radio?  Now syndicated crap and not local at all.  The smoldering wreckage of AM radio became the latest abomination - talk radio.

Television didn't fare much better. During the so-called golden age of Television we only had three channels to choose from, and much of the material, in retrospect, appears to be almost infantile in nature. They had to aim for the lowest common denominator and they often hit their target. 500 channels of cable television promised to bring us a variety of fare for all ages, demographics, and levels of intellect. However it seems that rather than providing this, cable television is provided us with 500 channels of more of the same.

In addition, the basic cable channels have so many advertisements on them as to make them toxic. Just as the national radio networks have destroyed AM and FM radio, the cable companies and their content providers have made cable television so toxic that hardly anyone wants to watch it anymore. Is no wonder that people are unplugging from traditional cable television and moving on to streaming. Streaming at least allows you to see what you want to see and when you want to see it. And since there are an infinite number of streaming channels, there is always something for every interest and intellect online.

Of course, The History Guy has another advantage over cable television. Television shows have to be edited to fit a particular time slot. Thus, if they don't have a lot of material, they have to pad it out to fit the length of the program. Conversely, if they have too much material, they have to cut away quite a lot of relevant bits in order to make it fit the space available. The History Guy, like most online videos, can create a video of whatever length he deems necessary to cover the subject - although realistically, most are under 25 minutes. So a short subject can be as little as 5 minutes, or a detailed investigation maybe as long as an hour. This is the flexibility that streaming gives us, that television did not.

Of course, we are still faced with the fundamental problem that has faced newspapers, radio, television, cable television, and the Internet today - the lowest common denominator.  It isn't profitable to make a streaming channel - even a home-made YouTube channel - unless you have a critical mass of viewers.  And to get that critical mass, you often have to dumb it down a bit.  So the idea that "highbrow" entertainment or educational programs will flourish on the Internet is flawed.  Have you seen what floats to the top of the Internet Septic Tank lately?  Yea, that.

I am not saying The History Guy is high-brow or low-brow.  He does simplify topics to fit into the format of the show, and half the appeal is his personality and enthusiasm for the subject (despite his voice).  There are other "channels" out there on YouTube trying to leverage off his success.  Often these are put up by non-English speaking individuals, who put up stock photos, accompanied by a robotic voice (often with a British accent) reading text. One fellow, who is from the States, does a "what ever happened to...." show about various celebrities, where he puts up stock photos of the celebrity in question and then reads, word for word, their Wikipedia entry.  I know this, as I looked up the entry and was able to read along with it.

So there is also a lot of garbage content filling up the Internet as well.  But it is nice to see the promise of the Internet is, to some extent, still alive.  A solo content provider can, with a little effort, become popular and even famous, and make at least a modest living from their content.

The only downside to this is that sometimes these content creators have a story arc - they become wildly popular, peak, and then slowly become less popular - and end up scrambling trying to recreate the magic, which never happens.

I hope that doesn't happen to The History Guy!  But of course, all good things do come to an end, eventually.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Culture-Shaming - Eating With Your Hands

When I was a kid, we were told that people in India ate with their hands!  Gross!

I was thinking again the other day - a dangerous pastime, but one I can still partake in, for the time being - and thought about tropes from my childhood.  At the dinner table, we were told to eat our lima beans because there were "starving children in India!" (sometimes China or Africa would be substituted).  And yes, I am sure there are (or were) starving people in these places at one time or another - or perhaps even today.  What this had to do with over-feeding a child with beans in the United States, I do not know.

Another trope we were told was that those "primitive" people in India (or elsewhere) ate with their hands, or more precisely, their right hand and that was a sign of their cultural inferiority (never stated that way, but implied).  I mean, who eats with their hands?

We do.  In fact, more often than not, today.  I have noted before that the "staples" of American cuisine today are foods that were eaten very rarely back in the day.  You had hot dogs at the ballpark - because you couldn't set up a table with a knife and fork in the stands.  You had popcorn at the circus.  You had pizza very rarely - at a pizza parlor (there wasn't even a pizza shop in my hometown, growing up!).  No one delivered it to your home.  Dinner was a family affair where everyone sat down, said grace, and ate with utensils.  We thought of ourselves as civilized.

Enter the spork. Yes, our tableware slowly disappeared over time.  Fast food went from some occasional special treat, or something you ate "on the road" to a mainstream menu item. Many people today eat nothing but - and they eat it all with their hands - burgers, fries, pizza, hot dogs, breakfast sandwiches, fried chicken, and so on and so forth.   Even the pancake has been made into a hand food - and french toast has been made into sticks to dip-n-eat.

Tell me again why we are culturally superior to those "primitives" overseas who eat with their hands?

It is not a trope that has gone away, either. I recall going to an Ethopian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia a few years back.  The food was good, but my friends were like, "It's fun, but you have to eat with your hands!" as if this was some sort of weird thing for Americans.  I mean, there was a McDonald's right next door and everyone there was eating with their hands as well.

Why do we use forks, knives, and spoons - or in Asian countries, chopsticks?  I don't think the answer is difficult - it is more sanitary to eat with utensils, particularly back in the day before the advent of anti-bacterial soaps.  Putting your hand on your food back then was a dangerous proposition, which is why in some cultures, only one hand is preferred.  Forks and chopsticks were not just a sign of being civilized, they were a survival tool. Perhaps today, with better sanitation, it is possible to handle food without causing problems - provided, of course, you wash your hands.

