Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Don't Care If the Money's No Good"

"Now I don't mind I'm chopping wood, / And I don't care if the money's no good."—The Band, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

What are we to do in deflationary times, when the banking system is unreliable? Not only the banking system, mind: every major business we depend on has turned toxic—there are few honest deals from cell phone companies or airlines. There is no complete answer, no substitute for a reliable financial system and I see no indication we are going to have one in less than ten years. So what do we do instead? Gift and barter, I think. Be liberal with our friends. It has never been easier to manufacture small runs of a design. So we can trade products and services.

This is far from ideal. The great value of a neutral medium of exchange—money—is that there is no problem trading machine tools for money, and then buying food with the money. This is much harder in a barter-and-gift economy: a series of trades must be arranged, and there are no banks to buffer breaks in the chains of trade and gift, or lend money short-term, to tide a trader over delays in exchange. Computer brokerages perhaps can help, but one then depends on the honesty of the brokers and the design of the system, and there is no law, yet, that acts to protect participants: caveat emptor, caveat vendor, caveat argentarior. But what else is there to do? Anything that can be corrupted by the financial system very likely will be.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Personal Finance in a Deflationary Period

(This is the first of what I hope to be a pair of posts. This one will address the personal finance issues; the other, over on Advice Unasked, will address broader issues of economics and policy.)
  1. Don't hold debt. Most salaries will not rise in this period; we will not be in a better position to pay down debt in the future.
  2. In general, debt securities are preferable to equities in deflationary times, however this only applies if the debt securities are trustworthy—hard to judge in the current regulatory and financial reporting regime. There is something to be said for a savings account, or even cash in an actual safe, though the safe carries a risk of burglary.
  3. Most property is likely to fall in value in this period.
  4. Speculation will at times raise the prices of some valuables like jewels and precious metals through this period, however this is not something to be relied on; even speculators can run short of cash.
  5. Bartering personal services in this period is a way to conserve cash. So is making things for oneself or trade—but watch the cost of supplies! A new craft economy is likely to emerge in the lower and middle classes. If one has tradeable skills, polishing them has a good chance of paying off; if one does not, this might be a good time to start learning them. Buy tools as needed, rather than in advance; chances are they will cost less in the future.
  6. Ian Welsh reminds me that we are seeing inflation in some products and services of interest to the very wealthy. He points out that there has been an explosion in purchases of personal jets and rentals of super-expensive hotel rooms in the past 15 years, and I have seen a recently-constructed 120-foot (36.5m) luxury yacht. It may be possible to make gains operating such businesses, or investing in them.
The following points relate to the broader economic issues, and I hope to expand on them in my planned second post. There are many more questions than answers here. I suggest you take them as some of the unknowns that make finance uncertain.
  1. What will the rate of deflation be? How long the is deflation likely to persist? I find it hard to believe it will go on for more than two years, but that could be fear and intellectual rigidity rather than reason speaking.
  2. It seems to me likely that the Chinese central bank is going to "take away the punchbowl," in William McChesney Martin's famous saying, now that they've got the party going, by allowing the renminbi to rise against the dollar in the next few years. Some products we have come to depend on will then become more expensive. This to some extent militates against my advice to save above: in some areas (electronics?), it may be worthwhile buying what you need against this possibility. Information processing technology is now a key manufacturing technology, and the majority of integrated circuits and flat-panel displays are made in China.
  3. There are probably other impacts of global markets likely.
  4. The health care mandates will make it much harder for many people to save. It is probably best to do as much saving as possible before they kick in in 2014.
  5. Climate change is making itself felt economically in a large way; we are already seeing climate-change based migration.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Headsets

[Edited 2010.08.02 to add lapel and headworn singer's microphones.  2010.08.08 change "singer" to "performer and announcer"]

