4/19/2021

What Will “Normal” Look Like?

A recent Slate article, “I Do Not Trust People in the Same Way and I Don’t Think I Ever Will Again," really struck a chord with me. The article was mostly about the anxiety many feel about going back to the office. “Workers have also seen over the past year that even when employers claim they’ll implement safety measures, the reality is often very different. Social distancing requirements often go unenforced, and many people report colleagues going unmasked without any consequences. So employees are primed to be incredulous.” All of that is absolutely valid, too. A friend recently interviewed for a job with a Minnesota medical-tech company and all of the people who met with him, except the department manger, proudly went maskless in a small room and implied that he was being rude in keeping his mask on.

Figure 1 - The basic graphAs a spectacularly accurate recent paper on human stupidity, “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity,” stated, “The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. . . Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction σ of them were stupid. As σ's value was higher than I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ratio was prevalent among the white-collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction σ of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: σ fraction of the Nobel laureates are stupid.” (I seriously recommend that you read this paper as it contains far more human natural selection information than practically anything I’ve seen since Euell Gibbon’s survivalist books.) As the illustration from that paper aptly describes, the four basic categories of humans are: “the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid.” (In clockwise rotation starting from the top left.)

Learning that so many humans in every field, distributed across all populations, are stupid is not a comforting piece of information. It does explain why so many self-declared or media-selected “experts” have been so wrong about so many things in the past and, specially, in the past dozen years. As our education system is dumbed-down to prop-up academic revenues, even more idiots are getting advanced degrees in fields they can barely describe. Decades ago, SF writer Theodore Sturgeon said, “90% of everything is crap.” Looks like you could accurately rephrase that to “90% of everyone is stupid.” If you don’t think even the most lauded, anointed, and prominent humans can be stupid, just look at the folks the late Bernie Madoff convinced to pour money down his sinkhole, from other investment companies and pension funds to famous entertainers to scientists. All people desperately wanting to believe that the facts could be contradicted by their desires and ignoring “if it seems too good to be true, it is.”

Stupid people are dangerous, as a few thousand stupid insurrectionists demonstrated in Washington, DC on January 6th. Learning that so many of those around us are unpredictably foolish and self-destructive and well-armed puts an edge on every interaction many of us will have for the rest of our lives. In the Slate article about losing trust the author said, “But the real problem, I suspect, is that in the past year, we’ve experienced a massive loss of trust in our institutions and in one another.” In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the people I know in this small Minnesota community who are not stupid and considerably less surprised at discovering the ones who are dumb as a post (or “dumb as a Trump voter,” the new idiom for a total fool).

That is going to be a problem for a lot of local businesses, too. In my village, many of our local bars, restaurants, and retailers went proudly mask-less and precaution-free until the state mandated those basic and obvious rules. I, for one, will not be going back to those businesses anytime soon, regardless of the state of the nation’s health. Why would I? During the last year, those businesses and employees willingly, carelessly, and arrogantly demonstrated their distain for science, decency, and their community by flaunting their politics over any other value. Why would I want to help those people stay in business in my community with my money? I’m not even a little bit alone in this decision, either. The wingnuts jabber mindlessly about “cancel culture,” but what they want is to be able to boycott any person or business or community at will for their pet peeve of the moment but when the tables turn on them they whine “that’s not fair!” Remember the Beatles after Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment or Starbuck’s red Xmas cups or Oreo cookies or Netflix or Budweiser’s horses or Keurig and Roy Moore or a lot more wingnut boycotts? It’s ok when they do it, but if people with money (the educated non-MAGA crowd) do the same thing it’s “cancel culture.” Personally, some of those businesses that disappointed me locally will be missed from my pre-pandemic routine and appreciation of this little village. I do, however, hold a grudge for a long time and at this point it’s hard for me to imagine going back to the “old normal” knowing what I know of who these people really are.

All of that is going to make both the economic and social recovery complicated and there will be some-to-a-lot of fallout in the long run. When all of that “socialist” small business support vanishes as we go back to business as usual, the new usual will leave many of those places without a lot of the people who once provided a good bit of their income. Trump loved the uneducated, but most businesses need people with an income to provide their businesses with an income. Trump’s fools may be going back under the rocks where they normally hide, but we all know who many of them are now and we’ll be avoiding those rocks for many years.

