The gig economy model is exploitative and unsustainable

The Thinker by Rodin

I took my first Lyft ride the other day. I am pleased to say that the technology worked great! I picked up my luggage at baggage claim at Bradley International near Hartford, opened my Lyft app and within two minutes a driver was flagging me down and I was on my way home. I arrived home forty-five minutes later and just $55 poorer, but compared with taking a taxi I doubtlessly saved a bundle. In addition, my driver turned out to work part time for United Technologies configuring cloud services on Microsoft Azure for their customers. So we had lots to chat about and the drive went quickly. He fills his free hours driving people mostly to and from the airport and seemed happy to be a Lyft driver.

Until recently my daughter depended on Lyft and Uber to get around. She gave up her car a few years ago, convinced she didn’t need one in Washington’s far suburbs. If she needed to go somewhere, she’d either walk or use one of these services. Nonetheless, she snapped up the free car I offered her: my old 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid (now replaced by a Toyota Prius Prime). That was my reason for flying: I drove the car to Virginia to give it to her and took a United Airlines flight back. While normally my wife would pick me up at the airport, she recently had a knee replacement and couldn’t do it. So I experimented with Lyft, which I heard was the less evil of the two services. More to the point, it didn’t look like taking a taxi at Bradley was an option anymore. I didn’t see any I could flag down in Arrivals.

So it was a great experience until I thought about the model of Lyft and Uber in general. A lot of their drivers have too and have figured out that they are being exploited. Lyft and Uber are hardly alone using this model. In our new gig economy, the trick seems to be to create companies that find unique ways to exploit workers by making them not realize they are being exploited. In the case of Lyft and Uber, the first thing to do it not to label them employees. They are “independent contractors” who set their own hours and get paid fixed rates. One advantage to being a Lyft or Uber driver compared with being a Supershuttle driver is that they don’t have to rent a van from the company and probably aren’t working sixteen hours a day to keep paying Supershuttle’s franchise and leasing fees.

But they are getting ripped off. In the case of Lyft, they recently reduced payments to their “independent contractors”, which did not make them happy but did probably help lessen Lyft’s losses. Lyft went IPO last week but it’s bleeding money. Nonetheless, they aren’t too worried. Amazon used this strategy very profitably until their competition was either destroyed or bought out. Lyft is hoping for the same sort of success at this game. Its new shareholders don’t seem convinced yet as you can buy Lyft shares well below the $72/share price set at their launch.

These new companies exploit shamelessly and fight dirty. Customers tend to look the other way, basically because they don’t understand what’s going on. If you can save 30% or more with a Lyft ride compared to taking a taxi, you see a good deal plus in many cases they are faster and more convenient than a taxi. It’s clear to me though that these savings come principally from these “independent contractors”.

Taxi drivers are often independent contractors too. They usually aren’t employees. But they are regulated. Taxi commissions typically oversee these services and set rates that allow taxi drivers to earn a decent wage. In some cases they own their taxi, in some cases the taxi company owns them. But it’s a model that’s been working quite well because cities and towns have decided to make it work for both drivers and passengers.

Uber and Lyft decided to be disruptive, which was to just ignore these taxi commissions and brand their services as something other than what it is: a taxi service. The big difference is that their cars aren’t painted with the taxi company’s colors. You hop into one of these cars and hope that your driver won’t drive sexually assault you.

Doing background investigations on “independent contractors” of course raises costs. Hopefully both Lyft and Uber are at least doing cursory background investigations before offering contracts to these “independent contractors”. It’s more convenient to ignore these issues until it becomes too big a problem, and then hope to manage them.

But the real ones being exploited are not customers, but drivers. Basically they become drivers to get some quick cash to pay a few bills. What’s harder to see is the costs on their vehicles and how it eventually affects their bottom line. A car that was driven 10,000 miles a year that is now driven 30,000 miles a year will wear out more quickly and require more frequent maintenance. Neither Lyft nor Uber will pay for these expenses. You are supposed to figure that out as part of your business model, along with other things like withholding money for taxes and social security and Medicare, including the employer’s share. All these expenses plus the quick depreciation and higher maintenance costs on your car means that for most drivers, your effective wage per hour is below the minimum wage and you get all the hassles and costs of maintaining your car and paying taxes too.

