Thursday, June 27, 2013

AARP: The Wrong Numbers

Sometimes I wonder if AARP loves or hates the people over 50 it claims to serve. The geezer has been a member for about 20 years. Over that time, I've been gradually becoming less enamored with AARP.

Yes, AARP does provide fully mature adults with discounts and special deals on a variety of things. And the organization’s magazine frequently has good advice. However, sometimes it seems AARP should take a closer look at products it endorses.

After years of satisfaction with auto and home insurance provided by The Hartford through AARP, my fondness for the organization took a heavy hit when we were making arrangements to move from Utah to Michigan. We decided the time was right to become a one-car family. I knew Michigan would have .
Is AARP giving you a good number?
somewhat higher rates because it requires “no fault” coverage, but assumed we would be helped by canceling coverage for one vehicle. When a Hartford rep told me what my new rate would be, I was shocked.

A State Farm agent in our destination area gave us better coverage for several hundred dollars a year less than the Hartford quote. It was no “come on” price. Since we made the change, State Farm actually has reduced the premium even further as our driving records stayed good and our lifestyle changed a bit.

I recently renewed our cell phone minutes. Yesterday, AARP sent an e-mail notice of a “Hot Deal!” to buy time plans from Consumer Cellular. The ad shows a delighted geezer couple dialing up someone after enrolling in a plan “starting at $10 a month” and featuring no contract plus free activation. An AARP member discount lowered the cheapest plan fee to $9.50 per month. However, each minute used cost 23.75 cents. The ad claimed activation was a $35 value.

We get limited service, primarily using the phone as a safety device. This is the type of service Consumer Cellular offers through its most inexpensive plan. My renewal deal provided enough minutes for our Tracfone to last us a year. It cost $8.33 a month, with no per-minute charge.  We bought our minutes off the shelf at Walmart. Several different minute amounts at progressively higher rates per month were available. No contract was involved.

Activation was free, and I didn’t have to do it. A clerk in the Walmart electronics section performed that chore while I waited, casting a bit of doubt on the AARP ad claim that activation is a $35 value.

If you’re not fond of Walmart, you can get the same kind of Tracphone deal at Radio Shack and Best Buy, and perhaps similar deals through other plans in other places. And you don’t have to pay AARP dues to get a good deal. You might even be delighted.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Everything but the . . .

Garage sales are just minor blips on the activity schedule of most families. Whatever is cluttering up closets, the basement, or the garage and may have any value at all goes up for grabs. What’s left often goes to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, or the trash collector.

At our place, a garage sale is a big deal.

This year was the 10th annual community-wide sale sponsored by Ed Giffels, a real estate agent who is one of our neighbors. Giffels gives a yard sign to each participant, pays for advertising, and even provides maps to guide visitors to sale locations. He deserves a real estate commission or several as repayment, and he probably is rewarded. At the very least, the annual event acquaints or reacquaints a lot of people with the location of our community and what the homes look like.

This time, 52 families participated in the one-day event. So many visitors showed up that traffic jams clogged neighborhood streets in several places at various times. At our sale, 167 people bought one or more items, ranging from a 32-foot ladder that went for $100 to a cookie cutter shaped like an elf that brought in 25 cents. 

We've participated in the community sale for four years. You’d think we would be just about out of used stuff to sell, yet total sales this time were the best ever. And we have enough items to have another go at it next year. That probably is due to three factors:

1. Beautiful wife Sandy plans and supervises the sale at our place. Because of her merchandising skill she is becoming known locally as the “queen of garage sales,” and also is referred to as “commander” by her team members. She gets many compliments from visitors on the quality of our items and displays.

2. The “team” contributes items and also staffs our sale. Members are son Lee, his fiancĂ©e Karen, Karen’s mother Ilse, and last and least, me. Pay is lunch and dinner provided by Sandy on sale day.  Thus, sale day is somewhat of a family social event.

3. The previous (and only) owners of our home unwittingly supported endless annual sales when they included an over-sized garage in the house design. They probably intended it to hold two vehicles plus a boat, golf cart, or both. We have one car, no boat, and no golf cart. We can store all sorts of stuff in the bonus space with no problem. Although we sent one item to the trash after this year’s sale, Sandy boxed up almost all other leftovers. The boxes will stay out of the way in the garage ready to be unpacked for the 2014 sale.
Sandy's sale area even is prepared for rain, thanks to tents supplied by Lee and Karen. Ilse is the chief cashier.

Sandy has two golden rules for successful garage selling: (1) No dirty or broken items, and (2) No untidy or disorganized displays. Sandy spends two weeks before garage sale day setting things up. She also has devised an efficient system for storing leftovers. Sandy operated a successful craft creation and sales business for many years, and gained a lot of merchandise display expertise along the way.

