Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Small Appliance Follies (And Right to Repair?)

When small appliances break, they are often not worth fixing!

When I was a kid, they had articles in Popular Mechanix and even the Boy Scout Manual on how to fix your toaster.  Back then, toasters were pretty simple appliances and only made.... toast.  The heating elements, as they aged, would break, and it was possible to disassemble a toaster and crimp the broken heating element back together.  Of course, if the heating element was so old and brittle that it was breaking, chances are, the repair would only be temporary in nature, as it would break at another point shortly.  Such is the nature of repairs, which is why it is smart to think hard before trying to repair something near the end of its design life.

On the other hand, a new appliance should last more than a few months, which is why we have warranties.  Last June, before we went away for the summer, we bought a new toaster oven.  This is likely the fourth or fifth one we have bought - they do not live long.  Not only do they break down, they get disgustingly dirty, as baked-on grease and nonsense becomes impossible to remove.  Even using oven cleaner doesn't do much, after a while (and indeed, can cause more problems than it solves).

I wrote before about infant mortality in machinery and appliances.  In electrical gear, this is particularly a problem.  You put in a new light bulb, turn it on, and poof! it blows out right away.  In any batch of product, there are bound to be a few bad apples that fail early.  The rest will run for their design life until they fail late.  Responsible manufacturers use "burn-in" to cull the herd of the bad boys who would have failed early.

The term is confusing as nothing is "burning" during burn-in.  Instead, the product is simply run for a number of minutes, hours, or days (depending on the product and how much the manufacturer can afford).  Out of say, 100 products, maybe five will fail.  The reliability of the remaining 95 units is that much higher.  So you ship out the units that "passed" burn-in and have fewer complaints and warranty repairs from customers.

Of course, burn-in costs money, as you have to take up space in your factory with burn-in stations and people to plug the product in and monitor them.  In a factory making thousands of product a day, this simply is not feasible.  So to cut costs, many modern factories simply test the unit for functionality - if that - and then ship it.  The consumer becomes the burn-in tester or Beta tester as they call it in the software world.

Our toaster oven, Black and Decker model TO3217SS was pretty neat.  It had an "air fry" mode that cooked almost microwave fast.  We liked it, until about two weeks ago when it started acting up - not turning on sometimes, unless you played with the main switch.  Then finally, it stopped turning on at all.

There are three knobs on the toaster oven.  The top knob selects between toaster modes and oven modes and also sets temperature (in oven mode).  The bottom two knobs are timers, one for oven mode and the other for toaster mode.  Most toaster ovens have one knob to select mode, a second knob to select temperature, and a third knob for the timer.  So this is a somewhat unusual arrangement compared to other toaster ovens.

So, I look in  my four ring-binders of appliance manuals and I can't find one for the toaster oven - this is not like me.  Fortunately, I could download the user manual from Black and Decker or from Manuals.lib (the latter presenting a confusing "abridged" version as well).  By the way, Black and Decker is just a brand name these days (at least for some products), owned by something called "Spectrum Brands" the successor to "Ray-O-Vac" which is an ancient name for a battery company that only Boomers would remember.  Everything is made overseas.  Guess where?

Turns out, there is a two-year warranty on the toaster oven, as listed in the back of the service manual, so I log on to their site and start a warranty claim.  They want a copy of the original receipt.  No problem.  As a near-boomer, I keep paper receipts and throw them in a big cardboard box and when the box is full, I tape it shut and store it.  After seven years or so, I burn the box in the fireplace.

So I dig through the box and find it.  Actually, I already knew which layer of receipts to look in, as Quickbooks told me I bought it at Walmart on June 22, 2023.  Yes, it is handy to log these things!  So after 15 minutes of digging, I find the receipt, scan it in and upload it.

Turns out we only paid $59 (exactly) for the unit, which is below MSRP.  I get a response back from Spectrum Home Appliances (via Brand Protect Plus) the next business day.  They agree the unit is under warranty, but want a photo of the plug cut off with the date code which is stamped on one of the prongs of the power plug. That, and they want a check (OK, boomer!) for $7.50 for shipping and handling.  So I cut the plug off and take a photo and mail off a check to the company and they send another e-mail saying they will ship me a new unit.

By the way, I realized that the switch will probably last longer if we don't switch between modes with either timer "on."  When you switch a "live" switch, it will arc, which can leave a deposit of oxide on the contacts which can act as an insulator.  Better to select "mode" and then activate the timer, although that just moves the point of arc-ing to the timer switch.  Sadly, with the price of copper these days, so many switches now use aluminum contacts and aluminum oxide is an excellent insulator.  Switches don't last as long, as a result.

Of course, a lot of people would just say "forgetaboutit!" and buy another toaster oven.  Who saves receipts, except cranky old retired gay men?  Who has the time and energy to jump through these hoops and pay $7.50 for a $59 toaster?  Ditto.  They count on most people not being willing to take the effort and time to do this.  And if the toaster failed early-on, most people would put it back in the box and take it back to Walmart.

But of course, being a (retired) Electrical Engineer, I had to take apart the old toaster oven to see what was what. 32 small screws later, it is laid open for me to examine.  The main rotary switch is not showing continuity in any position, while the timer switches are.  The switch seems to come apart, but I have not examined it in that detail.

The devil in me thinks, "Cutting off the plug?  No big deal!  I have several replacement plugs in my box 'o electrical stuff!  Why not put a new plug on it, repair the switch and have two toaster ovens!"  All I need to do is find a replacement switch, right?

Uh, yea.  Nothing is repairable anymore and parts - other than cooking racks and pans - are not available, it seems, anywhere.  I can't even find a parts diagram or parts list so I can search by part name.  Even the cooking racks and pans are priced such that, for a $59 toaster oven, they are not worthwhile buying.  Unless I could find a switch for ten bucks or less, the deal is off.

Sadly, this is the norm with so much of our technology today.  Things are so cheaply made as to be disposable.  Technology becomes outdated so quickly there is little point in making something last a long time or be repairable as it will be outmoded so quickly, or repair labor costs will exceed the value of the item.

With our split-system A/C unit, for example, the labor cost (at over $100 an hour!) to install one can easily exceed the cost of the unit itself.  We have cheap labor overseas, not so much here in the USA.  Time was, the "mending man" could fix things, but then again, he wasn't driving a $100,000 pickup truck or had expectations of doing so.

No, nothing is made to last anymore, and in a way this is a good thing.  We don't keep things around for very long, but constantly upgrade to "new! New! NEW!" every few years.  Even when they don't break, we end up getting a new toaster oven every five years or so - they just get gross after a few years.

Maybe that is why Toshiba went bankrupt - not because of their nuclear power plant deal with Westinghouse, but because they over-built their laptops so they would never break.

I guess I am officially an old boomer!

Monday, April 15, 2024

I Swore I'd Never Install Another Split System A/C!

They're quiet, they're efficient, they're a pain-in-the-ass to install!

I wrote before how I tested a split system A/C unit back in the 1980s when I worked for a large air conditioning company.  They offered us a license to sell them under our own brand name, but we turned them down.  As one executive put it, "Americans want window units!"

And there is a certain logic to that.  A simple window unit A/C system can cost only a few hundred dollars and can be installed in an afternoon, if not in fact, under an hour.  They are ugly and block a window, and the seal around the window leaves a lot to be desired.  But they are cheap and easy to install.

A split system, on the other hand, can cost about $1000 (although I paid a lot less than that for my grey-market Hitachi systems in New York, that ran on R-22 as I recall).  Installation is another thing, though.  Expect to pay as much to install as you would for the system.  I've had HVAC techs quote me $5000 just to install one system, and in some cases, that might be justified, particularly if you are on a second storey.

It ain't easy.  Mounting the inside wall unit seems easy - "you hang it like a picture!" people crow.  True that, but you have to make sure the mounting bracket is screwed into studs, or the whole thing will fall off.  Sort of like mounting a microwave under-cabinet.

