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The Thinker

New England oddities

We moved up to Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley in April. Where the heck is the Pioneer Valley? The Pioneer Valley follows the Connecticut River through Western Massachusetts. It sits roughly between the Berkshire Mountains close to New York State and the Boston metropolitan area to its east. It’s a beautiful but underappreciated part of the country, which is part of its charm. Its largest city is Springfield, which is Massachusetts’s third largest city. We’re hanging out in Easthampton its the north, while we wait to move into our house in Florence hopefully in a few weeks.

We’re in a getting acquainted phase. Life is definitely slower here, but not too slow. Nature is easy to get to and is often right outside your door. There are many city amenities too. Northampton has Smith College, a women’s college, but across the river you will also find Mount Holyoke (another women’s college), Hampshire College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Northampton has a bustling arts scene, a totally cute downtown, an amazing number of really good restaurants and little in the way of traffic.

Still, having lived here four months there are some things here that strike me odd, at least compared to where we came from. Here for your amusement is some that I’ve noted:

  • While there is no noticeable New England accent this far west, there are some regionalisms you encounter from time to time. You can find Subways out here but it can be hard to find a “submarine” there. That’s because they call them “grinders”. A grinder though appears to be a toasted submarine. I’m not sure what they call a non-toasted grinder. I doubt it’s a submarine. Maybe you say, “Gimme a grinder, hold the heat.”
  • Governance out here is kind of peculiar. The counties are largely disempowered entities. There may be a county jail and courthouse, but that’s about it. Instead, each county is subdivided into various towns and cities and that’s where real power is exercised.
  • Towns in New England operate differently than other towns. Real business is transacted at town meetings so exactly what the town decides to do really depends on who happens to show up, and that’s typically whoever cares enough to attend. Since a lot of citizens are apathetic, primarily those that show up at town meetings exercise power, all without the need to run a campaign. Where I came from (Northern Virginia) no one would have an opinion about whether the school system should buy a new school bus. These sorts of issues that typically have to be voted on by citizenry at a town meeting. While there are town officials, their powers are pretty weak, with major decisions made by those who bother to show up at town meetings.
  • Because of the way that towns work in New England is kind of a hassle unless the population of the town is relatively small, towns have incentive to incorporate into cities. That’s true of where I am living now (Easthampton). There are only 16,000 residents in Easthampton but running it as a town was such a hassle that in 1999 voters decided to become a city instead. This meant that there were no more town meetings and voters had to elect a city council instead. At least in Easthampton’s case, while it is officially a city it still thinks of itself as a town. It can’t seem to get its act together to do things you would expect a city would do, like fix its roads. On the plus side, citizens don’t have to go through the hassle of attending town meetings regularly.
  • The roads around here make little sense and are quite obviously the paved over cattle tracks of two hundred or more years earlier. They take you to places you don’t particularly want to go, but where people needed to go hundreds of years ago, perhaps an old mill by the river. This means getting from Point A to Point B rarely involves a direct route, but winding your way through lots of streets and side streets instead.
  • Road names are often practically named. Northampton for example has Easthampton Road that takes you to Easthampton. Cross over into Easthampton and it becomes Northampton Street because it will take you to Northampton. This made sense when it took longer to get between places but the two cities are very close together, so it makes little sense anymore.
  • Each city and town replicates street names in the other cities and towns, and since they are all close together it gets really confusing to navigate anywhere. It helps if you never go outside your municipality. You can count on your town having a Pleasant Street, a Main Street, a Lyman Street, an Elm Street, a Maple Street and a Prospect Street. I have no idea who this Lyman person was but his name is everywhere. He must have been very popular in Easthampton because there is both a Lyman Street and a Lyman Avenue, less than a mile apart from each other. In Northampton there is a Prospect Street and a Prospect Avenue and oddly they intersect. An “avenue” would suggest a wider street but Prospect Street is much wider than Prospect Avenue. Go figure.
  • The same road will have multiple names. State Road 9 cuts east to west through the Pioneer Valley but its name constantly changes. In Northampton alone, it starts out by the river as Bridge Street then morphs into Main Street downtown then becomes Elm Street, then becomes North Elm Street, then Locust Street then reverts back to Main Street when you enter the village of Florence. All these name changes occur within a few miles.
  • Farm stands are everywhere. During the harvest season like now you hardly have to drive anywhere to run into a farm stand, and it’s easy to walk to one too. It’s all locally grown, generally in the field behind the farm stand. It seems to be a form of supplementary income for these families and their mini farms. If you want more variety there is also a weekly farmers’ market where you can buy fresh breads and locally organically raised beef, poultry and chicken.
  • Chains are few but independent businesses are many. Northampton has a couple of Subways and Starbucks, but just a couple. There is a Walmart on the north side of town, but no Target, no Applebees, and no fern bars to speak of. The closest thing to a popular chain is Dunkin Donuts, which are everywhere in New England. In short, if you pine to run an independent business, it’s a great place to locate. Plan to drive quite a ways if you want to go to a mall, see a movie or shop at a Costco or BJs.

There is more to explore in the years ahead, so perhaps in some future post I will post more of these oddities.

 
The Thinker

Review: Trainwreck

Trainwreck written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer is probably the first romantic comedy of its kind: a bawdy romantic comedy, so bawdy it got an R rating. Schumer has made something of a name for herself by plumbing the raunchy women’s comedian genre. I’d like to say that in Trainwreck that Amy portrays a slut, but it’s a word that is no longer politically correct. Let’s call her character simply called Amy a very sexually liberated woman, endlessly hopping from bed to bed in search of new thrills and greater sex. It comes naturally because early in the movie we discover that her parents divorced when she was a child. In an early flashback her father played by Colin Quinn tells young Amy and her sister Kim that monogamy just isn’t realistic.

