Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crystal, Silver, and Wedding China (and Linens)

Until about 50 years ago, a middle-class or upper-middle-class bride would register her silver pattern, china pattern, and crystal pattern, when she got married.   Guests were expected to buy a place setting for the bride.   Today, brides register for a flat-screen television and a microwave.   What changed?

If you say "Crystal" today, most folks will think you are talking about a kind of overpriced champagne, or perhaps "Swarovsky Crystal" - the latter being a kind of cheap costume jewelry we used to laugh at, back in the day, as the height of tackiness.   Today, ironically, tacky and cheap is seen as the height of luxury.

What changed?

When I was a kid, Mom would get drunk and start playing with her wedding crystal.   She'd pull out a piece of it and say, "you can tell this is good crystal, as when you tap it, it rings".   Today, I have a few pieces left that are not chipped or cracked.   We use them as everyday glasses.   No one registers for a china, crystal, or silver pattern anymore.

We attended a friend's wedding, where she registered for her crystal pattern (Waterford), silver (Gorham) and china (Limoges).  We bought a place setting of china as a gift.  We were the only ones.   The rest of the guests gave kitchen or bath gadgets, or small electrical appliances, none of which the bride registered for.   It was very odd - people today just don't understand how weddings were supposed to work.

What happened?  The answers, I think are multifold. 

To begin with, no one has dinner parties anymore - at least not sit-down service for 12, like at Downton Abbey (I toss in a trendy cultural reference for you plebes out there).   People simply don't know how to cook and entertain.  Few even have a dining room table large enough.  Today's idea of a dinner party is a buffet with people eating off paper plates in the living room, or standing up in the kitchen.   It's pretty gross.

The cost of silver is partly to blame, too.  In the 1970's, when silver first shot up in price, many brides started deciding to do without a silver pattern, as it was just too much to expect a wedding guest to pony up that kind of dough - or to have Mom and Dad pay for it.

The lack of servants, of course, is the other problem.   Silver takes time to polish and every time you use it, you have to polish it.   When you live in a mansion with servants, this is not an issue.   You beat them and they polish your silver.  Problem solved.

Today, people don't have "time" to hand-wash crystal and china (and hand-dry it) and polish silver for hours.  It is just too labor-intensive.

But I think another factor is the look and how technology has changed our appreciation of these things.   Back in the 1800's, having shiny silver pieces that you could see your reflection in was a big deal.   There was not a lot of technology that did this - no chromium, no mylar plastic-coated mirror-finish films.   You wanted shiny, shiny bling on your table, well, you had to pay big bucks for silver.   Recall that Paul Revere, the revolutionary hero, was a silversmith.  People had silver back then - not so today.

Today?  We have stainless steels, chromium, and even plastics that are shinier than silver.  The allure of shiny silver is no longer what it once was.  The "wow factor" is gone.

And the same is true for crystal.  You wanted a clear glass with an interesting cut pattern and no bubbles and nonsense, you bought high-end crystal.  This set you apart from the plebes in town who drank from pewter or blown-glass.   But in the late 1800's, pressed-glass came out that  mimicked the look of crystal, for far less.  Suddenly, spending a lot of money for a "look" that could be cheaply copied, didn't seem like such a swell idea.  People like my mother would start "pinging" their glasses to show they were real crystal and not some knock-off, as the differences became harder to tell.

(When cleaning out the in-law's house last week, we found two sets of glasses - one crystal, and one from the local grocery store, from back when the grocery store gave away glasses as a promotion.  The patterns were identical, but the grocery-store glasses, were of course, pressed glass.   Up close you could tell the difference, but from 5-10 feet, it was much harder to do.   And in fact, some of them almost got mixed together by accident.   It illustrates how technology changes our appreciation of these things).

Simply stated, we live in a manufactured age, and the thrill of seeing something shiny and reflective is not what it once was.   You don't need polished silver to get that effect - even disposable flatware comes with a mylar reflective finish these days.

Shiny and glossy and mirrored, today, is seen as cheap and tawdry.   The hall of mirrors in Versailles was the height of fashion back in the day.  After all, mirrors were rare and expensive.  Today it looks as tacky as Liberace's bathroom.  Our tastes have changed as technology has changed.  Maybe that is why people give electrical gadgets as wedding gifts now.

When my sister got married in the late 1970's, she had a china pattern, but no silver and I am not sure she had crystal.   Her children?   The only crystal they might have is the meth variety (just kidding, but a good play on words, no?).   Most people today "register" for appliances and gadgets, not silver, crystal, and china patterns.

In a way it is a shame, as it is sort of the end of an era - an era where people used to entertain at home formally - and would "dress up" for a dinner party with elegant crystal, china, and silver, and try to maintain a certain standard of decorum.   Today, we can't be bothered with that.  Today, we eat as though we were at a child's birthday party.

To be sure, there are some advantages of our more modern way of living.  We are more informal, and as a result, more egalitarian.   You no longer are judged by your china pattern, but by the size of your flat-screen television and leased Japanese luxury car.

And yes, the very rich still have their crystal, silver, and china patterns - and always will.   And perhaps that is the way it should be.   After all, these once were the trappings of wealth, and it was only during the last 100 years or so that the middle-class and upper-middle-class thought they could buy their way into society with these kinds of trappings.

For us, we have some hand-me-down crystal, china, and a few silver pieces and flatware, from grandparents and parents.   Enough for a table of 12 (if we mix the crystal), and a table (also inherited) large enough to put them on.   It is a nice form of decadence, but if we had to pay cash ourselves for this stuff, well, maybe we might have something different.

And we use this stuff more than most folks, but even then, it is a very rare occasion.   Quite frankly, without servants, putting on such a dinner party is an exhausting affair.   And the servant problem doesn't seem to be improving anytime in the near future.

Crystal, China, and Silver - not what they once were.  It is an end of an era.   And I think few people have noticed.

UPDATE:  I forgot to mention linens!   Every proper bride and housewife had linen tablecloths and napkins, preferably Irish linens.   These were ironed flat and used for special occasions.

When I was growing up, before my Mother lost her mind and my Dad spent his Sundays with his mistress, we had "Sunday Dinner" after church, with all the linens, china, crystal, and silver, and the whole family gathered around the table, a la Normal Rockwell, for chicken, turkey, a roast, or lamb chops (the latter served with mint jelly dispensed from a tiny cut-crystal bowl.

Like I said, that was before Mom went insane.

Today, I know married couples - even those with children - who all eat separately.   Mom thaws something out when she gets home, while Dad nukes a "hot pocket."   Junior is in the basement watching TeeVee, drinking Pepsi and eating Pizza and microwave popcorn.

While I don't lament the passing of the Norman Rockwell era (if it indeed, ever existed) it would seem that today, we have gone too far in another direction - people just grazing food from the fridge and microwave, with the idea of a "meal" becoming more and more alien.

Eating in front of the TeeVee - or the computer - is a very easy habit to fall into.  It does take some effort to prepare food on a plate, sit down, and eat together as a family unit.   It is, however, more satisfying.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cutting Your Own Hair

A $20 hair trimmer can save you $2000 in haircut fees in just a few years.

I'm old and don't care too much about having a fancy haircut.  Maybe this comes from living on a boat for a while.   You just want your hair short and out of the way.

Yea, when I was young, I had super-long hair.  Then one day I got it all cut off and had a wicked flat-top that I kept for several years.  Finding a barber who can do a good flat-top is hard, however.   Most don't want the hassle of the labor.

I let the flat-top grow out into a Reagan-esque pompadour for a while, but then went back to short.

