The Thinker

Can we skip 2017? And 2018-2020?

For the first time in my adult life, I won’t be watching the inauguration tomorrow. Of course when I watched it, I always watched it on television. You get a great view and there is never a line at the restroom. Unlike with Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, it’s unlikely that the national mall will be jammed to capacity tomorrow. In fact, it may be the least attended inauguration in forty years or more.

It’s not surprising. District of Columbia residents voted 94% for Clinton, so they’re not going to show up. Both nearby Virginia and Maryland also went for Clinton, as well as the country. Clinton after all won the popular vote by over 2.9 million votes. Last I read DC officials had approved 200 bus permits for inauguration day, a record low. The protests the day afterward has at least 1000 bus permits approved. If you want to see hoopla, you might want to wait to turn on the TV until Saturday. So many entertainers have refused to perform at his inauguration festivities that he may be reduced to the U.S. army band. At least they can be made to attend.

Anyhow, I won’t be watching. I’ll be avoiding media tomorrow, which is one reason I’m getting this off today. For many of us it will be a black day, made blacker by the overwhelming nature of the unqualified people Donald Trump has chosen for his cabinet. One after another they embarrassed themselves at their confirmation hearings. Nominee Rick Perry at least apologized for wanting to get rid of the Department of Energy. He was so naïve that he had no idea that its principal mission is to regulate our atomic energy and nuclear stockpile. Even a Tea Party Republican will make an exception for the Department of Energy, well, at least those who take the time to learn about its mission, and that wasn’t Rick Perry. And so it went and is going, nominee after nominee. If you were looking for the least qualified people to head up the departments they will probably be running, they’ve been in front of Congress exposing their woeful ignorance. But I guess if you are trying to drain the swamp, why not throw in a whole bunch of stink bombs and hope the swamp’s denizens quickly evacuate?

Some really can’t leave, and that includes some three million federal employees, one of which used to be me. I spent my last ten years before retirement with the U. S. Geological Survey, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. A big part of its mission (aside from the earthquakes) is monitoring climate change. Our new president has declared it to be a hoax created by the Chinese, so naturally plenty of them are scared they will be intimidated into publishing false science or fired when their mission is declared over.

For over 100 years, even through conservative administrations like Bush II and Reagan, the USGS has been protected from political pressure. That’s probably not going to happen this time around, at least not with Ryan Zinke as the new Interior Secretary. When Bush II was president, the USGS got an Alaskan geologist for its director, and even he managed to leave the USGS nonpolitical. Naturally, I keep in touch with many of my former colleagues still working there. They are appalled and frightened by the ignoramus in chief about to be unleashed. Those who could retire mostly opted to do so on January 1.

Trump has already promised to freeze federal hiring. If draining the swamp means destroying a government we’ve spent centuries carefully building, this is a great way to affect change. The federal workforce is predominantly older anyhow. Without fresh blood coming in, it’s going to wither on the vine. Each agency is a complex system. Knowledge is primarily transferred via mentoring. With older employees leaving and no new ones coming in, those left will be increasingly ignorant, just like their new leaders.

There are signs that America is waking up. Saturday we’ll see plenty of them on the mall angrily protesting. Trump’s pre-inauguration approval ratings are dismal, reaching levels not seen since Jimmy Carter was sworn in. As his appointees get confirmed and bumble badly through their new roles, the press will be rife with lurid stories reporting their endless boondoggles. Obama ran a virtually scandal-free administration. Trump’s has already started; it’s clear that from the moment he is sworn in he’ll be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the constitution.

For Trump, it’s unlikely that Republicans will hold him to account for it. Once the master bullies, they are now the bullied. Trump warns them via tweets that they better not oppose him. They would be wise not to do so, as his supporters will raise holy hell if they do. These portraits of courage under Obama will prove wallflowers under Trump. So expect Republicans mostly to sit on their hands while we drop Russian sanctions, reduce our commitment to NATO and as he makes impulsive and catastrophically bad decisions in the months and years ahead.

For me this would be a good time to go into a coma, to be woken in four or eight years. I’m not sure we’ll still have a country then, but I’m hardly the only one not anxious not to watch this predictable wreckage to our once great country. I can fight like hell, but traveling 400 miles to D.C. to protest Saturday won’t be one action I’ll take, although there are plenty of marches locally that I can easily attend.

Or I could do what my wife is doing and literally escape. Her birthday falls on Inauguration Day. I happened to be out of town the night Trump was elected. I came home to find her barely functional, all her muscles tense, sleepless, with chronic headaches and crying a lot. Most of her friends are in the LGBTQ community and they were in a similar state. In the weeks that followed she did not get much better. Her relief is to fly to Aruba, hole up at a B&B near the beach for a few days, read trash and go nowhere near the news. She comes back early Monday morning at which time I expect she will be headachy again, her muscles all taunt, her lower back a mass of agony and despondent. And then the real carnage starts. But at least for a few days she can escape it all.

Welcome to 2017. Thought 2016 was bad? It was just a warm-up.

 
The Thinker

Resolve not to diet this year – it’s probably the healthy choice

Since it’s the New Year, many of us have resolved to lose a few pounds, or more than a few pounds. Given the propensity of obesity in the country, many of us have probably resolved not just to take off dozens of pounds or more, but to permanently take them off too. Somehow this year, unlike all those other years, we’re finally going to summon the energy and commitment that ultimately we lacked in all those other years when we made similar pledges but ultimately failed.

