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The Thinker

Following the leader

Oh good, I’m not the only one horribly alarmed by Donald Trump. Actually there are plenty of us, including the editorial staffs of The New York Times and The Washington Post. It shouldn’t take much to feel very alarmed if you actually listen to what Trump has to say. He asserts wild claims as facts that are wholly untrue; such as thousands of Muslims in America were cheering when the Twin Towers went down on 9/11. If that weren’t enough, he is now openly racist. This should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to him. Trump is one of the earliest to claim that Obama was not born in the United States. Now when members of his overwhelmingly white audiences beat up Black Lives Matters protestors at his rallies, he encourages their lawlessness by saying that maybe protestors had it coming. He wants more waterboarding of terrorist suspects, and wants to surveil American Muslims and mosques.

Normally competing candidates would distance themselves from such wild remarks. With one exception though the remaining Republican candidates seem to be busy following the leader, moving sharply to the right on most of these issues and at best offering nuanced differences between themselves and Trump. I had thought for a long time that the Republican Party was a racist party. Research now proves me right. Some will doubtless point out the success of some black candidates like Ben Carson as proof that the party is not racist. However, when a Carson or Herman Cain comes along they only “succeed” when they parrot principles that keep members of their own race from succeeding. In short, if a black candidate in the Republican Party is stupid enough to say stuff that amounts to “let the beatings on us continue” then the party is happy to let them in.

Still, it’s very discouraging to realize that the Republican Party is basically about maintaining white privilege at all costs. This is after all the party that succeeded in freeing the slaves. Republicans talk all about their party being for an opportunity society while giving those without opportunity fewer means to climb the ladder. In fact, they work actively to remove rungs from that ladder. They actively disenfranchise voters likely to vote for candidates they don’t like. Most red states won’t extend the Medicaid franchise to the working poor (which includes lots of whites). With Medicaid there is some semblance of a floor under their feet that might allow them to get to the next rung. They actively whip up the poorer white folk to work against their own interests. Kentucky governor-elect Matt Bevin won office principally from votes from poor white Kentuckians who are likely to have their new Medicaid benefits (under a KyNect program umbrella) removed. It’s so sad to see these racial levers pushed because it depends on selling poor white people on the notion that they may be poor but are “better” than their darker poor neighbors because they don’t get help from the government, help they desperately need simply to survive.

In any event Trump has moved from carnival barker to pied piper. If the Republican Party were a church, a great revival would be underway, the parishioners would be dancing in the pews and more than a few would be talking in tongues. Trump has effectively hypnotized his own party and has whipped them into a frenzy. He is counting on this of course, because enthusiastic voters vote disproportionately and he will need an overwhelming white vote and a lackluster Democratic vote to win the presidency. The nightmare for most of us is imagining how a President Trump would actually govern. One would hope he would quickly sober up, but there is little likelihood of that. This is because he shows no signs that he actually believes and respects the constitution and laws of the United States.

Trump is an egomaniac. He believes himself not only gifted but also faultless. Of course he is the only person savvy enough to navigate us through these turbulent times, in spite of his many failed marriages and four bankruptcies. He has many of us hypnotized. Since civics is rarely taught anymore he has many of us believing that he could actually do things like building a wall along the Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it. The real danger is that he will do by fiat the stuff he says he will do, which will be against the law. However, he will be counting on the American people to stand by his lawlessness. In short he is showing every sign of being a fascist: an American Mussolini. His tendency to double down suggests that he believes the end justifies the means.

Is there a sane Republican on the debate stage? The lone sane one remaining is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who recently released a damning video on Trump. Due to his poor fundraising it will largely be ignored. What should a sane Republican do? Since Republicans supposedly stand on principle, those who have any left should bail. Perhaps John Kasich and Jim Webb could form a party for sane moderates. There are Republican candidates who if they showed spine could also set an example by leaving. You know most of the candidates on stage don’t believe half the crap they are spouting, including Trump who is more about the end than the means. It’s largely Trump’s presence that has them saying such weird anti-immigrant stuff.

I study American history and frankly I can’t think of a time in our history quite as dangerous today. Our constitutional government is seriously threatened by a Trump presidency. Trump is showing that he has neither morals nor scruples and will do or say anything that will get him nominated. Polls seem to be bearing this out. Democrats will nominate someone sane, but they will need someone sane but passionate to close the enthusiasm gap. Hillary Clinton is not that candidate. However, Bernie Sanders is.

The 2016 election will be an enthusiasm election. Whichever side has more of it will win. Traditionally you could count on the American people to act rationally, but not this time. Which leaves me (an agnostic) considering prayer. Pray for our country.

The Thinker

Searching for daylight

Moving to a new state brings a lot of changes. When you do it for pleasure like we did they should be mostly good. In April we moved from Northern Virginia to Western Massachusetts. Life is definitely slower here, but what’s not slower is the traffic. It generally moves. There are a few predictable choke points. It’s mildly annoying when it happens, but is not one hundredth as annoying as traffic in and around Washington D.C. The good: we now live in a city with a small town feel but with a vibrant downtown and liberal values. Republicans don’t generally even try to run for office around here. Bernie Sanders posters are everywhere.

But invariably there are certain things you miss, some that you did not quite expect. I thought I would miss the ethnic diversity of the Washington area but it’s quite diverse around here too. D.C. is very much a happening sort of city (as evidenced by its traffic) with a general level of affluence not seen around here. Unquestionably D.C. has a much better arts scene, although there is a surprising amount in this area.