But what struck me about this trope was how we culture-shamed people back then for doing something that we did back then and today is commonplace.

And yet, I am sure, that today, right now, somewhere in America, someone is saying, "Well, over there they eat with their hands! Can you believe that? Pass the french fries!" and failing to appreciate the irony.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

AI Investing?


If "AI" can write essays and create artwork, could it not also predict markets?  Or not?

This "AI" thing is being tossed around and I think it is, like everything else hyped on the Internet, overblown, overstated, and overworked.  First, we are told that it will take over the world.  Then it will take away jobs from artists and writers.  Next, who knows?

What most people are calling "Artificial Intelligence" is actually just neural network programming - programs that "learn" from data input and then adjust themselves to create correct output.  So you can "train" a network to recognize shapes - as a host of people in Buffalo, New York, are doing at disused Tesla Solar factory, by sitting behind a computer screen all day long and clicking on images of road signs and then "training" the neural network that, yes, that is a stop sign, and no, that is not a yield sign.

The problem with neural networks, as I noted before, is that like teenagers, they "learn" things that are different from what you thought you were teaching them.  You set boundaries and a curfew and the teenager doesn't learn to obey these, but how to sneak out the basement window and not get caught.

For example, in one celebrated incident early on in the history of neural networks, the "Maverick" missile used a camera and a neural network to identify and distinguish between American and Russian tanks. They "trained" the network with a series of photos of American and Russian tanks.  The American tank photos were "beauty shots" made by the manufacturers - in broad daylight, all polished up for promotion.  The Russian photos were from spy cameras or telephoto lenses, showing tanks parked under trees or in the shade.  Thus, when the missile was tested, it tended to go after tanks in the shade and not in the sun - which wasn't of much use to anyone.  What the network "learned" was something different than what we thought we were teaching it.

So, hilarity ensues.  In another early test of "AI" a neural network was programmed to chat with people.  Within a few hours, the "AI" was spouting racist and fascist propaganda and insulting people as well. They had to shut it down.

In more recent days, people have complained about "AI Art" created by someone asking a computer to create an artwork in the style of a certain artist, having a certain subject matter.  The resulting "Art" is interesting, but it isn't hard to tell it is AI-generated.  The details are often off - hands with six fingers - and the backgrounds are busy and weird.   You can just sense there is a lack of - for want of a better word - Soul in the "painting."

Similarly, online AI text generators can generate essays but are also easily identified as being fake - they just don't come to the point or have any real message.   Some idiots have tried to use AI-generated essays in academic endeavors - only to be quickly found out.  It is like using Wikipedia as a reference source in an academic paper (being fluid, Wikipedia isn't a reference source itself).  The references cited there might be of some use, but not the page itself.  The "Wiki" editing process itself - where an unknown number of authors and editors create and edit a Wikipedia entry - is akin to how neural networks operate.  And the results can be similar - successive edits often make a page seem odd or off, and also include glaring errors.

Clearly "AI" is not ready for Prime Time.  AI-driven cars have tended to crash, shut down in the middle of a freeway, or run over small children.  AI-generated art just looks weird and "off".  AI-generated text has no real new content to offer, just a rehash of what humans have created.  Without training materials to work from, you cannot program a neural network.   And that raises the question - what would a neural network generate as content if the only training materials was from other neural networks?  Probably nothing.  Or it might devolve to weirdness in short order.

Some have wondered whether "AI" could be used in financial markets to buy and sell stocks, bonds, commodities, trade currencies, or whatever.  The complicated ups and downs of markets could be used to "train" an AI to predict market performance.  If you could do this, you could buy and sell stocks - or derivatives - and make a pile of dough.  It would be the venerated "time machine" I have talked about for ten years. Hey, if that worked, maybe it could predict winning lottery numbers, too!  I am being facetious, of course.

There are two schools of thought here.  If "AI" was used widely to make trading decisions, then markets would become less volatile and become more predictable, as computers would make emotion-less trading decisions based on real data and not hype and fantasy, as we see today.  The problem with this idea is the same problem the folks with the Maverick Missile had - the training materials.  People trade today based on little more than stock price and hype online.   "XYZ stock went up yesterday!  So buy it now!  Trust me - I'm a guy you've never met on the Internet who has no financial interest in this!"

But actual data is hard to come by and often it is intentionally kept secret.  In order to understand the value of a company you need to know more than pricing trends, P/E ratios, EPS, debt-to-equity, and all the "numbers" that analysts like to use.  I wrote some Patents for a company that had a charismatic leader/inventor who came up with all the good ideas.  He died unexpectedly and the entire company sort of evaporated.  How could AI predict that?  How could anyone?  But beyond that, there are things like product quality and reliability as well as labor strife, supply chain problems, government regulations and so on and so forth - each of which is enough to sink a company to oblivion or to raise it up above all others.

Take Apple, for example.  People like to think it is just one success story built upon another.  But such is not the case.  The Apple II computer sold OK, but sales plummeted once the IBM-PC came out.  The original MAC (or indeed the one today) was a curiosity and had a slim market share - and was basically their only product at the time.  The company almost went bust - they fired Steve Jobs - and tried to make the MAC "open architecture" like the ubiquitous PC, but that didn't work, either.

