Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bet You Wondered, Too

The Imperial Austrian Navy ensign

The Sound of Music came on television this evening, with the addition of sing-along captions.  This movie reminds me of two things:  first, that when it arrived at the Willow Lawn theater in the back of Willow Lawn shopping center in Richmond in 1964, it stayed for years.  Even Rocky Horror didn't have that kind of longetivity!  Second, I have always wondered about the gruff old Baron von Trapp, who was a retired Austrian admiral, which made as much sense to me at the time as a Swiss or Bolivian admiral.  What part of land-locked didn't the writers understand?

OK, I soon figured out that the former Austrian Empire controlled states along the Adriatic Sea that today are parts of Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenego and would probably have had a navy.  But I still wondered if he was indeed an admiral other than in the movie, and why he was so wealthy.  After all, being retired from a defunct military probably doesn't usually leave one a huge pension, or much of anything except your old uniforms.  Until this evening, I let those questions fall through the drain holes of memory, but now I had to have some answers.

LtCdr von Trapp

Above is the real Georg Ludwig von Trapp, who did have a 20-year career in the Austrian Navy, but was not an admiral by the end of it all in 1918, but a Lieutenant Commander.  He was not a bureaucrat, however; he was decorated for his brave service during the Boxer Rebellion (1900) in Chinese waters, and commanded a U-boat in World War I as well as the submarine base, both successfully.  His first wife's father invented the modern torpedo, ironically enough, and that wife, who died of scarlet fever, was the source of his wealth.  And he was indeed a baron, an inheritance from his father.

After the imperial Navy (which during WWI could boast 98 ships, six of which were submarines) was parceled out to the new Yugoslavia and some of the Allies, Austria only operated three old patrol boats on the Danube River in the interwar and WWII years.  It enjoyed a small resurgence in 1958, when two new river patrol boats were built and commissioned, but the end of the Cold War entailed military budget cuts and the whole saga ended with their retirement in 2006.

And our hero's second wife, the singing nun Maria?  She was 25 years younger than her husband Georg when they married, and outlived him by 40 years.  Her full name was Maria Augusta Kutschera.  One last factoid, and you will know all you'll ever need to about the movie vs. real life:  the family escaped to Italy, not Switzerland.

Two of Austria's submarines


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Thirteen Fourteen

Today is December 13, 2014, the last consecutive string of numbers (12 -13 - 14) in this century, and the last all of us except a few who can't read yet will see.  We can be grateful we are not observing 12-13-1914; as anxious as people were at that time, four months into the Great War, they must have been unaware it was going to get a lot worse.

The defining moment had just arrived, but people can only appreciate when and what that moment is at a later date.  The German Empire's Schlieffen Plan to quickly sweep through Belgium and capture Paris had bogged down after the First Battle of Ypres, which ended in mid-November.  The front lines stabilized into a long and incredibly costly stalemate.  On the Eastern Front, current events did not preduct future ones; the Russians were holding their own on the border with East Prussia.  To the east lay the city of Grodno, where my Great-Aunt Minnie, who had emigrated to America and married a cousin of my grandfather's, was from.  It wasn't until the end of her life I learned I had a relative born in Czarist Russia.

My grandfather, born in 1895, was headed to Iowa from Pennsylvania in the near future to escape the draft by doing full-time farm work.  Wheat chaff got lodged in his ear, compromising his hearing, but he found that out when it was removed a half-century later.


King Peter watches Serb Army drive Austrians out, December 1914

The apex of the mechanical era of the Industrial Revolution coincided with the Great War; cars, trucks, railroads and farm equipment changed things quickly.  The lack of paved roads created problems; that took decades to solve even while the horse population dwindled faster than anyone could have guessed.  Many square miles of timothy hay grown in Ohio were suddenly useless on the market and dairy cows moved in to fill that loss.

Cars but few paved roads: Dumfries, VA, Route 1

The boom years for agriculture caused by the demands of worldwide war collapsed quickly into a two-decade depression after the Armistice while the prosthetic device industry improved technologically and grew.  The Marriott fortune began out West due to the insatiable market for beans; after the war J.W. Marriott went into selling root beer, a pretty smart move, it turned out.  There were winners and losers by the millions, and millions more succumbed to the mis-named Spanish Influenza.  Television's beginnings were only a decade off in 1914.

