mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to make tens of dollars by going to yard sales...

On occasion, when I'm not posting about my cat or being single, I'll make a post on FaceBook bragging about something I found at a yard sale. Usually, it will get a comment or two from people lamenting how they never find such cool stuff at yard sales. So I figured I'd share some of my deep, dark secrets.

What kind of things do I find at yard sales? This weekends haul included a pair of vintage Bose Series 4.2 direct/reflecting speakers. I paid $12 for them at a community yard sale about 3 miles from my house. They guy even helped me carry them to my SUV. A pair in similar condition sold on eBay for $300.

Other finds this year have included a MXR Phase 100 "script" guitar pedal for $5 that sold on eBay for $101, a $5 Apple ADC to DVI adapter that sold for $79, a $75 NIB commercial coffee maker that went for $162, and a $20 new in box Epson PowerLite projector that went for $247. All time best finds have included a $2 Yamaha Keytar that went for $220, a $5 fuser for Xerox color copier that went for $207, and an HP 16C Computer Science Calculator (with original box) that went for $230.

So how do I do it? Work. Every non-rainy Saturday morning that I don't have something else to do (and since I have absolutely no social life, that's all of them) I go to yard sales and flea markets. I roll out the door around 8am with all the tools of my trade - a fully charged iPhone, a wallet full of several of every denomination of bills, including a couple hundreds just in case, a can of Rockstar energy drink, and a map.

The map is the most important thing. Every Friday night, I go on Craigslist and find all the local yard sales and flea markets. I also check the PennySaver, if my mailman has bothered to deliver it, but very few people advertise their yard sales in the PennySaver anymore. I throw them into google maps and plot out a course. I give priority to certain things - descriptions that mentioned stuff I look for (like electronics, computers, or musical instruments), sales in nice areas (because people who live in expensive houses often have expensive stuff), community yard sales (because you get a lot of sellers in one place, and you are more likely to get casual sellers who are trying to get rid of stuff rather than pros who are trying to make a profit), flea markets (if they are ones I know are likely to have casual sellers and not just people selling homemade jewelry or multi-level marketing schemes). I try to group them near each other. Then I print them out and go to bed.

It's not perfect - there are days I come home empty-handed, and there are days I do worse, and come home with turds that I lose money on. But since I don't spend much, I don't lose much, and I often win. Most of the time it's not a huge win - I can't find $3 items that sell for $300 all the time - but I can pretty easily find stuff that I can make $20 or $30 on, and it adds up. After all, Wal-Mart makes a lot of money by selling lots of cheap stuff at a very thin markup. And I can't draw any hard and fast rules - that projector was found in an older neighborhood on the edge of Baltimore City, one I normally would have avoided except for a lack of many other sales that week. The 16C was found at a church flea market around the corner from my house, one I've been to a dozen times and left empty-handed the other 11.

But the main trick is just to hit as many sales as you can. If you have specialized knowledge of a field, if you have a hobby, that's what you should concentrate on - on looking for stuff you know. It's weird how something I discovered a couple years back will suddenly make an appearance on someone's table, nestled between a giveaway Frizbee and grandma's old linens, and I'll know what it is even though nobody else did.

I probably could work harder - I rarely do Sunday sales, and I typically find myself calling it quits after 2 or 3 hours - by then I'm usually hungry, have to pee, and figure a lot of the good stuff has already been snatched. But I do a lot better than I would if I did what I otherwise would do on a Saturday morning, which involves being curled up under the covers of my bed.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hamfest is dying...

Probably about 8 or 9 years ago, one of my friends/coworkers introduced me to hamfests - which are basically swap meets for ham radio enthusiasts, not celebrations of tasty, frequently smoked pork products. When I went to my first one, it occurred to me, as I wandered among the tables of electronic crap, that I too had plenty of electronic crap that I could sell. At the time I was doing some eBay selling, though not nearly as much as I do now. It occurred to me that I could unload some of the stuff I'd bought that wasn't worth eBaying - and as I got into it, I realized that I could also buy stuff specifically to sell at Hamfests.

