Friday, May 24, 2019

The Myth of Millenials


Are Millennials the most put-upon generation of all time?  Hardly.

I was watching a YouTube video and made the sad mistake of reading the comments section.   Like clockwork was a comment supposedly from a "Millennial" claiming that their generation had it worse than any previous generation before them.  This may come as a surprise to people who lived through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, or Vietnam.   Lucky Bastards!   Even the "malaise" and "stagflation" of the 1970's and early 1980's presented worse economic conditions than we see today.

The Millennial complaint?   Loans that they signed up for voluntarily are hard to pay back!   And often those loans are for amounts less than the 38 grand that I paid back, which today would be over 50 grand.  Of course, others signed up for even more debt - sometimes over $100,000.   But again, this is a choice, not a mandate.    I worked my way through college and law school - all 14 years of it.   You don't see me bitching about what a raw deal I got.

But I suspect that most of the "Millennials" don't feel so put-upon.   First of all, categorizing an entire generation or group of people and slapping a label on them and claiming they are all alike is just idiotic.   In a recent article in the Washington Post, the author claims that Millennials are destroying venerated San Francisco, what with their newfangled technology companies and high salaries.

So, depending on what day it is, or what new trend you want to blame on Millennials, they are either layabout slackers who are living in their parents' basement, or high-salary tech geeks who are systematically destroying "real" America through hyper-gentrification.  Drug-addicted homeless people are forced to shoot up in the streets - it has gotten that bad!  Bottom line, Millennials are responsible for everything bad - they probably started this whole global warming thing, too (they seem to harp about it enough, right?  Maybe if they shut up, it would go away!). 

But like so much else, all of this is a lot of hooey.   People like to paint groups with a broad brush to make political points.  And others want to divide us from one another in order to achieve their own nefarious ends.    Much of the below-the-radar commentary on social media is generated by people with political ends.   Russia has a whole industry designed to spread false stories or just negative comments designed to get people depressed and angry.  And telling people they are put-upon is the easiest game in the book - even people living in the wealthiest country in the world.

Getting back to student loans, recently, the commencement speaker at Morehouse College promised to pay off every graduate's student loans.   While this seemed like a nice gesture, it raises a lot of thorny questions.   To the student who borrowed $200,000 to get a graduate degree  (as profiled in one article) this is a huge payday, and a corresponding huge tax bill - probably around $60,000 or so, with State and Federal Taxes.  Yes, debt forgiveness is taxable - as I noted before, if it weren't we'd all pay each other by giving each other loans and then forgiving the debt, and the IRS would be sucking air.  So, odds are, the fellow with the huge debt will have to borrow money to pay the IRS - or be in default on his taxes.  Some fun.

To the guy who borrowed "only" 50 grand, he's probably thinking that maybe he should have borrowed more money instead of working nights and weekends to help pay his college costs.  The guy who worked full time and went to night school probably feels totally ripped off, as he could have racked up huge debts and gotten them paid for, instead of working his ass off and getting lower grades as a result.

There are other conundrums as well.  What about the guy who has no debt, but only because his parents mortgaged their house to pay his tuition?  Or the parents who borrowed money through other means?   Does this get-out-of-jail-free deal cover government student loans or also private ones?   How about the people who graduated last year or next?   Or the guy who dropped out because he couldn't afford college?  They just get a fuck-you-on-a-stick?

And does this guy really have the money to back this promise up?  Because if he makes this promise and then fails to deliver on it, that is even more cruel.  But we'll have to wait and see.

Seems like a nice thing, giving away money.  But it creates a lot of problems as much as it solves them.   When you selectively give away money to random people, (such as these "experiments" in guaranteed income, where random people are handed cash - other people's cash) it creates an awful lot of issues.   Not only that, but when you make things free, it discourages people from working hard to obtain things.   Scarcity is necessary, in any economy, in order to make it work.

But are Millennials really put-upon?    Does each generation have it worse than the one before?  By some yardsticks yes, but by most, no.    As the population of America increases, land becomes more scarce and valuable.   I cannot afford to live in the house my parents owned, to be sure.   Of course, it was a house they bought at the height of my Father's career, after working 30 years or more.  And in retrospect, I realize they were stressed financially to own it.   The folks they sold it to perhaps even moreso, as the taxes have skyrocketed.  Do I feel cheated that I cannot afford a house as nice as my parents?   Not really - my life is much better than theirs in a number of ways.  And the haunted house wasn't really all that great.  I would have been happier in a happier household in a cheaper home.

A recent article - and yes, it is a listical - argues that in most ways, people are better off today than they were 100 years ago.  By almost every metric, how far a paycheck will go today is better than in 1919.   The one exception is housing, and as I have noted time and time again, the main reason why housing is so expensive today is that we have 30-year mortgages and mortgage interest tax deductions.   The same reason why college got so crazy expensive (the free availability of student loans) is the same reason why houses got expensive.

As the author notes, back in 1919, you needed a 50% down payment to buy a house, and mortgages rarely lasted more than a few years.  As a result, few could afford to buy, and houses were thus a lot cheaper - supply and demand kicks in.   When people have more money and more "funny money" loans are available, prices skyrocket.   The Millennials working in tech companies in the Bay area are the ones driving up home prices, as they have fat salaries and access to loan cash.  Damn Millennials!  Always mucking things up!

Which is funny, because the "complaint" by other Millennials is that Baby Boomers have somehow "taken all their money away" (which is hard to do, when you have none to begin with).   But as the Washington Post article notes, Baby Boomers are rarely seen on The Streets of San Francisco anymore - no one wants us old fucks working at these tech companies, they want young people who can code.

Of course, that is the conundrum.   Back in the day, maybe San Francisco was more "charming" and less gentrified.  But it was also a crime-ridden city with extensive ghettos.   Today, tech companies are erecting office towers in the Tenderloin - once a haven for homeless addicts and runaway teens.  Folks back in the 1960's would wonder at all the improvements in the city and wonder why anyone would be against them.   But it seems we are so well off in this country that we can afford to complain, even about progress.   Or maybe our Russian friends are at work here again, trying to sow dissent.

The listical hints at, but doesn't really get into other aspects that make comparing today's wealth with that of the past a difficult task.   For example, in 1919 women rarely worked outside of the home.    Minorities had few opportunities outside of manual labor.   If you think you have it bad today, think about how things were for a young black man in Mississippi in 1950.  The listical does point out that in the past, people were crammed into housing - often entire families in one apartment or home.  The idea of having your own place to live was somewhat alien.   College students and newlyweds often lived at home, not in dorms or apartments of their own.

And while housing is much more expensive today (adjusted for inflation) than in the past, home ownership approaches 60% in the US today, whereas in 1919 it was about 25%.

And then there are other aspects to consider.   A car in 1919 cost more than one does today - but it didn't have airbags, disc brakes, cruise control, air conditioning, and a radio.  In fact, no one had air conditioning, anywhere.  And while today people choose not to be inoculated against disease, 100 years ago, dying infancy was a real possibility.   Getting polio and being crippled for life was no laughing matter.

So no, I don't think Millennials have it worse off than previous generations.   Yes, it is true we do ask young people today to make very serious life choices before their brains are fully developed.  Recent studies suggest that the human brain isn't fully developed until age 25 - particularly the parts of the brain dealing with reasoning.  Which makes sense - age 25 is when I stopped smoking dope and started taking my own life seriously (and enjoying it).   Asking a teenager to sign student loan documents into the six figure is sort of scandalous.

But on the other hand, no one is putting a gun to their head and forcing them to do this.  Cheaper colleges - or no college at all - are available.   I know one young person who turned down a full scholarship at a prestigious university to go to a school closer to where her boyfriend lived.   She is now paying off student loans in the six figures and working in "public service" and hoping after a decade to have the loans "forgiven".  I only hope it works out for her, as very few people have qualified for this forgiveness deal - although many have applied.  If you don't follow the process to the letter, you get tossed out and have to start over again.

I hope it works out for her.  But on the other hand, it sort of irks me that she is asking the taxpayer to bail her out when she had other opportunities (and in retrospect, better opportunities) and just made a poor choice.   And I am not so sure we should be rewarding poor choices.

