Saturday, March 24, 2018

What Is It Like Not Being On Facebook?

What is it like not being on Facebook?  A lot better than being on Facebook.

With the recent revelations of "security breaches" at Facebook, many people are calling on Facebook users to delete their accounts.  And while many people no doubt will do this, it is doubtful that Facebook will go away anytime soon.  It is akin to the cord-cutting movement with cable television. Many people, such as myself, got rid of cable television because it was too expensive and the content wasn't worth it it.  Although cable TV has seen a decline in viewership, the majority of Americans still have cable television in their home.  It isn't going away anytime soon.

The funny thing is, a lot of people can't even imagine a world without cable television in their home. They can't imagine not watching four or five hours a day of television and seeing all their "favorite shows".  What could they possibly do without cable TV?  Of course the question is, what did we do before cable TV was invented?  A lot, as it turns out.

Maybe I am ahead of the curve here, or at least ahead of the herdAs I noted before, at the edge of the herd - or at least the leading edge - the grass is all fresh and sweet and has it been trampled down and pooped upon.  The center of the herd may be safer, but the opportunities are far more limited.

I got rid of our cable TV back in the 1990s.  We got it only because it came bundled as part of an internet service.  But I quickly realized it was having a negative effect on my life and suddenly we were spending hours everyday watching television instead of actually doing things.  We started neglecting our house, our friends, our social life and even work, in favor of watching television.

Cable television caters to the compulsive addictive nature of all human beings and this was by design. They would show teasers and snippets of programs followed by five minutes of loud and annoying advertisements.  By the time that show restarted, they had to do a recap to remind you what the show is all about.  This effect is particularly jarring when you see these types of shows in a non-commercial environment such as Netflix, where the commercials are exerted.  Watching a History Channel show on Netflix is frustrating is it just keeps repeating itself over and over and over again.

But it seems that people like these sort of obsessive-compulsive behaviors and will substitute one for another.  Perhaps I've substituted blogging for cable television - I don't know.  But with most folks, if it isn't cable television, then it's something else.  Whether it is gambling, or video games, or Facebook I don't know.

The bottom line is that these obsessive-compulsive behaviors and take up hours of your day and prevent you from succeeding in life.  Think about it.  You spend 8 hours a day sleeping, 8 hours a day at work, and that leaves you only 8 hours a day of free time.  If you're spending half of it watching television, that only leaves you a few hours to get dressed take a shower prepare meals and maybe contemplate life for a few moments.

And that's the whole point of this obsessive-compulsive behavior - to chew up a lot of your time, which a lot of people have.  People with no ambition, who have no goals in life, don't have anything to do, so they flop down in front of the TV and push the button on the remote and hope that something interesting comes on to distract and amuse them until they required to go off to work or go to bed.

I long ago got off of Facebook - very early into this blog - as I saw something very creepy and weird about it that I didn't like.  It was interesting at first to connect with people and see their photos and pictures and hear updates from them.  The social aspect of it was initially a very positive thing.  But then I started hearing from people from 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago, and oftentimes it was kind of scary to reconnect with people and realize you had nothing in common with them.

It also seemed to me that Facebook was the ultimate in narcissism.  Everybody's life looks more fabulous on Facebook, and everybody has a fabulous profile picture and is doing wonderful and exciting things.  The problem is, this is not the truth.  We all live pretty mundane lives to do pretty mundane things.  The secret with Facebook is to post pictures that look more exciting than things actually are.  And when we are traveling we can tell when there's Facebook people about.  The Facebook people take 5, 10, 15, or even 20 pictures of what they're doing in order to find one that looks really exciting, to make their life look more important on Facebook.  Is incredibly shallow and stupid.  I also wastes a lot of time.  How many meals at restaurants have you seen interrupted by people hoping to get the perfect picture for Facebook?

I concluded that Facebook is for brain-dead idiots and I didn't want to be one of those.  And yes I realize a lot of my friends have Facebook pages, so when I say they are brain-dead idiots, I mean that in the nicest way possible.

Video gaming is another area that is both a big time-waster and an obsessive-compulsive behavior. We are starting to hear lots of stories about people spending as much as twelve hours a day playing video games.  These same people are living at home with their parents, and often don't have a job - the only way you can afford to spend that many hours playing video games.

Again, these games are designed to consume your time.  Most of these modern games require you to achieve various goals to reach the next level.  And in order to do that, you have to spend an inordinate amount of time building up to different levels within the game.  The more time you invest in the game, the more you feel you need to spend, so you don't lose your earlier investment.  The only real controversy with video games recently was that one company got too greedy and offered people ways to buy their way to the top of the game.  The only other alternative was to spend days or even weeks trying to build up to the even the first level.

The reality is, of course, that while video games can be interesting and fun, they are also an enormous time-waster, just sucking hours and days and weeks and months and years out of your life and returning absolutely nothing in return.  And you can just dabble in a video game, either.  You have to spend hours becoming expert at it, in order to get any satisfaction out of it.  And again, this is by design.  The game makers carefully craft these games so your "rewards" diminish over time, so you have to put in more and more time to get rewards.  It is a Skinner box of the first order.

A recent article online opines that it's nearly impossible to get rid of your Facebook account because you'll piss off and annoy all your friends, and they will all hate you for not being on Facebook.  I suppose to some extent, this is true.  When I deleted my Facebook account I did get some odd reactions from people.  But after while, they grew to accept the fact that I wasn't on Facebook.   The few "long lost friends" I found when I reconnected with my Facebook turned out not to really be interested in hanging out with me so much as showing off how great their life was, online.

And that's what Facebook is all about. You see young people with a 100, 200, and maybe even 500 Facebook "friends".  This is literally impossible to do - have 500 close friends.  But of course, they are not friends but "Facebook friends."  And what does this mean?  It means absolutely nothing.  It means it's somebody who gets hits from your feed occasionally, which of course are likely filtered out.

But what about the other side of the coin?  Don't I miss getting updates and communications from friends and what the latest things they're doing?  Not really.  As it turns out, there was a time in this planet before Facebook - believe it or not!  People would talk on the phone and see each other in person and have what was called conversations.  During these "conversations" they would talk about the things they're interested in, in life, and what they were doing, as well as their opinions on various things.  It was actually kind of fun.  Sometimes drinking was involved.

What I found with Facebook was it there was too much communication.  I had Facebook friends who would send me pictures of every meal they ate every day.  This really wasn't very interesting or useful to me unless the meal was somewhat unusual.  But even then after 10, 20 or a hundred of these posts, you kind of get bored with it.  Nobody cares about what I ate for breakfast and I certainly don't care about what you ate, either.

For some reason this is a trend on social media sites.  On Reddit you see posting saying "I made this" with somebody posting a picture of a food item they made.  Of course, it could be a picture they scraped off the internet for all we know.  And for all we care.  Why do I care about what some stranger on the internet made in his kitchen?  It's not like the first time somebody cooked an omelette or made souffle.  It wasn't like he invented some new food item.

But getting back to conversations, that was sort of the interesting thing about Facebook.  My friends posted every intimate detail their lives on their "wall", so then we got together in person, we had nothing to talk about.  I would start going into one of my long-winded boring stories about something I was doing in my life, and my friend would interrupt and say, "Yes, I read about that on your Facebook page" and the conversation will come to an abrupt end.

So what's it like not being on Facebook?  Well it's sort of like being one of the lizard people so to speak.  The vast majority of Americans are glued to their television and glued to their cell phones and glued to their Facebook pages - if they're not compulsively gambling or playing video games.  And you are one of the few people who is not doing these things and can thus think clearly and see things for as they are.

Or maybe it's the other way around, we are not the lizard people but the real human beings while the rest of humanity are basically replicants or clones living shallow meaningless lives and never accomplishing much but instead being passive consumers and victims.  They spend the bulk of their energy on things that return absolutely nothing to them whatsoever - television, video games, gambling, Facebook, and other sorts of things like that that just waste time, money, and energy.

