Monday, February 25, 2019

Timeshare Relief? Maybe Not.



People who are gullible enough to get ripped off a first time are prime bait for a second rip-off.

Welcome to the United States of Go Fuck Yourself.   When I was a kid, there were laws against most of what people today call modern finances.  Back in the 1960's, your local banker took deposits and paid "bank interest" of 3 percent or so, and then loaned out money at 6 percent with mortgages or car loans - and made a profit on the difference.   The model of banking was helping your customers with their goals and dreams in life.

Today, banks and financial institutions have found it far more profitable to absolutely ruin people and make money by shattering people's dreams.    Today, you can sign a piece of paper and literally sign your life away, often at an early age - as young as age 18.   You sign $100,000 or more in student loans, and have a fun party for four years and then have to pay for it the rest of your life.   If you can't find a job - because you majored in party studies - your debt may balloon to two or three times the original amount, if you signed odious private loans.

But the list goes on and on.   Have a gambling habit?  The government will sell you lottery tickets, and an "Indian" casino isn't more than a half-hour away.   Want to buy a house you really can't afford?  A whole industry exists with one goal in mind - to destroy your credit rating.   Buy a boat or a motorhome on a 20-year note - and you'll be upside-down for 15 years of that note, if not more.

The list goes on and on.  Payday loans, title pawn loans, rent-to-own furniture, buy-here-pay-here used cars.   You can get into these deals and can't get back out of them.   And declaring bankruptcy isn't a way out anymore.  For student loans, it is often a non-starter.  For other debts, it merely forces you to "work out" the debt over a period of years.

None of this existed when I was a kid.  Usury laws prevented people from loaning money at 10% interest rates and above.  Bankruptcy wiped out debts, so banks didn't lend money to people who looked like bad credit risks.   When someone went bankrupt, people didn't blame the borrower, but the lender for being foolish enough to lend to insolvent people.   Gambling was illegal, as were lotteries.   You needed a 20% down payment on a house.  And no one wrote car loans for more than three years - and 20-year motorhome loans didn't exist, nor did half-million-dollar motorhomes.

Today, you have to be careful - one wrong move and you've screwed yourself for life, with no "do-over" allowed.

Oh, sure, you say, I know that.  But those are ripoffs that target the poor and uninformed, right?  Middle-class people don't fall for this nonsense, do they?

Oh, but they do.  The motorhome and boat sales target the middle class.  Student loans often entangle the middle class and their children (particularly when parents co-sign loans).    Many middle-class people get 7-year loans or lease cars to "free up cash flow" and because of "opportunity cost" arguments.   The middle class is disappearing in this country, because they are giving their money away - to unscrupulous operators who target this rich vein of gold.   Why scam the poor?  They have no money.  Better to scam the middle class - they have money, and no idea of what it is worth.

Timeshares have been a scam for decades now.   Supposedly the idea started in the 1970's when a developer built a number of condos and couldn't sell them because the market collapsed.  So they sold them on a weekly basis and the timeshare was born.   It took off from there, with developments being put up explicitly to sell timeshares.   Maybe it started out as a legit deal, but it quickly went downhill into scam territory.

I said before you can spot a rotten deal by how it is presented.   Loud TV ads, deceptive mailed brochures, cold calls saying you "won" a contest you never entered - all warning signs you should stay away.   But if you fall for one of these, and they get you to go to a "seminar" where you win a free barbecue grill or a cheap radio or something, you will be forced to sit through hours in an overheated conference room while salespeople tell you how you can "own your vacation" and how buying a timeshare is a "smart investment!"

And before long, the person sitting next to you will nudge you and say, "Say, this seems like a good deal!  I'm going to sign up - for two weeks!"  And after all, for less than the cost of a nicely optioned car, you can own a timeshare - right?  By the way, the person sitting next to you who said he was going to buy, well, he works for the timeshare company.  Yes, they use shills in the audience!

What's not to like?   And if you don't like it, you can sell it to someone else - for a profit!  Right?   

Wrong.   We actually looked into a timeshare in Key West, owned (or branded by) a major hotel chain.   Key West - how could you go wrong, right?   Well, you had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for each "week" you bought, with the most desirable weeks costing even more.  The kicker was, there was an annual fee you had to pay on top of this - starting at $800 for this resort (and this was more than a decade ago, so I am sure it is double that, now).   Back then, you could almost rent a hotel room for $800 a week, without having to borrow money to "buy" a week of it as well.

The timeshare resort sets the annual fee - which covers maintenance, utilities, and so forth.   Sometimes there is also a "cleaning fee" to pay for the maids to clean your unit.   And you may have to pay taxes and insurance on top of this - it depends on the resort.   The annual fee will likely go up over time.  And once the resort is a few years old, it may go up considerably as all the units are sold and they can raise the rates without having to worry about scaring off new sales.

So you are signing a blank check here, in terms of this fee.  And unlike a condo, you really don't have a "voice" in how the place is run, so you can't vote out the board of directors if the fees get to be too high.

So years go by and you visit the resort less and less - but still have to pay the fee.  Or your life circumstances change - and they will, eventually.   You get older and can't travel and going to the timeshare isn't in the cards.  Or you move away and it isn't convenient to go to the timeshare anymore.

So, OK, you sell it, right?   Well, that's the joke - there is usually no resale market for these timeshares.    The fees are so high that most people shy away from them.   And since you can't sell them, you are stuck with the timeshare and can't get rid of it and cannot stop paying the fees.

So, I'll just stop paying the fees, right?   Well, you can, but then they sue you for the fees due, which results in a judgement against you which destroys your credit rating.  They put a lien on the unit, which means it cannot be sold until the back fees are paid (which doesn't matter, as no one wants to buy these anyway).  Bankruptcy is the only way out of the deal, and chances are, you aren't in a position to declare bankruptcy over this - not without losing a lot of other assets in the process.

So you pay and pay and pay - forever until you die.  Some timeshare companies have such balls as to imply to your heirs that they are now liable for the timeshare fees forever and ever amen, which is, of course, illegal, but they do it, anyway.

Go on eBay and see how many timeshares are for sale for a dollar.  No one wants these things, in most cases.

So you made a mistake - a critical one, and one that is nearly impossible to get out of.   So you see an ad for a "timeshare resale" place that offers, for a $500 fee, to list your timeshare for sale!  Seems to good to be true!

It is.  You are out another $500.  They list your timeshare for sale in a magazine that they publish - and maybe even put a few copies around.   They did their part - there is still no market for these things.

So you see an ad on TV or online for "timeshare freedom!"  They will relieve you of the burden of your timeshare!   Maybe this is the answer.

Maybe.  How was this deal pitched to you - in another loud television ad?  In another unsolicited mailer?   In a deceptive phone call?   How the deal is presented often is all you need know.

This law firm website describes how some of these timeshare "relief" schemes work - or don't work.  Note that the firm may be trying to sell their own services, and I do not recommend them one way or another - it is just an interesting read.

There are a number of different schemes to attempt to relieve you of your timeshare burden.  One is to form a shell subchapter-S company and then have a number of people sell their unwanted timeshares to the shell company for a dollar each.  The company then defaults on the obligations and after the timeshare companies have sued it and gotten default judgments, they bankrupt the subchapter-S company, leaving the timeshare people holding the bag.

