Wednesday, October 17, 2018

2008 Sears: A Murder in Suburban Chicago

It was just around midnight when Eddie Lampert pulled the plug and sent up the white flag.  Lampert is the hedge fund billionaire who bought Sears, combined it with K-Mart and after years of alleged attempts to make the thing work, declared chapter eleven reorganization, AKA bankruptcy.

The business itself is 125 years old.  Think about a skin and bones man or woman, marching zombie-like down the street and you see the stores themselves. Empty shelves, merchandise in messy piles, leaking ceilings, empty checkout stands. Millions of square feet of no customers.

Yes, we all feel nostalgia about the Sears of our youth and the youths of our parents and grandparents.  But that Sears hasn’t existed for a generation or longer.

Blame Amazon?  Blame Wal-mart? Or bad stuff at bad prices? Or no customers?

No. Blame Eddie.

Long before all this started, long before many had heard of Eddie, one retail analyst told Bloomberg Radio “When Eddie Lampert buys a retailer, the competition cheers.”

Well, they cheered. But after not much time, they stopped because Sears had become irrelevant.

Lampert is brilliant at one thing and one thing only.  Wall Street calls it “Financial Engineering.” But what that really means is shuffling paper around to buy time and/or borrow money, money there was no chance of repaying.  And who did he buy from? Mostly ESL Investments. What does ESL stand for?  Edward Scott Lampert.

What Eddie bought was his own brilliant idea: Sell all that real estate. Make big bucks.  It might have worked but right about the time the lightbulb in his head lit, the market for commercial real estate tanked.  So he tried to make a go of the stores.  Problem: He didn’t know Thing One about mass market retailing.  This is a guy who wandered around the stores looking for ways to cut costs when he should have been wandering around the stores with a paintbrush.  And a broom.  And some real lightbulbs.

He ended up closing stores and selling property at wholesale prices.  

Okay, a moment of kindness: Sears was already in trouble when he bought in.  For a while, he hired people who supposedly knew retail.  Turns out they didn’t, so Eddie took over personally.

He doesn’t know any better than his choices.  And so, he has stepped down as CEO, but not as chairman. The job he left is filled by a committee.  This is a typically bad management choice.  Committees don’t make great stores.  Merchants do.

So, what can they do to remain above water and should they even try?  Probably the answer to the second question is “yes,” because otherwise the suckers who bought stock will be completely screwed.

They still have a few things going for them.  Among them, some of the best appliances available today, Kenmore. And while they sold Craftsman tools to a competitor, they evidently want to continue selling them.

NB: they don’t actually manufacture the appliances, they farm them out to companies that know better. But the brand has moxie. They also have a fabulously complete repair service for those appliances. So there are two areas in which a reduced footprint Sears can do well.

If they’re going to be big in major appliances -- “whitegoods” to those in the industry, they probably can do OK with small appliances, too: Toasters and toaster ovens, coffee makers, blenders and mixers, vacuum cleaners and such.

They do okay with baby supplies, bicycles, exercise machines, bedding, etc.  Sales of all of the above require expertise.  To survive in those areas, they’d need experts on the sales floor, not minimum wage clerks.

To go with that, the only clothing they should sell are work boots and work clothes. Will they do that? Probably not.  Not unless Eddie hires some real merchants and keeps his hands off the advertising and staffing.

Is there anything else they do well?  Not really.

Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck were purveyors of 19th and early 20th century merchandise. The world has changed.  They can’t face down Wal-mart but they can out-service the big box stores. If they hire the right people and put them in the right locations.

For now, Eddie & company have committed murder.  But maybe -- just maybe -- they can come out winners. And if they do, so will we.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Monday, October 15, 2018

2007 Self Driving Cars Beware


Here at the Wessays (™) Secret Mountain Laboratory, we are developing a robot designed to carjack self-driving vehicles.  Eat your heart out, thugs.

No one gets hurt.  And our fleet of robots gets some spiffy new cars.  The technology is there, but there are some glitches to work out.  For example, driverless cars are not on the road empty, at least not most of the time.

Current work is on a machine to detect a living being in the vehicle.  In other words, we don’t want to bother with people at all, just the machinery.  There’s a growing market for this kind of tin overseas.

We have the chop shop thing down pat.  No people there either.

You may ask why would a self-driving car be driving itself without passengers? That’s another little problem to be solved. But it’s bound to happen.  You never know when one of these machines will decide to take a trip empty.

We’ve been hunting for good advice on this project. Elon doesn’t take our calls.  We can’t find Bob Lutz.  Lee Iacocca is 93 years old and he spends most of his free time fixing his K-car.  Preston Tucker and Mad Man Muntz are long gone. Carlos Ghosn has too much on his plate already, what with heading two doddering makers halfway around the world from each other.  And we found out Chubby Checker has nothing to do with Checker Cabs. Still, the work continues apace.

