Friday, July 31, 2009

Cash for clunkers

By now you may have heard that the "Cash for Clunkers" program is broke (or not depending on who you listen to). This post is NOT about that issue. The story on that issue is not yet complete. I may post about that in a week or so when all of the facts are out.

Back about a year ago, I posted an entry about the cost of a gallon of gas (about $4 at the time). A year ago when gas was $4/gallon, I made the bold prediction that "the subject of gas prices will be quiet again." (see here).

Well, let's check into the current situation. People have criticized American automotive companies and said that they focused on trucks and SUV's. During times with high gas prices, this hurts auto sales and, according to critics, helped cause the downfall of GM, Chrysler and Ford. However, prices are down now, around $2.20 or so depending on the day. It now appears that SUV sales are back up (according to Bloomberg) and truck sales are also on the rise (see here). Maybe American car companies were focusing on the right markets after all.

Of course, you have to acknowledge that everyone wants to save gas and go green right? Well, Toyota is having a tough year just like the American companies and has decided to close a Mississippi Prius plant even before it opened (see here). In fact, Motor Trend magazine says Toyota is no long profitable in the US. Seems it's not just American cars that are hurting.

So what does this have to do with "Cash for Clunkers"? The program was initially designed to improve fuel mileage on the highways by encouraging consumers to get rid of older, less fuel efficient cars in favor of newer, more fuel efficient cars. A side benefit is that the ailing automotive market (both domestic and foreign) gets a short-term boost.

The program has been tried in other countries as well. Countries such as Slovakia, France, Germany, Spain and Italy have all unveiled a cash-for-clunkers program at various times in the last year according to this NY Times article. And the program has some history as France had a "similar incentive program ... from 1994 to 1996."

How successful will the program be? According to the same NY Times article, the "plan produced a comparable sales bump initially." Sounds great, right? Well the rest of the sentence goes on to say that the initial sales bump "was followed by a severe drop in 1997 and 1998."

So here's my prediction for 2009 and it will basically echo the prediction from 2008. Americans are less concerned about fuel efficiency than they are about the size of the vehicle (see SUV sales and truck sales above). People will trade in cars under the plan and get minimal improved gas mileage (2 mpg improvement for trucks and 4mpg improvement for cars is the minimum to get the cash). More importantly, these people will take out 4, 5 or 6 year loans to pay for these cars and find that they have trouble making the payments or making their other payments (e.g. mortgage). Next year, we'll all be worse off.

And the country will be no greener than it is today.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This animosity between the North and South...

It's unusual for me to comment on a book before I finish reading it, but in this case I just had to do so. I'm reading Nelson DeMille's story about an Vietnam War Veteran who goes back to investigate a murder that took place during the war. I'll do a full review on the story in a few days when I finish the book.

The subject line is part of a quote from the book and it struck me in that it could pertain to the struggle we in the U.S. continue to have with race. I've always thought that if the Civil War and the Reconstruction had taken place differently, race relations would be different. Maybe I take it a little to personally, but I've always felt that we Southerners unfairly get the blame for a lot of racial issues.

The book has nothing to do with race relations (or does it?) but everything to do with war. DeMille has some very colorful descriptions of battles and the characters "detective work." Bottom line, it's not a story for children.

The entire quote: "This animosity between the North and South Viets, the victor and the vanquished, went on, and it was a very complex thing, having less to do with the war, I thought, than what came after. War is simple; peace is complex."

What do you think? Does this apply to the Yankees and the Rebels?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Old dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine

For some reason this weekend, this old Tom T. Hall song entered my ADD-rattled brain and I've had trouble getting it off my mind. A quick search this morning showed me I'm not completely alone (see this lady's blog about the song and her family).

In the song, the singer stops in a hotel bar in Miami for a quick drink before bed. He sounds like he'd prefer to be alone, but someone sits down beside him and begins to talk. Man, I hate it when that happens. But the singer learns something from the visitor as he explains "Ain't but three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime..." ...wait for it... "...But old dogs and children, and watermelon wine."

