Is pornography bad?

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve written about pornography sporadically over the years, including this 12-year-old post on why I liked the idea of the .xxx domain, an idea that finally came to fruition in 2011.

You don’t find too many people who will admit to watching pornography, at least regularly. Chances are though that if you are on a website at any given moment, you are on a porn site. Two of the top ten websites are porn sites (xvideos.com and pornhub.com) at #8 and #9 respectively as of this writing. Each gets more views than Wikipedia or amazon.com.

I freely admit watching Internet porn. It would be hard to write posts about it otherwise. But I will also freely admit that it’s not something I do everyday. It helps to be married and to reach an age where testosterone levels decline. Also likely a factor: the more you see the more you get inured to it.

Many people will tell you that you should feel bad for watching pornography, such as Megan Johnson whose TED Talk I watched today. Ms. Johnson makes a pretty compelling case that pornography fuels sex trafficking. A lot of (mostly) women who get into sex trafficking get their start being forced to watch nonconsensual pornography. They often end up as sex slaves, arguably for people like the recently deceased Jeffrey Epstein and perhaps some of the many famous and moneyed men in his circle. These potentially include Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew.

When I compare pornography online today compared to stuff I saw ten, twenty, thirty or more years earlier, it’s quite clear that it’s no longer your grandfather’s pornography. For one thing, it’s online now. It used to be available largely only in printed form, and you had to pay for it. Now it’s free, sort of, but you will get endlessly harassed to buy premium porn on these sites, see live sex via webcams and find people near you into kinky sex. Ms. Johnson says that if you bite from that apple, you facilitate sex trafficking and prostitution.

Also unquestionably, pornography today is both more lurid and transgresses more boundaries than it used to. It might be strange to think that there were ever boundaries in the world of pornography, but there were. During the Playboy era the photographs of models were retouched and their naughtiest bits were usually hidden or suggested. Today, arguably a lot of what passes for pornography on these websites is not pornography. The new pornography is all about transgressing boundaries. That’s apparently the new hot. The other stuff: not so much.

For example, one of the hottest trends these days on porno sites is incest. Of course there is no way to know if any of these videos involve actual siblings and/or parent/child sexual encounters. If they are all of legal age it is probably not illegal, but I’d bet that at least 99% of the time no actual incest is being filmed. Even porn sites seem uncomfortable with real incest. Instead, it’s mostly hot stepmothers or hot stepsisters. Another clue: they look too professionally done to be real.

So, yeah, it’s weird but actually the incest theme is not all that shocking these days. The stuff I really object to is abusive “pornography” which in my mind is just abuse. There’s probably at least as much of this as there is the other kind. Mostly women are constantly being abused, i.e. slapped in the face, yelled out, told they are c***s, whores and other derogatory terms. Sometimes they are urinated on, not just by one man, but by groups of men. One woman having lots of sex organs in various orifices, often at the same time, has been standard stuff for decades.

Is this pornography though? Not in my book. It’s just plain abuse. I have no desire to see this sort of stuff. Many of us suffered from abuse in our childhood. I didn’t suffer sexual abuse, but I did suffer emotional and physical abuse. This is not something I want to relive or inflict on anyone else, let alone teach to those who haven’t experienced it. In fact, I’ve spent time with therapists trying to work out my feelings on what I experienced. What I experienced was probably relatively minor though compared to the abuse my own government is now inflicting on children crossing our border with Mexico. Our government is committing child abuse on a massive scale. It’s your tax dollars at work. Aren’t you proud?

“Pornography” which depicts simulated or actual abuse of people gives what I thought of pornography a bad rep. If these sites had filters where you could filter this stuff out, I certainly would. Pornography and the way real people have sex rarely intersect anyhow. Since many people are sexually awoken on pornographic websites, we shouldn’t be too surprised if more of us expect real sex lives that model a lot of pornography. If you don’t know any better, you might think this stuff is normal in most sexual relationships. It’s not.

About the time I turned a legal adult in the mid 1970s, the available pornography was IMHO pretty harmless. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think most people have a right to watch the stuff if they want, but like Megan Johnson I wish they wouldn’t. If I knew of a curated sites where pornography was just as lurid as men like but where the actors were obviously having fun and modeling healthy, consensual relationships I’d find that much more of a turn on than what passes for pornography today. Watching people actually enjoying sex and their partners is a turn on. The rest, for me, is not.

Ms. Johnson is probably right that these sites at least indirectly lead to human trafficking. It’s unclear to me how many (mostly) men going to these sites though take the next step that lead to real life sexual encounters with sex slaves and prostitutes. However many it is, just one is too many, but I’m betting that fewer than ten percent of porn viewers take this step.

On the other hand, if you are not in a sexual relationship, would like to be in one but for whatever reason can’t be in one, pornography is a reliably way to get your rocks off. Whether it is safe sex is arguable. You won’t catch a disease, but a pattern of watching pornography suggests an addictive behavior. Unfortunately, our sex drive is entirely natural, which is not true of nicotine addiction or alcoholism. Watching pornography that is not abusive is probably better “sex” than you will have with an average real life partner, and it doesn’t come with hurt feelings and human complications. My guess is that without pornography, the incidents of sexual assault would be a lot higher. So maybe some pornography is good, or at least socially useful?

It’s clear to me that today’s pornography does make it much more difficult to have good, healthy sex with someone else. It sets false expectations. In reality, a good sex life is a bonus that rests on the foundation of a healthy relationship. Those are hard to find and harder to keep. If we taught more of these skills, we’d likely have a lot fewer people finding sexual relief in pornography, and a lot fewer exploited people as well.