These companies are prominent examples of this trend but they are hardly alone. Employers basically don’t want to employ: it’s costly, limits their ability to move quickly to market conditions and requires a lot of hassle. Amazon reluctantly raised wages for its warehouse workers to $15/hour, but it still hires lots of “independent contractors” who work for much less. Even my driver’s erstwhile day employer, United Technologies, is trying him out at part time wages and substandard benefits. He works from home and has to wait two more months before he is allowed to actually come into the office.

I don’t think this gig economy is sustainable. It endures until these “independent contractors” say enough and demand a fairer deal, which is hard to do if you have no union hall. Hopefully they will get a decent deal, but that will raises costs overall and make their whole business model less profitable.

But maybe it won’t matter. Like Amazon they hope that they will have gotten rid of the competition by then by hanging on as long as possible. This success though depends on cutting competition off at the kneecaps and exploiting people as long as possible. In the case of Lyft and Uber, so far it’s been decimating taxi companies. If ultimately it doesn’t work, they go out of business, leaving of course their “independent contractors” hanging.

In the case of Uber and Lyft, it’s clear this will happen eventually anyhow. The plan is to introduce fleets of automated cars as soon as the technology matures. And these “independent contractors” will be left holding the bag with cars with high mileage, lots of costs and no job.

Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

The Thinker by Rodin

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

The best in life is yet to be: an essay on healthy mortality

The Thinker by Rodin

Another birthday has come and gone. Since this one did not end in a zero, it did not deserve particular attention. But since I am in my sixties now, most of my life is firmly in the past. I’ll be fortunate if only two-thirds of it is in my past. Aside from a nice dinner of meatloaf and seeing If Beale Street could talk at a local arts cinema, it was like any other day.

Something I find curious about aging is that the one thing that bothered me about it growing up – death – doesn’t particularly bother me anymore. Death should be less of an abstraction at my age. We had our next-door neighbor die about a year ago. Both my parents are dead; my father curiously died three years ago on my birthday. My daughter slips into her thirties this year. We are on on our fourth set of cats. Living in a 55+ community, with most of my fellow residents older than me, it appears that advancing age doesn’t seem to bother them either. The oldest is 93 and he still gets around and enjoys life.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. It could be because I am in reasonably good health and have an excellent chance of enjoying another twenty years or more in good health. Part of it could be because we are both retired and don’t have the hassle of working or worrying about money anymore. But I’m also coming to think that a lot of it is due to not being religious. In my early twenties it’s fair to say I wasn’t religious, but I was still under a religious hangover. In my case, it was a Roman Catholic hangover. It clouded my thinking about death.

With a few exceptions, religion does much more to make us anxious about death than provide a balm to address it. It does seem ironic because if you check off the right checkboxes and have true faith, then eternal life is something of a given, albeit in a different state. And we are promised that in this case our next eternal and spiritual life will be a lot happier than this one.

For many of us, life is more chore than blessing. I don’t have to step far from my home to see it. During the recent arctic blast, two homeless people died of hypothermia in a tent behind a McDonalds restaurant in Greenfield, a town twenty-five miles north of us. The local homeless shelters could not accommodate the overflow crowds. I can see the homeless wandering downtown or holding cardboard signs at some prominent intersections. As miserable as life appears to be for them though, they still cling to it. For retired people like me without much in the way of worries about descending into poverty, life at this stage is exactly what I wanted out of life and finally received. It feels like a blessing. And it is, at least partly. I was able to hang onto a good paying job with benefits long enough to reach a good retirement, and there were no intervening medical complications to strip it all away.

No wonder so many retired people are happy with their lives. Death is unavoidable but so is life. And life is often very complex to navigate, and gets more complex everyday. In my early twenties, my real angst was likely not about some inevitable future death, but whether I could pay the rent next month. It was likely that the latter fed the former.