Hall has many songs that I love, including his hit "I Love". Some of his songs are funny, one that my kids have heard me sing a lot is "Sneaky Snake". I also like "Faster Horses" (another song about the virtues in life, in this case "faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money").

Probably my favorite song by Hall is the simple melody "I Like Beer". But of course a paragraph on simple melodies would be incomplete without the mention of the song "That Song is Driving me Crazy" - ever get a song stuck in your head and it won't leave? - this song will stay in your head for weeks.

Rhapsody describes Tom T. Hall as "story teller, poet, philosopher." I think when I die, I'd like to be known as a philospher (it would be even better to be thought that way now - but the pay isn't what it used to be). You can read the lyrics and even listen to "Watermelon Wine" on Rhapsody's site here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Health care - who needs it?

I was probably 23 before I even thought about health care issues. I can't remember every going to a doctor as a kid, I know I had to have a physical before college. I also know I got my shots, some from the health department. I have a vivid memory of the polio shot, a lot of us were lined up in what might have been an old school (circa 1965). I went to the infirmary at school one time while in college, it was a waste of my time and the doctors' (a story for another day).

After graduating college at the ripe old age of 22, I got married. I had health coverage on my job and my wife had coverage on her job. About a year later, we decided it was time to start planning for a family, but planning didn't include insurance. When our daughter was born, we found that we had to pay her part of the hospital bill ourselves (I think it was around $2,000 -- I still have the bill somewhere).

It turns out a lot of people don't think about insurance until they start having families. And a lot of people don't want to sign up for insurance even if they think about it.

To me, that's freedom of choice. Certainly the bills are higher today than they were in 1983 when my first was born, but if a person decides to pay their own way, they should be allowed.

It concerns me that in one of the drafts of the new health care bills, people will be FORCED to have some form of insurance. They will no longer have the option to choose to pay their own way. Some Americans are all about freedom of choice, as long as you choose their way of dealing with problems.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The push for health care - our economy depends on it

I have to give our current administration the credit, they've certainly learned the way to America's pocketbook. "It's the economy stupid!" is what I've been reading between the lines the last few days.

See, President Obama keeps telling us he inherited this mess, it was worse than anyone thought and the stimulus plan is working exactly as planned (was this Plan B or Plan C?). Then he tells us the we have to have health care reform in order to save the economy.

This way, he wins either way. If health-care gets voted in, obviously he's lived up to his campaign promises (until it doesn't work - then he changes his promises). If it doesn't get voted in, well he tried. If the economy continues to go south, it's not his fault, he tried to pass health-care to fix it. Soon, the economy will be the reason we do everything.

It really bothers me the "change" I've seen in the last six months. During the campaign, abortion issues were above his paygrade. Well, he's gotten a payraise and now we are funding abortion in other countries and he's pushing for funding here. The stimulus plan was needed immediately to fix our economy, the money was going to create jobs immediately and now it's working as designed and will take a few years.

Sadly, none of this surprises me, I expected it all along. Now what's next?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Funny email response

I sent an email to an individual trying to set up a meeting for next Tuesday afternoon. The response I got said:

"Unfortunately Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I am volunteering to read to some 8-10 year olds. I felt I needed to work with some people that were properly mature for their age. I can understand tantrums from an 8 year old, it is the 30-60 year olds throwing tantrums around here that puzzle me."

I tend to agree.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mr. President, what's the rush?

* Forgot to thank Chuck for his link to the LA Times article. Thanks Chuck.

A couple of days ago, my wife asked me what the proposed healthcare bill would do to our medical coverage. The truth is, I don't know. I've heard lots about what it might do. I know that some proposed Medicare legislation will cut the payments for MRIs and "could affect the availability of MRIs and other tests particularly in rural areas." (see here) It's only logical that the same would be true of the proposed overall healthcare legislation.

