Saturday, December 31, 2016

Back to the Future, Part II

It seems we are re-living the 1970's all over again.
Back when I was a kid in the 1970's, we had Jerry Brown as Governor of California.   Cuomo was Governor of New York.  And of course, Trudeau was Prince of Canada.   And a guy named Donald Trump was making waves in New York City.

Not much has changed since then, it seems.  There is still a Cuomo in the governor's mansion in Albany and a Trudeau in Ottawa (thank God our Canadian friends don't have political dynasties like we have here in the States!).  And Jerry Brown - the original, not a copy - is again in the governor's mansion in California - this time as a fiscal conservative who is helping to rescue the State from insolvency.

Other relics from that era are starting to resurface, including self-proclaimed "revolutionary" terrorists who are up for parole.  Judith Clark, who assisted in an armed robbery as part of a plan to ignite a race war in America and start a "revolution" recently had her sentence commuted by Governor Cuomo - and may be eligible for parole as early as next year - which no doubt is good news to the families of the two police officers and security guard mercilessly gunned down during that robbery.  Cuomo argued that Clark had been "reformed" in prison and at age 67 was no longer a threat to society.   One of the other robbers is now a professor at Columbia University (where else?) and another was the step-father of the late Tupac Shakur - illustrating the whole apple-and-tree analogy.   You can't make this shit up.

Leslie Van Houten, who helped kill two people as part of the Manson killing spree - also in an effort to start a "race war" in America, is actually been recommended for parole, but was turned down by Governor Jerry Brown, the same Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown who used to be governor of California back in the 1970's.  Another Manson follower is also up for parole, but it appears Brown would block that, if granted.   Brown apparently has learned from experience in office and wisely decided that a terrorist, murderer, and self-proclaimed "revolutionary" should stay in jail for the rest of their lives.   He needs to have a chat with Cuomo and tell him how it's done.

While Brown seems to have learned from the lessons of the 1970's, a new generation of Left-wing politicians are still somewhat tone-deaf.   Commuting the sentence of Judith Clark is a slap in the face to the family members of the officers and guard who died during that robbery.  And tonight, the Governor and a group of his elite friends will be having a private cocktail party aboard the brand-new 2nd Avenue subway line in Gotham City (unless the Joker intervenes!) - but of course, it is invitation only.  Thank God the Democrats are not elitists!

One reason Democrats have been losing elections across the country is that they come across as disengaged from the lives of ordinary citizens.   The perception is that Democrats believe that everyone in jail is either innocent or has been reformed and that criminals should go free.   The reality is, of course, that crime has dropped dramatically since the 1970's.  But reality is not what swings elections - perception is.

Moreover, there is something unseemly about people who commit atrocious crimes just for the hell of it.   The man who shoots a store clerk during an armed robbery because he needed drug money is no saint.  But next to the guy who shoots people just because he likes to watch people die, he looks a lot better.   Similarly, killing innocent people because of some "revolutionary" or political cause (particularly one that is far-fetched) is also obscene.   Just because the political system isn't to your liking, doesn't mean you have the right to kill people.   You could try voting or organizing a political party - or just compromising.

Today we rightfully call such people "terrorists" and condemn them soundly.  And no, terrorists should not be let out of prison because they seem like nice people - in prison.

Jerry Brown seems to "get" this.   While you may feel "sorry" for these young women who were drawn into the cult of Manson, the horrific crimes they committed are unforgivable.   Life in prison is not too harsh a punishment for people who stab a pregnant woman 17 times.  And no, we don't feel better about them because they "couldn't go through" with cutting Sharon Tate's baby from her womb.   You simply can't reform that level of mayhem.

Democrats will keep losing elections and lose what little control they have in this country so long as they appear to be living in isolated bubbles.  The Democratic party needs to shed its image as the party that is the friend to criminals, and the enemy of the police and the tax-paying citizen.  Until that changes, nothing will change.

Friday, December 30, 2016

I've Been Hacked By Russian Cyber-Warriors!

Sneaky Russian Cyber-Warriors stole my laundry list!

The other day, I was leaving the dry cleaners* and I dropped my laundry list.  It read, "three shirts, extra starch, two pants, one suit".   Before I could bend down to pick it up, it blew away.  A Slavic-looking fellow who had been following me snatched it up as it blew into the street and he ran off before I could catch him.

Well, you know how the rest of it goes.   The next day, in the New York Times, excerpts from my laundry list were being quoted in an "in-depth article" with promises of more "leaks" to come!   I was in a panic.  What to do?

Before long, other media outlets were chiming in.   Fox News was dubbing it "Laundry-Gate" and set their "News Alert" beacon to "extra paranoid".  Pundits weighed in on whether this would be the end of my short-lived career in the blogosphere.  Edward Snowden was interviewed on CNN on the fallout from Laundrygate.  I was being hounded for interviews by reporters camped out on my lawn.  I had to put my hand over the camera lens and say, "no comment!"

I thought the story would die down, but the media kept flogging it.  Every day there were carefully timed new revelations from Wikileaks - designed to keep the story in the "news cycle".   "Extra starch!" the New York Post exclaimed -"is this the kind of person we want representing the United States in the blogosphere?"

* This is a parody, I haven't had any clothes dry-cleaned in a decade.

* * *

That just about sums up the "hacking" of the election.   The media loves to talk about "Cyber-warriors" who are "hacking" into servers and altering the outcome of the election.   The reality is somewhat otherwise:
1.  No one "hacked" into any voting machine or any device that actually determined the outcome of the election.

2.   No one "hacked" any e-mails, rather, idiots like John Podesta responded to stupid phishing e-mails saying, "Comrade!  We are from Yahoo!  You need to change your password!  CLICK HERE!"   These are not "Cyber-warriors" any more than the idiot sending you the SPAM e-mail saying you've won the Nigerian lottery is a "Cyber-warrior".   The news media loves "Cyber-" this and "Robo-" that, or anything with an i- or e- prepended to it.

3.  The contents of these e-mails was anything but startling.  People in the Democratic party were actually against someone who was not a Democrat being nominated for President.  Rather than running away from this in fear and having people "resign in disgrace" they should have just owned it.   People are allowed to have opinions, even Democratic officials.  Bernie Sanders was and is a bad idea.

4.  The reaction of the Democrats to this "hacking" was more the problem than the actual hacking itself.  They acted as if they were Senator Larry Craig caught in a restroom with his pants down.   Actually, that's a bad analogy, and Craig tried to "stonewall it" (bad pun) rather than run away.   When you act like you did something bad, people tend to believe you did.  Where there's smoke there's fire.

5.  The news media - particularly on the Left of all places - stoked the fires of this "scandal" by hyping it to sell newspapers and get clicks.   There was no "there" there, but they all acted like Fox News in reporting the "scandal" dutifully.
Now today, we are told that the Russians were "trying to sway the election" or actually swayed it and need to be "punished" for their actions.  But what the Russians did was comically primitive and crude - much as their motorcycles are.