Her private life mirrors her profession, as she is a writer for S’nuff. It’s an ultra bawdy men’s magazine overseen by an abrasive in-your-face editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton). No skanky story is too low for the readers of S’nuff, and it’s Dianna’s job to make sure the magazine goes for the bottom of the barrel. Because Amy vilifies sports, naturally her boss puts her on a story about the sports medicine doctor for the New York Knicks, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). Unsurprisingly, opposites sort of attract here. Aaron is a nerdish, affable but talented physician and surgeon who tends to the team’s many injuries while working sporadically for Doctors Without Borders. Aaron is also very tight with LeBron James, who plays himself. Many players on the Knicks have supporting roles in this movie, as do its cheerleaders. Surprisingly, LeBron James runs pretty well with his part, suggesting that when his basketball career inevitably ends he might have a secondary career as a character actor.

Aaron is not only nerdish; he is more than a bit shy and hasn’t had a girlfriend in six years. Shortly after meeting Amy however Amy is doing what she does best and before Aaron can object Amy has solved his problem of six years with no sex, almost as an afterthought. Having sex is something almost reflexive with her. Channeling her father however she doesn’t want to commit with anyone, even Aaron, even though she finds him cute. Their mutual attraction is one of the aspects of this romantic comedy that doesn’t quite gel on screen, but somehow they become something of a couple. This is disturbing to Amy who channels her father and thus doesn’t want to be partnered, let alone married.

Dear old dad is still around, but has multiple sclerosis. Amy and her very monogamous and happily married sister Kim have to manage his decline by moving him through various nursing homes. For someone with a degenerative disease, their father seems very much in the present. He is opinionated and obnoxious most of the time, characteristics Amy seems to reflexively emulate. Her mother has been long dead. As Amy and Aaron get closer, they become more integrated with her family. Amy begins to consider that maybe this monogamy thing isn’t so bad after all, but eventually the tension becomes too much and they grow apart while still thinking a lot about each other. Dear old cranky dad has to die before the mists clear in front of Amy’s eyes. You can probably figure out the rest of this movie, which follows formula but with a few twists.

So it’s a different romantic comedy for sure, perhaps in a class of its own yet still completely predictable. It’s kind of fun to watch Amy’s personal life implode and explode so much and to see her struggle with her dad, her feelings about monogamy and her relationship with her sister. But this is no Sleepless in Seattle and she is no Meg Ryan. She’s reasonably cute but she plays the sort of woman I would have avoided and which makes her relationship with Aaron seem kind of implausible. Amy’s quite obviously no thirty-something virgin and she’s quite messed up too. She is too much of a train wreck for most men, and should be for Aaron, but isn’t somehow.

Overall as a romantic comedy this one rates a bit below the median. It’s easy enough to enjoy and predictable, but there is no meat particularly worth eating here except for Amy Schumer fans. About all you can say is that it is a new take on an old formula, but it hardly takes flight, let alone soars.

2.8 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 
The Thinker

Ashley Madison stupidly lets itself get pwned

So I have been streaming Mad Men on Netflix. It’s a strangely compelling series about the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. It’s a world of constant drinking, endless cigarettes and infidelity. The principle character is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the creative director for the advertising firm Sterling & Cooper. As we quickly learn, Don was previously Dick, he is a deeply messed up man, and he also happens to be one hunk of a guy. Don’s a liberal drinker, a liberal smoker and a liberal bed hopper as well. He does this while somehow staying married to his ultra pretty and slinky wife Betty (January Jones).

It takes a few seasons but Betty eventually figures out Don’s infidelities. They divorce but Don keeps bedding the women, often inappropriately, including his secretary. Yet Don is hardly the only character in the series with his pants down. Most of the characters are involved in an illicit relationship or two. I have no idea how close any of this is to real life on Madison Avenue, but from what I’ve read it was not too far off the mark. Most of the men are caught between who they really are and the roles they are supposed to play. How they manage all this screwing around in these pre-Ashley Madison days is kind of mysterious, but likely all that booze helped reduce inhibitions.

Yesterday of course the infidelity website ashleymadison.com quickly went dark after hackers posted a dump of its database on a number of websites. While bad for cheaters out there, what it said about Ashley Madison was even worse. First, its security system was laughably bad. Second, even after the hack they could have taken down their site and saved their forty million members embarrassment, but they didn’t. They kept collecting fees right up until they went dark. In short, they gave the online infidelity business not only a moral stink but in an unexpected way: they were so busy chasing short term profits that they were willing to throw its forty million customers on mercy of their spouses. Doubtless the hackers provided samples to prove they had hacked the good stuff, including apparently seven years of credit card transactions. AM was hoping they would blink.

Doubtless too that marital counselors and divorce lawyers are going to get a sharp increase in business. It would not surprise me if their phones were ringing off the hooks. As for AM, I wouldn’t blame its customers if they arrived en masse to torch its offices. Cheaters of the world, unite! Anyhow, fifty years after Mad Men, there are still plenty of Don Drapers out there that are mostly hooking up online. Until a couple of days ago apparently Ashley Madison had the lion’s share and then some of this market.

What interests me is not that AM brokered infidelity. As disgusting as most people at least claim to view infidelity and those that aid them, there are far worse things on the Internet, with ISIS beheading videos coming immediately to mind. Some entities like AM are to be expected in our electronic age. What’s interesting and more than a little appalling is how bad a job they did in keeping their clients’ information confidential. As a software engineer, but also as a guy that is currently getting paid to ghostwrite articles about data security, AM gets an F.

Yes, AM kept a record of all its credit card transactions for the last seven years! It’s such a mind boggling, stupid and reckless thing to do, particularly given the profitability of the site. It would have made much more sense to give in to the hackers’ demands and quietly establish a new site under a new name, oh and fix those security problems too. Doubtless they had the money to do it. Forty million customers, figure 30 million of them men, figure each putting out at least $50 each, that’s at least $150 million in revenue. Since they’ve been in business fifteen years, it’s likely a lot more than that. Likely their overall revenue likely exceeded a billion dollars, not that we’ll know for sure. They aren’t publicly traded, although maybe their successor or whoever buys the brand (Vivid Entertainment?) will be publicly traded, and doubtless do a better job at security.

