Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Growing Impoverished by Paying Workers, Themselves Impoverished

I have a decent understanding of basic economics, but my mind keeps circling this puzzle again and again, and I just can't make sense of it.

My elderly mother requires lots of care, so we pay a nice, smart Jamaican women (untrained, but bright, principled, and highly competent) to come in 6 days per week. The expense, of course, is killing us. And yet, this woman is very poor. She takes three buses to get to work (>1 hour commute) because she can't afford even a used car.

It irks me that she can be so diligent and smart and competent, and work so hard, and cost so much (from our perspective), and still be poor. But what really confuses me is that we're impoverishing ourselves with her wages...yet she's still poor. That makes no sense at all to me. There's no middleman. We pay her directly. Where, exactly, is the wealth going?

Of course, I can do the math, and spot the shortfall, but in a larger, macroeconomic sense, there's something wrong here, and I can't quite pin it down.

Two notes:

1. I actually do understand one facet of it. It's not that she's poor, it's that she's slightly less obscenely rich. Billions of humans (including her relatives back home in Jamaica) would guffaw at the notion that needing to take a bus to work amounts to poverty. I sound like Mrs. Howell grieving for the unfortunate slobs who can't dine on fine china or vacation in Monaco. But, still, this doesn't explain the lose/lose economic dynamic. How can both sides be making out so poorly?

2. My grandfather was perpetually aggrieved by inflation. "How can people, especially younger people, afford these crazy prices?" he'd cry back in the 80s. "Don't forget that wages increase with inflation, too!" I'd respond assuredly, the cocky American college student. Grandpa would wag his head bitterly, "no." I was missing the essential element. Maybe this is what I was missing?

Update: On three hundredth thought: It's probably useful to bear in mind that we're buying a luxury. Most people put elderly relatives in institutions or find a way to care for them themselves. My mailman and plumber earn good wages by providing essential services time-shared by large communities. One-to-one purchase of a (minor) luxury service is an odd economic proposition, made viable only by inexpensive immigrant labor. It's thus inherently ill-paying, yet high-priced, over time. This doesn't fully satisfy my curiosity, but I'm getting there.

Monday, May 21, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #23

Monday, May 21, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 91,600 Google search results, down 9% from last time's 95,700.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #22

Tuesday, May 15, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 91,600 Google search results, down 4% from last time's 95,700.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order


Thursday, May 10, 2018

How to Kill a Tick

I just saw an elegant solution to the age old conundrum of how to kill a tick. Stick it to a piece of adhesive tape, then loop the tape back over the tick, so it's encased on both sides. It will eventually die, and meanwhile, you can hold on to it and show it to a doctor if you develop a target pattern on your skin.

Info on tick repellent.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Stock Update: Apple and SIGA

As previously discussed, I've been more or less living on Apple's stock swings for the past few years. My strategy is simple: buy low and sell high. I deem this safe, because I'm confident Apple will not be perma-crushed by some fritzy antenna or wobbly case. And I deem "high" and "low" to be relatively easy calls because the company's too big to be super volatile. There's only a macro-volatility, whereby it periodically dips 25% and then returns to a new high - over and over and over and over again. Even a plebe like me can profit from that.

As I wrote in that link, people go wrong by assuming "buy low and sell high" means "buy at the very bottom and sell at the very top." They do stupid greedy things in pursuit of this impossibility. The last time Apple's stock plummeted, I bought around $115, and it eventually sunk further still, to the 90s. Fine. I did not curse or wail. And, as the stock recovered, I sold most of my shares in the $160s, missing out there as well (it's currently in the mid $180s). It's ok. I'm not greedy. My non-greediness is an investment superpower. I revel in it.

I'll sell my remaining shares around $200, if the price seems to settle there. And next time the price dips by over 25%, I'll buy a ton more as soon as it seems to settle. Yah, "seems to settle" is a fallacy; any foothold in this realm is strictly imaginary. So I may miss top and bottom. But I sure won't miss "high" or "low".

I realize I'm betting against Warren Buffett, who's been buying at the high end of the price curve, in violation of his own value investing rule. But my thinking is different from Mr. Buffett's. He's apparently figured out that Apple is a very fine company with a solid future. I take that for granted. I bet on Apple's dips because I have the assurance that even when it's plunging like a stone, it's never existential. Most investors - with twitchy short-term objectives - hate to be caught holding a stock whose price is dropping. But I don't feel that fear, because I know that when short sellers and their minions periodically frighten investors, none of it can ever jeopardize the company's future, so I don't move with the herd. I wait. And since I don't like to pay taxes on short term capital gains, that patience only increases my profit.

