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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Love of Teaching

In the mid-1970s I began to teach my first classes, television show direction, in the large Council Rock High School television studio. Mr. Metzgar, our TV teacher, allowed me to begin instructing other students how to compose shots with our black & white television cameras, how to use the complex control panel to mix or fade in and out, and how to run the 2-inch video tape recorder. My experience as a photographer was one reason. My total comfort with electronics and technology was certainly another.

Mr. Metzgar was once the stage director of the television program Hollywood Squares. He told me the job was more like being a babysitter for spoiled movie stars. He lost his job, with everyone else, when there was a fire on the set. Being a public schoolteacher paid less but was steady work with better benefits, including a pension. He had a family.

I was chosen to be the morning news announcer for WCRH/CRTV morning news, along with senior Petie Chesner. We wrote many of our own news stories and broadcast all the high school team sports scores. I often got too creative in my writing so editors trimmed down my verbiage. I seem to recall we only had 15 minutes over the high school closed circuit TV system. 
Mr. Stringer, the high school principal, often interrupted us, handing over a special announcements while we were live on camera. Other teachers did likewise.

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I got to know Mr. Stringer very well and worked directly for him as the auditorium stage director for all four years. That job entailed running the lighting board, the film projector, the sound box and setting up lots of chairs. I positioned Leiko and fresnel stage lights, including placing color gels on each, out on the three catwalks.

My work in the television studio complimented the stage manager job. The most important part of both roles, for me, was getting to teach other students. 


I went on to teach manufacturing skills in California, tropical agriculture in Puerto Rico, India and Haiti. I became a full-time business instructor with JCPenney in 1983. On the side I was a computer consultant, after my cousin’s husband, Len Lankford, taught me how to consult. The peak of my consulting career, so far, was 4 international years with Cambridge Technology Partners. To this day I am still a computer consultant, a technical instructor and a photography teacher. Last year I taught 600 Maryland State Election judges how to conduct a U.S. Presidential election

Monday, June 12, 2017

Not LinkedIn Overseas

I'm amazed how often major Internet tools are left to decay by their development teams. LinkedIn is just the latest site to show signs of neglect. I realize they don't make enough money to have any technical support but somebody should still be minding the store!

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I travel overseas frequently but now version 9.1.33 of the LinkedIn app no longer works overseas. My Internet connection works fine. The website version works fine and allows sign-in with my same credentials. The iPad and iPhone apps suddenly act like I've never had an account. This happens in Puerto Rico and France too so I know it is not related to Panama. The app does not accept my credentials or prompt for the usual Pin code. My account had not been compromised as other users experience the same frustration. I'm also surprised to learn they have no online support whatsoever, other than a User forum. As a result LinkedIn will never even know they have an issue. This is as bad as Apple, another large tech firm showing signs of decay. General Motors would go out of business without excellent customer support.

My major corporate clients tell me this is always the case for them. The app is only for U.S.-based usage, several of them say, due to security concerns. This issue cancelled an entire training session for new, young banking professionals in Panama today. The VP of the bank advised he has discouraged his team from using LinkedIn for this very reason. It was once useful but now is only a waste of time.
Years ago LinkedIn was reliable and a useful business networking site. The suggestions from my international training clients indicate that it went downhill overseas after a major hack a few years back. Inside the U.S. it works fine, outside you can rarely get logged in or stay logged in long enough to get anything accomplished.


In order to grow, U.S.-based firms often fail to understand that international growth is where it's at. I began to offer international training services, in addition to serving my U.S customers, in 1986. Both customer bases are still growing but income from overseas assignments is always a reliable and lucrative source of income. The work actually compliments my U.S. training sessions. A firm once as large as LinkedIn definitely should already know this. My concern is that Microsoft is simply neglecting their acquisition or perhaps cutting back on investments in a service where only 25% of the members are active. Microsoft support for smaller clients has never been very good, I suppose this is the case now that LinkedIn is one of perhaps too many Microsoft products.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Delting Disaster

On the morning of 21st December 1900, seven small open boats from Firth, Mossbank and Toft set off for the winter haddock fishing. They were some 32 kilometres (20 miles) away, between the Horse of Burravpoe and Da Snap, when they were caught in a sudden and severe gale from the north-west. Many were lost during the storm which came on in the space of five minutes. The fleet were scattered. One made it to Whalsay, Skerries and Lunning but the rest were lost.

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22 men were drowned, leaving 15 widows (5 of whom were pregnant), and 51 children. Firth was hit the hardest. Many of the men were great fishermen and the disaster devastated the Delting fishing industry, which never recovered. The women continued to work the crofts. Children grew up and moved away, leading to a rapid decline in population.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Jefferson v. Kushner

Various journalists and commentators have been comparing what Jared Kushner did, that is, attempt to set-up an illegal back channel to Putin, to actions taken by President Thomas Jefferson.

