Wednesday, May 31, 2017

1801 Bonus: 20% Less, Same Low Price

Stolenimage photo

This is a quiz.  How many pieces of peanut are in the jar?  Closest guess gets the following grand prize:

--100 aspirins in a bottle that holds only 125 pills.
--a one pound carton of spaghetti that weighs a full pound, not 13.5 ounces or maybe 12.
--a pint of beer that has 16 ounces, not 14.

Containers for food and medicine must be mighty expensive, else they’d make more sizes so that you could reach the 30th of 30 anti-cholesterol pills in a bottle that could easily hold 300.

The other day we found a bottle of Advil that was full.  First thought: the filling machine lost count. But not so.  220 on the label, 220 in the bottle. (There was room for the “free” extra 20 in the bottle made for 200, but that’s an oversize within reason.)

Next time you buy a bottle of 200 low dose aspirin, note that the pills barely coat the bottom of the container. You could store two bags of M&Ms in that space.

But, you say, the bottles need to be visible on the shelf in the drug store or the grocery.  True. So make them taller and thinner and fill ‘em up.

The gas tank on a 2015 Toyota Camry holds 17 gallons, at least according to the owner’s manual.  But there’s really room for more and still have air space so the gas tank works properly.  Why?  Because we can’t read a fuel gauge?  Or see the ugly and distracting light on the dashboard that tells us we’d better land a refuel?

Who knows?
This trend toward auditorium size cans, bottles and gas tanks probably started with the clandestine price increases of candy bars and ice cream packages.  The price of a carton of ice cream has been fairly stable since the ice age.  The container size has been the same since the invention of cardboard.  But the contents shrink.  That’s a price increase.

If 220 pills fit in a 200 pill bottle of headache remedy, why can’t they just put in 220 all the time and raise the price a few cents.  

Full containers are more satisfying than ones that look like they’ve been raided and put back on the shelf.

And where did the 14 ounce “pint” come from?

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

1800 The Report Card

Photo by Paul Ryan/Deathpanel Images
It’s supposed to be about a report card.  So what’s the Caduceus picture doing here?  Well, the report card comes from Blue Cross.

And it’s an F, A big fat F for failure.  
Seems someone whose name I won’t mention failed to take his cholesterol medicine for 88 days last year. At least that’s why the failing grade.

How did they reach that figure?  Simple.  They know what you’re prescribed and how much they underpay for.  

What they don’t know is when your doctor changes your prescription and doesn’t tell them. And that is the case here.  The dose was reduced by half and the pills cut so there was a surplus.  That got straightened out in January.  But that hasn’t stopped Blue Cross from issuing an elaborately artful report card on magazine-slick heavy cardboard stock.

Of course the analysis of how this worked is speculation because it’s a closely guarded secret.  Everything having to do with medical insurance is a secret.  But before writing this post, some of the obvious possible spy cam locations in the house underwent close inspection.

There was nothing in any of the smoke alarms but smoke alarm stuff. The little imp statuette on the phone stand was clean as were the decorative gargoyles, the giant stuffed vulture and the elaborately framed dimestore Dali melting watch print.

The microwave oven passed inspection. The coffee maker showed no evidence of tampering and there’s a piece of duct tape covering the camera eye on the computer.

We vetted the exterminator, the mail delivery seeing eye dog, the UPS driver, the immediate neighbors and Vonage.  Also, a potted sunflower plant which is a recent arrival, and a tattered and rarely used copy of Webster’s Second Unabridged. None showed even a hint of an installed camera or transmitting device.

So at the amateur level of spying, it’s pretty safe to say they lied with statistics rather than planting spyware in the house.

But what if we missed something?  That could be a problem.  

After all why does everyone collect every datum on every man, woman, child, dog, cat, parakeet and pet fish in the world?

To sell and trade.

So here’s Blue Cross with all that info from the hidden cameras and other undiscovered clandestine devices. Not to mention the data they collect about one’s various conditions and preconditions, finances and regular medical attention.

But it’s not all bad. At least this report card is fairly consistent with those we’ve received from junior high through grad school.

“Why does the richest family in America need a $152 billion tax break?” -- Sen. B. Sanders (I-VT) questioning budget director Mick Mulvaney about the end of the estate tax at a Senate hearing. (Mulvaney tried to evade the question and when forced to answer, couldn’t.)

--The current Mrs. Trump touring the streets of Sicily, wearing a coat that cost $51,000. That’s just under the US median income.  Whatever happened to Pat Nixon’s “plain Republican cloth coat?”

Note to readers. Once again I have screwed up the blog’s numbering system. So to make housekeeping easier for now and harder for later, I’m calling this one 1800, which is probably one or two off.  Maybe I really DO deserve that failing grade from Blue Cross. If only I could have gone back in time and checked this stuff with Miss Rotundi or Mr. Themeus.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

1799 Faking Precision

Math Phobia Photo

This is really, really cool. You can fake precision using real numbers and no one will much think about your trickery.