All that being said, I doubt this trope of "Millennials have it so bad" is going to go away anytime soon, as it sells so well.  Politicians, particularly the "progressive" type, use this mythology to sell themselves to voters - trying to get young people to feel sorry for themselves and to compare their circumstances to folks who have been working for 40 years or more.   Hey, you should be as wealthy as your parents, the moment you graduate from high school, right?   That seems to be the message they are pushing - anything less than that standard of living means someone "took away" the wealth you are due.

And that simply isn't true.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Too Frugal? Maybe Not.


The media doesn't want you to really save money.  But they will put together articles about saving money, hoping you click on them, so they make money.  But what they want to do, really, is to make saving money seem foolish, so you can self-justify your spendthrift ways.

Much of what you read online is bullshit these days.  And you can usually tell from the source.  You have outright Russian propaganda machines like Sputnik and RT, for example.  You have far-left "Isn't America Awful?" British tabloids like The Guardian.  You have right-wing websites like National Review and whatnot.   And you have click-bait sites that have names that sound legit, but on closer inspection as just sketchy.

One such site is Cheapism, which publishes click-bait articles on how to save money, which usually just turn out to be advertisements for consumption.  One recent article was "signs you are being too frugal!" and had catchy stock photos and text describing why your efforts to save money are just an idiotic waste of time.

I read the article and was chagrined to see that many of the things I do to save money were not only run-down as being false economies, but mocked as stupid.  Other things they claimed were "too frugal" were things that no one in their right mind does, anyway, but I think were added to pad out out the list (yes, it is a listical) and also make the other things on the list look ludicrous by association.

In a way, this article reminds me of a number of e-mails I have received from "reality TV" producers, who want to do a reality show about "cheap people" - but they wanted people who did ridiculous things that didn't actually save money but annoyed their family members.  Hilarity ensues.

But that is the point of the article - to make consumption seem "normal" and saving money (in both senses of the word) some sort of weird aberration.  I mean, everybody goes to Starbucks at least once a day, right?   Maybe not.

The point of the article is to mock people who are thrifty by painting them as outliers.    You are perfectly normal, my friend, helplessly mired in credit-card debt, but with a closet filled with trendy clothes and a $50 haircut.   At least you aren't one of those people.

What sort of things am I taking about?  Well, let's go down the list and see what I mean.
Do you reuse free plastic grocery bags as lunch sacks until they have holes (and your bought-on-sale banana slides right out)? So much for savings. Buy a lunch sack during back-to-school sales. It'll last you all year and you'll arrive to work with your food intact.
Right off the bat, you see here the mocking tone - and I think it is aimed at women.  You don't want to be the ugly girl that all the other secretaries mock, who buys on-sale bananas.  But the reality is, re-using these plastic grocery bags is an environmentally conscious thing to do - by getting more than one use out of such bags, you are decreasing the use of plastic overall.   I use them as trashcan liners for small trashcans, which then can be easily and cleanly emptied on trash day.  They also work well in the camper.  I even use them on our hitch ball as a dry lubricant.   They have tons of uses, so use them.

The author is suggesting, I guess, that we throw them out and helpfully suggests we buy a reusable lunch sack (spending money) to avoid bananas falling out.  But there is a big difference between re-using a plastic bag once or twice and re-using it after it has broken.   This "suggestion" is idiotic and sets the tone for the piece - mocking thrifty people for being idiots.
So, you keep the A/C off — or don't have it — and instead stock up on dollar-store hand fans to survive the heat. Pretty and retro, right? This will only get more dangerous over time, and you'll realize life really should be a breeze.
Again with the mocking tone.  There are two choices here, either you keep your house as cold as a meat locker, or you use "dollar store hand fans" to keep cool.   I am not sure why keeping your A/C at a higher temperature and acclimatizing to ambient temperatures is "dangerous" and it is not stated in the article.    When I was a kid in the 1960's, the thermostat was set at 72 degrees year round, the "normal" setting, which was often marked on the thermostat.

However, since the energy crises of the 1970's, we've learned that 68 in the winter is perfectly fine and 75 in the summer works OK, too.  In fact, you can go beyond  this.  Mark prefers to set the thermostat low in the winter at night, and snuggle under a comforter.  And in the summer, we set the A/C at 77 or higher, and dress appropriately.  Why?  Because the shock of going from 85-90 degree heat to a 72 or even 75 degree house is startling.  And once you "chill down" to low temperatures, it makes it harder to go outside.   Better to get use to a higher temperature than to stay indoors all day long.

Oh, and it saves a ton of money on your electric bill.
Your bargain meal at that great local sandwich shop comes with a free coleslaw or cookie. You don't think "Ah, what a treat" but instead see those add-ons as your next meal — your entire next meal. Just enjoy the side dish or dessert for what it is.
More mocking.  And more encouragement of consumption.   I have written before about restaurant meals and how they are no bargain.   This doesn't mean never eat out at all, only that restaurants should not be viewed as refueling stations.   If you are going to work, take a lunch rather than spend $15-$20 on a restaurant meal (which isn't hard to do these days).  Yes, bring your used plastic bag and banana (not on sale, though).

Many folks think that getting a restaurant meal and then "saving" half of it in a Styrofoam clamshell is somehow saving money.  "I'm getting two meals for the price of one!" they crow.  But even divided in two, a restaurant meal is still five times the cost of making food at home - where the real savings are.  And taking food home from restaurants is just gross - and dangerous.  Food left in a car can go bad in a real hurry.

The clueless idiot who wrote this Cheapism article instead suggests wolfing down food you don't want to eat.  How about not ordering food you don't want to eat in the first place?  Or how about not eating in restaurants so much?  Saving side dishes isn't something I've even heard of as a means of being "frugal" anyway - I think they are just making shit up.
Big shoulder pads looked of the moment on Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," but you're still holding onto — and wearing — your power suit. Sure, fashion trends come and go but the snickers behind your back never die. Sorry to say, but it's time to embrace the world of separates — and 21st century styles.
Clearly the article is aimed at women (who are featured in most of the stock photos as well).  Ladies, being frugal is stupid!  That's the message they are selling.  They are also selling the idea that you should care about what other people you don't even know think about you or worry that others are laughing at you behind your back - you know, about your sack of bananas.

Is this how women really live?  Sadly, it seems so.   But the bottom line is, spending a ton of money on clothes is a sure way to go bankrupt.  I know a man who did this (male compulsive shoppers do exist, and not just at Harbor Freight) and went bankrupt from credit card debt.   Buy timeless clothing and never worry about having "the latest fashions."  This is harder for women to do, of course, but if you work for a place where what you wear is so important, maybe think about getting a different job.
You won't pay what they want for the newspaper. You won't even pay to access the digital version. Nope, you head to the library — day in and day out, rain, snow or severe heat — to read that passed-about copy for free. Fine for once in awhile, but every day?
What a weird thing to appear in an article from an online listicle clickbait company, eh?  Who buys paper newspapers anymore?  Most articles from even the major papers can be read online on your cell phone.  I know of no one, whatsoever, who trudges off to the "library" to read paper newspapers - because the "library" no longer carries them.  This is just stupid.
You have guests over for a backyard barbecue, stocking up on cheap plastic utensils in bulk. All's going well. People are enjoying. Then you tell them not to throw them out. No, you're not recycling … you're rewashing them. You can almost hear your guests' stomachs turning at the thought. Consider buying new party supplies on sale.
I have never heard of anyone doing this, but there are today quasi-disposable dishware and tupperware type products, that are designed for multiple uses.  I am not sure why anyone would object to washing disposable dishware - after all, that is what you do with ordinary china and silverware, right?   Again, the point of the article is to mock people being frugal as doing weird and kooky things.
Paper towels can be expensive, but you've found a way to beat the racket. The only problem is your entire kitchen — dish rack, blender and fridge handle — has become filled with perches to dry the towels you rinse and use again.
Nobody does this.   Again, they paint frugal people as weirdos.  Who the hell saves paper towels?
Doing your laundry as infrequently as possible might cut down on the water bill — or save some quarters at the Laundromat. But when you find out you don't have any clean skivvies and wash day's still not here, well, your thrifty ways have really put you in a pickle.
Again, no one does this - at least not to "save water."   A lot of people are lazy, to be sure, which is a sign of depression.  Or they have the hassle of having to use a laundromat.   Again, another padded item to fill out this listicle and to make frugal people look insane.
Everyone knows your go-to sweatshirt, especially since you boast about the money you save by not buying a fancy designer replacement. The problem? Yours is a virtual "Hall of Stains" tour, from the spilled nachos from Super Bowl XXX to the beers sloshed during your 25th high-school reunion picnic. It might be time to retire that legend.
Old clothes should be thrown away or donated to charity if you have stopped using them.  The old t-shirt and shorts and boots you use to mow the lawn might not fall into this category.  Clothing is an interesting problem, and as I noted before, a big cause of spending problems.  I have a friend who declared personal bankruptcy over compulsive clothing shopping.  There is a happy medium between wearing rags like a homeless person and spending your every last dollar trying to be trendy and hip.  Interesting that this is the second item in the listical that addresses clothing.   And we wonder who is sponsoring this list.

