Thursday, August 31, 2023

Dear Protesters: Please Stop "Helping!"

Climate change is real.  Performing oddball annoying stunts isn't going to stop it.

A recent video circulating on the Internet shows a Nevada police officer breaking up a "climate protest" where people blocked a highway to protest carbon emissions (never mind the 300 idling cars that added to the problem!).  The officer raced to the scene, drove through the protest and then started arresting protesters.


I noted before that I had the privilege of working with some researchers at NOAA, who are devising instruments to measure our climate worldwide - satellite sensors, local sensors - even tsunami sensorsThey do this to collect raw data, not to "prove" a predetermined theory, but to provide raw data so that researchers can then create theories from this data, and then do further data collection to confirm or refute their theories.

Data drives the theories, not vice-versa.  And the data clearly shows something is happening. The world is getting warmer, whether we want to admit it or not.  And given the recent summer temperatures, do you not at least think this is possible?

The point is, whether you "believe" that billions of people haven't affected our environment one iota or not, blocking roadways is not a good way to convince people of a cause.

Well, it was the road to "Burning Man," so maybe it was a good idea after all.  Just kidding.

It is akin to PETA petitioning the town of "Fishkill, NY" to change its name because who wants to kill the nice little fishies - or as PETA calls them, "sea kittens."  The problem is, that whole "leatherstocking" region (which I just spent a few days in) has dozens of towns named " -kill" which is an old Dutch word meaning "stream or creek."  It was a stupid stunt, among dozens of stupid stunts that PETA has done.

And the message they got across? Animal lovers are lunatics and Vegans are insane. That's what people think - how people think.  PETA might as well be a PR firm for the meat industry. It is why so many people still support Trump - they are convinced that all Democrats are transgender "groomers" and some "trans activists" have done some stupid stunts which have re-affirmed the impression Trump voters already have - that Democrats are crazy.

Climate change is a serious thing, and not something that should be attached to frivolous and obnoxious protests.  The "activists" convinced nobody of the correctness of their cause - in fact, I wonder whether they are, in fact, funded by the Koch brothers or Exxon-Mobil. Why not?  They are doing the oil business a big favor by painting climate change as something only stupid and crazy people believe in.

So please, protesters - of all stripes - go home and stop "helping." You are not helping by making issues seem frivolous and their supporters stupid.

And everyone - outside of your drum circle - thinks you're stupid.  Really Stupid!

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Dude! Where's My Cybertruck?

Flat sheetmetal is the hardest to fabricate - and keep flat!  There is a reason old cars were rounded.

When I was a student at GMI, one of our professors was talking about sheetmetal working and explained why the cars of the 1930's through the 1950's all had round, bulbous looks to them.  If you stamp sheetmetal in a curve, it is actually stronger than it would be when flat, and will hold its shape better.  Best of all, it won't "oilcan" on you - a problem with flat metal that occurs when the metal bounces between two equilibrium states.

You've seen it before.  In a stage play, they shake a piece of sheetmetal to simulate the effect of thunder (not convincingly, to me).  I had a friend who loaned his Cadillac SUV to a pal, who promptly backed it into a ditch.  They had it repaired, but it was never the same. The rear roof panel (flat) would "oilcan" every time they went over a bump, making that characteristic noise - and it is almost impossible to fix.

In the late 1950's, car makers started doing "deep draw" stampings to make tail fins.  They pushed the sheetmetal art to the limits.  Of course, back then, "body lead" was used to fill in seams (such as where the roof met the "C" pillar) and a lot of cars had a lot of lead in them.  Chrysler Imperials famously had no body seams - they were filled with lead.  By the 1970s and 1980s, the "square" look came into vogue, and this created challenges for Engineers.  Large flat sections of sheetmetal would tend to oilcan, so they put creases and folds into the body to prevent this.  Even so....

I went to work at Carrier in the air handling lab, where we built and tested prototype air handlers.  These were big sheetmetal boxes with a big fan in them (and a coil).  To keep them from oil-canning, we would cross-break (or cross-buck) the sheetmetal.  Later, we devised a method of embossing ribs in the metal, which allowed us to use thinner metal.  You see this technique used on things like "Jerry" cans used to hold gasoline on the back of a jeep.  Ribs strengthen the metal, much as cross-breaking does (only better).

So, anyone who has tortured sheetmetal, as they used to call it at GM, knows that making a vehicle with nothing but flat surfaces is bound to be trouble.  The flat panels will "oilcan" unless you make them really thick, which is too heavy and expensive, or back them with ribs or embossing them.  Moreover, it will be harder to maintain dimensional stability with flat panels, making door and hood seems look uneven.

Tesla announced its childishly named "Cybertruck" years ago, in a product announcement famous for Elon Musk breaking the "unbreakable" windows. It was fortunate they were breakable, as an unbreakable window could trap passengers inside, if the vehicle caught fire (which of course Teslas never do).  He touted the truck as having an "exoskeleton" when in fact, it was just a typical unibody - something pickup truck buyers would avoid (other than perhaps, the Honda "pickup" which even has a fake body seam in it to make it appear the bed is mounted to a frame, when in fact, the "truck" is based on the Odyssey minivan).

The truck has been delayed for years now, and in the meantime, Rivian has started production and sold trucks (I have seen several on the road now) and Ford and GM are offering electric versions of their standard pickups.  Why Tesla is late to market is a good question, but a recent Tweet on TWITTER from Musk hints as to why.  He claims the truck looks like crap as the flat panels don't meet up well and minor imperfections in flat sheetmetal show up more easily.  Any Engineer coulda toldya that.

His solution?  To make the sheetmetal in tolerances higher than used in ball-bearings.  It is a ridiculous Tweet as any Engineer could tell you that the staggering cost of making body panels to instrumentation specs is a pointless waste of money.  Just add some creases or curves, and the panels will look good and fit.  Flat panels - even if you could make them to micron tolerances, would be a nightmare to repair, even for the tiniest of dents.

But maybe this is just an excuse to delay the production of the "Cybertruck" indefinitely - while shoring up the stock price.  Know-nothings on the Internet buy Tesla stock (and AMC and Gamestop) and tell each other the price will keep going up.  I saw one posting online claiming that AMC stock will go up to $1000 a share, when it is languishing at $12 right now.  There is no secret sauce or "moat" to running movie theaters, which are a dying brick-and-mortar business anyway.  But that didn't stop them from being patsies in a grand pump-and-dump.

Similarly, Tesla stock was hyped to the stratosphere and is finally coming back to Earth.  The "World's Richest Man" was rich only on paper, and he blew most of that buying TWITTER.  I saw a posting online from a fan-boy showing the "Cybertruck" leaving the Tesla factory, behind a Model X.  "See?" he said, "It's in production already!"  In fact, it is not.  But you see how they spread these rumors to prop up the stock price.

Worldwide, we see this nonsense.  Evergrande is trading again and lost 80% of its value overnight.  Entire cities of empty buildings have been built in China, and no one actually lives in them - they are the tulip bulbs or crypto-currency of condos.  And the longer this bubble goes on, the worst it will be when it bursts - and it is bursting now.  Similar bubbles are happening in the USA and in particular, Canada, where housing prices have reached ridiculous proportions for no apparent reason (although Chinese buyers are one aspect of this, yet again).

Frankly, I am shocked that newbie Rivian is actually selling pickup trucks before Tesla.  But I think Rivian may be in for a rough time if the economy declines.  As I noted before, I am getting flooded with e-mails from every retailer I have ever done business with begging me to buy more "stuff."

I see a slap of reality, 2008-style, coming around the bend.  The longer people want to believe in fantasies, the worse it will be.  Putin believes he can take over the world - and yet half his army has been destroyed, using surplus equipment various Western countries have sent to the Ukraine.  MAGA-hats think that Donald Trump is some sort of financial genius who will "save America" by turning it into a totalitarian State ("FREE-DUM!" - ironic, isn't it?).