But that's the "easy" part.  You have to have a hole going out through the wall for the refrigerant lines, the condensate line, and the electrical connection.  For a wood-framed house, maybe this is not such an issue, other than when you hang the bracket, you have to make sure the "hole" isn't going through a stud. Fortunately, they give you a large cardboard template to work with.

In other cases, it may not be so easy.  The units I put in the basement of our lake house required that I drill through nearly 10" of hard solid concrete. I bought an impact drill and two bits and basically wore all three completely out by the time I was done.

By the way, did I mention that everything is metric?  They kindly stamped "US ONLY" on the wall bracket next to the holes that were on 16" centers, which is pretty standard spacing for US wall studs.  This will come into play later on.

So you get the inside mounted and feed the pipes, cable, and hose through the wall.  Some kits come with a sleeve to put through the hole - and even an escutcheon.  Make sure the hole angles down so the condensate will drain out.  This latest unit had no sleeve, so I put a 2-1/2" piece of PVC pipe through the wall, cut it flush, and caulked it in place.  Maybe this will keep the termites at bay.

Yes, termites - a horrific discovery that delayed the project by a week.  We had the studio and house treated and traps installed.  We'll see where that goes.  Termites are a way of life in the South.  We have them in our historic Goodyear Cottage which is rented by the Arts Association.  Our historic preservationist wasn't too worried about them - "they are a slow-moving hazard" he said.  And I guess they have a lot to deal with.  We regularly go through their dumpster for scrap lumber and other choice things and recently we saw a set of beams from another historical cottage, riddled with termite holes. So it ain't just us!

Now for the outside part.  You need to run electric - 110V or preferably 220V.  I had a 20A 110V line installed for the window unit, so I drilled through the back of the box and through the outside wall and ran the power to a disconnect box.  You need to have a disconnect so you can work on the unit without being electrocuted.  Most electrical codes require this.

The company I bought the unit from (Alpine) offers these things (disconnect box, refrigerant lines, electrical cord, condensate line, outdoor mounting bracket) a la carte.  Turns out, the unit comes with a condensate line, so now I have two.  But figure two or three trips to Lowe's to get other bits and bobs to finish the project.

In New York, I poured  concrete slab for one outside unit and built a small wooden deck for two others (using scrap deck boards).  My garage unit is bolted to the concrete sidewalk.  A neighbor asked me to install a unit for him (and later, a second unit) which I am loathe to do as working on other people's stuff is stressful.  But he had bought wall-mounting brackets which appeared flimsy until you tighten up all the bolts.  It held my weight which is far more than the weight of the unit.

The bracket just "hangs" from the wall with lag screws.  It did support my weight which is 3x the weight of the unit, though.

Ground mounting is problematic as leaves and debris accumulate in the unit. My friend had a "professional" install a unit for him and they left it on the ground, unbolted.  When I found it, it was half-buried in dirt and debris and no doubt not long for this world.

So wall-mounting is really the way to go.

But again, metric.  The screw holes were on approximately 18" centers so I had to drill holes at the 16" mark for the lag screws.  The mounting holes for the condensing unit were "off" as well and I had to drill two holes for the 1/2" head quarter-twenty bolts that hold the condensing unit to the bracket.  No doubt vinyl siding is not popular in Japan, so I had to use rubber blocks between the uprights (which I lad-screwed in as well) to make up for the gap from the vinyl.  Oh yea, I had to space out the top bracket with some plastic blocks to clear the vinyl siding further down.

The bracket, by the way, comes with a bubble-level built-in, so you can easily level the top bracket when installing.  The "arms" have adjustable pads to level in-and-out.

You realize you are working with a technology not designed with American building codes in mind.  Hooking up the electric is like working on a car, not a house.  The electric enclosures are tiny and hard to work with if you have big hands.  It is like wrestling a pig in a phone booth!

The main power goes to the condensing unit outside and then a "control cable" feeds power inside to the evaporator, running the fan and electronic controls.  And yes, they all have remote controls, even the one I tested back in 1982.

Now the hard part - refrigerant lines.  I cut mine to fit, but others don't and I don't suggest that.  Some units come with "precharged lines" that have fittings that pop open when you connect them.  Some claim this causes a loss of efficiency, as there is a restriction in the line. If you don't cut the lines to length, what do you do with the excess? Some neighbors coil this up and even put it on a hose holder (!).  Problem is, there is oil in the refrigerant and it accumulates in these loops and can starve the compressor (at worst) or just decrease efficiency (at best).

So you have to cut the lines and flare them (be sure to put the flare nut on the line before flaring! - I've done that more than I care to admit) and carefully flare the copper.  In traditional American HVAC, compression fittings like this are not favored - we silver-solder lines for a permanent leak-tite seal.  Flare fittings?  For amateurs!  But it is the norm for split systems.

I broke down and bought a new pipe cutter and a new flaring tool (trip to Lowe's #3) as my old tools were worn and making bad cuts and bad flares.  You don't put pipe dope or tape on flare fittings of any kind - the compression is what seals it.  But in my friend's install,the provided a small disc to put on the male fitting to seal, and lately, they offer this goop to put on the fittings.  I used it, but not sure if it helped or not.

For a change, there were no leaks in the system when I pumped it down.  Yes, you need a vacuum pump and manifold gauge set (or at least one gauge, as there is generally no high-side tap on these things).  I pumped it down and it held vacuum, so I opened the low side valve and... promptly pumped out most of the refrigerant!

Damn!

Leak-checking is a two-stage process. If the system holds vacuum, that is a good sign.  Once evacuated, open up the low-side valve (the condenser is precharged with refrigerant) and let some gas into the system and use a soap solution to check for bubbles.  Make sure the manifold is disconnected or the valves are firmly shut, or that precious refrigerant will back-flow through your vacuum pump!  Duh.

If you do this for a living, you get used to doing it. If you do one every five years, you forget and make mistakes.  Professionals also have a big tank of R-410a in their truck.  I had to order it.  Funny thing, but you can even buy "illegal" refrigerants online if you represent yourself as EPA certified.  So I recharged the thing and it works perfectly.  Supposedly, R410a is being phased out soon.  Oh, well.

I used ordinary plastic gutter downspout (with the back cut out) to cover the refrigerant and condensate lines.  Note the hole where the window unit used to be.

The units in New York I had evacuated and charged by a local HVAC tech, as I didn't own a vacuum pump.  I think he charged less than $300 to do all three, which was cheaper than me buying a vacuum pump and manifold gauge set.

Oddly enough, the present unit ran with a very low charge, it just didn't cool.  Most units will shut down if the charge is too low (or too high) and generate an error code.  I guess it wasn't that far off.  32 ounces later, it runs like a champ.

All that being said, I am not sure I want to do another one, even if I am getting the hang of it after seven installs.

The end result, though, was worth it.  No noise, no vibration (even with a wall-mount!) - just quiet, steady cooling (and heating, it is a heat pump).  Plus, no puddle of water inside some window unit to act as a termite drinking fountain.

All I have left to do is remove a second window unit (also rusted through).  Hopefully the termites haven't made a home there, as well!

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Plagiarism is Only an Academic Crime

Attributing ideas to others is required in Academia, but not elsewhere.

A recent article online describes the trials and tribulations of a Harvard professor that is being accused of falsifying data, and now, plagiarism. I am not sure what the former is about, as the "science" involved seems to be one of these soft sciences, such as surveys and the like, which are hard to quantify in any event.

But the plagiarism accusation is interesting and perhaps is an example of "piling on" against a woman professor.  If you haven't been paying attention lately, Harvard has been the ground-zero for attacks by the far-right.  Alumni are withholding donations and professors and administrators being sacked for being too "woke."  And in some instances, maybe these removals or resignations are justified, maybe not. All I can see is the school being put under a microscope by the far-right for any evidence of infection by the "woke" virus.