Eventually, I just went to a "set the trimmer at #5 and cut it the same length all over" which is the easiest haircut in the world to do.

Problem was, the local "barbershop" which played Rush Limbaugh at full volume, made me wait a half-hour to get a haircut and then wanted $15 plus tip for a mediocre haircut.   We're not talking a nice flat-top or some hard-to-do cut, just a "set it at #5 and mow the lawn, dude" kind of thing.

So, about five years ago, we bought a Norelco G380 trimmer at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for about $20 with those coupon deals.    It still works, but the battery is getting weak, and the blades sort of dull.  (We also have a $20 Wahl 110v model that is still going strong).   I went about looking for a replacement, but the G380 is no longer available.   There is a G370, but they want nearly $50 for it, even though it appears to be a copy of the G380. 

For some reason, Sears wants a staggering $185 for it (!!!!) which to me is a sure sign Sears is heading for oblivion.   Or maybe there are enough dumb people out there who will pay $130 more for something they can get on Amazon for fifty bucks.   Actually, this is probably true.  But I digress.

Does cutting your own hair work well?   Well, three friends now regularly ask for haircuts as well, so I guess it doesn't look too bad.   And the savings are not small, either.

Consider that we would get our hair cut at least once a month (if not every two weeks) and with tip, we are looking at $20 each.   For five years, times 12 months, times two people, well, that comes to a staggering $2400.

That's a lot of money, period.

It is also a lot of time saved.   And since you can "trim" on almost a daily basis, you end up looking better, not worse.

Now, for you barbers out there who say I am taking food from your children's mouths, let me say this:   You need to re-think your business model.

No one wants to sit around your shop listening to Rush Limbaugh for an hour or so, while they wait to get their hair cut.   And spruce up the place, for chrissakes.

And learn how to cut hair!   If you are going to be a barber, then be able to do esoteric cuts that people will pay extra for.

When I was in Ithaca, we went to a barber who knew how to cut hair.   I remember he did a kid before me, and when he jumped down from the seat, he said, "Awesome!" with a big grin on his face.   That is the kind of cut people will pay extra for.

But when someone says, "Gee, I'd like a flat-top" and you say, "Well, that will cost extra" or "I don't know how to do that" then maybe you need to hang up the scissors.

Who knows?  Maybe longer hairstyles will come back into fashion.  But today, being bald or having very short hair is the style, and such cuts are easy to do-it-yourself.   Your product is dated, old, overpriced, and of poor quality - like a Pontiac Grand Am.  They no longer make Pontiac Grand Ams.

No one has a "right" to stay in business.   And when your product is too expensive and of poor quality, well, people will shop elsewhere or turn to other products.   A haircut that takes a half-hour shouldn't cost $15, unless you think that your services are worth $30 an hour - and not many people are making that these days.
 As for me, I doubt I will ever go back to a barbershop (or a hair stylist) for the rest of my life.  The old Norelco trimmer does it for me.   Cheap and easy, and $2400 in my pocket.

What's not to like?

Copyright Piracy - Who's Really the Victim?

When something is priced far beyond its real market value, piracy is encouraged.

A recent article in the Journal of the Patent & Trademark Society, makes an interesting claim - that media producers themselves are responsible for piracy of Copyrighted material.  ("A New Approach to Combating the Piracy of Intellectual Property: Develop the Rule of Law and Increase the Supply of Legitimate Goods",  Andrew D. Getsinger,  JPTOS, Vol. 96, No. 1).

Mr. Getsinger makes some compelling arguments.   For example, the hyped statistics on the amount of money and "jobs lost" due to piracy, are in fact, utter bullshit produced by our friends at the Bureau of Specious Statistics (always on the job, they are!).

Media conglomerates like to moan about all the lost sales they have, whenever someone pirates a copy of, say, Pirates of the Caribbean or the like.   They take the number of estimated pirated copies out there and multiply them by the retail price of the DVD ($19.95 or $29.95) and come out with some astounding numbers - in the millions or billions of dollars, which in turn are somehow equated to "jobs lost" in America.   Thanks to these pirates, Hollywood hires fewer Union actors and gaffers, and thus makes fewer "Heaven's Gate" or "Waterworld" movies - putting 'mericans out of jobs.

But as Getsinger illustrates, this math is nonsense.   In the third world and emerging markets, consumers cannot afford to spend what may be a day's wages, on the latest Hollywood blockbuster.   However, a bootleg DVD for a dollar or two, is "affordable."    When someone in India or Africa buys a bootleg copy of the movie, it doesn't represent a "loss" of a $29.95 sale to the media company, but a loss of a $2 or $3 sale, instead.   Because failing the availability of the bootleg copy, the consumer would simply choose not to buy.

In fact, even in America, it is puzzling as to why DVDs and CDs are so staggeringly priced.   As I noted in Death of the Music Industry, one reason many of us stopped buying music was the staggering prices the record companies wanted for CDs, when compared to records.   A basic vinyl album might sell for $3.99 at the local drugstore.  But CDs, which cost little to make, were sold for $10 to $15, for no apparent reason whatsoever.   For the consumer, this made the decision whether or not to buy a CD a very critical one.   You could afford to buy an album for $3.99 and take the risk that it was not crap.   But when the price tripled, suddenly the choice was more critical.

And we see the same thing happening with e-books.   Publishers want the same $29.95 price for an e-book as they would for a hardcover - when the costs of printing and the risk of printing are eliminated, along with the costs of distribution and retail stores.  As a result, sales of $0.99 to $3.99 e-books are booming, while tomes from major publishers sell far less.   If I'm spending $29.99, I'll want an autographed hardcover, thank you.

But sadly, most of the tomes on the New York Times "Bestseller" list are hardly worth the money.   Many are political dirges or celebrity books (land a plane in the Hudson, write a book, right?) that are hardly great works of literature.   And with regard to political books, many of these make the "bestseller" list by dint of political supporters buying them in bulk and handing them out for free (which, when you think about it, is a great way to get around political donation limits, too).

(Of course, this again calls into question as to why we, as humans, value media content more when it is "new" than when it is even a few months or weeks old.)

The point is, if a product is priced reasonably, then people will be less inclined to buy pirated copies.   If a DVD is, say, $5 to $10, then I would not be motivated to buy a pirated copy to save a couple of bucks.   But when it is $29.99, then a pirated copy looks attractive.

Not only that, if a DVD is say, $5 to $10, then I would be more willing to take the risk in buying it, and worry less that it will be a "dog" of a movie.

They do sell DVDs in this price range, of course.   The local supermarket has a bin of such discs, and I was looking at them while waiting for a prescription to be filled.   However, most were "direct to DVD" dogs that were not worth even $5, as they were virtually unwatchable films.    For this class of film, even $5 is too high a price to pay.

The author of the article was inspired by his experiences in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) where demand for American media content is high.   As I noted before, it isn't hard to translate Explosion Movies into another language and another culture, particularly one prone to violence.   But what the author noted was, that even if these young Saudis (who have lots of money) wanted to buy a "legitimate" copy of Explosion Movie Part II, there was no place to buy it.   The supply of media was simply not present - which in turn encouraged piracy.

It is an interesting conundrum.   From the consumer's perspective, we would think that lower prices for media content would expand sales.   Is it better to sell 100,000 copies of a movie at $29.99 or One million copies at $5 each?

And the popularity of video rental and streaming services, like Netflix, would seem to show that consumers are eager to consume media - at a price point far below what the media outlets want to charge.  Why pay $29.95 to buy a movie that you may watch only once?  That same amount of money pays for two months of movies on Netflix.

