Hollywood Makes Movies You Want to See

hollywoodWhenever a movie doesn’t do well the comments below the story lambaste Hollywood for making movies that no one wants to see. ‘I’ll never go to a movie by that studio again’ is a refrain I often read. Or, ‘The Hollywood elites are out of touch with us regular folks’. Anyone who says something like this is clearly completely out of touch with reality for a number of reasons.

Yes, some movies don’t do very well and lose the studios money, but the reality of movie making is that it is largely a money-making machine. A single hit like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast creates huge profits that make up for any number of bombs. The major studios top a billion dollars in profit on a regular basis. That’s profit, not box office. People are not only going to movies in record numbers but they are also purchasing them from Netflix and other outlets for viewing at home.

People love entertainment and it is an enormously profitable industry. Listen, I get it. Hollywood makes what I consider to be awful movies filled with action and lack of character development. I’ve got nothing against a good superhero film but I don’t see many of them. In my opinion Hollywood creates far too many movies that don’t really tell a story, they just blast the screen with nonsensical action and stupid jokes.

I was reading review for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest on IMDB and was stunned to see it got an overall rating of 7.3 which is pretty darned good. Many of the reviewers were waxing poetically about how wonderful was the movie. I must have had an expression of slack-jawed astonishment on my face as I read glowing review after glowing review. Finally, I started to come across reviewers who shared my opinion of that atrociously long and hideously boring piece of film.

While I agree with those who lambaste Hollywood for making many bad movies, I certainly can’t accuse them of not understanding their audience. Hollywood fully understands exactly the kind of movies you want to see and caters to that desire.

They provide amazing entertainment for people around the world. Perhaps you don’t like the politics of a particular movie, or, more like me, you don’t like the reliance on action. But if you deny the fact Hollywood is quite good at doing their job, you’re living in a fantasy world. Which is fine, I just choose to accept reality.

In addition to making movies that are not so good, Hollywood also makes movies that are fantastic. They make movies of every genre that appeal to a wide range of people.

So, in the end, I have to celebrate the fact that movies I hate make hundreds of millions of dollars for the various studios because that means they can make some great ones also.

Tom Liberman

Best Whiskey or Whatever

best whiskeyThere is a plethora of phony contests in this world and I recently read a story where some rye whiskey I’ve never heard of was declared the Best Whiskey in the World! I was immediately skeptical.

I got even more doubtful when the article mentioned the distillery has been in operation for about seven years. They purchased the winning whiskey from a Canadian wholesaler and “finished” it later. I’m sure it’s a fine whiskey, but it’s not going to win a more rigorous contest.

This story does give us insight into modern marketing techniques.

Basically, what is happening is someone decides to start a contest. San Francisco World Spirits Competition in this case, but there are thousands of them. They send out invitations to spirit manufacturers all over, mainly boutique companies without a large audience. These invitations come with a price. A steep entry price and then tons of additional fees. Now, I’m not certain that’s the case with this particular event but I’d be willing to wager a bottle of Booker’s it is.

There are so many of these competitions out there it’s becoming quite difficult to separate the legitimate ones from the fly-by-night operations.

I’m a novelist. I’ve written a pretty good number of Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels. Not a week goes by that I don’t get some spam in my inbox inviting me to submit one of my novels to some phony competition for only a $200 entry free. If I were to do so I’d undoubtedly win some prize for which I’d have to pay. Then they’d offer to sell me a marketing kit and a medallion that I can use on my website. All for more money.

That’s the way these contests stay in business. They simply collect money from people who are desperate for publicity. Then the winners, and I use that term loosely, of the contest begin following the marketing kit’s advice and write stories they submit to various publications. Inevitably some of them get accepted and you and I end up reading stories about award winning whiskeys that are nothing of the sort.

Hey, more power to them, I suppose. If some company or individual enters a contest like this they are doing it of their own free will. If someone reads an article in which some unknown whiskey from a seven-year-old distillery is declared best in show they deserve what they get if they shell out $500 for a bottle.

It’s all good old fashioned capitalism. People have always been socially conscious. They’ll purchase something based on its reputation rather than its actual quality. There will be those who want to take advantage of this facet of human nature. They’ll package a wholesale whiskey in a fancy bottle with a bunch of fake awards splattered across their website and sell it at a premium price.

The people who drink it will pat themselves on the back for finding such a marvelous whiskey and eagerly pay for another bottle.

The lesson to be learned here, for those of you who care to listen, is that just because someone says something is the best, doesn’t mean it is.

Of course, if you enjoy it, go out and buy a bottle. You don’t have to listen to this old curmudgeon.

Tom Liberman

Computer is now Best Go Player in World

goThe march of Artificial Intelligence continues on as was demonstrated when a computer defeated champion Ke Jei in two matches of the game Go. Go has a staggeringly large amount of moves and it was long thought it would take decades for computers to become as dominant in Go as they have become in chess. It didn’t take that long and this is good news, despite what you may be reading about the dangers of AI.

The reason it is fantastic can be inferred by what has happened to chess since computers became unassailable at the game. There was fear about the rise of computers and the game of chess. It was generally assumed once computers could defeat people, chess would largely be solved. That all anyone would have to do is memorize the few correct plays and that would be that. The game would die.

The reality turned out to be exactly the opposite. Before computers there were a limited number playable chess lines at the highest levels. By lines I’m talking about opening sequences and general ideas. For less skilled players it was more than possible to use many different lines but at the top level the game had become somewhat stagnant. Chess great Bobby Fisher lamented this and predicted the end of the game.

Computers do not get discouraged because a particular line doesn’t seem to be working. They continue to calculate the possibilities. These chess computers discovered many of the lines considered inferior were actually quite playable. They came up with innovate new ideas that expanded the repertoire available to top players. The Super Grandmasters took note of these moves and began to expand upon them. Then computers in turn extended each of these new ideas.

Chess is experiencing a golden age thanks to computer intervention. There are many new lines and competition at the highest levels is filled with exciting games rather than boring draws played down familiar openings.