And I think this latest Academic bru-ha-ha is an example of this.  A professor is accused of "plagiarism" for paraphrasing things that, in themselves, are not really ideas.  As one expert quoted in the article, the whole point of citation of references is to allow other academics to see what the original quote meant and in what context - otherwise, people could use a quote in a context completely the opposite as intended by the author.  Sort of what so-called modern "Christians" do with Bible verses.

The thing about plagiarism is that so long as you attribute an idea or quote, you are not plagiarizing. But whether an a quote or paraphrase rises to the level of an idea attributable to another author is a good question. For example, the article uses this example of a paraphrasing that they claim is plagiarized:
Even though the capital of Italy is Rome, Milan is the center of fashion and design.

One of the city’s noblest areas is the “fashion quadrilateral” comprising four streets: Via Monte Napoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga and Corso Venezia.
Supposedly, the professor "copied" this "idea" in her book without attribution. Now, if this was a PhD dissertation, then plagiarism is a real issue.  But the description of these four streets comprising the fashion district wasn't published for peer review, but rather in a book sold in bookstores.  Granted, the professor could have merely added a footnote along the lines of [1] Azureazure.com article (2014) and avoided any claims of plagiarism.  But on the other hand, is a mere description of the fashion district an "idea" that is being promulgated by another author?  Maybe she should have changed the order in which she listed the streets!

The problem with this sort of nonsense is that you can use online tools to scan any article, book, or paper and look for identical or similar text online. You can "find" plagiarism where there really is none.  Taking a passage from another source and paraphrasing it, particularly when it is not expressing anything really original, or in this case, merely descriptive, isn't really an academic crime - and certainly not a real one.

For example, suppose I said, "Washington, DC is the Capitol of the United States, but the fashion capitol is really New York City, particularly the Garment district in Mid-town Manhattan..."?  No doubt, if  you searched online, you would find a similar sentence expressed elsewhere in the billions of articles published over the ages.  I am not expressing an original idea, thought, or thesis, merely describing a location.  Is that a crime?

Maybe in the ivory tower of Academia, but not under the law.  Yes, Copyright protects the expressions of an idea, but not an idea itself.  So you can paraphrase something someone else said, and it is likely not to be infringement.  Similarly, while attribution may insulate you from accusations of plagiarism, it is no defense to Copyright infringement.

That being said, short phrases or slogans are not really deemed Copyrightable. It is hard to claim Copyright to a slogan on a T-shirt, but you might be able to claim it as a Trademark - if you use it in commerce.  So if you sell T-shirts that say "Just Do It!" you likely will get a letter from my friends at Nike, as they claim that as a Trademark for their goods.  But Copyright?  Less so - unless you want to go down the road of the "artistic" merit of the font selection and layout as being an artistic expression.

Under Copyright law, there is a thing known as "fair use" and one of the exceptions in particular, is for educational purposes.  You cannot lay claim to an idea, or claim that no one can quote you without violating your Copyright, if they are critiquing your quote for educational purposes. If that were the case, well, no one could every contradict you. Of course, the "fair use" doctrine is a defense to an infringement claim - someone can still sue you and bury you in legal fees, if they are particularly vindictive.

Speaking of which, the whole nub of this thing is a $25M lawsuit filed by the professor against Harvard and a blog called "Data Colada" which claims to debunk falsified and exaggerated data in the psychology field, particularly when dealing with statistical data.  You know how I feel about surveys and statistics.  Apparently, one of the professor's assistants contacted that blog with evidence that some data may have been altered.  They, in turn, contacted Harvard, and four of the papers were withdrawn from publication and the professor placed on administrative leave.

Is Data Colada a group of truth-seekers or a "Republican police" engaged in a "Witch hunt" as alleged by some other psychologists.  Beats me, although this sort of smacks of Project Veritas kind of vibes.  It just seems odd to me that so many at Harvard are under attack these days.  Maybe these are justified attacks, maybe not.  But in most cases, it seems, they are against left-leaning professors and administrators.  And no doubt the Harvard Business School has a lot of conservative donors.

Demonizing and eventually exterminating the intelligentsia was a tactic of both Hitler and Stalin.  It worries me that we seem to be demonizing education in general, as of late.  Granted, there is a lot of leftist claptrap being promoted on campus these days.  And a lot of "social science" is anything but science.  Those on the right complain that young people are being indoctrinated into leftist thinking.  But of course, what they want is a chance to indoctrinate people into rightest thinking. Yea, they have Fox News, but that only works on the over-60 set.  They want to snag the youth of America.

So one wonders, is this an isolated incident, or part of some scheme to discredit left-leaning academics - and by extension, create a chilling effect in Academia so that other professors will temper their language and instruction, lest they be next on the tenure chopping block.

I don't know.  But it seems these claims of "plagiarism" are a bit of piling-on in this case.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

It's Not Your Imagination - The Universe Is Out To Get You!

Conflict and controversy are the not an anomaly, but the norm.

Disband NATO?  Whodya think is behind that?

Peace activists complain about war.  "Why can't we have peace, man?" even if it means to surrender.  From their point of view, peace is the default condition of the world, and conflict and war are some sort of aberration.  The opposite is actually the case.

I wrote before how there is a war in your backyard, with termites trying to kill off carpenter ants and vice-versa, the winner getting to eat a tree.  Trees stretch skyward to hog the light, leaving lesser plants to deal with permanent shade.  Of course, wily vines will let the tree do the heavy lifting and then climb up for a free ride - often blocking the sunlight from their host and eventually killing it.

In your lawn, weeds vie for space, nutrients, and water with your precious grass.  The moment you stop spreading weed-killer, they take over - and kill off most of your fancy-pants grass.  Down below, grubs gnaw at the tasty roots, killing your precious lawn, while moles and opossums dig down to eat the tasty grubs.  Eat or be eaten is the law of nature - we are just too used to not being eaten to notice.

As you move down to the microscopic or even molecular scale, the law of survival persists.  One form of bacteria eats another - or eats you.  And even fractions of life - viruses - multiply and spread and often kill off their hosts, who have an extensive array of defenses against such viruses.  Your whole body is at war with its environment at any given time.

Even atoms steal electrons from one another or smash together to form molecules.  Oxygen attacks everything, causing corrosion - entropy must be appeased, everything breaks down over time.  Even tiny photons (particle or wave) wear down everything from the paint on your car to your own human skin, turning healthy tissues into cancerous ones.

Peace?  It really doesn't exist, so get used to that.

In recent years, it seems like we are more conflicted and antagonistic than ever before.  Politics are polarized and war is breaking out all over the world.  As the world population increases, we fight for resources - land, minerals, oil, and even water.  Precious water.

But the idea that humans should be at "peace" seems to negate the pattern of life or even physics, of our entire universe.  We are a warlike species because we evolved from warlike animals.  The lion does not lay down with the lamb, except in the Bible.  In real life, the lamb is eaten - otherwise the lion would starve to death.

This may sound depressing at first - and hopeless as well.  How can humanity survive if the norm is strife and violence?  The answer is, in part, that we have survived so far with our base human tendencies, albeit with a lot of unnecessary suffering along the way.  Of course, in the last 80 years or so, we have devised ways to lay waste to the entire planet - either through war or overpopulation and the resulting pollution.

The good news is, that, we seem to be on the cusp of an historic change.  Part of humanity looks at the way things are and says, "we can do better!"  These are the voices arguing for peace and logic in our lives.  Sadly, they are often drowned out by the warmakers and the selfish who want power and to keep everything for themselves.  And they do this by programming a vast number of uneducated or under-educated people to believe in superstition and lies.

Those under-educated folks believe the latest war will somehow bring them prosperity, even as their son comes home in a casket.  Or that billions more for the rich will somehow "trickle down" to them, even as the rich get tax breaks and the minions get their Social Security cut.

It is an interesting divide - between those who want a new dark ages and those who hope enlightenment will somehow save humanity.

