Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Problem With Feedback

eBay's feedback system is akin to a primitive social media platform.  And we know how flawed those are!

The bidding on the camper is going well - up to $6900 which is about what the camper is worth.  It may climb to close to $8000 by the close.  Anyone who pays more than that should think carefully - newer campers can be had for not a lot more.

One problem with eBay, of course, is that you do get people who bid and then decide not to buy.  They bid on something as a lark, and then discover they won the auction and get cold feet.   It has only happened to me once or twice, but never with a vehicle.  Fortunately, eBay has a "second chance offer" feature than you can click on, to offer the second highest bidder a chance to buy, if the highest bidder backs out for some reason.

You can learn a lot about a person through the eBay feedback system, although over the years they have tried to make the system less and less useful.  eBay doesn't allow users to use their real names anymore, not because of privacy concerns, but because they are worried people will consummate transactions outside of eBay and thus eBay will not get paid.    So my old user name robertplattbell was flagged.  For some reason, my new username, robert_platt_bell is acceptable.   I prefer to use a real name, as it shows that I am not hiding behind some nom de plume and thus am more trustworthy.   If more people used real names on the Internet, 99% of the world's problems would be solved - well, at least reduced somewhat.

The fundamental problem with eBay feedback is the same problem with consumer surveys.   When we bought the hamster, the salesman said, "please leave all fives on the survey - otherwise we get into trouble with KIA!"   I reviewed their ratings online and realized why they wanted all five stars - they had a lot of ones and twos, which is typical of any dealer - even a good one - and they wanted to counteract that.   Of course, the people leaving one or two stars were folks with marginal credit who bought cars on onerous terms and now have buyer's remorse.  One way to avoid that problem is to simply stop selling cars that way.    But in America, that ain't about to happen, I guess.

So on most surveys, its five stars or nothing.   And five stars should be only for truly outstanding service, not for a typical transaction.  In America, we have rating creep - everything is five stars and fantastic.  There is no mediocre or average or "meh" anymore.   It is either scorched earth or the heavens.    And eBay is no different, other they they eliminated the middle stars and have only three levels of rating - positive, neutral, and negative.   And some people take "neutral" as an insult.   A typical transaction is deemed to be "positive" and only if there is a problem can "neutral" be even considered.  Negative, of course, is the "with hell's heart I stab at thee!"

(For "power sellers" they do have multiple ratings with one to five stars, but that is for people who are selling things for a living on eBay, not for schmucks like you and me).

eBay also changed the feedback system so that it shows a percentage of positive feedback for the last 12 months only.   You can still see older feedback, and you should, if you have any qualms about a user.  For example, one bidder had a 99% positive feedback, which in our era of perfect or go-fuck-yourself, a problem.  Worse yet, the one negative feedback in the last 12 months was for bidding on a car and then not paying for it.   The excuse given by the bidder was odd - "I wasn't the highest bidder until the auction ended" or something like that.  In other words, a higher bidder cancelled their bid, and they won an auction they thought they had been outbid on.

Scrolling down through over a dozen pages of feedback (feedback as buyer, seller, left for others, 200 hits per page) finds a few similar situations - where the bidder bid on a vehicle and then decided not to buy, often claiming the vehicle was "misrepresented".  The seller, of course, claimed otherwise. This is a bit troubling, as a no-pay bidder can screw up your auction.   You have to give them time - nearly a week - to pay, and only then can you make a "second chance" offer to the second-highest bidder.  And by then, often the second-highest bidder has moved on to something else.

eBay recommends that a deposit ($500) be paid within 24 hours, and this is a good way to shorten this time window.   But if the second chance bidder has moved on, you have no choice but to re-list the item, and you have to start over with another seven or ten-day auction, but only after petitioning eBay for your auction fees back because of nonpayment by the bidder.   It is a bit of a pain-in-the-ass and one would rather avoid it.

As I noted before, some people bid on a lark.  Others use this as a negotiating strategy.  They bid on a vehicle with no intention to pay that price, and then show up and claim the vehicle has "undisclosed defects" but of course, they will consummate the deal if you lower your price - sometimes by a substantial amount.  If you refuse, they threaten you with negative feedback and all sorts of trouble.    This particular bidder did something like that to one seller - the negative feedback of course was cancelled, once the seller filed a non-payment complaint.

But the issue doesn't end there.  If you have to re-list the item, it now has a patina of failure around it.  Someone bid and won and didn't want it, and people then ask themselves, "Hmmmm.... must be defective merchandise or something!" and as a result, your repeat auction will be less successful.

Of course, there really isn't much you can do about this.   People will do weird things and try to be too clever by half.   You just have to suck it up and move on.   But the feedback system can at least prepare you for this.  Fortunately for me, the bidder was outbid (and let's hope it stays that way).  I don't want to deal with someone playing non-payment games or thinking that winning the auction means you won the right to inspect and make an offer on the item.

And from the more detailed feedback, you can look for and see patterns of this, if you are astute.  While this won't prevent a deadbeat bidder from bidding, it can at least alert you to the pattern, and you can be proactive about filing a non-payment complaint, rather than waiting for stories about "family emergencies" preventing payment (and yes, I have heard that one from a bidder, and it appears to be quite common on eBay).

But like I said, you can worry about these things, or just move on with life.    I have only run into this problem once or twice on eBay, and never with a vehicle.   And if it happens, it happens.   You can't worry about it, crawl back into your cave, put your hands over your ears and hope the world goes away.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Tale of Two Car Companies...

KIA was once owned by Ford.  Ford foolishly sold it off to Hyundai.  Who is making better products and providing better service today? 