I would expect exactly the same thing to happen with Go. But that is only the beginning. As AI is tasked with solving all sorts of problems it will only expand the possibilities. It will think through lines that a human would discard out of hand. It will find innovative solutions to problems we thought impossible. This will take place in industry after industry. Computers with AI will expand our knowledge, increase the possibilities, and deeply enrich all our lives.

I know there are those out there with fears and I respect their opinion but politely disagree. Humanity is quickly approaching a new age. Artificial Intelligences will lead the way with breakthroughs in medicine, energy, transportation, crop management, and virtually every other endeavor.

Within fifty years our lives will be changed dramatically and, in my opinion, almost universally for the good of all. I only hope I live long enough to reap the benefits.

Tom Liberman

Hershey not Filling Candy Boxes

hersheyAn interesting lawsuit has been filed in my home state of Missouri in which a man claims Hershey is violating the law by underfilling their candy boxes. The reason the case fascinates me is because it brings into question both the manufacturer and the consumer.

The man filing the lawsuit believes the box size is a promise of a certain amount of candy. In a contract situation, this means Hershey has promised to deliver that quantity of candy for the price of the box. If the purchaser is deceived about this amount, then the transaction has not been successfully completed. The person making the purchase is entitled to either the correct amount of candy or a refund on a percentage of their outlay.

On the other hand, Hershey believes the weight of the box is sufficient to inform the customer of the nature of the quantity of candy within. If a customer picks up the box, judges its weight, and gives it a rattle, they are fully aware of how full the box is and Hershey has fulfilled their promise.

I think both sides have a legitimate point. Unlike certain boxed items, candy does not need extra space in order to survive jostling. Things like potato chips need the room in order not to shatter on shipping. Candy does not suffer from this issue and therefore there is only one good reason not to fill the boxes to the top. Hershey is hoping people will be deceived by the size of the box and discount the weight and the rattling factor.

The purpose of the larger boxes is simply to deceive, nothing more and nothing less.

But does this intent to deceive rise to the level of breaking a promise? Certainly, Hershey representatives are correct when they say the consumer is fully aware of the weight of the box and the lack of fullness. You cannot pick up such a container without noticing it is far short of being completely full. If the purchaser was deceived, then aren’t they to blame?

I strongly suspect Hershey will prevail in this lawsuit but I would like to think they could easily fill their boxes and forego the attempt to deceive. I understand they don’t fill the boxes because this strategy has an apparent impact on their bottom line. A box of Whoppers filled only slightly more than halfway means there is the appearance of saving a huge amount of money.

Hershey produces X number of boxes for sale. There is Y amount of product in those boxes. If you decrease Y, this lowers the cost of material to make the candy, the cost of shipping as weight is reduced, and perhaps increases boxes sold because people go through the candy faster and come back for another box.

There is however, another factor. Hershey’s has competition in this world. If people continually get less candy for their money, they can easily go to a competitor for their sweet desires. This underfill strategy might be costing the company a lot of money in the long run. Particularly if their competitors are not engaged in such.

That is the glory of capitalism. Consumers have a tremendous amount of power. Rather than filing lawsuits we can get what we want simply by changing our purchasing habits. Naturally a single person can’t do very much, but if enough people start to abandon Whoppers, you can bet Hershey will start to fill the boxes with more product.

This is even more true in the age of Social Media and the internet. Simply pointing out the discrepancy in the size of the box compared to the amount of candy therein can garner a huge amount of attention. If enough people agree with your assessment and Whoppers’s sales drop significantly in a short period of time, executives at Hershey will notice. They know exactly how many boxes are sold and any decline is something they will immediately attempt to rectify.

A Social Media strategy is likely more powerful than any lawsuit.

The Information Age has put increasing amounts of power in the hands of consumers. Speaking as a Libertarian I say … excellent.

Tom Liberman

Enemies and Allies: Iran and Saudi Arabia

iran and saudi arabiaI think there is an astounding gap between the perception and reality of the people in the United States as to our ostensible ally, Saudi Arabia, and our declared enemy Iran. This misperception between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been fostered by the politicians of the United States for so long and so consistently that it is all but unassailable.

I’m willing to assail. Iran is a far freer country built along the ideals of the Founding Fathers than Saudi Arabia has ever been. Iran is certainly not a free nation, it is ruled by a theocratic council but the reality is individuals in Iran enjoy a far higher degree of freedom than people in Saudi Arabia. The problem is that Saudi Arabia is deeply tied both politically and financially to the United States, therefore the official position is that Saudi Arabia is our ally.

The myth that Iran is our natural enemy is almost completely the fault of the United States and political machinations dating back to 1953 when the CIA engineered the overthrow of the freely elected government in Iran, largely at the behest of oil companies. Our puppet government was eventually overthrown by a popular revolution twenty-six years later in which United States citizens were captured at the embassy and held for well over a year.

After this incident, the supposedly enlightened Democratic President, Jimmy Carter instigated a series of sanctions against Iran that largely still exist. Iran then began to engage in many activities that were designed to harm the United States, including financially supporting and training terrorists. That’s bad, true. Reality is the despotic theocracy of Saudi Arabia spends far more money to educate, train, and deploy terrorists than Iran has ever done.

The Madrasa, or religious schools that spawned generations of Fundamental Islamic Terrorists, not only largely started in Saudi Arabia but still exist, right now. At this very moment, these schools are teaching young Saudis, and others around the world, how to hate the United States. They are pumping millions of dollars into terrorist organizations.

Meanwhile Iran is holding free elections, something that doesn’t happen in Saudi Arabia. In President Trump’s visit to that country the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, was apparently pleased to note there wasn’t a single protestor to be found. Yep, Secretary Ross, they are in jail being tortured or hiding from a violently oppressive totalitarian state. That’s not a good thing. It’s a terrible thing. In Iran, our enemy, people are allowed to march and protest.