But then again, Hollywood studios aren't that stupid (or are they?  You do hear stories).   Surely they have legions of accountants, economists, psychologists, and the like who design careful price points for all their products, in order to optimize profitability and sales.   Right?   So $29.99 for "School of Rock" must be a rational price point that some folks are prepare to pay.   Or at least we would assume so.

Of course, as a consumer, you always have another choice than piracy.   And that is to consume less media in your life.   As Americans, we consumer vast quantities of it, being observers of life, and not participants.   We watch an average of 4.6 hours a day of television.  We read books, listen to the radio (or Pandora or the iPod, or whatever).  We go to movies (if we are under 30) and pay $15 for a ticket and $10 for popcorn.    We are a voracious audience if nothing else.

But few of use create anymore.   And being creative is always an option and alternative to being a consumer.

And thanks to the Internet, it is possible for average people to be creators and not just consumers.   You can write a book and sell it online as an e-book.   Your garage band can raise money on Kickstarter and sell their own music online.   You can make your own videos on YouTube with digital cameras that rival what movie studios once had.

And maybe that is what really scares the media conglomerates - people being enabled through the internet instead of being passive sheep.   And this explains why they want us to look at the Internet as just another channel on Cable TV - where you select a program, be it Facebook or Twitter or Netflix, or whatever, and simply watch passively.

But you do have choices.   Myself, I don't complain about the price of media.   I simply choose not to buy or look for less expensive or free alternatives.   A book from the library (or indeed, even a video) is free.   I've never paid $29.99 for a video, and likely never will.   And I wonder who the heck does (from that I can see, poor people, who can least afford to).


Sunday, April 27, 2014

$300,000 mistake

Middle-class and even upper middle-class people simply can't afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a motorhome.

I posted an article about full-time RVing and was taken to task by members of an RV forum (their motto, "No Shills for the RV Industry Here!") that I was being unduly pessimistic about the practicality of buying a quarter-million-dollar motorcoach as an inexpensive and rational "lifestyle".

And if you drive by an RV dealer, you will see dozens of such rigs on the lot - they sell a lot of them.   But in many cases, purchasing such an expensive toy ends up being a huge financial mistake.

In my previous posting, I mentioned Frank and Shirley who are real people and friends of mine.  Since then, I have met Nancy, who also bought a huge motorhome - with her late husband - and is "upside-down" on it and suffering with $1500-a-month RV payments and a negative equity of $50,000 or more. 

How did this happen?  And was it worth it to have a couple of years of RVing?  I think the answer to the last question is "No" - when you consider that they paid well over $20,000 per year to go camping in their RV (with payments, insurance, fuel, etc.) and if you factor in the negative equity, another $10,000 per year on top of this.   That's a lot of money to camp!

How did they get into it?  Like my friends Frank and Shirley, they had an older motorhome which was nearly paid-for, and decided to "trade up" to a newer coach, as their older coach did not have slide-outs. They paid nearly $300,000 for the coach, trading in their "paid for" motorhome as a down payment.  And when they traded in, they signed a long-term note that was longer than they would realistically own the coach, given their age and health.

As I noted in a previous posting, RV dealers are not shy about financing motorhomes over 10, 15, or even 20 years.  While this may bring the monthly payment down to a level that is "affordable" to folks on a pension and Social Security (who sadly, still look at life in terms of monthly cash-flow), it does not take into consideration the "end game".

And the end game is severe illness or death of one spouse which will force the remaining spouse to sell the coach.   But since it is financed over 20 years, the loan is "upside down" for most of the loan, as I illustrated in the link above.  And since the surviving spouse collects less in Social Security, money for the $1500 monthly loan payment is harder to come by.

A few years of fun, camping, has now morphed into an albatross around the neck of the surviving spouse.

So, despite what the paid shillers and naysayers say on the "Let's all sell our homes and live in an RV!" discussion group, this sort of purchase can go horrifically wrong - and often does.

The question is, why do people do it?

And the only answer I can come up with is that most people (myself included) are not very financially astute.  No one says "No" to us or tells us we can't have our candy and ice cream.   We lack self-control.   And sadly, banks and other financial institutions will loan us money, even if it is a very, very bad idea.  We make a few dollars and then come to believe that we are now "rich" and can afford things on time, as our monthly income exceeds the monthly payments.

And that might work, for a while, provided your income stream never stops or is never decreased (like when a spouse dies) and that you will in fact outlive the term of the loan - or that you will keep the vehicle (or whatever purchase) long enough not to be "upside down" on the loan.  That rarely happens in real life, however.

I think also, some folks think that depreciation will not happen to them.   And I hear this all the time on discussion groups for cars, boats, motorcycles, and RVs.   Most of these motorized toys depreciate 50% in value every five years - like clockwork.   Even a vehicle with "low depreciation" depreciates by about 40% in five years - the difference ain't much.

As I noted in an earlier post, claiming that your vehicle has "low depreciation" is an exercise in self-deception.  Most cars, boats, motorcycles, and RVs, are worth 5-10% less than you paid for them the moment you drive them off the lot.   And there are no exceptions to this rule, period.

I don't care if your RV is a Prevost, or your motorcycle is a Harley, or your boat is a SeaRay, or your car is a BMW - a used one is always worth less than a brand-new one, for the simple reason that any purchaser would be out of his mind to pay as much for a used item as a new one.

And while it doesn't seem "fair" to you, a $70,000 BMW is worth only $35,000 after five years, and the same is true for your boat, bike, or motorhome.   These things simply wear out over time and thus are worth less and less the longer you own them - no matter how well you take care of them, wax them, wash them, service them, or whatever.

But salesmen - and shills on discussion groups - will outright lie and say that the (fill in the blank) that you buy today will "hold its value" while the NADA dealer guide in his back pocket clearly tells a different story.

I feel bad for my friends for their losses in buying motorhomes.   But then again, they wanted these expensive toys, and now they have to pay for them.   And they are paying at a time in their lives when money is scarce, they can't earn any more, and their health and faculties are declining.  It is horrific to watch.

How do you avoid this trap?   Well, again, never "take a hobby too far" and buy that "dream" bike, motorhome, boat, or car.   If you are unsatisfied with your current ride, chances are it is because you have lost interest in the hobby entirely.  Many folks (mostly men) think that by "upgrading" to the next level, their satisfaction will return.  It rarely does.

You can have just as much fun with your existing bike, motorhome, boat, or whatever.   If you aren't having fun, spending more money isn't going to bring the fun back.

It is like the friend of mine who had a beautiful Tiara powerboat.   A beautiful boat with engines so clean you could eat off of them.   But he used it less and less and as he rounded the corner on 70, he decided that maybe getting the "ultimate" boat - a larger model with twin diesels - would solve the problem.  It was a beautiful boat, but it cost "a boatload" of money - with his "paid for" boat serving only as a down payment.  He rarely used it for a year or two before his failing health forced him to sell it - for below what he owed on it.

This happens all the time with old people.  And it is tragic and unnecessary.

If you are getting up there in years, think about your own mortality and how this will affect your surviving spouse - and how a debilitating illness (which is quite likely) will affect your finances.   Chances are, buying a $200,000 motorhome or boat or whatever, simply isn't a very smart idea.   You won't get to use it much, and you'll wish you had the money later on.

And your shiny new toy will be in the back pages of your favorite enthusiast publication with the notation, "Illness forces sale...."

There are cheaper, more rational, and more affordable ways to live!

Inherited a House? Part Deux

If you inherit a house, should you keep it or sell it?   Figure out the carrying costs, first, before you make a decision.

