Mary Balog (1942-2022)

My mother passed away after a short illness. This is what I said at her memorial service.

Mary Balog

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.

That sentence is usually translated as “Mother died today”. It is the first line in the story “The Stranger” by the French author Albert Camus.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve never read “The Stranger”. Perhaps I was out the day it was taught. And I most definitely didn’t bring it up to show off my French skills, because I had to spend several minutes with my friend Bob to work on the pronunciation, and am still not sure I got it right.

The real reason I mention it is that I recently read an article about that sentence the The New Yorker in an article entitled “Lost in Translation”. The point of the article was that the French word for “mother” is actually “mère” and “maman” is something between “mommy” and “mom”. It goes on to examine how that might affect the reader’s feelings for the main character in the story when read in translation.

But that’s not important. What’s important is that my mother was most definitely a “mom”.

Looking out at the people here today I’m sure many of you understand what I mean.

Why does it matter? “Mother” to me seems very formal, whereas my relationship with Mom was closer to friendship, but even more so. Not only did she do all the “mom stuff” like care and nurture me, she was also interested in my life as a whole and loved to share things with me.

My sister and I have been blessed with two amazing parents. My father, well Dad, is kinda of like my left brain. He taught me how to reason and to love discovery and science and math and all that stuff.

My Mom was my right brain. She taught me how to be creative, and how to feel and get the most out of life. From her I get my love of cooking. Mom loved to cook . Even in the past year, when her health wasn’t the best, she would still try out new recipes.

But in fact I think that the act of cooking was secondary to the pleasure she took in feeding others. I can remember that during the “high holidays”, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, our house would often be filled with people outside the family, friends and neighbors, who she loved to have over. She never met a stranger.

Together my parents formed a whole that was stronger than its parts.

When I was working on my four year college degree, which actually took me seven years and spanned three schools, I spent one summer working alongside Mom at Mid-State Plastics in Seagrove. We’d commute together, have lunch together if our breaks coincided, and often go to the store afterward.

When I lived in California I developed a taste for Granny Smith Apples, those firm, green apples with the slightly sour flavor. We were at the store and I picked up a few of them to eat. Mom was like “Put those back. Thems pie apples”. No, I said, they are really good. You can just eat them. She repeated that, no, those were for pies, and me, being stubborn, said that I was going to eat them.

This went back and forth for a little while and she looked me right in the eye and loud enough for most of the store to hear said “You’re not too big for me to spank your ass”.

A celebrity once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” While that is a noble goal, it seems very hard to achieve, and I think the closest we can come to it is by living on in the hearts and minds of people’s lives we’ve touched. We are still alive as long as people remember us (and if you don’t believe me you can check out a documentary on the subject by Pixar called “Coco”).

Mom touched a lot of people, and I ask you to honor her by continuing to be kind to one another and the people you encounter. Thank you for coming to this celebration of her life.

Review: Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live

I like classic cars. To me they are rolling pieces of art, and the pinnacle of car shows is probably the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Several months ago an article featuring that show popped up in my timeline. It was by Michael Mechanic and it led me to his book Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live – and How Their Wealth Harms Us All. It’s an entertaining and well-researched look into the lives of the very wealthy, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in such things.

TLDR; This is a very long post containing lots of personal stories. Feel free to skip and just buy the book.

Jackpot Book Cover

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina called Asheboro. I don’t really remember being exposed to very wealthy people back then. Of course we had our rich people, mainly business owners or doctors, and they lived up on Dave’s Mountain, or what we just called “The Mountain”. The poor people, mainly Black, lived in a section of town called “The Hill”. But in my solidly middle class neighborhood I don’t remember wealth really being a thing.

When I graduated high school I moved to Los Angeles to attend college. That was my first real contact with wealthy people. One of my friends was in a family that was considered one of the top ten wealthiest in the country, worth billions of dollars back in the early 1980s when a billion dollars meant something. My friend was very down to earth (he drove a ‘vette, a Chevette) and in the brief experience I had in his world I didn’t see much in the way of conspicuous consumption, it was more just the scale of things.

While I would get introduced to his friends wearing watches worth more than my yearly tuition, his house, while large, wasn’t extravagant, and the main difference between his bedroom and mine was the size (his was larger and had its own bathroom). He taught me a lot about how money worked in Beverly Hills, and the stratification even among the wealthy (the wealthiest families lived north of Sunset, and it went down as you moved south of Sunset, north of Whilshire and then finally south of Whilshire).

Me in Beverly Hills circa 1986

The school I was attending, Harvey Mudd College, was home to a lot of smart people, and several of my friends, upon graduation, moved to Seattle to work with this little start up known as Microsoft. Many of them are retired now, as they’d hit the jackpot. During the next few years Microsoft stock would split 8 times. So if you joined with, say, options on 1000 shares for one dollar, you now had 256,000 shares at 1/256th of a dollar per share.

The end of the 20th century was a lot like the end of the 19th century. In the latter businesses such as railroads and oil minted a large number of nouveau riche, and at the end of the former computers and the Internet did the same.

I was not one of them. However, even though I’m not in the 1%, or even the 2%, I have a number of friends who are and so I like to say I’m “1% adjacent”. I get to see some of the benefits and problems their wealth brings.

The title Jackpot refers to this, sometimes sudden, increase in wealth. The book starts off with an Introduction where we meet Nick Hanauer. In the early 1990s he put up $45,000 for a 1% stake in Amazon. As you can imagine, it is worth considerably more now. While Hanauer states he is “not a billionaire” he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and unlike others who “spend the rest of their days trying to make their big pile of money even bigger” he wants to use his money for something more meaningful.

In addition to profiling the lives of the wealthy, the book aims to look at the social impact of wealth disparity. Most of the very rich are, indeed, focused on making themselves richer versus the improving society as a whole, and Jackpot examines the reasons why.

When large amounts of wealth is held in the hands of the few, it can lower the standard of living for the rest of the population.

As an example, when I was in primary school we learned about the difference between “mean” and “median“. If you have an array of values, the “mean” is the average of those values (add them up and divide by the number of entries). The “median” is the middle number of those values if they are arranged in order. For many distributions the mean and median are the same.

Suppose I have this series:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

In this case the mean is “3” (15/5) and the median is also “3”.

But what if I change the last number:

1, 2, 3, 4, 10

Then the mean goes to “4” (20/5) while the median stays at “3”. The median is important in that it represents the value at which half of the samples are less and half are more. In many cases it is more representative of the “common” value than an average.

How does this relate to the super-rich? Well according to the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) by the Federal Reserve the median household net worth in the US was $121,411 in 2019. But due to the ultra-wealthy the average household net worth was $746,821, over six times greater. Looking at my simple example above you can imagine how skewed those top numbers have to be in order to cause such a difference.

One thing I love about Jackpot are the copious notes. I have pestered the author numerous times over the last few months to run down his sources that weren’t apparent from the appendices, and I like the fact that his book is well researched (and that Mr. Mechanic has been very tolerant of my pestering).

I can remember the Occupy Wall Street movement back in 2011 which was the first time I’d ever heard the term “The 1%”, referring to those people who are in the top 1% in net worth in the US. To many it means the very wealthy, but as we learn in the Introduction the bottom threshold for being in the 1% is $5.6 million (in 2019).

Being “1% adjacent” I can say that those who are just over that threshold aren’t the super rich. As Mechanic puts it “they are just 5 percenters with a nice house and a bigger security blanket”. My 1% friends don’t worry much about where their next meal is coming from or where they are going to live, but they aren’t out buying yachts. When we talk, the number one financial issue tends to be preparing for retirement. In North Carolina the average cost per person for assisted living is $45K/year, and by the time we reach the age where we might need it, it will be closer to $100K/year for a nice facility. Assume you might need it for 20 years and then you are looking at $2 million total, perhaps twice that for a couple. It takes a huge bite out of that $5.6 million.

When people think of “The 1%” I believe they are really referencing “The 0.1%”, which is a net worth of around $29.4 million. That’s when managing your money becomes a task in an of itself. It is above the level where you can avoid inheritance tax, and while you may have money worries retirement won’t be one of them.

The next tier is “The 0.01%” which has an ante of $157 million in net worth, where your wealth can take on a life of its own, and “The 0.001%” or the billionaires, even though admission to that club comes in at a paltry $800 million.

After the Introduction, the book jumps in to the idea of hitting the jackpot, which can take many forms. Most of the people I’ve know who have hit the jackpot have been in tech, or they’ve owned businesses that are related to tech, but you can hit the jackpot by winning the lottery or getting an unexpected inheritance. They all come with their own set of problems, but the common theme is going from “normal” money to crazy money. Apparently you end up with a lot of new friends when that happens, as well as relatives you never knew you had.

I have to admit that I play the lottery, but I have a particular rule. I can only spend $1 for every $100 million in jackpot prize money. Since the minimum ticket price for Powerball or Mega Millions is $2, I don’t play unless the jackpot is at least $200 million.

