Friday, June 30, 2023

Burning Down Camelot

Who ever thought that this little kid would put the final nail in the Kennedy legacy?

As a kid growing up, we were taught to worship the Kennedys.  I guess for my parents, Kennedy was the first President of their generation - "the torch has been passed..." and so on and so forth.  Now try taking that torch from their grasp.  If JFK was alive today, he'd almost be as old as President Biden.  Just kidding!

When I was in grade school, we were called into a special assembly, and a traveling theater group did a musical performance about John F. Kennedy.  I still remember one of the songs, "PT-109" which told the tale of how they screwed up and got run over by a Japanese destroyer - and how JFK swam for help - carrying another man on his back.  But Kennedy-haters will say that the whole story was exaggerated, and point out that even his book, Profiles in Courage, was ghost-written by Arthur Schlesinger.  Sort of started the whole political tome genre, though.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  The whole clan started with Joseph Kennedy Sr. and he was indeed a piece of work, as even Kennedy fan-boys (and girls, such as my Mom) would admit. He was a master stock market manipulator and made millions in the markets in ways that probably would be illegal today.  He realized that because of his background, he could never be elected to office. So he did the next best thing, groom his oldest son to be President.

Joseph Kennedy Jr. unfortunately dies in a plane crash.   He was actually a hero, flying a plane loaded with explosives, which was supposed to be aimed at a target and then bail out. But the damn thing blew up in mid-air, so that was the end of those ambitions.

Looking over the remainder of his progeny, Joe settled on John, who was, by all accounts, a bit of  a playboy who never imagined that his father's political ambitions would be projected onto him.  JFK, of course, had a bad back and a number of other medical problems and was in constant pain.  But he was thrust into the spotlight and became the first Catholic President of the United States, defeating Richard Nixon (foreshadowing: we won't see the last of him, and yea, the press will still kick him around).

John had siblings, of course.  His younger brother Robert, youngest brother Teddy, and a sister Rosemary, who are most notable.  Rosemary apparently had some sort of mental illness and shocked her father by being somewhat promiscuous.  So he had her institutionalized and eventually lobotomized, which turned her into a vegetable.  All this was swept under the rug of course.

By the way, such treatments as lobotomy and electro-convulsive therapy are one reason I am always skeptical of medicine in general.  We tend to think that modern medicine is so sophisticated and scientific and that medicine of past eras was little more than superstition.  Bleeding and leeches?  Yuk!  But at the time, what was "modern" was thought to be sophisticated, only to be viewed with a shudder later on.  What medical practice today will be seen as primitive in 10-20 years?  I suspect today's cancer treatments (chemo, radiation) will be looked on with horror by then - after we develop genetically modified antibodies or something that kills only cancer cells.  Today's treatments, while advanced over just a few years ago, amount to trying to kill off the cancer without killing the patient (too much).   But I digress.

Robert, of course, was  a Senator and Attorney-General when his brother was President, and was faced with the difficult task of prosecuting the Mafia, which supposedly had helped his brother win the Presidency, or some such.   I do not have time to delve into conspiracy theories, which are just a waste of time.  But as we shall see, even Kennedys truck in them.

Robert had a nephew, well his wife did, anyway, who was convicted of bludgeoning to death a young girl in Greenwich Connecticut.  However, it took decades to convict him of the crime and eventually he was freed on appeal and the State declined to re-try him.  Supposedly he told a friend, "I can get away with murder - I'm a Kennedy!"

Sadly, this sort of became a pattern of bad behavior by hangers-on to the Kennedy clan.  Another cousin was acquitted of rape charges in what seemed an open-and-shut case - and others have come forward to report that he raped them as well.

And then there is Teddy.  We saw him once in a movie theater in Arlington, Virginia, when they were showing that movie "Nixon."  He visibly cringed when the Nixon character made derogatory comments about him on the screen.   While Teddy Kennedy accomplished many things as a Senator, he will be best known for Chappaquiddick, where he drove his car off a bridge and drowned a young woman - and then instead of seeking help, sought refuge with his family and legal team.

After incidents like this, the public sort of got tired of this idea of political dynasties - and that certain people were above the law - or so it seemed, anyway.

Of course, there is little John-John, who broke America's heart with his peppy salute at his Father's funeral.  He sort of became a playboy (see a pattern here?) and flew a plane into the darkness one night, without an instrument rating.  It is a common cause of plane crashes, but nevertheless the conspiracy theorists had a field day with it.  The Qanon people think that John-John (and even his Dad) will somehow come back from the dead (or never died?) and take over the world or something.  People are weird and crazy is the new normal.

The sad truth is that John-John died of narcissism. "I'm a Kennedy, I can do anything!" is what killed him.  But anyone who understands spatial disorientation knows how dangerous it is.   You can't "fly blind" by the "seat of your pants" as you will crash. Not "maybe" or "possibly" but a certain thing.

Understandably, people started succumbing to "Kennedy Fatigue" - there was such promise and hope when "the torch was passed to a new generation" but in retrospect, the only lasting thing of the Kennedy era was the tax cuts.  Even things like Civil Rights legislation had to wait until LBJ was President - and a lot of the social welfare legislation was passed in reaction to the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.

Speaking of Robert, one of the weirdest aspects of the 1968 election was how Robert entered the race so late in the game and ended up winning the California primary.  I guess back then, you could throw your hat in the ring and come from behind and gain the nomination in a brokered convention.  Today, pundits call the race after the New Hampshire primary or the Iowa caucuses.  It was a different world back then.

In retrospect, was Kennedy a great President, or did we just project our hopes and dreams onto him?  After all, he oversaw the Bay of Pigs invasion (a total cock-up!) and the Cuban Missile Crises (which  thankfully resolved itself).  He wasn't in office long enough to accomplish much else.  And Robert never had a chance to accomplish much, either.  Maybe we have over-glamoruzed the Kennedy legacy to begin with.   Now that my Mother is safely in the grave, I can say that without fear of retribution.

Which brings us to Robert, Jr. (Bob-Bob?).  What a piece of work and the final nail in the coffin of the Kennedy legacy.  A massive drug addict (take that, Hunter Biden!) he joined the "River Keeper" organization and then later on claimed to have created it.  When he finally quit, the real founder of the organization said, "good riddance!"

Today, Bob-Bob is all 'roided up and chock full of conspiracy theories, particularly with regard to vaccines.  Oh, and he's running for President - as a Democrat - because, well, narcissism.  Speaking of narcissists, he goes on the Joe Rogain podcast, which is a favorite of incel teens and 20-somethings and blathers on about vaccines, "challenging" people to debate him. That would be about as fruitful as debating a flat-earther, which for all I know, Bob-Bob also is.

You can't "debate" nonsense, simply because the people who believe these things engage in tactics like Gish-Gallop and Whataboutism, which means that before you can address even one "point" of their "argument" they have flooded you with ten more specious, made-up things.  The idiots who believe in such things all say, "hoo-haw!" as the audience in a "Trump Town Hall" would do.  "He really owned them libs!" It is not intellectual debate, it is just name-calling and made-up bullshit.

Grown-ups have better things to do with their time.

But it raises the question, what the fuck happened to the Kennedy family?  Was mental illness always an aspect of the family genealogy?  Or being born to money with a famous name turns one into a raging narcissist who thinks they can literally get away with murder, rape, and lying?

Maybe that is one reason Americans dislike political dynasties - even though we've elected a few.  One of the things that stuck in the craw of even Democrats was how Hillary called herself "the presumptive nominee" and said "It's my turn!" as if she was entitled to be President.  Democrats elected Obama instead.

The reality is, I think, that insanity runs in nearly every family.  My Mother was off-kilter as I noted before, and alcoholism ran in my Father's family - as it does in any decent Irish clan.  I have relatives today who are medicated or even institutionalized.  Others are survivors.  I guess the difference between us and the Kennedys is we don't have a famous name or were born with trust funds and family lawyers to bail us out of jams.

