Sunday, March 31, 2024

Is The Term "Gypsy" Racist? (No)

Pikies, Gyppos, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves?  Is this an insult against a particular ethnic group or just a label for crooks?  And if you identify with the label, what does that say about you?

The latest battle in the Political Correctness wars involves the term "Gypsy" which some people claim is a slur against "Romani Peoples."  Often the people chastising us for using the term "Gypsy" are folks who are not Romani, and in fact are rather Wasp-y.  Or is that a slur as well? I have a hard time keeping track.

The Romani people are a diverse ethnic group and the term "Gypsy" is based on the false assumption that they originated in Egypt.  The world is full of such mis-identifications.  American "Indians" have nothing to do with India, a country named after a river that is no longer within its borders.

Oddly enough, it is believed the original Romani came from India, so we come full circle.

Speaking of India, the term "thug" comes from there, named after Thugs of India who would hijack travelers and caravans, usually killing people and taking their goods and money.  Today, no one in India (that I am aware of) thinks that "thug" is a slur against the general Indian population.

But for some reason, we are now being told that "Gypsy" - which is a term used to describe an itinerant band of wandering peoples involved in petty crimes - is some sort of ethnic slur.  It is no way today associated with a particular ethnic group - anyone can be a gypsy today, all you have to do is the crime.  Similarly, you can be a "thug" today without being from India - indeed, the thugs there died out long ago.  No one considers "thug" a slur against an ethnic group, even if it was once applied to one.

So it seems odd that people are claiming "gypsy" is a slur against Romani people.  By saying this, you are in fact saying that all Romani are Gypsies which itself is a slur.  Or are we going down the road that some people in America are doing with Blacks (formerly African-Americans) by positing that criminality is part of the "culture" of being Black?

Let's not go there.

It reminds me of the fairly recent cooked-up "controversy" that "Midget" and "Dwarf" are slurs and that such folks preferred to be called "Little People" - the latter of which I think is more demeaning that the original terms. The whole thing stinks of Political Correctness invented by people not part of the group.  As I noted before, Billy Barty founded the "Midgets of America" which was amended to the "Midgets and Dwarfs of America" before transitioning to "Little People of America."  If "Midget" or "Dwarf" were slurs, well, the "Little People" didn't seem to think so, just a few decades ago.

It is akin to other names which some (mostly white people) are claiming to be slurs.  "Black" is deemed a slur by some overly-sensitive Whites, but in reality is just a color.  "Negro" is chastised as a slur by some (again, I think we are being trolled) but just means "Black" in Spanish and the United Negro College Fund never thought it was a slur, nor did Dr. King. "Colored People" is today considered a slur, except by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which I guess is behind the times.  The Politically Correct term is "POC" or "People of Color" which like "LatinX" is a term used only by overly-sensitive Whites with a guilt complex.  And some people abhor the term "LatinX" being applied to them.  You know it had to be invented by a White guy.

The problem with Political Correctness is that it helps no one and actually harms everyone, particularly the Left.  It makes us look stupid and ridiculous and like the "special snowflakes" the far-right accuses us of being.  Why do we have to fall in line and live up to the caricature they paint us to be?  Political Correctness is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic - it divides people and chastises not your enemies, but your allies.

It is akin to a lot of this talk about "pronouns" and "dead-naming" which are terms used to shame the people most allied to your cause.  The far-right doesn't give a shit about your pronouns or your name and in fact delights in torturing you by calling you by the wrong name or gender because they know it will piss you off.  Being super-sensitive about these things only invites bullying.  The bully backs away in frustration when you laugh the loudest at his insults.  He goes in for the kill - often literally - when you show sensitivity to insults.  I say this from long, bitter experience.

If you tell a bully that if they call you by a particular name, you will get upset, guess what the bully is going to do?  It is like putting a target on your back.  You have to be thick-skinned and learn to laugh at yourself.  Otherwise you are just handing your opponents all the ammunition they need to destroy you.  And most humor is based on this spoofing of pride and status.  Every Marx Brothers movie has the boys spoofing the high-society matron and no one feels sorry for her when she is taken down a notch.

Being Politically Correct is the ultimate form of narcissism and it merely invites abuse.

We have to stop this nonsense - all of it - now.  While we are naval-gazing about the "proper" words to use, the other side has stacked the Supreme Court and the Statehouses across the country (who gerrymander the districts, insuring a majority in the House of Representatives).  They also are claiming many governorships and also judicial appointments in the lower courts.  We are seeing the effect of this as we try to prosecute Trump for his crimes, only to be stymied by a Trump-appointed Judge.

But hey, we all are using the right words, and that is more important, right?

The whole Political Correctness thing is backfiring in a big way and was destined to do so, as we literally think using language, which is just a collection of symbols, each representing an agreed-upon idea.  Maybe you don''t think about this too much, but as  Patent Attorney, this was my primary job.  When drafting Patent Claims, you have to be very precise in your choice of language - and the impreciseness that most ordinary people use in everyday language is infuriating.  Words matter - they represent ideas.

So when you tell people what words to use, you are literally telling them how to think, and there is inevitable push-back to this, as no one likes to be told what to do, much less what to think.  Odious ideas are thus driven underground where they eventually explode later on.

The rise of the far-right, worldwide, and the re-emergence of Nazism, antisemitism, racism (did it ever leave us?), misogyny, and the like are not some unexpected phenomenon, but the natural reaction to the far-left saying, "you can't even think these things!"  Because if exposed to the sterilizing light of day, such odious views quickly wither and die.  In the damp, dark basement of the Internet, however, they can thrive and explode.

Political correctness accomplishes nothing.  Worse than that, it often - almost always - accomplishes the exact opposite of what was intended.  It serves only to bolster opponents of your ideas and only shames and turns away your allies.

Gypsy is not a slur - it describes a group of people based on their behavior, not their ethnicity.  The term "thug" describes people who engage in "Thuggee" or the acts of thuggery - not an ethnic group.  No one is shaming Romani people by using the term "Gypsy" and to imply that "Gypsy" is a term describing only Romani people is to say that all Romani are criminals.

And that is the real slur.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Ship Crashes into Bridge, Ten Dead (1972)

We had this happen decades ago and took steps to make sure it never happened again.

The Sidney Lanier bridge in Brunswick, Georgia is named after a poet - as is Lake Lanier.  Georgia does have a soul - some other States would name their bridges after Senators who claimed to have obtained funding for them - after voting down the legislation.  Georgia elected not one, but two Democratic Senators on January 7th - and the State cast all its electoral votes for Biden. Our Republican governor and Secretary of State even stood up to Trump, when he asked them to throw the election for him.

So, next time you see one of these postings online (from Russian trolls) about how "the South" should secede from the Union, cry "bullshit!" loud and long.  Georgia ain't buying that shit.

But I digress.

We have the second-largest "ro-ro" car port on the East Coast, depending on what year it is.  We import cars and trucks and export them as well - "American" cars such as SUVs as well as Mercedes, KIAs, Hyundais, and BMWs.  We also export farm and construction equipment and even pleasure boats.  You see it all, lined up and ready to load, as you drive by.  Trade today goes both ways.  And the shipping business can be dangerous.  We had one car carrier flip over in the channel and it took three years to cut it up and remove it.

And back in 1972, a ship hit our old lift bridge and knocked it into the water, killing 10 people who were waiting in their cars.  Sound familiar?

Since then, a new bridge was built - also called the Sidney Lanier bridge - and ships pass under it almost ever day.  You can watch their progress as you drive over the bridge.  And in every case, these Panamax freighters are accompanied by at least two large tugboats which are never far from either side of the ship.

These ships generally have one engine (one huge engine) and if they lose power, the ship is helpless and will be pushed by the currents and wind.  So the tugs are "on station" until the ro-ro clears the Sidney Lanier bridge, at which point they turn around and go back to port.  Later on, when the ship clears the St. Simon's lighthouse and the channel, the Pilot boat picks up the pilot and returns to Brunswick.  It is a fascinating business.

So, there are questions galore about this latest bridge collapse in Baltimore.  Were tugboats not "on station" next to the ship while it transited the bridge?  It doesn't sound like it - but I guess we'll have to wait for the NTSB report to know what actually happened.  Like our situation with the ro-ro tipover, there were a lot of rumors abounding before the actual report came out.  It pays to wait for the real data.