The reality is, the Democrats lost the election.  How?
1. Again, as I noted before, they let the Bernie Sanders Show run for far too many episodes, and instead of cancelling it outright, they are now running it in syndication.

2.  President Obama, trying to appear impartial, did not endorse Hillary early enough and hard enough.  He did not rally the black vote at all.   Trump held mega-rallies to stir up his supporters.  Where was Obama's mega-rally for Clinton in Milwaukee or Detroit or Philadelphia?

3.  Hubris - The Democrats and the media thought Hillary couldn't lose, because Donald Trump was (and is) such a buffoon.  This only served to enrage the Trump supporters more.  What should have been a walk-away election turned into a close call and eventually a pummeling.
Now, after the fact, they want to blame Russia rather than themselves.   This is externalizing of the worst sort.   Russia did not cast or alter a single vote in the election.   What the Democrats are mad about is that Russia put out information that might have changed the minds of some voters or cause a depressed turnout among the party faithful or lame-ass Bernie supporters (the Trump disinformation team did a good job of creating and nurturing the "I was for Bernie, but now I'm for Trump" meme).

The Democrats lost the election fair and square.   And now they want to blame others for their malfeasance.  Note that I said the Democrats lost not Donald Trump won.  There is a difference.  It is like in court when you are found not guilty - it does not mean you were found innocent.

Well, you know how I feel about externalizing.  It doesn't matter if you are on the Right and blaming all your personal problems on "big government", "immigrants", or "welfare queens" or if you are on the Left and blaming your personal problems on "big banks", "Wall Street", and "The 1%'ers" - it is always a loser's argument.   And the Democratic party is acting like losers for engaging in it as well.  "It couldn't have been anything WE did, right?   It was all Putin's fault!"

Externalizing, on a personal level or a national one, never fixes problems - it merely creates them.  On a national level, it starts wars.

And you'd think the Democrats would see this - after all, their opponent is going to be the Externalizer-In-Chief in about three weeks.   He wants to blame "Gina" and Mexico for all our woes, and start a war - perhaps merely a trade war - to settle our alleged grievances.

Externalization sells - up to a point.  And I think one reason a lot of people voted for Trump, or voted Republican is that once in a while, the Republican Party sells the message of personal responsibility for your actions.   Republicans don't hate welfare because they hate black people (well, maybe some do).  Rather, they see welfare as a form of externalization and failure to take action in your own life to accept personal responsibility for your own malfeasance.

The mythology of welfare is that generations of people are just accepting it and not even trying to improve their lot.   Whenever they need something in life, they look to the government for the solution.   You could argue all day long whether this perception is true or not (I think the truth lies somewhere in-between, myself) the issue is, the perception of personal responsibility is what counts.

And yes, a lot of these Trumpeters and Tea Partiers have their snouts in the government trough, slurping up their own forms of government slop.   They don't see the irony of course.   But in their minds, they are responsible for their own actions, and they don't appreciate a President telling them "you didn't build that" (even if the President was misquoted).

The Democrats need to embrace self-actualization and responsibility, starting at home with the Democratic Party.   And then they need to sell this message to the voters - as they will find a willing audience across the political spectrum.

Because deep down, we all know that self-discipline is something we all should have more of.

Making Glasses From Bottles?

Making glassware from old bottles is not only dangerous, it is not very cost-effective.

On YouTube, there are videos galore about the strangest things.   Most of them, I think, are click-bait, designed to get you to watch, so the channel owner makes money from advertisements.  People upload copyrighted videos, for example, and then reverse the image or otherwise alter it so Google's copyright bots won't take it down.   Pretty neat trick, and you earn money from the ads.

Or you put up a video with an alarming thumbnail.  People click on the video, but of course, the picture in the thumbnail is no where in the video.   Made ya click!   And it makes money for the channel owner. 

Monetizing this blog has helped me understand,  first hand how this all works.  I could make a boatload of coin by putting up videos or blog postings that are click-bait and then rake in the advertising dough.   Some people actually get quasi-famous and maybe make a living at it.  Saabkyle04, for example, started off with charming videos of the used cars available in his neighborhood.   "Without further ado..." he became a minor YouTube star and is now reviewing Lamborghini's.   Too bad, too, because his early videos are far more fun, even though the production values aren't as great.  But it was rewarding to see this somewhat awkward kid make it from high-school videographer to the big time.

Others, particularly from overseas, put up shit videos or shit blogs (more on that in another posting).  Slap together a video on a topical posting and put it online.  For example, there are several (if not dozens) of videos on how to make glassware from old bottles using string and lighter fluid.  I am not sure how we found these, but I think Mark was looking into glass slumping (melting glass in a kiln) and we found a boatload of apparently Russian videos on how to make glassware from a wine bottle using a piece of string and lighter fluid.  I mentioned these before in this blog.  What is up with that?  A couple of things:
1.  It is a topical "trick" so you get hits by making a video on the subject and make money.

2.  You can use the video to show how the technique doesn't work and then sell people a commercial-grade bottle cutter.
Regardless, making glassware from old bottles is really not a swell idea.  Why?  Well, to begin with, to do it right you will have to buy a lot of expensive tools, such as a real glass cutter, and also be able to round the sharp edges, either by sanding or using a torch to melt the edges smooth.   The net result is a pretty ugly glass that cuts your lip.   A nicer glass can be had at the Dollar Tree for.... a dollar.

Spending $5 to save a dollar and ending up with an inferior product just makes no sense at all.   Put the bottles in the recycle bin (in Maine, they garner 15 cents deposit!) and just buy glassware at the store.

RONCO sold a bottle cutter back in the 1970's.  Even back then, this was a pretty poor economic proposition.

Just because something is on a YouTube video doesn't mean it is a good idea.  And these "tips and tricks" videos are just clickbait to get people to watch the channel and garner advertising dollars. Sadly, the YouTube algorithm often lets junk like this float to the top of their septic tank.

Anyway, we tried this technique and found it was hardly a good way to cut bottles into glasses.   We had fun emptying the bottles, though!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bob's Buggy, Part II

The cost of "modding" a buggy usually exceeds the purchase price by a factor of two.

We've had the $299 golf cart for a few weeks now, and have made a number of modifications to it to make it "street legal" here on the island, and to make it go a little faster, be safer, and look nicer.   But I think I will pull back from spending too much more on it anytime soon, as we have thrown enough money at it already.

As with any project or hobby car, you need to first establish a budget.   And the budget should be based on what the car is worth, realistically.   There is no point in throwing tens of thousands of dollars into a car worth maybe $5,000 to $10,000 on a good day in pristine shape.   You are better off just buying the pristine example rather than throwing money at an old rust-bucket.   And I say this from experience.

The problem with project cars is that you can get into the project cheaply enough, but the cost of parts and upgrades (all-too-easily put on a credit card) add up over time.  You spend your leisure hours drooling over catalogs of parts and thinking of the day you can pay down your VISA enough to buy a new fart muffler.   It is a bad approach.