One I did not expect to miss was daylight. Moving to Massachusetts meant moving 3.5 degrees north in latitude and 4.7 degrees east in longitude. You wouldn’t think it would make that much a difference in the amount of daylight, but it does. It’s not even Thanksgiving but by 5 p.m. it is already pitch dark here. In fact, the sun is already close to the horizon around 3 p.m. Sunset is this afternoon at 4:24 p.m. The sun rose here at 6:49 a.m. Our earliest sunset starts December 7 at 4:18 p.m. with our latest sunrise arriving December 31 at 7:19 a.m. As you might expect the shortest day is at the start of winter, when we get 9:06 of daylight.

These sorts of short days were not unknown to me. For the first fifteen years of my life I lived in upstate New York at about the same latitude. So I knew what I was getting into by moving north again. After 37 years of living in the mid Atlantic I was used to going home from work when there was still daylight out. The sun may have been setting, but you could still see. For comparison the sun sets in Washington D.C. today at 4:50 p.m. and rose at 6:58 a.m. So it has 9:51 of daylight, whereas we have 9:35.

Strangely enough, it makes quite a difference. The shortest day in Washington D.C is 9:26. (If these sorts of statistics interest you, you might like this site.) In short, in moving I lost twenty minutes of daylight in the winter and because we are further east the sun sets sooner. As a result I am starting to think of daylight as a precious commodity.

The good part is that since we are retired it doesn’t matter as much. If I were still working and living here I’d likely be driving to work in the dark and returning in the dark as well too. I now rise between 7:30 and 8 AM when daylight is just establishing itself. A typical day as a retiree involves a little work, a few chores and daily exercise. Exercise consumes at least an hour and I prefer to do it outside while it is still daylight. As a practical matter this means I have to start exercise no later than 2 p.m. because by 3:30 p.m. it’s already getting dark, with the sun hanging low in the sky. On overcast days like today the streetlights are on around 4 p.m. as clouds drain what little daylight there is. It also means that daylight is slow to emerge. This effectively shortens my period for enjoying the outdoors to about six hours a day.

Part of this problem is manmade. We arbitrarily divide the world into time zones, generally each an hour apart. Washington D.C. is toward the middle of the Eastern Time Zone, so the time of day feels natural year round. Here, an our or so west of Boston, we are not too far from the eastern edge of the time zone boundary. Effectively, I could enjoy more daylight if I would get up sooner.

Oddly enough, I am feeling this pull. I’ve never been a naturally early riser but now I am thinking I should get up around 7 a.m. so I can enjoy the daylight while it lasts. Sunny days are nice but they feel rushed through. With the sun not too far from the horizon all day the sun tends to stream in through the southern windows, making rooms blinding at times. My office faces south. On sunny days late in the year it is too much. I draw my translucent blinds, allowing light in but keeping the sun from shining directly in my face.

Without the bright city lights we were used too, night here feels deeper, darker and a bit foreboding. Streetlights are few. We live in a community where there is usually one bear sighting a year here, generally at the top of our hill. We were the lucky recipients this year when two teenage bears looking several hundred pounds each ambled through our tiny backyard, then across the street right in front of some men running construction equipment. Bears in the light can also be around in the dark of course. These bears are pretty massive. I’m quite sure a sufficiently motivated bear could break into our house through a window. The plentiful darkness raises these fears in my mind.

I don’t feel like I have a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t feel depressed by the longer nights. In a way these shorter days and longer and darker nights are neat. When the skies are clear the skies are amazing! We are fortunate to be away from the city enough to appreciate real dark. No wonder solstice was such a big deal to our ancestors. It’s this that probably makes the daylight feel more precious to me, and which makes me want to get up with the sun and busily engage the world while I can.

The Thinker

Open season on a fixed income

It’s open season time and you know what that means. For most of us it means not bothering to take the time to see if there is a better medical, dental or vision plan out there. And by “us” I definitely mean “me”, at least until this year. Although I retired in 2014, I was working for most of it so it was easy to go on autopilot in 2015.

This year though I am fully retired and living on perhaps seventy percent of my previous income. This year although our expenses have gone up, for some reason my fully indexed cost of living pension won’t be, a factor somehow of falling gas prices. I’m not alone. Lots of pensioners and social security recipients feel like they have been cheated. The problem is that the official cost of living index is bogus. While I might spend a couple of hundred dollars less in gasoline this year than I did last year, food prices have gone up and eating is not optional. If prices are holding steady, the word hasn’t gone out to my city. The real estate assessment was $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed value this year. In 2016 it jumps to $16.16. Moreover I just bought a new house for about $486,000 but it’s been assessed at $500,000. This means we need to pay $401 more just in property taxes yet with no increase in income.

So value is becoming more important. We’ve been on Blue Cross for more than a decade, but Blue Cross too is tightening the screws. With no changes we would pay over $650 a year more in premiums. Copays have been increased as well, up $5 each for primary care and specialists. We (my wife in particular) see lots of doctors. It’s not hard to rack up a hundred visits between the two of us per year. We could easily spend another $1000 a year on health costs next year for no increase in services. We would have to do this with no cost of living raise.

