Friday, September 02, 2016

Thanks I'll hang up and get your answer on the air

no, no, seriously it's not me i'm asking for some other person who was just holding a balloon right outside the police station

We are shooting the albatross.

This was also posted on my law blog, but I thought it merited being read here, as well.

Further and further down the rabbit hole we go with student loans, which you'll recall are loans made by private banks, or the federal government, with little to no risk on the part of the private bank, because most student loans are federally guaranteed, entitled to faster administrative procedures for collection, and have no statute of limitations.

Student loans are thus the apex predator of debt, and are the reason why we are not climbing out of the Great Recession and in fact will likely be in for worse.  Despite that, the government and creditors continue to insanely insist that every student loan debtor be saddled with debt for the rest of their natural lives, regardless of the circumstances.

The latest outrage/judicial ruling comes from In re Jones, an Eastern District of Michigan Bankruptcy Court decision.  Vicky Jones, a registered nurse, filed bankruptcy. She had monthly expenses -- expenses the bankruptcy court found reasonable -- that were only $2 less than her monthly income, meaning that she was able to save or have discretionary spending of TWO WHOLE DOLLARS per month.

Included in those monthly expenses were a $500 per month payment on her student loans. The student loans were not what forced Vicky into bankruptcy but they were (SPOILER ALERT!) what forced her out of bankruptcy.

No, what forced Vicky into bankruptcy was that another creditor (apparently? it's unclear) had recently gotten a judgment against her and garnished her wages to the tune of $650 or so per month.  If you are keeping track, this now means that Vicky's budget is short $648 per month. Give or take.

Vicky's unsecured debts totaled about $150,000, and of those, $131,000 were student loans. Vicky filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which liquidates any non-exempt assets and then discharges (meaning she doesn't have to pay) any debts -- other than student loans.

So Vicky's bankruptcy plan was essentially to get rid of $19,000 in debt to allow her to keep paying her $131,000 in student loans.

In comes the United States government, in the form of the bankruptcy trustee, who objected to Vicky's filing and said it should be converted to a chapter 13. In that chapter 13, the trustee noted, Vicky would make payments for five years to all unsecured creditors, and the creditors who were owed the $19,000 would realize about 20% of their outstanding debts. To this, Vicky replied that such a plan would actually increase her student loans by about $37,000, as well as making her ineligible for at least some post-bankruptcy repayment options on those loans.

The bankruptcy court first had to consider whether the student loans were 'consumer' debt. This is because if you are a consumer, you can be found to abuse bankruptcy under various circumstances, and thus be denied the right to file bankruptcy. The court determined that the debts were consumer debts because Vicky's first petition had said so.

When you file bankruptcy, you have to note the kind of debt you have, and on that first petition, Vicky (presumably through her lawyer) said they were consumer debts. When the trustee filed its motion, she amended her petition to state they were not consumer debts.

Amending claims and petitions to address perceived deficiencies is relatively common, so common in fact that Wisconsin and federal rules allow a party to amend its pleading at least one time without even seeking permission.  I'm not sure what the rules in bankruptcy are, but I do know that despite the fact that amended pleadings entirely supplant the prior pleading, there is a trend among lawyers to argue that earlier pleadings can be used against you.

This is a strange and sad rule, because often a person pleads something based on what they know at the time, and subsequent investigation might cause them to alter or omit that claim. About 50 years ago, the rules of civil procedure in federal courts were liberalized to get past the formalities of law; the idea was that rather than throw cases out on what seemed mere technicalities, the courts and litigants were to focus on the merits and substance of the case. Over the past five years or so, there has been a retrenchment of that liberalization, with formalities becoming ever more important.

Here, the bankruptcy court determined that Vicky was estopped from claiming her debt was not consumer debt, because of that first petition. The court felt that the amendment, coming right after the trustee filed the motion, demonstrated "gamesmanship" and that thus Vicky could not change her position: the debts were deemed consumer debts, regardless of their actual status.

