Friday, November 15, 2019

Leaking Alkaline Batteries

When did alkaline batteries start to leak?

When I was a kid, they had two kinds of batteries, Ray-O-Vac and Ever-Ready.   These were non-alkaline batteries and didn't last very long in flashlights and toys.  We constantly asked Mom and Dad for more batteries, and they would reply, "Didn't I just buy you new batteries last year?  Use those!"

Back then, alkaline batteries were a new thing - the Duracell "Copper Top" was just being introduced, and promised to offer battery life that was three or four times that of the older kind.   That, and they wouldn't leak.   Yes, those old Ray-O-Vacs and Ever-Readys would leak this brown goo inside the battery compartment of your toys or flashlights.   And often, this goo would ruin the item in question, as it corroded the contacts of the battery compartment.   Alkaline batteries never seemed to have this problem.

Until recently.

Recently, it seems that Alkaline batteries are leaking more than their predecessors, and leaking something far more caustic as well - a white powdery substance.  I have had several flashlights and electronic gizmos go to the graveyard over leaky batteries.  In some instances, the device can be repaired if I sand off the contacts with an emery board and apply a light coating of WD-40.   In other cases, the white powdery stuff eats through the contacts and even wiring, and sometimes seems to degrade the circuit boards.  Remote controls for the garage door opener seem to be particularly affected.

This sort of had me puzzled until today.  I ordered a new keypad lock for the trailer, and it uses "penlight batteries" to drive the mechanism.   On the website was the photo above and the following description:

Ever since we started producing keyless entry locks (NE and EM) we have noticed that some batteries corrode more than others. We also learned some provide more consistent electrical current than other batteries.
We have found Energizers perform the best for our keyless application, and most of us have switched all our other battery-operated products to Energizers as well. Energizers claim to not leak, and we believe them.
Batteries corrode (get white fuzz) because they can leak. The white fuzz is potassium carbonate and accumulates on the negative side of the battery. Essentially, the chemical reaction in an alkaline battery creates hydrogen gas. The gas begins to build pressure and can leak out causing the potassium carbonate to materialize.
Therefore, a non-leaking battery makes a big difference. It is also worth mentioning that a hot environment will increase the gas pressure in a battery. For you science enthusiasts you may recall the Ideal Gas Law that states pressure is directly related to temperature. In other words, if you are located in a very hot environment and using lower quality batteries you are at higher risk of battery leakage.
Here are a few ways to avoid corroded batteries.
  • Use Energizer batteries. We have found these to be the absolute best batteries.
  • Remove the batteries if you are not planning to use your trailer for an extended period of time. The keys will still operate the lock.
This was interesting information. I realize, in retrospect, that moving to the South may have something to do with it.  As the batteries get older, they tend to outgas more.  And in the heat of the South, particularly in a parked car, the batteries can build up pressure and ooze out this white powder, which in turn messes everything up.

I had always been a fan of the "coppertop" battery, and in retrospect, I realize that it was the look of the battery that appealed to me - it looked more serious and technical, compared to the garish "Energizers" (the successor to the Every-Ready.   Ray-O-Vac is still around, but I think the brand was sold to China).   So I may switch to Energizers.

Speaking of China, I wonder if that is part of the problem as well.  Perhaps the seals on alkaline batteries are not as well-made as in the past, in an effort to cut costs.   We all want cheap stuff, to be sure, but when a battery ruins your electronics, maybe cheap is too cheap.

We've gotten into the habit of removing batteries from everything when we go on vacation or are not going to use something for a long period of time.  And I get in the habit of changing batteries on some items, regularly.   I have some sprinkler timers, for example, that I change the batteries on, every year, even if they are still "good."

It is funny, but we put new 8 volt batteries in the golf cart (which means our $300 cart is up to nearly three grand) and they leak a lot less acid than the older batteries, which were near the end of their lives.  I suspect that one way to tell if your golf cart battery is shot is whether it is boiling out acid when it charges.   You can keep adding water, but this just dilutes the acid further, and more boils out.  Maybe it is the same effect with the Alkaline batteries - they seem to leak powder near the end of their service lives.