Thus I felt I no longer had the luxury of inertia. As I started to examine my options, I quickly realized why I had punted all these years. It’s because while choice is good in theory when it comes to health insurance it is mind-numbingly exasperating and time consuming. It’s something of a crap shoot as to which plan offers you the best value, since you have no way of knowing how much care you will actually need. About all you can do is use past years as a benchmark, and that means analyzing all your health expenditures. (Note: if you are a federal employee, federal annuitant or survivor of either, Checkbook has a useful guide that costs less than $10 that can help a lot.)

Since I spent a day just analyzing health insurance options, it’s a good thing I am retired. I doubt I would have this sort of leisure if I were still working. I had to sift through the details of all the various plans and see if I could find some magic combination that is not overly expensive, rated reasonably well and with most of our doctors “in network”. I had to analyze premiums, deductibles, copays, limitations on types of services, and which of our doctors were on each plan. I’m still not entirely clear which plan offers the best value, but it’s pretty clear it’s no longer Blue Cross.

I can also change my dental insurance and add vision insurance during open season. I already have a long term care policy, but no insurer would insure my wife so when that time comes we’ll have to depend on savings. Which opens up another can of worms that retirees have to grapple with. If you have some major and unplanned costs, where do you get the money?

Since we recently settled on a house a lot of our reserves have gone to pay lawyers and other busybodies. We’re hardly without savings but if I had to put my hands on $75,000 or so in cash it would be a challenge. A 401-K or IRA is not like a faucet that you turn on and off at whim. You generally get just a one chance a year change to adjust the spigot – during open season.

We supplement my pension with a modest monthly withdrawal from my 401K. On the advice of my financial adviser, I’m limiting withdrawals to 3% of the portfolio. This will in theory keep our nest egg secure, not growing in value (over inflation) but not losing value either. I can up the withdrawals to say 4% and slowly build up cash reserves at the expense of paying more income taxes and a smaller portfolio. I can hope no major expenses like this happen. I can get another home equity loan and use that when needed, but that money certainly won’t be free. The other alternative is to get another job, something I’d prefer to avoid since leisure is the whole point of retirement.

Since when you are retired you can’t easily change your income and expenses are hard to control sober retirees have to look forward a lot. Our new house is nice but like every other house it will move toward decay. We’ll eventually need money to replace the air conditioner, roof and buy cars when the old ones expire. This didn’t used to be a problem. I had enough income where I could pay for most of these expenses out of pocket or from our savings account. Now I have to anticipate them.

Unable to think of a better strategy, I looked at what these expenses cost us before. I made some realistic estimate of when these expenses would hit and what they might cost then with inflation. So I’m setting aside some of our income to draw from for these expenses in the future. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a start. It’s also sobering. I’ve created a car replacement fund assuming we’ll buy two cars for $25,000 each in today’s dollars, one in 2019 and one in 2023. To reach the goal I must place $481 of our income monthly into an escrow account. Similarly for all these future house expenses, I’ve created a capital fund. If my numbers are accurate, $343 a month set aside for these expenses should cover them.

All this is well and good but it leaves less money to actually enjoy your retirement particularly when your expenses go up when the government says they haven’t. Which is why I’m reluctantly becoming value-driven in retirement. Every expense needs a second look, including our health care costs. So I need to shop around.

As for health insurance, since I am an ex-federal employee I’ll probably bid adieu to trusty but expensive Blue Cross and say hello to the National Association of Letter Carrier’s plan instead. Lower premiums, lower deductibles, similar services and a reasonably good choice of doctors will probably go a long way to keeping these expenses unchanged in 2016. We’ll see. If not I’ll be crunching the numbers again in a year at the next open season.

Health insurance in the United States is needlessly complex. If there must be competition then the government should require that all plans offer the same services so we could shop around more easily. Or perhaps we could do what every other first world country does: create a national health care system. Then instead of figuring out how much health you can afford you could simply get the care you need instead. Sign me up for that!

The Thinker

The roots of terrorism

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

The Thinker

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #2

Gone were the two pretend candidates. After the first debate Jim Webb figured out he was too mainstream to run as a Democrat this time around, sort of like the way John Kasich is figuring out no one wants to hear him because he talks common sense. Lincoln Chaffee, a former Republican himself like Webb, got in the first debate mainly because he could, but wisely realized he was getting zero traction and the longer he stayed in the sillier it made him look, so he also dropped out. Which left former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as something of the odd person out in this second Democratic presidential debate from Iowa last night.

Like the first debate it was civilized and sober, a marked contrast to the freewheeling feel that often accompanies the Republican presidential debates. This debate though did get a bit heated from time to time, in part because the CBS moderators prodded the candidates. In one case Bernie Sanders did not rise to the bait when asked about a remark he made on Clinton’s emails. Clinton though felt it was okay to take a jab at Bernie on gun control, casting his votes against certain gun control votes to hers in favor. It put Sanders in something of a vise, because he voted the way his rural constituents wanted. Sanders though could land a little jab at Clinton by focusing on her catering to big banks, which she attributed to a natural reaction following September 11 when lower Manhattan had suffered such devastation. The logic was stretched, to say the least.

Sanders at least had authenticity on his side, but it didn’t seem to matter much. He pointed out that Clinton took money from PACs, while his campaign was PAC-free, and thus not tainted. The reason it didn’t help much is because Clinton is now a seasoned debater and not easily ruffled on the stage. And Democrats would be happy to have any of the three debaters as their party’s nominee. The debate was a bit sharper and at times heated, but I doubt it changed anyone’s preferences except possibly Martin O’Malley will get a modest bump with a solid and polished debate performance.

