The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) edition

Now that I’ve moved I’ve considered giving up monthly reviews of the local Craigslist Casual Encounters section. But my web statistics keep telling me to persevere. These posts remain popular for my small blog: 206 hits in the last 30 days, 218 hits for April, about 12% of my total hits. And that’s just the web traffic, and only the top ten pages with “Craigslist” in the title of the post. Add in syndicated traffic and my email subscribers and the number is doubtless higher.

Where I’m living now (Western Massachusetts) these postings are too lame to share. Springfield is fifteen miles away from me. It is Massachusetts’s third largest city with 700,000 people in the greater area. But it doesn’t warrant its own Craigslist section. So if I’m going to look for weird casual encounter postings, I either need to stop or broaden my range of “local”.

Aside from city of Springfield, the nearest largest cities are Hartford, Connecticut; Albany, New York; and Boston. Boston’s Craigslist includes most of the eastern part of Massachusetts including Worchester. Hartford is practically in spitting distance from Springfield. It’s greater metropolitan area has about 1.2 million people, which makes it comparable to the Northern Virginia region that I used to scan. So it will do. But will it have the same bizarre flavor as Northern Virginia’s Craigslist section? Or are people less kinky in Greater Hartford? Let’s sample postings on this Wednesday night to find out.

  • This sexy black man with quite a bit to spare between the legs could have his choice of women into “larger” men, but for some reason is posting for a “tranny” instead. Whatever floats your boat, dude.
  • In Northern Virginia it wasn’t hard to find groups of heterosexual guys looking to gangbang one or more women. There is little evidence so far that there are groups of guys like this in Hartford, but there is at least this dynamic duo, age 30 from Newington.
  • Oh my goodness! There are scam artists on Craigslist! Who would have thought? Off Pascal Lane in Manchester is this “woman” (see her picture) who is actually a passable transvestite with a secret boyfriend in the back. Meet her and rather than get sex her boyfriend will rob you. At least this poster was kind enough to warn fellow casual encounters readers. Let’s hope this deters a few of these many highly hormone-infused men.
  • In fact there are plenty of women who are using Craigslist to pay a few bills, and then some. Yes, shockingly there are whores in this area of Craigslist. Of course, this is not news to regular readers of this area, and when looking at W4M posts they are easy to find. Some get missed but are easy to spot if you read between the lines:
    • She claims to be 25 and is looking for an older guy who “knows how to take care of a girl”
    • She’s 24, a BBW (big beautiful woman) and wants to spend quality time with you but only if you are not cheap
    • She’s not technically a whore as you won’t get any sex, but she is “trying to make ends meet” and will send you “private pictures” presumably only if you meet her ends, but not meet in her end
  • He’s stuck at an airport hotel. His idea of successfully getting unstuck is to stick something very personal of his into you (a woman). He wants to know if any women are intrigued enough to come to his hotel, but most likely a woman won’t even read his ad. I suggest the hotel’s bar, if it has one, for his cruising ground tonight. This guy from Enfield is also at a hotel and feeling frisky, so feel free to shop around ladies! Ask if there are free chocolate chip cookies at the hotel’s front desk.
  • Why are women having so much trouble finding 60+ men for sex? My guess it is the generally high incidence of erectile dysfunction in this group caused by the lower testosterone levels of older men in general. Anyhow, this woman from Middlesex County is pissed about it and will give you a piece of her mind because she says she’s legit. She may actually be this poster too. She’s available near Dartmouth Crossing and is usually available between 9 AM and 1 PM. Perhaps the local Red Roof Inn has convenient hourly rates and a senior citizen discounts.
  • Attention clueless Craigslist men: here are some signs that a posting from a woman might not be legit. She has the same URL plastered three times over her picture. Her ad title says she’s looking for “skaters” and “bbc” but her ad doesn’t mention either of these. Of course she looks very young and hot. How is this happening? Some scammers are picking erotic pictures off the Internet, embedding their adult site in the picture and wrapping them around a simple program that spits out lurid titles and one line “sentences” with no punctuation then posts them probably using an automated process. There are dozens of these a day that look similar, usually with no location attached because a spammer can’t be bothered to take time to find the names of cities near where they are targeting. Enlightened yet?
  • Women embed their phone numbers in these ads all the time. These women are hookers and their ads are quickly flagged. It’s unusual to see a guy looking for a gal adapt the same strategy, but this 54-year-old dude seems to want mostly to cuddle and have conversation.
  • Another “dad” (49 from West Hartford) is looking for his “son”. Not to worry Dad, your 22-year-old son wants to hear from you too.
  • Apparently Hartford has an “art” cinema. You don’t find many of these anymore. They used to be called adult theaters, in those days before X rated videos became widely available. Now it’s all the porn you can want for free on the Internet. Anyhow apparently the Hartford Art Cinema is one of these theaters still catering to the raincoat crowd. Based on this review on Reddit, it sounds like a pretty disgusting theater, but apparently at least occasionally consenting adults do naughty things in semi-public there. It sounds like a place where dirty old men and dirty middle aged men can hang out. When not surreptitiously masturbating on a good day maybe a couple like this one will come in and provide a show, and maybe more.
  • Ladies: if you want to see a guy jerk off, this 50-year-old guy is happy to oblige. Here’s another guy with a simpler proposition: you want to get high? If you want to get high badly enough, you won’t care that he’s 39 and married.
  • If you are a gay man and want to use a man’s mouth for your urinal, this 27-year-old guy from Hartford with a suggestive picture taken in a men’s room is ready.
  • Most men looking for women know it’s a waste of time. If you are going to post this type of ad anyhow, be specific. Ask for women with pigtails and sneakers, like this 36-year-old man from Hartford.

