Monday, March 19, 2018

Home Improvement is Drudgery

Remodeling isn't as simple as they show it on TeeVee.

Home improvement shows have taken off since the introduction of This Old House back in the 1970s.  As I noted that earlier posting, these home improvement shows are very dangerous to the human psyche and to your soul.  They sell the idea that somehow your life would be more complete if only you had a more fashionable home.  They also sell the idea that home improvements are both fun and easy to do.  All of these ideas of course, are wrong.

In your typical home improvement or house flipper show, they always have a perky young girl named Stacy who has a ponytail.  It's not the kind of ponytail that comes out of the back of her head at a 90 degree angle but one that pops up at a jaunty angle 45 degrees from horizontal.  Stacy is always shown wearing safety glasses and using a battery powered cordless drill to screw in the final screw on a set of cabinets, usually attaching the last knob.  There, that's done!

Stacy is forever finishing projects - always putting in that last screw or last nail and making it seem that it's very easy to do these things when in fact it takes days and days of hard work.  Just installing cabinet, for example, involves more than screwing them into the wall.  Not shown on the show are the ten test-fittings and adjustments needed before you can screw them in.  Once the first one is up, of course, the rest go easier.   Its like replacement windows.  The first one took us well over an hour.  By the time we got to the last one, we had it down to almost 15 minutes.

The other thing Stacy is shown doing is smashing out walls with a sledgehammer.  Apparently women like to smash things with sledgehammers and men find it very sexy to see attractive young women smashing things with sledgehammers.

And I'm not kidding about this either.  When we remodeled our kitchen in Virginia, a wealthy friend of ours insisted that she come over and help us with the demolition.  She took great glee in smashing away the walls with a sledgehammer, particularly after I drew a picture of her ex-boyfriend on one of the walls.  Some neighbors of mine - all women - also confessed that they enjoy the demolition aspect of home improvement.  It must be some hormonal thing, but women like to smash things with sledgehammers as much as little boys do.

The sad reality is, however, that home remodeling is an awful lot of hard physical labor and drudgery.  The home improvement shows rarely show this aspect of things, other than perhaps to allude to the fact that they had a small army of illegal Mexicans do the sheet rocking for them.  People who do these things for a living get good at them, and can do them far more easily and quickly than you and I can.   They also have specialized tools.   The difference between an amateur and a professional, it is said, is often in the tools.

For example, I am sheet-rocking the ceiling in the garage.   It is difficult work, as I have to use a step-stool to reach the ceiling, and then move it every few minutes as I plaster and sand.   Professionals use stilts and just walk around.  They also can swipe on a load of "mud" and wipe it down so that it needs little, if any sanding or sponging.   In many cases, they are ready to paint as soon as the compound dries.   I can do a decent job of it - it just takes me a lot longer!

Most of this work is not very glamorous, either.  The home improvement shows always show what I call quote "the fun part" - attaching the knobs to the cabinets, or dropping in the new cooktop into the counter, or pushing the refrigerator into position.  Gee, that was easy!  They dust off the handles with the rag and declare the job done, but you never see all the other tasks that come before it.

Organizing things, and cleaning things are two of the primary aspects of Home Improvement projects.  And it seems that in my latest project I spend most of my time looking for things or moving things around in order to get work done.  In order to tear apart the laundry room, I had to move the washer, dryer, and refrigerator.  That meant moving a car out of the garage and shuffling a lot of other things around.

And let's not talk about all the trips to the lumberteria, each time with a list of parts and things we need.   I think we've been well over a dozen times now - and probably will go at least a few more.

When you're occupying a dwelling while you're rehabilitating it, it makes things much more complicated.  A friend of mine just bought a house and gutted it to the rafters, which they can do because they're not living in it.  With no contents in the house is much easier just to strip things out and work on everything all at once.

The other aspect is cleaning.  Although smashing a lot of the sledgehammer might provide a lot of emotional satisfaction, all of that smashed sheetrock has to be picked up and put into a dumpster or garbage can.  This involves a lot of lifting and carrying with sharp nails protruding from things.  It also means a lot of sweeping and dust and drudgery.

And again, they rarely show this on the home improvement shows other than to show Stacey sweeping up that last little pile of dust at the end of the program, or maybe her partner Bill unloading one piece of sheetrock from his truck.

But of course, a real home improvement show showing home improvement in real time would be boring as all get out.  There be a lot of people standing around drenched in sweat and exhausted, perhaps bickering where to put the next wall stud.  This isn't as exciting as the before and after photos of yet another house-flipper show.

What I find fascinating about these shows, however, is how so many people like to watch them - mostly people who can't even put a nail in straight.   I guess people like to watch other people fix things up, provided, of course, that they only show the "fun parts".

Who Would Win?

Who would win a battle between an AR-15 and a nuclear arsenal?

One of the more odious forms of logic given for owning a small arsenal of weapons is that governments fear a "well-armed society" and that the government would be afraid to mess with its own citizenry for fear of armed reprisal.

This logic is odious in a number of ways.  First, it presupposes that governments are by their nature, evil and "out to get" the citizenry.   This is a particularly dastardly argument given that our government is an elected one, and the "swamp" in Washington is one that we, as citizens, created.   Politicians are more afraid of public opinion polls than they are of armed resistance.

The ludicrous aspect of the argument is that somehow, a rag-tag untrained militia of a few thousand people with a few guns each, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, can out-gun and out-fight the largest professional army on the planet.   Our armed forces have a budget larger than the next eight largest countries - combined.    You are going to out-gun that with your Wal-Mart gun?   I don't think so.

Taking aside the American military, it is doubtful that such a "militia" could even take on American law enforcement.   While the actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco are the subject of much debate and criticism, no one doubts who the eventual winner was in the end.   You cannot "hole up" and "hold out" with your arsenal of puny weapons forever.

So the argument is nonsensical.   It resonates, however, with a certain type of self-appointed "patriot" who, far from being patriotic, seems to find delight in running down his native country, form of government, and society - probably instigated by Russian trolls on the odious websites he visits.

Our freedoms begin at the voting booth, not at the gun show.   And freedom at gunpoint is not freedom at all.   Because if given a chance, the type of government that these self-appointed patriots would install, would not be very democratic whatsoever.

There are legitimate reasons for owning a gun.   You may want to go hunting.  You may need it to dispatch rabid racoons, if you live in the country.  And yes, they can even be used for protection against burglars and whatnot, provided you use them carefully.   But armed insurrection against the U.S. Government?  That's not a legitimate reason to own a firearm.   And it's not a battle you'd have any chance of winning, whatsoever.

But, it probably sells a lot of firearms!

The Success Trap

When you become successful at something, it often blinds you to other opportunities.

The success trap is a term used to describe a problem which occurs to companies and organizations which become successful at what they do, to the point where they stop investigating opportunities outside of their area of success.   Many examples of companies falling into the success trap are given, Polaroid and Kodak being two examples - companies that made their fortune in film photography and were unable to appreciate how digital cameras would be a game-changer.

It is like the time I was working at Carrier, testing a split-system unit from Japan.  I was fascinated by the delicateness of the machinery, how quiet it was, and how atheistic it looked when installed.   Some "suits" from corporate came into the lab and one asked me what I thought of it.  I told him it seemed like neat technology.   A blowhard from the window unit division piped up, "Americans will never buy it!  They like window units!"