I recently took both the hamster and the F150 back to their respective dealers for warranty service.  The hamster is now almost four years old (with 20,000 miles on it), and I noticed the clearcoat was peeling off the alloy wheels, which looked kind of ugly.   The service tech was polite and took pictures of the wheels and then called me back to say that KIA was going to replace all four wheels under warranty at no cost to me.   So I took the car in and had them do that, as well as change the oil and add the "wing" spoiler Mark wanted (it was his birthday).   Hey, for what is well over $1000 in free wheels, I didn't feel bad about throwing a little money their way, right?   Anyway, they did a good job and were polite and friendly and the dealership was clean and the service bays were well-lit and not covered with filth.

There was one recall on the car - to check the tightness of a steering bolt.  And the battery was getting weak, so I replaced it (it was cranking slowly after sitting for days at a time) with one from Wal-Mart.  That wasn't covered under warranty, but the dealer checked for me and said if it was, they would have given me a form to fill out for reimbursement.   Nice folks, at KIA.

Then I took the Ford in.

The Ford had a recall for door locks - apparently in colder climates, the doors would lock shut and not unlock which meant you had to climb out a window to get out of the truck.   They did a recall, so I took it in.   I also asked them to replace the rear shocks, which were bad.  On the way home from the dealer, it was like driving a bouncy castle - up and down and up and down, over every tiny bump.   We noticed it during the test drive, and the head salesman said it should be fixed under warranty.  After almost a half-century of driving and after owning over 30 cars, I think I can spot bad shocks.  Did I mention I used to work for General Motors and studied Automotive Engineering at their little school there?  Hey, but what do I know about cars, right?

Anyway, the "service tech" told me that it was "normal" for the truck to bounce like a basketball, and thus they would not replace the shocks.  Not only that, he was kind of insulting about it, implying that I didn't know from Adam about shock absorbents.  He didn't offer to escalate this to the zone manager, or offer any kind of assistance.   The service bays were dimly lit and filthy.  Oil and grease all over the floors - greasy fingerprints on the door of the freshly detailed truck.   I left - and wasn't happy.

I got onto a Ford F150 forum and posted a message about it.  Most of the members said they had similar problems with the shocks and suggested Bilsteins.   Come to think of it, I had put Bilsteins on my 1995 F150, so maybe crappy shocks is a Ford thing.  $189 later, they arrive in a couple of days and take about an hour to install.  The difference is like night and day.  No more bouncy castle handling, which is particularly handy when towing.

Anyway, a few weeks later, a "survey" arrives via e-mail from Ford, asking about my recent service visit.   I am still pissed off at the way they treated me.   Not so much denying a warranty claim, but the rude way in which they did it.   So I let them have it - all zeros.  I also explained what happened and why I felt the shocks were bad.  When you push down on the fender of your car, it should bounce back up and stop.  It shouldn't go back up, then down, then up, and then down, and then up - two or three times.   That is a sign of worn or inadequate shocks.

I forgot all about the survey until a month later when I got a "follow-up" survey from Ford, where they asked me if anyone from the dealer contacted me or whether they fixed the problem.  Since no one from the dealer had, and no one "fixed the problem" other than me, my tools, and my checkbook, I told them the truth.

A week later, this missive arrives from the service manager:

 Mr. Bell: 
I'm contacting you because of your response to the survey sent to you by Ford Motor Co. We here at Murray Ford of Kingsland strive to make sure everyone is completely satisfied when they leave. If you have not returned the follow up survey from Ford Motor Co., we are willing to make sure that money you spent out of your pocket is reimbursed to you.  Please call me. 
Lance Chester
Service Advisor
Murray Ford of Kingsland
(emphasis added - the offer for reimbursement was predicated on my not having returned the follow-up survey - how kind of them!)

Well, I couldn't lie to him (although apparently he doesn't have the same compunction).  I had already responded to the follow-up survey.   But what really stuck in my craw was they felt my integrity could be bought for $189, and moreover that they were willing to "spoof" Ford's survey system by buying me off in exchange for "all fives" on the surveys.  Fuck them.

This is why surveys suck and why they are a poor source of data. 

Mr. Chester's kind offer didn't make me feel better about Murray Ford, it made me feel far worse.  His e-mail just confirmed in my mind that these were shady people willing to cheat the system to make themselves look better to Ford - or indeed the world. 

A good reputation isn't something you can buy or bribe people to give you.  What they should have done was said, "Gee, Mr. Bell, the shocks aren't worn enough by shop manual standards to warrant replacement, but here's the number of the zone office manager, maybe you can talk to him about it.  We'd sure like to help, but our hands are tied!"

And I probably would have thanked them and gone on my way and bought the Bilsteins and thought nothing more about it.   But instead they were insulting and argumentative, and tried to convince me that down-up-down-up-down-up was the "normal" way a truck is supposed to respond to a bump.

Good service isn't something you should be forced to provide only because you were caught out by the parent company as the result of a customer complaint.  It should be something you do all the time, without checking to see if someone is watching or whether the customer will notice.   It is like a conscience - what makes the difference between a honest man and a dishonest one is what one does when no one is looking.

Mark's brother wants to buy a new SUV and is looking at the Ford Explorer and the new KIA Telluride.  He has a prejudice about American cars - he still believes foreign cars are "junk" even after buying a Honda, which is the best car he has ever owned.  To be sure, the F150 is a technological tour-de-force, with an aluminum body and twin-turbocharged engine.  It actually gets decent mileage (for a truck) and Ford is well-positioned to weather the next gas crises.   All GM can do is put up snarky ads claiming that aluminum truck bodies will tear if you throw cinderblocks into them.  But what asshole throws cinderblocks into his truck?   Ads like that are a sure sign of GM flop-sweat.

But all this technology worries me.  What do I do when it breaks?  In Key West, one of the side cameras stopped working in the heat.  Once we drove North, it started working again, mysteriously (I suspect a bad connection, probably printed flex circuit connector that was glued to the camera module, with the glue softening in the heat).   I can see it now, I take it to the dealer (no matter which one) and they respond with "cannot replicate customer complaint" because the truck, sitting in the air conditioned garage, will work perfectly fine.