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Here is what a well-known documentary filmmaker* recently had to say about comparing Kushner and Jefferson:
  1.  President Jefferson himself was the communicator or "back channel" via the American Ambassador to France, Robert Livingston — not, say, his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, an accomplished public servant Jefferson never dreamed of bringing into his own White House.
  2. Jefferson was the most experienced diplomat in the land — stark contrast — as Washington's former Secretary of State and Ambassador to France.
  3.  There was a paramount public purpose in the National Interest: the acquisition of New Orleans, control of the Mississippi, and acquisition of midwestern lands that would double the size of the U.S. — unlike Kremlingate. 
  4. The communication did NOT happen during the transition.
  5. There was no hint of conflict of interest — no equivalent to Vnesheconombank. Jefferson never personally profited from the Louisiana Purchase (a different president — ahem! — could have).
  6. Russia was not attempting to meddle in American elections circa 1800 — unlike in 2016.
  7. Above all, the influence was U.S.-to-France. With Flynn, Manafort, and possibly Kushner/Vnesheconombank, the "back channel" of influence may well be Russian influence over the U.S. 
*I have not included the individual's name here in order to avoid any deluge of responses in his/her email Inbox. This scholar merely shared these observations in a very public forum. I share them here, as a lifelong student of American history, for educational purposes only.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ann Coulter's Freedom of Speech

With the ouster of Coulter as a speaker at Berkeley once again everyone is raising the issue of free speech. We must realize free speech is also the reason she is not delivering that talk in California.

Speech is not restricted to a person standing before an audience. You are practicing free speech when you talk openly to a friend or write a letter to a school administrator or talk over the phone to someone that can make a difference. When everyone is permitted to speak freely, no matter what the venue, society functions. 

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So Ann Coulter was asked and agreed to speak at Berkeley. Students and perhaps alumni or local residents decided to speak out, in particular about the messages Ayn Rand, whoops, Ann Coulter typically delivers. Ann Coulter is a well-known, and certainly well-spoken television guest, writer and public speaker. She proudly waves the far-right conservative flag here in the U.S.. Anyone who understands the Berkeley community would expect the mass of liberals in Oakland and the surrounding areas to voice an opinion or two about Ms. Coulter. 

I wouldn't be surprised if one or more wealthy alumni called or wrote to someone at the school. The groups sponsoring Ms. Coulter, in other words, the people prepared to pay her huge speaking fee, backed out. 

An organizer of a large event, such as Ann Coulter's speech, must carry the correct amount of insurance to cover any possible situations for which they might be held liable. My guess is the event insurance policy cost suddenly went through the roof. So the free speech of certain insurance company executives might have stifled Ann Coulter's Constitutional rights.

If the school insurance policy was somehow involved, you can bet leadership was aware of that. One of the Berkeley administrators even said the location was 'a school, not a battleground.' We'll have no Kent State here. 

A few conservatives have become quite violent in certain protests lately. The current occupant of the White House did his best in the campaign to stoke right wing groups, including a request for them to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights in regards to his opponent. He's getting them riled up about public lands right now.

The homegrown militias need only a little stirring to rekindle the fires of yesterday. Lone wolves, the human kind, probably outnumber actual wolves, the howling kind. Every good old boy seems to have an AR15 in the closet, and a piece in the nightstand. So long as those weapons are not back at the pawnshop. They're worth a lot of money you know.

Ann Coulter's rights are not really being impinged. She can still go anywhere in the United States, stand on the street corner and say anything she wants. There are hundreds of groups that would invite her to speak to their members, if they could only afford the fee, or if she would speak for free. Speak freely, Ann, and all others. Free speech means so much more than just a presentation before a large audience.


The author holds a degree in Speech Communication from Pennsylvania State University.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Out For A Walk

Here I am out for a walk on the farm. My SLR is hanging from my shoulder. It has a very sensitive shutter release. This camera also has a very complex 36.3 megapixel full-frame, Sony-built, CMOS sensor. I always keep at least one my cameras set to capture images at the fastest rate possible. This is how an image seeker walks ready to capture a scene.

I hear the camera taking a picture. Apparently the release is bumping against my back. This is first image the camera took by itself:

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This is the second shot the Nikon D810 captured:

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The camera is spinning at the end of the camera strap. For some reason certain objects are slightly visible. My jeans are visible, why they are seen intact, while the camera is spinning, makes no sense.

These rare instances are among the images I treasure. My clients have no use for them. As a connoisseur of Impressionist art, I find them intriguing almost beguiling.

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I’ll readily admit, back in my digital darkroom, I slightly bumped up the color saturation for each of these images. I have a personal limit of 17% saturation maximum, so that’s how this image was adjusted. Two of my neighbors were professional photographers when I was a boy. They taught me how to compose images, and also the importance of good developing and printing skills. I had my own black & white darkroom at age 13. 

