Celebrating those unifying national traditions…by being jerks to each other on Nextdoor

For those unfamiliar with it, Nextdoor is a social media site for neighborhoods. In order to get in, one must prove that one lives in a given area. It’s another brainchild of Nirav Tolia, of Epinions fame, someone I have at least spoken with on the phone. One can see in its concepts certain commonalities, including the farming out of moderation to community leaders.

What’s Nextdoor like? You’ve all seen just how phallic people can get when hiding behind a keyboard. (If you haven’t, create a Facebook account and despair for humanity.) Nextdoor offers the same pleasures, but with a bit of a reality show vibe because you might meet these people. For those in your neighborhood, you can see their real names and addresses. There’s one lady in mine that I muted long ago, but every time I drive past her house, I think less than kind thoughts about the canine components in her DNA.

About two-thirds of Nextdoor posting concerns lost and found pets. No joke. I call it Lostcatsdoor in my mind. I sympathize with everyone who loses a pet, though I think everyone who says ‘fur baby’ needs a bucket of cold water. I never say anything about those posts, unless I think I spotted the animal in question, but at least lost pet searching is a productive purpose. It boggles my mind how so many people can be so urgently bothering deities every single day over someone else’s pet, but it’s harmless, so okay.

Right now is prime time for the most important tradition in Nextdoor’s young history: The Great Annual Fourth of July Alienation and Verbal Brawl. Ours is already in full swing, with everyone piously choosing up sides. The battle concerns fireworks, and whether they should be detonated, and what sort. Here’s a scorecard:

  • Team Pet Trauma: demands that everyone else stop celebrating because it scares their pets.
  • Team Murrica Fuck Yeah: demands that everyone stop bitching and start blasting, the more the merrier. Will set off dynamite sticks if he (it’s always a he) can find any. Would probably fire howitzer salvos if he could.
  • Team Law & Order: reminds everyone that all fireworks more interesting than a kitchen match are illegal here in Oregon, therefore everyone must be obedient. Ve muscht nicht disobey der rules!
  • Team Veteran PTSD: points out that a holiday celebrated by traumatizing the nation’s past defenders is Doing It Wrong. They have a point.
  • Team Rectum: doesn’t particularly care about the issue, just trolls people up real good. If need be, brings up politics and accuses some people of being on the wrong side. Without them, this verbal brawl might peter out.
  • Team Incendiary: dismisses all safety concerns, telling people they should sit out all night with a hose if they worry about someone else starting fires.

And every year, by this time, they are in full swing having the entire fight all over again. It’s usually even the same people. I’ve lived here for three years now. I think they look forward to it. It never seems to occur to them that if this is the way they feel about and treat each other, maybe we have less to celebrate than we might imagine. Maybe we should call it Division Day, to reflect how we really feel.

Watching people bicker over Independence Day fireworks is like watching several doctors and nurses have an all-out brawl over patient care. “No, you pill-pushing hillbilly, he does not need a goddamn MRI!” “Go soak your head in a filled bedpan! He needs an MRI and if you don’t get out of the way I will run your ass over with this gurney!” “Bring it, Doc Holliday. This scalpel will sort you out.”

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I have no plans ever to be a senior citizen

No, I’m not checking out early. If I were, I’d practice far less self-denial. I expect to live a lot longer than my life choices say I should, which is unfair to people who made excellent life choices and don’t get to do so. I can’t help that.

Rather, I plan to refuse the label, ‘senior citizen.’ I hate it.

My problem is not with my elders per se, but with this prominent tumor in our landscape of euphemisms. Some of them actually warp meaning. (How is ‘bath tissue’ descriptive of toilet paper? Do you take toilet paper into the bath with you?)

Worse still, every so often, we decide that the label is not laudatory enough, and concoct a new one that kisses more ass, deviates farther from sane reality. This is grotesque. If you aren’t satisfied that your label kisses enough ass, why not just call them ‘sainted deities’ so you don’t have to keep upgrading to something gushier? I’m serious. If that’s the ultimate intent, just come up with something right now that implies they are perfect and wonderful in every way, and speech-nightstick the rest of us into using it. Take the short cut.

My grandfather, who was elderly for most of the time I knew him, referred to himself as elderly. He also referred to his clients as elderly. As a nursing home administrator, that was a lot of people. If we’re going to choose a word, I’d say ‘elderly’ is a little nicer-sounding than ‘old’ to apply to people (but only if one attaches stigma to age as a concept, which our culture definitely does). If we want a shorter single noun for ‘elderly people,’ we have ‘elders’ ready to hand. We don’t need ‘senior citizen.’ For one thing, we don’t know whether or not they are citizens, especially in my area. (I am reminded of the dumbass who lauded Nelson Mandela as a ‘brave African American.’) For another, it feels like trying to hide the reality of aging, as if the fundamental fact is stigmatizing. I do not consider that it must be so, though I must say that quite a few elderly people seem dead set on making it so by the way they treat the young people who serve them. The term seems to hint that one is afraid or ashamed to come to terms with old age, and thus now wants a new word that will let him or her pretend otherwise.

In keeping with the tradition of more laudatory euphemisms every so often, now stores and restaurants are using ‘honored citizen’ to describe discounts and menus. Gods. Does that mean that the rest of the citizens are not honored? Dishonored? What is worse, it plays into a sense of entitlement that says to youth: now it’s my turn to be a jerk and make the kids put up with it. I will become harder to please, less patient, crabbier, fussier, and expect to be catered to as though this all were my due. Oh, am I going to enjoy this. I will let my ‘too old to give a shit’ flag fly free!

Think of it as Roseanne’s Mother Syndrome.

So far as I’m concerned, this is a horrible way to age. It tells me that this person, despite all those years of experience, has missed most of the lessons. Patience? Nah. Compassion? Faaaa! Empathy? Harrumph. Kindness? Screw you, my hip hurts. Courtesy? I’m old enough not to care what people think. Smile? I’m grumpy, so forget it!

(I cannot resist a digression. My parents-in-law lived in a gated ‘senior citizen’ community in Orlando. FIL was president of the HOA, a hive of backbiting and bitchery that only his considerable retired first sergeant skills could restrain from open civil warfare. He nearly always had someone in his house complaining about someone else. Anyway, the first morning I was there, he was sitting with another old guy in the living room and introduced me. The old man scowled at me. “I’m grumpy,” he said, I decided to have a little fun. I smiled, walked up and put out my hand. “Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Grumpy!” I think my FIL smiled. And when I was gone, I suspect Mr. Grumpy did. In fact, I called him that for the rest of the time I knew him, and asked about him by that term when I talked to my parents-in-law. He’s long since passed on now, and I couldn’t tell you what Mr. Grumpy’s driver’s license said his name was.)

But back to life’s lessons. How awful is that? Not only does it mean that all life taught someone is to be a worse person, it separates one. It divides one from the youthful and middle-aged majority of society. The young will endure it, as they always have, but it will harm them for no good reason on multiple levels. In addition to the indignity of having to tolerate crabbiness they did not deserve, the young won’t get what could help them most. They need access to all that elders have learned, but they damn sure aren’t going to ask an unapproachable person. Young and old move farther apart.

