Ask the grumpies: How to help people, how to keep sane

First Gen American asks:

I have been checking in with old neighbors… I gave my cleaning person extra money last week because all of her air b+b gigs dried out. I reached out to contractors we’ve used in the past and let them know to reach out if they need extra work. We brought all our chicken’s eggs to my husband’s work when they were sold out everywhere. I’ve shared big meals with neighbors who needed extra help. I’ve called people to check in.

Social Distancing…Would love more ideas on how to help people who’ve lost their income and/or ways to keep sane while cooped up at home.

Sounds like you’ve been doing a great job!

Right now I think one big thing you can do is make sure that people who have been laid off know how to file for unemployment insurance and that they’ve paid for unemployment insurance through lower wages all their lives, so they’re entitled to these benefits.  If you live in a blue state, there’s likely local benefits that they qualify for as well, such as rent assistance.  In a red state, the social safety nets aren’t usually as good, but students may have access to financial assistance via their universities, there may be assistance through churches (though I haven’t seen much of the latter around here).

Once we’re freed, it is likely we will be wearing face masks so that asymptomatic people don’t infect people.  If you’re crafty, your non-crafty friends would be delighted with some reusable facemasks.  We’ll probably each need at least 7 for each family member.

If you live in a state that doesn’t have easy voting from home, call your governor and state secretary of state to request it.  You can also write postcards to Florida Democrats to tell them how to sign up for voting from home  because most of our problems are big ones that need government coordination to solve, and without that, you end up with plutocrats taking extranormal money (rents in economics terms) from the people who are trying to help.  We need turnout without endangering voters.

In turns of staying sane… definitely make sure you get enough sunlight and/or vitamin D.

Other folks have put together more extensive lists about how to help, beyond the STAY HOME order:

Frugalwoods on how to help out.

She picks up pennies on ways to help that cost $0.  And ways to help with your money.

Debbie M with suggestions.

Links to non-profits from Washington Post.  The Cut with 102 suggestions.

And of course, suggestions on how to stay sane:

Frugalwoods on staying sane during isolation.

Here’s suggestions from polar explorers.

Grumpy Nation:  What has been working for you to stay sane?  Do you have ideas for how to help people who need it?

Ask the grumpies: Best kinds of couch

Leah asks:

Which is better: sectional couches with chaise portions or a traditional couch with a coffee table or a traditional couch with a comfy ottoman?

… I don’t know?

We have both a sectional and a traditional couch.  Both are good.  We have two coffee tables and two ottomen.  So I guess the best of both worlds?

I think the best couches are the ones that are best to take a nap on, so that’s about stuffedness and firmness.  I personally prefer something stuffed but firm.  I suppose some people might care about aesthetics, but I’m all about function.

Grumpy Nation, what are your couch preferences?  What do you look for in a couch?

Ask the Grumpies: Why can politicians only get things done for short term intense emergencies (aka after the last minute)?

Debbie M asks:

Why are businesses and government officials doing things that are bad for business in response to coronavirus (when they wouldn’t in response to the climate crisis)? I like it, but I don’t get it. It’s not like they suddenly have morals. I don’t think they were pressured by their customers or citizens. Now that it’s started, there’s plenty of peer pressure. But I don’t see what inspired the first people to start doing the things (like canceling events and closing down bars) that previously would have been considered crazy.

This relates to a more general question that drives economists CRAZY.  For example, we have known that there’s an upcoming problem with social security since at least the 1980s.  We’ve also known at least a dozen different plans that would “fix” it with minimal pain if any of them had been implemented back in the day (all small cuts and small tax increases).  None of them happened.  Social Security fixes only happen at the last minute (as with the last fix) with much more pain than is needed.  It takes a lot of political will to do difficult things, but if the pain is now and the rewards are in the future, it’s not going to happen.  Political will usually only happens when the emergency is now.  When people see the reason for painful cuts.  Politicians don’t get credit for making small slightly painful cuts now to remove the chance of big gashes later.  So they sometimes try, but they don’t succeed.  It’s far easier to vote no, we can’t hurt this group of people even a tiny bit now until there’s actually a crisis that forces us to hurt people a lot in order to avoid catastrophy.  And then they can blame the people who didn’t make those tiny cuts in the past.