More next month, maybe. Hartford looks promising for this sort of entertainment.

 
The Thinker

Soft landing

There is no question about it: Massachusetts is lovely in the spring. Many areas can say the same thing, of course. Moving further north has reminded me of what I gave up when I moved to the Mid Atlantic. One thing was the lilac bush. Make that a million lilac bushes. There was the occasional lilac bush in my old neighborhood, but they are native here in the north, they are everywhere and whether you like it or not they heavily perfume the air for several weeks. If you don’t like their smell you either have to tolerate it or stay indoors.

And speaking of indoors, here in Western Massachusetts you can be indoors and outdoors at the same time. That’s because most of the time in the spring and summer you can and should open the windows for most of the day. And if you do, this time of year you will smell lilacs. Most of the time there is a gentle wind blowing, usually from the northwest. It is a healthy air, not air pumped full of sulfur dioxide and other nasty chemicals typical of the Midwest power plants that blew air toward my old neighborhood. It’s largely clean, pure and invigorating.

It’s beginning to occur to me that my old environment shaped the man I am. Mostly I shuttled in a car from place to place, from one indoor environment to another. Now most of the time the windows are open, at least a crack. It is like infinite lungfuls of health are continuously surging through our home. I am naturally happier because my environment is more attuned to what is natural for me. So far there have been no ozone days to worry about. With little in the way of automobile congestion or carbon emitting power plants, when it does get hot it feels more tolerable.

And it has gotten hot around here, well, at least very warm. We approached 90 one day, and had one uncomfortable week when temperatures ascended into the high 80s most days. We turned on the window air conditioner in our apartment to find it wasn’t really cooling. Fortunately the landlord replaced it the following day. If we use the air conditioner, it tends to be later in the day. Usually by sundown it has cooled enough to reopen the windows, and usually there is a breeze to let in.

Yes, environment does shape who you are. That’s clear to me. The Washington D.C. region was hyper-kinetic, traffic clogged and overly educated. I became somewhat hyper-kinetic and overly educated just to keep up with the Joneses. Here in Easthampton, Massachusetts its much more laid back. I haven’t encountered an angry person yet. This is not Boston. People here are pleasant, nice and friendly but not plastic. For the most part they are simple but good people simply enjoying this ride called life.

Their friendliness is natural but somehow I feel somewhat reticent to accept it. Our second Sunday we made an appearance at the local Unitarian Universalist church and we overwhelmed with their graciousness and friendliness. Even before the service started we were introduced to two sets of future neighbors from our soon to be 55+ community. We got to know them better in the social hour after service. Within a day we were on the community’s mailing list, and invitations started coming in. With all residents 55+, they are mostly retired or partially retired. They have plenty of time on their hands. So perhaps that explained their seemingly excessive curiosity about us. We don’t actually live in our new 55+ community yet because our house is under construction. But after attending several community events, it’s like we are already living there. With about forty houses everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows our name: we have an instant set of new friends. There is a book club for the women that my wife attended. There is a guy’s night out while women are attending the book club. There I got to meet many of the men in the community around a big table at Roberto’s, a local pizza place. There is even a knitting group that my wife went to; similar to the one she used to attend. Most recently there was a wine tasting event that we attended. Strangely I won the competition although I don’t have much of a wine palate. The bottle of Pinot Noir that I won will come in handy when we officially move in and we invite the neighbors over for a house warming.

If only we could move in, but it still looks like it won’t be for a few months. I biked up to the neighborhood in Florence today on the excuse to get our mail (we’re having mail sent there). There are little else but clean bike trails between here and there, trails that are often covered under a canopy of green leaves. Our soon to be next door neighbors greeted me by name by the mail kiosk. They know us better than we know them. It will take time to associate all their faces with names.

In the meantime I’ve been invited to join their biking club, which includes regular bike trips to Westhampton for bagels and breakfast. Our house to be is mostly a shell, but the outer walls are up and the roof is on. Most recently the electrical wiring was roughed into place, but largely construction is not going as quickly as we would like. Our very small apartment here in Easthampton is feeling claustrophobic. As much as my wife and I love each other, we are seeing too much of each other. The place is too small to have friends over. The kitchen seats only two, and there is no dining room. We want our house finished, our house on the hill, overlooking a park with Mount Tom framing the south. We want our stuff out of storage and a couple of new cats wandering around it to make it home.

Meanwhile I have consulting and programming projects to keep me busy. I am often on the bike trails, averaging fifteen miles or so per trip. Easthampton is not without its charms or its amenities. My wife has become attached to its Tasty Top ice cream stand. We are both discovering the charms of downtown Northampton, including its library, the Tuesday Farmers Market and its lovely downtown. (The library includes probably the smallest presidential library ever: the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. President Coolidge was a former resident and mayor of Northampton.) Its downtown includes two stores of note: Thornes Marketplace (a sort of mini-mall) and Faces (a very eclectic store with mostly funny and offbeat items). Chain stores are few around here but there are many restaurants of superior quality and diversity. Most businesses are independently owned, and at least in downtown Northampton they all seem to be prospering.