My photography career is about capturing images of businesses, people and their processes. Assembly lines, large gatherings, and especially how a business is conducted, those are my subjects. I assemble these images and standard operating procedures (SOP) into finely-detailed business process guides. Surprisingly, many new firms don't even have a clear set of SOPs all in one document. Older firms have very old SOP documentation. I update those to the latest procedures, and add detailed photographs.

My clients and myself use these documents to train employees. The photographs and documentation are also used to sell corporations and property.

I've photographed everything from manufacturing plants to airlines and breweries to concerts, festivals and political rallies, always photographing for management. This involves taking hundreds, if not thousands of images. It also involves all kinds of negotiations because employees don't always like having their picture taken at work.

Captures of computer screens, diagrams and charts must also be woven into the story of any organization. Finally, portraits of the employees, managers and owners are essential to make it all real. Annual meetings are a common recurring assignment for me.

You don't and won't see any of these photographs here, because they are covered by various non-disclosure agreements. The precise details of how a business operates are held very closely. 


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Flynn Now Admits He Was A Foreign Agent, During Trump Campaign

Add Turkey to the list of nations that influenced the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Michael Flynn was just looking out for Turkey's best interests, while campaigning for Trump. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, forgot to file the necessary paperwork required when you lobby for a foreign government, for four months. But he remembers to write an OpEd piece for The Hill, without disclosing the $ half million Turkey is paying him?

All the while Flynn is sharing this Turkish connection with Trump, but nobody remembers much about it. Although a Trump lawyer does remember advising Flynn back then, twice.

Let us not lose sight of the notion that a former very high ranking U.S. intelligence official went straight to work for multiple foreign governments, even before working for the Trump Campaign. The list of foreign governments Flynn consulted with now includes Turkey, Russia, Syria, Japan, Austria,

Flynn admits attending classified national security briefings with Trump, while working for foreign governments. All this without Flynn disclosing that he is a foreign agent, except to Trump lawyers.

Flynn also admits working for Russia Today, Putin's mouthpiece that poses as a fake news outlet. What was really discussed during Flynn's self-admitted "numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers and ambassadors?"

In Flynn's own words at the 2016 RNC Convention, "If I did a tenth of what she did, I'd be in jail today."

Jail sounds like a good idea at this point, considering all that Flynn has done.

Am I the only person that finds this disturbing?  No, wait, treasonous is the word I was looking for.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Phone Hacking, Remote Diagnostics, or You?

Recently there’s been an upsurge in concern about phone hacking. People are afraid the government is hacking their phones, tablets and computers. Stories are all over the media, written by journalists that mostly know very little about technology. They simply had a deadline to submit their article to an editor, I fully understand.

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Here’s the truth. People, computers and software are already in your phones and tablets. They access your location, your data, and even the records of who you communicate with every day. It’s not typically the government, though law enforcement can and does look for criminal activity in creative ways. It is mostly businesses that spy on you, every day. Data collection agencies, banks, insurers, tech firms and many others all try to keep track of what you are up to, in great detail. They buy and sell data about your every thought and action, that’s business. You willing, if unwittingly, gave them permission.

WhatsApp, Snap and Signal apps do transport content securely. This does not matter when the hacker is technically already looking over your shoulder as you type. They also look over the shoulder of the person you sent your message to.

If your phone or computer is backed up remotely, that means the data in it is accessible remotely. You give these firms permission every time you press "Agree" on those Terms and Conditions screens. Once the first computer was networked with another computer, remote access was possible and even encouraged. It is called "File Sharing." Cell phones are nothing more than small computers wirelessly attached to a network. If the network operator wants to know what one particular device on that network is doing, they can monitor the activity. It could be network troubleshooting or a court-ordered wiretap. That's why they are called "service providers." The law requires the phone company to help law enforcement, provided a court order exists.

A Direct Connection

There are special boxes, one model is called a "Cellebrite®" diagnostics machine.  Phones can be physically plugged into this machine and searched. It is true that newer models of phones are heavily encrypted but these hacking machines eventually catch up to the latest technology. There is even a UFED Pro® phone analysis device for law enforcement. Look it up. What it does might surprise you. Only the police are supposed to have some types of these machines but in reality anyone can obtain them.
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Applications allowing remote access to computers and smartphones have always existed. These same tools are used by computer or phone engineers to build and test new models. Such tools are just one way tech support might be able to fix your phone or PC, without you having to take it back to the store. I’ll wager you or someone you know has been helped remotely.

Remote Diagnosis

Remote Diagnostics tools are important in phone support for one major reason. People call  customer support using the telephone that is having a problem. They don’t have another phone to call from. The rush to cut off home landlines is nearly complete. They need help with their iPhone or Android. As they tell it, "Their entire life depends on this phone!" 