So over the years, it's gone from me just unloading my extra stuff to specifically going to auctions looking for items that would be good hamfest fodder - things like desktop computers and monitors, electronic enclosures, and some stuff that was a gamble - like cases of pint glasses (which turned out to be a losing gamble so far). It's always been hit or miss - I've been to hamfests that were miserable, than come back to the same one the next year and sold 3x as much stuff. I've grossed as little as $!3 and as much as over $1300. I've sold everything from foam body parts to Dell Precision workstations. And I've bought a handful of items as well, most of which have been flipped on eBay (or in the case of the 100-pack of Tyvex envelopes I bought at the same hamfest where I sold $13 worth of stuff, used to pack stuff I sold on eBay)

But in the last few years, I'll always hear people muttering about hamfests not being what they used to be. I've seen the effects of it, as well - the Timonium hamfest going from 2 days with outdoor tailgating to one day, indoor only, the disappearance of the big Fredrick Hamfest, one I had always liked. But my sales were still decent, and I kind of shrugged it off.

But I'm starting to re-evaluate this view. My last few have been slow - I used to sell a ton of PC's and monitors, now I'm lucky if I sell one or two. Today's Howard County hamfest had a lot fewer vendors than last year's, and fewer customers as well - despite a clear sky. I still did OK, but instead of a mix of OK and great I've had several in a row that have just been OK. And it's been more work to get that way - grinding it out, selling lots of couple dollar a piece items instead of a few big sales.

I don't intend to stop going to hamfests anytime soon. But I'm changing my buying and selling strategy - right now I have a ton of PC's and monitors, and I'm not going to be buying any more until I've sold them all (I mean, unless I have a chance to buy a bunch of i7's for $10 each or something. But that never happens). I'm also willing to sell stuff at cost, or take a loss, just to get rid of it.

The reality is that when I look around my house, when I look at the stuff I'm tripping over, much of it is hamfest stuff - despite the fact that the money I make from it is a very small part of my income. Granted, part of this is the nature of the beast - eBay items can quickly come in, get listed, and get shipped out, while hamfest stuff has to wait until the next one and hope it sells. But I'm tired of tripping over stuff, I'm tired of spending over an hour loading my truck the night before a hamfest, and then unloading most of it again. My goal going forward is to have a lot less stuff, and for the most part to only buy stuff that I know I can resell quickly, preferably that is light and doesn't take up a lot of room.

Hamfests aren't dead yet, but they are changing, and I need to change with it, before I'm crushed by a stack of unsold Dell Pentium 4's that I couldn't pass up because they were $5 each.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Behind every auction is a story...

In the words of Semisonic, every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. And when that end is an auction, it usually means that something has ended quickly and dramatically. Sure, occasionally places - especially government agencies - will auction off surplus items, to make sure the public has the opportunity to buy it and that it's sold for fair-market value. But generally, the auction is the sledgehammer of the selling world - something bad has happened, and someone needs to get rid of everything now. Sometimes it's an estate auction, because someone has died - as I once overheard a fellow auction-goer remark at a consignment estate sale, "In life, everything ends up on one of two tables - the auctioneer's table or the mortician's table". Sometimes, it's because a business has failed, for the reasons that businesses do - not enough customers, too many expenses.

But sometimes it's more interesting than that - when I see an interesting auction, I often do a little digging, and the stories are interesting. One was of a charity that was supposed to be helping to put technology in schools, but was also taking out fraudulent loans by leasing computers, then getting loans using the computers they didn't own as collateral. Another was doing sham mortgage relief. Another had been stealing money from the elderly woman she was a caretaker for, and spending it on crap from QVC and HSN.

I recently saw an ad for something called The Harrisburg Auction and was a little surprised - Harrisburg, PA isn't really known for much beyond it's status as Pennsylvania's state capital. But then I did a little reading and understood. For those who follow the problems that municipalities are facing in terms of coming close to bankruptcy, Harrisburg is one of the poster children. It's got the usual issues - declining tax base, municipal pensions, plus an incinerator that cost way more than expected. But it also had a previous mayor who had a very expensive, but not very coherent, vision of turning a working-class state capital into some sort of tourist mecca.

