All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

October 29, 2009

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Recently, I have noticed a lot of advertisements for coins on TV and in magazines.  Casual observers should be able to determine that many of these coins will never have any substantial value.  If you really think those Derek Jeter coins (the most hits ever by a Yankee!) are going to fund your retirement plan, you’ve got a few screws loose.  If you’re a Jeter fan and think the coin is pretty, then by all means buy it – but realize that it is a trinket, not an investment.  Items that are marketed as “collector’s items” rarely become items that collectors truly desire.

The deeper problem, though, are the companies that market gold coins by implying that these coins were produced by the US mint.  I saw one with the clever wording “U.S. government issued gold coins”.  Was the coin originally issued by the US mint?  Definitely.  Does the coin contain some small amount of gold?  Most likely.  Was the coin issued by the mint in the golden variety?  No.  The gold was added later, by a private company.  These companies love to use names that blur the line and try to imply that they are affiliated with the government in some way.

Some of the ads claim to sell the coins to you “at cost”.  I’m astounded that a private company would be so generous – they’re not even making a profit!  Or maybe they’re playing a shell game to make the statement true and false at the same time.  Let’s say that I own two companies: Widget Maker and Widget Seller.  Widget Maker incurs $5 in costs and sells widgets to Widget Seller for $50.  Widget Seller then sells the Widgets to you for $50.  Incredibly, the company has sold the widget to you “at cost”.  At the same time, I laugh all the way to the bank.

I laughed at one line in an ad – call today and you will speak with a senior specialist.  This seems a bit odd.  Why wouldn’t you have the junior specialists work with the new clients, and have the highly paid senior specialists work with the customers who want to spend a lot of money with you?  Oh, because you’re using the term to make  as a way to inflate the egos of possible customers – they have the opportunity to work with a senior specialist.

An ad on TV over the weekend really caught my attention.  The ad starts out describing 1877 $50 gold coins that contain 2.5 ounces of gold (worth a pretty penny, with gold going for about a thousand bucks an ounce).  The company is happy to sell you a 24 carat gold clad non-monetary copy for just … not $50, but $20!  What a great deal.  Except that “gold clad” isn’t the same thing as gold, and non-monetary means that it is not legal tender. The 1877 date might make the coin look interesting – but it has no correlation to the actual date the coin was “minted” (most likely 2009).  The Jeter coin might actually be worth more money ten years from now.

My general rule is this – if a company is selling specific “investments” through TV ads or full page print ads, it’s probably not a great investment.  If you want to make some investments, spend some time learning about the markets and/or work with a trusted broker.  If you want to invest in gold, fine – but invest in real gold, not this crap.

Football, Kiosks, and More

October 28, 2009

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Football in Iowa

This past weekend was a great weekend for the two largest state universities in Iowa.  My alma mater, Iowa State University, traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to face Johnny Goodman’s Huskers.  ISU’s program has fallen on hard times recently – or, more accurately, regressed back to the mean after several strong seasons under former coach Dan McCarney.  We hadn’t won in Lincoln since 1977.  Starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson (the conference’s leading rusher going into the weekend) were sidelined by injuries.  Several Cyclone payers were vomiting on the sideline as the result of flu-like symptoms.  

Not surprisingly, the offense sputtered and managed just nine points.  The much-maligned defense made those nine points stand up, holding the Huskers to just a single touchdown.  Nebraska made many journeys in to Iowa State territory, but were repeatedly stopped by an opportunistic defense that force seven fumbles (recovering five) and making three interceptions.

In East Lansing, Michigan, the University of Iowa (my wife’s favorite school) was caught in a defensive struggle with the Michigan State Spartans.  As the game wound down, there was a distinct possibility that the Hawks would also win a game by scoring just nine points.  I wondered if two 1-A school from the same state had ever won games on the same day with some few combined points?  (As a sidenote, Iowa won a game against Penn State by the score of 6-4 a couple of years ago).  

Michigan State executed a beautiful hook and ladder play during its final drive and score a TD to go ahead 13-9 with ninety seconds to go.  Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi lead the team down the field for one last chance at victory.  A Michigan State interception seemed to seal the deal – except that the defender had committed a defensive holding penalty on the receiver.  The drive was still alive.  With fifteen seconds left on the clock, Iowa had a first and goal on the seven yard line.  Three plays later, the Hawks were still on the seven yard line.  Amazing, the three plays had taken just thirteen seconds, leaving two precious seconds remaining.  Stanzi hit QB-turned-receiver Marvin McNutt for a TD to put Iowa up 15-13 with no time left.  By rule, the offensive team must attempt the PAT (because blocked PATs can be returned by the defense for two points).  Iowa “attempted” a two point conversion by having Stanzi take a knee on the attempt.

