The hall of famer lets me down

My check engine light came on this morning. I’ve been driving this Honda Civic since May 2003, and this is only the third time that’s happened. But the other two times were nuisance lights. The car ran fine, so I bought a new gas cap, replaced the cap, and the light went off.

This time was different. I confirmed it when I turned the corner and tried to accelerate to 25 miles per hour. The car acted like I was asking it to go a hundred and twenty-five.

After 10-plus years and 194,000-plus miles, I had my first mechanical problem. For the first time, I was going to the mechanic for something other than arbitrary, mileage-based maintenance. Read more

Just because you can afford it now…

Today, the sermon at church was based mostly on Nehemiah 5. Nehemiah 5 talks about the ruinous financial situation of the children of Israel at the time the book was written. Check out Nehemiah 5:4-5.

“We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”

In other words, in order to pay their bills, some had resorted to selling their children into slavery. Sadly, some Americans find themselves in that situation today. Or close to it. At least it’s uncommon enough that we’re offended when we hear about it. Read more

SSD myths

SSD myths

SSDs, like most disruptive technologies, face some questions and resistance. People will grasp at any straw to avoid adopting them. Thanks to this resistance, a number of SSD myths arose. Here are the myths I see repeated over and over again, and the truth, based on my experience actually using the things.

Note: I originally wrote this way back in 2010. The drive technologies I speak of as state of the art are rather aged now. But the principles still hold today, and will continue to do so. Hard drives have gotten better, but SSD have gotten better at a more rapid pace.

Read more

Shut up, McCain. Obama is right this time.

McCain’s camp is mocking Barack Obama’s suggestion that people need to inflate their tires to save fuel.

It’s not like the senator from Illinois said let them eat cake. It’s actually good advice.The biggest problem with Washington is its disconnect with reality, such as the time Bush I went grocery shopping as a publicity stunt and marveled at the scanners at the checkout as if they were something new. Well, newer than unleaded gasoline, perhaps.

Perhaps my biggest frustration with McCain is his lack of understanding at chipping away at a problem. I have news for him. Chipping away can be very effective. I nickel-and-dimed my way to paying off a mortgage in 6 years, partly by doing things like inflating my tires and changing my air filter and using synthetic oil. Besides that, I bought a programmable thermostat, bought compact fluorescent light bulbs, and brought my own coffee to work.

Take small amounts of savings here and there and make them work for you, and you can accomplish something a lot bigger than you might think.

Too bad it’s been seven years since Washington tried to chip away at its deficit. But that’s another issue.

If every U.S. citizen did the routine maintenance that helps improve gas mileage, it would have the dual effect of reducing demand (and therefore prices) slightly, and putting a little more money in consumers’ pockets, so they could better afford the market price.

McCain would rather encourage voters to wait for Washington to fix the problem.

Tell me, which one of these guys is the Republican and which one’s the Democrat? I’m having difficulty telling them apart.

So if a McCain supporter offers you a tire gauge, take it. And by all means use it.

On this issue, Obama is right. As in correct. And conservative, apparently.

$13.99 a day for three days isn’t $39 total!

On Monday, I had the pleasure of renting a car. The insurance company was paying–the pleasure came courtesy of the 81-year-old woman who rear-ended my wife and son as they sat at a stop sign–but I learned a lot about rental company tactics.The insurance company was paying $24 a day, which would put you in a mid-sized car–roughly the size of a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. So the rental company tried to upsell me. Enterprise stuck me in a Buick LeSabre once when the Dodge Neon I initially tried to rent had a flat tire. I hated the thing. It was comfortable, but it was huge, I couldn’t park it, the brakes were mushy, and the steering was mushy. I felt like I was stuck in a big bowl of oatmeal.

But they didn’t want to put me in a LeSabre. They wanted to put me in an SUV or a minivan. Completely impractical. Besides, I wanted fuel economy. I pointed to a Ford Focus. “How’s that gas mileage compare to my Honda Civic?” I asked.

“It has to be pretty close,” he said.

“I’ll take one.”

Once inside, he said he also had a Toyota Corolla. I lit up. “I’ll take the Corolla.” He said the last person who rented it got 38 MPG out of it. I like 38 MPG.

Then he took me outside to see the car. It was cleaner than my car, had fewer scratches on my car, when he put the key in the ignition and turned it, the engine started. It promised to cost less per mile to drive than a Civic, and someone else was paying the bill. What’s not to like?