The terrorist incidents in Paris that killed 129 people on Friday of course were discussed at the start of the debate. The candidates agreed that terrorism like this was not the responsibility of America to solve alone, but generally was something on which America should lead. Sanders rightly pointed out that most of these sorts of wars come back to bite us. O’Malley got a gotcha question when asked if he could point to experience that would show he could handle complex international incidents like this. No governor of course would have this sort of experience so it was pointless to ask.

Sanders struck me as a little more grounded. In discussing terrorism, he argued that climate change was fueling terrorism. This is true in Syria, where a long-term drought is likely a result of climate change and feeding instability there. Unquestionably as the climate changes there will be more instability and mass migrations, and the latter will feed the former. Sanders was also correct in his analysis that the Defense Department’s priorities were pretty screwed up, with most of it going to maintain an inefficient infrastructure designed to address 20th century military problems, and comparatively little going to address terrorism itself. All candidates walked a fine line on immigration but unanimously agreed that Islam itself was not a problem, only those perverting it. There was none of the xenophobia against immigrants we saw in all the Republican debates so far.

All want to make college more affordable but Clinton wants to make is so students and parents are stakeholders. This effectively meant that she does not want a wholly free college education for our students. No one addressed the larger issue: with so many failing schools, fewer students are graduating with the skills to tackle college. A holistic educational solution is needed. Charter schools are probably contributing to the problem, as profit-driven schools have no incentive to keep poorer performing students.Overall O’Malley did well, but not enough to make him look unique or to offer a compelling reason to vote for him over Clinton or Sanders. Democrats are blessed with seasoned debaters as candidates, so if there are no major gaffes, the dynamics are unlikely to change. In this sense these debates aren’t particularly helpful for candidates gaining more popularity. I don’t expect much change in the polling in the weeks ahead.

Kudos to CBS News for live streaming the debate for all.

The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: November 2015 edition

Last month I surveyed the casual encounters weirdness scene in and around Albany, New York and found much there to highlight for us fine purveyors of smutty ads. Today I am going back to Hartford, Connecticut to see if anything has changed there.

But first here are some statistics. My blog received at least 182 web page views on my Craigslist posts in October, about twenty more than last month but still not impressive. At least 19 of these were for the Albany post so it probably behooves me to look around at neighboring cities to increase traffic and just for variety. I got 1623 web hits for the month, so that’s about 11 percent of the web traffic.

This Friday evening on the first page of posts I find:

  • 33 men looking for women
  • 41 men looking for men
  • 7 men looking for a couple
  • 6 men looking for a transgender
  • 12 women looking for a man
  • 0 women looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for a couple
  • 0 couples looking for a woman
  • 3 couples looking for a man
  • 1 transgender looking for man
  • 1 transgender looking for a transgender

Let’s see if we can find some choice postings:

  • She’s 25 and from Hartford and she wants to be used, abused and name-called. Being married is not a problem, but small dicks are. She’ll try anal sex if you know how to do it. Hint: it involves inserting the penis into the rectum. Meanwhile in New Britain is a 24-year-old woman who wants to turn the tables: she will “peg” you (a guy) with her strap on but you have to host.
  • Take pity on a soldier two days after Veterans Day. This man is on active duty and from his picture looks like he in somewhere in the Muslim world, probably Afghanistan. He wants to chat with a woman and wants to know what you would do with a soldier. I’m guessing it’s not practicing salutes.
  • She’s 27 and wants to take your virginity. All men should apply because what do you have to lose? How can she possibly tell?
  • Is he hetero or gay? Maybe he swings both ways. Whatever, he’s a 45-year-old redhead in Berlin at a hotel off the turnpike and he’s horny enough take either gender.
  • There are not many women willing to lick your asshole, but there is at least this 34-year-old woman.
  • He wants a kinky and dominant woman, and you can wax him if that’s your thing or even dress him up. Sounds like he wants to be someone’s cuckold, but most likely he will strike out again this evening as usual.
  • She’s 31, very shapely and looking for a few good men. And by “good” she means well hung and willing to gangbang her.
  • This black dude says it’s his last time posting but I’ll bet you’ll see his cock again in a future ad.
  • You don’t see this every day: he’s searching for his pimp.
  • This 47-year-old man is offering free oral service to women. You can visit him or he can deliver. If he’s good, put him on your speed dial.
  • It helps to know Spanish to know this couple from New Britain is age 50+ but they are looking for a man to orally service both of them. It’s unclear if either or both will return the favor.
  • This gay 45-year-old white guy from Enfield is looking for a gay black guy for “chocolate milk”. He may be disappointed when he finds out he’s only going to get vanilla.
  • Guys, you can submit to two women at once with these two dominatrix girls.
  • This 55-year-old man from Hartford is basically looking for a kinky Dr. Marcus Welby. He doesn’t need a real physician but it would help to have a white lab coat and stethoscope. In a similar vein, this mature white couple from Bloomfield is looking to use a real OBGYN table for some kinky fun and need your help. It’s unclear if you can watch.
  • He’s 69, heavy, apparently gay, married and from Somers and wants to meet up with a man for some relief. I’m guessing the missus is done with sex.
  • He’s 39, from Manchester, wearing his wife’s pantyhose and wants to meet a guy who will blow him while he wears the nylons. I’m guessing his wife will wonder how the pair got so soiled and stretched.
  • Men, you don’t need to get her plastered to screw her: she’s already drunk and waiting.

