Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

The Thinker

The endless battle of the bulge

There is some good news, somewhat anecdotal, on the relentless war on our waists. The other day food conglomerates Heinz and Kraft announced they would merge, forming a new company, Heinz-Kraft. It’s unlikely that these companies would be merging at all except that their sales are down. These kings of processed foods like macaroni and cheese and Velveeta are finding that profits are falling with their sales. They hope that by merging they can reverse the trend, or at least find cost savings to prop up profits even as processed food sales seem to be receding.

If I were a stockholder in either of these companies, I would be buying more of their shares, not selling them. When forced to choose between what I would like Americans to do (eat healthy food) and what they are likely to do, I think the great expansion of the American gut is ultimately going to win. Of course there are plenty of Americans who eat healthy, as evidenced by the sales at stores like Whole Foods. Most of these customers though were eating healthy before they started shopping there. They are shopping there I believe principally because it is more convenient, and they get more variety at places like Whole Foods. They are also understandably paranoid: about processed foods, about genetically modified foods and want to live in good health to at least 100. Good luck to them on this quest.

I am not at all convinced that those of us who are principally Heinz and Kraft consumers will change our eating habits. Dieting is certainly doable, but only a relative few of those who do diet will manage to successfully make the lifestyle changes to keep the weight off. I am one of many people who have yo-yoed over the years. Dieters are great at taking the weight off. Keeping it off is the only trick they haven’t mastered.

So why is it? Dieticians have their own ideas, but I suspect most dieticians don’t really understand the problem because they don’t experience it. I think most diets fail for cultural reasons. But also, it’s almost impossible not to encounter temptation. One can of course choose to resist temptation, but it’s much easier to do so when the temptation is not constantly in your face.

Alcoholics go to AA meetings regularly, or at least try to. It’s unlikely though when they drive down the street that they will pass a package store on every block. Of course in some states it’s not too hard to find a package store on every block, or what seems like every block. Florida comes to mind but there are many other states like this. Unsurprisingly, if you are an alcoholic you’ll have more luck staying sober in states where package stores are relatively rare. It’s easier to resist temptation when you encounter temptation less often.

If you are a consumer of processed foods, avoiding temptation is virtually impossible. If you grew up eating healthy then temptation is less of an issue because you do not crave these foods, so you can pass down a strip blissfully immune from the lure of pizza and burger joints along your route. If you picked up the habit over the years then going down the street is like having a package store on every block is to an alcoholic. Of course the danger is not just your local strip. It’s your local grocery store as well where Kraft and Heinz stuff most of the aisles with products. It’s at the quick mart, it’s at the vending machine down the hall at work or school, and it’s at the airport, the train station and pretty much anywhere you go. Unhealthy food is everywhere and it’s relatively cheap.

If you can manage to unlearn the habit of eating this stuff, you can find salvation. As noted, few manage to do so in the long run. It would help to live a cloistered life, but even if you manage to do so, you also need to cut yourself off from the larger world. Madison Avenue will make sure that ads are calculated to make you give in to temptation. It’s no wonder then that few Americans succeed in permanent weight loss. For what you really need is the superhuman ability to resist temptation and it turns out that we are only human.

For most of our history, mankind has been hunter/gatherers. We foraged for food. We killed local animals for meat. Foraging is built into us. To survive foragers preferred food sources close to where they were living. So if there were berries to eat across the stream, they were more likely to be eaten than to travel a dozen miles for something else. Survival depended on expending calories wisely. This is so engrained in us that today we unconsciously select food choices close to us. So if there is an unhealthy food option a block away and a healthy food option two blocks away, when we get hungry more than likely the unhealthy option will win. Location tends to win. Meanwhile Madison Avenue keeps refining pitches to us via various media to try newer and tastier foods. So maybe we find that we prefer Papa Johns pizza to Pizza Hut, so over time that encourages Papa Johns to build a store near you, increasing the likelihood that you will prefer unhealthy food. In short, most of us are caught up in au unhealthy food cycle that will become virtually impossible to break. Hence, most diets fail in the long run.

