Saturday, December 10, 2016

Selling: SMART

Somewhere in the 1970's, marketers realized that you could sell products as "smart".

When I was a kid, the three big car makers sold enormous cars that had baroque doo-dads all over them.   They were designed to appeal to your lesser instincts - the need for status, luxury, power, authority, and of course, conformity.   We thought nothing of buying a station wagon slathered in fake "dinoc" wood paneling, because everyone else on the block had one.   Why this fake wood paneling looked good or even added value to the car wasn't the question.   It cost more, and you wanted everyone to know you bought the top model.   And of course, you had to trade it in before that dinoc started to turn white, so not only did you pay more, you got less car out of the deal.

Pretty dumb.  And cars back then were pretty poorly made, despite how many hot-rod or muscle-car shows you watch.   They pretty much fell apart the day you bought them.

By the 1970's, however, people who bought those "funny foreign cars" were discovering not only did they get good gas mileage, they held together far longer than US makes.   People with Japanese cars were going over 100,000 miles (!!!) and on the original clutch!   Most US cars would be in the junkyard by then - and on their third clutch, of course.

Suddenly, "Buy American" seemed pretty stupid.  You were just throwing money away and big chunks of it, too.

But another aspect of this came to light - buying a mid-1970's American-made rustbucket was seem as a choice made only by very dim-witted people.   Only the sort of folks who thought that fake wood meant "quality" and that a vinyl roof with landau bars was "stylish" bought American iron.  And in places like the Midwest, such style choices are still seen today.

In the coastal cities, however, buying such a car would mark you as a dork.   Indeed, even renting an American car was viewed as a sign of dorkdom, as Woody Allen discovered when he rented a Cadilliac convertible in the movie Annie Hall.  He thought it was top-of-the-line, but in Southern California, it wasn't viewed as an intelligent choice.

And that, in short, is how BMW and Mercedes-Benz supplanted Lincoln and Cadillac as the top luxury brands in the United States.   If you looked at the cars they offered in the 1960's and 1970's, you might have laughed.   They were small, largely under-powered, and had anemic air conditioning.  But they were viewed as a "smart" buy due to their durability and handling.

Today, the label "Smart" is applied to everything from dog food to dishwashers.   You don't want to be caught buying the dork model, that is for sure.   Even though today, almost every car is made just about the same way, comes with the same options, and indeed has parts made by the same manufacturer, some are viewed as "Smart" cars (indeed, that is even a brand name) while others are viewed as dumb.

In other words, "buying smart" is a form of status-seeking, and the marketer who try to control our lives know we crave status.   So they sell us on "Smart"!

When You Make It Expensive To Employ People.....

Labor is a commodity like anything else.   If you raise the price of a commodity, people buy less of it, or seek out alternatives.

Note:  I wrote this posting a few months back, but did not finish editing it until today.  --Bob.

One reason our economy has done as well as it has over the last eight years (and it has done very well, thank you, despite what Trump and Sanders say) is that our cost of labor has gone down.   People decry "income inequality" (as if how much someone else makes is relevant to your own personal happiness) and others whine that "real wages" have not gone up in decades.

But the reality is, since wages have indeed stagnated, and in some instances gone down, people are again hiring in this country, at least in low-cost wage States, mostly in the South.    Numerous reports back up this claim - that America is now almost on a par with the cost of manufacturing in China (particularly when you factor in transportation costs) and that by 2020, we will again be the world's largest manufacturing country (up from #3 a few years ago, and #2 today).

The key is, of course, that most of this expansion in manufacturing is occurring in places where wages and taxes are low and regulations are fewer.   Nissan is building trucks in Canton, Mississippi, paying as little as $16 an hour or so, for part-time help.   Meanwhile, in Detroit, Union workers make twice as much, and cost four times as much with benefits and restrictive work rules.   The Big-3 automakers cannot compete with non-union workforce companies, except in the highly profitable SUV and Truck markets, where huge mark-ups on these empty steel boxes allow for padded wages.

The decline of unionism is one reason America is so competitive today.  In fact, on a world stage, our economy is the strongest.   Forget what Donald Trump says about China - their economy is in the toilet and has been on the decline for a number of years, while their national debt - as well as personal debts - continue to climb.  Europe continues to struggle to recover from the 2009 recession as well as deal with its various debt crises and political crises - which threaten to tear apart the fragile union.

But even given all that, things have changed in America, and not all for the better.   Yes, unemployment is down, but wages are, too. (UPDATE:  They are finally starting to climb again as unemployment hits a low of 4.3%).  The labor market, like so much else, has sought and found equilibrium.   The old days where a union worker could expect a huge paycheck, guaranteed lifetime employment, and a cushy pension in retirement - while doing substandard work - are disappearing fast.

Government unions are the last bastion of this cradle-to-grave protection, and they are under attack in many States, as property owners are handed the hefty bills.   We talk a lot about "income inequality" in this county, but no one bothers to ask why a schoolteacher in New York should be making $100,000 a year for working only nine months, while the median household income in America is half that amount.   Talk about your 1%'ers!  They aren't all on Wall Street - they are also on Main Street, at the local government office or school.

The rest of us don't have it so swell.    Pensions are gone, now replaced by a 401(k) or IRA.   And if you don't have the discipline to save, you are going to be in a world of woe by the time you retire.  And more and more companies are finding that it is a lot cheaper to "farm out" work to contractors than to hire people within.   And being an independent contractor is even more fun that having a 401(k).  Because in addition to funding your own retirement, you have to pay an 18% self-employment tax AND pay for your own health care!    The old days of Corporate Socialism in America are long gone.

When I went to work for General Motors in 1978, we made pretty much every single part of a car except the tires and the gasoline.   Sloan's "Vertical Integration" model meant that we made everything from spark plugs to batteries to radios to turn signals.   The old model of manufacturing was to integrate and consolidate and thus lower overall manufacturing costs - and insure a steady supply of parts as well.

Today, the Big-3 have shed their parts divisions and are now more car assemblers than car makers.   They still make engines, to be sure, and they stamp out body panels (sometimes).  But most of the rest of the car is bought as sub-assemblies from captive suppliers as prices that are strongly negotiated.  This is the Japanese model of Keritsu suppliers - companies that are beholden to you as their sole customer, and as such, can be "crammed down" on price.

Back in the 1990's I read a story about a fellow who made aftermarket bumpers for Toyota trucks.   He was contacted by Toyota to make rear bumpers for their trucks, in order to increase US-made content (at the time, many trucks were imported with no beds or bumpers, which were added on in the US to avoid the 20% "chicken tax" duty on imported light trucks).   He jumped at the chance to have such a large contract and a large customer, but things unwound rather quickly.

Toyota sent engineers to his shop, and they reorganized his machine shop into a factory - so that materials came in one end, and bumpers went out the other.   The owner quickly realized that his aftermarket accessories business would be a hindrance, so he dropped that.   And he had to borrow a lot of money to tool up for this big Toyota contract.   And before long, his new factory was humming along, making bumpers in mass quantities and the checks started coming in.   But a funny thing, with the new debt to service and the new employees to hire, he was not making the big money he thought he would.  And when it came time to renegotiate the contract, Toyota wanted the price cut - and he had to take it or go bust.  That is how the game is played with captive suppliers.

On a personal level, the same is true with contractors.   Wall Street rewards companies for cutting "head count" and thus cutting overhead.   If you can outsource your labor to a part-time contractor, it can be good for business in a number of ways.   First, the head count goes down, so your stock price goes up and your stock options are worth a lot more.