It is not acceptable to me. I don’t want to be alone. One day, unless something goes very wrong very soon, I will be elderly. If my grandmother’s genetics have taken significant hold, it is theoretically possible I could spend a long time being elderly. The one barrier we can nearly never cross in perception before we cross it for real is time: at fifty-four, it is not in my power even to imagine how sixty and seventy and ninety feel. Following my own logic, maybe when I’m sixty I’ll have this huge change of heart, embrace ‘senior citizen’ for myself, become a jerk, and dismiss this post as whippersnapper stuff. I cannot know nor can I imagine. However, I think it likelier I will hold fast to a view that by then will have aged six more years in the barrel.

At the same time, if young people call me a senior citizen, or an honored citizen, or whatever increasingly laudatory baloney their employers have pressed upon them, I won’t get mean about that. Talk about someone who didn’t even read his own messages. No, I’ll just smile and be kind to the kids. Why?

I do not often raise my voice.

Because we should be kind to the kids. Because it is wise and just and proper and decent. And because anyone too stupid to figure that out in sixty or more years, including thirty spent as a young person in one’s own right, has wasted over half a century.

The young need our help, if they can view us as people rather than wellsprings of grump. They need our knowledge, our friendship, and above all, they need our support. They need us to seek to understand their world, that it differs from the one we experienced at their age, and to apply all we have learned while offering them our resilient support. I have seen elderly people who aged in this way, and it taught me a lot about how I ought to age. When they finally passed on, they left a world filled with loving kindness that had delighted to honor them and now revered their memories. They were never separate.

They did not need euphemisms. They made elderhood something to admire on its own merit.

Euphemisms are only needed when honesty simply won’t do.

Closed-end funds in the simplest possible terms

Side benefits of having a blog: when you get tired of trying to explain a concept, you can use the platform to explain it in the simplest possible terms.

Let me also begin with a promise. As this essay gets more involved, I will let you know at those points, so you can say “nah, we done now” rather than go further. It looks long. It need not be.

Because we live in dumbth nation, I must include the disclaimer that nothing herein should be construed as investment advice; that all investments should be evaluated through one’s own research; and that the aim of this article is to promote the understanding of how investments work, not to encourage investment in any specific security or security type. And that, therefore, the author assumes no liability or responsibility for nincompoopery in anyone’s investing.

God, how I hate that. One day tire irons will come with warnings saying “DO NOT EAT.”

A substantial part of my investing energies goes into closed-end funds, which many people seem not to know exist. I try to explain them, and how they differ from conventional open-end mutual funds, and eyes go vacant.

All right. This is too simple to be eye-glazing.

Cora, Eve, and Clark offer to invest your money. Each will give you his or her own branded poker chips representing shares. How much each share (white chip) costs depends on the day. Hear out their plans.

If you go with Cora, she accepts your money, manufactures the proper amount of chips, and issues them to you through your broker. Some may be fractional; in fact it’s rare for anyone to hit a perfectly round number. Cora will invest your money, along with that of others, according to guidelines she publishes. Cora’s value lies in her perceived market savvy and expertise. She has a prestigious degree, lots of whizbang charts, and other marketing hoo-hah to convince you to buy and hold onto her chips.

The price of a Cora chip is based on the total value of her investments divided by the number of her chips that exist, so that changes every day and is determined about two hours after the markets close. Sometimes the government makes Cora pay you dividends or capital gains, so they can get tax from you sooner. To fire Cora, before the trading day is over you tell your brokerage to sell however much $ worth of her chips. This occurs at the price that is determined after market close. Cora gets your chips back and melts them down, then pays you based on that day’s price. If you don’t place your order with the brokerage before market close, your order happens tomorrow. Note that you lack firm control over the price you pay. Market went nuts in last five minutes? Could be good for you. Could be bad.

 

Eve has a different plan. She is like Cora in that she invests other people’s money, and she does publish a base chip price determined in the same way Cora does, but you don’t do business directly with Eve nor at that base price. You pay a brokerage to find someone to sell you his or her Eve chips. The amount of Eve chips stays the same, unless Eve makes one of her rare new chip productions.

Eve’s guidelines say that she has to mimic a given stock or bond index to the best of her ability. Therefore, the market price never gets far from the base price Eve calculates (referred to as an NAV). Eve pays regular dividends, and you have to pay tax on them. Unlike Cora, though, who coughs up the tax bomb as a Christmas present, Eve pays them regularly throughout the year with little suspense. Because Eve gets a small fee for her work, she never quite beats the index she tries to mimic. But she comes damn close without fail and, about 60-70% of the time, Eve’s results pummel Cora’s.

Cora gets very good at filling up her regular chipowner reports with great excuses for why she again underperformed her target index. Oh, and Cora’s annual fees are ten times Eve’s. She hopes chipholders won’t stop to think about that. She also hopes the people holding her chips won’t stop to ask why, during a year in which she actually lost them money, they still had to pay a bunch of tax on gains. If bugged about it, she blames the government and the law.

 

Clark’s program resembles Eve’s. When he started up, like Eve did, he made a bunch of chips and sold them into the market through an investment banker; thereafter he doesn’t create or destroy or transact them. Like Eve’s, you buy Clark’s chips from someone who wants to unload theirs. Because Clark is not trying to mimic an index, his chips’ market price can swing well above or below the base price he calculates. His job is as hard as Cora’s. He can screw up.

Clark only invests in bonds with moby payouts, and he buys hundreds of them. High-risk bond issuers have to offer high interest to attract buyers. Because some are at risk of not being repaid, Clark spreads the money out very thinly. He pays chip owners high yields, often 10-12% per year in monthly installments. Sometimes the money comes out of interest on the bonds, sometimes out of profits from selling bonds, and at times out of uninvested cash. Clark’s chip owners will have a shit fit if he cuts the payout, so he does his best to avoid that. However, Clark is human, and if he screws the pooch, the payout could go down. If he does that, his base value might go down, and his chips will probably trade for a lot lower price than his base value.

 

Cora manages a conventional open-end stock mutual fund. Eve manages an exchange-traded stock index mutual fund. Clark manages a closed-end bond mutual fund.

If you want to, keep reading for more details. If you just wanted the simplest possible explanation that I promised you, I hope I succeeded, and thanks for giving me a chance to explain it.

 

It’s important to know what the terms mean. Without definitions, one wanders blindfolded through an explanation.

A security is a (nowadays mostly virtual) piece of paper that says you own something. In conventional investing, one buys shares of securities in pursuit of growth (one hopes to sell them later at a profit) and/or income (one wants to be paid just for owning them). Sometimes both goals are in play, and obviously anyone seeking income at least wants his or her original money back in the end.

There are other rational goals, but those are the two big ones. It’s foolish to buy securities without knowing what you want from them.

What are securities? Many types: common stocks (you own a little piece of a corporation), bonds (you own a little piece of a loan), preferred stocks (you own a weird hybrid of stock and bond), publicly traded partnerships (like stocks, but instead you own a little piece of a limited liability company), mutual funds (you own a little piece of a whole bunch of securities someone else picks out), and some more.

If you are following the main thrust of this post, it has registered with you that this makes a mutual fund a security of securities. True.

Most individuals and many professionals lose money buying individual stocks. Buying individual bonds is sometimes risky and usually cumbersome for individual investors. Thus, someone proclaims him or herself an expert, files an ocean of paperwork, and says: “I will invest other people’s money according to some preset guidelines. I know what I am doing.” This results in what we call a pooled investment–as in ‘your money is pooled with others’– commonly called a mutual fund.

