Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"Free" isn't necessarily "cheap"--or vice-versa



We are all familiar with “wonder drug” commercials on television, which purport by vague promises to relieve (but not to cure) various ailments, which are visually accompanied by a person in distress or discomfort. But within seconds we see a happy person whose life is now filled with joy due to the “wonder drug,” but this time accompanied by a lengthy narration that warns of various “minor” side-effects, anything from diarrhea to “death.” Is the manufacturer trying to ward-off potential customers, or potential lawsuits—or are they actually trying to make money? Given the high price of these “wonder drugs” and the desperation of their target groups, it is of course the latter.

On the other hand, some companies do everything they can to make you loath the day you purchased their product, yet throw in everything including the kitchen sink to persuade you otherwise when you want to leave. The “free” Internet provider Netzero is one such company. NetZero became familiar to most Americans in the 1990s when the company offered free, if limited, dial-up Internet access, paid for through online advertising that subscribers were obliged to endure.  But this did not last long, as telephone-line access gave way to broadband and Wi-Fi, which cost more. While the company continued to offer “free” service, it was more of a worm dangling from a fishing line than anything truly useful, meant to lure customers into a pay-to-play game.

Netzero still claims to be a “value-priced” Internet provider, which is open to debate. In order to get “free” service, you have to purchase a portable “hotspot” device for $129 or more,  after which “free” Internet access is limited to 200 MBs, which sounds like a lot but only gets you a couple of hours of normal web surfing a month, so it’s only really good for an occasional email check. If it isn’t enough, then you have to pay for more data until you receive your “free” 200 MBs the following month. I opted for the half-price hot-spot model that looks “cheap” compared to the model shown on the television commercials, for which I had to pay a minimum of $19.95 for 1 GB of data a month, plus a $3 “access” charge.  I was told that this was sufficient for 40 hours of email service, or ten hours of “normal” web surfacing.

Now, this may be a little hard to wrap around your mind, but one measly gigabyte really is “measly” in today’s Internet world. You can see this when you save a webpage when it tells you it is downloading 1.5 megabytes, but winds up telling you the webpage is actually only 200 KB when the download is complete. Well, where did the other 1.3 MBs go? Likely hidden away in the “Temp” folder.  And those “hidden” items tend to pile up, even though you didn’t want them in the first place. Quite often you unknowingly “save” video files embedded on a webpage you browsed; the app VideoCacheView allows you view and even play these files, and if you do a lot of web surfing, you’ll be surprised at the amount of unwanted files you’ve scooped up. You can of course delete these files, but by that time it is already too late; your gig has already been used up.

Nevertheless, I think that for $22.95, I should at least get my money’s worth. But to get enough GBs for “normal” web surfing from NetZero, you have to pay $60 or more a month—and that isn’t “free” or “cheap.” After what I consider very modest web surfing over five hours during the first week of my August allotment, I was informed that I had already used it all up; to add insult to injury, I was informed that the price of future access would rise to $24.95 in September. I decided that I was tired being ripped-off and resolved to cancel the service. First I emailed billing support, and was told I had to cancel through my account page. When I didn’t receive the email confirmation as I expected, and the account was still listed as “active,” I sent another email demanding that my cancellation be acknowledged. I was now told that cancellation of my service could only be done via phone, and I was provided with a toll-free number.

I expected the process to be done within a few minutes. I was wrong, of course; it was just another flaming hoop I had to jump through. Someone with a vaguely South Asian accent greeted me, and when I informed her of my decision to cancel the service, there was the “sorrow” in seeing me go, but before I did…I tried to stop her from what I knew was coming by insisting that I wasn’t interested in anything other than just cancelling the damn service. What didn’t I like about it? It was a rip-off, I said, now just please cancel the service. But the person at the other end proceeded to drone on, apparently reading off a prepared script for the benefit of a recalcitrant like me.  

The first dangling lure was that it will cost $20 to re-activate my hot-spot device. Actually, it sounded more like a threat; thanks for making the break easier for me. Then it was the offer of $14.95 for 500 MB. Sorry, that is even worse. Please just cancel the service. I can offer you 200 MB of free service, she said; no, No, NO I exclaimed. I just want this damned thing canceled! Then came the “trump” card: $3.95 a month for a “pay-as-you-go” plan. I admit that for a millisecond I paused on that one, but then I remembered that pay-as-you-go Compuserve back in the 90s, and I said No! Just cancel, please! Fortunately, the customer service agent had nothing more to reveal, but first she had to call someone to “confirm” the cancellation. Now what? I was put on hold for what seemed like hours, but I was determined to see this through, and finally the agent returned and informed me that my “wish” had been “granted.” Great. Thanks. Ker-plunk.

