Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why There Won't be Facebook in Space

 The harsh realities of actually trying to be self-sufficient in space will negate a lot of personal freedoms.  We can't be a "spacefaring" civilization if we are spreading rumors and fake news and wasting time on social media.  People who believe in a flat earth cannot live in space.

A reader writes asking my opinion about "Alternative Technologies" such as that of Nikolai Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, and like.  While I admire these people as innovators and iconoclasts, I also realize that a lot of what they proposed was impractical.

This is not to say what they accomplished was nothing, only that sometimes leaders and visionaries have ideas which don't necessarily translate into practical applications, although they do influence society in one way or another.  For example, we are members of the Frank Lloyd Wright society, which entitles us to a discounted admission to Frank Lloyd Wright buildings as well as a subscription to their most excellent magazine.  Frank Lloyd Wright, as I noted before, was mostly a failure in his life as many his projects never got off the ground, and many of those did ended up being poorly constructed with leaky roofs and shaky foundations.

But the term "failure" in this instance is relative.  While many of his projects ended up being torn down or never built, and many the projects that were built ended up being remodeled or had severe structural or other issues, his role as a visionary was the most important aspect of his career.  More important than his actual buildings was the influence he had on modern architecture and design as well as his philosophy of architecture design and even life itself.

A whole host of modern architects all owe their careers to Frank Lloyd Wright whether they realize it or not.   I think most of them realize it.

Similarly, Nicolai Tesla's crazy ideas about charging the atmosphere for free energy never amounted to anything, and probably represented his mind going off the rails later in life.  However his contributions to electromagnetics are incomparable.  So much our modern society so much of our modern technology would not exist if not for Nikolai Tesla - or perhaps someone like him.

While some of these visionaries have failed in their own lifetime, their contributions to society is incomparable.  We have always relied on those with a vision of the future to guide us toward that future.  All of the technology we have today was indeed envisioned by others decades ago.   That vision guided us to the reality we have today.   And today, there are two almost diametrically opposed visions as to what our future will be - outward or inward looking.

If you read a lot of science fiction, particular older science fiction, the idea of leaving Earth in colonizing the planets or even distant stars is a common theme.  In most of these stories, it is posited that people want to leave Earth because Earth has become so unattractive.  Moreover, there is a tension between those wishing to explore the planets and those wishing to remain on Earth.  The latter are more interested in dividing up the pie that exists and looking inwardly as part of a dying society.  Those wanting to explore and move on are viewed as visionary had outward-looking, with an optimistic view of the future.

It is no accident that Elon Musk named his company Tesla after the visionary inventor.   Musk is no mere software or social engineering developer, but a man building serious hardware for both Space and Earth.  Electrical Engineering with a capital "E".   But today we see a dichotomy in the vision of the future between Elon Musk with his optimistic outward view of the future and Mark Zuckerberg and his inward, less optimistic view of the world.

Zuckerberg at Facebook envisions a future where we will all be captive to 3-D goggles and view our world through virtual reality.  We will interact with others and machines through a simulated reality.   In this view, there's no need to ever leave home or even look out the window, as whatever you want to see can be seen through virtual reality, preferably through a Facebook interface.

This view of life reminds me of the science fiction "The Machine Stops" (written in 1909!) in which society has devolved into an insular civilization where people live in windowless rooms far below the Earth and interact with each other through video screens and cameras and virtual interfaces.  No one bothers to travel anymore, and if they do it's through robotic vehicles and even robotic airplanes which have no windows as people are afraid to even look outside.  It is a world where society has stopped evolving and expanding and instead has turned inward on itself.  This is the Zuckerberg future.

On the other side of the coin are stories of mankind reaching out to colonize the Moon, Mars the asteroids and even Jovian satellites.  Or perhaps even other star systems.  As Elon Musk said, we must become a space-faring species in order to survive. This viewpoint also has a bleak outlook for mankind, and that it writes off the entire civilization of Earth as a dead end, fated to devolve into squabbling over increasingly finite resources and trivial political and theological differences.

These sort of science fiction stories posit that space exploration will be a new frontier or a new wild West, where hardy individuals will set out to explore the planets and other heavenly bodies to eke a living from the vacuum of space.

I'm not sure that either vision of the future is necessarily a rosy one.  As I noted in earlier posting, the exploration and colonization of space will be a horrendously difficult task.  Sure, we can boost people up into low earth orbit for months or even years at a time.  But that is only with the aid of regular supply rockets, bringing literally tons of supplies to the space station, including food, air, and water.  We are hardly even close to self-sufficiency in space.   And nowhere near the level of sophistication needed to not only survive in space without a constant stream of supplies from Earth, but be able to sustain technology as well.

But the technical issues pale in comparison to the social ones.  Not only will almost everything have to be lifted from the gravity well of Earth in order to establish civilization beyond the bounds of our atmosphere, but civilization itself will be fundamentally different from that on Earth.

Simply stated, in an environment where every breath is a precious commodity, there will be very little room for bullshit. Whether it is colonizing the Moon, Mars, or outer asteroids, people will have to work constantly just to survive. They'll be no room for slackers, welfare recipients, or even the disabled or handicapped.  It would be a civilization of eugenics and harsh realities. You would have to apply for a permit even to have a child. Any idea of free speech and your personal rights will be severely curtailed.

There would be no place in such a spacefaring civilization for people texting while driving or spending their hours on Facebook instead of working.  It'll be no place for fake news, urban legends, rumors and innuendo - perhaps not even for religion.  There would be no time, money, or resources available for people to indulge in virtual reality fantasies, much as Mark Zuckerberg proposes for those remaining on Earth.

And these are the harsh realities and harsh choices we faces face as a civilization.  Do we remain here on Earth and look inwardly and isolate ourselves with various electronic entertainment such as virtual reality?  Do we evolve our civilization into little more than a dividing up of the pie into smaller and smaller slices as the Earth becomes more and more populated?

Or do we expand to other planets and planetoids to to expand our civilization beyond our home planet -  but in the process give up much of what comprises that civilization?

It is interesting.  We have visionaries for the future with two dramatically different visions.

Of course, it is exciting as things I read about as a youth as science fiction are now becoming reality.  I can talk into a little box hardly larger than a pack of cigarettes and it converts my speech into the text you are reading right now.  This was the stuff of fantasy in my childhood.

Regardless of which envisioned futures, or both, takes place, it is a good thing that we still have dreams.  Mr. Musk, in addition to space exploration is also developing the vision of high speed "hyperloop" trains traversing the countryside.  Again this was a fantasy - a science fiction fantasy - of my youth.  It is fills me with fascination and wonder to see these things at least being tried.

Similarly, it wasn't long ago that things like wind is solar power or dismissed out of hand as foolish pursuits that could never supplant traditional coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power.  And perhaps they never will entirely, but now they're considered serious players in the energy marketplace.

And wild fantasies of solar powered homes with energy storage modules in the basement, which were the stuff of science fiction even back in the 1930', appear to be coming true today if Mr. Musk has his way.

Of course, this all could go horribly wrong and be unwound in short order.  None of these Technologies are making serious about some money yet, and many are only soldiering on because of government subsidies and tax breaks.  Simple changes to policies could bury these new technologies for another century or so.  We are poised to enter either a new age of wonderment or a new Dark Ages.

I can only hope that mankind proceeds with its visions, rather than being caught up in primitive belief systems of the past.  It defies logic that today more than ever we are still arguing over religious dogma in an era of high technology.  That the bulk of the population of the world is caught up in a life-or-death struggle over whose God is the right one, or whose political beliefs should prevail.   It is hard to believe we are on the cusp of such wonderful achievements, and yet also on the cusp of slipping back into the stone age.

And yet, it seems like we have been in this situation for decades now, perhaps longer.

What a beautiful it [could] be . . . .