Over the years, the Kennedy mystique has acquired more and more tarnish, to the point where it barely exists. People still harbored warm feelings about JFK and felt sorry for poor Jackie.  But I think even that has been swept away with time and the subsequent generations behaving badly.  Today, young Bob-Bob has utterly destroyed Camelot - burned it to the ground, stomped on the ashes, and salted the very earth.

What a sad end to what could have been a great legacy.

P.S.- Have you noticed how "Cape Kennedy" is now called "Cape Canaveral" again?  DeSantis!!!! (Just kidding!).

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Rocket Man


Self-taught rocket scientist and occultist who was there when Scientology was founded.

Maybe you never heard of Jack Parsons - I know I didn't.  But he was the man - or one of the men - behind solid rocket booster, JATO assists, free-love cults in California, and even has a tangential relationship to Scientology.  Busy guy! He also blew himself up, which started a number of conspiracy theories, but I think they are hooey.  The guy had a record of blowing things up and not taking safety seriously - sort of like a certain submarine "designer" we used to know.

You have to read his Wikipedia page as it is too surreal to believe and if I told you half the things about his life, you would think I made them up.

He belonged to a cult called "Thelemite" or "Termite" or some such nonsense.  It was created by a guy in England and translated from ancient Egyptian it means, "Send all your money to me!"

It is not hard to see why people joined, though.  They lived in a communal mansion and practiced "free love" - which was a heady cocktail (pardon the pun) in the repressed era of the 1930's and 1940's.  One of the visitors was L. Ron Hubbard, who supposedly held court with Robert Heinlein among others.  That was where the supposed bet was made by Hubbard that he could turn his Science Fiction into a religion (Heinlein lost the bet, but many of his writings talk of secret societies and religions as well).

Of course, Scientology missed the boat (pun in view) by not embracing the "free love" aspect of any cult, which is a great recruitment tool.  One Christian cult actually encourages "flirty fishing" to recruit members.  Offer them the promise of sex and then withhold it.  It is how you control populations since time began.

Of course, Hubbard used to sail around in a yacht with young women in an organization he called "Sea Org" which if  you add a "y" at the end, you'll see the pun.  Apparently, Scientology took all the fun out of that as well.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and this fellow who invented (or co-invented) the solid rocket booster and JATO assist rocket had a personal life that was an utter train wreck.

Kinda weird, or is it?  Often very smart  people are a little crazy - or a whole lot.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The Tourist Destroys What He Comes To See

And sometimes the thing he comes to see, destroys him.

A lot of people are kind of "over" the media's coverage of that poorly made stupid submarine and the stupid guy who designed it and died in it and the stupid billionaires who paid money to get in that death trap.  I guess you could feel sorry for the 19-year-old kid whose Dad sort of persuaded him to go.  A Dad who was the richest man in Pakistan - a country where there is a lot of poverty.  Imagine how much good could have been done for his countrymen with $500,000.  Doesn't Islam say you should give to charity?

Meanwhile, hundreds of refugees are drowned when a boat sinks and no one gives a damn.  Why is this?  It is another example of the "Tot Mom" phenomenon.  It was one of us down there - quite literally.  The media is controlled by Billionaires, so when a Billionaire is in peril, well that's news. Two reporters had previously been on the death-trap sub, so once again, it was one of us who had been down there - a member of the media.

You can be sure if one American or one reporter was on that refugee ship, we would be seeing headlines saying "American still missing in refugee ship disaster!  (also 500 refugees, but who cares?)"  We identify with people like us, I guess, or attractive people.  It is kind of sick, really.

This incident comes on the heels of another near-disaster, where a Chinese businessman nearly died on Mt. Everest and another tourist called off his ascent and had his Sherpa carry the unconscious man down the mountain, saving his life.  In gratitude, the businessman thanked.... his sponsors and his own exploration team which had left him for dead.

And apparently that happens on Everest quite a bit.  The frozen bodies of victims are often left there and become landmarks, presumably before they are buried by snow.  There is also a lot of garbage left on the mountain, and during climbing season, human traffic jams can form. What's the point of all that?.

While exploration is a fine and wonderful thing, not everyone needs to do it, particularly in extreme or sensitive environments.  I guess the hat trick for members of the Billionaire's club is to climb Everest, dive the Mariana trench, and then rocket off into space - preferably aboard a rocket built by a company you own.  Now you have bragging rights in the Billionaire's club.  Next stop?  Bare-knuckles fighting with another Billionaire.  Gee, I can hardly wait.

More and more folks are getting quite tired of all this.  In the SciFi story, March of the Morons, they propose launching rockets into space and the blowing them up, to eliminate the population of stupid people.  Not a very practical solution for the billions of morons on the planet.  But for Billionaires?  It might take just one rocket!  And that stainless-steel dildo that Musk is building should hold them all - and has a swell history of blowing up as well.

Hey, it's just a thought. 

On a smaller scale, middle- and upper-class people do this sort of thing, too.  My Dad booked a tour to Antarctica, so he could say he went to every continent before he died.  Problem is, McMurdo base isn't much to look at, unless you are a shipping container fiend.  And the top of Everest?  Probably like the Grand Canyon  - most people spend less than five minutes looking at the view.  And as for the Titanic, well, you'd have a safer time viewing it by ROV, and a 3-D model viewed through VR would probably be a better experience.

"The tourist destroys the thing he comes to see" is a quote I think from Hemingway or somebody.  And it is true.  It is fun to explore places, but when your presence (and that of thousands of others) damages the environment or degrades the experience, then, well, what's the point?  And of course, we always blame "those other tourists" for wrecking things - never ourselves.  But we are all part of the problem, I think.  And I am not sure what the solution would be.

We live in a State Park which is a tourist destination.  When we moved here, the recession had reduced visitation numbers significantly. More than half the hotels had been torn down - and not rebuilt, due to the recession.  The remaining hotels were not even near capacity.  We had the place to ourselves.

Had.  We've been "discovered" and that's fine and all.  We don't own the place and certainly it is a State Park, open to the public.  But as more and more people come, something gets lost, and we now live in a "tourist town."   For example, we have a grocery store, but we never shop there.  Unless you want an $18 jar of pickles and a t-shirt and a hat, you aren't going to find what you want, at a price that is nearly reasonable.  But it is packed with tourists who are impulse shopping (as we all do, as tourists) and want to pick up a few items for their rented condo - chips and beer and such.

We have a whole shopping district like this - stores that we never go to, or rarely go to.  They are not meant for us.  Even the restaurants are not really friendly to locals - they are crowded, expensive, and the service is slow.   I understand more why "locals" in tourist destinations have a love-hate relationship with tourists.  They love the income and jobs tourism creates.  They love the increase in property values as well.  They hate the fact they can no longer afford to live there, though.  And the throngs of tourists, either driving city-style (tailgating and speeding) or gawking and driving five miles and hour, sort of gets on your nerves.

But of course, we are all tourists at one time or another, even when just passing through a neighboring town.

All that being said, it is one thing to go to the beach on the weekend, and another to rocket off into space or climb the world's tallest mountain.  Should some things not be tourist destinations?  Particularly environmentally sensitive areas, perhaps.

But, I have a plan!  Rather than risk life and limb climbing outside of Everest, why not tunnel underneath it and run an elevator up to the top?  I mean, how hard could it be to tunnel through a hundred miles of granite?  Elon's "boring" company is no doubt up to the job!   Put a revolving restaurant at the top and now anyone can see the top of Mt. Everest - any time of year!  And the Sherpas could be hired as guides and historical re-enactors.

Why not? Makes as much sense as this stupid imploding submarine nightmare.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Third Way

Do we have to choose from one radical extreme or another? No.  No we do not.

