An Unexpected Find

I was wandering along some tributary of Teh Intarwebz looking for something or other, when I came across a series of paintings of extraordinary beauty done by Russian-Israeli artist Leonid Afremov, and completely forgot what I’d been looking for. Here’s one that caught my eye first, called Heavy Rain:

Now, the thing about traditional Impressionism is that it was created at a time when light in cities was soft, made by gaslight and candlelight  — and needless to say, the en plein air trend of 19th-century Impressionism meant that most paintings were daytime scenes. Night, in the countryside, means darkness (unless you’re Van Gogh, of course, and see the stars as miniature suns). Cityscapes were mostly lit by the sun, and to those painters, the city sun was harsh (which is why there are so many Impressionist paintings of dusk, dawn or rainy scenes, where the light is softer). Here’s one by Edouard Cortès, to illustrate [sic] the point:

Édouard Leon Cortès Tutt’Art@

But Afremov is a modern Impressionist painter — he was born in 1955, which makes him a year younger than I — and the light he sees is harsher, brighter, more artificial: neon, light bulbs and florescent tubes, and he uses a palette knife rather than a brush to make the contrast even more pronounced. That doesn’t take away from his wonderful skill and expressiveness, of course; just look at his exquisite Promenade, and tell me it’s not evocative:

If you go to DeviantArt, you can see more.

I just love his work. If I could, I’d buy prints of almost everything he’s ever done and hang them on my walls.

Housekeeping

As with my old blogs, I won’t be posting much over weekends because

a.) people need to be with their families / doing something productive / sleeping off hangovers, rather than reading my stuff on the Internet; and

b.) I need time for my Pore Ole Brain to recover — it’s been a busy week;  and finally,

c.) I have a boatload of work to do in clearing out the assorted garbage of the last fourteen years so that the house does not make prospective buyers run screaming down the street.

Nevertheless, one fresh post each day awaits you over the weekend. See y’all on Monday, when the normal menu of invective, anger, threats to politicians and gun worship will continue.

No. Just… NO.

Via Insty, I discovered this little beast lurking in the bushes. The piece is entitled, “The race for autonomous cars is over. Silicon Valley lost” and is about how Silicon Valley won’t be able to challenge Detroit / Wolfsburg / Stuttgart / Tokyo in the manufacture of autonomous cars. Don’t care about any of that. No, the turd in the punchbowl actually comes towards the end of the article:

There is another area where Silicon Valley could play a dominant role and it’s all about accessing car-based data.

One billion people get in and out of a car every single day. They go to work, they go home, they shop, they play, they do a billion different things. Knowing where they’re going and what they’re doing can be very valuable. That data can be aggregated, sorted, and packaged. And then it can be sold to anyone.

Unlike automotive manufacturing, Big Data analytics driven by Artificial Intelligence does not require large capital investments in factories and equipment. That translates into meaty profit margins, reportedly as high as 90%.

There are basically two sets of data. One set is generated by the car, such as how all the parts and components are performing and how well the car is running. That allows automakers to mine the data for a variety of uses, such as trend analysis to quickly identify warranty issues or learn how to set more effective engineering specifications.

The other set of data is generated by the people in the car; a massive amount of information flowing in and out about where they’re going and what they’re doing. Last year in the U.S. market alone Chevrolet collected 4,220 terabytes of data from customer’s cars. McKinsey forecasts that this could grow into a $450 to 750 billion market by 2030. Retailers, advertisers, marketers, product planners, financial analysts, government agencies, and so many others will eagerly pay to get access to that information. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. You can sell the same data again, again and again to a variety of different customers. 

I have no absolutely problem with the first data set; if it’s to do with improving the car and its manufacturer’s business, I’m all for it.

I have an enormous problem with the second data set. Here’s why.

As Longtime Readers already know, I used to work in the supermarket loyalty program business; you know, those annoying little cards you have to use to get discounts when you check out of the big supermarkets. (Basically, the supermarket is paying you for your shopping data, which they mostly use to improve things like stock re-ordering, shelf management and pricing strategy. That’s the equivalent of Data Set #1, above.) Let me be perfectly frank about this: I don’t know a great deal about a lot of things, but I know absolutely everything about customer data collection and -marketing. Over a period of five years, I set up data collection methodology and designed databases, reporting systems and marketing programs for a number of supermarket chains all over the United States. Trust me, I know whereof I speak on this topic.