4/03/2021

My 50(?) Favorite Western Movies

My “credentials as a critic of western movies is pretty shallow, but confident. I have really firm convictions about what makes a great western story, novel, movie, or series. I did grow up in Dodge City, Kansas and like a lot of boys from my generation I played with toy guns and pretended to be a badass gunfighter for hours every weekend and all summer. My father’s older brother owned a real ranch with a few thousand head of cattle and dozens of working quarter horses. His sons were real cowboys and one imagines he still is, although he’s 80-some-years-old and probably hasn’t sat on a horse for at least 20 years. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of my early years on my uncle’s ranch, riding horses, digging fence line postholes (I still like to dig postholes), hunting squirrels and rabbits, fishing Bluff Creek, and exploring the unused or barely used parts of his ranch property. Eastern Kansas has some decent western history, too, which added to my database of actual western history.

When I was a kid, 12-14, I worked a couple of summers at the Dodge City Boot Hill Museum. My jobs there were everything from concession stand operator to janitor to reenactment actor to non-alcoholic beverage bartender. At least one  summer, I did all four jobs consecutively. My three favorite activities while “working” at the museum were 1) dueling with the fast draw automated gunfighter, 2) pawing through the actual gunfighter gun collection and western memorabilia stored in the Front Street museum basement, and reading the stacks of Dodge City newspapers from the 1800’s stored in the basement and on racks in the Boot Hill Museum. I came away from those experiences with a completely different picture of life in the “West” (of which the Midwestern Kansas barely qualifies). That picture informs, defines, and biases my opinion of western stories.

I have read a LOT of western novels, biographies, and history. For years, my oldest daughter, Holly, has bought me reference books for birthdays, Xmas, and general inspiration. I even have a couple of western-based novels in stasis, since my writing appears to have stalled out in old age. I have a super-fast way to determine if a western is going to be tolerable. I use this for writers I have not previously read. I skip to the last pages of the novel and look for shit like “she melted into his arms” or other romantic bullshit. If that crap is there, I toss the book back on the shelf. I am not a Louie L’Amour predictable W-shaped plot line fan. I don’t read “romances for men,” which is what that genre of novel amounts to. I don’t do John Wayne (except for one) or Ronny Reagan crap, either. Those two poofs needed a crew to hoist them on to their horses and, then, they needed a quart of Gorilla Glue on the saddle to stay there.

The order in which these movies and television mini-series appear in my list is not really sorted by “the best” motivation. For sure, whatever movie ended up at #1 is NOT my all-time favorite western. I don’t really have such an animal in my collection. To be sure, the stuff near the top of the list is more favored than the stuff at the bottom, but I like all of these movies a lot. If I didn’t like them, they wouldn’t be on the list at all.

My List of Best Westerns (not the motels)

1.      Hombre

One of Paul Newman’s “H movies,” 1967’s Hombre is based on an Elmore Leonard novelette of the same name, which is a great origin story for any movie. I like or love almost every Elmore Leonard story ever turned into a movie. There was one fatal (in my opinion) character flaw in the novelette and the movie version “fixed” that. Newman and Richard Boone play together well and this early anti-hero story is gritty, realistic, and as western as the west ever was. Any best western list that doesn’t include Hombre is bullshit.

Hombre sits at the top of my list because it was the movie that convinced me westerns didn’t have to be crap romances for city boys and losers. It was also one of the few movies made from a book that improved on the book without losing a step. Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr’s screen play of an Elmore Leonard novelette changed the one weak character in Leonard’s story to be a more credible, stronger female lead played by Diane Cilento. The original “Jesse” was a teenager who mostly whined throughout Leonard’s story.

2.      Justified

Justified is my all-time favorite television series . . . EVER. This is another Elmore Leonard-based story (“Fire in the Hole” is one of Leonard’s Marshall Givens stories) and Mr. Leonard was a co-producer of the series until he died just before the start of the final season. Timothy Oliphant flew to the head of my “favorite actor” category for his portrayal of Marshall Raylan Givens. Givens’ cowboy hat, his fascination with old west lawmen, his attitude, and his gunfighter skills are what make this a “western” for me. It is a modern story, but everything about it screams those libertarian, every-man-for-himself, lawless days of the Old West.