Our first winter here will perhaps expose an ugly side to this area. Overall it remains lovely, charming, pleasant and friendly. It will take a few years to have informed opinions about our new neighborhood and our neighbors. Right now it satisfies our need for a quieter lifestyle, some city amenities, the best parts of New England, and a feeling of closeness to nature.

 
The Thinker

Double feature: Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2

There are so many testosterone-laden movies out there to choose from that a pure women’s film is something of a rarity in the cinema. Pitch Perfect (2012) and Pitch Perfect 2 now in theaters drip with the estrogen. No fan of testosterone movies myself I thought I might go for these dedicated chick flicks. Maybe they would have more substance than the vapid stories in your typical shoot-em-up and car crash movies. Two movies about college women bonding in a women-only a cappella group should certainly scratch my itch for rich and meaningful relationship movies.

In truth, I didn’t seek out these movies. I have seen snippets of Pitch Perfect these last few years, mostly over my wife’s shoulders because she is obsessed with the movie. Naturally she wanted to see Pitch Perfect 2 the week it came out. So before I accompanied her to see the sequel this week I sat down with her to see the first movie in its entirety.

Both films center on Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), a slinky but introverted woman with a passion for creating mix up tapes. In the first film she is a freshman (freshwoman?) at the fictional Barden University. She ends up with the perfect roommate, who is as distant as she is. Attending class doesn’t seem to be a priority for her. Both films don’t even mention majors, professors or classes. Her father works at the university and is something of a hovering presence, at least in the first movie. Beca knows it’s past time for her to connect with her gender, which doesn’t come naturally to her. She does half-heartedly try out for the Barden Bellas. (Those in an a cappella group sing together and use voice only. Songs and dance acts are interwoven, and part of its art is to imitate instruments using only the human voice.) The Bellas, in its most recent incarnation, are having a hard time getting traction in this world. Perhaps it is in part due to its dictatorial leader Aubrey (Anna Camp), size zero or smaller, who seems intent to drive all the girls on the team nuts with her obsessive-controlling behavior.

This group of Bellas consists of a fairly unusual group of women including Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Stacie (Alexis Knapp) their black Bella and lesbian and Chloe (Brittany Snow) as the dreamboat redhead men like me fantasize about. So naturally bonding is a bit difficult, which is good if you are doing a chick flick because the whole point of the movie is to explore the ways they bond, and the permutations of their characters and interactions. It does this while subjecting the young women to “riff offs”(informal competitions between a cappella groups) and of course regional a cappella contests.

Both movies try to overlay these relationships with comedy and heavy sarcasm. Comedy is in the eye and ear of the beholder. To this beholder, the comedic aspects often failed and were often quite gross. In the first movie we quickly discover that Aubrey has the dubious ability to involuntarily projectile vomit at inconvenient times. This is the source of a lot of its “humor”. It had my wife laughing, but I just thought it was gross. And at size zero, there is no way she could projectile vomit quite so much. In the sequel the humor orients around Fat Amy, whose Miley Cyrus imitation on stage manages to expose her private parts to an audience that includes President Obama. At least there is no more projectile vomiting in the second movie. As for the sarcasm, the co-producer Elizabeth Banks also acts as one of the color commentators. She and her co-host John Smith (John Michael Higgins) put on quite a show themselves with their commenting, with their sarcastic and obscene opinions. It’s like they are doing an a cappella version of a Howard Stern show. Funny? Not for me, but it seemed to work with the female crowd.

These relationships often seem overly scripted and superficial; the characters are somewhat cardboard-ish. At times these movies are sweet, and sometimes the humor does work. As one or more very important competitions provide the frame of a plot for both movies, it’s hard not to root for these women. It’s not hard to predict that despite many wardrobe or digestive problems, these women will triumph in the end.

There is romantic tension of a lite variety between a male in an a cappella group at Barden, the Treblemakers and Beca. It can’t quite seem to blossom into love, but includes plenty of understated romantic tension, but at least Fat Amy attracts a quality suitor in the second movie. In the second movie Jesse and Becca’s relationship deepens somewhat but still feels more like a relationship out of a Disney animated movie than a plausible one.

Both movies reminded me that most movies are made principally to grab a few quick bucks. That seems to be the case with these movies. This is not high art. It’s arguably not art at all. There will be no Academy Award nominations for this sequel. It feels more like a female version of Animal House than the rich relationship movie I was expecting. But it’s at least good enough to make you care about the Bellas a bit, at least until they win their contests.

In general though there is not much here for the most men to enjoy, aside from a lot of mostly skinny and gorgeous young women and some light humor. Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 are both reasonably amusing movies. However, I suspect many men who sit through this movie will do so sitting on their hands, or looking for an excuse for a potty break. It’s a hard movie for most guys to relate to. Not having grown up a female, I can’t say the same for women. Its financial success for its relatively modest budget indicates both movies succeeded in their goals of titillating and amusing a lot of women.

I can only give them a 3.0 (my B movie rating) because the singing and dancing make up for a lot of mistakes. The puking in the first movie and the crotchless scene in the second movie were both big directorial mistakes that the singing and dancing partially but not fully mend.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

No right to work in “right to work” laws

Wisconsin is the latest state to enact a so-called “right to work” law. With this law exactly half of the states are now right to work states. If your state is a right to work state, this means that you cannot be required to join a union as a condition for taking a job. If collective bargaining exists at a job site, the union can still negotiate benefits for you. You just have the right not to pay them union dues.