His first project was the National Civil War museum, which I'v visited, if by visited you mean "drove thought he parking lot of". See, Harrisburg is also home to the PA State Surplus Warehouse, and as a semi-professional crap reseller I usually try to stop there on my way up to my parent's house in NJ - as long as it's a weekday before 3pm, when they close. A wrong turn sent me into the Civil War Museum's parking lot, which was very nice, and in front of a very nice building. It also appeared to be very empty.

The mayor's other brilliant plan was a Wild West museum, despite the fact that Harrisburg isn't even really in Western PA, let alone in the actual West. In preparation for his museum, the mayor went out and acquired a whole bunch of crap, but luckily for Harrisburg tax payers, never actually opened the museum. Evidently, the city has finally decided to sell of their giant collection at auction.

No, I won't be going - it's not my kind of crap, I usually go for the more technology-related kind. But it's an interesting story.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Auction hunting, and not bagging anything...

Last year, on the way up to my parent's house in NJ, I stopped to pick up some stuff I won in an online auction in Philly. I paid about $1200 for a number of items, which included a flash RAID array that I sold for a grand, several ruggedized laptops that fetched as much as $300 each, and 5 HP computers that were so new they had 2 years of warranty left on them.

This year, I also made a stop on the way to the 'rents for Easter to pick up some online auction items. This time, though, it was $130 worth of gift shop merchandise from an Amish Country gift shop - mostly glassware like shot glasses, pint glasses, and mugs. If I'm lucky, I may be able to double or triple my investment, but I suspect it's going to be a long, slow grind, and might mean setting up at a traditional flea market instead just selling it at the ham-radio and electronic themed hamfests I normally sell at.

Sadly, this is pretty much the summation of my auction experiences of late - not very good. I've been going to auctions for years, as well as bidding on (non-ebay) online auctions where you bid online and pick up in person. From fall of 2011 to the end of 2012 I had an unusually good run - in fact, my eBay sales last calendar year - mostly stuff I bought at auctions but also a number of items I found at yard sales - was enough that I ended up getting 1099-k'ed by Paypal, resulting in an unexpected tax bill.

Being successful at the auction game, like much of life, is a combination of 3 things - luck, skill, and effort. Luck is a combination of the right auctions being nearby at times you can get to them, with the right items, and without anyone else who knows what they are worth. Skill is knowing what to bid on, how to resell it for a profit, and knowing how to spot hidden gems. Effort is going to enough auctions, being willing to drive a little, take reasonable risks, and store and sell what you buy.

The irony of luck is that a buyer's good luck is often the result of someone else's bad luck - many of my finds have been from estate sales, bankruptcy sales, or other places where my new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. But the other half of luck is who else shows up - I remember one auction in December 2011 that included the assets of a doctor's office that had closed - on many items not only was I the only bidder, but I was telling the auctioneer what the items were so he could write up tickets. The flip side is when someone with deeper pockets shows up - I went to a computer store auction in Lancaster, PA a few months back where a young Asian guy in a fitted cap wanted pretty much everything I wanted, and was willing to pay amounts for them where I didn't think I could make a profit. Often, the difference between walking home with a truckload of profitable merchandise and walking out with a couple items and a feeling that you just wasted a day is one person showing up or not. Or on someone making an entirety bid - I recently was high bidder on a number of items from an aerosol can plant - including 150 cans of canned air for $35 - I probably could have gotten $450 at hamfest - it's something I bought some of several years ago at an auction, quickly sold out, and haven't been able to find more of cheaply since. Sadly, there was also a $100,000 entirety bid for everything - so I'm still airless. Luck can also come into play in stranger ways - last year I bid on the contents of two boxes from the estate of a guy who had a recording studio. I paid $40 because I had seen an $80 and a $40 item in the box. What I didn't realize was that there were also several remotes for reel-to-reel tape players, 2 of which were worth $70 a piece - and one that was worth $270, that was so rare that nobody had sold one on eBay for months before I listed mine.