Sadly, the attitude of the Ford dealer is typical of American dealers (even American dealers of foreign cars) in general.   I recently watched a YouTube video about sales of American cars in Japan, and one reason they are so unpopular there (in addition to price, quality, nationalism, etc.) is that in Japan, if you go to buy a car, you are treated like royalty - with white gloves (often literally).  You are the respected customer, not some jerk with bad credit who will be "lucky" to be sold a car.

American car dealers take the latter route.  They think they are holding the keys to the kingdom - that cars are a rare commodity and that the customer is "lucky" to be allowed to have one.  And for most Americans, this indeed is the case - they have screwed up their finances so much they cannot afford a car other than on the most odious terms, which American car dealers (of both American and foreign makes) are willing to offer them. 

Of course, once consumers assume this submissive posture, they are utterly screwed - and they screw it up for the rest of us.  As one Mercedes salesman explained to me, when I tried to haggle on the price of a used E-class wagon, "I've got people coming in here all the time, willing to pay full price, why should I haggle with you?"  And as if on cue, a Chinese family came in, waving their W-2 forms and their checkbooks, begging to buy the car in question.  Which was a good thing - German cars stopped being a value proposition a long time ago, and exist only as a status proposition today.  I dodged a bullet there.

And that is why buying a car from an individual is so much better, if you can find such a vehicle. Chances are, the individual wants to be rid of the car, and isn't going to play mind games about how lucky you are to buy it from him.  It can be a peer-to-peer relationship, not a master/slave one.  Of course, people who try to sell their own cars often find dealer-buyers who play the same old tired game - telling people how lucky they will be to sell their car to them - for far below book value, of course.

The funny thing is, of course, that cars in Japan are very expensive, and there is little in the way of haggling over price, discounts, sales, or rebates.  And maybe that is the problem right there.  Here in America, we all want a "deal" and are willing to be treated like crap, if we think we are getting a discount.

In the meantime, I peeled off the "Murray Ford" emblem from the tailgate and removed their "Shazam!" license plate frame from the bumper.  I won't be taking it back there for service, that's for sure!

eBay v. Amazon

Amazon's business model is predicated on addiction.

The auction for the camper is going along as predicted.  There are still a couple of days left, and the pattern of previous vehicle auctions is repeated.  I had a lot of people who were eager early on, some coming to see it in person. Others peppered me with questions, most of which could have been answered if they bothered to read the extensive listing or watch the nearly hour of videos I linked to.   No one can say I didn't disclose the condition of the camper!

Most of the tire-kickers were outbid by this point, however.  And the highest bidders are people who never contacted me or came to see it.   This is typical of what happens.  One person who came to see it revealed himself to be a car dealer.  He asked me to "end the auction early" and said, "I could get you the cash right now!" (as if somehow that was better than a check three days from now) and when I said I wasn't going to end the auction early, he quickly got into his car and left.

That is the way a lot of the world works, it seems. Some people try to sell things and be deceptive about the condition of them and try to snooker buyers.  Some buyers try to play upon the fears of the seller ("you'll never get a better price than this!") and snag things on the cheap, often for resale.

But, believe it or not, there are a host of people out there who make a decent living just by being straightforward and direct - by being honest, or at least as honest as human beings can be. You find these sort of folks and you hold them close to your breast.

They exist, you just have to take the time to look for them.  Like low-mileage late-model used cars from the original owner, they are there, but you have to make the effort to find them.   Most people can't be bothered - or they think the loud ads, slick marketing, and shiny plastic fascia of a "successful business" are the signs of trustworthiness.  Why eat in some "cafe" run by some sketchy foreigners, when you know what to expect at T.G.I. McTchotchke's? Based upon appearances alone, it would appear that McDonald's is the best restaurant on the planet.  Appearances can be deceiving.

But getting back to eBay, a reader writes that they don't even go there anymore because the auction format is confusing.  They shop exclusively on Amazon.  Ding!  Another Amazon victim.  Way back in the day, when I started this blog, I was quite enamored of Amazon, as their prices were indeed the best on the Internet. Why bother looking elsewhere?  eBay's auction format was indeed tiresome and confusing.  Who wants to wait seven days to find out if they bought a box of light bulbs or not?

UPDATE: eBay has largely abandoned the auction format and I think most smaller items are all "buy it now!" listings.  Maybe there are auctions for higher end items (used cars) but that's about it.  No one is auctioning a $15 item.

Of course, back then, Amazon was hemorrhaging cash - the business model of silicon valley, which is more software than silicon today (and companies like Amazon are not even headquartered there!).  You "burn" though capital to establish a critical mass of users - who then become uncritical about pricing.  Once they are in the habit - a term of addiction - you can then slowly raise prices and they won't notice.

Uber is hoping to do this - put the taxi companies (and Lyft) out of business and acquire a critical mass of users.  Once they are established as the dominate taxi service (and that is all it is - an unlicensed and unregulated taxi service - why is that a good thing again?  Why is it "tech"?) they can then raise prices with a near-monopoly market share. That's their hope, anyway.  History has shown that monopolies rarely last more than a few years, a decade or two at most, before they collapse.

I stopped shopping on Amazon a year or so ago. Oh, sure, I still buy things there occasionally, but I also shop the rest of the Internet, and most of the time I find what I want at a better price or the same price as Amazon.  I tried their "Prime" service, but didn't think it was all that great (and I didn't pay for it, either).   Free shipping is the new norm, and I don't mind waiting a day or two for a lawnmower part or a fiberglass rock to cover my sewer cleanout (on order from Lowe's).  And Prime TV was just a bust.