Real estate investing is exacerbating income inequality

The Thinker by Rodin

Have you met Kevin? Kevin, i.e. Kevin Paffrath, has a YouTube channel, says he’s a millionaire and will help you get started in real estate investing so you can be a millionaire too. He’s handsome, reasonably young and looks overly caffeinated. The same is true of Graham Stephan who while being a millionaire still lives like a miser. He’s subsisting on a lot of oatmeal according to his many YouTube videos. Both are rich and made their millions buying, selling but mostly renting out their properties. And both are glad to help you do the same, as well as coach you on the secrets that made them rich too, for free if you watch only their YouTube channels but also for money if you want to attend their lectures, get their books or DVDs, and get online with them for semi-private chats.

The YouTube algorithm decided I am interested in real estate investing. I’m not interested enough to actually do what these guys are doing, but I do have a friend locally who is making most of his money through renting out rooms in houses that he owns. Maybe that’s what got me curious. This gives him time to do what he really likes: some IT consulting fixing and maintaining computers, servers and such; and coaching at the local high school which pays much less than the minimum wage.

I’m guessing though that he didn’t get all this property by chance. I’m betting he inherited a significant amount of money that let him get started in this business. I don’t know for sure because I’m too shy to ask him. But Kevin and Graham aren’t that shy, and proudly state that they made their fortune the old-fashioned and new-fashioned way. The old-fashioned way is to buy properties on borrowed money on fixed 30-year mortgages, rent them out and use the rent to maintain the properties and pay the property taxes. The new-fashioned way is to use the tax laws that make it possible for them to pay little in the way of capital gain taxes. It’s the latter that really irks me about Kevin and Graham.

Anyhow, they are happy to try to convince you to get into real estate investing too. It’s also clear from watching their videos that they are more than a little obsessed about real estate and money in general. It’s unclear if they have any time to enjoy their money and seem obsessed with acquiring more and more of it. They figure you are too so why not try to monetize their talent? And to be fair, both men don’t appear to be bamboozling anyone. They qualify themselves as just some guy on the Internet, tell you to get your own independent advice, and that making money in real estate can be profitable if you do it right, but it’s not easy.

I was watching Kevin’s recent video yesterday on why he’s not a fan of Roth IRA’s. It’s definitely a perspective I would not get from my personal financial adviser. He shows you how you could use some of the money you set aside to invest, above the amount you would lose over the years with a Roth IRA (by paying taxes on the money upfront) to buy real estate instead. And conceptually, it sounds great. When you save enough to buy one home, rent it and maintain it and ten years later use its profits to go buy another one.

But it all depends on whether you have the time and energy to commit to buying other properties, maintaining them, and being a landlord. For me, being a landlord runs about dead last on the sorts of things I would do willingly. I might sell used cars first. Basically, I’m bad at confronting nasty people. Not all tenants are bad and making sure you have the right tenant is important to keep an income stream going. But there’s bound to be some nastiness. I don’t want to deal with it. You could contract it out to someone else, but that makes it all less profitable.

Like most homeowners, I discovered that the cost of maintaining houses for over thirty years is considerable. We owned a property in Virginia for 22 years. It was bought for $192,000 in 1993, sold in 2015 for $505,000 but we also spent about $120,000 maintaining and improving it. And of course we paid lots of money in interest payments and other fees. In short, maintaining a house is not for the timid or financially challenged. If you are going to get into this game, make sure you can get cheap loans or have a whole lot of working capital.

I was so busy with my regular job that just maintaining our house was more than enough extra work, and it took 22 years to realize the gain on the property, which was transferred to buying our next property. Fortunately we own it free and clear. If you get into real estate investing, the income may appear to be “passive” but you will probably be working your ass off maintaining these properties and dealing with the hassles of investing in real estate and being a landlord.

In short, real estate investing is not for everyone, and it’s not an easy way to riches. But goodness! I’m learning from Kevin and Graham that there are some real tax advantages to it. And that part had me seeing red. It’s not that I can fault Kevin and Graham for getting these perks, but essentially they delay forever paying taxes on all the appreciation of their properties. Moreover, they can effectively escape ever paying taxes on these gains if you never sell them or don’t use the sale to buy something else. You can, for example, bequeath your properties to your posterity, and they can keep this scheme going indefinitely too.

This is in fact how Donald Trump has made his wealth. It’s why he says he loves debt. Rest assured he is deeply indebted, but if he can sell one property purchased largely with borrowed money and buy another one with the proceeds, he can pocket a lot of cash while deferring gains on them too. This is one of the reasons Trump is pulling all stops to keep his tax returns from getting released. If people discover he pays little to no taxes while they do, they are going to be furious.

When Elizabeth Warren talks about a wealth tax, this is exactly the sort of wealth I want to see taxed. You should too. These are all legal schemes, but they drive wealth inequality, exacerbate deficits and in general keep the government from having the revenue it needs to give us a first-class society.

I’m betting Kevin and Graham would grumble a little, but they definitely owe the rest of us a heap of money in the form of higher taxes. Mostly, we need to tax their capital and property gains. We should not feel the least bit guilty to go after it.

There’s (solar) gold in them thar hills!

The Thinker by Rodin

If you own a gold mine, it’s a pretty good investment until of course the gold veins run dry.

But there’s a kind of mine that never runs out: solar gold, you might say. I’ve already gotten a share of this solar gold. For three years, we’ve had 20 solar panels on our roof. According to the obsessive statistics I keep, we’ve generated 20,076-kilowatt hours (kwhs) of clean energy since it went online in June 2016. It’s the equivalent of planting 363 trees.

But twenty solar panels turned out not to be enough. The remainder comes from carbon-free wind energy, but perhaps not much longer. A solar farm is under construction in Gardner, Massachusetts. We’ll probably get the rest from that solar farm when it is operational in March 2020.