Of course, even if we follow the path of enlightenment, it is assured that someone, somewhere, will start some kind of conflict as there is a lot of profit in conflict, both for the warlords and their weapons suppliers.

Maybe that is the problem right there - war is just too damn profitable!

And thus, maybe inevitable.

UPDATE:  This posting may seem depressing - after all, there is no hope for mankind!  Or is there?  Peace means nothing without war to compare it to, just as "pleasure" means nothing without pain to compare it to.  There are a lot of bad people in the world, which makes us appreciate the good ones so much more.  If everyone was good, what would "good" really mean?

We have to embrace the good parts of life and of people - while expecting the norm to be bad.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Chasing Share Price (Why Stock Picking Is Really For Chumps Today!)

The stock market has become a casino - a rigged one where the house always wins.

General Electric is no more.  The last two divisions were spun off as GE Aerospace and GE Vernova, the former making the iconic GE jet engines and the latter, power systems.  GE Health was spun-off last year.  What the heck happened to this storied old company and why?  The latter part is easier to answer, and many are now pointing the finger at Jack Welch, once lauded as a visionary, but now viewed as a villain.  He literally ran the company into the ground chasing the almighty share price.

But how did this happen and why is it happening to companies all across America?  Simply stated, Wall Street became obsessed with share price and would do anything to keep the line going up, even if it meant faking it.  As a result, a number of poor incentives were created, which in the long run, meant that companies were gutted for short-term gains.

Stock Options were a big part of the problem.  Executives were offered huge tranches of shares at fixed prices.  If a CEO is offered a million shares at $10 a share, and he can drive the share price up to $20, he ends up with a $10M payday as a result.  Bear in mind that share price is based on market perception, which can be driven by real profits and earnings just as easily as it can be by faked-up accounting practices (such as employed by Enron).

Share price, as we have seen with "meme" stocks, can be hyped up on the Internet with a pump-and-dump scheme.  Pump-and-dump schemes are illegal, of course, but the fines are laughably small. As I noted before, one famous New Jersey teenager was caught up in one, and when the SEC came knocking, he said, "do you take a check?" as the fine they hit him with was probably 10% of what he made in his scam.

Pump-and-dump involves using someone else's company as a mechanism for fraud.  Stock options merely incentivize executives to pump-and-dump their own company's stock.  So you hype up the expectation of future profits or future technology, while burying the real truth in boring quarterly and annual statements that most retail investors never read.  But those retail investors are the ones causing spikes in share prices.

The executive who has stock options is only incentivized to keep the company solvant until the day their huge stock options actually vest.  After that, they don't care - they wait for the Board of Directors to remove them, and get paid in a pre-negotiated "Golden Parachute."  It is like playing at a casino where you never lose and take no real risks.

There are other ways to juice the share price.  Layoffs are one way to boost the share price as Wall Street looks favorably upon them.  Overnight, you have cut your overhead and increased your profitability by the same amount.  So if  you lay off 10% of your staff, you might cut your overhead by 5%, which in turn makes the balance sheet show a 5% gain in profit.  That's a lot.  Of course, in the long term, such layoffs may be harmful, not only for employee morale, but for R&D needed to keep the company competitive.  You might be able to "float" selling last year's product for a while, but eventually, your competition will steal away your business.

Stock Buy-Backs are a weird way to boost stock price and were once deemed illegal, as they were outright share price manipulation (and still are!).  By purchasing back your shares, not only do you increase the share price (momentarily) by making each remaining share worth a larger percentage of the company, but you skew the demand curve for the shares, such that other buyers have to pay more - a lot more - to compete against you.  Oddly enough, many companies do buy-backs not when their share price is low, but when it is high.  Later on, when the dust settles, people realize what a shitty deal they made - for the shareholders.  But timed properly to coincide with their stock option vesting, it helps boost the payday for the CEO.

The problem with stock buy-backs is obvious - the amount of ready cash available for the company to use for expansion or R&D is diminished.  The company has fewer reserves to fall back on.  Often, the buy-backs are financed by debt - which is the number one killer of old-line companies.  Amazon didn't destroy brick-and-mortar, onerous debt did.  Stock buy-backs trade long-term stability for short-term gains, for shareholders and those with stock options.

Boosting Profits is one way to boost share price - and an incentive to "cook the books" to make it appear the company is more profitable.  This is what destroyed Enron - if the company ever had a real business model to begin with.  Techniques like "Mark to Market" can show phantom profits for contracts that have not been executed or investments owned that have gone up in value.  But real profits have to be realized to be real.  Otherwise, it is just "profit on paper" and that money can't be spent.

Profits can also be boosted in other "legitimate" ways, such as layoffs as discussed above.  Or, you can gut the content of an old-line product and  keep selling it based on brand awareness before consumers catch on.  For at least a few years, you will show a spike in profitability, before the reputation of your product is ruined.  By then, you've cashed on on tens of millions of dollars in stock options and moved on.

Jacking Dividends is another way to goose the share price and some companies have been known to increase dividends even as the company is losing money

The problem with chasing share price, particularly by using short-term means, is that the market constantly adjusts share price based on profitability or perception thereof.  So, for example, you lay off 10% of your employees, the share price might show an increase of, say, 5% or more, based on the expectation that profits will go up by a corresponding amount.  Problem is, you can't do this over and over again.  It is a one-time trick, and usually a sign of poor management - either because the company was horrendously overstaffed, or because management is throwing away their brain trust.

Similarly, you can use one-time accounting tricks to make the company appear to be more profitable on paper, but they just raise the expectation for the next fiscal quarter.  Gotta keep the line going up!  And you can't keep the line going up, forever.

Closely held companies - other than those owned by "Venture Capitalists" - can do things for the long haul and not have to worry about satiating the needs of shareholders and Wall Street.  They can concentrate on real profits and long-term viability, and make decisions accordingly.  Such a company might endure short-term losses to invest in new technology.

Tesla, as a private company, could invest in EV technology, while other public car companies were afraid to invest.  Once they demonstrated the technology worked, they went public and made some shareholders (one in particular) fantastically wealthy, at lest on paper.  Only then did the public companies (worldwide) jump on the EV bandwagon, causing the EVglut and price war we see today.

Of course, other privately held companies are taken private by VC firms just to set them up for a subsequent IPO.  Juice up the valuation by spinning off divisions, lay off a ton of people, run away from your pension obligations - and then sell the polished turd that remains to Johnny Q. Public in an IPO.  There is no shortage of suckers thinking they will get rich this way.

Part of the problem for GE was that Jack Welch went on a buying spree, buying everything from NBC to GE Capital.  I once had a lease from GE Capital, when I had to install a new unitary rooftop A/C unit on my office building.  I made all the payments for three years and then they sold me the unit for a dollar.  I wonder if they would have repossessed if I stopped paying.  The cost of removing the unit would have exceeded the remaining payments.

GE Capital got caught up in the same problem - pushing the line up.  To keep showing "Mark to Market" profits, they had to keep making deals - deals that looked good on paper, but were actually poor risks.  They got caught up in the subprime mortgage mess - loaning money to people who had no intention or means to pay it back.  They sold a plethora of long-term care policies for the elderly, not realizing how long the elderly can live and how expensive long-term care can be.

In the short-term, if you count these mortgages as "Paid" and these long-term care polices as profitable, you look like a superstar.  But it is just a way of taking credit for profits that might be made in the future, if at all, often after you are long gone or even dead.  The whole thing exploded and a storied old-line American company is no more - dragged down (again) by unmanageable debt.

So, what's the point of all of this?  Only that stock-picking is for chumps.  Yes, you can get lucky once in a while, with a share price that goes up.  It is like winning at the casino - it encourages you to keep gambling, and eventually your losses will far exceed those random gains.

