The Thinker

The bane of bad and ineffective political fundraising

I once wrote about how most proselytizers are morons. I can add to that list the fundraisers for candidates running for political office, at least the ones that write me. And write me they do, constantly! Lately my email inbox overflows with fifty or more of these pitches a day all of which boil down to ohmigod the world is going to come to end right now if you don’t empty your bank account and send all of it immediately to my candidate!

Thankfully Gmail seems to recognize a lot of this garbage and throws it into a spam folder, which is good except that means I’d be seeing more than fifty of these a day if it weren’t. There may be a Can Spam Act but it doesn’t apply to solicitations for public office. This means there is no penalty for campaigns contacting me and so they do, over and over again.

Occasionally I do click on the unsubscribe link. Sometimes it actually works, but most of the time it doesn’t last for long. Sometimes I get more emails from the candidate later that same day, even after receiving an email telling me I was unsubscribed to future mailings. I went through a period of several months where I religiously clicked on unsubscribe links for the stuff that did come in my inbox. It rarely worked for long. There is no penalty for candidates swapping email lists. Candidates selling their lists to other candidates appear to be one of the principle ways they make money. The result is there is no way to turn it off.

Proactive contributors know what to do: create an email specifically for this crap and give that to these campaigns. This works fine if you are consistent about it. However, give out your primary email address just once and you are doomed. Your only choice is to abandon that email address for another one. Since almost everyone I care about knows my real email address and it is tied to more businesses and websites than I can count, that’s not an option.

I actually try to read some of this fundraising spam from time to time. Like Craigslist casual encounters postings that I review monthly, it can be amusing. In fact, I could make it a feature of my blog to highlight the sheer inanity of it all, as I actually have done before. Only unlike Craigslist casual encounters, which I assume most people don’t regularly visit, most of you are also getting this crap, so it’s probably not that amusing.

Nonetheless, they occasionally tickle my funny bone. I got one recently from “Vice President Joe Biden” but doubtless some low level staffer at the DSCC or DCCC instead. Joe told me he was personally reaching out to me. He even called me by name (as they all do, as they have harvested your name.) The inanity of it though was funny because there was nothing the least bit personal about it, other than substituting my first name into an email template, which they all do. Since Joe likely has my snail mail address, if he wants to personally reach out to me, he can knock on my door. There’s a good chance I won’t open the door but since he’s vice president I might. And I might give the DSCC, DCCC or whatever group he is soliciting for $50. So come on over, Joe.

Quarterly FEC fundraising deadlines, but now new made-up end of month “deadlines” seem to ratchet up the emails as the month ends. These days any poll that shows a candidate down a few points, or a poll suggesting they are close to beating an incumbent, will stimulate requests for money. It often feels though like they are simply making up stuff. In any event these pitchmen make used car salesmen took ethical. In the process they treat their potential contributors like morons, which probably means they don’t deserve a contribution.

In fact, most of the money given to candidates is wasted. Hillary Clinton of course is taking in heaping piles of money right now. I get not just email but snail mail regularly from her campaign asking me to send $100 or more now! How is she spending it? It’s being spent mostly to buy TV and radio time. This is a complete waste of money. I can find better ways to spend that money on something actually useful.

Why is it a waste of time? It’s because the number of us who are persuadable is vanishingly small. Look at Clinton and Trump’s polling numbers over the past six months. They have fluctuated a bit but their percentages are pretty much where they were six months ago, and Clinton still has the lead. And that’s because six months ago people already knew whom they were going to vote for — yes, our political opinions are that hardened. The vast amounts of the money Clinton is spending now is going for TV and radio ads and it’s pretty much all wasted.

If Clinton wanted to persuade me to send her money, her staff might document that they are spending it wisely. Campaign ads even in swing states aren’t going to move the needle. At this point in the campaign only one-thing matters: turnout. So I want to see a treasurer’s report showing 80% or more of contributions are going to fund turnout efforts. And I want to see evidence that this door knocking and phone banking is working. I want to read about the fleets of buses that will help minorities get to polling stations that are too far away; that they are helping poor people get voter IDs or that they’ve prepaid for a taxi to take these people to the polls who otherwise could not make it. Then I might cough up some more money. But to see it wasted on TV and radio advertising tells me the campaign is run by a bunch of hacks. I’m not spending my hard earned money to prop up the profits of Clear Channel, which owns so many of our nation’s radio stations.

The most effective time to spend money is at the start of a campaign, not its end. At its start the candidate is relatively unknown and needs introduction. Even this is a pretty poor use of campaign money. What we really need are candidates that speak to us; a candidate we can relate to. When that happens we become naturally enthusiastic and the money part tends to take care of itself. Witness Bernie Sanders nearly successful campaign this year as evidence. I gave him money when I saw real potential in the candidate. No one needed to prompt me.

Money is also well spent early in the campaign when memes are set. Obama did in Mitt Romney in June and July 2012 when his campaign brilliantly aired those “47% will never vote for me” ads, showing Romney’s disdain for the working class. Romney would have had a tough campaign regardless, but doing it then when voters were forming impressions about Romney as a genial guy was brilliant, but also fortuitous for the Obama campaign.

With a few exceptions like the Sanders campaign, campaigns in general seem tone deaf to what really works and how to spend and raise money effectively. I can tell the candidates worth supporting by their smart management and the way their candidate naturally connects with voters. The rest of them, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, don’t deserve my support until they demonstrate to me that they will use my hard-earned money wisely. It’s clear from these shrill solicitations in my inbox that the descendants of P.T. Barnum are running their fundraising and that’s a bad sign.

 
The Thinker

The folly of voting third-party for president

It’s post Labor Day and it’s a presidential election year. You know what that means. According to our press, it means people are now starting to seriously pay attention to the upcoming election.

I find this hard to believe. Granted that I am something of a political junkie but it must be a very, very remote corner of Appalachia that hasn’t heard the endless thoughts spewing from the mouth and Twitter feed of Donald J. Trump. He’s the mouth that has roared for over a year now. And Hillary Clinton has spent decades in the public spotlight. We all have firmly baked opinions about her.

Perhaps to stir up some excitement, the press is agog about tightening polls showing Hillary Clinton’s lead dropping. It’s still a rare poll that shows her numbers below Trump’s, at least nationally but polls are generally showing her numbers moving to within margin of error numbers. It’s clear that large majorities of Americans don’t particularly like either Clinton or Trump and wants someone else to vote for. Unsurprisingly some are looking at third party candidates instead: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Those voters who follow through seem to want to make a statement.

And they will make a statement if they don’t mind shooting themselves in the foot. This happened to me in 1980 when I voted for John Anderson for president. I hate to say our electoral system is rigged but when it comes to the presidential vote it certain is and it’s by design. This is because an Electoral College actually votes a president into office and because 48 of the fifty states have laws that whichever candidate wins a plurality of the votes in the presidential race gets all of the state’s electoral delegates.

