Sunday, April 30, 2023

Dream of Three Plumbers

You can tell a lot about a person by the vehicle they drive - and other things.

I had a dream last night - more of a nightmare - that I had a major plumbing project to be done and I called three plumbers for estimates on the job.  The first one showed up in a big 4-door crew-cab dually diesel RAM pickup, with a huge TRUMP 2024 flag and a "Rebel" flag on the back, along with a host of stickers saying obscene things about Hillary Clinton, Biden, and so forth.  He was wearing a red MAGA hat and during our conversation, he seemed to be more preoccupied with talking about politics and how "Liberals" were ruining his life with high taxes and what a bitch his ex-wife was.  He also trash-talked about some of my neighbors, claiming they were unreasonable assholes and so forth and so on.  I noticed he had no plumbing parts in his truck, just a toolbox under his tonneau cover.  He said he would get back to me with a quote, but never did.  He did call me back three months later asking if I still needed the work done and got pissed-off when I told him it was already finished.

The next fellow also had a pickup truck, an F150 "Raptor" with giant bozo bling rims that stuck out a foot on each side of the fenders.  It was shod with ultra-low-profile tires.  The result was a truck that had less carrying capacity that a Toyota Camry but looked badass - to a third-grader.  He had a number of visible tattoos, a few piercings, and was wearing pre-distressed designer jeans.  He spent a lot of time talking about his truck, but again had no plumbing parts inside, only a small tool box with a few pipe wrenches in it.  Again, he promised an estimate, again, I never heard from him.  Why do guys like him even bother showing up?  (And yes, this has happened to me, in real life, more than once).

The third fellow showed up in an older 1-ton white E350 Ford van, with the name of his company on the side.  On the roof was a ladder rack with PVC pipes attached as well.  Inside this no-nonsense van were a plethora of tools and racks of plumbing parts.  It was shod with steel wheels and 10-ply tires.  He gave me an estimate on the spot, along with three references from people in the neighborhood and told me he could start next week.  He was also wearing distressed jeans, but he had distressed them himself, by working in them.  Since he already had the parts in his truck, there would not be several trips back-and-forth to the commercial plumbing supply store (or in the case of the first two, Lowe's or Home Depot) to buy parts.  He invested in inventory, not bling rims.

Can you guess who I would have hired?  While this came to me in a dream, it is based in part on real-world experiences.  I see all the time, people pretending to be tradesmen, driving around in blinged-up trucks, showing the world they value style more than substance.  And bear in mind while the first fellow was a hard-core Trumper, the same effect would be seen (and I have seen it, albeit much less) with people on the far-left, who show up in a Prius covered with different bumper stickers, complaining about how "the corporations are evil, man!" and whatnot.   Same shit, different day.

You can tell a lot about a person and their values by appearances alone.  The merchant who puts a Jesus fish on his business card and store sign might not be keeping his eye on the ball - and might have forgotten to read Matthew 6:5 (or any of the Bible, for that matter). When it comes to business, I don't want to know your religion, your politics, or the name of your cat.

You could argue that going by appearances alone is unfair. Maybe the Trump-truck guy is a really hard worker and gives good value for the money.  Maybe, but I doubt it - anyone who gets so riled up about politics of any sort is delusional and externalizing their problems.  No doubt he would be muttering under his breath about "faggots" particularly three months later when I told him someone else already quote on the job and finished it.  People like that have a finely tuned sense of entitlement, and when things don't go their way, it is always someone else's fault - preferably a nebulous outgroup or vague government or business group or conspiracy.

Similarly, the guy with the designer distressed jeans and tattoos is telling me they value style over substance, and want to "invest" their surplus income in outward appearances rather than his business.  This is a guy who cares more about what strangers think of him that what his customers think.  Rather than invest in his business, he invests in gaudy trinkets.

Fair or not, in this world you will be judged by appearances - we all are.  If you are slovenly, people will assume you are unreliable and lazy. If you are fat, they assume you have no self-control.  If you display flashy things - even if you really are wealthy - you are judged as nouveau riche or worse yet, putting on the dog with borrowed money.  In each case, you are exhibiting (or give the appearance of) having poor judgement.

The same is true for the hiring process.  First impressions are important, and if you show up wearing odd styles and looking weird, well, it may not give a good impression, unless you are in a field where talent outweighs eccentricity.  Back in the 1970's, it was the style among teens and young adults to wear long hair - and by that, I mean shoulder-length or longer.  I had it, when I was 16.  But when I went to interview with General Motors, I cut my hair shorter (still long, but a length considered acceptable at the time).  I know others, friends and family members, who refused to cut their hair for a job interview, valuing their hair length over a job or career.  This sends a distinct message to the employer.

Frankly, if I was a hiring manager today, I would ask the interviewee to see their vehicle (if they have one).  If the back end is covered with bumper stickers - pass.  And quite frankly, in this era where you risk being accused of various forms of illegal discrimination, maybe the "car test" is the only thing we have left.

I am not sure what the point of that dream was, only that it sort of summed up something that has been brewing in the back of my mind for a while.  It seems that a lot of people today who are fairly well-off, squander most of their money (I know I did!) but when it all goes wrong, never admit that they are culpable, even in the tiniest part, for their misfortune.

If you are going to be a carpenter, you need to have more than a pickup truck and a circular saw - yet it is a stereotype of many a young man who wants to go out and work in the construction field.  Paychecks are to be spent, not invested.  And as a result, they end up as perpetual employees and never employers.

Or take the truck driver "Owner/Operator" who puts every spare paycheck into buying yet more chrome for his truck, rather than buying a second truck and starting a trucking business. Granted, that is his choice and maybe that is a good choice for him.  But he can't at the same time, bitch about how others have it so great and what a raw deal he got in life.   You make choices, you have to live with them.  We all do.

Well, most of us do, anyway!

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Could Disney Abandon Florida? Stranger Things Have Happened!

When you stop making money - or find better opportunities to make money - you might decide to close down or move.  GM no longer makes trains.

When I was at the tender age of 18, I went to work for General Motors Corporation, then the largest automobile manufacturer in the world.  Not only did we make cars, we made the world's largest dump truck (Terex Titan), locomotives (Electromotive Division), refrigerators and other appliances (Frigidaire) as well as a host of other products and aftermarket parts.  You no doubt recall Delco batteries, AC Spark Plugs, as well as other products we sold.

I went to work for New Departure-Hyatt Bearings Division, in Bristol, Connecticut, now famous as the home of ESPN - which has its own set of troubles.  Maybe the place is cursed.  At the time, our obscure division was losing money and our factory was losing the most in the division.  But to hear the hourly employees tell it, "GM will never close this place!  They have too much invested!"

But in the next few years, various divisions were sold off or spun off or closed down.  Frigidaire went away - becoming a brand in someone else's portfolio.  Terex was sold as was EMD.  GM don't make trains no more.

But even in the car division, factories, brands, and divisions were sold off.  Delco became something called Delphi.  And other various divisions were closed or sold to venture capitalists, management buyouts or IPOs.  GM bought parts from whoever made the best quality at the best price - that could be a former GM parts division, or not.  Like its Japanese counterparts, the "big 3" automakers in America became auto assemblers - putting together parts from a number of suppliers. And even then, GM still went bankrupt - emerging even smaller with a much narrower product line.

The auto world in America underwent a dramatic change.

So pardon me, if I am skeptical when some low-level laborer says, "they'll never close this place!" because when someone says that, usually the closure is right around the corner.  Remember America's shopping malls?  They seemed permanent as well - made of steel and concrete.  But one by one, they have closed and been bulldozed or repurposed for other uses.  They became unprofitable when people stopped going and overhead was too high.

Could the same thing happen to Disney?  After all, it is a colossus in the entertainment and theme park business, even if the streaming service is losing money.  Well, I doubt Disney will go bankrupt, but it is possible they may refocus their energies if they feel one or another park is not performing up to snuff, or if the cost of operating the parks gets too high.

The reasons GM closed New Departure in Bristol were many.  We were paying UAW wages which were twice what the union metal workers were making at a competing plant down the street from us.  This, in turn, was twice what non-union workers were making.  Topping that off were ridiculous work rules, which I wrote about before - several times, in fact.  In addition, the State of Connecticut and the County felt the factory was a cash cow to be milked.  Twice a year we had to inventory every part in the process of production in order to pay "property tax" on it.  Never mind that we paid a host of other taxes - and provided thousands of jobs that generated income taxes.  We had to count every ball, every race, every cage, ever seal, and pay taxes on it all - as well as all the machinery that filled up 22 acres under one roof.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the workers will work through their lunch break to make sure the assembly line doesn't go down, and the factory and its products are seen as the pride of the country, not something to be exploited for a few bucks.  Closure was inevitable for our factory.

But what about Disney, and in particular, Disney World?  Governor DeSantis is making Disney's life miserable simply because they exercised their free speech rights (because, under Citizen's United, corporations have free speech rights, too!) and he wants to punish Disney for disagreeing with him (no Autocrat, he!) by making it more costly to do business in Orlando.

