Mike Kueber's Blog

April 22, 2014

Aphorism of the Week #19 – Some ideas are so stupid than only an intellectual could believe them

Filed under: Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 10:19 pm
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George Orwell, the estimable 20th-century author of 1984 and Animal Farm, said that some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them. I couldn’t help but think of that saying today when I was reading an article in the NY Times.  The article reported that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided the voters of Michigan were allowed to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting discrimination based on sex or race in college admissions, government contracting, and public employment.

That may sound like a no-brainer decision, but the vote was 6-2, with Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg arguing that it was discriminatory against minorities to prohibit discrimination against the majority. (The Orwellian argument could have had a female trifecta except that Elena Kagan recused herself because of some prior involvement in the case.)

In 2007 Chief Justice Robert suggested, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Seven years later, Justice Sotomayor attempted a biting comeback:

  • The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

Chief Justice Roberts didn’t need any time to expose Sotomayor’s ad hominem:

  • People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate.”

The NY Times printed an editorial criticizing the decision. In the editorial, it praised Sotomayor’s eloquence is declaring that “race matters,” as compared to Robert’s “glib” statement in 2007 that revealed “a naïve vision of racial justice.”

Seems that Sotomayor and the Times were exactly what Orwell had in mind with his aphorism.

 

April 21, 2014

The Common Core comes under attack as a wedge issue

Filed under: Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:21 pm
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A recent article in the NY Times revealed how the Democrats and Republicans in Washington tend to gravitate toward contrary positions on most issues. The result of this tendency, especially in an era of stalemates, is that nothing gets done even when the parties are in fundamental agreement on an issue.

The example that the Times article focuses on is called the Common Core:

  • “A once little-known set of national educational standards introduced in 44 states and the District of Columbia with the overwhelming support of Republican governors, the Common Core has incited intense resistance on the right and prompted some in the party to reverse field and join colleagues who believe it will lead to a federal takeover of schools.”
  • “The learning benchmarks, intended to raise students’ proficiency in math and English, were adopted as part of a 2010 effort by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bolster the country’s competitiveness. Some conservatives, in an echo of their criticism of the health care law, say the standards are an overreach by the federal government.”

A liberal friend posted the article on Facebook and made the following comment:

  • Why do we keep looking for wedge issues? When are we going to start looking for issues to come together with? BTW, this applies to both sides, not just the right. More hashtag politics here.”

I think my friend misused the term “wedge issues.” Google defines it as a divisive political issue, esp. one that is raised by a candidate for public office in hopes of attracting or alienating an opponent’s supporters. Most often, wedge issues are things like same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, illegal immigration, or gun ownership. They are intended to distract from other more important issues. By contrast, the NY Times article examines why political parties attempt to create divisiveness where none exists. Because that doesn’t make sense to me, I commented to my friend my essential agreement:

  • I was initially disappointed to see Jeb [Bush] associated with this policy shift, but later was happy to read that he remains committed to education reform. Although Obama’s actions prompted the conservative shift of Rubio, Rand, and Cruz, they remind me of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

April 20, 2014

Dan Patrick’s invasion

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:29 pm
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Lite-guv candidate Dan Patrick has been criticized extensively in the media for comparing illegal immigration in America to an invasion. Before discussing the merits of that criticism, it might be helpful to ascertain the meaning on the term.

According to one of the most definitive dictionaries in America, Merriam-Webster, there are three alternatives:

  1. to enter (a place, such as a foreign country) in order to take control by military force
  2. to enter (a place) in large numbers
  3. to enter or be in (a place where you are not wanted)

How can anyone argue that definitions 2 and 3 aren’t perfectly fitting? There are an estimated 1.65 million illegal immigrants in Texas and 11-12 million illegal immigrants in America. Those are large numbers. And, despite the sentiments of liberal and conservative scofflaws, these people are living in the shadows because they are living here illegally, so it’s hard to argue that they are wanted.

Case closed.

 

Sunday Book Review #133 – Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget by Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher

Filed under: Retirement — Mike Kueber @ 1:44 pm
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As the author of a blogpost about visiting NYC on a budget, I was naturally attracted to this book about retiring overseas on a budget.  The subtitle also caught my eye – “How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year.