Then he tried to sell me insurance. By then I was getting frustrated because all this upselling was making me even later for work, and I was plenty late enough. They had primo insurance for $23.99 a day, which was more than the daily cost of renting a Corolla. He said it would give me a million dollars in liability. I don’t remember what else. I probably rolled my eyes. I think he sensed there was no way, no how he was going to sell that to me, so he turned to the “cheap” $13.99 insurance.

“I don’t think I need insurance because American Family said they’d cover me since I have full coverage.”

“What’s your deductible?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had to use it.” (Remember that second sentence.)

“It’s probably $500. So for $13.99 a day, we can save you the hassle of having to deal with American Family if anything happens.” Then he went over the things it would cover.

I started to get antsy, knowing how late for work I was getting. I tuned him out, which was the best thing to do. Otherwise I’d get even more irritated.

“So for just $39, we can take care of you for three days.”

I ignored the mathematical fact that $13.99 times 3 is $41.97, not $39. Any sixth grader should know that.

“$39 is a lot of money,” I said. That’s true, isn’t it? That’s about how much it costs to fill a Corolla’s gas tank in Missouri right now.

He laughed. “So’s $500!”

“Yeah, but I’ve never had to use that deductible, so the chances of me having to use any insurance this week on this car are about zero. So it really doesn’t make any sense to pay $39 for something I’m not going to use.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

It suited me fine. The car was in our possession from roughly 9 AM on Monday until about 5 PM today (Wednesday). I guess that’s about 56 hours. My wife ran errands for a couple of hours each day and went to the doctor on Wednesday, but I think it’s safe to say that the car spent at least 41.97 hours sitting in our driveway.

Nothing bad happened in our driveway. I’m sure the dog sniffed it a few times.

I’m guessing the salesman who was helping me was probably 24 or 25, and in all fairness, when I was his age I didn’t think $39 was a lot of money either, even if it was really $41.97. Let’s face it. When I was 19, I was making about six bucks an hour. When I was 24, I was making a shade over $12 an hour, and after $6 per hour, that seemed like a lot of money. That was 9 years ago. Let’s guess this whippersnapper makes $15 an hour and made $8 an hour selling dishwashers at Best Buy five years ago. When you go from making $160 a week to $2400 a month, $41.97 seems like nothing. I’m sure he’ll spend more than that on dinner and drinks on Friday.

And I’m sure he and thousands of others like him manage to convince a lot of people every day that $41.97 is really $39, and $39 is nothing, so they sign on the line. All those nothings pile up really quick, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a $9 billion company.

Slick.

But that “only” tactic doesn’t work on me anymore. Quote me $41.97, and I can tell you it takes me an hour and a half to make that, pre-tax. Factor in taxes, and it takes me more than two hours to make that. That’s a quarter of my day! If I’m going to waste $41.97, I can think of a number of things I’d much rather waste $41.97 on. Maybe a full tank of gas. Or half a week’s worth of groceries. Or 288 diapers, if I shop at Dollar General. That might last my son a month.

But I spared him the Dr. Walter Johnson Economics 51 lesson on Opportunity Cost ($101 per credit hour in 1994 at Mizzou). Like I said, I was already late for work. I’d probably already blown $28 worth of vacation time and I didn’t want to make it $41.97.

So gas/solar/electric hybrids might make sense

Last week I saw an article about aftermarket solar panels for a Toyota Prius.

I’m glad on two counts. It’ll reduce fuel usage, and while maybe it doesn’t prove my idea was a good one, it does prove that someone else had it.The system costs between $2,000 and $3,000. The manufacturer says it makes more sense with gas at $4 a gallon, in which case it will pay for itself in two years.

I’m not sure I understand the math. Basically when you have one of these you can drive about 20 miles a day for free. That’s about $2 worth of gas, at $4 a gallon. Drive those 20 miles every day for two years, and you’ve saved 730 x 2, which is $1,460.

At that price, one of these outfits has to be about more than just saving money because you won’t save any money unless maybe you live in California, where gas prices are much higher. If you just want to save money, you’re better off buying a conventional car that gets really good gas mileage to begin with, such as a Honda Civic, then start making some modifications like ripping out the seats and replacing them with high-performance racing seats (which can weigh 10 pounds or less). Or better yet, replace the driver’s seat and leave the rest of the seats out. Every hundred pounds of weight in your car decreases gas mileage by 2 percent.

No, I haven’t started messing around with the seats in my Civic yet. But don’t put it past me if gas prices keep going up.

But back to the original idea. A Prius is a $22,000 car. It gets about 55 miles to the gallon. A 2007 Honda Civic retails for about $16,000 and gets about 30 miles to the gallon, although I should note that I get closer to 35 miles per gallon out of my 2002 Civic, and if I really behave myself, I can approach 40 miles to the gallon.

