The Thinker

Spock lives!

When us denizens of the Internet yesterday weren’t debating whether a certain dress was gold and white or blue and black we were mourning the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, famous in his portrayal of the logical and taciturn Vulcan (well, half human-half Vulcan) Mr. Spock in the original TV series Star Trek, not to mention a bunch of Star Trek movies and even some animated episodes in the 1970s. It was unclear to me which topic won the day, but I do know which topic will endure: Leonard Nimoy’s outstanding portrayal of our favorite Vulcan. Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy who defined him, has become immortal.

Here’s the truth about Star Trek: it was always far more about Mr. Spock than it was about Captain Kirk. This was because Leonard Nimoy could act and William Shatner could not, unless he had a really good director (e.g. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)). But of course it was also because Spock was a far more interesting character. He was deep and mysterious, in spite of his projected lack of emotions and clockwork-like brain. He was different but somehow cool, an outsider but someone most of us secretly wanted to emulate. He was Sherlock Holmes on steroids, a super outsider fighting for truth, justice and the United Federation of Planets. He was virtually flawless: an intellectual giant that specialized in synthesizing disparate information for the benefit of good. His only flaw to my way of thinking was his dopey, over the top and undeserved loyalty to James T. Kirk, his friend for life who frankly deserved his scorn, not his admiration.

Unsurprisingly, Nimoy was thrice nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Spock while Shatner never got a single nomination. Maybe it was the 1960s, but we couldn’t get enough of Mr. Spock. Women in particular were fascinated by Mr. Spock. In a time when women were required to tightly reign in their passionate sides, Mr. Spock gave them a safe channel to vent. In particular women were fascinated by the Kirk-Spock relationship, mainly because it hinted that two men could have a relationship of great depth during a time when men’s relations with other men were typically superficial. Women knew there was something deeper there that us men did not see: a homosexual context. Perhaps Kirk was a repressed homosexual, or at least a bisexual. Spock’s puppy dog admiration for Kirk hinted that Spock’s ultra logical personality was a mere projection. Inside he was a cauldron of passion for his true love: Kirk, and certainly not Nurse Christine Chapel.

Spock was the infectious character of his time. While the series died in 1969 the character simply would not go away. Star Trek lived principally because of the subtext of the Kirk-Spock relationship. It was women more than men who kept the show in their hearts and petitioned Paramount for movies and spinoffs. When the movies became successful (and they did when the Kirk-Spock relationship became front and center in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) of course the demand would spin off all sorts of Star Trek themed shows, some good, some not so good.

The emotional subtext of Spock aside, we grooved on Spock because of what he stood for. Our world today is far messier than it was in the chaotic late 1960s. But Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry laid out an idealistic but somehow hopeful vision of humanity’s future where we had overcome issues like racism and classism. We lived in peace and in something close to utopia, except for the Klingons, Romulans and other another assorted unenlightened species we encountered exploring brave new worlds that wanted to do the United Federation of Planets harm. Star Trek inspired us. It inspired me. The Prime Directive (which Kirk often ignored) was an enlightened way that acknowledged the greater forces at work shaping civilizations. Maybe it inspired the Beatles to create their song Let it be. It shaped my thinking on our war in Iraq and how we should handle our current conflict with ISIS. It was Spock, not Kirk that modeled this new and enlightened universe. As long as this half-breed could maintain his civility and logic, there was hope. I often think that President Obama channels Mr. Spock, so much so that I wrote a post about it. Due to Nimoy’s death, the post has surged to the top of my most popular posts list.

It was Nimoy of course who impressively pulled off a plausible and coherent character that the rest of us could latch onto. Unsurprisingly, Nimoy developed a love/hate relationship with his character. It caused him write a book, I am not Spock and years later another book, I am Spock where he wrestled with his feelings with being saddled by the character. However, it was Nimoy that really brought Spock alive. The character brought Nimoy huge celebrity and also drove him to drink, but like it or not it made him and his character immortal.

Nimoy quickly became typecast by Spock, which put a serious dent on his acting career. He wanted to be more than Spock, but for the most part he wasn’t allowed. He dabbled in directing and summer stock. His most impressive non-Spock role was as Morris Meyerson, the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t feel too bad for losing, as he lost to Laurence Olivier.

Nimoy is gone but Spock has endured, and was most recently portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was tutored in the role by Nimoy himself. At one time (2003) I was convinced that Star Trek was dead. These newest Star Trek movies proved me wrong, thankfully, because they were done so well. However, the reason they survived was because Spock, not Kirk, proved too popular to die. After all Spock died in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and we had to resurrect him, just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from certain death.

Nimoy, a Jew, did not believe in resurrection but his character is likely to endure and may prove as immortal as Sherlock Holmes in the decades ahead. It would not surprise me if when the 22nd century dawns that portrayals of Mr. Spock will still endure on popular media and Star Trek, in it’s 22nd century projection, will as well. United Federation of Planets, here we come! And here’s hoping that Spock will be in charge.

 
The Thinker

Some taxing mistakes

The tax code giveth and the tax code taketh. In 2014, the tax code tooketh, to the tune of about $3000 in checks I did not expect to write to the U.S. Treasury and Virginia Department of Taxation. Ouch! No one likes paying taxes and I don’t like paying mine anymore than anyone else, but I particularly didn’t like it this year when instead of getting refunds I was writing four figure checks. Because of my success in previous years I sort of assumed that it wouldn’t be a problem in 2014 either. So I kept things on autopilot. I didn’t change withholdings or exemptions. I figured it would sort itself out.

But it didn’t. And the answers of why I suddenly paid so much more in taxes when the tax rates haven’t changed were lessons for me and maybe for you too if you read this. What were the causes?

