Friday, September 28, 2012

$10,000 an Hour?

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Is this guy really worth $10,000 an hour?  Is this the best the GOP can do?



Mitt Romney, according to some sources, made $20 million last year.  $20,000,000 equates to $54,794.52 per day, or $2,354.05 an hour or $39.23 a minute.  That’s every minute of every day.   Mitt Romney makes more money per minute than the median American family makes per hour at $51,000 per year (which equates to $26 per hour, roughly).

But it is worse that that. If we take this amount and divide it by 50 working weeks a year (most Americans get a paltry two weeks vacation a year) and a 40 hour work-week (again, most Americans work more hours than that), his annual income equates to an hourly rate of $10,000 an hour. 

 In other words, his income is about 400 times the median family income in America.

Is this a lot of money?  Yea, it is.  And since it is all legally characterized as “investment income” and not wage income, he pays only a 15% Capital Gains tax on it, not the ordinary income rates you and I pay – even though clearly he labored at Bain Capital to make that dough.

Is making a lot of money wrong in and of itself?  Perhaps not.  You invent a new smart phone, you make millions of dollars.  That is the incentive to invent.  You create a new restaurant chain, you make a ton of dough – you took risks, and you reap the rewards.

But Romney’s money is not from creating wealth, but from dissipating it.  Bain Capital bought troubled companies, loaded them up with debt, spun off any profitable divisions, and then rewarded themselves with huge bonuses for showing paper profits for a few years.  When it all predictably (by design) comes apart, they stripped off the pension plan and foisted that off on the U.S. Taxpayer, through the Pension Resolution Trust Corporation – and left the pensioners with 40 cents on the dollar.

And in many cases, if the company even emerged from bankruptcy, they ended up owning it – as debtor-in-possession.  

Oh, and all the people working at the company lost their jobs or had their union agreements voided by bankruptcy courts.  Everyone lost except Bain, of course.

So, as an “average American” do you really think you have a lot in common with Mitt Romney?  Do you really think he has your best interests at heart?

Because if you do, you are deluding yourself.  It is long way from $10 an hour to $10,000 an hour.


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The Victim Mentality

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I wrote previously about Romney’s 47% comment, and how he got it all wrong, but not necessarily in the way Democrats want to portray it.  Many of these 47% are ardent Republicans, even if they are suckling at the government teat.  Romney was wrong, but not for the reasons Democrats portray.

But he was right that if we end up in a society where everyone petitions the government for aid, we will be in a whole host of trouble.  And this idea was driven home to me shortly after I wrote the last piece, by a phone call from a friend in Northern Virginia.

We used to have a cleaning lady.  Heck, we used to have a lot of things.  Hiring a cleaning lady is a sure sign of laziness or that you own too much home.  But I don’t want to digress yet again on another topic.  But let’s just say there are a lot of people who watch four hours of television a DAY, while paying $50 to $100 a week to have someone come in an clean for four hours - once a week.  It is a foolish waste of money for the middle class.

I was never comfortable having “servants” as I do not like the idea of exploiting or even employing others.  This is why I no longer employ people.  It is a hard thing to do, and there is a reason why managers get paid a lot to do it, particularly if they are effective.

We paid our cleaning lady and issued a 1099 form for her, and did it all above-board (others were not so keen about this).  Since she also cleaned my office building, I put her on our group health plan and also made her eligible for our 401(k) plan.  Again, others are not so generous.   When she needed an apartment, after a dispute with her slumlord landlord, we bought a condo for her to live in, charging her a modest rent.

Before you think I am a total patsy, that condo, which cost $38,000, is now worth $150,000 and was paid-off a long time ago.  She continues to live there, paying the condo fee and taxes, which is OK with us.  Although increasingly, I am thinking that we are losing some potential rental income on the place, and the overall amount is pretty staggering.

She is getting older and she said, at one time, that she would return to Mexico when she became infirm, and live with her children. She owns a house in Mexico, which she just deeded to her kids. Not in some slum, either, but in tony Cuernavaca, in a nice neighborhood.

Anyway, I get a call from one of her employers – one of the few who declares her income.  She is here legally, of course, on a green card, and she now qualifies for Social Security and Medicare.  The 401(k), which ended up totaling about $7000, is long gone.  Once she realized she could cash it in, she did, no doubt to send money back to her family, as well as pay off her staggering VISA bill.  She is not good with money.

Her employer arranged to get her Social Security and Medicare, and is now trying to get her SSI – Supplemental Income, which is a form of welfare for the elderly.  I have mixed feelings about this.  If you are one of the legions of immigrant-haters, you might be thinking that it is time for this lady to go back to Mexico, rather than continue to live here on the government dole.  But of course, Social Security is an entitlement, and since she paid into the system (thanks mostly to my declaring her income - still sure that having immigrants work under the table is a bad thing?) she gets paid back – even if she moves back to Mexico.

What is starting to gall me, however, is how she continually puts herself in peril and then asks others to bail her out.  This is no doubt because that is how people are raised in Mexico.  You want a job?  Ask the government.  You want a house?  Ask the government.  You want food?  Ask the government.

Dependency and learned helplessness is ingrained early on.  So it is no surprise that she acts this way, as it works out for her, pretty well, and she ends up better off, at least in her mind, than by taking care of herself.

A friend of mine, who is a Cuban-American (or just plain American, if you don’t go in for hyphenation) is bi-lingual and works with the church to help many immigrants with various legal and other problems.   He helps them to close on the trailers they buy, for example, in some of the poorer parts of our town.  They pay cash for these trailers, often trying to show up with wads of $20 bills at closing – many of which are forgeries that check-cashing stores hand out.   He takes them to the big, scary bank, to get a cashier’s check for the closing.  It is a simple thing, but they claim they cannot do it, and they play the passive victim and hope the church or someone helps them out.

Myself, I was never comfortable throwing my fates to the higher authorities and hoping they would have pity on me.  Why?  Because people are not trustworthy, and they are inconsistent and arbitrary.  In many cases, if you do not appear victim enough, you don’t get the swag others get.  And even in systems that are supposed to be quantified and non-arbitrary, this is often true.

And in arbitrary systems, like families, it is even worse.   My brothers were always subject of concern to my parents.  One was sent to a psychologist, as he was tagged as being “troubled” early on.  The other was pushed to go to law school, with the admonition, “We’ll pay your way, if you want to go!”   When I asked, “What about me?” they replied, “You’re OK, you can take care of yourself!”

And so I muddled on, without child psychologists, and finding a way to work my way through law school.   Perhaps the expectation that “you can take care of yourself” became a self-fulfilling prophesy.   When you are told you can do something, you often can.

It was like my time with General Motors.  A wet-behind-the-ears pothead of 18, I was thrust into a busy and dangerous factory, handed a clipboard, and told to manage a crew of 10 men.    No one asked me if I could do it.  They told me to, and that was that.  Expectations are everything.

And perhaps that is what Romney was trying to get at.   When we tell people they are victims and that their only recourse is government assistance, well, they tend to seek assistance from the government.

And the victim mentality – and the desire to “help” others who may not be in need – is rampant.   You all remember that lady who was a bus monitor who cried on a YouTube video, after some kids teased her.  We all felt sorry for her – heck, I did.  After all, we have all been teased at one time or another, maybe on the school bus, and know how humiliating and painful that can be, even if you are an adult.  

So people opened their pocketbooks and sent her money.  $800,000 later, she retired as a bus monitor.  I am not saying she wasn’t a victim (although some would argue that her job was not to cry, but to knock heads together) but $800,000 for crying on a bus?  That is a bit out of line.  I wish her well, and hope she rubs those kids' nose in her eight-hundred grand.  But I don’t think it is quite in proportion.

She was successful (and not by her design, but by virtue of a YouTube video) of being portrayed as a victim.  If it were me in that situation, people would laugh and say, “a bunch of kids?  You’re a big guy!  Knock their heads together!”  But of course, if I did, I would be accused of “child abuse” as back-slapping a kid is now considered to be on a par with leaving them chained up in the basement.  So either way, I would lose, which is why I would never be a bus monitor, teacher, or any other job like that – the kids have you by the short hairs, as they are the victims in our society.

I suspect in a Mormon household, kids taste the back of Mitt’s hand on occasion, which is why they are so well-behaved.  But that is mere speculation on my part.