The nature of our political alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia are fundamentally backward. When we refused to recognize the Iranian Revolution; we began a long descent into the situation we find ourselves in today. There is but a single reason we consider Saudi Arabia an ally and that is money. They hold an enormous amount of our National Debt. Yet more money flows directly to political leaders and business leaders.

Our military complex sells huge amounts of arms to Saudi Arabia but, to balance the books, the United States navy spends far more to keep the Gulf of Arabia clear for supertankers. Navy money comes from taxpayers so the trade seems perfectly fair to government officials and business leaders feasting away at the trough. They pay nothing and reap rewards so steep it is all but impossible to quantify.

To sum it up: We’ve sold the integrity of our nation, we’ve betrayed the ideas of the Founding Fathers, and we’ve created a hostile and unstable world simply because someone gave our leaders enough money.

The good news is that it is not too late. I’m no naïve fool, I understand we can’t immediately disentangle ourselves from the financial net we’ve woven with Saudi Arabia. I don’t think we can simply expect Iran to start acting as a better nation. I do think we can begin the process. We can start to hold both of these nations to better standards. When Iran acts freely and democratically we can support them even if we don’t agree on all issues. We can start to sanction Saudi Arabia for their theocratic state in the same way we currently punish Iran.

We have a long road ahead of us, but we’ll never get to where we want without taking that first step.

Tom Liberman

Investment Advice from the Comments Section

investment adviceI’m not exactly sure what it is that makes people think they are financial wizards but there is an inordinate amount of bad investment advice in the comments of every financially orientated story that make its way into the news. Generally, one person starts off with solid advice about Index Funds, finding good companies, buying a reasonable amount compared to your savings, trusting a good advisor, and what not. Then come the replies.

The stories themselves are usually, but not always, filled with good advice. Beware any story that is sponsored. Other than that, it’s usually solid investment strategies. Make sure you keep enough cash on hand to survive for six months if you lose your initial investment. Avoid the small caps and absolutely stay far away from microcaps. Talk to a financial professional and heed her or his advice. Keep your portfolio varied with a mix of different investments so as to avoid disaster if one sector is badly hit. Mix investments with growth and hold stock and be aware of your retirement date.

Anyway, all good advice. The problem with all this good advice is there is no get rich quick plan. Naturally, most of the advice from the comments section involves making a lot of money quickly.

There is a strong, mythical almost, and unfounded belief that precious metals are a good investment. They are not. A small foray into such is not a disaster but they pay no dividend and offer little growth potential, only sharp swings which is pretty much a guessing game.

Another tip I see frequently is to get out of the market now! This strategy is apparently employed by many people and it is disastrous. The idea is you sell all your stocks for cash when you suspect the market is going down and then rebuy after it starts to go back up again. The problem with this strategy is the same as with precious metals but even worse. You don’t know when the market is going up or down. No one does. It’s purely a guess. Maybe you’ll get lucky once or twice but on average you’ll lose because the market generally goes up. In addition, you pay fees to sell and then repay when you repurchase. If you just held the whole time it’s likely your investments would have grown and you won’t have paid any fees.

I also see lots of advice on how to make millions buying microcap stocks. These are often called penny stocks. The idea is you can buy a million shares of some company and if it goes up by fifty cents you make a lot of money. The problem with these companies is they are often highly manipulated by shady dealers. Basically, a single investor buys the stock very low, plants a bunch of false information, pumps some of their own money back into it as it rises, and then sells when it reaches a particular height. The issue here is the average investor is often locked out of early transactions, they occur before others are even given the opportunity to buy. Thus, the vast majority of investors buy high and sell low while the manipulator does the opposite.

Then there is the derision for those who give sound financial advice. Anyone, like me, daring enough to tell people to avoid precious metals, commodities in general, a high-turnover strategy, in and out, and microcaps is immediately assaulted as being stupid and wrong. Therefore, there becomes an impression that the majority of people are advocating a particular strategy and it must be the best one. It is not.

Like a lot of things in life, there is no simple answer. Anyone who insists that you can get rich, solve a complex problem, or improve your physique with this one easy step is almost certainly lying in order to get you to behave in a way that benefits the liar. Be aware.

That being said, it’s your money to spend how you want and everyone who invests foolishly puts money into the market. This money slowly and steadily enriches me and other wise investors.

Now you know.

Tom Liberman

Steveston Wharf and the Rush of Visitors

stevestonThere was a big Social Media story about a young girl who was pulled by a sea lion into Steveston Fisherman’s Wharf in Vancouver. In response, the region is now crowded with visitors, many with children in tow, likely hoping to see something similar. Are you shocked? Apparently much of the internet finds those visitors to be rather stupid. Commenters are filling up the stories with diatribes about how unwise are these people.

Really? You’re shocked people flock to the site of such an incident? You’re patting yourself on the back because you’re so much smarter than them? Ha! I absolutely guarantee most of the people making these comments would be lined up on the wharf with camera in hand if they lived in the region.

Heck, if I lived in the area I’d probably go myself. It’s an interesting story and I’d take a picture with my non-existent child leaning over the railing, and send it to all my friends. I hate crowds, introvert is me, so that would be a discouraging factor but if given the opportunity I can’t deny my natural curiosity. That’s what is going on, natural human behavior. I’d be shocked if there weren’t thousands of people with their children at the wharf.

And, as long as we’re talking about human nature, this need to congratulate ourselves because we know we wouldn’t be as stupid as all those other people certainly fits the same pattern. It seems to be an irresistible compulsion to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to convince ourselves we’re better than everyone else. We’re smart and they are stupid. I’d never do all those silly things. The internet gives us the means and opportunity to do so at an unprecedented level.

I like to consider myself a fairly intelligent fellow but I fall into the same patterns as everyone else. When I pass an accident on the road, I rail against all the idiots rubbernecking but then do exactly the same thing as I go by. I like to think I’m a bit smarter about it and keep my eye on the road more than most, but the temptation to see what caused the accident and the result therein overwhelms human sensibilities.