The working class:  munitions workers

Daring fashion, 1914


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unusual Occurences in the Kingdom

Someone, somewhere, has a blog whose sole topic is odd things that exist, or have occurred, in the United Kingdom.  Its author would never run out of subjects to explore; in fact, if only place names were examined, the treasure trove would be inexhaustible.  What strikes one is how crazy things have gotten at various times in a nation known for its reserve, great respect for tradition and good order, and cultivated manners.  Today we'll look at just two bizarre items:

The Nine Days Wonder

The gentleman depicted above, Will Kempe, was an comic actor who was for a while in Shakespeare's company until he was dismissed in 1599, known for excelling in the roles of Falstaff and Bottom.  Will was a Saturday Night Live type performer way ahead of his time, remembered for his "merriments," to quote a contemporary, as well as improvisation and song-and-dance numbers.  But much more than this, he found his niche in history for Morris-dancing from London to Norwich, a distance of about 100 miles, over nine days as a publicity stunt.  The Morris dance itself, more than half a millenium old, is pretty quirky, involving bells on the lower legs, stylized movements, and the use of props such as sticks, handkerchiefs and clay pipes  The pipes are hopped over while lying crossed on the ground, like a Cossack leaping over swords.  Of course, there was no individual named Morris involved; it's a corruption of "moorish."  Look up pictures of the Pearly Queens and Mummers to see how things have really gotten out of hand since Will did his long-distance jig.


Norwich remembers Mr. Kempe's jolly visit

Just Don't Frighten the Horses

It's hard to imagine that, in the proper town of Wickford in Essex, back in 1924, the first English nudist camp was established by a small group named Moonella.  The founders all went by pseudonyms, for obvious reasons, and the owner of the land (Moonella him- or herself) has remained anonymous to this day.  The experiment in tanning in the generally rainy U.K. only lasted for three years, but you have to give them credit for trying it in what was still quite an Edwardian society. 

A judge seemingly had enough of the oppressively hot climate in British India back in 1891, so he did the logical thing and established his own bare group, the Fellowship for the Naked Trust.  It probably did not last long, either, but he had more appropriate weather to frolic in.  But still -- a nudist judge in the Victorian British Empire?  Ours here in the Keystone State exchange porn via e-mail, sell justice like kettle corn, and use state employees to campaign for them, but they would never, uh, frolic. 

Speaking of a sport not suited to the climate, six swimmers bravely attempted a naked relay across Loch Ness for charity in 2005, but were defeated by the wind, chop, cold water and all that.  Besides, they were all in their 40s and 50s.  Past prime time, I'd say.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tale of Two Curves

You're probably familiar with the Bell Curve, a "graph of normal distrubution;" it's a good, simple tool, a template that seems to be useful in descriptions of reality.  If it's a graph about people, for example, that 70% around the middle (mean) line would be most of us, who muddle along and don't do too much harm, while the 30% at the ends would be the sociopaths, psychopaths and severly disabled.  Since the 1994 publication of the book of the same name, it's been largely associated with the distribution of human intelligence, which the authors posit is a better predictor of outcomes in life than environmental factors.  There was a Three Stooges short film, without graphs, which explored the same point without the subsequent decades of controversy.

I recently came across the above, known as the Bathtub or Weibull Curve.  It is used to display predictions of product reliability in engineering.  Hmmm -- I wonder where the Vega would have been placed on such a chart by GM engineers, back in the day?  Manufactured products are most likely to fail at the very beginning (labelled "infant stage" here) or at the end of their service life, but they may be obsolete before they age out; either way their service life is over.  Think of cell phones or all that video equipment bought for Christmas or vacations over the years that was quickly discarded as lighter, more advanced products were introduced, despite their still being in good working condition.

