Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Class Warfare Rhetoric at the Movies

We went to the movies for my birthday. In the half-hour of commercials before the movie, one ad wanted viewers to donate money for mobility devices for handicapped children. The voice-over says the charity is for buying devices "when parents can't and insurance won't."

Notice the parents can't help it, but the rat-bastard insurance companies can. But parents who "can't" afford them really can. They can spend less on something else, or borrow. Maybe they should do those things, or maybe they shouldn't. But they're not as helpless as the ad would have us believe.

Also, the insurance companies aren't in business to buy whatever would be nice to have. If your insurance contract covers a mobility device, that's great. If it doesn't, why would you think you should get one for free?

Charitable donations help humble the givers and the receivers. Charitable organizations that advertise with entitlement are missing that point.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Retirement, Longevity, Hubris, and Inequality

I follow a blog called The Dollar Vigilante that's mostly about how awesome Bitcoin is and how everyone should buy land in Chile from, coincidentally enough, the guys who run The Dollar Vigilante. Today they had a post about how terrible it is that more and more Americans think retirement is beyond their means. Over one-third of the American middle class feels they will need to work until at least age 80.

My grandfathers retired at ridiculously-young ages. My father will retire before he's incapable of working. I look at the world and my finances and don't think I'll be able to retire until I'm dead. But I'm not sure I see anything wrong with that.

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground," the Lord told Adam. Not, "till 62," and not, "till work becomes bothersome." Following the Fall, the changed conditions of mortality were: 1) difficult childbirth, and 2) work until you're dead.

It used to be retirement was something for Charlie Bucket's grandparents: you only stopped going to work when you stopped going anywhere. You want to give work the old miss-in-baulk? Then take to bed like Grandpa Joe and Grandpa George.

Retirement came to the masses with the creation of Social Security. The SSA has a website which tries to downplay the massive changes in longevity that have occurred since 1935. "Oh, it's only been a five-year increase in expected remaining life for those who reach 65," the SSA says, but the number of Americans surviving from 21 to 65 has exploded. Dying in your 60s is now seen as a tragedy. So why do we retire in our 60s?

Working to 62 when you live to 65 means being retired for 5% of your life. Now that life expectancy is 79 in the United States, that would mean retirement would begin at 75.

Meanwhile, the nature of work has changed. Fewer Americans are participating in physical labor for their employment. The weakening of the body in the 60s does not demand retirement the way it used to. And zero-sum economics doesn't make early retirement an attractive option. It is not true that we "need" hordes of retirees to have jobs available for new workers. If one job is taken, that means something else is available for the new worker to do. Not employing resources is not a recipe for wealth, despite what 80 years of Keynesian economics have made most Americans believe. Able-bodied Americans not working necessarily makes us all poorer than we otherwise would be.

The real problem is the hubris of the average American, who has come to think he can half-ass it for 40 years and somehow pay for an 80-year life, AND leave an estate to his survivors, too. If you want to work half as long as the rest of the world, you need to be at least twice as productive as the rest of the world. But while developing countries teach their children science and math, we have been teaching our kids safe sex and global warming.

Retirement is a vestige of inequality. A people that is on average dumber than the rest of the world has no right to expect super-normal returns to their labor (although, perhaps because they are dumber, that's exactly what they do expect).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"If I Were a Carpenter / And You Were My Lady / You'd Have Poorly Built Furniture / Would You Have My Baby"

When we lived in Virginia, Crazy Jane had a very small bedroom. It wasn't so bad as long as she had the room all to herself, but when she started rooming with the Screamapilar, she had no room to play. At the same time, she had a desk that was designed for a toddler, and she was a tall 10-year-old. So we wanted her to have a loft bed with a desk underneath. We could buy one for her, or I could use the occasion as an excuse to get a miter saw, which I did.

For Christmas 2012, my parents bought a miter saw for me. I found a loft bed and desk design here, but I wasn't sold on the desk plan. Twelve inches deep didn't seem all that big. (That's not what she said.) So we bought the lumber for the bed, but held off on the desk.

Here's the thing about building your own furniture: it's the most expensive way to get furniture there is. There's no way I can compete with Chinese slave labor and particle board. The lumber alone for just the bed was more than double what I'd pay for a complete bed-and-desk combination at Ikea or Walmart. And my craftsmanship isn't making up for any perceived quality issues, either. When I bought a Walmart bunk bed for our kids in 2010 I was not worried when they first climbed the ladder, but when Crazy Jane first ascended her loft bed, I was fairly confident it would fail.