Meanwhile, it looks like SIGA will get FDA approval this fall. That may open the gates to foreign orders. Or it might not. There's also another government contract around the corner, and this is the news that brought the stock back to the mid $6 range.

I see things very differently from most SIGA investors. They see a rich and prosperous future of US and international sales, corporate sales, alternative formulations and applications (e.g. animal poxes), and stock replenishment. I think they're missing what's really going on with this stock.

SIGA will never be a "real" company, with rich and diverse revenue streams. Rather, it's a three or four or five trick pony. The new US gov contract may well come to pass, and they may get a foreign contract or two at some point. Perhaps some other icing. But it won't be Pfizer. No ongoing, dependable brisk revenue, just long parched becalmings between unpredictable one-off outcomes. The stock chart will perennially alternate between lengthy drifts and momentary spikes, and unless you're tapped directly into the trading system with mega-twitchy algorithms, you'll never catch a peak. And this ain't Apple, so those who tenaciously hold on will miss out.

Hopefully FDA approval will come around the same time as the new US gov contract is awarded. That might create some actual exuberance for this stock, in which case the whole formula could change. But as of now, I plan to sell and run the moment this contract's awarded and the stock moves. Because the moment we put that award in our rear view mirror, SIGA is looking at yet another parched horizon, with nary a buck firmly in sight. And there's nothing the stock market hates more than no-hard-evidence-of-next-shiny-prospect.

#MeToo #BelieveWomen

I know several people with high positions in European governments. One is a particularly good friend. When he worked in New York for several few years, I spent a lot of time with him and his wife. Despite his powerful position, he didn't come from a high-class family. He'd earned his way up through the ranks via hard work and smarts.

His wife, born in the Third World, relished her social position. She'd taught herself to literally point her nose upward as a gesture of elevation. I was able to cut through all that; we were beer-drinking, pizza-scarfing, bike-riding, relax-and-hang-out backstage friends, so I rarely glimpsed her snooty, affected side. My friend, by contrast, was completely down to earth. Extremely nice guy; kind, gentle, thoughtful.

I had the chance to observe him in many contexts. I saw him angry. I saw him scared. I saw him fighting with his wife. But I never spotted a glimpse of anything frightening, or unkind, or unreasonable. Even in situations where it would have been safe and expedient for him to take advantage of his position, he'd never yield. If, as I once wrote, "Character is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise," he is a man of great character.

His wife, however, had a quick and savage temper and could be stubbornly unreasonable. Some time after he'd left New York for a new assignment, her unstable demeanor and ever-increasing affectation deteriorated the marriage, and he finally asked for a divorce. And she went nuts.

She attacked him in any way she could think of. She went to the local press with incredible tales of how he'd used his position to traffic drugs and run a prostitution ring. He'd beaten her savagely. He was a thug and a monster. It became an enormous scandal, and he was forced to return to his home country for investigation. She followed, filing a flurry of fantastical complaints with his government. Finally, after several years, it became patently obvious that she was completely off her rocker. Nothing added up. Not being particularly bright, her accusations were scattershot and unrealistic. In time, she came to be ignored, and my friend was able to resume his career.

Why had this happened? He'd been her meal ticket to a social position she really craved. Without him, there'd be no pretext for upward nose pointing. No fancy company and hors d'oeuvres. She'd always been unstable and driven by a furious temper, and now she had nowhere to go and nothing to lose. As happens sometimes, she eventually began to drink her own tainted lemonade. She started believing her own lies.

Over a decade later, she's still there, and still flailing away. At this point, all effort is directed toward the impending divorce settlement. Noticing a recent change in the political climate, she's smartened up and confined her claims to the domestic violence portion, which is harder to disprove. She is a battered woman, ignored and mocked by the patriarchy of her ex-husband's government. She is a cause.

And while the government at this point knows full well who and what she is, the country's independent judiciary is run by a #MeToo advocate who's staunchly taken her side against all these terrible men who've shown her no sympathy during her decade of brave, fruitless struggle. It appears that my friend will be taken for every dollar he has. His lawyer has shrugged and told him to expect the worst. There's simply nothing to be done.

If I claim you lit the fire that burned down my house, or that you kidnapped my child, I am not to be automatically believed. The intrinsic purpose of a justice system is to sort out accusations, in the presumption of innocence, because, as history and common sense have taught us, some accusations are true while others are false. If we could simply accept every accusation on its face, that would unclog our courts and spare police from investigation. Unfortunately, humans don't work like that. Ordinarily, intelligent, reasonable people would recognize this. Unless, that is, they're caught up in a mass hysteria.

