Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Organizations, Revisited

Every organization goes into self-protection mode, eventually.  Even charities founded to do noble causes end up becoming behemoths.

I have been getting a number of disturbing e-mails from the head of the AHF or Aids Healthcare Foundation.  It is a worthy cause, and they do free STD testing in cities across the country.  But the e-mails are all about the Corona Virus and how pharmaceutical companies are being "greedy" for not handing out more doses of vaccine to third world countries - or that was the gist I got out of it.  I get one of these e-mails about every few days, it seems.  Of course, this isn't the first time they have sent me alarming e-mails.

I had always thought the AHF a worthy organization, but these e-mails were troubling to me.  I searched online, and there is some controversy, at least in the past, concerning the organization and its leader.  At first, I thought this was odd, but then again, it doesn't surprise me.  And of course, there are two sides to every story - right?  In any organization, there will always be those who are browned-off at the leadership, and then go and criticize it for their actions.  And in many organizations, there are leaders who take advantage of the perks of running an organization.

And we've seen it all before. Carlos Ghosn was accused of using company jets to fly his family on vacations and to accept payments "off the books" in the form of company-owned houses and such.  The head of United Way used charity money to pay for hookers and limos - the latter of which I would see parked in front of their world headquarters as I commuted to work in Alexandria.  And by limos, I mean plural - so it wasn't just him riding the gravy train.

Other organizations have become juggernauts as well.  I met the Mother who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving - she was forced out eventually and replaced with "professional" charity management.  And of course, the Susan Komen breast cancer charity has generated its own share of controversy.  Even things like public radio and television have become controversial - once serious money is on the table.  The Muppet people are always stepping in the dogshit (this month's "outrage" - they fired Kermit the Frog, probably because he asked for more money.  Dumb frog! Money is for executives!).  But the heads of many of these organizations are raking in serious money.  NPR, which generates "content" that public radio buys, pays its leaders in the millions.  So much for the public good!

But what is going on here with AHF?  Why are they interjecting themselves into the CoVid crises, when they already have so much on their plate?  I am not sure why, but perhaps this is just a hobby of the CEO, sending out alarming e-mails and whatnot, with his personal opinions (he should get a blog instead!).   Or perhaps they feel that the AIDS crises (which by the way, is still going on and still killing more people worldwide that this CoVid thing) is taking a back seat to CoVid, so they want to stay relevant by jumping on the latest bandwagon.  Or perhaps they are trying to expand their purview to other areas besides STDs and HIV. I think perhaps the latter.  After all, there is a lot of government money being thrown around these days, and a lot of it is related to CoVid.  You go where the money is.

The sad thing is, I had a very good impression of the AHF charity and thought they were doing good works - which they are.  But I hesitate to donate money to them, given the controversies I am reading about online and the stupid alarmist e-mails I am getting on a weekly basis - each time accusing a different pharmaceutical company of malfeasance.

Maybe it is just me, but I think they should stay in their own wheelhouse - their own sandbox, to use the tortured metaphors of today - and concentrate on STDs and HIV, which are spreading alarmingly, particularly gonorrhea lately.  I mean, that's quite a lot on your plate right there - running a nationwide (worldwide?) network of STD and HIV clinics and treatment centers.   Jumping into the CoVid fray seems, well, a bit much - particularly if the organization can do little more than critique others.

So, alas, once again, I have to decline to donate money to another organization that has gone off the rails.   I want to help the worthy causes, but the CEOs of these places keep taking it in another direction.  I want to fund charity, not some CEO's cushy paycheck or political agenda.

And sadly, when you donate to any large organization, well, that's what you're paying for, at least in part.

Charity, heal thyself!

UPDATE:  The worst e-mails I get are from Sandy Hook Promise, which claims I already donated to them and implies I am required to donate again.  They are not above using emotional triggers to get me to donate, and it is kind of unseemly at time.  "Robert, today is the first day of school, and I can't help but think about my dead child...."   And I get these almost daily, if not weekly.

UPDATE: This e-mail arrived today and is typical of the drivel I get from AHF:

Protestors Push Moderna to Drop Vaccine Prices, Share Technology!

Grassroots "Vaccinate Our World" campaign actions continued this week as advocates conducted a protest and ‘die-in’ at the U.S. headquarters of COVID-19 vaccine producer Moderna in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday. Activists demanded that the drug company halt its ‘pandemic profiteering’ by lowering its exorbitant prices per dose and sharing vaccine patents to boost production globally.

There have been 4.5 million global COVID-19 deaths, and roughly 70% of the world’s population has yet to receive a single vaccine dose—yet Moderna is set to reap over $22 billion from vaccine sales in 2021 alone. The price for a single Moderna jab can cost as much as $37, while competitor AstraZeneca sells its doses for under $5, by comparison.