Thus, with the buggy, I decided ahead of time to set a budget.   For this vehicle, about $1000, which we've already reached.   Why $1000?   Well, this is an older cart, the last year (1994) of the Marathon model which was superseded by the more popular TXT model.  If you want to "mod" a buggy, I would suggest starting with a later model TXT as parts are more readily available and cheaper to boot, and it is easier to make it go faster. 

You will still end up spending twice the purchase price to mod one, however.

For that reason, you might want to look at one from a buggy dealer or one used from someone who blew the cash on modding one.   Again, batteries are the big deal - costing from $85 to $300 each, depending on type.   For six to eight batteries, this adds up, and they need to be replaced about every five years, sadly.   Buggies are not a cost-effective form of transportation!

Local dealers and individuals are selling modded EZ-GO TXT models for about $4000 or so.   You can spend more, of course.  You can spend as much as you want to.   So spending more than a grand on a 25-year old Marathon seems kind of wasteful to me.   So that's my budget - $1000.

What did it need besides a lot of pressure washing and polishing?   Well, the two main things are safety and speed, and the latter is related to the former.   At the stock 12 mph speed, it is hardly faster than a bicycle and a good recipe for being run over.  So we want to make it go a little faster - perhaps 17-20 mph or so.

And that is not as easy as it looks.  The easiest solution is to upgrade from the stock 36 Volt battery pack to 48 volts, either by adding two batteries (which I did) or by switching to expensive 8-volt batteries.   I took the cheap route, obviously.

But what to do with the extra voltage?  The easiest solution is to buy a new 48-volt controller and a new 48-volt higher torque motor.   Easy, but pricey.  The cheapest controllers are about $500 or so, and the motors about $800 apiece (!!!) or a total of $1300 to spend on a $299 golf cart.   In my mind, not worth it.

I found a fellow on the "Buggies gone wild!" discussion group who found a cheaper solution.   Just add a "booster pack" of batteries and wire them around the controller via a relay so the motor sees direct 48V from all of the batteries combined.   This requires you buy a 48V relay ($55) and a huge-ass power diode ($48) to prevent the current from feeding back into the sold-state controller.  The 36V stock motor will take the excess voltage (I am told) although it may shorten the service life somewhat.   This raised the top speed from 12 mph to 15 mph, which is not a bad jump.  Total cost, with batteries, battery boxes, relay and diode, about $325 - more than we paid for the cart!
This schematic laid out how to boost your buggy without buying a new controller.  I have revised it to show the actual connections on my machine.  However, it does have some risks involved, to the motor, the buggy, and yourself!

The diagram is accurate, and the system works.  When the boost relay is activated, the additional 12 volts is added to the existing 36 volts, and this goes right to the motor, bypassing the solid stand controller.  The power diode prevents current from feeding back into the controller.  The diode is important.  A third relay could be used in its place, but I suspect it would not switch fast enough to avoid damaging the controller, hence the diode. Plus the diode is a little cheaper.

However, putting 48 Volts to a 36 Volt motor might shorten its service life - although some old-timers say these motors can handle the voltage.   It also means your brakes will have to work harder to stop.   Finally, if you "floor" the accelerator from a standstill, the buggy will lurch forward and that can be kind of dangerous (it is unexpected) and also put stress on the pinion gear in the rear axle.   But the fellow who came up with this puts 72 volts to his buggy (for a total of 108 Volts!), so at least we are not being that extreme!

108 Volts to the motor.  Ouch!

The problem with speed mods is that each one gives you maybe one or two mph in speed increase.  Once you have more voltage and more amperage and more torque, you can put on bigger wheels and tires to increase the effective final drive ratio and get maybe 2-3 more mph out of it.   But bigger wheels and tires means you have to put in a lift kit - one thing requires another.  You can replace the whole front axle with a lifted one for $300, or buy a cheap "block" lift kit for $89.  Guess which one I chose?

But getting back to safety, one problem these "buggies" have is that most have only rear, cable-operated brakes.   They were designed for 12 mph golf course duty, and if you ramp up the speed to 20 or 25 mph, they may not be very effective.   While installing the lift kit, I was shocked to find the right brake was disconnected as the cable had gotten bound up (bent) and would not retract.  The left wasn't much better.  So new cables on both sides.  A brake job and adjustment is next (as is lubing the differential and all the zerk fittings).

What's more, with the higher center of gravity as well as increased load (another mod is a rear fold-down seat - about $260 to $300 so the cart will seat four) the handling goes all to hell.   Sudden turns can be quite squarely!
Which is why they require seat belts on our island.  I have read about some gruesome golf cart accidents in The Villages, where old people fall out of the damn things and either smash their heads on the pavement or are run over by passing cars.  Not falling out is a good deal.   I was fortunate to find a set of retractable seat belts from a neighbor, new in the box, for $80.

So the total cost so far is.....


Seat Belts  $90
Rear View Mirror $10.83
Side Mirrors $15.99
Beacon  $7.79
Horn $32.85
Horn Button $5.99
Light Switch  $5.99
Brake Cables $54.85
Windshield  $89.99
Service Manual  $9.99
Battery hold-down  $18.95
Reflectors  $8.95


Relay  $47.99
Diode  $48.37
Batteries $200.13
Battery Boxes  $41.90
4Ga Wire  $22
Lift Kit (allows for larger tires, more speed)  $78.99
Accelerator switch: $14

Purchase Price:  $299

Total:  $1094.55

Now this is without any "cosmetic" modifications, such a paint job, fancy upholstery ($55), a rear-facing seat ($275), a fake burlwood dashboard with glove box, ($189), a kicker stereo, under carriage lighting, brake light switch, turn signals, and so forth.   You can go crazy with these things, and the cost of each bite at the apple is that oh-so-easy-to-put-on-VISA amount of $200 or less.   You can go broke, one "mod" at a time!

And it doesn't include all the small fasteners, crimp fittings, pop rivets, electrical tape and shrink tubing I used from stock.

We'll keep using it and have fun with it and if we get bored with it - sell it.   Maybe we'll do more cosmetic things to it over time, if we can find parts at the right prices.  And that is kind of the fun aspect of this - scrounging for things and finding "stuff" to make it work, on a budget.  For example, the rear cargo deck was made from scrap plywood scrounged from a dumpster and some scrap carpeting I had laying around.

And maybe if we like it enough, down the road, we'd build another one.  This time starting with a TXT, of course!

UPDATE 2020:   over the years, we've had to put more money in this buggy and probably have about $2,300 into it so far. I found a Curtis 48V controller and eBay for about $250 which is the hell of a deal.

The 6-volt batteries eventually died. I don't think they were as new is the previous owner suggested. They kept losing water over time which is a sure sign your batteries are going south. We replaced them with six 8-Volt batteries which was cheaper and now the cart can easily circumnavigate the island twice.

We've done the few other things. We breupholstered the seats with some vinyl we bought from jo-ann fabrics. All in all it's been a reliable little buggy, but I ended up spending more than I thought I would.

Glide Slope

If you have insufficient altitude or airspeed, any minor problem becomes a big one.  Finances are the same way.