I keep a box in my closet, and when I see an article of clothing that is wearing out or doesn't fit anymore (darn things shrink in the closet!) or I just don't wear anymore, it goes in the box.  When the box is full, we take it with us on our way into town and donate it to the charity store of our choice.

By the way, these "thrift shops" are often an excellent place to score clothing that you might actually wear and that might actually fit.  I have found vintage Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirts in thrift shops, 100% silk that sold for over $100 new, for only a few dollars.  It is my one sartorial vice.   Beats paying $150 a shirt at the store - and they don't make the classic old designs anymore.
You not only turn off the light every time you leave the room but refuse to "waste money" on light bulbs when one blows out. The result? You have a very dim life — literally — and may soon need not only new lights but eyeglasses to boot.
OK, this is another stupid one.  I know of no one who sits in the dark because they don't want to "waste money" on light bulbs.  Again, painting thrifty people as weird oddballs.
The words "all you can eat" are music to your ears. You arrive at the buffet the moment the doors open and make not only a meal but a day of it, with plate after plate after plate. Enough! Indulge if you will, but set a time limit. The restaurant — and your stomach — will thank you.
This isn't being thrifty, this is an eating disorder.   Mark and I hate buffets for a number of reasons. Coming from the restaurant and hotel industry, Mark is all too aware of how food safety is often compromised in a buffet, sneeze guard or not.   People touch things or even put things back.  It is also gross over-consumption and leads people to over-consume.   In addition, the restaurants are no fools - they put a lot of cheap starches out so people fill up fast, and then let the expensive items go empty for long stretches of time, as I noted in my passive-aggressive seafood restaurant entry.

You are not "saving money" at any restaurant, either by taking home leftovers or by gorging at a buffet.   So in a way, I kind of agree with the authors here.  Trying to find a "bargain" at a restaurant is like trying to score a "deal" at a used-car dealer.  You are just deceiving yourself that you are coming out ahead.
You've read the sale circular. You know the grocery store limits you to four of an item per visit. Well, you'll show them — you shop different branches, different days and different cashiers until you can't even store all that toilet tissue you've amassed. Fortunately there are plenty of ways to save at the grocery store without going overboard.
I have written about coupons before and how they are a false economy, often designed to get you to spend more (on name brands) or consume more (by buying things you didn't intend to buy in the first place).  Coupon-clippers never get ahead in life, which is why it is a popular sport among the poor.

I agree with the authors in that regard, but disagree that there are "plenty of ways to save at the grocery store without going overboard" whatever that means.   Again, the grocery store is a marvel of modern retail engineering, designed to fleece you for your last penny, just as the car dealer is.  If you think you are "outsmarting" Walmart or Safeway, think again.
You squeeze every last drip of tea from your teabag, using it multiple times. Bad enough your family has to watch the madness, but lately you've taken to carrying the used teabag with you — asking counter people and servers to simply bring you a cup of boiling water.
While it is possible to pour more hot water into your cup and make more tea (particularly with Trader Joe's potent Irish Breakfast Blend) I know of no one who brings used teabags to a restaurant.   I do know two people who carry tea bags with them (new ones, not used ones, come on!) as many restaurants don't carry tea anymore or they run out or the server "can't find it" because it is not very popular in America.   Bring a tea bag, you always have a hot beverage.   Nothing wrong with that.

Again, they are using extreme hypotheticals (people carrying used teabags around) to make being frugal look stupid.   You should be going to Starbucks and spending $5 on a coffee-icecream drink, dummy!
You pride yourself on not buying throwaway bottles of water, or even a pricey reusable container. No, you bought a plastic bottle at the store — once — and have been "washing" it out and refilling it with tap ever since. Yes, it's a bit worn and cloudy but, um, you showed them?
I know of no one doing this, either.  I have tried to cut back on buying bottled water as it is a waste of money in most places in America (outside of Flint, Michigan) where tap water is some of the highest quality in the world.   However, when camping, we buy "purified water" (not spring water) because, as we learned in Mexico, foreign bacteria in local water supplies often ends up causing mayhem with your intestines when you travel.  At $3.99 for a case of 36 bottles, it is not too great an expense.

And no, bottled water isn't inherently evil, nor is Nestle raping the planet (while Coca-Cola and others, doing the same thing in union plants, are OK).

But we've gotten out of the habit - long ago - of buying bottled water for home use.  As for those "pricey reusable containers" they give those away for free at events and conventions.  I have a box of these things, and we do use them when at home (for example, when bicycling).   In the house itself (or in the buggy or bicycle) we use the 4-for-$20 Walmart Yeti knock-off stainless tumblers.  They come in three sizes.

But re-using disposable plastic bottles?  Maybe in an emergency.   But again, it is the mocking tone of the piece which is concerning.
Why buy a pair of socks when a few stitches can extend the life of what you already have? Sure, it's easy to repair a hole, but when one hole becomes two and then three, your feet suddenly look like Frankenstein's monster — and you suffer extreme embarrassment when asked to take off your shoes visiting someone's home.
Buy Dickies socks.  They are durable, comfortable, and actually fit.  End of story.  But again with the mocking tone - by design.
Baby bangs, anyone? Most everyone has horrid memories of a money-saving mom who chopped their hair at home. Bowl haircuts and uneven edges were a given. But you still do that? And have to go to work? Fine for you, but for goodness sake, don't subject your partner or kids to those extreme measures.
OK, now we get to the meat of this.  Cutting your own hair saves a boatload of money - hundreds of dollars a year.   Our local barbershop charged $20 apiece plus tip, plus the cost of driving there - to listen to Rush Limbaugh for an hour while you waited, and another half-hour for the cut.  Each.

Figure two haircuts a month, that's easily $80 to $100 a month (with travel expenses) not to mention the time wasted.  That's $1200 a year, which if invested over a 45-year working life at 7% interest comes to $392,105.06 in retirement.  We're not talking chump change.

For trendy people and women, who often spend hundreds per "styling" including perms, colors, and whatnot, the cost is even more staggering.  And yes, poor people often spend more on hair than rich folks.  Black folks spend staggering amounts of money on hair, as Chris Rock has noted.

Of course, when you are working in a job where your appearance to customers and clients is important, and you are judged by your appearance more than your productivity, having a hair helmet might be essential.    But for the rest of us?  Just an expensive waste of time.

And we're not alone.  Mark gives his "prison haircuts" in the garage to two friends of ours, as well.  He charges two cigarettes per haircut.   With three, you get happy-ending.

But in all seriousness, this is a huge money-saver.  But the condescending tone of the article makes it seem like idiocy.    It isn't.
YOU BELIEVE BIRTHDAYS ARE NO TIME TO SPLURGE:  It's time to light the candles on the birthday cake and sing the festive song. But imagine the real surprise on people's faces as you pull out used candles of varying heights. A box of birthday candles is cheap, and try to remember: This is a special occasion.
Holidays are fine and all, but once you've gotten that shiny new bicycle for Christmas when you were seven years old, the allure wears off.   After more than 50 Christmases, well, it seems kind of overblown.   Well, at least it is Jesus' birthday, and there is a religious aspect to it.

