Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sink or Swim - Cutting the (Umbilical) Cord

Image result for life ring thrown to drowning person

Sometimes, offering a helping hand to someone can actually drown them.

I noted before in an earlier posting that if you see someone drowning, throw them a life ring.   But if they tell you that they don't like the particular color of the life ring you threw them, and ask what the other color choices are, just walk on - the person really isn't in peril.

If you took Red Cross lifesaving courses, you know that rescuing people is fraught with hazard.   Every year, some good Samaritan tries to jump into the water to rescue a "drowning" person, only to be drowned themselves.   People who are panicked in the water will grab a hold of you and push you under in an effort to save their own lives.   You are nothing more to them than a source of buoyancy.  And after they sink and drown you, they inevitably drown as well.

We were taught in lifesaving class that you should keep your distance from panicked swimmers.  Push a swim float or other floating object toward them.  If all else fails, clock them on the head and knock them out and then drag them ashore by their hair.   I am not making this up - that was the lifesaving advice we were given in 1976.

And it was probably good advice, both for life guards and for ordinary folks as well.   In your life, you will be confronted - time and time again - by people who claim to need your "help" because they are in peril.  And often, your good nature is used against you.  You try to help, only to be dragged under yourself.  If you see a friend about to drive their car off a cliff, advise them it is a bad idea - but make sure you are not in the back seat when it catapults off the edge.

We all tend to think, at one time or another in our lives, that we are drowning in a bottomless pool of water, surrounded by dangerous sharks.   It is only when we stand up and realize we are in the kiddie pool, and it is only three feet deep, that we realize what idiots we have been.   And when you try to tell the fellow "struggling" next to you, he likely won't believe you - even as you tower over him, standing in the shallow water.   You must have some sort of special advantage!  Maybe you can walk on water or something!  Or maybe the kiddie pool just isn't that scary.

But enough torturing metaphors.

What got me thinking about this was a friend of mine who had a "troubled" daughter who turned her life around - but only after family members stopped trying to "help" her.  As a teenager, she got into trouble, running away from home, doing drugs and whatnot.   Family members tried to intervene to "save" her, which is a noble idea, but causes problems of its own.  When a toddler wanders off and heads toward the swimming pool, you should intervene and snatch them away from the edge before they drown.  They are too young to understand the danger, and yet they seem to be instinctively programmed to be attracted to it.  Every year, hundreds of toddlers drown this way.

But what about when people get older and can make decisions for themselves?   At what point is it better to let them make mistakes and learn from them, as opposed to coddling them and insulating them from consequences?  It is a hard call to make, but it seems that when people have to face consequences, they do better than when they are shielded from them.  And this has been particularly true in my own life.   What little success I have had in life came about not from "help" from relatives or friends, but because I had to sink or swim on my own.

My friend's daughter was rescued from a life of homelessness and survival sex on the streets (and likely exploitation, if not death).  But one wonders if she had stayed out on the streets a week or month longer, maybe she would have come back home having learned some valuable lessons.  I know that sounds harsh, but rescuing people is a narcissistic act on the part of the rescuer.  The rescuee often gets little out of the deal, other than to be put back into the situation they were trying to escape from.

Anyway, as might be expected, this young lady got into more legal trouble - petty theft and whatnot. Only this time around, being over 18 years old, it was time for adult court and adult consequences. But courts are lenient with young people and "first time offenders" (which translates to "first time they got caught") and the punishment was minor.   Her grandfather offered to pay her rent while she went to college, so she went to college - not to get a degree, but to get free rent (you see how this works).   The college degree really went nowhere and Grandpa's money eventually petered out.

Now, in her 20's, she has to sink-or-swim.  No more checks from parents or grandparents, no one to rescue her from her own malfeasance.  No lenient judges who will take into account "youthful indiscretion" and hand out light sentences.  Welcome to adulthood.

And a funny thing happened.  Left to sink or swim, she swam - beautifully.  Maybe not Olympic caliber stuff, but pretty amazingly well.  Once the "helping hands" and training wheels had been removed, she learned to survive on her own - and survive well.   Today she is a businesswoman and investor and she can honestly say she did it all on her own, as none of her accomplishments are the result of "helping hands" of parents or relatives.

The term "training wheels" is particularly appropriate.  In the various campgrounds we've visited over the last five months (!) we've seen a number of young families with kids on bikes.  And often you see a child with a bike with training wheels, making that horrid noise that training wheels make, as they teeter down the road, first on one wheel, then on another.   Often their younger sibling is already on two wheels - outshining their elder - as they didn't lean on the perceived safety net of training wheels.  It is almost embarrassing to see kids who are old enough to be riding a ten-speed, tottering around on training wheels.  The only thing more awkward than that is some 20-something male riding a child's BMX bike to the corner store to buy beer - something we also see a lot of in our travels.

Image result for bike for kids with no pedals
Maybe no training wheels is better than training wheels!

They have new kinds of bikes today for small kids - ones with no pedals.  They are like the original "velocipede" bike of the 18th Century.  You run your feet along the ground to move the bike - and the kids seem to take to this naturally, coasting for quite a ways on two wheels with no feet on the ground.  They can graduate from these pedal-less bikes to the pedal kind without the need for training wheels.  It is an interesting idea.

The point is, and I did have one, that training wheels and other forms of "safety net" may seem like a good idea and a humanitarian gesture, but often these sorts of things just allow a person to remain in stasis and not change their own environment and outlook in life.   Parents want to be "kind" to their "troubled" son and let him live in the basement well into his 30's.  Are they helping him or harming him?   For me it is not a difficult question to answer.

And often, the things we are "rescuing" people from are trivial dangers.  Grandma co-signs a new-car loan for her grandson, because he "needs a reliable car to get to work!"   We hand out money to people in this country so they won't be too uncomfortable in life, not so they won't starve to death.  Despite the nonsense you see on the TeeVee, there are few, if any, people in this country who are starving - in fact, quite the opposite.  The number one health problem in America among the poor is obesity.

