Coin collecting – nobody makes money but the dealers.

I learned this lesson the hard way as a kid, as I sank endless amounts of allowance and paychecks and tips into a coin collection and various and sundry offerings from the Franklin Mint, touted as “brilliant investments” and “guaranteed to be coveted”. Yes, some of the things I gathered were very pretty, but 50 years later when it came time to divest myself of the items for this reason and that, I found out that most of the stuff was worth: melt value. That’s just the sad reality of the collecting world.

The same holds true for stamps: the mint sheets of things like the Mercury mission

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Face value: $4.00. Dealer price today: $18.40. Hardly a brilliant investment over time, and that’s for a mint sheet. Certainly not what my father envisioned as he gathered sheets like this which I ended up inheriting. Individual cancelled stamps collected from envelopes will fetch you… well, kindling, really. With the exception of a few very rare beauties, stamp collecting is a hobby for amateurs (in the original sense, meaning “those who love”) rather than investors.

Not that dealers out there are not still trying to flummox the unwise and the uninformed. Look at this beautiful collection of Liberty Seated coins from PCS stamps and coins, offered for only two payments of $295.00:

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Yes, it’s very attractive. Here’s the potential breakdown of value, taken from the PCGS website – you can be sure that the coins you get will be the commonest (hence cheapest) varieties out there, and all in “Very Good” condition, or between grade 8 and 10.

1877 CC Liberty Seated Half Dollar – grade 8 – $59.00
1876 CC Liberty Seated Quarter – Grade 8 – $60.00
1876 CC Liberty Seated Dime – Grade 8 – $29.00

Total $148.00

That pretty little case probably costs about 30.00 or less from a dealer in China – so for a premium of $400.00 you can have someone put together a set of coins that you could own for 1/3 the price. Even 50 years down the road, don’t expect your investment to appreciate anywhere near that much.

Old US coinage can be beautiful, and top specimens command insane prices from the wealthy bidders who buy them at auction – but if you want to make money from collecting coins… become a dealer.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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Some things come and go, some things stick around

When I started shaving as a lad, I was able to use a blade for a while but there was a lot of blood involved until my skin got used to it. I began to understand the impact of “bleeding from every pore.” I finally gave that up; I wanted a shave, not a self-sacrifice. “Zit zot! Cut my face to shreds!”

When I switched to using a trusty Braun (I’ve had three since 1975), I started using a combination of LectricShave™ and AquaVelva™ for the befores and afters.

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They work well, I liked them then, and I like them now. And it occurred to me that they’ve changed almost not at all since their introduction (AquaVelva in 1929!) and have survived without using a lot of fancy and idiotic marketing (although the late 50s and early 60s TV ads for LectricShave were pretty insipid, as most commercials from that era.)

Back in the late 60s and early 70s, there was a brand of after-shave called HaiKarate – under the “sex sells” rubric, they produced some really cheesy commercials showing nerdy guys with horn-rimmed glasses fending off sex-crazed women; each bottle came with a self-defense insert and the slogan, “Be careful how you use it.”

 

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Although re-introduced in the UK in 2014, this product faded out in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly.

Other products came and went, some of which I remember fondly.

I purchased a set of “Nine Flags” colognes once, and I recall being very partial to “Italy” – the dry citrus was very easy on my nose.

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This is one I wish had endured. You can still find some floating around on eBay, but time is not kind to these fragrances – in my experience, the chemicals begin to break down and they can smell rancid after a while.

I’m glad that the two products I have used for most of my life are still around.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Good News! Cheap Oil! Bad News! Cheap Oil!

Cheap Oil

This cover of Time appeard on April 14, 1996. The lead article started off,

The epic oil plunge of the 1980s started out slowly and a bit remotely. To most people, it was just a downward-sloping diagram on the financial page, an abstract reminder of the mysterious world of desert oil wells, filthy-rich Arabs and the irritating antics of OPEC. But suddenly oil’s new situation is hitting home with the wallop of a 42-gal. oil barrel dropped on the front porch. Last week consumers, businessmen and traders around the world watched in awe as the price of crude dipped below $10 per bbl. for the first time in almost a decade. Oil, which as recently… [subscribe to read full article]

Interestingly enough, the same article by Stephen Koepp (which you can read in full) appeared on 24 June, 2001:

The epic oil plunge of the 1980s started out slowly and a bit remotely. To most people, it was just a downward-sloping diagram on the financial page, an abstract reminder of the mysterious world of desert oil wells, filthy-rich Arabs and the irritating antics of OPEC. But suddenly oil’s new situation is hitting home with the wallop of a 42-gal. oil barrel dropped on the front porch. Last week consumers, businessmen and traders around the world watched in awe as the price of crude dipped below $10 per bbl. for the first time in almost a decade. Oil, which as recently as January was selling for $26 per bbl., was on a breathtaking–and dangerous–ride down a slippery slope.