"Some of us in America are deciding whether or not we want to take our next shot – when most people worldwide haven’t even gotten their first shot," said Tracy Jones, Senior Director & National Director of Mobilization Campaigns for AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). "It’s time to share the patents! It’s our responsibility to hold drug companies accountable and help the rest of the world get out of this pandemic."

The demonstration at Moderna’s headquarters come two weeks after AHF and partner advocates held similar actions at Pfizer’s offices in New York City. The two vaccine makers are the leading producers of mRNA vaccines, with the companies collecting more than 90% of global COVID-19 vaccine revenues and having secured a combined $60 billion in vaccine sales just in 2021 and 2022.

Vaccine makers like @moderna_tx are charging 15% to 25% more per dose than they did for the first set of shipments. Meanwhile, low-income countries have only vaccinated about 2% of their populations! Say it with us: Hey Hey! Ho Ho! MODERNA GREED HAS GOT TO GO!

"We’re never going to get out of the global pandemic if these [drug] companies don’t start sharing vaccines and supporting other countries around the world to get everybody vaccinated," added AHF Senior Regional Director Marlene Lalota. "Generations will judge these companies by their actions. Today is the day – lower the price, lower the profits, share the patents!"

Monday, August 30, 2021


Sidetone has applications outside of telephony.

Camping in a tent was an interesting change of pace and more comfortable than I remembered it to be.  We stayed on Hermit Island, which only allows tents and tent campers (and camper vans).  Most people were in tents.  The sites are pretty far apart - like in a State Park - although you can still see (and hear!) your neighbors.  For that reason, they don't allow you to play music and quiet time starts at 10PM.

Tell that to Karen!  She was up all night laughing at her own jokes, three sites away.  Her voice - and her laugh - sounded like a pallet of plate glass being dropped from a high-rise building. Why was she so loud?

I finally figured it out.  She was an indoor cat, basically and not used to the outdoors.  So when she was inside, she was used to hearing her voice echo off the walls of her apartment, which gave her audio feeback as to her volume level.  But in the woods....  The woods absorb sound like an anechoic chamber.  There was no feedback - the woods just sound flat. So she started the camping version of "cellphone holler" and basically cackled and screamed all night - not intending to.

Cell phone holler is caused by a lack of feedback.  In traditional landlines (remember those?) a portion of your voice signal is fed back to the earpiece, a process known as "sidetone".  This confirms to you that your voice is being heard, so you can adjust your speaking volume accordingly.  Without sidetone feedback, you cannot easily judge if you are being heard, so people tend to shout into their phones.  With speakerphone mode, it is even worse.    Perhaps this is why texting has supplanted voice.

Of course, the apple didn't fall far from the tree - she had a daughter at that early age where they discover they can make a screaming noise that annoys adults.  It sounded like someone was burning her with a hot poker.  And I guess the parents, being loud themselves, didn't even notice the ear-piercing scream that sounded like something from a horror film - only the real horror was that it went on for hours, until apparently the child passed out.

That being said, it was a nice place, and if you can score a site on or near the beach, the sound of the ocean drowns out even the loudest campers.  There are miles of trails to hike, remote beaches to visit, and bike-riding on the primitive roads (bring a mountain bike). They rent kayaks and canoes, and there is a small store and snack shop, too.  Nearby, some friends of ours have a cottage - almost a tiny home - on leased land.  Across the street is an RV park for permanent trailers and park models - also on leased land.  The folks are friendly - mostly boomers and ex-hippies - and we were invited to a lot of fun parties.  If you wonder where the hippies went, it was to Phippsburg.  A little corner of Southern Maine that is not all Martha Stewart and L.L. Bean.

Not a lot of cell service, though, which can be a mixed blessing.  Sadly a friend of ours who was supposed to occupy an adjacent site, was unable to attend, due to a death in the family.  And another friend, who was supposed to visit this weekend, had to turn back, after being hospitalized.   And another friend  - an acquaintance, really - who apparently bought into a lot of this anti-vaxxer shit, died of CoVid.

When all your friends are over 70, this sort of thing happens - which is why we try to do as much as we can, while we still can.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Online Reviews, Revisited

Online reviews can be somewhat useful, but don't take them as gospel!

As I noted in my previous posting, we went on "rails to trails" bike ride and it was nice.  Mark read online reviews of the trail and some mentioned the ATV traffic, which I assume on the weekends or holidays, could be more than what we saw.  We saw three ATVs - four if you count the one guy who went by us and then came back an hour later.  They all looked like they were having fun, wearing full-face helmets on an 89 degree day.  But it was no big deal - we shared the trail.

Our neighbor in the campground told us they were going to go riding on their mountain bikes and we told them about the trail.  "Nope!" he said, "I read the online reviews - too many ATVs!"  So we explained to him that we went yesterday and it was just fine and a lot of fun.  But he would have none of that.  The comments of some anonymous stranger online were gospel (it was after all, posted on the Internets!) and the actual live in-person review from someone standing in front of them, meant nothing.

