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.

Why I think Trump won’t go to war with Iran

The Thinker by Rodin

Traditionally, starting a war is a pretty one good way for a president to get reelected. It worked for George W. Bush, but his Iraq war was kind of a sequel to his war with Afghanistan, seen by Americans as a justified war after 9/11. The complications of his invasion were not totally understood by voters when they gave him a second term in 2004; he essentially got the benefit of the doubt. Reagan did some gunboat diplomacy and it served him well in his reelection. We’ll never know if Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion would have cost him the 1964 election. Teddy Roosevelt saw the Spanish American War as a good war, i.e. not too complicated, where America could flex its growing muscle and try the empire thing without too much cost. Much like our potential war with Iran, it didn’t have much in the way of plausible justification. Yet Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed great popularity.

The times though may be changing. Last night Donald Trump aborted three planned airstrikes on Iran while they were already in flight. Supposedly, this was because he was concerned about the reported 150 casualties that would have resulted from the strikes. (They didn’t brief him on this before authorizing the strike?) Most likely, Trump just got cold feet.

Or it could be someone on his staff looked at polling on the issue. For example, a May Reuters/Ipsos poll found that while half of Americans believe we will go to war with Iran within the next few years, 60% said the U.S. should not strike first. Also 61% of Americans still support the agreement negotiated between Iran, the Obama Administration, and many other countries to curb Iraq’s use of nuclear materials. Just 12% of Americans want us to strike first.

Iran recently shot down one of our drones near the Strait of Hormuz. It’s unclear whether it was done in international waters or not. Killing 150 people to avenge an attack on a bunch of metal does seem to be (forgive the pun) massive overkill.

It’s quite clear that Trump sees his 2020 reelection as essential and will do just about anything to achieve it. He’s already invited the Russians and other states (Norway?) to keep interfering in our elections, and Congressional Republicans seem not to care too. His reelection is literally do or die for Trump. If he can’t win reelection, then he may be charged for potential crimes documented in the Mueller report. But if he wins, the statute of limitations will pass, so at worst he’s charged for various state offenses. Starting a war with Iran is risky, but might be effective in ensuring his reelection.

Then maybe not so much. Trump is clearly no student of history, but it didn’t work well for George H.W. Bush, who ran a war against Iraq very successfully with a coalition of countries, yet still managed to lose reelection. If the 2004 elections had been held six months later, George W. Bush might not have won as the consequences of his botched Iraq war became more noticed and Americans turned decisively against it.

When it comes to armed conflict against a significant adversary, my bet is that Trump is mostly a paper tiger. He talks big about being ruthless with our enemies, but he seems to sense that running an actual war is something out of his league. To begin with, the senior leadership of his Department of Defense is largely gone. He has no Secretary of Defense, the acting one just quit and the acting-acting one is hardly the best person for the job. A president that actually managed his government would have filled these positions by now. Not Trump. He remains distracted and is unconcerned about tending to the mechanics of government. I think he senses that a conflict with Iran is better punted than acted on.

Why? Because he would actually be expected to manage the war and that’s hard and boring. It means convincing a reluctant Congress to fund it, which probably won’t happen. He would lose face and look weak. It’s much better, easier and most importantly less risky to punt on it, like he’s doing on North Korea, Venezuela or for that matter much of Central America. Many of his problems are caused by his neglect, i.e. refusal to actually govern. Governing a country at war is hard.

Reports suggest he’s already had open conflicts with John Bolton, his super-hawkish national security adviser who is openly salivating at the idea of a war with Iran. But when Trump acts on it, he’ll own it, not Bolton. Not that when it goes bad he won’t try to make others take the knee for it. But it paints a bad picture next year when he is running for reelection while this conflict likely becomes tit-for-tat actions instead. Any war or conflict with Iran will be a conflict of his own making. Remember that Trump belatedly called our Iraq War a mistake.

It’s much easier to tweet all day and make bullying noises, plus it avoids a lot of accountability. So I think he’s going to talk strong but ultimately do little in the way of a military response. I hope I’m right.

I really think Nancy Pelosi has this viable “nuclear option”

The Thinker by Rodin

I had an idea the other day on how to get at least a few things done in our federal government again. It’s going to sound crazy because I don’t think it’s been done before. But I see no reason why it couldn’t be done, if for some reason Nancy Pelosi wants to show she has real balls.

As a preface, let’s recall what the House and the Senate are empowered to do. It would seem that the Senate is the more powerful body, simply because it is empowered to do a lot of things without the consent of the House. For example, the House has no say on what treaties the U.S. signs, or who gets appointed to senior government positions like department secretaries, federal judges or ambassadors. This is because our founding fathers saw the United States as a collection of sovereign states, with Rhode Island having the same stake as California.