Mall Kiosks

I was at the mall with my family on Monday night.  As I approach the lotion kiosk that houses the incredibly aggressive sales people, I hear one of them whisper “that’s him” to the female employee, pulling her back toward the kiosk (where they belonged in the first place).  Male employee and I had a bit of a discussion a while back in which I suggested that he not harass people.  I responded to his whisper by saying “Yeah, it’s me – the guy who will file a criminal complaint against you if you harass us again.”  I really don’t like being rude to people (and am very polite 98% of the time, but I have very little tolerance for rudely aggressive sales people.  I have a right to walk through a mall without being pestered.  Hopefully the male employee is telling ALL of their employees to stay away from me.  That’s all I ever asked for in the first place.

Kiosk Warfare

September 3, 2009

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If there is one group of people I despise more than the telemarketers who try to sell me a car warranty over the phone, it’s the mall kiosk people who stalk me to the edge of the mall walkways. I’m typically a pretty polite person – but being harassed by mall pests trying to sell me overpriced crap makes me feel a bit rude.

As an aid to those of you who are also annoyed by the kiosk stalkers, I have created this convenient list of ways to fight back. Most of these tactics are geared toward having the kiosklings avoid you in the future. [Note: some of these tactics are of questionable legality. We assume no liability for their use.]

  1. Ask embarrassing questions. If they are selling lotion, you might ask “Isn’t this the lotion that gave Aunt Mary that nasty rash?” or “Didn’t the FDA recall this stuff last week?” “Wasn’t your CEO involved in that Ponzi scheme?” is a good fit for a variety of business. Not only will these questions annoy the kioskamarketer, they might scare away a few actual customers.
  2. Trapped. As you see the kioskers attempt to stalk you, give the secret signal and have a group of your friends surround the kioskers in a tight formation, allowing minimal personal space.
  3. The enemy of my enemy. If the kiosk has a phone number, sign up for a bunch of giveaways (Win a Free Cruise!) and use the kiosk’s phone numbers. You’ve essentially added them to the “do call” list.  Failing that, sign them up for a bunch of junk mail.
  4. Too many customers. You have hundreds of friends on Facebook, right? Have all of them show up at the kiosk at the same time. Browse the merchandise, ask questions, even form a blockade around the kiosk. Make every attempt to keep the kioskers occupied in order to protect the general public.
  5. Turn ‘em in. Aggressive behavior is often a violation of the kiosk’s lease with the mall. Threaten to contact the mall office, and follow through.
  6. Why doesn’t … Ask the probing question – “Have you ever wondered why [name of high end store] doesn’t stalk their customers? Probably because they don’t sell crap.
  7. Competitor. Walk up to the kiosk with a notebook in one hand and a tape measure in the other. Start taking notes about all of the products, and take measurements of the kiosk. When the employees ask what you are doing, tell them that you are planning to launch a competing business twenty feet away.
  8. Turn the tables. Instead of having them zoom in their sites on you and track you down, sneak up on THEM and turn the hunter into the hunted. Try to sell them your time share property or get them involved in a multi-level marketing scheme.
  9. Go “double maverick” on them. Spread fake vomit around the kiosk’s area. Put up “crime scene” tape. Bring your garbage bags from home and leave them in the kiosk area. Organize a marbles tournament on the floor. Talk about alien abductions. Put up signs that say “Danger! Land Mines!” In general, make them think you’re a little nutty.
  10. Chemical warfare. Store up a nice dose of body odor. Spend a lot of time at the kiosk, sharing your aroma with the employees.

Mental Potpourri

June 17, 2009

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I have a bunch of topics that I want to discuss today, but none of them really warrants an entire article, so I’ll bounce around a bit.  The segues are going to be rough, so hang on for the ride.

First of all, Kosmo is growing a goatee!  Why?  Not because I think it looks cool.  Not because I need facial hair for an upcoming 80’s party (like a certain Casual Observer reader).  Nah, I’m just a bit lazy and really hate to shave, especially the goatee zone.  We’ll see how long this lasts.

Baker at ManVsDebt (a personal finance blog) talks about his ongoing trip to Australia.  The plan is for the Baker family to set down some Australian roots for a while.  His article talks about the flight to Australia and the first few days in the country.  It’s a good read.

