Gas station without pumps

2015 November 29

Shaving brush stand

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:49
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In January 2014, I ordered a couple of shaving-brush stands from Amazon: one for me and one for my son.  It turns out that the one for my son was a better deal: both cheaper and better quality. The stand I ended up with was chromed steel, while his was stainless steel.

Putting chromed steel in the moist environment of a bathroom to hold a wet shaving brush is stupid design:

Chromed steel rusts

Chromed steel rusts.

I have just ordered myself the stainless steel shaving-brush stand, so that I don’t have to keep cleaning up the rust on the bathroom counter.

2015 November 27

Why don’t I feel rich?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:03
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When I was a child “millionaire” was synonymous with “rich man” (and, yes, gender was included in the meaning), and being a millionaire meant having a million dollars. I didn’t think about it at the time, but “having a million dollars” probably meant having a net worth that large, not necessarily having that much in cash or even in liquid assets.

Now Zillow tells me that my modest 2-bedroom house that I paid off the mortgage for several years ago has a market value over $1 million.  So I must now be a millionaire.  Why don’t I feel rich?

Perhaps the difference is inflation.  But what index of inflation should we use?  In 1960, the median house price (nationwide) was $12,700, about 2.4× the average salary. So a million dollars would buy about 79 houses.  The median home price now is about  $230,000, so to be a millionaire by 1960 standards, I’d need to have about $18 million.  Of course, not everything is as expensive as housing, and using the consumer price index for inflation puts $1m 1960 dollars at about $8m today.  OK, I don’t have that much money, even if you add all my retirement savings and my son’s college fund.  So, I’m not as rich as a 1960 millionaire.

Granted, I live in one of the most expensive places to buy houses in the country in terms of  median house price/median income.  The median house price is approximately $755,000 and the median household income is $63,000–87,000 (depending whose statistics you believe) making the ratio 8.7–12 years income to buy a house. Rents are not quite as bad: the price-to-rent ratio is about 25 (that is, the price of a house is about 25 times the annual rent for the house), so people are not buying houses as rental income investments.  In this town, a million-dollar house is a 2-bedroom house in a good neighborhood, not a McMansion.

Of course, being “rich” is always a relative term—it is how well off you are compared to others you are aware of.  According to various distribution plots I’ve seen of US household income, our household income has been hovering recently at about the 80–85%ile.  That sounds to me like “upper middle class” or “comfortable”, not rich.

However, because I have paid off my mortgage and my house has appreciated so much, together with the amount I’ve saved for retirement, I’m probably in the top 1–2%ile of net worth for households in the US (I’m not really sure of that, because it is so hard to get consistent information about the wealth distribution in the US).

Of course, those retirement savings and my son’s college fund have come by being very frugal—I’ve never owned a car, I don’t take vacations most years, I buy a new bike about once every 15 years, I get a new computer about every 4 years, many of my clothes come from the thrift stores or garage sales, most of my books are used paperbacks, we don’t turn the heat on until the temperature in the house drops below 60°F, most of our furniture was bought cheaply 25–30 years ago, we only eat meat once or twice a week, and so forth. By one definition of “middle-class”—the one based on consumption rather than income, I’m solidly middle class, and only getting to that level because my wife and I eat out once a week.

Wait, that’s not quite right—we’re paying full-freight for my son’s college tuition and housing, and that combined with even very frugal living makes our spending more than the middle fifth of the population. College has gotten very expensive even at state schools, now that the state pays almost none of the cost.

So perhaps the reason I don’t feel rich is that I’m still living much the way I did when I was grad student—even though my retirement savings are now large enough that I could probably retire this year and still have enough money to last the rest of my life (unless medical insurance and medical expenses eat it all up—apparently a very common scenario these days).



Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:26
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I get inundated with requests to donate money to worthy causes—most of my hardcopy mail consists of such appeals.  Some I recycle unopened, some I open and glance over before recycling, and a very few I respond to.  I’ve started making some rules for myself about which ones I respond to:

  • Ones that are based just on emotional appeals with pictures of the supposed beneficiaries: recycle.
  • Ones that send me letters frequently (more than twice a year): recycle unopened.
  • Ones that tell me when I last donated and how much: seriously consider donating the same amount or more again, as long as it has been at least 10 months since the last donation.
  • Donations to politicians: recycle unopened.
  • Ones that I’ve looked up on various charity-watch websites and determined to be scams (or at least very inefficient charities): recycle unopened.
  • Year-end appeals: recycle.  (I prefer to make my donations in the spring or summer—trying to guilt-trip people who may have winter depression or holiday stress strikes me as too cynical a ploy.)

There are a few exceptions to these guidelines:

  • Newsletters from organizations that I have signed up for newsletters from are welcome (Southern Poverty Law Center, Jewel Theatre, Museum of Art and History, Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, … )
  • Notices of special events from organizations that I donate to don’t count against the “frequent nagger” penalty, but end-of-year donation requests and “matching-fund” donation requests most certainly do.
  • I do give to political campaigns occasionally (which is how I got on the “sucker” lists for political donations), but I do it on my own timing and never in response to mailings. The ones asking by mail for me to donate are rarely for politicians I would want to support, even though they may belong to the same political party as people I have supported. If someone is taking money from billionaires, then they don’t need my money and aren’t going to listen to my voice—they’ve already been bought, and I’m not about to throw my money away supporting yet another voice for the billionaires.

My biggest donations are done by payroll reduction, split between United Way, Planned Parenthood, and Second Harvest Food Bank.  My next biggest donation is to Santa Cruz Shakespeare, which is going to need a lot this year in order to build a new performance space, now that UCSC has refused to let them continue to use the Festival Glen (a very short-sighted decision on UCSC’s part, in my opinion, as the community goodwill and press coverage were worth a lot, not even mentioning the rent they collected).  After this year, I may be splitting my theater donations up more (I didn’t donate to Jewel Theatre or West Performing Arts this year, but probably will next year).

I give token amounts or membership dues to a number of charitable organizations.  From most of them, what I’d like is a monthly newsletter by e-mail (so I can see what they are doing) and an annual reminder that it is time to renew (with the date of the last donation).  Hardcopy newsletters are ok, but e-mail generally wastes less of the donated money.

I’ve started dropping from my list any that send several donation requests a year, hoping to double dip by taking advantage of donor forgetfulness.  Generally I start by missing a year—if they send me a single letter saying when I last donated and asking if I missed donating to them, then I generally renew.  If they start flooding my mailbox with generic pleas for money, I drop them.

This year, I’m thinking of giving to two organizations that have done particularly good appeals—ones that stood out from the pile of trash that usually comes in the mail:

The Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Library, whom we usually join every year, have started a "New Year's Eve Gala" for introverts—the idea is you stay home and read a book.

The Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Library, whom we usually join every year, have started a “New Year’s Eve Gala” for introverts—the idea is you stay home and read a book.

I've not donated to UNICEF for decades, I think, but the idea of buying yourself off a donor mailing list is appealing (the first time—if other charities start doing it, it'll be recycle-unopened status for them).

I’ve not donated to UNICEF for decades, I think, but the idea of buying yourself off a donor mailing list is appealing (the first time—if other charities start doing it, it’ll be recycle-unopened status for them).

I think I’ll give some extra money to Friends of the Library, and a one-time donation to UNICEF, just to reward them for having more imaginative campaigns that stood out against the relentless give-me-your-money-or-the-baby-dies guilt-tripping of most charitable organizations.