The electricity from our house’s solar panels is free, after we recoup the cost of the system, which should happen around 2023. The same can’t be said for this solar farm under construction. We won’t own any of these solar panels. Instead, we’ll be renting them. Unlike our wind energy, for which we pay a 3.8 cents/kwh premium, we’ll get this solar power for less than it would cost to draw it from the grid. So we can go greener and pay less for the privilege.

How this works is that our “share” of the solar farm’s electricity is credited to our electric bill. So if our share generates 500 kwhs a month, presumably we’ll get a $0 bill from the electric company and see that as a credit that we draw from in future months. Of course, we still pay for our “share”. I’ll get into how that is done in a moment.

There are solar farms going up all around us. Land is relatively cheap here in Western Massachusetts, at least what there is of it. A lot of it is set-aside as conservation areas. But areas that have been deforested might as well become solar farms: huge arrays of solar panels that do nothing but wait for sunshine and sell it to the local electric company, National Grid. These solar farms have done the math and basically everyone wins.

  • Society wins by reducing the amount of carbon pollution
  • Electric companies win because they buy the power at a wholesale rate, and mark it up for retail pricing. Also, they don’t have the investment costs of creating new power plants.
  • I win because I get a discount on power compared to what I’d pay National Grid for their retail price
  • Solar farm gets to claim SREC (Solar Energy Renewable Certificates) payments for putting up a solar farm, plus they get the income selling the power to National Grid. These solar farms also make profits from the 15% discount I get compared to National Grid.

Moreover, there are no fields that need planting and harvesting. It’s all passive income. Maintenance costs for solar systems are almost zero. I imagine they might need to replace some inverters from time to time, and build a tall fence to keep people out, but that should be it. In thirty years or so they will probably swap the panels, or if new panels become much cheaper and more efficient, it might make sense to replace them long before then.

What I’d like to do is add more solar panels to my roof. I’ve looked into it but for reasons that look entirely bureaucratic, I’d have to put up a completely new system, with separate pipes, metering, etc. This frankly makes no sense but I’ve found no way around it after trading many emails and a phone call with National Grid. The cost of a separate system compared to adding to what I have amounts to thousands of dollars.

But even so, there’s a limit to the amount of panels I can put up. Realistically, it would be hard to add more than four panels to my roof. Putting more up in my backyard is not an option. First, I may be in a single-family house, but it’s a 55+ community, so we’re technically a condominium. Second, I have no backyard to speak of. I have about four feet of it. Otherwise my “yard” is a steep hill with about a 15% incline. There’s all this plus my new car is a Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid. So it is now drawing energy from the grid too. At least it’s all clean energy.

As we look toward a carbonless future though, it’s clear to me that these solar farms are leading indicators of what 2050 will look like. There will be lots and lots of solar farms. People who have roofs that are reasonably unobstructed will add solar panels. One state, California, requires it for all new construction. With the cost of solar panels continually dropping, pretty much any surface that points toward the sun and is unobstructed will have them. In time, they won’t look like solar panels, but will blend in naturally.

Lots of condo, apartment and city dwellers though will want to buy their share from solar farms. It’s likely that they will save money for doing so … and help save the planet.

Religion is failing us

The Thinker by Rodin

We just finished Season 2 of NBC’s series The Good Place, which we are watching on Netflix. It’s a comedy of sorts on the afterlife, more specifically on our views of the afterlife. In this version, pretty much everyone ends up in “The Bad Place”, i.e. Hell. Four clearly flawed not so good people end up in The Good Place, or do they? I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t watched it. Despite some flaws, the show keeps you reasonably engaged, and manages to be reasonably funny while gently lampooning our common notion here in the West about the binary nature of being “good” or “bad” with no allowance for ambiguity.

Here in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live now, at the Bridge Street Cemetery, sits the grave of someone who would recognize these versions of Heaven and Hell. Our progressive city used to have strongly Calvinist roots. Anyhow, we have the remains of Jonathan Edwards, a colonial Calvinist theologian whose sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God you may have read when studying American history. Northampton has since gone all-progressive with (I’m not kidding you) rainbow colored striped crosswalks. We have probably the highest number of lesbians per capita in the country. If Edwards could arise from the grave, he’d probably figure he was in hell with all the same-sex couples here walking around holding hands.

For the most part though, Northampton is a very peaceful, civil and charming place, which is why we retired here. I’m inured to all the rampant homosexuality around me. That’s because while we have a disproportionate number of LGBTQA folks, the majority remains happily heterosexual. We quickly learned that same sex couples holding hands were no threat to us. But you don’t have to drive too far out of Northampton to find plenty of Trump voters. It’s the furthest thing from Sodom and Gomorrah around here.

I can’t say the same thing about El Paso or Dayton, Ohio. Both cities suffered mass shootings recently in less than twenty-four hours. Twenty were killed in or around an El Paso Walmart yesterday by what looks like a 21-year-old white guy from Dallas with a rifle, trying to save White America somehow. Naturally he’s a Trump supporter. Around 1 a.m this morning, a gunman killed nine people and injured 26 others in Dayton. He had a 223-caliber magazine and body armor, which let him unleash mayhem quickly. Fortunately, police were nearby and managed to kill him pretty quickly. We don’t know yet this shooter’s age, race or motives, but there’s an excellent chance he is young, white and a Trump supporter too.

It’s American carnage, Trump-style. Trump is pushing all the buttons to unleash these horrors by his most unhinged supporters.

Religion is supposed to give us a way to not just cope with life, but to improve it. It’s clearly not keeping pace with the pace of change all around us. The response of many religions is to double down on their articles of faith, but doing so seems to unleash only more of the crazy.