Timing is the other half of luck. It's made more difficult by the fact that I have a day job, one that pays me far more than even the best year's crap-hunting profits. So I need to work around that, and sometimes that means missing an auction I really want to go to. Family obligations is also sometimes an issue. This year I will be missing one of my favorite semi-annual auctions, one I look forward to every year and that I've probably been going to twice a year for the last 3+ years- Penn State's computer surplus auction. Alas, I'm going to a conference for work that week. While the career value and cost of what my employer is paying to send me to the conference far exceeds what I'd make, it's still disappointing, because I actually enjoy going there, even though it usually means driving through rural PA in the dark at 2am with a truck full of stuff that hits me every time I go around a turn.

Effort means going to a lot of auctions, something I try to do, and bidding on a lot of online auctions. It means knowing how to work the search on auctionzip to find non-obvious listings, religiously checking the websites of a number of online auction companies, and going to auctions that only have a hint of promise. Some of my best finds have been in auctions that were poorly advertised or that I only guessed might have stuff I wanted. The well-advertised auctions with lots of pictures tend to be the ones where most things sell for too much, because everyone went there. Effort also means going the distance - many of my really good finds have come at the end, when lots of other people have called it quits (or run out of money). The Penn State auction I mentioned earlier starts at 5pm - and usually runs well past midnight.

Skill is knowing what to bid on. In today's world of smartphones, skill doesn't mean as much as it used to, because everyone has a smartphone. But skill is knowing non-obvious items, the stuff people wouldn't think to look up, as well as finding valuable items in box lots or "contents of shelf/cabinet/room" type lots.

Besides the money I make from auctions, it's my hobby, and it's gotten me a number of cool random items that grace my house, from the 24" Lenovo widescreen that graces my desk (from a defunct VA dotcom called jobfox) to the Herman Miller Aeron chair in front of it (from an FDIC auction of First Bank Americano) to the Detoxify neon sign in my living room (from Record and Tape Traders). It's how I spend my vacation days. Without much inventory, and with some time out of town coming up, I've been taking a break from eBay, and it's weird not spending my nights writing descriptions or packing stuff. It's not the end of the world - it's not like I need the money to eat, and now that the weather is starting to warm up I'll probably be finding some inventory at hamfests and yard sales. And I know eventually a good auction will show up - this certainly isn't the first dry spell I've had, and it won't be the last. But hopefully, soon, my luck will return.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Why would anyone want to start a business, anyway?

The first time I really understood why business owners grumble about the government so much was a couple years ago, in a field in Howard County. See, as a very small hobby, I sell stuff at hamfests - basically swap meets for ham radio and computer enthusiasts. It's typically a bunch of guys selling junk from their basements, and a few people like me who will occasionally also buy stuff at auctions and the like and sell it. Except that day, the tax folks showed up, and told everyone that if they did not get a Maryland sales and use tax license they would have to leave. Luckily, they moved at government employee speed, while hamfest sellers are up 4 hours before the crack of dawn, so by the time they had gotten very far most people were done selling.

The most annoying thing was that the government folks were wrong - Maryland's own sales tax laws exclude casual sales under $1000, a category that most of the old guys selling junk out of their basements fall into. But even for those who don't - like myself - there is a certain feeling of annoyance. For a typical hamfest, I've spent hours online tracking down auctions, bidding online or standing around bidding on stuff, carted it home, unloaded, sorted, tested, and priced it, loaded it back in my truck, gotten up at 4am to drive an hour or two to unload it, and stood outside for hours, praying that it doesn't rain - and then loading it all back up, driving home, and unloading it all. For a good fest, I might gross a few hundred bucks. For a bad one, I've grossed as little as $13. So after doing all that work and maybe making a couple dollars after cost of good sold and expenses, the government wants a piece of it just for showing up.