If I had fewer scruples and more money I might create the next AM site, one that its dubious clients could actually trust. Of course there are always risks in anything done over the Internet. AM’s clients now understand that. The next AM is bound to arise from its ashes, and probably sooner rather than later. Here are some actions items for whatever entrepreneur wants to sail in these turbulent waters in the future:

  • Do not keep records of credit card transactions. Just don’t. Purge these daily, if not more often, from any internal databases. Don’t journal them on backup somewhere.
  • Do not collect any privacy information from your customers, you know like their real names, address and phone numbers. Instead, let some third party act as your broker. Your client gives the broker some money and the broker provides some electronic token identifying the payee that doesn’t actually identify them to your company. The future AM should never collect anything that could identify their clients.
  • Accept more discreet ways of payment. There are lower tech and anonymous ways to pay fees confidentially: wire deposits and money orders, for example. I’d say accept BitCoins but BitCoins are hardly anonymous.
  • Don’t use cloud hosting. Use your own data centers that only you can access and control.
  • One person can’t do this in his basement. So find employees who have a history of being trustworthy, very talented, and discreet and pay them very well. Give them incentives to be discreet. Make their bonuses contingent upon their contributions to improving the business’s security.
  • Retain security experts. To get AM’s entire database required a whole lot of bandwidth. This can be monitored. The tools exist to cut off suspicious behavior already.
  • Do regular vulnerability testing of your website and applications. The tools are out there. Of course fix any vulnerabilities found quickly.
  • Hire a CISO, a Chief Information Security Officer with of course the right credentials.
  • Don’t store obviously sensitive information, like a client’s IP address. Passwords should be encrypted in a MD5 hash in the database.
  • Tell your customers what your security plan is. Get an annual (or more often) security audit from a trusted security auditor and publicize the results for your customers.
  • Provide your customers security tips, like clearing your browser history. I can think of another one. Figure out a way for clients to share pictures anonymously. I’m pretty sure it could be done with Instagram.

As for AM’s clients, those who are not on their way to marital counseling or divorce court, you might consider picking up strangers at bars again or just plastering them with lots of alcohol in the privacy of your office. It sounds cheaper and faster. It worked for Don Draper.

 
The Thinker

Betting on failure

I regularly look to see what’s trending on my blog. Given the relatively little traffic that it gets discerning trends is kind of hard. My Craigslist posts frequently get hit, which is why I decided to encourage the trend with a monthly review of local Craigslist casual encounter posts. Also, no one else seemed to be doing as a form of entertainment. Over the last few months I’ve watched my Porter Stansberry tag trending upward. This probably means something too.

I wrote just one blog post in 2011 where I mentioned Mr. Stansberry and his dubious “research” firm. I mentioned him mostly in passing. His ads were following me all over the Internet so one day I gave in and spent forty-five minutes or so listening to his pitch. Of course he was trying to sell me something: a pricey subscription to his financial newsletter. He was looking for a certain kind of investor that I’m not, mainly the ultra paranoid “I’m ready for the zombie apocalypse” type.

Four years ago Mr. Stansberry was predicting the imminent collapse of the dollar but really all major currencies. He saw another Great Depression on the horizon and it was coming at us like a freight train. He had a plan to deal with an impending financial apocalypse that would let you survive it and ultimately prosper. When it hit you would presumably be sipping margaritas on your private island in Bermuda while the rest of the world went to hell. It was all pretty vague but his financial forecast was available in small segments via his pricey newsletters. They had to be pricey because not just everyone was good enough to afford his unique insights. Just the chosen, like you.

Four years later there has been no financial apocalypse. The stock market is higher than ever, even though incomes are not. Most of the income continues to go toward the top of the income scale, which explains why incomes still lag, our recovery feels somewhat tentative and why people are getting financially nervous again. China recently devalued its currency to make its products cheaper, basically to hold off a recession. Its stock market has lost roughly a third of its value the last time I looked, and might have lost more if China’s government hadn’t propped it up. Commodity prices are also falling as evidenced by the price of gasoline. Stocks while generally high are a bit off their peaks. So a lot of smart people are reading the financial tealeaves and trying to figure out if stocks are overvalued and whether they should be cashing those investments in for something safer. The bad news is that if you are chasing your financial fears you are probably going to take a financial haircut.

I won’t pretend to be an economist. However, I do feel my advice is at least as good as Porter Stansberry’s and most likely better. After all, I was not fined $1.5 million by a U.S. District court in 2007. Most of the fine was used to refund his investors who were urged to buy stock in a company based on fabricated insider information. Stansberry said it was sure to increase 100 percent. To find out the name of the company, you had to send him $1000. In any event, after the company’s announcement the company’s share prices fell after being artificially bid up by his investors. This led to the demise of his previous firm Pirate Investor and the creation of Stansberry Research and lots of videos hawking his presumably newly improved financial insight.

So even if you are a paranoid investor type, you should not trust Stansberry Research. Moreover, all the gold bullion in the world won’t save you in the event of a total financial collapse. The truth is that while there will certainly be future financial shocks and maybe even major widespread currency collapses, our financial system is too complex to go back to monetary sources based on perceived permanent value, like gold. Instead if there is uncertainty in the market, money will shift toward perceived safer forms of currency.

That’s happening right now with the collapse of the Yuan and slow slide of other currencies like the Euro. The dollar is perceived to be a safer currency, so its value is rising in comparison to most other currencies. This of course makes it harder for the United States to sell products and services priced in dollars. It’s the penalty for having a financial system less screwed up than everyone else’s. This has the ultimate effect of proving that we are all tied together. Investors running toward the dollar reduces economic growth in the United States, which makes it cheaper to buy commodities outside the United States, which hastens their recoveries at the expense of less economic activity in the United States. This cycle repeats endlessly but generally the United States is seen as having the most stable economic system, so generally cash is poured into dollars and U.S. treasury bills when economic uncertainty rises.