Perhaps you’ve had the same conversation with your doctor that I’ve had. You go for a checkup, you are overweight and they suggest you lose weight for your health. I told my doctor lots of times that I’m great at losing weight. During my last big attempt in 2013 I lost more than thirty pounds in a little over two months. It was amazing how incredibly fast I lost that weight and without feeling particularly hungry. But that was more than three years ago. I’ve put it all back on and some extra.

This of course is the story of all my dieting over the years and probably yours as well. I might add that through all this dieting and not, I’ve never shirked staying physically fit. Most days I get my 10,000 steps in and I’m at the health club regularly. My latest blood test shows no issues with pre-diabetes, cholesterol or the usual things that alarm doctors. I’m basically a healthy overweight late middle age adult.

So I’ve been arguing with my doctors. They concede that with a few exceptions most of their patients who have taken off weight have put it back on and then some too. They really don’t have any solution to this problem other than to eat less and exercise more, something proven not to work for most people. If you are diabetic or have high cholesterol of course there are things you can do to address those issues. Obsessing about your weight is probably not one of them, but eating better and exercising regularly may be.

The evidence is clear for those of us that choose to see it: dieting almost always causes subsequent weight gain in excess of what you took off. In short, dieting works for a little while then it will recoil, exacerbating the problem. And you will doubtlessly feel guilty about the weight you’ve put back on, figuring it is due to some fault or lack of character on your part. Dieting then becomes not just a physical problem but a mental one too.

But here’s what the diet industry won’t tell you: it’s not your fault. Every time you diet your body sensibly thinks it is being starved and keeping it alive is its primary mission. It learns lessons by lowering your metabolism, so every calorie packs more punch. And because the body says, “I am not at the weight I should be” it will cause you to crave more food. The diet industry depends on diets to fail so you will start the cycle of concern and shame again and they can collect more money by building false hope.

In truth you don’t need to be a Skinny Minnie. And you don’t have to spend the rest of your life fighting cravings for food. The yo-yo dieting cycle will probably do more to kill you prematurely than being overweight and controlling your weight.

So resolve to stop dieting in this New Year. It’s counterproductive. Barring some new drugs that can reset your metabolism permanently (now there’s an area for some medical research!) you probably aren’t going to be a Skinny Minnie for the rest of your life. You may achieve it for a time, but the odds are you will yo-yo back.

Of course if you are overweight or obese and you continue eating the way you are now, you will probably gain more weight. But the reason you are eating more is that you have lost the ability to eat intuitively. That’s the premise behind Intuitive Eating, a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dieticians, a program with more than twenty years of success. Dieting has caused our signals to get crossed. Among other things we have lost the ability to feel satiated.

Learning to eat intuitively again introduces natural control over diet without feeling like you are giving up anything. This should give you a feeling of empowerment, feeling you can enjoy food again and reduce the pointless guilt trips that come with diets that rarely succeed in the long run. After months of pondering where to go from here in my journey, it is the next logical step. I’ve enrolled in a local Intuitive Eating course and the book is our foundational text. I’ll let you know how it goes.

It’s worth discussing what causes this destructive cycle in the first place. Part of it is clearly models, both literally and figuratively. Models are typically very slim and many have chronic eating problems of their own. We also tend to model actors, who are disproportionately slim and attractive as well. We project onto ourselves that they are examples of who we should be.

In fact, models and actors are the exceptions to the rules, freaks really compared to the rest of us. Those who are not dealing with their own eating disorders though are at a normal weight mainly because they are intuitive eaters. I have an older brother who is an intuitive eater. He always ate slowly and has been skinny his whole life. The rest of us: not so much. What they are doing is not all that special. It’s something they’ve had their whole life and no events have come along to set it out of kilter. Moreover, because they have not yo-yo dieted, their metabolism is relatively inefficient, meaning they can eat more of the same foods the rest of us do and by processing it differently they will convert less of it into calories.

The second part comes from body shaming. Parents seeing their children getting overweight will often start them on a rigorous exercise regime, often with calorie restrictions. This is the beginning of a destructive, often lifelong yo-yo dieting cycle, one that will likely cause a lot of mental distress, and drive overeating and insecurity. One of the worse things parents can do is restrict food choices for their children. Instead they should make food plentiful and available when desired and children will eat intuitively.

For those of us for which all this is too late, learning how to eat intuitively again makes a lot of sense. While we are unlikely to be Skinny Minnies again, we will regain weight control, stop the chronic craving that cause us to overeat, bring our metabolism into balance, lose the guilt, enjoy food again and feel we have control over our lives again.

That sounds like a resolution I can keep.

 
The Thinker

It’s crazy not to be scared by a President Trump

During the 1972 Democratic primaries, Senator Edmund Muskie (ME) was caught crying on camera at a news conference outside the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader. Muskie said it was just snow melting on his face, but he was heatedly responding to reports that his wife was addicted to a drug. It was enough to kill his campaign. His primary competitor, Senator George McGovern (SD) eventually won the nomination, but McGovern’s eventual choice of vice president Thomas Eagleton was later pulled from the ticket. Eagleton had a past episode of clinical depression. At the time this was considered disqualifying.

Forty-four years later we elected Donald Trump as our next president. It’s abundantly clear that Trump has mental issues of his own, most prominently his supersize case of narcissism. Rather than being disqualifying, it was a feature of his campaign. Wikipedia defines narcissistic personality disorder as:

A long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others’ feelings. People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behavior typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of situations.

You don’t have to be psychologist to see Trump’s evident narcissism. There is evidence every day in his Twitter feed. He’s a man so vain he attacks Meryl Streep for criticizing him at the recent Golden Globe awards. He told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd:

“I win, Maureen, I always win. Knock on wood. I win. It’s what I do. I beat people. I win.”