The fact we fall into predictable behaviors is something advertisers, lobbyists, and others use to manipulate us into doing what they want. It’s good to be aware of human nature so you can be cautious of those trying such maneuvers. If you pretend you are not subject to the same failings as everyone else, you are tempted to believe you wouldn’t be taking pictures at Steveston Wharf. You would, trust me.

Tom Liberman

Ye Old Town Center, Big Box Stores, Malls, and Online Shopping

town centerThere was a time in this country when the town center was where people gathered to socialize, shop, and spend their free time. Then along came a fellow named Sam Walton and destroyed the vast majority of them. First it happened in larger communities but eventually Walmart spread to small towns and mom and pop stores went bankrupt in enormous numbers.

A lot of people were upset by this turn of events. Sam Walton was known as the Most Hated Man in America in rural areas and small towns. The people who ran those local stores fought hard. They put up the good fight. They asked their neighbors and friends to shop at their store rather than Walmart even though the price of goods was higher and the selection was smaller. A picture of economic doom and gloom was forecast as more and more small businesses closed and enterprise business began to take a larger share of the market.

With the success of Walmart came all sorts of Big Box stores and Malls. The gathering place for people changed from town centers, which largely became deserted, to malls and large shopping stores. Anyone who had a small business again fought hard. They took out loans. They asked friends and family to remain loyal.

Then the internet arrived and with it online shopping led by Amazon. Social Media blossomed in this Information Age. Now it was the malls and big box stores’ turn to feel the pain. People didn’t need to leave their house to socialize or to purchase most goods. They did due diligence with online research, ordered the product they wanted at the price they liked, and had it in a remarkably short period of time.

The malls are fighting hard. They are now offering more of the sorts of services people can’t get online, things such as haircuts and dining options. The people in the community who are losing their jobs because of online shopping are pleading with their fellow citizens to buy at the mall instead of online, hoping to save jobs.

What does it all mean? All those closed mom and pop stores, all those shuttered malls, all those lost jobs? It means we get a better product, in a timelier fashion, at a lower price, and there are more jobs than ever!

The reason the mom and pop stores died is because they couldn’t compete economically with the big box stores. The reason the malls are dying is because they can’t compete with online shopping. The winner in all of this is you and me.

It hurts when that little shop around the corner closes and the people you know and like lose their jobs. Economics and capitalism is a harsh mistress. They don’t promise wine and roses for everyone. Nothing can make everyone happy all the time. But look around. What can’t you purchase? What thing that you want can’t you have? Yes, there are some things out of your price range, but far fewer than as little as twenty years ago.

The next generation is going to expect this sort of service in the same why we can’t live without a remote for the entertainment center. There is no going backward in this world. You can’t go home again.

You can lament the end of the malls and all the jobs the same way people were upset when all the family owned businesses went under to the tornado that was Sam Walton. Don’t worry, you probably won’t notice because you’ll be busy posting a picture of your new hat on Social Media.

Tom Liberman

Giada Di Laurentiis Provokes Internet Hate

Giada Di LaurentiisA celebrity chef by the name of Giada Di Laurentiis was recently quoted as saying she wishes she could tell strangers who approach her, please don’t get touchy-feely. According to the people who read this story, it means she is an elitist who thinks she is too good for regular folk. Really? Because she doesn’t like strangers coming up and grabbing, touching, and otherwise groping her?

Well, if Di Laurentiis is an elitist, I am also. I’m certainly not famous and there isn’t a line of people waiting to grab me and tell me how wonderful I am, but if there were, yuck. Di Laurentiis mentions that she wishes she could tell people not to get so forward but because of her celebrity status it is not possible.

I’m reminded of when I see a professional golfer transition from the green of one hole to the tee of the next while passing through a sea of people wanting to give her or him high-fives. Fans reaching out to pat the player. Again, yuck.

I also remember an incident at a Rams game I had a few years back where a drunk, slovenly, and rather disgusting person wanted to give me a high five. Yuck. Nope. I got called a rather vulgar name for refusing and I’m just a regular Tom. Imagine if I was a celebrity and I refused to touch the skin of the man who in all probability pissed all over his hand earlier in the day and didn’t do a good job of washing up. Am I an elitist because the thought of slapping hands with hundreds of people who have been doing who knows what all day skeeves me out?

The reality is that Di Laurentiis is correct in her assessment. If she refused to interact with her many fans she would anger some of them. I don’t get it. I don’t particularly want to touch a celebrity and I completely understand why Emily Blunt doesn’t want me to give her a hug. Darn it.

What surprises me is the rancor in the comments section. It’s a complete lack of self-awareness. I think the vast majority of people think exactly like Di Laurentiis feels. They would be completely freaked out if an endless line of strangers came up to them and insisted on hugging, patting, or otherwise touching them. They’d do it because they are celebrities but they wouldn’t like it.

The comments are also filled with people filled with self-congratulations because they claim not to like Di Laurentiis or find her unattractive. It seems to me if people who are not fans of hers and find her unattractive are commenting on a story about her, well, maybe they are fans. At least fans enough to know who she is and take the time to partially read a story about her.

To foray briefly into psychology, you might be tempted to post a hateful and angry comment on Social Media because you’re not particularly happy with your own life. You’re jealous of Di Laurentiis and by putting her down you give yourself the illusion you are better than her.
I’ll conclude with a question I ask in all honesty. Would you be freaked out if complete stranger rushed up to you and insisted on hugging

Tom Liberman

If you Bought $100 of Bitcoins you would have lost $100

bitcoinsBitcoins recently reached an all-time high in value and thus were spawned a bunch of pseudo-articles claiming if only you’d purchased them at their lowest value you’d be wealthy today. These articles are largely designed to convince you to purchase bitcoins. When you read articles essentially promising riches, you should be wary. I know the stories aren’t promising anything, but there is a clear innuendo.

The first reality is bitcoins aren’t physical entities you put into a safe-deposit box. They are stored on servers as bits of information. The bitcoins referenced in the various articles hinting at untold riches simply don’t exist anymore. The people that mined those coins, back then you didn’t necessarily purchase them but you mined them, stored the bitcoins on servers that simply don’t exist anymore. Any bitcoins you might have potentially owned seven years ago are valueless.

