Category Archives: Opinion

Wal-Mart Employees In Cages!

(Originally posted on 2008-02-08 as /archives/137)

101 Dalmations Halloween Costume
101 Dalmations Halloween Costume

Only kidding!  I used to sit on the other side of this contraption.  It’s part of a 101 Dalmatians Halloween Costume, that someone thought was a good idea, but I thought, “It looks like they have those poor office workers working in cages.”

A lot of what you probably think about Wal-Mart is wrong.

My “quotes” (below) are paraphrases of things that I have heard or read recently.

“Those Walton Family members made [insert number here] dollars and they are not giving anything back.”

You see Wal-Mart people giving back to society a lot in Northwest Arkansas.

“But they give nothing back to my state.  All of that money goes out-of-state, and none of it comes back.  There is this guy named [insert name here] that goes around and talks about this.  He holds up a [insert brand name here] sweater and says, ‘This sweater has $0.75 of labor, and $1.00 of materials, and Wal-Mart sells it for $20.00.'”

I don’t know what Wal-Mart’s markup currently is, and if I did, then I couldn’t tell you.  Let me say this though: back when I was training to be an Ames manager (My training store’s picture is on Wikipedia!) I was taught that discount department stores typically shoot for 10% markup in aggregate, and that large chain grocery stores typically shoot for 3% markup in aggregate.  You can bet that Wal-Mart is shooting for the lowest number possible.  The above sweater example isn’t close to either of those numbers.  Also, materials and labor aren’t the only costs of doing business, but all of any given retailer’s costs of doing business are typically covered by a small margin.

“But Wal-Mart is making all those products.  I know, because you can see their name on them in the store.”

They buy the products from all of the same vendors that every other company does.  Each mature industry typically only has a few big players.  That’s where Wal-Mart gets the products from: mature companies in mature industries.  The folks that work in the Wal-Mart distribution centers could probably tell you who those companies are if they weren’t so loyal, and/or didn’t all sign non-disclosure agreements.  And no, store-brand products aren’t lower quality.  It’s not like factory foremen are running around saying, “We gotta do a worse job on this batch of soap: it’s going in a store-brand box!  Do worse work!”

Another aspect of “they buy the products from all of the same vendors that every other company does” is that Wal-Mart is the wrong target for your anger about how things are made.  If you don’t buy a given company’s product at Wal-Mart, then you will probably end up buying it somewhere else, because there are very few large companies in any mature industry.

“But Wal-Mart uses price pressure to force those companies to lower their quality!”

Price pressure begins when a product becomes commoditized.  This happens with, or without, Wal-Mart.  That’s why XBOX 360 games have almost the same exact price at every retailer.  Xbox 360 games are not a commodity.  Yes, I know that Microsoft sets the price of Xbox 360 games, but that just proves my point.

“But companies like Wal-Mart have made it so that manufacturing is moving overseas.”

Wal-Mart cannot have stores overseas, but refuse to purchase products oversea, and yes, Wal-Mart does have stores in China, Mexico, and many other countries.

Besides: manufacturing is not all moving overseas.  In 2005 the U.S.’ share of global manufacturing was still 21.1%.  That’s right: more than 1/5 of manufacturing revenues world-wide go to the U.S.A.  How much does China manufacture?  8%  (source: FP Quiz, Foreign Policy Magazine September/October 2007)

As a matter of fact our trade deficit shrunk by $100 Billion over the past year.  That means that US exports are increasing dramatically relative to imports.

But what about all of those closed textile mills in North Carolina?

The jobs are somewhere else in the U. S. of A.  Obviously: that’s no comfort to the folks that want to stay in their current hometowns.

To be continued: next I will talk about the stock market and how the money made there has nothing to do with any company’s markup: they are two separate and distinct things.

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Wild Animals and Rough Living in the North Country

(Originally published on 2016-03-29 as /archives/7136)

1800s_House_2-512x364
The camera is level, but the house is falling into its cellar.

The Old Homestead

I used to live in the-middle-of-nowhere: no electricity, no running water, no phone, no mobile service, no sewer, etc. The house was built in the 1800s. We lived on the front porch, used unleaded-fuel in our Coleman lanterns, flushed the toilet by poring buckets-of-rainwater into the bowl, and showered on the back porch over a rattlesnake’s home. I showered fast.

I actually attempted to order phone service from the phone company. They told me that they would provide it, if I would pay them to install all of the telephone poles, from the closest street with phone service, to our house. Riiiight.

Some animals lived in the walls of the main house, we stayed on the porch, The critters in the walls of the main house were mostly mice, birds, and raccoons: although a black bear did hibernate in the basement the previous winter: Grizzly Trucking Adams.

Someone shot a raccoon near the house. It managed to climb into a second-story window, and drag its sorry-self all the way down to the first floor hallway with its intestines trailing behind. Where it died.