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"My Mom Does My Homework For Me"

Doing your children's homework for them isn't helping them at all.

When I was in grade school, and even high school and junior high, I remember some of the kids bragging - yes bragging that their mothers did their homework for them, as if this was some sort of special treat or way of getting ahead in life.   These were not the very smart kids in class, nor the children of the well-off, but usually the poorer kids from the other side of the tracks.

For some reason, their parents felt that school was all about "winning" - and that seems to be a trait of the poor in general, even though they win at little in life, at least not financially.   Anyway, I guess they felt that if they cheated a little around the edges, and did their kid's homework for them, the kids would get better grades and "win" at school.

Problem is, of course, if you don't do the homework yourself, you don't learn anything, and as a result, when it comes time for the quiz or test, well, you flunk.   So while the kid might get a few extra points for the homework part of the grade (usually a small part of the overall grade) they end up behind the other students in matters that really count - passing the tests which demonstrate real learning.

I am not sure parents still do these foolish kinds of things, although you regularly read online about some homework assignment that the parent was "helping out on" and he tried to use his old-school math skills for some sort of "new math" assignment, and not only didn't help their kid get an "A" but instead got them an "F".  And of course, they are outraged by it all.   I suspect these are parents who are actually doing the homework for the kid, not "helping" - because the child would likely have corrected the parent if they tried to do the work wrong.

It struck me that these parents from my childhood were the precursors of today's "helicopter parents" who try to shield their children from any sort of danger or problems, and then blame the schools when their kids get bad grades.  However, while traveling though Florida, I tuned into a "talk radio" show that was rather right-wing, and realized that the term "Helicopter Parent" is sort of a favorite of the far-right, who also likes to use the straw-man piƱata "Social Justice Warrior" to illustrate how silly everyone is today (except of course, those on the far-right who are the only people left who are rational -right?).

These terms are bandied about as if the majority of people today believe this way.  And indeed, with regard to "Social Justice Warriors" there is a bit of irony.   People on "alt.right" websites and discussion groups spend hours and hours online every day complaining about "SJWs" who they characterize as people who..... wait for it..... spend hours and hours every day online complaining about the alt.right.    In other words, it is OK for them to go online and defend their right-wing views, but anyone on the left who defends their views is an "SJW" and shouted down.

I subscribe to neither camp - they are both idiots.  If you think Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump are great political leaders, you are both insane, sorry!  And neither of you represents the viewpoints of the majority of Americans, who like it or not, are pretty middle-of-the-road people.  Get over it.  the vast majority of Americans are not Libertarians or Communists.   But I digress.

But getting back to helicopter parents, clearly this trend has been around a long time, as evidenced by my experience in school, a half-century ago (has it been that long?).   There have always been parents who were overprotective of their kids, or who insisted that their children "win" at everything they did in life, whether it was school, sports, or whatever.   Here on Retirement Island, we had to amend our annual Easter Egg hunt as some parents (again, the poorer ones) thought the goal of the Easter Egg hunt was to "win" as many eggs as possible, even if they mean bowling over toddlers and snatching eggs from the hands of small children or stealing them from others' baskets.   When confronted with this ill-behavior, the parents didn't not chastise their children, but congratulated them and chastised the event organizers for "interfering" with natural selection.  The culture of belligerence rears its ugly head once again. 

This obsession with winning at trivial things, however, might be part of a greater scheme.   It struck me that the poor and underclasses are obsessed with winning or at least appearing to be winning, and will drive themselves into the poorhouse to do so.   The sales of luxury cars, motorcycles, big-bus RVs, jet skis, penis boats, and whatnot are not necessarily the highest in rich neighborhoods.  The poor snap this stuff up like mad - paying for it all on time, of course.   They are more willing to go into hock over their heads to "win" at "who has the fanciest camper" at the RV park, who who has the loudest penis boat at the boat ramp.

And it goes without saying, these are the same folks trying to "win" at driving their car - weaving in and out of traffic to "get ahead" as if they were at a NASCAR race.   Got to get ahead - so you can "win" that coveted parking space close to the door!  Or better yet, get a bogus handicap medallion, and you can win every time!   Yes, people actually do this.

Again, this gets back to poverty stories and the idea that to get ahead in life, you have to "win" at any cost, and in order to do that, you have to take shortcuts or cheat.   Only suckers will actually play the game by the rules - all the real winners in the world cheat!

This belies a fool's vision of how the world works.  Yes, sometimes cheaters win, but oftentimes we find this out when they are caught and punished and end up losing everything.   Warren Buffet and Bernie Madoff are both famous "investors" but one actually did the hard work and the other cheated.  What was the end result?

In the end, you make more money from actually knowing something than from cheating on the test.  I recounted before a fellow Electrical Engineering student at S.U. who thought she could jump-start her career by memorizing the tests from the previous year (most research professors have little time to change their tests much).   Her career was short-lived once people discovered she really didn't know anything other than how to cheat on a test.

And maybe that is the difference between the rich and the poor.  The poor obsess about "winning" at things that really don't matter in life, and at the same time losing at the things that do matter in order to obtain a meaningless win.   The rich understand what is and is not important, and try to win only when it is necessary to advancing their real interests - not just advancing their appearance of winning.


Why do the poor spend so much on fences which serve no purpose?

There are many uses for fences.  They can be used to keep people in or to keep people out.  They can be used to keep your livestock from straying or your dog from running out in the road.  They also can be used for privacy to block someone else's view into your property.  Some fences also act as an acoustical barrier, shielding road noise or other noise from your home or business.  And addition to providing privacy from prying eyes looking inward, a fence can also block an unsightly view.  And in some instances, fences are even provided as an aesthetic decoration, particularly elaborate ones, such as stone or brick fences.

Fences also serve another use in that they demarcate a property line.  In some instances this can be useful in physical terms to prevent people from trespassing on your property or building structures on your property or putting possessions or other materials on your property.  They defined the space.

For many people, fences also serve a psychic need in defining the perimeter of their property line.  In that regard, you tend to see a lot of nonsensical fencing, particularly in poor neighborhoods in rural areas.  These are fences that are not contiguous, but rather have many gaps in them.   Clearly they are not keeping anyone in or anyone out or preventing the dog from running in the road.  They are not preventing theft or burglars but rather defying a psychic boundary of the property.

These are not privacy fences either.  We recently traveled through a rural part of Florida and noticed that many of the trailer homes by the side of the road (Route 301) had chain-link fences partially surrounding them.  There would usually be gaps of 10, 20, or even 30 feet between disjointed sections of chain link fence.  So clearly they were not intended to keep their pets for running onto the highway.

And since they were only three or four feet tall, they clearly were not erected with the intention of discouraging thieves and burglars, particularly since they were huge gaps in the fence.  Similarly, these gaps in the fence were by design, not by accident or due to lack of maintenance. 

And since chained link fence is open, they did not provide any amount of privacy protection to prevent prying eyes from looking into their house or to shield the view of the road.  Nor did they provide any kind of acoustical barrier.  And since they were chain-link they clearly were not decorative.

The question that hit me as we drove by miles and miles of these homes was why did people spend quite a bit of money to put up chain link fences around their trailers when they didn't completely encircle the trailer or provide any sort of closure.  They provided no aesthetic value, noise reduction, privacy or anything that I could see.  It puzzled me as to why people put up such fences.

To be sure, some of the properties had fences which completely encircled the property line, complete with a gate to entry.  At least such a fence, although very ugly, would be functional in that it would keep your dogs in and possibly people out.  But these fences seemed to be in the minority.  The majority of the fences encircled only part of the property, usually the part facing the road, with huge gaps where the driveway was located or just random gaps appearing at odd locations.

Why is it that poor people put up such fences?  I would think if your resources were limited, you would want to spend them on something other than a pointless section of chain-link fence which serves no purpose.  This puzzled me considerably.