America is rife with “Christianity”, but for the most part doesn’t actually practice Christianity. Frankly, religion is failing us. A belief system oriented around a world where most of us were serfs and reported to a lord doesn’t work well in the 21st century. Watching The Good Place, it’s hard not to ask why so many of us still believe these antiquated notions of heaven and hell.

What passes for Christianity these days is largely crazy and destructive. A majority of Christians in our country are clearly Trump supporters. They clearly approve of most of his policies, including separating families at the border and keeping children in cages and people in crowded, inhumane conditions. These days you can only act as a Christian to someone who is a member of your church. All others can be other-ized as not quite human. These “Christians” find “salvation” (comfort) in conformity and closed-mindedness. They want religion to impose order on a world when in fact doing so makes it worse. Christianity is breeding hatred and intolerance. It is making us less Christian every day.

No wonder so many Millennials are giving up on religion altogether. It’s not improving things, and it’s obviously phony and it’s hypocritical. But also Christianity is a very hard religion to practice, at least as Jesus taught it. It requires an open heart and love toward everyone, particularly those most unlike you. It’s clear that most Christians simply cannot and will not go there. It requires giving your treasure to the least of us. It requires you to act contrary to your nature. It requires you to constantly summon your better self and step outside your boundaries and prejudices. Most of us simply can’t, which simply drives cognitive dissonance that charlatans like Donald Trump are using for their own purposes. It feeds that chaos, the narrow-mindedness and the bigotry that is all around us.

Religion needs to be redefined for modern times. Perhaps we are better without it. Making the present try to fit the ideas of a far past is destroying us.

I’m feeling sick and you should too

The Thinker by Rodin

I was in Boston last week when the massive heat wave struck. I was there to attend a Wordcamp, a gathering of people interested in WordPress. (WordPress powers forty percent of websites, including this one.) While the “camp” was great (in part because it was indoors), the heat outside was oppressive. Walking eight blocks or so to dinner from my hotel nearly gave me sunstroke.

For a while, I walked beside a homeless man with a shopping cart. Inside were his prized possessions, such as they were. They included two plastic jugs of water that he kept drinking from. He put on a happy face though amongst his profuse sweating. “Love the heat, love the heat”, he intoned, moving down the sidewalk.

It was probably 98 degrees. To me it, was about as brutal a heat as I could ever remember, which included one 104-degree day in Virginia’s humidity. It was perhaps made worse by all the asphalt and concrete around me. I eventually found the Jewish deli where I had dinner. The threat of heatstroke went away when the waitress poured me glass after glass of ice water.

The homeless man proved to be more resilient than I was, but he had no choice. I figure it would have killed me had I had to stay out in it all day. I felt woozy, sticky, terribly uncomfortable and sweaty beyond belief. I couldn’t fathom how people endured this kind of heat before air conditioning. The truth is though that most of the time they didn’t have to because it very rarely got so hot. What I was experiencing was climate change in action. It is only going to get worse.

I remember back to the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was first established. By the end of the decade, the skies were largely clean and the rivers largely unpolluted. We felt like we had pollution under control. Climate change was not on anyone’s radar, except by maybe some outlier scientists. No wonder that when Ronald Reagan declared Morning in America again in the 1980s we were so enthusiastic. Off went the solar panels on top of the White House that dopey Jimmy (“cardigan sweater”) Carter had put up. We went back to getting our energy the old fashioned way, which at the time meant importing oil from mostly corrupt Middle East countries that we supported. We did manage to modestly increase fuel efficiency standards over the decades, but mostly we tuned out Al Gore’s warnings. Trump, of course, is doubling down on willful ignorance. And he’s hardly alone. In Brazil, their new Trump-like president Jair Bolsonaro declared open season on what’s left of the Amazon.

Addressing climate change is not entirely hopeless, but nearly so. With the exception of the United States, most developed countries agree there is a problem but most are taking half measures at best to address it. It doesn’t begin to realistically address the crisis. To realistically address the crisis, we all need to work together. Moreover, there is no short-term solution. It will require generations of work and carefully nurturing of our ecosystems. In the best case there will be much more massive deforestation, widespread species destruction, mass migrations and added misery and poverty. There’s a lot to be afraid of as the crisis worsens. Most people react to fear by building walls like the Supreme Court decided Trump could do on our southern border on Friday. Countries will try to have their cake and eat it too, which will make things worse for everyone.

Heat and misery then are now the new normal, but the effects of 108-degree records in cities like Paris recently are just beginning. It’s already pushing sea levels to rise but this will get much worse too. There are ten million people in Jakarta, Indonesia but most of it is expected to disappear under rising seas as it sits at just (or below) sea level. And it’s but one of the cities to be impacted the worst by climate change. Everything is changing, and none of it is changing for the better because of climate change.

So I was feeling sick not just from the heat, but because of the legacy I am leaving to my daughter’s generation and all future generations. They may expect that their lives will closely resemble the lives they were born into, but that’s largely not going to be the case. Their lives are likely to be shorter, more miserable and with a lower standard of living than their parents’.

But it’s not just future generations but also my generation too. At least financially I am the exception, but I see plenty of people in my generation that are living precarious lives largely unknown by their parents. I learned this week that my friend from childhood, Tom, is working at a distribution center. He’s just another Amazon droid in a poorly air conditioned warehouse shoving things into bins for distant customers for a little over $15.00/hour. Tom is an extremely talented advertising professional, but at age 61 he simply can’t find much beyond spot work for doing what he does best and most profitably. He’s been aged out and his industry favors the young. So while you sleep, Tom is shuffling things into bins for a fraction of what he’s worth. The only good part for Tom is that Amazon was shamed into raising wages to $15.00/hour. Also, because he works nights he gets a small bonus. Tom is hardly alone. Maybe $15.00/hour is a living wage, but not for a man with a mortgage, a wife, and two kids, one of who is going through a gender transition.

