Trump and Stone are poster boys for toxic masculinity

The Thinker by Rodin

Looks like Roger Stone is going to be off to prison for a long time. He was convicted yesterday of seven counts of tampering with witnesses and lying to Congress. Arguably, it was Roger Stone who took the Republican Party off the deep end. For twenty nine years, Stone courted Trump, trying to get him to run for president. But his roots go back to Richard Nixon where he first started performing dirty tricks to aid his 1972 election. In this case, he contributed money to a possible Nixon rival in the rival’s name to the Young Socialist Alliance, then gave the bogus receipt to the Manchester Union-Leader.

A young man at the time, Stone spent much of the rest of his career upping the ante refining his dirty tricks. Yesterday, at age 67, it all caught up with him. Stone becomes just the latest lawbreaker to be convicted of crimes. Stone saw in Trump a fellow narcissist, but judged that Trump was better at the game. During the 2016 election, Stone’s major role was touting his contacts with Wikileaks, which published damaging material against Hillary Clinton. His contacts were probably more bluster than real. In an attempt to maintain his dirty tricks reputation, he broke the law and was caught by Robert Mueller’s team. His only real hope is a Trump pardon, not an unrealistic expectation, but one that Trump will likely take a pass one. Trump has his own case of toxic narcissism, so he will find it expeditious not to pardon him, at least until after he wins reelection next year.

Stone though is an inspiration and arguably fueled the rabid right wing of the Republican Party, inspiring others to break the rules in pursuit of ever more power. Stone’s conviction should act as a warning to those he inspired that they can be brought down and thrown into prison too, along with many of Trump’s other cronies already there. Perhaps Stone’s lesson has been learned, and prodded many in the executive branch to testify before Congress despite Trump’s insistence that they do not. Stone is going to prison in part for lying to Congress. Ignoring congressional subpoenas is also possibly unlawful too. A lot of people in Trump’s orbit are skating on thin legal ice.

You have to wonder how people like Trump and Stone get created in the first place. I attribute it to having toxic parents. They taught them the wrong lessons: like the ends justify the means and that if you have power you have implied rights to do what you want. Grab the women by the pussy, seems to be what Trump learned. Just start kissing. It doesn’t appear that the Trump family had any real religion. Trump can probably count the number of times he voluntarily attended church on one hand. Trump and Stone though are hardly alone. They never learned how to become men. Instead, they got embroiled in toxic masculinity.

I was very fortunate to have a great father. While I grew up to distance myself from his devout Catholicism, I could hardly ask for a better role model. My father was a lot like Mr. Rogers long before he appeared on PBS. My father’s masculinity was not the sort that Trump got. It was not about power and pussy grabbing. It was about being humble, charitable, loving, kind and secure in himself. It’s not about emulating what others say masculinity should be, but finding your own true self and way of relating to the world, both as a man, but also as a human being. No one could make my father feel ashamed of how he lived his life. It was honest and sincere and simply was his nature.

People like Trump and Stone though were taught completely different lessons. Masculinity was not some sort of invisible skin they put on for themselves, but some sort of skin that projected what they though masculinity should be. Apparently it was based on what they learned. They are hardly alone, though. It’s common for men in America to subliminally pick up a lot of arguably toxic values: that power should be acquired and used ruthlessly; that women are objects for your pleasure whose feelings can be ignored; that you must compete ruthlessly and lay waste to the field if necessary; and that money buys status.

The result describes a lot of what is left of the Republican Party. Of course they cannot see the plank in their own eyes; it’s always been there so why not judge others? Why not reject any evidence that conflicts with their own views, which is why 95% of Republicans according to recent polls will simply not believe the staggering evidence that Trump is immoral, dishonest, a serial liar and likely a serial lawbreaker too. This is the kind of man that seems to inspire the godly among us to vote for him. A man who is everything they profess they don’t want to be is their ticket to salvation. The Lord is working in mysterious ways. Trump is their new king until Jesus returns. Or maybe Trump is Jesus. They obviously aren’t playing with a full deck.