Your own birthday?  Grow up, for chrissakes.   Mark and I don't really celebrate birthdays too much anymore.  Maybe a small gift and a card, or we go out to eat.   But having cake and candles, and all your friends over?   No, it is not a special occasion.   And like with Christmas, once you've done the same thing over 50 times, it becomes less special.  Oh, sure, you may mark "milestones" like 40, 50, or 75, or God forbid, 100.   But you aren't special and the whole idea of "your special day" (or worse yet, "her special day" - the wedding) is just an exercise in narcissism.

As for "saving birthday candles" this is again of these idiotic things that is put in the list just for mocking purposes.  No one really does this, and if they did, who gives a fuck?

It never ceases to amaze me how people think birthdays are "special" and the fact they share their birthday with someone else in the room or a famous celebrity is some sort of 1-in-a-million odds, rather than a 1-in-365 odds.  Get over yourself, unicorn!
You never hit a fast-food restaurant that doesn't up your condiment quota, so you haven't bought salt, pepper, ketchup, or mustard for the family in years. But when it's needed for a recipe, even you will be cursing as you open a dozen packets to get a half-cup of something.
Collecting condiments is something old people do.  Restaurants rush to grab all the sugars and "pinks" from the tables when the senior bus tour rolls up - they know from bitter experience that old people will steal all the artificial sweeteners to take home with them.  A friend of mine does this - taking them from hotel rooms and restaurants and giving them to me.  I now have a lifetime supply, which is to say, five or six packets, as we never use these.  But we keep them in a small basket for guests who like that shit in their coffee.

I don't intentionally snag condiments, but if I see something that would ordinarily be thrown away, I might save it in one of our picnic hampers - but am sure to throw it out in short order if it is not used.  By the way, picnic hampers, usually replete with all these utensils, plates, and whatnot, are often given as gifts to people, who never use them.  They end up selling them in garage sales for pennies, or they are given to the thrift store where they are sold cheaply.  Most are made poorly, but will last for weeks or even years if treated well.   We have one in a backpack that has an insulated portion for cold things.   We actually use these types of picnic accessories, but after a few years they go in the trash as they are often not made well.   But yea, condiments can be handy for picnics.  Sadly, most Americans don't picnic anymore  - they get fast-food and eat it in their car.  But that is a subject for another posting.

Similarly, when the restaurant gives you a pile of napkins, I put the two or three extra in my pocket, because you know, sneezing.  I left them behind, the wait staff would just throw them away.   We keep these in the glove box for just in case.   This is not being "stingy" or thrifty, but just practical.   If you've ever had to sneeze in a car and there are no tissues or napkins in the glove box, you'll know what I mean.  Or maybe you are one of those people who drives a rolling pigsty.  Yea, I've seen it.  Gross.

Intentionally stealing condiments to save for "later"?   Yea, that is kind of dumb.  People do it, though.  Like with couponing, they aren't getting ahead or anything.
There's nothing like a basket of warm rolls to start a dinner on a night out. And that's when you pull out the plastic container. Waiters react with shock that your small party could go through so much so quickly. You just laugh as you pull them out for lunch the next day. But is a cold, stale roll really worth the stealth maneuver?
This listicle seems to be repetitive and covering the same topics many times.  Just as trying to "score" with a buffet, trying to "score" with free bread is kind of dumb.  You will end up spending 2-3 times as much (if not 5-10 times as much) buying food in a restaurant versus a grocery store.  Free bread isn't going to even the score.

The problem is, of course, that bread is great and good for you, but too much of it is just empty calories and a lot of them.   Free tortilla chips at the Mexican restaurant are the same way.   You can consume hundreds of calories of starches with bread and chips, and it is a one-way ticket to diabetes land.

Stealing bread for home use?   That is kind of tacky, but then again, I've seen it all.  We put on receptions at the art gallery when Mark has a show.  And yes, some folks show up early with ziplock bags and say, "I can't stay for the opening, but my husband would like to try some of these hors d'ouvres" as they stuff their plastic bags with food.

A local restaurant - and the club hotel - had to discontinue "happy hours" with free hors d'ouvres when old people would show up (many from the campground, I am ashamed to say) and order water and then scarf down free food.  There is such a thing as being too cheap - and being tacky.
It's an age-old household trick: cutting up old sheets or shirts to use as rags. But when your family suddenly realizes their favorite shirts are missing and see you wiping windows with them, does it still seem like such a good idea? There are plenty of other DIY tricks for cleaning the house that won't annoy your family.
OK, we are supposed to throw away that old sweatshirt once it gets worn, but now we're not suppose to use it to wax the car?  MAKE UP YOUR FREAKING MIND, CHEAPISM!   Again, I guess we are supposed to throw out our clothes, buy new ones and then buy cleaning rags.   Makes sense to me - the bottom line being buying more crap.

We recycle old washcloths as wax rags.  Old towels become carwash towels (and I have boxes for both, and use them a lot - we keep our cars clean).   Other articles become rags for messy jobs like oil changes and scrubbing nasty things - where you want something more substantial than a paper towel, but you want to throw it out, as well.  Old sheets make great car covers to keep dust off the car in the garage when it sits for weeks or months at a time.

Clothing that can be re-used?  It goes to charity.
You sneer at those who brag about money-saving staycations filled with hometown restaurant deals, free-admission museums, and bargain movies. You do them one better: Your staycation is just staying home. Literally. DVDs, watching the birds fly by … yep, your family will sure have unforgettable "vacation memories."
The idea of a vacation to most Americans is just a series of spending opportunities - hence why cruises are so popular these days.   People are nervous when they don't know what to do, and most vacation destinations provide opportunities to spend money on various activities or buying souvenirs.  Disney is also genius at this.  Some people actually borrow money to do this, either with "vacation loans" or through using credit cards.

Our life is a vacation.  We spend months on the road in the RV.  Or we fly overseas and rent an apartment or a houseboat.  It is possible to "vacation" without vacation being an endless stream of credit card receipts for airfare, hotels, and restaurants.
You absolutely refuse to order a drink outside the house. "No, thanks, water's fine" is your mantra. We're not pushing cocktails necessarily — but every once in awhile, it's nice to join in the toast with something besides tap water on ice.
Having a fun cocktail at one of these "artisan" cocktail bars is nice.  We like to go to "Sidecar" next to V Pizza in Jacksonville.  It is a trend - a new one just opened here in impoverished Brunswick, called "Reid's Apothecary" - I give it six months in this town.  It is fun - and expensive.  On the order of $10 to $15 per drink.  Have two or three of these, and you've blown a half-a-day's take-home pay, if you are an average American.

Seriously.  Do the math on this.  You make the median household income of about 50 grand a year, that comes to about $900 a week gross pay, or maybe (if you are lucky) $100 a day in take-home, after taxes.  You're going to spend half of this on a few Vieux CarrĂ© cocktails?  Like with food, you can make such a cocktail at home for less than 1/4 the cost, maybe far less.  And this doesn't mean drinking alone in a darkened room.  For less than the cost of bar drinks, you can invite all your friends over and make them drinks - and you will be popular with your friends if you do so.

But that being said, it is fun to have a fancy cocktail or whatever when you go out.  But after that first drink, switch to something cheaper.  If you are with friends, consider a bottle of wine or a pitcher of beer.  Look for drink specials or happy hour specials, which can be less than half the regular price of drinks at your favorite bar.

Or consider AA - the coffee is free.
You take sharing to new levels making your family of four dine on one appetizer, two entrees, and one dessert. Sure, you can boast about dining for less than $25, but did anyone actually enjoy the "meal" or go home satisfied?
Splitting an entree is one way to really save money at a restaurant - and your waistline.  Most restaurants today provide entrees that top 1000 calories easily, some over 1500.  This is way too much food for one person to eat in one meal.  Not only will ordering two entrees for two people drain your pocketbook, it will make you feel sick and bloated later on, and likely you will end up waking up in a sweat about 2:00 in the morning.