I also know that the president thinks that sometimes "maybe you're better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller." He also thinks "that one way to shave medical costs is to stop expensive and ultimately futile procedures performed on people who are about to die and don't stand to gain from the extra care." (see here) While I actually agree with him on both of these fronts, I'm very sure I don't want the government involved in the decision. I also think that might be why some people pay into insurance in the first place, so they can have expensive life saving treatment when they need it.

But what scares me the most about the locomotive pushing its way through congress, is the need for speed. Why is it that this bill must be pushed through? If the health care bill is important (and it is), it's important to do it right. Instead, many in congress have laughed at the idea of actually reading the bill they will be voting on.

Take for example, Congressman Hoyer from Maryland. He said he's "laughing because ...(he doesn't) know how long this bill is going to be, but it’s going to be a very long bill." (see here). I also heard that the leaders of both houses of congress have said they won't read the bills, but I could not confirm those reports.

The last time a bill was pushed this hard, we ended up with the so-called-stimulus package. That bill wasn't read by most members of congress either. There are several organizations that are suggesting congress should actually know what it's voting for - "Let Freedom Ring is a conservative backed site that is attempting to get our representatives to read the bill before they vote on it. Backed by liberal organizations, is pushing the same thing." (reference here)

I also think that we, you and I regular people, should have a chance to read the bill. We should know what our representatives know (or in this case, what they don't know). We should be able to examine the pros and cons and we should advise them on how we feel, so they can make the hopefully-intelligent decisions we have sent them to make.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jupiter Struck by Object, NASA Images Confirm

This article confirms that the planet Jupiter has been struck by a comet or an asteroid. You may think "so what, I'm not moving to Jupiter anytime soon and I don't know anyone who lives there."

But what if the comet or asteroid had hit the earth? Well, it would have been a very bad thing. All you have to do is watch the movies, like Deep Impact, Asteroid, or any Saturday afternoon B movie to understand.

Thankfully, our solar system has a couple of big planets out there that act as magnets to attract comets and asteroids. I mean, think of it this way, if you were aiming at planets, would you rather aim at a big target like Jupiter, or a small target like Earth?

So, we all can be thankful that Jupiter is out there. You know, when you think about it, it's almost like someone designed it that way :)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Great War: American Front - Book Review

The cover declares this book is "the definitive alternate history saga of its time." I have to agree. Harry Turtledove does his expected excellent job of telling a story that could be from a parallel universe. It's history, but not the way you remembered it.

At the beginning of the book, Turtledove sets the tone. It's near the end of the Civil War, but things have not gone well for Lincoln's USA. In fact, they have lost the war. The middle part of the North American continent is split into two nations, USA and CSA. The story line jumps to 1914 and the outbreak of The Great War. But the alliances aren't what you would expect. The Confederate States are joined by England and France. Which means that the USA allies with Germany.

The American Front details the battles between the USA and Canada and between the USA and CSA. President Roosevelt (Teddy) is guiding the USA, while President Woodrow Wilson guides the CSA. Slavery has ended long ago, but blacks are treated poorly in both nations. Armies discover machine guns, tanks, and chlorine gas. Trench warfare breaks out in Virginia, Kentucky and Utah.

Not only are there strange international alliances, there are a couple of intra-national alliances (or at least intra-continental). The Mormons of Utah originally were part of the USA, but they rebelled and tried to secede. Some Indian nations also sided with the CSA and fought against the USA.

Turtledove moves from the USA front lines to the Canadian, then to the CSA, then back again. You look at the war from the view of the soldiers, the workers in the steel mill, plantation owner and plantation workers. Socialism is about to break out and you see the war from a socialist's view.

A good bit of the book deals with the way blacks are treated. There's a lot of foreshadowing to indicate that the next book will focus on this issue as well. It's clear from this and other Turtledove books he believes that part of the reason for the Civil War was States' rights. But he also acknowledges the fact that slavery played a major part and shows that the problems didn't end in 1865.

