Saturday, December 5, 2009

New Man!

I fit right in among the blasted working class at JJ's House of Breakfast, where the special just went up from $.99 to $1.55. Where everyone looks a bit worn down, and propped up by canes and walkers and artificial joints they make fun of right out loud.

Yeah, right, just like I used to fit in with the biker crowd when I rode my Harley. But still, the food is great, and I learned a thing or two about how real people use their iPhones (people there don't worry about who is overhearing, plus the guy had a hearing aid and just naturally spoke up).

And I sure did look as though I need some medical appliance too; barely able to get up from the table to pay my bill for "four thousand and ninety five, and how did you like your aches and breakin?". Maybe it was "broken and aches?". Some kind of East Indian humor translated effectively enough into English.

That was after arriving late to the dentist. They weren't happy with me, who is also late with payment on my crown-tooth appliance. My rent, my health insurance, my . . . well the list does go on. But my smile is clean, and I got to hear all sorts of new and updated stories.

Maybe like my favorite pair of chimney sweeps, the one seeing his partner's face all black who goes to wash it, and the other not bothering to, since his partner's face looks clean. I can't remember the moral of the story, unless it was something about look in the mirror before you start judging others, but everyone there at JJ's looked as though they had just gotten out of bed, which made me self-conscious about my unkempt halo of tendrils just this side of bald.

My favorite Italian barber, whose memory is gone, but who still remembers how to cut hair and give a really good head massage, is closed on Wednesday, so I went a few doors down the map of Sicily to discover that Vito comes in a pretty close second. Hence New Man!

Well, except I can't move.

I listened to a little bit of NPR's take on the American Dream, which makes a guy feel pretty OK with all the mess-ups of the second half of the twentieth century. Regan cleaning up after LBJ's overreaching. Now Obama can clean up after Reagan's. It's all good.

Well, OK, it's not all good. But there's plenty of reason to believe one way or the other, you know left-right, red-blue. Sometimes I just wish people wouldn't get all exercised about it. Then we could find some way down the middle which wasn't just a useless compromise. Political compromise doesn't end up in the middle so much as in the muddle of pleasing no-one except the ones already in power, who wield protectionist threats against the ones already in office.

OK, now where was I? I started this the other day, and have moved many miles in the meantime. Good thing I got my hair cut, because I got called in for an interview. My back is calmer. The house has yet to close, but the boat also has yet to move.

Here in Buffalo they issued dire Lake Effect snow warnings just as I was headed out of town to my favorite tire shop back near my house to replace my baldys. You really shouldn't drive in Buffalo on bald tires when the snow is wetly flying. But I circled the neighborhood, and decided that they were doing OK. Heart in throat, I made it beyond the city limits, where, of course, the sun was shining and the roads were dry. We do live under a cloud here.

Under deadline of the tireshop, I did manage to clean out the house entirely about 2 hours East of here - now only the garage and boat remain. My apartment is piled with debris, and no place to put it, but I've gotten pretty good now at letting go of stuff.

I'm getting better at detaching myself also from any emotional relation to money, and just imagine some skinnier person excited with my nice clothes from yesteryear. Or surplus kitchen gadgets. Or electronics. Shoes, coats, furniture galore.

And with a little time to muse, I'm struck with how all money, just like the corn sweetened food we're killing ourselves with, has become primarily a token for emotions. We eat, it seems, to fill an emotional gap. And money stands in for other kinds of insecurity. We're afraid to leave lousy jobs, because we might not be able to afford getting sick. Talk about a vicious cycle! Eat sick work eat.

There's no such thing as enough money, because we could easily be without a job. The "system" seems to like it that way, because it leaves us willing to do most anything. I think sex trafficing makes a pretty good metaphor for how we're treated; there should be no real surprise that slavery is still alive and well in these United States. We demonize and dehumanize so many categories of people now as "illegals". Especially, come to think of it, the sex offenders. Go figure.

And it does seem to me that profit margins now are all - I'm being metaphorical - just reflections of gaming the system. When prices relative to value keep dropping - whether because of outsourced labor to China or the relentless pace of Information Tech's zipping ever faster - it's really hard to know what a fair price really is.

You end up being stuck trusting the brand names, but even there - Dell being the best example - there is no such thing as a model designation which sticks. The parts can change almost literally from minute to minute, and they have so many categories of target market, that it becomes utterly impossible to make apples to apples comparisons among the various flavors of warranty and bundling.

Insurance companies are "forced" now to deny claims or hit you with incredibly rising premiums. The only need test now being your literal ability to roll over and take it. How far up against the wall are you? They have plenty of ways to find out and wear you down along the way.

U-haul very cheerfully refunded their overcharge, by the way. It was a fair arrangement, but took a lot of effort and diligence on my part, not to mention electronic savvy and equipment. I happen to have solicited the labor of a solicitor friend of mine (that's "lawyer" in American, but it was fun to pun) to help with the move, and he suggested I take a picture of the gas gauge. Of course I have a camera on my phone. It shouldn't be this hard and take this many good connections!