My second tangle with the fun of the tax authorities came a few months ago. I also sell on eBay, and last year - thanks to a few lucky auctions and selling a few unusually expensive items, my Paypal gross revenues where about $500 above the amount that Paypal sends a 1099-K to the IRS for. (Yes, I realize technically you are supposed to pay income taxes on any income, even if it's not reported to the government. I'm also know that very few people are going to voluntarily give the government money that they know the government doesn't know they "owe", and I'm pretty sure the IRS knows that too). So for several weeks I tried to figure out what I owed - going through 238 transactions, finding receipts for the stuff I bought at auctions in my file system (actually a box full of papers that originally held 2-buck chuck). The rest of my sales were of stuff bought at yard sales and the like, which I have no way of documenting the price paid. After deducting thousands of dollars in paypal and ebay fees, thousands more in shipping expenses, and taking home office and vehicle deductions, I ended up paying around $!500. As annoying as that was, spending hours making excel spreadsheets during time I'd normally be writing eBay descriptions or going to auctions was more annoying. And I'm still not entirely sure that my amounts were correct - I found, for example, that by changing a date by one day I made a big difference in my tax liabilities. I could make an argument either way, and you can guess which way I decided to go.

I'm unlikely to have this happen again - so far, there have not been many good auctions, I had stuff last year that I had bought the year before but didn't sell until that year, and I'm going to miss one of my favorite and most profitable auctions this year due to a work conference. But you can imagine that I'm going to make sure that I don't cross the limit this year. Because incentives matter.

For me, stuff like this is an annoyance. I have a day job that pays the bills - eBay and Hamfests give me a few extra bucks and let me kill some time (hey, I'm single) and get the rush of occasionally finding hidden gold. I don't depend on them for survival, and can cut back or give them up if the legal hassles get to be too much of a hassle. But occasionally, I'll wonder if I could do them full-time. Even despite the legal aspect, the answer has always been "no" - there are too many people chasing too few profitable items to make enough to lead the lifestyle I've grown accustomed to (1200 square foot townhouse, Pathfinder on 18"s, the latest threads from the Target clearance rack). But I could see myself, if I'm still single and childless in 20 or 30 years with a paid-off house, retiring early and doing that if the opportunities are still around. But once again, the thought of spending as much time doing paperwork as hunting down merchandise is not thrilling.

Which begs the question - why would anyone subject themselves to this - to the difficulties of owning a business, plus of dealing with the government? After all, if you are a business owner, you get none of the protections of being an employee - no minimum wage, no maximum workday, and you can't sue yourself for sexual harassement for admiring yourself in the mirror. Instead, you pour money and time into something, and if you are successful, the government wants a piece of it. I realize that we have to pay for military and other services that government provides, but I can also understand why business owners are often less sympathetic about regulation and taxation than those who get a paycheck from someone else.

Which is probably why a lot of small businesses are owned by people who don't really have a lot of options, like recent immigrants (just ask Joe Biden or people who have been laid off and unable to find another job. I've found the little bit of interaction with taxes to be difficult - and I'm a reasonably smart guy with an MBA. I can't imagine the baker or landscaper who wants to go into business for himself having an easy time dealing with not only taxes, but also regulations governing employees and food safety or EPA regs or whatever, all the time hoping that they don't mess up and find an inspector on their doorsteps.

And the government also discourages businesses from growing - as this NRO post points out, there are a lot of regulations - such as Obamacare - that have requirements if your business is larger than a certain size. Which gives a pretty powerful incentive for businesses that are close to that size to not grow, lest they be swamped by a rush of expenses and forms.

A government that discourages people from starting businesses, from hiring, from creating value by supplying something that people want that isn't supplied, or doing a better job of supplying it - is discouraging growth, it's discouraging the things it needs to continue being dynamic and increasing living standards. And I have no real answers on how it can do that, while still raising necessary taxes and providing a reasonable level of services and protection. But I get the feeling that most people don't even see that there is a problem.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

After a brief montage, this post will be awesome..

I subscribe to a couple of National Review email newsletters, and they both linked this article about how the Karate Kid has ruined the modern world.. The idea is that the typical movie often compresses the hard work that it takes to make major changes into a quick montage with cheerful music. Weak dude, a couple shots of him working out, champion. Ugly chick, a few shots of her buying clothes and taking off her thick glasses, hottie. So we forget the actual amount of effort that it takes in real life to make major changes.