We are due for a wake-up call. The alarm keeps going off, but we keep hitting the "snooze" button and go back to dreaming - for just a little bit longer.


Note the duct tape covering the panel gaps. Note also the awkward transition to the windshield frame - like a DeLorean someone made in their back yard.  Notice how the driver's door panel is oil-canning.  What a mess.  A few creases or body lines would fix a lot of this.  The rest of it looks just as bad.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Well, Duh! Of Course It's Russia!

To suggest that Russia doesn't meddle in our internal affairs is idiotic.  Every country tries to influence politics in every other country!

A recent article online states what everyone already knows - that Russia is meddling in our internal affairs by using unwitting Americans to parrot their party lines, conspiracy theories, and just generally disruptive nonsense, such as the class and gender warfare you see online these days.

As I noted, every country tries to do this - we've had a long history of meddling in the politics of Latin American countries, sometimes swaying elections, other times simply invading or fomenting a coup when the locals don't vote the way we think they should have.  What is different about Russia is that they've done a particularly good job on us, not by swaying elections directly, but by creating division among us.  The hyper-partisanship and outright anger we see today comes directly from Russian trolls.  Well, not directly, but through third parties - Americans co-opted into parroting their lines.  And sadly, perhaps even I have been snagged in this net, as "readers" encourage me to post on one topic or another.

Again, the main thing they have been good at is divisiveness.  They don't come out with poorly-written and translated comments on social media saying, "Russia good!  West bad!" as that is too obvious.  No, rather, they are behind things like this "incel" movement, which attracts mentally ill young men who spend all day online in their parents' basement.  They tell them they are entitled to a lot of things (that minorities have "taken away" from them, of course!) including "females" but only "high value" ones without a "body count."  These sorts of young men make excellent wind-up soldiers and they eventually "go off" - and since they have been encouraged to become gun nutz, they are well armed for a school shooting or mock civil war.

So, how does that help Russia? It doesn't, directly. But it creates this tension in America, where everyone is on edge. Women are now scared of men, and men feel they can treat women as chattel - and our outraged when that doesn't work.  The net result is a "loneliness epidemic" as everyone retreats behind their smart phones and texting.  It tears down society at its very roots.

The class warfare and student loan thing is similar.  You see postings online all the time telling of dire financial scenarios that make no sense at all.  "My parents took out student loans in my name and now I have to pay them back!" cries one - claiming this is a common occurrence.  Financial abuse like that is indeed more common than we think, but you don't have to pay back a loan you never took out.  This may require you take your parents to court, however.

Others claim they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars after getting a Master's degree in English Literature, Art, Philosophy, Anthropology, or some other major for which there is little, if any, job market.  Again, these are outliers - the average student loan debt in America is less than the cost of a decent new car.  "How will I ever pay off $25,000!" one laments.  But likely they will spend more than that on more than one car in their lifetime.

Of course, the rooskies are playing both sides of the field here.  They then use "student loan forgiveness" as a cudgel to whack the blue-collar workers, claiming that "their tax dollars" are going to pay the debts of some layabout college boy with blue hair who can't hold down a job at a coffee shop.  Divide and conquer - the oldest game in the book.

The gun thing is also amplified by Russia - and they are bringing it to Canada as well.  I am not sure if you've been paying attention to our neighbors to the North, but they've lost their minds as of late - clogging main streets with "convoys" protesting CoVid mandates that expired months earlier.  They are systematically destroying their vaunted national health care system and then claiming it is "broken" and should be replaced with a "privatized" system like we have in America, which has worked out so well for us (the same tactics are being used in the UK as well).

It is a time-honored technique used here in America - gut a social benefit program so that it will intentionally fail, then claim it was flawed from the get-go.  Coming soon to a Social Security Office near you!   And yes, when I was young, I never saw the point of Social Security, but that is the line they feed young people; "You'll never live to collect it, so let's abolish it now!"  To the guy paying the payroll tax, it sounds inviting - until they get old or disabled.

Now granted, there are people in the USA who organically believe in such issues - that we need to gut social welfare programs and legalize automatic weapons (which technically, are legal, just hard to come by). But what the Russians are so good at is amplifying extremist views and bringing them into the mainstream discourse.

This entire "trans" thing is a case in point.  It is a trivial issue, really, affecting a small number of people.  And a few "activists" are taking the extreme position that gender-changing medical care should be provided to anyone, free of charge, even to minors. It is "life-saving" care as otherwise people would kill themselves.  Nice try, but that is just hostage-taking.  The troll farms have taken this and run with it, making it sound like every "trans" person wants to compete in woman's sports and break records and deny scholarships to women.   The reality is, not many "trans" people are that extreme, most just want to be left alone.  And in the greater world, even people on the far-left are not as extreme as these trolls make them out to be.

But that's the point - paint the opposition as a bunch of maniacs, and you can get people to vote for you - and not examine, too closely, who you really are or what your agenda really is.  We had this guy Santos, for example, get elected when no one knew who he really was, other than he had an (R) next to his name - which for some is all they care about.  In another election in North Carolina, a Republican plant runs for office in a Democratic district, and the only thing voters care about is the (D) after her name.  Once in office, voters find out they voted for a fraud, in both cases.  They were distracted by bullshit.

Sadly, most of us have no time to investigate the background of candidates.  Political parties act as a shorthand for political positions - so you vote the party and hope their policies lean in your direction.  People act shocked, however, when it turns out the party turns on them, as is happening in Florida and Texas/  "I didn't vote for this!" they wail, .but they still vow never to vote Democratic.  Better off to starve to death than let them win!

You see how the Russkies have flummoxed us so well.  They have turned political parties into tribes - tribes that worship political leaders (one far more than the other) and no longer are concerned with a coherent political philosophy, other than what favors the leader.

Job well done, Russians!  Do we fall for this trick forever?

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Why Antiques Roadshow is Evil!

Hoarding disorder is a real problem.  Television shows which claim all your junk is priceless are not helping!

We were walking into P-town the other day and passed this building that was five garages in a row.  I had presumed that the people who live in this crowded tourist town were parking their cars there, but on this day, two of the garage doors were open and they were filled with junk.  A young man was trying to pull things out and sell them to passers-by, but was not very organized and was asking ridiculous prices for things.

From what I could divine, the two garages were rented by a relative or partner who had passed away, and this young man had to settle the estate and vacate the garages by the end of the month.  The next day, we stopped by and there was a huge dumpster out front, with all the contents of the garages neatly stacked inside.  Apparently he had rented other garages as well, as that dumpster was empty the next day and then filled the next.

And it was all junk.  No precious antiques or collectibles, but just worn-out crap that had little or no value.  Old doors, for example - and not antique ones, either.  An "old" record player that turned out to be one of these "Crosley" knock-offs they sell at WalMart for $50.  Old downhill skis, which were worth a lot of money back in 1972, but were worn out and woefully outdated by now.   I saw someone make an Adirondack chair from old skis once, so I guess there's that.   Broken chairs, cracked mirrors, nothing much of value.  We did snag a picnic basket, so I guess it wasn't all garbage. There was a heavy duty "old lady shopping cart" - the kind you see old ladies taking home their groceries in - but we had no room for it in the camper, or need for it at home, so we left it behind.

I suppose the young man could have sold more of this stuff if he advertised on Craigslist or Facebook and organized it a little better (and spent some time doing it).  But frankly, I suspect at most, he might have realized only a few hundred dollars for several days' work.  In a town where a beer costs $12, it ain't worth it.   So, off to the dumpster it all went, and the years and years of rent paid was all down the toilet.  The same is true for most storage lockers - more money is paid in rent over the years than the contents are ever worth.  And I know this because the guy who runs the local storage locker company told me so.  "Hoarding disorder is good for business!" he said, and business is good as hoarding is on the rise.