Trump obviously does not always win. He overleveraged himself with failed businesses in Atlantic City and elsewhere. His Trump shuttle between New York and Washington was taken over by creditors. He’s lost lots of lawsuits and most recently settled the Trump University class action lawsuit for millions of dollars. And yet he cannot acknowledge any of these many failures, matters of simple public record.

In ten days the American people are going to give this man the authority to use our nuclear weapons.

It’s thinking about this that makes my head hurt so much that simply to maintain my own sanity I have at times turned off my brain. I’ve avoided the typical ways people deal with stuff like this: booze and drugs, but I can certainly understand why a sane person would. At times I’ve avoided the news and deliberately sought out distractions. Most recently I’ve been playing a lot of online crossword puzzles.

If you are sane, you should absolutely be scared about a Trump presidency. Trump is super easy to read so it’s not hard to figure out how he’s going to behave and govern. He’s not going to reinvent himself. He will continue to lash out at critics over Twitter, but most likely he will use the levers of power to bully them too, perhaps tapping their phones, examining their computers and surreptitiously putting out dirt on them. He’s a natural fascist. He’s picked a cabinet of tone deaf bullies because he wants to change things, the same way a bull in a china shop will change things. As horrifying and illegal as these actions will be though, what keeps my heart skipping beats is his role as commander in chief.

Trump simply does not understand the complexity of our foreign policy challenges. When they occur rather than use back channels he will be inclined to go postal. Imagine what he would do if China closed off the China Sea to U.S. vessels, or if North Korea attacked South Korea, or sent an ICBM at Guam. Trump will go grand and he will go aggressive. He’d have the navy on the sea-lanes shooting at Chinese warships and aircraft. He might nuke North Korea. This is because he is a narcissist. When someone challenges your authority, you go grand. In the past this meant filing lots of lawsuits. In the future, this means using our military to maximum effect and quickly to prove you are serious.

Remember what his solution to ISIS was? “Bomb the shit out of them!” This got him great applause but it won’t solve the problem of ISIS anymore than Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia did much to slow the Vietcong. Dealing with ISIS is a multifaceted problem, but it’s much more a war of minds. Bombing the shit out of ISIS may cause lots of death and destruction, but it won’t change minds, only steel the resolve of those aligned with ISIS.

Trump is quite binary. If you suck up to him, he likes you. If you oppose him, he’s your eternal enemy and he will use whatever power he has to mow you down. He can’t deal with nuance or complexity. He is full of impatience and an “ends justify the means” sort of guy, typical of a narcissist. And he will never, ever admit a mistake.

One of these days he’s going to figure out that Vladimir Putin is playing him. Okay, maybe not. He may not be that self-aware. Right now he admires Putin, which is unsurprising as he and Republicans in general are drawn to strong people and really don’t care about our democracy. Putin though has an agenda and it’s likely he’s going to play Trump like a fine fiddle. Putin wants to restore Russia’s former glory. It’s not too hard to see how he can do this at some point: reoccupy most of Eastern Europe that the USSR used to control. I would not be surprised to see Putin send in the army to wholly occupy Ukraine. But why stop there? Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are so close too. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all used to be part of their empire. If any of these scenarios happen they are likely to catch Trump flatfooted. In fact they will be tacitly abetted by Trump, who sees NATO as obsolete. Maybe Trump would even approve.

But something will trip him up and Trump will go big because big and grandiose is how he operates. When he gets tangled in the invariable complexity of it all, he’s not going to be able to think out realistic options or realize he won’t be able to get his way. This is likely to lead to huge anger and a desire to hit his enemies with everything we’ve got. That won’t work either, but it will temporarily assuage his feelings.

If any president were likely to use our nuclear forces proactively, it would be Trump. And if he does it won’t be hard for other nuclear powers, principally Russia and China, to respond in kind. The point of diplomacy and foreign policy is to leverage power without resorting to extraordinary means. That’s not going to happen in a Trump Administration.

It’s entirely rational for rational Americans to be scared as shit by a Trump presidency. I sure am. If you are not, you are in denial.

God bless America, because Trump sure won’t.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: January 2017 edition

It’s a new year but some things don’t change. This includes Craigslist’s dubious casual encounters area, full of often mediocre ads and spam postings but still capable of little nuggets of surprise, outrage, amusement and gross out, sometimes all at once, if you have the tenacity to dig through them as I do once a month. Today I am scanning Hartford, Connecticut’s postings again. The weather outside is kind of frightful: 20F and snowing, but I’m betting these posting will be red hot. Let’s find out.

First, let me share some statistics. I counted at least 251 page views for this stuff in December, about average. Since web traffic was down to only 1406 pages in December, 18% of my web traffic was for my Craigslist posts, a new high, and not of the 420 kind. Pulling up the section on this snowy Saturday afternoon I find:

  • 34 men looking for a woman
  • 34 men looking for a man
  • 7 men looking for a couple
  • 1 man looking for a group of men
  • 1 man looking for a transgender person
  • 19 women looking for a man, although most of these are probably spam
  • 3 women looking for a woman
  • 2 couples looking for a man
  • 2 couples looking for a woman

And we’re off to the races for 2017:

 

More in February.