And he was right about that, in part.  Window units still sell in large volumes.  But split systems are becoming more and more popular, and the company missed a ground-floor opportunity to get into it early.   Of course, today, they sell them.

For many companies, the success trap doesn't mean going out of business, only that they fail to make as much money as competitors and return on investment shrinks.   And often shareholders and board members force this narrow-thinking, concerned only about increased profits for the next quarter, and not long-term market trends and opportunities.   Companies can flounder around like this for years - even decades - before the market changes enough that they go under.  Such was the fate of Kodak and Polaroid, for example.   And such will be the fate of other companies in the future.

You read about this all the time, too, and the signs are there.   A company sells off divisions to "focus on our core competencies" - which is a code word for "we're going to make just one thing."   Trouble will surely rise ahead.

Xerox is another example of this problem.  Calling itself "the document company" it funded advanced research at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and basically invented e-mail, the graphical user interface, and the mouse.   But the corporate powers-that-be pulled the plug - after all, they were a "document company" not a computer company, right?   But before they threw all that technology in the trash, they gave demonstrations to a young Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Sometimes, however, branching out into other technologies can still kill you off.  IBM famously designed the architecture for the PC - and then let anyone copy it.   It became a de facto industry standard for computer design, but since anyone could copy it, they did - for far less than IBM could sell them for.   The rest is history.  IBM is some sort of "enterprise solutions" company - a mere shadow of its former self.

Of course, the bus that IBM didn't see coming was the shift from hardware to software.   Back in the day, you bought a computer and then hired a programmer to program it - and that was a full-time job.  Every company had its own custom software - the idea of buying an accounting program "off the shelf" was mostly unheard of.   And I know I felt that way, when I bought my first computer - after all, I wrote computer programs for a living, why would I want to buy someone else's program?

But all that changed, of course, as programs became incredibly complex.   Writing your own programs today would be like assembling your own car at home - a costly and complex task that would only make sense if you were being paid to do it.

Sadly, the success trap is hard to avoid.   You want to make money for your shareholders, so you focus on doing things that make money, and cut research and experimental projects to the bone.   For example, when I worked at Carrier, we had an unapplied research division, staffed with PhDs, who were tasked with raw research into whatever area of technology and science they were interested in.  I am not sure it ever resulted in a new product development or cost-savings for the company, other than the cost-savings achieved when they closed the division when it was acquired by UTC.  From an investor standpoint, it was just unnecessary overhead.   And there is a point to that.

Today, we see this happening in many industries.   The US car companies are again falling into the same trap they fell into back in 2005 - making all trucks and SUVs.  Ford has promised to shed more car lines and concentrate on profitable trucks - raising truck content from 70% of their product line to 85% (presumably the other 15% would be Mustang).   This is perhaps a smart strategy in the short-term, but long-term, trends may change, particularly if the economy goes sour or the price of gas skyrockets - both things that happened in the late days of the Bush administration.  Suddenly, you find yourself with a sheaf of products that no one can afford to buy or fuel - and you go bankrupt, as GM and Chrysler both did.  Perhaps if both companies went through a real bankruptcy, things would be different today.

And there may be other companies falling into this trap, about to fall into it, or having fallen into it but not realizing it yet.  Companies that make wild profits on a single product, but are not diversifying into other areas.  Apple, for example, has all its eggs in the iPhone basket, which is wildly profitable for them.  But for how long?   Once market saturation is achieved, it becomes a game of margins - and indeed already is.   New product announcements are not being met with gushing reviews and long lines at the stores (which, by the way, I wonder if were manufactured, like so much else, using social media?).

It is an interesting phenomena, and I don't really see a way out of it for most companies.  Most companies diversify or move in new directions only when forced to do so by circumstance.   One of my semiconductor clients, for example, morphed from a VGA controller manufacturer to a smart phone mixed signal chip maker - following the market - but only when the VGA market basically collapsed due to oversupply.

In our personal lives, we can fall victim to the same problem.   We do something and become successful at it and in a way it becomes a trap.   It's all we know how to do - we are rats in a Skinner box pulling a lever for pellets, and over time, we have to pull this lever more and more for fewer and fewer pellets.   Rather than trying a new lever, we just keep jerking the old one, wondering where all the pellets went.

We see this in impoverished areas of the country, where people pine for the coal and steel jobs to come back - and vote for a megalomaniac who promises them these messy and underpaid careers (so far, delivering nothing on the coal front, and 500 jobs for the steel industry!).  Rather than pick up and move away from depressed areas, find new jobs skills and new jobs, they stubbornly refuse to move, insisting that the world be brought to them.   And sadly, politicians pander to this mentality, promising to "bring back jobs to Flint, Michigan!" or some such nonsense.

Some folks go so far as to decry ambition and innovation as some sort of conspiracy.   One fellow, in a newspaper article, thought that the lack of jobs in his impoverished rural county was a conspiracy to "move all the people to the cities, where they can be more easily controlled!"   He fails to see that the migration from rural to urban areas has been a trend that has been going on since the founding of our republic - as fewer and fewer people are needed to run a farm.

The success trap can stymie you when it comes to investments as well.   For example, I made a lot of money in real estate in the 2000's and then sold out of it and never went back.   A lot of the people I knew back then were trapped in the business.   We would attend cocktail parties in Ft. Lauderdale in that era, and everyone in the business agreed that some sort of "correction" was coming.   But as one agent told me, "This is all I know how to do!  I have to keep selling!" - even through she knew the houses she was selling, particularly toward the end, were destined for foreclosure.   The idea of changing jobs or careers was just not even considered - until the market crashed and many were forced to do so.   Others reinvented themselves as foreclosure and short-sale specialists and managed to thrive on the downside as well.

Just because something is successful doesn't mean it always will be successful.   Markets change, and "disruptors" in the market can destroy a product line's usefulness overnight.   Even if the market is stable, as more and more people get into the market, margins will get thinner and thinner, eventually eroding profitability.   A company making commodity products can only hope to make a marginal profit, over time, as others hone in on the action.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Communication Error

Our brains are designed for communication - yet we do such a shitty job of it!

Ronald Reagan was known as "The Great Communicator" because he could get his ideas across, whether you agreed with him or not.   Others are less successful, either in the public forum, or private life.  Miscommunication can result in a number of problems, and yet it seems that many people intentionally try to screw up basic communication through psychological sabotage.

I noted before that we live on retirement island where many people are elderly and many of the men, in particular, are going deaf or are hard of hearing.   When the wife says something to them, in an almost whispered tone, the husband says, "Can you repeat that?  I didn't hear you!"

To which the wife says, "Never mind!  It wasn't important!  Get a hearing aid!"   Which is kind of a hateful thing to do, as it took more energy to say that, than "Can you take the garbage out" in a slightly louder voice.

Yet this goes on, day after day - I see it all the time.  And when someone says, "Never mind!  It wasn't important!" what they are saying is, "Never mind!  You are not important!" or at least not important enough to put the effort into communication.

But you see other, very subtle ways of sabotaging communication between couples and friends, and when communication breaks down between two people, relationships break down.   And one way people break down communication is not through lack of effort, but because of too much effort.  Our brains are programmed to pick up subtle cues in communication, inflection, tone, and body language, and often we mis-read these things.