So what does this have to do with Antiques Roadshow?  Well, Antiques Roadshow is just the high-tone button-down liberal version of storage wars.  It is just people ooh-ing and aah-ing over the crap they pulled from Grandma's attic, and the "values at auction" numbers the "experts" pull out of their ass.

And yes, sometimes the junk they bring in is actually valuable and more importantly, attractive.  Sadly, a lot of lesser antiques (and even valuable ones) are ugly as sin.   Even the colonial-era hand-made furniture in places such as the Dupont estate Winterthur, is, well, kind of ugly to modern tastes.  Decorators derisively refer to it as "brown furniture" and unless it is a real antique, it is worth nothing in today's market - less than nothing really, as you have to pay to have it hauled away.

The problem with Antiques Roadshow is the same as Storage Wars - it sends this normative cue or poverty story that the trash in your attic comprises precious collectibles and you can't just throw it away. Sadly, many middle-class people succumb to this myth, which is reinforced by shows like Antiques Roadshow and Storage Wars.

The worst part of Roadshow is the salivating greed of the clueless dweebs who appear on the show.  The bring Grandma's ugly old lamp and then wait with bated breath for the official pronouncement that it is worth thousands - maybe millions!  Tellingly, none of the "appraisers" ever offer to buy the item in question.  And no doubt, not many auction houses are interested, either.

Sure, there are rare - very rare - instances where someone finds an original copy of the Declaration of Independence stuffed behind an old photo in a picture frame.  But since Normal Lear already has one, I doubt there are others lined up to pay for yours - which is a cheap copy handed out as promotion with Readers Digest in 1958.

Keeping a lot of old junk around, or worse yet, paying to store it, on the premise that it might be valuable is shortsighted and leads to hoarding disorder in short order.  And hoarding disorder is a mental illness that, if not caused by depression, will surely lead you to it.

I guess I would not be so against Antiques Roadshow if it was really about antiques and not just the "price reveal" that they tease everyone with.  It is sort of beneath Public Television to even air the program.  About as low-brow as professional wrestling, and about as fake.  Nothing wrong with that, on your basic cable channels, I guess, but on PBS?  I thought that was supposed to be intellectual!

But once again, Public Broadcasting lets me down and is, of course, no longer public.  The local stations raise money from telethons, which in turn basically raise enough money to support the fundraising costs.  The real money is from advertisements sponsorships from major corporations who want you to be depressed good little consumers.  I am surprised the storage industry doesn't sponsor it, but it is a localized business.

But then again, I should not be so shocked.  PBS has become just another broadcasting network, and they pander - like every other network - to the lowest common denominator.  It was bad enough that "This Old House" turned living space into some sort of investment or fetish to be polished and fussed over.  And of course, they have that radio "car" show for people who hate cars - but want to listen to jokes and riddles.

Sure, once in a while there is some good content.  But on the whole, it seems like PBS is sending us the same messages of consumerism and materialism that the the Fox network does.  We've come a long way from local public broadcasting!

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Unnecessary Rushing!

Why are some people in such a hurry for no reason?

We stopped by the Stop & Shop in Provincetown, after doing some laundry.  We had a few things to get and then off to the beach.  What puzzled us was the intense stress level of the other shoppers, who seemed to be in a rush for some reason.  There was the usual crap that seems to be part of human behavior - line-humping, for example (which as we know, makes the line go faster!).

The other day, Mark stopped in the same store for about $10 worth of stuff and the cashier grabbed his card and jammed it in the reader - on a tap-to-pay machine!  I have learned that chip-reader terminals, particularly the well-worn kind at grocery stores, as sensitive, and you have to carefully slide the card in and let it do its thing.  If you put it in at an angle, it gets an intermittent contact and generates a "bad card" error message.

So anyway, the clerk - like most employees in this resort town, from Bulgeria - kept jamming the card in and banging on the terminal - with predictable effects.  The homeless bum behind Mark in line (who no doubt, has many urgent errands to run!) shouted at Mark, "Why don't you just pay cash and avoid all this trouble?"

Everyone is in a hurry.

And the problem is, it is contagious.  We were struggling to strap in our groceries onto our bicycles and Mark was pushing me to hurry it up as the other bicyclists were jamming their groceries in and taking off, as if this was a leg of the Tour de France and they needed to get back in the race.  I kind of lost it.

"Look," I said, "I'm not going to drop $50 of groceries all over the ground because of some manufactured 'hurry'!  We have no place to be, no place to go, and have all the time in the world - as I suspect most of these idiots do as well.  Let me pack this stuff carefully, so we don't drop a dozen eggs on the ground!"

And he relented.  It is easy to get caught up in the "rat race" as the other lemmings rush off the cliff.  City folks are worst at this, and most of the tourists in this town are from big cities (New York, Boston) as that's the only people who can afford to pay $50 for an entree or $35 for a lobster roll.

But it got me to thinking and us to talking.  Mark noticed the  level of panic at the "Stop & Shop" - whose very name seemed to decry casual shopping.  More like a pit stop at NASCAR.  We've seen this in other venues as well - such as rest stops, where people feel the need to rush in and out, so they can "win" at urinating, I guess.

Haste makes Waste, and I realize that in life, when mistakes are made, it is usually because someone was in a hurry - and there was no real reason to be in a hurry, either.  There was no deadline, or if there was, there was plenty of time to get things done, but of course, we procrastinate.  When you drop a bag of groceries on the floor, it is usually because you were trying to carry too much and not being careful.  And in most cases, there was no need for haste.

I talked about this before - living in the future.  We want to fast-forward through "boring" parts of life, and get to the good parts.  On the way home from work, our minds are already home and thinking about what to do to relax and have fun after a day at the office.  Mentally, we are already home, but still have 10 miles to drive.  So we hurry and don't pay attention and very, very bad things happen.  If you analyze most car accidents, they occur because someone was trying to "save time" and I suspect that in 99.99% of cases, they had no reason to hurry.

It is like the guy who "brake checks" an 18-wheeler.  He's in a hurry and is pissed-off the truck is taking so long to pass!  He is in a hurry, but has the time to dick around with a 50,000lb truck, engage in road-rage, or just get run over.  The point is, he wasn't in that much of a hurry, was he?  If he was, he would pass the truck and move on with life.

We race through life toward the grave, it seems, as the above video shows.  But I am not sure that playing more video games is the real answer.  In fact that and other time-wasters (such as watching television or blogging) are just fill-ins to keep you occupied while you race toward oblivion.   It is like commuting, as I just noted, a time-waster designed to fill up your life and what some people secretly covet as their favorite time of day - the time when they can be alone, in charge of this powerful machine, and set the radio station where they want it.  Drive-time radio was so lucrative back in the day, as a result.  Today, I guess people listen to podcasts while they work from home.

As I get older, I need more time to get things done, simply because I can't rush around like a young person.  Well, I can, but I end up dropping the eggs.  But there is something more than that, too.  I have no desire to rush things, and I want to live in the moment, even if the moment is just picking out which heads of garlic to buy.  The younger me would be surely pissed to be in line behind older me.

Funny thing, though, younger me had no pressing business and no place to be and literally all the time in the world.  Now that the days are running out, I don't want to rush through this last phase.  I am in no race to the graveyard, thank you.

I don't know what the point of this is, but maybe it is a good idea to slow down a bit and think carefully about that you are doing - and live in the moment.  The people who want to con you or steal from you - whether they are in a call-center in India, or a pickpocket on the subway, or a major corporation trying to rip you off - don't want you to live in the moment.  They hope you are distracted - which is the magician's trick to deceive you.  They hope you are thinking about something else and not your surroundings or immediate environment.

Maybe, just maybe, slow down and live a little!

Friday, August 25, 2023


Getting older can be a bittersweet experience.

When I first met Mr. See, we used to go for walks and bike rides - and still do.  But one complaint he always had was that I walked too fast or rode my bike too fast. "I have shorter legs!" he said, "I can't keep up!"   I callously replied, "Well, just walk faster!"