This means the system is rigged so as to make it virtually impossible for any candidate not in a major party to win. But it also means that if you are voting third party, you are throwing away your vote. The only exception is if your third party candidate wins a plurality of the votes in your state. And while that may garner some electoral votes for your third party candidate, a whole lot of other states have to do the same for your candidate to actually win. In short, you have to bet that both the Democratic and Republican party candidates are so dysfunctional that a wholesale national voting rebellion is going to happen, something that has never happened in our country as best I can tell and probably can’t happen now in our polarized political environment.

In practical terms, this means to a Massachusetts resident like me that if I would have otherwise voted for Hillary Clinton and I vote for Jill Stein instead, I am effectively voting for Donald Trump since it will bump up his share of the votes as a percent of the state’s votes. And if I am a non-racist Alabaman that normally votes Republican but I am so disgusted by Trump’s racism that I vote for Gary Johnson instead, I am helping elect Hillary Clinton.

In my case in 1980 as a 23-year-old voting for third party candidate John Anderson, I was effectively voting for Ronald Reagan, the last candidate I would have voted for. Fortunately in the blue-state of Maryland, it didn’t matter as Maryland’s electoral votes went for Jimmy Carter. Nationwide though John Anderson took 6.6% of the popular vote. Conceivably had Anderson not run and those votes had gone to Carter instead (as research suggests) then that election would at least have been a lot closer. Carter lost by nearly 10% of the popular vote but where it matters, he received only 49 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Reagan’s election was a landslide by any standards, thanks probably to John Anderson’s spoiler effect. As bad as that was the 1984 election was worse. Walter Mondale garnered only 13 electoral votes (his home state of Minnesota and Washington D.C.) Reagan got the rest (525) and that was with no serious third party opposition. For a more recent event that shows the folly of voting third party, look at the 2000 election. Had the Green Party votes in Florida gone to Al Gore, there would have been no President George W. Bush.

Trump is right that the presidential voting system is rigged, but it’s always been that way. The Electoral College mess was designed by our founding fathers to get a commitment from southern states at the time the constitution was ratified. Without it, southern states would have probably never been able to elect a president. With slaves counting as 2/3 of a free person for a state’s share of electoral votes, with a few exceptions (like John Adams) for decades it made it virtually impossible for a non-southerner to become president.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you not to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. If still not convinced, consider that the Green Party and Libertarian Party are minority parties because their views are simply not mainstream views. I find a lot to admire about the Green Party but it’s a party of ideologues, not a party of pragmatists. For example, GMO foods are not going away and it’s folly at this time to try. Libertarians are easy to dismiss because it is wholly unworkable. Imagine selling all our roads, sewers and schools. Imagine no laws against pollution. It would be an unmanageable nightmare.

Which leaves you dear voter ultimately holding your nose while you vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. (I realize there are some voters, particularly Trump voters who are actually enthusiastic about their candidate. Weird.) The other option is not to vote, but not voting is effectively the same as voting third party. You will effectively give more power to those that do vote.

So suck it up for democracy. Democracy ain’t pretty sometimes and it won’t be in this election. However, you have a duty to perform so do it mindful that the system is not perfect and your candidate won’t be either. If you really want the Green or Libertarian parties to grow, you have to do it the hard way by getting local and state candidates elected. With enough of them they may become a majority party in your state. Then you will have leverage, at least on the state level. Or you can work for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College and make it based on actual votes.

Oh, and those polls? I’m still not worried. I think Clinton is still going to win based on state polls, which are the only ones that matter. With a majority of Americans saying they will never vote for Trump, the only way that Trump wins is if a lot of those voters stay home or vote third party instead of voting for Hillary. It’s unlikely but it can happen, and it could happen this year if you don’t vote with the left side of your brain instead of the right side.

I’ll be using the left side and voting for the imperfect Hillary Clinton.

 
The Thinker

Coming to you from the cloud

It’s not the least bit obvious to you but this blog is now coming to you from the cloud. My move to cloud computing is but my latest adventure in hosting. This blog has moved around so many times in its nearly fourteen years even I don’t remember all the places it’s been hosted at. For at least the last four years or so my sites have been hosted at Hostgator on its generally inexpensive shared hosting for about $15 a month (plus an annoying $4 a month for a dedicated IP).

Today though you are being served my fresh content from the cloud. Yes, I am using cloud computing at last, rather than a server in a server farm somewhere. Actually a server farm and a cloud-computing center look pretty much the same except the cloud-computing center is likely a lot bigger. Even I have no idea exactly where my words are coming from, but rest assured they are still sent from a machine on a rack deep in a hosting center somewhere.

All I really know is my blog comes from a gridserver.com domain, which is owned by MediaTemple. “Owned” probably does not apply here. I’m using MediaTemple’s Shared Grid, which is actually Amazon Web Services. I know this from calling their support and asking the question. While MediaTemple still has hosting centers, they have outsourced their shared hosting to AWS. MediaTemple is not alone. Oddly enough most major web hosts are outsourcing a lot of their hosting to someone who will do it faster, better and cheaper in the cloud. This is probably Amazon Web Services, but they are not alone either. Google and Microsoft are the two other major cloud providers and there are a host of smaller ones.

I’m in the cloud in part for cost but also because being in the cloud I get more value. MediaTemple’s Shared Grid service uses all solid state drives, which means there is none of the latency that exists from retrieving content off a disk drive, which requires moving disk platters around. So all things being even, response is faster on this hosting. Readers should also be “closer” to my blog: six routers in my case instead of sixteen to get through between server and browser. (Static content comes from a content delivery network I pay $9 a month for.) So now it’s like going through six stoplights to get to a destination instead of sixteen. A properly managed cloud-computing center also takes care of a lot of the hard stuff, mostly through advanced engineering. Outages are far less likely; patches are less likely to incur downtime. In general readers like you should expect faster response and fewer quirks and issues.

Where vendors like MediaTemple add value is by making using the cloud quite simple. If you were to buy an Amazon EC2 service, you would be expected to manage much of it yourself, including security and upgraded to the operating system. Amazon handles the backend stuff, but MediaTemple wrote a nice friendly wrapper with its control panel so I can use it without thinking too much. It is still technical to administer my sites at times but most stuff can be done elegantly inside its control panel.

Rehosting though is still a pain, which is why I’ve avoided the hassle and waited until my Hostgator contract was ready to expire. This is one of five domains I own. Moving each to the cloud is hardly a trivial process. It means moving masses of files around and in most cases exporting and importing a database, skills not easily acquired. I also have to edit a number of files to make the integration between programs and databases work. This all takes time, attention and a certain amount of geeky skills that I happen to have.

Since I can get this for a fair price (up to 100 domains for about $20 a month, with obvious overall resource quotas I am unlikely to exceed) my hope is this will be the last time I have to rehost. I’ve been plugging away at this for more than a day and my most challenging site still has to be moved. To move that I’ll also have to integrate a certificate first so that content can be sent securely.

In general though I am following the trends. At some point traditional hosting will be obsolete. It will all move to the cloud and probably hosted by Amazon, Google or Microsoft. You won’t know or care who’s doing the heavy lifting. Vendors like MediaTemple and HostGator will distinguish themselves by writing wrappers around cloud hosts for an optimal customer experience and by working with cloud providers so that the infrastructure can be highly tuned for their customers’ needs.