We actually have a program in America to give out free smart phones to people, if they are "too poor" to buy one on their own.   This is a far cry from the "help" they offer to the poor in Africa - which usually consists of a bag of rice - if it is not stolen by warlords first.

It is not that these programs are bad or should be abolished, only that one wonders, if they were curtailed, would people seek out other options on their own? When some companies (and municipalities) raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, there were reports that some workers asked for fewer hours to work, so they would not lose subsidies for food stamps, section-8 housing, medicaid, or Obama Care.  Hey, if Grandpa is offering to pay, why not?

But politics aside, on a personal level, being coddled and "helped" is a trap.   So long as you depend on others for help, you will be caught in a never-ending cycle of dependency and supplication.   And often in these deals, the person getting the "free money" from parents or siblings, resents the person giving them the money - because often this money comes attached with conditions or at least a lecture or two.  It is a hard way to earn cash!  It is a lot easier, in retrospect, to just earn your own, just as it turned out to be easier to walk out of the kiddie pool, rather than wait for rescue.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Why Crazy Needs To Be Shouted Down

NOTE:  This is a posting I started some time ago and only finished today.  It seems timely.
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Being "nice" to crazy people only encourages them.

Insanity seems to be the new norm these days.  People seem to be losing their minds on a regular basis, whether quietly at home, surrounded by piles of hoarded junk, or loudly in the evening news, going on a shooting rampage to show their ex-girlfriend what for (That will surely change her mind about leaving you and prove that you were not a whacko, right?).   Crazy seems to be a popular sport.

Again, I think this is because our various media - the television, cable, Internet, social media - presents a distorted view of reality, which causes most Americans to have cogitative dissonance.  A media "personality" argues, in a child-custody hearing, that his over-the-top crazy persona is just a mere act - "performance art" he says.  Meanwhile, some guy is in jail for shooting up a pizza parlor based on the "performance art" of the media personality.   We set off these tin soldiers, wind them up, and watch them go.

Sadly, most of us don't like confrontation.  We are trained from birth to "be nice" to others.  And today, we bend over backwards to defend the "free speech rights" of idiots, and think that calling them out on their idiocy is bad form.   Be nice.  Shut up.  Let the man speak.  Your opinion doesn't matter - the guy with the loudest megaphone wins.

Maybe it is time we tried a different tactic.

Maybe it is time we collectively called "bullshit!" to flat-earthers, 9/11 truthers, anti-vaxxers, holocaust deniers, and other conspiracy theory idiots and "fake news" bullshit artists.  We need to call a spade a spade here (and no, that is not racist, it has to do with shovels or cards).  Yes, we need to call out idiocy on the Left or the Right - fake news or political correctness, it all needs to go away.  Stop hoarding this junk!

Some folks say, "Well, be nice, everyone is entitled to their opinion!"   But for some reason, some people are more entitled than others.  Some folks are allowed to protest and make demands - which are often catered to - when they represent a minority view or even an extreme view.   The rest of us are too busy actually doing things to get involved.   Our opinions are never heard.

Crazy is just bad, period.   And we see it more and more these days.  Communists - yes communists - are celebrating "May Day" today by burning police cars and rioting.   Well, that will get their point across, to be sure!   Actually, no.  It is just a bunch of thugs having "fun" by breaking things, which is all they want to do.  Any idiot can smash things, it takes talent to create.   And crazy never creates anything, all it does is try to stop things.

Communism is a dead-end.  It needs to be shouted down.   We already had this discussion, for nearly a century, and it was shown than communism fails wherever it is attempted.   Any seventh-grader can see the flaw in it - the idea that people can "share the wealth" just will never work.

Jokes about Communism aren't funny,
unless everyone gets them.

Crazy isn't funny.   Crazy is what starts world wars - when enough people in one country start to believe that Nazism or Communism or Jihad are practical solutions to the world's problems, well, all hell breaks loose.   And in every cases, these are easy answers to complex problems which are always the wrong answers.   It takes years of war and devastation before people realize, that "gee, that one-size-fits-all political philosophy not only didn't work, it nearly destroyed the world!"

Gee.  Never saw that coming!

Wind-Up Soldiers, Revisited

Wind-up soldiers are on the rise.

I noted in an earlier posting that one of the many evil aspects of the Internet is that it allows fringe groups to set up "cubbyholes" that mentally ill people can fall into.   You no longer have to "recruit" agents to your cause anymore, you merely have to spew a lot of hatred, make a few suggestions, and then wait for some chump or mentally ill person to shoot-up a "pedophile" pizza joint or attack a Congresswoman.

ISIS doesn't have to "recruit" in-person, but rather just put out a lot of online media, distorting the religion and igniting hatred of the West.   Unhinged people will watch this and then decide they need to bomb the Boston Marathon or run over a bunch of people with a rented van.   ISIS claims "credit" even though their involvement may have been tangential.

Mentally ill people are like that - they are looking for a cause and of course, are narcissistic and believe weird shit - such as conspiracy theories, or that a newscaster is talking directly to them.   A friend of mine has a son who was recently institutionalized.  The boy was mentally ill for some time, but for some odd reason seized upon the idea that he needed to "rescue" Joe Biden from international terrorists.

So he set off hitchhiking across country to Delaware.   Halfway there, he got sick and went to the emergency room, where he blathered on to the ER nurse about his "mission" to save Uncle Joe.   The nurse called the police and fortunately, the system worked this time - the boy is now in care of doctors and back on his meds.   He may not have been dangerous, but he was delusional - the difference perhaps, being only which cubbyhole he fell into.   And it illustrates how common this sort of thing is.  After all, this is a kid I know doing this.  How many other potential wind-up soldiers are out there?

Since I wrote that earlier posting, much has happened. The hateful rhetoric has expanded from "cubbyholes" on the Internet to the mainstream media and mainstream politicians.  Everyone, of course, points fingers at the other, claiming their own side is innocent of hate-mongering.    But of course, we all know who is the hate-monger-in-chief.  And we all know what happens to countries - or at least some of us remember - when the supreme leader uses scapegoating and hate-mongering to build a political power-base.   Nothing good ever comes of that.