The effects on employees in these states are easily documented. In general you will earn less for the same job than in a state with no such laws. Unsurprisingly, this is because it is harder for a union to win the right to negotiate wages and benefits when they have fewer resources (union dues) to do it with. If paying union dues bothers you, there is an alternative: don’t take a job in the first place. If you think union dues are too high, as a union member you can petition for changes. Like any union (such as a credit union) a labor union is owned by its members. A union can disband itself if its members feel it is ineffective or if its dues are too onerous.

The supposed rationalization for right to work laws is that you as an employee should not have to pay from your wages fees that you do not want to pay. However, we are already required to have withheld from our wages federal income taxes, state income taxes, often city income taxes, pension contributions, Social Security and Medicare taxes. We can’t opt out of these. In many states other things are automatically withheld unless you explicitly opt out, such as your contribution to a 401-K retirement fund.

What if anything does all this have with a “right to work”? The theory seems to be that paying union dues by itself might be the difference between having a job that pays a wage you can live on and one you cannot live on. This is at best a dubious proposition, since you would be hard pressed to find a service-related profession where the real wage (after union dues) is less than a similar job without a union. It’s almost guaranteed that union members will negotiate better benefits for their members than you would by yourself bargaining with your employer.

“Right to work” laws are misnamed. You have no right to a job in any state. The closest we came was during the Great Depression. Government-created agencies like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps hired the unemployed to build bridges and improve our national parks when private industry would not. My grandfather was one of these people that depended on a WPA job during the Great Depression. Today, if you are unemployed the best you can hope for are some limited unemployment benefits and food stamps. The reality for most people is that these benefits don’t begin to cover the real cost of living, so they are employed. They are just not employed enough to have a living wage. Many of these people are so good at finding jobs that they have two or three jobs simultaneously, generally part time with no benefits. Yet they still cannot afford to live and they survive at the margins, perhaps in group housing but often they end up homeless.

So right to work states don’t guarantee any right to work. Such laws thus provide no particular incentive to get work. And if you can’t find a job, state assistance at helping you find a job will be marginal at best. Maybe there is a state unemployment office where you can go to look at local job listings, although this is mostly done online now. To the extent you can get unemployment benefits, you will likely have to prove you are diligently searching for a job. This isn’t normally a problem because you cannot survive long on unemployment benefits. At best you will draw from your savings less quickly than you would without them.

What would a right to work look like? A right is distinguished from a privilege because it is inherent and inalienable. You have the right to practice the religion of your choice. If you had a true right to work then either a employer would have to hire you or the government would be the employer of last resort. You might not like the work they would give you but it would be work that you are capable of doing. And since it would be work instead of free labor, they would have to pay you a wage. And since we work to survive, the work would have to pay a living wage, i.e. you should be able to live above the poverty line from a full time job.

You’ll see none of this in any “right to work” state, or any state at all, which means there is no right to work in this country. What they really are is “the right to opt out of paying union dues while enjoying the benefits of a union should your job be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.” Of course if because of insufficient union dues, the union goes bankrupt then you are out of luck. And as is often the case in right to work states, with no requirement for you to pay union dues, most unions can’t organize to win collective bargaining rights. Unsurprisingly “right to work” states have much lower rates of unionized workers than other states.

Without a labor union not only are you likely to have fewer benefits, you are also more likely to lose your job, which contradicts the whole “right to work” philosophy. You are an “at will” employee, which means you can quit for anytime and any reason and leave your employer in the lurch. Your employer also has the right to fire you at any time, and generally for any reason except those few reasons (like due to your sex or race) prohibited by law. Of course, it is very hard to prove that you were deliberately fired due to these factors, so basically you can be let go at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, and with no severance pay unless there is a state law on that. You might be able to retain your health insurance under the COBRA law, only if you can pay the full cost of the premiums while getting no income.

Right to work laws are simply snake oil wherein the state gives you the “right” not to pay union dues at the almost certain cost of a reduced standard of living and with a greater likelihood of sudden unemployment. If it were explained to workers this way almost no employees would want them.

 
The Thinker

Two movie reviews

The Avengers: The Age of Ultron

I’m sure it’s just me, but I’m kind of hoping that one of these days between major crises the Avengers use their fantastic powers to do something about more pedestrian problems, like global warming or making sure litter is getting picked up along our highways. Instead, they are usually busy saving our world that these days seems frequently less worth saving.

In The Avengers: The Age of Ultron we at least get a different kind of criminal: one entirely of the Avengers own creation. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner just can’t help themselves after The Avengers raid a Hydra outpost and in the process acquire some artificial intelligence from a scepter once owned by Loki. The fighting is hardly over before they have pumped the A.I. software into J.A.R.V.I.S, Stark’s talking virtual machine with a mission to completely defend the planet. The result is Ultron. This sounds worthwhile: it would put The Avengers out of business. Naturally it’s not quite that simple and the only way Ultron can figure out how to keep the planet safe is to destroy all of humanity, which at least shows you that Ultron is not stupid. The Avengers get to spend the rest of the movie cleaning up their mistake. It probably won’t spoil any endings to tell you they eventually succeed, but of course not without a lot of work, sweat and character exposition. It was up to Joss Whedon to once again to pull it off.

Perhaps because of his original Avengers movie in 2012, the public was primed for more of the same. The result is that the movie is turning out to be one of the highest grossing movies of all time. However, the movie often feels anticlimactic, and a bit of a hot mess with a lot of it not making a whole lot of sense. Presumably audiences didn’t care too much, as they were far more interested in the spectacle and the nuances between character interactions than to worry about how coherent the story would be. There’s no time to ponder its logical holes and its directorial flaws however. Like the last Avengers movie, this is a speeding bullet and it’s all the audience can do to keep up with the moment-to-moment details.