Another major factor in determining the end of service life is the repair expense compared to the value left.  I took a small trimming router to a local shop years ago to have the motor rewound after years of hard use; the estimate was $100, five dollars more than what I had paid for it new.  A new one it is, then.  If a part is inexpensive (and most everything is easily available on the internet now) and you can replace it yourself, like a broken belt on a cassette player, that's much better than either a repair bill or a replacement purchase.

Cars now serve reliably for about ten years or up to 150,000 miles, which certainly was not the situation when I was younger.  People traded in at three years back in the 50s, 60s and 70s because that's when things rusted, leaked or just snapped.  That is still practiced, with auto leasing programs (financial suicide is painless, the salesman assures you), but the practical reason for doing so is long gone.

Clustered on the left side of the graph you'll find any Chinese-made product that uses electricity.  There are companies, American and German, that have made reliable switches for electrical devices great and small for a century (Allen-Bradley, Crouse Hinds, Bosch, etc.); you would think Chinese manufacturers could copy some of that tried-and-true technology like they do everything else, but I and millions of others can tell you they can't make any kind of a switch that will last.  Usually they fail at 367 days on a product with a one-year warranty.

This will all be on the test.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What Works

I've put up a few posts about house design, remodeling and real estate on Just Sayin' and continue to read and watch programs about these things because they always seem fascinating, whether they explore plans that could work, do work or are shiny, attractive ego displays.  The house plan above, for example:  isn't it a tad overdone, chopped up and probably ridiculously expensive?  Major American developer/builder Toll Brothers, and several companies in your own area do nothing but these McMansions, and they sell.  They just make no sense.

There's a sweet spot, seldom found, between architectural wonders made by Frank Lloyd Wright and other mid-century visionaries and mass-produced schlock.  They do have design fails in common that make neither a good home: being leak-prone, energy inefficient, expensive to build, poorly sited (think mudslides and fires in the West, floods everywhere), maintenance/tax/insurance burdens and clueless about useful interior space.


Above is a typical TV show type dream house.  Note the absolutely useless space in the third picture down.  And think about heating the Great Room in the first picture.  Unless this home is carefully oriented for solar gain and insulated superbly, you're not going to be getting utility bills you will like -- or can afford when you're retired.  And imagine paying for those huge custom windows, at interest, over a 30 year mortgage.  The architect or designer doesn't have to.

The kitchen island is always great, as is a reasonably big kitchen to put it in, with easy movement foremost in the layout.  What every kitchen needs, and few homes have, is a pantry.  We actually had one once, and loved it.  Another useful space every home needs is a dedicated closet for cleaning tools and supplies.  I have never seen that, but homes today that have more than enough space for it are trending instead toward at least three living spaces (a living room, not to be used; a family room with giant TV, and a bonus or game room).  Some have all three and a big finished basement with a pool table that you won't be taking with you when you move, used three times and afterward just horizontal storage.  What you really need, after that pantry and utility closet, are:

* Ceiling fans.  A must.  The only downsides are cleaning them and the fact that they go out of style long before they stop working, and only the cheap ones ever have problems. 

* Laundry room.  Those little post-WWII two-bedroom tract houses eventually ended up with washers in the kitchen and dryers in the added bathroom (because you only got one, despite the big families back then).  What were they thinking?  That a family with children adding up over the years never needed to do laundry?  Some clever designers today want to put those appliances crammed tight in a hallway closet, behind doors in a bathroom, or inside cabinets completely.  Ideas that don't work at all, because lint, dust, lighting, access for repairs and duct cleaning, and humidity are real concerns that must be addressed.  Space and structures for towel storage, hanging clothes, ironing, and folding are necessary in the design of that laundry room.  And ventilation!

* Lighted, walk-in closets.  They'll make you happier than that $6000 arched window, which the designer or real estate agent swears makes the "Great Room" "pop!"