But while U-Haul's arrangement with me was logical and fair, they still got the difference between their calculation of their truck's mileage (which you know isn't going to be in my favor) and the way I drive (my car has 300,000 miles on it and I just got new tires after having gotten 90,000 miles on the last set, no kidding!) and the fact that I had to overfill the tank to prevent them exercising fiat against my credit card.

Profit used to mean genuine value added, by the manufacturer, the marketer, the wholesaler, the person who brings it to your door. Now it means almost entirely the value of the logo, which you should really read Naomi Klein about if you want to understand it. But you can verify this yourself easily enough by tracing the price compared to the value of, say, Nike shoes.

Those assembly lines in China provide the same product often enough for the branch which gets the logo and the sky high price, and the one which goes to the pirates. I mean, they're not stupid over there.

But mainly, it's the gaming gap between your ability to gauge value and theirs, which is that much more powerful. Stock market manipulation by any other name?

We're happy enough when things are moving in our favor - on the up and up - but just like with my recent house sale and move, if I were to have to pay for this move instead of being able to recruit friends and family and abuse my still (barely) moving body, I would have lost plenty in the sale. I've already lost enough up against the house's value, never mind its replacement cost. Incredibly falling prices indeed!

Now my Cadillac insurance would have paid replacement cost if the house burned down. Well, at least that's what they say, but who knows what Katrina exemption they'd come up with?

There's just something wrong with this picture. The honest wage for honest work for honest price equation is messed up beyond recognition. And if I did have to invoke insurance, that would be the last insurance I'd ever be able to afford. What?

Oddly enough, Information Technology, which is in one sense at the root of all these issues, can also provide the solution. Ain't it ever the case? Like my two chimney sweeps, it all depends on how you look at things.

IT made just-in-time manufacturing possible. It created the miracle of dropping prices, and in its own manufacture by the magic of photorealism in the fab plants, there is no real incremental cost to power once you get the design right. So everyone always wants the newer, especially when it's cheaper.

Which pretty much becomes the way we go about everything. Cars, TVs, clothes-with-logos, and a lot of the time those things keep getting better and better too, because their design is improved by the IT behind their quality control and manufacturing processes.

Now, of course, in the background of everything is endless oil. It transports the parts which are created where the labor is cheapest. It provides the raw material for the plastics which are, not incidentally, always cheaper by the piece the more of it gets manufactured. That's what plastic bags were meant for back in the beginning when plastic was way too expensive for car parts. Never mind it poisons us and never goes away. The price equation has always been way too compelling. If plastic is ubiquitous, it's cheap! Not because it's ubiquitous, like water used to be . . .

OK, let's leave the oil alone for a minute, because you know how easily side-tracked I can get. Still talking about IT now, how can it be the solution to the problem it created? Well, it can be used to get the price right. If we bring in all the externalities, so called, including the true future cost of oil, of parking, of global warming, and all the rest, then we'd all probably drive our cars at least forever and wear our clothes longer than I can. Maybe we'd all even lose weight so we could keep our clothes longer.

Now that's never going to happen for so long as we allow ourselves to be gamed. But in the meantime, we could develop an emotional connection to something other than food or money, if you can imagine that.

I know that the huge bags of rags I've had to throw out with the trash make me feel really really bad. I actually do wish there were some place that could or would use them to make something, anything, of value.

Maybe there is, but I couldn't find it on the Internet, so it might just as well not exist. Hey, the Yellow Pages. Hang on. Nope, just like the Internet, I can only buy or rent new ones for my shop. And I just learned we somehow waste 1/3 of the food we produce, somewhere along the line from harvest to manufacture to serving to trash. What indeed is wrong with this picture?

I still feel sickly guilty if I throw food away. I feel still worse if I throw plastic away, like I had to do when moving. An entire cupboard stuffed only with plastic bags I'd figured I'd find a use for. At least I was able to give away my little 14 year old fishies, or I'd have had to flush myself down with them. And the cats go with the house, thank God.

OK, I don't feel all that guilty. If I did I would always carry reusable bags and not drive so darn much. And guilt is part of the problem anyhow. I feel just plain lucky. I delivered beer kegs as a youngster, which gives me a strong and resilient back now although I have a plastic front tooth which can't be cleaned as the result of throwing a keg into it. Long story, but I'm kind of glad it lasts forever.

I ate dirt as a kid, so I don't have allergies or asthma. Or maybe I picked up hookworms somewhere. And the money parts? Well, I don't think those who love me will let me starve. I'm a lot more worried about stir crazy and loss of degrees of freedom.

I sure would like to see a system where you don't have to be as lucky as I am to have a shot at that whose pursuit was supposed to be a declared right of all mankind. Happiness.

I guess I'm on a sit-down strike against being gamed. I don't mind if you take insurance as a metaphor for socialism (horrors!) or if you take capitalism as a metaphor for solicitation of love (sorry, had to get that in there), what I'd really like to see would be the implementation of an actual system where trued facts would rise to the top of everyone's attention (think science), where gaming would be instantly exposed (think religion) as such, and where American values could be lived in reality instead of fiction.

I'll try for better sense tomorrow. But I've fallen way behind here. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, and not so much keyboarding. Too bad for you my body needed a break. Or lucky, depending on how you look at it. Time for breakfast.

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