For those into Marvel comics there is plenty to marvel over. Whedon clearly has not lost any of his directorial talent. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon can credit his success to a combination of story and interesting characters. When his superheroes aren’t trying to defeat Ultron, they are arguing with each other, or he’ll meander into controversial plot points such as a budding relationship between Black Widow and The Hulk. This is the part of the movie that brings home the bacon. The Ultron plot and all the carnage that results is mostly window dressing. What we really care about? Can Tony Stark’s bloated ego be controlled? Will Captain America stay pure? Can anyone but Thor wield his mighty hammer? This movie then is really a complex exploration of these many Marvel superheroes for you to enjoy. And enjoy it you will if you are into this stuff. If like me you didn’t read many comic books growing up and are not familiar with the nuances of all these characters, it’s more of a bloated shoot-em-up movie and thus more of the same.

The financial success of the movie speaks for itself and for Whedon’s wise choices directing the movie. While engaging, the movie arguably gets lost in these conflicts and contrasts of characterization. Just as Star Trek movies have a long backstory, so do these Marvel characters. The more you know the backstory, the more you are likely to enjoy it or be upset by Whedon’s interpretation. Without the backstory, it is just another bloated but reasonably engaging superhero movie, just with lots of superheroes imperfectly trying to work together. Frankly, I’d prefer more attention to the superhero part instead of the character part, which is why I’m probably rating it lower than most of those who waited in line for midnight showings have.

3.2 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Interview

I hadn’t planned to watch The Interview, but that was before I read this recent NPR story about North Korea’s unique way of killing its defense minister: using anti-aircraft guns. North Korea desperately tried to stop the release of The Interview some months back because it was not complementary to its dear leader. North Korea’s hack of Columbia Pictures though simply gave people reason to see a terrible movie. I have to wonder why Columbia Pictures executives, after having viewed this mess of a movie, would have released it at all. Releasing it at least let them cut their losses.

If you like sophomoric movies like Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues then you might like this movie, but I doubt it. This movie is highly grating, not the least bit funny even if inebriated and actually makes you feel sympathetic toward the North Korean dictator. He may be evil, but at least he’s not Dave Skylark. Kim Jong-un, like his father, is known for quietly having western tastes, at least in cars, women and bad TV. One of these bad TV shows is “Skylark Tonight”, starring Dave Skylark (James Franco), which is produced by his buddy Aaron (Seth Rogen). Skylark gives wild interviews with celebrities like Eminem, but Aaron is bored with their formula and hungers for the show to be newsier. When they discover Kim Jong-un is a big fan of his show, he reaches out to North Korea and is quickly granted an interview. This helps elevates their show in the ratings.

The plot involves an attempt by the CIA to use Skylark to kill the dictator. All it takes is a simple handshake and about twelve hours of waiting. Once the two actually meet though Skylark finds Kim to be his new bestest buddy and can’t imagine that he is as evil as he is portrayed. The humor of this movie, such as it is, includes lots of Lord of the Rings references, blowing things up with a tank, backslapping, and hard to watch buddy-love. There are also potty-mouth scenes that are not the least bit humorous and make sophomoric humor in the Anchorman movies seems somewhat elevated. Does Kim Jong-un “pee and poo”? This is one of the “humorous” plot points that this “movie” turns on.

In short, it’s a mess of a movie, and largely Seth Rogan’s carnage since he helped direct and write the movie. It’s amazing that they found backers for this piece of garbage. I’ve seen worse movies than this, but only a few, with Ishtar coming immediately to mind. I can’t actually assign a rating to this movie. It’s not quite zero, but its heartbeat is simply too feeble to read. Its dismal box office totals ($6.1M gross to date, with an estimated production cost of $44M) attest to this waste of money.

As with Anchorman 2 if you are going to watch this a few beers before the movie may help you sit through it, as anything that will lower your critical thinking is likely to help. But there’s really no way to turn this ugly weed into anything of redeeming value. The only funny thing about this movie is why North Korea went through the bother of trying to stop its release.

 
The Thinker

Settlement shenanigans

Having recently completed a half-million dollar transaction (the sale of our house) I have been pondering the HUD-1 form we got at settlement. This is a standard form issued by the settlement agency that indicates all the costs of the buying and selling transaction. If a form could stink, this one would stink, at least a little.

Clearly commissions cost money, and the seller typically pays the commissions, both for the listing agent and the buyer’s agent. Traditionally this was six percent of the sale, split equally between agents. In recent years most realtors seems ready to bargain with sellers, perhaps because home prices are so inflated now. 5% is probably typical these days. Some sellers bargain for 4% and probably wonder if they get the same quality of service for this price. Some may get less than that. Our listing agent said she would take 2% in commission, so we agreed to pay 5%, with the buyer’s agent getting 3%. More than once I raised the fairness issue with our agent. She did most of the work and got 2% while the buyer’s agent earned more. She shrugged. That’s the way it goes. She often acts as a buyer’s agent and comes out ahead in those transactions.

Anyhow, the HUD-1 lays it all out. Since we sold the house for $505,000, our agent got $10,100 and the buyer’s agent got $15,150. Nice money if you can get it. But the buyer’s agent didn’t get $15,150. Unknown to us until settlement was the figure in the buyer’s column on Line 205. It’s called “Realtor credit” and it showed $7,000. This is money that the buyer’s agent will give back to the buyer for the privilege of being their agent. So she really got $8,150 from us for the sale of our house, and gave $7,000 of her $15,150 to the seller.