Young people - young men in particular - once they get a "good paying" job, are tempted to speculate in the market.  And there is no shortage of people online who will encourage you to do this.  I've seen this again and again - people touting how such-and-such stock is "going places" - "just last week, it went up 10%!  Jump in before the train leaves the station!"  And people like to be winners and fantasize about making it big in the market.  But like any good casino, the only real winners are the ones controlling the games and that's not you.

The best "luck" I have had in the market has been by leaving money in Equity/Income funds (that comprise stocks that pay dividends and make real profits, not paper ones) and in buying individual stocks that pay dividends and actually make things and real profits.   But even with the latter, I was a babe in the woods, not understanding the real fiscal condition of the company I was buying shares in.  Were they cooking the books? Buying back stock?  Loading up the company with debt?  We mere mortals have neither the skills or the time to fully understand these things.

The worst way to invest is based on share price, particularly companies where the share price is shooting up for no apparent reason.  The game is fixed, and not in our favor!  Never play a rigged game - and all gambling is rigged.  Gambling is not investing!

Sadly, when this sort of stuff gets out of hand, eventually something has to give and it all blows up in our faces, much as it did in 2008.  The stock market is shooting up, profits are at all-time highs, and yet the average American isn't feeling the joy.  A few people are getting very, very rich, while a whole lot of others are stagnating.

Eventually, something has to give.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Brand Names Are For The Poor

Rich people don't need to advertise they are rich.

We were walking on the bike path the other day and found a pair of sunglasses that someone had set on a tree stump.  Apparently, someone had dropped them and a helpful Samaritan put them on the tree stump so if the person came back to look for them, they would find them.  I examined them for any identifying information (Zenni helpfully engraves your phone number on the temple) but saw that they were just non-prescription sunglasses with interlocking "G's" on the temples.  Gucci?

Funny thing, but on the way back we saw an old lady snatch them up and said, "Oh, you found your glasses!" and she gave us a guilty look and said "Uh, yea..." which told me she swiped them.  This is why the lost-and-found is a better place for this kind of thing than a tree stump.  But I digress.

It got me to thinking about brand names and why someone would pay extra for little logos on some inexpensive sunglasses.  I recall the clerks at the Patent Office had glasses with HUGE "D&G" gold letters on the side - along with other "designer" gear - all on a GS-2 salary.  I guess if you are living with Mom and Dad and your only expense in life is car payments, then you can blow the rest of it on bling.

It seems the poor and lower-middle-class are obsessed with brand names more than the upper classes.  The "strivers" seek the trappings of wealth and in the process, squander the real thing.  People put themselves in financial stress to have fancy things, and I know this because I've done it. And while it is nice to have fancy things, often the satisfaction is fleeting and in some cases, it can backfire as people will resent you for apparent flaunting of wealth.

It is funny, though, but if you meet really rich people, they don't have brand names plastered all over their possessions.  Their shoes don't say "NIKE" in bold letters or a colored trademarked swoop.  They don't wear clothes with the name of the "designer" in foot-high letters.  Their handbags don't have the initials of the "designer" all over them.  Rather, they wear fine things - and you can tell, too.  The clothes fit perfectly, likely because they were tailored. Their handbags just look expensive - fine leather, no corners cut, precision hardware.  They don't need a designer's name on it - they already know they are rich by dint of spending thousands (tens of thousands) on a handbag.

You can just tell.  When Mark worked at the winery and people would come from New York City or from Europe, he could tell right away.  Their clothes were just a bit different.  Even wearing blue jeans (and no, not fake-distressed torn ones - that's trash taste) you could just tell.  No logos or brand names adorned the pockets, no trademarked rivets or buttons, but they just looked expensive.

The same is true for other aspects of wealth.  The "striver" middle-class guy who thinks he is wealthy because he owns a small construction company, buys a "look-at-me!" mini-mansion in a neighborhood of similar mini-mansions.   The very rich live in real mansions in gated neighborhoods you can't get into.   They don't want to flaunt their wealth to the lower classes.  They want to enjoy their fabulous house in peace and quiet.

Across the channel from us is St. Simon's Island -  host to a plethora of look-at-me mini-mansions that sell for a million dollars or less.  When you ask residents where they are from, they reply, "THE island!" as if it was some exclusive retreat and not merely an upper-middle-class housing development.  When they say this to me, I reply, "Oh, you live on Sea Island?" and they get flustered, because that's the gated island where homes sell in the millions and residents keep their private jets at the airport.  That right there is the real difference between wanna-be wealth and real wealth.

And I suspect that the residents of Sea Island don't call it "THE island" or even advertise the fact they live there.  They don't need our validation or envy.  They already know they won.

So, what's the point?  Well, the very rich often got very rich by selling fake wealth to us plebes. I noted before that the poor are more likely to buy brand-name products, from laundry detergent to fancy cars to designer clothing.  The middle class shopped at Sears when I was a kid - buying practical things at moderate prices.  The middle class bought Chevrolets, and maybe upgraded to a Pontiac or an Oldsmobile when they got older.

The poor buys designer labels and would rather drive a secondhand Cadillac than a brand-new Chevy.  The very rich?   They drive cars where you say, "Gee, what kind of car is that?  Never seen one of them!" and you can't tell what it is, because it doesn't have logos and names plastered all over it.  One of the latest trends in ultra-rich transport is the under-the-radar transit van.  These are black high-top vans (Mercedes Sprinter, etc.) with black-tinted windows, luxury interiors and even a bathroom and bar.  Sort of like the stretch limousine of the 1970s, but less conspicuous and much more roomy.  And of course, they are chauffeur-driven.

As part of the lower classes, we squander our only real chance of accumulating real wealth by spending it on apparent wealth, trying to impress people we don't even know by showing off our brand name bling.  And we all do it, too - yes, me as well.

The very wealthy didn't "take away" our money, we gave it to them with our blubbering thanks.  And if you doubt this, bear in mind the richest guy in the world isn't Elon Musk, but Bernard Arnault, who you may never have heard of, but owns some of the most famous fashion labels in the world.

Every time you buy a designer label, you put a penny in his pocket.  Or a dollar.  Or ten dollars.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

More Television Follies

So we finally broke down and bought a new television.  Everything has changed, once again.

We drove into Brunswick to dispose of the broken television.   I thought briefly of cutting it up with a circular saw with a masonry blade, and then throwing away chunks of it in each weeks garbage, but that seemed kind of tedious.  Besides, I am already doing this with two old air conditioners.  So we took it to the trash center and they charged us thirty bucks to dispose of it.  Right after, Mark gets a text saying that next week, they are having a free electronics disposal day, from 9 until noon, at the Winn-Dixie.  Day late, dollar short.

We went to Sam's Club and not surprisingly, they had a lot of Vizio televisions, which is now owned by Walmart, owner of Sam's Club.  I decided to get a mid-line Samsung 50" set which fits the space we had for the old television.  We have a Samsung sound bar and Samsung phones and they seem to work OK.  I spent far too much time trying to figure out if it had WiFi and a fiber connection for the sound bar.  Of course it did, but it was nowhere mentioned on the packaging and even the Samsung website sort of hid this data under "specifications" - buried under a lot of happy-talk about the stunning resolution and realistic picture whatever.

It was $347 which is not a lot of money - we've spent more than that on groceries at Sam's Club in one outing.  Bear in mind my Dad paid $500 for his RCA Colortrak back in 1975 and in 1975 dollars, $347 would be $60, or $30 less than Dad paid for his Sears black-and-white.  Yet, in the parking lot, as we were loading the television into the truck, a lady joked, "You can put that right in my truck if you want to!" as if it was some precious commodity instead of the equivalent of dinner out for four at a nice restaurant.   People are obsessed about televisions (and the price of gas).

So I attached the wall brackets, which required me rummaging through my stray fastener collection for a set of M16 metric bolts (or some such) and I found four mis-matched bolts or machine screws that did the job.