Every person has the same point of view. Nobody ever said, "Oh, I’ll just drop off my phone at the store and pick it up in a few days." Even that doesn’t help now, they no longer repair phones at the phone store. For display issues you once had to ship your phone to the manufacturer, there were no local screen repair shops. Nebraska and some other states are even passing laws to force the phone manufacturers to provide repair shops.

Even Remotely Aware

Diagnostic tools work in different ways but essentially they all allow telephone or computer support to get inside your device and fix it. All this while you are using the phone to call support for help. I roamed inside of all models of mobile phone, while they were on my employer’s network, if the caller gave me permission. Diagnostics tools rarely fixed the problem, but the customer often feels better after such a call. Sort of like having your doctor run all kinds of tests that come back negative.

Word of caution, there are unscrupulous telephone support scam artists that also offer "Remote Diagnostics" or something similar. They are phishing for your bank account and credit card details. The best advice about scams is to think about who started the call. Did you call the 800 support number on your monthly bill?  Safe. Did you call the actual manufacturer phone number on the side of the package or product label? Fine. Did they call you to offer some shady support contract? Hang Up! My mother suggests if you aren't required to press several buttons and wait quite a while listening to the same recording, before getting to a human, it is probably a scam business.


Terms & Conditions, You Must Agree?

Every support tool requires the customer to touch or click on the "AGREE" button. Without that telephone support gets no access. Some customers asked me about what they were agreeing to. Since we are evaluated by call length and number of calls, our answer was short, "If you don’t agree to this you can always take your computer or phone to the store or use a neighbor’s phone to call us." They tapped the Agree button every time.

One of my support tools had a feature to bypass the AGREE button, in case the customer was physically unable to agree, usually due to a display problem. On a few occasions I had to use that feature. This means I just entered a phone number or IP address into the system and got inside the device, with the owner doing nothing. They did verbally agree and we all know "all calls are recorded for quality and training purposes." Granted, the owner was on the phone while I was helping them, most of the time.

One time the owner called, asked me to access the phone to fix it, I did, they set the phone down and left the house. I was required to hang up without doing anything in that case. It is all about gaining customer agreement. No customer, no agreement exists.


Warning Will Robinson, Warning!

As employees we were given all kinds of training and warnings about using Remote Diagnostics. Do not look at their photos, emails or texts. Do not look at their Contacts lists. Just use the Settings features. Many of the support calls we received were requests for help with photos, email, texting or lost Contact lists. Gaining customer agreement turned out to be just a facade, for some of the tools. Almost as fast as remote diagnostics tools became common, they were taken away from support, for being too controversial.

During the years I used Remote Diagnostics tools I learned people display all manner of images on their screens. Computer browsers still had trashy web sites open (probably the reason their PC acted like it had a virus). Background and Unlock screen photos were occasionally obscene. I only went into a customer’s Photo Gallery once or twice, at their insistence. They were having problems with videos or folders.

Mostly there were pictures of the owners kids, spouse, and some woodworking project. The typical customer problem was having too many videos or photos. They had to delete some or move them to a computer or the cloud. It wasn’t called a "cloud" back then, but it was still a cloud. If it was an Android phone we often had to Hard Reset the devices, nothing else we were trained to do worked. 

I’ve fixed thousands of computers and phones, just during those years I worked in support roles. Mostly I was supporting employees of the company where I worked. They were friendly to me. During the few years I supported total strangers, most of them were also friendly to me. 


Be a Patient

At least one caller would always try to ruin your day. There’s always one, every day. They want a $500 bill credit. They demand you send a new phone for free, to replace the one they dropped in the bathroom. They blame you for the raunchy videos their teenager has on their phone. It is not their fault some 3rd party app makes their camera keep taking pictures. They blame Ma Bell for the data overage caused by that same teenager. They get no signal where they live, they would like to request a new cell tower be constructed. It is an endless stream of the same complaints repeated at least once every day.

If you get a human in tech support, be thankful and treat them nicely. Understand that you have reached a doctor that is trained to fix your sick piece of electronics. Good phone techs are rare practitioners these days, manufacturers and telcos would rather sell a new phone than pay someone to fix an older phone.  New hires are trained to use checklists, they lack the experience to diagnose issues based on symptomatology.


Your Fault, Usually

Devices with known manufacturing defects are usually recalled now. No carrier wants their phone starting a fire. If you have one of those, you'll get "a free replacement" otherwise you get a refurb...if you think your device has a factory problem in the first year.  Insurance is actually worth the cost for some teenager's devices, even with the deductible and monthly fees.

My point is this. Manufacturing defects aside, the telephone owner is usually the person responsible for their phone or computer being damaged or their accounts hacked. The owner used a very easy password, or no passwords at all. The owner filled out an email form that looked like it was from their bank. It was a Phishing email from somewhere overseas. You went to that website or downloaded that app, actually an implant, and agreed to let those strangers access your location, your photos, your thoughts, your dreams. The hacker may be working for a foreign government or it may just be Facebook going about business as usual. An implant is an implant, no matter if Interpol or Google put it there.