I feel sick for Tom not to mention his friend Jeff who is in a similar situation, and that the economy is failing millions like them. I feel sick for that homeless man too. Being retired and comfortable financially, I spend a fair amount of my leisure trying to rectify the mess my generation has made, such as helping to create a community network. But it’s not nearly enough. The problem is so massive it looks hopeless. I know that fear is a very strong motivator. But since most of us are short-term thinkers, our fear will be used against us to make our lives even more miserable. Malicious idiots seem to be in charge everywhere, and most of us are stupid enough to keep allowing them to do so.

No wonder that I feel sick. I have a feeling though that this is a condition I will never recover from. Neither will you.

Remembering Apollo 11

The Thinker by Rodin

My best friend Tom and I were big space program fans back in the day, but in truth most Americans were as well. We were just more obsessed about it than most. The space program was a BFD in the 1960s, and our nation’s progress in space went at an extremely accelerated rate. That can happen when the nation focuses on a problem and it was a good problem to have. It made us feel better about not having put the first satellite or astronaut into space. Unlike the unwinnable war in Vietnam it didn’t involve killing anyone. Rather, it stirred our imaginations and better natures. We felt so lucky to be alive when an event of such importance was happening. Even better, we could watch grainy images of the events at time from 230,000 miles away, the general distance between the earth and moon, with about a second and a half delay.

I was twelve years old at the time, and these events came in rapid succession. Just eight months earlier, Apollo 8 had orbited the moon and safely returned, our first manned journey beyond earth orbit. That too was incredibly dangerous and daring. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module from the safety of an earth orbit, minus the actual landing of course. Apollo 10, less than two months before Apollo 11’s landing, did the same a few miles above the moon’s surface. Even so, Apollo 11 felt daring and in truth it was very dangerous. NASA generally did things cautiously, but arguably it should have been more cautious. The late President Kennedy had challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before 1970, so the pressure was on.

It would take moving to Florida some years later to see an actual rocket launch. I saw two of them: the last Saturn V launch which catapulted Skylab into orbit from about nine miles away, and a Saturn 1B launch that was used for a joint docking exercise between the USA and the Soviet Union from about three miles away (we got a special pass). For one of them my friend Tom made the journey from New York to see it with me. But by 1972 the nation lost interest. Apollo 11’s landing was a great climax. Apollo 13’s misfortune made for a great national story, but generally the nation quickly moved on after Apollo 11, which was a shame because each subsequent mission got more interesting and more challenging.

So my perspective of the landing came from a lot of obsessive reading about the space program and a lot of watching TV. One of the few decisions we had back then was which network to watch it on. We chose CBS because then CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was equally obsessed by the space program. Astronaut Wally Schirra, who managed to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, was Walt’s right hand guy giving an astronaut’s perspective. That was a hard combination to beat. Aside from the many, many commercials from Tang and the International Paper Company on CBS, there was some cheesy CBS animation depicting events that could not be televised. CBS’s animation showed the lunar module landing some thirty seconds before when it actually did. There was no way to slow it down with the animation of the time.

There was that and the static-filled conversations between astronauts in Eagle (the lunar module), Columbia (the command module) and Mission Control in Houston, much of it technical and hard to decipher. The landing happened in the afternoon for us on the east coast. The first moonwalk though was the even more exciting event, which happened sometime around midnight. We got special parental dispensation to stay up late, but Aldrin wasn’t even on the surface before I was shuffled off to bed. The images from the lunar surface were in black and white, and were later broadcast in color in later missions. Buzz Aldrin noted the “magnificent desolation” of the moon and it sure seemed that way to us here on earth. It was a time of great national pride and unity, which is pretty much the antithesis of what we have now. Fifty years later, our country looks like a shell of what it was in 1969, even factoring in the divisive Vietnam War and racial strife that also characterized the 1960s.

I’ll certainly be dead 50 years from now, but there’s probably an even chance I’ll be alive to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing. Two of the Apollo 11 astronauts are still with us (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins), but we lost Neil Armstrong in 2013. Both Michael and Buzz look ancient as they are both age 89 at the moment. But both still have their wits about them. I’m glad they are still around to share their memories.

Fifty years later, we can unquestionably say that this was the biggest event in the history of the human race, at least so far. Even a manned landing on Mars will feel anticlimactic. Should we ever make it as as a race to a planet around another solar system, that will be perhaps a greater event. If it ever happens though, it’s unlikely anyone who watched the crew depart will be around to celebrate.

A car in its (Prius) Prime

The Thinker by Rodin

So in case you were wondering, in late March I bought a Toyota Prius Prime. It was one of three models I had narrowed down as a viable choice. It was a pragmatic choice. I wanted a car that did not exist yet, which had to be fully electric but which I could conveniently recharge in the time it takes to fill a tank with gas. So it was either make a pragmatic choice or keep the 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid going for a few more years hoping the market would mature. My Honda Civic went to my daughter in Virginia. She is carless no more.

When you go nearly fifteen years between buying cars, you tend to be more than a bit wowed by the changes in car technology. I bought a 2018 Prius Prime Advanced because there were dealer incentives to unload them and I could get a tax credit for it. With the tax credit, the net cost will be around $23,000.

Toyota Prius Prime

I both love and loathe my new Prius Prime. I don’t like its style. The Prius shape is created to be super aerodynamic but its profile is also super unsexy. The Prius has become the Volkswagen Beetle of the 21st century: ugly but super useful. It is also everywhere because a lot of people like me have figured it out that while it’s not a SUV, it’s an extremely reliable and exceptionally fuel efficient car. It seats four, not five because the hybrid battery needed to be placed somewhere so they put it between the two back seats. The back of the car is actually a hatchback, but there is so much mechanical stuff inside that they had to compromise on trunk space. With the rear seats down you can haul some stuff. But it’s not really a pragmatic family car. Even with just my wife and me, when we take it on vacations we’ll have to pack a bit light.