Sounds like a GM factory about to close!

But Disney World is so profitable!  They'll never close it!  Remember what I said about that phrase?

Numbers are hard to come by, mostly because the idiot Internet confuses revenue (gross income) with profits (net income) - and don't get me started on EBITA (which stands for "How much money we could have made if we didn't have to pay taxes or interest or our employees or suppliers.....") - it is a made-up nonsense number.  Some say Disney is "making" 78 million a day on the theme park, while others claim it is less than one-third that amount.

Sadly, journalists (I use that term loosely these days) like to toss around huge numbers and confuse readers with terms like "revenues" and "earnings" instead of "gross income" and "net profit" - which are more to the point.  One of the links above claims that operating costs are a paltry 25% of revenue.  If this is so, they have an astounding profit margin of 75% - which I doubt is the case.

Disney World has about 58 million visitors a year.  Assuming this $25 million gross income per day is accurate, Disney is taking in $9.125 BILLION dollars annually.  Divided by the number of visitors, comes to about $157 per visitor per day.  I guess that is not an unrealistic number.  Actually, that seems kind of low.  But I still doubt their overhead is only 25% of income.

Others point a more dire picture - that attendance is OK but that profits are falling.  If so, this could spell trouble for Disney, entering a recession.  And like our ball-bearing plant, Disney creates a "halo" effect in the greater Orlando area - which supports not only competing theme parks, but many hotels, condos, and timeshares.  A friend of ours asked us to join them at a timeshare they rented for themselves and their kids. They flew all the way from the UK to visit Disney (among other places).  The timeshare itself was almost a destination - with its own waterpark and play land.  We had a good time there.  It wouldn't have existed without Disney.

If attendance falls off or costs spiral out of control, it could turn profits into losses.  And I doubt that "go woke, get broke" is going to be the cause.  Survey after survey shows that the majority of Americans support more liberal causes, whether it is legal abortion, gay marriage, or legalizing marijuana.  Conservatives are in the minority and stay in power (until recently) only through gerrymandering and the electoral college. If their representation was actually proportional to actual voter support, Democrats would have huge majorities in both the House and Senate.  Then again, maybe this is how the system was envisioned to work - to prevent the majority from steamrolling over the minority.  Perhaps.

Disney and Budweiser aren't dumb - they know their demographics.  Disney knows that "Gay Day" is a huge draw, even if it isn't an official Disney holiday.  Cruise lines know that Gay cruises sell out and often run out of liquor halfway through the cruise (forcing them to restock in foreign ports).  Budweiser sees the writing on the wall - the boomers are dying off and the next generation is profoundly different.  There is no profit in chasing racist, retrograde customers who are in a walker or electric scooter and only months away from their final resting place.  That's literally a dying demographic.

We visited a gay campground in Florida a few years ago, and they were having the "Miss Drag Florida" contest, so we bought a couple of beers and decided to watch.  Unlike a lot of campy drag shows (which are also fun) these were very serious performers who could have passed a women even after careful inspection.  But what was amazing was that each performer had their own backup dancers - a half-dozen or more!  I asked another attendee where they found dancers who were willing to perform like this - in carefully rehearsed routines.  "Oh, they are all dancers at Disney!" he said.  So you see why Disney took the stand that they did - the place is very, very gay.

But I digress.

The real threat to Disney is DeSantis making Florida an unattractive place to do business - ironic for a Republican who is supposed to roll over and play dead for any business of merit.   Fold in the violent crime that seems to riddle the State ("Florida Man!") and various firearm-related incidents, and you start to scare off the tourists.   August in Florida is already nauseating and humid - with global warming, it will only get worse.  How long before Disney starts looking at new locations for future expansion?

We see people drive by on I-95 from New York to Florida to visit Did-ney.  It is a long drive.  Why not shorten it by more than half with a theme park in Virginia?  Disney already tried that once - maybe next time they won't appear so tone-deaf about it.  Speaking of the failed Disney America, one reason Disney pulled the plug on that project was the money they were losing with EuroDisney (now "Disney Paris") which has a fraction of he visitors and revenue that Disney World has.  (Once again, finding profit numbers is hard on the Internet, as websites gleefully report gross revenue and not net profits).

And it is not like amusement parks have ever closed before - in fact, the world is rife with closed and abandoned amusement parks that just didn't work our or became unpopular over time.  Disney in fact has abandoned or torn down entire sections of their park and rebuilt them when rides or attractions became dated or attendance faltered.  Remember "Downtown Disney?" Gone. Entire YouTube channels are devoted to abandoned amusement parks and rides, including abandoned or torn down Disney attractions - Defunctland is a good example.

Like the ball bearing plant, it may seem like a huge investment in capital, but the reality is, most attractions "earn" their construction costs back within a few years or even months.  After that, it is pure profit and after that, well, you can afford to walk away or tear down and start over - such is the nature of the theme park business.

So, what's the point?  Well, to begin with, things that seem permanent and colossal are often ephemeral.  It may take a while, but when rot sets in, it is hard to eliminate.  I left GM in 1981 and it was another 25 years or so before it went bankrupt - the seeds were already sown back in the 1970s.  Florida is becoming more and more of a toxic State, and the horror stories of people being shot for no reason whatsoever or gays being targeted by legislators or "sovereign citizens" is enough to make anyone think twice about going there.  Cut off the wrong car and you are shot to death.  Even if you drive too slowly for someone else's tastes, you get shot. That is real crime, but Republicans refuse to do anything about it because of "second amendment rights" (which today apparently means shooting the pizza delivery boy when he shows up at the wrong address).  But abortion or drag shows? They have those threats covered.

Pretty clever when you think about it - if you can't solve real problems, invent fake ones, declare the war won, and go home.  You can never lose playing that game - except perhaps at the voting booth.

It is not like it would happen overnight, but Disney might think long and hard before investing more in Florida and perhaps look northward to friendlier States that are closer to population centers and where the weather is not so scorching hot during half the year.  Like I said, Virginia is a day's drive from New York or two days from Boston - and a few hours from the Nation's Capitol.  Maybe "Disney America" was poorly timed and poorly located, but there are other parts of the State where there is a lot of land available, fairly inexpensively, and the State is more business-friendly than Florida these days.

We like to - or liked to - visit Florida during the coldest months of the year. But lately, it seems the bloom is off the rose.  While there are many back roads, such as 301, which are not heavily traveled, the main roads, in particular I-10, I-95, and the infamous I-4, are so crowded with angry people that it is just unpleasant to visit there. They have signs up on I-4 advising you to removed bloodied bodies from the roadway so as to not impede traffic.  Secondary roads through towns and cities are even worse - you look at someone sideways and they will shoot you.  People are hostile and angry and the State is overcrowded with the worst sort of belligerent people.  It is not the relaxing tropical paradise it once was - most tropical paradises aren't, anymore, it seems.

How long before Disney gets the message they are not wanted and pack up and leave? - not all at once, of course, but piecemeal like GM did - selling off divisions and building new assembly plants, in Mexico.  Maybe it could happen, over time, if the State keeps trying to punish the company for expressing their opinions.  It certainly would make many other companies think twice before locating there.

That is the conundrum of the "Sunbelt" boom and the "red state" business trend.  Low taxes are fine and all, but if the electrical grid isn't reliable and the roads are potholed and random shootings are the norm, what's the attraction to live or work there?

Just a thought.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I'm sure Disney is carefully considering options. Even if they don’t move now, they could announce that they had signed a deal to move to another state at a critical point in the election cycle. That would be huge news, followed by much analysis about how this would very negatively affect Florida’s economy. DeSantis bankrupts Florida, do we want him as president?

He has a good point about Disney - they will make noises about moving at a strategic time. Like a baseball or football team who threatens to move, unless the city builds them a new stadium.
In the late 70’s I lived within range of the local Detroit news, and it seemed like every night they interviewed a UAW worker standing in the driveway of their brand new house, in front of their brand new car and boat, complaining that they couldn’t afford a $1/hour cut in pay …. and considering the debt, they were right. Meanwhile I screamed at the TV “I’ll take your job for $1/hr less!”
When I was at NDH, one of the foreman left the payroll for his department in the restroom by accident. What a nightmare, Stop payment orders, and printing new checks.  They decided to add up the cost of every check in the plant, to show that payroll for every department was over a million bucks.

So, as the co-op student, they handed me a printout from the mainframe of everyone's pay in the plant - the union employees, that is.  A "material handler" (forklift driver) was making $42,000 a year with overtime. Not bad salary for mindless work in the year 2010 or so.

This was in 1979. That would be $174,000 today.   Yes, wages have stagnated since then.  But back then, wages were outrageous.

The sad thing is, these workers went out and bought cars, trucks, snowmobiles, boats, and jet skis - and of course, a Harley - and put it all on "time" so they paid as much again in interest (this was 1979 and car loans were like 15%). So when they were laid-off, the repo company took it all and the house was foreclosed upon.

