Saturday, July 5, 2008

For your amusement

Just like the fictional TV horse Mister Ed, I never speak unless I have something to say. Last night I was rummaging around some old CDs and came across a set of scans of amusement park photos that I took several years ago. These were taken at Ocean City, NJ and Wildwood, NJ; probably in 2001.
The exposure times vary, but always at least 4 seconds. What amazes me is how still people can be without asking. Had I asked, they probably would have moved. I can give you details if you're interested, but the details aren't that important.
It's another dreary day around here, so maybe this will brighten it a bit. Probably not.
I didn't notice the "chaos" sign until I got a look at the slide. It's framed in my living room.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Hope sucks.

It rained on our parade. Independence Day (or the fourth of July for the learning impaired) was a fizzle. It rained just enough this morning to cancel some parades and just enough tonight to cancel fireworks.
Unless, of course you happen to have run by an out-of-state supplier during the week and you managed to spew some off in your backyard. The glow from the suburbs and the smoke-filled road reminded everyone that a little rain can't spoil the fun of real Americans.
First thing Friday morning, my eyes were focused on the good old Weather Channel for some of their sage wisdom. Sage it was. They run this program called Your Weather Today, which is the TV equivalent of sticking your head out the window. Seriously, if both hosts suddenly retired, my cat could take over and the show wouldn't lose a step. Here I am, like a chump looking for a morning and evening forecast, and Heather Tesch (really) is using words like "hopefully" to let me in on the day's events. "Hopefully, you'll be able to get your fireworks shows in tonight." Hopefully? They're supposed to be meteorologists. Hope is for people like me.
Heather then turned it over to her co-useless-host Marshall Seese, who takes up where she left off. "I hope the folks in Atlanta will see clear skies for their fireworks displays." Give us a clue, Marshall. I hope your next paycheck clears, because you're doing me no good. Between the two of them, they used forms of the word "hope" about a dozen times, which was 12 times more than I wanted to hear their hopeful good wishes.
As it turned out, it rained like Hell for most of the evening and in spite of their hopefulness, the local fireworks displays were cancelled. God forbid the forecasters went out on a limb and gave us a clue.
What a great job. The next time you see your doctor, let me know if he says, "I hope these pills work, because you're screwed otherwise." The local firefighters who tell you, "I hope we can put this thing out, because it's burning like Hell" wouldn't have a job much longer if that's the case. Granted, forecasting the weather isn't life, death or fire, which is probably why they can be so cavalier with their opinions. After all, it's just an opinion, isn't it?
"There's a 30-percent chance of rain," they'll say. What does 30 percent mean? Should I keep 70 percent of my ass indoors? They cover themselves with the "10 pecent chance," so that it can rain and they'll say, "Well, we said..."
It wouldn't bother me so much if the weather wasn't such a big deal. It's usually the top story on the local news and the people who tell us their line of bullshit earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to express their opinions. If they were paid for accuracy, they'd be panhandling on Broad Street.
Tomorrow night's forecast is: Scattered thunderstorms during the evening followed by occasional showers overnight. "Scattered" and "occasional." Can they make a decision? "Chance of rain 50%." 50 percent. Either or. What good is a weather forecast if they can't tell me what the weather is going to be? Get me a magic 8-ball. "Reply hazy, try again."
Chance of an accurate forecast?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The view from the cheap seats.

Baseball's annual exhibition game, the All-Star game is next week. Today, I received an e-mail from Major League Baseball with a link to buy tickets to the game. Well, I was born during the day, but it wasn't yesterday. I figured there was a ruse afoot. Sure enough, clicking the link set me up with the "Official Fan to Fan Ticket Marketplace" (i.e. Legal ticket scalper) StubHub. The oddly named ticket re-seller. If I wanted a ticket stub, I wouldn't buy one from a scalper. Those, I can pick up off the floor.
Being the curious guy that I am, I clicked it. Prices ranged from a low of $365 to a high of (sitting down?) $29,500. That's right. And it wasn't just one guy, there were 19 sellers asking at least $10,000 for a seat to the game. I'll leave it to you to digest those figures.
What galls me about the whole StubHub scam is that the professional leagues (the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) along with the King of ticket scammers, Ticketmaster (Ticketbastard) are in cahoots with the re-sellers like StubHub, and conspire to limit ticket sales to real fans so that the re-sellers (scalpers) can sell them at exorbitant prices under the guise of doing us a favor by allowing us entrance to premier sporting events and concerts that we otherwise couldn't get into - unless the ticket buying process was an honest enterprise and not controlled by the sellers.
The odd thing is that the real scalpers - the guys outside the ballpark that hawk tickets - are usually arrested by law enforcement because they ... anyone? ... they break ... anyone? ... they break the law. How so? By selling tickets for more than face value. Well, isn't that what StubHub does? That makes good nonsense. StubHub can do it because it is "sanctioned." Do we understand the difference? Me neither.
Tickets to concerts and sports are among the biggest scams perpetrated on the public. Sure, you can get into any crappy little venue to see your favorite independent artist (like Gov't Mule), but if you want a shot at some All-Star game or big-time rock show, get that Home Equity Loan application started, because you ain't getting in otherwise.
Everybody wins except the fans. When the game is televised, the field-level seats will be occupied by people like Billy Crystal (the world's most annoying Yankees fan) and Spike Lee (the world's second-most annoying Yankees fan) and other celebrities who are either comped by MLB so they can show them on the TV or can cough up the ten grand for a seat. Either way, Yankees season ticket holders are sitting in the nether regions. How do I know? Because in 1996 Philadelphia had the All-Star game and my seat was in a place where (I swear) I couldn't see the ball. Bill Cosby could see it though.
What it means is that the fans will have to watch the game on TV, which is the other part of the equation. TV wins, the team wins, the ticket sellers win and the ticket re-sellers win. It's a win-win-win-win-lose.
We lose.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A cautionary tale