I was very impressed with the book and have just ordered (thanks to my wife) the sequel and the third book in the series. Race relations have been on my mind a lot recently and all the political talk about socialism from the right wing feeds right into the story line. The book isn't negative on any of this, the reader is left to determine the impact.

Some of the language used in the book will probably offend a great many people. Words that were commonly (but rudely) used in the 1915 time period are used throughout the book. Being set in the middle of a war, there is a lot of profanity as you might expect. And there are some scenes described that would probably warrant keeping kids away (both for sex and violence).

My favorite quote from the book is a real quote from Vegetius of the Roman Empire "Let him who desires peace prepare for war."
I highly recommend the book.

$2000 Light Bulb - now free?

A couple of years ago, I posted an entry about a $2000 light bulb. The problem was that California was trying to mandate use of CFLs (I'm not sure if they ever succeeded) and the cleanup from dropping/breaking a bulb could cost as much as $2000.

Thankfully, things have gotten better. There's an EPA procedure for cleaning the bulbs up, documented in this PDF. I won't say it's easy, but it's doable. I remember as a kid, we used to break thermometers and let the mercury roll around in our hand, so the mercury in these new bulbs can't be that bad. I still believe in freedom and that market demands should dictate what bulb you choose to use.

Which brings me up to today, or actually yesterday. On a trip to my favorite toy store, Lowe's*, I saw a display of CFL's. I had seen the display before, but this time I looked carefully. You get seven 60-watt equivalent bulbs for $10. The box claims that the bulbs will save you $329 over the life of the bulbs. That's for all seven bulbs, over nine years, so it saves just over $5 per year or 43cents per month. Can you tell a difference of 43 cents in your electric bill?

In my book, these "typical savings" numbers are never enough to make my jump on the new product, but a little more analysis helped in this case. First of all, 7 bulbs for $10 is a reasonable price. Saving me the hassle of changing bulbs every few months is worth something. And long term savings is always good, even if you never notice the savings.

But the best news (pay attention now) is the bulbs come with a $10 coupon off your next purchase at Lowe's (for $50 or more). This effectively makes the pack of bulbs free. So, I spend $10 today, get light bulbs that save me 43cents a month, save the hassle of frequent changes and get the $10 back? This makes it an easy decision.

I just wish I could get some sort of sticker on the bulbs that say "I'm a capitalist, not an environmentalist" (with apologies to Star Trek fans) to explain why I'm buying CFL's.

* Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I'd like to note that Lowe's is one of my customers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How much is that pack of cigarettes - Part 2

Back in May a year ago, I posted this entry about the cost of a pack of cigarettes. I showed how a pack a day, started at age 15 continued until retirement could cost you up to $1.6 MILLION.

Turns out, I may have UNDERestimated. This story, tells about a man who used his debit card to buy a pack and was charged slightly over 23 QUADRILLION dollars. Well, actually it was 148 trillion over, but what's a few trillion when you get that high?

After a while, he was able to convince Bank of America that this was an error and they resolved the problem. But it makes me wonder, how many packs could he have purchased for that much?

I heard this story on the radio today, then captured the link from Adam. Thanks Adam! Guess it's time to redo my spreadsheet.

At least we can be thankful that the debt hasn't climbed that high yet.

Let's go surfing now, everybody's learning how

No, I'm not talking about that kind of surfing, I'm talking about internet surfing and I have a question for you: When you're surfing the web, where do you surf? While I'd like to be surfing the big waves off Maui, it seems that most web surfers prefer Facebook. According to this article, more time is spent on Facebook than any other site.

The article gives a lot of boring statistics (especially for us surfer dudes), the only interesting stat being that the average person spent just over 4.5 hours on the site in June.

Hulu made the list of most visitors to a site, which I think is neat when you think about Maui, Hulu and surfing (or is that hula?). Seems a lot of people are watching old TV shows on the web instead of Nikelodeon. MySpace is getting edged out by Facebook as anyone with teenagers and young adults know.

