The Thinker

How to take down Trump

One of my nightmares is waking up the first Wednesday of November and finding out that Donald Trump is our president elect. There are lots of sane reasons to think that this simply can’t happen. The Donald’s negatives are through the roof. Last July a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported 61 percent of voters would never vote for Trump, but that was before he started running in earnest. In December, according to a Quinnipiac survey, fifty percent of registered voters last month said they would be embarrassed if he were our president. One thing that makes me leery is that people were saying the same things about Ronald Reagan but mainly by force of his personality plus that certain intangible something that people saw in his eyes he became president anyhow. We are still stuck in the Reagan wreckage, and arguably Donald Trump is the latest creature to crawl out of it.

There is no question that Trump has charisma, although lots of people see past it. So many factors affect who will be our next president. Much could hinge on the economy, but a lot of it will simply have to do with who gets nominated and how enthusiastic each party is about their candidate. Republicans probably won’t be enthusiastic if Trump is nominated, at least not establishment Republicans. But Trump though is going for a bigger audience and he is attracting principally disaffected whites, many of which haven’t voted in recent elections. They like his brash style and take charge attitude and see it as authentic, but mostly he plays on their fears, an unstated fear of losing white privilege. While Trump has high negatives, so does Hillary Clinton. Trump is a master persuader, Clinton not so much considering how President Obama managed to win the 2008 Democratic nomination. So yes, it’s possible, although I would like to take comfort in polls that suggest it just won’t happen.

Back in 2012 as that process went forward I offered my thoughts on how to deal with political bullies. Four years later the post still gets regular hits. The Republican presidential field has many bullies. Trump certainly is one but (among those still in the running) others include Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. All are used to getting their way and will use tactics fair or foul to achieve it.

Trump though combines bullying with other non-bullying tactics including humor, demagoguery, flippant remarks and a well-practiced technique of staying in the news. Pretty much every day he will say or do something controversial specifically so he will stay at the top of the news. Most recently was a deprecating remark about Ted Cruz being born in Canada and how that could be a problem. While a lot of what he spews is crazy, it’s actually quite well thought out. Rest assured that Trump has lots of lines and tactics in reserve that he will use to cut down the competition. He has a keen sense of when to release a quip or barb so that it will be most wounding.

Trump is a different kind of bully, most of who have only a couple of tactics they repeat ad nauseam. With Trump, you never know what will come out of his mouth next, but you do know it will be something and it will be controversial and entertaining. Surprise is one of his unique weapons. Hillary Clinton, if she wins the Democratic Party nomination, is likely to be too civilized to go for the jugular like Donald. Trump excels at getting people off their gait and you know he has some waiting for her when their time is optimal. Ideally Clinton needs to get Trump off his gait, which no one seems to be able to do. She (or Bernie Sanders should he win the nomination) needs to channel their inner Molly Ivins. Also, she to plant a meme in the voters mine now that will grow and win. Identifying that meme and planting it early may be crucial to winning in November.

In 2012 the winning meme was that Mitt Romney didn’t understand ordinary working people. The surreptitious recordings that he thought 47% of us were moochers made it stick like superglue. Due to Trump’s wealth and disdain for all sorts of groups, this can potentially work again. However, it will be harder because Trump is drawing many of these people. Trump is running a Fox News election by creating a theme and hammering it in relentlessly. You must have been asleep for the last six months not to know it: Make America Great Again.

What could be Clinton’s meme? Perhaps she could borrow portions of Trump’s theme. Here is my suggestion for an election meme for the Democratic candidate: Make America Whole Again. She could appeal to the disaffected by promising to be the president not to push a liberal agenda but to bring America together again. She could say that if elected she will champion the cause of moderates. She could promise to end gerrymandering, which simply removes moderates from the political process. For example, she could promise to pass a law that requires states to draw districts that are politically neutral and are overseen by impartial federal judges. She could run a campaign for the people, not just those with wealth.

She could say that our current poisonous partisanship is a cancer on our society and our government, and that Trump is exploiting it. (In fairness, Bernie Sanders has been saying this throughout his campaign.) In fact, she could say that Trump embodies this cancer and is making it metastasize. Fortunately Trump has quite a record that would be easy to exploit, for example his statement earlier in the campaign that Americans were being paid too much and aren’t working hard enough. This is laughable to anyone actually in the workforce today.

“Make America Whole Again” is the perfect rejoinder to Trump’s slogan. It plays on his slogan but makes it positive and sounds like something your mother would say. It acknowledges that things have gotten seriously off track but that she is the right one to fix it. She could even say that as a woman and mother, she knows it is true. She can play on the lessons that she learned, from her failure by being too insular in her health care legislation that she championed as First Lady, to her work as Secretary of State to help bind the wounds of a complex world. She can recall the real America she grew up with, that was hopeful and where America’s leadership was earned and based on respect and our beneficence. Trump’s entire demeanor is disrespectful. It could be a campaign about restoring our respect by making our government representative of everyone.

A campaign message of wholeness and integrity I think would have real legs, because it is authentic, not weaselly. One thing that is totally clear about Donald Trump is he lacks integrity. If the 2016 campaign becomes an integrity meme, then I think Trump can be neutered.

 
The Thinker

Today Jesus would be an atheist

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2015 Statistics

I only analyze my blog’s statistics annually, usually on January 1 for the previous year. The more I study web statistics however, the more I realize that they can lead you astray. For example, about 50% of my web hits come from referrals from search engines. This explains why my most popular web content is old, in some cases a decade or older. Just 7% of my web traffic was from a known referral (such as another website) and 4% came via social media links.

The blog’s home page is still the most hit web page, but it’s just 8% of all web page requests. This means that from the perspective of those using a browser this blog is more of an archive of potentially interesting disparate topics than someplace to go to get some insight into current issues. Increasingly those interested in current content on my blog are getting it indirectly through feeds. My stuff pops up in whatever technology they are using, perhaps a Tumblr account or in their Feedly instance. I can’t blame them. This is exactly what I do too since it is much more efficient.

Web hits

So my web hits are a lot less important than they used to be and don’t measure all my traffic, which partially explains my declining web hits over the years. In 2007 when feeds were relatively unused, I started reporting web hits to Google Analytics. Mostly since then my web hits have dropped, some years precipitously, but at least some of that traffic moved toward feeds instead.