It used to be that life was a much more miserable experience. Retirement was virtually unheard of. Many of us lived with massive pain and discomfort we could do little to remedy. Most of us died long before we were at a retirement age, often painfully and violently. If we reached old age, we depended on our offspring to tend to us when our bodies grew frail. Medicine though only became useful in the last hundred years. Social safety nets did not exist then; living in general was precarious and scary. Retirement was a luxury for the truly rich, if they survived long enough to enjoy it. Now most of us will reach retirement age and increasingly most of us can enjoy it.

In those darker and scarier times, religion promised not only salvation but also something more important: eternal comfort in some future afterlife, which was naturally appealing because for most of us life was trial and tribulation. These days though many of us can have that comfort right now, or at least when we reach retirement age. Is it any surprise then that in countries with high standards of living that religion seems to be fading away? It’s not just Western Europe; it’s happening here in the United States too, albeit more slowly. It’s fading faster in places that are more prosperous. Hence you find more atheists in New Jersey, and fewer in Deep South Alabama. Prosperity may be what kills off religion.

My devout Catholic mother went to her grave scared out of her mind. Part of it was because her condition was quite debilitating: her case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is similar to Parkinson’s disease. In general, it’s a bad way to go. Michael J. Fox isn’t happy about his diagnosis. Robin Williams made what seemed to him the logical choice and hung himself rather than go through a miserable decline. But my mother was also uncertain about whether she would make it into heaven. She alluded to many mistakes she had made in her life, as if any of us get through life without making mistakes. I think what really terrified her was not finding going to hell, but the idea of utter nothingness, which you have to assume happens to you after death if there is no afterlife. It terrified her probably because her Catholic faith had kept her thinking about it, at least until she couldn’t not think about it anymore.

And yet as I noted before, no one worries about their state of nothingness before they were conceived. So logically it’s kind of silly to worry about what you are after death, if anything. I do suspect though that with the right education a lot of us can learn to deal with death in a much more … what’s the word … healthier way. We can choose to be terrified of it, or not. But death cannot be escaped.

I think that’s where my head is right now. Whether my soul survives after death or not doesn’t particularly bother me. For me, what works is to be present in my own life every day, and to do things that I find interesting and meaningful every day. With death the lights may go out or not, but I do take some comfort that I am immortal in a way. Because of Albert Einstein, we know that space-time is real, and that time is an illusion. My mom is still alive somewhere in the space-time matrix. I just lack the ability to slide through space-time like a tape recorder to see her again. Some mediums though claim they can do this.

Given that space-time is a fact and that religion requires faith, knowing that space-time exists tells me that I am immortal in a way, as I am part of space-time which is effectively immortal. It is a sort of faith for the faithless. And I didn’t need Jesus Christ to find it. I needed to understand the implications of what Albert Einstein was telling us.

Post 2000 and the blog continues

The Thinker by Rodin

I had to check. I reached post 1000 on August 29, 2009. Today on December 20, 2018 I finally hit the latest milestone, post 2000. My expectation was that maybe I could reach post 2000 on December 12, 2018. Then if I were to take the blog down, as I hinted I might, it would be after exactly sixteen years of blogging. Seemed fitting, somehow.

Happily, traffic has picked up just enough where I find the impetus to keep going. Most of my posts go into a backwater wasteland somewhere with zero likes or reposts, but some still seem to resonate. I’m not sure how they end up resonating. Maybe someone on my email list recommends them. It used to be that I could count on Google search to boost some posts. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. In any event, it makes no sense to blog if hardly anyone is reading. So, dear readers, if you want the blog to continue, simply read it and recommend posts to your friends when you think it warrants it. If this blog goes down, it probably won’t due to my disinterest, but only because no one seems to be listening. If blogging amounts to talking to myself online, it has no point.

What’s been resonating? The home page gets the most hits, about 26% of the total page views so far this year. Those pages that broke the twenty page views in the last thirty days include one on Trump’s treason, the beginning of the decline and fall of the Trump presidency, on the nature of reality and my Mike Pence tag for some reason. It may be that Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the blogosphere. It’s hard not to comment on Donald Trump given his disastrous presidency and its oversized impact on our nation. But of course even when I think I have a unique perspective on him, there is so much other content out there on him that it’s hard for anyone’s to get noticed unless you have a lot of followers already.