I think there is a lot of truth in this. One of the examples the author gives is losing weight, and it's one I'm quite familiar with. I was overweight until my mid-20's, when (after taking one of those "how long do you have to live" quizzes online and getting mid-50's as an answer) I made some major changes. I started exercising, watched what I ate, and in two years I dropped close to 100 pounds and 10 inches off my waist. Seven or so years later, I'm still at a pretty healthy weight. I'm not as careful as I once was about what I eat, but I spend about 2 hours a day at the gym, so it balances out.

Sometimes, people will see me eating a big meal and make some sort of comment that they wish they could eat like that - presuming that I have some magic genetics that let me eat a bunch and still fit into my pants. That's pretty much the opposite of the truth - I come from a long line of people who have shopped in the husky section. But people see the results and not the effort.

Sometimes, that includes myself. I find myself rather unsympathetic to people who are overweight, thinking "well, if I can do it so can anyone". That, of course, ignores the fact that I couldn't do it for the first quarter-century of my life - I had to change a lot of bad habits, pass up a lot of desserts, and spend a lot of time on an elliptical when I would rather have been on my couch. Changing years of bad habits is not easy, yet once you do it's sometimes hard to remember how hard it was to make those changes.

The thing I struggle with most, though, is why some things seem to work if you put enough effort into them, and others don't. Losing weight was a huge achievement for me, and I'm pretty happy with where I am financially. But my career hasn't always advanced as quickly as I've always wanted it to, and when it comes to dating my life is pretty much a black hole. Part of that may be that I'm not putting in enough effort - or the wrong effort. But I think there is an element of luck - that you need to be in the right place at the right time. And that's something hard to accept for someone who wants to reduce everything to a simple formula, the way weight loss=fewer calories consumed + more calories burned.

My parents, who have been married for, I think, 48 years, met at a dance for young adults sponsored by local churches. Presumably, if one of them had decided to stay home that night, your intrepid blogger might not be around to write this. Plenty of things in my own life have come about from things that seemed minor at the time. Nibbler, the cat who is currently asleep between my chest and the keyboard of my macbook as I write this, came into my life as the result of an offhand conversation with a student employee who had found some kittens. My current job - which I've been at for almost 10 years - came out of a summer job I took my senior year in college because I had an off-campus apartment with a 12 month lease and needed to make some money while living there.

In the Karate Kid piece, the cracked author credits a series of firings and deaths for him getting his current job. And that's the thing about life - I think there is an element of luck, of being at the right place at the right time. Bad things happen to good people - they get diagnosed with cancer, they die in car accidents - so it seems reasonable that sometimes random good things will happen to people too.

But there is a third element too - the ability to take advantage of those good things. It's not always enough to be at the right place at the right time, you also need to be able to recognize that you are and take advantage of it. The Karate Kid article cites the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers for it's discussion of the 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to master something. But there is another section where Gladwell discusses Bill Gates, and argues that much of his success was that he was in the right place at the right time - that he went to a private school that had access to a mainframe computer right at the time when the personal computer revolution was starting. But Bill wasn't the only student in that school, and there were probably at least a few schools like it at the time - but only Bill went on to start Microsoft. And much of Microsoft's initial success has less to do with his writing of MS-DOS and more to do with his decision to license it to IBM instead of selling it outright. That let him license it to other manufacturers. Had he sold it instead, he would have gotten a nice check and probably never been heard from again. Being at the right time and place got Gates a leg up, but the rest of the climb was still because of choices he made.

So I would argue that life is a combination of effort, luck, and of recognizing and exploiting that luck. I don't know what the percentage is, and suspect it varies from person to person (like the taste of Soylent Cola). For someone like myself who wants to believe that I can change, it's frustrating, because maybe I can't, but also reassuring, because maybe that's only partly my fault.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Is asking for credit scores on dates really a thing?

I've seen This NYT story claiming dates are now asking each other for their credit score posted on a few online dating blogs, like HowaboutWe's Date Report. But when you read the story and actually do some thinking, you realize it's pretty much not a thing.