How do we fix this problem?  Well-functioning governments are great– when governments are run by good people we can get multi-national accords where some of the blame can be shared in the interest of global harmony etc.  The EU did a lot of stuff to fix long-term things (not enough, but they’d be much worse off without their accords) when they got together.  Similarly big climate change agreements have helped a little, though Trump really destroyed that.  For these to work, you need to not have the dominant party running on xenophobia.

So we could have taken steps against Corona-virus back in January (bringing back the CDC pandemics people, working internationally with test kits, upping ventilator/mask/glove/etc. production, rapid response grants, increasing customs employees, bringing people back to the US in an orderly and controlled manner, etc. etc. etc.).  But the Federal government opted not to.  Only when people in the US started dying did anything happen, and it’s mainly been happening at state and local levels, which is really not where the main leadership should be coming from for an infection disease that spills over to the entire country and beyond.  We have managed pandemics better before, and we learned from those pandemics… but Trump fired all those people pretty early on and just threw away all of our knowledge.  Instead of using known systems and experts, he gave the response to his son-in-law.  It’s infuriating.

Now I need to watch some cat videos.

Ask the Grumpies: blog recs for special needs, time management, finance, minimalist, simple living, frugality…

middleclassrevolution asks:

After a 3 year absence, I found my blog and decided to check out people who use to comment and old favorites. It seems like 90% are inactive or completely vanished. I know that social media is the main outlet but sometimes I like to read more substantial stuff in long form (articles and blog posts) Any recommendations?

My interests: finance, minimalist, simple living, frugality, healthcare, special needs, time management.

Middle Class


Here’s a recent post of ours you might find some (mostly but not all personal finance) suggestions from:

If you haven’t checked out solitarydiner‘s blogroll, she has a lot of similar interests…. all that’s missing I think is special needs.

Who has better suggestions for middle class revolution?  Particularly special needs, time management, healthcare, etc.


AnonSLAC asks:

We JUST found out that classes are going to switch to online for the rest of the semester starting next week.  I teach one lecture class (two sections, chalk and talk with lots of diagrams and equations) and a discussion class.  I have in-class exams coming up.  What do I DOOOOOOOOO?!??!

Any help would be appreciated.

I feel you.  For my midterm on Monday, if school is cancelled (we’re still waiting to hear(!)), I’m planning on having them all sign into Skype or Zoom and I will virtually proctor them via video.  I can do this because they’re all required to have laptops.  I also know they all have smartphones so they will be able to scan in their exams and mail them to me as pdfs.  I am not looking forward to this outcome because I know there will be technical difficulties.  But I’m assuming it will be better than creating a take-home that’s more challenging and harder to grade… and I had cheating problems last semester so I can’t just trust them to do a timed take-home on their own without the monitoring.  (They do get a cheat sheet so this kind of cheating won’t be a problem.)  I’m trying to figure out what to do for people without printers– they could take the exam blue-book style, which is probably going to be the best option, otherwise they will have to pick up envelopes with exams from on campus.  I should scan in the probability distribution tables.

I think I’m just going to gut my discussion class.  We’re only going to do the major required points and cut out the “fun” day.  I’ll have the students record their voice over powerpoints (I need to figure out how to do this) and upload them … and then require each student to ask at least one question and answer the main points questions as homework.  For one of the weekly assignments they’ll comment on people’s discussions on blackboard instead of in person.  And I’ll have them answer all questions from the reading as homework somehow instead of as in-class discussion… not sure how to get them to read other people’s though.  May have to have a second homework as well.  SIGH.  Or I could just let it go.

For my chalk and talk lecture I’m torn between videotaping all my remaining lectures and letting them watch asynchronously vs. doing a virtual lecture with my apple pencil and some computer program on my iPad during our regular class time (I’ve been testing out zoom with the whiteboard, though everything has to get erased after each page).  I could cold call and have them chat for that.  It might not be so bad if I can figure out a good program for it.  I wish I could remember which meeting program that I used like 3 years ago to talk to a statistician was the one that made it easy to write via hand and have people comment.