There are hundreds of moments in this 6 season series (2010-2015) that sucked me in, but in the first season there is a scene where Givens confronts a pair of mobsters on an isolated highway and tells them, “That’s close enough. If you take another step, I’ll have to put you down.” The alpha mobster takes another step and Givens puts a bullet in his gut. I have spent most of my life screaming at movies where the idiot with a gun keeps saying “don’t take another step or I’ll shoot” until the moron gets beat down after the other guy has practically done his daily 10,000 steps in the process. Justified never does that kind of dumb shit.

3.      Hostiles

I had, literally, no expectations for this 2017 Scott Cooper production, since it wasn’t advertised and just showed up at my local theater with minimal fanfare. We went with a couple of friends who were totally unfamiliar with western and, to the movie’s credit, they were lost through large sections of the movie. Christian Bale heads the cast, but the rest of the cast—Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach, Q'orianka Kilcher, and Jonathan Majors—were brilliantly selected for their parts and the screenplay is a masterpiece.

You cannot daydream for a moment or Hostiles will leave you wondering “what just happened?” Cooper does not lead you by the hand with either his dialog or the action. Blink or daydream for a moment and you’ll wake up confused. This is an actual adult’s movie.

4.      True Grit

The 2010 Cohen Brothers’ True Grit, not the ridiculous 1969 John Wayne mess. As anyone who has followed the Cohen Brothers’ careers might expect, their version of the 1968 Charles Portis novel doesn’t mess around with pretending that screenwriters are more competent than novelists. They made a movie out of the book and picked all of the right people for the parts. There are no nods to popularity in this cast, every part is played by someone who is perfect for the job.

5.      Appaloosa

Practically no one’s list of best westerns contains Appaloosa and that might be one of the reasons I decided to create my own. Ed Harris and Vigo Mortenson bring Robert Parker’s novel to life as well as any transition from book to movie has ever been done. Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) is one of Hollywood’s best ever evil bastards and of all the irritating people Renée Zellweger has portrayed, Allison French, is high on my list. Lots of realism, lots of action, and I wish they’d have done well enough that Harris and Mortenson had kept making Parker’s stories into movies.

6.      Lonesome Dove

I know, Lonesome Dove is not a movie, it’s a mini-series. Larry McMurtry never wrote a sentence that I didn’t love and every paragraph in his 843 page novel was a masterpiece. This 1989 TNT series about ex-Texas Rangers (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones) driving cattle into the Montana Territory through rustlers, hostile Indians, lousy weather, and bad luck is an indispensable part of any western movie film collection. I had no idea that Tommy Lee Jones was a versatile actor until Lonesome Dove.

7.      Hell on Wheels

Another series, but one of the best ever. There are too many wonderful, believable characters in this 5 season, 57 episode drama to describe in less than several thousand words, but Anson Mount’s Cullen Bohannon should have earned him a long and successful career as a leading man. The first season was supposed to be the only season and it is incredibly powerful. The producer’s decision to have each season be the “property” of a different director kept the series from devolving into the usual plotless crap that plagues most television series.

8.      Hidalgo

Vigo Mortensen is a down-on-his-luck American cowboy who takes a flyer on an Arabian cross country horse race to change his luck. The west meets a spectacularly corrupt monarchy in the desert. Everything about this 2004 movie is terrific and lots of it is even unpredictable, not the usual situation for westerns. Mortensen is perfect, but what else would you expect?

9.      The Proposition

Nick Cave first wrote the soundtrack, then was handed the screenplay for this Australian-based western which he supposedly wrote in three weeks. He knocked it out of the park on all counts. There are moments in this movie where you can’t separate the action from the soundtrack, they blend so perfectly.

Guy Pierce out-Eastwoods Clint Eastwood at this best as the main character, Charles Burns, the brother of notorious outlaw Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), the man every lawman in Australia wants to take down. The cinematography is non-stop incredible because somehow this film manages to remove all signs of the 20th Century. I would have bet that The Proposition, released in 2005, would have made Guy Pierce a superstar. I still don’t know what happened.