Want an example?
Here’s a quote from the label of a waterless hand sanitizer bottle: “Kills 99.99% of Most Common Germs That May Make You Sick.”

Wow, powerful stuff, right? Zaps pretty much everything dangerous. A virtual instant sterilization. Only .01% left when you’re finished.


But look at it closely.

“Kills 99.99% of most common germs…”
“Most” can mean just over half. Say 50.000001% So, really, this stuff can kill about 99% of about half” a  more precise rendering would be “kills about half” of “common germs that may make you sick.”

But what is COMMON? And what does “MAY” make you sick mean? If these germs may make you sick, they also may not make you sick.

And while we’re at it, what does “sick” mean? Are we talking about Yellow Fever? Or maybe a little bit of itchiness? A sneeze, maybe? Are we talking about cancer? Or perhaps a sniffle?

The thing sounds downright scientific. But there are so many variables, the figure means 100.00% of nothing. (or 0% of everything.)

So, here we have an example of hiding behind number-supported imprecision. But it’s only one example.

Here’s another, the famed Dow Jones Industrial Average. This is calculated by taking the closing prices of 30 stocks, adding them together and dividing by 30, right?

Wrong.The DJIA is “weighted.” Stocks are given values over and above their actual price.That’s why when you add up the stock prices and divide by 30, you get nothing like what Dow reports as the day’s closing figure.

How about your body temperature? It’s 98.6, right? Normal. But not always. Some people are a little higher or a little lower most of the time and they’ve learned not to panic after reading the thermometer.

We won’t get into the way surveys are taken, because that’s too long and complicated for this venue. But suffice it to say asking “are you willing to spend $120 million on a new school building?” will not elicit the same percentage of “yes” answers as “do you want your children to have a good education in better surroundings than they now have?”

And “do you want to win the war on terror?” will not get the same “yes” votes as “should we send more Americans to fight in Afghanistan?”

This example should ring true: “The temperature is 87 degrees.” Very precise. Except also meaningless, because chances are you can’t feel the difference between 85 and 89.

One well known media company has a complex formula for determining the value of employee bonuses. The formula is used to determine the value of something akin to a stock certificate. But the number of these faux stocks awarded to an individual employee, is decided by the whim of a supervisor. So the precise accounting is meaningless and the amount of the bonus dependent not on the value of the paper, but on the mood or attitude of the supervisor.

Numbers are, indeed, precise. What we do with them often is more camouflage than calculation.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

1780 The Auto Crat

Four wheels and a 20 HP engine.  Get out and get under.

It takes a lot of nerve to tell a guy named Ford how to run a car company, but here goes.

Let’s get all the bad stuff out of the way first.  Henry Ford was an industrial and financial titan but had a dark side.

Union buster. Anti-semitic. Autocrat. Fifty percent of a mutual admiration society with Hitler. (The other half was Adolf.)

Okay, enough bad stuff for our purpose here. Now some interesting stuff for history buffs and finance geeks:

Ford is credited with one innovation he didn’t innovate and not credited with one he did.

The one he didn’t: Mass production.  It was in the pipeline when he started pumping cars out of the River Rouge complex in Michigan, still one of the wonders of the industrial world.

Ford made everything that went into its cars except the tires.  Those came from Firestone.  They made steel on site and then turned it into millions of cars and trucks.

But mass production and interchangeable parts would have happened around the time it DID happen. And while Ford did it well, they didn’t do it first.

Ford’s one-true-innovation was financial, not industrial.  He made his independently owned dealers buy their inventory.  Better than bank loans. A whole lot cheaper.   Back in the Model T days, no one had done that on a large scale.

Also in finance:  Ford is a public company (NYSE:F.) But the superstock still is family owned.  So when you buy shares, you’re buying aftermarket products. The real power is in what’s called the “B” stock, the kind only the Fords have.

Heading in the right direction: in the dark days of auto production in the early 2000s, Bill Ford hired Alan Mulally, an engineer and high ranking guy at Boeing and made him chief executive.

Jaw dropping. An outsider.  An airplane guy.  At the time, we wrote that it was a brilliant choice even if the new guy had never set foot in a car factory.

Mulally had the right credentials. He made huge transportation machines and other stuff that’s far too heavy to lift.  He ran a profitable company with a labor situation so complex it was a wonder they produced as well as they did.

Perfect credentials.

And they made it through the recession without federal help.  Amazing. No other US based carmaker managed that one.

But in auto years -- which are like dog years only shorter -- that was ancient history.  And recently Ford has been faltering in areas that it considers crucial to its future.