What unique powers does the U.S. House of Representative have? Well, they can propose legislation, but so can the Senate. Similar bills that pass both houses of Congress go to a conference committee where both houses haggle out their differences and vote on an identical bill.

But there is one area where the Senate cannot go first: on any bill that appropriates money. The U.S. constitution says funding bills must originate in the House. The Senate can propose amendments to these bills, but they can’t originate one on their own.

Our new progressive House has been passing bills right and left for the Senate to consider. They go to the Senate where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell makes a show of refusing to take them up. He’s been proudly calling himself “The Grim Reaper.” This includes legislation that would pass easily on a bipartisan basis. One prominent example is legislation forwarded by the House to reimpose FCC net neutrality rules. There is arguably more important bipartisan legislation McConnell simply won’t advance, like protecting our elections from foreign interference or a path to citizenship for so-called “dreamers”.

What Nancy Pelosi could do is simply refuse to forward to the Senate any funding bill for the U.S. government until Mitch McConnell agrees in writing to advance a handful of these bipartisan bills to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.

It’s fair to say that McConnell won’t like this idea at all. But when the legislation is bipartisan it’s a lot harder to say no, particularly when the federal government must be funded. These days, most funding bills are continuing resolutions. These must originate in the House. The House can pass them long before they are needed. Nancy Pelosi though could simply keep them on her desk and refuse to move them to the Senate until she gets a letter in writing from Mitch McConnell that he will move to the floor of the Senate these likely bipartisan bills within a reasonable period of time, say a month.

Yes, Republican senators may start calling her “Shutdown Nancy”. But I bet they would cave because the American people and both parties are by definition in favor of bipartisan legislation. Pelosi and Democrats would look good for at least partially unsticking the levers of governance.

Prove to me I’m wrong, but I believe that the House does have this nuclear option. Given the intransigence in the Senate, I say it’s time to create this new weapon. Once used successfully, the House may find other ways of making government work again.

Playing Dr. Larch

The Thinker by Rodin

“Here in St. Cloud’s,” Dr. Larch wrote, “ I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for those moments when it is possible to play God – we should seize those moments. There won’t be many.”

John Irving, The Cider House Rules

When I was young and a good Catholic, I assumed that abortion was wrong and evil. I remember thinking, “What if we abort the next Einstein?” I never pondered its opposite: “What if we had the chance to abort the next Hitler and didn’t?” Once pro-life, as I pulled away from the Church, I became pro-choice. As a man though it’s a largely theoretical position. I can father a child and did, but I can’t choose for the mother whether to carry the child to term or not. (Technically, I can’t father another child, at least not without getting my vasectomy reversed.)

Still, sometimes we get opportunities to be Dr. Larch. He’s a fictional doctor from John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules (made into a movie starring Michael Caine). Such an opportunity came in my inbox recently.

A site that helps women get abortions in a country where it is illegal needed my help. Their web host tossed them out when someone complained. They managed to find new hosting, but had to find a way to disguise their most pertinent information: where to get abortions and who can reliably provide them in that country. This comes mostly from women trading experiences and they do so in an online forum. They needed their forum not just upgraded, but tuned to keep it harder for prying eyes to discover their paid dirt: their listings of these providers and the experiences of women who used them. Once a woman was vetted as real and sincere, they would let them access the more sensitive part of their site.

So here was my opportunity to play Dr. Larch. I wouldn’t be providing abortions but I did have a choice to make. Like Dr. Larch, I could help women do what needed to be done if they made the choice to have an abortion, or I could turn away the business.

I chose to help women. I don’t expect to make a whole lot of money from the job. The woman who runs the website will at least get my noncommercial rate. It’s only the scale of the work that made me charge her at all: it’s quite complex what she needs done. It’s a half-week of labor at least, and for about a week I’ve been trying to nail down the requirements. They are so complex I wanted to chat with her on Skype. That was not an option. She was too afraid to use it.

Yes, abortion is still illegal in her country, though it can be obtained, particularly if you are a woman of some means. The same was true here in the United States when it was illegal. The Washington Post recently republished an article from 1966 discussing how Washington area women did it back then. States that outlaw abortion won’t stop women from getting them, but will make it financially infeasible for a lot of poor women, which is the basic point. They may also be able to imprison those women they catch. It will also kill or maim many other women as they resort to self-induced abortions using coat hangers. Meanwhile, in Alabama, which arguably has the strictest anti-abortion law, it also allows rapists to have custody rights.