I plugged it on, connected the fiber optic sound connection, and inserted the dongle for the keyboard and mouse and..... more than an hour later, we have television.  How does your Grandma or Grandpa deal with this?  Do they wait for their grandson to come over, or do they call the "tech geeks" to set it up?  I'm a retired computer geek, but it was still daunting for me.

By the way, while my wireless Logitec keyboard worked on the set (in most cases) the mouse only worked in a few.  They'd prefer you use the remote, which is tedious. Sadly, our old Samsung sound bar was not "smart" and thus would not activate from the same remote.

The setup menu was extensive and required I sign into my "Samsung Account" which I last signed into maybe five years ago when I got my Galaxy 7 active.  So I had to look up the password for that, not finding it, and then looking up the password reset screen and reset that and then....  Next, I had to agree that Samsung could "backup my data" to help me and of course not harvest any data for their own usage.  Then, update the firmware - only 30 minutes there (time for dinner anyway) and.....

It loads the Samsung Smart TV page which is playing an episode of The Rockford Files.  At first, I thought this was a remake as the resolution was astounding.  I could read the words on the papers on Rockford's desk and see all the wrinkles on James Garner's face. It had the look of a soap opera and even the sound sounded better.  It was a bit weird.

I had previously posited that old NTSC 525-line video would not translate into the higher resolution of 4K, but apparently, they have found a way to do this - though pixel interpolation or perhaps from source 35mm original film.  No film artifacts, though!  Other "old" shows had a similarly disarming resolution.

I had to add some apps, though, such as PlutoTV which for some reason would load slowly but not play anything.  Perhaps this was by design?  Stay in the Samsung universe!  Paramount didn't pay us!

What was really disconcerting was that they showed a lot of "channels" on Samsung SmartTV and the one I was looking at was channel 1005.  No more "500 channels and nothing on!" anymore.  Much of these were news channels, including some pretty odious ones - beyond Fox, even.  I have no interest in watching my blood pressure go up.

I am still waiting to see how this affects my data usage.  We watched Disney+ in high-res and it streamed through our poverty hotspot without any glitches (we do have "data saver" enabled, though).  So far, so good.

All that being said, Mr. See falls asleep in front of the television and we have come to the conclusion that we really can't watch more than an hour every night.  And really, there isn't much on.

Besides, we have shit to do.  I am still working on the split system (post-termite) and Mr. See is gardening and wants to get back to pottery once I finish his A/C unit.  And there is always the volunteer work at Goodyear - a doorknob falls off or a little-old-lady get stuck in the elevator.

So, overall, we are pleased with the purchase, so far.  It is interesting this brave-new-world of streaming, which I was eager to get into early on (using a laptop hooked to a flat-screen television) nearly a decade ago.  Actually, I got involved in a Patent case (as an expert witness) involving an early streaming system, back in the 1990s - but it was too early for the technology to take off.

For a long time, streaming meant one of two things: Netflix and YouTube, the latter being limited to funny cat videos. People thought Netflix would dominate the market and for a while it did. But today we have a plethora of streaming services, most of which are struggling to make a profit while at the same time offering little in the way of content.  I suspect there will be a shakeout down the road.

Today streaming is no longer the province of hobbyists or computer geeks, but mainstream technology.  You buy a television and you stream - once you get the set set-up, it is as painless as falling off a log (now that's a mixed metaphor!).  I suspect many folks today will stream and still pay for Cable television service (in addition to internet service) and not even realize they are no longer using the Cable TV portion.  The streaming services have copied the "look and feel" of a cable menu to the point there they are indistinguishable.  I suspect that the Cable part of CableTV might disappear in a few years.

It is interesting to see this technology finally come of age. Now I just need to figure out what to do with my Netbook.  I used it to stream as our old "dumb television" only got YouTube and Netflix, on its own.  I guess it might be handy for streaming in the camper.

We'll see.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Evil Thoughts!

What is to prevent a manufacturer from programming a piece of hardware to deactivate after so many hours of usage?

I took the back off our dead television just to see if there was some obvious sign of the failure mode.  Most likely the power supply, I'd guess.  For the last few years, it had been making weird lines on the screen, just for a while, while warming up.  So we were prepared when it died.

I looked at all the circuit boards - power supply, IR interface, WiFi card, and main processor, and nothing looked amiss.  We will take it to the electronic recycling center later today (it won't fit in the garbage can).

But looking at all of this, I got to thinking, what if you could program the main processor to just stop working after, say, 10,000 hours of use?  It would force the user to upgrade.  And why not do this with other products like cell phones?  How do we know this isn't happening already?

Apple is famous for pushing "updates" to iOS onto older phones that essentially bricks them.  Windows gets slower and slower with each "update" and putting Windows 10 or 11 on an older machine running 7, will slow it to a crawl.  Sadly, Microsoft set Windows to auto-install Windows 10 automatically, unless you specifically disabled it.  A friend of mine has an older HP (!!) laptop that ran Windows 7 just fine, but is slower than paint drying with the "update" to Windows 10.  Well, that and McAfee slowed it down.  Have you ever tried to remove all of McAfee from a computer?  It just seems to keep coming back!

So maybe we are already at this point - planned obsolescence can be programmed into a product, rather than merely designed into it.  A car manufacturer could guarantee its car for 100,000 miles, at which point, it would shut down or drive itself back to the dealer for scrapping.  With the way leasing is going, it isn't that far-fetched a fantasy.

And maybe, like with HP printers, we would just rent everything.  You'd pay so many dollars a month for a television, and if you stopped paying, it would stop working.  There would be advantages to this, of course, in that if the television broke, they would replace it with a new one - provided you kept paying.

This is, in a way, how smart phones work for many people who have "plans" in place.  If they pay (through the nose) a monthly fee, they get "unlimited" data (up to the limit, then it slows down) and a "free" phone upgrade every few years.  The telcos sell the old phones to resellers and I buy them on eBay.  My Galaxy 7 Active is getting long in the tooth, as it will no longer run some newer apps.  But I spent less on that phone than some people pay for a month of cell service!

But the point is, people are already conditioned to trading in their electronics every few years.  And for a long time, it made sense, as advances in technology meant that a computer from even a few years ago was woefully obsolete.  As time progresses, well, these improvements in technology become less and less.  In fact, some generations of cell phones haven't sold well simply because people were happy with their old phones and the new ones simply weren't much better to warrant an upgrade.

So why not make them shut off after so many hours of use?

Like I said, it is an evil thought.  But I suspect it is a thought that has occurred to some marketers and even Engineers and certainly CEOs of certain companies.  We seem to be moving to a business model where people don't own anything but instead "subscribe" to products and pay monthly fees.  It is a flawed model, from the consumer's point of view, as when you actually own something, it is possible to take care of it and make it last longer, or simply decide to forego "upgrades" if last years' model is working OK for you.

With so many products having embedded electronics, even the simplest of appliances can be made to quit after so many uses.  Other than for things like a hammer or an anvil, makers could program everything from light bulbs to lawn mowers to simply quit after so many hours of use.  The mechanics of it (or should I say, electronics) are trivial.

Of course, there could be push-back from this type of marketing and there already is.  People who know and understand what is going on, would never buy (lease? rent? borrow?) an HP printer as the CEO of that company has flat-out said they want to move to a pay-to-print subscription model.  Screw that.  Sad, too, as it will hasten the demise of the printed page, which is already dying on the vine.

But others, particularly those that are techno-phobic, may prefer such a model. They always have the newest and latest equipment, and never have to worry about repairs or breakdowns. Just call the nice man at the company and they send you a new one!  Be sure to update your payment options!  

In a way, it would be like Japan, which for years had a stringent three-year inspection protocol for automobiles that was nearly impossible to pass. This was by design.  As a result, no one kept a car more than three years and the domestic auto industry flourished.  It did make the cities look modern and neat - you never saw broken-down, rusted, oil-burning "junkers" on the road there.  And used cars could be exported to nearby right-hand-drive countries.  (My understanding is, that since then, they have lengthened the time between inspections somewhat).