The geezer should have learned long ago not to questions Sandy’s decisions, but after last year’s sale I weakened. We had remodeled our kitchen and one big leftover was the old sink. It was a rather large, white enameled, cast iron model—free of cracks and chips, but, frankly, not very appealing. It didn't sell or attract much interest on sale day, and it wouldn't fit in a box as a normal holdover item. After tripping over it or having to move it a time or two on routine garage errands, I suggested the trash was the proper place for the old kitchen sink.

“No way,” Sandy said. “That sink will sell.”

“Nonsense,” I grumbled. “Who would want that old thing?”

To prove her point, Sandy advertised the sink on Craigslist, and it sold within a week for $200. The buyer was delighted with his purchase.

In matters of used-item merchandising, it is unwise to question the judgment of garage sale “queens” or “commanders.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

This Boat Won't Float

How bizarre can a news item be? It’s hard to believe that Spain spent huge amounts of money on a new submarine that won’t float, but the Associated Press and other sources say it’s true.

Spanish engineers made a miscalculation in the design; it appears that way back in the early planning stages someone put a decimal point in the wrong place. As a result, the first of a new class of diesel-powered subs is 70 tons overweight. Officials fear if it goes to sea it will be able to dive but won’t be able to resurface.

To fix things, the Spanish Defense Ministry will pay our Electric Boat Company $14 million for a three-year study to determine how to reconfigure the submarine to make it useful. Spain already has
It dives, but doesn't surface!
invested about $2.9 billion in its new S-80 submarine program.

If it ever sails, Spain’s modern submarine armada will include four 233-foot-long boats. Each will carry a crew of 32, eight special forces personnel, and advanced weapons systems for surface and anti-submarine warfare.

When I finished guffawing about how a single misguided decimal point could create such havoc, I nearly cried thinking about this fiasco on another level. Spain has one of Europe’s weakest economies; unemployment stands near 25 percent. The banking system required huge bailouts to stay afloat, and substantial cuts in government pensions and social programs have gone into effect or are on the horizon. How could the Spanish government justify tossing big bucks into a new underwater adventure?

Exactly which foreign powers are threatening Spain?  None come to mind. Internal conflicts, however, are another matter. In the Pyrenees Mountains the Basque population occasionally launches various forms of violence against Spaniards they view as occupiers of their ancestral lands. To the east of the Basques, all of the Catalonia region is gearing up for a referendum next year on whether to secede from Spain. The Catalans think they are paying much more to the central government in taxes than they get back in services. Maybe the S-80 program is a factor; the new subs are being built in Cartagena, not Barcelona.

If the Basques and Catalans have developed navies to back their demands, it would be yet another bizarre news story. Both groups are fairly peaceful at the moment, so naval warfare involving them probably is not even a remote possibility.

We might wonder, then, why a cash-strapped Spanish government has blown $2.9 billion on four submarines whose only apparent reason for existence is to train for the day that some unknown enemy might attack Iberia from the sea.

If Spain, a land without serious external enemies, can’t curtail wasteful military weapons spending in the face of financial pressure from all sides, can we ever expect U.S. legislators to rein in the unnecessary weapons spending sponsored by our powerful military-industrial complex? 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Our Forest Favorite

We noticed a tree service employee consulting with a neighbor for several hours one recent morning. When beautiful wife Sandy walked over to learn what was going on, he tried to sell his services to “improve” our part of the wooded area that runs along the back of our properties.

It was no sale. His first suggestion was to remove a stately hickory growing six feet from one corner of our deck. It shades a good part of our house as well as about a third of the deck. It’s a nice cooling neighbor to have nearby on hot summer days, and a great place for birds to perch as they make sure all is safe on the way to Sandy’s feeders. The tree expert thought it was a hazard that might fall on our home. Sandy told him we’d take our chances.
Old stub well-dressed for summer

The next, and last, suggestion, Sandy said, was removal of “that ugly old stub of a dead oak,” which is clearly viewed through my office window. “What?” I shouted. “That’s the neatest thing in our woods.”

“I knew how you’d react to that plan,” Sandy said. “So I thanked him for sharing his ideas and told him we might get back to him sometime.”

That “ugly old stub” actually is quite lovely this time of year with a luxurious covering of vines. It may be dead but it is part of life for many lively critters. It’s great fun to watch gray squirrels chase each other in and out of the stub’s several cavities. Usually the participants in the games are their namesake color, but now and then a mutant “black” squirrel joins the party. A rarer thrill is watching a pileated woodpecker methodically developing a new cavity.

A variety of insects carry out less elegant, but perhaps more useful, activities in the hollowed-out base of the stub. They provide a good lesson in how Mom Nature replenishes her domain by converting dead residents to enriched soils where new generations will thrive.

The insect work and advancing decay eventually will fell our old stub. As long as I’m around to marvel at the forest life it enhances, nothing will be done to hurry that day.