Sure, there's one anecdotal story in the lede, but the rest of it is super-thin. There are few stories about people in actual relationships where one of them having bad credit caused problems, which is about as much news as the fact that the Pope is believed to be Catholic, and has a cool hat. My favorite "example", though, is that they site the existence of a site called CreditScoreDating as an example - a dating site where dates post their credit score. Except that if you go to it, it looks like something someone crapped out in 10 minutes. Also, it's news page contains an entry from 2009 stating that the site is for sale, which was the top entry until recently when the NYTimes article got reposted on the pages news site. I'm guessing someone crapped out a dating site years ago, and some lazy NYTimes reporter googled credit score dating and found it. Which still doesn't make it a thing.

The silly thing about this is that daters have been gathering financial information about dates for years, but even a complete dating klutz like myself doesn't do it by asking for FICO scores. Instead, they ask their date what they do for a living or what kind of car they drive or if they own or rent or other questions that would at least give you some idea of their financial situation is - yes, I realize you can have a high income and a lousy score, but you can generally get an idea if someone is living within their means.

And speaking of online dating, I've started collecting some of the worst/oddest profiles I've found online on another blog I've started, Plenty Of Fail (a play on Plenty of Fish, a large free online dating site).

Monday, December 31, 2012

So, I bought a new truck..

So I did a little New Year's Eve shopping today. I bought a new truck.

I bought a 2012 Nissan Pathfinder LE, in black. It's very nice - it's got pretty much every option: hard drive mP3 player, backup camera, heated leather, navigation, sunroof, 18" rims. It's the third new vehicle I've owned, it's the first one I've paid cash for, the first from a Japanese brand (although it was built in Smyrna, Tennessee, and my old Chrysler PT Cruiser was built in Mexico) and it's the vehicle with the most expensive sticker price I've owned by almost a factor of two.

I got a pretty decent price on it, thanks to lots of discounts and manufacturer's rebate. I traded in my Ranger - I got less for it than I would have liked, but it was a lot easier than trying to sell it myself and deal with Craigslist wackjobs.

So why a Pathfinder, and why now? I wanted something truck-based, something body on frame. I was planning on getting a pickup, probably a Frontier, but the incentives on the Pathfinder made it a lot more vehicle for a little more money, plus I would gain an enclosed cargo area without having to pay extra for a cap. My original plan was to wait until spring. But the reason for the big discounts on the Pathfinder was that it's been replaced with a car-based model for 2013, and it seemed pretty likely that if I waited until then there might not be any to buy, and certainly not one in the color I wanted. So I bit.

I hope I made the right decision. The Danger Ranger served me very well, for 101, 782 miles. But nothing lasts forever, and I depend on my vehicle. I would happily have bought another Ford if they sold something similar. This is the second most expensive thing I've ever bought after my house. Unlike my house, though, I know this will go down in value (my house was supposed to go up, but instead went down, according to Zillow by about 2 Pathfinders). But by buying something with pretty much everything on it, I figure I won't be making excuses that I need a new vehicle in a few years because it's missing something.

Now I just need to come up with a catchy name for it like I did for the Danger Ranger. But it's hard to come up with something that rhymes with Pathfinder. Maybe I'll just call it the Black Sheep.

New Year's resets..

So on "The Five", Greg Gutfeld rails against New Year's resolutions. So are resolutions a waste of time?

Maybe. For the last few years, I've taken New Year's to outline my goals for the new year. They are usually pretty much the same - keep in shape, save money, not be single. Sometimes they've included specific goals, usually financial.

And when I look at most year's accomplishments, they are pretty much the same - I've generally stayed in decent shape, put away some money - and am still single.

And I think that's the thing about resolutions. If you try to do things that you want to do, that are improvements or getting back to doing things you already do, you tend to be successful. Achieving your goals 101 is pretty much to come up with specific things you want to achieve, outlining how you are going to achieve them, and then taking those steps.

I've always been frugal, and I've made focusing on losing and maintaining my weight for close to a decade. So I usually do OK on those things, because I know exactly what I need to do to achieve those things. Losing weight comes down to consuming fewer calories and burning more of them - things that are difficult to do, but once you get in the habit of them, do-able. Saving money means spending less, making more.

This year, that is once again true. Weight-wise I've been drifting a lot of late - eating more, not working out anymore. And like most people I've overindulged even more around Christmas. My pants are a bit snugger than they should be, and a recent doctor's visit weigh-in confirms I'm about 10-15 pounds above where I want to be And there are some money habits I could do better at.