A reader suggests I invest in rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries.  I have a pair of these for my bicycle headlights, and you have to remove them and put them in a special charger.  They are slightly larger than an AA battery.   It is a hassle to have to recharge these, but on the other hand, they seem to hold a charge for a year or more.   They make Lithium-Ion batteries in regular sizes, from what I understand, and I will have to look into this before I waste any more money on "coppertops" that leak crap all over my electronic gadgets.  Most "rechargeables" are Nickle-metal hydride batteries, though.

Speaking of Lithium-Ion batteries, I looked into getting these for my golf cart, but realized that this application is still at the experimental stage.  Only one company I could find sold these batteries in a "kit" for golf carts that was plug-and-play (the same form factor, wiring, etc.) and it cost thousands of dollars.   There were some folks on eBay selling new or used Chevy Volt or Prius battery packs with the notation that they could be used in your golf cart - but you would have to experiment with the mounting, wiring, charging, and whatnot.  Those battery packs are very complex, and feature cooling fans to keep the temperatures down.   Not for the feint of heart.  I suspect, however, that in a few years, most golf carts will go this route from the factory.  The carts themselves last for decades (Mine is a 1994 model) so it would be worthwhile to put Lithium-Ion batteries in them.  Currently, most golf courses dump their carts every few years, once the Lead-Acid batteries die.  It is kind of wasteful!

I guess within a few years, batteries, like incandescent light bulbs, will be a thing of the past.  I still have a box filled with old incandescent and CFL lights in the garage - replaced with LED lights long ago.   Should I use them up?  Throw them away?  Sell them to some end-times survivalist who doesn't want "gub-ment" mandated light bulbs?  Or hang onto them until they become rare and precious collectibles?   Just kidding.  Throw them out.

I suspect in a decade the idea of removable light bulbs and removable batteries will be obsolete.  Why spend the extra dollars making something that lasts the life of the appliance removable?   Your remote control for your TeeVee will recharge on an inductive pad built-in to your overstuffed sectional sofa, or perhaps even via a small solar panel.   Who knows?  But removable batteries - that is so 2020.

UPDATE:  Searching online for rechargeable AAA batteries is interesting.  A lot of companies (mostly Chinese) are advertising on eBay and Amazon, but you have to be careful.  You search on "Lithium-Ion" and the results are Nickle Metal Hydride batteries.  In fact, the odd form-factor of my bicycle headlight batteries is no accident - they produce a different voltage (3.7 volts) than most Alkaline batteries (1.5 volts).  So the choice for recharagable batteries (that fit a standard AA or AAA slot today) is limited to NiMh, although one company makes a Lithium Ion AA battery with a voltage reducer built in.

It is a bit confusing for the average person!

UPDATE:  I researched this further and some readers have been helpful.   The problem for the NiMh batteries is that they are 1.2 volts, not 1.5 volts as with alkaline batteries.   So you have to live with a slightly lower voltage, which should not affect most electronics.

Lithium-Ion, on the other hand, as I noted, are at 3.7 Volts, which means they are ill-suited for plug-and-play replacement with Alkaline batteries, unless some voltage correction is implemented.

Like I said, I think the ultimate answer is down the road - when new appliances come with built-in batteries, like your cell phone already does, instead of removable "cells".

As for Golf Carts, EZ-GO is indeed selling a Lithium-Ion cart, which will no doubt be the wave of the future.  As for retrofitting older carts?   Probably like trying to retrofit older appliances with newer batteries - just not cost-effective or convenient.

Narcississm Of Small Differences

Do we despise people who are more nearly like ourselves than people who are completely different?

I came across this term, narcissism of small differences in a magazine article a while back.  It is a different usage of the word narcissism as it is usually applied, as least by lay people.  It is an interesting concept that may explain a lot of our behaviors, from tribal warfare to rampant consumerism, to personal relationships.  To simplify the concept greatly, you are more likely to resent or even hate some other person or group that is close to you but not exactly like you.  In contrast, you may be more likely to accept someone who is utterly different than you, simply because they are so different and not a threat to your identity.

It is an interesting idea.  I have noted before that in the Arab world, Muslims kill other Muslims in wars and terrorist attacks far more often than they target the West.   The Sunni-Shiite rift makes no sense to outsiders, as from our perspective, they all look the same to us, and minor differences in Islamic theology seem irrelevant.   But amongst the faithful, it is an issue that is literally a matter of life or death.