The three major sorts of mutual funds all work differently. That’s why I began this article with that poker chip explanation. I believe it is the least understood, most-needed-to-be-understood aspect of modern personal finance. I believe that understanding liberates you from bad decisions. Here’s the less simplified version, which I hope the first example made easier to follow.

First, you need to know what is meant by ‘ticker symbol.’ Stocks, mutual funds, and stock-like securities all go by shorthand labels called ‘ticker symbols,’ consisting of letters. Microsoft is MSFT. Alaska Airlines is ALK. Long ago, Continental Illinois Bank was CIL. RCS is the Pimco Strategic Income Fund, a closed-end bond fund.

Conventional mutual funds (CMFs; Cora’s fund) work like this. All shares are bought and sold through the fund manager or its agent. All CMFs are distinguished by five-letter ticker symbols ending in X. Thus, FCNTX happens to be Fidelity Contrafund. VFINX is Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund, and so on. Thousands exist. They usually trade by dollar amounts rather than numbers of shares, which are recorded to three decimal places. (Going back to our starting example, imagine Cora, Eve, and Clark’s chips stamped with their ticker symbols.)

When you buy CMF shares, the company accepts your money and issues (creates) the shares to you. When you sell them, the company redeems (destroys) the shares and pays you their market value, which is based on that percentage of every security the fund owns. A CMF’s share price is referred to as its net asset value (NAV). That distinction matters because they are not stocks and must not be viewed as stocks. The number of shares of a CMF in existence thus changes daily.

If CMF shareholders sell (redeem) enough shares at once, the company may not be able to pay the sellers from free cash. Those following along very well have registered that the company might have to sell some of its security holdings to fund very large redemptions, thus demonstrating one of CMFs’ biggest problems: their mechanics can force them to trade when its managers might not prefer to do so, which means your highly paid professionals aren’t allowed to use their full best judgment, which in turn is what you (yes, you) pay them for. It’s like a computer managing a baseball game that calls for a bunt even when a slugger–and a lousy bunter–is at the plate. The slugger can only shrug and attempt the bunt, knowing it’s a bad idea.

I used to work for a company that managed CMFs. The big money situation works in both directions. What if a huge pile of money comes into the fund at a time when it’s a lousy time to buy? And yet the fund guideline says that it will be no more than 5% in cash? There is no choice. Disobey their own guidelines and they will be in big trouble. They must pick the least unpromising choices available in compliance with their guidelines. It’s like hiring a contractor when there’s too much work for contractors (or at any time in Portland): all the best options are booked six months out. Only the inferior builders will even come out to look at your job, and they will charge too much for crappy work.

Ever hired a house-sitter? If that person was an adult, you probably set out some guidelines, but ultimately you realized that the reason for having a house-sitter was to have a responsible adult keeping an eye on your place. If the adult could not contact you, or detected an emergency, you would have to trust that adult to do intelligent and prudent things to protect your property. Owning a non-index CMF is like hiring a house-and-pet-sitter but with such extensive rules as to paralyze the sitter’s best judgment. Who hires a house-sitter without trusting that judgment? This is stupid.

Index CMFs, a variation on the above, take the judgment out of the equation by attempting to imitate a stock or bond index (fictional investment portfolio meant to represent some portion of the market for benchmarking purposes). A Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund buys, in proper proportion, all the stocks in the S&P500. If S&P ditches a stock, so does the fund. (This may sound to you like Eve’s method. It is. Think Cora’s chip issuance mechanics combined with Eve’s investing plan.)

In workplace 401ks, an index CMF is often the least doggy of the ten or twelve dogs on offer. And if it’s a conventional 401k, there won’t be an annual tax hit. Most 401k CMF offering lists I have seen were full of mediocre funds. I believe that most are selected by the 401k custodian through kickbacks. I am also convinced that the 401k custodian often pays off the employer’s representatives in order to be selected. It’s the most logical reason for such laggard choices.

Index ETFs represent the same basic idea as index CMFs, but with different mechanics since one buys or sells them on the open market at a price negotiated with another investor by brokers. Either way, the NAV (and thus your price) goes up and down in lockstep with the index. Both charge low fees because this doesn’t take that much brainpower. If Slave Labor & Prostitution, Inc. (ticker: SLAP) gets big enough for Standard & Poor’s to include it in the S&P 500, the index fund managers of S&P 500 index funds will obediently buy the correct proportion of SLAP shares to mimic the new composition of the index. Since Rust Belt Decay Corporation (RBDC) got thrown out of the index to make room, the managers dump its shares. All of them. Eve’s ETF does it this way.

Index ETFs can attempt to imitate bond indices, or in fact any imaginable security index. So can index CMFs, of course, and they do. In the case of bonds, pooled investments represent the primary way individual investors park their money in fixed income (the sophisticate term for bonds, but which includes some other investments that also pay a, wait for it, fixed income).

CEFs, like Clark’s, are the main subject of this article; however, to understand them, one needs to understand how they differ from their lookalikes. Most invest in bonds, but there are stock CEFs and perhaps other kinds. Maybe there are some that invest in partnerships, or preferred stocks, or gold coins. My focus here is on high-yield fixed income CEFs, because I’m impatient and greedy and don’t have much faith in long-term promises or institutions. I have faith in what can no longer readily be taken away from me.

CEFs interest me because if I buy them intelligently, I get distributions amounting 10-12% per year, paid in monthly installments. I may even get a capital gain if I ever sell them–but the goal is not growth. It is income, paid now and not later, which means two things I like:

  1. It’s too late for them to screw my money up or take it back. I got it. Not theirs anymore.
  2. Because I get it now, not later, I can use it now. I can buy more shares now and increase the amount of money that’s paying me that 10-12%.

At this point, I consider CEFs well explained. Everything after this para expounds my experiences and observations, and may herewith wander from the topic. If all you cared about was the topic, school’s out. Thank you!

 

Most people investing in the stock market would figure 12% a reasonable goal, year over year on average. They would accept major declines, and might stay invested for years without having actually locked in most of their gains (i.e. sold the shares). And 12% is in fact a very rational goal based on long-term historic performance. But I want my money now, not later, so that I have it to reinvest.

That’s what I do with CEFs. I buy them, at a discount to NAV where possible. I hold them unless/until they decrease the distribution, or I find better options. If they cut the distribution far enough to make them unattractive, I find better options with ease. I may take a capital loss doing so, but remember that all along–for years, even decades–I got my 10-12%. And all along, therefore, I had that money to use for something else–such as more CEF shares.

Yeah, I paid tax on those distributions…except when I did not owe any. Those CEFs in my traditional IRA were not subject to tax. I got that money every month. When enough of it piled up, I looked over my CEF universe (current holdings plus potential holdings of interest), decided which would pay me the most money without being too overweighted in a given CEF, and bought shares. Those shares then started to pay me money.

Now and then, I’d see a major share price dump in a CEF. I’d go to find out why. Usually it was that they’d cut their distribution, absorbed another CEF, experienced shareholder drama, or otherwise done something excitingly harmful to my pleasantly dull regular payments. Most commonly, I’d just dump the CEF shares regardless of capital gain or loss. I would redeploy that amount into the best available option at the time.

A surprising percentage of the time, thanks to cheapskate buying practices, I’d realize a capital gain from selling the shares. Now that was fun. Pay me monthly for eight years, then a parting bonus for firing you? Yes, please.