Any number of irregularities have hit bitcoins over the years and it’s not simply a matter of saying I had this much then and I’d have that much now. Many bitcoins have been essentially lost and are worthless. In addition, a healthy percentage of bitcoin purchases, like those suggested in the headlines of these articles, fail entirely. People are defrauded out of their money.

I’m not suggesting bitcoins are useless. I’m actually a big believer that cryptocurrency will eventually usurp all other national currencies and this will be a good thing. What I am saying is this plethora of article making the rounds are designed to convince you to spend a large amount of money on bitcoins, most of which you will lose.

There is at least some evidence that the current rise in prices is being manipulated by Russian business owners.

It is entirely possible bitcoins will continue their rally and go higher yet, but the reality is predicting the rise and fall of such cryptocurrency is merely a guessing game. You might get lucky, you probably will not.

The people who want you to speculate on a stock are eager for others to pay at the top because they are selling. Stories like those in Social and Mainstream media currently making the rounds trigger my naturally cautious nature. Who is writing these stories? Why are they appearing now? Is it an organized effort or just the natural consequence of the price of Bitcoins? I’m not sure the answer to those questions but I am sure I won’t be purchasing any at the current price.

Tom Liberman

Chinese CIA Assets Killed

ChineseThere is an interesting story in the news indicating that about seven years ago a number of spies, or assets as the CIA refers to them, were discovered by the Chinese government and imprisoned or executed. What I find interesting about the story is that the comments seem to be focused exclusively on trying to blame someone. I find this troubling.

I think there are a number of questions this series of events brings to mind and yet everyone only cares about using it to their political advantage. I shouldn’t say everyone, I’m sure the people in the CIA who investigated the case and others care deeply about the security of the nation and what went wrong. It can’t be good when most of the people they are trying to protect don’t seem to care at all.

What I think about is why we so want to gain political advantage rather than actually figure out what happened? Why are most of the commenters finding a way to blame Hillary Clinton and President Obama for what went wrong or, on the other side, assuming that the problem predated them and blaming President Bush. It’s all about how it’s the opposition’s fault and not about the actual problem. I have not read a single comment about the poor people who lost their lives. The families devastated by the breech. The loss of intelligence gathering capabilities and the threat this does or does not present.

Where is our humanity? If we are focused so sharply on destroying each other, what will happen to our nation? Will we grow more and more divided? Will the United States break up? I think these are real possibilities.

I also question the very nature of the operations that got those people killed. Is it really necessary to do all that spying? Certainly, China isn’t acting in the best interest of the United States. They have spies in this country and their software developers have stolen trade secrets and important information from the United States and companies that operate herein. Still, the reason all those people are dead is because we asked them to spy on China for us. Yes, they decided on their own to do it, but it sometimes seems so unnecessary to me.

What if we just left other countries alone? I know most people will say that we leave ourselves open to attacks if we don’t know what is going on in China, but I’m not as convinced that is the case in this connected world. It would be catastrophic for China to financially harm the United States. They are as dependent on us as we are on them, this is one of the most beneficial things that comes from globalism. When everyone is in economic partnership with one another, there is increasingly less reason to attempt violence.

If we didn’t have those spies, they’d still be alive. We’d also have a lot less government and a lot more money.

The reality is no one actually knows how the Chinese discovered the agents. The most likely answer is a spy working for the Chinese and embedded in the CIA. There is one suspect who it is strongly assumed revealed the identity of the various assets but there was never enough proof to imprison the person. Eventually the suspect was no longer given sensitive information and subsequently the ability of the Chinese to identify spies dropped off.

We will most likely never know how the security of those spies was compromised but the disturbing thing for me is that no one seems to care to learn that information. They just want to blame someone.

Tom Liberman

Race Relations are Great but that’s not a Good Headline

race relationsI hate to break the bad news to all the alarmist, but race relations are absolutely fantastic in the United States. Interracial marriages are at an all-time high. Tolerance of homosexuals is growing beyond any level seen before. Atheists like me are freer to come out and talk about our lack of belief with greater security than at any time in the history of our nation. I’m of Jewish descent as well and it’s never been a better time to be a Jew.

Ladies, Gentleman, Transgenders, Blacks, Whites, Asians, Gays, Straights, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Old People, Young People, Hipsters, and all the rest; don’t believe the haters that crowd the comment sections or the talking heads who thrive on ratings. We are more willing to understand each other and put up with each other than ever. Race relations are better than ever.

A black man dating a white woman in Kansas, a cowboy in New York City, a hipster in Stillwater, a Cardinals fan in Chicago, we are more willing to live and let live than ever. Be a decent human and work hard, you are welcome just about everywhere.

That reality doesn’t make people who have a vested interest in keeping us apart happy. There are virulent racists in the world. There are misogynistic cretins. There are religious extremists. There are violent anarchists. These people are out there and their voices are loud but their numbers are dwindling.

The reason Islamic terrorists are blowing things up is because tolerance is winning. The reason White Supremacists are marching is because they are losing. The reason the comment section is filled with hate-filled rants is because these sorts are afraid others just want to lead their lives, that they don’t care about those other things. The internet has connected us to people all over the world who share like interests.

Does a redneck from Alabama love model trains? You bet. So too does a wealthy banker from New York City. They are online friends. They discuss their mutual interests and learn about each other. The difficulties of children, marriage, the hard day of dairy farming or investment banking. They discuss model trains and learn their mutual interests far outweigh their insignificant differences.

We are closer than we’ve ever been. We are not far from a world in which nothing matters but that which we enjoy. It is on the horizon, just in sight if you’re willing to squint and look closely. Kids today are more connected than they’ve ever been and they are linked with a wider array of friends than the world could even imagine twenty years ago. They are growing up in this world where all the meaningless external things that used to drive a wedge between us are invisible.