And that’s part of my problem. I suck at marketing, but worse, I don’t really want to market the blog. I don’t promote it with friends and family; in fact I actively discourage them from reading it. They know it’s out there but for the most part they don’t read it. I don’t post links to my posts on Facebook. I prefer anonymity but arguably it’s kind of pointless now that I’m retired. Not all my ideas are acceptable in polite society.

The blog’s decline has been exacerbated by the demise of Craigslist’s casual encounter’s section. I could count on my monthly reviews of these bizarre posts to bring in several hundred page views per month on average. Nothing has replaced it. Nonetheless, this 2015 post on Hartford’s section still gets regular hits. Maybe it’s due to nostalgia. For myself, I don’t miss reviewing these posts. While good for my traffic, there wasn’t much new in them. After a while, even the most bizarre posts seemed perfectly normal.

I restate myself a lot, with many variations based on topics in the news. With 2000 posts, of course you are going to find that you are repeating yourself. But since hardly anyone has read most of my posts (I mean who would be following me for sixteen years?) it doesn’t matter. Trying to make sense of the present is quite hard and feels kind of futile. Not all things that happen really make any sense.

Retirement has expanded my interests. In theory it gives me more time for blogging but in practice other hobbies and interests have taken up the time instead. I don’t want to post more than once or twice a week. There are plenty of other things to keep me engaged. My IT business keeps expanding. I revel in open source projects, teaching a class here and there, and the luxury of so much time in retirement. It’s time to do things like take daily walks; bikes rides; or simply slog through my favorite websites. I keep busy, mostly happily while our national nightmare continues to unfold around us.

So thanks for reading. I hope it is worth our time.

To EV or not-EV: that is the question

The Thinker by Rodin

EV = electric vehicle, of course. Next year I am planning to replace my semi-green 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid, a logical choice as I noted at the time. So I’ve been poring over Consumer Reports, principally its last auto issue, studying all the cars on the market and trying to figure out the next one to buy. I want to buy one in 2019 not only because the Civic will turn 15 (it was bought in 2004) but also because it’s likely that its $3500 battery will need to be replaced in 2020. The old one died a week after its warranty ran out; I think they are programmed to die. I’d prefer not to have to shoulder that cost.

The auto industry is in a period of great flux; a problem brought home by GM’s recent plant closings and layoff announcements. The Trump Administration may believe that the oil era will last forever, but the more I study the auto market the more I am convinced the oil era is ending. This is great news if you believe oil use must be curbed to address climate change. What’s surprising is that our automakers have pretty much figured it out too. The electric car is coming and it’s going to kill the internal combustion engine.

This is not wishful thinking. It’s going to happen. There are a couple of major reasons why this will happen. As usual it will be less about the need to address climate change, as it will come down to simple pocketbook issues. Electric cars are an emerging market that you currently pay a premium to own. But that will change. When anything becomes widely mass-produced, it gets cheaper. Electric cars will get much cheaper in the years ahead. The real innovation is these cars in the battery technology.

Yet there’s another reason electric cars will become a no-duh purchase five or ten years from now: they should be much less expensive to maintain. Internal combustion engines are complex beasts. Electric motors though are dead simple. No pistons and cylinders to worry about. The car will not need a radiator or presumably much in the way of oil in the crankshaft. EV owners already know that when it comes to acceleration, EVs can’t be beat. Put your foot on the accelerator and you will find yourself pushed into your seat. And you will pass others by without the roar of an engine. For a while, it will seem surreal.

So GM is actually playing catch up. It’s killing many of its sedans basically because these will eventually be replaced with EVs. Right now, their electric car lineup doesn’t have much to show for it: just the Bolt and the Volt, last I checked. They can’t mass produce a whole bunch of new EV models yet because the demand isn’t there. But that will change as costs come down. People are already deferring car purchases, waiting for the price of EVs to come down, which largely explains the slowdown in car manufacturing. Meanwhile, the EV charging infrastructure is quickly coming together. Long distance travel is no longer much of a concern with EVs because super charging stations are becoming easy to find. We already have a Tesla supercharging station right across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts, about five miles away. You can fully charge your vehicle at these stations in about ten minutes.