Privacy, what privacy?


They just want to know what you are searching for or who you are in-touch with. Online Privacy? That's been a myth for more than 10 years. Do you think the cable TV people keep track of what programs you watch? Today most screens are able to watch or listen to you. Phones, tablets, and laptops have microphones, front or rear cameras or both. The television builder Vizio was recently fined for selling customer living room conversations picked up by the TV set's microphone. Sent off over the Internet to an artificial intelligence. Samsung called that a feature for years. Now we need to be more careful about the epithets we shout at the TV set?

Look inside your phone or tablet. Look for the Privacy Settings screens. What apps have you allowed to access your microphone, your photos, your camera, your location or your Contact list? Do you know what apps do when given such access? They access it and sell whatever data they can harvest to pay the cost for developing that "free" or $1.99 app. If they don't get this data they go out of business. Most firms use the data responsibly, others, who knows? 

What constitutes responsible use of private data?

Now if you committed some heinous crime or seriously plan to do so, or know somebody planning a heist or worse, the government will use every tool, public or private to hunt you down. There are rules around how this should be done, but if John Law thinks a bomb is ticking, all bets are off. You will be hacked or tricked into allowing spies in your devices or even locked out of your own gadgets. All I can suggest at that point is to keep a spare phone around or maybe some stationary and postage stamps.




Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grow Your Own Investment Fund

This essay is part of a series written on investing intended to be helpful but not too technical. A beginners course for fledging investors, if you will.  You do need your money to grow faster than slow 2-year CDs paying 1% or less. Mutual funds are easy, an index-tracking mutual fund, for example the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF Trust fund (NYSEARCA:DIA), may be the best choice for those that don’t want to do the homework. Read on if you want learn how money can actually be grown. How to trade shares of stock.

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The most important reason to invest is always going to be return on equity. You get something in return for letting other people use your money. You'll even get paid dividends, like savings account interest, in some cases. But another big reason should influence your decision to buy a particular stock. When I invest in some part of the economy, also called a sector, I do so for very specific reasons. I understand the Consumer Product, Technology, Logistics, Telecommunications, and Retail sectors but sometimes I will buy stocks outside of those.

I expect growth. Like in my organic vegetable garden.  If a company does not know how to grow, where is it really going? Why would I suddenly expect my money to grow there? Why should it be growing in my garden? Careful research within a sector is essential for understanding any investment. You might not be looking at the top performer.


I prefer the hunt for real growth stocks, stocks whose prices go up and up, to most other puzzles. I also run, walk, swim or bike but I literally go out and hunt for really successful companies. I initially invest essentially small amounts, by any measure, but all year long, every month. An amount going to my brokerage account has been a part of my monthly budget for decades.  

Regular investing doesn't make it any easier, you just need to save some money for retirement. Every month. I might forgo a big purchase at times, but I never skip my investment contribution. There is no choice or argument with the matter. Nobody is getting any younger.

Having a 401k account at work is an easy way to save, especially if the place where you work matches some of the money you contribute. When I worked at Ma Bell if I had 6% going to my 401k, Ma Bell matched the contribution. My big issue with 401k accounts is that people don't take care of them. They just buy some funds, often ones the company seems to recommend the most, and let their money sit there. It's like planting a garden and then walking away and expecting to come back later to just harvest food.

Open a discount brokerage account, it takes $500 to $2,000, depending on the broker. It is still your money. Think of it as a savings account that could earn you a lot more than 1% interest. It is true you could lose money, but if you are only getting 1% interest you are already losing money with that sleepy savings account. Prices are still going up, that's inflation.  Some stocks consistently pay great dividends. Invest in those if you want to play it safe and still get better returns than a CD.

You have to take care of stock investments, know what you hold, know what you should sell or buy, in advance. I know it sounds like the lyrics to a Kenny Rogers song, you will probably not be trading very often. When you do trade you want to make an informed trade. Then you make sure you look back at your investments at least once a week, more if you are planning to buy. You always do research before you prepare to buy or sell a stock. Always. 

If you think you have located a worthwhile company to invest in, to buy stock in, look in the other direction. Look at the other businesses that are similar to that company. It is an easy trick to do.

To avoid this type of investor myopia use a simple feature found in most investment-related web sites. In Google it is called "Related Companies." Just "Search Finance" an equity at https://www.google.com/finance. When you  search for  "T" for example, you land at AT&T’s page. Scroll down and you see a list of Related Companies, along with basic performance statistics including: Price, Change, Change % and so on. You can even add or remove columns here.

You should start digging into competition here. Look at the performance of other firms with a similar market capitalization, in this example Verizon (NYSE:VZ) or Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA). Also look at tough competitors you know about, like Sprint (NYSE:S). Check the statistics, dig down deep.