In my posting "Inherited a House?" I went through a number of scenarios where one or more siblings inherits a house from their parents.  As I pointed out in that posting, the legal niceties involved in transferring ownership are trivial, compared to the emotional issues that often arise among family members when Mom and Dad die, and leave the house to the kids.

In most cases, it is probably best to sell the house and take the money and move on - even if you are the sole heir and the house is unencumbered by a mortgage.   Why is this?   Well, as I noted before, you would not think of buying a house in the same manner - being offered one house to look at, take-it-or-leave-it, and then deciding to buy it.   Why keep a house inherited in the same way?  It is not a house of your choosing, but one thrust upon you.

Plus, moving into your parent's old house really smacks of a lack of imagination.   You are not living your own life, with your own ideas and goals, but merely mimicking those of your parents.   And if you never left your home town after you turned 18, well, shame on you.  Move on with life - and move out.

Living in your parent's house is just, well, creepy.   Maybe if you have an English manor house that has "been in the family" since 1670, keeping it makes sense.   But for most of us, our "family homes" are houses built on spec, and are nearly identical or indeed identical, to a house across the street or down the block.   If you find sentiment in an assembly-line built home, you are a fool, plain and simple.

Sentiment is a fine thing and all, but when it comes to half-million dollar investments, sentiment has no place.

But taking all of that aside, consider the cost of ownership of the home - the complete costs - before you decide to keep the house.

For example, we recently inherited a share of a house in Florida.  Sounds like a sweet deal, right?  A vacation home in Florida!  Whoo-whee!   But as I noted in an earlier post - based on bitter experience - owning a vacation home is anything but cheap, and also a major labor hassle, as twice a year you have to put a home in mothballs and take another one out.   It is all the "joys" of home ownership (e.g., the pain) times two.

Well, maybe it could be a retirement home in sunny, tax-free Florida, right?   Well, think again, as Florida is anything but tax-free.   You see, the taxes on a home like this, while at a modest $2500 a year (due to an insane Florida tax policy known as "homesteading") will immediately jump to $10,000 a year or more, once the new owners take over.  Throw in $2500 a year for insurance, another $2500 for hurricane insurance, and another $2000 for flood insurance (slated to quadruple in a few years!) and you are looking at close to $2000 a month, just to own the place - even if it was unencumbered with a mortgage.   Add in the utilities, the lawn guy, the pool guy, and you are well over $2500 a month, just to live there.   Is this affordable in retirement?   For most middle-class people, No.

While I could "swing" such an overhead, I choose not to, as I'd rather have money in the bank and a monkey off my back.   I'd rather not have to scrape together $30,000 a year just to put a roof over my head, when I can do that for $12,000 a year or less, as I do right now.

Then there are the repairs.

Old people, when they "stay in their homes" when they die, tend to patch and fix their houses, rather than properly repair them.   So a home like this needs a new kitchen, baths (original to 1960!) and a hot water heater, a new HVAC system, pool pump, pool cage, and general updating.   Granted, it doesn't need it all at once, and you can squander about $10,000 a year "dressing the pig" and keeping the place patched together.   But the end result is not really a very nice place to live, but rather an older home with layers of repairs.

Like most houses of this vintage, the land is worth more than the house, and the lot is what makes the property valuable.   Most buyers will gut and re-build the place, or even tear it down and start over.  I lived through this once - spending tons of money over the years, "fixing up" a 60-year-old home, only to see the new owner drive a bulldozer through it.   My neighbor, who spent nothing fixing her house, had the same bulldozer drive through hers.  She pocketed the cash.  I ended up with far less.  All that money I spent at Lowe's and Home Depot was just wasted.

So, the place is a tear-down.   And most of the homes in the neighborhood have already been torn down and re-done, in the modern, ostentatious way, by people who have far more money (or think they have far more money) than you and I.   The neighborhood has gone upscale, and priced it out of our market - or at least priced it further than we'd like to pay.

And then there is another thing.  We don't want to live there.   It is on a crowded Florida barrier island, with "Spring Break Dudes" cruising up and down the main drag, drinking until they puke, and hanging out at all the bars and such.   The traffic and congestion is a nightmare, and thanks to Florida corruption, developers keep packing more and more million dollar homes and 20-story condos right into the same space.  The traffic will just get worse and worse, over time.   And as retirees, we don't want to live in a "Spring Break" destination.

It is, as they say, a fun place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.   Better off to rent there, if you want to go.

Fortunately, the siblings are of the same mind.   They have their own plans and desires, and living in their parent's house isn't one of them.   Moreover, their spouses have other plans and desires as well.   If living in your parent's old house is creepy and weird, think about how creepy and weird it is to live in your in-laws former home.   It is creepy and weird to the Nth power.

So the house goes on the market for a quick sale.   And not surprisingly, at the funeral, we are approached by a buyer who wants to "make a deal" before others get their offers in.   Like a widower fighting off widows (bearing casseroles) at his wife's funeral, we find ourselves suddenly very popular.

Make it go away, put the money in the bank and move on with life.  Use that money to live our own lives, rather than spending our own money trying to relive our parent's lives.

A house is just a thing - an object, a structure.   While it is OK to be sentimental up to a point, never let sentiment guide you in making such a huge financial decision - one that can bankrupt you or leave you "house poor" for the rest of your life.

Like anything else, "Do the Math" on the transaction, and then ask yourself, "Do I really want to do this?  Or am I doing this out of some misplaced sense of obligation or sentimentality?"   When you get out a calculator, many things become clear.  And using Logic, rather than Emotion, is always the best choice, when dealing with money.

Friday, April 18, 2014


The crap you own is worth a lot less than you think.

We are dealing with a death in the family, which is a common thing these days, with the older generation getting older and dying off.   Frankly, the next 20 years are going to be booming business for retirement communities, retirement homes, eldercare communities, nursing homes, and mortuaries.   Elder Law is a booming area to get into, as legions of kids are being forced to deal with their parent's issues, both pre- and postmortem.

When a person dies, unexpectedly, it can be a bit of a nightmare to clean up.   Not only do various bank accounts, bills, and the like have to be dealt with, as well as probating a will, but you also have to deal with very personal property like the underwear drawer, someone's cosmetics, medicines, and old box of band-aids.

And then there is the refrigerator full of food, and the pantry full of same.  And if there are pets.....   it gets messy.

But often, the household furniture and things have to be sold off or disposed of, in order to sell the home or vacate the apartment or whatever.   And this is where you realize that all the crap you accumulate in life, which cost you a lot of money, personally, is really worth nothing.   And you realize that you have far too much crap in your life.

Even someone who isn't a hoarder and lives in a fairly orderly and clean home can have closets full of crap that accumulates - and takes hours to clean out, sort through, and dispose of.

And we all have blind spots in this regard.   I have a box of wiring stuff - computer and stereo cables, wall-pack transformers, old cell phone chargers and junk like that. Others have other blind spots - like a closet filled with brand-new containers of zip-lock bags (who knows, you might run out!) or stuff like that.  

It is an alarming wake-up call that we clutter up our lives with crap.

And in many cases, like with the ziplock bags, we buy more and more stuff, failing to remember that we have an inventory of these things already.

When you own something, but it is packed away or filed away in a closet or attic or drawer - and you can't find it - well, it is like not really owning that thing at all.

So you spend money on, say, a package of batteries, and you use one, put the rest in a drawer somewhere, and forget about it, and the next time you need a battery, you go out and buy a new package, and the process repeats.   Pretty soon, you are a battery hoarder.

Given the price of this stuff - cumulatively - it pays to spend some time in your life organizing things.   And it doesn't take much to do this.  Designate one drawer a "battery drawer" or whatever, and be done with it - and remember that is what that drawer is for - and ONLY that.