Sounds like a great scheme to me!   Oh, wait, the timeshare people are smarter than that:

Another form of a timeshare relief company is known as a “transfer company,” where the methodology is not to determine what the resort developers are looking to replenish, but to transfer the ownership of the interest away from the owner. In this case, “transfer to whom?” becomes the issue. There aren’t many people looking to acquire timeshare interests on the secondary market in light of rising annual maintenance fees. Some of the more imaginative timeshare relief companies create brand new business entities, corporations, and LLCs for the sole purpose of taking title to the unwanted properties. Recall that this method only applies when there are no mortgage or maintenance fee liens on the interest that would impair the transfer. 
This new concept was effective for a while, but as the developers and property owners associations have learned the hard way, when the next maintenance fee bill comes due, these ‘no asset’ entities are defaulting on their obligations. Developers and property owners associations will no longer, generally speaking, permit transfer of title to either an unknown entity with no credit rating, nor to individuals who won’t agree to be credit checked as a condition of their acquisition.

So you see, there is no easy way out.  If there was, people would be doing it.

How do you get out from under your timeshare?   As far as I know, you can't.  It is like the lady who asked about how to get out from being "upside-down" on a boat or RV loan.   You can't.  You can hand them the keys and have them tow the RV or boat away - and still have to pay the difference between the amount owed and the resale value of the item.   For one friend of mine, this meant getting a home equity loan to pay the balance - not the way they envisioned spending their retirement, in debt.

Sure, you could declare bankruptcy, but that would mean losing a lot of other assets, and even then, the balance may be "worked out" by the court, so you would still have to pay - at least for a while, anyway.

Or take student loans - they survive bankruptcy, which means that even declaring bankruptcy won't change the balance on those loans one iota.   A lucky few have managed to get themselves out of such debts - if the school was unaccredited, for example, the loans might be wiped out.  Others have tried debt relief by working in public service for a number of years.  I have a young friend working as a public defender for a decade to see if that will erase their student loans.   All I can say is, if you go this route, make sure you cross the t's and dot the i's - one wrong form or misstep and your years of living below the poverty line will be for naught.

The best way of course, is to simply avoid these traps in the first place.   You would think, in this day and age, that people would be smarter than that.  After all, everyone has heard the horror stories about timeshares, right?  Everyone knows someone who is hopelessly in debt with student loans and a degree in "communications" - right?   We've all been schooled about these rip-offs.  We know that payday loans, rolled over again and again will result in 300% interest and a one-way ticket to bankruptcy court.

Right?

Well, apparently not.   Because even today, I hear from parents and kids about how they want to go to expensive Party-U and major in Useless Studies and borrow over $100,000 to do this.   And there are cheaper ways to go, too.  State schools and in-state tuition are far cheaper than "name" schools.  And yet, I know a young person who eschewed a full scholarship at a decent school and decided instead to borrow huge sums of money to go to a "name" school, because a friend of theirs was going there.

OK, so that's some 20-something kid who doesn't know any better, right?  But what about the timeshares?  They still offer these "free cruises" where you are subject to timeshare high-pressure sales techniques.  They call me on the phone and tell me I "won" a contest I never entered for such a cruise.  They are lying to me, so I know right off the bat it is a ripoff.  Actually, I know they are a ripoff before I pick up the phone, as they spoof the caller-ID to a 703 area code, hoping I will think it is a friend of mine and pick up.   Any business relationship you enter into, based upon a lie, no matter how trivial the lie, will only go downhill from there.

Think very hard before signing any paper that is a long-term commitment.  Better yet, leave your pen at home.  The way our country is structured today, you can sign a piece of paper that will obligate you to a financial commitment for the rest of your natural life.   Co-signing loans, timeshares, student loans - the list goes on and on.

I have no miracle cure for you if you signed such a commitment.  And I am not sure such miracle cures exist - something-for-nothing has, in my life, always been an illusion.  But maybe, by writing about these things and getting people to think about them, maybe I can help there - if just one person walks away from a timeshare seminar, it is a start.

Silence is the con-man's friend.  People who fall for these crappy deals are often silent about them, because they know their friends will mock and ridicule them if they admit to making stupid bargains.  Today, student loan debts or other debts are often a non-starter in the dating scene.   Who wants to marry someone with $100,000 in student loan debt and $20,000 in intractable credit card debt?   So people remain silent out of shame - and that silence allows another person to be suckered into the same kind of raw deals.

But what about political solutions?  Surely Elizabeth Warren will save us!  And yes, back in the 1960's, before usury laws were changed, bankruptcy laws were changed, student loan laws were changed, and gambling laws were changed, a lot of the rip-offs that ensnare the middle-class today were just not available for people to fall into.

If you voted Republican for the last decade or so, and are now ensnared in such a financial nightmare, it is kind of hard for me to feel sorry for you.   All that "unnecessary government regulation" that would have protected you from raw deals is now long gone, and Warren's "Consumer Protection Agency" is under continuous Republican attack.  The chickens have come home to roost, right in your house.   How does it feel to be "trickled down" upon?  Stew in your own juices - I do not feel sorry for you, you voted for this crap.

Maybe the next time a politician argues that we need to eliminate "unnecessary regulations" to "unleash the power of capitalism!" you should be more skeptical.  Because in the last few decades, many of these repealed regulations have been financial ones, and the net result has been a lot of middle-class people have lost their pensions to these new "venture capitalists" and a lot more been ensnared by these raw financial deals that are difficult, if not impossible to get out of.

So again, welcome to the United States of Go Fuck Yourself.   You have to watch your own bottom line, because today, companies make more money out of utterly ruining you, financially than with establishing a long-term business relationship with you.  Leave your pen at home, think very carefully before you commit to anything and sober up - stop believing in something-for-nothing and believing in things that are convenient to believe.

Harsh advice, yes.   But that's really all there is.   If you still think there is a unicorn out there who can rescue you, man are you in for a world of woe!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Your Macerator And You


Your Macerator And You
 - or -
Shit Does Flow Uphill!




A reader writes in response to my previous toilet posting that they had a flood in their basement from backed-up poop - resulting in them having to rip out carpets, and replace drywall, etc.   A real mess!   More of the fun of home ownership.

Mark ran into this when selling new townhouses.  One of the "upgrades" was to finish the basement with an in-law suite with bathroom.   Unfortunately, the Mexican tile workers (who do the best tile, but the worst cleanup) would clean out their grout buckets in the sink or toilet or the new shower they just tiled.  The result was the grout would harden in the main drain line and if not clog it entirely, leave a layer of rough grout which would partially clog it and also catch toilet paper and such and force a backup into the new in-law suite.

It would all have to be torn out and done over - often with an angry new homeowner to deal with as well.   No matter how many times you tried to explain this to the Mexican tile guys, they would still clean out their grout buckets in the sink - they did this in our house here on Jekyll, which resulted in a roto-rooting of the shower right away.  Coming from a country with marginal plumbing, you would think they would know better, too (in Mexico, it is traditional to put used toilet paper in a bucket next to the toilet, as their plumbing is so poor it would readily clog.  Yes, it is icky - flies, smell, etc.).