In any event, I intuitively trust Google to provide reliable web statistics. Here are my annual web statistics courtesy of Google Analytics, which shows a 9% drop in sessions in 2015 compared with 2014 and a 12% drop in page views. For 2015 there were 17,950 sessions, 16,800 users and 22,871 page views. That’s on average 49 sessions a day and about 63 page requests a day. Presumably it is all human traffic. Overall though, web traffic has been pretty flat the last three years.

Next is a chart of my daily web hits over the year, as measured by Google Analytics. I noted a major spike beginning in November that has continued into December but seems to be receding. I don’t know why as no new post registered lots of hits. But I know most of these new hits are coming from Germany. Can someone from Germany leave a comment if you know what’s going on?

Occam's Razor's daily sessions count (2015)

Occam’s Razor’s daily sessions count (2015)

I also track hits with StatCounter and Quantcast. Quantcast recorded about 16,300 visits (which is roughly equivalent to Google Analytics sessions) and about 24,000 page views. Note: statistics for December 31, 2015 are not available yet.

pic3

Occam’s Razor Quantcast measured traffic (2015)

StatCounter counted 14,523 unique visits, 14,041 first time visits and 18,374 page views, so it’s recording a fraction of what Google and Quantcast noted. I think this is mostly due to pings getting lost or blocked on their way to their servers.

Occam’s Razor StatCounter Measured Traffic (2015)

Feed hits

While my web hits sagged compared to previous years, I’m at least doing well with feed (syndication) hits. A year ago I had 198 readers. Today I have 643 readers. A few weeks ago I hit 2096 readers. Feedcat, my feed broadcaster, won’t give me raw numbers but it will give me a traffic graph for the last six months:

Occam’s Razor Feed Traffic, last 6 months of 2015

Feeds show interest in current content by measuring how many times a single client polls the feed. So these numbers are good news as it suggests that over the course of the year I tripled interest in my current content. It also shows a surge in readers starting in November, with 43% from Germany, with lots of daily spikes up and down since then. This is not unexpected, as I don’t normally post every day. Thanks again to all the Germans and others who are reading my blog. I do appreciate it.

Content

Now I’ll delve into what people were reading in 2015. Feed hits are for current posts and tend to represent a bundle of posts (usually the most current ten posts) displayed at once. I can only count web hits here so presumably a lot of people were reading my current posts. I get few comments, probably because commenting through a feed is a hassle. (Note: this should now be much easier as I have addressed the spam comments issue with a Cleantalk subscription. So go ahead and click and comment; you should not have to go through a CAPTCHA.) From my web hits though I can see what’s hot and what’s not for those in browser-land.

Most viewed posts

If you wonder why I feature a monthly review of local Craigslist casual encounters post, you can see evidence here. Three of my top ten posts are Craigslist related. People read this stuff, albeit irregularly and mostly through web searches where a post matches some particular search term. My Google Analytics dashboard shows at least 2284 Craigslist pages viewed, and there’s much more from feed readers. I’m not sure if it’s because the web surfers are kinky, super horny or like me just find some humor in the bizarre stuff found on Craigslist. It’s for the latter reason that I also read the People of Walmart site daily.

  1. Site home page (1779 views, #1 last year too)
  2. Eulogy for my mother in law (1282 views, #2 last year too)
  3. The Illusion of Time (761 views, #7 last year)
  4. Craigslist casual encounters: now a crazily dangerous and illegal waste of time (663 views, #3 last year)
  5. The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason (380 views, #4 last year)
  6. Craigslist casual encounters: now officially a complete waste of time (366 views, #5 last year)
  7. If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win? (334 views)
  8. Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) edition (322 views)
  9. Eulogy for my mother (286 views, #6 last year)
  10. Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (238 views, #9 last year)

Top tags

I tag every post with one or more tags. A tag archive contains a collection of posts with the same tag. These were my top five most popular tags in 2015:

  1. Craigslist (325 views)
  2. Taxes (265 views)
  3. Las Vegas (198 views). This is basically my Sinless in Sin City
  4. Porter Stansberry (179 views)
  5. Battle of Chantilly (164 views)

Top category: Sociology (89 views)

Top browsers

Looking at browser usage is interesting to me and these usually follow web trends in general. Chrome is now dominant and IE, formerly the 800-pound gorilla, is fading quickly as Microsoft has largely give up this game and is promoting its new Edge browser instead. It’s curious that my Firefox traffic actually increased, bucking the general trend.

  1. Chrome (45% of traffic, up from 31% last year)
  2. Safari (22% of traffic, down from 23% last year) – This is probably mostly hits from iPhones and iPads
  3. Firefox (15% of traffic, up from 11% last year)
  4. Internet Explorer (13% of traffic, down from 23% last year)
  5. Android browser (2% of traffic)

Busiest month: December (3443 sessions)

Slowest month: August (969 sessions)

Mobile sessions in 2015: 3580 smartphone and 1761 tablet sessions

% Mobile visits of Total Visits: 30% (unchanged from last year)

Who’s reading?

Quantcast used to provide demographics of my readership. This year it tells me it can’t. Google Analytics though think it knows. Here are some things it says about you readers:

  • The highest segment of readers is ages 25-34 (23%), but these statistics are incomplete due to highly sporadic sampling
  • Men mostly read my blog (62%)
  • 53% of traffic comes from the United States, 24% from Germany, 4% from the United Kingdom and 3% from Canada

Why people bother to read my blog is a mystery Google will probably never understand, as it tends to be theme-less. A general survey would help but I have no way to get a representative sample. For those who subscribe to the blog, I suspect its appeal is that its scope is wide, which makes it relatively unique. The web excels at narrowcasting and my blog has more of a broadcast flavor.