My Prius also loves to nag me. It’s hardly alone. Most new cars do the same thing. Nonetheless, I’ve started to call it Nanny, because it’s a nanny car. It’s just trying to keep me safe. It would be hard to kill myself in this car because it wouldn’t let me. It’s constantly chirping and beeping to warn me of this and that. If you even just switch lanes without signaling, it will start chirping.

But then again, it’s an amazing car. It would get 50mpg if it were in hybrid mode, but it’s rarely in hybrid mode. 80% of the miles driven so far have been in purely electric mode. This is because most of my driving is local, and it has a purely electric range of about 30 miles or so. Last time I checked I was getting 189 mpg. Three months later, I still have about half a tank of gas. It does have a carbon footprint, but only a tiny one. Its electricity comes largely from our house’s solar panels. If we need anything extra from the grid, we pay for clean wind power. When the engine does turn on, the synergy drive tries to use the hybrid’s battery when possible and recharges it when brakes are applied or going downhill.

With more than fifteen years to perfect the Prius, Toyota has refined a totally practical car if you can live with its few deficiencies. The car feels entirely solid. There is no play in the steering wheel yet it turns smartly and easily. When in EV (electric vehicle) mode, it’s amazingly zippy because it’s being accelerated by an electric motor. In EV mode I can pass pretty much anything on the road without the car hardly trying, and silently because there is no engine running.

Even when the engine comes on though, it’s amazingly quiet. Only when accelerating with the engine on does it make much in the way of noise. The navigation system always tells me where I am going. While it doesn’t work with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, its navigation system is functional if a bit baffling. The user interface needs a good reengineering.

What I miss about my old Honda Civic is its simplicity. I miss putting a key in the ignition. Also, my Prius can at times be a bit baffling to drive. With only a thick set of user manuals, learning comes slowly. The cruise control uses a separate lever in an odd location. But it’s an adaptive cruise control, which I love, love, love! Figuring out how to adopt it so I had a tighter following distance though was not intuitive. The heads up display on the Advanced model that I have is very convenient.

Some things you don’t have to think much about, like automatic emergency breaking and blind spot detection. It just happens. Doubtless in time it will become old hat, but right now I still struggle with basic things. It is nice to have built in Bluetooth so I can listen to podcasts when I cruise.

Being a plugin, it wants to be plugged in, so getting out of the garage is now a longer process because it has to be unplugged and the cords stowed away. Ditto with arriving home. But I have none of the range anxiety I had driving the Chevy Bolt, which I otherwise really liked and would have bought. I just couldn’t live with stopping for an hour or more to recharge every 250 miles or so when traveling long distances. Pragmatism ruled the day.

And that’s what you get with the Prius Prime: an excellently engineered vehicle that’s super efficient and super reliable and will basically run forever at minimal cost. I really don’t think there is a better value on the market. It was a logical choice and it’s a choice I get happier with over time. I have never felt so safe or have been more impressed with a car, despite its shortcomings. Having owned many Toyotas over the years, I know I can count on Toyota. For the deeply pragmatic type like me that wants great value, efficiency and minimal environment impact, it’s an exceptional value.

Here’s why the improved economy means so little

The Thinker by Rodin

The stock market is reaching record highs again, which make us moneyed people woozy. I’m modestly including myself here although I’m not that well moneyed. But I am retired on a nice pension with plenty of assets to draw on should things go south. The Dow Jones Industrial Average passed 27,000 yesterday and closed for the week at 27,322. Not bad for an index that dropped to 6547 on March 6, 2009, a little over ten years ago.

Happy days are here again? It might help to wonder why the market indexes are so high. The most recent surges are almost surely due to the Fed’s strong hinting that it’s going to reduce interest rates soon. Maybe Donald Trump’s bullying is getting to the Fed, but much more likely the Fed has read the tealeaves and suspects a recession is getting started and is trying to prevent one. And it’s enough to calm Wall Street and make them think happy days will keep on coming.

You don’t have to look hard though to find worrying signs: tariffs are slowing trade, commodity prices are dropping, and the percentage of people in the workforce keeps dropping. This is artificially keeping the unemployment statistics low. Consumers are taking on the same levels of record debt they took on before the Great Recession and Republicans have managed to repeal many of the key safeguards put in place to keep it from happening again. Student loans passed the $1T mark, sucking money from these former students’ wallets that they can’t spend on actual goods and services like houses. Perhaps in response, mortgage rates are dropping again, which is actually not a good sign. Banks are trying to entice people to buy houses, so the lower the rates go the harder time they are having finding people who can afford to take out a mortgage.

Still, many of us including me have been expecting calamity and have been wondering why we have been proven wrong. There are a few positive signs. With unemployment low, workers can bargain for higher wages and it’s working, sort of. They are beating the cost of living by .5 to 1% annually. That doesn’t translate into a whole lot of money, but it beats the decades of wage stagnation we’ve been experiencing. This is hardly the end of wage stagnation, but it is at least a hopeful sign.

Donald Trump is wondering why he isn’t getting more traction on the economy. That’s actually his one bright spot, with a slim majority approving of his handling of it, while his overall approval ratings seem mired in the low 40s. 40% of Americans still cannot find $500 to draw from in an emergency. It could be they are all inept at financial management, which is what Republicans would like you to believe.

The real reasons are much simpler. Much of today’s work requires people with fewer valuable skills, which mean they can’t command as much in wages. That’s why they are working two or three jobs to pay the bills. Even this is not enough, which is the real reason they can’t find $500 and are living paycheck to paycheck.