The sheetrockers were no better - dumping sheetrocking compound down brand-new drains with predictable results.   By the way, if you are ever on a job site and see a 5-gallon sheet-rock bucket that seems out of place, don't open it.  It isn't full of sheet rock compound, but rather something else.   Don't say I didn't warn you.

Before I go further off course and while I am still berating Mexicans (who are decent people, but just don't understand plumbing) this morning on National People's Radio, they are talking about the sad situation in Venezuela, which will no doubt work out poorly for everyone involved.  The people of Venezuela will continue to suffer, Maduro will no doubt be ousted (and retire to Switzerland with all his gold bars) and the "new guy" - our man in Havana, so to speak - will turn out to just be another brutal dictator.   And once again, we will be berated for being the "bad guy" for either not getting involved enough, or by being too involved.   You can't win in these situations.


From Tin-Tin and the Picaros.  The first page illustrates how the brutal military of the dictator General Tapioca patrols the slums.



From Tin-Tin and the Picaros.  The last page illustrates how the brutal revolutionary guards of the of the liberator Alacazar patrol the slums after the overthrow of General Tapioca.  Not much has changed!

Anyway, National People's Radio, along with a lot of other US media outlets, feels the need, when saying any Spanish name, to suddenly revert to full-on Spanish pronunciation mode, which usually results in you actually hearing the spit hit the microphone.   The capital of Venezuela is not just Caracas, but ¡¡Cárrãcûś!! pronounced with a thick and heavy Latin accent.

Once again, we Americans are trying to be culturally sensitive and all that.   But it is almost comical and stupid - if you don't speak Spanish and are not from Latin America, there is no need to put on a fake accent to pronounce Latin names.  After all, they don't do the same for us, right?  When we watch Univision news, they don't refer to America as "The United States" but as "Estados Unidos" which as I noted before, is actually the real name of Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos).  And when they mention "New York" they don't say the name with a thick Bronx accent "Neeew Yaawk!" but often as "Neuvo Yorke" or something along those lines.

Let's just drop our pathetic attempts to "go local" when reporting events from overseas.   Let's bring back Bombay and Peking, while we're at it.   It isn't being culturally insensitive to pronounce names in your own language and accent - after all, every other country and culture does it, so why are we the bad guys?

But I digress, considerably.   Saves me a separate blog posting on the matter, though.

When we bought my office at 917 Duke Street, it came with a big tank in the basement with a lot of pipes and a box attached to it with an alarm bell.  There was a switch on it marked "test" and when your turned it, the bell would go off.   What was this?  A macerator, plain and simple.   The previous owners had extensively remodeled the place and installed a bathroom downstairs in the basement (after digging out the dirt foundation and pouring new concrete floors and covering them with rose slate!  It was nice!).

But shit doesn't flow uphill, as they say, not without some effort.  So the shower and sink water and the poop from the toilet all go to this tank, where a grinder grinds it up and pumps it up to the sewer line.   If the pump fails, well, all hell breaks loose - eventually.   There is a float switch in the tank that starts the pump when it reaches a certain level - just as the sump pump in your basement works to pump out groundwater or your condensate pump pumps out condensed water from your air conditioner.   If the pump fails, a second float switch will sense the rising fluid level and sound the alarm. 

If this happens, stop using the toilet, shower, or whatever else drains into this tank, as it will overflow in short order.  Call a plumber and he will install a new pump (which isn't cheap) and hopefully it will be one of the kind that just bolts in from the top.

Macerators and other types of "lift pumps" are used a lot in sewer systems of various sorts - usuallly whenever gravity alone won't do the job.  Many boats have them - or used to have them.   The Riparian Day II had one, but it was rusted into a solid mass, which is good, as the Coast Guard requires they be disabled if you sail on some inland waterways.   In the good old days, you could go offshore, turn on the macerator pump, and all the contents of your "black water tank" would be ground up and pumped over the side.   Supposedly, you can still do this, so long as you are three miles offshore - but maybe they've changed the law even about this.  Macerator pumps in boats are becoming rare - except in very large yachts.

Some RVs have these - not to pump waste out the side, but to allow the owner to drain the tanks by using a garden-style hose, rather than the large "stinky slinky" as some idiots call it (they can be washed, you know!).   Why this is an advantage, I do not know - it seems to me like unnecessary complication of what is a simple gravity-fed system.

The reader who wrote had a macerator system, as their septic field was higher than the house.   They are pretty reliable systems, but an alarm should be installed (theirs wasn't) and tested regularly (like monthly) to make sure it works.  Outdoor alarms usually have a flashing red light (as shown above) and maybe also a bell or klaxon.   Again, when it goes off, stop using the plumbing until the pump can be replaced - otherwise everything will back up and your plumber will hate you, as when he removes the pump, all that backed up poop will come flying out of the tank.   He'll charge extra for that!   If not for the hassle, then to have the tank pumped ahead of time.

Macerators are pretty reliable, but when they break, it isn't cheap to fix, because, well, shit.   And this is a good reason not to let things go down the drain that could clog or damage the macerator.   When little Timmy flushes rocks down the toilet as a prank, you may end up with a four-figure repair bill.  If you flush "flushable wipes" or other non-woven spun fiber materials down the toilet, you may end up just having to remove the pump and remove all the non-biodegradable fabric from the macerator head.  Still a messy job - and an expensive one, if you have to hire someone to do this.

Given the choice of a house with a macerator and without, I would pick without, only because simpler is better and cheaper.   But there are situations where you cannot avoid such an installation, if you want below-grade plumbing or have other special issues.    If that is the case, just make sure to be kind to your macerator - after all, they have a shitty job to do.

And test that alarm, at least once a month!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Amazon and Google in Bed Together?


eBay is almost always cheaper than Amazon, and often has a better selection.  So why does Amazon dominate the search results on Google?   Money is why.

I recently had to buy some things online.  Mark needed new business cards for a pottery show coming up.  I needed a new "chainsaw on a stick" to trim some tree branches.  The dishwasher needed a new part (it's going to go to the curb in the not-too-distant future!).  We wanted a new electronic safe for the new camper.   Where to go?  Amazon?

Fat chance.

Almost everything on Amazon was at least a few dollars more than on eBay - sometimes far more.  And eBay, like Amazon, offers "free shipping" and you don't have to sign up for some $12-a-month deal to get it.

But if I googled the item I was looking for (in the case of the dishwasher part, the actual part number) I ended up with page after page of hits, the first five hits all being from Amazon - and the next 15-20 from sites with much higher prices.   A real no-brainer, right?  Amazon is the best deal!

Not really.  eBay was the best deal I could find - in the limited amount of time I wanted to search, and that right there is the key.   When I searched the same term with the word "eBay" or went right to eBay's search engine, the same products came up at much lower prices.   Funny how that works, right?

Amazon often floats to the top of Google as they have sponsored ads at the top of many product searches.  And I am sure that Google "rewards" Amazon by giving them the top non-sponsored search results as well - and perhaps by suppressing eBay's search results (unless explicitly searched for) or the result of anyone selling anything for cheaper than Amazon.

Or so it would seem, to this outside user who has no access to Google's algorithms, but can see how they work in the real world.

But more and more, I find myself visiting Amazon less and less.   Their prices are often "meh" and the selection of products is often limited.  Yes, I know, this latter comment sounds odd - after all, Amazon has the largest selection of merchandise on the Internet, right?   I mean, they have more than double what Walmart has on their site - so they must have the best selection, right?