Another feature that you will find in some slightly higher-end homes in rural areas is the decorative gate fence near the driveway. These are usually brick constructions on either side of the driveway sometimes with a concrete sculpture atop them. These are not supports for Gates or any other fence structure but merely ornamentation.  Again, I'm not quite certain what the purpose of these are other than the owner thought they made the house look more ostentatious.

New neighbors recently moved in and decided to put up a fence to keep their dog inside their backyard. As good neighbors, we agreed to pay for half of the portion on the bordering property line.  The fence serves no purpose in terms of keeping people in or out, but does act as a privacy shield.  Since there are few fences on the island, you can see across several properties if you are in the backyard.  It is interesting that with the fence in place, it not only provides privacy, but also defines a space in the backyard which makes it look more intimate and aesthetically pleasing.

We also installed a gate in the front of the house so that we can park the buggy by the side of the house and it is not visible from the road.  Thus, this provides an aesthetic improved by blocking the view from the outside.  Before, when you drove down the road you could see our buggy and garbage cans by the side of the house which was not very attractive.

Behind our house is a concrete fence which was put up by a neighbor many years before we moved here.  We have pressure washed and painted this face so it looks much nicer.  However, the point of that fence also seems to debatable other than perhaps to keep in a small dog.

It seems the fences serve some sort of psychological need that people have to define boundaries and define personal space.  We had the property surveyed before the fence was put up between our house and our neighbors, and I was surprised after the fence was up how much more property we actually had than what I thought we had.  When there is no fence in place, one tends to err on the side of caution and not intrude on a neighbor's property.   Or at least some people do.  I was chagrined, after the new fence was up, to discover that our former neighbors had been gardening on our side of the property line.

Of course, fences are not cheap, either to buy or to maintain.  While the new fence looks very nice, I'm sure in a few years it will turn gray and warp and need to be repaired.

As for the fences near the trailer homes along Route 301 in Florida, I'm still puzzled as to why someone would install a partial section of chain-link fence, other than to provide some sort of psychic boundary. The fence just not fencing anything in or keep anything out, but announces to the world where the property line is.

I would think, living so close to a busy highway, one would want some physical screening and acoustical screening to keep down the noise, headlights and the ugly view.  A few well planted trees would act as a barrier for all of these.  I would think that would be a more pleasant thing to have then interrupted sections of chain link.

But then again, a lot of what the poor do mystified me entirely.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Why the Media is Not A Good Source of Information

I could not find a photo of Deborah Reese anywhere online, so I will have to use this generic profile picture to represent her.   On the other hand, if you want to find a photo of her murderer, Ledell Lee, they are all over the Internet.   Funny how that works.

Recently a man was executed in Arkansas for a crime he claims he didn't commit.  The media doesn't much report about the crime, but the criminal.   We rarely hear about the actual details of the crime or the victim, but hear volumes about how the criminal got a bad deal in life - or how they got shafted by an unfair trial or how they were actually innocent.   We hear the criminal's story, again and again, but rarely the real facts uncovered at trial.   And we never hear the story of the victims.

While the media wants us all to be victims, when we actually are one, they treat us like, well, victims, and kick us under the bus.

The media reports that Lee was convicted based on "eyewitness testimony" which initially shocked me.  Eyewitness testimony of strangers is not very reliable.  Could a man go to the death chamber based on the photo ID by some people on the street?  It seemed incredible in this day and age.

But if you read the actual facts in the case, from his appeal decision, another story emerges:
William McCullough Jr. lived near the victim's house and had been home on the morning in question.   Sometime between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., he heard a knock at his door.   McCullough went to the door and was met by a man who asked to borrow some tools.   McCullough gave the man a driver ratchet and a socket, which he promised to return.   The man did not return the tools.

At approximately 10:50 a.m. on the morning of the murder, Katherine Williams, the victim's mother, received a phone call from her daughter, who lived some four or five houses away.   A man had just knocked on the victim's door, asked if her husband was home, and inquired about borrowing some tools.   When the victim replied that she had no tools, the man left.   According to Katherine, her daughter told her that she was scared and “did not trust this guy.”   The victim promised her mother that she would be at her house as soon as she finished curling her hair.   Her daughter never arrived.

Andy Gomez lived across the street from the victim, and was also home on the morning in question.   While looking out his front window, he saw a man standing at the front door of the victim's residence.   He watched the man grab the screen door and “make a B-line inside just real fast.”   Approximately twenty minutes later, the man exited Debra's residence.   According to Gomez, the man made rapid-head movements, as if he was checking to see if he was being watched.   Suspicious, Gomez got in his car to follow the man.   He caught up with him on a nearby street, where he observed the man talking to a female with spirals or braids in her hair.

Glenda Pruitt lived at 128 Galloway Circle on the date in question.   A man she had seen four or five times and knew as “Skip” walked up her street.   Glenda, who wore her hair in long braids, had a short conversation with Skip as he passed by her house.   McCullough, Gomez, and Pruitt identified Lee in a photographic lineup as the man they had seen in the victim's neighborhood on the morning of her murder.

Debra's body was discovered in her bedroom at approximately 1:38 p.m. that same date.   Three one hundred dollar bills that Debra's father, Stephen Williams, had given to her were missing from her wallet.   This money had been part of a larger stack of crisp new bills Williams received in sequential order from the Arkansas Federal Credit Union.   At Lee's trial, the State offered evidence that, at 1:53 p.m. on the day of the murder, Lee paid a debt at the Rent-A-Center with a one-hundred dollar bill.   Of the three one-hundred dollar bills that the Rent-A-Center received on February 9, one of the bills bore a serial number that was two bills away from one of the bills that the victim's father had turned over to police.
* * *
During the State's case-in-chief, Glenda Pruitt testified that she saw Lee shortly after the murder when he passed in front of her house, which was located near the victim's residence.   According to Pruitt, she asked Lee, “Where's the fire?” to which he responded, “Well, you are always asking me for weed.”   Without objection, Pruitt testified that Lee responded that he did not use marijuana, but used cocaine.

During cross-examination, Lee's counsel questioned Pruitt regarding her beliefs and practices as a Rastafarian, particularly with regard to the use of marijuana.   He attacked her recollection of her conversation with Lee and whether that recollection was impaired by her use of marijuana.   During redirect examination, over Lee's objection, the trial court permitted the State to present the entire conversation between Pruitt and Lee.   According to Pruitt, she asked Lee whether he had cocaine “running all through [his] veins,” to which he responded, “Yes.   It is running all through me.”   Pruitt then stated, “Don't you know it (cocaine) is poison?” to which Lee responded, “I'm going to get some now.”
If you read CNN or some other "news" story, you read a lot about Lee and his problems and his allegations that he was innocent - without much discussion by the media of whether his claims were valid or not.  You have to dig to get the raw data, and the fact the "eyewitness" knew the defendant personally makes the identification more compelling.  Drug users tend to know their drug dealers, and no, a Rastafarian is not an unreliable witness as the defense alleged.  The serial numbers on the $100 bills seals the deal.

Nevertheless, the "innocence project" claims an "innocent man was put to death!" based on no evidence whatsoever other than claims by the decedent that he "dindonuffin".

Oh, right, I forgot to mention that several women identified him as having raped them.   We put away the right guy. 

But you'd have to dig to find that out.  If you read the media this morning, you might come away with the impression that an innocent man was put to death based on the eyewitness testimony of a few neighbors.  Such was not the case.   A vicious animal was put down, for the sake of the safety of the community.

Freedom - Our Greatest Asset, Our Greatest Weakness

Vladimir Putin has killed over nine journalists in Russia in the last few years.  It isn't as hard for him to control the narrative in his country.