Eating of course is also a highly social activity. No one would come to a party where no is food served, and they don’t come to eat healthy. We will tend to emulate the eating habits of those around us simply to fit in. So if other members of our family are eating unhealthy then we are likely to do so as well. But we’re also likelier to do so if our friends and neighbors do as well.

So breaking this cycle looks pretty hopeless. One way to increase the odds that you will break the odds is to hang out with people that eat healthy. Of course, there’s some likelihood that they won’t let you into their club because you aren’t skinny waifs like them. And they won’t understand your craving for a Ding Dong when they naturally select stalks of celery to munch on.

What can be done but probably won’t happen in this country is we could tax unhealthy food. We could also use zoning to limit the number of unhealthy places to acquire food, recognizing that these places are essentially public nuisances. One offshoot of the Affordable Care Act is that restaurants of a certain size are going to have to list calorie counts on their menus. This is a small step in the right direction, but resisting temptation is much easier when temptation is not in your face, or it costs extra to indulge in a temptation. Social engineering does work given time. It has dramatically reduced smoking rates over a couple of generations. However we have to find the moxey to put into office politicians that will do these things. Given that campaigns are increasingly funded by the very rich whose wealth often depends on you maintaining your unhealthy eating habits, this approach is unlikely at best.

Which is why it would be foolish to bet against Heinz-Kraft. Hold on to your stock and maybe use your capital gains to shop at Whole Foods instead. As for me, I’m sadly betting that in this Battle of the Bulge, our bulge is going to win out.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: March 2015 edition

Sorry Craigslist fans. I am a bit late with this month’s review. I typically do it on the first Friday of the month. But I was occupied with my weekend trip to Baltimore and selling my house. So here I am midweek and wondering if the quality of postings on the Northern Virginia Craigslist Casual Encounters section on a Wednesday will come close to matching those I usually find on Fridays. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to dive in.

A few statistics first. For February I had at least 255 web page requests for my Craigslist posts, about 14% of total traffic. Doubtless there were many more via email and newsfeeds that I can’t track. The first page of listings today shows no women at all looking for men. This would be strange except such posts are almost quickly flagged and deleted, because they are usually judged as bogus. So I will browse beyond the first page so women get some representation today. Otherwise on page one I see:

  • 39 men looking for women
  • 47 men looking for a man
  • 2 men looking for a couple
  • 2 women looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for another couple
  • 4 transgender people looking for a man

So here we go:

  • He’s a 23-year-old man with a hotel room and his own gloryhole inside it. I’m trying to figure out how he does this. He can’t replace the hotel room door with his own door. I guess he would have to haul his own door into the hotel room and put it up there, but presumably it can’t attach to the wall or anything. And it would be pretty hard to hide from security cameras. Or maybe he strings a blanket from the ceiling and cuts out a hole in it, or puts up an eight foot high piece of cardboard attached to the walls with duct tape. I have no particular attraction to my own sex, but I kind of wish he included a picture with his set up. It would probably qualify for posting on whitetrashrepairs.com.
  • She’s from Manassas and wants to learn how to milk your prostate. Speaking as a guy, this sounds about as much fun as getting kicked in the balls, but if you are into this give her a try. You must send a photo and be over 40.
  • He’s basically a 22-year-old virgin. He’d probably have more luck snaring a woman if he simply put that in the ad’s title.
  • She’s 19, from Bristow and is into daddy incest. Not with her real daddy of course, and I suspect this is ultimately about separating you from your wallet. Her picture may convince you to give her a try. If you want to do this with a MILF, this 41-year-old woman is looking for a male to do bondage with and possibly incest role-play as well. What she really wants is to use you to find another woman to join you who she would then top. This sounds very complicated! So if that’s too much, there’s also this 42-year-old woman looking for a similar daddy encounter, which presumably would mean a happy time for some 60+ area man. Incest, or really fake incest, must be the new up and coming kink on Craigslist.
  • They are a couple looking for another couple but they do have their standards. To weed out flakes, the women must chat on the phone first and you must send them a picture of both of you together. Also, you must be in shape and under 50.
  • Somewhere in Sterling or Ashburn is a 48-year-old crossdressing man who wants to meet another man in the public restroom stall in his office building. He wants to get to the bottom of this encounter, his bottom actually, but only until 5. Presumably he’ll be on an extended potty break from his desk job.
  • If you are into urinating on, berating and degrading women on their balcony in the dark check out this attractive woman. She’s also looking for a big cock (aren’t they all?). Bonus if you like chomping on and smoking cigars. For something this weird, I actually hope she realizes her fantasy.
  • Here’s a forties couple from Manassas/Woodbridge looking for a couple to basically date. Getting between the sheets is not their main objective.
  • Men, if you are not into lady boys, you might want to make an exception for this 25-year-old tranny from Dunn Loring. Check out her picture and tell me what you think. Her only requirement is that you be under 30. Or maybe you would prefer a visiting black tranny with long black hair and wearing a spotted bra and a cool leather coat. Only I think she is charging. The Dunn Loring lady boy swears she is not.
  • This is a bit strange. A 50+ guy is looking for a 50+ woman, principally because he needs a woman with him to get admitted into local nudist parties.
  • He’s a 28-year-old tomcat, but at least he’s open enough about it. He wants to screw you every which way possible, all unprotected. Just don’t expect him to hang around and do boring things like love you, marry you and pay child support. I’d suggest that he hook up with this 24-year-old woman from Arlington, but she is looking for someone at least three years younger.
  • For some reason I don’t understand, plenty of women are into seeing their man get off with another man. Do you have a husband, boyfriend or significant other you’d like to see get oral sex from another man while you watch? Here’s a guy that will oblige, but he’s strangely particular. The guy must be at least seven inches and under 35.
  • Are you a man with an extensive collection of sex toys? This 31-year-old woman from Woodbridge is willing to let you try all of them on her, providing you are okay with her being a very, very large woman. You must host.

This is not a bad sampling for midweek. Another review will come next month, which is likely to be my last Craigslist critique, at least for here in Northern Virginia, as we’ll be moving. It is likely that there won’t be this level of kink and craziness where we are going.

 
The Thinker

The Walmart egg cracks at last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: February 2015 edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

What should marriage mean anyhow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

A taxing situation for Intuit and TurboTax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got to say, Intuit had it coming.

 
The Thinker

The real price of discrimination

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.

 
The Thinker

Free speech has limits

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: January 2015 edition

It’s a new year, but I doubt much has changed at my local Craigslist casual encounter section. Scanning the first page of today’s ads I count:

  • 54 men looking for women
  • 27 men looking for men
  • 3 men looking for a couple
  • 4 men looking for a transgender
  • 1 woman looking for a man
  • 2 women looking for a woman
  • 2 couples looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for another couple
  • 1 transgender looking for man

I also count at least 216 web hits for my Craigslist posts in December, not great but traffic was slow in December, so this represents a bit over 13% of traffic, which is about normal. Women first today:

  • She’s planning to visit us in late January and is looking for a couple to play with during the day at her hotel. She really wants to try a woman, which will be a first time for her. Her boyfriend is coming too but plans to be at meetings, but he may be available to watch. I would certainly find an excuse to get out of a meeting to watch these fireworks.
  • There must be more gay men in the Dulles Technology Corridor than I thought. This one has evidence that he is largely endowed, or at least exceeds in the girth department. This 48-year-old man is particular: he only wants Asian men. Here’s a 47-year-old guy that is not as particular about ethnicity but wants college-aged men instead. My spidey senses think he may in fact be the previous poster. Finally, here’s a 44-year-old man who simply wants a mutual jack off. That at least is reasonably safe. Men, if you are going to indulge in one of these dubious adventures, I say go with the last guy.
  • Guys, if you are into giving oral sex to a 31-year-old Asian woman, it’s best to get a room and act quickly. Unfortunately, that’s all you are going to get to do. She lives in Burke.
  • There seems to be a New Year’s contest for the largest gangbang. This 28-year-old woman wants ten military guys and she promises that no orifice will be barred. This 32-year-old woman wants thirty men, and you don’t have to be military, but you do need to be college aged. No cost she says, but I have to think getting rid of chlamydia or worse won’t come free. This is certainly a memorable albeit profoundly stupid way to “break in” the New Year!
  • She is looking for a she but she has a gatekeeper: he, i.e. her black boyfriend and of course he gets to watch and is the one you will actually be corresponding with. There are many intimate pictures of she, some primarily of interest to gynecologists.
  • There are a lot of men into seeing other men screw their wives. Among these there seem to be men who are trying to talk their wives into doing this, but they seem reluctant or particular. Anyhow, this 40-year-old man from Alexandria is searching for a guy who will patiently seduce his wife, but it has to happen “organically”. He claims they have done this before. Don’t take the bait, guys. It’s unlikely to work and I suspect his real motive is to prove adultery, so he can dump her. And if you are as muscled as the guy he is looking for, you can find much quicker success at your local watering hole.
  • At last: genuinely safe sex on Craigslist. Alas, it’s not you (a guy) that will be having sex, but this couple will with each other. You just get to watch them perform. They prefer 25 and younger. No mention of whether there is an entrance charge for this show.
  • Attention Prince William County police: here’s a guy in Gainesville that wants to be caught by a cop while his girlfriend is giving him a blowjob in a public place. Instead of arresting them though you are supposed to drop your pants and get one from her to stay out of jail. You have to wonder what kind of girl would hang around with such a sick “boyfriend”. I hope the cops there have some integrity or aren’t paying attention to Craigslist. Not a cop? Not to worry. You can pretend to be a cop, but have to look the part.
  • Here’s a 27-year-old guy willing to pay for the privilege of having carnal knowledge of an older woman. Here’s another man who wants to worship (be degraded by) a black woman. Here’s an older man looking for a sugar baby, but you must be young, thin, fit and submissive to earn your allowance. And here’s a generous older man who thinks it’s not sex if he has an orgasm all over your face.
  • If you are a lesbian but also into 50 Shades of Grey, this 33-year-old dominant woman with a prominent sexual part below her waist is willing to take charge of you. I don’t get the Shades of Grey thing, as she should be way too young to have any grey.
  • Here is one very desperate “kinky bareback crossdresser” looking for men at Sterling – Dulles – Ashburn. He seems to post one of these a day, and this is just a sample. I think I posted about him before because you can do almost anything to him but you must arrive freshly showered. Go figure.

More in February.

 
The Thinker

The rationality of altruism

It’s Christmas time so this being America of course there are going to be people who will object to it. One such person is Peter Schwartz. On December 19 he wrote an op-ed published in The Washington Post. Schwartz was bemoaning the whole charity thing as something evil. If only we could celebrate rational self-interest instead, he opines. Being a distinguished fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, of course that’s what Peter would prefer to do:

A “season of trading” would make better sense than a “season of giving.” The central principles could be summarized as: Give when it’s in your interest to do so. Give because someone deserves it, not simply because he or she needs it. Don’t sacrifice yourself for others, and don’t ask others to sacrifice for you.

I don’t like to repeat myself too much about Ms. Rand, since I have written about Objectivism a couple of times, here and here among likely other posts. The good news is that Mr. Schwartz does appreciate the holiday season in his own way. Schwartz writes:

I love to see the twinkling lights adorning our houses and streets, the delightfully inventive displays in store windows, the Santas greeting enthusiastic children. I wholeheartedly join in when yuletide songs are being sung. I’m happy to attend parties that evoke the holiday spirit.

