Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shark Bait

I was 10 years old when Dad finally broke down and bought the
family its first TV set.

We wheeled it into the living room, hooked up the rabbit ears,
plugged it in and proceeded to gaze, slack jawed and wide eyed, at
anything and everything that appeared on its 12-inch screen.

That included wrestling and roller derby, Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra, live broadcasts of A-bomb tests in Nevada, even test patterns.

It was a miracle.  It also was, in the words of Newton Minnow, the FCC chairman, a “vast wasteland.”

No matter. We watched it all.

Whether or not that wasteland has blossomed into a garden of delights is a matter of conjecture.

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. Nowadays, my viewing habits pretty much focus on sports, news shows and movies.

I’m not an entertainment snob. But sit-coms make me grimace. Cop dramas are just soap operas accompanied by gunfire. Shows like “The Voice” and “Dancing With the Stars” are like being stuck in eternal audition hell. Reality shows are about as authentic as a $3 bill.

Yet, there is one recurring show that has held my attention. That would be “Shark Tank,” a long-running series in which amateur inventors emerge from their garages and kitchens to pitch their products to a panel of assorted millionaires and billionaires. 

I think what intrigues me most about the show is that there are still lots of people out there, would-be Edisons and Bells and Carvers and Goodyears, who are inventing Stuff.

That’s Stuff as opposed to bureaucracies, subprime mortgages, exchange-traded funds, Twitter accounts and anything with the word “virtual” in its title.

We’re talking manufactured goods, something that has been in decline in the U.S. for years. While the United States has added 520,000 manufacturing jobs since 2010 that figure pales beside the 6 million factory jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says vanished between 2000 and 2009.

It gives you hope that manufacturing, and the thousands of middle-class jobs that go with it, might make a comeback in this country.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, when Joe Inventor appears before the sharks with his better mousetrap, the first thing they ask him to do is to ship his product to China where it can be manufactured cheaply, thereby increasing the profit margins. 

Most contestants agree. After all, they’re dancing for their dinner.

At the very least, you learn a lot about how these captains of industry think. Contestants are grilled about manufacturing, inventory, distribution, sales forecasts and future products and their answers could determine if they extract some cash from the sharks.

A fair amount of them get offers.  But, according to a story in the New York Post, many of the deals made on the show are never enacted, due to the investors' vetting process following the deal, which includes product testing and the examination of the contestants' personal and business financials.

 In some cases, the entrepreneurs themselves have backed out of the deal after admitting that they only wanted to appear on the show for the publicity.

Those who make the cut can achieve considerable success.

Aaron Krause had invented buffing pads to use in his car-polishing business. To scrub his greasy hands, he used a piece of polyurethane he put inside the pads. It worked like a charm.  Thus, Scrub Daddy, a kind of super sponge, was born. He convinced Shark Lori Greiner to invest $200,000 for a 20 per cent equity stake. His revenue last year was north of $20 million.

Robert Edwards’ mother Judy was constipated. He’d read that raising knees above the hips could ease the problem so he designed a horseshoe-shaped footstool that fit around the front of a toilet. It worked and he dubbed it the Squatty Potty. Greiner also bankrolled this product ($350,000 for 10% equity stake) and sales this year are project to exceed $25 million.

Charles Yim says he was out drinking with colleagues when he was inspired to invent a $50 breathalyzer that plugs into a smartphone. The Sharks bought into the idea for a $1 million investment and 30% equity stake. Shortly after the show aired, two Silicon Valley venture capital firms invested an additional $700,000. Estimated revenue:  $10 million.

Not everyone hits a home run.  One contestant pitched an interactive bird feeder operated by remote control that was designed to keep pesky squirrels away by zapping them with a static shock.  The sharks didn’t feel the buzz.

One guy wanted a candle that could freshen his house but keep it smelling like a man. And so, the Man Candle was born. It comes in scents like pot roast, draft beer, and BBQ not to mention football, golf course, and flatulence.  It didn’t pass the smell test with the sharks.

Another inventor asked for $40,000 to fund his invention, an alarm clock that wakes you with the alluring aroma of cooking bacon. The Sharks decided that not only would it make your bedroom smell like bacon all the time, it was a fire hazard.