Let’s run the numbers. For an extra $6,000, you get 25 more miles per gallon with a Prius.

If you drive 20,000 miles a year, you’ll burn 363 gallons of gas with the Prius, versus 667 with the Civic. At $3 a gallon, that’s $900 a year. So it would take 6-7 years for the Prius to pay for itself.

Let’s factor solar panels into the equation. The maker of the panels says they improve a Prius’ fuel economy by 29 percent. That bumps it up to roughly 70 miles per gallon. So, driving 20,000 miles a year, you’d burn about 285 gallons, saving about $250 a year at $3/gallon. At $4/gallon, your savings are more like $375 a year.

Hmm. Now I’m starting to see why these aren’t standard equipment.

I think hybrid cars and solar panels are great things for people who can afford them. I do have to say I was shocked and relieved to see the new Saturn commercials that include the words “Rethink status,” trying to sell hybrids as a status symbol. GM is one of the companies most guilty of marketing oversize pickup trucks as status symbols. So this is a nice change.

Solar panels are very conspicuous, so I can see those becoming a status symbol potentially. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing. If every U.S. driver did something to save 80 gallons of fuel per year, the world would be a better place.

Considering the amount of violence that surrounds oil anymore, maybe it would even be a kinder and gentler place.

The overworked American

This is old, but still true, and Labor Day is a great day to explore the topic of The Overworked American. The trend has not reversed since it was written.

Basically, what Juliet B. Schor says is that productivity has soared since the 1940s, and when productivity soars, you can choose to do one of two things: work more, or work less. Europe by and large has chosen to work less. The United States hasn’t.I know ever since I saw a John Cummuta seminar back in November 2004, I’ve been harping on living cheap and paying off debt as quickly as possible. The goal isn’t so much to pile up tons and tons of money. That’s just a side-effect. That’s not the goal. There’s a different goal, and it’s actually a lot shorter-term: The goal is to buy freedom.

When I was growing up, Dad almost always carried a beeper. And invariably, when we would go out (on those rare occasions when we did get to go out), that beeper would go off, and Dad would have to find a phone, and more often than not, then Dad had to go away.

Then I grew up and I got a beeper of my own. Back in the ’70s, you had to be something really important like a doctor to have a beeper. Today all you have to know is what ctrl-alt-delete means. I guess it was the first time my pager went off in the middle of a date that I knew something was horribly wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

It took seven years, but I finally got the answer.

Cummuta’s tapes are pretty expensive, but you can go to the library and get a book by Dave Ramsey or David Bach and get the same benefit because all of those guys pretty much say the same thing.

What those guys can’t give you is motivation. My wife and I have amassed a library of financial books. In a lot of cases my wife had a conversation with the original owners of the books. They all said the books had good ideas, but it was so hard to do.

Which brings me back to The Overworked American. What Schor doesn’t say in that excerpt is that you do have a choice. When your boss comes to you and says you’re going to work Labor Day, and not only that, you’re also going to work on Saturday and Sunday of that weekend too, and, oh yeah, you’ll probably have to stay late on Friday, you’d better believe you have a choice.

Well, assuming you don’t have to write a check to the bank for $1,000 every month for that roof over your head, and another check for $400 or $500 every month for those four wheels that get you to work, and another one for the four wheels that get your spouse to work.

When $24,000 of your annual income goes strictly towards transportation and shelter, you will return the call when the beeper goes off. You’ll answer the cellular phone (which you pay for) on the first ring if that’s what your boss wants. You’ll work Labor Day weekend and you’ll like it because your boss has you exactly where he wants you.

That’s why I’ve been harping so hard on living within your means. I don’t drive a Honda Civic because it’s what all the cool kids want to drive. I drive a Honda Civic because it’s a reliable car that rarely has to go into the shop, because it gets really good gas mileage, and because I was able to pay it off in two years.

Perhaps more importantly though, I plan to still be driving that Honda Civic on the day I write that final check that pays off the mortgage.

Unless something were to happen to that Honda Civic in the meantime, that is. If that happened, I’d probably go buy a 2000 or a 2001 model and put whatever money was left over towards the house.

You don’t have to get a new car every three years, or even every five years. We’ve been conditioned to trade in our cars every few years, but if we do that, then someone else gets to control our lives. We’re slaves to consumerism! Slaves!