Ain’t that sweet of him. But rather than celebrate the virtue of selflessness during the holidays, which Schwartz considers a flaw, he would rather celebrate a “season of trading”. So, of course, did Wall Street this week, which is celebrating rational self-interest by having the DJIA pass 18,000. From Schwartz’s perspective, that’s the true meaning of the holidays.

I guess Schwartz and I have different criteria for rational self-interest. I would think using his criteria that there would be no rational reason to donate blood. It will almost certainly go to someone you don’t know. Worse, you won’t get paid anything more than some cookies for donating a pint of your precious bodily fluids. Should I need some surgery I could perhaps pay some people to donate their blood. That would be in our mutual self-interest. Given enough lead-time I could even donate my own blood and have it thawed out for the date of surgery.

This hypothetically perfect system would break down though if I had some sort of major accident where I was wheeled into an emergency room unconscious. My life would literally hang on the charity of others. It’s for these sorts of reasons that I happily donated blood. I’d still be donating today had the standards not been tightened. In 2002 I was told they detected Human T-cell lymphotropic virus (both I and II) antibodies in my blood. I most likely got it from my mother during breastfeeding since I don’t use illegal intravenous drugs and am not known for sleeping around, but it now disqualifies me from giving blood. But if everyone practiced rational self-interest the way Schwartz does, there would be a lot of unnecessarily dead people.

Today being Christmas somewhere nearby, probably in Reston Virginia, an eight year old boy has opened his presents. Among them will be a soccer ball and a little toy helicopter, which came with alkaline batteries that I inserted into the box (they were not supplied). I will never meet the boy but I do know that he would not be getting these presents that he had asked for had I not signed up for the Secret Santa program at my church. I was out about $50 for these presents, and since I am on a fixed income this was certainly not in my rational self-interest. But crazily, I did it anyhow, did so gladly and plan to do so again in future years, as I have done in many previous years too.

I do it in part because having some poor child be more miserable on Christmas of all days strikes me as cruel. While I am no distinguished fellow of the lofty Ayn Rand Institute, it strikes me that cruelty is a concept Objectivists simply don’t get. To get cruelty, you first have to understand empathy, and if you are incapable of empathy unless it affects your rational self-interest, then it must be something of a hypothetical concept. It must not be something that millions of people experience on a daily basis and which causes them great pain and suffering. It’s either that or you do get it but just don’t care, which to my mind is much worse.

It was perhaps in the rational self-interest of my many teachers to teach me skills that made me successful. After all, they earned a salary. But it was not in any of my teachers’ self interest to go the extra mile with me, to impart their love of learning or to help me persevere in my studies when I wanted to give up. Yet it was particularly these teachers that imparted true learning because they connected the outside world with the person I am on the inside. They personalized and tailored learning so that I could succeed. I am inexpressibly grateful to these teachers for helping me succeed. I simply could not have done it by myself.

In real life of course that’s how people succeed. It is based not on just how hard they work or how creative they happen to be but on how well others have communicated the learning and the relational human skills that allowed them to succeed. There is a reason it is harder for those from poor families to work their way into the middle class or genuine prosperity. It is because they exist in environments that overall are not nurturing. Parenthood is the ultimate experience in altruism. An altruistic parent spends a good part of twenty years or more and substantial amount of their treasure to help someone succeed. No one has a child to live off his or her earnings.

We give to those who have less because it complements our better nature. We all succeed on the backs of others and their willingness to carry us, at least for a time. This happens not from rational self-interest, but from exercising the unseen muscle called caring and empathy and their many dimensions. These include caring not just for family but for all, even those we cannot help directly. I believe that doing so is entirely rational: we end up with a world less hurtful, more vibrant, more whole, more human, more just and more enriching than if we only looked out for Number One. Jesus taught us this (and he was one of many) more than two thousand years ago.

It’s a lesson though that won’t seem to take in the minds of those like Peter Schwartz, and that puts a sad note for me on this Christmas morning.

 

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