One reason we have "emoticons" (and sadly, a movie based on them) on the Internet is that written communication is lacking those subtle physical cues.   You send an e-mail that you think is wry and humorous, and it comes across as nasty and mean - without the smiley-face emoticon at the end of it.  So you piss off a friend or colleague, and when you reply that "I was just joking!" you are not making it better, but worse, as now you are accusing the recipient of being humorless.  You can't win.

And this is one reason, I gave up on being funny in e-mails - at least not subtly.  And certainly not even that with clients and other business relationships, particularly overseas.  It just isn't worth it, but better to "play it straight" and be factual and concise.

But since our brains are programmed to look for subtle non-verbal cues and to "read between the lines" even in written communications, often the recipient can screw-up even a simple basic conversation.

For example, the husband asks the wife, "Is the garage light on?" as they are going to bed, and he wants to make sure it is shut off before going to sleep.   The wife, instead of looking at this as a basic factual inquiry, kicks the brain into overdrive.  "What is he actually asking here?  Is he saying I neglected my duty to shut the light off?   Is he mad that I left it on?   I don't want him to be angry with me!"

So she responds with something emotional rather than factual.   Instead of saying, "Yes, it is on" or "No, I shut it off" or "Gee, I don't know!" she says, "Well, I'm sorry I forgot to turn it off!" or "How the fuck should I know?" or "Why don't you go see for yourself?" and an argument ensues.

Dealing with emotional people is difficult, and often you have to phrase questions carefully - with emoticons - lest the misconstrue everything you say.  So instead of "is the garage light on?" you have to predicate it with, "Gee, I can't remember if I left the garage light on.  I guess I'd better go out and check before going to bed.  You don't recall if I left it on or not?" which may or may not work, as the wife may now think that somehow she has failed in her duty to monitor the garage light and will lash out at you in response.   Like I said, you can't fucking win at these games.

A simple binary question with two legitimate answers (perhaps three):  On, Off, or I-don't-know.   Yet loaded with freight.

Worse yet are the folks who think they are clever and try to freight everything they say with double entendre and hidden meanings.  They phrase everything they say so it might have two meanings, or maybe could be taken at face value or as sarcasm.   Such people are tiresome, and I blame the sit-com on television for promoting this sort of nonsense.  On the TeeVee, everyone says clever things dripping with sarcasm.  So folks think this is how you talk in "real life" - with daily insult humor.

My late Mother loved the double entendre bullshit - thinking she was "clever" by loading up basic communication messages with a sub-band of emotional freight.   I simply chose to ignore the latter, which drives that sort of person crazy.   They made a withering comment about your personality, and all you said in response, was, "The garage light is off" without emotion or drama.   Such folks will quickly move on to their next victim, finding no satisfaction in you.

So how do you avoid this sort of unnecessary drama?   Well, it starts with avoiding dramatic, emotional people.   Folks who like to think they are clever and subtle are just annoying.  You can't ask them a straight question and a straight answer - so just walk away from relationships like that, even if it is with your own family members.  If it is at work, find a new job.

With other folks - the type who look for hidden meanings in everyday conversation - you can either get drawn in to the "walking on eggs" syndrome when you are around them, carefully phrasing each statement or question so as to make your meaning crystal clear, with no emotional subcontext.   Good luck with that.  The lack of emotional subcontext, in and of itself, will be viewed as some sort of emotional signal.   Like I said, you can't win for losing.

And losing it is.  Because once communication breaks down between two people, all else is lost - whether it is a job, a marriage, a friendship, or whatever. Miscommunication and poor communication are better than no communication at all, when you get down to it.

Mark often tries to explain to others that with me, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get and that I have no emotional subcontext to understand or hidden meanings in my speech.   This tends to frustrate a lot of people, as they ignore what I have to say, and look for a subtle, different meaning wrapped up in emotional cues.   And they can't find it, because it isn't there.   I'm just not smart enough or have enough energy to think of shit like that.

And I assume people probably look for that in these blog postings.   But WYSIWYG with me, I'm afraid.   No subtle context.  I am about as subtle as a brick.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Laundry Room Update

I haven't been posting as much as usual, because I have been busy with a "project".

In a previous posting, I mentioned how these "wet walls" can end up really wet, if you use those stupid laundry room boxes as drains.  When you end up with a wall full of wet insulation, you have no choice but to repair it, as your house is a valuable commodity, and if you want to sell it later on (which you will do, like it or not) it needs to be in serviceable condition.  You can't just let things like this fester.   It is not acceptable.

It is a funny thing, when we sold our house in Virginia to be bulldozed, we had to leave it in habitable condition.  The developer was borrowing money from the bank (of course - developers rarely use their own money!) and the bank insisted on a habitable property - one that could be re-sold or rented out, even if it was slated for demolition.

New plumbing installed.  Note the sample of the epoxy speckle-paint installed.  Eventually, the whole garage floor will be painted this way - in two coats.  The drain was snaked and jetted and new 2" pipe installed.  It drains fast now!  I also added a total of eight water-hammer shock absorbers.  Note the crazy plumbing extension for the hot water heater!  Why did they feel they needed to move it?

The moldy sheet rock and insulation removed and new Styrofoam insulation installed.  A little chlorine bleach killed off all the mold.  A messy, disgusting job removing it.   The new cabinet for the hot water heater is test-fitted.  New laundry sink.  The old one is going outside Mark's studio.

The new washer and dryer temporarily installed in the old location, as Mark needed to do laundry. Yes, I hated to buy these fancy machines, but since they use less water, it helps with the drain problem.  The cost has come down some - and top-loaders have gone up in price!  I snagged these the day Trump announced the tariffs, so I paid the old, pre-tariff price.

New mold-resistant sheetrock installed, and IKEA cabinets test-fitted.  The lower cabinet was an order mistake.  Note the industrial pebble-finish FRP on the wall behind the sink.  It looks like a real laundromat!  The dryer vent has been blocked off and a new water supply (but no drain!) for the washer installed in the wall.  Access panels are provided for all the drain cleanouts.

The FRP walls installed, with most of the cabinets (sans doors).  The hot water heater cabinet painted but not the door, yet).  New dryer vent and new dryer plug installed.  The wire for the hot water heater had a floating ground (!!!).

What's left?  Finish sheetrocking the ceiling, paint the floor, build a small wall at the end of the cabinets to house the built-in ironing board, move the appliances back in place, and assemble the new laundry cart.  And then the rest of the garage ceiling and floor need to be done.

Then we just need to add a coin-op box, and we could call it a laundromat!

Goodbye to Sam's Club!

Hard to believe that Walmart can be so successful at retailing, but suck so badly at wholesale clubs.

I noted before there is not really much to buy at Sam's Club other than golf-cart batteries.  Of the three major "wholesale clubs" out there - Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club, it comes in a distant and distinct last place.

Costco has a good store with desirable products, and they famously treat and pay their employees well.  But that comes at a cost - prices are often higher there.  A good place to get a $25 bottle of wine, but not a good place for a bargain $9 bottle of good wine.  BJ's has a good selection and much lower prices.  Maybe they don't pay employees as well, but then again, you can buy a decent Cava for $7 a bottle.