 
The Thinker

Where there’s a will, there’s a way (and probably a trust)

Republicans are known to loathe paying taxes and don’t like subsidizing anyone’s freight. There is of course one prominent exception: family. Republicans believe that you can’t be too generous with your blood relations. Which is why they want to repeal the federal estate tax. They really resent the idea that some of their wealth should be taxed upon their death, depriving their heirs of their treasure. Their rationalization goes something like this: we already paid taxes during our life, so why should our estate pay it after death too? So they are hot on the task of abolishing the federal estate tax although presumably it will be somewhat behind other vital tasks like neutering the House Ethics Committee and killing Obamacare.

Unsurprisingly, the estate tax doesn’t affect most of us, as your estate has to be worth at least $5.4M before it pays any federal estate taxes. It won’t affect my wife and I, unless I get some extraordinary growth in our assets between now and death. Unsurprisingly, there are ways to avoid estate taxes, or at least pay less in these taxes. One primary way is to create a “trust”. Like a corporation, I’ve discovered a trust is a legal person-less fiction, which is funded by a sizeable portion of your assets. The general goal of a trust is to avoid estate taxes altogether, so your heirs or designees can get the money instead of greedy old Uncle Sam. Frankly, there is no point to having a trust otherwise. You’d just have your executor cut checks once your estate is out of probate.

Some states tax your estate too, states like Massachusetts where I live now. The commonwealth taxes estates worth more than $1M. In our case because we are married the limit is $2M. The estate tax levied ranges from between .8% and 16% of the amount over the limit, depending on your estate’s value. Since our state’s estate tax threshold is not indexed for inflation, unless we spend down our assets the estate will likely grow beyond $2M. Assuming our estate is worth $3M after our deaths, which is likely, Massachusetts will collect a cool $128,700.

This is what I learned from our new attorney, who is coaching us through the will and estate business because we are making new wills. We had wills when we lived in Virginia, but estate taxes were not a concern because of the federal cap and because Virginia doesn’t have an estate tax. For about $2000 extra though we could pay our attorney to create the legal fiction of a “trust”. Actually, we’re creating two trusts, one for each of us. Spending $2000 to save $128,700 is an easy decision to make, assuming you have $2000 lying around.

Likely most wealthy people create trusts, but I never figured we would need to create a trust. I guess in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are wealthy, just on the low side of the scale. All you need is an attorney, some spending money, the right legal language, and a host of signed and notarized documents. Then you can magically tax shelter gobs of money. When completed this month, we’ll have not just one but two trusts, one under my name and one under my wife’s name, with a roughly equal asset allocation between each. If she dies before me and I run out of money, I can take the money in that trust, and visa versa. This is better than an irrevocable trust, which means the money allocated to the trust can never be taken back.

Of course we will still have wills. By the time we are both dead our executor will control both trusts. And since each will directs the money the same way, those inheriting our estate will still get all the money intended for them. The only one that won’t will be the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Sorry guys.

But not to worry, much of our money will go to charitable purposes. 65% will go to our daughter, 5% to a brother, 5% to a sister and 2.5% to a nephew, leaving 22.5% for charitable distribution. 5% goes to two animal shelters, 2.5% to Planned Parenthood, 2.5% to the Organization for Transformative Works and 2.5% to a local spouse abuse shelter. The remaining 10% will go to charities that will allow African Americans, Hispanics and women to fund their college educations. I am painfully aware of my white male privilege and I want to rectify that to some extent, at least posthumously. This could amount to $300,000 or so.

Still, I am aware that this is basically a dodge to escape the estate tax. I suspect though that we will give more of our estate to charitable causes than most of these moneyed Republicans will. Instead, their money will likely go to their pampered and spoiled offspring, who would be wealthy even if their parents paid an estate tax. This was the reason that trusts were created in the first place.

One way to rectify this inequity would be to tax inheritances, which only five states do. There is a federal inheritance tax, but the first $5,450,000 per person in gifts is excluded from taxation. Unsurprisingly, rich people find ways to pass more of their inheritance to their children through additional trusts.

I think the whole idea of creating trusts to dodge taxes for people related to you to be reprehensible. A more just society would not allow it. Trusts though are either/or, so you can either choose to have one or not, so we’ll be creating them with some reluctance. Our trusts will shelter our charitable contributions but also give a few of our relatives a windfall undiminished by estate taxes. C’est la vie.

 
The Thinker

Two holiday movie reviews

La La Land

Aside from Disney musicals, the Hollywood musical is a rare thing these days. La La Land proves an even rarer bird because it is an original musical made for the movies. More often, Hollywood musicals begin on Broadway. It aspires and succeeds in recalling the musicals of sixty or more years earlier, with stars like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Neither Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) nor Emma Stone (Mia) are quite up to Fred and Ginger’s effortless dancing. In fact, both actors had to be taught how to dance. Neither are particularly good singers either, but this is rarely a problem in Hollywood. With enough voice coaching, pretty much any actor can render an acceptable performance. Nor is there a huge amount of chemistry between Gosling and Stone in this movie, but there is enough to allow you to suspend disbelief. Sebastian is an erstwhile jazz pianist who has dreams of owning his own jazz club, in Los Angeles of all places where old is out. Emma simply wants to land her first professional acting gig and chases debilitating auditions while selling coffee inside a Hollywood movie lot. After six years of trying to make a breakthrough in Hollywood, things are beginning to look bleak for her.

Of course they are fated to meet. Mia hears Sebastian at the piano passing a club where he has a Christmas gig, and is immediately mesmerized. When she tries to compliment him, the just-fired Sebastian literally gives her the cold soldier as he storms out of the café. Of course in the insular world of Hollywood they manage to pass paths again, and begin a somewhat begrudging courtship.