Which is why I look on this Data Set #2 from the automotive industry with alarm and absolute hostility. One of the rules I set up right at the beginning of any loyalty program was that the data didn’t belong to the supermarket chain; it belonged to the customer. Once aggregated, of course, the data became ours — but individual transaction data was absolutely untouchable. We could not release any individual’s data to anyone without that customer’s explicit and specific approval — several times, I refused “requests” (demands) from divorce attorneys and once, yes, from a government agency, to have access to individuals’ shopping data.

Now compare and contrast that policy, if you will, with this breezy attitude towards data sharing:

Retailers, advertisers, marketers, product planners, financial analysts, government agencies, and so many others will eagerly pay to get access to that information. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. You can sell the same data again, again and again to a variety of different customers. 

I have often cautioned people about this trend towards autonomous cars. Yes, it means that you don’t have to worry your pretty / pointy little head about that messy driving business while you grapple with WOW Level 13 — but what you’re doing, in essence, is giving up control of the car to someone else. (And you can dress it up with all the IT gobbledygook about “algorithms”, “AI” and “predictive planning” you want; I’ll still tell you to blow it out your ass, because at the end of the day, someone not you is going to control your actions.)

Now this. Note that in the excerpt above, the lovely little term “government agencies” is inserted right next to “and so many others” like it’s not just another fucking tool whereby the goddamn government can observe and yes, later control your actions.

One of my heroes is a man named John Cowperthwaite, who was the governor-general of Hong Kong during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and who was responsible for the greatest improvement of a country’s living conditions in history. Here was Cowperthwaite’s take on government data collection (which he expressly forbade, by the way), as told to Milton Friedman:

“I remember asking [Cowperthwaite] about the paucity of statistics. He answered,’If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.'”

If it were just planning, I might be okay with it. But what Cowperthwaite suspected, and what I know for a fact, is that governmental “planning” inevitably leads to government control. Information is everything, and we now live in the Information Age. Sometimes I wish we didn’t, because the vast mass of people just don’t care or are completely ignorant of this danger.

Here’s my last thought (for now) on this topic. The automobile was for decades a symbol of an individual’s independence. In his car, a man could drive wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, for whatever reason he wanted, and for as long as he wanted — all without anyone but himself being any the wiser. Now, under the guise of “autonomy”, this freedom is going to be taken away from us. (At this point, George Orwell is laughing his ass off. “Freedom is Slavery”, remember?)

I once said that if I could choose the way I die, it would either be in my wife’s arms or on the barricades. Well, that first option has been taken from me, which means that if I die, it will be in a pitched gun battle with government agents who are trying to take away my old car and forcing me to use Government Autonomous Vehicle Mk. VII — and if you think I’m joking, I’m not. Fuck this bullshit.

College Bound

As promised in an earlier post, I want to talk about college — and if any of my Loyal Readers have kids (or even grandkids) who are thinking of attending college, you may want to pass this on to them.  Here’s my opening statement:

Most people have absolutely no business going to college.

I know that a college degree is now the same as a high-school diploma was, forty years ago; as the late Joseph Sobran once put it, we’ve gone from teaching Greek and Latin in high school to teaching remedial English in college. That doesn’t matter; here’s where we are now, and that’s all there is to it. The question is: what next? How to make the best of a bad thing? Here are a few observations, based on my being in college in two separate time periods, the early 1970s and most recently the late 2010s. (I was a slacker in the first, and a serious student in the second.)

Most kids are wasting their time in college. Unless they or their parents are independently wealthy, a class in any of the Humanities has no benefit other than educational. (Remember: I have a B.A. summa in History, which qualifies me to do exactly… squat.) As I looked around at the kids in my classes recently, all I could see was a bunch of slackers, stupid people, party animals and future schoolteachers. The guys were even worse. Few of them belonged in college. (No doubt this is not the case in most STEM classes, which is an even better reason not to get a B.A.)