Maybe, maybe not.  Depends on what you are looking for.   Since Amazon sells a little of every damn thing, their depth of product selection in any one area can be surprisingly shallow.  And since everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to become an "Amazon merchant" and hopes to buy things at discount stores (or from China) and sell them for a buck more online, there is a lot of crap on Amazon that is overpriced.

Want some crap from China?  Buy it directly from the Chinese, on eBay.  I outfitted my bicycle with accessories for only a few dollars.   If you are prepared to wait a week or two for "China Post" to deliver, you can pay half as much as you would for Amazon to ship it in three days.

If you want specialty products, such as auto parts, Amazon is the last place to look.  I bought new shocks for my truck for $78 apiece - Amazon wants over $80.  And the folks at Stage 3 motorsports can answer any question you have about what shock is right for your truck - do you think Sanjay in India at Amazon's call center even knows what an F-150 is?   I didn't think so, either.

Maybe saving four or five bucks isn't a big deal (hey, it pays for that Starbucks, right?) but it does represent over 6% in savings, just by clicking around.   And it illustrates that Amazon isn't really a stellar place to buy things - the prices are "just OK" not exceptional.   You can end up with a better deal, elsewhere.

So why does Amazon stay in business?   They have reached the point of saturation - they have an installed base of customers who are too lazy to shop around, even when shopping around means clicking once or twice.  They have critical mass as I noted before, so over time, they have been slowly raising prices and hoping people don't notice.

I noticed.  Sorry.

Only a few years ago, I was buying almost everything online on Amazon.  The prices were better than anywhere else on the Internet, and unlike eBay, you didn't have to dick around with auctions and whatnot - as well as sketchy sellers.

Well, that was then, this is now.  Today, eBay and "Mom and Pop" websites have better prices than Amazon, consistently.   Maybe a dollar here or two dollars there - but sometimes significantly less.  And of course, if you are willing to wait and bid, sometimes you can snag a real bargain on eBay buying something lightly used from an individual, who has no real overhead or expectation of making big bucks.

It's gotten to the point where, when I am searching for some obscure part or something to buy, I just bypass Google entirely and enter www.ebay.com as a URL and then search in the eBay search box.   I might check Google and Amazon just to see if the prices are realistic, but lately, Google and Amazon are always returning the high prices, always.

Sadly, this is usually true for Home Depot and Lowes - their prices are always higher than other online stores.   Sometimes the same is true for Walmart, although I finally broke down and ordered new printer paper (a lifetime's supply at this point in my life) and Walmart was the cheapest place for quality paper.   Oh, sure Amazon had a cheaper price, for a three-ream "carton" - which was by itself a little deceptive.

I guess I am a shopping agnostic.   Just because I am on one site doesn't mean I am going to buy all my purchases there without shopping around.

In the past, our parents would drive all over town, comparing prices.  Today, it takes just a click of a mouse - yet our generation seems less inclined to comparison shop than our elders did!

It makes no sense.

Amazon kind of sucks, really.

Do You Need A Pressure-Flushing Toilet? Maybe Not.

Related image

Pressure-Flushing Toilets are a new thing, but maybe not a thing you need.

We still have residual problems with our sewer line.  The part by the road is all clay pipe and the Authority refuses to replace it, but offers to clean it out with a roto-rooter for free, if they become clogged.  I also own my own roto-rooter now, and can run it through the lines in the house periodically to remove tree roots, rust and scale (from the few black-iron pipes we still have) and the occasional non-woven spun fiber clog.  The new PVC drain pipe installed by the previous owner works OK, but goes slightly uphill where the two trees are (since removed) likely because roots moved them.

Also, it seems the plumbers decided to connect the toilet in series with the spa tub and shower, such that if you flush the toilet while someone is in the shower, it may not flush properly.  The only fix for this is to dig up the back yard, dig under the slab and install new drains for the toilet, tub, and shower that each go directly to the main drain, rather than connect in series.  I may end up doing this, eventually.  It is not as onerous as it may first seem, as all three connections are no more than a few feet from the edge of the slab.

Sometimes, it seems the system just "hiccups" and when that happens, I put a temporary plumber's plug into the drain of the shower (after removing the shower drain screen) and then fill the spa tub with 100 gallons of water.  Once full, I open the drain and the pressure of all that water seems to blow things out.

I also put old soup cans over all the drain "vents" in the roof (and there are like five of them).   I punched a hole in the bottom of each can to let air in.  It seems that the roof vents were open to the air, but also open to the pine needles, leaves, and other debris, as well as squirrels and their nuts.  They also make a nice plastic cap for these, for sale at Lowe's and Home Depot, and I may end up getting those eventually.   But a clot of pine needles in the roof vent(s) can prevent your drains from draining.

Since I put on the soup cans, it seems we have fewer "hiccups" in the system.

Mark had the idea of buying a pressure-flush toilet to help the situation.   At first, this seemed like a good idea, as the pressure would force things through.  But on the other hand, if there was a clog, it might also force "things" up through the shower drain like a fountain, which would not be pleasant.  We have had things back up into the shower in the past, and that isn't pretty.

I looked into it, as it seemed like it might help.   But when I visited the flushmate site, realized that our present toilet could not be "converted" to a pressure toilet, and what's more, the point of a pressure toilet was to save water, not improve flushing.    So we would have to spend more money to get this toilet, and it might not work as well as our present "gravity feed" toilet does.  With our drain situation the way it is, it pays to flush twice rather than flush once with a fancy toilet that uses less water.  More water moves things down the line, when your sewer line is essentially flat.

There are also other issues.  As folks in this discussion group noted, the pressure-type toilet costs more and may need more maintenance.   In a gravity-feed toilet, the main seals are under the pressure of the water in the tank - about 18" of water pressure or "head".   So the chance of the main toilet-to-tank seal leaking is small.  But in a pressure feed toilet, the entire thing is under house water pressure, which in places like Fairfax County, Virginia, can be as much as 100 psi - a water pressure regulator may be in order!

Tellingly, Amazon sells a replacement "tank" by itself to "fix the leak" problem with these systems.  That says a lot to me. 

How do they work?  It isn't exactly rocket science.  The plastic tank is full of air.  When water enters, it is at system pressure (50-100 psi, depending on your local water company or well pump) which pressurizes the air.  The tank contains about 1 to 1.6 gallons of water (far less than a gravity-feed toilet) and the rest of the tank contains air, now compressed to water system pressure.  When you flush, this smaller quantity of water is forced out at system pressure (again, 50-100 psi) which is a lot more force than a gravity-feed toilet has (about 18" of head, or less than 1 psi).   Needless to say, this forces things down the pipes more resolutely.

Because of this, though, you cannot retrofit a gravity-feed toilet with a pressure-feed system, even though it looks like the pressure-feed system fits into a standard tank.   The simple reason is, the pressure-feed system uses a different bowl plumbing and if you attached a pressure-feed tank to a gravity-feed bowl, you would  likely get a face full of water with every flush, or an inadequate flush, if at all.


Exploding toilets - without having to light your farts!