Of course, it was a lot easier to cut the cord on Facebook ten years ago than it is today.  When I got off Facebook, not everyone was on it.  Since then, the number of Facebook users has skyrocketed, particularly among older people.  So if you decide to quit Facebook today, yes it is a lot harder as indeed some people will be pissed at you or think you're being strange for not compulsively posting every detail of your life on some stupid website

Oh wait, that's sort of  describes a Blog doesn't it?

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Free Money Mentality

People think the government is going to hand out free money.  Failing that, they think that borrowing money is free money.   How the heck did people get this way?

We had a hurricane hit the island - sort of a glancing blow - that knocked down a few trees and flooded some basements in the historic district.   The Parcheesi club was flooded out.   So much loss!  Several game boards were damaged, and many playing pieces floated away.   But intrepid members cleaned up the game boards and let them dry out in the sun, so they are OK for now.  And one member made new playing pieces in his wood shop.  Good old American self-reliance and know-how!  That's what our country is all about - right?  Well, maybe.

Other members were afraid that the club was "missing out" on free money from Uncle Sugar!  FOMO - Fear of Missing Out is prevalent in our country, and no more prevalent that with regard to free money from the government.  One guy has made a career out of free government money FOMO, selling books that tell you that, well, basically you don't qualify for a lot of this "free money" unless you really need it or are breaking some laws in asking for it.  There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, sadly.  But he'll sell you a book, anyway.

So one of the Parcheesi club members trots off to FEMA and tells them a tale of woe - of damaged Parcheesi and Ouija boards, missing playing pieces and card tables with bent legs.  Of course, not all this damage is due to the storm, but the FEMA person encourages them to add up everything they can think of and apply for government relief!   If you work for FEMA, your job is to hand out money, not to say "No" - so they encourage payouts even when, perhaps, they are not really necessary.

So they concoct a list of broken things and stuff and managed to pad it out to a couple of grand.   The nice man at FEMA suggests they apply for a small business loan to pay for these "repairs" and "damaged equipment."   He explains that the loan will likely not be approved, in which case, they might get a grant from FEMA.

So they apply for the loan - and FEMA accepts the application!   So the conundrum.  Do they take this loan to buy stuff they really don't need, now or in the future, and saddle the Parcheesi club with debt?  Why were they looking for free government money in the first place?  Oh, right.  Everyone else is getting free government money, why not us?

But of course "everyone" isn't getting free government money, and quite frankly, the biggest problem with our government and our society as a whole is this attitude that the government has this bottomless well of money to draw from, that is just handed out willy-nilly.  It's raining nickels - bring a bucket!

The second biggest problem with our society is the idea that borrowing money is the solution to all of life's problems.  The problem with borrowing money is, you have to pay it back with interestIt doesn't solve your problems, it makes them worse.   And in this case, the Parcheesi club had no real problems or real need for money - government, borrowed or otherwise.  Parcheesi boards just are not that expensive.  We just bought a new one.  And we've owned about five.

Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed, particularly when the SBA asked the officers of the Parcheesi club to personally guarantee the note, which is akin to co-signing a loan.   They may be batshit crazy in the Parcheesi club,  but they ain't that batshit crazy.

But, still, crazy enough.  It is decided that they should buy flood insurance, so that if they get flooded out again, they can play insurance lottery and maybe win big.   They are willing to pay $1000 a year for insurance that might pay out a grand or two for damaged Parcheesi boards or lost pieces.   The old "something for nothing" mentality raises its ugly head once again.   And here, it is "free government money" at work as well, as flood insurance is indeed subsidized by the government, so then there's that.

The idea of moving out of the basement of a building with an 8-foot deep basement in a building that is 6 feet above the high-tide level (do the math on that), was soundly voted down, of course!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Nation Of Whiney Little Bitches, Revisited

People in the West are the wealthiest people in the world - yet they feel they are victims!

If you look at our planet overall, you realize that most people on this earth are not very well off.  And by "not very well off" I don't mean they own a shitty car, but that they haven't had enough to eat today - or maybe several days.

And no, those folks don't live in the United States or any Western country for that matter.  This mythology of "starving children" in the West is spread by people wanting your charity money.  Childhood obesity if the number one health problem in the United States - not starvation.   And sadly, this fat epidemic is spreading even to Europe.

Recently, a young man blew himself up, after apparently murdering a few random people with home-made bombs.   Why he did this is still not clear.  He felt "frustrated" with his life, it is said.

This is a young man who was raised in a Christian home (of what type, we still are not sure) who had an SUV, a smart phone, a place to live, a job, a chance to go to college, and enough surplus disposable income to buy bomb-making materials as well as disguises.  Rather than being thankful for all the wealth he had, he was frustrated he did not have more.

Let me tell you about some people who are "frustrated with life" - they live in places like Syria, Bhagdad, Sub-Saharan Africa, or any country ending in "-stan".   There are places in this world where life really sucks - where life really is "brutish and short".    America - and the West - are not one of those places.

What strikes me as odd, is that as Christians, we are told to be thankful for what we have, and not to pine for what our neighbors have.   It is in the ten commandments - which I mentioned before, twice.   Coveting has nothing to do with lusting after your neighbor's wife or possessions, but rather the sin of comparing yourself to others rather than being thankful for what you have.

And we have so much in this country, we've lost track of what to be thankful for.   When sitting down to dinner, we used to say "grace" and thank the Lord for our food for the day, as well as other blessings, such as friends and family.   Today, we go through the motions, because having enough caloric intake for the day isn't seen as some superhuman feat (which for most of the world, it is).   We take it for granted we have enough food - and actually complain about having too much, or too much of the wrong foods.   I am sure the gluten-free movement isn't very popular in places like Sudan.

Even holidays based on thanks - such as Thanksgiving - are less about being thankful for what we have, than to lust for more.   We wolf down enormous amounts of food and then go on a "Black Friday" shopping binge.   We wallow in excess and our only complaint is "More! More! More!"

As a nation, we've lost track of our basic values - and I don't mean Bible-thumping religious values, but basic economic values.   We compare ourselves to the richest people in the world and then find ourselves wanting.   And much of this is because the media hypes the richest people in the world - the Bezos, the Zuckerbergs, the Musks, and so forth.   Our lives pale in comparison to theirs (or do they?) particularly if you are just measuring life in terms of economic gain.

But then again, I think a lot of this discontent is fed by social media, and our friends at the Russian Internet Research Agency are behind a lot of it.   I saw a meme online the other day that was clearly aimed at the British.   In front of a UK version of the Monopoly board were the words to the effect that the whole deck is stacked against you in life, because someone else starts the game with all the money.

Maybe that is how it works in the UK - after all, they have Lords and Kings and whatnot still.   But I sincerely doubt even that.  There are self-made millionaires even there, such as Richard Branson or that vacuum cleaner guy.   And if you look a the richest people in the US, you see that while they may have come from comfortable backgrounds, most didn't start life as billionaires.  You can get ahead in this world, it is still possible.

Does this mean you will be a billionaire?  Hardly likely.   But it does mean you can live a comfortable life and have a modicum of fun.   And compared to how the rest of the world lives, that's a pretty sweet deal.   But it is a funny thing, the same people who compare their lives to the richest people on the planet decry comparing their lives to the poorest and claim that somehow that is a false comparison.   Very odd, to me.  But then again, they have a victim mindset, and they don't want it challenged.

This kid in Austin had a good life, but it wasn't enough, for some reason.   Maybe (likely) he was mentally ill.  Or maybe being home-schooled and raised in a conservative environment didn't prepare him for life in "the real world".   I am sure more will come out in the coming days.   The media loves to do stories about killers, but rarely about the killed (because no one clicks on those).

Myself, I am thankful for what I have, not what I used to have, what I lost, or what I could have had.  Because there is no profit in pining for what could be or what you think you are entitled to.   If you have a place to sleep, three square meals a day, and a place to shit (what they call in the Military, "Three hots, a squat, and a cot") you are doing pretty well.   I am thankful for basic things like that.   Anything beyond that is just gravy.

In fact, that is what I am most grateful for - contentment.   Not wanting or desiring things is the most wonderful feeling you can have.  And yet it is the hardest thing to obtain.   When I was in my 20's, I guess I felt the same way a lot of young people do today.   I wanted all the "things" in life - fancy cars, fancy houses, and the like.   And I was certain I was entitled to these things and that "rich people" had somehow "taken away" these things from me, even though I never had them.