There is a lot of music in La La Land but not a whole lot of dance numbers. It starts out terrifically with an amazingly choreographed scene (“Another Day of Sun”) on a stopped Hollywood expressway. La La Land shines mostly with its peppy and integrated music, the flowing direction by Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone’s performance as Mia. Emma Stone’s huge eyes are kind of mesmerizing, but she’s also quite an accomplished actor. It’s a movie musical with a fair amount of soul, a boy-meets-girl plot where both try to buck up each other’s spirits and potential. In doing so though they will stress their own relationship.

If there is disappointment in this movie, it’s that its ending probably won’t satisfy you. But it is a movie with heart, soul, romance and moments of breathtaking fun. In spots it’s hard to sit in your seat; you’d rather be dancing in the aisles. A scene filmed against the backdrop of a Los Angeles sunset is particularly mesmerizing. It’s definitely worth seeing and it’s nice to know that the talent for doing a first-class Hollywood musical is still around. More please.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Passengers

Between playing Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy movies (the second of which will be released soon), Chris Pratt found time for another science fiction movie now in theaters: Passengers.

Here he plays Jim Preston, one of five thousand or so passengers in deep hibernation on an interstellar voyage between star systems. During this 120-year voyage though he gets an unexpected wakeup call. He awakens thinking he is four months from their destination on this one-way voyage, when in reality they are only thirty years out. Moreover, he is the only human awake. The only companion available is the android kind, a bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who spends his years endlessly cleaning bar glasses for non-existent customers in the ship’s watering hole.

It soon becomes clear that his premature awakening is a mistake. Their ship though is a neat place to hang out, a sort of Hilton on steroids. Indeed this spaceship is something of a character itself, with a fascinating fusion reactor that propels the ship and deflector shields that push obstacles out of its path, all automatically. Eventually the lack of human companionship proves too much for Jim, so he wakens Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) whose biography fascinates him. At least Jim is not a creep. Their relationship develops slowly, with ups and downs, and one big down when Aurora finally learns that Jim had awaken her simply for companionship. For once you go into hibernation, there’s no way to go back. Both are destined to spend their years together and to die long before the ship makes landfall, with only Arthur and each other for company.

If La La Land does not quite follow where the audience wants it to go, Passengers does eventually go where you want it to go. Fortunately both Jim and Aurora find plenty of stuff to do, as the fusion reactor is breaking down, not to mention other systems. This supposedly self-healing spaceship can’t fix itself this time so the only humans awake have to engineer a solution somehow just to survive. It’s fortunate that Jim is something of a mechanic but this task seems well beyond both of them.

What I liked about Passengers was the plausible way it renders travel between star systems. Both Jim and Aurora are likeable, in spite of their differences, and Arthur is great fun as a bartender. Except for a bit part by Laurence Fishburne, it’s basically a three-character movie that manages to sustain itself and our interest through almost two hours. In spite of its outer space setting, it’s really a tight character driven movie with some original plot threads made possible by the unusual premise of interstellar travel. It rates high on my inner satisfaction index, even if the premise wears a bit thin by the end of the movie.

3.3 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2016 statistics

It’s a brand new year but it’s already looking a lot like 2016 with a terrorist incident killing dozens in Istanbul. I won’t reprise 2016 here, but I will do my annual look at my blog’s statistics and usage in 2016 to see what people were reading. I’m keeping it succinct this year. When I moved hosting I lost my web statistics, and a lot of the statistics I used to count are less trustworthy.

Web traffic

Overall web traffic was down modestly compared to 2015, about 10% overall. Web traffic does not include non-browser (syndicated) traffic. The vast majority of web traffic is from people who arrive via search engine queries. Considering the blog home page is the #1 most accessed page, perhaps I get a lot of readers who prefer to read the blog the old fashioned way: by coming to it using a browser. It’s hard to know.

In 2016 there were 3.66% fewer users (16,185 users), 5.33% fewer sessions (16,993 sessions) and 9.71% fewer page views compared to 2015, according to Google Analytics. A total of 20,650 pages were served, if Google Analytics is measuring traffic correctly.

I also track web traffic with StatCounter and Quantcast. Quantcast recorded about 14,800 visits and about 14,800 global views. StatCounter counted 14,190 first time visits, 14,555 unique visits and 17,026 page views.

One of the mysteries of this business is why Google tends to see more traffic than other sources.

Top content

Unsurprisingly, plenty of readers were looking for sex, as I make scanning Craigslist’s casual encounters section a monthly feature of the blog. Without doing this I suspect my traffic would have sagged more than it did. In 2015 this post became something of a hit and shows up as #2 in this list for 2016:

  • Site home page (5739 page views)
  • Craigslist casual encounters weirdness, May 2015 (Hartford CT) edition (1554 page views)
  • Eulogy for my mother in law (523 views)
  • JonBenet Ramsey and the tip of the iceberg (506 views)
  • Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (244 views)

Feed hits

It’s hard to know how much syndicated traffic I am getting. I use Feedcat.net to measure traffic. I assume it is reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, I can only get a graph, and I can only see statistics for the last six months. A few days ago I had a spike of 254 unique weekly readers, but overall I averaged 30-40 unique readers a week.

Occam's Razor feed traffic July-Dec 2016

Occam’s Razor feed traffic July-Dec 2016

In general I’m getting a lot less syndicated traffic than a year ago. It’s unclear if this is due to less interest or Feedcat changing its algorithm. They are not transparent about their methods.