One thing we unexpectedly got done: Our robots can retrieve unoccupied self driving cars involved in accidents.  They’re kind of like giant robot vacuum cleaners combined with drones and hot air balloons.

The current plan is a crowdfunding for grant money we’d award to promising college students.  We tried to buy a mailing list of kids underwater on student loans, but the only ones we can find are of former students old enough for Medicare and still paying off that Acme Auto Schools tuition.

And we checked the couch.  Nothing.

-I am the only person I know who has owned both a Renault and a Fiat and loved them both despite their flaws, the list of which is endless.

--Only in Ireland!  With Brexit looming, no one can quite figure out where the border with Northern Ireland is.  The north is British, the south isn’t and will remain in the EU.

--That fluid border would drive the US anti-immigrant crowd nuts. It once was heavily fortified as the two countries warred.  But now people from each side wander freely to the other.

--Is this going to renew the troubles? If they put up customs stations, traditional targets, they’ll have to call the cops to protect them and then the army to protect the cops. And then they’ll fly drones, which will become targets.

Ireland-Northern Ireland border.  You figure it out

Preview: Our thoughts on Sears Wednesday 10/17. But you already know there are no members of the Eddie Lampert fan club in this corner.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Friday, October 12, 2018

2006 What's in Your Wallet?

One of the least noted sore points in the ongoing war between the sexes centers on the wallet.

Women are forever asking men to get new ones.  Men are forever holding on to theirs with the ferocity of a dog guarding a bone or a toddler who drags his favorite blanket everywhere.

This is a conflict that transcends all the usual barriers.  Race, religion, country of origin, age, sexual orientation, income level, political preference, education level, literacy and on and on.

People can disagree on many issues.  But none is more consistent than this one.

Okay, men, show of hands now.  How many of you have had your wallet called “that rag” by your significant other… or even an insignificant other?

Thought so.

Now, women, let’s see some hands … how many of you have used that term?

Uh huh.

The average American woman has enough handbags and wallets for a regiment and shoes to match each.  Even women who don’t care manage to accumulate plenty over the course of a lifetime and rarely discard any of them.  You never know…

Okay, fine.

Guys tend to keep their wallets.  They become mobile offices.  Credit cards, notes, receipts, etc.  They get dog-eared.  But most of us don’t care about matching a wallet with an outfit.

We don’t have different wallets for special occasions, casual Fridays, travel, business, and visits to the gym or the swimming pool or the pool hall.

Any wallet, even a really good one, will eventually fray. Its material will take on a battered and/or saggy look.  So what?  We know what’s in it and where it is.  It’s not a decoration for us, it’s a body part.

A close friend long used one that was repaired with so much duct tape you couldn’t tell what color it was.  After considerable nagging he reluctantly switched to a new one.  But you can bet good money that he stashed the old one away in a drawer or a box and still has it, just in case.

While you may think of that as extreme, it really isn’t.  Many of us would go that route willingly.

So, ladies, do as you please about your wallets and handbags and shoes.  But understand that guys aren’t wired that way.

--Is there still a war between the sexes or do we now have to call it a war among? Mayor de Blastoff of New York has signed legislation permitting “Gender X” on birth certificates.  What would Fiorello say? Or Ed?

--There’s “fluidgender” aka genderqueer (that’s what they call it!) for people who believe theirs varies depending on mood, circumstances or the hour’s alignment of the planets. You may not recognize genderqueer.  But both Wikipedia and spell check do.

--A lot of flak has landed at Wessays™ World Headquarters for a post on Quora and Facebook defending pineapple pizza.  Martha Stewart has a recipe.  If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for you, but if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

2005 Limo Crash as Microcosm

That accident in upstate New York?  It’s a microcosm of today’s America.  We are an ill-fixed, uninspected Hesperus waiting to be wrecked with an improperly licensed driver racing down a mountain highway and taking aim at a fruit stand and paying no attention to the stop sign at the next intersection.

Like the car in the crash, this country has fallen into the hands of a shady character who has no compunction about killing off a bunch of people.

Breaking the speed limit flooring it down the mountain, we are casting aside our friends and giving aid and comfort to our enemies.  The real limo evidently thought it could disobey the laws of physics. The national limo has no morals, no brain, no reason, no mercy, no policies and we all are passengers.

Our doors and fenders are falling off while we party in the back.  Vital parts are dropping off as we treat the mountain highway as a ski slope with a trampoline at the end.  There is no spring-loaded polypropylene bed ready to catch us and bounce us around until we come to our senses.  There’s only a fruit stand where you can buy pumpkins and homemade jam.

