Category Archives: Misc

A Letter from Atwater Federal Prison

Those in the self-obsessed world of journalism Twitter certainly know, or know of Matthew Keys.

Perhaps never asleep, Keys was once employed by Reuters working in social media. Without retelling the story in too much detail, Keys was fired for “providing the hacking group Anonymous with a user name and password to log in to computers owned by the Tribune Company, parent company of The [Los Angeles] Times.”

Between when he was fired and when he was sentenced to a two-year term in federal prison for hacking charges, Keys ran an extremely active Twitter empire and a website called “The Feed.” Readers should of course decide whether the degree of punishment doled out to Keys was too lenient, too harsh, or just right, but the crime committed by Keys doesn’t negate the fact that his social media work was very useful to journalists and news junkies.

During the Ferguson riots, The Feed helped keep me up to date, as my wife’s family hails from Ferguson.

When I saw the news of Keys’s sentencing and subsequent arrival at Atwater Federal Prison, I decided to send him some reading material and a very brief note. (It was a copy of The Weekly Standard and a copy of Reason, which I had sitting on my desk.)

I don’t know Keys, nor have I met him personally, but we interacted on Twitter over the years and I knew how… addicted he was to it all. The Internet is a hard drug to quit cold turkey, like any drug is. I just figured that, even if not known for being a right winger, he’d appreciate any news and reading material. Coincidentally, our cover story was on the California high speed rail project not too far from where he is currently housed.

To my surprise, Keys wrote me a very nice letter back, thanking me for the reading material. And, I was right. He really misses the Internet.

I thought I might share an excerpt from his letter that those who know of him might find interesting:

I never realized how much I’d miss interacting online—particularly on social media—until I was forced to go without. Although it seems so inconsequential, lack of online access is just one of the many resources that could prepare inmates here for success in their lives and communities beyond their sentences. We really have few resources here to prepare for life beyond prison—for people with short sentences (or hopes through community pressures and/or the appellate process, as I have), this may not be a huge obstacle. For others—well, it’s no wonder the recidivism rate is high. They don’t call it the ‘prison industry’ for nothing.

Hopefully I’ll be able to publish some thoughts and experiences from here. Maybe it’ll make some difference.

Not to say those serving time in prison deserve the right to access to, say, Twitter from prison, but the current access is indeed lacking. Those without willing friends on the outside even pay a woman to run their social media accounts for them while they’re in prison.

Bureaucratically, I suspect the beginnings of a system would likely spiral into a litigious pro se tornado of lawsuits. (Why can’t I look at/access ______?) Perhaps it’s inevitable, as more and more Millennials head to the #BigHouse, that it’ll be a debate our electeds and courts will have to have.


A Response from the Government

Driving back from St. Louis this Christmas, I finally bothered a government agency about something that had been bothering me: road signs.

After Breezewood — a town that makes me want to bring back earmarks so it can be paved over into a normal interchange — there are signs listing the distance to Baltimore, and to Washington. The mileage on one particular sign, as I recall (though I was groggy) varies. Normally it’s a two mile difference, but on another sign, it’s three miles.

So I wrote in:

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing about the mileage distance signs on I-70 after an eastbound driver departs Breezewood.

I understand that, at some point in the future, the road splits and drivers can choose to head towards a variety of places, including Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland.

The first sign says they’re two miles apart, but 20 minutes later, the sign says they’re three/four miles apart. (Not exactly sure here, but point is, the mileage actually varies.)

As a kid, I asked my dad if the two towns were really only X miles apart and he helpfully explained to a 4th grade me that, no, this was the distance on that road system from that particular point, and in fact they were many miles apart.

My question is, why do the PADot signs have varying mileages for them, on the same road, just a few dozen miles apart?

How is this distance calculated? It just seems odd that it would vary on I-70 at one mile marker to another.

Thanks for your attention to my somewhat odd inquiry.

Two days later, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation wrote back:

Dear Mr. Swift:

I am responding to your email of Monday, December 28, 2015 concerning the Distance Signs on I-70 Eastbound since this matter falls directly under my area of responsibility.

The distance used on these signs is calculated from the location of the sign to the center city of the destination.  For a destination that is a considerable distance, there can be some variation in the distance depending on the specific route selected and the specific point selected for the center city.  There is no set national procedure for this process.  However, I do agree that once the two variables discussed above have been selected, there should be no variation in the difference in the total distance to each destination.