That limits how often I play but also gives me a certain level of entertainment. The odds of choosing the winning numbers in Powerball, for example, are over 292 million to one (close to picking a particular American adult out of the total population). The minimum jackpot is $20 million but to be honest even though $20 million would be life changing, it isn’t as life changing as $200 million (sort of like the difference between the 1% and the 0.01%). Part of my lottery fantasy involves calling my lawyer, who would assist in helping us remain anonymous. Another part involves hiring an Air Force friend of mine to pilot my private jet (grin).

Which leads us to the next section of the book, which is what to do with all this money. Of course the ultra-rich are known for owning multiple houses, exotic cars and boats, but what is funny is that extravagant spending on items is not common among my wealthy friends. They tend to be much more frugal, and when they spend money they spend it on experiences.

A couple of things to unpack here. When it comes to cars, as much as I love nice cars the most we’ve ever spent was $52K on a new Lexus, back in 2010. I really like getting a deal, and there are some amazing deals to be had in the secondary car market. I’m addicted to a website called Bring a Trailer, which is where I bought my 2003 Mercedes SL55. It was $129K new (or $183K in 2021 dollars) and I got it for just over $30K. Now $30K isn’t chump change but considering a new Camry will cost more it is a bargain. On Bring a Trailer I’ve seen pristine Bentley’s go for $50K as well as nice Aston Martins. Of course someone just bought an Integra for $112K so not everything is at the bottom of the depreciation curve, and now people who were kids in the 1990s have the wealth to buy the cars they wanted when they were young.

Even where I live in rural North Carolina it isn’t rare to see a high end BMW, or a Tesla Model S on the road, both $100K+ cars, but there would be a social stigma associated with driving, say, a Ferrari around town. A new Corvette or a high end pickup, sure, but conspicuous consumption is frowned upon.

I’m reminded of an apocryphal story about Rolls-Royce. In the late 1970s the company was not doing well, surviving mainly on its airplane engine business. In the car business they were seeing increased competition from competitors like Mercedes and BMW. The new Rolls-Royce CEO’s course of action was to triple their prices. Demand shot through the roof. While certain rich people could afford a $80K car, only the most wealthy could buy a $240K car. In microeconomics when demand goes up with price it is called a Giffen Good and these always reflect value external to the good itself, such as being able to broadcast one’s wealth by what car you drive.

It’s not all happiness, though. One friend of mine bought a McLaren. He loved the beauty of its engineering but the darn thing often wouldn’t start. He seemed really happy when he sold it.

The second thing to unpack is that another way to spend money is not on things but on experiences. Seen all those multi-millionaires going into to space?

Even my frugal rich friends are prone to spend more money on a prime experiences than on a nice thing. This reminds me of another great book called Happy Money that did research showing that the happiness that people get from buying things tends to fade a lot more quickly than the happiness they get from an experience, especially if that experience involves some form of anticipation.

Being 1% adjacent I’ve been able to experience some things the wealthy take for granted. I like fine dining, and years ago I was able to eat at my first and only Michelin three-star restaurant, the Alinea in Chicago. At around $600 per person, including wine paring, it isn’t cheap, but I thought the experience was worth every penny. Note that for me this is a once in a decade thing.

The other thing the very wealthy do is take elaborate vacations. Again, I don’t have the means to copy them but I did travel a lot for work, and using points and miles earned from that travel we have been able to experience how the other half lives. We’ve stayed in high end hotels in numerous countries and we get there flying either business or first class, but that involved a lot of planning and the judicious use of said points and miles.

For example, we had the desire to visit New Zealand. Using my American Airlines miles we got business class airfare but part of the trip was on Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways) and it took us through Nadi, Fiji. We decided to spend a few days there on a layover, and I found an amazing resort called Navini Island. It looks like the all-inclusive resort now runs a little over US$500/night but when we went it was less than $400/night per couple.

Meanwhile, there is another resort in Fiji called Turtle Island. While Navini is very small, about 6 acres, Turtle Island is 500 acres and was the site of the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon. Although I can’t find a current cost online I remember it running around five times that of Navini, more like US$2500/night per couple.

The reason I bring this up is that I first heard of Turtle Island from a 2008 blog post [link currently broken] by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He went there and had an amazing time, but I couldn’t understand what would make it five times better, so I sent him an e-mail asking his thoughts. He wrote back “I wasn’t in charge of Fiji island picking but it was worth the money.”

My guess is that at his wealth level the difference didn’t matter as much as it would to someone like me.

However, one of the nice things about being 1% adjacent is that sometimes it doesn’t cost me anything to take a vacation. Several years ago we went to Chicago. When I mentioned to a friend of mine who lived there that we were coming, he was like, hey, I’ll be out of town that weekend, why don’t you stay in my luxury high-rise apartment? So for the cost of an hour or so cleaning up after our visit and a nice bottle of tequila as a thank you gift, we got to stay in an amazing place costing thousands of dollars per month.

In another instance I was going to London on a business trip. I had another friend who had a Council Flat outside of Borough Market, but when I was going to be in town her and her husband were staying at their place in Paris. They offered to let me stay in their flat for the cost of a cleaning fee, about £50. Much less than the cost of a hotel and it was a nicer experience being in a neighborhood in London than in a city hotel.

This is another thing that is brought up in Jackpot. Rich people tend to have rich people friends, and so they often don’t have to spend much to take a vacation. Bill might want to visit the Maldives so he just stays at Jeff’s place, and when Jeff wants to take a vacation he might crash at Bill’s place in the Caymans.

One place where the rich are different from others is in their houses. If you want to buy a $400K car you can’t just park it on your suburban street, and expensive houses tend to clustered with other expensive houses. One thing these high-end neighborhoods pride themselves on is privacy, but another way to look at it is isolation.

In the firmly middle class neighborhood where I grew up, everyone knew everyone else. If I happened to be at Alan Bass’s house at lunch time, his mother would feed me. The same as if he were at mine, my mom would feed him. I can remember riding my bike down our hill at speed and I wrecked trying to take a corner (I think I was around five). I crashed in Archie Farley’s yard, who taught physics at the local high school, and he came out, calmed me down and took me home. I’m not sure this would happen in a rich neighborhood, or if such play would even be allowed.

Mechanic talks about the effect this has on the rich, and how things like houses turn into a competition with one’s neighbors. As Sam Polk states in the book “Most of the search for wealth is not about how good the stuff is. It’s about what the stuff says about how valuable a person you are.”

Now once you have the house and car, what else could you want? How about attention. Of course all this money isn’t worth anything if you aren’t around to enjoy it, so you need to stay healthy. The rich have access to all sorts of concierge level medical care that the rest of us couldn’t afford.

I have some friends who used to get yearly checkups at the Mayo Clinic. These were two-day “head to toe” affairs where all aspects of their health were evaluated. One thing they really liked about the service was that each different physician they saw shared information, so there were few forms to fill out and little repetition. If you are rich your time is important.

When I was in college hanging with my friend with the ‘vette, he told me that in addition to the green, gold and platinum AMEX cards that there was a special “black” card for the ultra-wealthy. At the time it was an urban legend, but in 1999 they decided to make it a reality with The Centurion Card. This invite-only card apparently gets you access to amazing concierge services. No one knows what it takes to get an invite, but I had a friend who spent $35K/month for years on his AMEX card and didn’t get one.

The second part of the book focuses on various aspects of being super-wealthy. In many cases it is driven by the desire to keep up with your peers.

At some point, your wealth requires both people to manage it and to isolate you from people who would seek you out in the hope of getting some of it. Can you trust the people who manage your money? One of the things that stuck out about this part was that people I know in the 1%, but not the 0.1%, are often affected by things out of their control but they don’t have the resources to, say, hire lobbyists to get it addressed. One recent change to the tax code involving foreign assets has a friend of mine looking at spending $250K just to properly file their taxes and that isn’t a negligible amount to them.

Tax law often has unexpected consequences. When it was made mandatory that public corporations report executive compensation, the idea was that by making it public it would shame them into keeping such compensation modest. The exact opposite happened, and executive compensation skyrocketed. From the book:

In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of the 350 largest public companies collected about twenty-one times as much compensation as the typical worker, on average. That’s a big difference, but people could still relate to one another. As of 2019, the ratio was 320-to-1.

Another issue facing the rich is interactions with those who have less than them. Being 1% adjacent I seem to be able to get along well with those both above and below my economic bracket, but I can remember one embarrassing mistake I once made.

We were out with another couple who we hadn’t seen in awhile, and we all liked good food. We were at a high-end Italian restaurant and we were getting treated very well, since I had been introduced to the owner through one of his relatives I knew from one of my customers. We had a long meal with several courses and a number of bottles of wine.

When the check came I just suggested we split it, as this is very common among my friends as it makes things simple. I realized my mistake the moment the words came out of my mouth, judging from their expression. I had forgotten that this other couple didn’t make as much money as we did. They were both in very respectable positions but some of those don’t pay as much as a job in tech. But once the words were out I couldn’t take them back. I should have at least offered to pay for the wine, since it was my idea to order most of it. I felt horrible.

I later made it up to them by taking them out to an even nicer restaurant and insisting on paying, but I can’t help but wonder if they had to do without something because of that first meal we shared.