Note how this listical starts out with ludicrous things (bringing used teabags to restaurants) and then slips in the real savings later on - to make real savings sound stupid.   But again, not eating in restaurants all the time is probably the best idea.  Using a restaurant as a kitchen and trying to "save money" by taking home leftovers or stealing bread is indeed stupid, when you can make meals at home for 1/4 of the price - or less.

But if you go out to eat, there is no rule saying you have to order and eat the mountain of french fries or the mountain of mashed potatoes or rice or [fill in cheap starch here].   The portions in restaurants are obscene today, as are the proportions of the diners.  It is better for your health and pocketbook to share an entree - and a fun way to be intimate with your partner as well.
Car wash costs can add up — but you won't fall prey to those soapy thieves. Nope, you will wash your own. Who cares that you don't have a hose, right? But after about 10 trips in and out of the kitchen with buckets of water, don't you start having second thoughts? Thought so.
Buckets of water from the kitchen?   Have they not heard of a hose?  We keep our cars spotless.  But it only takes a few minutes with a hose, a bucket (from dollar tree) a sponge (ditto) and car wash soap (ditto).   For less than a buck, and in about 20 minutes time, you can do a better job of washing your car at home than some $20 carwash would do - and it won't damage your car, either.  Yea, those spinning brushes leave marks in the paint.

Those old towels or even sweatshirts can be used to dry the car spot-free.  It takes a few minutes of your time - less time than spent at a car wash, in fact.   But for some reason, this is a "ridiculous" thing and the only way to do it, according to them, is by bringing buckets of water from your sink.

Again, the whole point of the article is to encourage laziness and consumption.  Even reasonable things like splitting an entree or washing your own car are shouted down as being ridiculous as carrying around used teabags.

But of course, they don't want to piss off their advertisers, who want you to consume.  And that is the problem with so many "financial" sites these days - they are sponsored by companies that are selling things, so they don't want to advertise on a site that says, "stop buying crap!"   People who start out giving rational advice - like Sooze Orman - morph into cheerleaders for brands who sponsor them.  So the Sooze says to keep a car for a decade or more, until Buick pays her to say, "Gee, these lease deals aren't so bad, are they?"

You see how it works.

Not clicking on clickbait like this is a start.  Consuming less media in general is a good next step.  Trust me when I say that not knowing the latest outrage from Washington isn't going to diminish your life in the least, but actually enhance it.

And it goes without saying that getting financial advice from the media is like asking a rapist for advice on your sex life.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Silicon Valley Bullshit Machine

I had a nightmare last night that I was a lawyer...

I woke up in a cold sweat.  It wasn't so much at nightmare as a reliving of a traumatic event, PTSD if you will.  I was at the odious large Law Firm which I worked at for less than 6 months.  The guy who had hired me quit about a month after I was hired.  He went off to work for one of these "dot-com" startup companies, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

In my dream, I was going through a Patent file, and the papers were all out of order.  This was not my file, my files were always kept in proper order.  But this fellow that hired me really didn't understand how to run a Patent practice.  The practice is very paper-intensive and you have to keep things neat and orderly, otherwise you lose track of what's going on.  You have to keep track of deadlines and due dates and you also have to be very proactive about billing, as there are no jumbo bills to send out but rather many small bills for these small transactional events.

When my boss quit the firm, we realized in horror that he hadn't sent out a single bill in the last six months.  Not only that, but client due dates were being missed and we had to file extensions of time on a number of cases. The few bills he sent out were wildly inaccurate, sometimes he billed one client for a different client's work.  It didn't help any that the firm's billing system was set up to charge things by billable hours, which is very difficult to adapt to a Patent practice.

And that's the sad thing right there.  He had the makings of a decent Patent practice, with a number of clients and some legitimate inventions to file patents on.  But he was caught up in the whole "dot-com" nonsense and wanted to make an awful lot of money in a short amount of time.  So he walked away from the Patent practice to take an in-house position with one of these startup companies. They paid him in stock options and he might have made a pile of money when they did an IPO.  I don't really know, as I lost track of him rather quickly.

I saw the writing on the wall.  This fellow had basically left a stink bomb on my desk.  I decide to take my clients with me and move on with life, rather than to try to salvage his damaged practice.  But sadly, the pattern I saw here is one I saw many times in my years working in Silicon Valley.  There were people actually knew what they were doing, and there were a lot of people who bullshitted for a living and had no clue what they were supposed to be doing, but thought that was some quick money to be made in this and tried to fake their way through it.

Back then Silicon Valley was actually silicon.  We made semiconductor chips. Actually, that's not really accurate.  We designed semiconductor chips and then these designs were sent overseas where they were manufactured in China, Japan, or Vietnam.  But the end product was a tangible piece of hardware made of silicon semiconductor.  Today, the big industry in Silicon Valley is software.  Software, and bullshit.

I recounted before about a patent attorney who was working for one of my clients.  We suspected but could never really prove that he was trying to embezzle money from the client.  He worked with another attorney in Silicon Valley and they filed dozens of patent applications which I took over when the attorney unexpectedly died suddenly.

Once again, the files were a mess.  It was hard to tell what documents had actually been filed and I had to physically go to the Patent Office to inspect the files and make copies in order to have an accurate copy of what was going on.  I was chagrined to find out that some of the Patents applications had never been filed but the bills had been sent to the client.  It took a lot of talking to convince the client this happened, as there was a lot of denial going on.  After all, Mr. Slick Fast-Talker couldn't have been ripping us off!  Not with a $200 haircut like that, right?  What do you mean we paid for a patent application that was never filed?   And as usual, often the messenger gets blamed for the bad news.

On the client side, the same thing was also true.  Most of the clients actually made things and made profits - at least most of the time.  But there were other startup companies which were basically frauds from the get-go.   They came up with a product that sounded techie and cool, although most people didn't seem to understand how it actually worked - because it really didn't.  And they got funding and made money but eventually went broke when people discovered the whole thing was a con.

And you wonder why I am skeptical of tech.

Today, we see this is still the case. The most recent one was a company called Theranos which was run by a girl not even old enough to drink yet.  Hey, but that hair!  Perfect!  They supposedly had a semiconductor chip that would diagnose various medical conditions that would revolutionize or disrupt the industry. But it all turned out to be one hundred percent bullshit.  The product simply didn't exist. And in retrospect you wonder how they get as far as they did without anybody finding out.  You wonder why someone would hand $700 million to a kid right out of high school.  But then again, this illustrates how this tech crap goes off the rails and how people suspend disbelief because the believe in unicorns and "the next big thing!"

After all, it makes sense.  If these techies become billionaires in their 20's, then someone in their teens must be absolutely brilliant, right?

I tried to walk away from clients like that. And it wasn't hard to spot them. Usually they had these amazing PowerPoint presentations that threw around a lot of buzzwords.  I would be told things like "it's a new paradigm" or a "sea change" and that they were going to revolutionize the industry.  That was back in the 1990's.  Today, they use words like disruption and whatnot. Folks don't want to appear to be stupid by asking what these things mean, so they remain silent. After all these are smart people must know more than you and I do, right?

Are drugs involved?  I think so, and not those given out by prescription.  And that is sort of the other way you can tell you're being bullshitted, when people have that glassey-eyed look and everything is upbeat and positive all the time.  This is not a realistic view of life.  Life is often a lot of drudgery and hard work.  Science and technology, particularly so - 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, as Edison once said (as he claimed rights to his employees' inventions).   And I think the drug involved must be cocaine, because that's the kind of drug that turns people into raging assholes.

Recently, people are calling into question whether Tesla will survive the next few years or even months.  The bizarre antics of Elon Musk remind me an awful lot of some people I used to have to deal with.  People who were exuberant most of the time but also made irrational and sometimes troubling comments.  Many folks have made note of Mr. Musk's veiled references to marijuana or 420, and wonder if he is on some sort of drug or not.  The SEC is investigating him for hyping the price of the Tesla stock on Twitter.  But of course, hyping the price of your stock is the name of the game in Silicon Valley.  You start a company, do an IPO, and then sell out your own shares in the company and make money.  That's how the game is played - the actual products and development is sort of secondary.

