The Tank

My truck died and we had two days to make a decision and $5000 that we could scrape together as cash for a down payment. And here is what happened:

1. We went to Ford Dealership A to look at their used cars and this was a terrible experience. Their vehicles were in such phenomenally poor condition we couldn’t believe they were selling them. The salesman was not interested in selling us a vehicle. He kept wandering off to do other things. We left after an hour but this was after we sat in a 2005 Ford Freestyle and we talked about how much we wanted a Subaru Outback but couldn’t find one used (they are impossible to find used in any condition) but we started seriously thinking about an SUV wagon.

2. We went to Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Annapolis where they were having a liquidation sale. Turns out the car dealerships are backed up with leased vehicles with leases that came up and now they cannot move. This is the dealership my super picky parents use for local service so we figured they might not be too sleazy. We drove a 2009 Mercury Mariner and a 2007 Ford Freestyle, but the Mariner was sadly out of our price range. The Freestyle drove pretty well and we went home to research it.

3. I found out that Ford doesn’t make the Freestyle any more but it won Truck of the Year 2007, had positive reviews, a decent review from Edmunds, a “Recommended” review from Consumer Guide Auto, and some other positive reviews. The 2005 model clearly had mechanical/design issues but I found far fewer issues with the 2007. Does it mean that simply no one owns one? I have no idea.

Of course for crossover vehicle of the same year there was the Saturn we cannot buy from Saturn being discontinued, the Chrysler we cannot buy from Chrysler going tit’s up, Pontiac and Buick are GM vehicles and who KNOWS about GM, the Toyota we cannot buy because Toyotas are deathtraps, the Subarus that are not for sale anywhere…. We sat in a 2007 Nissan Murano and hated it. We cannot afford Lexus or Mercedes. We could have looked at a Honda Pilot had we had more time and could find one used (you can’t). And as a Detroiter I would have to go through some convincing to buy a Honda despite the stellar reviews. Thus pickings are a little slim.

4. We went to Carmax this morning and Carmax is a miserable experience for anyone who has any knowledge or care or interest in their vehicles. At first they would only talk to Eric. Then they talked to me like I was Katie except with a very small brain. Then they were… it’s like the stupid Walmart of used cars. I drove a 2007 Escape and, to be honest, it was identical to my dead truck in every conceivable way. But I hated Carmax with a flinching vengeance. If the vehicle has flaws, they would be sure to mask them. Or not care. Look, just don’t go to Carmax.

5. We went back to the Lincoln-Mercury dealership and bought the Freestyle. It had a super high carfax score so someone took exquisite care of it. It didn’t seem to have any issues except a busted fob. We got ridiculous financing with a below the national rate.

In the end, we ended up with a 2007 Ford Freestyle, a vehicle no one has ever heard about and has been folded into the new Ford Edge line. It’s a Volvo XC90 chassis and engine with the Ford name slapped on it. It’s not really an SUV but it’s not a station wagon. It’s a crossover vehicle. Research shows complaints about some issues with the vehicle’s design so we’ll see what comes of it. We might have made a terrible decision but, hey, we also got an extra $4K knocked off the price so if we made a terrible decision we did it as cheaply as conceivably possible. It also feels like driving a tank.

If I had more time I would have saved money for the Mariner. Or had enough to put down on a Subaru. But a new Outback was out of my range so we did the best we could.

No Post Thursday

I didn’t post today. But I have an excuse: the highlight of the day was a neighbor’s house being lit, quite literally, on fire. Honestly. On top of everything else, the neighbor’s house caught on fire.

My poor truck is dead. It blew the head gasket which, for anyone who lives by the SE Michigan “it must die on 275” rules, is the death knell of a vehicle. That’s vehicle terminal cancer. The guys at Starting Gate really wanted to rebuild the engine for $6000 which meant $6000 on a credit card at credit card rates instead of a quasi-new, sanely financed vehicle at 4%. They weren’t happy with my decision to not rebuild the engine but I can get a vehicle hardly used with a chunk down and financed at a manageable monthly rate. It’s not their work I worried about — it’s the credit card. I haven’t put that much on a credit card since my wedding. No way. I was not going to have Chase Card Services own my soul.

It pisses me off royally that I tossed $2300 down the drain on my truck thinking I could fix the damn thing but I’m not throwing another $6000 on it. I have a little kid. I cannot place my bets on a rebuilt engine. That’s madness.

So I will call Carmax and have them drive down my new truck from Ellicott City tomorrow morning and I will buy it on Saturday morning. I already have a sales person and I know who I want to use for financing. And on the recommendations of many people I will be forgoing their crappy extended warranty. I will get like $200 for my truck.