Since The Raven now works long-distance for a large government lab (LGL) which shall remain nameless, he has had to acquire a comfortable high-quality headset for long on-line conversations. Headsets turn out to be an area where a large amount of design and research has been invested. There are numerous types of earphones and microphones, signal processors, and devices. I've only scratched the surface of the market, and I came up with the following incomplete set of options:
  • Wired or "corded" vs. wireless. Wireless sets sometimes include Bluetooth at considerable expense.
  • Audio processing
  • Basic telephony set.
  • High-quality telephone set—includes audio processor. Some versions provide wideband sound reproduction, but this doesn't work with the actual telephone network, which is still bandwidth limited to 300-3300 Hz.
  • Monaural—sound to one ear. Good for portability and comfort.
  • Binaural headset—delivers the same sound to both ears for clarity in a noisy environment
  • Gamer's set—adds stereo sound for spatial placement. 
  • Surround-sound gamer's set—even more spatial cueing.
 Earphone options:
  • Audiophile—High-quality earphones for music listening.
  • Voice processing—clarifies voices (including music vocals) at, probably, the cost of other kinds of sound
  • Earbuds
  • In-Ear
Microphone options:
  • Fixed to earpiece. Adequate in a quiet environment, will pick up noise everywhere else.
  • Lapel microphone. Usually a bit closer to the mouth than an earpiece microphone, but still tends to pick up noise, and requires a lapel.
  • Boom microphone. Brings microphone close to mouth to reduce background noise.
  • Headworn performer or announcer's microphone. Made by the usual suspects: AudioTechnica, Crown Audio, ElectroVoice, Shure, and so on. Far and away the best wearable voice microphones available, but require adapters for use in telephony.
  • Noise canceling—reduces background noise. Especially valuable with wireless sets used outdoors, where wind can play hob with voices.
Different companies headsets do different things and no one set does everything. Generally, firms are strongest in their traditional areas. Thus, Plantronics makes good sets for telephone use, Sennheiser and Sony make good sets for audio quality, and so on. If you care about sound quality, don't buy the unbranded Chinese-make headsets—they don't work very well. I bought a Plantronics .Audio 476 gamers headset at Fry's as a starter ($35+tax) and have so far not wanted anything more, though it is a little uncomfortable on long wear. <http://www.plantronics.com/north_america/en_US/products/computer/multi-use-computer-headsets/audio-476-dsp>. A professional version of this one is the "D261N Stereo SupraPlus Headset with Stereo DA45 USB Adapter" (perhaps $200 market.) I have found Plantronics sets with similar earpieces very comfortable. <http://www.plantronics.com/north_america/en_US/products/office/corded-office-headsets/supraplus-d261n-da45>

Hmmm, wonder how these reproduce croaks.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Restocking Fees and Non-Refundable Deposits

Restocking fees and non-refundable deposits are the same thing. Many products are now sold in this way, and sometimes we don't find out that there's a non-refundable deposit until we go to return the unsatisfactory product.

With the relaxation of regulation and fraud prosecution, such deceptive selling practices, long abandoned, have made a comeback. The marked price of goods is no longer their real price; instead, there are many hidden charges. The hidden charges may appear beforehand, like shipping charges, or afterwards, like the non-refundable deposit, which bites when the product turns out to be unsatisfactory. The price of a product becomes the stated price, plus whatever the hidden charges are, and buyer beware.

Do not, also, underestimate the costs of time in a purchase. An online purchase from a distant seller may in fact have a lower price, even after shipping charges are included, but by the time it has been shipped and received, and possibly exchanged once or twice, it can easily be a month, whereas the same transaction made at a local store, provided the goods are available, can usually be completed in two or three days.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shiny: Epson Artisan Printers and All-in-Ones

These are small, inexpensive printers and all-in-ones which use Epson's Claria six-color inkset. The quality of photographic prints from these printers is quite high; Adrian Buckmaster reviewed them at Boing Boing:
I was very impressed with print quality; the image referenced above would have shown up any deficiencies straight away. A close comparison showed a slight posterisation in the mid-tone skin areas which was corroborated by the gray test strip which showed magenta cast in the mid tone areas. Sharpness was excellent; there were no tram lines or banding, and the gray areas, with the exception of the above caveat, showed clean tones. ***
The Epson Artisan 800 also works well as an all-in-one, with the scanner and fax facilities simple, reliable, and of good quality. The device has a relatively straightforward touch-panel interface and less-straightforward but usable drivers. Supplies...ah, there's the rub.

The Artisan line comprises three units: the Artisan 50 printer ($100), the Artisan 710 print+scanner (all-in-one) combination ($180), and the Artisan 810 print+scanner+ fax modem combination ($300, currently discounted to $200.) One might reasonably wonder why it is that such high-quality devices are so moderately priced. One might however, find ones question answered when one realizes that a set of the printers six ink cartridges lists for $90 (Artisan 50 printer) or $80 (Artisan 700, 710, 800, 810 all-in-one) and that the cartridges contain at most two teaspoons of ink. Yes, Epson is making money on the ink, not the printer.