They decided to ride on Route 1 instead.  No ATVs to worry about, just 70 mph logging trucks being driven by distracted drivers who are texting - and swerving onto the narrow shoulders constantly.  Even if you don't get run over and killed, it isn't a pleasant ride.  Riding a bicycle with cars rushing by isn't a fun experience.  Why anyone would do it - when there are alternatives - is beyond me.

But what made this interaction interesting to me was how the fellow was denying reality in favor of an alternative reality.  A comment made online by someone he didn't know carried weight, while the current actual live experiences of a human being he does know, meant nothing.  It should be the other way around.

When you take advice from anonymous strangers, it is bound to end up causing trouble. You have no idea who these people are as they often hide behind "handles" or made-up names.  You have no idea how much experience they have in a given area or whether their opinion is of any value.  It is like the review of our favorite Mexican street-taco place.  Some yahoo on Yelp! criticized the tacos because they weren't crunchy and had no lettuce, tomatoes, or cheese on them.  "We ended up going to Taco Bell!" he said.  A true gourmand.  Of course, he didn't realize that authentic Tacos Al Pastor don't have cheese on them.  He also didn't realize that on the back page of the menu was the "Gringo Menu" of American-ized Mexican dishes, including crunchy tacos with lettuce, beef, tomatoes, and cheese - as well as the burritos the size of your head, which Americans seem to like.

Should one give weight to such uninformed opinions?  Of course not.  The person whining about the ATVs may have been there on a busy weekend (Memorial Day) and maybe they were just whiny kind of people - Kevins and Karens of the world.

Or maybe not.  Maybe the problem is, we give too much weight to the written word, without thinking about who is writing it.  I seem to have no problem with that in my blog - people are always telling me I am full of shit.  But others - particularly blogs with fancy graphics and layouts, catchy names, and followers and comment sections - they are taken as gospel.  Youtube channels are even worse.  Put together a compelling graphic and people will believe anything.  Some yahoo is running for Governor in California on no platform other than his Youtube vlog channel about finances.  His qualifications?  About the same as mine - schmuck.

For some reason, when people see things on the Internet - some people at least - they suspend all disbelief.  I was going to go tenting this weekend with a friend, who had to back out due to a death in the family.  She decided not to get vaccinated because she "read something on the Internet, and has questions!"  As if the world owes her answers!  The answers are out there, of course, but won't be found on Fox News or Infowars or Qanonsense or any conspiracy-theory YouTube channel.  Friends of ours who are medical professionals tried to explain it to her - to no avail.  Someone on the Internets said something and until that person changes their mind, she "has questions."

You see how this works, and how disinformation sticks in the brains of some people.  The conspiracy theorist buys into some wacky conspiracy theory and dares the world to prove them wrong.   They kind of have the "burden of proof" thing backwards.  They can believe whatever wacky thing they want to - with no evidence, proof, or experimentation to prove it so.   But those trying to change his mind have to marshal facts, evidence, and scientific opinion to prove otherwise.  And since he has a pat answer to all of that anyway, you might as well not bother trying to change their mind.  They read something on the Internet, and they have questions.

I thought this exchange with my camping neighbor was fascinating, as it illustrated how this works.  People are willing to submit to authority - any authority - without question, but the opinions and experiences of their fellow man mean nothing.  This is how dictators come to power - and how religions are started (is there a difference?).   People are willing to believe in Bibles without critique.  They will blindly follow the words of another.  It is scary, how much power one could wield this way.

And all you have to do, is put it on the Internet these days, because anything on the Internet has to be true!

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Chineseum, revisited

Lookalike products from China are cheap - but they may not last long!

ATVs are the new jet skis.  They are vehicles that make little sense, other than for people who live in the wilderness - and that's not you and me.   While they started off as little three-wheeled off-road trikes (famously featured in the James Bond film, Diamonds are Forever) they morphed to four wheels when people discovered - yet again - that three-wheeled vehicles are basically unstable.

And no, this isn't up for discussion.  While three points may define a plane, it isn't true that a three-legged milking stool is more stable than a four-legged one.  In fact, it tips over more easily, even if the four-legged one wobbles on an uneven surface.  And when it comes to vehicles, well, four is more stable than three by a factor of two.

Since the four-wheeler ATV, as some folks called them, became popular, they have morphed into bigger and bigger machines, until they are the size of small cars.  Many companies sold utility four-by-fours, such as the Kawasaki Mule or the John Deer Gator.  Those were bought by park maintenance people mostly, but quickly homeowners in the country started snapping them up.  The "UTV" or "side by side" became popular, and like with pickup trucks, they started out as two-door models and quickly morphed into four-door vehicles.

So today, the typical off-road four-wheeler is a vehicle about the size of my old 1948 Willys Jeep, designed to carry four people off-road, at speeds of 50 mph or more, sometimes far more.