Sadly, some on the far-right have already politicized this, claiming the captain was a "diversity hire" and that somehow Baltimore's black mayor was directly responsible for the accident.  It is kind of disgusting and stupid. Harbor pilots steer the ship, not captains, when in harbor.  And if you lose power, well, there is no steering.  The only real question is why a tugboat wasn't on the scene rapidly enough to push the ship in the right direction.

Like I said, we'll find out, in a couple of years, when the NTSB report comes out.

In the meantime, it is quite a mess and I am sure our little port will see more traffic as a result.  In addition to car carriers, we have a limited port for bulk goods (mostly wood pulp, I think) and big rolls of Georgia Pacific paper.  I think there are two or three container cranes, but nothing like what Savannah or Jacksonville have (there the containers are stacked as high as office buildings, for acres!).  I am sure they will also pick up the slack and the delay in shipping will be measured only in days, as these containers are rapidly unloaded and transferred to rail cars.  CSX no doubt will prosper as well.

And years later a new Key bridge (in addition to the one in Washington) will emerge.  And maybe measures will be taken to make sure such an incident is unlikely to happen again.

RIP to the seven men who died.  It must have been a terrifying final moment.

Friday, March 29, 2024


I haven't been posting a lot lately - busy!  So are the bugs!

I swore I would never install another split-system air conditioner again,  It is not that I don't like them - far from it!  I installed three at the lake house in New York, one in my garage, and two for a friend.  They are not terribly hard to do - but not terribly easy, either!

I tested one early on in the 1980's when a big HVAC company I was working for wanted to license them from Japan.  "Americans prefer window units!" one of the corporate "suits" said, and to some extent, he was right.  A basic window unit can be had for under $500 and installed in an afternoon. A split system, on the other hand, requires some pretty serious work and it can be a bit difficult for the DIY installer. Plus, even a basic split-system HVAC unit runs $1000 these days.

Note:  When pricing these, be sure to figure out whether they come with refrigerant lines, electrical connectors, disconnect box, and the like.  Some companies lure you in with low come-on prices and then sock you later with these necessary accessory items which can run $200 or more. Compare apples to apples!  That being said, there are only a few companies making these and most are re-branded. Midea seems to be the number one producer. My latest unit is branded "Blue Ridge" but is identical to my earlier unit which is a  Midea.

When we built Mark's studio, the easiest thing to do was to frame up a hole in the wall and install a $400 Frigidaire window unit heat pump.  And for over a decade, that worked well.  But early on, we had trouble with water running off the roof and into the unit which then leaked inside the studio.  We put a water diverter channel on the roof and the problem went away.  No more water!

But a decade later, the A/C unit rusted through, which might be from all the water landing on it, or the salt air of living on a coastal island, or maybe the corrosive effect of clay products on the unit (that shit is seriously bad for your health and let's not even talk about glazes, which are basically ground glass!).  So the window unit had to go and time to upgrade to a split-system.

I removed the old window unit and found the wood was all rotted out with signs of bug infestation.  Termites?  The annual termite inspection was the day before and no signs of the bugs were found. We called them back and they did a major spray job all around the house and studio and agreed to foam the walls (inside) with bug-killer.  Bait stations were also installed.  If you live in the South, you have to expect bugs, from the "Palmetto Bugs" (cockroaches) to flies, drain flies, bottle flies, deer flies, gnats, no-see-ums, mosquitoes, and so forth.  Bugs are everywhere and it pays to have a contract with a bug company to come spray every so often.  If they are knowledgeable, they can help you identify specific bugs and whatnot, and how to deal with them.

As the island arborist (yes, we have one) explained to us, there is a war going on in my backyard, between the carpenter ants and the termites.   They are both fighting for control of who gets to eat the pine trees or any other kind of wood laying around.  Kill off the ants, you get termites. Kill off the termites, you get ants.  It's their world, we just live in it.

A friend of ours, to "save money" says they just get a can of bug spray at the grocery store and spray it around every so often.  I really hope they don't have termites!  You can be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to termites.

They leave these little trails - and termite shit all over.

The studio foundation was sprayed when we built it, but that is no guarantee that you won't get termites.  In fact, the limited ingress (and the fact they were all gone) was probably a result of that spraying and subsequent treatments over the years.  There was a 10-year warranty - but that was from 13 years ago.  Time for a reset!

When we lived in Virginia, our "bug guy" told us that our house was probably treated with Cholordane, which is now outlawed and so toxic that nothing will ever live in that soil for a century.  I am not sure if that is true, but the house was bulldozed to make room for mini-mansions anyway.

I removed all the affected wood (which was limited to that around he window unit) and framed up the hole with some scrap lumber a neighbor was throwing away - old "heart of pine" from the 1960s back when a 2x4 was almost 2" by 4" and the corners were so square you could shave with them.  Termites don't like that dense wood as much, it seems.

Anyway, this delayed the whole project by a week or so, and once I get going, it should not take more than a day or two to install the new split-system HVAC.  First, I have to run the electric to a disconnect outside. Then, the mechanical mounting of the inside unit and the outside unit (the latter with a wall bracket this time around). Finally, the refrigerant plumbing and then pumping down the lines with a vaccum pump, leak checking, charging and then (fingers crossed!) cold, cool air blowing out the inside.

And then the Parcheesi club ladies are bugging me to glue their Parcheesi boards back together!  I keep telling them not to overturn the table when they lose, but do they listen?  Heck, no!  "Bob will fix it, he's young and strong and knows how to fix things!"

Maybe ten years ago.  Not so much, today!

Monday, March 25, 2024

REPOST: Inspecting a Used Car

Buying a late model used car is a good deal.  But what should you look for when buying a used car?

Note:  This is an updated re-post from 2017.  I corrected some typos and added section 9.  While this is directed at late-model used cars, it could be applied to older cars as well, taking into account age, normal wear, and price.  Obviously, a $500, 20-year-old car with 300K on the clock is not going to pass all these tests!

Late model used cars are a great deal, if you buy them from the owner, not a dealer.  Dealers "mark-up" the price of a used car, to the point where it is really no longer a bargain.  New car dealers usually keep their best trade-ins and then wholesale the rest.  Used car dealers buy these wholesaled cars and polish them up - they are often not very good bargains.

The best deals are from individual owners, but they are not easy to find.  And not all deals from individual owners are good deals!  There are plenty of dreamers out there, as well as "curbstoners" who are buying and flipping cars, as well as assholes who think they are too clever by half.   You have to be astute.

Many people are afraid of used cars.  What if I get a "lemon?"   Well, there are ways to ameliorate this risk.  And the best way to do this is to take the car to a trusted mechanic, who, for a hundred dollars or so, will inspect it and tell you if it has any obvious defects.   And it pays to have a trusted mechanic.  It amazes me that so many people who are clueless about cars, do not have a regular mechanic they go to, but instead visit a plethora of chain stores.  These can be bargains for oil changes and tire mounting, but are not very good for realistic advice about more serious car repairs. Find a good mechanic and keep him (or her)!

But, supposing you do all that, which used car do you take to the mechanic for inspection?   You may first want to triage your selection by kicking out the more obvious lemons.

When looking at a used car, there are a number of things to check out that can steer you away from the real clunkers:

1.  Owner:  Who is the owner?  Buying a car from the original owner is the best deal, as you can talk to them and figure out whether they took care of the car.  Mystery cars on a used car lot are just that - a mystery.  But oddly enough, a lot of people prefer an "anonymous" car, as they can kid themselves that no one drove it before.  A lot of people are idiots.

When you meet the owner, figure out what kind of car owner he is.  If he lives in a shack with a number of cars parked in the yard, some junked, this is not a good sign.  If he lives in a nice house and keeps the car in a garage, so much the better.  A garaged car is worth so much more than a car left outside.  And if you have a garage, your car should be in it - not boxes of crap.

Does he have all the original papers, receipts, service records?  Someone who cares about their car keeps these, often in a binder or folder.  A car-neglecter tosses them away or wads them up in the glovebox.