This all blows not just because it caps off a terrible week but because I wasn’t ready to absorb a new car payment. But these things happen and we’ll put down a huge chunk of cash for the down payment and get off with something low and I will consider myself lucky.

Blech. This week needs to die in fire.

More Olympics!

After the Worst Day Ever ™ yesterday, I settled in with a glass of Maker’s Mark — I was informed it is bourbon and not whiskey — to watch some Olympics stream online. I would watch it all on the TV except the TV was hosting Burn Notice, and one does not interfere with Burn Notice. Two points of great import:

A. Olympic hockey is the best hockey in the world and one of the few cases where the Olympic sport is better than the regular professional sport. It beats (just barely) the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Take the very best players from the very best hockey countries in the world and pit them against each other when they are rested and ready to go. This week’s games are hot and exciting. If you haven’t been watching Olympic hockey, watch the games this week in the run up to Sunday’s Gold Medal game.  Seriously.*

B. I watched several hours of Ice Dancing last night. This is the stupidest sport in existence and I watch curling obsessively — even when it isn’t the Olympics, so I know about stupid sports. The regular figure skating is cool because those people do things I cannot even imagine doing myself but a generic tango? They sort of skate in a circle and waggle their arms around for a minute and a half.

As advertised, the Russian free skate Aboriginal costumes truly were terrible even without the black face. That skate was better than the Generic Bland “Country Western Skate” that half the countries put up, and more interesting, but it was goofy and bizarre and… I have nothing. I did like the US team with their Bollywood skate. I know who already won but I haven’t watched the last round yet. I might/might not. If there’s hockey to watch, I’ll watch that instead.

Men’s Figure Skating was a throw down. Ice dancing was… so very blah. Bring on the Women’s Figure Skating so I can watch it with Katie.

* If, for some reason you don’t like hockey… there’s help for you at the International Hockey Conversion Center. We’ll get you help.

Winter Olympics

I got completely hooked on the Winter Olympics in Vancouver over the weekend. I owe this to NBC’s confusing but highly comprehensive site full of video replays and live streaming. Normally I get frustrated with the coverage — too many sob stories and too few events, too much if a USA focus, not enough death and dismemberment. I get through about a day of coverage and I walk away. However, with the online coverage I get sports I usually never would see, all of the qualifying and medaling races if the US is involved or not, and much less pablum.

I have watched snowboarding, skeleton, ski cross, slalom, high jump, curling, hockey, figure skating, and more curling. I have watched so much curling I may actually be getting toxic on curling. A few comments:

– If you have not watched Shaun White’s two runs on the snowboard half-pipe, you should watch his two runs down the snowboard half-pipe. If you watch nothing else, you should watch him get his gold medal. I’m not certain what a 1260 McTwist is but it is a thing to behold.

Ski Cross is the world’s most bizarre sport, a strange combination between skiing, snowboarding and motocross. I have been obsessively watching clips. The best one was where one guy — the French guy I think? — wiped out so bad he ended up in the hospital. This bolsters my belief that the Winter Olympics are based on drunken bar bets. “Yeah lets go do this horrible thing on skis.” “SOUNDS GREAT!”

Skeleton involves laying face-first on an ice skate and going down a mountain at 90mph. Why wouldn’t you watch this?

– The Russian guy was not robbed of a gold in figure skating. The US guy was better, and I’m not saying this in a ra-ra USA USA tone. I am saying this as someone who watched them back to back and the US guy was better. Also, Johnny Weir’s routine was too simple to qualify for a medal.

– Pairs ice dancing is boring.

– The Canadian women’s curling team is amazing. All the rest of the curling teams are made up of the four people in that country who had once looked “curling” up on wikipedia. That includes the US teams who are awful. Hilariously, the hockey fans were getting bored of blowouts in the qualifying rounds so they were coming over to rabble-rouse over at curling and the International Curling Federation was getting miffed.

– The US-Canada Hockey game last night was hard core!!!! WOOOOO! It wasn’t even the medal game! All these people who want to purge the Olympic hockey back to amateurs only are so wrong. Hockey players season over time. College hockey looks nothing like that game last night.

Piano

For Christmas I bought a Yamaha Clavinova CLP digital piano from Jordan Kitt’s Music in College Park, MD. It is not the sexiest digital piano ever conceived but it has 88 gravity-weighted touch-sensitive keys, an excellent fully sampled grand piano sound and, most importantly, a headphone jack for silent playing. And while it doesn’t hold up to an actual grand, it feels much better than a plastic synthesizer with spring-loaded keys.