Jackpot also talks about issues around romance and security. If you are wealthy and single, how would you know if someone was interested in you and not just your money? Most of the rich people I know found their partners before they became rich, but one multimillionaire I’m acquainted with has just decided never to get married because they simply can’t tell.

With respect to security, I knew a person who was working with a billionaire and brought him a small, wrapped gift, which he put down on the conference table they were using. Very calmly one of the billionaire’s security team discreetly picked it up to be opened and examined later.

In 1994 a rather controversial book called The Bell Curve was published that showed how society filters people out by cognitive ability. The first separation is between those people who finish high school and those that don’t, followed by people who go to college versus those who don’t. College students are further filtered by which schools they attend. One statistic, that I’m quoting from memory, was that if you distributed people with a Ph.D. degree throughout the population, the average person would know about two. I can name twenty without straining very hard.

The same thing happens to rich people, especially their children. They go to private schools with other rich people’s kids, and then on to elite colleges and universities, thus often isolating them from people who aren’t rich. Plus, when it comes time to enter the work force, they have the connections to get those high paying jobs.

And what about the security of those children? While you might think the worst thing upon hitting the jackpot would be a shirttail relative hitting you up for money, what if a not so nice person wants access to your money through kidnapping.

Being the child of rich parents has its own problems. One often associates drug use with the poor, but one study of 1800 students in Texas found that 30% of both the richest and the poorest kids reported using drugs, compared to 18% of the middle income students.

As I don’t have offspring, the sections on the issues rich people face with respect to caring for their children as well as passing on wealth were interesting, but didn’t really resonate with me. However, at the end of Part II Mechanic begins to address how this wealth inequality affects society. One paragraph I highlighted

Successful people tend to feel deserving of their lot, research suggests, regardless of whatever advantages they may have enjoyed in life. As a corollary, they tend to view less fortunate people as having earned their lack of success. “So you’re more likely to make sense of inequality,” Piff explains, “to justify it, make inequality seem equitable”

The “Piff” in the above quote is researcher Paul Piff, who sometimes uses the game Monopoly to explain wealth disparity. People who lose at Monopoly tend to blame it on bad luck, whereas winners often brag about their superior strategy. Even though the game is heavily skewed toward random events, winners feel that they have earned their win.

I was exposed to this a lot growing up. Poor people were poor because they were lazy, not because of external factors.

Being a member of the oppressive color, language, age and gender, I was a beneficiary of the American Dream. My grandfather worked in a coal mine and died of Black Lung Disease when my father was 17. My father grew up in a four room house, not a four bedroom house, and supported his family by taking an apprenticeship at Westinghouse and attending night school at the nearby university. His seven year journey to a degree was broken up by a stint in the Reserves. To say he worked his ass off is an understatement, but that allowed him to to get a good job in manufacturing and to provide a nice existence for my mother, my sister and myself.

I used my middle class security to get options not available to everyone else. I was lucky enough to attend the NC School of Science and Math for high school, and that allowed me to get into good colleges. I didn’t do very well in school but I had a safety net in my family that did eventually see me graduate, and later in life my ability to take risks allowed me to start my own company which was sold two decades later for a modest, but not insignificant, payday.

Success is often a combination of hard work and a lot of luck.

The final section of the book talks about how wealth inequality skews the game in favor of the wealthy, and how wealth is skewed toward those in the highest percentile (remember my mention of median vs. mean wealth above). Wealth grants you access to politicians, who can, in turn, help protect and increase that wealth.

As someone who lives in the South, I am surprised at how many people vote for politicians who don’t have their best interests at heart. I think, in part, it is this myth that with hard work anyone can join the 1%, and in turn the 1% can join the 0.1%.

I can remember during the Obama administration he worked to implement tax cuts for the middle class. As I was driving to the office one day I got behind a dually pickup truck that had one a sticker saying “I’ll keep my guns, my money and my religion, and you can keep ‘the change'”.

This was an obvious criticism of Obama, and when I got closer I saw that the truck belonged to the owner of a local RV park. I couldn’t help but think that I probably paid more in taxes than this guy made that year, but he was of the opinion that Obama’s policies would hurt him.

The differences in wealth distribution are staggering. In 2019 if you were in the 90th percentile (the top 10%) you had an average individual (not family) net worth of $2.8 million. For the 80th percentile that dropped to $555K, for the 70th it was $293K and for the 60th percentile it was $152K. At the 24th percentile your net worth was around $199 and it quickly drops below zero after that.

Often when talking about wealth, annual income is referenced along with net worth. To be in the 1% you need to have an annual household income of around $481K per year (in 2019). I always discount that as I know a number of people who work in Silicon Valley who make very high salaries but due to the cost of living have little net worth. If those people can’t manage to generate wealth I think it would be very difficult for someone making a lot less to manage it, but there is still that dream.

The dream is perpetuated by any number of “wealth gurus” who promise riches to those who pay to attend their seminars. They fuel “false beliefs about wealth and mobility” that all you need to do to become wealthy is work hard. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

Anyone who builds a company works their tail off. But some founders are more clear-eyed than others. Jerry Fiddler worked one-hundred-hour weeks at Wind River Systems, but “anybody who tells you that they are wealthy because they work harder is either lying to you or they’re lying to themselves. My cleaning lady works harder than I do and doesn’t make as much money,” he told me. “The work is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

The book also addresses the differences in wealth and race. I found this particularly interesting considering the current outcry against Critical Race Theory (CRT). When the whole CRT outrage popped up a few months ago, I had never heard of it, so I did a little research. It is a bit esoteric, being a subject taught in graduate level law programs for those who are seeking a doctorate in jurisprudence, and isn’t a common subject for most law students. My interpretation of CRT is that, since there are no significant genetic differences between White people and people of color, the differences in outcomes concerning wealth and influence must be due to something else.

That’s it.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

I think part of the furor over CRT comes from this idea people have that the playing field is level for everyone and they “earned” their wealth through hard work, not realizing the indirect help they had along the way. I’ve worked very hard in my life, as did my father and his father, but we all had certain advantages that created an atmosphere where we could succeed. From the book:

“I run on the beach,” Paul Piff told me by way of illustration. “Some days I feel like I’m going particularly fast, and on those very same days, when I’m coming back, I feel like, ‘Whoa, that is a heavy wind and it’s making me go slower.’ I didn’t realize when I was going fast that there was wind pushing me.”

When people claim that race makes no difference in the US, all you have to do is look at the nation’s billionaires. In 2020 there were 788 of them, and considering the population of the US is 13.4% Black, we should have 105 Black billionaires.

There are seven.

Every week I meet up for lunch with some gentlemen who call themselves “The Old Farts Club”. Most are in their 70s and 80s, and in the past were involved in local politics. One week I brought up the idea of reparations, meaning a one time monetary payment to descendants of former slaves as restitution. I haven’t made my mind up on whether or not this is something we, as a society, should do, but as an extreme extrovert I tend to do my thinking out loud.

So I decided to do the math, but I had a lot of trouble finding consistent numbers for household wealth (or even the number of households). Using the numbers from the book, the median net worth of White US households is around $171K, and for Black households $17K, for a difference of $154K. So I asked myself, what would it cost?

The next step would be to determine the number of Black households in the US, and I get values from 10 million to 15 million. Taking the average, 12.5 million, I come up with $19.2 trillion, which is less than the current US debt of $28 trillion (as I post this) but it is still an astronomical number that illustrates the impact race has on wealth in this country.

Another minority impacted when it comes to wealth are women. Even though they make up more than half of the population, they only represent 7.4% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500. There are a number of reasons for this. It was mentioned that one way to financial success is to go to the right college, but the Ivy league schools were some of the last to go co-ed. Also, a lot of people who hit the jackpot do so in tech, and tech is a male dominated field (think of the “tech bros“). The irony is that evidence suggests that women make “superior stewards” of wealth but they are often excluded from the top ranks of finance.

The final part of the book talks about the options the rich have for giving away their wealth. There is a lot to consider, including how much to leave to family and deciding which organizations should get those funds. The Giving Pledge is a promise by some of the world’s wealthy to give away half of their fortune either during their lifetime or before they die.

I have spent a lot of time thinking of the impact the ultra-rich could have if they decided to part with even a fraction of their wealth.

I have a friend who is a policeman in Durham, NC, and I occasionally go on ride-a-longs with him. On one of those he had to respond to a shooting at McDougald Terrace (known locally as “The Mac”), a housing project that evokes Chicago’s Cabrini Green and is home to around 300 families. There have been a lot of issues with the buildings, and there is a plan underway to renovate them, at a cost estimated to be near $20 million.

While that is a lot of cash, it’s “lunch money” to those worth hundreds of billions. Bill Gates once said he could spend $3 million a day, every day, for 100 years and not run out of money, and that assumes he doesn’t make another cent.