The GOP has gone into full-ISIS mode, calling journalists "enemies of the people" and suggesting that Democrats are somehow un-American, and not just people with different opinions.   It doesn't help, of course, that some far-Left Democrats (which I think are being shilled by Russia, as the far-Right is) are taking ludicrous political positions that border on outright Communism.

And it doesn't help that for every "alt-right" nutjob with a Tiki Torch, there are a dozen "antifa" (which sounds a lot like "intifada" doesn't it?) "protesters" wearing masks and throwing rocks.   Street violence is becoming so common as to be merely background noise today.   How did we let this happen?

Too little, too late, Facebook and Twitter try to rein-in the accounts of the hate-mongers.   But of course, they will never cancel the account of the biggest offender, would they?    But with regard to the others, they find new cubbyholes on new websites, or form their own social media networks.   Or if they are kicked-off even Fox News, they find a new home on scratchy, humming AM radio.   Or even shortwave.  (We inherited a shortwave radio recently, and it fascinating what sort of crackpottery you hear on it).

Maybe these efforts will tamp down this sort of thing - somewhat.   But so long as major party leaders are implying that violence is the answer, and their opponents are the "enemy" (while at the same time, decrying the opposition for not being "bipartisan") not much is going to change.

As I noted in the earlier posting, the assassination of William McKinley was thought by many to be set off by an editorial in a Hearst newspaper which called, rhetorically, for someone to shoot him.  An unhinged individual read that and took them up on the offer.   We learned from that episode that when you demonize your opponents, bad things could inevitably happen.

And sadly, as events over the last few years have illustrated, this sort of hate-mongering can come around to bite you on the ass.   Both Democrats and Republicans have been targeted by unhinged people who spend countless hours every day in online discussion groups or absorbing blatantly partisan radio or television.   Men who live in their vans - and shoot Congressmen playing baseball or sending off dummy bombs.   Same old shit, just windup soldiers set off in different directions.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Knee Brace Scam

When somebody calls you offering something for free, chances are it isn't.

Like most Americans, I've been getting an increasing number of annoying sales calls on my cell phone.  Yes, these calls are illegal under the Do Not Call act, but these folks operate with impunity. Most of them are located offshore and thus don't have to worry about being prosecuted.

Others, operating within the United States, set up shell companies that are hard to trace and realize that most consumers will give up before trying to sue them. The one flaw with a Do Not Call Registry is that it only allows you to personally sue people who call you illegally, and most people don't have the resources, time, or knowledge to know how to sue such people. I successfully sued someone under the SPAM Fax law, but even then it wasn't easy to do.

Of course, the problem for these robo-callers is that they want you to pick up the phone.  And increasingly, people don't pick up the phone at all.  People send and receive text messages instead of voice phone calls, and only old people and codgers like me actually make voice calls.

Thus, the phone call acts as a perfect filtering mechanism.  Only people who are doddering old fools will pick up the phone anymore these days, so you know if somebody picks up the phone chances are you can sell them something.

Caller ID was supposed to help eliminate a lot of problems with phone fraud.  The idea was that if you could see somebody's phone number on your on the display of your phone, the person calling to be less likely to engage in fraud.  However, for some reason the phone companies have allowed people to block caller ID or spoof it.  And apparently this isn't hard to do. The question is, if you spoof caller ID what number do you use?

The trend about two to six months ago was to use a random four-digit phone number preceded by your area code and exchange number.  The idea was that you would see this number and think it was somebody calling from your neighborhood and thus pick up.  However for people like me, who are still using a phone number from a different state, receiving such calls backfires.

There are very few people in Northern Virginia that I still know who would call me, and the few that do are on my contacts list and would show up with their name.  Thus, when I receive a phone call for the prefix of area code 703 and local exchange 474, I know it's a fraudulent call.

The fraudsters are hip to this, and they've adapted their strategies accordingly.  One other technique is to use a slightly different exchange, hoping that you think it's somebody if not from your neighborhood, then from your hometown.  Another strategy is to use a phone number from an adjacent area code, which have increased to accommodate the exploding number of cell phone numbers.

So lately, instead of getting calls from area code 703, I'm getting them from area code 540 - also in Northern Virginia.

Another scam is to use area code to 710 which is a special area code reserved only for government agencies - and has only one working number.  I presume this number is used by people try the old IRS scam, claiming that you are about to be arrested unless you send the money via prepaid debit cards.  They also use a similar scam claiming that you failed to show up for jury duty and are about to be arrested.

The most annoying recent call has been one where I am treated to a recording saying that I signed up for a message group relating to back or knee pain or something to that extent.  Of course I never signed up for any such group, this is just their way of trying to avoid the Do Not Call Registry - or at least a lame attempt at it.

The scam is old as the hills. They claim they can provide you with some medical device free of charge, which will be paid for by Medicare or Medicaid.  If you press 1, you are connected to an operator who then gives you the hard sell on this knee brace or whatever it is they're selling.  You are told it'll be no cost to you and they will ship you the product free of charge, other than the small shipping and handling fee.

But of course, you know how this will play out.  A week or so later they will call you, after you've received your "free" knee brace, and claim that Medicare would not pay for the knee brace.  What's more you'll find out that this particular knee brace is astoundingly expensive and that you are now liable to pay for it.  They will then pressure you to pay for the knee brace, or charge the credit card number that you already gave them in order to pay for "shipping and handling."

This is just merely an extension of the scooter scam. A few years back, they advertised heavily on TV that you can get a free electric scooter and that Medicare or Medicaid will pay for it.  You were exhorted to call a 1-800 number, and they would take your information, usually including a credit card, to pay for "shipping and handling."  They would then send you this electric scooter and then later on call you and say, oh by the way, Medicare refused to reimburse us for the cost and now you owe us $10,000 for a scooter.  Or $5,000 or whatever they feel they could get away with.

They sold a lot of overpriced scooters this way.  I know some oldsters personally who fell for the scam.  And in a way, it's kind of hard to feel sorry for them.  The people I knew really didn't need the scooters, in fact what they need to do was walk more and scooter less.  But they fell for the old something-for-nothing concept.  They felt that the government owed them something and that they were going to get a free thing from Uncle Sam, so why not just get in line for it even if you don't need it?