Top tags

I tag every post with one or more tags. A tag archive contains a collection of posts with the same tag. These were my top five most popular tags in 2016 according to Google Analytics:

  1. Taxes (188 hits)
  2. Craigslist (133 hits)
  3. Tarsal tunnel (101 hits)
  4. Rose Rosetree (99 hits)
  5. Star Trek (95 hits)

Top category

Sociology (30 views)

Top browsers

  1. Chrome (55% of traffic, up 10% from last year)
  2. Safari (20% of traffic, down from 22% from last year) – This is probably mostly hits from iPhones and iPads
  3. Firefox (10% of traffic, down 5% from last year)
  4. Internet Explorer (10% of traffic, down 3% last year)
  5. Android browser (2% of traffic)

Busiest month: January (2091 sessions)

Slowest month: November (1004 sessions)

Mobile sessions in 2016: 4767 smartphone and 918 tablet sessions

% Mobile visits of Total Visits: 28%

Who’s reading?

Quantcast used to provide demographics of my readership. This year it tells me it can’t, at least not without a premium subscription. Google Analytics though think it knows. Here are some things it says about you readers:

  • The highest segment of readers is ages 25-34 (24%)
  • Men mostly read my blog (62%)
  • 44% of traffic comes from the United States, 25% from Germany, 7% from the Netherlands, 6% from the United Kingdom and 2% from Canada

Social Media

Google Analytics tracks social usage. It counts as top referrers:

  1. Pinterest (150 sessions)
  2. StumbleUpon (87 sessions)
  3. Twitter (42 sessions)
  4. Facebook (42 sessions)
  5. Blogger (22 sessions)

More in 2018.

 
The Thinker

Attention Donald Trump: Here’s what life was really like in the United States in 1953

Over the last few days I’ve learned that President Elect Trump wants to take us back to 1953. That apparently was when American was last great again. Trump was also seven years old in 1953, so it probably did look pretty good from the childish eyes of a boy of privilege. In 1953, the Trump family was living in a faux two-story Tudor house in Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York. At the time of the 1950 census, Queens was 96% white. It’s likely that his house on the Midland Parkway was even more so white, if that’s possible.

It should be obvious that we can’t rewind this country sixty-three years. In 1950, there were 161 million American. Today there is nearly twice that many. In 1950, whites were 87% of the population. The 2010 census puts whites at 64% of the population. Curiously there are some parallels between 1953 and 2016. Democratic president Truman had retired and Republican Dwight Eisenhower came into office. Republicans controlled 48 seats in the Senate, which gave them the majority since Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states. Republicans also controlled the House by a margin of eight seats. With Eisenhower’s election, Republicans had a lock on Congress, but not a filibuster-proof Senate, just like today.

Eisenhower of course was no Trump, except in the sense that neither had held elective office before. However, Eisenhower had been the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe during the Second World War, so he was hardly unfamiliar with government. In 1953 though Republicans were anxious to reassert power, having been out of the White House for twenty years. Still, 1953 wasn’t quite as wonderful and conservative as Republicans would have you believe. It was the year of the first sex reassignment surgery (Christine Jorgensen).

In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for alleged spying for the Soviet Union, charges still in dispute. The Korean War ended in 1953, but was never settled. It ended only when President Eisenhower, channeling a war-weary America, threatened to nuke North Korea if they did not agree to end it. Other signs of the new more liberal age on the horizon were easy to find. The second Albert Kinsey book (on the sexuality of women, which was news to many that women were even sexual creatures) was released. Hugh Hefner released the first copy of Playboy magazine.

On the international front, the spread of communism was a huge concern in 1953. Truman, as one of his last acts, announced that we had developed the hydrogen bomb. This one-upped the U.S. in the nuclear arms race, at least for a while. Joseph Stalin, the dictator running the Soviet Union died in 1953 to be succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. We were in the middle of the second Red scare, which put the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee into overdrive, the latter chaired by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Mere allegations of being a communist sympathizer were enough to get you blacklisted, which ended the careers of countless people. Today now that Republicans are in charge again some in Congress are calling for the resumption of the HUAC.

With Trump’s election of course concern about communism, or at least about Russia as our foe, seem to be over. This is despite evidence that Russia interfered with our latest election. Trump seems anxious to close this chapter in our history. It’s unclear if he will succeed, as at least some Republican senators want an inquiry into their hacking. Given Trump’s protestations it’s much more likely than not that there is a roaring fire under this smoldering pile.

Was America great in 1953? The Cold Wars with the Soviet Union and China were the major problems of that time as was checking the spread of communism. In that sense with the Cold War’s end in the 1990s America was more ascendant than in the 1950s. By empowering Russia, Trump risks starting it all over again. It’s completely fair to criticize Trump for this initiative, as it is likely to fracture NATO and potentially end the peace Europe has known since the Second World War. In 1953, the Marshall Plan was ending. Our investment in Europe brought it not only a Cold War peace but also prosperity to a rebuilt and newly democratic Europe. Our troops in Japan ensured it did not become a rival power again. Troops in Korea checked the spread of communism there. Today Trump wants to withdraw our investments in foreign countries. Our lessons in 1953 suggest this would be deeply counterproductive.

Segregation was a fact of life in 1953, something Trump tacitly approves of. The Brown v. Board of Education decision that would declare that separately funded schools for minorities were unconstitutional was still a year away. President Truman integrated our armed forces before leaving office. The Ku Klux Klan was ascendant, and not just in the south. The headquarters of the KKK was just eight miles from where I live now, in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The John Birch Society was on the rise as well, an organization that would not look unfamiliar to the Tea Party.