A Russian military version of the Tupolev T-154 airliner recently crashed, and they are still sorting out why the crash happened.   After hearing the cockpit voice recorder, some are suspecting some kind of physical fault with the flaps.   But it could have been a matter of pilot error.  This transcript is illuminating:

Co-Pilot: "Speed 300 (inaudible)."
Pilot: "(Inaudible)."
Co-Pilot: "I've pulled in the landing gear, commander."
Pilot: "(Inaudible)."
Co-Pilot: "Oh bloody hell!"
Piercing alarm sounds
Pilot: "The flaps, hell, what a…!"
Co-Pilot: "The altimeter [altitude meter]!"
Pilot: "We're in… (inaudible)."
Alarm sounds about dangerous proximity to the ground
Pilot: "(Inaudible)."
Co-Pilot:  "Commander we're falling!"

This could have been a problem with the flaps - one retracting while another remains extended, causing the plane to roll in one direction.  Or it could have been the co-pilot yanking on the flap lever - retracting the flaps prematurely, instead of yanking on the landing gear lever.  This is my theory, as it happens more often than you think, particularly in planes where the levers are near one another.  Note how the problem starts right after he says, "I've pulled in the landing gear, commander."  Whoops, wrong lever!

Or, it could have been they forgot to set the flaps - it has also been known to happen, and planes fall out of the sky as a result of the lack of lift, even as they rise off the runway.

Either way, the plane would have survived such a flight scenario if it was at altitude.  If you have sufficient altitude, you can recover from unusual situations, such as a stall, which is likely what happened to the airliner as the airspeed fell below the level needed to sustain flight.  Point the nose down, gain airspeed, and you're back in business.  But during takeoffs and landings, you have to have altitude to swap for speed, and that's whyt these two events are the most dangerous part of an airline flight.

In fiances, the same is true.  You need to gain enough altitude to be able to glide to your destination later in life.  And in this case, altitude is your savings and investments.   If you have enough saved up, you can glide to retirement even with both engines out - never having to work again.  Gain enough altitude, and you'll go into orbit - creating enough wealth that you can't spend the income from it fast enough - enough wealth to support yourself (or your heirs) perpetually. 

Airspeed is thus analogous to income.  If you are earning big bucks, you have a lot of thrust and can choose to either go fast (spend money on bling) but stay low to the ground (have a low net worth) or trade speed for altitude by climbing up into the sky (increasing savings and investments).  Once at cruising altitude, you can trade altitude for airspeed.  Thus, the higher you go, the safer you generally are, until you enter the coffin corner, but then again, that would be torturing my airplane analogies far enough.

It is sad what happened to those folks on the airliner.  I am curious as to whether it was an actual mechanical failure or pilot (or in this case, co-pilot) error.  I am sure further examination of the wreckage and the black boxes will yield an answer shortly. I find it kind of odd that people are jumping to conclusions based on an audio transcript that can be interpreted a number of ways.

But it struck me - as it has in the past - that the analogy between altitude and speed versus savings and income is an apt one.   Flying close to the ground - even at high speed - isn't safe simply because it leaves you with few options - and not much reaction time - if something goes horribly wrong.

Living "paycheck to paycheck" is doing just that. You are airborne, but hardly flying. 
One false move and it all comes crashing to the ground!

The Obama Legacy - the First Twitter President

Don Quixote (Picasso) - Wikipedia
President Obama was an idealist which is a good thing.  It was also a bad thing.

The Obama administration is winding down and people are wondering what his legacy will be.   It is too soon to tell what history's take on his Presidency will be, but I am inclined to think that overall, he will be remembered much as Roosevelt was, for taking the country from the pits of a recession/depression and putting America back on its feet again.  Trump has no where to go except down.

Of course, Republicans will spend the next four years (or at least two, if the Democrats have their way) unwinding much of the Obama legacy - or at least trying to.  Already there is waffling about how to undo Obamacare as well as much of the other changes he has wrought.   Sadly, most of the changes he has made through policy, Presidential edict, and through regulatory agencies, will be quickly undone. 

Unfortunately, I think one legacy that he will leave behind is that he was, in effect, the first Twitter President.  Yes, Obama has a Twitter account, and no doubt it is managed by the Office of Communications at the White House, as opposed to being tweeted directly by Obama at 3AM while he is sitting on the toilet, like someone else we all know.

But that is not what I am talking about - the actual Twitter account.   What I mean is how he tried to respond to events in real-time, even when, as President, he should have let smaller issues be resolved by local authorities before stepping in to act.

For example, I was a little disappointed when he invited people to have a beer at the White House in response to an arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer.  This was early on the Obama administration, and it was not a good sign that the President of the United States was intervening in what was a local issue in Boston.  That situation should have been resolved by the courts in that city and State (as indeed it eventually was). If anyone should have stepped in to address racial tensions, it should have been the Mayor of Boston or the Governor or Massachusetts, not the President of the United States.  Obama escalated that entire situation too early - and blew it out of proportion.

That incident, so early in his Presidency, left me with a bad feeling that Obama was meddling too much in our daily lives and being "un-Presidential" by trying to be the rescuer-in-chief.   He apparently was a fan of Cervantes.   And over the eight years of his Presidency, it seems he tried a little to hard to make things fair, to try to fix things that he probably should have left alone.   And at the same time, he failed to act in areas where he should have.

For example, recently it was reported that President Obama claims he would have won re-election for a third term, if it was permissible.   This is another one of those times, you sigh and say, "Oh, Barry, we do love you, but do you have to say shit like this?"   You see, this comment of his is wrong on a number of levels.

First of all, it plays to the paranoid theories of the far-right, who truly believe that Obama wants to anoint himself "President-for-Life".   That's bad enough.   Second, it highlights how he failed to really campaign for Hillary in States where the black vote failed to materialize (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania) that would have turned the election in her favor.   It is these sort of off-the-cuff remarks that do remind us of the new Orange President.

The transgender bathroom thing also seemed like an issue that a President should let be resolved in the courts and State legislatures before weighing in.  Not only did this seem like a very trivial issue for a President to get involved in, it also was an example of governing by decree - something his paranoid opponents accused him of doing on a regular basis.  The problem with this decree was that it didn't help the Democrats win elections.  It reinforced the notion that the Democratic Party had a "we know what's best for you" attitude and was living in isolated bubbles on the East and West coasts.

Was it the right thing to do?   Did his motivations come from the heart?  No doubt with regard to the latter, but just because there is injustice in the world doesn't mean that every injustice needs to be addressed.   Rather than tilt at windmills, one should choose their battles wisely and figure out what can be accomplished rather than what should happen in an ideal worldPolitics is the art of the possible.

Of course, there are some conspiracy theorists who think that the Democrats intentionally lost the election, figuring that four years of a disastrous Trump Presidency would bring America to its senses.   It is a long-shot theory, and even if true, a risky proposition.   Suppose the next four years see economic success (which, like economic failure, might have less to do with who is in the White House than with organic conditions and natural events)?  If so, we might see Trump re-elected.