Spoiler alert: it didn't. (Yet.)

Crazy Jane and I built the bed together (that way I could blame her for quality problems.) We worked on the bed on our back patio on Saturdays during the soccer season. I was coaching Articulate Joe's team, so I'd get to release some tension by pretending the boards I was cutting were the necks of the idiot parents who wanted their sons to play all four quarters and be the focus of the attack.

And now, a photo montage. If this were a movie, it would be set to "Everybody's Workin' for the Weekend" or "She Works Hard for the Money."

Along the way, we got a free desk from someone in our ward, so that reduced the urgency on the desk part, and spending two months of Saturdays building the bed reduced the motivation on the desk part. And right about the time we finished painting the bed, we found out we'd be moving, so we didn't really want to start a new project then.

The ladder was the worst part of it. A combination of rounding the results of trigonometric equations and the imprecision of the miter saw and the hardwood floor of Crazy Jane's room left us with a 1/16-inch gap under the ladder when it was attached to the bed. For a while it had old washcloths under it, but now it has small shims.

When we got to Ohio, we switched out the desk underneath the bed for one my grandfather built in junior high school shop class. Show off.

NB: The "math" label is now the "home construction projects" label, too.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Five-Day Weekends

You wouldn't know this from reading my blog, but "blog" is on my to-do list seven days a week.

I miss most Sundays unless I schedule something from earlier in the week, and Saturdays are busy so I miss a lot of them, too, but there's really no reason for me to miss most Fridays like I have been. And now it's carried over to Mondays, too.

It would be excusable if I was doing something awesome with my weekends. But I'm not. I'm watching soccer and taking kids to swimming lessons on Saturdays, then going to church and spending an unbelievable amount of time home teaching on Sundays. Not the most scintillating blog material. ("Like your usual crap is all that scintillating." - The Average Reader.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Midnight Is Where the Day Begins"

While Bono might be technically correct in his assessment of time, I'm going to try something else for a while. I'm going to start thinking of my days as running from 8 PM to 8 PM. This means my daily to-do list will start with my evening activities, then sleep, then the things I need to do when I first wake up. I think this will help me a lot. I'll report back later on the results (if I remember to).

Title from U2's "Lemon."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Blue Jackets Hockey: The Highlights and Low-Lifes

My mother bought a quarter-season season-ticket package for the Columbus Blue Jackets so she could see the Pittsburgh Penguins when they come to town. Last night Columbus hosted the New Jersey Devils, and I took Crazy Jane to the game.

We got to our seats and sat down with our hot chocolates and tried to tweet this picture:

However, Twitter doesn't work for me inside Nationwide Arena, even though lots of signs and announcements suggest I tweet all game long. It also didn't work on opening night, but the arena was full then. Last night, it was not. Two hours after I began trying, the tweet finally went through.

In the meantime, we discovered that we were sitting one row in front of the Arch City Army, a group of ignorant hockey fans brimming with irony and self-awareness, who are there to be as loud as possible not to support the team as much as to get seen by others supporting the team. Whether Columbus wins or loses, the Arch City Army considers the night a success if they have made everyone in their section look at them for half the evening.

First the referees came out to warm up and the Arch City Army booed them. At this point the refs have done nothing to demonstrate their competence or incompetence. Evidently the Arch City Army thinks there should be no refs, even though this means there would be no hockey game.

Next, the New Jersey Devils came out for their introductions. I expected booing, but one woman behind me yelled, "Go back to Jersey!" If the Devils took her advice, there would be no hockey game. I began to sense a pattern: extreme ignorance trying to pass for overwhelming passion. "I care too much to yell things that make sense!" would be their watchword.

The game began. Thirty seconds into the game, New Jersey scored. And one of the members of the Arch City Army cheered loudly. Evidently he cared too much to notice which color jersey his team was wearing. The first rule of the Arch City Army is to be loud, and in far, far distant second is the rule to be correct.

Perhaps you're thinking what my wife thought when I told her this story later: they were drunk. But they weren't. They didn't smell of alcohol and they didn't have slurred speech or incoherent thoughts. They were odorless, articulate, and coherent in their boorishness.

It wasn't just their hockey observations that they yelled to the entire section. I also heard about bacon on a stick (they are in favor of it), the new Hobbit movie (they disagree that it's a Lord of the Rings movie), and the age of Jaromír Jágr (they strongly suspect he is a grandfather). They also liked to use the word "hockey" as a verb, shrieking out, "Hockey better, boys!" And then, because they were especially proud of their wit, they did it again and again and again and again and again.