Many people have a drawer in their kitchen that becomes a catch-all for whatever they put into it.  A crap drawer, I guess.  My parents had one, and it was filled with odd notes, old pens, batteries, dull scissors, and the like.  Crap.

And we all say the same thing, too.  "Don't throw that away, it's valuable!"  And we tell each other stories about how such-and-such a painting we have, or a plate, or a coin, or furniture, or whatever, is some valuable family heirloom.   And sad-sack-of-shit-shows like "Antiques Roadshow" (their slogan, "validating your hoarding since 1998!") tell the plebes what they want to hear - that their ugly clock "could fetch $5000 at auction" or some such bullshit.

For the most part, however, it isn't true.   Yea, once in a while, someone finds an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and Normal Lear will buy it for $1.2 million.   The rest of the time, though, it is mostly just junk.

It is hard to admit this to ourselves - that we are all mostly plebes and the squalid crap in our hovels isn't worth its weight in gold.   But that usually is the case.  My parents left me an antique shoe, and told me it was priceless.  Turns out on eBay, it fetched $239, which was more than it was worth to me - or any of my siblings.

The Material is Mortal Error and you can't take it with you.   It is better to use your money to live your life than to accumulate things, particularly "collectibles" and the like.   Objects, by themselves, have no real worth, unless they have a use to you or someone else.  Gold bugs have yet to figure this out, but it is being explained to them, even as we speak.

This experience has highlighted to me that I need to do some cleaning out of my own - closets and attics and other junk collection areas where "stuff" seems to multiply, dragging us down emotionally, a little bit at a time.

UPDATE:  We called an auction company to see if they could sell the contents of the house in an Estate sale.  The man was pretty frank:  "My minimum fee is $1200 and you have maybe, on a good day, $2000 worth of stuff here, maybe less.   You may end up owing me money when it is all said and done."

So off to goodwill it goes, once the cousins have picked over the remainder.

Such is the worth of the precious "stuff" you cling to.   Certainly not worth ruining your life over, or obsessing about.

And if you think that your crap is somehow worth more than that, think again.   Unless you are a multimillionaire or  something, chances are, your crap isn't worth crap.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Dorthy, all of your online accounts have been HACKED! 

The sad thing about the news media is that, well, you can't rely upon it for any news.  All they sell is sensationalism and click-bait, and "Stay tuned for...." teasers.

No real information is provided.   You are on your own.

And you are better off just not watching television or listening to the "news" and instead, researching a subject weeks or months later.

Want to know what happened to that missing Malaysian Jet?  Wait a few years - that is how long it took them to find a missing Air France jet - and another year to do the report.

In the interim, nothing the "news" has to offer is accurate or useful.

Yesterday, alarming news that all of your online accounts have been hacked by a "Heartbleed" virus or something.   "Don't go on the Internet!" we are told, until the problem is solved.

Well, once again, not exactly.

Turns out, it was an exploit (and I wrote about those before) discovered by some security experts.   It has been around for at least two years, and there is no documented incident of it being used by a hacker, ever, ever, EVER!

In fact, if a hacker found out about it, it was because of the press release.
So, we are told that this exploit puts all your accounts at risk.   Right?

Well, once again, not exactly.

Only a few online accounts might be affected and again there is no evidence that anyone has used this exploit yet.

They finally posted a list of affected accounts today:

Change these passwords now (they were patched)

  • Google, YouTube and Gmail
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo, Yahoo Mail, Tumblr, Flickr
  • OKCupid
  • Wikipedia

Don't worry about these (they don't use the affected software, or ran a different version)

  • Amazon
  • AOL and Mapquest
  • Bank of America
  • Capital One bank
  • Charles Schwab
  • Chase bank
  • Citibank
  • E*Trade
  • Fidelity
  • HSBC bank
  • LinkedIn
  • Microsoft, Hotmail and Outlook
  • PayPal
  • PNC bank
  • Scottrade
  • TD Ameritrade
  • Twitter
  • U.S. Bank
  • Wells Fargo

Don't change these passwords yet (still unclear, no response)

  • American Express
  • Apple, iCloud and iTunes

Hmmmm...... that means I have to change a password on....... Gmail.   That's it.   Since I don't use Facebook, AMEX, or Apple, it is not an issue.

It is a shame that the article listing the real deal is buried under a mountain of celebrity news bullshit, while the alarmist articles about how you are going to "lose everything!!!!" online, are prominent.

The news media is utter bullshit.

And sadly, the like boy who cried "Wolf!" we just don't believe anything they have to say anymore, even when it might be relevant and true.

The Difference Between Gross and Net

Evil Doctors are scamming Medicare!   Oh, wait, maybe not.

This stupid article from CNN (and the ignorant comments accompanying it) illustrate how idiotic most American are.   People don't understand the difference between "Gross Income" and "Net Income" - which is a pretty basic thing.

If you are an average plebe - or a pot-smoking hating liberal - you would read the article and say, "This is scandalous!  Doctors making $21 million a year off of Medicare!   We should put a stop to this!"

But, if you read the article carefully, that is not what it says.

"One ophthalmologist from West Palm Beach, Fla., collected nearly $21 million, while a cardiologist from Ocala, Fla., received $18 million in 2012. Seven doctors pulled in more than $10 million in payments, while nearly 4,000 are Medicare millionaires. 

For instance, the data doesn't reveal the conditions of the patients. Also, doctors don't always get to keep the entire payment since they may have to reimburse drug companies or other providers for part of the service.

This is one reason why oncologists and ophthalmologists rank so high, said Medicare officials. These doctors often use expensive drugs in their treatments. Medicare pays the doctor 106% of the cost of the drug. The physician pays the pharmaceutical company for the medication, but keeps the additional amount for himself."

Just because a Doctor bills Medicare for a million dollars does not mean he takes home a million bucks in cash.   In fact, he never does.

Like any other business, a Doctor's office has huge overhead.  There is the rent, utility bills, the equipment, the nurses, physician's assistants, other doctors, the clerical staff, and of course, malpractice insurance.   If you are lucky, you might take home half of what you earn, if that.

And then there is medicines.   As the article notes, the medicines are billed to medicare at 106% of cost.   The doctor makes a lousy 6% mark-up on the cost of medicines, which barely covers the overhead of stocking, inventorying, taxes, and the like.   And for some practices, such as oncology, the cost of medicines can dwarf all other costs, which again, would make the overall amount "paid" by Medicare seem artificially high.

In my Patent Practice, I have the same problem.   I have to pay fees to the Patent Office, often in the thousands of dollars, and in turn, bill my clients and then get reimbursed for them.  I do not "mark-up" these fees, and that is a real cost to me, as I have to advance fees, on some occasions, and sometimes I don't get paid back, or I have to float a loan for 30, 60 or 90 days - or more.   And in fact, lately, I have been requiring advances on fees just for that reason.

So, if you saw my "Gross Income" you'd say, "Gee, you are making a ton of money!"   But when you factor in that $50,000 a year gets paid to the Patent Office, and I am just a conduit for that money, well, it doesn't look so rosy.

And one reason I closed my downtown practice is that the City wanted me to pay a 4.5% "Gross Receipts Tax" on every dollar I collected.   Thus, I would have to pay $4.50 for a $100 fee that I merely pass on to the Patent Office.   Not only would I have to raise my rates by 4.5% to cover the added cost to my fees, but effectively double this to cover the overall cost of such taxes.   Now you can see why doctors "mark up" the cost of drugs by 6%.