What saved Apple was the iPod.  And what saved the iPod was the fact that Apple  managed to buy out the entire first few years' production of 1" hard drives (which was what drove early iPods) giving them not only a lead against competitors, but a virtual monopoly for a few years.   They were able to leverage this into the iPhone, which put them ahead of competitors once again - at least for a few years.  Whether they can continue to innovate at that rate remains to be seen.  As the smart phone market matures, there isn't a lot of headroom for novel "must have" features.

The point is, could an AI see this all going down based on share price trends or annual reports?   Not even many humans could predict this unlikely chain of events.  Maybe an "AI" could help predict when a speculative bubble is forming - and more importantly, when it will burst.  Maybe.  But could an "AI" predict the price of eggs going up due to bird flu?  Or the price of natural gas going up because Russia invaded Ukraine?

What is interesting is that markets, as they are, are sort of a human AI or neural network, much as I alluded to earlier with Wikipedia.  The market valuation of a commodity or stock or bond represents the average weighted opinion of millions of people based on a number of criteria.  The price of a stock may be pegged by one analyst who looks over the books of the company and carefully studies their business and market.  Another "analyst" may be merely hyping the stock for nefarious reasons.  And small retail investors - the real wildcards - may be buying a share based on emotional needs.  How "AI" can predict all that is something I don't understand.

On the other hand, maybe it could.  I saw a video that simulated evacuations from high-rise buildings.  When the simulation assumed everyone would leave the building in an orderly fashion, the building was emptied out quickly.  Actual tests with real humans, however, produced evacuation times that were twice as long - if not longer.  They changed the simulation to include a certain small percentage of people going the wrong way or just running around in circles.  There is always the one jackass going back for his briefcase when the building is on fire.  When compared to actual tests with real people, the model tracked almost exactly.

So maybe it is possible.  But it would require that the "AI" track not only stock "metrics" but also human emotional aspects.

But again, the share price you see in the market is indeed the result of millions of neural networks - human neural networks - passing judgement.  And in most cases, they are right.  It is no different from the odds on horse racing.  You can look at the horse, the track, his racing record, the jockey, or could just look to see what others are betting on.  In most cases, the odds pretty accurately reflect what is going to happen in the race.  The only way to "win big" at the track is to defy the odds and win a long-shot bet.  You have to hope everyone else is wrong and you are right.  In 2008 we saw this with "The Big Short" - when a few people realized early on that the market for default swaps was not sustainable.   Could AI predict that?

I doubt it, at least not now or in the foreseeable future.  You see, AI makes mediocre art.  It makes mediocre essays.  It  makes mediocre driving decisions.  It likely would make mediocre investment decisions as well.  It probably would just say what most investment advisors say - to put your money in a number of rational things and hold on for the long haul.  I doubt it could systematically find the long-shot bets that would pay off, every time.

Because even if it could, every other trader out there would find the same bet with their own "AI" and as a result, the "odds" would decrease the point where it was no longer a long-shot with a big payoff.  And maybe this is why some claim that AI would stabilize markets - deflating bubbles before they inflate, perhaps.

But frankly, I think all this talk about "AI" taking over the world is a little premature.  For the most part, it seems like a lot of hype - like the Metaverse or the idea that food delivery is "The Next Big Thing!" and that companies selling online taxi services and renting out your spare bedroom are worth billions - even as they lose money.

It seems that the last decade has been one of tech hype.  We are told that "tech" will save us all and make us all so rich we won't have to work.  Robots will do everything and we will all get guaranteed annual income so we can live in tiny homes.  At the dawn of 2023, I think many of these dreams (or nightmares) are evaporating in the cold harsh light of reality.

Maybe we need to step back from this idea that tech will save the world.  Because a lot of this "tech" seems to be little more than hype - or in many instances, outright fraud.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Color Cartridge Inkjet Printers - Garbage!


Printing is dying.  Color printing at home makes no sense.

I have two printers, neither of which gets much use anymore.  One is a Canon D530, which is a laser printer. copier, and scanner all-in-one (a similar model had built-in fax capability but who faxes anymore?).  I have had this printer for many years now, and the print cartridges are fairly cheap (four for $35!) and it works as well as my old HP LaserJet 4P printers, which were as reliable as diesel engines and smelled about the same.

Those were the days - not too long ago.  We printed everything, and made copies, too!  Paper files were kept and everything was mailed "overnight" in cardboard envelopes.  A stack went out every day.  But thankfully, the "paperless office" finally came about, with the advent of large displays.  It is ironic, but at the dawn of the computer age, paper consumption went up as we still kept records on paper, and since you could create seventeen drafts of a document, you did - and printed them all.

In the very, very early years of the computer business, paper consumption was scandalous. "CRT" terminals with flickering monochrome dot-matrix displays, were a rare commodity.  Most programmers used a "terminal" which was fed with "tractor feed" paper (which was nearly 15" wide).  Everything - and I mean everything - was printed out.   A days work at a terminal would produce a huge garbage-can full of paper.  It made little sense.

Over the years, I went through a number of printers.  At work, we used Digital LA-36 DECwriters.  At home, I had a succession of dot matrix printers - and Epson 9-pin and a couple of Panasonic KXP-1134 dot-matrix printers in "near letter quality" format.  Someone gave me a Smith-Corona "daisy-wheel" printer (basically an electric typewriter without a keyboard) that sounded like a machine-gun going off when you printed. I "found" an acoustical enclosure at the Patent Office and used that machine for a number of years.