Sam's Club has neither - all the Dickensian sweatshop charm of a Walmart, but with a product selection that doesn't even approach BJ's.  We literally could not find anything to buy at the store.  The wine selection sucks (Korbel? Please!) and is overpriced.  The meat department seems to specialize in packages of food that would feed an extended family, or perhaps the fireman's picnic.   I really have no need for a package of 15 pork chops, particularly when the cost-per-pound isn't much better than at Walmart.  And Walmart is right down the street.

We still drive 40 miles - one-way - to go to BJ's wholesale.  And that just about says it all.

The nail in the coffin, however, was negative option.

I received a notice by e-mail that my membership in Sam's Club was "automatically renewing".  I also received a notice from Bank of America that a $1 hold was placed on my card by Sam's Club.   Good Old Sam's Club, testing out the card like any good credit card thief, by making that $1 purchase!

Since we only went to Sam's Club twice in a year, I decided to let the membership lapse.  The renewal e-mail told me to go to their site to disable auto-renew.   Auto-renew is pitched as a "convenience" for the customer, but it is just a convenience for the retailer.  It is negative-option and negative-option is never to be trusted.   Tellingly, BJ's does not have auto-renew as the default option, but instead prompts you to renew when you check out, if your card has expired or is about to.

By the way, is it worthwhile upgrading to "professional" membership or gold status or whatever?  We found that at BJ's, it wasn't.  The "rewards points" you get over a year's time basically covered the increased cost of the membership.   Maybe if we didn't live 40 miles away, it might be worthwhile

So I go to the Sam's Club site and log in.  I go to the auto-renewal site and it says that to cancel auto-renewal, I can do this online, or by visiting the Sam's Club, or by calling a 1-800 number.  I search the site again and again, and there is no link to cancelling my membership.

So I call the 1-800 number.  DTMF telephone tree (with useless selections - I think all the options basically go to the same operator - they just use the "Press 1 for..." to discourage people and get them to hang up).   I talk to the operator, who says, "How are YOU today?" and goes into a lot of pleasantries and very, very slow talking, as well as repeating everything I say.   She even wishes me a happy birthday, even though my birthday is weeks away.  I finally get across the idea to her that I want to cancel my membership.

"Let me transfer you to a cancellation specialist!" she chirps.

Cue:  Screeching violins from horror movie.

In case you were late for class, the "cancellation specialist" is really a retention specialist who is tasked with keeping people onboard as members.   "What will it take to keep you as a customer of our company?" they say.  Or they blather on about the "great deals" you will be missing out on.   They would rather I go to the store, of course, and see the great deal on a blow-away bouncy castle in person.

Now, granted, once in a while you can score a deal from these folks.  When  Capital One told me that the interest rate on my VISA card was going up, the "cancellation specialist" offered to put me into a Mastercard instead - at 7.17% variable rate.  I keep it as an emergency card, and because their overseas conversion rates are good, and don't include junk fees.

However, there isn't much that Sam's Club could offer me, other than free membership, that would keep me on.   And since wholesale clubs make a big chunk of their change on memberships, it is doubtful that was going to happen.  The fact that they set up my account to default "auto-renew" has pissed me off already.  Negative option is a shitty way to do business with people.

And again, if you were late for class, let me explain.   With "negative option" a retailer keeps charging your credit card indefinitely until you tell them to stop.  And the gag that some retailers play is to claim they never received your cancellation order, so they keep charging your card again and again.   When confronted with this tomfoolery, they claim "computer error!" which is bogus in this computer-driven era.  Punch cards no longer fall out of the sorter.  They've fixed that.

So whenever someone offers "auto-renew" I get nervous.   Because the Internet is rife with horror stories about how you can't cancel AOL service or how Angie's List (back when they charged for the service) kept charging their card, even after the service was cancelled.   Usually it is the last desperate gasp of failing companies to do this, but they do it.  AOL did it for decades - my late Mother-In-Law still had an AOL account, thinking she needed it to go online (when she called to cancel, the nice "cancellation specialist" insinuated that, no doubt!).   The only way to cancel such services is to cancel your credit card, which is a pain in the ass.

So I save "negative option" for serious things like my utility bill.  Because when the new owner takes over, the bill is then sent to them - after the meter has been read on the changeover date.  The utility company has no interest in charging me for service when someone else is paying.   And if they tried such shenanigans, the outrage would be heard across the planet.   But funny thing, when other people do this, for small amounts of money, no one says a peep.

What the "negative option" people are counting on is your laziness.  "Oh, well, it's only $45, I can afford that!"   Or they count on you being one of these people who never reads their credit card statement, other than to see what the minimum payment is, and to make it.

By the way, I should do a posting on this - credit card statements are scandalous.  They hype the minimum monthly payment in large font, but put the list of actual purchases further down the page - if not on a second or third page.  The interest you paid is at the very bottom, and your interest rate is often in fine print on the back of the Statement.  The most important data is hidden, and the least important is highlighted.  It is like lease agreements, that hype the monthly payment, but hide how much you are paying for the car.  There is a lesson in this, somewhere!

I check my credit card balance daily, log all purchases in Quickbooks on my old laptop, and then reconcile the two accounts daily or at least every other day (the longer you wait, the harder it gets - if you wait until the end of the month, nearly impossible!).   I know to the penny what I am spending, and make payments every few days to keep the balance as low as possible.   No, I don't play the "float" - that is one sure way to get fucked by a credit card.    "Free" interest on a few grand of purchases for 30 days isn't worth the risk of being socked by 14% interest or more.

The further I got into Sam's Club's telephone tree, however, the more I was convinced that I made the right decision by cancelling my membership.   Like a casino, they make it easy to get in, and hard to get out.   Sort of like a squirrel trap.

But hey, I get it.  The marketing people can show you graphs and charts that prove that if you don't use negative option, a substantial number of your customers simply won't renew the membership.  When presented as a positive choice that requires action on your part, most people, being lazy, will simply fail to renew.

And they'd rather count on your laziness as an excuse to fail to cancel.  But it is funny, BJ's wholesale seems to stay in business despite not using negative option.  They count on you returning to the store and renewing your membership there, because you want to shop there, rather than relying on auto-renew trickery.  Maybe they don't pay their employees as well as Costco, but they know how to treat their customers right.

Sadly, I am seeing less and less worth buying even at Walmart these days.  It seems our favorite cheap store brands are disappearing from the shelves or are routinely out-of-stock.  An "associate" helpfully offers a brand-name substitute at nearly twice the price.  Funny how that works, eh?  Now that they have established market dominance and are the de facto only retail outlet in some areas for miles around, they can charge whatever the market will bear.

That is, until someone else comes along and sells for a penny less.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Return To IKEA

Not much has changed at IKEA in over 20 years other than the switch from metric to English sizes.

We went back to IKEA - myself kicking and screaming the whole way.  Since the plumbing exploded in the laundry room, we decided to re-do the entire thing - from floor to ceiling - and start over with a new laundry room.   Yea, I know, the "look at me!" laundry room.  I hate it.  Then again, rust-stained concrete floors, ceilings with peeling paint, leaking plumbing, black mold, and mildew are not "quaint" at all.  It had to be done.  A house is a machine for living - one that has to be maintained and repaired regularly.

We wanted some cabinets in the laundry room to store things.   Storage is a trap, of course.  People put up shelves and cabinets in their garage or basement and they quickly fill up with crap.   Any level surface in your house becomes a junk accumulator in short order.   It is tricky business and you have to police your own space continually.   Just because you have storage space for stuff, doesn't mean you have to chink it full with junk.