We have reviewed the sign on I-70 immediately east of the Breezewood interchange and the mileage indicated is South Breezewood 2, Washington D C 127 and Baltimore 129.  Thus, the difference between the distances to Baltimore and Washington D C is 2 miles and this difference should remain constant.  We have further reviewed the four remaining distance signs on I-70 between the first distance sign and the Maryland line, and in fact, found that the difference between the distances to Baltimore and Washington D C remains 2.  As an example, the Distance Sign immediately east of the Amaranth interchange has the mileage indicated as Warfordsburg 4, Washington D C 118 and Baltimore 120.  The last sign in Pennsylvania has the mileage indicated as Hancock 3, Washington D C 106 and Baltimore 108.  Based on the information you have provided, I can only conclude that there are signs you observed in Maryland that have the difference between the distances to Washington D C and Baltimore something other than 2 which may be the result of the Maryland State Highway Administration using different selection criteria than what I have discussed above.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on our transportation system and the possible conflict in our traffic signs.

Robert J. Pento, P.E. | Manager, Traffic Engineering and Permits

It was a great response! Very satisfying. I wrote back to say thanks, having written a few thousand responses to the public in my short tenure as a government employee, and noted that this was a response from a pro. Now I’ll have to find a Google streetview of that Maryland sign and bother them about the sign, assuming I didn’t misremember or am an undiagnosed dyslexic.

Together we can make change and bring consistency to highway distance signs.

UPDATE: Niels Lesniewski has found the offending sign. It’s just outside of Hagerstown. (And pointed out that there is a webpage dedicated to signs!)


How to Ruin Your Sunday

Watch this amazing, terrifying, graphic old BBC film called The War Game (1965) about how Britain might respond to nuclear war.

This line stuck out as I watched it:

“Within the next 15 years, possibly another 12 countries will have acquired thermonuclear weapons. For this reason, if not through accident or the impulses of man himself, it is now more than possible that what you have seen happen in this film will have taken place before the year 1980.”

Of course, that did not occur.

While we’re on the topic, Iran’s pretty close to a bomb… and has been for some time. The horrors of one bomb won’t be as bad as global thermonuclear war — but it would be really bad. It could lead to further use of nuclear weapons, going down the road to… yes. Turtles all the way down to global thermonuclear war. Or a small version of it.

Would the survivors envy the dead? Probably.

Can Bill Nye Claim He Has a Ph.D. on His CV?

On John Oliver’s new show Last Week Tonight, Bill Nye starred in a cameo as a top expert on global climate change — at least as decided by bookers on television shows.

Which got me thinking — what is the etiquette on going by Ph.D. when you didn’t earn one?

Two friends who have attained a Ph.D. weigh in, with one saying: “Technically, honorary doctorates aren’t Ph.D’s at all” while another comments “His doctorate is on par with Kermit the Frog’s.”

What do you think? Is it fair for Nye to claim he has a Ph.D.?



The Sriracha Story … How Will It End?

The timing for Griffin Hammond’s documentary on Sriracha sauce couldn’t be better. More on that in a bit. This holiday season, I highly recommend this 33 minute documentary, which you can buy for $5 on his site. Put it on a flash drive, tape it to a Sriracha bottle, and give it to a loved one as a stocking stuffer.

My only complaint is that I wish it were longer and included the current fight over the ability of Huy Fong to sell its products.

Fans of the sauce will especially love the film, and those who can’t stand anything spicy will still find the story of it fascinating.

Hammond tells the story of one of America’s favorite hot sauces with a cult-like following from a societal perspective, from that of David Tran, the Huy Fong company’s founder, and from a historical perspective about the sauce’s origins in Thailand. Now, Sriracha isn’t my favorite hot sauce (it’s hard to pick one), but it was one I stupidly avoided at burger joints. I’m happy to admit I am wrong, because this sauce is wonderful.

Just the “how it’s all made” portion of the documentary, which is well-filmed and produced, would be enough to interest me. Hammond bills it as “The origin story of an iconic hot sauce, finally revealed.” He’s not lying.