The problem with this CNN article (and the accompanying comments) is that it perpetuates a lot of mythology and ignorance, which damages our country as a whole.

First, it demonizes doctors even more.   Politicians like to blather on about "bad doctors" and "bad teachers" when discussing medical or school reform - as if we were over-run by hoards of incompetents.   For some reason, no one ever talks about removing "bad politicians" even though there is plenty of evidence they dominate that profession.  In any discussion about medicine, we have to stop using faceless unseen doctors as a punching bag for all our aggressions and frustrations.

Yes, some Doctors make a lot of money.  Wake up.   That's the whole point of going through a grueling medical education and internship.   It is hard work, and you have to do very messy things like cut into people and not be squeamish.   And you have to be really, really smart - and our society should reward people who are really, really smart.   One more thing - you have to be willing to take the risk that people will die if you screw up.   It is not an easy job.   You try it sometime.

Second, it confuses the plebes about how businesses work.   Oftentimes, in CNN Money and other know-nothing "financial networks" they will blather on about how "revenues" for a company have doubled or whatnot.   This gets everyone fired up, until in the fine print, they note that "profits" are actually down by 50%.   Overall revenue - the gross income a company collects - is really irrelevant, compared to the profitability of the company.

And yea, a lot of smart people miss this, too. Volkswagen set out to become "the worlds largest automaker" - failing to learn from GM and Toyota (the world's largest automakers in the past) that selling a lot of cars does not mean you are making a lot of money.   In fact, you can lose money on every car you sell and end up bankrupt, as GM did, not that long ago.   BMW, on the other hand, sells a fraction of the cars GM does, but is the most profitable car company on the planet.

Gross sales (revenue) and market share are really meaningless, when compared to net profits.   Granted, market share has a place in making business decisions and evaluating a business.  If your market share keeps shrinking long enough, you may go out of business.   And if gross sales (revenue) is down, well, it may be indicative of problems with the product - and also reduce your profitability in the long run, as economies of scale disappear.

But to talk about gross revenues as being "profits" of a company or a doctor is as stupid as saying 2+2=5.   It is such a fundamental mistake - and yet the media loves to cloud the issue, by never clarifying whether they are talking about gross or net income, in any financial article.

Which is why it never pays to get your information from the media, particularly financial media.

* * * 

UPDATE:  This comment bears mention for another reason:

"Seven doctors pulled in more than $10 million in payments, while nearly 4,000 are Medicare millionaires"

CNN money and the media in general, confuse Income with Net Worth all the time as well.

If you have a Million dollars in assets (stocks, bonds, real estate) you are a Millionaire.   If you make a Million dollars a year, you may or may not be a Millionaire - it is just how much you make not what you are worth.   If you spend more than you make, you could make a Million bucks a year and be dead broke.

And again, this "Million dollars a year" is your Gross Income, not your take-home pay which could be less than half that - may far less.

But you see where CNN is going with this - the class warfare thing.   And they have coined a trendy name that they hope will get traction - "Medicare Millionaires".

Pretty sick stuff - to bash doctors and publish misleading information, all for the sake of sensationalism and ratings, ratings, ratings.

Gee, how much does the head of CNN make these days?   And I'll bet he never went to medical school.

How much is "Dr. Sanjay Gupta" paid by CNN to not be a Doctor anymore?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


If you get a phone call from 661-748-0241, just hang up.  It is likely a scam artist.

I got a weird one today, on my cell phone, from 661-748-0241.   The guy claims I "downloaded their marketing report online" and wanted to know if I wanted to use their marketing services.

I don't recall downloading any such information - and even if I did, how would they know?  And how would they get my CELL number?

I suspect the first part is a ruse to get around the DNC registry - claiming a pre-existing business relationship.

But, I politely told him that I am semi-retired and not interested in getting new clients.   And he thanked me and hung up.

I googled the phone number and discovered that it is a number used by fraudsters all the time:

What is phone number 661-748-0241?

Phone number 661-748-0241 is a default Skype telephone number alike 661-748-0240 that is used by Skype users who have not yet set up their accounts. The phone number 661-748-0241 will appear on outbound calls made by Skype users taking advantage of the services.

Warning! Criminals and scam artists use the phone number 661-748-0241 in order to orchestrate different types of scams.

Phishing attempts from (661) 748-0241

There have been many reports of criminals utilizing the default Skype telephone numbers, including 661-748-0241, to extract sensitive information from victims and perform various scams.
  • Phishing scams orchestrated by criminals using the default Skype phone numbers may include fake Microsoft scams, fake ISP scams, fake family member scams, etc.
  • Criminals will often call unsuspecting victims fraudulently claiming to be from Microsoft or the a representative from the internet service provider, etc. In some scams criminals will attempt to persuade a victim that their computer has been compromised by malware, etc. and will state that in order to fix their computers a remote connection must be made. For more information about this and similar scams please see our article about the AMMYY scam.
  • Criminals are noted to use personal information in phone calls.

Some marketing company - if they are using Skype to make calls and don't even have their own dedicated number!

So, add this number to your blocked numbers list, or just don't answer if you get a call from it.

This shit just never ends, does it?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chick-fil-A IPO?

The Chick-fil-A founder says he wants to go back into the closet with his views on Gay Marriage.   Could this be a signal than an IPO is in the making?

Owning a company sounds like a swell deal, until you realize that you have all your money invested in one thing, and with one misstep, you can lose it all.  People might decide they no longer like your donuts, your square hamburgers, your roast beef sandwiches, or your whoppers, and a fast-food chain can go from "hot" to "not" in a real hurry.

If you doubt this, ask the folks at Krispy Kreme, Wendys, Arbys, or Burger King.   Their fortunes have waned as of recently, and the chains struggle to "turn around" their businesses.

The other problem with owning a big company like that is you can't spend the money.   Sure, Mr. Cathy, the founder of Chik-fil-A has like $7 Billion in net worth - but most of it is in the company he owns.  That goes south, and he is toast.   And if he wants to spend any of it, he has to use the profits or borrow against the value of the company.  Both ideas limit his spending options.  He has a lot of wealth on paper, but not in terms of spending power.

And as he gets older, well, he has to think about what happens when he dies.  Do the kids inherit the company?  What about the grandkids?   Suppose some of those kids don't want to own a slice of the company - and want to be bought out?   Their siblings may not be able to afford to do so.

So, maybe "going public" is a swell idea.   After all, those evangelical Christians and right-wing bigots have demonstrated that they will buy any half-assed investment idea, including gold, ammunition, and bunkers.  So right off the bat, you've got a captive investment audience.

Oh, but those pesky protesters - cutting into profits!  And all at a time when you want to expand into regions other than the redneck South.   You see, the company wants to open more stores in places like Chicago and New York, and in big cities, being bigoted and Closed-On-Sundays just isn't going to cut it.

Mr. Cathy also realizes that the younger kids (the so-called "Millennials") vote with their pocketbooks, and buying Redneck-Fil-A isn't seen as "cool" by those kids.

So, Mr. Cathy announces a new, Politics-Free Chick-Fil-A (no more side order of Hate!) and new exciting menu items in its place.  Maybe this will get those pesky Millennials (but not their icky Gay friends) to buy some waffle fries!

But of course, you have to wonder if people are really stupid enough to believe that just because someone stops talking about their beliefs, they still don't have them - and that they will use your money to advance social causes that may or not be aligned with your interests.

Frankly, I don't think it will work.  But then again, people are stupid.