Our friends from college would spend the weekends out there at the house, and there was so-little light pollution, that we would lie on the cars and see man-made satellites with the naked eye.

What can I tell you about roughing it? Peanut butter does not need to be refrigerated.

Fun With Fuel

I would put our trash into a 55 gallon drum, and burn it to make it smaller (yeah, yeah, global warming). There was no trash collection service available. One time I was getting aggressive with the trash tamping, and there were some fuel-filled rags down low, and I was tamping some other trash on top and BOOOOOM! The damned-thing shot raining-fire all over the place! Like the Trash Cannon From Hell. Trash falling here: sidestep. Trash falling there: sidestep.

I had one coworker once, that misjudged the fuse-length on a home-made explosive that he and his buddy were shooting out of their cannon. They wanted it to explode in the sky. It blew a hole in the Post Office. The FBI came to visit, and it was a bad-scene all around.

…and the cow jumped over the fence

Heifer: a female bovine too-young to give birth.
Bullock: a male circumcised bovine, AKA, a steer.

We had heifers living on the land. Around half of the dairy farmers that visited said, “If one cow learns to jump the fence, then all the others will follow her,” and the others said, “Cows don’t jump fences.” I imagined the latter folks wasting a lot of time looking for holes in fences. The heifers at our house would jump, oh yes, and in the morning I would look out at the just-jumped bovines, and say, “Them’s some real heifers.” The heifer owning people? Their last name was – Remember the definitions up above? – Bullock.

Petting zoos

One night: SLAM!!! “WHEEEEEE! WHEEEE! WHEEEE!” SLAM!!! “WHEEEEEE! WHEEEE! WHEEEE!” I say to L.: “You open the door, and wait behind it. I’ll hit that thing over the head with this log splitter.” SLAM!!! “WHEEEEEE! WHEEEE! WHEEEE!” She opens the door, and there waits a pet racoon. It just kinda stands there for a minute, and then gets cosy in our bed. Great. OK. The racoon can stay for a little while: the alternative is door slamming, and racoon screaming. This did not last long. Raccoons like to rock-and-roll all night, and sleep every day, and you know what? I had a job to go-to.

There was only one solution; wrap “Rascal” in a blanket, and drive him far enough, that he can’t find his way back. I drove home imaging the little guy going to the very first door that he could find. SLAM!!! “WHEEEEEE! WHEEEE! WHEEEE!” BOOOM (shotgun blast)!: he then manages to climb into someone’s window, and drag his sorry-self all the way down to the first floor hallway with its intestines trailing behind him.

There goes the neighborhood

Let’s take a step back in this story. Our house had no neighbors since the beginning of time. What happens as soon as we move in? An 18-wheeler mother-trucking-flatbed pulls up with a huntin’ cabin on back, and drops said huntin’ cabin directly across the street, fucking-up my pristine view of our 100% Maple Syrup producing Maple trees. Why? Mr. Bullock got a two-for-one deal on used huntin’ cabins, and really only needed the one.

A few weeks later a family of three moves in. My new neighbor wants to provide for his family: in a place with zero jobs. So, he made a deal with Mr. Bullock: “I fix your fences. You let me live in your extra huntin’ cabin.”

Our neighbors also lacked the comforts-of-home. They did however have a Honda generator hooked-up to a TV.

So, the new neighbor tells me how racoon mommas yell bloody murder, but they won’t actually attack. He tells me how this momma racoon chose the huntin’ cabin for birthing her babies. So he removed each of the baby racoons one at a time, and then he removed the momma racoon, but he kept one baby there. This baby grew up to be Rascal. I believe that Rascal had a doggy-door that he, and the dog, could use to go in-and-out. He also had a buddy to play with: the dog.

We went camping for our summer vacation. The woman from across the street came to visit:
“Where did you go last week?”
“Camping.”
“Us too.”
“Our cabin had running water and electricity!”
“Us too.”

Momma neighbor gets sick of pretending that “our life is fun just like camping”, and says, “I am going to move in with my parents. You can stay, or you can come”, and that’s how Rascal ended up with no home.

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You Too Can Train Your Cat

(Originally posted on Feb 12, 2016 as /archives/10756)

Kay trained our cat. The trick is simple; only pack animals respond to punishment. So? Don’t use punishment to train your cat. Use positive reinforcement instead.

When I describe how to do this, people get upset as if it’s manipulation, especially with regards to teaching children. The thing is: we are always using operant conditioning. You can’t not. The difference is: are you going to do it well, or haphazardly?

With regards to humans: over-permissiveness is wrong, but you can maintain control without hitting.