This took me minimal work. Every month or two, I’d go to my spreadsheet comprising my CEF watch list. I would update current market values, current NAVs (so I could see whether it was trading at a premium or discount, and what magnitude), monthly payouts, and my own original cost for the shares. The latter numbers were essential to me knowing what I was currently being paid. The rest of the numbers related to what I would be paid if I bought shares now. I would also seek to add a CEF to my universe, searching my brokerage for the best paying bond CEF, then reading up to filter out the ones that seemed unsustainable or outlandish. If it looked too good, probably was. The biggest dog in my universe, after all the updating? I’d cease tracking it. If I actually still owned it, I’d place a sell order. If I knew I could get 11%, why would I even follow something offering 7%? No need.

Some years, the stock market would eat flaming death. Many people would freak out. Many would panic-sell their stock shares, mutual fund shares, everything, eek, the sky is falling, sellsellsell. I would go shopping. When my CEFs looked to be down about 25%, I’d update my spreadsheet and blow every dollar of cash in my account on dirt-cheap shares. I knew what I was seeing was panic, irrationality–and opportunity. I didn’t buy on margin, but I bought with every real dollar that had been piling up. Since I paid less for the shares, I got much higher yields, some almost embarrassing.

I would be paid those grotesque yields for years and years, until they either cut the distribution or I sold the shares.

Eventually I no longer bought separate issue securities at all. With money I couldn’t afford to have bounce up and down to any degree, I bought conservative bond index ETFs. With money I wanted to grow, I put part of it into CEFs, and part into a rough 80/20 mix of small-cap stock and conservative bond ETFs called the 3% Signal. I no longer even cared what high-flying tech stock the pundits touted. I stopped reading financial pundits, none of whom ever paid a penalty for being wrong. I decided that I was never again going to take advice from a Jim Cramer unless he was putting in writing to reimburse me any potential losses. If the market were to crash, I would make a lot of money and it would recover within a couple of years. History supported me.

Only a total collapse of the national economy, including the dollar’s value, would wreck me. If I ever came to believe that was likely, I would have invested in some other way that was immune to such a cataclysm. All those ways are very big bets on very unlikely outcomes. I realized that everyone who bought any form of securities, no matter how preppy he or she talked, didn’t really believe in this impending disaster. I have pure contempt for the concept of professing a philosophy one does not in fact believe, be it religious, economical, what have you. If you believe it, your actions will prove it.

How you invest money you can’t afford to have vanish is what you really think about the economic future. What one says means nothing. If you buy gold, but you leave it on deposit at Edward Jones, evidently you think there is a greater risk of home burglary or theft than of a cataclysm causing Edward Jones to close its offices. If you put money into your 401k, but talk big about how everything is going to be destroyed, you are lying. If you were that sure of your outcome, you wouldn’t put one dime into a 401k even if your employer matched it. Double nothing is still nothing.

There could still be a total collapse that renders everything irrelevant. If there is, it’ll also nullify most of my potential protective measures and screw me (and nearly everyone else) up real bad. It doesn’t make sense for me to prepare for something that has been predicted annually going way back, without happening or punishment for the wrong predictors. It is more logical for me to prepare for recurrences of what has been demonstrated to occur.

I’ll keep collecting my 10-12%.

Excellent books you may not even know exist

Other day, I was sitting out with a cigar and a book about how to avoid speeding tickets. It was insightful and well worth the re-read. It occurred to me that I had read a number of such books, profited from what I’d learned, yet never shared these hidden gems with you all.

That’s no way to treat all the nice people who take the time to read my blog.

What these all have in common: they all conveyed to me some form of important understanding, be it practical, geopolitical, financial, historical, whatever. After reading them, I felt more like a motorboat and less like an inner tube on the choppy waters of life.

Eagan, James: A Speeder’s Guide to Avoiding Tickets. It’s not that I habitually speed, because I do not. It’s that if by chance the police are thinking about stopping me, I hope they won’t, and if they do, I hope they won’t give me a ticket. Some of the technological tips may be dated, but I doubt that the insights into police mentality and habits are obsolete. This twenty-year veteran of the New York State Police got his most helpful possible endorsement when some police-connected official condemned the book. If the police do not want you to read it, obviously, it’s the first thing you should be reading.

Poundstone, William: Big Secrets. Poundstone, an investigative reporter and student of the human mind, dug into many subjects such as Freemasonry initiations, Colonel Sanders’s recipe, and all those supposed backward messages in records. (For those, he rented a studio and split the tracks, playing them both forward and backward.) It is a bit dated, but very interesting and mostly remains relevant. There are two sequels, with no decline in interest level or quality.

Kelly, Jason: The 3% Signal. Most of you who invest are still either picking your own stocks or paying expensive professionals (to underperform more often than not) through conventional mutual funds. The evidence is in, and it says most of you are doing this wrong. Kelly is a very interesting fellow, a Colorado Buff English major who lives in Japan and writes a financial newsletter. Not only does he write well, his market insight is spot on and his investing plan is so simple that even a self-declared financial boob could probably handle it. I’ve been using it for three years and it has made me feel much better about my investing methods.

Anderson, Kurt: How to Back up a Trailer…and 101 Other Things Every Real Guy Should Know. Anderson is that guy we all need to know. He’s like my father, who could have taught me all this stuff had I shown the slightest bit of interest, had I not been practicing the development method of “ignore adulthood and hope it will never arrive.” Unlike many who are gifted in the area of life’s physics, Anderson can write and never comes off as a horse’s ass about it all. The irony, of course, is that the people who should rush out to buy this book are majority female. Girls and women aren’t taught enough of this in life, especially growing up in cities (whereas your average farm girl could have written this book), and capability equals independence. Anderson’s book is their liberator.

Cahill, Tim: A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg. A world in which Bill Bryson sells more books than Tim Cahill is a world with lousy taste, a world that lets people with vested financial interests tell it what to like. The travel genre has many subsets, and one of my favorites is adventure travel. Cahill, a Sconnie now living in Montana, has a laconic descriptive method that knows how to let the humor speak for itself. Unlike some travel writers, he also seems like a man who could safely go back to most of his adventuresome haunts. One of the nicest things my bro John ever did was give me a copy of this book, which opened the way to the other seven-odd Cahill travel books.

Loewen, James W.: Sundown Towns. Prof. Loewen’s name is better known for his studies of mendacious monuments, but I consider this his most important work because it answers a question about how African Americans came to be concentrated in cities. It explains the difference between Southern and Northern post-Civil War racisms. As someone who used to live in a former sundown town (Kennewick, WA, which has never come to terms with this racist past and has instead chosen to avoid the conversation as the eyewitnesses die off), this book supplied a crucial lack in my understanding of American history. If we are ever to repair this ongoing rent in the national fabric, we must arrive at that understanding.

Horwitz, Tony: Baghdad Without a Map. It’s hard to pick a favorite book with authors who always do it right. In cases like these, I choose the one that first drew me in. Horwitz may be best known for Confederates in the Attic, his study of Civil War re-enactor culture, but a Jew traveling all over the greater Middle Eastern region shows me serious chutzpah. Like Cahill, Horwitz knows how to let the reader find the humor. All his books are good, including his historical take on John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry seizure, Midnight Rising. I find him an exception to the rule that journalists should be kicked in the groin if they start making moves toward writing history books. (“But I checked three sources! I can write it!”)