Societal forces have historically inhibited women from speaking up about sexual harassment and violence, while protecting perpetrators. Quite evidently, we need to devise thoughtful ways to restore balance and justice in these matters. But the notion that we must simply #BelieveWomen is patently unreasonable. It's hard to imagine that modern, civilized people would advocate for such a thing.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

My point here is, obviously, something that Must Not Be Said. If you're a reasonable Centrist like me, and reject extremism of any sort (even when - especially when - it stems from actual needfulness), and are weary of being told that you must not apply critical faculties to hot topics, you might want to have a look at this NY Times article on the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Monday, May 7, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #21

Monday, May 7, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 95,700 Google search results, 3% more than last time's 93,000.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

A Few Extra Pounds Can Really Mess You Up

My weight cycles. I'm either concentrating on it - which means I'm losing a pound per week - or I'm not - which means I'm gaining a scant 1/4 lb/week, which adds up. As a result, I'm like a white male non-billionaire Oprah.

The ups and downs have taught me something - confirmed by my doctor and by my neighbor Jon - that I don't think many people realize: overweight maladies don't gradually arise as weight creeps up. There's a threshold, past which....bam! I've now observed this a couple times under clear conditions (other factors remaining uniform, and with careful tracking). And here's how it works for me (note: I'm tall, so if you're under 6', adjust accordingly):

10 lbs overweight: No problem.
20 lbs overweight: No problem.
25 lbs overweight: Cholesterol shoots up, blood pressure up a bit, light snoring
30 lbs overweight: Continuous snoring, sleep apnea, indigestion, heart burn, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Huge differences from tiny increments! You wouldn't think 5 pounds would be a big deal. That's less than a pants size; more like a single belt notch. But, again, there's a surprisingly sharp threshold. The specifics might be different for you, but I bet your threshold - wherever it is - is sharper than you'd think, too.

I recently peaked at 31 lbs overweight. My blood pressure is sky high without meds, and it takes literally four hours for my heart rate to recover after exercise (and I'm in decent cardio condition). My stomach at night feels like I've guzzled fabric softener, and I'm frequently awakened by breathless panic. This is how John Hughes must have felt:

My doctor was kind enough to prescribe a hypertension pill I absolutely hate. It makes me foggy and slurs my speech, and I can't drink a drop of alcohol. Which is great. Being forced not to drink will help weight loss, and, just generally, my mind is wonderfully focused on weight loss so I can get off the damn medication!

The good news is that just a bit of weight loss will make a big difference. Normally, the first few pounds are disappointing, with so much effort for so little visible result. But ten pounds (i.e. ten weeks) from now I'll be off these damned pills, and then I'll watch the other maladies evaporate soon thereafter. And then, having built momentum (plus an elevated resting metabolism - from weight training, increased physical activity, sufficient protein, and never starving) it will be relatively easy to get down to optimal weight.

I started this Slog shortly after having lost the 30 pounds I'd been carrying for much of my adult life. I developed some principles in going about it. If you're curious - or you'd like to get back under that threshold, yourself - the series starts here.

The final installment of that series offers a theory as to why the maladies of obesity cut in so early in my weight gain curve:
The more you engage in this massively unhealthful war against the body, the more afflictions of obesity will befall you even if you're not so overweight. Over the past twenty years, I've rarely been more than 12% overweight, and obesity starts over 20%. Yet I've had high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, fallen arches, sleep apnea - the full basket of conditions comprising Metabolic syndrome - normally the fate of obese people. My suspicion is that the more you battle your body with the sort of self-defeating patterns we've been looking at, the more your body falls prey to the ills of the obese - even if you're just mildly overweight. Obesity may be the result, rather than the cause.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Leftover Chicken Pasta

I'm on a pasta roll. Last week, I finally managed to produce crispy leftover pasta (based on a salmon pasta I'd made the day before which was quite good to begin with...see recipe at the bottom of the above link). Today: leftover chicken pasta. This was a clear "9":

Buy cheap rotisserie chicken parts at supermarket (leftover works great).
It's usually less expensive than raw chicken, because they're using up expired meat - past the sale date, not the use date, so don't worry. Note: you don't want branded rotisserie chicken - ickily seasoned and expensive - you want the store-roasted stuff. Note that good quality barbecued chicken works even better, but I would not recommend broiled or poached chicken breast).
Boil pasta water with plenty of salt.

Chop a small onion and sauté at low medium temp in a skillet with extra virgin oil.

When onion just begins to brown, shut off heat (it's impossible to synch timing otherwise).

Cook pasta al dente, drain (saving a couple TBS of cooking water).

Heat up onion skillet, then add another TBS olive oil.

Add 3 or 4 coarsely chopped plum tomatoes.