So when the value of the dollar rises significantly compared to an aggregate of all other currencies, this can be a warning sign that a financial correction is due. You don’t need Stansberry Research to tell you that. You can simply track currency valuations online and compare it with what happened in previous financial crises. What seems to be happening now is that the market understands that the recovery in the United States is much weaker than investors would like it to be, and that’s likely due to income inequality in the United States. When wage growth hardly moves upward that doesn’t give the majority of consumers a whole lot of money to buy more stuff. It stifles growth because as I pointed out before the top one percent will only choose to buy so much stuff. Hardly any economic growth ever trickles down from the top one percent’s personal spending.

Curiously, the best way to get economic growth on track again would be for voters to vote for a little socialism next year. Changing the rules so more income would go down toward the rest of us instead of the top would put more money in our pockets and start a virtuous cycle. Changing the rules to raise taxes on upper income people would have the same effect, since the government generally spends all it takes in and that feeds economic growth in the United States. Arguably the United States was never better than in the 1950s when top marginal tax rates were about ninety percent. That’s because taxes were put to use providing assets like our interstate highway system. Putting more money into the middle and lower classes gave people the means to spend it to increase their standard of living and keep the economy on a generally good footing. This is why there is more growth under Democratic administrations than Republican administrations.

It remains to be seen if voters will choose optimism or pessimism next year. The financial rumblings happening now and how we choose to react to them will probably influence voters in 2016. A downturn in 2015 would probably ensure a sustained downturn after the next U.S. president is sworn in, since the next president will have an austerity agenda.

None of this matters to Porter Stansberry because the fear of failure is the basis of his business model. It sells more of his pricey newsletters. As for me I will continue to play my financial cards the way I always have: keep a diversified portfolio and move toward more cash and bonds as I age. I’ll never win the game of timing the market, but no one actually does. Instead, investors sell themselves on the delusion that with the right financial guru they can outsmart it. The best thing we can do for our economy is simply talk to our neighbors and friends. We need to convince them to be cautious but rational, and to vote rationally in 2016.

President Obama famously campaigned on hope, which was derided by many Republicans. However, we’ve had seven years of economic growth and falling unemployment. Much of the growth went to investors and not to the rest of us, but it was growth nonetheless. We should hope for continued better times, but hedge our bets by electing politicians who will vote for some pragmatic democratic socialism again.

Paging Bernie Sanders.

 
The Thinker

Donald Trump proves that Republicans prefer assholes

Long time readers will know that I find Republicans to be both fascinating and appalling. They are my number one tag. I obviously don’t share many of their values. In many ways though some small part of me is Republican, the way my grandfather was.

I do think hard work should be rewarded, for example. Republicans agree with the principle in the abstract, but not in the specific. To them, hard work does not mean labor-intensive work. Watch fast food workers or bus boys working and tell me if you think they aren’t working hard. To me their hard work should be rewarded with a living wage of at least $15 an hour and probably more in higher cost of living areas. To Republicans, their wages should probably be cut so they can work harder and harder and achieve … well, that part is not too clear. Maybe they figure their boss will promote them to lead fryer chief or drive thru manager after seeing them run around like headless chickens for twelve hours a day. It’s clear that what they really hope for is that they can keep exploiting them. They hope that they will die young and that their tremendous productivity, made possible by low wages and plentiful poor people that they help create, will filter up to them in the form of higher stock prices and dividends, or possibly cheaper Happy Meals when they bring the grandkids by.

I’ve said Republicans are a party of sadists but after watching the reaction to Donald Trump’s misogynist statements during and after the first presidential debate the other night made me realize something for some reason I hadn’t before: Republicans prefer assholes for candidates probably because most of them are assholes too.

I’ve wracked my brain and I simply can’t think of an alternate explanation. Donald Trump has been a complete asshole throughout his professional life. He is a bully and his weapons are his wealth, his reckless mouth and his lawyers. He goes out of his way to offend people. When debate moderator Megyn Kelly asked probing questions about his behavior that he didn’t like, he reflexively and gleefully doubled down. If he gets a further negative reaction he double-doubles down some more. And since he is filthy rich, if he can throw some high priced lawyers at them to make their lives miserable and put their standard of living in jeopardy, he is happy to do so. He figures his wealth and success gives him the right to speak his mind freely without consequence and to toss aside common rules of etiquette or basic politeness.

Normal people of course have their jaws agape at his outrageous behavior. It’s no wonder he dominates the domestic news cycle. Except for the fact that he knows how to make gobs of money, he is a train wreck of a human being: a perfect example that money is the root of all evil. Normal people are just appalled by his behavior. And while some Republicans including the misogynist owner of redstate.com Erick Erickson who abruptly disinvited Trump from his convention feel they have to make a stand, at best most of them are mute. With the exception of Lindsay Graham and Carly Fiorina, none of the other presidential aspirants in the Republican fold have the courage to call him an asshole. As for the others, it could be they are waiting for his fall and then hope to pick off his supporters. But mainly I think they aren’t saying anything because they generally agree with him.

In fact, most of them wish they could emulate him but can’t find the courage, perhaps because they don’t have a big enough bank account. Mind you they say a lot of the same things, just more politely, and in the abstract without naming names. What they can’t imitate, with the possible exception of Ted Cruz, is his compulsive and reflexive nastiness. In a less civilized age, Donald Trump would be the king, those who disagreed with him would get the rack, and The Donald would be tightening the rack personally until their limbs left their sockets and his victims were a massive blob of blood, tissue, bones and protoplasm on the dungeon floor. That’s because The Donald is a reflexive barbarian at heart.

And you know Republicans agree by looking at his poll numbers. There is a batch of polls out since this first debate and at worst Trump’s poll numbers have stayed steady. By some poll numbers, they have improved. A Morning Consult poll show’s Trump has the support of 32% of Republicans nationally, versus 25% before the debate. His favorability ratings among Republicans went from 40%/40% to 46%/40% according to Public Policy Polling. But he is hardly the only asshole candidate in the race. The other clearly asshole candidates running include Scott Walker (6% favorite), Chris Christie (3% favorite), Ted Cruz (4% favorite) and Bobby Jindal (1% favorite).