It's like my neighbors in Florida who would stand in line for 3 hours for a bag of free ice after the hurricane, not realizing that there was nothing in their house that needed to be refrigerated and what's more by the time they got home their bag of free ice was a bag of free water. Nevertheless, Uncle sugar was giving out bags of free ice and meals ready-to-eat so you might as well get in line and get your free swag.  It's a mindset that is destroying this country on many levels.

That's why, in a way, it's hard to feel sorry for people who fall for these scams.  When the major premise of the scam is that the mark (the sucker) is getting something-for-nothing or somehow taking advantage of others, it is really hard to feel sorry for someone when it turns out that they were the ones being taken advantage of and the something-for-nothing is being taken from them, not given to them.

We were  watching an old rerun of Dragnet 1967 on YouTube the other day, and the episode was related to something called the bank examiner scam.  Apparently back in the day - and even today - con artists will contact older people and tell them there's been stealing going on at the bank.  In order to catch the teller who is stealing, they ask an elderly person to withdraw a large sum of money from their account.  The so-called Bank examiner will then "mark" the bills and put them back in the cashier's drawer and then trace them to see who's been stealing.

This scam relies on the good nature of older people who want to help law enforcement.  Of course, the phony bank examiner takes the money.  He also advises the victim not to contact the police for at least a week so that the teller is not tipped off.  So by the time the victim figures out they've been conned, it's too late to track down the perpetrators.

What struck me about the episodbe was one of the monologues given by Joe Friday or one of his cohorts.  He noted that working in bunco for so long, he found out it hard to feel sorry for the victims  - as many times the victims felt they were the ones scamming someone else or somehow taking advantage.  When someone who thinks they're going to score big by fraudulent means, and ends up being defrauded themselves, it's hard to feel sorry for them.  But it is tragic when someone is genuinely trying to help the police but ends up being hoodwinked by a con artist.  They are abusing the good nature of other human beings.

The same can be said also for other sorts of "Good Samaritan" scams.  Grandma gets a call from someone she thinks is her granddaughter or grandson, claiming they are in legal trouble and asking her to wire money.  She hopes to help her daughter or granddaughter get out of trouble yet again, and sends off the money - not realizing that her granddaughter is safely at school and not in any sort of legal trouble.  There's something particularly odious about scams like that.

Of course, the one way to avoid these sort of scams is just not to pick up the phone - which is what a lot of young people do today, anyway.  No one calls by phone anymore - they text.  In fact, I think a lot of young people today have stage fright about talking over the phone as they don't seem to be comfortable doing it.  Seeing somebody talk on the phone in public, particularly the old-fashioned cell phone holler is becoming a rarer and rarer thing.  Instead, the new generation gazes down at their laps where their hands are quite busy in their crotch - and not playing with themselves, but playing with their cell phone.

Of course, the scammers have adopted to this as well and also send scam messages by text and whatnot.

But of course, it's a lot harder to sell a 20-something a knee brace then it is to sell it to a 60-something!

Per Stirpes

Per Stirpes is a Latin phrase meaning that should a beneficiary predecease the testator, the beneficiary's share of the inheritance goes to his heirs.

A reader writes:  "My Grandfather recently died, and all my cousins got nice checks from his Estate.  How come I didn't get anything?   Are they stealing my inheritance from me?"

The short answer is, no they are not stealing from you.   There can be a number of reasons why you didn't receive anything, including being written out of the will - as my Dad did to me (as George Carlin put is, "Hell is full of Dads" and I am sure Dad is down there right now, screaming up at us).  But the reason our reader didn't get bubkis has to do with per stirpes, not with being written out of the will.

Again, as I noted before, you should never count on an inheritance.   Family members do all sorts of weird things when money is on the table.  My late Uncle tried to have my Grandmother sign a new will that basically took my Mother's share of the estate and put it in a trust he would control.  My Dad went down to Texas and got Grandma to sign a new will.   And that is just one example of the sort of hi-jinks you run into.

By the way, in response to that posting, I received an angry e-mail, from a law student, no less, claiming that none of the scenarios in my posting (which are based on actual events) could ever have happened because "they are against the law!"    That made me very sad, as even law students should realize that laws are indeed broken all the time, and justice occurs less than half the time.   This is indeed why we have lawyers.   What the hell are they teaching in law school these days?  That laws are never broken because they exist?  How sad.

So right off the bat, our reader shouldn't concern themselves with this sort of thing.  If you were written out of the will, move on with life.  You have no real "right" to other people's money.   Of course, there are ways to throw a wrench in the works, if you really wanted to.  For example, in my Father's will, which was suspiciously written two months before he died, he left no mention of me, not even to leave a dollar.   This was a mistake on the part of the draftsman of the document, as it generally is a good idea to at least mention the relative you want to stiff.

When Joan Crawford famously wrote her adopted children out of her will, she explicitly put in that she was leaving them nothing, "for reasons of which they are fully aware."   Of course, her daughter, Christina, got even by writing Mommy Dearest, which was made into a movie that could have been a documentary about my family. Seriously. Faye Dunaway refuses to talk about her portrayal of Crawford, claiming that it was "over the top" acting.   Actually, I thought her performance was restrained - I too, was subject to "night raids" during my childhood.  It was all very authentic to me.  No wire coat hangers!

But I digress.

If you don't mention a near relative by name, the excluded person has grounds to sue on the legal fiction that the decedent "forgot" to mention them in the will.  That gets your foot in the door in court, allowing you to raise other issues as well. For example, I could have also alleged undue influence (the rewriting of the will so close to death could be argued as suspect) and tied up the whole thing for months or even years.  The estate could be wiped out just by legal fees.   And that is what happens in some estates - a relative who felt they were owed more will sue, tie up the estate in litigation, and the estate later settles the lawsuit, usually with some compromise reached.   But usually there has to be millions on the table to justify the legal fees.  My father's estate was not nearly that large.