But the HP LaserJets put all that to shame.  They were quiet, fast, and "letter quality" and you could print from three separate "trays".  I had our twin LaserJets setup to print from copy paper (large drawer) letterhead (second drawer) or enveloped (manual feed).  It worked great - unless some idiot printed out a Patent Application on envelopes!  And over the years, they soldiered on, until one started to jam more and more often and went to the trash, and then a few years later, the other did as well.

I don't recall if I bought another laser printer in the interim - I may have and it was a dud.  But I found this Canon D530 online for cheap and it has served well over the years.  It is not only a printer, but a scanner and a photocopier as well.  For a home office, it rocks.

On the other hand, color printers, in particular ink-jet color printers, suck.  They started offering "inkjet" printers a couple of decades ago, and the gag was, the printers were often sold for cheap (and often given away for free with a new computer system) and provided with a "test cartridge" that might print 100 pages before it ran out of ink.  You had to go out and buy new cartridge(s) and they were not cheap.  The printer companies - and HP was among them - decided a "subscription model" was the way to go.  Give away the machines, and make the money on the cartridges.  To prevent third parties from making knock-off cartridges, they put a small "chip" in the cartridge with some copyrighted code on it - whose sole purpose was to make the cartridge perpetually protected by intellectual property (unlike Patents, copyrights go on for decades).

If your third-party cartridge didn't have that chip, the machine would not "recognize" it - a foreshadowing of today's "proprietary" architecture in everything from cars to farm machinery (Hello John Deere?).  So the cost per page to print with an ink-jet printer was staggering - 10 to 20 cents a page in some instances.  And the machines were slow as dirt and often left lines in images because of the scanning nature of the print head.

And the cartridges, if not used regularly, dried up and clogged.  The machines had a "cleaning" cycle that basically wasted ink by spraying into a sponge material (you had to clean and replace those sponges over time, but the owner's manual often made no mention of this).  If you did not print regularly, the cartridges would dry up and you might get a few dozen pages out of a cartridge before it was shot.  This is not acceptable - it is not even a printer!

We scored a free Canon MX430 color inkjet printer when Mark's stepmother passed away.  Tellingly, no one else wanted it.  I thought it might come in handy for the occasional need to color print something.  But years later, I have foolishly spend well over $100 on cartridges and printed less than 100 pages - maybe far less - of documents.  And yes, like most color printers, it will balk and refuse to print even black-and-white images if the color cartridge goes South.

So what's the point of it?  I recently powered it up and tried to print with it, only to be greeted with a blank page. Both cartridges - which are oozing ink all over my hands when I removed them - are "empty" or just broken.  The disposable print heads are likely clogged or shot.  I go online and new cartridges are advertised as low as $5.99!  But when I click on the link, the black ink cartridge is $18 and the color is $20 for a combined total of $35.  I thought about it for a second and realized that if I wasted that money on the cartridges, I might get a few pages of color printing out of them and then, they too, would dry up.

There are, of course, better printers out there - color laser printers, and color inkjet printers with refillable ink.  But they are not cheap and my need for color printing - or any printing - is pretty nil at this point.  It is cheaper and easier to just go to the local Staples and have them print something out if I need color printing. 

So,  I will throw the printer out.  They still make a version of this printer - the MG3620 which has the same cabinetry and I suspect the same print engine (they appear to use the same cartridges) - and it retails for $69.95 at Best Buy.  I suspect the demand for my decade-old (or more) version isn't enough to make it worth listing on eBay or even shipping to someone.  A set of cartridges is worth more than the printer.  It is akin to the old gag about junker cars - you can double the value simply by filling the gas tank!

That doesn't stop a couple of brave souls from listing their old printers on eBay - for $35 plus $16 shipping!  Gee, a decade-old printer with no cartridges, or a brand new one for about the same price with free shipping?  Tough choice - but both are a bad bargain, as the cost-per-page to print is scandalous, particularly if you don't print often.

So into the trash it will go.  I suppose I could drop it off at Goodwill, but even they are getting wise to "electronics dumping" these days.  Obsolete electronics are worth nothing and things like CRTs have a negative value, as they can be hard to dispose of.   The only thing worse, for a charity donation place, is when someone dumps a smelly old couch (missing a cushion) at the back door, late on a rainy night. They have to pay to haul it away.

So, trash it goes.  Kind of sad to throw something away, but it never really was a functional printer in the first place.

Shit like this is one reason my love for computers died.  Back in the day, you bought a piece of equipment and you had something worthwhile, that was functional and useful - and was obsolete long before it wore out.  These ink-jet printers?  Just trash from the get-go. They are just a "why bother?" product.

I am sure some reader will regale me with tales of commercial-grade inkjet printers that are not utter pieces of shit.  And maybe they exist.  But they aren't cheap, and given the amount of color printing the average person does, not really cost-effective.

I am looking forward to having an additional square foot of desk space, instead!

UPDATE:  The inkjet printer is gone.  The laser printer remains.  I have to say this Canon D530 has been a nice laser printer - reminds me of my old HP4P printers. Nice scanner/copier, too!

The inkjet? Just junk. Not even worth using as a scanner.