That, in turn, meant that a provision of the bankruptcy code meant to avoid abuse of bankruptcy by consumer debtors applied to this case, and the Court analyzed whether it should dismiss the case. The Court found that Vicky had a stable source of income, and that because her debts could be repaid at least in part to the other unsecured creditors, it was 'premature' for Vicky to file for bankruptcy:

The Court concludes it is premature for the Debtor to seek either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 relief at this time. First, she could obtain a temporary stay of proceedings while she attempts to negotiate an installment payment of the judgment that she owes. Second, there is insufficient evidence before the Court that she cannot accomplish a debt restructuring of her student loans at this time.
Essentially, this is a ruling that Vicky must first try to work with the judgment creditor, and her student loan lenders, without the protection of the bankruptcy court rule, or alternatively that she can convert her case to a chapter 13.

Bankruptcy is meant to treat all creditors fairly; it's not a debtor's law at all. (Many, many laws seemingly enacted in favor of debtors are in fact laws that were favored by and provide benefits to, creditors. Any marital property law fits that definition, for example, because it expanded creditors' ability to lend to people who otherwise might not be able to borrow, and collect from people who had not in fact borrowed.)

What this judge here did is send Vicky back out of bankruptcy court, where she would have to try to prefer two specific creditors -- the judgment creditor and the student loan lender -- over the others. But also, while Vicky is negotiating, those other creditors are free to sue her and obtain judgments if they can, and try to collect against her as well.  It is exactly the kind of free-for-all that bankruptcy was intended to avoid.  Alternatively, if Vicky converts to a chapter 13, that extends the delinquency and bad marks on her credit as much as five more years. (Most delinquent credit records stay on your credit report for 7 years. Bankruptcy stays for 10 years after discharge, so a chapter 13 bankruptcy might result in bad credit for 15 years, as opposed to 7.)

Chapter bankruptcies are also more expensive, because lawyers charge more for them, and because debtors have to pay the bankruptcy trustee a portion of the payments of the case (the last I heard, the payment was equal to 10% of their total payments throughout the plan.)

Many bankruptcy trustees are paid only if there are "assets" in the case. That means that chapter 7 bankruptcy trustees make money by finding assets they can sell, and take a cut of, on behalf of creditors. Chapter 13 trustees also make money by the payments from debtors. While bankruptcy trustees are technically employed by the US government, in Wisconsin they are mostly private lawyers who have their own practices, some of which is acting on behalf of the 'official' bankruptcy trustee.

So what appears to have happened here is that a lawyer -- the trustee-- objected to a bankruptcy and wanted it converted to a more expensive form of bankruptcy that would pay fees to the trustee.  The effect of that conversion would be to increase Vicky's student loans (nondischargeable, easily collectible, with no student loans) by some $37,000, while paying other creditors 20% of the amount they were owed. To do this, Vicky will also have to pay her lawyer, and the bankruptcy court more.  Remember: Vicky started this process having only $2 leeway in her monthly budget.

This is America.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Operation Sandman, Night 16

Tuesday night, Mr F woke up at 1:45 am and never went back to sleep.

Last night he fell asleep at 8. Sweetie said he woke up twice, each time for about 10-15 minutes.

Tonight, he fell asleep at 10, and has woken up at 11, and now, 1:30 a.m.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book 65: No heavy thoughts this time, just a pretty good book.

The Room is a strangely enjoyable book that I picked out entirely 100% because of the cover, then decided to borrow because of the basic description of the book.

The general plot is this: Bjorn is transferred to a new division in the 'authority,' some sort of government branch. In the first couple days at his new job he finds a small, unused but fully furnished office between the elevators and the bathrooms. He starts to spend some of his time in there, only to learn that his coworkers not only claim there is no such room there, but that when Bjorn says he goes there, his coworkers claim Bjorn is just standing motionlessly in the hallway.

From there, the story escalates, as his coworkers insist that the boss stop Bjorn from going to the room, and Bjorn insists that there is a room there and suspects that everyone is conspiring against him.

For most of the beginning of the book, it's set up to make you think Bjorn is perhaps a bit crazy, and that the room is simply in his imagination; but later in the book, Bjorn happens into a larger role at his job and begins staying late to work on reports -- what he does is never exactly identified, and his job appears somehow both meaningless and important at the same time -- and to do these reports, he goes to the room after everyone has left, with the result being the reports are considered brilliant and become the examples for everyone in Bjorn's department to follow, which raises the question of whether Bjorn is right, after all, and there is a room there.

It's an odd book, and Bjorn is an odd character, but the book (told from Bjorn's perspective) is enjoyable and fast, and it's hard not to feel both a little put off by, and a little sorry for, Bjorn, as he tries to make sense of the world, which suddenly feels mysterious and odd to him.

