Friday, December 30, 2016

You're born, you do stuff, you die

I have a question for you, two actually:  Do you like your job, and do you have any regrets about your chosen career field?  Seems to me you can like one without necessarily liking the other.

What prompted this post is an email I received today telling me another of my competitors is now out of business.  I say "another" because over my nearly 45 years of being in the custom homebuilding business I've seen many more competitors close their doors than survive.  In fact, thinking back on all my professional contemporaries from 30 or 40 years ago, I can easily count on one hand those who have survived this far with me.

But I honestly DO like what I do....most of the time at least.  I like building things.  To me it's like figuring out how to assemble a giant 5,000 sq ft 3D puzzle.  Some are easy, some keep me awake at night wondering how I'm gonna get tab A into slot B.  But in the end it really is gratifying to drive through a neighborhood where I built 5 or 10 or 20 years ago and say to myself, "I built that one, and that one, and...".  

But then there are the frustrations, too.  Like how today building isn't as much about knowing how to actually build, but knowing how to maneuver your way through the bureaucratic / regulatory jungle.  And the financial uncertainties!  O M G!  A few good years can bring a pot 'o gold for sure, but you can just as easily get blindsided by some near-cataclysmic world event (think 9/11) or giant fraud that can cause the world's economy to crater (think 2008).  There is no linear route to success, regardless of how hard you work.  Grrrr!

Oh well, another one bites the dust.  And now that he's moved on, someone else will probably come along tomorrow with a great "new" business plan which he's too ignorant to realize is the same business plan that's been tried over and over for years and NEVER worked.  DUH!

So do I like what I do?  You bet!  Would I choose this career field again if I were just starting out?  In hindsight, seeing how things are today vs how they were 45 years ago when I way in hell!  

How about you?  Do you like what you do specifically, and are you happy with your career field?


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kudos, or cause for concern?

Today I was reminded of a situation, several actually, where foreign immigrants here in my area have done exceedingly well since coming to America.  They all happened to involve Asians or Indians (but it could have been any nationality) who made their fortunes in retail businesses such as convenience stores, grocery stores, liquor stores, home furnishings, women's fashions, etc.  They all worked extremely hard, long hours, and saved virtually every cent they made.  Being hard working and frugal seems like great virtues, right?  But is it really?

What they all seemed to have in common was that they were from countries where poverty was the norm and you either had to work yourself to near exhaustion or you starved.  That's the only way they knew how to live.  Entire extended families moved here together, pooled their meager cash, and started a business.  Mom and dad, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and spouses worked in shifts keeping their business open sometimes 24-7.

The entire family might have only a couple of vintage cars and live in the same house.  They never went out for dinner or enjoyed any recreational activities.  It was just work, eat, sleep when you could, then start the process over the next day.  The kids would go to school, do their homework, then work their shift at the family business.  They were allowed no extracurricular activities.  It was a brutal schedule, but it paid off monetarily.  Over time they became quite well-to-do.

I've seen this personally when selling homes to them, sitting on college scholarship committees, etc.  Understand, this is not to say ALL immigrants live like this.  Many quickly adapt the "American lifestyle" (which in retrospect might not have been the wisest thing).

But think of the big picture:  How can established businesses here now compete with their extreme work ethic and pay "brother-in-law" wages that almost demand a communal lifestyle?  Aren't these the conditions that spawned labor unions a century ago?  If everyone is working extreme hours and pinching every penny, would our economy collapse?  Will this become more common with our next incoming wave of immigrants?  For capitalism to work, enough people have to spend to keep the cycle going.

Where is the fine line between working hard, living modestly, and saving vs enjoying the fruits of your labor, ie: living one family per residence, each adult having a car, enjoying eating out occasionally, taking a vacation, etc?  Will we someday find an economic equilibrium (statistics say we may be doing that right now), and if so, how much social upheaval, either locally, regionally, or nationally, will this transition cause our society?

I don't have an answer.  It obviously isn't a black or white issue.  Your thoughts?

Monday, December 26, 2016

A historic date in history....

It was 25 years ago today the Hammer and Sickle flag of the USSR was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin in Moscow.  On that day the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially dissolved.  A political movement that began with a bang, literally, 70+ years earlier ended with just a whimper.