The fellow who started a "Calexit" petition, to have California secede from the the United States has decided to give up and move to Russia.  Well, actually he moved back to Russia.  Or more precisely, never left, as he has a home there and a Russian wife.   But of course, Russia never meddles in the internal affairs of other countries and donchuforgetit!

But it illustrates how countries do indeed use influencers to shape public opinion in other countries.  We do it. The Russians do it. Just lately, the Russians have been better at it.

Calexit is just the lastest gag.  And they don't control these movements so much as give a little nudge here, a little push there.  The Internet makes this easier by providing a Greek Chorus of commenters on Reddit and Facebook and Twitter to reinforce notions that work against the best interests of the US - or any other country.

When the dust settles, it will be shown that Russia was pushing buttons on the Brexit vote - which as you may recall just barely passed.   We require 80% of our condo owners to vote to dissolve our condominium association.   The UK requires only a simple majority to dissolve itself from the EU.   Seems reasonable, right?   But all it takes is a push here, a tug there, and you can shape opinion.   People can be lead to believe anything.  Remember the buildup to the Iraq war?  Yellow Cake Uranium - and this was the mainstream news reporting this, not some weird website.

Think about any movement in the USA that is not only designed to run down our government, but run down our products, our productivity, our science, technology, and medicine - all arguably some of the best, if not the best in the world.   What better way to collapse a country than from within?  And if you read The Art of War, you know this is indeed the best strategy.  If the citizens of a country are dispirited and believe their country to be evil and weak, they will not rally to defend it.  They also will be more than willing to consider ideas that run down their own side and glorify the enemy.

Consider all the weird rumors and theories that have been bandied about in the last decade.   Anti-Vaxxers?  What better way to undermine confidence in our medical system than to argue that the greatest advancements in medicine are little more than poison.   One wag argues that half of all babies born in the next 20 years will be Autistic thanks to vaccines, and that Sesame Street is featuring an Autistic character to "normalize" us to this "new reality".    Until recently, a lot of people took this nonsense seriously.   People with no background in medicine, science, or technology have come up to me and told me they "know" all about this because they read a website and the Internet never lies.

Maybe the Russians aren't causing that movement, but they know what "useful idiots" are and how to manipulate them.   You can bet the Russian Troll farm has a regular member on the Reddit discussion group about anti-vaxxing who keeps priming the pump on a daily basis.  Hey, if people believe that Hillary Clinton chops up children in the basement of a pizza parlor, they will believe anything.

How about 9/11 "truthers?"  How do you think that sort of thing started - or what keeps it going?  The worst attack on the USA since Pearl Harbor - how do we turn this around so Americans think the government did it?   Well, just make shit up and put it on the Internet.  Catchy slogans like "Fire can't melt steel!" are easier to say, while complex arguments about metallurgy and steel hardness are of course, ignored (if it can't fit into one Tweet, it has to be a lie!).

While you're at it, might as well argue that anything bad that happens is a government conspiracy.   Kids mowed down in a pre-school by a psychotic with a gun?  Must be the government, right?   Never mind that this is the same government than runs your local DMV and FEMA and Fannie Mae.   For some reason, when it comes to conspiracies, they have their shit together!

Kids today believe that jet airliners disperse chemicals - for what reason I do not know.   Sounds like a stupid idea, but a lot of people actually believe this nonsense.  It is 2017 and people are having serious discussions as to whether the Earth is flat.  I think we are being baited here, folks!

And so on down the road.   Tell people that "the good old days" were better.   4,000 lb cars with gas-guzzling engines, no seatbelts and drum brakes were "better" than cars today, because they were "more reliable" - right?   Never mind the truth says otherwise.   The next time some yahoo tries to tell me carburetors are better than fuel injection, I'll ask him, "what are you, some kind of communist?"  Because if you want to go back to the "good old days" of primitive technology, Russia has you covered.  I know this as I used to own a Russian motorcycle - a time machine right from 1938.

It never ends, either.  Our food is bad, corporations are corrupt, the water is foul, people are divided, and so on and so forth.   Look around the world today - what do you see that is better?   Not much, do you?   Even Sweden - touted by Leftists as a socialist paradise - is struggling with immigration issues these days.   Our country is doing better than most, which is why people want to come here and leave their home countries.   Well, except the Calexit guy, but he was basically a Russian plant, anyway.

The problem with a lot of this nonsense is the 24-hour outrage news cycle.   The news loves a good "story" and most people watch network news - most of those watch Fox.   So the news reports a one-sided story, because to get both sides of a story takes days, months, or even years.   People get outraged for a news cycle or two and then forget about the details, other than they have a lingering anxiety and fear that the country is going to hell.  The next outrage story - usually at the next news cycle - reinforces this fear.   And our friends the Russians are always happy to chime on on social media to reinforce this feedback loop.

Then we have fake news.   Fake news is easily debunked, but the target audience isn't interested in complicated explanations as to why what they believe in is utterly untrue.  They see something on a fake news site and get outraged.   But within 24 hours, they've pretty much forgotten the story, but remember the underlying distrust of the government, the media, or whatever.   And lest they think to hard about what that outrage story was about, the fake news site presents a new outrage story to keep their mind off the old one.   Wash, rinse, repeat.

The net result is, whether it is fake news or real news, people have this building anxiety about their country, their government, their institutions, their employers, and their fellow citizens.   Colleges are going off the rails (well, not all of them).   Companies are evil and making "profits" which by themselves are evil.   The government is a "swamp" that has to be "drained" and it goes without saying that the court system and lawyers are all bad, bad, bad.

You keep believing this for a few years or even a decade, and you are primed for revolution.   You are ready to vote for anything because radical change is the only solution to our "problems".

Um, what were our problems again?  Was it the cheap oil, the low unemployment, the low inflation or the low interest rates?  Was it the record bull market?   What exactly is it that we need to fix so badly that requires our entire government be overthrown?   Oh, right, the tyranny of it all, having to pay the lowest tax rates in the Western world.

Ought to try living in Venezuela some time.  It might open your eyes!

Freedom by its nature is weak.   In a free society, people are free to say and do as they wish, and outsiders can easily influence our opinions if we let them.   But it is increasingly clear than our free society and the democratic institutions of the entire Western world are under attack from outside forces that are encouraging dissent and division from within.   Every Western country in the world has some sort of separatist movement it seems, as people want to divide up into smaller and weaker countries - something that enemies of freedom would find quite dandy, thank you.

Think about this before you get outraged over something in the news.   Are you being baited?  Is some story that runs down our government really an outrage or a scandal, or just shit that happened?   The water in Flint Michigan wasn't some grand conspiracy but just a massive screw-up in an impoverished town with old lead pipes.   But to hear some on the Left tell it, it is symptomatic of an indifference on the part of the government to the plight of the poor (never mind that the government spends more on the poor than on defense!).   And while it has taken far too long, the problem is, slowly being fixed.   Unlike the infrastructure, say, in Russia.

Of course, I don't watch network news.  And when I read something, in a newspaper, magazine, or online, I try to think about both sides of the story - particularly the other side which is not reported - before being outraged.   In fact, I tend not to be outraged about much anymore, even President Trump, who is turning out to be a pretty conventional Republican, in policy terms, unconventional only in his personality and tweeting skills.   And a Republican President isn't quite the end of the world, despite what the Sanders people would like to tell you.   Of course, they voted for Jill Stein, right?

Stories that run down our country, our government, our institutions - they are a sign of our freedom.  Such stories cannot be printed in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, China, Russia, Turkey, Philippines, Thailand, Egypt, Syria, Iran, and a host of others as well.   Well,  sometimes they get printed, but then people end up dead as a result - or at least jailed.

Enjoy your freedom.  People died so we can have it - the freedom to even run down our own country.   But bear in mind that it is all-too-easy to fall into a trap here, to start believing a lot of these stories, believing that freedom isn't all as great as it cracked up to be, and that countries with suppressive dictatorships are more effective and "get things done."