Fast-forward 36 years and the shoe is on the other foot.  I can't walk as fast as I used to, nor bike-ride at crazy speeds.  After a while, it feels like my knees are on fire - and I generally get tired out a lot sooner.  It is the consequence of 63 years of living and arthritis brought on by gout.  Everything hurts.

So now it is me saying, "Slow down! I can't keep up!" and Mr. See saying, callously, "Just walk faster!"

He waited 36 years to say this.

It didn't happen overnight, but I guess I failed to notice he no longer was having trouble keeping up.  I guess I thought he learned how to "walk faster" and not that I was walking slower.  Then, one day, it's "hold up!" as I fell behind.

It is kind of bittersweet and I realize that life does not go on forever.  We try to exercise, but the clock of time cannot be turned back.  We went kayaking across the bay the other day, which was quite a workout.  We went for a walk of over 10,000 steps.  We've been riding bike everywhere.  It is good to keep moving, to be sure.  But it does get harder as you get older.

As I noted before, there is point of no return in mobility.  People sit at desks and sit in cars and sit at home watching Fox News.  Before long, they are no longer ambulatory and even getting up from a chair is a difficult and painful experience marked by a lot of groaning and wheezing.  So people sit more and become even more immobile.  Before long, they can barely walk.

We see this all the time, older people - sometimes younger than us - walking with this rocking motion from side to side, like toddlers making their first steps.  I Googled it online and apparently it is related to hip joint and muscle problems.  You feel sorry for such folks - they can barely walk anymore.

Or at a rest stop, watch a professional trucker climb down from his cab and walk to the restroom.  Sitting in a chair all day long, with the hypertension of driving - high heart rate, high blood pressure, but no real exercise.  Those dudes can barely walk, it seems, although after a few minutes, they seem to limber up.

It doesn't happen suddenly, but you notice it suddenly.  As a youth, we spring out of bed in the morning with hardly a thought as to whether it was difficult or not, because it wasn't.  Age 40 rolls around and suddenly, getting up in the morning is a process that takes time.

Not sure what the point of this is, other than to enjoy the time you have, as life is pretty short.  Get off the couch while you can!

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Banality of Slavery

The physical violence of slavery is almost matched by the psychological violence.

(from Tom the Dancing Bug)

There is sort of a trope, in American literature and music, about "The Old South" that was popular for the previous generation and also in my childhood.  Southern authors were celebrated for their books about "the Old South" - authors such as Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Thomas Wolfe (You Can't Go Home Again),  and even Truman Capote (Other Voices, Other Rooms) - in a style known as "Southern Gothic" which was quite popular by mid-Century.

These sort of stories glamorized the Old South, while minimizing the evils of slavery. Of course, modern publishers would insist that such "Southern Gothic" stories have some sort of moral about the injustice of slavery and racism, but that didn't mean the authors themselves were apologetic for it.  Shortly before her death, Harper Lee authorized publication of an earlier version of Mockingbird, known as Go Set a Watchman, which tells a similar story from years in the future.  Atticus Finch is no longer a campaigner for racial justice, but part of the problem in the South. He wants to make sure his client gets a fair trial before they lynch him.

Music of "The Old Southland" was also popular up North, from Vaudeville times onward.  Songs such as "When It's Sleepytime Down South" perpetuate the myth of happy-go-lucky slaves singing in the fields, and "Mammy falling to her knees" (whatever that means!):

Dear old southland with its dreamy songs
Take me back where I belong
Right here in my mammy's arms
When it's sleepy time down south

The lyrics were sanitized over time, particularly after Louis Armstrong got some push-back for performing the song (apparently dressed as a slave, even).  But if you read the lyrics, you can figure out who the "folks" are, "singing soft and low" (no doubt while they picked cotton).

Music like this and literature in the "Southern Gothic" tradition perpetuate the myth that maybe slavery (and Jim Crow) weren't all that bad.  After all, the happy-go-lucky Negroes had no worries, and their masters were teaching them job skills - at least according to new Florida textbooks.

Even movies perpetuated this lie.  In the 1967 film, In The Heat of the Night, Southern lawmen were shown as racists, but also redeemed, by the end of the film, by "doing the right thing" - which is in stark contrast to how freedom riders and marchers were assaulted and even murdered by law enforcement at the time.  Sadly, not much has changed, in that regard, in 50 years.

Of course, this "Old Southland" trope is all a lie. The weird thing about slavery was not the violence and abuse - there was plenty of that, as you might expect when someone owns someone else.  As a slave-owner, you could do anything you liked with your slaves - rape them, or beat them to death.  One of the "attractions" on a tour of New Orleans is the house of a madwoman who was famous for abusing her slaves.  While citizens were outraged by it, not much was ever done about it, either.  Property didn't have civil rights.

But more subtle things were just as bad and illustrate the banality of evil as well.  The scion of a slave-owning family might be raised by his "Mammy" who would care for him and even discipline him as a boy.  Later, when he grows up and inherits the plantation, he ends up owning his "Mammy" and her entire family.  House slaves (also known under other names) were generally treated better than field slaves, and yes, maybe they could take liberties a field slave would never dare to think of.  But these positions could change overnight.

For example, you read stories from the "Old Southland" about boys growing up together and playing - and fighting - and doing all the things boys do, except that one is the son of the plantation owner, and the other is a son of a slave.  One boy goes away to military school, the other goes to work in the fields.  When the plantation owner dies, his son inherits it all, including his best friend from childhood.  Remember when we used to play together and wrestle down by the creek?  Well, now I own you and I can rape your wife if I want to.  That is just weird.

But not unheard of in human history, as indeed, the history of slavery goes all the way back to the Old Testament (and beyond) and even back then, people had odd relationships with their slaves and were ruthlessly violent with them as well.

In more modern times, we saw this repeated.  The Nazis established concentration camps to murder millions of people.  But at the same time, they would employ camp inmates to build weapons or roads or harvest crops - or even cook and clean for them.  One day, someone is waiting on you during dinner, the next day, you have them gassed to death.  The banality of evil.

What brought this up is the current efforts to sweep the excesses of slavery - or even that of Nazism - under the rug.  Some right-wing politicians argue that "Critical Race Theory" which is basically an Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times several years ago, makes white people "feel guilty" for slavery.  And maybe there is a nugget of truth to that.  "Folks down there live a life of ease" is one of the lines in "Sleepy Time Down South" and surely folks did, when you have slaves doing all the work on the plantation.  Life for slaves was anything but "ease" however.

What they want goes further than eliminating "Critical Race Theory" (which largely doesn't exist, in today's high schools), but to revise history to make it seem that slavery wasn't all that bad.  The Banality of Evil strikes again.  While it might be true that some slaves were "treated well" by their owners (at least the owners would say so, or their descendants!) the reality is, even "nice" slavery is still slavery.  Rotting in a hellhole of a jail is bad, but even a "minimum security" prison is still a prison, if you can't just leave anytime you want to.  Ask any prisoner.

Maybe it is true that some slave owners were "nice" to their slaves.  But as a slave, you knew that "niceness" could end at any given moment, for example, if you decided to try to escape. Worse yet, your "nice" owner could die and his heirs might not be so nice and moreover, you might be sold off to pay off the debts of your owner's estate.

Much ado was made in my elementary school textbooks about how George Washington "freed his slaves" when he died, as if that made it OK that he owned slaves.   But you can see the position our elders - and ourselves - are put into.  We champion ourselves as defenders of "freedom" and Democracy, when our country was founded on a history of slavery.

Some argue that the bloody Civil War washed the sins of slavery clean, and maybe there is a nugget of truth to that.  Yet today, when I drive through Pennsylvania, I see a memorial to the lost Civil War dead - fighting for the Union - and some yahoo is driving by in his pickup truck with a large Confederate battle flag flying from the bed.  He forgot which side his ancestors fought for.