They had NOTHING because they thought the jobs would never go away and the company pension would cover their retirement.

Cradle-to-grave scenarios condition people to be passive!

Friday, April 28, 2023

Cheap-Ass USB Phone Cords

In addition to the different formats, there are different levels of quality of USB cables.

Mark got a new phone last year (or was it two years ago?) with a slightly different, larger, USB type C plug.  I had to buy adapters on eBay (they were cheap - a few cents apiece) so we could use our existing fleet of USB (type B?) cables that seem to accumulate like dust bunnies.  You buy some e-trash and it comes with a USB cable and a wall-pack transformer.  Eventually, they overrun your life. You end up with a drawer full of them.

No wonder Apple decided to ditch the accessory Apple cable with their newer phones.  Apple users already have dozens of them.  Why add more?

What was interesting to me, though, is that all phone cables are not alike, and I am not talking about the boring differences in formats and plug types.  The quality of the cable varies widely across the board.

Usually, I leave my poverty hotspot (working fine, thank you - 100GB for $25 a month, beat that, cable companies!) plugged in all the time. So the battery is never below 100%.  Once in a while, while travelling, I forget to plug it in, or it gets unplugged.  So it goes dead - to 0% - and I have to plug it back in. This is where it gets interesting.  If I plug it into a cheap-ass USB cable, it won't charge - or it will charge slowly - only up to 5% after a day (!!) and then discharging down to zero if I am streaming video.

I go to plug it back into the cable it came with and within an hour, it is up to 68% and by two hours, 100%.  The same is true for our phones - if they go all the way dead, the only way to charge them up with a cheap-ass USB cable is to turn them OFF and let them slowly charge overnight.

Recently, I was trying to download video from our crash camera to my laptop.  I put the memory chip in the phone and downloaded the video to the phone memory.  But it was too large to e-mail to the laptop to play or upload to YouTube.  So I tried plugging the phone into the laptop using a cheap-ass USB cable and not surprisingly, the laptop didn't recognize that anything had been plugged in.  The phone did show it was charging - slowly.

So I tried another cable and immediately, the laptop recognized the phone as a data storage device and I could download the video onto the laptop.  Clearly, the first cable had only charging wires installed and no data wires.  The second cable was properly pinned-out.

I kind of knew this in the back of my mind, but since I don't plug my phone into other devices for data transfer, I never thought about it too much.  I realized that some USB cables were better than others, in terms of charging, but that's about it.

I am guessing that the cheap-ass cables have very thin wires to save money and thus cannot handle much current.  Similarly, some of the wall-pack transformers seem to generate more current than others - you plug into one and it never seems to charge, while another gives you an instant boost.  Oddly enough, sometimes the smaller ones seem to have more power.

Then there is longevity - a common complaint by Apple users, who note that these types of cables tend to break near the plug end, where they are constantly flexed and eventually break.  We have a couple of "extra long" charging cables we bought at a truck stop (no doubt they lack data wires as well) and they seem to charge fast, but you have to be careful with the ends, as they appear to use solid copper conductors for wiring, and they break if you bend them too much.

We've tried the wireless charging techniques - you can buy wireless chargers for a few bucks at the checkout lane at Walmart.  They work, but are slow, and it is hard to use the phone when it is sitting on the charging disc.

Sadly, I do not know if there is a rating system for these cables - much as there is a tire treadwear rating system for tires.  The cables are sold by type and model, and there are sites out there that "review" cable types (mostly shill sites to upsell you to a fancy cable).  And no, no one is paying $10,000 for a USB cable.  That article in particular was very unhelpful.  Get a good quality cable and a "thick" one - wtf?  Could they be more specific?

You would think simple things like wire gauge would be displayed on the packaging (as well as wire type - aluminum, copper, braided, solid, etc.).  Maybe some do, but I have never seen a phone cable sold with the notation that it has 24-gauge braided copper with gold-plated contacts or whatever.  They seem to be sold on length and model type (USB B, C, Apple, etc.).  Some of the more expensive cables do list how much power they can handle (60W, 100W).  I suspect the cheap-ass kind only handle 5-10W or so, given how long it takes them to charge a phone.

Republicans hate regulations, of course, and they would argue the "free market" should decide how to label products.  And maybe, down the road, the free market will.  But the kinds of cables I see on the store shelves are lacking any information to discern quality and construction type.  Maybe some basic information like that would help in deciding which cable is the best value overall.

Or maybe I need to stop buying my cables at truck stops and dollar stores!

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Why Tucker Got Fired (Jiggle Interest)

There reaches a point where producers decide your cost just isn't worth it.

A lot of ink has been spilled lately about how Tucker Carlson was fired or quit from Fox News.  Was this a result of the settlement in the Dominion case, as well as upcoming litigation?  Was it the revelations in Tucker's e-mails that he thought the whole thing was a lie from the get-go - and said unflattering things about Fox management?  Or was it something else - sexual harassment or conflicts with management?  Or did he just quit in a fit of pique?

We may never know the real answer, but I suspect the truth is, it came down to money.  Fox has gone through a number of controversial - and popular - hosts over the years.  They were all ratings bonanzas and garnered huge salaries as well.  But one by one they left the company - Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and now Tucker Carlson - and all at the top of their game (as odious as their game was).

What gives?  Money.   I believe the Fox executives felt they could groom a new face to say hateful things on the air, for a lot less money per episode than they were paying Beck, Hannity, or Carlson.  And Fox has a host of hosts who are already on the air, but lesser-known to the rest of us who don't watch Fox News.  They are all chomping at the bit to be the next Glenn, Sean, or Tucker - and will do so for far less money.

The history of television is one of booting actors when they get uppity.  And Carlson is - or was - an actor, and Fox News is entertainment, not journalism (by their own admission).  In the movie Tootsie, there is a joke on the set of the soap opera Dustin Hoffman is working on.  They are setting up for a scene which is a funeral for one of of the characters of the soap opera.  Hoffman's character says, "I didn't know they were ill!" to which someone replies, "They asked for more money!"

And so it goes on television - you get too pushy and they kill off your character. Nothing personal, but they have to keep costs under control.  In the hit series Three's Company, the "Jiggle Interest" character of Chrissy Snow was played by Suzanne Somers, who demanded more money, at the instigation of her husband.  Her character was one of the most popular on the show, but the producers wouldn't budge.   If she asked for more money, the other actors would as well.  So they fired her, wrote her out of the series, and hired another blonde with big tits to take her place.  

Tucker, you're the blonde with big tits.  Easily replaceable and nothing more than "jiggle interest."

Suzanne Somers struggled with her career after leaving Three's Company. Producers wanted to make a cautionary example of her to other actors - plus they didn't want to take a viper to their breast in some new show.  Now you know why producers love the ensemble cast format.  No one actor is essential to the production.   If one person asks for more cash, you can just boot them off - even a main character!  Comes in real handy when one of your actors professes admiration for Hitler or something.

The cast of Friends tried asking for more money early on in the show's run.  The producers responded by putting together a promo ad touting the end of the show.  The cast caved in, although later, combined, they garnered a hefty $1M per episode - after the show became a money-making machine.

Actually, the Three's Company story didn't end with Somers.   The landlord characters of Norman Fell and Audra Lindley were offered a spin-off show called The Ropers, and veteran actor and comedian Don Knotts took their place on Three's Company.  When The Ropers bombed, Fell and Lindley were let go and not brought back to the main show.  The Knotts character turned out to be more popular than the Ropers had been.  Nothing personal, just television.

There are an endless supply of wanna-be stars and starlets in Hollywood.  And in some situations, it isn't hard to replace one with another.  Sure, a "big name" actor can attract people to the box office - and more importantly, investors to the movie.  But often you wonder if the millions spent on one actor was really worth it.  Did Disney's live-action remake of Pinocchio really benefit from Tom Hank's phoned-in acting, or would it have been better off without him?  Maybe that is why the movie bombed.

In the case of Carlson, he was just a talking head with a trademarked surprised-Pikachu face.  The real "talent" of the show (evil talent) was the writers who created the snarky lies that the mouthpiece-in-a-suit then spews.  One wonders whether an "AI" could be used instead of a live actor - or indeed, the snarky lies could be written by an "AI" and even the writers dispensed with.  Probably someone at Fox is thinking about this right now.

The wave of the future - predicted so many years ago!

Because when you get right down to it, news presenters are pretty much interchangeable mouthpieces. Since the days of Walter Cronkite, the value of news people has plummeted, even if their salaries have gone up.  Dan Rather was a bad joke, after Cronkite - and certainly not worth his enormous salary.

And maybe network executives have come to realize this - and protect their own enormous salaries in the process.  People have short attention spans these days - measured in minutes on the Internet.  It doesn't pay anymore to offer a high salary to a veteran newsman or entertainment figure.  You are better off presenting the next shiny new thing to the bloated masses, to keep their attention.

So stay tuned for Tucker 2.0!  Any guesses as to who it might be?  Does anyone really care?