A real man is humble, not full of hubris. A real man can admit his mistakes, take corrective actions and move on to a better place, not keep tripping over his own feet and making the same mistakes. A real man is quietly confident, and feels no need to bluster. A real man aspires to be honest, wholesome and good. None of us can do it all the time, but we know which way to go when we stray.

People like Donald Trump and Roger Stone though don’t. Humility is a word they can’t understand. They are trapped in cycles of destructive behavior and taking as many of the rest of us down with them as possible. They want more of us to be like them. They want a hurtful and toxic culture where they rise based on their ability to be mean and ruthless. They want everyone to be distrustful, because distrust gives them power.

Ultimately that leaves the rest of us simply to choose whether we will follow these fools or follow a better path toward wholeness or healing. It remains to be seen whether the rest of us will rise to the occasion and show them where true wholeness lies. It’s not in their world of toxic masculinity.

Religion is failing us, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

(Read Part One, if you haven’t.)

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I’m not obsessive about it, but my interest in it picks up from time to time. Yesterday, it was snagged again watching this video on YouTube:

The speaker at this TED Talk, Thomas Fleischmann, knows a thing or two about NDEs. As an emergency doctor he has witnessed about two thousand deaths. Since it’s his job to try to resuscitate them, he sometimes succeeds. These people are clinically dead: no heartbeat and no brain waves. The uniformity of their NDEs is amazingly consistent across ages, religions, races and geographical regions.

What makes Fleischmann’s case unique is that he also had a NDE, and he gave the same report his patients did. People brought back tend to be happy, caring, highly relational and lose all fear of death. They report moving toward a light after death, often seeing relatives, and feelings of absolute peace and unconditional love.

This is not quite the Pearly Gates, a greeting from Saint Peter and sitting near the Right Hand of God, but it sounds pretty good. I’m reminded of that snippet from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. If you read the books by JRR Tolkien, he says largely the same thing:

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Given that none of us can escape death, assuming all these experiences continue to progress the way it seems like they should, death should not be something to fear at all. Perhaps it should be welcomed because arguably for many, if not most of us, it’s a great improvement over our reality.

Tethered as we are to this reality, or perhaps to what we think is this reality, only the suicidal will want to hasten their demise. It’s a bit crazy not to fear death, as it seems to be instinctual. So many of those many early Christian martyrs fed to the lions in Roman coliseums must have been crazy. They thought they were earning a place in a heaven. At least it appears that some of them were able to surmount the fear of death to spread the message of Christianity to the heathen.

But overall, religion isn’t helping us confront our mortality in a healthy way. Arguably, most religions make it worse.

These NDEs strongly suggest there is an afterlife, the soul is real and our death moves us into a different, happier and more loving realm. It doesn’t seem to matter how evil you were in life; you are still loved and accepted in the afterlife. It’s kind of hard to get my mind around that given that someone like Jeffrey Epstein recently joined the ranks of the dead. You would figure some of them would deserve eternal torment. Yet if Jesus bought us salvation, then it appears that the Universalists were right: he did so for everyone, for all time. It’s not something you have to earn like a Boy Scout merit badge. It’s something that just is. It’s innate. It’s built in.

You have to look hard to find a religion that tells us not to worry about death, or more specifically eternal damnation as a result of death if you don’t get their religion. Most religions preach just the opposite: you have to work really really hard to get into heaven, or at least be a sincerely good person in this life to get your eternal reward. Yet even Jesus seem to be providing a hint that we are all due salvation. (See Matthew 20).

The atheists aren’t helping either. They don’t believe in an afterlife, hence they don’t believe in NDEs either. Yet it sure looks like they are going to get one whether they like it or not. Or maybe by believing you aren’t going to get one, you actually don’t. There’s no evidence of this though from the many atheists who’ve had NDEs.

Many Buddhists believe we are stuck in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, unless you achieve Nirvana, which is apparently very hard to do. It’s probably easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle, as Jesus also taught. The Buddhists appear to have picked up a lot of this from the Hindus, since Hinduism preceded Buddhism and Hinduism permeated Buddha’s life.