This means in effect that the buyer bought our house for $505,000 but really paid only $498,000 for the property. And this was because we were not savvy enough in the real estate trade to know we should try to discount the commission because the buyer would get a kickback, sorry a credit from his agent.

I am at once upset about this and wanting to shake our buyer’s hand. He’s one crafty dude. It’s not just us whose pocket he picked without us even knowing. He also got a kickback, sorry a credit from his lender (line 204), for $1000. Yes, for the privilege of taking out a loan with PrimeLending of Dallas, Texas, they gave him $1000 at settlement, which means in effect he paid only $497,000 for our $505,000 house. To the buyer’s credit, he did put 22% down in cash and financed the rest. Perhaps that had something to do with the credit.

Of course neither my wife nor I at any time knew we were effectively giving $7000 to the buyer. There was no piece of paper with the offer that said anything about this at all. Maybe there should be. We had two competing offers on the table, both for full price. Maybe we would have accepted the other one had we known. Or maybe we would have countered and asked for a credit from the buyer too. We could have asked for a higher asking price, of course, I just didn’t know these details.

What’s missing is transparency. These credits/kickbacks really affected the entire real estate purchase. Without them the buyer might not have made us an offer, or perhaps he would have raised his offer. We were just in ignorance.

The buyer’s agent just happens to be the top selling agent at our agent’s office. She has found a profitable niche. You see she is Indian and caters to the Indian community. Asians including many Indians are rapidly moving into our former zip code. I looked up the census data, and Asians went from 15% to 30% of our population between the 2000 and 2010 census, so it’s a growing market. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. Indians are likely to ask around mostly inside of their community when looking for an agent. Most likely they heard about her and heard that she offered generous credits on her commissions. In this case, it was a very generous credit, as $7000 is 46% of the money she could have gotten from us if she hadn’t kicked it back.

What she does get to do is to count the $505,000 sales price of our former house to her yearly sales total. It helps make her the #1 agent in that office. Doubtless nowhere in her marketing material is she calling attention to the fact that while she was one of two agents in the sale, she effectively earned a commission of 1.6%. So our agent really made more from the deal. The effect of our sale was that 3.6% was paid in commissions, but we were charged a 5% commission. We apparently gave the buyer a 1.4% rebate, but it’s not listed anywhere. The HUD-1 form at least provides this transparency; it just came too late to be useful.

I’m unlikely to do many more house sales in my lifetime. But if there is a next time I will be more wary. I will relate my experience to my new agent and suggest because we were effectively discounted, maybe 2% for each agent is appropriate. At least that way the buyer pays a higher percentage of the actual house sale, which will end up in our bank account. What I really want is all these details in the offer up front. I know I’m probably Don Quixote pointing my lance at a windmill on this issue.

So it’s too late for me, but not for you:

  • Sellers: if you are planning to sell your home you can at least be wise to what’s going on behind the scenes. Perhaps say you don’t want to pay more than 4% in commissions because you know it is likely that the buyer’s agent will give the buyer a credit.
  • Buyers: find an agent with both a good record of finding people the homes they want at a good price and who is willing to give you a substantial credit on their commission. Apparently 40 or 50 percent is not an unreasonable credit.

If this information is valuable to you, please send me 1.4% of the sale price. Thanks.

 
The Thinker

Texans needs an intervention, not an invasion

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Response by Dr. Benjamin Franklin to an onlooker after the close of the 1787 constitutional convention

In case you missed the news, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the activities of the U.S. military in Texas during their upcoming military exercise Jade Helm. No, I swear I’m not making this up! When I first heard it, I chuckled. “I can’t wait to read The Onion article,” I said. To my astonishment, it’s true. Conspiracy theorists have whipped up yet another dazzling conspiracy theory: that this multi-state military exercise to train our special forces against enemies like ISIS is actually an invasion of Texas by our own military. It’s an attempt to subjugate and subdue Texans, and to allow the Mexicans and radical Muslims in, because as everyone knows President Obama is not actually an American, but is a secret Muslim. Yeah, the same guy who brought down Osama bin Laden when George W. Bush could not. Go figure!

Conspiracy theorists of course are always dreaming up something. The only thing different here is that the governor of Texas – the governor – gave some legitimacy to these nutcases. It was not by offering some token sympathy to these people; it was by taking some deliberate action to appease them.

So I guess it’s official: the lunatics are running the government of Texas and Greg Abbott is one of them. I’m going to hope this was just an exercise in political cowardice, something you would not expect from Texans where the primary preoccupation seems to be asserting your state’s manliness and your right to do things your way. As the saying goes, don’t mess with Texas. Abbott is hoping for former governor Rick Perry’s hold on office. As Rick Perry learned you can’t possibly run too far to the right if you want to stay elected in Texas. Abbott’s political calculus may have been that this is simply the next step. Maybe he’s just acknowledging that most of his fellow Texans, at least the ones that vote, are nutcases so he better make them happy. Or he’s a nutcase too.

It doesn’t really matter because either scenario is appalling. This crazy response to a batshit crazy conspiracy theory does suggest that Texas needs an intervention instead of an invasion. Detroit got taken over by the state because it couldn’t keep itself solvent. The grownups, if there are any of them left in the state, need to stage a Texas intervention. It’s gotten so bad that former governor Rick Perry now sounds like a reasonable person.