For you and me, reading my blog should be a faster, less quirky and a more reliable experience.

 
The Thinker

The meaning of Star Trek

The media is agog over today’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Yes, it was fifty years ago tonight that the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” first aired on NBC. Then a product of Desilu Studios this futuristic show of zipping across the cosmos on starships quickly became a cult classic, but not enough to spare it from being canceled after three seasons. In fact it had been canceled earlier, but was saved for a while from petitions from fans.

What Gene Roddenberry hath roth! Roddenberry had no particular aspirations for the series when he produced it. In fact, he was a pretty inept producer of the series. TV series fifty years ago are going to suck by modern standards, and many of these original episodes badly sucked. For the most part this was due to Roddenberry’s inattention, NBC’s unforgiving cost controls and using a lot of hack writers. Roddenberry was never that much into his creation, at least not its management. His contribution to his phenomenon was mainly inspirational.

Star Trek depicted a far future for humanity that was hopeful, although it was originally badly depicted on screen. Roddenberry also threw in a few characters that caught our imagination: Captain James T. Kirk as an American cowboy in outer space but mostly Mr. Spock. Spock was a wholly aspirational character: a glimpse of not how ideal aliens should be, but how humanity could be. All this was wrapped around 49 minute episodes with five commercial segments, cheesy costumes and generally poor acting.

And yet Star Trek took off, in spite of NBC and in spite of Roddenberry’s inattention. Its meme was hopeful and a few of its characters were interesting enough to get into. The original series was never really reprised again. The movies were binary: either good or bad, with only the even ones being any good. It took twenty plus years for Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) to emerge and a year or two for its shakedown cruise before Trekkies got what they really wanted: real Star Trek without the warts and blemishes of the original series. It got a lot better when Roddenberry stepped back, mostly due to his health, and let professionals manage the franchise. With STTNG, better budgets and independent syndication, the franchise really took off spinning off other shows, most not so memorable.

In 2003 I proclaimed the death of Star Trek, but it’s reimagination in the 2009 movie proved me wrong. Star Trek now sails into its next half century with a planned CBS series reboot, Star Trek: Discovery, apparently only available to paid subscribers. Curiously it’s no longer NBC property: CBS has taken over the franchise, as it owned by National Amusements, which own ViaCom, which owns Paramount.

There is a mystery to its longevity, as there is with Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and certain other series that manage to become timeless. The original series was not really that good, and it’s third season truly sucked. The same is true with Doctor Who and many of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Keeping a series feeling fresh is hard.

Star Trek managed it with STTNG by keeping Star Trek’s essence and ejecting its bad parts. The 2009 Star Trek reboot movie succeeded by putting the original series in its own time warp, essentially creating an alternative timeline. Star Trek: DS9 worked by abandoning most of Star Trek’s peaceful premise and going back to Gene Roddenberry’s premise of a western in space. Commander Sisko became the sheriff for his part of the Wild West and tried to keep the peace. It’s clear what didn’t work. Voyager really gave us nothing new except a woman captain; many of its episodes we had seen many times before in other iterations. The short-lived series Enterprise proved even less interesting: its chief character of interest was the captain’s cute dog.

So what is Star Trek’s essence? Why do we find ourselves addicted to it, even when it is often mediocre? For me, I see two prominent memes in the Star Trek experience.

First is that no matter how interesting life is for us humans in the 21st century with its ever-expanding technologies, we crave a quantum leap. Our human potential is boundless, even as our humanity frequently proves that we don’t deserve to trek the stars. Star Trek opened the door to new possibilities: the universe on a grand scale that we could easily zoom around in. There we would find wonders beyond our imagination as well as challenges too. These wonders are its lure, but what really interested us are the challenges it posits. Just like a hacker is never satisfied with his latest cyber break in, we look for ever more challenging puzzles to solve and ultimately master. The universe, at least as depicted in the relativity-free world of Star Trek, offers us this tableau of potential to exploit.

Second, at its core Star Trek is hopeful. It speaks to our potential as an enlightened species, not the depressing reality we’re mired in. We crave utopia, but what we crave more is an enlightened and well-ordered society where we get along well with each other and channel our collective and individual energies in ways that help, not harm, but also enrich us as human beings. In Star Trek we see this reality modeled in a hopeful way. It’s a powerful meme and it — not Star Trek’s warp drive — is what really powers this series and its many spinoffs. There’s a place for all of us in this posited reality. Even conservatives can play in this universe, as evidenced by the many fans out there emulating the Klingon culture.

As I noted before, one of the curious things about Star Trek is how much of it has already been realized in just fifty years. Both the universal translator and the communicator are 21st century realities, albeit in different and less powerful forms than Star Trek depicted. Perhaps because of its warp drive, Star Trek is inspiring engineers to see if a warp drive is feasible. Star Trek’s impulse drive looks like a real possibility, although it is not quite out of the lab. It may get us to the stars, much more slowly than with a warp drive, but enough to be practical. It will leverage the power of solar energy and microwaves, if this research bears fruit.

It turns out there is nothing like a model to stimulate human imagination. Star Trek provided a model, both on a technical and sociological level. Since its appeal is universal, it connects all cultures and provides a common foundation to ponder our place in the universe and how to actually sail these oceans of stars all while inspiring us to live up to our ideals. It’s taking us from imaging a new reality to inspiring us to implement it.

Yes, Star Trek is ultimately just a meme. But it’s a meme for good and a meme that calls us to our potential. It’s often great entertainment but it’s not a waste of our time. Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry’s experiment of a western in outer space may literally help take us to the stars and help mankind reach its most noble purpose. It’s a long shot, but it’s a meme with huge energy behind it. I hope it can sustain our passions for the next half-century.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: September 2016 (Hartford CT) edition

So I’ve been traveling – a four-day jaunt to Washington D.C. area and back – so I missed my usual first Friday of the month Craigslist casual encounters post. Since it’s been a while since I posted anything and no other topic immediately came to mind to blog about tonight, I’ll dig through Hartford, Connecticut’s Craigslist Casual Encounters trash tonight instead … and hope weekday postings don’t disappoint.

While these postings often disappoint, my Craigslist readers didn’t disappoint me in August. I count at least 334 web page hits for this stuff last month, including an impressive 239 hits for my May 2015 post. That’s over 18 percent of traffic last month. My site traffic in general was up 23% in August compared to an anemic July.