Second, your actual costs may go down.   An in-house attorney, for example, may sound like a bargain, as his salary is less than the "billable hours" you pay an outside counsel.   But there are real overhead costs involved with having employees - benefits, taxes, office space, and so on.   And motivating employees to work requires someone to monitor their work and kick them in the butt.   The outside contractor doesn't get paid if he doesn't work, so he is motivated by the wolves at his door.  And you can hire him when you need him, and then let him go when you don't.

So what does this have to do with employment?
There is a lot of talk (and action) about raising the minimum wage.   A lot of this is based again on what other people are making and also this idea that a minimum wage job should "support a family of four" on a single income.

The problem is, when you make labor more expensive, like any other commodity, people will buy less of it, or use it more wisely.   If you demand more money for work, expect them to make you work harder for the money - or have better job skills.

And it goes without saying that if your labor costs more, automation looks more attractive - as does outsourcing, contracting, and the like.

Fast food at first seems like a place where labor is pretty fixed.   But outsourcing is already being used in some high-labor cost areas.  In Hawaii, they use people in Texas and California to take orders in the drive-through because the cost of labor in Hawaii is so high.   Of course, you could even outsource this further to India, but odds are, the garbled messages to Indian call centers would result in garbled orders.   But it is possible to move work electronically (or physically) to places where labor is cheaper.

Automation is another effect.  A few years back, we wen to France and I wanted to order some pomme frites, which are large slices of potatoes, fried, to accompany our pizza (yes, I know, French cuisine!).   They used Kiosks in the store to place orders, instead of servers.   And it was a lot more accurate, faster (no standing in line) and when the order was done, they brought it to your table.

Already, many fast-food outlets in America are promising to bring these kiosks to America.  It may be less personal, but it beats standing in line behind the guy who says, "I'll have an, uhhh..... uhhhh.... uhhhh......" for ten minutes.

The back of the house is not immune, and in fact, ripe for automation.   French fries, for example, are already made in vending machines.  I tried one nearly 30 years ago when I was in Law School.  The technology is there already, it just isn't cost-effective yet because labor rates are so attractive.

People make things better than machines?  I think not.

Making burgers?   How many times have you been to a fast-food place and saw the marvelous photo of the delectable burger on the menu only to find a mashed-up nightmare after you order it?  This sort of thing is ripe for automation.  And hey, lets not even talk about the decreased risk of food-borne illness.  Chipolte should be jumping all over this.

Of course, a full-fledged fast-food vending kiosk maybe years away - or would it ?

The Carl's Jr. Automated fast food kiosk of the future - brought to you by our new Secretary of Labor!

Raising wages sounds like a great deal, until you realize that it raises the cost of making things and selling things, which in turn means either prices are going to go up, or you are going to price yourself out of a job.

We went thought this in the 1970's with stagflation.   Wages rose so quickly and labor became so expensive that a lot of manufacturing plants closed and closed permanently in the 1980's and 1990's.   Most of those jobs are never coming back, ever, at least in high-cost union markets in the rust belt.

You can have high wages or you can have high employment.   You generally can't have both.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Is Trolling Protected Speech?

Online conspiracy theorists say that pizza shops are just covers for pedophile rings.  If so, then this place must be ground zero.

In my last post, I mentioned how some online "review" sites are blackmailing service providers by posting negative content or low "scores" and then offering to repair their reputation if they pony up some money.   It is pretty low stuff.  But is it illegal?

I suspect so, although no Attorney General has yet to take on these jokers.  I suppose you could set up a company, get it "reviewed" on one of these sites, and then record the phone call where they make the reputation-for-money pitch and then charge them with blackmail.   But that would smack of effort.

Others have tried civil suits, with little success.   The "scores" on these sites are deemed "opinions" and I think judges are reluctant to be seen as censoring free speech.   It didn't help that one fellow challenging his score on an attorney review site had an ethics complaint filed against him.

So long as the "opinions" are not malicious, it is deemed "free speech".  You can say, "Joe Blow's restaurant SUCKS!" and that is your opinion and you are free to have it.  On the other hand, if you say "Joe Blow's restaurant serves dead rat meat" you could be sued for libel, unless of course, they actually serve dead rat meat.  In addition, if you post information with a malicious intent, that may also be actionable.

But what about trolling?   Trolling has reached new heights in the recent elections.   People are posting all sorts of malicious stories online about political candidates.  That is nothing new - back in Lincoln's day, people would publish anonymous pamphlets with scurrilous allegations.  Most folks were smart enough to ignore them.   But more than a few voters - particularly the stupid kind - are persuaded by this sort of nonsense.

The election is over, however, the trolling continues.  And attacking political candidates is one thing, but going after people who are only tangentially related to the candidate?   Going after private citizens just because they support a candidate?  Something isn't right here.  And I don't think libeling private citizens is "free speech" of any sort.

The latest "controversy" fueled by the alt-right is wild and stupid allegations that a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. is actually a front for a child-sex-ring that - get this - is being run by Hillary Clinton, whose job it is to chop up the children.  Now if you have half a brain, you know this isn't true.  Hillary doesn't even live in Washington, and what would her interest in child-sex be?  It just so over-the-top that it is stupid.

Stupid yes, but one of the members of the Trump transition team - who is also the son of our new National Security Advisor, believes this nonsense and perpetuates it.   Like any conspiracy theory, it cannot be proven "untrue" ever, to the conspiracy faithful, so their logic is that so long it is not proven untrue, it might be true but since you can never prove such wild theories untrue (any proof proffered is shot down or said to be manufactured) then the conspiracy is unproven.   A man armed with an AR-15 went to the pizza shop, shot up the place, searched it, didn't find any children or child sex ring or secret rooms in the basement.  You would think that would settle the issue.  But he isn't sure, so maybe it is true.  Welcome to the bizarro-world of conspiracy theories!

Why would someone start such a weird rumor?  It turns out the owner of the shop is a Hillary supporter, and the owners ex-boyfriend has some connection with the Hillary campaign.   So you now know the real reason behind the attack - to punish someone for their political beliefs.   And punish they have.  Because of the false story, the owner of the pizza shop is getting death threats and of course business is off.   People are scraping photos from Facebook of families at the shop and then posting them online as "victims" of the "pedophile ring".   Now they've gone beyond attacking Hillary supporters and to victimizing random patrons of the restaurant.

The goal of whoever started this rumor is to shut the pizza shop down - put the owner out of business and punish him for his political beliefs.  No doubt the owner offered his opinion online and someone didn't like his opinion.  So they tracked him down and started this rumor.   Trolls use other techniques, such as "Swatting" - calling the police in your jurisdiction and claiming a hostage situation has taken place at your home.  The SWAT team shows up at your house and busts down the door.  So far no one has been killed yet, but this illustrates how powerful we've let the Internet become.   And don't think it can't happen to you, just because it hasn't happened.... yet.

The problem for the victims of these types of online rumor attacks is that if you respond to them, it only makes them worse.   Any response will raise the profile of the attack and pretty soon, people are just taking it for granted that what was said was true.   It is, in a way, The Children's Hour acted out in real life.

The problem also for the victims of these types of attacks is that it is expensive to sue the people who are making these attacks - if you can even find them.   Even if found and criminal charges brought, they may only get a slap on the wrist.  Since most of these types of attacks originate on the Internet, the anonymity of the Internet prevents you from finding out who is behind it.  And it may be Russian trolls behind this stuff, for all we know.   Even if you could find them, you'd have a hard time suing or serving them them - in Russia.