Does the guy seem honest and sincere, or a shyster with a "story"?  Some folks try to eke out a living or extra cash by acting as unlicensed car dealers - buying and selling cars that they pass off as their own. They call them "curbstoners" as they often sell the car from the curb.  Generally it is a good idea to avoid curbstoners, and they are not hard to spot.

Is the car clean, inside and out? Or did the previous owner treat is as a pair of used underwear?  Just walk away from cars with garbage in them (McDonald's wrappers, coke cans, etc.).  The person isn't interested in selling, most likely, but rather just put an ad in the paper to "see what would happen."  Or, they are just slobs, and treat their cars poorly.

And walk away from a car with an ashtray full of butts, or a car that the owner says "was never smoked in" but yet reeks of cigarettes. It goes without saying that if the owner lies to you once, he is likely lying about a lot of things.

You will find honest owners - people like you and me - who just want to sell their car.  The trick is, to walk away from the crappy owners, rather than try to make a good deal from a bad situation.

2. Body:  How does the car look?  A conscientious owner will wash and wax his car regularly, and there should be a minimum of dents and scratches.  Yes, sometimes "shit happens" and an honest owner will point out any defects, if not in fact show them in their advertisement.  If they fail to mention a prominent defect, ask yourself why not?  Again, anyone who lies to you from the get-go is not going to get more honest as times goes on.

(I should note that we have looked at cars, trucks, RVs and Boats advertised online with fantastic pictures showing the item in great shape. When we drive an hour to go look at the item, we discover the photos were taken when the owner bought the item new.  Needless to say, the condition today is far worse.  The only thing you can do, is get back in your car, drive away, and go have a beer somewhere.  You are not going to make a good deal from a bad one.   And trying to deal with liars is just a loser's game.)

A car with a lot of scratches and dents should be avoided.  Not only is it worth less, but it speaks volumes how the owner treated the car (poorly).  Yet some people think it is "normal" to scrape the car against a parking lot wall, or to door-job the edges into a post, or throw cinderblocks into the truck bed.   Just walk away from car-abusers like that.

A late model car should have no rust on it at all.  Even if you are looking at an older car, walk away from any rust.  Modern cars hardly rust - and if you see any, just walk away.  If you live in a rust-prone region, consider buying a car the next time you are on vacation in Florida.  You can bring a rust-free car back up North, and pay a lot less.

Remember the Rule of Thumb about Rust:  If you see any rust, chances are the actual amount is about 10 times as much as you see.   So even a "little rust" is a very bad thing.  And rust is very, very hard to repair properly.   Like cancer, it can go into "remission" with some bondo and paint, only to erupt again within a few short years - worse than before!

Look at the nose of the car.  Is it covered with rock chips?  If so, the owner was a tailgater, the type of angry and aggressive driver who follows too closely and is on the brakes and accelerator all the time.   Expect the brakes to be shot and the engine more worn.  Rock chip damage extends beyond just the damage to the paint!

Look for fading on the paint, particularly on the roof or hood.  A late-model garage-kept car should have none.   Also look for leaf stains and the like - a sign the car was parked under a tree.  Open the hood and trunk - are there wads of leaves in the crevices?  Or green algae or mildew or mold?  These can cause water to back up from the drain tubes and leak into the car.  They are also a sign of car neglect.

3.  Mods:  Again, knowing the owner is key.  And it never pays to buy a car from a kid (anyone under 30) who hopped it up as a race-car.  Bolting on an air cleaner or mufflers does not add anything to the value of the car - and the types of people who do this are convinced it makes the car priceless.  So, often, it is best to just walk away from dreamers like that.  Just because he wasted $5000 on mods doesn't mean you have to as well.

Mods actually detract from the value, and I would just say "NO" to any modded car, unless it is something that can be easily removed, like a cone air filter (and the original parts come with the car).

And it goes without saying, never pay extra for "Mods".  If the seller thinks they are worth something, then ask them to take them off.

But in general, just walk away from cars like this - they are likely to be trouble down the road, as they have been beaten on.  Road cars (general transportation sold to the public - in other words, all cars) are meant for road use, not racing.  You cannot make a "race car" from a road car by bolting crap to it.   Mostly this junk just makes the car louder and get worse mileage and not last as long.  Kids who do this stuff usually beat on their cars (doing burnouts, etc.) and they reason they are getting rid of the car is they know a lot of stuff is going to break in short order as a result of their abuse.

4. Accident Damage:  Again, your mechanic may have an easier time spotting this than you can.  But an honest seller will tell you if there was any accident damage.  And if you spot it and catch him in a lie, walk away.

Accident Damage is not a deal-killer, depending on the type and amount, and how it was repaired.  It does lower the price of the car somewhat, though.   It pays to run a CarFax on the car before you visit it.  Ask the seller for the VIN number and run a CarFax and print it out, before you go to look at it.

If the seller won't tell you the VIN number and gives you some song-and-dance about "privacy concerns" just walk away.  The VIN number on any car is visible though the windshield, to anyone walking by a car.  If the seller won't give you this data, he is being deceptive, and we know how that works.

A minor fender-bender shouldn't be of too much concern, but again have your mechanic check the car out.  Look for odd, uneven wear on the tires - it could be an indication that the alignment was knocked out of whack by the impact.  In some cars, this could alter the camber or even caster - which may not be adjustable on some modern cars.

A serious wreck - where two cars are welded together to make a frankencar - is usually a walk-away deal.  These are getting harder to come by - although the third-rate used car dealers may still push these loads.  If the work was done right, it could be a bargain car - at a bargain price.  But most are sold deceptively to unsophisticated people who don't realize the car was wrecked.   Sadly, a "salvage title" car is marked for life, so if you end up with one, the resale value is drastically reduced.

5.  Mileage:   Mileage is a tricky one.  A higher mileage car is usually worth less, but often not much less than a low-mileage one.  But a car driven a lot of highway miles may have less wear than a lower mileage car driven in city traffic.

Ask the owner (which is why it is key to buy from him) what his driving habits are.  Offer less for a higher mileage car, of course, but don't just spike it on mileage alone.

Odometer fraud is largely a thing of the past these days, and computerized cars are much harder to hack.   Usually the engine computer and the instrument cluster computer are synched at the factory, so that if one reads a different mileage than the other, a "fraud alert" symbol is activated.   Sometimes this may happen if someone replaced the engine computer without having it synced by a factory technician.   I would walk away from cars with "stories" about broken odometers or whatnot.

Usually you can tell if a car's odometer is inaccurate - and not by looking at the odometer.  When I was a kid, the local dealer used to let his wife drive a brand-new car for a year - with the odometer cable disconnected.   He would then wax and polish the car, re-connect the odometer, and then try to sell it as new.   It is, of course, fraud - act shocked.  

One way to tell if a car has been hacked like this is that there are signs of wear that a brand-new car will never have.   For example, if the brake pedal shows wear, you can be sure the car has been driven more than  few miles.

6. Basic Wear Items:    With any car, things wear out over time.  You should plan on replacing certain items every so many miles - and inspect the car in question accordingly.  A lot of people buy new cars and then drive them until they need a number of things, rather than keeping them up.  As a result, when you buy the car used, you will have to immediately repair these things, which may not have been in your budget.

A car needs new tires every 30,000 to 50,000 miles - although today tires are lasting longer and longer.  Inspect the tires, do they all match (same brand and wear?).  If they are nearly worn out, factor that into the price (and ask yourself why the seller did not reshod the car before selling it).

Brakes can last 25,000 to 50,000 miles, and your mechanic should be able to tell you if they need replacement or will need it soon.  If the owner is a careful driver, the brakes may last far longer than that!   Shitty drivers slam on the brakes at the last minute and warp the rotors and go through brake pads regularly.

Batteries can last 5 years or so (sometimes as much as 10, but don't count on it).  How old is the battery in this car?  Original or replaced?  Usually there is a date sticker on the battery or the owner has the receipt from when it was replaced.

For older cars, bear in mind that most modern cars require new spark plugs and oxygen sensors at about 100,000 miles.

In some cars (mostly Japanese) the timing belt should be replaced every 70,000 miles.  Has this been replaced, or not?    Ask, and ask to see a receipt, if it has.