More next month.

The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

Crimson Peak

Whoever Mia Wasikowska is, she is luminous as Edith Cushing in Guillermo del Toro’s new movie Crimson Peak. She is the sort of actress that when the camera is not trained on her you wish it would move back and frame her. She may be an Aussie but she mastered American English in this role as the daughter of a Buffalo, New York magnate. She doesn’t have long to hang around Buffalo though once Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) trains his eye on her. Neither will her father, but I won’t get into that detail and spoil the plot.

Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) knock on Edith’s father’s door in search of capital, of the green kind. You see back in England at Allerdale Hall the brother and sister now run the family estate atop a hill of rich red clay. Thomas is perfecting an invention that will efficiently mine and process his clay, but has run out of money. When he can’t figure out a way to borrow the money from Edith’s dad (played by Jim Beaver) his only alternative is to marry his way into it. Edith’s dad Carter instinctively dislikes Thomas, so no nuptials or even dates with his daughter seem likely. It seems even less likely after Edith sees her mother’s ghost, rendered with the impressively creepy special effects we come to expect from del Toro, who warns her not to go to this place called Crimson Peak.

Ah, but you know the plot. Edith and Thomas quickly fall in love anyhow and she and her father’s fortune move to Allerdale Hall. The Gothic hall is in an advanced state of decay, so much so that much of the roof is missing. It’s not until she arrives as the new Mrs. Sharp that she realizes the decrepit place built on red clay is actually known locally as Crimson Peak, but by then it’s too late to run for home or from the ghost of Thomas and Lucille’s mother that inhabits this hall.

del Toro is an consistently creative director, but it’s hard to be creative with a story that is typecast as a Gothic romance. He does make the movie suitably creepy, but Allerdale Hall is perhaps a bit too perfectly Gothic. From its evil basement that Edith is warned to never venture into, to the incest going on upstairs and of course the many hauntings in the place it feels more stereotypical than a place where belief can be plausibly suspended. For one thing, there is never a sunny day. Also fall leaves are always falling through the roof and a blanket of snow (fairly rare in England) usually covers the ground. A lighter directorial touch here might have made for a better movie. But at least there is eye candy: Mia for the men and Tom for the women as well as some very sickening violence early in the movie and near the end. Some transformer-like creatures from del Toro’s earlier Pacific Rim might have been preferred to the tired Gothic frame.

Fortunately, there aren’t many Gothic romance movies anymore so given the slim pickings this one will stand out among them. Thus it’s best not to be too critical and to let yourself be carried away by the over the top frame. Mia Wasikowska may be luminous to watch but neither she nor Tom Hiddleston nor the film’s famous director can quite pull this film up to a master film of the genre. Nice try though.

3.3 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 


The trailer really made me anxious to see Suffragette. It’s hard for me to stay away from a movie with left wing themes. Moreover, women’s suffrage has also been virtually ignored by Hollywood, which makes it fresh material for the screen. You don’t have to get too far into this movie to realize that women were quite literally second class citizens at this time (the early 20th century) with no right to vote and with the husband controlling all decisions including whether to give his son or daughter up for adoption.

Then there were the menial jobs women worked. For Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) it meant working long hours at the laundry for meager wages and a boss into sexually harassing his workers. Yet Maud finds herself a reluctant suffragette (the term given for a woman working for women’s voting rights). It’s mainly her sympathy for a fellow laundress Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) that convinces her to attend a demonstration. Later when Violet is roughed up on her way to testify to no less than the Prime Minister about this discrimination, Maud unexpectedly testifies for her. This gains her many enemies, including the eventual enmity of her husband whose manhood is threatened by his uppity wife.

It’s a story ripe for the telling. Director Sarah Gavron snags a few A-List actresses, principally Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Edith and Meryl Streep as Mrs. Emmeline Parkhurst, the central leader of the suffragette movement who is hounded by police and usually is in hiding. After fifty years of struggle with nothing to show, women are feeling pretty frustrated. Mrs. Parkhurst thus urges women to go beyond civil disobedience. Maud somewhat reluctantly gets involved in some violent acts including blowing up mailboxes and destroying the Prime Minister’s summer residence under construction. The Inspector Javert of this movie is Norman Tailor (Geoff Bell) who gets to try to control these increasingly militant suffragettes.

Gavron does a great job of portraying the age in its non-tech glory and a pretty good job of assembling an interesting cast. The story centers on Maud’s gradual inculcation into the suffrage movement, and Mulligan does a convincing job of making us care about her and the other women in this struggle. The laundry is a bleak place and her lodgings less than humble. Spats of prison time including a hunger strike are convincingly portrayed. Her only joy in life is her son.

Gavron went for the tight shot and handheld cameras, probably to enhance the film’s believability and intimacy with the story. For me it detracted from the film, which seemed overly jumpy and made it hard to focus on individual characters. Suffragette at least begins to plumb this era for Hollywood, however it doesn’t quite feel like the definitive film. But at least it’s a start.