Before the opening face-off, I was looking for empty seats elsewhere. However, it was full-season-ticket-holders-all-you-can-eat night, and the lines in the concourse were massive. I didn't want to move into other seats only to find out the rightful occupants were about to emerge from a food line. Also, each concourse portal has an usher who checks to make sure you have a ticket for your seat. We were right next to an usher and couldn't move until she left or was distracted.

I would have liked to have talked to Crazy Jane and explained some hockey to her, but it was impossible to do anything but sit in silence and plug our ears for their loudest chants. At the first intermission we made a break for the concourse. We made our way around the arena, looking in each portal for an usher. Finally, we found one that would allow us to turn and head up some stairs before we reached the stationed usher. We found some guys in the section sitting near a few empty rows and explained, "We're trying to escape from some horrible fans; are these seats taken?" They said no, so we sat down.

From then on, we had a great time. We could talk to each other. We could notice things around us beyond the ignorance of our neighbors. I explained the rules of hockey to her. She asked, "How did the old form of icing exist at the same time as the two-line pass rule?" For which I had no answer.

Columbus came back from 3-1 down to take a 4-3 lead. I said, "These must be lucky seats." Then New Jersey tied the game. I had jinxed the seats by talking about their luckiness. So I said nothing about the lucky seats and Columbus took the lead again, then held on to win.

Crazy Jane enjoyed the game. This morning when she was watching the Screamapilar she found a replay of the game on TV and watched it. Shockingly, it appears attending a game can help you become a fan, provided the other fans don't create a terrible experience.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The World Is Changed

I have a sore foot that is not healing. The other day my mother said, "You should go to the doctor." That was when I realized that, for some people, going to the doctor is still seen as an option.

I said to my wife that night, "I'm never going to a dentist again, and I'm not going to see a doctor until I have what's going to kill me and I go to the hospital."

The world is a different place for most people under 40 than it has been, and most people over 40 don't understand that. Most of the over-40s still have their jobs and their employer insurance. Most of them still think destitution is evidence of a character flaw. Most of them think, "I got a bachelor's degree with little-to-no debt, then got two cars and a 30-year mortgage before I was 25. Now for some reason my children's deadbeat generation can't manage to do the same."

Old people: it's generally considered poor form to profit from a system, destroy the system behind you, and then disparage those who now cannot use the system. (To which the Baby Boom generation replies: "Hey, we've made no secret of our narcissism and egotism for over 60 years now. Everyone knew what they were getting." Fine, but stop blaming us for getting it.)

Monday, December 09, 2013

Media Blackout Comes to Naught

Since we were out of town Saturday, I set my parents' DVR to record the MLS Cup. And like all it does for all truly-important recordings, the DVR failed. It recorded everything else this weekend, just not this.

I figured I had to avoid Twitter and Feedly and sports websites for the weekend, and Monday I'd watch the recording. But then I found out there was no recording.

No big deal, we have MLS MatchDay Live on the Roku. So I sat down today to watch the MLS Cup. But since the game was nationally televised, it has a 48-hour-delay for Roku. (If you watch it free on TV you get it instantly, but if you pay to watch it, you have to wait two days. Seems legit.) I tried to watch it at 2:30 on Monday and kickoff had been at 4:00 on Saturday, so my 46.5-hour wait was obviously so short it threatened to knock the asterisk right off MLS's 0.0* rating.

No problem; I'd waited this long, I could wait a little longer, right?

Just before dinner, I was looking through the cable guide and saw FA Cup soccer was on. I turned to the channel and saw not, in fact, FA Cup soccer, but a giant graphic which read: "Do you think Sporting Kansas City will repeat as MLS champions next year?"

Son. Of. Perdition.

So, I guess I know who won the MLS Cup now. And maybe tomorrow I'll get to watch it.

Weekend Trip to Pittsburgh

Last weekend we were in Pittsburgh for a family Christmas dinner. It snowed and sleeted on us most of the way there. Here were the highlights.

Dinner: dinner was at a restaurant called Roman Bistro. The food was good and the waiters were nice. One weird aspect: one section of the restaurant has NFL helmets on the wall. Twenty-seven of them, for some reason (there are 32 NFL teams). My cousin and I determined which teams were missing: Oakland, Washington, Dallas, Cleveland (natch), and Pittsburgh. Yes, for some reason a Pittsburgh restaurant decided to decorate with an NFL theme but ignored Pittsburgh's NFL team.