That is the scary part - that lost in all this discussion is the fact that a whole host of people not only want to sanitize history but literally bring back slavery.  Maybe it is a small minority - and indeed, such weak thinkers have been with us, always.  They use Externalizing to excuse their own malfeasance in life and blame all their personal problems on convenient minorities.

Is Critical Race Theory - even if it was a "thing" - a threat to Democracy?   Well, I am not sure it is right to teach young white kids they are guilty of creating slavery, anymore than it is appropriate to shame young Germans for things their grandparents did.  And yes, I think this sort of castigation ends up pushing a lot of this shit into the closet, where it festers and explodes.

When I was a teenager, the whole "Southern Rock" genre became popular. A lot of it was good music, but some of it was just posturing.  But it wasn't hard to figure out what was going on.  This "Southern Pride" thing had the same roots as "Gay Pride" in fact.  You tell people for years that they are worthless pieces of shit and eventually they latch onto the first movement that comes along and tells them they are, in fact, good people.

Trump knows this, telling his basket of deplorables they are "beautiful" and wonderful people - while the rest of the political spectrum eyes them with suspicion. The Democratic Party, which once embraced the blue-collar worker (and before then, embraced Southern racists, ironically enough!) now castigates the same group that once made up their base.  So, no wonder these folks flock to Trump - he doesn't tell them they are worthless pieces of shit.

But is there a nugget of truth to "CRT" as they call it?  Do white people really get "money batons" on their 18th birthday to spend on a new car?  Well, not exactly, but then again, not exactly untrue either.

I noted before that genealogy is bunk.   After four or five generations, you are pretty much related to everyone else, and the idea you can "trace" your ancestry to one person in the past, is kind of specious.  Over time, fortunes are made - and lost - and your immediate situation has more to do with your own work and the fortunes of your immediate forebears than anything else (for most of us, anyway).

And my own life is an example of this - and pretty typical of a "white guy" in America.  I noted before that the most valuable thing I "inherited" from my parents was the sense that education was good and excellence was expected of me.  Others were not so fortunate.  But let's examine my family tree and figure out if I received any "money batons" from the slavery industry.

Like most Americans, I am a mixture of races or nationalities - Irish, Scots, English, French, Swiss - to name a few that we are aware of.  My Father's side of the family is easier to trace, so I'll start there.  His Dad was a drunk who died in his 50's of lung cancer (perhaps asbestos-related) who left my Dad nothing other than an old pre-war Buick that was burning oil.  He was kind of browned-off about that, but then again, he wrote me out of his will (or my brother did, we'll never know for sure).  But my Dad inherited nothing to speak of, and most of the money he had in life he earned over the years.  No money batons there.

Even that old Buick didn't come from the profits of slavery.  His side of the family was only one or two generations removed from "the old country" - Ireland and Switzerland - and they came to this country with nothing, and as far as I know, never exploited minorities.  Indeed, his grand-parents came over here as servants for the Steinway's, who gave them an upright piano as a wedding gift.  So I am not sure that we got any money batons out of that, as by the time this trickled down to him, there wasn't much left.  We donated the piano to charity as the soundboard was cracked.

My Mother's family is a half-and-half of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" and the legacy of slavery.  The Wiggins owned 100 acres of farmland in what is now Brooklyn.  But they lost it all when one ancestor committed suicide (at age 35 or so) leaving his wife to raise the children.  If somehow they had kept all that land, I would be fabulously wealthy - except for the fact that it would have been divided up again and again by each successive generation.  So my Grandfather Platt Wiggins had to work his way through law school and eventually became partner in a law firm representing what is now Citibank, and moved on up from Brooklyn to Larchmont.   An American success story - sort of.

His wife, however, was a Southern Racist and Grand-daughter of a slave owner.  They met during World War I when Grandpa went to Texas to learn how to fly Curtis Jenny's.  After the war, he went back to Texas and proposed.  She was a Thompson, and her Father, Robert Thompson, was a Civil Engineer and laid out most of the secondary roads in Texas (according to family lore) and was involved in founding the Civil Engineering program at the University of Texas as Austin (again, family lore).

His father, Col. Robert Thompson, was a slave owner in Alabama and "fought" in the Civil War.  Family folklore (from my racist Grandmother) was that after the war, he moved to Texas to start over, as his plantation was devastated.  His (former) slaves followed him, she said, "because they loved him so much" which I doubt was true.  I suspect they probably had no idea what to do and were afraid to remain behind in Alabama without any means of supporting themselves or any protection from the Klan.

Did I inherit a "money baton" from Col. Thompson?  Not that I am aware of.  My mother left a small trust to us four children, based on money she received from her parents.  Most, if not all, of that money came from my Grandfather's law practice.  Of course, you go back that many generations and you have more and more ancestors to account for.  Col. Thompson was the grandfather of my grandmother - so he represents one of 16 great-great-great-grandparents, so this represents a thin slice of my ancestry, remembered only, perhaps because he was a "colorful character."  Lesser ancestors are not remembered.

So maybe there is a thin slice of truth here, but I never got a "money baton" from my slave-owning ancestors.  Then again, as I noted above, money isn't the only thing you can inherit.  My family placed a great emphasis on education.  My Dad clawed his way up from poverty by getting a college education. My Mother's Father had to invent himself by becoming a lawyer. There is far more in terms of bootstrap-pulling than inherited slave money.  And by the way, you read the part where Col. Thompson lost it all after the war, which is why he moved to Texas in the first place.  And yes, it is justice that his wealth, based on the labor of slaves, should have been lost.

I suspect my family history is similar to that of a lot of "white people" in America.  There are few folks, if any, who can trace their wealth directly back for generations to slave-owners or claim that that their wealth was a direct result of slavery.  In the South, you do see the same family names again and again, running various businesses or owning  various properties.  And yes, I suspect that these "old families" had their roots in the plantation-era and that the lands they own were acquired in part, through the labor of slaves.  On the other hand, it seems that Georgia Pacific owns the vast swath of pinelands that seem to make up much of rural Georgia, and that the few farmers scratching a living growing cotton and peanuts don't seem to be all that wealthy.

Making a direct connection between slavery and wealth today would be hard to do, other than for a small number of individuals.  And castigating an entire race for the actions of others of the same race isn't an answer, either.  The American of Irish descent, whose family immigrated here in the 1800's was exploited and yes, even lynched.  Today, of course, we have a Catholic President.  They shot the last one, however.

So it is kind of in poor taste to suggest that people whose ancestors immigrated to this country after the abolition of slavery, who never exploited anyone, but were themselves exploited, are somehow "guilty" of the sin of slavery.  But then again, I don't think many people are actually saying that - although I am sure Fox News could line up a "guest" to come on their show and say that (there are a lot of weirdos in the world, or you can just pay someone).  But that seems to be a strategy of the GOP these days - to take an oddball or outlier and then use them to paint the opposition as representing that view.

And then they take it even further - by claiming that since "Critical Race Theory" is poisoning the minds of young people (in the three liberal colleges in the Northeast teaching it) that somehow we need to "balance" this by teaching a counter-lie - that slavery "wasn't so bad after all!"

Neither proposition has merit.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Remembered For What?

In ten years, no one will even know who he was.

I saw this "tweet" reproduced from Twitter (Note: Not "X" - nice try Elon) online.  And it struck me that it was fundamentally true - and not only that, could apply to this whole generation of snarky commentators, such as the Odious Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, or Tucker Carlson.

Or anyone who comments on politics - including me.

Political humor or commentary is like fresh fruit - it goes stale very quickly.  When I look over the 5,000+ postings I have made over the last decade or so, I realize that the ones commenting on contemporary issues or politics don't age well.  Who cares about Hillary Clinton anymore?  Who cares about Barack Obama?  All that stuff is yesterday's news and past its sell-by date.

I think the same is true for these political commentators on the right - and left.  They say outrageous things and generally just run down the opposition for superficial bullshit.  I still don't understand the whole "Joe Biden - Ice Cream!" thing, like we're supposed to laugh at him because he likes ice cream?  Notably missing: any serious discussion of policies.