And yet we all do.  The number one complaint about many homes for sale is lack of closets and storage space.  Women want a $20,000 "walk-in" closet to hold a few dozen pairs of $50 shoes and some clothes they haven't worn in years.   Dad wants the diamond-tread cabinets in his garage to store broken car parts.  Again, we all do it, and it is a hard habit to break.

So even putting in storage cabinets makes me anxious - they will fill up with crap that is never used, and eventually we will add more storage cabinets, "because we're running out of space!" much as people put screen porches on their former screen porches which were converted to sun rooms, and eventually, living rooms.  This shit never ends.

Anyway, we had a lame-ass cabinet from Lowe's in the garage, and it was OK, I guess.  It held pots and pans that Mark rarely (perhaps never) uses.   We looked at Lowe's to buy more and they were (a) very expensive, (b) limited in sizes, and (c) not in stock.   There was also (d) half the packages in stock were opened, had been returned, and were missing parts.

So, cheap cabinets - where do you go for that?   IKEA is one answer, although I suspect we could have had custom-made cabinets for maybe twice as much money.  So we drive to Florida to look at them.

It's all still there - the racetrack, the 20-somethings buying $20 crap to clutter up their apartments with (IKEA's biggest profit center, I suspect is tchotchke), the Swedish meatballs - the whole lot.  It is annoying as shit.

First of all, it is LOUD AS FUCK in IKEA.   It has all the charm of waiting in line at TSA at the airport - and the stress.  The acoustics are horrible.  They play music a full volume, but since it echoes so much, you cannot make out what song is even playing.   And since it is loud and echo-y, everyone finds themselves shouting over time.   No, seriously, you've never heard people talk SO LOUDLY in your life.  It is not a pleasant shopping experience!

We had gone online and created a "shopping list" of about $800 worth of cabinets.  We brought this to the kitchen department, after getting lost on the "racetrack" a few times.   The nice lady there had to type the whole damn thing in again (Hello IT department?  Anyone home?) and her resultant list was different than ours, as ours listed the cabinets we wanted, while her's listed each component needed for each cabinet.  Making sure we got everything we needed was tricky.   Oh, and two items were out of stock.

Again, Hello IT department, anyone home?  Because IKEA's IT sucks.   If you want to order a countertop you have to go to the store and ask if they have it.   And they don't.   And they don't have many of them in stock, other than the plain kind.   The cabinets we wanted that they didn't have were on backorder, and we couldn't order them to pick up, only for directly delivery to our home.   A $35 delivery charge for $80 worth of cabinets.   That makes sense to me!

The website, by the way is confusing.  Finding the cabinet you want is difficult, and when you do find it, you have to use pull-down menus to select size, color, and style.   Easy, right?   Well, it took me a better part of a half-hour to figure out that the arrow for the pull down menu was ABOVE the part of the page (unmarked, of course) where you need to click.  I only found the correct "sweet spot" by accident, after randomly clicking on the page.  Again, Hello IT department, anyone home?

Oh, and their "3-D Kitchen Designer" simply does not work, and even when it does, according to some sources, it just crashes all the time and loses your data.   How about a 2-D kitchen designer that actually works?   Let people layout the kitchen and then render it in 3-D, which would use a lot less bandwidth and processor time.  Oh, well.

So we finally get our order in for (most of) our cabinets, and countertops that look like they belong in a Dentist's office - that's all they had in stock.   And we then have to get in line for checkout.  IKEA checkout is like Home Depot.  They have "associates" galore in the store, but when you get to the front, there is one huge long line and maybe two checkout clerks.  They have piles of "impulse purchase" crap stacked up by the checkout lanes, and these are piled even higher with $20 crap that someone thought they might purchase, but then thought better of it, when they had to wait in line to check out for 30 minutes.  Lost toys.

Fortunately, once we get to the head of the line, they simply scan the kitchen parts list and the checkout is almost instantaneous.   It is interesting to see what others are buying though.   It seems less and less of furniture and "big" pieces than little tchotchke junky things that people are buying.  Like I said, I wonder if this is their big money-maker - little junky things made in China with high mark-ups.   Hechinger's syndrome strikes again!

Once through that line, we go to another line where they "pull" the order.  I ask the lady how long this will take, and she says, "about a minute per item, I'd expect".   Now with each part of each cabinet being an "item" (including the hinges) I can see this will take anywhere from 30-60 minutes.  So we go off to the cafeteria for the famous Swedish meatballs.

In this store, the cafeteria is nearly impossible to find.  It is at the end of the "racetrack" and I feel like Dorthy finally arriving at the Emerald City.   It is still loud as fuck inside, of course, and it is not clear where you are supposed to go to get food.   Worse yet, they have the menu on big-screen televisions, which change pages every five seconds - far faster than you can read them.   Hello IT department?

Worse yet, there are at least five items on the menu called "Swedish Meatballs" including a side of meatballs by themselves, chicken meatballs, and some other platters with meatballs and vegetables.  I cannot tell one from the other as they are all the same price and have the same name.  So I ask for "Swedish meatballs" and hope I got the one in the fleeting picture that flashed by on the screen above.

By this time, I have a splitting migraine headache.  Like I said, it is like being in an airport in the TSA line.  You can smell the fear and anxiety of the people around you.  Everyone is nervous and on edge, and I assume this is by design.   A legion of marketers and psychologists have designed this place to make you anxious.   Relaxed people, I guess, don't spend as much as anxious ones.  I feel like I am being manipulated, and I don't like being manipulated.  I don't like loud noises, shitty acoustics, people shouting, or myself shouting to be heard.

I guess you could call it "IKEA Shout" much as we have "Smart Phone Holler".   Smart phones don't have any sidetone - that tiny bit of feedback that lets you hear your own voice speaking.  As a result, they feel "dead" and when you talk on them, you get no feedback, so you tend to talk louder.  And that is the technical reason people holler and shout on their phones - to the annoyance of everyone else.

IKEA is the same way - the store is acoustically "dead" like many other big-box stores and chain restaurants these days.   The lack of ceiling and the use of concrete block walls and overhead trusses means that you can't hear your own voice, but instead hear a cacophony of other voices, announcements, and the echo-y music.   You end up raising your voice more and more, as you can't even hear yourself speaking.   It is an unpleasant experience, and one I can only assume is by design - everything about IKEA is by clever design.

And I think this anxiety-inducing environment instills a sense of urgency into people, and a sense of urgency gets people to buy.   "Buy now or be priced out of the market!"  "I have another prospect coming by this afternoon to look at this car!"  "They didn't make many in this color - I'm not sure when we'll get another in - if ever!"   A sense of urgency often pushes people to purchase.   And in the case of IKEA, it is "OK, I'll buy it!  Just let me the fuck out of this godforsaken place already!" which is another strategy car dealers use - by keeping you in the store for hours at a time, until you hand over your checkbook, a whimpering mass of what was once a human, cowering in the corner.

And I'm not joking about this.  It has been demonstrated that when people "invest" a certain amount of time into buying something, they are less likely to walk away, as they feel they would have "wasted" their "investment" of time and energy.   Why do you think they have the racetrack?   The racetrack not only forces you to look at every goddamn thing they sell, it also forces you to waste time wandering around the store.   And the more time you waste there, the more likely you are to buy and the less likely to say "fuck this noise!" and walk out.