This frightens people. This terrifies authoritarian figures. This alarms those who don’t want you to be friends with people who are different in meaningless ways. They are reacting violently and that means the rest of us are winning, we just have to wait for them to die, and they will. Sad, angry, and surrounded by hate filled associates. They will all die.

This world is for the next generation, the tolerant generation. The best news of all is that it’s a wonderful time to be alive. It’s a fantastic time to be able to share your interests with people all over the world. It’s a time to learn and make friends that it would have been impossible to meet not long ago.

Relish this wonderful world. Find people who share your interests and ignore the angry voices that vie for your attention.

Forget about the fake troubles you read from various news sources that simply want your clicks. Those voices of hate? They are lying to you. They want something from you. Don’t give it to them.

Tom Liberman

Insulin and the Web a Story of Anti-Capitalistic Self-Interest

insulinWhat do Insulin and the Internet have in common? The person most responsible for each patented the technology and gave it away for free. There is a lesson to be learned for ardent Libertarians and capitalists.

Back in 1922 a fellow named Frederick Banting, later Sir Frederick, managed to extract and purify something called insulin. Eventually, along with partners J. J. R. Macleod, Charles Best, Clark Noble, and biochemist James Collip, he created a version of the drug that did not cause side effects. Soon children in diabetic wards across the world were being injected and waking up. Prior to that discovery, the parents of those children simply waited for them to die. Diabetic shock was essentially a death sentence.

Sir Frederick and his partners then sold the patent for a whopping sum of $3. The reason they did this was to ensure insulin would be available to all at a reasonable price. They put their humanity ahead of their desire to earn money. The drug patent was worth millions, if not billions, of dollars.

You will note even today there is no generic version of insulin because the patent is essentially available to all. Anyone can come up with a method to produce insulin and sell it. They have to pay no one for the right to do so.

Not that long ago a fellow by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, later Sir Tim, was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as an independent contractor. He came up with an idea called Hypertext which would allow researchers to share and update information. Over the years, he and others expanded on this idea. The result is the World Wide Web.

Eventually, Sir Tim organized the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which oversees all the protocols of the WWW. He made all of his ideas freely available with no patent or royalties due. He did this because he saw how much good the technology could do and wanted to make sure it spread across the world for the benefit of all.

Speaking from a misunderstood interpretation of Libertarian philosophy, it would seem the decisions of these two titans was rather stupid. Both of them could have gained considerable wealth from their discoveries. By giving them away they forsook riches, or so it would seem.
In actual practice, the situation is different. Because of their generosity and humanity, both received many rewards after essentially giving away multi-million dollar ideas. These rewards included a place in history and also financial success. Both men went on to rewarding careers and lives in which they were not only financially successful but renowned throughout the world.

Too often those who espouse a Libertarian philosophy or a Randian mantra, after Ayn Rand, focus on the financial rewards that success brings. This is a mistake. It is important to understand that financial success is only a byproduct of doing great things. There is also the reward of personal satisfaction. There is also the reward of public acclaim. Both of these things are not to be discounted in regards to self-interest.

If you were to do something that changed the world for the better, the personal satisfaction engendered would be of tremendous value to you as you aged. The continuous support you received from those you helped would be an all but endless source of joy and happiness.
Too often in this world we focus on money. It is merely the byproduct of doing good things for those around us. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with financial success and both Sir Tim and Sir Frederick achieved it despite their apparently altruistic goals. Still, I think it’s clear they made the right decisions.

Tom Liberman

Bad Logic Memes

bad logicGood old memes. The idea verbalized by Richard Dawkins twisted into a phenomenon seen everywhere in Social Media. Generally, memes are simplistic and shallow but they are also often filled with bad logic and that’s where I get annoyed.

If you post a meme with bad logic, that tells me you have a flawed brain. This conclusion might not be completely fair. Perhaps you saw the meme and didn’t bother to think about it too much. You just saw it corresponded with your political point of view and shared it without thinking too much.

However, it’s my opinion not bothering to think about something is perhaps even worse than being stupid. A person who thinks the meme they are posting makes sense when it clearly does not, is stupid. The person who is capable of understanding the logic is bad but posts it anyway, is showing a deeper form of ignorance. Willful ignorance.

Basically, a person has intentionally turned off her or his brain so that person can say something she or he knows is untrue or illogical, simply because it is politically expedient. I think we see all too much of that these days. People are completely willing to say illogical and stupid things about opponents while defending allies with equally bad logic.

It’s rampant and it doesn’t help solve the problems we have in this country and in the world. Not only is it rampant but it’s virulent. People call each other horrible names and say vile things about one another in response to the illogical memes. The sort of words that if used face to face would result in violence. Because they are being said from a distance there is a security otherwise not available. The rage engendered from such words is real, even if it cannot be consummated with fisticuffs.

It is clear to me the way to solve large problems is to work together. Working as a team involves communication and working through disagreement in a productive and positive manner. That is the best way to come up with lasting resolutions.

That’s the serious problem with all these nonsensical and illogical memes. We think they don’t do any harm, but they encourage people to turn off their minds and blindly state things that don’t make any sense. Not that people aren’t responsible for their own actions. If someone posts such an idiotic meme, then it probably means they are an idiot. That’s reality.

And, in case you’re wondering, the meme that set off my rant was about the removal of monuments in southern states that were dedicated to confederates. It read something along the lines of: If you remove Confederate Monuments then the Civil War never happened and that means slavery never happened.

There are examples of bad logic in that meme. Can you spot them?

Tom Liberman

NBA Draft Lottery and the Appearance of Impropriety

draft lotteryThe NBA Draft Lottery is an annual event in which the fourteen teams that failed to make the playoffs in the National Basketball Association determine in which order they will draft players. In every other sports league there is no lottery, the team with the worst record drafts first and it proceeds in reverse order from there. Why does the NBA do this? Particularly with the potential for accusations of impropriety all but inevitable.

