Emotional Drafting


A little bit before we got our stay-at-home orders I bought some pencil leads. You know, for mechanical pencils. I don’t say this to make you all envious. I know there are people out there who don’t use mechanical pencils. I prefer mechanical pencils and I won’t be apologizing for that. Yes, I have tried your fully pneumatic pencils. I don’t like the flow. Electronic pencils would be great, but they’re monitoring everything you do. And they’re sending mean notes to Facebook about your bad handwriting and how it’s ruining your wrists.

So mechanical pencils it is for me, and that means sometimes buying new leads. This is because putting in a new lead is two percent less bad than buying a whole new pen and throwing the old away. It should be a bigger gap. There’s mechanical pencils where you put the new lead in by pressing down the little cap thingy on the end and dropping a new lead in. I don’t have that. The pencils I have these days require me to take the end cap off, then remember that’s not how to reload these pencils. Then I have to unscrew the … I’m going to call it nib … from the center of the pencil. Then press down on the cap until I remember that’s not how to open it up to take a new lead either. Then I have to look up on YouTube how to put lead into my pencil, and follow that video. I might be better off throwing the old pencils away and getting a new one, but again, there’s that two percent margin. It’s a tiny bit less bad to buy a new lead.

Except. I bought this at an Office Depot. Or Office Max. I forget what it was before they merged (it was Kinko’s) and moved from one end of the strip mall to the other. The problem is, this got them e-mailing me to give my opinions about the transaction.

This is a heck of a thing to ask for in any case. What is there to rate? I go in to a store that sells pencil leads, pick up a pack of pencil leads, and pay for it, and leave. How can I rate that? Plato himself would volunteer that there is no such thing as an Ideal Form of the pencil-lead-buying experience. There is no way to perceive the difference between a mediocre pencil-lead-buying experience and the greatest pencil-lead-buying experience of your life. I guess this does mean we can treat every chance to buy pencil lead as a new chance to have a best-possible experience, so far as we know.

I concede there can be a terrible pencil-lead-buying experience. But that’s because something interferes with the pencil-lead-buying. Like, while you’re there a ceiling tile drops on you. Or you can’t remember which phone number you gave for their loyalty program and then someone insists you are too John “Ten Eyck” Lansing Jr, the indirect namesake for the capital of Michigan (Ten Eyck), who went missing in 1829. That would ruin the pencil-lead-buying. That’s the result of the other experience getting in the way, though.

Anyway I figured to ignore Max Depot’s e-mails until they gave up asking. The way Best Buy has finally accepted that I have no opinions to share about a four-USB-plug power brick. Except that they would not give up. They e-mailed me daily, asking me to please tell them about the pencil-lead-buying experience.

They sent me more e-mails than Joe Biden’s campaign has, if you can imagine, now that Biden bought whatever cursed mailing list Amy Klobuchar had. And this as the pandemic kept on panning. So I gave in and answered them. No, I would not recommend buying pencil lead at Depot to the Max, because they keep asking me to have an opinion about it, and I keep remembering how if everything starts going well, the pandemic might only kill as many Americans as combat did in the Civil War, and I have to go to the basement and yell at cinder blocks.

They e-mailed back.

And apologized that my experience was so bad and they will work to make it better in the future.

So now management dinks are going to punish people who actually work, because I said the buying was fine but the follow-up sucked. And I have to deal with knowing I’m to blame for that.

So now I can’t ever buy pencil lead at Max Office, Max Depot ever again. It’s going to hurt too much. I have, finally, found what a bad pencil-lead-buying experience is.

How To Have A Small Business


There are over nine ways to get your own small business. The quickest to start is to locate some large business that nobody’s paying particular attention to, and hit them with the full might of your shrink ray. If you then have a large enough bottle you can keep the business in your home as a convenient profit-generating center. If you do this make sure to poke some holes in the lid to let fresh air in. But this approach, while it skips many of the harder parts of getting set up, does have its lasting costs, not to mention the trouble of dropping in needed business supplies like shrunken lunches and miniature dry-erase markers and ISO 9.001 certification. Plus if they develop superpowers in the shrinking you’re in for all sorts of headaches. Small headaches, yes, but they might be persistent.

Taking a medium-size business and shrinking it a little bit is generally safer. But this, ironically, requires a larger floor plan to fit the appropriate scale. Putting the businesses close enough to HO scale means the disparity will be noticed only by the most exacting train enthusiasts. Three-quarters of all model railroad layouts are former commercial districts plucked out of their original communities by train enthusiasts running their own businesses. Utica, New York, was formerly a bustling megalopolis of over two million people before it was dispersed into thousands of model sets, and there are concerns the city disappeared in 2014, but we haven’t had the chance to get back upstate to check. Its residents have suggested they could swipe Rochester which is somehow a completely different upstate New York city, but they haven’t had the chance to get over there and check either. Anyway, check whether your business district is right for you before shrinking it.