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MasterCard’s Truly Priceless Ad Campaign

(Originally posted on 2007-11-20 as /archives/118)

The 2007 Subprime Mortgage Financial Crisis is well underway, and what does MasterCard do?  Present me with an ad about using a credit card to get busy with some big-time housing market speculation (see a cobbled-together version of it below).  Priceless.

house

To be sure I don’t see many enemies there.  The market is non-evil.  It just is.  Real Estate has always been a very risky business.  Why?  …because buildings aren’t liquid capital, and houses eat up a large part of one’s income, so one isn’t diversified when one buys a house.  What do I call a non-liquid, non-diverse investment?  I call it a gamble.  Still, if you really want to live in that house, and that house is for sale, then you will need to buy it.

Me?  I tend to prefer to go the Coliag route, which is to rent, while putting the difference between what I pay for rent and what I would have paid for a house into diversified funds.  Coliag (not his actual name) did so well this way that he was buying things like cars, computers, and photographic equipment with cash… before the age of 44, and he stilled had a great retirement stash.  The man was frugal and it paid-off, plus he didn’t need to worry about mowing the lawn.

Yes, some folks have done really well buying and selling their houses, but guess what?  It’s still a gamble, and the baby boom that drove the long-term-run-up is over.

My first house purchase was in Plano Texas… just North of Richardson’s Telecom Corridor…  just before the Dot-bomb-bubble-burst.  IT is a luxury, and spending on luxuries slows down when the overall economy slows down. Yes, I know, “But computer jobs are important.” …but they are not. If I run a foundry that makes car parts, and business is slow, then do you think that I am going to buy more aluminum, or complete my new HR IT project? That’s the real story of the dot-bomb implosion. The media focussed on the failing dotcoms, but that didn’t account for most of the layoffs. We had too many computer programmers, working on too many projects, at too many companies, that were still needing to “buy their aluminum”. In a slowdown-like-that the luxuries go first. My industry went first.

I survived one-layoff-per-quarter for 5 years at two different companies, but when I finally was “affected” it was certainly not within my control: the company that I worked-for went from around 2500 workers to less-than 250 during my period with them.  No-one is safe when the cuts run that deep.  Folks said, “Why aren’t you looking for another job?” and then looked at me like I was some kind of freaky alien when I said: “There aren’t many available jobs for what I do, so I am going to focus on doing the best job that I can at my current position.”

  1. I lost my job, and most people that do-what-I-do were already flooding the job market.  I could no longer afford my house, because I had too-little work (I never completely stopped working).
  2. My foreign national neighbors, most of whom were great engineers, were forced to go home, when they also lost their jobs, and couldn’t afford to pay Dallas Texas real estate prices, and also live in India, or wherever, so many of them were forced into foreclosure.  This drove down the value of my house.  So I couldn’t afford to sell it.
  3. I could not afford to rent-out my house, because any potential renters could simply buy my neighbors’ houses for peanuts.  I was very dissapointed with  NPR‘s recent article about renting-out your house if you can’t sell it.  The interviewie had a good experience doing that… when the market was hot… and the article implied that y’all will have the same experience now.  It’s just not so.
  4. The housing market in my area-of-town completely crashed as developers put their new houses on the market, because these builders were also competing with the foreclosures.  Spec builders make building decisions based on yesterday’s demand: where “yesterday” was around five years ago, but the housing market moves up-and-down much faster than that.  (This is is the type of thing that makes it tough to sell a house in Phoenix these days.)  Plus, new houses are luxuries, and “spending on luxuries slows down when the overall economy slows down.” <– I just quoted myself!  (Why 5 years?  They need roads, and sewers, and utilities, and government approvals, and so on.)
  5. …then my car got totalled.
  6. …my spouse divorced me (actually that happened before the layoff).
  7. …my arthritis got worse.
  8. …and someone kicked my dog.  No, I just made that part up.  I didn’t have a dog.

How much did I lose by “owning” that house for three years?  It cost me $100,000 more (two closings, two residences, and a 30,000 loss in value) than I would have paid for renting one apartment, but hey, my (former) spouse wanted that house, so we bought it.  I now had no job, no family, and no savings.  Swell.

My plan was to work as much as possible, while spending my free time either looking for better work, or riding my motorcycle to Wendy’s for that great dollar menu.  Really.

I followed every lead.  I went to a Diversity Job Fair like this one (because how diverse would it really be without at least one white male?  That’s a joke.  Actually, it was because I was going to every job fair.)

So I go to the hotel that’s hosting the job fair, and they have 30-or-so companies arrayed around a large conference room.  Two of those companies were tech companies.  Hundreds of people were in line to speak to those two companies.  One of the companies was looking for Math folks with top-secret government clearance to work on a flight simulator or something (not a good fit for me), and the other one wasn’t taking resumes.  They simply asked every person to go to their Web site.  Well…  Well, why not talk to everyone else?