Nothing could be further from the truth! 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Credit Scores That Finally Make Sense?

Traditional credit scores are pretty meaningless.  By the way, a 720 credit score is pretty shitty.

There is news today that a new type of credit score is being developed to compete with the "Fair Issac" FICO score, which has a lot of fundamental flaws.  I have written about credit scores before and why you shouldn't obsess about them and why they are considered "Intellectual Property" at least by the people creating them.

It is not hard to understand why the credit score was created.   Wading through page after page of someone's credit history (made all the worse by the poor formatting of these histories by the credit score companies) is hard to do.   How can Wally's Mattress World quickly understand whether the sucker, er, customer waiting in line to buy a new "select comfort" mattress is qualified to borrow a grand or two to buy it?  Salesmen have short attention spans, you need to cut to the chase.

The problem with the scoring system was it was pretty primitive.  It was based on a number of arbitrary criteria, some of which actually put you at higher risk for default.   Moreover, the scoring system encouraged "gaming" techniques that really put you at greater risk.

On-Time Payments is one of the major factors in traditional credit scores, which seems like a pretty simple thing.  You pay your bills on-time and you are a good credit risk, right?   Well, yes and no.   One reason that many people seem to have "sudden" financial crises, is that they can continue to make minimum payments on all their debts for years, while at the same time accumulating an increasing amount of debt - like a slow-growing cancer.   One day, they can't make the minimum payments, because the debt has grown too large.   And "suddenly" they are looking at bankruptcy, not six months down the road, or even a month down the road but today or tomorrow.   The day before, their credit rating might have been 770 or higher, and people were still loaning them money.   The traditional credit score could not foresee how the future could be catastrophic.

And a credit score should predict that - not just give a backward-looking review of finances, right?   So one major change with this "new" score is to track whether the consumer's debt is increasing or decreasing over time.   As I noted in my financial gauge package post, the rate of which you are accumulating or paying off debt is like an altimeter or rate-of-climb indicator.   Debt going up?  You are diving.  Debt going down?  Your financial situation is climbing.  Under the old scoring system, the score didn't reflect whether the person was taking on more and more debt, or paying it off over time.   This is a good thing for a lender to know.

Oldest Credit Line is on of the minor aspects of credit score that some folks liked to game (after reading about in on financial pages) sometimes called "age of credit history".  The system rewarded you if you kept that old Sears charge card that you got at age 18 active for the rest of your life - even if you didn't use it.   Closing dormant accounts, which is a good thing to do,  was viewed negatively by the scoring system, which is, of course, ridiculous.   Anyone who is practicing sound financial management skills doesn't leave dormant accounts open.   If you are never going to use a charge account again, why bother keeping it open and at risk for theft?   It is like a dormant bank account - use it or close it! (It is surprising how many people abandon bank accounts, which is why banks now charge monthly fees to drain them).   The new scoring system would place even less emphasis on this oddball criteria, or count the overall age of your credit history based on your lending history, not on how many accounts you left open.

Credit Utilization is another factor - a huge one, apparently - under the old system, which really was of little use to lenders.   If you had $100,000 in open lines of credit (such as credit cards) - which by the way, isn't hard to do - and "only" had $20,000 in credit card debt (which you were having trouble paying off) your score in this area could be higher than the guy with $10,000 in credit card limits and $5000 in debt, which he paid off every month.   Why?  His "credit utilization" was higher than yours, even as you were hopelessly in debt.

I have always advocated for keeping your credit limits low on credit cards.  One way I got into trouble with credit cards (and most people do) is to have huge limits on the cards which allow you to run up huge bills which cannot be paid off in one month.   This is not by accident but by design.  The credit card companies hope you run up debt and end up "trying" to pay it off for months or even years, at 22% interest, before you "roll it over" to a new card or a home equity loan.

Thus, I advocate keeping your limits to a reasonable amount - what you can pay off in a month, with maybe a small cushion for emergencies.   If they automatically raise this amount, call them and have them lower it.  The letter that says, "Congratulations!  We've raised your limit!" is not a sign of your financial acumen, but a deadly trap set for you by the bank.

Once again, sound financial planning is punished by the credit score.   And again, maybe this is by design?   After all, the people loaning you money these days don't want you to have a sound financial relationship with you - they want to ruin you, as they make more money today by utterly ruining people than they do with folks who pay off their balances every month.

So maybe the old FICO score was on-point.  It told lenders who were "suckers" out there and who they should offer ruinous credit to.   Perhaps.  Or perhaps it was a very poorly designed score in need of an overhaul.  Again, the new proposed score would take into consideration overall debt load, not just "credit utilization".

Inquiries is another area which seems rather arbitrary at first, but does make some sense.   Automated inquiries by banks and lenders are usually not counted.  But if you go around town shopping for loans over and over again, the resulting credit inquiries will count against you.  Not a lot, but a little, each.  The idea is, if you have been desperately looking for people to lend you money (and are turned down again and again) it should be a red flag.   On the other hand, if you are an astute consumer, and are trying to shop one loan against another, should this count against you?    Perhaps not.

New Accounts is related to inquiries.  If you have a lot of new recent accounts, it can count against your score, as the idea is you are taking on more and more debt.   This is an approximation, however, of whether you are taking on more debt or not, not an actual tracking of it.  And perhaps this was the only way the FICO people could track this in the past.   But on the other hand, if you were in some credit card pickle, and rolled over the balance to a 0% card, that would count against you as a "new account" even if it arguably meant you were making a good faith effort to get out of debt.

Available Credit is another factor and one which can sink a loan application in the real-world where banks actually read credit reports and not just the scores.   Yes, you can have a stellar credit score over 800 and still be turned down for a loan.   Why?  You may have too many open lines of credit.   If you have $100,000 in available credit card limits (again, not hard to do), you can quickly run up a crippling amount of credit card debt after the lender has loaned you a pile of money - and you may not be able to pay any of it back.   Again, under the old score, a lot of credit was often seen as good, while under the proposed new score, something viewed as less attractive.

Again, serious lenders actually read the reports, not just the scores.   The scoring system is a triage method to quickly screen applicants, not a means of automatically approving them for loans - in most cases.   If you have a low score, you are knocked out of the approval process.  If you have a high score, you pass that part of the application test.   But a lender will likely look beyond the score to see your overall picture - how much debt you have, how many open lines of credit you have, what your income is, and so forth.

You would think a great credit score would qualify you for a loan.  Think again.  Credit scores are merely a screening tool, not an approval tool.

For example, you would think with a credit score of over 800, I could just borrow as much money as I wanted to.  This is not the case.   How much you can borrow and whether you can borrow depends on your income (ability to pay back), your current debt load, and a whole host of other factors.   Your credit score is just a screening tool, not an approval tool.   Just because you have an 800 credit score doesn't mean you are pre-approved to borrow a million dollars, if your annual income is under $50,000.

Oddly enough, at one time in my life, I had well over a million dollars in debts (commercial mortgages, mostly) and my credit score was not nearly that high.   I did, however, have verifiable income in the six-figure range.   As it turns out, ability to pay back, in terms of available income, was more important than whether I still had my Sears credit card from high school.

Credit scores will never be an absolute thing.  Even under this new proposed score, there will still be people who find ways to "game" the system to try to improve their scores - maybe a point or two.   But as I noted in many, many postings, obsessing about your credit score, beyond a certain point, is fruitless.  Pay your bills on time, don't borrow more than you need, and it will take care of itself.

People who obsess about credit scores also are often the same people who obsess about borrowing money as if borrowed money was income or some special treat, and not an onerous burden to be paid back with interest.   It is funny, but the vast majority of Americans really are math-illiterate and think they can get themselves out of a jam by borrowing money or that poverty can be solved by borrowing money (and not to start a business, but to buy a flat-screen TV).