But I have to question, what do you do for 4.5 hours on Facebook? I go there, check my messages, and go somewhere else. I visit my Google personalized webpage a LOT and read news articles, check my email, etc.

So the question of the day is, where do you surf? How much time do you spend on any one website (or family of websites)?

P.S. For the record, that is not me in the picture, I'm much more buff, dude.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What is your level of immaturity?

The other day, I was reminded of an event from my childhood. For several years in a row Mr. Patterson was my Training Union teach (training union is an old Baptist thing, probably doesn't exist any more). Mr. Patterson tried to teach a group of boys age 10 or so a little bit about the Bible and how it fits into life.

The problem was that this group of boys was a little rambunctious. And no one wanted to take over. So each year as we got older, Mr. Patterson moved up with us. He was probably the only one who could manage us.

At the end of each year, Mr. Patterson held a party at his house. He had a pool in the back yard and we'd swim, eat burgers and do what boys do - make a lot of noise. Mr. Patterson filmed all of this on his trusty 8mm home camera (with no sound). Of course, this film had to be developed (no VCR's back then), so we couldn't watch it immediately, but we could watch the film from the previous year.

My single recollection of these films is remembering how silly (immature) we seemed the year before. "Man," we thought, "look at the ridiculous things we did last year." Of course we still did those things and the next year was exactly the same.

I recalled all of this when I heard a young adult talking about how immature a teenager seemed. "Man," they thought, "look at the ridiculous things they do. We used to do that." Pretty much the same attitude I had back when I was a kid.

As they said this, I thought how immature this young adult was and how they had so much to learn. Then it occurred to me, how immature am I now? My mother probably realizes that in 20 or 30 more years, I'm going to understand so much more about life.

I'm not sure any of us can see our own immaturity. I've decided that I'm going to (try to) stop pointing out this in others, they'll grown into their situation and in a few years think "Man, look at the ridiculous things we did last year."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Profit in healthcare

You may have heard that the health care industry is stepping up to the newest health care plan working its way through congress. This article says that the drug companies were first to step up by giving up $80Billion and now hospitals are stepping up to accepting $155 in cuts. The reason they are willing to give this up (according to the article) is that "they're trying stave off a much bigger hit if the government sets up a public health insurance plan that pays them according to the relatively stingy fee schedule of Medicare."
So they see this as the least offensive option. But my question is, where will the cuts come from? Now I'm the first to say that hospitals charge very expensive rates. They routinely discount their rates 50% or more for insurance companies and my recent experience with some self-paid bills indicate that an individual can get the same discounts.
So these new cuts must be in addition. But what are they going to cut out? Just the "overhead"? Well, even if that's true, "overhead" results in jobs. In moving all records to electronic records, some paper pusher will lose a job. But my concern isn't just for paper pushers, it's for the other jobs. The person who cleans the rooms, the person who prepares the meals, and (most importantly) the nurses, doctors, aides, etc.
If profits are good (as I stipulated last month here), then profit in health care is good. And cutting that profit means job losses and (more scarily) potentially cuts in service.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Michael Jackson takes on the world

I've decided that Osama Bin Laden was right, America is a paper tiger. For the last several days, America has been focused on the death of Michael Jackson. All this while we have an economy that needs attention, a president engaging in foreign policy with (IMHO) our number 1 enemy (Russia), a continuing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc. etc.

Some would blame the news media for this fiasco. I don't. Personally, I don't believe the media is in conspiracy to destroy the US. I think the media is as capitalistic as they come, they will put in the news whatever they think the consumers want.

Instead, I blame you and me. We need to turn off Entertainment Tonight and get our news from legitimate news sources, not tabloids. We need to tell the newscasters were more interested in the price of tea in China (literally) than in who is shacking up with Brittney Spears.