What is interesting about reading the posts and tweets and whatnot related to this case is that the people posting messages seem to know that the allegations aren't true.   That isn't the point.  What they want to do is force this guy to close his pizza shop so that they "win" by crushing the ex-boyfriend of a guy who used to work on the Hillary campaign (or had some tenuous connection to it).

This is the brave new world we have of "free speech" on the Internet.

Reputation Blackmail

If you can kidnap someone's reputation and hold it for ransom, you can make a lot of dough.

The latest gag on the Internet, driven by this whole noxious "social media" crap, is reputation blackmail.   Sites which purport to be "review sites" offer up "reviews" by folks like you and me, of anything from restaurants, to lawyers, to doctors, to plumbers, hotels, or whatever.

At first, this sounds like harmless fun.   After all, why not be able to collate reviews about various service sector organizations and then provide that data to consumers?   You are doing a social good!

Or maybe not.  You don't make money by doing social goods.

Over time (or perhaps by design) these sites have morphed into something else - something very, very nasty.   The basic modus operandi is to approach a restaurant, hotel, lawyer, doctor, plumber, electrician, carpenter or other service-sector provider and offer them an opportunity to advertise on your site.   And they point out (or it is pointed out to you) that you may have some negative information about you listed on their site.  Every service provider eventually pisses off someone, so at least one negative review is inevitable.

For a low, low monthly fee of $499, you can bring up your "rating score" and also by having friends sign up, you can get testimonials, groom your listing, and bring up your "score" so you get more business!  And mysteriously, the negative reviews will disappear from their site.  More than one online review site has tried this practice - holding your reputation for ransom.

If you don't play along, well, you will be screwed.   Your score will remain low and negative reviews will remain on your listing and you will lose business as a result.

Or would you?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  While some service sectors are very sensitive to customer reviews, others are pretty immune.   For example, I mostly write Patent cases (or did anyway) for large corporations or people referred to me by word-of-mouth.   Online review sites are not steering traffic my way, nor would I want them to (phone calls from John Q. Public are usually a waste of time).

For doctors, the same is also true.   Good luck "shopping around" for a good doctor - at least where I live.  Most have "waiting lists" for new patients, and if you are accepted to their practice, you are the lucky one, not them.   One reason I think the "doctor review site" never took off is that the doctors have the upper hand, for the most part.

For others, the issue is more sensitive.   Many clueless Facebooking types go to review sites to determine whether a restaurant is any good or if a plumber is honest.  And the opinions they get are from their fellow brain-dead social media types, who will vote down a restaurant because of some trivial concern, or because they didn't understand the cuisine.   For example, a local Mexican place here (run by real Mexicans) serves tacos al pastore, which is a small corn tortilla with barbecued pork, raw onions and cilantro.   That's it.  And that's how they make it in Mexico.

Some yahoo goes on Yelp! and says, "The durn tacos have no cheese on 'em!" and downvotes the place.   What he expected was some enormous chalupa like he gets at Taco Bell.   You are going to listen to his opinion about anything?  But again, for this business, his opinion doesn't matter.  The place is packed all day long and most of the customers don't speak English, much less go on Yelp! for restaurant reviews.  Locals and visitors to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center pack the place at lunch time.  The restaurant doesn't need no stinking "online review" to succeed!

But other service providers don't have that "must have" appeal, and they get caught up in this online review process, either trying to groom their image online, get negative reviews removed, or respond to negative reviews.  And sometimes, this can be such a distraction that it can sink a business.

The most famous of the latter was Amy's Baking Company, which became TV-famous after its owner responded to bad reviews by threatening customers online.  The restaurant eventually closed.   Their problem, however, wasn't negative online reviews, but poor food and service, as evidenced by the episode in Kitchen Nightmares.   Better food and better service would have brought in customers more than responding to online complaints.   But people get caught up in this nonsense and suddenly social media seems more important than real life.   On social media, all that matters is how things appear to be, not how they are.   Sort of like how coke-heads live.

An attorney got into similar trouble trying to dispute a negative review on an attorney review site.  In responding to a complaint by a client, he let slip that the client, a stewardess, had actually beat up a fellow employee, making her ineligible for unemployment benefits.  This lead to a disciplinary proceeding for disclosing client confidences.

An online retailer of really, really useless crap made headlines by charging a customer $3500 for posting a negative review, and when the customer refused to pay, they tried to destroy their credit rating.  Such draconian measures, of course, backfire in a big way, as the Streisand Effect kicks in, and rather than attenuating negative attention, it amplifies it.

These sort of examples illustrate two things about online review sites.  First, if you engage them, you have to engage them fully, and carefully groom and manage your profile online.   Best to do this by NOT attacking your customers for leaving negative reviews!   Second, if you don't engage these review sites, the resulting damage to your business may be..... nothing.  If you run a good business and have a good product or service, the world will come to you.   This is cold comfort for those starting out in the business world, however.

You may be better off just ignoring review sites and not reading reviews.   The best lawyers in the country are not listed on attorney review sites.  If they are, they are given ridiculously low reviews or have inaccurate information.   Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rated a "6.5" out of 10 on an attorney review site, simply because it is the default score for someone who has no data on their site.  I doubt she is worried about it, though.

Myself, if I was running a restaurant, I might be inclined to hold a contest for who can write the worst review possible - offering a free meal once a month to the person writing the most scathing review.   The Brits used to have this sort of sense of humor in their real estate listings - listing a cottage for rent as "dingy and depressing" when it was anything but.   You either get that sort of joke or you don't.

Quite frankly, the customers you are going to get from review sites are going to be your worst customers.  These are people who are afraid and fear is never a good thing, as I have mentioned before.   They are scared you will rip them off.  They are scared of getting even a bad meal!  And they likely will never be happy and always have one finger on the cell phone ready to fire off a negative review.

If you go chasing reviews on review sites, your business will suffer.   You don't get paid based on reviews, you get paid based on work done.   So my advice would be to walk away from review sites and ignore their game, if you can.   It is only when we validate those sites by responding do they have power.  It is how you deal with bullies.   And they are bullies.

If you do engage such sites, which allow owners to reply to comments, be civil and brief.  The best retailers will say something like, "I am sorry about your bad experience, please call me at 1-800-XXX-XXXX to discuss how we can make it better!" or something like that.   This shows the readers of the bad review that you are a reasonable person and maybe the person posting the bad review is the one who is unreasonable.  Beware, though, since reviews are anonymous, several people may call you looking for a freebie!

As a consumer, I would use review sites with trepidationAs a source of useful information, they are often lacking.  The "top reviewed" service may have floated to the top as the result of careful grooming, fake reviews, or just paying for the privilege.   Often the "10/10" rated services are the ones who have spent a lot of time grooming their image online.   And there usually is a reason they have to groom their image online.   They are depending on a lot of traffic from strangers, who will use their service and then never been seen again.   Companies that cater to this mentality will never provide good service, as they don't have to.

Want a good restaurant?  Ask a local where the locals go, and then try to discern whether the person you are asking even knows what a good meal is.   Want a referral from a plumber or electrician?  Ask your neighbor who they used - and take a look at the work done if you can.  Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool, and the powers-that-be want to co-opt it.  However, online reviews are not word-of-mouth as you have no idea of whose mouth, if any, they are coming from.   Odds are, half of on-line reviews are fake.  The other half are basically worthless.

Is this worth losing your mind over, if you are a retailer?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Answering Machine Stage Fright

Has technology changed our very personalities?

I mentioned in an earlier posting that our modern social media environment has forced us to become shameless self-promoters, hucksters, salesmen, and amateur celebrities.   Whether it is grooming your Facebook page by uploading (carefully chosen) pictures of your fabulous life, tweeting amazing thoughts in 140 characters, or creating YouTube channels where you are the star, we all have made ourselves into public figures, thanks to social media.