Who’s posting tonight? Probably those who posted last Friday but had unfulfilled expectations. In any event, the first page of postings tonight in Hartford brings up:

  • 14 men looking for a woman
  • 44 men looking for a man
  • 2 men looking for a couple
  • 1 man looking for multiple men
  • 2 men looking for a transgender experience
  • 11 “women” looking for a man (probably most of which are spam posts)
  • 6 women looking for a woman
  • 4 couples looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for another couple

No transgender people are on the prowl tonight, at least on the first page of posts. Anyhow, let’s dig in:

  • He’s 57 and looking for a man who is a “Little Bit of a Pig in the Bed and Straight on the Street” and much, much younger, at least under 40. And there is one unusual requirement since he is looking to give you oral sex: he can’t accommodate you if you are more than eight inches so if you have too much to spare, don’t apply. Once you see his naked pics though you’ll probably want to stay clear just on general principles.
  • If you are a panty-sniffing woman this 29-year-old woman from Bristol wants to meet you. Good luck with that, poster.
  • I guess conventional sex is too boring for this 37-year-old man but he is into role play and he’s got plenty of roles he wants to play with a willing woman. It’s unclear if he provides the costumes too.
  • She’s 42, a mother of three and wants to meet college men half her age to make their MILF-fantasies come true. It’s all-legit. The catch is hubby will be taking pictures.
  • This man is nostalgic for his Craigslist hookup, which suggests occasionally these ads actually succeed. Apparently she was into nipple weights. Holler if you are still out there scrolling through these ads!
  • He’s 42, from Middletown and is looking for a woman for fun. To improve the odds, he’s willing to trade some of his Oxycontin to score.
  • He 22, from Torrington and must have a hard time paying the tuition because he’s looking for multiple men and is willing to star in an X-rated video for some “hard”-earned cash.
  • She’s from Bloomfield, has herpes and a confusing ad. She’s posting for a woman but the title says she is looking for a man, but the text says she’s looking for a BBW but she’s open to all men and nationalities. Her only qualification: you must have herpes too.
  • She says she’s a widow and 45 but her picture says she’s 20-something and pleasingly plump instead. So no mystery here: she’s no widow and it’s just a random picture and if you respond expect to get spam. Oh, and she is not a 43-year-old virgin either.
  • If you are trying to be discreet so hubby won’t suspect anything, maybe you should not be posting partially naked pictures of yourself. 43? My ass!
  • Here’s one way to be a 52-year-old married dude and to score: advertise for age 60+ women and hope they are desperate and not very discerning.
  • He’s just another 48-year-old man doing some wild game hunting: women with big clits.
  • Is this 49-year-old man a dirty scoutmaster?
  • He’s a man looking for your boxer-briefs. I imagine you will want to bring an extra pair to wear home. Oh, and he’s willing to give you oral sex. It’s unclear if he wants these laundered or used.
  • Now this is weird: while this 49-year-old man is sucking your cock at his hotel (a Hampton Inn) or at your place he’ll be on speakerphone with his dominant wife.

So not too much kink tonight out there, but it could be worse. More in October.

 
The Thinker

Financial management on a fixed income

My stepmother says that retirement is just another stage of life. After two years of retirement I’ve learned that she is right. It’s definitely a new stage of life for my wife and I. Many of the old rules no longer apply. For one thing, the rules of managing our finances have changed pretty drastically.

For example, when we used to have a mortgage, the bank did a lot of the thinking for us. They figured out our probable property taxes and paid them automatically for us. Since they had a stake in our house, they also worried about our home insurance and insisted on paying that too. All we had to do was give them a fixed amount of money every month in addition to our mortgage payment.

That’s changed. With no mortgage, my financial life actually got more complicated. Instead of one convenient payment, I now have to think about setting aside money for property taxes and home insurance. These are not exactly trivial expenses. Our property taxes are close to $8000 a year, which means I have to have $2000 set aside every quarter to send to the city, no ifs, and or buts. Moreover I (not the bank) need to remember to send these payments in. It used to be so simple.

Almost by definition when you retire you live on less money than when you were working. If you screw up your personal finances it becomes harder and more painful to make up for excessive expenditures. Because I am pushing 60, I cannot assume I can go out and find another job to make up the difference. This means I have to watch how I am spending money. When I see large differences between expected and actual expenses, I have to figure out what to do about it. The choices boil down to pulling money out of our portfolio on the assumption we won’t spend it all before we die (always a chancy proposition) or cutting expenses. Yes, it’s possible to take out a loan to live a larger lifestyle, but it’s counterproductive. You can’t dodge your financial mistakes when you live on a fixed income.

It’s a good thing retirement gives me the time to analyze these things. In truth though we are just emerging from a time of great transition that followed our retirements. Only now after moving four hundred miles, selling one house, buying another house and even living in temporary housing for five months are things starting to settle down. Our transition created so much uncertainty that keeping a budget was pointless for the last few years.

Steering your financial ship in retirement is a lot like taking a sailboat out on choppy seas and into a storm. You have a pretty good idea where you need to go but the end is hard to see. At best there are shapes in the mist and you have to rely on your handy compass, buoys and nearby lighthouses for general navigation. We have reached the point where the waves are 1-3 feet, visibility is good and the sun is shining. But there is more work to do. The deck needs a lot of clearing and new sails need to be raised.

So many things have changed. Take taxes. It used to be I sent a W-4 to payroll and hoped enough was withdrawn from every paycheck to pay our income taxes. In Massachusetts where I live now there is no reciprocal agreement with the federal government (my former employer) for withholding state taxes from my pension. So I have to remember to pay estimated taxes every quarter. That’s not too hard. I add it to my Google Calendar. The harder part is figuring out how much to send the commonwealth.

The commonwealth is unforgiving. Last year we were new residents. I didn’t start withholding estimated taxes but when I estimated our state taxes they looked minimal, under a thousand dollars, so I didn’t bother. I had bigger fish to fry. I learned later that the law is if you owe more than $400 when you file your tax return that you owe a tax penalty. Our taxes were about $800, so the comptroller eventually sent us a tax penalty bill. Frankly, I was pissed. I had sold a house, bought another one, spent four months in one state and the rest in another, estimated our state taxes as best I could and they were still going to ding me for this? Yes indeed. Fortunately the penalty was less than $20. It was cheaper to pay the penalty than to figure out for sure if I was subject to one.

We’re in a new house but of course this house will degrade over time too. Roofs will have to be replaced. Cars will need to be retired and new ones bought. The cost of maintaining a standard of living is never cheap but living on a fixed income means I have to anticipate these major expenditures. Yet they are so variable it’s hard to know how much to put aside. In twenty years when the roof needs replacement (assuming it lasts that long) how much will it cost to replace?

There’s no way to know for sure, but I did check how much it cost to put new shingles on our old house (about $3000 in 2002). I assumed an inflation rate of 3% over 20 years. This suggested that in 2035 I would need about $5800 to replace the roof. Effectively if I set aside $25 a month now for this future, we’ll be all set in 2035 … if my assumptions hold true. Looking at all our major future expenses like this, it amounted to about $350 a month that I needed to set aside. Or I could choose to ignore them and hope when the time came I had enough cash sitting around. That’s not a good idea because taking money out of a retirement portfolio usually means you pay taxes on what you take.

I also need to periodically look at my tax withholdings. Tax software makes this somewhat less painful but it can only project based on current tax law and expected income, deductions and credits. So I need to read news sources on changes to tax laws to anticipate them.

The good news is I am getting pretty good at all of this. I’m refining a system, basically a fancy spreadsheet with lots of worksheets. I’m thinking if I do need extra income, maybe I should set myself up as a retirement financial consultant. Only I haven’t really tested my system. It will take ten or more years of experience to know if my methods work, but if they do it should be worth something to someone.