As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed this book, and I don’t read much non-fiction. When I was in school I studied Spanish, and with that came the study of countries that speak Spanish as their primary language. A lot of them, especially in the western hemisphere, have not been very politically stable. My teacher pointed out (in the late 1970s) that the reason these countries have such issues and the United States doesn’t has nothing to do with language but instead it is because the US has a large middle class. In countries where wealth is hoarded by the few, that wealth tends to get redistributed by revolution. But the middle class is shrinking which doesn’t bode well for the continued stability of the United States. The first step in stopping this is understanding why, and this book is a good start.

COVID Update

Today is Day 11 since I first showed symptoms of COVID, and I plan to stop isolating, but I thought I’d share some frustrations about the whole experience.

Once I tested positive my main concern was not infecting others, especially Andrea. I immediately isolated myself to the master bedroom and the study, which is a room off the master bedroom with its own door to the outside, while she kept to the rest of the house. We banished the pets from the master bedroom as well. I know cats can get COVID and I believe there have been some cases where dogs have it and I didn’t want to risk them getting infected from me. I only know of two confirmed cases where animals have given COVID to humans (minks and hamsters) but I didn’t want to take any chances.

My dog was not happy.

I reached out to my primary care provider with UNC Health Care, but as I get the opinion he tends to think COVID is no big deal, he wasn’t very helpful. So I turned to the CDC which gave me this advice on isolation:

  • Isolation can be discontinued at least 5 days after symptom onset (day 1 through day 5 after symptom onset, with day 0 being the first day of symptoms), and after resolution of fever for at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and with improvement of other symptoms.
  • These people should continue to properly wear a well-fitted mask around others at home and in public for 5 additional days (day 6 through day 10 after symptom onset) after the 5-day isolation period.

Hrm. I got the whole isolate for five days thing, but I was a little confused about the second half. Of course I minimized the time I was around Andrea and I was always wearing an N95 mask when I had to be out, but I wasn’t going to sleep in it so obviously I still needed to isolate for the full ten days, right?

After two years of this mess, I found isolation to be very difficult. It was easy to get through it when I could spend time with Andrea, but being apart sucked. We used text messages to communicate, and as we still have wired phone service it turns out that our awesome vtech cordless phones have an intercom function, which we ended up using a lot. My symptoms faded after about five days but Andrea came down with cold symptoms as well, and hers were worse than mine. The day after I tested positive she got a negative PCR test, and when our free government lateral flow tests showed up she took one of those and it was negative as well.

For me Day 5 was last Thursday, so I decided to take one of those government tests. If you haven’t used one, it is pretty simple. You take a nose swab and then you place that into a buffer solution. You then place four drops of the solution onto the test device. There is an absorbent strip that will pull the liquid over to the testing area which consists of two sections, a “T” or test section and a “C” or control section. The line for the control section is always supposed to appear in order to demonstrate the device is working, but the “T” line should only show up if you are positive for COVID. When the liquid on my test hit the “T” line it immediately turned red, so I knew I wasn’t ready to end isolation.

COVID Linear Flow Test

On Friday Andrea got a second PCR test as she was still having a pretty bad cough and sore throat, but it turned out to be negative as well. If she was exposed to COVID, either at the same time I was or through me, I think the reason she never developed enough of a viral load to test positive is that her booster was given just before Christmas while mine was back at the beginning of October.

One of the benefits of testing positive at a research hospital is that UNC was happy to enroll me in three research projects. Andrea and I are both participating in one that is studying how COVID might be transmitted in a household. Every day we both take nose swabs as well as filling out a questionnaire about how we are feeling and how much we interact. This goes on for ten days so I hope they get some good data out of it.

Another concerned the question of whether over the counter mouthwash could kill the virus. I ended up having to spit in a tube, then I used some mouthwash, then I spit in another tube as well as three more 15 minutes apart.

Finally, on Monday I start a long term COVID study where they will take various fluids out of me, periodically, for a year.

Science!

It’s a little inconvenient but I hope they get some useful information out of it.

As I am very eager to end isolation the next question I had was, when? I thought the best thing to do would be to get another PCR test at day 10 and if that was negative I could assume it would be safe to stop, but UNC doesn’t want you to get another test until 90 days after you last tested positive. I found some advice on a UK website that suggested you needed a negative test before stopping isolation, so I did find a place in Chatham County where I could get tested.

That test came back negative this morning. Yay! I really don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t.

So now I’m busy washing all the sheets I slept in for the past ten days and luckily it is supposed to be warm this afternoon so I plan to open up the windows and air out the bedroom and the study. I’ll still minimize all contact with others outside the home until at least Monday, but I should be recovered and non-contagious. On the upside, being triple vaxxed and having had COVID my antibodies should be as strong as ever.

A lot of places, including North Carolina where I live, are starting to drop mask mandates and I’m still a bit hesitant, especially due to my recent positive test. Even before that I came up with a metric that I plan to use to define “normal”, which is based on current hospitalizations in my State. When I started tracking them they were just above 4000, and as of yesterday they were 2215. Once it drops below 1000 I’ll feel more confident about being more relaxed about COVID, and as always I hope my three readers remain safe and healthy.

Feelin’ Pretty Positive

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19.

COVID Positive Test Result

I am not happy with this at all, considering that while many people in my State have giving up on wearing masks I’ve continued to take all precautions when going out, including wearing a mask and hand washing. I’ve also had three shots of Pfizer’s vaccine, the last being on October 5th, and that pretty much lines up with the CDC reporting booster effectiveness fading after four months.

My infection started out like a cold. I have a pretty standard reaction to getting a cold. First, I get a mild sore throat which is soon followed by nasal congestion. Then my throat gets more painful for a couple of days and as that fades my congestion gets worse. Finally that fades and I’m done.

When I get that first sore throat I usually take Zicam. Of all the “remedies” recommended for colds, over the years taking zinc seems to shorten my cold’s duration. It could be the placebo effect but it seems to work for me.

On Saturday I noticed the start of a sore throat, so I started taking Zicam and paying attention to my temperature, which was normal. Saturday was beautiful, weather-wise, so I did a lot of work outside, but Sunday was gray and rainy. I started having mild nasal congestion and fatigue, so since the weather was conducive to staying in bed that’s what I did.

We had plans to visit with friends to watch the Super Bowl, but I cancelled them. I felt bad since they had prepared a lot of snacks, but after my positive test all that guilt went away (and they seemed relieved).

I still wasn’t feeling well so I ended up going to bed about five minutes into the third quarter. I did have a mild fever at the time, 99.4F, so out of an abundance of caution I scheduled a COVID test for Monday.

We live close to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, and they use an patient portal from Epic called “My Chart” that makes it real easy to do things like schedule a COVID test and get the results. I’ve had several done at their drive through testing site and the list of available appointments was wide open. I chose one for 11am.

When I woke up on Monday my fever was gone and I felt better, but I decided to keep the appointment. I was the only car there (one other showed up while I was filling out paperwork) which was quite a change from the other times I had been tested. The technician was very thorough (she got that swab up there) and the whole process took less than ten minutes.

About five hours later I got my positive result.

I was way more depressed and upset than I thought I would be, and Andrea and I immediately went into lockdown mode. My office is right off the master bedroom, so I took over those two rooms while Andrea stayed in the rest of the house with the pets. I do need to go out for food and drinks so I put on a mask to do that, and Andrea is on her way to take a COVID test as I write this.

If she’s negative, which I hope, I assume I’ll isolate through the weekend. If she’s positive, then I guess there is no reason to isolate from each other.

Being a geek I wanted to know as much as I could about my infection. The PCR test was performed using the “Abbott Alinity m Resp-4-Plex assay” and I did find mention that there was a chance of false positives in the past, but apparently that was due to the way the samples were mixed and has been corrected (fluid from one sample could get into another). My results also have a “Flag” of “A” but no one can tell me what that means. I asked my GP if the test could tell me the variant, and he said no, but I assume it was Omicron.

I use the SlowCOVIDNC app on my phone, so I felt duty-bound to inform any other user who has been around me of my positive test. In order to do this you have to have a PIN, but when I went to the site to get one, it couldn’t find my positive test. I called the number as requested and was told it could take up to 24 hours for them to receive my test results.

This morning I got an e-mail from UNC with a link that lead me to a cute little “chat” screen that walks you through the “now that you have COVID” scenario.

UNC COVID Chat Screenshot

Basically follows CDC guidelines that you isolate for five days, and mask for ten.

I did finally receive an e-mail from the “NC COVID Community Team”, which is associated with the SlowCOVIDNC app, sending me more information about my positive test result. I figured. in that case, I should be able to get my PIN but once again the website claimed it couldn’t find my record. However, when I called the help number they were able to give it to me and now I’ve updated the app to notify anyone who was near me over the last two weeks. I really can’t imagine it finding any one but it doesn’t tell you the number of people it will notify.

As for symptoms it feels like a mild cold with the exception of body aches. My neck is really sore and as I was working this morning (yay, remote work) the pain spread through my joints to my arms and hips. I’ve decided to work as much as I can but it looks like half days for awhile, so I took a long nap after lunch and the pain seems to have subsided a bit. It’s apparently due to inflammation caused by my body fighting off the infection, and I’m going to take some Advil and hope that helps.