What is the point of these vehicles?  Well, like with jet skis, people invent reasons to own them, and then buy them.  When we had the lake house, there was about a half-mile road from our house to our lakefront site and boathouse.  Our neighbors either drove their cars there or had some sort of ATV like a Kawasaki Mule.  We looked at some ATVs at the Bass Pro Shop and they were certainly cool-looking, but at $15,000 (back then) not affordable.  So we bought the Jeep instead, for $2000 on eBay and after eight years sold it for... $2000 on eBay.  The $15,000 ATV would have been worth half its purchase price - or less - by then, if indeed it was still running.

I am not "against" ATVs, but as a personal choice, think they are silly.  If you want the same effect for less money, buy an old Toyota 4x4 and take the doors off it.  Really the same thing.  But what got me started on this was two recent events.  We rode on a "rails to trails" path on our Mountain bikes, and it was fun.  We went about six miles, had a picnic, and then rode back.  We saw a total of four ATVs on the trail - not a lot - and while they moved over as they went by, they certainly didn't slow down - going 50 mph at least, or so it seemed.

They didn't seem to be having much fun, either.  Even in a four-seat model with a full roll cage, everyone was wearing full-face helmets.  Gee, that's fun! Ride around in the wilderness at 50 mph with a bucket on your head.   Oh, well, some rednecks can't have fun unless there is an internal combustion engine running, somewhere, even if it is just a generator or a lawn mower.  On the "rails to trails" site, some mountain bikers complained about the ATVs, say there was too much traffic and that they ruined the trail.  I disagree.  Four ATVs in two hours isn't an awful lot, and frankly, I think they packed down the gravel making it easier to ride a bike.

But the point is moot - you can't build an 80-mile long trail in Maine and tell the locals it is only for out-of-towners on expensive mountain bikes - there would be a revolt.  After all, they are the ones paying the taxes to build the trail.  It is possible to share.  Like I said, I am not against ATVs, I just don't see the point of them, personally.   One young fellow on an older-style ride-on four-wheeler zoomed by and he must have weighed 350 pounds at least.  One reason we pedal our bikes is to not end up like him.  But as I noted in earlier postings, kids today start out with the Barbie Jeep at age 2, and never really walk, ever again, except to and from the car - and they park as close-in as possible to eliminate even that, as much as they can.  It is why we are so unhealthy in America - we have machines do everything for us.

But getting back to topic, those big ATVs aren't cheap.  $15,000 for a two-seater is just a starting price - for a quality unit from a major manufacturer such as Polaris or Kawasaki or Honda or whoever.  So it is tempting, when you see a super-cheap unit for sale at the Tractor Supply or the Wholesale Club or the Harbor Freight, to think, "Gee, I can have a four-wheeler for nearly nothing!"  But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for - at least most of the time, anyway.

A few years back, I was at the boat ramp, and a cargo boat came ashore bringing trash from nearby Cumberland Island.  Among the trash and treasures was what looked like a nearly new side-by-side ATV. I asked the guy why they were throwing it away and he explained that it was a cheap Chinese-made knock-off of an ATV and when it broke early-on, there was no way to fix it, as no one stocked parts for it.

Such ATVs may look like a more expensive Honda or whatever, but the materials used are often inferior and break more frequently.  Some folks derogatorily refer to the pot-metal they use as "Chinesium" as it it a kind of metal you simply don't find in products made elsewhere.

This experience was repeated recently, when a friend came by in a four-seater ATV.  They explained they had bought one of these Chinese-made ATVs and the front axle broke.  They looked online for parts and they could only find one axle shaft for $500 (I paid only $150 for one for my BMW X5!) and when they got it, it didn't quite fit right and tore itself up in no time.  They "converted" the ATV to two-wheel drive by removing the front driving chain, and then gave it to their son-in-law.  No doubt, when something else breaks on it, it will go to the dumpster, or more likely be parked in the side yard.

Some folks like to run down Chinese-made products.  And yes, a lot of the stuff they make is crap - things that look like quality products, but made cheaply.  There are a plethora of Chinese-made cars, for example, that are knock-offs of famous brands, such as BMW.  Looks like it, but it ain't it.  But they get better with each iteration, much as the Koreans did before them, and before them, the Japanese.  Eventually, they will catch up - and maybe are catching up already, as they own some major brands such as Volvo.

So maybe in a few years, these knock-off Chinese ATVs will be a good bargain - but likely the prices will go up as well.  But in order to compete with Honda and Polaris et al. they will have to have real dealers with real parts and service, not merely sales outlets through big-box stores.  Because if you can't get some little part for a complex machine - the little part needed to make it work, well, you might as well not bother.

But like I said, we went through this with the Jeep - it turned out to be cheaper, in the long run, to drive an antique Jeep than it was to buy one of these $20,000 side-by-sides.  And our 1941 Ford Tractor (also $2,000 from eBay) was a lot more cost-effective than a $30,000 Kubota, which would have been worth half as much when we sold it.  The tractor - we sold that for what we paid for it as well.  Net cost, zero, other than maintenance and gas.