No, I don't believe the Democrats were smart enough to intentionally lose by such a thin margin.  They screwed this up themselves, first by letting the Bernie Show run on so long (and apparently into syndication) and second by not campaigning hard enough for Hillary - and Obama was the worst offender in this regard, sitting on the fence for too long, dividing his support between a non-Democrat (Sanders) and Clinton.

Sadly, our foreign policy was hobbled by a similar idealism.   When the "Arab Spring" uprisings occurred, the Obama administration viewed this as a chance to show the United States' support for Democracy in the Middle East.  However, he should have learned from George Bush and the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan - people in the Middle East are not interested in Democracy, but religion and tribalism.   Given the choice to vote, they will vote for the guy who promises to take away their vote.

Our experience in Syria is a case in point.  We tried to fund the "opposition" to President Assad, only to find the opposition was mostly ISIS.   Few "Rebels" were actually looking to overthrow the Syrian regime and replace it with a democracy.  Even if we were to physically invade the country, overthrow the government, and install a new one, democracy would not flourish - as the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate.

So, as we floundered with a Middle-Eastern policy, Russia steps in.  The net result is that Assad will stay in power, and those who opposed him will be brutally suppressed if not annihilated. And Russia has a new friend - and new influence - in the Middle East. Our policy didn't change much, but in fact made things worse.

This is what happens when you let idealism dictate policy.   Yes, it is fine to be an idealist, but a better idea to be a realist, too.  And that is where perhaps Bill Clinton succeeded where Obama failed - in tempering idealism with realism, compromising with Congress, and getting legislation enacted - such as the Welfare Reform bill which changed lifetime welfare into "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families" - with a maximum five year cutoff. 

Of course both sides of the equation claim the other was intransigent during the Obama years.   Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan hardly offered any olive branches to the White House - which hardly returned the favor.

But all of this aside, I still think Obama's legacy will be considered a positive one - and much of it will end up surviving the next four years, largely intact.

To Dream the Impossible Dream...

One of the most misunderstood works of Western literature is actually a book originally written in Spanish. 

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote was originally written in Spanish and was meant as a parody of the chivalry novels that were popular in his country during that era.  The book focuses on a man who has read so many chivalrous novels that he literally loses his mind and re-imagines himself as Don Quixote, a knight-errant, and sets forth on a quest to right the wrongs in the world.

To say this novel has had an impact in the western world is an understatement. The phrase tilting at windmills derives from this novel.  In the novel, Don Quixote imagines windmills to be giants and tilts (jousts) at them with his lance, only to be caught up by the windmill sails and thrown to the ground. The phrase has become a shorthand for people who are engaging in self-defeating or irrational behavior, particularly when challenging authority.

The term quixotic also stems from this novel, referring to Don Quixote's last name. When someone refers to someone as being quixotic they mean that they are irrational in pursuit of justice, but it also has morphed to mean anything weird, strange, or otherwise unusual.  The novel is literally embedded in our language and has changed the way we talk and think.

The novel had a Resurgence in the mid 1960s with the release of the Broadway show The Man from La Mancha. This Broadway musical further embedded the story of Don Quixote into our public consciousness with notable songs such as To Dream The Impossible Dream.

This musical came about shortly after the time of the Kennedy administration (although a television play was broadcast in 1959).  In a way it was reminiscent of an earlier musical from 1960, Camelot, which also made much of chivalry and knights of the round table.  In fact, president  Kennedy went to see the musical on Broadway at the time. The Kennedy administration was often referred to as "Camelot" as it was felt that is administration represented the type of idealism represented in the musical Camelot - and later, Don Quixote.

The story has resonated with many Americans.   Author John Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse, in his novel Travels With Charley (which according to some of his literary heirs is indeed a novel, as much of the narrative of his travels was apparently made-up or sensationalized).   We have seen this name adorning more than one RV or boat in our travels.   Many folks, it seems, identify with the romantic notions of Don Quixote - even if Cervantes was in fact mocking such stereotypes.

Many people, who have not who have not actually read the book but maybe have seen the musical, think that the story of Don Quixote is one of a man challenging long odds to do good deeds in the name of what is right. However, I do not believe this was Cervantes' intent. Actually, he was parodying this sort of philosophy that was prevalent in the romantic novels of his time.

Since most of us don't speak fluent Spanish (and certainly not the regional dialects and slang used in the original text) and are not from Cervantes' time, we don't realize that when he wrote this book, there were a number of chivalrous romance novels - the pulp fiction of his time - celebrating the deeds of knights of derring-do.  Cervantes was parodying these stories in his book - basically making fun of the entire concept.

Imagine if you will, someone completely unfamiliar with American culture, such as someone born in China or the Soviet Union, watching the movie Airplane! for the first time.  Not having watched the number of airline disaster movies which Hollywood had produced from the 1950s until the 1980's, they might not understand the point of the story.

Airplane! was a parody, and parodies are often juvenile and base humor.  It makes fun and mocks the stereotypes of airline disaster movies, such as Zero Hour!, Airport, Airport 1975, and Airport 77 and the like, by providing the cast of stock characters including the inevitable nun with a guitar and a sick child awaiting a kidney transplant.

If you weren't aware of these earlier movies and the entire genre of airplane disaster movies, the satirical parody Airplane! might not make much sense.  Moreover, you might be tempted to take it seriously as the movie on its own merits.  This would be akin to using the movie Airplane! as an instruction manual for flying an airliner- which would totally miss the point.

In a similar manner people took Cervantes work too seriously.  They fail to realize that he was lampooning the idea of chivalry rather than celebrating it.  However, the idea of a man tilting at windmills, fighting the unbeatable foe and whatnot, seemed to resonate, first in England, and then the United States.

And perhaps these are noble thoughts. Even if it was parody, it spoke to the American spirit. The spirit of never say die, of going against long odds to succeed - our need to root for the underdog - the phrase "it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."  However, I'm not sure what Cervantes would have made of all of this.  Perhaps you would have found it quite amusing, as he had quite a sense of humor.

If you decide to read Don Quixote the question is which translation do you read? After the publication of his novel, became quite popular in Europe and a number of unauthorized (and poorly written) translations were made.  In more recent years, "scholarly" translations have been made, treating the source text with perhaps a little too much reverence.  New translations are still being written even in this Century!   Each promises to be more "definitive" that the last!

The translation I read, and it was a daunting read, was one of these more scholarly versions, complete with footnotes which accompany the text on the side of the page, much as many Bibles have. This illustrates the nature of the work - how it is become a canon in literature, as well as a philosophy. People take his words as though they were handed down from God or the works of the great philosopher, rather than the work of humorous and parodist.

Of course, there are other themes in the story.  The story of Don Quixote is a play-within-a-play (a device Shakespeare liked to use) in that the actual story is of Cervantes telling the story, while imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.

By the way, I am dictating this entry on my cell phone as I have done for some drafts of blog entries. I find it results in a lesser quality product than typing.  However it is interesting to note that both Don Quixote and quixotic were clearly understood by the voice recognition software.  This illustrates how embedded his philosophy has become our society.  If only the software would recognize ordinary words.....