But others are addicted to Amazon - they sign up for Prime and they compulsively shop online for electronic trinkets and do-dads, only to have them swiped off their front porch by "Porch Pirates".  When you have a stack of three or four Amazon boxes on your front porch every week, well, you probably deserve and need "porch pirates" to keep you from becoming a hoarder. Seriously, these are the same people living "paycheck to paycheck" but yet have a smart thermostat, smart doorbell, and an "Alexa" or whatever smart speaker - and cameras galore all over their house to upload surveillance video to the Internet to catch the thieves who are stealing all their precious electronic collectibles.

But I digress.

Since I started this blog, eBay has changed dramatically.  Oh, sure, they still do auctions, and for things like a car or a collectible, these are not bad formats.  But I think the majority of stuff sold on eBay these days is just sold at a fixed price.  eBay has morphed into more of a platform for retailers to sell, much as Amazon is also a platform for retailers (other than Amazon) to sell things. The difference is, of course, eBay isn't competing with its own retailers, but rather just a platform.

Amazon's prices have slowly ratcheted up over the years, and despite their reputation as having "everything" I find their selection less than optimal.  Things like car parts and camper parts are there, but the selection and variety is limited.   For specialty items like that, car and camper parts sites are still the best option in terms of getting the right stuff and the best price.  Amazon is more of a place to buy crappy junk you don't really need or want - but are compulsively addicted to "Buy Now" with one-click ordering.

Setting up an eCommerce site isn't hard, and it is often easier for the user to just go to the manufacturer's site to buy things - at the same price as reseller sites. I recently bought some accessories for the truck from Weathertech (floor mats, sun shades, and crap like that). It was far easier to buy these on their own site than it was to try to buy them on Amazon.

Of course, there is price-fixing.  I noted years ago that when you try to find Merrill sneakers online, the prices are remarkably the same across all the different sales platforms.  Similarly, when we bought our truck tonneau cover, the price was the same from online retailers, the factory website, Amazon, and the local truck accessory store - who would install it for the same price the others would charge for shipping it in a box to my house.   So it made sense to use the local truck accessory store.

Companies are doing this - forcing resellers to stick to manufacturer's suggested retail prices - as a means of protecting their retail network. If people could cut prices on the truck tonneau cover, for example, customers would go to the local brick-and-mortar store to see a demonstration and "feel the goods" and then go home and order online.  Brick and mortar isn't dead, when wholesalers demand that retailers stick to price agreements, and retailers are not loaded up with debt from "Private Equity" firms who take them private, load them up with debt, and then sell the companies back to the unsuspecting public.  Whether such price-fixing agreements are legal or not, remains to be seen.

Ordering from the manufacturer has its advantages. I recently ordered new awning canvas for the camper and it arrived 5" too narrow.   They agreed to make a new canvas and ship it to me (I have yet to receive it, but it is scheduled for delivery tomorrow).   I am not sure how that would have worked out buying from an eBay or Amazon middleman who wasn't even familiar with the product or its use.

Low-cost resellers can be a great place to buy things, but a lousy place for service.   Years ago we bought a Toshiba laptop at a law firm I worked at, for litigation.   We bought from one of these "Crazy Eddie" kind of places in New York City.   Back then, they had these full-page black-and-white ads with lots of tiny boxes listing items for sale - the Internet was in its infancy.  The place was run by Hasidic Jews, who I guess had some religious objection to using computers.  When I called to ask about an order, he had to go to a card file catalog to look it up.  "I just sell these things, I don't use them!" he said.  He had the best prices, but I could not ask him question one about features or operability of the product. 

Sometimes the lowest price isn't always the best deal - which is something you notice when shopping at Wal-Mart or the wholesale club.   Yes, maybe they have cheap computers and televisions, but you had better know what you want and what the features mean, because the kids working there usually have no clue.

But getting back to eBay, it would appear that eBay has a far lower overhead charge to retailers, as the really low-price retailers advertise there, and not on Amazon.   I've bought a number of things from China on eBay - not made in China, from China as well.   They are shipped from Hong Kong, and arrive in odd-shaped packages stamped "China Post" and often take a week or two to arrive (Donald Trump has promised to cancel the postal deal with China to put a stop to this - Thanks Donald!).

So for example, I need some new air filters for the lawnmower.   They clog easily with all the dust and pollen stirred up while mowing.   New ones from Lowe's or Home Depot - if they have them in stock - are like $10 apiece.  This, after spending $5 in car costs to get there and back.   Amazon has them for $5.99 apiece with "free shipping" if you buy two.   eBay has Chinese knock-offs for about a buck-and-a-half apiece, with free shipping from China, if you don't mind waiting a week or two for "China Post" to deliver.   Maybe they aren't as nice as the ones from Lowe's, but I can change them more often when they clog up with leaf clippings and pollen.

Funny thing, too.  I have bought dozens of things from China this way and I have yet to be stiffed by them.   It is a leap of faith to send money there (although usually it is only a few dollars or so) and wait weeks for delivery.   But they realize that if they don't deliver the goods, word would get around America that buying things this way is just a rip-off and people would stop buying.  Perhaps also, there is this Chinese philosophy of "loss of face" - if you provide poor service, it reflects badly not only on you, but your company, your family, your country, and your race.  Sadly, this idea has yet to take hold in America.

I bought a 12V fan once from China, and when it arrived, it was a piece of crap.  It was noisy and didn't blow much air (the fan blades were nearly flat, so there was no air being pushed).  I contacted them and they said they were sorry about it and refunded my money and told me to keep the fan. They also admitted the fan was a piece of crap and they decided to stop making it and re-design it to a higher quality standard.  They realized that, like the Japanese, they are reliant on a foreign market to buy their products. And if their products have a reputation as crap, (as Japan did in the early post-war era) people will stop buying.