One of my many useless skills is reading too much into an ordinary article or news story. There was a good one today:
NEW YORK (AP) - Shares of General Motors Corp. plunged Wednesday to close below $10 for the first time in more than half a century, on worries about the company's cash needs and speculation about a possible bankruptcy protection filing down the road. GM shares fell $1.77, or 15.1 percent, to close at $9.98. Their session low of $9.96 marked their lowest point since September 13, 1954, when they hit $9.92, according to the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago. The price is adjusted for splits and other changes.
After reading that, I imagined a 55-year old who got a hundred shares as a christening gift back in 1954. He's ready to retire now and on a recent trip to his safe deposit box, he quickly discovered that they were worth the same $1,000 that they were worth when his rich uncle gave them to him as a very generous gift.
Once he regained consciousness, he started thinking. He remembered what things cost in 1954:
House: $22,000
Average income: $3,960
Ford car: $1,548 - $2,415
Milk: $0.92
Gas: $.21 per gallon
Bread $0.17
Postage stamp: $.03
American Cheese: $0.55 lb.
T-Bone steak : $0.95 lb.
Post Grape Nuts cereal - 10 .oz pkg: $0.19
Clorox Bleach - 1/2 gal.: $0.19
20 gallon gas water heater $75
Semi-automatic Kenmore washer: $154.95
One share of General Motors stock in 1954 - $9.92
One share of General Motors stock in 2008 - $9.98
Those 100 shares were a generous gift in 1954. It amounted to a third of what most people made in a year. Today, they're worth what a lot of people make in a week. Factoring in inflation, it's a mountain of loss over the decades.
It points out how shabbily the automotive industry has been run over the past 50 years. After all, it's a high-demand product and people like new cars, especially if they can afford them. It isn't so much that they've outpaced inflation, because they still cost about two-thirds of what people earn in a year, so you'd have to figure that it's bad management that has doomed companies like Chrysler, Ford and General Motors and why the Japanese have been eating our lunch for the past 25 years.
Every time I think about buying a few shares of Ford Motor (currently less than $5 a share) or GM, I lie down until the feeling passes. Meanwhile, our buy-and-hold long-term shareholders are retiring on 1954 dollars.
Jiffy Lube is hiring.

What goes around usually comes around.

I was late tuning in the Phillies game tonight. I had just gotten in from one of my bike-to-gym runs and I flipped on the TV in the bottom of the second inning. That's when it happened. Phils broadcaster Chris Wheeler, said, "For those of you just tuning in..." Wow. I'm just tuning in. So many times I've heard that statement, and I've told the TV, "I've been watching for an hour." I used to wonder to whom they were talking. Now I know. It's me, that's whom.
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Starbucks Corporation said on Tuesday it plans to close 600 underperforming U.S. stores and cut up to 12,000 full and part-time positions, (about 8 percent of its workforce) as it copes with an economic downturn and increasing competition.
For years, comedians and regular people have been making jokes about too many Starbucks. Lewis Black does ten minutes on being in Houston and standing next to a Starbucks and turning around and seeing ... another Starbucks. One of the corporate philosophies is that they intentionally put them across the street from one another because they figured that consumers don't want to be inconvenienced. What that tells me is that people won't cross the street for a cup of Starbucks coffee. Finally now we're seeing that it's true.
I feel badly for the people who are going to lose their jobs, and as usual, upper management is to blame. Come bonus time, you can bet your life that the CEO and his pals upstairs will get their fat bonus checks while the people they laid off are still looking for work. Ironically, news of the layoffs caused the stock price to rise by 5 percent. I guess that's why management doesn't mind laying off workers. The stock might have gone up 10 percent if some executives were let go.
I remember reading a Walgreen's annual report that said their research indicated that consumers want a drug store within 2 miles of their home. I have two. One is a CVS and the other is a Walgreen's. There are three if you count the drug store inside the supermarket. Let's say it's three.
In boom times, executives can't make a mistake. They build a Home Depot across the street from a Lowe's (intentionally) and a Rite Aid across the street from a CVS and a McDonald's across the street from a Burger King. Count them, they're everywhere.
In the late 1990s, the stock market was so good that a blind monkey with a pencil up his ass could pick a winning stock. Magazines and newspapers used to have contests where top analysts were up against a dart board to see who could pick the best stocks. Sometimes the dart board won and sometimes it was close.
Now that the bloom is off the rose and times are getting tougher, our flagrant lifestyle and "build 'em everywhere" mentality is catching up with us. The building hasn't stopped. Around here, a new Target store and a new Lowe's store is going up a few miles from a new Kohl's and a Home Depot.
Sometimes I get the urge to call the CEOs of these companies and say, "For those of you just tuning in..."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A fecal matter.