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

On The Other Hand.... (End of Life Repairs)

There is a sweet spot at the end of a product production cycle when parts become very cheap.

I was thinking about my last posting, and much of it is based on experience.  I have tried to fix up a lot of end-of-life vehicles and electronics with mixed results.  Often a repair at that stage just forestalls the inevitable by a few months or a year.  But it is the availability of cheap replacement parts that is the key to  the deal.

With the golf cart, parts are still available after 30 years simply because golf cart technology hasn't changed much in that time.  Our 1994 EZ-GO Marathon has an all-steel body.  Yes, I already replaced the battery trays once (battery acid + mild steel = rust).  Newer models such as the popular TXT have a steel frame and a fiberglass body that bolts on.  That's why you see these "custom" golf carts with a '57 Chevy body, tooling around in The Villages.  As one golf cart owner told me, it was cheaper to replace the entire body on his golf cart than it was to paint it.

But not much else has changed.  The basic suspension and drivetrain is identical if not similar.  The wheel bearings and brakes, for example, which were cheap online ($50 total) fit any EZ-GO from the 1980s to the present (with some exceptions).  Even the solid-state Curtis controller (introduced in 1994) is basically the same as in later models.  But there are some parts which are different, and over time, they are getting harder to find.

There reaches this "sweet spot" in a product cycle, after it has gone out of production, when parts are cheap.  We had a 1981 Fiat Spider - one of the last years they made them (although they soldiered on as "Pinninfarina Spiders" for a couple more years).  The thing stickered for $11,000 new in 1981, which was enough to buy a Cadillac.  In the 1980's, you could get parts, as the dealers still stocked them, but they were expensive as it was an "expensive" car.

As they got older and worked their way down the food chain, people were less willing to spend money repairing them.  Many got old and went to the junkyard.  Others were in wrecks.  The demand for parts declined - and dealers and distributors had inventory in stock.  Prices fell.

As it often happens in the car business, there reaches a point there a distributor decides to get rid of all these old parts in inventory and sells off the lot in tractor-trailer loads, for pennies on the dollar.  It is cheaper than paying someone to throw them in a dumpster.  Some chap ends up with this inventory of parts and starts selling them - through ads in the back of car magazines, or today, online.

Since he paid nothing for the parts and since the number of cars is few (and they are cheap) the parts are sold off cheap.  And the guy who owns one of these cars has found the "sweet spot" as he can keep the car on the road for a while, for not a lot of money.

But over time, the supply of parts winds down.  Many parts are "NLA" (No Longer Available) and it becomes harder to find such parts and the prices skyrocket.  Worse yet, the cars themselves are less seen as "old cars" worth fixing up to drive around than as "collector's items" to be carefully restored and kept in a garage.  Well, maybe not with a Fiat, but with some cars, anyway.

There also reaches a point where you either have to take it to the next level - a ground-up restoration - or move on.  Most of us cannot afford such a restoration, and even if we could, we would get back 50 cents for every dollar spent.  It makes no sense unless you are a fanatic.  And being a fanatic is never a cost-effective proposition.

So the prices start to go up and even used parts are hard to come by as scrapyards, seeing the junked versions languish without many customers, send them off to the shredder.  Actually, many scrapyards don't keep cars for very long.  They let customers strip off usable parts and then shred the rest.  You can't waste the yard space hoping someone wants a vent window to a 1987 VW Golf or something.  Shred it!

I have run into the same thing with my small fleet of Toshiba C655 laptops.  I can (or could) buy them on eBay for under $50 in working order (sans hard drive).  Using my collection of parts, I could make them work like new again.  Things like a new keyboard are $10 or so, and other parts like used motherboards are not much more.  Unlike a Chromebook, replacement part are - at the present time - cheap and readily available.  I am in the sweet spot.

For the time being, that is. One reason these used laptops are so cheap is that no one wants them, and they made a lot of them.  So the sell them off cheap to get rid of them.  Eventually, they will run out and that will be the end of it - Toshiba doesn't sell replacement parts and I doubt anyone else has new parts for them for very long.

So I will enjoy my cheap old (and reliable) laptops for a few years more - and then move on.  To what, I don't know.  The Chromebook experience is mixed.  While it works, sort of, it is not a laptop but just a glorified smart phone.  We use it to stream video to our old Sanyo television.   I am not sure it is ready for much else than that, although I suppose it could be used for blogging.

But the idea of everything in "the cloud" and renting software by the month simply doesn't appeal to me.  Then again, I am still running 20+ year old programs.  They work just fine, thank you.

There will come a time, even for those, however.   Knowing when to quit is the key.  You can bankrupt yourself trying to be cheap!

Tuesday, April 25, 2023


Repair costs can sometimes exceed resale value!

One problem with making repairs - besides the problems Conrad Waddington discovered - is that it costs far more - like ten times as much - to fix something after it is made than it is to just make it.

And indeed, during assembly of, say, a car, mistakes are made - and quickly repaired.  A friend of mine at GMI worked at an assembly plant, and they told me that if the parking brake didn't work on a car coming off the line (or some other defect in the rear end) they just jacked up the car on a lift and swapped out the entire axle assembly.  There was no time to fiddle around with fiddly bits or try to diagnose the problem.  Maybe later, the axle assembly would be returned to that department or division for rework - where they had all the parts and tools and most important of all, an assembly line.

And that, in short, is why American cars fared so poorly in the 1970s and early 1980s.  The sales prices were skyrocketing - more then doubling during the 1970s alone.  But then you had to take the car back for one repair after another.  Even under warranty, the inconvenience was annoying.

But out of warranty? Costs could add up quickly.  Meanwhile, your neighbor is driving that "funny Japanese car" for years and years with nothing more than an occasional oil change.

In my previous posting I detailed how I am (attempting) to repair my 30-year-old golf cart.  Fortunately, the parts combined are about $50 or so and my labor is cheap.  If I was to take this to a "buggy" place, I would have to borrow a neighbor's trailer, make an appointment, drive there, and wait days for the work to begin, for parts to arrive, and the work to be done.  And with labor rates over $100 an hour, it would not take long for the repair cost to exceed the $300 I originally paid for the cart, many years ago.

That's why you don't see a lot of 30-year-old golf carts around.  There reaches a point where it is simply cheaper and easier to buy a newer cart with all the fancy features and more readily available parts, than to screw around with an antique.

But the same is true for newer products.  It simply isn't cost-effective to take an older laptop or cell phone in for repair, when a newer model (used) can be had for $199 on eBay.  They stopped making batteries removable on cell phones and initially people were upset (I know I was!).  But then I realized that (a) cell phone batteries are lasting a lot longer then they used to, (b) my cell phone is already woefully obsolete as it is, why bother even putting a battery in it? and (c) I can just buy a newer used phone for not much more than the cost of battery replacement at a dealer.

So yea, you could call it "planned obsolescence" but the bottom line is, building or rebuilding anything piecemeal will cost ten times as much as it costs to make it in a factory.  The guy building a hot rod in his garage is doing it for the fun aspect - he isn't saving money at all, particularly if you factor in his labor.  The cost of parts - such as for my buggy - may seem cheap, but then again, I am paying at least double what a factory pays for the same parts, ordered by the containerload.

And therein lies the conundrum.  I have kept this buggy alive over the years, replacing the controller, installing a lift kit, replacing the batteries, putting on two sets of tires now, re-upholstering the seats, and so on and so forth.   Eventually it becomes a Ship of Theseus, as everything, other than a few core parts, are replaced.

And the few parts I haven't replaced probably will go south someday soon.  The entire steering mechanism is loose.  Sure there are parts available (another $50 to $100 there) to rebuild the steering box and whatnot. And the motor? Only 30 years old and although a 36V motor, has been running on 48V or more for the last five years.  How much longer will it last?

Sure, you can find used parts more cheaply than new ones - but they are also worn and may not last very much longer, either.  Putting used parts on a car is something you do to sell it, not to keep it.

Eventually you have to call it quits, the only question being - when?  I use the rule of thumb that when repair costs exceed resale value it is time to move on.  You throw $2000 at a car worth $2000, that doesn't make it worth $4000.  And no, that doesn't mean it is fixed forever and ever, amen, either.

So maybe, someday soon, we may sell the old buggy and upgrade to something newer. Or decide that our buggy days are over - at least for the time being.  We'll see.  Better to sell something when it is working and worth something than to wait until it is just good for parts only.

One thing is for sure - if I had to hire someone to fix this buggy for me, I would have sold it long, long ago!

Monday, April 24, 2023

Buggy Blows a Bearing!

It isn't supposed to look like this!

The buggy has been acting up as of late.  The oversized tires I bought for it finally wore out (I guess we've been driving it a bit!) so I ordered a new set with flashy alloy rims.   Shortly thereafter, it started making a banging noise coming from the rear.  It got worse as the the days progressed and finally one day on the way home, it made the banging noise and then a grinding noise - but that went away.