There are some other minor issues as well.  Apparently some older versions of these toilets have been known to explode, at least under certain circumstances.   Of course, this was for an earlier model unit which has since been recalled.  Seems the two halves of the plastic pressure tank would come apart, which could cause the porcelain tank to blow up (maybe it is time we got away from porcelain toilets?  Just a thought).  Some folks were injured by flying porcelain shards.

Presumably, the design has improved since then, and exploding toilets are now a thing of the past.

While saving water might seem like a good thing, it is not a major expense for us at the present time. Our combined water, sewer, and trash bill is about $70 a month or less (and this is not much above the minimum charge we would receive even if we used no water whatsoever).  Watering the lawn and washing the car are the big offenders in the water bill department.  Flushing the toilet might come in 4th or 5th behind washing dishes and clothes.

But we may revisit this if, down the road, we re-plumb the toilet so it has a direct line to the sewer.  In the meantime, I don't see the pressing need or the savings.  The cost of the toilet would take years to realize in terms of reduced water bills.  And in our situation, power-flushing might actually backfire in our faces - quite literally!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Franklin - First to Market, Last in the Marketplace

Once of the largest auto companies in America, Franklin declared bankruptcy only two decades later.

Syracuse, New York is famous for a lot of inconsequential things.  They used to pump salt brine from the ground and dry it out - thus the moniker "Salt City."  It was also a hub of industry in the early part of the 20th Century.  A fellow named Lipe was quite a machinist, and he had a machine shop that ended up being an incubator for a number of successful businesses that, 100 years later, are gone and forgotten.  Such was the nature of Engineering back then - there were no silicon-valley superstars whose names were household words.   Well, if they were, they were forgotten by the time the next big thing came down the pike.

One of the companies that came out the Lipe incubator was the Franklin Automobile.   H.H. Franklin was an investor and he teamed up with an Engineer who had a novel design for a car with an air-cooled engine.   Most automakers back then gravitated to water-cooling (literally - there was no ethylene glycol back then) to prevent the primitive engines of the day from overheating and seizing.  But the Franklin car used finned cylinders and large fan to keep the car cool, and for the most part, it worked very well.

In the pre-Model T era, cars were build by hand, one at a time, and mostly out wood.  The Franklin had a wooden frame, which was thought to be better for absorbing shocks from the primitive roads of the time.  And bodies were largely made of wood as well.   It was a tedious process to build a car - almost like building a small house!   And the costs were staggering.  Only the very rich had cars, which they ordered to their specifications, often buying a chassis and then having it shipped to a coachbuilder who would custom-build the body to the buyer's tastes.

Franklin did very well, initially.  They engaged in road trips, road racing, and long-distance runs.  One of the "runs" they did regularly went through my home town of Cazenovia, New York.  Today, every August, the Franklin club re-enacts these road runs and puts on a car show at the small college there.

But then the market changed.   Ford came out with the Model-T.  It was not a threat to the large, custom-built cars of the era - the Pierce-Arrow, the Packard, the Stevens-Duryea, and the Franklin.  The wealthy would still order their cars to spec, and would not consider a "mass-produced" car in their garage.

But over time, the mass-produced cars started to predominate, and they started to move upmarket.  GM famously sold a car for "every purse and purpose" from Chevrolet, through Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and up to Cadillac.  Mass-produced cars had several advantages over custom-built cars - besides price.   Since they were made in large numbers, the "bugs" in the cars could be worked out more readily and thus mass-produced cars are more reliable than custom jobs.   It is also easier to get parts for a mass-produced car, and easier to find someone to work on it.   And since they are less expensive, you can afford to trade them in more often, thus keeping up with latest technologies (electric starters, electric lamps!) and the latest styles.

While your old custom-build limousine might have been "in style" for several years, after a while, artillery wheels and the monstrous low-compression engines start to look dated.  You want to trade up, but no one wants your old "circus wagon" as a used car.

The luxury marques hung on for quite a few years, but by the 1950's, the last of them - Packard - threw in the towel, after trying to transition from a custom-built luxury car maker to a mass-production upscale car.   The rest of the marques failed early on or were killed off during the depression.

I recall reading an article in a car mag about old cars of that era - when they became used cars.   The writer bought an old pre-war Packard touring car that had been up on blocks during the war.  It was the object of desire in his youth - such a swell car!  But the year was 1955, and high-compression overhead valve V-8's from Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler ruled the road.   The circus-wagon car was just old and out of place, and he could not afford to keep it in indoors and could not find parts for it.   A neighbor's cat shredded the dry-rotted top one night, and that was the end of that.  His wife forced him to sell it - for a pittance.  Today, it would be a collector's item.

My parents went through the same thing.  After the war, my Dad struggled to find a job, and he came home one day with a used pre-war Packard.  New cars were in short supply due to strikes and the steel supply - and he couldn't afford one, anyway.  But boy howdy!  This old Packard was quite the car back in 1936!  And he snagged it for only a couple hundred bucks!   My mother was not pleased, particularly when the steering wheel fell off in her hands.   It was just an old car by the 1950's, and one that was laughably out-of-style and out-of-date.  She made him sell it.

Franklin soldiered on for quite a while, but struggled as car prices dropped in the 1920's.  Hard to believe that car prices would actually go down, but the car business in the 1920's was like the computer business in the 1980's and 1990's.   Personal computers cost thousands of dollars in the early 1980's but by the end of the 1990's they cost a few hundred.  Cars in the early part of the 20th Century were the same way - as the assembly line replaced hand-building, costs dropped precipitously.

It is like old mainframe computers in the 1980's - you couldn't give them away in the PC era.   At the lab, we used an old PDP-8 for data logging.  It was also laughably outdated, but when it came time to replace it, we found that Digital Equipment had brand new in the box PDP-8's which once sold for thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars, for only a few hundred bucks each.   So we bought one, and transferred our old programs to it, using it for several years until we broke down and bought an HP data system.

The Model-T Ford went from nearly $1000 a copy to a low of $365 before rebounding somewhat toward the end of the model run, as more content was added.   But newer cars, like the Model A and the Chevrolet, had more and more features - electric start, electric lights, radios and V-8 engines or overhead valves - once only the province of luxury car builders.

And if you wanted to separate yourself from the masses, you could move upscale to a Lincoln, Cadilliac, or Chrysler.

Franklin had other problems, though.   The look of the car was odd, which turned off buyers (car buyers are like sheep - ask the designers of the Chrysler Airflow or the Graham "Sharknose" - novel designs which sold so poorly they nearly bankrupted their companies!).  Originally it had a Renault-style snub nose.  Then it had a circular grill with a fan behind it.  Dealers revolted and demanded a more "normal" looking car, which was obtained, once the chief Engineer quit in disgust.  But the change only kept the company alive a few more years.

Dealerships were located in odd, rural areas (Montana?) while sales of such cars were concentrated in wealthy suburbs of major cities.   So even when competing with the other "investment grade" cars of the day, Franklin was at a disadvantage.

And improvements in water-cooled engines negated the advantages of the Franklin air-cooled.   Prestone "permanent" anti-freeze replaced the alcohol used early on.  People learned that having an oddball car only meant it was hard to get parts and service for it, and the resale market was limited.

Cars became a commodity item which were sold on price and features - and the profit margins got slimmer and slimmer - and still are today.   That is why it is laughable when someone comes along and says, "I have a great new business idea - to build a revolutionary new car!" - because the business is already one of margins, and it is incredibly hard to break into.  And even if your revolutionary idea has merit - such as the Tesla electric car - others will copy your idea, once it has been proven successful (without making all the teething mistakes you made, of course!).