Tran, the founder of the most known version of the Sriracha-type chili sauce (with a green cap and a rooster on it), came to the U.S. by way of Hong Kong after the fall of Saigon. As an ethnic Chinese man, he wasn’t really welcome in Vietnam after it went communist.

hf2Tran got out of Vietnam on a boat. When the British told the boat to turn back, it stayed there for a month. The British relented, and Tran made his way to America as a refugee.

In 1980, he founded his company, selling his version of the Sriracha sauce in the Chinatown neighborhood in LA to local restaurants. The company’s name?  Huy Fong — the name of the ship that saved him from communism and a society that didn’t welcome him.

He has never marketed his sauce, though fans appear eager to do so for him — including the webcomic The OatmealTran seems more interested in bringing his product to the masses.

Much success has come to David Tran and his chili sauce factory. His former factory was once a Wham-o factory that made frisbees and hula-hoops, but demand grew too much. So, in 2010, he arranged for a bigger factory — a few times the size of his old one — in nearby Irwindale. In 2012, he sold 20 million bottles of the stuff.

In the making of chili, during the fall harvest, the peppers need to be pureed and mixed with other inputs at the most ripe point, when they are red. So, for much of the ripe-times for these chilis, the Huy Fong plant excretes a delicious chili aroma. Then it’s aged and stored before it is bottled and sent out.

Irwindale’s citizens, fewer than 30 of the city’s 1,400 residents– including a city councilman’s son — complained about the chili odor. And because of this, the city sued, saying the smell of chili was a “public nuisance.” This, after Tran and Huy Fong installed filters not once, but twice in response to complaints. The South Coast Air Quality Management District visited numerous times, but didn’t cite Huy Fong for violations.

Tran won the first round, but on appeal, the city won — even though the judge said there was a “lack of credible evidence” tying health problems to the factory’s smell — on the public nuisance complaint. For now, it doesn’t matter that much until next fall, since the harvest is over. The fight, though, isn’t.

According to the LA Times, some of the closest neighbors to the plant, however, fail to see what the problem is:

Sal Hernandez, a 75-year-old former Irwindale councilman who lives on Azusa Canyon Road, just a few houses from the Huy Fong plant, said he has never noticed a smell. He said he was surprised the city went after the maker of Sriracha hot sauce so quickly and aggressively.

“It hasn’t bothered me yet. I haven’t had any effects from it, and I’m right next door to it,” Hernandez said.

A former reserve police officer who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, Hernandez said few people go before the council to complain about the smell from other factories in town – like the huge MillerCoors Brewery or a dog food manufacturer on Arrow Highway.

“Things we should go to court for we don’t, and for this thing, we’re taking [the Sriracha company] to court,” he said. “I’m surprised. They were praising this thing before they even came in. Everyone was praising it.”

Praising it, indeed. The city even went out of its way to attract those Huy Fong jobs, offering a really good loan for a small town that, when you think about it, is kind of nuts.

The LA Times reports:

Huy Fong Foods decided to locate its factory in Irwindale three years ago when the city offered a loan with “irresistible” terms: pay only interest for 10 years, with a balloon payment at the end.

Huy Fong took the loan and contributed $250,000 a year to the city of Irwindale each year as part of the deal, Tran said. The company then built a $40-million factory that at full capacity could generate about $300 million a year in sales, according to Tran’s statements.

But after complaints about the smell began last year, Tran said he began to get an “odd feeling” about the city’s behavior. In response, the company has taken out a loan with less favorable terms from East West Bank to pay off the city’s loan.

Could Irwindale be suffering from buyer’s remorse? Perhaps. The town with 1,400 people did offer to front a loan for Huy Fong similar to the interest only mortgages popular before the housing crash in exchange for jobs and commerce, which seems like a bad idea. Tran’s premonition led him to pay off the loan early, like some TARP recipients did in the wake of the financial crisis when the Treasury imposed special regulations on loan recipients.

Or is Irwindale angling for a settlement deal? Also possible.

The city could be taking action for all 20-some citizens who have a problem with the plant, though based on former councilman Hernandez’s comments, the city’s actions seem strange — like that of a spurned crazy ex-girlfriend.

One thing is for sure, taking loans from the government may save you money up front, but the special terms of the deal often appear after you’ve signed on the dotted line, as seems to be the case here.

Tran looks like he is taking this personally. He put up a big banner that reads “NO TEAR GAS MADE HERE” and hung it out in front of his factory. The sign gives the impression Tran plans to fight this in court, but the company is largely keeping quiet.