This means that roughly half of Republicans prefer candidates that are known, public and pugnacious assholes. So by association at least roughly half of Republicans prefer a known asshole for their president. Why? It’s because they identify with them, and that’s because they too are assholes. They want someone that will not only implement their conservative vision of America, but do it in a showy, obnoxious, “I don’t give a damn who I offend or what the consequences may be” way. In short, they want an asshole for president.

The way to win the Republican nomination is now clear: to try to be more of an asshole than Donald Trump. The problem is Trump has set such a high bar and is running the carnival show so it’s unlikely that they could say or do anything that could be anything worse that what Donald Trump is already doing.

All these candidates will breathlessly say they think that the United States is the greatest country on earth, but if they had their way they would ensure the next president was also the most loathsome, vile and disgusting asshole possible. But if your party consists of assholes, you are simply electing one of your own. You can relate to that kind of president.

The evidence is in the polls.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: August 2015 edition

And we’re back with our monthly local look at Craigslist’s casual encounters section. We always hope as usual to find some unusual gems of weirdness among the heaping pile of mostly mediocre postings. We’re looking at Craigslist’s Hartford, Connecticut section again because it’s a sizeable community not too far from me. I may move to Boston or Albany on occasion just to see if posts are any weirder over there.

In June I had close to three hundred web page views for this stuff. Passion must be cooling as I can only document 180 reads in July for my Craigslist posts. However, traffic was down in July in general, a phenomenon I see every summer, with 1466 web page views, so this traffic still accounted for 12% of traffic, which is about normal.

Scanning the first page of posts on this Friday morning I see:

  • 43 men looking for a woman
  • 39 men looking for a man
  • 2 men looking for a couple
  • 2 men looking for multiple men
  • 1 group of men looking for a man
  • 5 women looking for a man
  • 2 women looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for a woman
  • 2 transgender persons looking for a man

Let’s see what the cat drags in today:

  • This is promising. The first post is from a man with a breast pump looking for an adult breastfeed/adult nursing relationship. He’s open to just about anyone but presumably there has to be a woman in there somewhere, although he is happy if you are a couple, lesbian or straight. Naturally he prefers if you are lactating but I guess he is willing to try to get things primed given that beggars can’t be choosers. Oh, and about him: six foot, 43 and he’s XXX which in this case means extra, extra, extra large but he’s cool with his size. He will send you his picture if you reply. He doesn’t have to worry about straining his fingers from attaching his picture to all the replies he will get.
  • She’s from Enfield and eight months pregnant but horny as a toad. Her idea of a good time is not a well-endowed man but a woman with a strap on. You have to host and drive.
  • Ladies: he’s 21 and wants to eat your ass out, but only if you are clean. Go figure. No reciprocation and you must host for some reason. Gents: here’s a 28-year-old woman with the same obsession but only if you have nice buns.
  • If it’s one thing female posters tend to be clear about when looking for men online: no dick pictures! Men put them up anyhow assuming just the opposite, including men like this 21 year old dude from East Hartford. He is hoping they will attract black women, although apparently any woman will do. Curiously although you can see two explicit dick pictures, he’s willing to send you more. Umm, dude, there’s nothing left to reveal!
  • Speaking of big dicks, if you are you 50+ and have one, this 50+ married woman wants to hear from you.
  • Be her date … to the Hartford “Arts” Cinema where XXX movies play all day and kinky action happens inside the theater that at least occasionally can model the action on the screen. This black coed will be your date. For the price of two tickets (you pay) she will be the slut you always wanted and presumably both you and the raincoat crowd there will have plenty of carnal knowledge of her.
  • Now this is definitely weird: here’s a guy looking for a public wanker: another guy under 40 to jerk off on his car window or dashboard window.
  • He’s looking for a guy but has a unique requirement: you must be Russian.
  • She can’t get enough and must be too much for her swinging partner so he’s cutting her loose. She likes dominant guys with hard bodies and prefers younger men for their rapid recovery power. Like the Energizer bunny she claims she can keep going and going all night. Bring the Cialis.
  • Having stinky feet is an asset to this man, and he is willing to pay a woman for the opportunity for a close encounter with them.
  • Her boyfriend is going to be surprised when she (flying in from California) comes to visit and brings you along for a little threesome action. You must be a woman between 24 and 30.
  • It’s not everyday that you find a cross dresser looking for another cross dresser. I’m not sure what they would do together. Compare erotic underwear? I probably don’t want to know.

More next month.

 
The Thinker

Why do Republicans want to kill Planned Parenthood again?

It’s no longer news that Republicans aren’t tethered to reality. You might say they are the anti-reality party. Pretty much anything that is undeniable, they will deny it. They don’t believe climate change is happening. Evidence like increased carbon dioxide levels and steadily rising average temperatures won’t persuade them. Even rising sea levels that are already threatening Norfolk, Virginia won’t convince them.

They are a pretty reflexive party in that, like Pavlov’s dog, you know how they will react before they open their mouth. If President Obama says it’s good, for example, they will say it’s bad and therefore it must be opposed with all necessary force and vitriol. His multi-nation agreement with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for closer monitoring of their nuclear activities must be voted down because Obama’s name is on it. The alternative to not having an agreement is likely the collapse of sanctions against Iran by major countries and the rapid enrichment of Iran’s current nuclear stockpile. Republicans would rather have war against Iran instead, and it’s all in the interest of our (and Israel’s) national security somehow. Note that most of the yahoos pushing this approach also voted or advocated for the Iraq War in 2002. They have a great track record!

Now, a highly doctored video showing representatives of Planned Parenthood suggesting they might be able to provide parts of aborted fetuses for research (which they already do in some cases) has Republicans in Congress racing to pass legislation taking away all federal funding for the organization. This is much more important than, say, passing a multi-year funding bill for the Highway Trust Fund or passing appropriations so the government won’t shut down again on October 1. The bill is necessary they say to show their disgust for Planned Parenthood in general and their abortions in particular. Never mind that federal law does not allow a dime of federal money to provide any abortion services by Planned Parenthood or any other organization. It’s been this way for more than a decade. In their pique they now want to make sure Planned Parenthood doesn’t use federal money for any activities, like providing birth control to poor people.