10. All the Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 book turned into an equally brutal 2000 movie. Billy Bob Thornton directed it and Matt Damon knocked the lead out of the park.

11. The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers is a terrific novel and the movie tracked the novel pretty well, with the usual shortening or elimination of backstories and sidelines to fit into the 2 hour time line.

12. Unforgiven

Eastwood’s 1992  Unforgiven is, rightfully on everyone’s “best western” list. It is so good that it almost makes up for that godawful pile of spaghetti western crap he made in the 70’s and the worse-than-crap Rawhide 60’s television series.

13. The Homesman

This is one weird part for Tommy Lee Jones and it is a hard look at the brutal lives of women on the western frontier in the 1850s. Another gritty piece of realism that takes all of the romance out of those western myths.

14. The Ballad of Lefty Brown

Bill Pullman is just amazing as the sidekick of a western hero, played momentarily by Peter Fonda, who was gunned down mysteriously leaving Brown with the guilt and blame. Lefty’s shift from sidekick to hero takes the whole film to develop and it’s worth every moment.

15. Monte Walsh

With Lee Marvin and Jack Palance, this was one of the best westerns I’d seen (or imagined) in 1970.  Yeah, Lee and Jack were a little old to be cowboys, but casting wasn’t exactly an art in the first 50 years of moving making. If you doubt my opinion, check out the hefty cavalry troopers in the same movie. Monty Walsh was a great novel, by Jack Schaefer and, I think the first version of Monty Walsh was the best. I didn’t hate the Tom Selleck remake, I just didn’t think it was worth doing.

16. McCabe & Mrs. Miller

I have no idea why reviewers often call Robert Altman’s 1971 movie “western revisionist,” it was a masterpiece in a genre that mostly produced white mythology pap and racist bullshit before the anti-hero period of the late-60s and early 70s. Altman’s mining town is a gritty, amoral, and corrupt as most of the libertarian late-1800s actually was and if that look at reality is “revisionist” that word needs redefining.

17. Ulzana’s Raid

Burt Lancaster is terrific in this Robert Aldrich movie as is the rest of the cast. There is a lot of gritty realism here, especially considering its 1972 production date. It is definitely not a western romance.

This is absolutely a classic western with almost none of the traditional qualities of westerns. Robert Altman’s 1971 anti-hero story that starred Warren Beatty and Julie Christie is one of the grittiest, least romantic westerns ever created.

18. The Assassination of Jesse James

19. The Shootist

I am not a John Wayne fan, but for his last western and last movie this was a good exit. Glendon Swarthout's 1975 novel was the basis for The Shootist and his son, Miles Hood Swarthout, and Scott Hale didn’t screw it up. Unlike every other western Wayne was in, The Shootist holds up well after 50 years. For one, Wayne’s character is dying of prostate cancer and rides as if his butt hurts, which is how Wayne always looked on a horse.

20. 3:10 to Yuma

Another Elmore Leonard novel turned into a movie. As a lifelong Leonard fan, the closer the movie is to the book the more I’ll like it. Therefore, my favorite movie version is no contest, the 2007 version is hands-down the better of the two. Glenn Ford was very good in the 1957 attempt, but his character was rewritten too much to even resemble Leonard’s Dan Evans. Christian Bale nailed it as did the James Mangold direction and Halsted Wells screenplay. In his prime, Russell Crowe was an amazing western American bad guy.

21. The Revenant

22. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

23. Bone Tomahawk

24. Dances with Wolves

25. Open Range

Believe or not, I am sort of a Costner fan, just not so much as an actor than as a person. Costner was pretty good in 2003’s Open Range and stoically offsetting Robert Duval’s outgoing character Costner seemed less wooden and more self-contained. Open Range is a fun, fairly traditional wester.

26. Blackthorn

Sam Shepard is an old Butch Cassidy living in Bolivia in 1908 as James Blackthorn. How could that premise go wrong? It didn’t. This is one convoluted, freaky plotline and worth every second of the screenplay. Sam Shepard is my John Wayne.