Our business school recommended zoom for all their professors/students, which our university provides for free to us.  We’ve gotten no guidance yet, but it looks like if you don’t get the professional version from your school it cuts off at 40 min with the free version.

I have been scouring the interwebs for suggestions.

Here’s the chronicle of higher ed on how to go online in a hurry.  Here’s a thread from someone in China.  Almost all, possibly all, my students this semester are local so I’m hoping there won’t be internet problems.

Here’s a couple of different things on how to teach using the ipad Pro and Apple Pencil (note, if you do not have an Apple Pencil, you will need to get one that isn’t personalized since it took a while to get a personalized one from China even before the Corona Virus).  1. Scott Dawson.  2.  teachbetter.coExplain Everything looks promising for this set-up, though it is not free.  Google hangouts (free) and Google Classrooms (your uni needs to have a license) is being pushed by a friend’s university.  I’ll probably end up with Zoom since many of my students are already familiar with it since our university has a site license for it.  I really hope I don’t lose my apple pencil again.

But really I’m hoping that Grumpy Nation will have suggestions about what to do.  Because, like you, this is a brave new world for me.

Grumpy Nation– have any of you done online classes or hybrid classes?  Any suggestions either for lecture or discussion?

How do I find a personal assistant: Ask the Grumpies

Houstonian asks:

I just got a huge raise at my corporate job and am now making $180K as a single childless person with two cats.  I have way more money than time.  I’ve heard of people hiring personal assistants to do things like wait for the plumber or figure out how to get someone to refinish the front door and so on, but I don’t know how to go about doing that myself.  Have you ever hired a personal assistant?  How did you find them?  How do you figure out what to get them to do?  Any recommendations for working with them once I’ve found somebody?

At first I was going to say that we’ve never hired a personal assistant, but then I remembered that’s not actually true.  We’ve had mother’s helpers do additional personal assisting stuff.  So… I guess the lesson there is have a kid, then find a nanny or mother’s helper, and then hire them for more hours.  Kidding!  That is very much not useful advice!  Kids suck away way more time than personal assistants bring!

My first thought is that you should ask around and see what your higher paid colleagues are doing for personal assisting.  (Hopefully not all answers are, “My wife takes care of everything.”)  If they’re using someone part-time maybe you could hire the same person.  You can ask around to other folks as well– you may find that you have friends of friends who would love to get paid to sit at your house waiting for the plumber so long as they’re allowed to take their child along.

Otherwise, you might have luck with some of the online services out there.  I know some people swear by for nannies, and I’m pretty sure they also do longer-term personal assistants.  People talk a lot about and for smaller jobs.  Possibly you could try one of those out with a smaller project and see where that goes.  Alternatively you could advertise at a local community college or university.  I bet there’s a lot of Sam Houston State students eager to do odd jobs for $15 or $20/hr depending on where you live.

In terms of how to figure out what to get them to do– we wrote a really long list of tasks we needed to get done that just weren’t getting done.  For us this was things like painting DC1’s dresser or getting rid of a bush in the front yard.  There were a bunch of small deep cleaning things as well and some web-searching.  Once we got someone to take care of things, all of a sudden we had a ton of other stuff we realized she could just take care of and we wouldn’t have to.  It was great!  (Sadly for us, but happily for her, she graduated and her husband came back from Afghanistan and she left us for a full-time job.  But by then our list of delayed chores was empty.)  Some people use personal assistants for regular tasks like grocery shopping or laundry.  There’s a ton of stuff that people can do for you in exchange for money.

In terms of working for people– make things clear up front.  Make sure you know what their limits are and they know what your limits are.  What happens if they don’t show up or if they’re late?  How and when should they communicate questions?  How much autonomy do you expect them to have?  You may need to make this clear generally or on a project-specific basis.  It’s probably not that different than any kind of management you do at your corporate job, except that they have a different set of job responsibilities.  Be willing to fire people if you need to.

Here’s one person’s experience with hiring an assistant.

Here’s another person’s recommendations— I especially like the cat litter rule (yes, you can have a personal assistant clean out the cat litter box).

Here’s an entrepreneur article.