Social Media

According to AddThis, which adds a tracking anchor to the end of URLs if you hit the site with a browser, there were 161 shares in 2015, with 134 sharing by copying the address bar in the browser, 6 Facebook likes, 8 Twitter tweets, 3 on Pinterest and 10 other shares. This is miniscule and nothing to brag about. It also says there were 5,508 visits, but I’m not sure what that means. The top content shared:

  1. Eulogy for my mother in law (111 visits)
  2. Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) Edition (55 visits)
  3. Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (36 visits)
  4. Craigslist tag (35 visits)
  5. The root of human conflict: emotion vs. reason (32 visits)

Google Analytics tracks social media differently. It looks at the referrer (referring web site) and if it’s a social media site, it counts it. It counts as top referrers:

  1. StumbleUpon (608 sessions). These appear to be almost entirely for my “The Illusion of Time” post.
  2. Pinterest (78 sessions)
  3. Twitter (44 sessions)
  4. Facebook (34 sessions)
  5. Tumbler (22 sessions)

Raw web log statistics

Finally, there are my raw web log statistics. Most of these hits are various search engines, not actual human beings, which means there are a whole lot of search robots regularly indexing the blog for a relatively tiny amount of human traffic. Here is my AWStats summary for 2015:

  • 277,672 visits (down 19% from 2014)
  • 112,365 unique visitors (down 21% from 2014)
  • 853,172 page views (down 7% from 2014)
  • 5 GB of bandwidth

More in 2017.

 
The Thinker

The southern strategy bites back

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote that Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party permanently. In the past the establishment elite controlled the party. Unfortunately well-moneyed Republicans were relatively few in number. They had to find votes somewhere so they adopted a “southern strategy” that pandered to the fears and prejudices of those principally in the south. This included crass appeals to classists, racists, fundamentalist Christians and to those who wished for things to be the way they were in the 1950s, you know, when non-whites knew their place.

It worked quite well. Essentially the Republicans picked up formerly white southern Democrats when Democrats (some say unwisely) moved toward being more inclusive instead of the party of the white working class. Starting with Richard Nixon, Republicans realized that catering to people’s prejudices was a reliable vote getter. Republicans stoked then exploited these class divisions and anxieties so well that today the south and much of the non-coastal west is now a deep shade of red. Robinson said that Trump’s genius was to call to task Republicans because they didn’t follow through on their promises to this new base, actions like sending undocumented immigrants home. He said that Trump has fundamentally changed the party, wresting control from its establishment and making it explicitly a party centered on addressing these fears rather than merely pandering to them.

It used to be that in the Republican Party the tiger controlled its tail. The tail (the Tea Party, racists and Christian fundamentalists) now appears to control the party. We’ll find out for sure if Trump wins his party’s nomination. Even if Trump somehow slips, anyone who takes his place will have to sound a lot like him, which is why Ted Cruz won’t say anything bad about Trump while echoing most of his talking points. Counterproductively, the remaining Republican candidates are busy criticizing each other instead of focusing on Trump, at best a pennywise but pound-foolish strategy.

The Republican Party is thus on the cusp of becoming an officially anti-democratic party. It’s clear this is where they’ve been heading for a long time given their hostility toward the poor made manifest in egregious gerrymandering and increasingly odious voting restrictions. It’s like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Republicans have decided they are the pigs. What Republicans don’t want to admit is that any control they get must be tenuous at best, as the nation’s changing demographics will eventually overwhelm them. They already recognize their reality by creating egregious voter restriction laws. These stack the deck in their favor but they cannot last forever.

Trump’s policies are popular with his supporters because he is proposing actions that explicitly redress these problems. He wants to deport the undocumented and cut off a path to citizenship for those here legally. Do this and you can at least push off the date of white disempowerment. When Trump proposes a wall along our border with Mexico, what his supporters hear is not that it will deter the undocumented from coming into the United States, but that it is a concrete step toward moving us back to the 1950s when they were in charge and minorities knew their place.

An explicitly anti-democratic party should be very scary to the rest of us. It suggests that Republicans want a radical change to our constitutional government. Trump’s words at least suggest he plans to govern by fiat if he cannot get his way.

It’s understandable that many voters are frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. I am one of them. They want to elect someone that can end it. By supporting someone who will use non-constitutional means though, they tacitly are saying that this is the only way things can change. If elected, Trump’s methods appear to be to take action unlawfully and unilaterally if necessary. He can say that he ran on this promise, voters voted him in anyhow and thus he has their sanction. However, the problem of Washington gridlock has everything to do with excessive gerrymandering that Republicans spent decades working on to garner disproportionate political power. Gerrymandering gives power to the extremes and disempowers the middle.

Curiously many of Trump’s political supporters are not new Republicans but frustrated disempowered people in the middle who see him as their savior. You can see this because some of Trump’s policies are not traditionally conservative at all. His supporters are less concerned with whether the policies are conservative but whether he can make government function for the people again. They see Trump as a man of practical action who by using the force of personality and the presidency will untangle this Gordian knot. For decades the disenfranchised white working class has propped up the Republican Party’s power, with little to show for the support they were given. This gave an opening for the daring (Trump) to exploit.

I contend that what really irks Trump supporters are not the loss of white political power, but their ability to influence politicians to work for the middle class, as evidenced by their declining wages and more problematic standard of living. As Jimmy Carter has pointed out, we effectively live in an oligarchy now. The Republican Party is the champion of the oligarchy. And the oligarchy wants a sense of stability that leaves them in charge. Then they can exploit government and the country for their benefit, which in recent decades has meant a decline in the standard of living for most of us be redistributing income to the rich.

Trump supporters are realizing that they have been had and their votes for Republicans have been counterproductive, but for many they still can’t vote for a Democrat because most Democrats don’t believe in the specialness of whites that Republicans have skillfully exploited. However, it’s why Bernie Sanders can appeal to many Trump supporters, and visa versa, by channeling their economic frustrations. Both are speaking to them in a language they understand. Trump though has chosen to pander to the white working class.

Both parties have exploited working whites for many decades. Whites perceive that Democrats favor minorities at their expense resulting, which they attribute to erosion in their standard of living. They also perceive that Republicans pander to them for votes but give power to the oligarchy instead. They don’t realize that by uniting with many of those they instinctively revile that government could work for them, and in the process work for everyone else too.

To make that leap they must see behind the façade, which is that white Christians are somehow more special than everyone else. I expect the smarter Trump supporters will leach off toward supporting Bernie Sanders instead.

Trump is a showman and a fraud. Those who want the real deal though need to support someone whose entire career has been toward making the government represent the people. By raising the boats of the middle and lower classes, the anxiety about these others should ease.