27. Blazing Saddles

Just in case you are silly enough to take my opinions more or less seriously than any other “fan” of anything, Blazing Saddles is solidly on my list. Clevon Little is one of my all-time favorite actors and he totally carried this movie on his comedic shoulders. Without Clevon Little, we might barely know who Mel Brooks was.

28. The Hateful Eight

This story is somewhere between a gritty and realistic western shoot-out film and a typical Tarantino bloodbath. It is packed full of terrific actors and slightly better than B-movie performances and dialog. I should like it more than I do and I’m not sure why it falls this low on my list, but I don’t see anything up there that I would move it above.

29. The Good Lord Bird

30. The Streets of Laredo

Another mini-series, but with James Garner, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, and Ned Beatty in the cast and direction by Joseph Sargent it might as well be considered to be a major film. I am not a fan of James Garner, but he knocked this part out of the park. Since he was playing an older version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Woodrow Call, he had to do some serious work to be credible. He did just that.

31. Deadwood: The Movie

Deadwood: The Movie and the series should be higher on my list. I like a lot of the actors, the writing isn’t bad, the costumes and sets are excellent, and . . . I loved Pete Dexter’s book, Deadwood, which David Milch almost ripped page-by-page from in the first season. I can’t get past that when I watch any episode of Deadwood. In the west, Dexter would rightfully gun down Milch in the first scene of a decent western.

As for the series and the movie, the dialog was forced, overwrought, and rarely clever. The goober who did the sound editing clearly never heard of EQ or clarity. Great scenery and Tim Oliphant was terrific even when he wasn’t given much to work with. Visually, Deadwood is pretty good, but that’s it.

32. Comanche Moon

33. Jonah Hex

34. Cowboys and Aliens

I  know, I should get a ton of crap for putting this movie in a western category, but I liked it a lot and I even liked it after seeing it a 2nd time. We inherited the Cowboys and Aliens DVD with some stuff my wife’s father left her and we watched it a couple of times in our camper when we were stuck in New Mexico for a winter. Daniel Craig makes a better 1860s American character that most of the Americans who’ve taken on that kind of part.

35. The Culpepper Cattle Company

36. Little Big Man

37. The Covered Wagon

This 1923 western pretty much has ever stereotype Hollywood ever invented for westerns. Like most silent movies, the “acting” is often pretty terrible, but not all of it. The staging of this film is amazing. The scenes of covered wagons and stock crossing and attempting to cross the Platte River are hyper-realistic in the fact that it is total chaos.

38. Wyatt Earp

Kevin Costner’s 1994 Wyatt Earp is, in my opinion, a slightly more interesting interpretation than the Tombstone, if for no other reason than Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holiday portrayal. Both stories are pretty good, if not particularly historically accurate, but I liked this story pretty well. The look, sound, casting, and screenplay are gritty and believable. Of course, Costner’s Earp is as dead eyed and wooden as Costner is more often than not.

39. The Gunfighter

This is the 1950 Gregory Peck Gunfighter.  [Not to be confused with the incredibly awful 1999 Christopher Coppola/Francis Ford Coppola directed/produced train wreck that, under no conditions should be considered anything but a terrible -movie.] The Gunfighter isn’t bad, although it is a romance of sorts.

40. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

41. Django Unchained

Pure western fantasy with a little 2000’s porn, but it is funny and entertaining.

42. Cold Mountain

43. Dead Man’s Walk

44. Tombstone

45. Dead Man

46. The Missing

47. The Outlaw Josey Wales

48. The Kid

49. Bad Company

50. How the West Was Won

51. Ride with the Devil

52. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

53. Ned Kelly

54. Cimarron

55. The Valley of Violence

56. Brimstone

57. Slow West

58. The Young Guns

59. Ride with the Devil

60. Geronimo: An American Legend

61. The Alamo

62.  

3/02/2021

He Was Their President

Sole-proprietorship is, I think, a core principle of cult membership. Cults are not for outsiders and they aren’t particularly friendly to those “who are not us.” Donald Trump never made the slightest effort to be the President of the United States of America. Trump was only interested in the people who voted for him, who gave him their money and unconditional support, and who were willing to destroy the country the moment he asked them to do that; and he did and they obeyed.