'Twas not always the case, though, in this country.

At one time, believe it or not, people had private lives in this country.  Private lives and private thoughts - thoughts that might have been kept to themselves or in a locked diary, but not tweeted and posted for the world to see.

What drove this home to me was thinking the other day about the early days of answering machines.  You may not recall this, but in the 1970's, answering machines first became popular for the average schmuck like you and me.  Before that, they were hugely expensive machines that only businesses had.  The advent of cheap cassette technology (and later, micro-cassette) meant that you could go to Radio Shack (remember them?) and buy a machine for under $99.   It helped also that regulations were changing and the phone companies were no longer requiring you to use their equipment - as well as the standardization of the RJ-11C phone jack - replacing the four-prong "modular" plug of years' past.

A funny thing happened, though.   I met people who were afraid to record the greeting on their answering machine as they had "stage fright".   They felt it was presumptuous to make an announcement like that, as if they were a radio or TV personality.  These same folks would also be "afraid" to leave a message on the machine if they called you.

You'd come home from work and find a message from Grandma going like this:  "Hello?  Hello?   Is this thing recording?  I don't know what to say......" or some other garbled message.   People just weren't as self-confident back then as they are today, and I really mean this.

Of the two, recording the greeting was harder, as you had to get your greeting into the allotted time period and do it in a voice that wasn't weird or breathy, and you had to be prepared to speak on cue after the beep.   A lot of people just couldn't handle it!  Some still can't - relying instead on the generic greeting that many VoiceMail systems now provide.

And of course, on my first answering machine (a huge thing the size of an attache case) my greeting was, well, sort of lame.  "Uh... Hello.... you have reached Bob... uh, like, leave a message...."

The era of cassette tapes is long gone, of course.  The answering machines have all long ago gone into the trash.   And today, we are a lot less shy about announcing ourselves to the world - through social media, videos, texting, tweeting, and so forth.   There is little room for shy people left in the world.

And of course, this took place over a period of time.   By the 1980's, people were less shy about self-promotion on their answering machines.  People made funny recordings for their greetings, or make joke greetings or whatnot.   You stopped hearing from people about being "too nervous" to record a greeting.

Maybe this was due to increased cocaine use.   After all, in the late 1970's and early 1980's young people in particular started caring more about how they looked and how they were perceived.  The grungy anti-materialism hippie look was out - in favor of the feather-cut and blow-dried penis-head haircut and designer jeans.  The VW beetle was out, the Monte Carlo was in.

With the advent of these answering machines and the newest technology - Pagers (beepers) - we all started to think of ourselves as Important People whose opinions were so valuable that we had to be accessible 24/7 (a phrase in an of itself, dates from that period).

By the late 1980's, cellular telephones became cheap enough that even a young law clerk could afford one.   We had important jobs and had to call in and check our VoiceMail (another feature that appeared on the horizon) because we were so damn important and what we said was important as well.   Driving a car, of course, was secondary.

Then, the Internet.   Now we had to check out e-mails 24 hours a day, and send off oh-so-important messages to one another.   Actual real work, of course, was less important.  And then, instant messaging, hand-held cell phones, smart phones, and eventually social media - first MySpace, then Facebook.

People who I knew were schmucks like me had fabulous lives on Facebook.  They changed their "profile" picture from what appeared to be a mugshot taken in a room with fluorescent lights, to a kicky fun photo that showed only half their face.   Clearly they were having a good time and not taking any of this seriously!

Grooming our images on the Internet became paramount.  And some people went nuts with this - thinking that an amazing life on the Internet was better than just living in the real world.   It didn't matter what you did or who you did it with, what was important was documenting it all for posterity (and your "Facebook friends") to make sure it all looked like you were having fun.

What is scary about all of this is not how it has played out, but where it is going.   Virtual reality and first-person-shooter video games, along with "fake news" are only the beginning of what could be a perfect storm creating an alternate reality that some people may never escape from.

Why indeed should you live an ordinary life, when you can escape into 3-D virtual reality where you can choose the avatar of your liking (why bother going to the gym?).   It is already clear that the Internet and social networking is addictive, the coming technologies may take it to the next level.

Of course, it has been tried already - "Second Life" tried to create an alternate reality with avatars and online sex (what really sells on the Internet).   It failed not because people didn't like it, but because they were trying to use a technology too advanced for the hardware of the time - people were still using AOL and dial-up modems, along with older PCs which could not render 3D graphics quickly enough.

The problem is, of course, that there really is no going back.   We are not going to revert to an "aw shucks" Mayberry RFD way of living - even if we wanted to.   But maybe, on a personal level, we can choose what level of participation we want to have in this brave new world.   Myself, I got off Facebook when I sensed that there was something fundamentally wrong and evil with it.   And I never understood twitter, which only seems to make the news when something awful happens as the result of it (no one will ever win the Nobel prize for a tweet, but on the other hand, you can lose a job, a career, a spouse, or go to jail over one).  It is possible to simply not accept some of this new tech, as they haven't made it indispensable to daily living (yet).

Maybe I should dig that answering machine out of the attic and plug it in again....

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Great Intentions, Unintended Consequences

Every regulation or law has two effects - the intended effect and the unintended effect.

Laws are tricky things.  When you make a law, or a rule, or a regulation, people have two choices.  They can obey the law or rule, or game the system to avoid the law or rule and come out ahead.   We had a production quota at the Patent Office, for example, and most of us just worked hard and tried to make our quota.  Others looked at the rules as a challenge on how to circumvent them, and instead gamed the rules.   Usually they ended up getting fired - but not always!

And sometimes, even the best of intentions can cause unintended consequences.   For example, it is temping if crime is on the rise to make penalties harsher and harsher - the idea being that criminals will understand this and then act accordingly - by not committing crimes.   And maybe that works, some of the time.

But, for example, when you place huge mandatory minimum sentences for crimes like drug dealing, you may also incentivize drug dealers to kill witnesses and police officers, rather than face these sentences.   If you are busted for dealing heroin and are facing 40 years to life, shooting a cop doesn't seem like such a big deal.  You may not get caught.   And even if you did, the sentences served for murder are often far less than some of these mandatory minimums for drug dealing.

It is the same with kidnapping and rape.  If the sentence is life in prison or capital punishment, well, there is little incentive not to kill your victim and actually from a game theory standpoint every reason to do so - you eliminate a witness and increase the odds you'll get away with the crime.  It is sick thinking, of course, but in an odd way a rational evaluation of probabilities and odds for the criminal.

The same problem crops up in regulations as well.   We want to depend less on fossil fuels and nurture renewable resources to decrease global warming.   All noble intentions and also good things for national security and the environment.   But how to do this?   

One obvious way would be to tax the shit out of oil so that it was really expensive, thus forcing people to conserve and also to make alternative energies more attractive.   Our European friends do this - the price of gasoline over there has always been 2-3 times as much as here in the States.   As a result, they drive smaller cars and adopt more conservation measures.   Wind and solar power are also more economical propositions there, without the need for as many government subsidies.

Speaking of which, government subsidies are another tactic.   Give someone a tax break for building a wind turbine or solar farm, and they will.  The only problem with this approach is that people will build turbines in areas where there isn't a lot of wind or panels where the sun doesn't shine often, as they are more concerned with the tax credits than actual profitability of the enterprise.