All that said, let’s assume that everything I’ve written so far doesn’t apply to you, and you’re hell-bent on going to college. It’s going to cost a mint — you, your parents or grandparents are going to spend about $50,000 per annum or more — so if you’re going to go, get it done as quickly as possible. I took three years to get my B.A., which means that just about anyone can. So here we go:

Kim’s Rules And Guidelines For College Success

1. Treat college for what it is: it’s a JOB, a job to get a degree or certification. This means going to every scheduled class, lab or tutorial, taking notes, doing the pre-work and homework, and handing in assignments on time (or early). Your job is to ingest and retain educational content, not piss around in frat parties and pep rallies. Just like a job, you should spend at minimum 12 hours per day, whether in class or studying (for each hour of classroom time, add three hours for studying). Over and beyond your regular studying time, you should spend at least 18 hours prepping for a test, no matter how well you think you know the subject. This, by the way, is the kind of daily time that company managers devote to their job, which is why they get the big bucks and why the clockwatchers get stuck with minimum wage / basic salary scale. Work at least six hours per day on weekends if you have to; they’re not holy days, but class-free days in which you can prepare for the following week’s classes and tests. (And if Saturdays or Sundays are holy days for you, you’ll have to make up the missed time during the week.) I know this sounds like a lot of work — but it has a double benefit: you’ll succeed in college, and the work ethic will transfer to your future jobs and make you stick out from the slackers and deadbeats who are your colleagues.

2. Take copious notes. If and only if you can type at 90/90 (w.p.m. / % accuracy), then by all means ask the prof if you can use your laptop to take notes; otherwise write them — and then rewrite or type them up immediately after class while the memory is still fresh and you can fill in any gaps. My experience is that where profs are not allowing laptops in class, it’s because too many idiots are abusing the thing (Facebook, gaming etc) and worse, distracting the other students.

3. Turn off your damn phone in class. This is becoming such a problem that one prof has been known to take a half-filled bucket of water to the classroom, and put it on his desk with a warning sign: “Final destination for ringing phones.” His choice for the students: drop the phone in the water themselves, or leave and be suspended for a week’s classes. One student had to leave an exam — earning him an F — because his phone rang and he refused to dunk his iPhone. He appealed to the college administration, and lost.

4. Always show up early for class, especially on Day 1. The first class is the most important day of the semester, because that’s where you learn about the prof and how he teaches. Many profs are now not allowing latecomers into the first class at all, because of how important it is for the others who arrived on time. For all other classes: be ready to go when the prof is ready, which means arriving at least 5 minutes early and taking your seat.

5. Don’t sit in the back row. Usually, that’s where the screwups choose to sit, and the profs know it. Also, it’s easier to get distracted by other students when you’re in the back. If you inexplicably fear sitting in the front row (are we still in first grade?), then sit in the second row. Finally, don’t sit next to your BFF (this is especially true for women). Once again, we are not in first grade; we are there to study and learn like adults. On a related note: never take food or drink into the classroom. If you can relate a lecture to an important business meeting, then ask yourself this question: would you take out a Big Mac during a corporate budget meeting? (If you answer “yes” to this, you have a career waiting for you at the DMV, and even they don’t allow eating at your desk.) You’re not going to die of thirst in an hour; visit the drinking fountain en route to the classroom, and you’ll survive.

6. Mimic the study habits of the “A” students. Don’t fall into the slacker category (even though it’s easier or “cooler”). If possible, BE the Smart Kid in the class, the one who’s asked to join a study group rather than the one who’s always begging people to study with them. That said, there’s only space for one name on your degree certificate, so:
a. Avoid study groups. Mostly, you end up wasting your time propping up slackers and/or stupid people. Your education is your responsibility, and yours alone.
b. Avoid group projects, and avoid classes which set lots of group projects, as much as possible. If you HAVE to do a group project, secretly do ALL the work yourself and have it ready for when one member (or more) of the group flakes and doesn’t do their part of the assignment (the chances of this happening at least once during your college career: 100%).

7. Take the free marks. If there’s an attendance grade(!) and/or graded homework which will count towards the final grade, those are free marks. Grab them and get 100%. Think about it: if attendance is 5% and homework is 15% of the final grade, that’s 20% of your final grade in the bag if you get 100% for each. More to the point, NOT getting 100% for the giveaways is throwing marks away. Don’t refuse the gift.