It sounded like it was coming from the left rear, although Mark swears it was coming from the front.  What was wrong?  Was the differential blowing out?  The brake shoes dragging?  A bad wheel bearing?

It can't be the wheel bearing, right?  Because when those go bad, they make a roaring noise and this was a banging and popping kind of noise and it was only occasionally.  Well, Mark took the buggy to visit some potters and it went bang and then sounded like the brakes were dragging.  So I went to pick up the buggy and when I put it in reverse, the dragging noise stopped.

All the way home it would bang and pop and sometimes the dragging would start. I would put it in reverse and then go forward and it was fine - for a while.  Maybe a rock in the brake drum?  Brake shoes dragging?  Oh, well, time to take it apart and find out.

As in any automotive project, jacking it up is half the battle.

The first problem is that the buggy is 30 years old and as far as I can tell, the brake drums have never been off it.  The dust cap was fused by corrosion to the cap receiver.  After struggling with it for an hour, I finally cut it off with an angle grinder.  Crude, but effective.

The service manual states that the dust cap is optional.  If you have a wheel with a center cap (as we do) then the dust cap is redundant.  Besides, the bearing is sealed, so no dust can get in anyway.  By the way, service manuals are essential if you want to work on something, but they are getting harder to come by these days.  When we bought our 1995 F150, Ford sent us a postcard asking whether we wanted to buy service manuals (GM used to do this, too) and for a few bucks, you could have all the manuals (which took up half a shelf) and had all possible repairs laid out in excruciating detail.

Having a service manual with diagrams so you know what you are dealing with, is essential!

Today?  They want to keep that data proprietary - so you have to go to the dealer for service.  Ford will offer to sell you the owner's manual, and that's about it.  There are manuals available online, from eBay for example, as downloadable pdfs or even USB thumb drives.  How times have changed.  I miss the grease-stained pages of my F150 manual.  Sometimes it is nice to hold something in your hands.  And how can you turn the pages on a pad device with grease and dirt on your hands?  On the other hand, the pdf file is only a few bucks.

Anyway, once I get the castle nut off (140 ft-lbs of torque!) I find.... nothing at first.  The brakes look fine and the drum isn't scored.  It isn't until I clean it up with acetone that I notice the outside edge of the brake drum is scored and the bearing seal is shot.  The manual calls for using as slide-hammer to remove the bearing axle assembly.  You know what?  I hate slide hammers.  Yea, I own one, but it never does jack shit.  I try it and the bearing won't budge.  I finally McGuyver up a rig using a gear puller and two bolts, that I put on the axle shaft.  By tightening the castle nut, the bearing slowly pulls out..  This is better than sex!

And once out and the layers of grease cleaned off, I see the problem.  Nearly 1/3 of the balls are missing, the ball cage is wadded up (what is left of it) and chunks 'o balls are mashed in the grease.  The banging noise was the balls breaking up as chunks of broken ball wedged into the "good" balls.  Eventually enough balls were busted (sorry!) that the axle moved upward, allowing the brake drum to rub on the backing plate.  Let's hope the axle flexing like this didn't damage the differential spider gears.  Oh well.

Off to eBay and the brake kit - with all the fixin's - is like $30.  The bearing set (both sides) with seals and new circlips, is only $25.  I was able to get the bearing off the axle shaft with my gear puller (using it the correct way this time) but I may have to drop by NAPA to have them press the new bearing onto the axle shaft.

It gets tricky with bearings.  If you put too much load on them or hammer them while installing, they will brinnell the races.  I mentioned before how Rockwell hardness testing is used to measure hardness of metal by using a diamond point and seeing how far it goes into a piece of metal with a predetermined amount of pressure.  Brinnell testing is sort of the same thing, but uses a hard ball as the penetrating point.  If you bang on a bearing or overload it statically, the balls will make little dents in the races and you will "feel" it if you spin the bearing in your hands.  Eventually, that bearing will fail prematurely as these little dents slowly tear apart the balls.

So you have to be careful installing bearings like this.  They are a press fit and as such have to be carefully installed, and not hammered or over pressured.  One technique is to put the smaller of the two parts in the freezer or other cold place, so as to allow it to contract, while heating carefully (with a hair dryer, not a torch!) the other part.  Sometimes they will just slip together this way and then "grow" together as the temperature equalizes.  I doubt that would work for a bearing, though.

So what holds this all together?  Massive bolts or something?  Not exactly.  It is fascinating how flimsy the construction of cars are, in some regards.  This axle assembly is not unlike that of many car, including the Jeep (rear axle) or my old 1974 Maverick.  In the case of this golf cart, two circlips hold the bearing in place (that and the press fit) and that is all that prevents the axle from just working its way out of the axle housing.

Some cars are far worse.  Older GM rear wheel drive cars didn't have sealed bearings like this, but used roller bearings which rode in the same fluid as the differential.  The axle itself was held in place by a tiny clip on the inside end, where it protruded from one of the spider gears.  If this clip fell off or wore out, well, the entire axle on one side would "walk" outward.  You may have seen an old GM pickup truck or van parked by the side of the road with the wheel sticking out this way.  Kind of weird that the only thing holding the axle in place is a tiny metal clip about the size of a silver dollar and costing sixty-nine cents.

That is one advantage of rear disc brakes - if the axle goes astray, the brake pads will at least hold it in place for you!

But I digress.

Anyway, the buggy is out of action until the parts arrive and I get to work on it. I have the parts to do both sides and will take this opportunity to drop the differential pan (on golf cart, they are on the bottom) and look for any metal chunks or debris, and change the differential fluid.  And yes, I will do the other side as well - at least the brakes. I hate to mess with the bearing on that side, if it isn't broken.  Then again, after 30 years, odds are, it's about to - right?

30 years - you'd think they'd make 'em last longer than that!  Quite frankly, golf carts are one of the most over-engineered products out there.  They are built to last the ages, but most golf courses swap them out when the batteries need replacement (usually they lease them).  And that's why you see so many used golf carts for sale.  Golf courses don't want them, so that leaves only the recreational users.

And if they last 30 years or more - we will eventually drown in a sea of used golf carts!

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Why I Shop at Walmart (and Sam's Club)

When you can buy something for half price, why wouldn't you?

We have two Walmarts in our town - a "supercenter" and a "neighborhood market" - or as we call it, "The Ghetto Gourmet" as it is on the corner of MLK and "Community" boulevards, right across the street from the check-cashing stores, the payday loan places, the rent-to-own furniture shop, the rent-to-own bling rim store, and the buy-here-pay-here used car dealer.

Odd, isn't it?  The best prices in town on food are across the street from the most horrendous deals imaginable.  Poor people shop aggressively on food and gasoline - but basically drop the ball on big-ticket items.

But I digress.

We also have a Sam's club, which is an interesting place and took some getting used to, coming from BJ's Wholesale and Costco.  It is a distinctly different vibe. All three places  have a gas station, too.  Sam's club sells enormous hot dogs with a soft drink for $1.32 - the best bargain in terms of price (but not health, of course) in town.  At least take a pass on the HFCS and go for the "unsweetened" tea.

I have friends who refuse to set forth in Walmart because of politics.  "The Walton family is a bunch of Republicans!" they say - as if that alone is a damning condemnation.  Very few grocery chains are owned by liberal Democrats.  Don't even ask about the founders of Publix!

"They don't pay their employees fairly!" they also argue - but for some reason, Walmart has no trouble attracting scores of employees (indeed, by some counts, one of, if not the, world's largest private employer).  If the pay was so lousy, wouldn't people work elsewhere, particularly in a time of "labor shortage?"  Or is that over already?

I try to explain to my friends that the prices at these places are a lot less, but they will hear none of it.  Maybe they drive by and see that the "Murphy" gasoline is only a few pennies less than the Texaco across the street, and assume that is the extent of the bargains inside as well.  But the reality is, you are easily paying double or more, for groceries and other goods, at other retail outlets.

A recent trip to Winn-Dixie drove home this point.  I had to go to the storage shed to show the trailer to the RV repair guy to get an estimate on some repairs after the sideswiping incident.  Since the Winn-Dixie is nearby, Mark asked me to stop by to "get a few things" like half-and-half, hamburger buns (which we use for our breakfast sandwiches).  I was appalled at the prices.

To begin with, Winn Dixie uses these BOGO deals as well as customer loyalty programs, so you never really know the price of something until you check out.  And most people don't keep prices in their heads.  If you go to Sam's Club, they have a huge selection of fruits and berries.   A whole big box of strawberries is like $5.  For a tiny container at Winn-Dixie, it is four bucks - at least double the cost-per-pound than at Sam's club.

And so on down the line.  A huge bag of spinach (which you can and should put in everything fomr pizza to scrambled eggs to soup to salad to whatever!) at Sam's Club is four bucks.  A bag 1/4 the size at Winn-Dixie is.... four bucks.   Hamburger buns at Walmart were 88 cents for eight for the longest time.  Now they are $1.11 or more.  At Winn-Dixie?  $1.99 - nearly double the cost at Walmart or Sam's Club.