To truly live on a fixed income though you need a system or you need a portfolio with lots of extra cash in it that you can draw from when you make mistakes. Perhaps I could sell this as a service, much like my bank used to do with my mortgage payment. You give me X dollars a month and I’ll make sure you have just enough cash to pay these bills when they come due. I’ll pad my portfolio with their fees because they won’t want to wrap their mind around this stuff. Maybe $50 a month would be fair.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep refining my spreadsheets. I’ll get it right one of these days; I know it.

 
The Thinker

Review: Orange is the New Black (Seasons 1 and 2)

Good news! Hollywood has finally produced a series that represents the full colors of America’s ethnic rainbow! And it’s done very well. The only downside: it depicts life at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, run by the “Federal Department of Corrections”, supposedly somewhere in upstate New York. And except for some guards and a couple of administrators, there’s not a man in sight because it’s a women’s penitentiary.

I’ve been avoiding Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series, for a couple of years. It’s always hard to decide if I want to invest the time in a TV drama series. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services, there are an overwhelming amount of them out there. Even being retired, I couldn’t begin to watch them all. I did try a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but the level of violence was more than I could stomach.

So it’s surprising that I could get into OITNB because it has plenty of violence, not to mention sex, nudity, cursing and more adult topics than I can enumerate. And truthfully, if these were scheduled for theatrical release, they would warrant somewhere between an R and an X rating. I’ve seen stuff in OITNB I’ve never seen elsewhere outside of X rated sites like xhamster.com, such as an explicit picture of a woman’s vagina.

If the goal of cinema is to take viewers into a whole new world, OITNB succeeds very well. What an interesting, fascinating and disgusting set of characters we get in this minimum-security women’s prison, sometimes all at the same time. You want both the inmates and the guards to be stereotypes but none of these are. The exception is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Piper is something of a lead character, at least at the beginning, a generally goody two shoes blonde white lady in her thirties. She happens to fall in lesbian love with Alex (Laura Prepon), a drug runner. Years afterward she gets ratted on by Alex, and ends up at Litchfield. This does not make her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) happy and he awkwardly tries to stay faithful to her while she sits behind bars.

Except there aren’t many iron bars at Litchfield: the “girls” sleep in dorms where they are regularly searched and humiliated. In their internet-free zone they mostly self-segregate by race or age (there is a fascinating group of older characters, including Kate Mulgrew as “Red”, who runs the kitchen). Most of them are pretty messed up (not a surprise), but these include many of the guards and administrators (perhaps a bit of a surprise). Proving that everything is relational, the guards abuse the inmates, some of them screw the inmates and some of them love the inmates. Litchfield is a tangled web of real life: a mixture of characters from the sweet Morella (Yael Stone), to the ultra-butch Big Boo (Carrie Black), to frequently insane Suzanne (Uzo Abuda) to the cold and steely killer Vee (Lorraine Toussant).

I was surprised by how easily I got sucked into this series. I was also surprised by how the characters grew on me, including some surprises like Suzanne, also known as Crazy-Eyes. The producers created a little universe inside a prison and accurately depicted life inside it. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman and her experiences at FCI Danbury (Connecticut), OITNB feels eerily authentic. It opens windows into the human soul and human experiences you won’t expect. Unlike Breaking Bad, which seems to revel in the worst of us, OITNB gives us a more accurate portrait of mostly good people gone bad, often due to factors outside of their control.

OITNB gives us a dose of real people coping (often badly) with what life has thrown at them. More importantly it gives us an opportunity to see women as people, instead of objects. It also allows seeing correctional officers as people, often flawed and profane, and with their own issues and foibles.

For me one mark of a good series is whether it follows me around. OITNB is like that: it will haunt you when you are not watching it, or follow you in your dreams. I found it hard not to binge on the show but sometimes I would succumb anyhow and watch three episodes in a row. It’s not really titillating; it’s more a grand exposition. While there is plenty of lesbian sex, much of it quite graphic, and shower scenes (pretty much everyone ends up at least partially naked) it’s not so much the individual characters that pulled me in as the exposition of this particular prison system in all its complexity and garishness.

So as long as you are up for a grownup adventure, it’s definitely worth your time. It helps if you are not homophobic, squeamish or racist. It’s a great reason to subscribe to Netflix if you don’t already. I have been watching Netflix’s House of Cards for years. In Season 4 though I find House of Cards is getting not so watchable. OITNB is much more so, perhaps because it feels more real and less Machiavellian.

Kudos to Netflix, creator Jenji Kohan, the series producers, directors and actors for giving us a compelling series worth watching that will take you to new places both inside the human soul and the worlds around it. Now I need to start watching Season 3.

 
The Thinker

Why do we hate the poor?

Have you ever been poor? I’m not sure where the dividing line is between poor and not poor, but if you are poor you will know it. By that standard I have been poor. One thing I learned during those years is that being poor totally sucked. Anyone who has ever been poor has every incentive in the world to get out of the state and will if they possibly can.

So many of us though resent the poor. We see them as moochers leaching off the rest of us. I’m trying to figure out why this is. At one level it’s easy to say it’s a classist thing. We hang out with people we feel comfortable with and these are generally in our socioeconomic group. Unless you have had the experience of being poor, it’s hard to empathize with those who are poor. It’s easy to think, “How hard can it be? Just apply yourself! You can work your way into the middle and upper classes. Get off your lazy asses!”

Lots of people manage it somehow; it’s the American dream after all. But lots of people don’t or simply can’t. And some people who used to live that dream have had it taken away from them, at least for a while. Count among these autoworkers, garment workers, coal miners and those who find their skills become obsolete. When it happens to these people, it’s clearly not their fault; they were unfortunate. It’s pretty clear where many of today’s Uber drivers will be in ten years: not taxiing people around. Uber is quite interested in the automated car and that’s because it can pay for the software that will drive people around quite easily, probably for no more than a couple of hundred bucks a year per car. Those Uber drivers probably earn at least ten bucks an hour. Uber would like to keep rates the same but channel the cost of their labor into their bank accounts instead.

When I was poor (i.e. independently living but not quite scraping by, roughly 1978-1981) I found the experience depressing. I preferred sleep to being awake because dreams were not as dismal as my life was. I had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree but like in 2008 the economy at the time sucked and my degree was not particularly marketable. I earned just over minimum wage doing retail work. I had roommates and I lived in a cheap part of town. I could not afford my car, so I sold it for scrap and walked, biked or took the bus when I needed to go somewhere. I ate cheaply but never well. Retail employment proved ephemeral. My hours were cut to almost nothing and only moving to another department let me pay my bills. I had no dependents but I did have a student loan to pay. I couldn’t even afford a vacuum cleaner for my apartment. My low status and lack of wheels made me largely friendless and dateless.

I never went on food stamps, mainly because it never occurred to me to try. I probably would have qualified for food stamps, which were much more generous back then. I wasn’t unemployed so welfare was not an option, but like many enlisted people today what I was paid wasn’t enough to really live on, unless you meant a basic and fretful existence, never quite sure whether if ill fortune struck if you would be out on the street.