Likewise, those people had never had “their own President” before. Even the worst of the past Republican Presidents at least pretended to care about the whole country. The Donald told them everything they wanted to hear and made it clear that he didn’t care about anyone but them; his followers, his “people,” his cult. Trump told them there was something special about being “uneducated,” unskilled, unintelligent and clueless, paranoid, lazy, and white. Their almost universal inability to “keep up” with everything from technology to the economy to popular culture united them into a crowd of has-beens who thought they were important because they belonged to the Cult of Donald.

That is a powerful message, even if it is all a lie that even Donald couldn’t maintain in private. Telling losers and fools that they are winners and geniuses is a tried-and-true formula for cult leaders and it is, historically, a too-often-tested formula for disaster.

2/01/2021

The “Too Many Men” Problem

War has always been an old man’s game, using young men as pawns, cannon fodder, and the tools of the “trade.” The January 6th seditionists were great demonstrations of what happens to a culture that breeds gross excesses of unskilled, uncreative, uneducated young men and provides them with nothing to do to either burn off their unproductive but dangerous energies or the necessary self-destructive opportunities nature intended for them. If we’re not going to give them swords and spears and pointless causes for them to flail away at each other in the service of their lords and masters, they need drugs and mindless activities with which to distract themselves. Thousands of years of human evolution and near-constant war between cities, states, and regional nations either caused or was were caused by these barely-functional young men and the need to expend them as quickly as possible. The true cause of war might be a surplus of  these barely-functional young men and the need to expend them as quickly as possible.

Forty years ago, a friend and I made a regular pilgrimage to San Clemente, CA (Doug always called it “San Clemency,” since Nixon was still boarded-up there at the time.) to scuba dive the San Clemente reef. Weather or ocean conditions were never a limiting factor for us. If we’d made the date for Sunday on the Monday before, regardless of 10’ surf, 2” visibility (seriously), cold, wind, or rain, we’d both be there on Sunday, suited-up, spearguns and game bags in hand, ready to swim the half-mile from the beach to the reef, and dive into the crashing water for fun and adventure. Over the years we repeated this exercise, we developed our own (probably not) definition of “macho”; which, essentially, translated to “stupid.”  When we chanted “this is really macho—as we flailed against the first 100’ of surf, sand, and wind until we got beyond the surf zone where we could comfortably paddle on our backs with our BCs partially inflated like undersized Zodiacs the rest of the swim to the reef—we were really telling ourselves that “this one might be the one that kills one or both of us.” Macho.

Doug was a PADI Dive Instructor and, eventually, I became a Dive Master (an instructor’s assistant) and as certified instructors we preached the PADI religion of “dive buddies” to our dive class students: as one PADI instructor quotes, “. . . the buddy system makes every dive safer and more fun.” And more complicated. Doug and I only paid slight notice to the whole buddy concept, especially at San Clemente. With visibility that rarely exceeded 3-4’ and was usually barely an arm’s reach, there was no point in pretending that once we went under water there was any chance that we’d be buddied-up. One of the last dive trips we did together, Doug asked, “What do you think is in store for two guys like us, who Nature intended to finish off in a war before we made it to 20 or 25 years old, who have ever appearance of living way past 40, at least?”

I totally understood what he meant. When I “celebrated” my 30th birthday, I was mostly stunned that I’d lived that long. Both in my career and in my recreation and even my everyday activities, there was no reasonable expectation from anyone who knew me that I’d live to 30, let alone 40+ years-old which I was at the time when this question was popped. Nature had clearly intended for both of us to, probably, lead a small group of young men against another group of young men in bloody, hand-to-hand combat, and to die “gloriously” on a battlefield strewn with other equally destined-and-designed-to-die young men. At 40, like lots of men, we both felt that thing often called a “mid-life crisis” but we were both aware enough to know that the crisis wasn’t about anything more than having outlived our use-by-dates. No expensive car,

Our national fixation and the weird and not particularly honest “respect” we give to people who spent time in the military is a pretty accurate example of the dichotomy between who our culture pretends these people are vs who we know they are. A recent pass through Minneapolis/St. Paul reminded me of the near-constant parade of homeless (mostly) men sporting “homeless, support your troops” signs.