So why do people shop at these places?  For some, it is convenience.  You live nearby, you can walk to the store or take a short drive.  Going to the wholesale club or the Supercenter is a big outing for a lot of people (and the highlight of the week for many of the poor).  I went to the Winn-Dixie only because it was nearby.  So the prices are higher because it is convenient - just like 7-11 charges obscene prices because you just want to "drop in and grab something" and not make a big deal shopping trip out of it.

But over time, doubling your grocery bill is going to cost you a lot of money.  I noted before that we spend several hundred a month on groceries as it is - imagine doubling that to over a thousand dollars!

And yet, there are other stores that cost even more - Mark used to run one!  Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, and so on and so forth, cater to wealthier clientele (or people who think they are wealthy or want others to think that).  I kid you not about the latter - When Mark managed the Sutton Place Gourmet in Old Town, people would come in and ask for their logo bags (heavy white paper bags with the little string handles, with the Sutton Place Gourmet logo and artichoke plastered across the front) even if they didn't buy anything there.  And like with a Starbucks cup, people always - always - carried the bag with the logo facing out.   Who's going to be impressed if they don't know you spend money like you don't care?

So, once again, status rears its ugly head.  And people use the canard that they won't shop at Walmart because of political issues or because of "the workers" or whatever, when the real reason is status, not politics.  If these Karens really cared about "the workers" they wouldn't scream at them all the time - right?  I mean, you can't have it both ways.

Funny thing, I try to be nice to Walmart employees, simply because it isn't the greatest job in the world, and no one is paying them to take shit from customers.  Maybe that is the ultimate reason people shop at "upscale" grocery stores - they feel since they paid more, they have the privilege of abusing the staff.

And I kid you not about this.  I have a friend who regularly causes trouble in stores and restaurants (to the point of being banned from more than one).  Their argument is that "since I'm the customer and I'm paying, everything should be just the way I like it."  But life doesn't work that way.  And being mean to lowly staff (who can't fight back for fear of losing their jobs) is just being mean.

But I digress.

The title of the blog is "Living Stingy" not "showing off to impress people you don't know" or "making stupid decisions with your money."  When one merchant offers goods at half the price or less than another merchant, well, it certainly bears checking it out, at least.

The savings are not trivial.

As for the politics?  For some reason, even though liberals have "boycotted" Walmart, it remains in business to this very day.  For the most part, boycotts don't work (take note, former Bud Light drinkers!).   Unless you can put a serious dent in their sales, it simply doesn't work.  I am not sure anyone is saving the planet or changing the political landscape by paying too much for groceries or changing lite beer brands (particularly to Coors Light, which has been very vocal about supporting Gay Pride events for decades now).  You might as well leave politics out of it.

Funny thing, though, our local Michael's had a huge display of "Gay Pride" merchandise, which was on sale for over 50% off, as rural Georgia isn't exactly the place for a Gay Pride parade.  But Michael's didn't seem to think there would be a backlash if they sold such merchandise - they go where the money is, no doubt.  And Michael's is still in business, too.

Funny how that works - most people shop on price and quality, not on politics.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Perpetual Underclass

Slavery was abolished after the Civil War.  But it is still possible to enslave yourself in this country, and a whole industry exists for this purpose.

Consider the parolee.  Someone goes to jail for a crime - perhaps a trivial crime, such as possession of marijuana.  And typically, such a person will be black, as a young white offender will get a lighter sentence or probation or even have his criminal record wiped cleaned as a "youthful offender" status, thanks to his middle-class-or-better parents hiring a good lawyer.

But regardless of race, when you get into prison, you may be exploited as prison labor, which many States are doing these days, paying pennies an hour to prisoners and renting them out to outside businesses for dollars an hour.  And some in law enforcement and even the legislature have argued for heftier sentences or have come out against decriminalization (or legalization) of marijuana on the grounds that their carefully-oiled machine needs warm bodies to operate.  More convictions!  Longer sentences!  That is not how the justice system is supposed to work.  Work camps is how the Nazis worked - albeit to the death.

It doesn't end there, of course.  Once you are out of jail, good luck finding a job.  As an ex-convict, there are few options open to you, other than, again, industries that specialize in finding distressed people and then putting them to work at low-wage shitty jobs that no one else will take.  Ever wonder who cleans up that hazmat spill on the highway?  A friend of mine did that once - for a week.  He was the only employee not on parole.

Once you are "in the system" they pretty much have you, for life.  And maybe that is justice if you killed someone or raped someone or assaulted someone or burgled their home.  But for possessing a little weed?   Seems kind of excessive.

Even if you are not a criminal, the system has a place for you.  If you didn't value education much in school (which is easy to do in an overcrowded school where maintaining a semblance of order takes precedence over education) you will find it hard to get a job once you graduate.  If you can find a part-time job (which is all low-wage employers offer these days, to avoid paying benefits) you can qualify for Obamacare and Food Stamps and an Obamaphone and maybe subsidized housing.  There is, however, a work requirement in most States, so they have you locked-in to that low-wage, part-time job.  This is not a "career" for you as there will be no advancement and no doubt, you will have to work the rest of your life - retirement on Social Security isn't really an option, when all you will collect is a thousand a month or so.

A relatively recent twist on this game is that the middle-class can now play as well!   If you don't pay attention in school, go to an expensive college for a useless degree, and rack up tens of thousands of dollars in intractable student loan debt, you can fall down the ladder from middle-class to poverty, and join the legions of people who don't have many choices left in life.

In short, anyone can now join the army of the indentured, particularly if they are not careful.  Now, granted, some would argue that these are the results of poor life choices, not destiny.  And this is true - although it is easier to make better life choices when you come from a middle-class or upper-class family and your poor choices are often erased and you are given a "do-over" time and again.

On the other hand, it is pretty hard to feel sorry for someone smart enough to get into college, but not smart enough to do basic math.  In the comments accompanying the above comic, some argued that even a basic college degree at a State School would cost over $100,000 with "living expenses" - which is a nebulous figure.  As I noted before, I graduated after 14 years of night school, with about $38,500 in student loans in 1992.  That would be the equivalent of about $82,000 today or about what our cartoon friend owes on their student loans.  Funny thing, it also took me the better part of 20 years to pay it back as well.  But it was never an onerous burden, and my first mortgage made the amount look pitiful.  Hell, I bought a car at the time that cost half the balance on that loan.

It's not impossible to pay it back.  And of course, it isn't impossible to borrow less, but it does require imagination and effort. If you can live at home and commute to school, your "living expenses" can be a lot less.  Of course, a student's "living expenses" often include socializing, stylish clothes, a new gaming console, and so forth.  Hey, I was a student once, too - I know how the game was played.  That $38,500 that I borrowed was totally unnecessary, in retrospect.  I used some of it to remodel my kitchen.

Working your way through school is also another choice, but one many are loathe to take.  I enjoyed night school - all 14 years of it - working and then studying and getting real-world work experience at the same time.  I was never unemployed, before or after graduation.  It is a different mindset, and not one that is publicized much.  The educational establishment wants you to graduate in four years and if you do get a "summer job" it is as an unpaid intern.  Sounds like a raw deal to me.

So yea, there are choices to be made - difficult choices.  And if you have no imagination or don't have a strong personality and believe in your own convictions, you can end up as part of the permanent underclass, whether through incarceration, or by becoming a perpetual debt slave.   When you hear the groans and complaints of people who have trapped themselves this way, the common denominator is that they believe they had no choice in the matter.  They merely did what they were told - what a guidance counselor or their parents said to do, or what "society" expected of them.  And it all turned out wrong, so clearly they are blameless.

You know, I can sympathize more with the young black kid who attended a shitty school and was jumped into a gang at age 13 - and ended up a convicted felon.  While he too, had choices to make, they were damn harder choices.  And no one is talking about forgiving his non-existent student loans, either.

I'm not saying the student loan system is great, or that college tuition is rational.  Only that, well, this issue has been festering for 20 years now, and people still want us to believe they had no idea this could happen to them.

And maybe they are figuring it out.  Some recent reports claim that "Generation Z" is taking a pass at college, or at least taking a closer look at it before committing to such a financial burden so early in life.


Friday, April 21, 2023

Toxic Masculinity - Weaponizing Incompetence

He did agree not to eat the kids, though...

One topic you see online in some women's discussion groups is how men behave badly when it comes to basic household chores, or even getting and keeping a job.  The wife goes off to work, leaving husband to loaf around all day, getting high and playing video games.  The wife asks him to do laundry, and he puts all the delicates in with his grease-stained blue jeans, sets the temperature on "hot" and for good measure, adds a cup or two of bleach.

She'll never ask him to do laundry again.  Maybe that was the point.

I saw this firsthand, more than once, with friends and relatives.  Marijuana was involved, of course.  I am not against pot, but like alcohol or any other drug, it can become a crutch and cause people to fail at life.  It also can create a lot of passive-aggressive behavior.