 
The Thinker

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m hanging with relatives in Maryland and hoping to see the sun before we leave tomorrow. Little sign of sun today but there has been plenty of rain instead, much of it torrential. Mostly I’m chilling with siblings, but I was able to see my father and stepmother, and it’s good to see a nephew and distant brother-in-law as well. Much of yesterday was spent back in Northern Virginia with our daughter. We could not resist driving by our former residence and noted the new owners have been busy ripping out the shrubbery. Got to let it go.

But we also took in the latest Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3-D IMAX, dodging raindrops coming and going, of course. Although old enough to have seen these movies before they had roman numerals assigned to them, the Star Wars genre has done little for me. Its story is timeless: good triumphing against overwhelming evil, just with an outer space theme. What originally annoyed me were mostly the robots, but also how unfaithful it was both to science and science fiction. There was no denying its popularity, since here I was again in a theater nearly forty years later to see the latest reboot of the series, this time by J.J. Abrams who successfully gave us back the Star Trek genre. If anyone could breathe some new life into this tired genre, J.J. could.

And yet Abrams main contribution is to make a new episode feel a lot like the first movie. This is excellent news for Disney, which now owns the franchise, and which needs to derive maximum profits for its shareholders from subsequent installments. J.J. delivered that, as evidenced by all the agog younger faces enthusiastically exiting our showing. Not that J.J. stayed entirely in the comfortable realm. He introduced John Boyega as the stormtrooper turned resistence fighter Finn. Boyega happens to be black, but that turned out to be annoying to some, who like their good guys with white skin. J.J. added lots of females including Daisey Ridley as Rey, probably the chief character in this latest incarnation of this space opera. She looks great but it’s hard to make a living salvaging parts from crashed spacecraft on her planet. Fortunately she quickly encounters Finn and the newest cute robot BB8, which is pivotal to the plot. The newest version of The Dark Side needs the droid because it has a map that will let it find Luke Skywalker and destroy what is left of the Resistence.

Unquestionably, if you are into this franchise then you are going to enjoy this “episode” enormously, much the way J.J.’s Star Trek reboot tickled us Trekkies. It will help you overlook some of the reboot’s downsides. Mostly it is too faithful to the source material, too comfortable, which has the effect of an insulin rush from eating too many Christmas cookies. What you don’t get is much in the way of nutrition. So you should feel very entertained but sort of empty inside, at least if like me you are not a member of this collective. You want more but it’s not quite there.

But you do get nostalgia, including Harrison Ford reprising his role as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher reprising Leia, but now as a general instead of a Princess, but boy they sure do look old. Luke (Mark Hamill) literally only shows up in the last minute of the film, never says a word, but does have a cool beard and looks vaguely like Jesus Christ. BB8 is at least more loveable than C3PO and R2D2 that reprise their “roles” too.

So this is a safe Star Wars sequel faithful to George Lucas’s original version at least. It’s just hard to feel a little resentment that J.J. didn’t plumb some new Star Wars depths. Instead we get an updated version of the 1970’s Star Wars movie.

3.3 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The libertarianism in the Internet

It can be dangerous when politicians open their mouths. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s because he spews hatred and racism and has gathered support from a lot of dittoheads for doing so. But in one way both he and Hillary Clinton have something in common: they don’t really understand the Internet. It would have been wise to defer saying anything at all when you really don’t know what you are talking about.

Trump’s mistake was saying that he was open to closing parts of the Internet as part of the war on the Islamic State, a war that has never been officially declared. I can give Trump only half a demerit because he was prompted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question, which asked if he would do this, and it’s really a trick question. If Trump knew what he was talking about he’d have said, “Well, of course that’s not possible.” Hillary Clinton opened her mouth a bit too wide in last Saturday’s debate she said that some sort of Manhattan-like project could allow the government to decrypt messages while ensuring everyone’s privacy. But at least she said, “I don’t know enough about the technology”. So a point to her for honesty.

If you want to kill the Internet, kill all the people. Even that won’t work immediately. All those routers would still be moving data around, but no one would be around to read any of it so it would effectively be dead. Why is this? It’s because the Internet was designed to be resilient and effectively unstoppable. What secret communist organization was responsible for such a nefarious deed? Why, that would be the United States Department of Defense. More specifically, it was DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known back in the 1960s when it was creating the Internet as ARPA.

And it made sense. At that time, the Internet was not envisioned to be a global network for just anyone, but it was designed to make sure that defense establishments and universities doing defense work could chat with each other electronically and move files around this way. The architecture that was designed ensured that if one path between sender and receiver was down or slow, some other path would be chosen instead. The message had to get through. On the plus side, at least in its initial phases, the Internet was all plain text. Encryption was not a worry because it was not a classified network, but where it was a worry secure lines were leased from the telephone company.

Today’s Internet is basically the old ARPANet’s infrastructure from the 1970s open to everyone. Everyone used it because it was the only model out there but also because it was noncommercial and standards-based. Some private networks from the distant past you may remember tried to do something similar: Compuserve and AOL were two that discovered it could not compete with the awesomeness of the real Internet, once people could access it.

We can’t shut down the Internet on the Islamic State. We can certainly make it more difficult but alas, as the Internet has evolved, so too have the ways to transmit and receive signals. In the old ARPA days I’m pretty sure the only way was to lease lines from AT&T. Today the Internet goes across virtually all data networks. Shut down the Islamic State’s landlines and they will use cell towers. Take down cell towers and maybe they will use microwave relays or satellite dishes. Take down the dishes and they can use portable satellite phones. In any event there are plenty of IS-related terrorists not actually in the Islamic state and they can chat between themselves, it’s just that they will have an easier time of it than those in the Islamic State.

Those of you out there wondering what a libertarian world might look like can see it in the Internet. The Internet excels at fast and disparate information sharing. It also excels in being able to get its messages through come hell, high water or terrorists. No one back in the 1960s could project what the Internet would morph into, but it was all based on protocols that from day one were open and designed to move data quickly. These protocols can be changed, but only in an evolutionary manner if they become a consensus adaptation. Even so, the old protocols will continue to traverse the Internet and all that is needed is the software to send or receive Internet Protocol (for packets) and Transmission Control Protocol (for a message made up of packets). And TCP/IP protocol is built into virtually every computer that communicates with another computer, not to mention all the switches and routers between sender and receiver.