The only exception, it seems, are the pile of small items by the checkout, left behind by frustrated shoppers who decided that waiting 30-minutes to check out a small armature figure wasn't worth it.  You see how it works, though - they didn't invest the time, so they felt they could walk away.  If they had spend an hour there looking at junk, putting a half-dozen items in a shopping cart or bag, stopping for lunch on Swedish meatballs, they would feel invested and waiting a half-hour to check out what amounts to apartment clutter, seems worthwhile.

What I found funny about all of this, was when I got home, there was an article on my phone about "How they've fixed the most annoying thing about IKEA!"   I thought, "Gee, they are getting rid of the racetrack?" (there is talk of this, for some stores).   Or maybe, "They put the entire IT department up against a wall and shot them?" (which should be done at any company in periodic Stalinist purges).   Or maybe they fixed the acoustics, or stopped with the cutsey Swedish-sounding names, or fixed he stroboscopic menus in the cafeteria - or came up with more than one entree name for five separate menu items.  

No, no, they hired Taskrabbit to help clueless Millenials put together their particle-board furniture.  Because, you know, putting things together by following very explicit instructions is hard (cue flipping blond hair over head).  Frankly, this is the least "annoying" feature of IKEA, and by the way, everyone uses this knock-down technique of shipping furniture these days.   If you can't figure out how to put together an IKEA bookcase, there is something fundamentally wrong with you.  Unpack the damn thing, lay out the cardboard on the floor as a work surface, carefully count all the pieces to make sure you have them all, and then slowly follow the instructions step-by-step, paying attention to the details they put in the instructions which are put there for a purpose.

Dumping out the contents of the carton and randomly assembling pieces like a jigsaw puzzle - yea, that's "hard", but only because you're making it harder on yourself.

While waiting for our order to be "picked" I noticed a poster - a billboard, actually - with a picture of a Swedish-looking Eurotrash dude on some sort of funky cargo bicycle, carrying a load of flat-pack IKEA crap, topped with some sort of tchotchke fake flower.  He was wearing a ski hat, in the summer.  How cute.  The tag line was, "Thanks, Everyone, for using flat-pack!  Saving the environment and the planet by reducing shipping costs!"

I thought this was ironic, as IKEA is no doubt one of the world's largest consumers of corrugated cardboard, both in their packing materials and in their products (yes, they do make coffee tables out of cardboard - I've bought one myself, long ago!).   And the flat-pack thing isn't something they did to "save the planet" but to save money and make money for themselves, by undercutting the prices of traditional furniture makers.

It is sort of like ExxonMobil congratulating us for driving 12-mpg SUVs.  And I guess that comes right down to what is really the most annoying thing about IKEA - and it isn't the barrel-nuts and little allen-wrench fasteners.   It is this idea that somehow IKEA is more hip, trendy, environmentally conscious, and "better" than other stores and products, when in fact, it is just a store like any other, albeit laid out in a manner that makes people want to scream.

It is funny, we have abandoned department stores in favor of these big-box monstrosities.  You went to a department store, and finding each department wasn't hard to do - there was no "racetrack" that forced you to visit ladies lingerie (LINGERIE - that sounds like an IKEA name for a desk!) before you got to sporting goods.  No, no, they have signs and escalators.

And they also have carpet and acoustical ceiling tile, so each department has its own hushed ambiance.   And when you buy something, the salesperson you are talking to, can "ring you up" in his department - you are not forced to schlep an armload of goods across a football field to find the checkout (after zig-zagging through the "racetrack" yet again).  And if you bought furniture, it was delivered to your door and they carried it inside for you, unpacked it, and assembled it, if necessary.

Oh, and the department store had a restaurant - with a clear menu written on paper, brought to you by a waiter or waitress.   And no Swedish meatballs!

We gave that all up for some reason.   Too expensive, I guess.  Our generation thought we would save money by "doing it ourselves" and buy things in pieces and throw our backs out carrying furniture up three flights of stairs.

And now, one by one, the department stores are dying.   This year will see even more closures of individual stores and bankruptcies of whole chains.   And of course, this isn't about to change.  Nor do I suggest it change.   Fighting change is a loser's game.

As for IKEA, they will continue to do well - they have figured out what makes us tick, and can manipulate us in to doing their work for them.   Pretty soon, when you go to IKEA and check out, they will just give you a pile of sawdust and some glue, a set of pictogram instructions, and you can make your own particleboard furniture at home.   Tools you will need include a 10-ton press and a fresh-air breathing apparatus.

Some assembly required.

I hate fucking IKEA.

UPDATE:  I have started assembling the cabinets.  I got one all together and then figured out she sold me the wrong size!  It is a 15" deep base cabinet, not a 30" one!   So.... back to IKEA!   Oh, shit.  More Swedish meatballs.   Funny, Mark was sick all day today.

UPDATE:  I ordered the two missing cabinet frames and base cabinet frame online.   Funny thing, though, when I ordered just the cabinet, the shipping was $36.  When I added the two missing upper cabinets, shipping went down to $9.   The site says "shipping starting at $29!"   The online ordering system seems to work well.   Finding the correct parts, though (a cabinet FRAME as opposed to the complete cabinet) is hard.   And it makes a difference.  The frame for the upper cabinet was $44.   A complete cabinet is $120.   For some reason, the lady at IKEA sold us the doors and hinges and shelves for the missing upper cabinets, but the frames were out of stock.  Why not just sell us complete cabinets instead?

Again, the dichotomy between the online ordering system (which orders cabinets as a set) and the in-store system (which orders components).

Monday, March 12, 2018

Mourning Becomes Electra

Why do we mourn?  What purpose does it serve?

There is no operating manual for the human brain.   So in understanding human behavior - including your own - you don't have a lot to go on, other than to read what other people have managed to divine or what other folks think is normal behavior.  About half of that, of course, is mumbo-jumbo and the other half hogwash.   As I noted before, the human brain trying to decipher the human brain would be like a toaster telling you how it works.   Any device is incapable, by definition, of storing enough data to define itself.   The human brain will never completely understand the human brain.  That would be like divide-by-zero.

But this does not mean we should not try, of course.  And I think, in my uneducated opinion, that one way of looking at human behavior is not to think of it in terms of "normal" or "abnormal" behaviors, but rather treat all human behavior - laudable or despicable - as aspects of normal human behavior in a quantum manner.  We judge some to be better than others.  Some abhorrent, some commendable, depending upon societal values or even circumstance.

The desire to kill, for example, is seen as criminal.  Unless of course, it is during wartime, in which case you get a medal and are deemed a hero.  Same urge, same society - different circumstances, different outcome.

There are also behaviors which seem at first to have little use to us personally, but have some evolutionary function to alter our behavior to insure our personal survival or survival of the overall species (the latter being far more relevant).   And some of these behaviors may have a constructive social or personal use, but when taken to extremes, can be damaging.

Mourning seems to be one of these.  Why do we mourn?  Why would we be sad?  At first blush, from a logical perspective, it would seem these emotional responses serve no function at all.  And to an emotional thinker, to even analyze this is deemed unsavory.  Emotions are beautiful things that should not be analyzed logically!  But of course, emotional thinkers love damning and shaming, as it is part of their bit - as opposed to thinking, of course.