But this rambling diatribe illustrates why it is so hard to put this issue into 100 words or less – and why Romney bungled it so badly.  The victim mentality is a dangerous trend.  It would not be so bad if real victims (and by that, I mean real victims, not 10-year-anniversary Katrina “victims”) were helped by our society.   But that is often not the case – people who don’t deserve or need help end up living off the labor of others, while others in need end up with nothing, as they don’t appear to be victims.

And again, if you tell people that if they look like victims they will get help, many will do just that.  And if you tell people they can do OK by themselves, well, you’d be surprised how many “victims” become self-actualizing.

A recent ad on public radio in Western Virginia was for a reading of a play at a local venue.  It was interesting, as they played an excerpt from this play.  The play was a re-write of the classic fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  You remember the story – the Ant works all year long to put away food, while the Grasshopper goofs off and does nothing.  Come winter, the Grasshopper demands his “fair share” of Ant’s food, even as he did nothing to contribute to it.

In a perverse twist on this tale, we are lead to believe that the Grasshopper “contributed” to Ant’s wealth by making things more jolly and cheerful with his antics.  Grasshopper, we are told, is an artist and should be compensated for his efforts – and the amount to be compensated is not to be determined by Ant, but by some governmental art agency.

A scary thought.  But of course, Public Radio does not have a liberal bias, and I know this, because a soul-searching piece on NPR examined the issue in-depth and came to the conclusion that Public Radio is neutral in content.  Makes sense to me.

Ahh… but Public Radio!  The only place where you can be a “victim” of a hurricane a decade after it has flooded you out.  If it were up to the Left, Katrina “victims” and their descendents, would be eligible for victim assistance into perpetuity.  Perhaps we should give them land and let them open casinos and sell tax-free gasoline and cigarettes?
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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Was Romney Right?

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Mitt Romney stuck his foot in his mouth, to be sure.  But even if he stated it poorly, did he say things that were essentially correct?

Gaffe is as gaffe does.  And in this political environment, when you make a "Gaffe" or even an alleged gaffe, it is open season on you and your platform.

You may recall a month ago, Obama gave a speech in which he clearly said that infrastructure like roads and bridges and the Internet, which were created or maintained using government funds, help businesses succeed.  And in that regard, if you have a business that succeeded, you "didn't build" the roads and bridges that moved your products through commerce.

But, opportunistic Republicans (are there any other kind?) took this out of context, and edited the video to make it sound like Obama was saying that people, such as myself, who created their own businesses, didn't build their own businesses.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and fair is fair - the Democrats are running with the ball on Romney's poorly-worded comments about the 47%.  And unlike the Obama clip, no editing is needed - Romney really stuck his foot in his mouth on this one.

But what he did was mangle a number of statistics together and come to the wrong conclusions.

Yes, about 47% of Americans pay no INCOME tax (46% if you want to nit-pick).  But of course, they pay "payroll tax" if they have a job, and most people don't know what that means.  The Payroll tax is the part taken out of your paycheck to pay for Medicare and Social Security - which is matched by your employer.  If you are self-employed, you pay the whole deal, which until recently was 18% of your income up to $108,000.  18% - that's a full four percentage points higher than Romney paid in income tax.

And yes, those folks do expect to get paid back in the form of Social Security benefits and Medicare benefits.  And to some extent, having paid into the system, they should expect to get paid back - after all, it was a promise made by the government.  I analyzed this in previous posts - and while most people get back far more than they pay in, the amount they get back equals, roughly (at least in my case) the money paid in over 30 years of working, plus about 4% interest.   Not a bad rate of return and not a bad loan rate for Uncle Sam.

So the idea that these sorts of folks are paying "nothing" in taxes and getting back someone else's money is somewhat wrong.  A lot the money they get back will be the payroll taxes they paid in.

But the big error Romney made was in assuming that this 46% of the population was locked into voting for Obama.  Surprisingly, many of the very poor and ignorant (it goes hand in hand) are big GOP and Romney fans - convinced that lowering the tax rates of people making $300,000 a year will somehow "trickle down" to them.

As I heard it explained on a Jesus radio station in rural Virginia, "Romney will make things friendlier for business, and when that happens, business will hire more people and we will all go back to work!"

Of course, this neglects the fact that Romney and his ilk have done a good job of making things friendlier for Chinese businesses - by outsourcing jobs overseas.  Romney even criticized the tire case brought in the ITC by the Obama Administration (which lead to a staggering increase in the price of tires, as I wrote about earlier) as "protectionism".  Today, Romney criticizes Obama for not being stronger on China.  If you want to know what Romney believes in, buy a weathervane.

One lady here in rural Virginia remarked, after running into the store to buy $20 of cigarettes and $7 of gas, "I can't afford to put much more gas in my car, I'm so poor!"   The fellow she was talking to replied, "That's the way Obama wants it!" and she chimed in, "You got that right!"

Now, of course, I would question her priorities vis-a-vis spending on cigarettes versus gas.  And perhaps she didn't really need a Suburban to drive to the grocery store in.  But to even raise such issues is to accused of being a Communist in these parts, so I kept my own counsel.  But this lady was clearly in the 47% - and Romney was writing her off as an Obama supporter!  Bad move!

A lot of these folks are convinced that the GOP is going to help them.  Why is this?  The answer is varied.  The GOP has used "social issues" in a calculated manner to attract the fundamentalist voters.  These represent a minority of Americans, but they will get out and vote, if you promise to protect gun rights and oppose abortion and gay marriage.  Once in office, of course, you can proceed to loot the treasury and  then pass some legislation that nominally moves the ball down the field on social issues.  Hey, what do you care?  You can afford to fly your daughter to Europe for an abortion, or at least Canada.  These sort of things don't affect the 1%, right?

And many believe, wrongly, that the GOP is the party of "business" and if you elect Republican leaders, they will make things better for businesses, and somehow this will equate into wealth for them.  However, statistics seem to show otherwise - as Bill Clinton noted during the Democratic convention.  Economic growth has been greater under Democratic Presidents than under Republicans.  And another disturbing statistic - States that are "Red States" tend to take more in government money that they pay back.  Yes, people in New York effectively subsidize Alabama.  The 47% are not Obama supporters, but oddly enough, mostly Romney supporters, particularly if they are white.

Yes, race.  That is the ugly side of it.  People vote or support candidates for odd reasons.  When Bill Clinton was being impeached, I was talking about the issue with some friends who were Democrats.  I expected them to be sympathetic to the President, but they were vehemently against him.  I prodded a bit and found out that both of them had been cheated on by their former spouses, and while they supported Clinton's policies, the emotional issue of marital infidelity was enough to send them over the edge - quite literally.

And similarly, many of the hateful e-mails I get from people with Obama conspiracy theories are really just cover for racism.   One fellow who sends me these things is pretty frank in his outright hatred of black people.  Another, a Mexican-American, remembers vividly the racial divide between Latinos and Blacks in her high school - and the incidents it sparked.  She is against Obama because he doesn't have a valid birth certificate, she says.  The personal issue of racism is not the cause, of course.  And as for political positions, she really can't articulate any.   Politics are funny that way.  And that is why you can get people to vote against their self-interest, fairly easily.  You just need to find the right emotional hook to bait them with.

So Romney was all wrong, right?  Well, not exactly.  What he was getting at, in-eloquently, was the specter raised by the far right since the days of Roosevelt.  And that is the idea that our society will have a "tipping point" - where more people are getting money from the government than not.  And when this happens, well, the government will end up running everything and running it into the ground.

Heinlein expressed this succinctly in one of his Lazarus Long stories.  The quote goes along the lines of something like this: "Democracy fails when the plebes all realize they can vote themselves a raise."

And this has happened in our history before.  Ancient Rome fell, not because the Visigoths were charging the gates of the city, but because the empire rotted from within.  Emperors worried more about keeping the public placated and subsidized.  So "Bread and Circuses" were the order of the day - free bread and free entertainment.   And fed and distracted, the citizenry was placated and malleable.

Have we reached this point?  It is a worthy issue worth discussing.  And unfortunately, Romney botched the whole thing.  Maybe someone explained it to him quickly backstage, and it all got tossed around in his head.  While he is better at pronouncing the hard words than George Bush, it seems he really isn't much of an intellectual heavyweight.  Maybe he just had a long day - or a poor speechwriter.

From my perspective, I don't think the tipping point has been reached.  Most of the hateful e-mails I get from friends, forwarding the latest Obama conspiracy theories, or even "Birther" paranoia (yes, they are still out there) are from people who are in the 47%.  So clearly, Obama doesn't have a "lock" on this segment of the population.