I’ve heard a lot of people that have had COVID say that it is no big deal, and compared to, say, my traffic accident, that’s true. But people are still dying from this thing and even young people have lost limbs, and the long term affects are still unknown. I’m a bit touchy at the moment when I read news articles that say it is way over time to just get back to normal, because I did almost everything I could to avoid getting infected and it wasn’t enough. I’m harboring a little anger at the person who gave it to me as now my productivity has been cut in half for probably a week and I had to spend Valentine’s Day separated from Andrea. Not huge sacrifices compared to some but what pisses me off is that this whole thing could have been avoided.

Anyway, stay safe, get your shots, keep wearing those masks and be kind to one another.

New Year’s Ham and Corn Chowder

By definition a tradition is “a specific custom or practice of long standing”, but then how do “new” traditions get started?

In the case of our New Year’s tradition, it came down to a newsletter from 1996.

In the southern United States, the traditional New Year’s meal is collard greens and black-eye peas. I’m not a huge fan of either, and usually by New Year’s Day I’m still dealing with holiday leftovers.

One thing I struggled to deal with was the leftover Christmas ham. A tradition in our family, there is often so much other food that there is plenty of ham left after Christmas dinner. I was thinking about this at the end of one year decades ago when I came across a newsletter I had saved from the winery Clos Pegase.

In the early 1990s, Andrea and I lived for a year in Sonoma County, California, which was just a short ride over the hills to Napa Valley. Considered the heart of California wine country, it was also home to a vineyard created by Jan Shrem dedicated to Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology.

Winter/Spring 1996 Clos Pegase Newsletter

In this newsletter was a column called “Matchmaking with Mitsuko” written by Shrem’s wife. It had a recipe for “Winter Chowder” which I adopted for our annual tradition. I thought folks might like it so I’m sharing it here.

New Year’s Ham and Corn Chowder

  • 1 pound (or more) leftover Christmas ham. Ours is usually smoked and you can substitute bacon or other meat.
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup butter, plus two tablespoons for browning the ham
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 cans creamed corn
  • 1 quart half and half
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2-3 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed)
  • white pepper to taste

I cook this in a Crock-Pot but you could use a heavy pot on the stove as well. You are mainly cooking this to make the potatoes tender but I also like to slowly blend in the flavors.

Place the ham in a food processor and pulse until chopped (I usually do it until the pieces are pea-sized).

In a skillet heat up the two tablespoons of butter until melted. Add the onion and saute until tender, then add the ham. I usually stir it until bits of the ham start to caramelize.

Dump the onion and ham into the Crock-Pot and add the creamed corn, half and half, chicken stock, potatoes and white pepper. Turn the Crock-Pot on low.

Wipe out the skillet and add the 1/2 cup of butter and heat until melted. Slowly add the 1/2 cup of flour while stirring to create a roux. I don’t let it get too brown, just to a light tan.

Add the roux to the Crock-Pot and stir until everything is incorporated. Cook on low for five to six hours, stirring occasionally until the chowder is bubbly and has a thick consistency.

Serve in bowls and top with oyster crackers.

Ham Chowder in Bowl topped with Oyster Crackers

Hello 2022

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, second only to Thanksgiving. Even though the timing is arbitrary (it falls well after the winter solstice and a few days before perihelion) and nothing substantial really changes in my life from those few minutes before midnight until a few minutes after, I like the idea of getting a somewhat clean slate and a fresh start.

After the train wreck that was 2020 and the “not much better” that was 2021, I am cautiously optimistic about 2022. I’m going forward without resolutions except trying to become a better person, but I am trying to do that all of the time. But I am refraining from statements like “2022 is gonna be great!” etc. For example, where I live the high temperature today was 78.4F (nearly 26C) which is not what I expect on the first day of January. Is that just a nice day or the harbinger of something worse?

For me the main thing about 2022 is that it is the first year I’ve ever experienced that contained three 2s. It made me think about how often that has happened, and it turns out this is just the third time.

The first “three 2” year was 222, of course, and it took a thousand years before 1222 became the second year. Now eight hundred years have passed since then to get us to 2022.

The next one is a rather rapid one hundred years away to 2122, then eighty years to 2202 and then it is just eighteen years to 2220, which will start a ten year run of “three 2” years.

I kept trying to figure out if there was a pattern:

1000, 800, 100, 80, 18

and perhaps there is some sort of mathematical series that defines when these numbers with duplicate digits appear, but I haven’t been able to find one.

For example, for “three 1” years you get 111 followed nine hundred years later by 1011 followed ninety years later by 1101, followed nine years later by 1110, which starts its ten year run:

900, 90, 9

Seems like there should be some way to express this but I’m not seeing it. Note that if you multiply these numbers by 2 you get 1800, 180 and 18, which looks familiar (grin)

So there you are: my gift to you for 2022. Figure out if there is a way to express the distance between numbers with duplicate digits, and any case I hope that 2022 is a great year for you and yours.

Review: Amazon’s The Wheel of Time

Amazon Prime Video has started to release episodes of the first season of their adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (WoT) series. I have a few thoughts about it and thought I’d put them here. While I’ll try not to spoil anything major, no guarantees so if that is important to you don’t read on. I’ll update this post as new episodes come out.

TLDR; I am pretty new to The Wheel of Time story, having so far only finished the first book and I’m most of the way through the second, but I am cautiously optimistic that Amazon will do a good job translating this story to television.

The success of HBO’s adaption of Game of Thrones (GoT) sent other streaming services looking for material for similar shows. Robert Jordan’s fourteen book The Wheel of Time series was a natural choice, but like Game of Thrones it could be considered un-film-able.

The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy which, of course, means it is a struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark. In this case power, i.e. magic, is given to those who can “channel” the True Source, the driving force of the universe that turns the Wheel of Time. Often represented with something like the yin-yang symbol, it consists of a male half and a female half. Only men can access the male half and only women can access the female half, and people who can channel this power are known as Aes Sedai.

The main antagonist is Shai’tan, The Dark One, imprisoned at the moment of creation by the Creator in place called Shayol Ghul. He can still wield influence from his prison, and is constantly working to free himself. In the Age of Legends, he almost escaped his prison, but Lews Therin Telamon, known as the Dragon, and a hundred male Aes Sedai were able to reseal his prison. But in the process, The Dark One was able to taint the male half of the True Source, causing all who used it to go mad. In their madness they engaged in what is called The Breaking of the World, reshaping the land and scattering its people. Since then only woman were allowed to channel the True Source and become Aes Sedai.

The action in the books starts some 2000 years later when the prophecy predicts that the Dragon will be reborn to face off against the Dark One and either destroy him forever or cause him to be freed to begin an age of darkness.

At least that’s what I get from having read the first book and most of the second. As I mentioned, there are fourteen of the darn things, so there is a lot of material to cover. Jordan died from a heart related illness after Book 11, but he had enough notes that his work was finished by the author Brandon Sanderson. Overall my friends who know these things are pretty positive on the series as a whole (although Book 10 seems to be universally loathed) and so a couple of years ago I asked for and received the books as a gift. I decided to start them once I saw that Amazon was adapting them to a television series.

When I was in my long and storied college career, I took an elective course called “Film and Novel”. I thought it would be something where we read a book and then saw a movie version, but instead it was an examination of how the structure of a film narrative differs from that of a book. For example, if you are reading a ghost story, and someone sees a ghost no one else can see, it is pretty easy to get that from the written word. But what about when you are watching a movie, and you see the ghost, too, right there on the screen. There are conventions used in film that let you know that maybe the ghost isn’t real, such as other characters not seeing the ghost, or when the main character points it out and the camera shows the same shot but the ghost is missing, etc.

In any case, the course taught me to judge a film narrative separately from a written narrative. In other words, the book isn’t always “right” and the story told by a film adaptation can be just as valid.

Getting back to Amazon’s WoT, after four episodes I’m feeling kind of neutral. There are only eight episodes in the first season so they are having to do some serious editing to get the story down as I believe they want to cover the entire first book, at least based on the episode titles. Of course those changes are going to result in a much different story than the one told in the books. For example, in the books much is made of a sword carried by Rand al’Thor which is marked with the image of a heron. In the series there is a single shot, a nod to those who have read the books, and then it never comes up again.

The story focuses around five young people from the remote village of Two Rivers. All five of them are ta’veren, a person around which the Wheel of Time weaves a story, but only one of them can be the Dragon Reborn.

The first major change is that these characters, who are around seventeen in the books, are now portrayed in their early twenties. This allows for a little more sexuality, and considering the gratuitous use of sex in GoT it was a bit off-putting to me. There is also a dark turn in the first episode that I also thought was a little too much and it seemed a desperate ploy to make the story more “gritty”. It seemed to be there just to make it appeal more to the GoT crowd, and WoT is a much different story.