Consumer borrowing is just throwing gasoline on the fire of debt and poverty.  You can't borrow your way out of poverty and you can't borrow your way out of debt (in most cases).   And no, there isn't a "secret handshake" way of borrowing money and just walking away from the debt - even in bankruptcy.

So, this proposed new credit score is an improvement, but it still doesn't mean all that much.  If you are bowing down and praying at the altar of the almighty credit score, something is wrong in your life.  And yes, there are websites and discussion groups that some people visit daily just to discuss their credit score and how to improve it.   This is a distortion of reality and real life.

You are not your credit score.  You are not your debts!

You Can't Be Retired And Still Work

If you are still working, you can't claim to be "retired".

I saw an article in the paper today titled, "Mr. Money Beard shares secrets of early retirement at 30" or some such nonsense.   I don't blame the guy for going after the money - he is trying to brand himself as the next Sooze Orman, just as the "Extreme Retirement" guy is.   Good luck - that's the American dream!

But you can't call yourself "retired" if you are actively trying to market yourself as a money guru, complete with a branding program, online advertising, a book to sell, and so forth.   That's called working.

Yes, some of us work less than others, but we still work.   I am trying to unwind my law practice, but it is like trying to stop one of those mile-long freight trains - it takes a few miles to stop it.   I am down to three cases on my docket and my malpractice insurance is paid up through March of 2018.  About then, I will shut down shop for good, put my license on inactive status.

Then, I will be retired.   But I can't really claim to be "retired" when the checks are still coming in and there is work to be done.

A lot of people like to say they are retired when they really are not.   When I lived in Washington, DC, you would see a LOT of people with this idiotic bumper sticker or license plate that read, "RETIRED, no worries, no boss, no mortgage, no paycheck!"   But the funny thing was, you'd see this on a car with some dude in a suit in it, during rush-hour, on his way to work.   What gives with that?

Well, they were "retired" from a job with the Federal Government or the Pentagon, the latter of  which you can do in as little as 20 years, which if you joined at age 18, means you are at the ripe old "retirement" age of 38.  A Federal Employee can "retire" after 30 years, which sounds like a long time, but if you went to work for Uncle Sugar out of college at age 22, you'd be a sprightly 52 years old at "retirement".

And with the revolving-door of government employment, you usually can go back to work as a "consultant" with one of the many government contractors ringing the beltway, soliciting business from your former fellow employees in a somewhat incestuous manner, at least for a few years or maybe even a decade or more.

But "Retired"?  Not really.  Just eligible to be retired at that point.

Of course, a lot of people these days are "retiring" and then going back to work, at least part-time.   They work odd jobs in retirement, taking on work to pay some bills or save up for some purchase, like a car or boat.   Some friends of mine have gone "work camping" where they spend the summer at an RV resort for free and are paid (usually minimum wage) to be counter-clerks at the camp store, checking in campers and selling ice, or acting as maintenance people, mowing lawns, raking sites, and cleaning bathrooms.   Some do it for "fun" and the extra cash (sometimes under the table, for smaller campgrounds) some do it just for a free place to stay.   Others do it because they need the money because they didn't think through this "retirement" thing all the way.

Still other folks just keep working, period - if their company will let them.   Or, if they are self-employed, keep working because they claim they like the work.   I ran into an older Patent Attorney who does US filings for a foreign firm.  He says he loves doing the work and it keeps his mind busy.   I guess that is a good thing, but to me, after 30 years, even mindless national phase cases (where you are merely filing a translation of a case filed overseas and following instructions from a foreign attorney) get boring after a while.   Thirty years is a long time to be doing anything.

But yes, even some people still working full-time will tell you they are "retired" by dint of, well, I don't quite know what - age, I guess?

But the truth of the matter is this:  You are either retired or working, period.  And the moment you pick up a shovel or a pen or whatever, and someone gives you a nickel in return, you are no longer "retired".   And when you are actively trying to promote a business, sell books, sell ad space or whatever, you are not really retired.   If you are "vlogging across America" in your RV and cashing a paycheck from Google AdSense, you are not really retired (And there are a lot of those out there, in RVs, boats, on bicycles, or whatever).

It really is as simple as that.  I am not retired, but I hope to be by this time next year.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Analysis of an Outrage Story: The McDonald's Cup Of Coffee Lady

Is hot coffee a dangerous instrumentality?  Is it worth getting outraged over?

Sometimes stories can be used to sell outrage in more than one way.   You either think that the McDonald's cup-of-coffee lawsuit was totally frivolous, or you think McDonald's is an "evil corporation" who set out to burn people because somehow that made them money.  Neither is really true.

The question you have to ask yourself, though is why are you outraged at all?   It is merely a squandering of your own emotional energy.  And as it turns out, there isn't much to be outraged about, as it really boils down to (pardon the pun) a war between two competing economic factions, neither of which has your best interests at heart.   But both want to use you, and your outrage.

When it comes to poverty stories, none tops the list like the McDonald's cup-of-coffee lady.   It was a long time ago, but people still cite it as an "outrage" - but the outrage is often directed at different players.  Folks like to sit around and tell this story - or the outsized urban legend version of it, and either use it to bootstrap their dreams of winning "litigation lottery" or to be outraged at a legal system that allows such suits (while still secretly wishing they would win a million bucks themselves!).

In case you missed the real story, the lady put a cup of coffee between her knees in the passenger seat of her son's car, tried to remove the lid, and when she did, it shot hot coffee all over her crotch, which caused third degree burns.  This was not a pleasant experience, to say the least.

There are two points of view on this story, both valid, both irrelevant.  The first is "this is another example of frivolous litigation!  This lady won five million dollars from McDonald's!  Everyone knows that coffee is hot!  What was she thinking putting the cup in her crotch?" 

Of course, this argument exaggerates the facts.  She "won" about $600,000 after it was reduced on appeal, and then both parties settled for an undisclosed amount (hint:  probably less than the $600,000).  The lawyers claimed they waived their fees in the matter.  I don't know about you, but even a few hundred grand doesn't make up for having hot water sprayed all over your vagina.  This lady didn't "come out ahead" in the deal at all.

The other side is equally adamant.  "McDonald's had coffee hotter than other coffee shops and they knew of other injuries from hot coffee and did nothing to lower the temperature!  Another example of evil corporations putting profits over people!"

But this argument is also flawed.   Yes, paid expert witnesses testified that the coffee was hotter than what you serve at home and that it could burn you more as a result.   But McDonald's also argued that the reason for the hotter coffee was that it tasted better (near-boiling water is needed to bring out the aromatics in coffee beans) and that it would stay warmer while people drove to the office or jobsite where they could consume the coffee.   There was really no profit motive in making the coffee hotter, they were just trying to make a better product.  And as it turns out, today, coffee is pretty much still served at the same temperature as before - by a number of outlets, not just McDonald's.

The question gets down to whether people are aware or should be aware that in order to make coffee or tea you have to boil water and thus the beverage is served piping hot - hot enough in fact to burn you.   We make tea every morning and we have to wait several minutes, not only for the tea to "steep" but for the temperature to drop to drinkable levels.   You would injure yourself severely drinking the hot water directly out of the tea kettle.   Funny thing, though, the kettle has no warning label on it to this effect.

Maybe I should sue.

I had to take Mark to the fire house the other day when he spilled a pan of bacon grease on his hand.  (By the way, the best way to make bacon is in the oven.  Put the strips on parchment paper on a baking sheet (the kind with a 1" edge around it) and bake it.  No mess, no splatter, and perfect bacon every time, thank you Cook's Country.  Now, if you'll just stop using negative option subscriptions and drop the frivolous suit against your founder, I might actually re-subscribe to your magazine!)

Funny thing, the bacon package came with no warning about this.  Maybe we should sue them, too?