Right now the cost of using a supercharger is less than buying the equivalent in gasoline. Most people will charge their vehicles at home at the going kilowatt-hour rate. Add in enough solar panels to your home and after the investment in the panels much of the time you can run your EV for free. Of course, if you don’t choose green energy at home, your EV may not be that good for the environment. But that’s changing too. Here in Western Massachusetts all sorts of megawatt solar farms are going up. And we already buy energy from offshore wind farms.

Spending $100K for a Tesla is out of our budget, but spending $37K or so for a Chevy Bolt is probably not out of our budget, if I assume the $7500 tax credit. To get it though I have to be one of the first 200,000 EV owners and hope the Trump administration doesn’t kill it altogether first. We could buy another hybrid car, but its cost of maintenance over the 10-15 years would make it competitive with a low maintenance EV like the Chevy Bolt. I like EV’s being so much more mechanically simpler and thus cheaper to maintain.

So the EV trend is inescapable. Car manufacturers don’t want us car buyers to focus on this right now because it reduces car sales. There’s a lot of profit as long as car buyers don’t catch on. However, a carbon-emitting SUV you buy today is likely a purchase you will rue five years from now. You will look like a hopeless Luddite. Good luck trying to resell those suckers.

One approach we could use is what a lot of Americans are already doing: defer buying a new car until EV prices go down. I may have to pay another $3500 for a new battery for my Civic, but the car is paid for and it is reliable while being reasonably green. It may be cheaper in the long run. I have yet to test drive the Chevy Bolt, the only EV I am likely to buy. I may not like it. I’ve watched test drive videos of the car and it looks pretty good, but I’d prefer something better but as affordable. It just doesn’t exist yet.

So I might end up with a Toyota Camry Hybrid instead. 48 mpg is nothing to sneeze at, but even with its advanced hybrid technology, it’s clear to me that EVs will displace hybrids too. If I am going to join the 21st century car technology, I’d best do it right with an EV.

Chasing savings

The Thinker by Rodin

Well here’s something I didn’t think we’d be doing again: chasing higher interest rates.

For the last ten years, savings account interest rates have been hovering around zero percent. This was by design after the Great Recession. The Fed wanted to stimulate the economy. The natural tendency of Americans in a recession is to run toward safety. Savings accounts offer that if you have enough money in them to live on. But that’s all they offered. They were not investment opportunities. By cutting interest rates to basically nothing, the Fed was encouraging us to invest in the market. And it worked, although it took a long time.

It is only now a decade later that the Fed is raising interest rates again. Still, most banks are stuck in 2009 and offer virtually no interest on their accounts. But there are others that have gotten with the times, including our bank, Ally Bank. Their savings account now offers 2% annual return regardless of its size. It’s not quite enough to meet inflation, but it’s better than 0.1%. Their money market account is less generous: .9% on balances below $25,000 and 1% on balances above it. Its 12-month Certificate of Deposit though will earn you 2.65% annually. A five-year CD earns 3.1% annually. Ally Bank is an online-only bank, which in part explains their ability to offer these rates. With no brick and mortar buildings to maintain except one headquarters building in Philadelphia, their operational costs are low.

Nonetheless, old habits die hard. I am so used to getting virtually no interest that I’ve maintained our checking account where it’s been for nearly thirty years: Pentagon Federal Credit Union. I still haven’t severed my relationship with PenFed, but the time may be coming. However, I have moved the bulk of our money in PenFed to Ally where it at least earns a good interest rate.