Of course, not having five acres of lawn to mow is an even better idea.  And no, there was no real reason we needed to have yet another car, just to drive to the lake.  It was fun, but also a lot of work.  But if you really think you need one of these things, beware of the Genie Effect.  Super-cheap prices either mean the whole thing is a scam, or whatever it is, is so poorly made or parts are unavailable, such that it is not a bargain.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

How Hoarding Happens - to Anyone!

Hoarding happens slowly, over time, until a tipping point occurs.

I have seen several friends and family members succumb to hoarding disorder, and it isn't pretty.  Some haven't gone full-on hoarder.  Others are getting close to the brink, but trying to pull back.  What is interesting to observe is that there is a "tipping point" where hoarding sets in, full-time, and the hoarder can't pull back anymore, even if they wanted to, as they get too old and run out of energy.

At the lake house, we converted the basement garage into a wine-tasting room.   I am not a fan of converting garages into living space, but the house already had a three (almost four) car garage attached to it, and the basement garage was just a junk accumulator space.  Anyway, the hardest part of doing the renovation was getting rid of a pile of "stuff" in the basement garage - boxes of things and junk - that we felt we had to "go through" and carefully sort and put away before we could begin.  This process took years, literally.

It should have all just gone in a dumpster, which is where most of it went, anyway. Eventually.

Why did it take so long to do this?  Well, I was working, Mark was working, and it was a lot of  "work" both physically and mentally, to go through this stuff, and it wasn't fun, so we put it off time and time again and when we did attack it, not much was done other than to take things from one pile and put them in another.  We were relatively young, had a lot of energy and time, and yet this became an impossible task.

Now imagine this if you are 60, 70, or 80 years old.  That's how it happens.

When people are younger, they tend to save things.  Something is in the way, so it goes in a box and is put in the attic, to be dealt with later.  Pretty soon the attic is full, the garage attic is full, the basement is full (most of that stuff rots) and the closets are full.  You work so hard for "things" you hate to throw them away!  And if you are 30 or 40, you can still deal with all that - you have the time and energy to do so.

But the tipping point happens when you get older.  All that "stuff" - which has multiplied over the years - overwhelms you.  Maybe you have a storage locker now for some of it - or multiple storage lockers, as some hoarder friends have or had.  Maybe you have added a shed in the back yard.  It just gets out of control, and soon there is more "stuff" that you can deal with.   You decide to downsize and get rid of the junk, but the human effort involved is too much for an older body (and mind) to handle.  So you basically give up and keep accumulating.   You've gone full-on hoarder.  It wasn't a conscious choice you made.

It is tragic to watch this happen to family members and friends, but there is nothing you can do to help them.  In fact, they will freak out if you try to.  "That's worth something!" is the cry of the hoarder, as you throw that broken, mildew-stained lampshade into the dumpster. They will fish it out and tell you there was a guy three counties over who restores old lampshades, and "someday" they will take it to him for restoration.  But of course, someday never comes, does it?

The only thing you can do is learn from this and avoid keeping "stuff" when you are younger, so you don't have to deal with it when you are older.  In a way, it is like debt - time-shifting a problem onto the older you that the younger you doesn't want to deal with.  Screwing "Uncle Tomorrow" so you can have fun today. Uncle Tomorrow is not amused.  He is not amused that you left him a mountain of debt to pay off, and an attic full of junk to clean out.  He is, in fact, rather pissed.

In other words, hoarding isn't something that happens to other people, but is the inevitable consequence of acquiring more and more things, over time, without getting rid of stuff in the interim. Every day, you come home from work, or the store or wherever, and you carry something into your home. Not a big thing, just a little thing. You throw out stuff at the end of the week, but the net effect, over time, is to accumulate. A trinket here, a tchotchke there, it all adds up - not to mention the "big ticket" items like furniture and electronics that you "paid a lot for" and are loathe to get rid of - even through they are worthless today.

It is like dust - you see how archaeologists "dig" for antiquities and lost cities - it is because dust and dirt and sand accumulate over time, and bury the works of man.  Even in our lifetimes, we see this.  You build a house at grade level, and in 50 years, it will look like it has "sunken" into the ground, mostly because dirt accumulates around it.  Build above grade level is what I have learned.

We have cleaned out a lot of "stuff" over the years and are continuing to do so.  Someday, we may have to move, and when that happens, we likely will have less energy that we do today.  Why create a mess for tomorrow you, when you can address it today? I see what happens to friends and family and resolve to get rid of even more junk in our garage and attic.  And I can think of ten things right now that need to go away ("but it's worth something!" Bam!).

Of course, the best way to fight this is to fight the urge to accumulate "stuff".  When we were younger, we thought we needed a lot of "things" that later on, seemed kind of a silly waste of money.  For example, when we are in Maine, 25 years ago, we bought a lobster trap - the old-timey wooden kind, and put it on the roof of the camper to take home. We got home and it made a nice decoration and coffee table (although cats got caught in it regularly).  Over time, we moved on to a different coffee table (something more practical) and the lobster trap went into the attic.  It was eventually sold at a garage sale, which is better than hoarding it.