The problem for Tesla is the same problem many small car companies have faced in the past. You might see some initial profitability and progress, much is the Kaiser-Frazer company did after the war or as Studebaker and Rambler did when they started selling smaller cars.  But eventually, the larger companies which have much deeper resources and work experience in the car business will compete with you. Customers get scared and stop buying if they think the company doesn't have any long-term prospects.  People don't want to buy an orphan car.

Tesla might have made a go of it, if it could have been bought out by one of the major car companies who wanted to jump into the electric market space quickly and instantly.  However, Tesla stock has been so overpriced that no car company in its right mind would buy it.  And why bother, when you can just make your own electric car?  The barriers to entry, it turns out, are not that high.

At the price points offered by Tesla, many others are jumping into this business such as Porsche.  For someone looking for a car in the near-$100,000 range, Porsche might be a better choice, as it is an established company and there is a nationwide network of dealers.  If Tesla goes belly-up, Tesla owners could find themselves in a bit of a pickle trying to find parts and service.  In fact they're already having trouble finding parts and service as there are no Tesla dealers.  The dealer-less model that Tesla used worked very well in initially selling cars, but long-term support for the product may be lacking.

Of course that's another Silicon Valley feature. When it comes to computers or smartphones or whatever, you only offer support for a few years and then you dump the product and move on to the next thing.  And with electronics, people accept this, because products become so woefully obsolete so quickly.  But the car business is different.  People keep cars for 10 years or even 20 years.  If you can't get parts, resale value will plummet.

I was eventually able to get back to sleep.  But it is sort of a recurring nightmare that I have, maybe once every few months or so.  It's like one of those nightmares where you're trying to run away from a monster and your legs feel like they're frozen in mud.  Everything happens in slow motion, and no matter what you do, you can't extricate yourself from the problem.  In my dream, I dug through these files trying to make sense of the application and figure out what to do, only to see papers just randomly scattered all over the place.  I tried talking to the client but they were incoherent over the phone.

My experience with "dot com" startups and Silicon Valley bullshit is one reason why I have such a negative view of these companies as investments.  People argue with me I shouldn't be so negative about this new technology.  After all, companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon and Apple are making lots of money and if I had bought stock in these companies early on, I would be really wealthy, right?

Maybe yes, maybe no.  Because even a company which seems legitimate one day can become a bullshit company the next.   One company I did work for made semiconductor chips and did very well for many years.  But then their latest chip really didn't work quite right.  People called it "vaporware" as it never appeared on the market even though wild promises were made about its performance capabilities.

I'm still not certain what happened to that product, but the fact that it never materialized nearly bankrupted the company.  Hard-nosed Silicon Valley companies that have an established track record can turn into bullshit factories in a very short period of time, if you aren't keeping a close eye on the ball.   Other companies might be obsoleted by changes in technology.   "Work Stations" used to be a thing, until the lowly desktop PC started to challenge them in terms of performance.   Overnight, it seemed, an entire business went into the toilet.

For every good investment in Silicon Valley, there are ten, a hundred, or even a thousand bad investments.  And many of these were bad by design.  They were utter frauds from the get-go, designed to snooker retail investors into throwing a few hundred dollars here and there to gin up the stock price so the insiders could cash out.

As both an engineer and a lawyer, I was trained to think dispassionately and rationally.   Engineers rely on crunching numbers, not on crunching bullshit, to determine whether a product is going to work or not.  Lawyers need to look at things just dispassionately without emotion, to divine the real truth of a matter.

You would think people in these professions would think rather logically and that frauds and charlatans would not be tolerated for very long. And yet the opposite is somewhat true.  We tend to find people even in these rational endeavors, who behave irrationally. And when that happens it's very scary - much as finding someone in the medical profession who is doing lines of cocaine.

Sadly, the net effect of these sorts of frauds and chicanery is that periodically, the tech market collapses.  People become nervous when they realize that much of what is being hyped was just hype, and share prices fall across the board for all tech companies, even those that are making profits and doing legitimate things.

And I suspect we might be headed for one of these tech recessions shortly.  Theranos was not an aberration, but a symptom of the underlying problems going on in Silicon Valley.  In the pattern was established in the past, housing prices go through the roof, people are paid obscene amounts of money, and nobody seems to worry about the fact the company is not making money.  Then it all comes tumbling down, and usually the small investor and homeowner ends up getting stiffed.

The good news is that usually out of the ashes of these debacles, a Phoenix may arise.  The unused server capacity in massive over investment in fiber optic capabilities from the last tech recession led directly to the software revolution we're seeing today.

Of course, this is cold comfort for the people that bought into these dot-com stocks or bought houses in Silicon Valley, only to see the values plummet later on.  And that right there is the whole point. The people who get burned on these deals are little people like you and me, who think they're going to cash in big, either in real estate or in dot-com stocks.

The people running these enterprises walk away with millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, if not billions, even if the enterprise's they're running, is run into the ground.

And that is why I'm not a big fan of investing in tech stocks.  For the small retail investor, the odds are you'll just get burned.  It is tantalizing to think of how you could have made a ton of money by investing early on in some tech stock.  But chances are, you just would have ended up losing all of your money either through poor timing (such as with Apple, which nearly went bankrupt early on) or with poor stock selection.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Who Gives a Shit About Game of Thrones?


Soap operas are declining in daytime television, mostly because they have moved to evening television.

The papers are awash with articles about the finale of the "Game of Thrones" franchise.   Fans (an idiotic term for idiots - all fans of anything are idiots, by definition) are disappointed in the last season, feeling it was "rushed" and of course, disappointed with the finale.    I could have told them that in advance.  Remember how The Sopranos petered out?  And how the finale sucked when it faded to black?   Same shit, different day.

Some have called Game of Thrones the Medieval Sopranos which makes sense, as both are soap operas where the plot meanders all over the place, and new characters are introduced and then killed off with regularity.   I have written about this before, how episodic television is little more than an addictive drug, where the characters become "comfort food" and you tune in every week to see familiar characters say familiar things - not so much about plot or anything.   The last 30 seasons of M*A*S*H were pretty repetitive, with Hawkeye chiming in about "this rotten war" between the same tired old gags and canned laughter.

Game of Thrones started out as a pretty faithful adaptation of the George R.R. Martin novels.  Since I'm not into fantasy fiction, the whole thing was not my bag to begin with.  But unlike other franchises in this genre, such as the Lord of the Rings, the books were less about magic and wizards and whatnot and more about character development.  A friend of mine, who is a Lord of the Rings fan, even admitted that those fantasy fiction movies were rather monotonous - "run, run, run, fight, fight, fight, run, run, run, etc." as he put it, with each fight sequence being against even longer and longer odds.  Game of Thrones promised to be something more than that.

In any good television show, you hire great writers and produce a compelling plot and characters to draw in viewers.  By season three, however, you fire all those writers and any actor who asks for more money (unless, like Fonzie, they become indispensable to the show).   At that point, you put the show on auto-pilot.   The plots can meander all over the place, and unlike a good story, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it just goes on forever and ever - a soap opera.  Write yourself into a corner?   Just make it all a dream sequence.  Apparently it worked for "Lost" (which I can proudly say I have never seen) and for The Sopranos (where I felt cheated when that happened).

Early on in Game of Thrones, they killed off main characters with regularity - as that was what George Martin wrote in the novels.  But by season three (sound familiar?) some critics complained that main characters were developing "plot armor" as they were now comfort food to viewers and could not be killed off, unless the underlying actor made Suzanne Somers-like demands.

Like I said, I never watched the show, but last night, I ended up in Wikipedia Hell, reading about the show, the characters, the episodes and whatnot.  I learned what a direwolf was, which was apparently a real animal in North America, but just a regular wolf, enlarged by camera trickery and green-screened into the show.  Apparently, this was more difficult to achieve than CGI dragons, so the wolves went away over time, much as M*A*S*H stopped shooting on location and using helicopters in favor of an indoor studio set and a school bus.   When in doubt, gut content and profit.

Probably the main reason I never watched this show is I don't have cable television, and I certainly don't think it is worth $100+ a month to get it, plus $25 a month for HBO.   And no, I'm not that keen in downloading pirated episodes from bit torrent or pirate bay or whatever.   And no, I don't feel I was "missing out" on great television (an oxymoron) or great entertainment.   When I read the accounts online of the characters and plots, it doesn't seem as compelling as it might appear when viewing it.  It just sounds like a lot of confusing characters and names and idiotic plot lines designed to titillate and entice (sex, violence, incest, etc.).