Ron DeSantis recently filmed a campaign video in San Francisco, and frankly, I think he pulled his punches.  He stood on an empty quiet street, in an alley, actually, and recounted the failings of the radical mentality that has plagued the "Left Coast" in recent years. But he never actually showed any of the results.  He just talked about it.  Then again, maybe he was scared he would be attacked by "the woke mob."  The sarcasm light is lit.

During the pandemic, many courts and prosecutors in California let people out of jail on the grounds they might get CoVid, and no one should receive a death sentence for a property crime.  But the pandemic is over, sort of, and they are still letting felons out of jail on the grounds that jail is unfair or some such nonsense. In addition, after so many "Fuck the Police!" protests, the Police seem to be "quiet quitting" and just doing the minimum - as if to show people what happens when criminals face no consequences.  Maybe this is also a way for the Police to force a change in government.

The problems in California are many, and most are related to drug use.  In certain areas, you can see people - dozens of them - wasted on fentanyl, in public.  It comes from China, via Mexico, which is sort of ironic, as the West once subjugated China by exporting opium to that county.  Revenge is a dish best served cold. So you would think DeSantis would show a video that is making the rounds, of zonked-out fentanyl users, all bent over or laying about like they are in an opium den.  People are dying from this, and it is a real crises.  The "solutions" proposed by the State is to provide them with "safe" sites to do the drug and to have Cops administer NARCAN to people who are overdosing.  But of course, that just means they get high the next day.

Or take street crimes.  Mark Roper did the video above (one of several) about his efforts to get even with porch pirates and smash-and-grab car break-in thieves.  It is so bad out there that you can park a car with a package in the back seat and, "you won't have to wait long" before someone smashes a window.  People actually leave their cars unlocked and the trunk open, to show thieves there is nothing worth stealing inside and please don't break my windows.  And the thieves are pretty brazen about it, too - and it doesn't seem like they worry too much about being caught, either.  Again, a few videos like this would drive home DeSantis' point, but instead we get this video of him bloviating and cowering in an alley like the coward he is.

Similarly, the "tent cities" of homeless in  California would also drive home his point, but again, he instead favored what looks more like a Tick-Tock video. Then again, narcissists be that way. And again, this is a real issue, related to the two above. The "homeless" are often not just people who are economically challenged, but mentally ill people and/or alcohol or drug addicts.  And California's lax attitudes and generous social welfare programs (and mild weather in the South) attract a lot of homeless people from out-of-State...

...which is where a lot of working people are moving.  A lot of folks are fed up of having their car broken into again and again and their porch packages stolen or some homeless bum shitting on the sidewalk or pissing in the BART station (after jumping the turnstile).  It is one reason property values in Oakland dropped by 16% last year.

So, California as well as other "Blue States" have this problem.  Wokeness and ultra-left-wing "let's feel sorry for criminals" isn't the answer.  So what is DeSantis' answer?

Just as bad, and just as ineffective.

Florida is hardly a crime-free State, and in fact "Florida Man" regularly makes headlines for all sorts of horrendous crimes.  DeSantis' solution to all of this to attack Disney, ban books, burn books, and fan the fires of hate.  I am not sure how this solves Florida's fentanyl crises, its homeless problem, or its crime problem.  And of course, it doesn't.   Actually solving problems is difficult, expensive, and messy.  Grandstanding on social issues, however, gets you a lot of press and gives the appearance of "getting things done!"

There is a subset of the population that believes that all social ills are the result of "not enough Jesus" and that by attacking social values, the real hard problems facing our country would just magically disappear.  On the other hand, people on the far-left think that the most compelling issue facing America is "trans rights."  One side plays right into the prejudices and preconceived notions of the other.

Thus, we are told there are only two choices - wacky liberalism or wacky conservatism.  Neither is a good choice, neither accomplishes anything.  We need to find a third way.

And that means both extremes have to tone down the rhetoric and that politicians have to stop pandering to extremes and actually accomplish something.  We need to put an end to this "defund the Police" mentality and wringing our hands over our incarceration rate.  It is classic whataboutism.  "America incarcerates more people than... [fill in the blank]"  So what?  If someone breaks the law, they go to jail, simple as that.   How many people are in jail already is really irrelevant.  Letting people out of jail or having them face no punishment because "it's just a property crime" isn't the answer to anything.

Neither is banning books - what does that really accomplish?  Kids don't read today anyway.  The problem with the approach of the far-right is that they are dog-whistling to an extremist group that has already demonstrated a tendency to violence and even traitorous insurrection.  While claiming to "back the blue!" they are the first to attack and taser a Capitol Hill policeman, in their attempt to overthrow an election.  And that was just the start of political violence. Stay tuned.

It is kind of hard to believe that in 2023, we are having serious discussions about whether the earth is flat, the holocaust happened, whether the moon landing was faked or maybe Nazism is the answer (to a question no one is asking).  Go to Germany, where it was invented, and ask them how it all worked out.  You'll likely get a punch in the face if you give the Hitler salute - and then be thrown in jail.

There is a third way - the way most Americans want to see and actually practice. The press gives a lot of ink to the extremists on both sides, who make good eye-candy and click-bait for the press.  The vast majority of Americans who lean to one side or another but don't embrace extremes, are left out of the picture.  It's Nazi or Commie - you are not allowed anything in the middle!

DeSantis missed an opportunity with his lame-ass video.  But maybe that was by design.  Because while it is easy to point out the failings of the "Left Coast" mentality, it is a lot harder to come up with solutions.  And no, "prayer in school" isn't the answer to anything.  If DeSantis showed images of fentanyl abuse, car break-ins, or homeless camps in California, it wouldn't be too hard for someone to come up with a montage of similar things in Florida.

For example, we were in Hollywood, Florida a couple of years back, at an RV park right near Route 1.  Suddenly, there was this roar of motors and hundreds of youths on dirt bikes and ATVs roared down Route 1, ignoring stop lights and speed limits, or indeed, the direction of traffic flow.  Where was the Police?  And from what I understand (and see on YouTube) this is a regular thing.  It seems they sell more dirt bikes these days in the city, than in the country.

Or take Texas.  If you visit San Antonio, you can see the Alamo, ride a boat along the river, listen to a Mariachi band, and have your car broken into. And I am serious about this - it is a major crime problem and no one there seems too concerned about it.  Perhaps it is what keeps the local economy afloat. Oddly enough, Republicans run on a platform of "law and order" and yet their States routinely top the list for both violent and property crimes.  Yea, California is bad - 17th in crime stats.  But nothing compared to Louisiana and Oklahoma!

And yes, there are homeless camps in Florida, as well as a fentanyl crises.  And cars get broken into, as well. As for "boarded-up businesses" well, you can find them all across America as online shopping pushes another chain store into bankruptcy.  Retail isn't quite dead, but no one really wants retail space anymore. Or office space, for that matter.  There is an old saying about glass houses, Ron!

Solving real-world problems is a lot harder than blanket solutions.   "Don't Say Gay" isn't going to solve our drug and crime problems, or our economic issues,either.  Being soft on crime isn't going turn criminals into saints overnight - or at any time.  Both extremes are wrong and ineffectual.

We have to embrace the third way, or one or the other of the extremes will engulf us.  And tellingly, the extremists save their worst bile not for the opposite extreme, but for centrists who eschew both sets of radicals.  The Nazis and Commies have a begrudging respect for each other - and let's face it, they are two sides of the coin of fascism anyway.  But centrists? People who are willing to compromise and work on real solutions?

To either extreme, they are the real enemy!

Monday, June 26, 2023

Housing Boom or Bust?

Is this a sign of a resurgent economy or the last desperate attempt to make a buck before it all goes bust?

Back in 2007 or so, I got a phone call.  My neighbor was in the military and owned the house next door to us - identical to our home.  She paid a paltry $189,000 for it - the same price we paid nearly a decade earlier, oddly enough, and arguably a bargain as it was easily worth $250,000 to $300,000 at that point.  She went overseas and had a tenant in the place who moved out.  She asked if I could put out a "for rent" sign and answer some phone calls, and being a nice guy, I did.