But everything has a function or a reason for existence - even tits on a bull.  The reason for some things may not be readily apparent, but there is a reason they are there.   We may never see the reasons for some of these things, in our lifetime, to be sure.   Mourning seems to be one of these things that serves no purpose, other than to make us feel awful.

That is not the case, however.   We mourn loss as a means of remembering loss, which serves as a programming function for the neural network of our brains.   And we mourn a lot of things - and people - in our lives.

I noted in an earlier posting that regret is not a viable investment strategy.   Many people make investment mistakes in life, or suffer setbacks, and spend the rest of their lives regretting their mistakes.  And you've met people like this, too.  They had a business that went bust, and instead of moving on with life, they become bitter and angry, and after a few drinks, blather on about how they used to be a player, before misfortune overtook them - which they often perceive as someone else's fault.

Successful businesspeople, on the other hand, dust themselves off, and get right back into the fray, learning from their mistakes the first time around and moving on to take future opportunities as they occur.  When you read the biographies of famous and successful people, their lives are often marked by one setback or tragedy after another.  But they never gave up.  As Alexander Graham Bell put it, they didn't spend their time woefully looking at the door that closed on them, but instead looked upon the new door that opened.

For Bell, the door that closed was the "harmonic telegraph" - the idea of taking multiple telegraph signals and putting them on one set of wires using harmonic frequencies.   Today, it is something we take for granted, and indeed, the forefather of "spread spectrum" that underlies all communications today, such as DSL, cable modem, and so forth.   But in an era before oscilloscopes were even invented, Bell could not make the idea work.   That door was closed to him.

But the idea of sending variable frequency signals over a pair of copper wires - as opposed to the digital on/off signals of the telegraph - lead to the open door of the telephone.  And arguably this was a much more important invention than the harmonic telegraph would ever be, years later.

Mourning is important to do - and work through - but it should not consume your life.   In every deathbed scene, the dying spouse always says, "When I die, honey, I want you to go on with life!  Find someone new and live your life to the fullest!  I don't want you to mourn me for the rest of your life!"   And that is a notable sentiment.  My Mother said that to my Dad as she lay dying in her dramatic deathbed scene - a scene that sadly, one only gets to play out once.

Well, maybe not.  We did have a sweet old lady here on the island who managed to play it out five times or so - calling for her last rites on more than one occasion.   "Death scene, take two!  Action!"   She finally got it right the fifth time, however.   God Bless!

But getting back to mourning.   You never hear a spouse on their death bed say, "Honey, I want you to mourn me for the rest of your days, be depressed all the time, and wear black!  Anything less would say you never loved me!"

And indeed, that seemed to be an attitude in an earlier Century, when wives would often don black and become dowager widows-in-mourning for the rest of their lives.  Of course, lives were shorter back then, so "the rest of your life" and "a respectful period of mourning" were probably the same in length.

Mourning serves a useful function for our brains.   It helps us accept loss and move on - and often learn from the experience.   It becomes damaging only when - like any other natural human emotion or behavior - it becomes an obsession.   When the brain gets "stuck" in mourning mode, it creates a stasis situation from which a person cannot move on.

And we mourn many things, other than people.  As I noted above, people mourn the loss of businesses, or jobs, or money, or friends, or loved ones.  And when this mourning becomes an obsession and we spend all of our time looking back, missing the past - or worse yet, trying to re-live it or wondering how we could have done it all over better - we miss out on the opportunities of the present.

In the Alex Bell quote, he noted that when one door closes, often another is opened.   However, he doesn't say the new door will be as large as the old one.   Often, when we lose something or someone in life, our remaining opportunities may be more limited.  However, that is not to say you have no opportunities left whatsoever.   Maybe you lost that lucrative business.  That sucks.   And maybe your new opportunity will never be as big as your old one.  But it is better than nothing - and nothing is what you will get if you spend all your energy mourning things that are lost, rather than see what still remains.

Because sometimes, what still remains is pretty damn good.

Deduct Hobby Expenses? Not Really....

You really can't deduct hobby expenses, except up to the level of income, which means, really, you have no deduction.

A recent click-bait article from the click-bait site GoBankingRates, says you can deduct hobby expenses on your taxes!  Whoo-Whee!  I can buy a Porche as a "hobby" and deduct it from my income!

Not exactly.

The deal is, like any enterprise where you make money, you can deduct expenses.   And in the case of hobbies, only up to the level of income.   You can't create a "loss" from a hobby.  In fact, if you declare a loss in any business for more than a number of years, you may end up being audited by the IRS, as they may view your business as a "hobby business" as my late Mother found out when she declared five years of losses from her bookstore.   Hint:  Declare a small profit every few years, even if you don't have one - it is easier than being audited!

The click-bait article provides this unhelpful advice:
If your hobby ends up producing income, you can then deduct your expenses up to that amount.  So, if you enjoy woodworking and spend $2,000 on materials and equipment over the course of the year, but sell a handmade table for $1,000, you can deduct up to $1,000 of your expenses.
Gee!  I get a $1000 deduction!  This saves me money on my taxes!  Uh, not really.  Since you are reporting $1000 in income as well, the net effect is zero.  And for most hobbyists, you are not going to report that income anyway, as it will not rise to the level of reportable income.

For example, Mark makes pottery.   And this year, he sold nearly $2000 worth of pots.   Now that may sound like a lot of money, but bear in mind that a new kiln cost $2200, the clay costs $30 a lug, and then there are the glazes, the tools, the kick wheel, the electric wheel, and the pottery studio, which cost over $22,000He isn't making a profit here.

In previous years, he made even less - maybe $500 a year or so, well below the reporting requirements of the IRS.  No 1099 forms were issued.  And there is no obligation to report this "income" as the net income was in fact negative - in other words, a loss.  It is a hobby, not a line of work, and hobbies are not businesses.

Could he make a profit at this?  Perhaps.  Some do.  But in order to do so, you have to spend eight hours a day cranking out pots, firing them, and glazing them, and then go sell them at craft and art shows, at galleries, and so forth.   In other words, it becomes a job - and not a very high-paying one at that, unless you become an artiste and can command thousands of dollars for your work.   It is like your nephew who wants to become a rap star.  Sure he may get a few local gigs - but he isn't about to quit his day job just yet.   A few become famous (and then get shot).  The rest are just schmucks like you and me.

So if you have $500 in income and $700 in expenses for that year, you have no income and that doesn't even need to be reported to the IRS.   On the other hand, you can't deduct a $200 loss for a hobby.   Well, you can try, but odds are, you are setting yourself up for audit bait.

Now this year, Mark sold nearly $2000 in pots.  And if the gallery issues a form 1099-MISC, that amount is reported to the IRS.  And in that instance, he should deduct his expenses - which will far exceed his income, of course - so that he doesn't owe tax on any of it.  He doesn't get any advantage out of the deal, either.  It does not lower his taxes on his other income.   Yes you should make that deduction.   No, you are not coming out ahead by doing so, only accounting for your expenses to the IRS to show that you didn't make a profit on your hobby.

The click-bait article doesn't really make this clear, and it gives the impression to people that they can deduct hobby expenses and somehow "get ahead" when in fact all they are doing is red-flagging their return.   If you have $1000 in unreported income, you can go ahead and deduct $1000 in expenses, but you'd better report that income as well.   And when you do so, it washes out to zero income - so what't the point of even declaring it, unless it was reported on a 1099 form?   