Another idea is to use regulations to make "green" technology more affordable.   For example, if you have solar panels on your house, you used to be able to sell the surplus electricity back to the power company for the same rate you bought it for.   So at 10 cents per kWh, you could literally make the electric meter run backwards and at the end of the month, the utility company would owe you instead of vice-versa.

Or take electric cars.   Many are sold at a loss as even with generous tax credits, people cannot afford to buy them.  Also, even with increased range, they still may not be practical for many folks, so they have to be priced attractively so they make economic sense to the buyers.    Car companies are willing to sell at a loss, as a car like the Chevy Bolt may be given an "mpg" rating of over 100 miles per gallon (even though it doesn't burn gas) which offsets the mileage of more profitable gas-hog cars.   The company meets EPA CAFE requirements and the electric cars are loss-leaders allowing them to sell pickups and SUVs with $10,000 profits - each.

This also seems like an interesting way to subsidize electric cars and solar panels.   But the subsidy is paid for by someone else.   And in this instance, the "someone else" is your fellow consumers.   The loss on the sale of the EV car is folded in to the price of other cars sold by the same manufacturer.   The cost of buying electricity at retail rates is added to the electric bill of the guy who doesn't have solar panels.  The utility company is used to a business model where they buy electricity wholesale, and then sell it for retail - with the difference paying for the operating overhead of the company.  When they buy solar power at retail prices, they in essence losing money.  And when more people start installing solar panels, they start losing more money - and that loss is passed on to other consumers, as utilities are government-regulated monopolies.

The problem with this model is that your typical buyer (or lessee) of a solar panel or an electric car is not the poor person living in an apartment.   An apartment dweller can't put solar panels on the roof of a property he doesn't own.  He can't install a charging station in the parking lot for his electric car.   Rather, the buyers for these products are often middle-class or upper-middle-class people who can afford to experiment with alternative energies.

A friend of mine did this.  It was pretty painless for him.  The solar company leased him the panels, and they came by and installed them and wired everything up and all he did was sign some papers.   So long as you own a freestanding home in an area without covenants this is not hard to do.  And his electric bill went from $300 a month to $30 a month - some months even being negative.

He is the kind of guy who also ran an experimental biofuel station in his backyard to power his Mercedes.  Used cooking oil rendered down to make diesel fuel - and no road taxes being paid on it at all!  Again, a burden shifted to other consumers.

Some folks make the argument - and it seems silly at first - that it is "unfair" that upper-class people should get breaks like this, while poor people can't take advantage of them.   It is like "student loan forgiveness" arguments.   It makes a lot of "sense" until you talk to the guy who never went to college, whose tax dollars will pay for someone who did.  And again, it is the lower classes being asked to subsidize the upper classes.

So in many States, the laws were changed so that the utility companies "buy back" power from consumers at wholesale rates.   Overnight, this killed off the solar panel leasing business, as the economic model made no sense.   What will happen to folks with existing panel installations, is anyone's guess.   Elon Musk might have a work-around on this, though.   If a giant Lithium-Ion battery is placed in the house (and those, never catch fire, of course - unless you put your Galaxy Note 7 on a 787 Dreamliner) the solar panel could charge this and you could just disconnect from the grid, if you wanted to (at least in theory).   You end up "buying" your own electricity, which is then competitive with the retail rates of the utility companies (you hope, anyway).

Such a solution is "fair" as it doesn't require other rate-payers to subsidize your solar installation.   However, it does mean that the cost of hardware would likely double, making the payback take far longer than before.  And in an era of cheap oil and even cheaper natural gas, it may be hard to sell these systems to a lot of folks - other than the experimenters and early adapters.

Similarly, it seems certain that the Trump administration will loosen EPA CAFE requirements which were slated to hit a shocking 50 mpg in a few years.   Bear in mind that is average fleet mileage, and you understand why all the car companies are scrambling to introduce EVs and Hybrids.   Just as the California EV mandate of the 1990's forced car companies such as GM to introduce electric cars (such as the EV-1), changes to these rules could result in these types of cars disappearing in short order.

Now, depending on your political affiliations and beliefs, you may view this as a good thing or a bad thing.  Some folks, have emotional reasons behind their beliefs - thinking that electric cars will always be slow and boring (Mr. Musk has demonstrated otherwise).   Max torque at zero RPM is a compelling reason that electric cars could end up as the performance vehicles of the future.  Whether we will see them in NASCAR anytime soon, however, remains to be seen.

Regardless of your political views, however, relying less on Middle-Eastern oil unarguably a positive thing for our own national security.   If we don't need oil from the Middle-East, we can go back to not caring about the people there, their politics, and their religion.   Reduced pollution and carbon dioxide emissions are another huge bonus.

The thing is, of course, is that if we decide not to pursue these technologies, our neighbors and competitors will.   With the high cost of fuel in Europe (and a reliance on GAZPROM for oil and gas) incentives for alternative fuels and electric vehicles are a lot higher.   Even if we dump this technology, others will take up the cause.

The question is, how do you encourage a technology without creating unintended consequences?   Or is indeed encouraging technologies even the duty of government? 

Before you say "no" to the latter, think about all the subsidies and incentives the government has given, over the years, to other forms of energy and transportation.   It is a pretty staggering amount, and far more than subsidies and incentives to alternative energy technologies.

And those incentives - from oil and gas leases on government lands, to an extensive interstate highway system - have produced unintended consequences of their own.


Now Versus Later

More viewer mail!

A reader writes:
My point is when you are 60, money is really meaningless apart from health insurance and basic needs- and that is why you end up saying things like friends,love etc. are important because you don't have the much energy to do anything else anyway.

Isn't it a better way to spend the money when you are young and able as you will be able to enjoy life more- e.g. a Ferrari or a vacation in your 30s can be enjoyed much more than when you are energy less in your sixties?
At first, this seems like a simplistic attitude.   But it does point out the conundrum facing everyone who works for a living and hopes to retire someday.  Do you eat this hotdog now, or put that $1.99 in your 401(k)?  What's the point in scrimping and saving all your life if you keelover dead the day after your retirement party? (a scenario that happens more often than you think!).
Why not spend it all now on a party and say "fuck you" to that old fuck who is you, 30 years from now, who always wants your money?  We all hate that guy, right?  Chiding us from the future for not saving more in the present!  What a buzz-kill he is!
Well, like with anything else, moderation is the key.   It is possible to save money now for a later retirement and still enjoy the present.  The key is to save smartly and spend smartly.

What do I mean by this?
Well, to begin with, with the advent of the 401(k) and IRA, saving is no longer an option.   Sure, you might collect Social Security - if the Trump Administration and the Republicans in Congress don't cut it back.  There is already talk of curtailing cost-of-living increases and putting a "needs test" on payments.   People who made retirement plans based on Social Security will be fucked - proper fucked.  (The GOP also recently cut military cost-of-living increases.  Yes, all the Democrats voted for it, too.   But it was a bi-partisan effort to cut back on retirement costs, which are ballooning as people retire younger and live longer).
Unless you work for one of the few companies left that offers a defined-benefit pension or a government entity that has a cushy pension plan, you have to save.   And even with a pension, well, we've seen in recent years what happens to pension plans - even government ones.
The smart way to save is to put a little aside every year, rather than try to end-load your retirement once you reach 50.   A dollar put aside in your 20's is equal to five dollars put aside in your late 50's.   I put away a lot of money fairly early in life - but still had a good time - and at this point in my life am no longer putting any money away.  I am living on it - long before standard retirement age.
Which brings us to the next point - early retirement and longevity.   In our modern economy a job is no longer a guaranteed 30-year experience, with a gold-watch at the end of the rainbow.   You will likely be laid off in your 50's, a decade before retirement, and have to flounder around for a second career (often at far less pay) or be prepared to retire on what you have set aside.
Moreover, you can expect to live an active and full life well into your 70's or even 80's.   The reader assumes that retirement is an era of decrepitude, when in fact, many retirees are in better health (thanks to Medicare) and more active than many 40-something cubicle dwellers (who are often in poor physical shape from sitting all day long).   Many "seniors" participate in sports activities (such as the Senior Olympics) and travel extensively.   You can do a lot as an oldster - more so than as a youngster.   Provided, of course, you can afford to do it at that age.
So the idea that retirement is sitting in a rocking chair is flawed.  It is more akin to rock climbing that rocking chairing.  Be prepared for it.