From their perspective, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland - where one group of Christians is pitted against another group of Christians - must seem equally puzzling.  I mean, you all believe in Jesus, right?  Why kill each other over minor differences in theology?  And while you can argue that the underlying issue isn't religious, but a matter of reunifying Ireland, that still doesn't explain the centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants.

Or take the civil war in Rwanda. To outsiders, the difference between Tutsi and Hutu seems minor, but the Hutu slaughtered the Tutsi.  Again, you could argue that the reasons were political - a fight for political power.  But most of those slaughtered were not members of the upper castes or government officials, but just neighbors of a slightly different ethnic makeup.

The same could be said for the Arab-Israeli conflict. To outsiders, it is hard to tell one group from the other - as they have similar racial features in many instances - which is not to be unexpected as Jews were originally from the same area prior to the diaspora. Again, politics can be painted at the real reason behind the conflict, but if you ask the average man on the street, there is this visceral hatred, among some, based on ethnicity alone.

The effect has also been used to explain consumerism. We all live in suburbs or cities or even the country, where the houses in our neighborhoods are largely alike. To distinguish ourselves from others, we spend money on status items, to make ourselves unique, but unique like everyone else.   The lumbering SUV may be a status symbol, but when your neighbor has one just like it....

Or teenagers with their piercings and tattoos - "I'm just trying to be different and express myself!" they say, but they look just like every other teenager out there, at least when viewed from the comfortable perch of middle-age.

This theory may explain why computer dating services don't work.   You fill out a form and they try to find someone "just like you!" who has all the same interests, religion, and social values.  You end up hating them.   No one wants to marry a mirror, they want someone to compliment their lives.  Or at least that is my theory, opposites often attract.

I am not sure this concept is related to this blog, although it may help us explain some of our own behaviors.  It may explain, for example, why we seek status, in order to differentiate ourselves from others who are basically just like us.  It may also explain why we resent and compete with others that are too like us.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Unaffordable Retail Space?


Why do some storefronts sit empty for years at a time?

In our small town, they keep putting up more retail space.  It seems every month, another dreary strip mall goes in, anchored by one tenant, with the rest of the space listed as "Available!"   This, after the downtown portion (like most older towns) sits desolate and abandoned, with just as many empty store fronts available.

What is going on?  Why aren't these places being rented out?   Well, some are rented, but only for a year or so.  The rents are so high that the small businesses can't pay the overhead based on their limited sales.  Or, the landlord, seeing the business successful, raises the rent to astronomical prices.  The tenant leaves and the landlord - or a friend of his - tries to "take over" the business by running a similar store or restaurant in the same space.   Usually it fails within months.

A recent article in The Atlantic opines that one reason so many storefronts sit empty, with astronomical price tags for monthly rent, is that landlords are hoping to win the lottery, and that a big bank or other "deep pocket" will decide to open an ATM branch in that space, and pay top dollar.  Or maybe a McDonald's?   By waiting around for the "whale" tenant, they can score big time, and have decades (they hope) of rental payments.   In the meantime, the property sits empty for years at a time, bringing down neighborhood values.  The author opines that "pop up" stores are the solution.  I am not so sure.

In an earlier posting, I opined there really is no such thing as unaffordable housing - that the market eventually corrects itself, and people reach a point where they stop paying.  The problem is, of course, that "eventually" can take months, if not years.  So long as tenants keep paying, landlords will keep charging.  But even in places like New York City, you can't just keep raising rents forever - people eventually break down and move to Jersey City.

The reason why rents don't track demand in real-time are many.  And part of the problem is the race-to-the-bottom. There is more money to be made in luxury housing (a lot more) than in middle-class or low-income housing.  So a builder is incentivized to build luxury housing, which becomes a glut on the market, as we've seen in so many markets.   Meanwhile, the middle-class and poor have to struggle to find a place that is affordable.   But eventually, something has to give.

I recounted before how in 1989 the market in the DC area burst.  Back then, they were building mini-mansions in places like Woodbridge.   And quickly, those mini-mansions turned into upscale ghettos, as no one wanted to live there (back then, anyway) and foreclosed-upon monster houses were rented out to a dozen tenants at a time.