But then again, that doesn't make for a compelling click-bait slide-show, right around tax time.   The problem with our tax system is that it creates a lot of FOMO anxiety and fear.   People fear "missing out" on some "hidden loophole" they could have taken advantage of.   People also fear being audited and going to jail.   The whole impetus behind this flat-tax, tax reform, and "tax returns on a post card" thing is based on these fears.  And fear is not an emotion to be trusted.

But the reality is, for most average citizens, these fears are unfounded.   Unless you make a shitload of money or have very, very complicated finances, odds are there are no "hidden loopholes" you are missing out on, and the odds of you going to jail for tax evasion are slim, unless you are as dumb as Wesley Snipes.

Why Death Penalty for Drug Dealers is Moronic

If you make the penalty for dealing drugs, death, it incentivizes drug dealers to kill people, including cops.

One of the more asinine things to come out of Donald Trump's mouth was this blustery blowhard idea of imposing the death penalty for drug dealers.   It sounds like something that Rodrigo Duterte would say.   In this case, it is just Trump trying to sound macho and tough, because we all know he is a real pussy-boy who likes to be pissed on by Russian hookers.   Duterte, on the other hand, means it - and often carries out the sentence in person.

Does killing drug dealers make sense?  As I noted in an earlier posting, criminals often make complex economic calculations when committing crimes.   And when it comes to killing people, often this is seen as an economic proposition.  If you are facing the death penalty if you get caught - or long jail terms - it makes "sense" to murder the "snitch" who is going to testify against you, or the cop who has pulled you over with a load of drugs in your trunk.   If you get away with the murder, you end up not being prosecuted for the underlying crime.

And if you've watched enough Martin Scorsese movies, you know this is true.   Jimmy "the snitch" Ratzenburger, who was going to testify against the crime boss, is found shot dead in an alley with a rat stuffed in his mouth - a message to others who might think about snitching in the future.  Economically, it makes sense in two ways - committing this murder may prevent you from being prosecuted for other murders.  And by sending a "message" to other members of the crime family - and the general public - you also yield an intimidation factor, which consolidates your power even further.  Good 'ol Jimmy - he served his purpose!

It seems like a natural reaction by politicians, though.   Crime gets out of hand, so you increase penalties for crimes until they become ridiculous.  Surely long prison sentences will deter drug dealing, right?   Well, it put a lot of people in jail for the better part of their lives, but it hasn't really deterred drug dealers.   And today, the biggest drug dealers in the county are "Big Pharma" and their prescription opioids.  Is Trump going to execute the very executives who contributed to his campaign, or the "Dr. Feelgoods" in every town who run their "sports medicine" and "back pain" franchises?  Of course not, those are legitimate businesses and donchuforgetit!

But I digress.

The idea of extreme punishments for crime is an old one, dating back to the dawn of our civilization.  Christianity was founded on one such execution.  Romans bought into  the idea that gruesome methods of execution for petty crimes would somehow deter crime.  Nothing tamps down rebellion like a good crucifixion!   Or maybe 6,000 of them.  Or maybe a beheading or amputation as in Islam.  Or maybe a drawing and quartering in Merrie Olde England.  It didn't work back then, it doesn't work today.   Crime still took place.  The difference is, today, criminals have guns and can fight back.

And that is why Trump's idea is so lame - it will put policemen's lives at risk.   You pull over a car on I-95 on a dark night.   It could be some sleepy Canadian just speeding his way back to Ottawa.   Or it could be a "drug mule" with a load of cocaine, heading from Miami to New York.   If the latter, you are in a world of trouble.   Because if the penalty for being a "drug dealer" is the same penalty as shooting a cop, the mule has no incentive to not shoot you.   He might get away with it, and avoid all punishment.   Whereas if he lets you search his trunk, he ends up on a gurney getting a lethal injection.

It is a basic four-box decision matrix.  And the optimal outcome is to shoot the cop:

Get Caught
Get Away
Shoot Cop
Not Possible - Death

Your best bet, from game theory, is to shoot the cop and hope to get away.  Otherwise, death is certain.  And the same is true with witnesses against you.  If you shoot them and get away with it, you avoid the death penalty.   All other outcomes result in death.

Now note, that the same is true for removing the death penalty for capital murder.   If a drug dealer is facing a 20-year sentence for dealing drugs, and the average penalty for shooting a cop in the face is 15 years, you have incentivized him into shooting the cop in the face.   And this is why drug dealing has become more violent in recent years, with the "war on drugs" and mandatory minimum sentencing.

Granted, it is true that drugs cause a lot of grief in people's lives.   So does the IRS, but then again, we don't talk about abolishing that - well, rational people don't.   There are other ways to fix things.  And of course, one way to avoid problems with the IRS is to stop trying to cheat on your taxes.

Similarly, one way to avoid trouble with drugs is to not do them.   And I think this idea that people are sheep that are induced to do drugs by your friendly neighborhood drug dealer (as in the anti-drug ads from the 1970's shown at the top of the page).  Drug dealers don't show up on the playground offering "aeroplane glue" to children.  They are often your friends and acquaintances from high school and college - or at least that was the way it was back then.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's that did change.  Suburban white teens would drive into the ghetto looking for drugs - assuming that all black people were basically dealers.  And in no time, certain neighborhoods became notorious as drug dealing hangouts.  Drug dealing became a big business - like Wal-Mart, complete with its underpaid minimum-wage employees.

But getting back to the users, how did those suburban teens end up on drugs in the first place?

They chose to do it.   And that right there is the key.

When I was 13, my sister decided to get me and my brother "high" in order to mellow us out.  Marijuana is like that - people take it and think it is a religion, and they have to "spread the word" to others - including their classmates, younger people, their children, even their pets.  But it is a conscious decision for the recipient (except perhaps pets) to take the drugs, and a continuous conscious decision to keep taking it.   If there is damage inflicted on individuals by drug use, is it self-inflicted damage.  And outlawing drug use is indeed like outlawing suicide - which is why using drugs is usually not illegal, but possessing them is.

In a way, it is like economic thinking.   I can write all day long that payday loans are a shitty idea, and that leasing a car is stupid.   And like clockwork, I will get an e-mail from someone who will try to tell me that leasing a car is a smart idea because it "frees up your cash-flow!" or that payday loans help poor people "tide themselves over" until next week.   It is no different than SNL writers saying that cocaine "makes them more creative!" (too bad they stopped!) or that marijuana relaxes you.   We all make excuses for our bad behavior - yes, that includes even me.

I got off the drug bandwagon by making different choices.   And that is the key.   I think this idea that people are sheep and unable to control their urges is a little overstated.  And I think this whole "addiction" thing is along the similar lines.  It is just an excuse to let people get away with weak thinking and also allow them to play the victim.  "I can't help it!  I'm an addict!"

Killing their drug dealers isn't going to solve that problem - odds are they will find the drugs from somewhere else, and we've escalated the violence even further in this futile "war on drugs" which has been raging longer than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan put together - with no sign of winning any of them.

But what is really stupid to me is to even suggest the death penalty for drug dealing.  Because you know this will go nowhere and just make you look stupid by saying it.  Then again, if you are Donald Trump, you never have to worry about sounding stupid - because that bridge was crossed and burned a long, long time ago!