Things like self-driving cars are simmering on medium heat when they should be on the high powered burner.
They’re behind in electric car development.  They’re doing okay in sales.  But doing okay is not okay.

Lurking in the background was something Bill said not long ago: his company was in the “mobility business,” not “just” a car maker.

That’s reminiscent of Jack Welch telling General Electric shareholders “we’re not an industrial conglomerate, we’re a communications company.”

That quote also was little noticed.  And it’s hard to tell where it came from when GE’s big profits were in medical equipment, plastics, jet engines, washing machines, stoves and lightbulbs.

“We’re a transportation company?” No. You make F-150s and Mustangs and other large and small machinery.  Sometimes you do it well, sometimes not (If you want a Lincoln, buy one. But the reviews will suggest otherwise.) When you lose sight of your real purpose, you are heading for the undercard instead of the main event.

Toyota and Honda don’t stay awake nights worrying about an identity crisis.  They’re pretty sharp operators and have eaten Detroit’s lunch for years. It’s a lesson Ford has to learn.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2017, former Taurus owner but once was more than enough. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

1779 Kitchen Confidential

Face it.  There’s never enough room in the kitchen to do what you want to do.  Something lives on every counter and on every shelf of every cabinet.

  1. Remodel and expand
  2. Get rid of the counter hogs
  3. Buy more gadgets and appliances. We’ll figure out what to do with the overpopulation later.
I opt for number 3. Except the figure it out later part.

Do you suppose the great chefs of America, Europe and the far east created their timeless recipes using $10,000 ranges, $8,000 refrigerators and a symphony orchestra of electrical “tools?”

No way.  They had fire, a few pots and pans, some implements used to poke or stir or flip and a sense of adventure.

The first cooked eggs were scrambled with a fork or flipped with a spatula. The first salad was made by tearing apart vegetables.  The first cookie was baked because someone had too much left over dough but not enough to make a second cake.

Confession: I am an appliance addict in the body of a man who dislikes cooking and even more dislikes cleanup.

But that doesn’t stop me from drooling over the latest pressure cooker or slicer from Shopping TV with the same lust that used to be reserved for my female classmates in middle school.

The only real difference is access.

Look at the kitchen here!  There’s a machine that automatically cuts cucumbers, squash and onions in “perfectly uniform slices.”

Elizabeth II doesn’t travel all that much anymore.  And even if she came here for tea, would she notice the uniformity of the slices on the cucumber sandwiches?

Two electric pressure cookers. One six quart with a complicated control panel and enough pre-set choices for a jetliner or a Rolling Stones concert?

The second one is bigger and has only a mechanical timer.

Doesn’t matter what goes into either, what comes out is mush with an overlay that smells like something between spilled paint and a steam engine.

It took an act of congress to get rid of our Jack LaLanne juice machine.  But we finally replaced it with both a Ninja and a “Magic Bullet” mixer.

There’s a slow cooker. These things should come with alarms you set so you can use them early in the day.  Sure beats waiting for dinner at 10 PM because you started too late.

There’s a toaster oven with a control panel borrowed from the aforementioned Rolling Stones concert.  Just to make toast and warm up last night’s leftover pizza.

But it’s not just electrical appliances.  Acoustic appliances are just as crowding.

There’s the copper pot which is really good except it’s too small. (Should have waited for the larger model, just out.)  Oh, and there’s no copper in it. It’s aluminum with some sort of copper colored coating.

There are pots of every description ranging from itty-bitty to big enough to rate its own zip code.

There are two non-stick fry pans that are really really good.  They arrived here when Paula Deen became a non- person on TV,  discounters bought the surplus products with her name on them and then sold them for next to nothing.

Who needs two?  Plus the three others from Home Shopping that are rarely used.  Or the cast iron one that “I just had to have” and never use.

But there’s one really really critical piece of machinery: a stovetop percolator. That’s in case the electric power goes out crippling the Mr. Coffee.

And there’s a barbecue lighter for the same reason. Today’s gas stoves require electricity to ignite. But you can still turn it on in a power failure by striking a match or clicking your Bic.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017

1798 Death of a Demon Genius

Here’s the Roger Ailes Quiz.
Fox News Photo
He was an evil man (y/n)
He was anti Semitic (y/n)
He was a right wing wacko (y/n)
He did more harm than good (y/n)
He did no good at all (y/n)
He was a sexual predator (y/n)
He was a television genius (y/n)

Roger Ailes died this week at age 77 and forces for good and evil lined up in their (y/n) columns and started pontificating even before rigor set in.

The bios and templates have been in place for a long time.  These are the long stories that magically turn into obituaries when the person dies and they top the story with “So and So died last night. He was 104. His husband of 83 years, Such and Such, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.”