Los Angeles County, where Irwindale is located, has a higher than average unemployment rate — 9.5% as of October. Like the Dollar Shave Club commercial says, “I’m no Vanderbilt but this train makes hay” — Tran’s brought commerce to Irwindale, but do they really want this litigious NIMBY reputation? It doesn’t appear the city has put much thought to the trade offs such a lawsuit brings.

If Irwindale’s sudden and bizarre reversal weren’t enough for Huy Fong, the state of California has made matters worse.

According to a report by ABC News:

The Southern California-based maker of Sriracha has been told it can’t ship any more of its popular hot sauce to food distributors until next month because the state Department of Public Health is enforcing stricter guidelines that require a 30-day hold on the product.

Health department spokeswoman Anita Gore told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the 30-day hold is needed to “ensure an effective treatment of microorganisms present in the product.”

The move by the California Department of Health might be seen as suspicious by some, given the timing. But it appears that the regulation that went into effect wasn’t specifically targeted at Huy Fong.

LA Weekly reports that the 30-day requirement “has existed for years but that it was recently modified in a way that now applies specifically to Huy Fong’s hot sauces.” The Department of Health cited federal regulatory law as the justification for the change in their enforcement, despite the sauce being produced there for over 30 years. The regulations were changed in 2011, under the Obama administration, state that companies that deviate from the scheduled process for acidified food must “set aside that portion of the food involved for further evaluation as to any potential public health significance.”

California has stricter rules than the rest of the U.S. for guns, cars,  and apparently, hot sauce.

One wholesaler is very unhappy, telling ABC News that he’s already received 30 angry phone calls — more than the total number of complaints in Irwindale — about the problems it’s causing. Unfortunately for consumers, they don’t have a city to sue on their behalf, only David Tran, Huy Fong Foods and his legal team. The delays, the wholesaler says, could cost him $300,000 in lost business.

Other cities’ officials are trying to lure Tran and his company to relocate to their city. One such place is Philadelphia. While it’s unlikely Huy Fong — which only uses one chili supplier — would ship its chilis across the country in an expedited manner to make their product there, nearby Arizona and Nevada might be a better fit.

In the film, Tran tells us that if people no longer like his product, he’ll stop making it. His product’s popularity isn’t the problem at present — it’s California, and Californians. David Tran waited a month on a ship to escape Vietnam, so Irwindale should expect no lack of patience from him.

I doubt Tran will go full Atlas Shrugged and deny foodies, hipsters, and hot sauce fanatics his great product. But its fans should take notice to see what the NIMBY crowd and regulatory overreach is doing to one of their prize condiments. Don’t expect any hilarious criticisms of regulatory overreach by The Oatmeal.  Unless Tran wins in court, the price of Sriracha is set to rise, or the California label might be coming off the bottle.bsig

Human Rights Campaign Weighs In On Manning

Bradley Manning Support Network

Army Private Bradley Manning, recently demoted and dishonorably discharged for his role in leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive classified files to WikiLeaks, was sentenced yesterday to 35 years in prison.

Manning has since applied for a Presidential pardon, and also announced his desire to be treated as a woman.

According to a letter he wrote that was first reported by NBC’s Today show, Manning writes:

“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”

However, according to an emailed statement from an Army spokeswoman to Reuters: “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery.”

It is unclear whether Private Manning will be able to undergo hormone therapy.

The Human Rights Campaign, the activist group which bills itself as “working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equal Rights,” had been strangely silent on the topic of Private Bradley Manning. In fact, their webpage never mentions him before today.

Today, the group addressed this issue for the first time:

In an email, Human Rights Campaign Vice President and Chief Foundation Officer Jeff Krehely released the following statement:

 “Regardless of how she came to our attention, Pvt. Chelsea Manning’s transition deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  As she requested in her letter, journalists and other officials should use her chosen name of Chelsea and refer to her with female pronouns.  Using the name Bradley or male pronouns is nothing short of an insult.  Media, having reported on her wishes, must respect them as is the standard followed by the AP Stylebook.

 “As Pvt. Manning serves her sentence, she deserves the same thing that any incarcerated person does – appropriate and competent medical care and protection from discrimination and violence.  The care she receives should be something that she and her doctors – including professionals who understand transgender care – agree is best for her.  There is a clear legal consensus that it is the government’s responsibility to provide medically necessary care for transgender people and the military has an obligation to follow those guidelines.