Of course, the ultimate option is to consume less and that sometimes means consuming nothing.  We tend to think we "need" things like smart phones or televisions or computers, but fail to recall a time when these things did not exist.  Sadly, our society is making it harder and harder not to engage with technology.  Some employers demand to know your cell phone number (and require you own one, as a term of employment) and your social media accounts (and "none" is not deemed an honest answer, hence I am unemployed). You literally cannot work or shop these days, in some instances, without some technology.

Well, let's just hope it doesn't come to having "kill switches" in our technology (if they are not there already).  And maybe I should keep my evil thoughts to myself, lest the powers-that-be get any ideas!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Brand Names

Brand names don't mean much as they used to.

Back in 1965 or thereabouts, my Dad lost another job due to his volcanic temper.  He would get pissed-off and tell the boss what he thought of him.  So he temp'ed at some place in Manhattan for a year or so (back to Booz-Allen?) while we lived in a rented house near Old Greenwich.  As a little kid, age 4, it meant nothing to me - I was pretty oblivious to the stress that no doubt my parents were facing.

He finally got a job with Bell & Howell (no relation) as an Assistant Junior Vice President or something, and we moved to Illinois.  Back then, Bell & Howell was a major manufacturer of camera equipment, in particular, movie projectors.

It is kind of interesting that my Dad was sort of into the imaging business at the time.  Before then, he worked for ITEK which made camera equipment for spy planes.  I inherited a book from him about photo interpretation from World War II using stereo images.  It was quite fascinating.

And oddly enough, my career as a Patent Attorney would encompass imaging systems, from Cable television scramblers, to VGA controllers, to MPEG encoding, and so on and so forth.  A real shame I never had the opportunity to sit down and discuss this stuff with my Dad as we might have found ourselves having similar backgrounds.

Then again, even though our basement in Illinois was full of dusty photo equipment, my Dad hardly knew which end of the camera to point at the subject.  When he worked for Bell & Howell, he oddly enough bought a Kodak "Super-8" movie camera and projector.   Go figure!

Anyway, I digress.  Decades later, I am reading Smithsonian magazine, which is full of ads for "Gov't Gold!" and other ripoffs, and I see this ad for some sort of cheesy radio or something, made by "Bell & Howell" and I was intrigued, so I looked it up on Wikipedia.  The company, as a consumer products maker, is long gone, (as is ITEK and Kodak and so on) in this digital camera age.  What remains is a licensing group that licenses its name to various manufacturers.

Apparently, baby boomers still remember the name and recall the company's storied history, so selling stuff in Smithsonian with the Bell&Howell name has some traction.  I doubt anyone born after 1960 remembers much of the brand, though.

The other day, we went to watch Disney+ after paying $13.99 for one month of service.  There really is nothing to watch on Disney+ anymore, but it is too late to get my fourteen bucks back. I went to turn on our decade-old Sharp branded 48" flat screen, and it didn't.  It just would not turn on.  I tried replacing the remote batteries and even using the manual switch on the side and...nothing.  There is power to the power cord, but the set is dead.

So I guess we have to get a new one, and today, televisions in the 50" class are pretty cheap - under $300 in many cases, sometimes far less.  But what to get?  Brand names don't seem to mean much anymore, other than in a negative sense.

VIZIO has the lowest prices on televisions, but I remember vividly when we bought the Sharp, seeing a bunch of VIZIO televisions on a cart by the service desk at the wholesale club.  "Did someone order ten televisions?" I asked the service desk employee.  "No," they replied, "These are all returns!"  Then, she whispered, "Never buy a VIZIO - we get the most returns on them!"

Well, that was a decade ago, so maybe they have changed.  And maybe they are not a bad product, just that they didn't do enough "burn-in" to cull the infant mortality sets from their output.  I heard a rumor that they were bought by Walmart and another rumor that the sets will play ads even if you are not watching anything.  Or something along those lines.  It is all about ad revenue and e-commerce, not about selling hardware. So I guess they can sell at a loss and make it up in terms of sales of e-trash on Walmart.com.

Or something like that.  I just want a tee-vee.  Although the last week has been interesting, not watching the tee-vee.  Not consuming is always an option.

I logged onto the Sam's Club website to see what they have to offer and there is a hierarchy of brands - and sizes.  Back in the early days of flat screens, a small (30") set was like $500 and a "huge" 48" set was a few thousands.  Within a few years, a 48" set was $500 and a 60" set was thousands.  Today, they are nearly eight feet if not longer, and still cost thousands, but a 50" set (which is the size of our wall) is only a couple-hundred bucks.

Why someone spends thousands on a television that, in three years' time, will cost only a few hundred dollars, is beyond me.  If you can wait a year or two, the cost drops by a factor of ten.  Imagine paying $100,000 for an EV and then a few years later, they cost only $10,000?   Well, that is not quite what is happening in the EV market, but pretty damn close.  We are in the beginning stages of an EV price war, as every manufacturer has geared up to produce these, but people aren't buying, at least not at the staggering prices that they commanded, up until now.

It pays to wait, and if you want to be on the "bleeding edge" of technology, you pay top dollar.  Five years ago, I contemplated converting my golf cart to Lithium-Ion power, but there was no easy or cost-effective "plug and play" solution.  Today, a 48V Lithium-Ion battery pack is cheaper than buying six AGM batteries.  It pays to wait.

But getting back to televisions, which one to buy?  At the lower end is the VIZIO stuff, which you see hapless people trying to stuff into their hatchbacks at Sam's Club (measure, first!).  Some of these televisions are so big, they have trouble fitting into a pickup truck!  I saw one guy drive off with one over the tailgate - no doubt it took wing like a mattress, on I-95.

Midline are brands like "Phillips" which I put in quotes, because like Bell&Howell, it is just a licensing company now, in the consumer products field.  A "Phillips" television is made in China, just as my "Blue Ridge" split system is a poorly disguised Midea.   This does not mean it is a bad product, only that brand names mean little.

Speaking of which, the Chinese seem to attach a lot of weight to brand-names, even if they have no connection to the product.  GM sells more Buicks in China than in the USA (and until recently, accounting for the majority of GM's profits!).   Mao rode around in an old Buick straight-8 ("Fireball") Limousine as did Chiang Kai-sheck.  But the Buicks of today have little or nothing in common with the Buicks of 1949.

But the Chinese apparently love brand names and often attach great importance to numbers as well, as a form of superstition.  Perhaps it is an Asian thing - long before "LG Electronics" renamed itself, it was "Lucky Goldstar" and made microwaves with that dorky name proudly displayed on the front.  People in Asia bought them for the brand name.  People in America bought them despite the brand name.

So maybe that explains why so many "Western" brands are being licensed by Asian companies.  They place reverential value on the name in their home country, and perhaps hope that Western audiences will have some fond memories of the name as well.

Regardless, if I buy a "Phillips" television it won't be because I have fond memories of the Phillips light bulbs or radios or televisions I bought back in  the 1980s, but because it is not a VIZIO.

At the top of the heap are companies that actually design and make (albeit in China) the products that bear their name. SAMSUNG seems to be the top line at Sam's Club, with the largest sets, highest resolution (something called OLED, I don't know what that means and no longer care), and highest prices.  I will probably skip that as well, as although Samsung makes quality products, they are priced accordingly.

Speaking of resolution, one thing I learned doing Patents on video technology is that resolution isn't what it first appears (sorry for the pun).  We do not "see" things but rather assemble images in our brains.  So having every inch of a display rendered in 4K is just overkill, as we can't really "see" it all at once.

At the wholesale club, they have these huge televisions on display, front and center, playing sample videos of aquariums with colorful fish or, oddly enough, someone frying bacon.  Bacon looks really gross in 4K on an eight-foot screen.  Most of what we watch is not at 4K resolution.  Old television shows are still resolved at the 525-line NTSC format, just convered to MPEG.   It annoys me, but Didney+ automatically tries to stream at the highest resolution, which is pointless for us on our old non-4K television.  Not only that, it chews up your data plan pretty quickly (and can cause interruptions).