And if he did, what would be the point in Romney running?  After all, if your opponent starts with a 47% lead, there is little hope of winning at all.  And maybe that is why Romney appears to be phoning it in.  He is the sacrificial lamb - the distractor, preventing us from thinking about what is really important in this election - the House and Senate.  People obsess about the Presidential election, but meanwhile, gerrymandering and redistricting, along with late-in-the-game voter registration "purges" will insure that many Democratic seats in the House and Senate switch sides this election.

That really is the big enchilada in this election - but not many are talking about it.  We are all distracted by the Gaffes and the latest Presidential polls.
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Friday, September 14, 2012

The Unbanked

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These folks are squandering what little they have by avoiding banks.

A recent article on CNN discusses the number of people in the USA who are "unbanked" - that is to say, have no bank accounts whatsoever.

Who are these people?  Mostly the poor.  Why do they not have bank accounts?  The answers are various.

Some don't trust banks, which of course is idiotic.  And when you are an idiot, you get shitty deals in life, and end up poor.  So, it is a vicious circle.

Others are denied accounts, because they had checking accounts at other banks, and wrote so many bad checks or failed to pay back overdrafts, that they are bad risks.  And yes, the Banks have their own version of a credit report to check when you apply for an account.

At our credit union, the manager told me of this problem - young people making very little money, who thought that you could just write as many checks as you wanted.  Often drugs were involved, or just plain stupidity, or both, which is redundant.    The Credit Union closed their checking accounts, but allowed them to maintain savings accounts (which are hard to over-draft) and they paid all their bills by money-order.   A pain in the ass, but better than $25 in check-cashing fees.  And of course, they are paying for screwing the pooch by not being more careful with money.   Again, in our economic system, the more mistakes you make, the more you pay, and those least able to pay, pay the most.  Stop making mistakes, like speeding to the check-cashing store so you can bounce another check.

And of course, youth is involved, too.  As a "kid" of 23, I did not keep careful track of my bank balance, and bounced checks as a result.  But the difference was, of course, that I paid the bounce fees and made up for the amount due.

Still others believe that the "fees" associated with having a checking or savings account are too high.  Of course, there are banks with no fees - but they often aren't in poor neighborhoods.  Like the pawn shop and the check-cashing store, the bank that is located in the ghetto has crummy rates and high fees, and many poor people simply believe that is how all banks work.  I have three bank accounts, and none charge fees, and some actually pay interest, albeit at a paltry rate.

Many unbanked resort to using prepaid debit cards, and as I have some Patents pending for clients in this area, I cannot comment further.  But suffice it to say, that these sorts of cards are one end-run on banks that many folks use.  You can set up a Wal-Mart prepaid credit card to accept a direct deposit from your employer, and thus avoid some fees.  It is like having a bank account, without having a bank account.

But overall, these end-runs end up being more expensive than just going to a bank.  I have an account with Bank of America, and I pay no fees.  And since they are located nearly everywhere (except Vermont), I can use a BoA ATM without incurring any transaction fees.   My Ameris accounts work the same way, although they are not as widespread.

If you are poor, getting out of the mindset that banks are the enemy is as important as getting out of the mindset that wealth is "evil".   Seek out a fee-free bank account, and avoid paying $25 to cash a check or $3 to check the balance on your pre-paid debit card.  There is no reason, if you have very little money, to squander it on stupid stuff like that.  $25 buys a lot of beer.

Check out ALL the local banks - and credit unions.  The latter usually have no fees and can help you out if you have had trouble with a bank account before.  A simple savings account may be a good way to get you in as a customer, so you can cash your paycheck without paying any check-cashing fee, or even have it automatically deposited.  But read the rules - many savings accounts, such as as BoA, do not allow more than a limited number of deposits and withdrawals per month, as they are for savings, not checking.

And if you get a bank account, monitor it like a hawk.  Bouncing checks and other idiotic nonsense is not only expensive, it can add you to the legion of "unbanked" in this country, which will cause you to slide further down the food chain.
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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Keyboard Shortcuts in Firefox - How to Disable

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One annoying feature of Firefox are the keyboard shortcuts.  If you hit the "CTRL" key instead of "SHIFT" by accident, you may find your computer doing very odd things.

One problem I have when typing using Firefox, is that since I type fast, I often find that entire documents suddenly seem to erase themselves.  This was a mystery to me at first, until I realized that what was happening is that I was accidentally activating a "keyboard shortcut" in Firefox, and thus telling it do to something I did not intend to do.

The most common instance of this, is when you hit "CTRL-A" instead of SHIFT-A for a Capital A.  what this keyboard shortcut does, in Firefox, is SELECT ALL.  Once you do this, the next letter you type will REPLACE all the selected text with the newly typed text.  If you are a fast typist, it appears as if your entire entry has suddenly disappeared.

If you do this, DON'T PANIC.  Just hit CTRL-Z which is the universal "Whoops! I didn't mean to do that, please UNDO!" command.  Your deleted text should reappear.  You may have to hit it more than once, however, if you typed a lot after the delete occurred.

But it is a PAIN IN THE ASS and one of the most useless features of Firefox to have this CTRL-A delete a whole page of work, when you hit it by accident.  And it is easy to hit it by accident, as the CTRL and SHIFT keys are close together, particularly on many laptops!

There is no way, within Firefox, to delete or disable these "shortcuts" - that I am aware of.  However, there is an add-on you can install on Firefox that will allow you to REDEFINE (but not DELETE or DISABLE) these keyboard shortcuts.

More information about Keyboard Shortcuts and their definitions can be found at this link.

And the add-on to edit the shortcuts can be found at this link.  A fellow named Tim Taubert developed this add-on.  Nice work, Tim!  Once installed (which does not require a reboot or restart) you can click on "tools" and then "options" and then a new tab will appear - "shortcuts".  Click on it to edit your shortcuts.

You can edit any shortcut to any key combination by highlighting the shortcut and then hitting "edit".  Beware, though, if you screw this up, you may make a simple key command equal some hideous shortcut, so use it carefully.  If you redefine "ENTER" to mean "delete all" you might have a hard time fixing that.

To fix the offending "CTRL-A" problem, I changed the key "shortcut" to CTRL-SHIFT-ALT-A, which would require me to press four keys at once, and thus prevent me from accidentally requesting a "select all" command.  Since I never use this command, I made it nearly impossible to use.

You may similarly edit other commands that you are finding problematic.  You cannot delete these commands, apparently, only edit them.  But editing them to make them nearly unusable without hitting three or four keys at the same time is the next best thing.  You won't hit them by accident, that's for sure!

Why does Firefox use keyboard shortcuts?  They are popular, and Windows uses them, too.  They are useful for people who cannot type fast, I guess.  But for those of us who can, they are a PITA, as a missed keystroke means deleting a long posting, such as this.

Good Luck!
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The new SMART PHONES are here!

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NOTE: This is a re-posting from October 2011.  Every year, a new version of a smart phone comes out, and the media acts like it is the second coming of Christ.   America was this way about "the new model cars!" back in the mid-1950's.  However, that sort of collapsed after the Edsel, when everyone realized it was a bunch of crap and hoopla.  So, once again, I dust off this old number, just in time for the latest-and-greatest piece-of-crap time-waster and wallet-lightener.


The new SMART PHONES are out!  OMG!  OMG!



OMG!  Can you believe it?  The newest SMART PHONE is available!  And the lines for it were around the block!  And that famous guy - he was the first one to get one!  I can't WAIT to get mine!

It is SO MUCH BETTER than this POS phone I got last year.  God, I can't believe I waited in line for three days for that piece of junk!  This NEW PHONE will be SO MUCH BETTER, I can't believe it!

It has to be really good, right?  All the media outlets are heaping praise on it - and writing article after article about it!  And it is all over the news.  After all, EVERYONE has a SMART PHONE, right?  I mean, how can you live without one?

And how can you possibly live with LAST YEAR'S MODEL?  OMG!

And this new phone has 8G technology - which is obviously SOoooooo much better than that lame old 7G technology - even though I have no clue that it means.  But, when I am with my friends, I can talk knowingly about it, and look down my nose at my pals with scratched-up "Last year's models".

Yea, the new SMART PHONE XLS is so cool - and obviously better than the LS model from last year.  After all, putting an "X" on something makes it all tech-y and cool.

