Thoughts

Frustrated with European shopping carts

My wife recorded a video clip of me venting my frustration with European shopping carts back in February. Sorry for the rough words in the video, but I tell you, every time I go shopping and have to deal with those idiotic things, I want to get the guy that invented them, pin him to a wall and lob rotten apples at him. What simpleton makes all four wheels pivot, seriously? How can you not realize that loaded shopping carts have inertia, and cannot be steered at all when all four wheels pivot?

American shopping carts should be the standard. Only their front wheels pivot, so they’re easy to steer everywhere, especially around corners. They’re probably cheaper to make for that same reason. As for their European counterparts, they go anywhere except where you want them. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and what makes it worse is they’re everywhere in Europe. It’s like every store got together to figure out how best to frustrate and anger their customers, and decided to get these asinine carts. If that really was their intent, then they succeeded. It truly boggles the mind how they all went for the same moronic design. Didn’t any of their executives put two and two together? Don’t they use shopping carts? Don’t they know there’s something better already available?

See this video on blip.tv, Vimeo or YouTube.

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Thoughts

A few words on the economic crisis at hand

I’ve just got to say what I’m about to say, because it’s gnawing at me from inside, and I need to have it out. I’m not going to pretend I’m some economic guru, and I’ll use plain words.

My thinking on economics is simple. I understand tangible products. If an economy makes stuff I can touch and see, if it manages to sell that stuff both inside and outside the country, and the unemployment rate is low, then things are well.

I think things started to go sour when our industries decided to shift manufacturing to third-world countries. The thinking was that cheaper labor would result in cheaper products and lower prices. The truth was that it took jobs away from our country and it really only resulted in higher profits for the investors, not lower prices for us. As more companies would announce they were moving factories abroad, I would wince, because I knew our economic power was decreasing with each and every move. When you’re making less stuff in your own country, it’s plain common sense to realize that your economy is weaker.

As our economy started to move away from manufacturing and toward the service sector, I winced again. If you’re not making tangible products, what are you really making? Services? Knowledge? That’s all nice and good, but you can’t base an economy on intangibles. You just can’t. You have to have a good, healthy mix. I suppose I shouldn’t complain about this so much, since I work in IT. Still, at least what I make is tangible. I make websites and web systems. You can see and touch those, or click on them anyway. But not everyone can be a knowledge worker. It takes a certain amount of dedication, interest, perseverance and education, and many people simply don’t have the inclination to do that, or to be knowledge workers. That’s where having a good mix of jobs to offer your people is important. The more manufacturing jobs you move away from the country, the less variety you can offer your people. Plus, what do you do with all the folks you’re laying off as you “restructure” your economy?

When real estate prices started going up like crazy, I knew they’d come down, hard. They were bound to do so. When a pathetic little townhouse with a few tiny rooms, made out of plywood and fake brick cladding, cost over $400,000, that couldn’t be good. As prices kept going up, and people bought up multiple properties using ARMs, banking on the hope that the values of these properties would continue to grow, but no regular person could afford to actually own one of them, that was just plain wrong. When the home prices in most neighborhoods are so high that they’re out of reach for most, that’s asking for trouble.

Then I heard about the gaming that went on behind the scenes, as loans were approved by mortgage companies which seemed to sprout out everywhere. We knew someone who worked at one of these companies, and that person was just shocked at what went on. Executives would push employees to approve more and more loans only so they could get fat bonuses and afford McMansions and Mercedes cars. Meanwhile, the employees got nothing but low pay and long hours.

What’s more, I also heard about investment firms buying up groups of mortgages left and right, and re-selling them, and creating ridiculous layers of investments and speculations on top of these (mostly) insecure loans, in order to squeeze as much profit from them as possible. I’m sure that if you go back and check most loans, you’ll find 5-6 layers of additional financial speculation on top of the original mortgage. That’s insane and it makes me sick when I think about it. Instead of letting someone borrow money and charging them the set interest fee for the life of the loan, banks were selling these loans left and right as soon as the papers were signed, not caring where they ended up, letting others take the fall when and if the loan defaulted, etc ad nauseam. I knew that wasn’t going to end well.