Sadly, many literature classes in college campuses across the United States, as well as philosophy courses, study Cervantes in an almost religious and reverential way as promoting a particular philosophy or way of life.  However, I'm not sure he had this in mind when he wrote this piece of light comedy.

This is not to say the philosophy is flawed, only that the source is rather unexpected.  It reminds me of a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian in which Brian makes offhand comments which were then written down by acolytes as being profound statements about spiritual life.

Maybe, if we didn't have a Don Quixote or Cervantes, we would have manufactured one, much as we sort of did with the actual goods.  We wanted Cervantes to say what we wanted him to say, and we read into his literature what we wanted to hear.

Something was lost in the translation from Spanish to English.

FOOTNOTE:  It should be noted that academia pays similar reverence to novels like The Great Gatsby or anything written by Hemingway (except in far-Left institutions, where they are deemed to be "dead white men" and are ignored).

These books are read with a critical eye, with meaning sought in every word and paragraph - deep meanings that the authors may have not intended in some instances.   Treating literature like the Bible is not a good thing, I think.   Even treating the Bible like the Bible is short-sighted.

It is possible to take these things too seriously, and to read too much into a word or phrase.  And frankly, I think that was Cervantes' point!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Marble and Stone Shop

Make friends with your local stone shop, chances are they are throwing away nice chunks of granite and marble.

Back when we lived in the Big City, Mark went to work for a guy who ran a marble and granite company.  He was Italian, and if he didn't have Mafia connections, he at least intimated that he did.   He was a nice guy and since he ran a stone business, all the townhouses he was building all had marble baths and granite counter-tops.  They sold like hotcakes.

We learned a lot about the stone business.   For example, the "marble" lobbies of the law firms I was working in at the time were actually thin veneers of stone which was glued to the sheet rock.   Donald Trump loves this sort of deceit - a building that looks like solid rock but is actually a thin veneer.  Sort of says a lot about the man, don't it?

But that is how stonework is done these days - it is a form of siding, really.  They cut it into thin slabs at the quarry and then ship it to local stone shops, who cut it into wall panels or countertops and then finish and polish the edges.   It does look good, and a marble shower is nicer than a tile one only because it has far less grout to scrub and caulk.

The funny thing about the business is that small pieces of rock are not really usable.   Anything less than counter-width (about 30 inches) is thrown away.  Cutouts for sinks and the like are thrown away.   For the astute scavenger, this can be a treasure trove.

As I noted in an earlier posting, we had a granite top made for a piece of furniture that was pretty, but had a shitty oak top that was warped.   We took that top off and replaced it with a scrap piece of granite (cut and polished for $60) and suddenly, it is a new piece of furniture!

Our fireplace was looking a little sad, with a brick hearth that was stained from years of use.   We had a scrap piece cut to fit, and laid leveling compound on the bricks ($20 a bag from Lowe's) and now the fireplace looks sharp!

The new granite hearth looks great, even if the dog photo-bombed it.

This is not the first time we've done this, however.  A cheap set of IKEA cabinets looked like a million bucks when our stone friend cut up some scrap pieces from an office building lobby installation job.   Small pieces of granite or marble, often thrown away as trash, can be cut and fit to cover end tables and outdoor side tables (it is, after all, waterproof).

If you are a sculptor (but then again, no) such scrap pieces can be cut and beveled and made into a base for your sculptures (as I did in Prep school).  There is so much you can do with this stuff.

And they throw it out by the dumpster-load.  On a recent visit to a stone shop we found two dumpsters out back, as the owner was tired of having "all this scrap stone around" and threw it all away.  We were there for hours, picking out good pieces.

Get to know your local stone shop.   You can find real bargains there, if you are not looking for a complete counter-top set or a marble shower enclosure.   Small pieces of stone can be had for cheap, and they can make the ordinary look extraordinary!

Is Wealth Evil?

Is wealth itself evil?  There are a surprising number of Americans who would say, "Yes"!

A friend of mine on the island is a far-left Liberal.   Nothing wrong with being liberal, of course, until you take it to wacky extremes, or let mantras and political slogans replace logical thinking.   This goes for you wacky conservatives out there, too!  Both are people who believe in simple solutions to complex problems.

Anyway, they routinely decry wealth as being evil and barf-up the stuff they hear in the news about how "evil" the "1%"er's are and how millionaires are bad people.

"So," I said, "you hate yourself, then?"

"What do you mean!" they replied, "I'm no millionaire!  I'm no 1%'er!"

Oh, but they were.   Since both husband and spouse had government pensions, they were pulling in over six figures annually just in pension income.  When I pointed out that the equivalent investment to support such an income stream (using the 4% or 5% rule) would be well over two million dollars they simply refused to believe it.

It takes surprisingly little money or income to be in the top percentile of income in this country, which is more of an illustration of how even our incomes are than how uneven they are.  Our highest tax bracket in this country is around 40% and applies to people with incomes of $400,000 and higher.   The income tax brackets are, if you look at it, crowded along the lower end of the spectrum.   People making millions (if not hundreds of millions) a year theoretically pay the same rate as a moderately successful Dentist (but in reality pay less). 

But of course, there is a big difference between someone living comfortably and someone awash in a sea of money.   Someone making a hundred grand a year might have a nice car or a nice house but they are not players in the world market.   People who have hundreds of millions or billions (thousands of millions) of dollars are in another class entirely - and by the way, they are not paying in the 40% tax bracket.

Is such an "obscene" amount of wealth evil?   Well, think about what it means to have that much money.   Sure, it means you can own a house on the Mediterranean and a 200-foot yacht as well as a condo in a high-rise in Manhattan.   And yea, it means you have an army of staff or hired help to maintain it all.   But beyond a certain point, you can't spend the money fast enough to spend it all in your lifetime.   You have dynastic wealth, which in and of itself can be a full-time job.

For starters, you generally don't acquire or keep such a level of wealth merely by spending it or by putting it under a mattress or in a savings account.   You have to manage wealth and invest - which is likely how you got to be wealthy in the first place.   These hundreds of millions or billions are not sitting around in the Scrooge McDuck Money Vault, but are invested in various enterprises, stocks, bonds, and whatnot.  In fact, your "net worth" - like anyone else's - exists only on paper.   Your money is tied up in investments, not sitting around for you to spend.

And this is a bad thing because...?   Even from the spending side, when a billionaire buys a new watch, they end up creating jobs for a watchmaker, which is likely a big company with many employees.   These employees in turn own cars and houses that require the hiring of other people, which in turn requires hiring of other people and so on.   The selection of a watch for $50,000 may seem "wasteful" to most of us (who quite frankly could not tell such a watch from a $10 Wal-Mart knock-off, or frankly even care.) but in reality it is just a buying decision like any other that sets of a chain of events that drives our economy.  One guy buying a $50,000 watch or 1000 guys buying $50 watches - the net effect to the economy is the same.  And who the hell wears a watch anymore - other that people showing off wealth?