But again, an IPO helps solve this problem.   In order to survive in the fast-food business, you have to grow-or-die.  And being closed Sunday and not serving markets like all the Blue States, just isn't going to work.  They have to expand into new markets, nationwide and overseas.  They will have to have airport franchises that will be open when people are traveling - and that includes Sundays.

(Speaking of which, can you imagine how our country would operate if every business had Mr. Cathy's mentality?  No gas on Sunday.  No airports open Sunday.  No emergency services on Sunday.  No hospitals on Sunday.  Hey - it's the Lord's commandment!  Unless you are Jewish - then it is Saturday, or Muslim, then it is Friday.   As George Carlin said, "God gets a 3-day weekend!   The Chik-Fil-A "Closed on Sunday" nonsense only works because other companies are open.   So in the Atlanta airport, they can close, and you can go somewhere else to eat.  But if everyone did this, it would be unworkable.  So, Mr. Cathy is being a bit selfish here, and relying on others to take up the slack.  Frankly, I don't think a Chick-Fil-A should be allowed in public franchise locations like an Airport or a Thruway rest stop, if they are not going to serve the public.   Award the franchise to someone else who will.  That should be a term of the lease agreement!)

As an "independent" company listed on the stock exchange, however, Chick-Fil-A can wash its hands (like Pilate?) of the controversy.  "We're an independent company!" they can say, and the founder's beliefs and message can be conveniently stripped away - leaving him with only, say, ten or twenty billion dollars in inflated IPO stock - maybe more.

History has shown than companies can recover from their bonehead founder's views.   Coors, for example, was boycotted when the Coors family was shown to funding a lot of anti-gay right-wing causes.   After a while, they realized that Gays drink a lot of lite beer in bars, and they were losing a lot of business.   Coors caved in, and pretty soon, they were the largest advertiser in many Gay publications.   They went from boycotted to favorite brand, nearly overnight.

Who knows?  The same could happen to Chik-Fil-Gay.  The drag queens in the video above seem to like it!

(By the way, that video would be a refreshing change from the stupid "Eat More Chikn" cow campaign.   I mean, fire your ad agency!  The cow thing just isn't funny anymore.)

Of course it goes without saying that all fast food is overpriced, not "fast" and horrifically bad for you.   Just don't eat fast food, period!

Nuthin' Can Be Done About It!

Cathy, Lisa, Jennifer, whatever, they are all scam artists - and nuthin' can be done about it.

We let crooks run rampant in this country, and when authorities are pressed for action, they throw up their hands and say, "Nothing can be done about it!   Watch out for yourself!"

"Lisa" from "Card Member Services" called again today.   She's been calling a lot lately - apparently the scam operation is up and running again.   

Of course, it is a scam.  And they telegraph this to you by violating the Do Not Call registry.  They are violating Federal law with every phone call.   Do you really think they have a real deal to lower your credit card interest rates?  Of course not.   Most times, they want a cash amount up-front (as much as $2000) to "lower your rates".   They keep this money and do nothing.   Other times, they just steal and sell your credit card information.

This website from the Minnesota Attorney General tries to be helpful, but really isn't.  She basically admits that, due to "technology" they cannot track down and prosecute these folks, and that the best you can do is file a useless complaint with the FCC or FTC (who will do nothing, because they largely can't do anything).

The refrain is the same.   Watch out for yourself, as we can't stop these criminals.   Don't fall for their scam, no matter how genuine it sounds.

And that is good advice for people who are young and astute and clever.

But for the poor and uninformed (and not very bright), what do they do?   They assume that people who sound like they are in positions of authority know what they are talking about.   And decent poor people, who work hard and try to get ahead, fall for these scams all the time.

Some folks get really upset about this (myself included).  And some try to contact the FTC, the FCC, their Congressman, or whatever - to no avail.   These people keep popping up like a bad penny, every six months.

They can spoof caller ID.  They use disposable or rented phone numbers or even stolen cell phones or calling cards.  The move from place to place, or are overseas.   They just can't be caught, it seems.  Or at the very least, we don't want to expend the effort to try - or to try to use technology to prevent them from calling.

In Canada, I am told, they have a telephone version of the SPAM filter.   Once a phone number is identified as a SPAM or fraud caller, using feedback from citizens, it can be quickly shut down and filtered, so that future calls do not go through.   For some reason, we can't do this in the United States.

Oh, right, that is "fettering legitimate businesses" with "unnecessary regulation."

Civilizations do not collapse from external forces, but rot from within.   Once a majority of the citizenry sees no point in supporting the status quo, all it takes is a small external force to topple the house of cards.

More and more people in the US don't see our country as worth saving.   Some of these folks are just crackpots, of course, who believe in conspiracy theories or weird Right- or Left-Wing philosophies.   We have to expect that, of course.

But the average Joe, who gets screwed by a PayDay loan, a title pawn loan, raked over by a credit card company, and then screwed by "Rachael from Card Services" - what about HIM?   He tried to play by the rules, worked hard, and made bad choices - choices that only 40 years ago would be illegal to offer in this country.    We stopped protecting Joe under the Rubrik of "Free  Enterprise" and "De-Regulation".

Hell, we even allow people to build houses in mudslide zones.   And when State Agencies try to map where mudslides are likely to occur, monied business interests shut them down so that that "Free Enterprise" and the right to bury people under 30 feet of mud is not impinged.  If you are thinking about buying a "mountaintop view" home in North Carolina, be aware that the State is intentionally preventing you from knowing whether your house will slide down that mountain - thanks to pressure from Real Estate Agents and land developers.

Some Democracy, eh?

Ahh... but nuthin' can be done about it.  Our hands are tied.   Special interests rule the day, and besides, only fools are scammed by these sort of folks, right?

Wrong.   More and more of us are retiring on our savings.   As we get older, we will be stewards of large sums of money that we will need to survive.  And as we lose our faculties, we will be rich, juicy targets for scam artists of one sort or another.

But, since the scam artists of all sorts contribute heavily to election campaigns, they can get "their man" elected, usually on a platform of "social issues" that appeal to his gerrymandered electorate.   The social issues are never resolved (by design, of course, you need a social issue like abortion to FESTER if you want to get elected).   But the "regulations" that hinder your donors are repealed - or modified to have the reverse effect as intended.

And every day our country devolves into "I've got mine, Jack, Fuck You!"

And one more citizen gets ripped off, and decides that voting doesn't matter and that our government isn't worth saving.

This is how civilization collapses.  Not the Taliban.   Not the Russians.   Rot from within.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Are Motorhomes Safe?

Crash statistics for Motorhomes are hard to come by.   Are these vehicles safe?

In my last posting, I analyzed why buying a motorhome on a 20-year note is not a very good idea.   Trailerable RVs are a lot cheaper, to be sure.   But many folks like the idea of the Motorhome for a number of reasons.

Some fantasize about what I call the "70 mph Cheese Sandwich" - that their spouse can make dinner while-you-drive and avoid stopping.   This is an expensive fantasy, and not a very safe one.  You are supposed to be seated and belted down while traveling in an RV.

Others like the idea that the kids and Mom and "spread out and relax" while driving, and thus enjoy the ride more.  And we see this, all the time, on the road, with kids romping on the bed in the back of an old Winnebago, while Mom and Dad sit up front.  The problem with this concept is that unbelted, your little ones become human missiles in the event of an accident.

And actually, everything becomes a missile in the event of an accident. 

If you collide with something in your car, six airbags will deploy, shoulder-harness safety-belts will lock in place (and actually tighten), and you and your family will be protected in a very carefully designed crash cage.

Now, granted, some Class-C motorhomes have airbags and seatbelts, and most Class-A motorhomes have at least seatbelts.  But few are crash-tested in the manner than cars are.