One complaint you hear often on these women's discussion groups is how men crow that they "help out" with the housework, as if being of assistance is some major accomplishment, as opposed to say, doing half of it.  Sadly, whether it is conditioning from our culture or some biological urge, it seems women are programmed to "keep house" traditionally, and back in the day, men went off to be "breadwinners" and bring home a paycheck.

But all that has changed, and someone forgot to tell the men.

Since I was born, women went from making up a fraction of the workforce to a huge portion.  Back in 1960, only 37% of women worked at a paying job, while today, the number is over 56%.  Not only that, the types of jobs women do today have changed.   In the good (bad) old days, women had jobs "until they got married" and often the jobs available to them were in service industries. You could be a secretary, a waitress, or a flight attendant - the latter being only until you got older, then you were fired. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of those jobs, only that those were the only choices.  In the professions, women dominated nursing, but a "lady doctor" or "lady lawyer" were deemed humorous novelties.  Today they make up 36-40% of both professions.

So times have changed, but many men haven't.  A generation of young men are listening to "podcasts" and Twitter feeds and TickTock videos from toxic males who preach to them that they deserve to be "kings" and that they are entitled to sex with the women of their choice.  Of course, they are also selling their "pickup artist" books, which suggest to men that in order to get with a woman, you have to gaslight her by making her constantly feel inadequate and insecure.  "Nice dress - you're not going to wear it with those shoes, are you?" - that sort of crap.

These sites and authors are teaching young men the exact opposite of where they need to go.  You can't be a "toxic male" and have a wife who is a partner in a law firm.

But that is what many of today's "incels" (who do not look anything like our lion king above) are clamoring for.  They want a Mommy who will clean up after them, do the laundry, make food, and provide sex - the proverbial "bang-maid" who is an object more than a person.  In the rare instances where some woman goes along with this nonsense, the relationship is doomed to failure.

I saw this firsthand, like I said, many a time.  Let's take "Tim" as an example - not his real name, of course.  His wife has a career and he has.. a job most of the time.   Tim likes to smoke an awful lot of pot, drink a lot of beer, and spend the day on the Internet, mostly downloading porn or playing video games.  He's "between jobs" right now and his wife asks him to pick up their kid after school and do some basic shopping.  He gets high and forgets both, which results in a panicked phone call from the school to the wife, who in turn is angry with Tim.  An argument ensues when she gets home (after leaving work early to pick up their child).

Tim's wife is unhappy - not just with Tim, but the situation she is now forced to be in.  She never signed up to be a "nagging wife" but it seems that is what she has to do, constantly, to try to get Tim to focus. Tim uses passive-aggressive techniques to duck out on any kind of responsibilities in life, which in turn, pushes his wife into more nagging and argument.  Both are unhappy, but Tim is having more fun at this game - let's be frank here.

They ended up getting divorced, of course, as Tim's wife finally realized that nothing was going to change and that Tim really didn't want to change.  Tim now lives alone in his own squalor and calls his ex-wife a nagging witch (or something that rhymes with that) who "only cared about money!" (because she had to pay all the bills).   It is pretty sad, really.  But how did this happen?

Not overnight, to be sure.  Tim had a girlfriend before he got married, and the pattern was the same - she was the Earth-Mother-Goddess who took care of Tim and allowed him not to grow up.  Massive amounts of drugs were involved, of course, with a tinge of mental illness.  Eventually, his girlfriend left him and - surprise, surprise - he claimed to be the victim and of course, she was just a "materialistic witch" - or something that rhymes with that.

At least Tim wasn't violent or abusive (other than in the passive-aggressive sense).  Many other men resort to violence or even murder - you read about in the paper every day.  "I'll show everyone who's crazy!" they shout, as they gun down their ex-wife and her entire extended family.  Yea buddy, you showed us who was crazy!   You.

Like I said, it seems this sort of thing is on the rise, fueled by social media, who lauds these sort of  "influencers" who tell unempowered males what they want to hear - that they are entitled to a girlfriend (or "females" as they call them - red flag!) or wife, "but for" wokeism and feminism and other -isms, they are being denied their rightful heritage as kings!

Who is spewing this stuff? Well, three guesses as to which foreign country has a huge hacking force run by their government and is hell-bent on destabilizing America.  Yes, it isn't all about "Russia great, America bad!" on the Internet - in fact, they rarely are that stupidly obvious.  No, rather it is all about turning Americans against each other - Right against Left, Gay against Straight, Black against White, and yes, Men against Women.  You get an enemy to fight itself, you need not fight it yourself.  They will collapse from within.  The Art of War.

And you know something?  They're doing a pretty darn good job at it, too.  But only because we are so stupid as to think these really are our opinions and not something created by outside forces.  I mean, think about it, this whole "trans" thing is just nonsense.  I think both sides are being trolled to take extreme positions - and to not even think about conversation or compromise.

But you'd be surprised (or not so surprised) as to how many people think this is the most pressing issue of the day and how many are passionately invested in it.  They are blood-boiling angry over it, too.  Like I said, they are trolling us but good.

But I digress.

In my own life, I found myself leaning on Mr. See for domestic chores - although we had a maid at one time, a couple of times a week (that was an expensive lesson) when we were both working.  Mr. See has a degree in hotel-restaurant management, so he runs the kitchen.  I try to be conscientious about doing dishes, starting the dishwasher, and putting them away, as well as cleaning the counters and such.  I mean, that's the least I could do, right?   It is all-too-easy to fall into a habit of letting your spouse do the work while you watch "your favorite show" - this is how resentment builds up.

Of course, there is always a tension with regard to house cleaning and many men seem content to live with a level of dust and dirt.  "Why vacuum?  Seems fine to me, and I'm in the middle of a multi-player video game!"  And that becomes a source of strife in many marriages, as one partner wants things cleaner than the other.  Some kind of compromise has to be reached.

But the key word is compromise, not "Heads I win, tails you lose" - which seems to be the rallying cry of the passive-aggressive.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Whatever Happened to the Retro Cars?

Retro was supposed to be the wave of the future!

Back in the 1990s or so, it seems every car company came out with a "retro" designed car, and today, most are viewed as expensive failures in the marketplace or are reviled by car enthusiasts.  Why is this and why was "retro" a bad idea?

The first problem was that car companies took advice from car enthusiasts, not car customers.  They would put together retro-themed "dream cars" for the car shows that travel nationwide to attract customers.  Car nuts would salivate at some "retro" styled car and say, "If you built THAT, I would buy it!  Who wants a boring SUV or pickup truck or sedan when you can have a funky clone of a '49 Studebaker?"

So the car companies built them and no one came.  Turns out, people are conformists and they want boring sedans, SUVs, and boxy pickup trucks that look like their neighbor's boring car.  The "retro" cars made too much of a statement for the average buyer, and most were not very practical. Worse yet, many were just retro-styled bodies on more plebeian underpinnings.

The other big problem with "retro" is this: How do you update the styling on a retro car?  Do you go ahead a decade, or tweak it around the edges?  Or do you just give up?  Most car makers chose the latter route.

The following are a number of "retro" designs that had mixed reactions in the marketplace.  Few remained in production for more than one product cycle.  Some were only in production for a scant few years.

Volkswagen New Beetle

One of, if not the first of the new retro cars was the "new Beetle" which debuted in 1997.  The New Beetle illustrates almost all of the problems with retro.  The concept car was built on the smaller "Polo" platform and would have be more true to the original Beetle of yore.  But to meet US safety standards, it was upgraded to a Jetta platform, making the New Beetle look ungainly and huge.  But even with this size increase, the interior room and trunk space suffered from the retro styling.  While the trunk of a Jetta can hold several large suitcases, the tapered trunk of the new Beetle (which had the engine in the front, not back as in the original) had little room.

The look was a bit disarming as well, as the roofline was almost a perfect circle segment (advertised as an "arch") unlike the original that had a more flattened look. This, along with the fisheye headlights, gave it an almost clown-car appearance

The car was also tagged as being "too feminine" and the percentage of sales tended to trend that way as well.  It was not a car that most men felt comfortable driving.  The fact they released a "Malibu Barbie" edition didn't help in that regard.  It stayed in production for over a decade, and sold over a million copies worldwide over that time.  On the other hand, VW sells nearly ten times that many cars in a single year, so the New Beetle was never a major player in their portfolio.

The New Beetle is unique in this list in that it was one of the few "retro" cars to survive to a second generation.  The next generation (just "Beetle" this time) or A5, had a lower roofline and a more menacing, masculine look.  While it stayed in production nearly a decade, sales were never that great as even that of the New Beetle and eventually VW had to pull the plug.  As with its predecessor, it just never took off, as people would gravitate to a roomier and cheaper Jetta model instead.

People just got tired of retro, I think.

Plymouth PT Cruiser

On the heels of the New Beetle, the PT Cruiser came out in 2001 and for a while, it seemed they were everywhere.  But in reality, they sold about as well as the New Beetle (~1M copies) and after a decade, the retro craze had died off and the replacement, the ill-fated and oddly proportioned Dodge Caliber, was unloved by everyone.