First to market is last in the marketplace.   And maybe that is why Bitcoin is doomed.  If there is going to be a "there" there in "virtual currency" it has to be in a currency that doesn't have all the teething problems of Bitcoin.  It now takes hours to process a transaction and costs $20 or more - clearly this isn't replacing my credit card anytime soon.   And the well-documented incidents of fraud and theft (as well as people "losing" their coins by throwing out hard drives, forgetting their passwords, or dying and not telling anyone their password) mean that the currency is hardly as secure as even a Visa card.

In general, I shy away from "The Next Big Thing!" altogether.   It is hard to spot winners early on, and even the winners drop the ball, sometimes more than once, before they become successful.  Ford, for example, struggled early on, and started two car companies, before he hit upon the Model-T.  One of those companies eventually became Cadillac, oddly enough.

The Franklin engine soldiered on, even without a car to go with it. It became somewhat popular as an airplane engine (powering the Republic SeaBee, for example) although it was never thought of as being as reliable or powerful as Continental or Lycoming.  Aircooled motors, as it was called, ended up being bought by Preston Tucker (remember him?) who nearly drove it into the ground by cancelling all their aviation contracts.  The company survived Tucker, and the designs were sold to a Polish company in the 1990s, who make the engines today.

So what's the point of this?  Picking winners in the market - and particularly emerging markets - is very hard to do.  What seems like a big company with a banging business can turn into an obsolete has-been in a few very short years.  Maybe if Franklin had switched to a cheap, air-cooled rear-engine car, like VW, they could have triumphed.  But the managers and Engineers at the company didn't have that sort of vision - "We've always done it this way!" I am sure they said.

Save the risky investments for the risk-takers.   You can look back in time and say, "If only I had invested in Microsoft!" and think about how rich you would be.   But what would have been more likely is that you would have invested in Digital Research (the makers of the popular CP/M operating system, obsoleted by MS-DOS) and you would have lost your shirt.

Hindsight is 20:20, but it cuts both ways!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Why Amazon Did the Right Thing

People are envious of success - and they will also try to shake you down, particularly in New York.



Mayor De-Blasé is furious with Amazon for not "sticking around" and "fighting it out" New York style.  After all, this is the "big apple" and you got to play by the rules here!   But maybe Amazon made the right call.

I wrote in a previous posting that I understand why some folks are not happy with this new generation of Benevolent Billionaires.   They come across as liberal (well some of them, anyway) but much of their "disruption" and "tech" amounts to taking crappy jobs and making them even crappier.  They seem the antithesis of traditional Democratic values.  Sure, their companies have transgender bathrooms.   Their labor force is also non-union.   And you wonder why the Democratic party is schizophrenic?

But of course, the jobs Amazon was bringing to New York were not $15-an-hour warehouse jobs, but clean, well-paid white-collar jobs.   So why the push-back on both sides?   I think a number of reasons:

1.  Buyer's Remorse:   Arlington, Virginia offered less than half the incentives that New York did, and ended up with about as much.  There are a lot of empty buildings in Crystal City since the Patent Office and the Navy moved out, but even then, Arlington didn't over-bid on this "auction" deal.   New York did - and realized it after the dust settled.  So they wanted to renegotiate the deal.

2.  Everyone Wants a Taste:   This is New York, and people like Donald Trump know how to make projects move ahead there - you pay off people.   You pay off the politicians.  You pay off the union leaders.   You pay off the Mafia - which often is all three.   Everyone has their hand out, and nothing gets done unless you grease the skids.   Arlington isn't like this - so Amazon did the logical thing and pulled out.  Why fight to get a deal you already signed?

3.  Everyone Hates A Winner:  People will despise you, once you become successful - it is human nature.  I wrote before about Pleasant Rowland who sold her "American Doll" company to Mattel for the better part of a billion dollars.  She returned to Aurora, New York, to help the struggling college there and to renovate and rebuild the crumbling infrastructure in the tiny town.   You would think the locals would be grateful, but they had a parade and hung her in effigy.   She left town and almost too late, the locals realized what they had lost.

The same noises about "gentrifying" and "being priced out of our homes!" were raised then - as if making a town or a neighborhood nicer was somehow a bad thing, and living in squalor is desirable.  Yes, it is sad when a Mom-and-Pop coffee shop goes under because of increased rents and a Starbucks takes its place.   But when you go to the Starbucks the day it opens, who is really to blame?

Funny thing - the electrician working on my house today is from Queens.  He didn't seem all that upset about Amazon causing the value of his house to skyrocket.   In fact, he's kind of pissed the whole deal fell through.

4.  Fighting Isn't The Answer:   There are noises that Amazon might come back to the table, once suitable Democrats are humbled.   It remains to be seen.   But Amazon would be right to just walk away and not try to fix a bad deal.  Knowing when to walk away - and not merely as a negotiating tactic - is important.

Amazon could stay and "fight" and end up fighting forever.   Not only will their opponents never be happy, they would continue to try to wring concessions from Amazon, making the location look less and less profitable and desirable.  Meanwhile, the bad press would continue to pile up -  a lose/lose situation for Amazon.

It is like fighting a war for 20 years and then losing - as we did in Vietnam.   Why not just cut to the chase and lose up-front and get it over with?

* * *

Don't get me wrong - I think this whole thing of offering "incentives" for wealthy companies or sports teams to locate to your town is wrong.  These companies end up playing one town off against another, and the "winner" of these deals often learns to regret the decision.

Quite frankly, Arlington is a much better fit for Amazon.  The drab and unimaginative buildings in Crystal City are no architectural wonders.  No one would care if Amazon moves in, tears them down, or what.  And since so many agencies and companies have left the area, there is vacant office space galore.   Plus, the area hosts one of the highest concentration of tech workers outside of silicon valley and the cost of living is much less than New York.

The roads in that area are less congested, and the subway system has two stops there.   Few people in Arlington are upset about their house being worth more money or that there are more available jobs.  Of course, that would also include me - as I still own a condo on the yellow line - about four stops from Crystal City.

That being said, I think Amazon would be foolish to put their hand back on the hot stove and beg New York for a second chance.  Just walk away, and concentrate your energies elsewhere.  When you have the power that Amazon has, it is better to just walk away.  And by power, I don't mean the power to intimidate or to manipulate, but merely the ability to afford to walk away from a bad deal, as they don't need it.

If you have that power, why squander it?

Avoidable Accidents

Who is "at fault" in an accident is rarely a cut-and-dried issue.

One of the more interesting things to watch on YouTube are dashcam videos. Initially, these were mostly from Russia and a few from China, as apparently in those countries there are a lot of staged accidents and litigation, and thus people have installed dashcams in their cars to record events.

Since then, more and more of these videos are showing up depicting accidents in the United States, as dash cams become more popular here.  In fact, I even bought one, as it only cost $18 at Walmart. They attach the windshield with a suction cup and plug into your cigarette lighter. Insert a memory card and they'll record minutes or even hours of video, saving the last few minutes of video before a major impact.