But there’s one other important factor that is often overlooked. Certain things cost a lot more than they used to (housing is a prime example) and there are other things that cost dramatically more than they used to. The most likely reason you will get thrown into poverty is if you need more medical care than you can afford. The Affordable Care Act was a good first step, but it wasn’t nearly affordable enough, despite the subsidies. You still needed enough income to pay for the bronze plans. And since they came with high deductibles, they mostly only bought catastrophic protection. All those deductibles, copayments and coinsurance payments cost a heap of money and all of it needs to be in the form of disposable cash, which for the most part these people don’t have. They still can’t afford to be sick. Of course, a lot of states won’t offer health care under Medicaid to these people, which they probably could afford if it were offered because copays are minimal when they exist at all. Medical price inflation is still insane and there are fewer mechanisms to check it. The magic of the free market has proven largely illusory with health care costs.

It’s no wonder then that surveys show that for most voters it’s not how well the economy is doing that matters, but how well their economy is doing — and it’s not going that great. The good news is that there is work out there for pretty much anyone who wants it. The bad news is that without a lot of high-paying skills, at best you can barely get by on the wages you are earning. Voters have figured out that health insurance really matters, and it’s their number one concern now. Those who had Obamacare realized that at least for a while it cushioned financial shocks. But they also need health care because they can get sick and simply can’t afford to get well. There are people driving hundreds of miles to Canada regularly just to buy insulin at affordable prices.

While it’s true that Donald Trump is widely seen as unlikeable and unpresidential, what voters are really understanding is that government needs to actually govern, and so little of it is happening. A president can be thrown out after four years, which is likely to happen to Trump. But we need a Congress that compromises in the public interest and tackles real problems like immigration reform and the lack of affordable health insurance ten years after Obamacare.

It may be a long wait. The Supreme Court recently decided states were perfectly free to gerrymander based on political party. In short, it’s allowing states to stay in the business of incumbent protection, making it harder and harder for people to actually have a true republican form of government. With our courts now largely in conservative hands, it’s hard to see how this can change.

Which is why Bernie Sanders’ call for a political revolution makes a whole lot of sense. Achieving it without wholesale insurrection though looks incredibly improbable.

The downside of search engines

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s no secret that my blog’s hits are way down compared to five or ten years ago. Trying to figure out why this is has been hard, and hasn’t been aided by my general apathy. There are days when my hits are in the single digits.

I recently saw a one-day spike of 97 page views, which turned out to be one person skimming lots of my pages. With 2038 posts and content going back to December 2002, you would think that I’d be getting a lot of traffic because I have a ton of content. But I’m not. Most of my stuff is being ignored because search engines don’t see it as relevant anymore.

At least that’s what I’ve learned in my latest research into the issue. Crazily, this site would probably get a lot more hits if it were a lot smaller. What would be left would be mostly my most accessed pages, i.e. the “relevant” ones. Merely keeping the old blog posts around, or posts that are very dated or rarely read, is apparently keeping many people from finding my site in the first place.

It wasn’t always that way, but over the years search engines (and Google in particular) have been concentrating ruthlessly on relevancy. If they don’t see your content as relevant, then for all practical purposes it will sit forever at the bottom of their search index. So if you are on the web because you enjoy encountering serendipitous content, well, a search engine can’t help you. In fact, it will get in your way. Even worse, there’s no easy way to discover serendipitous or random content. In their holy and obsessive quest to highlight only relevant content, I think search engines actually become less useful.

The exact process search engines use to determine relevancy is not known, but the general outlines are understood. If your content is newsy, i.e. topical, i.e. recent, it will rank higher. This is because in most cases people are searching for answers to a problem, so what’s current is more likely to be relevant than older stuff. The more sites that link to your content, the more relevant they think it is. It’s the 21st century equivalent of being popular by popular people saying they like you. Curiously, the algorithms search engines use are smart enough to figure out fake popularity. If you have a campaign to convince other sites to link to your site if you link to their sites, search engines will notice this stuff, and assume you are trying to game the system.

Yet Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is all about gaming the system, i.e. convincing search engines that your content is relevant. The SEO industry is huge, with lots of shysters out there offering to boost your site’s search engine ranking. While the broad outlines of getting better search ranking are pretty well known, no one can say for certain if a given strategy will work. Moreover, search engines are constantly tweaking their algorithms on the quest for even more relevant search results.

The result of all this is that site owners become like hamsters on a wheel, engaging in what is often a fruitless effort to boost their search ranking. Of course, organizations and companies that can afford to do so can achieve some success. It’s like lobbyists buying political influence in Washington: your site too can be more widely read, if you bring the right amount of bread or hire people with enough expertise in the SEO field. Or you can pay sites like Google directly to highlight your site using their Adwords program.

And there are plenty of people making careers out of this stuff. They pore over their daily Google Analytics reports. They attend SEO conferences. They watch YouTube videos on line on how to boost their search rankings. The tradeoff though is either time or money, and since how you spend your time effectively is money, it’s largely the same thing. You can probably boost your site’s traffic if you are willing to spend the time on it, or hire people to spend the time on it on your behalf.

So in trying to be helpful, search engines are creating an unequal playing field, providing increasingly tailored search results and giving a bias to those with time and money. It gets ridiculous sometimes. Google learns so much about you from your Google account and previous searches that it returns results that are perhaps too skewed toward your biases, making you miss important stuff like perhaps actual fact-based news. I wrote about this recently when I compared Google’s search to DuckDuckGo’s search. I found DuckDuckGo’s search results a whole lot better than Google’s because I was outside of Google’s filter bubble.