Perkins, John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. When you look at a globe, you may not see the strings by which the United States manipulates the world. Perkins explains how we weave them, how we reeve them, and how we yank them to make less fortunate countries do our bidding. If you’ve ever watched a documentary about how drug dealers work hard to develop new addicts because addicts are customers and can be controlled through their addictions, this book will show you how effective (if heartless) that business model can be on a larger scale.

Eskeldson, Mark: What Car Dealers Don’t Want You to Know. The fine art of screwing the auto-purchasing public is an evolutionary game, so books will tend to become dated. So is this one, but much of its content is still relevant. The essential lesson is that the process of buying a car is a three-card monte game with the dealer making a cameo. An updated version for the Internet buying era would be especially helpful, but no matter the timeframe, the fundamental mentality does not change; when it proclaims itself kinder, honest, and forthright, that is when it is the sleaziest. Car dealers hate when you are not forthright with them because deceit is supposed to be their playground. Definitely a good guide to how they think.

Sullivan, Bob: Stop Getting Ripped Off. I’d like to give a copy to every young person graduating from high school. Thanks to the time value of money combined with ignorance and naïveté, the first twenty years of independence are when the mistakes are likeliest to be costly when all is calculated with eyes wide open. One must learn to be one’s own advocate, and that advocacy must evolve, because what worked for your mom and stepdad may no longer be feasible for you. While the title is a bit misleading, at least in the body of the book Sullivan admits that there are areas where you are going to be ripped off and cannot stop the process. My view: at least if you know what the ripoff is and who does it, you’ll know who to hate.

Molloy, John T.: Molloy’s Live for Success. Okay, so you want to get ahead in the office/corporate world, but you don’t have the right connections, the right personality, the right clothes, the right vibe. You keep wondering why lazy, stupid assholes get promoted and you do not, in spite of your competent diligence. This resentment builds on itself, because you are an honest hard worker who tries hard to get along with others and go the extra mile, thus worsening the gap between you and success. That resentment hits close to my home, because the dawning of reality shortened my naïve, selectively brilliant, industrious father’s life. It would have shortened mine too, except that I decided I didn’t want that type of career. But if I had–if I’d been willing to subordinate my basic identity to a perfectly manufactured persona that kissed the right butts, appeared at the right places, and otherwise gave off the vibe of being a club member–at least I would have had the right textbook. I read it in my early twenties and it helped me to decide that I wasn’t the type to reach the executive suite. It helped me to understand the warm, affectionate, grandfatherly smile of the Sears executive whom I am certain vetoed their hire of me (a great kindness, now that I understand the world better). But if you are that type, the only things that have changed are the technologies and clothes. Even if you are not, if you work for a hierarchy, reading this will help you understand how that hierarchy got where it is (and why, at the rate you’re going, you aren’t getting a slot in it unless you are already slotted by genetics and upbringing to join it). Molloy is much better known for his Dress for Success books, but this is the book that will enumerate the rest of the entry fee.

Happy reading.

The role of bird poop in US history

Guano, as we towers of literary force are supposed to refer to bird excrement, has the surprising tendency to accumulate on islands frequented by numerous birds. What in the continental United States would be referred to as ‘parts of rural Georgia,’ far out to sea, may once have been worth planting the flag and bringing a shovel.

In 1856, the United States decided that it was entitled to claim any island that was:

  • a) uninhabited (perhaps because it was too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there);
  • b) too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there; and
  • c) unclaimed by anyone else (perhaps because it was too covered in bird dook to be of interest).

This resulted in us claiming about eighty islands worldwide. Considering the nitrate-rich nature of bird poop, this was somewhat less stupid and arrogant than it might seem–though that bar wasn’t set terribly high.

Weirder: we still claim some of them. Some have even been strategic in wars. Others, strategic or not, got the shit kicked out of them in those wars. The United States: Not Only Will We Control Your Islands Of Bird Ca-Ca, You May Wish You Had Thought Of That Before We Did, Suckers.

Here are the ones we’re still hanging onto, even if our yearning for bird turds has declined or, more plausibly, if we already confiscated all the bird turds we deemed essential to our national interest:

Bajo Nuevo Bank, a.k.a. the Petrel Islands. A couple of very narrow atoll-like reefs with minimal land area (as in, if you have a decent arm you could throw a baseball from the east beach to the west beach at most points): draw a line north from the Panamá Canal, stop where you reach the latitude of the north Nicaraguan border well to the west, and you’re in the right neighborhood. Colombia claims them, and the International Court of Justice agrees, but for some reason we still dispute the sovereignty. Thus, it is a pair of guano islands that still fit into the conversation. I doubt that we will ever go down and start shooting at the Colombian Navy over this, although given trends in our national leadership, I no longer put any stupidity or lunacy past them.

Baker Island, originally New Nantucket. Just over three-quarters of a square mile, it’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia and very close to the Equator. We built an airfield and used it as a base during World War II, partly in response to some Japanese air attacks. We left a lot of airfield-and-army-related junk there, where it all still rusts or otherwise deteriorates. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates it as a wildlife refuge, which means in essence leaving it alone since it has no human population or strategic value. They visit it every couple of years, just to see how everything’s coming. You know, make sure no one has set up a meth lab, look for Gilligan, that sort of stuff.

Howland Island. This isn’t far from Baker Island, about thirty miles nearly due north, and is in roughly the same ignored condition. Its land area is a little over a square mile and a half. Before she disappeared, that great Kansan Amelia Earhart was searching for her preplanned stopover point on Howland Island. We had big plans for this place in the 1930s, intending it as a refueling stopover for intercontinental air travel, and to that end we set up a colonist program where four Hawaiians at a time would come to live there. This was not easy in peacetime, but got worse when the Japanese bombed it the day after Pearl Harbor, killing two of the colonists. We evacuated the other two, landed a battalion of Marines, and prepared to hold fast. After the war, we abandoned Howland Island; now it’s another Fish & Wildlife-administered/ignored refuge.

Jarvis Island, formerly Bunker Island. Well southeast of Baker Island–far enough to be almost due south of the Hawaiian island chain–is another square mile and three-quarters of former guano mine. We tried a small settlement there, which led to some drama when the colonists saw a submarine surfacing not long after Pearl Harbor. They figured the US Navy was there to rescue them. When the sub opened up on them with its deck gun, the colonists reconsidered their hypothesis. Later, the Coast Guard picked up the Jarvis Island colonists, then shelled their former settlement. Not to be outdone in the destruction of uninhabited places, another Japanese sub swung by and also shelled the ex-settlement. This too is now a wildlife refuge.

Johnston Atoll. This small group of islands, the largest of which amounts to a square mile, sits about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii. There’s a long reef, the primary island, and a couple of minor islands. In aerial photos, they mostly look sculpted by Seabees. You will not believe the things we have done to Johnston Atoll.

For a variation on the usual theme, we did the wildlife refuge thing first. Given that tensions with Japan were on the rise in those days, that didn’t last long. Over the next seventy years, we would:

  • Base warplanes out of it
  • Base the Coast Guard out of it
  • Plaster it with nuclear weapons, including some failed launches
  • Set up an anti-satellite missile base (we did not shoot down any actual satellites from here, at least not that we admit to)
  • Track satellites and recover film cans dropped from satellites
  • Test biological weapons
  • Store chemical weapons
  • Store Agent Orange
  • Destroy the chemical weapons
  • Knock down all but one building, then abandon it
  • Come back to clean up all the chemical and nuclear mess we’d made over the years
  • Kill some invasive ‘crazy ants’

And there may have been other activities that have never become public. In fact, I think you could just about bank on that.