But while it was cool to look at - in the confines of a seafood restaurant on the coast of Maine - owning it was less satisfying.  I realize now that owning everything isn't the answer to anything.  Cool stuff is cool - but you can just look at it, you don't have to have it.  You can go to a car show and just look at the cars - you don't have to buy one.  In fact, this is desirable. You can't have a car show or an air show - or any kind of show - with no spectators.  You can't have an art museum where everyone is an artist and no one is just an observer or appreciative of fine art.   Being an audience member is OK, too!  In fact, most of us end up as just that - audience.  That's OK!

Resist the urge to "own it all" even as your friends fail to do so.  The latest small appliance (Keurig, air fryer, insti-pot, or whatever they come out with next week) isn't really necessary to your life, even as Ron Popeil promises it will "change your life forever!"   Air-frying potatoes isn't making them healthy - the worst part of french fries isn't the oil they are fried in, but the massive calorie count and carbohydrates (starches) in potatoes themselves.  Just eat them in moderation - fried hot and crisp in a real deep-fryer at a restaurant - and leave the "air fryer" on the shelf.  Trust me, it's a fad.  You'll see one at a garage sale for a buck in no time.  Leave that one alone, as well.

"But it's worth something!" people say. They paid four installments of $39.95 for the chicken rotisserie ("set it and forget it!") and now it languishes in a closet, because, let's face it, no one rotisserie cooks chicken at home.  We bought a toaster oven once that came with a rotisserie attachment and it was never, ever used.  Imagine buying an appliance that does only that.  It is one reason why experts say never to buy single-use appliances - they end up on a shelf somewhere.

Of course, it is easy to say these things, harder to do them.  And full-on hoarders don't just hoard things they bought, but free stuff as well - collecting old bags and boxes and Styrofoam clam-shells from the takeout restaurant.  When hoarding goes full-on, almost anything and everything is hoarded - lack of money to buy junk isn't a problem, as the hoarder starts hoarding actual junk and even garbage.

Sadly, many folks think, "I'm not a hoarder!  I don't have a dead cat in the freezer!  I don't save old food packaging and newspapers!  Those old junked cars in my yard, they're collectibles!"  But the net effect is the same - just because you can afford (or think you can afford) to collect more expensive junk doesn't mean you are not a hoarder, just a slightly wealthier hoarder.  And in terms of wealth, hoarding is one sure way to squander it.  Why do you think long-time hoarders hoard old newspapers?  They started out hoarding more expensive stuff (buried under all those newspapers) and worked their way down the food chain as they ran out of money.

Hoarding can happen to anyone, not just some nutjob down the street.

Like I said, when I see this happen to friends and family, it scares me.  Not just because of my concern for them, but for myself.  And it is hard to deal with.  The hoarder shows you their collection of "valuable antiques" which are little more than rusty junk.  It is tempting to show interest in their collection of crap, because some of it is, in fact, of value or at least interesting.  Bad mistake!  As soon as you say, "Hey, that's a neat old [fill in the blank]" you've validated the hoarder's hoarding of the item.  And it is one reason why they show off their hoards sometimes, to people (until it becomes an embarrassing mess, at which point they become hermits and don't let anyone in the house).

If you try to tell them to sell off or throw away all this junk, they cry, "That's worth something!" and "It doesn't cost me anything to keep it!"  But of course, if it was really worth something, why not sell it in an antique shop?  It's not going to appreciate much in value, over time - not many antiques do, not much more than the rate of inflation, if you bother to do the math.

Of course, the hoarder has a collection of poverty stories to counter this.  Old Jeb had some rusty junk in his barn, and a "collector" gave him a pile of money for it!  So you see, it pays to hang on to this stuff - you never know, you might be sitting on a gold mine!  That's why I say, it never pays to confront a hoarder or try to change them - it just entrenches them further into their corner.  Just use that energy to make sure you are not turning into a hoarder yourself.

And in that regard, I am making a list of crap to throw away once we get back home.  Hoarding scares me to death!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Life Lessons From The Lobster Shack

You can learn a lot, waiting in line at the Lobster Shack.

On our way to Harrington, Maine, Mark says he wants to have a lobster roll at a local Lobster Shack by the road. We pull into the church next door and park the camper and I get in line to order the lobster rolls.

Maine is in the middle of a lobster shortage, which to me smacks of these artificial shortages created because of the pandemic. A lot of people are vacationing this year which is driving up demand. But when I go to the Lobster Pound, it seems like they're pulling an awful lot of lobsters out of the ocean. But good for the lobstermen - only a few years ago they were getting a few bucks a pound or less for their lobsters, and today they're getting $10 or more.