  • We lost an exemption when our daughter moved out. She was employed all year but lived with us until October. She paid for her automobile expenses but otherwise lived off house fare and got free rent. I assumed because we paid most of her expenses we could still claim her as an exemption. An exemption is worth almost $4000 off your taxable income. If you are in the 25% tax bracket like we are, that’s about $1000 in taxes. How much of her expenses we paid does not matter to the IRS. What matters is how much money she made and since she made more than $3,500 we could not claim her as a dependent. So in our benevolence to help her acquire the savings she needed to live independently, we were also taxed for the privilege. Ouch!
  • We started earning interest again. We put a lot of our cash into Ally Bank, an online bank, which pays about 1% interest. 1% interest is not much, but it beats the .01% we were getting through the credit union and USAA Savings Bank. It’s nice to earn interest, but it’s income so you have to report it. $219 in additional interest effectively cost us $53.50 in extra taxes.
  • When I retired I was paid for six weeks of accrued annual leave, a significant lump sum of money for which I was disproportionately taxed. There is wisdom in retiring on the first of the year. That way your lump sum applies to the next tax year when your income will be less. I didn’t do that and retired August 1. Despite our retirement for five months of 2014, our earned income was just $16,500 less than in 2013. This was largely due to the lump sum paid on my retirement.
  • My business income went up but I didn’t want to pay quarterly taxes on the income because of the paperwork hassle. It worked out in the past by making my four-digit tax refund three digits. This time it worked against me.
  • I could not claim my health saving account deduction. Last year I got the full $2500 credit. Since I wasn’t employed all year in 2014, I actually only put about $1700 into the HSA, but there is no requirement for money to accrue for it to be paid out. $2500 was paid out. The end result was that I could not claim the credit at all, so that effectively cost me $625 in taxes.
  • I hassled my wife to put money into her employer’s 401K while I kept putting money into her IRA. Because her 401K money was tax deferred, her IRA money was not. It’s good to save money but because it was not tax deferred it effectively cost us $812 in extra taxes. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time! On the plus side some day I will be able to take out the money we put in for 2014 and not pay tax on it.
  • Because I made more money consulting, I had to pay more self-employment taxes. Cost for the extra income: $128 in taxes.
  • Our cars depreciated, so we paid fewer personal property taxes, which added $33 in taxes.
  • Our mortgage is almost paid off, which means there is less of a mortgage interest deduction. That effectively meant $150 more in taxes.
  • We gave less to charity. This is mainly because my wife stopped going to her temple and feeding them regular checks. I didn’t think to make up the deduction with other charitable spending. This effectively cost us $566 in taxes.

The above was slightly offset by some good things: lower earned income, more consulting income and of course the pleasure of being retired. But I have learned that tax-planning vigilance is needed. Moreover, I learned that major life transitions can cost you a lot in taxes if you don’t anticipate them. When we lost an exemption, it was not entirely bad. We won’t be paying for our daughter’s expenses in the future.

2015 will not be any easier for us tax-wise, as we will be relocating and buying and selling homes. But it was clear that I was not withholding enough money for income taxes. I tried a number of online calculators but even the IRS’s calculator is really deficient. It turned out to be easier to estimate income, deductions and credits in a spreadsheet based on the fields in a 1040, calculate my estimated 2015 tax from it and then figure how much I needed to increase my withholding so not to end up in this situation again. It’s about $500 more a month.

I hope in 2016 I find I am not similarly surprised.

 
The Thinker

The Walmart egg cracks at last

Walmart protesters like me are cheering, somewhat tentatively. We are celebrating Walmart’s announcement this week that it is raising its starting wages. Walmart will boost starting wages to $9 per hour this year and it will raise them to $10 per hour by February 2016. $10 an hour is still not a living wage, but it is at least a start in the right direction. In addition, Walmart is changing policies to allow more predictive schedules for its employees, many of who are part time and many of who have to struggle their Walmart schedules with other job schedules. Employees will know more than two weeks in advance what their hours will be and when their hours will be. In addition, those desiring more hours will be able to request them. This good news is trickling up. Department managers will get a raise too, up from $13 an hour to $15 an hour.

So hip hooray, for Walmart, but certainly not a hip-hip hooray. Walmart has obviously been assessing the optics of its labor policies for a long time. Organizations like Making Change at Walmart have given widespread attention to their lagging wages, and the hassles and often brutish conditions that their employees endure. This included some strikes, sit-downs and walkouts, not to mention Black Friday protests such as I helped organize last year. It is quite likely that without these events there would have been no announcement this week from Walmart.

I have been focusing on Walmart’s unfair labor practices for many years because I believed it was where the fulcrum of labor change needed be applied. This is because it is the nation’s (if not the world’s) largest private employer. So affecting real change in Walmart was likely to have a nudging effect on all the other private employers out there. Indeed, that is the expectation. There is at least one Walmart in any community of size. $10 an hour may still not be a living wage, but when someone looking for a job has a choice between Walmart at $10 an hour and washing dishes at an Applebees at $7.25 an hour, they will go with Walmart. Walmart gets a richer set of potential employees to choose from. To compete at some point Applebees has to raise its wages too.

Unquestionably some of this is due to the improving economy. With the official unemployment rate at 5.8 percent and many disaffected people rejoining the labor market each month, the labor pool is tightening up at last. A number of employers have been proactive. Costco and Wegmans have long paid their starting employees a living wage and not coincidentally have prospered. Starbucks, Gap Inc., Hobby Lobby and IKEA have all seen this freight train coming their way and recently raised wages. Walmart then is something of a laggard. However, due to its size it has sent a signal that other employers must respond to or have their businesses put in peril.

I doubt that the bean counters at Walmart have figured this out, but raising their employees’ wages is good for their bottom line as well. Most likely much of the raises will be spent at Walmart. As starting wages are raised nationwide Walmart stands to increase sales, as they cater to value customers that come predominantly from the middle class, working class and poor. Happier employees are likely to be more productive as well, which means that Walmart’s notoriously poorly stocked shelves may be less so in the future.

It also means, however marginally, that money which would have otherwise gone toward the rich, where it is unlikely to be spent, will instead go toward the working class, where it will almost certainly be spent. In short, it will mean that the economy will grow more than it otherwise would have. Since the United States leads the world economy, our greater prosperity and our demands for goods and services will spur the world economy, the beginning of a virtuous cycle.

None of this should be news, but it may be to those who favor austerity. Walmart’s and all employers’ low wage policies are ultimately self-defeating. Low wages create high turnover and lower employee morage. Low wages do not build employee loyalty and give no onus for employees to be productive. Low wages make employees feel used instead of valued. It creates unnecessary conflict between employees and management and creates the conditions for labor to organize that employers don’t like. It taints businesses by projecting them as cheap, uncaring and harsh.