Then come 12-hundred well chosen words on what a great guy So and So was. Or two minutes and 29 seconds of video on the nightly news.

Sometimes the correspondents die before the subject of the obit.  This poses its own problem: Run the video or re-do it.  Both solutions have drawbacks.

Okay, but we’re talking about Ailes and here’s where plenty of readers are going to get annoyed.

My answer to all seven questions:  Y.

The one that’s going to stick in the craws of readers of this page is that last one… the one about being a television genius.  

When we think of “genius,” we tend to think of Einstein or Rembrandt or Mozart.  People who bring light and beauty into the world.

And we forgive these men and women some of their quirks because the return is so high.

Tens of thousands of people roam the planet with the quirks but not the genius, the great creative spirit that gives us a Chaucer or a Dostoyevsky.

Let’s face it, Fox News is part of pop culture.  More harmful than the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of Pocatello. But pop culture nonetheless.

How could a guy like Ailes harass all those women without people noticing?  How could Bernie Madoff scam all those people without someone noticing?

They didn’t. Either of them. People noticed but ignored.  When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed, we were shocked… except those who believed all along he was a common thief.  Well, maybe not common.

With Ailes, everyone knew.  But as long as the ratings and the money poured in, people who should not have written it off wrote it off.

What changed?  Did Fox suddenly gain a conscience? Was bad publicity damaging their brand?  No to both.

The Murdochs want to buy Sky TV in England. In order to do that they have to pass muster as proper Brits.  Proper Brits do not fondle the help, at least not where it can be seen.  They certainly don’t put them on the casting couch. Or so it’s said.  

So Madoff did billions of dollars in damage by sitting at a desk and telling lies.  Ailes did horrible things by lying or by sitting on his office couch.  But there’s no way to put a price tag on that.

“I hired her because she was hot.” -- Roger Ailes on why Sarah Palin got that short-lived job as a commentator on Fox.  Quoted by the Washington Post in 2011.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

1797 Goodbye Wi Fi

1797 Goodbye Wi Fi
Your rent-free office away from home may soon shut you out.  Yes, some coffee shops and fast food joints are turning off the router.  No more free wi fi for you!

What’s the deal?  Too many hacks because most of those connections are unprotected?  (Never have unprotected wi fi. You could catch a WTD, a wirelessly transmitted disease.)

This prematurely born budding trend started in Toronto according to press reports. A coffee shop proprietor wanted people to stop staring at their phones, tablets and laptops and start talking to each other.

It’s only partly successful.

People stopped using their internet devices and started reading newspapers and magazines.  No worries. The proprietor can’t stop you from that. But the printed page is committing suicide and soon there won’t be any.  

Getting people to talk among themselves is a laudable goal.  Think of the discussions you’ve missed over the past few years by not bothering your table mate with your annoying non sequiturs and political wisdom. Or vice versa.

It’s like a sports bar shutting off a dozen TV sets.  People get into fights.

The coffee house crowd is generally more genteel than the bar flys. But that’s only because they’re caffeinated rather than alcoholated.  While you find the occasional drinker of Perrier with a twist at the “The Dugout” or “The Stadium Inn” and there are decaf drinkers at “Giapetto's Espresso” or “Le Figaro,” they are at a disadvantage.

They have neither the tanked-uppedness of the boozers nor the high energy of the Frappuccino Latte Venti Primo of the coffee crowd.

These un-fueled patrons are unlikely to get into discussions with strangers.

The fueled crowd on the other hand is likely to get into bar fights and coffee shop fights.

And if you think the former is worse than the latter, think again. Someone throws a beer in the face of the other guy and the other guy gets wet and angry.  Throw a Sumatran Mocha Machiatto in someone’s face and they get wet and burned. And maybe covered in whipped cream or five perfect layers of espresso sweetness and dollop of caramel goo.

A coffee shop fight is a terrible thing to see and even worse to join.  Plus at the coffee shop, the drink throwing will end up ruining that Time Magazine with the five buck cover price.

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People don’t go to coffee shops to talk with their neighbors. If they converse with the guy next door, they do it at one’s house or the other’s, over the fence in the driveway or building lobby or on the sidewalk.

People go to coffee shops to be alone with their thoughts.  They answer email without the kids running around and yelling.  They do work- related stuff without the shopping channel audio or Jerry Springer or ads for Xarelto followed by lawyer ads against Xarelto blasting in their ears.

They go to get away from their significant other for an hour.  They go because they’re just not going to mow the lawn today.

And sometimes, they go simply for a cup of coffee.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2017.  Black. Two sugars.

4745 An Ounce of Cure

  Forget the ounce of prevention and the pound of cure.  With everything getting odder, let’s make it a Troy Ounce of prevention.   While “n...