7. You Can Fix That!   Walk away from a car with items broken where the seller helpfully says, "Well, you can fix that for not a lot of money!"  If it was so easy and inexpensive to fix, why didn't the owner do that?

I helped a friend look for cars once, and one we went to see had coffee stains on the seats and fast-food wrappers on the floor.  The "ABS" light was on, and the seller said, "Oh, that's just a sensor, you can fix that".   We walked away. 

Why?  Because it could have been a sensor, or a new ABS module ($1000 plus installation) and moreover, the car would not pass safety inspection in Virginia as it sat.  The brakes squeaked and the serpentine belt chirped, and he clearly was a lazy person who never took care of his cars.

Walk away from "You can fix that!" - a phrase we hear all the time with clapped-out RVs and boats, in particular.

And walk away from any car with any warning light on that will not go out.  Again, don't listen to stories from sellers that it is "easy to fix" or whatever.  If it was, they would fix it!

(For the astute shade-tree mechanic with a code-reader tool, of course, you might be able to figure out what the problem is, and it indeed may be a simple fix that the seller thinks is hard.  I've bought many a cheap car that was easy to fix this way.  One seller sold me a car with an "incurable electrical problem" that turned out to be a defective turn signal flasher module.  But that is for the more experienced buyers).

8.  Some Basic Tests:   There are a few simple tests you can do to detect problems down the road.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it presents some helpful points.  Also, when you do these tests, it impresses the hell out of the seller, who may think you less a naive fool.
Shock absorbers (or struts):  Push down on each corner of the car and see if the car rebounds once, or whether it bounces up and down. If the latter, it may need new shocks or struts.  Note this while test driving and see if the car goes "boing, boing" when you go over a bump.  Shocks are pretty cheap to replace, but struts (present in most modern cars) can be pricey, as you have to disassemble the suspension to replace them.  Usually this is only an issue on older, higher-mileage cars these days.

Tires:  Very worn shocks usually cause an unusual form of tire wear called cupping and it is very unique and distinguishable.  Other types of unusual tire wear can alert you to poor alignment (wear on the edges) or other suspension problems.  Inspect the tires carefully not just to see if they are worn, but whether there are unusual (uneven) wear patterns which may indicate suspension issues.  Are all four tires the same make and model?  How old are they? Look for signs of dry rot.

Transmission:  If the car is an automatic, when you put it in gear, does it "clunk"?  If so, you might have transmission or U-joint (or CV joint) problems.   Monitor the shifting through all the gears and see if it is smooth or whether it clunks or revs.  Any slipping at all is simply not acceptable.   Transmissions are incredibly complex today and staggeringly expensive to replace.  This is one area of the car where there should be "no excuses".  And quite frankly, even though they are becoming more and more popular, I am not sure I would buy a used car with a CVT transmission - just yet.

If you can check the transmission fluid (impossible to do on some more modern cars) check to see that it is bright red and clean and translucent.  An opaque dark red or brown, particularly with a 'burnt' smell to it, spells trouble.

Note that in America, most cars are automatics these days.  While a manual is more fun to drive, it may have been "beat on" by a poor driver or a boy-racer.  Generally speaking, automatic transmission cars are easier on the engine and driveline as there is less driveline shock.

Driveline:  For cars with CV joints (nearly all today) crawl under the car and inspect the boots.  When they tear, they let dirt in (and grease out) and destroy the CV joint in short order.  The labor to install boots is the same as to replace the joint.  If you see grease all over the underside of the body (or inside a wheel), flung off the CV joint, ask the owner whether they replaced the joint, or just the boot.

Engine:  Start the engine and let it warm up.  If you put a dollar bill by the tailpipe, it should blow backwards in a nice steady stream of air pulses. If it sucks back in on occasion, the car likely has a burnt exhaust valve, and will always run rough and eventually need a valve job.  It won't be the last dollar that car sucks up.

The engine should be quiet with no ticking and especially no knocking.  Check the rear bumper for telltale signs of smoke deposits from burning oil.  Even a well-running diesel shouldn't smoke very much.  Run away from any large volumes of white smoke - it usually means a blown head gasket or other internal coolant leak.

(However, even new cars will make some thin white smoke on startup, particularly on a cold day, as moisture comes out the tailpipe - even water may come out as condensate.   But clouds of thick smoke?  Bad.)

Listen for any noises with the hood open (keeping hands clear of the engine, though!).   Check to make sure the serpentine belt is not squeaking or chirping - this usually means the tensioner is shot, a simple repair and typical after 50,000 miles. Ask the owner if he has changed the belt, as they do not last forever.

Checking coolant is tricky in newer cars, as the cap on the radiator (if any) should not be removed.  Most cars today have a sealed system, and the radiator may be lower than the engine head.  As such, if you take the "radiator cap" off, you may let air in the system.  Check the fluid from the "overflow" bottle (actually an expansion tank) and it should be translucent and clean (not cloudy or, especially, oily!).   Coolant changes were once a big deal, but more and more car makers are advising to leave well enough alone, as a sealed system shouldn't have any need for regular fluid changes, or at the very least, such changes are much further apart today than in the past.

Engine oil can tell you a lot about the car and the way it was treated.  A smart seller may change it before selling the car, so you might not learn much.  But there are some real tell-tale signs.   Oil that looks white and milky is a real danger sign, as this usually means a blown head gasket - and water in the crankcase.  Jet-black oil is usually not good either, as it suggests a long time between oil changes.  Of course, ask for all oil change receipts or records - they are the key to long engine life.   It is rare, but if you see any metallic powder in the oil, just walk away.

Again, some modern cars no longer have a dipstick, so you cannot check the oil at all - making it harder to diagnose engine health.

9.  Interior:  Sit inside - are there any weird smells?  If the car has leaks, the carpet may get wet and smell funky.  While modern cars rarely rust, many rust through from the inside if the carpet gets wet.  Are the seats intact (no rips or tears)?

How about the headliner?  It was more of a problem in the 1980s and 1990s when composite headliners first came out.  If parked outside in the hot sun for years, the foam between the headliner board and fabric would deteriorate and the fabric would then sag.  Annoying and a PITA to fix, as you have to remove the whole ceiling board to try to re-glue it (or replace the whole thing, as often "headliner glue" never works well).

Make sure all the switchgear works (windows, door locks, etc.). There should be at least TWO KEYS to the car.  Modern car fobs can cost hundreds of dollars and there is no excuse for having only one set of keys.  Most car value assessment sites (KBB, NADA, Edmunds) specifically ask if the car has two sets of keys - and adjusts the price accordingly.  Note also that if an extra set is floating around, whoever has it can drive your car away.  When we bought the King Ranch, they had only one key and we insisted on a second fob as part of the deal - and asked them to "erase" the missing fob from key memory.

Look for rock chips or cracks in the glass.  Test the horn, lights, and other controls.  Bear in mind if your State has a safety and/or emissions inspection, these things will have to work.  Hence, if the "Check Engine" light is on, you will have to fix it to get the car registered.  If applicable, was it inspected recently and did it pass all tests?

Was the car smoked in?  Often not hard to tell, even if today's smokers think they are clever by holding their ciggies out the window.  Usually there are burn marks, the windows are cloudy with yellow smoke residue and the smell simply won't go away - and is damn hard to get rid of - if ever!  Smokers tend to be slobs and neglectful (IMHO) and thus tend to neglect their cars.  When the world is your ashtray, you don't give a shit about your car, either.

* * *

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and I would also suggest you search online for other suggestions.   But you can winnow down a selection of used cars to look at pretty quickly this way - weed out the obvious clunkers - before you have it inspected by a qualified mechanic.

Also- and this is key - go onto some discussion forums for that make and model car and look for a thread (or start one) on "what problems should I look for" for that make, year, and model car.   And it goes without saying, that if you are shopping for a car, pick one make and model to shop for rather than comparing apples to oranges. 

Comparing a Honda to a Toyota to a Dodge to a BMW is just going to leave you confused and introduce too many variables into the equation.  Pick one make and model and a narrow range of model years (a single production generation) and look at several examples of that car.  Odds are, after the first three, you'll have a good idea of what is a "good" car and what is a clunker.   

Sadly, cars today are complex machines, and oftentimes even an experience shade-tree mechanic is smart to have a specialist look at a modern car before buying it.  Find the best example you can, and have it checked over before buying.