The monotheistic religions all believe in one God and one chance at salvation. Naturally they are very concerned about straightening you out now so you can make it to heaven. Some are arguably more than a bit crazy about it. As I noted in an earlier post, some fundamentalists are actively trying to bring about the end of the world, convinced that they are chosen ones like Donald Trump, and will be raptured.

I would think it should give even a fundamentalist pause to consider that Trump will be raptured too, along all the other sinners out there who they are desperately trying to help see the light, but seem to secretly despise. Frankly, from all the Left Behind books, the Rapture seems like a lot of fun to these elect. It’s like God will be burning these souls like marshmallows over the campfire of Hell, and they get to watch gleefully. After all, they are the chosen, not the rejected.

It’s hard to think of a point to religion if we all make it to a great afterlife for free, and if no one checks our punch cards to make sure we’ve earned our Golden Ticket. The obvious consequence of religion though is to hype our fear of death, so we get so scared that we change our behavior to act and worship a lot like them. And that appears to add a lot of misery to people’s life by pushing them to act in way contrary to their nature. It seems sadistic.

At the very least though, it is not helpful. In fact, it’s very hurtful. We all need to get along in this life as best we can because we are trapped inside this matrix. If religion has a purpose, these NDEs suggest that’s it: to model in some small way the peace and brotherhood and unconditional love we will all find after death, at no charge and unconditionally. Yes, even Donald Trump.

How about some of that religion? And a lot less of the apparently hurtful and counterproductive crap we are getting instead? Sounds good to me. You best not hold your breath.

Is pornography bad?

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real estate investing is exacerbating income inequality

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion is failing us, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Invest in innovation, not exploitation

The Thinker by Rodin

America is a supposedly country that rewards innovation. The trouble is, a lot of this innovation is really exploitation. I looked into this briefly a few posts back when I looked at Lyft and Uber’s “innovation”. The only really innovative part about these ride services is their app. They’re both cheaper and generally faster than taking a taxi. So much for the innovation part. The rest of it is pure exploitation, mostly of its drivers who get cash up front that doesn’t begin to pay a living wage, particularly if you consider the wear and tear on their cars.

These days much of what passes for innovation in our economy is finding newer and cleverer ways to exploit people, who are generally among the most vulnerable among us. Granted, this may be as American as apple pie. We bought Manhattan from the Indians for the price of some trinkets. These days, the exploitation is less overt. But even if you don’t use Lyft or Uber, you don’t have to look far to see examples.

At the macro level, large companies that pollute exploit us all. Their cost of business is discounted by using our air and rivers as a sewer, and we pay the price. Tens of thousands of Americans die from air pollution every year, and the Trump administration is doing its best to make sure more of us will die. Generally though it’s the poor and vulnerable that get exploited. This is our innovation economy at work.

Perhaps you saw John Oliver’s recent show on mobile home investing. This is exactly the sort of “innovation” that I wish we could outlaw. By definition, if you live in a mobile home you don’t make a whole lot of money. You might own your mobile home but in most cases these homes are not truly mobile. And if you wanted to pack up your mobile home and move it elsewhere, you probably can’t afford to do so. In most cases your mobile home sits on a lot that you rent. There are plenty of investor groups buying these properties and regularly jacking up rents, knowing they have a captive audience. Some say this is a great way to earn “passive income”. What you are really doing of course is exploiting the least among us. In many cases these people are skipping medications or food to pay these rent increases. Some abandon their property, which is repossessed and resold to the next exploited victim.

I’m not prone to anger but these sorts of schemes make me positively irate. They should be outlawed. There are all sorts of ways we pick the pockets of the poor among us: pay day loans with incredibly usurious interest rates, lotteries that take their money but rarely pay off, casinos with a similar idea, higher prices for substandard food because supermarkets won’t serve their communities and of course the traditional: substandard public schools that are grossly underfunded because wealthier school districts won’t share their wealth. If that’s not enough, we shame them for taking food stamps or trying to compete for the vanishingly small market of affordable housing.