Traditionally we’ve dumped paychecks into a checking account. That’s because most of it was gone by the end of the month, so interest on the account was kind of pointless. Now that we are retired though, it makes no sense. The house is paid off. We have zero debts. What makes sense now is to take our income, mostly pension income, but also 401K and other income from teaching and consulting and stuff it into savings accounts, where the balance earns 2%. Now we have a monthly automatic transfer from our savings account to our checking account based on how much we are likely to spend in a given month. This way most of this money earns interest. This monthly automatic transfer into checking mainly involves figuring how much we will spend monthly on the general cost of living. The idea is to keep our checking account balance low, but not so low as we are likely to overdraw it.

I’ve done this with our Money Market account too. Even at Ally, it was only earning 1%. The account exists basically as long-term savings, but it was really an escrow account. It holds funds that we are accumulating to pay for future long-term expenses, stuff like buying a new car or replacing the roof in fifteen years. But there was no point in taking the hit on interest. So we’ve reduced the balance there to $5,000 and moved the rest into savings. I figure $5000 is the most we are likely to ever write from the account quickly. If we need to write a check for more than that, there will be time to move it from savings.

Oddly enough, this approach is amounting to real money, to the point where when I estimate our income for the year it’s becoming a not insignificant portion of our income. With 2% interest, it amounts to more than $150 per month in interest. Do the math and we should net at least $1800 annual income just from interest, most of it from savings. Granted that our cash reserves are now flush where they weren’t ten years ago. But by simply rethinking how we are managing our money, we’re bringing in this extra money every year, with zero risk to our portfolio. The only real risk is that the Fed will drop interest rates again, which certainly could happen. Markets are definitely in correction territory, suggesting that if things go awry again like in 2008, zero interest rates and more “quantitative easing” may be in the future.

So this is good for us, but not so good for the rest of you who I assume are borrowing a lot of money. It’s pushing up interest rates in general, but home mortgage interest rates in particular. For ten years the economy has been propped up by super cheap interest rates. That’s changing, which will put more stress on borrowers, perhaps adding to our risk of recession.

Still, these higher interest rates are notable. Savings accounts pay real money again, at least if you are using the right bank. It should reshape thinking in the way things are normally done. It has certainly reshaped our thinking. It’s always good to keep a healthy amount of your assets in safe forms like savings accounts. It’s just that now it is beginning to pay to do so again.

The end of Occam’s Razor?

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m approaching post 2000. As I move close to this auspicious number, it has occurred to me that this may be a good time to stop blogging. My traffic is way down and has been way down for years now, and keeps declining. But even if it were not, it’s pretty clear to me that blogging is not much of a thing anymore, at least not blogging as I have practiced it.

Successful blogs these days are not collections of essays like this one, but for the most part contain short and punchy posts. That’s not my style. I use a popular WordPress plugin called Yoast, which helps boost your traffic by basically making your post more attractive to Google. I’m sure that if I took Yoast’s advice I probably would see more traffic, but it would also violate the spirit of my blog. This is a blog of essays and it aspires to be of interest to highly literate people capable of deep thought. Yoast though wants my posts shorter. It wants me to add more headings, pictures and links. It wants me to give short excerpts of the post for search engines. It wants me to use even simpler sentences to make it optimal for people with no more than an eighth grade education.

Ironically, the same technology that elevated my blog years ago now seems intent on killing it. Search engines like Google (the only one that really counts) continually refine their algorithms, which they don’t share. What Google is looking for is relevance, an ephemeral quality. It all amounts to: is this site worthy of promoting in its search engine to advance the company’s profits? A blog of essays does nothing to help Alpha (Google’s parent company) increase it’s shareholders’ fortunes.

Basically Google wants you to spend your life in search engine optimization (SEO) hell. You are expected to work ruthlessly to promote it at your own time and expense for the tiny chance that you will have enough “relevant” content for Google to send people your way. You are expected to master the complexity of SEO, which is basically impossible without paying a lot of money to consultants, which is increasingly making blogging a privilege of the rich. The result of this “relevance” strategy is to deprecate the very things about my blog that I want to retain. So by retaining this approach, I attract fewer readers.

The really successful blogs these days are attached to successful sites, with Huffington Post coming to mind. The author is already someone of some prominence. They are broadcasting their stuff not just in a blog, but are constantly tweeting and posting to Instagram and pore through their site’s analytics to look for ways to make their site more attractive. Yoast tells me such with every post.