It also tends to stifle business creativity. Fast food restaurants like Chipotle are prospering by offering fresher, tastier, trendier and more natural foods. Chipotle’s simple use of a cafeteria line moves customers through more quickly and more cheaply while allowing them to pay employees more while needing fewer of them. In short, this makes them more productive and profitable. McDonalds, which has used the counter methodology for its more than sixty years in business, can’t seem to rethink its business model in such obvious ways. Clinging to tradition rather than embracing change is a major reason for their lackluster sales.

Employers that demonstrate that they value employees in the form of living wages set up a virtuous cycle wherein higher profits are a probable outcome of a generous corporate philosophy. Walmart is beginning to dimly grasp this but in fact this is what worked for American for most of the latter half of the 20th century. In truth, Walmart’s profitability is centered on its ability to treat its employees with respect through living wages and humane working conditions. Without employees it simply cannot survive. It needs to see its employees as invaluable and treasured assets, not as commodities. Living wages are the primary way to demonstrate this. Then Walmart may see sustainable increases in sales and profits again.

 
The Thinker

There’s no place like house

Our six-month home improvement adventure is finally nearing a close. Our punch list: it’s nearly punched out. There are no large and annoying tasks to put our house on the market remaining. Some of those that do remain simply cannot be done right now. Most likely though the five inches of snow on the ground will melt and temperatures will stay reliably above freezing before our house lists in two weeks. When it does then I will pound those stakes into the ground to make the edging along our garden look right again. And we will pull the wild onion shoots from the garden as well. Right now though these imperfections are covered, quite literally! Two weeks from tomorrow, our house will get listed and a new set of hassles will start.

Inside our house though we are getting down to things that probably don’t matter. My touch up painting in the laundry room is pretty obvious. I’d like to repaint the walls, but not sure I want to buy yet another gallon of paint to make it look seamless. I am thoroughly sick of painting. I am sick of painting and all the crap that goes with it: caulking, patching, priming, masking, sanding, positioning drop clothes, taking knobs out of doors, and switch plates off the walls and putting them back in again. I am sick of cleaning up afterward and trying to get my paintbrushes clean yet again. It is more than painting, of course. To name just a few, I am also sick of constantly vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, trashing and rushing to and from the local Lowes.

There is still stuff that needs to be moved around or put away to make our stager happy, but for the most part that work is done. We are also loath to remove some stuff until the last possible moment, such as most of the items on our kitchen counter. If you encounter a kitchen counter minus most appliances, it’s a good sign that the house is about to go on the market. The assumed buyer wants to imagine her stuff on those counters, which is not your ugly toaster or your very used electric can opener. So we must make it look like no one actually uses our kitchen instead.

All this is really for the photographer. Twenty-one years ago when we bought this house, there was no World Wide Web. If you were lucky you had a brochure of the house to look at first that you got at your broker’s office. Instead, you generally depended on cryptic house descriptions that realtors gave you. They came from printouts off dot-matrix printers in the realty office. You plotted the actual locations of these houses using a local atlas so you could get some idea if the house was in a neighborhood that would work for you. Now your house is mostly sold online, thanks to your stager who makes each room unrecognizable to you but mostly thanks to the photographer, who has a unique assortment of extremely wide angle lenses that can make a bungalow look like a mansion. It will all be brightly lit, using Photoshop if necessary. The fancier photographers might use panoramic cameras with high-resolution detail so strangers can get 360-degree sweeps of your bedroom. That’s when you’ll be glad the stager noticed the bottle of lube on the bedstead and had you put it away in that special drawer with your many whips, frottages, restraints and adult DVDs.

Our house has been ruthlessly decluttered. We’ve given away literally thousands of dollars of stuff, mostly to Goodwill, mainly because we don’t want to invest the energy to sell it. Freecycle has been another godsend. It’s amazing what people will take when you advertise it for free. My wife posted on Freecycle four bottles of a sports drink she’ll never finish. Some slinky Asian American woman stopped by a few hours later in her gym clothes to pick them up; I guess she needed some electrolytes for her workout. My wife can give away practically anything, no matter how trashy I think it is, with a creative posting on Freecycle. A lot of stuff gets claimed in minutes. An occasional item will languish, but a reposting will usually get rid of it. Some stuff though is not even fit to give away. One (an outdoor table) literally fell apart as I helped to put it in a guy’s truck. He was nice enough about it and helped me haul it to the curb.

It took us twenty-one years but finally our house is clean and fit for human habitation. It’s just too bad that actual human beings don’t live in houses like ours. That’s because you have to be retired for six months with little else to do but fetishly turn the real into the surreal using lots of disposable cash to reach this level of crazy perfection. Real people fill their house with stuff (most of it junk, actually). Real people don’t vacuum daily, and they leave dishes in the sink, sometimes for days at a time. Real people (and we are guilty here) leave baskets of clean laundry lying around until some amorphous day in the future when we decide to fold them, by which time half of it has been picked out, worn and is back in the dirty clothes basket. Real people don’t scrub their sinks after each use, so it will look shiny and unused if some potential buyer comes by. I leave out rich people because they aren’t real IMHO. If you want to get some sense of what it takes to live 24/7 in a clean and well-ordered house, watch the staff in Downton Abbey. No one else has the time, except when buyers are house hunting. Then they expect to see a surreal HGTV-like house; a house that will never again appear once the first moving box is plopped down on the living room floor.

What the next owner of our house won’t notice or give any thought to is how much time, money, fretting and brute labor went into our house while we owned it. Developments like ours were sprouting like weeds in the mid 1980s, and construction standards were somewhat sloppy. Our house had many defects, stuff you wonder how any county home inspector could approve. Among the ones we encountered were drywall ceilings on our porch and the deck literally nailed into our sliding. We fixed these and many other defects, not to mention did a lot of remodeling, painting and repainting, replacing appliances, and fussing about dandelions and drainage in the backyard. We spent huge amounts of money, well over $100,000 according to my records, just to keep our house functional.