I just finished listening to a fascinating 6-part podcast series (Dan Carlin's Hardcore History / Blueprint for Armageddon) about The Great War, aka World War I, and how it changed the course of history from June 1914 to this very day.  As it pertains to Russia, the short version:

Unable to withstand the hardships and hunger of everyday life in war-weary Russia, by 1917 the people seized control and, after a series of revolutionary consolidations, the USSR was born.  By the 1980's the old Communist revolutionary zeal was long gone, and their system, which was slowly withering away, was as rotten as the Czar's was back in its dying days.

Russia to this day seems to have a never-ending inferiority complex.  They SO want to be a respected world power, but they simply have never quite been able to pull it off.  You can only rule by intimidation for so long, and by the late 1980's they were losing their iron grip.  Unable to afford an arms race with the West, with a population begging, then demanding a better life, and with nations on their periphery they had effectively controlled since the end of WWII now beginning to stand up to them, the hopelessly exhausted USSR finally lost power.  

Their last (nominal) Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, after desperately trying a series of life-saving institutional reforms, finally accepted the inevitable and officially dissolved the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991.

Most reading this probably haven't given the passing of the USSR much thought since that historic day 25 years ago.  But at least one person, one Vladimir Putin, probably hasn't let a day pass since that event 25 years ago without thinking about it.  And he isn't smiling.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Old men and their games

Ho Ho Ho....Merry Christmas.  Let's take a second to listen in to Prez-elect Donald Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin exchange Christmas Good-Will-To-All wishes.  It went something like this:

Putin:  "We have bigger, better nukes than you do."

Trump:  "Only until January 20th, Pootie.  Then I'll call your SS-18 and raise you a ballistic missile submarine!"

So let the games begin.  

This war of words is almost comical.  Despite our crushing national debt, the US could still, if it wanted to, spend $$Billions to expand our nuclear arsenal.  But we won't because we don't need to.  The Rooskies simply don't have the financial resources to engage with us in an arms race.  They have trouble just meeting their weekly payroll!

And besides, nuclear weapons have lost much of their "fear factor".  Here's the deal....nukes aren't the "deterrent" they once were.  For a country to be taken seriously when they rattle their nuclear sword they must have two things:  1, lots of nukes (which both of us have); and 2, THE WILL TO USE THEM (which neither of us has).

In 1946 we alone had nukes and we'd just shown the world we weren't afraid to use them.  "Back off or you're next!"  A couple dozen years later both the US and the USSR had more than enough nukes to wipe each other out, and we settled into the world of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction.  Both sides understood that if they unleashed their nuclear arsenal, they would themselves be a smoking hole in about 30 minutes, so neither side dared try it.

By 2016 we have become so "risk averse" that as often as not our FA-18's flying over bad guy territory return with all their weapons still on their wings.  We're afraid of "collateral damage" if we miss and take out so much as a popsicle stand.  There's no way in hell we're going to send a nuke into Tehran or Pyongyang or even Moscow or Beijing, nor will they hit NYC or Washington or London.  World opinion would universally yell at us and make us cry!

More than likely we'll settle back into the old Cold War practice of combat-by-proxy, such as we're seeing now in Syria, and/or most menacing of all, cyber-warfare.  We should be more frightened of our electricity or our ATM's going down than we should be of a nuclear mushroom cloud over Topeka.

So relax, lets just sit back with a box of popcorn and watch Trump and Putin play "mine's bigger than yours."  *snicker*  Life goes on.  :)


Monday, December 19, 2016

Trust Putin at your own risk

I remember somewhere back during our recent presidential campaign when Donald Trump referred to Vladimir Putin as a "great leader", and his critics and political opponents went wild.  "How could he call Putin, a certified gangster if there ever was one, a 'great leader'" they asked.  How? Simple....because Putin IS a great leader.

When we think of a leader we think of someone good and virtuous and kind.  Webster stops short of that.  It defines "leader" as (1) :  a person who directs a military force or unit (2) :  a person who has commanding authority or influence.   It doesn't say anything about being good or virtuous or kind. 