5% Minimum Return Hint: You can simply use telephone or utility stocks like savings accounts, they’ll give you a steady ~5% return on your cash while you research and save up to buy growth stocks or growth+dividend shares. The prices of telco shares may vary, usually not by too much, but the dividend amount is often very consistent. 

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When you perform this same exercise with Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), a few smaller competitors are displayed in "Related Companies." These include Dollar General (NYSE:DG) or Costco Wholsale (NASDAQ:COST). When you search those firms you’ll find even other important sector players, including Dollar Tree (NASDAQ:DLTR) or even Big Lots (NYSE:BIG). Each has a past performance history you can easily research.


Hint: BUY LOCAL PRODUCE: Many investors buy stocks in businesses where their money is going. You make a payment to the electric or cable company each month, why not have them send you a dividend check every three months? Or the cell phone company? Or even the place where you shop frequently? It might make sense.

If I change the chart for Big Lots (NYSE:BIG) to 1 year, and hover over the 1y, I can see it has gone up 36% in just the past year. However, over 5 years this fascinating retailer has only increased about 19%. It may be on a roll right now or it just had a good year. I would need to look closer.

If I change the chart for Dollar General (NYSE:DG) to 5 years,  and hover over the 5y, this stock has gone up 81%! 81% returns over 5 years is good. 

If you change the chart for Dollar Tree (NASDAQ:DLTR)  to 10 years,  and hover over the 10y, this stock has gone up 590%! 590% returns over 10 years is incredible. Nearly 60% returns a year for the past 10 years is mind-boggling to most investors. Now, remember, Dollar Tree may have done all the rapid growing it is going to do. Dollar Tree is just an example of how fast some stocks grow, there are many others. 


Hint: Investors have always enjoyed telling tales of incredible growth. Always check the actual results. Look at the 1-year, 5-year and 10-year charts. If you trade often, look at the 7-day, month and YTD charts.  Don't always expect growth to continue. Most people talking about some great investment probably didn't buy their shares way back in the day. It could still be a good investment. People often sell a stock at the wrong time.

I invested in Dollar Tree 10 years ago. Is it time for me to sell my investment?  I'm not sure it is. Dollar Tree just bought Family Dollar, if the integration of the two store chains goes smoothly, the combined firm and the stock could be worth a whole lot more. That is if people keep going out to stores to get items they need for $1.

I invested in Apple, Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) 12 years ago. Apple shares are up 972% over the past 10 years. Apple also paid dividends for part of that time. Even Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) didn’t chart that type of performance, but in different long-term periods the search engine/advertising behemoth is not far off. These are the kinds of investments careful research will reveal. I still do the same research because there are always new great firms to discover. 

CSX Corp. (NASDAQ:CSX), the freight train people in the logistics sector, or Johnson and Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) in consumer and health care. have performed well above market average, while paying dividends, especially over the past 5 years. You’ll notice my emphasis on Consumer Products, Retail, Logistics and key Technology firms. Google and Apple are both, in some ways. Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and IBM (NYSE:IBM) past results all stood out at one time, but where are their competitors going today? Where are their customers going? What are the underlying numbers telling me? 
Hint: John D. Rockefeller, offered to pay owners of oil wells and pipelines shares of Standard Oil stock instead of cash. Many well owners demanded cash. The people that took Standard Oil shares mostly became very wealthy as the stock price went up and up. The monopoly eventually got split up, but stock holders earned even more as a result!
Some other firms did even better than the well-known firms mentioned above. Some businesses you never heard of grew rapidly, but that is a level of risk most people cannot tolerate so close to retirement. Maybe XYZ Labs will come up with a cure for some type of cancer. Those kinds of questions are tougher to research. Do you or any of your friends or people at school carry a particular model of phone or all buy your shoes at one place? You may have the secrets to some good investments in your pocket or the pocket itself.

The firms I just mentioned could also flounder over the next few years. They could be trading at 52-week highs for the last time this year. You can only understand future performance by looking very closely at the industry direction and whether particular firms have positioned themselves to grow. I actually listen and take notes during quarterly conference calls for key firms. They announce these open meetings weeks in advance, sometime after the end of each quarter. You must listen cautiously, every CEO thinks the business will grow even more next year! Listen to how they explain why that will happen.

I'll never forget listening to early morning conference calls for a Norwegian oil firm I owned for years, Statoil (NYSE:STO). They asked anyone with a question to press a button on their phone. I assumed that was only a feature for the big analysts. One quarter I had a great question, and pressed the button, I was suddenly asking the CEO in Oslo a direct question. It was about natural gas versus oil wells, I think. He answered my question as carefully as any other question that was asked. Conference calls are typically not that open to questions from individual investors. 

Annual meetings are also part of owning stocks. Owning even one share gets you a ticket into a party, someplace. Each year public firms hold an annual shareholder meeting. Some are just big meetings held in a conference room. Others offer food, free samples and a chance to meet management and ask questions. If you go to one of these annual meetings you may start attending them every year. My mother went to annual shareholder meetings for years.