For the new buyer it all that comes free. Once they own it and entropy reasserts itself they will discover the real cost of home ownership. It’s something that we will escape, at least for a time, when we move into our newly constructed house in Massachusetts this summer. Moreover, the condo association will have to fix problems with the exterior of our house.

Still, despite the hassle and expense of being homeowers, with a mortgage that is still not completely paid off, I’m going to miss this home of ours, which BTW is now mostly just a house. I know that even after the messiness of this gargantuan change in our lives that I will often feel nostalgic for this place I still call home.

 
The Thinker

Deathwatch

My mother passed away ten years ago this November. Her decline and death and the vivid memories it brought back (many of which are cataloged here in my archives) were on my mind yesterday as our car, facing stiff headwinds scurried west on I-70. For we were on our way to say goodbye to another loved one. As we exited onto I-68 toward Cumberland, Maryland the wind tried to push us off the road while we also gained altitude. By the time we exited on U.S. 40 toward Uniontown, Pennsylvania there was snow on the ground in spite of the bright sunshine, while the temperature kept steadily dropping. When we pulled off the road toward Aunt Pat and Uncle Paul’s house on the Youghiogheny Reservoir the winds were still brisk and the early afternoon temperature registered a frigid 10 degrees Fahrenheit. With my warmest coat and hat on, it still felt cold outside in the sun. The dry snow crunched below our feet as we ascended stairs to knock on their door.

Cousin Beverly had phoned us a few days earlier to let us know that her mother had a stroke late last year. It paralyzed the left half of her body and left her largely unable to move or say anything clearly. Since then it had been all downhill, which meant of course a hospitalization, a nursing home, and now hospice care in the lower level of their home. We steeled ourselves. She may be on a deathwatch, but the house was warm and Aunt Pat had plenty of company. There was Chris, a good-hearted friend of Bev who had moved up for the duration. There was a nurse’s aid and later a LPN. There was Uncle Paul, Pat’s husband, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but was reasonably alert and chatty, and who greeted us warmly. There was a small friendly dog, as well as another friend of the family who seemed to be there for the duration, driven up from North Carolina by Chris. Those Adventists know how to stick together.

Except for all the attention to Aunt Pat at first our visit seemed sort of normal. She was in a reclining wheelchair, placed into it by Chris, her mouth now perpetually wide open, with just slits to show her eyes. Her body was a mess of bedsores and infections. A catheter drained her bladder. A tube going through her abdomen into her stomach provided nutrition of a sort. The LPN applied dressing to her wounds. When Pat chose to talk it came out as a moan but her meaning was clear: she was in pain. Her vision had been declining for years due to macular degeneration. She could no longer make out faces, but only see light and colors. She could hear what was around her, at least when she was awake, but had virtually no other ways to be understood. The stroke had largely taken away her speech. The guttural sounds that occasionally came out were hard to interpret.

She was ready to die, that much we knew through our phone conversation with Beverly. From seeing her up close and hearing her moans, death seemed to be something to hasten, not postpone. Her face was pallid. The stroke had stolen with it any sign of animation. Pat had always been a forceful woman, kindly but stubborn, and a woman of deep faith and conviction. Part of her faith required her family to do all they could to keep her alive. It was clear to me that these extraordinary efforts while well intentioned had the effect of being cruel. My own mother eventually died from a bladder infection due to having a catheter in her 24/7, but like Pat she also had congestive heart failure. Pat’s heart was having a hard time meeting her body’s needs. She was retaining water (not a good sign) and her oxygen levels were dropping too. And she was often moaning. This brought calls to a registered nurse and the injection of a rescue drug to alleviate her pain. It also brought a major decision. She was gently lifted from the wheelchair and into her bed. There she will stay until she passes.

In the living room with Uncle Paul, he seemed inured to his wife’s suffering. It might have been the Alzheimer’s, it might have been that her condition was very old news, so he was eloquent with us instead, anxious to hear how we were doing although it had been more than seven years since we last visited. A little dog bounded from lap to lap happily. Paul shared pictures of their life together while other adults fussed over Pat’s condition. Like his wife, Paul is a passionate Adventist. He can’t drive anymore, which means he can’t drive an hour each way to Cumberland on the Sabbath to attend church. There is, he happily reported, an Adventist channel on the satellite TV. Ministers come by regularly to provide pastoral care to both Pat and Paul. While the moans from his wife waffled from her bedroom, he informed us that in all the universe Satan lived only here on Earth, and we must resist Satan and follow Christ. (I didn’t ask why God put us here and if that made God a sadist, but I wanted to.) He had tried to convert us the last time we were here. We nodded dutifully but did not agree with his thesis. This was no time to disagree about theology, but Paul is too kindly a man to disagree with in any event.

Meanwhile Pat drifted in and out of consciousness. It was not clear much of the time if she was conscious, but when she moaned we at least knew that she was hurting. We weren’t sure what if anything she could say to us, but when she seemed reasonably alert and we listened closely, it sounds like “hurt”. No doubt. I touched her gently not wishing to start yet another bedsore. Her skin was paper thin and easily injured. “Aunt Pat,” I said, “they gave you a medicine for the pain. It should stop soon.”

My wife talked to her and tried to listen but it was mostly a one sided conversation. She told her how grateful she was to her. It was Pat that had took her in when she had to leave college. There were opportunities in Washington D.C. that did not exist in Flint, Michigan. Pat had hosted her and Pat had also pushed her out. She had the courage her mother seemed to lack to tell her it was time to stand on her own two feet. After leaving their house, my wife lived in a fleabag apartment, then in a high rise with a roommate and not much after that she ran into me. It was Aunt Pat that indirectly brought her into my life. As I held Pat gently I told her how sad I was to see her suffer, but how profoundly grateful I was that by choosing kindness for my wife, I found the woman I love.

I watched while the nurse’s aide frequently hydrated her lips and mouth. Tubes were periodically sent down her sinuses to remove mucus. All sorts of things were being done to keep her alive, but her systems were failing. The nurse told Paul that much. Her body was shutting down. Medicines would not work much longer.