Just like Adolf Hitler was obsessed with restoring Germany to its place at the pinnacle of the World Order (as he saw it at least) after WWI, Vladimir Putin is today obsessed with restoring Russia to the superpower status it enjoyed during the heyday of the Soviet Union.  He famously once called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century."

Everything I've read about Putin suggests this is all he thinks about.  If he makes a deal to sell oil or natural gas, for example, he sees it only as a means to an end, that being to return Russia to its glory days. He tolerates his oligarchs because he sees them as influential political allies.  He can count on them to stamp out dissent, thereby keeping their fortunes intact, and keeping his dreams of national glory alive.

There is no appealing to Putin's "good side" because he doesn't have one.  Dubya Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes and "saw his soul", and felt he was a man he could trust.   Barack Obama had his "Russian reset" back in 2010 where he hoped to reestablish good relations with Russia.  Both failed miserably.  Putin can't be trusted, and he doesn't care about being liked.

Putin's modus operandi is to nibble away at his neighbors by annexing area where he can (like Crimea), just like Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia, and stirring up trouble in other areas like Ossetia (part of Georgia) and Transdniestria (part of Moldova).  Many believe he has the Baltics in his sights again, too.  He is slowly-but-surely trying to reassemble the old Soviet Union, and he's using his feared KGB persona to "command authority"....Webster's definition of a "leader". 

My fear now is that President-elect Trump will try to make Vladimir Putin a partner, like he makes influential foreigners partners in his property deals.  He'll expect his Sec of State Rex Tillerson to smooth talk Putin into a win-win "deal".  I don't think that's a concept Vladimir Putin can grasp.  

The smart money says we would be wise to NOT turn our back on him.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Someone well above my pay grade is probably losing a lot of sleep

It seems that 17 separate intelligence services have connected the dots and deduced that Russia's Pootie-Poo Putin hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee, Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and no telling what all else.  I also seem to recall reading that the Germans, the French, and other European countries have reason to believe the Rooskies are meddling in their upcoming elections, too.  In response, just a few days ago Prez Obama said we will respond "at the time and place of our choosing."  Oh yeah?

Pay attention, folks....from low intensity email hacking to elaborate cyber-sabotage, this is the new face of warfare in the 21st Century.  For a surprisingly small investment, the US, or any country for that matter, can destroy any another country, regardless of how big or powerful they might be, without ever firing a shot.  Some geeks in a dark room with a few computers can pull off the [almost] perfect crime.  Actually I don't know if it could be done by just a few geeks or if it would take a small army of geeks, or whether it could be done using a few Dell's or HP's or requires a super computer, but it CAN be done. 

Remember back in 2010 when the US with Israeli help....or was it Israel with US help?....unleashed the Stuxnet virus on Iran's nuclear enrichment centrifuges and burned up a thousand or so of them?  Now think how far cyber-warfare has advanced in the time since.  The US and the Russians, and no doubt the Chinese, Koreans, Iranians, and a few other barely-out-of-Third-World-status countries, can electronically set each other back 50 years with just a few keystrokes, and it's virtually impossible to tell who the bad guy is.  Who do you strike back?

And here's where the West is especially vulnerable:  Virtually every home, school, business, factory, port, car, truck, bus, train, and plane in the advanced world is connected and at risk, while much of the rest of the world lacks our degree of technological sophistication.  We're simply a more target rich environment.

The Soviet Union collapsed when they had to choose between "guns or butter".  The government chose guns, while the people were desperate for butter.  The people won.  Today the choice isn't one or the other.  Even North Korea's Kim Jong Turd can wield power far beyond his two-bit dictator status.  While it's possible to bomb a nuclear weapons facility, or a missile launch site, or an airbase, how do you know which geek in what room is the one that needs a good spanking?

Interesting times, eh?  Stay tuned.  I'm pretty sure this is all Bill Gates fault.  ;)



Sunday, December 11, 2016

Real, or is Rod Serling just playing with our minds again?

As you may have read in the news, Prez-elect Donald Trump is strongly considering ExxonMobil  CEO  Rex Tillerson to fill the position of Secretary of State.  The argument for him is that he has developed a close relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin and others of questionable repute, and has a foot already in their door.  The argument against him is that he has a close relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin and others of questionable repute, and already has a foot in their door.  Those supporting him say that, yes, he is a super-smart businessman and negotiator who has used his skills to benefit ExxonMobil, and he will now be able to use his skills to benefit the USA.