But the real problem with a motorhome collision is that all the junk inside the coach will fly forward in a crash - including cabinets, seats, appliances, contents of cabinet and drawers (including all the knives in your kitchen).  And unbelted children in the back will fly forward until they hit you in the back of the head.

This video shows more clearly how the insides of a motorhome can come apart in a crash.

The "box" part of the camper (particularly older ones) may be put together with just wooden sticks and a thin aluminum or fiberglass veneer.  Some better coaches have aluminum frames, but still are not designed with accidents in mind.  The cabinets and furniture are made of thin lauan plywood, usually stapled together.   None of this stuff is crash-worthy.

So, why isn't there more done to make motorhomes safe?   Well, to begin with, as a percentage of the overall vehicle fleet in America, they represent a pretty small part.   So in terms of accident statistics, they don't represent a big number.

And since they are heavy vehicles, usually a collision with a car or other small vehicle results in the smaller vehicle getting the brunt of it.

Raw data is hard to come by.   In this discussion group, it was noted that NHTSA has data on RV crashes, but trying to normalize this by miles driven is hard to do, as data on miles driven is apparently not collected.

RV accidents do occur, however, and we've seen a few on our journeys.  In many cases, the RV just disintegrates, particularly if it rolls over.  And we even have been to an RV junkyard, where crashed RVs were stored (and some repaired).   They do take a beating.   And we've met people who have lost spouses in RV accidents. 

In a "Class A" coach, you are often sitting right out in front, with little between you and what you hit, other than a windshield and a thin layer of fiberglass.  we met a man who lost his wife this way.  And that is a typical accident result, when a driver falls asleep at the wheel and drives off the road into a tree or a bridge abutment.

RV manufacturers, of course, would suggest that everyone remain seated while you are driving, and wear seatbelts.   However, much RV furniture is mounted sideways and provided with only lap belts.  Moreover, such furniture is not crash-tested for reliability.   And even assuming your children do not become human missiles, there is the issue of other items in the coach coming loose.

Frankly, this latter issue is one reason that when we sold our SUV we bought a mini-pickup truck instead.   Having heavy objects like a generator and the like, in the passenger compartment of your vehicle, is not safe if you get into an accident.  The pickup truck, in contrast, has a cargo area that is sealed off from the passenger compartment of the truck.  Frankly, I don't understand why SUV makers (and wagon makers) don't have some sort of cargo net (and a serious one, not some elastic dingus) separating the cargo from the people.  But I digress.....

But it should be pointed out that in some coaches, particularly class-A coaches, some furniture isn't even bolted down.  Many people have recliner chairs or folding tables in their coaches that just sit there, waiting to slam you in the back of the head, in the event of an accdient.

The author of the discussion group noted above, came to the following conclusions:

The revised FARS analysis shows that a total of 212 individuals perished in motorhome accidents in the years 2000-2007 for an average of just over 26 fatalities per year.  This represents an average rate of fatality of 0.44 per 100 Million Vehicle Miles vs. 1.48 for all vehicles in the United States, or roughly one third the average rate of all motor vehicles.  (See Chart "Fatality Mileage Normalization Chart")

1) The "Initial Harmful Event" which is the event deemed to have caused the crash, was overwhelmingly due to striking another vehicle in "your" roadway (45%).  That can mean a vehicle traveling the same direction of a divided highway, or a vehicle traveling in either direction of an undivided road.  Vehicle Roll-over, Striking a Guard Rail, and Striking a Tree, each represented approximately 9% of total crashes respectively. (See Chart "Initial Harmful Event")
2) The majority of fatalities occurred in the front seats of the motorhome, with 80% being either the driver or passenger.  Of the 26 rear compartment fatalities, only 2 persons died while using a restraint (seat belt).  No children using child safety seats died during the analysis period. (See Chart "Fatalities by Seating Position and Restraint Usage).
3) Alcohol did not appear to be a significant contributor to motorhome fatalities. (Less than 1% reported drinking as a factor)
4) The majority of fatalities occurred on rural interstates and/or major rural highways (54%). (See Chart "Road Type")
5) Trailers of any type were only reported in 26 of 212 fatalities during the study period.  Of those, only 3 were reported as towed vehicles, however that statistic was only added to the database in 2005 and is therefore statistically irrelevant. (See Chart "Fatality by Reported Trailer Use")

It is difficult to come to any supportable conclusions about accident causation, however, what it is clear that motorhomes are statistically very safe relative to the overall vehicular population.  What limited fatal crashes do occur appear to be largely caused by striking other vehicles and fixed objects near the roadway and the resulting fatalities seem to most often occur in the front seat.  Given that there were only 26 reported deaths of individuals in the rear area and only 2 of those were belted, one can draw their own conclusion about the merits of using a belt.  This author draws solace in the fact that not a single child in a child safety seat perished during the study period.

This is an interesting report, as it does show that these vehicles are involved in fewer fatal accidents than ordinary cars.  However, I think this may be due to a number of factors:

1.  Age of drivers:  Most RV'ers are older and may tend to drive slower (unless they have Quebec tags, then all bets are off!).

2.  Weight of vehicles:  The heavier a vehicle is, the more likely it will deform whatever it is hitting, rather than suddenly decelerate.  You are going to be safer in a heavier vehicle, period.

3.  Type of driving:  Most RV driving is on Interstate roads, where the accident rate is low, even though speeds are high.  As the report notes, rural roads are where the fatalities occur, but there are far fewer of them than with cars.   For city collisions (intersection accidents) the speeds are low enough and the weight factor tilts in the RV's favor.

More modern Class-B and Class-C coaches are built to passenger vehicle safety standards.

Of course, a whole new generation of class-B and class-C motorhomes, such as built on the Mercedes Sprinter or Fiat chassis, are becoming very popular.  And these types of coaches have had crash tests and of course, airbags and the like.

Class-A coaches (which are built on a raw chassis) on the other hand, generally do not have airbags, and have not undergone any sort of crash safety testing.

From a design point of view, motorhomes are not intrinsically safer than a car or pickup truck, but in fact, probably less safe, due to the potential for flying debris in an accident.   However, statistically, they are safer on the road, due to the way they are driven and by who drives them - as well as their weight.   More modern Class-B and Class-C coaches are likely to be safer than Class-A motorhomes and older Class B's and C's.

And it goes without saying, that walking around in your motorhome, unbelted, while driving, is a very unsafe thing to do.   Not that I've never done, it, of course.

UPDATE:  A reader sends this picture of their Sprinter Class-C after a rollover incident involving another car.   It looks like other RV accidents we have seen.   As you can see, the "box" part of the motorhome basically disintegrates in a situation like this, while the cab portion remains relatively intact.   However, all the debris and objects inside the camper can intrude into the cab during such an accident.

While motorhome accidents may be rare, when they do occur, they can be serious.
The accident above occurred when a car (rolled over in the rear of the photo) struck the camper while attempting to pass.

Note that two of the biggest problems with RVs are overloading and under-inflation.  Until recently, motorhome manufacturers produced rigs that were very close to gross vehicle weight, even when unloaded.   Throw in two people and several hundred pounds of gear, and many were overloaded from the get-go.  Today, new regulations require that manufacturers provide realistic load carrying capacities and also prominently display these.

Tire under-inflation can lead to blowouts and in some cases, loss of control (particularly in marginal setups).   It goes without saying to check your tire pressures and know what pressure they should be inflated to.    Load carrying capacity of a tire drops off dramatically with tire pressure.  A tire that is 10 psi below rated pressure may lose 25-50% of its load carrying capacity.