With age comes wisdom, maybe.   Or maybe contentment.   With age comes the realization that getting up in the morning and not being in pain is a major victory in life.   You learn to be grateful not for the largess showered upon you by the almighty, but by the little things in life that make it worthwhile.   Someone to love and spend time with.  Worthwhile work to do and the satisfaction of a job well done.   Good food to eat, and maybe at the end of the day, a glass of wine.

If you want more beyond that, good for you.   But you ain't gonna get it by whining about the 1%'ers taking all your money.   If you want to get ahead in life, the only choice is to do it on your own.  Put down the bong, go back to school, get a better paying job, and put some money aside.  Waiting for the political landscape to change or protesting "unfairness" isn't going to help your personal life, but rather just make you miserable - both mentally and fiscally.

I am not sure how we got to where we are today.  Like I said, this sort of discontent is no doubt stirred up by the Russians.  But they are only amplifying something that is basically home-grown.  We have become so wealthy, I think, we have lost sight of how lucky we really are.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Coming Bond Debacle

Corporate bonds may be headed for a downturn. How will this affect you?

If you have a 401k or IRA chances are you own some corporate bonds whether you know it or not. Almost all mutual funds at least have some bond aspect to them other than perhaps index funds tied to the Dow or S&P 500.

Or, like myself, you may have actually bought some corporate bonds directly through an online trading site.  We are told by investment advisers that as you get older, you should put more of your money into bonds and less into stocks.   Bonds are perceived as safer and generating regular guaranteed income - provided the bond issuer doesn't go broke.

Thus, there are bonds and then there are bonds.  Government bonds, particularly Federal government bonds, are a pretty safe bet.  If the United States defaults on its obligations, then really nothing else would matter as the entire economy would collapse - in fact, the world economy.  As I noted before, you can't really make money betting on Armageddon.   Even if you win, you lose.  So, buying containers of food and ammunition and gold really isn't the answer to that long-shot proposition.  A cyanide pill is probably a better bet.

Municipal bonds are slightly more vulnerable, although most municipalities generally pay at least a portion of the amount due for their bonds, or they are bailed out and they refinance their bonds over time. Nevertheless, with the bankruptcy of several major cities in the past, owning municipal bonds can be a nervous proposition.   In some instances, however, they are tax-free, at least at the State level.

Corporate Bonds, on the other hand, are not guaranteed by anything and corporations do go bankrupt on occasion, and leave their bondholders with little or nothing.  As I noted in another posting, at least bondholders and up as creditors in bankruptcy.  And if the company  reorganizes, their debts are often converted into equities and they become shareholders of the new Corporation, much as General Motors Bond holders did when it went bankrupt.

However, shareholders - such as myself - were left with absolutely nothing.  If the company is liquidated, the proceeds of liquidation are then paid to the bondholders.  Again, they make it pennies-on-the-dollar but at least they're getting something out of the deal where is shareholders generally end up with nothing.  So, sometimes it's better to be a bondholder than a shareholder.

And in a few instances, where the company has absolutely no assets left whatsoever, Bond holders maybe stiffed entirely.  But that is a rare event.

The value of the bond depends on a number of factors. While a bond has a face value and a maturity date, if you try to sell your bond before the maturity date it's value depends on what the market receives it to be.  And this is based on the underlying interest rate of the bond as well as the perceived strength of the company.

For example, if you were holding a bond for a corporation that is in good standing but pays only 1% interest, you may find the value of the bond is less than the face value, as investors can obtain higher interest rates elsewhere.  Plus, as interest rates rise - and they are slated to rise and are in fact rising - older corporate bonds will be worth less in the future.

If you hold Bonds in a company that has shaky financial footing, the bonds may be worth less in the marketplace is people perceive a risk of the company defaulting on its obligations.  Thus, for example, if you had bonds for Toys R Us, today they're probably worth almost nothing and in the last few years probably they declined in value precipitously.

2018 looks to be the year that many of these shaky companies go under one by one.  Again, it has less to do with Amazon - or at least Amazon isn't really the major reason - for these companies to go under.  Rather, many of these companies were taken private or otherwise leverage with huge amounts of debt, often issued as corporate bonds.  As interest rates rise, these companies aren't able to service these debts and they default and go broke.

Sears is probably the granddaddy of all of these, although it did not going private but rather just loaded up with debt.  As sales continue to falter and they keep closing stores, it is only a matter of time before Sears folds its tent.   And that event, combined with a number of other retailers going bust couldn't shake up confidence in the bond market as a whole.

Markets have a psychological component, and when one sector of the economy goes down, it often takes every player with it - at least for a while.  Thus, for example when General Motors went bankrupt, the stock of Ford Motor Company went down also, even though the company was in far better financial shape.  Thus, if a slew of bond defaults occurs in 2018, the overall confidence in the corporate bond market will be shaken.

People will start to look more carefully at their bond holdings and also at the corporate finances of the companies issuing the bonds.  And it may be harder to sell those bonds as they'll be fewer buyers as they'll be scared off by tales of people losing their shirts on Sears corporate debt and the like.

The bond market, like the stock market is based on the laws of supply and demand.  And if everybody is selling and no one is buying, the prices are depressed - whether it is rational or not.  The idea that Bond and stock prices are accurately assessed in real time as a rational evaluation of the market is a fantasy and myth.  But many people still believe this.

So what does this mean for you and me?  Well it means that our bond holdings will probably go down this year as interest rates go up and as companies go bust in the bond market gets shaken.  It also means that could be strategic opportunities to pick up some bonds for a fraction of their face value.

I mentioned before that during the 2008 recession I had a chance to buy Mohegan Sun Casino bonds with a rate of return of 244%. People felt that the casino was going to go bankrupt, and the bondholders could not even be converted to equity holders in bankruptcy, as only Indians could own shares of the casino.  As it turned out, the casino is still in business and the bondholders were given a very generous offer to fold over their notes into new notes at a higher interest rate, and were paid a bonus as well.  If my time machine was in working order, I would go back and buy as many of those bonds as possible.  But time machines don't exist.

So yes, it may be possible to time the market and pick up some bonds for cheap in the coming months as the bond market declines.  However, determining which company bonds to buy will be very difficult.  You could buy bonds in a company that may double in value within a year, or that same company make go bust and leave you with pennies on the dollar.  It is very hard to tell.

The bond market does illustrate that there is more to the economy than the DJIA.

The only thing that is certain, is that we're in for a bumpy ride in the future, only because things have been stable for so long.  And the only certain thing is that rising interest rates, rising inflation, and a tariff war will have some effect on the economy.   How much of an effect remains to be seen.  Pretending these things won't have any effect, however, is just foolish.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Home Improvement is Drudgery

Remodeling isn't as simple as they show it on TeeVee.

Home improvement shows have taken off since the introduction of This Old House back in the 1970s.  As I noted that earlier posting, these home improvement shows are very dangerous to the human psyche and to your soul.  They sell the idea that somehow your life would be more complete if only you had a more fashionable home.  They also sell the idea that home improvements are both fun and easy to do.  All of these ideas of course, are wrong.

In your typical home improvement or house flipper show, they always have a perky young girl named Stacy who has a ponytail.  It's not the kind of ponytail that comes out of the back of her head at a 90 degree angle but one that pops up at a jaunty angle 45 degrees from horizontal.  Stacy is always shown wearing safety glasses and using a battery powered cordless drill to screw in the final screw on a set of cabinets, usually attaching the last knob.  There, that's done!

Stacy is forever finishing projects - always putting in that last screw or last nail and making it seem that it's very easy to do these things when in fact it takes days and days of hard work.  Just installing cabinets, for example, involves more than screwing them into the wall.  Not shown on the show are the ten test-fittings and adjustments needed before you can screw them in.  Once the first one is up, of course, the rest go easier.   Its like replacement windows.  The first one took us well over an hour.  By the time we got to the last one, we had it down to almost 15 minutes.

The other thing Stacy is shown doing is smashing out walls with a sledgehammer.  Apparently women like to smash things with sledgehammers and men find it very sexy to see attractive young women smashing things with sledgehammers.