2015 November 25

3rd Friday November: Radical Craft Night 

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:02
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Last Friday, my wife and I went to a “3rd Friday” event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History:

Radical Craft Night is back at the MAH! Challenge your traditional notions of craft at the MAH’s Radical Craft Night which takes crafting to the extreme.  Join us for a night of workshops, demonstrations, collaborations, performances, and making at the MAH:

Source: 3rd Friday November: Radical Craft Night – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

We’re museum members, mainly to support the work that MAH is doing in community building and creating art, rather than because of any intrinsic interest in the museum.  Before Nina Simon took over management of the museum a few year’s ago, it was a terribly boring history museum with generally uninteresting art exhibits.  They did some useful work in maintaining history archives and publishing local history books, but that was about it.  Under Nina’s leadership, the museum has really blossomed, with twice monthly events, lots of partnerships with other groups in the community, and much more interesting galleries.

The crafts night turned out to be a little less “radical” than I might have expected from their advertising, but it seemed to be a great event for kids (too bad they weren’t doing that sort of thing a decade ago, when our son was the right age for it).

For example, the blacksmithing was not a “demo” (we’ve seen plenty of blacksmithing demos), but was instead a chance for kids to don safety goggles and hammer hot steel on an anvil.  They had two portable propane forges set up and two anvils—and kids (mainly boys) were lined up for turns to make something.

The hand-cranked sewing machines were also a fairly popular setup, more so than the backstrap weaving (set up with too long a warp for the time available) or the triangular looms.

There were a lot of other crafts, like the fabric greeting cards and bubble-wrap printing, that would have been good for 6–10-year-olds, but they were not what I’d consider “radical”.  They were popular with kids, though, and parents had brought lots of kids.

Perhaps the high point of the event for us was the wearable art fashion show, which was a selection from a larger event coming up at the Rio Theater (though not as big as the fashionArt show in September).  There were only a couple of pieces that looked actually wearable, but a number were amusing.

My wife and I had already seen the surfboards that were the first ones made in California (which are being sent back to Hawaii 2015 Nov 30), and the good Uncommon Threads wearable art display in the main gallery, which runs until 2015 Dec 6. So we used some of our time at the event to look at the history gallery, which was remodeled this summer.

The new history gallery is more interesting than the old one, includes more recent history, and seems to have a less biased viewpoint. All the captioning was done in both English and Spanish, and looked like it had been professionally written to have about a 4th-grade reading level, which is appropriate for the school field trips that the museum gets.  We would have liked there to have been some more in-depth information on individual items (like the baskets and the feather cloak) for adults—perhaps QR codes could be used to link to web pages for each item?

We would also like to have seen a photo of the big tents that kept downtown businesses alive for months after the Loma Prieta quake—there was a lot about the quake itself, but not much about the rebuilding from the quake, which played a major role in reshaping downtown Santa Cruz.

We’re not likely to go to many 1st Friday or 3rd Friday events (by the end of the week we just want to rest at home), but it was worth going to this one for me, just to see the museum being so active.

Buy Nothing Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:00
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Today I got a message from Leanpub, the site where I’m selling drafts of my Applied Electronics for Bioengineers book, suggesting that authors provide a discount for Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the USA (or one of the 10 biggest, depending whose figures you believe).

My family doesn’t engage in the demented frenzy of orgiastic consumerism that the day after Thanksgiving has become in the US.  We, instead, stay home and celebrate Buy Nothing Day.  The celebration is simple: we stay home and buy nothing that day—not venturing out into the crazy traffic of drivers too stoked on the thought of bargains to look out for pedestrians, not doing on-line ordering, not even ordering pizza by phone (though we did do that one year, when we didn’t have enough food in the house for dinner).

Despite our family’s habits, though, I’m going along with Leanpub and offering a discount on my book:  From Friday 2015 Nov 27, through Monday Nov 30 (“Cyber Monday”), I’m lowering the minimum price on my book from $3 to $2.50.  As always, this includes not just the PDF of the current book, but all future updates for as long as I’m publishing the book with Leanpub.

Quite frankly, I doubt that the 50¢ difference (17% OFF!) will result in any more sales. Most of the purchasers of the book are paying more than the minimum anyway (average currently is $4.89, and that includes several people whom I gave free coupons to).

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