The good news is, as complex as modern cars are today, they are far more reliable than in the past, and anyone who tells you the "good old days" were better has their head up their ass.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Rote Learning

Some blame the decline in American driving skills to the decline in manual transmissions.

Not long ago, within my lifetime, it wasn't hard to find a "stick shift" car at the dealer lot.  Even the old "three-on-a-tree" transmission was sold (or at least offered) well into the 1970s.  My '73 Pontiac had it, and my '79 Chevy van did as well.  Funny thing, but if you read old car brochures from the 1930's and 1940's, the "column shift" was touted as a great advance in technology - no more gear shift lever "sprouting from the floor" and blocking passenger room.  You could now sit three across!

Of course, if you ever had a three-speed column shifted manual, you know how long the gear throws were and how your center passenger would get knocked in the knee every time you shifted into first or third.  But I digress.

Automatic transmissions took over in the 1950's, accounting for 80% of new car sales.  And that was in the infancy of the technology, where Buick was still offering its lumbering Dynaflow and Pontiac the ill-fated "slim-jim" "rotomatic" drive.  But by the late 1960's, the THM350 and THM400 proved that automatics could be reliable, and indeed, even bulletproof, although not responsive enough for enthusiast drivers.

People started driving cars like they were golf carts - with a "Go" pedal and a "Stop" pedal, often with one foot on each pedal, like a bicycle, often riding the brake ("driving like a salesman" my Dad used to call it).  People stopped using the parking brake entirely (erroneously referring to it as the "emergency brake") and relied instead on a tiny parking pawl in their automatic transmission to hold the car in place.

Sad, too, as a recent incident illustrates the folly of this practice.  A man left his truck running with a three-year old inside.  Somehow, he wormed out of the child safety seat and bumped the shift lever into gear (must have been an old truck, most today require one foot on the brake to shift).  The truck started rolling and ran over a toddler, killing him.  If the parking brake was set, I doubt this would have happened.  People put too much faith in that flimsy parking pawl, and so many cars historically and even today, have a history of popping out of  "Park" and running over their owners (why do you think it is the law today that you have to put your foot on the brake to shift?).

Just use your parking brake - every time you park.  Yea, I know, if you live in salt country, the cables rust solid and then lock the rear brakes in place.  But that is all the more reason to use the parking brake every time you park!  If the cables are exercised, they are far less likely to seize.  If you never use them, it is pretty much guaranteed they will.  Your choice, but someday you may need that brake!  Using it all the time also points out whether it needs adjustment or not, which is better to keep up with than later find out when you try to use it and nothing happens.  But enough of my soapbox for today - use your parking brake when parking!

But incidents like this illustrate the topic I want to discuss - how people learn to do things by rote, and fail to understand how things actually work or how their actions affect things.  If you ever took apart an automatic transmission - or even looked at the diagram of one - you'd appreciate the folly of using the parking pawl to hold a 4,000lb vehicle on a hill.  No doubt, you've felt the "thunk" of your transmission when you try to put it in gear, after parking on a steep hill.  That's the parking pawl, giving up a tiny piece of metal.  And metal in your transmission isn't good.

People who live in San Francisco know this - you will get yelled at if you don't park your car with the wheels turned toward the curb.  Runaway cars are a real issue, and no one wants to be run over by a driverless car careening down that city's steep hills - or have their own car smashed by a car parked by an idiot who doesn't understand how gravity works.

In the dawn of the auto age, you had to really understand how a car worked to own one or drive one.  Most cars came with tool kits and multiple spare tires, as blowouts and breakdowns were common.  Steering wheels had levers for throttle and spark advance - there was no centrifugal or vacuum advance mechanisms (much less engine management computers).  As you accelerated, you had to adjust the spark advance of the engine - you really had to know how a car worked!

And shifting?  No synchromesh - just straight-cut gears that you could easily grind together if you didn't double-clutch, first.  But then again, many of those cars had such low compression, huge displacements, and monstrous torque that you merely picked a gear and drove off - shifting while driving wasn't even a thing.

Starting the car was a real chore - and could break your arm if you weren't careful and the car backfired.  With the advent of the electric starter, automatic spark advance, and the syncromesh transmission, driving became a lot easier - not mindless, mind you, but such that the great unwashed masses could fake it pretty well.

Today, we are told we are on the cusp of the self-driving car, and apparently some folks think this has already happened, as they take their eyes off the road to read a Tweet while driving, drifting into the oncoming lane at the same time.  This is a common occurrence, and even "professional" truck drivers are doing it - we see it all the time.  After years of declining fatality rates on the road, they are rising again, at alarming rates.  People are convinced their driver assists and airbags will save them.  They aren't.

A whole generation or two (or three) has learned to drive cars by rote learning.  Put in the key, start the engine, push the "Go" pedal to go, the "Stop" pedal to stop.  That's it.  That's basically all they know.  Their car may have a tachometer, but they have no idea why (and with automatic transmissions and rev limiters, it is a good question as to why).  All those other controls - for the lights, wipers, turn signals - are not used very often if at all.  We see people in grey cars, in a blinding rainstorm, driving over the speed limit with their lights off, tailgating, and changing lanes without signaling.  What could possibly go wrong?  They even passed laws mandating "lights on when raining" but it is hard to enforce as Police know that if they pull over that unlit grey sedan in a rainstorm, they are likely to cause an accident instead of preventing one as drivers slam on their brakes when they see the flashing lights.

But my rant goes beyond cars - that is just an obvious example.  Today, people are less tech-savvy than ever before, in a society that is more reliant on technology to survive than ever before. Most people have no idea how their computer works - not even a rough idea - let alone their smart phone.  We have become a cargo cult and are perversely proud of it.  And I am no exception to this trend.  One reason I cling to older technology is that I understand how it works - and it wasn't designed to keep its inner workings a dark secret.  It seems a lot of modern tech falls along the lines of "you don't need to know that!" and "open your wallet!"

And this is by design.  The more ignorant your user base is, the more money you make from them.  So why make technology easier to understand, when it is more profitable to obfuscate it?

When I was working at Carrier, helping design a circuit board for a heat pump control, I was told we had to encapsulate the board with a cover, which added a lot of cost to the design.  I had spent weeks trimming pennies from the component cost, only to have this cover - costing dollars - foisted upon me.  The service department demanded this for psychological reasons.  They found that "old school" service techs, when they saw a printed circuit board, would immediately swap it out, as their experience with electronic controls, from the 1950's, schooled them to believe that anything electronic was unreliable.

After sending back these boards, we would test them and find they worked fine.  Turns out, the repair was something simple, like a clogged condensate line.  When the circuit board lit up the "condensate drain overflow" light, they just assumed the sensor or board was bad.   The thought was (and apparently experience proved this) that a "black box" control unit was trusted more, as it was a mystery as to what was inside it.  The techs were then more likely to diagnose the actual problem rather than using superstition to try to solve them.

It is funny, but there was a lot of prejudice back then (and even today) against electronic controls.  I worked on another project, for centrifugal chillers, using a microprocessor controller (the Intel 8032).  An old-timers told me, "that will never work!  We tried that back in the 1950's and the durn tubes kept burning out!"

Tubes.  That was the mentality.

Perhaps it is inevitable that as technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes harder and harder to understand by the general population.  Techno-ignorance becomes the norm, not the exception.  But there is a huge risk involved with this trend, particularly as AI and Social Media (just about the same thing, now) take over the Internet.  Few people, it seems, are able to tell fake from real, and indeed, it is getting harder and harder to tell.

Just about anything you read online these days has some AI content.  "News" articles follow a format where the title tells the story, a photo caption repeats the title, and the first paragraph repeats the title again.  This forces the reader to scroll down as the ads load, pushing the text further and further away.  This is all by design, and much of the text is uninformative or just AI-generated crap.

No wonder we see more and more people retreating to conspiracy theories and primitive thinking.  The world seems complex and scary, so we will retreat to our survival bunker on our flat earth and wait out the inevitable civil war.  What these folks fail to realize is that we depend on technology to survive and that means we depend on each other to survive.  We can't go it alone and we can't go back to a "simpler time" when frontiersmen carved a cabin out of timber and hunted deer to survive to the ripe old age of 40 or so, before dying of consumption or whatever.