My wife promised Pat that she would come back but I don’t see how it is possible. I can’t imagine that Pat will live much longer and we are three hours away by car. I never had the emotional attachment to Pat that I had to my mother, but I certainly grew to respect both her and Paul. When my time comes I simply don’t want these sorts of extraordinary procedures to keep me alive. She was suffering pointlessly and needlessly. It would be more humane to simply do the best to manage her pain but otherwise let her die a gentle death. For now she was living the script that her faith taught her: to keep her body alive as long as possible, even though there seemed literally nothing to live for except more discomfort and pain.

My wife was crying of course when we left and began another three-hour journey home. I felt it best to drive while she sat in her seat mostly quietly, a sad and vacant look in her eyes. I don’t expect Aunt Pat to last more than a few more days. I am certainly grateful to have known her. I wish her (if it is possible to state this without sounding callous) a swift but gentle death. May it come soon.

 
The Thinker

Future errata on the news

No special topic for today’s post, just some quick thoughts about the news of the day and what I believe the story behind the story will be. With luck my precognition will be proven by subsequent events, and these will be errata indeed:

  • On the invitation by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress: This isn’t about the supposed threat that Iraq’s nuclear weapon program poses to Israel’s existence. Congress doesn’t need additional convincing on that. This is about Republicans, and House Republicans in particular, having a snit with President Obama because basically they loathe him and can’t figure out any other way to kick him in the balls. They don’t respect him or his administration, even before he came to office. In short, this is institutional passive aggressive behavior. It is also very unwise as it sets a new and dangerous precedence that our country will speak on foreign policy with multiple voices. (Executing foreign policy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive branch.) This is also about Speaker Boehner trying to gain some leverage with his mostly out of control Tea Party wing. It helps shows that he is manly and serious in ways that they can appreciate. If I were a Democrat in Congress, I’d boycott attending. However, I don’t expect a critical mass of Democrats will do this, as they proved in the 2014 election that they are quite spineless.
  • On the allegation in David Alexrod’s new book that President Obama hid his support for gay marriage in the 2008 campaign: no duh! It was clear to us Democrats that he was for gay marriage, but he felt it was too dangerous to say so publicly at the time as it would have adversely affected his campaign. What was evolving was not his opinions, but the American people’s opinions. He was waiting for us to catch up. So, yes, he was being disingenuous, but no more than most politicians. In fact, most of the Republicans who claim to be upset about gay marriage really don’t care too much about it either; they just don’t want to upset their base, or really what the think is their base, i.e. the noisy (i.e. politically active) ones.
  • On funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February: in the end Republicans will cave, probably sooner rather than later. Even if the House bill gets out of the Senate, which won’t happen, the President will veto it. The egg won’t be on Obama’s face as it plays out, because Americans overwhelmingly support his interim steps for immigration reform. So this is a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans will probably go for a series of 30 day funding mechanisms, until enough of them realize it just makes them look stupid, and then they’ll capitulate.
  • On the Obama Administration’s hope that a reinvigorated Iraqi army — with plenty of American advisors safely out of firing range to act as coaches –will retake Mosul from ISIS: it ain’t going to happen. The Iraqi army is a joke because there is no country called Iraq and because more desertions happen monthly than recruits coming in. What there is is a marginally governable country that should be called Shi’ite Iraq. To the extent that they will retake land it will be in traditionally Shi’ite dominated areas of that former country. What’s really happening is what I predicted in 2006: Iraq is being fractured into a number of religiously orthodox and ethnically pure countries: Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State. It won’t be external forces that kill the Islamic State. It will be resistance from within when residents get sick of the overwhelming terror and (worse) the paucity of first world services like satellite TV. Neighboring countries will try to nudge this to happen sooner rather than later by making living in the IS more undesirable. The IS will either have to adopt into something marginally politically acceptable in the Middle East or it will eventually die a natural death. A state that does not operate like a state, i.e. with some uniformity and ability to provide basic services, is not a real state. I doubt it will be around five years from now regardless of what is done or not done.
  • On the reemergence of diseases like measles because certain parents can’t or won’t get their children immunized: never underestimate the power of shame and conformity. Americans are all for freedom until someone else’s freedom hurts their kids. If just one kid dies in America because someone kid’s parent refused to get their kid immunized, the remaining states will quickly fall in line and require all children to be inoculated against preventable diseases. The only question is where the set point is these days, as most Americans have no living memory of mass diseases like the measles. Smart Republican politicians are already walking back their talking points because disease knows no political boundaries. The parents of a Republican kid who comes down with the measles will be just as pissed-off Democratic parents in this situation, once they get over their own shame. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, particularly when we are certain that immunizations are safe and effective.
  • On the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as our next president: I am not convinced. The more I study her, the more things I find to dislike about her. The more Americans focus on her and the more they study her, the more that have second thoughts as well. If Republicans were smart, they would nominate a mainstream woman to run against her, perhaps Carly Fiorina to help negate the frustration by women that we never had a female president. Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans usually go stupid when picking a nominee. Still, a convincing mainstream Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Indiana Governor Mike Pence could win in 2016. That’s what the sensible establishment Republicans are figuring, which is why they are throwing money into PACs for Jeb and trying to make him the likely nominee. If Clinton stumbles, right now the Democrats best bet is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, because he is known for crossing the aisles and for taking unpopular positions, assuming Webb does not try a third party route. That’s credibility, and it’s what Americans are desperately looking for. I don’t expect though that Democrats will be in the mood to go with a mainstream candidate.
 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: February 2015 edition

It’s the first Friday of the month so that means it’s that time of the month … to plumb my local Craigslist Casual Encounters Section to see what bizarre and unusual postings are out there this cold night. Hopefully the embers of local Craigslist denizens are burning red hot tonight.

Some statistics for January come first. Google Analytics reports at least 261 pages of my Craigslist posts were served in January, quite a bit higher than in December, but traffic was up a bit in general last month. This amounted to about 14 percent of my overall web traffic. Meanwhile, looking at the first page of ads popping up tonight, I see the following posting demographics:

  • 37 men looking for a woman
  • 32 men looking for a man
  • 3 men looking for a couple
  • 4 men looking for a transgender
  • 6 women looking for a man
  • 5 women looking for a woman
  • 4 couples looking for other couples
  • 2 couples looking for a woman
  • 6 couples looking for a man
  • 4 transgender people (I must use the politically correct term) looking for a man

Let’s see how many eyebrows I can raise tonight. Not much fazes me anymore, so it’s more of a challenge to see if anything will raise my eyebrow.