Mostly I bought the piano for Katie because I have this idea in my head that Katie’s life will be much richer if she has music hardwired in her brain. But I decided, what the hell, I would learn how to play, too, simply from constant practice and staring at the little numbers on the sheet music for hints where to put my hands.

I can read music (treble and bass clef) fine. I have a head full of music theory. I understand how music is built. I don’t need books and videos full of “this is middle C.” I need to just play — scales, hand strengthening exercises, easy to intermediate pieces. Scale runs up and down the keyboard with my left hand. I bought a book full of technique (keep the thumb in, how to go up and down scales in 3-4-3 formation, wrists up, proper posture, how to stretch with thumb or pinky for the leap) and another book full of “Early Intermediate Songs” (better known as lead and bass part together) and went to town.

The first month was constant pain for my left hand which wasn’t used to my pinky having to move anywhere — it has had no feeling for 15 years due to arthritis. Month #2 wasn’t too much better. But I’ve noticed that the playing has become smoother — muscle memory is starting to kick in. Things are easing up.

I suck horribly. I won’t remove the headphones to force people to listen to me work through Bach’s Minuet in G Minor with pain. But it all does seem to be, at day’s end, about muscle memory and endless practice if one already has a head full of theory. My muscles are starting to remember. That is the baseline: for your hands to figure out consistently where the A key is without having to look or hunt-and-peck, it’s two months of practice, minimum 30 minutes/day.

Meanwhile, Katie is having faster and faster recognition of what notes go with what keys and what fingers to press what keys when it says so she is already making progress. She is starting to figure out that practice == getting better == playing more awesome little songs.

Oh! I can recommend the clavinova for anyone who has limited space and/or resources but still wants a piano that plays like a real one. I am jonsing to plug it into my Macbook through its MIDI interface and see what sort of havoc I can enact. I need cables, though.

Counter-Cyclical Thinking

Federal Government spending should, in theory, be counter-cyclical. Thus:

– When the economy is in recession, the government should become the employer “of last resort” and invest in large capital projects that employ a large number of idle hands for a later greater good (Hoover Dam, National Parks, Eisenhower Interstate System, etc.) The business cycle is low so the government payout system is high to put a floor under economic distress.

– When the economy is in growth, and the government is taking in bigger tax receipts and people are employed in (typically better paying) private sector jobs. The government then uses the bigger tax receipts to pay down the debt run up while the economy was in recession and cuts the programs enacted when the government needed to put people to work.

However, we don’t do this. What we have been doing the last three decades is:

– Spending when the economy is low and then complaining that we are spending when the economy is low but demanding the government cough up cash when the economy is low.
– Spending even more when the economy is in growth.
– Complain we are in deep deficit and refuse to spend (while spending) when the economy is in recession again.

As someone who is a student of history and looks favorably on Keynesian economics I am not certain what else to do when the economy goes in to a tailspin other than letting people who end up out of work starve. The government putting up big ticket projects and hiring armies of people puts a floor under the economy. I am not a huge fan of governmental bankruptcy either — see: Greece — but our punditocracy beholden to their twin masters, the 24-hour news cycle and 24/7/365 campaign for reelection, are driven to spend and spend and spend on local projects to ensure people love them while spewing platitudes about “cutting spending” and “cutting government waste.” Thus the spending only gets worse during up-cycles when we have money because, hey, the government has money!

So it’s bad. I don’t have any answers — and I have not heard any suggestions — about what else to do except have the government spend when the economy is bad. The real conversation to have is what to do when the government is awash in tax receipts and that’s a conversation we never seem to have.

Meanwhile, I offer exhibit A: 111 Lawmakers Block Recovery While Taking Credit For Its Success. This is a two-party thing, honestly. The Republicans are simply making spectacles of this worrying trend right now, but it has often been the Democrats in the past. No one even tries any more.

(This was a babble. It has been one of those days.)

Today in Egyptology

King Tut felled by malaria and broken leg.

Egypt’s famed King Tutankhamun suffered from a cleft palate and club foot, likely forcing him to walk with a cane, and died from complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria, according to the most extensive study ever of his mummy.

The findings were from two years of DNA testing and CT scans on 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, the team that carried out the study said in an article to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That’s awful anti-climatic.

Droid In Practice

The droid has gone on the road and so far it is overwhelmingly successful:

– Google Maps showed me that traffic was special and stupid in downtown Silver Spring because no one has ever heard of plows or salt. It’s too close to DC for sanity.

– The dock works great and now my droid has a continuous source of power to slurp. It is not intrusive or obnoxious and only took a moment to get used to.