What was upscale housing turns into tenements over time, as the upscale people move on to newer, greener, pastures.  And this has been an historical trend.  In the 1800's, rich people actually lived in cities, until the air became so unhealthy and conditions dire.   They moved uptown or to new suburbs, and their former mansions and town houses, turned into apartment buildings and tenement slums.  And over time, what were the "suburbs" became part of a greater urban area, and the wealthy moved yet again, further out, aided by successively new technologies in transportation (the trolley, the commuter train, the automobile).

In recent years, however, the cities are being rediscovered by a newer, younger, wealthier generation, who want some place to live that is "close in" and near everything.  Or, in the case of silicon valley, many are doing the reverse-commute - driving from San Francisco to the valley for work, and returning home to the city at night.  Needless to say, this has disrupted the pattern.   Suburban areas devolve into ring-city ghettos.

But getting back to unaffordable housing and unaffordable retail space, eventually something has to give.  A landlord cannot make money from empty storefronts - with no rent coming in, and property taxes, utilities, insurance, and repairs to make (even on an empty property - particularly on an empty property), the landlord will run out of money before he runs out of patience.  It make take a month, a year, or even several years, but eventually, he has to cash it all in and sell the property (or have it foreclosed upon) and let someone else take over - someone who will have a lower cost basis and can rent it out for cheap.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  When I lived near Washington DC, I recall reading about slumlords who owned blocks and blocks of homes that were unoccupied and they never paid taxes on.   The city - poorly managed - never bothered to foreclose on these properties, or if they did, the owner would quickly pay up the arrears - on that one property - and keep the game going.   The landlord (or more precisely, property owner, as you can't be a landlord without tenants) was "sitting" on these properties, which were eyesores and uninhabitable.   He was hoping to wait it out until the neighborhood was revitalized or gentrified, and then sell the properties to a developer (who would tear them down and build town homes) and then he could make a tidy profit.

Nice work if you can get it, and easy to do in a corrupt and poorly managed city like Washington, DC, where they are so overwhelmed by unpaid property taxes that you can hold a place like that for years and not worry about losing it to a tax sale auction.

This is an outrage! you say, Sumptin' should be done about it!  And some jurisdictions do - reclaiming properties for back taxes.   And then people get outraged over that.    This click-bait article from CBS news, for example, says that people are "losing their homes" because they failed to pay $8.50 in back property taxes.   But scratch the surface and you realize that a landlord lost a house he was renting out because he failed to pay the entire balance due for several years in a row.   Do you feel as sorry for a landlord?

Granted, the guy was living in Israel, but you know, as a property owner, I log onto my county's property tax website every year (or six months, for Fairfax County) and pay the bill online and check to see that it is paid.  I put a reminder on Google Calendar, and my phone will beep and buzz and nag me until I pay the damn taxes and reset the reminder for next year.   In order to lose a property to tax sale, you have to not pay your taxes for several years in a row, and ignore warning after warning.  By the way, on these County tax websites, you can check the tax bills of all your neighbors, what their properties were assessed for, and whether they paid their taxes on time or not.   If you create an account (as some sites allow you to do) you can change your billing address and other contact information.  There is really no reason to not be aware of a tax bill.

And even after a tax sale, you may have the right of redemption, but there is a limited time period in which to claim this right - and you may have to pay off the guy who bought the property at tax auction, as well as some late fees and other fees.   Bear in mind, too, that a tax sale does not wipe out the mortgage balance owed, which is still secured by a lien on the property.   So the buyer of the property isn't getting a free house, if it is encumbered by a mortgage.  As a result, he would have to pay off the existing mortgage or get a new one.

But it pays to keep track of these things.  There was a famous case in San Francisco, where a right-of-way in a fancy housing development was deeded to the HOA, who failed to pay taxes on it.  A wily investor bought the land at tax auction and then ransomed it back to the HOA.  Perfectly legal, although maybe not perfectly nice.   You have to have your shit together, and Condo boards and HOAs usually don't (but they can tell you what color to paint your door!).