The second half of the equation is smart spending.   You can have a lot of fun in life without spending a lot of money.   In fact, I would suggest that spending less money is often a better experience.   And let me give you an example of what I mean.

I've owned a number of convertibles over the years.  They are fun cars and I like driving with the top down - or I did, at least, when I was in my 40's.   One of the most fun cars I had was also the cheapest - a 1981 Fiat convertible that I bought for the princely sum of $1700, quite well used.   I spent a lot of time tinkering with it and fixing it up and had a ball driving it around.   It was unique and also a bit of nostalgia for me, as my Mother had one back in the 1960's.   We took it on the Auto-Train to Florida and drove it around there.  We had a lot of fun with it.
I sold it for $6000 in order to buy a friend's 1999 M Roadster for $29,000.   It had only 7,000 miles on it and was like brand-new.  There was little I ever had to do with that car, other than change the oil and replace a back-up light switch.   We also had fun with that car, taking it to rallies around in Watkins Glen, driving the old course, and even a few parade laps around the track.   We sold it a decade and a half later for $15,000.

Now both experiences were fun, but  have to say the Fiat was funner.   Why?  Well, for starters, it didn't cost me nearly as much.  It was cheap to buy and parts were cheap.   Also, for me, half the fun was fixing it up and tinkering with it.  Old cars are like that, and the end result is something that you created to some extent.  The M Roadster was just a check I wrote - a big check.   It takes talent to bring an old car back to life.  It doesn't take any talent to borrow money and sign loan papers on a fancy car.
I had similar fun with my 1974 BMW 2002, which was a mountain of rust when I got it (for $800) and my 1985 Mercedes 300D ($1700 again, my price point!).  I fixed them up, had fun with them, and sold them for more than I paid for them (but probably less than I put into them, of course!).   They were cheap, they were fun, and half the fun was tinkering, not driving.   And in terms of driving, where we went and what we did was what was fun, not the "pride of ownership" which is a false pride.

On the other hand, I can say I had less fun with cars I merely bought.  The 1995 Taurus SHO was a classic example.   I paid for it and that's about it.  Even with extensive "modding" (which really didn't do much to make it faster, handle better or ride nicer) it just wasn't as much fun of a car as the old Mercedes.

But hobby cars are just an example of what I am talking about.  In every area of your life, odds are you can spend too little, too much, or "just right".   Fishing too far downstream is often self-defeating, as the costs of being too cheap end up being more than overpaying.

People do silly things in life, like ripping out perfectly good kitchens to replace them with slightly different kitchens - the idea being (but of course, never admitted to) to impress other people with your apparent wealth.
And that's where status rears its ugly head.  The reader mentions a Ferrari - a car that is usually well beyond the means of most middle-class people, unless you are talking about an older 308GTB or the like, which can be had fairly inexpensively, but can be a nightmare to repair (like the SHO, the Ferrari requires you remove the engine to replace the DOHC timing belts, and they need to be changed often!).

Quite frankly, I have never been a fan of the Ferrari's, Porsche's, or Lamborghini's.  I never had the Testarossa poster on my wall as as teenager (I guess that was too late for my teen years anyway) or lusted after hyper-expensive cars.   My feeling was always, that's too obvious.   I mean, if you want a car that goes fast, you can throw a pile of money on the table and wa-la, you have a fast car.   What is more interesting, as Jay Leno often states in his YouTube series (NOT the cable series!), "It is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car fast!"

It takes talent and skill to get an old BMW 2002 to go through the corners and conserve your speed as much as possible, because the M3 is going to clean your clock on the straightaway.   On the other hand, it takes no talent or skill to go to the dealer, sign a loan document, and buy a fast car and just slam on the brakes in the corners and floor it on the straightaways.

I am using cars as a metaphor, here.  You can apply this same theory to any part of your life.  We have friends with gourmet kitchens who can't make toast.   Mark makes wonderful meals with consumer-grade appliances.   And what we've learned over the years is that all that high-end shit Mark got from Williams-Sonoma (scratch and dent, employee discount) really isn't much better than lesser gear - and in fact, often lesser gear works better for the consumer, as professional grade is wholly inappropriate.

So you can "have fun" as a youth without blowing through wads of cash.   You don't need to spend a lot of money to have fun or have a rich life - which was the point of this blog.   Not only that, but having a nest egg - a life's savings - is one of the most fun things you can have.  Knowing you have real wealth and not just apparent wealth parked in your driveway is a very comforting and relaxing thing.  You can quit your job if you want to.  You can join a start-up company or start your own.  You can do things that people who are enslaved to possessions can never dream of doing.

Being in debt and being financially stressed and worrying about your future - that is no fun at all, trust me.

The final thing is this:  When you are young, you can always make more money next week, but when you are older, it becomes harder to do.   Whether this is because you are laid off or because your skills or physical abilities deteriorate, it really doesn't matter.   It is possible - in fact likely - that you will end up in a situation later in life where you have no means of earning income but at the same time have decades left to live.   This is a shitty time to discover that thanks to that Ferrari you bought when you were 30, you have no money left to spend.

And many people do this, as they don't view the "tomorrow you" as the same person as the "today you".  In fact, they view themselves as an infinite number of people, being created and extinguished moment to moment in their lives, as the live.   These are the sorts of people who have no remorse for crimes they have committed, as they don't view the person (the former them) as being the same person they are in the moment.

And who knows?  Maybe from a metaphysical standpoint this is how we live - as discrete moments in time.   But metaphysics is bullshit, I think.   And our actions do indeed have consequences for our future selves.

And maybe right there is the point.  A small child doesn't see that what he does NOW will affect him in the future.  So be does something naughty and then complains later on that it is "unfair" as the present him is being punished for something the past him did, and in his mind, these are entirely different people.

I think maturity is recognizing that the older you, the present you, and the past you are all the same person, and moreover, that the actions you take today will affect your future tomorrow.  Seems like a simple thing, I know!  But it eludes probably half the population.  Ask anyone who smokes.

You can have fun in life, without forgoing saving for the future.   If you want to spend extra on status things, like fancy cars, you will discover the satisfaction of owning such things is very, very fleeting.   I guess the difference is in talent and creativity.   I have warm feelings and memories about things I made or did, but very cold and indifferent memories about things I merely bought.

Spending a lot of money chasing happiness in the here-and-now will not only not make you happy in the hear-and-now, it will make you miserable in the future.



Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Everyone gets bullied at least one time in their lives.   What can be done about it?

Bullying is getting a lot of press these days - more so than any other time in my life.  And initially, I was very pleased to see that people were finally taking bullying seriously, as it does real damage to people's psyche over time.   But after several years of bullying intervention, I am not sure we are better off than we were before.   Bullying is still going on, and kids are killing themselves over it.  It seems that not only are we not stopping the bullying, we are validating the victimhood of the bullied.