Of course, a major distinction between the two writings is that my NYC trip was to visit (short-term), whereas this overseas living is to retire (long-term). That distinction is why, before getting into the descriptions of various probable retirement locations, the authors explain how people should decide whether to retire overseas. The most important consideration:

  • If there is one thing and only one thing you take away from this book, it’s that your primary, overriding motivation for retiring overseas has to be a pure and unadulterated love of adventure and discovery. It just won’t work any other way.”

After an extensive discussion of the personality types that are suited for the expatriate lifestyle (incidentally, expatriate is not an offshoot of ex-patriot), the authors discuss two pervasive concerns – (1) medical care (usually good and always cheaper, but Medicare does not travel with you) and (2) language/culture adjustments (manageable if you love adventure).

After establishing a base of understanding, the authors describe the pros and cons of the most promising locations – Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

According to the authors, wise consumers can live cheaply in just about any country, especially in countrified areas of those countries. Of course, I suspect that is true of living in rural or small-town America, too. The difference is that exploring rural America is not as glamorous as exploring rural life in some other country. Which brings us back to the author’s initial point – i.e., living overseas is for the adventuresome. Living cheaper is a major benefit of living overseas, but the dominant motivator needs to be a thirst for something different.

The book concludes with the practical nuts & bolts associated with a move, but because I already know that I don’t thirst for the un-American, I glossed over the final section.

This is an excellent guide that is a worthwhile read, even if you conclude that overseas living is not for you.

 

April 18, 2014

Saturday Night at the Movies #110 – The Wire, Dirty Dancing, and Talladega Nights

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:35 pm
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Although I never watched The Wire when it was an active TV series (2002-2008), I read about it in the book Difficult Men, which “chronicles the Third Golden Age of television, an age when a medium that has been characterized as a vast wasteland suddenly blossoms with shows of depth and nuance.” The book focused on six wonderful series and suggested that The Wire might have been the best, except for The Sopranos.

Based on the Difficult Men recommendation, The Wire was must-see TV for me, but because it is no longer available on HBO on-demand, I had to request DVDs from Netflix. Each season focuses on a single subject in Baltimore:

  • Season One – illegal drugs
  • Season Two – the seaport
  • Season Three – city government
  • Season Four – the public schools
  • Season Five – journalism

After watching the five discs for Season One, I decided I didn’t want to devote myself to all 23 discs, and instead shifted to the series-ending Season Five.

So what’s so special about The Wire? Although there are a few decent people, there seems to be an abundance of morally challenged individuals. It stars Dominic West as policeman Jimmy McNulty, who, consistent with the leading men described in Difficult Men, “is unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human…. badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world.”

I was struck by the dichotomy between the essential decency and honor of many of those persons who are not especially career ambitious as opposed to those who are willing to compromise their integrity to get ahead. A lot of the camaraderie of those who work in the trenches rang especially true to me.

I was also struck by the mayor of Baltimore’s focus on his quarterly crime rate and annual school test-scores. By contrast, the mayor of San Antonio has managed to avoid being held to any sort of objective evaluation. Instead he simply promises, long-term, to revive the downtown and initiate a pre-K program. As Obama knows, it helps to have the media in your pocket.  Watching The Wire was time well-spent, and I give it three and a half stars out of four.

I don’t know how I went 27 years without seeing Dirty Dancing (1987), but I corrected that oversight after noticing that it was available on Netflix streaming on a day when I didn’t have a DVD available. What a treat! This box-office smash hit is a coming-of-age romantic drama set in 1963. Patrick Swayze is perfect as a lowbrow dance instructor at an upstate NY resort, and Jennifer Grey is even better as a well-bred, sweet ingénue. Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach is excellent as Grey’s MD dad who, despite his progressive proclivities, isn’t happy to see his daughter associating with a working-class guy like Swayze. The storyline reminds me of Trisha Yearwood’s song, “She’s in Love with the Boy.” The song ends with the mother scolding a dad who sounds a lot like Orbach:

Her daddy’s waitin’ up ’til half past twelve

When they come sneakin’ up the walk

           He says young lady get on up to your room

           While me and Junior have a talk

           Mama breaks in, says don’t lose your temper

           It wasn’t very long ago

           When you yourself was just a hay-seed plowboy

           Who didn’t have a row to hoe

My daddy said you wasn’t worth a lick

           When it came to brains you got the short end of the stick

           But he was wrong and honey you are too

           Katie looks at Tommy like I still look at you

She’s in love with the boy

Awesome song; awesome movie. I would have bet that the Rotten Tomato audience liked this movie more than the critics, and I was right – critics scored it at 72%, while the audience scored it at 90%. I agree with the audience and give it four stars out of four.