What kills laser printers (and scanner with sheet feeders, fax machines, etc.) is that the rollers and associated gear with the sheet feeders get old and dry up and then they jam, jam, jam!

I had a "plain paper" fax machine and used it for a decade or more. They sold a sheet feeder maintenance kit which included new rubber rollers and foam pads.. So long as I replaced those every 2-3 years, it never, ever jammed.   For most other machines, once they jam, it's all over!

The "print engine" may still work, but since the paper won't feed, the printer is useless.  And since parts are not readily available, it's game over.  Both my HP4P printers went to the trash when they became perpetual jam machines.

But hey, they lasted well over a decade by that point!

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Covid's a Bitch!

You do not want to get this.  If you do, get tested, get Paxlovid - both are free.

Well, I drove into town to get Mark his Paxlovid.  We never even saw a doctor, but talked to a nurse practitioner over the phone.  When we told her Mark's test came out positive, she sent a prescription for Paxlovid to the pharmacy.  It is free of charge - no insurance needed.  As for me, well, it is too late - time to be fitted for a coffin.

Just kidding. But seriously, I guess I am 'over' the virus itself and now am dealing with "The Long Covid" including an incessant hacking cough (update: slowly going away).  I am not talking about some sort of "cuff, cuff, excuse me" kind of deal, but a totally involuntary, deep throat, extended (like 15 seconds or more) dry hack that comes from the bottom of your lungs and is so painful as to make you pass out almost. One time, I had three in a row, each time accompanied by a splitting migraine headache for at least 20 minutes (my sympathy for those of you who suffer from migraines is enhanced).  Another time, I felt a weird dizziness and my arm started wobbling.  Weird.

The worst part is sleeping.  With the coughs coming every 15 minutes, you simply cannot get any sleep.  And I should clarify there are two kinds of coughs here - the almost voluntary "wet" kind that most people are used to, when post-nasal drip and gunk comes up your throat (gross!) versus the deep down dry cough (involuntary) I mentioned before.  If I am standing or sitting, this stuff drains down (I guess to be swallowed - gross again!) and it doesn't bother me.  I finally figured out that if I sleep on my stomach with my chest over a pillow, the coughing would cease - I guess the upchuck doesn't settle to the back of my throat then.  Put a towel under your head, as your whole face will drain.

BTW, who designed this whole nasal passage thing?  Need to have a word with the designer when the times comes.  God, what the fuck were you thinking?  Putting these moist passages in our heads that are just prime growth sites for bacteria? It makes no sense!  I have an enhanced sympathy for Pug dogs now, as well.

So what is going on? I am testing negative for Covid and yet still feel like shit.  I never had a fever or my glands swelling, just this awful cough.  Well, apparently this is the new and improved Covid (those guys in the lab in China never quit!/s) that attacks your respiratory system.  I was confused at first, as I never had a fever (97.5 degrees) so I thought I didn't have it - and didn't bother to test, even as I had four test kits sitting in a drawer.

  • Sore throat.
  • Hoarse voice.
  • Cough.
  • Fatigue.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Runny nose.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle aches.
Subvariants - plural.  It is like the Borg collective randomizing their shield frequencies.  Hard to create a vaccine for something that mutates so quickly.  There is a "bivalent" vaccine for Omicron variants.  We had our last booster in November of 2022 - but I cannot tell if it was the Omicron variety or not.  I suspect not, as the documents I am seeing online talk about the Omicron bivalent being available in December.  They still recommend you get the Omicron booster even if you've had the bug.

So why the long cough?  Well, if you thought the stuff I wrote above was "gross" then hang on to your hatsThe dry cough is your body trying to expel fluid from your lungs. Sometimes there is no fluid, but there is inflammation, so it triggers a "dry cough".  Some fun!
A common symptom of COVID-19 is a dry cough, which is also known as an unproductive cough (a cough that doesn’t produce any phlegm or mucus). Most people with dry cough experience it as a tickle in their throat or as irritation in their lungs. A dry cough caused by COVID-19 is typically deep and low, occurring at the bottom of the lungs. Often, people don’t feel relief after dry coughing.

So we are learning a lot of new terms here - "unproductive cough" - I will pass on the "product" myself.  But the real punchline?  This can go on for as long as SIX MONTHS after the initial virus infection is overcome.

Some fun.

After a while, your back will hurt from all the coughing.  If you aren't eligible for Paxlovid, well the only "medicine" they suggest is traditional cold and flu remedies to alleviate the symptoms while your body engages in a life-and-death struggle with the virus.  Avoiding things that suppress your immune system (alcohol, for example) is a good idea.  Also, I noted that avoiding things that set off my allergic reactions was also a good idea.  What was a mild allergic reaction becomes a major one - almost immediately, too.

Let me say this again - you really don't want to get this.  Yet some of my friends in the medical profession are resigned to the fact that eventually, everyone will get it.  And it will be the "cause of death" for a lot of older people (as has happened here on Old People Island) just as, pre-Covid, the common flu bug often ended up being the straw that breaks the Camel's back, for people over 80 who have a myriad of health issues and are barely hanging on as it is.

The problem is, of course, is that everyone has decided that Covid is "over" and few people are wearing masks or social distancing.  Oddly enough, where we live the only folks I see wearing masks in the grocery store are black folks - maybe they know something.