But once again, I digress, but not too far.   Some argue that property taxes should be levied on land alone and not on improvements.  Under this theory, a slumlord with an abandoned house has the same tax bill as the neighbor who fixed his house up and made it into a showplace.   This incentivizes the slumlord to sell his property and further incentivizes others to improve their properties.   The existing system, which penalizes those who maintain or improves their homes, also serves to enable slumlords and people who "sit" on abandoned properties and empty storefronts, hoping for someone to come along with a fat checkbook.

Tax policy can help.  In Vancouver and Toronto, there are a lot of houses being bought as speculative investments.   As I understand it, new taxes are being levied on unoccupied houses and houses bought as speculative investments.   The results are interesting - the housing market is cooling down, and some wily investors are renting out the pool cabana or even the whole mansion to college students, to avoid the punishing taxes.   The result is positive - some people who couldn't afford to live there, can now afford to.   And the rush to speculate on houses is being attenuated - somewhat.

I believe that one big problem with retail today is the high cost of retail space.   Despite the fact that so much retail space is vacant, landlords want punishing rents for basic storefront business locations.  As a result, a tenant has to have a high cash-flow in the first year, just to survive.   There is no place for the sleepy, small-town businesses we had in the past.  Today it is go big, or go fuck yourself.  You either have to be Walmart or nothing.   There is no place anymore for the vacuum cleaner repair man or the guy who fixed lawn mowers.   Even assuming he could have customers, he can't afford the rent on a shop anymore.

But like I said, that could change.  In the next recession, a lot of these landlords "sitting" on properties, hoping for that whale tenant, will run out of money and sell out.  When that happens, a lot of retail space could hit the market for cheap, and that could change the dynamics of modern retailing, just as every dot-com boom-and-bust produces cheap infrastructure for the next generation of tech companies to piggyback from.

Perhaps!   We'll see.   But I am not sure that "popup" stores are the answer, as The Atlantic stipulates.

Credit Card Restaurant Scams


It pays to check your credit card balance daily - and to take a photo of the merchant receipt!

America, as I noted before, has resisted the implementation of credit card POS readers as they have in Canada and Europe - and most of the rest of the world.  POS terminals (Point of Sale, not Piece of Shit) are brought to your table, and you can insert your chip card, enter a PIN number, and authorize the sale.  Fraud is greatly reduced this way, and as a result, the percentage of each sale charged is less.

In America, the credit card companies deal with a lot of fraud, but they don't seem to care, as they get a greater percentage of each sale.  So they tolerate fraud, because overall, they make more money.  POS terminals have yet to catch on in the USA, and when you go to a restaurant, they walk away with your credit card, to some back room, where they swipe it on a machine and run the charge.

And in some instances, crooked servers or managers will simply photocopy the card, or take a photo of it with their smart phone (front and back) and then either use this data themselves to make fraudulent charges later on, or sell a set of this data to an "identity theft" thief (what we used to call just a thief or credit card thief) who then re-sells the data online to someone else, who attempts to make fraudulent charges.

My credit card - and a debit card - have been compromised this way three or four times in my lifetime.  In every case, I was not on the hook for the charges, and it is not clear who was, ultimately - the bank, the credit card company, or the merchant involved.   Since users are not greatly impacted, there is no hue and cry in the USA to go to POS terminals.  And since the system in the USA is so profitable for the card companies - and it discourages debit card use - it isn't about to change anytime soon.

Sure, we have chip cards now - but without the PIN and POS terminal, they are pretty useless in terms of card security.   Maybe they help prevent ATM fraud, but that's about it.

Anyway, what prompted this was a recent visit to a Greek restaurant in Jacksonville.  We went there to see a movie (and get tickets to Madam Butterfly simulcast from the Met) and stopped at this nice Greek restaurant for lunch.  We split an entree and the total cost was about $30 with two Greek beers.  I though I was being generous, leaving a $6 tip in cash.