In the case of our reader, her Grandfather left his estate to his four sons in his will, with the stipulation that the legacy be divided per stirpes among the descendants of the sons, if one or more of them should predecease grandpa.  And in this case, one of the sons did die, leaving behind three children of his own.   Thus, the estate was divided equally into four parts, three of these four parts going to the three surviving sons, and the remaining fourth being divided yet again - this time into three sub-parts - for the three children of the deceased son.

Now, to the children of the other sons, this may seem like a raw deal.  Their cousins got nice checks from Grandpa's estate, but they got bubkis.  Of course, the cousins who did inherit don't have a Dad anymore - which to me seems like an additional bonus in some respects.  The parents of the cousins who did not inherit, got nice checks, and maybe someday - many years in the future - these children might get a share of this, or not.   Probably not, as from what I understand, the parents needed the money to fund their own retirement.   Nevertheless, it "seems" unfair to one grandchild that her cousin ends up with a nice five-figure payout, while she gets nothing.

That's the way it works, unfortunately.   Life isn't fair.  And that is one reason why you should not count on an inheritance.  If you plan your life - or retirement - around one, it may not ever happen, and then you are stuck.  Save your own money, and if you inherit from someone else, that's great.  If not, well, you still have something to fall back on.

I realize to the reader, this doesn't seem like a satisfactory answer, particularly when her cousins have all picked out their new Camaros.

By the way, this may seem like a nice motive to commit patricide - you end up getting a per stirpes share of your parent's inheritance when grandpa dies.  But sadly, they have laws about this sort of thing, and if you get caught, well, you go to jail and you also don't get the inheritance.

Of course, as I noted above, laws get broken all the time.   And not everyone gets caught.

On the whole, though, murder is a pretty shitty financial plan.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Buses versus Trolleys (Goodbye WGASA!)

The WGASA railway is no more.  What does this tell us about public transit choices?

The San Diego Zoo is famous for a number of things. When I was a kid a wildlife expert - Joan Embery - from the San Diego Zoo was always showing up on the Johnny Carson show bringing some sort of lemur or monkey which would poop on the desk or sit on Johnny's head.  Funny stuff.

The Zoo annex - the safari park - was famous for its WGASA "African Bush Railway" which took visitors around that Park.   According to Snopes, WGASA stands for "Who Gives A Shit Anyway?" - which was written across the memo soliciting names for the rail line. 

But the WGASA railway is no more - and in fact it was never a railway, but actually a monorail.  It has been replaced by a series of open-air buses which are used to give visitors a tour of the safari park.  Similarly, in the main Zoo, open-air double-decker buses are used to drive visitors around the park - and the ride is included in the base admission price.  There is also an overhead tramway you can take from one end of the park to the other, sponsored by Alaska airways.

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A bus is a lot cheaper to run than a railroad - particularly a monorail!

At first I was a little taken aback by this.  Buses?  Why not some sort of charming miniature railway or something, like at most amusement parks.  And make no mistake, the San Diego Zoo is part amusement park and part Zoo.  People come there for the rides as well as to see the animals.

But the reasons given for using buses in both parks was simple.  Buses are more reliable than a miniature railway or a monorail.  Buses can be taken in or out of service as needed.  If a bus breaks down, the whole system doesn't grind to a halt - rather, the offending bus is just towed away and another bus used to replace it.  Bus routes can be changed at will and new routes added to show new exhibits or old routes cut back if they are less popular.

But the big reason they switched to buses, is that buses are far cheaper than monorails or miniature railways or other forms of "light rail".  They don't require specialized tracks and they don't require specialized rolling stock.  Buses are mass-produced and can be bought very cheaply, even customized buses that have been cut open to allow people to see out more easily.

It struck me as very interesting that in both cases - the main Zoo and it's Safari Annex, there are a large number of people using the public transportation there.  One would think with such a guaranteed flow of customers, some form of light rail would be more appropriate and more cost-effective.  And indeed, with WGASA, light rail - a monorail - was tried.   But of course, buses are just a whole lot cheaper.

It is an interesting observation, as across the country, public transportation proponents have argued that we need to install more light rail.  And indeed, here in San Diego - and even in Los Angeles - they have installed light rail systems.  But are these systems any better than city buses?

As I noted before, for the cost of operating one light rail line, you can operate an entire fleet of city buses.  And again, just like at the amusement park, when one bus breaks down, it can be quickly taken out of service and replaced with another working bus.  The entire system doesn't have to be shut down because of one broken rail car.

And unlike light rail, city bus routes can be changed and altered at whim to suit the needs of the riders.  The main thing is, buses are a hell of a lot cheaper to run than light rail and thus have a better shot at at least breaking even compared to expensive light rail systems.

Oh, and if you decide to change vendors in a bus system, it is as simple as replacing your aging buses with newer ones from a different vendor.  Once you buy into a light rail system, you're pretty much locked into the high-tech vendor who sold you the system - as usually equipment is not compatible with other makes and brands.

Light rail proponents - which I'm not convinced are merely shills for the company selling these systems (act shocked - in this day and age?) - argue that light rail is more convenient and faster and easier to use.  I would disagree on all four counts.

The idea that light rail is faster is really bogus.  I rode the Washington metro line for years, and at best, it was really was no more faster than driving or taking the bus.  Often, it took far longer - sometimes hours, to go by "Metro".   Light rail proponents argue that the dedicated tracks mean the light rail can zoom past stuck traffic.  But often light rail tracks are laid down the middle of street and trolleys find themselves stuck in traffic with the rest of us.  If there is any advantage to dedicated tracks for trolleys, it can be - and has been - replicated by providing dedicated bus lanes or allowing buses to use HOV lanes.

Since light rail is so expensive, it's not very extensive in any urban area.  Thus, passengers end up having to take some other form of public transportation to get to the light rail station in the first place - or drive their car.  The light rail trains here don't seem to travel very fast, from what I can see, or at least they don't seem to travel much faster than a city bus does.