And it has all these new FEATURES, too, although I can't quite remember what they are.  And they've fixed most of the bugs in the previous version!  Well, most of them, anyway.  You still have to hold it upside-down to make international calls, which is sort of a pain-in-the-ass. 

But like a good lemming, I will get my sleeping bag out of storage and sleep out for a week by the wireless store to make sure I am FIRST IN LINE to get one!

What exactly is the deal with smart phones?  And why are people going ga-ga over them?  Yes, they are a fun toy to play with - so is the empty box it came in.   But they are hardly a game-changer of anything, at least at the present time.

Oh yea, it has GPS.  That's cool.  So is a GPS unit, which you can buy for under $200 and not pay a monthly fee for - and it won't be obsolete in a year.

You can get on the Internet, too.  Yea, that's nice, but what can you see on those tiny screens?

And you can text with it - although anyone who texts has their brains leaking out their ears, quite literally.  Texting is not working, it is not communicating, it is not anything, but masturbating - and it even looks like it, with these folks with their electronic devices in their laps, their hands in constant motion.

What this all means, however, is huge profits for cell phone companies - and huge holes in the pockets of users.  The phones themselves cost hundreds of dollars - but their real cost is hidden by wrapping part of the purchase price into a monthly service contract "starting at only $15 a month!" the website cheerfully announces.  But most users end up spending $60 to $100 a month, if not more.

According to one report, the cost of owning a smart phone is about $2000 a year.  Ouch.

That's not a lot of money, right?  Think again.  As I have noted before in this blog, even if you are making $100,000 a year, your actual "disposable income" might be only 10% of that.  Once you pay your taxes (huge chunk) your mortgage (huge chunk) and then other living expenses, AND fund your retirement accounts (you ARE doing that, right?  Instead of diverting that money to a phone?  RIGHT?) you might have only $10,000 left over to "spend".  And $2000 a year on a phone is, well, 20% of that disposable income.

So yea, it is cool to be able to scan those 2-D bar codes in the paper or on signs and instantly download a web page in tiny fonts on your tiny screen - so you can be marketed to even more.  But is a cool toy worth that much money to you?

And how much of having a smart phone is actually using it, versus just having a trendy accessory to impress people you don't know?

"Rather than worry about what other people think of you, you should worry about what you think of yourself" -- Stephen M. Pollan

And of course, once you pull your eyeballs away from media saturation, you may realize, that, contrary to what the media hypes, not "everyone" has a smart phone - just as not "everyone" leases cars, gets payday loans, or rents-to-own furniture.

While smart phone usage is on the rise, according to the latest A.C. Nielson report, less than half of all Americans use them.  By the end of 2011, it is projected that smart phone penetration will reach about 50%.

This is an interesting statistic, as some folks naturally believe that penetration is at 100% - folks who just text and talk to folks like themselves, or folks who mimic that the fellow in the next cubicle is doing.

But I suspect that a lot of people will delay getting such a phone - if they ever do.  If you can get by with something that is FREE, why bother paying a monthly fee?  Why bother paying for a book, when you can check it out of the library?

For me, having been on the "bleeding edge" of technology over the years, I plan on waiting - a good long time.  Having the "latest and greatest" technology is not only expensive - staggeringly expensive - it is also time-consuming and frustrating, as you end up as the Beta tester for some large corporation.

The appeal of a smart phone is, of course, that you can access the Internet anywhere with it.  But of course, many of us have been doing that via cellular modem and the like, for years.  And nowadays, getting this sort of service is not hard to do, for free, using WiFi.

We recently traveled for two-and-a-half months by camper in Canada.  For the most part, we had no cell service.  But we did have WiFi about every other day (and in some of the most remote places imaginable) and we were able to contact people by phone using landlines and a long distance calling card.   Total cost:  Not a helluva lot.

Would it have been handy to have a smart phone with GPS and Internet Access?  Yes.  But of course, chances are, service in Labrador would not have been all that extensive.  Was it essential to getting around?  Not really.  Would it have been worth $2000 a year?  Not at all.

A cheap laptop and free WiFi service can provide you with Internet Access on the road.  I find that I only need to get online once every few days to balance my checkbook and erase e-mails.  The "need" to be constantly connected is, to say the least, over-stated.  And of course, you can't do real work on a smart phone - at least I can't.  I need a full-sized QWERTY keyboard to work, thank you, not some texting device that creates short messages.

But of course, some folks have an obsessive-compulsive need to be in constant contact - to be continually texting friends all the time - particularly young people.  And the cell phone companies are there to serve this obsessive-compulsive behavior.  Texting is the new smoking, it appears.

And smart phones are the new crack.

---Sent from my new SMART PHONE XLS 8G (tm)
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Time Enough For Love

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Suppose you could know the exact date you are going to die.  Would you live your life differently if you knew?  In a way, you already know, so why not act on this information?


In one of Robert Heinlein's early science-fiction stories, Life-Line, he tells the story of a Dr. Pinero, who invents a machine that can tell a person their exact date of death, down to the minute.  In that story, Dr. Pinero ends up predicting his own death, which occurs after an angry mob storms his offices and smashes his machine.

Would you want to know when you are going to die?  And how would it affect how you live?

In a way, you already know when you are going to die, although most people try to avoid thinking about this.   When it comes to numbers, most people are idiots.  For example, when I ask someone what the price of something was, they say, "Well, I don't remember, exactly!"

"OK," I reply, "Was it more than a dollar?"

"Well, yea, of course it was!" they say.

"Was it less than a million dollars?"

"Well, Duh!" they reply.

"Well, we've narrowed down considerably from infinity, let's see if we can narrow it further."

And so on - we can narrow down the range until, voila! the person who claims they "can't remember" the price of an item, can give you the actual price within a fairly accurate range.

We are taught in school that numbers have to be exact or they have no meaning - and giving a wrong answer is worse than no answer at all.  But in real life, it doesn't work that way, and being able to estimate things and use ballpark figures is a sign that you are mathematically literate.  People who need exact numbers in order to think, just don't understand mathematics.

While I have digressed here, it illustrates that your life expectancy is indeed a finite number - it is not infinity, unless you are Lazarus Long.   The oldest person living in the USA (at the time of this writing) lives in Georgia, and is 116 years old.  You will not likely live that long.  Factor in things like your body weight, habits (smoking, drinking, etc.) existing health conditions, as well as family history of heart disease, cancer, and how long your relatives lived, you can get a pretty good idea of how much time you have here on planet Earth.  In the USA, this is about 75 years on average.

And how old you are factors in as well.  If you are 75, the odds of reaching 80 improve dramatically.  So, don't assume that since you are 75 and have lived an average lifespan, you are going to die next year.  Each day you live longer, improves the odds of living the next day.  It is weird like that.

So, we all have an idea that we have mortality.  And if we were to die tomorrow, or next month, surely we would "live for today" and have a good time - right?   On the other hand, if we were to live until age 90, we would want to plan carefully for our lifespan, to insure that we had enough money to last us the rest of our lives - right?

And here's the kicker - and the point of this posting - Americans do neither.

Americans are accused of "living for today" too much, in that they spend all their money and save little or nothing.  But this is not really true.  Americans spend all their money on crap - like smart phones and cable Television - and then borrow more so they can have a shiny car.  They are not "living for today" but rather squandering what little precious time they have on the planet, on stupid things like television shows and "apps" on their iPhones.

Trust me when I say that if you were given three months to live, you would not spend it catching up on Reality TV shows.

Your average American, therefore, goes off to work every day to "pay the bills" on crap they don't really need and doesn't really add to their life.  They harbor vague hopes of "someday" paying it all off and living a life of ease and relaxation.  But of course, that never happens - they lurch from one bad buying decision to another, going further and further into debt, and never really experiencing the now in their lives.  They live for tomorrow, without planning for it.

And when tomorrow comes, they have no savings to speak of, and a mountain of debt still to pay off.  And they wonder why, during all this time, there was no time for them in their lives.  It was all spent at work, laboring like a slave for someone else, so they could pay off debts to finance companies and banks.  They got two days off a week to do laundry and vacuum the house, and two weeks off a year to "vacation" - which usually involved spending more money.  This is the sum and substance of a human life?

Your life is finite, and it is slipping away, if you are on the debt treadmill or hamster wheel.   If you complain about living "paycheck to paycheck" and at the same time, have a cable TV bill and car payments, you need to take a good look in the mirror.  Because the values you are investing in (or borrowing to buy) are false and phoney.   You are trading life for a series of payments, and frittering away the precious few hours you have, watching Storage Wars.