The same is true for Trump.  Yes, we all mock him for his orange skin and dyed hair.  People make fun of his "small hands" which is a penis joke, apparently.  There is a lot not to like about his character and history, but these criticisms are just playing to the bleacher seats - the part of the crowd who doesn't understand policy decisions, but understands tribalism.  Our side good!  Other side bad!  It is what drives the whole MAGA thing as well.

You see, policy decisions are boring.  Moreover, if people really start to examine them, they might realize they are voting against their own self-interest.  Granted, sometimes voting in favor of the general interest of the public is better in the long run.  Maybe increasing taxes or deficit spending (same thing, really) to pay for our military doesn't profit you personally (and actually decreases your wealth) - but on the other hand, if we didn't at least have some sort of military, we would not have a country, in short order.

But all that is complicated and hard to explain in a sound-bite.  So political commentators use this shorthand of "Joe Biden - Ice Cream Cone!" and the plebes lap it up, much as any comedian worth his salt uses, "Donald Trump - Cheeto Skin!" and vales of laughter ensue.

The real issues are there for anyone to see, but few want to bother.  Tax cuts for the rich are nice - if you are rich.  Funny how the "middle-class tax cut" under Trump was set to expire (and did) while the tax cuts for the very wealthy never did.  Funny how Republicans never bothered to re-institute the tax cuts for the middle class.  Meanwhile, Biden proposes a tax program that would help working families, but the right is more concerned about transgender bathrooms - a much easier message to sell.

But getting back to Limbaugh - and every other political commentator out there, can you name one quote by any of these clowns - right or left - that resonates today or will be referred to, tomorrow?  Because I can't.  I can rattle off a dozen or so quotes from the likes of Samuel Clemens, Abraham Lincoln, or H.L. Mencken, but I can't think of a single thing that Bill Maher or Joe Rogan has ever said.

Sure, people tune into these shows, to listen to the "zingers" and throw-away one-liners that these commentators make. But none of it is memorable.   I noted before, that on a long cross-country trip, we tuned into Rush Limbaugh on a scratchy AM station, and I was interested to hear what he had to say about conservative politics.

He said nothing.

Instead, it was just cheerleading.  He would say "Hillary Clinton" with such a snarl at to make it an insult in and of itself.  There was no real commentary or analysis, and I think that was because his listeners would tune out if he did go that route.  Rather, it was all about tribalism - hooray for our side! Too bad for the other guy!  Our team wins! (even as it is losing!).

There is this mentality that if you just repeat the same lies again and again, they become truths.  Or failing lies, just general cheerleading for your tribal elders.  It appeals to emotions, not intellect, and in that regard, it is a smart move.  If you can bypass logic and go right for someone's gut, you can ensnare them.  That's why so much of "news" today is just rage-bait.  Did you see the Tick-Tock video of the lady who tortures cats!  I am outraged!  Never mind that it isn't true!  I am still outraged!

That is the sort of nonsense that has no lasting power.  No one will ever remember what was said by these emotional testicle-grabbers.  No one will write a book about them (other than a self-promoted tome).  No one will remember them in the coming years and decades.

Because, when you get right down to it, they really had nothing to say.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Does AI Art Infringe Copyright?

Art on the Internet is copied all the time.  Does AI Art infringe copyright?

I saw a discussion online on the r/comics site about AI art. Many artists are worried they will be out of a job if AI art takes over.  To "create" AI art on sites like midjourney, you need only create a "prompt" which some people claim is creativity.  Some are even calling themselves "prompt engineers" and claim that AI art generators are "just a tool" to create, much as a computer or pen is, for traditional artists.

One comic author turned this on its head, pointing out that using AI as a "tool" to create art, is akin to going to McDonald's and ordering a cheeseburger with extra pickles and claiming your "prompt" was an act of creativity and that McDonald's was just a "tool" you used.  Good Point - ordering food is not the same as creating it.  And by the way, most chefs hate it when patrons decide to create their own concoctions.  Better chefs forbid it.

But is AI art an act of infringement?  Does it fall under "fair use" or is it infringement at all?  In order to allege copyright infringement (which is different than Trademark or Patent infringement) you have to substantially copy something, not just copy the style or theme.

It is easier to say what is infringement than what isn't.  If I copy a piece of artwork exactly (for example, scanning it in and printing it out or making a photocopy) and then sell it for a profit, that is a clear act of infringement, assuming, of course, that the author or owner of the work didn't consent to such copying and sales.

So it is easy to define what amounts to egregious infringement.  Other scenarios are harder to quantify.

It reminds me of a story about Pablo Picasso.  Late in his career, he had cut back on producing art, and counterfeiters were making "knock-off" Picasso's and selling them. One day, a friend comes to Picasso's studio, only to see the artist frantically creating one painting after another. "Pablo, what are you doing?" he asks.  Picasso replies, "Making fake Picasso's!  Why should other people make all that money?"

Now, I am not sure if that story is true, or just some sort of joke. But it does illustrate the if-you-can't-beat-em-join-em mentality about Copyright infringement.  Because even if you can prove infringement, it can be hard to track down infringers and make your case.  It is a lot easier to make the case when they make a direct copy of your work.  It gets harder when you make something "in the style of" another artist, or modify an existing work of art without incorporating it entirely.

Andy Warhol, for example, made an iconic silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe, using different pop colors for each panel.  It became a trope and many artists have copied the style (indeed, I have one such painting hanging in my house, only with a greyhound in place of Ms. Monroe).  Warhol's estate has had trouble trying to argue these are infringements and not mere homages to the original.  And of course, Warhol, in some of these series, used someone else's photo as source material - himself infringing the rights of  others.

The problem with Copyright law is that other than making an exact copy for-profit, the definition of infringement gets grey.  This is because of our "fair use" doctrine, which is a defense you can bring, once you have been sued.  There are few "bright line" tests for "fair use" - just a set of guidelines a judge may apply.  So, as an attorney, it is hard to tell someone yes or no, as to whether they are infringing or not.

For example, if you are doing commentary, it may be permissible to copy a copyrighted material (or portions thereof) for that purpose.   It is hard, for example, to critique a painting without showing the painting itself in your work, or to critique a book without quoting from it.   Similarly, a "derivative work" may or may not infringe, and that's where it gets tricky with AI art.

The real issue with AI art isn't "robots taking over the world" but that these "AI" programs - which are not "intelligent" but rather just sample things from the internet - require a training sample to work from.  I wrote about neural networks before - early on in this blog.  You don't "program" a neural network, you train it, with samples and feedback, so as to alter the weighting of the nodes in the network, to produce a desired result.  So, to program a Maverick missile to shoot only at Soviet tanks, you need a set of photos of US tanks (no shoot!) and Soviet tanks (blow 'em up!) for the program to "learn" from.  And you only have to hope it learns what you thought you taught it, not what it figures out on its own.

Neural networks are like teenagers - you think you are teaching them one thing, but they actually learn another - usually how to avoid the rules you put in place and still get away with mayhem.

So AI "art" and chatbots require some source material to "train" from.  And this is where online artists get angry.  Their very jobs may be put in jeopardy by AI "art" - which can produce commercial artworks in less time and for far less money than a real artist - but at the same time, AI programs require a training deck of existing art to learn from.  The human artist becomes nothing more than training material for the AI art-bot, and the human artist is not compensated for this effort.

In terms of Copyright law, the human artist is shit-out-of-luck as well.  It would be very hard to prove which images an AI art-bot relied upon to create a new image.  And unless significant portions of the new image were exact copies of someone else's work, it would be hard to show infringement exists.  "In the style of" is not the same as infringement.  Whether something looks sort of like you may have drawn it, is very subjective, and I doubt judges would be willing to go down that road.