Fast forward a couple of years to where we are today, and is it really any surprise that we’re here? Is it? And what’s being done about it? The government wants to bail out the banks and give them insane sums of money. You can’t do that! If they’ve mismanaged their own money so badly over these past several years, while their executives got filthy rich, let those same “smart” executives figure out how to fix their own problems! But no, what we’ve got now are scare tactics employed across the main stream media, where politicians and bankers are trying to scare us into giving in and allowing the bailout plan to go through. We’ve got bankers lobbying politicians to get the plan passed, and we’ve got them salivating at the thought of getting a piece of the bailout pie. This is ridiculous and irresponsible!

I keep thinking about Bush’s televised speech when he wanted to go into Iraq. And then I think about his speech just a few days ago, where he used the exact same scare tactics and language to try and get us to agree to the bailout plan. Jon Stewart did a great job of contrasting the two speeches on The Daily Show [reference]. Here’s a man that’s derailed our country, our economy, our international standing, and our military over the past 8 years, and we get to see his scare tactics in use once more. He’s clearly beholden to special interests, and they write his agenda. They wrote his agenda when he said we should go into Iraq, and they’re writing his agenda now that he wants to bail out the corrupt bankers. Given his track record, does he really deserve any credibility? I don’t think so.

So what should we do? Ride it out. Let the bankers suffer and cry. Let’s take our proverbial castor oil, let the crap pass through the system, and move on. They said it would be a disaster yesterday, when the stock market tumbled 778 points, and yet it jumped back up by 485 points today as investors gobbled up stocks while the prices were low. I think we all need a serious round of belt-tightening. Many Americans need to learn a hard lesson, namely that life doesn’t work on credit, that you need actual, real money to buy stuff. People and politicians and banks everywhere need to learn real fiscal responsibility. They need to learn that they can’t run up bills on credit cards and loans and credit derivatives and bond issues and not expect them to come due at some point. They need to learn that saving is more important than spending, and that a healthy economy means an economy that keeps its jobs inside the country, and makes most of what it needs inside the country as well.

It is truly unfortunate that none of the candidates running for president is saying this. I support Obama on my website, as you can tell by the Obama button in the sidebar, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything. I think he’s the better choice out of the two, but he’s pretty short on substance when it comes to what needs to be done about our economic crisis. And he actually supports the bailout plan — probably out of fear, because he doesn’t want to be saddled with a big recession should he win office. I honestly wish Ron Paul was still running for president, because he’d get my vote, solely for his common sense approach to this whole mess.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-18

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Reviews

The packages return… again

I can’t make this stuff up, seriously. I had another shipment of boxes returned to me by FedEx. I was using pre-printed labels sent to me by Data Robotics themselves. I sent back two Drobos to them a week ago, and the same boxes are now sitting back in my home. One was a replacement unit that didn’t work out, and another was the original Drobo that made questionable fan and chassis noises. See my Drobo review for the details on the Drobos, if you’re interested.

The re-returned FedEx packages

You may remember that one of the RMA Drobos was returned to me already. When I called FedEx this time, I was transferred to a manager who knew how to research the problem, unlike the last time. Still, all he could tell me was that he has no idea what’s going on, and he’s never seen anything like it in the system. Great… What he “thinks” might be going on is that there’s something wrong with the prepaid shipping labels, and apparently, even though the shipper and destination addresses are printed correctly on the label, the barcode isn’t correct, and is causing the packages to be re-routed back to me.

Whatever the case may be, I fed up with yo-yo packages. I want these boxes to go to their destination, and I keep shipping them out, yet they keep coming back to me. I’ve asked Data Robotics to provide me with UPS shipping labels, and will see if UPS can manage to ship them where they belong. I’ve given FedEx two chances already, and I’m not inclined to give them another.

What I’d really like to know is why this stuff keeps happening to me… Sure, it makes for a bit of “entertainment”, but it also frustrates me to no end.

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Reviews

How houses get built in the DC area

I thought that when I lived in Florida, the construction there was shoddy. I was wrong. At least there they used concrete pillars and floors for the houses, and the building code was so strict everything was anchored properly, especially after Hurricane Andrew. When I moved to the DC area, I thought construction would be better here, since it’s a temperate climate and the houses should be built to last and hold up to the weather. I was wrong. Construction here is horribly shoddy.