And these are choices you make not obligations or a predetermined lifestyle.

It is possible to both live for today and to plan for tomorrow.  But it takes a radical re-evaluation of how you choose to live.

Turning off the television, and then throwing it away, is a good start.
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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Makes You Wonder What Else They Are Lying About....

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People are forwarding e-mails that say all sorts of things about President Obama that are easily proven as not true.  One e-mail claims that Obama mistook this Wisconsin banner for a Union banner.  But that never happened.  So why do people perpetuate lies?  And what does this say about the opposition's real agenda?


So many forwarded e-mails about the latest outrage that Barack Obama has supposedly committed.  But of course, they are all untrue.  Why do people believe this stuff?  Why do they forward it?  And moreover, who creates these rumors and lies?

For example, as noted above Obama supposedly mistook the flag above for a union banner.  And supposedly, Obama has signed nearly 1000 executive orders, which take over whole sectors of the economy.   Another claims that Fox News "suppressed" a video clip where Obama admits to being a Muslim (Yea, Fox News would do that, of course).

And of course, the grandaddy of them all, Obama is supposedly not a U.S. Citizen.

The list goes on and on.  Obama took off his rings for Ramadan, or whatever.

All these stories have one thing in common.  They are not true.  In fact, they are staggeringly not true, but utter fabrications.  And yet, it seems that these "stories" will not die - and I get these forwarded to me from people who I used to think were smart and at least a little skeptical.  They doubt the Encyclopedia Britannica as not being properly vetted.  But an anonymous e-mail?  It is reliable as the Oracle at Delphi.

To me, these stories smack of desperation - that the GOP has no real "there" there, and so they have to resort not to just distortions or "spin" which is part and parcel of the political process, but outright lies and fabrications, created by and spread by their political operatives.

It makes you wonder:  what else are they lying about?

Well, as it turns out, just about everything.  That cutting taxes of the top income earners by 3% will turn around the economy and reduce the deficit, for example - or cause people to hire more.  That is, as I have noted before, an outright lie.  Personal Income Tax rates do not affect hiring decisions at companies - profitability of hiring additional employees does.  Whether the CEO or owner of the company has to pay 3% more in personal income taxes does not affect the fundamental decision of whether hiring another guy in shipping and receiving will allow the company to ship out more product for that new contract.

In other words, that argument is a huge lie - and one repeated all the time on Fox News (the ones who suppress incriminating Obama videos) and other right-wing outlets.  And no one questions it, as the same boobs who forward these stupid e-mails don't understand the first thing about corporate finances or even income tax brackets.

Or take Social Security.  We are told it will bankrupt the country.  Yet the fund is solvent and the "solution" to Social Security is the same one used since it was founded - raise the cutoff rate.  Again, the same boobs who forward this crap don't realize that once you make more than $108,000, you pay no additional Social Security taxes.

Mitt Romney, who makes $22 million a YEAR, pays no more into Social Security than a young lawyer making $108,000 a year.  Actually, he pays less - if anything.  Since his income is all capital gains, taxed at 15%, he pays no self-employment taxes, which is a pretty neat trick - and proposes vouchers and needs test for the rest of us.

And the boob forwarding me the stupid e-mails?  He is struggling to get by living on Social Security and Medicare.   The very programs Romney and Ryan promise to cut are his lifeline.  They have scared him into thinking the gravy train will "run out" of money unless we stick it to people under age 55.  Turning one group of Americans against another - a keen move, ain't it?

Any business arrangement entered into based on a lie, no matter how trivial, can only go downhill from there.  I've said it a hundred times on this blog - don't do business with liars.  So when the GOP tells obvious whoppers, I have to wonder about the rest of their agenda.

That is, what of there agenda they will even tell us about.  So much of Romney's plans are like his tax returns - a total mystery.   Immigration?   "Elect me," he says, "and I'll fix it."   But he won't say how, where, when or why.  You just have to trust him.  And I don't trust liars.

And so on down the line.  We will cut the deficit but cut taxes at the same time and raise military spending, even as we are winding down two wars and costs should be dropping at the Pentagon.  How can you cut the deficit and increase defense spending?  Again, we have to elect him to find out.  It is buying a pig-in-a-poke, in the classic sense.

One thing is clear - the Romney/Ryan Agenda will cut all non-defense spending down to nothing.  And that is the spending that helps most Americans, and even American businesses.  If we don't spend money on roads, highways, bridges, and infrastructure, we will end up like Costa Rica - low taxes, but also low incomes, and crappy blown out roads and bridges, which make driving over 30 mph a life-threatening risk.   Or perhaps Brazil, where the Romneys of that country fly by helicopter and everyone else lives in a cardboard shanty and picks through trash in the dump to live.

Sorry, but when someone lies about one thing - outright lies - I have to start to question the rest of it.  And once you start unwinding the ball of string that is Romney's evasiveness and lying, you end up with nothing in the center, except a giant screw-job for the average American.

Sorry, Mitt, no sale.

Living in a third world country means low taxes.  But it also means roads that are crap and bridges with holes in them big enough to swallow a car.  I am not kidding.  Is this how we want to live in the USA?  Cutting all spending to the bone so the very rich can get a 3% tax cut?  Or would it be a better idea to have good roads for everyone, and put people to work fixing them.  I vote for the latter.

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Spam Search Tools and Toolbars

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Browser extensions may hijack your browser.  The best approach is to have NONE of these on your computer.   Getting rid of them, once they are on your computer, can be problematic.


I wrote before about ASK (formerly ASK JEEVES) and how they try to insinuate themselves onto your computer by making it a default install option when you download some legitimate add-on like Flash Player.

But lately, this type of SPAM Search Tools are becoming more and more popular.  I was at a laundromat and a lady was trying to get on the Internet.  She was puzzled why she could not find her Roadrunner account.  In the past, she booted up her computer, using Google as a default page, and then searched for Roadrunner and then found the page, logged in, and accessed her e-mail.

One day, she says, she gets a message "from Mozilla" that she needs to "update Firefox" and so she does.  But the message is, of course, false, and the "update" installs a "Search Helper" which claims to be "powered by Google!"

When she searches for Roadrunner, it keeps redirecting her to Comcast, or some competing company.  She literally can't find Roadrunner on the Internet.

The search helper is now on a tool bar on her Firefox, installed as the default home page, and installed as a program on her computer.  The program even removed the MENU BAR from Firefox, so you can't use the "Tools" link to remove it.

So I show her how to make the menu bar re-appear (right click the top part of the page and click "Menu Bar" to make it visible).    When we click on "Tools" and "Add-ons" and then "Extensions" it shows a "Fun Search Assistant!" or some such add-on, which is causing all the trouble.  We right click on "DELETE" and it tries to take us to a web page to persuade us not to delete it.

It takes three tries to delete the add-on, but it finally takes.  I find roadrunner for her and make that her DEFAULT HOME PAGE.   (Clicks "Tools", then "Options" and then "General" and under "home page" click on "use current page" - that is, once you have loaded the current page you want as a default home page).

The fun isn't over, as the program is still resident on her computer.  We click on the main menu bar for windows, "Control Panel" and then "Uninstall Programs". The list of installed programs appears, and sure enough, "Fun Search Assistant!" appears on the list as installed.  We click "uninstall" and guess what?  It tries to load the same page to talk us out of uninstalling this worthless program.   We dump that page and hit "uninstall" and check to make sure it is gone for good.

Another friend comes to me with no less than FOUR of these types of "Add-ons" on his computer.  It takes some doing, but we get them all off.  Now he can search the Internet again in peace.

What is the deal with these types of add-ons and extensions?    They are a way of making money - for other people.  They want to redirect your searches and generate click revenue for their pages.  And what they end up doing is making it harder for you to use your computer.

Are any of them legitimate?  Hell, no.  No legitimate program installs itself on your computer by using deceptive "negative option" install techniques.

How do you avoid these sort of things?  To begin with, when you install a program, be sure to READ all the screens you are clicking on.  The typical message you see is, "Most of our customers prefer to have the ASK tool bar installed!  Click here to not install it!"   And you have to look very carefully and click carefully to opt out.  And this applies even when uninstalling - one of these programs asked you to unclick all its components to uninstall it.  They rely on you being busy and being used to just clicking "continue" on installation programs (why is it that every program has six screens that require you to click "continue" anyway?).