 “What should not be lost is that there are transgender servicemembers and veterans who serve and have served this nation with honor, distinction and great sacrifice.  We must not forget or dishonor those individuals. Pvt. Manning’s experience is not a proxy for any other transgender man or woman who wears the uniform of the United States.”


‘Jackass’ Approved for Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit

bgThe upcoming film Bad Grandpa, part of the Jackass series, was filmed in Northeast Ohio.

I noticed a frame of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, a bridge I crossed frequently during my high school years on Cleveland’s West Side.

In an effort to win filming locations, Ohio offers the “Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit” as an incentive, though many films use Cleveland as a backdrop for other cities like New York, Chicago, or Washington, rather than a feature. In other words, Ohioans are subsidizing Hollywood firms to turn Cleveland into New York.

So far as these incentives go, Ohio isn’t alone — over 75% of states offer some form of incentive.

According to the website of the Ohio Development Services Agency:

“The Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit provides a refundable tax credit that equals 25 percent off in-state spend and non-resident wages and 35 percent in Ohio resident wages on eligible productions.”

It also specifies that “[e]ligible productions must spend a minimum of $300,000 in the State of Ohio”.

The Ohio Development Services Agency confirmed to me that, while “the production company has not yet sent in their final audit … the project was approved for a $1.5 million Motion Picture Tax Credit.” The production company projected that “47 percent was to be shot in Ohio.”

Motion Picture Tax Credits and other incentives for filming are popular among state legislators. The Tax Foundation observes:

“Forty-four states [in 2010] offer significant movie production incentives (MPIs), up from five states in 2002, and twenty-eight states offer film tax credits.”

While they are popular, they are not without controversy. The Economist called such incentives a “stupid trend.”

Since 2010, three states have dropped their motion picture incentives. Many others, including New Jersey — the epitome of states with silly policies, have suspended such programs.

The non-partisan Tax Foundation is skeptical of the value of incentives and credits for motion pictures:

“While broad-based tax competition often benefits consumers and spurs economic growth and development, industry-specific tax competition transfers wealth from the many to the few … Movie production incentives are costly and fail to live up to their promises.”

The report continues:

“Based on fanciful estimates of economic activity and tax revenue, states are investing in movie production projects with small returns and taking unnecessary risks with taxpayer dollars. In return, they attract mostly temporary jobs that are often transplanted from other states.”


“Furthermore, the competition among states transfers a large portion of potential gains to the movie industry, not to local businesses or state coffers. It is unlikely that movie production incentives generate wealth in the long run. Most fail even in the short run. Yet they remain popular.”

I’m in agreement. Scrap them.

But if you’re going to keep them, at least require that they say they’re in Cleveland in the film, so that you can pick movies that cast Cleveland in a positive light.bsig

Here’s a screen grab from Google street view of the bridge seen in the movie.


The next frame cuts immediately to Charlotte, North Carolina. From the trailer, it appears most of the film is depicted in North Carolina. (Also, Cleveland’s tallest building one of Charlotte’s tallest were both designed by Cesar Pelli and look similar.) Other scenes were filmed in North Carolina.


You can watch the trailer here:

Embracing my Inner Curmudgeon

One line of demarcation between youth and adulthood, I’ve decided, is whether or not you give a shit about the Billboard Top 40 — and I don’t.

Some time in the past few years — and I can’t recall exactly when — I crossed this line. Now that I know I have passed it, I’ve determined that I am far, far beyond it.

I cannot name a single song on that list. I’m strangely proud of that.

O.K., that’s a lie — I can. Only because Rahm Emanuel was videotaped thrusting his pelvis to some song performed by Alan Thicke’s son. An intern had to tell me why it was funny, aside from the awkward pelvis thrusting.

I listened to it and — surprise! — the song sucks. Canadians aren’t known for their music, and you should trust that anything by somebody other than Elton John who named their son “Rocket Man” (really) also sucks. Imagine if those two forces combined, and you get “Blurred Lines.”

My musical tastes are as dead as Amy Winehouse. I was reminded of this by who else but Amy Winehouse herself. Among some old CD’s I popped in my trendy new six disc changer in my brand newish car was a CD I made for a road trip I took in 2007. “They tried to make you go to rehab, Amy” I thought. Alas, she’s dead, so I suppose those people were right.