Most of the firms listed above are positioned to keep performing, by having management with proven track records, well-known premium product lines and industry-leading recent results. They are making smart acquisitions of strong companies that will help them grow. If you visit their stores in different places you see similar foot traffic patterns. They are in business all over the U.S. or all over the world, not just in one small region. These are some of the key performance indicators good research reveals.

The retail sector is a tricky place to invest these days. Many people are ordering on-line more and more. Some may have had a good year recently and that’s it. What is the price of each share worth, when compared to the past earnings (P/E ratio)? Lower P/E ratios, say below 20, may reveal a bargain stock. Maybe. Amazon’s 173 P/E is shocking, but that only reflects Jeff Bezo and Amazon management’s style of spending earnings to get future results. Past performance is no assurance of future performance, but sometimes you take what you can get. Try the research techniques described above on completely different stocks. Gems will rise up out of such research.

Careful with the game of guessing which firm will buy another big firm. I did correctly guess the AT&T (NYSE:T) acquisition of DirecTV well in-advance but never suspected Dollar Tree was going to buy Family Dollar. This is a dangerous game to play when you know you’ll need this money to retire on. Think instead about which firms are still likely to be around and thriving when you actually do retire. Since so many changes are coming along so quickly, also look at emerging technologies. WalMart’s (NYSE:WMT) recent investments have me intrigued though I don’t see them passing Amazon. 

Walmart has very profitable divisions in Mexico, South Africa and other places. Massmart (JSE-MSM) is Walmart's growing African division, with 470 stores, and expanding out of South Africa into other sub-Saharan nations. Profits at Massmart Holdings Ltd. grew a healthy 12% last year. The shares on the Johannesburg stock exchange (JSE-MSM) are up 34% over the past 3 months, and they pay nearly a 3% dividend. That's a clue something is working. This means owning Walmart shares would give you exposure to growth in a fascinating emerging market, Africa. 

In addition to Walmart shares I owned shares of Wal-Mart de Mexico at one point. Careful with foreign stocks, if you are beginner, they can be more difficult to understand than domestic firms. I do invest in businesses in India, Europe and South America, but only after considerable research. I hold funds invested in these places during a periods of high growth. Key foreign firms can be real strong growth stocks.  Some did quite well. Others did not. International funds, with their associated fees, give you exposure with less risk than owning the underlying shares. Annual dividends from international funds, often paid in December, can be a real pleasant surprise some years!

Study the components of a strong performing fund. If the fund is doing well, that means certain shares held by the fund are probably doing fantastic. Figure out which stocks in the fund are strong growth stocks, buy those shares directly, if you can. Look for ADR-type shares sold in the U.S. but representing foreign businesses, if you want to own overseas ventures. 

People chuckle at me when I mention I am an owner of some firm. I don't talk investing much in most social circles. My investing is typically private, though here I am sharing my overall philosophy in this essay. Researching and writing it all down is how I was taught to invest and stay enthusiastic about investing.  I have written hundreds of personal research reports on stocks that I might never share with anybody. Be an owner. If you own shares in a business, you are one of the owners. No question about it. You even get to vote your shares once a year by proxy.

Your research might delve into labor and environmental practices at the firms where you want to invest. For example, I do not buy tobacco shares or certain chemical or defense manufacturers. I look for firms investing sustainable clean energy. Apple, Inc. does this effectively. So does Tesla  but so do many other socially-conscious enterprises.  

Find out what the other parts of a firm are and who they compete against. I once invested in Level Three (NYSE:LVLT), a fiber optic cable company, without knowing they also owned a mine at the time.
Hint: If your company offers to give you shares at work in some way, think carefully about the offer, and then take them. Lucky you, that is profit-sharing, not all employers do that. You might not be able to sell them right away. How long were you planning to work at that job? They gave you stocks you cannot sell right away to encourage you to stay! At some point you can sell the shares and take the cash, but you just might want to hold onto them, especially if you think the place where you work is a success story.

Finally, my mix of some of the above shares didn’t return 50 or 60% annual returns over time, though I hold a high percentage of excellent performers long. I diversify, to an extent, though brokers always say I hold too many of certain shares, the results have been worth the added risk, for me. My total portfolio returns, including dividends and other special items, over the 10-year period ending 12/31/2016 were 330%, or 33% a year on average. Tough years (2008) were balanced out over many great years. All of that money is still in play and still growing. If I get a tax refund, I invest it in shares, not a new TV. I can buy the new TV later, with the dividends from the shares. I contribute $100s of dollars each month, every month, to my brokerage accounts, sometimes much more.  I privately call it Tom’s Hedge World Fund, or the THW Fund. Who wouldn’t?