It was back to free Wi-Fi at the public library or some fast food joint. Believe me, free in these cases actually means what it says.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Clinton has mastered the "art" of lying, but will it cost her? Probably not, since it is all "pathological" and can't be helped



According to a poll conducted by the Clinton News Network a few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton “surprised” by edging Donald Trump 41-39  as being the more “trustworthy.” Obviously one might question the veracity of this poll on several levels, and the “margin of error” makes the results little more than a pick-your-poison push.  While Trump’s “poison” has more to do with trusting his level of common sense and judgement (or lack thereof), with Clinton it is if she can be trusted at all—and that includes her common sense and judgment, questioned even by her aids and NSA personnel in recently released emails that revealed strong disagreement concerning Clinton’s undisciplined use of her unsecured Blackberry. It was claimed “in defense” of Clinton that she didn’t know how to send an email on a computer (secure or not), only on her Blackberry.  

Earlier this month Clinton offended many a sensibility by claiming that the FBI investigation into her private email server had “cleared” her of wrong-doing, turning the stomachs of even some of her staunch supporters at her mindless audacity.  “Director Comey,” she declared on Fox News, “said my answers were truthful, and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.” Of course, Comey only said that there was not enough evidence to charge Clinton with “deliberately” intending to skirt espionage laws, and did imply that Clinton’s statements in the past were not “truthful.”

One can only react with bemused disgust to Clinton’s insistence that she does not lie. Her claim that classified information—including that of the highest nature—was only “retroactively” decided by others to be classified, was yet another head-scratching whopper.  And true to the Clinton game plan, she placed the “real” fault in others, in this case former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who vehemently denied Clinton’s claim that he had “advised” her on the use of private email; she had already been using a private email for State business a year before she contacted him, and furthermore he had no knowledge of her private server being used to store State Department business, which was clearly illegal and violated public records and espionage laws. 

The Atlantic Monthly’s Ron Fournier recently opined that it will be Clinton’s inability to stop lying that will give Trump his best shot at winning the presidency, and “That is why Clinton’s advisers, senior Democrats, and members of the liberal media need to stop covering for Clinton. Stop repeating her spin. Stop spreading her lies. Stop enabling her worse angels. It’s too late for Clinton to come clean, but honorable Democrats should at least insist that she stop muddying the water.” 

Why can’t Clinton stop lying? Is it “pathological”? What exactly defines a “pathological liar”? This issue was raised in a post by a presumably right-wing commentator named Kathryn Blackhurst, where she quoted a few “specialists” on the topic. “‘Pathological lying is characterized by a long history (maybe lifelong) of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned,’ Dr. Charles C. Dike wrote in a Psychiatric Times article titled Pathological Lying: Symptom or Disease? ‘While ordinary lies are goal-directed and are told to obtain external benefit or to avoid punishment, pathological lies often appear purposeless. In some cases, they might be self-incriminating or damaging, which makes the behavior even more incomprehensible.’"

That explanation might appear to "exonerate" Clinton, but a “Dr. N. G. Berrill, the executive director of The New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science claimed that the personality structure of a pathological liar usually has two main components: a high degree of narcissism with a certain sense of entitlement, and an ‘anti-social’ component in which the liar does not feel obliged to adhere to rules or regulations. That seems the case with Clinton, who once said she endured sniper fire when landing in Bosnia (she was, in fact, greeted by little girls bearing flowers). 'There's no question that when politicians lie they know they're lying. There's no doubt about it,’ Berrill said. ‘And they're lying because lying is indebted — it's a structure or a symptom, if you will, of a larger personality disorder.’ Even though many people lie, exaggerate, and distort the truth at times, Berrill noted that when a politician pathologically lies, ‘they're really lying to essentially manipulate ... It's a conscious desire to manipulate and control.’"

Berrill went on to say that "What's really fascinating to me is that the politicians that lie — in a really bold and obvious way and not nuanced at all — they act as though they haven't been taped saying these things. So it seems to me that this is the most dangerous period in our history for lying and acting like a con-man or a sleazy politician because the chances are so great that you're gonna get caught…So the question is what is that one lie or that one behavior that tips the opinion in the other direction?"

So far that “one lie” hasn’t happened yet, and likely won’t, if Clinton’s enablers and apologists in the media have their way. Clinton is almost certainly a “pathological” liar; the problem is that Clinton has told so many lies that people have become inured to them—it is just a part of her personality that won’t ever go away, so we are just supposed to get “used” to it. Certainly others would prefer to believe that these accusations against Clinton have been “overblown,” usually from misogynistic or otherwise “sexist” impulses. But these “defenses” are getting, as they say, “old” and failing the credibility as well as the listenability test. The question ultimately is do we want someone in the White House with a serious, “pathological” psychological problem, if that is in fact what we are confronted with. 