And I'm not kidding about this either.  When we remodeled our kitchen in Virginia, a wealthy friend of ours insisted that she come over and help us with the demolition.  She took great glee in smashing away the walls with a sledgehammer, particularly after I drew a picture of her ex-boyfriend on one of the walls.  Some neighbors of mine - all women - also confessed that they enjoy the demolition aspect of home improvement.  It must be some hormonal thing, but women like to smash things with sledgehammers as much as little boys do.

The sad reality is, however, that home remodeling is an awful lot of hard physical labor and drudgery.  The home improvement shows rarely show this aspect of things, other than perhaps to allude to the fact that they had a small army of illegal Mexicans do the sheet rocking for them.  People who do these things for a living get good at them, and can do them far more easily and quickly than you and I can.   They also have specialized tools.   The difference between an amateur and a professional, it is said, is often in the tools.

For example, I am sheet-rocking the ceiling in the garage.   It is difficult work, as I have to use a step-stool to reach the ceiling, and then move it every few minutes as I plaster and sand.   Professionals use stilts and just walk around.  They also can swipe on a load of "mud" and wipe it down so that it needs little, if any sanding or sponging.   In many cases, they are ready to paint as soon as the compound dries.   I can do a decent job of it - it just takes me a lot longer!

Most of this work is not very glamorous, either.  The home improvement shows always show what I call quote "the fun part" - attaching the knobs to the cabinets, or dropping in the new cooktop into the counter, or pushing the refrigerator into position.  Gee, that was easy!  They dust off the handles with the rag and declare the job done, but you never see all the other tasks that come before it.

Organizing things, and cleaning things are two of the primary aspects of Home Improvement projects.  And it seems that in my latest project I spend most of my time looking for things or moving things around in order to get work done.  In order to tear apart the laundry room, I had to move the washer, dryer, and refrigerator.  That meant moving a car out of the garage and shuffling a lot of other things around.

And let's not talk about all the trips to the lumberteria, each time with a list of parts and things we need.   I think we've been well over a dozen times now - and probably will go at least a few more.

When you're occupying a dwelling while you're rehabilitating it, it makes things much more complicated.  A friend of mine just bought a house and gutted it to the rafters, which they can do because they're not living in it.  With no contents in the house is much easier just to strip things out and work on everything all at once.

The other aspect is cleaning.  Although smashing a wall with the sledgehammer might provide a lot of emotional satisfaction, all of that smashed sheetrock has to be picked up and put into a dumpster or garbage can.  This involves a lot of lifting and carrying with sharp nails protruding from things.  It also means a lot of sweeping and dust and drudgery.

And again, they rarely show this on the home improvement shows other than to show Stacey sweeping up that last little pile of dust at the end of the program, or maybe her partner Bill unloading one piece of sheetrock from his truck.

But of course, a real home improvement show showing home improvement in real time would be boring as all get out.  There would be a lot of people standing around drenched in sweat and exhausted, perhaps bickering where to put the next wall stud.  This isn't as exciting as the before and after photos of yet another house-flipper show.

What I find fascinating about these shows, however, is how so many people like to watch them - mostly people who can't even put a nail in straight.   I guess people like to watch other people fix things up, provided, of course, that they only show the "fun parts".

Who Would Win?

Who would win a battle between an AR-15 and a nuclear arsenal?

One of the more odious forms of logic given for owning a small arsenal of weapons is that governments fear a "well-armed society" and that the government would be afraid to mess with its own citizenry for fear of armed reprisal.

This logic is odious in a number of ways.  First, it presupposes that governments are by their nature, evil and "out to get" the citizenry.   This is a particularly dastardly argument given that our government is an elected one, and the "swamp" in Washington is one that we, as citizens, created.   Politicians are more afraid of public opinion polls than they are of armed resistance.

The ludicrous aspect of the argument is that somehow, a rag-tag untrained militia of a few thousand people with a few guns each, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, can out-gun and out-fight the largest professional army on the planet.   Our armed forces have a budget larger than the next eight largest countries - combined.    You are going to out-gun that with your Wal-Mart gun?   I don't think so.

Taking aside the American military, it is doubtful that such a "militia" could even take on American law enforcement.   While the actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco are the subject of much debate and criticism, no one doubts who the eventual winner was in the end.   You cannot "hole up" and "hold out" with your arsenal of puny weapons forever.

So the argument is nonsensical.   It resonates, however, with a certain type of self-appointed "patriot" who, far from being patriotic, seems to find delight in running down his native country, form of government, and society - probably instigated by Russian trolls on the odious websites he visits.

Our freedoms begin at the voting booth, not at the gun show.   And freedom at gunpoint is not freedom at all.   Because if given a chance, the type of government that these self-appointed patriots would install, would not be very democratic whatsoever.

There are legitimate reasons for owning a gun.   You may want to go hunting.  You may need it to dispatch rabid racoons, if you live in the country.  And yes, they can even be used for protection against burglars and whatnot, provided you use them carefully.   But armed insurrection against the U.S. Government?  That's not a legitimate reason to own a firearm.   And it's not a battle you'd have any chance of winning, whatsoever.

But, it probably sells a lot of firearms!

The Success Trap

When you become successful at something, it often blinds you to other opportunities.

The success trap is a term used to describe a problem which occurs to companies and organizations which become successful at what they do, to the point where they stop investigating opportunities outside of their area of success.   Many examples of companies falling into the success trap are given, Polaroid and Kodak being two examples - companies that made their fortune in film photography and were unable to appreciate how digital cameras would be a game-changer.

It is like the time I was working at Carrier, testing a split-system unit from Japan.  I was fascinated by the delicateness of the machinery, how quiet it was, and how aesthetic it looked when installed.   Some "suits" from corporate came into the lab and one asked me what I thought of it.  I told him it seemed like neat technology.   A blowhard from the window unit division piped up, "Americans will never buy it!  They like window units!"

And he was right about that, in part.  Window units still sell in large volumes.  But split systems are becoming more and more popular, and the company missed a ground-floor opportunity to get into it early.   Of course, today, they sell them.

For many companies, the success trap doesn't mean going out of business, only that they fail to make as much money as competitors and return on investment shrinks.   And often shareholders and board members force this narrow-thinking, concerned only about increased profits for the next quarter, and not long-term market trends and opportunities.   Companies can flounder around like this for years - even decades - before the market changes enough that they go under.  Such was the fate of Kodak and Polaroid, for example.   And such will be the fate of other companies in the future.

You read about this all the time, too, and the signs are there.   A company sells off divisions to "focus on our core competencies" - which is a code word for "we're going to make just one thing."   Trouble will surely rise ahead.

Xerox is another example of this problem.  Calling itself "the document company" it funded advanced research at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and basically invented e-mail, the graphical user interface, and the mouse.   But the corporate powers-that-be pulled the plug - after all, they were a "document company" not a computer company, right?   But before they threw all that technology in the trash, they gave demonstrations to a young Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Sometimes, however, branching out into other technologies can still kill you off.  IBM famously designed the architecture for the PC - and then let anyone copy it.   It became a de facto industry standard for computer design, but since anyone could copy it, they did - for far less than IBM could sell them for.   The rest is history.  IBM is some sort of "enterprise solutions" company - a mere shadow of its former self.

Of course, the bus that IBM didn't see coming was the shift from hardware to software.   Back in the day, you bought a computer and then hired a programmer to program it - and that was a full-time job.  Every company had its own custom software - the idea of buying an accounting program "off the shelf" was mostly unheard of.   And I know I felt that way, when I bought my first computer - after all, I wrote computer programs for a living, why would I want to buy someone else's program?

But all that changed, of course, as programs became incredibly complex.   Writing your own programs today would be like assembling your own car at home - a costly and complex task that would only make sense if you were being paid to do it.

Sadly, the success trap is hard to avoid.   You want to make money for your shareholders, so you focus on doing things that make money, and cut research and experimental projects to the bone.   For example, when I worked at Carrier, we had an unapplied research division, staffed with PhDs, who were tasked with raw research into whatever area of technology and science they were interested in.  I am not sure it ever resulted in a new product development or cost-savings for the company, other than the cost-savings achieved when they closed the division when it was acquired by UTC.  From an investor standpoint, it was just unnecessary overhead.   And there is a point to that.