Maybe getting Covid is inevitable.  Maybe not.  If you can wear a mask when in public, at least for the next month or so, it might help.  Get some test kits handy so you can test as soon as you feel ill.  If you test positive, get the Paxlovid right away - Mark is feeling better only a day or two later.  That is a lot better than the month-long agony I have had to deal with.

Covid will make you cry.  Quite literally!  Not recommended.  Zero stars.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Coindesk - Hyping Crypto Since 2013!


Oh boy, Bitcoin is soaring!  I should buy some!

I mentioned many times before that bad actors online will hype stocks and other "investments" to encourage small investors to buy - thus driving up the price of a commodity they likely already own.  I saw this article online today and fell out of my chair laughing.  It has all the hallmarks of hype.

First, look at the graph.   The Y-axis has been selectively truncated from $20,750 to $22,500 to make it appear that there is a sudden "spike" in the price.  The X-axis shows time for part of one day - again, truncated.  By selectively choosing start and end points, you can create a graph that shows just about anything you want to imply.

Second, look at the accompanying text.  Bitcoin is "soaring" to a "four month high!"  Reading this,  you  might think the run on Bitcoin and other "crypto" is over.  Note also the nonsense language about "waiting for the Fed's next utterances" as if Bitcoin was somehow tied into American bond rates or, indeed, any other part of the economy.   Bitcoin, like all crypto, is simply subject to the laws of supply and demand - and articles like this are designed to increase demand, and thus drive up prices.

If you look at long-term trends, well, it ain't much of a spike.

If we look at the bigger picture, we see this "spike" is more of a "blip" and that people who paid $40,000 and above are still seriously underwater.  Bitcoin is not "soaring" but merely going up and down.  And that is the funniest part of the article - volatility of any commodity (if Bitcoin could be called that) or currency (ditto) or investment (ditto again) is not a good thing.  It means an investment is unstable and unpredictable and you could - and likely will - lose your shirt.

But hey, it's not a bug, it's a feature!  That seems to be the underlying message of this article, intentional or not.  Sadly, this "coindesk" site is little more than mindless cheerleading for "crypto".  I wrote before about the five myths of crypto.  Oddly enough, if you search for that article, you also get a hit for coinbase's seven myths of crypto which basically says quite the opposite of my article.  Their article is hilarious for its conclusory statements.  Crypto isn't a bubble... because it isn't!  Yet the second chart above clearly shows the bubble profile we all know and loathe.

And coinbase, unlike coindesk, is in the business of selling crypto to people.  So they are impartial as well.  Right?  Of course, coindesk is also impartial, too.  The owner owns bitpay which is a system for processing bitcoin transactions.  So they have no dog in the fight either!  Getting advice from either company is like asking a car dealer, "Is this a good car? Is this a good price?"  I suspect they'd say "yes" to both questions.

Similarly, coinbase claims that Bitcoin can be used as a currency.  While it is true that it can be used to transfer money across international borders, these transactions are mostly used for buying and selling guns, drugs, and people.  There are few "legitimate" uses for crypto, and few - if any - merchants are accepting it as payment for anything. The transaction costs involved (in the tens of dollars per transaction, regardless of size) mean that it really only makes sense for large transactions.  You aren't buying a happy meal with crypto.  Not only that, any merchant who does accept crypto immediately converts it to local currency as it is not a closed-loop system.

Worst of all is the volatility.  Suppose you could find an employer who paid you in crypto and a grocery store that accepted it?  You get paid on Friday afternoon and go off to the Bodega to spend your crypto cash and discover (as the first chart above shows) that the value of the crypto has changed by more than 5% in a matter of hours.  Worse yet, as the second chart shows, it could drop by half in the same amount of time.  But of course, that is just a fantasy - the actual amount of legitimate commerce performed using crypto as an exchange medium is a rounding error compared to those oh-so-awful "fiat currencies."

By the way, if you say "fiat currency" and "blockchain" in a conversation, people will think you are smart and chicks will dig you.  No lie!

Some other, more mature sites have a more balanced view on the whole cryptocurrency thing.  Brookings has a couple of articles on the subject that refute the nonsense that Coindesk and Coinbase are spewing.

So what's the point?  Not that this "coindesk" or "coinbase" are mindless cheerleaders for crypto, only that such mindless cheerleaders exist and people get snookered into bad investments by these articles online (or the shouting guy on teevee) or crappy articles in the financial press.  It would be illegal, of course, to manipulate a stock or bond price, but just doing "analysis" is perfectly fine - even if your analysis is shoddy.  Even,it appears, if you have a vested interest in the product.

Now, granted, you might say, "Well, Bob, these are obvious shills!  Anyone with half a brain could see though this whole smokescreen!"  And you are right about that.  It is akin to these SPAM SCAM e-mails you get, which have obvious typos in them.  Federel Expruss has a package waiting for you!  And fools will click on the link, never bothering to ask why FedEx can't spell the name of their company properly.  This acts as a filtering mechanism to screen out the skeptical - so the people who do click are prime, Grade-A, chump meat.

It is like the annoying man I met - who regaled me about how great crypto and gold were, while at the same time admitting he lost his "life's savings" of $30,000 (how pathetic for a 40-year-old) but of course, it was somehow the bank's fault.  You hear that a lot with these "crypto bros" - they are not just "investing" in crypto, but on a holy crusade to upend the banking system - all because they were charged a $35 overdraft fee.