At the very end of the book, the tension and drama take a sudden dramatic upward swing when it's revealed that Bjorn has been going to the room -- he had promised not to -- and Bjorn threatens to quit if he can't use the room, resulting in the whole matter being taken up to the boss upstairs, who has to decide if there is, or is not, a room.

The result of that decision transports the book from enjoyable to memorable, and both answers and does not answer the question of whether the room really exists, or not.  Some reviewers have referred to the book as a fable, which it almost feels like. There's certainly a magical quality to it, from the strange way time seems to pass in the story to the neverending snowfall outside to, of course, the room. It might be the first fable set in a government office.

I probably liked the book more than many people might, because I like stories that require you to resolve them, or which defy easy resolution. (Shameless plug: My book Eclipse has been described as just that, and was purposely set up to make it challenging for a reader to decide exactly what parts of the story happened, and when.)

On a side note, the author, Jonas Karlsson, is a Swedish actor, and apparently a famous one, who also writes books. I noticed the other day that Al Roker was credited with writing a humorous thriller about morning television shows, and both Sweetie and I agreed that it was extremely unlikely that Al Roker did the lion's share of the work on that book. So possibly other countries' books are published based on merit rather than on being attached to a big name? I can't think of a book by a famous American -- at least not an American famous for something other than writing -- that was worth reading.  I'd have to go back and see on this list how many of the books I really found interesting and well done, like this one, were by people who had more than one type of creative job (like Bird Box with the author who was also a musician.)

Anyway, The Room was unlike most other books I'd read, and its unique charms are worth checking out.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book 64:I can haz book.

Books made from blogs tend to suffer from the same thing blogs tend to suffer from, which is, I suppose, the same thing most things tend to suffer from: they're not very good.

(Writer Ted Sturgeon said that 90% of everything is crap; Rudyard Kipling felt it was only about 80% of things that were awful.)

Blogs follow that same rule: most of them are awful, but they are awful in two different ways. I realized a long time ago that there are two kinds of writing that prevail on the Internet. They are Hey It's That Thing writing, and Here's What I Think About That writing.

Hey It's That Thing writing is essentially reporting on things that do not need reporting: it's Buzzfeed and 90% of the pop-culture blogs out there. Essentially, these writers exist simply to gather pageviews and sell ads and remind you that, yes, things existed and you felt ways about those things.  They don't really do much. They're the fruit roll-ups of writing: amalgamations of other, better things that don't seem to need to exist and yet there they are, in my cupboard. (In the case of the actual fruit roll-ups that are in our cupboard right now, they are there because Mr Bunches helps with grocery shopping, and he is susceptible to advertising in a way that Madison Avenue can only dream of.)  I'm not a big fan of Hey Its That Thing writing -- as you might guess from someone whose review of comic books trails off into discussions of Bush era politics.

Here's What I Think About That writing has a much better chance of rising above the clutter and being interesting, because it leads to discussions and analysis. Instead of saying here's 12 Great Rock N Roll Songs, writers of this sort try to say Here are 12 Great Songs And Why I Think They're Great.  It doesn't have to be personal. They don't have to say these are great because I danced to them at my prom. They can dissect the music, the history, the singer, whatever. It doesn't even matter if you disagree with them, and sometimes that makes it better. They are provocative, in the best sens of the word: they provoke thought.

That's not to say that simply telling what you think about something makes it any better or worse than any other writing. It's just that if I had to guess which would be more interesting, the one that actually discusses the thing at hand, and how it factored into someone's world, has a better shot at being worth its existence.

The League Of Regrettable Superheroes is more of the Hey It's That Thing kind of writing. The author is an artist and writer of his own, and runs a blog called "Gone & Forgotten," writing about superheroes who are gone & forgotten. I don't know if this book was culled directly from the blog or was simply an offshoot of it containing additional information that hadn't appeared on the blog, but it seems a lot more like the former, and smacks of the era when every blog in sight was becoming a book, which is kind of an interesting way that people reacted to the Internet.