“Shark Tank” has joy, sorrow, genius and stupidity.  Sort of like television itself.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Color Me Cured

Incident in a restaurant:

I was having dinner with friends the other evening when a woman and her two daughters sat down at an adjoining table. I’m making an assumption about their relationship but since they shared the same facial features, I feel like I’m on solid ground here.

After a few minutes, I glanced at them. All were laser-focused on their cell phones, the light from which illuminated upward onto their faces like a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Aside from ordering dinner, not a word was exchanged between them. They continued to be visually engaged with their phones even as they ate.

It’s not an uncommon sight.  In fact, there’s a word for it:  Nomophobia.

It’s the fear of being without your mobile devices, which believe it or not is now recognized as a serious enough affliction to warrant checking into a rehab facility.

So this is what we’ve become, I thought. We are well on our way to evolving into a bowed neck species without vocal chords or the ability to see beyond the palms of our hands.

We will worship at the feet of idols called Apple, Android and Samsung.

Our greatest joy will not be interacting with others but in sharing cat pictures.

We will be social media zombies.

What can we do to avoid this fate?

I read that at some point in the near future we will be able to implant computer chips in our heads with all the cell phone bells and whistles.  This would eliminate the annoying and time-consuming task of having to actually look at the device. We can just close our eyes and watch You Tube.

Sound far-fetched? Chip maker Intel predicts practical computer-brain interfaces by 2020.

Of course, the implications of this, such has having your brain hacked, raise more than few red flags.

But let’s face it: For most of us, myself included, cell phones are boredom busters. Any time we have to stop and wait, we reach for our phones.

Several recent reports suggested we unlock our phones anywhere between 110 and 150 times every single day. That's a lot of checking, often done without any deliberate thought or goal.

Call it electronic day dreaming.

We need a substitute activity. Simply tossing your phone in the L.A. River or putting it on permanent airplane mode seems harsh.  After all, you may need your phone to actually make a call someday.

Many years ago, I quit smoking by chewing on a toothpick instead of lighting up a cigarette. It took a week or so but it worked.

So with that in mind I set out to find something to wean me off of a cellphone for at least a few hours a day. And I found it in a most unusual product.

Adult coloring books.

First off, let me clarify that when I say “adult,” we’re not talking about Playboy centerfolds.  We mean the old-fashioned definition: fully grown and reasonably mature.

And before you laugh it off, check this out from the New York Times:

“Kara Lacey, 33, does it after a long day of work, sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine. “It’s super-relaxing, fun and nostalgic,” said Ms. Lacey, a publicist who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

“Alex Bender, 29, a real estate executive in SoHo, did it during a recent jaunt to Montauk, N.Y. “It’s nice to concentrate on something that’s lighthearted, fun and simple, which I don’t often get to do,” he said.

“Nikki Marsh, 35, a stay-at-home mother in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., does it with fellow moms when they need to relax. “It’s a special time when we’re not allowed to talk about school or kids,” Ms. Marsh said.

“It’s coloring books for adults, which have been gaining traction, booksellers say. Enthusiasts claim that coloring is therapeutic, fosters creativity and reaps benefits associated with meditation.”

Which is more than you can say for a phone.

The New York Times is loathe to fill its hallowed pages with breaking trend news. It took them 10 years to mention the Hula Hoop. So this article is something of a milestone.

The phenomenon has even attracted the attention of Crayola. The famous crayon maker has recently launched a set of markers, colored pencils and a collection of adult coloring books, Coloring Escapes.

The books are available from all the usual suspects: Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Target, Walmart.

Subjects range from intricate patterns and designs to sea creatures to “the art of nature” to “color your own famous American paintings” to something called the “I Love America” coloring book.

Nielsen Bookscan estimates that some 12 million adult coloring books were sold in 2015, a dramatic jump from the 1 million sold the previous year.

It’s not for everyone. Robert Pela, a writer who also curates a contemporary art gallery in Phoenix, Ariz., is among that group.

“I’m a snob. But I’m also an adult, one who remembers when adults relaxed with bourbon, not Crayolas and an outline of My Little Pony,” he told one publication. 

I tried it.  I liked it.  It is as therapeutic as advertised. Most important, I didn’t reach for my phone once.