It is a relevant question as to where personal responsibility begins and ends, with regard to everyday hazardous items that we handle on a regular basis.   Running with scissors is dangerous.  Should they all be blunted for safety?   On the other hand, dishwasher makers have changed their designs after many children were impaled by knives sticking up out of the cutlery tray.  It is never a cut-and-dried issue (sorry, pun again).

The "We hate McDonald's" side (and personal injury attorneys I've talked to) believe that the fact that McDonald's coffee is hotter than other sampled coffees (according to paid expert witnesses) is proof enough that they are at fault.  But that is not entirely clear to the rest of us.  I mean, after all, shouldn't we know that fast cars can kill you, hot beverages can burn, and that putting your fingers in the lawnmower means no more fingers?

The other side of the debate (if you can call it that) will point to urban legends where usually some jughead (conveniently a foreigner, if they are xenophobic) buys a lawnmower and decides to trim his hedges with it.   He and his brother-in-law lift the running mower to run it across the top of the hedges and lose all their fingers.  They sue the lawnmower company and win fifty gazillion-billion-trillion dollars.  "Another example of our legal system run amok!" they cry.

(Funny thing, the same people telling this story around the cracker barrel are waiting for the settlement in their slip-and-fall suit and their corresponding disability claim to be processed).

Of course, the problem is, the lawnmower story isn't true.  It is just an urban legend.   And the McDonald's Coffee Lady story has assumed similar proportions of legend, based on who is telling the tale and what they are trying to sell you (tort reform or big-corporations-are-evil).

So what is the real deal?  Should we be outraged at heartless McDonalds for flinging scalding hot coffee in the faces of toddlers?  Or should we be outraged at those heartless personal injury attorneys (throw in the antisemitic content here, if desired) who are sucking the life blood out of the Nations' economy?

How about this?  How about not being outraged at all?

Yes, I know this is hard for most people to do.   Not be outraged.  It is an interesting concept.   You could consider all the facts and then figure out, well, it isn't much of an outrage at all.

What we have here is a fight between two opposing political and legal views.   When I went to George Washington University, it was a "Liberal" law school, as opposed to nearby George Mason, which subscribed to the Chicago School of Law and Economics theories.  At GW, they taught us "deep pocket theory" - that any wrong in society should be righted by whoever has the most money in the transaction.   It doesn't matter about causation or who was at fault, just sue the guy who has the most bucks, and everyone is made whole.  They can afford it, right?

Like I said, it is a theory - one that has been losing ground as of late.

And part and parcel of this theory is that the court system should be used as a means of social change when the legislative branch refuses to act.   State or Federal legislators or regulators won't enact safety standards for coffee temperature, so the personal injury suit, coupled with punitive damages will force companies and individuals to change their behavior, not because of any law, but because of fear of future lawsuits.

And actually, Congress has gone along with this theory.   If someone robo-calls you, you can sue them under the law, and you can make money at this. It is spelled out in the law, even how much you can sue for.  Someone "junk faxed" me and I sued them, and got $1000 for my troubles.  They were pissed at me to be sure, but I came into my office one Monday morning and found my fax machine run out of paper because he sent me several 13-page faxes advertising his - get this - prices on fax paper.   Meanwhile, my client can't fax me because the machine buffer is full.

We've actually enacted laws - some decades or over a century old - that allow people to sue to correct wrongs in society.  The False Claims Act allows people to sue Qui Tam on behalf of the government to collect damages on behalf of the government, taking a percentage as a bounty.  So this idea of using courts to rectify wrongs is, well, pretty old.

The other side of the argument is that the litigation profession has gone too far.   We have specious lawsuits being brought every day, and the cost of litigating these is driving up the cost of doing business, which leads to higher prices for consumers.   It is akin to the abuses in the Patent system ("patent trolls"), or these "drive-by" ADA lawsuits where people harass the 7-11 owner about the angle of his handicap ramps.

To hear them tell it, the entire U.S. economy is being dragged down by such lawsuits, including, of course, the class-action lawsuit.   And the only real winners in these suits are, of course, the litigation attorneys.

In the famous "side saddle" gas-tank lawsuit against GM, the class members in the suit received a coupon good for $500 off on a new GM car.   If your kid just died in a fiery crash of a GM pickup of that era, odds are, you are not keen to go buy a new one.  That suit, like the Pinto suit, was typical of the time, because of how cars were built back then.  Back then, manufacturers put gas tanks on cars where they were convenient.   Cars didn't have seatbelts or even padded dashboards.  They were in fact, deathtraps.

Back then, the gas tank was often put behind the rear axle.  The filler tube was behind the license plate, in the center, so you could fill from both sides.  They did this because people liked it and it was cheap to do.   Putting the gas tank under the rear seat (as in modern cars) would have been safer, but with rear-wheel-drive, it is very hard to do.  BMW did this with my E36's, using a "dog-bone" shaped tank that straddled the drive-shaft.  It required two fuel pumps and two level sending units (for the fuel gauge) and a mess of wiring.  It wasn't cheap or easy to do.  In fact, the technology to do this simply didn't exist back then, unless you wanted to install two 10-gallon tanks and have separate fuel gauges.

When cars got smaller, the problem got worse.  The Pinto suffered from this problem because, in addition, they started using 5 mph bumpers, which required huge bolts to attach, and Detroit was fond, at the time, of pointed bolts, as they were easy to install with an airgun on the assembly line.   Sadly, no on figured out these bolts would act as detonator pins and puncture and ignite the fuel tank in a rear-end collision.

And in any car design, there is a cost-analysis factor involving the cost of design changes versus the cost in human lives or injuries.  People today (particularly the social media types) like to say, "If it saves even one life, it's worth it!" not realizing that such an argument could be used to outlaw cars or even airplanes, or indeed, any human activity which involves any level of danger.  If you think this cost-benefit analysis was unique to the Pinto design or doesn't go on today, you're living in a dream world.   Engineering is all about balancing costs and risks.

Funny thing, though, a lot of people shaking their head over the Pinto debacle drove Volkswagen Beetles, which were even worse, as the gas tank was in front, with the jack positioned as a detonator pin.  The dasboard was open to the front trunk, and the only thing keeping flaming gasoline from rushing into the passenger compartment was a thin layer of cardboard.   Don't take my word for it, ask Ralph Nader.  Or ask my friend who was burned from the waist down with 3rd degree burns, in a Volkswagen accident.  Funny thing, he never got a check from VW over that, and it was a lot worse than being burned by coffee.

Did these lawsuits make cars safer?  Or was it government regulations?  Or a combination of the two?  It is hard to say, but no one has gas tanks outside the frame rails (such as they are) of cars today.   But let's face it, if you plow into something fast enough, no matter where the gas tank is located, 20 gallons of gas will blow up, if the impact forces are high enough.   True, today, cars are a lot safer.  Today, even the smallest of cars weighs in at 3,000 lbs.   No one makes sub-2000-lb cars anymore.  Due to regulations - and yes, litigation - cars are safer than in the past. Today, we have better technology than back then.  Judging yesterday's cars by today's standards is hardly fair.

But the ultimate thing is, truth is rarely black and white, it is kind of messy and grey.  Getting "outraged" by one story or another is hardly a useful use of your spare time.   It does, however, make you a useful pawn in these legal and political games being played out.

And that is all the McDonald's cup-o-coffee-lady story was - just another point in the graph of litigation attorneys versus companies.  Of two opposing viewpoints of how the law should be applied, as a set of rules or a means of righting wrongs.   Bear in mind that the jury in the cup-o-coffee case found the lady partly to blame for her own predicament and thus reduced actual damaged to $170,000.  The real issue was the tacking-on of $2.7 Million as "punitive damages" which, as the name implies, are designed to "punish" the defendant and get them to change their behavior.