The other thing is to watch out for pages that claim a new plug-in is required or that your flash player or whatever is out of date.  They helpfully offer to have you "click here to update!"   If your flash player (or whatever) is out of date, then go to the adobe flash web page and install an update there.  Odds are, your plug-in is not out of date, but you have stumbled upon a malware page.

And it goes without saying, that you should run SPYBOT and MALWAREBYTES regularly.

The best approach is to not have ANY extensions on your browser.  Plug-ins for Shockwave, flash, acrobat, etc, are OK, but extensions are usually crap, and not surprisingly, Facebook has one they want to install on your browser.  Even "legitimate" extensions are little more than marketing tools, designed to sell you to marketers.  Just say no to Facebook and all that crap.

And no, this is not a "PC" thing, but a browser thing, largely independent of what platform you are using. So no, spending $5000 on a Macbook won't "protect you" from this sort of nonsense.
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Friday, September 7, 2012

Dream Sequence

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Are dreams just nonsense, or a functional part of your brain?

I was having a dream the other night, and in the middle of the dream, they interrupted it to have advertisements.  It went something like this...

DREAM:  "We pause now, for these messages from our sponsors!"

ME: "Huh?  WTF?"

DREAM:  "Come on down to Billy-Bobs Ford-Lincoln-Kia, where with every new car lease, you get free gas for a year!"

ME:  "Ads, in my dreams?  Do they have no shame?"

DREAM:  "Be sure to stay tuned for this week's episode of Monsters Under the Bed!  Only on Dream-TV!"

ME:  "I haven't had that dream since I was a kid.  Must be a re-run."

DREAM: "Now back your Dream!"

ME:  "mgrflxshansyy...."
Maybe it didn't quite go like that.  But it got me thinking, dreaming is the last venue that the Madison Avenue types haven't co-opted.  Or maybe they have, and we just don't know it.  It seems half of America is on Ambien, or some other sleep-aid, and they end up sleep-walking or sleep-driving their cars into the sides of buildings.   Perhaps the pills are packaged with a suggestion to go to the all-night drive-through at Wendy's.

Sort of like that old Sci-Fi story, We Can Remember it For You, Wholesale, whose title was shortened when it was made into Total Recall, for obvious reasons.

Dreams are weird, though, and we have them only, it seems, for brief periods during that REM state of Rapid Eye Movement.  And although they may seem to go on for days or even years, they take but a few seconds or minutes at most.  And usually, we don't remember them, unless we are woken in the middle of the dream.  And even then, only if we think to write them down.

What are dreams, exactly?  Freudians would say they are symbolic of neuroses in your mind.  Psychics would claim they are premonitions of future events.   Some medical researchers might argue that they are just electrical storms in your brain - having no meaning and essentially nonsense - a car engine revving while not in gear.  And perhaps they are all correct.

As I noted before in Understanding Neural Networks, your brain is a big and very complicated Neural Net - the most sophisticated, in fact, on the planet.  And the brain has evolved over time, and it is doubtful that it does things simply by accident.  Dreams have a purpose, and people who dream must have survived longer than those who did not, and hence this capability has evolved in us.

I believe that dreaming is your brain's way of training itself.  A neural network needs training to work, and by running through test scenarios, your brain modifies the weighting of its neural nodes to "learn" new things.  Dreaming may be a way of the brain presenting test scenarios to itself, and then predicting outcomes and adjusting itself.

For example, do you ever worry about things - fantastic scenarios that are largely unlikely to occur?  Suppose you left the iron on, and it tipped over, and set the house on fire?  It is the kind of nonsense that makes you say, "Stupid brain!  Go to sleep!"   But then again, such scenarios, worked out in your brain, may be a way that your brain works through problems, by doing what Einstein called "thought experiments" (which is a pretty powerful experiment, as it allowed him to formulate the general theory of relativity).

So maybe dreams are symbolic of neuroses in your mind, as they are based on the existing weighting of the nodes in your brain.  And maybe they are "premonitions" in that your brain, "racing" as it does while dreaming, works out all sorts of possible scenarios that might happen in the future, and when one does, you will get that sense of Déjà vu, as you think to yourself, "I've seen this situation before!" - and you have an idea how it turns out.  And yes, likely most of your dreams are electrical static - random scenarios worked out in the brain and discarded, as they are too bizarre or weird.  And those are the ones that wake you up, the so-called "nightmares" we have some times.

Perhaps.  It is all just conjecture on my part.  But I suspect dreams have a purpose.  Nothing happens by accident.  And the first person on Madison Avenue who figures out how to co-opt dreams, will be a Billionaire.

Talk about a captive audience!

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Monday, September 3, 2012

BUY NOW! PAY LATER!

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Why does nearly every merchant offer you to "Buy Now, Pay Later!"?  
Well, it ain't in your best interest, that's for sure.


Shopping online recently, I was chagrined to be bombarded with offers from Amazon and PayPal to "Buy Now, Pay Later!" for my purchases.   Granted, they don't call it that, they call it "Bill Me Later!" which is the name of a Maryland finance company.

But nearly every merchant does it.  You go to Lowes or Home Depot, and they encourage you to pay nothing today, but 90 days later "same as cash!" - or even 12 months same as cash - as I have written about before.

And some people might think these things are a good deal.  "Why not, Bob?" they say, "You can get a 10% discount at Lowes - and have 12 months to pay, at zero percent interest!"

Well, that may be true.  But if you aren't getting a 10% discount at Lowes, well, you probably don't have a pulse.  There are so many promotions (military discount, for example) that it isn't funny.  Even a basic change-of-address kit from the USPS has a 10% discount card attached to it.   So the vaunted discount isn't all that great.

But what about the zero-percent interest?   Well, if you believe in the tooth fairy, this probably sounds like a good idea.  However, many merchants, if they give you 0% interest, will not give you other discounts or rebates - car dealers, for example.  So often, 0% really isn't 0%.

But sometimes it is.   And yes, you can "game the system" and pay it all back on the 364th day and pay no interest.  It still is a bad idea. 

Why?

Well to begin with, the retailers and merchants are not doing this for funsies or because they like you.  They are doing it to make more money - from you.   They have armies of psychologists, bankers, accountants, and ad-men, who all know about your human nature - far better than you do.

And they know a number of things.

First, they know that if a consumer is presented with a "Buy Now, Pay Later" option, they will tend to buy more.  The reasons for this are multiple.  First, since you are not limited to buying merchandise with what dollars are in your pocket, it is now physically possible to buy more.  So instead of saying, "Gee, this model is too expensive, I'll buy the cheaper one, which I can pay cash for" you say, "Gee, I'll buy the deluxe washer, as I can pay for it later!"

So you buy more - more than you intended or more than you needed.  

And we see this all the time in car sales.  I was on a carmaker website (they are horrible!) and was "building" a car on the site.   Each option package is bundled with another.  And some of them are quite expensive.  A moonroof runs you $3000, because it is tied to the "premium" sound system (obsolete in 2 years).   But helpfully, the automaker says, "only $25 a month more!" which sounds a lot better than $3000 to cut a hole in the roof of your car.  Presented as a cash deal, it sounds unattractive.  Presented as a "pay later" deal, it sounds affordable.

So Buy Now, Pay Later encourages you to buy (when you might have said, "Gee, I'd rather keep this money in my wallet") and it encourages you to buy more than you intended, as borrowed money is funny money, whether it is a car loan, a student loan, a home mortgage, or a consumer fiance loan.

But they make yet more money out of you this way.  You see, when you do this "Buy Now, Pay Later" deal, you think to yourself, "Well, I don't have the money now, but I'll come up with later, after all, I have 90 days to pay!"   But the harsh reality is, you ain't got the money now, and you ain't gonna have it later - in most cases.  They are counting on this.

Like with credit cards, the companies count on you being weak - and you are weak.  They know your brain better than you know yourself.  They know you are susceptible to temptation and weak thinking.  That you will believe in something-for-nothing and frequent flyer miles.  That you are, basically, Grade-A, 100% all-beef CHUMP, most of the time.
And don't try to deny it - we all are, most of the time.  Just own up to it, admit it, and get over it.  And stop putting yourself in situations where your chumpsterism will get you into trouble.

So the finance companies know that more than 75% of the time, the consumer doesn't "pay it later" by the due date, but instead, lets the loan "ride", often kicking in onerous interest rates, back-dated to the date of purchase.  This is a huge amount of money added to the price of the item, and while it arguably is within your control, there is a serious chance that you will fall from grace and get socked with these fees.