The Obama Administration, several states, and a few cities combined to dramatically reduce the number of homeless vets between 2010 and 2019, but in 2019 21 out of every 10,000 veterans were homeless which is about 25% higher than non-vets. A 2012-2017 study found that military vets contributed to 13.5% of all US deaths by suicide but were only 7.9% of the US adult population. Male vets were almost twice as likely to commit suicide than female vets (with Army and Marine vets leading that “charge”). In March, 2020, the VA found that veteran unemployment was greater than 13%, opposed to a 3.5% unemployment rate for the general population at the time (Trump managed to degrade the rest of the US workforce to the vets’ unemployment level by August 2020.). Three of the top ten professions in the US that exhibit high divorce rates involve military jobs. All of that negative outcome is in spite of the desperate attempts by government and society to provide a “hand up” post-military service through generous veterans benefits, special employment consideration (especially in government employment), and the leniency society gives to those “who have served.” Being in the US military is either hazardous to the rest of your life or attracts people who are deficient in the first place. The fact that “nearly 1 in 5 of the [January 6] rioters charged so far have a history of serving in the military (only about 7% of Americans in general are military veterans)” is a pretty solid indication that being a military vet is no indication of either patriotism, loyalty to the oath service people take to the US Constitution, or intelligence or even sanity. The January 6th Hee Haw Riot was one of the most underachieving herds of human beings since . .  . every Trump rally ever.

Nixon ended the draft in July of 1973 in an attempt to end the Vietnam War protests. He was too late, of course, since Congress cut off funding for the war in late-1972, forcing the US to negotiate a “peace settlement” that allowed US troops to leave in January of 1973. The end of the draft instigated 50 years of a “poverty draft” where young people with no other economic hope feel forced to join the military in the desperate hope that they might receive some vocational training and an economic leg-up. Lake of education opportunities, college debt, and the general trends in the economy that will continue to offer fewer employment to the military’s current prime candidates: the military spends “$2.5 billion a year targeting high-achieving low-income youth with commercials, video games,personal visits and slick brochures.$2.5 billion a year targeting high-achieving low-income youth with commercials, video games,personal visits and slick brochures.

Places like Puerto Rico and the deep South are  the Army’s and Marine’s prime recruiting territory. Puerto Rico ‘s unemployment rate is greater than 40%, and Army recruiting offices ensnare more than 4 times the number of Puerto Rican recruits than the average US-based recruiting offices. Thanks to a particularly sleezy section of the Bush “No Child Left Behind” education bill, public schools have to grant military recruiters the same access to children as do post-secondary schools and employers. Of course, the military recruiters don’t spend anywhere near as much time at private schools or high income suburban K-12 schools as they do in impoverished rural and urban schools. Kids who know they have options are less likely to give up 4 years of their life wasting away in the military. For example, “In 2015, a pair of Education Week reporters making use of the Freedom of Information Act reviewed the Army’s presence in Connecticut high schools and found major discrepancies in how the branch targeted middle-class and poor kids. Throughout the entire 2011–2012 school year, Army recruiters visited a higher-income high school—in which only 5 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch—just four times. By contrast, at another high school, where nearly half of the students qualified, Army recruiters stopped by more than 40 times before the spring semester’s final bell.” According to a RAND report, 40-65% of JROTC programs are clustered in the generally impoverished Southeast. JROTC programs are significantly more likely to exist in schools where the majority of students are eligible for free lunch programs. Schools with JROTC programs are twice as likely to have a large black student population than those with a more typically represented black population.

Nothing about military recruiting tactics would indicate that our military is staffed with the nation’s “best and brightest.” What we do have, however, is a military that is incredibly non-representative of the general population—racially, educationally, intellectually, and politically—and a well-armed and dangerously trained sector of and from the federal and state governments that are clearly easily duped into believing fantastic and unsubstantiated conspiracy gibberish and are very likely going to be the fall of the United States of America’s government and empire.

1/29/2021

Customer Service Is Dead. Long Live Customer Service!