  • Couples, would it be a turn on to have a sex with guy in his mid 50s with a pock marked face and long flowing blondish hair that makes him look sort of girlish? Yes, this man is brave enough to post his picture though thankfully he has his clothes on. He says he’s bi and that his hair is shorter now. While he says he’s done this before he is really after the guy. He wants to orally please him to complete ecstasy. Oh, he smokes and is “physically challenged”. To me he looks like a creepy serial murderer.
  • He’s 28 and from Alexandria and his birthday is Sunday. His Latina girlfriend will be his slave for the day as his birthday present. What he wants to do is tie her up naked on the bed and let men come over and jerk off all over her. Apparently this does not include penetration or any oral sex. You can see head and crotch shots of her at the link. The younger the better but you must be at least seven inches and in shape to take advantage of this opportunity.
  • This 23-year-old guy is into female nerds, presumably the type that watch Third Rock from the Sun. He’s looking for freckles, braces and glasses and wants all three but will settle for less. Curiously one thing he is not explicitly looking for is sex. Now that’s kinky!
  • This submissive bottom transgender’s ad is nothing special, but the little white ball hanging off the back of his/her panties certainly is odd. He’s 38 and lives in South Arlington and, of course, is looking for a man.
  • Men don’t get to have all the kinky fun on Craigslist. Women can let their hair down too, as in this woman for multiple women ad proves. She’s a 30-year-old woman who is hosting a women only party tomorrow. You can be hetero, bi or a lesbian, it doesn’t matter, but you should come prepared to let your hair down. From the posted pictures also be prepared to let most of your clothes down as well. The fun starts at 8 p.m. and lasts until 1 a.m. If you are a woman in a hurry and are looking for just one woman tonight and are between 25-40, hit this size 18 up!
  • She’s 32, lives in Vienna and looks great with soapy water running down her ass. She is also married but that doesn’t seem to be an issue if you want to be intimate with her, providing you are a dominant black man six foot or taller and 35+.
  • Here’s a new way to get women’s attention: lure them with the promise of naked yoga. A few problems: he’s 40, married and new to yoga. Be prepared to dial 911 when he breaks a hamstring.
  • If you are gay and into deciphering a very hard to understand post full of acronyms, partially spelled words and lots of odd punctuation, this 51-year-old old coot from Fort Hunt may be just what you need tonight. Clearly, he won’t be winning any spelling bees.
  • If I were part of a couple into swinging with other couples and about twenty years younger, I’d definitely run, not walk, for the opportunity to hook up with the female half of this couple from Arlington. She’s Asian, has long flowing hair and breasts of someone half her age. In fact, I may need to go take a cold shower! If you can’t find the ad don’t worry as apparently it was posted twice.
  • All right, 35-year-old guy from Sterling! Four ads about your desire to give a woman oral sex (and get yourself a FWB) are enough! Most likely you still won’t get any legitimate responses.
  • Submissive ladies, why have one master when you can have two? Actually, it’s one master (49) and one mistress (29) and you can look forward to bondage, humiliation, pain and more humiliation. They are waiting for your worthless reply.
  • I had no idea what “manscaping” was until I read this ad from a 44-year-old guy near Fair Oaks Mall. Apparently it involves razors and shaving cream and it’s something men do to other men. I’ll pass, thanks.
  • Here’s something odd: a couple looking for a woman, but only to take photos of them nude.
  • One of the kinks out there I will never get is urinating into someone’s mouth. Here’s a 28-year-old guy from Arlington (warning: explicit picture) looking for a guy to do this to him.

If the above looks pretty kinky or bizarre to you, you don’t hang out on Craigslist regularly. This is pretty pedestrian stuff. Let’s see if I find something weirder next month.

 
The Thinker

What should marriage mean anyhow?

Barring a surprise from the Supreme Court later this year, it is likely that same sex marriage will be legal throughout the entire United States by the end of 2015. This train seems unstoppable. Thirty-five states now permit gay marriage. There are lawsuits by litigants protesting bans in all the remaining states. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does allow states to ban gay marriages, it probably won’t allow states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. This would effectively mean that the only extra cost for same sex couples wanting to get married would be to go to a state that does recognize same sex marriage and marry there, presumably a minor inconvenience. Here in Virginia, which still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage that was subsequently voided by decisions by federal courts, I noticed that the state’s tax forms this year includes changes that allow married same sex couples to file as a married couple. This is progress!

Mostly absent from the same sex marriage discussion is what does it mean to be married. Those of us who are married have already figured this out: it means exactly what the two people involved in the marriage want it to mean. If, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, you interpret your marriage contract to mean you cannot sit on a sofa with any adult woman other than your wife, go for it. Similarly, if you and your spouse want to have a completely open marriage where either of you can screw whoever you want whenever you want (with presumably the requirement to inform your spouse first) it can be this as well. In fact, a marriage can be anything the two in the marriage agree it will be, and even stuff they don’t agree it will be if it is tacitly permitted. It ends with a legal divorce. Thankfully, there is no requirement for a marriage inspector to pay periodic visits to determine that you are being monogamous or that you actually live together. This is in effect what marriage has always meant, at least here in the United States for the last hundred years or so.

What should the meaning of marriage be? In some respects the question is hypothetical because what it should be and what it actually is for a couple are often two different things. There are two aspects to this question. First, it should mean whatever it means to the couple based on their agreement or expectations going into the marriage. Hopefully, they will have had many long conversations about this before they tie the knot, ideally facilitated through premarital counseling. Both of them should have a common understanding. Ideally, it would be written down somewhere so that either can refer to it, or to renegotiate the terms from time to time. Many couples choose to have prenuptial agreements that give the force of law to certain aspects of their marriage.

The other aspect is what should the meaning of marriage be to civil society at large? As same sex marriage opponents like to point out, traditionally marriage existed to provide a legal framework for children to be raised. Before looking at what is should be, let’s look at what marriage is for society.