The next song on the CD by some no-name artist made me realize that I haven’t listened to popular music in years. To and from work, I alternate between WTOP news, WNEW All News 99.1, and WCSP-FM, which is C-Span’s radio station. In addition to avoiding traffic pitfalls in one of the country’s most congested cities, the former hill staffer and current journo in me finds it hard to enjoy much else.

Since four of my six radio presets are news stations, I should make an official declaration: I am either a curmudgeon or a Beltway insider. Possibly both.

I have become like my childhood dentist, who subjects you to NPR in his torture chair. Sitting there drugged and helpless, Mara Liasson murders your eardrums all while you’re getting stainless steel pick axes jammed into your gums.

No wonder everyone’s afraid of the dentist. NPR is downright scary.

(Memo to self: If Gitmo absolutely must be closed, can we subject prisoners to a strict dentist/NPR regimen? Email John Yoo about that.)

All of the news on our car rides irks Mary, and I can empathize even though I’m not making her listen to talk radio. After a while, she’ll complain and we’ll listen to Big 100.3, which plays oldies rock songs. That’s about it so far as music on the radio goes, and I’m O.K. with that.

Recently, when planning what music will be played out our fast approaching wedding, there wasn’t even any debate to leave the “Top 40” box unchecked.

As a youth, I never was all that into popular music, other than what was socially required. Now that I’m engaged and nearing 30, I spend less (read: no) time at trendy clubs. Thus, I have no incentive to know or care.

While this is all well and nice, I realize that this respite is likely temporary. At some point I’ll probably have rugrats running around. And before I know it, my inner Tipper Gore will jump to life and convert me into a one-man Parents Music Resource Center, blindly meting out justice.

Until then, I’ll enjoy the news. bsig


Death to Discount Pricing!


This morning, I did what I pretty much never do, and that was to get up early and go to a department store to go holiday shopping. I am not a shopaholic, or lover of the holidays — I don’t hate the holidays, I just am ambivalent about them.

Department store visits are a once or twice a year thing, usually around the holidays or Mary’s birthday.

The object of my present buying spree was my fiancé, who does not share my hatred of the department store. I explained to her once why I don’t like going there, and it’s because of something called discount pricing. Having agreed to marry me, she listened politely and quickly changed the subject. My attempt to proselytize the evils of department stores and discount pricing had failed.

Macy’s, Kohls, and Bed, Bath and Beyond have worked their voodoo magic on her. I do have the rest of our lives together to win this war, so I’m optimistic I may outlive these businesses.

What is discount pricing? describes it this way:

A valuation approach where items are sometimes initially marked up artificially but are then offered for sale at what seems to be a reduced cost to the consumer. For example, a retail store business might offer discount pricing on all of its apparel items for a limited time period in order to attract new customers and boost sales.

It’s like those Jos. A. Bank commercials — buy one suit, get three free! I’ll admit I shop at Jos. A. Bank, but not because these deals have suckered me. I do pay attention to them, just in case one day the first customer to come in is awarded a free franchise.

Shopping for the special lady in your life at department stores is a nightmare, because you see a set of kitchenware from Wolfgang Puck or Martha Stewart and it says “Usually $500, today $150!” You think to yourself: “Man, Wolfgang is really taking a bath here!” Then you scan the UPC with your smart phone and see that if you bought the kitchenware from here, it’d be you taking a bath.

Where Department Stores Probably Source their Jewelry

Where Department Stores Probably Source their Jewelry

Jewelry, what all women want, is damn near impossible to find at department stores. Oddly, however, it’s not as if they have a shortage of jewelry, it’s just that most of it is for grandparents (all of mine are dead), people of different cultural tastes than your lady, and about 10,000 pieces of jewelry that look as if they were swept up from a street market in Tangier and stapled to felt squares with catchy names etched on them.

Finding a decent piece of jewelry that isn’t behind the counter is like finding a needle in a haystack. And we all know to avoid the lady behind the counter, or she’ll guilt trip you into buying a cubic zirconia heart pendent for $200 (normally $1,200!) In addition to the discount pricing on the largely crappy jewelry, I think each store hides about five decent items in the normal areas, and nobody will tell you if they’ve all been sold. Sometimes, and I don’t know because I don’t buy a lot of jewelry (though that will change) I think that Walmart probably has better jewelry than a typical department store does.