The Wal-Mart recruiter that was there explained to me that she was hiring night stockers for the Christmas rush, and I told her that I loved doing night stocking when I worked in retail, plus that I would really like to move to Bentonville Arkansas to work for the IT department there.  She told me that she would take my resume back to Arkansas.  I assumed that it would just be tossed.  It wasn’t.

Wal-Mart called me up.  I had a few interviews.  They asked me to fix something that couldn’t be fixed in the way that they wanted it to be fixed (this “something” happened to be listed on my resume). I told them what could, and couldn’t be accomplished.  I have integrity, so I was clear about the situation.

During one of the interviews Jeff (the manager) spins around in his seat and types “W. Paul Caligiuri” (my old name) into Google and finds the Web site that I set up to sell my house.  He laughs and says: “Did you put this up yesterday in order to impress us about how confident you are about this job?” or something like that.  “Well… No.”  I didn’t explain that the Web site had been up for years.  Bentonville Arkansas had a booming economy.  So that’s how I ended up in Arkansas: the best motorcycling-place in the US of A.

I had to pay for the Texas house for 1.5 years of my stay in Arkansas.  It was simply that hard to sell.  I would go down there every other weekend, and work on it.

I suspect that lots of folks are being burned by the mortgage crisis, but that we only hear about the fringe cases, because the fringe cases make for better stories (just like in the dot-bomb days).  Also, Real Estate is:

  • Not-liquid
  • Not-diverse
  • A gamble
  • …and a luxury, and “spending on luxuries slows down when the overall economy slows down.” <– I just quoted myself!

Oh, and the MasterCard ad was a really bad idea on someone’s part.

There’s lots of bad ads out there.  They don’t get made “because they work”, they get made because advertising firms know more about selling their own services, than they know about selling their client’s products.

THE END

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Find Your Next Job Online: Even In A Recession

(Originally posted on Apr 20, 2009 as /archives/2531)

I had this experience back during the dot-bomb bust. Obviously I need to paraphrase here, because this conversation happened long ago.

By Tulane Public Relations (Career Day Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Recruiter:

“How are you doing your online job search?”

I then describe how I search for positions via friends, Monster, etc.

Recruiter:

“That will never work. Those ‘known’ positions potentially have hundreds of applicants. It doesn’t matter how good you are. There are just too many other applicants.

Here is how I find potential applicants. One of my clients contacts me directly to fill a position. These are typically not positions that are widely advertised. My client wants to interview a small number of highly qualified people. I go to one of these Web sites (she then shows me Monster).

Then I search on the keywords that are in the job description, the potential applicant’s location, etc. Then I contact the folks on the first page. I am almost always able to fill the position for someone near the top of my search results.

So, the most effective way for you to find a position is to be on that first page. You don’t look for positions, because too many other people are applying for those very same positions. You simply position yourself so that I can find you.

See this? The results near the top were edited recently. Make a resume. Put it on here.

Put all the technologies that you know on it, and update it every single day, even if you simply add a space somewhere. Editing it every day puts it near the top of the search results. This advice will help other recruiters find you. In the meantime I will see if any of my clients need you now.”

Needless to say, this turned everything upside down. My job wasn’t to look for a job. My job was to market myself.


The advice above eventually generated many leads over the next ten years: long after I stopped updating my resume online. So this plan did work.

That said, you never know where your next offer will come from. I met a Walmart recruiter at a Diversity Job Fair during the dot-bomb implosion.

The Dallas Metro area lost over 78,000 IT and Telecom jobs during the 12 month period prior. Many of those folks were at this job fair.

There were two extremely out-the-door lines to the only two tech companies present, and a lot of empty booths for non-tech companies.

One of the tech companies was interested in applicants with flight simulator engineering experience. The other said, “Go to our Web site. We are not taking resumes.” O… K… I was near the start of the line, so I let others know what I learned, and I heard a lot of, “Thanks, now I don’t have to waste anymore time here” in response.

So, I introduced myself to a Walmart recruiter at her empty booth, because why not? She took one look at me and said, “I am not recruiting computer programmers. I am recruiting night stockers in Dallas for the holiday season.” I reply with, “That’s OK I was a Night Stocker at Ames Department Stores. I like retail, and I like stocking shelves. Also, I would like to move to Bentonville Arkansas to be a computer programmer.” She took my resume, told me that she would bring it home, and give it to a tech recruiter. That led to the highest paid position that I have held.

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NASA’s Apollo Archive Is Free To Use

(Originally posted on 2015-10-15 as /archives/10563)

The entire NASA Apollo Archive has been uploaded to a Flickr account. The images are public domain, and there’s lots of room for improvements. Have fun post processing those photos.

Maciej Winiarcyk has done the best work so far (that I am aware of). He’s been photostitching digital panoramas of the moon. Here is an example:

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