Folks like to beat up on China and claim their products are junk.   And some are - and in the recent past, most were.   But like Japan and Korea before it, they keep trying and going back to the drawing board and improving their products.   And today, the quality of much of Chinese stuff is as good as or better than "Made in America" products, particularly products made by union members. As I predicted nearly a decade ago, it won't be long before the Chinese are exporting cars to America.  Today they are, and your "American" car likely has a lot of Chinese components in it anyway.   A good thing, too, because otherwise, your Chevy Malibu would cost more than a Mercedes S-class.

There was a point to this essay - but I tend to wander off.   The point is, shop around and be a retail agnostic.  "Brand Loyalty" or retailer loyalty is meaningless and stupid today.  Saying you "only" shop on Amazon makes no sense, if there are better prices, better products, and better service elsewhere.   And you won't know unless you actually bother to look.  If enough people stop looking, then Amazon wins - and they can raise prices all they want, because they depend on their customers not cross-shopping.

This is nothing new, of course.  Companies have used "loyalty" programs to prevent customers from cross-shopping for ages.  Airlines use the "frequent flyer" miles to keep you in their ecosystem - and so long as your company is paying the airfare and you are cashing in the miles, maybe that makes sense.  But for the ordinary vacation consumer, who doesn't accumulate enough miles in a year even for an upgrade, chasing such programs makes no financial sense.

Similarly, going to a grocery store because they give you a nickel off on gas (if you buy $100 worth of groceries) makes no sense at all - particularly when the gas station they partnered with sells gas for ten cents more than the discount place.

Of course, in this modern smart-phone era, marketing has gone creepy high-tech.  I've written Patent applications on some of this stuff, and it is indeed scary.   Today, retailers can tell when you are in the store or even near it, and entice you to enter or buy based on your location, your shopping history, and your demographic data. Worse yet, competing retailers can try to steer you to their store, while you are in the competition's domain.   Amazon does weird things like change prices in real time, based on your purchase or search history - which is another reason why I shy away from Amazon.

I suspect also that Amazon uses its social media platform (its review pages) to promote some products and demote others (products sold by retailers who refuse to play ball with Amazon, for example) although this would be difficult to prove.   Online reviews, of course, are always suspect, even the ones I leave.

Does this mean I will never shop on Amazon again?   Don't be extremist, I hate that.   No, it only means that I have bought far fewer things on Amazon as of late, and by shopping around, I have found better prices, better products and better service.

And sometimes, if you shop around enough online, you come to the conclusion that the "must have" piece of retail consumer crap you were pining for is really unnecessary to your daily living, and you make the best and most economical purchase choice of all - to not consume.

That, in short, is the real threat to Amazon. If people stop buying so much crap, the whole business model falls apart.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thank You For Reading!

Reading is essential to the maintenance of civilization!

Dear Reader:  Thank you for reading.  Not this blog, just reading in general.  So few people do it these days.  This fact was driven home to me when we listed the trailer for sale on eBay.  If you read the listing, you see it goes on for pages describing every damn thing I have replaced on it, all of its features, measurements, weight, towing requirements, and so forth.  I even attached five videos totaling nearly an hour overall, showing everything about the camper.

Yet, still, I get e-mails from people who just looked at the pictures and didn't bother to read.  "How much does it weight?"  they ask, "Can I tow this with my Prius?"   And so on and so forth.   They didn't bother to read before asking or even bidding, which is scary.

In the Ray Bradbury Novel Fahrenheit 451, he foretells of a future world that apparently isn't on the metric system.   Books are outlawed, and people get all their information from videos and comic books.  It sounds frighteningly like today.

Recently, we were shopping for a screen to put on our garage door.  In Florida, people screen in their garages so you can work in there (or use it as a porch) and keep out the bugs.   They sell everything from $29.95 crappy screens that stick on with velcro, to $3000 motorized monstrosities that flip up and down with a remote control.

What was interesting to us was that few of the websites promoting these products had any documentation accompanying them.   It was all photos and YouTube videos.  Instruction sheets, if any, were pictographs like IKEA uses, so people of any language or even the illiterate could follow what was going on.

To me, this is very scary.

Why?  The answer is simple.  When you read, you take little black squiggles on a piece of paper (or a screen) and form them into words in your head - a narrative, often with a voice.   From that, your brain creates images, ideas, and concepts - all in your head!   And you can do this at your own pace, taking time to digest information, analyze it, criticize it, or validate it.   If something seems confusing or just wrong, you can re-read it and think about it and process it further.   Reading promotes analytical thinking.

Pictures and videos do neither.   Pictures present one image, one idea, that is fixed.  There is little to interpret, only to see.  But at least with a picture, you can study it and absorb it at your leisure, perhaps picking up details over time.   Video is far worse, as it throws images at you at light speed.   While, perhaps not light speed, but 30 frames a second or so.   The stuff comes at you so fast, you have no time to process it, which is why most video is accompanied by a verbal or captioned narrative to frame what it is you are seeing.

Many people think, for example, that the video released by "Wikileaks" that they entitled "Collateral Murder" shows a bunch of helicopter pilots ruthlessly gunning down innocent civilians in Iraq.   That video was heavily edited, and the sound track was chopped up so that it no longer matched the video.  As a night-vision image, it was cloudy and muddled and subject to interpretation.   And to guide your interpretation, a misleading captioning was provided to "tell" you what was going on.    And it worked, too.   Many people I know who have watched that video are still convinced that it shows American soldiers laughing as they gun down children.  Today, we know that Wikileaks is part of a Russian disinformation campaign, designed to influence public opinion in the United States.  We should know better, but we don't.

Of course, radio is no better.  Right-wingers listen to these odious alternative radio stations that spread conspiracy theories that, when written down on paper sound ludicrous.    Parents of children gunned down in horrific crimes are "crises actors."   A pizza shop is a cover for a pedophile ring.   On the radio this sounds plausible, I guess.   This "information" is thrown at you, and before you have time to digest it, it is hammered down firmly.  No opposing views are presented.  No time is allowed for thinking or analyzing.