And when you can’t spend any quality time with your spouse because you’re always at work (or working from home), and you don’t have the time or energy to pull your own weight at home, and there’s all the stress that puts on your marriage, could that have anything to do with why divorce rates are as high as they are?

But if you can drive home every night in your car that you own outright to your house that you own outright and can sit down on your couch that you own outright, guess what? When your boss tells you that you have to work Labor Day, you can say no. Why? Because if your only monthly expenses are medicine and food, if your boss says the f-word (the five-letter one), all that matters is whether the White Castle down the street is hiring because that job will more than cover your expenses while you try to find another regular full-time job.

And that, my friends, is why I’m typing these words on an old 700 MHz computer, why I didn’t go out for lunch this afternoon, and why I haven’t traded in my four-year-old Honda Civic. The math tells me I can have this house paid off in two and a half years. I don’t know if that means I’ll find a way to do it in a year and a half, or if it means it’ll take closer to four. But I look at it like high school–something with a beginning and a very definite end. In the meantime, there’ll be some good things that happen and some bad things. But there will come a day when it will be over.

And on that day, I’ll get a taste of the real world.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really looking forward to that.

Conservative economics vs. the oil crisis

I am a fiscal conservative. That should surprise no one. I’m extremely careful with how I spend my money, and I get frustrated when I see corporations and governments do otherwise.

So it’s hard for me to stand back and keep my mouth shut while Washington talks about oil companies.First and foremost, I am all for ending the tax breaks for oil companies. Maybe Rush Limbaugh would say that means I’m not a true Republican. That’s fine with me. When a group of corporations sets economic records for profits one year, then breaks those records a few months later, that tells me the industry no longer needs government subsidies. Giving tax breaks to big oil companies is interference with the marketplace. So who’s the economic conservative now?

True economic conservatives don’t want to give government aid to anybody. The problem is, anymore, the difference between a Republican and a Democrat is who they want to give welfare to–large corporations or people who don’t make much money.

I don’t think that giving a $100 check to every taxpayer who made more than $14,000 last year will accomplish all that much. It’s a symbolic gesture. I spend more than that every month on gas. When I bought my Civic, I drove a bit less, but with similar driving patterns, I would have spent about $40. That $100 will soften the blow at the pump for less than two months.

But then again, I also know that I’ll spend that $100 more responsibly than the government or the oil companies, and even those who choose to spend that $100 on beer aren’t spending it any less wisely than the government (who’d use it to build a bridge to nowhere) or the oil companies (who’d use it to give a bigger bonus to executives who happened to be in the right place at the right time).

Since it won’t make a difference, I’m neutral. But if that $100 check lands in my mailbox, you better believe I’ll be endorsing and depositing that puppy.

I suppose my conservative leanings waver when it comes to gas mileage. But if it’s OK for Rush Limbaugh to be a flaming liberal when it comes to giving handouts to oil companies, I suppose I can be a flaming liberal when it comes to mandating gas mileage. The problem is this: The average gas mileage of a typical American car today is at the same level as it was in 1986. 1986! Would you be willing to trade in your Pentium 4 for a nice PC/XT clone from 1986? The TV in my living room was made in 1986. It’s a nice, swanky fake-woodgrain console. Would you trade any TV being made today for that? Didn’t think so.

But because Americans are fundamentally unwilling to be responsible, by and large we continue to buy cars that are no better than what we were driving in 1986.

The only way we’re going to get better is through regulation. Because people keep buying their Suburbans, which they drive to work–alone, of course. I have no idea how they afford it. I guess they’re skipping lunch a few days a week to keep gas in them. So the pressure needs to come from the other end. Since the marketplace doesn’t care that the Suburban only gets 13 miles to the gallon, the government has to.

But the hybrid tax credit bothers me. It bothers me a lot. Somebody who buys a Ford Escape hybrid, which gets around 30 miles to the gallon, can get a tax credit. But my Honda Civic, which uses an old-fashioned drivetrain but gets better gas mileage and thus causes less polution, isn’t eligible for that tax credit.

I’m all for lower taxes, of course. I’m a fiscal conservative. But those taxes should be fair. If you’re going to give a tax break based on gas mileage, base it on gas mileage, not on what’s under the hood.

Regulation on one end and tax credits that mean something on the other might actually give us good results–make the automakers make cars that get decent gas mileage, and help make the public happy about buying them.

Not that I expect that kind of change. There aren’t a lot of hybrids being made, so there aren’t a lot of tax breaks being given out. Which is good, from the government’s perspective. The government needs taxes to build the Bridge to Nowhere. I guess Rambo-wannabe nouveau riche can drive their Hummers back and forth on it.

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