8. Visit the library early and often. Google doesn’t count. Look up related books on your courses, and discuss how those authors differ from your prescribed texts with your prof. He’ll know you’re a serious student, and he’ll take your papers and exams more seriously. And in doing so, you’ll actually learn more about your course of study — which, lest we forget, is a Good Thing. Serious students get As, and if you’re not working towards As and Bs in every single course, you have no business being in college.

9. Enroll in as many summer classes as you can. Three months’ vacation is just wasted time, UNLESS you’re working like hell to pay off your tuition instead of taking out a loan. Also, use spring break to get ahead of your upcoming studies instead of puking your guts out / winning wet t-shirt competitions in Daytona, South Padre or Cabo. People who work in the real world get only two or three weeks’ vacation a year; as a student, you’re entitled to no more. One more time; college is a job, not an opportunity for Bacchanalian excess. Even worse, it’s a job you have to pay for. Treat it accordingly.

10. Choose your courses wisely. Know up front, by the way, that just because a particular course is in the catalog, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be taught during any particular semester. (I missed a French sub-major because the one class I needed for qualification wasn’t offered during my final semester.)
a.) If you’re not going to get a STEM degree, consider carefully whether you should be going to college at all. At worst, you should consider a business degree — a serious one, not “Business Communications” or suchlike nonsense. A serious business degree will involve heavy-duty statistics, math, economics and at least two accounting classes — more, if you’re going to specialize in Finance. If your prospective college’s school of business doesn’t offer such an intensive degree, find another college. Doing well in a business course (MBA, MFA etc.) requires as much work, study and dedication as a medical doctor’s M.D. degree.
b.) Expect to have to look for a job in the global market, so become fluent in a second significant* language, and if you’re of foreign origin and are already fluent in Spanish, Hindi or Chinese, for example, become fluent in a third language. It helps especially if the second language is relevant to your future career. (If you’re no good at languages, you’d better be damn good at something else.)
c.) Don’t take any course with the word “Studies” in its title or catalog description. You will find that “ethnic” or “gender” studies qualify you to do nothing at all. If you have a burning desire to take such courses, postpone the action for post-grad, as “adult education.”
d.) Degrees in “Communications” or “Education” are worthless. They do allow you to say “I have a college degree” but they are a red flag to anyone reading your resume. Ditto all the courses mentioned in c.) above. Here are just two examples relating to this choice of career.
1.) Back in the 1930s, a professor asked one of his students what he intended to do after graduation. When the student said he was interested in becoming a journalist, the professor was appalled, saying “That’s no career for a university man!” Wiser words were seldom spoken.
2.) In this day and age, if you’re getting a degree which (you believe) will get you a teaching job, you will be wasting your time and money. There is a huge glut of teachers, and most college teaching jobs will soon be made redundant by online courses anyway. Public school teaching nowadays is a career for deadbeats and idiots: no matter how dedicated you are, or how much you love the chillins, the public school bureaucracy will stamp that out in a minimum of one year. The dropout rate for new teachers is appallingly high: 60% on average will quit after the second year of teaching, and go on to do something else. If you’re one of the 60%, don’t even think of getting a job in corporate training — your B.Ed will make you the dunce of the applicants, and H.R. knows it. (If you can’t define the difference between training and education, quit now.)

If all the above do not make you want to become a welder, carpenter or electrician, then good luck to you. (The often-scorned “tradesmen” jobs such as the ones listed are actually a far better bet than a B.A. when it comes to long-term financial success, but I’ll be discussing that in another post.)

Oh, and one last caveat, if you’re absolutely set on going to college: never, ever join a sorority or fraternity, no matter how much you hear about the wonderfulness of being a sister or brother. They are degree-killers, and the failure rate in the “Greek” community is appalling. Animal House was great comedy, but it’s no way to go through life, son.

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*a “significant” language means a major economic country’s language, such as Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, Hindi, or Arabic. Languages such as Catalan, Celtic or Icelandic, for example, may be lovely romantic choices but they’re irrelevant, economically speaking.

Drugs, Disposal Of

One of the interesting things about cancer sufferers is the quantity and scope of the drugs needed to live their lives painlessly — what’s known in the medical business as “palliative” care (you’re going to die soon, but we’re going to make your life as bearable as possible, with all the drugs you need).