Obviously I’m not the brightest person on the planet but I’m pretty sure that if poor people can’t get contraceptives for free or at a reduced cost, they’re probably not going to embrace celibacy. Instead lots of poor women are going to get pregnant that would not have otherwise. And some of them will choose to get an abortion rather than carry the pregnancy to term. Since zero federal money is going to Planned Parenthood for abortions (and only 3% of their funds are used for abortion services) it’s likely many of these women will go to Planned Parenthood or other abortion clinics for abortions instead. This will mean that their actions will only increase abortions.

Moreover, to the extent that limited parts of fetuses (most are not much larger than a kidney bean) are provided for medical research now, because of these actions there will be more available in the future. Those women that don’t get abortions are more likely to raise poor children, who will probably need social services. Republicans clearly hate women, abortions and poor people, so it’s hard to imagine a more counterproductive act than this. However, given the way they reacted to the agreement with Iran, it’s just more par for their course.

In response to all of this, I am giving more money to Planned Parenthood. Maybe in doing so I can help keep some of these women from getting pregnant. Long ago while pondering the best use of the money I give to charity, Planned Parenthood went to the top. It’s hard to imagine a better use of my money. Consider:

  • It empowers women. By being able to get free or reduced birth control, they have greater freedom and control over their lives.
  • It strengthens families and relationships
  • It allows these people to have a higher standard of living
  • It reduces social services and costs borne by the taxpayers
  • It reduces infrastructure costs, reducing the need for new houses, roads, bridges, shopping malls, etc.
  • It’s environmentally friendly
  • Contraception prevents abortions in the first place. This should make both pro-life and pro-choice people happy because it supports their goals.

So Congress’s likely actions will wreak more havoc that will inescapably increase the number of abortions. It will unnecessarily add to our misery as a country. And it won’t retard the use of fetal tissues in medical research.

So nice going Congressional Republicans! You remain as consistent as always promoting your agenda. Your reflexive actions here offer us more of the same counterproductive results Americans have come to expect from you. It’s not surprising then that a recent Pew poll found the fewest number of Americans approving of the Republican Party in decades (just 32%).

It also sounds like you are going to get one hell of a karmic wallop come elections next year. Don’t tell me then that you didn’t see this coming.

 
The Thinker

Retirement’s first year

Certain people get paid breaks during their careers. They are called sabbaticals. It’s basically an extended period of paid downtime, usually at least six months, to get away from a 9-5 job and recharge. It’s a privilege apparently given to a vanishingly few of us: ministers, scientists and professors for the most part. The rest of us don’t merit the privilege. The sabbatical depends on the idea that a change of scenery and intellectual focus will feed a creative mind and it will result in renewed energy and perhaps new ideas upon your return.

I could have used a few sabbaticals in my career. I think I would have been more effective in the workplace. Of course I didn’t get any of them. Some of us though have the privilege to retire well and in decent health at a reasonably young age. I opted for retirement a year ago. August 1, 2014 was my last day as a full time salaried employee. I retired at age 57 principally because I could. My federal pension was generous as I was under the old retirement system and I was highly graded in the government. In addition I had enough saved for retirement that it appeared I could reasonably expect to match my standard of living. It helped to have almost all my debts paid off too.

Still, retiring was a bit of a nervy thing to do. It ends badly for a lot of people. Often they discover they don’t really have enough money to have the sort of retirement they envisioned. Or they find themselves terminally bored, missing the contact they used to have at the office. I miss having the daily office experience, although at the time it was a mixed experience. I keep in touch with a few old colleagues, mostly on Facebook. However, most of them have vanished as a continuing presence in my life. I also miss having an office, just some place outside the house to escape to for much of the day. Of course I love my wife, but I wasn’t sure if I would like her as much when we were in each other’s faces so often.

So far I feel like I haven’t properly retired. For one thing, I haven’t stopped working. I don’t work full time, but I am doing some consulting that amounts to about twenty hours a week on average. It just depends on what inquiries come in through my professional website. This was by design. In spite of the pension and the retirement savings, I wasn’t confident that we could maintain our standard of living. Continuing to earn some money eased my financial anxiety. It also forced me to keep engaged in the work world, just in a different way than I used to.

When I wasn’t consulting my wife and I were busy remaking our lives. As regular readers know, the last year has been busy in spite of the fact that we are retired. That’s because we chose to relocate, and that decision started a whole chain of events. It meant selling our house in Virginia and moving to western Massachusetts. We sold the house in April and now we live in temporary lodgings in Easthampton, Massachusetts while our house in nearby Florence lumbers toward completion. It won’t be until we are in our new house and things are properly put away that this transition will finally be complete.

From last August through last March most of my time was doing basic fix up to our old house so it would sell. This meant what seemed like endless trips to the local Lowes, plastering, painting and minor construction jobs. Simultaneously we had to find a new place in Massachusetts. A neighborhood had to be selected, a house price agreed to and contracts had to be signed. It was all very tedious and often nerve wracking, but it worked out quite well. I went by our new house today and inspected the newly installed drywall, which is all screwed into place but awaits a lot of joint compound. We hope to move in during the middle of September.

As nerve wracking and expensive as the whole process was, it was still better than my old job. It had pretty much burned me out after ten years. The cast of masters I reported to had changed as well, and not for the better, giving me more incentive to get out. It did not take long after retiring to find that I slept better and was much less stressed in general. I discovered I have a natural sleep pattern after all (bedtime is around 11:30 and eight to eight and a half hours of sleep a night is what I need). I rarely got that when employed, except on the weekends. The crazy demands of my job and the frequently hellish commutes made it mostly impossible. I spent much of my professional life sleep deprived.