Enterprising YouTubers have put together videos showing series of these accidents.  And once you click on one of these videos, YouTube decides that's all you want to watch and suggests one video after another.  You can spend an entire evening watching cars collide.  Or knitting videos.

These would be good educational videos for kids in high school, but the teacher who showed them would no doubt be chastised for "traumatizing" the students.   We had a 5th grade teacher who showed "highway horror" videos from the 1950's around Halloween.  They were pretty gruesome, showing decapitated heads and mutilated bodies.  Today, she would be fired for that, and counselors brought in to tend to all the traumatized special snowflakes.

These dashcam videos would not be very instructive unless accompanied by some commentary by an adult, however.  Kids look at these videos and try to figure out who is "at fault" - as if you can pin everything bad in life on one event or one person.   But life isn't as cut-and-dried as that - in terms of car accidents or your finances.

What is interesting about these videos as you see certain patterns appear again and again.  It's not that people do stupid things that cause accidents - that is predictable.  What is interesting is that there are clearly opportunities for other people to avoid the accident that was caused by the other person, yet the person who could have avoided the accident didn't do so, often because of their own poor driving habits.

Back when I was younger and used to get a lot of speeding tickets, I had to attend traffic school.  They taught us then what was called Defensive Driving and it illustrated why we have various traffic laws.  We learned that accidents occurred not because one person did something wrong, but because other people didn't anticipate that another person would do something wrong.  Causation is illusory, as I noted before.

There are a number of behaviors that most people engage in that end up placing them a situation where, if somebody else does something egregiously bad, or something happens that no one has control over (weather, etc.), they have no way of avoiding getting into the accident.  Here are a few of these bad behaviors that can cause you to get into an accident, even if it is "caused" by someone else or some other action:


Driving too fast for conditions:  In almost all the videos we watch, the person with the dashcam is driving too fast for conditions.  Granted, there are other people in these videos who do something horrendous that is often the direct cause of the accident.  But usually, the person with the dashcam, if they had been driving slower, could have reacted in time and avoided the collision.

Driving too fast for conditions falls under number of different subcategories. The first is in the city or congested driving. Speed limits in cities and urban areas are lower than in the country for valid reasons.  If you are driving through a development, there's a chance that somebody will be backing out of their driveway or trying to merge from a side street.  If you were going 50 or 60 miles an hour, it's hard for people to merge into traffic.  Moreover, they have a harder time judging how fast you were approaching and they pull out right in front of you thinking you are only going thirty when you are in fact going double the limit.

You have to expect people to pull out of every side street, alleyway, driveway, or parking garage.   If you expect this and watch for it, it is a lot harder to hit such folks, even if they are "inattentive" at "at fault" for pulling out.

Another example occurs during more rural  driving. We see many videos where people are out-driving their headlights or visual distance in rain, snowfall, or darkness.   When driving, the combination of your reaction time and stopping time should be less than the distance you can see.  For example, if at night, you can see a 1/4 mile down the road clearly, and you are travelling at a rate of speed where your reaction time and stopping distance would be 3/8 of a mile, you are basically screwed if a deer jumps out in front of you, or you come upon a wreck in the road.  Never out-drive your sight distance.  

Then there's also the issue of road conditions. Speeding in the rain or snow is idiotic as you can easily lose traction and then have no control over your vehicle and end up hitting a wall.  Yet many of these accident videos show people speeding in snowy, icy, or even just wet weather.


Tailgating:  this one seems self-explanatory, yet many of the dashcam videos show people driving too fast for conditions and too closely to the person ahead of them.  What's worse, they see brake lights going on ahead of them but fail to immediately slow down, assuming the people putting their brakes on or doing so for no real apparent reason.

You should at least be three seconds behind the car ahead of you in order to be able to react in time to a sudden stop and also have the necessary stopping distance.  In snowy or rainy weather or other conditions were sight distance is limited and traction is less than optimal, you probably should extend this amount.

Quite frankly, there's no reason to even to be driving even this closely together.  You aren't getting where anywhere any faster by riding on somebody's bumper or even three seconds behind them. You'll get to where you are going even if you're five, ten, or fifteen seconds behind the car ahead of you - and do so much more safely.

Every time we have bad weather in the United States whether it be snow, rain, or fog, there is always some sort of chain-reaction accident where 15, 20, 30, or even 40 cars pile into each other.  And you can see this is a result of people tailgating or driving too closely,  as they cannot respond in time if somebody stops suddenly in front of them or there is a wreck in the road.  Maintaining a safe distance of the car ahead of you and not out driving your sight distance rule avoid these problems entirely.

(Note also, it helps to put your lights on and even flashers, in foggy weather.  It never ceases to amaze me, how people in grey cars will drive 70 mph in dense fog with their lights off - or worse yet, drive 30 mph on the Interstate in a grey car with their lights off.   One wonders if they are trying to stage an accident!)

Sadly, even if you maintain proper distance and driving within your sight distance, the guy behind you might not.  So when you slow down because of a fog bank or a wrecked car in front of you he  is likely to plow into you.  Sometimes, it is best to get off at the next exit, gas up the car, get coffee, and relax for a while - the weather can change quickly and the rain or fog could dissipate by the time you get back on the road.   I learned that one the hard way!


Pulling up too close to the car ahead of you:  oddly enough, a lot of the accidents shown in these dashcam videos are very slow speed accidents that occur when somebody pulls up right behind a car ahead of them at a traffic light.  For one reason or another, the person in front decides to back up - either they want to change direction, or they have pulled too far into the crosswalk.

Since the person behind them is only five feet off their bumper, the guy backs into them at slow speed causing minor damage. What's interesting about these accidents, is the person behind never bothers to sound the horn until after the collision has occurred.  Either they are being inattentive themselves, or they are intentionally staging an accident by pulling right up behind somebody.

Either way, these accidents are entirely avoidable, if you don't pull up right behind somebody's bumper (unless you are Grace Jones) and then pay attention to what's going on.  If you see the guy ahead of you put on his back up lights you should sound the horn immediately, rather than wait for them to plow it in your front bumper.  Seems like a simple thing but it seems to elude a lot of people, at least from what we see on YouTube.

Let 'em in!  The number of accidents (and "road rage" incidents) that we see on these videos occur when people try to merge . Sometimes the person merging is being a jerk, cutting ahead of traffic and trying to get ahead in the game, even if "getting ahead" means being one car length ahead.  Granted, such people are rude and inconsiderate idiots, but trying to make a game out of it by not allowing them to merge isn't solving anything.  And sometimes, they aren't being rude or inconsiderate - they just get stuck in the merge because other idiots won't let them in, so eventually, they have to cut in front of someone.

What usually ends up happening is a minor collision followed by people screaming at each other -each blaming the other for being at fault.  If somebody wants to be rude and inconsiderate individual, you can try it at school them by not allowing them to merge, or you can just let them merge and move on with life.  It's such a trivial thing to get upset about.

And yes, I can confess that I've been upset by this in the past, when we are trying to get through a construction site or other backup and some asshole wants to pull up on the right shoulder and then cut in at the last minute - or use the exit lane as a passing lane to pull ahead of several cars (why?). But thanks to the YouTube, we know that such people often end up getting schooled by the police rather than by other drivers.  There are rewarding so-called "karma" videos, showing where people being pulled over almost right away when they try to pass on the shoulder or fail to allow others to merge. What goes around comes around, and people with poor and sloppy driving habits often end up getting ticket after ticket and paying outrageous insurance premiums. The wheel of karma spins very quickly as I've noted before.  Don't feel you have to enforce Karma - it enforces itself.