The rickety stretch limo missed the pumpkin array, hit a parked car and two pedestrians. All but one of 20 died in a hurry. One lingered for a while.

We’re all passengers in one version or another of this vehicle and although we’re not required to wear seatbelts unless sitting in the front, we should probably strap in.
Both limos on trial here are flawed, though well designed and thought out originally.  They are owned by the uncaring; driven by the incompetent.


--There are several websites devoted to selling used limos, stretch and otherwise.  One is a non-stretch 2006 Bentley with under 70-thousand miles on the odometer.  At $39-thousand, that’s about the price of a lower tier Lexus and probably worth the money.

--Some cars are the size of an RV.  Think of this: If you’re in a self driving stretch limo with a built-in bathroom, you won’t even have to make rest stop stops.  You just amble to the back to the potty, then return to the driver’s seat when you’re finished.  Maybe even grab a snack and a soda out of the refrigerator or pop a couple of slices into the toaster and take the laundry out of the washing machine.

Just don’t lease or buy it from the upstate owner, Shahed Hussain whom the NY Times finds was caught breaking the license laws and turned into a government sponsored fake recruiter of terrorists.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Monday, October 08, 2018

2004 Blind Spots and Blind Drivers UPDATE 1 to add Cuomo comments.

AP via CBS

Today’s scheduled post was supposed to be a humorous take on self-driving cars. But after a terrible accident in upstate New York, we’ll hold that one off for a while and instead examine bad driving and bad roads.

While not self-driving, today’s cars do so much of the real work of getting from here to there, we can be lulled into complacency.  We text and rely on brake radar to save us from hitting the car just ahead.  We eat and drink behind the wheel, apply makeup, ignore the turn signals, traffic signals and signs. And we ignore the roads.

We are all convinced we’re better than average drivers.  We are convinced that airbags and seat belts will protect us in a crash and we are wrong. Everyone seems convinced that every other driver is an idiot or asleep at the wheel and we are wrong.  Or at least we’re mostly wrong. Instead of heightened alertness, we experience lower attention.

It’s not just cellphones that distract us. It’s tiny crowded touch screens that do things we’re used to performing without taking our eyes off the road using big knobs and buttons. Switching radio stations, adjusting the temperature. And heaven help us if the GPS cuts out.  We’ll look down at the screen and try to reboot on the run.

So this weekend in Schoharie, New York near Albany, an awkward stretch limo with 17 passengers, party goers, and a driver came speeding down a mountain and blew a stop sign.  It slammed into an empty car in the parking lot of a country store filled with Columbus Day weekend customers and killed 20 people -- all 18 in the car and two in the parking lot.

UPDATE 3PM 10/8/18
Governor Cuomo said at the Columbus Day Parade in New York City that the driver was not properly licensed, that the car did not meet Federal standards in the way it was turned into a stretch limo. He also said the car did not pass inspection and the transportation company, Prestige Limousine of Gansevoort, NY has been temporarily shut down.

One witness said the car was doing about 60 mph.  Way too fast. Others said the intersection where the crash took place is a death trap, the site of many accidents over many years.

At this writing, we don’t know whether the car had brake trouble, the driver had a stroke or heart attack or maybe too much to drink or just fell asleep.  All we know is that there are a lot of young children who lost their parents.

But there are blind spots at every turn of practically every road.  And we should know that the most important safety feature in any car is an alert driver.

Sometimes, the road rages back.

“His fight for Brett Kavanaugh completed his transformation into Donald Trump’s slobbering manservant.” --New York Times columnist Frank Bruni on Sen. Lindsey Graham

--Do you trust polls? There are lots of good reasons not to.  People lie, statistics are malleable and questions are often loaded.

--The news website is a good, quick, reliable, well run read with excellent newsletters and an excellent staff. But it also surviving on outside cash infusions and ads from companies many of its readers shun. The hope is, they’ll eventually be profitable because if they can’t make it financially, readers will be deprived of one of the best new news sources now available.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Friday, October 05, 2018

2003 The Big Alert

At 2:18 PM Eastern Time Wednesday almost every cell phone in America sprang to life with the first test of what’s called the Presidential Alert System.  A loud electronic shriek was heard across the land.

It is a way for the president to reach almost all Americans at the same time and was created during the W. Bush years.

This was the first test.

Okay, let’s get the obligatory wise guy items out of the way before we continue.

--How soon until trump links this thing to his Twitter account and starts pestering everyone about his might and accomplishments?
--In an emergency, trump is the last guy you’d go to for help and advice.

--How do I turn this invasive “service” off?