It doesn’t matter who does it as long as it is someone who can separate fantasy from reality. The proper response to these conspiracy theorists is not respect but derisive laughter. I mean, it’s right on the floor funny. It certainly was for me, because the more I read the harder I laughed. Because many of these conspiracy theorists also believe this is somehow tied to the recent closure of six Walmart stores due to plumbing problems. The conspiracy theorists see this as related: these stores are actually going to be used as staging areas for Texans who are going to be shipped from there to FEMA camps.

Perhaps this is the logical result of progressive gerrymandering. When you create increasingly polarized voting districts you tend to elect only progressively more partisan legislators. It’s no longer okay just to be conservative. To get elected you have to be conservative, fundamentalist, against abortion, want to take away all subsidies for the poor and disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t look like you or parrot your behavior. Now it has been demonstrated that even governors can feel forced to take lunatic acts like this one simply to appease their base. Whether it will work is unclear, and there are plenty of conspiracy theorists that think Abbott’s actions aren’t nearly enough.

Perhaps as part of an intervention it would help for Texans to recall why they joined the United States in the first place. Basically, Texans could not beat the Mexicans alone, so it petitioned to join the United States because with its forces they could (read up on the Mexican-American War). By joining the Union, Mexico lost and Texas was saved for white people. Texas was stronger as part of the United States than it was as a republic. For all their macho posturing, if Texas did leave the union they would be back in a similar situation. It would be entirely up to them to stop migrations from Mexico and other parts of the Americas. Texans though seem incapable of admitting that they are needy; that their survival as a culture is predicated on belonging to a larger entity. Unless all the other forty-nine states do things exactly as they would do them, they don’t really feel an affiliation.

I do know one thing: if the Texas republic did reemerge, it wouldn’t last very long. These same nuts would be in charge, but since they can’t seem to manage reality, they would be easy prey. For all their mean mouthing and domineering attitudes, it’s all bravado and they are mostly cowards. They need the United States much more than the rest of us need Texas. Acts like this one would have me gladly voting for the state to succeed. Eventually they would realize it was a big mistake and put the sane people in charge again. Then I would let them back in.

Maybe.

 
The Thinker

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

 
The Thinker

Home-ish

Another quick four hundred mile commute between states. The path varies a bit each time we go. Lately I have been trading money for time. The New Jersey Turnpike is no guarantee of a quick commute but when it works it’s worth the tolls. When you travel this path frequently you look for the optimal path.

There are two major obstacles between Easthampton, Massachusetts and Herndon, Virginia. One major obstacle is New York City, where the choice is either to drive through it or drive around it. If you drive through it, you should drive through it from east to west because the pricey George Washington Bridge is free in that direction. The cost of congestion sitting on I-95 in the Bronx is borne pretty much any day and at any time. Which leaves your options either avoiding the city and New Jersey altogether or driving around it. Around it means either I-287 or our more recent discovery: the Garden State Parkway that conveniently connects to the New Jersey turnpike west of Staten Island.

Obstacle two is Washington, D.C. itself, with arguably worse traffic than New York City. If you have to arrive there at evening rush hour it is better to go from east to west too because more people live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia than the other way around. There are still inevitable slowdowns but it is less hellish.

This trip to our house settlement that spanned much of our week and that kept me from blogging was at least our last one, at least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I was glad to trade money for time. We have driven this route many times now and it is getting old. When the traffic is with you it is not too bad: six and a half hours without potty breaks with NPR stations along the whole route. But traffic can easily make it eight or ten hours or more, and there is no way to know; it’s a crapshoot. I don’t feel too bad doing 80 mph on the turnpike because plenty of others are going 85. Also, much of the turnpike is eight lanes in each direction, with four inner lanes reserved for cars-only. It’s so hard to police that the New Jersey cops have pretty much given up trying.

Still, it’s a sedentary trip and all the gear shifting (we were driving my wife’s manual car) and micro changes in speed to accommodate traffic dynamics hurt my feet. From bucolic Mount Tom in the morning to traffic soaked Reston, Virginia in the afternoon, but not to end up at our house in Herndon of 21 years. We ended up instead in a friend’s spare bedroom. Outside a Virginia spring told us we were going to miss the area. Dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The grass was a green as an Irish spring. And the temperature, at least this week, was ideal.

Also ideal were those last hours at our house before we said goodbye. Both our front trees were flowering, as were the flowers along the porch and in the main garden. The house was largely clean when the movers left. All that was left was some final sweeping and mopping of floors. Our buyers paid top dollar for our house. They deserved to walk into a house that sparkled. With almost everything outside blossoming, moving in should be a joy for them.

Last moments at our house

Last moments at our house

But for us this was an ending, not a beginning. Empty of our belongings our house looked surprisingly small, but it also felt lonely. Its future inhabitants will include a man named Rajkumar, his pregnant wife beginning her third semester and shortly after the baby arrives, her mother from India. Raj probably targeted our house for the mother in law suite in the basement, but also for its proximity to Washington Dulles airport. Years of working with Indians made me realize that they see themselves as part time inhabitants. At least once a year, sometimes more often, they jet half a world away to be with their real family, always very extended. Our modest house with the one car garage will doubtless seem palatial by Indian standards. In short, while we have departed, Raj has arrived, both figuratively and literally.