Obviously this architecture has some problems, which are not problems if you are a libertarian. You want the free flow of information and you don’t want government controlling or monitoring it. The good part is the enormous amount of information sharing that occurs that makes our lives such much more interesting and rewarding. The bad side is it empowers terrorists, child pornographers and general criminals to do the same thing.

As for encryption, this is not something where you can have your cake and eat it too. The NSA cleverly put in encryption backdoors into products sold by most of these encryption devices. The encryption industry is now onto this. Tech savvy criminals have already found solutions like OpenPGP, which can likely keep the NSA from eavesdropping, at least in real-time. The government is getting better and faster at decrypting messages by throwing massive parallel computers to decrypt them. Moore’s Law is making it possible to decrypt almost any message without waiting for days, months or years for an answer. Obviously the NSA needs to be pretty selective when they throw these sorts of resources onto decrypting a message.

There is no “let’s have our cake and eat it too” solution to decrypting intercepted messages in real-time. The NSA with its private-key backdoors already tried it, but that’s not an issue if you use devices that don’t have these backdoors. Like it or not, the Internet is must-have technology and it will be used for purposes both good and bad. There is no tech fix to these problems.

However, a social strategy will help somewhat. Encouraging good citizens to rat on their fellow citizens they suspect of illegal use of the Internet is probably the only pragmatic way to address this issue. In that sense, the libertarians, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, have already won.

 
The Thinker

Retirement is great (for introverts)

So what’s it like being retired? I can faithfully report that it’s great! But it’s only recently that I figured out why it’s great. It’s great because I’m an introvert.

Doubtless you have heard stories about how many people are miserable in retirement. There is nothing to do, you hear. That is not a problem for me at all. I still like to keep busy, although I do it now mostly at home as opposed to doing it in an office. When I worked in an office though much of what I did was not a whole lot of fun. It’s the nature of work. I was fortunate enough to have a career that meant that a lot of work was fun, but a lot of it (probably most of it) wasn’t fun. The not fun part included a lot of management. That’s no longer a problem. To the extent I “work” in retirement it’s for fun, and it’s doing nerdy stuff that I enjoy doing.

My theory is that those who are miserable in retirement are extraverts. Extraverts thrive on social interaction. In retirement unless you plan your transition very well extraverts are likely to feel a loss of social connection. So lots of retirees volunteer, join clubs, hang out at church or engage in community events. If successful they can energize themselves socially the way they used to do when they worked. However, it is likely to be a challenge.

That’s not a problem for us introverts. We get energy not by cutting ourselves off socially but by engaging in problem solving activities that we enjoy. I have a long list of things I want to do, most of them nerdish, and it’s likely I simply won’t have time to get to more than a handful of them. There are so many choices on any particular day it’s hard to know where to start. And if I don’t want to start on a particular day and instead spend it surfing the web reading political content, I can do that with no feelings of guilt.

Curiously I still work, I just do the stuff I wanted to do when employed but largely couldn’t due to my position and responsibilities. I don’t require the income but it’s nice to earn some income, so I consult as work comes in. I have a website. People send me queries. I fix their Internet-related problems from the convenience of my office. I bill them and they pay me, usually through PayPal. Most of the social interaction is via email, but occasionally I’m chatting with a client on Skype, which I’ve done twice this week.

And while this nerdish work usually involves untying some electronic knots, occasionally I end up participating in a larger cause. I once wrote that I did some work for a porn star. I did not have to take off my clothes but I did have to fix her forum. I’m in something similar now. She’s a woman that used to be in the prostitution business (“adult professionals”, as she calls it) and is trying to organize these women. There are lots of problems if you provide sex as a service. Aside from the possibility of contracting a disease, there are a lot of creepy clients out there. This woman wants to create a service so vetted clients can connect with vetted “adult professionals”. No, this is not in the United States. I won’t mention too much more except I am part of a team she is hiring to get this done.

(I personally think prostitution should be legalized, taxed and regulated. Moreover, I certainly care about women so I want women that choose to be in this business to be as safe as possible. So it’s consistent with my values and furthers a larger cause. It’s safe to say that I would never meet such people otherwise. I have never used a prostitute and can’t imagine ever doing so. For a little while though doing work like this lets me peek behind the lace curtain and it’s interesting.)

When there are no clients who want to exchange my services for money, there are some open source projects I contribute to. Because I am no longer engaged daily with people doing information technology, I attend local meet ups instead. A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on cloud computing, comparing Amazon Web Services with Google Compute Engine. So I do get around socially among a limited set of people a lot like me, and it’s both fun and educational.

I had dreams of writing custom apps in retirement for paying clients but I haven’t even started looking at that. The other work has kept me too busy. And there are plenty of things I can do during the day that are not work related. I can go biking or walking, and I usually do one of these a day. My pension pays most of the bills. My supplemental income improves my standard of living but mainly keeps me engaged in a profession, helps me feel useful and makes me feel nerdishly happy.

I also do most of the household management. This probably falls into the category of work. I keep the books. I propose a budget. I track our spending. I do a lot of the housework and shopping as well. This sort of work is part of living, but I make it as fun as I can. One example: I’ve created a spreadsheet that finely estimates my probable state and federal income taxes, so I can carefully adjust withholding amounts.

So if you are introverted you are probably really going to like retirement. It’s you extraverts that have to worry. You will have to plan to replace the social interaction that came with work with a lot of other stuff instead.

For me this is truly the best time of life. I can spend most of my time doing stuff I like, without the crushing responsibilities that come with your middle years like child rearing, paying the mortgage and putting your kids through college. What to do next is never a problem. It’s almost guaranteed to put a smile to my face.

 
The Thinker

Joie de vivre

There was one vital last step in our relocation and unpacking. It involved getting some new cats. Our last beloved cat Arthur passed away last year. In a way his unfortunate demise was fortuitous for us because we would not have moved until he was gone. It’s cruel to relocate a cat, particularly a sick one.

The opposite is also true. When setting up a new household it’s cruel to get a cat too soon. Once they arrive, a cat will want everything to be where it will always be. For weeks after moving in there were a slowly diminishing set of boxes, as well as lots of cleaning and re-cleaning and rearranging of stuff until things settled in to our satisfaction and a cat’s.