We were already on this train, of course, with Connie’s incurable back troubles. That was morphine, quite a bit, taken three times a day just so she could walk the few steps to the kitchen and back, and ditto to the bathroom and back. Then, with cancer, came a whole battalion of new stuff: hydrocodone for the pain, Ativan / Xanax for the emotional stress, something to make her sleep, something (actually, quite a few things) to make her bowels work (pain meds stop you up like concrete), something to help her bladder, something to alleviate the nausea caused by taking so many drugs in concert, and so on, and so on, and so on.

The end result was that after she died, I was left with a metric tonne of prescription narcotics. Just out of curiosity, I looked up the “street” value of the drugs I had left, and it appeared that I might not be able to pay off the house, but I could certainly pay off the car. (Source: the DEA website: government as a source of useful if questionable data, who knew?)

Anyway, I wasn’t about to sell the narcotics on the street, a.) because it’s the wrong thing to do, b.) because it’s illegal (and if you can’t tell the difference between the two, there’s a job waiting for you at the Clinton Foundation), and c.) because I have absolutely no idea how or even where to start this kind of felony. (My luck, the very first person I approached with: “Hi, wanna buy some morphine or Xanax?” would turn out to be an undercover cop.) And, good grief: none of my friends and relatives were interested, because, well, because they’re all law-abiding, non-drug-abusing people and could get drugs from their doctors if they needed them.

And just being in possession of all these drugs in these quantities was probably some kind of felony. I had to get rid of them; but how and where?

Nobody wanted me to flush them down the toilet or in the sink, because that meant the drugs would eventually get into the water supply. So I tried to do the right thing.

First, I went to the drugstore which had provided so many of the drugs to us: no dice. Obviously, the drugs can’t be re-issued, and they didn’t do disposal of unused / unwanted drugs, either. The pharmacist told me to try the Fire Department; apparently, they could take and destroy the stuff.

Except that wasn’t the case. The Plano FD, apparently, had stopped that program years ago. How about the Plano PD, they suggested. So off I went to our local police, with whom I have had a pleasant and amiable relationship for over a dozen years (except for the Girl Scout Incident which was all a big mistake anyway).

Here’s where it gets funny. “We don’t accept drugs, except in April and October, where we have a partnership with the DEA.” As Connie had had the temerity to die in February, and not in sync with Law Enforcement’s schedule, I would have to wait until April. Which I wasn’t about to do.

The DEA informed me that it wasn’t their jurisdiction; it was a local matter. (One wonders how disinterested they’d have been if I’d tried to sell the narcotics to one of their undercover agents in the street, but let me not denigrate the efforts of our federal law enforcement agencies.)

In desperation, I called the hospice nurse who had taken such good care of Connie over the last few months of her life, and finally(!) got a halfway-decent response. Here’s what she told me to do.

Crush everything up into powder. Soak a large number of paper towels with a solution of dish soap and water. Spread the powder evenly over the paper towels, and wait for them to dry. Throw the dried paper towels away in the trash, or burn them outside and throw the ashes in the trash. All this sounded eminently reasonable and responsible.

So I flushed them all down the toilet.

No Irish Need Apply

I was chatting to a friend about dealing with the loss of one’s wife, when he made a rather startling admission. Now before I go any further, I should point out that he’s been more-or-less happily married to his Mrs. for well over two dozen years, and says he’s never been unfaithful to her (and I believe him, because… well, because I know him).

“If something horrible were to happen to _____,” he said, “and I wanted female companionship after I came out of mourning, there’s no way I would ever have any kind of long-term relationship again.”

“You’d just date women?”

“I’d rent ’em,” came the calm reply. “With the way women behave nowadays, I doubt whether there’s a single one who’s worth the trouble.”

Which leads me to the next point. Apparently, some Australian prostitute [Redundancy Alert] recently came out into the open about her chosen profession, and gave a list of her absolute no-nos when it came to things she’d do for a client. The most amusing one was: “No Irish men… for obvious reasons.”

You have to know how badly she views Irish men, when almost all her clients would be Australian. Of course, she’s Australian too, which means she’s dreadful. Even my friend wouldn’t touch her with a long stick.

Lest I be accused of being a hater or Strine-phobic, here’s a pic of an Australian wedding party:

My friend’s comment: “Good grief. No wonder Australian men drink so much.”