Two time NFL MVP and genuinely good guy Kurt Warner is back in his home town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this week, working with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for those who were displaced by last year’s flooding.  Cedar Rapids (where I work) and Iowa City (where I live) were devastated by flooding last June, and much work still needs to be done in the recovery effort.  Warner and fellow local god Zach Johnson (2007 Masters  champion) routinely make trips back home to do good things, as do many other athletes and entertainers (ok, we basically just have Ashton Kutcher) from the state.

My beloved Colorado Rockies have climbed into wild card contention with an 11 game winning streak (which, alas, ended on Tuesday).  The firing of former manager Clint Hurdle and the promotion of Jim Tracy to interim manager seems to have marked a turning point in the season.  Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki seems to have shaken off the cobwebs with a strong June.  His 2009 OPS is in line with his career mark – he is hitting for a lower average this year, but is compensating with more walks.

Many Rockies draft picks have signed contracts and will be reporting to the minor league affiliate in Casper, Wyoming before long.  The Casper team was formerly known as a the Casper Rockies.  On October 31, 2007, they changed their team name.  They are now known as … the Casper Ghosts.  The equipment manager was quite happy with the change.  Whenever the team gets a new player, the equipment manager just grabs a new sheets, cuts a couple of eye holes, and the uniform is finished!  (Yes, I’m joking about that part – but the Casper team REALLY is called the ghosts!)

Bryce Harper is in line to become the youngest draft pick in baseball history.  The 16 year old catcher (who also pitches and plays a few other positions) will take his GED and enroll in a junior college for the 2009-2010 academic year.  Harper has been a man among boys when playing high school competition, and will most likely be the #1 overall pick in 2010.  The Washington Nationals are by far the worst team in baseball and are in line to hold the #1 pick.  They could conceivably get Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in consecutive drafts.

On Mother’s Day 2004, the Oakland A’s had a 5K run to fight breast cancer, free mammograms for women, and a free hat to the first 7500 female customers.  A male lawyer from San Diego decided that this was discrimination and decided to sue.  Incredibly, a $500,000 settlement has been reached – half going to the lawyers and half going to the victims of the travesty.  For decades, baseball teams have tailored certain giveaways to males, females, adults, or kids.  The giveaways are not part of the price of the ticket (and in fact often feature advertising from a sponsor).  If these sorts of lawsuits become commonplace, expect teams to take the easy route and simply halt the giveaways entirely.  (Thanks to Rick Reilly of ESPN for the heads-up on this)

Cheese is the latest victim of shrinking portion sizes.  I noticed that Kraft has been changing the design on their packaging.  On Saturday, I noticed that their 8 ounce blocks of cheese were fatter and shorter than the previous iteration.  And the “8 ounce” block now contains just 7 ounces.  Be wary, beer drinkers – the “5 pack” is just around the corner.

I’ve never been a huge fan of red “licorice”, preferring instead to indulge in true (black) licorice.  However, my interest has been piqued by Fire Twizzlers.  Red, yes, but with the extra zing that comes with the flavor of fire.  I’m a fan of fire – I gulp atomic fireballs and love fire Jolly Ranchers.  By the way, if you’re ever looking for cheap thrills, toss a few fire ranchers into a bowl of cherry or strawberry ones and watch for the reactions of your victims.  Ah, good clean fun.

Here’s a tip to squeeze a bit more light out of a light fixture.  Replace the bulbs with a compact flourescent bulb.  For example, a 13 watt compact flourescent bulb has the same amount of lumens (i.e. light) as a 60 watt incandescent (it will probably say “use in place of 60 watt bulb” – but if you look closely, the package will show the true wattage).  If you pop in a 20 watt CF bulb, you’ll see a nice improvement in the amount of light you get – while still using less energy and producing less heat than the 60w incandescent.  Do you have a fixture that indicates that you can only use a bulb of X wattage?  Well, according to knowledgeable people I have spoekn with, this refers to the true wattage.  If it has a 60 watt limit, you could use a 60 watt CF bulb (which could put out a ton of light) – you wouldn’t be limited to the 13 watt.  Note that you might want to double check this before going hog wild – I’m definitely not a certified lighting expert!

TV Guide again

April 26, 2009

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Back in February, we experienced telemarketing from hell at the hands of TV Guide.  My friend at Lazy Man and Money took an interest, and I wrote another version for his readers – greatly expanding the audience of the story.

Incredibly, we received another call tonight.  Yep – 7:30 PM on a Sunday.  Apparently TV Guide does not have a way to flag people as alientated customers.