Today, we see this happening in many industries.   The US car companies are again falling into the same trap they fell into back in 2005 - making all trucks and SUVs.  Ford has promised to shed more car lines and concentrate on profitable trucks - raising truck content from 70% of their product line to 85% (presumably the other 15% would be Mustang).   This is perhaps a smart strategy in the short-term, but long-term, trends may change, particularly if the economy goes sour or the price of gas skyrockets - both things that happened in the late days of the Bush administration.  Suddenly, you find yourself with a sheaf of products that no one can afford to buy or fuel - and you go bankrupt, as GM and Chrysler both did.  Perhaps if both companies went through a real bankruptcy, things would be different today.

And there may be other companies falling into this trap, about to fall into it, or having fallen into it but not realizing it yet.  Companies that make wild profits on a single product, but are not diversifying into other areas.  Apple, for example, has all its eggs in the iPhone basket, which is wildly profitable for them.  But for how long?   Once market saturation is achieved, it becomes a game of margins - and indeed already is.   New product announcements are not being met with gushing reviews and long lines at the stores (which, by the way, I wonder if were manufactured, like so much else, using social media?).

It is an interesting phenomena, and I don't really see a way out of it for most companies.  Most companies diversify or move in new directions only when forced to do so by circumstance.   One of my semiconductor clients, for example, morphed from a VGA controller manufacturer to a smart phone mixed signal chip maker - following the market - but only when the VGA market basically collapsed due to oversupply.

In our personal lives, we can fall victim to the same problem.   We do something and become successful at it and in a way it becomes a trap.   It's all we know how to do - we are rats in a Skinner box pulling a lever for pellets, and over time, we have to pull this lever more and more for fewer and fewer pellets.   Rather than trying a new lever, we just keep jerking the old one, wondering where all the pellets went.

We see this in impoverished areas of the country, where people pine for the coal and steel jobs to come back - and vote for a megalomaniac who promises them these messy and underpaid careers (so far, delivering nothing on the coal front, and 500 jobs for the steel industry!).  Rather than pick up and move away from depressed areas, find new jobs skills and new jobs, they stubbornly refuse to move, insisting that the world be brought to them.   And sadly, politicians pander to this mentality, promising to "bring back jobs to Flint, Michigan!" or some such nonsense.

Some folks go so far as to decry ambition and innovation as some sort of conspiracy.   One fellow, in a newspaper article, thought that the lack of jobs in his impoverished rural county was a conspiracy to "move all the people to the cities, where they can be more easily controlled!"   He fails to see that the migration from rural to urban areas has been a trend that has been going on since the founding of our republic - as fewer and fewer people are needed to run a farm.

The success trap can stymie you when it comes to investments as well.   For example, I made a lot of money in real estate in the 2000's and then sold out of it and never went back.   A lot of the people I knew back then were trapped in the business.   We would attend cocktail parties in Ft. Lauderdale in that era, and everyone in the business agreed that some sort of "correction" was coming.   But as one agent told me, "This is all I know how to do!  I have to keep selling!" - even through she knew the houses she was selling, particularly toward the end, were destined for foreclosure.   The idea of changing jobs or careers was just not even considered - until the market crashed and many were forced to do so.   Others reinvented themselves as foreclosure and short-sale specialists and managed to thrive on the downside as well.

Just because something is successful doesn't mean it always will be successful.   Markets change, and "disruptors" in the market can destroy a product line's usefulness overnight.   Even if the market is stable, as more and more people get into the market, margins will get thinner and thinner, eventually eroding profitability.   A company making commodity products can only hope to make a marginal profit, over time, as others hone in on the action.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Communication Error

Our brains are designed for communication - yet we do such a shitty job of it!

Ronald Reagan was known as "The Great Communicator" because he could get his ideas across, whether you agreed with him or not.   Others are less successful, either in the public forum, or private life.  Miscommunication can result in a number of problems, and yet it seems that many people intentionally try to screw up basic communication through psychological sabotage.

I noted before that we live on retirement island where many people are elderly and many of the men, in particular, are going deaf or are hard of hearing.   When the wife says something to them, in an almost whispered tone, the husband says, "Can you repeat that?  I didn't hear you!"

To which the wife says, "Never mind!  It wasn't important!  Get a hearing aid!"   Which is kind of a hateful thing to do, as it took more energy to say that, than "Can you take the garbage out" in a slightly louder voice.

Yet this goes on, day after day - I see it all the time.  And when someone says, "Never mind!  It wasn't important!" what they are saying is, "Never mind!  You are not important!" or at least not important enough to put the effort into communication.

But you see other, very subtle ways of sabotaging communication between couples and friends, and when communication breaks down between two people, relationships break down.   And one way people break down communication is not through lack of effort, but because of too much effort.  Our brains are programmed to pick up subtle cues in communication, inflection, tone, and body language, and often we mis-read these things.

One reason we have "emoticons" (and sadly, a movie based on them) on the Internet is that written communication is lacking those subtle physical cues.   You send an e-mail that you think is wry and humorous, and it comes across as nasty and mean - without the smiley-face emoticon at the end of it.  So you piss off a friend or colleague, and when you reply that "I was just joking!" you are not making it better, but worse, as now you are accusing the recipient of being humorless.  You can't win.

And this is one reason, I gave up on being funny in e-mails - at least not subtly.  And certainly not even that with clients and other business relationships, particularly overseas.  It just isn't worth it, but better to "play it straight" and be factual and concise.

But since our brains are programmed to look for subtle non-verbal cues and to "read between the lines" even in written communications, often the recipient can screw-up even a simple basic conversation.

For example, the husband asks the wife, "Is the garage light on?" as they are going to bed, and he wants to make sure it is shut off before going to sleep.   The wife, instead of looking at this as a basic factual inquiry, kicks the brain into overdrive.  "What is he actually asking here?  Is he saying I neglected my duty to shut the light off?   Is he mad that I left it on?   I don't want him to be angry with me!"

So she responds with something emotional rather than factual.   Instead of saying, "Yes, it is on" or "No, I shut it off" or "Gee, I don't know!" she says, "Well, I'm sorry I forgot to turn it off!" or "How the fuck should I know?" or "Why don't you go see for yourself?" and an argument ensues.

Dealing with emotional people is difficult, and often you have to phrase questions carefully - with emoticons - lest the misconstrue everything you say.  So instead of "is the garage light on?" you have to predicate it with, "Gee, I can't remember if I left the garage light on.  I guess I'd better go out and check before going to bed.  You don't recall if I left it on or not?" which may or may not work, as the wife may now think that somehow she has failed in her duty to monitor the garage light and will lash out at you in response.   Like I said, you can't fucking win at these games.

A simple binary question with two legitimate answers (perhaps three):  On, Off, or I-don't-know.   Yet loaded with freight.

Worse yet are the folks who think they are clever and try to freight everything they say with double entendre and hidden meanings.  They phrase everything they say so it might have two meanings, or maybe could be taken at face value or as sarcasm.   Such people are tiresome, and I blame the sit-com on television for promoting this sort of nonsense.  On the TeeVee, everyone says clever things dripping with sarcasm.  So folks think this is how you talk in "real life" - with daily insult humor.

My late Mother loved the double entendre bullshit - thinking she was "clever" by loading up basic communication messages with a sub-band of emotional freight.   I simply chose to ignore the latter, which drives that sort of person crazy.   They made a withering comment about your personality, and all you said in response, was, "The garage light is off" without emotion or drama.   Such folks will quickly move on to their next victim, finding no satisfaction in you.

So how do you avoid this sort of unnecessary drama?   Well, it starts with avoiding dramatic, emotional people.   Folks who like to think they are clever and subtle are just annoying.  You can't ask them a straight question and a straight answer - so just walk away from relationships like that, even if it is with your own family members.  If it is at work, find a new job.