There's also the problem with light rail interacting with city traffic.  In some cities, light rail travels down the center of the street - and there are a host of YouTube videos of cars colliding with light rail trains, due to the confusing nature of the signals.  Drivers try to make left turns in front of a trolley, and the trolley usually wins.  Oh, and when there is a trolley/automobile collision, the trolley line may be shut down for hours, until the wreckage is cleared.   A bus, on the other hand - tow it away and send a new one!

Here in San Diego, the light rail follows Interstate 5 part of the way.   When you get off at an exit ramp you have to turn to either cross the light rail tracks or go the other way.  Regardless of which way are headed, if a light rail train comes by it locks on the traffic signals to red, even for traffic that is turning away from the tracks.  Actually, the lights flash red, which usually means you can stop and then proceed with caution, but most drivers don't seem to understand this and are paralyzed until the light rail train leaves the area.

At that point, the traffic signaling system resets itself, and you are at the end of the cycle once again waiting for the light to change, so you can make your turn.  However, if before the end of the light signal cycle, another light rail train shows up - as happened to me the other day - the entire signalling system is frozen once again.  Suddenly, traffic is backing out into the interstate simply because two trains came through, one shortly after another.

And although it was rush hour, neither train had very many passengers in it.  Was it really worthwhile to inconvenience dozens, perhaps hundreds of people in order that 20 people could ride the light rail?

I'm not against public transportation per se, but it should be cost-effective and flexible.  Light rail systems are neither. They cost an awful lot of money and are very inflexible and expensive to maintain and thus have even less of a chance of even breaking even than bus systems do.  Oh, and we the taxpayers have to pay for these nightmares, simply because some big company lobbied (and bribed, no doubt) the city commissioners - and convinced a host of "useful idiots" that life would be a dream if we only brought back Zeppelins and Trolleys.

The San Diego Zoo abandoned its WGASA Railway because it was too expensive to maintain and broke down frequently.  When it broke down it left the entire Zoo paralyzed.  They have switched to buses is they are more economical, reliable, and flexible.  Maybe there is a lesson there for public transportation advocates.   Maybe!

UPDATE:  When leaving San Diego for Palm Springs, we noticed that they do have "bus lanes" on some expressways.  These bus lanes even have bus stations, that look a lot like "light rail" stations.   Nice art-deco sort of FLW design, too!    The idea is simple:  You can make a bus line look like a light rail line, and it costs a lot less than a light rail line!   The effect is the same, sans tracks and overhead wires and million-dollar rolling stock.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Fiberglass RVs - A Different Way of Doing Business

Suppose instead of dicking around with a dealer, you just drove to the factory and bought your car?  That is the business model of most fiberglass RV manufacturers

As I noted in an earlier posting, we just put down a deposit on a 2019 Escape 21' travel trailer.   Like the 17' Casita we now own, it is what enthusiasts call a "fiberglass RV".

"But wait," you say, "Aren't all RVs made of fiberglass?"   No, not really.

As I noted before in this blog, most RVs are made of sticks and staples - literally.   When I went to install a new cargo door in our 27' fifth wheel, I was appalled that the structure of the thing was made of 1" x 2" soft pine "studs" which were literally stapled together (sometimes badly) at the factory.  The aluminum "skin" of the trailer was so thin, I was able to cut it with a razor knife.   I literally had the hole cut for this new cargo door in about 20 minutes, by hand.

Of course, not all RVs are made that way.  Our 21' Class C motorhome had fiberglass laminated walls.  Instead of a thin layer of aluminum, it had a thin layer of fiberglass, glued to luan plywood.  The coach had a sticker saying it had an "aluminum frame" but I found out later on that the frame was not entirely aluminum - the sticks and staples were used to fill in the middle parts and the bed over the cab.   Once the unit started leaking, all this cheap wood rotted out pretty quickly and the smooth fiberglass sides started to bubble up - a slow-growing cancer that cannot be fixed for less than the resale value of the coach.  You just live with it and hope it the RV outlasts the payments.

Fiberglass RVs, in contrast, are made of solid fiberglass, like a boat hull.   Usually there are two halves, a top and a bottom, joined together.   There is thus only one seam, and little chance of leakage.   The fiberglass shell is the structure and thus it does not rely on sticks and staples for framework, nor is the fiberglass some thin layer glued to plywood to look smooth, but actually provide little or no structure.

As you might imagine, such a building technique results in a heavier trailer - heavier than a sticks-and-staples trailer of similar size.  And since fiberglass is expensive, they cost more compared to a similarly sized sticks-and-staples trailer.   But since they are built like a boat, they can last for decades without wearing out, rotting out, or delaminating.   Our 17' Casita is just now pushing 20 years old and still looks like new.   You can't say that about many conventionally built RVs, period.

The history of the fiberglass RV is pretty interesting, but I won't go into it here.   There are a number of ancestors of this concept, from the Dodge Traveco motorhome (which you will still see parked in side yards, 50 years after they were built!) to the Canadian Trillum travel trailer and Boler travel trailers (both relatively small).  Another company, Burro, sold trailers complete or as kits.  U-haul even rented out small fiberglass trailers in the 1970's - today they are collector's items.   Two brothers borrowed the idea of the Boler and formed the Scamp trailer company in Minnesota.  They had a falling-out, folklore says, and one moved to Texas and started Casita.   There are a host of others, some old, some new - Oliver, Bigfoot (who also makes a fiberglass truck camper), Lil' Sleepy, and so forth.   Most are fairly small - the 21' Escape is one of the largest all-fiberglass trailers on the market.

But what all these trailers have in common (for the most part) is that they are not sold through dealers, but usually sold directly from the factory.  The huge fiberglass shells are expensive to make, so the trailers already are at a price disadvantage with the "sticks and staples" people in Elkhart, Indiana.  And since Elkhart cranks out a lot of RVs, they have the advantage of buying components in bulk and can lower their costs even further.   Traditional campers are sold to dealers (who have to borrow money from the bank to pay for them) and they sit in huge lots, row upon row, waiting for a sucker buyer to come buy one.