Even DuckDuckGo though is still on a quest for relevant search results. It has no serendipitous search capabilities either. Perhaps some search engine will find some niche market in returning serendipitous content. Then maybe my search rankings and site traffic will go back to the good old days.

One of the steps to returning to those good old days for me though might be to move the old and unsearched content to a new domain, say occams-razor-archive.info, or just purge it never to be seen again. I’d have to be careful not to actually link to a new archive site though, because that too could lower my site’s search rankings. And I’d have to disguise this blog into something it is not, and spend a lot of time tweaking it so that search engines will pay more attention to it. Probably the best way to increase my page hits would be to start a completely new blog, and fine tune it with punchy short paragraphs, post of no more than 500 words (so viewers don’t lose interest), always using an active voice and creating post titles that are carefully researched to get high interest.

I doubt I will do that. That takes a lot of energy I don’t have. Frankly, I sort of resent the search engine system we are forced to use. I disagree with the way it doesn’t rank the breadth of my content as important, when it should. There’s nothing I can really do about it though other than join this game, which doesn’t interest me. So this blog is likely to rank lower and seem less relevant in the years ahead.

But you can help me fight back. If you like what you read, then bookmark my site and come back to it regularly. Add it to your feed. Tell your friends, “Hey, I found this neat little site on the web!” Use the handy form on the sidebar (or off the menu if using a mobile device) to get emails when I make a new post. Show Google that you value longer and serendipitous content like my site. Maybe in time they will learn that in chasing the holy grail of relevancy, they are effectively hiding a lot of hidden gems across the web.

Future generations are going to loath Republicans

The Thinker by Rodin

The Republican Party has been reaching something of a zenith lately. For a brief while they controlled Congress. They still control the White House and arguably they control the courts, at least the Supreme Court, the one that matters most. They control 33 governorships, the most since at least 1990 and have 22 trifectas: where they control both houses of state government and the governorship (Democrats have 13 trifectas.)

But it’s going to really suck to be a Republican in the future. Republicans will be loathed and it’s not hard to see why. The most obvious reason is that they did almost everything possible to not address climate change. Donald Trump will be the most loathed of the bunch, but anyone that supported his agenda will be (at best) hissed at. Fortunately, most of these prominent Republicans are wealthy enough to move to the Cayman Islands. I’d say they’d best move there ASAP. But having been to the Cayman Islands, I discovered it’s not far above sea level. As islands in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico go, it’s going to be one of the first to be mostly underwater as sea levels rise.

People will be looking for someone to blame, and you can basically indict the entire Republican Party. Moreover, they don’t seem to learn. In Oregon, a few Republican legislators are not showing up for work. They are trying to prevent a bill from passing that will help the state address climate change through lack of a quorum. Yes, they want Oregon to keep worsening the climate crisis. The optics of this already looks bad. Imagine how bad it will look like in ten years.

They are much worse than the No-Nothings of the 19th century. They either deny undeniable facts or believe them and simply don’t care to address them. It’s hard to say which is worse. Just not caring about the climate crisis is bad enough, but they actively support policies that will make our future even chancier and bleaker is much worse. A migration crisis is already underway, but it’s only 1% as bad as it’s going to get. Republicans are actively making it even worse.

We could be working to contain these crises, by doing things like investing in Central America so its governments are less oppressive and their citizens can have some hope for the future. Instead, to punish them we are taking away what little money we give them. And since at least Reagan, Republicans have been supporting dictators down there. The political repression in places like Honduras, Venezuela and Guatemala are driving the crisis.

Finally, the concentration camps we are creating along our border with Mexico are getting some attention. From a party that almost universally wants to force mothers to carry children to term, even if impregnated by rape or incest, they systematically abuse children in these camps. A Trump spokesman actually went to court to tell the court that these children don’t need soap or showers. It’s not just children who are being treated inhumanely, but most of the other adults too. Putting too many people into “camps” not sized for their population in the definition of a concentration camp. Yet many Republicans are aghast that some are calling them what they really are. No, they are not death camps, at least not yet, although apparently influenza and other preventable diseases are widespread within them, and many migrants have died under our custody. Still, it’s not hard to see a Donald Trump in his second term feeling empowered to turn them into death camps as yet another “final solution”.

Then of course was their rape and pillage of the rest of us: the obscene tax cuts for the wealthy, the constant cutting of benefits like food stamps and Medicare, mostly unsuccessful efforts to kill Obamacare, the dumping of more pollution into our atmosphere and waterways and the ensuing health affects they cause that are already underway. Trump apparently thinks if you can’t see the pollution, it doesn’t count: as if someone suffering from asthma won’t have worse asthma when more of these pollutants are thrown into the atmosphere. Worldwide, 6.5 million death occur annually from poor air quality. In the United States, it kills about 200,000 people a year, and those are 2013 figures. This is far more people than are killed in auto accidents annually (about 37,000 people). These numbers are likely on the rise. All this from the so-called Party of Life!

The Republican Party will be seen as the selfish death and greed party who were predominantly responsible for making our country a poorer and increasingly problematic place to live. They ignored all evidence that suggested they were wrong. Since Trump, they have labeled anything of this evidence as “fake news”, claiming it can’t possibly be correct and were deliberately faked. No one will want to be a Republican and at some point no one will admit to being a Republican because it will be too dangerous.

They are likely to get a comeuppance, and it will probably be in the form of radical income redistribution as we try, probably futilely, to save our nation and our planet. They will be lucky if people don’t come after them with pitchforks. So now would be a good time for Republicans to have sudden change of hearts, but it probably won’t make much difference to future generations that will try to cope with the wreckage they mostly caused.

Republicans, move to the Cayman Islands while you can but it’s unlikely that the citizens there will treat you any more kindly.