Most of us though don’t distinguish between companies that make money via exploitation versus innovation. That’s because it requires research, thinking and our capitalist system sees nothing wrong with exploitation. Look at some of the recent IPOs. How many of these are really driving innovation? Lyft went IPO, but Uber was first to this market. Lyft’s app is not noticeably better than Uber’s. Both depend on exploiting drivers and frequently change their payment terms to drivers to increase their revenues at drivers’ expense. Both are working hard on autonomous car technology. They can’t wait to boot their drivers altogether because they’ve run the numbers and maintaining a fleet of autonomous cars is way cheaper than even exploiting their drivers.

Some companies are both exploitative and innovative. How should I feel about owning Amazon stock, which I probably do somewhere in a mutual fund or ETF in my portfolio? Most of Amazon’s model has been exploitative: they’ve undercut competitors by sustaining losses funded by investors until competitors are out of business. I can see the problem locally with so many vacant storefronts. These customers are using Amazon instead.

Amazon was shamed enough by Bernie Sanders so that they raised their wages to $15/hour, which is good, but it’s barely a floor for a survivable wage. Meanwhile, they are finding other ways to “innovate”, most recently by creating their own air fleet that innovates by screwing their pilots. But other parts of Amazon are truly innovative. Amazon Web Services was a completely new idea that Amazon figured out and which fundamentally changed computing, dramatically lowering computing costs, increasing uptime for connected systems and spurring all sorts of innovation in information technology. Its web services are now the most profitable part of Amazon’s business. It’s proven extremely profitable for Google and Microsoft too, who have pockets deep enough to compete in this market.

Ideally I would not own any stock in companies that are exploitative. But like most of you I suspect, I don’t own any stock directly. Instead, I own mutual funds, ETFs and bonds. Mutual funds and EFTs are collections of ownership in lots of stocks. I could own a commercial bond for a specific company, but even here most of these are amalgamations of lots of bonds funds. There’s no easy way to invest in pure innovation, and hard to avoid investing in exploitative companies.

It’s not entirely impossible, however. You can invest in “green” funds and there are some socially active funds that avoid investments in arguably “evil” countries, which include Israel, which is effectively an apartheid state. Kiplinger has some suggestions for this kind of investing. But it’s not easy and in some cases impossible.

For example, if your company does not allow you to invest your 401K in funds like these, you have no options and may pay a penalty for doing investing outside of your 401K, particularly if your employer makes matching contributions to your 401K.

Which is why in the end what you can do is limited, unless we had a progressive Congress that changed investment laws. At a minimum they could require companies offering 401Ks to provide options for employees who want to invest in funds that are innovative but not exploitative.

I am overdue for a talk about this with my financial adviser. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking much about this until my recent trip on Lyft. Much of our portfolio has moved with retirement from 401Ks to IRAs. These could be shifted toward funds that reward innovation and socially progressive. Fortunately, I have a call with him tomorrow.

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.

The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is, continued

The Thinker by Rodin

Last November I wrote this post, which suggested (to me anyhow) that what we perceive as reality was anything but this. Since that post, I have been delving more into the subject, which is getting clearer and weirder every day. What’s weirdest about all this learning and research is that the exact sorts of people you would think would be most skeptical about this stuff, like prominent physicists like Brian Greene, are promoting stuff that really sounds outlandish.

Greene is one of a number of physicists who are coming to believe that our reality is basically a hologram. If true, then in some sense we do live in a virtual reality, because a hologram is merely the projected illusion of something that is real and three dimensional, but isn’t.

More specifically, what these physicists are suggesting is that there are many more than the four dimensions (time being a dimension too) that we perceive. This has been accepted wisdom among physicists for decades: that there are 10 or 11 dimensions with the ones we can’t experience being “curled up”. If you think about it though, three of our four dimensions describe space, because space has height, width and depth. Einstein discovered about a hundred years ago that time is relative. The closer you travel to the speed of light, the more time elapses on places not trying to move toward the speed of light. So in some sense, Einstein is suggesting that time is virtual. In fact, Einstein called time an illusion.