With other folks - the type who look for hidden meanings in everyday conversation - you can either get drawn in to the "walking on eggs" syndrome when you are around them, carefully phrasing each statement or question so as to make your meaning crystal clear, with no emotional subcontext.   Good luck with that.  The lack of emotional subcontext, in and of itself, will be viewed as some sort of emotional signal.   Like I said, you can't win for losing.

And losing it is.  Because once communication breaks down between two people, all else is lost - whether it is a job, a marriage, a friendship, or whatever. Miscommunication and poor communication are no better than no communication at all, when you get down to it.

Mark often tries to explain to others that with me, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get and that I have no emotional subcontext to understand or hidden meanings in my speech.   This tends to frustrate a lot of people, as they ignore what I have to say, and look for a subtle, different meaning wrapped up in emotional cues.   And they can't find it, because it isn't there.   I'm just not smart enough or have enough energy to think of shit like that.

And I assume people probably look for that in these blog postings.   But WYSIWYG with me, I'm afraid.   No subtle context.  I am about as subtle as a brick.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Laundry Room Update

I haven't been posting as much as usual, because I have been busy with a "project".

In a previous posting, I mentioned how these "wet walls" can end up really wet, if you use those stupid laundry room boxes as drains.  When you end up with a wall full of wet insulation, you have no choice but to repair it, as your house is a valuable commodity, and if you want to sell it later on (which you will do, like it or not) it needs to be in serviceable condition.  You can't just let things like this fester.   It is not acceptable.

It is a funny thing, when we sold our house in Virginia to be bulldozed, we had to leave it in habitable condition.  The developer was borrowing money from the bank (of course - developers rarely use their own money!) and the bank insisted on a habitable property - one that could be re-sold or rented out, even if it was slated for demolition.

New plumbing installed.  Note the sample of the epoxy speckle-paint installed.  Eventually, the whole garage floor will be painted this way - in two coats.  The drain was snaked and jetted and new 2" pipe installed.  It drains fast now!  I also added a total of eight water-hammer shock absorbers.  Note the crazy plumbing extension for the hot water heater!  Why did they feel they needed to move it?

The moldy sheet rock and insulation removed and new Styrofoam insulation installed.  A little chlorine bleach killed off all the mold.  A messy, disgusting job removing it.   The new cabinet for the hot water heater is test-fitted.  New laundry sink.  The old one is going outside Mark's studio.

The new washer and dryer temporarily installed in the old location, as Mark needed to do laundry. Yes, I hated to buy these fancy machines, but since they use less water, it helps with the drain problem.  The cost has come down some - and top-loaders have gone up in price!  I snagged these the day Trump announced the tariffs, so I paid the old, pre-tariff price.

New mold-resistant sheetrock installed, and IKEA cabinets test-fitted.  The lower cabinet was an order mistake.  Note the industrial pebble-finish FRP on the wall behind the sink.  It looks like a real laundromat!  The dryer vent has been blocked off and a new water supply (but no drain!) for the washer installed in the wall.  Access panels are provided for all the drain cleanouts.

The FRP walls installed, with most of the cabinets (sans doors).  The hot water heater cabinet painted but not the door, yet).  New dryer vent and new dryer plug installed.  The wire for the hot water heater had a floating ground (!!!).

What's left?  Finish sheetrocking the ceiling, paint the floor, build a small wall at the end of the cabinets to house the built-in ironing board, move the appliances back in place, and assemble the new laundry cart.  And then the rest of the garage ceiling and floor need to be done.

Then we just need to add a coin-op box, and we could call it a laundromat!

Goodbye to Sam's Club!

Hard to believe that Walmart can be so successful at retailing, but suck so badly at wholesale clubs.

I noted before there is not really much to buy at Sam's Club other than golf-cart batteries.  Of the three major "wholesale clubs" out there - Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club, it comes in a distant and distinct last place.

Costco has a good store with desirable products, and they famously treat and pay their employees well.  But that comes at a cost - prices are often higher there.  A good place to get a $25 bottle of wine, but not a good place for a bargain $9 bottle of good wine.  BJ's has a good selection and much lower prices.  Maybe they don't pay employees as well, but then again, you can buy a decent Cava for $7 a bottle.

Sam's Club has neither - all the Dickensian sweatshop charm of a Walmart, but with a product selection that doesn't even approach BJ's.  We literally could not find anything to buy at the store.  The wine selection sucks (Korbel? Please!) and is overpriced.  The meat department seems to specialize in packages of food that would feed an extended family, or perhaps the fireman's picnic.   I really have no need for a package of 15 pork chops, particularly when the cost-per-pound isn't much better than at Walmart.  And Walmart is right down the street.

We still drive 40 miles - one-way - to go to BJ's wholesale.  And that just about says it all.

The nail in the coffin, however, was negative option.

I received a notice by e-mail that my membership in Sam's Club was "automatically renewing".  I also received a notice from Bank of America that a $1 hold was placed on my card by Sam's Club.   Good Old Sam's Club, testing out the card like any good credit card thief, by making that $1 purchase!

Since we only went to Sam's Club twice in a year, I decided to let the membership lapse.  The renewal e-mail told me to go to their site to disable auto-renew.   Auto-renew is pitched as a "convenience" for the customer, but it is just a convenience for the retailer.  It is negative-option and negative-option is never to be trusted.   Tellingly, BJ's does not have auto-renew as the default option, but instead prompts you to renew when you check out, if your card has expired or is about to.

By the way, is it worthwhile upgrading to "professional" membership or gold status or whatever?  We found that at BJ's, it wasn't.  The "rewards points" you get over a year's time basically covered the increased cost of the membership.   Maybe if we didn't live 40 miles away, it might be worthwhile

So I go to the Sam's Club site and log in.  I go to the auto-renewal site and it says that to cancel auto-renewal, I can do this online, or by visiting the Sam's Club, or by calling a 1-800 number.  I search the site again and again, and there is no link to cancelling my membership.

So I call the 1-800 number.  DTMF telephone tree (with useless selections - I think all the options basically go to the same operator - they just use the "Press 1 for..." to discourage people and get them to hang up).   I talk to the operator, who says, "How are YOU today?" and goes into a lot of pleasantries and very, very slow talking, as well as repeating everything I say.   She even wishes me a happy birthday, even though my birthday is weeks away.  I finally get across the idea to her that I want to cancel my membership.

"Let me transfer you to a cancellation specialist!" she chirps.

Cue:  Screeching violins from horror movie.

In case you were late for class, the "cancellation specialist" is really a retention specialist who is tasked with keeping people onboard as members.   "What will it take to keep you as a customer of our company?" they say.  Or they blather on about the "great deals" you will be missing out on.   They would rather I go to the store, of course, and see the great deal on a blow-away bouncy castle in person.

Now, granted, once in a while you can score a deal from these folks.  When  Capital One told me that the interest rate on my VISA card was going up, the "cancellation specialist" offered to put me into a Mastercard instead - at 7.17% variable rate.  I keep it as an emergency card, and because their overseas conversion rates are good, and don't include junk fees.

However, there isn't much that Sam's Club could offer me, other than free membership, that would keep me on.   And since wholesale clubs make a big chunk of their change on memberships, it is doubtful that was going to happen.  The fact that they set up my account to default "auto-renew" has pissed me off already.  Negative option is a shitty way to do business with people.

And again, if you were late for class, let me explain.   With "negative option" a retailer keeps charging your credit card indefinitely until you tell them to stop.  And the gag that some retailers play is to claim they never received your cancellation order, so they keep charging your card again and again.   When confronted with this tomfoolery, they claim "computer error!" which is bogus in this computer-driven era.  Punch cards no longer fall out of the sorter.  They've fixed that.

So whenever someone offers "auto-renew" I get nervous.   Because the Internet is rife with horror stories about how you can't cancel AOL service or how Angie's List (back when they charged for the service) kept charging their card, even after the service was cancelled.   Usually it is the last desperate gasp of failing companies to do this, but they do it.  AOL did it for decades - my late Mother-In-Law still had an AOL account, thinking she needed it to go online (when she called to cancel, the nice "cancellation specialist" insinuated that, no doubt!).   The only way to cancel such services is to cancel your credit card, which is a pain in the ass.