Not being a subscriber to Time, I’d be interested to know if the oil price mentioned was changed to reflect the current situation, or if the article was sheer copypasta.

At any rate, tracking the historical price of oil online is fraught with difficulty. One chart from Mactrotrends (click through for the interesting interactive version) shows oil dropping at its lowest recent point to $16.28 per barrel in 1998 – I remember that around that time, the price of gas on the street dropped below $1.00 for the first time in ages.

oil prices

The problem with a lot of charts on the web is that they show prices adjusted for inflation rather than the price actually paid:

Opec

This article, from whicht the chart above was gathered, mentions crude oil prices plummeting to below $10.00 per barrel, but that doesn’t agree with the previous data from Macrotrends, unless one looks at the “Nominal” price rather than the price in 2010 dollars.

Interesting to note are the actual prices on the street for gasoline over time.

Texas Gas

This chart of Texas prices shows gas dipping below $1.00 for almost a full year in 1995-1996, but the trend now is decidedly downward, and even this chart is out of date – as of January 29, 2016, gas is selling for $1.39 in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Given what oil prices are doing lately, we are marching amazingly close to that $1.00 boundary, and I will be interested to see what the next few months bring. The 5-year chart from GasBuddy shown below gives you an idea of the trend:

Buddy

Yesterday I paid $1.75 in Lewiston, Maine, at BJ’s (a shopping club like Costco), but I noticed that many places were pushing that price anyway.

What’s of interest to me is that gas station owners (while they appreciate lower prices of wholesale stock because it does translate into higher profits, haven’t seen a major improvement in their bottom line as a result of fuel sales in over half a century:

Gas1955

Notice that the 20¢ price of gas leaves only 4¢ profit for the station owner in 1955, whereas CBS Money Watch (worth reading) reported in 2014:

“…you should know that after all the ups and downs in a year, gas stations do not make much money from selling gasoline. After credit card fees and other operating costs, net profit for gasoline sales averages 3 cents a gallon, according the National Association of Convenience Stores.”

That means that profit margins on gasoline sales have remained historically paper-thin.

Jack at Shell Station with Dog

My wife’s father at his Shell station in the 50s. He could have been selling gas at these prices.

As of January 2016, taxes in Maine look like this:

State Excise Tax: 30¢
Other Taxes and Fees: .01¢
Total State Taxes and Fees: 30.01¢
Federal Excise Taxes: 18.40¢
Grand total: 48.41¢

Factor in wholesale costs and other operating costs and fees, and it’s easy to see why a gas station that depended solely on fuel sales would be out of business in a week, much like movie theaters depending on concession sales to stay afloat.

Oil prices dropping again. and only the good Lord knows when the trend will reverse itself. Still, in the changing production landscape which differs from that of 1996 with fracking and oil shale and all sorts of other sources going on, there are winners and losers – this New York Times article outlines the current situation in terms that can be understood by someone other than the late John Nash. The Times predicts that prices are not likely to rise any time soon.

Naturally, for travelers and for those who heat their homes with oil (like me,) this is a boon. If you want to take a cross-country trip, the time is definitely now. On the other hand, the loss to the losers may ultimately be significant enough that drastic measures will be take to raise prices, which will once again curtail supply.

What’s clear to me is that as a nation we need to wean ourselves off dependence on oil, both domestic and foreign. (This is said realizing that for the foreseeable future, oil cannot be completely replaced in our economy.) Trends are encouraging, with efficient electric and self-driving vehicles on the visible horizon, as well as a growing green-energy sector. This is not even factoring in the impact of oil-combustion emissions on global climate change. Anything that can be done to swap as many kilowatts of electricity as possible from oil (and coal) to renewable sources will be a good thing.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

WindPower

Wind power? I’m a big fan.

An alternate look at consumerism.

Over at Gizmodo, one can view James Savage’s spare room, filled with a working copy of almost every Apple computer ever made:

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At Metafilter, user Pastabagel posted this on October 4, 2007.

Coveting possessions is unhealthy. Here’s how I look at it:

All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free.

When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources.

This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.

The world is my museum, displaying my collections on loan. The James Savages of the world are merely curators.

As I am the curator of their things, and thus together we all share the world.