I’m pretty okay with the casting, and it is obvious they turned the diversity dial up to 11. I can’t begin to catalog the different ethnicities represented by the cast, although the nerd in me is a little unhappy that the people in the town of Two Rivers are so different (from a story telling perspective, not a Hollywood inclusion perspective). I mean, this town was supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world for 2000 years, and in that time inbreeding should have made everyone look pretty much the same (well, unless they are a bunch of racists and only bred along ethnic lines). I get why they did it, though, and so I’m able to overlook it, and at least Rand has red hair.

Where they didn’t get very diverse is with the evil foot soldiers, the Trollocs. In the books they were a mish-mash of different animals: some had goats heads, some those of a bear or a wolf, and even others looked like birds. These Trollocs all look like goats, and I couldn’t help but think that they lifted the model from the Khazra goatmen from Diablo III. I guess even with a reported budget of US$10 million per episode they have to cut corners somewhere.

On the upside, I love how they represented the Trolloc’s bosses, the Myrddraal (the Fades). Spot on.

One of the main things I dislike about the show is that they imply that a woman could be the Dragon Reborn (there are two women out of the five people from Two Rivers). Look, I’m all for gender diversity in story telling, and in the books woman play a major role if not a dominant one, but the whole point of the Dragon Reborn is that it is a man who can channel the True Source without going mad. Even in episode four, where one of the female characters displays great power, they are still hinting that a woman could be the Dragon. I could more easily overlook it if it wasn’t key to the story, but if they follow the books everyone will know who the Dragon is by the end of the season, so I guess it is moot but it still grates on me a bit.

Overall, we’re halfway through Season One and I’m not looking for those four hours back. My main complaint is that you just can’t tell a story like this correctly in such a short amount of time. A large part of epic fantasy involves large amounts of boredom and tedium punctuated my moments of sheer terror, and Hollywood seems eager to cut the slow bits out when filming such stories (well, unless you are Peter Jackson then you get nearly eight hours to cover a story that fits into a 280 page book). Andrea, who hasn’t read the books, seems to be enjoying it, although I have to fill in some of the back story.

They apparently have at least eight seasons planned, so if the show is successful I’m certain I’ll have more to both praise and complain about. I’ll update this post as the season progresses.

UPDATE: Having watched all eight episodes I’m still pretty neutral on the whole thing. I mean, it tells a story, just not the story I enjoyed from the books. Andrea, who hasn’t read the books, liked it, so it obviously works on some level.

I felt the same way about season one of The Expanse but I enjoyed the following seasons, so maybe the same thing will happen with WoT.

The Mercedes SL55 AMG – Best Car Ever?

If I told you that you could buy a 200+ mph supercar for less than the price of a new Camry, would you believe me? Well, it’s possible.

TL;DR: I bought a 2003 Mercedes SL55 AMG and it is the most amazing car I’ve ever owned. Capable of 208 mph yet still affordable, it represents the pinnacle of performance, luxury and value.

Probably the most iconic Mercedes ever made was the first generation SL, specifically the 300SL “Gullwing”, although there is a 300SL and a 190SL roadster that are also in high demand. Since then there have been six generations of Super-Leicht (Super Light) SL models, and the one I want to talk about is the fifth generation, the R230, introduced in 2002.

The first car I ever bought with my own money was a 1978 MGB convertible. I put tens of thousands of miles on that car and ever since I’ve loved top-down driving. I used to ride motorcycles but the necessity to wear a helmet and other gear kind of offsets the freedom of being on a bike, so to me the safest open air experience one can have is in a convertible.

However, my lovely bride doesn’t really care for convertibles, and most convertibles look like crap with the top up (I pretty much have a rule that the top is down unless it is raining). Enter the hard top convertible. A number of car manufacturers offer the option to own a convertible, but instead of the a soft top you get a retractable hard top. Thus when the top is up it looks like a normal coupe, complete with the extra quiet you get with a hard top and a glass rear window. I figured if I could find a model I liked then it would still look okay with the top up and also satisfy my discerning partner.

SL55 with the hardtop up

During the COVID-19 quarantine, a friend introduced me to a website called Bring a Trailer (BaT). It is my understanding that this website started out as a blog detailing interesting cars for sale and eventually morphed into its own auction site. They usually have around 300 or so cars for sale each week, sold in an auction format.

It has provided me with hours of entertainment. They have an anti-sniping feature where any bid within the last two minutes of the auction results in the auction being extended for two more minutes, and I have seen auctions go on for over an hour past their scheduled end time as bidders keep increasing their offers. There is also a well run comments section. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about various cars from the knowledgeable community that follow these auctions, and I also like the fact that for a few minutes after you post you can edit your comment for typos, etc.

In order to comment and bid you must set up an account backed with a credit card. BaT charges a 5% buyers premium on the sale price of the car (up to a price of $100,000 for a maximum commission of $5000) which gets charged to your credit card, and winning bidders then work out payment directly with the sellers.

[Unfortunately, BaT made the decision to sell a piece of the Porsche 550 that killed James Dean, and since then I have soured on the site. Although they made $5000 on the deal, it still struck me as being in very poor taste. I have since closed my account, but I may one day rejoin as I haven’t really found a better site]

I’ve owned a large number of cars, and while I have fond memories of most of them (my Nissan Leaf POS notwithstanding) I’ve always been a fan of Mercedes. I owned a number of sedans, including a 1970 250, a 1972 220 and a euro-spec 1968 280SE that I wish I’d never sold. My most recent Mercedes was a 2004 C230 Sport that some friends sold to me and they liked it so much that I sold it back to them when I got another car. When I would take the C230 to the dealer I always lusted after the AMG cars in the showroom, and being exposed to BaT rekindled my love for the marque.

While I still love the old sedans, a bad car accident in July of 2019 has made me very safety conscious. Due to the accident my left ankle is busted, which rules out manual transmission cars, and I doubt I’ll be on a motorcycle again in my lifetime. So I started looking for a more modern Mercedes that was safe but also featured a hard top convertible.

Enter the Mercedes R230. Produced from 2002 through 2012, this was the first SL to sport a retractable hard top. There were three main phases in the R230 production: 2002-2006, 2006-2008, and 2008-2012. I was really drawn to the first two because they featured the same round headlights that were on my C230, and I have a slight preference for them over the more rectangular lenses introduced in later models.

In learning about the model I came across the sixth episode of the first season of Top Gear, where it turns out that presenter Jeremy Clarkson owned one of the first year SL55 AMG models and they did a rather great review of the car. He had sold a Ferrari F355 in order to buy the car, which was probably a bad decision based on current values, but I loved how he summarized the SL:

The Ferrari is like a stiletto: sleek, accurate, deadly.

This, on the other hand, is more like a hammer. Big, a bit clumsy, but it’ll still kill you. Actually, not a hammer. It’s more like a Swiss Army Knife. It’s a top-down funster, a long distance cruiser, a muscle car, a Messerschmidt ME109, a pose-mobile, and if your horse gets a stone in its shoe, it can deal with that, too.

It’s definitely worth checking out if you can find the episode on the streaming platform of your choice, especially for the surprise ending (it’s the last segment in the show).

I decided I wanted an SL55, and I started looking for one to buy. The 2002-2008 model years used the M113 V8 engine coupled with a supercharger, and enthusiasts often list the M113 as one of the best engines Mercedes ever made. The M113K came from the factory at just under 500 bhp, and I’ve seen some tuned to produce more than 700 bhp. Even though SL stands for “Super Light”, the SL55 weighs in at 4400 pounds, and also comes with a crash actuated roll bar and multiple airbags, including a knee bag for the driver. These safety features appealed to me, post accident.

When I told Andrea about BaT she asked “how do you know you are getting a good car?” Well, the answer is, you don’t. Unless you happen to live near the person selling the car, you are likely to be buying it sight unseen and with no warranty. To offset this, most auctions come with a huge number of photos (usually over 100 and often twice that or more) and videos. Sellers will post the results of a Carfax report so you can see if there have been any accidents, and the better sellers will include service records as well as being available to quickly respond to questions in the comments section. Also, BaT draws in marque enthusiasts who will weigh in (for better or worse) and point out things the average person might have missed. Plus, some sellers develop good reputations through multiple auctions.

Once I decided that I wanted an SL, I set a budget and started watching the auctions. Outside of looking for a good car based on its history, there were a few other things I wanted. I’ve been told that 50% of the Mercedes cars that are sold are black, and 45% are silver. I didn’t want a black car. Don’t get me wrong, black cars are beautiful but having owned a black car in the past I just remember how hard it was to keep clean. I’ve always liked silver on a Mercedes, but I also think the SL looks wonderful in other colors as well, although those always demand a premium at auction.

Just like green is associated with British cars and red with Italian, silver is the German racing color (it used to be white, although the story about how silver came about is apparently a myth). My C230 was silver, so when looking at SLs I figured I’d end up with a silver one considering my budget.

The next thing I was looking for was adaptive cruise control. I have a 2015 Toyota Highlander that was the first car I ever drove with adaptive cruise control, and I simply love it. It makes traveling so much less stressful. I was surprised to find out that a number of high end manufactures, like Mercedes and Jaguar, offered adaptive cruise as an option in the early 2000s. It wasn’t cheap – the Mercedes version, “Distronic” cruise control, cost $3000.