My first experience with a bully was in the 4th grade.  There was some kid in the 5th grade who took a disliking to me - mostly, I think, to show his prowess to the other kids.   Picking on a younger, smaller, kid is sort of the hallmark of the bully - they are in reality, cowards.   So every day for a week, he said he was going to "beat me up" after school on Friday.   I couldn't understand what I did to piss this guy off, considering I didn't even know him or come in contact with him as we were in different grades.

In retrospect, I realize that the whole point of the exercise was to terrorize me and to make himself feel more powerful.  And for a week, I was very upset, fearing grievous bodily injury at the hands of this bully, who taunted me every day as I got off the bus that he was going to "beat me up."

Like most kids, I did the usual things - talked to a teacher, the principal, and my parents.   Funny thing, none of them wanted to get involved and they all acted like I ruined their day even by bringing up the topic.   My Dad gave me the old, "You have to learn to stand up to bullies!" advice, which in retrospect might have been the best option out of a lot of shitty choices.

You see, the worst thing that could have happened was to have a teacher or principal intervene in a situation like that.  It would not have stopped the bullying - only on the surface.   The bully would have simply taken his aggression underground - trying to attack me away from school property.  Or vandalizing my locker or school project - that sort of shitty stuff.  Authority figures intervening only works so long as the authority figure is present.  Once they leave, well, you are worse off than before.  Ask anyone who ever got a restraining order how that works out.

Calling the bully's parents also isn't a very good option.   Now you are asking your parents to start a fight with his parents.   And guess what?  The apple didn't fall far from the tree.  Odds are, his parents are dickheads as well - as was the case of two brothers who were in my high school (for a brief period of time before they were thrown out).   They were bullies too - they learned their behavior from their father who told them they needed to learn how to "be tough" and beat the shit out of them on a daily basis.

Anyway, Friday came, and I was nearly ready to throw up out of fear.  But it turned out to be nothing.  The bully wasn't all that tough, and after pushing me a few times (and after I pushed back) he left me alone.   In retrospect, I cannot figure out what the fuss was all about.  Hardly a "beating" at all, because he was all bluster and no action.

In books and television and the movies, the victim of the bully "fights back" and gives the bully a black eye and teaches him a lesson!   Or after soundly trouncing the bully, the victim and the bully become good friends for life.   Those are in the movies.   In reality, it often doesn't work that way, as bullies, being the cowards that they are, almost always pick someone smaller and weaker than themselves to bully, as they want an easy win.   So the idea you are going to pummel the bully and win the day is sheer fantasy in most cases.

Of course, you could up the ante by bringing a knife to school - or your Dad's gun.   You know how that works out.   You get caught and now you are the bad guy and the bully is the victim.   So off to reform school you go, or you just get suspended or expelled, if you didn't actually injure/kill the bully.   While this may sound far-fetched, it is one reason kids do bring weapons to school - they feel they are going to be attacked and want to defend themselves.

On season six of Blue Bloods, one of the young kids complains about being bullied, and his Dad (Detective Reagan) gives him the same lame-ass advice my Dad gave me.  And of course, it didn't work.   So Grandpa steps in with a hint - why not give the bully brownies laced with chocolate-flavored Ex-Lax?   Oh, what a hilarious time!  Some fun!   Oh, wait, that is actually considered poisoning someone and could land you in a shitload (pardon the pun) of hot water.  Again, you end up the victim.

Some folks try this with Visine eyedrops, thinking it is a fun prank that will make the victim shit their pants.  Sadly, it can end up causing real organ damage and even death.  Oh, and get you arrested and sent to jail.

So I am not sure what the writers of Blue Bloods were thinking - their asinine advice really isn't helpful, and the diarrhetic bully, once he changes his shorts, will really pound the crap out of you.

So what does one do about bullying?   Well, that is the problem, right there.   Insecure and cowardly people will always band together into a gang or group and then try to intimidate those who perceived as weak, different, or loners.

Intervention programs, such as being used today might work, but for some reason, it seems that every week, there is another bullying-related suicide in the headlines.   Despite heightened awareness of something that has been going on for decades, if not centuries, bullying intervention programs don't seem to be decreasing the rate of bullying in our public schools.  Part of this might be the advent of "cyber-bullying" online.

One thing I don't understand about that kind of bullying (which unlike physical violence, amounts to more of social and peer pressure, as well as mocking online and in-person) is why people let it get to them.   Just get off social media.  Close your Facebook account.  Block texts from people who are mean to you (yes, you can do this!).   Stop playing the victim and be more assertive.   It may sound trite, but you have to find the strength within rather than relying on outside opinions of your self-worth.   Because if you wait for validation from others, buddy, it will be a long time in coming!  If ever...
Killing yourself because you are being bullied is one sure way to let the bully win.   Not only will it not solve your personal problems, but the bullies will not be "punished" or feel sorry for you for what they did.  In fact, your death will empower them to bully other people.

One thing that helps is to take the long view in life.   High School is a scant four years - and occupies only a few hours of your day for only nine months of those years.  If you make it the centerpiece of your life, it is only because you choose to do so.

Sure, I was mocked and bullied in high school - bullying didn't end with the 5th grader.   But what I realized is that when I turned 18, I would be leaving high school and leaving our home town, never to come back, and moreover, I would have a good job and a good life ahead of me.   The bullies, for the most part, had bleak lives to look forward to.   Working low-wage unskilled jobs, beating their wives and children, and living in the same sort of squalor that their parents did - perhaps worse.

Leave and don't look back.   Yes, I know it is not great advice for a 9th grader who thinks that High School is the end-all and be-all of the world and that what some stupid cheerleaders post on Facebook about them is a tragedy of the first order.   You could obsess about it and play their game - which lets them win.  Or you could just get off Facebook entirely and walk away from social media, and realize that that oh-so-popular cheerleader will end up as a stripper or porn star.   It happens to all girls named Tiffany or Crystal.   Just move on with your life as much as possible and don't let the opinion of jerks influence you.   And that's all high-school kids are - jerks.

But this sort of thing is one reason I am not one of the chorus of voices who denounce home-schooling and other alternatives to the "viper-pit" (as one writer put it) of American High School.   High Schools, it seems, are less about education and more about socialization.   Quite frankly, I found my high school experience to be a waste of time - quite literally - with half the day taken up with study halls, lunch, and gym.   The lack of things to do is what leads to bullying, as the kids are bored and unoccupied.

Oddly enough, some people report being bullied at work To me this seems odd, in that if I had a job where someone was giving me a hard time, I would go out and look for another job.   Because any company that tolerated that sort of nonsense would end up going bust in short order.   Again, people with not enough work to do.  And yes, you do read about this in union factories where there is not a lot of work to do and too much time sitting around and making trouble.

And again, there is no simple solution to such a problem other than to leave.  Sure, you can "report" the harassment to your boss.  If he's smart, he'll fire you both.  If he fires only the harasser, then he's empowered you to get other people fired by complaining about them.   Yea, that may not be legal or fair, but it is how a lot of managers handle troublemakers on both sides of the equation.

Like I said, leaving is often the best and only option.   Leave high school.  Leave social media.  Leave a shitty job at a shitty company that likely will go bust anyway.   If you have skills and self-esteem developed internally (and not externally) then you can write your own ticket in life.   If you let other people define who you are, well, you'll be the victim a long time.

And I am not sure victimhood is the way to go.

Bob's Buggy

My $299 Golf Cart.   Is it worth fixing up?