A year ago, Pastabagel did an expanded essay on the same theme, which I felt was worth sharing:

Hi, I’m the author of that original post on Metafilter. (I can’t believe it’s been 7 years since I wrote that!). I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this, and I think what it boils down to is this.

The amount of freedom you have is directly proportional to the time between your desire for something and the moment you reach out to grasp it.

For most people, this time is short. The see something they want and immediately they reach for it. Consider the immortal words from Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” If you are owned, then you are a slave. Slaves are not free.

If the thing you see arouses such a desire in you that you immediately move to own it, then you are not free. The thing own you, and you exist to serve it.

All these concepts like store, property, ownership, etc. are illusions designed to convince you that buying is something other than you giving someone your money, which is a physical manifestation of your time. (It literally represents the time that you worked in the past, or if on credit, the time you will have to work in the future to pay the debt.)

If you see something in a store that you like, you know exactly where it is. It’s in the store, safe and secure. You can go see it anytime you want. If you bought it, nothing would change but it’s position.

Now, you imagine that buying it changes your identity. You see the thing and your mind constructs a meaning for that thing (helpfully aided by advertising which is sooo impartial and on your side). This $12 moleskine notebook means I’m a creative( you think), unlike that $1 Staple notebook, which functions in exactly the same way.

You desire something because they made you desire it. I’m convinced that the forces of marketing and advertising are so effective and have been so thoroughly perfected, that it is almost impossible to resist for anyone. For any person, there is some product out there that these tricks work on. For you it’s sneakers, someone else is t-shirts, etc.

What we have to do is cultivate that control. You want this, but don’t reach for it. Walk away and ask yourself “why do I want that? What is it about that thing that makes me want it and not other things?” Replace the insitinctive motion to your wallet with an instinctive question. Why this?

And it’s true that you may never find it again, because it will be replaced by something else that you will immediately desire and have to have. And when that happens, the other thing will seem dulled and faded. There is always something new. Desire is never satisfied. It’s a an endless cycle.

Freedom is an act of resistance. The only force that operates on our lives now with any power is consumerism. The messages of consumerism will define our world and our identities if we don’t intervene on our own behalf. Your money is valuable because it represents your time, and your time is your life. Don’t trade your life for some new crap.

Look at the thing and admire the thought and creativity that went into it. And with your hands firmly in your pockets, turn and walk away.

This is, to me, extraordinarily sound advice, particularly for someone who is entranced by books, yarn, and geekology. I think I need to put this on my wall in the form of a “Desiderata” and look at it regularly. I mean, how many of the things that I “want” would I really use on a regular basis in a way that would enrich my life and the lives of others?

The Old Wolf has spoken.

1898: A Free Pound of Coffee with Every Pair of Shoes

coffee

This interesting receipt showed up in some Georgia probate files. Prices back then were insane, compared to today’s – but one must also factor in wages and overall cost of living.

According to various inflation calculators, a dollar in 1898 was worth $27.08 in 2013, making a pair of shoes for ten bits the equivalent of $33.85. And that pound of coffee? 18¢, or about $4.87 in 2013 dollars.

Not a bad Dreingabe¹; today’s coffee runs about $12 to $15 per pound, unless you want kopi luwak, which you can score for $350.00 online if you happen to like coffee beans that have been shat out by a civet.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


¹ German: bonus or give-away

Dorothea Lange – 1939, Motherless family in Yakima Valley

Saw this photo over at reddit and it really pulled at my heartstrings.

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The oldest of the children in this photo by Dorothea Lange takes care of the others in her migrant family, most likely while the father is working in the fields. She is stunningly beautiful, but carries a heavy and unwanted load on her young shoulders.

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Another image of the middle child, wearing a sack dress.

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“Youngest little girl of motherless family.” Toppenish in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. August 1939. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. Seen at Shorpy.

Poverty of this nature still exists in our country, let alone the rest of the world, but these images are a stark reminder of a very difficult time for our nation.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Why tipping is a bad idea.

This will be a short post, with a good video to watch.

I’ve written before about why tipping is not optional. The video below addresses that, but provides a good overview of why the example provided by Bar Marco – banning tipping and paying their servers a living wage – is a good idea, and should be the wave of the future. Mind you, Bar Marco is not the first – Sushi Yasuda started the practice in 2013. It is my hope that the entire industry is ultimately going to follow suit.

I love eating out, and if prices go up a bit to make this happen, as far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth it.

The video is below. It’s from College Humor, so there’s a bit of language in it – but I recommend this short film to anyone who enjoys dining out.

The Old Wolf has spoken.