And since they offer E-Z money financing and have a salesman with a big hat and belt buckle, they can convince the plebes to buy these sticks-and-staples campers "on time" based on low, low monthly payment, often stretching on for decades.  And yes, most buyers end up "upside-down" on these rigs and most don't outlast their payments - or are pretty darn worn-out at least. 

Since the "sticks and staples" campers cost so much less to make, they often have fancier features - multiple televisions, slide outs, power levelers and so forth.  To the average consumer, who cannot perceive quality (which is a hard thing for anyone to do), counting the number of flat-screen TeeVees is the only way they have of judging the value of one camper over another.   Why would you want to buy some tiny fiberglass RV that doesn't even have a television, or a slide-out?  Heck, even the microwave is an option!

For many of these buyers, the sticks-and-staples RV seems like a dream - the interior is nicer than their house!   So it is not hard to see why they buy.

But to a certain group of people - particularly folks like us who have been down the "sticks and staples" road before - such fru-fru is not appealing.   What we are looking for is solid construction and less hassles and worries.   Fancy electronics and gadgets are fun and all, but when they break, well, you are kind of stuck.   At almost every campground we visit, there is someone with a fancy trailer or motorhome who can't leave the park because their slideout won't slide in, or the hydraulic jack stands won't retract.   So they wait for the "mobile RV repair" guy to show up and find the hidden fuse (yes, they hide them!) that blew or replace the seized hydraulic pump or slide-out motor and send the RVer on his way.

Or you could be like the single lady in the park we are in right now.   Her husband died and she decided to keep RVing.  She was ready to leave - had slid-in the slideouts and unplugged the electric.  Unfortunately, the rig had a "power inverter" and a battery bank (so you can watch your 110v television in the boondocks!) and she left the air conditioning and electric hot water heater on (and the fridge in AC mode) and it overloaded the inverter, which caught fire and burned the coach to the ground.   What was the point of the inverter again?   When camping becomes more about "bringing it all with you" and not "learning to live without" it misses the point - and gets expensive and frustrating to boot.

But getting back to finances, since most of these fiberglass RVs are sold from the factory, there is no "salesman" to convince you that you want one - or earn a commission.   There is no "E-Z money financing" offered at the factory (at least not at the one we went to) and the prices listed are the entire price, not some monthly payment.   Oh, and the price is the same price for all buyers - there is no haggling or negotiation.

Imagine that - a financial transaction where you put down your money and they give you a product, just like that.  No hassling, no haggling, no games, no hidden prices or rebates or discounts,  No bullshit.

This does mean, however, that if you want a fiberglass RV you actually have to want one.   It is not something you are "sold" on, but something that you buy.   So many RVers we see on the road were clearly "sold" an RV, often at an RV show or in a showroom, where people look at the amenities inside and don't bother to think about the monster they are about to drag home.  The same is true of boats - people buy them and then realize later they don't have a clue how to handle a 38-foot yacht.

And often, these folks are unhappy with their purchase, and if they can afford to, they unload it quickly, which is why you see a lot of boats and RVs for sale that are only a year or two old (either that, or they were repossessed).

And yes, this happens with fiberglass RVs, too, but for different reasons.  Since most are so small, some folks trade them in fairly quickly - within a year or two - as they cannot get used to living in a small space.  We are the third owner of the Casita - the first sold it within a year, as the wife couldn't handle the small space.  The second owner sold it after two years, buying a Canadian-made Award, which was billed as "the shape of things to come" but went bankrupt after a few years.  Again, space was the issue.  We've had it for about 15 years, which is a long time to keep anything.   People either sell them quickly or keep them forever - that seems to be the pattern.

And when I say that fiberglass RVs are expensive - relative to stick-built trailers - that doesn't mean they cost a lot of money.  Since they are small, they don't command huge prices.  We paid $8375 for the Casita - 15 years ago.   There was a guy in the campground in Malibu who spent $837,500 on a "Prevost" bus motorhome.  Poor guy was all alone with his possessions.  But he had a 50" television outside of the camper to "watch the game" with (he turned it on, full volume and then went inside for an hour.  Sweet!) - not to mention the two or three televisions inside.  And yes, the RV mobile repair guy had to come and unstick his leveller jacks before he could leave the park.   Rigs like that, you cant' even change a tire by yourself - you have to call someone.

The Escape will run about $30,000 USD, which is a lot of money to me, but a laughably small amount to most people.  An Airstream of equivalent size would run more than twice as much (maybe three times) and would be subject to dents, leaks, and clearcoat failure.   But a sticks-and-staples camper of the same size might cost only $20,000 USD, or for thirty grand, you could buy a larger one, with more slide-outs and televisions and whatnot.   And that is why you see so many sticks-and-staples "box trailers" on the road.

But nevertheless, we struggled with the decision for years.  Should we buy the new trailer or keep the one we have?   I am all-too-cognizant of the trend, in any hobby, where you buy the "ultimate" fill-in-the-blank of your dreams, only to find you've lost interest in the hobby about the same time.  I've seen this happen to people with boats, motorcycles, cars, and whatnot.   They finally buy the car of their dreams, and find out they've lost interest in cars, entirely.

So we approached the transaction with trepidation.  There was no salesman to encourage us to buy, no high-pressure sales tactics, no e-z money financing offered, no blaring signs on row after row of trailers with monthly payments advertised.   Indeed, their inventory was limited to four "demo" trailers in their showroom - each customer trailer is built to order.   So by the time we got to the factory, we had a very good idea of what we wanted and just wrote up the order.

Many of these fiberglass RV companies only build-to-order, and since they don't have huge advertising budgets, they offer owners small bribes ($100 or so) to show off their trailer to prospective customers (if the customer buys, that is).  They rely on word of mouth to sell product, and it is a very slow way to sell products!   But it is a very robust method - one that doesn't depend on high-pressure trickery to move product out the door.  As a result, the number of happy customers is higher - again, the only reason folks might sell a fiberglass trailer is that they can't deal with the small space, not that they are unhappy with the quality of the trailer itself.