I recently complimented a person for being able to insert interesting and sometimes esoteric pop-culture references into her conversation. By watching Dirty Dancing, I was able to fill a hole in my knowledge of iconic movies. Last weekend at my apartment pool, a friend suggested than an even bigger hole was left by my never having seen Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which he called his favorite comedy of all-time. Thanks to Netflix, a few days later, I have filled another hole.

Talladega Nights (2006) is a comedy starring Will Ferrell as a NASCAR racer, with sidekick John C. Reilly. I must be at a good point in my life because historically I don’t go much for comedies, but I found Ferrell and Reilly to be laugh-out-loud funny. And Ferrell’s two adolescent redneck boys (Walker and Texas Ranger) read some hilarious lines. The storyline was a bit thin, but the humorous characters were able to carry the two-hour movie. The Rotten Tomato critics scored it at a solid 72%, but I was surprised to see the audience scored it essentially the same at 73%. I can’t imagine 27% disappointed viewers. I give it three stars out of four.

 

 

 

 

April 16, 2014

Dan Patrick and Julian Castro debate illegal immigration

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:04 pm
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Last night, Dan Patrick and Julian Castro debated illegal immigration. According to most of the pundits and experts, they debated to a draw or a slight Castro victory. I disagree, and told them so.

Local blogger Greg Brockhouse posted a lengthy analysis in his blog, and I commented as follows to his blogpost:

  • Greg, I disagree with your ‘fair and impartial’ statement that Castro won the debate. To the contrary, Patrick staked out a winning position on illegal immigration – i.e., he is not in favor of deporting the 11 million illegal immigrants, but he is also not in favor of granting them citizenship or continuing magnets for future illegal immigration. By contrast, Castro staked out a losing position – i.e., a path to citizenship and continuing the magnets. Also, I don’t know how you conclude that LVP is the Dem with the winnable statewide race. She is just another in the long line of amazingly weak candidates the Dems have placed near the top of their ticket, and her numbers reflect that. Just because SA wags and pundits may know her personally, that doesn’t provide her with statewide gravitas. Although Castro had a plethora of cringe-inducing, smarmy moments, my favorite was when he boasted that Patrick would be unable to handle LVP if he couldn’t even handle Castro. I suspect Castro thought he was being generous to LVP, but instead he revealed his smug arrogance.

Local TPR journalist David Martin Davies published a summary of the debate on Texas Public Radio website, and I commented as follows:

  • I haven’t followed Patrick until last night, so I don’t know if his position against deporting (or self-deporting) 11 million illegal immigrants is new, but it certainly takes some wind out of the sails of Dems on this issue. In its place, the Dems are left to argue in favor of amnesty and magnets like sanctuary cities.

And finally, Gilbert Garcia wrote about the debate in his column in the Express-News titled, “Castro’s boldness made Patrick cautious.” In response to the column, I suggested as follows:

  • I thought both guys defended their positions well and I would be amazed if either converted a single voter. But Patrick probably benefited most by ameliorating the common perception of him as a radical.”

I have previously written that the Castro brothers are not ready for primetime.  Based on last night’s performance, I believe Julian remains unready, but Dan Patrick surely is.  We have not heard the last of him.

 

April 14, 2014

Sunday Book Review #132 – Complete Guide to Money by Dave Ramsey

Filed under: Book reviews,Finances — Mike Kueber @ 8:31 pm
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Dave Ramsey is a radio talk show host and probably the best-known financial guru in America. His book Complete Guide to Money (2011) serves as the handbook to his Financial Peace University, a biblically-based video seminar given to thousands of people each year. In the book’s introductory chapter and its Afterword, plus several times in between, Ramsey asserts that “personal finance is only 20% head knowledge. The other 80% is behavior. This book gives you the head knowledge, but no book alone can do much to change behavior.”