We arrived at the settlement a few minutes early to discover that they had beer in the fridge and plentiful snacks in the waiting room. I guess the writer’s cramp goes easier when you are mildly intoxicated and as long as it is just one beer, you are less likely to dispute items on the HUD-1 form. The settlement experience is much different when you are the seller. Within thirty minutes we had signed all our forms, turned over our keys and the remote controls to the garage door and a stack of manuals and had left, while an impressive stack of forms remained for Raj to sign. While settlement turned out to be the event that drew us back to Virginia, my wife had two medical appointments to keep. And there were family obligations too: a drive to Silver Spring to see my aging father and his wife, one final visit to Lake Anne in Reston to take a friend out to dinner and a six a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday to rendezvous with our daughter for breakfast. She works nights and goes to be around 8 a.m. The trip back from breakfast had us sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along traffic clogged Route 28 in a 75-minute trip that should take twenty minutes.

Yes, Virginia traffic taxed us to the very end. It was literally taxing, as we were forced to pay $768 for a “congestion relief tax” as part of the house settlement. Doubtless the money would only cause more congestion, as 35 years had taught me that in Northern Virginia developer money talks and politicians will figure out how to accommodate all the extra traffic and people when hell freezes over. Speaking of traffic, it was stop and go much of the way from Sterling, Virginia (where my wife had an appointment with an eye doctor) to Columbia, Maryland where we spent our final night with my sister Mary.

Yesterday we did the trip all in reverse, but at least we started near Baltimore, which kept us from more hellish commuter traffic, easy to see from the solid mass of cars and trucks going south on I-95 toward Washington. The New Jersey Turnpike did not disappoint us. While we were making our journey home, $415K in settlement funds was making its way electronically into our bank account. We gave up a beautiful house with a gorgeous lawn with trees and flowers in bloom for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Easthampton. But at least we were debt free for the first time in more than thirty years.

Back in Easthampton four days later, our apartment did not feel like home to me, but home it will be for a few more months. Our real home is under construction in nearby Florence. It will be built almost entirely from cash from our settlement. While we have yet to actually purchase and occupy the property, in a way we are already part of our neighborhood to be. Sunday we attended services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and we almost immediately introduced to three people from our new neighborhood. We’re already booked to attend a party there later this month, and my wife has been invited to join their book club. Nearly everyday we pick up our mail from their mail kiosk, and our days are often spent with vendors nailing down the details of this new home to be.

So we are home-ish. I am wrung out from the last eight months, but with most of the hassle and work of relocation behind us I now have an opportunity to begin to recharge now and ponder what new adventures await us.

 
The Thinker

Breathing easier

I’ve spent three years now connected to a machine while I sleep. This is because I suffer from sleep apnea. Until recently much of that sleep was restless. For the first couple of months it was downright annoying. This was because while the respirator that controls my sleep apnea made sure I breathed regularly, it was loud and noisy.

In response, I plugged my ears with silicon to try to deaden the noise, but it didn’t work that well. Sound still leaked in. In addition it took months to get the air pressure adjusted right. Too little and the machine could trigger sleep apnea. Too much and it was hard to sleep. It’s like sleeping while taking a brisk walk.

When I could tune out its noise, I did sleep pretty well and I enjoyed all sorts of vivid dreams I had been deprived of for years. But it’s hardly natural to sleep connected to a tube and a machine. For example, if you turn in bed then the tube comes with you, and it sometimes drapes over your face, so you wake just enough to push it out of the way.

My respirator merely helps me cope with my sleep apnea. It does not solve the condition. Sleep physicians have all sorts of suggestions for maybe curing the problem. One involves losing a lot of weight. Even if you are successful the success rate is problematic at best, particularly since most people who lose weight eventually put it back on. Another involves trimming the uvula (the thing that hangs in the back of your throat) and various tissues in the back of the throat to improve airflow. This requires surgery and is no guarantee of success. There is also a dental appliance that forces the lower jaw forward to improve airflow through the throat. My brother tried it for his condition and found it painful and impossible to deal with.

The real problem may simply be the width of my windpipe. It’s inherited of course, and if that is the real issue I can’t make it wider. In this case, I will have to just deal with the problem. Moreover, the root of sleep apnea is really in the brain. During sleep it periodically stops sending signals to my lungs to breathe regularly. So far I’ve not opted for any surgery, mainly because of its poor success rate. And given my brother’s reaction to the dental appliance, I ruled out that approach as well.

So I’ve become accustomed to dragging around my respirator with me when I travel. It means I probably won’t be doing any camping, unless I have power source sufficient to keep my machine running overnight.

A couple of months ago I noticed that my machine occasionally rebooted itself during the night. It beeped when it did this, which at least let me know about the problem. After a while it was happening regularly. This is a bit alarming since without the machine on you don’t get a whole lot of air through the vents in the mask. When I went to see the sleep doctor, I asked for a new machine. Fortunately, my insurance paid for it. Since February I’ve been using the latest ResMed bi-level machine.

There are no more nightly reboots of my machine. But the real startling discovery was how quiet the new machine is. It’s nearly silent, even when wearing the same masks over my mouth and nose. With the old machine the vents in the masks typically hissed noisily during exhalation. With the new machine, there is no hiss at all. What I had thought was an issue with the design of the mask was actually due to the way my old machine was pushing air through it. The new machine seems to scale up the air pressure more evenly and naturally, presumably doing a better job of mimicking the way lungs take in air. It’s the difference between driving a noisy car and a Cadillac. It’s the difference between getting some sleep and sleeping very well most nights.

What a relief to be breathing (and sleeping) easier.

 

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