The next day, I log onto my bank account and see the $30 charge as a "hold".   Two days after that, it appears as a settled charged for $42.   Someone added a $12 tip to the bill!   I may be a generous tipper, but 40% is a little over the top, and I don't get that drunk on one beer.  As I noted in an earlier posting:
And, by the way, this is important, as people will try to cheat you.   We had dinner in Jacksonville at a nice Greek restaurant.  The bill was $30 (we split an entree) and I left a $6 cash tip and charged the rest to my credit card.   The $30 shows up as a hold, but three days later, it shows $42 charged to the card - a $12 tip!  I call the restaurant, and "Ari" claims the credit card machine was acting up.  But as Booley said to Miss Daisy, "[Credit Card Machines] do not act up!  They are acted upon!"   No doubt the manager thought he could pocket $12 this way - I wonder how many other people have been cheated this way as well.   Why don't we move to POS terminals with PIN numbers like the rest of the planet?  I hate it when people walk off with my credit card and return many, many minutes later.  But I digress.
Anyway, I disputed the charge and so far, unless the manager contests it, I will be credited back the $12.   Is it worth the hassle (I had to scan in my copies of the receipt, and I sent them a cover letter as well)?   Well, probably not.  But it is possible that the manager is doing this regularly - filling in a tip of the customer didn't put one on the receipt, and hoping the customer doesn't notice.   It is likely the waitress pocketed the cash tip and then the manager, angry that "no tip" was left, added the $12 charge.  It is hard to say.

But I have heard of this happening with other people.  If you get a merchant receipt to sign, and you are leaving no tip (it is not a tipping scenario, or you left a cash tip) then it pays to put a line through the tip section and write the total in the bottom.  If not, a server can write this in for you, and it is hard to contest later on.  Some clumsy crooks even write over your number, or change a "1" to a "7" or some such nonsense.  Some don't even bother - since the tip amount is manually entered by the merchant, they can enter any number they want to.  Unless the customer contests the charge, no one will notice.   If enough customers contest the charges, the merchant could lose their merchant account privileges.

And many customers don't notice.  A vast majority of Americans barely check their credit card accounts once a month - most making a nominal payment and then just looking at the staggering balance and sighing.   Few go through, line-by-line, to check for fraudulent charges.  Few keep their receipts to confirm charges.   Like I said, I put receipts in my back pocket, and then at the end of the day, toss them in a big box under my desk.   I was able to find the Greek restaurant receipt this way.
Checking my balance daily and logging purchases in Quickbooks daily allowed me to catch this nonsense.   In the future, when in a strange restaurant, I guess I will have to take a photo of the merchant receipt with my cell phone.   No harm in having documentation of what was written down on the receipt.

I do like giving cash tips, on occasion, if I have cash to tip with.  Since the charge appears first as a "hold" and then as a "charge" later on, it is kind of annoying to go back and update each charge in Quickbooks to add in the tip amount.   But of course, one sure way to avoid this problem is to eat out less often.

Another alternative, of course, is to pay cash, but even that is problematic.   You pay a $30 tab with a $50 bill, and ask for change,  They bring you back change for two twenties, and now you have to get into a dispute with "Ari" as to how much money you gave him.  This is also a problem with some convenience store clerks - you give them a $20 and they give you change for  $10 bill - hoping you don't notice.  If you do notice, they claim innocently that they made a mistake, or worse, claim you gave them $10 and refuse to give correct change.    To help avoid this problem, it pays to say, when paying in cash, "Out of $20" or "Here's $20" loudly and firmly, so they don't "accidentally" confuse your $20 bill with a $10 one.

Even if they play it straight, there is always the smart-ass waiter who brings you $10 change in a $10 bill, for a $30 tab paid with two twenties.  Your choice then is to leave a $10 tip, or ask for more change.   A good waiter brings back change that can be used to leave a 15-20% tip.

Of course, all these scenarios have one thing in common - they hope you are too relaxed, too tired, or too drunk to notice that they've nicked you for a few dollars here and there, or nicked your credit card entirely.   It is sad, but you have to be alert when dealing with strangers - or even people you know, when it comes to money.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Chill Out, China! Geez!

China has a chip on its shoulder.

An economist in China was castigated recently (and his company shunned) when he made an innocuous statement that apparently got lost in translation.  He was discussing the epidemic that is affecting pigs in China, and he said it was not a problem unless you were a Chinese pig.

Now, in English, his meaning was quite clear.  But apparently when translated into Chinese, his comment came out as "All Chinese people are ugly, stinking pigs!" or something to that effect.