The media attention around the Michael Jackson mess amazes me.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Gaffney serial killer is caught

Gaffney, SC is a small town best known for it's peach water tower, a symbol of the peach orchards in the area. Some have said the peach resembles the back-end of a woman bending over. In addition to the peach orchards, Gaffney, population around 13,000 is also home to Limestone College, a small "private, Christian, non-denominational, coeducational liberal arts college."

Recently, Gaffney has been terrorized by a serial killer who has murdered five people in three separate incidents. There has been no known connection between these people and no pattern. Yesterday, the suspect was killed in nearby Gaston County, NC after a shoot-out with police.

My family has two separate connections to Gaffney, about 50 miles away from my back door. My daughter-in-law's family lives in Gaffney and her mother works at Limestone College. They have lived in Gaffney their entire life. Additionally, my son-in-law's parents attended Limestone back before they were married. The town of Gaffney has been hit hard with this incident and they are all glad it's over.

Much will come out about the individual who committed these crimes. 41 year old Patrick Burris. During a press conference last night, SLED investigators waved a 25 page rap sheet - asking for an explanation as to why this man was on the streets. When captured, Burris was in the company of a couple - what is their role in this mess? Where has Burris been the last two weeks and what led him to Gaffney (he was caught about 30 miles away) to commit these murders?

There will be more research into all of this and I, for one, am interested in the answers. But for now, this saga is over and Gaffney can return to its peaceful nature again.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Mars & Venus for dummies

I said in my last post that I had trouble understanding the Mars & Venus thing. Once I realized that this was talking about men & women and not about planets, I was in even more trouble. But it seems like Governor Mark Sanford understands even less about the subject, so I figured I could help him out a little.

First, if you're hiding a relationship with an Argentinan mistress and you keep emails lying around, don't send your wife in to look for financial documents. Yep, Sanford sent his wife into his office and she found out about his affair. He had to confess and blow up the whole thing. It's almost like he wanted to get caught.

Second, once caught, don't ask permission from your wife to go see your mistress. Somehow, this seems obvious, but it must've gone over his head. The governor asked several times over the last few months if he could go see his sweetheart again. Maybe he was absent on the day they covered this in Cheaters 101 during his college days, you just don't do it. That's what cutting class will get you. I can just hear the conversation - "can I please just see her, just this once? I promise, we just need to talk." Yeah, right. Just talk.

Third, and this is important, if you're trying to make things up with your wife - especially if she seems agreeable to the idea - don't call someone else your soul mate. Now this is certainly one of those mars/venus things, but women tend to be a little jealous. Saying something like this is almost as bad as saying something like "yeah, she could lose a couple pounds" or "she doesn't look half bad once she puts the makeup on."

Now I should quickly point out that none of this comes from first hand knowledge. I did not attend Cheaters 101 class while in college (nor at anytime since) and didn't even sign up for it. My wife is very understanding, but has let me know in no uncertain terms what would happen if this ever became an issue with us (it's a scary story). And most importantly, I have NO DESIRE to find out what "the other side of the fence" is like (and the fear factor helps). My side of the fence is quite nice thank you.

But it sure seems the governor could learn a couple of lessons.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

And now the hard part

I've made the last two posts notes to my sons/daughters/-in-laws, with some directions on how they should treat their marriages. And now comes the hard part... living it on a day-to-day basis.

When I first got married, I naively was looking forward to the day when I could coast. Looking for that day when everything was safe. Once past that day, I wouldn't have to work to protect my marriage and I would know that my marriage would be safe forever and ever, amen.

Of course that's one of those fleeting thoughts and as soon as you express it, you realize how silly it is. No, you realize, you're going to have to work each day to prove your love to your spouse, to protect your heart from those that would steal it. You're going to have to show her each day that she made the right choice when she said "I do."

But then, I realized there's two simple reasons not to fear this continued work. First, it's not that hard. Watch your heart, don't get into situations that create an opportunity for problems. Listen to her (or him for the ladies) daily, actually care about what's going on in their life.

Second, the benefits of working on your marriage daily are fabulous. So while this is the hard part, in many ways, it's the easy part too.