AI art-bots tend to create creepy, soul-less images, which may be a function of their source training material. It seems many of these images are very dark and foreboding and have very detailed backgrounds with lots of swirly colors.  Details may be off - hands with seven fingers, or shapes that cannot exist in a three-dimensional world, or, as shown in the image above, an extra arm appearing out of nowhere.  Maybe this will improve over time, as the bots get better or "learn" from better material.  It is hard to say.

But these "mistakes" illustrate the problem with AI-art.  The program doesn't "know" that people have only two limbs and five fingers.  It only "learns" from other images, and there are no "rules" in place about number of limbs or whatnot.  Why they appear to creepy is another question entirely.  Maybe because art without a soul is soul-less?

One thing has already been settled, sort of - the Copyright office at the Library of Congress has refused to grant ownership rights to a work to an AI art-bot.  Their position is that such works are not created by humans, or more precisely, only a human can own a work of art or literature.  The Library of Congress is not about to grant sentient status to a computer program.  On the other hand, I am sure many a work has already been registered with the LOC Copyright office, by people claiming to have "created" a work using an AI-bot, through "prompt engineering."  Whether those ownership rights are recognized by the courts remains to be seen.

UPDATE:  The Copyright Office has granted rights - to a human - for an AI generated comic book.  They granted the rights to the book as a whole but not the individual images, the latter of which they argued were not produced by the "author" of the book.  Collecting the images and putting them in order and adding a text is Copyrightable in any case, even if you did not produce the source images.  So in reality, this is not "new law" they are creating.  Derivative works and collections have always been Copyrightable, even if the source material is infringing.

Note also that the rule that only humans can own Copyrights is not new.  Paintings and photos made by monkeys, gorillas, and elephants were not deemed copyrightable by their handlers or camera owners, and not "owned" by the animals themselves.  Instant public domain.

The Library of Congress only registers works, it doesn't determine whether the registration is legitimate or not.  So long as you fill out the forms correctly, they will register your work - even if you lie on the forms.  However, by lying, your registration and rights may be invalid, and you may have committed a crime as well.  But like I said, I am sure there are hundreds, if not thousands of such registrations (and you don't need a Copyright registration to claim common-law copyright, either!) that have been filed for AI-created works.  Whether they are valid or not, remains to be seen.

If an AI-bot cannot "own" a work, and a human "prompt engineer" cannot own it either, it could create the awkward situation where all AI art and literature and music automatically becomes public domain the moment it is created.  If there is no profit motive for AI-art, then what's the point?  It could kill off the whole genre!

Let's hope!

Monday, August 21, 2023

Dragnet - Militias

In 1969, Dragnet did an episode about "militias" and illegal arms sales.  Not much has changed in a half-century.

I was watching YouTube last night and for some reason, old episodes of Dragnet are showing up again, probably bootlegged and probably will be taken down in short order.  I am still not seeing any ads on YouTube on my old laptop, but I am running Windows 7 ultimate and an outdated version of Chrome with an old version of adblock plus.  I have disabled updates, but the point is moot - Chrome now says it won't update my machine because I am not running Windows 11!  Victory at last!  And even movies that are listed as "free, with ads" play without any ads whatsover.

I don't expect that to last forever, either.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

What was interesting was that the episode in question dealt with ultra-right-wing "patriotic" militias, who were arming themselves to fight the crime and corruption they perceived in America.  In 1969.  And they had the exact same talking points as "patriotic militias" have today - that they are going to fight inner-city crime (read: Black people) and restore our social order (Read: keep women down, put the gays back in the closet).  Not much has changed in 50 years, has it?

By the way, my opinions about Dragnet and its creator Jack Webb, have changed over the years.  When I saw the show during its first run (that is to say, the third iteration of the show, which started as a radio program in the 1940s, went to black-and-white television in the 1950's, and then became the color program that most people are familiar with, in the 1960s), I sort of echoed the sentiments of my hippy-dippy brother, who called it fascist.

And granted, the anti-drug messages were a little heavy-handed.  The infamous "Blue Boy" episode was over the top.  But in another episode I recently saw, a young man becomes addicted to heroin, and instead of trying to put him in jail for stealing, Joe Friday recommends a treatment program in a hospital - the kind of policing that people are yearning for today. Joe Friday, where are you when we need you?

It goes beyond that, of course.  Jack Webb was insistent on hiring a diverse cast, perhaps not as main characters, but as extras and guest stars.  He wanted to show blacks and other minorities in positions of responsibility, not just as criminals or incidental characters.  And the reason for this was that Webb himself was of mixed-race, his mother being half native American, and had experienced discrimination.

But I digress.  He was also concerned that during the 1960s, the Police were treated poorly by the press and the public.  Whether or not this was justified, I leave to the reader.  The point is, fifty years ago, we faced the exact same issues we are facing today.  Back then, it was "Off the Pigs!" and today it is "Defund the Police!"  People rioted over social injustices - perceived or real - and many others joined the riots not to protest, but to steal and engage in mayhem.  Same shit, different Century.

And right-wing "militias" - which is to say, a bunch of crazy people and gun nutz - were also a concern, often a greater concern that the unorganized rioters and protesters.  If you watch the episode above (which likely will be taken down, over time) the way the guy describes his Thompson .45 reminds me of the postings of gun nutz today:

Frank Baker: Like to see what you're buying? 
Sergeant Joe Friday: That's why I'm here. 
Frank Baker: This is a personal selection, Joe, detail stripped, cleaned, oiled, test fired 100 rounds. It's A-number-one, I know, I did it myself. 
Sergeant Joe Friday: Where'd you do all this? 
Frank Baker: The warehouse. Live a little, Joe. 
[flips back the cover revealing...] 
Frank Baker: The Thompson sub-machine gun, caliber .45, M1A1. An air-cooled, straight blowback action, magazine fed weapon. Weight, 10 pounds 13 ounces. Number of grooves, six. Sights, front fixed blade, rear fixed aperture. Muzzle velocity, 920 feet per second. Effective range, 200 yards, maximum range, 1,600 yards. Feed system, 20 and 30 shot staggered column detachable box magazine. Want me to wrap it up, or will you eat it here?

Yea, that's a gun nut. And all the talk of a "militia" restoring "Law and Order" is the same sort of noise you hear today from right-wing nuts who claim they are going to "save America" by destroying Democracy.  Of course, they know what's best for America, even if Americans strongly outvote them.

How did it end back in 1969?  Well, on the television show, the militia leaders are charged with illegal possession of automatic weapons, stolen government property, and illegal explosives, and are sent off to San Quentin.  Today, with much more lax gun laws, no doubt it would be harder to get some of those charges to stick.  But we are putting the January 6th insurrectionists in jail, one by one, and perhaps even the head insurrectionist will go to jail as well - although I am not holding my breath on that.

Back in 1969, though, they busted these people before they could take any sort of action. And they weren't being supported by (or joined by) the Police or government leaders.  The "militia" of 1969 never made an overt attempt to take over the government and throw out the results of an election.  That much has changed.

Whether the end result will be the same as back then, remains to be seen.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

If There's No Recession...

...then why are retailers acting so desperate?

In my email today, and almost every day, a missive from Camper World imploring me to buy a new camper. They offer 50% off - that's right 50% off - on any camper price with $200 as the last three digits in the price.

Holland America is flooding me with mailings advertising cruises. My "personal cruise advisor" that they assigned to me (after one Cruise) calls several times asking me when I want to book another cruise.  Not yet, but they keep asking.  They weren't calling and e-mailing me last year, though.

Meanwhile, it seems that every retailer I've ever done business with on the internet has been sending me emails asking me to buy more stuff. What's interesting about all of this is that it didn't happen 6 months ago or a year ago. They acted, back then, like they were doing me a favor by selling me something. Now it seems like they're almost begging.

But there's no recession, no siree!

Of course, these things on sale are not things necessary to survival - food, clothing, and shelter.  In any recession, it is said, the RV business goes in the tank first.  People cut back on spending, and things like RVs or motorcycles or boats are first on the chopping block.  Not the fancy cars of the very rich, or yachts or million-dollar rock-star buses, but the lower value crap that us middle-class people think we can afford by purchasing "on time" with borrowed money.