Even basic items like picture frames are in this nightmarish kabuki dance of discount pricing. Normally, this frame is $50! But today, for you, it’s $9.99. And their frame typically selection sucks, nothing good in the middle. Even if you manage to find a decent frame, you have to very carefully peel those super sticky stickers off of the glass, after which the glass is all covered in fingerprints. At least Walmart has the sense to put the UPC label on the fake stock photograph in the frame. Good on them.

Discount pricing, translated if you haven’t gotten the point by now, means “fake sale.” The savings, much like what you find in President Obama’s budget or the pay-for in the latest spending spree bill, are imaginary.

“Well, sir, if we pretend the war funding goes until 2020, and we end the wars sooner, we’ll save TRILLIONS!”

“Johnson, you are a genius. I am going to appoint you head of the CBO.”

There is one department store that has recently earned my respect, despite my general distaste for them. After all, who likes walking through real-life version of minecraft with tons of scary salespeople popping out from behind their cube, trying to spray perfume on you or sell you lotion made with anti-aging bubbles (which are actually just air).

That store is J.C. Penney. Bloomberg Businessweek reported earlier this year that they decided to get rid of the annoying discount pricing:

The lynchpin of J.C. Penney’s revitalization is a new “Fair and Square Every Day” pricing strategy. The plan stems from Johnson’s realization that three-quarters of everything sold at J.C. Penney is typically sold at a 50% discount from list price. Instead of using deep discount sales to attract customers, starting this week the chain will simply offer three prices: (1) “Every Day”, (2) “Month Long Value” (theme sales such as back-to-school related products in August), and (3) “Best Prices” (clearance). Prices will also now end in “0″ instead of “99″ and price tags will list just one price (instead of including the de rigueur “previously sold at a higher price” convention).

In the long run, they’ll probably save millions in signage costs. Businessweek’s reporter thinks this strategy is risky, but I don’t think it’s as bad as they fear.

While discount pricing appeals to both genders, I am sure there are many men out there like me who don’t want to scan every item they’re considering buying to know what percentage of the “sale” is imaginary bullshit. On second thought, that might be a little more difficult to market than “SALE SALE SALE.”

Either way, next year I’m going to Penney’s.bsig

Now, a videotape recorder that goes anywhere you go

Saw this on BoingBoing today.

Do you remember when video cameras were the size of shoulder-fired Stinger Missiles? Those were the days. But, we’ve moved on.

Now, anywhere you go, you can bring a much better videotape recorder — and it doesn’t even use tape. What’s the point in bringing this up? We’re much better off than we were so long ago. Do you have any idea how much a video camera like this cost in 1967? How many hours would one have to work to purchase such a product?

Now, you can get one of these newfangled smart phones for low prices like $180.

In 2012, a worker earning minimum wage would have to work for 24 hours to purchase the equivalent of a portable radio, walk-man / CD player, home phone, still (film) camera, tape recorder, and videotape recorder. And, it has the ability to send unlimited free letters, transmit media (forgoing printing costs), and send telegraphic messages or fax equivalents.

That is an amazing deal. These services would have costs probably tens of thousands of dollars in the ’60s and ’70s.

CafeHayek’s Don Boudreaux routinely breaks out vintage Sears catalogs to show people how much better our standard of living is today.

For example, in this catalog, Boudreaux notes that a “Sears Best motion-picture camera (no sound; but it did have 8X zoom!),” would cost $197 in 1975. In today’s dollars, that would cost $697, or 96 hours of minimum wage work — before taxes!

With all of the focus on claims of “income stagnation” and a “shrinking middle class” few in the media ever seem to focus on things other than straight dollars, as adjusted for inflation (and sometimes not adjusted correctly.)

If you focus exclusively on what people make, not what people can buy with that money, focusing on those figures is both deceptive and pointless.

“What people can buy” does not refer exclusively to inflation — which is silent theft. In my usage of it, I’m talking about how time saving, labor saving, or entertainment enhancing things have become more affordable over time. In short, the things that we might use to measure a standard of living.

Many models just measure income or inflation-adjusted income. Such models are incomplete, as they don’t tell the real story of how people are able to live with those greenbacks.