Television has been referred to as "The Talking Lamp" and in a way, it is.  It is a visual medium, yes, but mostly audio.  There is little need for "high-res" imagery or even jumbo screens, if you really think about it.

But I digress.  Yet again.

As a Trademark attorney (or former one) the point of "brands" was to indicate the source of goods or services.  They exist so consumers can make informed choices about their purchases, and prevent or expose counterfeiting in the marketplace.  When a brand is merely a licensed label, slapped on a product, well, it has no real meaning, even if we subliminally attach some phantom "goodwill" to it.  It sort of defeats the whole purpose of branding and Trademarks.

Even storied companies fall down this hole.  GM sells cars from all over the world, so your "Buick" could be made in Michigan, or merely a re-branded Korean product with no real connection to the American brand.  Your "Chevy" pickup might be assembled in Mexico with a Ford transmission.  And as solid as a company may appear, the last few decades have revealed that even storied old brands are one bad quarter away from bankruptcy at any given moment.

Even companies that still "make" their products can screw the pooch.  HP was a well-regarded electronic instrument maker.  If you were of a certain age, you cut your teeth on an HP oscilloscope and other lab instruments.  You may have programmed an HP computer.  And the HP "Laserjet" was an industry standard.  Today?  They make cheesy ink-jet printers that require a subscription to their ink.  There is literally no point in buying one.

So where does this leave the consumer?  Adrift in a sea of knock-offs and deadnamed companies who are just offshore shells licensing a nearly worthless Trademark.  You can no longer go to the store and grab a product off the shelf without considering its quality, but instead relying on the brand-name as an indicia of value.

It is freaking exhausting.  And increasingly, it means that getting a good value in the marketplace is more a matter of luck than anything else.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Is The Term "Gypsy" Racist? (No)

Pikies, Gyppos, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves?  Is this an insult against a particular ethnic group or just a label for crooks?  And if you identify with the label, what does that say about you?

The latest battle in the Political Correctness wars involves the term "Gypsy" which some people claim is a slur against "Romani Peoples."  Often the people chastising us for using the term "Gypsy" are folks who are not Romani, and in fact are rather Wasp-y.  Or is that a slur as well? I have a hard time keeping track.

The Romani people are a diverse ethnic group and the term "Gypsy" is based on the false assumption that they originated in Egypt.  The world is full of such mis-identifications.  American "Indians" have nothing to do with India, a country named after a river that is no longer within its borders.

Oddly enough, it is believed the original Romani came from India, so we come full circle.

Speaking of India, the term "thug" comes from there, named after Thugs of India who would hijack travelers and caravans, usually killing people and taking their goods and money.  Today, no one in India (that I am aware of) thinks that "thug" is a slur against the general Indian population.

But for some reason, we are now being told that "Gypsy" - which is a term used to describe an itinerant band of wandering peoples involved in petty crimes - is some sort of ethnic slur.  It is no way today associated with a particular ethnic group - anyone can be a gypsy today, all you have to do is the crime.  Similarly, you can be a "thug" today without being from India - indeed, the thugs there died out long ago.  No one considers "thug" a slur against an ethnic group, even if it was once applied to one.

So it seems odd that people are claiming "gypsy" is a slur against Romani people.  By saying this, you are in fact saying that all Romani are Gypsies which itself is a slur.  Or are we going down the road that some people in America are doing with Blacks (formerly African-Americans) by positing that criminality is part of the "culture" of being Black?

Let's not go there.

It reminds me of the fairly recent cooked-up "controversy" that "Midget" and "Dwarf" are slurs and that such folks preferred to be called "Little People" - the latter of which I think is more demeaning that the original terms. The whole thing stinks of Political Correctness invented by people not part of the group.  As I noted before, Billy Barty founded the "Midgets of America" which was amended to the "Midgets and Dwarfs of America" before transitioning to "Little People of America."  If "Midget" or "Dwarf" were slurs, well, the "Little People" didn't seem to think so, just a few decades ago.

It is akin to other names which some (mostly white people) are claiming to be slurs.  "Black" is deemed a slur by some overly-sensitive Whites, but in reality is just a color.  "Negro" is chastised as a slur by some (again, I think we are being trolled) but just means "Black" in Spanish and the United Negro College Fund never thought it was a slur, nor did Dr. King. "Colored People" is today considered a slur, except by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which I guess is behind the times.  The Politically Correct term is "POC" or "People of Color" which like "LatinX" is a term used only by overly-sensitive Whites with a guilt complex.  And some people abhor the term "LatinX" being applied to them.  You know it had to be invented by a White guy.

The problem with Political Correctness is that it helps no one and actually harms everyone, particularly the Left.  It makes us look stupid and ridiculous and like the "special snowflakes" the far-right accuses us of being.  Why do we have to fall in line and live up to the caricature they paint us to be?  Political Correctness is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic - it divides people and chastises not your enemies, but your allies.

It is akin to a lot of this talk about "pronouns" and "dead-naming" which are terms used to shame the people most allied to your cause.  The far-right doesn't give a shit about your pronouns or your name and in fact delights in torturing you by calling you by the wrong name or gender because they know it will piss you off.  Being super-sensitive about these things only invites bullying.  The bully backs away in frustration when you laugh the loudest at his insults.  He goes in for the kill - often literally - when you show sensitivity to insults.  I say this from long, bitter experience.

If you tell a bully that if they call you by a particular name, you will get upset, guess what the bully is going to do?  It is like putting a target on your back.  You have to be thick-skinned and learn to laugh at yourself.  Otherwise you are just handing your opponents all the ammunition they need to destroy you.  And most humor is based on this spoofing of pride and status.  Every Marx Brothers movie has the boys spoofing the high-society matron and no one feels sorry for her when she is taken down a notch.

Being Politically Correct is the ultimate form of narcissism and it merely invites abuse.

We have to stop this nonsense - all of it - now.  While we are naval-gazing about the "proper" words to use, the other side has stacked the Supreme Court and the Statehouses across the country (who gerrymander the districts, insuring a majority in the House of Representatives).  They also are claiming many governorships and also judicial appointments in the lower courts.  We are seeing the effect of this as we try to prosecute Trump for his crimes, only to be stymied by a Trump-appointed Judge.

But hey, we all are using the right words, and that is more important, right?

The whole Political Correctness thing is backfiring in a big way and was destined to do so, as we literally think using language, which is just a collection of symbols, each representing an agreed-upon idea.  Maybe you don''t think about this too much, but as  Patent Attorney, this was my primary job.  When drafting Patent Claims, you have to be very precise in your choice of language - and the impreciseness that most ordinary people use in everyday language is infuriating.  Words matter - they represent ideas.

So when you tell people what words to use, you are literally telling them how to think, and there is inevitable push-back to this, as no one likes to be told what to do, much less what to think.  Odious ideas are thus driven underground where they eventually explode later on.

The rise of the far-right, worldwide, and the re-emergence of Nazism, antisemitism, racism (did it ever leave us?), misogyny, and the like are not some unexpected phenomenon, but the natural reaction to the far-left saying, "you can't even think these things!"  Because if exposed to the sterilizing light of day, such odious views quickly wither and die.  In the damp, dark basement of the Internet, however, they can thrive and explode.

Political correctness accomplishes nothing.  Worse than that, it often - almost always - accomplishes the exact opposite of what was intended.  It serves only to bolster opponents of your ideas and only shames and turns away your allies.

Gypsy is not a slur - it describes a group of people based on their behavior, not their ethnicity.  The term "thug" describes people who engage in "Thuggee" or the acts of thuggery - not an ethnic group.  No one is shaming Romani people by using the term "Gypsy" and to imply that "Gypsy" is a term describing only Romani people is to say that all Romani are criminals.

And that is the real slur.