But if you’re going to try it,  just remember two things:

Don’t share your creations on Facebook or Snapchat. If you do, you’re missing the whole point of the exercise.

And stay within the lines.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Taxman Cometh

Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.
--- The Beatles

It’s tax season, that wonderful time of year when you realize that the fine print on your cell phone bill is easier to understand than a federal tax form.

And this year, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that your taxes, normally due on April 15, this year are due on April 18.  That’s because Emancipation Day, which marks the day in 1862 that President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, freeing more than 3,000 slaves in the District of Columbia and was a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation, fell this year on Friday, April 15.

Any holiday observed in the District is considered by the IRS to be an official legal holiday nationwide.

Who knew that the IRS could be so warm and fuzzy.

That means that you have a few more precious hours to rummage through that shopping bag full of W-2 forms, sales receipts, sketchy charitable donations and shoot-for-the-moon deductions that will be inspected by a humorless, steely eyed accountant type who hates his job.

The bad news is that if you need help from the IRS, your chances of talking to a human being are slim. Which is better than last year when your chances were zilch.

The IRS soared to new heights this year when it was able to answer 70 per cent of its phone calls. That’s still shoddy for an agency that has “service” in its title.  But last year’s figure was 38 per cent which is a few notches below abysmal.

This year’s dramatic improvement has been fueled by temporary hires. When they go, the relatively good performance will also disappear, according to a story in the Washington Post. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen expects the portion of callers who get telephone service will be just 47 percent for all of 2016.

Although we often think the main function of the IRS is to waterboard taxpayers, in this case it isn't entirely their fault.

The IRS suffered a 21 percent staffing cut, amounting to almost 23,000 full- and part-time employees, from 2011 to 2016. Yet, as the number of staffers fell, the workload grew.

An IRS statement said its budget is “more than $900 million below 2010 levels despite handling more than 10 million additional tax returns a year...since then.”

Some of you may be thinking. “With that kind of work overload, why not try a little creative accounting on my taxes?  They may have nailed Al Capone but chances are they wouldn’t even notice me.”

Alas, a lot of people, including the rich and famous, have trod that path.  And the journey hasn’t been pleasant.

Actor Wesley Snipes used various means to hide a lofty income. He was found guilty on three counts of failing to file a federal income tax return, owing the government $17 million in back taxes plus penalties and interest. His attempt to pay off a portion of what he owed during his trial failed and in 2008, Snipes was sentenced to three years in prison.

Actor Nicolas Gage contributed to the national debt to the tune of approximately $6 million, according to an IRS allegation. Accusing his ex-manager and accountant of making poor investment choices in risky real estate and failing to pay his taxes, Cage set out to make good with the IRS and it cost him $6.257 million in fines.

Celebrity photog Annie Leibovitz famously captured John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the cover of Rolling Stone which turned out to be her ticket to fame and fortune.  But after years of extravagance and poor financial management, it seems paying taxes wasn’t on her to-do list.  In 2009 Leibovitz owed $2.1 million in unpaid taxes for 2004-2007 and was forced to pledge the copyright to every photograph she has ever taken, or ever will, to get the loan she needed to pay her debts.

And then there is Walter Anderson.  You may not have heard of him but he was no stranger to the IRS.

It turns out Mr. Anderson, a telephone entrepreneur, was accused of hiding his wealth in off-shore companies in Panama and the British Virgin Islands in an attempt to avoid taxation on his income. Anderson pleaded guilty to two felony counts of evading federal income tax for filing tax returns in which he failed to report over $126,303,951 of income for year 1998 and over $238,561,316 of income for year 1999.

 As part of the plea agreement, Anderson admitted to hiding $365 million of income by using aliases, shell companies, offshore tax havens, and secret accounts. For the year 1998, the year for which Anderson admitted to having earned more than $126 million, he had claimed an income of $67,939 on his federal income tax return, for which he had paid only $495 in taxes.

His failed sleight of hand cost him a 10-year prison term and he was ordered pay $141,497,773 in tax deficiencies and $105,984,341 in penalties for a total of $247,482,114 owed to the IRS.  Will that be check or cash?

Still want to try some financial shenanigans?  Unless you relocate to north of the Arctic Circle, you’ll get caught.  If you work, the IRS gets a copy of your W-2. If you owe taxes and haven’t paid, they’ve got you.