We should have been asking ourselves this question during the primaries, when Democrats had a viable alternative. The media and the Democratic leadership made certain we didn’t have that discussion. But I suspect that even if we did, there are just too many people invested in Clinton's "entitlement" to the presidency that they believed that lying was "forced" upon her, because no one wants to hear the truth anyways.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Mind over matter



One day I was walking along when I found scattered about a sidewalk dozens of tiny scraps of paper upon which were inscribed those “fortunes” which you find in those clam-shaped “cookies.” Among them were the following messages:

“You will take a chance in the near future, and win.”
“Tomorrow you will find the item you have been searching for.”
“You will do well to concentrate on practical matters this week.”
“You deserve to have a good time after a hard day’s work.”
“Focus on your long term goal. Your wish will be granted next year.”

One will notice that these “fortunes” are decidedly vague and don’t necessarily promise anything. If you cross a railroad track while the “no crossing” bar is lowered and you don’t get hit by a train, does that qualify as taking a “chance” and “winning”? Will I find that bag of money that I’ve been searching for tomorrow? What qualifies as a “practical” matter this week that didn’t last week? Sure I deserve to have a “good time” after a “hard day’s work,” I just don’t have the money for it. 

Now, I do have a “long term goal,” one which I have had for at least 35 years, which has never been granted the following year, no matter how much I “focus” on it. However, I do have a short-term goal currently, and that is to save as much money as I can. I know I can do it, because I have done it before—except that I gave it all away to the damned dentist for five crowns and two root canals. Is there never an end to what new faults in my teeth he will find? 

But since I’ve done it before, it can be done again. It is just a matter of mind over matter. Usually I am derailed when  I tell myself that I’ve purchased all the books and DVDs I need, and then one day I find something I “need” and I decide “Well, if I buy this, then I might as well buy this other thing, because my savings goal is already shot for this period.” This might go on for weeks before I convince myself that I don’t “need” anything else to complete my library; there always is, but is a matter of “not now.” 

Since I don’t own a car and walk everywhere, that leaves food as the principle target in the savings agenda. For many people this is obviously difficult, but I frankly cannot understand people who allow their frames to balloon out-of-control. It need not happen. I have a skinny frame, but on occasion I have had a bloated belly which I find embarrassing to be seen with. But when I put my mind to it is remarking easy to put mind over matter for both problems. Before, if I went for a long walk or bus trip, I would purchase a cup of coffee and some sweet comestible to pass the time, not necessarily due to some craving I had. I had to decide that I really didn’t need it, and when I decided that I didn’t, I did discover that I really didn’t need it. So I just keep walking, eventually not even thinking about these prior “needs.”  At worst, instead of buying a snack and some over-priced soft drink, a cheap flavored liquid like a sweetened ice tea could satisfy both needs at once. Additional savings can also be found by acclimating by taste buds to a simple lunch of noodles and crackers purchased at some value store for lunch at work, and nothing at all on my off days, spending hours sitting in the library or out for a walk. Looking at these cost reductions and my budget, I discovered I can cut my food expenses by 50 percent. In time I didn’t even feel “hungry,” because my mind apparently no longer register the idea of food. 

All this cutting down didn’t seem to add up to much week-to-week, but over time that little bit of money saved would eventually be enough to pay for a bi-yearly set of new pants, jacket and shoes. Even more rewarding was the disappearance of belly bloat. 

This is not to say that I would prefer to live and eat like a monk; it is hard to overcome one’s habits and addictions, but if it is required to achieve a goal that appears to be achievable within a finite length of time, one can overcome these physical obstacles with mental toughness at least temporarily, as long as they are fixed in the mind as “temporary.”

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Latest death of another Putin critic makes one wonder if there is a serial killer on the loose in the Kremlin



This weekend another critic of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was found dead, this time in his apartment in Kiev, the capital city of the Ukraine. Journalist Alexander Shchetinin died of a gunshot to the head; because the door was locked, initial “speculation” was that he committed suicide, although by now such explanations for the ever increasing list of the dead should be taken for the propaganda tales that they are. Ever since Boris Yeltsin incomprehensibly appointed Putin as the head of the KGB/FSB in 1998, and eventually as his political successor, a list of the dead makes it seem as if a serial killer is on the loose in Russia. 

Just four months after Putin’s appointment as head of the state security services, pro-democracy activist and Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova was found murdered in her apartment; it was known that she had opposed Putin’s appointment. Two “hitmen” were convicted of her murder, although who ordered the “hit” remains “unknown.” In 2003, Sergei Yushenkov of the Liberal Russia party, was murdered during the course of investigating two apartment building bombings that killed more than 200 people soon after Putin became president of Russia, which he used to rationalize indiscriminate bombings in Chechnya during the course of an unpopular war in that breakaway republic. Many suspected the apartment bombings were actually planned and carried out by the KGB in order to raise popular support for the war.