In the lottery system, the team with the worst record has a greater chance of drafting first, but an element of randomization makes it entirely likely this does not come to fruition. In fact, the team with the worst record has drafted first only seven out of thirty-three times. The team with the second worst record has drafted first four times while the team with the fifth worst record has drafted first five times.

In this year’s draft the Los Angeles Lakers ended up with the second pick, which is in line with their record for the season. Even with this statistically probable outcome, people are outraged. It is considered extremely likely the team will select a young player named Lonzo Ball. Ball is from the Los Angeles area and it was widely speculated the lottery would be rigged to have the Lakers draft second.

This is not the first time such accusations have plagued the league. The very first draft lottery was in 1985 and the New York Knicks were awarded the first choice despite finishing the previous season with the third worst record. They selected Patrick Ewing. This was widely considered to be what the NBA desired and the league has been beleaguered by insinuations of foul play in the lottery ever since.

Certainly, the days up to the lottery are filled with speculation about which team will draft where and on the day of the draft there is a special television show. This is no different than it is for the NFL and, to a lesser extent, the other professional sports leagues.

So why does the league persist with the lottery? In essence it unfairly both penalizes and rewards teams for their actual finish in the league standings. It gives rise to conspiracy theories of all kinds which the league must battle. I’m honestly not sure what is the answer.

In reality I think the entire draft is a shady process. Should not every young athlete have a chance to negotiate with any team that desires her or his service? I suppose that’s an argument for another day.

Does anyone else have a theory why the NBA uses the lottery system? It’s beyond me.

Tom Liberman

Kara McCullough and Feminism

Kara McCulloughA nuclear scientist by the name of Kara McCullough is in the news because of the answer she gave to a question about feminism while on her way to winning the Miss USA pageant. I think her answer, and the ensuing uproar, gives us interesting insight into what it is to be rationally moderate in this world. We are the majority but feel vastly outnumbered.

McCullough was asked if she considered herself a feminist. She answered that she preferred to use the term equalist. She went on to add she doesn’t consider herself one of those die-hards. By this she meant radicals who have made inflammatory statements.

She was immediately attacked on Social Media as mischaracterizing feminism as a man-hating movement. These attacks largely came from individuals who identify as left-wing.

The reaction to the reaction was swift, thanks Internet! Those on the opposite side of the spectrum quickly tried to associate every democrat, liberal, or feminist, as being part of the small group that was criticizing McCullough. And here we see the problem.

McCullough doesn’t want to associate herself with what are called radical feminists who have made any number of man-hating comments. And rightly so. This small group of people have hijacked the word feminism and given it a terrible connotation. Of course, the vast majority of feminists are more in line with McCullough. They want equality, they don’t see men as an obstacle or an enemy.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people who are now attacking those making nasty comments about McCullough are actually pretty much equalist as well. They don’t think women are chattel to be owned. They don’t imagine that women are incapable of being lawyers, doctors, soldiers, or anything else.

If only those two groups could somehow be made to realize they are basically on the same side. We make up the majority. We outnumber the few man-haters and misogynists by enormous numbers.

Yet the vocal few taint the image of all the rest. Those screaming and yelling and refusing any compromise paint an entire group with the red brush of hate. They benefit from the duality of left and right. They profit because the majority are centrists, equalists. By splitting those in the center toward their wing, they bolster their numbers and impact.

Every time I read an article, I scroll down to the comments section. There is always someone making a moderate and rational point about the story in question. Every time this is immediately drowned out by the roar of the few. This roar gives the impression of many. It lures moderates into one camp or the other by portraying enemies as irrational, angry, and violent.

The opposite is true. If only we knew it, the vast majority of people would find they largely agree on issues.

I absolutely believe most people in this world are equalists, like McCullough. Yet the few who are not seem to drive a wedge between the nuanced many. Yes, people who are equalists differ in certain small factors of that equality.

The problem is that we get nowhere by yelling at each other, by refusing to compromise on minor points. And yet we seem to go further down this path every day, driven by those who gain from strife and rage. Those few.

Tom Liberman

WannaCry Illustrates a Strange Path to Combat Software Piracy

wannacryIt may seem like a strange connection but the WannaCry virus that spread wildly in Russia and China illustrates the best way forward in combating software piracy. Up until now, the heavy-handed use of criminal charges has been used by government to protect software development companies.

The government of the United States spent the last few decades passing law after law against those who illegally download files, largely at the behest of the Motion Picture, Music Recording, and software industries. These laws generally caught up a few minor criminals who downloaded a small number of songs or movies while leaving the vast majority of activity unchecked. Our nation then used strong-arm tactics on other countries trying to get them to extradite and otherwise punish pirates.

Meanwhile, in response to the growing virus threat, the software industry has long pushed security updates as a way to ensure the safety of their customers’ computers. This basically means those who have a legitimate copy get these updates.

The idea is simple enough. In China and Russia there is a plethora of pirated software and thus those two nations were far more vulnerable to the WannaCry Ransomware attack. The people of those nations suffered the most when hospitals and other important services were curtailed. An oversight in the coding of the Ransomware allowed the attack to be muted to some degree, but it doesn’t change the overall lesson.

If you want your computer to be safe, you really need to have legally licensed and fully updated software on it. No matter how many laws the government passes and no matter how rigorously they enforce these regulations, software piracy will continue. It is only when the ever-increasing threat of Ransomware and other risks becomes dangerous enough that people realize the need to have licensed software.

It is the criminals who are forcing people to obey the law.

Ironic, ain’t it?

Tom Liberman

Kimberly Guilfoyle and Unseemly Eagerness

Kimberly GuilfoyleA Fox News personality named Kimberly Guilfoyle is actively admitting she is interviewing to get the job of White House Press Secretary, currently held by Sean Spicer. I suppose I’ll get labeled a Liberal Shill or a Snowflake but this public lobbying for someone else’s job seems pretty gross to me. It’s just a lack of decency.

I mean, I get it, people get fired. Someone takes that job. That’s part of the business and political world. A business has to interview for a position they know is going to be vacant, but everywhere I’ve been it was done quietly. Other people in the office weren’t told about it, and certainly the person interviewing for the promotion didn’t go on Facebook and tell all their friends.