My uncle's house: I'd never been to this uncle's house before. It's very nice, has an address that I bet doesn't map correctly when you call 9-1-1 (I made a mental note to never have a medical emergency while there), and has a very large mirror behind the toilet, so you have to watch yourself pee. (I guess one might argue you don't have to watch, but I dare you to not watch. It's impossible.)

Cousins: I met two of my cousins' long-term boyfriends, and my youngest cousin was very nice to my kids, which they really enjoyed.

Pittsburgh street parking: only a dollar an hour! I felt like needlessly parking on the street, it was such a good deal.

Tunnels: we went through Fort Pitt Tunnel (twice), Squirrel Hill Tunnel (twice), Liberty Tunnel (once), and Duquesne Tunnel (once), all for free. (Also, Wheeling Tunnel in West Virginia, twice.) Our kids loved all of it. We also went over more bridges than I could possibly mention. My wife said, "This is like New York City on the cheap." (Earlier this year we spent over $50 on tolls entering, circling, and exiting New York.)

Primanti Bros.: one of the first sandwiches I ever pinned on Pinterest (I'm confident in my masculinity) was a Primanti Bros. sandwich. Alas, it wasn't as good as I was hoping. I like coleslaw on a sandwich, but I wasn't a fan of this coleslaw. My wife noted that the hot sandwich meat heats the coleslaw, making it dangerously similar to sauerkraut. She also said, "My burps taste like French fries and I think, 'I didn't eat any French fries,' because I forget that they were in the sandwich." Criticisms aside, I'm not prepared to declare myself done with Primanti Bros. I'll give it another try next time we're back.

PNC Park: we stopped by the ballpark. Because it was about 18 degrees, we thoroughly browsed the team store. That's when Jerome Jerome the Metronome (age: five) had to pee. The workers said, "We don't have a public restroom." And that was the extent of their help. While ballparks tend to be surrounded by businesses these days, a December Saturday finds most of them closed. The workers explained, "The water's turned off to the stadium for the off-season." So these ladies are peeing in a bucket in the back room? I understand if they have a policy, and I even understand why they might not relax the policy for a five-year-old when the store is completely empty, but I don't understand their complete lack of concern or assistance. We know nothing of the neighborhood, while these ladies know it intimately, but we get an attitude of, "I don't care where you pee but you can't pee here." I was going to loudly tell Jerome, "You're going to get your first opportunity to pee on a building," but my wife took him outside. It being Pittsburgh, she found a bar that was open, no thanks to the Pirates team store employees.

Tanger Outlets, Washington, PA: a large ad read, "H&M: Coming Soon." My wife said, "I hope 'coming soon' means 'already open.'" But it didn't. It meant "coming soon." (Crazy, I know.)

JC's 5-Star Outlet, Columbus, OH: on our way through Columbus on Friday, we saw that the JC Penney outlet store was closing, so we stopped on our way back. It was a little more primal of a shopping experience than I typically enjoy, but not yet at I'll-cut-you-for-that-blouse levels. So many housecoats. Maybe if JC had a more-modern sense of fashion, his outlet wouldn't have to close. And I'm concerned that no one specified the maximum number of possible stars. Sure, they want me to assume it's five-out-of-five, but with the way they never come right out and say it, I'm not so sure it's not out of 100.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Post Notes Jotted Down

Here are some notes I took for future posts, but I don't really feel like developing them much beyond the note stage.

1. Church history is usually summed up like this: "Persecutions were terrible in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, but then they got to Utah and they replaced persecutions with primitive living conditions." But in reading John W. Turner's Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, I was struck with how much persecution continued for decades after 1847. Persecution didn't decline until assimilation picked up in the later 1800s. A lack of persecution today just shows how far assimilation has advanced.

2. Where is the government agency protecting adults from alcohol, tobacco, atheism, pornography, or malnutrition? So then why is there a DEA?

3. Being good businessmen isn't actually member missionary work. Telling yourself that succeeding in business is how you share your testimony is just a convenient myth.

4. We send kids to school to make assimilation easier, but at the expense of future difficulties (worse education, undermined testimony, et cetera).

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Crowd-Sourcing My Self-Oppo Report

Here's a fun exercise: readers should leave a comment with the title of the blog post they think should shame me the most, and why. I can respond with either a retraction, a clarification, or a defense.

I'm serious. Let's do this, people.