So I save "negative option" for serious things like my utility bill.  Because when the new owner takes over, the bill is then sent to them - after the meter has been read on the changeover date.  The utility company has no interest in charging me for service when someone else is paying.   And if they tried such shenanigans, the outrage would be heard across the planet.   But funny thing, when other people do this, for small amounts of money, no one says a peep.

What the "negative option" people are counting on is your laziness.  "Oh, well, it's only $45, I can afford that!"   Or they count on you being one of these people who never reads their credit card statement, other than to see what the minimum payment is, and to make it.

By the way, I should do a posting on this - credit card statements are scandalous.  They hype the minimum monthly payment in large font, but put the list of actual purchases further down the page - if not on a second or third page.  The interest you paid is at the very bottom, and your interest rate is often in fine print on the back of the Statement.  The most important data is hidden, and the least important is highlighted.  It is like lease agreements, that hype the monthly payment, but hide how much you are paying for the car.  There is a lesson in this, somewhere!

I check my credit card balance daily, log all purchases in Quickbooks on my old laptop, and then reconcile the two accounts daily or at least every other day (the longer you wait, the harder it gets - if you wait until the end of the month, nearly impossible!).   I know to the penny what I am spending, and make payments every few days to keep the balance as low as possible.   No, I don't play the "float" - that is one sure way to get fucked by a credit card.    "Free" interest on a few grand of purchases for 30 days isn't worth the risk of being socked by 14% interest or more.

The further I got into Sam's Club's telephone tree, however, the more I was convinced that I made the right decision by cancelling my membership.   Like a casino, they make it easy to get in, and hard to get out.   Sort of like a squirrel trap.

But hey, I get it.  The marketing people can show you graphs and charts that prove that if you don't use negative option, a substantial number of your customers simply won't renew the membership.  When presented as a positive choice that requires action on your part, most people, being lazy, will simply fail to renew.

And they'd rather count on your laziness as an excuse to fail to cancel.  But it is funny, BJ's wholesale seems to stay in business despite not using negative option.  They count on you returning to the store and renewing your membership there, because you want to shop there, rather than relying on auto-renew trickery.  Maybe they don't pay their employees as well as Costco, but they know how to treat their customers right.

Sadly, I am seeing less and less worth buying even at Walmart these days.  It seems our favorite cheap store brands are disappearing from the shelves or are routinely out-of-stock.  An "associate" helpfully offers a brand-name substitute at nearly twice the price.  Funny how that works, eh?  Now that they have established market dominance and are the de facto only retail outlet in some areas for miles around, they can charge whatever the market will bear.

That is, until someone else comes along and sells for a penny less.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Return To IKEA

Not much has changed at IKEA in over 20 years other than the switch from metric to English sizes.

We went back to IKEA - myself kicking and screaming the whole way.  Since the plumbing exploded in the laundry room, we decided to re-do the entire thing - from floor to ceiling - and start over with a new laundry room.   Yea, I know, the "look at me!" laundry room.  I hate it.  Then again, rust-stained concrete floors, ceilings with peeling paint, leaking plumbing, black mold, and mildew are not "quaint" at all.  It had to be done.  A house is a machine for living - one that has to be maintained and repaired regularly.

We wanted some cabinets in the laundry room to store things.   Storage is a trap, of course.  People put up shelves and cabinets in their garage or basement and they quickly fill up with crap.   Any level surface in your house becomes a junk accumulator in short order.   It is tricky business and you have to police your own space continually.   Just because you have storage space for stuff, doesn't mean you have to chink it full with junk.

And yet we all do.  The number one complaint about many homes for sale is lack of closets and storage space.  Women want a $20,000 "walk-in" closet to hold a few dozen pairs of $50 shoes and some clothes they haven't worn in years.   Dad wants the diamond-tread cabinets in his garage to store broken car parts.  Again, we all do it, and it is a hard habit to break.

So even putting in storage cabinets makes me anxious - they will fill up with crap that is never used, and eventually we will add more storage cabinets, "because we're running out of space!" much as people put screen porches on their former screen porches which were converted to sun rooms, and eventually, living rooms.  This shit never ends.

Anyway, we had a lame-ass cabinet from Lowe's in the garage, and it was OK, I guess.  It held pots and pans that Mark rarely (perhaps never) uses.   We looked at Lowe's to buy more and they were (a) very expensive, (b) limited in sizes, and (c) not in stock.   There was also (d) half the packages in stock were opened, had been returned, and were missing parts.

So, cheap cabinets - where do you go for that?   IKEA is one answer, although I suspect we could have had custom-made cabinets for maybe twice as much money.  So we drive to Florida to look at them.

It's all still there - the racetrack, the 20-somethings buying $20 crap to clutter up their apartments with (IKEA's biggest profit center, I suspect is tchotchke), the Swedish meatballs - the whole lot.  It is annoying as shit.

First of all, it is LOUD AS FUCK in IKEA.   It has all the charm of waiting in line at TSA at the airport - and the stress.  The acoustics are horrible.  They play music a full volume, but since it echoes so much, you cannot make out what song is even playing.   And since it is loud and echo-y, everyone finds themselves shouting over time.   No, seriously, you've never heard people talk SO LOUDLY in your life.  It is not a pleasant shopping experience!

We had gone online and created a "shopping list" of about $800 worth of cabinets.  We brought this to the kitchen department, after getting lost on the "racetrack" a few times.   The nice lady there had to type the whole damn thing in again (Hello IT department?  Anyone home?) and her resultant list was different than ours, as ours listed the cabinets we wanted, while her's listed each component needed for each cabinet.  Making sure we got everything we needed was tricky.   Oh, and two items were out of stock.

Again, Hello IT department, anyone home?  Because IKEA's IT sucks.   If you want to order a countertop you have to go to the store and ask if they have it.   And they don't.   And they don't have many of them in stock, other than the plain kind.   The cabinets we wanted that they didn't have were on backorder, and we couldn't order them to pick up, only for directly delivery to our home.   A $35 delivery charge for $80 worth of cabinets.   That makes sense to me!

The website, by the way is confusing.  Finding the cabinet you want is difficult, and when you do find it, you have to use pull-down menus to select size, color, and style.   Easy, right?   Well, it took me a better part of a half-hour to figure out that the arrow for the pull down menu was ABOVE the part of the page (unmarked, of course) where you need to click.  I only found the correct "sweet spot" by accident, after randomly clicking on the page.  Again, Hello IT department, anyone home?

Oh, and their "3-D Kitchen Designer" simply does not work, and even when it does, according to some sources, it just crashes all the time and loses your data.   How about a 2-D kitchen designer that actually works?   Let people layout the kitchen and then render it in 3-D, which would use a lot less bandwidth and processor time.  Oh, well.

So we finally get our order in for (most of) our cabinets, and countertops that look like they belong in a Dentist's office - that's all they had in stock.   And we then have to get in line for checkout.  IKEA checkout is like Home Depot.  They have "associates" galore in the store, but when you get to the front, there is one huge long line and maybe two checkout clerks.  They have piles of "impulse purchase" crap stacked up by the checkout lanes, and these are piled even higher with $20 crap that someone thought they might purchase, but then thought better of it, when they had to wait in line to check out for 30 minutes.  Lost toys.

Fortunately, once we get to the head of the line, they simply scan the kitchen parts list and the checkout is almost instantaneous.   It is interesting to see what others are buying though.   It seems less and less of furniture and "big" pieces than little tchotchke junky things that people are buying.  Like I said, I wonder if this is their big money-maker - little junky things made in China with high mark-ups.   Hechinger's syndrome strikes again!

Once through that line, we go to another line where they "pull" the order.  I ask the lady how long this will take, and she says, "about a minute per item, I'd expect".   Now with each part of each cabinet being an "item" (including the hinges) I can see this will take anywhere from 30-60 minutes.  So we go off to the cafeteria for the famous Swedish meatballs.

In this store, the cafeteria is nearly impossible to find.  It is at the end of the "racetrack" and I feel like Dorthy finally arriving at the Emerald City.   It is still loud as fuck inside, of course, and it is not clear where you are supposed to go to get food.   Worse yet, they have the menu on big-screen televisions, which change pages every five seconds - far faster than you can read them.   Hello IT department?