And as a result, the resale prices on these types of trailers is pretty robust.   One reason con-artists on Craigslist like to use the Casita as bait is they they are so darn expensive in the resale market, and people want one, but don't want to pay for one - like so much else in life.  And that is one reason we decided to order a new Escape, rather than buy a used one.   We found only a few for sale used, and most were nearly as much used as a new one would cost (thanks to a favorable exchange rate with the Canadian Ruble).

But sometimes, we just have to laugh at ourselves for being so timid.   We are agonizing over a $30,000 camper, when the guy in the space next to us lost that much money in depreciation the day he took delivery of his poorly made fake "bus" motorhome, which is already starting to delaminate.

However, maybe it isn't such a bad thing to agonize over spending money.   And maybe buying something from the factory - and paying cash - is a better deal than going to "Smilin' Sam's RV lot" and signing your life away, after spending five hours in the closing room.

Maybe, just maybe!

Friday, October 19, 2018

Gee, Thanks Bernie!

Progressives want to reform our economic system.   But in a system where everyone is paid the same, those who work hard are punished.

Amazon earned the plaudits of "Independent" Senator Bernie Sanders for raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour - the rallying cry of the far-left.   At first, this seemed like a good thing - Amazon was "sharing the wealth" with its employees.  But as it turns out, Amazon isn't stupid - they can't simply afford to raise wages across the board without raising prices.  So they cut some other benefits to pay for the $15 minimum wage, and this move illustrates why working in a union job or in a communist country (about the same deal, really) sucks.

Amazon paid an 8% bonus to workers if they didn't miss work too often and their department met certain production goals.  This was doubled to a 16% bonus around Christmastime.  It turns out, it is more important to Amazon to have people show up on time and do their jobs than anything else.   Amazon also gave stock options to productive workers, incentivizing them to do well for the company, so the company share price would go up.   This is plain old capitalism 101 at work, and by the way, how salary employees are usually paid.   You make the company do well, you do well.

The union way - or the communist way - is to pay everyone the same amount, regardless of whether they show up on time, whether they make productivity goals, or whether the company makes money.  This is how they paid workers at GM back in the day (and indeed, even today) and why the company went bankrupt.   When your income is not linked in any way to performance, there is no incentive to improve (or even maintain) performance.  When the most productive worker is paid the same as the biggest slacker, the productive worker loses his incentive and motivation.  Suddenly, everyone becomes a slacker.  And as I noted before, when I was at GM, one of the highest crimes an hourly employee could commit would be to work too hard and show up the other employees.   The union came down hard on eager beavers.

For productive Amazon employees, who have devoted years of service to the company, this new pay plan is a slap in the face.  Many were already making $15 an hour and thus the new pay plan amounts to a huge pay cut.  It also means that they are now making the same salary as the least productive people in the place, as well as the same salary as a new-hire or seasonal worker, who is likely to be less productive as well.   It is an idiotic pay scheme, and likely some Amazon workers may quit over this - although this remains to be seen.  One of Amazon's more draconian policies is that if you quit, you can never be re-hired again.   So people who have invested years in working for the company are caught between a rock and a hard place.   They either have to suck it up, or find another line of work,

Of course, you could blame Amazon for this idiotic pay policy - and you should.   But this type of pay scale is what progressives have been pushing for and what unions have always demanded.  If we allow so-called progressives to have their way, this could destroy productivity and incentive in America, entirely.   The problem for American industry over the last few decades wasn't globalization or cheap Chinese imports, but the fact that American labor costs were staggering - and that work rules and union demands meant that companies could not hire or fire based on merit - and that everyone was paid the same, regardless of work ethic.

Proof of this proposition is ample.  While "American" car companies with union labor struggled and went bankrupt, non-union "foreign" competitors thrived in the US.  For some odd reason,  not having unions meant the difference between profitability and bankruptcy.

And this is, of course, the same problem with government employees today - who often pack the local city council with union members and then vote themselves a raise.  Short of molesting a student, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to be fired.   As a result, we pay more per capita than any other country in the world to educate our students, and have the worst results, amount Western countries, in terms of literacy and test scores. Our educational system is churning out poorly-made students, just as GM churned out poorly made Pontiacs back in the 1990's.   GM went bankrupt - can our schools go bust as well?

Amazon stepped in the dogshit on this one - trying to score a PR coup and pander to the progressives who make up a huge chunk of their consumer base (no doubt, among Trumpsters, buying from Amazon is a no-no).

But beyond this, I wonder if Amazon doesn't have other more systemic problems.   After coming back from Alaska, I had to order a number of parts for the camper - things tend to fall off and break there, and windshields get star cracks (which GEICO fixes for free, even if you don't have glass coverage).  I went online to find these parts, and found that in every case, eBay or the website of some parts maker was cheaper than Amazon by a significant amount.   What's more, when I went on Amazon, the prices kept changing from day to day, by significant amounts.   Amazon has an algorithm that monitors what you search for, and they change prices (raise them, of course) over time, in an effort to get you to click on "buy now" before the price goes higher.  To me, this strategy backfires, when I can just open a new tab for eBay and see the same item for many dollars less.

For me, Amazon has become the merchant of last resort, not the first option.  Yes, I know there are folks out there with more money than common sense, who have Amazon shopping habits and never bother to look elsewhere on the web, as they are "Prime" customers (USDA Prime Chump Meat!) and get free shipping or whatever.   But these are not people buying products based on price and value, but addicted shoppers, and I am not sure that is enough to sustain a retail empire - although it seems to work for the Home Shopping Network.

But Amazon made wild profits not by being politically correct, but by being a ruthless competitor in the marketplace.  This latest move may appease the far-left "progressives" who make up their customer base.  But will these same progressives tolerate higher prices when productivity tanks at Amazon fulfillment centers?   Why would any employee give it their all, when they get paid the same either way?  And in today's tight labor market, can Amazon afford to fire less productive employees?

All I can says is, I feel sorry for the guy or gal  who busted their ass to make $15 an hour before this - they just lost their bonus and stock options.  And now they are paid the same as some newbie who doesn't even know where the bathroom is!

Gee, thanks Bernie!  This progressive shit really is the bomb!