A few days later, the phone rang and the conversation went like this:

CALLER:  I see you got a house for rent there.

ME:  Yes, I am renting it out for a friend who is stationed overseas.

CALLER:  I'd like to buy it.  I'll give you $700,000 for it!

ME: (gulp!)  I'll send the owner an e-mail with your offer, she might consider it.  I'm just the neighbor.

CALLER:  You live next door?  I'll give you $700,000 for your house, too!

ME: Sold!

My neighbor sold, too, and in fact, the guy bought over a dozen houses in the neighborhood and knocked them all down.  Since they were on two deeded lots he could put two mini-mansions in place of the 2-bedroom decaying shitboxes that were there before (foundation problems are not funny!).

When we went to closing, I said to him that, when we bought 18 years prior, the real estate agent always told us the land was worth more than the house - because each house was built on two lots.  I also told him, "You'd better build fast! This bubble market is set to burst!"

He failed to heed my warning.  He rented out some of the houses for over a year while he dithered about building. The crash of 2008 happened and he went bankrupt. Someone bought the properties at bankruptcy auction and then tore down all the houses and put up $1.3M homes on each lot and made good money at it.

Timing the market is hard to do.  The developer who bought our house was under the mistaken impression that the run-up in housing prices in the early 2000's wasn't a bubble - and that housing prices would only go up, up, up from there, when in fact, he was buying near the peak of the market.

Recently, there was an article that new home permits jumped by 21% in May - The highest in three decades!  Is this a sign of a healthy economy or the last gasp of a shrinking market? Paradoxically, prior to previous recessions, we often saw staggering growth and labor shortages.  Things are going so well, and than, BAM!  It all falls apart.  That is the nature of bubbles - everything seems to be going fine at the time.

Predicting when it will fall apart is impossible to do.  I thought the thing would go bust in 2005 - three years early.  The developer who bought our property thought the boom would go on forever - or at least for a few more years.  We were both wrong.

We also owned two condominiums in Pompano Beach, Florida and sold those shortly thereafter.  The buyers both lost them to foreclosure.  It was a heady time in South Florida and everyone got into real estate which has been a perennial sport in the Sunshine State.  People started making money in real estate, and this, in turn, drew others in - others who had no business investing in real estate.  You could put a few thousand down on a condo in a new high-rise and by the time the building was complete - or even before - you could sell the contract and nearly double your money or at least make a few tens of thousands of dollars.  People heard about this and a land-rush started.

Developers bought up older buildings and demolished them and put up high-rises and made money - a lot of it.  Old motels and trailer parks on the water were bulldozed to make way for yet another high-rise condominium.  It was a madhouse.  And around 2008 or so, a huge number of buildings were "topped off" at the same time, with no buyers.  They were "see-though" buildings, just frames with no contents.  The bubble had burst and there were no more "investors" with cash credit who wanted to pay the exorbitant prices that people were asking.  No one actually wanted these condos, they were just a talisman of investment - tulip bulbs.  Someone else would surely buy them, right?

I saw this going down when we went to see a new high-rise in Pompano Beach - one of three buildings planned - that had, as its "most affordable" unit, a one-bedroom, "designer ready" (bare concrete, no plumbing) unit on the second floor facing the dumpster, for $850,000 with a $3000 per month condo fee.  Bear in mind that you could buy a house on a canal with a boat hoist and a pool for less money (and lower carrying costs, even with Florida's insane property taxes!) and it was clear that no one would actually live in these condos.  It was just a shell game.

The development went bust, of course.  The other two buildings were never started and I think half the condos in the building that was completed were never sold.  The ground-level retail space is largely vacant.  It was a scam, of sorts, although maybe even the developer was caught up in it - believing that prices could just go up, even if no one could afford to live there.

Housing prices in America have gone insane - in case you haven't noticed.  But in the last year or so, they have started to drop in many markets across the country - dramatically in some markets such as Oakland, California.  But at the same time, we see permits for new single-family homes jumping up.

What's going on? Well, one plausible explanation is that these builders are seeing these crazy prices for houses and thinking, "I can make money at this!" which is how capitalism is supposed to work, to provide goods and services in response to a profit motive.  They also see the writing on the wall, and don't want to be the last guy standing up when the music stops.  They hope - like the condo developers in Ft. Lauderdale in 2006 - to be the guy who sells out before it all goes bust.  The other guy will be the one who gets his tits caught in the wringer.

So, capitalism to the rescue, too little, too late.  Where were these guys three years ago?  Right. Building rental properties. Why jumping into single-family homes now?  Well, in the last recession, the builders of single-family homes managed to survive pretty well.  You build a high-rise condominium, well, you have to sell half to three-quarters of the units just to cover your costs (or some percentage - it probably would scare you).  But with single-family homes, your exposure is limited to the number of unsold homes you have in inventory, and if you are smart, you keep that number low.  Build, sell, build again.

When the recession hit in 2008, the large home builders simply stopped building.  Since they used "contractors" for construction, there was no need to lay anyone off, you just finished the last few houses in the pipeline (sometimes not even that) and tell everyone to go home.  You then wait out the recession and when things turn up, start building again.

NOTE: I had a friend who had a house in "Rotunda" Florida - a development where all the streets are in concentric circles.  It was never really finished, although today it is getting closer.  It took decades to complete and for years, there were only scattered houses surrounded by empty lots.  One house down the street from him was left half-finished after the recession of 2008.  As you might imagine, it turned into a mold and mildew nightmare and when things picked up, someone tried to complete it, with predictable results - the new owners got sick and everyone got sued.  Better to tear down and start over!

So, this sudden rise in building permits for single-family homes might be a sign that things are going swell, or a sign that everyone is trying to get one last round at the bar before closing time.

The people buying homes today, paying top dollar, might be in trouble a year from now.  A year from now, when these homes are finished, they may end up being sold in a down market - which could be good news for home buyers - a year from now.

We'll see.  Like I said, timing markets is impossible to do, other than in retrospect!

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Happiness is Ferrari, Contentment is Toyota Camry

Young men fantasize about having their "dream car!"  Dreams often turn into nightmares.

I wrote before about happiness versus contentment - and again, more recently.  We are exhorted to seek out happiness - by the media and commercial interests.  Disney sells itself as the "happiest place on earth!" with over-the-top sensory overload rides and attractions.  Soft drink and snack food sellers push their sugary and starchy foods and drinks which give you a sugar rush - before you crash an hour later.  No worries!  Just eat a candy bar and get right back on the type-II diabetes train.

Drug users love to do things like LSD or today, Ecstasy. The problem with these drugs isn't the constant feeling of euphoria, but what happens when the drugs wear off.  I noted before that doing LSD is a lot of fun (unless you have a "bad trip") and everything seems interesting and pleasurable. Waves of pleasure wash over your body and you wish every day could feel this way.  But the next day, the drug wears off and everything seems boring as hell.  Food tastes bland, there is nothing on television you want to watch, even music seems boring.  You just sit around and wait for the feeling to wear off.

Maybe God hands out only so much pleasure at a time, and when you do a drug like that, you are over-drawing your account, and the next day, your pleasure balance is bankrupt.

Maybe. Maybe this also applies to other aspects of life.  You go to Disney and have an orgasmic experience. On the long ride home, the kids are fussy and your spouse is bitchy.  Fun's over - back to mean, old reality.  And reality isn't "fun" is it?  Or maybe it can be, if you don't keep trying to seek out happiness.

It is the mechanism that drives drug addiction or any compulsive behavior.  Like I said, sugary and starchy treats cause your blood sugar to spike, making you feel happy and alert.  Then you crash, so you seek out that "high" with more sugar.  Eventually, you balloon to 300 lbs and end up on dialysis.