3.1 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

The Thinker

2016 Republican Presidential Debate #4

By now these candidates are all getting a bit uncomfortably familiar — at least to those of us that tune into these debates. With some exceptions though they all pretty much sound the same and parrot the same ideas. What made this latest debate a bit more interesting than the other ones is that from time to time some actual debating happened.

This debate, hosted by the Fox Business Channel and held in Madison, Wisconsin had a heavily conservative tone to it, which made the candidates happy after the last debate when the moderators had the audacity to backtalk the candidates with actual fact checking. Moderator questions came laden with assumptions that doubtless made its owner Rupert Murdoch happy. Stuff like this from moderator Maria Bartiromo:

Today the national debt is at record highs and growing unsustainably. Interest will be the fastest-growing part of the federal budget, tripling over the next 10 years. Social Security, the lifeline of millions of American seniors, is rushing toward insolvency.

In fact, the budget deficit has been cut by more than two thirds since the start of the Great Recession, virtually zero interest rates have made financing the debt a lot more sustainable, Social Security is reaching a point where it may pay out more than it receives, but is not anywhere close to insolvent as its assets are invested in U.S. Treasury Bills that will be redeemed to pay benefits. Given the false assumptions that underlined many of the questions asked, the only surprise was that some actual debating took place. As usual, it was the marginal candidates that did most of the pot stirring, i.e. John Kasich and libertarian Rand Paul because what do they have to lose?

Kasich went for being the only grownup in the room again, which he was. In fact much of the time he sounded like a Democrat, which was why toward the end he was actually booed by the audience. Kasich did feel neglected and felt compelled to barge into the debate at inopportune moment near the end, but in fact he got plenty of airtime. Kasich’s sensible and pragmatic solutions though were not something fellow candidates and the audience wanted to hear. I found myself agreeing with much of what Kasich had to say. If he had a realistic chance at the nomination, the party might also have a realistic chance of winning next year’s election.

Rand Paul was the other discordant note, in particular when he called out Marco Rubio for not being a true conservative because he wanted to give a tax credit to lower income people, which he accurately portrayed as an entitlement. On foreign policy Paul was definitely the isolationist and kept noting that defending the country costs lots of money and our foreign interventions usually backfire. Again, this did not win him any favors from other candidates or the audience because cognitive dissonance like this apparently gives them severe migraines. Everyone was like: just shut up Rand and John already!

I really wanted Carly Fiorina to just shut up already. She went on an impassioned rant about the need to cull regulations and to have zero-based budgeting. However, she wouldn’t adhere to the regulations of the debate to stop talking after her ninety seconds was up. Two bells calling time went blithely ignored as she just kept yammering and yammering. While the most egregious violator, she was hardly alone. One of the biggest yammerers from the last debate, Chris Christie, has been disinvited to the debate and sent to the humiliating “undercard” debate instead.

Picking winners was hard, but picking losers was easy. Kasich is likely to get undercarded soon because he speaks to a vanishingly small moderate base. Ditto with Rand Paul, for stroking libertarian feelings largely absent in the Republican Party. And Carly Fiorina is coming across as a simply nasty lady, so she will likely get undercarded again soon, particularly given her mediocre polling numbers which barely qualified her for this debate.

Donald Trump specializes in nasty, but with a dose of humor that Carly doesn’t have. He was repeatedly called out by Kasich for his impossible to enforce plan to deport all undocumented immigrants but as usual he said he could part water and get it done along with his thousand mile wall along our border to Mexico, which presumably they will somehow pay for. On this topic none of them noted that President Obama has been vigorously removing undocumented immigrants, something that gives most Democrats heartburn. However, they did latch on to his executive order that makes it less likely that these immigrants who are caregivers would be deported anytime soon. Apparently it’s really evil to keep parents and their legal children united.

Jeb Bush managed to improve his performance but not in a distinctive way. Marco Rubio held steady, coming on strong but falling back toward the end of the debate in part due to lack of airtime. Ted Cruz will probably get a bump, as he stayed with nasty and unrealistic, which is what Republicans want to hear. He did say he wanted to eliminate the Department of Commerce twice, which would be quite a feat. He also wants to eliminate the IRS, which is a great thing if you don’t want to go to prison for not paying your taxes. Cruz was mostly in comfortable La-La Land, which is where most of the audience wanted to be as well.

There were other amusing faux pas:

  • Marco Rubio actually talked about the “Democratic Party” when every good Republican knows the Right and Fox News has rebranded them as the “Democrat Party”.
  • Ted Cruz also talked about going back to the gold standard and how great the country was when we were on the gold standard. The Washington Post wonk blog though noted that the Great Depression was caused by slavish adherence to the gold standard.
  • Ben Carson claimed that by 1876 the United States was the largest economic power in the world, which no doubt was news to the United Kingdom, which claimed that title at the time.
  • Carson also said that the Chinese were deeply involved in the conflicts in the Middle East, while China has wisely largely stayed out of the conflict.
  • Donald Trump said we are losing jobs like crazy when we added 270,000 jobs just last month and we have netted jobs every month for the last seven years.
  • Macro Rubio said there was nothing more important than being a parent, effectively slamming singles.
  • Rand Paul wants everyone to pay a flat tax of 14.5 percent, less a home mortgage and charitable deductions. So a poor person earning $10,000 a year should pay $1450 a year income taxes, in addition to the sales taxes they disproportionately pay? It’s sounds fair I guess in Rand Paul’s insular world.
  • Carly Fiorina thinks it’s bad that Obamacare brought the uninsured rate below ten percent because of socialism or something.
  • Ben Carson said only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job, which would mean 80% of black teens do not, when in fact more than fifty percent of black teens do have jobs.