Frankly, this is a game I don’t like playing, so I haven’t. So sixteen years of blogging may be enough. The Internet has moved on. Blogging is still a thing, but if Google has their way relevance means it must be of topical interest and take you into an area of specialization. With essays that mostly discuss current events, I am part of a huge pool of similar bloggers. An occasional post will get a fair number of shares or likes (it’s rare to get more than ten likes for a post) but comments are virtually nil.

My first post was on December 13, 2002. My friend Lisa who beat me to it inspired me. Her blog is still around. But she is naturally more connected and sociable than I am, in spite of us both being introverted. Also, she posts a lot less frequently. Maybe I need to do something like that.

So 2000 posts may be it, or maybe even this one (post 1987). Or maybe I should close it down on December 13, 2018, which would make it exactly sixteen years. We’ll see. If it shuts down, it will probably eventually migrate to wordpress.com where at least it will persist indefinitely, but at someone else’s expense.

It’s unlikely though that I would stop putting my stuff out there in some form. I might try podcasting or nibble at vlogging (video blogging), but both take more work than I am likely to want to engage in. If so, I will assume a new persona. Perhaps by looking fresher I will attract more readers.

Sixteen years is a good long time to ride a trend, but it’s abundantly clear to me that blogging is a trend that has been petering out for a while now, being killed slowly by our search engines. And I won’t pay the price in time and treasure to be relevant the way that Google wants me to be.

A change of theme

The Thinker by Rodin

I am loathe to give up my blog’s styling. But arguably my blog’s old WordPress theme, while dark grey with white letters was “cool” (IMHO) and has suited me well for more than fifteen years, wasn’t very attractive to Google. Google reports:

Top new issues found, ordered by number of affected pages:

  • Clickable elements too close together
  • Text too small to read
  • Content wider than screen
  • Viewport not set

Shame on me I guess, as I teach CSS and HTML and most things web and should have fixed this stuff years ago. I’m just strangely apathetic about fixing these things as I like things to look just the way they (mostly) always have been.

So I have reluctantly updated my blog’s style to something more traditional and pretty simple, cutting down a lot on the clutter in the sidebars. In fact, I’ve moved from two wordy sidebars to just one. So hopefully it is more usable and Google will start ranking my site a little better. My stats have been miserable for quite a while, and this may be the result. I should care more but I just don’t.

None of this makes any difference to you, I suspect, unless you visit so often that it also seems jarring. Perhaps I will get used to this one on this blog. I already use it on another site I manage.

I couldn’t give up on the Rodin’s “The Thinker” image though, something of a signature for my site. So a little hacking of the WordPress template and a couple of CSS style changes and it at least is back and consistent.

It will take me a while to get used to it, however. And I’ll miss the old style. I just couldn’t find something dark that was both acceptable and not a huge hassle to retrofit.

The verdict

The Thinker by Rodin

Eight years ago I was called as a juror, sat for a trial then learned over lunch that the defendant had copped a plea. This week I was called to be a juror again. Seventeen were called for a criminal trial, eight of us were empaneled and six of us got to render verdicts. I was one of the latter. I should have expected as much given that my juror number was 3. If hoping to get out of jury duty trial, hope they give you a larger number.

Aside from paying taxes and obeying laws, citizens have only two duties. Voting is optional, but jury duty is not. So I drove to the courthouse in Belchertown, Massachusetts (a really bad name for a town, BTW) and got predictably lost for a while, arriving about ten minutes late. Fortunately, I was not in trouble or the last to arrive. They forced us to watch Today on NBC and I tried to tune it out with a crossword puzzle.