So I think New Year's is good as less of a resolution and more as a reset - a chance to get back to good habits you've let slide, a chance to put aside the excesses of Christmas and spend less, eat less, and spend more time working out. It also serves as a convenient drop-dead date - often, while downing my 5th Christmas cookie of the day, I told myself that come New Year's, it would be back to fruit.

But New Year's resolutions are less effective as a way to obtain things that you don't know how to maintain - which in my case is a girlfriend. Sure, there are plenty of things I can do that may help, and staying in shape is one of them - along with putting in time on dating sites, contacting or responding to women who I'm on the fence about, and otherwise trying to be more social. But dating relies on someone else liking you, something I can't control. That makes it frustrating - and it also makes it something that doesn't make a great New Year's resolution.

I'd like to think that when I write a similar post 365 days or so from now, I won't still be single. But if that's true, it probably will be due to events that have little to do with New Year's resolutions.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What should we do about mass shootings? Probably nothing...

As anyone who isn't in a cave knows, there was a horrific shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut yesterday that left 26 people, including 20 kids, dead. As with any event like this, people are wondering what should be done to prevent it - and advocates of increasing gun restrictions or eliminating gun ownership are using it as an opportunity to advocate their positions.

But should we do anything in response to events like this? I would say no. For all the press these things get, they are exceedingly rare. That's why they get so much press - because they are unusual, as well as because we can relate to them - we all went to school at some point, many of us have kids in school, and we all go to public places like movie theaters or malls. The idea that someone could start shooting at us randomly is terrifying.

But it also probably won't happen. This year has been unusually bad for mass shootings, and this report from left-leaning political mag The Nation puts the number at 88. I would quibble with that number, as several of the shootings on the list don't fit the traditional definition of a mass shooting like the one used by this Mother Jones article - one public place, killing people at random. The Tennessee nightclub shooting followed a fight, the Miami funeral home shooting was gang-related, and the Delaware soccer tournament started when a shooter shot a specific individual. The racially motivated drive-bys in Oklahoma, by the Mother Jones definitions, were spree killings and not mass shootings. So that leaves us with 79 people killed in "traditional" mass shootings this year.

On the other hand, in 2010 (the most recent year I could easily find data for) according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 32,885 people were killed in vehicle accidents.That study doesn't break them down by age, but this 2003 study puts the number at 2,136, with traffic accidents being the biggest killer of children age 0-14, with 6 per day being killed.

You don't hear people talking about banning or seriously restricting cars, though, despite the fact that each and every week more kids are killed in car accidents than were killed this week in the worst school shooting ever. Nor should we - life is inherently risky - none of us get out of it alive - and shootings like this are part of the risk we take for living in a free and open society, just like getting killed by a car accident is a risk we take every time we turn the ignition and shift into drive.

But cars fulfill a need. I would argue that guns fulfill a need to - for defense, for hunting, and for keeping the government in check. But let's say you disagree, and you think most people just have guns because it's fun to shoot stuff. You know what else is also fun but not really necessary? Booze. Getting back to that 2003 NHTSA study I cited earlier, 21% were killed in alcohol-related crashes - that's about 420 kids a year. Disturbingly, about half of them were passengers with drivers who had been drinking. I'll admit that alcohol-related is a bit of a weaselly definition - it defines it as any alcohol in the bloodstream, not just being over the legal limit. But it seems fair to say that more kids will be killed this year by being passengers in cars driven by drunk parents than have been killed in mass shootings in decades.

Humans are not rational. And it's hard to be rational in the face of so much sadness and craziness. But good laws stem out of addressing the most serious problems with solutions that address those problems with the least possible cost - in terms of money and freedom - to citizens. Saying "we need to do something, and this is something" is how bad laws get passed, and events like this are the times legislators and citizens most want to do something. As difficult as it is, we need to reflect on how rare these events are and perform cost-benefit analysis if it's really worth taking the time and resources away from solving other, bigger, more deadly problems to fight something that is rare - if we do so, we'll actually cause more people to die.