When it comes to starting a small business of your own the basic idea is to provide some goods and, or, or services. Goods, though, are right out. The trouble with goods is you need to extract them from wherever they come — the ground, probably — which is a lot of digging and hard work for stuff that turns out to be worth as much as stuff found in the ground around your home would be. There is a market for moldy leaves and sun-faded empty cans of Diet Dr Pepper Cherry Vanilla. But it’s not one that pays well to the people who actually find stuff. And unless you expand your resource-gathering territory vastly it just won’t bring you that much money. If you don’t extract them, then you have to make them out of something someone else found. And that seems like it should be workable, except that it turns out anything you have to do a lot of, a robot can do better and cheaper. So they’ll cut you out of the doing of it and then where are you? Goodless, that’s where.

Services, then, look a lot more promising. In services you don’t necessarily find or make anything that can be definitely traced back to you. You just do something, and trust that someone else will realize they need to pay you for it. Where this breaks down is that you need to convince someone who has money that they should give it to you for that. But there are already plenty of people earning a living by rhetorically asking the television whether the people who make the News at Noon understand how they look, or engaging convenience store cashiers in elaborate stories about how much change they have, and there’s no need for more of them. What you need is your own niche.

A niche is a little spot where your project can thrive, kind of like Mrs Frisby’s cinder block home, in the vast farmer’s field of capitalism. A good (not goods) niche should be several paces from one side to the other, be reasonably dry, close to good sources of food, and should come with a team of genetically modified super-intelligent rats who can put together a block-and-tackle system to move it from peril. You can carry on without rats for a while, but the crash will come. Many observers credit the collapse of Pacific Electric Railway and the disappearance of Pan Am to well-intentioned pest controllers who relocated their rats to the American Broadcasting Company and to Cisco, respectively.

If you can’t stand the rats you might make do with a couple of guinea pigs with master’s degrees. But that’s really only appropriate if you regard your business as a bit of a lark (not the bird). And if you don’t mind when it comes to a sudden tragic end as the guinea pigs look on indifferently and squeak. The lesson is clear, and should really be made plain by someone or other.

Adventures In Modern Consuming


I want to feel excited. The last big shopping trip we did, we used up all the coupons left in our little plastic folder of coupons. All that remains in it are some receipts with the codes we got after telling companies’ web sites how the shopping experience was and a loyalty card for the carousel ride at the Freehold Raceway Mall food court in Freehold, New Jersey. Being able to use up all the coupons we had feels like we should have unlocked a new achievement, like, “Market-Driven Consumer Capitalism Temporarily Bested: Plus 1”. But deep down I know what it really means is we let an offer of 50 cents off two packs of Sargento cheese sticks expire without noticing it in the middle of May.

We forgot to buy shampoo.

Working Out The World


My love and I were reminiscing things we did in elementary school for reasons we couldn’t figure. I don’t mean stuff like declaring someone who was busy with not playing kickball “The Kissing Bandit”. I mean stuff that doesn’t make sense, like the time my class got taken to the Garden State Arts Center and was taught how to clap with our hands curled. I guess we did other stuff there too, but the cupped hands was the lesson that stuck.

But the thing we shared was the class exercise thing about telling everyone else what our parents did for a living. I realize now I don’t know what the project was supposed to prove. That we could ask our parents what they did for a living, I guess. Maybe be able to tell our peers that our parents are shift supervisors. As skills I suppose that’s up there with cursive and being able to name vice-presidents who resigned, since you can test it. I don’t know how the teacher’s supposed to know if the kid was right, though.

But adult jobs are baffling concepts for a kid, anyway. What do adults need supervision for? They’re adults. Kids need supervision, because if you tell a kid, “stand right here, by the school bus stop, for five minutes and don’t wander away”, there’s an excellent chance before you even get to the second comma they’ve wandered off and got a beehive stuck in a nostril. All a kid knows is that their parents go months without unintentionally ingesting beehives, or they would know if they asked their parents.

For that matter, what’s a job to a kid? It’s just a place adults go to become tired and unhappy somehow. There are maybe five adult jobs a kid understands. There’s being an astronaut, there’s fighting stuff (fires, supervillains, crime, wrestlers [other]), there’s being a nurse, there’s being a teacher, and there’s driving a snowplow. Everything else is a bit shaky. For example, when I was a kid all I quite grasped about my father’s job was that he worked in a chemical factory in the parts that normally didn’t explode. He had to go in for eight or sometimes sixteen-hours shifts and I understood that most of the time things didn’t explode. But that leaves a gap in the imagination about just how he filled his working days. Come in, check that things hadn’t exploded, sure, and then it’s four hours, 56 minutes until lunch.