In the old days of television, "Prime Time" programs were episodic, but rarely had a story line or story arc that transcended more than one episode - two at the most.   Each episode put the characters back into their starting positions by the end of the episode, as if nothing had happened.   Thus, you could watch any episode of Gilligan's Island, in any order, and it always began and ended with everyone in the same initial condition.   This meant that in syndication, the shows could be played out of order.

Soap operas, watched mostly by women during the daytime, did not follow this pattern, but instead had meandering story lines that went on indeterminately, like a tale told by an idiot - or a child.  In the late 1970's, it became a fad in college to follow soap operas, and I really never understood that.  But once you "get into" a story line, as Hoke noted on Driving Miss Daisy, you get hooked.

Soap operas have been in decline in recent years, mostly because fewer "housewives" exist in two-income families.  But also, I think, because they have gone mainstream and into prime-time.  Modern television shows don't follow the single-episode story arc like the sitcoms and detective dramas of the 1960's and 1970's, but rather have endless story lines that span seasons, often ending each season (or episode) with a cliffhanger.

Even so-called "reality" television follows this pattern, in many shows, with people staying tuned to see what happens next.   No wonder shows like All My Children can't compete!

Is there any harm in watching this nonsense?   Like I said, it is comfort food, and comfort food can be unhealthy.    More than a decade go, we used to binge-watch The Sopranos at the condo, with Mark making vast vats of Spaghetti with Italian sausage, or sending out for pizza.   The problem with comfort-food programming is the same as comfort food itself - it is easy to over-indulge.

Television, in general, tends to take away from life rather than give to it.  At best, it is a distraction, an entertainment, much as going to the theater, a concert, or a movie is.  Unlike those other entertainments, though, television can devolve into an addictive habit, consuming hours a day of your life.    Most folks don't go to a concert, play, or movie every single night of the week and spend over four hours a day at such entertainments.

Television, being conveniently located in the home (and the centerpiece of most homes) is all-too-easy to overindulge in.   Click on the remote and the world is at your feet.  You can vacuum the rugs and do laundry tomorrow, right?  Your favorite show is on.  Hey honey, get me a snack from the kitchen, let's watch this!

It encourages passivity and inactivity, two things that will damage your physical and mental health.  Television, as I've called it before, is the depression box.  No one ever feels great after getting up from the couch after watching hours of TeeVee.   And the time lost is never recovered.   It never ceases to amaze me how people claim they don't have enough hours in the day, but are up-to-date on what Snoopie is doing on Jersey Shore.   Balance my checkbook?   Who has time for that?

In addition to all that are the poor normative cues that television teaches.   Game of Thrones at least didn't have any product placement in it, although I am told a Starbucks cup did manage to sneak itself in (by accident or by plan?  You decide - it certainly got enough press).   The main damage to your psyche is shows like this teach people to be conniving and double-dealing with each other.   Everyone is your enemy, they preach, and alliances are always shifting.    Situation comedies are even worse - teaching that insulting all of your friends with put-downs is normal behavior.   You can tell a sit-com watcher as they hurl insults at you over and over again.   It does get tiresome, and you do feel forced to join in.

After reading about Game of Thrones and the hundreds of characters and the convoluted plot lines - over 73 episodes! - I felt like it would be a major investment of my time to get into watching the show, even if it appeared on Netflix or YouTube or whatever.    And that is an interesting phrase, investment, as indeed it does require a substantial commitment of one of your most valuable resources, time.

I noted before that one characteristic of successful people is that they don't sit around all day watching television, but actually do things.   People who watch four hours a day or more (the national average) don't actually get things done.   You spend eight hours a day working, eight hours sleeping, leaving eight hours for your own life.  Subtract commuting time, time spent preparing meals, showering, using the bathroom, shopping for food, etc., and that leaves damn little time in your schedule.   People who watch the average number of hours of television - four hours a day - are basically spending all of their free time watching television.   They watch others do things, but do nothing of consequence, themselves.

That is very, very sad.

It is interesting, but the best times of my life were not spent on the couch with a remote in my hand.  They were, in fact, times spent with no television whatsoever - either because I was working hard and going to school at night (a better use of those four hours of free time) or developing my own business or remodeling a house or traveling or whatever.   Actually doing things was much more fun, even though it was hard work, than watching other people do things.   Buying a house, fixing it up, and renting it out was a helluva a lot more fun that watching "The Real Estate Twins" fake it on TeeVee.

Oh, and it was much more profitable to me to actually do these things as well.

Game of Thrones would represent close to 100 hours of my life as a commitment, with each episode being at least 60 minutes in length, and 73 episodes in all.  This is more time than I spent on some of my law school classes.  It represents more time than I spent fixing up one of our rental properties.   It represents $25,000 billable hours of my law practice.   It represents going on 100 bike rides and watching 100 sunsets in retirement.

I think I understand which is a better value and a better use of my time.

Who gives a shit about Game of Thrones?   Or any television for that matter.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Transferring Money Overseas - Part II


It seems the banks want a taste of the action whenever money is transferred from one point to another.  Is there a way around this?   Maybe.  Maybe not.

I noted before that if you want to transfer money overseas, you end up paying transaction fees. Whether it is a wire transfer, Western Union, or by Credit Card.  Even something as simple as sending a check will cost money - not only for postage, but for foreign check fees charged to the recipient when they try to cash a check in a foreign currency.  There is really no easy way to send money overseas, and there are very good reasons for this.

To begin with, there is labor involved.  My local bank takes about a half-hour for the teller to type in the necessary data to make a wire transfer.   This is an actual cost to the bank.   Then there is the conversion rate - which varies over time.   As I noted before, there is no such thing as an "official" conversion rate for currencies - you get whatever rate the bank or currency trader will give you. And since banks are not in the business of making change, they will factor in some percentage to make a profit on such transactions.   Ditto for those "currency exchange" booths you see at the border or at an airport.

When I had my practice, I had to pay overseas attorneys for Patent work in their countries, and they had to pay me.   The client, who was paying me for these overseas services (or my overseas partner's client who was paying him) would often pay on 30, 60, or 90 days, which is not atypical for legal billing.   Thus, there was a huge risk that swings in currency conversions would result in my actually losing money on a transaction.   An overseas attorney might charge thousands of dollars in legal fees and filing fees, and my reporting fee of $500 might be swallowed up by a change in market conditions between the time (a) the overseas attorney bills me, (b) the time I bill my client, (c) the time my client pays me, and (d) the time I wire money to my overseas attorney.   It is a messy business.  And I learned early on not to charge foreign fees to my clients at the Interbank rate, but the Interbank rate plus some percentage in order to have a safety margin, such as 5% or the "kiosk rate".

By the way, the link above, which was the currency conversion site I used to use to calculate conversion rates (before Google started doing this) is now offering a money transfer system as well, "coming soon" it says.  I am not endorsing their site by linking to it.

Wire transfers have been the main way most companies send or receive money from overseas.   There are bank service charges, of course ($25 to $50 or so) and the banks also might play with the currency conversion rates to eke out a percentage or two of profit from the deal.    But this has been the main way that most corporations transfer money, and if it was a lousy way to do business or there was an easier and less costly way to do this, you can bet they would figure it out.   Because when you are a large company, you are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, at stake.

Wire transfers domestically in the USA are not very much used, except for large transactions - buying and selling a house, for example, or maybe a car.   The fees involved make it less useful than even Bitcoin for domestic transfers.  My European friends tell me that this is not so over there.   They use wire transfers the way you and I use a credit card.  Give someone the SWIFT code and account number and bingo - you've transferred money.

But given all that, I am skeptical when someone comes along and tells me that there is some newfangled "disruption" in the marketplace that will make it possible to transfer money overseas with no fees at all - or reduced fees - and save you tons of money (with lots of EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!! IN ALL CAPS!!!).   If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Because in addition to the fees involved is the fact of security and reliability.  Before you hand over tens of thousands of dollars to an organization on the promise they will send it overseas, you might want to check out how reliable this organization is, and what your recourse is, if they decide to keep the money, lose the money, or freeze your account.