People fail to realize that these cues being prompted on social media are being created by forces who want to exploit them, either for financial gain, political gain, or as part of an international game of power-chess.  We should all be on guard to wonder whether our opinions or feelings are truly our own, or are, in fact, just rage-bait reactions to stories planted in the press.  Some are so obvious, of course, others are more subtle.  And the more obvious ones become less obvious, once you fall down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy thinking or extremist politics.

Meanwhile, our educational system is dumbed down more and more - relying on rote learning more than actual understanding.  Math is now merely memorizing the answers.  Driver's Ed was ditched because "statistics" don't show any significant difference in accident rates between those who took it and those who didn't.  In an era of tight budgets, all that matters is being able to pass the standardized test.  This isn't helping people develop critical thinking skills.

I wish there was an easy answer to all of this, but as I noted before, easy answers to complex problems are usually the wrong answers.  I may take years or even decades, before people start to engage their skepticism and critical thinking skills.

If ever!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Reality Television and the Reality of Reality Television

This guy bought an "Orange Country Chopper" including a custom trailer, for $10,000.  It turned out not to be what it appeared to be.

I saw this "Bikes and Beards" channel on YouTube where the guy famously resuscitated what is probably the world's largest motorcycle, the Roadog.  If you are a car or motorcycle nut, you've heard of this bike and it was pretty awesome that he got it running again and actually rode it.  So months later, YouTube suggests another one of his videos, this time about an "Orange Country Chopper" bike that was valued at $140,000 and supposedly had a 300HP supercharged high-compression (oxymoron there!) engine.  He paid ten grand for it, including the trailer, a model of the "Miss Geico" boat and a neat Swiss watch.

I wrote about Choppers before - they are basically all-show and no-go bikes.  You aren't going to take one cross-country (comfortably, at least) or carve up the turns with the rice-racers and BMW set.  You certainly aren't going off-road with one.  They look cool and that's about it - they can be a nightmare to ride, with bizarre steering geometry, wide turning radius, lack of basic comfort (fenders, lights, and even brakes, in some instances).  But they look cool and that's the point.

The Beard guy knows a lot about bikes (far more than me!) and one comment that resonated with me was that the "Orange Country Chopper" series devolved from building customer bikes to building bikes for large corporations to use as promotional displays.  The bike he bought was a later one, built for the Geico offshore boat racing team (hence the model boat as part of the display).  As he put it, these episodes turned into half-hour or hour-long advertisements for the corporate sponsor.  Maybe $140,000 is a lot of money for a motorcycle, it is dirt cheap compared to the cost of a half-hour of prime-time television advertising.

So the bike never really worked.  It was never "dialed in" although some of the workmanship was pretty decent.  Most supercharged or turbo-supercharged IC engines have lowered compression (to avoid blowing the cylinder heads off) so it was weird that it had a high-compression engine coupled to a blower.  On the dyno, it topped out at 140HP, a far cry from 300 (still a lot of horses for a bike!) and $140,000 is now $10,000 - for an expensive paperweight.

I wrote before about the Chopper show.  The first few episodes, like the Hot Rod show, were interesting to me, as they had more technical information and video of the actual construction.  But the ratings of that stuff stank, I guess, so they went with "feuds 'n fights" which is the staple of "reality" Tee-Vee, with the centerpiece being a long-standing "feud" between the father and son on the show.  As others have amply demonstrated, you can film hours of people and then edit it together to make it seem like they hate each other.  It is about as fake as the motorcycles they were building.

It doesn't have to be that way.

As the Bikes and Beards channel illustrates, you can edit together some real content, including technical content, without scaring off an audience.  It doesn't have to be about hostility between the on-screen characters or made-up drama.   Another channel (who is friends with the Beard guy) that follows this philosophy is Matt''s Off-Road Recovery.  They aren't afraid to show details of the work they do on their recovery vehicles, or the techniques they use to yank broken Jeeps and "Razors" out of the wilderness.  Yes, sometimes he uses clickbait-y titles, but never any angst in the shop or people throwing wrenches at each other.  In fact, they are all super-nice to each other, which in this day and age, makes me wonder when the other shoe will drop.  I keep fearing they will out themselves as conservative Mormons or worse yet, MAGA-heads.  So far, they have smartly kept both religion and politics out of their videos.

Sadly, reality television dominates the airwaves.  The shows are cheap to make and wildly popular.  The made-up dramas are just like soap operas for the evening audiences.  And speaking of which, this sort of thing can trace its roots to nighttime "soaps" like "Falcon Crest" and "Dallas."  Who shot JR?  I never cared and still don't.  Again, it gets down to that "fan" thing, where people drown out the deafening silence (or boredom) in their own lives by tuning into someone else's drama.  It is like listening to the neighbor's next door fighting.  I guess it is human nature - we all want to hear about drama and strife.

But as I noted in a recent posting, maybe this is an unhealthy and unprofitable thing for the individual.  Maybe it leads to depression and learned helplessness.  Maybe it affects our own bottom line as we care more about people on television than we do about our own lives and the lives of our loved ones.  Or are we supposed to be throwing wrenches at the latter as well?

An interesting thought, given how many folks seem to like to stir up drama in their own lives and try to insert it into the lives of others.  You know that person at work who does this - comes into your office or cubicle and wants to bend your ear with the latest office gossip, or worse yet, wants you to choose sides on some stupid office politics.  It is best to just give folks like that the "elevator walk"* and get back to work.  Sadly, it seems some companies are populated solely with employees who are drama queens.

There is literally no profit in it.  Watching people being antagonistic to one another ends up training you to be antagonistic.  It is like the friend you have (and we all have one like that!) who watched way too many "sitcoms" where insult humor is the order of the day.  It is literally exhausting to be around such people as they insult you with snide "funny" remarks over and over again.  Who wants to live like that?

Not me!

* The "elevator walk" was illustrated effectively in the under-rated but highly educational film, About Schmidt which was based in part on my own family (just kidding).  If you want to get an annoying person out of your office, you just say, "Oh, Gee, look at the time, I have to go to a meeting!  Let me walk you to the elevator!" - and send them on their way.  You might even ride with them and get off at a different floor. It gets rid of a person who is annoying you, without (hopefully) pissing them off and making you the target of their office politics machinations.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

I Miss Lyndon LaRouche

Turns out, crazy people in politics isn't a new thing.

NOTE:  This is an older draft from 2019(!) that I just finished today.  Still seems relevant, maybe even moreso.

I was surfing Wikipedia the other night at three in the morning because I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. I don't know what steered me in that particular direction, perhaps because I was reading about Judy Garland after seeing the Judy movie starring Renee Zellweger.

Although Renee Zellweger's performances are fantastic, and she has a lot of guts to take on such a cultural icon and try to sing and mimic her voice, the movie left me kind of with mixed feelings. Of course, Renee Zellweger had the advantage of picking a point in Miss Garland's life where her voice was at its lowest, so it was possible for her to do a reasonable impression or caricature of that chanteuse.

My mother was a big Judy Garland fan and she bought into that whole "tragic lifestyle" philosophy. Seeing someone on the stage smoking, drinking, and popping pills and feeling sorry for themselves was a little too close to home for me. Again, I don't feel sorry for celebrities and superstars because they had troubled childhoods, or how awful it was with billions of adoring fans and millions of dollars in the bank. I also don't buy into their troubles with the IRS when they try to keep their millions in the bank and not pay their taxes either. But I digress.

Somehow the Wikipedia entry to Judy Garland links to gay icons which then linked to Tammy Faye Bakker which then linked to Jim Bakker who shared a prison cell with Lyndon LaRouche.  I think that's only five degrees of separation, maybe less.

Supposedly LaRouche died a few years back at age 93.  I think most of us have forgotten all about him. He ran for president every year as an independent or sometimes as a Republican or Democrat  - and always garnered a fraction of a fraction of the votes. He claimed to run a worldwide research organization and claimed ties to high-level people in the corporate world and in government. I don't know if any of these claims are true or not. He also claimed to have predicted a lot of economic trends and even worldwide epidemics.