Lest you think I am picking on the right, the left does the same thing.  I mentioned before how my doctor believes a story on the "This American Lie" show on National People's Radio about how Calamari is made of pig rectum.   He heard it while riding his $10,000 bicycle (that I paid for half of) around our island, with his iPhone plugged into his ear buds.   It has to be true, because it validates his own internal narrative that eating meat is bad, and that the meat industry is corrupt and vile.

When I write this down here, though, it sound ludicrous, doesn't it?  But now you understand why I don't listen to NPR anymore.  They used to play music, and still do, at night sometimes.  But the rest of the time, it is talk, talk, talk.  And the talk is all political and designed to indoctrinate you into a particular way of thinking.

Sorry, but I don't put up with that from either Fox News or NPR.   Both the Times and the Post try to do this, of course, but in print, it is harder to get away with.   When I read an obviously biased article in print, it is so much easier to pick out the facts from the opinions.   This is, in short, why Sean Hannity is exposed for the fraud he is, when he tried to write an "opinion piece" - all he has to say are conclusory statements and wild accusations.

Sadly, as my experience listing the camper illustrates, reading is falling from favor.  The few people who still read tend to read less and less and read at a lower and lower grade level.   Popular novels on the bestseller lists are written at an 8th-grade level, if that.   The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown are now highbrow literature.  Perhaps not literally, but well, perhaps.

Many of the world's problems today, I think, can be traced to a lack of literacy.   People are all-too-willing to believe whatever they hear or see, but can't be bothered to read much.    Organizations like ISIS and the Republican Party don't recruit through the printed word, but through videos which hammer ideas again and again, not allowing any time for dissent or discussion.

Sadly, I don't see much of this changing anytime soon.  Reading is dead.  Ray Bradbury's prognostication has already come true.

Do High Wages Drive Housing Prices or Vice-Versa?

No matter what your income bracket, the cost of housing, on average, seems to take up 1/3 to 1/2 of your income.  Always has, always will.  Of course, that's the statistical average.  As an individual, you do have choices as to how much house to own - or rent.

NOTE:  This is a posting I started a while ago and only recently finished.

A reader writes that a recent article states that people living in the San Francisco Bay Area making over $100,000 a year "feel poor" because of the high cost of living.   Of course, this is nothing new in America, where people whine and complain about living "paycheck to paycheck" on a hundred grand or more - often far more.

This begs the question - are high housing prices the result of high salaries or vice-versa?  I think the former and let me explain why.

When you have a high population concentrated in a small area where long commutes are not practical, people will drive up the demand for housing.   If they have high salaries, they can afford to pay more for housing, so they will bid up prices in order to secure housing, often pricing poorer people out of the market.

So when you start paying IT people and software "engineers" (let them design a bridge!) over a hundred grand a year or more, housing prices are going to skyrocket.

We saw this happen in the Bay area before - back in the 1990s, when hardware was the big ticket to success in silicon valley - where there was actual silicon in silicon valley, or at least notions about it.  Chipmakers (who actually designed chips, but rarely made them on site) hired engineers to design semiconductor circuits - those little black things inside your cell phone.   The problem was the same back then as what it is today.  An engineer making $50,000 a year out of school would bid up a plain 2-bedroom house in a neighborhood close to San Jose or Fremont, and a housing boom started.

It eventually burst with the tech bubble of 1995 and housing prices dropped - for a while.  Many companies decided to move to places like Boulder or Austin where housing prices were cheaper and it was easier to hire talent.  The need to be in silicon valley started to diminish for the chip makers.   Of course, this merely offloaded the problem to Austin and Boulder, two communities where today it is harder and harder to find affordable housing, even on a six-figure salary.  And so the process continues, until the pressures force companies to move to Alabama or somewhere.

Meanwhile, silicon valley has seen a new array of tenants, including Google, and some old tenants whose business has turned around (such as Apple, who at one time was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, if you can believe that - before the iPod, they really had nothing to sell - such is the fate of tech companies!).   And we see the same pattern repeat yet again.   The die-hard valley fans, of course, insist that you have to be located in silicon valley in order to do business - creating an artificial need for office space and living space.  And Apple certainly has committed to the area, with its giant doughnut office building.   But others are less tied to the land - often leasing office space, or able to sell out and move away on a moment's notice if necessary.

Still others choose to expand into different cities and even countries, keeping a presence in the area but putting the bulk of employees in lower-cost areas - thus reducing overhead and salaries.

The ultimate conundrum is that no matter how much you make or how little you make, it seems that your biggest single expense in life is housing. And we'd all like to have more disposable cash to spend on stupid things like clothes, booze, and restaurant meals, rather than on a place to sleep.

As I noted before, it costs about $850 to $1000 a month to live in a paid-for house, when you factor in the cost of utilities, insurance,  taxes, and the like.  This works out nearly $10,000 a year. While this might not seem like a lot of money to some people, at this point in my life it works out to about one-third of my annual income.

Back when I was making over $100,000 a year and had a mortgage, you can guess how much I was spending on housing - again about one-third of my annual income, if not more.

The media likes to report that Millennials are upset that they have to spend so much money to rent an apartment or buy a house, as if no one ever had to go through the same experience, or indeed as if the rest of us aren't already going through this experience.

It seems that no matter what your income bracket is, you will spend at least one-third to one-half of your income on a place to live. So the trials and tribulations of Millennials are nothing new, nor are those of software engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However there are ways around this conundrum. For example, oil workers working at the Bakken formation were smart if they bought a second-hand RV and parked it somewhere cheaply.  Others foolishly invested in buying homes in a boomtown area and later on ended up broke.