It was my friend Nick who called my attention to the auction I ended up winning. The car was a 2003 SL55 with 18,000 miles on it. It had a clean Carfax and two previous owners, with the initial buyer owning it for most of its life. He was a doctor who split his time between New Jersey and Florida, and he had ordered the car with every available option as well as taken delivery in Germany. While 2003 was the first year the car was available in the US, and I’m a bit skittish about buying cars early in their lifecycle, it was the second year for the fifth generation overall so I assumed most of the serious kinks had been worked out. With a sticker price of over $128K (or over $183K in 2020 dollars) it seemed like a deal if I could get it within my budget.

The sticker didn’t include the Kleemann modifications that had also been done to the car. Kleemann is a Danish company that provides aftermarket performance upgrades for Mercedes, and this one included high performance air filters, a smaller supercharger pulley (to increase boost) as well as an ECU and TCU remap to increase the brake horsepower by up to 20% (pushing the car well over 500bhp). The remap also removed the 155mph speed limitation imposed from the factory, and Mercedes has reported a top speed for this car of 208 mph. That added several thousand dollars to its value.

When the auction got close to ending, I made sure to shut down all other applications on my computer (and on my network) to make sure there would be no issues bidding (my Internet connection is provided by CenturyStink DSL). As I mentioned before, if a bid is made in the last two minutes of the auction, the timer will reset to two minutes, thus no one can “snipe” an auction. I always go into auctions with a strong idea of my upper limit, and so my bidding method was simple: bid the minimum bid increment (which at this level is around $250) unless someone else jumped, and then I would bid their jump. Stop when you hit the limit or you win. There were three of us bidding on this car, but at the end I won with a bid of $30,500 (and I can tell you that those last 30 seconds seem like forever).

So, yay, I won. What next? BaT takes their cut right off your credit card, but you pay the seller directly. They offer a pretty good list of steps to take, so I followed them to the letter. I had the seller send me a bill of sale and a copy of the title (just to make sure they did have the title in hand). Then I wired the money for payment, plus an extra $25 because I wanted them to overnight the title to me so I could get a plate from the North Carolina DMV as soon as possible. The next step was to arrange for shipping.

It looks like BaT has its own shipping system now, but back when I bought my car the company they partnered with couldn’t get around to it for a couple of weeks, so I ended up using Montway. I bought the car on a Tuesday, it was picked up in New York on Friday, and I got it Saturday afternoon via enclosed trailer.

It was lightly raining the day I got the car, so I really couldn’t try it out at the time. It came with everything promised, and the only disappointment was that the driver’s side mirror needed to be replaced. Mercedes often come with self-dimming mirrors and over time they degrade. The mirror on this SL was very dark, although it didn’t show that way in the pictures on the auction site. Luckily it is easy to replace and not that expensive (around $250).

The next day was beautiful and sunny, and I decided to take a long drive through the country. The top lowers in about 16 seconds, and I was on my way. It had been so long since I was in a convertible, and never one this nice, and there were literal tears of happiness coming out of my eyes.

The car is amazing. Insanely quick, with an exhaust note that is so musical you really don’t need the stereo, although that is pretty amazing as well. As my Italian friends say “La machina es la musica”. For a 4400 pound car it is incredibly responsive, and even at speed I don’t detect any oversteer or understeer. Although you can find yourself doing 120mph (yes, with the top down) it is very enjoyable at 60mph as well.

One thing I enjoy is the Active Body Control (ABC) feature. This complex system operates the suspension at all four corners independently, which provides for an extremely smooth ride. I also live on a gravel road, and ABC has a setting where you can raise the whole car up an inch, which is also useful when going over speed bumps. Mercedes produced a cool ad that kind of demonstrates how it works.

A possible downside to the car is the electronic braking system (SBC). No one I know likes it, and it is known to have problems as well. But Mercedes being Mercedes, they have warrantied the system for 25 years, so I have some time left. To me the brakes work well, but they aren’t exceptional.

Speaking of problems, while I have heard horror stories about SL maintenance, almost all of those involve the 12 cylinder version. The M113 V8 seems to be rock solid. If you are looking to buy any used car, especially something like an R230, it really does pay to look for one with service records as these cars, when well serviced, are very reliable. One thing I love about AMG cars is that the engine is assembled by a single craftsperson (not on an assembly line) and each engine comes with a plaque with that person’s name on it. Mine was built by Sabato de Luca.

AMG Builder's Signature for Sabato de Luca

I did have the car checked out head to toe. Everything came back fine, although they suggested (and performed) a flush the ABC system. I am very anal-retentive about my vehicles and one thing that bothered me was the Tele-Aid system. Similar to offerings from other manufacturers, this is supposed to connect you (for a fee) to someone using the mobile network for roadside assistance, but this car was so old that it used analog cellular which no longer exists. I do believe there may be an upgrade path, but as it was something I wasn’t interested in having I asked the mechanic to disable it (as it was throwing a malfunction alarm).

The only other expense I’ve had, except gasoline, was cosmetic. While the rims were in good shape, there were some scuffs so I had them refinished. I also had the brake calipers painted yellow (it was between that and red). While I love the silver color on the car, I wanted just a little bit of flair. With the color and the air intakes on the sides, it reminds me of a shark, so that’s what I named it – The Shark.

SL55 with the hardtop down

Another thing I like about this car is the luxury. The other convertibles I’ve owned, an MGB and an Alfa Romeo Spider, were fun but no one would describe them as luxurious. For Mercedes the “SL” is in the same class as the top of the line “S”. For example, the SL has seat memory – three positions. Big deal, right? That is common in today’s cars. But what about on the passenger side? Seriously, the passenger seat gets as many options as the driver, including a massage function and memory.

The interior is leather, wood and Alcantara. For the exterior you get headlamp washers and a soft-close trunk. Plus you get the safety of a heavy car coupled with a roll bar that will automatically deploy in the case of an accident, and front and side airbags. The driver also gets a knee air bag.

To take the luxury even farther, the US version of the 2003 SL55 had nine options – all of which were equipped on the car I bought.

SL55 Options

  • Bi-Xenon Headlights: The standard SL already came with Xenon headlights, so what the heck is “Bi-Xenon”? In the normal Xenon configuration, a Xenon bulb is used for the low beams and a halogen bulb is used for the high beams. With the Bi-Xenon option, over the Xenon bulb there is a shutter that directs the light in different directions depending on whether low beam or high beam is selected. Rather than move this shutter for “flashing” the headlights, there is an auxiliary halogen bulb that is used for that (Xenon bulbs don’t like to be switched off and on frequently). Since both bulbs come on with high beams I really don’t see much of a difference, but it was a $900 option.
  • Panorama Roof: While I almost never drive the car with the top up, occasionally I have to (like that one time I got caught in an unexpected rain storm). One cool option to help preserve that open air feel is a glass roof, similar to what you would find in a Tesla Model 3. I can’t say I’ve used it much but, unlike a Model 3, there is a retractable sun shade should you desire to block out more light. $1800 option.
  • AMG Multispoke Wheels: This is probably the most controversial design choice for the car: the Black Forest Alps Rally wheels. A $1200 option, most people commenting on the looks of the SL55 are split over them. I haven’t met anyone, myself include, who loves them (there is a wheel from later models that I really like) but they have grown on me. Some people hate them outright. Once I got mine polished up I think they look great with the painted calipers.
  • Distronic: I don’t know if it is a language thing, but I am not fond of some of the names Mercedes gives to various options. Since they are “electronic” someone obviously thought it would be cool to add “tronic” to the end of everything. Distronic is the adaptive cruise control feature, and it is hard to find since it was a $2950 option back in 2003 and even people who could afford these cars new balked at the price. I’m even surprised it was available back then, and its novelty shows. I use adaptive cruise control all of the time when I can, and I found that the Distronic will often cut out with the error “External Fault! Reactivate”. It really confused me until a local mechanic explained that the error is just Distronic’s way of telling you something is weird and it would rather turn off than cause an accident. I usually see this on two lane roads when a large truck or something similar is coming the other way, but sometimes it turns off for less obvious reasons. It’s a little annoying and I plan to have it checked out during my next service, but on multi-lane highways (where the feature is most useful) it tends to work fine.
  • Parktronic: Yet another “tronic” this feature is more commonly called “park assist” or something like that. Sensors in the front and rear of the car will alert when they detect the car is getting close to other objects, such as another car or the wall of a garage. Fairly common on cars now, it was relatively new back in 2003 at a cost of $1035. It works well, but sometimes too well. I have an issue where the left side alert will go on full blast for no apparently reason (usually after the car has been driven for awhile and you stop at a light). My mechanic says that can be addressed and it is another thing on the list for my next service.
  • Keyless-Go: Another unfortunately named feature, this enables keyless entry and push-button start common on modern cars. A $1015 option in 2003, this requires that you carry a little credit card-sized device which will unlock the doors with a touch and start the car by pressing a button on the gear selector. Outside of adaptive cruise control, this is one of my favorite convenience features, but the card is a little annoying. If there is a problem with the card, say a low battery, the doors won’t open. Later versions of Keyless-Go were built into the main key, and I’ve been told this is something that can be retrofitted to older cars, but since anything key related with Mercedes must run through the dealer, and my local dealer is clueless, I’m probably stuck with it. But so far it has worked well so fingers crossed.
  • Keyless Go Card