OK, so maybe you aren't convinced by any of this.   If not, just think of it this way:  The reason the "Buy Now, Pay Later" gig is such a bad idea is that it is something they want you to to, and when a merchant wants you to do something, it is not for your benefit, but theirs.  Whether it is an "extended warranty" or "Buy Now, Pay Later", the merchant is cleaning up - at your expense.

And this should be readily apparent to you by how desperately these merchants fling these offers in your face.  You never asked to finance something, but they ask you anyway.  You try to check out on PayPal, and every time you are offered to "bill me later" or some such nonsense.   If you spend over $500 at Lowes, an Associate will offer you a "6 months same as cash!" deal, as they get a bonus for selling these plans (which should tell you how lucrative they are for the company).

The louder and larger the hype about something, odds are, the worst it is, in terms of a fair deal.  Consumer financing come-ons are just bait in a carefully laden trap - bait designed to get you to spend and go into debt on the most onerous terms possible.

Get out of the mindset that you might be "missing out on a good deal" or that you can "steal the cheese" from one of these things.   You can't.  You can't borrow your way to wealth.  You can't spend your way to wealth.  It is as simple as that.

NOTE: BILL ME LATER(tm) is available on a number of sites.  And it is the same old gag.  Pay the bill by the due date, or incur interest charges, back to the date of purchase (revolving credit).  The interest rate is 19.99% or a minimum of $2.  More information can be found on their FAQ page.  Needless to say, this is not a good bargain, and biting on this "bait" could end up costing you a lot in interest charges.

Now, I know what some of you are going to say.  "But Boooooob!  We can pay no interest for six months!  It is like free ponies!"

Yes, except that they are very tiny ponies.  You buy some books on Amazon for $100 and defer the payment and interest for six months.   Big deal.   What are you saving?  The theoretical $2.50 you could have made investing that $100?  And now you have yet ANOTHER loan to monitor, and if you miss one payment, well, the interest, at 19.99% accrues back to the date of purchase.  This will be more than $10 in interest, at the very least.

Just walk away from baited traps.  You are not "missing out" on great deals.  You are risking your financial life.

If you want "Savings!" then SAVE YOUR MONEY - not SPEND it!
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The Late Bus

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Tight School Budgets are nothing new.  But in the past, we were more willing to sacrifice unimportant things.  Today, we chuck the important to save the trivial.

When I was in Elementary school, we lived briefly in a town called Lake Forest, Illinois, which is part of the depressed rust-belt region of the United States.  No, actually, Lake Forest is a wealthy suburb of Chicago, and in fact, one of the poshest places to live.  People there are not hurting for money today, or even back in 1968.

The school I went to, Everett Elementary, was a flat-roofed 1960's building built for the baby boom generation, of which my birth year was the largest part.   My older brother went to the middle-school, which was in a creaky old fire-trap built in the 1930's.  Enrollment was up, and just finding classroom space was a challenge.  And the growing pains were putting pressure on school budgets.   There was not enough money in the budget to pay for all the school buses and school bus drivers needed to bus all those students.  And the idea of "just raising property taxes" to pay for it all, even in posh Lake Forest, during the relative prosperity of the mid 1960's, was just not thinkable.

(Today, they would just go out and buy more buses and hire more Unionized bus drivers and then raise everyone's taxes to pay for it.  Or they would cut art and music classes as "unnecessary" but of course never touch the football program.  We have priorities!)

So how did they do it back then?  They were clever, resourceful, and willing to make sacrifices.  As I noted before, much of school is "free periods" and "study hall" and "lunch".  So they divided the student body in half - with the first half having a "study hall" or "recess" in the morning before school started, and the second half having the same free period at the end of school.

The buses made two runs - an early run and a late run, both in the morning and afternoon.  For the early students, it meant getting up an hour earlier to go to school.  And for us late kids, it meant we had to wait for the buses to return, at the end of the school day, to make a second run to bring us "late" kids home.

Was it a hassle?  Maybe.  But if you think about it, it made better use of the equipment and also the drivers, who worked a full day, instead of part-time.   And it solved a budget problem without raising property taxes.

Again, today, such solutions would not be thought of.  In the small town near Aurora New York, where we had our vacation home, the brand-new high school had a planetarium.  Today, they have closed the brand-new elementary school there for lack of enrollment and combined the two schools into one, which still does not fill even that one school.  And a nearly brand-new elementary school sits abandoned and empty, along with the original 1930's high school that builders convinced the school board was "outdated" (after all, it has no planetarium!).

(This is Central New York, so I suspect the school builders, who fanned out across the State to build these monstrosities, were probably tied to the Mob.  Corruption in that State adds to the cost of everything).

And of course, those "overworked" teachers are all being paid scandalous salaries - and the school administrators even moreso.  And their retirement benefits are choking off the school budgets, as the number of retired teachers (often making more than their working counterparts) exceeds the number of working teachers, as school enrollments continue to decline.  In a parallel to GM, for every working person, there are two who are retired.

These are all challenges, to be sure.  The school system made a huge mistake building not one, but two new schools at a time when enrollments were dropping.  And the steadily increasing teachers' salaries and retirement benefits are adding to the problem.   Staggering increases in property taxes are driving more and more people from the area - and "For Sale" signs are sprouting on once-coveted vacation homes - but no one is buying them.  This depresses property prices, which drives down the tax base, which forces them to increase the millage rate yet again.

How did we get here?  Well, there was a lack of discipline on the part of the school boards.  No one wanted to institute a "Late Bus" as they did in Lake Forest.  No one wanted to "make do" with an existing school, when the builders came to town offering to build a "state of the art" school with a swimming pool, all paid for with bonds that are still being paid off.

Well, not everyone jumped on that bandwagon.  My high school, Cazenovia Central, is still run out of the same building built in the 1930's.   When we moved there in 1968, there was a movement afoot to build one of those new mega-schools, with an indoor pool and an auto shop.  And the builder, of course, pushed to get this done.  And the citizens of the town voted it down - three times.  Many called them shortsighted and said that the bulging enrollments would make things difficult for students.   But of course, enrollment flattened out, eventually, as the baby boomers graduated.  And we made do with the building we had, even if we didn't have our own pool for the swim team (if we indeed even had a swim team).

Oh, and it was viewed as one of the best schools, academically, in the region.   Amazing, isn't it?  In that hoary old building from the 1930's, kids can learn calculus.  While the kids in the nearby "mega-school" mostly learned how to make trouble and smoke pot.

But of course, you can't unbark the dog, as they say, and other school districts, who are saddled with these mega-school buildings and dwindling enrollments - as well as staggering salaries - are faced with hard choices today.  And most are taking the easy way out - raising taxes and cutting content, such as art and music, from the curriculum.  The idea of a "Late Bus" of course, would be shouted down as unsafe and inconvenient for parents.  And of course, the bus business has been farmed out to a contractor company already.  So, we just raise taxes and gut content, making school even less relevant than ever before and less of a value than ever before.

But maybe it is time to bring back the "Late Bus" - in a manner of speaking.  Maybe we need to look at ideas other than cutting content and raising taxes, all so that a few people (school builders and school employees) can make more money while delivering less.  Maybe we need to take back our schools from the insiders.

Just a thought.  We've done it before.
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Out Behind the Barn...

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Our High School had a barn like this out back, and I spent many a Spring afternoon out there, just staring at the sky, rather than going to class.

"Robert could be a great success, if he would just learn to apply himself" one of my elementary school teachers wrote on my "permanent record."   Even back then, I had a hard time taking things seriously - or at least the things they wanted us to take seriously.

School, in my mind, was a training ground, not for education, but to program us to get used to the idea of getting up every morning, putting on uncomfortable clothes, rushing off with a mass of people, and then doing everything in unison with a host of others, for the rest of the day, in an overheated and uncomfortable building, behind a cramped and uncomfortable desk.  School is nothing more than a training ground for cubicle life.  And cubicle life isn't living.

Much of school is just wasted time - study halls, gym, lunch, and "free periods" which few students used to actually do their homework (many student's parents would do their homework for them, to insure their kids got good grades - talk about missing the point!).  It could be compressed into three hours, if you think about it.

One friend of mine actually accelerated his high school career, graduating at age 16 as an "emancipated minor" - illustrating how much the curricula could be compressed.  But he had special family issues that dictated he get out quickly.  When I asked if I could do the same thing, I was told, no, not for me.