Washington DC and San Francisco are not much different. I went to Washington to seek my fortune, and found it, and left. Tech workers in the Bay Area should keep that in mind as well. Make all that money in your thirties and forties and put it in the bank and don't squander it on buying a "look at me" house in a place where you would likely never retire.

Odds are, your job with a tech company will not last a decade, and it is likely you probably will move to another city to work at another tech job, so why bother investing in real estate in a location you have no long-term commitments to?

A friend of mine has a son who just moved to San Francisco and is working at a job with an investment firm.  He and two buddies are renting a one-bedroom apartment, which is now three bedrooms, by making the living room a bedroom and a walk-in closet into a bedroom.  "My son is living in a closet in San Francisco!" my friend exclaims, as if this were some tragedy.  I tried to explain to him that it is hard for anyone to live in the closet in San Francisco, but he didn't get the joke.

But rather than a tragedy, it is an opportunity.   As I explained to him, his son is in his early 20's, with a good-paying job and living in an exciting city.   Who cares where you sleep?  Why the need for granite countertops and all that when you are rarely home?   Those are the exciting years to live - having nothing but hard work and dreams.   Things will come later - and you'll wish you never had half of them.

One reason I have been marginally successful in life is that I was able to escape from Fairfax County. I moved there in 1987 to seek my fortune.  I found it.  And then I was smart enough or lucky enough to leave.   You see, places like that are a great place to get an education, to get experience, to get a job, make money and all that.   In the long run, though, they are shitty places to stay.   The cost of living sucks up all your income. 

But many people forget the reason why they moved there.   They get caught up in the idea of keeping up with their neighbors in a competition of home remodeling and car-buying and forget to leave.   They start to think of the rat-race as "life" and think if they can stick it out for a few more years, they might "win" at it.  But in any race, there are a few winners and a multitude of losers.   Guess which one you will likely be?

A smarter move, in my opinion, is to expect to leave the big city eventually, and plan for it.  I only wished I had planned better, as our opportunity to cash out literally came overnight.   And I only wished I had spent less money on the rat race while I was racing it - throwing money at a home that would be bulldozed for its land, and buying vehicles to impress other people who I often didn't even know.

Bissell 1984

Rechargeable appliances are the wave of the future.

I have struggled with vacuum cleaners my whole life.   You buy an expensive one, and it breaks.  You buy a cheap one, and it breaks.  They are cumbersome, heavy, tied to an electrical cord, and a pain-in-the-ass to use.

I have written about vacuums before.   In my life, I have had several, some given to me, some bought, some found in a dumpster.   None have been particularly good, although some were better than others.

My first vacuum was a Kirby, which my brother sold to my Mother when he worked for them as a door-to-door salesman.   It was his only sale.   It cost a staggering $600 back in 1980 when she bought it.  It was heavy and built like a tank and had a host of attachments that came with it, including even a paint sprayer.   Yes, I painted my first car (a rusted-out 1967 Chevy) with that vacuum cleaner.   Can you say orange peel?    Hey, I was only 15 years old at the time - I didn't even have a license yet (that didn't stop me from driving though).   Anyway, Mother got tired of trying to figure out all the attachments and returned to her trusty Electrolux (circa 1965) and she gave me the Kirby when I bought my first house.

I used it for nearly a decade, until it finally bit the dust (no pun intended).  It was durable and heavy, but it was a pain in the ass to clean out the non-disposible vacuum bag.  The motor finally burned out and we sent it to the curb.   It was a hybrid "upright" that looked like a hotel vacuum from back in the day.  But you could attach a hose to it and sort of use it as a canister vac.  Like I said, the attachments were a nightmare for anyone not mechanically inclined, so they were rarely used by anyone other than me, and even then, rarely.

A durable vacuum, to be sure.  Too heavy and complicated to use, and staggeringly expensive.   $600 back in 1980 would be close to $2000 today.   You could buy a car for that.   But of course, it was more than just a vacuum - it was a scheme to get young people to sell these door-to-door in poor neighborhoods and finance them on time.

Not a bad product, but another example of selling "expert" grade equipment to ordinary consumers at high prices.  The experience is not enhanced by paying more.

My next vacuum was an Electrolux.   There may have been some sort of cheap Eureka upright bought in the interim, but it was not memorable.   It took bags, as I recall, and Mark hated it.  He finally said, "Let's get an Electrolux, our Mothers had them - and our Dads still have them - and they are durable and last forever."   This made sense, even though they were expensive.

We went to a vacuum cleaner shop (remember those?) and paid about $600 for an Electrolux.  It was not the same thing as our Mother's vacuums.   It was made of plastic, not metal, and didn't last as long, particularly as we had a cleaning lady.  She would do things like yank the electrical cord out of the wall from across the room, which quickly bent, and then broke, the prongs off the plug.  I put on a replacement plug, but that was not the end of it.  She banged it against furniture, cracking the plastic.  Duct tape to the rescue!  She would try to empty the bags and re-use them, rather than put in new ones.  It lasted about five years or so, before it, too, went to the curb.

The GE Canister Vac was next - actually we bought two, one for each house.  We still have them, although they are beaten.  They cost less than $100 and they worked well - for a while.  I wrote before how I did Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA, which is not a form of flood insurance) while at Carrier.  The military figured out how long electrical components last, in a specification called MIL-SPEC-217-D.  Each component has a design life factor, and the things with the shortest life expectancy are light bulbs, connectors, switches, and power supplies.

The GE canister vacs still "work" but the lights in the beater heads burned out, and then the connectors on either end of the beater head arced and melted (I replaced them with lamp cord plugs) and then the main power switch died (I screw-gunned a piece of metal over it to hold it in the "on" position).   It failed just as MIL-SPEC-217-D predicted it would.  They both still "work" however, cobbed together as they are.  One is used in Mark's studio where it has a hard life vacuuming up clay dust, and the other in the garage.  Once we run out of bags (bought cheaply online, in bulk) they will also go to the curb.