I wrote before about NEV's - Neighborhood Electric Vehicles and how they really make no sense at all from a financial standpoint. On our island, you can drive an NEV or modified golf cart on the road legally.   The problem is, the NEV, with any sort of options (like doors or an upgraded motor) can easily top $20,000.   And for that much you can buy a car with air-conditioned seats, which I did.   Buying an NEV makes no economic sense at all - it is mostly a status symbol.

Golf cart (or golf car) "buggies" have taken off in popularity recently.   Golf courses usually lease these things and then turn them in after about four or five years, when the batteries are about to go dead.   New batteries for a golf car can cost $500 or more, depending on type, so it is easier to just trade the carts in and get new ones.   As a result, there are a lot of late-model secondhand carts on the market.

In the last decade, the "buggy" movement really took off.  People modify these with lift kits, custom upholstery, bigger motors and better controllers and higher voltage (36 V to 48 V) to make them go faster.   In places like The Villages you can ride your golf cart on special trails, and take it "downtown" to dinner and park it next to all the other modified golf cars and shoot the shit.  Some of these can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but a basic used "buggy" modified to seat four and go fast, runs about $4000 to $6000 from a cart dealer.

Rednecks love them.  Every Friday afternoon, campers come roaring down our road - a pickup truck towing a 35-foot 5th wheel trailer and behind that trailer is another trailer with the "buggy" on it.  They get their camper set up and then get out the buggy and ride around the island.  Whoo-wee!   You can drive it on the road here, ain't that sumptin!

Of course, I guess it is fun, being in fresh air and all.  People like to experience velocity - whether it is in a convertible, on a motorcycle or scooter, or on a golf cart or some other contraption with no doors, roof, or even windshield.   It is why riding a motorcycle with a full-face helmet is no fun, riding around town.  It is like having a bucket on your head - a bucket that could save your life, of course.

So yes, it is fun to ride around in these buggies, I guess.  And an economic case could be made that such a buggy, in a retirement community, could be cheaper than a second car, although for $5000 you could buy a serviceable second hand Corolla or something.  If you want the wind in your hair, then take the doors off it.

For me, the idea of spending five grand on a buggy was out of the question.  However, I thought that if I could find one for cheap and fix it up, it might be a fun project.   And a neighbor recently unloaded their 1994 EZ-GO Marathon for $299.   It had new batteries (more on that later) and new wheels with 18" tires.  It was in sad shape, though, with the windshield cracked, the roof missing, and covered in layers of dirt.   But the batteries alone were worth more than $299 so I bought it, figuring I could play around with it and if I was bored with it, sell it for at least what I paid for it, or had into it.

The first thing I learned about buggies is that it pays to buy a newer one.  The Marathon model was discontinued in 1994, so my example is one of the last off the line, with a solid-state controller.  It has a solid steel body, not a fiberglass body-on-frame like the newer TXT model which came out after the Marathon - and is still made today.

A neighbor bought a TXT used and stripped it down to the frame.  Rather than paint it, he simply bought a new fiberglass body for it, gel-coated to his team's favorite colors.  $499 plus shipping.   He put in the more powerful motor - about $800, and a better controller - $600, plus new 8-volt batteries to upgrade to 48 Volts ($500) plus a new onboard 48-volt charger ($200) and of course, two-tone team color upholstery ($100) and the rear flip-down jump seat/cargo space ($269 - remarkably cheap!).   Of course, you have to add a lift kit ($100-$300 depending on type) and the mag wheels and 22" tires ($800-$1200).

You can see how a "project buggy" can become a pretty expensive project in short order.   But of course, his buggy looks pretty slick and it will go 27 mph, whereas a stock golf cart tops out at about 12-17 mph which is really too slow to be driving on a roadway with speed limits of 25-25 mph.

The thing about the TXT model is since it is still in production, all the accessories and goodies are available from a number of sources and are ironically cheaper than parts for the older Marathon.   After researching the Marathon, I realize that while it is a serviceable cart, it may not be worth throwing a lot of money at.  If I want to spend $5000 modding a buggy, it would make more sense to buy an off-lease EZ-GO TXT (or late model Yamaha or Club Car) and start from there.

So I might spring for a new controller, and maybe add two more 6V batteries to bring it up to 48 Volts, which might give it more torque and go a little faster.   If I keep my eyes out for used parts and bargains, it may be possible to do other modifications cheaply.  Some parts are pretty cheap.  A new folding tinted windshield is only $70 and things like a rear-view mirror, light switch, and LED beacon (necessary to avoid being run over) are all under $10.   A "block" style lift kit is about $70 on eBay (you can spend $300 on a new axle if you prefer).

Headlights and taillights are required to be road-legal on our island, and it came with those - but used a house light switch (!!) to turn them on.  A new golf car light switch was $5, so why not?   Seat belts were also required and I lucked out in that my neighbor with the slick buggy had an extra set and mounting bracket that he let me have cheap (it did not fit his cart, apparently).  So we are street legal, if not necessarily fast.   We've driven it around the island a couple of times and to events, and yes, it is kind of fun, if not a little cold this time of year.

By the way, that is the best way to get parts if you have a hobby car or buggy - be patient.   Someone will have the part you are looking for on Craigslist or eBay and you can get it for half the retail cost, if you are wily.  Use the Google notifications feature to alert you when something comes up on Craigslist.  I set this already for "Soft Tub" as eventually we will have to replace our old one, and people often sell these cheaply online.   $300 beats $3000 any day!

I am not sure it is worth spending $1500 or more on a better controller, more powerful motor, and whatnot for this cart.  Someone on neighboring Rich People's Island has a set of larger wheels for sale, asking $350 which sounds like a lot of money, until you consider he paid $900 for the set.   Not sure why he is selling them though, and like most "Buggy" wheels, they are ugly as sin (flashy and gaudy seems to be what the buggy set likes).  It would also be more money than I spent on the cart.

Batteries are a big deal with Buggies.   Imagine if your car needed a new engine every five years.   You would not be too keen on keeping a car for long - or paying much for one.   Golf Cars seem to burn through batteries about every five years or so.   You can make them last longer.  Sometimes, if they are abused, they don't even last that long.   There are six to eight batteries, depending on configuration and they can run from $80 to $200 apiece, depending on size and type.   So when buying a buggy, you are basically buying a disposable cigarette lighter.  If it is almost out of gas, it is worth little or nothing.  A buggy "needing new batteries" isn't worth much, unless it is a later-model heavily modded one.  And even then - after five years, a modded buggy can look pretty sad - and maybe need work.

So for $299, I did OK, considering the batteries are fairly fresh.   Once the batteries are dead, though, an old Marathon isn't worth a helluva lot.   And there's the conundrum - do you throw more money at an older cart, or just sell it for whatever you can get for it and move on to a newer cart?

My gut reaction is to try out this cart, see if I can get it to go a little faster and tweak it a bit, inexpensively.  So far, I've spend maybe $150 in parts, including the new windshield.   Not sure if I want to throw $1500 at it, anytime soon.   And it isn't hard to do that, even with an older buggy.   But we might also decide that riding around in a golf cart isn't all that fun.  It also can be dangerous, as even at 25-35 mph, a collision with a car could be deadly.

The picture above was taken after we pressure washed all the dirt off it, buffed the paint with a power buffer and some compound, and fixed a lot of little things that were wrong with it - missing bolts, loose screws, that sort of thing.   We put the roof back on as well.   That kind of thing is fun, for me - tinkering.  Just buying stuff out of a catalog and bolting it on, well, that is not as much fun.   Figuring out how to do it on the cheap - well that's like a treasure hunt!

So, something to keep me busy, besides twirl-a-squirrel.