Grumpy Nation– do you have any experience with hiring personal assistants?  Do you have experience with being a personal assistant?  Any advice for Houstonian?

Best ballpoint pen for someone who loves to push hard? Ask the grumpies

Heavyhands asks:

Do you have a favorite kind of pen?  I am tired of using cheap Bic work pens that get blobs of ink all over my fingers and smudge all over the page.  I have some Pilot G2 when I want to write in colors, but I really like ballpoint pens [ed: the kind with tacky ink] better, except they glop all over my hands!  I read some good reviews about the uni jetstream and bought them, but I’m not liking it so far.  Yesterday I suddenly realized, “why am I using these pens that glop ink everywhere?  I can afford to buy pens,” but I don’t want to keep ordering random pens and not like them.  I can’t afford that!

NY Magazine thinks my crappy work Bic pens are good.  (The Bic roundstic)– how can I ever trust anyone?  They get globs of ink everywhere!  But… I do trust your readers.

Does grumpy nation have any advice for me?  I think I prefer ballpoint to rollerball [ed: this is what I would call flowing ink like the G2 or my favorite Tul] because I push really hard with my pens.  I also am ok with gel pens, but I’ve only used them for fancy things like writing cards.  Since I push hard with the pens, there’s less friction with a ballpoint than with a gel pen or a rollerball pen.  I think I wreck the tips on rollerballs.

I would love to hear people’s pen recommendations?  What’s your favorite pen?

Oh gee, we both have light touches with pens.  #1 prefers rollerballs and definitely has a lot less friction with a rollerball or gel pen than with a ballpoint.  #2 prefers marker tip(!)

I think my favorite was the uni jetstream 101 (the kind you get 12 to a box, not the retractable kind), but that advice is probably not at all helpful to you since we have such different writing styles and you didn’t like the uni jetstream that you got!

This article recommends the uni-ball signo 207 premier gel pen and the Pilot Dr. Grip Ballpoint.

DH loves his space pen, though I cannot imagine spending that much ($22) on something I would invariably lose.  (DH has not lost his, though it has gone through the wash a couple of times, since it is always kept in his pocket.)

Grumpy Nation, can you help Heavyhands out?  What are your favorite pens?  Do you press heavily or lightly?

Ask the grumpies: What is UP with VA politicians?

Jenny F. Scientist asks:

What on EARTH is up with my state’s politicians (oh, Virginia).

One word:  Patriarchy

Context:  This question was asked a YEAR ago!  Like, dudes, don’t dress as Klansmen.  Don’t sexually assault people.  Don’t wear blackface.  This shouldn’t be hard!

Ask the grumpies: Why are firms so short-sighted?

Leah asks:

Why do so many companies make decisions based primarily on short term economics and not long-term health of the company? Is it just the stock market, or is there more going on than that?

I am sure that people really do know the answer to this one in terms of how systems and laws and so on have changed to favor short-term over long-term… and I do know that a lot of that has to do with how bonuses and CEO compensation has radically increased over time, meaning short term gambles pay off a ton more than they used to.  So some of it is the stock market, but some of it is also how compensation and tax structures have changed.  This is really outside of my knowledge area though– my knowledge basically comes from skimming paper abstracts of general interest journals and working papers.

My short answer is that even though companies are supposed to be risk neutral, and are supposed to be trying for immortality, they are run by people.  And people are short-sighted.  If the rewards are for the short term and not for the long term, then that’s the direction they’ll go.

Ask the grumpies: trends in police militarization

Rose asks:

How much is being spent by police departments to militarize police forces? What are the current trends with unarmed people shot by police.

Here’s an article on militarization of police from PNAS 2018.

By 2014, the military had given away $4.3 billion in free military equipment to policy departments.  So… to answer your question, police departments are spending nothing.  This is all free from the overfunded DOD.  (Though, to be fair, the overfunded DOD also does a lot of medical research with their excess money.)

Here’s the Washington Post database of unarmed police shootings through Jan 22, 2020.  Here’s their updated page going forward.  We do not have official numbers because the government does not require this information be collected and some parts of government are actively preventing this information from being collected (ex. NIH is not allowed to fund gun violence as a public health problem).  It’s frustrating for crime researchers.