If you’re a TV Guide subscriber, take a look at your situation.  With the on screen guides for most cable and dish system, do your really need TV Guide any more?  Or does it just sit in your mail pile until it gets tossed into the recycle bin?  If you do decide to cancel, leave a comment.  I’d like to keep track 🙂

I hate telemarketers

April 11, 2009

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On Thursday, I was fighting a virus and trying to get some much needed sleep.  Thursday morning,  my sleep was disrupted three times by the phone.  The first call was from my dentist’s office, which had not received the message I had left the previous night, informing them that I needed to cancel my appointment.  I was OK with this disruption, as it was a legitimate call.  

The other two disruptions were from telemarketers, and I was not OK with those disruptions.

The first call was from some company promising to lower my credit card interest rate.  I have repeatedly asked these scammers not to call back and told them they are in violation of the “Do Not Call” list.  However, their business must be very profitable and allow them to easily pay the FCC fines, as they continue to call back.  How do I know that they are not affiliated with one of my credit cards?  One time in the past, I asked which bank they were affiliated with.  After evasive answers (“We represent Mastercard and Visa”) they were unable to name a specific issuing bank. 

The next call was from congressman Steve King of Iowa’s 5th congressional district.  Steve’s robocall wanted me to participate in a survey.  I didn’t stay on the line to determine what the survey was actually about.  I have a pretty good guess, though, and if I am correct, it is an issue on which I do not agree with Steve.

The more disturbing aspect of the call, however, is that fact that I am not in Steve’s district.  I am not even close to being in Steve’s district.  I am really not sure why he would waste his resources calling me.  I’m curious how Steve’s constituents would react if they knew that he was using the resources of their district to make annoying telemarketing calls to voters whom he does not represent, instead of focusing those resources on something that could help his district?  I’d bet that some of them would accurately deem this to be wasteful government spending.

Friday featured a lovely call from a lady who seemed quite clueless about the “Do not call” list.  She said that I wasn’t on their list, but that she would add us.  When I clarified that the DNC list was a list maintained by the federal government, she proceeded to treat ME like the idiot, asking what part of her comment I didn’t understand.  My further attempts to educate her were cut off when she hung up.  Seriously, we don’t actually have telemarketers who are unaware of the DNC list, do we?  Not surprisingly, no information was available via call ID.

What can we do about telemarketing calls?  First, I would eliminate the computerized “robocalls”.  Either pay to have someone staff the phone lines (creating jobs) or don’t bother making the call.

Second, force politicians to abide by the “Do Not Call” list, or create some other way to allow voters to opt out of these calls.  Political calls are the worst sort of telemarketing calls; why should they be exempt?

Note that some states have taken positive steps toward these two goals.  More states must follow.

Finally, I am in favor of charging telemarketers a fee for each unsolicited call they make (even those that are not forbidden by the “Do Not Call” list).  This fee would be credited to the account of the phone number that is called.  This would be a nice way to compensate people for the annoyance of the call.  If telemarketers feel that this would make their business unprofitable, then perhaps they could spend some effort targeting their audience more affectively, rather than using a “shotgun” approach.

Give me back my food

April 2, 2009

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This is a 2-fer Thursday – 2 posts for the price of one. We won’t have these every week, but every now and then, I’ll do one. After you read this article, scroll down to read the Sporting News post.

I was startled the other night when I realized that my box of corn dogs contained only five dogs. In the past, it had always contained six. Since I am in the habit of eating three corn dogs at once, this was a traumatic turn of events.

All across the consumer landscape, changes are afoot. The manufacturers are in a difficult position. On one hand, many of them are seeing steep increases in costs. On the other hand, they are hesitant to raise prices in this economy and lose customers to competitors who don’t change prices.

Caught in this bind, the companies have gotten creative. Many companies are retaining the same physical dimensions of the package, but reducing the quantity of the product. It’s not just corn dogs, either. Grab your jar of peanut better and flip it upside down. See that – the bottom is concave! Fun size candy bars? They have gotten even smaller – many of them are narrower than they have been in the past.

Even the Girl Scouts have are going this – you’re getting one less ounce in your box of cookies. Pay attention to the food you’re buying and you’ll see other examples of content downsizing.

Some people might shrug this off and see it as an effective involuntary weight loss program. Not me – I’m a thin person and I need my food to make sure I don’t blow away in the wind.

Companies – if you need to raise the price, raise the price. An extra fifty cents in the grocery store will be a lot less annoying to me that noticing one fewer corn dog when I open the box.

Sporting News and stats

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I started subscribing to the Sporting News a few months ago. The subscription rate was cheap, so I figured I would give it a shot.