It just makes no sense.  And 50 years ago, before the Internet existed, well, it was a lot harder to sell this nonsense as there was no way to instantly publish things worldwide, with the click of a mouse.  Today, a small operation of 11 people can put up a "newspaper" hyping one investment or another.

And online, often these look legitimate - to the uninformed and gullible.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Bob Gets CoVid (Maybe!)

They have a cure of sorts, for CoVid, but you have to take it early on.

A couple of weeks ago, I started getting a bad post-nasal drip.  It is annoying and I get this usually during allergy season.  The nastiness drips down the back of your throat, causing you to hack and cough.  It isn't glamorous.  But my glands weren't swollen on my neck and I never was running a fever, so I thought it was just a bad cold.  I never lost my sense of taste or smell, either. None of the hallmark signs of CoVid appeared.  Friends told me they had the same thing - and it took a week to ten days to get rid of it!  Rumor was, it was "just a bad cold going around."

What was really annoying was that when you lie down to sleep, this phlegm would accumulate in the back of your throat, causing you to hack uncontrollably - just as you were falling asleep!   So I lost a lot of sleep for a while.  I ended up sleeping almost upright, which was not fun.  I tried all the usual cold medications and anti-allergy pills.  Decongestants would eventually dry me out, but initially would cause my sinuses and ears to drain into the back of my throat, causing severe hacking.

The worst was one night, I hacked and coughed so hard that I got a migraine headache.  It felt like I was having a stroke.  Over time, however, I got better and better.  I tested myself for CoVid - twice - and both times it came back negative (the Post Office, for some reason, offered to send us CoVid tests last week, so I said yes.  I already had four in stock).

Mark seemed immune, but in the last few days started showing the same symptoms.  I had to sort of force him to take the CoVid test - he felt that "not knowing" was a better approach.  We ran the tests for both of us - twice - and each time, I was negative and he was positive.  What's up with that?

So we called the doctor and they gave Mark a prescription for Paxlovid, which a friend of ours took a few months ago when they got it.  Apparently it is an antiviral and helps your immune system chase away the virus.

By the way, it's free.

Alcohol can suppress your immune system, and I noticed that after I had a glass of wine or a cocktail, the symptoms would get worse.  When I stopped drinking entirely, the symptoms improved dramatically.

The thing about Paxlovid is that you have to take it in the early stages of the infection.  So if you are feeling sick, get tested - the kits are often free or covered by your insurance and sold at Walmart or any other pharmacy.  Like I said, the post office even sends them out for free.  If detected early, Paxlovid may help.  Since I apparently already had the virus (and am now on the road to wellville) it is too late to take it.

Or maybe I never had it.  It is hard to say.  The home test kits do report false positives.  So it is possible that both Mark and I have a simple cold and  not CoVid - and his positive test was a false positive.   Further testing may tell us more.  I am going to get more test kits today.

So how did we get it?  Well, we let our guard down.  People have assumed the pandemic is over, even as a new, more easily transmissible variety emerges.  Just being in close contact with other people is enough to do the trick, particularly if someone sneezes.   Few are wearing masks anymore, or practicing social distancing.   Maybe it is time to go back to that.

And it is going around our little island.  Several nonagenarians have shuffled off the mortal coil in recent weeks.  Getting CoVid at age 98 is often a death sentence - not that you would be expected to live much longer than that, anyway.

Anyway, it is nothing to be taken lightly.  At best, you will feel like shit for two weeks.  At worst, you could have lifelong complications or even die.  So dig out those masks and hand sanitizer - this ain't over yet!


Saturday, January 21, 2023

Six Degrees of Santos

Compulsive liars exist - in excess, today.

The Santos saga goes on.  The latest grab-your-popcorn revelation is that Santos, who ran on an "anti-trans" and "anti-drag-queen" platform was, himself, a drag queen in Brazil.  Frankly, I think it is more important that he is wanted for check fraud there - should we extradite him?

But it struck me that we've been down this road before - people who are compulsive liars who just don't seen to give a damn about how improbable their lies are.  There was a book written - and then a play and a movie made - about a young man who plied the upper East Side of New York, claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son.  He would tell wealthy (mostly white) people he had been mugged and they would take him in - and he would stay for weeks.

If you are going to lie, it seems, it pays to lie big - and apparently that is right out of the Goebbels playbook.  If a lie is so outlandish, people will think, "Well, no one could tell a whopper like that!  There has to be some truth to it!"

Recently, there was an almost identical repeat of "Six Degrees of Separation" when a young woman did basically the same thing, claiming to a wealthy heiress - and running up bills all over town and indulging on the hospitality of others, until she was finally found out and sent to prison.

But is it not much different from the Theranos disaster - where a high-school aged girl (with a fake low voice) claimed to have invented a ground-breaking blood-testing microchip.   Yes, that could happen, while you are in high school.  Many people, including Henry Kissinger, got sucked in and lost a lot of money and people rightfully went to prison.

Bernie Madoff is really the same idea - he told whoppers of lies and got people to throw money at him, all while suspending disbelief.   Again, many went to prison.

In those examples, no one felt very sorry for the victims involved.  They were rich people who had a lot of money and not a lot of common sense.  Someone would have come along and harvested their cash, eventually.