I rarely find myself bored in retirement, but I do find myself doing more of what I prefer to do and less of what I don’t like to do. I found that I like information technology too much to give it up. I try to stay current on the latest trends and to expand my knowledge, even though I am unlikely to need to know a lot of what I am learning. I used to feel guilty about surfing the web at work. It’s obviously not a problem anymore. I surf with abandon. Should I get bored I have Netflix streaming as a distraction. I also subscribe to a music streaming service. Together they provide a lot of entertainment.

Now that I’ve moved I find that I exercise more. I’ve taken up biking again and have enjoyed the many bike trails in our new neighborhood. I often walk in the evenings, generally for a few miles. I also enjoy learning about my new community. Finding new doctors, meeting new neighbors and connecting with a new religious community have proven to be growth experiences. Before the move I stayed connected to my community too. Right until the end I kept volunteering at my local Unitarian church. I also taught a class at a local community college. I am trying to teach here as well, but so far there have been no nibbles.

It does at times feel surreal to have relocated four hundred miles away. I had been living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for more than thirty-five years. I do miss some things from that area. In some ways I stay connected. I still read The Washington Post; I just do it online. At the same time I enjoy reading the local newspaper around here, pedestrian though it is compared to the Post. In the Daily Hampshire Gazette a big news story can be a moose found ambling through a suburban neighborhood. Routine content includes school lunch menus. I read the details of local town meetings where items like buying a new fire truck must get an up or down vote from the citizenry. They practice real democracy here in New England. It would not occur to The Post to publish this sort of “news”. It would be beneath them.

When you live in and around Washington D.C. you are deeply consumed by the minutia of national and international affairs. Who you know is important but what’s most important is what you do, which amounts to what power do you have over the government, which ideally involves control of policy or regulation. One of the first questions you are asked when you meet someone new is “What do you do?” In my last job I had a reasonably prestigious position. While that vanished with retirement, I find I simply don’t miss the authority or the problems I used to wrestle with. It’s someone else’s problem now. I’ve moved on.

I’ll try to come back to this topic in a year. I expect that my next year of retirement will be more settled and I’ll have a truer perspective of what it means and feels like to be retired. So far I have found that if you are reasonably confident that your financial house is in order and you are pretty good as distracting yourself with fun things to do, it is something to look forward to and not to dread.

 
The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

Mad Max: Fury Road

Believe it or not, I’m new to the Mad Max franchise. Post-apocalyptic Earth movies are not exactly my favorite genre, although with rapid climate change they are looking more plausible. Mad Max movies are almost as old as Star Wars movies. The first one was released in 1979. All of them have director George Miller in common, although in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller had George Ogilvie as a co-director. Thirty years between films is a long time, long enough that you have to be pretty old to have seen the earlier movies. In Mad Max: Fury Road we get something of a reboot. Mel Gibson, mostly an unknown before the first movie made him a star, showed up in the next two, but in this version Miller wisely decided that Gibson was just way too old, so he cast Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky instead. When you settle into your chair, you had best buckle your seatbelt tightly.

With so many action adventure movies made and on the market, it would be hard to pick the wildest of them all, but Mad Max: Fury Road would certainly compete well for the top of this heap. There is hardly a moment of calm in the whole frenetic movie. Shot in the Australian desert like I believe all of the previous films were, poor abused Max is one of many simply trying to survive. It’s unclear why he wants to survive, given the horror of this world, its lack of water, and the penchant of its citizens for war and bashing each other’s heads in. Max is so busy surviving that he doesn’t have time to tell anyone his name, particularly not Imperitor Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted confidant and commander of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe controls something of a dessert oasis where he sporadically releases deluges of water from his citadel for his dehydrated slaves. He also sends out war parties for his periodic battles. Sending out Imperitor Furiosa turns out to be a mistake as she is on a mission of escape to find the green land that she grew up in. Worse, she escapes with Joe’s prized and beautifully nubile five wives. Max comes along for the ride involuntarily because he is being tapped for his blood. Max manages to escape and joins Furiosa, while Immortan Joe follows in hot pursuit.

That’s pretty much the plot and while it’s not much of a plot it sure is entertaining as all get out. George Miller certainly knows how to direct action movies, and this one is definitely a tour de force of grit, gumption, violence, chaos and survival skills, all coherently packaged somehow in all its appalling horror. Most of us would prefer death to the lives that these people live, but not to worry, most will encounter death along the way. Part of the film noir of his franchise is this civilization’s ability to cannibalize auto parts from an older industrial age and create impressive and scary behemoths of belching automotive wonder, complete with a crazy guitar player on the lead vehicle channeling Black Sabbath as these battle groups move forward. It sure is weird and it sure is cool somehow.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling post-apocalyptic world, very well refined, but hard to turn away from. You won’t want to walk out of the theater during this movie, except possibly in horror or terror. Miller has lost none of his dubious gifts for this genre that he sort of invented. Having not seen the earlier movies, I can’t believe they are better. I think he has peaked and proven he is and probably always will be the master of this peculiar genre.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Mr. Holmes

Mad Max: Fury Road played pretty much everywhere, but this surprisingly engaging lightweight charmer was only available at the local arts theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mr. Holmes of course is Sherlock Holmes, previously of 221-B Baker Street, except this Holmes is 93 and nearing the end of a 35-year retirement in a modest country villa where he occupies his time caring for bees. There’s no one left alive that you will recognize: Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson are long in their graves, and Holmes is barely holding on and quickly losing his memory. Holmes, played by the master actor Ian McKellen, has been driven to visiting Japan in hopes of a potion that will help him recover his fading memory. For he very much wants to write down the details of his last case before he dies, the one that precipitated his retirement.

Unsurprisingly, McKellen does a great job playing an ancient looking Sherlock Holmes. The minimalist cast includes Laura Linney as the dowdy widowed Mrs. Munro, the housekeeper, and Milo Parker as Roger, her son, who takes an unusual interest in Mr. Holmes and his story. The plot frequently goes back to the past. We learn of the unusual events of his last case and his connection with the son of a British diplomat of Japanese ancestry. And there is something of an extra case to solve that you will discover toward the end involving the bees that Holmes and Roger take care of. In fact, the movie has something of a cliffhanger ending that ties things up rather nicely.