You don’t. If your cell phone is on, it will scream at you.  And -- attention those of you who still use flip phones -- it works on those devices, too.

The Big Worry:

What happens if the system is hacked and taken over by:
The Russians
The Ukrainians
The Iranians
The Albanians
The Taliban
Al Qaeda
Al Jolson
The drug cartels
The pharmaceutical cartels
Rudy Giuliani
Betsy DiVorce
Steve Bannon
S.C. Johnson-a-family-company
The Mafia
The Manson Family
Alan Dershowitz
Liberty University
Rupert Murdoch
The Kingston Trio
The Four Horsemen
The three Rogers: Roy, Buck, and Mister
Little Rocketman
Crooked Hillary
George Soros
The three Jeffs: Zucker, Bezos and Immelt
The guy down the block who hates you
Your stalker
The Geico creature
The Kardashians
The Simpsons

Such takeovers would mean sponsored Presidential Alerts.  “This test is brought to you by …”

The possibilities are almost endless.
“This is a Presidential Alert. Traffic is heavy on US Route 80 Eastbound from Lodi to the George Washington Bridge. This Presidential Alert is brought to you by Brown and Williamson. Willie the Penguin says Smoke Kools.

Okay, we know that the security agencies already know your every move.  And Congress is considering legislation to allow electronic arrests through the alert system.

What we can’t figure out is how the president can send an alert from his smartphone that doesn’t eat itself because presidential alerts trump everything else in the air, including the phone the president is trying to use to send you a Presidential Alert.

Fun Facts About This System

--They’ve been working on it since around 2008.  It’s a good thing Obama had no Alerts to give us.
--It’s a joint project of several federal agencies. No wonder it was ten years in the making.
--The important components were in place long before ‘08 including Amber Alerts and tornado warnings. Now we can get Urgent Alerts about Kavanaugh.
--Similar systems have existed in the past and were screwed up by the originating agency, the North American Air Defense Command.

--If you hear a strange beeping noise coming out of a closet or a drawer, it’s from that pager you tucked away as useless ten or 12 years ago… yes, even pagers are in on this system.  Good thing, too. That way the drug cartels can tell at a glance that their hack is working.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Wednesday, October 03, 2018

2002 An Evil Genius Lurks Belowground

Those who shop online surely have noticed that you can never repack anything you buy.  If Rubik’s Cube isn’t enough for you… if you can piece together a jigsaw puzzle with only one eye open, there’s something more challenging you can sink your mind and hands into.

Of course, it’s not just online shopping.  Today, at a real store, someone bought a small electronic accessory.  It came in a cube-like box about 3x4x5 inches. 

Opening it was difficult. It was held closed by little transparent stickers with glue good enough to hold heat tiles on a re-entering spaceship.

But that was only the beginning. The box contained the gizmo, a cord to plug it in, a pouch to store it, an instruction book, registration materials and ad for the manufacturer’s other products.

The interior of the box was like the interior of a Victorian House -- little rooms with doors that open in unknown and seemingly changing directions.  All of this was contained in a plain brown cardboard boxlette within the box.

There seems no reason to re-pack it because the stuff works as advertised. But if someone wanted to, he’d have to have hands with the dexterity of a concert violinist but the size of a newborn.

Somewhere on this planet, probably in China, is an evil genius who devises this kind of packaging.  He should be taken out of his subbasement laboratory and drafting room and shamed in the square of public opinion.  And while the ceremony is going on, someone should sneak down into the lab and trash it.

The other side of this coin?  You receive the mini makeup kit you ordered from HSN or QVC and it comes in something the size of a shoebox and is stuffed with an inflated strip of transparent plastic in the shape of a soldier’s ammo belt.

Amazon is pretty good about cathedral size packages that hold tiny objects, too. If a book you order is a few millimeters too big for a padded envelope, they send it in a shoebox with not one, but two inflatable ammo belts to hold the book steady in transit.

If the box is small, it’s going to be heavy.  If the box is big, hold on tight because it’s light enough to float away… or for the wind to blow it off your doorstep.

--How’s this for veterinary prowess? A box turtle at the Baltimore zoo cracked, so while the shell heals, they’ve fixed up a walker made of Legos so the turtle can get around on its own.  Now that’s thinking outside the box…

-Grammarly has announced a beta test on Google Docs so be sure to stock up on superfluous Oxford commas and unnecessary hyphens.

Here’s a handy supply for you: Grammarly has announced a beta-test on the internet-site Google, which is the largest, most-dominating, and most- probably among the fastest, search service on the Internet.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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2008 Sears: A Murder in Suburban Chicago

It was just around midnight when Eddie Lampert pulled the plug and sent up the white flag.  Lampert is the hedge fund billionaire wh...