From my perspective being poor really sucked, but I’m really glad I’m not poor today. Today to get food stamps I’d likely have to pee into a cup and I might not get them at all having no dependents. There were more homeless shelters back then and some states (I was in Maryland at the time) were progressive enough to maybe help you get back on your feet. Maybe there was Section 8 housing that you didn’t have to wait ten years to get.

I also knew that if worse came to worst, my parents might loan me some money or let me stay with them for a while. As there were eight of us, the expectation was that we could handle life somehow. We did but we were blessed in many ways. We were raised in love, treated humanely and attended good schools. Our parents had our backs. We had a pretty good idea how the world worked, knew which pitfalls to avoid and our parents lived sober and sensible lives that were not hard for us to model. In essence life put us a few rungs up on the ladder. Some sizeable but unquantifiable portion of this came from the privilege of being born white.

Being white, racism was not something I ever experienced. We weren’t part of any minority group, except possibly from being Catholic, which was hardly unusual, just that there were more Protestants. My mother’s ancestry was Polish, so there was the occasional Polish joke directed our way, but it clearly made no sense as most of us got straight A’s.

Had I been born black and poor the likelihood that I would have ascended into the middle class would have been much less. As I was born into the middle class, one crushing part of being poor was knowing I was faking it. But at least I had a brain, understood most of the social cues, could read, write and do math and was both white and male. It was these skills that made my years being poor relatively brief.

Those years though were not wasted years. They gave me insights into life that wholly elude Donald Trump, most Republicans and conservatives and many who simply haven’t experienced it. Being poor is hard and incredibly stressful. You are never sure when the next shoe will drop but often you have to simply hope for the best. I am quite confident that as hard as it was for me, it is magnitudes harder for those who were born poor. I never had to worry about gangs or being shot in the street. Burglary virtually never happened where I lived and our schools were well funded with decently paid and engaging teachers. I had regular parental supervision, and two parents to turn to. A frequently absent single mom that worked three jobs and that shuffled me between many babysitters did not oversee me. I never went hungry or malnourished. My clothes were sometimes second hand but they were usable.

Being poor depressed me but for the chronically poor the symptoms look a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Worse, the PTSD occurs at the worst time in life: when you are a child, and can last decades or a lifetime. It sets in motion patterns of behavior that become instinctive but become nearly impossible to change, driving many mental, physical and emotional issues that tend to carry through adult life.

When you are poor you really want people with the empathy to cut you some slack. But these days that’s largely not an option. Rather, those with the power will turn the screws even more. They will reduce your food stamps. They will introduce ever more burdensome obstacles simply to summon the very basics to survive. Today’s safety net has many holes in it. Whether the net will catch you at all or let you slip through it depends on many factors, but it’s problematic at best. No wonder it’s increasingly difficult for the poor to ascend another rung or two in life. The mines are laid everywhere. You will take some hits; it’s guaranteed. You simply hope for the best but there is too much road kill around you to have unrealistic expectations that you are all that special.

As miserable as it is to be poor, it’s much worse to be homeless. It’s a combination of pain, poverty, hunger, despair and feelings of unworthiness and shame that feels equivalent to being in hell. I can’t say this from personal experience, but it’s easy enough to infer. I can see the searing pain etched on the faces of the homeless I see in the streets everyday.

Why do we hate the poor? The answer doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding that being poor is difficult at best and traumatic and potentially life threatening at worst, and it should require society to act compassionately. It is to be avoided at all costs if possible, but as there are no guarantees in life it’s always a possibility that it can happen, even to you. It’s unrealistic to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, particularly if you don’t have any boots. If you have been poor, you will feel nothing but compassion for those who are poor. If you have not, count your blessings. Only good fortune is keeping you from finding out.

 
The Thinker

Is blogging dying?

When I started this blog in late 2002, blogging was an up and coming thing. Fourteen years later, there is plenty of evidence that while blogging is not quite dead it is dying. I can look at my own web statistics to see the trend. While I strongly suspect my web statistics were overstated in the early years due to incorrectly counting robots and search engines, according to the most accurate gauge that I have (Google Analytics), I am getting 18% of the page views in 2015 that the blog got in 2010.

I am not helped because my blog is both very personal and largely themeless. Those blogs that succeed today tend to be rooted around a much more popular website, like a blogger posting on Huffington Post. A successful blog is often extremely specialized (narrowcasting is the term I have heard used). Over the last decade or so, web marketers have learned all sorts of tricks on how to catch eyeballs. Just ask Facebook, Gawker (RIP), Twitter and Tumblr, to name a few. Mobile devices with smaller sized screens just further the trend. People want content in small and succinct bites, which bodes ill for long form blogs like mine.

My monthly foray into the Craigslist Casual Encounters section was due largely to people continually coming to my site for these postings. Making a monthly review of local postings is not so much for my own amusement as it is for yours. My hope is that having satisfied your prurient interest, you might stick around and read my other stuff too. It works somewhat and may explain that while my statistics like most blog sites are declining, I suspect I am doing better than most. You know things are bad when bloggers like Andrew Sullivan give up their blog.

I don’t feel particularly inclined to throw in the towel. This blog has been more about keeping me engaged mentally than anything else. Not that I haven’t considered giving it up. I did once drop out for a couple of weeks after Google mysteriously delisted me. Blogging may not bring in the traffic it used to, but as part of a site it’s definitely useful. If you run a small business on the web, one of the best ways to increase traffic (after convincing other sites to list your site) is to maintain a blog and regularly post relevant content on it. This helps establish that you are serious about your site by demonstrating that are willing to spend time to keep it fresh and topical, as well as offer nuggets useful to the public at large. In my case, this blog is the website. It serves no higher purpose and has not proven a way to make me independently rich.

I have noticed that web traffic is just one piece of my total traffic. A lot of people read me through the site’s feed. This week Feedcat (my blog aggregator) tells me I have 295 readers. If these readers are regular readers, that’s a whole lot more valuable to me than webpage hits. How many singers would be happy if the same 295 people came to hear them sing once a week? So while I don’t fill stadiums, I do fill a small virtual auditorium with generally the same people. I don’t know how much of my post they read, or if they read it at all. Judging from the dearth of comments I receive, most of them probably scan my content or are looking for that one special post, like the monthly Craigslist casual encounters post.

The general trend though is clear. Blogging is not dead, but it is less interesting to people on the web and it is becoming more specialized. Right now it works best as a narrowcast channel for mostly textual content. If your content is video, you are probably better off with a YouTube channel instead. It’s also quite useful for small communities where there are handfuls of content creators. The popular blogging software WordPress serves 26 percent of the content on the web, more than any other software solution. Most of that content is coming from hosted web servers. The beauty of WordPress is that it is both elegant blogging software and an elegant content management system. Obviously I like it as I have been using WordPress for at least eight years. Most likely WordPress is being used for your church’s website, but also to post the minister’s blog on it too. Small businesses find WordPress a no-brainer as well as the entry fee is small (just hosting) but the features available in WordPress and its thousands of plugins make pretty much anything possible and not too hard to do.