So there was the usual obfuscation and erroneous claims, par for the course for these fact-free debaters, but it seemed the more wrong the statistics were the more the audience ate it up. More dubious facts will doubtless be revealed in their next debate, which fortunately won’t be until December.

Next up: a second Democratic debate this weekend.

The Thinker

Lost but re-found

The hills of upstate New York are now barren of leaves. Yet speeding down I-88 between Albany and Binghamton last Friday, I was enjoying the scenery: the many grey hills spotted with evergreens still made for an interesting and photogenic landscape. There was so much of it to enjoy in the nearly two hour drive between cities, made even nicer by the light traffic on this largely neglected interstate. An occasional shower spattered my windshield and grey clouds largely took over by the time I arrived in Binghamton but at least it was unseasonably mild. The grey clouds actually made the place feel like home, which in fact it was for me from 1963 through 1972. Starting in November and usually lasting until spring, Binghamton is generally a dark and dreary place, a combination of diminishing daylight and clouds that form over Lake Erie and thicken in the prevailing westerly winds.

This November visit was actually an improvement over my last visit in August, then for a family reunion at a nearby state park. At least it was not stifling and a bed at a four star hotel in Johnson City awaited me instead of an un-air-conditioned cabin. The overnight trip between Massachusetts (home) and Binghamton was now doable so not that big a deal: under four hours by car with the pastoral mountainous drives on I-90 and I-88 a bonus. The occasion of this return was somewhat somber. My childhood friend Tom’s father of the same name had passed. I decided to drive to the funeral and pay my respects, something that would have been out of the question before. But then I was at least seven hours away by car and I had a job. Being closer and retired, it was doable. It would give me a chance to see Tom but also to see his family again, some forty-three years in my past. (My wife hung back due to a painful slipped disk.)

His dad, a former engineer who worked at the now largely vanquished IBM Endicott made it to 87, and finally passed on November 1, a victim of congestive heart failure. I hadn’t seen much of his father when I was young. Shortly after arriving at the Allen Memorial Home in nearby Endicott and seeing so many pictures of him on poster board, my memories of Tom’s dad flooded back. He was Irish, he was passionate, he usually had a big smile on his face and he was very, very Catholic. He and his wife raised nine children including my friend Tom, and not very well by some accounts. He worked days and his wife (a nurse) worked nights. This didn’t leave much time for a relationship or for parenting. They eventually divorced, which should have estranged him from the Catholic Church. At least the priests at St. Patrick’s Church in Binghamton were forgiving. Three priests and a deacon in vestments were at his funeral mass, and the deacon spoke warmly about Tom, their time together, and their shared passion for sports.

At the funeral home I saw few signs of mourning from my friend’s family. In some ways their mood felt joyous. For me this journey became something of a time warp. I had been back to Binghamton five times over the forty plus years, but I hadn’t really connected with anyone I knew from my years there. At least I had the opportunity with Tom’s family, which included three generations now. Tom was now the oldest male in the family. His older sister has had that privilege for a couple of decades; their mom passed away from cancer in the 1990s.

In fact, Tom’s extended family looked great: thin for the most part, including Tom who had dropped forty pounds. Tom Sr.’s death was long anticipated, so most had moved through the grieving process while he was declining. Tom I knew, but it was impossible to name these grown up faces after so many years. Those who were old enough usually remembered me, and shared a memory. I remembered the youngest child now in her forties in diapers in their living room. Tom’s house had a color TV and she was watching Sesame Street on it when the show was still new. I was jealous of Tom’s family because my parents thought color TVs too expensive, so we were relegated to black and white.

Whatever family trauma there was forty some years earlier seemed wholly gone. Tom’s family proved to be a lively, civilized and grounded bunch, all instantly likeable. In some ways I felt more comfortable with them than I do with my own siblings. Tom’s family may have had issues, but they were a passionate bunch. My house was more saccharine and my mother played the role of dutiful Stepford wife. No wonder I liked hanging out with Tom. His house felt real. But there was more. Tom was and remains an intensely creative person full of energy and passion. It must have been due to all that Irish blood. As I worked my way down the receiving line I felt a lot of genuine warmth flecked with humor and remembrances.

Tom is one of nine children; I am one of eight. My family scattered like the wind across the nation. Six of Tom’s siblings stayed in the Binghamton area and extended their family’s roots there. Most had dodged and parried with life pretty well in spite of a challenging childhood, but others had dealt with larger problems. An older sister spent decades fighting addictions but she told me she had been clean and sober for twenty-five years.

The sun was close to setting when I arrived, but I drove by our old house and enjoyed the fall colors still hanging on a tree on our old front lawn. The house has been extended into the backyard. Its original six bedrooms are now probably more like ten bedrooms. In fact, the house is now owned by the State of New York and it houses developmentally disabled adults.