(DISCLAIMER: I own, have owned or will soon own most of the stocks mentioned above. I do not just write about investing, I am a lifelong investor.  Several of my friends are successful brokers for big firms. They buy and sell stocks for other people, but we rarely talk about their work or my portfolio. Our conversations are more likely to be about the NFL or World Cup Soccer or art/fashion. I’ll admit, they listen to me more than I listen to them! They say I skew hard to NASDAQ-listed firms. That’s because those are the type of places I know. My neighborhood. Some firms are listed only as examples to help readers compare stocks. I do not work in the securities industry, buy or sell for others or directly advise other people for pay. I’m a technical consultant, writer and instructor. I often get paid to do lots of research, business processes mostly. I was not paid by anyone to write this or any other article in this blog.  I am paid to author or edit many other documents, mostly Standard Operating Procedures.)

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Finding Work and Customers in these United States

While I was waiting for my car to be serviced at a dealership I recently experienced what rural America already knows. A new car buyer arrived in the showroom. He speaks only Spanish. The dealer in this very rural location on the Eastern Shore of Maryland did employ a fluent Spanish-speaking car dealer.

The two began to discuss the relative benefits of Chevrolet versus Toyota and Japanese versus American cars. (I understand spoken Spanish having lived in Puerto Rico and New Mexico for years. I don't speak it too well but was able to make myself understood in Puerto Rico last month!) The long discussions did result in a car sale, from what I could tell.

My observations over the years have taught me that businesses in the United States significantly benefit from the immigrant populations living among them. They are ready to employ recent arrivals to America, sell to them, and include them in all aspects of society. There is a very small reactionary segment of the population that rejects immigrants, with most feeling they compete for scarce jobs.

The jobs immigrants apply for and often secure appear to me to be plentiful. Agriculture, food processing, and even rural manufacturing jobs seem to be available no matter where I travel in the U.S. and territories. Oddly, these same areas do report high levels of unemployment.

Immigrants also get hired by high tech firms. Sometimes this is because they are willing to work for less but usually they are hired because they know how to write good code or design a decent Unser interface for some app.

Research seems to indicate many Americans do not want to take jobs significantly lower than those they lost. I am one of those people. I have a college degree and decades of experience in technology positions. Taking a job in an Eastern Shore poultry processing plant is not my idea of a solution. I would also retire early rather than start cleaning offices at night. I will never become a roofer.

People still want to purchase inexpensive chicken parts at the local grocers. Our nation's economy would not function without office cleaners, agriculture workers and roofers. Or programmers, civil engineers or health care workers. Car dealers enjoy the business of all different types of customers, as do restaurants, doctors, plumbers and electricians. Like many new immigrants everywhere, people arriving in the U.S. acquire new skills and move into more skilled positions over the years.

We have an excellent network of community colleges, universities  and trade schools across this country. I notice recent immigrants in nearly every class I take or teach.

I understand the arguments of people that used to work in construction but now feel immigrants have forced them out of those jobs or reduced the pay levels. This is entirely possible, are you willing and able to get back on the ladder? Some immigration reform might help in specific cases but the whole mass deportation thing is far more likely to have more negative economic consequences.

Certainly reasonable controls on immigration are warranted at this point in human history.  Mass migrations all the time would cause turmoil. Nevertheless reversing decades of integration in all parts of this nation is both unwise and unwanted. From farming to infrastructure to high tech, North America will not function without the right mix of people with the right skills willing to get things done.

IMPORTANT: This brief essay was not intended to address the issue of H1B visas and the often temporary displacement of labor associated with such programs. Businesses and the government sometimes use those visas to lower wage costs or alleviate other issues associated with specific skilled technology labor. This topic has been addressed in the past and will be touched upon in future articles.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The New Colossus

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" - Emma Lazarus

This sonnet was written to raise funds for the construction of the Statue of Liberty. It remains a reminder that the United States was not founded as some closed door society but rather as a place of refuge for those persecuted for their beliefs in other lands. It is there on a plaque near the base of arguably one of the greatest sculptures one nation has gifted to another. The original copy is held and deeply treasured by the American Jewish Historical Society.

When I travel to distant places, as I often do, I deliberately seek out the 'tired, the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' I do not encourage them to move to America, as many have falsely assumed, instead I prefer to open their minds to the possibility, however remote at the time, that their lands and people can enjoy such freedoms as the people living in the United States.

Since I was a young man I have dreamt of the day when I might be issued a world passport, as I am first and foremost a world citizen. Over time, this dream of mine has grown to the point where I wish someday that all passports become obsolete. Borders are man-made, rarely, if ever, reflecting the true nature of the people sometimes trapped within them. Greed and fear dominate the minds of those who wish to waste money on so-called 'Great Walls.' There will always be more people like me willing to build tiny ladders of hope, still tall enough to allow any who wish to climb over the opportunity to do so.

Imagine

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today... Aha-ah...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace... You...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world... You...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one