I have been pretty disappointed. It doesn’t seem to stack up very well against other sports publications and web sites. In particular, its analysis of statistics can be rather poor at times.

The March 30th edition is a case in point. There is an article related to the shortness of a running back’s career. An inset box titled “built for the short run” shows the average years of service for the starters at various positions in week 1 of the NFL season.

I assume that we were to take these numbers and draw a conclusion about the average length of an NFL career for those positions – but I would be really hesitant to do that, since that would be a poor use of the data. It completely ignores bench players and the stage of a player’s career – maybe this year’s draft class just had a great crop of running backs.

Take this example: let’s say that every NFL team had a 10 year veteran at running back in week 1. Then, in week 2, they yanked the veterans and plugged in rookies.

If we run the Sporting News stat, the average years of service would be 10 years for the starters in week 1 and would then slide dramatically to an average of 1 year of service for the starters in week 2. Yet, the cast of players didn’t change, nor did the expected career length.

The model is simply a poor fit – it does not measure what the Sporting News is trying to make it measure. It would be like taking the three members of my family, calculating the average age, and declaring this to be the average life span.

(Note: this article was originally truncated. I apologize for the confusion)

Drivers who drive me crazy

February 24, 2009

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I have one “housekeeping” item today: I’ve been playing around a bit with the RSS feed, and it appears to be working properly. If you have already subscribed and don’t seem to be receiving updates, you might need to unsubscribe and resubscribe.

Parking space hog

Parking spaces can be hard enough to find to find, especially when people take up two spots so that their precious vehicle doesn’t have to be anywhere near the vehicles of the unwashed masses. In one particularly gutsy case, I saw a vehicle taking up eight spots – it was parked at a 90 degree angle to the correct direction and was straddling the midpoint line that divided the halves of row of spots.

Last minute mergers

The flashing signs say “construction 2 miles ahead, merge left” but these drivers decide to keep going full speed ahead until the last minute, at which point they try to force their way into the left lane, to the great annoyance of people who played by the rules. The message they’re sending is clear – their time is more important than ours.

Left turn on red

They’re not only running a ripe red light, but they’re making a dangerous left hand turn when the cross traffic has the right of way. They’re an accident waiting to happen.

Too fast one ice

The road is a sheet of ice, and these drivers are zipping from lane to lane at 70 mph. Take traffic conditions into account when you’re driving.

Too slow on ice

These folks take a good thing too far, driving 20 mph when there are light flurries. A rear end collision is inevitable.

Traffic jam honkers

Traffic is backed up for a mile, and people at the back of the traffic jam begin honking. Seriously, I have 100 cars ahead of me – what do you really expect me to do?

The mall kiosk people

January 2, 2009

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There are plenty of fine kiosk merchants at malls. The calendar people are great – you poke around looking for calendars, stop occassionally to ask where one is located, but your calendars, and leave. Essentially, an ideal customer experience.

Then there are the stalker merchants.

These tend to be lotion sellers. They will stray far from their kiosk in an attempt to lure customers (women) in. At first, my wife and I were a bit annoyed by them, but simply altered our path so that we veered sharply toward the edge of the mall walkway to avoid them. We were walking literally a foot from the edge of mall walkway (right next to the “regular” stores). The message really should have been quite clear – we were not interested in buying products from these folks.

They began to stalk us to the edge. One one occassion, there was a mild verbal altercation.

What kind of crazy people do this? If I am actively trying to avoid you, engaging in harassing behavior is probably not going to turn me into a customer.

That is when my wife discovered an interesting fact. The mall office actually did care about this. Not only that, but there was specific language in the merchant leases that forbid this sort of aggressive behavior, with fines for violation.

If you encounter this sort of behavior, fight back.

– Call the mall office, or visit them in person. The office is usually tucked away in a hidden corner of the mall (obviously, the mall operators don’t want to waste the prime retail slots on their offices), but it should be on the directory.

– If multiple people were affected, multiple people should complain. It is great to say that five people were in the group that was harassed, but having five different phone calls will leave a sttronger impression.

– Describe the incident accurately and honestly. It should not be necessarily to embellish your story, and these embellishments could get you into hot water. Stick to the facts.

– Describe how this may affect your future shopping habits. If there is a competing mall (with different management) in your metro area, the suggestion that you may shift shopping to that mall may hit home with the mall operators.

– If you continue to experience the harassing behavior, call back. Keep track of dates and times.

I was at the mall today. As I veered to avoid the lotion people, I realized that they were no longer there. Perhaps the merchant simply decided not to renew their lease … but I like to think that the mall non-renewed them because of their behavior.

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