In a way, this is a continuation of a recession that was getting started before the pandemic.  During the pandemic, the government literally threw money at people in the form of "stimulus" checks and PPP loans (I closed my practice a year early!  Damn!) and flooded the market with cash.   It didn't help that interest rates were kept near zero during that period.  And, as might be expected, people spent the money and eventually this drove up inflation, housing prices, and labor costs.  It might be starting to calm down - or about to get a lot worse.

Recession... interrupted!

The problem is, people are pretty tapped-out in terms of debt.  A younger generation who might be looking at saving for a down payment on a house, is looking at student loan debt, intractable credit card debt, and high rent costs. With the astronomical rise in housing prices, you can't blame them for thinking that maybe they will never own a home of their own.  I thought that too, at one time.  Things may change for them, in a hurry, unless of course, they decide to just "give up" and wallow in material things.

A recent article in Forbes or Business Week or one of those other useless "business" mags behind a paywall, opines that "Gen-Z" is perpetuating inflation by spending too much money.   This is, of course, just generation-bashing, which these magazines seem to find amusing.  But there is a nugget of truth to it, of course.  You can't complain about food prices being too high when you just spent an extra $20 on Door-Dash, having $15 worth of food delivered.

I am not kidding about this, either.  I read online, complaints from customers of that service that it took an hour to get their food, cost $20 extra, and that the whole thing was unreasonable as the restaurant was only 10 minutes from their house!  We are talking able-bodied people who own a car, but are too lazy to drive or even walk to the restaurant to feed themselves, much less even go to a store and buy groceries.

When you spend as much on delivery fees as you do on the food, you are telegraphing to the business that their prices are too low.  But quite frankly, I suspect that food delivery will be another one of those luxuries that will go on the chopping block in short order.

Of course, it is not just luxury items that are falling from favor.  Like I said, every single retailer I have ever done business with, has been SPAMing me asking if I need more product. After radio silence for several years, I now get a once-a-week e-mail from Schick, asking me if I need more razors.  Nag Champa hounds me to buy more incense.  Unique RV asks me weekly (and Mr. See as well) whether we need more holding tank chemicals, after buying a case earlier this year.  A guy who sells lawnmower parts won't leave me alone. Another fellow who just sells snap kits wants to know if I need more - and checks in weekly, just to be sure.

MailChimp has been busy!  Name the business, they have started SPAMing me regularly just in the last few weeks or months.  Last year, I never heard from any of these businesses - and they acted like they were doing me a favor by letting my buy their products and services - at inflated prices, too!

Even Walmart seems to be doing the Desperation Samba - prices are stabilizing and, in some cases, dropping slightly.

And in terms of employment, we are starting to hear about layoffs.  People in "hot" job sectors, where you could name your own salary just last year, are finding it hard to get a job, as "no one is hiring" or if they are interviewing, it is only to see if they can get someone cheaper to replace someone they already have.

Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence.  True enough, the "supply chain" issues of the pandemic are largely over.  Truckers are once again complaining that they are not making any money and demand has slackened.  Or was that just a transitory thing?  Just last April, it was reported that retail sales were downToday, they report that retail sales are booming!   The financial press - also lost to click-bait news.

One thing is for sure - with rows of F150s once again lined up at the local Ford Dealer, they can't claim "supply chain shortage" and ask over-sticker for new cars and trucks.  Well, they can, but only idiots would pay that.  And sadly, the idiot shortage has yet to appear.

Financial news organizations are only good at predicting the past.  And to be fair, no one is very good at predicting the future.  A reader writes, lamenting selling off their investment properties before the pandemic.  He made a profit, but not as much as he could have, had he hung on for another year or two or three.  I did the same thing, selling out in 2005 when the market peaked in 2008.  You can mourn for losses on trades you never made, or be content knowing you still made out like a bandit.  And in terms of making mistakes, selling "too early" is not even 1/1,000ths as bad as selling too late.  Making money is always better than losing it!

Of course, the thing that worries me is that if the economy crashes in 2024 (even a mild recession) it could propel people to vote for Trump, as he would claim to have the solution to all their problems (just as he has a bulletproof report on election fraud!) and he would blame the economy on Biden - even though conditions we see today are the cumulative effect of the years leading up.

It is like with Clinton claiming credit for the booming economy of the 1990s.  With the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we could afford to spend a lot less on defense (too bad we didn't spend much on trying to stabilize Russia back then!).  As a result, there was talk back then not only of deficit spending being a thing of the past, but the scary proposition that the national debt might end up getting paid off!  Economists were worried that the government, flush with cash, would end up as the biggest investor on Wall Street - and control the market!

Seems so naive in retrospect.  Successive administrations piled on more debt, and the relative peace of the 1990's was shattered on September 11th - and suddenly, it wasn't "The End of History" - at least as we knew it.

Like I said, predicting the future is hard to do.  But what gives with all these people hounding me to buy shit?  We never saw that last year!

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Wine for Under $5 a Bottle?

Two-Buck-Chuck is dead.  Long live the Walmart Fiver!

We were at Walmart a few months ago and they had this "Winemaker's Selection" sparkling wine (Cava) for $4.62 (an odd number).  Intrigued, I bought a bottle, as well as a bottle of their Chardonnay for the same price.

I went back the next day and bought every bottle.

It isn't hard to find, just look for the "hole" in the display where bottles used to be.  Apparently, I am not the only one to discover this, and like Walmart Woven-Wheat crackers, they disappear the moment they hit the shelves - and are not restocked for weeks!

The Cava is not quite as good as Juame Serra Cristalino, which has now edged up in price from $5.99 to $8.99 thanks to me promoting it online, I guess.  I should keep silent about the Winemaker's Select!  The Walmart Cava is a little sweeter than Cristalino, and I wonder if it is artificially carbonated.  But it is a serviceable sparkling wine, and sparkling wines should be consumed regularly - they are not just for weddings, New Year's Eve, and launching ships.  And at $4.62 a bottle, well, you can afford to drink Cava every day.

Of course, the price has now risen to $4.99 a bottle and I suspect it will go higher.  Walmart used to have their "Oak Leaf" line of wines, and they were competitive in price with Trader Joe's Two-Buck-Chuck. But sadly, they were not nearly as good. The Chardonnay would make your jaw hurt after you drank it - too many sulfites or something, I guess.  Two-Buck-Chuck itself went from two to three to four dollars, and also suffered from jaw ache.   The four-buck "organic" version (with a glass stopper!) was a marked improvement, but sadly, in their infinite wisdom, Trader Joe's decided to drop the line.  Quite frankly, I fail to see the appeal of Trader Joe's anymore - they sell a lot of packaged foods for a lot of money, but in terms of groceries, it is not a daily "go-to" place, other than to be seen there, which seems to be the point, for a lot of shoppers.

No jaw ache with Winemaker's Selection!

So Walmart wins the day, although like with Woven-Wheat Crackers (displaced by those bastards at Triscuits) they probably will drop the ball on this in favor of selling shelf space to Bronco winery.  Sadly, Walmart's prices on other wines are always a dollar or two higher than our local liquor store - so why bother? With "Winemaker's Selection" however, they have a unique product and a captive audience.

My only complaint - if it is one at all - is that while they use a real cork and cage on the Cava (and I am a closure agnostic - a bottle-cap would suffice for me!) the cork is really, really long and hard to remove sometimes.  I have had to resort to using pliers in some cases to twist the cork off!  Like I said, it is not really a complaint, that they made the cork too good,  No doubt this insures the wine stays carbonated and doesn't get "corked" over time. And it beats the crap out more expensive but lesser sparkling wines with plastic corks (looking at you, Great Western or Korbel!).

Anyway, in a world spinning out of control, with prices going through the ceiling, at least you can still buy a nice bottle of table wine for under $5, if just barely.

While supplies last!