Now just to be clear about this, for our Chinese readers (all three of them, with the China security service), what he was talking about was pigs (the porcine kind) who were living in China.  He was not calling Chinese people pigs, implying it, or inferring it in any way.   And anyone fluent in English would realize this.   In fact, there is no way anyone who reads and understands English could infer an insult from his statement.

But therein lies the problem. Chinese people think they are fluent in English, and certainly many speak and read it far better than Westerners could ever understand Chinese.   But being able to "get by" in a language is a far cry from being fluent.  And this episode illustrates how little of the English language the Chinese people understand.

This was driven home to me recently when I left feedback on eBay for a Chinese merchant.  They were selling a wall-pack transformer for $12 for the Bissell Air Ram.  My neighbor lost hers, so I bought her a new one.  The OEM price is like $27, so this seemed like a cheaper alternative.

I left feedback of all five stars, with the comment "Cheap power supply for Bissell!"

Ten minutes later, I get an angry e-mail from China.

"My power supply no cheap!" he says in pidgin English, "Is best quality top number one power supply!  SAE approved!" - or something to that effect.  At first I was baffled by his comment, and not just because his command of English was very limited.   Then I realized he took my compliment as an insult.  And the fault for this lies not with me, but with him.

You see, in English, "cheap" has a number of different meanings.  It can mean "inexpensive" which was originally its definition.  But over the years, it has taken on other meanings.  "Cheap" also can infer lack of quality or shoddiness.  And the Chinese are particularly sensitive to this, as like the Japanese before them, were accused of purveying "cheap Chinese junk!"

Note that "junk" has a number of other meanings as well - including the name of a Chinese sailing ship.  Yes, English is complicated.

So, while I thought I was complimenting them on having a low price, they took it as an insult.

Why is this?

Well, I think in part that China is still sensitive about a lot of things.  In the modern era, they saw themselves marginalized and colonized in one form or another by various Western powers.  Chinese people were treated poorly in the Western world and often persecuted.  One reason we saw so many Chinese restaurants and laundries in America was that Chinese people were excluded from jobs, and so had to create their own employment.

Then there was the 50-odd years of Communism and deprivation.  It is only in the modern era that China has become an economic powerhouse, but then again, based on trade with the West, and often a result of Western investment and joint ventures.  Some argue that the Chinese economic miracle is built on a house of cards - and off-the-books debt.  And we know how that worked out for Enron.

Chinese national pride has taken a beating over the years, and Chinese nationalism is on the rise.  And this does not bode well for foreign brands being sold in China.  GM may be minting coin on the sales of Buicks there, but it could all fall apart in short order, particularly as international tensions rise.

So it is no surprise they are a little touchy about things these days.  Now add in translation errors, and you have the makings of all sorts of hijnks.

The Chinese, it seems, have a chip on their shoulders, and lately have been looking for trouble by trying to divine the meanings of words, looking for insults.  They just assume that everyone hates them, and the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.   If you think people are saying things behind your back or using innuendo to insult you, odds are you can "find" evidence of this, if you look hard enough.

But it is all in your own mind!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Dead High School Reunion


For some people, high school was the highlight of their lives.

Last year was the 40th anniversary of my high school graduation.  I got to thinking about this, and was curious as to whether or not they had planned a reunion.  I looked online to see if I could find information about one.  Not that I wanted to go, but I was curious as to who would be.  I didn't find much information, but stumbled across a (public) Facebook page that is devoted to deceased graduates of my local high school.

This struck me as rather odd and morbid, but then again, isn't all that unexpected, as our small town was mostly populated by Irish Catholic descendants of the servants who used to work in the mansions that were located along the lake. The  Irish tend to be very maudlin at times and obsessed about death. They make excellent poets and drunkards. Yes, these are my ancestors as well (as well as the belligerent Scottish).

They were two things interesting about looking at this Facebook page. First of all, it's amazing how many people you knew have died by the time you reach age 50 or so. I was aware of a few people around my age group who had passed away even before I left high school - or shortly thereafter.  And over the years, number have died in car accidents or due to illnesses or what not.

This is, by the way, why the "Clinton Death List" urban legend is so stupid.  The authors of this list posit that it is unusual for a middle-aged person to have so many friends and acquaintances who have died.  But in reality, it is quite common - you will have your own "death list" in short order, as your friends and family pass on.   And it only gets worse, over time, until you are at the head of the list.