Alcohol works the same way.  You have one drink and feel warm and fuzzy.  So why not another one?  Booze give pleasure, the lizard brain says.  But before long, you are feeling ill, rather than warm and fuzzy - if you drink too much.  And this happens to kids, because they are young and robust and their bodies can take a lot (up to a point - alcohol poisoning kills hundreds every year). Before long, they are "praying to the porcelain god" and swearing never to drink again.  Older people don't have this problem as much - their bodies cannot physically process that much alcohol, and they fall asleep or just get tired before they can drink too much - in some cases, anyway.

Consumerism works the same way - people keep trying to relive that "rush" they get from buying things, and often bankrupt themselves in the process.  And merchants know this, which is why they make the ritual of carefully putting your new clothes in a string-tote paper bag with the store logo emblazoned upon it, with crumpled tissue poking out the top.  For many people, the best part of shopping is carrying that bag home.  I know this as a friend of mine had a closet full of such bags, all with brand-new clothes, never worn.  I have another friend who buys clothes and then keeps them in the bags, in order of purchase, to take back for a refund or store credit, before the expiry date of the return policy.  It seems like madness, until you understand addiction.

And you can get addicted to anything - shopping, porn, sex, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, food, work - and I am sure there are many more.  The addiction narrative is like an unstable system - people swing from peak to valley with ever-increasing oscillations, until they crash and crash hard.  Even then, after hitting "rock bottom" they may simply get back on the wagon (or fall off it) and start all over again.

Seeking happiness often leads to this pattern.  Seek contentment instead.  A reader writes regarding this idea and I thought I should elaborate on it.  We are trained from birth - at least in this country - to think of happiness in terms of possessions and wealth. Mega-wealth, fancy cars, yachts, exclusive clubs, designer clothes, and of course, the "trophy wife" (for men). And when it all goes South, you just trade it all in for replacements - including a new wife.  And even your appearance can be rejuvenated, until you have those weird slits for eyelids and the Joker smile.

But are people like that really happy?  Some researchers suggest that there is a "sweet spot" for happiness in terms of wealth.  Too little and you are miserable - constantly scrambling to survive in an almost feral state.  Too much and you spend all your time chasing false dreams and worrying someone is after your hoard.  Just right and you are content.

I use the allegory of the Ferrari versus the Camry as an example.  As a young man, we are told by the media and our peers that our "dream car" is some fancy Italian import that, realistically speaking, we would never be able to afford to buy.  It is like the poster of Pamela Anderson that many a teen has above their bed, next to the Ferrari poster.  Both are unattainable and unrealistic dreams.  Reality for a teenager is Mom's old minivan and Pamela Handerson.   But no one is content with that, right?

Well, you can have more, not by shooting for the moon, but by plotting for contentment.  I realized this late in life when I looked back at the 30-some-odd cars I had owned over my lifetime. In the beginning,  I had a collection of $50-$100 junkers as I was poor and scrambling to get by.  I thought I wanted a fancy "look-at-me" car and made myself miserable trying to take plebian rides and "mod" them into something they never would be - sort of like the guy who puts Lambo doors on a Neon.

A guy I worked with at the Patent Office suggested I look at a used Camry and I bought it - a 1988 model, back from when they were still made in Japan.  It was the car of contentment - the first car I owned with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and cruise control.  It was not a "look at me!" car but a blend-right-in car, and it was comfortable and reliable.  I had it for several years and foolishly sold it for a "look at me!" Taurus SHO which proceeded to rack up a number of speeding tickets.  I was searching for happiness and eschewing contentment.

Over the years, I wasted a lot of money on fancy cars. They were fun and all, but eventually, I realized, that, like a trophy wife, they were fussy and high-maintenance - and expensive, too!  I sold the M Roadster and bought the Hamster.  People may laugh at it, but it is reliable and comfortable, with a leather interior and heated and cooled seats.  It has provided a sense of contentment that has lasted far longer than many of the fancy cars I have owned.

So-called "Supercars" are even worse, and often unsuitable for normal highway driving.  I recall reading online where some movie star bought a very fancy Porsche and it kept overheating in the stop-and-go traffic of LA.  He complained to the dealer, and the dealer basically said, "That's not what this car was designed for!" and told him to piss off. The same is true of a lot of fancy cars - they ride rough, are loud and noisy, and generally uncomfortable.  You have to be careful of what you wish for and "professional grade" crap is often wholly unsuited for consumer usage.

Contentment is waking up every morning when I want to, and not having to worry about "going to work" or having a job or, in fact, any obligations whatsoever - other than doing things I decide I want to do.  Contentment is knowing you have enough money to last the rest of your life, provided, of course, you are content with your life and don't spoil the whole thing by constantly seeking happiness instead.

This is not to say you should seek out mediocrity as a goal in life.  No, no.  Seek to be the best person you can be -  but be content with how your life turns out.  I never made as much money as I could have, working in a law firm.  Most of my friends and classmates ended up as partners in firms, making six-figure salaries.  And most of them told me how they envied my lifestyle - taking time off from work whenever I wanted to, and not being a slave to a desk and an office.  You can make a lot of money as a lawyer, but it doesn't happen unless you put in the long hours to do so.  Often this means sacrificing other parts of your life.  You are trading contentment for happiness - and finding the happiness fleeting.

Many men do this - making big bucks at some fancy "job" so they can "support their family" - a family they never see and treats them like a stranger.  Resentment ensues - on both sides.  My Dad, for example, worked long hours to support us - not to put bread on the table, but to send his kids to private schools and fancy colleges to get useless degrees.  I was fortunate he ran out of money by the time I came of age.  And of course, much of their money was spend trying to achieve status - live in the "right" neighborhood in a fancy house.

Looking back, I think my family and my Dad would have been happier if we lived in a normal neighborhood with real people, and my siblings all went to public schools and State colleges.  Maybe if Dad spent more time at home, we would have liked him - and he would have seen his family as more than an annoying parasite on his bank-account.  Sadly, a lot of men fall into this trap and by age 40 or so, wonder why the hell they are working so hard to support these ungrateful shitheads?  And divorce usually ensues.

As I get older, I embrace contentment and realize how lucky I am to have it.  Most people, it seems, never achieve it - and they are angry all the time as a result.  Today, I am more than suspicious of happiness or promises thereof. When I see an advertisement with all these happy smiling people who bought product X and are now ecstatic, I am skeptical.  I've been around too long to believe in it anymore.  The junk they are selling is just stuff - sometimes something you need, but more often than not, just something that clutters up your life and costs too much money.

So I am content with my $99 used smart phone.  Maybe when I was younger, I would have pined for the latest iPhone XXXIV, so I could show it off and rub other people's noses in it (that is, until they come out with the iPhone XXXVI!).  Young me fell for the siren song of commerce - that buying shit makes you happy.  And it does - for about ten minutes, until you realize the "new" thing you just bought is now used and worth half what you paid for it.  Contentment is paying half-price for last year's model and reveling in the savings.

Happiness is fine and all. And I'm not saying you shouldn't go to Disney.  I've been, I think twice.  It was fun and all, but I have no desire to go again, particularly the way people behave these days.  But others go every year or get a season pass - trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and relive that happiness again and again.   It's damn hard to do!  And expensive, too.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

The Number One Beer in America is... Modelo? WTF?

Beer is seeing its fortunes change, once again.

Not long ago, beer was considered a working-class drink.  Blue collar bars would serve beer, but you would never see it at a cocktail party, at the country club, or served on a yacht.  If you were a white-collar worker and your boss came over for dinner, you would never dream of serving him a beer.

Cocktails were the thing, probably a remnant of the prohibition era.  You can smuggle a lot more alcohol in the form of liquor than in the form of beer.  It is simple economics - one that drug smugglers know today.  Why risk jail smuggling bales of marijuana worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, when you can smuggle more easily concealable kilos of cocaine worth millions?