At least here in the United States, marriage offers no particular tax advantages. In fact most married couple discover they pay more taxes as a married couple than they did as two single people combined. You can claim your children as dependents, providing you actually pay for their care. However, you can take this claim outside the framework of marriage if you pay support for pretty much anyone who is your legal dependent. There are legal privileges to being married, and they vary from state to state. For example, if you are married you are generally assumed to be the first “next of kin”. There are also contractual obligations that come with marriage. In most cases you are libel for debts incurred by your spouse.

There are certain financial advantages to marriage as well. Health insurance may be cheaper if procured for a couple instead of individually. The biggest financial advantage of marriage probably comes from sharing housing. It’s much cheaper for two people to inhabit one household than for two people to maintain separate households. Two unmarried people can of course “shack up” and achieve similar savings, if the zoning allows this, but with less likelihood that these savings could be sustained over many years.

But what should marriage mean to society at large? As with the people in a marriage, it will mean whatever government thinks it should mean. Of course, society’s expectations for marriage often vary widely from the actual consequences of marriage. This is borne out in divorce and domestic abuse statistics. Society should expect that married couples will have nurturing and healthy relationships, and because of this it will make society in general better. Society should expect that due to marriage, children of married couples should be happier and healthier than children raised in a single parent household. Crime rates for these households should be lower. Of course, at best the empirical data to support all this is mixed, although there is good evidence that crime rates are lower in general in communities where people own their homes compared to rental communities. In general though the expectation is that marriage should promote societal harmony and prosperity. This does imply though that society would be less of these if no one ever married. I doubt this argument could be empirically validated either. A lot of people get married thinking they will be happier. When they try it they often find out they were happier as singles. In truth, living with the same person for many years is more often harder than easy, at least compared with who you were before the marriage.

For me, I think that marriage should mean that two people are happier living together than apart; otherwise there is no point to being married. For society, if it actually promotes societal harmony then marriage should enjoy legal protections. The evidence here is mixed, to say the least. I don’t believe that the state should give special privileges to married couples, such as tax breaks, because it discriminates against single people. However, I see nothing wrong with society sanctioning marriage because it allows two people to have greater happiness. We formed the United States in part to allow each person to pursue happiness. If civil marriage can facilitate a sense of intimacy and closeness between two people, it’s a worthy thing for government to sanction.

Beyond that marriage should mean very little to society at large, the same way that my neighbor five doors down’s marriage means little to me personally. In short, I think marriage should mean a great deal to those who are married. For the most part though marriage should mean a lot less to society at large than we ascribe to it. Those obsessing about it should just take a chill pill.

 
The Thinker

Double feature

Seeing double? I am, after seeing two movies in two days. Here are capsule reviews:

Selma

Having seen two of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture this year (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), it’s not hard to understand how the director and producers of Selma would feel overlooked for not having their film at least nominated. Some say that it is due to racism: when whites are largely responsible for nominating films, they tend to nominate films starring whites. But then again, it was only last year that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Whether or not it deserved a nomination, Selma is definitely worth seeing and certainly feels on par with the nominated films. Then again, any film about Martin Luther King during the height of the civil rights movement, if made really well, would make a compelling movie. Director Ava DuVernay certainly delivers the goods with the help of a cast of thousands (at least in some of the protest scenes), but principally with David Oyelowo as King and Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta Scott King.

The movie had to be made with a lot of funding from African Americans instead of traditional sources, which some attribute to discrimination. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper but also owns Harpo Productions. Her company doubtlessly paid for a large part of the film’s costs, since it shows up in the opening credits. The producers’ struggle to make the movie was doubtlessly easier than King’s struggles in and around Selma, Alabama in February and March 1965, which is the focus of the movie.

In a way this movie is a brave portrait of King, since it does not shy away from King’s alleged infidelities. It is not like his mistresses are in your face, but it is alluded to in a very grownup discussion between King and Coretta. It’s hard to see how King could find time to fool around, but it is clear that he was both great and flawed, which seems to be true of all our great heroes. Also flawed is the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Very early in the movie, he is portrayed as wanting to punt on the Civil Rights Act in favor of more achievable goals. This is factually incorrect. Someday Hollywood will give Johnson his own movie because he is an interesting character, just not a particularly telegenic one. Selma does make clear that Johnson was a pivotal character in the civil rights struggle. Arguably, only Johnson had the power to get the Civil Rights bill passed, as his southern credentials (as well as his overwhelmingly Democratic congress) gave him the mojo to do this. Few blacks could actually vote in the south due to poll taxes and unreasonable voter registration requirements. This is the focus of the movie and the stage is Selma.

What Selma does brilliantly is connect us with the extreme discrimination and oppression in the south at this time. Your heart will race during many of these pivotal scenes. The focus of the movie is the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by principally black protestors. These events are now fifty years in our past and thus beyond the memory of most Americans. The movie makes it easy to run back the clock and to understand the extraordinary bravery exercised by blacks (and some whites) back then.

King’s portrayal is thus nuanced, which make him plausible instead of glorified. Along the way we get a host of characters, some best forgotten like Alabama Governor George Wallace, and some we should remember more than we do, like Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. Like it or not you will get a close encounter with our nation’s ugliest side but you will also get a sense for the power of faith in action. King will bring down the walls of Jericho with the help of a lot of dedicated and very brave people. You should get an appreciation for King’s strategic and tactical strengths, and his ability to outthink his opponents. Short of being a reptile, you should be very moved by this movie.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Lucy

Lucy is another movie that really deserved an academy award nomination. It will unfortunately receive nothing from the Oscars this year because it was not nominated for anything. Interstellar will probably win any awards issued this year for a science fiction movie, but really Lucy is the better science fiction movie. In my humble opinion, it’s the most mind-blowing movie in this genre since The Matrix.