The case involved someone I realized later I probably had met tangentially. Not only does she live in my little village, she also does a lot of ordering at the local pet food store we frequent. At age twenty-nine, she looked ten years younger and no more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. She was charged with negligent driving and driving under the influence. She had participated in a charity golf event for her employer, played eighteen holes of bad golf, retired to the clubhouse and consumed (she testified) about twelve ounces of an IPA. Sometime afterward she drove home, but probably missed the turnoff to the shortest way home on her GPS and ended up in South Amherst. There at a set of double roundabouts she flew over the circle, destroyed a tire and ended up on the side of the road. She said approaching the roundabout she had glanced down at her GPS to understand how to navigate the two roundabouts and that bad timing caused her accident.

A lady watched the whole thing and she and her husband tried to offer assistance. She testified that the defendant seemed shocked and/or drunk. She was not very coherent when she tried to talk to them, but was proactive enough to have her registration and drivers license ready for the officer who showed up some minutes later. She was given a sobriety test by being asked to walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other. After one step she leaned on her car for support. She attempted the test three times and was eventually arrested and taken to the police station. She never got a Breathalyzer test.

So it was up to the six of us who actually made it to deliberations to pass judgment on her. The woman who watched the accident testified, as did the arresting officer. Her husband who was also a witness was not called, nor was a second officer also there. The judge solemnly instructed us that we either had to find her guilty or not guilty, and we had to be unanimous.

In one respect Massachusetts law is good, since we were a jury of eight instead of the traditional twelve, and two were alternates who got to sit in a nearby room and twiddle their thumbs. Even with six of us in a room it looked like we might end up as a hung jury. However, no one really wanted to come back on Friday to deliberate some more because it didn’t look like we would have a change of mind.

At least it was easy to convict her of the first charge of negligent driving. Not only was there a witness, but also the defendant admitted it in her testimony. The driving under the influence charge though divided the jury. The standard for convicting someone was that the evidence had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. And we all had different ideas about what the criteria was for beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge was not too helpful either. When we filed back into the courtroom for more instructions he basically told us that we had to figure it out for ourselves and we had to be unanimous.

So when we filed back into the jury room we at least agreed that the beyond a reasonable doubt is an unreasonable standard. But it is useful in forcing us to compromise our principles, which is probably the point. Where was the reasonable doubt here? The officer testified her eyes were bloodshot and there was the smell of alcohol on her breath. Then there were those repeated sobriety tests. Was this beyond reasonable doubt? In my case, at age 61, I wasn’t sure I could pass the test completely sober.

It was to a couple jurors, but not to the rest of us. Would one beer affect one skinny woman that much? Maybe it was half a dozen beers. It’s hard to say how tanked she was because of the lack of a Breathalyzer test. Why was one not done? We weren’t allowed to ask any questions, simply judge on the evidence presented. And we were explicitly told we had to use our own life experiences as a guide.

I remembered a day thirty-two years earlier when my wife and I arrived with painting supplies to paint the townhouse we had just purchased. We opened the door to find the ceilings down and water flowing out the door. It was probably the most traumatic thing that had happened to either of up to that time, made more traumatic because we only had a verbal okay on our insurance policy. We were in shock for hours. That was my life experience. Could something like this have happened to this woman, who had only recently bought the relatively new Acura for cash? Maybe she was mentally ill too? Was she rattled because of something like that, or from having one too many IPAs at the club?

Who could say? When pressed I agreed that she was likely under the influence. But could I convict her for this opinion when I felt it did not meet the standard of a reasonable doubt? We all agreed we would have liked to hear from the witness’s husband and the second officer. But the prosecution didn’t think it was necessary for their case.

Ultimately, four of us felt there was reasonable doubt about her condition and two did not. The two who felt she was guilty compromised their reasonable doubt standard. And that was the justice we ended up delivering: not guilty. The forewoman said she could agree because she was at least found guilty of negligent driving.

The defendant cried when the verdict was read, whether from joy or sorrow is hard to say. It was more likely from joy because her license had been suspended. Because of our verdict she was allowed to drive again. I felt we delivered imperfect justice. On that no one in the jury room disagreed. We hope that if she was drunk at the time, she learned her lesson. We’ll never know.

I learned that despite all the legal mumbo jumbo and the sonorous words from the judge, our jury system is imperfect. I suspect the amicable judge presiding over the case silently agreed.

Scared to death

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports it’s sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.