As I noted before, however, in the 1970s and 1980s, beer took off as a mainstream beverage.  Hippies bought it because it was cheap, and being working-class was counter-culture as well. And like coffee, baby-boomers had to ruin beer by taking it far too seriously.  So imported beers (and quasi-imported beers) took off in America in the late 1970s, and by the 1990s, the "micro-brew" thing was in full swing.  Beer was being served at cocktail parties, upscale bars, and the country club.

But of course, what baby boomers created, the millenials had to tear asunder.  Damn millenials, ruining everything, even beer!  Just kidding.  It was Gen-Z that ruined beer!  Just kidding, again. However, it is true that beer has declined in popularity over time.  The big problem for Bud Light wasn't that it was perceived as "Gay Beer" but that the demographic for the product - older boomers who swilled it by the suitcase - was dying off.

Worse yet, as they got older, people discovered that beer didn't agree with them.  It can leave you feeling bloated and full - at least it does to me Bear in mind at one point in my life, I contemplated marrying beer, I loved it so much. I had not one, but two draft beer systems in my house - one light, one dark.

So beer has seen its day in the sun, but that day is fading.  Beer won't go away entirely, but it won't be as wildly popular as it was during the beer boom of the 1970's and beyond.  Maybe this is a cyclical thing - and the coming recession (already here for many of us!) will drive people back to beer as a cheap buzz.  Some argue that the legalization of marijuana is resulting in declining beer sales, but I am less sure of that - most pot smokers I know (or knew) washed their weed down with a cold draft.

As for Bud Light, is the "boycott" destroying Anheuser-Busch? Hardly - Bud Light is no longer the most popular selling beer in America - eclipsed by Mexican brew, Modelo Especial.  Guess who owns Modelo?  That's right - Anheuser-Busch.  In fact, there are only a handful (actually, just two) companies that produce the majority of beers you see in the supermarket.  We have the lovely illusion of choice.  Even some vaunted "micro-brews" are in fact, owned by AmBev or SABMiller.

In terms of "Gay Beer" there is really no brand that hasn't been tied to some gay pride promotion at one time or another.  There was a boycott of Coors beer at one time - by gays - as the Coors family was very homophobic.  Coors caved in and donated money to gay causes and sponsored pride events.  Bud Light boycotters are ironically switching to Coors, which is made by SABMiller. You can't get away from it! Maybe there is a "Hitler Lite" microbrew out there somewhere (probably from Northern Idaho) but I suspect that would be one of those $5-a-bottle brands, that no one can really afford.

So the boycott really is ineffective. Maybe it caused a declining brand to decline further, but it hasn't really changed beer sales dramatically. And switching brands to another brand in the same stable isn't really doing much. Switching to a different manufacturer who has the same values seems even less effective.

On the other hand, I am not sure that courting the "trans" demographic is a marketing coup. Will this get the 20-somethings to embrace a brand their homophobic uncle swills while sitting in a plastic chair in his back yard?  I doubt it.  It is about as likely as getting the Kawasaki Ninja rider to "upgrade" to a Harley. Different generations have different values - although over time, these too, can morph.  Hippies can turn into Yuppies, overnight.

So how did a Mexican beer become the most popular beer in America?  Was it due to the "boycott" of Bud Light?  Or was it just a popular beer in ascendancy and Bud Light sales were in the decline anyway?   Perhaps a little of bothBeer sales are down, year to year, in recent years, while the share of imported beers continues to rise.  People are buying less beer, but what they do buy, they are fussier about. Craft beers are still doing well, but the number of  brewpubs opening up has declined, and the number closing down has increased. I think it was a trend that was overdone, quite frankly.  And the thought of drinking huge draughts of beer to wash down one of those impossible-to-get-in-your-mouth cheeseburgers and a mountain of fried potato chunks, just isn't appealing to me as a 63-year-old.  I'd be up all night!

Meanwhile, the kids are getting into cocktails.  Not real ones, of course.  They love the sweet drinks, and their idea of a "cocktail" is a shot of Jagermeister or some designer vodka mixed with Red Bull.  If you ask them if they want a martini, they say, "sure - chocolate or lemon drop?"  Youth favors the sweet, savory is an acquired taste, if you'll pardon the pun. Seriously, though, this is probably a biological thing.  Maybe the sweet taste buds die off over time.  Or many our brains are programmed to like sweet when we are kids, as we need those mega-calories to grow into adults.  As adults, however, sweet kills us.  But I digress.

Like I said, this could be a cycle - beer may make a comeback as the economy worsens.  And if it does, maybe as a cheaper alternative to cocktails.  Perhaps that is one problem facing beer these days - it costs as much as a cocktail in many bars.  If you are paying $8-$10 for a beer, why not have a Vodka-Tonic instead?  The math is compelling.

Of course, maybe alcohol consumption in general is dropping, as people realize the adverse effects it can have on your health - attacking every organ in your body, including the brain.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Just Check Out the Clothes

Over 100 years ago, people wore a lot of clothes.

Today, we wear what would be considered underwear in Victorian times.

Back in the 1800's and even through the first half of the 20th century, people wore a lot of clothes.  For a woman, that might mean layers of clothes, starting with underwear, a girdle, petticoats, a dress, a shirt, a jacket, stockings, shoes, gloves, scarf, overcoat, and hat.  How did you not sweat to death in that outfit?

Similarly, for the men, there were also layers of clothes.  Underwear (the "union suit") covered most all of the body.  Then there pants, knee-high socks with garters high-top shoes or boots, shirts, collars, waistcoats or vests, jackets and overcoats, hats, scarves, gloves - the whole bit.  Neckties and tight collars helped retain body heat.  Again, how did you not sweat to death in such a getup?

I think two things are at work here - and Victorian "modesty" isn't one of them. Yes, back then, it was scandalous for a woman to show her ankles, but was that because of pruditry, or because clothes covered your entire body, other than your face, and thus any sign of flesh was considered erotic?  I think the latter.   The clothes drove what was considered "obscene" rather than standards of obscenity driving the clothes.

And what drove the clothes was temperature. Back then, a huge proportion of the population in the "Civilized" world live in Northern climes, where it was fairly cold, either seasonally or year-round.  It was only the invention of air conditioning that drove population growth to more temperate areas - worldwide.  And in more temperate areas, traditionally, people wore fewer clothes.  In Africa, natives often wore little more than loin clothes - or went naked.  In Arab countries, lightweight flowing robes kept out the sun, but let air through.  Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen went about in the noonday sun, in their fussy Victorian outfits.

What changed?  I think temperature.  Not just global warming, either, but the gradual temperature changes that have occurred in the last 100 years - as well as the migration of humanity toward warmer regions (in America, known as the "Sunbelt" which was colonized in the 1970s).  As our environment got warmer, well, we shed our clothes.  Over time, we wore less and less until today, where men wear shorts and t-shirts and women wear Yoga pants.  And everyone is wearing flip-flops or Crocs - the sock being the latest victim in our mad rush toward nudism.

Skirts were the first to change - riding up higher and higher, starting in the 1920s and onward.  Petticoats were shed and women were actually showing ankle!  Above-the-knee was a major watershed and accompanied by moaning that it was the end of civilization itself.  The mini-skirt gave the prudish set a heart attack.  Girdles were next, followed by bras - although the practical aspects of a brassier have kept them around even in the modern era.

For men, similar changes were in the works.  Garters and long socks went away, and the suit jacket, while still around, was worn less and less in the office. Waistcoats and vests were seen as old fashioned.  And John F. Kennedy made waves by going around without a hat!  Can you believe that?  The entire haberdashery industry disappeared nearly overnight.  As time progressed, "office casual" became the new formal - beige "chino" slacks and an izod-type knit shirt became the new uniform of the office set - until Silicon Valley overthrew even that when the $200 t-shirt became the new dress uniform of the tech world.  We are now literally wearing what in Victorian times would be considered underwear.