– Pandora radio streams fine without skips or jumps over the 3G in normal/low bit setting with no noticable loss of quality but I am a little nervous about usage stats even though I have an all you can eat/unlimited package. I have a perfectly functional iPod so I will move back so I can listen to Radiohead albums* but having it as an option is nice. Also, the Radiohead Pandora station keeps thinking I want to listen to Beatles songs which is slightly odd.

– Twitter works fine in the dock. I have managed to finagle a twitter display on my droid when it is sitting in the dock.

Overall, the droid continues to perform As Advertised ™. I have not have a crash or a hang. I haven’t had any issues with it at all which surprises me because all Technological Toys ought to suck. I’m not sure what to do with one that doesn’t.

Now, I have had apps hang but I have Advanced TasKiller which just kill -9’s an app and allows me to restart it without any major issues.

* Really, do I listen to anything else?**
** Yes, but my play rates on Radiohead are disgustingly high.

Paranoid Android

For the last year I have been limping along with a Blackberry Storm. At the time, it was the best that Verizon had to offer in smartphones. But even with several OS updates it had serious problems:

* After the last OS update the phone was covered in Java errors.
* Only a small number of apps could be launched at a time and they stayed resident in memory until the phone crashed, about once every 18 hours.
* The camera did not work. Period.
* Gmail was POP3, not IMAP, so my mail account and phone did not stay in sync.
* It only downloaded apps to resident memory meaning only a very small number of apps could be downloaded and updating/patching an app meant more memory and a whole phone reboot.
* A very small number of apps actually worked and simple apps like Weatherbug crashed the phone.
* It was exceptionally difficult to use a dialpad during calls so doing simple things like navigating a phone tree was nearly impossible.

But it made calls, ran Google Maps, got twitter, and got my email, so in general it was okay although I had taken to call it “my fucking Blackberry.” Complete with very plasticky phone casing that did not survive bumps or drops well, it was not holding up. It was an exceptionally beta product.

Eric decided for Valentine’s Day to get me a new phone. It came down to Motorola Droid or the Palm Pre because on the East Coast it is either Verizon or Pain*. I ended up rejecting the Palm Pre for several reasons:

* I am not convinced Palm, as a company, will be around tomorrow, let alone in 2 years when it is time to get a new phone.
* The Palm Pre has even less app support than the Blackberry Storm.
* I have a Palm Tungsten and it drives me crazy to the point where I have abandoned it except for Quicken.
* My mom has a Droid.

The last one was a surprisingly important reason to get a Droid. We went over to the Verizon store which has turned into DROIDTOPIA and the sales guy wanted to ensure that it was “the right phone for me.” He was confused when I told him I wanted a phone that could get my email, get sports scores (March Madness yo) and make calls and how hard it is to get all three but I had read on the Internets that the Droid did this. The Palm Pre and the Blackberry Storm2 were relegated to sad little back corners of the store covered in cobwebs and forgotten, unloved. Thus I got a Droid.

Funny thing is, I love this stupid little device. I have a great and expansive love for Motorola hardware because it feels big and heavy and powerful and it never, ever breaks. Our Motorola-made phones live long after their expected lifetime — Eric has my RAZR3 and it’s still perfectly fine. But that’s not really it. The droid:

* Gets my mail via IMAP so my account stays in sync;
* Gets sports scores;
* Makes phone calls.

It’s the holy grail device! It does the three things I ask of it! It does a bunch of other things to, like ssh out to a shell and give me a full color xterm in itty bitty but very usable type. Get on WiFi at home. Present an awesome version of Google Maps with automatic traffic overlays**. Sure I had it launch some of the bling apps like Flickster because why not. I’m using:

– Seesmic
– Gmail
– Google Maps
– Google Star Maps***
– Connectbot
– Weatherbug
– Yelp
– Evernote
– Facebook

Of course, for me, the big win was when I hooked it via USB cable to my Ubuntu 9.10 HP Mini netbook, dragged a movie over to it and it played flawlessly. From Ubuntu! Once it has dropbox it will be awesome.

Sure I’m sad that I cannot have an iPhone but this seems like the next best thing. Maybe now I will be a little less annoyed at my array of gadgets.

I feel sort of bad. I spent my entire life criticizing Microsoft-heads for their unquestioning Microsoft-worship of All Things Microsoft and here I am pumping money into Google. Maybe I am still futily wanting a monorail out of it.

* Of course if the iPhone was on Verizon it’s no choice at all.
** The Storm gave me this, too, but it would often crash the Storm.
*** If you do backyard astronomy this app seriously rules.