Add a generous handful of chopped pea shoots (available in health food markets).
This has become an essential secret pasta ingredient for me. The shoots add a sweet verdancy, plus they emulsify the sauce a bit. Also: super healthy.
Stirring occasionally, let cook a couple minutes.

Add chicken meat (coarsely chopped), cover, and reduce heat to low medium.

Put pasta back in pot with water. Turn on heat to medium.

Add a TBS or two of extra virgin olive oil, stirring like a crazy person.

Add grated cheese, with more frantic stirring.
I eat too healthy to use much cheese, but, as with dark chocolate, I find that a tiny bit really earns its pay. I use about 1/3 cup - after grating - per portion, which is not a lot of cheese, but, man, does it make a diff. And I always add during cooking, rather than at serving, to imbue every bit of flavor.
Add a couple generous handfuls of spinach leaves, stirring even harder (you want them to wilt, though not to the point of sliminess...this takes skill, by the way).

Sprinkle with chili flakes (I like Penzey's Aleppo peppers).

Add chicken mixture, continuing to stir.

If you've timed it right, ingredients should be starting to stick to the bottom of the hot pot. Turn off heat and serve. If the pot isn't a complete mess inside, the mixing-in wasn't long enough or hot enough.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Dealing With Elderly People in Decline

When I was in my 20s, most of my friends were elderly musicians in their 80s. They're all gone now, and now, in my mid 50's, I'm repeating the process with my parent's generation. This loop I find myself in has provided insights into old age. A few observations:

1. Let's look at you, first. If you've taken advantage of your own all-too-brief time here by observing your inner life, then you know (as I keep explaining from a multitude of angles) that you are not the sum of the objects in your mind or body. Your body contains not a single atom from your childhood, yet you've been unmistakably you all along. Your thought stream, knowledge, and memories are utterly unlike those of your seven year old self, yet you are unquestionably still that person. The only reasonable conclusion is that you're not a collection of stuff; you are, rather, the observer of It All (it's the old subject/object question).

So...no matter how fuzzy-headed a person gets with age - no matter how feeble their memory, or how exposed the bare sidewalls of their mental processes - they're still them. Absolutely, unmistakably, and unquestionably them. The machinery - even the CPU - may fritz and spark, but the awareness peering out through their eyes is the same as ever. Their bedrock "them-ness" isn't affected or diminished in the least. If you need this to be confirmed via words or actions, such confirmation may not be forthcoming, yet there is a presence to a human, regardless of their mental state, and that presence is immutable. If you're unable to feel it - to register and appreciate the Them-ness - without tangible verification, then I have bad news. You're the one who's lacking; who's not quite all "there". Seize the opportunity to learn and grow.

2. Talk to that presence. Even if you must speak slowly and loudly, and your words aren't later recalled. It doesn't matter what you say. Just pitch your words straight there. It needn't be solemn. In fact, jolly irreverence is often best. Just do your feeble best to bear in mind who you're speaking to, despite the visuals.

3. By speaking to the presence, you reassure them that they're still them. That's critical. The problem for old people isn't so much the isolation, or loved ones talking to them like to a child or radiating distress over their condition. Those things are awful, but mitigated by the natural opiate-like endorphins that flow near the end of life. What they need - and you can help with! - is deeper and more necessary: evidence that they're still them. In the absence of an energetic thought stream - lacking cognitive bandwidth for self-reflection - this is incredibly helpful. You're helping them reboot for a moment. It's the best gift you can give. And it takes only a brief moment. You don't need to spend the afternoon chatting at them.

The following are two things I typically tell an 88 year old I know who's down to 15 seconds of short term memory and who's pretty foggy, overall, when she starts to get rattled about her predicament:
Are you a different person just because you're old? Of course not! Still the same you as ever! There's stuff you can't do, but, really, what needs doing? Just relax and enjoy the moment! Here you are, still you after all this time! Still here in 2018! You won!
Yes, your memory is bad. You should definitely not be running a business or raising a family. Thank goodness you don't need to! You can let go. Nothing to worry about, nothing you need to handle. Memory was for before. Now: just enjoy right now! That's your job!
The beauty of it is that I don't need to keep finding new ways to express it. Thanks to the perpetually refreshing memory, I can endlessly re-use whatever works!

Seth Godin once suggested that I tinker with the front page of Chowhound, to see which exact verbal construction yielded the greatest success of sending users where we wanted them to go and persuading them to buy what we were selling. I appreciated the shrewdness, but it was a bit cold-blooded for me. But now my elderly friends and loved ones give me an opportunity to apply that same shrewdness not for manipulation but out of compassion. A few thousand iterations in, I'm pretty much nailing the pitch!

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