The latest thinking among these physicists seems to be that not only is time an illusion, but that space is an illusion too. It turns out this is the simplest explanation for the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, that if a cat could be shrunk to quantum size, then it’s possible for the same cat to be both alive and dead at the same instant. This is because of the non-deterministic nature of the quantum world, where photons can be both particle and wave, depending on whether they are observed or not. If I understand what they are saying correctly, then this only makes sense if space is virtual too.

How to think about this? I imagine a transparent cube through which sunlight streams. It projects a three-dimensional real thing on a surface, but it is a two dimensional entity that we are looking at. If time and space are illusions, as a growing number of physicists are suggesting, then our lives are virtual and space is as virtual as time.

There also seems to be consensus that consciousness is external to all of this. So essentially we are all manipulating a model using consciousness that we call our lives. I imagine me (my consciousness) spending all its time looking at the projection of a cube on a two-dimensional surface. That is my reality, what I call my life, mainly because it’s something I can make some sense of life through interacting with it. I’m so focused on it that I cannot step outside of it. None of us living can, except perhaps some mediums among us. For those of us trapped inside this hologram, it’s as real as it can possibly be. But increasingly we understand that our reality is actually virtual. Perhaps it is better expressed that reality is much more than we can sense.

Many mystics believe in the notion of astral planes, i.e. other realities that the soul (consciousness?) can ascend or descend into outside of the one plane we call life. Many believe that we go into another astral plane after death. Most people believe they only have one life. Those who believe in God generally believe there is only one unique kind of afterlife, in which one size fits all. So most of us can conceive of only two astral planes: this life and the heaven or hell that awaits us in an afterlife. Conceptually there could be many more. Since there are 10 or 11 dimensions and we can only experience four (all of which may be virtual) there could be six or more other planes of existence that our souls/consciousness could inhabit or perhaps already inhabit.

It sounds so bizarre and unreal, particularly given that our reality seems to completely real to us. But this is basically what our best scientists now seem to be telling us. This is not to say they mean that a grand afterlife awaits us in some sort of heavenly cosmos. This is not to say that our traditional notion of God is real either. It does suggest though that real reality, whatever that is, is much grander, interesting and puzzling than we can perceive. If consciousness is apart from what we call reality and it persists after death (we can call it a soul), it does suggest our greater universe is some sort of collective consciousness slowly moving into increasing understanding and complexity as we discover and probe our universe through virtual realities, one of which we call our lives. We may be creating this reality simply by probing and testing its many layers and permutations.

I am reminded of the late author/philosopher Ayn Rand, whose theory of Objectivism I poo-pooed a few times over the years. I still think her theory is bullshit, since it was all about the individual and cared nothing for relationships. But one aspect of her theory was something to the effect that our lives are virtual; so we should feel free to manipulate it to get what we want out of it and don’t worry about the consequences. When we do this, we get the effects we are experiencing today, including the crisis of global climate change. It’s real enough in what we call reality and must be stopped.

Yet on some sort of grander, more cosmic level, she may be right. If these inferences are right, then we are all manipulating models of some sort of virtual world we cannot fully understand or escape, much like a baby puzzles through stacking blocks. Increasingly though, as real as it seems to us stuck in it, our reality is actually virtual. At the very least, it is an imperfect projection of a much grander and more complex reality whose true nature we are slowly uncovering.

The Tumblr brouhaha shows again that the Internet is not free

The Thinker by Rodin

So my daughter and spouse both have Tumblr accounts. In case you weren’t aware, Tumblr is a blogging/social media site. Both my wife and daughter are LGBTQ-friendly but I had not really tuned in that people like them haunted Tumblr because it is, or was, LGBTQ-friendly.