I like any good prognosticator, such as Faith Popcorn, in order to predict the future all you have to do is just basically predict everything, and then when stuff actually happens you simply cherry-pick through your previous predictions to show that you were right. Of course the stuff that didn't turn out as you thought, you don't talk about.

People have called LaRouche a megalomaniac and a narcissist and an egotist as well as a cult leader. I don't really know about that, all I remember was he was just sort of this cranky old guy on peripheral edge of American politics for a while. But I couldn't help but think what he would think of politics today, in particular, Donald Trump.

I think LaRouche would feel cheated. Trump is a total crackpot who actually succeeded in becoming President of the United States, which  LaRouche had been desperately trying to  do -  in fact holding the record of running for President longer than any other person in American history.  Why not LaRouche?  After all, when it comes to strange rants, bizarre politics, and loyal followers, LaRouche checked off all the boxes!  Why not him?

I guess back in the 70s and 80s we just weren't ready for Lyndon LaRouche or his ilk. Sadly, he didn't have Facebook and Twitter and the Internet to work for him back then. Nor did he have a "reality" television show to put his face in front of the electorate every week.  He just had a string of bad luck!

And that includes being tried, convicted, and jailed for fraud - something Donald Trump hasn't done.


Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Awarding the Rewarded

Why do we hand out awards to people who have already "won" in life?

There was a small controversy recently when the family of the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg objected to the Opperman foundation awarding prizes in her name to a bunch of rich, white, right-wing Republican men, such as Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch.  At first, this sounded like an article from The Onion, as the "Ginsburg Prize" was supposed to go to women of merit - leaders in their fields - who worked toward the same goals as the late RBG.

Elon Musk?  Rupert Murdoch?  It was like a mockery of everything the late Justice Ginsburg stood for.

But beyond that, it got me thinking as to why we have these awards ceremonies that hand out golden statuettes to millionaires and billionaires - as if they haven't "won" already. I'd love to hear an acceptance speech at the Oscars where the honoree says, "Gee, thanks for this nice statue and honor, it really is so much better than the $10M and 5% of the gross that I got from my latest blockbuster tent-pole comic-book explosion movie!  All that was nice, but this golden statue is what makes it all really worthwhile!"

But that will never happen.  Even rich people have to play the game, if they want to become even richer.

Why can't we hand out awards to people who do the right thing in life, save lives, change the world for the better - and rarely if ever profit from it?  Handing out awards to someone who is already a millionaire seems kind of obvious - the world has already "awarded" them riches and fame.  How about a trophy for the person who defended his country and lost a limb in the process?  How about an award for the person who pulled orphans from a burning building?  How about an award for the person who worked as a doctor in a war zone or in an area stuck by famine?  Those people never get to walk the red carpet.  The best they can hope for is to be used as a prop at some political event, if that.

I have noted before that it seems we, as human beings, are programmed to worship celebrities, leaders, and the wealthy.  Perhaps this is a survival skill we learned in the age of warring city-states.  Those who were not protected by a powerful tribal leader would be wiped out by some other tribe.  Those who went against their own tribal leader would be wiped out by him.  Either way, you lose, which is why back then, one of the worst punishments was to be "exiled" from society - it was an all-but-certain death sentence, once they shoved you outside the city gates and slammed the door behind you.

Then again, it is also a survival instinct developed over time that a certain percentage of us are explorers and outcasts - who leave the protection of society and seek out new places to live - at great risk to themselves, of course - and possible great reward, as well.  But I digress.

So we worship celebrities, political figures, religious figures, the wealthy, the sports stars, the famous, and even the infamous - from afar.  Some of us do this more than others.  Myself, I could care less about the sordid details of the lives of Hollywood "A-list" actors.  For others, it is their whole life.  People dedicate their lives to following some celebrity - they become "fan-boys" (or girls) of some actor or sports star or even billionaire.  There are people who "simp" for Elon Musk, who really doesn't need their support, as he can sleep on a mattress stuffed with a billion dollars, if he chose to.  The Trump fans don't really care about policy or politics or even the crazy things Trump says and does - they are fans, plain and simple (usually both) and follow him with the same fervor they have for their favorite sports team.

For some people, fandom is all they have in life - it drowns out the deafening silence.

Myself, I am more of an outcast.  I never saw the profit in being a "sports fan" other than to watch an occasional game and appreciate the talent involved.  Hitching your wagon to some sports star, however, seems like a waste of time, particularly, if, later on, they later turn out to be bigots, wife-beaters, criminals, or just failures in life.  The rabid fans will still support them even then.

Like I said, it is some perverse human instinct to elevate one of our own above us.  We may live in squalor and hardship, but perhaps we live vicariously through the glamorous lives of our rulers and "betters."  As the Monty Python bit above illustrates, you can tell who the King is, because "he doesn't have shit all over him."

But this elevation of our "betters" goes on in everyday life.  In the military and the corporate world, you have a bifurcation between "enlisted men" or "hourly employees" and the "officers" or "salaried employees" and never the twain shall meet.  "Fraternizing" between the classes is deemed a crime or will get you fired.  And in both cases, the hard-boiled "Sergeants" or "Foremen" act as a buffer between the classes - taking orders from above and then forcing the lower class to execute them.

And as I noted before, woe be to the lower-class person who "works their way up the ranks" to become an Officer or a Salaryman.  You will never really be accepted by the muckety-mucks, and you will find your welcome worn out with your former peers.  You become a man without a country.

Humans are weird, no?

Of course, as a top dog, you always have to watch your back, as someone is always vying for your position.  And the hoi polloi are always ready to turn on you at a moment's notice.  A cheering crowd can become an angry mob overnight.  This can be a problem particularly when the lower classes are suffering and the upper crust seems to have it too good - and is not being discreet about flaunting their wealth.

There is much talk about income disparity these days, and the idea that the very wealthy are "hoarding" wealth and sapping the strength of the middle-class.  As I noted when I started this blog, these super-wealthy didn't take out money away, but rather, we gave it to them, with our blubbering thanks.  How many people paid top dollar for a Tesla, waiting a year or more for delivery - and told "tough shit" when parts fell off?  Tesla has slashed prices as other makers get into the business - and an EV price war is in the making.  Many early buyers are "upside-down" on their cars now, as they rapidly depreciate. The real value of these vehicles is now revealed - and the folks who bought these cars early on merely lined the pockets of Tesla shareholders - one shareholder in particular.

They didn't "take our money away" - we gave it to them.  Decrying wealth inequality with a Facebook posting is the same deal.  You are putting a penny in a Billionaire's pocket with every posting you make - maybe even ten cents.  And those pennies add up!

But like I said, it is human nature, I guess, to worship the upper classes.  After all, entire countries, such as Great Britain, are founded on this idea.  I cannot fathom the idea of referring to someone as "Lord" this or "Baron" that, but they do it.  And we do it too, we just don't have formal titles, is all.

Maybe the tide is turning.  Maybe too much wealth is accumulating in the hands of a few.  And handing out an "award" to the likes of Elon Musk or Rupert Murdoch in the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the ultimate Marie Antoinette moment.  Are the going to let those rich white guys get their grubby little hands on an award designated for women's achievements?  (Perhaps Musk and Murdoch gone "trans" on us)

Let them eat cake.  We all know how that worked out.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Are Billionaires Really Happy?

Legend has it, it took him nearly an hour to "smile" for this photo.

Years ago, I went to a meet-up at a State Park in Virginia for people who owned BMW 2002's - the iconic car that put BMW on the map as the "sport sedan" maker.  Of course, today, they are just another overpriced status brand, like Mercedes, selling plastic cars that cost twice as much as a Toyota, but are far less reliable.

At the meet were two people representing the antipodes of the car hobby.  One was a 17-year-old kid who yanked an old 1972 2002ti out of a junkyard and got it running on a budget.  No two fenders were the same color, but he had spent hours in their garage at home, putting in a rebuilt engine, and going over every part of the car, fixing this and that, on a budget.  It wasn't perfect - far from it - but it was his.

On the other extreme was a guy with a 1976 "big bumper" car that was immaculately restored by a host of mechanics and bodymen, paid for with his Daddy's money.  Yes, it was a nice car, a bit over-restored, but in terms of "hands on" experience, the owner had only driven it a few times - he even had it trailered to the event.  He won all the awards - or should I say, his cadre of paid assistants did.  But when it came down to "people's favorite" the 17-year-old won, and everyone was crowded around his "beater" BMW, much to the chagrin of the rich dude.