Both women and blacks could vote, but voter suppression of minorities was extreme, mostly in Southern states. It would take more than a decade for the Civil Rights Act to pass Congress. Women were more likely to be home raising children than in the workplace in 1953. This was not true though if you were a single woman or poor. You worked, mostly at menial jobs that paid far less than what a man earned. But the Rosie Riveters in World War Two planted the roots of women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s pretty clear that neither Trump nor Republicans in Congress want to revert to the tax rates of the time. Our enormous prosperity was powered by tax rates that now seem astounding. The top tax rate was 92% of income, and corporate tax rates reached 50%. Eisenhower and Republicans were successful in cutting the top tax rate … to 91%. It was this redistribution of wealth that really powered America in the 1950s. It did things like build our interstate highway system by unleashing this money for productive uses. If Trump were serious about making America great again, he would be raising tax rates, not cutting them.

America was certainly a whiter place in 1950, but hardly a happy place. There were two major recessions in the 1950s. Pollution was unchecked. Some Americans escaped by toking on marijuana, but it was more of a fringe activity. Alcohol was the escape of choice for most. Chastity was hardly the norm in the 1950s, but illicit sex was more discreet. Homosexuals were largely in the closet but had learned to congregate in gay bars. AIDS was unknown but syphilis and gonorrhea were common. The extent of birth control was largely the condom, if you could find any. Abortion was available, just illicitly.

TV was something of a novelty in 1953, but those who had one were tuned into watching The Lucy Show. More people were listening to radio. PBS was not a thing in 1953. Cable TV did not exist. If you had TV, you were limited to ABC, NBC and CBS stations and sometimes not even those. Transistors were still in the lab; vacuum tubes were the state of high technology.

By most metrics the United States today is a much better place than it was in 1953, just a lot less white. Americans were more prosperous in general back then, largely because high marginal tax rates meant income inequality was not much of a thing. About 25% of workers belonged to unions. Just 10% do today.

It’s quite clear that Trump’s plans are likely only to bring back some of the worst aspects of those times, and little of its best aspects. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 
The Thinker

The real war on Christmas

Always eager to draw attention to himself, our president elect has embraced the meme that there is a War on Christmas. Specifically, he hates “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”. To fight back he is going with “Merry Christmas” and let the non-Christians and their stupid feelings be damned.

Non-Christians like, well, Donald Trump? This is a man who pretty much never goes to church. It’s clear he actually worships at the Church of Mammon. He’s got plenty of company there, including most Republicans. But maybe he has a point. What do we really mean when we say “Merry Christmas”? It suggests to me that we want people to be happy because it’s the Christmas season. That works pretty well. Most of us are merry when we are getting free stuff. That’s what Christmas is really about these days: a chance to maybe feel happy with a sudden influx of stuff, usually on Christmas Day. Sometimes it’s actually stuff we want! And if there is anything Donald Trump likes, it’s the accumulation of more stuff: money, property or the real thing he values most: attention and adulation.

Trump though can’t wait until Christmas for attention. He demands it all year round. If he feels he’s not getting enough of it he’ll post something outrageous on Twitter to make sure people are talking about him. What a blessing then to be POTUS come January 20, because people are always interested in what the president says. They have no choice. The attention cycle will be nonstop!

Of course a lot of it will be negative attention, something Trump will discover soon after getting into office. Like it or not the president is perceived responsible for everything. A good carnival barker like Donald Trump though will keep the public distracted by sideshows, which is a pretty good strategy as long as it works. At some point though too much real life will interfere and at that point being POTUS will cease to be fun.

Meanwhile, he’ll use memes like the War on Christmas to lead us around like circus animals under the big tent. It succeeds in not only drawing attention to himself, but also in getting his supporters enthused. This is important because he will soon be picking their pockets. With enough War on Christmas-like gimmicks they may not notice when their Obamacare or food stamp benefits go away. It’s clearly an effective strategy for now as it pushes just the right buttons that Republicans like to have pressed. Because you see they are so oppressed being Christians in their own country! And they’ve had being politically correct up to here.

In truth most Christians are not Christians. They are certainly not the sort of Christians that Jesus envisioned, you know the kind that live without possessions and give the shirt off their backs to strangers. The accepted alternative for first world Christians is to do token acts of charity around the holiday season. Mostly this involves writing checks to their churches or politically compatible charities. But sometimes it involves some actual in-person demonstrations of what Jesus might have done, such as serving meals in a soup kitchen to the homeless. It’s a faint echo of what Jesus had in mind for his church, but at least it’s an echo. Don’t expect to see Donald Trump in a soup kitchen. It’s not clear he knows how to use a ladle or clean a pot. No one ever taught him how these things are done.

Saying “Happy holidays!” is certainly not anti-Christian, as there are plenty of holidays this time of year. Only two are Christian: Christmas itself and the Epiphany, which literally is Christmas if you are Eastern Orthodox. There is also Thanksgiving and New Years, which are secular holidays and in Great Britain there is also Boxing Day. And, oh yes, there are those other you know second-class religious holidays that also happen this time of year, helpfully captured on Huffington Post. Hanukkah happens to fall Christmas week this year, which may be a reason for Trump to draw attention to it. (It doesn’t hurt to have a Jewish son-in-law.) But we also have Bodhi Day on December 8 (Buddhists), Mawlid an Nabi on December 18 (Muslims) and Winter Solstice on December 22 (Pagans).

If you say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” what you are really saying is that Christian holidays matter and those others don’t. And the reason they don’t matter is because the Merry Christmas crowd doesn’t give a crap about the non-Christians among us. The president is (or should be) expected to speak for all Americans, not just the Christians among us. Also the president should not favor one religion over another, as our government is secular by design. What Trump supporters hear when Trump says, “Merry Christmas” is “White-Christian America matters, and those others don’t.”