Unlike many other "retro" cars, the PT cruiser was somewhat more practical than the car it was based on.  Unlike the Dodge Neon sedan (its predecessor) the PT Cruiser was a fairly roomy 5-door wagon that qualified as a "light truck" to gin up Chrysler's EPA CAFE numbers for their truck line.  Don't get me started on that.  If you want to blame America's infatuation with huge, jacked-up trucks, take a look at the EPA regs, which all but mandated that American car companies build such monstrosities.  Like I said, don't get me started.

There was a bit of a cult following for the PT Cruiser - for a while.  We would see them in South Florida all customized with woody trim kits and whatnot. But they were a cheap economy car underneath it all, and eventually that showed through.  You rarely see one on the road these days.

We rented a convertible version once.  It was nice, but when you slammed the doors, it sounded like a garbage can lid.

Again, the problem with "retro" is where do you take the styling from here?  Maybe that is the reason the car stayed in production for ten long years, in a business where product cycles can be as short as three.

But like the New Beetle, the PT Cruiser was at least affordable and sold in some solid numbers, unlike our next candidate....

Plymouth Prowler

Once again, car show lust causes car companies to do things they later regret.  The Prowler started as a concept car in an era where young dot-com millionaires were having custom "rods" built for them by California custom houses - usually based on a '32 Ford coupe, but of course, with a modern chassis, drivetrain, and fiberglass body.   If custom-made "deuce" coupes or "hi-boys" could be built for millionaires - why not mass produce them for the rest of us?

And so the Plymouth Prowler was born.  Problem was, to mass-produce it, they had to use existing hardware, and they chose to use the V-6 from their LH sedans, rather than a fire-breathing V-8 that such a hot rod would normally command.  So right off the bat, the folks at the auto show who promised to buy one, said, "Nah! Not doing that!  Not for a V-6!"

As a practical car, it was a cramped 2-seater with a tiny trunk.  They even made a Prowler tow-behind trailer that was shaped like the trunk of the Prowler, so you could have... two trunks.  Sort of a tacit admission there was no usable space in the car.

Such cars are fun for cruising the miracle mile, but not practical as daily drivers.  Moreover, you showed up with one at a car show, you would be asked to leave.  Car shows are all about creations that people make with their own hands.  A Plymouth Prowler owner's only contribution to his vehicle is the signature he put on the loan documents.  It was never a "real" hot rod, so it was unwelcome at the hot rod club.

In terms of appearance, it is one of those love-it-or-loath-it kind of things and illustrates how hard it is to adapt "retro" styling to modern safety standards.  One of the most prominent features is the "mustache" front bumpers which detract from the overall lines of the car - and make the motorcycle-fendered front wheels almost unnoticeable!

It was only made for five years and fewer than 12,000 were made.  Yet it still is not seen as collectible - just yet.  Likely, Chrysler lost money on every one made

Of course, today, more than a decade after production ended, it might finally be welcome at the cars 'n coffee meet.

Dodge Viper

The Viper bears brief mention in that it was modeled after the Shelby AC Cobra (the AC Ace based model, not the Mustang one) and thus qualifies as "retro."  Even the name is a nod to Carroll Shelby (Viper/Cobra) who long ago followed Lee Iaoccoa from Ford to Chrysler.

The original model had canvas and isinglass side curtains, just like a primitive post-war British roadster.  No frills, no fancy stuff - just a huge V-10 engine.  Of course, over time, it would acquire such niceties as roll-up windows and a convertible top that wouldn't blow off (not kidding!) and even a hard top and air conditioning (the horror!) in a second generation model.

The Viper was less a "retro" car than a "halo" car for the brand.  Halo cars are designed not to make money, but to create brand identity and drive showroom traffic.  While Chrysler kept making the car - even after flirting with bankruptcy (again), eventually they discontinued it.  The cost of making the car no doubt exceeded the income from selling it (even at astronomical prices).

And as a practical daily driver.... forgetaboutit!  It was never meant to be that.

But the Viper bears mention because arguably its "retro" styling is what killed it off.  While GM has been able to morph its Corvette into something entirely new (after languishing with the "mako shark" body style for nearly three decades), the Viper couldn't really move in a different direction without abandoning its Cobra roots.  Retro becomes a trap, for designers!

Chevrolet HHR

If you think the Chevrolet HHR looks a lot like the PT Cruiser, you shouldn't be surprised - they were designed by the same guy, and served the same purpose.  Using the same underpinnings as the Chevy Cobalt, it was cheap to make but a lot roomier.  And qualifying as a light truck, it helped prop up GM's EPA CAFE ratings for its truck line.

It sold only half as well as the PT Cruiser, but then again, for only about seven years.  GM got in late to the retro game and by the early 2010's, retro was fading fast.

The only other interesting thing about this PT Cruiser clone is that they made a panel van version, with a turbocharged engine and a five-speed manual.  Put a bed in the back, some shag carpeting, and a porthole window, and it's like 1976 all over again!  But the panel van never sold well, and they pulled the plug on that as well.

Chevrolet SSR

One of the oddest versions of the "retro" look was the Chevrolet SSR.  It was a hot rod.... pickup truck.  With a convertible top. With a convertible hardtop.  And a Corvette engine.  Again, a show car encourages sales people to built it and other than a few baby boomers, there weren't a lot of takers.

It was expensive, sure, but it was also a two-seater with what was effectively a huge trunk.  It wasn't a pickup truck in the real sense, nor a roadster.  And like other roadsters (as we shall see below) it also fell victim to the rise - and fall - of the roadster craze of the 1990's-2000's.  We all grew up and wanted a back seat and a trunk and A/C that worked.  GM at least delivered on the last two, with this car.

But the SSR was never that popular, with only 24,000 being sold over a scant two model years.  At one point, GM had nearly a year's supply in inventory!  Talk about not reading the room!  But once again, car enthusiasts say, "build it!" and when GM did, said, "Nah! Not doin' that!"

Perhaps another problem is at play here - the "jelly bean" look of the 1990's tended to make these "retro" cars - whether the VW New Beetle, the PT Cruiser, or the HHR and SSR - look weird.

Which brings us to....

Ford Thunderbird

What went wrong with the new T-Bird? For starters, Ford forgot that it lost money on every one of the original two-seat T-Birds they sold.  The very first Thunderbirds had the exhaust go through the bumpers (which rusted, of course) and the spare tire was in the trunk, leaving room for... your wallet.  They tried to fix this in later cars, introducing the iconic Continental kit and making the car a little longer.  But it wasn't enough.

They dumped it for the four-seat, big trunk "square bird" and sales soared.  It seemed that people wanted a sports car, but one that would seat four and carry their luggage as well.  What they wanted was a sporty-looking luxury car, not an actual roadster or sports car (which of course, the original T-bird never was, but then again, the original Corvette wasn't, either!).

So Ford decides to jump on the "retro" bandwagon, but instead of doing a remake of their popular "square birds" chooses the original roadster instead.  Again, roadsters were a popular staple in the 1990s and 2000's - I had one myself (the 1999 M Roadster).  But the fad faded as people realized what harsh and uncomfortable cars they really were.  We all got older, like I said.

Four years and 70,000 cars later, Ford pulls the plug, once again losing money on every car sold.  What went wrong?  Well, instead of cheaply making a T-Bird roadster from Mustang parts, they went with more esoteric Jaguar pieces.  A Mustang-based car would be easier to hop up.  As it was, the retro T-Bird was too retro - it was a boulevard cruiser like its namesake, and not a sports car.

It was also odd looking.  Like the other "retro" cars above, the headlights had a fish-eye look to them, and the taillight treatment was more 1990's "aero" look than 1950's "retro" look.  One company even sold an upgrade kit to put the hooded eyebrows over the headlights and restore the dagmar bullets to the front bumpers - and make the taillights look like rocket exhausts as was de rigeur for 50's Fords.

But to no avail.  The car just didn't sell, for one reason or another.  Maybe the fact the market was flooded with retro cars was part of the problem.  Maybe because most were impractical cars for most people.  Maybe people don't want to stand out from the crowd as much as marketers think they so.  See how many beige and silver Camry's Toyota sells!  Perfect car to rob a bank with.

One thing is clear:  I don't think retro is making a comeback very soon.  Even if people wanted to buy clones of, say, 1960's muscle cars or 1970's pimp barges, the car makers are so burned by their previous experiences that they would take a pass on diving into the retro pool again.

Like I said, the problem for retro is where do you go with it?  You either have to keep living in the past, or move on.  And since aerodynamics are so important in car design today, you can't be too authentically retro anymore anyway.  And as the designs above illustrate, when you blend aerodynamics with the archaic designs of the past, the result is often rather... unsettling.

In a way, these designs look like someone prompted an AI to make modern versions of older cars.  Oh, wait, someone already did that.....