In other cases, well, it is the little people who send off what little money they have, to MLM schemes, evangelical pastors, or for Donald Trump NFTs.   Yes, the last few years have been a golden age for the silver tongued.  Compulsive liars have had a field day, aided and abetted by the Internet.  We have Trumpism, we have Qanonsense, we have a "Queen of Canada" (Besides Dougb Ford).  People, it seems, are willing to believe anything that is convenient to them - take "sovereign citizens" for example.  Please.

Why are we so willing to believe these tall tales?  And why is the truth having such a hard time of it?  At first we tried calling these sketchy "news" sites online as "fake news."   But he of orange skin and yellow hair turned that right around and called mainstream media "fake news."  If you control the language of the debate, you control the debate.  So then they tried "fact checking" but the far-right decried that as "biased" and besides, no one believing the lies bothered to read the fact-checking.  Often these were people who were flummoxed by facts while in school, and this was an opportunity to turn the tables on "smart" people.  Alternative facts to the rescue!

There were - and are - other techniques.  If someone says horrible things about you, the best defense is to say even more horrible, but easily disprovable, things about yourself.  Once you have debunked one false "fact" (that you planted in the first place) you can then argue that all arguments against you are just sour grapes.  The most outrageous example of this was the "60 Minutes" story where a planted false document claimed that George Bush skipped out on his National Guard duty.  The document was a clumsy fake - made using Word 2000 but supposedly from an era where typewriters would have been used.  Bush was able to turn the tables on Gore - arguing that he was the hero and Gore was the zero.  We called it "Swiftboating" back then, and it worked.  Well, that and Florida.

A similar thing may be going on here with Santos.  His lies are so many and so bizarre, he is sort of "Gish Galloping" us - we can't even keep up with the number of lies he has told.  And the lies are so bold as to make some wonder whether they could be true.  How did he think he could get away with it?  No one would make that bold a lie!  The latest story - that he was a drag queen - might in fact have been planted by Santos himself, as a false flag.  If he can prove it was clearly false, he could then argue that all other allegations against him are similarly false. It's so crazy it just might work!

On the other hand, maybe he is just grifting us.  If you want a sweet deal in life, run for Congress.  People will throw money at you.  Although you have to serve a number of terms to end up with any sort of pensionIt's worth the risk, though.  Win or lose, Santos will no doubt write a book and the GOP will buy thousands of copies to hand out as "gifts" (or for landfill) and line Santos' pocket.  We'll see.

The problem for logical thinkers is that the compulsive liars simply don't play the game of marshalling facts and making logical arguments.  To them, political debate is a fun sport, and the more outlandish a lie, the more you've "owned the libs" - whatever that means.  (It apparently doesn't mean governing).

And this effect is nothing new and has been noted upon in the past:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

― Jean-Paul Sartre
Given the recent rise in antisemitism, this quote is doubly relevant today.  Jewish space lasers?  "Jew will not replace us?"  It makes no sense and was never intended to.  The fact that Trump's own son-in-law is Jewish just doesn't register with the recipients of this nonsense.  The fact that the far-right supports Israel doesn't seem to register either.  It is, in fact, a form of mental illness - schizophrenia.

On a more personal level, chances are, you've had to deal with a compulsive liar at some time in your life.  Most people, once they figure out someone is a compulsive liar, move on and distance themselves from such folks.  I recall a guy like that when I was a teenager.  He just couldn't tell the truth - even about trivial things - and just lied all the time.

What causes people to do this is a mystery to me.  And apparently there are subtle differences between pathological liars and compulsive liars.  Both conditions stem from early childhood, being raised in an environment where lying is necessary for survival.  Maybe that explains Trump, who was constantly trying to please his Father - and saw firsthand what happened to his older brother when he told the truth.  In both cases, people seek an advantage by lying, even if it just means not having to deal with inconvenient truths.

You can't build a house on a foundation of lies, however.  Again - and I harp on this a lot - people who are successful in life are the ones who see the truth for what it is.  People who live in fantasy worlds never do well, and often their world crashes down around them when fantasy collides with reality.

We see this today with Elon Musk.  Early on, he wasn't too far removed from reality - he had the good luck or insight to invest in PayPal and then Tesla.   But then something snapped - maybe the pressure of running these companies and having to deal with labor strife and government regulations - and of course, taxes.  He went far-right, moved his company from California to Texas and then inexplicably bought Twitter for far more than it was ever worth.  Since then, his behavior has become more and more bizarre and erratic, and his lies are getting wilder and wilder.  It will not end well, when reality collides with fantasy.

Like I said, people who say that truth is "relative" and based on perception of the individual are selling bullshit.  "Everyone has their own truth, their own reality," they claim.   But there is an underlying truth to the universe - it is just often hard to see.  The man who claims they can fly like those people in The Matrix might jump off a building, and for a brief few moments, convince himself he is "flying."  But sadly, mean old reality steps in, in the form of the concrete sidewalk below.   Fantasies come crashing down, quite literally.

I suspect we will see the same thing with Mr. Santos - in spectacular fashion.  I doubt he can build a long-term career in Congress based on a mountain of lies.  I doubt the people in his district will re-elect him, particularly after claiming to be "Jew-ish." Whether he lasts out his two-year term remains to be seen.

It may seem liars are "getting away with it" and in some rare instances they do.  But the wheel of karma spins around pretty quickly.   It just seems to take forever.