The argument is often made, on the far-Left, that we should "redistribute the wealth" by taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor.   Worse yet, they often argue that good and noble things should be dismantled and the money given to homeless people.   The money spent on the moon landing would have fed millions of homeless people!   Perhaps true, but then we wouldn't have landed on the moon, and our homeless are the fattest in the world already.

Liberals like to toss around the quote that a "society should be judged based on how it treats its weakest members" - which it attributed to Pearl S. Buck, the Pope, Hubert Humphrey, Gandhi, Jimmy Carter, or Nelson Mandela, depending on which website you are reading it on.   Like so much else, however, it was either misquoted or mis-attributed.  But let's face it, if you are an unemployed pot-smoking bum, it is a fine sentiment!   And that is the sort of folks who trot out this quote time and time again.   Society owes us is the basic premise.

Maybe this represents a noble sentiment,  but it is one that can be taken to extremes.   Merely throwing money at poor people - an idea still being seriously considered in places like Finland isn't going to make them wealthier.  Poverty isn't about the balance in your bank account, but the attitude in your brain - as lottery winners routinely demonstrate.  The problem with this model is not that it won't actually help some people improve their lives, but that if taken to extremes, will damage society as a whole.

Taking away the incentive to exceed - yes, even the incentive to exceed at obscene levels - removes the incentive to greatness.   We've seen firsthand what happens in Communist societies where "everyone is equal".   First of all there are still some folks who are "more equal than others" and not based on the merits of their achievements, but on their connections and their ability to brutally cling to power.   The rest of society lives like serfs, not rewarded for innovation or achievement, and not punished for lack of either.  It is a dull, dreary and fear-filled existence.   It is merely existence.

People living in such countries looked enviously at the West, with its cornucopia of consumer goods and foods, as well as outlandish behaviors, arts and culture.  The incentive to innovate pushes people and companies to come up with new ideas and new products.   A restaurant in the West cannot survive by merely providing bread and water - it must cater to the needs and demands of customers.  If it succeeds, it becomes wildly successful.  If it fails, it goes bankrupt and people lose everything.

And yes, this means we end up with "successful" restaurants like McDonald's, which serves unhealthy overpriced meals that have the texture of a soft sponge and inoffensive taste.   This is what is wildly popular with a lot of the country - hence the success of the chain.   If you don't like the food, don't go there.  But to decry it as an "excess of capitalism" based on your personal taste preferences is idiotic.

Poverty is not caused by wealthy people taking away money from the poor, but rather by the poor handing over their hard-earned cash to the wealthy.   National People's Radio recently ran a series on how owners of trailer parks are screwing their tenants.   This should be a surprise to anyone?   Trailer parks are one of those shitty deals offered to the poor - a raw deal you should be able to dissect while driving by the park a quarter-mile away at 60 miles an hour.

As I noted in another posting, it is a pretty dumb proposition.  You buy a trailer home (which is worth nothing, yet they pay thousands for them) and then pay "rent" in a trailer park.   Over time, either the place gets so run down as to be unlivable, or the rents go through the roof, or both, and your only recourse is to walk away from the $10,000 you have "invested" in a trailer.  (And yes, NPR calls owning a trailer, "The American Dream of Home Ownership" as opposed to "a place to crash").

The point is, the wealthy got rich not from "ripping off" the poor, but because the poor were dumb enough to think this was some sort of bargain.   They wanted a trailer rather than an apartment (which you can move out of on 30 days notice) because they wanted to keep a bad-ass dog and a wrecked Camaro in the weed-filled "lot" their trailer was parked on.  Or maybe because they've wrecked their credit so badly they can't find a landlord who will take them.  They didn't do the math on this, and thought it was some sort of bargain, which is was - a bad bargain.

Until people stop snapping up shitty bargains, there will always be disparity of income and wealth (and there is a difference between the two) in this country.

If the "masses" really want to "rise up against oppression" they need not gather pitchforks and torches and march on Wall Street.   Rather, they merely need to call their cable company and disconnect.  Call the cell phone company and disconnect.   Stop leasing cars and buying crap.  Once you stop giving your money to the wealthy, they cease to be wealthy.

And frankly, that is the only thing the wealthy are really are scared of - that some day people will wake up and figure out that they don't need to bite on shitty deals.

(Wacky Liberals chime in here:  "But they don't have a choice!"  We all have choices, and no, buying lottery tickets and getting payday loans are not things you have to do in life).

Read the Fine Print? Don't Bother!

People love to say things like "be sure to read the fine print!" - but why bother?

Counter-intuitive advice always sells.   So here is some for you.   When you see some sort of contract or deal or advertised special with lots of fine print, don't waste your time reading it.

Instead, just walk away from the deal.

That's right.  It is as simple as that.  If someone puts acres of language in 4-point type (usually in red for some reason - I think to make it harder to read) odds are they are screwing you.

Do you really think that terms in a contract that are advantageous to you are going to appear in teeny-tiny print?  Of course not.

They put things in "fine print" for a reason - it is stuff they don't want you to read because it likely would scare you off from signing.

One thing I am learning over the last decade is that shitty financial deals really aren't that hard to spot.   And yet, on the Internet, "financial blogs" like to play the opposite game - read the fine print, take the deal, try to "steal the cheese" and come out ahead by playing someone else's game where they set all the rules.

Let me know how that works out.

The deal is, you can spot shitty deals a mile away just by the way they are presented.   Just about everything advertised on television, for example is a shitty deal.   A new prescription drug will set you free from Compulsive Farting Disorder (CFD) but sadly, the side-effects (read in a monotone at a compressed breakneck speed at the end of the ad) include massive hemorrhaging though your ears. I'd say that's worth the trade-off, wouldn't you?

That's why I say, just walk away from television - the broadcast and cable kind.   Any kind of ad is by its nature, deceptive, and if you buy something based on advertising, you should expect to be screwed.  Whether it is magazine or newspaper ads, or billboards - or even a cardboard sign on a telephone pole that promises you weight loss or wealth without work - odds are it is a screw-job.  And it goes without saying that subliminal ads - product placements for example - are the worst.   Well, right up there with creepy Internet ads that read your e-mails and Facebook postings and then pitch similar products to you.

But there are other ways to spot raw deals for 1,000 yards away.   Anything pitched to the poor is suspect.   If you cruise through the ghetto, you see raw deals abound.   Liquor stores sell pints of cheap booze for more than I pay for a half-gallon of "the good stuff" at the wholesale club.   Buy-here, pay-here used car dealers offer crappy cars at inflated prices at outrageous interest rates.   Payday loan, title loan, and pawnshops abound - all offering crappy deals.   Storage lockers are also popular - and a waste of money when your possessions are not worth even one month's rent!

This is not to say all deals aimed at the poor suck.   You'll find good prices (although maybe not the best service!) at Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree (NOT Dollar General!) has amazing things for just a dollar.

But rich folks - or at least middle-class folks - get screwed all the time and it ain't hard to spot the bad deals aimed at them.  Anything that uses a high-pressure sales pitch is basically a shitty deal.   You go to the boat or RV show and they tell you that you can sign today on a new boat or RV - but that the day after the show ends, you won't be able to get the same price at the dealer (really? why???).   You get a card in the mail for a "free vacation" at a timeshare resort - and then are subjected to four hours of pain while you sit in an overheated conference room and are "sold" on interval ownership.