So perhaps it’s better to say that blogging is changing. It’s becoming a feature of a site rather than its reason for being. Blogging is probably not a way to riches, unless it is of the non-monetary kind. It does make it simple to get your content on the web and simple for you to control it. It allows you to personalize the content and make it easily available on lots of devices and media. It offers you a level of control that can’t be matched with a Facebook page, or a Tumblr or Twitter account. A blog is not easy to market. It depends mostly on friends or colleagues promoting it for you.

Blogging is still useful but it’s not a way to get lots of page views, at least not without a lot of really popular and unique content. Keep your expectations modest if you are going to blog; make the blog at least interesting to you so you will want to keep at it. This has to be enough or there’s no point in starting.

I’ll keep hanging in there.

 
The Thinker

Second viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 6)

Season 6 of this series emulates Season 5, which means that the overall quality is very good. There are no major clunkers in Season 6 (no Majel Barrett as Deanna’s mom helps) so every episode warrants at least a C grade. There is only one more season left for me to see again. It’s amazing that I forgot all this stuff over the last two decades when I originally watched them on TV.

Anyhow, if you want to scan Season 6 and watch only the good stuff, you can use my mini episode reviews with confidence.

  1. Time’s Arrow II. This is the conclusion from Season 5’s cliffhanger, which was not much of a cliffhanger. In Part I, Data’s head was found in a cave underneath San Francisco, causing certain members of the Enterprise crew to go back to that time to figure out what’s going on. In Part II they succeed and discover that some alien shape shifters are using a cholera outbreak in the bay area at that time to surreptitiously drain the life force out of many San Franciscans. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and Data’s jeopardy feels forced, but Mark Twain does get to visit a 24th century Enterprise. B
  2. Realm of Fear. The terminally shy and deeply annoying Enterprise engineer Lt. Barclay is back, this time with a new phobia: transporters. He slowly masters his fear and transports over to the starship Yosemite, where Barclay become pivotal in rescuing the missing crew. One of the stranger parts of this episode is where Transporter Chief O’Brian is talking about how safe transporters are. Transporter malfunctions are a regular feature of STTNG episodes. Of the Lt. Barclay episodes, this is the easiest to stomach. C
  3. Man of the People. Something is weird about the Lumerian ambassador the Enterprise is ferrying. The ambassador maintains his cool so he can excel at his duties through an intimacy ceremony that has the effect of prematurely aging his partner. When his companion “mother” with him dies, an innocent Counselor Troi becomes his next victim. She ages prematurely but no one seems to think this or her overly seductive behavior is that big a deal. Using 24th century magic, of course Troi will revert to her former svelte self by the end of the episode. C
  4. Relics. Pretty much every STTOS actor gets a chance to reprise his or her role aboard the Enterprise D if they wanted to, and in this episode it’s James Doohan’s (Scotty’s) turn. Speaking of transporter accidents (see Episode 2), Scotty’s been in one for 75 years that is why he doesn’t look a day over sixty when La Forge finally pulls him out. Scotty resumes being Scotty, but he’s a bit off his kilter (kilt?) on the Enterprise D. The only thing noteworthy in this episode is the Dyson’s sphere they encounter, making for some neat special effects for 1992. Scotty helps solve the crisis of the day and as a reward (but probably because he is sort of insufferable) he is sent to a more permanent retirement: Picard gives him an extended loan of a shuttlecraft as a going away present. Go study those technical manuals, Scotty. C
  5. Schisms. Apparently one episode using the insomnia meme was not enough in this series. Riker has a bad case of it but this time he is not alone. With the help of a holodeck, various crewmembers remember fragments of creepy “dreams” where they are being examined by aliens. In Riker’s case, he was partially dismembered and put back by curious alien doctors. It’s suitably creepy and well done, however. A-
  6. True Q. A promising intern Amanda is assigned to the Enterprise who soon discovers she has supernatural powers that frighten her. It turns out that she is a new member of the Q Continuum so naturally Q (John de Lancie) shows up to act as something of a sarcastic coach and naturally to spar with Picard too. Amanda must ultimately decide whether to become a Q too or abdicate her powers, which would not be a good idea, as Q must destroy her in that event. Guess which one she picks? C
  7. Rascals. Yikes! Yet another transporter accident! This one rolls back the aging for some Enterprise crewmembers including Picard who revert to 12-year-old children while retaining their adult memories and capabilities. The senior staff finds it hard to take orders from a child Captain Picard and we get to marvel at a young Picard with bountiful hair. O’Brien finds that having his wife Keiko turn into a 12-year-old changes their marriage big time, but if there was ever a case for legitimately having sex with a kid this would be it. (Glad O’Brien is not a creepy child molester!) The actor playing a young Picard though does a great job, and this is simultaneously fun and amusing while we await their eventual “re-aging”. Meanwhile, these child officers get to outwit a rogue Ferengi captain that takes over the Enterprise who has no idea who they are. B
  8. A Fistful of Datas. Speaking of transporter accidents, holodeck accidents are also a recurring theme in STTNG. We get another one in this episode when Worf, his son Alexander and Counselor Troi get caught up in a too-real holodeck simulation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Worf gets to play sheriff, Marina Sirtis makes an unconvincing deputy and Brent Spiner gets to play a bad guy. They have to find a way to safely end the simulation for the program to end. A mildly amusing waste of time. C+
  9. The Quality of Life. Dr. Farallon is another brilliant, cute but bullheaded Federation scientist. She is working on a “particle fountain” to make mining more efficient on the planet Tyrus 7A. To assist she creates “Exocomps”, intelligent mining machines that prove too intelligent. Data thinks she has created an artificial life form, which naturally Data finds “intriguing” and eventually becomes protective of. This is interesting mostly for Brent Spiner’s acting. A-
  10. Chain of Command, Part I. Figuring there was no reason to wait for an end of season cliffhangers, the writers decided to put them in the middle of a season. Starfleet gets wind of a secret Cardassian biological weapon and covertly sends Picard, Crusher and Worf on a mission to Celtris III to verify then locate and destroy the technology. This illegal weapon is tantamount to war if it exists, so the Federation feels the need to go to war status. They send Captain Edward Jellico to take over Picard’s command, presumably permanently. This abrupt change does not sit well with the crew and Jellico goes out of his way to ruffle feathers, but only because the mission requires it. It turns out that the Cardassians are luring the Federation into a trap. Worf and Crusher escape, but Picard is captured. This and the next episode will press all your favorite Star Trek buttons. A
  11. Chain of Command, Part II. While Jellico continues to ruffle feathers as Enterprise captain, a Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, tortures Picard on Celtris III. Both Patrick Stewart and the interrogator played by David Warner give exceptional performances as all sorts of torture tactics are tried to break Picard’s will. Stewart proves yet again that Star Trek producers got the best deal ever when they hired him, as evidenced by his terrific acting in this episode. This is one of the best episodes of the entire series. A+