Finally we were ready to drive to an animal shelter, but which one? There aren’t many here in Western Massachusetts, but a clean and well-run one was a good sign. Variety is good too, which is why we ultimately chose Springfield’s Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Shelter over the closer Dakin Animal Shelter in Amherst. There we fell in love with a calico white, black and cinnamon-colored cat named Applesauce, who we quickly renamed Cinnamon. She was found underweight and malnourished on the streets of Springfield and looked more waif than cat.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sensed right away that we were to be her forever people. Our niece Cheryl was visiting at the time. Cinnamon sat patiently on her lap in the backseat on the way home from the shelter; gently purring and looking out the window. Once in her new home, she quickly adopted but spent most of her first few days hiding under our bed. We knew she felt at home. At night as I stumbled into the bathroom she would be there on the heated floor and wrap her torso around me when I sat on the toilet.

One-cat domestic tranquility was not to last for long. My wife wanted a pair of cats. In particularly she wanted Wilma, a small orange female tabby at the shelter. However, Wilma was not yet available; she had to be fixed. We put in our reservation awaiting her recovery and took her home the day before Halloween. For this and her orange fur she was quickly renamed Pumpkin. Within a day of her arrival Pumpkin contracted something that wholly removed the wind from her sails. We took her to the vet, fretted and gave her plenty of attention until she slowly recovered.

This of course was when the two-cat integration started in earnest. Cinnamon hadn’t really established her territory as she was new too and Pumpkin was too sick to give her a hard time anyhow. Once recovered though Pumpkin showed us exactly who she was: trouble with a capital T. Although she had had a litter of her own (as had Cinnamon, who is about two) she was hardly more than a year old. Pumpkin decided that she was still a kitten. Henceforth her mission was to keep us entertained and/or exasperated, with much more of exasperation than entertainment.

Pumpkin, in a brief moment of rest watching Cat TV

Pumpkin, in a brief moment of rest watching Cat TV

Cinnamon is the laid back and generally inoffensive cat. In Pumpkin’s world everything is a toy and everything merits her incessant curiosity. She can be in a corner of the house and in a mad dash ten seconds later be upstairs in another far corner. There is no chill pill for Pumpkin. Relief arrives only with utter exhaustion. Then she will reluctantly find a sleep spot, usually on my wife’s pajamas on the top of our bed. Even while she sleeps this sleek and all-muscle work of nature often twitches. You can see her eyes move under her eyelids as she prepares further adventures in her mind.

Our bedtime dynamics quickly changed with Pumpkin’s health. It was clear that she would be jumping on us all night long and at random intervals, which meant she had to sleep elsewhere. This also meant Cinnamon had to sleep elsewhere. The hard part was figuring out a way to get them both out of our bedroom. We eventually settled on a reward approach: saving a kitty treat for both just before retiring, then scrambling to our bedroom while they ate them, quickly turning off lights and shutting the bedroom door. To register her disapproval Cinnamon started clawing at the carpet under the door and meowing. This eventually caused me to install a flap under the door. The clawing still continues, but now she picks at the flap instead of the carpet.

Cinnamon has quickly porked out. Pumpkin remains a lean and usually roving awesome kitty machine, constantly sticking her nose and claws into places they should not go. The rubber mat under the kitchen sink she treats as her personal scratching post. She eats from Cinnamon’s food dish. She constantly jumps on the dining room table, mostly to hunt for pens that she will brush onto the floor and which will soon end up under furniture. She has knocked over things on the windowsill. She loves loves loves anything to do with flowing water, be it from a faucet or a toilet. I throw her out and shut the bathroom door before shaving otherwise I would never finish. She loves sinks so much she will often take a nap in my wife’s sink in our master bathroom. For better or worse Pumpkin bonded with my wife and liberally uses her legs as a scratching post. We continuously correct her behavior but so far little of it has sunk in. She just looks at us with her playful eyes. It’s not hard to read her thoughts, which endlessly go like this: “play play play”.

Pumpkin is full of joie de vivre, which may be her most endearing aspect. While a total pain in the ass she is at least a cute pain in the ass. She is one hundred percent joyfully alive and will suck every possible microsecond of such joy during her existence. If she can’t find it, she’ll invent something. Usually a wadded up ball of paper will work for a while but a whole plethora of toys scattered across our wood floors somehow is never quite enough to fully scratch that itch.

One joy is stalking her new sister Cinnamon and then pouncing on her. Cinnamon finds her stalking obsession annoying and freakish and spends much of her day trying to stay out of her way. All this simply encourages Pumpkin to find her and engage her, so there are endless numbers of minor scuffles all day long, rarely anything serious and mostly an expression of Pumpkin’s endless supply of nervous energy.

Perhaps in part as a reaction to her freaky sister, Cinnamon usually follows me around all day. She is so often underfoot that I must constantly watch where I step. Going down stairs is challenging because my foot can easily end up where she has placed herself. Generally whenever I move, Cinnamon moves as well right at my heel. In the morning she looks forward to coming upstairs with me and my cup of coffee, and usually settles at the top of the stairs. There she can keep an eye on Pumpkin and at least have some warning if she is going to be stalked. As the larger cat, Cinnamon certainly outweighs her and could probably out-smack her too. She just prefers domestic tranquility.

I try to ignore Pumpkin most of the time, leaving her to annoy my wife instead, who will at least interact with her by frequently yelling and correcting her behavior. Pumpkin and I will become friends in time, but she has to settle down first. She has to stop doing evil things like chewing through my wife’s earphone cords. Pumpkin does like to curl up on a lap so she has a lot of potential as a lap kitty. Cinnamon mostly avoids laps, but she does like attention. Both cats will get on our desk in front of our monitors and settle in as if to say, “Well of course I am far more important than that glowing, boxy thing.” And this is endearing. I can still get work done by moving content to the top of the screen while petted her irregularly.

Unquestionably though Pumpkin is the animated cat of the household. She is taking the retire out of our retirement and is a natural topic of conversation, not to mention exasperated cries, angry voices and yowls when she digs her claws into your legs. And yet she looks so cute and harmless all the time. No jury would convict her of anything, even with photographic evidence. She gives us a reason for living, if only to regularly put bandages on our legs and arms.

We’re hoping Pumpkin settles down soon but I have a feeling that’s not her nature. As long as she is alive she is likely to be in trouble and entertaining us. We had best adapt, and maybe that means wearing two sets of jeans at once.