Still, excellent photographic printers, and useful in other ways too. Just don't do bulk printing with them.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

www.annualcreditreport.com

As of this writing, this is the only web site to use for free annual credit reports. Accept no substitutes--all others are not actually free, or are actual scams run by identity theives. Expect to be confused by the site (this is apparently by design), & bring a temporary e-mail account, which will be collected and placed in your credit file.

Translating CNET reviews

Review: "Call quality is only so-so." (cnet.com)
Experience: most user speech was unintelligible to called party in a moderately noisy store.

Product: Sony DR-BT160AS wireless stereo headset, which has very good stereo listening quality & probably works sort-of ok for talking in a quiet room or stopped car.

Shop: Sony Outlet Store in Tualip Washington, about an hour from Seattle. A very nice shop & worth returning to for good deals on electronics.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Depths of Corporate Evil

Google, the not-so-evil empire. Google provides real high-quality  services at the cost of viewing unobtrusive advertising. The corporate motto is "Don't Be Evil" and the Google employees I know take it seriously. They're not saints, but you can do business, and not need to count your fingers afterwards. They are still a commercial empire, however, and they are rather snoopy.

Amazon and Apple, medium-evil empires. Commercial empires of a more evil sort. Both do genuinely valuable things. Unfortunately, every now and again they try to take over the world.

Microsoft, cell phone companies, Facebook, evil empires.The are price-gougers, monopolists, oligopolists, spies, intellectual property thieves, sellers of your time and attention. Microsoft charges hugely more than anything reasonable for their products; cell companies are probably making gross profits of 500-1000%. In dealing with cell companies, expect to feel like a chump; get the best deal you can & don't worry about it. Shorter Facebook: "You are the product" and "You have no privacy, get over it."

Exxon-Mobile the eeeeeevil empire. Destroy human civilization, lie about it, and make a profit at it.

Haliburton and Xe (Blackwater) the spawn of hell. Provide overpriced contracting services and undersea oil wellheads that don't do the job. Hire out mercenaries and security personnel who make their own law.

Croak!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Shinycroak Blog: On Online Shopping

This is where I put up occasionally shopping and finance advice--things I decided would be worth publishing that don't belong in my political blog. So! I'll start out with the post that persuaded me to start this blog: on evaluating online shopping services.

Does the store:
  • Let you just buy what you want? Once you've finished looking for your product, does the store let you just buy it, or does it keep offering you alternatives--that is, trying to sell you something else? This a bad sign because it tells you that the store doesn't care about your time. Exception: "you might also like..." can be a reasonable thing for books, CDs, DVDs, and so on.
  • Ask a price comparable to market, or does it seem low? If the price is substantially lower than most other places, chances are there's a catch. Perhaps many customers return the product, and the store charges a fee for this. Perhaps the product is counterfeit, stolen, or imported to the USA without the manufacturer's permission and has no useful warranty ("gray market").
  • File your credit card numbers? This is a risk to you, and also a sign that the store is trying to promote impulse buying.
  • Link its return policies up front? Can you locate their return policies on their web site at all?
  • State shipping prices up front, or do you have to go all the way to the end of the purchase process before you find out what the prices of the shipping options are? Concealing the shipping price until late in the sale is an indication that part of the store's profit is made by padding the shipping price.
  • Does the store tell you where they will ship from, so you can estimate ground shipping times?
  • Does the store try to offer you an expensive loyalty plan as part of the deal?

Some general warnings; these apply everywhere, but are especially significant in online shopping.
  • Never buy unbranded high-power (Li-Ion or NiMH) batteries--poor quality control can make these explosive. There was a recent luggage fire that involved a laptop battery.
  • The lifetime of a battery is reliably predictable by the manufacturer; in batteries, cheap is expensive, a theme I will be croaking about in the future.
  • Most extended warranties are far more expensive than they are worth. Unless you can't sustain the financial risk of a failure, or need the higher level of service that some manufacturers offer to extended warranty customers, don't go there. (Consumer Reports on extended warranties.)
[Edited to correct minor copy errors and add Consumer Reports link. 2010.07.31 to get rid of some unnecessary words.]