You probably won’t go to jail. The IRS wants you working so you can pay off your debt. If you owe the government money, you'll have to pay it, plus interest and fines. If you owe money and don't file, the IRS charges a penalty of up to 25 percent of what you owe, and it can charge an additional 25 percent for failing to pay your bill on time. 

If you still don’t pay, you can kiss your assets goodbye.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Our Beloved Dodgers and Other Myths

I’m getting to the age where sometimes I don’t remember so good.

I can’t find my car keys. I misplaced my other shoe. My glasses are here somewhere.

I even forgot two noteworthy events this past week that are part of the fabric of our lives. There was a third but I can’t remember what it was.

So let me catch up on the opening day of baseball season. And April Fools Day.

I’m not surprised the start of baseball season crept up on me.  The Dodgers are dead to me, the result of a TV blackout that is entering a third year.

They are now officially out of sight, out of mind.

All thanks to Time Warner, a bumbling cable company that paid way too much ($8.35 billion) for broadcast rights and now can’t sell the telecasts to other outlets, and the Dodger owners who refuse to re-do the deal. There is no buyer’s remorse in corporate America.

I guess I could follow the Angels but their announcers are such unrepentant homers that they make my teeth hurt.

The worst of this is that they have silenced Vin Scully, a national treasure who is embarking on his 67th --- and final --- year as the team’s announcer.

It’s unthinkable, unconscionable and un-American.

When Scully’s voice poured out over Los Angeles, it meant spring was here. It was time to get the lawn furniture out, fix a cool drink and spend the summer listening to the drama unfold as only a master story teller could describe it. 

In the early days, when you went to Dodger Stadium, nearly everyone had a transistor radio tuned to Scully and his voice reverberated from the outfield pavilion to home plate. We could see what was happening but it seemed we needed Scully to validate what we witnessed.

It is Scully who said, "He (Bob Gibson) pitches as though he's double-parked." 

It is Scully who described pitcher Tom Glavine as being "like a tailor; a little off here, a little off there and you're done, take a seat." 

It is Scully who said, "It's a mere moment in a man's life between the All-Star Game and an old timer's game." 

To complete the indignity, you can still hear Scully on radio.  But only for three innings.  After that, he is only heard on a cable TV outlet that 70 per cent of us can’t get.

That’s like reading just three chapters of a great novel.  Or silencing Caruso after the first act of “Pagliacci.”

He never backhanded a line drive or doubled off the center field wall but no Dodger brought more joy to Mudville than Vincent Edward Scully.

For this, he’s rewarded by signing off in obscurity.

April Fools Day can be treacherous for those in the news biz. The internet is filled with fabrications and half-truths, often created by a bunch of goofballs who think a sham is satire.

Who started this, anyway?  My favorite historical explanation says that it dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.

People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. These included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.

It was so hilarious it has lasted more than 400 years.

Here is a sampling of this year’s top April Fools stories, some collected by

The restaurant reservation site OpenTable has developed an app that allows users to lick photos of food on their mobile devices to taste them.

The Economist offers statistical proof that ice cream makes you smarter, or at the very least makes you perform better on educational performance tests.

The British Milk Council announced it will begin to sell unicorn milk.  Of course, there is no such thing as the British Milk Council.  And besides, unicorns are notoriously hard to milk.

The Amherst Police Department is introducing "Dusty," their new Narcotics Detection Rabbit. Due to the fact that drug interdiction has become more difficult with criminals discovering ever new and smaller areas to conceal drugs, "Dusty" and his handler will be able to search vehicles and other small areas with greater accuracy, a department spokesperson said.

Burger King will begin offering chicken fries shakes.

The Groupon global e-commerce marketplace offered a (quickly sold out) deal on a new Cat Reader, a product that offers felines a chance to hear great works of literature read to them by other cats.

The National Geographic announced they will stop publishing nude animal pictures.

Starkist’s mascot Charlie the Tuna retires, replaced with Brad the Sawfish.

And last, but not least: Donald Trump's Campaign Revealed to Be a Huge April Fool's Joke.  Which, when you really think about, might be true.

I just remembered the third noteworthy event:  Last Monday was Hug a Newsperson Day. But I forgot if I got any hugs.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.