Never turn left:  as I noted before in my posting about motorcycles, the vast majority of accidents occur when somebody tries to turn left.  Either the motorcycle tries to turn left in front of traffic and people fail to appreciate the motorcycle is a "real" vehicle and plow into it, or people turn left in front of a motorcycle, failing to appreciate the motorcycle is traveling at a good rate of speed (see my comment above about too fast for conditions) then the motorcycle plows into them.

Either way, left turns are far more dangerous than right turns or any other means of traversing a traffic intersection.  United Parcel Service, one of my former employers, famously reroutes its trucks to try to avoid left hand turns.  It's not always possible to do this, but sometimes three rights make a left.

It never ceases to amaze me that in Old Town Alexandria during rush hour, people try to make left turns from South Washington Street onto King or Duke. Usually, these were proscribed during rush hour for obvious reasons.  Don't you try to make a left hand turn on a busy street, cars will pile up behind you, sometimes literally.  And as you turn left onto another street, some good Samaritan will "let you in" but other people aren't aware of this new arrangement you've made to amend the traffic rules and will try to go around the good Samaritan and then plow into you.

You can argue all day who was right and who is wrong, but usually left turns end up causing accidents so just avoid them when you can.  Make three rights or try to make a left turn where there's a left turn lane with a left turn arrow and then backtrack if necessary.  A few extra minutes you spend doing this could end up saving you an awful lot of hassle and maybe even someone's life.

Goddamn Trolleys:  There are a lot of videos on YouTube showing collisions between cars and trolleys. Most of these are in foreign countries where trolleys are more popular.  However some of them are from the United States were trolleys are gaining acceptance as ill-conceived trolley projects are put into place, often lobbied for by the companies that manufacture these beasts.  The problem is, the trolleys run through the center of the roadway and people fail to realize that these trolleys have the right of way by default.

In the typical accident, the driver turns left in front of the trolley because he can't see it, as it is in his blind spot. There are lights and warning signs that the trolley is going through, but people fail to recognize these. They plow into the trolley which does little damage to the trolley, but usually destroys their car.  In one or two incidents we've seen on YouTube, the trolley actually derails, which is pretty dramatic.

Again, the way to avoid these accidents is to avoid left turns.  Also avoid going to your town council meeting and advocating for a trolley system, as it really is unnecessary.  Myself, when I'm in one of these situations where I see trolley tracks down the middle of street, I try to stay in the right lane, and if I have to make a left, I'll make three rights instead and then cross the intersection when I have a green light, which means that not only is the traffic clear, but the trolley is clear as well.


The A-pillar AccidentI covered this before, and it is almost spooky how the A-pillar on your car can completely block your view of even a garbage truck - until it "suddenly appears" in front of  you and you hit it.   Coming to a complete stop at a stop sign avoids this problem, as your blocked vision area is no longer synchronized with the movement of the other vehicle.

But not only should you avoid causing an A-pillar accident, you should expect others to try to cause them.   When you come to an intersection, particularly a two-way stop (where you have right-of-way) you should expect the person on the cross street to roll or run the stop sign (it is a popular sport as of late).   Don't be afraid to honk your horn if they seem inclined to roll it, are looking the other way, or otherwise seem inattentive.  Be prepared to stop if they pull out in front of you.  Slowing down often changes your speed enough so they will see you around the A-pillar.   The point is, there are things you can do other than be a passive victim in a collision.

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The list goes on and on. They are very simple things you can do while driving that will help you avoid getting into accidents caused by the malfeasance of other people.

What is this have to do with personal finances? Well, to begin with, the fewer speeding tickets you get means your insurance rates will plummet.  I currently pay only a few tens of dollars a month to ensure each of our vehicles, where some people pay hundreds of dollars a month. This is an enormous savings right there.

When I was younger, I drove like a maniac, and not only that, I didn't take into account that other people would do idiotic things while driving. As a result, I got a lot of tickets and got into a couple of accidents - until my insurance premiums were more than my car payments. This was completely idiotic. At that age, I should have bought a second-hand jalopy and not bother paying collision insurance on it.

(I should note that my parents were horrible drivers as well - they were routine speeders and late brakers - often not applying the brakes until they were in the crosswalk!  They also rolled stop signs, tailgated, and got into a number of wrecks.  Of course, I mimicked their behavior, which terrified my driver ed teacher!).

It doesn't matter if the other guy is at fault. My experience of being in car accidents is that you never come out 100% whole on these deals.  Oh sure, you might see these billboards down in Florida for two smiling people - shown in a headshot - proclaim how some law firm got them a half a million dollars.   What they don't show is the lower half of the picture where they have a leg missing or are confined to a wheelchair.  There is no winning in a car accident.

In your financial life, similar effects can occur.  Other people do stupid things or things will happen to you that are outside of your control, and if you're not prepared, bad things could happen to you.

For example, the President decides to shut down the government, and you are a low level government employee who is living paycheck-to-paycheck. You have leveraged yourself into debt and payments because you want to have all the channels of cable TV, a leased car, in a fancy apartment that you think you're entitled to. You have no savings, and once the money train stops, you're basically screwed.  And since your credit cards are all maxed out, you can't even charge your groceries on those until you get paid back by the government.

Whose fault is it?   You can blame the government, the Republicans, or the Democrats.   But just like a car wreck, they might be at fault, but if you weren't tailgating with your paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, you could have stopped in time, or at least swerved off onto the shoulder and been safe.

Or worse yet, you're a government contractor, and you are immediately laid off as your employer is no longer getting paid by the government.  You'll never get paid back, since you don't work for the government, and since you're living paycheck-to-paycheck you are utterly screwed and probably facing foreclosure or eviction.  But again, whose fault is it not to have any savings, while at the same time having a new iPhone?   And  you laugh - a lot of people live this way.  I know this from experience, being a former government employee, and seeing how my co-workers structured their lives around their weekly paycheck.

You can argue with the other guy's fault - and maybe it is.  But these things are sort of to be expected over time.  Whether it's a government shutdown or an economic recession or being laid off from your job or some other downturn.  If drive your car long enough, you can expect to be in an accident - on the average every 11 years.  It is a predictable outcome.  Accidents happen and they happen at quite a regular frequency.  In fact, death by motor vehicle is a very common form of dying in the United States - with about 40,000 people passing away every year behind the wheel.

Sure, maybe self-driving cars will solve this problem. But that's not going to happen for at least a decade. In the meantime we have to look out for each other and drive carefully and also look out for the people who aren't driving carefully.

Similarly, You could argue that electing Democrat Socialists will solve all your personal economic problems, but that's not likely to happen for at least a decade - if ever.  Counting on political solutions to solve personal problems is never a good idea.  Rather, you should drive carefully in your financial life and be prepared for the inevitable, as the inevitable will happen to you eventually.

It could be a layoff, or an illness, or a recession, or your house burning down.   Bad things are likely to happen, and if you go through life without these happening, consider yourself lucky, but don't plan on being lucky.  Drive defensively - in your finances, as well as with  your car!