So no wonder they are enthusiastic about promoting a War on Christmas. What they don’t see is that when elected officials keep the holiday generic is not a bad thing; it’s there by design. It’s a statement that government operates in a religiously neutral environment. And that’s what really gets their goat. They don’t want it to be that way. They want a government for White Christians only. And by refusing to be politically correct, this is what Trump is tacitly telling them he’s going to deliver.

Unsurprisingly, they love him for his clannish behavior. As for Jesus’ call to love all, including the non-Christians (see the Good Samaritan parable), well, clearly not so much.

Happy holidays, everyone.

 
The Thinker

How the working class will be fleeced again

Stocks are up! Pundits (like me) were obviously wrong that Trump’s election would depress the stock market, at least in the short term. Trump’s threats of a trade war with China, dissing Lockheed Martin for its F-35 cost overruns and Boeing for bogus inflated costs to make the next Air Force One should have had the markets concerned. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have taken hits but overall the stock market keeps cranking up its share prices. By one measure, the S&P 500 is up 13.04% for the year, and 6.39% of the gain has been since the election.

Will these gains continue? In the short term it seems likely. Wall Street is betting that Republicans (who spent eight years trying to stop more federal spending) will agree to deficit spending for infrastructure initiatives that Trump has proposed. There are also those juicy tax cuts, principally for businesses. However, if Obamacare is repealed, the principle beneficiaries will be the rich, who won’t have to pay extra taxes to subsidize health care for the poor and middle class. (In case you were wondering, this is Republicans’ biggest grief with the ACA, not the mandate. They just won’t admit it.)

While this sucks for those who depend on Obamacare, all this should contribute to growth, at least until Trump starts his promised trade wars. What it won’t do is lower the deficit. In fact it will increase it. Most likely Republicans will lose their deficits-are-evil mantra again, at least until we have another Democratic president. Then of course it will become the most important thing in the world again. Lowering businesses taxes of course simply adds to shareholders’ bottom lines and thus share prices. This comes at the expense of depriving the government of revenue foisting yet more of the tax burden on individuals – well, except the rich, of course.

What this amounts to and what the stock market is telling us is that income inequality will increase again. To put it another way, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. This should be very alarming because democracies are more vulnerable when income inequality is high. But in the short term those with money are likely to do better. Rising stock prices are a reaction to this anticipated future. Since Wall Street generally doesn’t look past the next quarter you can’t read too much into it for the long term.

For now, continuing rising U.S markets are not an unreasonable proposition. Trump is stuffing his cabinet with not just millionaires, but billionaires. His cabinet will be the richest ever. In fact, Trump’s proposed cabinet’s net wealth is equal to one third of the wealth of all American households. He thinks that wealth indicates not only success but also an ability to get things done.

Since Trump is picking people that are at odds with many of his stated goals (like bringing back manufacturing jobs in the United States) it’s likely that a lot of his campaign promises in these areas are simply bluster. I would not hold your breath for a wall on our southern border, for example and I would definitely not expect Mexico to pay for it. I do expect that the working class that voted for him will be disappointed where it counts: in the pocketbook. Here’s why:

  • Blue-collar jobs that pay decent wages aren’t coming back – at least not in the volume our parents knew them, and they likely won’t be union jobs or with pensions. Even Trump knows this. The robotics revolution will continue meaning those manufacturing jobs that are created in the United States will be relatively few and those that get them will need higher skills.
  • Despite a “hydrocarbon heavy” cabinet, fossil fuels won’t be making a resurgence either. It’s cheaper to get hydrocarbons through fracking than through coal mining and a fracking well largely runs itself. But there are other reasons. Generating energy through solar power is now as cheap as fossil fuels, and it should get cheaper. Trump of course could be promoting these green technologies. Putting solar panels on all the roofs in this nation could keep hundreds of thousands of blue-collar employees employed and productive for decades, while helping the environment. But don’t hold your breath on this one (pun intended).
  • Trump is hostile to increases in the minimum wage, and his Labor department secretary would prefer no minimum wage.
  • As the stock market demonstrates, to build wealth you must save and invest. If you are not seeing wage growth, you probably won’t be able to save or invest much so you likely won’t be building wealth.
  • Removing subsidies for health care will move the costs of health care on those least able to afford to pay them. If there is no mandate to have health insurance, of course those opting out save money in the short term. But it will likely be wiped out when a serious illness occurs. Not only will the uninsured be asked to pay the costs of getting well, they will be paying a list price instead of discounts that the insured get.
  • If Trump and Republicans are further successful in reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits, they will disproportionately affect those with fewer assets and depend on these safety nets. Their reduced incomes will also depress the economy.
  • If welfare and food stamps are cut back, people will eat less, starve or eat cheaper and unhealthy food. This increases the risk of health issues and shorter lifespans.

So what’s really going on on Wall Street is a “party while you can” mentality. Those partying have every reason to party, since they will be sucking yet more money from those least available to provide it. Like all parties this one will end and probably sooner rather than later. Those whose wealth is being tapped are already mostly tapped out, which means there is no source of sustainable growth for the economy.

Smart partiers should realize this and turn their profitable assets into fixed income while they can. The smartest partiers will realize all this is counterproductive and that real growth depends on lifting everyone, and work to make this a reality. As for the working class, don’t be a fool and think that a new administration is going to save you. They’ll do their best to save those who they really care about: the wealthy.

 

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