 
The Thinker

Give us a real retirement (or the 401K/IRA trap)

There are some proposals afloat (from progressives naturally) to increase social security payments. Social security used to be enough to marginally live on with Medicare helping by reducing health care cost spikes. Social security is supposedly indexed for inflation but it’s clear that the index doesn’t measure the true cost of living. If you depend almost entirely on social security, you are either slipping into poverty or are already there. So conceptually Senator Elizabeth Warren’s idea looks like a good one. The money will get quickly spent anyhow, which will boost the economy. Of course either deficits will increase or taxes will need to be raised to pay for it. There’s no consensus to do either, so seniors (those that can) do their best to get by. In many cases they remain partially or fully employed while being “retired”. I see them all the time at the registers of my local Costco.

Social security was never designed to keep you fat and rich in retirement, just set a basic floor above the poverty line. The assumption was that the house and cars were paid off so it would allow you to live modestly where you were at. If you desired a richer standard of living, you drew off any pensions or retirement savings that you might have. Pensions are much better than retirement savings but turned out to be too expensive for many companies to continue to voluntarily fund. The alternative, when they were offered at all, was a 401K or similar retirement savings plan. Better employers match your contribution up to a certain amount. If you didn’t have a 401K plan at work, you still had the option of an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

IRA’s sound good in principle too, but they require you to be proactive, i.e. regularly put a portion of your income aside. Worse, you shouldn’t touch the money. If you do touch it you must refund your account with interest and pay a penalty. The problem with an IRA was that even if you were methodical about putting money aside you couldn’t put a whole lot of it aside. This year you can put up to $5500 a year into a traditional or Roth IRA.

Assuming a middle class income of $50,000 a year or so, putting $5500 into an IRA amounts to ten percent of your salary, a high hurdle that most cannot make. But let’s say you manage to sock $5000 a year aside and do so for 40 years, something that would be excruciatingly hard for most of us with expenses like rent, car payments and childcare. Let’s say you somehow managed to earn six percent on the investment after fees. This means after forty years you would have $772,000 to help you live a nicer retirement. Is this enough?

You would think that the answer would be yes. Let’s say you expect to have thirty years in retirement, which means you could withdraw $25,700 a year over thirty years before running out of money. The amount you would get from social security would depend on how many years and how much you contributed to it. In 2011, the average social security check was $1180 a month. Without a pension or matching contributions from your employers to your 401K, this means an income of $3321 a month, or $40,000 a year.

Remember this is the best realistic case for a person that self funds their retirement because their employer won’t. It assumes a middle class wage earner, say a skilled mechanic, who is methodical about investing for retirement and can do so consistently. If your house is paid off do you think you can live comfortably on $40,000 a year in retirement? Most likely you are shaking your head. Since this is the best realistic case, your actual yearly retirement income is probably more like $20,000 to $30,000 with social security, absent other sources of income. No wonder I see so many grandmas and grandpas working at Costco. What they needed was a pension, but since their employer didn’t provide one they are making up the difference with a (probably part time) job at Costco. Costco at least provides a living wage, so perhaps they are supplementing their retirement income by $20,000. Maybe with working they have $50,000 in income per year. Is that enough to live on? Maybe, but you are working and not really retired.

My point is that 401Ks and IRAs are not viable retirement solutions for almost all of us, even with social security, although they were sold as real solutions. Moreover, social security income is not keeping up with the true cost of living. Sometimes even with a pension you don’t earn enough. This is the case with my brother in law. He retired some two decades ago on a community college pension where he worked programming the college’s mainframe computers. My sister (his wife) is in her sixties. He’s probably at or around seventy. She’s earning some money as an in-home health care aid, likely at less than $15 an hour. Last I heard he was helping manage a Disney store at Orlando International Airport. They get by, but at best they are partly retired.

We either have to give up the idea of ever really retiring or we need to find a way to fund retirement so that your retirement income is somewhere in the range of 70% to 80% of your pre-retirement income, which financial planners say you need to have something close to the same standard of living you had before retirement. To consider what a high hurdle that is, most financial planners (like ours) say not to withdraw more than 3% from your portfolio a year, at least if you want to maintain its value and have something to pass on or some extra savings to fall back on if you live to 100. This means if you want $60,000 in income per year from your retirement savings, you need to retire with a nest egg of $2,000,000. Yowza!

What we really needs are real pensions again. I know what you are thinking, “Isn’t social security a pension?” Well, yes, sort of, just a subsistence pension and it is funded jointly between the employer and the employee. It’s not a living pension, i.e. the sort of pension your parents or grandparents routinely got. Employers don’t have to provide pensions and most won’t. Moreover, many that did have pensions have reduced benefits or have turned the problem over to the government when the fund became insolvent. The real issue was that the private pension system became unworkable, mostly because Congress let it get that way. This doesn’t mean that a real public pension system couldn’t work instead.

Think of such a system as social security on steroids, or perhaps social security evolved. The problem is how to make such a system solvent. Asking employees to contribute too much more probably does not make much sense although many employees would be happy to contribute their 401K contributions toward a public pension system for a higher pension on retirement. Such a system could be funded through taxing employers more. Corporate taxes after all are a smaller and diminishing portion of total federal income, as corporations get increasingly clever at dodging these taxes. This means companies like General Electric pay virtually no federal income taxes. It shouldn’t be hard to have laws that would require GE to pay enough in taxes to fund a public pension for its employees. It would probably be pocket change to their overall profits.

Just as we have a graduated income tax where higher income taxpayers pay proportionally more of their income than lower income taxpayers, the same thing could work in the corporate (and non-profit) world to fund a public pension for all workers. It’s understood that Dollar General’s profits per employee would be lower than GE’s, so their taxes for funding a public pension system would be lower. The government actuaries would have responsibility for making sure it is doable. If some of GE’s contributions effectively go to prop up the pension of Dollar General employees, that’s perfectly fine as the costs are being socialized across the public at large. This is the way insurance works, after all. Companies will come and go but the government does not. If Dollar General goes belly up, whatever replaces it will pick up its slack.

So this is my solution. If this required funds to be invested in well-managed stocks or bonds, using a life cycle fund approach, I am fine with that, as long as those investing these funds are held to a fiduciary standard. Expecting that people can self-fund their own retirement anymore is unrealistic. I hope my analysis show why this is so. Someone has to pick up that slack.