I have never been so shocked at the cheap and flimsy “workmanship” I see every time I pass some house or building under construction. It never ceases to amaze me what passes code in these parts, and I’ve lived here since 2003. It’s downright thievery, I tell you. I’ll show you some photos below to help you see what I mean. I call it thievery because you’d think housing would be dirt cheap given the materials and level of effort that goes into the construction, but it isn’t. It’s terribly expensive, to the point that people making below what would be called upper middle class in other parts of the country can’t afford to live inside the Beltway, much less outside it. They have to go find housing either in bad neighborhoods, or way out in the boonies, in order to get anything affordable.

It’s not right. It makes my blood boil. Honestly, I can’t believe what goes on. It’s the same construction everywhere, from the (relatively) cheaper townhomes and single family homes right up to the McMansions that have sprung up on River Rd, Georgetown Pike and other richer places. The only thing that changes is the size and price of each monstrosity, but they’re all just as flimsy.

Do you want to see what I mean? Take a look at these photos. They’re from a house currently under construction in my area.

House under construction

Some unwitting soul is going to pay several hundred thousands of dollars for this piece of crap, and he won’t know what a lemon he’s getting. It’s all 2×4 construction. There’s nothing solid and concrete there except the foundation, and I’m not sure how thick that is, either. It’s all either cheap, soft wood or plywood, including the upper floor. Not only that, but the beams aren’t straight, and the joints aren’t secured properly.

House under construction

It’s basically a big plywood box. I’m not sure what its projected lifetime is, but I can’t imagine it’ll last more than 30 years. It’ll start needing serious repairs even before the mortgage is paid off. Isn’t that terrible?

Do you see that cheap, flimsy Tyvek plastic? That’s the weatherproofing. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. That’s also the insulation. I doubt they’ll put glass fiber or any other kind of insulation between the drywall and the beams. They might, but I seriously doubt it. I’ve seen the inside of many walls, and they’re usually empty.

House under construction

Can you say cheap? I can. It’s cheap construction! It’s a travesty. Look at that horrible plywood shell. That’s going to be a tower. It’s going to look so nice, clad in fake brick or plastic siding only 1-2 inches thick… It’s also going to be horribly inefficient when it comes to temperature preservation. And if water should happen to leak in through that cheap brick cladding and through that flimsy Tyvek sheet, the plywood will rot away quietly and the owner won’t even know it… Wonderful, isn’t it? Isn’t this piece of crap worth mortgaging your life away?

Should we be ill-fortunate enough to get a hurricane or some tornado in our area, the roof on this thing will probably get torn off, and the entire house might or might not be standing when nature’s done with it.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I understand that America has a long history of 2×4 construction. It’s how the West was won. It’s cheap, affordable, goes up quickly, etc. But this isn’t the West, and it’s not the 1800s. This is the supposedly refined East. We should know better by now. It’s our nation’s capital. And the prices of these plywood boxes aren’t cheap. No, they’re so high most people can’t afford them.

I also understand the builders have to make a profit and the cost of land in this area is expensive. But this is ridiculous! If you’re going to build something that someone will want to call their home, and will pay dearly for it, sinking most of their productive, working years into paying it off, then God help you if you don’t build something worthwhile, something that’ll last. You’ll get what’s coming to you, don’t you worry about that…

What I wonder about is how the people and companies that put up these things can live with themselves. That’s what I want to know. How can they sleep at night knowing someone’s going to pay a fortune for something that’ll start falling apart after the first several years, for something that’s so horribly inefficient when it comes to energy use that they’ll be paying through the nose to cool it in the summer and to heat it in the winter? Don’t tell me about efficient windows! You can get the most expensive windows out there — if the walls themselves can’t conserve the inside temperature, you’ll still be nowhere. There’s such a thing as global warming to worry about. Have you heard of it? Everyone needs to reduce their carbon footprint, and it starts in the home.

Whatever happened to the good, old masonry work? What happened to quality stone construction? Yes, it’s more expensive, but isn’t it worth it? Why can’t you builders put a little more pride in your work? Why can’t you make a concrete skeleton, and use thicker insulation and better materials for the cladding? Is it so hard to do? So you’ll make a little less money. You might have to mark up the price a little. You might have to educate the consumers that know nothing about quality construction. But isn’t it all worth it in the end? Won’t you feel better knowing the house you built will last a long time? Won’t you feel better knowing the people that will buy your house will thank you for your solid construction later? Isn’t it it worth it to build good will instead of ill will?

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