You can "win" at life and still lose. People who obsess about being successful and making lots of money are rarely ever happy.  I grew up in rich-people places, always on the outside looking in, of course.  But the amount of anti-depressants these folks washed down - and their suicide and alcoholism rates, were astounding.  Their kids were generally spoiled, depressed, and envious of anyone who was actually happy - which is why rich kids often end up bullying happy people.  They want to bring everyone down to their level.

Yea, I went to prep school - for nearly a year before they threw me out, sensing I wasn't one of "them."  The kids who went there were not mentally well-adjusted, to say the least.  It was kind of sad, actually, so see some kid whose Dad showed up once a year in his Rolls-Royce, so unhappy and troubled.  I think he would have been happier with a Dad who cared - and drove a Chevy.

Maybe there is something to this, and some surveys (and I detest survey data!) claim that having "enough" money to get by is the apex of happiness.  Too little, you are miserable.  Too much, you are miserable in luxury.  For rich folks, I think, life seems boring and trite - and too easy. It is like playing Monopoly starting out with Boardwalk and Park Place. Why bother playing? There is something very satisfying about reaping the fruits of your labor - and something very shallow about reaping the fruits of others'.

A reader sent a link about the ongoing saga of this poor fellow who threw away his hard drive that contained some bitcoins.  At the time, they were "worth" pennies, but today, he claims they are worth over a billion.  He already spent a ton of money digging up a landfill to find this errant hard drive, to no avail.  Now he wants to try again, and the local council has better things to do.

How sad.  Nothing good ever came of Bitcoin. You never read a story about how it saved someone's life or fed the poor or stopped a war.  Quite the opposite - it has been a conduit for arms trading, human trafficking and the drug trade.  It made rich people richer, often at the expense of naive middle-class investors who wanted to "get rich."  There is a lesson there somewhere.

This is why I don't buy lottery tickets.  The $1B ticket would go through the wash and be destroyed.  Hell, I put nails through the wash and nearly destroyed my washing machine.  Lottery tickets would be easy prey.  People have literally killed themselves over things like this.

I used to buy lottery tickets - maybe 2-3 times a year.  Back then, they cost a buck and you might win a million dollars - enough money to live comfortably, if not frugally, for the rest of your life, or augment what you already have.  It is not life-destroying money.

But then they raised the ticket prices to $2 and added zillions of games.  And the jackpots went up to the hundreds of millions to nearly (and over) a billion dollars.  This is life-destroying money.  If you won, you'd have to sell your house.  Better yet, give it away or bulldoze it, as the new owners will sue you for misrepresentation or something, the first time the toilet backs up and once they realize you are a billionaire.

Everyone you ever knew - and legions of those you never knew - will knock at your door asking for money.  You have to change your phone number, your e-mail address, and erase everything you ever posted on the Internet.  You'd have to move to an ugly house in a gated community and hire a bodyguard to make sure your children weren't kidnapped. That's life as a billionaire, or even a hundred-millionaire.

And I am not joking about this, either.  We got a magazine once, aimed at wealthy people.  It was all ads for high-end goods, but a surprising number of ads were for security systems, firearms, security services and even a couple of outfits that sold trained German Shepard's who would cuddle with your children and rip-out the mailman's throat, if he approached the house without warning.

Is that any way to live?

Elon Musk has done one good thing for humanity - he illustrated how miserable you can be as a rich person.  You read his tweets and you realize this guy has a real anger-management problem and is never happy.  His family members - parents, children, ex-spouses - either refuse to talk to him or mock him publicly.  That says a lot when your own family members are willing to estrange themselves from you, and walk away from a billion-dollar inheritance.  How toxic can that be?

Maybe being miserable is a prerequisite to being a billionaire?  As I noted in an earlier posting, "miserable" and "miser" have the same Latin root.  A miser is someone who wants to sit on a hoard of money for its own sake.  A thrifty or stingy person, on the other hand, doesn't want to spend money unnecessarily because they don't have a lot of it.  And the latter can actually be more "fun" in that playing the game of commerce is more interesting when you have skin in the game.  When you find a good bargain, you feel like you've won.  On the other hand, a Billionaire simply pays - why bother wasting valuable time haggling over a few bucks?

Happy people have no need for billions.  Billionaires have no need to be happy, it seems.

Ever see a picture of John D. Rockefeller smiling?  Me neither!  Legend has it, it took him nearly an hour to "smile" for this photo.  I just made that up.  But it sounds like it could be true.  The very, very wealthy got there by exploiting and crushing other people.  Rockefeller bought up oil companies and cornered the market in that business.  If someone refused to sell to him, he would make an example of them by crushing their business, so that others would comply.  He pitched railroads against one another - and against pipelines as well.  Carnegie was no different, just in a different business (Steel).  And of course, J.P. Morgan, once a part-time resident of our little island, was as miserable as the rest of them, despite (or because of) being the "richest man in the world."  Henry Ford?  A cranky old antisemite who tried to control the personal lives of his employees.  Not a nice man to be around, from all accounts.

There are no happy-go-lucky billionaires.  Even those with inherited wealth (or maybe especially so) are miserable - compounded by the nagging feeling that they really didn't deserve their wealth.  Carnegie, when he retired, set out to give away most of his wealth - something that apparently actually made him happy.  He gave some to his relatives, who built white-elephant mansions on Cumberland Island, just South of us.  Most are in ruins, one is a hotel.  The heirs are still picking over the carcass of that fortune to this very day.

The Candler heirs (Coca-Cola) live just North of them on Little Cumberland Island and the few I've met are a stuck-up bunch of arrogant ass-hats who seem to think it is beneath them to even talk to one of us plebes.  But again, I've seen this all my life - people who inherit wealth are fundamentally insecure, as they realize they really did nothing to warrant the largess they wallow in.  Hence why the "Royals" are so miserable and there is such drama about them.  If they were stripped of their ill-gotten riches and forced to have jobs, they likely would be better off, emotionally.  Imagine Prince William tending bar at a pub or Prince Harry running a chip-shop.  Why not?  The rest of us have to!

And we are happier for it, believe it or not.

A lot of young people pine for great wealth.  Teenage boys put up posters of exotic cars and exotic women on their bedroom walls (which one they masturbate to, is a good question).  Young girls dream of a life of luxury and excess.  And life always comes up short for both.  But the reality of an exotic sports car is that is an uncomfortable pain-in-the-ass to own, and quite frankly, not many are impressed by the ability to write a check.

A Houston "cars and coffee" group recently created a controversy by stating that only older cars are welcome at their event.  No late-model Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers, or Chargers, thank you!  If you look at YouTube videos of dilberts in these cars leaving a "car meet" you can see why.  They are driven by young men who are insecure and want to show off, so they floor it to burn out, succumb to lift-throttle oversteer and spin out into a parked car, pedestrian, or both.

A car meet is about cars that people work on and restore and love.  It isn't a used car lot for idiots who are making monthly payments on a new car.  It takes talent and time to restore an old car and care for it.  It takes no talent to sign loan documents on a Dodge and then wreck in before the loan is paid off.

And just like with Billionaires, the guy who just spent money isn't really as happy as the guy who struggled to restore an old car on a budget.  It is just like the BMW 2002 meet I alluded to above.  Talent trumps cash, every time.  Well, that, and I can understand why the "Cars and Coffee" people don't want to get sued because some jackalope has to do a fiery burnout while leaving and has no idea how to drive the car he just bought.

We see this all the time in other venues.  A "rich guy" buys an expensive yacht and figures that since he paid for it he knows how to drive it.  Same is true for Porsches - the rich  guy who bought a brand-new one, ends up wrecking it.  He can write a check for the car, but has no real idea what the car is all about, other than a status symbol.  Such was the downfall of BMW.

It doesn't pay to be jealous of the very rich, because, deep down, they are jealous of the real happiness the middle-class actually has.  Maybe that is why the very rich have systematically been trying to destroy the middle-class in this country!

No one should be allowed to be happy while they are so miserable!