In short, Mr. Holmes is pretty good sleuthing, although it’s quite different than the sleuthing you are used to from Sherlock Holmes. Much of the movie focuses on his mental and physical decline. It brings some humanity to a man that is portrayed as too logical and smart to have passions and down to earth failings. It’s surprisingly engaging yet understated and deserves venues in more popular theaters. Marketers must have correctly judged there is not much of an appetite for a small film like this in the American public. It’s their loss.

3.3 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Donald Trump and the art of carnival barking

Sorry about delays in postings, Razor fans. I’ve been occupied this week by a family reunion. Aside from deaths and weddings, reunions don’t happen very often in my family. The last scheduled one was in 2000. This one probably would not have happened either if I had not taken the initiative last year to find a location and to prod my siblings. Our reunion at Chenango Valley State Park was good while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. The weather at the park near Binghamton, New York (where most of us grew up) over the weekend was oppressively hot and humid, uncharacteristic of the region. It meant sleep was difficult, particularly during many extreme thunderstorms and torrential rains.

While we arrived last Saturday, siblings quickly started peeling away beginning on Tuesday. I ended up leaving early too. My wife developed an ear infection on a trip of her own, came home and started throwing up. She was weak and worried she might be developing pneumonia. So I drove back on Wednesday. My wife is improving but not without a lot of requisite suffering.

So I’m back and catching up on the news that I missed at the park while I sweated and tried to keep mosquitoes from biting me. There were no lack of interesting current events, but the media for some reason could not stop highlighting the latest crazy nonsense coming out of the mouth of Republican presidential “candidate” Donald Trump. Trump has developed a knack for sucking the oxygen out of the room, much to the consternation of his fellow Republican candidates that wanted the privilege instead. Unfortunately, their idea of doing this is to bash liberals, the poor, environmentalists and the Iranian government, which is hardly novel. Trump’s approach is to be more outrageous than any of the other candidates, and by an order of magnitude.

Trump has figured out a way to outdo them all by saying outrageous things not just about Mexican immigrants (suggesting most are rapists and criminals) but also his fellow Republicans. Most recently he suggested that Senator John McCain was not a war hero because all he did was spend five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison. It’s all pretty crazy stuff, but it seems to be working in getting cameras and microphones to follow him. Republicans seem to like people that are outspoken to the point of being insane and foaming at the mouth. They also like candidates that make unrealistic promises, like Trump’s promise to build a wall along our entire border with Mexico, which he says wouldn’t be hard or expensive to do. At the moment Trump holds what is likely to be an ephemeral lead in the polls among self-identified Republicans.

I’m still puzzling over what Trump is really up to but I doubt it’s the presidency. It’s clear that he likes attention. He made his fortune in part by being brazen and outspoken. His crazy remarks are par for his course. This is a man after all, who at least says he believes that President Obama was not born in the United States. Wind Trump back twenty years when even then he was making motions of running for president and his policy solutions were very mainstream. Today he is wild and outrageous, which makes me suspect he is not being sincere. Perhaps he is impossible to accurately psychoanalyze, but in my mind there are two distinct explanations for what is spewing out of his mouth: he’s either running a parody campaign realizing in advance he won’t win and is just out for some kicks, or he is a secret Democratic party mole.

I personally lean toward the latter explanation, in part because Democratic administrations tend to be good for business. Much of his fortune is based on greasing the gears of government to look favorably on his skyscrapers and casinos. It’s hard to imagine that a man as successful as he is could be so blindingly stupid. For example, he needs those illegal Mexicans he rails against to wash the dishes in his restaurants and casinos, and doubtless employs plenty of them already. He’s probably not a progressive, but if he is sane then he’s more mainstream than he lets on. I say this based on his actions, not on his mouth. He may be worth the ten billion dollars he claims he is worth, but he has had many failures in his career. Indeed, he is hardly a self-made man. He got his start courtesy of his father’s fortunes. Many of his projects have proven disastrous for himself and his partners. I figure he simply doesn’t care what people think about him. His extreme wealth gives him that privilege.

But he can command the media’s attention, which means he can control the media playground. Most smart political observers think his popularity will quickly peter out and when it does to keep the camera on him he will launch a third party run for president. He has hinted at such. Since he is drawing Republicans to him instead of Democrats, a third party run would simply fracture the Republican base and the party’s chances of acquiring the White House in 2016. The outcome would look a lot like the 1992 election, when independent Ross Perot also fractured the Republican base, leading improbably to the election of Bill Clinton, when the overall dynamics would have favored George H.W. Bush’s reelection. In any event, his candidacy is not good for the Republican Party in general and for the many candidates vying for the nomination. If he is to represent the Republican brand through winning the nomination, he may be the death of the Republican Party, which first rose with the election of Abraham Lincoln.

If Trump actually believes the crap he is spewing then he is untethered to reality, which is just a polite way of saying he is mentally ill. He is not. He is crafty. He knows how to get attention. You can’t get attention by being conventional. The Republican Party of today is hardly conventional. Indeed, it is not even conservative. It is radical. It takes a certain skill to command attention in such an arena, but he has the advantage that with so many candidates the media cannot focus on any of them. He does know how to be a carnival barker. Trump has the skill and has used it successfully in his career. He has learned the art of showmanship, and it involves learning how to be heard. That requires being very loud in a tone and manner that is discordant because it draws attention. He is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Try not to hear that. This is how he sucks oxygen out of the room and draws attention to himself. It’s a marketing strategy. And in marketing you learn that any attention, even negative attention, is better than being ignored. At least you are talked about.

It works but it generally doesn’t work in achieving a lofty goal like being president of the United States. It might if the standards and expectations of the American voter have degraded as much as Trump might be hoping they have. If they have then we must really depend on God blessing America, because Trump would be a disaster of a president. It probably would not take both Republicans and Democrats long to impeach and convict him out of office.

 

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