If I didn’t do the work, this woman might find someone else to do it, although it’s pretty complicated and I have a specialized niche. At best it would have delayed her a few extra weeks.

Some would suggest I am abetting a crime somewhere. My work is quite legal in the United States, where I work. Others might suggest I will be going to hell. If so, at least I will have plenty of company. On the other hand, I may also be saving the lives of a lot of women who might try the old coat-hanger trick, or end up with a quack for a doctor, or behind bars from a sting operation. If I help just one woman save her own life, it’s a worthy and noble mission.

This woman has a lot of courage to persist. Like Dr. Larch, the least I can do is to seize those moments when I can play God. And I choose to do what I can to empower women to have custody of their own bodies.

Can you profit from a likely coming recession?

The Thinker by Rodin

There are a lot of wags predicting a recession in 2020. There are wonky predictors of recession, like sustained inverted yield curves, which have accurately predicted most recessions in the past. This happens when short-term treasury bonds earn more interest than long-term bonds, which has been the case for a while now. Historically, it’s a great predictor of a recession and gives you about a year of warning.

Much of the world’s investors are already paying for negative yields, basically paying governments to take their money in the form of negative interest bonds. This sounds crazy. They do this as a hedge against currency deflation. During deflation, there is no incentive to spend money because the same dollar will buy more in the future. Fear of deflation often predicts recession too. We saw a little of this in the Great Recession when some money market accounts actually lost money, at least until new rules were created to place the full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind these accounts.

Naturally, Trump is not helping things. By initiating trade wars, principally with China, Mexico and Canada, he is injecting even more uncertainty into the markets, not to mention reducing international trade. Making willy-nilly decisions, like his recent threat to impose new tariffs on Mexico, feeds this pessimistic narrative.

It seems paradoxical that the stock market is rallying. But it’s rallying only because the Federal Reserve is suggesting it will lower interest rates. If it does, it’s only to try on the hopes of stopping a recession from happening, a recession that appears to be likely largely due to Trump’s trade policies. The Fed though doesn’t have a whole lot of flexibility as interest rates were only modestly raised since the last recession, so there’s not much room for them to fall. No wonder that so many investors are scared of the specter of deflation.

It’s been a good stretch of growth – one of the longest ever – ten years pulling out of the Great Recession. Good times never last forever anyhow, but Trump has certainly been pulling the wrong levers. We should be investing in clean technologies because that’s where future growth will come from. We should be improving our infrastructure, which is decaying around us because the economy needs a robust infrastructure to keep humming. We should be promoting higher wages so people have more money to spend, not throwing more money at millionaires and billionaires who can’t spend much of it.

Recession is coming at some point; it’s just a question of when. Most economists think the likelihood of a recession in 2020 is sixty percent. Should you be buckling down for the next recession? Given that personal credit card debt levels are as high as right before the Great Recession, it looks like many of us are not well prepared, a situation made worse by income inequality. Those who could hopefully pared down debt and created an emergency fund. But since 40% of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense, we can only hope that when the next recession comes it not as severe as the last one. Since many of the factors that got us in trouble last time are back again, largely because Republicans insist on deregulation, that doesn’t seem likely. Most Americans will simply hunker down and pray.

Looking back on my experience from the Great Recession, my takeaway is that it inadvertently made me, if not rich, a lot richer. I was blessed with a steady job that paid well and a 401K I kept contributing toward regularly. I was surprised in 2014 to discover that recovering markets made it not only possible to retire, but to retire comfortably, and I haven’t looked back. Inadvertently, I bought a lot of cheap stocks through my 401K and in just five years this was more than enough time to greatly increase my wealth.

So if you are 10-20 years away from a retirement and in a comfy job that’s unlikely to go away, then perversely you might welcome another recession because you can profit from it the way I did. If you have the nerve (something I don’t have), like a short-seller, you might want to bet against America. By this I mean, count on recession and try to profit from it.

How? If you take the bet that markets are likely at record peaks, then sell. I’m not recommending selling your entire portfolio, but it might make sense to sell a good portion of those stocks, ETFs and mutual funds and park them in U.S. treasuries, which is what a lot of investors are doing. Or you could take them as cash. You can do this with your IRA or 401K without a tax penalty. Then you just have to wait until the inevitable happens. No one can predict how much markets will decline, but if they are down 25% or more, that would be an excellent time to buy some cheap(er) stocks, ETFs and mutual funds. During the Great Recession, there was a huge sale as which discounted Grade A stocks as much as 50% from highs. After all, those who need the money to buy stuff will sell it for any price they can get, which is when bargain hunters like you swoop in. Then, like me, wait for the inevitable appreciation as stocks recover.