Life In the Camp

I've started reading anti-totalitarian books to our kids. We read Animal Farm, and then we read the children's novel The Long Way Home, and now we're reading another children's novel, North to Freedom (which evidently has been published under three different titles in its history). I think it's important for our kids to be able to recognize tyranny and be aware of the reasons to resist it.

Tonight we read this passage:

That was what happened when you did not stop to think. In the camp, thinking would have made life unbearable, but when you were free, it was necessary, though something of a strain when you were not used to it. (p. 48)

For how many modern Americans does thinking make life unbearable? For how many is thinking a strain?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

"Whose Bellies Are Not Satisfied"

A number of years ago I tried to talk my wife into moving to Minot, North Dakota (actual city marketing slogan: "Why not Minot?"). Instead we spent four years in Lawrence, Kansas. My wife says that counts.

For much of this current recession*, North Dakota and Montana have been relatively spared. I read an article** several months ago about the energy boom creating a high demand for strippers, and now here's an article in the New York Times about the influx of cash and people creating more crime.

Two points I found interesting: the first is that the increase of crime has come with an increase in wealth. This is perhaps counter-intuitive. We like the Jean Valjean story, and we tell ourselves, "If only the criminal wasn't destitute, he wouldn't be a criminal." But this might not be so. Pat Buchanan once said (in a quote I used to have saved but have since thrown out and can't find online) that there's something fundamentally wrong with this country that wasn't wrong when we were a much poorer nation.

Of course, the second half of that point is that there's no indication how the new-found wealth of the high plains is distributed. As with any boom, I assume there are winners and there are losers. Perhaps the crime is loser-on-winner crime (or, more probably, smaller-winner-on-bigger-winner crime). I don't really want to steal your stuff until you have stuff sufficiently nicer than mine.

My second point is from the very end of the article, where Sidney, MT, mayor Bret Smelser says, "Nobody knew anybody anymore." I'm not the first person to recognize that anonymity brings out the jerks in people--visit any online discussion thread. Since the 1950s we've vilified small-town America as oppressive. Everybody's in your business, deterring you from living how you want. But that's because some of how you want to live should be deterred. Disapprobation often is an effective deterrent, but it's lost when your town doubles in size in five years.

* = I know the BLS has an official standard of what makes a recession, and according to that standard, we're no longer in a recession. I say nuts to that. Using the 2008 labor force participation rate, unemployment has been above 10% for nearly five years now, and that's even allowing for the Census Bureau faking the jobs numbers in the fall of 2012. Disability is up, welfare is up, food stamp usage is up, poverty is up, and the number of households is down. This recession is not over.

** = I know it's a BuzzFeed article, and since reading it back in July, I've instituted a personal boycott of BuzzFeed. Partly based on an article I can't find right now about the unprofessional treatment a writer received from folks at BuzzFeed, and partly from my hatred of slideshows of numbered lists masquerading as articles (Six Ways Global Warming Is Making You Poorer!).

Time for Another Blog Name Change?

I've been "Welcome to Fabulous 'A Random Stranger' (A Good Blog)" for a long time now. Today I read this quotation of Wilhelm von Humboldt that suggested to me a new blog title.

A society in which the citizens were compelled to obey even the best behaviors might be a tranquil, peaceable, and prosperous one. But it would always seem to me a multitude of well-cared-for slaves, rather than a nation of free and independent men.
"The Well-Cared-For Slave." It's an intriguing possibility.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Prideful Individualism and Poverty

A long, long time ago, multi-generational families were the norm. In going through the Census records of countless non-relatives (don't ask), nearly every middle-aged couple had a widowed parent living with them in the 1800s.

Then came the Baby Boom generation and now we have a service called A Place for Mom. But the Baby Boom generation is getting older. Will we see a return of the multi-generational family?

Over their dead collective body we will. While some argue that nobody puts Baby in a corner, Americans of a certain age will argue to their dying breath that nobody puts Baby Boomers in a spare bedroom. The generation that, 50 years ago, embraced drugs and sex as totems of their maturity have since invented Viagra and three-wheeled motorcycles as totems of their eternal youth. (And let's not forget the magic ponytail.)

Timothy Taylor blogged about changing household characteristics. Arnold Kling noted the rise of "households married to the state." Tyler Cowen commented "we are consuming more of potential gdp [sic] in the form of not being around those we do not wish to be around."

How much of potential GDP is funding Baby Boomers' pride? I can compromise and get along with my wife, or I can maintain two households. What would be the poverty rate without no-fault divorce? And should we expect to become even poorer the more we see mainstream media arguments in opposition to monogamy?