Taxing the profits of corporations (similar payments would be needed from non-profits) for the purpose of public pensions could allow people to have actual retirements again, like your parents or grandparents had. We just have to choose to act.

 
The Thinker

In the village

I’ve traded in suburban sprawl for village life. Fairfax County, Virginia where I used to live was mostly very prosperous suburban sprawl. There were two cities (Vienna and Fairfax City) and a couple of towns but mostly the county consists of endless acres of detached houses, strip malls and neighborhood schools. The only distinction among the sprawl was what developer built the neighborhood and how moneyed the people they were marketing to. Fifty years earlier most of the land was pastoral, home to more cows than people.

Florence, a village in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts where I currently live has history. Sitting a few miles to the west of the city, the clear Mill River drove its early development. I know this from spending a couple of hours walking around the village with a local historian. The Mill River was aptly named. Like many places in New England, mills were built around the river to harness its power. From its start as a community in the 1830s, Florence embraced diversity and practiced progressive values. In 1832 Samuel Whitmarsh planted mulberry trees in hopes of creating a sustainable silk business. Run as a community project it attracted both abolitionists and those looking for a utopia. Women and minorities had an equal voting share in the mill, which was essentially a cooperative, which also handled the schools and was a de-facto government. The mill eventually proved to be not financially successful, a victim of foreign competition. But the idea of a utopian community remained.

Florence got its name from Dr. Charles Munde, who built a business called The Florence Water Cure around the pristine and clean Mill River. In the 19th century water could not usually be trusted as it was often contaminated and there were no obvious ways to purify water. Instead people drank a lot of alcohol: beer mostly, but spirits of all kinds which had the benefit of being sterile. While this kept them from getting sick it drove the incidence of alcoholism. Some seeking a cure came to Florence for the Water Cure, which involved drinking lots of water from the clean Mill River and being alternately wrapped in hot and cold towels with water from the Mill River.

Munde’s building is gone but there is a new building at its location: an Elks Lodge. About that time the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to Canada started. For a while Florence was a stop on the railroad, until Congress unwisely passed a law that made it a criminal offense to aid and abet these fugitives. There was a sizeable minority community of African Americans in Florence in the 19th century where they were generally welcomed. For seven years one of its residents was Sojourner Truth, a former slave who advocated for equality and justice. Her home is still there on Park Street but is not prominently marked.

Eventually all the lots were taken along the river, so new residents moved to higher elevations. Gradually what is now known as Locust and Main streets became the center of town. Today the City of Northampton is known for its progressive values. Back in the 18th and 19th century Northampton was very much conservative and Calvinist in outlook. Florence, its uppity village to the west with its progressive values did much to spread its values there. Today, the City of Northampton is one of the most progressive places on the east coast.

Florence is not entirely without woes. Western Massachusetts is not as prosperous as the more densely populated eastern part. There is little in the way of industry here. The area does have its colleges and universities so it attracts a lot of educated folk who mostly work for these institutions, which include a women’s college (Smith) in Northampton. A lot of people struggle here as they do anywhere else, working two or sometimes three jobs to get by. A few bums can be found in downtown Florence. My credit monitoring service alerts me to a number of known child molesters and convicted child pornographers living downtown as well. A cheap heroin epidemic affects Florence to some extent as well. Mostly though Florence is healthy and well ordered with houses more than a hundred years old being the rule here, most of which are decently maintained.

It will take me years to discover all the virtues of this new community. Some are obvious. Look Park is just across the street from us. It’s a large park excellent for strolling and there are lots of us strolling it at any time of day, as there are a lot of us retirees living here. I walk around it, sometimes more than once, at least several times a week. If so inclined I can pause at a gazebo and look out at the pond, or wander down to the banks of the Mill River and watch the water rush by. It is currently decorated with holiday lights, which makes driving through it a treat for local citizens. In more temperate weather there are activities for kids: mini golf, train rides and a petting zoo as well as some activities for adults including tennis and swimming. I watched one wedding performed there in October at an outdoor shelter. If you want nature, Look Park is more sanitized nature. Real nature is never far away in Florence. In my case, I just have to climb the hill behind us. Much of the land around here is in conservation areas that will never get developed.

There is also the Northampton Bikeway nearby which allows bicyclists to get downtown conveniently under a tree-lined canvas. They can take it across the Connecticut River past Amherst and as far east as Belchertown if they wish, or south to Easthampton where they can connect with other routes that take them further south into Holyoke. The trail is being extended to the town boundary of Williamsburg to the west.

Part of the success of Florence is that it grows slowly, if at all. Rather than tearing down buildings they are usually retained for their historical value but rehabilitated inside, often becoming small condominiums in the process. Our community is the exception with new but pricey housing for the 55+ community.

For exercise I walk into town regularly, often along the bike path. This time of year even with the leaves absent, the bike path is still bucolic. It’s an easy walk, about a mile each way. Downtown Florence has a few notable places, most notably the Miss Florence Diner at the corner of Maple and Main, which goes back to the 1940s. You get an authentic diner experience at Miss Flo’s, prices are cheap and the omelets are excellent. Florence also has its own casket company near Maple and Main, an inconspicuous business at best. It’s probably what’s left of industry in Florence. Another institution is Florence Hardware, very much a neighborhood hardware store where in its compact space you can find pretty much everything also available at Lowes and Home Depot, but with much friendlier service. Less an institution than a community hangout, Cooper’s Corner at the intersection of Main and Chestnut Streets offers a clean and stylish combination package store and mini-mart that includes its own deli, premade sandwiches and fresh bakery items. During the summer time, my wife reports that the best soft serve ice cream is also downtown at Florence Soft Serve. (The best ice cream in the area is unquestionably Herrell’s in downtown Northampton.)

Overall we are grooving on Florence and expect to groove even more so in coming years as we fully settled in. All of life’s conveniences are generally within a mile or two of home. Nature is always at hand. It is fortunately not special enough where it has become trendy, which would spoil its charm. For a mini-urban experience Northampton is a few miles away. If you feel the lure of real strip malls though you will have to cross the river and venture into Hadley. There you can find a mini-mall, movie theaters, Applebees and lots of other chains that I was glad to escape.

Florence is not quite Mayberry, but it does have an authentic healthy village feeling to it. If you enjoy village life, you’d have a hard time finding a better place.

 

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