A kid might understand what someone in a service job does, because they could see a person bringing them food or taking clothes to clean or so. It’s why someone would be hired that’s the mystery, because getting that service means giving someone else money. Money’s hard stuff to come by, what with birthday cards arriving only for a one- or two-week stretch of the year, and maybe a bonus at Christmas if they’re lucky. The tooth fairy can help cover a little capital shortage, but that’s too erratic stuff for a real economy.

But non-service jobs are harder to understand. What is an office job anymore except fiddling with a computer? And a computer job is a matter of pressing buttons so that electrons will go into different places than they otherwise might have. A bad day at that sort of job is one where the electrons have come back for later review. On a good day the electrons all go somewhere you don’t have to think about them again. But the electrons aren’t getting anything out of this. They’re not happy, or sad, or anything at all based on where they’re sent. And they’re not the one getting paid for it anyway. They’d be fine if we just left them alone. All we do by getting involved in their fates is make ourselves unhappy but paid, and we get tired along the way.

The jobs might be leaving us alone soon anyway. Capitalism interprets a salary as a constant drain of capital, and does its level best to eliminate that. For service jobs this means doing less service, making the customers unhappy and making the remaining staff tired and unhappy. For office jobs this means never getting electrons to where they’re supposed to be, because otherwise you’d be an obvious mark for layoffs.

I know my father eventually moved to a job as an ISO 9000 consultant. In that role he ordered companies to put together a list of every word they had ever used for everything they had ever done. Then they put that into a cross-referenced volume of every document every word had ever appeared in. By the time that was done, the company might qualify for a certificate. Or my father had to explain what they had to do again, using different words and Happy Meal toys to get the point across. As a kid, I’d have been better off if he just told me he taught companies how to clap. Sometimes he probably did.

Robert Benchley: How To Understand International Finance


[ I am surprised I haven’t posted this before. In this essay from 1922’s Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley explains modern finance, using the example of the German war debt to make it all surprisingly clear. As with all great humor, it’s pretty true. ]

It is high time that someone came out with a clear statement of the international financial situation. For weeks and weeks officials have been rushing about holding conferences and councils and having their pictures taken going up and down the steps of buildings. Then, after each conference, the newspapers have printed a lot of figures showing the latest returns on how much Germany owes the bank. And none of it means anything.

Now there is a certain principle which has to be followed in all financial discussions involving sums over one hundred dollars. There is probably not more than one hundred dollars in actual cash in circulation today. That is, if you were to call in all the bills and silver and gold in the country at noon tomorrow and pile them up on the table, you would find that you had just about one hundred dollars, with perhaps several Canadian pennies and a few peppermint life-savers. All the rest of the money you hear about doesn’t exist. It is conversation-money. When you hear of a transaction involving $50,000,000 it means that one firm wrote “50,000,000” on a piece of paper and gave it to another firm, and the other firm took it home and said “Look, Momma, I got $50,000,000!” But when Momma asked for a dollar and a quarter out of it to pay the man who washed the windows, the answer probably was that the firm hadn’t got more than seventy cents in cash.

This is the principle of finance. So long as you can pronounce any number above a thousand, you have got that much money. You can’t work this scheme with the shoe-store man or the restaurant-owner, but it goes big on Wall Street or in international financial circles.

This much understood, we see that when the Allies demand 132,000,000,000 gold marks from Germany they know very well that nobody in Germany has ever seen 132,000,000,000 gold marks and never will. A more surprised and disappointed lot of boys you couldn’t ask to see than the Supreme Financial Council would be if Germany were actually to send them a money-order for the full amount demanded.

What they mean is that, taken all in all, Germany owes the world 132,000,000,000 gold marks plus carfare. This includes everything, breakage, meals sent to room, good will, everything. Now, it is understood that if they really meant this, Germany couldn’t even draw cards; so the principle on which the thing is figured out is as follows: (Watch this closely; there is a trick in it).

You put down a lot of figures, like this. Any figures will do, so long as you can’t read them quickly:

  • 132,000,000,000 gold marks
  • $33,000,000,000 on a current value basis
  • $21,000,000,000 on reparation account plus 12-1/2% yearly tax on German exports
  • 11,000,000,000 gold fish
  • $1.35 amusement tax
  • 866,000 miles. Diameter of the sun
  • 2,000,000,000
  • 27,000,000,000
  • 31,000,000,000

Then you add them together and subtract the number you first thought of. This leaves 11. And the card you hold in your hand is the seven of diamonds. Am I right?