The question arises, should a jury of twelve pretty clueless people be deciding public policy, vis-a-vis design of gas tanks on cars or what temperature coffee should be served at?  I know this is a boring question, but that is the real issue at stake here.   Of course, since that case, punitive damages have been curtailed severely by the Supreme Court and likely will be curtailed further as time goes on, at least with the new Justice on the court.  If this case was tried today, it is likely that the punitives would not be awarded at all, or reduced to nothing on appeal.

"But," some folks argue, "she offered to settle for $20,000 early on and McDonald's refused!  Isn't it their own fault for litigating the case?"   Maybe, maybe not.  From their perspective, if you pay out $20,000 each time someone burns themselves with hot coffee, you'd better get your checkbook ready.  Because once word gets out, well, a lot of people will be claiming their $20,000.   Yes, people do stage "copycat" accidents, particularly with big companies.  The reason they have cameras in the aisles of the grocery story isn't just because of shoplifting, it is the fake slip-and-fall accidents that people routinely stage.

And you aren't defending the idea of people faking accidents, right?

The other problem is, if you change your policies or change your designs, a personal injury attorney will use this as an admission that you knew the design or policy was faulty and therefore were at fault.   Back in the 1970's, this was a real problem.  You change a car design to correct a defect, and you open yourself up to lawsuits.   You do the right thing, and you get sued as a result.

Similarly, companies - yes, including United Air Lines - don't want to admit fault when a passenger does something wrong and creates a fuss.   If they so, well, you've given carte blanche to other passengers to create a similar fuss.   And also you've add fuel to the fire of the personal injury lawsuit.

Why do you think that guy ran back on the plane?   Could it be to make sure he got his injuries on the YouTube video?   It does seem like an odd thing to do.

So, oddly enough, our litigation system can force companies to feel that they can't change course, or can't change designs as doing so only places them at a legal disadvantage.  No matter what you do, you can't "win" at litigation lottery if you are a defendant.  Your opponent will use the media to smear the name of your company, and all you can say is, through your corporate communications director, "We cannot comment on pending litigation matters on advice of our attorney."

The Plaintiff holds all the cards.  And today, these cards include an army of clueless idiots on social media who can be counted on to be "outraged" by whatever slanted story you want to put out there.  The opposing side is muzzled by pending litigation.   But people don't see that - they see only outrage and they see red. They post on their wall, they text, they tweet.

People gunned down in the street take a back seat to a guy who refuses to give up his seat.  Why is this?

Of course, it cuts both ways, doesn't it?  Most of the outrage in the cup-o-coffee case was directed not at McDonald's, but at the personal injury litigation system.  The corporate interests against personal injury attorneys - and in particular punitive damages - did a good job of stoking the fires of outrage against "sleazy opportunistic lawyers" which is an easy target (like an airline) to hit.

It was only with the Trial Lawyers Association got into the act that we heard another side (albeit one that was kind of lame - "the coffee was hot!") to the story.  But it was pretty much too late.   People made up their minds.  The lady "won" $5 million which is why a Big Mac costs so much and why jobs are moving to China.

The real truth?  Well, like auto gas tanks, cars are different today.  Most cars have at least two cupholders, if not six or eight.  Coffee cups are differently shaped, and we've become a coffee-drinking nation - Starbucks is what has happened in the 20 years since the cup-o-coffee lady.  According to some sources, McDonald's still serves its coffee hot (180 degrees or so) - as do most Coffee places, including Starbucks.   Not much has changed in that regard.  We have new coffee cup designs and new coffee lid designs, and "caution, hot coffee!" written in tiny letters on the side of the cup (like cigarettes, if you put a warning on, people can't sue).

So not much has changed with regard to coffee.  The jury didn't change social policy much in this case.  The anti-litigation contingent did make hay from the situation, and today, personal injury suits are reined in somewhat.

But the lawsuits are still being filed, even today, over hot coffee.  The only thing that has changed is, we aren't so outraged by it anymore.

And the poor lady who burned her cooch?   Sad story.  A series of skin grafts and a painful recovery.   She really didn't "win" anything out of the deal, regardless of who was at fault.

Am I outraged?  At who?  For what?   I've learned long ago that horribly bad things can happen to very nice people - like my friend burned in the VW collision.   We just have to thank God that horrible things haven't happened to us, just yet.   I've also learned that these things work their way through the courts with or without my sense of outrage.   Maybe the personal injury system needed reform, and maybe that reform has occurred or is occurring (not by the billboard count, though).  The legal system still seems to favor lawyers the most, as people are slowly realizing.  If you are outraged by that, you're not paying attention.

The point is, and I did have one, being "outraged" over these one-sided stories is often just a waste of your personal energy.  The McDonald's cup-o-coffee case turned out not to be such an outrage after all.  McDonald's spent more on legal fees than they did on the settlement.  And the personal-injury attorneys likely didn't make out very well, if in fact they lost money in the deal.  Coffee is still served hot, and whether McDonald's was "at fault" is really not very clear even today (unless you are a personal injury attorney, of course!).   What was the point of being outraged over it all?

A better approach is to wait-and-see where it goes.   Oftentimes, long after things have settled down, we find out the real facts, which often are far different than the "outrage" story posted by the media.  And of course, the media loves an outrage story and will post half the facts to get you upset so you keep watching and keep clicking and keep viewing.   You've sold yourself to corporate interests by being outraged.  They've got you so angry you are seeing red, which means you are seeing nothing at all.

It is akin to the BLM movement.   A guy with a sketchy background robs a cigar store.  Confronted by the Police, he dives into the police car to wrestle the gun away from the Policeman, in an attempt to murder him.   These are the facts as they came out in the end.   The "outrage" story of the "unarmed black teen" or whatever, turned out to be entirely false.   This is not to say that there are no cases of police abuse, only that this wasn't one of them.

But once you see a "pattern" or think you do, you start to see Jesus' face in a taco everywhere.  Suddenly it seems there are a "spate" of police officers shooting or killing "unarmed black teens" for no reason whatsoever.   Our brains, programmed in pattern-recognition, start looking for patterns where there are none.  Every police shooting is now deemed unjustified, just as every incident on a United airlines flight today is now reported breathlessly.   Nothing has really changed, other that we weren't looking for a pattern before, and the media wants to give us something we will click on.

In short, you are being used and you are letting yourself be used, by being "outraged" by the media.  I have received several e-mails (some pages long!) trying to explain to me why I am "wrong" on the issue of this United thing, when really I have no opinion at all, other than there is likely another side to the story we are not hearing, and when someone says get off their plane, you kind of have to.   Over time, we will hear more about this story, and a decade from now, when the dust settles, you will read about it on Wikipedia and wonder what all the fuss was about.

It is like the Columbine massacre.  Other than the actual killings themselves, nearly everything reported by the media at the time was completely wrong - 100% wrong.  And this is not an anomaly.  The media reports rumor and innuendo all the time - or just half the story to slant things one way or another - whichever way gets you to watch, click, read, or buy.   Boring stories don't sell newspapers.

So, stop being outraged.   This guy thrown off the plane is suing.  United will spend more on lawyers than he will get in the undisclosed settlement.   Not much will change in the world.  If a flight attendant taps you on the shoulder and says you have to get off the plane, you will still have to get off.  That rule isn't going to change and never will change - because if you think about it, it would be unworkable to allow passengers to decide how the plane is to be flown.

And no, a "bill" (which is not a law) introduced by an opportunistic State legislator (who wants to suck up to voters) is not likely to pass, or if passed, not likely to be enforceable, as Interstate Commerce is not the province of local legislators who cannot even come up with a budget for their bankrupt State.

Hmmm..... If I lived in Illinois or Chicago, maybe that would be something to be outraged about?

Update :  This is a picture of coffee I made this morning using a percolator, a few moments after pouring it. As you can see it is 180 degrees Fahrenheit the temperature of the so-called dangerous McDonald's coffee.