And it isn't hard to see why.  With the cost of energy so high, air conditioning - once the savior of mankind - is deemed too expensive, and thermostats are set now to 78 degrees, instead of a cool 70-72..  If you are in a suit, you'll be sweating all day long.  Of course, this lead to the conflict between men and women in the office - women in short skirts and nylons complain it was "too cold" in the office, at a time when men still had to wear dress suits to work.  And not long ago, men wore dress suits everywhere - even to paint your house.  Even the "homeless" (who we called bums back then) wore a full suit and hat!

But again, it was colder back then, and wearing a suit on a 60-degree day wasn't onerous, it kept you warm.  But today?  Call it global warming, call it the move to the Sunbelt, call it historic temperature rises, we are losing more and more clothing at time progresses.

Frankly, I think global warming is a big part of it.  If you want "proof" of global warming, just look at the clothes we wore back then and compare them to today.  We are not shedding clothes because of new standards of "decency" - we are shedding clothes because its fucking hot outside.  And you can draw a straight line starting at the dawn of the industrial revolution to today.  As CO2 levels rise, we strip off another layer of clothing.

In 50 years, we will be naked - or wearing loin cloths.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Product Cycle Disparity - Cars Versus Electronics

Cars have a product lifetime of 15 years or so.  Electronics are often obsolete after three.

Back in the day - the 1990s or so - if you had big bucks, you could buy a car with a built-in factory cell phone, and by the 2000s, even a factory navigation system!  These "luxury" features no doubt sold new luxury cars, which were largely leased or traded-in every few years.   While they were selling features to the new-car buyer, they were largely irrelevant or even a nuisance to the second-hand buyer.

Our 2002 X5, for example, had a built-in infotainment system (long before they called it that) which comprised five modules scattered throughout the car - the CD changer, the Radio module, the headend display, the navigation CD player, and a box of CDs for all 50 States.   It was pretty clunky and only a few years after we bought the car secondhand, it started to fail, with the radio module shorting out when the dog tipped over her water dish (BMW, in its infinite wisdom, put this module under the spare tire, when there was plenty of room in the electronics "rack" above and behind the left wheel well) and the headend display started losing the very few pixels it had.  I ended up replacing it with a Pioneer aftermarket system, which worked well - even the steering wheel controls worked! - but would drain the battery dead in minutes if the engine wasn't running.

It also had a space in the armrest for a "cell phone" - analog of course - and buttons on the steering wheel to dial and hang up and so on.   This was long before the era of Bluetooth, of course. As a result, there was this oddly-shaped space in the armrest which made the compartment mostly unusable.

The car soldiered on for 15 years or so, but the electronics were obsolete in five.  Today, no one would tolerate having a navigation system that requires you change a CD when you cross State lines.  It is cumbersome and primitive.  Of course, modern built-in systems (which will also drain your battery dead in minutes, if the engine isn't running) rely on stored data, which you can sometimes update by removing a memory chip (KIA) or by paying the car dealer (Ford) $240 for the privilege (No Thanks!).  A lot of people are just noping out of built-in nav systems, as you can just use your cell phone instead.  And many modern cars allow you to "mirror" the cell phone display to the main display of the car.

My experience with screen mirroring is mixed, however.  I used to do that to show movies on my television screen (monitor) from my cell phone, but the phone would actually get hot from the effort of sending a rendered picture over the air.  It was easier to use the cell phone as a hot spot and then let the television surf the Internet and download and render the images.  Nevertheless, the idea of using the cell phone as the electronics "engine" and then communicating with the car via Bluetooth or screen mirroring makes more sense.  When the cell phone becomes obsolete, well, it is a lot cheaper to replace than a car. 

Oh, and Google Maps updates its maps for free - without having to burn a new chip.

So the problem is solving itself, perhaps?  Perhaps.  But then again, in ten years, a "Gen Alpha" person will look at Grandma's car and say, "What is this Bluetooth thing, anyway?  Do you need to see a dentist?"  Formats change and communications methods change.

I saw an ad for Chevrolet the other day and they were hyping their built-in electronics.  They were hyping their Apple interface (which apparently Ford got tired of paying licensing fees for) and also touted that the car had a "built-in hot spot!" - as if this was some novel feature and not something that has been offered for a decade or more.  And a useless feature as well.  Why?  Well your phone can function as a hotspot and may already be doing so.  Many phones - particularly Apple, default to hotspot "on" and many phone plans charge an extra fee to use this feature.  Many users - particularly Apple - have  no clue about this and walk around with their hotspot blaring and paying $20 a month for the privilege.

Granted, it is confusing.  I ask Mark to turn his hotspot "on" as my phone has run out of data.  He turns on the WiFi and says, "There, it's on!"

"I don't see it," I reply.  "But I turned the WiFi on!" he says.  "Not WiFi, Hotspot!" I say.

"Isn't that the Hotspot?" he replies.  We've had this same conversation many, many times, over the years.

"Think of it this way," I say, "The Hotspot is broadcasting to a phone or computer, while WiFi is receiving.  When you turn on your WiFi, it is looking for a HotSpot to receive data from.  When you turn on your HotSpot, it is broadcasting data to other devices, such as my phone!"

And yes, that is not accurate, as both devices are communicating two-ways.  However, given the asymmetrical nature of the Internet (upload narrow, download wide) it sort of makes sense.  And you can't have both WiFi and HotSpot turned on at the same time on your phone (Otherwise you could log into yourself!).

So touting that your car has a "Hotspot!" is sort of dumb.  How exactly does that work?  A Hotspot, by definition, has to have some link to the Internet, via a cell-phone connection.  So if your car has a built-in "HotSpot" then you have to pay a subscription fee to a cell phone provider (and there are two different networks that are incompatible - which one works with the built-in Hotspot?).  Moreover, you can buy a hotspot for as little as $99 (as I did with my poverty HotSpot) and pay as little as $25 a month for 100GB of data.

To me, it makes more sense to have the electronics separate from the car - and maybe this is the way the industry is going.  Your navigation, entertainment, internet, and whatnot are provided by your phone, and the car just provides a display and a stereo system - sort of like your television and sound bar.

Speaking of which, it seems silly to me that they sell televisions with presets for various streaming services (no doubt, the services pay to have this done).  Some services take off, others fade away, but the television remains.  We use a cheap netbook to load the streaming service "apps" and then use the external HDMI output to drive the television.  It works so much better than the built-in "apps" (all three of them) that came with the TV - and won't go obsolete so quickly.  So in a way, keep the technology separate from the display and sound system.

Like I said, maybe the problem is solving itself, as newer cars have these interfaces which allow you to use the phone for the technology, leaving the car to merely act as a display.  But since Ford charges $240 to update the GPS, maybe it is removing a profit center for them.  Maybe that's why they are phasing out ApplePlay from their platform.  Or maybe it is just one of these mundane money disputes like the CableCos have with content providers, every year or so.  Who knows?

Our cars are 7 and 8 years old, respectively.  So far, the electronics are not obsolete, but they are dated.  Neither has a screen mirroring feature, which is OK with me.  Both have Bluetooth, so you can at least have audio cues from Google Maps (on your phone) play over the car's stereo.  The nice thing about this kind of arrangement is that if Google Maps becomes yesterday's news, well, you can just load a different app instead.

But I suspect in five or ten years, they will come up with a new form of communication for your phone, and over time, things like Bluetooth will go the way of the CD player (which, inexplicably, our truck still has!) and some new format for communication will emerge - perhaps one that allows for screen mirroring without baking your phone and running the battery dead.

Maybe paying extra for built-in electronics, though, isn't necessarily a swell idea, when they become obsolete so quickly.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Reddit Dead Redemption

Is Reddit dying - or just dead?

Recently, there has been a lot of hoopla over the "social media" site Reddit and its efforts to monetize API's and the subsequent "strike" by volunteer moderators.  All this on the eve of a proposed IPO and, well, you can sort of suss out where it is going.