  • Tire Pressure Monitoring System: Like the name says, the TPMS reports the current tire pressure using wireless sensors at each wheel. For some reason when I got the car, the feature had been disabled. I had it re-enabled but noticed that the measurements are a little high. Note that this appears to have nothing to do with the standard low pressure warning, since on one cold winter morning I got a separate alert telling me to inflate the tires. The cheapest option at $630.
  • SL55 Tire Pressure Display

  • Ventilated Seats: Most people like the feel of leather but it can get a bit sticky in the heat of summer. Enter in ventilated seats. This feature (yours for an extra $1200) uses fans to blow air through the seats to keep you cooler. I have this on my Highlander and use it a lot, so it is nice to have on the SL, especially since I tend to always drive with the top down.
  • Digital Portable Phone: 2003 was a time before Bluetooth was common, so Mercedes offered the option of getting a mobile phone that integrated with your car. At $1995 it wasn’t inexpensive, but the idea was you could carry a phone with you when out of the car and plug it into a cradle, and use the built in integration, when driving. The phone I got, a Mercedes branded Motorola V60, still powers on, but will not work with any modern wireless network. Luckily, when Bluetooth did become available a few years later, Mercedes created an adapter that plugs into the cradle and allows you to pair up to two phones. It works well, and even works with digital assistants like Siri. The Bluetooth protocol implemented, however, does not do music so don’t expect to listen to your favorite tunes using this feature. For that I bought a little adapter that plugs into the auxiliary audio jack in the glove box.

In the Canadian market the SL could have a heated steering wheel as well, but otherwise this car was loaded.

As you might have noticed from my features description, the main issues I’ve experienced with the car involve the electronics. I really don’t mind, though, because I have a soft spot for older electronics and I love the fact that these things work without a connection to the Internet. Around 2000 is when cars really started to become integrated with computers, and in modern cars those computers are constantly talking to some third party over the wireless network. I don’t really like that. It is one of the reasons I don’t own a Tesla, but even Toyota and other manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon of having cars always “phone home”.

One extreme example of the technological age of this car is the navigation system. It is based on compact disks, this was before even DVDs, and thus to cover the United States I need a small wallet full of CDs. The resolution is pretty minimal, especially compared to modern maps.

SL55 Map vs. Apple Maps

But I face the same problem with the Navigation system on my Highlander. Trying to get an update to that map is both a challenge and expensive. It was out of date the moment I bought the car, which is why I (and most people) rely on our phones for map guidance. It was a lot cheaper to buy a phone holder that mounts in the CD slot and just use it for trips than to worry about the built in system, but I still sometimes turn it on so I can watch my car travel through great empty sections of the map.

All of these electronics require more electricity than normal, so the SL comes with a second battery for the auxiliary systems in the trunk. If the car sits for awhile that battery will drain a bit, and thus you won’t be able to operate things the hardtop or the heated/ventilated seats until you run the engine for a minute or two. To prevent this I bought a CTEK Battery Tender. It’s mounted in the trunk and if I know I’m not going to be using the car, I’ll plug it in so it’s ready to go when I am.

The only downside to the SL55 is the fuel economy. While the built in calculator often reports my trips to town running about 13mpg, the actual numbers are much better, with an average of 15mpg and more like 18mpg on the few long trips I’ve taken. That isn’t much worse than the Highlander, but I still wish it were better.

SL55 Display Showing Trip Mileage

Overall, this has been my favorite car, and it is an utter joy to drive. I work from home and some days I just have to hop in, drop the top and take a spin through some twisty country roads to improve my mood. Through my informal observations of prices on websites like BaT and others, I think the R230 depreciation has hit bottom. People are finding out what deals these cars can be and are willing to pay for them.

If you are in the market for an R230, the first thing to decide is if you want the extra horsepower of an AMG version or if you are more into the creature comforts. The SL500 comes with a seven-speed transmission, versus a five-speed for the AMG, and that can make for a smoother driving experience.

I really, really, really love the M113 V8 engine, and unless you are confident in your ability to maintain a car (either by yourself or through a qualified local mechanic) I would stick with R230s with that engine. This limits you to the 2002-2006 model years for the SL500 and 2003-2008 for the SL55. The later models will get you more refined features, such as Distronic Plus, but they also cost more. For many the sweet spot is the 2007-2008 SL55, but I’m pretty happy with my launch edition 2003.

Another issue that will affect price is the color. For the 2003 models there were 14 different color options. Funny enough, three of them were various shades of black and four of them were shades of silver. Non-black, non-silver cars draw a premium (the most expensive R230 I saw on BaT was red on red and went for $66K), and some of the other colors are stunning. But also note that you can get a full wrap for around $4500. So if you don’t mind that the inside of your engine bay will be a different color than the outside, you can change the exterior to any color you like. Originally clear and designed for paint protection, wraps can both protect the paint and let you express your individuality. Also, while not easy, they can be carefully removed and the car returned to its original configuration.

As always with any used car, take the time to find one that has obviously been cared for and comes with a clean Carfax and service records. If you are on BaT look at the seller’s other auctions and at the feedback (just click on the seller’s name). Some sellers spend a lot of time and care bringing cars to auction and it is reflected in the comments, whereas others buy cars wholesale, just change the oil, and you can’t be as sure about the quality. The car I bought was the first auction by my seller, and overall I’m pretty happy with the experience.

The last new car I drove was a leased Nissan Leaf and it was the worst car experience I’ve ever had. By comparison the purchase of this SL55 was a walk in the park, and it just goes to demonstrate that real deals can be had in the used car market if you do your research. If you have ever wanted to own a classic Mercedes, Porsche, Aston Martin, Bentley, whatever, there has never been more options at your fingertips. My purchase has provided more smiles per mile than anything else I’ve ever driven, much less owned.

While electric cars are obviously the future, for both average transportation and sports cars, I still have a fondness for the internal combustion engine. I like the fact that there are explosions happening inches away from my feet. I love the roar of the engine as you engage the throttle – it’s almost like there is an angry, fire breathing dragon under the hood – and I am the Dragon Master! (grin)

Science as Truth

Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson posted the following on Twitter.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Twitter Quote

I don’t follow him, but this was brought to my attention by a frozen meat company who did, as usual, an excellent job of invalidating his premise, and I do follow them. As someone who loves science, the idea that it equates to truth has bothered me so much that I wanted to put down some of my thoughts. Now NGT has over 14 million followers and I have about three readers so I understand that this represents extreme navel-gazing, but there is so much wrong with this tweet I had to say something and it won’t fit into 280 characters.

One of the most formative experiences in my life was that I was able to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for my last two years of high school. I had a number of influential instructors, and high on the list was Dr. John Kolena. He would never say something like “Science is Truth” but might have said that science is the constant pursuit of truth.

I can remember my first real physics class with Doc John, where he stood at the front of the room and stated “everything I’m going to teach you this semestre is wrong”. He was referring to Newtonian physics, which for the longest time was considered “the truth” until it was replaced with Einsteinian physics. Newton’s theories resulted in the ability to predict amazing things, until they didn’t. Einstein’s theories both matched Newton’s predictions and extended them, being able to correctly predict things that Newton couldn’t, but even now scientists believe Einstein’s work is incomplete.

So how is this “truth”? NGT doubled down with a tweet pointing to a post of his from 2016 where he states:

Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false. We will not be revisiting the question of whether Earth is round; whether the sun is hot; whether humans and chimps share more than 98 percent identical DNA; or whether the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen.

Without devolving into solipsism, I find it amusing that he illustrates “objective truth” with a list of “subjective” examples. Yes, the Earth is round, but compared to what? The ideal of “roundness” is a sphere but the Earth is definitely not that. The sun is hot compared to the surface of the Earth but it is downright chilly compared to blue stars and nearly frozen compared to quasars. The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen but is that 78.0% or 78.5%?

Now, more than ever, we need to get people to understand that science comes with a healthy dose of doubt, but that is normal and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. The power of science is not in its exactness but in its ability to predict, and to get things done.

We obviously don’t fully understand how sub-atomic particles work, but that doesn’t prevent us from making electronics that allow me to type this blog post. With the recent pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine in the US due to the potential for blood clots doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get the shot. Science is working to understand “the truth” and sometimes this takes time.

I had a friend who was a nuclear physicist and he pointed out that in the 1940s it was considered “safe” for workers to be exposed to 25,000 millrems of radiation per year. That was the “objective truth” as determined by the science at the time. This “truth” was corrected to 15,000 millirems per year in the 1950s, and in 1957 was lowered even farther to 5,000 millirems, where it remains today.

All of these “truths” are approximations, and what I love about science is that real scientists not only know this, they embrace it. The beauty of science, the science I love, is the quest for truth and not this smug, elitist attitude that we’ve found it.