Even real estate - especially real estate - where the agent implores you to "buy now, before you are priced out of the market!"   Opportunity is knocking - they tell you - but only for so long.

Here is a clue:  The "opportunity" to buy shit for your personal use is rarely an opportunity.

The long and the short of it is that we simply don't have time in our lives to read through all the fine print and break down every financial deal to see whether maybe there some gold nugget or diamond hiding in the rough.   Odds are, there isn't, so just walk away.   You are not missing out on anything by not spending three hours analyzing the fine print on a crappy lease deal.   Cut to the chase - all lease deals are crappy.  You'll realize this the moment you go to turn the car in.

Rather than try to game the system - a system designed for fleece you, designed by people far smarter than you are - simply seek out better, rational, and transparent deals.   The odds of getting screwed are far less, and it will save you a lot of time as well.

Oh, and one other thing.  If more people did this, the marketers would have less incentive to offer shitty fine-print deals.   The reason why our society has so many raw deals out there isn't because the government fails to regulate enough but because people sign up for raw deals over and over again.

Maybe if we stopped acting like chumps, they'd stop treating us like ones!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Buying Tires - Again!

Tires are like shoes - they wear out over time.

After hitting 50,000 miles our Nissan pickup truck is ready for some maintenance.   The tensioner pulley was squeaking, so I replaced the serpentine belt and tensioner, which was a 30-minute job.   Two notes:  First, when did even-sized metric wrenches become a thing?   It used to be the 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17mm wrenches were all you needed.   Today carmakers seem enamored of the 10, 12, and 14 sizes.   Fortunately, I had a couple of combination wrenches - a socket would not fit behind the fan - so it wasn't too hard a job - just tedious.   Second, installing a serpentine belt isn't hard, it is just like wrestling a snake.  You need four hands in tiny crowded spaces.

The tires are running out as well.  Tires are like a roll of toilet paper or scotch tape - as you drive you leave a thin film of rubber behind you, so eventually you "unwind" your tires, leaving the largely useless core.   Tires also age and crack - usually after about five years.   And if you don't rotate them (or even if you do) they can develop wear patterns that cause them to be noisy.  I suppose I could get another 5,000 miles - or even 10,000 miles out of them (we have no motor vehicle inspection in Georgia) but that would be dicey and unsafe.

The question is, what tires to replace them with?  As I noted before, my philosophy is that if you are happy with the tires that came on the car, get the same make, model and size.   Switching to cheaper tires is often a false economy as they can be noisy or ride poorly.   For example, the B.F. Goodrich "Long Trail" P265/70R16 tire (a size getting harder to come by already!  17"  seems to be the thing now) weighs about 29 pounds and costs $148.   A cheaper Uniroyal tire for $125 sounds like a bargain, until you see that it weighs a whopping 40 pounds.

Automotive handling is a function of unsprung weight - the weight of the suspension not carried by the car springs.   So the heavier your brakes, rims, and tires, the worse the car will handle.    I don't need to mount a set of of the Uniroyals to know they won't handle as well.  Besides, I had a set on my Jeep.  They were "OK" at best.

I was very happy with the Long Trail tires, which are a highway tire with limited traction in mud or snow.  Since I don't go off-road, these will work for me.   I liked the old set, so I will replace them with the same thing.

The best way to get tires is to order them online and then have a local shop (such as Wal-Mart) mount them for you.   Local tire stores will try to sell you what they have in stock - and will use the old bait-and-switch to get you into a more expensive tire.   I went to the wholesale club, which claimed to have the tires in stock.  I got there and they claimed they could not even order them but suggested a $180 Michelin instead.   You see where this is going.  Tire stores want to sell you the right tire for your car.  And the right tire for your car just happens to be what is sitting on the shelf in the back room.   You are not getting a good price or the right tire.

The Tire Rack did not have the correct size, and oddly enough the Goodrich site said they no longer make the tire - so maybe the wholesale club guy wasn't totally bullshitting me.   Both Wal-Mart and Amazon did have the tires, though, for the exact same price, with free shipping.  I went with Amazon.   Wal-Mart also offers free "pickup" at the store, which saves you from schlepping the tires around.   I have not had a good experience with this.

A friend asked me to get a spare tire for her trailer, and I ordered one online from Wal-Mart with free pickup at the store.   I got an e-mail saying the tire was there, and I went to get it mounted on the rim.   When I got to the store, of course, no one knew anything about any old tire and please stop bothering me - that sort of thing.   I finally went to the "layaway" section and after the lady there told me time and time again there was no tire waiting for me, I nicely asked her to avert her head 15 degrees to look at the tire sitting in a shopping cart behind the counter next to her.  If it was a snake, it would have bit her.

I trust United Parcel more than the folks working behind the desk at Wal-Mart, and I don't want my tires "lost" or to spend hours running around a Wal-Mart getting into a "thing" with the employees there.  It isn't worth the hassle.

Tires, as I have noted before, have really gone up in price.  These Long Trails used to be $95 apiece not too long ago.   But I am not complaining, as the tires for my X5 were close to $300 a pop, and you don't want to know what the M Roadster tires cost!   But with tires costing so much these days - and lasting so long (50,000 miles is not unusual for a good quality set of tires) - it pays to be careful about choosing the right tire, rather than just taking what the "tire guy" at the tire store is selling.

And oh, yea, if you ask him, he will tell you he has a "better tire" than what you can get online - the "Skid King Road-Rash 2000" for less money than Internet pricing.   He is likely wrong on both counts.   He wants to make a sale, and he doesn't make a sale by telling you to go online for tires.

The two other things I want to do at the 50K mark is change the battery and the transmission fluid.   The battery is not holding a charge very well and will crank slowly if not started every few days.  It also belched acid out the top, which may be a sign of overcharging.   Batteries are not expensive - about $100 or so - and the cost and hassle of having to call a tow truck for a jump start just isn't worth it.   We want to go to Alaska - not with the old battery.

The transmission fluid should be changed, particularly since we tow with the vehicle.  And 50K actually might be too long an interval, although they use a synthetic fluid these days.   The differential fluid I already changed at the 40K mark.

Other than checking the right front wheel bearing (it is making a noise, but I think it is the brake dust shield rubbing against the rotor - an easy fix - if not, the bearings are integrated assemblies and can be swapped out with a wrench) that's really about it. 

People today like to complain about cars, but back in 1968, this car would be ready for a new exhaust system, a second set of tires, a new battery, a brake job, and maybe a few more things.  Plus the interior vinyl seats they had back then would already have rips in them.  Oh, and the rear fenders would be rusted through by now as well.   Cars were really shitty back then.   Today, they are pretty bulletproof and need little maintenance to make them go over 150,000 miles with ease.

The downside to today's cars is that parts and labor - while needed less - are more expensive.  Back in the day, a tire was like $50 at most.  Somewhere along the line, they became a major expense.