I disagree with Ramsey on both counts. The book is woefully weak with respect to head knowledge, with many half-baked ideas and bromides that can’t withstand scrutiny. A discerning, disciplined reader would be much better off reading Scott Burn, a nationally-known financial columnist who actually understands financial math.

But the book is strong with respect to changing behavior. Wikipedia characterizes Ramsey as a motivational speaker, and the book obviously was drafted to motivate conduct that an undiscerning, undisciplined person might be able to adopt.

The book is filled with Ramsey’s insights:

  • Differences between a man and his wife add spice to life, but the couple need to have an understanding on religion, in-laws, parenting, and money.
  • Parents need to teach their kids to work (money comes from work, not other people), save, spend, and give.
  • Whenever someone asks for financial help, consider whether this will truly help or will it be giving a drunk a drink.
  • By developing a budget and agreeing to live according to it, a couple can automatically remove those continual money fights that plague many marriages.
  • Too often, young adults want to fast-track themselves into the standard of living that their parents spent 20 years achieving, and they do this by accumulating debt.
  • When in the process of paying off all debts, pay off the smaller balances first, not the balances with the higher interest rates, because it is important to achieve quick wins to sustain behavior modification. (Crazy!)
  • Paying off debt should take priority over saving for retirement, even with a 401k with an employer match. (Crazy!)
  • You should always – always – roll your company-sponsored retirement plan into an IRA when you leave the company.” Ramsey suggests this because a regular IRA gives more options, but he fails to consider that some company plans (mine) have much lower expense ratios than even the best IRAs, like Vanguard’s.  (Crazy!)
  • A 401k should be rolled into a Roth IRA if you have saved more than $700k and you have adequate existing liquidity to pay the taxes. (Crazy because most other financial agree that deciding between Roth and non-Roth is subjective, not automatic.)
  • The Pinnacle is the point in your life when your savings and investments make more money for you in a year than your salary does. I remember a time when my co-workers and I, later in our careers, would get monthly 401k statements that exceeded our wages, and once we might have even received a quarterly statement that exceeded our wages, but none of us ever pulled that off for an entire year. An interesting concept, nonetheless.
  • Never use prepaid tuition. (Crazy because Ramsey assumes that tuition inflation is no greater than the COLA when in fact it has far exceeded the COLA for decades.)
  • Avoid mobile homes and timeshares because neither can ever be sold on the secondary market.  (Crazy.)
  • Never do a reverse mortgage because it merely gives a person who has paid off debt the chance to go back into debt. (Crazy because selling off you equity does not place you in debt.)

Bottom line – as a guide to modifying the behavior of people who are heretofore unsuccessful in dealing with their personal finances, this book probably works. But it is not appropriate for successful people wanting to fine-tune their financial game.

April 13, 2014

Race and sports

Filed under: Culture,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 12:14 pm
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A couple of weeks ago, a 40-year-old major-league baseball (MLB) pitcher named LaTroy Hawkins authored a “Point After” column in Sports Illustrated titled “Pitching Changes.” In the column, Hawkins described changes that this seasoned player would like to see with America’s pastime.

The first change recommended by Hawkins was to send underperforming umps down to the minors. This would be analogous to my longtime suggestion to send underperforming MLB franchises down to the minors. That is the way a meritocracy is supposed to work.

The most provocative change suggested by Hawkins was for MLB to take affirmative action to correct the underrepresentation of blacks in baseball. Although most people in the mainstream are not aware of it, African-Americans comprise less than 10% of MLB rosters. This contrasts remarkably with the NBA, which is 78% African American. And most of the non-black NBA players are white non-Americans. Indeed, you can probably count on your fingers the number of white Americans that play NBA basketball.

As Vince Lombardi famously yelled, “What the hell’s going on out here?”

Talking about race and sports has been politically incorrect ever since Jimmy the Greek in 1988 was fired from his TV job for speculating on why blacks were better athletes than whites:

  • The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.”

The political correctness at that time was so suffocating that Hollywood in 1992 tried to provide some fresh air with a Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes movie titled White Men Can’t Jump. But the movie was unable to ameliorate the self-censorship, and just a couple of weeks ago I heard the irreverent Don Imus comment on the shocking number of whites playing for the Wisconsin Badgers in the NCAA Final Four and then asking whether that was a racist comment. His black sidekick Tony Richmond absolved him of any guilt by noting that Imus was merely observing a fact and that is not racist. If only it were that simple.