Lots of marketing execs like to pretend that customer loyalty is dead. It’s a convenient copout because it allows the execs to continue providing minimal service, crappy products, and to pretend that nobody notices how badly they are running the company. People notice, though. Not only do they notice, they resent lousy service and do anything practical to avoid spending a single unnecessary penny with the crap service provider. Insider Monkey regularly asks who the “ten “most hated companies” in the country are. Nobody should be surprised at most of that list:

  1. The Weinstein Company
  2. Wells Fargo
  3. Fox Corp
  4. The University of Phoenix
  5. Vice Media
  6. The Trump Organization
  7. Uber
  8. Monsanto
  9. Facebook
  10. United Airlines

Another list with some repeat offenders is the 2017 Worst Customer Service list:

  1. Comcast
  2. Bank of America
  3. Wells Fargo
  4. Sprint
  5. AT&T
  6. DirectTV
  7. Dish Network
  8. Cox Communications
  9. Spirit Airlines
  10. United Airlines

A couple of TBTF banks, five well-known telecom offenders, and three airlines top the list of awful businesses to do business with. The kinds of complaints customers had about these shit-hole companies are:

  1. Can’t get a real person on the phone.
  2. Customer service is rude or condescending.
  3. Customer gets disconnected.
  4. …and then can’t reach the same representative again.
  5. Gets transferred to a customer rep. who’s either in the wrong department or can’t help.
  6. The company does not provide their customer service number, or “hides” it. (Talking about you, Amazon.)
  7. Getting put on hold for long periods of time.
  8. Too many steps through the phone menu required.
  9. Getting asked the same question over and over.
  10. The advice offered was entirely useless.

Sound familiar? There is a good business reason for all of this, believe it or not. Consumer Reports has found, over a fair number of years, that many the crappiest companies provide a pretty good investment return to their stockholders. That seems counterintuitive, but it is still true. Customers, maybe particularly US consumers (and voters), are insanely gullible and that is a “quality” that has been remarked upon for a couple of centuries. As a group, we appear to like abuse well enough to keep coming back for more of it. Companies like Apple have turned corporate abuse into a cult. So much so, that even the customers’ defense of their cult membership and behavior is as blatantly cultish as the Jonestown characters in the last minutes of that cult’s existence shouting down the few who tried to back out of guzzling Kool-Aid. Shitty customer service attracts a crowd who very well might be masochists.

I have had direct (employee) experience with companies that have successfully flaunted what seems like common sense in their quality and customer service procedures and done quite well with the tactic. One, a well-known mid-level guitar and MI manufacturer based in Chicago, out-right flaunted its crappy product quality (50% defect rate) and customer-hostile “service policies.” Considering how many seriously defective products that company shipped, its warranty costs were a fraction of what you might have expected. Their corporate, unwritten “limited lifetime non-transferable warranty” policy was “Ignore the first complaint, ignore the second complaint, if the customer keeps asking send a replace (which was also likely to be defective), and if the customer complains about the replacement start the whole process again.” Believe it or not, that worked more than 99.995% of the time.

My two medical devices employers weren’t much better, but their customers—patients, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and Medicare/Medicaid—were no more critical in their acceptance of abuse.”Warranty coverage” for a failed implanted device was the replacement of the device, without any consideration for the fact that the replacement surgery was often a $50,000-or-more procedure. The device, either a pacemaker or an ICD, cost the manufacturer less than $300, including parts and assembly, and sold to the clinic for somewhere between $6,000 and $60,000, depending on the device. Only rarely could the manufacturers be talked into providing any financial assistance for replacement surgeries that would often bankrupt the patient and the patients’ families. Not only did the clinics and doctors continue using these products, but they happily accepted “educational” vacation trips to assorted luxury sites around the world and all the free donuts they could eat when the sales reps showed up to make their kickback rounds. US patients still don’t have or ask for any say in what kinds of life-threatening products doctors experiment with and the few hospital and physician quality measurement systems are constantly under attack by physicians, clinics and hospitals, and even the public (spurred by propaganda campaigns to uneducate the already dimwitted public).

So, if you’re upset now about lousy customer service, don’t blame the companies. Blame yourself and your neighbors for their cult-like docility and gullibility and their foolish spending habits. This is another example of “you get the [fill in the blank] you deserve.”