And this, my friends, is the central issue in my dim view of "globalization".  What this argument essentially says is that Exxon is looking out for Exxon, and IBM is looking out for IBM, and Caterpillar is looking out for Caterpillar, etc, and if that means throwing the interests of the United States, the country that has allowed them to grow and thrive, under the bus, so be it.  Shareholders come before fellow countrymen and taxpayers.

I fully understand the Genie is never going back into the bottle.  Globalization is here to stay.  Yes, it has enabled us to buy everyday stuff at Walmart far cheaper than if we made it here, but because of the wet blanket it has put on American worker's incomes, we HAVE to buy stuff cheaper because that's all we can afford.  We're not really any better off.  Well, a few high up the food chain ladder might be, but it has not been across-the-board beneficial to most of us.  We have more cheap "stuff", but at what cost?  More stuff does not necessarily equal a better life.

Have you ever heard of The New World Order?  I have, vaguely, but if I step back and look at where we are today and where it looks like we might be headed, I have to wonder.  Here is the NWO, condensed version:

The conspiracy theorists say The New World Order is a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda that is conspiring to eventually rule the world.  They see this as the culmination of history's progress. Many influential historical and contemporary figures have therefore been purported to be part of a cabal that operates through many front organizations to orchestrate significant political and financial events, ranging from causing systemic crises to pushing through controversial policies, at both national and international levels, as steps in an ongoing plot to achieve world domination.

Worst case, if I stand back and squint just right, I can sorta see some of this happening right now.  Best case, I advise just kicking back and enjoying (?) the ride, 'cause there's no way us peons are going to stop it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Maybe they should rename Twitter "Trump's Trumpet"

Between recent coughing spells (bronchitis) I've seen a bit more of the news than normal.  Of course, in the US, "news" today means whatever Donald Trump has said or done, and not much else.  I've always been a big fan of raking public servants over the coals when they do something stupid or dishonorable (pretty much ALL of them are by now quite crispy), but every now and then one surprises me and I'm happy to give 'em an attaboy.  So....

Oh, The Donald, The could you?  You picked Steve Mnuchin, one-time Goldman Sachs Director of Mortgage Backed Securities, later to pick up broke subprime lender IndyMac for pennies, rename it OneWest, then get into the robo-foreclosure biz, ignoring any law that got in his way on the road to a tidy multi-billion dollar profit, to be our Secretary of Treasury?  Off to the burn pit, Prez-elect Trump!

But then Prez-to-be Trump selected Marine General James "Mad Dog" Mattis to be his pick for Secretary of Defense.  I've read up on Gen. Mattis and found that by virtually every measure he'll be an exemplary advisor who will give his Commander-In-Chief good counsel, looking for ways to avoid using the sword, but who would, if necessary, field a kick-ass, disciplined force.  Two-thumbs-up Mr. Trump!

And he's given us SC Governor Nikki Haley, who has expertly negotiated her way through some VERY difficult and varied constituents back home, as his choice for UN Ambassador.  Kudos!

But then he's gone and picked long-time bureaucrat (and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch...gag...McConnell) Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Something-Or-Other.  Meh....

Late edit:  I just learned she sits on the Board of Wells Fargo Bank.  More coals on the fire!

I can't get a handle on Gen. Michael Flynn, Trumps pick to be his National Security Adviser.  Those who know him well say he's a top-notch intelligence guy, but has a crazy, somewhat  scary side to him, too.  My antennae is up on this guy.

But Gen. John Kelly seems like an excellent pick for Secretary Of Homeland Security.  From what I've read, he gets very good marks from all sides.  Another Kudo Mr. Trump!  I'd trust him with my homeland.  :)

Notice all the Generals?  Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or what?  Good leadership, or a barracks coup in the making?  Beats me, but I think I'd rather see them than a bunch of the same old recycled #$%^& bureaucrats who have already run us into the ground.

Oops, sorry.  That was the cynic in me coming out.  Your thoughts?