I’m not in the White House making decisions about who to hire for any position. I’m not hiring or firing anyone. My opinion is pretty much worthless in all of this. Still, if it was me, I’d certainly eliminate Guilfoyle as a candidate the moment I saw the interview. If she can’t be discreet enough to keep the talks quiet, then why would I want her working for me?

I suspect, as usual, thoughts about her behavior will be split along political lines, and that’s a shame. All too often we are willing to put up with bad behavior from someone who espouses the same political philosophy as us, while eagerly denouncing those who support the opposite side of the aisle.

When it comes to that sort of situation, I too feel the pressure. More than once, friends of mine who largely agree with my political point of view have spouted off inanities on their Social Media accounts. I always hesitate before saying something. On the occasions I do chastise an ally, I risk their friendship. I try to put my criticisms in a positive way. That doesn’t always work. I’m an abrasive fellow, there is no denying it. I’m not the most popular kid in school.

The problem is that the only people Guilfoyle is going to listen to are those who largely agree with her politics. She certainly won’t let my opinion influence her. It is only if someone with whom she largely agrees and respects sits her down and tells her how deplorable is her behavior, that she will mollify it.

That’s why I think it’s imperative to be critical of those with whom you largely agree when you see them doing something wrong. I think that’s what is largely missing in our current political climate. The ability to be critical of those with whom we find like cause.

And, of course, don’t lobby publicly for someone else’s job.

Tom Liberman

13 Reasons Why Romanticizing is no Reason to Censor

13 reasons whyOf late, various news stories and my Facebook wall made me vaguely aware of a television show called 13 Reasons Why which is based on a book named Thirteen Reasons Why. I knew the show and novel had suicide as a central theme and that a number of people were upset by it. Now I see it is being censored, ostensibly because it romanticizes suicide.

I don’t want to talk about the book or television show because I have neither read or seen either. There is clearly a lively debate on exactly how suicide is portrayed in the book and show, but to me it’s irrelevant. Movies, books, fictional television shows, the news, and many other sources romanticize things all the time. War is romanticized, violence is romanticized, sex out of wedlock is romanticized, horribly behavior is romanticized. Frankly, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a human behavior that is not being romanticized somewhere, in some medium.

Throughout history censorship has almost always been rationalized by a need to protect people, particularly children, from ideas. In most cases the censoring agency does nothing more than promote the particular book or content. This was true back when it was difficult to get such material. In today’s world, it far easier for anyone to get content through the internet.

This fact, to my way of thinking, makes this latest case of censorship more egregious. It is moralistic self-delusion of the worst kind. Does any librarian actually imagine by removing the book from the library they will prevent people from reading it, seeing the show? Thus, the censorship is seen for its true nature. Nothing more than a moral pat on the back. Look at me, I’m a good person. I’m helping the children! I’m so good and wonderful. I’m protecting children, look at me!

The reality is simply the opposite. By proudly flaunting the censorship, more people are made aware of the book and television show. Censors do not inhibit children from watching and reading but encourage them. They achieve the opposite of their stated goal. They know this. They are fully aware their censorship does not achieve what they claim. It reveals their actual motivation, a need to stroke their own ego.

I do not deny ideas are dangerous. People are inspired by what they see and what they read. We fear people will read and see things and be motivated to act in ways they would not before consuming such material. Ideas are also wonderful. People are inspired by ideas in beautiful and amazing ways, each and every day. This is life.

I certainly support a parent who chooses not to allow their child to watch the show or read the book. I just don’t think it’s a decision to be made by anyone else. Be they a librarian or a politician. I do caution parents who refuse to allow their children to see the show; your child is going to learn about it through outside agencies. If you refuse to allow them to watch or read it, they will likely find a way to do so without your permission.

I strongly believe enforced ignorance is not an educational tool. Those who promote censorship think otherwise.

Tom Liberman

The Glory of the Vending Machine

vending machineI’ve long been a fan of vending machines. They allow people to purchase products they desire without interference from outside agencies. This ability to get what I want is a wonderful manifestation of capitalism. This is empowerment.

The glory of the vending machine is, much like that of online shopping, you get to purchase a product without interacting with anyone. It has the added advantage of immediacy. This is the way life should be. You should be able to purchase the product you want, when you want, and be able to enjoy it immediately.

This is capitalism at its finest.

I just read about a new vending machine on a college campus that dispenses Plan B birth control as well as other products like allergy medication and feminine hygiene items. Another article I read was about the plethora of smart vending machines that are soon to be in markets everywhere.

I’m envious of vending machines in other countries around the world. In Japan and Germany, you can get beer from a vending machine. In France, you can get a baguette. There is a vending machine in China which dispenses live crabs! I imagine 3D Printers embedded in such machines.

Vending machine technology continues to improve and soon we will be able to use money in our various accounts directly with the machine. This allows us to not only get what we want but also gives autonomy to others.

For example, perhaps a parent wants their child to be able to purchase $100 worth of food while at camp. Maybe a supervisor want a quick and easy way to reward an employee for some achievement. A couple of clicks and their card has a $5 credit at the ice cream vending machine. Maybe teachers want to reward students for good grades. I can see a time when vending machines recognize you and dispense medication and other regulated items.

Naturally there are concerns about security in these cases, I don’t deny as much. Still, I see more and more vending machines with a variety of products making their way into our lives.

As the technology gets better and the quality of the items in the vending machines improves, I see no end to the possibilities.

In addition, the machines will keep track of purchases allowing them to understand what the customer wants. They will send this information back to the vendor. The vendor will load trucks specifically designed for each particular machine with the exact quantity need.

This improves inventory control and means more profit for the company and lower prices for the consumer.

At the heart of vending machine industry, we see consumers getting the product they want at an acceptable cost and in a timely fashion.
It’s really that simple and vending machines are a beautiful symbol of capitalism.

Tom Liberman