All that changed Monday when Tumblr announced that effective December 17 the site will permanently ban explicit adult content. This caused a great furor amongst the LGBTQ Tumblr community, who apparently make up much of the site. Tumblr is full of risqué content that does not appeal to its corporate overlords, Verizon, but does appeal very much to people who post and hang out there. Verizon owns Yahoo, who bought Tumblr. And Verizon is controlled by people who frankly largely don’t understand this universe and how important is for these marginalized people to have a safe space to be themselves.

In the future, having a safe space on Tumblr will include not allowing a lot of erotic content. It will keep many sex workers from having a place to rant. For those into Slash (erotic fan fiction) like my spouse and daughter, simply sharing these erotic stories that often go into dark areas like bondage and domination on Tumblr will get dicey. The service’s automated algorithms will decide if content is too racy or not and if it is, snip!

This decision seems motivated by a rare case of obvious child pornography posted on the site, which was quickly removed. But the main issue was that the LGBTQ community, sex workers and all these alt-blank people were too weird for the corporate masters that run the site. It didn’t look good in Verizon’s report to shareholders when they had to report they were facilitating the exchange of such socially unacceptable behavior. So Tumblr will effectively be neutered and these communities of people have to figure out — again — where to hang out online. The irony is that a lot of these people migrated from Reddit, which became overrun by the right wing. Reddit too has changed policies to clamp down on things, but not to the extent that Tumblr has with its draconian action.

So it sucks for members of these communities. They keep looking for the Promised Land on social media only to be ultimately disappointed. Twitter looks like their next place of refuge, but Twitter too is not beyond censoring or removing content. They recently removed millions of fake accounts. In any event, violate their terms of service and unless you are the President of the United States you too could be cast adrift. Ask Alex Jones, who is finding it hard to find any place in social media to broadcast his racist, hate-filled stuff.

All is not entirely lost. For the Slash community, there is still Dreamwidth, which caters to those who like to write erotic fiction oriented around existing TV shows and movies, often with heavily homosexual-ized story lines. It’s not the same thing though as Tumblr. While many of these writers are LGBTQ (or at least LGBTQ-friendly), the focus of the site is fan fiction.

Social media sites are of course costly to set up and maintain, which is why major companies like Verizon own the popular ones. All those server racks, software and site monitors don’t come cheap. Moreover, it seems impossible to create one of these public sites that won’t eventually censor some content. Some stuff like child pornography is clearly crossing a line, at least by 99.9% of us. Invariably though people like those on Tumblr will test the boundaries of how much freedom these social media companies will allow. And eventually they will discover they will transgress a boundary, largely because the needs of large corporations diverge from the social media people they attract.

So I don’t expect this problem to get any better. These Tumblr denizens will be forced to move elsewhere, but they will probably be evicted there at some point too. There will always need to be some policing of these sites. There will always be some limits on just how much freedom you are allowed on these sites. Where they are owned by large, profit-making corporations, the limits of these freedoms are bound to be more curtailed, and more prudish, than the people who will be using it.

Those who pay the bills ultimately win. It’s true for my blog too. If you post what I consider to be an offensive comment I will delete it. It doesn’t bother me and I don’t see it as a free speech issue because I pay the bills. This has occasionally bothered a commenter. Apparently they figure it’s my responsibility to host their disagreeable contents forever at my expense.

And I can’t post anything I want even on my own blog either. At the moment this blog is hosted at Siteground, and when you host with them you agree to their terms of service. This essentially prohibits me from posting pornography or doing things like inciting hate speech on my site. Essentially you have to be independently wealthy enough to create your own hosting center to have entirely free speech online. But even then you are subject to local laws. I might need to host my server in some place like the Cayman Islands to post content that would be considered illegal in the United States, but it’s likely even the liberal Cayman Islands has some standards I would have to adhere to.

What’s happening at Tumblr is unfortunate for this community who is already highly hassled and marginalized. But it’s hardly unexpected. The Internet is not free. It just offers to illusion of freedom. Unless your content is forever milquetoast, it’s always susceptible to being banned.