Cat litter. That's what it's come to. Amazing isn't it? Fifty years old, a college degree, home ownership and it comes down to cat litter. Amazing and appropriate both.
Monday night I decided to forgo the supermarket trip in lieu of the pet store approach to buying cat litter. It's on the way home and the supermarket parking lot is a congested knot of clutter. Another executive decision executed. What I hadn't bargained on was the huge price mark-up for things in high-end pet stores. I wandered in thinking I was going to easily wander out.
Besides, it was cat litter, right? How much could it cost? Try twelve bucks. Twelve dollars made a tank of gasoline look like a bargain. At least the gas gets me someplace. This gets me nowhere except wandering the store in tiny circles looking ... there must be a two dollar bag of cat litter here someplace, right?
I found the eight dollar bag, which was actually a plastic container with a lid, as though I'm supposed to pour some out and cap it for later. What exactly do they think I'm doing with this stuff? After much circling and under-the-breath muttering I did manage to find a single three dollar bag of some generic clay litter that claimed to be both non-clumping and non-dust producing. My lucky day. Can't have dust and clumps, can I?
Quickly, I grabbed it and got out. I wanted to debate the store clerk as to the virtue of twelve dollar cat litter, (or even eight dollar litter) but I'm smart enough to know that not only don't they set the prices but they probably don't care, so I decided to keep my opinions to myself - for a while.
I think the high-end pet stores take advantage of pet owners' guilt. The guilt that their little companions are somehow worth the $30 bags of food and the $12 litter. Strange, how the $30 food eventually becomes $12 litter. I love my cat like a son, but I draw the line at food that by the ounce is more expensive than what I eat and litter that only a fool would scoop up and throw away.
He has lived more than 17 fruitful years on supermarket Purina One and two-dollar Tidy Cat litter, and something tells me that if I let him in on the high-end junk he'd tell me I was being a jackass for thinking that pet store food is any different - or better - than what he's been eating or crapping in.
I think the high-end pet stores are made for the Hummer-driving, plastic bag using, big house cooling gang who somehow thinks that more expensive equals better. There will always be a place for them. That's how Sharper Image can sell twenty dollar nose hair clippers.
Supermarket, I'll never stray again. And, for the record, I didn't put the bag of litter in a bag.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Hershey Highway

Hershey, Pennsylvania. Everything in town has the same name. Hershey Park, Hershey Avenue, Milton Hershey School, Hershey Gardens, the Hotel Hershey, The Hershey Lodge, Hershey Area Playhouse ... You could drop somebody blindfolded out of a moving car and it would take about two minutes for them to figure out where they were. The only thing in town this week that wasn't named Hershey was The Dave Matthews Band.
It was another great show. They're almost always great, which is why I go. The venue, on the other hand, sucks dark chocolate. Strike one was a trio of teenaged girls who accused me of stealing their jacket in the Hershey Park cafeteria. What a 50-year old would be doing with a girls' jacket in 90-plus temperatures is beyond me, but there you are.
It's a big stadium with odd ways in and out, as though they wanted to punish us for having to pee. Last year it was a power-tripping security guard who made me go back and re-enter. Strike two this year was a spectator in a wheelchair who somehow figured that the policing duties fell on him as he yelled at me for skipping over a barrier after a way-too-long wait in a line (to get to my seat) that seemed to be going nowhere. If people in wheelchairs want to be treated like everyone else, I did him a favor by telling him to fuck off.
I don't think I'll be going back.
It was also the fourth day of rain in the four DMB road trips this year. Try picking four random calendar days and see what kind of odds you'd get if you wanted to bet that it would rain on all four occasions. Those are the kinds of lotteries I win.
Meanwhile, there were almost as many Park's in Minnesota at the U.S. Women's Open as there were in Hershey. Inbee Park won, closely followed by Angela Park as the South Korean invasion of women's golf continues. At one point, the top 8 contained two Park's and two Kim's. I think there were 11 Kim's in the tournament. The one Creamer melted down midway through the final round and finished tied for 4th, but still made more money than I make in two years.
Johnny Miller was one of the commentators for the big event, and he's usually ready with some controversial opinion, but seems to be on his best behavior when he does a women's event. The most controversial thing he said was when he referred to the men's tour as the "regular tour," then quickly corrected himself and called it the "PGA."
So that was worth waiting for, eh? Mostly I just hung around the house all weekend consuming valuable resources.