Kingman Reef, formerly Danger Reef. Its total land area is .012 square kilometers, and it sits there and gets wet about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. After about ten minutes of mathematical ineptitude, I collapsed with apathy before figuring out whether its area was the size of a basketball court, or a football field, or a baseball card. Then I found out it’s three acres, so much of it awash that there is not much need to take any action except refraining from hitting it with a boat (odds of which, by accident, are rather remote). Another wildlife refuge run by those hardworking and dedicated public servants at Fish & Wildlife, and another guano island that found its way into the United States due to bird feces.

Midway Atoll. Now we’re talking! Imagine you are on Hawaii’s big island and you get this craving to boat along the line of the islands, headed for Japan. As you pass between Kauai and Ni’ihau, you say screw it, I’m just going to keep going. About a third of the way to Japan, you’d hit Midway. It has three islands (one is dinky), surrounded by a reef, so unless you looked alive on the approach you would probably run your boat aground and suffer an ignominious and very expensive rescue. You aren’t supposed to go to Midway without advance permission, so there is no reason for the permanent workforce of forty to make nice with you, even if you hum the Marines’ Hymn and say you only came out to visit the war memorials. Total land area is about two and a half square miles, so there are a finite number of places to sneak in, and you would somewhat stand out. Do not do it.

While history has proven Midway an ideal location for carrier-based naval warfare battles (look this up if you doubt me, then come back and apologize), its location was incredibly strategic in World War II. Had the Japanese won the 1942 carrier/air battle and occupied Midway, they would have been positioned to threaten the Hawaiian Islands. Having fought so hard to keep it, the armed forces just couldn’t break up with Midway for another fifty years. The Navy finally shut down its last operations in 1993. The people who live/work there are with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s another refuge. It has proven a good place to study the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which stands as an enormous monument to corporate and government social responsibility when no one is around to punish them for doing the wrong thing.

Navassa Island. About a third of the way from Haiti to Jamaica, you’ll find this two-square-mile uninhabited island. Columbus’s men visited it and reported back that it had no water, giving people (even those Native Americans Columbus and his successors failed to eradicate) reason to avoid it for another three hundred and fifty years. Only when its bird crap value became evident (and it met the other conditions) did the young United States pounce on this place. Haiti protested. Even then, we knew we could win a war against Haiti, so we stood our guano. It was the scene of some ugliness when a phosphate (bird crap) mining company hired 140 black contract workers from Maryland to extract the fabled feces. Conditions were awful, the workers revolted in 1889, and in a move much envied by so many in the modern world, they killed five of their supervisors. Take a guess at how that went over in our justice system, knowing how it functions even today.. At least we didn’t execute them, but only because President Harrison intervened.

For some years we kept up a lighthouse on Navassa, but the Coast Guard took it down in 1996. I gather that what happens there now is: Fish & Wildlife officially has charge of it, Haitian fishermen camp out there when they feel the need, the U.S. prohibits this but does nothing to prevent it, and the end result is a wildlife refuge that mostly works in spite of a disputed claim no one seems to press.

Palmyra Atoll. Had you gone looking for Kingman Reef, but missed about twenty miles south, you would come to one of the few guano islands (this one, in fact, did not contain significant guano, so the original basis for a claim was flawed) with a permanent staff. One wonders what sins one must commit in order to be assigned there. Anyway, Palmyra amounts to a little more than two and a half square miles, girdled by reefs on three sides, and divided into a whole bunch of little islands. In a clever attempt to disguise its true purpose, the one with the airstrip is called “Aviation Island.” Back when there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, said kingdom claimed Palmyra. The United States incorporated it into the Territory of Hawaii, but it is not now part of the state; the government took it away upon statehood. It did service as an airbase during World War II, and now the Nature Conservancy owns part of it, with an ongoing population of a half to two dozen.

As for the other seventy-odd, other countries claimed them, or got them in treaties, or for whatever other reason we decided not to be difficult about it.

And that’s the story of our guano islands, the territory we annexed in the name of bird deuces.

Scumbag studies: Reichsleiter Rudolf Hess

This story is weird because its subject is weird.

Hess, a WWI veteran, was one of Adolf Hitler’s earliest kool-aid drinkers. You might say that he was even a kool-aid taster, helping develop Hitler’s kool-aid vintages and varietals. Hess would have swallowed fishing sinkers and jumped into the Rhine if Hitler jumped first. While Hitler did time for the Beer Hall Putsch, Hess typed up the manuscript that became Mein Kampf. Call him whatever else you will, with just cause, but Hitler was very loyal to those whose loyalty to him never flinched. Hess rose to the position of Deputy Führer.

Hess’s brain wiring was unlike that of others. He was definitely an anti-Semite and instrumental in the rise of the Nazi party as well as the persecution of Jews, so he fits my definition of scumbag. He had a streak of hypochondria. Today, he would probably be an anti-vaccine activist. It seems reasonable to suppose that he was prone to mental illness. But for a plane trip, he would have stayed in Hitler’s shadow throughout the war. He would have continued to lose influence due to Martin Bormann’s machinations, and would not have cared, so long as he retained Hitler’s personal affection. As one of the few men Hitler addressed in the familiar form ‘du’ and called “Hessrl” (‘Hessie’), Hess could do whatever he wanted provided it never ran counter to Nazi aims. By war’s end, surely he would have accumulated enough wrongdoing to hang. I am not alone in believing it a poor form of justice that he did not.

He would eventually correct that injustice himself, if indeed he did hang himself in Spandau all those many years later.

The official version is that on 12 May 1941, in defiance of Hitler’s orders and perhaps due to a decline in sanity, Hess jumped in his Bf-110 aircraft and flew to Scotland. He behaved as though he expected to be able to return. His goal was to broker peace between Germany (which he knew would soon be at close quarters with the Soviet Union) and Britain. The British heard him out, but did not find his proposals compelling. (Short version: “Herr Hitler never wanted to destroy you and still does not. If you get out of the war and give him back our African colonies, he will let you live.”) They debriefed him, but kept him under comfortable yet strict confinement for the duration of hostilities. At one point he attempted suicide and failed. The British made sure that didn’t happen again.

Came war’s end, Hess was among the high-profile Nuremberg defendants. He had behaved strangely in captivity, and put on a convincing display of missing marbles in court. Despite this infirmity or act, the tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment. He would be the final prisoner held in Spandau Prison, West Berlin, purportedly hanging himself on 17 August 1987. My own weird connection to the situation is that my college days ended just one year before that, and I happened to know a young woman (I delivered mail to her dorm and she would chat with me while I stuffed the boxes) who was a distant relation of Hess. I once tactlessly asked, “Any relation?” Best I can describe it is that a shadow passed over her eyes as she said, simply, sadly, “Yes.” Perhaps that is why the case has interested me.

Anyway, not everyone swallows the official version. Did you really think they would? When have they ever? All right, let’s consider Team Tinfoil’s claims. It may surprise you that I believe they at least have a couple of valid insights.