* A garage, even if it's only a small one just enough for your Toyota.  Cars deteriorate outside, they are at risk for all kinds of damage, and why unload groceries in the rain -- that's just miserable.  Trade the third bonus room for one.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Filler, Fluff, and Drivel

A lot of our friends and family are recently retired, being Boomers, or are looking at it coming down the road.  It's best to be prepared for such a big life change, and being prepared starts with being accurately informed.  Woe to him who tries to reach such a state by reading, over time, dozens of articles in media such as magazines, the internet or from broadcasts.  What you will find is generalized to the point of uselessness and will only confuse you with reference to things as how to use short term bonds in your investment/retirement income strategy.  If you just have a pension and/or a 401(k)/IRA, and have not been playing the investment game actively with a broker, you don't even know if you have those or not, or how much or what kind. And the volumes of printed information your IRA provider sends to you will never give you those facts.  You're sent thousands of words and numbers and percentages of this and that, but no specific information that would be useful.  Ever.

You do need to know some very important terms and figures in order to proceed that you will never get from the popular media, because once you have those you can use the internet to educate yourself.  And you must, because ignorance in general or an ill-informed mis-step in particular can cost you big time.  An example is called for here -- the one which spurred this post. 

Most people know you must begin to take money out of your plan, in a "Required Minimum Distribution," as it's called, beginning at age 70 1/2, whether you need to or not.  That is because the purpose of an IRA is to provide income during your retirement, after all, and not to be a permanently tax-deferred savings account to pass down to your heirs.  I have always wondered what that amount would be and the rules about how to comply, so I've waded through countless articles trying to find out in advance.  It's been like wading around in a vat of marshmallow fluff.  It took until a few days ago for one writer to slip and actually mention the specific term which would allow me to search for the answer:  it's the "IRS Multiplier."  With that little gem, I found the instructions and the chart (on which explains, as Clarissa did, everything.   And on one concise page.  Note to Vanguard (and the rest):  you can do this, too.  It looks like you must have a reason not to let us amateurs in on How Things Work.  All the writers say to consult your tax advisor or financial planner. You might as well be advised to stick your hand in the crocodile's maw.

Lost in trying to understand how to use two types of depreciation and/or expensing when preparing my tax return due to having a rental property, I once ignored my own advice and best instincts and consulted a tax advisor.  That genius missed my two biggest deductions and I had to redo it and submit an amended return the next year after ruminating a while over the large amount that was, uncharacteristically, owed.  If there's information out there, in plain English, about how to properly figure depreciation yourself, I sure could not find it.

Many retirees are urged by those "advisors" and "planners" to keep or get a mortgage and put the amount that would have paid it off into investments -- often annuities -- instead.  Articles in the media do this all the time also.  They call such a move capturing "opportunity cost," which sounds impressive, but it's a terrible idea, and really just a device to generate fees.

And would Grandma lead you astray?  I'm talking about the single worst source for financial and real estate guidance:  AARP.  I have no idea why we're members, except that we must need more junk mail pushing their insurance, cell phones and Rascal electric scooters.  Those 10% discounts on some things like bus tours or bad chain motels must have been the reason for giving in to their long campaign to sign us up.  AAA has those, and more we can actually use locally, along with actual services like towing (since we're avid collectors of nails in our tires, we've used it several times.  And if you actually follow any of the advice in their publications, you're being played for an idiot.

The financial world is like a casino.  No clocks, no windows, a layout like a rat maze, and no indication how to find an exit that doesn't dump you in the trash bin area.  Getting out with your money in your pocket is not the desired outcome for you, dear consumer, in either world.  Real estate ads for new developments sell the sizzle while being short in the specifics; in all the advertising you won't find figures and facts they would prefer you don't know until it is time to sign those papers.  I tried to find out what the HOA fee is for a new village style development outside Mechanicsburg, PA, called Walden (oddly, there's no pond) just to see if that information was accessible.  Guess what: that number is nowhere to be found.  I would be more interested in doing business with people who were up front about the essentials, if I were in the market for their product, but that is not how things are done.  You must enter the selling zone to find out more.  Smiling faces of models and puffy white clouds aplenty in the ads and brochures, though.

What if people were well educated about finance, housing and even the best choices in education itself, during their student years?  Or the popular media became a reliable source of real-world guidance? Wouldn't big and small business welcome rational, informed customers who weren't clueless deluded suckers?

What's with all the laughter?