And yet of course there are parts of this movie that strain credulity, with its premise being the biggest one. Morgan Freeman plays a professor that ponders what humans would be like if we could use more than ten percent of our brain. This is a lot of silliness, as we do use all of our brain, but perhaps not with 100% efficiency. Lucy (Scarlet Johannson) gets to find out when she unwittingly becomes a drug courier for a very special drug, reputedly a chemical created during pregnancy that stimulates creativity in the fetus. In higher doses Lucy will discover it will let her use 100% of her brain, and this leads to all sorts of magical powers and incredible abilities to use her brain and process information and discern truth. The bad men in Taiwan who put the drug into her body (and a number of other couriers) must take commercial flights with the 500 grams placed in a pouch sewed up inside their bodies. Some very well moneyed clients are waiting, which means that Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) and his well dressed and well armed henchmen won’t let anything go wrong, and are willing to kill lots of people to make it happen. Lucy, once she is transformed by the massive drug overdose, wreaks her own revenge while trying to make use of her abilities to save her knowledge for mankind, while also certain that she will die soon from the cell replication the process spawns.

Johannson is a great actor and gives us a riveting performance as Lucy, while the director Luc Besson makes sure lots of people get killed in and around her for those of us who demand action, blood and gore. Lucy is not afraid to kill either, and with her new precognition she really can’t be beat. But things really get freaky as she uses more and more of her brain and starts to have supernatural and then god-like abilities. But can the knowledge she acquired be passed on before she dies, particularly when so many people want her dead?

This is a terrific movie for any science fiction fan plus you get tons of cool special effects to enjoy too. I’m frankly baffled why it wasn’t nominated for anything and why it wasn’t rated higher by reviewers. It’s a great film, the sort of movie where when you leave the theater you definitely feel you have been taken someplace new. And a bonus: Johansson can act. I can’t say the same about Keanu Reeves (Neo) in The Matrix.

3.4 out of four stars too! What a great double feature!

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

A taxing situation for Intuit and TurboTax

Corporations of course are out to make money, but surely one of the first things you should learn when you study for an MBA is not to antagonize your loyal and profitable customers. TurboTax is by far the largest selling income tax software out there, in part because it was the first to market. I remember you could buy TurboTax for MS-DOS back in the 1980s. TurboTax apparently decided to screw the pooch this tax season by deprecating a lot of features in its TurboTax Basic and Deluxe versions that have always came with the price.

It sure was a shock for me when I got down to the part of our form 1040 where I report self-employment income and it politely informed me to pony up an extra $40. It also wanted me to pony up $35 to create a Schedule D. (I wasn’t sure I needed to, but we did convert some stocks to cash last year.) My reaction was unprintable but I can give its acronym: WTF???

I sat in my chair kind of dumfounded. Basically, the $39.99 TurboTax Deluxe software I bought was unusable to me. Even if I downloaded the self-employment income forms from the IRS and filled them out myself, there was no way to integrate the numbers into TurboTax Deluxe to calculate the correct refund. I either had to give them $40 more or buy some other tax software. This was after having invested a few hours already putting in much of our income into it.

Okay, caveat emptor. I could have read the box carefully before buying it. But after twenty years or more of using tax software and with the features of each version never changing, I just picked up the box at my local Costco and threw it into my shopping cart assuming nothing had changed. (That was the first mistake. I bought a CD and my new iMac doesn’t have a CD drive. So I had to call TurboTax and download a version of it. Curiously, they never asked me to prove I had bought it. I guess this is one way to get a copy of it free, if you are unscrupulous.) My mistake though was completely understandable because it never occurred to me that a company with a reputation like Intuit would do such a brain-dead thing. Maybe they could have named it TurboTax Deluxe Lite or something, to clue us in. You don’t often see a company screwing the pooch, and this was more than just screwing one pooch. It was screwing a whole kennel full of them!

The firestorm on social media has been unforgiving. However, when one company chooses folly, smarter and more agile companies try to move in for the kill. H&R Block quickly figured out this was the way for them to earn some new loyal customers and market share, at TurboTax’s expense. H&R Block has always been Pepsi to TurboTax’s Coke. I suspect a lot of TurboTax customers had no idea H&R Block even sold tax software, so automatic is it for them to reach for the TurboTax box. They do, although until a few years ago their software was simply known as TaxCut. Most of the time I used H&R Block tax software, but I like to vary the software I use, as the price tends to be the same. Last year I tried an online solution, taxslayer.com. It was okay, but I noticed it missed a few things, so I decided to give it a pass this year, even though overall it cut my tax software costs in half. For those of you with simpler needs, you might want to give it a try.

H&R Block at least knows how to be agile. All you have to do is prove that you purchased TurboTax Basic or Deluxe and you can download a copy of their version for free. (It takes a couple of days to get the link to the software.) Accept their generous offer and guess whose tax software you are likely to buy next year, especially when TurboTax filers discover there is no big difference between the two, but H&R Block doesn’t screw its customers? I’m sure one of the first things they will do (after giving you the software for free) is collect your email address and remind you next year to buy their software.

Anyhow, Intuit CEO Brad Smith (Intuit also makes Quicken, which I use) finally figured out that he made a catastrophically stupid mistake. He is promising that customers with these versions won’t have to pay to upgrade, although Intuit is not agile enough to figure out how to do this quickly. Meanwhile, those customers that did pay extra for features that used to come with the product can apply for a $25 rebate, which is $15 less than the cost of the upgrade. Presumably the rest of it will come in time. You can see an amusing and self-deprecating 3:28 video of Mr. Smith saying he’s sorry here.

CEOs of course are responsible to shareholders, and doubtless he was trying to meet their expectations for increased profits. It all made sense on paper; it just failed the common sense test. What’s amazing is that he did not figure this out until after his mistake. I have a hard time believing his underlings did not question his decision.

For voyeurs of business mistakes, this is a whopper. For me, it not only pissed me off but eventually amused me too. There has been a dearth of philandering politicians to criticize lately. In the annals of bad business mistakes there have certainly been worse things, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which soiled British Petroleum’s reputation and much of the Gulf of Mexico not to mention it also killed millions of animals. There was also Dow Chemical’s 1984 Bhopal Disaster, which killed 3,787 people in Bhopal, India and exposed more than half a million Indians to methyl isocyanate. Both of these incidents were preventable too, but not as obviously preventable as this public relations disaster by Intuit. All it required was to put customers first.

I got to say, Intuit had it coming.

 

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