  12. Ship in a Bottle. After episode 2, you would think they’d give the Lt. Barclay character a rest, but he’s back. Fortunately Barclay is somewhat ancillary in this episode, but he does discover a very persistent Professor Moriarty in a Holodeck simulation, one who has been in memory since Season 2. Picard has been lax in his promise to try to free Moriarty so he can safely explore the real universe, so he takes things into his own hands, so to speak. So there’s yet another bug in the Holodeck software while Moriarity and his lover Countess Regina twist Picard’s arm to allow him to escape to the real world. This is a fun episode because it’s mostly a hall of mirrors episode. Moriarty gets what he wants, sort of. A
  13. Aquiel. Geordi falls in love with Lt. Aquiel Uhnari, a somewhat difficult officer assigned to a subspace communications relay station who lost her crewmates but still has her dog. The plot actually hangs on Aquiel’s devoted dog, which is not quite what it seems. C
  14. Face of the Enemy. In another one of these “you can’t make this shit up” episodes, Deanna wakes up to find she is a major in the Romulan elite. She was captured on orders from Spock, who is trying to bring peace to the Romulans by ferrying three secret passengers to the Federation. Posing as Major Rakal, Troi must bossily assert her dominance over Captain Toreth, who resents her privileged place in Romulan society. There are lots of problems with this episode; the biggest is that Spock would not order something like this. Marina Sirtis though does get to act very bossy and seems to enjoy the change of page. C
  15. Tapestry. Picard dies, or does he not? He seems to be in the afterlife, which is not all that great because who should greet him but Q? Because he’s in the Continuum, Q lets him redo pivotal points in his life. Picard discovers that some of his less than savory youthful aspects were essential to the man he became, so Q lets him and his artificial heart live. B
  16. Birthright, Part I. We get our first glimpse of Deep Space Nine in this episode, in its pre-Sisko era. There Worf encounters an alien who claims that his father was not killed on Khitomer, but is actually isolated on a secret planet with other Klingons and Romulan overlords that he will take him to, for a price. Meanwhile, Data encounters Dr. Julian Bashir (a recurring and annoying DS9 character) who wants to study him. During a test, Data receives an energy surge, which causes him to dream for the first time. Worf takes leave to go to the planet where the Khitomer Klingons and their offspring live. After secretly entering the compound he soon discovers that the Klingons are happy to be there and the younger ones have no memories of or care of Klingon traditions and history, which he finds very disturbing. B
  17. Birthright, Part II. Worf cannot understand why these Klingons don’t want to escape. In fact, the Romulans are benevolent overlords. Worf manages to stir up the blood of some of the Klingons by relating their customs and rituals, which irritates the Romulan commander who wants the status quo. B-
  18. Starship Mine. Everyone on the Enterprise must check out for a barium sweep. To avoid a long-winded colleague, Picard makes an excuse to go back to the ship and encounters some thieves after the ship’s trilithium. Picard must beat these foes while the sweep reduces the survivable space on the ship. B
  19. Lessons. Picard falls in love with the new chief of stellar cartography, when he becomes taken by her musical abilities. After getting an unnecessary okay from Troi to pursue a relationship with Lt. Commander Daren (fraternization is apparently not a problem in the 24th century), they move deeper into love while Picard and Riker struggle through boundary issues with Daren and each other the relationship raises. Most of this episode is blessedly free the usual jeopardy the crew must overcome. However, Daren must eventually lead a team to a planet to protect a crew there from an unusual solar storm, pitting Picard’s personal feelings for Daren with his command duty to be impartial. This is an unusual episode because it’s of the heart, not the head, and Picard fills out more as a human being. A
  20. The Chase. Picard unexpectedly meets an old mentor of his, Professor Galen who tempts him to take an archeological adventure with him. Despite Picard’s great interest, he must decline, which makes the professor angry. The professor’s shuttle gets attacked when he leaves the Enterprise and he dies shortly thereafter. Picard senses Galen’s great discovery is at hand, and directs the Enterprise to a number of planets to chase it rather than attend a conference. His crew puts together part of Galen’s puzzle: that there was a master species from which all humanoid forms evolved billions of years earlier who seeded the galaxy. If they can construct the whole thing they expect to get a message for them from billions of years ago, literally encoded in the DNA. But both the Klingons and the Cardassians are hot on the trail as well, seeking advantage. So a treasure hunt of sorts is underway to get the last genetic material to complete the sequence of understanding. This turns out to be a really interesting episode combining an interesting idea with a lot of action. A
  21. Frame of Mind. Riker is cast in one of Beverly’s plays in a challenging dramatic role where he is a prisoner in a mental asylum. It gets surreal when he has dreams that he is in such a place. Which is real: the asylum or the Enterprise? B
  22. Suspicions. Dr. Crusher finds herself out of a job when she sticks up for a Ferengi scientist who believes he has created metaphasic shielding that would allow spacecraft to enter previously dangerous places, like a sun’s corona. She invites some scientists to the Enterprise to critique his controversial work, one of who dies during an attempt to test the shield using a shuttlecraft. On a second attempt, the Ferengi scientist also dies, and Crusher performs an illegal autopsy to figure out the cause. Someone’s hiding something. B
  23. Rightful Heir. Worf is having a crisis of faith due to his experiences in Episodes 16 and 17. He wants to have a religious experience and get in touch with Kahless, the founder of the Klingon code of honor who died 1500 years earlier and promised to return. Granted leave, he goes to Boreth where devout Klingons go to pray, but has little luck summoning Kahless. On the thirteenth day though he suddenly appears to Worf, who wonders if he is the real Kahless or a fake Kahless. His faith is tested yet again while Gowron (head of the Klingon empire) butts heads with Kahless, thinking he is a phony. Most of these episodes featuring Klingon power plays are good, and this is no exception. A-
  24. Second Chances. In yet another improbable transporter accident (how many is this now?) Riker discovers a clone of himself left on the planet Nervala II. He had been there as a Lieutenant eight years earlier, and only now has a window opened allowing transporters to get down to the planet again, where he literally finds himself. Commander and Lieutenant Riker have sharp words with each other, the Lieutenant is still deeply in love with Deanna and you know before its over will come sort of test of Wills, literally. B
  25. Timescape. Returning from a conference aboard a shuttle, Picard, Geordi, Data and Troi encounter weird pockets in the space-time continuum and arrive at their rendezvous point to find the Enterprise and a Romulan vessel seemingly frozen in time and in the midst of a battle. They must figure out what’s going on because it’s clear a warp core breach is underway on the Enterprise. Can they figure it out and restore the Enterprise? Of course! B
  26. Descent, Part I. Time for a second cliffhanger, which turns out to be the last one of this seven season series. Unsurprisingly, the Borg are involved but it seems they have mutated. They don’t care about the collective, their ship looks different and they just want to kill people, but not Data. Trying to save his crew, Data must kill a Borg, and he experiences his first emotion: anger and finds it instantly addictive. He spends much of the episode on the holodeck trying to recreate the feeling and not succeeding, while Starfleet raises its shields. Picard is put in charge of a fleet of three ships trying to protect some new border colonies from the Borg. The Enterprise goes through a number of vortexes trying to find a shuttlecraft stolen by Data, ending up on a planet where they find Data and a surprise that suggests the Borg are not their real enemy. A
 

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