Also in 2003, journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin—who had accused the FSB (the former KGB) of money laundering and other crimes—apparently died of poisoning. In 2004, despite poor poll numbers, Putin won re-election as president by a huge margin, followed by more “mysterious” killings, like that of the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, and a prominent anti-racism and human rights activist. In three straight months in 2006, prominent anti-Putin activists were killed: in September, Andrei Kozlov, head of Russia’s Central Bank, was assassinated in the course of attempting to stop a money laundering trail that led directly to the Kremlin; in October, Anna Politkovskaya, who was busy writing how Putin’s Russia was quickly slipping back into the “bad old days” of the Soviet era, was murdered; and  in November, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who accused the Kremlin of masterminding the two apartment complex bombings, died of apparent poisoning in London. 

The list goes on and on. During Putin’s first two terms of office, 77 journalists alone were murdered, and nothing much has changed since he was re-elected to a third term. The brazen murder of Putin critic Boris Nemtsov right in the sights of the Kremlin last year has yet to be solved, not surprising since Putin himself took “personal” charge of the investigation of the crime.

Looking back, one wonders why Yeltsin “chose” Putin. The West generally had a “favorable” view of Yeltsin, a “hard-partier” who liked the good life, which many mistook to be “pro-West” proclivities. But Yeltsin was more of an opportunist who chose to identify with whatever ideology was suitable for his needs at the moment, and he could be easily led in his later years, when some wondered if he was losing his mind. Yeltsin apparently wanted a “strong” personality to continue his “legacy,” although Putin himself was an even greater opportunist whose only interest (much like Hillary Clinton) is the accumulation of power without principle. 

Also like Clinton, Putin has left a trail of corruption so thick that his own people refuse to believe that anyone can be so vile, or choose to believe that the “interests” of the state are being “served.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The tribulations of the logical mind



Imagine this scenario at a workplace: two workstations of three persons each, in which one is pouring a automatically-measured amount of product into tins that were prepared by a second person and closed and placed in a box by a third. In most cases this would be a simple, straightforward procedure, except in this case the tins’ manufacturing process prioritized aesthetics rather than functionality, and apparently “tested out” by some desk jockey on a computer. The tins not only failed to allow a sufficient gap for proper closure, but many of the tins failed to secure properly even when they were empty. This resulted in considerable time lost in completing the entire process, because person number one was forced to stop for  a significant amount of time and assist the third person (especially if it was a person who is sluggish, which only puts further pressure on people trying to keep things moving).

In the end, despite that fact the tins were twice the size of the usual product churned out at these stations, the boxes they were placed in for further processing would only be half-full given a similar amount of time. Thus despite with two stations running, the amount of product would be the equivalent of just one station running for a product whose tins could be secured quickly.

Because of the limited amount of personal present, there was a delay in the further processing of the product in preparation for shipment. Now, for the logical male mind, the solution was simple: If it takes twice as long to secure the tins, then a fourth person should assist the third person in securing them, which would allow the first person to continue to work uninhibited, and you would essentially be putting out the same amount of product from one station with four people as two stations with six people. You would then free-up two people to work on further processing. It all makes perfect sense, right?

Not being a hypocrite, when I found that there was insufficient product being prepared for my end of the process, I took it upon myself to spend significant time as that “fourth” person at one station that continued to run after the temporary lead seriously misjudged the amount of product the second station had prepared, which was quickly exhausted. Would anyone else there have done the same as I without being told? No! I’m not this other person putting up a fa├žade of work that no one above her questions. When I mentioned my estimation of the situation to someone at the station it was readily agreed with. Surely someone might at least give a fair hearing to a suggestion the motivation of which was sound.

Well, that depends. When I offered this suggestion to the supervisor, the response was it was not my place to offer suggestions. How dare I! It was not only a question of “authority,” and of how things had “always” been done, but of competence. I wasn’t “questioning” the competence of a temporary lead who always used these opportunities to do as little as possible, but for a certain lack of imagination. After commiserating on the situation, the fault of which was apparently all mine (the temporary lead also failing to mention the significant aid I provided at the station), I had to be punished for my impudence, not just by being belittled and denigrated, but rather than taking the motivation for my suggestion for what it was (to relieve frustration and lost time), but telling me to replace someone in the third spot in order to experience the same frustrations. Sure, I wouldn’t “volunteer” for that, because the problem would still be the same; it is just me instead of someone else, ignoring the whole point..  

I’m at an age where my college education means absolutely nothing, if it ever did. I just want to get by until I can safely retire, and spend all of my time writing. But in the meantime, I have this damned thing in my head that keeps running up against other people’s idea of the order of the world.