Will I take my own advice? Of course not! I’m retired, in my sixties, and although reasonably well off, almost all of our saving are in retirement assets. I could up my percentage of bonds and then later move them back to stocks when the market is at its low. But at my stage of my life, I want to maintain my standard of living, not necessarily gamble on some prospect ten years from now of a much larger net worth which would also be harder to enjoy before I die. Also, I pay a financial adviser to make sure we stay on plan.

But if I were a younger person like I was at the start of the last recession, then I might be taking some joy in the misfortune of others, knowing that when markets recover I would reap substantial rewards.

We have the CVS Pharmacy from hell

The Thinker by Rodin

A couple of months ago, I stopped by our local CVS because I had asked for my medication refill to be ready and was passing by and I had asked for it to be ready earlier that day. I went into the store and immediately queued up in a long line at the pharmacy register. I was fifth in line. As I stood there, another five people queued up behind me. There are four registers including the one at the drive thru. But there was one guy at the front register looking tired and hassled. Behind the counter there were plenty of pharmacists and other people, but none of them could be bothered to actually help shorten the line.

After about fifteen minutes and advancing only one space in the line (one customer had innumerable issues) I said rather loudly, “It sure would be nice if they opened another register” hoping someone would take the hint. Of course they didn’t. They kept doing all this important stuff behind the counter, which apparently doesn’t include the “service” part of CVS. (CVS supposedly stands for “Convenience, Value and Service.”)

After twenty minutes with still two people ahead of me did something I rarely do (used a curse word in public) and told my wife we’re moving pharmacies. I … just … could … not … take … it … any … more! This particular incident was one of the more egregious exceptions, but it was hardly unusual. It’s like the staff is on lethargy pills. And clearly there are no managers on duty trying to make the experience more pleasant for customers. Even their drive-thru is no silver bullet. There is often a line and when it move it move so slowly.

I’d mind this less if we had fewer medicines. I have just one prescription, but my wife must have a dozen. So we are constantly shuffling by the CVS to pick up medications. And half the time when you go to pick them up, they are not ready at the time you asked for using their automated system. We have learned to not even bother to go to CVS until we get an automated call back, often a couple of days after the date and time you requested the medicine.

So why not take it to a non-CVS pharmacy? I checked with our health insurance plan and we can also get prescriptions filled at Walgreens. It’s a bit further away but every time I am in there, there is no line at the pharmacy counter. So we started to move prescriptions there.

But it turns out that if you need a 90-day supply, you pretty much have to get it from CVS. That’s because our health insurer, like most of them, contracts with just one pharmacy chain: CVS. If we want to buy them at Walgreens, we would have to pay a lot more because it suddenly becomes an out of network pharmacy. For 30-day supplies, Walgreens is fine. But since most of our medications are for maintenance drugs, CVS is must be. Costco is another possibility: buy it at their wholesale price, but it’s 25 miles each way. It’s not a realistic alternative.

But wait! There is an alternative! We can mail order them from CVS, actually Caremark in this case because CVS bought them. But since there are a lot of these, we have to coordinate a lot of paperwork to do it mail order. It’s at least as much hassle in our case to do it mail order as it is to go to our local CVS.

We could go to another CVS and hope for a better experience there. Our closest CVS is three miles away. There is one downtown, about the same distance, but that introduces a parking hassle and there is no drive thru. Otherwise, it’s about a seven-mile drive to the next nearest CVS. And there’s no guarantee our experience will be better at that CVS either.

CVS is everywhere. They were our pharmacy before we moved from Northern Virginia too. The service was somewhat better there, in that prescriptions tended to be available when you asked for them, but there were often long lines at the pharmacy counter or drive-thru windows there too.

CVS harassment comes in many forms. Their “helpful” automated service though is too much help. We get these calls most days with prescription reminders. Still, even if you call in your prescriptions and tell the system the date and time you want to pick it up, if their workload is such that they can’t physically get it done in time, the system won’t tell you. You have to learn from experience. You practically need a chart with all your medications on them to keep track of what has been called in, when you asked for it and whether you got a call back saying it was actually fulfilled and ready for pickup.

Our local CVS may be one of the worst ones, but it’s clear that there is a general problem with CVS pharmacies. It’s not too hard to figure out. First, they have way more business than they can handle because most health plans use CVS. Second, they don’t have enough staff. The pharmacists are usually running around at warp speed. Phone calls often ring off the hook. As for counter staff, when I do see them they look apathetic and/or hassled. Most likely they aren’t paying them a living wage, as evidenced by their faces changing so often.