Anyway, there was a line about four deep to order. So while I was waiting in line I read the entire menu, three times. Meanwhile, the people ahead of me were just chatting or staring off into space or were looking at their phones. When they got to the head of the line they did the classic, "I'll have ahh... ahh.... ahh...!"

They had 20 minutes (or more!) to figure out what they wanted order but decided to wait till they were at the head of the line before they even bothered to look at the menu.  Even worse are families, where Dad, after dilly-dallying about his order, says to the distracted children, "Hey kids, what do you want?"   I mean, he could have asked that question when they got into line 20 minutes ago, right?

I waited nearly half hour to place my order.  The food was made and delivered in less than 10 minutes. The problem wasn't the backlog in the kitchen, but the backlog in the ordering process. And the problem wasn't the order-takers but the customers, who waited until they got to the head of the line to to finally decide what they wanted to eat.

Hell is other people.

I noted this problem before - people wait in line for an hour for something, and when they finally get to the head of the line, they decide they are Queen For The Day! and make a huge deal about their order, which is why I never set foot in a Starbucks.  You would think - you would think, anyway - that after waiting so long in line, that people would be courteous to the folks behind them in line by having their order choices ready when it was their turn.  Yet human nature being what it is, it seems the opposite is true.

I wonder if this effect is reversible.  In other words, if there was no one in line, do people have their orders ready and don't dilly-dally as much?   It would be an interesting thing to study!  In other words, once a line forms, it gets longer and longer, because people take longer to order, subconsciously jamming up the works. 

But that's not what this posting is about.

This experience got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous pastime.  Readers have chastised me for considering, at age 61, living in an "Over 55" community or checking out retirement home options.  I'm too young for such things! they argue.  That sort of thing is for people over 80, which is, of course, why they call them "Over-55" communities.  Sarcasm light is lit. 

It struck me that this line at the lobster shack was a metaphor for how many people live their lives. They don't think about their future or possible future plans, but wait until the very last minute before making a decision, and often making a bad decision as a result.  It is a form of passive-aggression, I guess, to not make plans, and then let shit happen and force other people to make decisions for you later on.  But the main thing is, it ends up causing you to make bad choices, at critical points in your life.

We spend a lot of time talking about future plans. Most of them never work out, or our situation changes and the plans become unworkable. But we think about our options and ideas and things we'd like to do. And maybe that's half the fun, dreaming about possible future ideas and realizing that we have a future and we have options.

For example, when we bought our house in Alexandria, we realized that the land was worth more than the house.  "Someday," we said, "someone will knock on our door and offer us a pile of money for the place, and we'll sell!"   And 20 years later, that happened, and we sold - without hesitation - because we had thought about this before.  Others were caught flat-footed and hemmed and hawed and were flummoxed as to what to do.  They never thought it would happen!

Trapped in the paralysis of the present, people see only what's going on in front of them and never think about where their life is headed. So, when life changes occur, such as getting older and infirm, they have to make some very hard choices in a very short period of time, because the idea of getting old and infirm never occured to them.  Hey, that is something that happens to other people, like Grandma, right?  And death?  That would never happen "but for" some horrible event.  After all, the people on the television pitch it to us like that.

Funny thing though, if you ask these same people what they would do if they won the lottery, they have detailed plans in their heads as to what they would do.  New Corvette!  Trip to Disney!  Cruise around the world!  New cars for all their friends!  Wa-hoo!  They have detailed plans for some long-shot payoff that will never happen, but no plans whatsoever for the great inevitable.  Funny thing, that!

We love to talk and make plans, even if 90% of them never work out.  We look at boats or houses or RVs and stuff, realizing that it likely never will happen.  But sometimes it does.  Our current trailer, well, we looked at that online for years before we bought it.  Like I said, when we bought the Nissan tuck, we had looked at it for five years.  When the time came to sell the X5, well, we had an idea what to buy.  Other people walk into a car dealer and say, "here's my checkbook - sell me the biggest lemon on the lot!"

This is not to say we always plan things out.   Nor is planning always a good thing - spontaneity is also something worthwhile.  Yes, it is fun to spontaneously go on a picnic.  Not so sure it is a good idea to buy a house or car on the spur-of-the-moment.  On the other hand, if opportunity knocks, it pays to be flexible.  But often, you don't recognize opportunity unless you've thought about things a long time beforehand.

When we bought Duke Street, we knew it was an opportunity only because we had been looking at real estate for years.  We knew the market and knew it was a "steal" of a deal.  So what seemed like a spontaneous purchase was, in fact, well-planned in advance.  I had, for years, dreamed of having my own law practice in Old Town, in an historic (well, sort of) row house.  Several years later, the dream came true.  It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't dreamt it. 

But note, the converse is not true.  Just because you dream of something doesn't mean it will happen.  You have to put the dream into action.

That being said, it is not only OK to dream, but a good idea to do so - realizing that not all of your dreams will come true, of course, or if they do, maybe they won't be exactly as you thought they would be like - at which point, it is OK to change your mind and pursue another dream. In fact, "hanging on" to a dream after it turns into a nightmare is just another form of stasis or passive-aggressiveness.  Move on to the next dream - there is always another one, or should be.