While Tom hung with family that evening, I did a driving tour of the area (“The Triple Cities”) in the dark, following paths I knew so well from childhood, but also from exploring the area again on Google Maps. I had fond memories of my father taking us to Binghamton Airport, so I drove there in the dark along Farm to Market Road. I drove down Vestal Parkway, climbed Taft Avenue in Endicott and wandered the back streets behind our old house in the darkness. I watched the stars appear periodically from behind the clouds, so much clearer here where the city lights are more muted. The Binghamton area had often felt sad in past visits, but this time it felt fully on the mend. Dinner came from the food court at the Johnson City Wegmans. Leaving my car in the parking lot of my hotel, I noted a fox’s bright eyes looking back at me in the dark from the nearby woods.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church turned out to be an ornate church by Catholic standards with impressive stained glass windows and altarpieces that imitated Gothic spires. By any measure, Tom’s dad went out well. A huge organ in the back of the church and a cantor on the altar provided deeply spiritual music mixed with Irish melodies during the funeral mass. It’s a large church and was more than half full; clearly Tom’s father was a man beloved in the church and in the community. Tom’s family did a wonderful job of arranging a memorable and emotional service.

In the lobby after the service Tom pulled me over. He reintroduced me to a friend I knew even longer than him, Peter, who I first met in first grade and often played with after school. Age 58, Pete hadn’t changed that much but related a brush with mortality: he a heart attack a few years back. At the reception after the mass we ate food, laughed, traded memories and snapped pictures. There were no tears to note but plenty of laughter. People reconnected, and that included me. For the first time in more than forty years I felt reconnected with the area I always considered home. There were still friends here; we had just lost touch.

I was back home for supper, doing a reverse commute. The hills along I-88 and I-90 were still pretty, though barren, but the temperature had plummeted. It was cold but I felt strangely glowing. It came from the deep embers of a long ago connection thought lost but now recovered somehow.

The Thinker

Shame on the Mormon Church for shaming innocent children!

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit more charitable toward the Mormon Church. It’s like they are starting to grow a conscience. Perhaps indirectly it is due to Pope Francis who has been reaching out to communities like divorced Catholics and gays, and that’s causing them to feel the pressure. Both Catholics and Mormons are still opposed to gay marriage. Not much of a surprise there. But surprisingly in January the Mormon Church has voiced support for housing and employment rights for LGBTs. It’s not wholly unconditional as they demand accommodations for those who see it as immoral, but for the Mormon Church this is quite a leap.

Well, that was January and here it is November and the Mormon Church just announced a policy that makes me want to spit nails. I guess I should not be too surprised that the church considers couples in a same sex marriage as apostates. To become Mormons these same sex couples must effectively divorce each other and must also disavow these types of marriages too. After all a marriage in the church’s eyes must be between one man and one woman (although at one time could be between one man and multiple women, so apparently the policy is fungible.)

But to discriminate against the children born from a same sex marriage is beyond reprehensible. It’s one thing to put a Scarlet A on Hester’s bosom; it’s quite another thing to do the same thing to her child’s. But the Mormon Church, yes, they are going there. According to CNN:

A new Mormon church policy considers church members in same-sex marriages as apostates whose children will be barred from baptism and church membership unless they disavow same-sex unions.

Suppose these children want to be Mormon? They must wait until they are adults. Oh and they must renounce gay marriage too, effectively estranging them from their same sex parents. Then they can join and be baptized in the Mormon Church.

I’m not too much up on Mormon theology, so maybe baptism is not as big a deal as it is in the Catholic Church. At least when I was growing up Catholic if you were not baptized and died you could not get into heaven. You weren’t sent to hell but the theology, as I understood it, was that these souls ended up in Limbo. Perhaps they eventually got into heaven at some murky date after the end of the world.

In any event to shame innocent children for the “sins” of their parents and worse to force them to effectively renounce their parents to belong to the Mormon community as an adult is just vile — it’s like the shaming bastard children used to endure. Maybe vile isn’t quite the word, I just can’t think of a word worse than vile. It should have any Mormon with any compassion in their soul running at a sprint to get away from their evil “church”.

The problem with being a Mormon is a lot like being a devout Catholic, particularly in Utah where the population is overwhelmingly Mormon. Not being a Mormon is effectively to be apart from the rest of your community, and not in a good way. Obviously it’s not like that everywhere in Utah, and in particular not true in Salt Lake City with its heavy LGBT population. In any event the policy is just plain mean and the exact opposite of Christ’s message, which was about inclusiveness and unconditional love.

The Mormon Church is effectively sticking a badge of shame on any child of a same sex couple. It’s a badge that in certain heavily Mormon communities will put these children at a disadvantage. For when society says you are different and when you get this message from most of the people in your community, you can’t help but pick it up and bury it deeply inside you. The unspoken message is there is something wholly broken in you. As children it doesn’t take much to feel and integrate shame into your personality. Many children never get over these feelings of toxic shame. They carry it throughout life, in this case through no fault of their own, living broken lives.

So this policy is not only wrong, it shames the institution of the Mormon Church and proclaims very loudly to the rest of us that it is a false church. The rest of us — that is the rest of us with a conscience — must send a loud and clear message to the Mormon Church that this latest act is truly evil.

We must embrace the innocent children of same sex relationships with the same unconditional love due any child. Every person, child or adult, has equal dignity, has inherent respect and must be loved for who they are. God is color blind, but apparently the Mormon Church is not.

To the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: shame on you for your toxic and evil policy. To the extent I am a praying man, I pray that this policy is short lived and that your so-called church personally apologizes to every couple or child or such couple affected by this decision.


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