An awful lot of people live past the median life expectancy.  About half, in fact.

If you look at it distribution curve of life expectancy, this is pretty much the norm.  While the average life expectancy in the United States is around 76 to 78 years, some people will die sooner than that - and some will live much longer.  Not much longer, though.   100 is about the max for most folks.  Usually the late 80's are a popular checkout time.

And the longer you live, the greater the odds are that you live beyond the average life expectancy. Average life expectancy includes things like infant mortality and death during childhood accidents due to illnesses, as well as car wrecks and other accidents.  So if you make it to 68, don't sweat it - that doesn't mean you only have ten years left.  Odds are, if you made it that far, you might live well into your eighties.


The second thing I took away from this was it was amazing how many people that I went to school with never left our hometown.  Moreover, quite a few of them, whether they left town or not, seem to be obsessed with their High School years.  Like I said, I stumbled upon this site only because the 40th anniversary came up, and I thought, "Gee, 40 years is a long time, I wonder what happened to...?"

Others, it seems, spend every year on that site, checking on who has died lately and who is still kicking.  High School, it seems, is the centerpiece of their lives.  Maybe it is just me, but I don't really recall the name, appearance, and personality of the ladies who worked in the principal's office (even if I spent a lot of time there).  I do recall our "lunch monitor" - a formidable woman named "Sarge" who could scare grown men with just a concerned look.  Maybe I recall a teacher or two, some friends, but that's about it.

When I look through these pages and see the names listed, I remember these names being called on the PA system at school or in class by a teacher.  But I have a hard time putting faces with the names or remember who these people were.  After forty years, the four years of high school seems like a very trivial part of one's life.  An awful lot more important things have happened since then.

Even college - all fourteen years of it - seems kind of a distant memory.  I could not tell you the names of more than one or two people from my college years, nor do I know whatever became of them.  Others seem to have an encyclopedic memory of the past.  My Father, after Mother died, traveled cross-country, visiting all his old fraternity buddies, which he had not seen in over 50 years.  I am sure some of their spouses were asking pointed questions as to why this old man was sleeping on their couch!   But I guess that is the difference between me and my Dad - he spent a lot of time reminiscing about high school and college, whereas I have largely blocked all of that out.

Even the few people I recall are no longer the same people.  40 years has reprogrammed our neural networks considerably.  Mark ran into the same effect in his life.  He palled around with his best friend in High School, and a few years later, we visited him in Boston, where he was working at a retail job (as I recall).   Fast-forward 40 years and he's a lawyer now - a partner in an international law firm, making well into the six figures and living overseas.   Mark sent him an e-mail once, and we realized quite quickly that they both had changed dramatically over 40 years.

But for an awful lot of people, high school is the highlight of their life, and part of their identity.  And perhaps their view of high school is different than mine, as they continually refresh these memories in their brains (and living nearby or checking in often, keep these relationships intact).   But I suspect that for them, 40 years has changed them as well.  They may have fond memories of the time we beat Canastota in a football game, but they are just that - memories.  And memories are always suspect.

Many people look at life through the prism of their childhood, and many still live in the same town they grew up in, and hang out with the same people that they met in elementary school.  It strikes me as somewhat odd, but I guess historically this probably was the norm for most people in the world.

Mobility is a relatively modern invention, something that occurred only in the last two or three hundred years, and really only recently popular.   Prior to that time, you were born into a village, and you probably lived and died there, never venturing forth to see the rest of the world.  And by living in the same town - or revisiting your high school facebook page - you reinforce your neural network, such that you remember these things.   On the other hand, if you move around a lot, change jobs, go to different schools and whatnot, perhaps your brain is reprogrammed by each successive experience.

I am not sure what the point of all this is, other than I thought it was somewhat bizarre to have a facebook page devoted to dead high school graduates.   Maybe this is a "thing" and I am just not aware of it.    Perhaps there are dozens or hundreds or thousands of such pages, recalling the dead from your high school years.

My gut reaction is, though, that the best thing about high school is graduating and moving on with life.  Obsessing about the past never has much profit in it.  And never leaving your home town, even less.