But some folks don't get this.  I've always done this, so I need to keep doing it.  Making different plans or planning for the future?  Nah.  Just stay where you are, live for the moment.  You can always figure out what to order when its your turn at the head of the line, right?

Well, if you want to live that way, fine.  But please don't be ahead of me at the Lobster Shack, going, "Ahhh..... Ahhh... Ahhh....."  I mean, it is a Lobster shack, they sell Lobster!  What are you going to order, the pasta dish?  Sheesh!

Monday, August 23, 2021

Industrial Scams

Why do people keep e-mailing me asking whether I sell weird industrial stuff?

In the mail this morning, the latest in a series of e-mails I have received over the years, but for some reason have increased in volume recently:

Hello , 
I would like to inquire about models/sizes on the Hardwood Dolly you sell, so email me availability and let me know the types of payment you accept. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Best Regards,
Joe Alvin

What's up with this?  I've gotten dozens of these e-mails over the years from numerous e-mail addresses, asking me for prices and terms on just about every industrial item under the sun.  It is similar to the law firm scam I get, where overseas law firms appear to be asking me to take on litigation over some contract issue.  The company names are often legitimate, but the e-mail addresses that the e-mails come from appear to be hijacked from ordinary folks.  I mean, maybe I am just suspicious, but I don't think the Sumitomo Iron Works is going to use "goofyguy8957@yahoo.com" as a return mailing address.

So it's fake.  And when I put the text or the e-mail address from the missive above into google, I get a lot of hits on discussion groups as well.  Apparently these people SPAM a lot of folks.  But what is the scam?  Early on, I answered these queries (dumb!) telling them I didn't sell left-handed widgets or that I was not the right person to litigate a contract dispute in North Carolina.  No response.

So what are they up to?  Harvesting e-mail addresses?  Seems like an odd way to go about it - considering they already have my e-mail address.  Maybe some sort of other scam?

This website explains the lawyer scam, and it is the oldest scam in the book - the fake cashier's check.  The overseas company claims they want you to represent them in a settlement of some legal issue, and then sends you a cashier's check for the settlement amount, which you are supposed to deposit to your escrow account, keeping 10% as your fee.  In a way, it is a variation of the Nigerian Lottery scam.  Of course, the check is fake and if you forward the remainder of the proceeds to the third party, as instructed, it is you, not the bank, who is out the cash, when the fraudulent check bounces, several days to a week later.

So, I suspect the same is happening here.  They e-mail millions of people at a time, and lo and behold, maybe a few of them sell hardwood dollies.  Maybe two or three respond with a price list and terms (as such things are handled by a low-level functionary in the company) and then the fraudsters "place an order" with a bogus cashier's check - or some sort of nonsense.  And be clear about this: They aren't interested in hardwood dollies, they just want money.

Or perhaps it is a fake invoice scam.  A lot of companies put a lot of information onto pricing sheets, including terms and wire transfer information, which often includes bank account and routing numbers.  It could be the scammers are just looking for the price sheets so they can create plausible-looking invoices with company names and whatnot.  Hard to say exactly what, only that you can be sure it is a scam.

What is fascinating about all of this is the low response rates they must get.  Each e-mail is about the same, with only the product name changed.  So they send out this e-mail thousands of times, each time with a different product named.  And each e-mail blast goes out to millions of people.   And you wonder why the Internet is so slow these days!

The effort involved for the scammer is nil - all they need is an e-mail account (likely hacked using social engineering) and a bot that creates the e-mails, along with a mailing list (cheaply purchased online).  Just type in the name of the product and hit enter - the bots do the rest.  It is like chumming for shark - the real work doesn't begin until you have someone bite on the bait.  Then you have to reel them in, slowly and carefully.

One would think that companies would be immune to such scams - after all, these are professional people.  And lawyers!  They should be the most skeptical!  But often the people working at lower levels, in accounting or sales are not as sophisticated as you might think.  Companies often hire people at the lowest price possible and often get what they pay for.

So when Fred in accounting gets what looks like a legitimate invoice, he pays it without thinking - and without checking to see whether it was really authorized.  Or Suzie sends off a wire transfer for $100,000 to Hong Kong, because the President of the company asked her to - or so she thought.  She never noticed the return e-mail address was a little off, and never bothered to think to check with others.

Yes, it may be harder to scam a company or a law firm, but unlike old Uncle Charlie, who fell for that Nigerian scammer and sent him $5000, a company has much deeper pockets.  So your hit rate is a lot less, but when you hit the jackpot - whoa!

I don't know what the point of all of this is, other than if you run a small (or even large) company selling hardwood dollies (or whatever), you might want to have a chat with your staff and warn them before they answer odd e-mails, pay unusual invoices to new vendors, or wire money overseas