The Internet might be the most disruptive force ever go come along in pop culture, and how people have reacted to it mostly is to try bending the internet back into something resembling pop culture before the Internet. As efforts go, it's a lot like trying to retwist a paperclip, but that hasn't stopped people from trying, for the better part of 20 years, to make "the Internet" stop being that and start being TV, or books, or CDs, or ... you get it. Youtube, which made itself a big site by letting people post whatever they wanted, is trying to create Channels, because Youtube wants the Internet to look like cable TV.  I remember, incidentally, when we first got cable back in the 1980s. One of the channels was "Video Comics." A person focused a camera on a comic book, and read it to the camera. Then they'd turn the page. So when Cable TV started, at least one comic publisher or seller tried to make cable TV into comic books. The same thing is still going on now, which is why people take a popular blog and turn it into a book you can buy, if you can find a bookstore to buy the book at.  (It seems a cruel irony that booksellers must pillage the Internet for blogs to create books out of, only to then have to sell those books on the Internet.)

Blogs-into-books feel for the most part like old folks trying to take back fire. While you could argue that taking a blog and turning it into  book is a good way of reaching people who don't read the blog, and thereby expanding the sales of that thing, I think that such an expansion is far more rare than people think. I can think of a few examples -- 50 Shades Of Grey being one -- but I imagine that most blog-books end up squarely targeting the kind of people who read that blog in the first place. Or worse: such books likely end up being purchased primarily as gifts for people who liked the blog, as a friend or relative will think Hmmm Mary's always talking about that Cheeseburger Cat thing, she'll like this book! It's a theory, not one I could easily prove, but a theory that I feel has some traction.

The AV Club had a list all the way back in 2008 of 27 books based on blogs, and a skim through them is like reading my Internet history from 10 years ago -- and a reminder of the fact that much humor on the Internet (like humor everywhere) tends to be perishable. Most of the books on the list are forgettable, if not already forgotten. (Again, not necessarily a knock on blogs-to-books, as that's true of most books, period.) Of the few blogs-into-books that became bestsellers, most tend to be self-help or business advice, or about blogging. 

Really, what blogs-into-books are is simply a cash grab via merchandise: they are the book equivalent of a Happy Meal toy: Oh, lots of people like this thing? Maybe they will buy this thing that it is related to.  As such, writers should probably decry most blogs-into-books for taking up shelf space, editorial and other resources, and payments from books that deserve to exist.

Back to Regrettable Heroes. There's nothing wrong with the book, really. It's a collection of exactly what it says: various superheroes throughout the comics era that were silly, or weird, or both. The book puts them in no particular order -- or at least no order I could discern -- beyond breaking them into Golden Age, Silver Age, and Modern times, and even those categories overlap a bit.  Each hero gets about 1 page -- about a blog post -- to encapsulate that particular person, with a couple of snide remarks or silly jokes.

There's really no discussion of the more interesting aspects. The man who created "Fantomah," for instance, shows up once or twice, and there's a mention made of Fantomah and how weird she was -- a blond woman who becomes a flaming skull and has a penchant for unusually twisted punishments -- as well as a throwaway reference to the creator possibly being troubled. A more in-depth look at the character, the creator, and how such weird comics even got published in that era would have been welcome.

There's also an only very loose categorization: some of "superheroes" are just people, without any sort of powers or gadgets or anything of the sort.

Regrettable Heroes does do one interesting thing: in its existence, and in its listing of superheroes who were rushed into comic books only to then fall away from knowledge, both Regrettable Heroes and its subjects prove several themes: First, that 90% of everything is crap: while we know about the Avengers and Superman and Batman, it's pretty clear that the superheroes who have made any impact on society are a tiny fraction of the total that have ever had a comic book about them. And second, that publishing (like all media) has always jumped all over whatever it conceives of as popular in hopes of stealing some of that entertainment money. In the 1940s, again in the 1960s, and to a lesser extent today, superheroes were it: there was a time when scientists with exoskeletons and radioactive strongment were the 100,000+ hit pop culture sites of the day, and not only did merchandising jump all over them, but publishers fell atop each other to find someone, anyone, who would come up with a superhero.  (The book itself mentions some of the lesser-known creations of the two guys who invented Superman, as they tried to catch lightning in a bottle again.)

Publishers of comics acted in the 1940s especially a lot like publishers of blogs-to-books act now: jump on a trend, pour some junk into the market, then move on to the next thing. An examination of that might have been a lot more interesting than this book was; as it is, Regrettable Heroes is something you would just page through here and there. While I read it cover-to-cover, it wasn't with any great enthusiasm -- I mostly read it when I was too tired to read one of the other books I'm working on. So in that respect, Regrettable Heroes operated exactly like the Internet.