One can understand why health insurers want to minimize costs. CVS is trying to lock in this market, as they are everywhere, and are probably seriously underbidding their costs to insurers. So there are pressure points and they are its customers, people like us who simply have to endure a lot of frustration and hassle just to get timely and relatively affordable medicine.

Our wonderful free market hard at work. As for CVS: it’s not convenient, I get no value from going there, and their service sucks.

Trump is functionally illiterate

The Thinker by Rodin

One of last week’s biggest stories was of course the “infrastructure” meeting between Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the White House. It quickly blew up when Trump took offense at remarks Pelosi made earlier in the day when she accused Trump of a cover up.

His blow up looked quite staged since minutes later he was at a podium in the Rose Garden with preprinted signs that seemed to match the occasion. Also suspicious was an image captured by a photographer of Trump’s handwritten notes (written in Sharpie, of course) with prominent misspellings. Among other misspellings he noted that Democrats have “no achomlisments”.

Trump’s typos are hardly news, but these handwritten notes prove Trump is a very poor speller. He also has very poor grammar. He confuses words. On April 2nd, Trump was ranting about House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. He repeatedly used “oranges” when he should have used the word “origins”. Trump’s speaking is full of malapropisms. It doesn’t seem to bother his supporters. Should it bother the rest of us?

It should bother all of us because Trump is functionally illiterate. I know what you are thinking, “But what about all those tweets? He types them himself.” They tend to have occasional errors but most of the time the grammar and spelling is correct. And this is because his Twitter client points these out and suggests the correct spelling or grammar to use. We all do this, at least if we care about what we post online. Trump though sometimes slips up.

In 2016, The Washington Post compared the grammar and vocabulary levels of the major candidates at the time. Trump’s was at the bottom of the bunch: with a less than 8th grade vocabulary and less than 6th grade grammar. His speech is confusing, to say the least. My daughter does voice captioning for a living. She sometimes has to caption Trump live. Closed captioners hate translating Trump because he rarely speaks in compete sentences. Where do you place the period? It’s so hard to tell. But also, his “sentences” are rarely coherent and veer from place to place. It’s a sign of a very disordered mind that cannot think linearly.

Trump is not illiterate in the sense that he can’t read. But he can’t comprehend much of what he reads. No doubt every textbook he encountered during his education was a challenge. He misses a lot of nuance. In response, he basically doesn’t read and depends on TV and radio for information. That’s why he’s so anxious to hustle out of a meeting to watch Fox News instead: TV is the equivalent of his reading time. That’s why his staff stopped giving him briefing materials. At best he gets a one-page bullet summary of key points. Mostly he wants you to tell him information. Since it appears he is easily distracted, it’s unclear how much of what he hears he actually absorbs. To compensate, he declares himself an “extremely stable genius” and proudly proclaims most decision are made from gut feelings instead of, you know, absorbing the complex and nuanced information that staff could provide to him.

Lots of us share Trump’s disability, which may explain in part why so many people relate to him. Like him, they got through life by overcompensating in other areas and hoping that makes the difference. What his disability reveals though is a man who is far from an “extremely stable genius”. If he can’t master basic grammar and vocabulary, he’s hardly smart by any conventional definition and can’t understand a lot of the material given to him. This means he’s woefully uninformed about the many issues he has to confront and decide on as president. As for stable, someone who huffs out of a meeting after only a few minutes is hardly stable. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is openly calling for an “intervention”. I’m not sure though that Trump understands what that means. It’s one of these words with lots of syllables.

If you are functional illiterate, it means that you grasp most of the basics of reading but lack much of the ability to process and integrate the written word. And that describes Donald Trump’s entire career. It’s not just anyone who can lose a billion dollars over ten years, most of it his father’s money. But you can if you don’t know what you are doing, you can’t read a balance sheet and you run your business by talking to people on the phone instead of absorbing yourself in the minutia of your business.

It also explains why he is stonewalling Congress and blocking any attempts to reveal these underlying falsehoods. No wonder his former attorney Michael Cohen spent a lot of time sending threatening letters to places like Wharton, warning them not to publish Trump’s grades. His career is a cavalcade of false fronts. It doesn’t take too many of these to unmask this Lone Ranger for the fraud he is.

With so many potential vulnerabilities, his luck won’t hold on forever. This is why he finds being dictator much more appealing than being president: no accountability ever! Fortunately for him, the Republican Party is totally on board, because it too projects a different image of what it claims to be compared to what it actually is. It’s unclear though when he is finally unmasked – when his taxes returns show him to be the cheat that he is and his grades prove he is the ignoramus we also know he is – whether it will make a difference.

Until then we continue to have a government led by the most ignorant person ever to hold the office. We have to hope that our constitutional government can somehow survive it.