Getting back to LaTroy Hawkins. Since it is apparently OK for him to bemoan the dearth of blacks in MLB baseball, I will question the dearth of American whites in NBA basketball. Why is it that there are so many white non-Americans playing in the NBA, but so few white Americans? This inquiring mind doesn’t know, but would like to know what smarter people think.

April 12, 2014

Saturday Night at the Movies #109 – Dallas Buyers Club and Doubt

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 9:08 pm
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Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013) is an Oscar-nominated biographical drama about a heterosexual Texas cowboy, Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 contracts HIV from unprotected sex at a time when the only promising treatment, AZT, was still being tested by the FDA. The story focuses on Woodroof, who, because of his inability to access AZT, resorts to using some drug in Mexico that seems to help him and then becomes an entrepreneur in making the unapproved drug available throughout north Texas. Eventually the feds shut him down, but not before he survives for seven years past the 30 days he was given to live after his initial diagnosis. Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for playing Woodroof, and his transgender sidekick is played Jared Leto, who won a supporting Oscar. Jennifer Garner has a supporting role, too, as a sympathetic doctor, but she seems gratuitous to the plot. Her only significance is to create some discomfort for me in the end when it seems like the heretofore low-life McConaughey, redeemed by his entrepreneurial success with drugs, begins to think that a beautiful doctor might be interested in him romantically.  Thankfully, he doesn’t hit on her, but still McConaughey’s transformation, both social and financial, is too extreme to be plausible. The Rotten Tomato critics love the movie at 94% and the audience is almost as good at 92%. Not me – I give it only two and a half stars out of four.

Doubt (2008) is a drama about a young, progressive priest who is suspected by an elderly nun of being a child molester. I chose this movie because the priest is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has been characterized as the greatest actor of his generation since his death earlier this year. Plus Meryl Steep plays the nun, and she is often described as the best actress of her generation. Amazingly, both Hoffman and Streep were nominated for Oscars, as were two inconsequential supporting thespians, Amy Adams (a naïve nun) and Viola Davis (the abused’s mother). The theme of the movie is intriguing because it is set in 1964, a time when most people were not aware of the problem with priests. Yet Streep is much more conscientious in addressing the problem than Joe Paterno was just a few years ago. The movie’s major disappointment is Hoffman. I was prepared for him to knock my socks off, and while he adequately acted as the young, progressive priest early in the movie, he utterly failed later in the movie to reflect the sick malefactor when Streep exposes him. Rarely have I seen an actor seem more obviously as an actor instead of the character. The Rotten Tomato critics and audiences agree at 78%. I disagree and give it only two and a half stars out of four.

April 11, 2014

The purpose of life

Filed under: Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 2:15 pm
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Yoga instructors at Lifetime Fitness like to insert some words of wisdom into our daily practices. A couple of weeks ago, one of the instructors said something suggesting that the objective of life is not to be happy, but rather to serve others. Because yoga practice had put me in a peaceful mood, I didn’t immediately react to this wisdom. A bit later, though, I started thinking about how contrary this wisdom is to my adopted philosophy as described by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged and concluded that it deserved a blogpost.

Because I couldn’t remember the precise quote or its author, I paraphrased it on Google, which responded by referring me to a website with quotations describing the “purpose of life.”  One of those quotations was from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

  • The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Emerson is one of the wise men often quoted by my yoga instructors, so I’m pretty sure this is the one that I heard in class.

Other quotes on the purpose of life reflected a different philosophy:

  • The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
  • You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it courageously.” ― Steve Maraboli
  • It does not matter how long you are spending on the earth, how much money you have gathered or how much attention you have received. It is the amount of positive vibration you have radiated in life that matters.” ― Amit Ray

The Google inquiry also directed me to a website that discussed Ayn Rand and her disdain for altruism:

  • Ayn Rand was not exaggerating when she said, ‘The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.’ That is the theoretical meaning of altruism. And the altruistic philosophers know it—and state it forthrightly.”

In the place of altruism, Rand espoused a doctrine called rational egoism, which says you should pursue your life-serving values and should not sacrifice yourself for the sake of others.

There is much about Emerson’s philosophy that I like, but Rand wins this argument.

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