The AV Club hit on exactly what makes blogs so popular and what makes books based on those blogs so unpopular, or unnecessary: blogs are ideal for a quick 5-minutes of time-wasting (other than maybe my own blog, where you're always in for a long haul of time-wasting), with a bit of a laugh or shake of the head, and then back to work or whatever. We consume the Internet differently than we consume books. There are blogs and sites I check out every day, for a few minutes, or a couple times a week, but I never sit and read anything on the Internet for an hour or two or three. The Internet is meant for use during commercial breaks from our real life.

Books work, though, by engaging: the greatest books are those that pull you in, make you want to read them, make you want to think about them. So taking a bunch of blog posts and putting them into a book is like trying to turn marshmallows into a feast: even if you come up with some reasonable facsimile of the goal, ultimately it's still marshmallows.

I'd say skip this book and check out the guy's blog. You can only eat so many marshmallows, and even then 90% of them are crap.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Operation Sandman, Night 12: "I let the darkening room drink up the evening, till rest, or the new rain lightly roused you awake. I asked if you heard the rain in your dream and half dreaming still you only said, I love you.”

Thursday night last week, Sweetie reported that Mr F woke up twice, going back to sleep in about 30 minutes each time.

Friday night, Mr F took until 10:30 to fall asleep, then woke at 4:45 the next morning, which as Sweetie pointed out, was a pretty good night. (It's always easier to be positive about someone else's night. She hadn't had to sit there for two hours and take an extra ride with him. But she was right.)

I mentioned to her that night that it seemed like now, he was nervous on my nights. Once or twice, on Sweetie's night, he's made me be the one to sit in there, but this night he seemed like he didn't feel safe.

Saturday, Sweetie got him in bed at 8 and at 8:15 he was asleep. He got up twice last night she said, for a short time each time.

So tonight, I was hopeful. We'd had a busy day: Park and splash park in the afternoon, and then because Mr Bunches wanted to go swimming we'd walked to the pool after dinner and swam, then gone for a family ride. Then I took Mr F for his own ride in the little car, and he was dozing off on the way home.

But when we got inside, he ran into our room and tried to get Sweetie to come in his room, pushing me out. Then before we could react to that he went downstairs to put on his shoes. We tried to talk him out of another ride, but he ran into the kitchen and pointed to the picture of Sweetie's car that we put up by the mystery picture.

(I will talk about the mystery picture another day.)

So I took him for another ride. He was all discombobulated, half-crying and half-panicky, as I got him into his safety harness. When we went downstairs, while I undid the chain on the garage door he grabbed a pair of old tennis shoes and carried them over to me.

"You don't need shoes," I told him gently.

He carried them with him to the car and as I buckled him into Sweetie's car for this ride, he tried to put the shoes on, getting upset when they wouldn't go on easily and trying to get me to help him.  "It's okay," I said.  "You don't need shoes." He calmed down and let me take them away from him.

We took another short ride, this time in Sweetie's car. When we got home he took my hand and walked with me upstairs, climbing into his bed. He's in there snoring now, at 10:19 p.m.

Oh, media, with your investigations of feel-good moments that are supposed to make me forget my worries! Why you gotta put me on blast?

"Soldier Returns From Active Duty To Suprise Cheerleader Wife."

"Soldier Returns From Post In Korea To Surprise Wife Who Was On Her First Day Of Cheerleading For Rams."

"Wealthy Heir To Busch Fortune Takes Break From Military Posting In Korea To Visit Wife Whose Family Is Active In Illinois Politics And Who Once Worked For Laura Bush."

"Woman Running For Office In Illinois Gets NFL To Give Valuable Air-Time So She Can Use It As A Political Ad."

You can read the whole story of the latest stupid military reunion, which at least wasn't a reunion with dogs, on Deadspin, but that's basically it.

But, hey, only 8 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan this whole year! So that's like, really great, right? Only 8 soldiers? That's really great, guys. Really great.

Here's how great the US military is, by the way: In America, you are 100 times more likely to be killed by a cop than you are to die on active duty in Afghanistan.

I'm with Colin Kaepernick.