The real Hess died in a flying boat crash in Scotland during the war. This story goes that a double replaced him, acting the fool at Nuremberg, then spending decades in Spandau. Far as I’m concerned, this is stupid. Who would agree to do this? Where would they find such a person who also resembled the very distinctive-looking Hess? When Hess finally agreed to start seeing his wife and son again in the late 1960s, they seemed to think he was the real deal; in what universe could a double have manufactured the shared memories to fool them? What on earth could they gain from being in on some cover-up?

And those questions don’t even touch on why the British might cover up Hess’s death in such an accident. It’s not a war crime to fly prisoners around, especially important ones. This theory is so goofy it impairs the credibility of anyone who advances it.

Hess had Hitler’s permission and encouragement to go. In the past, I thought this was likely because of the problematic nature of stealing an escort fighter in the notoriously fascist Third Reich, but I have learned that Hess had his own Bf-110 on permanent assignment and knew how to fly it. There are reliable reports that Adolf chucked a trademark Hitlertantrum when he heard the news, which at least suggests the flight was unauthorized. A better reason to doubt Adolfian approval is that the odds were high of an outcome involving propaganda adverse to Nazi interests. How would it look to the Italians, at grips with the British in North Africa, if Nazi Germany seemed likely to make a deal with the Allies? What if Italy were to react by abandoning a war in which they had so far gained little and lost much? Nah, I don’t think Adolf sent him. It does, however, look very weird that Hess flew his mission on the very day after the Blitz ended. Whether or not the British knew that the concentrated raids were over, the Nazis did.

The British expected him. I strongly doubt that the Churchill government in power expected a visit from Hess. That some members of the upper classes might have been defeatist, and hoping for a substantive peace proposal…I am distrustful enough of ruling elites to imagine that possible. I can easily see where, after months of bombing and lost shipping, with no evident end in sight and no Americans riding to the rescue, wealthy elites might seek to act so as to save themselves and their riches above all.

We aren’t supposed to believe that. We’re supposed to believe that the wealthy deliberately stepped up for the noble sacrifices. Experience suggests I shouldn’t accept that comforting assumption so readily. Certainly our own wealthy elites in the modern USA would sell out Mom, country, Constitution, and people if it meant saving their own butts. Hell, they’d do it for a tax break. I do suspect that at least some in the British aristocracy were ready to see a way out of the war. Did Hess travel there in answer to back-channel communications of such nature? I don’t know. What one conspiracy book says, and not unconvincingly, is that an unspecified source got a look at the file folders still being held back from public release, and that each contains a single sheet stating that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. If so, that puts it in a place beyond any force in British law save one: the personal command of the reigning monarch.

If that’s where the actual material has gone, why put it there? If isn’t true, why invent that story? My suspicion is that there was indeed some evidence that at least some of the aristocracy weren’t as committed to the ultimate victory as public morale demanded that the public believe. If that were true, wouldn’t it suck for them to have that become public knowledge? Where could such an multi-generational embarrassment be stashed where it could never come back to haunt anyone? That would be the place.

I am reminded of a passage from John T. Molloy’s Live for Success, in which the author talked about a study his company did regarding chief executives’ résumés and potential fiction therein. Short version: so many of the résumés were so loaded with bullshit that Molloy ordered the report destroyed. Inexact quote: “It wouldn’t kill them; it would kill us.” I have little difficulty imagining a highly placed peer in the British intelligence community saying to an underling: “Give me that. Understand that you never worked on it, for it never existed.” And then taking it to Churchill, and it then being passed along to the King, who would have had the power to sequester it. But I do not know.

Hess was murdered, and thus did not hang himself. Possible. The usual reasoning advanced is that it was to prevent him from revealing WWII secrets. If so, I wonder what secrets he had not yet found a way to share with his now-adult son and aging wife, but it’s possible. I consider “they would never stoop to such a thing” as a terribly naive statement to make about any intelligence agency when it comes to perceived national interests. Some of the claims on both sides are facile, though it would not shock me if he were murdered to prevent any possibility of his being released if the Soviets finally relented on their longtime commitment to make sure he would die behind bars.

Hess didn’t expect to become a POW. To me, this is obvious. Toward his family, before departure he behaved as though he would be back within a few days. He expected that the British would grasp at any chance to make peace. To grasp this, we need to try and view the world from Hess’s rather muddled perspective.

Suppose you’re Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s BFF. Hitler = bae. The Adolf Hitler you know–and you believe, with cause, that you know him as well as any living man–is all-powerful, yet a kinder and more merciful man than the cruel, intolerant, blinded world can be allowed to see. You have often heard him say that he never wanted to crush the British. As things stand, obviously he will destroy them because obviously no one can stand against the obviously insurmountable Third Reich when led by such an incredible mind. However, the Führer is planning to invade the USSR soon. You fought in a two-front war just a generation ago; you were wounded there. You know that the Blitz is about to end, but the British don’t; all they will know is that a day will soon come when they aren’t being bombed.

Your BFF might lose face if he approaches the British now, but you can see he urgently needs a loyal friend to help him out by getting Churchill’s stubborn Spitfires and enormous Royal Navy out of the war. You’ve gotten word that the British aristocrats are beginning to see reason, thanks to the fierce might of the German Blitzkrieg and a good pounding by the Luftwaffe. Of course they do. Neither you nor Hitler ever imagined the British stupid or cowardly. In a sane world, of course, they would have sided with their Aryan brethren to begin with. Only after a pummeling could the British consider honorable terms, and they have had a rough lesson in German dominance. They’ve been softened up nicely.

Is not now your moment to be your BFF’s hero, by doing that which he can not? You can ensure that there will be no two-front war, win peace without giving up anything Germany has taken, get the hated obstinate wiseass Churchill pushed aside, avoid the need for a potentially disastrous cross-Channel invasion, and be the Fatherland’s man of the hour. Since it is obvious Germany will triumph, surely it is impossible that the British will be so suicidally stupid as to do anything like throw you in a POW camp. After all, you are a very important person, high in the favor of the Führer. You are responsible for the spilling of pages of adverbs. You are no one to trifle with. The British may have been foolish enough to be drawn into the Jewish conflict, but surely they would not show indignity to an important plenipotentiary entrusting his life and future to them as a sign of the Führer’s good faith. They are misguided, but they aren’t animals. Surely they have manners and are still sane. They will fall all over themselves in haste to do the only logical thing, and in gratitude for the magnanimity that lets them retain empire and honor.

If you were Rudolf Hess, with Hess’s experiences and his years in the Nazi rabbit hole of fascism, egotism, and delusion, might your thought process have worked that way?

We don’t know, but I have heard far less plausible scenarios that do far less to explain the known facts.

So no, I don’t believe it was a fake Hess at any time. I strongly doubt his Baedolf encouraged him to go, or knew about it. I think he saw his chance to be the big hero, and misjudged British resolve based on hints about Lord Fothersail or the Duke of Flatbroke having some doubts about the war effort. I don’t think he realized that the Allies already considered his people brutal barbarians led by a serial liar and bigot with whom the only peace could be had at the point of an Enfield barrel–or an air-dropped avalanche of fire and steel.

Summed up, I believe that the best way to understand more about this situation is to toss away idealistic wishful thinking about our side, and overtly myopic assumptions about the subject himself, and ask ourselves why each event might happen. Then dismiss those that are too stupid to dignify.

What remains is at least possible until we have trustworthy reason to reject it.