What the hell is Reddit?  It is sort of a mix between social media and a discussion group.  Originally, people posted links to articles they read online, hence the name Reddit, as in, I read it.  But over time, it morphed into something not quite like usergroups or 4chan - and not like Facebook or Twitter.  Rather, it has become a site of sites - different "subreddits" with discussion groups for various topics, from online games to offline games to femboy porn to gun fetishes to anime fetishes and other earth-shattering stuff you no doubt want to read every day.

They also have a subreddit for "news" which is somewhat useful in that it sort of provides a synopsis of breaking news stories.  The Achilles heel of the site is that every posting is upvoted and downvoted by users, so popular dreck floats to the top of the septic tank, and stuff maybe that isn't popular but should be read sinks to the bottom.

The site is anonymous, which is to say, you can make up a user name and post nasty things and in most cases, it can't be traced back to you.  So, people post nasty things - it is the inevitable consequence of online postings, even when your real name is used.  When anonymous?  All hell breaks loose!

The site is also prone to bots and brigading - where people use 'bot accounts to massively upvote postings and make them show up on the first page.  During the 2016 election, they used this technique to push Trump SPAM to the front page every day.  If you were from another planet and looked only at Reddit, you might think that Donald Trump was the smartest guy on the planet, and that the three most popular sports on planet Earth were gaming, Formula 1 racing, and mixed-martial-arts.  It is hardly a cross-section of America or the world.

To counteract the bots and SPAM, as well as doxxing, swatting, and just general nastiness - and keep it from turning into 4chan, they instituted a moderation system.  Prior to that, Reddit - which was owned by Conde Naste (New Yorker) had "subreddits" with titles such as "Watching [Black People] Die" - except they didn't use the term "Black People."  Yea, it was 4chan back then.  Free Speech!  Right?  Yuk.

So they "hired" these moderators who were unpaid, but could ban people from a subreddit for bad behavior, as well as delete postings and whatnot.  They also deleted several subreddits that were racist or advocated violence or showed gore or were just bot farms for Donald Trump.   This improved the site much, but some argue that it is now leaning far to the Left these days - or is that just a reflection of the world, once you remove Vladmir Putin's bots and trolls?

So what's the big deal?  Well, like most social media sites (e.g., Twitter) it isn't making any money, or if it is, not enough to justify a decent share price - and they want to do an IPO and cash out.  They were allowing "third party apps" to access the site through an API - Application Programming Interface - to download millions of postings per day and then present them through their own third party app.

What's the problem with that? Well, Reddit makes money from advertisements and also subliminal promotions posing as postings from users.  The third party apps stripped the ads from the downloaded content and then presented the excised content to their own users, and inserting their own advertisements they were paid for.  I mean, what's not to like for Reddit?

I noted before that Cable Companies have to pay retransmission rights to networks that transmit over-the-air signals. In the early days of cable, this was not the case, and networks, if anything, were happy their signals were getting to a larger audience, which increased their ad rates.  But over time, the networks realized that they were often the reason people got cable TV to begin with (particularly Fox viewers) so they demanded fees for carrying their channels - and got them.  Not insubstantial fees, either!

Now imagine a Cable Company saying to Fox News, "We're not going to pay you anything for retransmission rights to our content!  Moreover, we're going to take your content, remove the ads and insert ads of our own!  How do you think that would play with Mr. Murdoch?  Lawsuits would result - and the Cable Companies would lose, too - the issue was long-ago decided.

So Reddit proposed charging these third-party apps a substantial fee ($20M per month) which was more than the app developers were making.  What that meant was, the third-party apps would have to shut down and have already done so. In response, the "moderators" of several subreddits have "gone on strike" and are no longer allowing anything to be posted on their subreddits.  Of course, this is only effective until they are removed as moderators, which Reddit hasn't done yet, but will probably do in the near future.

All of this, of course, is casting a shadow over the IPO as negative publicity is never good, and it calls into question the profitability of the site as a whole.

But I think there are other systemic problems with the site which may kill it off over time.  Like I said, the term Reddit meant "I read it" and was accompanied by a link to an article and this in turn generated discussion.  Over time, however, the "articles" became more and more links to YouTube, Twitter, Tick-Tock, Facebook, and other social media sites and fewer and fewer real articles - and the few that remained were behind paywalls.

Worse yet, many postings had no link to an article at all, but instead devolved into comment-bait, as I discussed before.  People would post long-winded stories about injustices that occurred to them and ask "Am I the asshole here?" which would generate a lot of comments - engagement - even through the long-winded story was probably made up. Lately, it seems these stories are generated by ChatGTP.

People post stories about "malicious compliance" or how they rage-quit or how their boss is an ass, or wedding fiascoes or how men are harassing them - or whatever.  That part of the site has become more and more like Dear Abby than "I read it" and increasingly, I suspect these stories are created by paid employees of Reddit to generate "content" and create "engagement" - which is what investors like to see in a website of any sort.

Still other postings are just garbage - stupid "memes" or just off the wall comments and youth slang. One common "engagement" tactic is to post something like, "What was your favorite television show from the 1990's?" - it is pure comment-bait! Not "I read it" but rather just a discussion group.  Why would I log on to read some anonymous comment about someone's favorite television show?  It isn't really informative, just an invitation to create content and generate engagement.

And the comments section?  Often just the same five people talking to each other and finishing each others' sentences.  Any posting about Hitler, for example, will have the witty retort, "I did Nazi that coming!" follow by a dozen more of the same old groan-inducing puns.  Maybe funny the first time, but after the 1000th repetition, well, boring.  And some of the comments are worse that the comment section on YouTube - even with "moderation."

Why do people do this?  Karma.  Reddit awards "Karma" points for every posting you make, and in many subreddits, you cannot post until you have so many "Karma" points.  Supposedly, if you get enough Karma, your posts become more and more visible, and you can sell your username and password to 3rd parties, who will then use this "reach" to post subliminal ads on the site.  Or you can get paid to insert postings subliminally promoting a product, like Fallout 4.

I am not sure this is true or not, but users like "Beerbellybegone" are on the site every day and their postings are always floating to the top of the Reddit septic tank.  Is this even one guy?  Who knows? Who cares?

And maybe that is the point behind this whole "API" controversy at Reddit, which apparently has involved John Oliver of all people (who I assume would not consent to his content being accessed, stripped of ads, and rebroadcast for profit by a third party).  Maybe we are being trolled here, to raise awareness of the site before the IPO drops.  After all, if everyone is talking about it, it must be important!

And here I go and add to the problem by writing about it.

These sort of sites have a story arc - they start out as obscure websites and hardly anyone visits them.  Then, word-of-mouth spreads, it becomes hip with the kids, and it gains traction.  Older people log on, after reading an article about it in the paper - either talking about increasing use of the site, or some controversy about it.  There is no such thing as bad publicity on the Internet.   Then it gets SPAMed to death and the site owners struggle to deal with that, which costs money as you have to basically hire people to read every entry and decide whether it violates the rules or not.   Eventually, the owners of the site want to cash out and either sell to some conglomerate that basically ruins it, or they do an IPO and have to monetize the shit out of the site in order to justify the stock price.

Meanwhile, your audience has moved on to the next bright shiny object on the Internet - and there are a host of bright shiny objects out there, too.

I liked the comics subreddit, but it had its issues as well.  Since what you see is based on "votes" an unpopular but decent comic strip might never appear on the site.  Like most of the online world, misogyny abounds, so comics by women are downvoted (unless they are "hot") because you know, women are incapable of being funny.  Incels strike again.  More and more comic artists will move their strips to other sites, such as Instagram, GoComics, or their own website, where they can control content, comments, and advertising revenue.  They may use Reddit to drive users to their own site, but often, they find their own content in the trash bin of downvoted oblivion.  As a result, you see the same three comics always at the top of the page - not necessarily the three best comics, either.  Bad taste or bots at work?  Hard to say.

Sounds like time for the next bright shiny thing!