For me, goofing off has always had an attraction, and this is still true today.  Owning yourself and owning your own life are things that few people get to do anymore.  This is not to say that doing nothing is desirable, only that doing what you think is important is.   And let's face it, most "jobs" out there are about as time-wasting as High School.   Donuts in the conference room, to listen to some middle-manager drone on with a power-point presentation on how we should all be "more productive" and "work smarter, not work harder!" is about akin to the hour you wasted in study hall or in the school cafeteria.

We all work from 9 to 5, but most of us really only spend about an hour or so, I estimate, actually "working".  The rest of the time is busy-work, filling out forms or going through procedures, or just getting stuck in meetings, office gossip, or whatever, that wastes your time.  I fail to see the point of it.

And it does fill your time - and for most people, this is the "busy life" that they lead - which leads them to believe it is a life filled with meaning.  After all, they have to get up every morning, dash off to work, fight traffic, and then in the evening dash back home to watch their favorite TeeVee shows.  Who has the time to even cook?  Busy, busy, busy!   But in reality, it is the appearance of busyness without actually being busy at anything.  After a decade of such "work" there is often little to show for it, mentally or monetarily.

There is a different way, I believe.  If you can make time in your life to truly think, and to truly do what you want to do, you can accomplish a lot - or nothing at all.  But the key is, you get to do what you want to do.   I have written before how so many people pass up opportunities in life because they have financial obligations - often trivial ones.  They cannot join a startup company because they have to make payments on a car or a house.  They have traded opportunity for consumerism - and then resent the folks who made other choices.

Granted, in many instances, the people who can "afford" to do what they want, often have a head start.  Bill Gates is often touted by the far right (in glurges and forwarded e-mails) as a "rags to riches" kind of guy.  But in reality, he came from an upper middle-class family and could afford to take risks that perhaps a person struggling to get by could not.  But even then, he made a choice to drop out of Harvard and join a struggling software company.  He could have graduated from Harvard business school and gone to work for some big corporation, and no doubt had a swell cubicle and car payments on a 1981 BMW back at the time.  And his friends would have thought him successful.

And we see this, all the time, among the middle class.  Myself, at age 34, not even two years out of Law School, I decided to hang out my own shingle and start my own law practice.  In retrospect, it seems like a ballsy move - one that the more conservative me of today would be reluctant to make.  Did I make a lot of dough?  Was I a staggering success?  I did OK.  But the main thing is, I had my own life, from that point on.  I wasn't confined to the cubicle, chasing the big salary and struggling to make the bills every month, while at the same time looking at new car brochures and buying new electronic toys.  I have friends who did that - and are doing that - and are working 60 hours a week, well into their 50's, to try to scrape together enough money to retire, in a manner they are "accustomed to".   They will need millions in their 401(k) to keep up their latte and iPhone lifestyle after they stop working - if they ever do.

But even after opening my own business, I was still caught on the treadmill, or should I say, I allowed myself to fall back into it.  We started spending, once we started making, and before long, I was back where I started, trying to hump to make money to pay bills for stuff I didn't have enough time to enjoy, because I was always trying to make money.  It was a pretty idiotic way to live.

So I chucked all that, and am spending a lot more time these days behind the barn, just leaning against a weathered board and looking up at a clear blue sky, framed with green leaves.  I did this just yesterday, falling into a profound and deep sleep.  And let me tell you, the freedom to be able to do that is far better than all the jet-skis and other idiotic consumer goods in the world.

You cannot own possessions - they own you.  Less is more.  Experiences are more important than owning things.  And owning things is never as good as experiencing things.  Hard lessons for me to learn.  Most never do.  They live a life on a treadmill and view all the crap they collect as their reward.  Pack rats operate on the same principle. 

No thanks!

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Para-Science

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Para-Science is used to sell books, seminars, or investment scams.   What is puzzling about this phenomenon is why some people are obsessed with following Para-Science, almost as a religion.  I believe it is just a matter of weak minds trying to drown out the deafening silence in their lives.


A Vegan friend of mine likes to drone on about how milk and dairy products are bad for you, as the human body wasn't "designed" to digest milk.  This is a neat argument, as there is no citation to any science behind it, and it validates their lifestyle choice.  It is made as a statement that cannot be refuted, putting the onus on the opponent to disprove the argument.  Para-Science at its best.

But of course, the human body wasn't "designed" - unless you are particularly stupid and believe in "Intelligent Design" theology.  But even then, if you buy into that, then God designed the cows, too, and in the Bible told us to take dominion over them.  But getting back to real Science, the human body has evolved over millions of years to digest a whole host of food products.  We are omnivores, not carnivores or herbivores.  We can eat just about anything, even Oysters.  And milk is good for you, as is cheese - in proper portions, of course.

But the rantings of Vegans (who tout their lifestyle as "healthy" even as they all look a little sickly) are not the point of this post.  Increasingly, Para-Science is taking over our society, or at least the media.  And you see this increasingly, and to me it is a sign of the decline of our society, as we substitute superstition and religion for the Scientific process.

I wrote before about the Howard Johnson Motor.  It was one of a string of "perpetual motion machines" that have been touted since time began.  And in Para-Science tradition, the people pushing these things claim that the onus is on the rest of use to prove they don't work, rather than on the inventor to prove that they do.

And of course, when they are proven to be hoaxes or cons, even that evidence is swept under the rug, with the reasoning, of course, that the oil companies fabricated it to "suppress the technology".   It is like trying to argue with someone who believes in Space Aliens or Ghosts - no matter what you say, they have a "yea, but...." argument, and they completely ignore the basic proposition that the burden is on THEM to prove these things exist, not on society at large to prove they don't.

Para-Science freaks like to use the phrase, "Well, anything is possible, after all the Universe is vast...." as if that proved that Sasquatch existed, by default.  Since, in an infinite universe, the probability that the Loch Ness Monster exists is greater than 0:1, therefore it must exist, after all.  Ball in your court, world!  Prove I'm wrong!

But this is a perverse reversal of the Scientific Method.  In real science, we accumulate data through testing and observation, and then come up with a theory to fit that data (and not vice-versa, like in politics).  If further testing shows the theory flawed, we revise the theory or throw it out.  And such theories are published, in peer-review journals, where they are subject to scrutiny and further testing, and thus can be shown to be wrong, or validated as possibly right (a theory is never proven right, just possible, but its nature).

But in Para-Science, peer review is avoided.  Data and theories are published in press releases or in non-scientific or quasi-scientific journals.   No critical evaluation or analysis is allowed, and any that gets through is denounced as propaganda for the oil companies, the government, or anyone else trying to suppress the "truth" about 9/11 or whatever.

It is a zero-sum game trying to argue with such folks, as their minds are made up and they tailor the data (which often is made up from whole cloth) to fit the preordained conclusion.  So their theories about the Kennedy Assassination or whatever, are set in stone, and their minds are made of a similar material.

And this is sad, and also illustrates why our country is falling behind in real Science - it is far easier to believe in bullshit, as it doesn't require four semesters of Calculus, Differential Equations, Electromagnetics, or Thermodynamics.  Besides, Nazi Alien Antigravity is so much more fun!  Although you can't get college credit for it, except perhaps at Syracuse University.

What is puzzling about para-science is not the people who promote it - who are often doing so to sell a book, an investment scheme, or a ghost-hunting kit - but rather the people who obsessively follow it.  What does it profit a man to obsess about Area 57 or a perpetual motion machine?  It adds nothing to your own bottom line, and arguably detracts, as rational people will correctly perceive you are off your rocker - which can cost you a job, friendships, and relationships.   No one wants to marry a conspiracy nut, and I highly recommend you avoid them as friends, spouses, and employees or employers.

The answer, of course, is that people like to drown out the deafening silence in their lives - and forget about how pathetically unimportant our own existence on this planet is.  We are all, for the most part, forgettable people who will do little of significance that will even merit a Wikipedia entry, once we are gone.

Buying into conspiracy theories or Para-Science, on the other hand, is way of pretending you are part of something more important in the world.  A chance to be in on the secrets of those in-the-know!  And so people do this, to feel significant, just as lonely old Gay men build a shrine to Cher in their basements.  It helps to avoid thinking about our own insignificance and impending death.

For me, however, living in reality is far better than pretending to believe in things that are impossible.  I do not need distractions to drown out the silence in my life.  I am comfortable that my stay on this planet will not generate any Earth-shattering changes or leave a mark for Centuries to come.  And I am not afraid of death, but, as Woody Allen said, would not like to be there when it happens.
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