Myths (and truths) about Ireland

I like Ireland, though not everything about Ireland, and not as much as my wife does. She would move there tomorrow if I were to let down my resistance for an instant. I think some of that is how much she has enjoyed travel there, but traveling in a place differs very much from living there.

One suspects that a part of her perspective still buys into a little of the mythology. It occurs to me that Ireland is a very mythologized country in the United States. Maybe I can clear some of these up by stating the myth or perception as I have heard it, and clarifying the reality as I saw it.

Ireland is dangerous due to sectarian and nationalist violence. False. Even at the worst times of the Troubles, as they are known, most of Ireland was far safer than much of the United States. To get caught in the crossfire, a visitor would have needed a) tremendous bad luck and the worst imaginable timing, or b) enormous stupidity. A sensible visitor would have been, and would now be, far more concerned about an auto accident on a narrow road. Nowadays, concern about Trouble-related violence makes about as much sense as avoiding Midland, Texas for fear of Comanche raids.

All of Ulster is in Northern Ireland. False. In fact, three counties of Ulster are within the Republic. None of Leinster or Connaught’s counties are in Northern Ireland. (Munster does not border Ulster, thus sparing us that question entirely.) Thus, when you say ‘Ulster’ to refer to the North, this is imprecise.

The Republic is Catholic and the North is Protestant. Partly false. Catholics form a large majority in the Republic, but are also a strong presence in the North, which is about half Catholic and half Protestant. Of course, a percentage do not identify with either religious direction from the standpoint of practice, but may still identify with one as a cultural factor. Every religion has its own culture. Just as I know nominally Mormon people who practice almost none of the LDS faith’s strictures (yet still describe themselves as Mormon), you could find atheists and agnostics in Ireland who come by Catholic or Protestant identify through family heritage and upbringing. I would say that the Irish are less religious than Americans, but since religion is so connected to culture in Ireland, it conveys something of a misleading impression to the observing outside world.

Gaelic is a dead language. False on two counts. In the first place, ‘Gaelic’ is inspecific as a descriptor, as it could also refer to Scots. With regard to Ireland, the the suitable term is ‘Irish.’ Irish is not a dead language, though it may be fair to say it might have died out but for strenuous efforts toward its preservation. In the first place, the Republic of Ireland’s Bunreacht (constitution, in force since 1937) states that the Republic has two official languages, Irish and English, and that an Irish citizen may receive all official services in either language. What is more, the Irish version of the Bunreacht is the definitive original. You should be able to see where this goes. Gardaí (police), many government officials, and so forth must be capable of serving the public in Irish, thus must be conversational. Irish is spoken as a first language in certain areas, mainly in Connaught and Munster but also heavily in western Donegal, called Gaelteachts.

In my experience, while one may function well in English in Gaelteachts, locals will welcome a sincere effort to speak Irish. One would have to search very hard for a part of Ireland where one would need to speak Irish in order to function, but I am sure they exist. Some in Ulster also speak Scots Gaelic, which is very akin to its Irish sister language. I can tell you from experience that an American speaking Irish in the Republic is considered something of a wonder, though that American should take a little care in trotting out his or her ability. I found that many Irish felt they should be more proficient in the language, and that it embarrassed them a bit for an American to be more conversant with it than they. It’s never good manners to embarrass one’s hosts, especially hosts as patient as the Irish.

Ireland rains all the time. More true than false. Ireland is fairly rainy even in summer (though they tell me that is changing), and very much so in winter. Drainage and flooding are always issues. I doubt any part of Ireland uses, needs, or wants irrigation, in much the same way that few equatorial nations spend much effort on central home heating. However, even in winter in Ireland, there’s a fair chance of a sunny day. And a sunny day in Ireland is something to treasure and soak up.

There’s a castle everywhere you look in Ireland. Partly true. Ireland is loaded with old buildings and ruins, some of which are or were castles or forts. Some are open to the public some of the time. Some are open to some members of the public who know the right way to pose the question, which in Ireland is often not in the most direct way. In my experience, the best way to search for anything in Ireland involves a pub and some patience. In a pub, some locals get the chance to size you up and decide whether to refer you onward or not, make a phone call for you or not, give you directions or not. Once they make up their mind about you, in their own time and in a positive way, they tend to look out for you. Attempts to rush the Irish only serve to annoy them.

The Irish drink a lot. Depends on perspective. In terms of per capita consumption, the Republic stands slightly above the UK (which includes the North) and Germany, slightly below Australia, and well below much of eastern Europe. The French and South Koreans drink more than the Irish, for example. So if your perspective is American, on balance, drinking is slightly more. If it’s Ukrainian, the Irish are relatively light drinkers. I have seen a lot of people drinking in Ireland, but I have rarely seen anyone sloppy drunk, and in those cases I saw clear evidence of general disapproval.

What is true (though gradually changing): the pub is a social center. While some pubs still have the old ‘snug’ (women’s area), it’s kind of an artifact. Nowadays women and children are more than welcome, and it is unremarkable to see an entire Irish family having dinner at the pub. A non-drinker is still welcome in most pubs provided, as in most hospitality establishments, he or she at least buys something. A recovering alcoholic, if asked, might explain that s/he has taken the Pledge (a religious vow). This is an acceptable excuse for declining to have a pint with someone, as is a strict religious observation. The Irish understand that some faiths (LDS, Islam) drink no alcohol.

The Irish remember everything forever. True–both the good and the bad. There is a monument in County Cork to the Choctaw, who in response to the 1840s famines gathered up as much money as they could find and sent it to help alleviate the famine. Roadside markers show the points where Volunteers fell during the struggles for independence. Even during the Troubles, it was remembered which families had bought their land many years before, and which had appropriated it. The Irish build monuments to historians; I have seen them myself. If a fairy mound happens to be in the way of a proposed road, workers cannot be found to bulldoze it. The road will simply have to go around. Do good deeds in Ireland, and be remembered for them. Do wrong there, and be remembered as well. Cromwell has been gone for nearly four hundred years, and they haven’t even begun making an effort to forget his deeds.

Irish time is ‘-ish’ time. Mainly true. Business hours, where posted, tend to flexibility. The most pointless thing one can do in Ireland is try to pressure anyone to do anything faster; they will not comply, and it will only irritate them. If a flock of sheep is blocking the road, it will continue to do so until the shepherd gets them where he wants them. Honk and you prove yourself a fool. Wave in a friendly way and be patient, and the shepherd will be prone to get the beasts moving a little faster.

Ireland has made it easier to get to its most famous destinations. True, but at the cost of making them unappealing. The Cliffs of Moher? Newgrange? Giant’s Causeway? Blarney Castle? Killarney? All generously equipped with tour bus parking, the dreaded ‘Visitors’ Centre’ (except Killarney, all of which is a de facto Visitors’ Centre, thus it needs none) and suitable entry fees. Sweater and other traps, of course, for your shopping pleasure. The Giant’s Causeway so saddened us that we coined the verb “to causeway”: to take an otherwise appealing and beautiful place and garbage it up for money. I understand that everyone needs to make a living, that it is their island to do with as they choose, and that they don’t want or need my advice on that subject. I also understand that most of them despise this trend. Look on the bright side: there are many locations just as appealing and special that are rarely overrun by huge green tour buses labeled “Paddy Wagon” and displaying a large Disney cartoon leprechaun. I very much doubt that every worthwhile place in Ireland will become causewayed in my lifetime. I do not think the Irish will allow that.

Bless them.

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