Worse yet, there are at least five items on the menu called "Swedish Meatballs" including a side of meatballs by themselves, chicken meatballs, and some other platters with meatballs and vegetables.  I cannot tell one from the other as they are all the same price and have the same name.  So I ask for "Swedish meatballs" and hope I got the one in the fleeting picture that flashed by on the screen above.

By this time, I have a splitting migraine headache.  Like I said, it is like being in an airport in the TSA line.  You can smell the fear and anxiety of the people around you.  Everyone is nervous and on edge, and I assume this is by design.   A legion of marketers and psychologists have designed this place to make you anxious.   Relaxed people, I guess, don't spend as much as anxious ones.  I feel like I am being manipulated, and I don't like being manipulated.  I don't like loud noises, shitty acoustics, people shouting, or myself shouting to be heard.

I guess you could call it "IKEA Shout" much as we have "Smart Phone Holler".   Smart phones don't have any sidetone - that tiny bit of feedback that lets you hear your own voice speaking.  As a result, they feel "dead" and when you talk on them, you get no feedback, so you tend to talk louder.  And that is the technical reason people holler and shout on their phones - to the annoyance of everyone else.

IKEA is the same way - the store is acoustically "dead" like many other big-box stores and chain restaurants these days.   The lack of ceiling and the use of concrete block walls and overhead trusses means that you can't hear your own voice, but instead hear a cacophony of other voices, announcements, and the echo-y music.   You end up raising your voice more and more, as you can't even hear yourself speaking.   It is an unpleasant experience, and one I can only assume is by design - everything about IKEA is by clever design.

And I think this anxiety-inducing environment instills a sense of urgency into people, and a sense of urgency gets people to buy.   "Buy now or be priced out of the market!"  "I have another prospect coming by this afternoon to look at this car!"  "They didn't make many in this color - I'm not sure when we'll get another in - if ever!"   A sense of urgency often pushes people to purchase.   And in the case of IKEA, it is "OK, I'll buy it!  Just let me the fuck out of this godforsaken place already!" which is another strategy car dealers use - by keeping you in the store for hours at a time, until you hand over your checkbook, a whimpering mass of what was once a human, cowering in the corner.

And I'm not joking about this.  It has been demonstrated that when people "invest" a certain amount of time into buying something, they are less likely to walk away, as they feel they would have "wasted" their "investment" of time and energy.   Why do you think they have the racetrack?   The racetrack not only forces you to look at every goddamn thing they sell, it also forces you to waste time wandering around the store.   And the more time you waste there, the more likely you are to buy and the less likely to say "fuck this noise!" and walk out.

The only exception, it seems, are the pile of small items by the checkout, left behind by frustrated shoppers who decided that waiting 30-minutes to check out a small armature figure wasn't worth it.  You see how it works, though - they didn't invest the time, so they felt they could walk away.  If they had spend an hour there looking at junk, putting a half-dozen items in a shopping cart or bag, stopping for lunch on Swedish meatballs, they would feel invested and waiting a half-hour to check out what amounts to apartment clutter, seems worthwhile.

What I found funny about all of this, was when I got home, there was an article on my phone about "How they've fixed the most annoying thing about IKEA!"   I thought, "Gee, they are getting rid of the racetrack?" (there is talk of this, for some stores).   Or maybe, "They put the entire IT department up against a wall and shot them?" (which should be done at any company in periodic Stalinist purges).   Or maybe they fixed the acoustics, or stopped with the cutsey Swedish-sounding names, or fixed he stroboscopic menus in the cafeteria - or came up with more than one entree name for five separate menu items.  

No, no, they hired Taskrabbit to help clueless Millenials put together their particle-board furniture.  Because, you know, putting things together by following very explicit instructions is hard (cue flipping blond hair over head).  Frankly, this is the least "annoying" feature of IKEA, and by the way, everyone uses this knock-down technique of shipping furniture these days.   If you can't figure out how to put together an IKEA bookcase, there is something fundamentally wrong with you.  Unpack the damn thing, lay out the cardboard on the floor as a work surface, carefully count all the pieces to make sure you have them all, and then slowly follow the instructions step-by-step, paying attention to the details they put in the instructions which are put there for a purpose.

Dumping out the contents of the carton and randomly assembling pieces like a jigsaw puzzle - yea, that's "hard", but only because you're making it harder on yourself.

While waiting for our order to be "picked" I noticed a poster - a billboard, actually - with a picture of a Swedish-looking Eurotrash dude on some sort of funky cargo bicycle, carrying a load of flat-pack IKEA crap, topped with some sort of tchotchke fake flower.  He was wearing a ski hat, in the summer.  How cute.  The tag line was, "Thanks, Everyone, for using flat-pack!  Saving the environment and the planet by reducing shipping costs!"

I thought this was ironic, as IKEA is no doubt one of the world's largest consumers of corrugated cardboard, both in their packing materials and in their products (yes, they do make coffee tables out of cardboard - I've bought one myself, long ago!).   And the flat-pack thing isn't something they did to "save the planet" but to save money and make money for themselves, by undercutting the prices of traditional furniture makers.

It is sort of like ExxonMobil congratulating us for driving 12-mpg SUVs.  And I guess that comes right down to what is really the most annoying thing about IKEA - and it isn't the barrel-nuts and little allen-wrench fasteners.   It is this idea that somehow IKEA is more hip, trendy, environmentally conscious, and "better" than other stores and products, when in fact, it is just a store like any other, albeit laid out in a manner that makes people want to scream.

It is funny, we have abandoned department stores in favor of these big-box monstrosities.  You went to a department store, and finding each department wasn't hard to do - there was no "racetrack" that forced you to visit ladies lingerie (LINGERIE - that sounds like an IKEA name for a desk!) before you got to sporting goods.  No, no, they have signs and escalators.

And they also have carpet and acoustical ceiling tile, so each department has its own hushed ambiance.   And when you buy something, the salesperson you are talking to, can "ring you up" in his department - you are not forced to schlep an armload of goods across a football field to find the checkout (after zig-zagging through the "racetrack" yet again).  And if you bought furniture, it was delivered to your door and they carried it inside for you, unpacked it, and assembled it, if necessary.

Oh, and the department store had a restaurant - with a clear menu written on paper, brought to you by a waiter or waitress.   And no Swedish meatballs!

We gave that all up for some reason.   Too expensive, I guess.  Our generation thought we would save money by "doing it ourselves" and buy things in pieces and throw our backs out carrying furniture up three flights of stairs.

And now, one by one, the department stores are dying.   This year will see even more closures of individual stores and bankruptcies of whole chains.   And of course, this isn't about to change.  Nor do I suggest it change.   Fighting change is a loser's game.

As for IKEA, they will continue to do well - they have figured out what makes us tick, and can manipulate us in to doing their work for them.   Pretty soon, when you go to IKEA and check out, they will just give you a pile of sawdust and some glue, a set of pictogram instructions, and you can make your own particleboard furniture at home.   Tools you will need include a 10-ton press and a fresh-air breathing apparatus.

Some assembly required.

I hate fucking IKEA.

UPDATE:  I have started assembling the cabinets.  I got one all together and then figured out she sold me the wrong size!  It is a 15" deep base cabinet, not a 30" one!   So.... back to IKEA!   Oh, shit.  More Swedish meatballs.   Funny, Mark was sick all day today.

UPDATE:  I ordered the two missing cabinet frames and base cabinet frame online.   Funny thing, though, when I ordered just the cabinet, the shipping was $36.  When I added the two missing upper cabinets, shipping went down to $9.   The site says "shipping starting at $29!"   The online ordering system seems to work well.   Finding the correct parts, though (a cabinet FRAME as opposed to the complete cabinet) is hard.   And it makes a difference.  The frame for the upper cabinet was $44.   A complete cabinet is $120.   For some reason, the lady at IKEA sold us the doors and hinges and shelves for the missing upper cabinets, but the frames were out of stock.  Why not just sell us complete cabinets instead?

Again, the dichotomy between the online ordering system (which orders cabinets as a set) and the in-store system (which orders components).