Sadly, this seems to be a model of commerce in recent years.   Someone comes along and promises to "disrupt" traditional commerce by taking something being done using ordinary means, and putting it on the Internet or as a smartphone app.    Whether it is a taxi service or food delivery or some sort of banking function or music player, we are told that this is "new technology" - instead of just a new company doing the same things as done before, but without the regulation and oversight afforded to traditional industries.

Uber and Lyft are not "new technology" but rather an unregulated taxi service that is basically bulldozing government taxi regulations by getting so large so quickly that governments scramble to try to regulate them - often stepping back from outright bans due to pushback from consumers, who are also voters.

PayPal went through a similar process.  I recounted before how PayPal, in the early days, was a wild west operation.  They acted like a bank, looked like a bank, smelled like a bank, but claimed not to be a bank and thus not subject to banking regulations.  They set up accounts for users, offered credit cards, and even claimed (falsely) to be FDIC insured.   They also basically rented out their merchant account (a merchant account is an account you have that allows you to accept credit cards) to the thousands of PayPal users - in direct violation of credit card company rules.

PayPal got so big, so fast, that the credit card companies went along with this.  They threatened, early on, to terminate PayPal's merchant account, until they got wind of the numbers that were being generated.   Visa and MasterCard wanted their 3% commission, so they looked the other way.   And a lot of people looked the other way as well.  They made a lot of money, to the point where the guy who founded it is building spaceships today.  Nice work if you can get it.

But there were teething problems.   As I recounted before, I sold a car on eBay and the buyer tried to pay me in three installments on PayPal.  Instead of programming the system to deny this, PayPal flagged this as "suspicious activity!" and froze my account.   And it was a hassle to get it unfrozen, too.  I learned early on that PayPal is a neat way to pay for cheap Chinese crap you buy on eBay, but not something to be trusted for large transactions.    I did use it late in my career to accept credit card payments from clients (which were listed as "donations" for some reason - again, another end-run on regulations) but even that made me nervous.   Trust, when it comes to money, is a fragile thing.  You break that trust once, it is hard to get it back.

Anyway, I recently sent about thirty grand to Canada, in three installments, to pay for the new trailer, which I now have title to, even though at this point, it is just a steel frame and a VIN plate.  I sent three installments in part because if one went awry, at least I would not be out the entire amount.  Also, I was hedging risk in currency conversions.  While the exchange rate is favorable today, that can change in a hurry, so I paid early on to make sure that at least part of the payment took advantage of the favorable exchange rate between the American Dollar and Canadian Ruble.

For the last payment, I used Bank of America wire transfer service.  Unlike my local bank, rather than sit in the lobby for a half-hour while Becky types in the data, I could just go on the website and do this myself.   And this month, they offered to waive the transfer fee, so I went ahead and did it.  Of course, the trailer company's bank charged them a $17 fee to accept the wire transfer, so I will have to give them a handful of Loonies and Toonies when I get there, to pay the balance.

Of course, Bank of America, like my local bank, is skimming a percentage or two off the top, in currency conversion fees (which is why they want me to send in Canadian funds, so I use their conversion rates, not inter-bank rates).   It is pretty unavoidable these days not to pay something.

But like clockwork, when I mentioned this on an online forum, some "Dad" chimes in that anyone who pays by conventional means is a blithering idiot as the only way to pay is to use this newfangled online payment system - whose name I won't mention here, as I don't want to even inadvertently promote it.   You could save $1000 on your wire transfer, he claims, which seems like an obscene amount of money.   Needless to say, I was skeptical.  Some guy who claims to be an accountant, but of course, is using an anonymous name in an online forum, has the inside track to big savings, and everyone else in the world is just a clueless dweeb.

Like I said, I'm skeptical.  So I searched the name of the company plus the word "scam" and the results were interesting, to say the least.   The first thing that popped up were a litany of complaints on a number of "consumer complaint" sites that all mentioned the same pattern - that the system worked fine for them for a transaction or two, but then they were told their account was "frozen" and for days, weeks, or even months, they had to struggle with the company to get their money back.  Sounds like my experience with PayPal back in the wild west days.

Even the Better Business Bureau had a litany of complaints, which is saying something.  I noted before the BBB is pretty worthless, as they often gave invention broker companies (which are mostly outright crooks) good ratings, as the companies would claim the complaints were "resolved."  To get a low rating on the BBB takes some serious effort to piss people off.

The other items that popped up included an article in The Guardian, which I think is now owned by the Kremlin.   The article in that paper was disturbing - it was more of an advertisement of "this kicky new way to send money!!!" with lots of cheerleading, bullet points, and a stock photo of a lady sitting in a coffee shop looking at her laptop while smiling (apparently enjoying the experience of sending money).  Not much in critical analysis in it.   It appeared to be a paid advert, and I suspect it was.

There were also a number of hits, including one to the company website itself, which included language eerily similar to that of the person posting on the trailer forum.  For some reason, the person promoting this service online went on and on about Wells Fargo - the bank everyone loves to hate.  And for some reason, this money transfer company did so as well - trying to make it out that sending a wire transfer was some sort of "hassle" as you had to type in a SWIFT code and whatnot.  I think I was being shilled.

Some more research turned up a very carefully groomed Wikipedia page (again, all cheerleading) that described how the company worked. Two guys from a former Eastern Bloc country moved to London, and wanted to transfer money.  They established this new company and claim they can save money on overseas transfers, but it wasn't clear exactly how they make money at this, other than they are playing the float on currency conversion - hoping the exchange rates change in their favor.  I am not sure how this is different that a traditional bank scraping a percent or two by using favorable conversion rates.  And it may explain why they "freeze" people's accounts with no explanation - perhaps the conversion rates shifted against them, and if they can freeze an account until they shift back, it might work to their advantage.

One thing is for sure - these folks are not running a charity, converting and transferring money free of charge as a public service.

But all that being said, I wasn't about to send off thirty grand to Boris and Vladimir in their kicky new online money transfer system which is backed up by the Bank of Nowhere and insured by the Nowhere Deposit Insurance Company.  Of course, if I did run into problems, I could always sue them, in their home country, in the former Eastern Bloc.   That's easy to do!

Maybe, like PayPal, they are in the early stages of development, and once they get up and running (and get some serious funding) the whole thing will take off and they will become more reliable and trusted.   But like with Bitcoin (another service that promised to transfer money overseas cheaply and reliably) it doesn't seem like these promises are paying off yet, at least not for the legions of angry customers whose comments I am reading online.   One or two, I can see.   When you see dozens with the same pattern (and the obligatory two or three cheerleading reviews, natch) that is something else.

There is a lot of this nonsense going on, and everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon.  They even have a trendy name for it, "FinTech" - as if everything that was done before at a bank becomes "technology" once you put it on the Internet or write an app for it (as if traditional banks aren't already doing this).   If you say things like "FinTech" and "Block Chain" enough in a powerpoint presentation, people might actually think you are smart and give you a few million in startup money.

Sadly, we've been through this before - time and time again.  Each "dot com" startup and consequential meltdown takes out a legion of investors.   Granted, some companies end up on top.  The aforementioned PayPal for example, or Amazon.   But for every Amazon, there is a Pets.com.  For every PayPal, there is a Groupon.   And this "FinTech" nonsense has seen its share of failures already.

"Disrupt" the marketplace, the mantra goes, "Get big quickly" before anyone can figure out what it is you are trying to pull off and stop you.   "Fake it until you make it" - and hope you can make it before the Venture Capital runs out.   Sadly, I suspect a lot of these startups will come grinding to a halt in the next few years, as the economy starts to slow down and we head to a long-predicted recession - and as a lot of these startups never end up making money.  Because somewhere along the line, you do have to make money, whether it is with unregulated taxis or unregulated banks.

There might also reach a point where governments and the people get wise to this "disruption" nonsense and remember why we regulated taxi companies and banks and currencies in the first place.  When that happens, a lot of "disruptors" will be disrupted.