We bought a cheap Bissell upright at Walmart for the condo.   We still have it but rarely use it. It has no hose attachments and could not vacuum under the bed or other types of furniture.

We were then given another Bissell, this time a cyclone upright vac that a friend of ours used to clean their camper. They sold the camper and we inherited the vacuum cleaner.  It turns out they had salvaged this vacuum cleaner from the dumpster, after another camper threw it out.

Cyclone vacuum cleaners, as I wrote about before, are interesting innovation. They sell themselves as being easier to use and requiring no disposable bags. However, all of them have a filter to catch the fine dust, and this filter either needs to be periodically washed out or replaced.

I think the reason why the original owner threw the vacuum in the dumpster was that the filter became clogged, and they had no idea how to clean it or replace it, and thus it stopped suctioning.  I bought a new filter for it online, as well as the replacement cleaning nozzle for the hose.  And it works pretty well, although it requires frequent cleaning, which means periodically removing the filter, washing it in soap and water, and letting it dry for a day or so.

It is a small vacuum cleaner and well suited for a trailer, as the cord on it is extremely short.  As a result, when I use it to clean the house I am constantly plugging and unplugging it, as it doesn't reach very far. However for the price, free, it has been an okay vacuum.

But it's an upright, and thus doesn't go underneath the bed or other furniture.  And if you don't vacuum under your bed, you'll find dust bunnies accumulating very quickly.

What we really would like is a small powerful vacuum cleaner that is capable of going under and around furniture - including the bed - that doesn't require a cord, that is also inexpensive.  It also should be easy to clean and easy-to-use. And up until now, this search for the Shangri-La of vacuums seemed fruitless.

Enter the Bissell Air Ram. Mark came home from the pot shop one day, very excited as someone had demonstrated to him this new rechargeable vacuum cleaner.  It is made by Bissell, who made two of our previous vacuums.  It uses a lithium ion battery to power it.  Note that there are two models of the Bissell Ram Air vacuum.  An older discontinued model is available for under $200, but the latest model is the 1984 model which sells for about $209 either directly on the Bissell site or through Amazon, eBay, or various other outlets.

Like other cyclone vacuum cleaners, this one relies on a filter rather than a bag, so it's a good idea to buy a spare filter up front as you'll need it down the road.  Since the cyclone rests on its side, the filter does get dirty.  However it is an easy matter to remove the entire cartridge and empty the dust into a wastebasket and then disassemble the filter into three components, which can be rinsed out in the laundry room sink.  Left to dry overnight on a towel, they're ready to use the next day.

The lithium-ion battery is strong enough to vacuum the entire house.  And the entire assembly pivots, so it can go underneath beds and most furniture.  It is lightweight - you can lift it with one finger - so it is very easy to use, and it doesn't involve any fatigue.  And best of all, since there's no cord, you're not constantly plugging and unplugging and untangling cords as you go along.

Our friend who demonstrated it said that they enjoy it so much they find themselves vacuuming every day.  And we find that as well - it's so easy to use and pick up and just hit the power button that you might as well just vacuum something up, if you see any dirt anywhere.

It seems that we are entering a new era of home appliances. I was thinking the other day that children born this year will look upon corded appliances is something that they saw once in Grandma's house. The idea of plugging things in with long cords will seem as alien to them as gas lamps do to me.

And like with LED lighting, which is changing the very nature of how we light our homes, lithium ion battery power will change the very nature of appliances.  As I noted before, LED lights last such a long time there's really no point in making the "light bulb" removable. I suspect more and more lighting appliances will be permanently wired with LEDs and when the LED burns out you'll simply throw away the entire lamp fixture.

Similarly, lithium ion batteries will change how appliances are designed and even how they work.  Of course, many people are already moving to lithium-ion battery powered robotic vacuums and some of my friends report these work fairly well. I'm still somewhat skeptical of the robotic vacuum as it really can't get into tight corners or across multiple different types of surfaces including Oriental carpeting with fringes.  And of course, if your dog or cat has an "accident" in the house, your robotic vacuum will spread the poop all over the place.

But I suspect these problems will be addressed in future models if they are not already. And this technology will move into other areas as well.  My neighbor has a lithium-ion battery powered lawn mower that seems to work very well and made me realize that my latest Honda lawn mower will probably be the last internal combustion engine lawn mower I own.

The other day at Lowe's they had a robotic lawn mower on display out front. I tried to make it work but it just presented a confusing array of screens and asked for a password. I'm not sure why they had it on display if you couldn't actually see it function. One of my neighbors has one of these lawn mowers and they claim it works very well. For some reason always seems to be parked in the same spot on their lawn, probably because the computer tells it to park there. Perhaps that's where originally was set down and remembers its location.

This lithium-ion battery technology is changing the way appliances are designed.  And this Bissell air ram is probably the best vacuum cleaner I've ever owned.  Arguably some of the other vacuums had more suction power, but they were heavy and cumbersome to use and thus I was less inclined to use them. This Bissell Air Ram is very lightweight and thus I am more inclined it pull it out and run it around and use it more often which results in the cleaner home. Vacuums that are heavy and bulky and hard to use, and if not used as often, the result is your house doesn't stay as clean.

Is this the last vacuum I will own?  Likely not, given the my tortured history with vacuums as outlined above.  The days of getting an Electrolux as a wedding gift and then leaving it in your will to your children are long gone.   I suspect this vacuum will last five or six years or so, before something goes awry (the switch, the battery, or the battery contacts).  Given how many cordless drills I have owned, I suspect this machine will not be around for eternity.

And that is the nub of the issue.  It seems we have entered an era of disposable appliances.   No doubt by the time this Bissell shows signs of wear, a new model will be out with more features and a more powerful battery, and thus the decision to "upgrade" will be more compelling.  And when offered at an attractive price, it will be a decision hard to refuse.